Sunday, December 16, 2018

Top 10 Movie Deaths

What makes for a great movie death?  It’s tough to say; criteria are, of course, ultimately arbitrary.  But to my mind there are a few guidelines.  The death should be memorable.  And moving.  It should also be artful - well-written, well-performed.  It should display some thought and originality.  It doesn’t need to be gruesome or freaky - that would be a different list - it just needs to show that the artists took some effort to make the death unique.  Here, then, is my list of the best.

1.  Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) - Psycho (1960)
Obviously.  There’s no way Janet Leigh’s killing doesn’t hold the top spot on any “Top 10 Deaths” list - and it will for a long time, too.  Directors, writers, and actors have had over fifty years to outdo Alfred Hitchcock’s knife-job in the shower, but no one has even come close.  This movie, and this scene, have been analyzed seemingly ad infinitum so I don’t know if there’s anything special I could add to it.  Except for my own personal observations.  What pushes this scene into the sublime for me is what happens after the murder - from the shower giving out (which seems like the ultimate indignity - I hate that shower curtain!) to the slow rotating dissolve of the shower drain over Leigh’s open but lifeless eye.  It’s a poetic, beautiful and nihilistic reverie - and we don’t get many of those in movies.



2.  HAL (Douglas Rains) - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
By rights Stanley Kubrick could claim the top spot on this list.  No other film death is so meticulously drawn out, so artfully built, so layered, so large, such a show-stopper as the deactivation of HAL.  What the death of Isolde is to opera, what the final collapse of Lear is on the stage, that's what HAL's death is to movies.  Janet Leigh is swiftly butchered in Psycho but HAL is slowly taken apart piece by piece.  He's disassembled, dismantled.  Douglas Rain provides the unforgettable voice, but no actor could have performed this in the flesh.  Not Brando, not Nicholson, not Olivier, not DeNiro, no one.  In fact HALS's death is purely cinematic, it couldn't be done to full effect on a stage or in a novel or in any other medium but movies.  And let's not underestimate how relentlessly and smoothly Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clark turn the screws on us.  From HAL's comical delusions ("Take a stress pill..."), to his begging, to his regression to childhood and singing of "Daisy Bell" this death has been assembled with a level of thought and finesse unequaled in cinematic history.



3.  Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) - Throne of Blood (1957)
Toshiro Mifune plays the lead in Akira Kurosawa's version of Shakespeare's Macbeth.  His death at the end of this film is in many ways the precursor to the first two deaths on this list.  I don't know if Hitchcock ever saw Throne of Blood, but Kubrick most certainly did - the camera angle of the axe through the door in The Shining's classic bathroom scene is clearly an homage to Mifune's death scene.  The clip provided here simply doesn't do the scene justice.  It's the end of the line for Washizu.  His wife is dead and his enemies' army, disguised as a forest, are advancing on his fortress. Standing on a terrace above his own troops, he orders them into battle.  They don't move.  He yells at them, calls them "cowards" and "dogs".  Suddenly an arrow from out of the mass of troops hits the wooden post next to him.  He is startled.  Then a lone arrow hits him in the chest.  He screams, pulls the arrow out, throws it at the mutinous troops, yells at them more.  Then a bunch of arrows hit the post next to him.  Then two arrows hit him. Now the mutiny is on.  Soon the arrows are flying, turning him into a human pincushion.  He tries to escape but every exit is blocked by a fresh volley of a arrows. Kurosawa turns Washizu's death into a surreal, drawn out horrific nightmare. This was something new in 1957.  Kurosawa showed that an onscreen death could be more than just a plot point; it could be a disturbing, excessive, powerful yet exhilarating moment on screen.  Interesting production note: real arrows were shot at Mifune for this scene.  He wore wooden blocks under his clothes for protection but much of his fear and screaming was real.



4.  Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) - The Godfather (1972)
If the first three deaths on this list are loud and dramatic this one is quiet and intimate.  And unforgettable precisely because of that intimacy.  An old man plays with his grandson in the garden.  In the midst of their play he suddenly dies - heart attack, brain aneurysm, we never know.  And it doesn't matter.  The Godfather is mythic and operatic.  It has more amazing death scenes than almost any other film.  I could have chosen the death of Sonny (James Caan), or the shooting of Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden - literally choking on the bullet before his epic face plant on a restaurant table!), or the killing of Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), etc.  So many fabulous deaths!  But I've chosen this one death instead exactly because it's quiet and ordinary.  At this key moment in the story, director Francis Ford Coppola lowers the volume for effect.  Coppola has always struck me as being among the most musical of film-makers (his dad was a composer, for Christ's sake), and just as Wagner or Mahler knew when to diminish the whole orchestra and rely on a single violin or lone English horn for effect, so, too, does Coppola in this scene.  Brando's performance is a masterpiece of acting.  And Corleone's death is unique in another way: we go to the funeral.  That usually doesn't happen in movies; in fact, in no other movie on this list does that happen.  But it does in this one - and it needs to.  Cut the funeral scene and the film is weakened.  The Godfather is the story of a family, specifically of fathers and sons (it's actually a reworking of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays, but that's another post), so when one generation passes, when there's a changing of the guard, so to speak, attention must be paid.  We need to mark the event, there needs to be - horrible word, but it fits - closure. 



5.  Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) - Ran (1985)
Sadly, the least known of the deaths on this list.  Ran is Akiro Kurosawa's retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear.  Lord Ichimonji decides to split his kingdom among his three sons and, as in the original, things go frightfully wrong.  Lady Kaede is married to one of his sons and she is a scheming little minx.  Imagine if Lady Macbeth or Richard III were suddenly dropped into King Lear and you get an idea of her impact. But she's more than that.  We are told several time that Lord Ichimonji has shed oceans of blood to gain and hold his kingdom.  Lady Kaeda's family were among his victims.  At one chilling point she casually remarks to her husband that the room in which they are sitting is where her parents were killed.  Despite her high rank she is one of the victims of the the powerful.  And that makes her sympathetic.  We feel for her, even though she has all the warmth of a rattlesnake.  As she wheedles and schemes her way through the film we're never quite sure what her game is, though we know it's not good.  She is never direct or candid.  The scene below is one of the last in the film.  Ichimonji is dead, so are two of his sons (the third, in the red coat, will soon commit harikiri), the rest of the royal family have been killed off, and the kingdom has been betrayed and invaded by a coalition of Ichimonji's enemies.  It's doom and destruction.  And when confronted in the scene below, Lady Kaeda finally puts her cards on the table.  And gets her appropriately grand and magnificent comeuppance.  I've seen Ran at least half a dozen times in the theater and Lady Kaeda's death always gets a cheer - not against her, mind you, but for her.  Her final moment is one of victory, of the revenge of all the victims of history's tyrants and warlords. And we love her for it.



6.  Pike and his gang, and 10,000 Mexicans (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and many, many extras) - The Wild Bunch (1969)
The best shoot out in film history, and, like the shower scene in Psycho, still unsurpassed after all these years despite several brave attempts.  A word commonly used to describe this scene is “orgy” as in “orgy of violence” or “orgy of bloodshed” or “orgy of slo-mo deaths”, etc.  But “orgy” is the correct word.  Sam Peckinpah loves this - and so do we.  There’s a moment before the shoot out which captures the true greatness of what Peckinpah does.  Pike and his boys have walked into Mapache's (Emilio Fernández) compound to get back Angel (Jaime Sanchez), a companion of theirs whom Mapache has kidnapped and tortured.  Surrounded by his army, Mapache takes Angel, slits his throat, and throws him dying to the ground.  The bunch pull out their guns and shoot Mapache dead.  But - and this is the key part - none of Mapache’s men pulls out a gun.  They stand there and do nothing (see number 8, below), a few even have their hands up.  Pike and his gang look at each other.  Could they actually get away with this?  Could they just back out and leave?  Could this film end with them all riding off into the sunset?  “Well, what an adventure that was!”  No, no, no!  That can't happen!  We don't want that to happen.  Peckinpah has found out our dirty little secret: We want the shoot out.  We want the orgy of killing.  Peckinpah was always the filthiest of great directors; he understood that cinema could be its most sublime when it catered to our basest and most vicious desires. He was unafraid to toy with what was darkest in the viewer.  




7.  Kane (John Hurt) - Alien (1979)
Still frightening, still disturbing (human used as incubators) - this scene achieved classic status so quickly that John Hurt managed to parody it himself in Mel Brook's Spaceballs (1987).  As with so many other scenes on this list, it's the performer who makes it unique.  There are very few actors who could do frailty as well as John Hurt. Scrawny and pale, there was always something slight about his appearance.  And from the moment his face drops and he spits out his food in this scene, he's all vulnerability. If this were happening to Tom Skerritt or Yaphet Kotto you'd imagine it would play out differently.  You can picture them fighting back in some way, no matter how futile. But not Hurt.  His body writhes, his limbs flail, he yells, groans, shrieks.  Hurt had a magnificent voice (as anyone who recalls his death as the emperor Caligula in I, Claudius (1976) can attest to) and he uses it to full effect in this scene.  His entire performance sets us up for the bloody entrance of the film's true star - the alien.  Ian Holm also has a good death (and post-death) in this film as the evil cyborg Ash.  I've always felt that it would have been nice had he and Hurt switched roles.  It wouldn't have changed the film substantially, but they're both fantastic actors and it would have interesting to see.


8.  The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) - The Wizard of Oz (1939)
We all grew up with this death so we tend to minimize how great it is.  And, besides, we ask ourselves cynically, can a G-rated movie really have a great death in it?  Of course it can (FYI-2001 was rated G).  Consider how dramatically tricky it is to kill the Wicked Witch.  We're in the world of fairy tale and myth in The Wizard of Oz so certain requirements are unavoidable.  Dorothy has to kill the Wicked Witch.  No one else can do it.  But she can't do it intentionally - this is a children's story, after all.  So the Wicked Witch has to die by accident, but it can't seem contrived.  These difficulties are deftly solved by having the Wicked Witch set the Scarecrow on fire and making Dorothy's intervention with the conveniently present pail of water seem inevitable and even altruistic.  By the way, when I was a kid this scene of setting the Scarecrow on fire scared the crap out of me. Up this point in the movie the Wicked Witch has only threatened our heroes; this is the first time she actually harms one of them.  It takes her evil to a whole new and more intense level.  The fatal water itself serves the crucial fairy tale function of giving young spectators a reassuring message: no matter how big and bad someone seems they always have a weak spot.  And of course Margaret Hamilton's over-the-top performance makes this classic.  She's ironic, funny, and ends it all with a drawn-out whimper.  It's perfect.  Finally, I also like the fact that as the Wicked Witch is melting her minions just stand around and watch, but no one does anything.  No one tries to help her.  No one intervenes.  No one says "Quick!  Someone get a towel!"  Nothing.



9.  Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) - The Roaring Twenties (1939)
Most "Best movie deaths" lists include James Cagney's death as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949).  "Made it, Ma!  Top of the world!" he screams from the summit of a gas tank the second before it explodes.  When I finally saw that scene in the context of the film it struck me as contrived and silly.  There are far better deaths in White Heat ("Oh, stuffy, huh?  I'll give you a little air!").  Cagney's death as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931) is also remarkable; and I would include it in any "Top Fifty Deaths" list - along with an exegesis about its moving use in the "Proshai, Livushka" episode of The Sopranos (that's the one in which Livia dies).  But for me his death in The Roaring Twenties is the one that I always return to.  Cagney was a very physical actor (at heart he was a dancer), and Eddie's death -  running down the street, lumbering with each bullet he takes, knocking over a mailbox, etc. - is a bravura performance.  And it was a risky move to stage Eddie's final collapse on the steps of a church; it could've pushed the film into camp.  But it didn't.  The risk paid off, the scene is unforgettable.  In addition, the end of The Roaring Twenties is a two-fer because we also get the death of Humphrey Bogart who plays George, Eddie's loathsome criminal competitor.  His final sniveling moments ("Eddie!  Crazy!") are delicious.  (This may be Bogart's best screen death, too.)  And of course the film's ending is justly celebrated.  "He used to be a big shot," Gladys George mournfully says as director Raoul Walsh pulls back the camera for the final shot.
 



10.  Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) - Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Slim Pickens could claim two spots on this list: the first for his death in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and the second for his A-Bomb bronco ride to atomization in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), but I'm going to give his death in Pat Garrett precedence.  Why?  Because it's absolutely unique in its simplicity and directness.  One day Sheriff Baker and Pat Garrett (James Coburn) go to make an arrest. There is a brief and chaotic gunfight.  During it Baker is shot in the belly.  As the shooting winds down, he wanders off.  The wound is worse than he thought.  It's fatal, in fact.  His wife, who has followed him on this outing, also knows something is wrong and trails after him.  Suddenly we hear Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" softly start to play in the background.  "Mama, take this badge off of me.  I can't use it anymore..."  Pickens sits on a rock by the river.  He's going to die and he knows it.  He's seen his last morning; this will be the other date on the tombstone.  He and his wife (beautifully played by Katy Jurado) exchange glances but they know nothing can be done.  This is the only scene on this list which is actually about death.  All the other deaths I've mentioned are dramatic, they all have something to prove, they're show-offs.  But this one is mundane and real. This is how you and I will die - with that helpless and confused look on our face.  And that the actor doing this is Slim Pickens is even better.  He's an ordinary guy, an everyman. His death is our death.  All the other directors, writers, and actors on this list are on some level evading the brutal finality of what it means to die.  But not Peckinpah, in this scene he walks right up to it and stares it in the face.  It's a testament to his genius that he's responsible for this list's most overwrought deaths (The Wild Bunch) and yet its most simple, honest, and profound.


Monday, November 19, 2018

Angkor Wat

It is possible that the ruins of Angkor [Angkor Wat] are in many ways more impressive than the city itself was in its heyday.  Time has wrought wonders with the sandstone, which must have been garish enough when freshly cut.  And vandalism and the flailings of sun and rain have done much to mute that excessive symmetry, that all-pervading symbolism, that repetitiousness which I find so irritating in far-Eastern art.  There is evidence of an obsession with the magic of numbers and of the dignifying, under artistic forms, of primeval superstitions.  One feels that the Khmer must have reasoned that if it was a good thing to erect one statue to Vishnu or of a Devata, then it was fifty times better to have fifty of them.  Adepts of magic never seem to be convinced that their magical practices are completely and finally effective.
      - Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China (1951)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Cinema Italian Style: Reckless Life

BB is a former race car driver.  Roberto his former mechanic.  Their racing days far behind them, both young men have little to show for it.  They're broke.  They live with BB's parents in a provincial town.  They can't seem to catch any breaks.  All they do now is sit around smoking pot, complaining, and trying to pick up the occasional drunk girl in a bar.  They're losers, fuck-ups.  When Roberto goes to a bank to get a loan, though, things go horribly wrong and soon he and BB have inadvertantly robbed the bank of twenty million euros, taken a hostage, stolen a car, and find themselves on the lam from the Italian police.  As I said, they're fuck-ups.  Their hostage, Soledad, is a young actress down on her luck who views this as the perfect way for her to resuscitate her flagging career.  When Roberto starts to spout populist slogans into a TV camera during the abduction (he quotes Bernie Sanders), the three find themselves populist heroes as they flee through the Italian countryside.

Such, then, is Reckless Life (Una vita spericolata), writer/director Marco Ponti's effervescent crime-action-comedy which I saw last night at SIFF's Cinema Italian Style film festival.  I have mixed feelings about this movie.  I liked a lot of it - and I'll get to that in a moment.  But there was much of it I didn't like.  Ponti was in attendance at the screening and described the film as "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll".  And he was right.  The film has plenty of that.  But it also has quite a bit of torture, too.  And that I could have done without.  People having their fingers chopped off, dismembered body parts strewn around the floor.  Mmmm...no.  It was too much.  At heart Reckless Life is a goofy action-comedy.  The brutality was completely out of tone with the rest of the film.  No doubt Ponti is attempting a Quentin-Tarantino-Elmore-Leonard-esque combination of crime, comedy, and violence but it didn't work. It never quite comes off.  Also, on a technical point, the pursuit of "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" is, despite everything, a fundamentally wholesome endeavor because it's the pursuit of fun, of pleasure, of things that are "very good indeed" (at least for awhile), as the song puts it.  A delight in torture, though, is an entirely different thing.

The saving grace of this film are its three leads.  Every time the story focuses on them Reckless Life is a pleasure to watch.  Of the two males, Roberto is the bigger fuck-up and Lorenzo Richelmy, with seemingly permanent pillow-hair, leaps into this role with gusto.  His freak-outs are hilarious - his eyes bug out, he yells, his hair seems to go airborne, he's an equal combination of fear and helplessness.  These is Gene-Wilder level hysteria.  On the other hand, as BB, Eugenio Franceschini is the exact opposite - all cool stoner serenity.  As the situation worsens his calmness deepens.  There's no problem that can't be solved by lighting up a joint and handing out stacks of euros; he's part Buddha, part Robin Hood, part Jeff Lebowski.  Matilda De Angelis in the role of Soledad is more than a match for this pair.  Whether she's throwing up in the back seat of the car or crying over her sex tape (she sleeps with a screenwriter - it's an old joke), Soledad easily holds her own against these two drama queens. 
Lorenzo Richelmy, Matilda De Angelis, and Eugenio Franceschini

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Cinema Italian Style: The Story of a Love Affair/Like a Cat on a Highway

I saw The Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore) at SIFF's Cinema Italian Style festival yesterday.  Originally released in 1950, this was director Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film and it immediately established him as a new voice in Italian film-making.  It's essentially a retelling of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, except set in the world of the Italian middle and upper classes of Ferrara rather than among the poor.  The beautiful Lucia Bosé plays the femme fatale, Paola, and Massimo Girotti is Guido, the sap who falls for her.  And then, of course, there’s Paola’s rich, older, and insufferable husband whose removal would fix everything for our two lovers.
I liked this movie.  The story-telling is a little clumsy at first but once our two protagonists enter, it moves with calm assurance to its final grim, betrayal-filled ending.  The Story of a Love Affair is a sturdy piece of work.  Right from the start Antonioni's trademark visual style is there.  Isolated figures stand or walk about in large empty spaces.  It seems there are always titanic, sterile tenement blocks in view. The world seems empty and deserted, except, of course, for the post-war ennui of the well-dressed and elegant protagonists.  Viewers tend to find Antonioni's style either very cool or very pretentious.  I admit I fall into the former group.  

Massimo Girotti and Lucia Bové

The only problem I had with this film was that the two leads, although very good, don't have the sort of chemistry together to be entirely convincing.  There's not much electricity between them, none of that white-hot "I love you so much, I'll kill for you!" passion which the story requires.  But that's not fatal for this movie. Fortunately, Lucia Bosé is so beautiful, sexy, and elegant that even if we don't believe that her co-star wouldn't kill for her, some of us in the audience might.  And that's good enough.   

In the 2017 comedy Like a Cat on a Highway (Come un gatto in tangenziale) Giovanni (Antonio Albanese) is the head of a think-tank dedicated to improving the lot of those who live in the poor, crime-ridden outskirts of Rome.  His NGO gives presentations to various EU commissions to request increased funding for the programs designed to help the poor.  He is, in short, a compassionate, middle-class do-gooder.  But when he discovers that his young daughter is dating a boy from those same outskirts, he freaks out.  Also freaking out is Monica (Paola Cortellesi), the loud, tough, heavily-tattooed, baseball-bat-wielding mother of the boy.  Soon Giovanni and Monica are working together to thwart their kids’ romance.

From that brief description if you don’t know exactly - and I mean exactly - where this comedy is going you need to stop reading this blog immediately and never come back.  Director Riccardo Milani and co-writers Furio Andreotti, Giulia Calenda, and the aforementioned Paola Cortellesi, don’t miss a trick or a cliché in this “odd-couple” story.  We get the middle-class guy's comical first encounter with people in the tenements.  And the equally comical scenes of the low-class woman's dealings with the affluent.  And yet all that doesn’t matter; the film-makers manage to pull it off.  This is a very lively, fun movie.  You may see everything coming, but you don't mind.  Much of this is due to the chemistry between Albanese and Cortellesi.  They have a mutual interest in separating their kids and both performers bring out the toughness and resilience of their characters in this task as well as their vulnerabilities.  The characters may border on caricatures but the actors manage to give them enough humanity to engage us.  And they're both riotously funny, too.     

Paola Cortellesi, Alice Maselli, Simone de Bianchi, and Antonio Albanese

The script is so tightly-written, the jokes and comic incidents are so expertly piled up, that you don’t really notice (or maybe, don’t really care) that this topical film evades most of the issues it raises.  We never see any of the drug or alcohol abuse that plague the lives of the poor, nor do we see any of the real violence which they encounter - or commit.  The poor, in fact, seem to be largely unaffected by their lives of poverty. There are no gangs, no brutality, not even a mafia - imagine that.  As for the affluent, they have no fear of the poor, no hostility towards them, their wealth and power are in no way connected to the existence of poverty, they think the poor are “just folks”.  Class war?  What class war?  It’s as if a script by Bertolt Brecht were given a total re-write by Nora Ephron.  

Still, despite my carping, I enjoyed this film. It was a pleasant way to kill an hour and forty minutes. 

Friday, November 09, 2018

Cinema Italian Style: The Guest

Went to SIFF Uptown Cinema last night to see The Guest (L’ospite), the opening movie in this year’s Cinema Italian Style festival, a week-long showcase of the best in contemporary Italian films.

Set in Rome, The Guest is a gentle and very funny comedy about Guido (Daniele Parisi), a literature professor in his late 30s who gets dumped by his girlfriend and finds himself sleeping on the sofas of various family members and friends, all the while hoping to reunite with his love.  The feckless Guido, though, soon finds himself caught up in the private lives of his many hosts.  Slowly, even reluctantly, he starts to mature.  The Guest is a coming-of-age story about someone who should have come of age about a decade earlier. 

But, as Guido and the viewer soon learn, all the other characters in this film should have matured years ago, too, but didn't.  His girlfriend, Chiara (Silvia D'Amico), can't seem to make up her mind about her future; she has a master's degree yet can only find work as a docent.  Guido's colleague at the university is nine-months pregnant but admits to being in love with a man other than her husband.  His mother and father bicker, unable to accept each others quirks after all those years together.  Another friend keeps having multiple affairs with different women.  When one of these relationships blows up in his face, the friend winds up shacking up for the night on the sofa at Guido's parents' house, too.  Everyone's life seems to be a mess.  And Guido, who just wants to move back in with Chiara, finds himself an unwitting confidant and even accomplice to his friends' problems.  

Silvia D'Amico and Daniele Parisi
It's a testament to director Duccio Chiarini's talent that The Guest doesn't descend into either mere soap opera or overwrought melodrama.  He strikes the right tone; one of sympathy and yet with an amused detachment.  But a detachment rooted in understanding, not indifference.  At one point just about every character in this film turns to Guido and says "I'm scared".  It's always a moving admission, and yet with repetition the line becomes gently humorous.  Yes, you're scared.  We're all scared. Yet one feels that every time Guido hears the line he becomes a little less scared - because he's a little less alone in feeling scared - and thus becomes a little more confident.  

Don't let my review leave you with the wrong impression.  Chiarini, and his co-writers Davide Lantieri, Marco Pettenello, and Roan Johnson have created a hilarious comedy in The Guest.  One particular joke about a pair of panties will have you laughing for weeks.  And the excellent cast keep this film lively and engaging.  In the lead, Daniele Parisi manages to be both passive and cranky at the same time.  Almost everyone in this film will call Guido "an asshole" to his face, and yet as the movie goes along his passivity seems to be that of a stoic who's learned (or at least, is learning) to accept people as they are.  In contrast, Silvia D'Amico as his girlfriend is all passion and drive.  She is very discontented.  She wants more out of life, and as viewers we feel that, yes, honestly, she could probably do better than Guido.  But by the end of the film, though, we're not so sure.  

Daniele Parisi
Turkish cinematographer Baris Özbiçer did an outstanding job shooting this film; his Rome is a city of color and sunlight, his quiet control puts one in mind of the work of Roger Deakins.  Laura Boni's production design made everything look mundane and yet wonderfully attractive.  After seeing Rome through the eyes of these two, I wanted to run to the airport and buy a one-way ticket. 

Finally, for any readers who live in the Los Angeles area, your own Cinema Italian Style festival will kick off this Tuesday, November 13th at the Egyptian and Aero theaters.  The film line-up is a little different from Seattle's, but some of the titles will overlap, though, unfortunately, not The Guest.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Poets

In the normal course of things, a poet, however illustrious, is but an ornament of his country.  He is a sumptuary creature, a luxury whose existence merely signifies the determination of some few people to express, in language quite distinct from the vernacular, what is purest in the domain of least useful thought.
- Paul Valéry, “In Honor of Émile Verhaeren” (1927)

Friday, November 02, 2018

Stanley Kubrick, Photographer

Between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one Stanley Kubrick worked as a photographer for Look magazine.  Look, along with Life, was one of the great photo-journalism magazines in the US and after it shut down in 1971 its five million plus images were donated to the Library of Congress.  Some, though, went to the Museum of the City of New York, where a select few were recently on display in the exhibition Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs.  This outstanding volume from Taschen is a companion book to the exhibit. 

Born and raised in New York City, it is appropriate that Kubrick’s photographs would be displayed by the museum dedicated to his home town.  Since he spent most of his life in England we don’t tend to think of Kubrick as a New Yorker but that’s a mistake.  He always possessed the traits New Yorkers value highly: intelligence, realism, an inexhaustible interest in the world, drive and ambition.  As the cliché would put it - he left New York but New York never left him.  Unlike that other great New-York-born expatriate artist, Henry James, Kubrick never yearned to be English. He wasn't seeking another home elsewhere; he was at home in his interests. Geographic or national identity was of no concern whatsoever to him.  The only time they appear in his work is as caricatures and objects of ridicule in Dr. Strangelove (1964).  


But before he got to that point in his career he worked for Look, chronicling New York City in these outstanding photographs which capture the gritty reality of life in Manhattan in the late 1940s.  Whether it's people riding the subway late at night (above), or people arguing on the streets, or women shopping at a five-and-dime, Kubrick captures the city and its residents in all their toughness.  Weegee (a.k.a. Arthur Fellig) was clearly his idol, and Kubrick too would soon be taking infrared photos of lovers kissing in doorways or darkened movie theaters.  I love photos like these.  I love NYC in the 1940s.  It was a world of concrete and never-ending heat waves, short fat guys with bad haircuts wearing T-shirts and chomping cigars, women in cheap print dresses always on the look out for your con. Life was lived outdoors, on the street or the stoop.  It's a ruthless world of hustle.  The face on the kid below, a young shoe-shine boy, is pure New York - tough, yet possessing a humanity and warmth. 
Mickey (left) and an eye-rolling friend



Kubrick's vision of New York is pure noir.  In 1956 he directed The Killing, largely regarded as a film noir classic - though I prefer Killer's Kiss from 1955.  It's more raw, more experimental, the city - with its dance halls, cheap hotels, and boxing matches - is itself a character.  Clearly the years at Look were a preparation for those films.  In the photo of the Copacabana dance floor (below), for instance, you can practically smell the desperation and loneliness.













And the showgirls at the Copa seem equally jaded.


As Kubrick established himself at Look he began to get nominally better assignments.
Often they were of celebrities (Guy Lombardo, Leonard Bernstein, Montgomery Clift) or local New York events (elegant Halloween parties, rehearsals of Broadway musicals).  While you can see Kubrick's visual talent grow over the years, these spreads feel very homogenized.  Each spread was meant to tell a story, but Look was very limited in what stories they wanted to tell.  They had to be tales of hard-work and success, the American Dream come true - or just about to.  Lives that didn't fit into that narrative were ignored.  So Mickey, the shoeshine boy Kubrick photographed (above), never made it into print.  Despite Kubrick's best efforts - photos of Mickey doing his homework or going to the laundromat - the poverty in which Mickey and his eight siblings live undermined the upbeat story Look wanted to tell.  So it never saw the light of day.  The same thing happened with Kubrick's photos of Rosemary Williams (below), a model and chorus girl he shot in 1949.  We see her making coffee in her apartment, meeting with producer Mike Todd, reading a book, out on the town with friends, and just looking great in that way that only women in the 1940s could.  So did Look run it?  Nope.  A pretty, young single woman in NYC? In a profession that shows a little too much skin to be respectable? Not gonna happen.

Rosemary Williams
It's in the boxing photos that Kubrick is most successful.  And, in a sense, where he began his transition to film-maker.  Here's how the process at Look worked. A photographer was given an assignment or came up with one on his own.  He went out and took the pictures.  When he returned, the editors went over the mass of photos they had at hand - just for the Rosemary Williams assignment, for example, Kubrick had over 700 photos.  The editors selected what they wanted, wrote some text and transformed everything into a spread.  In effect, they created a story-board.  One of Kubrick's best set of photos were of the boxer Walter Cartier in 1949 (below).  In it we see Cartier training in the gym, running through Washington Square park, meeting with his team, and, of course, some magnificent fight photos.  After Kubrick left Look in 1950 his first film was a short documentary for RKO entitled Day of the Fight, in which we spend 24 hours in the life of, who else, boxer Walter Cartier.

Walter Cartier being examined before a fight








Yet even in the boxing assignments it's interesting to see what Look excluded from publication.  A 1950 layout of boxer Rocky Graziano ("He's a Good Boy Now") contains the stereotypical images we've come to expect: Rocky plays with his kid, Rocky meets people, Rocky punches a guy in the ring, etc.  Omitted, though, is the photo below - Graziano naked in the shower.  It's a raw image, full of violence and menace.  Like the subject of a Manet painting, Graziano looks directly at us, his gaze full of challenge.  It's as if he's daring the viewer to see him for who he is - a vulnerable violent man.  His rough and battered face is passive, even sad.  It could be the face of a prison convict.  To my mind what makes this photo so remarkable are the pipes above and behind Graziano; this is not just the picture of a boxer, but of a boxer and his world.  No glamor, no romanticism.  Gone is the upbeat Horatio Alger bullshit of Look magazine.  This is the best photo in the book and it's obvious that Kubrick had already grown beyond the limited worldview of Look.  In fact, here is the first of the lonely, isolated, violent men who would populate his films - Jack D. Ripper, Alex, Barry Lyndon, Jack Torrance, Private Pyle.  

Rocky Graziano









Sunday, September 30, 2018

Enlightened Selfishness

A regime based upon the ethic of “always enlightened selfishness” has the undeniable advantages of producing a more efficient and prosperous economy and a freer polity and society.  It is also, I would venture to say, more genuinely, as distinct from rhetorically, moral, because it requires no violation of transformation of human nature.  It takes people as they are and as they always have been, capable of being enlightened as well as selfish - enlightened precisely because they are selfish, because the “self” naturally embraces family and community, religion and tradition, interests and values.
     - Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Victorian Values, Jewish Values” (1989)

Saturday, September 29, 2018

French Cinema Now: When Margaux Meets Margaux

Went to SIFF yesterday to see When Margaux Meets Margaux, which is playing as part of SIFF's French Cinema Now festival.  It was bad.  A 45-year old woman named Margaux (Sandrine Kiberlain) comes across a 20-year old woman also named Margaux (Agathe Bonitzer) at a party in Paris.  Ah, the viewer thinks, this is a pleasant little comedy about mistaken identities.  Alas, no.  Margaux the Elder is actually Margaux the Younger from a later period in her life.  Apparently some sort of time travel has occurred.  But how?  We’re not told.  However, there is also the possibility that Margaux the Elder is some sort of metal projection of Margaux the Younger when she contemplates what her future life might be.  So who's the real Margaux?  It's not clear.  And that’s the problem I had with this film: its main conceit is too baffling.  We’re never quite sure what we’re witnessing.  The ground beneath our feet is never secure.  Writer and director Sophie Fillières is attempting to create a romantic comedy but keeps throwing us so many metaphysical curveballs that one barely has time to care about the fate of Margaux (either one) or her (their?) love life.  I was busy looking for clues to determine what was the reality of the film - and (spoiler) I was left empty handed.  An entirely unsatisfying experience.  In fact, leaving this film my greatest regret was that an older version of myself hadn’t traveled back from the future to warn me not to waste my afternoon watching this disappointing movie.

Sandrine Kimberlain and Agathe Bonitzer


Monday, September 24, 2018

Unfinished Books

I try to finish every book I read.  In fact, I don’t regard a book as “read” by me unless I’ve gotten to the very last page.  But in reality that’s not always possible.  Most of the times I agonize over when to give up on a book.  I know the author worked hard on it; I want to make sure I’ve given them a chance.  But other times - and this is one of them (or two of them, actually) - the author manages to drive me away from their book either by poor writing or by being annoying.  That’s the case with the two volumes under consideration here.

I was very excited to start Alan Strauss-Schom’s The Shadow Emperor: A Biography of Napoléon III (2018).  This nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France from 1852 to 1870 and ultimately led his country to military defeat at the hands of Bismarck’s Germany.  He has indeed been something of a “shadow” historically, dwarfed by both his uncle and by the other major political figures of his era - Bismarck, Gladstone, Disraeli, Garibaldi, etc.  As the heir to the Napoleonic throne, little Louis Napoléon (his real name) and his mother, Hortense, were subjected to constant police oversight.  All their mail was read.  A grand coalition representing Europe’s major powers oversaw Hortense’s choice of tutors for Louis.  They were routinely kicked out of any country they tried to settle in.  It was a precarious life and Strauss-Schom does a fine job with all of this.  

But as Louis grows up Strauss-Schom strikes a new tone in the book.  Hortense, who up to this time appears as a normal aristocratic mother of the day, if a little more protective than most, is suddenly transformed into a domineering maternal bitch.  “Fed on honeyed pap and smothered in cotton wool by an emotional, overly protective, unhealthily possessive doting mother…[sic] her son’s future did not look hopeful.”  But not to worry.  Strauss-Schom assures us “only his [Louis’s] surprisingly strong character and personal will to achieve something worthy of his name, the chalice of empire, to be recognized and respected by the outside world, drove him on with force enough eventually to break away from this strangling silk web.”  

“Chalice of empire”?  The minute I read that it hit me “This isn’t a history; it’s a trashy historical novel.”  I had to check and make sure the cover wasn’t embossed.  This is the language a tenth-rate fiction writer would use - as, too, is the cliché of the suffocating mother.  What kind of legitimate historian would use a phrase like “chalice of empire”?  Frankly, I'm not even sure what that means.  How is an empire a chalice?  Is a drinking vessel really the appropriate imperial metaphor?  Could there be a “mug of empire”?  Or maybe a “red Solo cup of empire”?  I don’t know.  I do, though, think that “Chalice of Empire” may actually be the name of a multi-player video game, but I’m not sure.  Clearly, the only way for me to continue reading this book would be to regard it as camp - and that’s not really my thing.  So I close it and I'm done.

Right from the beginning I sensed that David Cannadine’s Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (2018) wasn’t going to make it.  He begins the book with two quotes.  One is Karl Marx’s classic observation from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that human beings make their own history but only under inherited historical conditions.  The other is Charles Dickens's even-more-classic opening from A Tale of Two Cities, “It was best of times, it was the worst of times...”  The Marx quote is bad enough; surely, Cannadine could have found a more original quote in the corpus of Marx’s work than the old chestnut he settled upon.  But the Dickens quote is worse.  The choice of it is trite, lazy, and not even relevant.  Dickens wrote it about the eighteenth century, not the nineteenth century.  So it’s not even á propos to the book at hand.  

On the first page of the Preface and Acknowledgements Cannadine writes “I was lucky enough to grow up in what were in many ways the final years of the ‘long’ nineteenth century - namely the 1950s.”  The 1950s?  Really?  On the next page he refers to “the first decade of the twentieth century - the 1960s”  Nine pages later you’ll find this: “In some ways, even today [2017], the British nineteenth century is still not over.”  Cannadine is playing much too fast and loose with his conception of the nineteenth century.  In fact, when your periodization of a “century” covers over 220 years you need to rethink your assumptions.

But intellectual sloppiness seems to be Cannadine’s forte.  To prove that the nineteenth century still is not over in Britain he points to the ongoing existence of photography, nursing, the bicycle, etc. but also matches, football, the old school tie, and bacon and eggs.  In the book’s Prologue (yeah, it’s one of those books with both a preface and a prologue) he writes of the UK that “uniquely among the great nations of the world, its boundaries remained unchanged and unchanging throughout the nineteenth century.”  Yes, that happens when you’re surrounded by water.  

But it was a sentence in the opening paragraph of the first chapter which sealed this book’s fate for me.  Here it is: “Accordingly, on the first day of January 1801, Ireland vanished as a separate nation, and the expanded and consolidated United Kingdom that came into being would endure, albeit with misgivings and challenges, disapproval and protest, for the whole of the nineteenth century and on, indeed, until the aftermath of the First World War.”  Ireland wasn’t “a separate nation” before 1801.  Period.  It became a separate nation in 1921.  Until then it was under British rule, directly or indirectly.  That’s the fact.  Just as today no intelligent person would refer to the Palestinians or the Tibetans or the Basque as “a separate nation” so, too, Ireland was not one in 1800. 

So why is Cannadine fudging this?  He could have called Ireland “a separate administrative unit” or said that Ireland “legally joined” the UK in 1801, but calling them “a separate nation” is entirely misleading.  Note, too, the cagey way in which he won’t even acknowledge that Irish independence occurred at the end of his chosen historical period.  In fact, the entire sentence from “albeit…” on is one big fustian evasion.  Why should I continue to read this book?  How do I know that what he writes is accurate?  I’d have to read a second book on this topic just to fact check his.  No, no, no.  To the trash with it. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

A Dream Animal

Although there is still much that we do not understand, it is likely that the selective forces working upon the humanization of man lay essentially in the nature of the socio-cultural world itself.  Man, in other words, once he had “crossed over” into this new invisible environment, was being as rigorously selected for survival within it as the first fish that waddled up the shore on its fins.  I have said that this new world was “invisible.”  I do so advisedly.  It lay, not so much in his surroundings as in man’s brain, in his way of looking at the world around him and at the social environment he was beginning to create in his tiny human groupings. 
He was becoming something the world had never seen before - a dream animal - living at least partially within a secret universe of his own creations and sharing that secret universe in his head with other, similar heads.  Symbolic communication had begun.  Man had escaped out of the eternal present of the animal world into a knowledge of past and future.  The unseen gods, the powers behind the world of phenomenal appearance began to stalk through his dreams.
     - Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (1957)

Monday, September 17, 2018

ACT: Skylight

This weekend I went to see David Hare’s Skylight at ACT.  It’s a superb production - moving, riveting, engrossing.  It pulled me in so strongly that when the lights came up at the end I got that brief jolt of being returned from the play’s reality to my own.  It’s not often that you walk out of a theater and tell yourself “That production could not have been better” but that’s the case with this one. 

Hare’s play (first produced in London in 1995) concerns the reuniting of two former lovers after a few years apart.  The woman, Kyra, is a late thirties-ish school teacher living in a run-down and very cold apartment in a desolate area of North London.  He is Tom, a wealthy and successful restaurant entrepreneur about twenties years her senior.  They come together for the night but are driven apart the next day by both their mutual differences and their shared past.  There is also Edward, Tom’s son by his wife Alice.  Alice is not a character in this play, but she is a presence in it.  The events onstage take place a year after her death from cancer and a few years after her discovery of Tom and Kyra’s affair.  It’s out of this mundane, even trite, material that Hare has fashioned his magnificent play.  

Although Hare is mostly thought of as a political playwright, Skylight is more intimate and personal than much of his other work.  Unlike his more epic plays (Fanshen, A Map of the World) this is a chamber piece, a duet.  The two ex-lovers take center stage; Edward appears only at the beginning and briefly at the end.  At the root of every decent playwright - no matter how inspired by politics or current events or religion or, even, just the desire for money - is the commitment to and love of the brute facticity of theater: a live actor before an audience creating an entirely new reality.  There’s magic in that, and one senses that the sparseness of the material may very well have been inspiring to Hare.  Love, death, grief, anger, betrayal, hope, rage - the gamut of human emotions pass between these two characters.  They contain the world.

Still, the political is there.  Kyra is a teacher at a school in one of London’s poorer and more violent neighborhoods.  She first met Tom when she was hired to work in one of his restaurants, soon Tom and Alice take her into their home, and Tom, ultimately, to his bed.  Kyra’s life became one of ease and affluence, only the finest things.  Her breakup with Tom led her into a hard scrabble existence but one of which she is defiantly proud.  At one point she goes on a glorious rant about “those right-wing fuckers” in parliament and the media who chatter about what the poor need to do to improve their lot but never actually do anything to help them.  After almost a quarter century its power, relevance, and contempt are still fresh.  Elinor Gunn’s performance Kyra is flawless.  She is both deeply vulnerable and yet hard as steel at the core.  Kyra is a woman who says “yes” to the world (Tom reproaches her for this) but she’s at the age in life when events and experience begin to persuade one of the wisdom of saying “no.”  Tom loves her and she almost can’t help but respond to that love; not because he’s so wonderful, but because love is.  

David Hare
On a side note, I couldn’t help but notice that if Kyra had been played a little colder and more archly (and I’m glad Gunn didn't play her that way) it would have brought out the influence on this play, conscious or not, of Noël Coward.  Now I don’t know if Hare would acknowledge that influence or if he even likes Coward’s work, but despite the politics and coarse language of Skylight there are some distinctly Coward-esque aspects to the story - old lovers meet, verbal sparring, potential reuniting, bittersweet endings, etc.  Several times I couldn't help thinking of Elyot and Amanda in Coward's Private Lives (1930) - but that may just be me. 

The moment Daniel Gerroll walks onstage as Tom he dominates the play.  Brash, complaining, needy, charming, undeniably fun, pushy - Tom is all those things and we are fascinated by him.  He’s in many ways the quintessentially successful businessman of Thatcher’s era - and ours, too.  He’s completely unpretentious, hard working, sympathetic and yet possessed of a disturbing callousness and indifference to others.  Though even that he manages to make charming.  When Kyra tells him that he needs to listen to women if he hopes to bed them, he groans and retorts that listening “is halfway to begging.”  Tom is not a larger-than-life character such as Falstaff or Cyrano de Bergerac but there is an abundance to him - perhaps it’s merely the energy and élan vital of the successful entrepreneur - that makes him an irresistible figure.  Gerroll's performance is fantastic.  This is a role that isn’t just played - it needs to be filled, the actor needs to possess a certain heft to pull it off.  And Gerroll does that to perfection.  He’s so convincing that at one point, while watching Tom walking around Kyra’s apartment, I thought to myself “Yeah, you know that guy’s got another piece of ass on the side” and then realized “Oh, wait, he doesn’t actually exist.”

Michael Monicatti, in his professional stage debut, brings a wonderful energy and appeal to the role of Edward.  My one gripe: I wish he wouldn’t rush his lines.  There’s a music to Hare’s language (yet another similarity with Coward) and slowing the delivery down a bit will bring it out.  Julia Hayes Welch did an excellent job with the set; she uses thin copper piping to frame the stage as well as remind us of the gritty nature of the neighborhood Kyra lives in.  And, finally, John Langs is to be commended for his outstanding direction of this play.  Everything seems to come off effortlessly - which we all know usually requires a back-breaking amount of work to achieve.  

Skylight will play at ACT until September 30, so you all have plenty of time to go get tickets.