Thursday, March 22, 2018

Indiana Jones and the Marriage of the Green Screen

With recent talk of another Indiana Jones film beginning production next year I thought it might be a good time to revisit 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I hadn't actually seen it since the first time I saw it on opening night in 2008. I was disappointed with it at the time but wondered if future viewings might improve my impression. However, although I've probably watched every film in the original trilogy at least five times in the past decade, I never quite got around to a second viewing of Crystal Skull. But I noticed it was included free with Amazon Prime so I thought, what the hell. I even got a bit excited, thinking, without all the burden of hype and legacy, maybe I'll watch it and find it's actually a really fun action adventure film. Unfortunately, while I do think it has some good qualities, age seems to have made it even worse. It's not that it's a bad Indiana Jones film, I would argue it's an anti-Indiana Jones film, its ideas and motives in direct opposition to the philosophy fundamental to the first three films. This might actually have made for an interesting, if unpleasant, movie if the filmmakers were truly intent on trashing their own films but the result instead is something as muddled intellectually as it is in its visuals and effects.

If I had to choose the worst problem in the film, I would say it's Steven Spielberg's lack of desire to make it. When I saw the clip of him from Comic Con talking about how all his life he made the movies he wanted to make but the fourth Indiana Jones film was going to be completely for the fans I knew there was going to be trouble. The problem with making art for someone else's tastes is that they're not your tastes--in other words, you have no idea what you're doing. And quotes I've seen from Spielberg indicate this is a problem that infected production all down the line.

Wikipedia quotes him as saying about the alien skulls at the centre of the film, "I sympathize with people who didn't like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin." Apparently it was something George Lucas insisted on. So I guess Spielberg went ahead and shot scenes about this thing he didn't care that much about. Is it any wonder audiences had trouble caring much about it too?

Why is it so hard to care about the aliens in Crystal Skull? Probably for the same reason the return of The X-Files has felt so limp. Somewhere along the line, the aliens that seemed so cool and mysterious in the 80s and 90s lost their mystique. I wonder if Crystal Skull might have made more headway if the aliens had been more like 50s movie aliens, since 50s Sci Fi was supposedly the model for this film. If that was they case, they ought to have gone for a genuinely bizarre design like the insects from Quatermass and the Pit or the brains from Fiend without a Face. Maybe not make them exactly like one of those aliens but apply the same basic philosophy in creating new aliens--that is, use elements of earthly biology in truly weird, reconfigured ways. Maybe then the aliens might have had something approaching the effective horror of the Ark or the Thuggee cultists. But the main problem with the MacGuffin is its lack of a thematic relationship with the protagonists.

A MacGuffin is supposedly an arbitrary thing that's more important because people are interested in it than for any intrinsic quality it possesses. But the best MacGuffins demonstrate this isn't so. In Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, the identity of the MacGuffin goes unknown for most of the film, adding to the sense of anxiety for much of the story, and when the MacGuffin is revealed its clever in a satisfying way. The MacGuffins in the first three Indiana Jones films all tie in to the protagonist's story in a meaningful way. Partly this is because of how much they inherit as religious artefacts--the Holy Grail's significance is even spelled out explicitly from Marcus in a line about how it's "the search for the divine in all of us." This easily ties in with the father/son story and each character's preoccupation with whether or not he's been good for the other.

Attempts to echo this story are present in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull but without any depth. Indy (Harrison Ford) doesn't even know Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) is his son for most of the film and when he does the most we get out of it is a corny reversal of his advice that Mutt do what he loves even if it means dropping out of school. Is this meant to tie into the climax where Irina (Cate Blanchett) is killed by her desire for too much knowledge? With the idea of knowledge being the nature of the alien's treasure, it's kind of hard to make the usual theme of the perils of avarice make sense.

There are a few funny moments where Indy gets so caught up trying to piece together the puzzle with Irina that Mutt has to intervene with an action sequence but all these scenes do is make Indy seem slightly scatter brained. There's certainly no connexion to an idea of too much knowledge being dangerous. It's nothing compared to the idea of Indy potentially taking the Sankara stones in the second film for "fortune and glory" and causing the death of a village because of his failure to believe in their power. In addition to the widely maligned artificiality of the film's overuse of cgi, the fact that Indy himself never has the sense of internal conflict he has in the previous films makes the whole movie feel more like a long DVD bonus feature for an Indiana Jones movie than like an Indiana Jones movie in its own right. There seems to be an inherent resistance to the idea of giving any of the protagonists any truly negative character trait.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull also has a very different attitude about sex compared to its predecessors. It's certainly the least sexual entry in the series with no hint of physical chemistry between Ford and Karen Allen. The worst scene in the movie is their marriage at the end which, in opposition to the James Bond inspired format of a new girlfriend for every movie of the first three films, seems to insist on Indy's moral obligation to settle down with the mother of his child, a dull enough intended idea for an adventure film, given the turgidity of creepy orthodoxy for the unintended lack of chemistry between the stars. Allen had long since lost the feistiness that made her effective in Lost Ark and her forced smiles to emulate that lost spark are consequently depressing. Her big moment being the plan to drive off a cliff with the boat/car, one of the film's most gratuitously false cgi moments, emphasises her lack of impact in the film.

I feel like maybe, in one of the script drafts, there was a plan to use Irina to make a commentary about sexual repression. The film's single most sexual moment, which may not have even been intended to be sexual, is the moment where army ants pile up to reach her where she's dangling from a tree and she crushes one between her thighs, causing an improbable quantity of ropey goo to fly towards the camera. I suspect the army ants were inspired by the 1954 Charlton Heston film The Naked Jungle in which Heston's character is a South American plantation owner who must overcome his conservative disinterest in his sexually experienced mail order bride, played by Eleanor Parker, while a mass of army ants threatens to overwhelm his land. The concept of nature overriding starchy, patriarchal morality is clear enough even if the film didn't have "naked" in the title.

In Crystal Skull, John Hurt's character, a professor named Oxley, has seemingly lost his mind and ramblingly quotes literature, including a masque by John Milton commonly referred to as Comus. The masque is about a virginal girl who's abducted by Comus, a mythical being and son of Bacchus and Circe, who tries to tempt her to break her chastity and join in with his animal headed retinue. If we take the biblical implication of "knowing" as sexual experience maybe at some point, on some level, the ascetic Soviet officer Irina was tempted by Indy's decadent Capitalist sexuality. The line Oxley quotes is from the beginning of the masque, spoken by Comus' moral adversary, a mysterious "Attending Spirit" who accepts the duty of protecting the girl and her brothers from going astray.

Yet some there be that by due steps aspire
To lay their just hands on that Golden Key
That ope's the Palace of Eternity

The lines would seem to refer to good people finding their way to heaven. One might read a sexual connotation into the lines with the key being a phallic symbol and the Palace of Eternity being an orgasm. Well, it makes more sense than the words being a clue for Indy to bash an Incan carving with a rock.

Just what are Irina's motives? Spielberg's instincts with the villains were again leading him in the wrong direction. He felt he couldn't make the Nazis adventure villains after Schindler's List, presumably choosing the Soviets because he felt less personally attached, again insuring that the audience felt less personally attached. Certainly Stalin was no lightweight when it came to perpetrating atrocities--there's a fascinating and horrifying story and collection of photographs from Masha Gessen and Misha Friedman in The New Yorker to-day about Soviet Gulags. But Kingdom of the Crystal Skull never quite seems to know its position regarding the U.S.S.R. The first line Indy has is "Russians" as he stands up among a group of Soviets pointing guns at him, the line an oddly flat footed place holder for the more strident "Nazis. I hate these guys." The film also has to negotiate with the Red Scare, which the film reminds us wasn't limited to Hollywood and Joseph McCarthy but was an hysteria on American university campuses as well.

So the movie has to make the Soviets villains and deal with the fact that the Soviets were the subject of irrational fears in the U.S. all while, for some reason, tying neither of these things into the main plot. It isn't that the Nazis were more obviously evil but that the motives of the Nazis were easier to tie into the MacGuffins of the first and third films. Hitler's interest in the occult and possession of the Old Testament power of the Ark has far more interesting thematic implications than Irina wanting to harness alien technology for psychic warfare, a motive that isn't even talked about very much.

Anyway, I'll keep an open mind about the next film. Hopefully Spielberg has learned his lesson.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Inexorable Appointed Time

The path of damnation must be one where all things held beautiful and good are each in turn deprived of significance and wholesomeness until all things signify guilt or nothing at all. The demons that plague Johan in Ingmar Bergman's 1968 film, Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen) don't seem to be tempting him so much as processing him for a fate that's already been decided and are assisting him in dismantling his capacity for affection and reverence. His wife and muse, Alma, present to witness the process in horror, doesn't seem an agent assigned by God to offer him an alternative as much as someone who, through some strange chance, has ended up where she's not supposed to be. It's an eerie, frightening, and deeply sad film.

Johan (Max von Sydow) and Alma (Liv Ullmann) have taken up residence in a small house on a remote island. He's a famous painter who has fled the world due to some kind of terrible event or scandal. Alma is selflessly devoted to him and we see most of the movie from her point of view, in fact the film begins with her directly addressing the camera, recounting the events.

Bergman frequently illuminates her face more than Johan's, concealing his face in shadow and by blocking, which, together with Von Sydow's often solemn and listless performance, suggest someone who's no longer struggling against his doom. He tells Alma about the demons he encounters on the island, the eeriest among them an old woman (Naima Wifstrand) who, he says, "Is always threatening to remove her hat." The implication that something horrible will happen if she removes her hat is one of the ways the demons give the impression of an entirely superficial reality behind which there is only destruction or void.

Alma then encounters the woman with the hat and she encourages Alma to read Johan's diary. Since the diary reveals Johan's thoughts are dwelling on his former lover, Veronica (Ingrid Thulin), maybe this is one of the things that leads Alma to conclude the demons are trying to drive them apart. I never got the impression that the demons were worried Alma's love, however beautiful and compelling, would divert Johan from his path to damnation so much as they were mildly uncomfortable entertaining a guest who simply didn't belong. When Johan and Alma are invited to the demons' castle, where they're presided over by one calling himself Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson), in their laughter and incessant mockery they seem like the catty, shallow Hollywood crowd that can't tolerate someone as sincere and ordinary as Alma.

One of the demons, Lindhorst (Georg Rydeberg), puts on a puppet show in which Bergman uses forced perspective to put a full sized actor on the tiny stage, something that reminded me of the Sultan's mechanical players in the 1940 Thief of Bagdad. In the Criterion DVD commentary for that film, Francis Ford Coppola talks about how much that image haunted him as a child and I wonder if it had the same effect on Bergman. In Hour of the Wolf, it's one of the things that make art itself seem sinister and demonic.

The demons continually endeavour to trivialise and demean art. Johan tells them he's fully aware that art isn't that important, he says the insight comes from being an artist and knowing that it's only a selfish compulsion that keeps him painting. They congratulate him on the insight and in the film's climax they go further, demeaning and mocking his reverence for the beauty of women.

A final sequence where the characters are lost in a wood is effectively horrific, as is a flashback in the middle where Johan tells Alma about an act that may have been the cause of his damnation. The former is shot in unnatural darkness and the latter with unnatural brightness, both methods stripping detail and nuance from the image, emphasising the world of hard, inflexible meaning tightening further and further around Johan.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Wolves Who Pass Cars in the Storm

The new Sirenia Digest this month has an exceptionally good story from Caitlin R. Kiernan called "Virginia Story." Featuring two characters on a long, lonely night drive in the rain, it works like an old fashioned ghost story while also reminding me a bit of the film noir called Detour and Caitlin's own The Drowning Girl.

A literature professor named Meg is driving home to New York from Alabama when she picks up a hitchhiker, a mysterious young woman with a curious physical abnormality. The story that follows is subtle and very effective as Caitlin combines the present tension from Meg's anxiety about dangerous road conditions with the naturally developed cues of character development and the weirdness of the story the hitchhiker tells. There's an effective reference to the biblical story of Lot and how he offered his daughters to be raped, a story actually in Genesis though, unlike a very similar story in Judges 19, no rape occurs thanks to the presence of a couple angels (Milton references both stories in Book I of Paradise Lost). "Virginia Story" makes one of the most effective uses of werewolves I've ever seen in fiction, too. A very nice story.

Twitter Sonnet #1095

A tiny shield sufficed for flattened pop.
A bottle thrown would spin and spill a tale.
Along the gaucho line the strange'd stop.
In heaven, salmon dwarf the biggest whale.
We bought a whistle shaped to break a world.
In ev'ry fence a smil'ing goat's asleep.
And further than a horse the lamb was hurled.
To land in peace upon a giant sheep.
A warning hat obscured departs to book.
A waiting list approached the island late.
Throughout the castle grins whereso you look.
The table's set for sketches off the slate.
A goblin stood for verdant visions past.
The wind's a canny sculptor first and last.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Dizzy Reality of the Screen

Last night I went to see the greatest movie of all time, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, in a movie theatre. Well, it's the most current number one in Sight and Sound's poll of critics worldwide. It's certainly my favourite movie though I've always felt weirdly uncertain that it deserves that top spot more than Citizen Kane, partly because I know very few people who like Vertigo that much. Generally the reaction I see is people think it's okay but don't quite understand what the fuss about.

I was hoping to get some impression of the audience's reaction last night though, as it turned out, it was a blessedly quiet crowd of about twenty five people, nearly all women, ranging in age from mid twenties to mid forties, from what I could tell. Whether or not they liked the movie, they were good movie-goers who kept quiet for the most part and I was able to thoroughly enjoy the experience of the film. I wish it'd been louder, I was hoping for Bernard Herrmann's score to really blast in the opening credits but otherwise I have no complaints about how it was shown.

Fathom Events is screening Vertigo in cinemas for its sixtieth anniversary. It also happens to be the ten year anniversary of the week I spent obsessively watching it over and over before I wrote this analysis in 2008. I stand by all my opinions in that analysis and I think it's one of the best things I've written. But one of the great things about Vertigo is my perspective is different every time. Like the protagonist in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, who watches Vertigo in one scene and explains the movie is different now because he, the viewer, is different now, I find myself responding to different things.

I'm more interested in religious symbolism now than I was ten years ago and I found myself thinking about how Hellish Elster's office looks. That desk looks like it was carved from the bloody flesh of tortured souls. A lot of people talk about how green is used in the film but there's a lot to be said about its use of red, too. There's the black cherry wood in the McKittrick hotel and the intense, almost magenta wallpaper at Ernie's, the restaurant where Scottie first sees Madeleine.

When I wrote my analysis in 2008 I spent a lot of time reading what other people had written about the film and tried not to repeat anything but I'm not doing that to-day. So maybe it's already been pointed out but it occurred to me last night that Judy's fate at the end being caused by the sudden appearance of a nun may be seen as an act of God. Scottie's finally broken free of all the illusions and the manipulations to reach the moment of clarity that cures his vertigo. One could say that a benevolent God watching this said, okay, he's done enough, now I'll take Judy off the table so he won't be tempted to go back into that cycle. But there doesn't seem to be anything good in Judy's death--a repeat of her apparent death earlier in the film, it seems mainly to be confirmation that Scottie's trapped in a cycle instead of breaking free of one.

It's a deliberately frustrating and uncertain ending, not unlike the ending of the new season of Twin Peaks. In both cases, we have a detective character traversing hazards of dream and illusion in an effort to save a woman who may or may not be real, a journey that questions the criteria for what we regard as reality. Having recently watched Mississippi Mermaid, I was compelled to think of how important Vertigo was to the French New Wave filmmakers. Like Godard continually thwarting audience expectations by abrupt changes to the score in Pierrot le Fou, Hitchcock continually plays with what audiences expect from a movie and uses those expectations to make the audience a part of the story. He sets up Scottie as a hero and thus makes us complicit in his deviance, he sets up a spirit possession plot and then dashes it aside because, after all, that's a bit fantastical, right? What were we thinking?

But is Carlotta's ghost really a hoax or is its reality simply in a different and deeper form than we're conditioned to expect? The effect of Carlotta's haunting is there, the paradigm of freedom defined by the control of others is set up by her story, and the pattern of dominated people trying to dominate others has an echo in the idea of Carlotta, victim to the whims of a man in life, controlling the fates of men and women after her death. The lack of any explicit proof of her haunting, aside from possibly Scottie's attention being drawn to the necklace in his dream, is in a weird way integral to the power she asserts. Just as "Madeleine" holds so much influence for not truly existing.

Last night I was struck by this pair of shots as Judy and Scottie discuss her dream that leads them to San Juan Bautista:

Hitchcock keeps cutting back and forth between the two. Judy and Scottie are in two different places but their faces are placed in almost exactly the same relationship with the lamp. Like Scottie's dream where he falls into Carlotta's grave or when he falls onto the roof the shot seems to suggest he and Madeleine are the same person. One could say that Madeleine is the joint creation of Elster, Elster's unseen wife, Judy, and Scottie but primarily Judy and Scottie. It's like a masque written by Elster about his wife in which Judy is the actress and Scottie is the audience/participant. Or maybe more accurately, it's like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign written by Elster, Judy is the Dungeon Master, and Scottie is a player. Scottie isn't a passive audience and Judy isn't simply a performer of written lines, they're both creating the story. The lamp is a little clearer next to Judy's face but it's closer and blurrier next to Scottie's--she gives him the dream, raw material, he interprets the dream and comes up with a plan of action based on it.

Yes, I guess this movie will always be fresh for me. It was an incredible pleasure seeing it on a big screen. The incredible visuals, apart from any interpretations of them, are wonderful to experience in themselves. I love these two consecutive shots as we watch Judy and Scottie leave the forest and then we see Judy at the beach by that twisted tree:

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Man Who Would be Gaucho

Whether it be the knight, the samurai, or the cowboy, most cultures have a class to which mythic, heroic figures frequently belong. In South America, there's the gaucho, which inspired Hollywood in 1952 to make Way of a Gaucho, for the most part self-consciously modelled on U.S. Westerns, swapping out the cowboy for the gaucho. Shot entirely in Argentina and subject to intense scrutiny and modification from the government of Juan Peron, among whose followers the gaucho was a celebrated symbol, it's difficult to say how much of the movie represents the intentions of 20th Century Fox or of director Jacques Tourneur. Tourneur, with his great talent for visuals, makes wonderful use of the locations but the story itself feels like a watered down combination of Robin Hood and Les Miserables, centred on a dull protagonist.

Supposedly the film's based partly on a late 19th century epic poem called Martin Fierro but the story only has a few details in common with Wikipedia's synopsis for the poem. Both stories are about a gaucho named Martin, played by Rory Calhoun in the film, who deserts from the army, but otherwise there's not much similarity.

Martin in Way of a Gaucho is son of a recently deceased gaucho and he now finds himself in the service of the son of his father's employer, a politician for the new government regime named Don Miguel Aleondo (Hugh Marlowe). The fundamental thematic conflict of the film is between the old, independent spirit of personal honour represented by the gaucho, fast disappearing in a country increasingly dominated by the civilising influence of modern government. The last act of the film, though, is mostly concerned with Martin's attempts to marry a wealthy woman named Teresa played by Gene Tierney.

Tierney's autobiography, which talks about her struggles with manic depression, has this to say about her experience with this production:

My personal life was in disarray . . . I was desperately unhappy the entire time the cast was on location and frequently sick . . .

The picture was the first starring part for a handsome young actor named Rory Calhoun. But for me the days passed in a haze.

Not all of it was mental. I had caught cold and was on the verge of pneumonia when I got there. The movie company had taken over a hotel in the pampas, where the peasants assembled in the summer to work under the Peronista regime. I had to report there immediately, miles from nowhere, the sun a living flame and the wind always blowing. I was too ill to work the first week and had to have shots every few hours from the company doctor.

For the first time in my memory, I was snappish and rude on set . . .

. . . I felt like an emotional misfit, and Argentina was not a good place to get one out of a depression. Juan Peron was at the height of his power. The cast was shown much of what his dictatorship had accomplished in the way of public housing and orphanages during tours arranged by the minister of propaganda. We were also invited, ordered, to be at the government mansion at seven o'clock one morning to be received by the Perons. Evita was not well enough to see us and the visit was cancelled, no disappointment to me. I had not recovered from what had now settled into a bad case of bronchitis and was spending whatever time I could in bed.

When I felt strong enough to attend a few parties, I met people who had been treated to other forms of Peron's hospitality--his prisons. They had been political prisoners jailed for the crime of disagreeing with the regime. They were mostly of the moneyed classes who felt that Peron was exploiting the poor and was a menace to the country's few remaining democratic reforms.

You could find no-one who openly criticised Peron, out of fear of being reported to the secret police. The atmosphere was grim and the situation a touchy one for the cast. Twentieth Century-Fox was using up frozen assets of theirs to make the picture [Profits from films made during World War II not permitted to be spent outside the country], with the consent of the government. We were asked not to be discourteous, whatever our opinions might be.

She gives a decent performance in the film in essentially a Maid Marian role. One of the primary differences between the film's story and that of Robin Hood is that there's no friendly Friar Tuck among the outlaws and religion is squarely on the side of law and order, frustrating Martin and Teresa's attempts to marry in the last part of the film as he repeatedly tries to appeal to his childhood priest, Father Fernandez (Enrique Chaico). Tourneur gets some great shots of Tierney trying to dodge troops searching for her in a church.

Fernandez acts as a moral centre for the film, unable to approve of Martin's illegal lifestyle but also reluctant to allow him to be captured. Ultimately the point the film seems to be making is that going your on way makes it hard to settle down and have a family, which ought to be your primary goal in life. Rory Calhoun, who may be fine in other pictures, lacks the sparkle of an Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power and is a bit overshadowed by his cool costumes. Far from being the celebration of an independent hero, it mostly seems to be about a life of endless trouble for this guy, reminding the audience it's best just to keep your head down and go along with the prevailing opinions.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Was Gallifrey in Ireland?

I've written more than once about the scarcity of Irish actors or characters on Doctor Who but this year Saint Patrick's Day has fallen on Saturday, the day I usually write about Doctor Who, so I listened to the first Dark Eyes audio anthology from 2012. A collection of Eighth Doctor stories, it features the Doctor's only Irish companion in any medium, Molly O'Sullivan, portrayed by Irish actress Ruth Bradley. And I was glad to find Dark Eyes is a good series, especially surprising since it was written by Nicholas Briggs, whose scripts I've generally not enjoyed in the past. He loads up a few too many Irish-isms in Molly's dialogue but mostly she's a good character in a good set of stories. I like how she mockingly insists on calling the Doctor "The Doctor."

Comprised of four stories, each just under an hour, the first, "The Great War", finds the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) arriving on Earth in the midst of a mustard gas attack during World War I. The Seventh Doctor had a few World War I adventures, too, and with the recent Christmas special featuring the Twelfth Doctor in a World War I setting, I wonder how many Doctors are roaming about No Man's Land.

Molly is a Voluntary Aid Detachment nursing assistant--not a nurse, she continually reminds everyone. The medical staff angle is another thing that makes this reminiscent of the Seventh Doctor story, No Man's Land. But "The Great War" does a better job establishing the lives of the average participants, with Molly being a wiser, more experienced hand hastily advising another woman on how to treat and behave around men brought in from the battlefield.

The second story, "Fugitives", gets more into the underlying story that bridges the four, and features more heavily two guest characters played by Peter Egan and Toby Jones. Whether or not they're villains isn't quite clear but in the concluding chapter, "X and the Daleks", Briggs makes good use of them, coming up with a really cool way to use Time Lord regeneration I can't remember seeing or hearing in another story.

The third story, "Tangled Web", features the Doctor and Molly coming across a community of peaceful Daleks. It's a story that plays with the Doctor's acquired hatred for the species in much the way the new television series has done from time to time; giving us the innocence of his companion's eyes, wanting to give a whole species the benefit of the doubt, confounded by the normally open minded Doctor unable to accept the possibility of peaceful Daleks. This one has some interesting moments, I particularly liked how in the climax it gets to the point where the Doctor feels like he's going mad for being the only one who holds what he can't help feeling is a perfectly reasonable point of view.

Briggs, as he does on the new show, also voices the Daleks and is good at creating an impression of several individuals. McGann is good as always and has good chemistry with Bradley. She's effective in the role though I don't like how she calls the TARDIS a "Tardy box".

Twitter Sonnet #1094

The water turned above to different roofs.
The circuitry of scuba scars appeared.
A warning dripped from restless, turquoise hoofs.
The worried land observed the endless weird.
The face beside the ears divulged a sound.
As pieces ranged a board became a day.
A cushion took the seconds from the ground.
As grasses pass the ivy shows the way.
Surprising kings beneath the hills were hid.
A dot was glowing green before the snakes.
A clover star would burst to quadrant grid.
Remembered drinks were debts beneath the lakes.
The ling'ring wolf returned to save the slain.
A wailing shade perplexed the sullen train.

Friday, March 16, 2018

For Honour or Liberty

Stanley Kubrick's films spend a lot of time contemplating the worth in unspoken social customs and rules, and in the value and danger of abandoning them. The two extremes of the argument can be seen when comparing his 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, with his next film, 1975's Barry Lyndon. The two protagonists are polar opposites of each other--Alex DeLarge is intelligent and sadistic, charming and ugly, and without any apparent sense of honour or respect for the social contract. Barry Lyndon is stupid and sensitive, dull and handsome, and thoroughly committed to honour. Both characters step outside their worldviews--Alex when he's forced through conditioning to behave himself and Barry when he becomes a thief--but both return to their original states by the ends of their respective films. The worlds in which the two films are set are similarly in opposition; Alex's futuristic dystopia is the ultimate realisation of post-modernism, where every symbol's association with meaning is commonly disregarded by everyone, while Barry exists in meticulously rendered 18th century Europe at a time when aesthetic beauty was considered to be reflective of truth and virtue in a very real way.

One of the weird things about Alex (Malcom McDowell) is that I tend never to feel bad for him even as I hate the methods people use on him. Possibly it's because most of the people who oppose Alex do so in ways that resemble his worst qualities--through a motivation for personal satisfaction and a disregard of any real sense of honour. But why should anyone have a belief in anything but their own impulses? Art and philosophy are no more than window dressing. Patrick Magee's character espouses a political position that condemns the treatment used on Alex but at the same time he exploits the effects of that treatment to take revenge on the young man. Alex beat him and violently raped his wife right in front of him, an act he believes eventually led to her death, but, as ugly and repellent as Alex's crime, I feel no vicarious thrill in Magee's revenge.

I really like Patrick Magee. I've seen him in several horror films and watching him in Francis Ford Coppola's first film, Dementia 13, set and shot in Ireland, would be a good choice for Saint Patrick's Day to-morrow. So it's not that I don't like the actor. In A Clockwork Orange he seems a decent enough fellow, he's got a nice library, and he's pals with David Prowse. His wife is beautiful and Alex was being particularly cruel in hurting her when she was trying to help him. But try as I might, I just can't take pleasure in Magee using Beethoven as an instrument of torture on Alex. The two best reasons I can think of for this is that Kubrick had the blessed coldness of vision to portray revenge as realistically devoid of glamour and part of the argument of the film is that the music of Beethoven does have intrinsic value for its beauty.

You wouldn't need to convince anyone of that in Barry Lyndon, though it's set long before Beethoven's time (the movie ends a few years after Beethoven's birth). When Barry (Ryan O'Neal) is taken under the wing of another character played by Patrick Magee, the Chevalier de Balibari, all the two of them need is a beautiful wardrobe and good manners to be taken as gentlemen, despite Barry's low birth. This follows after several costume changes for Barry that allowed him passage in different countries, posing as officers in different armies, a stark contrast to the bowlers and makeup worn by Alex and his droogs where the absence of any socially agreed upon significance in them is the whole point. Alex's crew, like modern Internet trolls, flaunt the loss of meaning in symbols to an extreme degree but the milk bar, crowded with mannequins of nude women in sexual poses, is just as acceptable a meeting place to some businessmen and an opera singer as it is for the group of delinquents.

It's easy to forget that not everything Alex does is horrible. When he picks up two young women at the record store, the three have a completely consensual and mutually enjoyable menage a trois, apparently liberated from any restrictive mores.

In this case, Barry could've benefited Alex's perspective in one of the funniest scenes from Barry Lyndon where early on, no matter how much she tries to make it clear she wants him to, Barry can not bring himself to voluntarily fondle the woman he loves. His sense of propriety and conception of feminine purity will not allow him to believe she would want him to have sex with her outside of a marriage bed, even when she tells him in an increasingly irritable tone to search her entire body with his hands. This moment is mirrored by a disastrous one at the end of the film where Barry faces off in a duel against Bullingdon, played by Leon Vitali, an actor who bears more than a passing resemblance to Malcolm McDowell, playing a similarly ruthless character. Barry's unhesitating observance of fair play has truly tragic consequences, the worst of which being, by not allowing himself to shrink to the level of an Alex or a Bullingdon in any way, Barry allows them to win.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Precarious Noise

Saying just the right thing at just the right time can be dangerous. This is likely why Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece, The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu), was met with disgust at the time of its release despite on the surface being a relatively harmless drawing room comedy. But there are ways in which the film is definitely more like a nightmare about a comedy than a straightforward comedy, despite Renoir's expressed intention only to make the latter. The delirium of comedy becomes a foundation layer for a truly disturbing portrait of Europe at the beginning of World War II.

The film begins with a pilot, Andre (Roland Toutain), landing his plane in France after an historic flight that one of the reporters present compares to Charles Lindbergh. All Andre seems concerned with, though, is that the woman he loves, Christine (Nora Gregor), isn't there to meet him. Continually the film presents its ensemble of aristocratic characters ignoring or barely noticing vitally important, even dangerous things, focusing instead on their own romances--affairs which seem quite capricious despite the passion characters express for them.

Most of the film is set at the enormous country house belonging to Robert (Marcel Dalio), Christine's husband. It seems like a long, unbroken party sequence. Much of the dialogue was apparently improvised and characters chat endlessly about their relationships and consider the pros and cons of starting an affair with this person or breaking off an affair with that person. Octave, a character played by Renoir himself, has some slightly more profound things to say, including one really impressive, ominous line; "in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons." But this is tossed off as something barely less trivial than everything else that's going on.

Because of the high turnover rate in romance, grand sentiments become commonplace, so maybe that's why extraordinary things don't seem to make much of an impression. One scene that is truly nightmarish in its comic energy has the German gamekeeper, Schumacher (Gaston Madot), running rampant through the party firing a gun, trying to hit the poacher, Marceau (Julien Carette), he'd caught with his wife. Everyone seems frightened and shocked but also delighted and amused in equal measure. The recorded music playing from a machine gets stuck and the discordant sound alters the tone of the slapstick considerably.

Schumacher might be taken as representing Hitler--he has something of the self-importance and resentment for the people around him one associates with Hitler. Marceau might be interpreted as a Jew, especially when he tries to blend into a crowd of partygoers as Schumacher fires at him. This interpretation doesn't quite hold when he and Schumacher are commiserating later when it seems to them Lisette (Paulette Dubost), Schumacher's wife, has transferred her affections to Octave. On the other hand, this speaks to the ultimate shallowness of the anti-Semitism which operated as a convenient outlet for anger and resentment. The terrifying absurdity is in how thin and insubstantial are the philosophies used to justify terrible destruction.

One should also note that Marceau making out with another man's wife is exactly what everyone else is doing. Andre and Robert finally come to blows over Christine; Christine finally realises she's always been in love with one man before finally realising she's always been in love with another. Revelations that one couple is cheating seem to have significance only in how passionate one can reasonably be about it, or charmingly dispassionate. When one woman finally admits to loving the man who'd pursued her, he checks her ardour by reminding her "There are rules, after all." And one does get that impression, that everyone, however chaotic their outward behaviour, is still operating within unseen boundaries. They're so strong that when one man commits murder, everyone instinctively considers it the appropriate response when he's allowed to help clean up some of the wreckage and resume his position in society.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Uncommon Dream and the Less Common Dreamer

Here's a deceptively simple and incredibly beautiful film, Alexandr Ptushko's 1961 romantic fantasy, Scarlet Sails (Алые паруса). It says something about the interpretive skills of Soviet authorities that something so frivolous as fantasy films were allowed to flourish under their noses, and Scarlet Sails is a startlingly subversive example. But the film's story of two people who fall in love through a shared passion for stories and dreams has greater and lovelier resonance than simply subversion.

In the early 19th century a man named Longren (Ivan Pereverzev) returns from sea to find his wife has died and his infant daughter is being cared for by a neighbour. Forced to stay at home to care for the girl, he uses his knowledge of sailing vessels to make toy ships he sells in town. But he has a hard time finding anyone who will place much value in such things as children's toys, as much as his daughter loves them. So he has a hard time making ends meet.

Meanwhile, the son of a wealthy count continually disappoints his stern father. The boy continually dodges his governess to waste time pretending to be a sea captain with a servant in the attic. A parallel is already drawn between the boy and girl as people who value fantasy over pragmatism.

In one moment with a particularly striking anti-Communist subtext, the girl is sleeping in her father's lap when a homeless man approaches and asks Longren for some tobacco. Longren says his tobacco is in his other vest and doesn't want to wake his daughter to fetch it--significantly, he won't interrupt her dream for the needs of the common man. Considering the symbolism of the common people in Soviet Propaganda films like Eisenstein's it's hard to see how this scene wasn't considered outright dangerous.

Playing with a little red sail boat in a creek one day, the girl runs across a mysterious man (Nikolay Volkov) who, charmed by her, decides to give her a prophecy--one sunny day she will marry a prince who will come for her in a ship with red sails. Years later, the now teenage girl (Anastasiya Vertinskaya) still contentedly believes she will see red sails one day, despite having to endure mockery from all the common people of the town.

The boy (Vasily Lanovoy) has grown up too and decides to leave his father's expensive home to live the life at sea he always dreamed of. You don't need to be Nostradamus to guess the trajectory of the plot from here but the crucial thing is how the characters make decisions in an effort to reach the happy ending. Both characters, particularly the boy, need extraordinary sensitivity, imagination, and restraint--and the ability to ignore the mockery of the common townspeople in order to utilise these qualities.

As always, Ptushko crafts a visually stunning film with wonderful sets lit in a powerful chiaroscuro. Longren's face at the beginning of the film when he realises his wife is dead is so quiet and stunningly effective. The whole film is available on YouTube with English subtitles here.

Twitter Sonnet #1093
for Stephen Hawking

Confirming numbers launched a blurry shot.
Arriving lifts the sails from off the mast.
A world developed from a glowing dot.
The lunar porcupines assembled fast.
Attempts to find the disk refract the line.
A useless trail of dust concludes the flight.
Within the picture depths restructured time.
A skillet claimed a rapid eggy right.
Designing grids have dipped in distant black.
Behind a fan the hands of clocks increased.
The motion carried took the minutes back.
A fractured cup returns in single piece.
A paper folded fields a larger plane.
The oceans wait in stars like drops of rain.