Mad Love: Beauty and the Beast (1946)

February 14, 2017


Next month Disney will release their live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. It is sure to be sumptuous and well-appointed and all that, but it’s unlikely to approach the carnal magic of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version (streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck), ideal viewing for this Valentine’s Day. Made soon after the close of WWII, with France still lacking many basic supplies, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast conjured the uncanny out of odds and ends: busted cameras, cracked lenses, unstable film stock. Somehow DP Henri Alekan captured the look Cocteau sought, the ““soft gleam of hand-polished old silver.” The fable unspools in this soft gleam, with the elusiveness of a dream you try to remember upon waking. Cocteau wrote in his production diary that, “My method is simple: not to aim at poetry. That must come of its own accord. The mere whispered mention of its name frightens it away. I shall try to build a table. It will be up to you then to eat at it, to examine it or to chop it up for firewood.” For generations audiences have been examining his handmade table, and finding it to be more surreal and darkly romantic every year.

Cocteau’s biographer Francis Steegmuller summarizes the working conditions on the set: “Old cameras jammed, old lenses developed flaws, no two batches of film were alike, electric current failed or was bureaucratically cut off; there was small choice of fabrics for costumes; sheets without patches were sought everywhere for the farmyard laundry scene; the curtains of Beauty’s bed were stolen from the set.” It was made for the Gaumont studio, but before it had fully recovered from the privations of war. So Cocteau had to rely on his crew of artisans to patch up mistakes, find workarounds for shortages and fabricate the fantastic illusions of Beast’s castle out of what was left over. The film is a triumph of ingenuity and craft. The most obvious example is the astonishing makeup used on the Beast (Jean Marais), designed by Hagop Arakelian. The Beast is given a round, open face, with room for Marais’s expressive eyes to emote through the thatch of fur. Two little fangs punch down out of his mouth, undermining his cuteness. Though Belle initially is repulsed by his appearance, she grows to acquire a fondness for the Beast, treating him as a puppy dog. This is only believable if the makeup allows for the actor’s charisma to display itself. Makeup more stiff, or grotesque, would render Belle’s slow infatuation ridiculous. Instead it flows naturally from the film’s dream world. Marais fondly remembered working with the man who applied the mask:

For my mask, we went to Pontet, an elderly gentleman, a real genius, one of those men who make you realize that one can be passionately in love with one’s work whatever it may be. He devoted a great deal of thought to how the mask could be given the look of my own face and not interfere with its mobility. He made a cast and worked on it endlessly. I often went to see him with Moulouk, and the dog taught us things: the unevenness and shagginess and spottiness of the fur that make it seem so alive are due to Moulouk. M. Pontet made my mask like a wig, hair on a webbing base, but in three parts—one down to the eyes, a second as far as the upper lip, and the third to the base of the neck . . . It took me five hours to make up—that meant thirteen hours a day in the studio. Because of the fangs attached to my teeth, all I could eat was mush, and that by the spoonful. Between takes, I scarcely dared open my mouth, lest the makeup become unglued; no one understood what I said, and that exasperated me.

Belle’s character, played with sweetness and light by Josette Day, is aided immeasurably by the costumes of Christian Bérard. The costumes are somehow of their time and outside of it, both practical and fantastical. Cocteau described it as, “[Bérard] makes us realize that a costume is not merely a costume but something dependent on many circumstances which change quickly and compel you to change with them. Men and women dressed by Bérard look as though they lived at a definite place, in a definite period, and not as though they were going to a fancy dress ball.” Belle is initially uncomfortable in her finery the first time the Beast joins her for dinner. She had previously been something of an ascetic, wearing the simple cloth of a maid (which she essentially was for her family). So while initially lost in the piles of tulle, Belle begins to fully embody them, fill them out body and soul, until she is as elegant as the outfits – they enrich each other. When Belle tries to gift one of the Beast’s necklaces to her gold-digging sisters, it turns to a smoking piece of rope. It is only Belle who can wear them, her suit of armor.


The most transfixing sequences in the film remain Belle’s initial explorations of the Beast’s castle. It is here that Cocteau uses the simplest of cinematic tricks to convey images of uncanny magic. He reverses the film so it looks like candelabras are lighting themselves (held by arms whose bodies are obscured by drop cloth). Belle glides down a hallway on a wheeled platform hidden under her dress, as curtains billow around her. Superimpositions place Belle and the Beast in the sky, as they fly away to their lives as King and Queen. The familiarity of these tricks gives them this power, an innocence in both form and story that is sublimely beautiful. Manoel de Oliveira is after something similar in The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), with his own superimposed lovers flying through the air.


It is remarkable how enduring these sequences are, how they retain their mystery. Beast’s castle is magical but also monstrous and menacing, cloaked in darkness and hissing with smoke. The place is charmed with a talking door and a magic mirror, but they speak with the same monotone voice, neither friend nor foe, just some inanimate objects doing a job. It never opens up with the grandeur of the Disney animated version, where the whole kitchen cabinet becomes her cheering section. No, Belle is on her own, left to decide if the Beast is a manipulative monster or a sensitive soul. And in re-watching the film, the ending was more ambiguous than I had remembered. The Beast’s curse is lifted yes, and he turns into a beautiful Prince, but Belle is slightly disappointed in the transformation. For the human Beast looks quite like one of her suitors from the farm at home. Belle hesitates to go away with him – she was looking for an escape but might be going in circles. But, with no other options, she flies into his arms and up into the sky to live as husband and wife, future king and queen. But perhaps not happily ever after.

Bop Gun: Black Sun (1964)

February 7, 2017


With La La Land nominated for fourteen Academy Award nominations and likely to dominate movie chatter in the coming weeks, I wanted to track down some lesser known uses of jazz on film, for those seeking alternatives. Looking through FilmStruck, I came upon Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun (1964) on the Criterion Channel, which is about a jazz-mad squatter living in the rubble of post-war Japan, with a score performed by the Max Roach Quartet. The Roach Quartet is playing squalling compositions by Toshiro Mayuzumi, indicative of how East and West headbutt each other throughout the feature. The Japan as shown in the film is still in ruins after WWII, a ghostly, emptied out space filled with rubble and sewage.

It’s a movie that burns with the violent energy of the obsessed fan – focusing on Mei (Tamio Kawachi), a worshipper at the bebop altar, his bedroom in a bombed out church plastered with album covers of Coltrane, Mingus and Rollins. He even named his dog after Thelonious Monk. This music represents an outsider culture and a model for living, but this intense devotion is also an essentializing one. When Mei finally meets a black man for the first time, he assumes he is, if not a musician, than a jazz enthusiast. Neither are the case, as Gill (Chico Roland) is an American GI on the run for killing a fellow soldier. Gill is in no mood for chatter or the latest Abbey Lincoln platter. With a bullet in his thigh and the MPs on his tail, he croaks out instructions with the beleaguered intensity of a man on death’s door. Mei cannot speak English, and considers Gill’s rejection a personal affront, undermining as it does his vision of black Americans. So the two men battle and bicker across Tokyo as they flout their mutual bigotry and begrudging respect. For as much as they cannot comprehend the other’s background, they both recognize their unsuitability for living in the mainstream of American or Japanese life. They have both been rejected, for their race, their class or their favorite Miles Davis recording period. So they stick together as the cops close in and the dragnet tightens. All they have is each other.


Black Sun is something of an informal sequel to The Warped Ones (1960), a youth-in-revolt jolt that had Tamio Kawachi playing a similarly jazz-besotted and criminally minded character for director Kurahara. In The Warped Ones, Kawachi played Akira, a thief and a thug who mainlines bebop to get him through the day. It was something of a sensation in 1960, and a prime example of the sun tribe, or taiyozoku, genre of youth films. Sun tribe referred to the rebellious generation of post-war Japanese youth, coined from Shintaro Ishihara’s 1955 novel Season of the Sun. Michael Raine further elaborated for Criterion:

The word taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) referred to a postwar generation before it was applied to the cinema. It was coined to describe the rich, bored, and vicious characters populating the pages of writer Shintaro Ishihara’s books, such as Season of the Sun (1955) and Crazed Fruit (1956). Those characters embodied all that Japan’s postwar disillusioned youth desired, and that Japan’s new conservative government feared: absent parents and an excess of money, leisure, and sex.

In Black Sun, which has the same director, writer (Nobuo Yamada) and cinematographer (Mitsuji Kanau) as The Warped Ones, Mei doesn’t have much money, but certainly chooses a life of leisure, spending his days in an abandoned, crumbling church with his dog Monk, listening to the latest jazz albums. The film opens with Mei buying a copy of the new Max Roach album – which he then drops and is immediately stomped on by a haughty bourgeois wife in high heels. That is the closest we get to middle class Japanese society. The rest of the film is set on the fringes, either in Mei’s hidey-hole, a dank jazz club or the industrial zones outside of town.

Mei’s whole life seems to wrapped up in the music. He named his dog after Thelonious Monk, and built him a little home out of an oil drum, complete with concert posters. His squat is plastered with images of his heroes: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus – these men seem to be his ideal of humanity. Mei is wracked with nervous energy when he is not listening to jazz. It is the only thing that can calm him. So when Gill enters his sacred space – a black man in his jazz shrine – he is shocked to discover he is nothing like the men on his walls. Gill is wounded physically and mentally, speaking in gasps and wails, and has no time or interest in the music. Mei is less offended by the machine gun Gill points at him than the fact that Gill does not like jazz. An outrage! Kurahara and his DP Kanau try to convey Mei’s manic energy in the 2.35 frame (which bows a bit at the edges), with bird’s eye views, jittery handheld and fusillades of montage (especially of magazine cutouts of jazz greats – I think this is the only time Charles Mingus’ “The Clown” album cover has received screen time).

Having no reference point for black life outside of the culture of jazz, he cannot process Gill’s individuality. So Mei brazenly uses the “n” word – a racism brought readily to the surface at any undermining of the blackness he had in his head. But since Mei or Gill have no one else to help them, they stick together. At first it is out of inertia and happenstance, but eventually they find common ground in wanting to stay alive. To do so they both embrace and undermine the racial animus in the city. In the most shocking sequence in the movie Mei paints himself in blackface, and Gill in whiteface. Then they drive through town with Gill playing the trumpet to distract the MPs from recognizing him. It is a burlesque of a minstrel show, and disturbing in how impossible it is to parse. Gill is being used as a mascot, playing trumpet in clown makeup (after seeing that Mingus cover art for “The Clown”), so he is both employing and clowning the stereotype of blacks as “natural” musicians.


The film continues on a dizzying trajectory, sinking into the sewers and rising into the sun. Director Kurahara depicts postwar-Japan as a decaying mess of bombed out buildings and burning trash. The world outside them is literally filled with garbage (Mei’s dad is shown burning refuse in the beginning of the film), while their escape leads them through a landfill which is leaking into the nearby canal. Mei digs out a bullet from Gill’s thigh in an underground tunnel below the landfill as the cops search for them above, but it’s a brief respite. The film ends with a bitter image of freedom – Gill floats up, up, and away on a hot air balloon, curling around the sun as the life bleeds out of him. The film doesn’t end as much as burn out.

Killing Them Softly: The Executioner (1963)

January 17, 2017


Over the last few months I have been exploring the films of Luis Garcia Berlanga, an acerbic Spaniard who turned Franco-era fascist bureaucracy into grim comedy. In Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (1953) a poor town dresses up as a romantic Andalusian village to impress impending American visitors, while in Placido (1961) a group of moralizing middle-class businessmen use the homeless as props for a publicity blitz. The grimmest of Berlanga’s works I’ve watched so far, however, is The Executioner (1963) a squirm-inducing death penalty comedy in which murder is just another way to get ahead. Displaying the full range of Berlanga’s gift for caricature, deep-focus joke-building and disgust with the Franco regime, it’s a comedy in which the laughs die in your throat. All three of these works are now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.

In short The Executioner is about an undertaker who marries an executioner’s daughter. The undertaker is José Luis Rodríguez (Nino Manfredi), who works that dead end job while living in a cramped apartment with his brother’s family. Every woman he meets scampers away when they learn about his job. When towing away the corpse of a killer he meets the executioner Amadeo (José Isbert), who, blessed by the state, kills his victims with a garrote. Nearing retirement, Amadeo lives with his daughter Carmen (Emma Penella), who cannot secure a man because they blanch when they hear about her father’s vocation. With no other options on the horizon, José and Carmen get married. But then comes the news that Amadeo’s fancy new state housing will be revoked after his retirement. It can only be secured if José takes on the job of executioner, only José is repulsed and terrified by the proposition. But with a baby on the way and intense familial pressure, José accepts the position anyway, in the hopes that he’ll never have to perform his assigned task. He even takes to breaking up arguments in the street in the hopes of lowering the city’s murder rate. But alas, he is finally called to perform his duty, and despite all his promises to resign, can no longer avoid his fate. It is just easier to get along in this life if you do what the government asks, even if they are asking you to take another’s life. 

Franco’s government recognized the incendiary nature of the film, which was made soon after he had executed three of his political opponents, Communist Party member Julián Grimau and anarchists Francisco Granados Mata and Joaquín Delgado Martínez.. The Spanish ambassador to Italy Alfredo Sanchez Bella, after  seeing it at the Venice Film Festival, wrote a letter to Franco disparaging it as, “one of the greatest libels ever made against Spain, an incredible political pamphlet, not only against the regime but against all society too.” It is rather remarkable that only fifteen minutes were cut by censors, and that it was still released into theaters at all in Spain. Perhaps it was allowed through due to that last phrase, “but against all society too.” Perhaps the censors missed the pointed attack on Franco due to the film’s overall nihilism, in which everyone has their reasons to tacitly endorse murder. Or maybe they just admired its craft.


Despite the brutality of the film’s subject, it can be a very funny movie. This is due to Berlanga’s ability to give every bit part a humorous detail or color, getting jokes out of everyone. There is a an old couple sitting in the background in the park listening to the radio. José and Carmen walk by, and start dancing to the tunes in the foreground. Incensed that José and Carmen are dancing to his music for “free”, he shuts the radio off and stalks away, snapping at them to get their own music. This is a remarkable act of stinginess, to be protective of the sound vibrations emanating inside a public park. How bitter and cantankerous this old duo must be! But they are just another passing character in Berlanga’s parade of short-tempered Spaniards. Another brilliant set piece occurs during José and Carmen’s wedding, a budget affair that uses the scraps from the bourgeois wedding that happened immediately before theirs. So the happy couple walks up a red carpet as it is being rolled up, kneel at an altar as the candles are being snuffed out by an altar boy, and shuffle towards the sole source of light until that, too, is eliminated, and their nuptials are sealed in the dark. It is a brilliant scene of visual gags that cruelly depicts the income inequality that will later force José into his act of violence. The ever-inventive cinematography was shot by the legendary Tonino Delli Colli, a previous collaborator of Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [1966] and Once Upon a Time in the West [1968]) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Decameron, 1971).

José Isbert was a beloved character actor, his persona that of a befuddled rustic. To put him in the role of an executioner was already a provocation, and Isbert ported over his usual charms to the role, making Amadeo a charming figure despite the details of his job. Amadeo is relentlessly upbeat, vigorously nostalgic grandpa, even though what he is nostalgic for are the days when those on death row had more respect for his job. He keeps a framed photo of one of his victims on the wall, and unpacks his garotte equipment on the kitchen table, as if he were a handyman rather than a government sanctioned killer. He is, he claims, only doing a job that needs to get done. If it wasn’t him doing the garroting, it would be someone else. So he might as well take the paycheck. This is the attitude of everyone in the film, passing the buck of morality until there is no one left to pick it up. The final holdout is José, not out of bravery but cowardice. He insists that he will resign before executing the condemned man. But, the warden explains to him, with the way the bureaucracy worked it would take at least a week to find a different executioner, putting the condemned through even more mental torture. The shortest, easiest path through that bureaucratic red tape is to kill the man. Sure it would undermine José’s whole moral compass, but the warden has a prison to run, and Franco had his country to govern. Don’t ask questions, but do your job. What does it matter if you lose your soul along the way.


December 20, 2016

PLACIDO, Spanish poster art, 1961

Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.

It is all set in motion by an elaborate publicity stunt engineered by Spanish kitchenware manufacturer Cocinex, who encourage their customers to “Sit a Poor Person at Your Dinner Table.” All the best houses must have a homeless guest of their own if they want to maintain their status. So all the winos in the area are gathered together for a parade in which they have to stand in the freezing cold. They share the parade cars with so-called “movie stars” from Madrid (to be auctioned off as dinner guests for charity) — but they are really bit players and showgirls.

Stuck in the middle of all this madness is Placido (Casto Sendra, aka “Cassen”), a member of the working poor whose family lives in a public lavatory. He makes what little wages he does with his motorized cart, which he is paying down in installments. The first payment is due Christmas Eve night, but he is working the parade – his cart turned into a makeshift float, a shooting star bursting out of its roof. Placido is trying to get paid, chase down the bill collector, and stave off repossession for a month. Cassen was a popular comedian of stage and small screen, and Berlanga plucked him for his first film role in Placido. He is the film’s stubborn interlocutor, a witness to the madness developing around him who just wants to pay his bill and go home. Cassen plays him with a thin patience, on the verge of snapping but holding himself together all the same. His face is still, but his short angry strides are expressive. He knows he will not receive charity, because he is not aesthetically poor, only materially so. He doesn’t have the alcoholic’s red nose, the torn cap, missing teeth. All he has are a family to feed and a dwindling means of support.

His employer is Gabino Quintanilla (José Luis López Vázquez), a neurasthenic parade organizer who is tasked with solving endless operational problems, from a missing beauty queen to dinner guest heart attacks. He is a curiously opaque character, for while his role is functionary, oiling the rails for Cocinex’s exploitative sideshow, Gabino does his best to get Placido his money. Though it is admittedly not #1 on his list of priorities. Those would be pleasing his own bosses, getting rid of his sinusitis and corralling his fiancée, who has developed a crush on one of the movie stars. Vázquez is a marvel, his performance orchestrating Gabino’s nervous tics into anxious art.

These two are surrounded by legions of caricatured types who pass through quickly but leave evocative traces: a blustery old actor with delusions of fame, a pompadoured radio host who lies with panache and a cadaverous notary who is at a loss of what to do with his drunken dinner guest wino who just wants to sing folk songs. As class lines are crossed the movie ratchets up the chaos – soon Placido’s bill collector chase becomes wrapped up in a deathbed wedding of questionable legality, leading to his festive parade cart being used as a hearse. In the end everyone is back where they started, with Placido having to scheme a day-to-day living, Gabino alone and likely to remain that way and the rest of the proper homes in town cleansed of the poor’s presence so the self-congratulation can begin. The film is a tour-de-force of inertia.

Placido was censored by Franco’s government, but the version that exists still stings, and was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. Berlanga was hard to place politically – he fought against Franco towards the end of the civil war, but in order to curry favor to save his father’s life, he volunteered for Franco’s División Azul, which went to fight in Russia on the side of the Germans. These experiences made him suspicious about everyone – he is something of a cynical realist. After Franco tried to suppress screenings of The Executioner (1963) he was reported to have said, “Berlanga is not a Communist, he is worse than a Communist, he is a bad Spaniard.” Placido shows the bad Spaniard at his most incorrigible, depicting his country as an amoral carnival where presentation trumps reality. As Berlanga described his work: “My films are about failure. They’re about individuals who see a chance to get out of the mess they’re in and set out to grab that chance, but they always fail, because it was an illusion anyway.”