Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

25 July 2016

Henry & June

This was erotic, but oh so hetero, almost in defiance of its subject matter, which is all about Anaïs Nin's sexual obsession with Henry Miller's wife, June. I was bored.

18 July 2016

Mister Roberts

I had been avoiding this film for years thinking it was going to be a bunch of Jack Lemmon silliness. (He's just not my thing. I recently, for example, watched Blake Edwards' The Great Race and was completely annoyed by the Lemmon idiocy at its twinned center.) But Mister Roberts was nothing of the kind: Just an old school, sentimental, whimsical Hollywood picture, co-directed by Mervyn LeRoy and John Ford.

My favorite bit of dialogue in the film:

Henry Fonda: Ok, ok. Any minute now you'll start quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson.
William Powell: That's a lousy thing to say!

I found this thoroughly enjoyable.

15 July 2016

Boomerang!: a Cameo, Coded Homosexuality, and Lives That Matter

Elia Kazan's Boomerang! from 1947  is a story of a Connecticut city where recently a bunch of corporations and career politicians have been kicked out, and a reform party has come in to run things. Things are great in the city, we are told (and it is true). But Boomerang! is also a crime film (although not a film noir), and so the film begins with an Episcopal minister being shot in the head by an unknown assailant. The killer gets away, running down the street and disappearing.

After a few days, in which the police can't seem to find any leads on who might have done the deed, the newspapers begin dragging the reform party's city officials through the mud. The reform party is obviously upset, and eventually a candidate for the murderer actually is found (a great Arthur Kennedy). He is, however, innocent, and although the film makes that fairly clear to us from the beginning, it is important politically that the party gets a conviction, so they railroad him. This becomes easier and easier when his alibi crumbles, eight people are willing to say they saw him commit the murder, and ballistics people at the police station testify that the bullet that killed the man came from Arthur Kennedy's gun. Still, we know the man is innocent, and better yet, the State's Attorney (played by Dana Andrews) knows it and is willing to fight for this man's freedom.

In a scene that struck me as very typical of the kind of justice in which Kazan was interested, Dana Andrews has a conversation with one of the city officials.

Dana: It's the boy's life.
City Official: If he's innocent! ... And even if he were is it worth it? We've cleaned out the city, we've thrown out the crooks, the grafters. We've made this town a decent place to live! Is one man's life worth more than the community?
Dana: Yes, Mac. It is.
City Official: Ok. Well. You'll have to fight the whole town.

This kind of ethical stance strikes me as typical of mid-century American films about justice, films that believe in innocence until guilt is proven and in the sacrifice of happiness for a whole group of people so that justice can be done and an innocent man not be sacrificed. I have to say that this film made me a bit nostalgic for this kind of ethical stance from law enforcement, although I am not sure if it ever actually existed. These days to say that one innocent man's life is a precious thing has become somehow radical. In our country the police can kill innocent men and then be protected by the governments they serve. And relatives of mine can say things like, "well, if you don't want to stand with the police, don't expect them to come when you need them," when what they mean actually is precisely what this city official in Boomerang! is arguing: Does this man's life really matter if we can keep (the rest of) the people happy?

Dana Andrews
Of course, this is a film, so although the story is based on a real story in which the crime was never solved, Boomerang! tells us who the killer is by telling us very early on in the movie that the murdered man, Father Lambert, was keeping a lot of secrets, since he encountered all kinds of very troubled people in his work. The way that this sequence is coded is, for me, the film's most interesting aspect. We hear in voiceover that "Since he was a man of god, his labors sometimes led him into the strange and secret places of men's souls. He was just and forgiving but he was also a man. And a stern and uncompromising judge of character." Ok, good enough, but then we get a little scene with Father Lambert and a man of about forty who apparently has a "strange and secret place" in his soul. Because it is the only scene with Father Lambert that functions like this (indeed, he was murdered in the film's first few minutes), it becomes clear that this sequence is very significant and that this person is probably Lambert's killer.

But check out how this scene is coded. We're in Lambert's office, and the first thing we hear is:
Lambert: Stop that! Even if I wanted to forgive you I – I couldn't. It's out of my hands. Jim, you're a sick man.
Jim: But father, I –
Lambert: We've been through it all before. I can't help you. A sanitarium perhaps.
Jim: No, I won't. If – if people –
Lambert: It's not people. It's you. I've told you that before. This time, fortunately, no great harm has been done. The next time... No I can't let you go on any longer. It's got to be a sanitarium. Have you... spoken to your mother about this?
Jim [in total panic]: You wouldn't tell her!
Lambert: I haven't spoken to anyone.

The scene continues for a little longer, but then Jim looks at him very strangely and walks off. It is obvious that he did it. But why? What is he protecting? The mother for me is the dead giveaway. What forty-year-old man is concerned what his mother thinks? But of course there is also the sanitarium, the fact that whatever has been going on makes him "sick," the fact that they've "been through it all before". It is worth noticing, too, that the man himself believes that it is people who need to change, and the man of god who believes the "great harm" lives inside the man himself: "It's not people. It's you." he says with real gravity.

Gay and Main
This coded homosexual-as-killer seems to me rather surprising for 1947, especially in the way it is presented, and Boomerang! does not appear in Vito Russo's documentation of queer representation, The Celluloid Closet, but perhaps it isn't quite that rare. Homosexuality is frequently a way of signifying degeneracy in this time period: here we are in a modern-day Sodom, that sort of thing.  

But in Boomerang! homosexuality signifies the unsolvable, the inexplicable, a dark and secret place in the corner of a town that serves to disrupt the peace in a violent, terrifying way, all the more violent and terrifying because it is unspeakable, totally unassimilable to what we can be permitted to know about humanity.

Before I totally let this go, I just want to note that Boomerang! begins by telling us in voice over that although this happened in Connecticut, this is a story that can happen in any city in America. Very specifically the narrator says that "you may have other names for your streets, but whether you call them Center Street or North Street or Main Street, they're not much different from these." Immediately the camera pans down to a street sign. Father Lambert is killed at the corner of Gay and Main.

Arthur Miller Cameo in Boomerang!
There is one more fun thing to point out about Boomerang!, and that is that playwright Arthur Miller appears in the police lineup at one point. The cops are dragging in dozens of men, and we get a single shot of Miller struggling with police. This is a fun cameo. Two years after Boomerang!, Miller's play Death of a Salesman would appear on Broadway, change the American theatre fundamentally, and win the Pulitzer Prize as well as every Tony Award for which it was nominated - including one for... Arthur Kennedy. Lee J. Cobb, the original Willy Loman, also appears in Boomerang! as the chief of police.

13 July 2016

Rams (Hrútar)

Icelandic poster
Last year, for the Academy's Best Foreign Language Picture award, Ethiopia submitted Yared Zeleke's Lamb, a lovely film that I reviewed here, and Slovakia submitted Ivan Ostrochovský's Goat, which as far as I can tell doesn't have a distributor in the U.S., and Iceland submitted Rams, which just recently made its way to DVD. It was a serious year for livestock.

You might think Rams is about sheep, since it is a film about two farmers who live next door to one another and both raise sheep from a specific breed. But the title refers to the farmers themselves, who are hardheaded brothers who haven't spoken a word to one another in forty years. If they are forced to communicate in some way, they write notes to one another and then have a dog carry them to the recipient. They barely acknowledge one another's existences, and when they do it is decidedly unfriendly.

American poster
You might also imagine that this means that Rams is a whimsical film about two brothers, like, learning to love one another again or banding together to fight off a threat from the outside or something like that. (And who would blame you when looking at this American poster, which asks viewers to "get sheepish" and features Siggi Sigurjóns staring at a taxidermied ram?) This is what I thought, too. Rams is also only about 90 minutes long – comedy length – and these brothers communicate via carrier puppy. But Rams is not a whimsical movie. It's a sensitive film about people living in very difficult circumstances. The feud is a serious one, and the stakes are high.

I really liked this picture. It is funny when it wants to be but also truly devastating at times. Rams is photographed beautifully and unpretentiously by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, and its central performance, by the comedic actor and writer Sigurður Sigurjónsson, who (I'm not making this up) is the Icelandic voice of SpongeBob Squarepants, is excellent.

12 July 2016

The Knight of Cups, the Melancholy Drifter

I can totally see why no one liked Knight of Cups, and indeed (especially after To the Wonder), why people are wondering if Terrence Malick has simply run out of things to say. 

Knight of Cups includes Malick's usual lush, gorgeous imagery, and his typical whispered voiceovers, but this film is not The New World or The Tree of Life. The subject matter here is Christian Bale playing a kind of washed up or tired screenwriter who has no subject matter to work on. (If, indeed, Malick himself is the screenwriter who can't think of anything to say, this makes a great deal of sense, but I don't think I'll go there.) But this isn't a film about Hollywood or screenwriting or Los Angeles, really. Sure, it is filled with gorgeous images of Southern California, certainly – from Descanso Gardens to Santa Monica to Hollywood Boulevard to Skid Row – and there are some great sequences in Las Vegas, with beautiful, stunning images. And the parties in Knight of Cups are also really fun, although they lack the energy and wit of the parties in, say, The Great Beauty or even, dare I say it, The Great Gatsby.

That is because Knight of Cups is not a film about Hollywood moviemaking or money or Vegas or even Los Angeles. It's a film about a man and "the women he has loved" or somesuch nonsense. And the Malick voiceovers, therefore, are all inanities about romance and losing a person and things like that. When Natalie Portman says, somewhere in the film's third act, "I know you have love in you", I couldn't help but roll my eyes. Why does it matter whether you think he has love in him or not? What I mean to say is that Knight of Cups' subject matter is just not compelling. I actually even think that this film would have been better without the voiceovers – I am fairly certain I would have liked it better if it had simply been a series of images of him with these various women, his brother, his dad, and the few bits of actual dialogue we got. Instead, the voiceovers dumb everything down, and they are so short and clichéd that they seemed to me like finger painting on the surface of a Rothko.

Still, the images: They're stunning. Nearly every frame bursts with beauty. And it was a pleasure for me to see Los Angeles itself photographed so gorgeously. Most of the actors, too, do lovely work. Armin Mueller-Stahl and Antonio Banderas were particular highlights, to my mind. I still think the film is unmissable. I wouldn't have skipped it, even if I didn't love it.

And I am not going to worry to much about Malick and whether he's lost his mojo. He is the master and this is what he's interested in right now. Eventually he's gonna work through whatever he's working through about love and masculinity, and young women frolicking amid blowing curtains, and then maybe we'll get something else. He doesn't owe me anything.

05 July 2016

Mankiewicz Post All about Eve

After All about Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed a WWII spy picture called 5 Fingers, about a British agent (whom I think we're supposed to love) who is actually selling state secrets to the Germans and making a fortune. The film stars James Mason and Danielle Derrieux. This is also apparently a true story.

5 Fingers was not at all what I was expecting from the director of A Letter to Three Wives and that 1963 Cleopatra, I have to be honest. But 5 Fingers is a taught, dark little film noir that has an intensely bleak world-view. It's quirky in its own way – I'd expect nothing less from Mankiewicz – but it's also taught and intriguing and (most strange for a movie from 1951, it seems to me) morally ambiguous. What I mean, I think, is that this film doesn't exactly say that what our (criminal) protagonist does is ethically wrong. This, even if 5 Fingers had nothing else to recommend it, would be enough of a reason to see it.

5 Fingers is no Purple Noon or Les Diaboliques, but it is pretty great for a big studio picture from 1951.

Heavy on the Opera, Light on the Phantom

It's very very odd, but it is important to note that although Phantom of the Opera is frequently classified as a horror film, and although the eponymous phantom is played by the invisible man himself, Claude Rains, this is not a horror movie at all.

People are murdered, sure, and that chandelier drops from the ceiling. Phantom is occasionally thrilling, but not a bit of it is horrifying, in fact much of it is quite whimsical.  

Phantom of the Opera is, to my distinct surprise, actually a musical, just as Andrew Lloyd Webber would make it. To be clearer about it, Phantom is actually one of the last in a craze of opera films that were all the rage in the early 1930s through to the end of the decade when Maurice Chevalier, Nelson Eddy, and Jeanette MacDonald were big box-office draws. (I'm thinking of Victor Schertzinger's movies The Mikado and One Night of Love, as well as the Eddy–MacDonald pictures in which they were always paired, Maytime, Naughty Marietta, The Merry Widow, One Hour with You, Sweethearts, etc.)

Fake opera Amour et Gloire invented for the film
But it isn't just that it is filled with musical numbers – all of them operatic, incidentally, and part of the shows at the opera – this film is also filled with light comedy. Nelson Eddy plays Anatole, a tenor in love with Christine, the diva at the film's center, but Edgar Barrier plays Raoul, another of her lovers. Christine cannot decide between them, and we are not supposed to be able to do so either (although Eddy was a big star and Barrier was not, so you do the math). The film has these two men walking into doors at the same time and trying various acts of one-upsmanship with Christine. They team up in the end to attempt her rescue, and the film takes neither of these men seriously as they try to win her heart.

Phantom does take murder seriously enough, I suppose, but the whole thing is filmed in bright, bright technicolor, and there is hardly any darkness in the movie. The dark content of this movie all happens before the phantom becomes the phantom and begins terrorizing the Opéra Garnier in Paris. In fact, once the Phantom does start killing people, a minor character (the stage manager) has a running gag where he jokes about the phantom having a long nose and a red beard.

In any case, the whole thing is very strange, and (what's more) did not help me understand what happens in the Webber musical. I was secretly hoping that those characters' motivations would somehow become clear to me after watching this Arthur Lubin movie, but I am afraid I learned nothing.

02 July 2016

The Master

A couple summers ago I watched my first Ozu Yasujirō film. I was getting slightly obsessed with mid-century Japanese film, and for some reason I was watching a lot of them.

Tokyo Story
For me, if a film is in the Criterion Collection, this means I should probably watch it. I don't know how everyone else feels about this collection, but that is what it means to me. When I started watching lots and lots of movies at age 16 or so, I followed the Academy Award nominations. I figured that was the best way to pick and choose which films were important among the enormous collections on Turner Classic Movies and at my local video rental store (we still had mostly VHS tapes back then). But, of course, although the Academy thankfully just invited a huge number of international members to the Academy, the Oscars have usually skewed very American, and so following the Academy as a guide for what to watch has meant missing a lot of things. This is where the Criterion Collection has come in.

And because so many of these films from the Japanese masters are in the Criterion Collection, a couple of summers ago I watched a whole bunch of them: Ozu's Late Spring, Naruse Mikio's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Mizoguchi Kenji's Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu, Ichikawa Kon's Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp, Teshigahara Hiroshi's Woman in the Dunes. All in rapid succession. Ichikawa was definitely my favorite at the time. I loved his camera-work and his anti-war politics, especially.

But in the last two weeks I finally saw Early Summer and Tokyo Story, two Ozu movies from the same period. And I have fallen in love again.

Early Summer
For starters, I should register embarrassment for not having seen Tokyo Story before now - it is frequently named as one of the greatest films of all time. But 2016, apparently, is a summer for making up for these gaps in my film history (I also finally watched Andrei Rublev this summer).  

Tokyo Story recalls Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow or Randolph Edmonds' play Old Man Pete - in which the now-adult children of an old married couple send for their parents to visit but once they're there are annoyed that they need to disrupt the usual way of living their lives. In Tokyo Story, the rural parents also need to navigate the city of Tokyo, its speed and industry and impersonality. Ozu's camera doesn't move very much. These are character and cultural studies, and he expects us to pay close attention and to think about what we are seeing.

I liked Early Summer even better. In fact, Early Summer is basically a perfect movie. In this film, Noriko, a woman in her late twenties who has been focused on her career, is being pestered by her relatives into marrying. But she chooses a husband for herself instead and makes her own path in life. This film spends lots of time with Noriko and her friends, some married and some single, discussing the difficulties of dealing with a husband or being lonely. This is all fun and funny and slightly catty, but the film is also fundamentally about getting older and figuring out what has been chosen for us and how we might choose differently.

Another thing that I really loved about both of these films is the way that the war is constantly present in these characters' lives. In both, there is a missing young man, a brother or husband who has died in World War II. Neither film makes this into a central concern for the characters, but it is always there. One feels this absence palpably. I love this aspect of the movies.

And both of these films have so many great performers. My favorites in both were Miyake Kuniko (so understated and beautiful, especially in Early Summer) and Takahashi Toyo (hilarious in both). But honestly, there are so many beautiful performances in these movies.

In any case I am excited to see more. Ozu was fairly prolific, so I expect there are a lot of superb films out there for me to watch.