Sunday, May 22, 2016

BARCELONA - #807


I can’t imagine a more withering critique from a Whit Stillman character than Fred, the caustic American patriot in Stillman’s 1994 film Barcelona, realizing that the Spanish partygoers he’s with won’t dance because they consider it too early in the evening. To combat this ridiculous revelation, Fred puts on a limbo record and sets up a pool cue to serve as the stick everyone is intended to shimmy beneath. To say it doesn’t go down well would be an understatement.

Stillman’s second film in many ways could be seen as a sequel to his first, Metropolitan [review], even though they don’t quite share any of the same characters. The three movies in Criterion’s A Whit Stillman Trilogy are a thematic series, exploring different pockets of life in the 1980s. Barcelona, which is the middle film in terms of release but more likely the third in terms of the narrative timeline, breaks the tradition set by the others by not just taking place in Spain, but the American transplants who are visiting there, Fred (Chris Eigeman) and Ted (Taylor Nichols), are from Chicago rather than New York. Not that it matters in Stillman’s world. Absent of accent or dialect, the cousins are two pieces of the same upper crust that Stillman bakes for all his movies.


The movie begins with Navy man Fred arriving at Ted’s Barcelona flat on an advance mission to prepare the way for the arrival of his fleet. Set near the end of the Cold War, the visitors must face political unrest and anti-American sentiment. Ted is a salesman who has been living and working in Barcelona for a few years. He is acclimated to the scene, running in an international circle that mostly deals with foreign business, hanging out with women who present at trade shows (never was quite sure what that meant). Recently heartbroken, Ted is trying to live a religious-fueled life, theorizing that much of the failure of love in Western civilization is down to our obsession with physical beauty.

As a pair, Ted and Fred could easily be Jack and Nick from Metropolitan, with Nichols once again playing the neurotic thinker and Eigeman his sarcastic foil. Fred takes his job seriously, but little else, and quickly skewers his cousin’s philosophy while simultaneously sapping some of the vanilla out of Ted’s game by telling the ladies Ted is an S&M daddy with a leather fetish. Ted’s own commitment to his beliefs is ruined shortly thereafter, when the so-called homely girl stands him up and sends her pretty friend Montserrat (Tuska Bergen) in her stead. Ted falls for her, and gets serious fast--though their dating is complicated by the fact that Montserrat is in an open relationship with a reporter (Pep Munné) who not only is obsessed with beauty, but also American vulgarity and conspiracy theories. He believes Fred is a C.I.A. agent.


Barcelona is light on plot, but as you can tell, heavy on story. The episodic script follows the cousins over a month or so, focusing on their social life and their mishaps as strangers in a strange land. Unlike Metropolitan, which tracks one outsider infiltrating a small group, the leads here are outsiders in a much larger venue, with no real potential to fully assimilate. Amusingly, Stillman juxtaposes Fred’s boorish behavior with the bruised sensitivity of proud Americans who just can’t understand why everyone doesn’t think their cool. The way the two men get along with their Spanish lovers and their friends is the source of Barcelona’s humor and drama in equal measure. The separation is even evident in acting styles. The American’s are far more caricatured, the Spaniards more natural. (Including a pre-Mighty Aphrodite Mira Sorvino, wholly immersed in her role as a Barcelona girl who strikes Fred’s fancy.)


More important that the cultural divide, though, is the relationship between the cousins, which has vacillated between love and hate since they were kids. Ted can’t handle Fred’s humor, and believes him to take advantage, regularly borrowing without asking permission or returning what he took. Yet, they are also the only family they have and will stick with each other when it counts. Their realization of this--and where the two boys playing around overseas have to finally try to be adults--comes after a few misconceptions about Fred’s real identity leads to him being shot. Honestly, Barcelona suffers after this story turn and never really finds its balance. While the first 2/3 of the movie is fairly footloose and fancy free, the final third tries for a gravitas it never quite lands, complete with a pat coda that comes off as wholly unnecessary. Like the indie director was trying to placate his new corporate bosses.

Still, that first hour or so is what will draw you back to repeat viewings. In my write-up of Metropolitan, I compared Stillman’s creation of a self-contained world to that of Woody Allen’s, but I think with Barcelona there are more comparisons to be made between the two auteurs. Beginning with the simple credits (lettering on a black field, traditional music) and carrying through the light filmmaking approach--there are no zooms, and only the subtlest of camera movement--one can’t help but think of some of Allen’s more recent European-set movies, including Vicky Cristina Barcelona [review]. Ted and Fred could be the usual Allen stand-in cleaved in two--though, one would never mistake the writing for Woody. Stillman’s comic tone is far more droll.


Also like those recent Allen films, Barcelona seems more like a lark rather than one of Stillman’s more considered efforts. Which isn’t to suggest he didn’t take it seriously, but more that he maybe let the process take him where it would rather than bearing down on a greater meaning or story. It’s a carefree vacation abroad, with the extraneous philosophizing being merely a pretense. That stuff is the jazz that Fred so abhors, and we’re all really here to limbo.



Saturday, May 21, 2016

METROPOLITAN - #326


Whit Stillman released his first film when he was nearly 40: Metropolitan, an erudite, witty portrait of New York rich kids nearly half his age. That was in 1990.

I graduated high school in 1990. If memory serves, I saw Metropolitan sometime in my first year at college. Its appeal for me was similar to the appeal of F. Scott Fitzgerald or the portraits of the upper class in Vanity Fair magazine (which I particularly like to read for when it all goes wrong and some millionaire has to cover up a murder). It has a voyeuristic draw. I am the outsider with my face against the glass, or peering over the fence. Or, in the cases of The Great Gatsby and Metropolitan, I am Nick Carraway or Tom Townshend: the outsider invited to crash the party.


Metropolitan’s Tom is played by Edward Clements, a first-time actor who, interesting bit of trivia, went on to become a preacher in Canada and never made a film again. For the majority of the cast, this little examination of manners and morals was their only acting work, adding not just to the movie’s indie cred but also its sense of realism. These are not actors with pre-formed personalities. Even the ones who would go on to do other things, like Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols, we know mostly from the other movies they made with Stillman. Like Woody Allen before him, Stillman is telling a New York story that is very much contained by his own worldview--urbane, dry, knowingly self-involved, and totally enticing.


Stillman’s story takes place over the course of one winter break and follows a group of well-to-do college students from party to party, though focusing mostly on the after parties, when the rich boys and the debutantes drink, play cards, gossip, and wax philosophical. Tom joins this group by sheer accident. He is leaving the same soiree as his soon-to-be new friends, and they mistake him for having dibs on the taxi they want. In truth, Tom can’t afford the cab ride and intends to take public transportation home. The other kids completely ignore his explanation, however, and rewrite his narrative for him: he was getting in the cab, they can all share, and he might as well come to their friend Sally Fowler’s house.


It’s a great example of how the privileged operate. How they perceive the situation must be true. This is perhaps the most pronounced theme of Metropolitan. To these spoiled students, perception is everything. Whether it is judging an experience they never actually had or fretting over their reputations, how they look at the world and how it looks back at them is paramount. Maybe it’s unfair to lay this on them because they come from money, because as we’ll discover, Tom, the would-be poor boy and socialist who is too good for such social events, is no different. He hides his family background until the situation requires a revelation, and he professes to prefer reading literary criticism to actual literature. “You don’t have to have read a book to have an opinion on it,” he said (and thus predicting the internet). He is no better than the people he criticizes, and he also falls quite easily into their lifestyle.


The literary discussion Tom has mainly centers around Jane Austen, and Mansfield Park in particular, a book described in the film as being about the morality of a group of children putting on a play. The comparison here is obvious, as we are watching not just a fiction (Tom hates fiction because he knows someone made it up, it never happened) being acted out by a group of young people, but a fiction about a group of young people whose whole social interaction is its own kind of performance. It’s all about your tux and your dress. (Stillman, of course, would go on to release a Jane Austen adaptation this year, Love and Friendship, only his fifth film, and a very good one at that; it’s what inspired me to dig back into his earlier work.)


Amidst all this conversation, we also get to peer in on the personal dramas that affect each participant. The Mansfield Park debate, for instance, is actually part of the flirtation between Tom and Audrey (Carolyn Farina), a gamine who has a crush on the ginger-haired intruder. Audrey is the nice girl, arguably pure of heart, and Tom’s treatment of her gives us our clearest indication that he is not the staunch idealist he would pretend to be. In fact, he’s rather judgmental, letting his preconceived notion of what the rich kids are like color how he interacts with them. There is also an irony to how quickly he gloms onto the story Nick (Eigeman) tells about another trust-funder who treats women badly. Tom’s behavior may not stray into the date rape allegations Nick contrives, but he is callous to Audrey’s feelings. In fact, the whole group lacks any empathy, for the most part. Their selfishness is in wanting their problems to matter above all others. Thus, Tom’s mistreatment by Serena (Elizabeth Thompson), a girl with a boyfriend at every Ivy League school, is tragic to him, but he never gives a thought to how it affects the other boys in her pen-pal chain, much less Audrey.


On paper (or, I guess, your screen), I imagine my descriptions of Metropolitan make it sound insufferable. Why would anyone want to watch a bunch of spoiled college students blowing smoke up their own asses, like some kind of cinematic equivalent of a Vampire Weekend record? Well, that’s the charm of Stillman. Like the aforementioned Nick Carraway’s narration of Gatsby, Stillman’s own storytelling is a wonderful mix of genuine affection and gentle disdain. His humorous writing serves as a self-critique. He is not afraid to let his characters sound ridiculous, even as he forgives them since they are so incredibly earnest about it. It’s basically the core of all his movies, showing the self-absorbed slowly become more aware of the world around them, eventually stepping out of their comfort zones to get on with life. Eigeman is always the quintessential Stillman hero/rogue, in that he believes the bullshit most of all, even while affecting an air of indifference. He’s obnoxiously charming, and at least here, the guy who is pretty much exactly who he says he is. (See also Greta Gerwig’s well-meaning buffoon in Damsels in Distress [review]. Given her love of dance crazes, she’d surely dance the cha-cha-cha with Nick.)


For much of the group, their changes require them stepping away from the cliques. Sally (Dylan Hundley) and Jane (Allison Rutledge-Parisi) find other men to date; Nick leaves to visit his family. The optics change, as well. While most of Metropolitan takes place inside New York apartments, the final scenes force Tom and Charlie (Nichols) to leave the familiar, acknowledge how helpless they are (neither can drive), and essentially try to have a real experience. The fact that it’s one they concoct to defend Audrey’s honor, cobbled together from various white-knight scenarios straight out of the sort of books Audrey would read, right down to Tom’s comical derringer, turns out to be a sly send-up on Stillman’s part. These boys have a lot of growing up to do.


Yet, there is real change by the time credits roll. The final scene of Metropolitan is no longer Tom walking alone, as he tried to do the morning after the first party, but he and Jack and Audrey having to figure out how to get home from the Hamptons, hitchhiking on the side of the road. It’s the same light-of-day camaraderie we will see at the end of The Last Days of Disco, when the main cast leaves the nightclub and heads off to whatever is next. In this fashion, Whit Stillman’s films are always about characters in a state of becoming--perhaps not a strange view for a man who suddenly started making movies as he approached middle age to adopt. It’s a bit Sherwood Anderson, this shift from sales and advertising to the role of artiste, but for Stillman, it’s a shift that paid off.




 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

THE NAKED ISLAND - #811


Years before he turned his camera toward making the unsettling, atmospheric horror movies Onibaba [review] and Kuroneko [review], Japanese filmmaker Kaneto Shindo undertook far more grounded subject matter in the 1960 release TheNaked Island. This neorealist paean to the tough life of one rural family is an unflinching study in the drudgery of survival, a year in the life fashioned into a graceful narrative about struggle and failure and finding success simply by sticking together.

Shindo’s screenplay focuses on a family of four: a father, a mother, and two young sons. One is old enough to go to school, the other is not. The school, like most everything, is across the waves on another shore. So isolated is the family’s island, in fact, that they have to sail to a different island just to fetch fresh water. This trip is made several times a day, to get water for the family meals as well as to feed the meager crops that grow on the hillside that oversees the homestead. Theirs is not an abundant life out there on the ocean. Catching a fish is a cause for celebration. Literally. In one divergent sequence, the family goes to the mainland to sell a fish one of the boys caught and have a day out. With a little money to burn, they dine at a small restaurant and ride a funicular: simple joys hard earned.


Hardship is the key here. Shindo wants to show us how rough the family has it and how it takes all four of them to get by. He approaches the narrative in the manner of a documentarian, avoiding any editorializing, and outside of one tragic moment, eschewing any large drama. There are only small occurrences. A spilled bucket elicits a slap, but then husband and wife (played by Shindo regulars Taiji Tonoyama and Nobuko Otawa) pick up the pieces and carry the remaining bucket jointly. Not a word is exchanged between them.

In fact, hardly a word is exchanged in the entirety of The Naked Island. 40 minutes pass before we first hear a human voice, and even then it is children chanting and singing. There are only a couple of lines of dialogue in the whole picture. Again, it’s about those small occurrences. Shindo’s intent is to use the “silence” to focus us on the everyday action of the family’s routine, and by stripping away all else, imbuing those actions with added importance. In the absence of distraction or convenience, work is everything. If the routine is broken, if they fail to fetch the water, if they fail to maintain the small patch of land that sustains them, the family will have nothing.


Though this may make The Naked Island sound tedious or claustrophobic, the film is anything but. Shindo artfully gives the story scope by showing us more than the immediate area around the individuals. He regularly pulls back to show us the island and the ocean, the natural splendor that surrounds them. There is an irony here, in that what we see might resemble paradise, but it’s far from a vacation spot for those who live there. They aren’t sending out postcards of their shoreline. Accompanying Shindo and director of photography Kiyomi Kuroda’s camerawork is Hikaru Hiyashi’s evocative music. The Death by Hanging-composer adds an elegiac touch to some of the scenes, and a melodic counterpoint to others. His rhythms lend a sense of ceremony to the daily ritual.


As difficult as life on the island may seem, one can’t help but think that Shindo intends to draw some kind of comparison to modern living. How less predictable are most people’s lives? How many people don’t leave for work at the same time each day to perform the same tasks day in, day out? It seems only the rewards are different. Yet, it’s hard to see The Naked Island as any kind of indictment of modern excess. On the contrary, Shindo does not evoke any romantic notion of a simple life. I am not even sure we can intuit any kind of existential satisfaction in a job well done. By the end, the father is as inscrutable as ever, and the mother even harder to understand. As the only character to outwardly show her dissatisfaction--be it in the momentary respite she finds in the bath, or a breakdown she suffers in the movie’s penultimate scene--we can only guess as to what is going through her mind as the movie ends. She lowers her head so the brim of her hat shields her eyes, and we are left to read the bottom half of an expression that reveals very little. There isolation continues, and though they have each other, we must wonder if it is enough. When they go to town, they are outsiders, but yet the boy who goes to school has found community, making him part of something larger and, arguably, more meaningful. Is it possible that Shindo is really telling us that no family is an island?

I suppose that’s for each of us to interpret and debate, and it’s part of what makes The Naked Island so intriguing.


Though, were you to want to know more, you can certainly dive into the usual extras, including two features with the director himself: a 2011 video interview and an older commentary track featuring both Shindo and Hiyashi. Other extras include actor Benicio Del Toro (Traffic [review]) expressing his love of the film, and also a bit from film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit.


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

Sunday, May 1, 2016

IN A LONELY PLACE - #810

Note: The screengrabs here are from an earlier DVD release and not the Criterion Blu-ray being reviewed.


Oh, the sick mind of a writer. And nothing so perverse as believing your particular brand of sickness is special.

I’ve been fascinated by In a Lonely Place for some years now. Film noir at its best, In a Lonely Place is a cynical, hard-bitten favorite. So much so, I wrote about in my most recent (currently abandoned) novel, as there are similar themes to be had in both. Here, let me cut and paste the pertinent section from the rough draft, which explains some of what the movie is about: 



When I was done with Leandro, I drove over to a revival theatre in Santa Monica where they were showing an old Humphrey Bogart movie. In a Lonely Place, 1950, directed by cinema himself, Nicholas Ray--a dark-side-of-Hollywood picture. While I was waiting for it to start, eating a box of Jordan almonds, I wondered what I would do next. Leo drew the line at giving me Adam’s address. He said that didn’t pop up right away, he’d have to go farther into the system, and that would leave fingerprints. I would have to find Adam some other way. Last I heard of him, after Brianne left him and we moved here and the divorce, he was still in Oregon working for that computer company. I didn’t suppose it would be too hard to find out if he was still there.

The movie was amazing. Bogie plays Dixon Steele, a washed-up screenwriter with rage issues. One night he takes a coat-check girl back to his apartment to talk about a book he’s supposed to adapt, and after she leaves his place, she never makes it home. The police chief decides Bogie did it, that he was really living out one of the lurid scenarios he writes for the pictures. Enough people keep telling that story that other folks start to believe it, including the one person who shouldn’t, the actress who provided his alibi and whom he then fell in love with. There is enough pressure that before they know it, they really are in an old Hollywood potboiler. There’s no way out of it then, and Bogie ends up back where he started. The lonely place--where murders are committed, stories are imagined, and the broken-hearted reside. I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.

Leaving the theatre, I noticed a poster advertising an upcoming retrospective of the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Images of Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Pierre Léaud. Temptresses, gangsters, and teenagers. I’d have to come back for that.



Movies come up a lot in my book. And detective fiction. Rest assured, I’ll be taking a pretty heavy pair of scissors to the above. I can see tons of things I’d cut right now, get it down to the bones. Much like Dix eventually savages the book he’s meant to turn into a faithful screen version. The way the coat-check girl (Martha Stewart) describes the imagined romance novel, I can’t help but think of Leave Her ToHeaven, and maybe that’s the kind of sharpness Dix brings to his script. We can only guess. All we know of the unseen screenplay is what the onscreen author tells us.


Dix is a sinister storyteller, one who doesn’t shy away from the more gruesome details of a plot. Naturally, when the police, including an old buddy from his army days who’s now turned detective (Frank Lovejoy, The Hitch-Hiker [review]), show the wordsmith the murder scene photos and outline their own timeline for how Dix killed the girl, he starts to puzzle through the potential suspects and motives himself. He even relays his own version to that buddy and his wife (Jeff Donnell, The Sweet Smell ofSuccess). As he spins the yarn, directing them at to act it out at the same time, Ray and director of photography Burnett Guffey (The Strange One [review]) isolate the light on Bogart’s face, making it look the way it does when a kid telling ghost stories at camp holds a flashlight under his chin. The irony is Dix can’t imagine himself doing it, despite every one else thinking he probably did. Or, to clarify, he can’t imagine himself doing this particular murder. He never wavers in his belief he didn’t, not even when he cruelly jokes with his agent that maybe he did. There’s truth in that wicked humor, and little that Dix is capable of some pretty nasty business. He has violent spells that give everyone pause. The same light lands on him when the moods take over, a visual cue to let us know that we are heading into darkness. It’s almost supernatural--even if now we recognize him as a man with anger management problems, perhaps even some PTSD from his combat service, and the classic patterns of an abuser. He erupts, attacks, and then is sorry, making amends through grand gestures and promises to never do it again. Dix is a hard man to like, and yet we do anyway, because he’s still Humphrey Bogart. Playing on the actor’s star power, Ray messes with our perceptions. We have a feeling Bogart is the good guy, because he most often is, and so we put our faith where no one else can.



In essence, we are the lover that the actress who falls for Dix can’t be, because we put aside our doubts and put our faith in the supposed inevitability of a Hollywood happy ending. The noir twist here is how the stories about the writer, rather than the ones he crafts himself, take their toll on Laurel (played by Nicholas Ray’s real-life (and estranged) wife Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat, Sudden Fear [review]). Laurel lets her imagination get the better of her; she can’t separate the violence she’s witnessed from the violence Dix is accused of perpetrating. It’s a shame when you let a thing like a dead body get in the way of a good love story, but then again, as Dix explains, “A good love scene should be about something else besides love...Anyone can look at us and tell we’re in love.” This little bit of poetry is delivered during the scene where the film really turns. He’s making her breakfast, and Laurel is groggy, having taken sleeping pills to (unsuccessfully) block out her nightmares about Dix beating another man. Where earlier in the film she saves him with her alibi and pulls him out of his slump by taking care of him, now he’s her caretaker, right down to the domestic chores--though the results aren’t quite the same. There is a wonderful metaphor embedded in this scene: Dix is trying to prepare Laurel’s breakfast grapefruit, but he is having a hard time because he has straightened out the curve in the grapefruit knife, thinking the bend is not supposed to be there. All the better for stabbing things with...?


Bogart and Grahame are a natural screen pairing. They are attractive and confident, and they both have a bit of a speech impediment. She is aloof, and then a rock, and then a bundle of nerves that grows more tangled even as she unravels. (Dix will never straight her out!) Fascinatingly enough, Laurel’s not opportunistic. The failed actress never pushes the more successful scribe for a part in his new movie. This makes Laurel less the femme fatale and more the stable good girl. Dix has no nemesis but the one buried inside him.


Nicholas Ray manages to both have his tongue in his cheek when dealing with this Hollywood nonsense and be perfectly serious when relaying the rest of his tale. In a Lonely Place goes to some deep recesses and sifts around in the muck, yet it also maintains the aura of illusion. The scenes around Dix and Laurel’s apartment complex are played with an almost sitcom-like airiness. It’s classic Hollywood at its finest, and also a subversive, self-reflexive tribute to the system that spawned it. Joining the pair is a cast of eccentric characters and Hollywood types: a nebbish agent, a one-time matinee idol turned drunk, a controlling masseuse, a raven-haired actress on the prowl, the producer that’s also the son-in-law of a studio chief and whom no one respects. All that’s missing is a studio fixer. Even the coat-check girl is a type, she’s the wide-eyed movie fan who can’t believe she’s rubbing elbows with celebrities. In a Lonely Place is a cautionary tale: motion pictures are a deadly business.


Elsewhere on Criterion’s disc of In a Lonely Place, the camera is turned on the filmmaker. The 1975 documentary I’m a Stranger Here Myself caught up with Nicholas Ray while he was working as a teacher, at the time he was shooting We Can’t Go Home Again [review]. The movie details Ray’s cinematic philosophy, shedding light on his approach to character, his championing of the outsider, and how he expects to communicate with the audience. John Houseman, Natalie Wood, Francois Truffaut, and others also chime in to talk about the filmmaker. Early in the doc’, Ray talks directly about In a Lonely Place, including how he came to the film’s knockout ending.

Among the other extras is a 1948 radio adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes original novel for In a Lonely Place. (Hughes also wrote the source book of Ride the Pink Horse.) Performed for the Suspense series, it stars Robert Montgomery as Dixon Steele, a would-be novelist and serial strangler. Though a Los Angeles story, there are no Hollywood trappings, and the portrayal of Dix’s compulsive behavior is far less complex, despite being related from a first-person point of view. Is it possible Bogart’s dismissal of then novel he’s supposed to adapt in the movie version a meta joke about In a Lonely Place’s own source material.


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


Sunday, April 24, 2016

PARADE - #731


Following last week’s review of Charles Chaplin’sLimelight, I considered how Jacques Tati’s final film, the 1974 television feature Parade, might make a good follow-up. The French comedian was an acolyte of Chaplin’s, with his own M. Hulot being a tight-lipped descendent of the earlier director’s Little Tramp. Parade makes for an interesting companion to Limelight, even if it’s not entirely successful or nearly as fulfilling as the Chaplin picture.

Actually, the closest relative to Parade might be Federico Fellini’s 1970 documentary I clowns [review]. Fellini was another director with a passion for live performance, and I clowns captured several renowned circus clowns at work. Tati uses his own stageshow as a blueprint, but he showcases the event in a circus environment. His set-up is notable for two things: it’s inclusion of the audience, including planting performers in the crowd (if, indeed, the entire audience isn’t just people cast by Tati for the event); and a split between the old and the new, with the younger clowns being set apart not just by their fashion, but relegated to the side of the stage where they have a kind of workshop, often mimicking the main action in the center ring, sometimes joining it.


I should note here, when I say clowns, I do not mean of the greasepaint and red nose variety, but in the broader comedic sense. They are silent performers, engaging in physical slapstick and sleight of hand. Tati himself has several skits where he pantomimes different kinds of athletes. There is also an elder magician who engages in card tricks and the like, and who enters into a competition with one of the scruffy youngsters. While the older men are dapper and composed, the new generation are hippies and flower children. Yet, Tati isn’t looking to separate, he’s seeking to find what is similar in the shared comedy and bring it all together.

In addition to these clowns, there is a donkey act, an orchestra, and a tumbling troupe. They all perform with varying results. Some bits land, some fall flat. There is a quiet tone to Parade that seems both generational and cultural. The clowning has a certain reserve, and there aren’t many guffaws to be had. Still, it’s pleasant entertainment, and Parade really only goes off the rails in the second act, when Tati embraces modernity too tightly. An extended psychedelic rock performance looks like it would have been out of step even back then, and now just seems laughable. This isn’t exactly your grandfather’s rock-and-roll, more like what his grandfather might think is rock-and-roll.

Which maybe is the problem overall with Parade. With Limelight, Chaplin saw vaudeville as an art vital enough to build a story around, and so it came off as more than just a nostalgic trip through a comedian’s greatest hits. Tati, it seems, is trying to show that his old routines can compete in the then-current marketplace, but never really reignites the spark that probably inspired his career path to begin with. A mild exit for an otherwise gifted artist.



Sunday, April 17, 2016

LIMELIGHT - #756

I thought you hated the theatre?

I do. I also hate the sight of blood, but it’s in my veins.


As I write this, it’s Charlie Chaplin’s birthday. Born April 16, 1889, he would have been 127. This puts him at more than 60 years old when he made his final American film, the bittersweet tribute to vaudeville, Limelight. Though he had a couple of more movies to come following his exile to Europe, of all of his efforts post-1950, this one feels like the final curtain, a summing up of a well-spent career, with a few touches of real life for those looking to see the man in his art.

Chaplin stars in Limelight as Calvero, the last of the great stage clowns, known for his wordplay and hobo persona. (Perhaps it was the presence of the former that discouraged the performer from actually making the film about his own Little Tramp, a character born of silent cinema.) Calvero’s act has passed into the history books, drowned in alcohol and anxiety. As the picture begins, he stumbles home from the bar, only to realize his downstairs neighbor Theresa (Claire Bloom, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold [review]) has locked herself in her flat with the gas on. The old man kicks in the door and rescues the young woman from suicide, letting her sleep it off in his apartment where the air is clear. Terry is a dancer who is despondent over many things. She let the love of her life, a composer (Sydney Chaplin) get away, and her sister’s turning to the streets to pay for her dancing career has left the girl unable to take the stage, the guilt is too much to handle.


In fact, following the attempted suicide, Terry is so upset, she can’t walk, her mind has completely shut down the lower half of her body, not unlike how nerves and booze have overtaken Calvero’s ability to step in front of a crowd. The pair of artistes bonds over their respective blocks. Calvero swears off the sauce and nurses the girl back to health, giving her pep talks, all the while dreaming of his old routines, sometimes inserting Terry into the act, sometimes waking up in terror, realizing his dream self is playing to an empty house. Helping her gives him purpose, and a chance to lead by example.

It’s a lovely and loving relationship, one that could have been tainted by Chaplin’s real-life dalliances with younger women, but the honesty with which he presents their shared experience avoids any actual creepiness. Calvero’s view of Terry is paternal, despite the cover story that they are married as a means to fend off gossip. In fact, there is a frankness throughout Limelight that is surprisingly fresh, even if the script must tap dance around saying some things outright. Calvero first thinks that the whispers about his new roommate being a prostitute are true, and that she tried to kill herself due to consequences stemming from the profession. Though the truth is far more mundane, the way in which the elder statesman is prepared to accept the younger’s indiscretions--he notes that he himself is an old sinner--makes for a sweet dynamic between them. They accept each other’s faults only in so far as they encourage their companion to overcome them.


Chaplin was likely looking for a little acceptance himself, following accusations of Communism and FBI smear campaigns due to some of his less idyllic carnal affairs. (Check a recent episode of You Must Remember This to hear how this affected the auteur’s previous release, Monsieur Verdoux [review]). Later in the film the clown demands truth in both performance and life, as it’s the only thing he knows to be steadfast in a fickle world.

Despite all of this off-screen drama, Chaplin does not allow for any cynicism in Limelight. Quite the contrary, the film is entirely romantic, in both its love stories and in its view of the theatrical community. Behind the laughs beats a great big heart, and Limelight is less a comedy and more of a melodrama. Working with a plot structure more befitting a play--and often staging his scenes in small spaces like in a theatre, focusing on the two characters in conversation rather than the surroundings--Chaplin draws from a variety of theatrical traditions to create something perfectly cinematic. The filmmaker pulls out and goes wide, funnily enough, when in the theatre space itself. The cutaways to the dream sequences, showing Calvero on stage, and later showing Terry dancing, give us both the breadth of the performance space, but also the size of the crowd. In a way, his framing suggests that our own lives are small, and its art that gives them larger meaning, transcending borders so that people around the world may share all that they have in common, including not just our own foibles, but also the natural world in which we live and operate (mother nature and human nature). Most of Calvero’s routines center around animals (worms, sardines) or compulsions (love). The only exception being a fun skit featuring Chaplin and the great Buster Keaton--a comedian down on his luck for real--as two inept musicians that ends up being Calvero’s ultimate encore.


It’s interesting to consider that Chaplin himself must have seen many tides turning, and rather than submit to the trends, he instead dug in his heels and tipped his hat to where it all began for him (including street performers). Not that Limelight is a completely fanciful representation of theatre life. There is a toll to be paid for the spontaneity and joy of stagecraft. Not just age and passing fads, but also the isolation and the physical and mental demands come to bear for the comedian and the ballerina alike. Chaplin sees a kindred spirit in the dancer--both disciplines require perfection and control, but they also allow for improvisation, for injecting one’s personality into the material.


The final act of Limelight has some O. Henry-level twists, including ironic sacrifices and difficult decisions. Yet, even with the heavy foreshadowing--Calvero tells Terry pretty much exactly how it will go--by the time the change-ups and misunderstandings occur, you’ll be so invested in the characters and the drama itself, the artifice won’t bother you. Plus, the artifice is kind of the point. Limelight is as much about the movement of the bodies on stage as how they affect one another offstage--though no moreso than the movement in the ballet Chaplin pauses to show us, featuring both the clown and his admirer, and which itself draws from traditions of the Commedia dell’arte. In Chaplin’s narrative, the history of the stage is as interlocked as humanity’s. We all build on what came before, and so by extending a hand, the old can aid the young with their experience and wisdom, and maybe themselves get a new lease on life.

And, of course, as throughout, Chaplin walks it like he talks it. The ultimate message of Limelight? Always leave them laughing.


A few images from this review were borrowed from my old alma mater, DVDTalk.com. Read Justin Remer's review here.

Friday, April 8, 2016

ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS - #806


Why is it we always forget that Cary Grant could be rugged?

Sure, we remember that he’s funny and handsome and debonair, but even when he was playing the dandy, Grant was a man’s man. In movies when he wasn’t on the same continent as a tailored tuxedo, he was still suave and commanding, but in a way that was far different than the romantic playboy image that endures.

He was rugged.


Should you not believe me, then you need look no further than Howard Hawks’ 1939 aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings. In the film, written by Jules Furthman (The Docks of New York [review]), Grant plays Geoff Carter, the head of an airmail service flying out of South America. His crew is made up of guys who are mostly young and have the daredevil streak that is the stock-in-trade of motion picture pilots. They live for their time in the air, and when on the ground, they spend it getting high, indulging in booze, food, and women.


It’s one of those women, a tough Brooklyn gal, that serves as our entry point into their world, as well as the dramatic catalyst of much of what goes on in Only Angles Have Wings. Jean Arthur (The Devil and Miss Jones [review]) stars alongside Grant as Bonnie Lee, a traveling musician who runs into a couple of Geoff’s boys during a cruise layover. The two pilots (Allyn Joslyn, Heaven CanWait, and Noah Beery Jr., Red River) make a play for the beauty, but she’s more taken with the idea of conversing with her countrymen than she is being romanced. It would seem the American pilots have a similar homesickness, as they are all ready to have their heads turned by the visitor. This includes Geoff, who rearranges his team’s assignments to try to make sure he’s the one who can woo Bonnie before she has to return to the ship.

This proves disastrous, however; Bonnie has picked the wrong night to visit the airfield. Geoff’s people are responsible for shuttling the mail, and they must fly regardless of weather. One of Bonnie’s suitors has to go up in the terrible fog that has spread across the area, and he doesn’t make it back.


The scene in which Geoff and his right-hand man, Kid (Thomas Mitchell, Make Way for Tomorrow [review], Stagecoach [review]), try to guide the doomed flyer back to base is the first of many bravura sequences that Hawks delivers in Only Angels Have Wings. He plays the scene long, focusing on the ground team, cutting out ambient noise both for effect and because, storywise, it’s necessary for Geoff and Kid to ascertain where the plane is positioned. It’s a good trick. As they lean in to listen for the vessel’s location, we instinctively lean in, as well. Only Angels Have Wings has our attention.


It’s not the only time that Hawks lets a moment run long in the film. His narrative style was Tarantino-esque before Tarantino, drawing tension from delayed resolution (see, for instance, Death Proof [review] for Quentin’s employment of the same kind of withholding). Hawks is patient, taking his time with the scene, knowing that a quicker release would have far less impact. A year later, Hawks would make movie history with His Girl Friday, when he famously had his actors (including Cary Grant) perform the script at twice the accepted pace. Here, however, he is not concerned about getting through the material quickly. At times, Only Angels Have Wings appears shaggy. It is episodic rather than plot heavy. In the camaraderie amongst the pilots, Hawks achieves a surprising realism, letting the conversations follow a natural course and somehow capturing the performances in such a way that they appear, if not improvised, at least unrehearsed. Take for example a scene where Geoff and Kid try to settle a disagreement by flipping a coin. The action when the actors chase the money is clumsy, the way it would be were two fellows trying to one-up the other in real life. Maybe Grant and Mitchell had marks to hit, but the audience would never see them.


This stripe of convincing buddy-buddy behavior is essential to a film that is all about the relationships between men who have signed on to do a particular job. In many ways, Only Angels Have Wings prefigures the sense of duty that would permeate more patriotic films made in the years during World War II. What sets it apart from those films is its sense of isolationism. Geoff and his air force do what they do, and outside interference is not welcome, even when it’s a beautiful woman who is willing to accept that the untamable adventurer would be a fine lover just as he is. Only Angels Have Wings has story points in common with Casablanca. Both feature rogues who exile themselves to exotic, dangerous locales to escape a broken heart--but unlike Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, Cary Grant’s Geoff doesn’t do what he does because it would be good for others, he does it because it’s what is expected of him. It’s what he signed up for.

In this, Only Angels Have Wings also prefigures film noir, and even another famous Bogart picture, The Maltese Falcon [review]. There is an existential streak in Geoff that we would see in noir antiheroes. He has a code, and he must follow it. As a rake and a rapscallion, Geoff’s Achilles heel is his commitment to doing the right thing. Geoff’s fatal flaw is that if the mission is considered impossible, he’ll take flight himself rather than send one of his men. It’s the sort of soft and gooey character trait that makes audiences care for him and adds credibility to Bonnie’s unrequited love for the flyboy. We know he’s good despite his cynical protestations.


Also reminiscent of noir is the sense that the past will catch up with you, no matter how good your are at outrunning it. Fans of Gilda [review] take note, Only Angels Have Wings gives Rita Hayworth her breakout role, and in many ways, it sets the tone for her signature performance. Hayworth plays Judy, the wife of Geoff’s newest hire. She also happens to be the woman who broke Geoff’s heart, the mysterious phantom that Bonnie sees hovering over her would-be lover from the jump. Neither Geoff nor Bonnie reveal this fact, it would be too complicated and they both would rather deny their past. Yet, the added irony is that Judy’s husband (silent-era star Richard Barthelmess) is himself harboring a disgraceful history, one he has hidden from his bride. Geoff and the boys keep that secret to themselves, even though, for Geoff, exposing it might change everything. Move this plot to a casino, and it’s Gilda before Gilda.


The big difference between Only Angels Have Wings and noir, though, is that Only Angels Have Wings is more redemptive. Both men will get another shot to prove themselves, and even Judy will have a chance to get it right. The only one who doesn’t need redemption is Bonnie, but then if we know our noir, the down-to-earth blonde might have a chance to ground the aerial daredevil. Just maybe.

Furthman gives his script a kind of doubled structure, like a coin with the same face on either side (plot point!). The first flight will be echoed in the last flight, and though we might guess that hearts will melt, the writing stays true to its main character’s principles right to the end. That last scene is pure old Hollywood, and yet smarter than it has any right to be, holding fast to the manly ethos laid out in the rest of the movie. I feel simultaneously more sensitive and more macho for having seen it.


Criterion’s high-def presentation of Only Angels Have Wings is wonderful, offering a pristine picture and a soundtrack that lacks any snaps, crackles, hiss, or pops. Extras include a radio performance of the movie, condensed for the home listening audience, and a new documentary examining Howard Hawks’ other aviation-themed movies.

And for comic book fans, the cover and interior illustration is by Francesco Francavilla, artist on Zorro and Afterlife with Archie, as well as creator of the pulp-inspired The Black Beetle.


The screengrabs for this review were taken from an earlier DVD release. The Criterion disc under review was provided by the Criterion Collection.