Sunday, August 21, 2016

A TASTE OF HONEY - #829



I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice....”

Morrissey or Shelagh Delaney?

As most fans of the Smiths know, it’s both. Though, those with a big nose who know, know that the lyricist ripped it from the playwright, just as Moz lifted much from Delaney’s texts and nodded to her often. The above lyric is from A Taste of Honey and was embedded in the early Smiths track “Reel Around the Fountain;”  another song from the same period, “This Night Has Opened My Eyes,” not only borrows more lines from Honey, but the plot as well. Morrissey makes no secret of this. On the contrary, his sampling from Delaney, as well as putting her picture on album and singles covers (Louder than Bombs and “Girlfriend in a Coma”) helped drive many a dark youngster to her work. I read the original A Taste of Honey stageplay in high school, and finally found the film version many years later. The vocabulary theft made me predisposed to be a fan.


Shelagh Delaney on "Girlfriend in a Coma"


Rita Tushingham on the Sandie Shaw/Smiths EP

The movie adaptation of A Taste of Honey was released in 1961. Directed by Tony Richardson, it is considered part of Britain’s “kitchen sink” movement, so named not because the filmmakers in that school threw “everything but...” into their cinema, but rather they showed us how folks lived, kitchen sinks and all. Examining the working class citizens as they struggled to get by and potentially change their lives, Criterion fans can see the storytelling style in films as different as This Sporting Life [review], Billy Liar [review], and Victim [review], or even later, we can see how it influenced Ken Loach (Kes [review]) and Mike Leigh.


One hallmark of the kitchen sink films was the appearance of the angry young man (Harris in This Sporting Life, McDowell in If.... [review]--both in films by Lindsay Anderson, whom Shelagh Delaney collaborated with on The White Bus [review]). This makes A Taste of Honey a bit of a stylistic revolutionary, as its protagonist is an angry young woman. Starring Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago, Girl with Green Eyes), A Taste of Honey tells the story of Jo, a teenager frustrated with her life of squalor and limited prospects. Jo lives alone with her mother, Helen (Dora Bryan), a woman with many lovers but never two shillings to rub together. This means the pair moves a lot, running out on one landlord after another. They also squabble constantly, tearing one another down, breaking up and making up because, begrudgingly, they are all they’ve really got.

This changes when Helen meets Peter (Robert Stephens) and decides to remarry. Though Jo is reluctant to finally let go of the apron strings, Peter is a much younger man than his new bride and not interested in having a grown daughter. So, Jo moves out on her own, getting a job in a shoe shop and a new roommate of her own. Also, she’s gotten pregnant by a sailor who has since left to sail the seas.


An unmarried teenager having a child all by her lonesome would have been social scandal enough, but Delaney--who co-wrote the screenplay with Richardson--was a progressive writer whose vision took in all aspects of life in urban Manchester. Jo’s lover, Jimmy (Paul Danquah), is a black man, and her roommate, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), is gay. These facts are both approached delicately. No one comments on Jimmy and Jo being together, but the color of his skin is a factor in Jo’s anxiety about the impending birth. For instance, should she even want to take Geoffrey up on his offer to marry, people will know he’s not the father when they see the child. That’s if the gossips and wags buy their relationship to begin with. Though no one but Jo ever confronts Geoffrey outright about his sexuality, everyone looks at him sideways. They all sense the truth.

Which is always fascinating to see in an older film, since anyone with parents and grandparents born in “the good old days” knows that some members of those generations often tend to pretend that gays and lesbians weren’t around until that demonic disco music magically spawned them. But that’s what art is for--and history books--to show us what many would rather we not see. There’s a reason A Taste of Honey opens with a censorship board certificate indicating it’s only suitable for viewers over the age of 16. Much of the dialogue is frank about things that just weren’t acceptable: sex out of wedlock, abortion, alcoholism. Yet, Delaney avoids pushing a message. She and Richardson just want to show life as they’ve witnessed it and let the audience empathize or reject on their own.


Though Tony Richardson’s generation of filmmakers is often referred to as the British New Wave, their early work has little of the experimentalism inherent in the movies of their French contemporaries laboring under the same name. Rather, the Brits had more in common with the Italians in that realism was more important than style. Hence the director and his cinematographer Walter Lassally (who went on to shoot many of James Ivory’s lesser pictures) filming in the streets of Manchester, inside real apartments, and walking the boardwalk by the seaside. This was an existence that could not be re-created in a studio without adding a touch of glitz, so better to go where it was actually happening. The excursions out into public have an air of documentary, including a trip to the country where the child-like Geoffrey and Jo frolic with elementary school-aged kids. The mountainside expanse emphasizes how small they really are in the grand scheme of the universe (“I’m not happy and I’m not sad”), and the company they keep exposes just how young they are, too. Neither is really in a place where they should be having kids of their own.


It’s a great sequence, actually, with Geoffrey trying to prove he can be the husband and father Jo needs by awkwardly kissing her. The “traditional” roles are reversed with these two. Geoffrey probably feels too much, while Jo doesn’t quite know how to access all that is going on in her head and her heart. Back at their flat, Geoffrey cooks and cleans, while Jo goes out and earns a wage. One assumes it will all go wrong for these two, that somehow tragedy awaits, but A Taste of Honey sidesteps our expectations. Sure, it ends on a down beat, and everything isn’t necessarily okay, but we do leave with the sense that it will be. Lessons are being learned, and these characters will all carry on and get along in some fashion. Some ties bind so tightly, they will never be broken.


Criterion’s new restoration is, I believe, the first time A Taste of Honey has been available on disc in the States. The image quality is remarkable: crisp and clear, with strong blacks and an excellent level of detail. Supplements include interviews old and new, including vintage clips with Richardson and Delaney, and new chats with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin.

We also get a 1956 short film collaboration between Richardson and Lassally, co-directed by Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Made as part of the Free Cinema Collective that Richardson and Reisz formed with Lindsay Anderson, Mama Don’t Allow is a 22-minute documentary that displays the realist roots that Richardson and Co. grew from. Set inside and outside a jazz bar, with cutaways to some of the attendees preparing for an evening on the town, it’s a simple portrait of a particular nightlife. With a live soundtrack by the Chris Barber Jazz Band, including Lonnie Donegan, a.k.a. the King of Skiffle, a successful British rock musician that influenced the Beatles, Mama Don’t Allow is a winning snapshot of a specific scene, giving us a look at music and youth culture before the advent of rock ’n’ roll.


The screengrabs here are from an earlier DVD given away free with the Sunday Telegraph fifteen years ago and not from the Criterion Blu-ray.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Friday, August 12, 2016

INGRID BERGMAN: IN HER OWN WORDS - #828


Late in Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, when director Stig Björkman is highlighting one of the actress' final films, Autumn Sonata [review], he holds on a silent close-up from the movie. It’s a scene where Ingrid Bergman stares directly into the camera, letting an emotional beat wash over her, engaging with the audience in a way that lets us see exactly what she is feeling. It's a great moment of punctuation for the documentary, because throughout Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, the performer's children have noted that her lifelong relationship with cameras, both as the subject and the operator, stemmed from the fact that her father--who died when the Swedish-born star was very young, leaving her an orphan--was a professional photographer. She learned to live by looking at a camera, and she learned to love by the way it looked at her.


Stitching together news and interview footage with film clips, personal photos, and home movies, Björkman has crafted an intimate portrait of an enduring personality, getting beyond the superficial press image or even the standard tribute. Granted access to an extensive collection of artifacts left behind by Bergman, and with the aid of her four children, all of whom share their own memories of their mother, Björkman shows us the star from earliest childhood, tracking her moves from Swedish cinema to Hollywood, and through scandal and triumph. Narrated by Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), who reads from Bergman's diaries and letters to three of her closest friends, the images are enhanced by the subject's own private thoughts. It's the things she maybe wouldn't have shared with interviewers or her family that prove most revealing. For those who have seen Bergman's onscreen work, be it her romantic roles in movies like Casablanca and Notorious [review] or her more artful, emotional work with second husband Roberto Rossellini, the secret to Ingrid Bergman’s craft is made clear: even if she often gave more to cinema than she did her day-to-day existence, she was as thoughtful and tender in here real life as she was in her invented ones.

Bergman also possessed an incredible strength, as evinced by her weathering the public scorn following her leaving her first husband for Rossellini. It seems inconceivable that a private individual would be denounced on the floor of Congress as a bad example of morality, but that's just what happened. Through it all, Bergman was resilient, her characteristic charm never wavering. Perhaps her long fascination and association with Joan of Arc gave her some insight into martyrdom. Whatever gave her purpose, Bergman offered no apologies.


Then again, Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words is careful not to draw obvious connections between movie roles and true events, the way a director might otherwise if this were a dramatic biopic--though Bergman's loves and travels would definitely make for a solid narrative, were someone willing to try. No inference is drawn, for instance, from her choice to star in a light comedy about infidelity like Stanley Donen's Indiscreet [review], despite it being very easy to make a claim that it served as a defiant middle finger to her critics. Rather, Björkman lets the work exist on its own. He's more concerned with his subject’s wandering spirit and how her choices affected those around her. Having been given the appropriate time to deal with things, her children are surprisingly generous, admitting they were as enchanted with her as much as the moviegoing public. Which may be the greatest revelation of all: Ingrid Bergman was no manufactured icon, the woman we fell in love with in the movies was who Ingrid Bergman really was. At times aloof and unknowable, but always seductive, always interesting to watch, and always leading with her heart.


Bonus materials on the Criterion Blu-ray of Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words give us extra glimpses into her life and artistry. Deleted scenes and further excerpts from Bergman’s own home movies, shot by the Ingrid herself on 8mm, add to our knowledge of the star’s life. Perhaps more illuminating for film fans are the two bits from early Swedish films. The outtakes from her 1936 romance On the Sunny Side show her natural charisma. Even more telling, though, is her brief appearance as an extra in the 1932 movie Landskamp, her screen debut. Even as a silent background player, Ingrid Bergman stands out, her eyes finding the camera, and engaging with her public. She’s the only one in the group that you’d ever think would end up being a star, and probably the only one there that even dared to dream it.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purpose of review.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 - #704


Don Siegel's Riot in Cell Block 11 is an interesting motion picture: seemingly simplistic exploitation that reveals itself to be a multi-faceted debate about crime and punishment that sneaks its message in by baldly adhering to the production code even as it pokes holes in every single one of the censors' anti-noir, "crime doesn't pay" strictures. Like 12 Angry Men [review] set inside a penitentiary, it offers a group of differing personalities brought together by a common goal. How to achieve it is something they will never agree on, even as the audience accepts certain outcomes as a foregone conclusion. The aim here is to use story to stir up all these ideas, to inspire different thinking, and to maybe vilify, if not an individual, then the system he represents. 


This is not a plot-heavy movie. Riot in Cell Block 11 does not hinge on a clever scheme or a last-act twist that reveals the ringleader had a different, selfish reason for leading the revolt all along. On the contrary, this is a movie that stays the course. Dunn (Neville Brand, Stalag 17) organizes the breakout with the other maximum-security prisoners because he believes change is necessary--the inmates, for instance, want mail and other pipelines to the outside world--and he doesn't waiver from the stated intention. The drama comes from how much his fellow prisoners agree with his methods, the bureaucratic reaction to what's going on, and how that tests Dunn's resolve and changes what he's willing to do to achieve the desired results.


The ruling counterpart to Dunn is the warden (Emile Meyer, Paths of Glory [review]), a good man strangled by budgets and regulations. He knows he could do better if  given more resources, but once the uprising occurs, his mission is to defuse the situation with as few casualties as possible. And nothing will dissuade him from his task, either. Of anyone, he's the most determined to avoid easy solutions if doing so ensures getting the right one. The deathblow for idealism may come at the end when it's revealed how much he really believes will happen in the aftermath--reality is a harsh beast--but  even then, did he not save lives all the same?


Siegel and writer Richard Collins stack their ensemble with counterpoints and opposites. The warden has Haskell (Frank Faylen, the dad on the The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), a pencil-pusher sent by the mayor to mind the optics and watch the bottom line. He also has the wives of the guards taken hostage serving as his conscience, calling over the telephone to remind him what’s at stake, and a gaggle of reporters serving as Greek chorus, presenting the difficult truths fueling the conflict as so much exposition. On the other side, Dunn has Carnie (Leo Gordon, Buckskin), the muscle who would rather bust heads than negotiate, and the Colonel (Robert Osterloh, The Wild One [review]), an actual war veteran, put in prison through bad circumstance, who can see the outcome of this battle and doesn't care for the strategy or the eventual cost. Through these many voices, we surpass the surface conflict and delve deep into the more difficult nuance of the disagreement. This is about human dignity vs. public image, budget vs. empathy, and maybe kind of about how these guys did bad things even though maybe that shouldn’t matter when talking about their civil rights.

As sophisticated as it may sound, Riot in Cell Block 11 is a ragged B-movie. Siegel begins the picture as a docudrama, complete with newsreel narration, aided by the stark photography of Russell Harlan (Red River). This drops once the riot begins, and Siegel shifts into stoic melodrama. From the sob stories of the inmates--the prisoner with the sick child, the Colonel’s tale of vehicular manslaughter--to the exaggerated villainy of Haskell or Carnie’s mad-dog machinations, Riot in Cell Block 11 is pure pulp. It’s hard to tell if its social conscience is a cloak it wears to get away with showing violent beatings or if the lurid conflict is the capitulation to box office concerns. Both elements weigh equally in the final cut. Statistics may be shoehorned in by the gabby press men, but they are there all the same.


Plus, even if we excise the social message, there is a morality play at the heart of all this. Siegel is looking at how communities function, how the have-nots feel beaten down by the haves, as well as how those same communities fall apart. 1950s politics being what they are, Dunn’s all-for-one speechifying seems a little suspect. While he wants all prisoners to be treated equally, it doesn’t take long before his lieutenants abuse the system he puts in place, or for others to push harder to earn their own advantage. Little is made of race, despite the integrated population; the only hint of any kind of class comes more from an ethical hierarchy. One prisoner is singled out by all others, black or white, as being beneath contempt, and though they don’t say it outright, the coded language suggests he’s some kind of sex offender. 


To be honest, Riot in Cell Block 11 could have used a little more of that inside knowledge to show how the prison really operates. The inmates are all a little too clean-cut. When picking his players, Siegel cast interesting faces, but these are still Hollywood hooligans. Neville Brand is tough without really being threatening. The lack of backstory makes his high-minded intentions seem a little forced. We have no reason to believe Dunn would have really emerged over any of the others as the man with the plan.

Still, Siegel’s production is a lot less earnest than many of the other message pictures of the era, giving it an edge over even work by Elia Kazan or Stanley Kramer. This must have felt like pretty rough stuff right about then, and its more lowbrow tendencies allow for Riot in Cell Block 11 to remain entertaining, even as its still-relevant preachiness threatens to bog it all down. Not to mention the downbeat revelations in the final scene, which all by themselves remind us that very little has changed, and America’s capitalist approach to incarceration just continues to get worse.


Sunday, July 31, 2016

DRESSED TO KILL - #770

That Brian De Palma documentary is bullshit if the director doesn't wake up at the end and realize he dreamed Brain De Palma.” - tweet I tweeted immediately after finishing Dressed to Kill


I want to say I have a love/hate relationship with Brian De Palma but it’s really more a like/hate relationship with a heavy emphasis on kind of not giving a fuck.

My mind is all over the place after finally watching Dressed to Kill, which I remember from its original release, but I was too young to see it. I also remember its opening scene from some random night on cable about 15 years ago, when for whatever reason I did not finish the film. Had I done so, I would probably not be reviewing it now. I coudn’t see it returning to my queue in anything under--well, it would take me over two years to watch every other Criterion currently available first, so let’s say 3 years.


We can even begin with that first scene. If you ever need an object lesson to illustrate the male gaze, it’s this: Angie Dickinson in a shower performing a masturbatory dance in hopes that her husband will notice. The audience for this routine isn’t really the husband, though, who continues shaving, blissfully unaware; it’s the movie-going public, here in our role as peeping tom. It’s also the ticket-buying audience 90 minutes later when Nancy Allen achieves orgasm at the mere touch of the water stream from the same showerhead; the same way De Palma tries to have his cake and eat it, too, by creating a grotesque approximation of the theatrical arena by arranging an unrealistic number of mental patients to watch his villain in the asylum. We have seen the voyeur, and they is us.

The best part, though, is how obvious it is that it’s not really Angie Dickinson’s body, a fact that horny men my father’s age never realized back in 1980 and probably vehemently deny now. De Palma is the king of the fake-out, and that is just the first of many in Dressed to Kill. Some of them are earned (the unexpected arrival in the film’s genuine climax is a pretty great twist); some of them are not (oh, hello, last three scenes).


For those not in the know, here is the basic plot: a bored wife (Dickinson) goes to the art museum and hooks up with a man who seduces her--via a visually clever chase amongst the paintings, no less--only to be murdered in the elevator after leaving his apartment. Liz (Allen), an escort working in the building, stumbles across the murder in progress, and when the police suspect her of the killing, she has to find the blonde woman in trench coat and sunglasses she saw in the elevator mirror--who also may or may not now be stalking Liz. Both helping and hindering Liz are the dead woman’s psychiatrist (Michael Kaine), her son (Keith Gordon), and the homicide detective assigned to the case (Dennis Franz). (The husband, it would seem, is useless throughout.)


As plots go, it’s not much, and really, it’s just a gender-bent Psycho. The whole film, really, is what if Alfred Hitchcock adapted Penthouse Forum. That the nerdy son--a De Palma stand-in who loves cameras and recording equipment--never even makes a move on Liz is kind of ludicrous. So I guess kudos to De Palma for not succumbing to that obvious happening.


It’s not all that De Palma gets right. One can always praise his technique. His use of split-screen, for instance, is both dazzling and efficient, bringing an added layer to the storytelling, juxtaposing two scenes while also linking them (in one scene, he has two characters watching the same expository Phil Donahue episode while otherwise going about their seemingly unconnected business). In these instances, and elsewhere, De Palma lets the action run large, and in the sequences leading up to the first murder, even lets them play without dialogue, enticing the viewer through lush orchestral music and leading us to focus on various details, some of which are clues and others which are red herrings. De Palma and director of photography Ralf Bode also know how to compose a shot so that the foreground and background have two different courses of action, artfully hipping the viewer to certain info about what the varying characters are doing. They also use carefully placed mirrors to create echoes and dualities, the reflective glass being both a storytelling clue and a de fact conscience, depending who is looking at themselves and how.


And if we’re being generous, De Palma seems sympathetic to the trans community, and is progressive for his time, even as he exploits being transsexual for the purposes of plot. It’s easy to see the dangerous clichés he falls into now that a couple of decades have passed, but consider that he never suggests his villain is evil because of being trans; that person’s identity is never denigrated, nor is their identity suggested to be a dangerous psychosis, they just happen to have homicidal tendencies. Dressed to Kill may be problematic, and carries baggage that De Palma wasn’t even likely aware of, but it never suggests that its villain is deviant or wrong just for accepting their own state of well-being, the murders are motivated by some other impulse. And it doesn’t seem sexual either, even if the overall symbology is that in both the case of Dickinson and Allen’s characters, it’s the sexually active women whose lives are threatened. Which, let’s be honest, is a whole other set of problems, and perhaps lends more weight to the notion that De Palma hasn’t really considered the implications of his choices all that much, he just likes blood and sex.


All the skill and good will aside, though, Dressed to Kill is a decent movie, but it’s not a very good one, and De Palma is a proficient filmmaker, but a hack storyteller. Dressed to Kill’s plot is thin, and many of its machinations are contrived to the point of straining disbelief. The narrative meanders, but it holds interest throughout, never entirely tipping its hand toward the solution of its plot ahead of the full reveal. De Palma tries to cover his ass with a denouement where many of the movie’s internal failings are explained, yet it feels like too little too late--especially when the auteur succumbs to the classic “one more shock” blunder. That event in itself is not a bad idea, but the negation of it in the very last scene is. This is De Palma’s m.o., and his regular employment of “then I woke up” endings is easily his worst trait. As it stands, the final scene in Dressed to Kill doesn’t give us one final thrill; on the contrary, it just seems like a director who didn’t really have an ending, so he tacked one on. Not quite the cop-out of some of his other work, like Femme Fatale, but cheap all the same.


Friday, July 22, 2016

THE UNINVITED - #677



I bet ghost stories are one of the most ancient of arts. Probably right around the first time a sentient human died, those close to him or her wondered what happened to the being inside the body, and then wondered if he or she were somehow still around. Add in the element of grief, and the natural desire to have the person that was lost stay near, and it's a short step to imagining every bump in the night, cold wind, or familiar scent is the deceased sticking around.

One can imagine further that it's comforting to the individual who believes in ghosts, to envision an existence where you never really leave, you can have ways to remind folks that you once were alive, goodbye is never forever.

Which brings us to our movie. Lewis Allen's 1944 spook story The Uninvited. Some of these ideas are touched on, at least to a degree, if not explicitly than implicitly. A ghost haunts an old family home on an English cliffside where she died, and the question of why she lingers still is the central mystery of the film. It's unfinished business, but it is it selfish or generous. Is she looking to expose someone, or can she just not leave her daughter?


Such is the story that brother and sister Roderick and Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) stumble into when they take advantage of the too-good-to-be-true deal on the spacious home. He is a musician turned music critic and she is...well, his sister, and they leave London, giddy London, with their dog, cat, and lady servant for a view of an ocean and more rooms than they'll ever need. Once there, Roderick falls for Stella (Gail Russell), the daughter of the specter, probably because she was against her grandfather (Donald Crisp) selling him the house in the first place. (You know how men are...) Stella has an unhealthy attraction to the house, and it has a dangerous sway over her. If she visits, don't be surprised if Stella goes running toward the same cliff where her mom plummeted to her death.

Whether that was an accident, a suicide, or a murder is a riddle that will have to be solved if Roderick and Pamela are going to clear the way for Stella to hang out all the time. Local gossip provides different versions of what went down, but as these things go, each new witness the siblings find adds to what came before, altering the tale just enough to keep everyone guessing. Meanwhile, they must deal with the nightly sobbing of the dead woman and their own skepticism. Roderick believes a spirit is crying in the shadows, but he isn't convinced that séances are real--at least not until the one he joins gets away from him.


The Uninvited is an enjoyable horror movie, even if it's not all that horrific. Maybe in its time it sent shivers down the spine--its ghost is nicely done--but it's so damned genial during its non-spook time, it's kind of hard to go with the chillier moments. Which isn't to say it's not entertaining, or even unconvincing, it's just too polite to be frightening. It's lighthearted and romantic, and there is never any convincing threat or unsettling occurrence. Even the big revelation of what really happened on that fateful day has lost its scandalous edge, social mores being what they are and all.

It's a matter of storytelling, not writing. Structurally, the script by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos (from a novel by Dorothy Macardle) hits the right beats, teasing the facts at the appropriate pace; it's the visual presentation where Allen lets us down. There is not much to separate the haunting scenes from any of the others, it all looks crystal clear and decidedly un-moody. Likewise, the characters don't freak out all that much, they soldier through, keeping calm and carrying on. The whole of The Uninvited is just too damned British and polite to ever unnerve the viewer.

So, The Uninvited is best approached as a sort of gothic romance. Like Wuthering Heights crossed with Topper. The ghosts are real, but not too dark to care.



Friday, July 15, 2016

MURIEL, or THE TIME OF RETURN - #824


Time, time, time...see what you’ve done to me?

Time and its effects play an important role in the films of Alain Resnais. In Hiroshima mon amour, two lovers steal secret hours in order to forget the atrocities of war; in Last Year at Marienbad [review], the past emerges at a most inconvenient time for a couple guilty of infidelity--so inconvenient, they try to deny it. In both films, the past and present seem to run along parallel courses, sometimes converging, sometimes becoming jumbled.

All these things come to bear in Resnais’ 1963 film, Muriel, or The Time of Return, crystallizing what the filmmaker had done before in a dual narrative, depicting both the young and the old as victims of repetitious history. If Hiroshima was about the flames of early romance, then Muriel looks at a romance that has burnt out and sifts through the ashes.


Marienbad star Delphine Seyrig rejoins Resnais for Muriel, playing Hélène, a widow living in the costal town of Boulogne. She runs a furniture store specializing in vintage items, and the shop doubles as an apartment for her and her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée). One could suggest that their home is essentially a storehouse of memories--though largely those of other people. Which isn’t to say they don’t harbor some of their own. Both have secret wounds that haunt them, and Hélène is about to bring some of her worst to the fore. She has invited her lost love, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), to come visit. He is eager to rekindle their affair, but she is more interested in poring over what went wrong. You see, back in the day, Alphonse went off to North Africa to fight in WWII, breaking several promises to Hélène, and never returning to her arms.

As we go, we will learn more about why Alphonse did what he did, and also how Hélène was not exactly the faithful paramour she suggests she was. We will also learn what Alphonse hides now, including the true nature of the “niece” (Nita Klein) who travels with him, and how Hélène has a gambling problem. Meanwhile, running concurrent with these revelations is Bernard’s story. He is freshly returned from the war in Algiers, an experience that has changed him. He is now mostly idle, experimenting with art and film, but also in his own love affair. He evokes the name of Muriel when referring to the woman who has a lock on his heart, but that too is a ruse.



For Muriel, Resnais collaborated with writer Jean Cayrol, who also wrote the commentary for his documentary Night and Fog. Together they craft a tricky narrative, one that, in execution, plays with time in a literal fashion. In some scenes, we see two timelines at once. We may see a street at night, and then see a quick flash of how it appears in the day. We also see moments repeat, one on top of the other, compounding increments using slivers of the whole to suggest the complete action. In a similar manner, Resnais employs quick-cut montages to indicate the passage of time, though if one pays attention, it’s almost as if there is more happening than would be possible in the space allotted. As Alphonse’s overnight trip extends, it seems as if months go by; to listen to dialogue later in the film, it’s merely a week.

This makes sense in a world where Alphonse’s trauma from combat is as fresh as Bernard’s, even though decades separate their tours of duty. We are meant to see the two men as one and the same, Bernard is the young version of Alphonse, the future stands next to the past here in the present. Muriel is also Hélène, the woman left behind by a soldier. All is fair in love and war, but in this case, the latter has turned the former into a tragedy.



Yet, we can also see Bernard’s existential plight as a critique of Alphonse’s. What we learn about Bernard’s time in Algeria has more in common with what would go on in Vietnam over the next decade, a predictive of modern warfare. The horror and pain is real and fresh, and lacking the clean justification usually associated with WWII. By contrast, what we know of Alphonse’s time as a soldier sounds almost sanitized, as if it were fiction--which we can eventually argue maybe it was.

So, too, are all the love stories. They are passionate fictions, a clinging to something that never was. Hélène tells Alphonse that, “I loved you with no help from you.” This is true of all of our lovers. They are pursuing their own concerns in their relationships, and the other half of the equation is practically immaterial. This is why none of the versions of their shared stories line up. It’s not just a matter of perspective, but also participation.



As is to be expected, Seyrig carries the picture. As we would see years down the road in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles [review], she doesn’t really need anyone else on the screen with her--though her co-stars ably back her up. She is particularly good playing off of Thiérrée, whose wooden posture is reminiscent of Martin LaSalle’s meticulously choreographed turn in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. Thiérrée is more operational, while Seyrig is deep in each moment, each emotion. She plays older here, Hélène is middle-aged, but the make-up is casual and not overdone; Seyrig is excellent as the concerned and nervous mother-type. In the first scenes with Alphonse and his niece, when she brings them into her home and feeds them, she never stops moving, putting the needs of everyone else ahead of her own, and thus making her selfish addiction all the more shameful for her.

Eventually, truth outs everyone, and time catches up, and Resnais leaves us both hopeful and unsure. There may be options for a better tomorrow, but it may also just be that the past is repeating once more.



Muriel, or The Time of Return has been available on DVD before, but it’s been a decade or so since the last release, and the new Blu-ray was struck from a recent 4K restoration. The colors are vibrant and the picture is crisp, showcasing the beautiful photography of Resnais’ regular DP Sacha Vierney (who also shot Belle de jour [review]). The disc has several documentary and interview clips, including a 1969 piece with Seyrig and a 1963 chat with composer Hans Werner Henze (The Lost Honor of Katharine Blum [review]), whose ambient score sits in between classical composition and more modern textures, thus expressing the themes of the movie through sound.

Alain Resnais

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

THE PLAYER - #812


My thing about movies that are about movies is that the good ones make me want to watch other movies. If I watch The Bad and the Beautiful, for instance, I’m going to want to chase it with Cat People. Who didn’t watch the opening of The Player back when it was released in 1992 and not immediately go view--or even re-view--Touch ofEvil? Or how about pairing it up with Bicycle Thieves [review]? Better yet, another movie about movies, based on a book about movies, Elia Kazan’s vastly underrated adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Monroe Stahr, the movie mogul in The Last Tycoon, was modeled after Irving Thalberg, whom surely director Robert Altman and writer Michael Tolkin had in mind when they created Griffin Mill, their motion picture wunderkind, as played by Tim Robbins.

And it’s not just that The Player is about movies, it’s utterly in love with them. You get that right from the virtuoso opening shot, which runs without cutting for 8 1/2 minutes (certainly no coincidence), referencing not just Touch of Evil, but The Sheltering Sky and Rope and a couple of other films that pulled off similar feats (this was pre-Tarantino, mind you). There are easter eggs throughout this thing, and not just the cameos by then au currant celebs, but jokes and winks and the careful placement of other films and filmmakers to cue the audience to what is coming next. Be it Griffin walking under a movie marquee as the lights go out on The Bicycle Thief to signal his own oncoming moral dilemma, or the fake-out of Lyle Lovett walking by a Hitchcock photo as an indicator of suspense and a deep visual pun about “the wrong man.” The murder victim declares, “See you in the next reel, pal,” ironic last words befitting the noir plot Griffin Mill will find himself in, as predicted by the posters in his office.



If you’re a cinephile, you’re going to eat this stuff up.

If you’re not, if you’re just a casual movie fan, then no worries, you’re going to dig The Player, too. It’s more than a collection of in jokes and elbowing Hollywood in the ribs. Altman and Tolkin bring an honest-to-goodness murder plot along with all the references. The Player is a movie that aims to be as good as all the other movies it emulates.

In terms of story, it’s simple. Griffin Mill is a hotshot Hollywood producer who appears to be going cold. In the midst of his concerns that his boss is bringing in his replacement (Peter Gallagher), he’s also getting harassing post cards from an anonymous writer that he never called back. When the threats turn scary, Griffin tries to figure out who it is, settling on one writer in particular, David Kahane (played by a young, nearly unrecognizable Vincent D’Onofrio). Griffin tracks Kahane to a revival screening of the Neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief (or Bicycle Thieves) and tries to reason with him. Only, Kahane isn’t the guy--even if he hates Griffin all the same. Accusations cause tempers to flare and a scuffle ensues, leading to the writer ending up dead and Griffin trying to make it look like a robbery.


And he’s successful for the most part. The only problem is, someone saw the two of them together, and the cops (Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett) think it’s suspicious that the movie exec was somehow randomly the last person to see a no-name scribe alive. This line of thinking is only heightened when Griffin starts dating the deceased’s girlfriend (Greta Scacchi). In any conventional script, Griffin would certainly look guilty.

Which, of course, we know he is, but that’s immaterial. The question that lingers, what will he do to get out of it? That’s what any good suspense movie is about. Plus, we know that the real stalker is still out there, and he could strike at any minute. Somehow these things have to converge, right? That’s what the rules of screenwriting have taught us. Not to mention that the fake moviemakers in the movie we are watching keep harping on the need for a happy ending. Griffin Mill has to find his way out of it, or The Player will fail.


That might actually be The Player’s most ingenious bit, how Tolkin builds in all this conventional wisdom about what makes a successful movie--twists, turns, sex, surprising rescues, happy endings--and then delivers on each. It’s the artiest of blockbusters, The Player is. Like if the Kaufman Brothers in Adaptation cracked the code and managed to sincerely make it work. (Which, let’s be honest, it works in Adaptation; as soon as Donald takes over, the film becomes a crowdpleaser.)

Tim Robbins brings an interesting energy to his performance. He is both slimy and trustworthy, at times believably dim and yet otherwise extremely cagey. It’s excellent casting, how we feel about Griffin is probably how a lot of people feel about Robbins, who himself can be seen as a little pretentious and also a bit of a windbag due to his openness about his politics. Yet, he also always seems like a decent guy, he’d probably be pretty nice in person. We like him, but we want to hate him, too.

Fans of Hollywood lore will see other nods to history in The Player, perhaps most deftly in Fred Ward’s fixer character, which resembles MGM’s Eddie Mannix, immortalized in both the films Hollywoodland and more recently Hail, Caesar! There is also some amusing commentary about television actors wanting to be in movies, which seems only ironic and outdated given how so much and so many have shifted from the big screen to cable television for better opportunities in recent years. Tim Robbins himself was last seen on HBO in a bad Dr. Strangelove rip-off.



Television may be the current perceived assassin of big studio pictures, but moviemakers have had many threats before this one--including TV, which was originally supposed to be the death knell of the moviegoing experience back in the 1950s. Most would say the changing of the guard in the 1960s was the true end of Golden Age Hollywood--which is largely what Altman is paying tribute to here. His movie studio resembles the classic system as much as it does the bloated 1980s version he’s critiquing. The Player actually came at a time when independent films were having their heyday, and the Sundance crowd was moving in. I guess these things are cyclical. If the auteurs of the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to the blockbuster, then the indie scene of the 1990s gave us the mega blockbuster. Would there even be a Griffin Mill now, or would he just be a collection of stockholders?

I guess it doesn’t really matter. All we can say for sure is that he’d still be getting away with it. Now more than ever.


Tim Robbins, Sydney Pollack, and Robert Altman on set.