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Friday, September 30, 2011

Hiroshi Teshigahara | Suna no onna (Woman of the Dunes) and Rikyū

two films by hiroshi teshigahara
a house at sea

Kōbō Abe (screenplay, based on his novel), Hiroshi Teshigahara (director) Suna no onna (Woman of the Dunes) /1964

The death of Hiroshi Teshigahara on April 14th of 2001, led me to review the film, which I last saw, I believe, while in college. I remembered little of the film, and was delighted to rediscover/discover this masterpiece.

Although critics of the sixties (and some today) make a great deal of Abe's existentialist concerns, I think today the film points us less to its philosophical (and thematic) issues, while revealing its closer relationship to the Absurdists of the 1950s and early 1960s such as Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. While clearly having a relationship with Sartre's and Camus' ideas, the film has less to do with moral action than it does with indeterminate purposelessness, and its metaphors continually point to the absurdity of the major characters' situations.

     Like many of the film's beautiful images, the plot is nearly an abstraction and can be easily summarized: an entomologist, Niki Jumpei, visits an isolated island consisting mainly of sand dunes, home to the beetle he is researching. He plans three days on this desolate island, returning to civilization each afternoon by bus. When he misses the bus, some local villagers, actually wily town elders, suggest that he stay in a local house. The houses, however, all appear to be located in deep ravines of stand, with access only through rope ladders. 

Niki, a true innocent, descends to the house assigned to him, and enjoys a pleasant meal, despite the continuing intrusion of sand, with the woman living there, a widow whose husband and daughter and been buried in a sand storm. 

At first, the widow seems highly uneducated, explaining the her house is also subject to rot because of the moisture in the sand, an idea to which the scientist, Niki, ridicules: we all know sand is dry. Other such sentiments have led some critics to describe her as ignorant, but we later learn that she is far wiser than her "guest."

The widow spends the night, oddly to Niki's way of thought, digging out the sand from around her ramshackle house, depositing it in containers which the locals hoist up and spirit away (for illegal use, we later learn, in construction; sand with such a heavy salt content is no good in making concrete). She explains that it's easier to work at night, and the sand must be taken away if her and her neighbor's houses are to survive. Despite the continual rain of the fine grains of sand, Niki eventually falls to sleep, awakening to observe his now-naked host lying upon her futon.

Dressing, Niki arranges his knapsack and bugs, preparing to leave; but when he seeks out the ladder, he discovers it has been pulled up. Desperately, he tries to climb the walls of sand on either side of the house, producing merely small avalanches of more sand that results in him falling back to where he has started from.

Querying his host, the terrified Niki demands an explanation for what she answers "he already knows." He has been duped by the locals, and is now trapped like an animal in this hell of a sand pit. The island gets few visitors, and like others before him, he has been "kidnapped" to help in the village's activities.

The rest of the film is a study in Niki's reactions, as, at first remaining determined to escape, he refuses to help shovel the sand, later turning to violence, gagging and typing up the woman. When he finally takes the towel from her mouth, she explains that the drink and food they have are rationed, and they will not deliver any new water until he begins to work. 

As the two endure the never-ending rain of sand in their horrific thirst, Niki finally surrenders, and water is delivered. In a beautifully filmed scene of high eroticism, the two carefully brush and wash the sand from each other's bodies, the woman—who obviously has been starving for the touch of a human hand—gasping in the simple pleasure of the act.

 Niki later binds together enough rope to temporarily escape, but when he attempts to outrun the local posse, he falls into quicksand; they dig him out only to return him to his internment. Pleading for just a hour each day at the ocean, Niki is hopeful that the local leaders may decide in his favor.




They will grant him his wish, they report, only if he performs sex with the "woman" while the entire village
looks on. evidently their only form of entertainment. In a violent scene in which he attempts to force her to join him in the act, Niki loses out to the woman who is determined to keep her moral ground.
 Niki, it is apparent, must come to terms with the absurd conditions of his existence. At one point, he asks the obvious existential question: "Do you shovel to survive, or survive to shovel?" Yet a far more important interchange re-veals the miraculous sal-vation of their lives; referring to the endless sand about them, the man observes: "It's like building a house in the water when ships exist. Why insist on a house?" The wiser woman provides the simplest of answers in such an absurd world: "You want to go home too."

The home Teshigahara builds for the film viewer is an ever shifting reality that is simultaneously both breathtakingly beautiful and horrific. For this couple not only must live in a world in which no values are permanent, but endure a ever changing landscape that reminds them every moment of their own mortality. Whereas, at the beginning of the movie, Niki checks his watch often, by the end of the film his new Eve reports that she has no idea of the time.

What ultimately comes to matter most is the relationship forged between the two. When the woman becomes pregnant and the villagers are forced to lower a ladder to take her away, they forget to pull it up, and Niki cautiously follows them into a possible escape.

Yet in the next scene we see him against the house in the pit of sand. He cannot leave her. Besides he has made a new discovery: he has found a way to draw water out of sand just as she has maintained a house on a sea of sand. The absurd has been transformed into reality.

Los Angeles, May 4, 2009
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (May 2009).              

living in vain

 Genpei Akasegawa and Hiroshi Teshigahara (writers) [based on a fiction by Yaeko Nogami], Hiroshi Teshigahara (director) Rikyū / 1989

 The great Sixteenth century master of the tea ceremony and aesthetician Sen no Rikyū carefully fills the pot with water in preparation for the highly ritualized tea ceremony. Upon choosing a single flower from a bush for an floral arrangement, he commands that all the others in bloom be cut away. The ceremony itself, the tea prepared as part of Rikyū's lessons for his master, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, is a slow one, filmed by Teshigahara in dark tones, with the only the red bowl (Hideyoshi will not permit black bowls, although they too are described as "venerable") that will eventually contain the tea glowing against the rest of the screen.

In a sense, this one scene is the essence of Teshigahara's 1989 film, and the pace of this scene, the quietness of tone, and the fraught relationship of master teacher to his master warrior alters little throughout the rest of the movie. Like the ceremony itself, everything in Rikyū lies in the subtle details of movement and verbal expression.

Hideyoshi is most appreciative of Rikyū's (the great Japanese actor Rentaro Mikuni) lessons, and it is clear he would like to become an cultured man of aesthetics like his teacher, and he seeks the graciousness and ceremony of the traditions. Yet he is a crude version of his own desires, at heart a brutal warrior, who as the movie proceeds, grows into an increasingly blundering ox. It is clear that ultimately, the two men, Rikyū and Hideyoshi cannot coexist.

 One of his first great joys is Hideyoshi's invitation to serve tea to the emperor himself, an honor that might overwhelm anyone. Teshigahara's subtle direction shows us an unsure server, who begins with shaking hands; yet he does succeed, and this, in turn, leads him to award his tea room with a surface of gold. A new pot, cast especially for him, is rejected since it has turned black.

In the hands of a broader director, we would immediately perceive Rikyū's displeasure in the changes taking place in his master's house. Indeed, some of Rikyū's friends, Soji in particular, are surprised by the teacher's placid acceptance of these changes. Although remaining true to himself, however, Rikyū admits his own love of the gold-covered walls, which makes the room seems almost "infinite."

Like numerous artists before him, Rikyū clearly attempts to remain apart from the political world stirring around him. But when Hideyoshi declares his decision to go to war against both China and Korea, Rikyū recognizes the folly of the acts. Hideyoshi has already demanded the death of his own brother for daring to doubt his intentions, and commands Rikyū to poison him in the tea ceremony.

As the two men, Rikyū and Lord Hidenaga, dine together we are still uncertain of the outcome. But when Rikyū joins him in the drink, we realize that he will disobey his orders and that he can no longer remain neutral in the inevitable war between the moral values of the past and the expedient demands of the present. But Teshigahara also suggests in Rikyū's passivity, that there may, in fact, be no gap between the two. As we all know, the worship of past values and the aggressive brutality of the present may actually represent different aspects of the same thing. One need only remember Hitler's adoration of Wagner to comprehend this fact. The gift of a globe to Hideyoshi might almost be read almost as a reference to Chaplin's comic portrayal of Hitler in The Great Dictator, particularly in the context of Chaplin's own neutrality in World War I.

Even though he has disobeyed his master, Rikyū still refuses, despite Soji's and his brother-in-law's pleas, to save himself and his family. Yet the showdown between the two is inevitable, as Hideyoshi's visits Rikyū, presumably seeking advice. Rikyū advises against his master's attacks on China, which results in the removal of all statues of Rikyū and his being banished to Kyoto. For his insolence he is later ordered to kill himself.

Finally, it seems, Rikyū has realized that art cannot substitute for a life nor protect one from it. As he leaves, he discusses his actions: "I do not want to die, but I do not want to have lived in vain." The film ends with the terrifying vision of a father and daughter playing with the globe, followed by the facts that help us to realize, in the context of this dark and brooding dialogue between action and aesthetics, that all life is fleeting: Rikyū died in 1591. The shogun died six years later in Korea.

Los Angeles, May 30, 2009
Both pieces reprinted from Nth Position [England] (June 2009).


Orson Welles | The Lady from Shanghai





A DOUBLE LANGUAGE
by Douglas Messerli

Orson Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King (writer), William Castle, Charles Lederer, and Fletcher Markle (uncredited writers), Orson Welles (director) The Lady from Shanghai / 1947

After a very pleasant dinner at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Ray's restaurant, and sitting for a hour transported in time by Christian Maclay's marvelous The Clock, I attended a showing at the Bing Auditorium of Orson Welles' film noir The Lady from Shanghai.

I had seen this film several times years earlier, particularly when I taught as a teaching assistant in film at the University of Maryland, where then-professor Joe Miller included the Welles film in his course. I remember it well for its marvelous images—clearly the reason why Miller taught it, since he eschewed all talk of story in favor of camera techniques—but I could never quite figure out the story, or, at least, the motivations of the characters for their complex maneuvers in trying to outwit and/or destroy one another.

Let me try quickly to get that lumbering beast of burden out of the way, so that I can focus better on the film's achievements and failures.

A somewhat "dumb" Irish seamen, Michael O'Hara (Welles, speaking in a brogue I am sure has never been heard anywhere in Ireland) accidentally encounters a beautiful blonde (the usually red-haired Rita Hayworth, married at the time to Welles) in Central Park. As her coach passes, he is struck by her beauty and is only please to come to aid a few minutes later when hooligans attempt to overtake her coach.

The woman, Elsa "Rosalie" Bannister, is married to the famous defense attorney, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), a mix of a deformed and bitter old man and a rather witty and world-weary figure, who immediately recognizes the impact of having a young handsome man at her side. How Elsa and Arthur have ever come to marry is unclear, but we suspect both her greed and desire for money and blackmail, perhaps, on his part have helped in bringing them together. Her boredom and unhappiness in the relationship is all too apparent.

The Bannisters, newly arrived in New York, on their way from Shanghai (why they have been in Shanghai is never fully explained) to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. One suspects that the trip was added in Sherwood King's novel, on which this film was based, simply as an exotic element. But, in any event, it serves its purpose when Elsa insists that Michael sign on their yacht as a seaman.
Almost from the moment he signs—an act he does both in reality and symbolically several times in this story—the travelers are joined by Bannister's law partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders). As Michael goes about his daily duties, he is distracted by the appearance and obvious flirtations of Elsa, and before the long the two have fallen for each other—if love in this dark prism of events can be described so romantically. Perhaps it would be more suitable to say they have determined to play out the flirtations, despite the observing eyes of Elsa's husband. As Michael says of himself: "When I start out to make a fool of myself there's very little can stop me."

Obviously, we guess some terrible result will come of their relationship. Yet the story moves in another direction. George Grisby, cornering Michael, proposes that the young seaman "murder" him in a plot wherein he will fake his death to collect the insurance money. He promises Michael $5,000—a sufficient amount for him to run off with Elsa—assuring him that, since he will still be alive and there will be no corpse, Michael cannot be held for murder. The rub is that Michael must sign a confession that he has committed the act.

Although we might find the plot to this point a bit unbelievable, we can still follow it's flimsy logic. But here is where we begin to digress, where the story factures at several points, leading us into cul-de-sacs that seem to trap us in plot. As the yacht reaches San Francisco, we discover that a private investigator, Sydney Broome, has been following Elsa for her husband (remember him?). Broome gets wind of Grisby's plan, realizing that he is actually intending to kill Bannister and to frame Michael for Bannister's murder with the confession in hand. Michael, unaware of these twists, watches Grisby, as planned, take off in a motorboat, and shoots a gun in the air to draw attention to himself. But, in fact, Grisby has discovered that Broome is on to him, shooting the detective and leaving him for dead.

What we don't yet know is that Broome, still surviving, has called Elsa for help, warning her of Grisby's intention to kill her husband. Michael, meanwhile, calls Elsa, startled to find Broome's voice at the other end, warning him, in his last words, of Grisby's plot to implicate him in Bannister's murder.

Michael, who by this time has become an comical aphorist, recognizes that "Everybody is somebody's fool," yet clumsily rushes off the Bannister's office, just in time to see the police removing Grisby's body from the place. Confession in hand, the police arrest Michael as the killer.

Ironically—and clearly perversely—Bannister undertakes the defense for Michael, but can hardly be a fair representative, discovering as the trial moves forward, just how involved Michael and Elsa had been. He suggests Michael plead justifiable homicide, given all the evidence, although Bannister himself clearly knows who the real murderer is.

Trapped by these absurd situations, Michael, feigning suicide, is able to escape the courtroom with Elsa following, arranging with her Chinese friends for Michael to hide out in a theater in Chinatown. But the friends drug Michael, taking him to an abandoned funhouse, where as he awakens to find a gun-toting Elsa within the maze of mirrors and distorting machines of reflection, he gradually perceives that it is she who has killed Grisby, that she and Grisby had been planning to murder Bannister and frame Michael for the crime. As Michael quips, "It's a bright, guilty world."

The film ends in a phantasmagoric shootout in the hall of mirrors, where shot after shot is fired at images of each other, most mistakenly, some hitting home, resulting with the death of both Elsa and her husband.

The surviving seaman trundles off to obscurity again, leaving a trail of further aphorisms in the space behind him: "The only way to stay out of trouble is to grow old, so I guess I'll concentrate on that." "Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die trying."

What is obvious even as I was regurgitating the above story is that the twists and turns of the plot are far too complex for the 87 minutes of the film. In fact, when Welles delivered the finished product to Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn, the executive so detested the film that he offered anyone $1,000 to succinctly explain the story to him. Certainly his editors did not help to clarify the situation by cutting an hour from Welles original.

Most critics and even admirers, accordingly, have seriously faulted this film—whether they argue it was director's or the studio's doing—that the film is narratively incoherent, despite its often wonderful cinematic images. But then, I've never been able to coherently speak about the plot of The Big Sleep either. In both cases, it seems to me, the directors (Hawks in the The Big Sleep) purposely leave their baggy tales full of missing links, distortions, false clues, and outright disjunctions to reiterate the dark, foggy world which their characters inhabit. In such a immoral world as The Lady from Shanghai, in which every single character finds some way they can use or abuse the guileless Michael, there can be no straight lines, all is relative.

One by one each of the characters, except Michael, speak in a kind of double language, in sentences that turn in on each other, taking meaning, like a snake swallowing its own tail, away from rational comprehension. As Bannister relates to his wife late in the film, "Killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I'm pretty tired of both of us." Or, as he tells Michael early on "You've been traveling around the world too much to find out anything about it." Or as George Grisby tells Michael as he plots his own death: "This is going to be murder and it's going to be legal."

Michael might easily claim, as does a witness to Broome's death: "I don't speak their language, see..." As Elsa tells him "I told you, you know nothing about wickedness."

Welles' strong images merely reiterate this play of language, doubling up hundreds of figures, presenting reality through distorting positioning of his actors and camera, cutting away so quickly the viewer is not quite sure of what he has just seen, surveying landscapes which one can barely see through (note Michael rushing past the window above or the multi-mirrored images at the amusement park).

Accordingly, while the language of this film (both its spoken words and its cinematic images) very much matters, the Macguffin, as Hitchcock would call it, hardly matters at all, is almost an after-the-fact explanation for the vagaries of the double-crossing characters.
Perfect this movie is not. I might say that there is a sort of lumbering quality to all of Welles' films, even his best. But they are certainly fun to watch.

Los Angeles, September 24, 2011
Copyright (c)2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Luchino Visconti | Il gattopardo (The Leopard)





a long sleep
by Douglas Messerli

Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, and Luchino Visconti (screenplay and adaptation, based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa), Luchino Visconti (director) Il gattopardo (The Leopard) / 1963

 Winner of the 1963 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, The Leopard is certainly one of the most visually beautiful films ever produced. Visconti's Technicolor evocation of Risorgimento Sicily is perhaps the most cohesive and convincing aspect of this almost languid epic, a vision that easily attracts one to the film again and again. The very beauty with which the director evokes the falling nobility of this lost world is, in part, the subject of the book and film narrative, revealing what is being lost far better than the Prince at the center of this work, Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster), could ever express it.

     Don Fabrizio is a sensualist, a lover of the world he inhabits while simultaneously perceiving—perhaps even reveling in—its faults. His discussion of his wife with the local priest, Father Pinone (comically realized by Romolo Valli), is a sad commentary on domestic life; although he has had seven children with Maria Stella Salina (Rina Morelli), he proclaims he has never seen her navel! Of the Sicilian people themselves, the Prince is only too aware of what he calls their "desire for death":

                 Sleep, my dear Chavelley, eternal sleep, that is what Sicilians want. And they will always resent anyone who tries to awaken them, even to bring them the most wonderful of gifts. And, between ourselves, I doubt very strongly whether this new Kingdom has very many gifts for us in its luggage. All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really a wish for death. Our sensuality, wish for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings, a hankering after extinction. Our laziness, our spiced and drugged sherbets, a desire for voluptuous immobility, that is....for death again.

     Visconti's film begins with a living room mass in Fabrizio's villa, interrupted by the voices of servants who have just discovered the body of a soldier upon the estate. Momentarily, news arrives in the form of a letter and newspaper account of Garibaldi and his "redshirts" attack on Messina and Palermo. The news of the attack terrifies Fabrizio's family, particularly in its suggestion that they shall have to abandon their palace, perhaps even escape Sicily or face exile. Fabrizio, however, greets the news with an amazing placidness, calming his family, and arranging his own travel the next day. His ideas about the "revolution" are summarized in his statement:

                 You know what is happening in our country? Nothing...simply an imperceptible replacement of one class for another. The middle class doesn't want to destroy us. It simply wants to take our place...and very gently.

Or as he puts it at another time:

                 Things will have to change in order that they remain the same.

Indeed it is Fabrizio's sense of inevitability tied up with his noblesse oblige that both protects his family and dooms it to destruction.

     Although the Prince accepts the growing tide—he has little choice but to do so—his views are nonetheless radically different from his young nephew Tancredi Falconeri (the dashingly beautiful Alain Delon) who stops by the palace on his way to join Garibaldi's forces, determining to help create a new Italian nation that will mean the nobility's (and, incidentally, his own) downfall. His rash decisions and immature energy are both charming and frightful, setting afire the heart of a lady in waiting, Concetta.

     In the end, however, Falconeri is a kind of comic hero, as he and his friends arrive at the end of a brutal battle against the soldiers protecting Palermo. For such a lushly filmed work it is almost shocking to see war up so close, as the rag-tag squadrons of redshirts rush forward with hardly any leadership, to shoot and kill the local forces at random. Most of the citizens support the Garibaldi forces, at one point chasing and running down a local who is said to have been a police informer. Despite his attempts to outrun the crowd, we soon see his body hanging from a nearby post. By the time of Falconeri's arrival there are only a few loyalists remaining, one of who—almost by accident—shoots the young volunteer near his eye, transforming him suddenly into a hero. We perceive that Falconeri, in his all his beauty and bluster, is a man who will take advantage of any situation throughout his life, when, a few scenes later, he shows up in a splendiferous soldier's costume, having abandoned Garibaldi's men for representing the King of Italy's forces.

     Fabrizio and his family, meanwhile, refuse to abandon their annual summer pilgrimage to the small town of Donnafugata, a voyage temporarily interrupted by Garibaldi forces, but which is allowed to continue through Falconeri's commands.

     Indeed the nephew joins them in their summer retreat, much to the delight of Concetta. Always a realist, however, Fabrizio insists that Concetta will not be suitable as a spouse for his nephew, a man whom, he proclaims, will be a world leader  visiting other countries. Such a man needs a brilliant and beautiful woman—most importantly, a woman who comes from a wealthy family, particularly since Falconeri and his mother, despite their roles as nobles, are penniless.

     Donnafugata offers up just such a woman in the guise of a local wealthy politician's daughter, Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale). Unlike the pious and disapproving Concetta, Angelica is a lusty and open girl, who shocks everyone at the first dinner party with her absolutely joyous laughter at a story told by Falconeri.

     The last fourth of the film is devoted to the couple's romance as they chase about the Fabrizio palace in Donnafugata and attend a grand dinner and dance at the home of local nobility. In this scene, Visconti might be said to have staged the final grand gasp of the Sicilian nobility, with all its beauty and grandeur as well as its silliness and stupidity. At one moment, men and woman brilliantly and elegantly perform the local dances, while at the next we observe a gaggle of young women and girls bouncing and consorting about on beds. Malicious gossip is interchanged with witty conversations, grand dishes served up to sometimes unnoticing guests.

     In the novel, the later part of the work is devoted to the death of Fabrizio, but here, in the film, the Prince does not die, but simply grows short of breath and feels ill at the grand event, refusing to eat and leaving the party to walk home alone. In the stunning series of events at this ball, the director reveals all to us: it is the beginning of everything new and the end of all the old.
    
Los Angeles, September 30, 2011


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Luchino Visconti | Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers)





LOVE, DEATH, AND TRANSFIGURATION
by Douglas Messerli

Luchino Visconti, Suso Cecchi d’Maico, and Vasco Pratolini, with Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa, and Enrico Medioli (writers), Luchino Visconti (director) Rocco e i suoi fratelli / 1960

In Luchino Visconti’s 1960 melodramatic film, Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers)—a work I saw for the first time the other day—the first scene portrays the arrival of Rosaria Parondi and four of her sons from the south of Italy to Milan, where they suddenly intrude upon the celebration of Rosaria’s fifth son, Vincenzo, and his fiancée, Ginetta, at her family’s home. Despite Rosaria’s insistence throughout the film that she is concerned only for her boys, it is quite clear that she has no compunction for destroying Vincenzo’s marriage plans and in demanding that he become the sole supporter of her and his brothers.

A fight inevitably breaks out between the more urbanized (and more cultured) Milanese family and the outsider Parondis, as Vincenzo’s relationship with Ginetta is permanently damaged and temporarily put on hold. It is only the first indication we have of how difficult any expression of love will become for all of the Parondi children as Vincenzo sneaks away to have sex with Ginetta in abandoned structures, Simone, the second eldest, falls in love with Nadia, a prostitute, and, later, Rocco—in love with the same woman—is forced to meet her nightly in an isolated, outdoor spot. Only the second youngest brother, Ciro, seems to have any healthy relationship with a woman, actually visiting her family. Love in this mean Milanese landscape is necessarily hidden and experienced on-the-run.

As several critics have noted, the structure of the film, devoting sections to each of the Parondi sons—Vincenzo, Simone, Rocco, Ciro, and Luca—expresses each of their different ways of coming to terms with the foreign culture into which they have been thrust. But, in some cases, there is a great similarity between them: all but Rocco and his impressionable baby brother Luca want to be assimilated into the new culture. Vincenzo, who has preceded the others, has escaped what he has recognized was a world of closed and limited possibilities, eventually finding a job as a construction worker and, when Ginetta becomes pregnant, marrying her. So too does Ciro desire to find his place in the new society, taking a job at a local automobile factory. Simone (Renato Salvatori), who with Rocco is at the center of this film, has similar aspirations, only in his brutal and ignorant rendering of reality, he has no patience for ordinary work, striving—primarily upon the suggestion of Nadia—to become a successful and, more importantly, rich boxer; but even that seemingly quick path to the good life seems to involve too much time and effort, as he begins, first, to steal, then to gamble and, ultimately, to commit murder. Of these young men, only Rocco (a young and beautiful Alain Delon) has no desire to “fit in,” hoping instead to return to the South and a rural life.

Strangely enough, perhaps because of his near complete passivity—he is often told by women throughout the film to “wake up,” as if he is dreaming away the time he spends with them—Rocco is truly successful in this world, if only through a series of unfortunate events. Perhaps his early job at the laundry is the most pleasurable of his brother’s avocations—at least that is what Simone suggests. But when Simone engages in sex with the owner of the establishment and steals her brooch, which he gives Nadia, who returns it, Rocco is fired. Thus begins a series of saintly gestures he endures for the sake of Simone and the others of his family.

In the military, he sends nearly all of his paycheck home—his mother having pled for him to do so, despite the jobs of her other sons. Having served out his duty, he reencounters Nadia, recently released from prison. Placid in demeanor and accepting of nearly anything in life, he alone refuses to judge Nadia, convincing her instead that she is still young and has great possibility, that she should embrace faith instead of the fear in which she has been living her life.

Their relationship is one of near innocence, despite her past, as she seems to be transformed by Rocco and his belief in her. We have already seen, however, that in this bleak urban setting, love has little room to grow, particularly for a blinded cupid. Simone, whose boxing career has taken a downturn, has joined up with ruffian friends, who play Iago to Simone’s Othello, egging him on to do something about Rocco’s and Nadia’s illicit meetings. In one of the most brutal battles between brothers ever staged, Simone intrudes upon that couple’s lovemaking, beating Rocco and raping Nadia in front of him to deter any further fraternal engagement with what he evidently perceives as his whore.

Once again, Rocco, despite a developing hate for his brother—a hate he ultimately displaces by agreeing to enter the boxing ring—forgives Simone, convinced that his brother desperately needs Nadia to help him better his life. His abandonment of her has fatal consequences, she returning to alcohol and prostitution, Simone to his brutal pattern of abuse and petty thievery.

The tender-hearted Rocco, who had previously refused to fight, now achieves the success as a boxer that his brother had failed to, which merely increases Simone’s jealousy of Rocco and of all of his siblings. Simone’s desperation leads him also to prostitution, as he agrees to accept the sexual attentions of the boxing impresario Cecchi, ultimately stealing money even from him.

As Cecchi threatens legal action, Rocco once more gives up any normal future by indenturing himself, against the protestations of his two other brothers, to a boxing career for at least ten more years. In a sense, Rocco, in his selflessness, prostitutes himself at a level even greater than Simone and Nadia.

Another winning bout transforms him into a local hero, which the family celebrates—reminding us of that first scene. In a sense, he is now wed, like Vincenzo—to a violent career, however, instead of to a beautiful woman. While the family toasts one another and their neighbors, Simone has discovered the whereabouts of Nadia, seeking her out with the hope that she may return to him. But she, having fallen to the lowest levels of existence and facing, she believes, reimprisonment, reiterates what Rocco has previously called Simone: a “disgusting” beast. Simone is completely undone, stabbing his lover over and over as she pleads for her life.

His return home in the midst of his family’s celebrations, his clothes smeared with her blood, is one of the most poignant and horrific moments of filmmaking, shifting what has been high melodrama into tragedy. As Simone admits to Nadia’s murder, Rocco, lying on the bed as he holds him, howls in pain, suggesting an almost sexual dance of death derived from a near-incestual love that embraces all the sorrow and anger that the family has endured. While Rocco wants only to attempt to hide his brother, covering up the family shame, Ciro, realizing his civic responsibility, rushes off, Rocco and Luca trying to stop him, to report the murder to the police.

Some critics have maintained that Visconti allowed, in these last scenes, for his film to be pulled in two directions: while obviously arguing for the rational assimilation of these figures into the society in which they now live, in his sensitive portrayal of Rocco he presents a seemingly conflicted representation of a nostalgic love for an impossible past. Yet Ciro’s last conversation with his younger brother, Luca, I would argue, makes it clear that if this family is to have any future, it must embrace the new world, rejecting the familial and sexual gender-based priorities of the South. Luca’s insistence that his brother return home represents a spiritual awakening in this family, a simultaneous acceptance of both Rocco’s spiritually-inspired nostalgia* and Ciro’s more socially oriented pragmatism.

_____
*It is interesting to note that Rocco tells Nadia of his plans to abandon her for his brother’s sake, a nearly saintly act, upon the parapets of the Duomo di Milano, that city’s major cathedral.

Los Angeles, June 1, 2002
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (September 2008).

John Frankenheimer | The Manchurian Candidate




MIRROR IMAGE
by Douglas Messerli

George Axelrod (screenplay, based on a novel by Richard Condon), John Frankenheimer
(director) The Manchurian Candidate / 1962

Frankenheimer, who died on July 6th of this year, described The Manchurian Candidate as being centered around what he described as “double images.”And indeed, the film contains a good many of these, which I would prefer, however, to speak of as “mirror images,” images that, while revealing one reality also suggest or show its reverse, what might be perceived as the darker side of what the surface presents.

The return home of Raymond Shaw, for example, is, in one sense, the homecoming of a war hero, the supposed celebration of a man who has received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in saving his patrol in the Korean War. Yet Raymond is clearly not at all approving of his step-father’s and mother’s “disgusting three-ring circus” to celebrate him, and we soon find out that, although described as a “hero,” a man referred to by his entire unit as “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I have ever known in my life,” he was scornfully dismissive of his underlings, was a man aloof from his fellow men.

We already know, from the film’s very opening scene, moreover, that although he has been awarded the medal for saving his men from capture that his unit was captured in Korea in 1952, as the men, against army strategy, marched along a path in single file. And we gradually discover that the “loveable Raymond Shaw”—as one of his fellow men sarcastically describes him—is not even a hero, but was brainwashed along with his fellow men, forced to strangle fellow-soldier Ed Mavole, shoot their young “mascot,” Bobby Lembeck, and programmed to do the biddings of his handlers, foes of the American government.

One of the most famed of the mirror images of the film is represented in Frankenheimer’s brilliant presentation of these American soldiers in enemy hands—recalled in a dream of intelligence officer Ben Marco—as they sit in what seems at first to be an elegantly decorated room among a gathering of a lady's garden club that, upon the camera’s second pan around the room, reveals a room closer to an observatory operating room, wherein sit numerous male Communist officials (both Chinese and Russian), discussing their success at reconditioning their captives.

At the congressional session wherein Marco is serving as public relations officer, we see one of Frankenheimer’s most brilliant mirror images. As senator John Iselin interrupts the hearings with McCarthy-like charges of governmental ties with Communism, we observe the drama in the room—which gradually is reduced to a shouting match—while at the same time seeing it replayed, from a slightly different perspective, on a television monitor—a mirror image that would later become a staple in such politically-centered movies.

Although Marco speaks of Shaw—like the others—as a good man, he has nightly dreams that convey another truth, and admits to his superior that “It isn’t as if Raymond‘s hard to like, he’s impossible to like. In fact, he’s probably one of the most repulsive human beings I’ve known in my whole—in all of my life!”

The discovery by Marco that Chunjin, the former Korean guide, is now a butler working in Shaw’s apartment and the revelation of a letter from Al Melvin, another of the army patrol members, that parallels his own nightmares, finally forces him to act, informing his superiors of his and Melvin’s dream, being asked, in response, to identify the villains from two simultaneously projected sets of photographs—these representing double images more than “mirror” ones—some of bouncers, thugs, and normal individuals, the others of high-ranking members of the Communist party.

If Raymond is acerbic and intellectually aloof, we also discover that, for at least one year, he was a true Romantic, having fallen in love with the daughter of his mother’s political rival, Jocie Jordan.

The mother’s determination to end that relationship draws one to conclude that she is also someone who is not what she pretends to be, that her evident devotion to protecting her son has yet another manipulative element that becomes clearer as the film proceeds, as we ultimately discover that she is not at all the upright American conservative that she pretends be, but is a member of the Communist party devoted to their takeover—albeit on her terms—of the American government.

The intense play of doubles or mirror images turns tragically-comic in the penul-timate scenes of Frank-enheimer’s work where Iselin, dressed as Lincoln—a man in real life who was 6 feet, 4 inches tall—attempts to bend under a limbo stick. Having revealed that Raymond’s obedience is triggered by the Queen of Diamonds in a deck of cards, Frankenheimer almost transcends believability by having Jocie attend the party dressed as that playing card!

Love seems to win the day once again, as Raymond and Jocie run off to be married, but by now we recognize that it cannot end well, and we are hardly surprised when, soon after, he is ordered to kill Jordan, and in the process murders Jocie as well.

By this time, Raymond’s identity has been lost in the hall of mirrors of his ever-shifting desires and commands. And finally, dressed as a priest, Raymond both curses and saves himself by reversing his role of the assassin, killing not the intended target, the presidential candidate, but the “Manchurian candidates”—the individuals who have ordered the murder: his mother and father-in-law—before turning the gun upon himself, simultaneously destroying both the surface and mirror images, and by doing so, breaking through the looking glass.

The movie that has begun with a loud American marching band celebrating the return of a hero, ends in a solitary whimper of profanity as Marco utters Raymond’s eulogy (presenting the opposite, in many respects, of what he has seemed to be), ending with the words “Hell. Hell!”

Los Angeles, August 19, 2002
Reprinted from American Cultural Treasures (July 2010).

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends)




THE TALKING HEAD
by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Christian Hohoff (writers), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (director) Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends) / 1975, released in the US in 1976

Despite its tragic ending depicting the death of its hero, his body being robbed by young children, I read Fassbinder's 1975 film, Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends) as a dark comedy, a work that, in many ways, relates to his Petra von Kant, particularly in the melodramatic pitch of the latter’s language, which takes it to the edge of the theater of the absurd.

In Fox and His Friends, however, the hero, Franz “Fox” Biberkopf (played by Fassbinder himself) speaks in a completely naturalistic way, while those around him talk in the affected language of a British drawing room comedy; they are, after all, striving to represent themselves as coming from a kind of bourgeois notion of the upper class, at the same time that their accents, furnishings, clothing, and all other aspects of their lives reveal their middle-class roots.

Only Fox speaks somewhat normally, although he is regularly described as stupid and uncouth. He is, after all, a true man of the proletariat, a working-class clod who plays a character in the carnival act of his friend and lover, who in the very first scene of the film is arrested for tax evasion.

In the carnival Franz plays what is described as a “talking head,” a man who supposedly has lost his body, except for his head, which, as “a miracle of science” has been magically kept alive. Apparently, he talks to the audiences, answering their questions and explaining his unusual existential condition.

We never get to see the real act, but we do observe Fox going through the rest of his life as a kind of “hollow man,” an empty being whose only tool of survival is his somewhat street-smart skills which allow him to con friends out of money and to engage people like Eugen Theiss (Peter Chatel), his soon-to-be lover, with sharp barbs and quick-witted dismissals when he is accused as smelling badly and gaining weight (Fassbinder, so the story goes, dieted heavily before playing Fox)—all failures of the body.

Early in the film, as he insinuates himself into the lives of the seemingly wealthy young men he meets through a gay antique furniture dealer, Max (Karlheinz Böhm), that he might even outwit these nasty snobs; after all, he has just won 500,000 marks in the lottery, and his sense of new financial possibilities seems almost to make him able to stand up against their snooty dismissal of his clumsy and uncouth behavior. But, in the end, Fox is only, as his real name Biberkopf suggests, a "beaver-head," a hard-working mind that has the ability to assimilate little in the way of imagination. And it is precisely that lack of imagination that prevents him, despite his alcoholic sister, Hedwig’s and his old bar friends’ warnings, to see through the pretense of his new acquaintances.

Eugen, his new lover, has little skill when it comes to thinking, but is, compared with Fox, a person who celebrates the body, a handsome and fairly well-dressed—if you can forget some of the outrageous combinations of patterns and textures of his suits and ties, all of which betray his lack of any true sense of style—who has been taught to present himself in a comely manner, with a well-spoken voice in both German and, so he claims, French. When the couple later travel to Morocco, however, it becomes apparent that Eugen cannot speak the latter language fluently, while Fox communicates with an Arab hustler with a few words in English.

His only achievements of the mind relate to his and his family members’ abilities to trick those less fortunate out of their finances and possessions; if Fox is a busy beaver—working for the bookbinding company of Eugen's father even though he has loaned them the money for their survival and is now the legal owner—they are born vultures. And much of the second half of the film is a painful testament to how they cheerfully strip him of his money and any common dignity he might have had. First through the loan to save the company, then, when Eugen is thrown out of his apartment for housing Fox, through the purchase of a condominium and furniture—some of the most absurd combinations of period furniture, patterned wallpaper, and ridiculous objects (including a circular set of attached red-leather chairs, each facing slightly away from the others) imaginable. Fassbinder's set designer should have received an award just for uncovering these garish and tasteless creations.

Soon after, Eugen insists upon a new car. Later, supposedly to reignite their love, the two take the trip, as I mentioned, to Northern Africa. All is paid for by Fox.

Yet Eugen and his father take their abuse even further by replaying Fox's loan through his salary and forcing him to sign away the rights to his property. When Eugen explains the situation to Fox, the father responds to his son, "by principle you are right." This man—who unlike Fox's sister, who drinks at home, does his drinking at the office—can't even conceive what the word "principle" means. His only code of conduct is survival.

Soon after Eugen's former boyfriend moves into the apartment, and Fox is locked out.

Certainly these scenes do make us cringe. But we must remember that the money Fox has used to get what he hopes might represent love and propriety has been won on a fluke with a few marks stolen from the local florist, "Fatty" Schmidt, a character who clearly brings up Fox's sense of guilt later in the film as Fatty tries to console him; Fox strikes the man in what, to use a rephrasing of the original German title, seems almost to be a "fist-fight for freedom," the freedom, at least, from being reminded of his past.

Fassbinder's portrayal of Fox is brilliantly subtle, particularly as he begins to spend his money. His repetition of "cash, cash," as the bank teller queries him when he demands the 100,000 marks to loan to Eugen's father, is spoken with extreme nervousness and agitation; and later, as Eugen imagines the rooms of the empty condominium being filled with furniture, Fox turns away with a horribly sickened look on his face. It is as if, throughout his spiraling return to poverty, he is aware of what is happening but unable to prevent succumbing to his lover's demands. Like Petra in Fassbinder's earlier film, there is a kind of absurd joy even in the tortures of love. His busy head, filled with ridiculous aspirations, is slowly being drained of consciousness, and near the end of the film he goes as far as to visit a doctor, reporting his symptoms. Finding nothing outwardly wrong with his patient, the doctor proscribes Valium, a drug which may help to relieve his real anxieties, but which can result in further confusion and depression.

Broke, Fox returns to his old haunts, where he meets up again with two American soldiers he has once tried to pick up. Since they are now in his gay bar, he cheekily asks them once more if they'd like to join him, to which one of them asks how much he is willing to "pay." With that question, Fox, turning away and hanging his arms around a friend's neck, cries out, "Pay? Pay?" pointing up the irony and absurdity of the life he has led; once the hustler, he has become the consumer, a man, as it puts it, "who pays for everything," not only with money but with his life.

The very next scene is played out in an over-lighted subway where Fox lies
dead, killed evidently from an overdose of the Valium. Two well-dressed young boys, vultures in the making, rob him of the money he has received for selling his car, a gold watch, and even his jacket. Two of his former friends, seeing the body and pronouncing him dead, quickly scurry away, not wanting to get involved.

How did this comic tale of an absurd life suddenly turn into a tragedy one has to ask? Of course, in many of Fassbinder's films, that is just what happens. People with such outrageously dramatic views of life, with hopes out of proportion to possibility or reality, true dreamers, in other words, who live in their heads instead of inhabiting their entire bodies, are often unable to survive. But it could also be as Jim Clark has suggested on his on-line review of this film (http://jclarkmedia.com/fassbinder):

That metro/subway stop is unnaturally—eerily—clean and
quiet. Everything is blue and white, even the clothes worn by
all the characters who pass through. ...Nothing earlier is as
stylized. So, is this just a "Valium-5"-induced nightmare vision?
...Has Fox learned, from his devastating experiences, that the
glitzy "lifestyle" he has just lost was what was destroying him?
So maybe—just maybe—Fox is ready to begin putting himself back
together.... If the final scene is just a nightmare.

It could be that Fox has finally been able to add some true imagination to the pipe dreams that have filled his head. But even if Fassbinder meant it as a "real" act, we have to remember that little else has been real in Fox's life.

Los Angeles, August 4, 2010
Reprinted from Green Integer Review (August 2010).

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant)




THE BED
by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (screenplay, director) Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant) / 1972, USA 1973
Rainer Werner Fassbinder Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant [play] / Landestheataer Darmstadt at the Frankfurt Experimenta, 1971, translated into English by Denis Calandra , Rainer Werner Fassbinder Plays (New York: PAJ Publications, 1985)

The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant, first performed as a drama and then redone as a film, is one of the central works of Rainer Maria Fassbinder. In some respects all of his major tropes and structural forms are represented in this drama and film.

In may be helpful to perceive this work as utilizing several patterns from one of Fassbinder’s favorite fictions, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. Petra’s sad affair with Karin parallels the lesbian relationship of Nora and Robin in the Barnes book, and the constant fear Nora has about her lover leaving—or in Nightwood’s case, being taken up by someone else – is very much at the center of both works. Similar to Nora and Robin’s home, filled with circus props and dolls, Petra’s house has several manikins whose placement might be said to parallel patterns in the relationship, and symbolize the shadow lives lived by Petra, Marlene, and Karin. Karin’s later statement of having had sex with a Black man calls up Nora’s early encounter, through Dr. O'Connor's story, with Nikka, a performer of the Cirque de Paris.

The most important relationship is Fassbinder’s use of highly elevated language—in his case represented in a mostly melodramatic, even operatic, phrasings that references Barnes’ use of Elizabethan-like word choices and emblematic linguistic patterns. In Petra, as in others of his films, the director also calls up a kind Douglas Sirk-like world in which the everyday problems of the characters particularly of Sirk’s women—represent larger-than-life issues, dramatic situations that reveal major cultural concerns, including everything from racial relationships, frictions between man and woman, and issues of homosexuality, to religious piety and the disobedience of bourgeois cultural norms.

Perhaps the most obvious of Fassbinder’s devices, again a motif in Barnes’ work, is the centrality of Petra’s bed. Awakened by her secretary, Marlene, with whom she shares a sadomasochistic relationship, Petra spends most of the first scene dressing, making herself up and donning a wig in preparation for her day. When her cousin Sidone comes to visit, it is upon the bed the two women sit to discuss primarily male relationships, in which it becomes apparent that Sidone prefers to hide behind her feminine wiles, while Petra is determined to be “honest,” whatever she means by it. Ultimately the conversation turns to Sidone’s introduction of a young woman, Karin Thimm, whom the cousin is convinced will make a perfect model. The two women, Petra and Karin, meet, the conversation continuing upon the bed. Obviously, Petra is attracted to Karin, and she quickly arranges a dinner with her shortly after.

This second encounter again occurs upon Petra’s bed. When Petra learns of Karin’s difficult life, she determines to take her under her wing, so to speak, and, quite literarily, as we soon see, beds her.

The later scene with the two of them awaking after a night when Karin has come home late, shows that the relationship has soured. Hurt, Petra dramatically attempts to maneuver the younger woman in assuring her that she is still in love; but with a telephone call from husband, it becomes apparent that Karin is determined to leave and return to her him.

Only in the final scene, portraying Petra’s descent into a kind of drunken hysteria, does she shift from the bed to the floor, a scene which again parallels Barnes’ novel, wherein, after Robin has left Nora, Robin returns to her in America to fall upon the floor, enacting the actions and behavior of a dog.

Petra’s devolution is a near-mad descent to the lowest surface of her house, as she petulantly awaits a call from Karin. But Petra must face even a greater fall from grace in the revelation to her daughter, mother and cousin, all of whom have arrived to celebrate Petra’s birthday, that she is in love with Karin. Again referencing Nightwood, Fassbinder has Sidonie bring Petra a gift of a blonde-haired doll, a near look-alike for Karin; and with even great cruelty, she announces that Karin is currently in Bremen. Striking out against all these women, Petra performs her bitterest scene upon the floor before returning to the bed, seeking forgiveness from her mother, and determining to find a new balance in her life.

As the others leave, Petra, trapped in a void she has partly created, turns to her secretary Marlene, promising her a new relationship. With brilliant irony, the woman who has withstood so much abuse over so many years, quickly gathers up her clothes and few possessions, packing them away in a suitcase, and leaving Petra in total emptiness. Clearly any expression of love in a world of such abuse is intolerable.

There are some substantial differences, however, between the original dramatic version of this work and Fassbinder’s film version which slightly alter the meaning of the work. In the play, the bed is not nearly as significant, and there is no evidence, at least in the stage directions (I did not see the original performance), that the dinner with Karin in the second act occurs upon the bed; there is no stipulation that most of the fourth act occurs, as it does in the film, upon the floor.

Most importantly, the play ends in a sort of unresolved relationship between Petra and her tortured employee, Marlene. As Marlene goes down upon her knees to kiss Petra’s hand, Petra insists that they sit: “No, not like that. Let’s sit down together. (They sit). Tell me about your life.” Indeed, the dramatic version, unlike the film’s cruelly ironic statement, is closer to what one imagines might occur after Robin performs as a dog before Nora’s demands, and suggests that there may be at least a temporary reconciliation between the two.

Paris, May 29, 2010
Los Angeles, July 15, 2010

Reprinted from International Cinema Review (September 2010).


*Barnes writes in Nightwood: "There were circus chairs, wooden horses brought from a ring of an old merry-go-round, venetian chandeliers from the Flea Fair, stage-drops from Munich...."

** Both Dr. O'Connor and Nora speak of the centrality of the bed to defining French culture, particularly, of the unmade bed.

*** "The dog began to cry then, running with her, head-on with her head, as if slowly and surely to circumvent her; soft and slow his feet went padding. He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.

**** In her last conversation with Dr. O'Connor Nora discusses at length Robin's relationship with a doll given to Nora, which ends: "She picked up the doll and hurled it to the floor and put her foot on it, crushing her heel into it; and then, as I cam crying behind her, she kicked it, its china head all in dust, its skirt shivering and stiff, whirling over and over across the floor, its blue bow now over, now under." O'Connor goes on to analyze the role of dolls in women's lives.

Todd Haynes | Far From Heaven




NOSTALGIA FOR AN IMAGINED WORLD
by Douglas Messerli

Todd Haynes (writer and director) Far From Heaven / 2002

Haynes' suburban 1950s couple, Cathy and Frank Whitaker, with a son and a daughter, a beautiful home, lovely friends, and a bank account that might easily see them through retirement, seem absolutely blessed; "You're the luckiest guy in town!" insists Frank's friend, Stan Fine. But anyone who has seen a Douglas Sirk movie or any other soap opera about that period, knows even before the movie has begun that, as Frank says to Stan: "It's all smoke and mirrors, fellas." Like numerous films of that period such as Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, (clearly a model for Haynes' film), Peyton Place, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and Imitation of Life, we quickly perceive that something else is going on beneath the placid surface of cocktail parties and pleasant shows of art.

Before we can even say "I've Got a Secret" (the name of the popular weekly '50s panel show), Cathy witnesses her husband in the midst of a passionate kiss with another man. He admits his problem, of course, and is determined through the help of a psychiatrist to overcome his homosexual "predilections." But only a few scenes later, after continuing to work late most nights and consuming enormous amounts of alcohol, Frank, we perceive, isn't succeeding in his "transformation."

A vacation imposed upon him by his employers sends the lucky/unhappy family to Miami, where he meets up with another man, this time falling in love. A divorce is the "reward" for his painful admission of his new love to his wife.

Meanwhile, Cathy has befriended her Black gardener, Raymond Deagan, who not only creates beautiful flower arrangements, but is able to intelligently comment on Joan Miró and other painters in a local art show. He is also a gentle listener, particularly for a woman who has no others with whom she can communicate her marital problems. But Hartford, like any good 1950s city, is abuzz with gossip of their interracial friendship, and the women of her set have telephoned one another with the shocking news almost before she has returned home. Their condemnation only further assures her isolation as she is forced to fire the man upon whom she increasingly has come to depend.

Soon after Raymond's daughter is hit with a rock thrown by malicious boys, punishing the child for the father's apparent infraction of the rules. When Cathy hears of the news, she runs to his side, but he, too, now foresees no future in their love. He is leaving for Baltimore, and suggests to Cathy that life would be no better for them there than in Hartford: "I've learned my lesson about mixing in other worlds. I've seen the sparks fly. All kinds."

Despite such heavy-laden dialogue, Haynes' bland restatement of 1950s stereotypes, like Sirk's films, is beautifully filmed with the warmest reds, brightest oranges, lyrical lime-greens, and brooding browns of wide-screen cinema's palette. The acting is resplendent, with Dennis Quaid, Julianne Moore, and Patricia Clarkson all receiving numerous award nominations.

I wonder, however, how anyone could describe this picture, as many critics did, as representing a "cruel honesty" (Geoff Andrew, Time Out) about "the repressive taboos of a past decade" (Judith Egerton, Courier-Journal). For, while we all know that, for many, such taboos did and do still exist (we need only remind ourselves of the recent outing of evangelist Ted Haggard, who also, incidentally, is attempting to change his sexuality through psychiatry) that such things have happened, it almost appears as if, in his homage to this period, Haynes is not simply reiterating those facts, but reviewing them through a lens of nostalgia. Any truths this film reveals are "cruel" only because the writer and director make no attempt to comment on them.

I think I have made it clear by this time in my several volumes of My Year, moreover, that I do not see the 1950s as the void of hypocrisy that Hollywood has long portrayed it as being. While there was—just as today—open racial bigotry, homophobia, and sexual role playing and stereotyping, there was much else going on. Indeed, throughout the decade there was a growing repeal in state after state of anti-miscegenation laws; and in 1958, only one year after the events supposedly portrayed in Far From Heaven, Hannah Arendt passionately wrote that the right to choose a mate is "an elementary human right": "Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs." By 1967 the Supreme Court, in the case of "Loving v. Virginia," struck down anti-miscegenation law in Virginia, responding in language very similar to Arendt's; and most Southern states—the last bastion of such laws—quickly followed.

If Haynes was truly interested in these issues, one wonders why he didn't more thoroughly explore them. Perhaps by following Frank Whitaker's relationship with his male lover, we might discover how his life was changed for better or worse. If Cathy had been allowed to make the decision to join Raymond Deagon in Baltimore, we might discover more about the dangers or possible joys of an interracial marriage. As presented in this film, there is no future for either Cathy or her totally ignored children (throughout the film they are repeatedly told to go upstairs and be quiet, both Cathy and her husband abusing them through silence). Her final train station wave to Raymond is a goodbye to any possibilities of love, leaving its audience with nothing to say or do but wipe away a tear or two and "tsk" the situation away.

One has to ask, why in 2002 is a film director interested in merely representing a past that primarily existed only in Sirk's and other such directors' imaginations. At least we can understand why filmmakers such as Sirk carefully tiptoed around these explosive issues of the day. Haynes' refusal to speak out now seems, at best, a coy retreat into those beautifully colored fantasies.

Los Angeles, June 14, 2002
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (June 2009).

Robert Wiene | Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)



CALIGARI AT THE FAIR
by Douglas Messerli

Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer (writers), Robert Wiene (director) Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) / 1920

As anyone who has seen Robert Wiene’s strange German Expressionist film of 1920 will remember, the first half of the film deals with a mad doctor, Caligari, who, it is later revealed, runs the local lunatic asylum. The “cabinet” of Dr. Caligari reveals, through his journal and revered book, that he has become obsessed with a story about another doctor and his somnambulant subject whom he uses to destroy those who cross him or even question his power. Repeating the historical doctor’s experiments, Caligari becomes the mad doctor of history, creating havoc in the small town of Holstenwall as first the town registrar and, later, another young man are murdered.

As the film critic Siegfried Kracauer argues, the script was originally an indictment of the war-time German government and their lust for power, to which the director added a framing device—in which his character, Francis, tells a horror story that, it is revealed late in the film, is one of his own imagining. In fact, the man he believes is Caligari is simply the head of the asylum in which Francis is incarcerated, along with the very figures he has described, the woman he characterizes as his fiancée Jane and the somnambulant Cesare—all of which, so Kracauer argues, obliterates Mayer’s and Janowitz’s more subversive script.

Frankly, I don’t read this film as Kracauer did. Indeed, I see it even more frightening that our “hero” has apparently been locked away under the control of the man he believes to be the evil Caligari; and the doctor’s proclamation at the end of the film, “Now I know how to cure him,” seems to me less of a rational announcement than a threat that Francis may soon also become one of the living dead. But then, at the beginning of the 21st century, it may be that we find it harder to believe in even normal-seeming systems.

This is, however, quite obviously a matter of interpretation: in either case, the core story is a horrific tale of mad power and perverted love. For it is clear that, like the creators of other such monstrous figures (Frankenstein, for example), Caligari seeks through his acolyte, Cesare, control over those about him, and that Cesare serves him as a kind of passive son-lover, whose intense beauty covers for the ugliness of Caligari’s own aspect.

It is these concerns which lead the devious doctor to want to show off his “creation” at the fair, and like all such other power-seekers, to bring attention to his own evil acts. It is never enough that the creator control the surrounding world, he necessarily must show that embodiment of power to the world, demonstrating his mad desires become flesh.

The real cabinet of Dr. Caligari, accordingly, is not the closed shelf in which lies the evidence of his crimes, but the small tent and coffin-like container wherein he keeps the sleeping beauty over whom he has such power. In short, Caligari is willing to risk everything simply to show off his achievement: the encapsulation of all that others may desire—beauty and knowledge.

The important question of this film, accordingly, does not seem to me to be about whether or not the doctor is actually Caligari, or if Francis is sane or mad, but why Caligari—real or imaginary—is willing to risk everything by putting his “doll”—one must remember that when he sends Cesare out to do his evil murders, he replaces his sleeping friend with a dummy—on such obvious display.

In short, it seems less important to me that some men (and governments) seek such absolute control over others, as does the fact that they necessarily must demonstrate that obsession and that that demonstration often ends in their annihilation. How much more dangerous might be a man like the head of the lunatic asylum in which Francis is imprisoned at the end, a man of seemingly rational behavior, a man like Hitchcock’s retiring psychiatric clinic head in Spellbound?

Los Angeles, August 12, 2002
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (October 2008).

James Whale | Show Boat / Gregory LaCava | Stage Door / Joseph L. Mankiewicz | All About Eve / Billy Wilder | Sunset Boulevard / George Cukor | A Star




LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE
by Douglas Messerli

Oscar Hammerstein II (w and lyrics), Jerome Kern (music), James Whale (d) Show Boat / 1936
Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller (writers) [based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber], Gregory LaCava (director) Stage Door [film version] / 1937
Joseph L. Mankiewicz (writer and director) All About Eve / 1950
Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D. M. Marshman, Jr. (writers), Billy Wilder (director) Sunset Boulevard /1950
Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and William A. Wellman (writers) [based on a story by William A.Wellman and Robert Carson], George Cukor (director) A Star Is Born / 1954
Paddy Chayefsky (writer), John Cromwell (director) The Goddess / 1958
Leonard Spigelgass (writer), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Jule Styne and Frank Perkins (mmusic), Mervyn LeRoy (director) Gypsy [film version] / 1962

Many cultures throughout the centuries have represented acting as a “wicked” or “evil” activity—particularly for women. Although the Japanese Kabuki of the early 15th century began with a woman performer, Okuni, Wakashu (boys’) Kabuki soon replaced women on the stage, and after 1629 women were banned. In the West it was not until the 17th century theater in Venice that women were allowed to perform. And only in the 19th century Victorian theater did women such as Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt became “leading ladies,” earning enough money from their craft to survive. Accordingly, one should hardly be surprised to find that the American representation of actresses has been a fairly lurid affair throughout the 20th century. Particularly if one is guided by the numerous American plays, musicals, and films about women actors—most notably throughout the 1950s and early 1960s—becoming a “star” clearly entails a great deal of suffering and loss.

As early as the 1927 musical Show Boat, audiences are told—to the chorus’s cries of incredulity—that life “upon the wicked stage,” despite its evil reputation, is actually boring, hard work, and sexually “pure.” Obviously, the audience has its doubts, and the moment Magnolia confesses how she would love to perform on her family’s show boat stage, their beliefs are confirmed. Things immediately begin to go badly. The lead actress, Julie LaVerne, revealed as having black blood, is through miscegenation laws banned from performing. Magnolia and the man with whom she has just fallen in love, Gaylord Ravenal, quickly replace their friends on stage, and, before audiences can even assimilate the news, are unhappily married. Ravenal, it is soon revealed, is a gambler, and as his debts climb, his self-worth leads him to spend less and less time with his new wife and (unknown to him) soon-to-be mother, until, ultimately, he deserts her.

Magnolia must now return to the stage—this time at the Trocadero where Julie, unknown to her old friend, is now the star singer. Upon discovering Noli’s condition and her application as singer, she gives up her job so that Magnolia can be hired. Fortunately, Magnolia’s father, Cap’n Andy, has decided to take in a show at the very same Trocadero, and upon discovering his beloved daughter, takes her back to the open arms of family life—including, ultimately, a repentant Gaylord.

This musical ends “happily,” if family values are at the center of your agenda. Women who remain on the stage, contrarily, are apparently doomed to unhappiness, to failure in marriage and loneliness. It is interesting that in Edna Ferber’s original novel of 1926, Magnolia and Gaylord’s reunion is centered upon a performance of their daughter Kim, who, achieving international stardom, has continued in her mother’s footsteps in the theater. Unlike the 1951 movie version, a successful career in the theater joyously takes a backseat to love.

Anyone who has seen Funny Girl (1964) will easily recognize that Show Boat’s story bears a close resemblance to that of Fanny Brice’s life. Like the innocent Magnolia’s infatuation with well-bred and sophisticated Gaylord Ravenal, Fanny falls in love with the stiff white shirt of charming Nick Arnstein almost the moment she begins to perform in Keeney’s theater. Although the marriage occurs a few years later as opposed to Noli’s and Gaylord’s seemingly overnight affair, the same series of events follows. While Fanny grows more and more successful, her gambler husband falls further and further into debt. Six years and two children after their marriage, Arnstein is charged with bond theft, and despite Fanny’s support of his legal defense, is imprisoned. Released in 1927, Arnstein does not return to his awaiting wife, and the couple ultimately divorce.

The musical somewhat faithfully recounts this series of events, ending in the “tragic” failure of Fanny’s life, as opposed to the real-life continued success. Granted, a later chapter of her life and marriage to Broadway producer Billy Rose was presented in Funny Lady of 1975, but the superior and more widely recognized work, structurally and mythologically speaking, only reconfirms American views of the stage as a home wrecker.

The stage, as we all know, does not just destroy the love-life of its performers. In order to reach their goal of stardom, the performers must generally undergo a series of horrible tortures. In the musical Gypsy (1959), Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Jule Styne recount the story of not one, but three destroyed lives due to the lure of a stage career. The monstrous, but talented stage mother Rose Thompson-Hovick is determined to take her daughter, “Baby June” (June Havoc in later life), straight to fame. But as she grows up, Havoc and the lesser-talented Rose Louise are disenchanted with their stage careers and, more importantly, nearly smothered by their mother’s ambitions for them.

I saw the 1973 production of Gypsy starring Angela Lansbury, who was excellent, but far less terrifying, I am sure, than the outsized and bigger-than-life Ethel Merman (or the slightly manic movie performance, for that matter, of Rosalind Russell). Even loveable Bette Midler’s 1993 television performance, however, particularly in her rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” revealed how frightening it must have been to be the offspring of such an overpowering monster as Mama Rose. Baby June escapes the woman’s clutches, while Rose Louise attempts to replace her, both in her mother’s affections and in the few gigs the family can find. Left with only burlesque venues, her mother encourages Rose to replace a stripper, and history is made as Gypsy Rose Lee is born. The musical ends with Gypsy’s success, but in the mother’s now-bitter resentment of her daughter, she reveals great truths about the “star.” Her supposed intellectual prowess—satirized by Vivienne Segal’s (and, later, Elaine Stritch’s) intellectual recitations while performing a striptease in Pal Joey’s “Zip”—was a cover for a lonely girl who’d been so abused that she could not even recognize—or accept—her devolution.

This is an instance, however, where—despite the recurrent theme of the dangers of the wicked stage—the real life of the figure was worse than the theatrical presentation. Both June Havoc—later a successful stage and film actress (who performed in the original production of Pal Joey)—and Gypsy were plagued throughout later years by their mother’s demands for money. The mother, who opened a lesbian boardinghouse in New York City, ultimately killed her own lover after he had made a pass for Gypsy. On her deathbed, the mother continued to abuse her daughter with threats of pulling her into the grave with her.

Actresses also rise in their careers by destroying others in the 1936 play, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s Stage Door, remade into a movie the following year. In this work the well-bred and obviously wealthy Terry Randall (Margaret Sullavan in the play and Katherine Hepburn in the movie) is willing to give up her old life for the theater, but having more ambition than perception, metaphorically speaking, she kills the long-suffering and starving Kay Hamilton, who dies the very night Terry is set to play the role for which Kay was the perfect actress! The witty dialogue of Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, and Eve Arden in the movie makes it quite clear that, given their aspirations, their Footlights Club accommodations is a bit like being incarcerated in the women’s ward of the city jail. It’s definitely not a place for a woman with any self-respect.

The motion picture All About Eve (1950) has little to say about Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter) and a great deal to say about becoming a star. For if Eve victimizes the current star, brilliantly played by Bette Davis as Margo Channing, she too is victimized by critic Addison DeWitt and, at the end, by a young would-be successor to her. Channing may be betrayed by friends such as Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) and playwright Bill Sampson, but her vitriolic attacks on enemies and friends alike is so powerful that one has difficulty feeling pity for her. In this world, actresses not only step over each other’s bodies, they stab and maim them on their way down. By movie’s end, bodies are strewn about the aging actress Margo. Wicked is not a strong enough word for the theater-world this work portrays.

Similarly, in A Star Is Born (1954), Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) rises to fame only through the destruction of husband and former “star” Norman Maine (James Mason). But this time it all ends in no metaphorical downfall, but in his actual death, through suicide. Garland’s own life, obviously, might have been the subject of a movie with similar themes. While we are speaking of film actors, moreover, one cannot forget the incomparable Norma Desmond of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard of 1950, whose aging and inability to keep up with the times lead not just to the end of her acting career, but to utter madness!

There have been, of course, numerous bio-films in which actors have lived somewhat more normal lives (one thinks, for example, of Yankee Doodle Dandy [1942], the story of George Cohan), but by and large, Broadway theater and Hollywood films have been determined to present life upon the wicked stage for women as totally destructive. Destroying their men and all possibility of love, these women go on to destroy one another, to empty their lives of all meaning and possibility of significance. From there it is only a logical step to madness and death.

Given this panoply of warnings, the facts of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic life and death (which Paddy Chayefsky fictionally represented in another “wicked stage” movie, The Goddess of 1958) seem almost inevitable.

Los Angeles, June 28, 2002
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (June 2008).