Ferdy on Films, etc.

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

Monday, February 27, 2006

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Director: Leo McCarey

There is no shortage of devastating films available for viewers with a taste for tragedy. With Oscar winners about the Holocaust, documentaries about child prostitutes and murderers, war films of every stripe, adaptations of Shakespeare's tragedies in plentiful supply, I hardly dare believe it myself when I say that Make Way for Tomorrow is the saddest, most tragic film I have ever seen. After all, it's a Hollywood product, a feature film based on a novel that takes place primarily in New York City among middle-class people. Those qualities alone should mean that it is more likely to be a self-indulgent melodrama with a quick, cathartic pay-off. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. This film is an extremely uncomfortable look at the problems of the elderly and of adults sandwiched between dependent parents and dependent children. It is an indictment of the selfishness of the younger toward the older. Most touchingly and tragically of all, it is the story of a marriage that shouldn't have ended, but did.

As the film opens, senior citizens Lucy and Barkley ("Bark") Cooper (Beulah Bond
i and Victor Moore) have gathered four of their five grown children together (daughter Addie lives across the country in California) at the family homestead to tell them that Bark's four years of unemployment have depleted their savings and caused them to default on their mortgage. The bank manager, who was an unsuccessful suitor of Lucy's, generously gave them six months to pack up and find new lodgings. Son George (Thomas Mitchell) says that's plenty of time for them all to pitch in and find the couple an apartment; the other siblings squirm nervously at the expense soon to come their way. However, the elder Coopers say they hoped "something would turn up" and therefore have only a few days left before they have to be out. This is the first indication that the Coopers are nervous about how much they can count on their children.

None of the siblings can take both parents in right away. Daughter Cora, who lives upstate with her unemployed husband, takes in Bark, and George brings Lucy to live with him and his wife and daughter in their apartment in Manhattan. The arrangement is supposed to be for three months, at which time daughter Nellie and her husband Harvey will take them both in; of course, Harvey objects, saying, "I married you, not your family." So, for the first time in 50 years, Lucy and Bark are separated and prospects of them being reunited are now uncertain.

Lucy's stay at George's grates on his wife Anita (Fay Bainter), who teaches bridge in their home. Lucy kibbutzes with Anita's students and disrupts her lessons; perhaps most irritatingly, Anita does not think Lucy takes her work seriously. Lucy meddles in the household chores, sending laundry to the wrong cleaner at the wrong time without letting anyone know. The maid, played by Louise Beavers not as a servant but as an employee with rights, complains that she has to stay evenings with Lucy and may quit if she can't get her nights off again. Worst of all, Lucy's granddaughter Rhoda (Barbara Read) has stopped bringing her dates home for Anita to meet because she is embarrassed by her grandmother hovering around. At the same time, Lucy is lonely and dispossessed of everything familiar to her. The depth of the family's predicament can be seen when Lucy takes a long-distance call from Bark while a room full of Anita's bridge students listens in distress to her declare her despondency at being parted from him.

Bark has his own problems at Cora's, where he has to sleep on the couch in the living room and walks in the cold of an upstate New York winter to the general store to share the company of Max Rubin, a Jewish shopkeeper played without a single stereotype showing by Yiddish theatre star Maurice Moscovitch. Bark has broken his glasses once again and received a tongue-lashing from Cora about the expense of replacing them. He asks Max to read Lucy's letter to him and learns of her horror at a retirement home where Anita has taken her to visit with the mother of one of Anita's friends. Anita thinks the home is very nice. Max, sadly touched by something in the letter he reads but refuses to recite, tells Bark that he'd better get some new glasses and read it himself. Perhaps Lucy is worried that Anita plans to put her in the retirement home, because Max mentions that he knows someone who is looking for a caretaker and suggests Bark look into it. Bark refuses to consider it. He won't have his wife living in someone else's house and looking after it. He's a bookkeeper, and it's only a matter of time until he gets a new job.

Of course, there is a breaking point for both George and Cora. When Bark falls ill and embarrasses her in front of the young doctor who has come to treat him, Cora decides to ship him off--for his health--to Addie in California. George is forced to consider the retirement home for Lucy, at Anita's insistence, when Rhoda stays out all night and Anita finds out that Lucy has been withholding information about how Rhoda has been spending her evenings. Lucy spares George the agony of telling her of his decision by insisting that she would rather go to the home, provided that Bark is never told. It's the first secret she will ever have kept from him. Touchingly, she says to George that she has a secret to share with him, too--that he was always her favorite child.

The concluding sequence of the film is Bark and Lucy's reunion in New York City, the place where they spent their honeymoon, before he moves across country. They revisit the hotel where they stayed and are treated as special guests of the management. They drink old-fashioneds ("two old-fashioneds for two old-fashioned people," says Bark) and dance to "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," which the bandleader graciously strikes up when they take to the dance floor, blowing off dinner with their children to do so. Their perfect harmony and deep love is something all of the people around them respond to immediately. The manager listens patiently to their reminiscences about the hotel and their honeymoon. When Bark says in a jocular despair that he got the bank manager's girl but the bank manager got his house, the hotel manager thanks them for coming and then excuses himself from their table. After all the thoughtfulness bestowed on them at the hotel, we were starting to think someone miraculously would bail them out. But that's not reality. All we've seen are a few dollars being slipped into an outstretched hat, and the reality of the loss still to come starts to sink in and cuts us to the quick. Why couldn't their own children see it? That's the mystery and the tragedy of this film.

Victor Moore is sweet and feckless as Bark, and Beulah Bondi is amazing as Lucy. Playing a woman 21 years older than herself, she totally embodies this sometimes exasperating woman who is so in love with her husband that we can even see it in her posture. She continues to make a show of believing that he will find work again because he needs her to. She waits patiently as he walks into a men's clothing store with a "Man Wanted" sign in the window, and believes him when he comes out a few minutes later saying they didn't have his size. And when they part at the train station, they both know it probably will be for the last time. Not death, but economic hardship and indifference has broken this rock-solid marriage to pieces.

This film was a flop in Depression-era America. Nobody wanted to go to the movies to be reminded of the unemployment and evictions taking place all around them. The Oscars ignored this film, too, granting it not a single nomination. Posterity has been no kinder. There is no restored print or official DVD available, only a DVD made from whatever public-domain print was available. I saw a less-than-pristine print at a local revival theatre--a one-night-only showing. I'm still in tears thinking about this sensitive, honest film with a message as timely and timeless as it was in 1937. One day, all of us will reach our "golden" years. Given the current meanness of our time, those years might be very bleak if we don't have our own gold to finance them. l

This film is available from Five Minutes to Live, which operates as a conversion service for fans of hard-to-find movies. Please note that they do not sell factory-release DVDs. All DVD-Rs are reproductions/conversions from public domain sources. http://www.5minutestolive.com/2D/makewayfortomorrow.htm

Friday, February 24, 2006

Whose Song Is This? (Chia e tazi pesen?, 2003)
Director: Adela Peeva

Over the last couple of months, I was involved in a battle on a message board frequented by a relatively small group of people who have been posting together for as many as nine years. The battle seemed to be about turf--whose idea of the community's culture should predominate. As with many turf battles, some people tried to negotiate, others bullied, others fired a few shots and then ducked, and the largest number just stayed out of it. This was one of countless skirmishes over the years; the fur flies and then settles into an unsightly dustball under the sofa until one of the members starts pawing at it again and tosses it into the middle of the room. A kind of equilibrium is always attained in which everything is pretty much the same as it was before. Because this was an endgame engagement for me, the merry-go-round will spin in future without me, but I have no doubt that it will spin to the same old song.

I mention this dynamic situation because it plays out on larger stages all over the world every day. One of the most fractious of those stages is in the Balkans. Bulgarian director Adela Peeva likely had no idea what kind of a snake pit she was jumping into when she formulated the seemingly innocent idea for "Whose Song Is This?" and then went about shooting in an impromptu fashion spontaneous reactions to her film's title question. I'm sure, however, that this experience--like Barbara Kopple's of being shot at by a mine company employee while making Harlan County, U.S.A.--will stay with her for a long, long time.

Peeva got the idea for the film one night when she was having dinner at a restaurant in Istanbul with some friends, all of whom hailed from different Balkan countries. The band in the restaurant started playing a song, and Peeva and everyone at her table knew it from as far back as they could remember and claimed that the song was from their country. How could this be? Peeva became intrigued with the idea of tracking down the origins of the song and perhaps using it to start building ties that bind between these painfully divided countries by demonstrating that there is a foundation for a common cultural heritage.

She travels to Turkey, Greece, Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. In each location, she hears people play the song and claim that it originated in whatever country is playing host to her at the time. In most of the countries, it is a love song. In Bosnia, a folk singer says she only sings authentic music of Bosnia. The song she sings includes the line, "if I were a bird, I would fly all over Bosnia." Of course it must be Bosnian! In Turkey and Serbia, the song inspired films, the former's reminiscent of The Student Prince, the latter's a peepshow cross between the story of Carmen and a Bollywood musical. A number of people say they knew the woman who inspired the song, even claiming to be related to her. Other versions of the song carry religious lyrics with jihad written all over them. A few people Peeva interviews know a fair amount about music. One says he believes the song to be a centuries-old folk song that probably is Turkish.

Peeva plays the song for a group of Serbians. She picks the wrong version (Bosnian), however, and they threaten her and walk out on her. The film ends with Peeva talking to some fellow Bulgarians who are celebrating an historic battle against the Ottoman Turks. She mentions that the song might be Turkish. She is threatened with lynching. The film ends with night shots of fireworks that set a field on fire. Silhouettes of people beating back the flames with tree branches can be seen, intercut with drunken revellers apparently oblivious to the dangerous situation behind them. I don't think there could be a better metaphor for the Balkans.

Adela Peeva, in a very homely exercise, paints an indelible and tragic portrait of what I have come to believe is a hopeless region. Perhaps for peoples so vanquished and vanquishing as those of the Balkans have been, some kind of psychic survival depends upon clinging vigorously to national identity and pride. I have to wonder, however, whether the price of mental equilibrium has to be paid with so much blood. Peeva has not found the answer, only the depth of the schism. When these and other ethnic combatants will decide that pride is an empty prize is anyone's guess. l

Whose Song Is This? played extensively at film festivals in 2003 and 2004, garnering awards at the Sofia International Film Festival in Bulgaria, The Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia, and the 23rd Bilan du Film Ethnographique in France. It is available on DVD and VHS under the title "Whose Is This Song?" from Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, Massachusetts, (617) 926-0491, for classroom sales and rentals. Ask your library to buy this entertaining and timely film. Individual consumers can get a price quote by sending an e-mail to docued@der.org.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Ipcress File (1965)
Director: Sidney J. Furie

The Cold War that pitted Western Europe and the United States against the Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe proved fertile to the imaginations of writers, filmmakers, and fans of both. As a child in 1960s America, I remember enjoying the black and white, cone-nosed spooks in Mad Magazine's "Spy vs. Spy" cartoon, Don Adams as bumbling spy Maxwell Smart in the TV series "Get Smart," British TV imports like "The Prisoner" and "Secret Agent" ("they're giving you a number and taking 'way your name"), and of course, the ultracool 007 in the exciting James Bond movie franchise based on Ian Fleming's popular book series. Taken together, I suppose my impressions of spies were that they either were silly and confused or cool supermen whom fate could toss but never tumble. Neither vision was based in reality, but I wasn't sufficiently interested at the time to learn more.

It is only at this late date that I realize there were alternative views of spies, ones closer to the truth, available in the 60s. One prime example that showed audiences where spies came from and a bit more of what they actually did was The Ipcress File. Based on a novel by Len Deighton, The Ipcress File shows British spies largely without the upper-class pedigrees and casual success assumed by the James Bond flicks. Instead, these spooks are former military men--"passed over majors" as one of the characters says to another--probably with less-than-stellar academic careers at second-rate private schools. The main character, a lowly operative named Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), is a working-class bloke who, when given the choice between jail and espionage, chose the latter. He is described as follows: "Insubordinate! Insolent! A trickster. Perhaps with criminal tendencies."

Palmer hardly cuts a dashing figure, with his double-thick glasses and menial work in surveillance. When we first meet him, he's oversleeping--alone--as a wind-up alarm clock rattles on for a godawful long time. Reporting late to his surveillance assignment, he is redirected to his boss, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), and reassigned to the counterespionage unit of Major Dalby (Nigel Green) to replace an agent who was killed during the kidnapping of a scientist he was guarding. Orders are to retrieve the scientist, one of more than 100 lost to government service through retirement, a better offer in the private sector, or a rather mysterious inability to work. We're not talking a commando rescue into a heavily armed compound in the middle of the ocean here. The British government plans to buy him back from the kidnappers, plain and simple. Toward that end, the agents under Dalby are sent out to find the mastermind of the kidnapping, a fellow named Brantby (code name "Bluejay"), played with effete relish by Frank Gatliff. Palmer easily locates him with the help of a friend in Scotland Yard, but Brantby refuses to be pinned down.

A rescue attempt is made based on a hunch Palmer has about where the scientist is being held. No trace of the man is found, but a length of audiotape stamped with the word "Ipcress" is found in a still-warm stove. Conventional negotiations somehow are arranged by Dalby, the scientist is paid for and returned, but he is later found to have been rendered entirely useless to the government. A colleague of Palmer's (Gordon Jackson) suspects stress-induced brainwashing and shares his evidence with Palmer, putting both their lives at risk.

The Ipcress File is a fairly predictable story of dirty tricks in the spy business, at least to those of us who have been watching these kinds of movies for years. What made it remarkable at the time and what still makes it remarkable is what a crucible of its time it was. We are watching Britain in transition, as the regal view the nation always had of itself started to give way to a more realistic approach to life on the island. As Rod Heath pointed out in his essay on this blog "Look Back: Influences and Major Figures of the British Free Cinema," this was a film of the "generation that had been drafted into the Second World War, gained status and experience in their temporary socialisation of British society as well as a college education, but found themselves deeply frustrated, as the whole country did, in the post-War malaise."

Palmer appears to be a gourmet cook and patron of the fine arts, presaging today's yuppies with his bending (but not breaking) of the rules and his taste for the finer things without the entitlement of birth and breeding to them. Spying consists of filling out paperwork, playing politics with other policing agencies in and outside of one's own government, and being told what a lousy job one is doing. Palmer's not indignant that the scientist has been brainwashed--he doesn't really care about the intellectual loss to his country--he's upset that Brantby got good money for damaged goods. In the end, when Palmer complains to Ross that he might have been killed or driven mad by Ross's manipulation of him to find a mole in the organization, he gets his comeuppance when Ross counters, "That's what you're paid to do." So much for spying as a lifestyle. It's just a job, and not a very good one at that. At least Palmer gets to be a successful womanizer.

The Ipcress File is filled with sharp dialogue, interesting performances and character actors, and an excess of trick camera angles so popular with the practitioners of the Free Cinema movement. The low, skewed camera angles that predominate make it seem as though the cinematographer was Toulouse-Lautrec. There is also a great fondness for frames of all sorts. Oftentimes, characters are trapped inside doorways and window frames. You can also find them behind cages and bars of various types. My favorite was a bird's-eye shot through the top of a lampshade onto the face of a dead man on the floor. The look is amusing but amateurish. These camera angles do not seem justified by the material, particularly as presented. Where noir uses such devices to distort reality, a film that deals in kitchen-sink realism should strive for a more verite feel. Still, I can forgive the enthusiasm that went into these set-ups, and kind of wish I'd been in on the planning. I enjoyed The Ipcress File a lot. l

Monday, February 20, 2006

Look Back: Influences and Major Figures of the British Free Cinema
by Roderick Heath

You could argue--at least the pervert in me would--that the British New Wave kicked off with Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein, in the same way Vadim's trashy Et Dieu...crea la femme gave the French New Wave its start by proving commercial viability and reinvigorating a moribund industry. You can at least trace the beginning of Brit pop culture as an individual, powerful force from that point.

Of course, the whole "angry young man" thing was a very large influence. Most of the "angry young man" were writers--John Osborne (with his plays Look Back In Anger and The Entertainer), Alan Sillitoe (the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and long story Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), David Storey (the novel This Sporting Life)--who were of the generation that had been drafted into the Second World War, gained status and experience in their temporary socialisation of British society as well as a college education, but found themselves deeply frustrated, as the whole country did, in the post-War malaise. You could easily argue Doris Lessing as a member of the group - most of the same influences were on her; socialism, WW2, social misplacement, with the added details of being a colonial (Rhodesian) and female. I mention her to point out that the "angry young man" phrase whilst picquant is unfocused. Other Angry Young Women might include Shelagh Delaney,who wrote the play A Taste of Honey - later, a signal free cinema film - and Lynn Reid-Banks, who wrote The L-Shaped Room.

Broadly, most of these writers stood under the long shadow of the social realist side of D.H. Lawrence, with his depiction of class and sexual struggle as fatally intertwined, which is why in, say, Look Back in Anger, Johnny Porter's social frustration dovetails with his taste for taking upper-class girlfriends and treating them like rubbish. The chief difference between these British and the Beats is that where the Beats were spiritual in their highest form, the Brits were dialectically materialist.

It's important to remember that this creative output had strong roots in what had been bubbling away under the surface of British cinema and the culture, in general, for a while. Documentary-style realism had long been an aspect, due to the long shadow of the John Grierson-produced 1930s documentaries such as Night Mail; Robert Flaherty; and the war-time master Humphrey Jennings. These were huge influences on directors like Michael Powell, who with such pre-Pressburger films as Red Ensign and The 49th Parallel showed the indelible influence of documentary makers, and David Lean, whose sequences for In Which We Serve, like the opening ship-building montage, are entirely in the Griersonian style. The British war-time film industry learned many important lessons from the docudrama approach. Whilst the '50s cutesy Ealing approach and the slick Sidney Box comedies at Rank almost erased this legacy, David Lean melded it with a good yarn-spinner's instincts and an ability to utilize Hollywood gloss, and Powell and Pressburger abandoned it almost entirely.

Brit-grit survived in the dry, hype-lacking style of many cheap thrillers and quota quickies, beginning with Carol Reed's high-class thrillers Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man; through films like Ronald Neame's The Golden Salamander, Robert Hamer's The Long Memory, Roy Ward Baker's The October Man. Basil Dearden is an unfortunately neglected figure; with The Blue Lamp (1951), Violent Playground (1958), Sapphire (1959), Victim (1960), and Life For Ruth (1962), he specialised in strong, entertaining, but stiff and sententious melodramas that dovetailed with "burning social issues" (racism, homosexuality, teenage hooliganism). Dearden's best films are the gleefully cynical The League of Gentleman, which purposefully casts veterans of the war films such as Jack Hawkins, Richard Attenborough, and Roger Livesey and trashes their images, and the marvelously weird hipster version of "Othello", All Night Long (1961), where the characters are all jazz musicians. There were also quite a few interesting working-class melodramas, closest in spirit to pre-War Warner Bros. works, including several Stanley Baker was involved in (Violent Playground) and Cy Endfield's Sea Fury, and his rip-roaring Hell Drivers - all of which sported a gritty milieu, corny moralising, a reek of verisimiltude, and a smattering of sticky-magazine sexuality, perhaps best seen in Hell Drivers when Baker French kisses Peggy Cummings in a workshed as a truck motor throbs.

John Guillermin, a talented journeyman headed for Hollywood, directed two interesting films in a similar style. The delirious Never Let Go (1960) is a thriller that pits Richard Todd's anxious ex-war hero, now a loser salesman, against evil crime boss Peter Sellers, in his first and possibly last completely serious role, terrific as a peculiarly London sadist Bob Hoskins would be proud of. This film ends as a kind of contemporary High Noon, and as well as broadening Sellers' resume also featured as a teddy boy car thief young pop star Adam Faith, thus possibly initiating what would be the future convergence of pop music and the movies in Britain. Guillermin later directed the interesting satire The Guns of Batasi (1964), with Richard Attenborough as a martinet sergeant who is finding his ethos of Army, Queen and Country outmoded in an African country undergoing revolution. This film bore strong relevance to the general end-of-Empire strain of the era's cultural concerns.

It would be fair to say, however, that dry visual realism matched to formula stories was part of what the Free Cinema was waging war against. They wanted realistic life stories, honest portrayal of sub-bourgeois lifestyles, and a visual rhetoric that had poetry and personality. The strong literary influence on the British Free Cinema was perhaps its most significant difference to the French New Wave, which was notable for being the first generation to take its styles, stories, and points of interest more from previous movies. The Free Cinema represented the British cinema being annexed by a larger cultural movement.

Yet few of these films were based in the stage. So why the impression they were so influenced by the stage? Perhaps because Osborne and others had found in the adventurous, government-funded stage an ideal testing ground for new ideas. This, and the fact that almost all the young actors began on the stage in a vanguard of talent including Albert Finney; Tom Courtenay; Susannah York; Corin, Vanessa, and Lynn Redgrave; Peter O'Toole; Michael Caine; Alan Bates; Richard Harris; and Robert Shaw. You could argue Richard Burton was one of this group, in his roots and generation clearly, though his Old Vic training and swift Hollywood triumph took him right out of their sphere; but he got to come back to them just once when he starred in the film of Look Back in Anger (1959), which was also the cinematic debut of director Tony Richardson, who had helmed the piece on the stage. Richardson had also made short films already and contributed to Sequence magazine, which had also seen contributions from Lindsay Anderson and others, in the same way the Nouvelle Vague crew had written for Cahiers du Cinema, and was tributed as helping change the entire discourse on cinema in Britain. Indeed, most of the Angry Young Men were swiftly embraced and celebrated by the mainstream after a short period of woozy disorientation (in Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit, in 1957, there's a line where a journalist discusses his new story with the priceless purpose of "tearing into Angry Young Men, or 'Sex in the Coffee Bar'"). A few of their champions, like Laurence Olivier, were old-school figures.

Look Back in Anger was accompanied by another opening salvo, Room at the Top, directed by Jack Clayton, a product of the studio system who had risen up the ranks at Denham Studio and made an Oscar-winning short in 1956. He wasn't really one of the visionary generation, and the film, though solid and featuring excellent performances from Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret, lacked the pungent emotion and style that marked the best Free Cinema works. Clayton did go on to make what would become a standard refrain for a Free Cinema director after an early, contemporary, gritty work--the revisionary adaptation of a classic. In his case, Clayton brought an unimaginitive literalism to versions of The Turn of the Screw (The Innocents, 1961) and The Great Gatsby (1974).

In 1960, Tony Richardson directed the film of Osborne's The Entertainer, which provided the film debuts of both Albert Finney and Alan Bates. Three years later, Richardson and Osborne collaborated on another signal project, their cheeky adaptation of Tom Jones that brought Oscar-crowned glory to this ragged mob. Richardson had, with Osborne and Harry Saltzman, formed Woodfall Films, and for a time Richardson was a powerful force. After The Entertainer he made, in swift succession, A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Tom Jones, and The Loved One (1965) before busting out with awkward works like his ambitious but incontinent hip epic The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and the stupifying Ned Kelly (1970).

Other major figures included Karel Reisz, a Czech-born film writer and maker of short films and documentaries who made his debut with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), which featured the formidable star-making performance of Albert Finney. Reisz then went on to make his weird version of Night Must Fall (1964) a not-very-good melding of old-school theatrics and modish new wave cinema tricks (whip-pans, handheld camera, overexposed sunlight scenes), the Swinging '60s classic Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (which also made stars of David Warner and Tony Richardson's young wife Vanessa Redgrave), and Isadora (1968). Reisz also produced the core masterpiece of the "kitchen sink" genre, Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life. Based on David Storey's novel, it had similar themes to the previous films of the genre (and also striking similarities to Robert Rossen's The Hustler, 1961), but achieved a genuinely nightmarish intensity in its study of a macho man's impotency in dealing with life; Anderson managed the best fusion of directorial stylisation that communicates deep personality linked with a feverish sense of time and place. Anderson was the most intellectually formidable, the most talented, the most British (and least happily so), the most rootless of his generation. It was largely his influence that had kicked off the Sequence scene; he was a multi-award-winning documentary maker throughout the '50s, as which he was a profound influence on directors like Ken Loach and Stephen Frears; and his work in the theatre was vast (John Gielgud was eternally grateful to him for bringing him into the modern stage). He directed the surrealist, satirical Mick Travis trilogy, If... (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973), Britannia Hospital (1981), and a tremendous filmed-theatre version of Look Back in Anger (1980) (all with Malcolm McDowall). Ironically, Anderson is probably most recognisable playing, along with Gielgud, as one of the Oxford don snobs in Chariots of Fire (1981).

Bryan Forbes had begun as what Michael Caine tried to avoid, a cleaned-up player of working class skivers. To earn extra dough, he started rewriting scripts (he told a story about how he had littered a rewrite of The Black Shield of Falworth with "forsooths" and "verilys", expecting to be fired, but instead was rewarded with more work) and then scripting and finally broke into directing with Whistle Down The Wind (1961), and followed it up with two important New Wave works, The L-Shaped Room (1962), about a pregnant woman's difficulties, and the intense thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). Later, he adapted James Clavell's prison camp drama King Rat (1965), which stirred much irritation from the Australian RSL for telling the truth about the POW camps, the post-Goon black comedy The Wrong Box (1966), and, much later, the witty, very '70s thriller The Stepford Wives (1975).

John Schlesinger perhaps ended as the most accomplished and successful of the group, though he had some noisy clangers to his credit. Schlesinger, like many of the others, had a diverse background across radio, TV, film, acting (which he claimed to be not very good at) and directing BBC documentaries. He made a feature documentary, Terminus (1961), about Waterloo Station that won him attention, and his first feature was A Kind of Loving, about a young couple (Alan Bates and June Ritchie) in a small coal mining town who have to marry when she gets pregnant. It's a classic kitchen sink drama with a clean, bold style, promising but much of a muchness. Schlesinger then adapted Keith Waterhouse's novel Billy Liar (1963), and Darling (1965), which together made a star and Oscar winner of Julie Christie. Darling bore interesting thematic similarities to some other films before it, a kind of hip morality play not so far from a film like Val Guest's tartly ironic, if plastic, The Beauty Jungle (1964), the tragedy of a young woman (Janette Scott) bent on a professional career who gets talked by Ian Hendry's smooth publicist into becoming a model, and finds herself addicted to the attention but swiftly discarded. Schlesinger later made his majestic version of Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), an of course, Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), extend and deepen the Free Cinema's concerns and stylistics.

Desmond Davis, a TV director and cameraman on several New Wave films, made a nice little stab in the Free Cinema mould with the fine but little noted I Was Happy Here, featuring Sarah Miles as a discontent housewife married to flashy, stiff-necked businessman Julian Glover, reminiscing about her idyllic teenaged romance in her seaside home town. Davis unfortunately made few films, though he did direct two flavourful entertainments in the early '80s, the camp classic Clash of the Titans and the Sherlock Holmes TV movie The Sign of Four.

Ken Loach, before making the accomplished Kes, also essayed embryonic films very much in the Free Cinema vernacular (for those with the mistaken impression Kes appeared without any trial runs) in Cathy Come Home for TV and his debut film Poor Cow (1967), based on Nell Dunn's novel, in which Carol White's Joy flirts with prositution after her husband (Terence Stamp) is imprisoned. A fair first film, it lacks the strong dramatic spine that Loach became more adept at, but established right away that his influences were chiefly Free Cinema, documentary, and determinedly individual.

When did the Free Cinema end, and when did it transmute into the Swinging '60s? One could point to films like Morgan and Georgy Girl as transitional works, films with a melding of humble realism and a more knockabout, humorous character. Maybe the most crucial is A Hard Day's Night, a film, which, like the rock band it celebrates, is a melding of the old, the current, and the futuristic. It sits squarely in the free cinema mould with its handheld cameras, natural lighting, real settings, portraying with exactness the tawdry scenes of railways stations and naff TV studios its heroes romp through, and yet it also ruptures it, subverts it, by its mockumentary status; it's faking its realism, it drops into pure fantasy and surrealism when it feels like it. Around this time British cinema also was benefiting from the cross-pollination of directors from other countries coming there to work. Such temporary and permanent cultural exiles as Joseph Losey (with the freaky apocalyptic drama These Are the Damned, 1961), Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, Richard Lester, John Huston, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jerzy Skolimowski, Fred Zinneman, Silvio Narizzano, and Sidney Furie, were making their mark or about to.

It's interesting to note that where most of the above directors deliberately went all-out to prove their talents across a variety of styles and art forms - Richardson from The Entertainer to Tom Jones, Schlesinger from Darling to Far from the Madding Crowd - to take claim of the general cultural legacy as well as creating their own, their progeny began splitting firmly into separate camps. You had men like Ken Loach who moved relentlessly back towards dry, documentary, stringent realism in look and feel (often enforced by low budgets) and a plush stylist like Ken Russell, yet they both owed their beginnings to the same mentors, role models, and TV training. Only a few, like Stephen Frears, retained adeptness for playing every side of the fence. In the modern line-up of British talents, like Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy) and Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice), you still see their influence.

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

Friday, February 17, 2006

Shadows (1922)
Director: Tom Forman

One of the first independent producers in the film business was B. P. Schulberg. A liberal at a time when studio moguls were conservative, his Preferred Pictures company showed his independent approach to story content not unlike that of indie producers and directors today. In 1922, Schulberg greenlighted a picture with the not-very-liberal-sounding working title of “Ching Ching Chinaman.” Eventually, it became Shadows, a more fitting title for a work that allowed The Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney, to work his humanizing magic on the “heathen” Yen Sin.

This melodrama, set in Maine, tells the story of a shipwreck survivor, Yen Sin, one of only two men to survive a horrible storm at sea that sunk several vessels, including the one carrying the brutal husband of Sympathy Gibbs (Marguerite de la Motte). Yen Sin, cold and exhausted from his ordeal, nonetheless is driven from the company of the anxious townspeople because he will not kneel with them on the beach to pray for the souls of the lost sailors. However, with nowhere else to go, he settles in the town, occupying the shanty of a scow in the harbor and setting up a laundry business.

His heathen ways make him the butt of insults and pranks by the local boys, but he eventually becomes more integrated into the community when a plump boy with a passion for sweets (Buddy Messinger) befriends him and, more importantly, when a new minister named John Malden (Harrison Ford) comes to town and chastises the boys for their unchristian attitude. Malden had hoped to be a missionary in Asia instead of a small-town preacher in New England, so he takes on the task of trying to convert Yen Sin. At the same time, he courts the widow Gibbs. When their engagement is announced, Nate Snow (John Sainpolis), who himself had his eye on Sympathy, is crestfallen. Nonetheless, as the lay deacon of Malden’s church and now a friend of Malden’s, he serves as best man at the wedding.

After a year of wedded bliss, the happy Maldens are separated for a week while John, accompanied by Snow, attends a church conference in a nearby town. While there, he receives a letter from a man claiming to be Daniel Gibbs, Sympathy’s supposedly dead husband. Gibbs demands money to keep his presence a secret. A distraught Malden agrees to Snow’s plan to deliver the money while Snow watches to see if the man really is Gibbs or just an impostor. Unbeknownst to both men, Yen Sin’s friend, who has been handling their laundry while they attended the conference, has been keeping an eye on Gibbs and observes the transaction. He sends a message to Yen Sin on one of Gibbs’ collars about the problem. Malden, believing Daniel Gibbs lives, returns a broken man, abandoning his pulpit and refusing to live illegally with his wife, but keeping the secret of their invalid marriage to avoid ruining the life of their daughter Ruth, born while Malden was away. Yen Sin, of course, is the crucial link to ending the blackmail scheme and restoring order to the unhappy town.

I have read several reviews of this film that praise only Lon Chaney for his sensitive portrayal of a minority. My reactions are very mixed to Chaney’s performance. He adopts a very peculiar posture—hunchbacked with his elbows held high and back—to suggest that Yen Sin is elderly. This is not only a painful posture to watch, but also it seems very unnatural and stagy. Chaney’s face is similarly pinched, showing little of the endearing qualities of Yen Sin in his expressions. We feel a certain warmth toward the outsider Yen Sin that Chaney always is able to induce in audiences, but I'd venture to say that the reactions of others to him are also responsible for our sympathy. Chaney’s final scene is so overwrought that I was reduced to giggles.

The story, of course, is melodramatic, but not ridiculous. Harrison Ford, Marguerite de la Motte, and John Sainpolis play their parts naturally and realistically—convincing in an unconvincing scenario. Sainpolis was an utter revelation to me; I was not familiar with him before this film, but I shall be on the watch for him in others. I also will be on the look-out for more title cards drawn by Renaud. They are a delight and help to forward the story in a most pleasant way.

The film is shot in a very meat-and-potatoes fashion, with medium straight-on shots interspersed with straight-on close-ups; the beach scenes at the beginning of the film are probably the best and most dramatic of the film. There does seem to have been some care taken in trying to make the film look realistic, for example, showing an background behind a window in Yen Sin’s shanty moving as the boat supposedly rocks on the water. A kitten Yen Sin acquires at the beginning of the film is a cat by the end. However, there is one glaring continuity error that is a real doozy. Malden is supposed to have moved out of his house the week his daughter was born and stayed away for a year. (It might be hard to explain a year apart from a plot standpoint, but never mind that.) In the final scene, Sympathy goes to Yen Sin’s bedside carrying her infant daughter. Well, maybe she’s just small for her age…

Overall, this is an interesting movie that deals with race relations in a fairly realistic way for the time. It is not one of Chaney’s better efforts, but should be seen, at the very least, for the marvelous supporting performances.

There are several versions of Shadows floating around on DVD, with run times varying from 68 minutes (the official time) to 90 minutes and some with color tinting. This is a reply to my inquiry about DVDs of this film from Carl Bennett, editor of the Silent Era website, that you should note:

“There were not established shooting or projection speeds for films in the silent era, so when home video producers create their editions, the running times can vary wildly depending on the running speed during video transfer. Since your [90-minute] edition was likely transferred from a 16mm reduction print, it is unlikely that your edition has additional footage in it; it is likely that is has been transferred at a slower speed. As to the color tinting, that is usually done electronically during the video transfer. Unless they are transferring from a 35mm print color-tinted or color-toned when the print was struck, the video producers are lying through their teeth about restored color tints. We would recommend (sight unseen) the 2000 edition from Image Entertainment:

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s'est échappé) (1956)
Director: Robert Bresson

A Man Escaped, one of my all-time favorite films, is a singular experience. How does a film whose title tells you how it ends still manage to be one of the most suspenseful films ever made? It's not easy to articulate, but I'll try.

The source material certainly has built-in drama. The film is based on a book by André Devigny, a WWII French Resistance fighter, who escaped from Fort Montluc prison in Lyon, France, where the Gestapo held political prisoners awaiting trial and execution. Indeed, a more accurate translation of Bresson's title is "A Condemned Man Escaped." Bresson's adaptation clings very closely to the details of Devigny's account and was filmed in Montluc itself, thereby creating an almost unbearable suspense by nearly recreating the experience.

Then, of course, there is Bresson's artistry in using small, closely observed moments built up meticulously to place viewers in the position of a prisoner of the Gestapo. Consider the opening, which perfectly sets the tone for the entire film. Fontaine (François Leterrier), the condemned man of the title, is riding in the back seat of a car, his wrists handcuffed together. His eyes shift warily above his angular face framed with loose, dark hair. The camera shifts several times from his face to his hands, which move tentatively on and off the door handle. The car slows and Fontaine seizes his chance. We watch him suddenly push the handle all the way down and fly out the door. Yells and scuffling (was there a shot?) follow. Moments later, we are inside the car again and watch as Fontaine is shoved back in. This time, his guard handcuffs himself to Fontaine. When Fontaine reaches the prison, his escape attempt is conveyed to the commandant. When next we see Fontaine, he is being carried into a cell. Bloodied and unconscious, he is dumped unceremoniously inside the cell. We hear a key turn heavily in the lock. At this point, voiceover narration from inside Fontaine's mind is added to the sparse dialogue that propels the story.

Fontaine's further experiences are built up with equal care. He learns the tapping method prisoners use to communicate with each other through their cell walls. By examining the walls of his cell, he finds a means to look out his high cell window. He observes three prisoners walking up and down the exercise quad and stage-whispers to them about the possibility of getting a message out to his comrades. The risks of trusting anyone in this regimented setting where nearly every movement is observed are made glaringly clear. People appear and disappear, their fates known only by a quick sentence from one prisoner to another--or not at all. Notes pass surreptitiously between prisoners as they conduct their toilet. The furtiveness of each movement, the uncertainty of what each day will bring, the ever-present blood stains on Fontaine's only shirt, put there by his initial beating--all these reminders of danger and death persist in our view.

Certain of execution, Fontaine hatches an escape plan. He notices a weakness in the boards of his wooden cell door. Saving a spoon off his meal tray, he hones its handle on the rough stones of his cell floor into a chisel to remove the boards. His neighbor, despairing and normally uncommunicative, tells him as they talk at their cell windows that Fontaine will get them all killed with his scratching. Fontaine tells his comrade to have courage. In this subtle way, Bresson introduces a theme that he will revisit from many angles in many of his later films--irrepressible fate resisted through faith and persistence. Indeed, Bresson adds a secondary title to his adaptation, Le vent souffle où il veut. Dona nobis pacem. Translated, it means The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth. Give Us Peace.

At last, Fontaine, having methodically tested his escape plan and assembled his homemade tools, must make his move. At that very moment, a young man (Charles Le Clainche) wearing a jacket from a German uniform is placed in his cell. Fontaine either must take Jost along or kill him. The tension of this moment, the gravity of his dilemma, are almost too much to bear. The actual escape juxtaposes silence with potentially lethal noise--a slipping tile on the roof, an unidentified squeaking in the yard separating the inner and outer walls of the prison. Bresson is famous for his use of sound. His mastery was never more apparent than in this film, where sound often must substitute for sight for prisoners cut off from ordinary life.

This film, like most Bresson films, rewards close attention. In fact, it would be hard to watch without fixing all one's senses to it. In this distracted age, Bresson is not an easy director to warm up to. He is, however, one of the greatest directors who ever lived, and one who grapples with difficult, but important subjects of the human spirit. I hope you will seek out his works and come to love them as I do. l

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Director: Lewis Milestone

Barbara Stanwyck became the unofficial queen of noir in 1944 with her fiendish portrayal of femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson in perhaps the greatest noir of them all, Double Indemnity. In an effort to make lightning strike twice, Hal Wallis Productions cast Stanwyck in the title role of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a noir whose story is mighty strange itself.

The tale begins in 1928, during young Martha Ivers Smith's (Janis Smith) fourth attempt to run away from her rich but domineering aunt (Dame Judith Anderson). She hides in a boxcar while her trusted friend Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman) gets food, but the police hear Sam whistle to Martha to let him back in the boxcar, find them, and return Martha to her home. Waiting with Mrs. Ivers is the opportunistic Mr. O'Neil (Roman Bohnen) and his son Walter (Mickey Kuhn), who try to curry favor by intimating that Walter tipped off the police where they could find Martha.

Walter, who is smitten with Martha, follows her upstairs after she has had a shouting match with her aunt, and assures her he told the police nothing. Just then, Sam appears at the window and asks Martha to leave town with him that night. She starts to gather a few things to take with her, including her cat, but it escapes her room and runs down the stairs. Sam goes after it, but hides when Mrs. Ivers emerges from the den and starts up the stairs to check on Martha. Encountering the cat, she starts to beat it with her cane. Martha, enraged, grabs the cane and strikes her on the head. She falls to the bottom of the stairs and dies. Walter, as a witness to the entire incident, becomes the pawn in his greedy father's scheme to lay hands on Martha's newly acquired fortune, essentially through blackmail. The O'Neils move in, and Mr. O'Neil takes over Martha's affairs and eventually marries her off to Walter.

Eighteen years later, Sam (Van Heflin) has a fender bender just outside Iverstown and must remain in his old hometown while the car is repaired. He meets a beautiful blonde named Toni (Lizbeth Scott) at a boarding house, and she becomes part of a complicated double triangle, with Walter (Kirk Douglas, in his first starring role), Sam, and Martha hatching dirty tricks and changing alliances, all for the sake of loves spawned in childhood.

I had my doubts about the film when a sort of quirky music accompanied the meeting of Sam and Toni. Suddenly, I was in the middle of Love Finds Andy Hardy, with corny language and set-ups that made me wonder if these two were going to fall into each other's arms or into each other's sandboxes. A very bizarre scene in their adjoining hotel rooms with shared bath has Toni sitting on Sam's bed with two Gideon bibles in front of her while Sam quotes scripture to her (a portend of 1950s straitlaced America, perhaps?). Fortunately, once Stanwyck comes on the scene, the film darkens considerably.

Kirk Douglas has all his quirks in place at this early stage in his career. He looks great with Stanwyck and has an aura of danger about him that makes him a strangely suitable choice for Walter, a man capable of anything for the woman he loves. Van Heflin has a lot of crackling dialogue and as much presence as Douglas, making the rivalry truly interesting. Martha, of course, must choose the man her heart desired when she was a child, but we see that her capacity to truly love is impaired. She tries to manipulate Sam just as she has manipulated Walter, and she is as self-justifying as a sociopath would be. Lizbeth Scott has a thankless role as blonde dynamite that never gets to explode. She mainly sits around the hotel room and waits. Nonetheless, she is very lovely as she does it.

While The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a pale imitation of Double Indemnity, it still manages to be an intriguing noir with interesting twists and turns, snappy dialogue, and strong performances. The climax of the film is one of the most twisted and satisfying of any noir I've seen and shows us, after toying with our expectations, what constitutes the true fatal attraction in this film. Noir fans will find much of worth in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.l

Sunday, February 12, 2006

"Our Backstreets" #6
The Olympics: The Real Lord of the Rings

It's that time again, the time when athletes from around the world meet in some politically savvy town buried in red ink from construction cost overruns to compete for medals, media glory, and commercial endorsements. Yes, it's the Winter Olympics, which have been thoughtfully staggered with the Summer Olympics so I only have to wait two years for another Olympic event. And boy do I love them!

That's no joke. Before I became a movie hound, I was deeply into sports. ABC's Wide World of Sports, hosted by Jim McKay, was as formative an experience for me as Leonard Bernstein's televised Young People's Concerts were for my musical education and The Late Show was for developing my taste for classic movies. I traveled the world, by proxy, to view diverse and sometimes bizarre sports, such as luge and wrist wrestling. I was as familiar with the names Franz Klammer and Vasily Alexiev as other American kids were with Mickey Mantle and Joe Namath. Before I actually set foot in Chamonix, I'd seen alpine skiers race down the slopes that surrounded it. Nothing was off limits to Wide World of Sports, and no sport seemed without some interest to me (except maybe curling). When the Olympics rolled around, they seemed to belong to me alone, separated in my sports knowledge and enthusiasms from my fellow Americans.

The Olympics have changed, and not for the better, in my opinion. All sports are no longer created equal now that marketing has taken over coverage of the games. During the last Winter Olympics, you'd have thought that every athlete at the Olympic village in Salt Lake City had slapped on a pair of figure skates and learned overnight how to do a throw double axel. It got very boring for those of us who live and die to watch cross-country skiing, ski jumping, and ice hockey. (Yes, I watched on TV as the 1980 miracle hockey team from the United States beat the Russians--a much more satisfying experience, by the way, than Miracle, the 2005 movie about the victory.)

However, I'm happy to report that some sort of happy medium has been attained for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino (why isn't the American media egocentrically sticking to English translations like they always used to and calling in Turin?). I was as happy as a honey bee in a dandelion patch this afternoon at the excellent cross-country ski coverage (well, the men's coverage, at least; the women's coverage was liberally interrupted by those much-more-interesting commercials). Although the announcers were as clueless as ever about this incredible sport they only cover every four years, the camera actually followed most of the action and showed the exhausted skiers at the end of the race, collapsed on the snow. Yes, these skiers do breathe a little harder at the end of a 30 km all-out race than the figure skaters do after a 5-minute "long" program. Not one American skier's name was mentioned to underline that the Olympics can only interest Americans if there is an American to cheer for. It also was very gratifying that the athlete who lit the Olympic flame during the opening night ceremony was a cross-country skier, Stefania Belmondo.

And what does one say about that opening ceremony? I watched almost the whole thing, only tuning out once the parade of nations got to be a bit of a drag (but I sure did love those Moschino "mountain" gowns the placard bearers were wearing!). It's great that the Italians, who took the theme of passion as their choreographic guiding principle, saw fit to include alpen horns, plastic cows pulled on ropes in dazzling circles around waltzing couples dressed like Jersey cows, and Power Rangers with flaming heads (my sweetie and I nicknamed them firemen) in that definition. Some say the combination of Puccini and American pop music didn't show Italy's cultural heritage to best advantage. I say that Fellini at his best couldn't have done better. The opening ceremony was rich in pastiche and panache--the best that Italy has to offer.

Gotta slide now. The skeleton competition is about to begin! l

Friday, February 10, 2006

Deadline (2004)
Directors: Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson

The death penalty is an issue on which Americans are divided. The statistics say that 70% of Americans are in favor of the death penalty, but the majority also are against executing innocent men and women. The incongruity of that seemingly coherent finding is that the death penalty has cost hundreds of innocent lives. In Illinois, before the moratorium on the death penalty was called in 2000 by Gov. George Ryan, a review of 25 cases showed that 12 men were dead at the state's hand, and 13 men were found to have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. If the majority of Americans found out that many capital convictions were obtained against innocent men, would they still be for the death penalty?

That is one of the questions Deadline, a 90-minute documentary, raises. Others include whether the system of capital punishment is racist, classist, and capricious. Directors Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson talked to a number of people intimately acquainted with the death penalty, from exonerated Death Row inmates who were freed by the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia that struck down the death penalty (at least until such time as states revamped their systems of capital punishment; 38 states currently allow the death penalty) to the warden of Mississippi's notorious Parchment Prison to best-selling attorney/author Scott Turow, who served on the commission that examined the application of capital punishment in Illinois.

Gov. Ryan is the central character around which a swift circuit through the issue of capital punishment is run. Some of the interviews are heartbreaking, especially with the Parchment Prison warden. We watch him, in archival footage, prepare a prisoner for execution. He notes that most wardens who have been charged with running executions end up being opponents of the death penalty. The warden says emphatically that it is unfair for the American people to expect wardens to carry out executions of innocent men. Yes, he knows innocent lives have been taken, and he is demanding that We the People do something about it.

The clemency hearings called by Gov. Ryan are heartbreaking as well. We watch grief-stricken families having to relive, perhaps for the 20th time over the course of trials and appeals, the horror of their loss. We watch families of convicted killers (some, admittedly guilty as sin) beg the commissioner to spare these prisoners' lives. What came through clearly to me in this section of the film was what one of the interview subjects, a death penalty opponent, said--that crime in the United States is incident-driven. We apply the law one case at a time, and that such an emotion-driven system of life and death will never be applied fairly according to our principle of equal justice under the law.

As a film, Deadline is confusing. Furman is brought up without explanation of what it is. We don't get enough background on the decision to be able to comprehend how states could now have the death penalty. The film relies exclusively on the words of the interviewed and archival footage to tell the story. Some informative title cards or a voiceover narrative would have been helpful to put the events shown into context. I was fortunate to have one of the film's producers, director Katy Chevigny, a family member of a murder victim who is working against the death penalty, and exonerated Death Row inmate Gary Gauger to answer questions about some of the issues that had contextual problems. Gauger expanded on the capriciousness that still exists (one man exonerated because of flimsy evidence, his codefendant still in prison).

Despite its flaws, this is a crucial film for people to view, particularly as the pace of executions seems to be on the rise. It may be instructive to know that Amnesty International has reported the United States as a human rights abuser for its continued use of the death penalty. Whatever your position on the death penalty, there can be no doubt that the current system's flaws cannot be accepted because they cause the death of innocents. Better no death penalty at this time than more irreversible mistakes. l

If you want to get involved in Amnesty International USA's campaign to abolish the death penalty, or if you would simply like more information about this important issue, go to http://www.amnestyusa.org/abolish/index.do

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Pledge (2001)
Director: Sean Penn

Failure is a part of life--a painful part, to be sure, but usually not fatal. Sometimes it comes from overreaching our abilities, sometimes from making promises we can't keep. But what if our failure is an offense against God? Does that kind of failure inflict a mortal wound, the literal or proverbial bolt of lightning sent to strike us down at this ultimate offense? That is a question that is central to Sean Penn's fascinating third film in the director's chair--an actor's paradise and an audience's troubling fever dream.

When we first meet Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), he is mumbling and stumbling about a dusty gas station, his scabbed and weathered face turned upward. Crows are crossing the placid sky and slowly merge with his face. Next we see a fish emerging from a hole in the ice and a hand fumbling for a bottle of Glenfiddich in the supports of the tent placed over the hole. Then we see an SUV drive into a city--Reno, NV--and Black emerge from it with his catch in a cooler and pass through the doors of the Reno Police Department building and into his office in the homicide division. His long-time secretary tells him she has already unplugged his refrigerator and packed everything but his pictures, and then begins to rattle off his appointments for his final day at work, oblivious to the fact that he has just recited them out loud to her. There will be a retirement party for him at the Luau. Jerry looks out his window and down at the sidewalk far below. An old person in a walker is being guided by an aide. It unsettles him.

At the party, Jerry looks dizzy and disoriented among the colored lights and glowing tiki torches. As he is delivering a farewell speech, word comes of a murder--a young girl has been found in the woods with her throat brutally slashed. Jerry decides he wants to go out on the job one more time. The victim's parents are removing a dead turkey from their vast flock when Jerry shows up and delivers the news. Mrs. Larsen (Patricia Clarkson), a religious woman, asks Jerry to swear on the cross her daughter made that he will find her killer or risk his eternal salvation. A very reluctant Jerry gives her his word that he will.

The Reno police think they have the killer, a retarded Indian named Toby (Benecio del Toro). Jerry isn't convinced, even after Toby confesses and commits suicide by grabbing an officer's gun and shooting himself. Although retired, Jerry starts investigating and sets up an elaborate sting operation that entails him using as bait the little girl of a barmaid (Robin Wright Penn) who has come to him for protection against her abusive ex-husband and ended up moving in with him at the gas station he has purchased. One day, the little girl gives him the news he has been waiting for for well over a year--she has been talking with a man who calls himself The Wizard and has arranged to meet him in the park the next day.

Penn populates his film with small, jewel-like cameos from the likes of Helen Mirren, Lois Smith, Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, and Sam Shepard. Their contributions give heft to the proceedings without overwhelming it. Penn was most in danger by casting Nicholson as the lead. Would we have another raving lunatic performance from the king of the temper tantrum? Against all expectations, Nicholson pays Jerry with almost too much subtlety. Descriptions of him being a drunk and crazy don't ring true, but we have the benefit of seeing that his hunches could be right and that the pledge he has made is a very heavy one for him, one that could cause him to betray the trust of a mother and child to catch a serial killer. It matters not whether we in the audience believe in God; what is important is that Jerry, as a newly retired person who dealt with death every working day of his life, sees the shadow of his own death nearing. And as they say, there are no atheists in fox holes.

This film, shot by Chris Menges, is absolutely gorgeous. The snow-covered mountains of Nevada and beautiful mountain lakes could make one believe in a divine presence all by themselves. Penn stacks the deck by populating the small town Jerry adopts as home with religious folk whose faith impresses Jerry and us as being sincere. Penn also chooses a lot of bird's eye shots to suggest a heavenly presence who is watching the proceedings. There is a whiff of a Greek tragedy about this film, with Jerry's hubris in making such a grim pledge receiving its just punishment.

The Pledge is not an easy film to watch, and it's not a happy one. But it does have an interesting morality tale to tell and cautions all of us that sometimes failure is simply not an option. l

Monday, February 06, 2006

"Our Backstreets" #5
Thank You, Ms. Friedan

There have been quite a few losses in recent days—Moira Shearer, the lovely red-headed ballerina whose dancing and acting artistry lit up The Red Shoes; Al Lewis, who respectably ripped off the mature Jackie Coogan’s Uncle Fester in creating his hilarious Grandpa Munster; and playwright of the feminine experience Wendy Wasserstein. Civil rights icon Coretta Scott King, certainly the most prominent among the recent dead, had a televised funeral befitting a queen. But the loss that affected me the most was that of Betty Friedan, who succumbed to congestive heart failure on Saturday at the age of 85. A visible shudder went through my body, and unseen hands pushed me into my den, where I removed my copy of The Feminine Mystique from its place on my bookshelf and ran my palm lightly across its paper cover.

While I certainly don’t begrudge the televised tributes Coretta Scott King has been paid, I have to ask whether Betty Friedan’s contributions to freedom are held in equal esteem? The convictions that guided Betty Friedan’s life and work have been in prolonged eclipse ever since “morning in America” meant waking up in the arms of Ronald Reagan and all his acolytes of the Radical Right. I presume that her founding of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) is one of the reasons news of her death came and went in a day.

As a 50-year-old woman, I can’t pretend that I know precisely what “the problem that has no name” felt like for women of Ms. Friedan’s era. But I do identify with her life to some extent because I, like many women through the centuries, have had to make some of the same painful choices she did.

Bettye Naomi Goldstein was an unlovely girl who never fit into the popular set at her Peoria, IL, high school. But she was smart. She attended Smith College and went on to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied under the famous psychologist Erik Erikson. Nonetheless, as bright as she was, she turned down a PhD fellowship at the urging of her physicist boyfriend. Being physically unattractive, Betty felt she had no choice if she wanted to have love. However, the resentment she felt grew too great, and her romance bit the dust. She moved to New York City and became a reporter.

In 1947, Friedan married and started a family. It was during her years of tending to laundry, dinners, dishes, and daisies and letting her education, her brain, stagnate, that she realized how painful “enforced domesticity” really was, and how condescending the remedies she was given for it—charity work, bowling, and tranquilizers. It took her own desperation, and the discovery that she was not alone in feeling it, to make her write about the vapidity of “the feminine mystique” of domesticity as a woman’s highest calling.

Her book kindled a movement in which Betty Friedan, as one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), would play a crucial part. In addition to NOW and NARAL, Friedan also founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.

The reason that I can look at want ads and not find, “Help Wanted—Female” as a category is because Betty Friedan worked to end that practice. The reason other women have entered politics, medicine, and the military in large numbers is because Friedan worked to see that they had the rights and opportunities to do so. Young women who think a backlash against feminism is a blow for femininity might want to go a little further and have their credit history wiped out and rely on their husbands for their future credit-worthiness. Betty Friedan made economic freedom for women a top priority in her fight for all women’s rights.

Most of all, Betty Friedan made me understand a woman of her generation who means a lot to me—my mother. There were times when her manic cleaning, her short temper, and her intense focus on appearance drove me mad. Now I understand that what I saw was the face of frustration. Thank you, Betty and Mom, for making me a better woman.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Two Family House (2000)
Director: Raymond De Felitta

As I was browsing the library shelves one day, looking for something light and interesting to watch, I came across a movie called Two Family House. The box advertised that the film won the Audience Award at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, so I figured I wouldn't be taking too much of a risk in borrowing it--particularly since it was a library freebie. After I finished watching it, the glowing reviews of the movie by Roger Ebert and some other critics came back to me. In between, I had one of my best film-viewing experience in weeks.

The film, which takes place on New York's Staten Island, revolves around Buddy Visalo (Michael Rispoli), an Italian-American WWII veteran who returns home after the war and does what GIs did back then--get married and carve a piece of the American Dream out for themselves. But Buddy isn't just looking for a bread-and-butter job and a cozy bungalow. During the war, radio entertainer and soon-to-be TV host Arthur Godfrey heard Buddy sing to the troops and invited him to audition for his show when he came home. Buddy has nursed this dream all during his tour of duty and is convinced that this could be his shot at the big time. Buddy's fiancee, Estelle (Katherine Narducci), thinks otherwise and pushes Buddy toward safety and security.

By 1956, the year the film takes place, Buddy and Estelle have been married for nearly 11 years. Buddy works in a factory, and the couple still lives in his in-laws' house. His dream of making something of himself has not died, however. After several losing business ventures, Buddy buys a dilapidated two-flat and decides to convert the first floor into a tavern and live on the second floor. First, however, he has to evict the Irish tenants who are living on the second floor, the O'Nearys. Mary O'Neary (Kelly MacDonald) is young and pregnant. Jim O'Neary (Kevin Conway) is middle-aged, drunken, and abusive to Mary. Buddy has his work cut out for him dealing with Jim. Before he can toss them out, Mary gives birth to a half-black baby, obviously not Jim's, and Jim walks out on her forever. A sympathetic Buddy decides to let Mary stay on for a while, and he starts to help her out with odd jobs and the occasional friendly chat.

At first, this arrangement seems just the decent thing to do, but slowly, the prejudices of the Italian-American community start to crowd in on Mary and, eventually, on Buddy. The bald-faced prejudices of the time are on full display. They are a bit shocking to modern sensibilities, but we also see that Buddy has his problems with his social milieu as well that extend beyond his wife's play-it-safe lack of confidence in him and his friends' well-intentioned attempts to support his dreams without providing him with an example of courage he can truly lean on. Buddy feels isolated and alienated; only Mary truly listens to him and believes in him. Mary's courage strengthens Buddy, and they become allies in attempting to make their own lives apart from the expectations of their social groups and the constricting 1950s.

This film is tightly paced, with well-drawn characters of real complexity and truth. It's instructive that rebellions could occur at a time when conformity was the norm, and that those rebellions would be in simple acts of the upwardly mobile working class as well as the more "usual suspect" of 1950s rebellion. I very highly recommend this touching, wonderfully written, acted, and directed indie film. l

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Surrender Dorothy (1998)
Director: Kevin DiNovis

Androgyny and sexual perversion have been staples of pop culture for some time, but they hit a new peak in the '90s. The polarization of the sexes that erupted in the '60s and '70s became a long cultural hangover during which successful coupling became akin to climbing Mt. Everest in many young minds, and an already lengthy adolescence in America was prolonged even further. We saw this phenomenon play out in films such as Slacker, Clerks, Singles, Two Girls and a Guy, and the one that started it all, Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape. A latecomer to this landscape of sexual crisis is Kevin DiNovis' underground film Surrender Dorothy, and in many ways, it has taken the most extreme position of any film I have seen on the subject. At its core are two severely dysfunctional men, one whose fear of women has taken on a long and sharp sadomasochistic edge, the other, a pretty-looking junkie who is, by definition, a liar and a thief.

The film opens showing the midsection of a belly dancer in a restaurant. The film is in black and white, high in contrast, and we are somewhat blinded by this glaring colorlessness as the camera takes a turn around the room. Will this film be about some Turkish mogul, a restauranteur, the belly dancer? A flash of the white shirt of a busboy distracts us, then the camera slowly does a 360 around this man. Yes, the film is about him. His name is Trevor (Peter Pryor), and we watch him fix his gaze on a fork and imagine the fork going into the mouth of a woman. We watch him at the end of the night being spoken to dismissively by his boss (the film's producer Richard Goldberg) and dominated by the head waitress, who refuses to give him a fair share of tips. Later, we see him at home in a warehouse loft, masturbating into his toilet while raking his mouth with the fork. This is the type of sex he is used to having because he is terrified of women.

Enter Lahn, a junkie who is on the run from his dealer because he stole the dealer's entire stash. He holes up with Trevor in the loft, which is subdivided using chain-link fencing and sheets of plastic. Privacy is only a state of mind for these two young men. They witness each other whacking off and shooting smack. A boundary is crossed, and Trevor, no longer alone, is craving real human contact. He begins to crave it with Lahn. When Lahn's stash runs out, Trevor agrees to hook him up if Lahn will do something for him. Trevor pulls out an apron he found in the restaurant and throws it at Lahn. "Wear this and clean up this place", says the fastidious Trevor. Lahn dons the apron, which is emblazoned with the name "Dorothy" and starts scrubbing. So begins Trevor and Lahn's strange adventure in which both men, neither of whom is gay, become more and more closely invested in having a man/woman relationship.

Peter Pryor's Trevor is one of the nastiest characters I have ever seen on screen. He's thoroughly creepy, angry, scary. I'd cross the street to get out of his way. Heck, I'd move out of town! DiNovis' Lahn is common and rather stupid. He doesn't even see how far he has gone until it is too late; of course, he's stoned on smack much of the time, so that certainly clouds whatever judgment he might have had to begin with. Lahn and Trevor are given a couple of speeches that give clues to the origins of their psychologies and why it has led them into this twisted psychodrama. The speeches are a bit heavyhanded, but provide some satisfaction as to why things play out as they do.

Ultimately, it is the relationship between Lahn and Trevor that is as compelling to watch as a house on fire. I literally couldn't tear myself away from this movie. It's a low-budget affair that seems to draw realistically from a life I've never known. DiNovis said the film was conceived as a comedy, and I think 20-somethings will get the joke. I didn't. It just was a sexy, compelling portrait of deviance from a promising young talent. Luis Bunuel would have been proud of Mr. DiNovis. l

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Born Yesterday (1950)
Director: George Cukor

According to Glenn McMahon from the website The Judy Holliday Resource Center (
http://www.wtv-zone.com/lumina/judy/main.html), "50 years after Born Yesterday was released, it was named the 24th greatest comedy in cinema history by the American Film Institute, and today is considered by many to be a national treasure." The fact that its star, Judy Holliday, beat out such powerhouse actresses as Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard), Bette Davis (All About Eve), and Anne Baxter (All About Eve) to win the Best Actress Oscar for her performance may account for the high esteem in which this film is held. While Holliday's screen version of Emma "Billie" Dawn, the character she created as the star of Garson Kanin's Broadway hit Born Yesterday, is as good as the gold Oscar it won, this movie is a fairly unpleasant affair.

The film's title refers to the rebirth of dumb blonde Billie's mind. Billie, a former chorus girl, has been the kept woman (a "fiancee" for seven year) of loutish scrap metal magnate Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). In the opening scene, we watch as Brock barks demands at the staff of a luxurious Washington, DC, hotel with the flashy-dressing Billie slinking at his side, piling fur coat upon fur coat into the bellboy's arms and gazing contemptuously at all within her eyeshot. The first time we hear her speak, it is to answer Brock's ear-splitting bellow from another room with a shout that puts Eliza Doolittle's "EOWWW!" to shame.

Brock is in town to bribe some legislators and wants Billie to be presentable to this corrupt, but cultured, group of politicos. Earlier, he allowed an influential reporter named Paul Verrall (William Holden) to interview him on the advice of his crooked lawyer (Howard St. John). Recognizing Verrall as a well-spoken individual, Brock hires him to teach Billie to speak properly and carry on polite conversation. Verrall takes the opportunity to "corrupt" Billie's blank mind with a thirst for knowledge and a love of country. He means to have her help him get the goods on Brock, but immediately telegraphs his attraction to her. Billie, a very straightforward gal, tells him "I go for you, too." Thus, the final clinch seems a foregone conclusion. In between, we are treated to visits to the Jefferson Memorial and the National Gallery and watch as Billie takes to reading the newspapers and Thomas Paine, her trusty dictionary close at hand. When the final showdown with Brock occurs, love conquers corruption, and money is rejected in favor of happiness. The end.

There were plenty of comic possibilities in this screenplay ghostwritten by Kanin (his feud with Columbia president Harry Cohn kept his involvement strictly unofficial), but Cukor and his players blow almost all of them. Broderick Crawford does little but shout. He completely lacks the delicate touch that would have turned scenes such as the gin rummy game between Billie and Brock into laugh riots. Holliday valiantly keeps setting up the jokes, even when Crawford and the too-serious-by-half Holden keep dropping them to the rug. Finally, Cukor seems to give up. He lets Holliday play to herself, rolling her eyes delightedly every time she says something right with such determination that we can't possibly look at how dead everyone around her is. A more serious scene with Holden during which Billie laments her strained relationship with her father is directed with a heavy hand and further drags the film's tone down.

Still in all, Holliday is such a fresh-faced, delightful star (she gives Shirley Temple's dimples a run for their money) that I found a way to hack through the dead wood and enjoy watching her do her thing. She may have seemed an odd match for William Holden's highly literate liberal, but it's easy to see why anyone would fall for her. Holliday may have made a trademark of the dumb, but sincere, blonde who gets wise in the end, but her stereotypical blondes were always real people. And that's quite an achievement
. l