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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

René Clement | Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games)


stolen crosses
by Douglas Messerli

Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost, François Boyer and René Clement (screenplay, based on a novel by François Boyer), René Clement (director) Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games) / 1952

 Clement’s poignant film begins with horrible images of a mass escape by citizens of Paris and elsewhere into the French countryside, German planes of World War II following them and randomly shooting at the streaming hordes on foot, in horse carts, and cars, the few processions they have been able to gather weighing them down. Upon one strafing, everyone temporarily abandons their former positions, falling to the ground to protect themselves. Among them are a husband and wife with their five-year old daughter, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) and her pet dog. When they return to their car, it will not start up, as others behind them in the seemingly endless line of escapees impatiently honk and scream for them to move forward. After a few moments, others grab the car, tossing it into a culvert, the occupants escaping the vehicle just in time. Forced to carry some of their luggage, they are now among those on foot.

      A second horrible attack occurs, this time Paulette’s beloved pet escaping from her hands, as she rushes forward to capture it. Terrified of her running among the bullets, the couple chases after Paulette and, as they finally recapture her and the dog, drop again to the ground; but this time bullets strike the father, mother, and pet killing them all. The child touches the face of her mother as if in an attempt to awaken her, finally standing—her dog still in her arms—in desolate confusion. Another couple in the long line of pilgrims take her into their cart, demanding, however, she toss away the dead dog and, when she refuses, remove it from her arms, throwing into the river below the bridge which they, at that moment, are crossing. Another attack slows the course again, while Paulette takes advantage to run off in chase of her dog as his corpse flows downstream.

      It may be one of the most truly horrifying of any opening sequence, a scene so powerful, in part, because we know that episodes like this, as unbearable as they seem, really occurred. Yet in the very next sequence of events, we discover ourselves in an almost idyllic pastoral world, where local farmers seem to exist miles away from the chaos of the road. Here a young boy, Michel Dollé (the wonderful child actor Georges Poujouly) keeps watch over the family cows. Suddenly a horse, still carrying part of his cart, rushes into this “other” world, confusing the rustics, who cannot explain its presence in their simple paradise. Michel’s brother attempts to stop the interruptive horse—against the cries Madame Dollé (Suzanne Courtal) to leave him alone since is clearly a “warhorse”—and is kicked by the terrified beast in his stomach. The adults rush to his side, lifting his pained body to take him back to the house. In the upheaval, one of the cows bolts, chased by Michel. The cow quickly moves to the river, stopping for a moment by Paulette who has just retrieved her dead dog’s body. The boy, suddenly coming upon her, chastises her for not stopping the cow, while, nonetheless asking her who she is and why she is there. For the first time in the film, Paulette speaks, finally able to communicate to someone nearer her own age (Michel is 10) and, having finally retrieved the cow, Michel consoles the young child for the loss of her dog and parents, promising her another dog as he takes her to the family house.

      So has Clement, in two marvelous sequences, presented us two entirely different worlds that are only tangentially related. The world of the Dollés and the argumentative Gouard’s next door is one of utter poverty, the entire family dressed in rags, their house filthy, a fly drowned in a glass of milk which they offer the thirsty child. The women immediately comment on the beauty and cleanliness of Paulette’s dress. But despite their often coarse and seemingly unfeeling demeanors, they quickly determine to take the poor girl in, feeding her, offering her love, and even sacrificing their own bedding. A particularly close relationship quickly develops between the two children, as Michel, giving up his own rooftop bed, seems to be the only one who can console the tired and frightened five-year-old.

      We also soon discover that, despite the near complete ignorance of the rest of his family, Michel is a good student, both in school learning and in the religious instruction of the local priest. Paulette, it appears, has never encountered church doctrine, and is quickly taught prayers and religious catechism by Michel. (Roger Ebert suggests that Paulette may have been Jewish, and Michel's teaching her the catechism and her own later adoption of the Dollé name may save her life). Indeed, as the adult family members go about their daily business, the two children become closer and closer, Michel almost taking on Paulette not only as a sister, but as a kind of future mate—the one aspect of Clement’s film that I found difficult to swallow. Despite the slightly forced intimacy between the two, however, we can accept it because the magical world the two children create is parallel to but so different from the violece—the violence growing out of war and out the bitter realities of peasant life (the Dollés relationship with their neighbors, the Gouards might almost remind one of the American Hatfields and McCoys)—surrounding them. And yet, like the worlds we have encountered in the first scenes—the world of the refugees and the world of the local farmers—the imaginative existence of the children inevitably comes into contact and crosses into the world of the adults.

      After Michel explains to Paulette that she cannot again see her parents who have by now been buried, she suddenly desires the same for her dog, attempting to take an ax to the hard ground. Michel interrupts her efforts, taking into an old mill where he helps her bury her dog. When she asks for a cross, he quickly constructs one out of two sticks. And when she feels that her dog will be lonely, Michel steals a vole from the local owl's nest, burying it next to the dog. So begins a terrifying and yet enchanting story at the center of this film of the children’s growing fascination with death, as they add animal after animal to their small “forbidden” cemetery, a chick (which despite Paulette’s insistence he not kill any animal, he has probably strangled in order to please her), a cockroach (which he denies he has killed: “I didn’t. It was a bomb that killed him.”), and other animals, each buried, their graves marked with paper signs created by Michel.

      When Michel’s brother, Georges (Jacques Marin) dies of complications from the horse’s kick, the children accompany the whole family to the local church, wherein Paulette discovers a whole world of beautiful crosses (both the crosses within the church and outside in the cemetery), she demands they borrow some of these lovely objects for their own sacred shrine.

      With stubborn fearlessness, Michel and Paulette steal out in the night, the sky lit up with German rockets, to fill a wheelbarrow with stolen crosses, including the one which graces Georges’ new plot. When the Dollé family, memorializing their son the next day, discover the cross and grave marker missing, they blame their neighbors; and when the Gouards, not to be outdone in the care of their family plots, show up at the same cemetery, the father (Lucien Hubert) attacks the Gouard plot, destroying their own cross. A terrible fight within an open grave follows, with the priest finally resolving the mystery of the missing crosses by naming Michel, whom he has caught the previous day attempting to steal the cross from the church altar.

     Michel disappears for the night, slipping into the house only to report to Paulette that he has finally finished the children’s glorious animal cemetery. But the following morning he is discovered by his father and nearly beaten—saved only by the fact that police show up to the house. Presuming the Gouards have reported him, Dollé further threatens his disobedient son. But when it is announced that they have come to take away Paulette to an orphanage, Michel attempts to broker a deal: he will tell where the crosses are if they agree to keep Paulette. The father agrees.

       As all children know, however, adults are not always true to their word—they lie, they hate, they kill—and Dollé signs the document releasing Paulette to police custody, Michel running off to destroy the children’s sacred place, tossing the stolen crosses in to the river, just as others have as discarded Paulette’s beloved dog.

       The last scene is, in some respects, is as painful as the film’s first. In a large train station, a Red Cross nun places a “marker” upon her new charge, Paulette, as she goes off to temporarily finish some paperwork, demanding the girl remain where she is to wait. A reunited couple brings a woman in the crowd to call “Michel, Michel!” as Paulette stands up to see if it is her Michel who has arrived. He is nowhere in sight, but the child cannot resist moving forward into the crowd with her own pleading voice calling out the same name. We cannot know whether she will attempt to return to the Dollé farm or whether she must wait years to attempt a reunion with her partner in their forbidden games. All we can know is that she has again lost what matters most in her ever-shrinking world.

Los Angeles, July 30, 2012

Monday, July 30, 2012

Miguel Arteta | Chuck & Buck

fun, fun, fun!
by Douglas Messerli

Mike White (writer), Miguel Arteta (director) Chuck & Buck / 2000

The death of actress Lupe Ontiveros this week led me to again watch the 2000 film, Chuck & Buck, in which she plays the savvy and salty theater manager and director Beverly Franco, a role very much at the center of this unusual film. And, although I had already written a brief paragraph or two about Mike White’s script in my 2007 essay on “The Unordinary Obsessions of Ordinary Lives,” [included in this same volume], I felt that the film also fit nicely with the movies about Los Angeles I have gathered under the rubric of “Rebels without a Home.”



      It is, however, difficult to describe the central figure of the film, Buck O’Brien (Mike White), as a rebel. Perhaps this 27 year old man who acts more like a 14 year old boy might be more likened to a slightly retarded stalker. But he is most definitely, like many of the figures in my observation of this growing film “genre,” an outsider, someone who arrives in Los Angeles without the slightest ability to comprehend and fit into whatever one might perceive as Angeleno “normality,” and, accordingly, he and the city are a perfect fit.

     At the age of 11, he and a neighbor boy, Charlie “Chuck” Sitter (Chris Weitz) shared a close friendship that included, as some adolescent boys’ lives do, a deeply sexual component of rhyming words with their childhood monikers, the kind of homosexual kinship in which some children participate in order to prepare themselves for their later heterosexual lives. Personally, I did not experiment in that male-bonding frenzy, having, as I joke, been absent from “male-bonding” 101 and, also, perhaps fearful that if I had so acted out my inclinations, it would be evident that they were not a temporary “aberration.”

     Something like that clearly has been the case with Buck, since Chuck eventually moved away and is at film’s beginning a “normalized” LA heterosexual record-producing executive, who has shacked up with his girlfriend, Carlyn (Beth Colt). His kindness of accepting the invitation to funeral of his childhood friend’s mother, is rewarded with an attempt by Buck to continue the childhood “suck and fuck” games. Like too many stereotyped views of gay figures, Buck has been clearly a “mamma’s boy” who has refused to grow up, his childhood toys and music surrounding him (including a song whose major chorus includes the words “Fun, Fun, Fun’), along with his presumably mother-induced hypochondriac conditions, one of which demands he sleep with a vaporizer. Buck is, in short, an absolutely clueless man-child who behaves so strangely that only his mother could have loved him. Chuck, who has now rechristened himself Charlie, although sympathetic with the situation of the mother’s death, is quite obviously shocked and repelled by the Buck’s sexual come-on, and immediately determines to leave. Carlyn behaves like any civilized and double-talking adult, inviting Buck to come see them sometime in LA.

     The problem is that Buck has had no lessons in social double-talk, taking them at their word, soon after withdrawing $10,000 from the money left to him by his mother to make the trip to Los Angeles. After several phone brush-offs, he begins to stalk his boyhood lover’s office and house, finally pretending to be a delivery boy to reencounter  Charlie, forcing him to an uncomfortable picture opportunity and, ultimately, getting himself invited to a party at their house, where, in comically uncomfortable interchanges with Charlie’s sophisticated friends, the film reveals some insightful comments about the record executive’s current life:

                    Party guest: How was he like in his former life?
                    Buck: Oh he was fun!   

At another moment we find evidence of Charlie’s retreat from a life of “fun, fun, fun: “Charlie is not a very sentimental guy.” When Buck reveals that their relationship was very special, one guest comments: “Charlie hasn’t changed. He’s still very exclusive.”

     The intrusion upon his former friend’s moves Buck even further from any possibility of communicating with him ever again, polite invitations being postponed in a way that Angelenos have of distancing themselves from those with whom they feel they need distancing—an easy disappearing act in a city so vast.

     Having failed through direct contact, and having already created the “hypothetical” possibility through the local theater manager, Beverly, in a playhouse across the street of Charlie’s office, Buck determines to write a play that will reveal the truth: that Carlyn is a kind of witch who has come between the men’s relationship, in the play named Hank and Frank. Hiring Beverly to direct the play at $25 an hour, renting out the theater for one night, Buck oversees the casting, insisting that they hire a third rate actor (as Beverly puts it, “He was the worst thing we saw today”) simply because he, Sam (Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz’s real-life brother) shares the darkly handsome look of Charlie. Eventually Buck even moves in across the hall from Sam’s apartment and, upon one occasion, attempts to replace Sam with Charlie as a lover. Once again, Buck is rejected, but Sam, who admits he is himself a little “weird,” forgives Buck and the two remain friends.

      The play is an obvious disaster. Of Buck, Beverly comments, “I think you have something weird about women. I think you have something weird about men.” Of the play, she observes:

                           Beverly:  I see it as a love story between Hank and Frank.
                           Buck: You do?
                           Beverly: It’s like a homoerotic misogynistic love story
                           Buck:  Well, it is what it is.

The important thing for Buck is that he has been able to lure Charlie to see the play!  Charlie’s reaction suggests the end of any possible further communication.

     Yet, White’s ever-shifting script throws another curve ball, as Buck confronts Chuck once again, this time at a late night dinner meeting with clients at a bar, making his own “deal,” so to speak, by suggesting that if Charlie is willing to have sex with him one more time, he will never bother him again. To our surprise, Charlie accepts, even admitting during their sexual encounter that he does remember the childhood events:

                            Buck: Do you remember me?
                            Chuck: I remember everything.

In short, there is a haunting edginess about this film that hints that male heterosexual’s childhood same-sex encounters have a deeper effect upon their lives than is generally admitted. And there is another issue at which White has been hinting all along: the sense of joy of youth is somehow changed in the adult male-female interrelationships. When Charlie tells Buck, “You have to grow up,” Buck responds—reminding me a bit of Peter Pan—“Like you?”

       The one night sexual slip, it is clear, is never revealed to Charlie’s lover, whom he soon marries. And Buck, with the now successful Beverly having become the theater’s director, has found a place in the company in her former job. A chance encounter between Charlie and Carlyn with Buck at a local restaurant, results in what is merely gulp of deep wistfulness on Buck’s part, as he remains in quiet discussions with his theater peers. He apparently has grown up to be comfortable in his own identity, which, after all, is what the difficult city offers anyone who lasts it out.

Los Angeles, July 29, 2012

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ferzan Özpetek | Haman (Il bagno turco/Steam: The Turkish Bath)

a change in geography

 Ferzan Özpetek, Stefano Tummolini, and Aldo Sambrell (writers, based on a story by Ferzan Özpetek), Ferzan Özpetek (director) Hamam (Il bagno turco/Steam: The Turkish Bath) / 1997, USA 1998.

Hamam, Italian-Turkish Özpetek’s directorial debut, is not near as good as several of his later films, but like most of his works, still has a great deal of charm.



     The Italians Francesco (Alessandro Gassman) and Marta (Francesca d’Aloja) are a hardworking couple, running a small design firm. Although they have once been deeply in love, their marriage is clearly floundering, as Marta announces again and again her reliance on another business partner, Paolo, with whom, we later discover, she is having an affair. But Francesco is clearly so caught up in work that he notices very little.

     Out of the blue, he receives word that his “black sheep” aunt, who early in her life ran off to live Istanbul, has died, leaving him her property. Against his inclination, he determines to travel to Istanbul to quickly sell it off so that he can get back to work.

     Arriving in the magical Turkish city, Francesco soon finds that the potential buyer is lowering her bid, and that he cannot immediately get rid of the property. Having a day or so to meander through the city, he gradually discovers the city’s beauty. An older man accosts him on the street, asking Francesco to help him to the local hamam, a Turkish bath, so that he can get some water. Once there, he invites the Italian to take a look about the place, recommending that he find time to take advantage of the ancient luxury, slowly going out of style. Francesco is somewhat appalled by the reclining male bodies, but is clearly fascinated nonetheless.

      When he later visits the property that his aunt has left him, he discovers an entire family living in the space, people who worked and cared for his aunt, including an elderly husband and wife, and their two children, Mehmet (Mehmet Günsür) and Fusan (Basak Köklüaya), male and female, both of them beautiful and both casting longing glances toward the handsome Francesco. The family, who apparently enjoy a harmony seldom seen in American family life, insist that he eat with them, and show him his aunt’s room containing her possessions, while also revealing that the building contains an old haman, now closed, in which Mehmet had once worked. Fernando reads the letters left by his aunt and sent, unread, to his own mother, explaining her love of Istanbul and her reasons for remaining there: “Here, things flow more slowly and soft."

     Francesco is intrigued by her statements and, when he discovers that the potential purchaser is also attempting to buy up the entire neighborhood in order to build a huge trade center, he bulks at selling, determining, with Mehmet’s help, to refurbish the steam bath to its original glory. The lawyer who has worked to close the sale, warns him that his decision is a mistake, that the potential buyer is “a dangerous woman,” but Francesco is not dissuaded and, with Mehmet, begins the repairs. What is also apparent through their stares is that he and Mehmet are developing a relationship.

      A call to Marta, explaining that he must stay on for while longer in Istanbul, hardly fazes her, since it frees her to continue her affair with Paolo. But a short while later, she flies to Istanbul, in part to reveal her relationship and divorce Francesco. She too is welcomed into the loving family, and is somehow affected by the food and the beauty of the city. But, although the couple share a bed, there is no sexual contact, and, one night observing that Francesco has left the room, she enters the haman to observe Mehmet and Francesco in a deep embrace.

       Obviously she must reveal her own adultery and leave, but before she can do so, men arrive at the haman door, stabbing Francesco to death—obviously killers hired by the “dangerous woman” whose exploitation of the area he has thwarted.

     Marta, in turn, having discovered another Francesco in Istanbul who did exist in Italy, has found  she was newly love with him, and willingly stays on in Istanbul to finish the project her husband had begun, perhaps turning into another woman like Francesco’s aunt, who has found a new world in which she feels at home.

     My only problem with Özpetek’s romantically dark tale is that, just as in his second 2001 feature, The Ignorant Fairies, the adulterer who crosses gender lines seems to have to die, as if it were necessary to punish the transgression. At least in the later film, the central character lives on the spirit of the small community with whom he shared his second love; in Haman, we never get to really know Mehmet or have the opportunity to perceive why Francesco, other than Memet’s beauty, has fallen in love so deeply that he has changed his sexual orientation. Even Francesco’s new-found love of Istanbul is left purposely vague, as if simply walking through the city streets he has helped to recover his life. I’m willing to take it on faith that the idyllic world into which he has suddenly landed and in which Marta later finds herself immersed, is responsible for both their conversions, but it would have been nice to have explored that idyll just a bit more deeply or, even, to have allowed their transformations to occur alongside just a few flaws. Perhaps Özpetek is suggesting that an occasional change in geography (and sexual orientation) does wonders for anyone.

Los Angeles, July 27, 2012

Friday, July 27, 2012

Bill Forsyth | Local Hero

muckin’ together
by Douglas Messerli

Bill Forsyth (writer and director) Local Hero / 1983

Scottish director Bill Forsyth has established himself, in films such as Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, and Comfort and Joy, as the creator off somewhat offbeat comic works that leisurely spool out the lives of his characters in a manner that seems, at times, like a kind of surrealist fairy-tale set against a realist backdrop.

      Local Hero, released in 1983, one of his very best, begins within dark towers of downtown Houston in a building owned by Knox Oil as the company board meets, while the CEO, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), falls into a snore-laden sleep. The board has determined to buy a small village in Scotland, Ferness, to create a large oil refinery.

     Happer, clearly more interested in the stars more than the oil business, is currently being psychologically treated by a hack psychologist whose methods include heavy abuse, which Happer alternately accepts and rejects as the mood strikes him, finally ordering the truly “crazy” psychologist to be “shot down”: “There’s a madman on the roof. You’d better call the police to get some marksmen over here. Shoot him down. Shoot to kill.”

     Happer assigns a purchasing assistant MacIntyre (Peter Reigart) to handle the deal in Scotland on the basis of his Scottish-sounding name. In truth MacIntyre is of Hungarian background (his immigrant parents thinking that MacIntyre sounded American), and he is better negotiating, as he puts it, via telex. But just being asked to Happer’s office is a sign of honor. Happer has little business advice, but is most specific that Mac, while in Scotland, keep an eye on the stars.

     So does the thoroughly American Mac enter into a world he knows little about, a country of savvy survivors as we have seen in a long tradition of Ealing and other comedies such as Whiskey Galore! Meeting up in Aberdeen with a Scottish Knox representative, Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi) to drive to Ferness, they accidently hit a rabbit along the way and forced to sit out the night on the highway because of fog. Indeed by the time they reach Ferness they might as well have discovered Brigadoon, so different is this world from either of theirs.

     The hotel, so they discover, is run by a clever businessman, Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson) and his sexy wife, Stella. Not only does he run the hotel, serve as waiter and head barman, but works off-hours, as Mac and Oldsen soon discover, as the town lawyer and investment counselor. Getting wind of Knox’s proposal, Urquhart, like a wily fox, suggests some disinterest, telling Mac to take a couple of days to acclimate himself to his new location, but immediately springing into a dance upon his bed: “Oh boy, are we going to be rich!”

     Gordon quickly calls meetings with the locals to ask for their faith in him as the middleman—a meeting hilariously held in secret at the local church, the parish run by an former African, who, when Mac and Oldsen coincidently enter the churchyard, is sent off as a decoy:

                        Rev. Macpherson: You want to buy my church?
                        Mac: Not as a going concern.

     With the two interlopers' backs turned away from the church entrance, we see the village citizens racing from the sanctuary; only Oldsen notices, but is so seemingly incompetent, he does not even mention the event.

     Days of slow haggling follow, as the citizens pretend disinterest while impatiently waiting for Gordon to settle on a price. What they cannot have imagined is that Mac, wandering the town’s beaches, enjoying the wonderful meals cooked up by Stella (including the rabbit, Trudy, whom the two men have turned into a pet), and the general congeniality of the village begins to alter Mac’s perspective, as he falls in love the Scottish way of “muckin’ through,” each villager not only taking on numerous tasks in life, but working together in a communal way. Stars fall, comets come into view, the Northern lights spin out colors of green, purple, and red, all of which Mac dutifully reports back to Happer from a small seaside payphone which is repainted a bright red.

     Oldsen, meanwhile, has fallen in love with a Knox researcher, Marina (Jenny Seagrove), who mistakenly interprets the strangers’ arrival as a response to her proposal to turn the area into an institute for the study of the sea. She, in turn, nearly always sea-bound, seems to be a real life mermaid, which even further enchants the child-like Oldsen.

     Negotiations continue, Gordon serving up a 42-year old whiskey to Mac. The Russians arrive in the form of a vodka-bearing sea-captain, Victor (Christopher Rozycki), who regularly visits the town and has invested money in a fund which Gordon oversees. And, in the midst of all these comings and goings, are the plans for a céilhid, a Scottish social gathering, with music and dance.

     Mac has been so taken with the village that, drunk, he offers Gordon to exchange lives, he coming to live in Ferness, with the obviously capable Gordon going to work in Houston for Knox—with only one condition, that he leave behind Stella, with whom Mac has fallen in love.

                 MacIntyre: [both men are drunk] Would you leave Stella here with me?
                 Gordon: Sure I will.
                 MacIntyre: You’re a good guy, Gordon.

     The scenes of the céilhid, with its rosy cheeked and freckled youngsters playing instruments, its arguing old men, and the punk-tattooed motorcyclist obviously attracted to Oldsen, are some of the best in the film. With his characters hardly speaking, Forsyth presents the absolute charm of the community, its social bonds and its spirited love. Even if the villagers themselves are all too ready to sell out and to abandon their lives, we and Mac realize it would destroy a blessed civilization.

     Fortunately, Gordon soon reports, the beach is owned, on command of ancient decrees, by a sort of pack-rat scavenger, appropriately named Ben Knox, who is not at all ready to leave his paradise. Mac even offers him a series of world-wide beach properties to replace his current home, each of which Ben refuses. Reporting back to Happer, Mac is told to prepare for his bosses’ arrival. His helicopter comes flying in at the very moment that the villagers have begun to descend upon Ben’s doorless hut, which Happer mistakenly interprets as a “greeting party.”

     So does the owner of Knox oil meet the Scottish Knox, who shares with Happer a fascination with all things astronomical. At a one on one meeting they get along swimmingly, Happer, by conversation's end, willing to abandon his plans for a huge refinery in order to create an astronomical center in its place. The seemingly hapless Oldsen suggests he add Marina’s Institute for sea study, an idea which Happer quickly seems to embrace. Poor Mac is sent off back to Houston, gently stroking the shells he has collected from the beach in his lonely and soulless apartment. Back in Furness, the telephone ensconced in its small read box rings, but there is no one there any longer to answer it.

     In short, the Furness villagers are saved—even from themselves! But who, one has to ask, is the local hero? Is it Gordon, who has bluffed not only Mac, the entire Knox industry, but, perhaps, even his fellow citizens? Is it Ben, who refuses to give up the world he inhabits? Or even Oldsen, who despite his seeming outsiderness, is, after all Scottish and, who along with Marina’s imagination, changes everything? Or is it the now isolated and lost Mac, who fell in love with the very world he was trying to negotiate the destruction of? Perhaps even Happer might be described as saving the village, coming home to a world he has only previously imagined. I suppose, with so many possible heroes, it doesn’t quite matter. The life Furness offered was its own salvation, a world that couldn’t afford to lose itself.

 Los Angeles, July 26, 2012.

As I’ve reported elsewhere in the My Year volumes, I met Peter Riegart at a Los Angeles Greek restaurant, Sofi, some few years after publishing Paul Auster’s City of Glass trilogy (1986 or 1987), to discuss his hopes of transforming the first fiction into a film. He would have been perfect, it seems in retrospect, as one of the characters; but evidently he could not find a screenwriter to transform the inner dialogues of Auster’s fiction into effective film language. I now think, given my understanding of film, I might have been able to do that. But at the time, I was young and had no thoughts of screen-writing. Besides, the film rights belonged to Auster and his agent.

     I did very much enjoy my lunch with Peter, who seemed so straight-forward and self-demeaning that one might never have thought of him as a successful film actor.

     As I have also reported, I met him several years later at the 80th birthday party for my friend Joseph Perloff (in 2005). There we had a delightful conversation about his appearance in the DVD version of the Bette Midler musical Gypsy, in which I described the wailing Riegart as a delightful foil for Midler. He revealed the fact that he had been in an affair with Midler for many years in the 1970s.

     Reigart has not appeared in a great many movies since, and I wish he might be rediscovered. His quiet, understated presence is perfect for directors such as Forsyth.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard | Pgymalion

the toy
by Douglas Messerli

George Bernard Shaw, W. P. Liscomb, Cecil Lewis (scenario and dialogue), Ian Dalrymple, Anatole de Grunwald and Kay Walsh (uncredited dialogue), Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard (directors) Pygmalion / 1938

Nearly everyone who has seen the hit musical and film My Fair Lady, knows the story of Shaw's Pygmalion: it's a tale of a young, cockney flower-seller, Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller), who meets up with Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard), a master linguist, who insists that he could teach even her how to speak proper English: "Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language, I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba!"

      The next day, she takes up his challenge, offering to pay for English lessons! Her stay in Higgins' house, along with Colonel George Pickering (Scott Sunderland)—a fellow dialect specialist Higgins has run into outside the opera (whom you might even describe as a "pick up")—results in the musical version, in a growing love-hate relationship between Higgins and Doolittle. In the 1938 film version, however, things are kept at a lower temperature, as the two men, Higgins and Pickering, dally with Eliza as if she were a toy, Higgins almost torturing her as she suffers through his cruel teachings (a sequence shot by a young David Lean, on his first assignment as editor).

     While in this dramatic version, we delight in their gradual transformation of their toy into a beautiful and well-spoken woman, any sexuality this film permeates exists between the two elderly "confirmed bachelors" rather than between girl and Higgins. True, even in the musical version it takes a long time before Eliza's resentment of Higgins begins to turn into dependence and, finally, a restorative love. But in Asquith's and Howard's version of the Shaw play, the work centers not on romantic fireworks but on the author's insistence that language makes the person. Asquith, a closeted homosexual, focuses his camera in the film primarily upon his two male figures who in the scene when Eliza finally gets the right accent, fling themselves into dance, as opposed to the complete involvement of Eliza in the later incarnations. Eliza's would-be lover in this version, moreover, Freddy Eynsford-Hill (David Tree) is such a buck-toothed dimwit that we cannot for one moment believe Eliza would have him. This Freddy does not even haunt the street where she lives. But neither do we believe that there is any real possibility of romance between her and Higgins.
     Her escape from the Higgins household after the two, Higgins and Pickering, celebrate her success at the great ball as primarily their doing, seems the only choice she might have made. There is no room for her in the all-male world Higgins has created. His wish for her to return—"Get out and come home and don't be a fool!" to which Higgins' mother responds "Very nicely put indeed, Henry. No woman could resist such an invitation"—hints at no romantic intentions, but merely the fact that he and Pickering have become dependent on her as a kind of feminine form of entertainment. Aren't most dolls (with the exceptions of Ken and G.I. Joe) female?

     Eliza's return, accordingly—an ending which Shaw himself opposed—is utterly ambiguous, as is Higgins' response: "Where the devil are my slippers, Eliza?" It suggests that if she is to stay, nothing will change. As Higgins' put it earlier to her: "If you can't appreciate what you've got, you'd better get what you can appreciate."

     Yet for all the film's misogyny, it is an absolutely first-rate presentation of Shaw's great play, with Shaw, having himself written the dialogue, winning the 1939 Academy Award for Writing of an adapted screenplay. If in her looks Hiller is no Audrey Hepburn or even Julie Andrews, her plainer features make her appear less vulnerable than the later incarnations of Eliza. Indeed, she has, in part, gotten what she sought: the ability to become a "lady," a woman who through her language and bearing can, by work's end, stand up to the worst of tyrants.

     It has always struck me, moreover, that Higgins is, at heart, the greatest of prigs, a man who transforms both Eliza and her father, Alfred (Wilfrid Lawson) from unwashed creatures of the street into figures fit for the middle class. It is no accident that the first thing that he insists after he agrees to take on Eliza as a pupil is that she wash up, to which she pleads, "I'm a good girl, I am!" But he, as we soon learn, is not necessarily a good man. For Higgins remains an outsider, not even welcome in his mother's house. Which may explain Shaw's desire to cast the less attractive Charles Laughton—whom one might say specialized in playing demented characters such as Nero, Dr. Moreau, murderers and other such types—in the role of Higgins.

Los Angeles, July 25, 2012

Monday, July 23, 2012

Guy Maddin | The Saddest Music in the World

the problem with glass
by Douglas Messerli

 
George Toles and Guy Maddin (writers, based on a story by Kazuo Ishiguro), Guy Maddin (director) The Saddest Music in the World / 2003, USA 2004

 Beginning in late 2011 and more increasingly in 2012, I began to have problems of falling upon getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, suddenly blacking out for a few seconds to find myself on the floor, often in great pain. The problem was, apparently, my drugs for high blood pressure. One, in particular, Clonidine, reported complications at least three times, in its list of possible "side effects,” of “dizziness.” One such fall was into a glass mirrored closet, facing our bed. Although the wall itself was backed with sticky paper to prevent the glass from falling out en masse, numerous small pieces of glass embedded themselves in my back and, for days, appeared upon our carpet floor. The following morning I was scheduled for an endoscopy, which was cancelled—might anyone be surprised—because of high blood pressure. The anesthesiologist suggested I get rid of the Clonidine, which my doctor and I did, after weeks of trying to discover another successful mix of pills to protect me from high blood pressure. We were successful, although many of my new drugs also warn of “dizziness;” (Diovan, one of my major pills, warns of just such an effect).

      The point is, I have come to fear falling (I recently fell again, turning my cheek into a good resemblance of the Batman’s “The Jocker”—terrifying given it happened on the same day when James Holmes, identifying himself as The Joker, murdered 12 people in a Colorado movie theater) —and, more importantly, I am now terrified by the effects of glass.*

       Back in February of 2012, accordingly, I wrote a poem titled “The Problem with Glass,” which I’ve reprinted below:

                                The Problem with Glass

                                The problem with glass
                                                                      —it breaks
                                it striates a wrist, the back
                                shattering shards
                                sever almost everything in sight.
                                The heart is made up of tissue
                                the brain corrugated mass.
                                Glass is recomposed sand.
                                People who live in stones
                                should not throw ice.

                                                                                      February 22, 2012 (Los Angeles)



    For the ordinary or even casual reader of cinema reviews, all of this introductory information may seem entirely beside the point—and I might agree—except that Guy Maddin’s film does not behave as an “ordinary” film might. Maddin's movie, like its own structure, seems, at times to engulf everything, crying out for viewer collaboration. Filmed in black-and white, with the slightly out-of-sync sound of films of the 1930s (the film is set in 1933 Winnipeg, Canada), using various film formats (regular, Super 8mm, Super 16mmm, pale-blue-salmon colored two-strip Technicolor) and employing numerous old-fashioned camera tricks (forced perspective, multiple exposures, and rear projection) that evoke the films of Fritz Lang (Metropolis), James Whale (Frankenstein), Tod Browning (Freaks), G. W. Pabst, Erich von Stroheim, and numerous others, including—since The Saddest Music in the World is also a musical—the films of Busby Berkeley, and allying itself with more contemporary cinema such as Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures and, in its serial contest format, Christopher Guest's Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, this work is a perfect example of a participatory aesthetic. Maddin not only relied on the considerable talents of his cinematographer, Luc Montpellier, but armed many of his cast members with hand-held cameras to add to the immediacy of several scenes. In short, to call this film pastiche is almost beside the point; it is like a woven-carpet of a knowledgeable film-goers memories, a veritable encyclopedia of clips and frames simulating film history. And it that sense, Maddin's film, at its heart, is an imaginary one, a film that dreams film.

      To say that is not to declare the director's work is unoriginal, however one defines that. For there is perhaps no movie quite like The Saddest Music in the World, no film ever made that whole heartedly embraces the serious musical, camp humor, melodramatic, sexual, and just plain comic tropes that this work does.

       For the fourth year a row, Winnipeg has been named by The London Times as "the world capital of sorrow," and Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini), the wealthy beer heiress, is determined to raise prohibition-free Winnipeg's beer sales by sponsoring an international contest, with a $25,000 dollar prize, to determine which country has the saddest music in the world.

      By coincidence, the hard-hearted, easy-going Broadway producer Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), down on his luck and accompanied by his current girlfriend, Narcissa (Maria de Mediros) (when asked "Are you an American?" she replies "No, I'm not an American. I'm a nymphomaniac."), has just arrived in town. When he hears of the prize money, he quickly pays a visit to Lady Helen Port-Huntley, attempting to become the entry from the US.

      He and Port-Huntley, we gradually discover, have once had a relationship or, perhaps I should say, a series of unfortunate encounters, beginning with  Chester's father Fyodor (David Fox), who, after the death of his wife, fell in love with the young Port-Huntley. Cuckolded by his son, the former doctor grows alcoholic and—one night while the son is driving with Port-Huntley performing fellatio and temporarily obscuring his view—crashes into their car, pinning one of girl's legs under the overturned vehicle. Before Chester can prevent him, the drunken Fyodor amputates the leg in order save her; however, he saws off the wrong one, and before the evening is over Port-Huntley is legless. Despite that horrific event, however, the bitter Port-Huntley has still harbored deep love for Chester, and permits him to be the US representative. Fydor, still eager to mend his relationship with Port-Huntley, begs her to be Canada's representative.

     In a twist of the plot, Serbia's representative, the morose and hypochondriac cellist, Gravillo the Great, is actually, so it soon revealed, Chester's brother, Roderick, whose son has died and whose wife has disappeared. This unholy trinity duke it out in a series of contests between Mexican, Thai, Spanish, Cameroon, Indian, Scottish and other world entries, each proclaiming their music to be the saddest. Overseeing this absurd sequence of musical numbers are two commentators who glibly speak of the various national types in a manner that Fred Willard perfected in Guest's film about the National Dog Show: "No one can beat the Siamese when it comes to dignity, cats, or twins."

       Fydor's sad rendition of "Red Maple Leaves" is quickly eliminated, but the two brothers—Chester dishing out razzle-dazzle spectaculars such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and Roderick dolefully sawing away at Jerome Kern's and Oscar Hammerstein II's "The Song Is You"—come closer and closer to a stand-off between their off-stage fights. When it turns out the mysterious Narcissa is also Roderick's missing wife, the battle grows even more intense until finally their mutual disgust for one another boils over.
      Underlying all these hilarious shenanigans is a darker tale of a world encased in glass. A short listing of events concerning glass might even summarize the final outcome of the story. The Winnipeg Maddin has whipped up is covered with ice; in the streets hockey players spin out of control as perpetual skaters glide by. One of the central slogans of Port-Huntley's beer copy repeats the refrain "have another glass," and throughout the film drinkers raise their glasses as they down the brew. Knowing that Port-Huntley is allergic to both leather and metal, Fyodor has carefully created a pair of glass legs for her—filled with beer! The Baroness is delighted with her new bright and glittering legs but still rejects her former suitor, and the depressed Fydor quickly consumes the beer from earlier incarnations of the glass legs and, in a stupor, falls through a glass ceiling over the contest arena to his death. Encountering Narcissa once again, Roderick drops the glass bottle containing his dead son's heart, which, as it shatters, implants a shard into the heart itself. In the midst of the final performances between Roderick and Chester, the soulful chords of Roderick's playing shatter Port-Huntley's new legs at the very moment she herself has gone on stage in Chester's grand retelling of an Eskimo kayak tragedy. In revenge for his thoughtless behavior, she stabs Chester in the stomach with a shard of the glass legs.

     Smoking one last cigar before he goes to hell, Chester plays on the piano perhaps the saddest song of all as the whole arena goes up in flames.

      So, in the end, you see, my little poem seems appropriately participatory in a work that has employed so many thousands of collaborating images.  

 *I had had an even more dreadful encounter with glass back in the early 1990s. Coming home from a trip abroad, I arrived at my office to realize that I had locked my keys away in the suitcase I had left inside. Only my assistant editor, Diana Daves, had another set of keys, but she was not scheduled to appear until hours later in the day. Attempting to push open a loosely locked French door, I suddenly discovered that my left hand had gone through a glass panel. Blood suddenly spurted out, forcing me to  run to a nearby doctor's office to have it bound up. At the hospital where they ultimately sent me, I was told I had nearly severed my thumb and had a deep cut across my wrist. I have both of those scars still today.

Los Angeles, July 22, 2012