It was a mistake to make a movie with Louise Brooks: she was too beautiful for it ever to work. In Pandora’s Box director G.W. Pabst films her in such a way that puts her on an entirely different level from the rest of the cast. She acts with the camera, never with the other actors. Her features are too striking, too distinctively iconographic – with her pageboy hair, helmet-like in its stillness, she was made to be statuesque – for her to exist on the narrative level; she transcends it onto the plain of mythology (in the way that Barthes describes Garbo’s face as mythological).
Pabst’s name is inseparable from his star Brooks because she is the real art of his films; he put all of his effort into making her an immortal presence on screen. The plot of the film isn’t worth the bother. It is nonsensical on screen, and I do not wish to indulge in paragraphs of ridicule the way Andrew Sarris often does – I get his point quickly and skim until he gets back to his job: criticism.
The other problem with the film is that Pabst is neither Muranu nor Lang, his two major contemporaries at UFA in the late 1920s, and he also seems to be caught in the middle of their styles. Pabst can neither pull off the almost exclusively image based films of Murnau (with only one or two title-cards) or the elegant scripts of Lang. Thus, Pandora’s Box has minimal titles, but weak ones at that, and they are never up to their task. His usual long-shots do not convey much information, and when title-cards are intercut, it is up for grabs as to whose lines they are. If it weren’t for Louise Brooks, there wouldn’t be any faces to remember after the film ends. Then again, if she weren’t in the film, perhaps the other actors wouldn’t have been eclipsed and forgotten so easily.
Right at the core of American Pop’s problems is its uneven writing. It’s premise is weak – all of twentieth century America shown through a family of musicians in 96 minutes, and all done through animation – but writer Ronni Kern gives up on it halfway through the movie. The first half of the movie covers 1900-1950, roughly, in a fleeting, disconnected manner. Then, settling into the 60s and 70s, periods from the Kern and director Ralph Bakshi’s own lifetime, the film begins to lag. The entire second half is dedicated to drugged-out, insipidly surreal Rock and Roll hallucinations; in those twenty years, history seems to have stopped, save for a brief interlude of a few bombs dropping in Vietnam.
But there are deeper problems with the film, as well, especially it’s attempted portrayal of history. Both World Wars and Vietnam are handled in a similar manner; archival footage is crosscut with animated sequences of dancing and music. This dialectic is immature in design, and falsely implicational in meaning. It is no secret that Europe and Asia was ravaged throughout the twentieth century through wars that America was involved in. More than just mere involvement, though, America is to blame for many atrocities. (Hiroshima and Nakasaki are never mentioned in American Pop, by the way.) If the dialectic went no further than this, it could be written off as sophomoric. But what it really does is navigate around America’s own history book and replace it with shallow images of more global conflicts. The Atom Bomb, the Great Depression, Civil Rights, Women’s Suffrage – the list goes on – none of them were even hinted at in the film.
Essentially, Kern and Bakshi have reduced everything to the stereotype or the cliché. When one character wanders around 1970’s Harlem looking for drugs, the only scenery is a couple Superfly’d dealers in red fur. The ghetto doesn’t exist, and neither does poverty or racism. Actually, yes they do, but only as regards White Russians. The stars of the film fled a pogrom in Russia, only to come to America impoverished and without work. They also lead jazz bands backed by black musicians. The more proper title for this film would be America Russian Style.
Kept in a basement well into his adult years, Kaspar Hauser never learned to communicate - he never met another soul save for his keeper. Unexpectedly released one day, Hauser is introduced into a village that does not know him. Over the next few years, Hauser learns to speak, to think, and engages in society in a totally unexpected and original manner. Not taught to accept, he naturally questions, and Hauser is immediately a controversial figure.
Watching Werner Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, I kept thinking about the way that society tried to pin him down. They wrote him off as a potential criminal, a lunatic, a could-be threat, an idiot, an overgrown child – all because he remained to them an enigma, something that couldn’t be pinned down with words and classifications, and that scared them. Kept in that basement for years with bread, water, and a toy horse, Hauser had nothing to question for he knew no else; even the difference between an empty cup and one filled he does not learn until he is abandoned/liberated. Between abandonment and liberation there is no difference, for they serve the same purpose to Hauser: self-reliance. Confronted with the never-ending possibilities of life, Hauser begins to learn unaffectedly. His logic is his own, as it should be; his rationale doesn’t fit with the intelligentsia. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is Werner Herzog’s declaration of non-conformity. Even though Hauser’s attire changes through the film, he always resists the uniform; resists the definition; resists accuracy. As Herzog said in his latest project Grizzly Man, “The natural order of the world is chaos.”
Every shot in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore is replete with onlookers; their gaze is apathetic and bored. They watch everyone, waiting for someone to begin their job, for within the symbiotic machine of movie making, one cannot do their job unless someone else is pulling their end; yet no one seems to be able to start work. This perpetuating indecision finds its genesis with the director, played by Lou Castel, who refuses to direct those who cannot work without direction. Ideally, our actions are to be executed independent from others. Fassbinder’s characters cannot live up to this, their own fantasy concocted to protect them from committing fully to a relationship; they discover that in any relationship there isn’t a balance of power: the scale is always a variable skew.
Fassbinder’s preoccupation with pestilent relationships has been extrapolated here, and it seems as relevant to business as it does to personal relationships. But Fassbinder has always been interested in the relationship of love and money – there is always a logical side to relationships to balance the illogic of passion and whim. With production halted, the movie’s set, a regal palace, is turned into a stagnant oasis. Castel sits at the bar drinking his night away, prolonging any decision as long as he can. Finishing his drink, he smashes the glass and says (something to the effect of), “If I don’t have glasses to smash, life isn’t worth living.” Combustion needs fuel; creative temperament needs an outlet and artists, for Fassbinder at least, may be brilliant, but they are destructive as well.
The ensemble casting has always been a favorite of Fassbinder, who likes to work with microcosmic societies. Aside from Castel, there is Hannah Shygulla, French actor Eddie Constantine, Fassbinder himself, and a handful of colorful actors that might ring a bell from the hoards of other Fassbinder movies out there. But with so many people and so many relationships, Fassbinder avoids possible saturation (and didacticism) and bleeds these themes evenly over all the characters: no one is wasted.
The Western genre, with its roots in the changing landscape of the American west, is the perfect allegory for history’s pervading tempest. Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) picks two old-timers caught on the cusp of change: Joel McCrea, the moralistic loser searching for pride, and Randolph Scott, the side-show gunslinger who’s self worth is as empty as his pockets. McCrea hires Scott and his young cohort to transport gold from the mine to town, while Scott has plans of converting his old friend and running off with the gold. It’s a story of camaraderie, fading glory, missed opportunities, and the disillusionment of living to see your youth wither and amount to nothing. The themes are the same as Peckinpah’s later film The Wild Bunch (1969), but neither film seems to stepping on each other’s toes. Whereas Ride the High Country adds to the mix a young buck, nervy cowboy out to sow his oats, making Peckinpah’s story multi-generational, The Wild Bunch lets the cowboys die off; there are no inheritors, and nothing to inherit.
More than the birth of a new society, Ride the High Country is about the death of an aging one. Modernization is equated with the depersonalization of the West, and the dismantling of a community founded on your self-worth. You are only as big as your name, and there’s no room to rest on your laurels; this extends beyond gun slinging and bank-robbing and into less glamorous territories such as friendship and trust. But Peckinpah makes it seem less cheesy than that. His narrative style is, by this point, well oiled. As Andrew Sarris points out, the film lacks the infinite supply of bullets of so many Westerns, as well as other mythologies so readily accepted. Instead, this film strives for a less romantic realism, mixed with a less saturated vision of violence that would become Peckinpah in only a few more years. In retrospect, one can already feel the Western genre begin to feel its age; it doesn’t slow down, and Ride the High Country is perhaps a peak in the genre, but like the characters that Scott and McCrea portray, they realize they are in a changing society that will never go back to the way it once was.
Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo is more Fellini than Disney. If the intent was to pay homage to Fantasia, so be it, but Allegro surpasses the original in every way. Where Disney's characters are often naïve and classical, Bozzetto’s are perverse and iconoclastic. In one segment, Bozzetto indulges in Bosch to portray a satyr chasing women; if it were a Disney film, the man would be lonely and looking for a platonic mate; Bozzetto portrays the satyr as an old lecher out to rape a young fairy maiden. The film is amoral, something Disney has never understood. To them, a film is a lesson to be taught. Not so for Bozzetto. To hit the point home, Bozzetto dedicates an entire sequence to a man whom everyone copies. The search for identity turns to a fascistic control. Just when our Benito-to-be thinks he has full control, his “army” surprises him: they turn and drop their pants. Morality really makes an ass out of a movie.
Also: but for a few intelligible yammers (a very few that are quite forgivable) there are no talking animals.
Tonino Delli Colli, the magnificent cinematographer, passed away August 17th. He was 83.
He worked closely with some of the world's greatest directors. He photographed almost all of Pasolini's movies, starting with Accatone right up through Pasolini's final film, Salo. He worked with Sergio Leone on both The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, as well as Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, with Louis Malle on his short William Wilson and Lacombe, Lucien, Fellini on Intervista and The Voice of the Moon, and with Roberto Benigni on Life is Beautiful, Tonino's final film.
Lady in the Lake was an attempt to make a first-person film, to accurately convey through film the experience of reading Raymond Chandler’s book of the same name, where the reader encounters everything through Phillip Marlowe rather than just reading about him. In literature, this means that that “he said” is replaced by “I said,” and that it is a little more difficult (and out of place) to have scenes occur where the main character isn’t around. It is much more difficult to transpose onto film. The camera must be the main character, thus Marlowe isn’t so much a face than a voice, except when the camera passes in front of a mirror and there has to be a body there to be reflected (a camera’s reflection certainly wouldn’t do!).
Since the camera is Marlowe’s eyes, it can’t cut back and forth, or cut out time through ellipses – scenes must be played out in real time. Director/star Robert Montgomery does a good job of handling such a narrative technique, one that is more precocious than tried-and-true. The best scenes are the ones that are the most complicated in terms of staging and directing. It is not that they are merely flashy, but that they fully realize the potential and difficulty of the first-person camera.
The use of mirrors, particularly, requires quick, subtle editing. The use of a real mirror would reflect the camera, so while the camera pans from a girl, for example, to a mirror, there must be a cut while the girl and Marlowe step inside an empty mirror frame. While the camera pans away from the mirror, another cut must be made, as well. If the editing seems a bit obvious nowadays, it doesn’t deter one bit from either the story of the effects they were reaching for. More than forgivable, it is admirable.
The downside to the film is the stagy acting. Since the actors are acting with a camera, rather than an actor, there is an inherent monologue quality, as though they were reciting lines rather than performing a scene with other actors. As an aside, characters in film noir never seem too sincere, but in this film I feel it is even more drastic and noticeable. One scene in particular is so hammy that you could cut it, if the knife were sharp enough: the bad cop is about to shoot his girlfriend who is wanted for murder. She throws up her limbs and strikes the pose; he shoots; her arms mechanically jitter back and forth like a robot; finally, after a fittingly tragedian death, she stops moving, but not before tragedy turns into farce.
Something I didn’t mention before is the music. It is quite uncommon for its time both for its sparseness, and because it is primarily choral. The subdued and atmospheric quality of the singing is ethereally creepy, and separates it from the melodramatic symphonic scores that dominated films of that era.
Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire is definitely a subversive film, but I can’t tell to what? By telling the story of an anti-Semitic sergeant who murders an innocent vet because of his Jewish heritage, is he exposing the sordid sides to our military? Or, by emphasizing the military’s quick reflexes in bringing a falsely accused soldier to innocence and bringing justice to the guilty party, is Dmytryk only adding fuel to the military’s propaganda bonfire?
Robert Ryan is clearly the highpoint of the film. Violence, for Ryan, isn’t an outward emotion, it is something inward that is projected, it has to come through your eyebrows and your elbows, not just your fists and your words. His face is unsettlingly calm, his limbs almost mechanical, and his composure sure and unrevealing: the epitome of militaristic professionalism. His perfection exudes the façade it seeks to hide. Never given the opportunity to be the hero, Ryan was able to perfect the role of “villain” even when the scripts were deficient (as in Crossfire). He doesn’t rest on dialogue and screen-direction, he makes acting something deeply personal, in the process wresting the character from the writer/director, and making it truly a creation of the actor. For this reason, many of Ryan’s character exhibit certain similarities; needless to say, they are always well acted, and always make the films a worthwhile venture.
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) Written and Directed by Miranda July
With all the stories going around about the new IFC Theater’s labor disputes (they refused to hire union projectionists), I expected it to be another corporate Turkish bath, with large ladles of butter waxing me anesthetized while scuttling quarters out of my pocket. On the contrary, it was one of the most pleasant excursions to the theater I’ve had in years, and the large, blue cushions – these aren’t chairs, mind you – make you wish Loews used their money for furniture rather than a fifth concession stand.
For the record, the IFC Theater has only one concession stand, and it is rather small. But, they still do charge three bills for that small drink.
You know, I really walked out of that theater optimistic for the future of the movie-theater, because it was the first time I had a taste of what it would have been like to see a movie thirty years ago: there were two unannounced shorts before the feature. So unannounced that both times I thought they were the start of the movie I bought a ticket to, Me and You and Everyone We Know. And what good opening scenes they would have been.
The first was an animated short was called Garden of Delights, and was made by Jeff Scher. The drawings are so archaic, so primitive that they look like sketches strewn together to form a demo for a later project. Flashing on the screen are inconsistencies in the background, a British flag, a stamp, or a newspaper clipping, while the main action plays out smoothly. The deliberate roughness of the animation is refreshing when compared to the CGI gloss of so many mainstream animated features, and it allows you focus more clearly on the impressionistic kinesis of the images.
When John C. Reilly appeared on a street corner, filmed in black and white, I immediately thought this was the opening scene of Miranda July’s film. Actually, it was a short film she wrote (which was directed by Miguel Arteta). Reilly is conducting a survey; he wants to know, Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody (also the title of the film)? First, a woman is pretty sure she is. Second, a man is ultimately positive that he is not. Reilly, perhaps out of pity, offers the man an orange. Mr. Unloved takes one and asks for two? His wife would like one. Then, he asks for three – perhaps not for anyone in particular, but just because he’s wandered upon a good deal. Unloved as though he may be (but still in a relationship on good enough terms to share fruit), he seems optimistic and unconcerned with the present. Either he doesn’t care that he isn’t anyone’s favorite person; more likely, he is beyond such confidence issues.
It is interesting that July wrote such a character, as the ones in her feature length, directorial debut Me and You and Everyone We Know, are anything but assured about the future. They are unsatisfied with the present and unsure about the future. They seem to share a particular neuroses with characters found in Woody Allen’s films – they are a tad compulsive, somewhat anti-social and irreversibly neurotic, and this is where their charm comes from.
Whereas Allen’s characters are often caught in a never-ending present tense (never able to foresee the future) and haunted by the past, July’s characters are like subjunctive verbs. They are always looking at the future, both doubtful of what will come, but hopeful that something good may come along too; they are never aware of the present. This is best described in Sylvie, a pre-teen who is preoccupied with creating her dowry. She fills it with kitchen utensils bought under the presumption that they will not go out of style in twenty years.
The rest of the story is blanket-like: it fits nicely in your lap, but its impossible to count all the threads. Like Magnolia, it is a collection of characters whose lives intermix fleetingly, yet they all affect one another. I will mention two characters in particular, Richard, a recently separated father who works as a shoe salesman, and Christine, a cabbie for the elderly/artist seeking exhibition/wandering young maiden looking for love.
While the acting is very good, the zealous direction from July can undermine the understated performances. Example: after a jokingly unemotional, purely aesthetic discussion on art and digital media, July cuts to a young boy staring at a computer. There is a screensaver of the universe, of planets slowly turning. It is a totally unaesthetic, energy saving device, but the boy experiences so much emotion through it. The scenes form a telling dialectic, but the irony overkills the point.
Another scene finds Christine on her way to find Richard at the shoe-store, but he is speaking to his wife (they are separated). From across the store, however, it looks as though they are lovers, and Christine jumps to conclusions and tries to sell the wife a talking picture frame (it says “I love you”) before leaving the store. Cut to her in a car repeating, “Fuck” this or that. She then scribbles, “fuck,” on the inside of her windshield.
Her directing is overly emphatic, and often it exaggerates the otherwise meaningful expressions within the film.
Related to this is the permeating search for something profound. The typical ending to scenes is a slow zoom-out while the characters stare at the camera: a moment of silence that, like the directing, drives home a point so hard that it breaks through the back of the garage and runs over the dog. July should be more content with her characters’ discontentedness; profundity rarely accompanies overstatement, as her film shows.
During the film, these quirks bothered me much more so than now (a visit to the IFC bathroom, complete with a moat-like basin to collect the water from the faucet, certainly excited me, as well). But I think the main reason that I can’t seem to dwell on the faults is the last scene, a perfect example of the unexpected charm and cuddle-awe Me and You can offer.
Richard, preparing the house for a visit from Christine, tries to dispose of a framed picture of a bird by throwing it in some bushes. Christine arrives and cheerfully suggests trying a different bush. They both agree that it doesn’t work there either (these “games” can either be drudgery or uplifting – here, I find them the latter). Then Christine sees a tree across the yard. The painting fits, and they decide to leave it there. The final shot is a fade-out of the painted bird with the real branch in front of it. Reality has breeched the art. Even if the message of the shot makes you wince, the way it describes the preceding scene seems justly fitting.
Certain essays have been removed for the moment and are being re-written. Expect them back soon. Expect more in the future - I will make the effort to keep up with what I have seen, rather than picking and choosing as I do now.
Watching Jonas Mekas' three-hour, home-movie epic Lost Lost Lost (1973), I was confounded. I didn't enjoy watching it at all, but I do think there is an undeniable depth to the film that makes it important. The footage spans fifteen years, from 1949 through 1963, as Mekas and his brother Adolphas move into their first apartment in Brooklyn. They are Lithuanians living in exile, so says Jonas in the narration, in exile because they have no roots. This film, then, is about making those roots, finding companions, entering communities, and becoming familiar with your land.
Its historical aspects are the most memorable: Williamsburg in 1949, with its multi-story strata of clotheslines and dirty sheets; Times Square in the early 50s, with recording booths where you can put your voice on vinyl, political activists pushing disarmament (the slogan was, “USA USSR BOTH SIDES WRONG”); an early 50’s Stonybrook picnic, as banal a scene as ever that could be anywhere; an elevator needle indicating which floor it is on. For the most part, the footage is of people living their life.
The latter half of the film concentrates less on activity and environment and more on a camera’s mobility. Repeated, jerky zooms (in and out, in and out) and figure 8s (as well as footage of the cameraman doing those figure 8s) are now the focus of the film, and they go on for almost an hour. Avant-garde movies have the intrinsic disadvantage that most of them, at some point, cease to be revolutionary and settle into oddity.
What Mekas seems to be doing is shoving in our faces something both extremely familiar yet drastically unfamiliar. These images are of our lives, the commonest moments in the most likely of places. We sit, we stare (this is, of course, forgetting about those moments in Mekas’ film where a couple imitates Tarzan and Jane, though I’m sure some people do that to) – there is nothing extraordinary about what is in these images. So why do we feel so bored and lost in these images? We know the context, yet the fact that they belong to someone else makes them seem foreign. Not that I think Mekas has a solution, or even a discernable problem that needs fixing, but I do think that he has tapped into a natural paradox in our lives.
Mekas touches on this during one of his narrations. He says that the audience wants him to provide abstractions, but that he won’t give in. Abstractions, for Mekas, are names, jobs, ethics, and morals; in lieu of all that, he provides a face, an attitude, and a place. One can almost sense some of the Beat mentality (as regards middle-class conventions) coming out, and it wouldn’t be that far fetched, as Allen Ginsburg, LeRoi Jones and Frank O’Hara pop up in some of the footage.
The weakest part of Mekas’ film is that it does drag on, but I’d be pressed to say, “cut here” or “take this segment out.” Any of the footage seems as important to the film as the rest, any just as replaceable. Ideally, the form should be equally important to the content: they should be appropriate towards, as well as dictate, one another. The greatest of films find that the two are inseparable, and that it would be foolish to discuss them as separate parts. That no particular scenes dictate the message of the movie implies that it is the form the film takes – the home-movie – is most important.
One doesn’t watch Winter Soldier; primarily, one listens. But, there is also that languid, searching stare that can only come when one has truly stopped watching and have begun to pay attention.
In 1971, a group of Vietnam veterans were seated in a Howard Johnson’s in Detroit for a landmark public confession of the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Some of the soldiers spoke of war crimes they had seen committed, others of crimes they had committed themselves. All their stories had one thing in common, however: the unspoken acceptance of these horrors that had, up until then, gone unchallenged. Their stories lose impact when they are transcribed in words, especially the prose of a young man like myself who has never had to live through such times. Without the footage of their unflinching faces recollecting these atrocities, remembering stories spontaneously – even more brutal is how they were desensitized to where they could actually forget…without these, Winter Soldier does not exist.
Winterfilm Collective, the group behind Winter Soldier, has essentially created an anti-movie. It was the anti-thesis of everything cinema had evolved to. The semblance of a master creator (an auteur) was completely gone: no narration, no imposed ideology, no interviewer; even the camera lacked a presence. The shots were empty of technique, and existed only to capture the faces of those who spoke. Some shots would go on for several minutes, never adjusting even the focus, as a soldier broke the bond of silence and told the story of what was really going on in Vietnam. This un-interrupting camera is the pinnacle of non-judgmental trust.
In a recent interview with the filmmakers, someone blurted out that the black-and-white film stock used had been given to them for free since it had expired. It wasn’t so much an apology for the grainy look, but one of those providential stories about low-budget films that are so fecund in the field. Another blurted out that the film was never intended to be shown in a theater – it was supped to be a traveling film for the veterans for when they spoke. Even that would be contested by some of the filmmakers – they looked at it not so much as a project, but as a social duty, to be there when these people said something that had never been said before.
The lack of formalistic gloss in Winter Soldier makes for a non-analytical experience that is simple in its goal – to listen – and penetrating with its results. The film accomplishes technically what it set out to do – to record these testimonies and let the veterans speak for themselves. Never once do you get the feeling that the filmmakers are in control of what is being said; that they are never felt can only be attributed to the natural state of submission and awe that overcomes spectators when there is truly something worthwhile to be listening to.
Here is a short review of Tony Takitani by Tereza Brdeckova. Its short size decieves the eye at first, for there certainly is a depth of understanding to this piece. Good, concise writing. A reccomended read (as well as watch, if you can find the film).
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.