Eternal Recurrence: Revenge (1989)

October 10, 2017

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Revenge (1989) concerns a vengeance that cannot be contained by time. It floats through the centuries, traveling from 17th century Korea to 20th century Sakhalin Island, a much fought over spit of land squabbled over by Russia and Japan. A free-form mass of condensed hate emerges during this period, one which causes the death of a little girl and the mission of her doomed half-brother, who is conceived and raised only to avenge her murder. A major work of what became known as the Kazakh New Wave, Revenge is elusive and incantatory due in part to the script by the Korean-Russian poet Anatoli Kim that does not provide as much of a narrative as it does a striking collage of decay. Add to this the fact that director Ermek Shinarbaev was born in Soviet controlled Kazakhstan, but after Revenge was filmed the Soviet system collapsed and Kazakhstan became a sovereign state. The film reflects the rootlessness, uncertainty and bitterness of no longer having a place to call home. Restored in 2010 thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, it is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion (in Volume 2 of their World Cinema Project series), and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

Shinarbaev studied at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (aka VGIK), the oldest film school in the world, having been founded in 1919. He was there for eleven years (1970 – 1981), but his time there didn’t overlap with the future Kazakh New Wave filmmakers (Serik Aprimov, Sergei Dvortsevoy, Ardak Amirkulov, Amir Karakulov, Darezhan Omirbaev) who all joined a workshop with filmmaker Sergei Soloviev in 1984. Shinarbaev would be lumped in with them anyway, as it was good publicity for all involved. After graduation Shinarbaev spent, as noted in Tanner Tafelski’s essential interview at The Brooklyn Rail, “three years in Kazakhstan trying to do something as a filmmaker,” and after no funding, he “decided to quit forever.”

But then he discovered the work of Anatoli Kim, who he blindly started harassing in an effort to adapt his work. They would make three films together, and their third and final collaboration, Revenge, was buffeted more than usual by bizarre production circumstances. Kim had originally written the script for a famous Russian actor to make, but it had been definitively rejected. Shinarbaev accepted the project sight-unseen, inherently trusting Kim’s talent. But the Russian state funding arm was reluctant to give money to a Kazakh filmmaker working on a Russian subject, so he was only given 30% of his proposed budget, a total of 800,000 rubles. Two directors of photography quit weeks into production, and the assistant DP Sergei Kosmanev would finish the job – astonishing considering the film’s hieratically beautiful lighting, which in his Criterion essay Kent Jones describes as the film’s “awed respect for the sheer power of light.”

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The story is split into seven parts, and the main thread follows the aftermath of a senseless murder of a young girl by her schoolteacher Yan (Nikolai Tacheyev). Seemingly unmotivated, it is an act of pure evil. The girl’s father, Tsai (Kasym Zhakibayev), vows revenge at any cost, and after his first attempt fails, he has a child with a younger woman, vowing that this boy, named Sungu (Aleksandr Pan) will be trained to seek revenge in the face of his father’s failure (this plot is strikingly similar to that of Lady Snowblood [1973], which I wrote about earlier this year). Sungu’s entire life will be focused on the murder of Yan. There is a prologue that lends a cosmic dimension to this tragic tale. It is set in 17th century Korea, during which a trifling king sentences a loyal subject to be beaten to death. His friend, and court poet, is also named Sungu, and is suitably disgusted by this act and requests to leave the kingdom. He is doomed to exile, wishing to depart “as a nothing remembering nothing, to become once again the nothing that means nothing, as I was before my birth.” Then he walks over the horizon into the blazing sun.

Violence follows Sungu across generations, to be reborn in the 19th century as a weapon of vengeance, though still touched with the spirit of poetry. Briefly anyway, for the weight of his mission grows so heavy that he makes his way eastward to Sakhalin Island, the contested spit of land that was split 50/50 between Japan and Russia, with a large population of Korean laborers. Sungu throws himself into a lumber splitting job, hoping to disappear into the routine, among other men trying to disappear in this non-place. But his past emerges as a wound, one that opens up and bleeds him dry. The film in this final section becomes ritualistically symbolic, as if Sungu had anticipated his own humiliation and was acting it out to fulfill a duty. Aleksandr Pan plays him as a blank, a tool rather than a human. The further Sungu heads toward his destiny, the darker the film gets. While his 17th century self departed into the sun, here is expires into darkness. The lights dim, flickering over the ghosts that he passes on his way to Yan’s house, surrounding a vision of his father, as well as the sister he never knew. He travels to Yan’s house the site of final reckoning, where he can collapse at last.

To Have and To Hold: Losing Ground (1982)

October 3, 2017

LOSING GROUND, Seret Scott (R), 1982. ©Milestone Films/courtesy Everett Collection

Losing Ground (1982) is a shape-shifting drama of an imploding marriage, insinuating itself into the diverging head-spaces of a pair of quarreling intellectuals. Shot on a shoestring budget in 1982 by City College of New York professor Kathleen Collins, it was one of the first features directed by a black woman since the 1920s. Distributors didn’t know what to do with a black art film, so after a few festival screenings and an airing on public television, it disappeared from view. Thanks to the efforts of Kathleen Collins’ daughter Nina and Milestone Films, this remarkable feature was finally released into theaters in 2015, and now it’s available on a lovely DVD and Blu-ray, and is streaming on FilmStruck.

Collins wrote and directed Losing Ground, shooting in New York City and Rockland County on a budget of $125,000. The film centers on the relationship between literature professor Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) and her painter husband Victor (Bill Gunn). Sara is cold, calculating and withholding, while Victor is impulsive, bombastic and outgoing. She has strict routines of writing and researching while Victor goes on instinct. His latest instinct is to spend a month in a house upstate so he can paint the local Puerto Rican community (especially, and exclusively, the women). All Sara wants is a library nearby so she can continue researching her book on aesthetics. Victor expects her to figure out study arrangements on the fly, placing his job, his art, before hers. The trip only exacerbates their differences, and neither gives any ground to the other. This is a movie in which neither spouse is completely sympathetic.

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This was Collins’ second feature after the 50-minute The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980, available as an extra on the Losing Ground DVD/Blu-ray), in which she adapted Henry H. Roth’s short story collection The Cruz Chronicles about a Puerto Rican family. Made for only $5,000, Collins recalled it was “terribly hard” to make, but it laid the groundwork for Losing Ground. She made both while a professor at the City College of New York, teaching film history and screenwriting. She had a masters in French literature from the Sorbonne, but a course she took there on adapting literature into film ignited her interest in cinema (previous to her academic career, she was a civil rights activist for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Collins began writing scripts while making a living as an editor for the BBC and a variety of other television stations. But she couldn’t secure any funding for her projects, recalling that “nobody would give any money to a black woman to direct a film. It was probably the most discouraging time of my life.” It was through the encouragement of one of her students, Ronald K. Gray, who would be her cinematographer, that she stubbornly carried on, and was able to scrape together enough funds for Losing Ground.

Victor is working through a personal and artistic crisis, as he shifts from abstract to figural canvases, he spends most of his time with a young dancer he meets in town, his model and mid-life crisis muse. Sara yearns for escape, so accepts an offer from one of her students to act in his student film, a loose adaptation of the “Frankie and Johnnie” lovers-on-the-run folk blues song. It is on that shoot that she enjoys her own awakening.

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Sara asserts control of her environment from the first shot of her lecture on existentialism. She speaks with emphatic enunciation, seeking clarity and directness. After the talk, a student clumsily tries to flirt with her by telling her he hoped her husband appreciated her. Sara pauses, a little shocked at this intrusion of her home life into this workspace – that pause indicates the barriers she erects between the two. Victor is introduced working on a canvas while drinking champagne at their apartment, totally collapsing his art and his life. It is essential for him to intertwine his work and his personal life, as one informs the other. As played by Bill Gunn (a fine filmmaker in his own right – see Ganja and Hess [1973]), Victor has bought into the idea that virility is the key to his inspiration, a machismo that he uses to justify all kinds of indelicate actions. His first act is to suggest to trip upstate, a journey that would aid his artistic practice, and one sure to delay Sara’s book project.

As Victor’s retreat looks more and more like a way for him to have an affair by other means, Sara’s reserve begins to crack. Her carefully drawn barriers between work and life collapse as Victor keeps intruding. She escapes into the film production, letting her hair down and dancing with a charismatic out-of-work actor named Duke (Duane Jones, Night of the Living Dead [1968]). This performance seems to free something in her, and allows her to discover creative ways out of her collapsing marriage. She begins to see Victor for what he is, and in the most brutally honest line in the movie, she spits out, “Don’t you take your dick out like it was artistic, like it was some goddamn paintbrush!” That is a line too harsh and too true to come back from. The film ends in a scene of creative violence, a gunshot in the film-within-a-film providing a definitive end to their affair. Tragically, this would be Collins’s final film, as she would die in 1988 of breast cancer at age 46.

It is thanks to Nina Lorez Collins that we are able to see her mother’s brilliant work. In 2010, DuArt was closing it’s film processing lab, and disposing of their vast archive of material. It included the original 16mm negative of Losing Ground. DuArt contacted Nina, and with the assistance of Milestone Film, the material was preserved and scanned for home video and digital distribution. It could have so easily been trashed at any step along that path, so any viewing of Losing Ground is a gift, and should be welcomed as such.

This Land is Your Land: The Southerner (1945)

July 25, 2017

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Jean Renoir considered The Southerner (1945) to be his “only work of a personal nature carried out in Hollywood.” Adapted from the National Book Award winning novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry, it follows a year in the life of a struggling Texas tenant farmer and his family. A lyrical portrait of do-it-yourself Americanism, it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including one for Best Director (Billy Wilder would win for The Lost Weekend). Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) is passionately, almost irrationally obsessed with farming a plot of land, even if he’s working it for another owner. So he quits his cotton-picking job and enters into a tenant-farming agreement with his boss, tilling a plot left unworked for years. For him it’s a kind of freedom, though he is gambling that he can harvest enough crop to feed his family and begin to save for a better life. He’s a more responsible version of Boudu from Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), both seek a way off the grid and find it in rural sections of the country. But Sam has family responsibilities, while Boudu only answers to himself.

(Full Disclosure: I work for Kino Lorber, who released The Southerner on DVD and Blu-ray)

After the Nazi occupation of France, Renoir secured a United States visa and arrived at a dock in the port of Jersey City on December 31, 1940, where he was greeted by Robert Flaherty, who had facilitated his arrival. His first Hollywood production was Swamp Water (1941), a Georgia outlaw romance, on which he regularly clashed with producer Daryl Zanuck. He wrote of Zanuck: “Our story was feasible, more or less. He’s managed to turn it into something I find totally stupid” (quoted in Jean Renoir: A Biography, by Pascal Merigeau). Though a financial success, Renoir was not pleased with the experience. He then signed with Universal, who assigned him to the Deanna Durbin vehicle The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943). He worked on it for fifty days before he left the production, citing pain in his leg, which was a cover for his unhappiness with the project, though Durbin was ” a nice girl.” He would jump from there to RKO, to direct the Dudley Nicholas penned and produced This Land is Mine (1943), about the resistance movement in an unnamed Nazi-occupied country. Nichols was passionate about the film, which starred Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara and George Sanders, and controlled the production tightly. He didn’t allow the use of a crane, citing budgetary restraints, and disallowed any improvisatory deviation from the script. Renoir directed it, but was not in full control.

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The Southerneron the other hand, proved an ideal film for Renoir because the producers had little interest in it. Robert Hakim, a friend and producer of La Bête humaine (1938), asked Renoir to read a proposed screenplay of Hold August in Your Hand, by Hugo Butler. He was intrigued by the possibility, and after going back to the original novel, agreed to direct if he was allowed to come up with his own script – which would also pass through the hands of Nunnally Johnson and William Faulkner. Zachary Scott later claimed that Faulkner wrote the entire script, but Merigeau’s biography indicates Renoir wrote the majority, and that Faulkner reworked two scenes, on in which Sam Tucker lights the stove for the first time, and the sequence where the family catches a giant catfish. Hakim secured distribution through United Artists, who sent David L. Loew to be a co-producer. This was not a prestige title for Hakim or Loew, and so Renoir was pretty much left alone to recreate a Texas farm at the General Service Studios, located between Santa Monica and Las Palmas.

Initially Joel McCrea and his wife Frances Dee were sought to star, but they eventually cast Zachary Scott and Betty Field as Sam and Nona Tucker, the husband and wife who would try to transform a fallow pile of wood, rocks and dirt into a working farm. Scott spends most of the film shirtless or nearly so, his character exhibiting a serious buttoning phobia.  The lithe Scott is the object of adoration for the women of the town, and for good reason, as every other eligible bachelor is either a drunk or a kindly old timer. The Tuckers are introduced in a massive field picking cotton, when their uncle Pete collapses and with his final breath urges them to farm their own land. Sam takes him at his word, and convinces his boss to become a tenant farmer on one of his disused plots. The house is collapsing, the ground overgrown, and his neighbor Devers (J. Carroll Naish) is a bitter old bastard with a violent streak and a crazed son (a feral Norman Lloyd).

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But the Tucker family, rounded out by son Jot, daughter Daisy, and Granny (an obstreperous Beulah Bondi), perseveres through any and all  disaster, from Jot’s Spring Sickness to a storm that wipes out their crop. It is a movie about endurance and that peculiar brand of insanity called the American Dream, where people seek their fortunes in the face of calamity. For Renoir protagonists Sam and Nona are remarkably straightforward or true, neither touched by Boudu’s wanderlust but similarly attached to the idea of nature-as-freedom. Though in this case Sam is far from free – he is a tenant farmer, still working for a boss, however distant, and his responsibilities lie with his family whose health and happiness depends on the success of this mad enterprise. For it is entirely mad – the farmhouse is a wreck, and the family freezes in the winter and soaks during summer rains. The well is dry so Sam has to ask Devers for fresh water, and he is nursing a variety of wounds against the world, his wife and child having died while he was building up his plot of land. His is the nightmare side of the dream, gaining wealth while losing your life.

Renoir is very adept at blocking out scenes of group revelry, and there is a giddy wedding party sequence that acts as an oasis between emergencies, joining the entire town on bootleg liquor and dance. Sam gets clocked by one of his many disappointed suitors (he’s a one woman man) while Granny nearly lights the place on fire while making tea. Everyone laughs in a blissful state of forgetting. But then a storm hits, and it’s back to disaster management. Though this is mainly a film of static setups, Renoir does utilize his skill with moving camera early on, when the Tuckers first move into their dump. The camera breaks free of the family and enters the home, a free-floating Tucker POV that pokes its head in the door and peeks around corners. Absent of human presence, it presents the house as a blank slate that the Tuckers can fill with all their pain and laughter and failure and fleeting successes. The Southerner is one of Renoir’s most direct, most simple films, and certainly one of his most moving.

ORNETTE: MADE IN AMERICA (1985)

November 29, 2016

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Ornette Coleman’s symphony “Skies of America” was conceived in 1965, recorded in 1972, and performed intermittently in the ensuing decades. It was something of a grand introduction to Coleman’s “harmolodic” compositional method, the term a portmanteau of harmony, motion and melody, and required a full orchestra alongside Coleman’s working jazz quartet. Due to budget limitations the recording eliminated the quartet (Coleman played solo) and cut out a third of the symphony, due to the length limitations of vinyl. Coleman sought to realize the original vision of the piece over the ensuing decades. Shirley Clarke’s hyperkinetic documentary Ornette: Made in America (1985), is an attempt to track the artistic evolution of the project from the sixties into the eighties, using a performance of “Skies of America” in Coleman’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas as the fulcrum. Available to view on FilmStruck, or on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films, it eschews historical context for the immediacy of performance, making it more of a piece for fans rather than newcomers to Coleman’s work. But it is a rare peek into Coleman’s artistic process – which means it is a glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest and most influential artists of the twentieth century.

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Ornette: Made in America was the last completed film by Shirley Clarke, brilliant iconoclast in her own right. She was a choreographer-turned independent filmmaker with an eye for self-destructive showmen, as seen in her narrative debut of heroin-addicted jazzmen, The Connection (1961). She is not able to dig very far under Coleman’s notoriously sphinx-like personality. Prone to speaking in aphorisms and reluctant to speak about his personal life, instead he talks about Buckminster Fuller and his desire to be castrated. A shy man who speaks with a soft-spoken lisp, Coleman radiates a calm mystery that is transfixing whenever he speaks on screen. One wishes for a long fixed camera interview with Coleman, but it’s unlikely he would have ever submitted to such a self-revealing interrogation (as Clarke was able to do with hustler Jason Holliday in Portrait of Jason [1967]). Instead we get a mosaic approach, with Clarke editing to the tempo of the music, in rapid-fire montage that flickers from performances, Buckminster Fuller architecture, and historical re-enactments. It is an attempt to match the film’s style with Coleman’s music, which I found both instructive and irritating. In a concert inside of one of Fuller’s geodesic domes, Clarke matches the angular construction to that of the music, her edits keeping time with the composition. It works less well during interviews, when Coleman’s oracular statements, which are already hard to parse, are cut to shreds in the editing bay.

This was her intent all along, as she told the Los Angeles Times: “‘I wasn’t trying to make a ‘documentary’ of Ornette Coleman,’ said director Shirley Clarke in her room at the Chateau Marmont. ‘I hope nobody goes to this film expecting a record of Ornette’s musical life because that’s not what it is. We wanted people to come away feeling a certain way about somebody and knowing a little bit about his music and its relation to him. Ornette is not violently well known (outside the jazz world) and that had something to do with my choosing to make a film that could appeal to people who just want to see this kind of filmmaking and don’t have to know it’s about Ornette.’”

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The project originated in the late sixties, when Clarke began shooting a documentary about Coleman’s decision to use his 11-year-old son Denardo as the drummer in his trio with bassist Charlie Haden. It fell apart in 1969, “when the producer disliked a partially completed version of the film. Clarke engineered her firing from the project to avoid being liable for $40,000 in expenses and the footage spent the next dozen years gathering dust under people’s beds.” In 1983 the Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center in Fort Worth booked Coleman’s first hometown performance in 25 years – which also happened to be his latest iteration of “Skies of America,” performed with the Fort Worth symphony (conducted by John Giordano) and his current band, Prime Time.  Largely ignored by Fort Worth previously, now he was to receive a key to the city and other celebrations for a local boy done good. When producer Kathelin Hoffman suggested a documentary be made about the event, Coleman suggested that Clarke direct it.

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Clarke dug up all the old film from the abandoned sixties project, and incorporated it into the new footage to create a mini-arc of Coleman’s career, at least since his working relationship with his son Denardo, who he felt had a direct connection to the music – a path uncluttered by education, rather similar to how Bresson used untrained “models” as his actors. Denardo is not pressed on how performing at such a young age affected him, though he clearly adores and cares for his father. This comes through when Denardo discusses his father’s performance space and community center in NYC’s lower east side, on Rivington St. Ornette Coleman bought an abandoned schoolhouse with a vision of turning it into a cultural center – but he kept getting mugged and eventually had his lung punctured during one horrific beating. Denardo fears for his safety as he continues to practice and create in the dangerous crack-infested locale (now one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city). The role of Denardo in Coleman’s band is a fascinating one – from the glimpses we get he is the loving, earthbound anchor to Ornette’s spiritual, ghostly presence. But we only get a brief peek behind the curtain – as the music is the thing. And “Skies of America” is an imposingly complicated construction. Orchestral waves buffet the squall of Prime Time’s improvisations, which both cut against and flow with the symphony’s tide. Before a 1997 performance of the piece, Ben Ratliff described the symphony’s origins for the New York Times:

“It was so cold,” [Coleman] said of that time in Montana. ”It must have been 2 or 3 below zero, and when I saw the American Indians praying, doing their purity ritual, they looked like their bodies were transparent. All of a sudden, I saw the American Indian and the sky as the same people. It taught me something about religion, race, wealth, poverty, commerce. I said: ‘Oh, I’m going to go over to the other side. I only want to be on the side of the consciousness that comes to people naturally.”’

What he came up with was a gargantuan metaphor: just as every person sees the sky his own way, every musician produces a note in his own voice. But the sky, and the notes, are always there, unchanging: the sky has seen war and famine; the notes have seen Gregorian chant and jazz. The intended result was that in ”Skies of America,” the thick bed of the orchestra, with its deep blend of colors in great parallel melodies, would be the sky, and the improvising soloists the Americans.

Clarke doesn’t bother trying to explicate the enormity of Ornette Coleman’s musical project, but instead lets it represent itself. Coleman is a man and a personality who lets the music speak for him, so Clarke does the same in Ornette: Made in America. She lets the symphony play, and it is up to us to listen.

DIRTY POOL: LA CIENAGA (2001)

November 15, 2016

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La Cienaga (2001) translates as “The Swamp”, and it is a fetid, decaying film—its forests overgrown and its characters unwashed. For her feature debut, Lucrecia Martel depicts the dissolution of a middle-class Argentine family through sound and set design. To escape the humid city during the summer, they retreat to their country home, a rotting edifice with a filthy leaf-choked pool. With nothing to do, the adults check out on iced red wine while the children tote rifles through an overgrown forest literally shooting their eyes out. The soundtrack is thick with clinking ice, chairs dragging on cement and distant thunder. Martel emphasizes the moments and sounds in-between actions since her characters have very little interest in performing any actions themselves. Instead, they sit, drink and complain. La Cienaga is a blackly funny portrayal of middle-class self-absorption—of a people so wrapped up in themselves they cannot see that their clothes are dirty, the walls are peeling and the pool is a bacterial broth. It is now streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.

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Martel based the characters in La Ciénaga on the people she knew growing up in the Northern Argentinian city of Salta. She told Haden Guest of BOMB Magazine that “All the stories in La Ciénaga—in all my movies, really—are things that I’ve heard. There are people in my family, in fact, who are very similar to the characters. A great aunt of mine went to see it and when she was leaving she said to her husband, “Gregorio is just like you!” I had made that character thinking of him!” The film does not have a central character, but expands as a series of digressions at “La Mandragora” the country house of Mecha (Graciela Borges) and Gregorio (Martin Adjemian). Both are semi-functional alcoholics who stumble around the environs in a zombie-like daze. In the surreal opening sequence, a drunk Mecha stumbles by the pool and impales herself on a broken tumbler glass. Despite her bleeding out, Gregorio is more concerned with getting another drink, and Mecha that her maid is stealing their sheets. Their children pay them no mind instead turning the grounds into their anything-goes playground. The youngest children roam the knotty, brambly forest like violent colonists shooting at treed dogs and occasionally misfiring on one of their own. Luciano (Sebastian Montagna) loses an eye while the rest get covered in horrendous scratches.

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The older children have their own separate adventures—each age group seems to inhabit different solar systems despite living down the hall. Teenager Momi (Sofia Bertolloto), who refuses to wash her hair, has a crush on the young maid Isabel (Andrea Lopez). Isabel is the only character who seems to have a life as she sneaks off to meet her boyfriend Perro (Fabio Villafane), going to parties in town. She is actually integrated into a society larger than the layout of La Mandragora. In a pivotal sequence, the oldest son, Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu), goes to the same outdoor dance as Isabel and aggressively hits on her. This is an unforgivable invasion of privacy, not only of her personal space, but of the town’s. Jose treats the party as he would Mandragora, as if he owned it. In reprisal, Perro breaks Jose’s nose. An irreparable class border is crossed here, which means only trouble for those on the lower end of the scale.

The movie tries to ape the vibe of a large family living in a small space where one story ends by a sibling barging in and tipping the tale in another direction. Martel described her approach to structure to Haden Guest: “The narrative lines occur in different layers but within the same scene. You can have this character in the foreground, but over here there’s something else going on—an argument between my mom and one of my brothers, for example. In the next scene, that person, who has some problem in school, let’s say, is talking on the phone and maybe my mom is also off-screen. And then here’s another person complaining to my mom, who’s also off-screen. So the themes are superimposed on each other in “layers.” The characters’ movements and the themes get closer and farther away from the camera. The important thing is to define where I’m going to place the focus in order to give one of the layers a place of importance and weave the other things in and out.”

La Cienaga is a powerfully sensorial movie. It almost has a stink to it. Jose is always shirtless and covered in grime, while Momi is perpetually teased for never washing her hair. The summer is a humid one, and Mecha never seems to change out of her nightgown which adheres to her like a mildewed second skin. Gregorio is notable mainly for his hair dye, which has started to stain all of the sheets. Everyone is molting or shedding or disfigured in some way. Mecha’s chest wounds never really heal, Jose’s nose becomes a black-and-blue grotesquerie, while the younger childrens’ faces look like they’ve engaged in nightly knife fights. It is a darkly funny illustration of the family’s dissolution. They are being composted back into the earth.

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All of these expanding and contracting stories in the film hide a secret one— a fable-like horror story of an “African Rat” that scares the children early on. A tale of shape-shifting, in which a domestic pet turns out to be a monster that turns on its owners, it takes on totemic meaning by the end of the film. The rat could stand in for the Spanish colonizers or the apathetic middle-class represented by Mecha and Gregorio, a disease devouring its host from within. It is a story that mesmerizes and haunts the children of the film— leading to a scene of abrupt and terrifying violence. Though hidden in the movies’ layered structure in which no character is followed for too long, a little boy fears that the Rat is barking beyond the stucco wall of his tiny backyard plot. This child, a friend of the family of the rotting Mandragora clan, still retains his innocence enough to believe in scary stories. But the Mandragora clan has no belief left in them. The last shot is a repeat of the first, but instead of the parents lazing about the pool it is the children, set to relive the emptied out lives of their parents.

GEORGIA ON MY MIND: MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (1997)

October 11, 2016

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Clint Eastwood’s improbable late career run continues with Sully, an exquisite multi-perspective rendering of Sully Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency plane landing. Replaying the pivotal moment over and over, from the point-of-view of the plane crew, air traffic controllers, and Coast Guard, Eastwood displays how Sully’s heroism was the result of dozens of professionals working in concert. Eastwood took a similar approach to Midnight in the Garden Of Good and Evil, his box-office failure from 1997. Adapted from the phenomenally popular true crime novel by John Berendt (at the time it was the record holder for longest time spent on the New York Times bestseller list – 216 weeks), it is a portrait of the vices and virtues of an eccentric Savannah community – and how those interlocking society pieces led to the murder of an errand boy. Digressive and character driven, Eastwood’s film spends a leisurely 155 minutes to reach an ambiguous Rashomon-like conclusion. In the wake of Sully’s critical and box office success, it is worth revisiting Midnight, which was just released in a fine-looking Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

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Eastwood became aware of the project when screenwriter John Lee Hancock, who wrote the script for A Perfect World, showed him his stab at an adaptation. The book was considered unfilmable, due to the proliferating number of characters and the labyrinthine details of the plot. Hancock did a lot of condensing, collapsing four murder trials into one while excising characters. According to Eastwood’s interview with Michael David Henry (published in Clint Eastwood: Interviews), Warner Brothers was considering turning the property into an outright comedy, but he convinced them to go with Hancock’s script, which he would direct. Being able to include one of his favorite songwriters (Savannah’s Johnny Mercer) all over the soundtrack probably helped goad him to take the job.

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The story circles around Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), a nouveau riche Savannah socialite and closeted homosexual who kills one of his employees and lovers Billy Hanson (Jude Law) after one of his famed Christmas parties. He claims self defense, but the police believe the scene to have been contrived, and that Billy was shot in cold blood. Into this mystery steps freelance writer John Kelso (John Cusack), in town to churn out a puff piece on the party, but who sees a much bigger story in the killing. Williams grants Kelso access into his world in return for a free exchange of information  – and the two form an uneasy alliance. Kelso is the Berendt and audience stand-in who stumbles around Savannah getting to know the city’s  people, including nightclub singer Mandy (Alison Eastwood, Clint’s daughter), the drag queen MC Lady Chablis (playing herself – she passed away earlier this year), and voodoo priestess Minerva (Irma P. Hall).

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The film was shot on location in Savannah, and starred some of the real people from the story – most significantly Lady Chablis plays herself, and she sashays away with the film. In an interview with The Advocate close to the film’s release, Eastwood discusses the casting of Chablis: “I thought, why go beyond the real thing when the real thing is any good? This is Chablis’ whole life. She lives this day in day out, so she can play it effortlessly. I didn’t want the film to have the usual gay cliches. I wanted the gay element of Savannah to have a reality to it and not be some straight guy’s interpretation.” Lady Chablis had been disappointed in straight guys’ interpretation of the drag lifestyle before, telling The Advocate , “I don’t enjoy movies like To Wong Foo. I do not like anything stereotypical at all. In To Wong Foo, Wesley Snipes was just like big old Wesley Snipes in a dress — making fun of, you know, people who do this very seriously.”

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Lady Chablis is a very serious performer, a slinky acid-tongued presence that seems to bend the film to her will, suspending narrative time to make room for her act. In her scenes with John Cusack, who does his fine hesitating everyman routine, Cusack becomes just another spectator, watching as she extemporizes folk wisdom (“Two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it”), or tears up the dance floor at a black cotillion ball. Eastwood clearly loved working with her, since he grants her whole sequences that have very little to do with the central narrative, including the trip to the cotillion, in which she shows up in a tight sequined gown and dirty dances with one of the straitlaced male guests. Eastwood said he could have “easily dropped” this sequence, “but for me, such details, the way they compose an atmosphere, are what makes the film more than a straight court drama.”

It is perhaps these details, the focus on local color and sense of place, that soured critics and moviegoers. There is little traditional tension and release here. Kevin Spacey’s character is a charismatic, sympathetic figure, a collector of beautiful things whose sexuality made him a curiosity as long as it was an open secret. Once it became an open fact, all his friends faded away. But there is no clarity to his crime, as he offers two different versions of events at different parts in the film, never revealing what is the real truth. It was either self defense or cold blooded murder, but either way he will get his comeuppance in the next life. Spacey has made a career out of these smoothly insinuating egomaniacs, and he is wonderful here, his Williams has compartmentalized every aspect of his life so well he has become naive – shocked that his “friends” leave him after his arrest and seemingly blissfully unaware of the dangers that face him.

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The murder is replayed many times in re-enactments that keep shifting the more the story is told. Unlike Sully there is only one surviving perspective, that of Williams, so there is no certainty, no closure. Where Sully finds heroism in the everyday execution of work, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil only finds mystery. Perhaps it is this ambiguity that doomed Midnight, or maybe it is the film’s loping sprawl, allowing star turns from Lady Chablis and extended cameos from dogs both invisible (a porter takes a long dead canine on a daily stroll) and of local fame – the Georgia Bulldog mascot Uga makes a memorable extended cameo huffing and puffing down a Savannah park.

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Eastwood told Michael David Henry his theory for the film’s failure: “What amuses me is the state of confusion this country’s critics are in. They keep complaining that we are not making character-driven films like in the 1930s and ’40s, but on the other hand they rave about action-driven movies that are devoid of any complexity. I think the influence of television has transformed the way movies are perceived. There is a whole generation, the MTV generation, which wants things to keep rolling all the time. You never linger, you never revisit anything. Whatever the case may be, I can’t worry about it. I filmed the story that I wanted to film.”  I would be curious to hear Eastwood’s opinion on the glut of contemporary “prestige” television programming, and whether that has brought back an appreciation for his kind of character-driven films. In any case it’s a pleasure to watch Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil now, the normal courtroom drama trappings subsumed in an exploration of the gay community of Savannah, Georgia, standing as a tribute to the dynamic presence, humor, and humanity of the late Lady Chablis.

PRINT THE LEGEND: BARBAROSA (1982)

September 6, 2016

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In 1982 Universal Pictures quietly dumped the Willie Nelson-Gary Busey Western Barbarosa into a few drive-ins. After low turn-out, they pulled it from distribution. There may have been more critics to see it than paying customers, and it was a strong notice from Gene Siskel condemning the studio’s treatment of the film that led it back into theaters six months later. The damage was done however, and Barbarosa sunk from view despite accruing a string of rave reviews (from Pauline Kael, Janet Maslin, and Dave Kehr, among others). A new DVD and Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing gives viewers another chance to see this engagingly shambolic revenge film, the first American feature directed by Aussie Fred Schepisi (Roxanne).

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Barbarosa was the first script that photographer, publisher, and poker player William D. Wittliff (who later adapted Lonesome Dove and The Perfect Storm) ever wrote, and per Texas Monthly, “he had never seen a screenplay when he sat down in the early seventies to start writing a movie based on a story his grandfather had told him years before. He didn’t use an outline; he simply wrote down whatever came to him next. Within a month he had a screenplay.” He had been shopping it around for years to no avail, though he had sold others, including one for the TV movie Thaddeus Rose and Eddie (1978), starring Johnny Cash. Willie Nelson had seen Thaddeus and liked it, and it got him on the team of writers for Honeysuckle Rose (which Jerry Schatzberg directed in 1980). So when Barbarosa finally passed Nelson’s desk it didn’t take two pages before he said, “I want to be this guy.” Barbarosa went into production in September of 1980, with Nelson and Gary Busey as co-producers.

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“This guy” is the legend imparted by Wittliff’s grandfather,  an infamous rogue named Barbarosa (Nelson), a thief who falls in love with and marries a Mexican girl, Josephina Zavala (Isela Vega). The Zavala family rejects their union and turns on Barbarosa to drive him away, and in retaliation he shoots off the leg of the Zavala patriarch Don Braulio (Gilbert Roland). And so for decades the Zavala family sends their sons into the Texas wilderness to find and kill Barbarosa, who only seems to grow more elusive. The thief gains a running partner in Karl (Gary Busey), a goofy corn-fed kid on the run from his own unfortunate family feud. But Barbarosa and Karl are not vengeful men, instead revering and loving their implacable opponents. They both dearly wish the could return to their homesteads, but instead are locked in battle against them. As indicated by the PG rating, they try to avoid violence, and the movie proceeds on the avoidance of conflict, a series of comic-pacifist vignettes. They cannot put off their foes forever, though, and Barbarosa’s legacy will be determined by the outcome.

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Though Nelson is not a magnetic screen performer, his vaporousness is appropriate for a character more myth than man. Plus Gary Busey provides all the earthiness you could ask for – he gets great mileage out of his buck teeth and off-kilter waddle. The digressiveness of the film is one of its strengths, and for most of its running time is a pleasant hangout film of Nelson and Busey ribbing each other in the wilds of Texas. But then their respective blood feuds slowly constrict around them, ending their idylls. The Scorpion DVD/BD provides an extensive interview with Schepisi, who laments that Wittliff’s original script was not entirely retained – many sections relating to Barbarosa’s myth were cut out. But there is one pivotal scene that is remains, when Don Braulio gathers his clan around him to tell the tale of Barbarosa, as if reading from scripture. He recounts Barbarosa’s Judas act, marrying Josephina without his consent, and a litany of other crimes, in front of the next generation of Zavalas, who lap up his speech in sweaty close-ups. Don Braulio is perpetrating one myth, while Barbarosa sustains another by staying alive and pulling off extraordinary heists, as if he were a ghost. One harrowing robbery has the great thief nearly buried alive before sneaking away with bags of gold. For the Zavalas he is the devil, while for the rest of the local villagers he is something of a folk hero, one they sing songs about with awe.The real Barbarosa is neither, of course, but he successfully uses that fear to stun his robbery victims. He is aiming to raise enough money to spirit Josephine away from the Zavalas, to a place where neither of them have to work again.

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Fred Schepisi and his DP Ian Baker alternate wide shots and inserts, conveying both the grandeur and the banality of life on the range. The opening credits fade in and out over a time lapse shot of a sunrise over Big Bend National Park in Texas, a picture postcard image. But the film begins with a montage of pricker bushes, close-ups of their blades gashing poor Karl as he bops his way to nowhere in particular. There is a constant shift from micro to macro which the film sustains throughout, from the brute dialogue that surrounds Barbarosa’s life to the ballad the villagers want him to be.

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It is no surprise that this odd, nonviolent Western befuddled the studio. It didn’t help matters when the production company, Marble Arch, sold the rights to Associated Film Distribution, which had an output deal with Universal. Their head of publicity said, “I know we’re going to come out looking like heavies on this, but you test the market for the film’s potential and we found Barbarosa had a lot going against it. It was a Western, and Westerns are the kiss of death. There was no interest, no buzz.”

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There wasn’t any buzz until the reviews starting rolling in, and Gene Siskel praised the film but complained that he had to drive 100 miles away to a drive-in to see it. After Universal’s reluctant expansion to NYC and Los Angeles, the New York Times called it “the best Western in a long while”, Pauline Kael called it “the most spirited and satisfying Western epic in several years – it may seem a little loose at first, but it gets better as it goes along and you get the fresh, crazy hang of it”, and Dave Kehr put it on his top ten list for 1982. It was still not enough to make the film turn a profit, or create much of an audience. The fine-looking DVD and Blu-ray from Scorpion may finally give Barbarosa the audience it deserves.

PAST LIVES: MURIEL, OR THE TIME OF RETURN (1963)

August 16, 2016

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“In general I am not interested in the events themselves but in what happens afterwards. Not the departure, but the return.” – Jean Cayrol

In Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963), the repressed past infiltrates the present like a fungal growth slowly inching across the frame. A pre-World War II lover and a ghostly memory from Algiers fill the gaps in the lives of the Aughain family of Boulogne-sur-mer, a sleepy, emptied out seaside town just waiting to be possessed. Alain Resnais’ follow-up to Last Year at Marienbad (’61), Muriel has a materialist, tactile sense of place, established through rapid montages of everyday objects, whereas Marienbad’s amorphous no-place was shot with languorous long takes. The shift can be attributed to his collaborators, moving from nouveau roman author/filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet on Marienbad to Jean Cayrol on Muriel. Cayrol was a poet and concentration camp survivor who had provided the text for Resnais’ Night and Fog. He has these characters bear the physical weight of history, something that slows their steps and hunches their backs, and this lurch can now be seen on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. 

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In a 1969 interview included on the Criterion disc, Delphine Seyrig compared working on Marienbad to being in a Racine tragedy, “where people stroll around without ever actually having anything to do”, whereas in her role in Muriel she was “faced with something much more concrete…having a package to wrap, or a cigarette to light.” In the latter she plays the dowdy Hélène Aughain, a widowed antiques dealer in Boulogne-sur-mer who lives with her step-son Bernard (the severe-looking Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée), recently discharged from military duty in Algeria. Her life is charted in the rapid close-up montage that begins the film: of doorknobs, tea kettles, purses, and glass fruit centerpieces (25 shots in 23 seconds). All the while a customer is rambling about the chest of drawers she’s seeking. She deals in antiques, objects that project history without the buyer knowing exactly what that history is. Hélène has settled into her role, her dun-colored sweaters and dull brown blouses blending in with the lacquered bookcases and end tables she hawks to customers. Her vices are gambling (poorly) and a balding developer with the vaporous name of Roland de Smoke (Claude Sainval). Seyrig is playing a character decades older than she is, but inhabits the role with a grim, distant fatalism.

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Hélène lives in a house in which all of the furniture is for sale, and with a son that is not hers. Bernard is the son from her dead husband’s previous marriage, and he treats her like a live-in maid more than a mother. He is morose, cynical, and menacing, harboring grudges against the world that placed him in that apartment. He has been marked by a tragedy that occurred during his service in Algiers, one he replays constantly in his head, and later, on tape. Bernard is chillingly embodied by Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, whose sunken cheeks make him look like a rosy-skinned Dracula.

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Their pasts begin to leach into the present with the arrival of Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien) and his niece Françoise (Nita Klein). Alphonse was Hélène’s great love before WWII struck. Or at least she once thought so. She writes him a letter urging him to come visit, expecting nothing less than a miracle, and instead it is just a man. He is debonair and handsome, but the memory of their love and parting don’t match up. Hélène’s memories are more real than the Alphonse in front of her, who is a habitual dissembler and hanger-on. She can’t let go of the memory so she can’t let go of Alphonse, whose presence forces Bernard to move to an old stable house which he has filled with old newsreels from Algiers. Bernard idly flirts with Françoise, but always returns to his true girlfriend, Muriel. It is the name he has given to a phantom, a girl destroyed in Algiers. He was witness and mute, and the guilt is bleeding him apart.

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Cayrol’s script has a precise structure, although it’s not clear while viewing. James Monaco laid it out in his book Alain Resnais: “Cayrol, in the published script, sets up a five act structure. All the action of the film takes place in Boulogne-sur-mer between Saturday, 29 September 1962 and Sunday, 14 October of that year. The first and fifth acts each cover one day, the second and fourth a week each, and the third 2 days precisely in the middle of the time span. Three meals provide focal points at the beginning, middle, and end.”

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The ending meal is a tour-de-force of the past-becoming-present. It turns out Alphonse has abandoned his most recent life, and it has raced to catch up at this dinner. His brother-in-law Ernest (Jean Champion, the spitting image of James Whitmore) emerges from the ether to join the meal. He fully punctures their present and lets the past flood in. After sitting down with his tea he starts singing “Deja”, from a 1928 musical revue. “Time too rushes on/In such a hurry/How insane.” Then, with Hans Werner Henze’s fractured score crashing on the soundtrack, Ernest leans into a ferocious jeremiad against Alphonse that Resnais cuts back and forth with static shots of boxy apartment buildings, a disorienting push-pull effect that confuses space as Ernest is collapsing time. This pushes each character to a breaking point. Alphonse runs away, blending into the crowds of Boulogne, while Hélène, her history seemingly erased, runs off to a friend’s apartment. Bernard’s secrets, in a burst of audio tape laughter, are leaking out around him, and he runs off in a streak of violence. As their past seeks acknowledgment, they disappear. All that’s left is an empty room.

OPIATE OF THE MASSES: SILK STOCKINGS (1957)

August 9, 2016

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Silk Stockings (1957) is remembered less for what it is than what it represents – the end of the Golden Age of MGM musicals. It was adapted from the last musical Cole Porter wrote for the stage, contains Fred Astaire’s final leading performance, and was director Rouben Mamoulian’s farewell feature film. Viewed outside of that melancholic context, the film is a peppy Cold War burlesque that turns the ideological battle of Communism and capitalism into a decision between cold logic and effortless entertainment (guess what wins). Astaire reunites with his Band Wagon co-star Cyd Charisse to solve East-West relations through dance and expensive undergarments. An enormous hit in its time, it was the highest grossing musical to ever play Radio City Music Hall, but its reputation has suffered since. Silk Stockings deserves a better fate than to be an answer to an end-of-career trivia question, and  Warner Archive is helping by releasing it on Blu-ray. It will also screen on TCM this coming Sunday, August 14th, at 6PM.

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Since 1939 Arthur Freed had run a musical production unit inside MGM that made the studio famous, but at the time of Silk Stockings he was no longer under contract. He formed Arthur Freed Productions, and Silk Stockings was the new entity’s first film, to be distributed by MGM. They had invested in the 1955 Broadway musical of the same name, which had a book by George S. Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath, and Abe Burrows and music by Cole Porter. It was itself based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 film Ninotchka and Melchior Lengyel’s story that inspired it, pitting Hollywood producer Steve Canfield  (Astaire) against strait-laced Russian commissar Ninotchka (Cyd Charisse). In the film she is sent to Paris to retrieve composer Peter Boroff (Wim Sonneveld), a Russian icon who Canfield is wooing to write the music for his next film, a “loose” adaptation of War and Peace to star Peggy Dayton (a loopy, wonderful Janis Paige). Canfield has to convince the straitlaced Communist to allow Boroff to participate in this capitalist enterprise, and perhaps open her eyes to the pleasures of the decadent Western lifestyle.

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It essentially transposes the high-art/low-art divide of The Band Wagon onto the Cold War. The pretentious Faust opera of The Band Wagon is now the Russian symphony of Boroff’s “Ode to a Tractor”. Both need to bow to the easy spontaneity of Astaire’s more approachable, personable art. There is little difference in the Freed Unit’s conception of high art and Communism, both are depicted as self-obsessed ideologies that ignore pleasure in favor of sterile, elitist thought.

The character of Ninotchka is broken down from a fiercely independent bureaucrat into a silk-stroking, conspicuously consuming wife. The flirtation that leads to this point is awfully entertaining, including her come-ons like: “The arrangement of your features is not entirely repulsive to me.” Ninotchka trades in her mind for more awareness of her body, most spectacularly in a sinuous pas de deux with Canfield during “All Of Me”.

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The Broadway tunes by Cole Porter were deemed “unacceptably vulgar” by the production code and had to be cleaned up for the film, robbing the meta-Hollywood parody “Stereophonic Sound” of the lines: ““If Zanuck’s latest picture were the good old-fashioned kind, / There’d be no one in front to look at Marilyn’s behind.” Porter would pen two new songs exclusive to the feature: “Fated to be Mated” and the fascinatingly lame rock pastiche”The Ritz Roll and Rock”. Freed had the songs, but he had some difficulty convincing Astaire to return to the screen. The debonair actor was concerned he was too old to play a leading man (he was 57, Charisse was 35), and he had never met Mamoulian before. Freed made the unpopular choice of hiring Rouben Mamoulian to direct, who had done groundbreaking work in the musical at the start of his career with the sound collages of Applause (1929) and Love Me Tonight (1932). But those were long ago, and he hadn’t directed for nearly a decade, not since the Mickey Rooney flop Summer Holiday (1948).

July 1957: Film star dancers Fred Astaire (Frederick Austerlitz) (1899 - 1987) and Cyd Charisse (Tula Ellice Finklea/Lily Norwood) as they appear in 'Silk Stockings' which opens at the Empire Theatre on August 1st 1957.

Freed still had enough weight to push his choice through, and Astaire, was initially reluctant until Mamoulian met him in person. Mamoulian told Astaire that (as quoted in Hugh Fordin’s M-G-M’S GREATEST MUSICALS: THE ARTHUR FREED UNIT), “I see all the young actors today on the screen and none of them can match you in charm or romantic appeal. So, for heaven’s sake get off that peg – you’re not too old!”. He also sketched out his vision for the film to the actor, “I think we can introduce a new element-pantomime-in place of extended dialogue. We’ll have high comedy with the three Russian commissars and a love story that is believable and touching.” Astaire was convinced, writing to Freed that, “I’m so pleased with his viewpoints on the picture.” With star, subject, and director locked in, the film was shot entirely in Culver City from November 1956 to January 1957. Astaire’s dances were choreographed by Hermes Pan, the rest of the Broadway show choreographer Eugene Loring.

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One of the “Three Russian commissars” that Mamoulian mentions is Peter Lorre, on the downswing of his career but still a pungent screen presence. His apparatchik has fallen hard for the Western lifestyle, and is a regular customer at the Folies Bergeres, his froggy face lighting up at its mention.  It is remarkable to watch Lorre’s uncanny features and lumpen legs work their way through a musical sequence – with Loring giving him one little joke to work wit – he does the Russian Cossack dance (the squatting kicks) – but only when propped up on two items (tables, chairs, pianos). He goes at it with a deadpan stare and mechanical efficiency, and is hilarious. I would advise keeping your eyes on Lorre in the long shots inside the CinemaScope frame, he’s always reacting, flinching, or rearing.

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Silk Stockings is a bizarre, fascinating, and perversely entertaining, a film where Cyd Charisse belts out the phrase “bourgeois entertainment” during this most bourgeois of entertainments. It presents Charisse at her most cutting and funny when she is at her most anti-capitalist, and at her most beautiful and free when she has caved to the pleasures of the flesh. The only way out is to go into the movies, as one of the loveliest dances, “Fated to be Mated”, which Porter wrote for the film, has Astaire and Charisse twirl through a series of backlot sets. The song title sounds like a threat, but in the dance and in Mamoulian’s framing they are given balanced space on screen. Equality at last, only in the movies, only until the end of the song.

BLOOD MONEY: TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949)

May 10, 2016

ct-too-late-for-tears-20140828After viewing Too Late For Tears (1949), I would advise all couples against accepting cash-stuffed valises of mysterious origin. Sure, it would be nice to be raised up out of your dead-end middle-class marriage, but there is the whole issue of the money’s source, and the pile-up of bodies that keeping the cash may entail. Too Late For Tears is a vicious little film noir with a flinty, sociopathic performance by Lizabeth Scott, but it had been in public domain purgatory for decades, circulating in muddy transfers under its re-release title Killer Bait. The Film Noir Foundation has lobbied for its restoration for years, and with the help of a Hollywood Foreign Press grant, the UCLA Film and Television Archive was able to reconstruct the film from a 35mm nitrate French dupe negative, a 35mm acetate re-issue print, and a 16mm acetate. The result can be seen in a superb new Blu-ray from Flicker Alley, complete with Alan K. Rode audio commentary and a highly informative essay by Brian Light. Too Late for Tears Poster (2)Too Late For Tears originated in a novel by Roy Huggins, which was first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in April and May of 1947. The rights were snapped up by United States Pictures (who had an output deal with Warner Brothers), but were soon passed on to independent operator Hunt Stromberg, who planned it to be his follow up to his Douglas Sirk thriller Lured, which was opening that September. Stromberg had been one of MGM’s top producers in the 1930s, overseeing The Thin Man series, Best Picture Winner The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and Cukor’s The Women. He started his career in the silents as an independent producer, and he returned to that role in 1943, starting Hunt Stromberg Productions with the Barbara Stanwyck hit Lady in Burlesque. But Lured failed to perform at the box office, and Stromberg struggled to find financing for Too Late For Tears. It took him two years to cobble together an “unusual” deal, per the New York Times, in which Republic Pictures would provide studio facilities and financing for a film that United Artists would distribute. Republic normally distributed their own product, but here would “participate heavily in the profits” instead – though none were in the offing. The desired cast of Joan Crawford and Kirk Douglas failed to materialize, so instead Stromberg brokered yet another deal, borrowing Lizabeth Scott, Don DeFore, and director Byron Haskin from Hal Wallis. Publicity_still_for_-Too_Late_for_Tears-_(1949)Roy Huggins was retained to adapt his book into the screenplay, and according to Brian Light’s essay the film hews closely to the novel. It is about Alan (Arthur Kennedy) and Jane (Lizabeth Scott) Parker, a bickering couple who can’t decide whether to attend a dinner party, so they turn around and go home instead. A blackmail victim mistakenly takes their veering as a signal, and drops a $60,000 payoff bag into their car. Jane is immediately smitten with the valise, her eyes flashing with desire, while buttoned-up Alan wants to turn the cash into the police. With no hesitation Jane starts her manipulations, asking him to keep the money only for a week, just to see if anyone comes looking. Someone does, in the form of Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea), a clumsy, violent chiseler who is determined to shake Jane down for the bag. But Jane plays them both for saps, stringing them along, giving them want they want to hear (and see). She preys on Alan’s insecurities, as in the withering exchange when he says,  “I’ve tried to give you everything you wanted, everything I could.” Jane replies, “Yes, you’ve given me a dozen down payments and installments for the rest of our lives.” toolatefortears_1949_mbdtola_ec006_h_11145_While she plays the dissatisfied wife with Alan, she is going full hardened femme fatale with Danny, a cold, calculating criminal mind. He is instantly attracted to her, and he responds in the only way he knows how, with misogynistic violence, slapping her around. But Jane paws him away like a lion with its prey, and soon he becomes her errand boy, covering up Jane’s increasingly brazen crimes. She pushes him so hard he breaks, ending in a self-pitying puddle of boozy tears. Dan Duryea is the embodiment of hollow machismo, a fast-talker with no backbone to support it. It is a slangy and loose performance – at his most arrogant he pronounces “tedious” as “tee-jus”, bending words to his will. But few can hold up to Jane’s steely-eyed assault. Lizabeth Scott did not think kindly of Too Late For Tears, telling Alan K. Rode that it was her “least favorite film”, but she is truly terrifying in it. It is a cold, unrelenting, and entirely unsympathetic performance. At no point does she beg for the audience’s understanding, you can see the calculation in her eyes from the start. Once she opens that bag, Alan becomes an inconvenience to her, so every smile becomes a sneer the nanosecond he turns his back. Film Noir Poster - Too Late for Tears_01The only guy who can take her down is a doughy interloper who claims to be Alan’s old war buddy. Don (Don DeFore) is in fact a figure from Jane’s past who is seeking revenge for one of her previous trespasses upon the male sex. The supposed hero of the story is also the least interesting, a clean-cut Hardy Boy with no interior life who is present merely to nudge the story along. In the fallen world of the movie, it is jarring to see such a square. One wishes Duryea’s character could have been expanded and become Jane’s main foe – a duel to the death of two dead-enders. But the film was already getting harassed by the censors, so, as ever, we should be grateful for the perversities we are left with.