Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Monday, January 30, 2006

If.... (1968)
Director: Lindsay Anderson

Where would English creatives be without their public schools? So many books and films have come down to us over the years telling us what a rotten life it is for boys in English boarding schools that I have to wonder why the government hasn't shut them all down as an act of mercy. Of course, without the strife of a public school education, the monied classes in England would have precious little to gripe about. So here we are, watching Lindsay Anderson (via his stand-in, Malcolm McDowell) cry into his G&T over his mistreatment at the hands of older boys, dotty instructors, and a corrupt, self-important headmaster, and fantasize his revenge.

Mick Travis (McDowell) is one of three sixth-formers who form a small rebel faction at the fictional College House (played, in part, by Anderson's real alma mater Cheltenham). Travis hangs Life magazine photos of African freedom fighters in their hideaway and listens to African music. Beyond this and hair the upperclassmen think is too long, it's hard to see what harm Travis and his mates are doing. Nonetheless, they are identified as subversives and caned savagely for the good of the school. The militarily disciplined members of College House seem too dense to realize that physical punishment only serves to radicalize these normally rebellious teens beyond reason. What transpires in the way of their revenge reflects the student revolts all over the globe in 1968, the year this film was released.

From the vantage point of 2006, the experimental devices used in If.... seem hopelessly outdated. Mick meets a girl in a cafe after he has stolen a motorcyle and appears to have a sexual encounter with her, after which she, fully clothed, serves coffee to his friend. This undoubted fantasy appears real because of the abrupt cutting so fashionable at the time. She pops up frequently after that in situations where she could only be a fantasy, but the film does not want to acknowledge that she is not really there. What does she symbolize? Damned if I know. Maybe Patty Hearst saw this film and gained some inspiration for her radical slumming, um, I mean, Stockholm Syndrome programming.

Malcolm McDowell emerges as a genuinely scary rebel, and it is easy to see why Stanley Kubrick cast him in the far superior A Clockwork Orange after this breakout performance. However, he never really seemed to be a boy in If...., and that is the one element that would have given this film more poignancy. The younger boys at College House were, in fact, tyrannized and terrorized by their elders. I thought much would be made of the new boy, Jude, when the film introduced him at the beginning. In fact, he disappears into the woodwork when Travis comes on the scene, leaving me confused about what Anderson wanted to accomplish.

The film was shot in color and black and white. There is a story afloat that budgetary constraints caused Anderson to mix stock. This appears not to be true. Lighting problems within the school caused an absence of color in the color stock, and Anderson liked the effect. I don't know whether I think he used the contrast as well as he could have, but as an experiment, I think he did pretty well with it. It certainly catches one's attention, though this well-paced film didn't really need that kind of help.

If.... spoke to an entire generation of fed-up youth, and for that alone it is worth examining. Now, so many years distant from the generation that eschewed being fodder for the military-industrial complex, it seems slightly quaint. Yet, I can imagine a new generation finding this movie and embracing its rebelliousness. War is still with us, and young people are still expected to sacrifice for principles they have been conditioned to uphold. A few restless minds just might find their way to a rooftop and turn on their own kind. At least, I hope so. l

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Magic Flute (Trollflöjten) (1975)
Director: Ingmar Bergman

On January 27, millions of people all over the world celebrated the 250th birthday of one of the greatest composers ever to live, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I listened to my radio, whose signal was made scratchy and fickle by the computer equipment and tall buildings in and around my place of work, to hear the live broadcast feed through my local classical radio station, WFMT-FM, from Salzburg, Austria, the place Mozart called home. Many luminaries of the classical music world were on hand in Salzburg to pay tribute to the glory of Mozart. I was moved to pay "Wolfie" homage in my own way, through film.

Amadeus was an obvious choice for viewing, but I have seen it several times and, frankly, I was more interested in Mozart's music than in a fictional Mozart. Searching IMDb, I found what I was looking for--in spades! The Magic Flute, one of my very favorite pieces of music, had been filmed for television by none other than the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Fascinated by the possibilities of the joyous strains of Mozart's fairytale opera as interpreted by one of cinema's most penetratingly dour directors, I couldn't wait to lay hands on the film. I located a DVD of it--a Criterion disc no less!--at my local library and snatched it up before some other Mozart fan claimed it for the day. Thus armed, I settled down for an evening of basking in the artistry of two geniuses.

Filming works meant for the stage has been problematic for directors throughout the years. Many early films, such as the 1924 silent version of Peter Pan, chose to record the stage play straight on, as though the crew and film's audience were in the auditorium. Other films go to the opposite extreme of "opening up" the play and shooting in natural settings away from stages, such as Kenneth Branagh's 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing. It would have been easy to take the fanciful The Magic Flute into a forest or a castle and give it a more visceral feel, but Bergman chose a hybrid approach. He staged the opera in a replica of Stockholm's Drottningholm Court Theatre, with sets and backdrops made to match that theatre's whimsical creations. At the same time, he filmed the singers largely in close-up as they lipsynched to a soundtrack they recorded first, and edited to create an engaging movie that stands up respectably against the rest of his cinematic output. Thus, we are able to appreciate the medium of opera as it was meant to be seen--on a stage--but enjoy the dramatic possibilities of film, which can envelope us in the action, the better to involve us emotionally in the fate of the central characters.

The story revolves around the quest of Prince Tamino (Josef Köstlinger) to claim Princess Pamina (Irma Urrila) as his own. Pamina's mother, the Queen of the Night (Birgit Nordin), has contrived for Tamino to fall in love with her at first sight by giving him a magic amulet that contains her animated picture. The queen has her own agenda--to gain the return of her daughter before she destroys the world of Pamina's captor, Sarasto (Ulrik Cold), who is the queen's husband and Pamina's father. The queen gives Tamino a magic flute to protect him from Sarastro and also sends her love-starved birdcatcher Papageno (Håkan Hagegård) to help.

The opera mixes fancy with Freemasonry and the traditional hero's quest--which had me thinking how glad I was not to be watching the ponderous Wagner operas (Siegfried or Parsifal, for example) dealing with similar quests. The libretto, translated into Swedish, retains the beautiful poetry and spirit of the original by Emanuel Schikaneder (and unfortunately, the misogyny). Bergman makes an unusual choice of using title cards under certain arias, like sub- or supertitles now common in opera houses but almost unheard of at the time this film was made. I really didn't understand their inclusion, other than that they seemed to emphasize certain lessons Mozart wished to make clear about human nature and its joys and pitfalls. The singers seemed quite amused to be flipping these cards in front of them, and that lent to the general joviality of the presentation.

A less fortunate, but perhaps understandable choice, was to film a huge variety of faces--the audience, apparently--as they listened to the overture. I was reminded of the love Fellini had of faces and how he would audition hundreds of people in a day to find the right faces with which to populate his films. I think Bergman meant to suggest the universality of Mozart, though he chooses a very Swedish-looking child to be the audience representative to whom he cuts at various points of the scenario. In my opinion, these audience shots were unnecessary (but then what does one do about the overture?), but they might have had a welcoming effect in Swedish homes where classical music isn't a high priority. His backstage revelations during the intermission of life imitating art (the singers who play Pamina and Tamino are actually in love; Papageno is actually a layabout) also were unnecessary and revealed a filmmaker a bit uncomfortable relying solely on music to entertain and instruct.

In the end, however, this film is an engrossing version of a delightful classic opera. The voices generally are good in both sound and interpretation, with special kudos to bass Ulrik Cold as Sarastro and tenor Håkan Hagegård, who was an irresistable Papageno. However, this is not the complete opera, and some of the cuts and watered-down characterizations, particularly the threatening characters of the Queen of the Night and the moor Monostatos, weaken the darker elements of the opera and make one wonder what all the fuss is about. But only hardcore opera fans will complain. This Magic Flute still bewitches. l

Thursday, January 26, 2006

King Kong, Then (1933) and Now (2005)

Reviewed by Roderick Heath

Most remakes trample their models with disdain, either for greed or scoring cultural points. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 classic is one of the signal films of my youth, as it has been for so many filmgoers and filmmakers, Peter Jackson included. His new version reeks pleasantly of a kid’s ability to paint in the corners of a film, to expand and create; we’re all, at a certain age, culture jammers. There are many takes on what kind of myth or fantasy King Kong enacts, but the easiest and truest interpretation is as a simple lust for adventure - the idea was conjured by adventurer Cooper whilst seated bored stiff in an office, the sound of a passing airplane caused him to imagine a giant ape seated on the roof of a building swatting at it. This germ, developed by mystery writer Edgar Wallace, was shaped into a script by Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose, who took care to honor and satirize her life between two he-men - once, on a shoot, Cooper had given her a rifle to scare away dangerous animals that might attack; she did have to kill a crocodile. Carl Denham’s clipped, unswerving purpose reflects Cooper’s own drive, used to taking and living with risks.

The new King Kong honors and reconstructs the original, treading a line between patronizing pastiche and dutiful replication. It’s become just as much a private fantasy for Jackson, wife Fran Walsh and third hand Phillipa Boyens as it was for Cooper, Schoedsack and Rose. Ann can no longer fall for a handsome, sexually virile lug like the original Jack Driscoll; now he’s a Clifford Odets-type earnest playwright shanghaied on the voyage to complete his for-the-dough script, an aptly conscionable, anti-commercial balance to Denham’s ends-justifies-means producer. It’s a loaded and fascinating idea, but Driscoll never assumes narrative import - his role as man out of place who makes good is subsumed by noxious actor Burt Baxter (Kyle Chandler), as lover by Kong - and only Adrien Brody’s sublimely understated ardor makes the character work. Jack Black plays Denham with an amusing manic obliviousness, but with none of the original’s dignity and honesty (no matter how the spin on Denham bugs me, Jack Black inhabits this version superbly). Despite this, he still, as in the original where he is both creator and destroyer, gets the film’s final poetic summary; like any classic Hollywood figure, he grasps the arc. That’s another way the original works - it’s a self-reflexive film about a film that explains itself with bookends of cod-poetry to drive home the mythic quality. The camaraderie of the ‘Thirties, the Depression, is notably absent. The crew of the S.S. Venture no longer venture fearlessly and to hell with the danger; there’s ominous warnings, a cautious and skeptical Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), and an ethical ledger-keeper of an assistant (Colin Hanks). The only person willing to acknowledge his sense of adventure is Denham, and for this the film relentlessly vilifies him despite the fact that he’s providing the story we want to watch. All of this adds a moralizing element to the film which is, frankly, a drag.

The 1933 film’s not-very-noble savages led by Noble Johnson are entirely imaginary - they speak a bogus language cited by the original’s Englehorn (Frank Reicher) as resembling that of the Nias Islanders because Cooper figured no one from Nias was ever likely to see the film - satirized by Jackson when a pastiche of their sacrificial dance and coconut-brassiered garishness forms part of the show Denham’s New York show. But they were also touched with the eye and art of anthropologists. It looked like a real little world the film-makers had stumbled into, with solid references (Driscoll compares the Great Wall to Angkor) and details (they have chickens!). The villagers, at first ruthless and menacing, become sympathetic figures as they try to help the heroes keep Kong out and fight to save their world; the outsiders come to understand just why this world looks like it does when Kong comes after them all. This was supposed to be a once-great, now-degenerated society. The remake, to avoid any such trickiness, elides it entirely by reducing the populace to zombified weirdoes whose motivations are not exactly made apparent, and then disappear. There’s no touching upon who or what built the wall and the ruins we see, an odd blind spot in a film that delights in expanding back-story.

When it comes to Kong himself, Jackson gets it just right. Once he arrives, this Kong is a brilliant creation, part raging beast, part lonely sad sack, part dynamic, intelligent warrior wasted on a pathetic dirt pile, he is possibly the greatest invention yet of the digital age, with the indelible work of Andy Serkis as his model - clearly the same expressions, the same face, that drove Gollum are present in Kong’s vital physiognomy. He also plays Lumpy the ship's Cockney cook, a good comic turn as he and Ann form a codependent relationship; she needs him to see off the dinosaurs, he needs her to make it worth it. In the original, Kong is the purest image of isolated masculinity; fascinated by Ann as an uncommon object, he fights his way through a landscape full of filthy monsters, sick beasts, drooling snakes - and that’s before he gets to Manhattan - proving his strength in the primal world, swiftly destroyed by the technical age. Cabot-Jack develops from a misogynist (his first exchange with Ann is quoted in the remake as an example of cheesy dialogue enacted by Baxter and Ann) under Ann’s spell, Armstrong-Denham is left as lonely chorus in his own life, and Kong, masculinity run rampant, is killed. In Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, a financier looks out from his Central Park West apartment on the same New York landscape, and Wolfe notes that he feels none of the soul-crushing awe normal men feel at this scene. Kong, though he rises to the greatest heights, can only conquer a lonely perch, and he is still brought down by the Empire city that belongs to little men in suits, the kind whose heads he ruthlessly rips off in his furious search for his woman. The original’s Kong is a beast who, although he encourages sympathy as a figure of defeated majesty, is hammered down by forces he can’t understand, a symbol of the kind of wildness that must be destroyed to keep the world, noxious as it can be, safe. The modern Kong is an equal but different tragedy because he is, ultimately, a sensitive brute, a cuddly romantic with Ann as much as he’s a tyrant alone. The society that requires his destruction is held entirely in contempt. He stands tall and goes down fighting in style, and his silent, swooning fall to earth is a gloriously sad moment.

The opening scenes of the original, with Denham hunting for a star and finding Ann, have the harsh, low-key realism of any Warner's social-realist picture of the time, its sense of time and place pungent, and it is the film’s great achievement to use reality as the springboard into fantasy. The modern film, paints a Depression-era New York in greater expanse but with a pristine prettiness. Ann of '33 mentions having done extra work for a shuttered studio. The fact she is introduced hardly able to stand from hunger, trying to steal an apple, needed no explanation. Jackson’s Ann - terrifically played by Naomi Watts - is introduced at length as a vaudevillian trying to maintain dignity. Many new characters are added for Jackson’s film, perhaps most effectively Jamie Bell’s charming turn as a young sailor who grows up in the course of this grueling adventure, learns dance moves from Ann, and betters himself by reading Heart of Darkness, coming to realize - in an appropriate metatextual touch - the book, like the events around him, is a nightmare, not an adventure.

Jackson’s Kong is a funny film, an intelligent film, a too-rich panorama. Certain plot turns and additions lead nowhere and spoil the original’s dynamic arc. It is determined to serve up an experience to its audience, but he loses that serial-speed harum-scarum thriller edge. The shtick of darting between monster’s legs and from-the-blue rescues by Englehorn is repetitious (and Cooper was right all along; the icky-crits-in-the-crevasse bit does spoil the pace). Jackson is a very honourable director. He wants to give you your money’s worth in age where too often you want to ask for it back. The original King Kong, a classic too often patronized, is alive as miracle of an almost lost art of cinema construction. Max Steiner’s score drove it with breathless, unashamed hype, and the snatches of it played in this film unfortunately remind us how much better it was than James Newton Howard’s serviceable equivalent. The rhythm of the editing, the efficiency of storytelling, the doubt-free enjoyment of mayhem, slaughter, and cruelty, the nasal voicing of its Depression-era posturing, ties it together into one of the tightest packages in cinema - not to mention its artfulness with visuals inspired by Gustav Dore and the genius of Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation, which the modern effects crew pay tribute to, quoting Kong’s actions as when he tests the snapped jaw of a dead Tyrannosaurus (the film’s SFX set piece, and a classic in itself) and the way he rubs his eyes when gas-bombed. Jackson’s film is an overinflated circus of a film, not a classic, but a great pleasure in our under-ambitious era. He is the sole giant of the digital medium, the only one who can conjure sensual possibilities from it. His King Kong is a magnificent miscalculation. l

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

La Boheme (1926)
Director: King Vidor

In 1926, Lillian Gish was one of the most powerful actresses in Hollywood. She had her pick of directors and costars and could choose any project she wanted to do. She chose La Boheme. It's easy to see why Gish would want the talented Vidor to direct and the handsome and charismatic John Gilbert as her leading man. It's also easy to see why if she wanted to move away from her virginal violet roles, as Robert Osborne claimed she did in his introdution to the film for Turner Classic Movies, she chose to portray Mimi. The Mimi of the original novel Scenes de la Vie de Boheme by Henri Murger was a bright and flirtatious coquette. Even Puccini's opera views Mimi as a bit sassy, though it saves its more voluptuous sauciness for the artists' groupie Musetta.

So what are we to make of Gish's Mimi? Frankly, she is a bore. Although Rodolphe and the foppish Vicomte Paul (Roy D'Arcy) declare her a great beauty (the Vicomte even halts his carriage to try to seduce her when he spots her on the street), Gish was no Greta Garbo. To be a guy magnet, Gish would have had to wipe the perpetual pleading off her face and carry her fragile body with a bit more energy. Instead, she appears to have consumption from the opening scene, and her frolicking at the picnic at which she declares her love for Rodolphe looks more like a child's glee than a would-be bohemian in full abandon. While the Mimi who would have lived in Paris' bohemian Latin Quarter in the 1830s probably would have slept with Rodolphe, Gish's Mimi keeps her chastity well in place. So we have another portrayal of a fragile female innocently in love and Gish no closer to the toughness she was well capable of if we are to judge by her portrayal of a struggling pioneer woman only two years later in The Wind and her shotgun-toting granny in The Night of the Hunter (1955).

Her acting choices have a very unfortunate effect on her fellow players. Gilbert was well-known for burning up the screen with Garbo, but here his ardent admiration looks like overacting. When he spots Mimi with the Vicomte, he flies into a jealous rage and beats her. This scene plays like an elephant swatting a fly and makes Gilbert look as horrifying as the brutal father who savagely beats his daughter (Gish) in the tragic Broken Blossoms (1919). The marvelous Renée Adorée does as much as she can with Musetta, but ends up as a mother figure to Gish instead of the loose free spirit she should have been. The other bohemian artists and musicians, played by Gino Corrado, Edward Everett Horton, and George Hassell, are a welcome, but too scarce, source of relief from this soapy melodrama.

Gish was said to have asked MGM to secure the rights to the Puccini opera to play in theatres as the film was shown. This they were unable to do, but I think this request is a fairly key act in determining how Gish saw the film--as grand opera. In this case, I am reminded of my reactions to some famous operas. Forget the ridiculous story and just listen to the music. Unfortunately, with this La Boheme, we don't have Puccini to console us. l

Monday, January 23, 2006

Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate) (1981)
Director: Bertrand Tavernier

Bertrand Tavernier, one of my favorite directors, has a particular talent for examining men and their work. In such films as 'Round Midnight, Ça Commence Aujourd'hui (It All Starts Today), and L.627, Tavernier looks at a musician, a school teacher, and a narcotics cop, respectively, and their obsessive devotion to their work. Few filmmakers approach the workplace with such a complete sense of how much a man and his occupation fuse into one inseparable entity. His appreciation of this phenomenon helps one understand how a man can drop dead the day after retirement.

Coup de Torchon seems, at first, to be the antithesis of this theme. However, if we look at what its protagonist, Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret, best known to Americans as the projectionist in Cinema Paradiso), says about his work as the sheriff of a small town in French West Africa, we can see that being thwarted in performing his duties may be a major problem for him. This possibility only becomes apparent after the plot thickens.

Bourkassa is a godforsaken nothing of a town that is populated by failures and run by the only man to have come there and made good--and in only two years--a fellow (possibly not even French) named Vanderbrouck (Michel Beaune). Cordier has spent 15 years in this backwater, and spends his days arguing with Vanderbrouck about the placement of a roofless communal latrine directly under his apartment's balcony, trying to get his wife Huguette (Stéphane Audran) to have sex with him, and most important, avoiding having to perform his official duties. "Doing nothing is my job," says Cordier. "I'm paid for it."

Because he appears to be a useless man in a useless town, Cordier is the butt of ridicule by his wife, who rejects his advances to engage in a possibly incestuous relationship with her infantile brother Nono (Eddie Mitchell), two pimps who run the local brothel, and his district commander Chavasson (Guy Marchand). His only pleasures seem to be sex with Rose (Isabelle Huppert) the battered wife of one of the locals and large tumblers of absinthe shared with his only prisoner/servant, Fete Nat (Abdoulaye Diop). Cordier seems the essence of the man who goes along to get along.

One day, he sees the two pimps shooting at the corpses of Africans set adrift in a river as the traditional form of burial. He threatens to arrest them for desecrating graves. They offer him a bribe of 50 francs, which he accepts. Then they shove him in the river and throw the money in after him. Although he resignedly picks up the franc note and climbs out of the water, this humiliation and his apparent sense of offense at how they regard black Africans sends him to see Chavasson. Chavasson gives him a lesson in how to deal with bullies. When they kick, he says, kick back twice as hard. He illustrates this point by kicking Cordier twice through his office doors, to the amusement of some Africans sitting on a bench in the corridor. Chavasson has his new flunky escort Cordier to the train, where Cordier seeks his assurance that Chavasson has him covered. What this means dawns on us and Chavasson in due time.

On the train back to Bourkassa, he meets an attractive French woman named Anne (Irène Skobline). He asks her what she is doing in the country. She replies, "I'm the new schoolteacher of Bourkassa." Strangely stung by her answer, he counters, "That's a fine profession. A vocation, I'd say. Thanks to you, black children will be able to read their daddy's name on French war memorials." We are reminded of how useless he is to his own vocation.

Back in Bourkassa, he escorts Anne to her quarters. He is wearing a sidearm. He asks if it frightens her. She says no. But it causes us some discomfort. We haven't seen him wear it before. Perhaps it was just because he went to see Chavasson, something official he had to do to play the game. Indeed the latter may be true, because even though he uses it to kill the pimps when he encounters them by the river, he says later that he doesn't plan things out. They just occur. It's hard not to believe him, even after he finds a way to pin the murders on Chavasson. These two murders seem to be the emotional culmination of his humiliating, useless existence.

If the first murders are happenstance, the rest are somewhat plotted. Cordier pretends he's finally performing his public duty by putting these tortured souls--for isn't all humanity tortured?--to rest. He starts telling people he's Jesus Christ. What he is and what will become of him is an open question. I don't think it is giving anything away to say that the last scene has him aiming his pistol at some African children, then hesitating to shoot. Cordier is a man we both revile and pity, a lunatic louse with some shred of humanity that torments him at all times.

This movie was based on a novel, Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson. I haven't read the book, but reader reviews of it call it hilarious and the blackest of Thompson's many cynical musings on small town living. Despite what my description implies, this movie is extremely funny. But the murders are not, even when they could be filmed in something of a burlesque. This did not hurt the film, in my opinion. It was the uneven performance of Noiret that had me confused and ultimately unsold on the character of Cordier. Rose's almost nymphomaniacal attraction to him is incomprehensible, though he tells her at one point that she is well suited to being a prostitute (perhaps because her standards are so low?). Noiret also does too good a job of covering up how smart Cordier really is. The change is far too jarring. Although Cordier suggested to me the character of Tom Ripley, the psychopathic killer created by novelist Patricia Highsmith, he just didn't seem as fully fleshed.

Despite its shortcomings, Coup de Torchon is a fascinating film, well worth a look. It shows all the promise Tavernier would realize in his later films. As an added point of interest, Tavernier cowrote the script with Jean Aurenche, one of the main subjects of his wonderful 2002 film Laissez-passer (Safe Conduct), about the French filmmakers who worked under the Germans in occupied France during World War II. l

Sunday, January 22, 2006

"Our Backstreets" #4
What's So Funny?

I'm going to quote a bit from some press reports of a couple of incidents. Please bear with me:

From an Associated Press report picked up by the January 21 Comcast News on-line:

"E! Reporter Rubs Some Celebs Wrong Way
By Solvej Schou

Was it playfully outrageous or just plain offensive? Live from the red carpet at the 63rd annual Golden Globes, E! correspondent Isaac Mizrahi groped Scarlett Johansson's breast, looked down Teri Hatcher's dress, asked Eva Longoria about her pubic hair, and otherwise caught celebrities off-guard. The openly gay fashion designer didn't mean to offend anyone, E! Networks President and CEO Ted Harbert told The Associated Press on Friday. In fact, Mizrahi was just what the network ordered. He's already been assigned to carpet duty at the Academy Awards on March 5."

And this from Alice O'Keeffe of the U.K.'s The Guardian Unlimited:

"There are certain things you can only get away with if you are a very camp, gay fashion designer. It's probably safe to say that having a quick feel of Scarlett Johansson's breasts is one of them. So all credit to Isaac Mizrahi, making his debut appearance as a red carpet interviewer for the American cable channel E! at the Golden Globes last week, for not passing up the opportunity."

OK, now let's consider this high-profile bit of liberty-taking:

USA Today captioned this photo: "With an impromptu smooch, a sex symbol was born at the 75th Academy Awards." I think we can assume that the newly born sex symbol was NOT Halle Berry.

As a journalist, I am offended that a failed fashion designer would even be considered a reporter, but then Mizrahi likely was hired precisely for that reason. A real reporter would not have behaved in this manner and thus would have jeopardized E!'s ability to generate buzz and the money it makes.

When the AP asks if Mizrahi's actions were playfully outrageous or just plain offensive, I ask if those are my only choices. I see sexual harassment at best, simple assault or sexual molestation at worst. Don't let Ms. Johansson's smile fool you. Laughter often is a cover for nervousness. She was caught off-guard, in a highly public place, with a public image to maintain. Women, but especially celebrity women, are under a lot of pressure to be good sports about such things or risk facing retribution. If it were up to me, I would have made E! pay with fines and possibly jail time for encouraging a criminal act. Just because some people think that a gay man can take liberties with a woman's body because there is no possibility of sex involved doesn't make it so.

Which brings us to the famous lip lock, which no one can brush off as a gay man's prank on a straight woman. While I admired Mr. Brody's performance in The Pianist and applauded his richly deserved Oscar, I consider his blindsiding of Ms. Berry sleazy and arrogant, and certainly a publicity stunt. But he was given a pass by almost everyone. Why? Well, he did just win an Oscar and used the normally odious acceptance speech to pay a moving tribute to our fighting men in Iraq. It seemed only fair to give him the benefit of the doubt and call his transgression enthusiasm. Besides, Ms. Berry's husband, who was in the audience, was a real hound dog and so Brody did her a favor by humiliating him. What does it matter that he might have humiliated Ms. Berry, too?

I will be the first to admit that opinions on these incidents are all over the map, and I don't have the final word on truth and justice. I simply call them as I see them. I think the media thrives on controversy and titillation and seizes the opportunity to exploit both whenever possible. Celebrity events are made for such exploitation because the public has a love/hate relationship with stars, mixing idolatry with extreme envy. Wary of the conservative right and its sexual prudishness, media executives may be getting a bit more savvy in how they slip their sleaze against women to us, using a gay man to do it and female writers to talk about it. The fact remains that these incidents show just how far women haven't come, how persistent the thumb of patriarchy is.

I realize there are much more serious issues facing women in the world today, from female infanticide in China to the loss of almost all their civil rights in Iran. In my mind, it is the small, persistent indignities that wear away at a person's ability to fight, and celebrity media is particularly harmful to its largest fan base, adolescent girls and young women. Most young women don't realize they are giving up their power through these media assaults and the creation of Barbie doll idols such as Britney Spears until it's gone. With a greatly weakened women's movement in the United States, I fear for my younger sisters. I know it's still hard for me to stand up to some of the intimidation, and I've been around. I hope that sensible people everywhere will condemn this degradation of women. She's not your daughter, but Ms. Johansson is somebody's daughter. l

E! Entertainment Television is 79.2% owned by a joint venture between subsidiaries of Comcast Corporation and the Walt Disney Company, with Comcast controlling 50.1% and Disney controlling 49.9% of that joint venture. The remaining 20.8% of the company is owned by subsidiaries of Comcast Corporation. To lodge your protest, write to Brian L. Roberts, Chairman & CEO, Comcast Corporation, 1500 Market Street, Philadephia, PA 19102; Robert A. Iger, President and CEO, The Walt Disney Company, 500 S. Buena Vista St., Burbank, CA 91521.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Big Red One: The Reconstruction (1980/2004)
Director: Sam Fuller
Reconstruction: Richard Schickel

The ultimate movie is the war movie. It can legitimately include every major and minor event a human being can undergo and give imaginative audiences who have never had to serve in the military or endure the trauma of war on their own soil a raw-boned, multidimensional experience. Some film makers focus on the tragedy of war; others, on its comic misadventures; still others, on pure action. Then there is Sam Fuller, who does all this and more. Even his most straightforward scenes capture all the drama and absurdity of war with a somewhat distanced, even bemused tone.

In The Big Red One, Sam Fuller’s magnus opus and the film he most wanted to make, there is very little room for sentimentality. Our everyman soldiers are too busy moving from mission to mission with little more thought to what they are doing than to stay alive and kill Germans. Each of our main characters—The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) and the Four Horsemen of the 1st Squad (“The Big Red One”), Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill), Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine), Pvt. Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Pvt. Johnson (Kelly Ward)—is an archetype who barely emerges as an individual from the screen. That’s the point, of course. They’re cannon fodder to the men pulling the strings, and they know it. So are their enemies. Griff, the most individual of the “dogfaces” (as Fuller liked to call the regular grunts of war) because he hasn’t lost his conscience, hesitates to shoot a German on the squad’s first combat engagement. He thinks it is murder. The Sergeant corrects him: “We don’t murder. We kill.” Simple. Hunters and hunted, exchanging places on the battlefield. Nothing personal.

The story of this film is relevant to a reading of the director and the reconstructed version. The original film was more than 3 hours long and was hacked to 113 minutes by Lorimar. Rather than denounce and disown the film, Fuller did full publicity for it and said nothing about what some people would call the emasculation of the film. Interesting enough, one of the scenes cut from the film was of an emasculation. The unfortunate soldier who got in the way of the trip-wire explosive yells joyously when he realizes that he only lost one of his balls and still has his penis. Fuller seems to have presciently wrote and shot what would happen to his greatest accomplishment. He had his battle scars, both from war and from an industry that saw him as a director of B films, and knew what The Sergeant knew. Nothing personal.

Some of the scathing reviews of the film I read on the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) seem to fault Fuller for his nearly dispassionate view of war. He saw it, in part, as his stand-in character, Pvt. Vinci, saw it—material for a book. But there’s more going on than that. A very subtle morality tale is taking place, one that holds ideology in contempt. The Sergeant has only a couple of rules that guide his command: 1) it is ok to kill anyone during a war if they pose a physical threat (“cowards”) or are “the enemy” but not before or after, and 2) children should be treated honestly. His counterpart on the German side, Schroeder (Siegfried Rauch), makes the error of believing in his cause. The truncated version of the film, I understand, reduces Schroeder’s role considerably. The reconstruction puts him back in the center of things, where he is needed to make the point that if you believe in anything during a war, you’ll fail. This is Fuller’s indictment of war, and it’s a scathing one of particular relevance in this new age of holy war-making.

Other complaints leveled at the film were “low” production values, a criticism that leaves me scratching my head. If they weren’t filming in North Africa and Sicily, I surely never would have known. Another reinstated scene shows a thrilling battle on horseback in an ancient coliseum in North Africa, a visually splendid and inventive set piece. It is also an ironic setting, showing a battle raging in a place designed for sports and entertainment. We can’t help but notice that we are entertained by this death match as well, and that puts us in touch with our complicity in the bloodsport that is war.

A third complaint was that the use of a knife was a WWI method unsuited to a movie about WWII. This ignores completely that the film starts with Marvin playing a dogface in France during WWI. He’s the only one in the WWII sequences who uses a knife regularly, and uses it tactically to prevent the enemy from hearing shots being fired. By the Second World War, death was already being delivered in a more mechanistic, impersonal way. Marvin reminds us of what we’re really doing when we set out to destroy an enemy, and he does it without sentiment or, it seems, fear. The liberation of a concentration camp is the only part of the film where emotion really takes the foreground. Remember Pvt. Griff, the one with the conscience? He is allowed to express his feelings in full in this sequence, and The Sergeant has a poignant scene with a small boy without the strength to speak. This film saves its sympathy for innocent civilians caught in the middle of a mess, and brings an antiwar message home in the end.

I consider this film nothing less than a masterpiece, and as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum said at the screening I attended, we all owe Richard Schickel an enormous debt of gratitude for restoring 49 crucial minutes, including 15 new scenes, to this, one of the finest of all war films. l

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Carmen (1983)
Director: Carlos Saura

French author Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella about the free-spirited Spanish Romy (Gypsy) Carmen has inspired more than 50 film adaptations and, famously, one stupendous opera by Georges Bizet that itself has been filmed several times. In this installment of his filmic odyssey through the world of Latin dance (including Blood Wedding and Love the Magician, which form a trilogy with Carmen; Tango; and Flamenco), Spanish director Carlos Saura has collaborated with celebrated dancer Antonio Gades to reinterpret this tragedy in Spanish terms, in a sense, “returning” Carmen to her country from the fictional Spain of Mérimée’s imagination. It is Saura’s genius to effect this transformation by having the lives of his characters imitate the art of Mérimée and Bizet, thus wholly internalizing the legend of Carmen and giving it new, Spanish, life. (The fact that this transformation occurs in a fictional film further complicates the history of Carmen, making this film more a borrowing of intellectual property than a repatriation of a cultural artifact.) Whatever its geopolitical implications may be, as a film, Carmen plays like a palindrome, as Gades, who plays himself, choreographs a flamenco “Carmen” with an unknown dancer named Carmen (Laura del Sol) assuming the title role.

The film opens with Gades auditioning female dancers. His consummately talented assistant Cristina Hoyos, playing herself, leads the hopefuls through some combinations. Gades singles two or three out to perform alone. Commiserating with famed guitarist Paco de Lucía (who composed all the dance music for the film) after the audition, he says, “Some of them are good. But none of them are Carmen.” Then the opening credits roll to the strains of Bizet’s opera.

We move on to a huge dance studio, where dancers are lounging, talking, and trying out steps on each other. The camera pans across de Lucía and other musicians, who are jamming, and settles on Gades, who takes a reel of tape from a messenger, threads it into his tape recorder, and listens. "Pres des remparts de Seville," Bizet’s waltz to be sung by Carmen, flutters on the air and then grows louder and louder as Saura zooms in on Gades’ face, watching him absorb the musical strains and try to visualize them in dance. This device of amplifying Bizet’s score will be used again to telegraph Gades’ state of mind and creative process.

The musicians begin to riff on the aria and come up with a boleras treatment. De Lucía plays it for Antonio, easily convincing him that this version is better suited for dance. Inspired by the new Spanish rendition of the French approximation of Spanish music, Antonio is immediately inspired to begin choreographing his “Carmen.”

Gades' biggest problem is trying to find his Carmen. He goes to a dance school to look at some of the students. He sits in, watching the raw dancers work their castanets and growing restless until one student, Carmen, runs in late to class. He later visits her at the nightclub where she dances for tourists and asks her to audition at his studio. During the audition, Gades guides her through a pas de deux he has choreographed for Carmen’s seduction of Don José. A series of spins brings them close, face to face. Carmen gazes at him with a sweet insolence; he returns a gaze of helpless lust and fascination. Needless to say, she gets the job.

Cristina is disappointed that she did not get the role as she works with the amateurish Carmen, blasting her off the dance floor with her skill. Antonio tries to calm her but further injures her by saying he needs someone younger to play Carmen. Slowly, Carmen finds herself in the role and in her own skills. When we see del Sol show what she actually can do, it's stunning!

The stage is set for the first dance, in the Seville cigarette factory where the fictional Carmen works. A brilliant score that makes full use of the almost animalistic chanting of the flamenco singers works to bring this confrontational dance of insult and murder to its fever pitch, when Carmen picks a knife off a table and slashes at the throat of her coworker, played by Cristina. This and all the dances are the best I’ve ever seen committed to film, disproving Fred Astaire’s theory that dance must be shot full body. In the hands of a master director and cinematographer, tight angles, stark lighting, and circular motion communicate perfectly the enmity of the two women—but which women? The dancers or the characters they are playing?

The blurring of fiction and reality starts with this astonishing dance and continues to play out as Antonio becomes embroiled in an affair with the untrustworthy Carmen in a scenario that parallels Mérimée’s tale. Dances appear that have little to do with the story and everything to do with Gades' jealousy at being confronted by the reality of Carmen's marriage, which she swears she intends to end. A card game involving some of the dancers, Gades, and Carmen's husband devolves into a shouting match and then a furious dance duel between Gades and Carmen's husband--that is, a dancer made up to look exactly like her husband. Saura and Gades, who wrote the script of the film together, delight in putting viewers in among the funhouse mirrors and challenging them to distinguish the real from the reflection.

In the end, Antonio follows Carmen off the dance floor, which she has left in disgust as he, as Don José, has been challenge-dancing the bullfighter for whom the character of Carmen has rejected him. She repulses him, appearing to be speaking to him as Antonio, not Don José. She disappears into a doorway, and we see only Gades pleading and arguing into this hidden space. Gades removes a switchblade from his back pocket and stabs into the space. Carmen crumbles back into the frame. The camera pans back across the dance studio, where the rest of the cast is milling about, indifferent to what has happened in the corner of the room. Was this a “real” event or an invention of Gades the choreographer? In fact, it is neither. It is Saura completing his version of Carmen with a question mark. l

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Director: Raoul Walsh

It is such a pleasure to talk about one of the most charming films ever made, The Strawberry Blonde. The deliriously happy marriage of a cast oozing with chemistry and giving pitch-perfect performances, delicate direction even during the more melodramatic moments, a mise en scene that is at once nostalgic and riotously lively, and some home truths in a smart script make for a very uncomplicated good time that lingers and begs to be repeated.

I don't know how many times I've watched this film. It used to be a staple on broadcast television, and as a young girl with a big crush on James Cagney, I'd set my alarm clock to wake me in the wee hours of the morning if it were being broadcast. (Those were the days before home video, if you younger readers can imagine that, and a film buff had to be more persistent.) It has become one of my all-time favorites, a feel-good film with staying power.

Cagney is at his affectionate best playing Biff Grimes, a scrappy young man trying to find his way in the world at the turn of the 20th century. He spends time taking correspondence course after correspondence course, landing and losing jobs in a single day, and mooning along with half the town's eligible young men after the lovely Virginia Brush, the strawberry blonde of the title. Rita Hayworth is as dishy and adorable in her puffy-sleeved crinoline as she was heartpoundingly sexy in her "Put the Blame on Mame" production number in Gilda. She knows just how to flash her smile, tilt her chin, and swing her skirts to get all heads turning.

Biff's friend Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) has his eye on Virginia, too, but he's too much a man of the world to pant at her heels. He's brash enough to speak to her and set up a date in the park. Virginia insists on bringing a friend to keep the meeting on the up-and-up, and Hugo drags Biff along to play nice with Virginia's friend, falsely luring Biff with the promise that Virginia is to be his date. This will not be the last or most serious lie Hugo tells Biff, but in a way, it is one of the luckiest lies Biff will ever hear.

Hugo and Biff set out for the park in their hired buggy, where they "happen" to run into Virginia and her friend Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland). Hugo and Virginia go dancing about politely, "Aren't you the girl I saw in town today?" "Why I believe I am," until Amy cuts in with "Let's stop all this nonsense. This is a prearranged date, and we all know it. I have to be back at work in an hour, so let's get on with it." Biff leans over to Hugo and whispers, "She's fast." An awkward moment occurs, the horse tries to eat the fake flowers on Virginia's hat, and Hugo spirits Virginia away, much to Biff's consternation. He doesn't like the forward, women's rights advocate that Amy presents herself to be. She implies that her grandmother was one of the original Bloomer Girls and that premarital sex is really no big deal. Thoroughly frightened, Biff runs off, shouting, "Oh, Hugo. HUGO!"

Biff continues his pursuit of Virginia who, to get him off her back, promises him a date in six weeks' time. When Biff arrives punctually for that date, Virginia, of course, has completely forgotten and tells him she must tend to her sick aunt. He is disappointed, planning as he has an evening of vaudeville and dinner at Tony Pastor's. Enticed by the lavish evening, Virginia boldly declares that she made a promise and will keep her word. Biff is on cloud nine as he escorts the beautiful Virginia all over town. Parting with all his money is painful, but then he has her in his arms as they dance to "And The Band Played On." A wink to the conductor changes the lyrics to "Biff Grimes would waltz with the strawberry blonde, and the band played on." Impressed by Biff's being "well-known," Virginia gives him a peck on the cheek. Biff falls head over heels in love on the spot.

Of course, Biff never had a chance. When he waits for Virginia at a prearranged location a short time later, Amy shows up instead. He's annoyed to see her, but crestfallen when he learns that Virginia has eloped with Hugo that afternoon. In an earlier meeting, Biff had tried to take advantage of Amy's professed easy morals by trying to kiss her. Amy was shocked and insulted, revealing her bold act to be a fraud. This revelation softened Biff toward her. When she tries to console Biff over the loss of Virginia, he asks if he might call on her sometime. Thus begins a genuine relationship between the two.

Hugo and Biff go into a construction business together, and Biff's sole job is to sign papers for a lot of shady dealings he knows nothing about. When inferior materials Hugo has been buying cause a building collapse, the law comes down hard on the business. Biff, who signed all the contracts, takes the fall and goes to prison. While in prison, he studies--by correspondence--to become a dentist and sets up a practice when he is released. Coincidentally, one Hugo Barnstead, suffering with a horrible toothache, interrupts his former partner on a Sunday for emergency dental work, not knowing it is Biff he is to see. The temptation to pay back his betrayer with a lethal dose of anesthetic faces Biff when they meet again.

The film is told in flashback, with the phone call to Biff's dental practice beginning the film. It is then we get to see all of the events I have described that lead up to this fateful meeting. Hugo and Virginia, greedy social climbers, were made for each other and play out their transaction of a relationship throughout the film, as Hugo becomes more whiny, pretentious, and ineffectual, and Virginia becomes more demanding, bitter, and shrewish. Amy's veneer of the independent woman melts swiftly, which always saddened me a bit, but she learns to become as genuine as Biff always has been through her love for him. As he is taken to jail in a gentlemanly fashion by his policeman friends, one look to her and a "Wait for me," communicates the world about what a touching and carefully modulated film this is. It goes from comedy to tragedy almost in the blink of an eye, but never without proper motivation having been built in beforehand. Great supporting performances by Alan Hale as Biff's father and George Tobias as Biff's friend Nick provide strong timber to a structurally tight and true film.

I note that The Strawberry Blonde is only available on VHS, but don't let that trouble you. The medium is unimportant in this case because the message is so golden. l

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Duellists (1977)
Director: Ridley Scott

Reviewed by Roderick Heath

Sir Ridley Scott today stands at the forefront of popular cinema with a raft of famous films and also a slew of failures. Scott rode at the vanguard of a generation of British film-makers who stressed a powerful visual style, some trained in television and advertising, many of whom found varying degrees of success in Hollywood. Scott and others owed their chance to impresario producer David Puttnam, who led an ill-fated but impressive campaign by British cinema to reconstitute itself as a global force after a collapse in the early '70s. The Duellists, an opening shot in the campaign, was a Cannes Camera D’Or winner and gained Scott enough attention to land him the job of directing Alien.

For me, his masterpiece is still his debut. As in his best works, it concentrates on a fierce conflict (a common theme, in variations, with Alien, Blade Runner, 1492: The Conquest of Paradise, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Kingdom of Heaven). It is obviously influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in evoking with the texture of still life and landscape paintings of the eighteenth century, and by turning a swashbuckling story inside out by its cool style to become a study in irony. Yet it is its own film and possibly a superior one. At first glance, The Duellists seems disjointed, episodic. We see two men encounter each other at various points in the 15-year campaign across Europe by Napoleon's Grande Army. The film's "chapters," identified by locale and date, convey a sense of the toll of war as friends and faces appear, make their indelible impression, and are lost and forgotten. In this way, The Duellists manages at once to maintain the precision of a short story but also evoke a novel’s expanse.

The narrative, adapted from a Joseph Conrad tale drawn from an apparently true account, begins in Strasbourg in 1800, “the year Napoleon Bonaparte became ruler of France” as Stacy Keach’s narration puts it. Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel, in one of his habitually terrific performances in unexpected parts), a lieutenant in the 7th Hussars, happily skewers the nephew of the town’s mayor in a duel because the man insulted Bonaparte. The formidable General Treillard (Robert Stephens, the first in the film’s pitch-perfect character turns), enraged, orders D’Hubert, a talented young lieutenant (Keith Carradine, whose spindly charm is odd but effective), to find Feraud and place him under house arrest. He finds Feraud at the salon of Madame de Lionne (Jenny Runacre). On their way to Feraud’s billet, D’Hubert trips verbally over Feraud’s fuming, until Feraud directs his rage at D’Hubert and demands satisfaction. Their duel is interrupted when D’Hubert slashes Feraud’s arm, causing Feraud’s mistress (Gay Hamilton) to assault him.

The only similarity between Armand D’Hubert and Gabriel Feraud is that both are exceptionally good, brave soldiers. Armand's efforts are to be rational, reasonable, and he gives competent, intelligent commands. But he is a man who does not understand himself. His self-description, “I’m a temperate man!" is rightly laughed at. His strength of character proves at odds with - and better than - his surface and self-opinion. He cannot be seen to turn tail, or to tell tales, although he considers the quarrel incoherent. D’Hubert has the kind of guts that arise from necessity. Feraud relishes violence. Armand’s physician friend Jacquin (Tom Conti), in considering Feraud’s face, describes perfectly one kind of bigot: "The enemies of reason have a certain blind look." For Feraud, casual provocations disguise deep private resentments, and his psyche feeds on hate. He refers to Armand as a “boudoir soldier” and “staff lackey” where he himself is “man who would ride straight at anything”, a lad who spends his time boozing, screwing and betting. The duel is more than a point of honor; it is his extreme sport, the thing that stirs his blood and gives a mode of self-expression. “You make fighting a duel sound like a pastime in the Garden of Eden!” Armand comments, and finds, for Gabriel, it's true. It is a point of mocking frustration that he cannot destroy a man he considers so weak.

Armand’s mistress is the intensely sexual, sprightly, but subtly melancholy Laura (Diana Quick). She has a standing marriage proposal she passed up to be with Armand, “the only one I ever loved”, when she comes across him in Augsburg. Laura keeps account of her fellow vivandieres and the soldiers they loved, and is used to living with death, maiming, and ruination not as a gallant hussar but as a passive ledger-keeper, the price paid for bathing in soldiers' sexy, spectacular glory. In a second, swift set-to, Armand receives a gash in his chest. Feraud will not shake hands. Armand grows intent and distant ("It takes all one's attention to be ready"), and Laura's love is worn down by the tension. Laura subsequently confronts Feraud in his tent to size him up. He jokingly draws a sword for protection, saying, “I once knew a man who was stabbed by a woman; it gave him the surprise of his life.” She ripostes, “I once knew a woman who was beaten to death by a man. I don’t think it surprised her at all.” Finally, Laura leaves Armand with a pointed message, “Good-bye,” written in lipstick on his saber. In barren despair, Armand throws himself into a brutal match with Feraud where the two men end up wrestling in utter exhaustion on the ground.

Despite the harm to his personal life and the tirades he receives from Gen. Treillard, Armand benefits from his reputation as a “notorious and savage duelist,” as his pal Lacourbe (Alun Armstrong) jests, “All the little girls adore you." Indeed, these soldiers hold the dazzling, outside-the-common status held only for rock and film stars today. Their dueling is considered grand theatre and entertainment. Their next fight, in Lubeck, 1806, is done on horseback, as “a compliment to the cavalry.” Before it, Armand encounters Laura once more; having married and lost her suitor in a typhus epidemic, she has returned as a bitter wretch whom Armand urges to go home. She spitefully hisses, "This time he'll kill you!", which is indeed Armand's belief. As the two men face off on their chargers, and race in for the kill, Scott makes an inspired stylistic shift; a series of flash cuts illuminates Armand’s realizing the evil mark Feraud has left on his life. Armand gains warrior rage and leaves his enemy with his scalp peeled back from his head.

“Six years later," Keach intones, “The Emperor’s Grand Army regrouped for Armageddon.” “Russia, 1812” glimpses grim destruction of a gallant band, who, bitten by frost, starved, without boots, almost inhuman, drag themselves across a frigid landscape. When he catches sight of D'Hubert, Feraud bunks down with two rifles in paranoia even as they huddle and shiver in a blizzard. Against all the codes they have been following, they duel in private. They are only stopped by the intrusion of Cossacks who mock them, and the two men fight off their mutual enemy. Feraud, comfortably animalistic, calmly slices a wounded Cossack’s throat and refuses D’Hubert’s offer of a drink. D’Hubert finds Lacourbe’s frozen, ice-sheathed body, a haunting image of lonely death on the edge of nothingness - and a shot tellingly quoted in Scott's most recent film, Kingdom of Heaven.

“Tours, 1814” finds D’Hubert, retired at the rank of general, living at his sister Leonie's (Meg Wynn Owen) estate, nursing a wounded leg, telling his nephews war stories. Leonie, recognizing the danger and waste of his want to retire from life, sets about matchmaking Armand with the niece of a neighboring Chevalier (Alan Webb), who is happy to be restored to rank but also fussily proud of his acquired trade as a boot-maker. Armand’s romance with Adele (Christina Raines) regenerates him from emaciated, limping burn-out to an ardent lover and serving commander. Bonaparte’s escape from Elba brings ghosts back to his door. A colonel (Edward Fox) brings D’Hubert the offer of a command: “The Emperor is our strength. We belong to him.” “I rather fancied I belonged to myself,” Armand answers icily. Though still insistent on honor and integrity, Armand has rejected grand projects and ethereal ethics. After Waterloo Feraud and his fellows return as glowering, misshapen stumps of men, whilst D’Hubert grows strong, rich, secure, with a command under the King, and expecting a child by his beautiful bride.

In "Paris, 1816," Armand approaches Fouché (Albert Finney), a "virtuoso of survival," a turncoat who has gotten the job of handling political prisoners, to save Feraud from the chopping block, an interference he requests be kept secret. We sense Armand’s personal code of honor will not allow him the shabby security of letting Feraud be taken care of by someone else. Yet we also suspect Armand hopes to settle unfinished business and take on the ugly accusations of the Bonapartists, even as when Feraud, embalmed in imitation of his exiled idol, comes looking for his nemesis, Armand condemns the proposed duel as a farce. Their final encounter, enacted around a ruined castle in a pristine morning wood, sees Feraud’s raw hunter’s cunning almost victorious, but Armand’s wits clinch the moment. As he aims his gun at the goading Feraud, we suddenly leave the scene behind, and next see Armand proceeding home, greeting his worried wife with cheer. And Feraud? We return to him, wandering the woods musing on Armand's declaration, “By every rule of single combat from this moment your life belongs to me, is that not correct? Then I shall simply declare you dead. In all your dealings with me you do me the courtesy to conduct yourself as a dead man. I have submitted to your notions of honor long enough. You will now submit to mine.” Armand no longer plays by Feraud’s bloodthirsty ethic, but his own, as a man of sense who lives and grows. Our last glimpse of Feraud shows him overlooking a flooded valley in a sun-shower. The scene before him would lift most men to a sense of glory - but the final shot, closing in on his implacable, brooding face, shows he is doomed to sink inwards in gravely gnawing spite.

Beyond being a relevant study of a peculiar kind of masculine madness that is most certainly not dead although the mode it expresses itself in here - the duel - is long defunct, The Duellists provides a map for the greatness and failure of the Napoleonic movement in specific and militarism in general; liberating, beautiful, stimulating, monstrous, destructive, dead-ended. Gerald Vaughn-Hughes’ screenplay is a model of subtlety and wit, and Scott’s direction is sublime illustration. None of his later films have scripts as good nor such rigorous control (born partly out of necessity to reduce costs). At times Scott serves up overly-arch shots designed merely to awe with their prettiness. However, the film’s enormous sensual beauty does not weigh it down, and Scott employs hand-held cameras and jump cuts with creative fidelity to the evocation of an inherently more physical age. Cinematographer Frank Tidy is alive to every blade of grass, belt buckle and bead of water. As a last note on the film’s fusion of technical and artistic skill, Howard Blake’s score is a little masterpiece in itself. l

Roderick Heath is an author, poet, and film geek living in the lustrous Blue Mountains outside Sydney, Australia.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Sound of the Mountain (Yama No Oto, 1954)
Director: Mikio Naruse

When it comes to family dramas, no world cinema has produced more genuine geniuses than has Japan's. The Big Three directors who dominated the silent era and middle years of our very young film industry are Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Mikio Naruse, and all were masters of the domestic drama. Indeed, Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) may be the greatest family drama of all time. Later Japanese directors, including Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, also have explored families in several innovative ways, such as Ran (1985), Kurosawa's version of the Shakespeare's royal domestic tragedy King Lear, and Miyazaki's anime instant classic Spirited Away (2001). Sound of the Mountain, based on a novel by Yasunari Kawabata, winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature, is a superb example of the genre the Japanese have claimed for their own.

The film focuses on the Ogata family of Tokyo. The patriach, Shingo (Sô Yamamura), lives with his plump and comfortable wife Yasuko (Teruko Nagaoka), son Shuichi (Ken Uehara) and daughter-in-law Kikuko (Setsuko Hara). Shuichi and Shingo are in business together, but rarely come home from the office together. Shuichi enjoys dance halls and has been embroiled in an affair for some time. The beautiful and modest Kikuko tends to her in-laws' every need, and while the domestic scene isn't blissful, it is in a balance of a sort. When the Ogata's daughter Fusako (Chieko Nakakita) returns to the fold with her two children in tow, vowing never to return to her cheating and feckless husband, Shuichi moves into action to reconcile the couple.

Fusako's return is a turning point for both Shingo and Kikuko, as it brings into focus the truth of their lives. Shingo sees how his passive approach to the lives of his children, which could seem to be a virtue in some eyes, is actually harmful to them both. Kikuko reacts strongly when Fusako complains to her father that he should have given her husband a more thorough going over before he married her off to him. Kikuko finally must admit how desperately unhappy she is, and she and Shingo both must have the courage to ensure her freedom. For, you see, they love each other very much.

I don't mean to imply that there is a romantic love between them, though I'm sure that emotion may be a tiny part of the mix. In fact, it is a closeness that transcends father and daughter to include a deep friendship. Kikuko cares for and waits on Shingo at home, perhaps to substitute for the love she wishes she could lavish on a husband. Shingo, in turn, dotes on her. Tellingly, Yamamura and Hara also starred together in Tokyo Story; their chemistry is a rare and wonderful thing, putting their familial love at the very heart of this heartfelt movie.

It would be easy to dismiss Shuichi as the villian, since Uehara portrays him as a surly cad who treats his wife brusquely. But it becomes evident that somewhere along the line Kikuko rejected him. The couple is childless, though both tell others that each is keen to have children. Shuichi says, "Kikuko is a very fastidious woman. She doesn't want my child." The pain of that statement cut me like a knife. Secondary characters, such as Shuichi's mistress, are given room to tell their story. The disappointments of life, a characteristic sentiment of Naruse films, are revealed with economy, insight, and sympathy.

In the last scene, Kikuko and Shingo meet in a park. Shingo comments on how nice it is to have so much open space available inside Tokyo and marvels at the wide expanse of the lawn. He fumbles for a word to describe it. Kikuko helps out. "Vista," she says. "What does that mean?" asks Shingo. She replies, "Perspective. It makes the area look larger." This is the lesson Shingo and Kikuko both have learned to help them pursue happiness without each other. The vista Naruse has provided us with in Sound of the Mountain can't help but expand us within. This is a film to treasure. l

Sunday, January 15, 2006

"Our Backstreets" #3
Cindy Sherman: Deconstructing Image

While browsing through the television offerings late in December, I came across a new documentary airing on PBS called "Imagining America: Icons of 20th Century American Art." This show grabbed my attention because art has long been a passion of mine. I'd venture to say that I have a closer affinity for it than I do for film (though the two certainly are closely related); if I hadn't chosen writing as my career, I most certainly would have tried to become an artist.

So, I tuned in and learned to my great delight that part of this 2-hour documentary would include a segment on Cindy Sherman, one of my favorite artists whose film stills series leaves me breathless with wonder. Imagine my dismay when we were treated to endless footage of Jackson Pollock dripping paint on canvas, a more than healthy dose of Andy Warhol, and about 3 minutes total of Cindy Sherman, including exactly one sentence from the artist herself. The in-depth PBS description of the program doesn't even mention her name! I guess men are still defining our culture, but at least with this blog, I can try to emulate Sherman by attempting to correct the imbalance.

Cindy Sherman (1954- ) is primarily a conceptual artist with a witty and piercing grasp of the manipulations of media (consider the irony of her art being all but smothered in the PBS show!). Her most famous and recognized works are a series of 70 photographs done from 1977 through 1980 called the "Untitled Film Stills." In each photograph, Sherman depicts herself dressed and made up to appear like characters in B-movie scenes or European art films. Many of the poses seem deliberately overwrought, and it would be tempting to compare them with Roy Lichtenstein's gigantic comic book panels of sob sisters in vulnerable situations. However, Sherman infuses her characters with a level of humanity that helps them break free of their iconic status and convey the pain and uncertainty that was at the core of the lives of real women who were objectified in these films.

A Cindy Sherman photograph dares the viewer to look beyond the surface, to imagine an iconic scenario from the photographed woman's point of view. Those who do not "get" these works of art may not yet be ready to unpeel the packaging of social constructs they have been handed by the world in which they live. It is telling that another artist whose photographs challenge accepted social constructs by portraying homosexual sex and love in all its variety, Robert Mapplethorpe, received avid and creative support from Sherman. When he and Andres Serrano ("Piss Jesus") were censored and lost federal funding in the late 1980s, Sherman produced her "Sex" series--photographs of medical mannequins in sexually explicit poses.

Sherman's later works have an apocalyptic quality to them, appearing to present the world after a nuclear holocast. Debris is mashed chaotically onto dark, disturbed backgrounds. Sherman has been quoted as saying about her nightmare images, "it prepares you psychically for the potential for violence in your own life." My own take is that Sherman was very distressed about the real and cultural wars occurring when she made these images and created an unfiltered look at chaos in her own mind and heart. Her latest projects have returned her to the center of her art, posing portrait-style as comic grotesques. It's nice to see she's gotten a sense of humor back, but I miss the edge toward which she had been creeping.

Just one more thing. Cindy Sherman directed a movie called Office Killer that I just ordered. Look for a review of the film from this singular, important artist of the 20th and 21st centuries. Better yet, look for her art. l

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Godzilla (Gojira, 1954)
Director: Ishirô Honda

A newly restored print of the Japanese version of this staple of the monster movie genre made the art house rounds in 2004 and was released on DVD to honor the 50th anniversary of the film's theatrical debut. This film is a substantial 98 minutes in length and has lost the bad dubbing, distorted storyline, and Raymond Burr character found in the film many of us saw in our youth. In the process, the film is made almost unrecognizable to the memory and a much richer experience to the mature movie buff who wants more than cheesy thrills.

The truncated American version of the film started after the destruction of Tokyo by Godzilla. The original film builds slowly. A fishing boat, then another, then a veritable fleet are burned and swallowed by the ocean off Odo Island. A handful of survivors from these mysterious disasters report that the ocean seemed to explode. Reconnaissance missions and scientific expeditions come up empty. Then an attack occurs on Odo itself. An old island man says it is Godzilla, a creature of the ocean that periodically comes to feast on humans when fish are not in abundant supply.

A paleontologist, played by renowned Japanese actor Takashi Shimura (the lead in Ikiru and other Kurosawa masterpieces), heads a small party to Odo Island where they find footprints that are radioactive. Then Godzilla’s head appears above the peak of a mountain. The paleontologist recognizes it as a dinosaur from the Jurassic period and theorizes that the monster is radioactive because it was able to withstand the effects of the H-bombs tested in its underwater habitat.

The film casts a jaundiced eye at science throughout. Shimura’s character advocates study, not murder, of the beast, even after Godzilla has wrecked some preliminary destruction on the outskirts of Tokyo. The scientist who possesses the means of Godzilla’s destruction initially refuses to reveal it, fearing that it will be used by politicians for destructive purposes in the future. He is the Robert Oppenheimer of Japan. Godzilla itself is a product of H-bombs and has become an instrument of destruction that no longer seems content to prey on a few humans in times of need. The beast’s out-of-control rage seems to represent the destructive power of nature unnaturally tampered with, and humanity grown too prideful.

Numerous references to H-bombs are made, and the real fire bombing of Tokyo is painfully evoked in Godzilla’s rampage. Victims are taken to a hospital, where they are tested with a Geiger counter; some are found to have absorbed lethal levels of radiation. The sickness and death that visited Japan for years after the H-bomb attacks are economically evoked in this short hospital scene. From what I have read, the film’s director, Ishiro Honda, served in the Imperial army, whereby he witnessed the fire bombing and passed through the ruins of Hiroshima. These experiences lend to the authenticity of the events depicted, even as Godzilla and the Tokyo it wrecks are obviously fake.

Godzilla eventually is stopped. Shimura says that there must be other creatures like Godzilla, if this one survived. I chuckled a bit at the obvious sequel set-up, but my laughs were silenced by Shirmura’s fears of what further horrors might await them because of humanity’s tampering with the forces of nature. It showed how sobered Japanese aggression was by annihilation. This film is unusually sad and very Japanese in its reverence for nature and belief in myth. This is a new Godzilla ripe for a new, more mature audience. l

To view a stills storyboard of Godzilla, go to http://www.tokyomonsters.com/images-stills-g54-page1.php

For everything in Japanese movie monsters, go to http://www.tokyomonsters.com

Friday, January 13, 2006

Songs from the Second Floor (2000)
Director: Roy Andersson

After seeing this film at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, I was desperate to see it again. I wrote a couple of letters to New Yorker Films regarding its theatrical and DVD release dates. Sadly, it took more than two years for this 2000 Cannes Jury Prize winner to receive a limited theatrical release in the United States, and another six months for it to come out on DVD. Getting a chance to see this film is almost as arduous a task as life in the bleakly absurd world Roy Andersson has set out for his characters.

Andersson, who began this film in 1996, uses the apocalyptic fears regarding the coming millennium to craft a coal-black comedy about economic collapse in a country that must be Sweden, if we are to judge by his palette of faded yellow and blue, the colors of the Swedish flag, His capitalist implosion is populated by enormously fat, cadaverously thin, and grotesquely misshapen people in a desperate hurry and going nowhere fast.

The bottom feeders of the economic food chain are reduced to massive denial, madness, garbage picking, and arson. One Mother-Courage type decides the millennium is the perfect time to capitalize on the 2000th birthday of Jesus and goes into the crucifix business. "An opportunity like this comes along only once in a thousand years!" he cackles greedily. Ah, the optimism of the seriously deluded! Company managers make for the airports like they are in the middle of the fall of Saigon, while middle managers, left holding the bag, move through the streets as flagellants or worker ants trying to navigate the most massive case of gridlock since the invention of the internal combustion engine.

The tallest pillars of society, the clergy and the government, are the most clueless of all. A desperate furniture salesman named Kalle (Lars Nordh, a nonactor recruited by Andersson in an IKEA store), who has burned down his own store and is trying to bilk his insurance company, goes to confess his misdeeds to his pastor. Unfortunately, the spiritual adviser is busy consulting with his real estate broker about the imminent loss of hundreds of thousands because he hasn't been able to sell his house, on the market for 4 years and counting.

A meeting of cabinet ministers is near comatose while the finance minister fumbles through a folder of papers looking for the missing short-range economic forecast and the rest of the cabinet passes around a crystal ball. The meeting adjourns suddenly when one of the ministers claims the building across the way is moving and the assembled run to the window to watch. The government's final measure to remedy the economic crisis is human sacrifice. The only man who seems to have money is 100 years old, living in a steel crib in a posh nursing home, and insensate to the high-ranking military men who have come to bid him a happy birthday.

This description shows the high absurdity of this morbid film, and I haven't even gotten into the small details that keep the laughs sharp and constant. A magician does the saw-the-man-in-two trick but doesn't clue the subject from the audience into it and cuts his midsection open. For the rest of the film, the unfortunate magician's assistant yells "Aie aie aie" every time he moves. Sickly funny. Kalle's son Tomas (Peter Roth), a poet, is in an insane asylum. Every time Kalle comes to visit him, he becomes furious that his weeping son doesn't even say hello, and the orderlies end up dragging Kalle out of the ward. Repeated throughout the film is a line Tomas wrote: "Blessed be the one who sits down." No wonder he went mad. Lack of talent will do that.

In the end, Kalle starts experiencing visions of the dead. This aspect of the film is rather poetic and deepens what could have been a mere exercise in pessimism and the creative skewering of types. Be prepared for a film both superficial and silly, sly and, ultimately, sublime. l