Monday, February 25, 2008


Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor is epic in every sense of the word. Sprawling in both running time and narrative time, it covers several decades of history, following the travails of one man and the grand events that dictate not only the course of his life, but affect the world stage. In 1988, the international production swept the Oscars, and has since stood the test of time, its gorgeous filmmaking still as impressive today as it was twenty years ago. Now, at long last, the movie is also getting the epic DVD treatment with the new 4-disc The Last Emperor - The Criterion Collection.

The Last Emperor is Pu Yi of China. Taken to the Forbidden City in 1908, the boy was crowned at the age of 3 at a time when the monarch was not permitted to leave the massive royal estate (it was called a "City" for a reason) as a matter of tradition. Before the new king even reached puberty, however, his nation changed underneath him, becoming a Republic and electing its own president. Very little changed for Pu Yi as far as his way of living. He was still surrounded by courtiers of whom he could make any demand, he just didn't have any sway over public policy. He was also now confined to his portion of the Forbidden City as a prisoner.

Bertolucci and screenwriter Mark Peploe explore the life of Pu Yi on two divergent timelines. The narrative of his growth from child king to empty figurehead regularly jumps forward to a framing timeline in the 1950s when Pu Yi was imprisoned by the Communists. Played as an adult by John Lone in both story lines, we see that the Emperor is a man who only knows a life of privilege and it takes a long time for him to lose the belief that it is his God-given right to rule. Though the Communist government's intention is to recondition Pu Yi and make him a productive member of their new society, they unwittingly end up serving as the final catalyst for turning a boy into a man.

Though Pu Yi left palace life as a young man, he was still very much a child. Not privy to the regular rites of passage experienced by most youths, his views of life all come second-hand, from his courtiers, from books and magazines, and from his British tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O'Toole). Pu Yi is married, but his conception of love is extremely adolescent. He has two wives: his true spouse Wan Jung (Joan Chen) and, essentially, his mistress, Wen Hsiu (Wu Jun Mei). He sleeps with them simultaneously, walks around with one on each arm, but has no conception that the Western world he longs to flee to would not look favorably on his living arrangements. When Wen Hsiu leaves him, he has no idea why.

This same naïveté is what also caused him to become a stooge of the Japanese, betraying China and helping its enemies set up a puppet government in Manchuria. By the end of WWII, Pu Yi realizes he has been duped, and Japan's loss of the war is what eventually leads to his imprisonment under the Reds. The heartbreak of adult life is visited on the child with explosive vigor.

And yet, by the end of his life, Pu Yi has become a real man, one who enjoys simple pleasures and has compassion for others. It's a hard-won transformation, but it's also a true one.

Bertolucci imbues The Last Emperor with an ostentatious splendor befitting his majestic subject. The sheer size of the Forbidden City demands that any production set inside it go large. The storytelling style could be compared favorably to the epics made by David Lean, though with less romanticism and stronger strains of real-world practicality. Pu Yi is never going to be a great hero, and his immaturity ends up being counterintuitive to his having a passionate romance, but his metamorphosis is almost like an epic in reverse, moving from grand illusion to peaceful actuality.

From the starting frame to the last, The Last Emperor is a beautiful movie. The multiple art directors, production designer, and costume designer have recreated the world of early 20th-century China. Vittorio Storaro's camera and his stunningly generous eye capture the rich colors and costumes with an exacting, unwavering attention. The cinematographer works across the open film, letting every frame burst with detail. It's a complete illusion. You are not only viewing the story, but you are there.

DVD 1 contains the 165-minute theatrical version of the film, which the director considers to be his preferred cut. The second disc is the 218-minute television cut, which isn't longer in order to restore pieces the Bertolucci had to remove against his will or better judgment, but simply a longer version made to take up more airtime and run as a TV event. (This also means removing the few instances of swearing.)

Essentially, it's the same film in structure and content. Some scenes are longer, and then some new elements are added, particularly in the prison sequences. For instance, in terms of extended scenes, Reginald Johnston's arrival is filled out with a conversation between the English tutor and the man he is replacing, Chen Paoshen (Victor Wong), in the car on the way to the palace. It serves to emphasize the sympathies of the Chinese teacher, who always had Pu Yi's best interests at heart, and thus brought Johnston as an aid for his young charge. Elsewhere, as an example of an added scene, we have a flashback where Pu Yi's wet nurse (Jade Go) tells the young monarch how she got her job. Other bits are far less substantial, just a reversed nip or tuck here and there.

In both cases, the restored footage adds color to the story, and The Last Emperor is still quite excellent in its longer form; nevertheless, the additions are neither crucial nor necessary. Comparing the two cuts actually shows how a good director and his editor can shape a movie into a stronger narrative by working out what is essential. The theatrical cut is a sharper picture, not as prone to meandering, and is arguably the better for it.

For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


"Silence. Logic. Security. Prudence."

It's a shame there weren't more celebrated adventures of Lemmy Caution. Just for the name alone, it would be fun to hear him spoken of in the same circles as his American counterparts Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Despite there being a series of movies with the character, all played by the craggy, lantern-jawed Eddie Constantine, it appears his most challenging escapade is the only one that remains in circulation.

The hero of Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 sci-fi freak-out Alphaville wears a private detective's uniform, but he's really a secret agent masquerading as a journalist on an assassin's mission. He's every film noir heavy belted into one futuristic overcoat.

Alphaville, despite having a name built on the very roots of language, is a city where we are told oral communication is breaking down. Hence Godard's reliance on symbols and sounds, the piercing beeps and blips he inserts into the film at maximum volume being the most pronounced sign of any advanced technology. The genius of low budget science fiction like this is its complete lack of special effects or space-age sets. Nearly two decades before Blade Runner, Godard was speculating on a future that looked very much like our own, his city built on top of an existing city. He stays almost entirely indoors, relegating Caution to cramped hotel rooms, labyrinthine bureaucratic offices, and staircases that seem to wind in moebius-strip circles, the private dick and the dangerous dame (Anna Karina) traveling the central metaphor of a past and a future that meet on an infinite loop.

The city is ruled by a giant computer called Alpha 60, and the construct acts as interrogator, mastermind, and sometimes narrator. The machine's dialogue is run through a mechanical distortion device, removing any recognizable tones that would help us identify the actor. I wouldn't be surprised if the super computer's lines were recorded by Godard himself, the grand joke that the ruler of Alphaville is the ruler of Alphaville. It's the same vocal technique the director employs for the Satanic figure in his 1993 movie Oh, Woe is Me. The sound of the voicebox is a signifier of an enemy of humanity.

Alpha 60's goal is to remove all emotion from human existence. The quest for knowledge is neutralized by the criminalization of the word "why," replacing it instead with the word "because." There is no pondering the reason, only stating the explanation. Denizens of the city have three options: assimilation, suicide, or execution. In one of his many pranks on classic movies, the last option is enacted in a swimming pool as some kind of demented Esther Williams routine. The condemned are dropped in the water and carnivorous bathing beauties descend on them like piranhas. Women as a whole are predatory, mollifying creatures in Alphaville. Most of the females Caution comes across are "seductresses third-class," dead-eyed trophy girls who distract with their bodies. One of Caution's stoolies (Akim Tamiroff) is snuffed out while in a lusty embrace with one of these gals, the secret agent in the background snapping pictures on his Instamatic. Likewise, the love interest, Natasha Vonbraun (Karina), the daughter of the scientist (Howard Vernon) who maintains Alpha 60 and Caution's target, is described by her eventual but distrusting paramour as a vampire with pointy teeth. It's not terribly kind, but at least he only shares this summation with us, his co-conspirators, rather than saying it out loud.

Lemmy Caution comes from the Outlands, the free communities beyond Alphaville that the sprawling city seeks to swallow. Once in the metropolis, Caution does little investigation. His battle with the machine consists of the two pushing ideas and concepts back and forth at one another. Godard loads his philosophical nuggets on thick, at a pace that is often difficult to keep up with. (And given that many are borrowed from Borges, hard to comprehend even if you can maintain the speed.) Natasha is used to simplify things; she says straight-out that it's really a battle of life or death. If Lemmy wins, humanity retains its sense of self; if Alpha 60, the whole of existence is sublimated to tyranny. The name Vonbraun, the initials "SS" spied in an elevator--the filmmaker is obviously drawing on the Nazis for his villains just as much as a technocratic power somewhere in the distance.

The one thing that the machine cannot contend with is the explosive qualities of human emotion. Just like any detective worth the gum on his shoe, when Caution has enough of talk, he resorts to violence. He goes on a shooting spree, using death to stop death. Yet, the Godard that thinks humanity is worth fighting for is also a romantic, and so the most human of emotions must also be reaffirmed. Caution must break Natasha's conditioning and remind her what it's like to feel.

At the finale, speeding out of Alphaville in that most space age of cars, the Ford Galaxy, Lemmy Caution takes Natasha toward the wilds of freedom. Her instinct is to turn back, to indulge her nostalgia for the safety they are leaving, but he keeps her eyes forward, lest she turn to a pillar of salt. He challenges her, demands she relearn and reclaim the vocabulary Alpha 60 took from her. Three words are the key to salvation.

"Je vous aime."

"I love you."

Sunday, February 17, 2008


[Update: This review has an updated version here, covering the Blu-Ray release from September, 2010.]

"Sixsmith wrings sweat from his handkerchief. 'I saw Charade with my niece at an art-house cinema last year. Was that Hitchcock? She strong-arms me into seeing these things, to prevent me from growing "square." I rather enjoyed it, but my niece said Audrey Hepburn was a "bubblehead." Delicious word.'

Charade's the one where the plot swings on the stamps?'

'A contrived puzzle, yes, but all thrillers would wither without contrivance.'

- from Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I have to admit, I didn't like Charade the first time I saw it. Advance expectation is a killer of many a good film, and I originally watched the 1963 movie as part of my crawl through the Audrey Hepburn filmography. Being the oft-delayed coupling of Ms Hepburn and Mr. Cary Grant, I went in expecting a lighthearted romantic comedy--which is what I got, at least for half of Charade. The other half, as it turned out, was a Hithcockian thriller with a dark, even violent streak. In my mind, the two clashed in ways I couldn’t quite reconcile. Who got all this blood in my peanut butter?

The screenplay for Charade, written by Peter Stone, is a study in incongruities. Mrs. Regina Lampert (Hepburn) and Mr. Peter Joshua (Grant) meet at a mountain resort, trade a few cynical retorts about love and their failed marriages, and essentially start a flirtation in a manner classic to the genre. Like two superheroes meeting for the first time who have to fight before they get along, two lovers in romantic comedies begin swapping acid before they swap spit, and the pleasure comes from watching their defenses crumble. For quite a while, the first words Reggie and Peter exchange were my answering machine's outgoing message. "I already know an awful lot of people and until one of them dies I couldn't possibly meet anyone else." "Well, if anyone goes on the critical list, let me know."

Upon returning to Paris, however, romance is not in the air, mystery is. Regina discovers her apartment empty except for a French police inspector (Jacques Marin). He informs her that her husband sold all of their furniture, absconded with the $250,000 he got for it, and then got himself thrown off a train. The money did not get thrown with him, and it is presumed stolen or missing. When three cartoonish crooks (James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass) show up for the late Mr. Lampert's funeral, it becomes clear that it's the latter. In fact, not only are these guys looking for it, but so is the C.I.A. An agent by the name of Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) tells Reggie that her husband was not who he said he was, and that the $250,000 was actually stolen from the U.S. government by the dead man and his army buddies back in WWII. The bad guys will kill her to find it, and the U.S. will basically put her on the hook for it if she doesn't find the dough and return it. There are an awful lot of rocks to get caught between when the world is one big hard place.

Enter Cary Grant to save the day, right? Well, kind of. While Peter does offer to lend a hand, he may not be who he says he is. In fact, he may not be multiple people he says he is. So, while he romances Regina, we never know whose side he's really on, nor if he's the one responsible for all the bodies that are starting to pile up around them.

There is much for fans of classic romance to catch the vapors over in Charade. Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant have a marvelous natural rapport, and the scenes where they just clown around with each other are priceless. Director Stanley Donen has a graceful comic touch, and he gives his stars ample opportunity to do what they do best. A walk along the Seine, with its self-referential jokes about An American in Paris, which starred Donen's former creative partner Gene Kelly, is a wonderful display of comedic timing. As soon as Peter responds to one thread of conversation, Reggie switches to another, leaving the befuddled man to constantly catch up. The self-effacing charm that always served Cary Grant is well honed at this point, and the actor not only weathers jokes about his age, but requested them in order not to look like an old lecher chasing a young gamine through the City of Lights. These get some of the best laughs in the movie. (If only someone had taken the air out of Gary Cooper's tires in the same way before he courted the young actress in Love in the Afternoon.)

Yet, there is also some squeamish violence to contend with in the plot. Despite Lampert's old army buddies being overdrawn caricatures--Coburn the boorish Texan, Glass a nebbish, Kennedy a one-handed monster--when they go to work, Donen doesn't soften any of their blows. When they confront Reggie alone, there is a real feeling of sexual threat, and when they engage in fisticuffs with Peter, the violence is deadly. A rooftop tussle with the hook-handed Kennedy leaves a big, bleeding gash on Peter's back, and when the crooks start getting themselves killed, the manner of the murders is uniformly gruesome, escalating to James Coburn being trussed up with a clear plastic bag over his head, the death grimace of his suffocation visible through the Ziploc.

The sweet stuff was so sweet and the bitter business so bitter, I couldn't make sense of why Donen and Stone had chose to put them together in this way. Was it just the changing times, a need to update and compete? Probably not. Though change was a-coming, the censorship boards had not yet gone completely lax, and the violent turnaround of American movies was a couple of years off. While Charade was maybe testing those waters, it wasn't done out of competition, but a deeper thematic concern.

Charade is a tapestry of lies that extends beyond assumed identities and crime. In this narrative, relationships have also become charades. The Lamperts are in an empty marriage that is only saved from divorce by the husband's untimely death. As it turns out, the wife didn't know her husband at all, and what she is discovering is that love is not as simple as it once was. Can we really know anybody? Is courtship anything more than donning a mask to convince the person we desire that we are someone to be desired, as well?

Even beyond that, though, moviemaking is a charade. For decades, the audience had been conditioned to view thrillers and romantic comedies alike without considering that any real-life equivalent of these fictions would carry with it real-life consequences. In a manner that could be just as startling as anything coming out of 1960s France and the British Kitchen Sink school, or still to come with the young turks of new American cinema, Stanley Donen was exposing the false bottom of the Hollywood technique. Realizing this gives new meaning to the climactic showdown, where the real killer chases Reggie into a traditional theatre and finds himself on the business end of a trapdoor. There is nothing under the stage, you see, the boards these players tread are not rock solid, and their actions are not to be believed. It's like the fake-out with the water pistol in the opening scenes, but played out for 114 minutes

This was the crucial logic that I missed in the cloud of my initial expectations for Charade, a mist that had to be cleared for me to see the film for what it really was. Once I figured out the reason for the juxtaposition of love and violence, comedy and crime, I could see the greater meaning the filmmakers were trying to convey. Charade is not a subversion of silver-screen romance, but an affirmation of it. Love isn't knowing exactly what you are getting, but extending a level of trust that tells the other person that he or she is worth the risk of being lied to. When the bullets are flying, Peter extends his hand to Reggie, and she asks why she should place his faith in him. He tells her there is no logical reason on Earth for her to do so, and he's right, there isn't. Thankfully, emotion is eschewing logic to follow instinct, and it means all the more that Reggie is able to love again when there is no good explanation for it. She simply follows her heart, and the charade dissolves.

Some eagle-eyed readers may note that, no, I have not yet upgraded to the more state-of-the-art reissue of this disc, but still have the 1999 version. If you're looking that close at my screengrabs, however, maybe you should wander on over to my portfolio of comic book artists drawing Audrey Hepburn and peep that instead. (Either that, or put your money where your mouth is and buy it off my wish list, smart guy!)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Originally published on April 28, 2005 as part of my now-defunct "Can You Picture That?" column, this represents the last of my reprint articles to archive on this site. From here on out, the material will be all new, either exclusive to this blog or cross-posted with DVD Talk. There has already been plenty of new content, easily spotted by the fact that there is no "originally published" date or "Blast..." title or in some cases even a link to an external source. I have kept my one new review a week schedule since Christmas, and plan to continue on with that from here on out.


In 2005, Image Comics released an anthology called Four-Letter Worlds. In it, comics creators pick one of four themes. Each theme is a word with four letters in it, and within those themes, we all must pick another four-letter word and write a story about that word that pertains to our original choice. One of the themes was "Fate," and I chose to write a story based around the word "True." It was illustrated by Andi Watson, and its full title was "(T For) True."

On page 3, there is a panel where Orson Welles, dressed in his magician's cape and hat, announces, "F for Fake!" The image and the phrase are from Welles' 1972 film of the same name, F For Fake, released as a double-disc Criterion DVD this past Tuesday. F For Fake is a bit of a legendary cult film, plagued by poor distribution like most of Welles' later movies. I had never seen it, just always heard about it. I'm not sure it had ever been made available on video.

And yet, here I was writing a tribute to it: a movie I had never seen, released the year I was born, inspiring an autobiographical short story in comic book format. Given Welles' penchant for storytelling in all its forms, I could see him liking that idea. In fact, this versatility was probably what drew me to him as a teenager. After being exposed to his first two films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, I read Frank Brady's biography Citizen Welles, and I was entranced by this man who had devoted his life to the telling of tales in whatever venue he could insert himself in. There were even strange parallels between his childhood and that of Amory Blaine, the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, which I had also recently discovered.

So, something about this long-absent movie about the art of confidence and the confidence of art lodged itself in my brain. In addition to "(T For) True," there is a scene in my second novel, The Everlasting, where a character uses an F For Fake postcard to tell an unfaithful lover to get lost. I was positioning myself next to Orson, just as I had done in the short story. In the panel next to the one where Andi drew him, a caricature of me appears, shouting, "T for True!"

The comics story was put to bed before Criterion officially announced the release of their DVD version (the rumors had been around for a while). Additionally, Andi and I had finished when I sat down to watch the 1988 documentary With Orson Welles: A Life in Film, a long interview with Welles where he discusses each of his films. It was sent to me by fellow Welles fan Ande Parks, author of Oni's Union Station and Capote In Kansas. As I watched it, I realized I had seen it before, probably when it first aired on one of the Turner cable channels. The timing would have been just about right. Much to my horror, though, when I got to the F For Fake section, the explanation of the film and the scenes they showed looked eerily familiar. I had, without knowing it, stolen them wholesale for my story, down to the winking revelation at the end. I was mortified.

Shortly after this, I had coffee with Matt Fraction, who was breezing through Portland. When I wasn't marveling at the abuse he was perpetrating on his rather ample lion's mane, we discussed our writing. Fraction has a story in Four-Letter Worlds, as well (he tackled "Fate" lock, stock, and smoking barrel). I explained to him what I had discovered, and he in turn told me that what I had done was not uncommon. Nabokov possibly did it with Lolita even. It's called "cryptomnesia." You take something in, forget you have done so, and then dig it out of your subconscious and think it is original--even when a part of you is claiming to have done it as homage.

This all made the DVD release of F For Fake even more exciting. How far had I gone in replicating Welles' cinematic practical joke?

Well, as it turns out. My tale is not an out-and-out theft as I feared, but the homage as intended, a tribute to a great premise. Whereas I dug into my own past to craft an autobiography of my love affair with fiction and its place in my life, Welles used F For Fake to look at a greater concept of art. If all art is a replication of something out of real life, then is a replication of art any less real? He uses two examples: Elmyr de Hory, a notorious forger of masterpieces by painters like Matisse and Modigliani, and Clifford Irving, who wrote Fake!, a biography of Elmyr, before going on to trick the world into believing he had collaborated with Howard Hughes on the recluse aviator's memoir. In a style that craftily blends documentary with re-enactments, Welles tells us the story of both men, and compares it to his own great hoax, the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds that caused people to run from UFOs that weren't actually in the sky, and the history his then paramour, Oja Kodar, had with Picasso and her grandfather, another of the great art forgers. Like my beloved Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, they are all phonies, but they're real phonies. (See also the fictionalized version of Irving's life, The Hoax.)

(Coincidentally, Andi Watson explored similar ideas of real vs. fake in his graphic novel Geisha, about an android artist hired to forge a Vermeer. His heroine, Jomi, faces accusations that her own art can't be real, since she herself is synthetic. Yet, in a world of plastic surgery and drugs that make us feel ways other than what comes natural, who is more false?)

F For Fake is an enchanting, fun flick. As far as Welles' movies are concerned, it is probably his most playful film. He clearly had a blast in the editing room, even shooting some of his own scenes there, using the monitor to remind us that we are watching a movie, which is itself a forgery of reality. Fiction and truth are manipulated with the same tools. Welles takes interview footage that, by its nature, has an air of authenticity, and twists it to meet his demands. Reaction shots are taken out of context, often frozen for comical effect, and used to create doubt about whatever truth is being told. Elmyr gives Irving an eye roll, Irving looks skeptically at Elmyr, wondering if he believes his own self-crafted legend.

Amidst all of this intercutting, Welles takes center stage as a storyteller. He is almost like a boorish party guest that won't let his host tell his own tales, he always has to break in and give his own embellishment. Yet, the effect is utterly charming and releases each anecdote from the bondage of its teller. Like the art forgeries and the great masterpieces in museums across the world, they belong to all. The reality is in the eye of the beholder, in the voice of the teller.

In the end, Welles' ultimate trick is to one-up his audience. We've believed his promise to tell us the truth, and we are willing to accept that all the way to the end. Like the magician who has gotten us on board with a well-executed illusion, Welles pulls a bait-and-switch. As we thrill to the rush of tales about art forgery and the long con, he slips us a mickey: a fake tale with true players, and we swallow it whole. As he unveils his own chicanery, he uses the visual metaphor of a magician levitating a man, covering him in a sheet, and then pulling off the sheet to reveal, much to his delight and ours, that the man isn't floating in mid-air--because he isn't even there.

I am sure that after the film was released, Welles was consistently asked to debunk F For Fake. Part of the fun is keeping people on their toes. In my story, I note that the script harbors a lie and promise to never reveal what it is. If you ask me, the best answer you will likely get is, "Who knows? Maybe the lie is when I tell you there's a lie in the story. Maybe every word of it is true. Because if the lie is saying there is a lie, then that is true, too." However, for those of us who want to go beyond the film, who want to know if Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving really did what F For Fake says they did, Criterion has given us a second disc with documentaries on both men, as well as one on Welles. To tantalize us a little bit more, there is also the 1972 press conference where Howard Hughes denounced Irving--though he does it by phone, which Welles suggests in the movie means we can't ever know for sure if it was really Hughes or not. If Orson is messing with us, we don't care. His greatest feat of magic is convincing us we want to be duped. Over and over again.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


The last movie in Lubitsch Musicals also happens to be the last musical Ernst Lubitsch made before his Paramount contract ran out, and the second-to-last entry in the genre he'd ever direct. One Hour With You also has other career distinctions packed in its baggage. The 1932 feature is a remake of Lubitsch's own silent film, The Marriage Circle (1924), a production decision he made after being sent in to oversee the work of a young director named George Cukor. Though Cukor would become a formidable director of musical comedies in the future, making such films as My Fair Lady, he was no match for the great Lubitsch, and One Hour With You eventually became 78 minutes without G.C.

One Hour With You has a unique beginning for a sexual farce. A police officer given the assignment of cleaning up the Parisian streets for squeamish and repressed tourists is clearing the groping couples out of a public park. The last of these insist they are husband and wife, a claim the cop finds highly dubious. And yet, it's true. In the first of his many direct appeals to the camera, Dr. Andre Bertier (Maurice Chevalier), explains that he is in fact married to Colette (Jeanette MacDonald) and is very much in love with her. He even goes so far as to tell us that if more married couples snuck off to the park for a little slap-and-tickle, there'd be far more happy marriages on the books. The very first musical number of the movie, composed by Oscar Straus with lyrics by Leo Robin, is a celebration of fidelity. How great it is to be married and always have someone in your bed!

Apparently Lubitsch had been divorced for only a year when he made One Hour With You, so he can be forgiven for having bittersweet feelings about the allegedly sacred institution of marriage. While One Hour With You is a celebration of conjugal love, it is also a cynical examination of the fragility of devotion. Temptation is everywhere, and whether one indulges or stays true, we are most often guilty until proven innocent.

For Andre, temptation arrives in the form of his wife's best friend, the sex kitten Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin). Mitzi has marriage woes of her own, all stemming from her infidelity and desire for the delirious life. As her haggard husband (Roland Young) says of the platinum beauty, "When I married her, she was a brunette. Now you can't believe anything she says."

I've often heard it said that no one is meaner to women than other women, which would go some way to explain Mitzi's decision to betray her gal pal and pursue Andre. He tries to stay out of her clutches at first, but at a dinner party, he consistently finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Further complicating matters, Colette thinks he is pursuing another eager young mademoiselle (Josephine Dunn), while the best man from their wedding and Andre's best friend (Charles Ruggles) pursues Colette. So much for the code of honor amongst men, as well!

One Hour With You bobs along at a buoyant pace, alive with lusty double entendres and wicked putdowns. (You should hear Colette decimate the mademoiselle!) Coming in just under the wire of the Hays Code crackdown on Hollywood, this love comedy is as naughty as it wants to be, even letting MacDonald strut around in her slip and low-cut dresses. Though Lubitsch doesn't pack the film with musical performances, there are several, including a ballroom scene at the party where we move from the band to the dancers, listening to them as they trade partners and solicitations. Maurice Chevalier also gets a couple of tunes where he can plead his case to the audience, showing off his skills for comic expressions. Even when the characters aren't singing, there are several dialogue scenes where they speak in rhyme, working with the rhythm of the orchestral accompaniment, giving the impression that there are more songs than there actually are.

In the end, One Hour With You doesn't really pick a side. It's not for marriage nor is it against it; rather, it's more like a plea for understanding. The final scene, with MacDonald joining Chevalier in looking beyond the fourth wall, essentially advises that if we can keep sight of where our interests lie and give as good as we get (to the good and the bad), then why let the small stuff get in the way. Love isn't being blind, it's more like knowing when and how to avert your eyes.

This is part 3 of a 3-part review of the boxed set Lubitsch Musicals - Eclipse Series 8. Part 1 can be read here, Part 2 here.

WALKER - #423

Agitprop is not usually big box office, because usually the time it is needed most is when people have the least interest in hearing it. After the success of Sid & Nancy and Repo Man, director Alex Cox was poised to be the hottest young turk in Hollywood, but after his cultish misfire Straight to Hell, he decided to get more contrary and difficult and make a film about the lingering consequences of America's involvement in the social unrest in Nicaragua. Working with screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop), Cox made Walker in 1987, when the U.S. government's support of the rebels attempting to overthrow the Sandinista government was still a hotbed of lies and controversy. Needles to say, the Me Decade wasn't interested.

Walker is the story of William Walker (Ed Harris), a renaissance man who abandoned safe, lucrative jobs as a doctor and a lawyer to pursue adventure in support of a puffed-up faith in democracy. After he failed to foment a revolution in Mexico in the mid-1800s, Walker, who often referred to himself in the third person, was convinced to go down to Nicaragua to secure an overthrow of the nation's government on behalf of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle). Vanderbilt cared nothing about democracy beyond it being a means for him to secure exclusive rights of trade through Nicaragua; that means was a tool to secure Walker's service. Such are dirty deals made in the American system.

As a character, Walker is a complex mixture of personal pain, pride, and conviction--a perfect concoction for an actor with Ed Harris' stoic intensity. His decision to take Vanderbilt's assignment comes after he loses his fiancée (Marlee Matlin) to cholera, and so jumping back into battle is as much to hide from his grief as it is a righteous cause. He also rejected God on her deathbed, so his moral posturing has lost some of its gravity. Not that he expresses any of this. A reserved man, he keeps his thoughts bottled up and conducts himself with a self-possessed rigidity. He is a walking, breathing embodiment of Manifest Destiny, strutting imperiously through gunfire and chaos without being harmed. Parts of Walker's journals are used as voiceover, often as ironic commentary to the action. He was the greatest of spin doctors, turning the bleakest situation into propaganda.

Wurlitzer and Cox establish a darkly comic tone for their satire. The filmmaking style of Walker is just shy of crossing the line into gonzo territory. Cox uses several incongruous elements to achieve a sense of irony in the picture. This notably includes former Clash-frontman Joe Strummer's peppy, Latin-flavored score, which pairs mariachi horns with slow-motion death and destruction. The most talked about incongruity, though, is the introduction of anachronistic elements. We see the wealthy businessmen of the region reading Newsweek and Walker's face on the cover of Time. At the climax, the modern world comes crashing into the old one in all of its mechanized glory, changing the fate of William Walker in one dramatic swoop.

I think you'd have to be a dunderhead to miss Cox's point: the Reagan administration's campaign to interfere in Nicaragua is part of a long history of U.S. interference in that country. In the 1850s, the people rose up and eventually kicked us out, and this was exactly what was happening again in the 1980s. America's cockiness was no match for the will of the people, and democracy did not mean foreign rule. Walker's ultimate fate is also part of a larger pattern of U.S. backed dictators that grow mad with power and get abandoned by the people who put them in its seat. In order to maintain control of the nation, William Walker betrays each of his principles one by one, and with each restraint that gets lifted, the world around him declines deeper into madness. By the end, it's beginning to look a lot like Apocalypse Now, something that was likely intentional given that Cox begins his closing credits with a clip of President Reagan insisting comparisons between Nicaragua and Vietnam to be baseless. Sarcastic juxtaposition, anyone?

Though many of today's cable news pundits would have us believe that history is vindicating Reagan in all things, more rational minds will show the advantage is Alex Cox's. Just as history will also likely not be in George W. Bush's favor for leading America into virtually the same swampy morality of greed with his campaign in Iraq.

But just because Alex Cox is right, does that make Walker any good? I'd say the answer is yes and no, but mostly yes. The film received a pretty horrendous critical drubbing in 1987, and I'd say unfairly. The film does have its faults. There are times when it feels like the director is in less control of his picture than he should be, and it comes dangerously close to veering off the edge. If you'll indulge another reference to Apocalypse Now, in much the same way the insanity of the war he was portraying infected Francis Ford Coppola, so too does it feel like Cox is getting lost in the carnage of Nicaragua. Just as William Walker couldn’t keep a firm grip on his army, the final film suggests Alex Cox found Walker a slippery fish.

Even so, as I said, the answer is mostly yes, the film is mostly good. Walker remains as potent a blast of political anger twenty years later. Its reemergence on DVD for this excellent Criterion edition has come at just the right time, too. Given all the madness around us, maybe a bloody, anarchic allegory will restore a little lucidity to the arena.

One can only hope.

For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Saturday, February 9, 2008


"To want something, you have to be alive." - Ferdinand quoting Marianne back to her in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou

If ever there was a Godard movie that deserved to be iconic, it's Pierrot le fou, which itself is one long chain of icons and iconic images bound end to end. Icons from dime novels, Hollywood cinema, great works of art, pop culture, poetry, and children's stories, simultaneously looking backward and forward while being very much of its time.

"Pierrot le fou" (fou: clown, fool, madman) is the nickname given to Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) by his girlfriend Marianne (Anna Karina). At the start of the film, Ferdinand is a family man eager to escape his life of quiet desperation, seeking refuge in stories about artists and American movies; at the end of the movie, he has painted his face blue and wrapped himself in dynamite, a living art project. In the final moments, he regrets everything and tries to take it back. It's too late.

Not that he couldn't have seen it coming. Marianne has dubbed him the cuckold, the name Pierrot referring to a clown in the Commedia dell'Arte who wanders the stage wearing a frown, distraught over his dashed love for Columbine, who has jilted him in favor of the colorful Harlequin. Pierrot wears white robes, the blank slate of a drab existence. This is what Marianne sees when she sees Ferdinand, no matter how much he denies the christening.

Marianne isn't all bad. The couple is in love, even if the love goes up like the bathtub of napalm the pair discusses in the film. I think there is evidence in all of Jean-Luc Godard's movies that he believed in true love. It's just that he also believed that truth turns to lies eventually, and this is the essential rollover that comes in Pierrot le fou. Ferdinand and Marianne lie to each other and they lie to themselves.

The two actually dated five years prior to their reconnecting at the start of the film. Ferdinand and his wife (Graziela Galvani) are going out for the evening with another couple, and the other husband (Georges Staquet) has offered to bring his niece to babysit their kids. Ferdinand immediately insists that, knowing his friend, the babysitter won't be his real niece but a call girl pretending to be. What does it mean, then, when she is really Ferdinand's old flame come back from wherever that flame was extinguished?

With Marianne back in his life, Ferdinand immediately leaves his family and goes on the road with her. They begin a life of crime, a killing spree to envy that of Bonnie and Clyde. Pierrot le fou predates Arthur Penn's bloody tribute to that infamous couple by two years (Bonnie & Clyde was released in 1967, Pierrot in 1965), but given how immersed in film culture Godard was, it's just as easy to imagine him a clairvoyant looking ahead at what was to come as it is to look back at his actual reference points. While the fugitive lovers of Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night (1948) are the proud parents of Ferdinand and Marianne, these two also begat the killer and his girlchild in Terence Malick's Badlands (1973). In the latter case, both couples end up hiding out in an idyllic forest, living and breathing the same air as one another and existing for no one else.

Pierrot le fou doesn't stop short at being just a crime picture, though, it's also one of Godard's most incisive examinations of how men and women communicate. When Marianne is brought over to babysit, Ferdinand and the others go to a party where everyone speaks in advertising copy. There, Ferdinand meets the real-life film director Samuel Fuller, a hard-as-nails movie maker and a big influence on Godard. Through his character, Godard asks Fuller to define cinema, and the mentor says that cinema is emotions. Unbeknownst to Ferdinand, he's already proving that, the lighting on the screen changing colors like a mood ring, reflecting Ferdinand's nausea and malaise through queasy tints carefully chosen by genius cinematographer Raoul Coutard.

The road trip that follows is good for the duo as long as it's one powered by emotion, but as soon as they slow down and have time to rationalize, it all starts to go pear-shaped. Though they begin on the same page, speaking in poetic declarations and fractured dialectics, Ferdinand and Marianne eventually lose the ability to communicate. He is obsessed with books, but she wants to listen to music. According to Marianne, he speaks in words, but she looks in feelings. Even in their false drama, a play about the Vietnam War they perform for Americans at the seaside, they are at odds: he is the bullying nephew of Uncle Sam, she the seemingly helpless niece of Uncle Ho, lying in wait to jump out with a grenade the moment he underestimates her.

So it will be with their real life of crime, too, with their real life of amour. He is just playing, but she's living it. He is engaging in an intellectual exercise, but she is in it whole-heartedly, and before Ferdinand knows it, it's gone too far and she's gone again.

Though Godard lets the lovers linger in their quieter moments, he moves the transitions at a rapid pace, quick cutting through classical paintings, pulp magazine covers, and comic book imagery. His romantics speak underneath the images, naming their activities after famous books. Pierrot le fou is a pop art explosion, the convergence of centuries of entertainment coming together in a way that equalizes them all without lacing it with the irony of the Warhol school. This is also how Godard can stitch together all of the films he loves, how Marianne can be named for Renoir (the painter and his son, the director), how they can commit a robbery using tricks learned from Laurel and Hardy. As I've suggested, even when Godard doesn't mean to, he evokes other cinematic works. As Marianne's story gets more confused, I am sure I am not the only one who has wondered if her brother and Fred (Dirk Sanders) are the same person, which brings to mind the other absent brother named Fred who belonged to Holly Golightly, the equally alluring girl who spouted so many fictions in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Marianne and Ferdinand get by on telling stories, on self-invention and reinvention. Even the movie is a reinvention, ripping its story from the novel Obsession by Lionel White.

On the subject of reinvention, something must be said for the knock-out job Criterion has done here on their new two-disc release of Pierrot le fou. Fans of the movie have had to make due with the 1998 Fox Lorber release of the movie. Calling that DVD woefully inadequate would be kind. The new transfer, overseen by Coutard, is galaxies away from the faded and uninspired old version. The colors are bright and pop from the screen, every detail coming alive and clearly visible. You'll feel like you're seeing Pierrot le fou for the very first time. (You can view comparison shots from the old DVD by following these links: an image from the same party scene with Fuller here and of the night driving scene here. They show how bad the old disc was. The color correction was way off.)

Special praise must also be given to the art direction on the disc. As with many of their other Godard discs (Masculin Feminin and A Woman is a Woman immediately spring to mind), the art team has taken their cue from the movie itself, designing the packaging to go hand-in-hand with the treasure it holds. From the front cover through the booklet, to the images on the discs and the menus on the screen, the fonts share the same quirks as Godard's credits, and the images aren't just chosen from the collages of imagery the director put together, but they've isolated stills and captures from the movie that share the same totemic quality.

The second disc of supplemental features won't disappoint, either. Old interviews with the actors and director sit alongside a new chat with Anna Karina; there is a lengthy documentary about the off-screen relationship between Godard and Karina, and there is also a guide to the allusions laced through the film, once more following in the tradition of other Godard Criterions like Breathless and Band of Outsiders.

And, of course, there is the theatrical trailer, which Godard fans know are usually like mini films unto themselves.

Friday, February 8, 2008


"Girls who start with breakfast don't usually stay for supper." - Franzi, as played by Claudette Colbert

When writing about the first two movies in the Eclipse Lubitsch Musicals boxed set, I noted a common thread in those movies of the independent woman having to give up at least some of her independence in order to be in a happy relationship. As it turns out, movie #3 goes in a different direction, proving that the whole goose and gander cliché holds true even in frothy romances.

In The Smiling Lieutenant, Maurice Chevalier returns to Ernst Lubitsch's stage to play Niki. Niki is a guard in service to the palace in 18th-century Vienna, and he's a rapscallious playboy. It takes us no more than one scene to suss out Niki's character. The movie begins with a tailor knocking on his door, bill in hand, only not to have his inquiry answered. As the tailor walks down the stairs, a gorgeous dame passes him on the way up. She is ushered right in. In a sly bit of business, the light outside the door brightens, and then dims in a slow fade, letting us know that this young lady stayed for quite a while.

The swinging bachelor is enlisted by his married cohort to be his wingman in an illicit affair. The married man has fallen for a beautiful violinist named Franzi. Things don't go quite as planned at the nightclub, however. Claudette Colbert looks like a milky piece of European candy on stage, and Niki becomes determined to gobble her up. Except she's not so easily consumed. Though he asks her to stay over and have breakfast with him, she says first he should start by meeting her for tea, and then dinner, and then maybe breakfast. The treat that can't be obtained is all the sweeter.

A passionate love affair blossoms, and the Don Juan only has eyes for his Franzi. Ironically, now that his wandering eye has ceased wandering, a stray wink gets him in trouble. While serving duty at a parade for the visiting king of Flausenthurm (George Barbier), the look of love that Niki tosses at Franzi is accidentally caught by Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins in her third film, and the first with the director). A national scandal erupts, and when Niki tries to charm his way out of trouble, it works a little too well: he ends up being forced down the aisle with Anna.

Most of the songs in The Smiling Lieutenant are romantic, though occasionally cheeky, duets between Colbert and Chevalier. Yet, in his third musical in as many years, Lubitsch is finding new ways to stretch the genre he all but invented. One of the most memorable numbers is when an oblivious Niki returns to Franzi, and as the pair sings of their lusty affection for one another, we also cut back to the palace and Anna's girlish declarations of her first crush. It's the most sophisticated number yet in the Lubitsch Musicals set, adding more conventional storytelling skills to the performance numbers.

It's also 1931, and so some of the music (composed by Oscar Straus with lyrics by Clifford Grey) also reflects the jazz age, somewhat anachronistically given Lubitsch's almost fairy tale reconstruction of Europe. In perhaps the most memorable number, Franzi naughtily schools Anna in the ways of the bedroom. After comparing Anna's shin-length bloomers to her own knee-baring undergarments, Franzi tells the princess that she must "Jazz Up Your Lingerie" if she wishes to seduce Niki. A haircut and a wardrobe change later, and the dowdy royal is now a flapper!

This is the most delicious gender twist in The Smiling Lieutenant, making it more than the simple comedy of errors it appears on the surface. The happy-go-lucky bachelor's accidental marriage is karmic retribution for his previously easy-come, easy-go love life. Just when he is ready to settle down with one woman, the consequences of his loose morals catch up with him. On his wedding night, he uses fast-talking to keep himself out of the conjugal bed when previously he had applied the same skills to getting girls to jump in it. Once Franzi lands in Flausenthurm, he maintains his devotion to her, but only at the expense of his wife. One commitment betrays another.

The "Jazz Up Your Lingerie" sequence is essentially a vote of confidence for the liberated female and oddly affirms Niki's love of strong women who can be sexual without being submissive. It's the free-living lady that Niki wants to take home, and so when Franzi teaches Anna to be more like her, it's new feminism winning out over old-fashioned morality. The anachronistic setting suddenly makes sense: the Victorian Age must give way to the Jazz Age.

With all the fun twists and crafty innuendos, The Smiling Lieutenant is pure joy to watch. The fact that there is a little added kick just under the surface is the cinematic equivalent of the garter belt under the skirt: you know it's there, you hope it's there, and what a delight it is to find it!

This is part 2 of a 3-part review of the boxed set Lubitsch Musicals - Eclipse Series 8.