Ferdy on Films, etc.

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

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Wolfen (1981)
Director: Michael Wadleigh

By Roderick Heath

1980-81 saw a revival of the werewolf flick, thanks largely to the explosion of special-effects technique, that Janus-faced friend of the horror film. Joe Dante and John Sayles’ The Howling and John Landis’s An American Werewolf In London sported set-piece transformation scenes achieved with prosthetics and gas bladders that were, at the time, startling and now just seem to bring those films’ narratives to a screaming halt. Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen, not exactly a werewolf film, eschewed make-up or mechanical monstrosities for its villainy, and this is a problem. The real wolves used in Wolfen, pristinely furred and rather cute, are less threatening and unusual than the film’s admirably long build-up demands.

Wolfen was nonetheless hardly shy of utilizing then cutting-edge technology in constructing a genuinely modern horror film. Wadleigh used the newly invented Steadicam (also used i
n another great 1981 horror film, The Shining) and infrared cameras for POV shots (later stolen for 1986’s Predator), helicopter shots, and multilayered sound recording to create a vision of modern New York that is, in its way, as sophisticated and all-embracing as Dreyer’s style for Vampyr, but in an altogether different fashion. Wadleigh’s camera makes New York over as a kind of primal landscape, alien in its familiarity, sometimes surreally modern, and at other times a near-spectral space.

Where The Howling and An American Werewolf In London, sharp-witted films balanced by strong doses of fashionable gore, tapped into the self-satirizing, self-referential mood of their era and scored with audiences, the more ambitious and original Wolfen belly-flopped big time at the box office. As you’d expect from the director of Woodstock, Wolfen is a radical-spirited horror film (as opposed to films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where the counterculture are the victims, or The Last House On The Left, where they themselves are the horror). Based on a throwaway novel by new-age crank named Whitley Streiber, Wadleigh, displaying the same sweeping command of camera and editing as he did in his great concert film, creates a witty, if occasionally hectoring, thriller. C
onsidering the allusions to Patty Hearst, the Weathermen, and Watergate, Wolfen must have seemed out of its time, and certainly against the grain of the oncoming Reaganite mood. With its insidious vision of omnipresent surveillance, environmentalist bent, and evisceration of corporate culture, Wolfen feels more contemporary now than it did at the time of its release. Wolfen’s use of modern forensic investigation also anticipates the fetishist ghoulishness of the CSI dynasty.

The film opens with two Native American men standing atop a Brooklyn Bridge arch, performing a rite. That night, one of the men, Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), throws a bottle at the passing limousine. In the limousine is Christopher Van der Veer (Max M. Brown) and his cocaine-sniffing wife (Anne Marie Pohtano). Later, this pair and their ex-Haitian secret police bodyguard/chauffeur are savagely killed by unseen beasts whilst visiting Van der Veer’s personal shrine, a windmill set up in Battery Park in honor of his ancestor, who founded the city. The police, and the omniscient security company that was watching over the Van der Veers, are mystified. Police Chief Warren (Dick O’Neill) calls in his ablest and most troubled detective, Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney), who has been suspended due to alcoholic binges after an unspecified personal trauma.

Dewey is a mordant man with a shabby look and shabbier manner. He tramps through the investigation spurning bureaucracy (“The only thing separating you from a guard dog is a brain,” he tells a door-guarding officer, something I often quote to doormen looking for ID), keeps a sign on his office wall that reads “God, guns, and guts made America great; let’s keep all three,” and has a compulsion to make friends with all manner of oddballs and social rejects. Most prominent among them is his forensic expert pal Whittington (Gregory Hines, an obvious star in the making), and zoological expert and all-out geek Ferguson (Tom Noonan). These three, to the disdain and dismissal of the super-efficient security officials, happily drill away on their odd hunches involving wolf hair found on the Van der Veers and on scores of unidentified body parts found scattered all over Brooklyn. The security company investigates radical organizations they feel may have bumped Van der Veer off for his various acts of corporate monstrosity, including one to which Van der Veer’s niece belongs (“Revolutionary my ass!” a technician mutters, “Until her goddamn trust fund runs out.”).

Dewey is handed a partner by the company, Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora - why the hell isn’t that smart, sexy lady used more by filmmakers?), a psychologist with a particular interest into the mindset of revolutionary and antiestablishment movements. Neff (as Dewey insists on calling her) is a wry, skeptical match for Dewey. Dewey soon realizes how his forensic discoveries and the political angle may dovetail. He tracks down Eddie Holt, an old acquaintance. Eddie, in his youth a hot-headed NAM member, assassinated an “apple,” a nonradical Indian leader. Eddie hints about shape-shifting, invoking the full revue of “Indian jive,” but ultimately reveals this as a humorous put-on that nonetheless hints at an unexplained meaning.

Dewey and friends have latched onto the trail of the Wolfen – a super-intelligent species of wolf closely linked to the native humans, who have, like Eddie’s tribe, survived not by running from civilization but by burrowing within its bowels. Now that their hunting and breeding grounds in the slums of New York are threatened, they’ve retaliated directly by killing the mastermind. Eddie and his fellow Indians know of the Wolfen and mock Dewey as an inadequate representative of white America. Dewey and the Wolfen begin their mutual stalking. The Wolfen kills the animal-loving Ferguson when he misunderstands their appearance, and refrain from attacking Dewey and Neff in bed for the sublimely animal reason that killing a breeding pair seems, for them, to be verboten. Dewey and Whittington patrol the Wolfen’s apparent nest – a gorgeously spooky, shattered church – with high-powered rifles, but find themselves outmatched. After a conflict that costs the lives of Whittington and Warren, including a battle that pointedly takes place on Wall St. and ends in flame and bloodshed, Dewey, finally deducing the Wolfen’s motives, signals to them his understanding by smashing Van der Veer’s model of the ultramodern buildings to be erected on their home turf.

Despite being the biggest-budgeted film I’ve reviewed in my horror series – or because of it – Wolfen is the least forgivably uneven. But Wadleigh’s approach is so vigorous and original that you want to forgive his lapses into trite sermonizing and Green-leftie imagery about as deep as the weeping Indian ad, especially in the faltering coda that also hints at an already dismissed supernatural side to the Wolfen. With clever, consistent visual layering, Wadleigh evokes an eerie, alternate universe, showing how the Wolfen’s awesome senses work. The surveillance and lie detector gear the security firm spend a fortune on and the arduous forensic work that Whittington performs, do jobs the Wolfen perform naturally. In the film’s bravura sequence, accompanied by James Horner’s unnerving, exciting score (back when he still did exciting scores), a Wolfen tracks Dewey and Neff from Brooklyn to Manhattan, deducing barely visible tire tracks and intangible scents, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, casually killing a hardhat, and crossing the span – guy wires glowing in hallucinogenic beauty to the Wolfen’s eye. As evidenced by this sequence the cinematography, by Gerry Fisher, Fredric Abeles, and Steadicam inventor and operator Garrett Brown, is often astonishing.

Wadleigh called the film “the thinking man’s horror film,” which is a bit arrogant and easy to ridicule. But the film’s linkages of image and idea are deliberate and rich. Much of the drama revolves around the Brooklyn Bridge, that neo-Gothic link between history and the future, architecture and art. Van der Veer, scion and descendent of a founding family with a shrine of humble beginnings at Battery Park, is a “real friend of the Third World” in Dewey’s sarcastic appraisal, funding government overthrows and the like; he is the oldest, purest incarnation of the invading European exploitation of North America, whilst, as Ferguson describes it, the Indians and the wolves went on the “genocide express,” yet they survive through cleverness. The Wolfen scavenge on the people society allows to be thrown away – the sick, the homeless, the junkies. The movie’s suggestion that urban renewal, supposedly a way of improving the living standards of poor, inner city populations, but actually a device to force them out and usher in gentrification and the destruction of authentic identities, has been proven dead right. Ultimately, Wadleigh, with a certain upbeat charm, suggests the wild, the natural, and the oddball will always beat out the technological, the repressive, and the corrupt.

The messages of Wolfen ultimately hardly matter more than the conservative Catholicism of The Exorcist; they’re both just well-staged yarns. Wolfen delivers through the byplay between Finney, Hines, and Venora, which is humorous and intriguing, and tramples the cliché aspects of Dewey’s outsider cop, Neff’s spunky gal pal, and Whittington’s streetwise black dude headed for a sticky end. Most of the film is a model of careful build-up, sustained mood, and judicious violence. It’s a true pity Wadleigh has not made another film, but he did forge a style that would be exploited by future blockbuster directors.

But I still want to give the Wolfen a scratch behind the ear.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Two of Us (Le Vieil Homme et L'enfant, 1967)
Director: Claude Berri

"I was 8 years old and already a Jew."

This statement seems an odd way for a narrator to introduce us to his reminiscences of youth - odd, that is, for people who had little more to do as children than to be themselves. But, Claude Berri did not grow up during ordinary times. He turned 8 in 1944 Paris, and being a Jew was the fact that governed his every move. How he came to love a Vichyist anti-Semite during the last year of World War II is recounted in the joyful and touching The Two of Us.

The film begins with young Claude Langmann (Alain Cohen) casing a toy store with a friend. His friend causes a distraction, and Claude stuffs one metal truck, then another, under his coat and attempts to leave. A large hand moves into the frame and lands on Claude's shoulder, and the chase is on. That evening, Claude's father (Charles Denner) performs a similar chase around the family furniture to administer a spanking to the mischievous Claude. Mr. Langmann doesn't have the usual worries of a father with a sticky-fingered son. The family's life is extremely precarious, and Mr. Langmann worries that the attention his son is attracting will lead authorities to discover their secret and mean their doom. He laments that Claude doesn't seem to understand the gravity of the situation and will not listen to him. Of course he doesn't. He's 8 and doesn't really understand what it means to other people that he is Jewish.

In the next couple of scenes, it is apparent that the Langmanns have moved house twice. Another prank - this time, smoking in the landlady's outhouse - is the final straw. Claude must be sent where he can do less harm. A woman who has taken the Langmanns in arranges for Claude to stay with her parents in the countryside, near Grenoble. She warns Claude's parents that although her father is a good man, he is a vocal anti-Semite and that Claude must be careful not to reveal his faith. Claude learns that his new name will be Longuet, that he must always bathe alone to conceal his circumcized penis, and that he must say the "Our Father" prayer at night before he goes to sleep. Mr. Langmann drills Claude on the prayer even as his train begins to carry him away. It is hard not to view the moving train and think where else trains took Jews in 1944.

When Claude and his patroness arrive, the old man (Michel Simon) welcomes the boy to climb in his lap and call him "Grandpa." He introduces Claude to his beloved dog Kinou, a sickly and ancient mongrel that seems to sense bombings and that the old man spoonfeeds at the dinner table. We are then treated to Sunday dinner, accompanied by Vichy propaganda on the radio and Grandpa's denunciation of meat eaters ("cannibals"), the English, Jews, Freemasons, and Bolsheviks. The old man's daughter quiets him with a sly reply, "You'd think you had a Jew living here." He replies, "That's all I need!" This sounds like a rocky start for the young Jewish boy.

But The Two of Us takes a different tack. Claude's life in his adopted home isn't at all disagreeable. In fact, it's practically paradise. He is enrolled at school, gets happily into the lice-check circle, and laughs when one infested boy faces the teacher's hair clipper. He is teased, too, as a "Paris brat, smells like a rat," a taunt just a little too close to Jew-baiting for the audience, but a perfectly normal occurrence among children. The teasing turns into a fistfight that leaves Claude with a cut on his head. Grandpa bursts with pride at the young boy's courage. "Grandma" (Luce Fabiole) predictably tells the old man not to encourage him.

Grandpa talks to Claude about his pride in the great Marshall Petain and about his own service in the first World War. He shows Claude a scar, a bayonet wound, he says. Claude says, "It's on your back. Were you running away?" A flustered Grandpa then displays another wound in his gut. Claude says, "That's your appendicitis. My dad has a scar there." It's a funny scene, and Grandpa never gets mad. He loves Claude almost as much as he loves his dog - maybe more. His wife, he says to Claude when the boy remarks on a naked woman tattooed to his arm, is another story. "The first years are great, then..." In this house, Grandma is the boss.

One order Grandma gives Claude is not obeyed. She pours him a bath and briefly leaves the room. Claude undresses quickly and begins to wash. Grandma returns and tells him to stand in the tub so she can wash him. They are already late for church. Remembering what his mother said, Claude refuses. "Don't you want me to see your birdie?" she asks. "I've seen them before." Claude is adamant, and Grandpa backs him up. "That's right," he says. "Don't let her fool around with it."

Claude asks Grandpa a lot of questions about Jews. "How can you tell a Jew?" "They smell." "Even if they wash?" "It's like a goat. You can wash it for 3 hours, and 15 minutes later, it stinks again." Jews have hooked noses to smell out money. On the Sabbath, Jews use no electricity and eat by candlelight. Jews wear their hats indoors while they eat. They have curly hair and big ears. Later, Claude decides to play a joke on the old folks. He knocks at their bedroom door and announces ominously that he's become one of them. "Who?" asks Grandpa. "A Jew." Grandma scolds Grandpa for telling him stories about Jews and giving him nightmares. Grandpa assures him that he has a fine straight nose and couldn't possibly be a Jew. Inviting Claude to sleep with him, Grandpa says, "Now, would I let a Jew sleep in my bed?" That Claude can play this joke with such good humor shows a love and compassion for a man who clearly doesn't know what he's talking about. Later, when the electricity goes out during dinner, they must eat by candlelight. "We are eating like Jews," says Claude. For once, Grandpa accepts this without comment. Love for the boy and the joy of being a grandfather seem to be lightening his reflexive bigotry.

But Claude never reveals his faith. Grandpa finds Kinou agitated one morning, and then goes to the calendar to pull off the slip of paper from the previous day. The new date, June 5, 1944, is D-Day and, according to Grandpa, the invasion kills the prescient Kinou. Liberation celebrants fill the streets of the small town. Grandpa and Grandma sadly remove Petain's picture from their wall and put it away. They know that Claude, too, will be leaving soon. When Claude's parents drive off with him on a bus, Claude smiles and waves out the back window to the sad couple who looked after him so well, loved him, and let him be a child for a few short months. Giving a little Jewish boy a childhood in the shadow of unspeakable death was a great gift indeed. It is no wonder that Berri paid them back with such a beautiful, funny, heartfelt film that doesn't forget the seriousness of the times but never collapses into them. l

Monday, November 20, 2006

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Director: Peter Weir

As the world has gotten smaller and easier to negotiate through electronic means and jet-fueled transport, would-be adventurers have had to venture further and further out of reach. Many victims of modern ennui have turned upward, crawling up Everest like a foolish band of ants to a flame; inward, looking for an inner space of boundless creativity; or outward to the stars, intrigued by the weird and wondrous forms from the postcards sent by unmanned explorers named Hubble and Voyager. Filmmakers have reflected these new frontiers, abandoning the thrilling quests of old in the Wild West, in darkest Africa, and on the high seas for the quaint relics they are.

Thus, Master and Commander: The Far Side of World was a risky venture for Twentieth Century Fox and its production partners to launch. Although Patrick O’Brian’s maritime book series upon which the film was based is very popular, its fan base doesn’t exactly approach the size and fanaticism of, say, Harry Potter loyalists. If the movie were to do well, it would have to appeal to more than the history buffs and be more than a modernized swashbuckler. It would have to create wonder.

I don’t think Master and Commander created as much wonder in as many people as it should have, but I, for one, was completely captivated, convinced, transported, and thrilled by this elegant recreation of a time and place where wonders never ceased for those who lived in it. The time was the early 1800s. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), captain of the H.M.S. Surprise is patrolling in the waters near South America for ships in Napoleon’s fleet. A blow against a French ship will be a blow for England and for the crew’s wallets when they claim the prize of the captured ship and its cargo. Sailing with Aubrey as the Surprise’s surgeon is his friend Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), doctor, amateur naturalist, and civilian. The two men play classical music together and act as each other’s confidante and adviser.

Along on this voyage is midshipman Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), an aristocrat of about 14 years of age. Aubrey takes Blakeney and his young friend, midshipman Peter Calamy (Max Benitz), under his wing in training them to be officers. Among the other assorted officers are first lieutenant Tom Pullings (James D’Arcy), veteran seaman Master Allen (Robert Pugh), and midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby), who lacks the confidence and leadership for his own command.

One foggy evening, Hollom thinks he spies a ship on the horizon. Aubrey and Pullings seek the ship, but see nothing. Hollom hesitates about what he saw, and the crew stands down. Only moments later, the Surprise is fired upon and sustains casualties and damage. The chase is on after the “ghost ship” that hides in the fog, a French ship called the Acheron.

Young Blakeney took wood shrapnel in his arm during the attack and develops life-threatening gangrene that requires that he have his arm amputated. Aubrey visits him in his bunk and makes him a gift of a personally inscribed book about the exploits of Lord Nelson, the one-armed idol of every man on board and once Aubrey’s commander. Aubrey is a leader of men who also can pay individual attention to each man.

The Acheron proves a fast ship and a worthy adversary. It gets the jump on the Surprise by hiding in coves along the shore. Unable to outrun the Acheron, Aubrey creates a decoy. His crew builds a buoy with a light to mimic the stern of the Surprise. “Mr. Calamy,” he says, “You have your first command,” as he sends the midshipman out to float the buoy away from the Surprise. The Surprise then tacks away from the buoy, and all on board listen triumphantly as they hear the Acheron fire on the decoy.

The trick buys Aubrey time to make repairs at the nearby Galapagos Islands. Maturin is in hog heaven, hearing as he has of the strange life forms the Galapagos are said to contain. Blakeney mentions that he sees a lizard swimming in the water. Maturin says lizards don’t swim. Blakeney replies, “This one does.” Maturin is stunned by the discovery of a swimming iguana. He combs the island collecting specimens, one more fascinating than the next, with Blakeney and an ordinary seaman at his side. When they reach the other side of the island, Blakeney spies the Acheron hiding in a harbor. The naturalist and his charges drop their treasures and race back to Aubrey, who immediately prepares to set sail. Maturin protests that he wishes to remain on the island, particularly since Aubrey is exceeding the mandate of his orders in following after the Acheron. Aubrey rebuffs him harshly, putting his mission ahead of Maturin’s "silly" hobby. Later, he will redeem himself after Maturin is shot in a freak accident by returning the ship to the Galapagos so that the bullet can be removed safely on solid land.

Aubrey pursues the French vessel around the treacherous Cape Horn. As the icy waters and high seas batter the ship’s sails, popular Able Seaman Joe Plaice (George Innes) is sent up the mast to tie them down. When he gets into trouble, Mr. Hollom is sent up to rescue him. Hollom freezes in fear, however, and the mast breaks off with Joe clinging to it and must be cut free to prevent the ship from sinking. The crewmen hold Hollom personally responsible for Joe’s death, and their disrespect for him causes Aubrey to order the flogging of one of the men. Soon thereafter, the ship hits the doldrums, and the superstitious crew blames Hollom as bad luck personified. His loneliness and feelings of being out of place are wrenching and tragic.

Eventually, Aubrey catches the Acheron’s scent again when they come upon some merchant seamen adrift after their ship was attacked. Aubrey devises another trick that will help the Surprise move next to their quarry and pummel them with cannon fire, thus piercing the Acheron's state-of-the-art double-hull design with close-range fire and allowing them to board the ship and take control.

Master and Commander is a film that goes from strength to strength. Following the blueprint of authenticity that made the O’Brian books so popular, this film is a time machine. The crew is covered with the scars of battles past, including star Russell Crowe, whose mangled ear presents prominently and unvaingloriously in several scenes. The customs of the British Navy at this time are well observed, from the manner of salutes given to the officers, to the details of a flogging, to the medical practices of the time, and the fine craftsmanship of the carpenters who were always aboard to build spare parts, make repairs, and fashion objects in their idle time that collectors can’t get enough of these days. It’s odd to see such young men in such responsible positions, but to quote from another period drama, Interview with the Vampire, “Times were different them. I was a man and master of an estate.” The cast is strong, right down to the smallest of speaking roles, and make their somewhat idealized relish of service and adventure real and breathing.

Crowe is a perfect balance of humanizing camaraderie, self-assurance, and leadership. He’s a muscular actor who is at his best in muscular roles, such as Aubrey or Bud White in L. A. Confidential. Paul Bettany is an actor’s actor who disappears into every role. In this one, Maturin’s intelligence and civilian railing at military protocol seem to ooze out of every pore.

Weir creates a world both exciting and tedious, horrifying to a modern audience in its crudeness (Maturin must remove the bullet from his own shoulder in a wince-inducing scene), but modern to its inhabitants, as Aubrey admires the inventive construction of the Acheron through a model built from memory by two able seamen who saw it being constructed in an American port. Most of all, Weir brilliantly stages battles at sea. Listen carefully to Aubrey’s plan to defeat the Acheron, then watch as every detail of his plan is put into action in the ensuing engagement. It’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking that pays tribute to the art of battle strategizing and execution. I’m going to quote Aubrey’s plan here. Print it off and then read it after you see the film. See if Weir doesn’t manage the whole scene exactly as planned:

Right lads, now, I know there's not a faint heart among you, and I know you're as anxious as I am to get into close action. But we must bring them right up beside us before we spring this trap. That will test our nerve, and discipline will count just as much as courage. The Acheron is a tough nut to crack... more than twice our guns, more than twice our numbers, and they will sell their lives dearly. Topmen, your handling of the sheets to be lubberly and un-navy like. Until the signal calls, you're to spill the wind from our sails, this will bring us almost to a complete stop. Gun crews, you must run out and tie down in double quick time. With the rear wheels removed, you've gained elevation, and without recoil, there'll be no chance for reload, so gun captains, that gives you one shot from the lardboard battery... one shot only. You'll fire for her mainmast. Much will depend on your accuracy... however... even crippled, she will still be dangerous, like a wounded beast. Captain Howard and the marines will sweep their weather deck with swivel gun and musket fire from the tops. They'll try and even the odds for us before we board. They mean to take us as a prize.

It isn’t easy these days to shoot a film that can make the breath quicken in excitement and a whole world of adventure come alive. Big-screen interpretations of comic book heroes and scifi aliens have, paradoxically, cramped our imaginations. I never expect to be as dazzled and delighted by a tricked-up action movie as I am by Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. This film is the greatest swashbuckler of all time. l

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey (1931)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

By Roderick Heath

1931 was a watershed year for horror cinema. With Tod Browning’s crepuscular, but patchy Dracula, James Whale’s Gothic fairy tale Frankenstein, Rouben Mamoulian’s vivid Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Michael Curtiz’s flashy, absurd Doctor X, the genre found its feet in the Hollywood of sound, and made a big impact at the box office. At the time, they set the pace, created stars, and codified the film concept of Mary Shelley’s homunculus, Bram Stoker’s vampire, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s doppelganger (Doctor X purloined the mad scientist imagery of pulp magazine covers for the cinema). Yet despite their iconic status, the Universal-brand horror films have little relevance to the modern genre. Many of today’s films, however, owe something to another 1931 film.

Vampyr, supposedly inspired by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and other stories in Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection (in truth it owes little but mood to Le Fanu), was at the time completely overshadowed. It was directed and written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the Danish director who had begun with the hit Master of the House (1924). But as Dreyer became more formally rigorous and experimental, exemplified by his now-famous La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1927), he lost audiences. German and Scandinavian directors had a field day with macabre subjects, for visual rhapsodies and post-WWI expressions of mental anguish and collapse. These included Victor Sjöstrom (The Phantom Carriage, 1920), Benjamin Christensen (Häxan, 1921), F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu, of course, 1921), Abel Gance (Au Secours!, 1923), Paul Leni (Waxworks, 1924), and Fritz Lang (coauthor of Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari, 1919, and director of Der Meude Tod,1921).

Dreyer’s efforts with Vampyr were not about telling a story through the symbolic prisms of Expressionism, but pursuing the tantalizing challenge of Surrealism, to capture the essence of a dream as itself; to replicate the sensations, the elided realities and meanings, the disjunctive perspectives. The film’s dialogue is in English, German, and French, with an eye to making export easier, but also contributing to its “nowhere” mood.

Vampyr was produced privately by the film’s star, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (acting under the name Julian West). The sallow-faced Gunzburg plays wandering geek and professional busybody Allan Grey, loosely based on one of Le Fanu’s recurring heroes, (he’s called David Gray in the English version) who tramps about the countryside in tweed suit, jaunty hat, with a net on his shoulder. He suggests a holidaying entomologist with a morphine habit and an uncoventional sex life. He arrives in Courtempierre, an isolated Franco-German village, passing, at the ferry bell, a black figure carrying a scythe, a sight that would make most men turn and head in another direction. The opening scrawl tells us that Allan has had many strange encounters; he’s a kind of proto-Fox Mulder. He settles into a small hotel room, the walls of which are covered in macabre, medieval decorations. He hears someone muttering outside, and catches a brief glimpse of a gnarled-faced man haunting the upstairs. He is awoken at midnight by a visitor; not, as he may have been hoping, the innkeeper’s daughter, but aged local chatelaine (Maurice Schutz) who makes wordless entreaty to him, as an outsider and therefore apparently trustworthy, to care for a package, marked “Not To Be Opened Until My Death.”

Allan, knowing such packages never bode well, tries to follow the old man. He wanders the day-for-midnight wonderland of the village, where shadows without forms move by themselves and dogs and children moan constantly. Allan explores a ruined chateau, which, with its cavernous rooms and labyrinthine halls, exactly conjures those shifting space-time traps of dreams. It is vaguely inhabited by a soldier and a one-legged man, both of whom, when they sleep, have their shadows walk off and perform nefarious deeds at someone else’s bidding. There’s also an ancient crone (Henriette Gérard) wearing Flemish dress of the 1600s and a bespectacled, meek-looking but creepy doctor (Jan Hieronimko - what a name!). In the film’s most bizarre and wondrous moment, the camera explores a vast attic where a populace of shadows are dancing to snatches of Gypsy fiddle, until the crone, on a lower floor, framed by dangling, rotating cartwheels, angrily lifts her cane for silence, which she gains instantaneously. She hands the doctor a vial of poison. Clearly, they’re in league for some awful purpose.

Allan escapes the ruin and reaches the chatelaine’s house just in time to see the shadows of the soldier and one-legged man shoot the chatelaine. His assassination seems almost expected by the household, for he’s been fighting this oppressive, intangible evil. Allan is invited to stay and protect them, Gisele (Rena Mandel, an ex-nude model), the chatelaine’s daughter, Her sister Leone (Sybille Schmitz, the film’s only professional actor) is continually lured into the garden and drained of blood by the crone. In one of the most needle-sharp erotic-horror moments in cinema, Leone awakens from a delirium and latches eyes on her sister, her happy smile broadening into a grin of perverse lust, scaring Gisele away. A servant is sent by carriage to fetch the police; when it comes rolling back, the driver is bloody and lifeless. Allan, exhausted, falls asleep. He dreams Gisele has been kidnapped and tied up in the ruin, and then finds his own body in a coffin; in a bravura long POV shot, we are Allan as the lid of his coffin is nailed on and he is carried by the gloating faces of the doctor and the crone.

Allan awakens with a jolt as panic erupts in the house. The doctor, having called to check on Leone, has poisoned her. Allan and the chatelaine’s loyal servant (Albert Bras) open the package entrusted to Allan by the chatelaine. It’s a book on vampires from the 1770s, based on papers found in Faust’s collection. Despite this lip-smacking suggestion of forbidden lore, it only relates basic stake-in-the-heart stuff, and gives a clue to the vampire’s identity by detailing how, in the 1750s, an outbreak of vampire attacks in Courtempierre were blamed on a dead woman named Marguerite Chopin. Allan and the servant search the graveyard for Chopin’s grave and find it contains the crone. The servant stakes the vampire as Allan searches for Gisele in the ruin. He unties her, scares off the doctor, and gets her out of the haunted village by boat. The servant gets final revenge when he finds the doctor has cornered himself in a flour mill; he sets the machinery rolling and the perfidious medico slowly drowns in tons of white flour, shouting “I don’t want to die!” Might have thought of that before you started poisoning girls and mistreating dogs!

In developing this cryptic, often blackly comic film, Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Mate were inspired a flour mill wreathed in dusty clouds they passed while on a train, a sight that inspired the finale and the hazy, washed-out visuals produced by false light shone on the lens. Contributing was Nosferatu’s designer Hermann Warm, and like that film, Vampyr shares an appealing rejection of studio-created atmosphere for careful manipulation of real settings. Vampyr is technically primitive, with poor sound from an experimental system. Dreyer used this flaw to good effect, muting the dialogue and reduces the soundtrack to menacing rumbles and barely heard sonorous music, adding to the ruined look. Dreyer seems to have been the first director to seek an illusion of the uncanny by devolving the techniques of film, something now every film student tries at least once. Yet Dreyer’s camera is sublimely mobile, roaming halls and rooms with restless, hungry fascination.

Vampyr pilots the next few generations’ worth of experimental film in its attempts to capture the uncanny. In The Ring, when one character judges the mysterious videotape as good in a student film fashion, he’s absolutely right, but that tradition of experimental short, and, more recently, death metal music videos trying to recreate the ugly dissociations of nightmares, have some roots in Dreyer’s style. It’s hard to imagine David Lynch’s films, especially Eraserhead, without Dreyer. Much of what Lynch accomplished - weird soundtrack, disorientating editing, sickly half-seen visions - is present here. But Vampyr is gossamer in its invocation of the morbid, more in the key of Mahler than evanescence.

Vampyr is modernist, in its war with perspective, reality, and the limitations of the senses, and feels particularly reminiscent of Kafka - especially in its dark humor, the way Allan keeps walking into the weirdest circumstances without blanching and falls in love with Gisele at the drop of a hat. It’s also a pure invocation of the spirit of the Gothic genre, that European sense of being enveloped and suffocated by history, something that ultimately was lost on Hollywood. Vampyr envisions a world haunted by loss and a past only visible in shreds, entrapped by identity but adrift between realities. Although Allan and Gisele escape from the fog-shrouded bank, they arrive on the side that our scythe-wielding friend crossed to earlier; it’s hard to tell if the waking world will be better. That waking world was about to collapse in on itself. Under the Nazis, German horror cinema would be extinguished, thanks to their detestation of the psychological and the genre’s too-pointed realisation of what forces were stirring under the surface - Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari envisioned the country as a giant insane asylum waiting for an authoritative administrator.

Vampyr was ignored on release. Dreyer did not make another film for 13 years, until with Day of Wrath (1943) he returned to studying the legacies of historical evil and psychological oppression. Sybille Schmitz later starred in Frank Wisbar’s version of the death-and-the-maiden theme, Faehrmann Maria (1936), which Wisbar remade when he decamped stateside as PRC’s Strangler in the Swamp (1946). Nicholas de Gunzburg became an investment banker in New York, a notable sight for many years walking the streets displaying the same haunted, soulful expression he sports in Vampyr. l

You can now read Rod Heath's poetry and other writing on Rod Writes, http://rodwrites.blogspot.com.

Monday, November 06, 2006

49 Up (2005)
Director: Michael Apted

“Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.”

In 1963, the British TV series “World in Action” aired “Seven Up,” a program that brought together a group of 7 year olds from varied socioeconomic backgrounds and interviewed them about how they saw their future careers and family lives. The idea was to give viewers a glimpse of what the population of England in the year 2000 might look like while giving an airing to the controversy surrounding the lack of mobility in England’s rigid class structure. What followed this somewhat inconsidered idea of dubious value has become a landmark in film documentary – a series of seven films so far that has followed the lives of most of these children at regular seven-year intervals.

I’ve followed the Up series, which has played on the arthouse circuit for years, since I became aware of it; 28 Up was the first one I saw. If you never saw any of the previous films, however, you’d still be pretty well caught up on the interview subjects. Michael Apted, who directed every episode but the first, uses clips from the previous films and provides voiceover summaries to bring viewers up to speed. My husband, who never saw a single Up film until yesterday, was fully acquainted with the project by the end of 49 Up, the newest in the series.

Fourteen subjects have participated in the series at one time or another. Charles and Peter dropped out fairly early, and John went on a hiatus for 42 Up, but is back for the new film. Participating in all seven are Bruce, Jackie, Symon, Andrew, Sue, Nick, Neil, Lynn, Paul, Suzy, and Tony. Apted doesn’t use their last names, and with divorces and remarriages overtaking a number of the subjects, it seems like a good way to go for this review, too.

Our upper-class kids – John and Andrew – went to the prestigious prep schools and universities they said they would when they were seven, and then became successful lawyers with proper wives and families and all the trappings of success. Andrew would have liked to have spent more time with his kids instead of at the office, natch. John married an ambassador’s daughter and does charitable work connected with his aristocratic family’s roots in Bulgaria.

Tony – from working-class East London – wanted to be a jockey at age seven. He did become a jockey but wasn’t good enough to keep at it. He became a cab driver, married in his twenties, had a family, had affairs that nearly broke up his marriage, got through it, and is now living in what amounts to a English colony in Spain for the solidly middle class. The East London girls – Jackie, Lynn, and Sue – all said they had a million options when they were 21, admitted that they had few options when they were 28, and have either stayed married or divorced and remarried once or twice. All have kids. Symon, the only black in the sample, got married, had five kids, divorced, got happily remarried, had another kid, works at a warehouse, and takes in foster kids.

The most compelling member of the sample, Neil, started displaying evidence of mental illness at 21 and was homeless by 28. He eventually ended up in the remote Shetland Islands of Scotland. He pulled himself together, though, and got into politics at the city council level in London. Now, still single and still battling problems being around people, he moved back to Scotland, is running for office again as a liberal in a conservative rural district, and is active in the Anglican church. I can tell you that I and other Up followers were relieved to find out in 42 Up that he was still alive, and I’m delighted that he’s still hanging in there.

To be honest, after seven years, I needed a refresher on who these people were, and even after seeing the film, I couldn’t remember most of the names or associate them with their stories. And that, I think, is the problem I’m finally starting to acknowledge with the Up series. While it has been universally hailed, with Roger Ebert naming it one of the 10 best films (taken together) of all time, there just isn’t anything deeply memorable about it. Almost all of the participants claim that the cyclic intrusion into their lives is painful, an invasion of privacy that forces them to relive old hurts. Suzy, a girl from wealth who went from a cynical chain smoker at 21 to a happily married woman, says she imagines people are interested in her and the others for a few minutes and then they’re on to other things. Even the rather amazing odyssey of idealist Bruce, who taught math in Bangladesh and inner-city London, has resolved in a boringly happy marriage and teaching position at the posh St. Albans school. He plays cricket, is an older parent to two young children, and gets ribbed for going “yuppie.”

Andrew and John have wondered whether this chronicle will prove anything at various times during the series. I have to ask the same thing. As a contemporary of the Up participants, I've seen myself and my friends go through much the same changes. What makes these lives uniquely interesting enough to intrude upon every seven years? Does this utterly unscientific, statistically insignificant sample tell us anything about class, age, divorce, or any other subject dealt with in the films? Does their chronicle amount to one of the ten best films of all time? I say, no way.

Apted hasn’t proven anything about the human condition other than sometimes we make plans and they happen, and sometimes they don’t. Wealth is an advantage for obtaining a similarly wealthy life as an adult, but most people can find a way to live comfortably, even happily. Apted seems a poor anthropologist to me, neither probing nor objective. He's a bit of a snob, asking prying questions of people further down the food chain (Nick’s marital problems, Neil’s enforced celibacy, Jackie’s happiness or disappointment about her daughter being like her) and skimming the surface with the bluebloods. It seems he can’t forget the class question that got him started on this project. Too bad. If he'd dug a little deeper, he might have had something really different. Despite the inherent fascination of eavesdropping on real people’s lives – hence the explosion of “reality” TV – and perhaps the relatively good news for younger viewers that by 50, people seem to finally "get" their lives (balanced by the equally depressing news that they will probably double in size), the Up experience is pretty much like Bruce's description of his relationship with Neil, who roomed with him for two years in London. They keep in touch by letter once in a while, and Bruce wonders what he's up to and hopes he's doing ok. Me, too, guys. See you in another seven years, I guess. l

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Ride the High Country (1962)
Director: Sam Peckinpah

Over the last couple of months, I have been drawn to Westerns. Living and working in a densely populated metropolis has started to give me that hemmed-in feeling, and if there’s one thing you can count on in Westerns, it’s at least a few shots of wide-open vistas. That’s the mythic place the West holds in our imaginations—almost limitless space waiting for the solitary seeker to enter and make things up as he or she goes along.

Ride the High Country was one of Sam Peckinpah’s early films, done before he developed his reputation for extreme violence. It evokes a humorous and mainly sweet nostalgia for the mythic West in part by starring two elder statesmen of Western dramas: Joel McCrea, in his second-to-last film, and Randolph Scott, in his last film. Unlike the vigorous Western icons they played in countless films, McCrea and Scott wind up their careers playing two gunslingers who are coming to the end of the trail.

There are few genres that can so quickly and iconically set a mood as a Western, and Peckinpah takes no liberties with the convention: We get our long shot of open country to start the film. Soon we are drawn into human commerce. Steve Judd (McCrea), who once had a name to be reckoned with, comes to town to take a job with a bank hauling $250,000 worth of gold from miners in the high country who wish to make deposits. Several couriers have already been killed by bandits, and the father and son bankers Abner and Luther Sampson approached Judd because of his reputation with a gun and as a lawman.

The scene during which the deal is struck is a comic gem. First, the milquetoast actors Bryon Foulger and Percy Helton, who play the Sampsons, were actually the same age. Watching them playing father and son in the same nervous, mousy way, looking very much alike, is a sly commentary on the essence of the bean counter. When Judd learns that the actual amount he'll be protecting is about $20,000, the Sampsons say, "Well, it's still a respectable sum." We have to wonder if it is worth the risk of another life, but that's not the Sampsons' concern. Judd, on the other hand, is quite a bit older than they expected, and their rueful glances tell us everything about what it's like to be an older worker - an especially difficult transition to uselessness for a Western hero. Judd says he'd like to look over the contract alone, and he is shown to the toilet. He pulls out his glasses, examines the document, folds his glasses away, and then for no apparent reason, flushes the toilet. He asks for $40 a day, $20 for him and $10 each for the two men he intends to hire.

Before going to the bank, and after dodging a horseless buggy, Judd runs into his old partner Gil Westrum (Scott), who is running a crooked carny act. He tells Westrum about his job and asks him and Westrum's young assistant Heck (Ron Starr) if they'd like to ride with him. After he leaves to meet the Sampsons, Westrum confides to Heck that they'll ride with Judd to steal the gold. "What if he doesn't go along," asks Heck. Westrum says they'll get the gold with or without Judd's cooperation.

Halfway up the mountain, the three men stop at a farm to see if they can spend the night. The pious farmer Joshua Knudsen (R. G. Armstrong) agrees to let them sleep in the barn. Just then, a figure we saw scurry into the house on seeing the men's approach and throw off some scruffy farm clothes emerges from the house. It is Knudsen's daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley), and she has on a lovely and revealing dress. We learn what a stern father Joshua is when he angrily scolds her and tells her to put on proper clothes. She's dying to get out from under his thumb and away from the isolated farm. Heck is smitten with her and encourages the older men to take her with them. They refuse, but Elsa follows them anyway and says she is going to the mining camp to marry Billy Hammond (James Drury). She becomes drawn to Heck as the trip progresses, but his advances are too aggressive, and she bolts for Billy as soon as they reach camp.

The marriage is a disaster from the moment it is official. The drunken revelries end in the near rape of Elsa by Billy's four brothers. Just as she runs screaming from the bridal bed in the camp saloon/hotel, Judd shows up, decks Billy, and says Elsa is coming back with them. The Hammonds call a camp court - the only justice available in this isolated place - but Westrum forces the justice of the peace (Edgar Buchanan) to say that he wasn't licensed to marry anyone. The court must find in Judd's favor. Off camera, the Hammonds beat up the alcoholic preacher and then set out to reclaim Elsa. The film ends in a final showdown at the Knudsen farm between the aged gunslingers and the Hammond brothers.

Although this is not a flat-out, mature Peckinpah film, there are more than glimpses of his savage, macabre style. The wedding scene is filled with grotesques - whores dressed in their gaudiest finery to act as bridesmaids, their obese madam decked out in a green, satin gown with a cone-bustier top that puts Madonna's cone bra to shame, the preacher drunk and drooling. The virgin Elsa, with her short Joan of Arc hair (in fact, Hartley had just finished playing the Maid of Orleans on stage), looks like the perfect sacrifice. The entire scene resembles Bunuel's famous beggars orgy in Viridiana, but in vivid color and tinged with wild West abandon to rev up the Western conventions. We get another comic grotesque scene before the final shootout. Peckinpah photographs a gaggle of chickens and lingers on them for quite some time. It is only after we have dismissed this interlude as a throwaway shot that Peckinpah pans up to the wide-eyed and bloody face of Knudsen, dead and draped across a rail near the chicken coop.

This film has been called an elegy to the West, but I see it as very much a traditional Western. The important relationships in it are between men, setting up father-son and brother-brother associations that, at first, look unique, but actually are very traditional. The caricature father-son and brother-brother relationships are the Sampsons and the Hammonds. The heart of the film is the brotherlike relationship between Westrum and Judd, which becomes severely strained when Judd discovers Westrum plans to betray him. Judd embodies the noble sheriff type who plays clean and stands up for what is right. He came to this position through hard knocks and a lifetime of playing both sides of the fence. He represents the wisdom of age and self-knowledge. Westrum, a weaker and more worldly character of less renown than Judd ever had - he lies about his accomplishments on his carny marquee - is clearly the junior member of the team and was, perhaps, in the son position in years gone by. It is Heck who finally shows the choice that must be made between good father and bad father. When he adopts Judd's ethics, he shows that there is a future for the West after all. In the end, Peckinpah reveals his belief in the salutary myths of the Old West. Imagine that. l