Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The buttoned-down, mild-mannered file clerk and amateur poet Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) has brought his new bride, Wanda (Brunella Bovo), to Rome for their honeymoon. Rather than enjoying each other's company alone, however, Ivan has planned the whole trip around visiting with his family, the highlight of which will be an audience with the Pope. Given the sprightliness of Ivan's eyebrows when he mentions their return to the hotel in the evening, it doesn't appear that he intends the whole trip to be taken up with pious gesticulation, but as far as Wanda is concerned, that would be all right, too. She doesn't seem all that thrilled to be a newlywed, and those eyebrows freak her out a little. (I don't blame her. They freak me out, too.)

Wanda also has a secret. When her husband is napping and she is supposed to be bathing, she sneaks out of the hotel to go to the offices of the publisher of her favorite romantic fumetti, the photo comics popularized by the Italians. There she hopes to meet Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), the actor who plays the White Sheik, Wanda's favorite character in the comics. She has drawn his portrait, which she plans to drop off and then sneak back to her hotel before Ivan notices she is gone. The Sheik has other plans, though. He gets one of the other actors to load Wanda onto a truck and take her out to that day's photo shoot at the beach. Once he has her trapped there, the low-rent Rudy Valentino tries to seduce her. Meanwhile, poor Ivan is left to try to keep his family from discovering that Wanda isn't really upstairs with a headache.

The White Sheik was film #1 1/2 for Federico Fellini, and his first as a solo director. Released in 1952, it didn't exactly set the world on fire, and though it has had a critical reevaluation since, I still find it to be a mere trifle in the director's early career. This movie seems like a warm-up, with key moments acting as rehearsals for the more realized features to come, including I Vitelloni and Nights of Cabiria.

What Fellini is trying to do here is make a simultaneous homage and satire of early cinema, with the fumetti replacing silent movies. I suppose that choice could be a subtle dig at the state of motion pictures, that their best days are frozen in still images on a page, but The White Sheik doesn't feel that sharp. Wanda is the perpetual dreamer who will discover that her invented paramour is a lout and an oaf, a lesson she will have to learn before she can settle into marriage with Ivan; likewise, Ivan is going to learn that women are not as delicate nor as innocent as he has believed. Consider that Wanda's salvation comes during an amusing suicide attempt, where statues of angels on all sides of her offer redemption (or perhaps the way out) by coyly keeping their backs turned to her. It's okay, they aren't looking! On the other hand, Ivan is rescued by a couple of hookers.

It's that scene with Ivan and the ladies of the evening that truly points out that something is not quite right with The White Sheik. Ivan meets two women, and of them is Fellini's wife and his soon-to-be-regular star, Giulietta Masina. She is playing an early version of her Cabiria character, coming onto screen doing a little dance, mimicking a performance she just saw. In a way, she is no different than Wanda in that her head is in the clouds, her thoughts taken up with fanciful entertainment, and she reacts to Ivan's story like it's a soap opera being played out for her pleasure. She quickly exits again, leaving with a fire eater no less, and the spark she brought in with her goes right out.

Up until Giulietta's arrival, The White Sheik is playing at being a screwball comedy, but it never really finds its pace. Leopoldo Trieste, who with his curly hair and moustache looks like a Gilbert Hernandez cartoon, is running around, mugging for the camera, and playing the hapless husband. He is accompanied by Nino Rota's buoyant music, but the score always seems to be racing around Ivan like an eager puppy rather than adding to the spring in his step. The comedy here is too subdued. If it were a car, it would be pulled over for driving too slow while the rest of the cars speed by. Fellini can never really get it started.

I was actually surprised by how little presence Alberto Sordi had as the Sheik. He gets some great comic moments in I Vitelloni, Fellini's next picture, and pretty much steals that entire movie, but as the swishy lover, he's fairly bland. His best scene comes when the bubble bursts, when he has to defend himself against his angry coworkers and his even angrier wife. There is so much personality on that beach at that moment, Wanda is right to run. Brunella Bovo is barely a shadow amidst the spectacle.

When it comes to The White Sheik, it may be a case of too many cooks. Michelangelo Antonioni originally wrote the script for his own debut but never directed it, and then Fellini and Tullio Pinelli rewrote it, and a fourth writing credit is given to Ennio Flaiano. Then again, it's not uncommon to see that many names on the writers' card in an Italian movie of that era. I'm more inclined to think it's just a case of a neophyte filmmaker still finding his bearings. There is little in the cinematography that distinguishes itself, and the editing is often jumpy. In short, it's a well-meant effort that is just a tad clumsy. Not terrible, possessed of a few chuckles, but ultimately as full of nothing as its title character. The Sheik is all charm and smiles until you get that turban off, and then you find he's nothing special, just an okay actor dressed up to look fancy. He's likable enough when he's around, but you aren't that sorry when he leaves.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


It's often said that real-life couples make fairly terrible onscreen lovers, that the removal of sexual tension between the performers takes any fire out of the performance. If they've already had each other, they don't look like they want each other anymore. Naturally, there are exceptions, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall being the most obvious example from classic Hollywood. While their contemporaries Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh don't nearly match those two in terms of chemistry, they do make for a fairly convincing couple in 1941's That Hamilton Woman, the second of two movies they made together. Both of those films were produced and directed by Alexander Korda, and That Hamilton Woman was tailor-made for this scandalous pair. What better for the film world's most notorious adulterous couple than a movie about one of history's most famous versions of the same?

Set at the close of the 18th century, That Hamilton Woman stars Olivier as Lord Horatio Nelson, the naval hero who pursued Napoleon's fleets around the world, staving off the French conqueror's expansion of his empire. Leigh is Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British Ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray). Their marriage was one arrived at by less-than-conventional means. A commoner by birth, Emma entered high society via a gossip-ridden past, leaving dancehalls and brothels to be the kept woman of various men, including William Hamilton's nephew. This younger Hamilton ended up selling Uncle Will his art collection to pay off some rather heavy debts, and along with the statues and paintings, he included the subject of one of the traded portraits--Emma. Though at first incensed by this breech of trust, Emma relents and makes the best of the arrangement, becoming a regular face around the royal court in Naples.

The paths of Nelson and Emma cross when the seaman comes to Naples upon the outbreak of war with France in hopes of enlisting this allied country's Navy to aid England. Though William promises to move Nelson's request through slow bureaucratic channels, Emma surreptitiously uses her friendship with the Queen (Norma Drury) to get Nelson his ships at the speed with which they are required. Nelson is impressed by this seemingly frivolous woman's diplomatic powers. Behind her parties and her fancy dress lies Britain's real diplomatic influence, just as the Queen is the real influence behind her beleaguered King (Luis Alberni). For the next several years, even as constant warring takes an eye and an arm from him, Nelson continues to make Naples a port of call, fomenting the friendship between himself and Emma, and ultimately, succumbing to the fires of romance.

Given the year of production, there is a none-too-obvious double meaning in Nelson's campaign against Napoleon. The film had Winston Churchill's full support, and the terms with which Nelson speaks of the French madman and his will to power, as well as the pride and praise lavished on England, were meant to stir up patriotic pride in the moviegoing public. I suppose we could read even further into Walter Reisch and R.G. Sherriff's screenplay and discern that the portrayal of Emma's efforts on behalf of her country and its fighting men is meant to remind modern ladies how they can contribute to the battles on the home front. Of course, this also can require great sacrifice, and the biggest one in That Hamilton Woman comes about 2/3 into the film when the lovers agree to return to their spouses for the good of England. Every citizen must do the right thing for their country, even if it means never-ending unhappiness. As far as propaganda is concerned, it's actually handled more deftly than my description makes it sound. In fact, were you to never flip over the DVD box and consider the date at the top, you probably wouldn't even make the connection. I could have actually done with it being a little stronger myself. The only sea battle we get to see is the one at the climax of the picture, and it's magnificently staged. A little more blood and thunder of that variety couldn't have hurt.

Then again, That Hamilton Woman isn't about passions realized, but about denial and separation and the price of hidden love. War, gossip, prior commitments--these are the things that push lovers apart, but also the source of their determination to be together. This is where the reality of Olivier and Leigh's actual lives crosses over with their fictional cinematic lives, and how Korda, whether he knew he was doing it or not, skirted around the problem of an acting couple playing sweethearts onscreen. The two had been married the year before, having finally secured divorces from their former spouses, and they had suffered interference from American producer David O'Selznick, who continually aggravated their efforts to work together, and less-than-generous press coverage of their affairs, both private and professional. By the time Korda rolled his cameras, the duo had a pretty solid grasp of what Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton had experienced over a century prior. Once their love has been confessed, most of their scenes begin with distant smoldering and end in painful separation. The few embraces they share are impulsive explosions, made all the more eruptive by the denial that has held them apart. (And, in case we weren't fully aware of the danger, Korda helpfully places a smoky Vesuvius in the distance, viewable from Emma Hamilton's bedroom window.)

That Hamilton Woman first quite snugly with the other popular melodramas of the day, including many that Olivier and Leigh starred in. Korda's direction is straightforward and sincere, with the look of Wyler's Wuthering Heights and the underlying darkness of Hitchcock's Rebecca, both of which featured Laurence Olivier. The film's historical setting and its concerns with the role of women in wartime are also fittingly reminiscent of Vivien Leigh's most famous turn as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, even if the drama is far more contained this time around. Leigh's later career is largely comprised with roles of women who succumb to adultery, such as Anna Karenina and The Deep Blue Sea, and Emma's fate, as witnessed in the bookends on this picture, points the way toward the fate of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. It's almost as if Hollywood branded the actress with a scarlet letter they would never let her remove.

Indeed, despite the backstage truth, Hollywood had quite a few limitations on how it could show such activity in front of the curtain, which is why the final act of That Hamilton Woman goes into such dark territory. Both cheaters had to be punished, it didn't matter whether the story was based in historical truth or not. Personally, I think the movie is better beforehand, what with all the stolen glances and whispers in the shadows, and this is why Nelson's last stand is so vital. Otherwise, the bleak nature of those last scenes would be too much. As it is, in terms of plotting, there is actually too little, with Emma's sad collapse happening too quickly. The very last lines of dialogue, delivered as we return back to the framing device, sound tacked on, as if to explain why the story stops short. And then there was no more, you say? Cue "The End."

Even so, I still quite like That Hamilton Woman. Olivier is fantastically conflicted, playing the egotistical Nelson like an unsure schoolboy whenever it comes time to make a decision about Emma, and Leigh also quite ably shows the dual nature inherent in her role. Emma's sprightly exterior is the product of much calculation. She's a woman used to finding a way to get her way. In the end, her problem is that the world has greater claims on the man she loves, and it's the world that gets to write the story.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


As a fan of early-20th Century American literature, I always noticed that the one group of writers that could inspire real envy in all of the famous Americans was the Russians. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and the like are regularly mentioned by Hemingway and Fitzgerald and their crew as the authors they most looked to in terms of what they wished they could do, the level of craft they aspired to achieve. For a long time, I didn't understand why, because like many young readers, I was a little frightened by the prospect of reading these legendarily long tomes. Charles Dickens wrote books that fat, and I didn't much care for him, so what chance did these Ruskies have?

Then a couple of years ago I finally read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and that changed everything. While I can't claim to have gobbled up a ton more since then, the densely plotted yet deftly told Anna Karenina made me realize what inspired the men who inspired me. The writing is detailed yet lyrical, the story complicated but has enough soap opera to keep it from being boring, and the characters are so richly drawn, you feel like you get to know each and every one, no matter how insignificant. Having experienced Tolstoy, it helped me understand what Steinbeck and Fitzgerald were trying to do when they wrote the mammoth East of Eden and Tender is the Night (respectively), both books I read (and in the case of Fitzgerald, reread) in my post-Anna K. world.

Funny that I should be scared of a big novel, though, as I've never been scared of big cinema. Granted, watching a movie takes place in a set amount of time, and at my reading speed, I've had books drag on for upwards of a year for me. Still, I've spent weekends devouring the whole Godfather set or a complete season of The Wire, an entire evening in an uncomfortable theatre watching The Best of Youth, so why not some time flipping through the pages of War and Peace? When it comes down to it, such substantial artistic experiences are rare. How often do we really get to see or read a truly brilliant work of such incredible density? Berlin Alexanderplatz looked like an insurmountable expedition when I cracked open the box, but I had watched all fifteen hours within two or three days and never checked the clock out of boredom. Shouldn't, then, Proust be on my nightstand?

Masaki Kobayashi's nine-and-a-half-hour film The Human Condition was released as three parts over three years, spanning 1959 to 1961. On this new Criterion edition of the landmark film, the three-part structure is preserved over three discs, and it includes the original intermission breaks in each part. So, really, The Human Condition is like a six-chapter novel, the equivalent of six ninety-minute television episodes. Not so daunting when you think about it that way, is it? Not that you'll likely stop at any particular break. Just like reading a good book, I watched The Human Condition into the wee hours, dropping out and going to bed when I just couldn't keep my eyes open anymore, then picking it up where I left off the next day.

Now, even if watching The Human Condition isn't a daunting task, reviewing it is (I know, and get on with it already, right?). To adequately cover the full girth of this particular piece of cinema would practically require a book unto itself. The reason a movie like Kobayashi's is so engrossing is that, like a Russian novel, it is full of recurring themes, side characters with their own lives, and a story that maneuvers through territory as wide as any map--and likely territory that was also covered in the Gomikawa Junpei novel upon which The Human Condition was based. When it comes to a movie of such magnitude, whatever you write in a space like this, it's like using measuring spoons full of water to show someone what the ocean is like. I need flowcharts and character graphs just to keep it all straight!

But here, I'll try...

The Human Condition opens in Manchuria in 1943. Japan is in the middle of World War II and using their occupation of China and the country's natural resources as fuel for the war effort. Kaji, played by Tatsuya Nakadai, is twenty-eight years old and full of ideas. He believes that improving working conditions for the common man will improve production output, and even thinks the Chinese forced into labor are entitled to be treated as human beings. Not surprisingly, some consider Kaji to be a radical. His theories sound vaguely Communist.

Like any young man, Kaji is also interested in romance, and he has been dating Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), who works in the same compound with him. She is ready to get married, he is not, as he fears that any day he could be drafted into the Japanese army. A reprieve comes, however, when he is assigned a position at a remote mine where Kaji can employ some of his crazy notions in the aid of extracting precious metals from the Earth. This important work will buy him an exemption from military service. Eager to do some good, Kaji marries Michiko and the two move to the desolate mining town. There, he befriends the tough but fair foreman Okishima (So Yamamura), but quickly makes enemies of the other bosses, who thrive on bribes and sadistic motivational techniques.

Kaji eventually succeeds, but not without much effort and little praise. Things get more difficult when the army drops off 600 Chinese prisoners and puts Kaji in charge of them. When his enemies help several prisoners escape in order to line their own pockets, Kaji not only loses the trust of the POWs but also runs afoul of a macho military police officer, Sergeant Watai (Toru Abe), who ceases to be amused by Kaji's tactics. Convinced that Kaji has been turning a blind eye to the escapes, particularly once it's revealed that a Chinese boy (Akira Ishihama) that Kaji has taken under his wing has been part of the plot, Watai puts the screws to our hero. Having already been forced to compromise his ideals to the detriment of his self-esteem and his marriage, and often at the cost of lives, Kaji decides to take a stand. His reward? Conscription into the army.

End of Part I, often subtitled No Greater Love; part II is Road To Eternity, and it opens with Kaji on the tail end of his basic training. He and one other solider, the disagreeable Shinjo (Kei Sato), are both outcasts due to their perceived Communist-sympathies, but Kaji in particular has distinguished himself as a sharpshooter. He has also tried to be an ally to the nerdy, pathetic Obara (Kunie Tanaka), who clearly was not cut out for military life. (His kowtowing and almost pathological sycophancy reminded me a little of the similarly pathetic but altogether more unctuous Arthur Storch character in Jack Garfein's The Strange One, released a couple of years earlier but likely just proving there is one in every pack.) The fact that Obara can't be helped is just another lesson about the harshness of reality versus the purity of ideals that Kaji is going to have to learn. While at the start of Part I he is really a student who has not yet been pushed out into the world, by the time he gets to the army, he has experienced injustice in practice, not just in theory. The army will make a man out of him yet. Whether it's the man they want or not will remain to be seen.

There is a crucial moment in Part I where Kaji makes a connection with one of the leaders in the Chinese prison camp, an older man named Wang Heng Li (Seiji Miyaguchi). Wang has been the man whom Kaji has been most eager to have trust him, and even tries to blame Wang's distrust on why some things are going wrong in the camp. It's Wang that expresses that there is more to trust than asking for it, and more to being brave than being stubborn. He cites the fact that they are standing face to face, though staring across barbed wire, and connecting, bridging a divide between their people. It's the men you meet in life whom you find this common connection with that will define the social contract and make the way for real change, be it collective or personal. This encounter will end up being the most important for Kaji in terms of how he deals with the various types he meets from here on out. Which of them will provide the same connection?

It's also an important instruction from Masaki Kobayashi and co-writer Zenzo Matsuyama on how we should perceive what is going on in this movie. Regardless of the vastness of the landscape, it boils down to the people, the ones who connect with each other, and the ones who connect with us as the audience. This is a technique not dissimilar to David Lean's. The British director used large backdrops and epic stories to create portraits of individuals, showing their courage and their fumbles in the face of situations that were larger than they were. For as awesome as the images we see are, for as breathtaking or soul crushing the locales, it all comes back to the man in the center of the frame.

And make no mistake, in terms of visual power, The Human Condition is awesome. Kobayashi and director of photography Yoshio Miyajima shot their film in black-and-white at a wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Within each frame, we see how barren the mine is and also how cramped the army camp; the unending battlefield versus the stifling forest they escape into (Part III). A figure placed within these vistas can appear lonely and overpowered, or if close enough in the foreground, powerful, eclipsing the world behind him. The size also makes close-ups all the more intimate, such as the scenes between Michiko and Kaji when she comes to visit him at his training base and they share a night in the storage shed. The image panel is all about them, all about their love, be it the tight shots of Kaji hugging her naked torso or when they lie down together. Conversely, when their marriage is strained, moving between them and their separate bed mats within this stretched visual space implies a canyon of loneliness and alienation between them.

Ironically, though the love of Michiko and Kaji is such an important aspect of his strength in the first arc of the movie--she is both a source of power and temptation--the separation of the pair is integral to Kaji's growth in the second. Her visit to the camp is a farewell of sorts. It's tender, and it's sad; Michiyo Aratama is heartbreaking in how she reacts to her husband clinging to her. After she is gone, though, a sour turn for Obara forces Kaji to stand up for something in the army barracks the way he failed to do back at the mining camp. When he slapped the boy Chen on the urging of a superior, he ignored his better instincts for how workers should be treated, and when his inability to push Obara over the hump leads to hazing and dark consequences, Kaji ends up advocating they enforce the army's judicial code. Again, it's ironic in that he ends up maintaining his own moral strength by embracing the army's stringent guidelines and achieves his own purity by insisting on them being followed exactly. It's a similar stance to the one he took at the mining camp, but this time he manages to make it work without letting authority lord it over him.

The isolation from his wife further allows Kaji to create a tighter sense of community in his new surroundings. When asked to train new recruits, he once again insists on reform, and he creates a solid unit by taking a more humanist approach to basic training. Earn their respect and loyalty with kindness, rather than brutality. Unfortunately, when battle does come to Manchuria, it comes too early, and the men aren't ready in terms of skill, but they do share the bond Kaji hoped for. The fighting turns out to bigger than they are, however. Combat is portrayed as pointless and demeaning, Kaji's unit hiding from the enemy like a giant game of whack-a-mole. One man is assigned to each foxhole, so though the experience is a commonly shared one, they are also isolated. The fewer there are to stand together, the more self-preservation becomes important, and Part II ends with Kaji abandoning what is left, running alone into a darkened wasteland, both in terms of its physical, bombed out appearance and the black clouds hanging in the air, and in the metaphorical sense. Our idealist is rushing headlong into an existential abyss.

The battlefield sequences are shot with a startling realism, including impressive explosions and large stagings of battle. The enemy is faceless and distant, but there is a starkness to the detail that rivals Kubrick's Paths of Glory or Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. The size makes it alienating and impersonal. All the more interesting, then, that Kobayashi opens part III of the movie, A Solider's Prayer, with a scene that brings the fighting right to Kaji: a hand-to-hand skirmish with a Soviet soldier. What we see of this, some of it as memories (memory plays a big part in this last third, Kaji's shame shown in freeze frame), is more surreal, the warriors framed in tight shots, a brightly lit night sky full of dark smoke behind them. Kaji is now a man taking charge of his own destiny, and that includes killing. A later one-on-one confrontation with Kaji's ideological rival (Nobuo Kaneko) in a labor camp pushes the expressiveness further, with Kobayashi and Miyajima lighting the beating like a scene out of a film noir. Likewise, eroticism is shot like these individual battles, with the camera moving in so tight, the images of these couplings are practically seen as abstracts.

This fifth chapter is concerned with Kaji's long trek home. Reminiscent of Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain, it first shows his hike across an empty wilderness, but soon he is consumed by the jungle that stands between death and freedom. Once inside, he no longer knows where safety lies. At the same time, he is denying the rule of the army, taking charge over a Corporal even though he is only a Private First Class, and eventually establishing his own mini-community. He and the few soldiers he is left with pick up a small group of peasants that they will try to shepherd to secure ground. Most of them won't make it out alive, but they still test Kaji's faith and his leadership, the beliefs by which he defines himself. He is becoming decisive, acting on what he knows to be right without hesitation or compromise. It's Kaji's way, like it or lump it.

In these final chapters, Kaji becomes a sort of Japanese Ulysses on his own Odyssey, his one goal being to get back home to his wife. Along the way, he encounters many perilous temptations, including several women who look to his strength and dedication with desire, but who fall under his single-mindedness much the way his wife had before them. He runs across leaders who refuse to deviate from their outmoded missions, make-shift refugee camps, and other soldiers who have lost their way, and who either seek the kind of leadership Kaji offers or the lawless alternative. In all things, Kaji emphasizes choice. Like I said, it's his way once you've come on board, but at each crossroads, any man in his company is allowed to decide which fork to take. Eventually, however, he ends up a POW forced into labor by the Russians, a predicament that baffles him. In his mind, it goes against the Communist ideal he would have expected from the Soviets, and it also takes him full circle: he is now subject to the very work conditions he once tried to stop. There is a great sequence where he confronts the Russian leaders with what he has learned and what he sees as being wrong with their behavior, but his impassioned speech is merely splatter against the language barrier. Oh, futility!

Tatsuya Nakadai is still a working actor to this day, and he has appeared in a number of great films, including starring in Kurosawa's High and Low, Ran, and Kagemusha. He even worked with Kobayashi again in Samurai Rebellion, Kwaidan, and Harakiri. The acting range he displays in The Human Condition is nothing short of extraordinary. Though we only glimpse his character over a handful of years (and, indeed, Nakadai played him for almost as long as the time that passed in the script), we see Kaji go through a full arc. Call it a practical education if you will, growing from an idealistic youth with more stubbornness than technique to an experienced soldier that can enact a philosophy in actual situations and all the way to rock bottom. Just like Ulysses, the final leg of Kaji's journey is spent in the trappings of a beggar, though unlike the hero of myth, Kaji undergoes this development for real.

The ending of The Human Condition is bleak. Kaji spends the final scenes on the frozen Manchurian countryside, a tragic turn given that this is where he has run to in order to escape Siberian imprisonment. The world we see through the camera eye is now bleached out, flattened, a blank slate that cannot sustain life. If we continue to consider The Human Condition with an existential mindset, this is a perfect metaphor for the plight of modern man. Sticking to one's ideals, as Kaji does up unto the very end, is a noble pursuit, but one met with more punishment than reward in a world that demands conformity override individual concern. (Indeed, Kaji's problems with the Red Army's approach to socialism is that it swallows men whole in order to just make them part of the same old injustice.) Kaji has gone as far as he can go, and that is a place where he is completely alone, in a landscape that is literally cracking under his feet. Yet, he stumbles onward, his last thoughts being of his wife, the beacon he has followed, the lighthouse of his principles. In one light, this is tragedy, a man who can't be broken but who breaks all the same--that is the human condition, our moral code still depends on our physical body--but in another light, it's a triumph of the same. One can go on but need not give in.

The last shot pulls away from the figure at rest, leaving it rather than zooming in to join it. The reversal takes us from the personal, back to the widescreen picture, back into the world, carrying the image of the man in the snow with us.

The Human Condition has been out of print for many years, and there aren't kudos big enough for Criterion having brought it back to audiences in such spectacular fashion. I've been kicking myself for nearly a decade now for not buying the original three-disc release after spotting it used shortly after getting my first DVD player. In all that time, I hoped Criterion would put out a set and I could finally correct my mistake. To see Kobayashi's masterpiece at last and in such fine packaging--a beautiful looking multi-covered book, a fourth disc full of extras, a remarkably clean transfer--it's been well worth the wait. The Human Condition is an enriching, incomparable cinematic experience.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I think that one thing all David Mamet heroes have in common is that they always get more than they bargained for. And just when life piles it on, that's when they find the people they thought they could count on aren't really the exceptional individuals they always gave them credit for. It's the Mamet social contract: when you decide to stand up for something, most everyone else will stand against you.

1991's Homicide was Mamet's third feature as a writer/director, following his acclaimed con-man debut, House of Games, and the lighter departure, Things Change. His lead swindler from Games, Joe Mantegna, returns this time as Bobby Gold, a Chicago police detective known for his gift of gab. He's the guy they call in for negotiations, the one who can talk any skel into giving up information. As an example of these skills, over the course of Homicide, he convinces a brother-in-law and a mother to give up their family member and a dog to give up his meal. Bobby has a way of talking to you that makes even the most nonsensical decision make sense.

Homicide, then, could be described as Bobby Gold giving himself a long dose of his own medicine. Though Gold wants to be working the hot case of the moment, tracking Randolph (Ving Rhames), a cop killer who slipped through the FBI's fingers, helping a couple of rookies in over their heads at a crime scene sticks him with a case of an elderly Jewish shopkeeper shot in the back at her ghetto bodega. Though Bobby at first sees this as a routine case he can mostly ignore--his partner, Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy), advises that he just look busy long enough for it to go away--the further he gets into it, the more he finds. And the more he talks himself into believing and doing.

The deceased is the mother of Dr. Klein (J.S. Block), an influential man amongst Chicago's Jewish leaders. Though his mother continued to run the family store, it wasn't necessary, as her years of labor paid off and her son is now rich, and with those riches comes the ability for Klein to make his mother's shooting a top police priority. The good doctor and his daughter (Rebecca Pidgeon) insist that the attack wasn't about money--the predominantly black neighborhood harbors an urban legend that the old woman had a treasure hidden in her basement--but about her faith and her ethnic background. The victim had been an activist and part of the efforts to establish Israel as an independent state. Even if her murder wasn't directly connected to that, her family believes it was still motivated by an old hate.

Mamet sets up a complicated racial dynamic in Homicide. Chicago's most wanted, Randolph, is a black man who had the white FBI bust through his door, guns blazing, stirring up tensions in the divided city. Though the cops present themselves as a united front, a single race united by their badge--or "star," as they call it--they haven't entirely melted into one singular race. Sully's Irishness is mentioned, as is Bobby's Jewish heritage. In a moment of anger, Bobby uses the N-word. Only homophobic slurs cross all lines--no one wants to be called one, but the usage is unrestricted.

Still, it's important that we know that Bobby considers himself a cop first and foremost. Not a Jew, nor a Jewish cop, but a cop. He sees himself in the middle, as all police officers do, and that is a suitable stance until people start demanding he take sides. Randolph's mother (Mary Jefferson) is aware that it's a white police force coming after her child, regardless of the different skin tones in the room. She appeals to Bobby's humanity to form some kind of allegiance, but it's already too late. The Kleins have already disparaged his loyalty as a Jew, repeatedly questioning his sense of identity. It gets under his skin, particularly as he starts to discover that the conspiracy the Kleins believe took their mother has some foundation in truth. World War II may have ended more than four decades prior, but a shadow war has continued all these years, conducted in back rooms and hiding behind the veil of "crazy talk." Bobby stumbles into a cabal of Jewish leaders and is even shown a secret Nazi hideout. The challenge repeatedly posed to him: what will you do to protect your people? When will you stop being a cop, stop being neutral, and be a Jew?

Smartly, Mamet's script maneuvers around the political and ideological issues in favor of the personal and emotional ones. There is a sticky morass that the story could be bogged down in. The dead woman may have committed criminal acts in the name of revolution, and there is pressure for Bobby to do the same. It's not really about the larger right or wrong, though, but about how Bobby views the world and his place in it. When it all gets broken down, he isn't sure he's made a fair trade. Being a cop instead of being a Jew seems hollow when Bobby considers the prejudice he has had to overcome. He is always having to prove himself; as Sullivan points out, he's always the first guy through the door to greet danger.

Mamet emphasizes the divides between the many sides in ways that are both class-related and emotionally salient. The most obvious representation of the differences between people is where they live. The ghetto where the old woman was killed is a crumbling ruin while the penthouse where her son lives is immaculate and austere. Bobby repeatedly asks why she kept working "down there," so there is even an above and below. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (a regular collaborator of the Coen Bros.) further illustrates these differences using color and lighting. The ghetto is mostly dark and cold, with lots of grays and blues. Look at that opening scene where the FBI is after Randolph: he practically turns the night air into ocean waters, including the swirling sea foam represented in the smoke that hangs in the air. On the flip, the Jewish homes are white and gold, so warm they practically glow. The racists are associated with red, as seen in both their propaganda flyers and the borders of their swastika flags. Once again, in the middle, the police station is neutral, with no obvious color scheme, nothing to call attention to itself.

Language is also important, as it is in any David Mamet production. The police have a shared syntax, swapping jargon, completing each other's thoughts, and using abstraction to separate themselves from the world they need to serve and protect. When out in the real world, they adopt a patronizing tone. This is met with a much more laid-back street vibe when in Randolph's neighborhood, but the Kleins and their friends answer in an even more elevated tone than the police. They are actually more patronizing, and they speak to Bobby as if he were a criminal subservient to their authority. It's no wonder that he can't help but be suspicious of their motives or even initially get caught suggesting it's their own behavior that gets the Jews in trouble. Homicide would be a lot less complicated if they made it easier for Bobby to get on board.

Fans of Mamet's work love listening to his dialogue. He has a specific rhythm to his writing that plays out best when two characters are having a back and forth. It's often repetitious, with what one person says being picked up by another and parroted back. In a literal sense, a verbal exchange is occurring. Beyond the construction of his sentences, Mamet also encourages a stilted, dispassionate delivery. (Matching that, the camerawork is fairly straightforward, favoring steady, leveled shots over any visual trickery.) In Homicide, this even-toned way of speaking acts as an equalizer. Everyone is who they are, they are comfortable in their position, no need to get heated about it. The characters that do yell--most notably, Mr. Patterson (Louis Brown), the African American bureaucrat who gets on Bobby's case at the start of the picture--act improperly when they raise their voices. It's an affront to shout and disturb the tranquility of the conversation. It's as if language is the one thing that keeps us civilized. Joe Mantegna is a master of the Mamet style. His voice has a soothing effect when he keeps it low, and he can make it menacing by merely changing the tone, no need to alter the pace or the volume (oh, Fat Tony, how I love you). Next to him, William H. Macy makes for a good foil. There is a twitchy eagerness to his performance that makes it seem his manner of speaking is a genial put-on that he can't wait to burst out of--and at various times, he does.

All of these themes and ideas are worked into what, on its surface, is an average police procedural. Thus, we also get some standard genre scenes with the cops pursuing suspects, etc. The Randolph case goes by the book, whereas the Klein case is less ordered and downright strange. When Bobby goes off on his own, Homicide shifts into a kind of dream world. It's secluded, antiquated, looking the same but not quite. As he would in a dream, Bobby buys into the illusion, even when his instincts suggest maybe he shouldn't. He's trading one star for another, the imperfect pentagram of his badge for the more pliable hexagram of the Star of David. Yet, for his character arc, this is where it all goes wrong. Once Bobby stops being a cop first and foremost, his police work takes a nosedive--a change foreshadowed by the symbol of the broken holster and the gun Bobby can never seem to hang on to. At the same time, the new identity he has embraced isn't wholly him, nor did the people who conned him into it ever expect it to be. Once again, a Mamet lead has had to learn the hard way that oldest of dramatic truisms: to thine own self be true.

This is why at the end of Homicide Bobby finds himself totally alone. He is bruised, battered, and unable to perform the duties of his job. He has become extraneous. I am not sure how I feel about the film's final scene. It doesn't have the gut-punch effect Mamet was hoping for, the attempt at an ironic "What was it all for?" seeming to be tacked on for no real purpose. It's a film noir convention, the ending that renders the rest of it pointless, the hero getting gutshot or the money blowing away in the rain. Granted, there were more obvious ways to go, and Mamet teases us by making us think the prisoner who has throughout Homicide been promising to explain the nature of true evil Bobby is finally going to give up the goods. This could have led to some very hammy writing, and really, saying nothing is much stronger and carries its own suggestions: evil is what casts us out, what demands our silence, what erases the lifeline of language. That would have been enough, the image of Bobby sitting alone while life continues without him would have sufficed. The extra reveal comes off as trying

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.