Arguably the most famous of Ingmar Bergman’s films and certainly his most iconic, The Seventh Seal is Bergman at his most allegorical. Max von Sydow, young and blond and heroic, is a disillusioned knight returned from the Crusades in a state of spiritual desperation: his faith has been shaken by senseless death and terrible cruelty he’s seen perpetrated in the name of a silent God. Coming home to find his own country ravaged by the Black Plague doesn’t help matters much and as he searches for some sign of a benevolent God, he plays a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a cloaked figure with a grim white face. Gunnar Björnstrand is his skeptical squire, suspicious of religion that plays upon and encourages the blind fears of a superstitious population and cynical about a culture that values human life so cheaply.
The landscape in the opening scenes mirrors the harsh reality of his existence: rocky, cold, with jagged cliffs that look torn out of the land, scrub grass hills with scraggly trees. Only in the domestic scenes of Jof (Nils Poppe) and his family, wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and infant son Mikael, does the sun come out to warm their world with anything close to hope. And it’s that warmth, that hope, that promise of the future the knight sees in their love and their laughing child, that he is able to save by his simple sacrifice.
As I remembered from college, it’s full of heavy themes about faith and loss, about the meaning of life and the fear of death, with a lugubrious and introspective knight trying to hold onto his idealism in the face of a grim world and an unforgiving existence. What I had forgotten was the details: religion is a grotesquery of death and suffering, the strange and the sick are accused of being in league with the devil and are executed while the trembling devout lash themselves in penitence, offering their suffering as proof of their devotion, or as a sacrifice to a merciless God in exchange for sparing their lives. “They speak of Judgment Day,” says one. Things have not changed in 50 years or 500 or 1000 years.
David Carradine died Wednesday in Bangkok at the age of 72. I had the pleasure of interviewing him in 2004, while he was promoting Kill Bill Vol. 2. This interview was originally published on GreenCine in April 2004.
The son of John Carradine and elder half-brother to Keith and Robert, Davidâ€™s career began in the early 1960s, mostly playing heavies and punks, though he also took on the role of Shane in the short-lived TV series spin-off of the film. His career took off when, in 1972, he starred in Martin Scorseseâ€™s Hollywood debut, Boxcar Bertha, and created the role of half-caste Chinese-American Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk wandering the 19th century American West in search of his American relatives, in the hit TV series Kung Fu. His subsequent career bounced between prestigious projects with Hal Ashby (Bound For Glory), Ingmar Bergman (The Serpentâ€™s Egg), and Walter Hill (The Long Riders), TV-roles, and dozens of B-movies, and he can count such cult classics as Death Race 2000, Sonny Boy (where he plays a woman!) and Q (directed by old Army buddy Larry Cohen) to his credit. In between heâ€™s helmed his own personal projects, among them the films You and Me and Americana. Carradine got his star on the Hollywood Boulevardâ€™s Walk of Fame in 1997.
When Warren Beatty bowed out of Quentin Tarantinoâ€™s long-gestating revenge epic Kill Bill, Tarantino brought in the then 66-year-old Carradine and completely rewrote the role for his new star and the man who was Woody Guthrie, Death Race 2000â€™s Frankenstein, and wandering Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Caine received a career revival men half his age would kill Bill for.
No April Foolâ€™s joke, Carradine came to Seattle on April 1, 2004, his second stop in a two month publicity junket for Kill Bill, Vol. 2. His weatherbeaten face showed his age, and his long salt-and-pepper gray hair, hanging loose down about his shoulders, and his serene smile and easy-going willingness to talk about any subject showed a man comfortable with his year. Dressed casually in a brown leather jacket and a loose-fitting white shirt, open to his chest to reveal a small silver dagger hanging from a chain, and running shoes with no socks, he calmly chain-smoked one cigarette after another while he weighed questions and offered insights with a nonchalant confidence and modesty.
Warner Home Video releases a quartet of DVD debuts, all with troubled critical histories: loved by some, disliked by many, largely ignored by most. And that’s what makes their arrivals so interesting: it gives us a chance, an excuse even, to revisit the films. That said, I’m up to my eyeballs in the Seattle International Film Festival and thus only had time to see one of them, but it was a revelation.
I originally met David Russo years ago, after his short film Pan With Us had won an Honorable Mention at the Sundance Film Festival. He was a friend of a friend and had joined us for a night out, where somehow David and I wound up arguing over art and critics. His position was the necessity of the former and the irrelevancy of the latter (he was the artist, I was the critic) and I took up the defense my profession, or at least my own approach. Curiously, it was one of the best conversations I’d ever had. It reminded me of why I got into the profession and what criticism should aspire to, searching out the great and good, looking for inspiration, celebrating what you find interesting and valuable. And it was enough to make a brief connection with an artist whose work I have continued to appreciate with each new film. His short films are beautiful pieces of cinematic sculpture, personal visions carved out of the world, and he brings that sense of craft and beauty and imagination to his feature debut, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle.
I’ll let Russo’s own words describe the film: “Male janitors becoming impregnated by experimental cookies that get warm in your mouth when eaten, and then giving birth to blue fish that only live mere moments afterwards. They have to pull together to become midwives for one another, and then deal with the loss and loneliness of miscarriage.” It’s of course about much more than that, including spiritual hunger and the drive to create and the strange life of late-night janitors (drawn largely from personal experience â€“ Russo was a janitor himself for eleven years). Some of the most vivid parts of the film are the side-effects of male pregnancy: cramps, cravings and visions like drug trips, the latter created by Russo in his distinctive, largely hand-made animation style.
Russo did not come out of art school or film school. He started making films for himself while still working as a janitor, slowly developing his art and his techniques, but rarely sharing them with audiences. “I NEVER wanted to be a feature filmmaker until I went to Sundance six years ago,” he explained in an E-mail interview I conducted with him back in January, while he was finishing post-production on Dizzle in preparation for its Sundance debut. “I enjoyed having a successful, professional career as a ‘Film Artist,’ but I guess the warrior side of me just needed even more of a challenge.”
The script for Dizzle was written in 2001, right before the invasion of Iraq, but the inspiration in many way came from a particular experience from his janitor days. “One night I found a miscarriage in one of the womenâ€™s room toilets.Â It changed me. Soon I got to thinking: what if something like that happened to men?” When Russo was awarded a “Start-to-Finish” grant by NWFF, he pulled out his script.
In preparation for a profile of David Russo and Dizzle that I wrote for the Seattle Weekly, I sat down with David and his wife, Celia, for a long brunch interview. You can read the profile on the Seattle Weekly website here. Only portions of the interview made into the feature, so here is the complete interview, wrestled into a kind of shape that makes it sound more organized than it really was.
You spent a long time trying to get this film off the ground. How did it finally get produced?
There’s a lot that I want to say. We spun our wheels for about two years until Peggy Case came on-board as producer. And then it lurched into production without anyone seeing where it came from, really. It was amazing. Because it was just a last ditch effort that we went to L.A. and held auditions. Just a last ditch effort. Well, we don’t have any money, we’re just going to go down there and make believe that we have money, so I got a hold of my commercial agent, got a beautiful office to hold these wonderful auditions, I saw hundreds and hundreds of actors, worked with each and every one of them. It was an opportunity for me to show to potential investors that I can relate to actors just fine. I was able to change and make performances no problem, it was wonderful. And after that, the thing just lurched. We had to shoot only three weeks after it was greenlit, because of the availability of certain actors, and it got greenlit out of nowhere. I wanted to shoot this in the winter or the autumn, I didn’t want to shoot in the middle of summer, a night movie, are you kidding, where we’re having to shoot graveyard during the solstice? It was a nightmare. I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to, and then just, bang. If I had it to do over again, I would have had six weeks of preparation and not just three, because it was chaos. I am amazed that we pulled it together. Think of all the locations that are in there, all of that had to be done. All the casting had to be done in that three weeks. So I was probably down on it for good reason, I probably understood that we were just spinning our wheels, but it was going and auditioning actors that really gave it the traction it needed to at least get done in some form. We never did raise all the money, but who does?
The complications and tricky negotiations of family, as siblings grow up and leave to establish their own lives and their own families, was a central theme of numerous films at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. Two of the best films from that festival, Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (L’heure d’ete) and Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s Still Walking, highlight the opening weekend of the 2009 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival.
It may not be the best film of the week but this early Seijun Suzuki yakuza potboiler certainly sports the greatest title I’ve seen flash across my flatscreen all year: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards! The film, starring a cocky and cool Jo Shishido as a private detective (with a side job publishing a scandal rag) who hires himself out as an undercover agent to infiltrate a new gang in town for the local cops, is pure B-movie silliness and Suzuki knows it, plays with it, flaunts it. From the pre-credits sequence, where a gun sale (with weapons sold right off an American army base) turns into guns-a-blasting ambush by a rival gang that launches their assault from a Pepsi-Cola delivery truck that barrels through the swap like a tank, to the return engagement gang war that ends the film, this is all about turning a junky crime script into a blast of energy set against a backdrop of candy-colored sets and kitschy nightclub numbers and set to a score of growling pop music.
With his greased-back hair, dark glasses and pock-marked chubby cheeks, Jo Shishido hardly looks like a matinee idol but he pulls it off with sheer bravado. Shishido’s flippant attitude never falters, whether he’s talking his way into a job for the cops or ingratiating himself with a suspicious mob boss. When a nightclub singer almost blows his cover, he jumps into a duet to play for time. When his backstory (thrown together is rush of improvising) finally unravels, he doesn’t even flinch. He just offers a new service: playing double agent for the mysterious big boss. Suzuki directs it all with tongue-in-cheek attitude, not so much making fun of it as making it fun, playing out the by-the-number twists with bright, bubbly enthusiasm and devil may care energy. His later gangster movie parodies take on a genuinely genre-busting stylistic insanity. Here he’s content to just play up the conventions with a cheery self-awareness and the energy of a New Wave genre celebration. Kino’s widescreen disc preserves all that color with a bright, crisp clarity.
If Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented. And in some ways, that’s what Terence Davies does in his cinematic essay, a personal remembrance of a city that he recalls from his ambivalent perspective of troubled affection and critical commentary. Freely mixing history and remembrance, documentary and commentary, Davies offers up a very personal look at his hometown of Liverpool and the age in which he grew up in England. Though only brief moments of the film are actually shot by Davies himself (the rest is a mix archival newsreel clips, documentary footage, TV news clips and home movies), this is as personal as filmmaking gets and he personally narrates with a witty collection of literary quotes, song lyrics, movie titles and snatches of poetry delivered with a twist of his own sardonic humor. The port city and industrial center on the northwest coast of Britain is best known in America as the birthplace of the Beatles. They have little place in Davies’ remembrance. Though his commentary is backed by a collection of popular songs and snatches of classical music, itâ€™s not the music of the culture so much as of Davies’ life, and by the sixties he had tuned out with the coming of The Beatles and the Mersey Beat and turned to classical music. That was also the time he discovered that he was gay and the culture that he thought was his turned out to be quite hostile to him.
It’s chronological, both temporally and personally, from the post-war years to the present, and he takes us from B&W to color in a particularly delightful transition involving the crowds taking the ferry to Brighton. “They got on in black and white, but they got off in color,” he deadpans, and from that moment the film remains in color. It’s the modern world and nostalgia is gone as Davies recalls his coming of age in every way. His view of the church shifts to one of suspicion and distrust and a class consciousness seeps in as he observes the royal family (“another fossil monarchy”) and its lavish pageants of marriage and coronation while millions lived in poverty, destitute in slums all over Liverpool. He reserves his most caustic commentary for royalty and the national obsession with the royal family.
Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, a road movie that captured both the possibility and freedom of the weekend road trip and the tensions of anxieties of old friends who reunite only to find they have nothing in common anymore (not to mention the distinct shades and textures of Oregon’s backroads), was one of my favorite films of 2007. New York-based filmmaker Reichardt returned to the Pacific Northwest and reunited with writer Jon Raymond for Wendy and Lucy, an even less idealized look at life on the road. This isn’t the romantic road movie of Alexander Supertramp in Into the Wild. This is survival, revealed in all the mundane details of a documentary portrait and the simple power of Michelle Williams’ unadorned performance as Wendy, a single young woman heading off to find work on Alaska in a used car with only her dog, Lucy, for company and support. When Lucy runs off and Wendy tracks her to a group of young drifters gathered around a bonfire, Reichardt keeps her camera back to watch Williams’ careful and wary body language tell the story of her vulnerability. That vulnerability isn’t simply physical. With no fixed address, no cell phone and dwindling savings (all in cash), she’s practically off the grid. Every penny is accounted for. She collects bottles for the deposit and sweeps the seats for change.
The disarming directness and seeming simplicity of Reichardt’s direction can lull you into thinking that there isn’t anything going on, when in fact the film is built on a multiplicity of details and insights, never commented upon but essential to understanding the character and her situation. The subtlety of the plot’s emotional undertones hit hard, once the audience feels them via osmosis. Riechard could be directing a short on O2 broadband packages for all the difference it makes to the intelligence with which ideas are presented. Small thoughts and an endless supply of close reading material just appears as you’re watching. And there’s a reason they don’t jump out at you: they are the everyday details of living in the modern world as experienced by a person living on the edge. A setback that carries a costly but merely inconvenient price-tag to most of us is the disaster that pulls the rug from under Wendy. She’s been sleeping in her car all this time and now has to find a place to sleep (there’s nothing in the budget for a hotel room). Sleeping rough in the nearby woods, she awakens to find a hobo rummaging through her stuff and mumbling to himself. Her vulnerability is never more apparent than in this scene, which Reichert shoots in hard close-up on the intruder’s wild-eyed expression (Larry Fessenden, who is terrifyingly good at looking bedraggled and scary and utterly unpredictable) and Wendy’s paralyzed terror. It’s a terrifying moment and this intrusion into her personal space, as he rifles through her belongings while she wraps herself up in paralyzed terror, is a step away from rape or assault. The ripples of minor obstacles have major repercussions. So to do the small kindnesses of a security guard (Wally Dalton) and an understanding mechanic (Will Patton, who fills his tiny role with life and character). Wendy and Lucy is tender, tough and uncompromising, photographed with a disarming directness and seeming simplicity that looks almost naked next to the dramatic constructions of Hollywood road movies. It just makes her precariousness all them more real.
French auteur Patrice Leconte made his international reputation with the chilly yet emotionally intense Monsieur Hire (which gave French comic Michel Blanc his first dramatic role) and his subsequent string of rapturous, often tragic romantic dramas (The Hairdresserâ€™s Husband and The Widow Of St. Pierre), tales of friendship (The Man On The Train), and the sly, stinging satire Ridicule. And those are just the films that make it across the Atlantic.
So it may surprise some of his fans to know that the film school graduate and former cartoonist first made his reputation in France with second film, Les Bronzes, a goofball comedy released on video in North America as French Fried Vacation. A huge hit, it launched a series of popular comedies. He changed the course of his career with Monsieur Hire but recently returned to the comedies that began his career: My Best Friend, the reunion comedy Le bronzes 3: amis pour la vie and La guerre des miss / The War of the Misses (scheduled to play the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival).
But when it comes to love stories, Leconte’s cinema is all about the sensual quality of romance and sex. He makes the desire and longing palpable. He captures sex in the sensation of hands stroking flesh and bodies making contact and his camera is like a hungry lover caressing his love. The objects of his desire take on an idealized quality because Leconte presents them as seen by our protagonists.
Two of his most sensual films debuted DVD this week from Severin: The Hairdresser’s Husband (1990) and The Perfume of Yvonne (1994), the second and third films in his “obsession trilogy” begun with the Monsieur Hire). It’s the first release of any kind for The Perfume of Yvonne in the U.S. And if they are dramatically slight compared to other films in his career, they are completely given over to the fleeting pleasures of desire and passion, the fragility of love, the effervescent joys of physical love and the bittersweet emotions revived by remembrance.
I interviewed Patrice Leconte in 2004, when he was the guest of honor at the 2004 Seattle International Film Festival. Conducted on Monday, June 14, 2004, I previously published a version of the interview for GreenCine. I run this revised version to celebrate the release for the two new Leconte DVDs. Though fluent in English, M. Leconte is more comfortable in French and he relied upon interpreter Jerome Patoux to translate his answers (M. Leconte understood my end of the conversation just fine).
Many of your films are very romantic, but they are also about the intensity of love and friendship. In Monsieur Hire itâ€™s an obsessive relationship, while in The Widow Of St. Pierre, the Captain and wife (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are so in lovethat they will do anything for love and its transformative. I find that unique in your films. Itâ€™s not just about friendship but how powerful these emotions can be and how it changes peopleâ€™s lives.
I always thought that cinema was an incredible to tell love stories. And then moreover, I didnâ€™t really know what else you could tell but love stories. Anyway thatâ€™s what interests me the most. You can take people who are living a love story really, really far. You can take off from reality and then you can be much more intense than what you would be in real life. And itâ€™s true that The Widow Of St. Pierre is, first of all, an incredible love story. The love story in Intimate Strangers is must more toned down and suggested, but in the end they are all love stories.
Shot in England by an Italian director with a French leading man and a Swedish sex-doll leading lady (both dubbed into Italian), Deadly Sweet is advertised as a giallo (an Italian horror with cruel and flamboyant murders) but is really a vague murder mystery romp directed as a pop-art object. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an out-of-work actor who spots sex-kitten Ewa Aulin at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene where she’s the prime suspect. As they flee down the steps of the fire escape, the screen shifts into grainy black and white and fragments into split screens and repeated images while the percussion of the metallic march fills the soundtrack. That’s just a taste of the stylistic playroom to come. Tinto Brass went on to a career in soft-core erotic movies (most notably the grotesque Caligula), but here he’s embracing the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tossing every impulse into the film.
The story is incomprehensible, having something to do with a stolen diary with apparently embarrassing disclosures, a dwarf who shadows the couple through the city, a group of thugs who kidnap Aulin, strip her down to her undergarments and tie her up in a kinky scene that evokes Bettie Page bondage. And yet it is a film of marvelous energy and delirious imagery. The style is appropriated from comic books, experimental cinema, the French New Wave and the British New Wave, with special attention to Godard and Richard Lester, Antonioni’s Blow-Up (a visit to a photography studio turns into an impromptu fashion shoot) and TV’s Batman (graffiti-esque word-balloon punctuations in a fight sequence). In other scenes, he sends the actors into the streets and shoots cinema verité style, following them through the foot traffic from a concealed camera and building the scene out of snatches reaction shots from the observers. It all ends up at “a happening,” a big counter-culture ball filled with hippies and social butterflies where Brass films the winding progress of Trintignant and Aulin through the crowd as if it were a concert movie. Aulin looks exactly like the kind of baby doll playgirl to be found at such a party, but Trintignant (who mugs it up in other comic scenes) it still pretty stiff and establishment in such a free and freaky atmosphere. It’s miscasting of the highest order and it matters not a whit. Brass is having a great time and it is infectious.
“Warm” and “human” are not two words you associate with Darren Aronofsky, but in The Wrestler he is both, thanks in large part to the heartbreakingly open and vulnerable performance from Mickey Rourke, the comeback story of 2008. It’s been a long time coming for Rourke, who has been doing tremendous, unshowy work in American indies and oddball pictures for years, all in supporting roles and character parts. But it still makes a great story given the parallels to the film, which is about a once-famous, largely-forgotten, pummeled-into-scar-tissue pro wrestler whose glory days were twenty years ago.
Randy “The Ram” Robinson still lives in that past, at least as far as his taste in hair metal music goes, and pushes an increasingly broken body into the ring for regional cards in the show-biz hinterlands of rural New Jersey for a few hundred dollars a night. At least until a heart attack forces retirement on him and sends him to try to connect with the aging stripper he loves (Marisa Tomei, equally vulnerable but more wary) and reconnect with the daughter he all but abandoned (Evan Rachel Wood). Aronofsky gives his blue collar world of trailer parks and strip clubs an understated authenticity and Rourke makes The Ram a flesh and blood character of natural generosity who just needs to be loved can only find it in front of the crowd. It grabs for the heart and it squeezes, but with calloused, knocked-about brand of sentimentality. The accompanying 42-minute Within the Ring is a superior behind-the-scenes documentary directed with a rough-around-the-edge sensibility that matches both the film and the culture of its characters.
Peter Bogdanovich had wanted to make Nickelodeon in black-and-white, as he had The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon (“In color it feels made up,” he explains, “In black and white it seems more real”), but coming to the project after a pair of flops (Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love), the studios weren’t very accommodating. So he turned to retrospective reconstruction to desaturate the color and create a black-and-white version for this “Director’s Cut”-branded revision. Keep Reading
JT Petty’s third feature The Burrowers is another of his distinctively unusual takes on a generally conventional genre. Set in the Dakota Territory of 1879, where survival is already a challenge, Petty brings a starkly unglamorized sensibility to life and mortality on the Dakota prairie: it opens with a boy come a courting to a farmgirl only to discover a massacre and what appears to be the abduction of the girl. Clancy Brown and William Mapother, who have faces that look like they’ve survived tough times, are perfect as the leaders in a hunting party after a kidnapped girl: confident but unpretentious and very respectful of the country. But they think they’re tracking an Indian raiding party. What they find are fetid holes in the prairie ground filled with bone and blood and sinew, as if a body has been digested by the Earth. Which is close to the truth. Petty plays the unforgiving tensions between the settlers and the native tribes with palpable animosity, the distrust so great that their fragile truce snaps before they even take on the burrowers, the underground creatures that have been hunting on the prairie. He keeps the threat visually vague and the insect-like burrowers shadowy and smudged, creating his horror out of mystery and suggestion, but it’s nothing supernatural or alien. It’s a real western/horror/monster movie with a devoted frontier sensibility and loving nods to The Searchers.
The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and toured various festivals dedicated to films of the fantastic but was otherwise released direct to DVD by Lionsgate (they did the same thing with Ryuhei Kitamura’s English language debut Midnight Meat Train, adapted from the story by Clive Barker). The film deserves better. I spoke with Petty over the phone a couple of weeks before the April 21 DVD release.
Why a horror western?
I’m always trying to get a little bit outside the genre. I think people who watch scary movies now are such a sophisticated group of watchers. We’re probably the first generation that takes multiple viewings for granted, that you can see anything as many times as you want to see it. We’re sort of the video generation and the twenty-year-olds now just assume they can see anything they want anytime they want as many times as they want. So what’s already been done, we’ve seen so many times that I think it’s hard to actually scare people inside that framework. So once you get a little outside the genre, you can hopefully surprise people again.
What makes the combination of western and horror so resonant for you as a filmmaker?
A lot of it is just they’re two of the most cinematic experiences that you have watching a movie. If a horror movie does well, it’s entirely because of the direction, it’s classically not the performance. All the things that do make a horror movie pornographic also make it exceptionally cinematic. If you have a well directed horror movie with a crappy story and bad actors, it can still be a pretty awesome horror movie. And to some extent, the same thing with the western. All of those spaghetti westerns with dubbed voices and obvious cartoonish characters but have this amazing cinematic strength to them still resonate. So I guess horror and western movies are both, in a very specific way, the most cinematic movie you can make. Is that a fair statement to make?
Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great film noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (“Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.
The plot turns on the scramble for Robespierre’s “black book,” where he’s listed the names of enemies and victims soon to be condemned and sent to the guillotine, and the subsequent gang war free-for-all as everyone looks to grab power by grabbing this tome is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the chaos and cutthroat power struggle of the real life reign of terror.
Pre-Code Hollywood Collection / Cleopatra: 75th Anniversary Edition
Universal Home Video plunges into the sex, sin and bathtub gin of pre-code Hollywood films with their answer to the “Forbidden Hollywood” series from Warner. The Pre-Code Hollywood Collection is branded as part of the “Universal Backlot Series” but it actually collects six films Paramount Pictures (Universal owns the rights to the early Paramount catalogue), a studio with a sensibility as different as can be from the snappy, punchy, street-smart Warner attitude. Paramount boasted a more elegant style and opulent touch, more glamour and soft-focus gloss than the working class Warner films and a roster of directors that included Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Cecil B. DeMille and Mitchell Leisen, a director who began as a costume designer and art director on Douglas Fairbanks adventures and Cecil B. DeMille spectacles.
I bring up Leisen in particular because his 1934 Murder at the Vanities is a highlight of the set, a combination backstage musical, showbiz comedy and murder mystery, all with the sex and smart-alecky attitude and snappy pace of the best pre-code studio pictures. Leisen mentored under DeMille as the director transformed himself from silky sex comedy director to self-promoting epic filmmaker and king of the spectacle. Leisen’s earlier film, the classy drama Death Takes a Holiday, is a somewhat lugubrious production but by Murder at the Vanities, Leisen starts to come into his own as a deft director of light romantic comedy and cool, clever Hollywood entertainment. It’s based on a play by Earl Carroll, creator of the “Vanities” stage spectacles, and while he doesn’t appear in the film as such, Carroll’s presence hovers over the entire film through cagey name dropping. Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle (as the singing stars and romantic sweethearts) headline the show onstage but the offstage antics by fast-talking manager Jack Oakie (playing a former newspaperman and all-around wise guy trying to prove himself to boss Carroll) steal the film. He outmaneuvers thickheaded Irish cop Victor McLaglen (in his usual hammy lug of a performance) in a race to solve a murder before the curtain drops and handily wins the battle of wits with snappy repartee and smartly delivered quips.
The screen opens on the night sky, the stars glowing (not twinkling, mind you, but crisp and sharp and dense as seen from the clarity of a desert, with no city lights or urban pollution to muddy the view). The sounds of night are the only soundtrack, hyper-attentive to the natural world of insects. The starfield suddenly starts to bend and warp as the screen spirals and the camera readjusts. It’s only when the orange and green of dawn begins to overpower the black sky and drown out the stars and dark shadows of silhouettes are slowly revealed that we realize it is the horizon. It’s like watching the world being born in front of our eyes, with the sounds of farm animals waking to the dawn and the Earth rousing from slumber taking over the soundtrack. The camera silently tracks in to the scene, creeping so slowly it’s almost imperceptible but for the shifting perspective.
I can’t recall ever seeing such a vision of dawn as the birth of a new day, of the turning of the Earth as a literal rebirth of life, in a film, let alone in the defining first images. Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas’ third feature, is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, an insular pocket of agrarian people that feels almost like a portal to old Europe within modern Mexico. This is not some Luddite culture â€“ Johan (Cornelio Wall), the gentle patriarch of the farm family we meet over silent prayer and bustling breakfast, drives a sturdy new pickup and harvests the fields with combines and he joins his children to watch a DVD in a portable TV in a van â€“ but these people hold close to their values, their religion and their way of life. Reygadas’ measured pace and the reflective observation of his patient camera is in tune with the movement of seasons and the cycle of crops, rather than the rush of urban life carved up into deadlines. It’s also in tune with the austerity of their surroundings and the quality of their spiritual lives. They are not a simple people, which sounds more like an insult than a description, but a community of people who seem to take the time to experience every moment, whether it is silent prayer over the breakfast table or a family bath in an outdoor pool.