The summer movie season is off to a strange and rocky start. Of the movies I've seen (some I have yet to review), the comedies are killing the action movies 2-1.
* Iron Man 2. Robert Downey Jr. is good, but he's no Scarlett Johansson.
* MacGruber, a surprise comedy hit from the SNL-factory. Somehow the thinnest sketch of all-time has become one of the show's best movie spin-offs.
* Mother and Child, the antidote to that Babies film. Starring Annette Bening and Naomi Watts.
* Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a not terrible but not terribly good video game adaptation with Jake Gyllenhaal. Should have been called Abs of Time. Am I right, ladies? Can I get a wut-wut?!
* Robin Hood, the 2010 reboot of the folk hero from Ridley Scott and his glowering muse, Russell Crowe. It is to Robin Hood what "Garfield Minus Garfield" is to the Jim Davis comic strip, except "Garfield without Garfield" is actually entertaining for a couple of minutes.
* The Secret in Their Eyes, this year's Best Foreign Language Oscar winner is a twisty, involving thriller.
* 35 Shots of Rum, a marvelous Ozu-like drama from Claire Denis.
* The Cry of the Owl, featuring Julia Stiles in a chilled adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel.
* The Dukes, a genial comedy about an aging doo wop group trying to get through hard times. Part heist picture, part social commentary, it's flawed but feels good. Written, directed by, and starring character actor Robert Davi, playing alongside Chazz Palminteri.
* Five Minutes of Heaven, a revenge story that goes surprisingly intellectual on us, but not in a good way. Good performances from Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, though.
* El Mago: Cantinflas is a legend in Mexico, but this 1949 film might make you wonder why; also, Los Tres Mosqueteros, the Cantinflas adaptation of The Three Musketeers could have been funny at about 2/3 the length.
* Mine, an alternately enraging and uplifting documentary about the plight of the pets left behind in Hurricane Katrina.
* The Sun, Russian director Alexander Sokurov's unconventional biopic of Hirohito
Monday, May 31, 2010
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Continuing its tradition of focusing on specific filmmakers at distinct points in their careers, Criterion's Eclipse Series has gathered together five films by Japanese provocateur Nagisa Oshima. Made between 1965 and 1968, Oshima's Outlaw Sixties is a profile of the controversial director as he broke away from the studio system in Japan and started making complex and daring narrative/anti-narrative films that explored taboo subjects and extreme reactions to modern life under his own umbrella. "Provocateur" is not a term I use lightly in this case, Oshima was part of a rebellious zeitgeist. Referred to early on as "the Japanese Godard," his cinematic explorations were of a similar mindset to the Nouvelle Vague crowd, and his independent spirit was in line with what John Cassavetes was doing in New York. Cinema was changing worldwide, and Nagisa Oshima was one of the flashpoints.
Oshima's Outlaw Sixties begins with the intriguingly titled Pleasures of the Flesh (1965; 91 minutes), the first film Oshima made via his own production company. He wrote and directed the feature, basing it off a novel by Futara Yamada. The movie contains some stylistic choices that would allow Oshima to tap into the popularity of the naughty "pink" genre (essentially, softcore shots of sex and a healthy dose of skin), but at its core, Pleasures of the Flesh is a potboiler, a strange crime film with a unique central concept. Katsuo Nakamura plays Atsushi, an obsessive man in his early 20s who has been pining after Shoko (Mariko Kaga), a young girl he once tutored. He has kept his distance from her ever since her parents persuaded him to kill a blackmailer who had molested Shoko as a child. He borrowed from the philosophy of Hitchcock and committed this crime on a train. It's good advice, and the murder was a near-perfect crime, except Atsushi was spotted by a small-time official who was about to be nabbed for embezzling public funds. He blackmails Atsushi into holding onto a third of the stolen money while he serves his full jail sentence. They have no connection, so the authorities will never know where to look for that portion of the missing cash.
At first, Atsushi dutifully does as he's told, but after Shoko marries another man and it becomes clear that he will never possess her, Atsushi decides to blow all the money. He has a year before the blackmailer will be out of prison, and if he burns through the ill-gotten gains by then, he will kill himself and avoid any further consequence.
What follows is a series of paid relationships, of Atsushi hiring prostitutes and desperate women to be his live-in mistresses. Most of the women are picked for their resemblance to Shoko, who haunts his mind like a ghost. The various arrangements peter out when other circumstances get in the way. One girl is a gangster's moll, another is married and trying to earn money for her family since her husband is unemployed. The freedom this money provides, and the schism between bought love and the real love Atsushi desires, makes him cruel. He grows bored with the prizes that are easily captured.
Oshima and cinematographer Akira Takada shot Pleasures of the Flesh for widescreen, with garish, fully rendered colors and often startling, abstract compositions. Some of the storytelling is experimental, and so in terms of narrative structure, the film is a little weak. The lock-step construction of your average crime film, where events lead one to another until often the crook falls under the weight of his own guilt, is absent here, replaced by a more breathless rush from one scenario to the next. It works for the large part, though the serial relationships grow a little tiresome before the final quarter of the film finally turns into its last plot twist. Atsushi becomes entangled in ironic coincidences, bringing about punishments he planned to avoid--though not in the ways he would have expected.
Oshima shifts into black-and-white for his 1966 film, Violence at Noon (99 minutes), a choice befitting its serious tone and its themes of duality. The movie is about a love triangle between two women and one man. The man is a thug named Eisuke (Kei Sato), who is also known as the High-Noon Attacker. His nickname was earned on a crime spree. He breaks into homes at midday and rapes the housewives he finds. On the day he is reunited with Shino (Sae Kawaguchi), invading the house where she is working as a maid, he escalates and kills her employer.
Shino and Eisuke come from the same village, and at one point were part of a collective raising pigs and chickens. In with them was the woman who became his wife, the teacher Matsuko (Akiko Koyama). A flood wiped out their livestock, and desperate measures were required. Shino sold herself to a local man of means (Rokko Toura) and ultimately entered into a suicide pact with him. When her own death didn't take, Eisuke took advantage. He rescued her from oblivion, only to force himself on her--a savior who looks for payback.
Both Shino and Matsuko are caught between their love for this horrible man and the fact that they know he is horrible. Throughout Violence at Noon, they run away from him but also run toward him. The script by Takseshi Tamura, from a story by Taijun Takeda, jumps back and forth in time to show how this killer wove a sensual web around the women. Oshima and Akira Takada use inventive camera techniques to reflect the multiple points of view and the fractured sense of self the women share. Extreme close-ups, fast zooms, whip pans, chopped-up scenes using repetition and quick cuts to turn action into collage--they all contribute to a feeling that these women are linked by a reality that has come off the sprockets. Only when they agree to their common ground do Shino and Matsuko find the courage to act. Some of the material about the two women being one, as well as the aesthetic methodology, reminded me of Ingmar Bergman's Persona, which was released the same year as Violence at Noon.
Violence at Noon can be a bit slow going at times, but its cinematic acrobatics show a more rigorous control on the story than Oshima displayed in Pleasures of the Flesh. There are none of the narrative gaps, none of the leaps that made that film stutter. The conflict between common sense and desire is already developing as a major theme in these first two films: we chase our passion even when we know it's not necessarily healthy to do so.
Clearly there was some cinematic back and forth going on between Japan and Europe during the 1960s. While Persona and Violence at Noon criss-crossed in their productions and likely didn't influence one another, the Godard tag that Oshima picked up earlier in his career has some real merit. The use of Shino's written letters in Violence is not dissimilar to Godard's use of title cards in his films. The French director is also known for his playful approach to audio, and I hear echoes of his technique in Oshima's soundtracks. Dropping out all sound for absolute silence, sudden bursts of incongruous music--these are JLG trademarks. The third film in Oshima's Outlaw Sixties, Sing a Song of Sex (1967; 103 minutes) begins with no sound. The camera is silently centered on a burn mark, and as the music comes in, so does the flame. (The use of audio in the opening scenes of the next film of the set, Japanese Summer, is even more dazzling.)
Sing a Song of Sex was a largely improvised film, and this "on the street" technique and its political posturing add more to the connection with the Nouvelle Vague. As the movie follows four restless, horny students over two days, Akira Takada's camera probes the scenes, rooting out the story. In one sequence, the camera is on a swivel, swinging back and forth between the bored and the drunk at a restaurant. In many others, it walks with its characters as they pass through the city. The use of advertising as a backdrop doesn't just evoke thoughts of Godard, but also Warhol and pop art.
In terms of story, Sing a Song of Sex is about a quartet of older students who are bored and restless as they talk about sex, go out drinking with their teacher and some of their female classmates, and deal with the intrusion of real life on their self-contained world. The movie is set during the return of a controversial nationalistic holiday, and the boys pass by protests without ever considering anything beyond their libido. Much of the film is spent searching for the elusive student #469 (Kazuko Tajima), a dreamgirl that only one of them has even seen, but for whom they all indulge a shared violent rape fantasy. Oshima is putting the political up against the personal and critiquing the disconnect of youth. His characters lack a moral center, and indeed, there is even a struggle to find the moral center of the nation. On one hand, you have the protest against the return of old-fashioned values, and on the other, you have kids looking to America, standing up against Vietnam and singing folk songs from the U.S. (Songs are seen as a method of communication that carries messages through changing history.) At the same time, Oshima brings up questions about Japan's Korean origins and the country's subsequent treatment of its neighbors.
Sing a Song of Sex goes on a little too long. (I had the same problem with all the films in Eclipse Series 21, actually, including as noted above; they kept going even after my interest in the initial concepts had worn out.) The final scenes bring the boys together with three women they have objectified or victimized and they are forced to prove whether they are all talk and daydreams or if they can make their sick fantasies actually happen. The staging is abstract and pedantic, much like later Godard or the pretentious soul searching of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1968 Partner. The struggle for meaning is all too obvious and comes off as strained. Still, Sing a Song of Sex is fascinating up until that point. It practically twitches with agitated energy searching for an outlet; I'm just not convinced that Oshima found the right one for it.
[Side note: There is an interesting comparison to be made between Sing a Song of Sex and Toshiyaki Toyada's 2001 juvenile delinquent film Blue Spring and the Taiyō Matsumoto manga on which it is based. Perhaps another time.]
Whatever wall of reality Oshima shattered at the end of Sing a Song of Sex (I prefer to think he went past the fourth wall and straight on into the fifth or sixth), it stays shattered for his 1967 film Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (99 minutes) (a.k.a. Night of the Killer). This black-and-white parable takes place mostly underground, in a basement prison where a roving gang is locking up abductees they hope to indoctrinate into their wanton cause. Our gateway into this No Exit-style scenario are Nejiko (Keiko Sakurai), an 18-year-old nymphomaniac, and Otoko (Kei Sato again), an AWOL soldier with a death wish. Down in the hole with them are a weary pragmatist, a wise old man, and a crook who randomly stabs people. Also, there is a young boy (Masakazu Tamura) with a yen for killing. He doesn't care what or whom. He just wants to get his hands on a gun and start shooting.
Both the death-obsessed teen and Nejiko represent Oshima's ongoing concern with the moral bankruptcy of bored youth. The old duo "sex and death" come up time and again in Japanese Summer, though Nejiko has a hard time finding anyone who will actually sleep with her. When she finally does, it isn't satisfying and nowhere close to life affirming. When the boy makes his first kills, he also finds it underwhelming. Give the kids what they want, and they realize they don't want it anymore. Nejiko's fate is tied to Otoko's regardless, and ultimately, they will discover that sex and death are tastes that are only great when they go together.
In the bunker, the sole link to the outside world is a TV set, one that is governed over by the pragmatist, earning him the nickname Television (played by Rokko Toura). The prisoners use the TV to monitor the progress of their captors and their gang war, but also to listen to the news about an American sniper that is killing Japanese citizens for no apparent reason. Oshima makes comparisons between this man and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as well as between the political turmoil in his version of Japan and the race riots in the U.S. His heavily coded narrative weaves in and out of these real-world analogues, and presumably, each of his characters are meant to represent some piece of society. Some of the abducted are on the side of the killer, some want him dead, and even the ones who agree with each other can't actually agree to agree.
Japanese Summer: Double Suicide is obtuse by design, and Oshima provides no magic decoder ring to sort it all out. Some of his symbols are obvious (Nejiko and Otoko, for instance, are constantly framing themselves in outlines of bodies, like the chalk figures at murder scenes), and others are lost either to an historical/political context that I personally didn't understand or possibly are red herrings that only mean something to the director and his co-writers, Mamoru Sasaki and Takeshi Tamura. From the liner notes, I am led to believe that Oshima would be pleased that I was confounded by his movie; however, I am not sure how he'd feel about me being bored by it. Interestingly enough, for as abstract as the story is, the film itself is the most straightforward in terms of visual style. Japanese Summer is the first feature in the box to be shot by someone other than Akira Takada. New cinematographer Yasuhiro Yoshioka drops most of the experimentation and seems to favor more formal frame construction. The actors are usually arranged according to a very strict placement, calling to mind the look of classic paintings or still photographs.
I was disappointed to peek at the liner notes of Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968; 80 minutes) (a.k.a. Sinner in Paradise) midway through the movie and see that a Monkees comparison was already made for me, because I was totally ready to call that out. Opening with three guys walking arm and arm on a beach while a sped-up pop tune rattles along underneath, I couldn't help but think of the PreFab Five. Seeing the seemingly random comedic events that follow, the comparison stuck. Though, let's call it out: the Monkees' full-length Head's discombobulated narrative is practically lucid by comparison.
Three Resurrected Drunkards is like an angry art school comedy. Three new graduates--O-noppo, Chu-noppo, and Chibi, a.k.a. Big, Middle, and Tiny, a.k.a. actors Kazuhiko Kato, Osamu Kitayama, and Norihiko Hashida--go for a swim, only to have a mysterious hand come up out of the sand, take half their clothes, and replace them with other clothes and cash. Left with no choice but to put on the new outfits, O-noppo and Chibi are mistaken for two illegal Korean immigrants ("stowaways"), a soldier (Kei Sato) and his companion, who ran from South Korea rather than join U.S. troops in Vietnam. The Koreans try to kill the boys to cover their tracks, but the boys escape assassination only to be deported. They also get entangled with a Korean girl (Mako Midori) who helps them, despite having her own problems.
The odds are stacked against the trio, but Oshima gives them a Bunuel-esque out. Midway through the movie, Three Resurrected Drunkards resets, taking us back to the beginning. This time, though, the guys begin to alter events. Their main change: admitting they are Korean. This is a shift that was set-up by a faux-documentary digression where the actors take to the streets to interview people and challenge them as to how they define their national identity.
On paper, Three Resurrected Drunkards is a daring experiment in gonzo filmmaking; in practice, it's dated and makes for lethargic viewing. Were this really a Monkees jam, it would be a lot more manic and silly, and while that may not have been Oshima's intention, it might have been a little more palatable than the self-satisfied seriousness that is here instead. Everything seems too dialed down, including the more dramatic second half. O-noppo's crush on the girl, for instance, is too reserved, and so his anger when he sees how horrible her guardian (Fumio Watanabe) treats her doesn't have much impact. Oshima is building to a startling conclusion, one that drives home his anti-war message and boils with the anger he feels in regard to Vietnam and the historical mistreatment of Korea, but like most of the films in Oshima's Outlaw Sixties, it takes too long to get there, and the view along the way gets tiresome.
Look, I get why Nagisa Oshima is so well respected, and I also understand why the title of Oshima's Outlaw Sixties - Eclipse Series 21 is well earned. The Japanese film director was an outlaw. An independent filmmaker who broke from the studio system when it was clear he was not going to be able to make the volatile movies he wanted to make the way he wanted to make them, Oshima is a man with a mission. He is an artist with a passion for cinema, and his cinema is about the passion of individuals. Eclipse Series 21 showcases a selection of movies that are sensuous, aesthetically audacious, and for the 1960s, politically provocative. The five films in the box attack the foundations of moviemaking and dig down to its core, casting aside the rubble willy-nilly. For me, however, the more obtuse and disconnected the narratives became, the less interested I was as an audience member. This may make me an outsider, too, it's certainly not conventional critical wisdom, but I have to imagine that Oshima would respect my stance as much as I respect his. Your views on any of this, of course, will also be you own.
Trailers for: Sing a Song of Sex
Japanese Summer: Double Suicide
For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Criterion's reissue of The Red Shoes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's enchanting 1948 fairy tale, is due to be released in July. It's going to sport the newly restored print of the film that we've been hearing about for quite some time now. Spearheaded by Red Shoes-fanatic Martin Scorsese with the UCLA Film Archive, the movie was given a frame by frame scrubbing and has been one of the most hotly talked-about revivals since the new version premiered last year. A few places around the world have been lucky enough to host this spruced-up Red Shoes theatrically, and as of May 21, you can count Portland, Oregon, among them.
I wrote a bit about Cinema 21 in my review of Ran last month. The stalwart little theatre is a Portland landmark. I've been seeing movies there since I moved to town in 1994. Cinema 21 hosts first-run indies and art house, as well as being the main stop for revival pictures. It's because of Cinema 21 that I saw many a classic movie for the first time. One of the most mind-blowing experiences I had there was catching Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death in the mid '90s. It was my first film from the Archers (as they are collectively known), and I was not at all prepared for the marvelous imagination this movie had to offer. At the time, it was not available on VHS and as DVD fans know, it took forever to get a digital release, so it was many years before I would ever see it again.
The original 1999 DVD cover.
The press screening for The Red Shoes was not my first experience with this particular film, but it might as well have been. The restored transfer is everything they claim it to be, making it seem like a whole other film. The Red Shoes looks newly minted, as if it was struck from a fresh batch of Technicolor cooked up in a lab just yesterday. The image is flawless, and the color is so vivid, it's practically a living entity. The range of pigments and the level of detail is simply astonishing. Moira Shearer's red hair looks like a swath of velvet wrapped around a tiny flame, and how did I not know before that she has freckles on her collarbone? I feel like I am finally getting to see what previously only cinematographer Jack Cardiff saw, that I have been ushered through a door into his mind's eye to bathe in everything he imagined.
For those unfamiliar, The Red Shoes is the story of an international ballet company run with an iron artistic hand by the headstrong and demanding Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). On a stop in London, he meets a young dancer named Victoria Page (Shearer) whose spirit and pluck earn her a spot in his Corps. The talent seeker also hires a college-age composer named Julian Craster (Marius Goring) to be a deputy conductor after the prodigy storms into his office claiming Lermontov's latest ballet plagiarized his work. Once under Lermontov's wing, the two neophytes soon find their expression encouraged. He assigns Julian to write the score of a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes, and Victoria will play the girl who wanted so badly to dance, she wore a pair of magic slippers that cursed her to keep dancing until she died.
The 2010 DVD cover.
Midway through the film, the ballet is performed in full. It's the movie's most famous scene. Three years before Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen ended An American in Paris [review] with an original ballet, the Archers dropped a complete dance into the center of their backstage romance picture. It was choreographed by Robert Helpmann with music by the Royal Philharmonic, and it features world-famous dancer Leonide Massine backing up first-time movie actress Shearer, then a member of the Sadler's Wells Ballet. There were apparently 53 dancers in total, and the fifteen-minute sequence took six weeks to film. The staging wasn't a direct "shoot a live performance" set-up, the approach was more like a fantasy sequence set inside the performance. Swathed in paintings by Hein Heckroth, the production vibes toward the surreal, with special effects bringing stage conventions to life. When Julian is instructing Victoria on how to hear his music, he suggests she imagine the things that are happening in the story and make it a transformative experience. What Powell and Pressburger show us is what Victoria has imagined and by doing so they transform their film into something magical.
This ballet is no mere trifle, however. It is not a show-off exercise dropped into the center of the melodrama just for the sake of it. The story that Powell and Pressburger craft runs parallel to the themes of the dance. The push and pull between the triangle of Lermontov, Victoria, and Julian is represented in the Andersen adaptation. Lermontov is the shoemaker insisting that his ballerina perform, Julian is the lover who tries to pull her off the stage, and Victoria is the girl caught up in her dreams and desires and having no clear idea how to get out. The Red Shoes is about the passion of creation, the urges that compel artists to make art. What must one sacrifice to fulfill their dreams? Must art be all? It can be a joyful experience--the backstage material showing the collaboration and camaraderie of the company is some of the best stuff in the movie--but it can also be hard work that requires severe tunnel vision to get through.
The 2010 theatrical reissue poster.
In a way, the characters all represent types, but I'd say only Marius Goring plays his as such. Julian is kind of a big baby, petulant like a schoolboy, and the actor doesn't bring much nuance to what is sort of the romantic lead. A romance develops between the music maker and his muse, and as it blossoms, it also exposes the fact that maybe Lermontov is in love with Victoria, too. It's never expressed outright, but the way Anton Walbrook looks at Moira Shearer, the way he reacts to the revelation that she has fallen in love, extends beyond a Svengali losing his puppet. As the woman torn between the two, Shearer displays both a strength of purpose but also a fragility. Her resolve to be a dancer is challenged by her feelings as a woman. The Red Shoes is one of those wonderful movies where the invention actually works: the fictional artists are creating real, believable art, and the woman whom everyone is supposed to fall in love with woos the audience to love her, as well. (In fact, check my tweet from immediately after leaving the screening.)
It's funny how years and multiple viewings can change one's perception, though. Boris Lermontov is generally considered the villain in the love triangle. He's the one who, in the fairy tale, would curse the girl to dance and never stop. (In the original story, they have to lop off her feet with an axe to disconnect her from the shoes; in the ballet and the movie that hosts it, Victoria's ending is still dire, though not as gory or gruesome.) Most fairy tales are fairly straightforward in their morality, and again, even here, the characters practically fall into stereotype. Or so a fairly surface reading of The Red Shoes might have you believe.
Maybe it's my more advanced age, maybe it's the fact that I've worked in a creative industry for a while now, but I found Boris Lermontov to be a far more sympathetic character than Julian Craster this time around. As things heat up within the love triangle, Boris asks Victoria if she would ever ask Julian to give up his métier, if she would ever want him to abandon music for her. When she says no, she would not, Boris then asks why she would permit Julian to ask it of her. It's a crucial question, and one that reflects badly on the young Romeo. His motivations are selfish. He wants her to be with him and no one else, to do nothing except inspire his melodies. Lermontov, sure, wants Victoria to be his and to dance at his company, but that does not require her to sacrifice who she is--nor would he ever want her to. What she means to him is entirely rooted in the talent that powers her. He knows to give up on her gifts would be to give up who she is, and then she would not be the woman he cares about.
It's wonderful to see how expertly Powell and Pressburger intertwine the drama of life with the drama of artistic expression. The Red Shoes is as inspiring as it is inspired. Cinematically, it melds so many things--fairy tales and dance and operatic melodrama--but it does so within the 1.37:1 frame. It molds these older arts into the newer one, making a movie that is as much about being a movie as it is anything else. It couldn't be done in any other form, and to now be able to see it in a way that is comparable to its debut more than 60 years ago is an astonishing treat. If you can go out and catch in the theatre now, you owe yourself to do so. You can still buy the DVD when it comes out. You're going to want to see it again anyway. And then again, and again. You're never going to want to take these red shoes off....
Part II of this review: The DVD...
Read more about Cinema 21 in this excellent article by Shawn Levy.
Please note: The screen grabs here are from the original Criterion release; see screen comparisons with the 2010 disc here.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Since its release in 1939, John Ford's Stagecoach has held strong as a gold standard in cowboy cinema. It was Ford's first western picture of the talkie era, and it helped rejuvenate the genre, which had become difficult to undertake due to the advent of sound. It was hard to record out in the open, much less contend with the unruly noise of horses, wagons, and the like. Stagecoach also marked the first collaboration between Ford and John Wayne, a fruitful relationship that transformed the B-actor into a star.
As if that wasn't enough historical significance already, Stagecoach also began Ford's onscreen love affair with Utah's Monument Valley. Considering the aforementioned problems with sound recording, it took some doing for Ford to convince the studio to let him go shoot in the open desert far from Hollywood. Yet, convince them he did, and the results are amazing. The wide open spaces, the majestic mountains, the acres of dust--these are things you couldn't get on a studio backlot. In fact, looking at Stagecoach with modern eyes, it's impossible not to notice how good the real locations look and how fake the studio backdrops are by comparison. These are some wondrous landscapes, awesome in scope. How tiny man looks by comparison, how feeble his efforts to recreate the natural world.
Written by Dudley Nichols from an original story by Ernest Haycox, Stagecoach is a movie ostensibly about getting from one place to another, from a small town to the big city farther West. Metaphorically, this is not entirely an upward climb. The path to modernity is fraught with peril, and death awaits at least one character at their destination. Though 70 years later the fact that this doomed figure is the iconic misunderstood cowboy as personified by John Wayne may seem like no coincidence, it actually kind of is. As I said, John Wayne wasn't quite the Duke yet, but the Ringo Kid would put him well on his way. The Kid is the start of the cinematic cowboy as a towering symbol of American freedom. But more on that in a second...
Ringo is an accidental guest on a stagecoach ride that otherwise started without him. Having recently escaped for prison, he's heading to the same final destination as the stage riders, a place called Lordsburg, a town ironically named after divinity but, as we'll see in the final reel, is anything but. Anticipating that Ringo might show up, the local sheriff has gone along for the ride as protection. Curley (George Bancroft) has known the Kid since he was an actual kid and is looking out for him: Curley doesn't think the headstrong shooter can handle Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) and his two brothers. So, the lawman sits next to the nervous driver (Andy Devine) and hopes to ferry the other passengers through Geronimo's territory without losing any scalps and to get Ringo in jail before he ends up dead in the street.
The rest of the riding group represents a cross-sampling of society. There is the soldier's wife Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), and the banker named Gatewood (Berton Churchill) on one side; there is the disgraced woman of ill repute Dallas (Claire Trevor, who gets top billing) and the drunk Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) on the other. Those two have been run out of town for their sins, whereas the more respectable riders are heading toward something. Both the lady and the financier have their secrets, however, and that will affect how they come out of this story. Further divisions exist among the remaining passengers. Doc Boone is also a veteran of the Civil War who fought for the North, whereas the gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) was a Confederate. He tags along to watch over Mrs. Mallory, with whom he has had a past connection. Lastly, the group also contains the odd man out, Peacock (Donald Meek), a whiskey peddler--much to Doc Boone's delight.
Ford assembles his cast and creates a drama both personal and political. Much of what the characters are going through is reflective of the time the movie was made. The moneyman Gatewood is a thieving banker whose disingenuous defense of his own profession didn't likely endear him to audiences that had just lived through the Great Depression (and were still coming out of it). The director's awkward close-ups of the guilty man are jarring, like he is shining an accusatory spotlight on Gatewood--or maybe posing him for a mugshot. As dastardly as he is, even Gatewood is running from something; he fears the same ladies guild whose clucking tongues are responsible for sending Dallas packing. These women are reminiscent of the self-satisfied moralists that caused Prohibition and would eventually get movies censored, as well. The fine society types, including the gambler, turn their noses up at the drunk, the whore, and the outlaw, but Ford does not. His sympathies are clearly with them. For all their bad deeds, at least they are true to themselves and kind to all.
Thematically and visually, Stagecoach is all about comparisons of large and small. A large exterior (the open plains) vs. small interior (the stagecoach, any stop on the way), and those who would live in a free and open land vs. those whose minds are small and closed. Ford famously built his interior sets with ceilings, a rarity of the age, in order to make his audience feel the claustrophobia of so-called civilization. Life with the lid off may be dangerous, but the lid's imposed safety is crushing.
A mismatched group of people stuck in a tiny vessel on a landscape as far as the eye can see--it's a great formula. Ford's Stagecoach precedes one of my favorite Hitchcock films, Lifeboat [review], by five years. In that film, Hitch sticks a handful of survivors from a Nazi U-boat attack on a small rescue boat in the middle of a vast ocean. The close quarters force disparate individuals to face each other and eventually get real with one another, and a rat in the group and a possible outside threat lurking on the horizon creates a thorny tension. Will they avoid the enemy and get home? Or will they end up a tiny blot on the vast expanse of human life? Surely Hitchcock studied Stagecoach to pick up a few tricks from Ford. Uncle Jack withholds violence and builds up the tension until we can barely stand it.
Ford's saving up on the action really pays off, too. He goes for broke in one fantastic chase through Monument Valley. All hands are on deck, every able man has a gun, and even within this feverish flight from the Apache, micro dramas play out. In particular, there is a moment between the gambler and the soldier's wife that nearly drifts into the most deadly cynicism, but Mrs. Mallory prays for a Deus Ex Machina, and a Deus Ex Machina does arrive. The whole sequence moves at a breathtaking pace, all the more tantalizing for the fact that it completely sheds the rickety editing, wooden acting, and clumsy cutaways that make some of the earlier, quieter scenes come off as antiquated. It's like Ford was the true frontiersman, and he was just waiting to be unleashed.
This rush of action is followed by a surprising denouement in Lordsburg where other business has to be answered for. Some of the personal changes that occur out in the desert don't take, but most of the characters have been irrevocably altered whether they want to admit it or not. Ford approaches the inevitable showdown soberly: the Ringo Kid has everything to lose now, and the fact that he will risk it is more an act of fatalism than it is cowpoke romanticism. (Fatalism is invoked more than once in the movie. Doc Boone swears to live by it, and Ringo philosophizes that "There are some things a man just can't run away from." It's a credo as existentially downbeat as Sam Spade's motivation in Huston's The Maltese Falcon [review]: "When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it.")
It seems to me that the reason Stagecoach still feels so alive after all these years is because even though it looks and feels like every Western we've already seen, that it invented every cliché that would follow, right down to its score of American folk music, Stagecoach is really nothing like any of the movies that have followed. Sure, they all borrowed from Ford, but they never really get a handle on everything that works here. Maybe why it worked, but not exactly how. And so for all of John Wayne's ambling around and for the stock character types and even the somewhat predictable stunts (man falls under the horses just at the right spot to have the coach pass over him, Wayne has to jump down and grab the reins at top speed), Stagecoach doesn't actually show the wear of its imitators. The copycat moths could not chew away its wardrobe because it's really cast-iron armor, and it's going to take more than the sincerest form of flattery to tarnish it.
It's called good storytelling, kids. Yes, time may change things, standards of quality may shift, technique become more sophisticated, but a good script will beat out 3-D CGI any day. Though, imagining Stagecoach in IMAX with the Duke standing as tall as the highest plateau in Monument Valley...that might just work, too.
Criterion's two-disc edition of Stagecoach comes in a clear plastic case, normal-sized, with a double-staggered tray to hold both DVDs on one side. The 32-page accompanying booklet has photos, chapter listings, credits, an essay by David Cairns, and the "Stage to Lordsburg" short story by Ernest Haycox that was the source material for the picture.
DVD 2 is nothing but supplements, leading with the wonderful gift of Ford's 1917 silent film Bucking Broadway. This 54-minute film features cowboy star Harry Carey as a horse trainer engaged to the ranch owner's daughter. Things are idyllic until a city slicker comes in and takes away his girl. Convinced that she is in trouble, the cowboy heads to New York to win her back. It's a melodrama, essentially: a dastardly mustachioed man woos the girl only to reveal himself to not be all he seems. Ford also injects comedy into the story, particularly with scenes of the bumbling country boy in the city, getting hustled by fast women and pulling his gun on a rattling radiator. The whole thing ends in a brawl, and Ford stages the action so that it's big, the men splashing around in a fountain as they plaster each other with punches. In this early film, the director already shows an appreciation for large landscapes, whether it be outside or inside, the country or the town. One impressive scene shows the men at work breaking horses, and the camera is set up at a distance so that we can see the full length of their ride. Other scenes, particularly the romantic ones between Carey and the girl and the ironically intimate ones between him and the con lady, are shown right up close, Ford using the background to show how intimate they really are.
For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.
Saturday, May 8, 2010
Nicolas Roeg's 1971 film Walkabout is a highly regarded required taste. A slab of surreal young adult fiction, it is the story of two cultures coming together under strange and extraordinary circumstances.
Roeg sets up his divide from the get-go. Set in Australia, the first scenes juxtapose the hustle and bustle of modern city life with the traditional native sounds of the country; namely, didgeridoo music plays over the top of scenes of traffic jams, marching soldiers, and schoolgirls engaging in vaguely erotic breathing exercises. We see our central characters within the montage. The girl (as she is called, and as played by Jenny Agutter) is amongst the girls getting voice lessons, and her little brother (Lucien John, a.k.a. Luc Roeg) is seen out in the streets, watching the parade. He walks through a park where the trees are as regimented and labeled as any other aspect of city living. Here, butcher shops sell kangaroo meat. Roeg is showing us how the more exotic aspects of the continent are being commodified.
This, we can interpret, is the modern disease, and the end-stage of said disease is what is about to affect the brother and sister. Their father is a geologist of some kind, a man whose job is to dig into the earth and extract its guts. He drives his children out into the middle of the desert and then proceeds to set the car on fire and shoot himself in the head. Determined to keep her little brother from seeing this, the girl leads him away from the car and deep into the outback. They wander for a couple of days, barely surviving, before they meet an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil). He is on "walkabout," a rite of passage where young men leave their tribes and survive on their skill and wits. He doesn't speak English, but certain fundamental rules of communication, when applied, hip him to the plight of these two strange children (both in their school uniforms). The boy knows where they need to go and how to stay alive getting there, and he begins to lead the white children back toward their version of civilization.
Walkabout is written by Edward Bond (one of the writers on Antonioni's Blow-Up), adapting a novel by James Vance Marshall. The final film is an odd mixture of travelogue, coming-of-age story, and strung-out post-60s psychedelia. Stylistically, it comes off as a bit of a mess. Roeg engages in showy aesthetic shifts (still photographs, a turning-page graphic, etc.), and the story is peppered with distracting non-sequiturs. Midway through the journey, we leave the wandering trio to watch a group of scientists preparing weather balloons. This brief detour looks like it was spliced in from a campy sex comedy. I suppose the leering Italians trying to make time with the blonde weather lady is meant to underscore the sexual awakening that is just under the surface of the relationship between the white girl and the aborigine boy. Likewise, the cutaway to the man who uses native people to make knock-offs of Aboriginal art is meant to show us the exploitation the colonial whites have engaged in since landing in Australia.
To me, these scenes are unwelcome interruptions, and their execution too bald to be effective. Roeg hammers all of his political messages pretty hard. There are, for instance, the shots of Gulpilil on the hunt cut together with a butcher slicing up slabs of meat, which are supposed to challenge our perceptions of hunting and cause us to think about where our food comes from. The boy kills to survive, it's no more brutal than what goes on every day in the city. Further on, we see him wrestle an animal with his bare hands, and it's almost playful. Moments later, white hunters come in and slaughter a herd with their rifles. They never even leave their jeep. Roeg, who acted as his own cinematographer, photographs the killing with the rawness of Vietnam news footage. On paper, it sounds good, but in practice, it seems all too easy. Perhaps it was effective and shocking forty years ago, but now it just comes off as clumsy.
Some of the heavy symbolism is forgivable, though, as it does seem like the core of Walkabout is aimed at a younger audience. Thus, seeing the young white boy playing at war games, shooting a pistol and mimicking the sounds of his miniature biplane, makes for an acceptable symbol of British aggression--especially as, at that same time, his sister is setting up a picnic and listening to an etiquette lesson. He is the more brutal aspects of colonialism, she is the imposition of "polite society." Later, when the siblings find a desert oasis, it transforms overnight into a forbidding dry patch full of snakes and insects. They are the chosen ones being cast from the Garden of Eden. (Perhaps the weirdest moment of the movie is when the little boy is seen in extreme close-up biting into a piece of fruit and declaring it tastes like meat.) It's not subtle, but it gets the point across without being insulting.
I think the main reason I object to the asides to the "adult world" so much is that the contained dreamscape of the three youths is so effective. Roeg and Bond construct their joint walkabout as a kind of magical journey. They aren't restrained by time. In one scene, they are dressed in normal clothes; in the next, they are stripped down and wearing detailed tribal make-up. These leaps add to the fantastical quality that blurs the edges of their reality. They find some common ground despite the barriers between them, and the visual language changes. Early on in the journey, the girl walks under a make-shift canopy, looking very much like a white tourist being led by her black servant. He is an "other" at that point, almost silly for not understanding their way of doing things; eventually, though, they begin to adopt his way of doing things. Admittedly, this could still be seen as cultural tourism, and I am not sure I am comfortable with Roeg visually contrasting Jenny Agutter swimming naked with images of nude aborigines beating on her father's burnt-out car. There are visual parallels here to scenes from other movies where less-evolved primates are freaked out by technology. This sequence even ends with the group leaving the car when the radio comes alive and scares them.
There is something exploitative about the way Roeg films Agutter. Even before we see her naked, she is shown in various states of undress and there are regular shots of her underwear, both on and off. She is presented in a sexualized manner throughout Walkabout, and though the actress was 18 or 19, the schoolgirl she plays is much younger. The story is intended to be an awakening for the girl, and one could interpret that there are unfortunate racial implications to the sexual aspects of it. It's as if Roeg keeps offering her up as forbidden fruit, the white woman serving as temptation for the black man. He doesn't really address the volatile politics connected to that, nor does the movie take any time with the cliché of its final scenes: that having experienced life with the black man, the white girl is now forever changed, forever dreaming of returning to the "wild."
I don't really think that Roeg is trying to play to those dangerous stereotypes so much as he is playing with them. Regardless, he must have been aware that they were there. Again, I would say he's dealing more with culture than race, and I certainly don't think he was being racist, he was instead using these things to challenge the status quo. Near the end of the journey, the trio find an abandoned home just on the edge of white civilization, and the girl starts to set up house. She is creating a domestic situation with her as the mother, the aborigine as the father, and her brother as the child. This, of course, isn't going to work. This is where the white hunters come in, and when Gulpilil returns to the house, outfitted in traditional tribal make-up and engaging in what I assume is a courtship dance, his reversion to his own cultural standards frightens the girl. She wanted him to move closer to her, effectively obliterating the middle ground, and as a result, forcing them both to retreat to what they are used to.
This is some pretty serious stuff, and that is why it's all the more frustrating that Walkabout has so much extraneous nonsense. The sidebars are all satirical jabs at white society, yet they take away from time that could be spent on the central relationships of the movie. Also, if you're going to isolate these characters and send them on a mythic journey, I just don't see the sense in breaking the spell. That should come at the end, when the kids get home, returning to bad manners and noisy congestion. The balloon would have only burst the once rather than slowly leaking throughout.
The new two-disc release of Walkabout is a much needed updating of one of the earliest Criterions. Now available as both a standard-definition release and Blu-ray, the new DVD transfer is immediately noticeable for its severe upgrade in quality. Created from a 35 mm interpositive and supervised by Nicolas Roeg, the 2010 picture is gorgeous. The image is clean, with crisp resolution and breathtaking colors. Part of the effectiveness of Roeg's "magical world" is his use of the real scenery and all of the things within it. He regularly turns his gaze from the children to look at a furry creature in the trees or examine a bug as it digs through the sand. He emphasizes how out of place the kids are by emphasizing how indifferent the natural world is to them. Life goes on, they are just passing through.
The only extra feature on the original disc was an audio commentary with Roeg and Jenny Agutter, and that is also available on this set. The second disc now also contains interviews with Agutter and Luc Roeg, as well as a full-length documentary about David Gulpilil, an important figure in Australian cinema. His work as an authentic Aboriginal actor was as important politically as it was artistically. (Criterion fans may also remember him from Peter Weir's The Last Wave.) One change of note to long-term collectors: the essay by Roger Ebert from the 1998 disc has been replaced by a piece from author Paul Ryan.
Watch the theatrical trailer.
This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.