Star Trek – Not So Boldly Going

The upcoming statement isn’t exactly going to set the internet on fire, but here goes: I’ve got a bit of a beef with Harlan Ellison, namely for his oft-crowed, dependably nerd-enraging assertion that the OG Star Trek series was nothing more than a “cop show in space.” Although said statement does serve to nicely deflate the pomposity that has grown around the franchise’s later incarnations, it also dismisses the very factor that made the concept so memorable for a casual fan such as myself; namely that earnest essence of parable-rich weirdness which went far beyond the cardboard sets and aliens with Russian accents. Computers being talked to death, OK Corrals in space, evil designated by goatees: these are the things that linger past the phasers and prime directives.

Chris Pine as Captain Kirk: back in the Captain's chair for the first time
Chris Pine as Captain Kirk: back in the Captain's seat... for the first time

Star Trek, director J.J. Abrams’ much-ballyhooed attempt at giving the ravaged franchise a reboot, doesn’t exactly prove Harlan right, but it doesn’t really go out of its way to find new frontiers, either. Although undeniably a lot of fun — along with his standard snappy patter, TV vet Abrams’ command of both pacing and big screen environs has grown visibly since Mission: Impossible 3 — the final impression is of a slightly self-conscious undertaking kept so busy appeasing both nervous hardcores (Kirk still likes green chicks!) and newbies alike (but he also misses his father, in easily recognizable blockbuster fashion!) that it never quite manages to blaze its own trail.

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Wendy and Lucy and Enchanted April – DVDs for the Week

Wendy and Lucy (Oscilloscope)

Wendy and Lucy from Oscilloscope Laboratories
Wendy and Lucy from Oscilloscope Laboratories

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.

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Interview: Patrice Leconte – “Life is already too serious”

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 Hairdresser’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.

Patrice Leconte
Patrice Leconte

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 it’s an obsessive relationship, while in The Widow Of St. Pierre, the Captain and wife (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are so in love that they will do anything for love and its transformative. I find that unique in your films. It’s not just about friendship but how powerful these emotions can be and how it changes people’s lives.

I always thought that cinema was an incredible to tell love stories. And then moreover, I didn’t really know what else you could tell but love stories. Anyway that’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 it’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.

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Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop: “It’s Alive!”

[ed. note: Director Ramin Bahrani arrives in Seattle to conduct a “Master Class” workshop for Northwest Film Forum on Tuesday, April 28. On Wednesday, April 29, Bahrani will introduce a special screening of his new film, Goodbye Solo, with a Q&A to follow, also at NWFF. To mark the occasion, Jim Emerson has allowed us to reprint 2007 piece he wrote on Bahrani and his earlier films. Thank you, Jim.]

[Originally published on Jim Emerson’s Scanner’s blog on September 7, 2007.]

Alejandro Polanco plays... Alejandro
Alejandro Polanco plays... Alejandro

Within the first 30 seconds or so of Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, you know you’re in good hands. I’ve written quite a bit about how much I loved Bahrani’s debut feature, Man Push Cart, from its opening shot to its final ingenious moment, and Chop Shop is a piece of filmmaking that is every bit as observant and assured. So, that first shot: A cluster of day workers stand in wait. This could be anywhere — California, Texas, Mexico, South America — but the first thing you sense is that it’s not: it’s this particular place, even if we don’t know the name of it yet. The camera (hand-held, but not shakycam style) pans to the left as a truck pulls up. A guy gets out and picks two men for the job, telling a persistent kid, “I don’t need you today” — and the accent is unmistakably NY. As the pickup pulls out, the kid hops into the back.

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Deadly Sweet, She Beast, Jean-Claude and Captain Kirk – DVDs for the Week

Deadly Sweet (Cult Epics)

"Deadly Sweet" from Cult Epics
“Deadly Sweet” from Cult Epics

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.

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Nagisa Oshima and In the Realm of the Senses

[originally published in a slightly different form in the Oregon Daily Emerald in 1977]

Nagisha Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1977) was a cause célèbre even before it officially opened in the United States, thanks to a bizarre Customs Office decision to confiscate a print rather than allow the film to be screened at the New York Film Festival. This censorship was particularly conspicuous directed, as it was, against the first film with hardcore sequences by a certifiably “serious” director; by 1977 Oshima was well-regarded, if not widely-known, for creative, pathmarking films like Boy, (1969)Death by Hanging, (1968) and his best film, The Ceremony (1971). Oshima’s projects had blended the roles of fearless provocateur and serious artist, most successfully in The Ceremony; in Senses, as in his earlier Night and Fog in Japan, the provocateur took center stage, with unhappy aesthetic results.

Tatsuya Fuji gets serious
Tatsuya Fuji: the aggressor

Commercially, though, the publicity could hardly have been more favorable: an award-winning director and subtitles to bring out the art film crowd, and censorship for the First Amendment crowd, with maybe also a genteel slice of the overcoat crowd (knowing it was the “real thing”). In combination with the acclaim the film garnered, it created what passes in the marginal realm of the art film an international sensation, becoming the first widely-distributed Oshima film; from there his career inflated with bigger budgets (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), with David Bowie, no less)and more provocative themes (Max, Mon Amour, (1987) reportedly a tale of romantic attraction between a character played by Charlotte Rampling, and an ape named Max); after further work was interrupted by serious health problems he ended his career with one of his most compelling and effective films, Gohatto (Taboo) (1999), about gay sex in the military.

By the standards of domestic porn, even in its time, Senses was fairly tame stuff, with hardcore sequences too brief and intermittent for serious overcoaters, but it does include, by my unofficial count, along with heterosexual couplings: masturbation, gay sex, voyeurism, sado-masochism, bondage, rape, intergenerational sex, hints of sex play with a child, symbolic bestiality, dismemberment, castration, a sexual act of murder, and necrophilia. In addition, the soundtrack contains enough groaning, moaning, sighing, panting, grunting, and heavy breathing for a wrestling tournament.

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24 City – The Children of Mao and Microsoft

Jia Zhiang-ke’s style, temperament, and circumstances uniquely suit him to chronicle his subject: turn-of-the-century China. His early films focused on youth, dislocated between the reality of, the backwater areas where they live, and the beckoning promise of an urbanized “modernity” of their dreams. More recently, he set The World among young workers in an urban theme park consisting of of scaled-down versions of international landmarks like the Eiffel Tower : faux cosmopolitanism as a part daily life. If Godard famously examined the children of Marx and Coca Cola, Jia’s subjects are offspring of Mao and Microsoft.

The factory
The factory

His newest, 24 City, is framed—at least for a while—as a documentary reporting the transformation of a Cold-War-vintage urban weapons factory—on what has become prime real estate—into “24 City,” a five-star residential and resort complex. The movie seems to telegraph Its formula in early sequences that interview some of the the factory’s first workers: earnest, idealistic, stoic, and hard-working, in contrast to later subjects who seem cheerfully crass and unapologetically materialistic. But Jia is as much trickster as chronicler, and deftly mixes faux and “real” footage to subvert that facile formula.

The factory opened in the late 1950s, and an early interviewee, a self-assured efficient-seeming technocrat, recounts a working life of commitment and diligence, patriotically serving nation and factory. As hard as he works, though, he describes himself as a piker next to his early mentor, who worked harder and used equipment more resourcefully, ingeniously finding ways to use worn tools lesser workers would long ago have discarded as beyond useability. The mentor himself then appears to confirm this, smiling a bit diffidently as he recounts never missing a day of work– holidays and Sundays included—and working occasional nights as well. And he confirms, and even embellishes the accounts of re-using worn equipment until it brings to mind the story in The Searchers: ordinary man rides a horse until it’s dead; a Comanche gets on that horse, rides it for 20 miles, then eats it.

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The Wrestler and Nickelodeon on DVD, The Wages of Fear on Blu-ray – DVDs for the week

The Wrestler (Fox)

“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.

Mickey Rourke: The Ram out of the ring
Mickey Rourke: The Ram bundled up against the cold world outside of the ring

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.

Read my interview with Darren Aronofsky here.

Nickelodeon / The Last Picture Show (Sony)

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

Interview: JT Petty, The Burrowers and the “alien territory” of the horror western

Clancy Brown and William Mapother take the first watch
Clancy Brown and William Mapother take the first watch

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?

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Reign of Terror and The Yankee Clipper – DVDs for the week

Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book)

Reign of Terror - finally in a decent DVD edition
Reign of Terror – finally in a decent DVD edition

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.

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Playing Fair with Mel Gibson’s “Passion”

passioncrownofthorns
Christ's suffering: "a down-and-dirty, medieval vision of flesh ruined and violated beyond enduring"

[Originally written for Queen Anne News, 2004]

In the week since I attended a press screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I’ve talked and argued about religion, with believers and unbelievers alike, more than I have in decades. Every film reviewer, pundit and talkshow host in the country has fervently weighed in for or against this controversial, ultra-gory reenactment of the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life. So much, frequently hysterical, verbiage has heaped up that the movie itself — the way it looks, moves, its way of shaping a primal story into art — gets buried. Indeed, many have just skipped the film entirely, so that their opinions won’t be hampered by actually experiencing the gospel according to Gibson.

As almost everyone knows by now, Mel Gibson invested his own money in this 126-minute visualization of Christ’s Passion — not the euphemized, abbreviated, cleaned-up version that contemporary Christians have mostly espoused, but a down-and-dirty, medieval vision of flesh ruined and violated beyond enduring. (One Catholic novelist objected “to the way Gibson’s film disturbs [emphasis mine] our sense of peace and acceptance of the cross.”)

Distasteful and even embarrassing to many latterday Christians, this horrific chapter of Christ’s life on earth obviously possesses some special, visceral appeal for Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic whom some accused of anti-Semitism even before the film was released. (For the record, I didn’t register any anti-Semitic subtext in The Passion, and I didn’t come away filled with hatred for anyone. For me, the operative emotion was pity: for benighted humankind and Gibson’s religious hero.)

Take a look at the final 15 minutes of Gibson’s 1995 Oscar-winner Braveheart; it’s startling to see how literally Gibson rehearses — sometimes shot for shot — for The Passion, with himself as the suffering Christ. Praying for the strength to die well; spread-eagled on a cross; tempted by a satanic figure; empowered by the eyes of those who witness his awful torture; inspiring his followers with the sustaining legacy of Braveheart‘s last image, a sword-cross planted in the earth — the bloody end of Gibson’s Scots hero presages the formal, stylized contemplation of his god-man’s lengthier, equally barbaric Passion.

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Pre-Code Paramount and Fleischer’s Superman – DVDs for the Week

Pre-Code Hollywood Collection / Cleopatra: 75th Anniversary Edition

Six sexy pre-code films from Paramount Pictures
Six sexy pre-code films from Paramount Pictures

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.

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Off the Beach: Fellini Satyricon

Fellini has been widely perceived as a moralist, ruthlessly portraying the corruption he saw around him in the social, political, and cultural flounderings of postwar Italy. But to regard him as a sometimes appreciative but more often critical observer of his world is to see only half the puzzle—the less interesting half. For Fellini always knew that he was part of the world he beheld, and what haunted him most was the impossibility of objectivity. The quasi-documentary approach of neorealist film-making became meaningful—and honest—only in combination with the self-examination more commonly associated with expressionism.

satyricon031
Fellini Satyricon: Bodies as landscape

La dolce vita and 8½, still for most viewers the two jewels in Fellini’s crown, present unapologetic self-portraits of the director at two stages of his creative life: the passionate would-be novelist, underemployed as a gossip reporter, unable to avoid becoming what he beheld; and the celebrated film director struggling to reconcile his creative visions with the expectations of an increasingly demanding public and to find common ground between his personal life and his public image. They also reflect a pivotal two-step process by which Fellini moves away from the linear neorealism of his earlier work and toward the surreal episodic narrative form that to one degree or another informs all of his later work.

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Keeping Score – Musique Noir: Investigating the Sound of Film Noir

The sound of noir—plaintive sax solos, blue cocktail piano, the wail of a distant trumpet through dark, wet alleyways, hot Latin beats oozing like a neon glow from the half-shuttered windows of forbidden nightspots. You walk the sidewalks of big, lonely towns, with no destination in mind, following only the sounds, guided by them, wondering where they come from, what hurt souls cry out with such tones.

No one invented the sound of film noir. It grew over seven decades, teased and shaped by the touch and mood of particular composers, particular films, particular times.

The Film Scores of Adolph Deutsch

You need to start somewhere, and the best place is probably with Adolphe Deutsch. Though capable of creating melody, Deutsch indulged in his noir scores a tonal experimentation that suggests the influence of Schönberg—an appropriate choice for a film genre so heavily indebted to the look and feel of German expressionism. With scores for The Maltese Falcon and The Mask of Dimitrios, Deutsch laid the foundations for a language of film noir with specific tonal gestures evocative of foreboding, suspense, surprise, high action, the shock of sudden recognition. And with Dimitrios especially (my vote for the first great noir score), he began building the orchestral sound of film noir.

The same year as Dimitrios, however, Miklos Rosza played a different card in his score for Double Indemnity. Rosza, an unapologetic romantic and exemplar of the Wagnerian strain in film scoring whose love of big melody made him the go-to guy for epic spectaculars in the 50s and 60s (and persona non grata for most of the remainder of his career), created in Double Indemnity a wondrous score, a suite of which was recently made available as an extra on Disc 3 of Tadlow’s magnificent complete El Cid. Billy Wilder gave Rosza both light and dark to work with, and Rosza rose brilliantly to the challenge. To the mood-pinned underscorings of the Deutsch approach, Rosza added melody, and threw the noir sound decisively forward. The spectacular, ominous main theme blankets the film with the sense of doom of a guy who knew all along he should have known better; the resigned, almost despairing love theme points toward his celebrated music for Hitchcock’s Spellbound two years later.

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Silent Light – Mortals and Miracles

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.

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Mennonites in Mexico

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 – 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 – 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.

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