The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

October 17, 2017

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By 1926 director King Vidor and star John Gilbert were one of MGM’s most bankable duos, thanks to the massive success of their WWI drama The Big Parade (1925). They were immediately thrust into the similarly high-minded period piece La Bohème (1926), and were cast in The Glory Diggers, about the construction of the Panama Canal. But MGM had to drop the latter project, and to keep them working swiftly re-assigned both of them to Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) instead, a tongue-in-cheek romantic adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. It was a departure for the duo, but they proved to have the appropriately light touch, and Gilbert flies across the screen as if sprung from a trampoline. Gilbert pokes fun at his “Great Lover” persona, here pushed into a seducer caricature of Casanovian proportions. Once thought lost, an incomplete print was discovered in France in 2006 and restored by Lobster Films. The third reel is missing, with that section filled in with inter-titles and stills. It is this version that is on DVD from Flicker Alley and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

King Vidor was “a little ashamed” of Bardelys the Magnificent, while John Gilbert considered it to be “Applesauce. With one John Gilbert providing the sauce.” It didn’t have the cachet of their previous films together, though seen today it’s a vibrant and funny film, one adapted from the 1905 novel by Rafael Sabatini. John Gilbert is the title character Bardelys, a womanizing adviser to King Louis XIII, he warns his servant to always let him know which husbands are in town before he schedules his assignations. But even when angry spouses drop in and challenge him to a sword fight, he flatters them so relentlessly (both their looks and their fighting skill), that they go away happy. Bardelys is such a well-known lover that almost every woman in town has been called “dark enchantress” and received a locket with a piece of his hair, meant to symbolize his devotion – they are assembled in bulk by his servants and dispensed with impunity.

The Comte de Châtellerault (Roy D’arcy) has no such luck with women. He was very publicly rejected by Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman, to become Vidor’s wife after filming) before tripping over a precisely placed lunchbox and falling on his behind. The Comte becomes the laughingstock of Paris, and in a fit of pique, he makes an impossible wager with Bardelys – if Bardelys can get Roxalanne to marry him, he will receive all of the Comte’s wealth. And if he fails, Bardelys must give up his entire fortune. Bardelys is in no mood to marry, but accepts the bet anyway, as a test of his desirability. In order to win the anti-monarchy Roxalanne’s heart, Bardelys pretends to be famed revolutionary Lesperon. It is in this guise that Roxalanne’s reserve begins to crack, but soon Bardelys will have the King’s guards on his tale, and it’s more than money he has to put on the line.

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Vidor films with great agility, moving his camera in inventive ways, including dropping down with Bardelys out of a window. The most memorable shot is a ravishingly romantic one, of a canoe ride with Bardelys and Roxalanne, weeping willow branches drooping down over them like a caressing lover. King Vidor recalled the construction of the scene in his memoirs, as quoted in a post on TCM.com:

“I saw a property man wading in the lake pushing an old rowboat he had brought along just in case the director asked for one. He brushed past the lone branch of a weeping willow tree hanging in the water. I asked the head grip: ‘How long will it take you to make a tunnel of willow branches one hundred feet long?’ The leaves threw a moving pattern of light and shadow which played moodily across the faces of the lovers. The arrangement, movement and lighting of the scene were in complete harmony. The total effect was one of magic.” Vidor added that he was often asked about that scene. “They have forgotten the title, the actors, the author, even the melodramatic plot, but the magic of the camera made its indelible impression.”

Also making an impression is Bardelys’s wild escape from the gallows, a remarkably inventive bit of madcap action that has Gilbert springing around with uncanny mobility. In my favorite bit, he is trying to escape back up through a hatch, but a group of soldiers are thrusting their scythes into the opening below him. Taking this as an opportunity, when the scythes all clash together, it forms a kind of floor which Bardelys uses as leverage to leap up and out of the hatch. It is a brilliant bit of stagecraft, and manages to display the wit of Bardelys solely through action.

Arthur Lubin, who plays King Louis XIII, recalled that the set was a happy one, and speculated that “I think the reason King was so well liked was that he left the actors alone.” That convivial atmosphere really comes across on the screen, though Gilbert himself expressed unhappiness with the whole production. He told Alma Whitaker of the Los Angeles Times that “I don’t want to be portraying this incredible ‘magnificent’ stuff. Whenever they talk ‘costume picture’ to me again, I am going to mentally translate all the characters into modern clothes and see how they would work out in say, Pasadena, today. If they don’t ring true, they are out.”

The film was a minor success, bringing back a profit of $135,000 on a cost of $460,000. But for all involved it was a minor affair, a diversion from the other work they’d rather be doing. MGM felt similarly, for when their rights to the Sabatini novel expired in 1936, they destroyed the negative. The movie would have been lost forever if not for the miraculous discovery of that print in France. Thankfully, we can now see the film for what it is, an impressively mounted off-the-cuff adventure that could give Fairbanks a run for his money.

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

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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.

OTHER GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933: GIRL MISSING (1933)

September 20, 2016

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In the first scene of Girl Missing (1933), Guy Kibbee tries to seduce Mary Brian with the line: “I don’t feel fatherly, I feel…hotcha!” And so begins this randy, money-grubbing, mystery-solving pre-code starring Brian and motormouth Glenda Farrell. They are two out-of-work chorus girls indulging in some gold-digging to leach cash from old lechers. But in the wildly convoluted plot that races through 68 minutes, they get roped into the murder of a mafia bookie and the disappearance of a society dame (or so she seems). It’s a trial run for Farrell’s tamer post-code Torchy Blane (nine films between 1937 – 1939) movies, in which she played a sassy investigative newsgal sans sexual innuendo. In Girl Missing Farrell machine-guns her dialogue to mow down con-men, con-women, and anyone else who has the misfortune to walk past her in the frame. It airs tomorrow on TCM at 6:15AM, and is also available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

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Girl Missing was the first film that Robert Florey directed for Warner Brothers after a tendentious run at Universal (he was removed from Frankenstein after extensive pre-production work) and a short one at independent studio K.B.S. Florey’s career continues to fascinate – he was a French born artist who worked as an assistant director to Louis Feuillade, Chaplin and von Sternberg who made a name for himself with the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1928, watch here), directed with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland. A mournful satire of an artist getting chewed up by the movie business, Florey would go on to have a long career in the Bs and then on television. He acclimated to WB’s quick and snappy style, finishing shooting on Girl Missing in thirteen days at a cost of $107,000, per the AFI Catalog. It is no surprise then, that his work pleased studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who sent Florey a memo after viewing an early cut: “a very fine job…in record time. I am certain that the picture will cut up into a fast moving melodrama with a lot of swell comedy and a lot of unusual angles.”

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Zanuck is not far off the mark, although there are no unusual angles – the expressionism that Florey was identified with from his work on Murders in the Rue Morgue is not on display, as there couldn’t have been time for any elaborate set-ups – plus the scenario didn’t lend itself to elaborate stylization. This is a film about speed in front of and behind the camera, and Florey does his job obligingly. He received his next assignment, Ex Lady, within days of finishing Girl Missing. Zanuck called him at 3AM to be at the set in a few hours. Florey responded that he “wanted to know if it was a comedy or drama; who was the star of the film; and perhaps I could get the script…or was it too much to ask?” He finished shooting that in 18 days – and I wrote about that one here.

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Girl Missing concerns the disappearance of Daisy Bradford (Peggy Shannon), who was due to marry the super-rich Henry Gibson (Ben Lyon). Kay Curtis (Glenda Farrell) and June Dale (Mary Brian), are out-of-work chorines not above digging for gold who stumble into a plot to bilk Gibson out his cash.  They recognize Daisy from their hoofer days – she is not the society dame she presented herself as, and a whole conspiracy begins to unravel at their feet. Girl Missing loses its tempo when Farrell is off-screen, which occurs far too much in a film barely over an hour. There is a lot of futzing about with the rich Henry Gibson (a deadly dull Ben Lyon), which had me checking my watch until Farrell stalked back on-screen with her sassy Sherlock Holmes routine.

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Farrell had yet to be paired with her acid-tongued blonde counterpart Joan Blondell, but Mary Brian is game as her gamine accomplice. Their early setup works with Brian as the bait and Farrell as the staller, the one who keeps the old horndogs from getting too handsy. Farrell is the bane of Guy Kibbee’s existence (my main complaint with the film – not enough Kibbee), putting everyone off with pungent dialogue (credited to Ben Markson). There are such gems like, “Working for a living’s old fashioned, but on the other hand so is starving to death.” Or her reaction to Daisy’s nuptials: “When I think of it I could bite a battleship in two.” Joan Blondell described Farrell’s working methods for Hollywood magazine in 1936:

“When she goes into a scene she never follows the script to the sacrifice of her naturalness. She acts just as she would if the same situation arose in her every-day life. In other words, she suits the part to her personality instead of trying to suit her personality to the script. She handles dialogue the same way and never tries to twist her tongue around expressions foreign to her own way of speaking. Before we go into a scene, we go over our lines together and revise them, without changing their meaning, until they fit our mouths.”

Everything is a little snappier when it comes out in Farrell’s nasally purr. We should be thankful she was around for the pre-code era, which gave her the freedom to make these B movies faster, funnier, and more like herself.

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