MOVIN’ ON UP: ALICE ADAMS (1935)

May 27, 2014

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The careers of Katharine Hepburn and George Stevens were forever altered by the flip of a coin. Hepburn and producer Pandro S. Berman had acquired the rights to make a film version of Booth Tarkington’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Alice Adams for RKO. In an oft-repeated, possibly apocryphal story, they had whittled their choice of directors down to two: William Wyler and George Stevens. The coin ended up in Stevens’ favor. The film would snap Hepburn’s box-office losing streak and net her a Best Actress nomination, while the heretofore unknown Stevens would become an A-list director for decades to come. The movie, which Warner Archive has re-issued on DVD, is a bittersweet portrait of a restless Middle American girl, a working class busybody who yearns to become a sophisticated debutante and is mocked for her efforts. The patrician Hepburn is cast against type as an everyday gal, and she delivers a charmingly gawky performance of a girl masking her insecurities with constant patter and twirlingly nervous fingers. Stevens keeps everything grounded in his patient, unassuming 1930s style, capturing Alice’s many humiliations and recoveries in a slow-burning rubato tempo.

Alice Adams was first made into a film in 1923, directed by Rowland V. Lee and produced by King Vidor. Pandro S. Berman brought it back in ’35, with the country still reeling from the Depression. Centering a film on a financially-strapped small-town family probably felt like good business at the time. Hepburn was eager to adapt such a prestigious book, and tried hard to connect with the material:  “I particularly liked my character in Alice Adams. It reminded me of the way small-minded people treated my mother, shunning her and us children, not because they thought we weren’t good enough, but because they thought we thought that we were too good.” Hepburn certainly needed help in conveying a “common” touch, which is why she leaned towards Stevens as her director. Wyler was born in France, and Stevens had more of the small town upbringing to lend to the production. His attitude was, “I had this wonderful book, and all I had to do was not to ruin it.”

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Alice Adams is forced to wear last year’s dress and wilted violets instead of fresh roses and a new gown from Paris. Her beloved father Virgil (Fred Stone) is a lifelong clerk and current invalid, with no prospects for advancement into the middle class. So Alice has little hope in attracting her upper crust crush Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray), until he asks her for a dance, and becomes smitten.

Her family becomes a constant source of embarrassment, with her degenerate gambler brother Walter (Frank Albertson) shooting craps with the help, while her Dad doesn’t know how to put on a suit. The whole film spins off of these class tensions, which Stevens sets up in the opening scene. Alice is introduced exiting a five-and-dime store with a new egg-shaped compact. She quickly scoots out of the exit and settles next to the doorway of an expensive jewelry shop. It is there she stops and examines her purchase, as if it were the height of luxury. The sequence begins on store marquees, which blare, “South Renford: The Town With a Future”, as if it were a place with no future only a recent time before. If the economy is on the upswing it left the Adams family behind. Alice dreams of high society, but is formulating other means of escape from South Renford. She tells her Dad that she wants to become an actress – which he immediately laughs off. South Renford has a future, but not for women. She also holds idle thoughts of becoming a secretary, at one point climbing the stairs for a training school. But then she is waylaid by Arthur, who commences wooing.

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Alice’s whole life is a performance, pretending to be a member of the upper class, adding airs to her speech and walking as if on a runway. She is, essentially, faking it until she makes it. Her affectations can be hilarious, which Stevens facilitates in the two major set-pieces in the film. The first is at a grand ball, which she forces her brother to escort her to in a rickety Model T. She has become adept at hiding her low culture signifiers, so she forces Walter to park outside, so they walk through the rain to the entrance. She walks with rubberized springs in her step, and she has a endless defenses against being alone. She lures the local nerd into a dance, and then plops herself down next to an unattended dowager as if they were close relations. All of her physical and psychological might is pressed into seeming to be happy and popular. Stevens exposes the ruse in one revealing long shot, in which she sits alone, holding her hanky over the adjoining chair, as if her beau were steps away, and not just imaginary.

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The other masterful sequence occurs when Alice can no longer avoid inviting Arthur over for dinner. On a sweltering hot day, her parents organize what they believe to be a high society dinner – although their knowledge of said society expired a few decades earlier. It consists of a parade of humiliations that Larry David would cringe to include in Curb Your Enthusiasm. The menu is filled with scalding hot items, making everyone break out in the sweats. They hire a maid for the occasion (Hattie McDaniel in an early role), who could care less about the proceedings. The film repeatedly associates blacks with the lower classes. When Alice walks out of the five-and-dime at the beginning, a black family precedes her. Walter shoots dice with black servants at the ball, which is a major source of embarrassment. She even says he could write a book about the “darkies” because of it. For Alice, racism is an attitude she takes on whenever she is trying to impress Arthur, to be part of the upper echelon. In 1935 this would be a wise course to take. McDaniel, hired at the last minute, is ill-prepared for the dinner. Her character is the virulent stereotype of the lazy black laborer, but McDaniel is able to shape it into something more subversive. With her incessant gum chewing and side-eye, she’s not moving slow because she’s lazy, but that she does not give a shit about these absurd white people.

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The ending of Alice Adams was a major point of contention between Stevens and Berman, but as usual, the studio won out. Stevens desired that the movie end like the book, with Alice entering business school to support her family, after her relationship with Arthur falls apart. In a memo Stevens wrote, “Finishing with Alice going to business college rounds out her character in that…she has learned to stand alone and not depend on public approval, men or social acceptance.” This would have added some steel to Alice’s character, who remains lost in a fog of her own dreams of stardom. Berman felt strongly that a romantic ending was necessary, since she is such a romantic character. That is the ending on-screen, and it is almost sadder than Stevens’ intended scenario. She has fallen in love, yes, but with her quicksilver nature how long will it last? She will remain uneducated and stuck in South Renford, without a future.

MEN WITH GUNS: COLD IN JULY

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In one of my treasured yearly rituals, I feign relevance by writing something tangentially related to the Cannes Film Festival, which I have yet to attend. This year I make the bold move of reviewing a feature currently screening at the ongoing Cannes fest, Jim Mickle’s grizzled revenge movie, Cold in July. Opening this Friday in theaters and on VOD from IFC Films, it’s an unrepentant scuzz-fest, from Michael C. Hall’s matted-down mullet to the saturated neon that turns all of East Texas into a Red Light District. It is the fourth film from Jim Mickle (director/co-writer) and Nick Damici (actor/co-writer), two historically-minded genre aficionados who treat their lowdown material with respect and ingenuity.

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Their resourceful debut was Mulberry St (2006), which took a Lower East Side apartment, a few rats, and fewer dollars, and turned them into a taut locked-room zombie attack movie. With the help of producer Larry Fessenden they expanded their world in Stake Land (2010) a post-apocalyptic vampire Western, which proved their penchant for genre mash-ups and slow-burn scares (my wife bailed during the opening scene, she was so frightened – and she’s a horror author). In We are What We Are (2013) they remade the 2010 Mexican horror movie of the same name, attempting to sustain a dampened gothic mood for the whole feature.

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Mickle and Damici had been trying to make Cold in July since 2006, and planned it as their follow up to Mulberry St. They could not get it off the ground until last year, and one can understand the financiers’ skittishness. This adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s novel is multiple movies in one, moving from slasher scares to neo-noir mystery, then from black comedy to blood-soaked action. Lansdale also penned the novella of Bubba Ho-Tep , a similar pile-up of genres adapted into a movie in 2002 by Don Coscarelli (Phantasm). Though its plot gyrations lead the film down some blind alleys, its overheated visuals never waver, nor do the gruff performances of its leads: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson.

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Hall plays Richard Dane, a professional picture framer and mild-mannered milquetoast who accidentally blows a home intruder’s head off with a revolver. The dead thief’s dad Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) starts harassing Dane with malicious intent. In these early sequences Russell is a ghostly psycho, popping up in the edges of frames and the bedroom of Dane’s child like an AARP Michael Myers. The Halloween vibe is cemented by the percussive synth score by Jeff Grace. But then the narrative curlicues start twirling, and Dane and Russell and up in an uneasy truce against a more entrenched evil, with uncertain support from the town sheriff, played with weight and deliberation by Damici. He’s an actor who’s able to sit still and let the film build around him, evident even more in his lead performance in Stake Land. To give away anything more would be cruel, but Don Johnson does show up with similar used-car salesman smarm as his debauched father figure in HBO’s Eastbound and Down.

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It is inherently disconnected movie, and it never holds together as a coherent narrative, but the individual pieces are down and dirty fun. In the opening scenes Michael C. Hall blends into the background, his dialogue a tentative muttering, as if he hoped the sound would die away before people could hear it. Dane’s house is a perfect emblem of middle class passivity, as production designer Russell Barnes piles on the flower patterns preferred by his schoolteacher wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw). Russell is silent but malevolently so, emerging as a symbol of Dane’s guilt and inferiority complex. After the plot reconfigures, Dane and Russell end up on the same level, though it’s never convincing how Dane goes from tremulous wilting flower to gun toting angel of death. The only explanation is narrative convenience – and Mickle and Damici had to do a lot of compression to squeeze the proliferation of incidents into a feature-length screenplay. The film fails as a character study, but it has any number of compensatory pleasures, from the atmospheric location shooting to watching Shepard and Johnson hang out enjoying each other’s company. They had reportedly wanted to work together for years, and they ease into the rapport of an old married couple – Shepard the silent repressed husband and Johnson the nagging level-headed wife. Shepard underplays, a reducing his character to a few “hmmphs” and head shakes, a man used to communicating solely through violence, while Johnson continues his bloviating Southern ham routine that he’s honed in Django Unchained and Eastbound and Down. Their sniping and smirking is downright adorable and Mickle lets it play out in the blackly comic middle sections.

After the monotone gray-blue of We Are What We Are, Mickle and crew really embrace the ripe pulp plot with succulent colors to match. It’s a film of saturated neons, seemingly lit by stop and brake light, a melange of rich reds/yellows/greens and an occasional comic-book royal blue emanating as moonlight. Mickle and DP Ryan Samul bathe the final shootout in sickly yellows that turn red after blood hits the ceiling, indicating the battle is soon to come to a close.

BEHIND BARS: THE BIG HOUSE (1930)

May 13, 2014

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Any movie in which a hardened inmate slams his tin cup against a cafeteria table and agitates for revolt can trace its roots back to The Big House, the film that popularized the prison riot movie. A sensation in 1930, it paired slam-bang action with a social conscience to attract both audiences and Academy voters. The Oscar-winning script by Frances Marion (the first woman to win the “Writing” award), railed against overpopulation in the unnamed jail, which teems with resentments and untapped violence. Hit and run society boy Kent (Robert Montgomery) is thrown into a cell with machine gun murderer Butch (Wallace Beery) and prolific thief Morgan (Chester Morris). Butch is scheming an escape, Morgan is waiting for parole, and Kent is trying to stay alive, and might snitch on his roommates to insure it. It was up and coming director George W. Hill’s first sound feature, after the huge silent success of Tell it to the Marines (1926), and it features bold off-screen sonic experiments as well as awkwardly static scenes of dialogue exposition. It ends in an overwhelming fusillade of gunfire, an aural assault that might make Michael Mann blush, that netted it the Best Sound Recording Oscar.

The Warner Archive has released The Big House in a fascinating two-disc set, featuring Hill’s English language feature, as well as two foreign-language versions (French and Spanish) that were shot for international release (it was also made in German, but that variant is not included). In order to take advantage of the booming worldwide market, studios would hire completely different casts and crews to shoot the script in multiple languages, using the existing sets, and sometimes even the shot lists, of the English original. The director of the French version of The Big House was Paul Fejos, the restless Hungarian-American innovator who made the miraculous proto-neo-realist Lonesome (1928) at Universal, and who was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the film business. He would eventually retire from movies and divert his interest in people to becoming the president for the Wenner-Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Research. Fejos’ Big House shows few of his visual gifts, as he was tasked with rushing through dialogue scenes, while the more elaborate tracking shots were simply imported from the English version. In many ways it’s even stuffier than George Hill’s Big House, a document of Fejos giving up on Hollywood. What charm the Fejos version does have derives from Charles Boyer, who plays Morgan in the French version, adding a smooth sophistication to the character whom Chester Morris plays as a simple street tough.

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Prison riots were a major story in 1929, with huge uprisings occurring across the country, from Colorado to New York. President Hoover launched an investigation into its causes. George Hill believed a major problem was mixing hardened criminals with first-time offenders, and wrote a 27-page story treatment called The Reign of Terror: A Story of Crime and Punishment. Irving Thalberg liked the idea, and assigned Hill’s friend Frances Marion to help him work out an outline for a script (they enjoyed their work together and married soon after production in 1930). The potentially controversial subject was cleared with the Hays Office, who provided Marion and Hill with an “expert”, one P.W. Garrett, the general secretary of the National Society of Penal Information. Marion wanted more than second-hand information, however, and arranged to receive a tour of San Quentin. In her biography of Marion, Cari Beauchamp quotes her as feeling she was an object of “repressed ridicule” in the male-dominated institution. She trudged ahead anyway, and was inspired to cast the comedian Roscoe Ates when she met a stuttering inmate in the prison garden.

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Hill was personally invested in the material, and was intent on presenting a starkly realistic portrait of prison life. It is strongest in its earlier stages, when its emphasis is on the procedural day-to-day of the jail. The movie begins with the processing of Kent, the wilted playboy convicted for a ten-year stretch for a New Year’s Eve hit and run. In head-on, planimetric compositions, Kent is poked and prodded and set on the assembly line from man to number. He gets his mug shot, is measured for clothes, and is spit out as another faceless inmate, just another pair of gray pants and plodding shoes trudging in circles, which is the image that runs underneath the title. Kent’s final initiation is a walk up a spiral staircase to his room, which the camera follows in an rising crane shot. It’s one that Fejos would probably scoff at, after the 50ft camera crane he constructed for Broadway (’29), but Hill’s is effective in its own modest way, Kent’s rise up the stairs sealing his fall from grace.

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The strongest impact in The Big House is felt through the sound, whether its Wallace Beery thundering against the “swill” he’s forced to eat at meal times (a scene memorably parodied in Naked Gun 33 1/3), or the metronome of marching feet that morphs into that of machine guns at the film’s close. The most experimental use of sound occurs in solitary, or the “dungeon”, as its called in the movie. After Morgan is denied parole for a crime he didn’t commit, he is shoved into a cell, right next door to Butch. After the door seals him in, the camera does not cut to the interior. Instead it stays on the darkened hallway with no human activity. No words are spoken for fifteen seconds, the image a silent tomb. Then Butch bellows “Hello!”, and begins a bull session with Morgan, the camera remaining in the static hallway. For two minutes the camera doesn’t move, nor is an actor shown. All of the action is off-screen and in the viewer’s head. It’s a challenging gesture, and one only possible in the early days of sound, when the status quo had yet to be defined.

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The Paul Fejos version is exactly the same in almost every particular. The only freedom Fejos seems to have been given is the ability to position actors in the frame, as even the camera positions are nearly identical. Fejos recalled little of the project: “Possibly the only interesting thing in it was that I imported for Big House an actor who afterwards became quite a potentate in Hollywood – Charles Boyer.” Boyer gives a more dashing rendition of Morgan, more of a witty Lubitsch thief than the working class thug that Hill elicited from Morris. Morris recalled Hill’s requests for unadorned performance:  “If someone overacted, he had the scene done over, scoffing, ‘You did that like a New York actor.’ His technique was like Spencer Tracy’s – underacting.”

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Both Fejos and Hill were not long for Hollywood. After Fejos was denied the directing job on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, directed by Lewis Milestone), he lost interest in dealing with the studio machine, and his fortunes dwindled respectively. His unfond memories: “I found Hollywood phony. I found everything artificial. I found the people impossible . . . writers—so-called writers—utterly unintelligent, utterly uneducated, stupid hacks.” He wanted to return closer to the world, without interference, and he did so in his few films abroad, including the Austrian production Ray of Sunshine (1933). He eventually ditched artifice altogether to study anthropology. He stopped making films in 1941 to study his new obsession, which he later taught at Yale, Stanford and Columbia, and became the president of the Wenner-Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Research. George W. Hill had no such second life. His alcoholism busted up the marriage to Frances Marion, and sabotaged his work. After he suffered a concussion and cracked ribs in a car accident, he sunk into a depression. He died at the age of 39 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

BAD GIRL IN BANGOR: HEDY LAMARR IN EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

May 6, 2014

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The name Edgar G. Ulmer elicits images of the dusty roads of Detour and the empty pockets of its Poverty Row producers. He was a prolific purveyor of B-movie jolts, used to finding creative solutions to monetary limitations, but on occasion he was called up by the big studio boys, where the budgets were the least of his concerns. For The Strange Woman, out on a decent-looking DVD from the public domain label Film Chest, it was the leading studio gal Hedy Lamarr who gave him the opportunity. The Strange Woman was a salacious 1941 hit novel by Ben Ames Williams (who later wrote Leave Her to Heaven) about a poor, power hungry small-town beauty. Lamarr thought it provided an opportunity to, “do something other than merely be a clotheshorse or look pretty. I have always wanted to do character parts, and this gives me the chance I have been waiting for so long.” So she formed a production company, Mars Film Corp., with producer Jack Chertok, and secured distribution through United Artists. Lamarr met Ulmer on the set of The Wife of Monte Cristo (1946), when she was visiting her then-husband and lead actor John Loder. Ulmer and Lamarr had both trained with Max Reinhardt, and perhaps this slender bond led her to select him as the director. Their collaboration was combative and tense, though The Strange Woman ended up a modest box office success, with a reported $2.8 million in ticket sales. Unusually frank about how Lamarr’s character uses sex to get ahead, The Strange Woman is a nineteenth century variation on the pre-code jaw-dropper Baby Face (1933), in which Barbara Stanwyck climbs the corporate ladder on her back.

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Lamarr plays Jenny Hager, the ill-bred daughter of a drunk who notices she can get away with all kinds of mischief simply by flapping her eyelids. Growing up in an abusive household in Bangor, Maine, she uses her sob story and abundant physical charms to marry the old, rich merchant Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart). He is but the first stepping stone on her will to power, as she next swivels her hypno-eyes onto Isaiah’s son Ephraim (Louis Hayward), a shy academic she used to torture as a child. Through her canny business sense and manipulative wiles, she pits Ephraim against Isaiah, in a grab to secure the family business all for herself. The Poster family is just her bank account – for physical pleasure she is set on seducing John Evered (a miscast, aw shucks George Sanders), the strapping manager of the Poster logging operation. He is engaged to Jenny’s best, and only, friend Meg, but it’s of no concern to her. Jenny is only interested in her own immediate pleasure, regardless of the cost to those around her. She is a seductive sociopath.

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Used to week-long schedules and miniscule budgets while at PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), The Strange Woman offered Ulmer a months long shooting schedule, with elaborate sets and an experienced cinematographer in Lucien Andriot (The Big Trail), who had just finished working with Jean Renoir on Diary of a Chambermaid. The movie is centered around Hedy Lamarr’s face, which exudes a feral restlessness. It is a quality Ulmer went to great lengths to elicit. In his new critical study of Ulmer, A Filmmaker at the Margins, Noah Isenberg writes that Ulmer “purportedly used his baton to lash her ankles, whenever she missed a cue, trying as best he could to make her act like a tigress.” Edgar’s wife Shirley simply stated that “He really didn’t like her.” Whatever his personal animus toward Lamarr, it pushed her towards a performance of bold animal aggression, her eyes darting about like a cat distracted by a laser pointer. Occasionally the effort becomes visible, a labored intensity, but for the most part it’s raw and carnal – the kind of “character” acting she hadn’t been allowed to do since she came to Hollywood.

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Most of Ulmer’s effort seems to have gone into Lamarr’s performance, as the rest of the film is an effective but indistinguishable bit of invisible Hollywood craftsmanship. There is a concerted effort to identify Jenny with nature. In her childhood scenes she is shown playfully drowning Ephraim in a creek, her dainty foot pushing his head underwater. Later she urges Ephraim to attack his father during a whitewater rafting trip, while she secures John’s lust during a thunderstorm. These are thoughtfully laid out metaphors of her inhumanity, but they fail to convey the mad energy of her character. Instead they are distanced and coolly objective, a nature doc of a sociopath in the wild. This approach drains the film of energy, as the shoot seemed to do to Ulmer, who did not recall the film fondly, calling it “very difficult”.

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Isenberg reports that there were re-shoots of the childhood Jenny scenes ordered by executive producer Hunt Stromberg, which were directed by Douglas Sirk. At PRC they only cared about the film being on time and under budget, but here he had no control. Lamarr was the driving artistic force in the film, and while The Strange Woman may not be one of Ulmer’s crowning moments, it contains one of Lamarr’s boldest and strangest performances, freed of the demands of being a clotheshorse. She is a man-devouring force of nature, and once you are in her domain, there is no escaping her.

I AM NOT WHAT I AM: ORSON WELLES’ OTHELLO (1952)

April 29, 2014

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Othello (1952) marked the beginning of Orson Welles’ exile from Hollywood, its funding provided by an Italian businessman soon to go bankrupt. It was the first of endless financing troubles that would plague his prolific years abroad. After he made the budget-strapped studio bound Macbeth (1948) for Republic, he was eager to make a full dress Shakespeare adaptation with elaborate sets designed by Alexandre Trauner. When the cash disappeared, he improvised, with Trauner becoming a location scout while locals were hired to sew period-appropriate clothing. The itinerant production moved between in four towns in Morocco and five in Italy. Shot over the course of two years, as Welles took on acting jobs to raise money, the film is a dizzying patchwork. Welles adapts his style to the circumstances, mostly abandoning the long takes so admired by Andre Bazin, and turning to rapid, jarring edits to sew the disparate material together. It was the first time he had final cut since Citizen Kane, and the result is vertiginous and disorienting, both a reflection of Othello’s deteriorating psyche and the jury-rigged nature of the film’s production.

A new 2K scan of the controversial 1992 restoration is now touring the United States courtesy of Carlotta Films, and has began its run at Film Forum in NYC and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago (see all the future venues here). The original score and sound effects were re-recorded, an attempt to bring a 1950s film up to 1990s technical standards that replaced the audio instead of preserving what Welles produced (read Jonathan Rosenbaum for more details). With that caveat stated, this strange and hypnotic movie has never looked better.

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After he completed shooting Macbeth in July of 1947, Welles went to France to develop an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac with his production designer Alexandre Trauner. Welles recounts that project’s implosion in his essayistic documentary Filming Othello (1978):

suddenly Alexander Korda, who was our producer, came to me and said, “my dear fellow I need dollars. I want to sell it to America.” He did, Jose Ferrer played it and got the Academy Award, and that’s the end of that story. It was supposed to be commercial, and it wasn’t, it was supposed to make me rich, and it didn’t.

So instead Welles took an acting job as the occultist Cagliostro in Black Magic (1949), which was made at Scalera Film Studios in Rome. There he found a potential patron in Michele Scalera, who agreed to fund his Othello, although he pushed for an Italian cast in order to receive grants from the government. Welles had already cast Italian actress Lea Padovani as Desdemona, with whom he was pursuing a very public romance. Their relationship became instant tabloid fodder. Padovani recalled that:

A genius like that does nothing by halves, and for him love was a delirium…. He was capable of unforgettable things. One day at the Caffe Cipriani in Venice he got down on his knees, kissed the edge of my skirt, and pronounced my name quietly. I was breathless with emotion.

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Their affair was brief and ended noisily – she reportedly knocked him out with a door stopper. Regardless of the details of their affair, she was off the movie. In his new book Orson Welles in Italy Alberto Anile reports that Welles was forced to trash the film he had shot with Padovani, reported by the Venetian press as 3,000 meters, or one hour and fifty minutes of material. He then had to re-trench and re-envision the movie, while Scalera was conning the Italian government. Scalera applied for a permit to shoot Othello in English and Italian, and listed Vittorio de Sica and Gina Lollobrigida among the cast to pass the Italian actor quota, despite the fact they would not appear in the film. At this time Betsy Blair, Gene Kelly’s wife, had become the nominal Desdemona, and was in Mogador when Welles heard the news that Scalera was withholding funding, and that the period costumes would be held up in storage. The common story is that Scalera went bankrupt, but Anile writes that though he was losing money, Scalera was not broke. It was a power play to get Welles to leave Africa and return to Italy so he could maintain more control over the production.

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Scalera’s ruse failed, as Welles and his team kept finding creative solutions to their money problems. They famously shot Roderigo’s death scene in a Turkish bath, so there was no need for the costumes, while a thick wall of steam obscured their sparsely detailed set. While the idea has always been attributed to Welles, Blair recalls that it was conceived by Trauner, whom she saw sketching the concept and pitching it to Welles, who ecstatically agreed to it. No matter who the idea originated with, it represents the openness of Welles’ team and his artistic credo. Welles said, “It’s a basic part of the way I work with a group of people — I always move. Not because I’m patient, but because of what I think will happen to the picture if I don’t.” Another of those movements was firing Blair and finally settling on Canadian actress Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona. Welles was afraid of rigidity setting in, and always kept the production moving forward, even if it was in a series of herky jerky stops and starts.

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Eventually Scalera withdrew the remainder of his funds unless Welles returned to Italy, but the stubborn director was committed to his new vision. Enough so he began to fund it out of his own pocket from money earned at acting jobs (Prince of Foxes, The Black Rose). When watching Othello a single cut can span both years and continents. Despite the stressful, ad hoc circumstances, the film is remarkably single-minded in its visual scheme. It moves from the bright coastal light of the Mogador coast to the darkening cell interiors of Othello’s Moroccan castle. Latticework-spiderweb imagery abounds, each character crisscrossed by shadow and then further sliced by the aggressive editing, which never seems to let bodies complete a motion before cutting to a new angle, the world shifting beneath their feet.

DOC HOLIDAY: ART OF THE REAL AT THE FILM SOCIETY OF LINCOLN CENTER

April 22, 2014

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From the beginning documentary filmmaking was synonymous was artifice. For Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty re-staged scenes of an Inuit family at home, complete with an igloo constructed for the shoot. Getting to truth through fiction was an accepted practice for that non-fiction pioneer. It was a common sense approach, using all the filmmaking tools available to capture as much of a multifarious reality as he could. Today the model, best exemplified by An Inconvenient Truth, is that of a TED talk, in which a pre-determined position is supported by talking heads, explanatory slides and jaunty animations. Most of these message documentaries, well-intentioned or not, have no need for moving images at all.  Flaherty’s model has survived, but it lives at the periphery of the film world, in academic contexts like Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), or documentary boot camps like the yearly Robert Flaherty Seminar, which programs formally innovative non-fiction work by a rotating cast of curators. Programmers Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes have gathered the tendrils of these non-fiction experiments into the definition-expanding series “Art of the Real”, which runs through April 26th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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Lim and Rakes make wide-ranging connections, from the ethnographic experiments of Jean Rouch (Jaguar, 1954/1967) to the SEL (which receives its own sidebar). Rouch practiced what he called “ethno-fiction”, and with Jaguar, he took an anthropological film he had shot in 1954 in Niger, and asked its subjects to dub a commentary over it thirteen years later, where they try to recall their on-screen conversations and get sidetracked with jokes and digressions. The SEL similarly foregrounds the apparatus of filmmaking, as in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (now in theaters via Cinema Guild), which takes a series of 16mm portraits of worshippers and tourists as they ride a cable car up the mountains to a temple in Nepal. Each rides runs the length of a roll of film, and contain a parade of micro-dramas, from the fate of a sacrificial chicken to that of a melting ice cream cone. The SEL was founded in 2006 to revive a Flaherty spirit in documentary, that “promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography”, as they say on their site. Spray is also represented by her 2009 ethnographic hangout film, As Long as There’s Breath (2009). It is the third in a series of videos she made of a Nepali family, and she has achieved such a laid back rapport it has the deadpan humor and tempo of a Jim Jarmusch movie. It’s a series of conversation sketches about the parents’ depression over their empty nest (the kids have all moved out), and the village women’s state of sexual satisfaction (low). Spray shoots them in silhouette against the mountainside, an image of aestheticized distance. But these ladies are no exotic other, and proceed to assert their agency by debating the relative merits of wooden and rubber dildos.

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They have adapted to performing to Spray’s camera and turned into delicate and often hilarious performers. Three other documentaries in the series take performance as their theme: Davi Pretto’s Castanha, the Closing Night film Actress (2014). João Carlos Castanha is an aging actor in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He takes gigs all over town, from bit parts in TV dramas to a drag queen MC at the local gay bar. He’s seemingly born to entertain, though he’s never ascended past the local scene. Pretto emphasizes the small spaces of his dressing rooms, smoke filled squares that are not reminders of failure, exactly, but of a dulling inertia. Castanha lives with and cares for his mother, who spends her time swearing at the condo manager at coddling her grandson Marcelo, a drug addict. The film sways between Castanha’s endless pre-show rituals, the layers of makeup and small talk with other actors, with the rush of performance, his energy refracted in the disco ball light. Pretto takes advantage of Castanha’s performativity by inventing melodramatic scenarios to graft onto his life, turning Marcelo’s story into one of violence and mystery, allowing Castanha to pose as a gangster. In an interview with Ela Bittencourt in Guernica Mag, Pretto states his approach to capturing reality:

Our lives are marvelous constructs, caught between the real and fiction. We are always inventing fictions. We create our own roles and stories that we then interpret to our friends and colleagues. And I’m not the one who came up with this idea; it’s been around for a long time. In Jung, for example. But in the end, only the fictions can heal us. Only fiction shows us a way of dealing with the strange and absurd reality in which we are presently living.

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Brandy Burre’s life is another marvelous construct. The subject of Robert Greene’s Actress secured a recurring part on The Wire before giving up acting to raise her children. She moved to Beacon with her boyfriend, and devoted her life to her family. As Greene picks up her story, the relationship is falling apart, and Burre is eager to return to the stage or the screen. Where Castanha is quiet and reflective, Burre is open and in the moment, talking herself through her insecurities and anxieties. It is rare for a documentary, or any film for that matter, to record so closely the everyday life of a woman above the age of 25. The joys of motherhood are all mashed together with career regrets and the mounting difficulty of a woman of her thirtysomething age to make a comeback in show business. She remembers how she was twenty-seven on the set of The Wire, while all the men were in their late thirties. She is not allowed to age gracefully, or balance her life and her work. The institutions of motherhood and show business both seem to conspire against her. Greene is well aware that Brandy is a star, and lights her like one, interrupting the handheld camera of daily life with vignettes of delicate soft focus close-ups, an upstate New York Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Brandy is stumbling her way through a life she is trying to get out of, with empathy and fragility, turning herself into her own crowning performance.

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Mati Diop’s A Thousand Suns mourns one of Africa’s greatest performances, and charts an alternate history of its actor. Diop films Magaye Niang as he watches himself in a public screening of Touki Bouki (1973) in Senegal. A classic of the African cinema, it was about two Senegalese grifters who try to con their way out of Africa on a ship to France. It was directed by Mati Diop’s uncle, Djibril Diop Mambety. Niang is older now, introduced rustling cattle with a sewn on star on his shirt, the High Noon theme song on the soundtrack. He is a cowboy, a relic. When he tells kids at the screening that he is the actor in the movie, they don’t believe him, and say he must be dreaming. In this film Diop envisions another life for Niang, one in which he adopts the life of his Touki Bouki character and flees Senegal. The film becomes the dream the children accused Niang of living in, where the border between film and life, and life and dream, disappears as a fade to black.

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Philipp Hartmann would admit he’s no great actor, but he’s an engagingly neurotic guide to the digressive essay film Time Goes By Like a Roaring Lion. The title is an odd phrase by Hartmann’s grandmother, conveying the violence and speed of time. Hartmann objects to getting old, and the more time passes the more he gets sucked into the past, like a time traveler. His triggers are not as poetic as Proust’s madeleine – he is set off by banal objects like a soccer magazine or a matchbook, sparking reminiscences on players’ birthdays and lovers’ faces. He uses his revulsion at his incipient death to hopscotch from the atomic clock in Braunschweig to a train graveyard in the Andes, on which an impermanent graffiti is scrawled, “The only thing that happens here is time.” When Hartmann returns to the train, the graffiti has been washed away by the rain. Through bull sessions with his friends, about Einstein’s Twin Paradox and their eternal adolescence, he looks for ways to outrun the clock, but he repeatedly encounters those driven mad by chronophobia:”Time would kill him at some point if he wasn’t faster.”

The films that make up “Art of the Real” supply an eclectic alternate history to non-fiction filmmaking, one that takes advantage of the full expressive potential of the medium. This week there is also a program of avant-garde work, including A New Product, in which Harun Farocki turns a corporate meeting on ideal workspaces into an absurdist essay on the impenetrability of neoliberal market-speak. Or if you’re in a more observational mode you can still catch  Castanha and Actress (sold out, but you can always go standby). Instead of flicking on the latest “issue” documentary on Netflix, head to Lincoln Center and see what artists are moving the form ahead by going backward – to Flaherty and beyond.

DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH: THE SQUEAKER (1937)

April 15, 2014

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The Criterion Collection built its luxury brand on an expectation of quality, and its formidable library is stacked with international classics presented in exacting restorations. This is a model without room for beat-up prints of forgotten programmers, though they’ve found a way to smuggle some in through their streaming channel on Hulu Plus (it was just announced that Criterion has renewed their contract with Hulu, so their 800+ films will available on the VOD site for years to come). There are endless independent productions that have been poorly preserved, and are not famous enough to justify extensive restoration work. Hulu has allowed Criterion a place to distribute these orphan titles, those from directors too obscure to even put out in their more budget-conscious Eclipse line of DVD box sets.  As I was idly searching for Criterion titles only available on Hulu Plus’ subscription service, I scrolled upon William K. Howard’s The Squeaker (aka Murder on Diamond Row), a low-budget British mystery produced by Alexander Korda in 1937. Howard raises auteurist alarm bells because he was a favorite of legendary film historian William K. Everson, and was the subject of one of Dave Kehr’s “Further Research” column in Film Comment. A fleet, funny and noir-tinged detective yarn adapted from an Edgar Wallace play, The Squeaker is an unpolished little gem.

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Howard was born in St. Mary’s, Ohio in 1899, went on to serve in Europe during WWI, and graduated from Ohio State University with an engineering law degree. He gave up a possible lawyering career to enter the disreputable movie business, where he took a job as sales manager at Vitagraph. He jumped to the creative side in 1921 when he co-directed his first movie, the Buck Jones Western Get Your Man (1921), at the age of 22. Gaining a reputation as an innovative stylist, Everson described Howard’s best work as, “strong gutsy thrillers with a penchant for German-style lighting and camerawork.” Influenced, like everyone of the period, by F.W. Murnau, he utilized a constantly roving camera and stark chiaroscuro lighting, which captures, according to Kehr, a “sense of lost happiness linked with an irrecoverable past and a present fraught with fear and regret…[with an] insistence on mercy and forgiveness as the highest human values”.

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He’s most famous for the nesting flashbacks of The Power and the Glory (1933), which were an acknowledged influence on the structure of Citizen Kane. But Howard had been playing with shifting time gimmicks in the previous year’s courtroom thriller The Trials of Vivienne Ware (1932), and Kehr found flashbacks in his films as early as 1922′s Deserted at the Altar. His narrative and formal experiments encountered studio resistance, which came to a head on the set of The Princess Comes Across (1936), when he banned Paramount suits from the set. Though he had a right to a closed set as negotiated by the Screen Directors Guild, that brash act led him to seek work outside the country. He would go on to make two films for Alexander Korda in the U.K., the Spanish Armada swashbuckler Fire Over England (1937) and The Squeaker (1937).

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The Squeaker was based on mystery writer Edgar Wallace’s hit play of 1928. The Variety review claims that Howard, with his writers Edward O. Berkman and Bryan Wallace, eliminated the play’s dialogue, retaining only the outline of the original production. This act of compression is budget-conscious, reducing the film’s length to a svelte seventy-four minutes (four minutes were cut for the American release under the title Murder on Diamond Row), but it also allows Howard to express exposition visually, and skips all the theatrical extemporizing necessary on the stage. Through a series of dipping crane shots and dissolves, Howard introduces the actions and personalities of the whole drama:  jewel robbers, beat cops, the Inspector (Allan Jeayes) and the presciently barmy Scottish reporter (Alistair Sim) who encourages them to “follow those diamonds.” Those diamonds will lead to “The Squeaker”, a prominent fence who buys all the hot goods and then implicates the thieves, keeping his hands clean and keeping prices low through lack of competition. He maintains anonymity by remaining silent, communicating only through words doodled on his car’s fogged-up window (it’s a ruse only possible in dreary London weather).

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Hiding becomes a major theme in the film, as the protagonist is an alcoholic ex-cop named Barrabal (Edmund Lowe) who had disappeared down the bottle years ago, ditching his home town for Canada, where he ended up serving time for buying stolen goods. He’s a man who made a serious effort to hide from himself. He washes back into London as part of a perp lineup, where the Inspector recognizes his once prized pupil. Desperate for a break, he hires Barrabal to go undercover and sniff out The Squeaker’s true identity. Through his old underworld contacts he insinuates himself into the world of an upper-class twit who turns out to be the notorious fence. Now he only has to find incriminating evidence without getting killed (and woo the Squeaker’s earnest assistant while he’s at it).

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The Squeaker is a furtive, secretive film, with Howard even hiding the big action set-pieces. When a key witness is murdered, Howard stages it behind a tree, the frame emptied out of human figures, the only indication of violence is a gun blast on the soundtrack. And again when the dead witness’ torch-singing girlfriend positively IDs the body, it is done in shadow behind a scrim. This is all building up to the dramatically unbelievable but stylistically thrilling ending when Barrabal uses expressionist lighting effects to browbeat The Squeaker into squealing on himself. It’s absurd to think that a criminal mastermind would crack for no reason other than there are shadows on the wall and a dead man on a slab, but Howard gives it a macabre internal logic of its own, turning The Squeaker’s anonymity into a visual prison that he becomes desperate to escape, even though it will mean a life sentence.