Wednesday, March 31, 2010


I blame Pedro Costa for my having missed Akira Kurosawa's 100th birthday. I had every intention of reviewing some of the great Japanese director's films for his centennial, especially since Criterion was releasing Yojimbo and its companion Sanjuro on Blu-ray. But then I got assigned the Portuguese filmmaker's new boxed set and getting through it took way longer than I thought and before I knew it, the day had passed.

Still, it's never a bad time to watch an Akira Kurosawa film, especially when it is as much fun as Yojimbo. This 1961 action picture is a marvelous example of genre done right. Kurosawa's main man, the gruff-voiced Toshiro Mifune, stars as a wandering samurai. He is a nameless figure, roving from town to town, who adopts the moniker Kuwabatake Sanjuro. The name is nonsense. When he takes it, he explains that it means "Thirty year-old Mulberry Field," before qualifying it with "Although now I'm almost forty." He's a man without real age, without history, without allegiance.

At the start of Yojimbo, Sanjuro wanders into a town that has been overrun by rival gangs. When Sebei (Seizaburo Kawazu), the mobster in charge of the area, designated his feckless son as the man who would take over his territory, Sebei's top dog, Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka), rebelled and formed his own organization. Now the two square off day after day, effectively shutting down the rest of the village. The constable is in their pocket, and the mayor is ineffective. Only the undertaker (Atsushi Watanabe) is turning a profit.

The local innkeeper, Gonji (Eijiro Tono), urges Sanjuro to move on, but the samurai instead decides to stay. He keeps his plan close to his vest, however, and he seems only interested in profiting on the misery. Instantly sizing up the gangs of outlaws and miscreants as being beneath his skills, he starts pitting the two enemies against one another. If they want his services, they will have to pay. Pretty soon, it's clear that he's messing with both Sebei and Ushitora, stirring up the pot to get them to fight. If they wipe each other out, then the citizens of that forsaken hamlet will be free to go on with their lives.

If the plot of Yojimbo sounds familiar, it's because like all of Akira Kurosawa's samurai films, it's been remade, ripped off, and borrowed from multiple times. The most famous of these remakes was Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, with Clint Eastwood as the nameless drifter who at first seems to only care for himself but then eventually reveals he's possessed of a tender soul. Leone's Spaghetti Westerns are often credited with reinventing the cowboy genre, but Kurosawa is really the one that did that. His detached hero set the tone for the more self-aware and revisionist westerns that became popular in the 1960s and still informs just about every horse opera made today. Even the use of humorous music started in Yojimbo. Masaru Sato's blithe score adds a levity to the violence, and though Ennio Morricone would take it farther in movies like Once Upon a Time in the West, nothing quite compares to the happy tones that accompany that shot of a dog carrying off a severed hand when Sanjuro first arrives in town in Yojimbo.

The funny thing is that even though Kurosawa had an affection for John Ford, he was actually borrowing from another American genre: hardboiled fiction. Kurosawa was really just lifting the plot from one of Dashiell Hammett's pulpier books, Red Harvest. The story would eventually come full circle in 1996 when Walter Hill made Last Man Standing, with Bruce Willis as a gunsell wandering into a Prohibition-era showdown.

The dusty streets of Old Japan sure do look like Old West America, though, and Kurosawa uses them to his best advantage. There is a real sense of movement throughout Yojimbo. Long tracking shots cover the full length of the empty streets, and as Sanjuro wanders between the two factions, Kazuo Miyagawa's camera follows him. It's the same when he's indoors. The hallways of Sebei's brothel work like a maze, and Sanjuro navigates them to stay up on what is happening. Perhaps more memorable, though, is his escape later in the picture after having been beaten to a pulp. Unable to move fast enough to run once he busts loose, Sanjuro crawls under the town. The houses and shops are all lifted out of the dirt, leaving him with a crawlspace. He is down below as Ushitora's men hunt for him up above. The sound effects of all the slippered feet running across the wooden walkways creates a nail-biting tension. When will the posse change direction and pass overhead?

Sanjuro's eventual capture and his getting beaten is another tradition started by Kurosawa. In every one of Eastwood's Man With No Name pictures, he has the tar knocked out of him just before the third act. He then disappears into a hiding space where he rests and recharges, ready to come back and kick some butt. By this time, our hero has proven what a good guy he really is, and it's usually a good deed that gets him caught. What I like about Sanjuro and what makes him a more likable character than Eastwood's is that rather than keeping mum most of the time, he has a sense of humor. He is generally bemused by the goings on, as well as frustrated by the townspeople's inability to accept his aid without getting on his nerves. In Yojimbo, when he helps out a local family, they hang around to thank him while the bad guys are coming their way.

Kurosawa also generously seasons his hoodlums with comedy. There are many funny scenes where the lowlife brigands brag to Sanjuro about their skills or tell tales out of school while drunk. The two assassins that Sanjuro captures, in particular, remind me of Shakespearian clowns, and given Kurosawa's appreciation of the Bard, it's not much of a stretch to assume that's why he injected comic relief into the proceedings. His villains can also pretty goofy looking, like Ushitora's brother, the pig-faced Inokichi (Daisuke Kato). Kurosawa gives him a personality to match his dumb face. He's a crass braggart who usually bumbles his way into his brother's wrath.

The exception amongst the outlaws is the character Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai). Unosuke is the top fighter in Ushitora's gang, and when he returns to town midway through the movie, the difference between him and the other misfits is instantly obvious. Unosuke is a suave pretty boy who is as sharp as he is skilled. He also ends up being a symbol of the changing code of honor and encroaching modernity. This killer arrives with a pistol. He is trading in his sword and signing on to be a gunslinger. The perceived advantage in power makes him mean and especially callous to human life. He doesn't pull his blade or engage in a one-on-one duel, he fires from a distance. He ends up being the main foe for Sanjuro, and how their showdown plays out is an important component to the ronin's victory. Not surprisingly, Unosuke is dishonorable right up to the end.

When Unosuke arrives, Gonji compares his agile appearance to that of a rabbit, and notes that his name is a pun on the rabbit in the Japanese zodiac. Though this character was not an influence on another rabbit ronin, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Yojimbo, and really all of Kurosawa's samurai films, has given direct inspiration to Stan Sakai's marvelous comic book series Usagi Yojimbo. The character of Usagi is a wandering samurai just like Sanjuro, though he is directly based on the historical swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, whom Toshiro Mifune also portrayed in the three-part Samurai series. Sakai has used elements of the Yojimbo movie plot in his long-running series more than once, most recently in the two part "A Town Called Hell" story from issues #124 and #125, published by Dark Horse Comics at the end of last year.

Despite all the imitators, there is still no beating the original, and no replicating that incredible Toshiro Mifune screen presence. It's a shame that he isn't considered a bigger star around the world, he was easily as impressive as any of the greats of old Hollywood. Just watch the scenes where he tries to maintain his gruffness when the innkeeper has found him out, or when he joyfully watches the bad guys killing each other while hiding in a casket. He's a big teddy bear! Don't you kind of want to give him a huge hug? Or at least get a sake togther.

See Yojimbo's trailer.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa is a bit of a difficult puzzle, and those entering his new boxed set cold (such as I did), may find themselves a bit lost at the outset. The Criterion Collection's bundling of Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa brings together three films made between 1997 and 2006: Ossos (Bones), In Vanda's Room, and Colossal Youth. These ponderous, ethereal films show realistic portrayals of the denizens of the Fontainhas slums in Lisbon, ultimately letting us peek around corners we might not otherwise see or even consider looking into; yet, the films also leave a queasy ambiguity in their wake.

The stark aesthetic style of the lead film, Ossos (1997; 97 minutes), doesn't pretty-up the rundown neighborhood or the people who wander its streets in search of food, money, and human connection. Costa's script has zero exposition and barely any dialogue. Costa demands his viewer fill in the gaps when his characters fail to share their feelings or explain about themselves. The story centers around a baby born to Tina (Maria Lipkina), a suicidal teen who tries to gas herself and the infant shortly after its birth. The homeless father (Nuno Vaz) takes the child from her, but when the kid gets sick, he nearly loses him. A nurse named Eduarda (Isabel Ruth) tries to help, but she is soon victimized by the father's selfish silence. He threatens without speaking, acting on his own impulses with little regard for the child, the mother, or any of the women he touches. Only a whore (Ines Medeiros) whom the thug tries to sell the baby to tells him the truth, that she can't stand him.

Mixed up in this is Clotilde (Vanda Duarte), a neighbor of Tina's who works as a maid and seems to be interested in helping, but her meddling only causes trouble and she doesn't really take care of her own kids, either. The relationship between all of these characters is often hard to figure out. What exactly do they mean to one another? Is it just the proximity and the shared experience that binds them? Costa doesn't seem interested in tying these things together, and though it may cause frustration and confusion when you're watching the film, it ultimately proves unnecessary. Ossos is a series of quiet vignettes strung end to end more than it is a structured narrative, with many of the scenes done in long takes and wavering somewhere between improvisation and Bresson-like construction. As the film comes to its close, the wordless exchanges in the narrow alleys outside of Tina's home suggest a cycle of doom that will never be broken. Just as the baby gets passed from one caretaker to another, or the kids trade Eduarda's compassion as if it were theirs to give, so too is life easily bartered with. In terms of survival, anything goes. Whatever gets you through the day, putting food in your mouth or numbing the pain, it's all negotiable.

Ossos is slow-going and it requires effort, and I warn you, it doesn't get any easier from there. In the second film in Letters from Fontainhas, In Vanda's Room (2000; 171 minutes), there is a character who, throughout the movie, is trying to untangle a skein of yarn and has little luck. Many may feel the same way watching the film.

Pedro Costa's approach in In Vanda's Room is to get as reductionist as possible, somewhat paradoxically given the length of the film. He shot the movie alone on digital video, blending documentary into a kind of fictional structure by observing his subjects and then arranging his film from over 180 hours of footage. The Vanda of the title is Vanda Duarte, one of the neighborhood girls Costa hired for Ossos, and she quite literally has invited him into her room. He shot there for six months, watching Vanda and her sister Zita freebase smack, before moving over to another house where a group of male addicts were living. There is little by way of narrative construction here, the only central conflict is that the Portuguese government was demolishing the Fontainhas slums while Costa was shooting. The sound of destructive machines is a near constant throughout In Vanda's Room, but our actually seeing the work is rare. In Vanda's Room is all about what is going on inside, not the external stimuli that causes the retreat into a dark room and the hazy smoke of narcotics.

Not much happens here in a conventional sense. Most of the movie features the characters in conversation, sparking up or waiting to spark up. The most action we see comes from nervous habits--Vanda scraping at the phone book, the boys "cleaning up" their home. Costa stands back and listens, and he captures many stories about what is going on in the barrio--there are robberies, deaths, arrests--but again, these all happen outside. In Vanda's Room makes an intimate whisper of the poverty and despair. It leaves us to wonder exactly what we are supposed to feel. Is Costa looking to elicit sympathy? Empathy? Am I wrong for being judgmental? I was sick of listening to Vanda and Zita by the end, sick of their pointless stories and angry outbursts, nauseous watching their bodies deteriorate and listening to Vanda's foul coughing. The boys are falling apart, as well, but we never get to know them in the same way. Should we even be watching this? I feel like an accomplice to ghetto tourism.

The closest Costa brings us to reflection or exposition are scenes when neighborhood men enter Vanda's room. One sits on her bed holding a bouquet of flowers, looking like somebody's grotesque idea of a suitor, talking about his past addictions and his health problems, and seemingly not self-aware enough to admit current addictions. Another gets philosophical with Vanda. She concludes that the lives they have are the ones they chose. Her most poetic utterance, though, comes at the start of their stoned chat, when she assures him, "I'm not sleeping, I'm listening." In other words, she is not blind to her own situation, she is merely awaiting the moment when she must do something about it. The demolition we hear will eventually get to her door and Vanda will have to leave. Fontainhas and its citizens are decaying as one.

The DV allows Costa to get right in the thick of real life. With no crew encumbering him, with no equipment limiting his space, he can actually shoot inside Vanda's bedroom or from a vantage point down the alley or in a dark crack den with only one candle to see by. It also serves him well when the spaces open up, as they do in Colossal Youth (2006; 156 minutes). The third film in the series picks up in the transformed Fontainhas, now an unfamiliar limbo. The relocation efforts have put the people of Fontainhas in newly constructed, sterile tenements. The high-rise apartment buildings reach to the sky, towering over the displaced. Where once they were cramped and buried in their own poverty, they are now small amongst the government's attempts to mask that same poverty. There is also a lot of white--the outer walls, the inner walls--and it makes the people look like stains against the too-clean backdrop.

The change in the slum has served to break up the community at this point. Costa introduces a new character, Ventura, an old man who wanders the streets visiting his many offspring. His wife has left him (we see her wielding a knife on her way out in the very first scene), he no longer has employment, and he doesn't have a place to live. A civic worker keeps visiting with him and showing him apartments, but Ventura demands a bigger space. He wants enough rooms to house all of his children. He can't give a definitive number to his brood. It's a symbolic distinction. Ventura wishes things were the way they had been before everyone was broken apart, gentrified, relocated.

Some of the same people we saw in In Vanda's Room return, including Vanda Duarte. She is now a mother, married, on methadone, and nearly unrecognizable, having aged six years and gained weight. We also see the man she shared the conversation about life with. He has totally cleaned up and is selling furniture. Sadly, we are also informed that Zita has passed away.

The cat's cradle of yarn from Vanda's Room is replaced in Colossal Youth by a love letter Ventura continually dictates to his friend Alberto "Lento" Barros. Lento asked Ventura to write it for him, and Ventura is requiring that Lento memorize it. It's full of flowery language about a reunion and renewed strength. The poetry speaks of a life joined back together and a positive future. It's an exercise in futility, however; even if a coup d'état hadn't cut off the mail, Lento can't write, so he can never put it to paper.

It's hard to tell if there is hope to be found in the Letters from Fontainhas trilogy. Is survival enough of a happy ending to make these films about the durability of the human spirit rather than wallowing in our most dismal of lows? Writing about In Vanda's Room in the accompanying booklet, Thom Andersen notes that the last sound we hear before the credits roll is laughter. Colossal Youth's penultimate scene shows us a park, the first signs of nature we've seen in any of the films. It's idyllic, sunny, healthy. The last shot shows us Ventura and his granddaughter, the young and the old, the granddad at rest and the child at play. Surely these are meant to give us some belief that regardless of what these people go through or are put through, they will carry on.

While making Colossal Youth, Costa shot two more short films that came out in 2007. Originally made for an anthology film called The State of the World, Tarrafal (17:43) is a piece that takes place in the wilderness just outside the city, and it is a glimpse of a man (José Alberto Silva) who is being deported back to Cape Verde in Africa. The title refers to the name of a concentration camp that Portugal once had for African prisoners, and a feeling of dread looms over the whole film. There is also a weird nostalgia, a sense that the man's family would like to return to their home, just not under these circumstances. Stories they tell each other illustrate a healthy fear of authority as the bringers of death.

Colossal Youth's star Ventura also appears in Tarrafal, and footage from the same shoot as Tarrafal is reconfigured to show scenes from his point of view in The Rabbit Hunters (23:112) (also made for an anthology film, this one called Memories). This is the first place in the Costa films where an element of mysticism may be inserted into the narrative. Tying it back to the stories of death in the other short, we learn that the deported man's father, who lingers around Tarrafal, may in fact be a spirit that is hanging around with Ventura. Calling him a "ghost" could also be metaphor (there is also a story in Colossal Youth about a man whose funeral is being planned prematurely), but in either case, his preoccupation is with wrongs done to him in life and the confusing circumstances that lead to his current state. The Rabbit Hunters suggests that that the afterlife may be no more a reward than living.

There should almost be some kind of patience test required before you crack open Criterion's Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa. If you score high enough, then the three movies contained inside are for you! Costa's reductionist style is like Neorealism to the Nth degree, and his ramshackle narratives are not going to win over a mass audience any time soon. His portraits of the Lisbon slum from which the boxed set takes its name give us a look at poverty and the despair of the dispossessed up close, but there is an inherent distance that suggests we can never fully understand their world unless we live in it. In some ways, I think writing about Costa's movies is actually more interesting than watching them, because things came together for me in the process that I didn't get while I was struggling to get through the movies themselves. The extras included in the set help open up the art, making them essential viewing unto themselves--a rarity in DVD extras these days. If you take the time with Letters from Fontainhas, you will find some reward, you're just going to have to earn it.

Trailer for In Vanda's Room.

Trailer for Colossal Youth.

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

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Akira Kurosawa!

Akira Kurosawa's 100th birthday would have been this month. Today, in fact. In honor of that, Criterion has been running a bunch of promotions on their site.

And one of my favorite newer comics artists, Tonci Zonjic, has done an awesome portrait of the man.

Click through the image to see the bigger version, or check out the main page of Tonci's site here to see more of his fabulous work.

And, of course, check out the many Kurosawa reviews on this blog.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


All is fair in love and war, and they call it the battle of the sexes for a reason. It just gets a little dicey when one of the brawling parties doesn't know they're in a fight.

In Preston Sturges's 1941 comedy The Lady Eve, the skirmish is between Jean (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter and protégé of a con man, and Charles (Henry Fonda), the heir to a fortune in ale who'd rather canoodle with snakes than swill on brew. When Charles meets the ocean liner carrying Jean and her father, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn), the father/daughter team sets its sights on the target. As Charles keeps reminding them, he's been up river in the Amazon jungle for a year. He's a bundle of horny nerves waiting to be worked.

Just how un-level the playing field is comes clear during a card game. Toasting over brandy, the "Colonel" declares his drink in tribute to "Washington and Valley Forge!" Charles counters with, "Dewey and Manila!" But Jean offers, "Napoleon and Josephine!" They weren't fighters, they were lovers, but it's all the same to her. After all, this is the woman whose seduction technique is literally bringing her paramour to his knees. She trips Charles in the dining room, and when his tumble breaks her heel, she insists he escort her back to her cabin. There, she has him pick out what her replacement shoes will be and sits on a low cushion so that he can take the old pair off and put the new pair on. That way he has to stare up her lovely gams to look into her equally lovely eyes.

Preston Sturges was a master seducer, and not just in the way he brings Jean and Charles together, but also in how he draws the audience in. There's a negotiation technique where the party looking for the upper hand drops his or her voice low so the other person has to really listen in order to catch what is being said. It's a contrived intimacy that almost always works, and it pays off in spades for Sturges. The Lady Eve first attracts us with its witty dialogue and slapstick humor. It's loud and easy and appealing. But then Jean starts whispering to Charles, and he has to lean in to hear, and so do we, and pretty soon, we're all hooked.

The Lady Eve has some of the most intense flirting you're ever going to find in movies. When Stanwyck and Fonda lock eyes, they stay locked, nose to nose, breath to breath. They cuddle cheek to cheek, though once again imbalanced. Jean is in the chair, but clumsy Charles has fallen to the floor. She looks enraptured, he looks like he is in a panic. It's that year in the Amazon, the poor boy is about to burst. His head swims with her perfume, to the point Sturges even stages a POV shot, with director of photography Victor Milner shooting Barbara Stanwyck through the milky eyes of love. Charles's snake may be cold blooded, but the boy's all het up!

The plot here is told in three distinct acts, and not the made-up acts that most film critics cite willy nilly. (Seriously, pretty much any time we say "Third act," we just mean the part around the climax, we don't know where any break really is. Charlie Kaufman, where are you?) The boat is the first act, with Jean's con turning to true love, only to be burst when Charles finds out that she is a swindler. The second act is Jean's revenge. She works her way into Charles's home posing as British socialite Lady Eve Sidwich and seduces him all over again. The third act is how she bursts the marriage and how she then proceeds to clean up after herself and bring the con all the way around. (It's a romantic comedy, don't pretend you don't know where the lovers end up.) Throughout, Jean is slick and fluid, always on her toes and quick with a word; Charles, on the other hand, is slow, stiff, and dimwitted. You might almost miss how good Fonda is, his perfect straight-man routine gets eclipsed by Stanwyck's delectable temptress. Watch him on the train, though, when he tries to make peace. That forced smile is priceless!

He's also incredibly skilled at pratfalls, and Sturges puts him through many well-choreographed gags, including a triptych of tripping and spilling at the dinner party where he meets Eve. Sturges is probably best remembered for his rapid-fire banter and his meticulous control of his stock company. (Example: William Demarest, who later played Uncle Charlie on "My Three Sons," is in all the best Sturges movies, and is fantastic here as Charles's gruff valet.) His sense of comic timing and use of the frame also deserves some notice, however. There are many virtuoso scenes in The Lady Eve, starting with the masterful pan across the sea cruiser's passengers as they await Charles boarding. Each one has a line to say, and each line is funny, and Sturges knocks them down like shooting at cans on a rifle range. Then, once he has set up the atmosphere amongst the guests, he tilts the camera up, finding Jean and her cohorts on the deck above. This subtly reinforces an upstairs-downstairs dynamic that runs throughout the movie, not just showing the divide between proper society and the con men, but also the masters and the servants. There is one brief sequence in the Pike kitchen where a butler and a pastry chef argue over what to put on the cake that I wish had gone on forever, except if it had, we would not get the hilarious punctuation of the senior Mr. Pike (gravel-voiced bulldog Eugene Pallette) banging on pots and pans.

Before Jean first sends Charles heels over head, Sturges sets up a marvelous scene where she watches him in her pocket mirror, narrating his encounters with other eager women and even putting words in his mouth. Not only does Jean's pantomime of fixing her hair and make-up emphasize the female weaponry of a sex comedy, but the way we see Charles framed in the glass reinforces his role as a man being boxed in by his enemy, the improvised dialogue proving he is a puppet in her stageshow. Albeit a puppet with all the best jokes.

My favorite bit, though, comes on Charles and Eve/Jean's honeymoon. Jean waits until they are on the train to hatch her plan. For her ultimate vengeance, she is going to play Charles's jealousy in the same way she stoked the fires of his lust on the boat. Stir up your opponent's passions and you blind him in the fight. As Jean "accidentally" tells Charles of one lover after another, Sturges cuts away from their sleeping car to outside the train, starting with a sign instructing us to "watch your head." The locomotive goes through tunnels, it screams and howls and blows off steam--all symbols that cinema has traditionally used to signify sexual release. Here it is quite the opposite: it is sexual frustration!

One thing that struck me on this viewing of The Lady Eve (it must be at least my third or fourth) is that underneath the laughs and the genuinely romantic encounters, Sturges has utilized a plot that is decidedly film noir. In some ways, Charles Pike is trying to outrun a past he'd prefer not to be known for. He hates ale, and he would rather escape the business world (a stand-in for the naked streets) and estate living to hide deep in the jungle, the way a man on the lam often chooses rural life to avoid being seen by hoods and crooks that might recognize him. As the femme fatale, Jean is also trying to bury a past, and her dual role as the dark Salome and the more refined good girl is not atypical of the genre. Think Gene Tierney in Laura or, on the more Hitchcockian side of things, Kim Novak in Vertigo. I suppose it's a stretch, Sturges was probably just playing around with more traditional mistaken identity comedies of errors, but he was also a pretty perceptive guy. Maybe he was reading some James M. Cain and decided to parody the pulpy stories that were starting to make their way into the studios around that time. If so, the dude was way ahead of the curve.

Colonel Harrington at one point, pondering whether Charles will be the right kind of mark for their schemes, opines, "A mug is a mug in everything." This is a noirsih axiom, too, but it applies here to love. It makes mugs of us all, and in all things both Charles and Jean do, they end up right back in the same place--mug to mug. It's not such a bad way to go. Charles is the dupe that will inevitably end up in the arms of the woman, a victim to her con; Jean is the kind of woman just waiting to be...well, not tamed, but she's going to end up in the arms of the guy that at least inspires her to behave.* Like the snake Charles keeps in the box, Jean is never going to be neutralized or stay where she's told. She's going to escape from time to time, but she's never going to be too hard to catch again. What good is being in this kind of fight if you don't mix it up now and again? True warriors never really retire.

Especially as long as there is an audience to laugh along with them. Long may we guffaw!

* I initially considered writing this piece from the angle that this was an early incarnation of what got distorted into becoming the "manic pixie dream girl," and an example of what it could be if the modern filmmakers understood the dynamic of gutsy gal/mopey nerd better. Jean isn't crazy, there is no need to fix her, she's just got moxie.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Dammit, you got me again, Marco Ferreri! Advantage to you. While our contentious relationship isn't exactly on par with the feud between Armond White and Noah Baumbach--for one thing, even if you were alive, you'd likely have no idea who I am--this cinematic ping pong game has got to stop. The first serve I took from you was your vaunted masterwork La Grande Bouffe, and to say I was underwhelmed would be to put it mildly. Your second volley was your follow-up, 1974's absurd take on U.S. history, Don't Touch the White Woman. That film irritated the living crap out of me, and in my review, I promised to stay out of your way if you stayed out of mine.

Well, you had to go and get yourself a Criterion release, didn't you? Hit me where I live, whydoncha? So here we go, third pitch and third strike*: Dillinger is Dead, your 1969 oddball nugget about one man's restless, insomniac night roaming around his own mind. Despite my misgivings, I was willing to give you a fair try. And I did. Only it's another swing and a miss.

Thankfully, unlike the other films, this one neither irked nor angered me. On the contrary, Dillinger is Dead has left me so nonplussed, I really don't know what to say about it. I have no reaction beyond a shrug. Not exactly a stellar recommendation or a fiery condemnation, I know. In fact, I think we'd both feel more comfortable if I hated it even worse than White Woman. My review might as well be written on a wet paper bag.

Let me try to explain this movie for the folks in the cheap seats. Esteemed 1960s screen actor Michel Piccoli plays Glauco, a man who makes a living designing gas masks. Not necessarily an ignoble profession: if the modern world is going to poison the air you breathe, Glauco is going to protect you from that poison. Though, when it comes down to it, he's really designing the devices so that his side of whatever war may be around the bend can survive gassing the other side.

After a brief introduction at the gas mask factory, Glauco returns home. There, he visits with his druggy wife (Anita Pallenberg, sexy paramour of Rolling Stones-guitarist Keith Richards), rejects the dinner left out for him, and makes himself something else instead. (In foreshadowing to La Grande Bouffe, Piccoli stares at pictures of meat in a cookbook the way other men stare at pornography.) In the midst of cooking, the maid Sabina (Annie Girardot) comes home. Glauco also goes looking for some spices, and in the closet, he finds a mysterious bundle. It's a pistol wrapped inside a newspaper with a headline announcing the death of legendary gangster John Dillinger. Glauco dismantles the gun, reassembles it, and paints it red with white polka dots. He also has his dinner and watches some home movies, sometimes molesting the screen, sometimes reenacting what he is seeing.

In the midst of this, Glauco also spies on the maid, and then tries to have sex with her after he fails to wake his wife up to do it. As the man of the house, Glauco is a predatory but ultimately impotent lion. He stalks around, but he gets little attention and little respect. Maybe that's his lot in life. He doesn't kill, he just enables other men's success on the battlefield. Sabina uses the telephone to talk to her secret lover, and Glauco's wife uses her own modern toxins to dismiss him.

This is all told in exacting detail, step by step, with many of the tasks shot in real time and without interruption. The action is accompanied by a steady stream of contemporary songs broadcasting over Glauco's radio, many of them lyrically apropos to what is happening. As the film rounds its final corner, there is even one shocking act that so surprised me, I jumped in my chair. Without giving too much away, let's just say that gun in the first act definitely paid off in the last one.

To what end, though, I really don't know. The events of Dillinger is Dead are seemingly random, accurately portraying an aimless night, but maybe they are not. Maybe there is some complex code here that I am meant to put together were I so inspired. I would make a go at it if I were being graded, but I'm not, you are, Maestro Ferreri, and you've done nothing to compel me to want to understand Dillinger is Dead more. The way I see it, it's your job to make me want to know what it all means, not mine to find a reason for your film existing. That's the pact you make with the audience: we're willing to do the work, you just have to make it worth our while.

What's odd is, I didn't hate Dillinger is Dead. I wasn't bored by it, nor did I find it tedious. The set designs, with the cool '60s furniture and the vivid colors, were easy on the eyes. Similarly, Piccoli is an actor worth watching. He is extremely confident in front of the camera and comfortable in his skin. His every move is natural, he's not shackled by actorly gestures. There is talent here, it's just not sufficiently focused in such a way as to make me care.

The back cover of the DVD calls Dillinger is Dead "a surreal political missive about social malaise," a description that brings to mind Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. That is a film I very much enjoy, probably because Bunuel's pranksterism and point of view give the viewer something to hang their hat on. In his essay in the Criterion booklet, critic Michael Joshua Rowin suggests that Ferreri had no such interest in giving his audience the same courtesy. He labels Dillinger is Dead as intentionally irrational, designed to duck away from any one interpretation and leave itself open to varying opinions and arguments. In one of the interviews with Ferreri reprinted in the same booklet (okay, I guess I did at least do some of my homework), the director states that "ambiguity" is Dillinger is Dead's reason for being.

So, I guess mission accomplished, then?

* I'm not good at athletics. Let the mixed sports metaphors abound!

The film's trailer.

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

Saturday, March 6, 2010


I decided I wanted to do a little homework before my planned second excursion to Scorsese's Shutter Island. Marty has said that Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor, along with Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past, was a movie he showed his cast before starting filming. When I first heard that, it seemed like a choice so obvious, I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of the comparison before. Both films involve a murder investigation in an insane asylum, and the prolonged exposure to mental illness threatens to cause the investigator to become slightly unhinged. Scorsese's film is a genre buster, about as blunt in its attacks on the senses as Samuel Fuller ever was. Yet, watching Fuller's 1963 movie again, I am struck by how much more dangerous and subversive it is. Fuller may swing a club at you, but it's only so that while your focus is on the bigger instrument, he can sneak in with the knife in his other hand.

Fuller was a triple threat on Shock Corridor. He wrote, directed, and produced. It's almost too bad he didn't cast himself as one of the patients, too. I'd have loved to see him wandering the halls, chomping on his cigar. He could have played a guy who believed he was a moviemaker, stuck in the hospital trying to get the inmates to hit their marks. In Fuller's stead, the main character of the movie is, after a fashion, choreographing his own drama. Peter Breck plays Johnny Barrett, a newspaper reporter who has taken a crash course in mental illness in hopes of convincing the courts that he is crazy. He wants to get committed so he can find out who killed a patient in the hospital. Like a demented game of Clue, he will keep asking, "Who killed Sloan in the kitchen with a knife?" If he can find the killer, Johnny is convinced he can get a Pulitzer.

Johnny pretends that he is a fetishist in love with his sister. The role of his sis' is filled by Johnny's girlfriend, Cathy, a stripper played by Constance Towers, who was also in Fuller's The Naked Kiss. Cathy sees the oncoming train before anyone else. Johnny and his editor (William Zuckert) only envision the accolades, they don't imagine any possible pitfalls. Cathy may sell her body for a song, but Johnny is going to sell his mind for prestige. Once inside, he must find the three men who witnessed Sloan being knifed. He will befriend each of them, linger about until they have an episode of lucidity, and then find out what they saw.

The interior of the mental hospital may be off-balance, but Fuller isn't using the setting for exploitative means. On the contrary, the facility in Shock Corridor is meant to be a microcosm of the outside world. Fuller saw the whole of society as participants in a collective madness, and each of Johnny's witnesses will expose not just a clue in Sloan's killing, but also one of the symptoms of the public illness.

The first man, Stuart (James Best), has been incarcerated since he returned home from the Korean War. There, he was captured by the enemy, and the Russians indoctrinated him into Communism. As Stuart tells Johnny, all while growing up, he was served hate for breakfast and ignorance for supper, and the Reds were the first to offer him someplace where he belonged. It's only when another American reminded Stuart of the Communist atrocities that he rejected his new philosophy. Too late, though, to keep him from being branded a Red. He suffered a psychotic break, retreating into a delusion where he was a Confederate general. It's a meaningful choice. He is embracing a despicable point of view that was not only once commonplace in American life, but that many also believe to have been unfairly vilified. (Let's not forget some people sport the Confederate flag to this day.) It's the same way some people felt about Communism, and if his family and countrymen weren't going to accept Stuart's ideas, he would retreat deep down into theirs.

The second man is Trent (Hari Rhodes). Trent was the first black student admitted into a white Southern college as part of desegregation. The pressure to succeed in the face of the hate and persecution heaped upon him caused Trent to snap. In the hospital, he believes he is a Klansman. He steals pillowcases to make hoods, and he chases other black patients in the hallways shouting, "There's one of 'em now! Let's get 'im before he marries my daughter!" Like Stuart, something in Trent's subconscious decided if he couldn't beat the enemy, he would join them. As Fuller saw it, racism was a contagious disease that preyed on the minds of otherwise smart individuals.*

The third man is Dr. Menkin (Paul Dubov), who at one time was a nuclear scientist working in the arms and space races. Slowly, Menkin realized that he was part of a system of institutionalized death. Everything they were doing in the name of "science" was really just to kill the other guy faster than he could kill us. Rather than face the continued horror, Menkin regressed to the mentality of a six-year-old. A child knows no death, only happiness. In that state, Menkin can no longer destroy, he can only create. He spends his days drawing.

Menkin is the one who finally tells Johnny the identity of the killer, but it's also at the same time that Johnny loses his mind. While they had been talking, Menkin was drawing Johnny's portrait, and when the doctor shows the journalist his work, Johnny freaks out. Whatever is on that paper is something he doesn't recognize. Menkin says he has only drawn what he has seen. Symbolically, then, Johnny is being made to face all the wrong that he has accepted in the world. Worse, by going along with the patient's delusions in order to serve his own selfish goals, he has even been a participant. He's no better than the man who is always there, sitting silently with his arm raised in a kind of Nazi salute. This is the man Johnny can--and will--become. Ironically, just when Johnny is ready to speak up, his voice starts giving out on him. A mental block shuts him down at the most inopportune times.

Fuller made a rather smart choice to not visually portray the madness on screen. We never look through the eyes of the insane. There are no fish-eye lenses, nor leering hallucinations. Everything is through Johnny's eyes, the only exceptions being color sequences that show us dreams that Trent and Stuart are describing, some of it footage from an unfinished movie Fuller wanted to shoot in the Amazon (later described in the documentary Tigrero). These are more strange because of their reality, and more richly realized than the black-and-white of the Shock Corridor. Stuart sees Buddha and a world that keeps moving forward, Trent sees cruel rites of passage.

Otherwise, any hallucinations we experience are Johnny's. Specifically, we see his strange dreams about Cathy. Does he really have a touch of the perversion that he pretends to suffer from? It seems to me that Fuller is using cinematic representations of women to make further commentary on societal imbalance. At the time he was making these low-budget productions, a little sex was good for getting your movie on the drive-in circuit. By making Cathy a stripper, Fuller seems to be relenting, but "I Want Somebody to Love," the sad song she sings during her bump and grind, works in opposition to the vulgar dance she performs [watch it on YouTube]. Johnny claims some kind of moral opposition to her chosen field, but he only ever fantasizes about her wearing her showgirl outfit. As punishment, Fuller humorously has Johnny attacked by a gang of feral nymphomaniacs in the hospital. It's like he's saying, "You wanted sex, here's more than you can handle." It's no coincidence either that the killer stabbed Sloan because Sloan knew he had been taking sexual advantage of the patients.

The director saves his biggest portrayal of madness for when Johnny finally goes over the edge. In a famous sequence, he floods the hallways of his hospital, creating a storm inside the building to match the storm inside the reporter's brain. It's Shakespearian in execution. Lear raged against the squall when his grip on reality was slipping, and water is significant in Hamlet, as well. The Danish Prince also feigned mental illness to solve a murder, and his lover was collateral damage. The doctors in Shock Corridor replicate the elements to batter their patients into some kind of complacency. They lock them in bathtubs and call it hydrotherapy, and shock treatment is like being struck by lightning.

I don't recall any direct visual parallels between Shock Corridor and Shutter Island. The isolation of the setting is a gimme in any story of this type, and the fact that Scorsese's hospital was surrounded by water is more coincidence than anything. (Really, Dennis Lehane chose the island setting for his novel to make his detective even more isolated.) Where they converge thematically, however, is rather profound. Both Leonardo Dicaprio's character in Shutter and Peter Breck in Shock eventually have to atone for failing to act. At some point they stood back and went along because it meant they didn't have to change. They turned their back on the truth and then turned around again to pursue it in hopes of some kind of personal gain. Johnny Barrett finally speaks, but it comes at a price, and Fuller's movie stands as a fearful warning, even more than three decades later: if you wait too long to do what's right, it could be too late. The cost is going to be high. When sane men stand amongst insanity and do nothing, the madness wins out.

* One interesting racial element that was in Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island novel that Scorsese did not use in his movie was the racist prison warden, who at one point tells the story's protagonist, Teddy, via a measured rant laced with the N-word, that it's all the people who can be labeled with that word that is bringing the country down. He notes that just because Teddy is white doesn't mean he's not one of "them," as well. Teddy then uses that racism as leverage with some orderlies, basically asking them, "Who are you gonna serve?"