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Monday, February 25, 2013
in search of the undergroundby Douglas Messerli
Louis Malle and Jean-Paul Rappeneau (based on the novel Raymond Queneau) (screenplay), Louis Malle (director) Zazie dans de métro (Zazie in the Metro) / 1960
Like the “naughty” boys of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduit, the bad-behaving Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) begins with a train ride, she, on her way to her uncle’s place in Paris. Her mother has dumped on the perfume dabbling, female impersonator Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) so that she might have short time her new lover, and the girl, well aware of the situation, clearly intends to “misbehave.” Zazie’s major desire is ride the metro, which is on strike and closed during the girl’s visit.
Accordingly, Malle, using Queneau’s story, sets up a situation in which youth, represented by Zazie, knowing who they are, seek out a world of the underground—a world down and away from the “ordinarily” city life—while the adults, pure pretenders, have no idea who they are or even where they are. The film begins, in fact, with Gabriel noting, in the slang, neologisms, and argot that dominate, that something stinks. While driving the girl to his house, he points out, time and again, famous Paris sites which are not what he names them, as if he has never even visited the city in which resides.
His beautiful wife, Albertine (Carla Marlier), seems, at first almost saintly, but we soon perceive her as being so placid and cold—so unlike her loud and foppish husband—that she seems to be hiding something, and later in the film, undergoes her own kind of transgender transformation. Others, such as the seeming pedophile Trouscaaillon (Vittorio Caprioli), are even stranger. But none of them are up to the bad girl tactics of the young rapscallion Zazie.
As the various chases and Gabriel’s performance come together, everyone and everything explodes into a brutal brawl. But by that time Zazie, tuckered out, has fallen asleep and misses the brouhaha. As critic Leo Goldsmith expresses it: “After formenting a revolution, she misses the war.” The next morning she is whisked away by her now sexually satiated mother just as the labor strike ends, and the metro opens up its gates.
February 25, 2013
Friday, February 15, 2013
releaseby Douglas Messerli
Aki Kurismäki (writer and director) Le Havre / 2011
Aki Kaurismäki’s 2011 film, Le Havre is an agreeable if slightly sentimental tale about a former author (André Wilms), who inexplicably has given up his bohemian life to become a shoeshiner in the famed French port. At one point the character mutters something about his line of work as bringing him closer to the people, but that does not sufficiently explain why this figure, Marcel Marx, who was featured also in Kaurismäki’s La Vie de Bohème (see page ___ in this volume) was named after the great Socialist thinker. But then the director also names several of his characters after famed French film figures. Marcel’s wife (the wonderful Kati Outinen) is named Arletty, after the music hall singer and actress in several of another Marcel, Carné’s pictures, the director who also set his La Quai des brumes in La Havre. A doctor in this movie, played by the French comic director Pierre Étaix, is named Becker after French film director Jacques Becker. The film’s detective, Monet, somewhat similar to the detective of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, also reminds us that the artist Monet painted a series of Le Havre scenes, portraying the same foggy atmosphere of Carné’s. While several of these references, accordingly, do play a role in this film, it also appears that Kaurismäki simply enjoys the referential ricochets of these names.
Strangely, while in the director’s earlier film Paris was portrayed as foggy, shabby town akin to Carné’s view of Le Harvre, Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is beautifully lit and, although a little shabby at the edges, is portrayed as a basically friendly city where Marx and fellow shoeshiner Chang (Quoc Cung Nguyen) stand placidly together as they greet train passengers who might desire a shine. Although he certainly does not make much money, Marx is rewarded free drinks by neighborhood bartender and the local grocer grudgingly allows him open credit. Spending only a small amount of his earnings, Marx returns home to the protective arms of Arletty and to his faithful dog, Laika (named presumably after the famed Russian dog in orbit), where he hands over his daily wages to his wife and is served up a restorative meal. When Arletty suffers what appears to be a heart attack, all neighbors come together in support.
At film’s end, even Arletty returns home, miraculously cured from what she has been previously told was an inoperable condition. As fleeting as joy was in Carné’s world, here it is almost contagious. If neither Carné’s tragic vision nor Kaurismäki’s primarily positive presentation of life is very realistic, who cares? Such is the stuff of films and books!
Los Angeles, February 14, 2013
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
carefully tautby Douglas Messerli
Paul Osborn (screenplay, based on the musical by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan), Joshua Logan (director) South Pacific / 1958
After hearing the other day of actor John Kerr’s death, I determined to revisit that film, a movie I first saw the year of its creation, 1958, and about which I have long had mixed feelings. Although I loved much of the acting and singing, as a child, I felt from the beginning that Logan’s heavy reliance of colored filters—although wonderfully theatrical—was distracting. And I have always had difficulty with Ray Walston’s comically grouchy character, Billis.
This time, moreover, I felt even more ill at ease with the American characters, who, in the film version, seem less “confused” than utterly tense, unable to enjoy even those emotional states of which they sing and dance. And it is this tension, it seems to me, which helps to make this film musical such a discomforting and emotionally unfulfilling experience.
Only Luther communicates with Nelly Forbush and the other women. But then, he is a special case. Luther does their laundry, sews grass dresses, and does various other “womanly” things that permit him entry into their company. In short Walston is asked to play the film’s only “gay” man while simultaneously having to pretend to be just another of the guys—a slightly more eccentric version of the desirous sailors—which helps to explain the actor’s somewhat dislikeable snarls and growls. Without openly admitting this character’s sexuality, the screenplay later asks him to have no interest in Bali Ha’i’s women (he seeks out the male-centered Boars’-tooth ceremony), and finally, requires that he dance in Forbush’s Thanksgiving performance in drag! Is it any wonder that he attempts to escape the island with the handsome and stated “sexy” Kerr (playing Lieutenant Cable), both by renting a boat and hitching a ride aboard the latter’s plane?
Nelly Forbush, played with almost clueless romanticism by the ever-buoyant Mitzi Gaynor, quickly allows herself to fall in love with the island’s handsome Frenchman (Rossano Brazzi),
pausing to ask why, as he has told her, he has killed another man. Yet she
rises into an absolute panic when it is revealed the beautiful children she has
admired (later Los Angeles gallerist
and my friend Candace Lee and Warren Hsieh) are de Becque’s own, fathered by a native woman.
As absolutely enchanted as he is by Bloody Mary’s young daughter, Liat (France Nuyen), Cable cannot bring himself to marry the girl, reminding himself in song of his Philadelphia girl back home. But, at least, he clearly recognizes his hypocrisy, admitting the tensions within himself quite clearly in the work’s most morally responsible song, “Carefully Taught.” Kerr, however, doesn’t even get to sing that important admission, since it’s lip-synched; and Emile de Beque’s great ode to love, “Some Enchanted Evening,” is sung by Giorgio Tozzi, which may explain some of Brazzi’s inexplicable grimaces. Even original Broadway performer Juanita Hall’s wonderful Bloody Mary is sung by another. Only Gaynor and Walston get to belt out their own predicaments.
In short, not only have the American figures of this work been “carefully taught” their racial and social isolation by their parents and society, but their characters in this highly artificed film are “carefully taut,” prudishly tense in their separation from the more open islanders. In a film where no American seems at home in his or her skin—the writers going so far as to punish Cable’s sexual and racial transgressions with his death—it is perhaps appropriate that nearly every time anyone breaks into song, the sky unnaturally turns into garish yellows, purples, blues and reds. In their up-tight sexualities these figures, understandably are slightly queasy, ill-at-ease in this brave new world.
While the Broadway cast eventually came to comprehend the absurdity of their perverted love interests, symbolized by the “hundred and one pounds of fun, Honey Bun”—an absurd vision of fulfilled sexuality, the film’s actors know only that they are “moving on” and away from this frightening world at film’s end. Only Nellie remains, perhaps now more as a mother than a lover.Los Angeles, February 13, 2013
Monday, February 11, 2013
key to the plotby Douglas Messerli
Frederick Knot (screenplay, based on his play), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Dial M for Murder / 1954
Despite the work’s absolute staginess—or, one might argue because of it—this film works, mostly because of Milland’s delicious ability to placidly prevaricate, Cummings’ boyish loyalty to Margot, and Kelly’s gift of simply radiating a confused beauty. And then there’s that hilariously complex plot to keep up all amused: Tony’s slow weekly withdrawals of bank funds to pay for the murder while hiding the fact from the police, his secret tracking of Swann, a shady character even in his schooldays who has committed numerous petty crimes against women before Wendice has tracked him down, and Tony’s voyeuristic stalking of the man at the dog races week after week. Add to that Tony’s accidental uncovering of Mark’s love letter to his wife, his fake blackmail attempts, the way he lures Mark into attending a stag party as a cover for his whereabouts the night of his wife’s murder, his planned-to-the-second telephone call to draw her out of the bedroom, etc. etc.—seemingly all for naught, since, when his watch stops, he’s late with the call, Swann nearly leaving, and Swann is murdered with scissors Tony has asked his wife to cut out articles from his past tennis career.
The only truly dramatic event of the film is the attempted murder, where Swann is poised over the intended victim almost as in act of sex before Margot, reaching for the scissors, thrusts them into his back, he impaling them even deeper with his fall to the floor. This scene is pure Hitchcock magic!
What follows is almost a purposeful unweaving of the whole fabric of Tony’s lies, as he redirects the very acts he has used to hide his involvement—including his silence on the phone, his insistence that she not immediately call the police, the discovery of money on the murdered man, and entry through the front door—upon his wife, freeing himself to guiltlessly end the relationship. Milland’s icy demeanor throughout makes him the perfect fiend.
There is only one small element that has escaped this monster’s attention. The key found in Swann’s pocket, returned by Tony to his wife’s purse, is not the key to their flat, but to Swann’s own. Swann, thoroughly obeying Tony’s orders, has faithfully returned the house key to the rug upon the staircase outside the door. Since the inspector has switched raincoats with Wendice, and Margot, asked to return home, has no way to enter the flat; when the now keyless Tony checks the staircase, he reveals his guilt by his very entry.
Even now, however, Milland as Tony retains his cool, pouring himself up a large drink before, presumably, going off to prison and his ultimate hanging.
Saturday, February 9, 2013
southern fried chickenby Douglas Messerli
Accordingly, this empty fable begins with a boring and unrevealing “trial,” one of the mobsters repeating “I can’t remember,” while Yvonne, true to her man, perfumes the room with lies. Even the senators throw up their hands in boredom: the inquiry ends as quickly as it has begun!
If you think these events might be lacking some credibility, hold on! For Numbers, having been “calmed down” by Emily Lee’s singing, suddenly gets the urge to take her along to New York where he might “mentor” and see to her education, hankering, evidently, to play “Daddy Long Legs” to this innocent country gal. But wouldn’t you know, the minute they get the Big Apple, where Emily Lee is given up into the tutelage of show-girl Tessie Sammis (Mitzi Green), the green country kid suddenly becomes a 20-something woman who, it turns out, can sing and dance as good as any Broadway star. As they play out a kind of “I can do anything better routine,” Tessie, Curtantime, and Emily Lee irresistibly patter “I Have a Feeling You’re Fooling.”
Screenplay writer Sy Gomberg and adapter Albert Mannheimer don’t give Runyon’s suckers an even chance. The Southern fried chicken, oily as it is, is served up cold. Numbers, upon his release from the slammer, and Emily Lee grow fat as an old married couple, hoofing their lives away. Issinit sweet?
Los Angeles, February 9, 2013
Friday, February 8, 2013
no escapeby Douglas Messerli
Jacques Prévert (screenplay, based on a novel by Pierre Mac Orlan), Marcel Carné (director) Le Quai des brumes / 1938 / the film I saw as a restoration of the original at The Royal Laemmle Theater, Los Angeles, 2013.
It is so difficult, accordingly, to explain the quality of this film to a society that believes—so it imagines—that everything will eventually turn out all right, that life is a series of constant betterments and achievements; how even to speak to a society that believes in a dream of financial and social rewards about such French ennui? Jean Gabin as Jean, an army deserter, has no illusions left as he enters the environs of the port city, Le Havre. He has only his personal honor and nobility, and they mean nothing. He saves a dog by forcing a driver who has picked him up to steer out of range, yet later attempts to drive the poor beast away, nonetheless, feeding the animal even though he, himself, is nearly starving So too does the girl (Nelly, played my Michèle Morgan) he accidentally meets, through the goodwill of a passing alcoholic (people in this world are more defined by their behavioral type that by any individual eccentricities) who takes him to the Panama’s bar, carry with her the world’s sorrows. She, too, is hurt, a destroyed person, yet tough: she has, after all, although she can’t yet quite admit it, overhead the murder of her former boyfriend, Maurice, by her ugly godfather, Zabel (Michel Simon). This couple’s encounter, the immediate attraction between the two, their later short-lived affair (one night is all that Carné allows his figures) is part and parcel of the world of destiny these figures inhabit. So too are they quickly caught up in the sacrificial death of the local painter (Robert Le Vigan), who, after swimming out beyond his capabilities, leaves his clothing, his brushes, and his passport for Jean to “inherit.” The gesture is noble, but it too can have no ultimate effect in this world of dark shadows. Although Jean books passage on a ship bound for Venezuela, where he might escape the long hand of fate, once he has met Nelly, he has no choice but to return to the city, saving the girl from the fiendish hands of the jealous godfather only to have to face his own comeuppance for having belittled the local thug, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur). As Sartre would later express it—although far more metaphorically—there is “no exit.” Jean knew his fate the moment he left the military, and Nelly knew she would be left alone the moment she met Jean. The characters reveal this in their every movement. Jean, even as he, near starvation, cuts the bread and sausage Panama has awarded him, Nelly, in her deep, deep entrenchment within her plastic slicker, hands nearly always hidden, head pointed forward as if she were about to endure a deep rainstorm. Even Zabel seems to welcome his deserved punishment of murder by Jean.
Although Carné’s films have been described as “poetic realism,” they most emphatically have little to do with “reality,”—however one defines that—and even less to do with “poetic” expression, unless you define poetry as complete sentimentalism. Rather, Carné’s and Prévert’s theater is much more archetypal, having more to do with Kabuki and the French puppetry figures such as Punch and Judy, actors that formally play out the same stories again and again, than with what Americans might describe as naturalistic theater. Jean and Nelly are not realistic lovers but expressions of the desire of the French to discover love and the ability to give oneself completely over to it, while knowing that that can only lead to one’s destruction.
Although the American filmmakers of 1938 might never have been able to reveal the complete satisfaction of a sexual event as Gabin and Morgan express the morning after their night together, US directors would be sure, in the morning, nonetheless, that life would go on. Love was love, death, death. Only an American could say that!
Los Angeles, February 7, 2003
Reprinted from Nth Position (March 2013).
Monday, February 4, 2013
going straightby Douglas Messerli
Earl Baldwin and Joseph Schrank (screenplay, based on the play by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay), Lloyd Bacon (director) A Slight Case of Murder / 1938
Fortunately for us, on one is very successful in his or her intended transformations, the accents they imitate slipping back into the street jargon, with Marco’s formerly illegal occupation—which once made him rich—now going bust. For Marco, a teetotaler, has never tasted his ghastly Velvet brew. Bankers are about to call in their loan in order to take over the brewery with the knowledge that it’s not the facilities that are at fault, but the product. As if that weren’t enough, Marco, who has been forced by finances to call home his expensively educated daughter, is determined to return to their rented summer house in Saratoga with a young orphan—the worst behaved boy in his alma mater, an orphanage headed by the eagle-eyed Margaret Hamilton—in tow.
Meanwhile, unknown to them, their home has been intruded upon by five hoodlum acquaintances, who have just robbed a bank roll of millions belonging to gambling bookies. Four of them are shot dead by their fifth nervous partner just as the Marcos and their retinue arrive, followed by a state trooper, Dick Whitewood (Willard Parker)—son of a wealthy Saratoga scion—who, unbeknownst to Marco, intends to marry his daughter Nora (Ruth Donnelly). Despite this comic works’ title, there is obviously nothing slight about Marco and his family’s dilemmas.
This mulligan stew has so many loose threads, in fact, that it seems from the outset that they can never all be tied up, and Runyon’s tale can end in any number of various ways, as the discovered bodies are shipped out to various locations and gathered up again with the news of a “dead or alive” award; the murderer slinks through the house to reclaim the satchel of stolen
money; the bad-boy, slightly drunken
orphan uncovers the satchel hidden beneath his bed; and the trooper’s wealthy,
frail father visits the roaring party that seems to be more of a reunion of
lunatics than a civilized celebration. Nonetheless, the pieces all fall into
the right places, as Marco pays off his debts (or, at least gets another loan),
discovers how godly awful his beer is, and helps his future son-in-law to
become hero by shooting the four-already dead bodies and, quite by accident,
winging the fifth man on the run!
At film’s close, I am sure there are still some loose ends (what happens to the orphan? how is old man Whitewood reunited with the Marco family?), but it doesn’t really matter! So much as happened in this funny farce, we have no time to cavil. And Marco, presumably, having changed the recipe of his beer, will finally be able to go straight and earn a living both!
Employing dozens of Hollywood’s best character actors, Bacon’s spritely adaptation of Runyonland is a hit!
Los Angeles, February 4, 2013