GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS

December 22, 2015

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There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas — something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails.” – Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper (1891)

Late in the night on Christmas Eve from 1971 to 1978, the BBC would air an adaptation of a classic ghost story, dark tales of cursed crowns, spider babies, and heart-eaters preceding the broadcast of midnight mass. It is a tradition that goes back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the dean of English ghost stories, M.R. James, would gather friends and colleagues to debut his latest chilling yarn after Christmas Eve revelries. The first five BBC productions adapt James’ work, and do justice to his clammy atmospheres. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark shot on location and on 16mm, able to conjure the fog-choked isolation of James’ doomed protagonists. All eight of BBC’s original Ghost Stories For Christmas, as well four from the series’ 2005 revival, are available in a haunting six-DVD set from the BFI (for those with Region 2 capable players).

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The English tradition of Christmas Ghosts emerged due to the boom in periodical publishing in the mid-19th century, after the repeal of the newspaper tax in 1855. The holidays were the best-selling season, so publishers would release year-end round-ups with the year’s most popular stories, many of which were supernatural. Charles Dickens was pivotal in pushing the ghostly, from his Christmas Carol in 1843 to his publishing scads of scary stories in the Christmas edition of his All the Year Round magazine. M.R. James would continue the tradition at Cambridge, where the scholar would debut one ghost story a year at his Christmas Eve party.

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The idea for the BBC series was conceived following the success of Whistle And I’ll Come to You (’68), an M.R. James adaptation filmed for BBC’s Omnibus. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark and DP John McGlashan were plucked from the BFI’s stable of talent and assigned to the new ghostly initiative. The first “Ghost Story for Christmas” was of M.R. James’ The Stalls of Barchester in 1971, concerning a cursed rural cathedral, and followed by A Warning to the Curious in ’72. The latter is a particularly haunting bit of antiquarian superstition come to life. James was once an assistant in archaeology at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and he used this background to concoct a bit of flim flammery surrounding the three Saxon crowns of East Anglia. James proposes that the crowns were buried along the coastline, and held powers that kept the country from harm. One neurasthenic  stumbles upon the remaining crown, and is stalked by the spirit of its protector. The story is a mournful piece, first published in 1925, that yearns for the age before WWI. James saw many of his students depart and die in that conflagration, and the story reads as something of a lament for the loss of an entire culture.

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The BBC adaptation streamlines the story, dropping the nested flashback framework and also adds motivation to the man who finds the crown. Instead of stumbling upon it, he seeks it out, having just been laid off from his clerking position. This makes for an easier to follow narrative, but also robs the story of much of its allegorical power. Instead of standing in for a nation, in the TV episode the treasure hunting crown-stealer is only in it for himself. McGlashan’s cinematography of the Norfolk coastline still finds an analogue to James’ text, capturing the malevolent glow of an emptied out beach in the off-season.

A Ghost Story For Christmas: Lost Hearts

The 1973 entry, Lost Hearts, is one of my favorites, anchored by the jubilant sadism of  Joseph O’Conor as aspirant warlock Mr. Abney. Mr. Abney is a solitary “researcher” who lives with his maid (Susan Richards) and butler (James Mellor) on an isolated villa. With his shock of white hair and wide eyes he looks like Alastair Sim’s Scrooge from the ’51 Christmas Carol. But instead of parsimony, Abney has a penchant for eating children’s hearts to attain immortality. His first two victims, a carefree young girl and a wispy Italian hurdy-gurdy player, begin to haunt his home, scarring the walls with their elongated nails. Using nothing but practical effects: some makeup, fake nails and an elegiac hurdy-gurdy tune, Lost Hearts slow-burns Abney to a crisp.

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Sound is used smartly throughout the series. There are no insistent scores informing the viewers what to feel, but instead snippets of music are introduced that gain meaning in context. In A Warning to the Curious it is a breathy laugh that jumps out of the quiet soundtrack, shaking the treasure hunter to his core. In The Ash Tree (’75) Sir Richard (Edward Petherbridge) channels scenes from the life of his murdered cousin Sir Matthew (also Petherbridge), his voice a doomed chorus pushing Richard to his inevitable fate. See, Richard makes the mistake of moving the grave of an executed witch, and pays the price in an attack of grotesque monster-spiders with baby heads.

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The Signalman (1976) is the most attentive to sound, as it follows a train track operator whose job is to respond to the bells and rings that inform him of the status up and down the line. When a specter appears at the tunnel and gestures wildly for danger, the signalman is at a loss. This is beyond the proscribed routine of his day, and the dangers beyond his ability to convey. Adapted from the Charles Dickens story, one he wrote after a near-death experience in a train crash, it’s a diabolical chamber piece whose tone of quiet dread is perfectly captured in the BBC film. The film stars Denholm Elliott as the lonely signalman, his monotony interrupted by a curious traveler (Bernard Lloyd) who takes breaks from his vacation to hear the train worker’s troubles.

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The specter has appeared three times – after the first there was a horrific crash in the tunnel, following the second a bride fell off and was killed upon landing. Now the signalman patiently awaits the third tragedy. Elliott plays him with quiet paranoia, seething beneath his professional surface. Everything on the screen becomes part of the orchestrated tension, each bell and innocent gesture a mark of death. The traveller’s first introduction, a hearty “Hello, down there!”, is revealed to be part of the final goodbye.

What better way to prepare for the joys of Christmas morning than to contemplate your own mortality on Christmas Eve? These are stories of vanity, loneliness, and death after which no present will disappoint you. Socks will seem like a gift from God. So this Christmas Eve put on BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas, it has enough fear for the whole family.

NYFF: THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (1951)

October 7, 2014

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For director Michael Powell, The Red Shoes was “mostly a sketch for The Tales of Hoffmann“. So far the sketch has eclipsed the full painting, with The Red Shoes a repertory film staple that plays regularly around the country (you can catch it in my cinema-starved hometown of Buffalo on November 17th!), while The Tales of Hoffmann has endured decades of neglect and chopped up film prints. Its relative obscurity should begin to lift, now that a new 4K scan of the original camera negative has been performed by the BFI, with support from The Film Foundation and StudioCanal.  The stateside premiere of the restoration occurred at the New York Film Festival, introduced by superfan Martin Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who was married to Powell until his passing in 1990).

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The Tales of Hoffmann is a deliriously beautiful film about male fantasies of female perfection. Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) invents women to match the romantic ideal he has of himself, all of whom emerge from a mediated perceptual and meta-cinematic schema. Olympia (Moira Shearer) is a mechanical doll who looks human when Hoffmann views her through ornate (3D?) glasses. Giulietta (Ludmilla Tcherina) is a devil’s handmaiden who steals Hoffmann’s soul by having him stare into a mirror.  Antonia (Ann Ayars) is a thwarted opera singer whose mother’s statue comes to life.  Absorbed in his own vanity, Hoffmann is not granted unmediated sight, and so ends up drunk and alone.

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Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were after something they called a “composed film”, a gesamtkunstwerk of music, dance and film that grants each their individual freedom but operates in concert, working without dialogue, but through purely expressive gesture. Their test of this concept was the climactic dance in The Red Shoes, and The Tales of Hoffmann was to be its fruition. The choice of subject matter was brought to them by conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. According to Powell the original idea was to record with him “a wonderful performance of the singers of the opera, and then make a film of it with dancers . Simple as that.” They adapted the Jacques Offenbach opera into a new English translation (by Dennis Arundell), and hired both voices and bodies for each character. Powell wanted “a performance, not a recording”, so he strayed from operatic singers and chose singer-actors for the vocals to which the actors would lip-sync. Only Rounseville’s Hoffmann and Ann Ayars’ Antonia sung their own parts. They recorded the score separately, and then shot the film according to the music’s rhythms, giving the director of photography and actors more freedom than they had since the silent era. It is not just the camera movement that is calibrated to the music though, but equally the actor’s movement inside the frame (dance choreographed by Frederick Ashton), as well as the rhythmic editing of Reginald Mills.

Instead of trying to mitigate the artificiality,  of the enterprise, they emphasize it, with painted backdrops and fantastical set designs by Hein Heckroth. This overt “staginess” attracted significant criticism. Siegfried Kracauer called it “nothing but photographed theater”, and that seemed to be the prevailing viewpoint until the film became nigh impossible to see. Distribution was nonexistent through the 60s, and when prints did get out, they were in B&W and missing the third act. That’s how Scorsese first saw it on the “Million Dollar Movie” on local NYC television, beginning a lifelong obsession. He named Robert Helpmann’s face as an influence on Taxi Driver. Schoonmaker related how Scorsese would screen the film endlessly during the editing process of Raging Bull, and would get enraged when MoMA would ask for the print back, because another director was requesting it. It turned out George Romero was another Hoffmann fanatic, and was analyzing it in the run-up to his film about traveling renaissance fair/ motorcycle gang , Knightriders (1981).

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Act 1, “Olympia”, takes place in a mechanical doll studio that Hein Heckroth gave a Fauvist explosion of color. Hoffmann is agog at the ingenuity of it all, lost in his own perceptual whirlwind. The inventor Coppelius (Helpmann) twirls him through demonstrations of his amazingly lifelike puppets, which come to life underwhen Hoffmann dons garish glasses, some with pearls stringing down. They are a cinematic talisman, allowing the inanimate objects to come to life under his gaze. The camera rises up into the rafters to display the puppet master pulling the strings – but what are wooden dolls up there turn into prancing humans on stage – and one in particular catches Hoffmann’s eye. To him she is too real to be fake, or simply too beautiful not to reflect his idea of reality. In any case, it’s Olympia (Moira Shearer) reclining on a hammock, her aquiline features and aerodynamic limbs lying still in anticipation. It is clear this is a body that can do damage. And she does, swirling like a top but needing to be constantly wound up by her handlers.  Shearer is a marvel, not just as a dancer but a comedian, able to execute lithe ballet maneuvers at one end of the stage, and then collapse like an accordion at the other. Hoffmann is helpless at her cold, inanimate beauty, a dumbfounded idiot who thought he found the perfect woman. He is humiliated at the revelation of her not-aliveness, and she is eventually torn limb-from-limb in a scene of sadistic doll violence.

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Act 2, “Giulietta”, gets supernatural, and begins to bring out the German Expressionist strains in Heckroth’s designs and Robert Helpmann’s Nosferatu garb. It takes place in Venice, and Giulietta is a leggy siren luring Hoffmann towards her. In a disorienting sequence, Powell and Pressburger cut back and forth between Giulietta’s disembodied head superimposed on the canal singing a ghostly tune, and Giulietta’s physical body in a gondola rowing for home. Here again is the spirit/body split, the woman multiplied into parts that Hoffmann can then separate and filter through his own ego. In this fable of betrayal she steals his soul for a neck full of diamonds. His soul is taken when he looks into a mirror, and his image disappears. His sight is blinkered and uncertain, his love a delusion. It’s only when he skewers a man with a saber and cracks the mirror in two, that his soul is restored to him. It did not, however, give him intelligence.

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Act 3, “Antonia” is Hoffmann’s best shot at capturing reality. There are no disruptions of his sight, only his empathy. Antonia is in ill health, and has been advised not to sing for fear of her weak constitution. Her father isolates her in the bedroom, alone with a statue of her late grande dame mother, once a famed opera singer. Hoffmann arrives to declare his love and burst into song, and the satanic Dr. Miracle (Helpmann, again, with his menacing widow’s peak) has similar designs to nefarious ends – he wants her to sing until she dies, so she can join her mother. Miracle is a weird amalgam of Dr. Caligari madman and Dracula force of nature, able to summon Antonia’s body to instantaneously appear at his examining couch when she is off in another room – yet more imagery of the segmented female body. She is not in control of herself  – and her mind starts cracking. Her hallucinations escalate until she is sharing a duet with her dead mother in a medieval wood, sharing a mournful duet before suffering the same fate – a brutally beautiful escape.

The restored Tales of Hoffmann will screen at NYC’s Film Forum in early 2015 and presumably tour the country after that. It’s a bewitching, profoundly strange work, both radically free and conservatively stagebound. Kracauer wrote that it is both “a spectacle that transcends the possibilities of the stage”, but “built from miraculous studio effects, it shuts out any miracle the camera may reveal. The ripple of a single leaf suffices to denounce its treacherous glamour.” It’s a gorgeously suffocating work, and there’s truly nothing else like it.

OF TIME AND THE FAMILY: THE LONG DAY CLOSES (1992)

February 4, 2014

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My memories are all knotted up with the movies. At times I fear I remember films more than reality. My first date with my future wife is nothing now but place names (Blue Ribbon Bakery, Film Forum) and an atmosphere of skittish anticipation. None of the words I spoke to her remain in my gray matter, though I recall the college fight song John Barrymore belted out in the B-Musical Hold That Co-Ed, the film which capped our evening. That tune imprinted itself, though not as much as that transformative parting kiss. No film captures the poetic arbitrariness of memory than Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, released last week in a sumptuous Blu-ray transfer from Criterion. Davies weaves together impressions from his mid-1950s Liverpool childhood in suggestive flashes, from the play of light upon a carpet to the audio of some of his favorite moviehouse memories (The Magnificent Ambersons and Meet Me in St. Louis feature prominently).  Davies claimed it was the happiest period in his life, set in the years after his father’s death, and before the crippling doubts of adolescence. The Long Day Closes is a rapturous experience, capturing the ebb and flow of sense memory in rich, tactile images, all underscored with the knowledge of their passing. These moments are gone and they will last forever.

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Terence Davies began the archaeological dig into his past with the three short films Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983), known collectively as “The Terence Davies Trilogy”. These followed his alter-ego Robert Tucker through victimized childhood, depressed maturity, and lonely death. It continued in Distant Voice, Still Lives, in which Davies removes himself from the screen, instead investigating the aftereffects a violent patriarch has on his mother and three of his siblings. In the Criterion liner notes, Davies tells Michael Koresky (who wrote a forthcoming book on the director for the University of Illinois Press) that, “I couldn’t put in many things that happened, because nobody would have believed it. He was so violent.”

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The Long Day Closes captures the slow restitution of a family following his death, though the patriarch is never mentioned. His mother (Marjorie Yates) is layered in the delicate latticework shadows of cinematographer Michael Coulter, blending her into the home, as if its foundation. She is introduced making tea, lilting the melody to “If You Were the Only Girl (In the World)”. It’s a song of escape, continuing, “and I were the only boy/Nothing else would matter in the world today.” Her face is content, almost blissful, imagining such swooning romanticism, a remnant of her youth. Davies uses songs as time machines, conjuring the emotions of their original reception and mourning their loss in the same move. He begins in the opening shot, as Nat King Cole sings Hoagy Carmichael’s ode to evanescent love, “Stardust”, over the image of a decrepit rain-soaked street. In his supple tenor Cole intones, “Love is now the stardust of yesterday/The music of years gone by”, as Davies dollies his camera to a collapsed staircase. Alec Guinness fades onto the soundtrack from The Ladykillers, “I understand you have rooms to let,” before a young boy’s voice yells “Mom!”, and the film proper begins. All that follows will decay, Davies shows, the staircase becoming a wreck, and the song “Stardust” itself will become the stardust of yesterday.

The film becomes a series of fragmentary impressions from Davies’ childhood, music and sense memories connected by camera movement. An observer since childhood, Davies depicts himself as separate from the rest of the family, too young to go out to dances or bars, his evenings spent staring out windows waiting for his siblings to come home. He also awakens to his own homosexuality when admiring a shirtless construction worker across the way. Then his is immediately overwhelmed with shame – further distancing him from society at large. His afternoons are spent in school or the cinema, both avenues for escape. Davies connects all these flickering memories in fluid camera movements, as if remembering in one breath. These worlds are connected through Davies’ graceful camera movements, which traverse space the way his songs travel in time.

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In one bravura sequence, the boy is sitting rapt in the balcony of a movie theater, framed inside the cone of the projector’s light. The camera cranes downward, and the movement continues after a dissolve to an amusement park, the ferris wheel lights in place of the projector. The family walks in a military line perpendicular to the camera, agog at the sights, the shape of their lockstep single line formation repeated in the image of air rifle barrels at a carny game. The camera, still tracking rightward, then cuts to the boy in his mother’s arms, as she sings the Irish folk song “She Moved Through the Fair”, about a ghostly lover returning to see her beau. Mother and child sit in front of a flickering light, presumably a fire, as the Mother’s eyes brim with tears. The constant flicker against her tearful face is reminiscent of Major Amberson’s stare into flames in The Magnificent Ambersons. In that scene he was facing death, and in Welles’ voice-over, he was “engaged in the profoundest thinking of his life. He realized that everything that had worried him or delighted him during his lifetime, all his buying and building and trading and banking, that it was all trifling and waste, beside what concerned him now.” Mother is no industrialist, but she is engaging in the same, profound thinking. She tells her son, “my dad used to sing that”, and shudders with remembrances of her own childhood, one Davies is not privileged to see. She is of firmer stock than the Major, and is capable of handling the dissipations and disappearances of time, those which Davies mourns so beautifully..

HIGH & LOW: HARUN FAROCKI AND JOHN LANDIS

September 13, 2011

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Two sixty-something masters of their domain have new work showing in the U.S. John Landis, a dean of the low farting arts, has his morbid comedy Burke and Hare playing cable-on-demand services and a limited theatrical run. Harun Farocki, of the high brow-furrowing arts, has a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art entitled Images of War: At a Distance. Landis has been tagged with artistic decline, something Hollywood directors have to deal with as soon as they sprout their first grey hair (Burke is his first narrative feature since 1998, was financed and made in the U.K., and released there in Oct. 2010). This kind of ageism doesn’t appear in the gallery world, where Farocki is now being embraced after decades as an experimental video artist. The MoMA exhibition is running his most recent work on a loop, Serious Games I-IV (2009-2010), but also providing nearby monitors that are showing nearly all of his previous videos (which they acquired for their library). As artists, they are similar mainly in their dissimilarity, but both have a deep and playful sense of film history.

Burke and Hare tells the frequently adapted tale of the two eponymous Williams, who murdered 17 people in Edinburgh during 1827-1828, and sold the corpses to an anatomy lecturer.  It is a production of Ealing Studios, that venerable institution of British comedy (famous for Alec Guinness’ multiple personality marvels like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)). Landis takes full advantage of the studio’s connections by hiring some of the great British stage and screen actors to fill out his cast. The leads are semi-familiar faces Simon Pegg (Burke), Andy Serkis (in the flesh this time as Hare) and Isla Fisher (Ginny Hawkins), but small roles are enlivened by Ronnie Corbett (from BBC’s long-running sketch show “The Two Ronnies“), stand-up comic Bill Bailey, Stephen Merchant, Tim Curry and Christopher Lee.

These casting decisions are not marketing filler, for each of these faces fills a particularly exaggerated space in Landis’ palette of caricatures. Serkis purses his lips to bring out the frogginess of his features, with the battered top hat adding to the impression of a dissolute Mr. Toad from Wind in the Willows. His Hare is the insatiable id of the duo, pushing them onward to more profitable indignities while remaining dutifully horny towards his equally greedy wife (Jessica Hynes). Burke is the apparently sympathetic one, Pegg’s kindly weasel features reluctantly acceding to Hare’s plans, as it’ll give him the cash he needs to wrangle Ginny, who wants to put on an all-female version of Macbeth. Isla Fisher is the most conventionally attractive, but her disconcertingly manic energy, and bizarre artistic ambition, place her with the freaks.

The supporting actors all provide comic accents to this unfortunate quartet. Corbett plays Captain McLintoch, of the Edinburgh militia, who is in charge of wrangling the local body snatchers. At 5′ 1″ and 80 years old, he waddles in front of his young recruits like an asthmatic Napoleon. His face squeezes into helmet and uniform reluctantly, jolly rolls of wrinkles unwillingly curling down his neck. Corbett is delightfully game, berating his charges with drill sergeant anger, and eager to flash his superiors a disarmingly adorable grin. He plays it straight and walks away with the movie. Then there is Tim Curry’s tortoise-headed scientist, Stephen Merchant’s stork-like dope, and the blustering Christopher Lee, who is no animal but simply himself, which is enough.

Landis lovingly arranges his menagerie into cleanly executed frames of clean executions (Bill Baily plays the sarcastic hangman and narrator). The jokes move swiftly, and the actors maintain a jittery pace that injects life into the material even when it sags. It’s the best comedy I’ve seen this year.

Harun Farocki’s videos aren’t funny, per se, but they are certainly playful. The centerpiece of the MoMA exhibition is Serious Games I-IV (2009-2010), which focuses on the military’s use of video games, but I immediately latched onto a few other video works. The first is On the Construction of Griffith’s Films (2006). This simple but brilliant short (2min. 30 sec.) splits D.W. Griffith’s use of shot-countershots into two screens, so you can see the eyeline matches line up next to each other. It begins with an example of a one-shot scene from The Lonedale Operator (1911), where “a door connects two shots, or separates them.” Then five years later Farocki broke down the varying camera angles and setups that Griffith innovated in Intolerance (1916), where there was “an exchange of glances, instead of words.” With close-ups and shot-countershots, actors could convey emotion without the use of inter-titles. Doorways still connect shots now, but the space has become elastic. Farocki shows a scene between Mae Marsh and Robert Harron, and a repeated sequence of shot-countershot. Farocki writes how cinema creates “structures of its own making, parallel worlds.” As you watch Marsh and Harron glance at each other in their little boxes, it’s possible to see Farocki’s fascination with two-channel video pieces, giving him the ability to have his parallel worlds communicate simultaneously, instead of the cuts made necessary in single-screen narrative cinema.

He brought this two-screen conversation to the fore in Counter-Music (2004), his version of a city symphony, set in Lille, France. This densely allusive piece uses Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera and Walter Ruttman’s Berlin, Symphony of a City as comparison points against a modern metropolis. Instead of footage shot on the street, he re-purposes footage from a sleep study lab, security cameras, heat maps and CG modelings of car and train traffic. These are images made without a cameraman, capturing the daily life of the city without the intervention of an artist. It is, Farocki contends, something Ruttman and Vertov dreamed about.

One of the early connections Farocki makes is inspired by test footage pushing forward inside a sewer pipe, checking for the integrity of welds. In a deadpan voice-over, he he has “recollections of a film with Raquel Welch”, of the ship flying through a human body in Fantastic Voyage. To him, this shot of the sewage pipe shows, “man as a world, the city as a body”. These systems and constructions are extensions of human thought, and therefore our body. But what kind of body have we created?

This multiplicity of images would have stunned Vertov and Ruttman, but not the sterility of their content. In one evocative passage Farocki runs a clip of some of Vertov’s textile workers on the left channel, working balletically around a giant machine, while on the right channel a single modern office worker sits silently in front of a glimmering screen. The man and his world have been overtaken by his body. Another comparison: between circling traffic and loitering teens. As industry jobs decline, Farocki opines, we circulate to instead of sitting about, and whoever doesn’t move makes themselves suspicious. Sitting still is a kind of revolutionary act. Near the end, a boy in a sleep study, covered in sensors and wires, struggles awake and waves to the camera, happy to be conscious.

These are wildly divergent artists, but both draw from their obsessive cinephilia to fuel their art. Landis mines the history of British comedy to sculpt the physical comedy of his cast of grotesques, while Farocki uses Intolerance (and Fantastic Voyage) to define his approach to cinema and to the cities that we inhabit. Go see both, and ignore their brows.

VINTAGE VIOLENCE: SANDS OF THE KALAHARI (1965) AND LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN (1976)

August 2, 2011

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A baboon and Santa Claus are witnesses to man’s descent into savagery. In Sands of the Kalahari (1965, out on DVD today from Olive Films), a charter plane crashes in the African desert, and its passengers battle each other (and some observant simians) for survival. Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976, a recent Raro Video DVD release)  finds a couple of pretty boy Dirty Harries gunning down suspects before they have time to commit crimes. Poor Old St. Nick can only grin and bear these assaults on individual freedom. Both films display the brutalizing depths wisecracking civilized types can descend to when they feel above or outside the law.

After the international success of Zulu (1964), director Cy Endfield and actor/producer Stanley Baker reunited in South Africa for Sands of the Kalahari. Endfield, born in Scranton, PA,  had been working in the UK for over a decade after being declared a former Communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee. I discussed his second-to-last Hollywood film, the inflammatory noir The Sound of Fury (1950, aka Try and Get Me), back in February. He used a variety of pseudonyms in the years after he was put on the blacklist, since British producers still wanted U.S. distribution.

Endfield (credited as Charles de la Tour) first worked with Baker on Child in the House (1956), a family drama adapted from the novel by Janet McNeill. They hit it off, and returned with Hell Drivers (where Endfield used his real name for the first time), a taut trucking adventure that established the fatalistic tone of their future collaborations. They continued to elaborate their interest in self-destruction in the thrillers Sea Fury (1958)and Jet Storm (1959) before hitting it big on Zulu.

Like Jet Storm (set on a plane in which a grief-stricken passenger (Richard Attenborough) intends to blow himself up) and ZuluSands of the Kalahari contends with a small group grappling with the prospect of  imminent death. The story was adapted by Endfield from William Mulvihill’s novel of the same name. When a commercial flight is canceled at a Johannesburg airport, a few of the international travelers charter their own plane out: there is the fadingly charismatic pilot Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport); the unfailingly logical, and vaguely Eastern European Dr. Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel); ex-German soldier and monkey lover Grimmelman (Harry Andrews); professional British lady Grace Munkton (Susannah York); functioning alcoholic Bain (Stanley Baker); and the immediately shirtless big-game hunter O’Brien (Stuart Whitman).

The plane runs into a swarm of locusts and crashes into the dunes of the Kalahari desert. After the junky jet explodes, the group is stranded in the middle of the most inhospitable place on earth, with sharp-toothed monkeys monitoring their every move. O’Brien sheds his shirt and takes over, and slowly goes mad Heart of Darkness style, growing obsessed with the absolute power he can maintain in this exotic outpost of humanity. Ms. Munkton swoons over his rippling pectorals, but the other passengers aren’t so impressed, and get picked off one by one. What O’Brien ultimately wants is to dominate nature itself, and when humanity fails to pose a challenge, he opts to wage a war against the baboons.

Endfield takes full advantage of the Panavision frame, using the early urban sequences for centered compositions filled with background action, while the desert sections are unbalanced and emptied out. The opening is in medium-shot, while the desert sequences are in long-shot. As the enormity of their situation dawns upon his characters, Endfield pulls further away. It is a nasty little picture, attuned to the brutality of the scenario more than others of its ilk, including the (quite good) Five Came Back (1939, dir. John Farrow), Desperate Search (1950, dir. Joseph H. Lewis), and Flight of the Phoenix (1965, dir. Robert Aldrich). Endfield said, “The only way to do it was to show the essentialism of survival, which was impossible given censorship rules. Otherwise it seems like ‘Swiss Family Robinson’.” (from Brian Neve’s career spanning interview).

I shudder to think what an uncensored Sands of the Kalahari would look like, because this is pretty raw material. In one queasy sequence, the remaining men club a wounded impala to death with stones, as Endfield frames them in rare close-up with maniacal grimaces on their faces. In another, O’Brien guns down baboons from their mountainside dwellings, and their corpses fall to the ground like a mealy potatoes.

The main conflict is between O’Brien’s hyper-macho Darwinism and the other men’s reluctant egalitarianism. There is no true competitor, as the Doctor is a coward, the German resorts to the violence he disdains, and Bain is brave but a bit of a dolt. Endfield clearly agrees with the milquetoasts, but is fascinated by O’Brien’s animality. Shunning escape, he chooses to live alone in the desert, growing a patchy beard and awaiting the showdown with the primates whose homeland he has invaded. This final battle is gruesome and short, and in the end Endfield pulls away in his longest long shot, until O’Brien is just another dot on the landscape. Nature, as ever, is unperturbed.

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man does not exhibit that kind of formal control, but its tilt-a-whirl frenzy holds its own insane appeal. Directed by Italian exploitation specialist Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), it’s a near plot-less exercise in gonzo action sequences. Fred (Marc Porel) and Tony (Ray Lovelock – who also sings the Dylan-esque theme song) are model-handsome cops spearheading a special operations force in Rome. These two grinning sociopaths gleefully snap necks of suspects who survive their chases, and resort to torture for small bits of information. They are the exploitation version of Dirty Harry, who at least had motivation for his sundering of the law. These two are simply insane, although they go about it in an amiable cop show manner, as if CSI: Miami’s David Caruso just started choking out schlubs in the interrogation room.

Without characterization or narrative to speak of, the juice here is in the location shooting of the action scenes, which deliver wildly dangerous stunts on the streets of Rome, often shot without permits. The stunner is the opening motorcycle chase, an epic jaunt through the Via del Corso that weaves through traffic, crashes through cafes, thunders on top of cars, and scares an old blind man. Interspersing camera mounted cycle shots with the death-defying stunt-riders, it’s a full kinesthetic assault that matches its other model, The French Connection (1971), for white-knuckle realism. When the action scenes end, it’s just another campy exploitation movie, but when the cameraman hits the ground running once more, it’s wise to start paying attention.

DVD TUESDAY: FASSBINDER’S DESPAIR (1978)

June 7, 2011

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Today Olive Films releases two lesser known Rainer Werner Fassbinder films to DVD in strong transfers: I Only Want You to Love Me (1976) and Despair (1978). The first is a bare-bones TV movie, the second a big budget international co-production starring Dirk Bogarde. According to Thomas Elsaesser,  Despair cost 6 million deutsche marks, when his previous works averaged 4-500,000. Despair was his bid to become a major European auteur, and to work on a larger palette. For this he received pushback from his growing cult (see Philip Lopate’s essay “A Date With Fassbinder and Despair” for a personal take on it), and it has generally drifted into disrepute, hence its unavailability on home video.

Seen on its own, the film is a mordantly funny black comedy that imperceptibly tips into tragedy. As Despair marks a major change in Fassbinder’s directorial identity, it’s appropriate he chose to adapt Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name. It concerns Hermann (Bogarde), a Russian emigre chocolate factory owner in 1929-1930 Berlin, who suffers from dissociative episodes and then fatefully encounters Felix (Klaus Lowitsch), whom he considers to be his doppelganger. Eager for a new life, he plans to kill Felix and take on the role of a poorer, but freer man. It’s a delicate tonal shift handled with care by Fassbinder and DP Michael Ballhaus’ lush house-of-mirrors cinematography, which starts with broad caricature (kitschy frosted glass of endlessly doubling images) and ends with visual rhymes that recontextualize the earlier laughs (a drip into broken porcelain calls back to the opening shot of a tacky cocktail mixing). Their ever-intricate tracking shots are supplemented here by zooms, both puncturing and retreating from these dynamic spaces, shifting from clarity to opacity. Reportedly one of Fassbinder’s favorites, it is overdue for re-evaluation.

Adapted into a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, the theme of unstable identity is elaborated by giving Hermann a history of shifting allegiances: “I was a black shirt fighting the Reds in the White Army. After the revolution I got out as a Caucasian fighting the Brown Shirts in the Red Army. Now I am just a yellow belly in a brown hat”. He says this while armies of little chocolate men roll by on a conveyor belt in the foreground. With Nazism slowly on the rise, Hermann has the creeping fear he’ll just go along to get along again, a monstrous accommodation that introduces one of the many seams in his psyche. No longer certain that there is a core to his being, Hermann depends on class-based masks to get through the day. Bogarde is done up in the height of haute-bourgeoisie. He is a businessman with a blonde wife, swank apartment, and impeccably arranged coiffure. His suits are pressed and his eyebrows dutifully cocked in response to an appropriate innuendo. Mostly he slags his wife Lydia (Andrea Ferreol) for lacking his worldly smarts. This despite his refusal to acknowledge her affair with cousin Ardalion (Volker Spengler), a sloppy painter and slobby human.  He tells Lydia that “Wall Street collapsed”, and she responds, “were people killed?”. Later, he speaks of a “merger” and she mis-hears, “murder?”. Money is equated with violence, and once Hermann’s business collapses, his psyche goes down with it.

His breakdown is first visualized during a sex scene, when Hermann has his first dissociative episode. Still fully clothed in tasteful smoking robe, he tries to mount Lydia’s Rubenesque figure, but fails to feel physically present. Instead, he sees his split-self sitting across the room, watching his impotent pawing with calm resolve. He had told Lydia that “intelligence would take the bloom off your carnality”, but it’s clear his bravado is an impotent show for his little middle class apartment theater. His space is a brightly-lit, garish labyrinth, illustrated with art-deco ladies cavorting in frosted glass . This rhymes with the dour fishbowl darkness of his other glassed-in space, at the office of his chocolate factory. Situated in the far right-hand corner of the office’s frame, he can see all his exhausted minions as they type away to do his bidding. At home he’s an actor, at work a director.

Needing desperately to escape these spaces and his unmoored mind, he finds a solution in another glassy plain, in a fairground mirror maze (the headlining image). There he sees a confused Felix searching for a way out, and Hermann gives him one, believing him to be his doppelganger. Hermann’s idea was hatched in the cinema, where he had watched a gangster melodrama in which a cop switched places with his criminal brother, ending in both of their deaths. Ignoring the ending, he latches on to an identity switch as his only path to salvation. Their relationship is practical, and Hermann offers Felix cash to switch identities, but their time together is also intensely homoerotic – Hermann trying on one more identity before moving on. In their scenes together Fassbinder and Ballhaus shoot them in very low light, and in the scene of the “switch”, Hermann tenderly gives Felix a manicure and pedicure before sending him on his way, and giving him a bullet in the back. In creating Felix as a new man, he re-asserts his dissipated sensual powers, lost with Lydia, and celebrates it by shooting Felix dead.

Ecstatic at his new found freedom, he fails to realize his dead doppelganger is half a hallucination. Felix existed, but had no visual resemblance to Hermann, who simply created a twin in his mind’s movie theater. Morose and broken in a hotel room, a loose faucet drips rhythmically into a shard of broken porcelain, recalling his middle-class cocktail heroics in the opening shot, when a drop fell into a halved egg. He doesn’t put up a fight when arrested, this gaunt fabulist now believing himself a movie star.

***

This was my write-up of I Only Want You to Love Me (1976) when the Film Comment Selects series screened it earlier this year:

This little-seen Rainer Werner Fassbinder TV movie is an occasionally entrancing exercise in style. The narrative is a failed allegory about a kid who can never please his parents, and so he displaces this insecurity in his marriage by constantly buying his wife presents, running up their credit and driving them into poverty. It’s poised between absurdism and realism but never settles into a coherent tone. He builds a house for his parents, and they forget about it two weeks later, a blackly comic sequence. But then the rest of the film is a starkly realist portrait of a working class family sliding into the poorhouse. It’s held together by Fassbinder’s dynamic compositions, lots of angled mirrors, smoked glass and foreground/background interaction, but in the end it feels like a test case for his future triumphs  [Update: Like Despair two years later!].

THE AGE OF SENSELESS VIOLENCE: THE DAMNED (1963)

October 5, 2010

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Every Friday night this month, TCM is showing a slate of Hammer Horror films, so we at Movie Morlocks have been saluting the venerable production company’s work. Hammer Films, launched in 1934, has an imposingly large filmography, and has just re-started after a 30 year hibernation.  Let Me In (the remake of Let the Right One In (2008)) is its first production to hit U.S. theaters since their 1979 version of The Lady Vanishesstarring Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould. They claim to have 25 projects in preparation, and they just inked a deal to publish horror novels with Arrow (an imprint of Random House). I’m going to dip into their past, though, and focus on the 1963 Joseph Losey film The Damned (re-titled These Are the Damned in the U.S. It airs October 22nd at 11:15PM. It is also available on DVD).

It’s a strange beast, a youth-in-revolt drama that morphs into a sci-fi dystopia fueled by nuclear panic. Based on a story by H.L. Lawrence (The Children of Light), and adapted for the screen by Evan Jones, it stars Macdonald Carey as Simon Welles, a rather dissolute American traveling to the graying resort town of Weymouth, in England (a stand-in for the blacklisted American exile, Joseph Losey). There he meets Joan (Shirley Ann Field), who lures him into a mugging by her brother King’s leather-clad Teddy Boy gang. King (played with neurotic smarminess by Oliver Reed) is a sexually-repressed type, tyrannically controlling his sister’s love-life and channeling his own lust into bits of random violence. Joan runs off with Simon, and they hide out in the cliffs, where they discover a secret government experiment to forge children who could survive a nuclear holocaust. King chases them into the same nightmare.

The experiment is lorded over by Bernard (Alexander Knox), an avuncular and nihilistic scientist convinced that nuclear destruction is unavoidable, and one suspects he thinks necessary as well. He tells Simon after his mugging that the “age of senseless violence has caught up with us too.” This statement, ostensibly about the Teddy Boy gang who jacked up Simon, is also writ large on the geo-political stage. Bernard wants to start the world from scratch with his miracle children, who have survived irradiation, are cold to the touch, and whom he treats as his students, although he locks them inside a cliff.

Joseph Losey was not thrilled to take on the project. He tells Tom Milne in “Losey on Losey” that:

I undertook The Damned, from a novel I thought confused and good, because several other projects had fallen through at that moment and it was a difficult period in my life. This has never been sufficient for me to take on anything; but I did, because I thought the novel spoke passionately and felt passionately about the irresponsible use of the new atomic powers put into the hands of the human race… I knew I was making it for a company distinguished for making pretty horrid horror films. I…was interested in parallel levels of violence. …These were the things I wanted to play on; the science-fiction aspects of the story didn’t interest me at all.

Despite his low opinion of Hammer Films, the company still did all it could to satisfy him. The original script was written by a former collaborator of Losey’s, Ben Barzman, which Columbia had approved, but he rejected it on the set, and moved forward with a new script from Evan Jones, which Denis Meikle says was “written on the hoof” in his A History of Horrors. Producer Tony Hinds left the production because of this radical change, to be replaced by Michael Carreras. But whoever was in charge, only Losey and Jones knew what the story was any longer.

 

Regardless of the chaotic production, and Losey’s demurrals, it’s a striking and unsettling piece of work. It’s the first film he shot in the 2.35:1 ratio (here called HammerScope), but he and DP Arthur Grant had a firm sense of its possibilities. There is the deep focus of the shot that headlines this piece: of the gang randomly destroying an object in the deep background (a mutating mass of violence) while Joan contemplates fleeing in the foreground (an alienated, isolated presence). This composition repeats insistently in the first part of the film, in which Joan latches on to Simon as an escape hatch.  The leathered gang is always shot as a group, usually in long shot, and like automatons whistle and sing their killer theme song, “Black leather”.

Losey’s work in the first half is highly mobile and engaged. The gang straddles a unicorn statue, sneering to the passersby. In the same take the camera glides up the monument to George III, another icon emptied of meaning to these bored youth. Then Losey cuts straight from George to Joan enticing Simon to follow her to his doom.   As in his U.S. masterpiece The Prowler, institutions are losing power to induce obedience to the law, as endemic corruption has undercut any sense of legitimacy.

With the introduction of Bernard’s destructive paranoia, the gang’s distrust of authority seems apt, if not directed very constructively. Their violence is a microcosm of the battles that are threatening to devour the world, and which triggers Bernard to enact his megalomaniacal experiments. He drills his irradiated orphans with military precision – in art, history and literature, an a futile act of cultural preservation. But the kids are ignorant of their fate, and completely cut off from the world outside. They construct “parents” from magazine photos and their own crude drawings. Even if Bernard’s predictions come to pass, it’s unlikely these desperate children could forge the kind of society he envisions.

Losey’s attention seems to flag with the sci-fi sections, stuck with flat cave interiors, rote plot machinations and an overdetermined political allegory dragging things down. The film was a reaction to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a vocal activist group in England, formed in 1957, that agitated for unilateral disarmament by the UK (their logo was adopted later as the worldwide emblem of peace). Bernard’s post-hawkish acceptance of a nuclear war is the ideal straw man for CND to knock down.

The rich imagery of social decay pops up only occasionally in the second half, almost entirely in the sculptures of Bernard’s sometime lover and full-time bohemian, Freya, played with cynical resignation by Viveca Lindfors. She constructs desiccated, unpolished works of  human and animal forms, splayed menacingly against Weymouth’s dreary landscape. A shadow of her bird lands behind Bernard in one of the images above. They are portents of death that everyone ignores, even herself.

While the ending is too pat – an everyone loses wake-up call that now looks forced, the film contains an irreducible creepiness, as well as Losey’s inspired sections of societal rot and cycles of violence that he is able to convey almost entirely through the image. Afterward he would move on to a string of art-house hits with his Harold Pinter adaptations starring Dirk Bogarde, but I don’t think any other of his British productions contain the same uncanny power as The Damned.

VCI. DVD. OMG.

September 7, 2010

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Last week VCI Entertainment released two obscure DVDs into the wild: William Witney’s Apache Rifles (1964, above) and Four in the Morning (1965), which features Judi Dench in her first leading role. Neither are deathless masterpieces, but each are valuable in their own inimitable way. Witney, a prolific director of movie serials for Republic Pictures (he specialized in Roy Rogers and Dick Tracy films, among scores of others), has a small (and growing) auteurist cult, receiving plaudits from Quentin Tarantino in recent years. In 2000, he told the NY Times that, “William Witney is ahead of them all, the one whose movies I can show to anyone and they are just blown away.”

A blunt descendant of The Searchers, it casts Audie Murphy as an Indian-hating U.S. Calvary Captain thrown into a moral quandary when he falls in love with a woman who is half Comanche. Making good use of the desert landscape, Witney starts off with wide shots during Murphy’s vengeful phase, and slowly closes in until the psychologically wrought final sequences take place in intimate two-shots. The first half is shoot outs, the second half fistfights (including a particularly brutal one with L.Q. Jones).

Released the same year as John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, Witney’s film is a smaller-budgeted effort to improve the representation of Native Americans on film, although the Apache “Red Hawk” is played by the Italian-American Michael Dante, and the unfortunate ending has him embracing the tribe’s forced relocation to Texas. But the rest of the film is a no-nonsense actioner that pragmatically diagnoses the causes of ethnic violence. That is, the Apache’s land equals money for the town’s miners, and so a higher standard of living for the community. So the “savagery” of the Native Americans is played up by the town leaders in order to provoke a fight. Murphy negotiated a truce with the Apaches mandating that work cease on the local mines, but it swiftly collapses when an Apache is falsely accused of murder. Self-interest always wins out.

Audie Murphy does not have the tools to navigate the minute psychological turns of his character – his bland handsomeness rather dulls the edge of his supposedly violent nature, tempering the drama of his shift in attitude to the Apaches. Witney surrounds him with capable bit players (Jones, Ken Lynch, Bob Brubaker), and matches cuts on action to keep things moving, a whirling film without a center.  To compare Murphy to John Wayne in The Searchers is to see the greatness of John Wayne.

Four in the Morning is a morose bit of British kitchen sink realism, following three tales of working class woe through a single evening. Judi Dench is a harried young mother tending to her wailing and teething infant while her husband gets loaded (she won the “Most Promising Newcomer” award at the BAFTAs). Ann Lynn plays a lonely nightclub gal who strolls the London docks with the eagerly flirtatious Brian Phelan, and they soon alienate each other with a series of power-shifting mind games. In between these two stories, director Anthony Simmons details the fate of a female corpse that washed ashore, documenting the bureaucratic wrangling to send her to the grave.

As a narrative it’s overdetermined and suffocatingly miserabilist, but the stark B&W images of the mud-spattered London ports by DP Larry Pizer subtly expresses the aimless malaise of its characters (Pizer also shot Mannequin 2: On the Move. It’s a job, after all). The scuffed top of the coffin that carries away the Jane Doe says far more, and carries more metaphorical weight, than the overwrought script. If Simmons trimmed the overly theatrical dialogue and let the camera speak, Four in the Morning might be known as more than a footnote in Dench’s career.

The only relationship between these two films is that, luckily, VCI got their industrious hands on them. Of the innumerable companies that release public domain titles, VCI is the only one to put care into their releases. Apache Rifles, as you can see, looks a bit soft, while Four in the Morning has nice sharpness, but exhibits some digital artifacts while in motion. But they are eminently watchable presentations, considering that VCI is dealing with original materials of questionable quality and working on a low budget. Apache Rifles is also festooned with an interview with Michael Dante, and a short, informative documentary about the film.

VCI started in 1961 as a non-theatrical booking company known as United Films, distributing studio titles to college campuses and ships at sea. In 1976 the owner/founder Bill Blair started up a division he named Video Communications, Inc., and they claim to be the first business to sell films directly to home theater owners. They clearly have a strong sense of film history, having also released Douglas Sirk’s Summer Storm and Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun earlier this year. A rescuer of orphaned films otherwise languishing in flickering boxes on YouTube, VCI is doing cinephilic yeoman’s work, and they should be thus honored.