Sunday, February 17, 2019

Noir City 2019: The Well/Detective Story/The Turning Point

Yesterday was day two of Noir City 2019 here in Seattle.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to see the evening’s final feature, Angel Face (1953), but I managed to catch its predecessors

The Well (1951)
A 5-year-old black girl walks through a field.  She approaches a section of brush and suddenly drops out of sight.  She has fallen into a well.  It’s out of this inciting incident that director and writer Russell Rouse, along with his co-writer Clarence Greene, have fashioned a powerful and gripping tale about race relations in the US.  The young girl, it turns out, was seen talking to a white man before her disappearance.  Soon rumors begin to fly around in the small racially-mixed town where The Well is set (we don’t learn the state).  Racial tensions mount and soon start to explode.  Within hours the town is about to be torn apart by race riots.

Wow, Hollywood dealing honestly and openly about race.  How did that happen?  It didn’t.  The Well is an independently produced film and its non-studio status gave it a freedom which a studio production wouldn’t have.  As an indie film some of the production values (sets, costumes, etc.) are on the low side but the ones that matter (writing, direction, acting, etc.) aren’t.  The only “name” actor in it is Richard Rober, who plays the town’s beleaguered white police chief.  (Rober also played the sleazy Italian-American in the previous night’s The File on Thelma Jordan.)  Harry Morgan, of Dragnet and MASH fame, plays the man who consorted with the black girl before her disappearance.  Back in the 1940s and 50s Morgan had a solid career in movies as a heavy.  As with Fred McMurray, TV made him anodyne and lovable.  Many of the other actors were local people in the northern California town where the film was shot.  Under good direction non-actors can perform as well as professionals.  

This film is exceptionally good.  That’s it’s still relevant to us in 2019 is evident.  White gangs attack blacks.  Black gangs attack whites.  Some of the police target blacks for persecution.  Many of the blacks turn on the police and the entire system.  Demagogues whip up the crowds.  Small acts of inter-racial decency are swallowed up in the hatestorm.  Sound familiar?  In the US we call this situation “normal”, and, sadly, The Well will probably be relevant in 2051, and 2151, etc.  

In the last third of this film the tone changes.  It becomes a “rescue the kid from the well” story.  Many of the issues raised in the first two-thirds are dropped or left unresolved (just like in reality).  As a story about a well rescue, though, it’s still exceptionally good.  Rouse and editor Chester Schaeffer grab us, pull us in, and don’t let go to the end.  Not surprisingly, this film received Oscar nominations in the categories of film editing and for the screenplay.

Detective Story (1951)
Detective James McLeod (Kirk Douglas) of New York City’s 21st precinct is one tough, hard-boiled, unrelenting son of a bitch.  His main target is one Dr. Schneider (George Macready), an abortionist working out of New Jersey whose patients tend to wind up at the morgue.  McLeod’s on a one-man crusade to lock him up.  But when he discovers that his own wife (Eleanor Parker) was one of the doctor’s patients his world falls apart. 

Not good.  A mediocre play transformed into a mediocre movie.  It was originally written for the stage by Sidney Kingsley and like most poorly written plays it’s full of colorful side characters and lots of sub-plots and exciting incidents that don’t happen in real life.  Director William Wyler, though, was fascinated by the lead character and chose to adapt it.  Festival host Eddie Muller pointed out that the 1950s was a time full of authority figures, such as McLeod, whose narcissism and cruelty masqueraded as self-righteousness.  Wyler hated those types, as do most of us, and saw Detective Story as a way to criticize them.  Abortion is, of course, never referred to directly in the film and since today it’s considered, at least by most of us, as an acceptable medical procedure for a woman to choose, Detective Story’s misogynistic, shaming, and self-righteous tone on the topic has not aged well.  

Kirk Douglas
But if you like Kirk Douglas’s performances when he’s “over the top,” then Detective Story is for you.  He doesn’t just chew the scenery, he chews the costumes, the hair and make-up, the lighting, the camera.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he even broke into the editing room and gnawed on the Moviola for awhile.  On the other hand, Lee Grant plays one of the “colorful” minor characters in this film - she’s a shoplifter - and is a delight to watch.  This was her first film and she pulled it off with charm and style.  

The Turning Point (1952)
John Conroy (Edmund O’Brien) is a special prosecutor called in to set up a commission to crack down on the crime syndicate in an unnamed mid-western city.  Helping him in this task is Alexis Smith (Amanda Waycross), his girl friend and the commision’s secretary.  Also tagging along is Jerry McKibbon (William Holden), a cynical, wise-cracking reporter who just happens to be a childhood friend of Conroy’s.  Their task is not an easy one.  The tentacles of the syndicate run deep - even into Conroy’s own family - and there is much mayhem before the good guys prevail. 

This is a solid and entertaining noir directed by William Dieterle from a script by Warren Duff (who produced the noir gem Out of the Past) and based on a story by Horace McCoy.  Crime commissions were big in the 1950s.  The granddaddy of them all was the Kefauver Committee (1950-51) which turned its lights on organized crime.  The Kefauver Committee was wildly popular; its live TV broadcasts attracted tens of millions of viewers.  Eddie Muller even showed us the one signature move that it introduced into pop culture - hand over mic, and then lean over to whisper to your lawyer.  When that actually happens in The Turning Point the audience burst into laughter.  

William Holden and Edmund O'Brien
I liked this film.  The cast, which also includes Ed Begley as the head of the syndicate, were all very good, and its depiction of urban crime and corruption will thrill the heart of any noirista.  However, I did have one problem with The Turning Point.  Edith Head did the costumes for it and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wonderfully dressed cast.  Those suits!  Those skirts!  It was very distracting.  This city may be overrun with corruption, murder, and extortion but its tailors are knocking it out of the ballpark every day.  This is one of those movies where the characters can just stand there and they emit beauty and cool like the sun emits light. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Noir City 2019: Trapped/The File on Thelma Jordan

It’s February in Seattle and after two weeks of crippling snowstorms temperatures have returned to normal (mid-40s), streets are clearing, and everyone has gone back to their usual routine.  And on Friday night (also as per the usual routine of a Seattle February) Noir City - a week-long festival of classic, rare, and restored film noirs - has arrived.  This year’s theme is “Film Noir in the 1950s.”  Under the calm exterior of the Eisenhower era boiled the raging murderous and criminal passions which made America great (or at least made American movies great).  

Opening nights at Noir City feel like a party.  There was live music from the Casey MacGill Trio, the bar was crowded, and folks dressed up in vintage finery or its nearest equivalent.  In attendance was Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation (who organized the festival held under the auspices of SIFF).  Eddie is also the host of Turner Classic Movies’s Noir Alley.  Is there anything about film noir which he doesn’t know?  I think not.    

Trapped (1949)
Lloyd Bridges plays Tris Stewart, a counterfeiter behind bars for creating fake currency plates of impeccable quality.  The Treasury Department wants to spring him from jail so he can go undercover to break up a counterfeiting ring who have his plates.  Tris agrees.  But he has other plans.  Once free he turns on the Feds and decides to go after the plates himself.  

This is a tough, grimy docu-noir.  The first few minutes are taken up with extolling the virtues of the US Treasury Department in its many capacities.  Directed by Richard Fleischer from a script by Earl Felton and George Zuckerman, Trapped never entirely loses its documentary feel.  What makes it effective as a story, though, are the ongoing betrayals which drive the narrative.  No one is quite who they seem.  Once he goes rogue, Tris immediately sets off to see his gal, Meg (Barbara Payton).  She’s a cigarette girl at a nightclub.  One of the patrons there is a flirtatious low-level grifter played by John Hoyt.  He seems harmless enough - except that he turns out to be an undercover Treasury agent sent to entrap Tris and Meg.  It’s all one big hall of mirrors.  
Lloyd Bridges and John Hoyt

The leads are all very good.  Lloyd Bridges is very convincing as a criminal.  As he corners various associates of his you believe that he’ll do them harm, and he does.  He has just enough crazy behind those eyes.  Barbara Payton is lovely and cynical as Meg.  But to me it’s John Hoyt’s film.  That granite face!  Those steely blue eyes!  Hoyt usually played the bad guy but he’s equally good as the hero in Trapped.  The moment his real character is revealed we start pulling for him.  Another appealing aspect of Trapped (strictly in a noir sense, let me add) is its complete callousness.  This film has no compassion for its victims.  When Tris slaps around his former parter, who’s now turned into a drunken bum, there no sympathy for the poor bastard whatsoever.  And when one of the main characters is shot dead at the end of the film no body expresses any concern for them.  The body falls and we all move on.

Looks like he picked the wrong week to quit smoking...Lloyd Bridges and Barbara Payton

Trapped is also an excellent instance of the good work done by the Film Noir Foundation and why it deserves the support of film-lovers everywhere.  The only copies available of this film were poor reproductions of a 16-mm version.  It was believed that all the 35-mm prints were lost.  But after years of looking, the FNF finally found one in a private collection from upstate New York which had been donated to the Harvard Film Archive.  The FNF, in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, have been able to strike a new negative from it and thus put this tasty little treat back into circulation. 

The File on Thelma Jordan (1950)
When assistant district attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey) first lays eyes on Thelma Jordan (Barbara Stanwyck) he falls for her head over heels.  She’s come to see him about a prowler who’s attempting to steal her old, rich aunt’s jewels, but instead Cleve and Thelma start up a torrid affair and soon the assistant DA’s marriage begins to fall apart.  Then one night old Aunt Moneybags winds up murdered (don’t they always) and the truth about Thelma starts to emerge.

This film is clearly a re-do of Double Indemnity (1944), complete with Barbara Stanwyck as the femme fatale (though without the ridiculous wig) and Corey as the beguiled official caught in her snares.  Both films even feature seedy Italian-Americans lurking in the background.  I tried hard to like Thelma Jordan, but to no avail.  Directed by Robert Siodmak, its 100 minute running time felt much longer.  Certain scenes are drawn out for no purpose and it seemed as though multiple different endings had been crammed together for this film’s conclusion.  If only Robert Wise had been the editor…  Also, I like Wendell Corey but his performance in this film is weak, there’s no depth to it.  He looks too much like an actual assistant DA from 1950 - and they were an unexciting lot.  Unlike, say, Fred MacMurray or Charles McGraw, Corey doesn’t seem to have that dark underside which the enterprising female can use to her advantage and his ruin.  But this is Barbara Stanwyck's movie.  Is she, as Eddie asserted, the greatest actress in the history of movies?  Perhaps.  But there's no doubt that Thelma Jordan is a magnificent showcase for her.  She's bewitching, elegant, tough, and sympathetic.  This film made Wendell Corey a star, but to my mind he was merely riding Stanwyck's coattails.  Then add in the fact that all her outfits (with or without coattails) were designed by Edith Head and you've got a film to delight any Stanwyck aficionado. 

Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey (Now that's how you hold a woman.)

Thursday, February 07, 2019

On Becoming an Artist

Fortunately, very few children want to be artists or writers when they grow up.  That is something which - with the odd repellent exception - one simply ends up becoming or turns out to be.  Even though I enjoyed reading as a child, I think the last thing I would have said in response to the classic question was “a novelist.”  A pirate, a footballer, an archaeologist (yes, long before Indiana Jones), a bandit, a lion-tamer, even perhaps, in an attack of folly, a doctor…I’ve no idea what children nowadays would like to be when they grow up, but I’m sure they don’t aspire to devoting their lives to literature, painting or “serious” music.  Just as well, because, as I did fifty years ago, they would find it hard to identify with artists as they’re represented in films and, indeed, books, and they certainly wouldn’t want to emulate them.  The most worrying thing for those of us who have turned out to be novelists or poets or sculptors or painters or musicians is that not even as adults have we seen much reason to admire our predecessors as people.
     - Javier Marías, “Damned Artists!”  (2008)

Monday, February 04, 2019

ACT: Uncle Vanya

On Friday night I went to see Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at ACT in downtown Seattle.  What a magnificent production.  Director Jahn Langs and the cast and crew have given this play a vitality and emotional power you don’t often see on the Seattle stage.  Rarer still, this is an intelligent production, and the few liberties Langs has taken with the work add depth and dimension to Chekhov’s vision.

A few minutes into any Chekhov play and you realize that he is our contemporary.  His characters are the people we know in our own lives; what goes through their minds goes through ours as well.  Vanya, for instance, is a 47-year-old man living on a provincial estate.  He is very angry and disappointed with his life.  Most of it has been wasted and he knows it.  For years he idolized his sister’s husband, Serebryakov, a pompous professor.  He worked for Serebryakov, helped translate his works, committed whole passages of his essays to memory.  He believed in him.  But time has passed.  The sister has died, and Serebryakov remarried.  When the play opens the professor and his new young and beautiful wife, Yelena, have moved into the estate with Vanya.  Up close, Vanya can now see that Serebryakov is a talentless hack, a man twenty years behind the times, an idiot, a fool.  And the man for whom he has sacrificed his own life and any talent he may have had.  He seethes with regret, resentment, and depression.  And it doesn’t help matters that he’s also fallen madly in love with Yelena.  I think I know this guy.  Really, I do.  And if you’re honest with yourself you may be a little like him too. 

The other characters are also like the people who surround us.  There’s Astrov, a local doctor and friend of Vanya’s, who has a passion for saving the province’s dwindling forests.  Yet aside from his and Vanya’s long bull sessions he doesn’t ever actually do anything to preserve them.  Even as a doctor he performs his duties with great reluctance whenever someone in the village gets sick.  We like Astrov, but he’s all talk and no action.  And he, too, is madly in love with Yelena.
Mark Jenkins, Rob Burgess, Alexandra Tavares, and Amy Fleetwood (Photo Credit: Chris Bennion)
And what of the lovely and beloved Yelena?  She’s unbearably unhappy.  She hates the provincial life, and whatever love she felt for her sick, elderly husband has long since evaporated.  Vanya amuses her - why wouldn't he, they’re both “victims” of the professor’s insidious mediocrity - but when Vanya confesses his love to her she groans with irritation.  Instead, she loves Astrov.  Yet we sense that even there it is a love born of boredom and discontent rather than any genuine affection for the man.  Her one desire by play’s end is simply to leave - and to leave immediately.  She has, as many of us do, the mistaken belief that geography is psychology, that we’ll be happy somewhere else, we just need to leave here first.

And then there’s Sonya, the professor’s daughter via his first wife.  In many ways it’s her play.  Vanya is, after all, her uncle.  She is shy, hard-working, a little nervous, and, most importantly, plain-looking.  She, unlike Yelena, genuinely loves Dr. Astrov but he doesn’t love her at all.  She cannot compete with Yelena’s beauty and charm.  If Uncle Vanya is a play about wasted potential her situation is the most moving and heart-felt.  She doesn’t have much talent, and the talents of the other characters are fundamentally narcissistic and selfish.  But Sonya’s one potential - and it’s a universal one - it to love someone else completely and selflessly.  And that, too, is frustrated.

The cast in this production is fantastic.  There’s not a weak performance in the whole ensemble.  In the minor roles, Amy Fleetwood was very good as Maria, Vanya’s mother.  Sharva Maynard made a warm and outstanding Nanny; when the elderly Serebrayakov throws a fit, she effortlessly leads him offstage, recognizing that he’s just a big baby underneath all those years.  In the role of Telegin (a.k.a “Waffles”), a local deputy and hanger-on at the estate, Rob Burgess brought not only an easy and irresistible appeal to the role but also a fully-rounded humanity.  As events go from bad to worse, an agitated Waffles tries to interject himself into the situation only to be shoved aside, at times literally, by the leads.  Burgess makes us wince for the character every time this happens.  And Kevin Lin in the most minor role of them all - “Yefim, a workman” - does a good, solid job at it, especially in the second act where he is called upon to drunkenly sing and carouse with Astrov and Waffles.  He is a wonderful boon companion.
Kevin Lin, Rob Burgess, and Sylvester Foday Kamara (Photo Credit: Chris Bennion)

Peter Crook is an excellent Vanya, full of complaint and whining.  His Vanya is likable and entertaining but seems so small, and never more so than when on one of his self-pity jags.  His clothes are shabby and unkempt.  At one point he puts a tie on but it makes him look worse, like a Russian Willy Loman.  When he brings Yelena flowers, one simply cringes for him.  Langs treats Vanya in a very unique way in this production - specifically, Vanya doesn't leave the stage during the acts.  All the other characters come and go, but not him.  Every time he "exits" the lights change and Vanya merely stays in the darkened areas of the stage, watching the other characters interact.  It adds a haunting quality to the production, as if all these events were memories conjured up by Vanya at a later time.  Also, when left alone on stage some of the other characters will deliver mini-soliloquies about their feelings.  In this production, though, when left "alone" the lights shift again and the characters tend to address their feeling to the silent Vanya.  I found it very powerful.  It was as if Vanya could understand their thoughts even though he wasn't present.  At one point Vanya complains that he could have been another Dostoyevsky.  We seriously doubt that during most of the play, but during these spectral moments of Vanya's we wonder if in fact it shows that he does have the sensitivity to understand the people around him, that he really does have the great soul he imagines that he has. 

If, like me, you've always found Astrov a drab character - a bit of a bore actually - Sylvester Foday Kamara's performance will turn your opinion around.  His Astrov is full of charm and appeal; he's forthright and direct, a man's man.  You understand why all the women have a thing for him.  And you understand why all the men have a thing for Yelena the moment Alexandra Tavares walks onstage.  She's beautiful, lithe, confident -  with just enough aloofness to make her irresistible.  Tavares also endows Yelena with a lively intelligence.  She bitches about things with Vanya and eagerly listens to Astrov talk about the forests.  She doesn't wrap the men in this play around her finger, instead they leap on her fingers and happily form rings around them on their own.  For a play by Chekhov this production is not afraid to throw in a sexual charge.  At one point in the first act, for instance, Yelena leans back on a swing and the moment was electric; she looked like some Gil Elvgren pin-up magically come to life.  Later in the play when Astrov and Yelena kiss it is a hot and passionate embrace, not some restrained nineteenth-century affair.

Sunam Ellis (Photo Credit: Chris Bennion)
Mark Jenkins's Serebryakov is all fool.  One despises him from the start.  He was great.  This is the kind of depiction Vanya would like to see (maybe that's why he's loitering on the stage).  Jenkin's is a wonderful comic performer.  When saying goodbye to the other characters at the end of the play his verbal inarticulateness brought down the house with laughter.  Sunam Ellis is a touching Sonya.  We sympathize with her but we never pity her.  There's a toughness underneath all her nervous energy.  The end of Uncle Vanya belongs to Sonya.  Her speech to her uncle is one of the most powerful and moving moments in the history of theater and Langs has chosen to treat along the lines of the many soliloquies we've already seen.  Only this time Sonya delivers it to us, the audience.  It was a bold move and Ellis pulled it off beautifully.

Kudos also need to go out to Robert Aguilar's lighting design and Robertson Witmer's music and sound design.  They both deepened and enriched the production in striking ways.  One example - in the third act Astrov shows Yelena maps he's made of the region which document the increasing deforestation.  As he goes on painting a dire picture we start to hear - softly, in background - the chirping of birds.

This production is a collaboration between ACTLab and The Seagull Project.  The latter is an endeavor started many years ago to perform the complete cycle of Chekhov's four major plays.  With this magnificent production, that project is now complete.  So let me get on my soap box for a moment and advocate for a new Herculean project for these highly talented people to take on - namely, the full cycle of Henrik Ibsen's major plays.  They've already done the works of one of the founders of modern drama, so why not do another one.  They can call it The Wild Duck Project.   

For now, though, we have an unforgettable Uncle Vanya to enjoy (that is, until February 17th).  It's true that it’s all a big, heaping dose of The Human Condition.  But what keeps it afloat is Chekhov’s ability to depict it all with compassion, humor, and a seemingly bottomless sympathy.  You don’t leave the theater depressed after seeing Uncle Vanya (especially in this production), you leave feeling exhilaration.   Like the works of Sophocles, Shakespeare, O’Neill, and others, Chekhov’s works make us confront our lives and experiences with an honesty which may be bracing and even disturbing at times but is ultimately uplifting.  In great drama, as in the blues, we transcend our suffering through the telling of it. 
Sharva Maynard, Rob Burgess, Peter Crook, and Sunam Ellis (Photo Credit: Chris Bennion)

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Annette Insdorf: Cinematic Overtures

One of the most distinctive film openings in the history of American movies is that of Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977).  Released towards the end of the American New Wave period, it violates so many traditional cinematic norms that it would have been shocking and, literally, unthinkable to previous generations of film-makers and possibly even film-goers.  Its transgressions are many.  First, Allen looks directly into the camera and addresses us, completely shattering the fourth wall.  He will do this repeatedly in the film.  Second, he is overtly ethnic, in his case, Jewish.  For decades Hollywood hid/hides ethnicity and race, but Allen embraces it.  And one of the major themes of the film is what it means to be Jewish.  Third, he gives away the ending, namely, that he and Annie have broken up.  So this is a boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl story.  The old studio heads  - and their successors - wouldn't be fond of that.  And finally, the very look of the shot (Gordon Willis is the cinematographer) sends a message.  Full of tans and browns - even the red in Allen's shirt is muted - it tell us that, yes, this is a comedy, but it's been put together with a level of care and thought normally reserved for important drama.  In other words, the whole movie is right there in its opening scene.  The way a great novelist or composer will take extra effort on the beginning of their works, so too do great film-makers.

And that’s the subject of Annette Insdorf’s intelligent new book Cinematic Overtures: How to Read Opening Scenes.  “Overtures” is the right word.  Just as the overture to a musical or opera sets the tone for the rest of the piece, so, too, does the opening scene of a film.  She doesn’t mention it but some films (Gone With the Wind, Laurence of Arabia, etc.) begin with an actual musical overture playing while a title card “Overture” (how convenient) is shown on screen.  Although that practice has been largely abandoned today, Insdorf notes that some films still use their opening credits sequence to create a literal cinematic overture.  As two powerful examples of this she cites Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, as well as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull featuring a robed Robert DeNiro slow-motion shadow-boxing in the ring while the lush “Intermezzo” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana plays in the background.  (Is it perhaps relevant that both these directors, as well as Allen, are from New York City?)

Insdorf breaks down opening scenes into various types.  There are “Narrative Within the Frame” - think of the single long-shot opening of Touch of Evil or The Player.  Or the first shot and the entire first scene of The Godfather.  There’s also “Narrative Between Frames” - films such as Spielberg’s Schindler List which use editing or montage to start the story or set a tone.  There are films that establish a single point, usually of the protagonist (The Graduate, Taxi Driver), and others which have a collective protagonist (Magnolia, Day for Night).  Another category is “Voice-Over Narration/Flashback” (Sunset Boulevard, American Beauty).  And probably the most interesting of all: “Misdirection” - films whose beginnings deceive us (The Truman Show, for instance).  These categories are of course fluid.  Insdorf puts Truffaut’s Day for Night in the category of films with a collective protagonist but its long opening shot could easily place it among the “Narrative Within a Frame” group.  

But there’s no need to quibble.  Insdorf loves movies, and if her enthusiasm leads her astray from time to time on the cinematic taxonomy, one really doesn’t mind.  This is less a “how to” book and more like listening to a really smart friend go off on the films she loves.  There are insights on practically every page.  For instance, she notes that Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a journey from verticality to circularity (a.k.a. pointlessness).  The film opens with a dizzying shot of Spanish conquistadors scaling precipitous mountain paths; it ends with a shot of Aguirre on his raft - insane, doomed, and alone except for dozens of monkeys - while the camera circles him repeatedly (both scenes are below).  She goes on to observe that Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse, Now (which resembles Aguirre in many ways) borrows that circularity by having a song named “The End” start the film.  Beginnings, endings - what’s the difference? the film-makers seem to be saying; the imperial adventure always winds up in failure and futility. 

Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties from 1975 (another film Insdorf examines) is not only still a criminally under-appreciated film but it also has one of the most unique openings you’ll ever see.  It’s made up entirely of documentary footage of World War II - Hitler and Mussolini shaking hands, buildings exploding, bombs falling from planes - while a voice recites a poem punctuated with the phrase “Oh, yeah.”  In the background a cheesy jazz score plays a popular Italian song.  The poem was written by Enzo Janacci, a singer-songwriter, stand-up comedian, and cardiologist.  This opening scene perfectly encapsulates the irony, anger, and irreverence with which Wertmüller will treat her subject.  It also captures the insanity of World War II.  This is the kind of film opening you would expect from Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, or Günter Grass if they were accomplished film-makers.  Only about four minutes into the film does its protagonist (Giancarlo Giannini) show up - interlaced, at first in black and white, with the documentary footage until his presence takes over and the story begins - and the film transitions to color, too.

Insdorf’s tastes are eclectic; she examines Hollywood hits and art house rarities.  Smartly, she spends the time explaining the movies most of us haven’t seen so we can follow along with her argument.  Many new titles were added to my Netflix list.  Also, she intentionally ignores films from the silent as well as from the classic Hollywood epoch (mid-1930s to mid-1950s).  Her interest is almost entirely in the period of about 1958 to the present.  Prior to then only a few film-makers (Welles, Ford, Hitchcock) had the latitude to begin their films in unique ways.  She and I have similar tastes.  Citing the widely shared belief that 1939 was “the pinnacle of American film history,” she offers the brave dissent that 1974 was a year of equal significance in Hollywood film.  Her evidence: The Godfather, Part 2, Chinatown, The Conversation, Harry and Tonto, Lenny, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Woman Under the Influence, Thieves Like Us, and Young Frankenstein (among others).  Uncited on her list: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Sugarland Express, Blazing Saddles, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Towering Inferno, Fritz the Cat, and The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three.  It was a good year for low-brows, too.

And this brings me to my one complaint with her book.  There aren't many contemporary films which she examines.  Although the book was published in 2017, she seems to be, as am I (and certainly as is this blog post!), a little trapped in the past.  She has interesting observations about films from the 1990s such as The Piano, American Beauty, Fight Club, etc. (though, strangely, she has nothing to say about the incredible opening scene of Scorsese's Goodfellas), but she doesn't comment about many movies from the millennium on.  And that's a shame.  I would love to know what she thinks of the openings scenes of, say, Children of Men, or Birdman, or any of the works of Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson.  Still, this is a minor complaint.  Cinematic Overtures is a thoughtful and outstanding book.  And here's a video - from the now sadly defunct FilmStruck - in which she discusses it.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Seattle Rep: Last of the Boys

On Friday night I went to see Last of the Boys at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.  So bad.  Written by Steven Dietz and set at the beginning of the millennium, Last of the Boys tells the story of Ben, a former Vietnam vet living alone in a trailer in the California desert.  He is visited there by his friend Jeeter, a fellow Vietnam vet.  Jeeter is something of a hippie - long-haired, obsessed with music, always eager to protest, etc.  During Jeeter’s last road trip he picked up a young girl named Salyer and fell in love with her.  She soon joins the pair.  And in hot pursuit of Salyer is her mom, Lorraine, eager to take her daughter away from these two weirdos and get her safely home.  The final character in the play is The Young Soldier, a ghost or a mirage or a figment of Ben’s imagination.  Ben, you see, has a problem.  He keeps having recurrent fantasies in which he believes that he is in fact Robert S. McNamara, US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 and the chief architect of US military escalation in Vietnam.  When The Young Soldier enters, the lights change, and Ben puts on a white shirt, tie, and jacket.  Then, as McNamara, he takes questions from the press or reads statements about troop levels, etc.

This play is a mess.  It certainly has nothing to tell us about Vietnam.  If Dietz finds McNamara an intriguing figure then he should have written a play about McNamara and not a play about a vet who occasionally thinks he’s McNamara.  That doesn’t really get us anywhere.  It’s a truism that many of the boys who served in Vietnam came home with severe psychological problems; putting that onstage in 2004 (which is when Last of the Boys premiered) is hardly original.  In an interview in the program notes Dietz comments that “this play is not ‘about’ Vietnam”; that war is just something he uses “to pressurize the friendships and relationships inside the play,” whatever that means.  But even as a chronicle of pressurized relationships the play disappoints.  The friendship between Ben and Jeeter feels forced.  Aside from the war, they don’t seem to have much in common.  They don't even seem to like each other. Over the course of the play they fight but they make up in the end because, dammit, they’re bros.  And the two women seem to be added for the sole purpose of making this a full-length play rather than a one-act one (which probably would have been better).  All during this play I kept asking myself (as so Americans did during the actual Vietnam War) “What’s the point of all this?” and I too never got an answer.

Sadly, most of the actors also lack conviction.  They seemed to be phoning it in (at least I hope they were).  Reginald André Jackson seemed much too well-adjusted for a vet suffering from PTSD.  Kate Wisniewski was also not believable as the boozy, tough Lorraine.  When Lorraine talks about the life-altering moment when she opened the frig one morning and grabbed a beer rather than the orange juice, it completely lacked authenticity to me - a healthy fruit smoothie would be more her style.  Kevin Anderson gave it his best but lacks the unpredictability and mania to be convincing as Jeeter (and, yes, the character is a bit of a cliché).  Emily Chisholm was a serviceable Salyer.  The only person who really pulled off his role was Josh Kenji as The Young Soldier.  Every time he entered in his crisp and shiny uniform he oozed believability; it was a welcome relief.  Last of the Boys was directed by Braden Abraham.

If, after all I've written, you still want to see this play, you have until February 10th to do so. 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Medieval Monsters

Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders by Sherry C. M. Lindquist and Asa Simon Mittman is an informative, well-written, and well-illustrated book about what people in the Middle Ages thought about monsters and how the artists of the period depicted them (the monsters, that is, not the people).  It’s the companion volume to the exhibition held at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City last year and is based almost entirely on their extensive collection of medieval maps, tapestries, and books.  Especially books.  And specifically “books of hours”, which were devotional volumes containing prayers, psalms, and other liturgical texts for believers to use during the course of the day.  These texts were also beautifully and lavishly illustrated. 

Humans love monsters.  There’s never been an era or a people that don’t have them. Even in our own rationalistic society millions of people are fascinated with zombies, vampires, aliens, and critters like the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot.  Lindquist and Mittman cite the work of Peter Dendle who observed in 2012 that even today “the need for monsters is acute.”  That need has probably never been more acute than in the Middle Ages and that era’s creative use of them puts us to shame.  Monsters were real to people in medieval era in a way that they could never be to us.  For us, monsters are mostly a guilty pleasure.  

Mark the lion
But in that deeply religious time, monsters were not only evil and scary, they were also signs of the divine.  Augustine explicitly states that God creates monster to show how powerful he is, to demonstrate to everyone that only he has the capacity to transcend the laws of nature (which, they believed, he created in the first place).  Thus the gargoyles atop a cathedral were symbols of the power which protected it.  Bishops had dragons engraved or sculpted into their croziers.  There are numerous legends of Christian proselytizers who got skinned alive or who had their head cut off and still went on preaching, sometimes even walking the town with their head in their hands and sermonizing.  This book contains several of those gory illustrations.  Of the four gospel writers, three were commonly depicted as animals: Luke as an ox, John as an eagle, and Mark as a lion.  Matthew was a human, but with wings.  The visuals could get quite freaky, too, as with the green-winged lion-human hybrid of Mark (above).  We don’t do anything like this today.  We don’t depict our presidents or prime ministers as animals or give them wings.  The phrase “lion on the Senate” is entirely metaphorical; if you painted one of them as an actual lion it would look silly. 

God’s power could make anything monstrous, even something as mundane as hair.  Mary Magdalene, for instance, was one of Christ’s followers, present at both his crucifixion and resurrection.  During the Middle Ages she was conflated with the nameless sinful female (a prostitute, actually) who, according to the Gospel of Luke the ox, wiped tears from Christ’s foot with her hair.  “The Magdalene’s body,” our authors note, “thus became a contested site of corruption and holiness, sin and redemption.”  And she became material for legend too.  According to one of them the penitent Magdalene moved to the desert “where her clothes disintegrated and her modesty was preserved only by her luxurious hair” which, being itself touched by holiness, grew to monstrous proportions.  In medieval art loose hair usually meant loose morals.  In the picture below Mary is entirely covered head to knee in hair and accompanied by angels.  Other artists weren’t so decorous, in some depictions a breast or two was allowed to peek out. 

A hairy Magdalene
Another female whose holiness was marked by unusual hair was Wilgefortis, a popular female saint from the late Medieval period.  She also went by the names Virgefortis, Liberata, Uncumber, among others.  These names translate respectively as “strong virgin,” “liberated,” “unencumbered.”  When her father, the King of Portugal, insisted that she marry, the pious Wilgefortis refused, telling him that she had “chosen God for her bridegroom.”  Wrong answer.  Dad was furious.  So she prayed to God to disfigure her, to “take all beauty from her in order to make her resemble him.”  And, lo and behold, the young girl soon sprouted a full beard.  This so enraged her father that he had her nailed to the cross just like Christ.  The painters depicting Wilgefortis’s crucifixion used the same iconography as they did for Christ’s: the cross dominated the picture, Wilgefortis’s head was bowed and haloed in gold, at the top of the picture the heavens opened and God looked down on her, etc.  However, the image below significantly departs from the legend.  Wilgefortis is not nailed to the cross but rather her hands and feet are merely tied to it.  She was the patron saint of, among other things, prisoners and women in labor.  In other words, she was the patron saint for women who didn't like being ruled by men or who regarded marriage as entrapment although, obviously, that could never be openly stated. 

As its title indicates, this book is in three sections: terrors, aliens, and wonders.  Despite its beautiful illustrations, those hoping for an awesome book of kick-ass monster pictures may be a little disappointed.  Lindquist and Mittman are much more interested in showing the full and deep range of medieval thinking about the monstrous.  Yes, there are wonderful pictures of demons and giants, and this book, like a medieval one, is full of strange little critters loitering in the margins, but the authors scope is much broader than the merely terrifying.  In the section on aliens, for example, they document how over time women, Jews, and Muslims were depicted as demons and monsters.  And the section on wonders focuses on the ordinary and extraordinary things which the medieval mind saw as imbued with divine presence.

For instance, a bestiary is a book, almost always illustrated, which collects together information about animals.  They were very popular in the middle ages.  Many of the animals they contain are legendary, and among the most popular of them with illustrators was the unicorn.  According to the "facts" contained in the breviaries, to catch a unicorn one needed to use a female virgin as bait.  Unicorns were apparently attracted by “the sweet smell of maidenhood.”  (Who isn’t?)  Once the beast placed his head in the virgin's lap, he would fall asleep.  At which point the hunters would attack and kill him.  This legend clearly shares many similarities to the Christ story (i.e. virgins, sacrificial death, etc.).  

A licking dragon
Legends surrounded real animals as well. Elephants, for example, were exotic animals during the medieval era but appear frequently in bestiaries.  One common belief about them was that the females give birth to their young in water.  Why?  One thirteenth-century source explains: “…because the dragon is of such an ardent nature that it cannot tolerate water, and if the dragon happened upon the young elephants, it would lick them and poison them.”  (Left)  In fact, there was something of a war on between dragons and elephants in the medieval imagination.  Another belief about elephants was that they were distinctly unlustful creatures.  The males were uninterested in sex unless a female elephant fed them a mandrake root (itself a object of legendary qualities).  This belief, obviously, is a retelling of the Adam and Eve story.  It was believed that dragons, once again obviously, must hate elephants because of their natural chasteness and incorruptibility.  Just as the serpent corrupted Adam and Eve, so too dragons must seek to destroy the virtuous elephant - which is exactly what we see in the picture below (though the dragon doesn't seem to be having much success).
A dragon attacking an elephant

Medieval Monsters, as you can see, is full of fascinating information about what people in medieval Europe thought about God, the natural world, and their own place in it.  A brief review can barely do justice to this outstanding volume.  And finally, because I know that many of you came to this post only because you wanted to see awesome pictures of demons and dragons, and instead all I gave you are illustrations of elephants and women with hair disorders, here are images of some random monstrosities from the book.  Enjoy.