Ferdy on Films, etc.

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

Friday, June 30, 2006

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

It is my considered opinion that the collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger was the greatest of its kind in the history of entertainment. How many directors could claim such genuine masterpieces as I Know Where I’m Going!, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, and of course, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp—Pressburger’s favorite film—and serve as writers and producers for many of their films? I could have chosen any of these films, which I view regularly, to write about, but Colonel Blimp is so decidedly British that I think of it as an ideal introduction to this decidedly British team. (Never mind that Pressburger was Hungarian. He was a fervent Anglophile most of his life.)

Colonel Blimp is an early entry in the Powell/Pressburger canon, but it already has a consistent point of view that would be a hallmark of the team. It also includes a number of their informal stock company—Roger Livesey, previously seen in I Know Where I’m Going!; Anton Walbrook, cast later in The Red Shoes; Deborah Kerr, later the star of Black Narcissus; John Laurie, also from I Know Where I’m Going!; and second-unit cameraman Jack Cardiff, whose distinguished career as a cinematographer would include several Powell/Pressburger films, most notably Black Narcissus.

A Powell/Pressburger film always seems wistful, watching its characters balance between tradition, honor, and simplicity and a magnetic modern world. Interestingly, Powell/Pressburger women generally are very strong-minded and ambitious, a focal point for the tension between modernity and tradition in most of the team's films. Colonel Blimp, therefore, is a bit of an anomaly by placing General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) at the center of the vortex, a career soldier whose fair-fight ethos slams up against the ruthlessness of 20th century warfare. Nonetheless, the three women in Wynne-Candy's life during the 40-year span of the film—all played by Deborah Kerr—become the embodiment for him of the ideal, the never-changing aspects of his world view.

The film begins in the present, with a messenger speeding on a motorbike to deliver a message to a young British officer awaiting orders about a military exercise, the very picture of the revved-up modern world. "War starts at midnight. Make it real," the message says. The officer decides to make it very real by launching a sneak attack before midnight. He surprises Wynne-Candy, the head of the Home Guard, in his club's Turkish bath and declares him and every other sweating body in view prisoners of war. Wynne-Candy protests that the war doesn't start until midnight, to which the brash officer replies that by launching a surprise attack, he was making it "real." He adds insult to injury by declaring that he will never become as complacent as the fat, moustachioed Wynne-Candy. This remark enrages the general, and he dunks the officer in the bath while upbraiding him that he has no idea how Wynne-Candy came to have his belly and his moustache. Since we in the audience don't know either, Powell and Pressburger oblige us with the rest of the movie, a flashback begining in the Turkish bath wherein lingers a young Clive Candy just back from the Boer War, humming an opera tune, "Je suis Titania," from Ambroise Thomas' Mignon that will create an incident later in the film.

Candy has written about his experiences in South Africa for a London newspaper, and a letter from an English tutor in Germany, Edith Hunter (Kerr), finds its way to him. The letter urges him to come to Berlin and stop horrible rumors of torture and other atrocities being spread about the British forces in South Africa. Against his CO's directive, Candy travels to Berlin, where he meets Miss Hunter. She takes him to a cafe frequented by the rumor monger Kaunitz (David Ward) where Candy can confront him. Kaunitz's crowd and Candy alternately bribe the cafe band to play their respective songs ("Je suis Titania" in Candy's case), and Kaunitz at last becomes enraged by Candy's interference. The two men trade insults until Kaunitz spits in Candy's face, and Candy punches him. The incident results in a formal challenge to a duel.

The rituals attendant to the duel are laid out very carefully and in great detail. The courtesies observed for this barbaric feud-settler give the viewer a very clear idea of how seriously the phrase "officer and gentleman" was taken when Candy cut his teeth. Because Candy's insult was to the entire German army, any of its officers can duel with him. The task falls to a reluctant Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), whom Candy has never met.

The audience is treated to only the opening parries of the duel as the camera dollies up and out a high window of the gymnasium where it is taking place. The directors let a nurse relate the results. Candy has nearly had his upper lip cut off. This injury is the reason behind Candy's moustache. Edith attends him and Theo, who is recuperating from a slashed forehead at the same nursing home. Candy and Theo become fast friends who share the same sense of duty while recognizing that they never had a real quarrel. When at last Candy and Edith are able to return to England, Theo sheepishly confesses that he and Edith have fallen in love. Candy enthusiastically congratulates Theo, but when Edith gives him a kiss good-bye, Candy realizes that he has fallen in love with her.

The second act takes us to World War I, and Candy is on the move in France. Unable to reach his destination, he finds food and shelter at a French convent, where he spies a nurse, Barbara Wynne (Kerr), who bears a striking resemblance to Edith. He ascertains some particulars about her which he will use to track her down at home. Soon, he receives the news that the Armistice has been negotiated, and Candy is delighted that victory was won without resort to dirty pool.

His sportsmanlike regard for the Germans seems naive and even moreso when he meets up with Theo in a POW camp some months later, after he has wooed and won Barbara. Theo snubs him, but later phones before he is shipped back to Germany to apologize. Wynne-Candy invites him over to dine with some distinguished gentlemen. All express supreme confidence that England will bail Germany out of its difficulties. Theo sneers at this assembly when he is with his fellow officers on the train, calling them children. Theo recognizes that the rules of the game are changed, and were changing as early as Theo and Clive's first meeting when vicious slurs were being used in Germany to discredit the English.

Act III is, of course, set during World War II. The home Clive and Barbara inherited from Clive's beloved Aunt Margaret (Muriel Aked) is bombed. No longer able to fight in combat, Wynne-Candy becomes head of the Home Guards. He encounters Theo yet again as he is trying to enter England as a refugee. Edith has died and their two sons have become Nazis. He says he grew "homesick" for England, pure and simple, the home of his beloved wife. Clive pulls some strings to see that he is granted asylum but fails to grasp the evil and lawlessness of Nazism that Theo begs him to see. Clive still believes that a war fought fairly is a winning strategy and the only honorable conduct for military men. When their evening together has passed, Wynne-Candy asks his driver Angela "Johnny" Cannon (Kerr) to take Theo to his hotel. Theo is struck by Johnny's resemblance to Edith and realizes that what Clive told him is true—Clive never got over his love for Edith. The closing scene has Clive standing near the site of his bombed house, which is now a water reservoir. He is reminded of a promise he made Barbara on the steps of that house, and announces his compliance: "I still haven't changed."

I realize I may have tried your patience with this lengthy synopsis, but I didn't convey even the half of it. This is a rich and intricate look at 40 years in the life of a career soldier from England's upper class, but curiously titled. During the period in which Clive Wynne-Candy lived, a cartoon character named Colonel Blimp was created by David Low. Blimp was a snobbish, reactionary buffoon whose preposterous statements were barbs aimed directly at the anti-democratic policies of the British government. It's hard to reconcile the cartoon Colonel Blimp with the honorable and lovable Wynne-Candy. They live as one in one respect—a blindness to change and a stubborn belief in the rightness of their own convictions. I surmise, therefore, that the title refers to the life and death of an ideal as the ritualistic honor of the career soldier gave way to a people's army and the brutality of modern warfare. In this respect, Colonel Blimp is a much more realistic and unblinking look at the passing of a modern age of chivalry than the similarly themed Grand Illusion.

The performances are uniformly outstanding. Indeed, Kerr was never better, creating three distinct women that Clive never really sees for what they are. The look of this film is lush on the homefront and gritty on the field of battle. A fine example of the film's exquisite economy of storytelling is the sequence in which we see Aunt Margaret's blank study walls fill up, scattershot, with the heads of wild animals Candy bagged during peacetime to keep himself occupied. This sequence, shot by Jack Cardiff, sealed his fate alongside Powell and Pressburger making several movie masterpieces. An extra on the DVD of the film mentions that Winston Churchill tried to suppress the movie for its sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of a German and because Churchill wanted to dispel the notion that Colonel Blimps still had a place in the modern British army. Actor/director Stephen Fry, who was filmed for this extra, mused that, in fact, Churchill himself was Blimp. Whatever you may think of that assessment, there can be no doubt that the "Blimp" of this extraordinary film is anything but a blustering windbag. He does the British Army and his creators, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, proud. l

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)
Director: Jamie Uys

There’s not much I find funnier than a well-timed pratfall. It’s embarrassing how much I roar when I see a comedian bump into something and fall down. To me, the pratfall is the most sublime of the class of physical humor we call slapstick. As a silent film fan, I’ve seen some of the best slapstick artists who ever lived—Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Colleen Moore, Fatty Arbuckle—all of whom bounced and banged their way into the hearts of audiences the world over. Modern practitioners of the art of slapstick, such as Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, and Mel Brooks, owe a great deal to these early masters.

The medium of film itself lent something unique to slapstick in the early days—the techniques of varying the speed of and reversing the film. This new type of physical gag gave a wacky edge to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, for example, and has somewhat unfairly branded silent films as herky-jerky, fast-motion affairs, which very few of them were. Nonetheless, the Keystone form endured, particularly in British humor, as seen in such television programs as “The Benny Hill Show” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” It is quite conceivable that Jamie Uys, an Afrikaner in South Africa, watched these and similar shows and movies and thought it would be a pip to make movies like this himself. In 1980, he made a very physical comedy called The Gods Must Be Crazy that became a worldwide sensation, proving yet again the enduring appeal of slapstick.

The film is told in a fable-like way, with a narrator (Paddy O’Byrne) beginning with a geography/ethnography lesson about sub-Saharan Africa’s Kalahari Desert. Its harsh conditions are highlighted to emphasize that nobody, not even the animals, hangs around after the rainy season is over—that is, of course, with the exception of the San (known in the movie as Bushmen). We are told that the Bushmen are supreme survivalists who don’t know they have nothing. Indeed, the narrator, sounding like a used car salesman, makes their society seem utopian as they live in perfect peace and harmony with each other and all the good things in the environment.

One day, a bush pilot flies near a Bushman family compound and throws an empty Coke bottle out of his window. A Bushman hunter sees it fall, and picks it up. It is the hardest object he has ever seen, and assumes it was sent by the gods. At first, the family benefits from the many uses they extract from the bottle—musical instrument, skin stretcher, root pounder. But the Bushmen learn covetousness as well, and fight to use the bottle. When one member of the family hits another on the head with the bottle, there is nothing else to be done but to throw the “evil thing” off the edge of the earth. Xixo (N!xau) sets off on his long march to the end of the earth.

The character of Xixo is the core around which several stories revolve. In one, an incompetent band of rebels who have assassinated several members of their country’s government are on the run. We watch as their hideout is discovered, and two of their number try to shoot down a helicopter with a rocket thrower, only to be thwarted because the missile keeps falling out the back of the weapon. Another two are shown in a card game that stops for nothing, including a march across the desert.

Another story involves the encounters of Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo) a refugee from urban living who falls into misadventures with girl-shy field researcher Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers) when she moves to the bush to be a teacher. Steyn goes to pick her up from a distant bus depot in a battered jeep his assistant Mpudi (Michael Thys) calls the Anti-Christ. The jeep is the devil to start and will not restart if shut down. It also has no hand break. It's the height of slapstick when Steyn must open and close cattle gates in the road without losing his jeep down a hill. When he finally does reach Kate, he becomes a stammering fool as he lifts the hingeless passenger door off the car so she can get in. When they stop for gas, Kate gets a face full of window cleaner when a helpful gas station attendant tries to clean a windshield that doesn’t exist.

Xixo moves into Steyn's, Kate's, and Mpudi's world when he is arrested and put in jail for poaching a goat, not understanding the concept of ownership and never having seen a goat or a shepherd before. Mpudi, who speaks the San click language, convinces Steyn to get the "little bugger" out of jail before he dies, unaccustomed as he is to being unfree. A climactic sequence occurs when the rebels come to Kate's village and force her and her class to march with them as human shields as they attempt to reach the border and escape their pursuers. They are rescued by Xixo, who infiltrates the hostage camp and shoots the rebels with a tiny bow and arrow dipped in a liquid tranquilizer.

The film is filled with sight gags, including a rhinocerous stamping out fires (“the firefighters of the bush”), a tree that grabs Kate while she is in her underwear and ensnares her and her rescuer, Steyn, in a ribald dance of disentanglement, and Mpudi swearing at the Anti-Christ in several languages as he throws parts out from underneath the jeep. A clever script, fast-motion action, and ridiculous caricatures all make for a potpourri of riotousness, that, nonetheless, has an acidic quality.

The film plays to our desire to believe that the San are the sane ones and that the “gods” (civilization) are indeed crazy. The warmth and sense of security with which N!xau imbues Xixo's persona (no doubt he was largely playing himself) helps lull us into this wistful trap. It's pretty clear, however, that Uys is sending up the romantic notions that surround Africa.

The idea that a Coke bottle is the first hard object the San have ever seen is ludicrous on its face, and we should be on our guard from that moment on that this is a fractured fairytale. While that fact makes the comedy all the more edgy and funny, some of the sad realities of African life can be glimpsed throughout this film if we care to look. Rebel factions have destroyed the stability of many African nations, and tribal conflicts have cost millions of lives. Driving through a river full of hippos, as Steyn does, is suicide. And the San lead very harsh lives indeed.

A documentary extra on the DVD shows us N!xau 10 years after the filming of The Gods Must Be Crazy. He was living in a border camp in Namibia where people were dying of starvation. A tee shirt he probably got in Paris when he was touring the world to promote the film was in tatters. He has since died of tuberculosis. It makes me sad to think that this natural clown is no longer with us. We are fortunate, nonetheless, to have available this very funny tribute to slapstick and to the bemused spirit of N!xau. l

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Vera (2003)
Director: Francisco Athié

A few years ago, I attended the now-defunct Taos Talking Picture Festival where the Mexican film Vera was getting a rare showing. While the film did well in 2004 Ariel Awards in Mexico, it had not attracted a distributor and was doomed to a short run in a handful of festivals such as TTPF. Nonetheless, Vera was a surprise hit in Taos, perhaps due in part to the presence of the very personable Francisco Athié. His preface before the showing I attended was that we should treat Vera like an LSD trip. If you relax and go with it, he said, you will have a good trip. If not, you will have a bad trip.

Indeed, Vera is a strange, hallucinatory film that reveals itself in a slow, ritualistic way. An idyllic, rural scene gives way to a miner named Juan (Marco Antonio Arzate) lowering himself into a cave with his crude tools to go about his work. A cave-in appears to bury him. But no, he is swept through the cave in a torrent of water. An electric swarm, like a cloud of locusts, sweeps around him, pushing and bending him. A Mayan cauldron appears. He makes a deep cut in his penis and lets the blood run into the cauldron, from which a metal icon emerges. He makes his way through the cave until he reaches an egglike object that expands. A creature pushes its way through the birth canal of the object and emerges. It is young, blue, alien-like, with a visible and glowing heart. Eventually, it becomes larger and more substantial. The creature is Vera (Urara Kusanagi), and she appears to have been born to be Juan's guide through the cave. Vera and Juan encounter a skeleton. Vera dances with it gleefully. Juan flashes on images of his home, his grandchildren, and a couple making love.

It should be clear by now that Juan is dying. Vera is his guide to the edge of death, a kind but singular creature that is both fearsome because it is unknown and a welcome presence in a dark and frightening place. Athié chose a Japanese butoh dancer to play Vera, and this is a high symbolic choice for the film. According to the Flesh & Blood Mystery Theater, butoh is "an enigma, an ever-evolving mystery. Violent or peaceful, slow or manic, painfully intimate or grandly spectacular, freely improvised or choreographed in stylized gestures, butoh seems to fly away from itself, resisting definition or explanation, yet profoundly transforming those who encounter it." When it comes to death, there are no national boundaries, no set rules--only the need to transform life to death and whatever comes after that.

Transformation occurs for the butoh dancer, too. We watch as Kusanagi grows thinner and thinner, the burden of her task in carrying the character of Juan across the river Styx (or some version of it) taking all her substance. Eventually, a Garden of Eden appears to Juan, as Vera holds the refreshment of fruits and light before him. We in the audience are returned to the rural idyll once again.

The story took hold in Athié's imagination as he was in the midst of and recovering from a life-threatening illness. It took him several years to make. He created the film's rudimentary computer graphics (newborn Vera and skeleton, for example) during classes he was taking to learn the art. Vera, I think, was an exorcism for him. He didn't seem to care about its commercial fate.

Vera holds a special place in my life. After I saw it, I was convinced that it was a perfect film for Facets, the nonprofit cinematheque and videotheque well-known throughout the United States and located in my town. I brought a tape of Vera to Charles Coleman, the programming director, and reminded him at least once a month that he really should look at it and consider the film for Facets. Eventually he did. Vera opened for one week at the very end of 2004--its only commercial run--and garnered a 3-star review in the Chicago Tribune from John Petrakis. I was a very proud film buff indeed.

Now I'm overjoyed to say that Facets will be releasing the DVD of Vera June 26 on its own publishing label. Francisco Athié has not made a film since Vera, though last I heard he was working on one. He has a small, but impressive output of films and certainly stands among the fine Mexican film makers who have emerged in recent years. I hope you will give the little film that could a viewing. It's got a lot of heart in it, especially mine. l

Vera will be shown July 14 and July 17, 2006, at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of its Mexican Tales of Darkness and Light series.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês, 1971)
Director: Nelson Pereira dos Santos

During the 1960s and early 1970s, Brazil was a country enslaved to a military dictatorship--and, miraculously, in the middle of a cinematic renaissance. Brazilian filmmakers, inspired by Italian neorealism and the French New Wave, declared they would create a new type of cinema for their country--Cinema Novo (Noh voo). Films of this movement tackled social issues and promoted "tropicalism," that is, a peculiarly Brazilian sensibility rather than an imitation of European aesthetics that was more usual among Brazilian films. Criticism of the military regime, which had been fairly open in the beginning years of Cinema Novo, increasingly had to become allegorical, often hearkenly back to traditional Brazilian literature in order to camoflage the filmmakers' disdain.

Nelson Pereira dos Santos made a masterpiece in 1963 called Barren Lives (Vidas Secas), a straight-on view of the cruel lives of a poor Brazilian family in the country's arid, barren Northeast. By 1971, when How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman premiered, Pereira dos Santos had been forced to retreat into allegory, substituting the incursions of the Portuguese and French into Brazil for the harshness of the current dictators. Although Frenchman is missing the simple beauty and emotional core of Barren Lives, the film achieves something quite remarkable--a straight-on view of Brazilian tribal society as it clashed with the duplicitous Europeans out to rape it of its natural resources.

The film takes place in 1594. The Tupinambas Indians have allied themselves with the French. Their enemies, the Tupiniquins, are on the side of the Portuguese. We see French and Portuguese fighting each other in crude skirmishes, and fighting amongst themselves as the leaders wish to maintain order and European civility while certain of their number prefer to take advantage of a native society unburdened by sexual repression. A Frenchman (Arduino Colassanti) is found to be "mutinously" fornicating with native girls, and he is captured and executed by being pushed off a cliff into the ocean while bound in chains. A letter written by the head of the expedition claims he was unchained and chose to jump to his death, our first look at the duplicity that surrounds the conquest of Brazil.

Miraculously, he survives the fall, only to be captured by some Portuguese and Tupiniquins. When the Tupinambas raid the camp in which he is being held, they seize him and bring him back to a vengeful chief Cunhambebe (Eduardo Imbassahy Filho), who is convinced he is Portuguese and decides to enslave him and kill and eat him after 8 moons (8 months) have passed to avenge the deaths of many Tupinambas at the hands of the Portuguese.

A French merchant (Manfredo Colassanti, Arduino's father) comes to the village, and the French captive pleads with him to convince Cunhambebe that he is not Portuguese. The merchant says emphatically that he is Portuguese for reasons still obscure to me. He advises the captive to sit back and enjoy himself. He will be an honored guest for the next 8 months, will have Seboipepe (Ana Maria Magalhaes), a woman presented to him on the first night of his capture, as a wife, and probably will escape. Slowly, the captive establishes a routine and quickly goes native, shedding his clothes, shaving the top of his head, and eventually fighting alongside the Tupinambas to defeat the Tupiniquins.

He believes he can win his life back by being loyal and helpful to Cunhambebe. He secures 10 kegs of gunpowder from the merchant in exchange for some buried gold and jewels. Unfortunately, both men become greedy and fight over the treasure. If the captive believes he can secure his freedom by presenting the chief with gunpowder, why is it necessary for him to have treasure? This is one of the ways this film shows how truly illogical and irrationally acquisitive the Europeans are.

But the native Brazilians aren't let off the hook. Cunhambebe declares that he will never forgive anyone who has wronged him and his people. An instinct for violence thus seems to perpetuate itself in the Brazilian bloodline, which is one of the observances of the film's intertitles that give the views of Europeans from that time. This depiction of bloodlust is, perhaps, a veiled critique of the modern Brazilian dictatorship that put its own values above the good of the Brazilian people.

Given the title of this film, I don't think it's giving too much away to say that the captive is indeed killed and eaten. We think, like he does, that reason will out. But the native Brazilians have as much use for reason as they do for clothing. We are given a preview of the ceremony as he and Seboipepe enact it as a prelude to making love. Of course, the Frenchman tries to run, but Seboipepe shoots him with an arrow and fills their canoe with leeches to prevent his escape. In his final moment, he yells that his killers will be destroyed by his people, an oath he has been told to say by Seboipepe, and one that comes to pass. Pereira dos Santos thus takes a final swipe at the dictators of Brazil, heirs of the European conquerers who were continuing to destroy the essence of Brazilian life.

If you're not familiar with Cinema Novo films, this engrossing film would be a good place to start. It's sure to give you an appetite for more. l

Sunday, June 11, 2006

"Our Backstreets" #10
Mommie Dearest Strikes Again

Perhaps some of you saw an Associated Press story in your local paper or online news service (Comcast, for example) this past week reporting on the findings of a study comparing obesity in children with parenting style. The headline in the Chicago Sun-Times read "Strict Moms Raise Fatter Kids: Study." The lead graf was: '''Clean your plate or else!' and other authoritarian approaches to parenting can lead to overweight children, a new study finds."

Well, it's hard for me to believe that a study published in the June issue of Pediatrics actually cited the phrase "clean your plate or else" in describing its findings, but since I don't subscribe to Pediatrics, I can't say for sure. The AP article was bylined by Carla K. Johnson, who I have learned is supposedly the first medical writer to have started a blog. She is quoted in Poynteronline ("Everything you need to be a better journalist") as saying, "People comment that my blog is fun to read. I try to look for quirky health stories, something I can make a wry comment about. . . . I'm bringing a more casual tone into some of my print stories." So, I think maybe she made that lead up.

I'm intrigued by how many media outlets picked up this item. Not all of them used the accusatory headline that was in the Sun-Times. The Washington Post started with "Strict Parenting Linked to Overweight Kids." ABC affiliate KATU-TV has "Study Finds Strict Parenting Can Lead to Overweight Kids" on its website. To be frank, however, the Sun-Times headline, while more offensive, was also more honest. The study drew from data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which surveyed only mothers and children.

I have limited access to the data used in this study. You have to pay to use it, and that's exactly what a lot of academics do who can't get funding for their own studies but need to publish to keep their jobs and gain that increasingly elusive tenure. What I have learned is that the study authors constructed four parenting styles using two scales--maternal sensitivity and maternal expectations for child self-control--and compared the mothers in the data mine's longitudinal study with the weight of their offspring over time. Hence, the finding that what they called "authoritarian" mothering created fatter children.

Why the National Institute study chose not to involve fathers in their data mine is a basic question any reporter should have asked. A good reporter also would have asked about food choices that were the norm in the study households. Fast food is a popular--and fattening--choice because almost all kids will eat it, and modern families frequently don't have time for traditional sit-down meals. In addition, there was no mention of the commercial food industry that creates demand for high-calorie cereals, desserts, and snacks through advertising and entertainment tie-ins as being a link in the child obesity chain. I question the peer reviewers at Pediatrics for accepting this article for publication, but I'm not really here to bludgeon the academic press.

Rather, I am tired of the media taking the easy way out on medical studies and especially looking for "hooks" that will resonate in the public consciousness. The long and complicated history of Mom in the culture wars that have dominated the second half of the 20th century is further tangled by reporters looking for wry and quirky data to feed undigested to media that are getting increasingly boilerplate in their coverage. (I also wonder why Carla Johnson [or an editor at the Sun-Times] felt the need to Anglicize the name of the study's lead author from Kyung to Kay, but that's another issue for another day.)

Moms have a hard time these days juggling multiple responsibilities, and don't deserve to be made to feel guilty about whether their necessary disciplining is going to jeopardize their children's health. I think perhaps journalism ought to worry less about strict moms and more about lax reporters and editors and the health of the news they're putting out there. l

L'Âge d'Or (The Golden Age, 1930)
Director: Luis Buñuel

If you asked me who I thought was the best director of all time, I’d answer Stanley Kubrick. I love every one of his films because they are epic in both the size of their stories and the scope of their ideas, visually stunning, and exquisitely edited. His films were made with the studied slowness of a master craftsman, compensation for his small output. Stanley Kubrick appeals to my sense of grandeur, beauty, and wonder.

Now if you asked me to name my favorite director, I would answer without hesitation Luis Buñuel. He is almost the polar opposite of Kubrick. His interest is in the disorderly darkness of small minds, and he is virtually indifferent to production values. From film to film, his ideas are repetitive and personal. He made films quickly, including a lot of hack work. He is anything but studied. But he has what Kubrick lacks—an irrepressible and irresistible glee!

Those familiar with Buñuel know his films linger on sexual obsession and perversion, an almost superstitious rejection of the Catholic Church, and the hypocrisy of the upper classes. You will find women strapped into fuck-me shoes in many of his films. He also enjoys mannequins and prosthetic legs, which his ridiculous male protagonists tend to fetishize. His clergymen seem to do more harm than good; for example, Nazarin (1959) shows a despised priest set off into the countryside to spread Christ’s good word. Why despise such a humble man? Because he causes trouble wherever he goes, from labor strikes to premature death! Buñuel also likes to fill his scenes of bourgeois life with farm animals or have his well-heeled characters walk endlessly to nowhere.

You’d think that seeing him lampoon his favorite targets in familiar ways would get old after a while, but I never tire of his vision. His films are filled with joy, his targets richly deserving of the pantsing they get, and his ideas truly unique. It was with great anticipation, therefore, that I viewed L'Âge d'Or.

L'Âge d'Or is Buñuel's second film with Salvador Dali. The two surrealists made a sensation when their maiden film together Un Chien Andalou (1929), a compilation of dream images, shocked Paris audiences with the slicing of a woman's eyeball in the opening sequence. The French surrealists gave it a standing ovation and hailed it as the first true surrealist film. L'Âge d'Or could be considered something of a sequel by the pair, at least in its refusal to make much sense and in the overall dreamlike quality it creates. But Buñuel directed this film alone, placing more emphasis on narrative than Dali was likely to impart.

The film starts with a nature treatise on the scorpion. We are instructed in the structure of a scorpion's tail, the nature of the venom it injects when stinging its victims, and how handy it is in overpowering rats. We see scorpions fight amongst themselves, and sting a rat on the nose, causing it to scratch furiously at itself. Are we being fed an allegory for the rest of the film? Not really. Luis just likes showing insects on screen.

Next we see a half-dead Spanish partisan (Max Ernst, the founder of the surrealist movement) trudging from a craggy shore. He sees four bishops praying on some coastal rocks. He returns to a hovel where his comrades are wasting away. He informs them that the Majorcans have landed. They go off to fight, but one by one they fall in their tracks. Boats land and a strange assortment of gentry climb onto shore, where the rotted bones of the bishops are strewn among their clerical garb. Next, we learn that the great city of Rome was founded, and get postcard views, deliberately called out like a tour guide.

Other odd ceremonies ensue, but the pivotal moment is when a man (Gaston Modot, a painter and friend of Picasso, later a full-time actor) is pulled off a screaming woman as he attempts to rape her in the mud. Handcuffed, he is marched into--and all over--town. The man is enraged by things of nature--kicking a barking dog and squashing a beetle. He ends up at a fancy ball where he encounters the lover (Lya Lys) about whom he has been fantasizing. A donkey cart wheels across the ballroom floor unnoticed by the partygoers. The man slaps his lover's mother for spilling sherry on him. The partygoers are outraged, but the woman is thrilled. The lovers meet for a tryst in the formal gardens, but the man is grabbed away from the woman. Still in the throes of sexual ecstacy, she sucks the toes of a statue.

It turns out that the man is a goodwill ambassador in whom much trust has been placed. Those who would have taken him away are forced to release him, baffled. The film ends with a story of sexual debachery and murder in a fortress, showing us several members of the gentry following a man who looks like Jesus out of the castle gate.

Watching this film was like looking at a sketchbook, with all of Buñuel's iconography coming into being--the sexually obsessed man, the insects, the clergy, the livestock. At one point, the woman walks into her bedroom and angrily shoos a cow off her bed, as though it were a house pet. This linking of livestock with gentility reminds us that we are animals, too, particularly in bed. In Buñuel's films, the women generally are very refined (in Viridiana, the main character is a novice at a convent) but are shown to be as sexually obsessed and twisted as the men who pursue them. But they all seem to be such happy perverts that I can never condemn them, no matter how outrageously they behave (for example, in El, the insanely jealous bourgeois husband attempts to sew his wife's vagina closed).

A few scenes have a painterly touch that only Dali could have created, for example, one in which we see the back of the woman's head like a madonna in an ethereal heaven as she gazes into her mirror that dissolves into a cloud tableau. Despite the artistic success of the film, L'Âge d'Or ended the Dali-Buñuel collaboration. Buñuel went on to make Las Hurdes (Land without Bread), a socialist documentary and other more politically charged films before settling into his fictional critiques of society with such scandalous and brilliant films as The Exterminating Angel, Belle de Jour, and his last and best film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Peculiar as some of his ideas may seem, here was a man who knew what he wanted, pleasing himself behind the camera and, in the process, pleasing so many moviegoers, too. l

Dear readers, this is a repost that includes the pictures I so wanted to show you. Blogger was not my friend for a while on this one, but persistence--and an enomous love of Luis--paid off in the end.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Overlord (1975)
Director: Stuart Cooper

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I tucked into a few war movies, including my first-ever viewing of the ripping epic The Longest Day (1962). This film covers D-Day from every possible angle--English, American, German, French--and took three directors to craft. Its all-star cast of action heroes (a leaden John Wayne, a diffident Robert Mitchum, a very young and exuberant Sean Connery, and many more) ranged over the wide theatre of the war with panache, while the expert script team (including From Here to Eternity author James Jones) supplied a pretty accurate accounting for them to portray.

I feel fortunate to have seen The Longest Day so soon before seeing Overlord, with its decidedly different angle on Operation Overlord, a.k.a. D-Day. The Longest Day goes out of its way to explain the strategy and events on all fronts, even including a German war strategist who does nothing all day but dream up different battle scenarios, one of which involves an "unlikely" assault at Normandy. Overlord is a unique mix of imagination and actual World War II footage that provides precious little in the way of explanation, relying instead on evocative sounds and images to provide character motivation and mood. Knowing more about the lay of the land, so to speak, from The Longest Day, helped deepen my appreciation for this moody, mournful film.

The movie opens with a completely dark screen. All we hear is a persistent crunching, metallic scrapes, and engines cranking. Eventually the screen comes up on platoons of German soldiers moving along with their panzers and cannons along rural roads. They look as mechanized as the sounds we were forced to concentrate on by director Cooper. We see aerial footage of Paris, its streets empty, its Arch of Triumph the only place where human life can be seen--tiny figures that are undoubtedly German moving along its summit. Finally, we see Hitler looking out an airplane window, surveying his new conquest. This documentary bit of scene setting, done without comment, is grim--a real look at what all the fighting was about.

The scene switches to a young man named Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner), who is pedaling his bike up a country road to a neat English home. His father asks him where he has been. "The farm," Tom answers, to get some reading material. "David Copperfield." Tom's father says he won't have much time for reading if basic training is the same for Tom as it was for him. Both men enter the house. Tom pets his Irish setter. His parents give him brave smiles and small words of advice and send him off to war.

This is a scene as ordinary as can be--and likely exactly what happened all over a world at war. Its very homeliness is what makes it so touching. We instantly feel how vulnerable Tom and others like him were and are. We begin what will be a long, sad journey of dread as Tom is introduced to the rules and rigors of soldiering.

Tom arrives late to camp after missing his train. He gets the typical runaround by his drill sergeant, who makes him leave the barracks, knock, and ask permission to enter. Tom seems bemused, as most civilians do upon encountering the seeming illogic of the military mind. But systematically he is stripped of his civilian clothes, hair, and manners as he learns to march in formation, stamp his feet with loud authority, and fear getting out of line. The one time he breaks a rule is to stop with his mate for a smoke while out on a march. His friend talks sadly about the girl he lost, and Tom talks sadly about Tina. His dog. When Tom tries to cross a deep ravine to catch up to his fellow trainees, who have left them far behind, he knocks himself out falling down its steep sides and ends up thrown in the brig.

Tom is so clearly not a soldier. He's not really even a man. He turns 21 while at camp. He runs from a chippy who tries to give him a little action at the movie theatre. He meets a girl at a dance who might be the only girl he's ever liked. Tom understands that his temperment is so at odds with the task at hand that he is certain he will be killed in battle. His mates joke about a request he put to one of the officers. Tom asked if anyone could be granted compassionate leave from training camp. The officer says, yes, under certain circumstances such as a death in the family. Tom says that nobody has died yet, but that there is about to be a death in the family and he therefore requests leave to go home and comfort his parents!

As invasion day draws nearer, we view more archival footage of the war preparations. One particularly mesmerizing scene shows the launching of a giant spool, spun across the water by something that looked like flares on its spokes and sending sheets of water flying in all directions as some kind of camoflage. Of course, more traditional amphibious equipment shares the stage with the nervous soldiers waiting to get into the war.

We also grow sadder as Tom's dreams more clearly foreshadow his death. Just before his unit is deployed, he writes to his parents that he expects to die. "I can feel it, like a cold coming on." He reasons that the news would be better coming from him than from an official telegram, but in the end, he burns the letter in the bonfire on which all the soldiers are discarding any items the enemy could use if they were confiscated. "I have nothing now," Tom muses in voiceover. He's already begun to give up the ghost.

This film focuses on the destruction and waste that is war with expert cutting between the filmed screenplay and archival footage that comprises a good third of the film. I felt extremely sad, not vengeful or convinced of the necessity of eliminating the fascist threat, in spite of graphic images of the Blitz and massive bombings. I can't really explain that reaction either, though the elegaic score by Paul Glass may have had a lot to do with it. There is something about showing violence stripped of any narrative or context that exposes it for what it is--madness. Adding the ordinary Tom, who sees his death as an inevitability and almost makes it happen in an ecstatic fantasy, contributes a Christlike sacrifice to the mix.

I've read criticisms of this film that mark it as cliche-ridden, an interesting failure. I vehemently disagree. Its very famliar story, told through an economy of words, a genius selection of images by Stanley Kubrick's cinematographer John Alcott and editor Jonathan Gili, and a very affecting performance by Brian Stirner make Overlord a fine, archetypal film of war. l

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Body Double (1984)
Director: Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma has made a successful career as a director of thrillers. His first big splash (of blood) was his smart adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie. He went on to make an uberviolent Scarface that shocked and delighted film buffs and regular moviegoers alike. He graduated to more stylish action/thrillers with his remarkable The Untouchables. And then there's Body Double.

Body Double is a film that almost defies category. It is a Hitchcockian thriller. It is a comedy. It is a horror movie. It is a music video. It is not as graphically violent as some of De Palma's other films, but it has one of the most famously bizarre murders the silver screen has ever known. It is riddled with continuity errors and obviousness in its scripting. Its cast of C+ list actors (excepting maybe Melanie Griffith, whose career was still revving up) screams direct-to-video. Yet, this film is so stylish and does all of its cobbled-together bits with such professional ease and verve that I have to call Body Double a major motion picture in the manner of The Big Sleep. It stands the test of time almost despite itself.

The film's opening is reminiscent of the beginning credits of Ed Wood, panning through a fake graveyard on a movie set. We land on a man lying in a coffin. He opens his eyes, bears his vampire's fangs, and freezes. The man is Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), an actor who suffers from claustrophobia. After his director (Dennis Franz) tries fruitlessly to get him to snap out of it, Jake is dragged from the coffin and sent home to recuperate. When he arrives there, he surprises his live-in girlfriend (Barbara Crampton, star of the cheesy horror comedy Re-Animator, reviewed elsewhere on this site) having sex with another man. One defiant look from her sends him scurrying from his home and off in search of temporary quarters.

Jake learns that the director who promised he'd be able to come back to shooting in the morning has lied. The newly unemployed Jake starts making the rounds of acting auditions, interviews, and classes, where he keeps running into another actor named Sam (Gregg Henry). Sam overhears him tell a friend he needs a place to stay, and Sam asks Jake to fill in temporarily as housesitter while Sam leaves town for an audition. Jake is overjoyed and especially when he arrives at a luxurious space-needle bachelor pad. Sam brings Jake over to a telescope and lets him get acquainted with the next-door neighbor, a beautiful, rich woman who Sam says does a masturbation show in the window every night like clockwork.

Of course, the lovelorn Jake is a return peeper, but he starts seeing some things he doesn't like. A man comes into the bedroom one night, awakens the woman (Deborah Shelton), argues with her, slaps her, and leaves after taking money from the wall safe. The next day, Jake is driving past the gate of the woman's home and sees a man waiting at the end of the street in a car to follow her. Jake follows them both, and a long sequence weaves the three characters through a mall, to the beach, and into a tunnel where the woman, Gloria, pulls Jake out of a claustrophobic terror and comes close to having sex with him.

Now that he's made a connection, Jake has to follow through. He practices what he will say to her on the phone until he sees the man who followed her in his car, a Native American, up in her bedroom robbing her safe. He phones, not to make a date, but to warn her of the danger she's in. What happens next has to be seen to be believed.

It's obvious from fairly early on that Jake is being set up. We can even guess by whom. The set pieces are so familiar and played for all their cliche value. Nonetheless, at some point, De Palma actually has us wondering what is up. I think that point is the near sex on the beach scene. It has to be a fantasy, we think, but De Palma plays it as a reality. I'm still not convinced it really happened. This twist on our own voyeurism puts us in Jake's place. What are we seeing? Have we been set up to expect the obvious? It's ingenious and one of the things that sets the film a cut above many others of its type.

I especially enjoyed Jake's foray into the porn movie industry to track down what he thinks is Gloria's body double. Posing as a porn actor, he is cast as a geek in sexual toyland in a very colorful, well choreographed and scored scene. A real porn director could never imagine shooting something like this, but De Palma had fun experimenting with making a music video. It's a good one, too.

De Palma also has fun with props, making them outlandish, cheap, and delightfully cheesy. His touches of eroticism are light (almost too light in the porn movie) and have us wondering what kind of a creep we're cheering for. Jake seems like an all American boy, the kind that masturbates to R. Crumb comic books, that is. De Palma knows his target audience and lets them sit in the driver's seat of this bumper-car thriller.

I recommend Body Double to anyone who wants something a little different. It's got it all--and a little bit more. l