Sunday, September 30, 2012

EATING RAOUL (Blu-Ray) - #625

I remember the print ads for Eating Raoul from when I was a kid. Even in black-and-white in the newspaper, the big lips seemed somehow dirty to me. I really don't know where or how it would have landed on my radar as such, maybe the ad copy made that clear, I just knew this film was somehow subversive. It never came up in my family's discussions about what movie we were going to go see, and we went to just about everything. Just not Eating Raoul. This avoidance carried over into the cable years, when it seemed to be scheduled fairly regularly on Cinemax. 

So here it is some 30 years later and Paul Bartel's cult comedy has come to the Criterion Collection and I am seeing Eating Raoul at last. My curiosity was definitely high. When Paul Bartel, who also co-writes and stars in the picture, died in 2000, the praise for his work was effusive. Sometimes it just takes the rest of us some time to catch up.

Though, now that I've seen Eating Raoul, I'm not entirely sure what it was that garnered that praise. What was subversive in the Reagan era, I have to admit, now just seems quaint. For a black comedy about sex and murder, Eating Raoul is shockingly tame.

Bartel plays Paul Bland, a snobbish wine connoisseur with sexual repression issues. His wife Mary (Mary Woronov, a former member of Warhol's Factory) is a nurse who attracts all kinds of unwanted attention. She gets groped by horny patients and skeevy bankers alike (the latter is a nice cameo part for Buck Henry). The Blands want to open up their own restaurant out of the city and get away from the perverts of the sexual revolution that they find so loathsome. As fate would have it, the swingers they hate so much turn out to be their solution to their money woes. When one breaks into their apartment and attacks Mary, Paul kills him with a frying pan. The dead man is carrying a lot of cash in his wallet. If they can attract more of his kind, maybe the Blands could get enough for their down payment.

The pair place an ad in the local rag advertising themselves as s&m masters, all part of a plan to lure the would-be clients to their apartment, bonk them on the head with the pan, and take their money. When another crook, a thief named Raoul (Robert Beltran, Star Trek: Voyager), stumbles onto their scheme, he offers the Blands a deal: they provide the patsies, and he will dispose of their bodies and their possessions (clothes, cars, etc.), and they'll split the extra cash he makes. This works out pretty good at first, until Raoul's charms, aided by some premium marijuana, lure Mary over to the dark side the married couple so disdain.

Eating Raoul is an intentionally scandalous send-up of social mores, with its sites aimed clearly on the opposite sides of the sexual divide. Bartel and co-writer Richard Blackburn (Lemora) parody both the squares and the swingers with equal venom. The Blands are uptight snobs who are living in denial, while the party animals they slay are twisted and deluded. The net the writers throw over their comedic prey encompasses not just sexual hang-ups, but also how race and class informs the Blands' drive to get what they think is coming to them. In terms of satire, Eating Raoul has the most in common with the John Waters school of comedy. Bartel and Blackburn sprinkle their script with slang for outrageous sex acts, and they invent increasingly elaborate role-play scenarios for Paul and Mary's victims. One is a Nazi, another likes Minnie Mouse, etc.

What Bartel's film lacks, however, is Waters' gleeful reveling in all things nasty and outrageous. Eating Raoul is missing the quintessential tackiness and the anything-goes abandon that have allowed movies like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble to maintain their edginess. Hell, even minor John Waters flicks like A Dirty Shame does the icky sex stuff better. Seeing that sex-crazed comedy had me running Urban Dictionary in overtime just trying to sort out everything referenced in the script. (Can anyone say, "upper decker"?) Maybe Eating Raoul really blew their hair back when the dweebs and the norms watched it back in 1982, but it just seems silly now. The music is outdated, the costumes and sets look cheap, and the big punchline that Bartel is building to...well, I hate to tell you, but the spoilers couldn't be more out in front of this one unless Bartel turned his title into a complete sentence.

I guess it was still kind of neat to see what all the fuss was about after all this time, but if you don't have the same nostalgic connection to Eating Raoul as I do, you might wonder if it's called a "cult movie" because once upon a time audiences were brainwashed into thinking that Eating Raoul was so outlandish. 

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk. Images here were provided by the Criterion Collection and were not taken from the Blu-Ray under review.


Okay, so maybe Kenji Mizoguchi's 1948 drama Women of the Night wasn't the best choice for a Saturday evening's entertainment. Particularly since I hadn't even started drinking. Correcting that now.

The third film in the Eclipse set Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women has some years distance from the previous entry in the box, 1936's Sisters of the Gion. Damn, a whole war actually happened during the time from one production to the next, so it's fairly understandable that Women of the Night would be so tragic and bleak. The director kept making movies in that time, including his masterwork The 47 Ronin, but Women of the Night is his first significant return to the theme explored in this collection.

World War II informs everything about the drama of Women of the Night, which was based on a contemporary novel about life in Japan at the time. Though, unlike the post-War films of Seijun Suzuki, Mizoguchi never addresses the problem of occupying U.S. troops, the effects of the combat are both felt and seen in the rubble and poverty that pushes his characters to the brink. Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka) is struggling to get by and hoping her husband will return from Korea. She lives with her mother-in-law and tries to care for her sick child. The only man we see in this early portion is her alcoholic brother-in-law, who did return from service and does not like what he did or the outcome. His little sister Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda) lost her husband to the fighting, as did many other women her age.

Fusako has been selling clothes to make ends meet, and though the red light district is just around the corner, refuses to degrade herself. She suffers the one-two punch of finding out her husband is dead and finally losing her son to illness, but she maintains her dignity and even manages to secure a job with her husband's former boss. In fact, things are looking up when she is reunited with her own younger sister, Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), who she thought lost. Natsuko has returned from Korea a widow, and she bears her own scars from the fighting. Currently, she works as a hostess in a dance club.

The good times don't last. Natsuko and Fusako both strike up an affair with Fusako's boss, and when the older sister finds out, she leaves home and becomes a prostitute with the intent of punishing all men by spreading sin and disease. She believes that the men of Japan are seeking to destroy her and all women like her, so why not pre-emptively take advantage of their base desires? Her point of view is a little hard to argue with. The boss man turns out to be less than a stand-up guy, and when Kumiko tries to leave home to make her way in the world, she is taken advantage of by young male pretending to want to help. The naïve girl is deceived, raped, and pushed into prostitution herself.

Apparently Kenji Mizoguchi had been inspired by the movies that began coming out of Italy after WWII, and there is a definite influence of the Neorealist movement in evidence in Women of the Night. The choice between honest work and dishonest gain is not that far off from De Sica's father/son drama Bicycle Thieves [review], and much like similar ruins set the scene for Rossellini's Germany Year Zero [review], Japan's war-ravaged landscape provides a perfect backdrop for Mizoguchi's cautionary tale. Civilization has been ruined, and with it, any balance of right and wrong. The ladies in the movie will suffer all manner of humiliation and loss. Gone is any whiff of the hypocritical judgment of the common populace that made the struggles of the characters in Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion [review] so difficult to traverse; replacing it is a moral obligation to set things right, one that few engage with, and those who do seem inconsequential in the face of so much decay.

Mizoguchi's cast is excellent. They play their characters with nuance and, even in the worst cases, empathy. They appear to be more than simple "types," regardless of how insignificant their function in the narrative. Of particular note is the obvious divide between the sisters. Fusako is more compassionate at the start of the film, making her rejection of her previous life all the more drastic. Kinuyo Tanaka, whom Mizoguchi would use again in both Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, could have easily resorted to a cartoonish transformation. There are plenty of examples of how she might have made Fusako less sympathetic; most of the other prostitutes look like the prototype for bad girls in 1950s juvenile delinquent exploitation pictures. Instead, Tanaka relies on weariness and disappointment more than bravado. She plays Fusako as a woman who has given up, and her whole demeanor changes as a result--she goes from humbly slumping in deference to her social betters to defiantly displaying who she is.

Sanae Takasugi is equally as good when it comes to establishing the subtle distinctions between Fusako and Natsuko. Despite the hardships she has already endured, Natsuko has not given in to despair; rather, she has gotten crafty and she masks her troubles with an erudite manner. She is a woman that is used to being taken care of and having things paid for. Takasugi (who later worked with both Ozu and Ichikawa) plays her as borderline haughty. She carries herself differently than the actress playing her sister. Again, you can make out their approach to life just in how they present themselves, and by the end of the film, their stance has pretty much swapped. For all her good posture, however, things don't go much better for Natsuko. There are no good choices left for these ladies.

Women of the Night is an unrelenting tragedy. The downward spiral of its main characters is both dizzying and deep. Unfortunately, I think Mizoguchi tips the balance too far. In its final 20 minutes or so, Women of the Night becomes comically overwrought. Everything goes wrong, and instead of just letting the bad stuff happen, Mizoguchi and his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, inflate the aforementioned moralizing, however flailing it might be, and resort to cornball histrionics. Fusako and Kumiko are reunited in a bombed-out Christian church, complete with stained-glass windows depicting the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus. A brawl breaks out amidst the rubble, as prostitutes who are angry that Fusako would try to rescue herself and her friend from this way of life descend on them in a frenzy of violence. It might have actually worked had Mizoguchi just let them take their beatings. Instead, Fusako's protests move her attackers to tears, and the film ends with labored wailing and cries to the heavens. It's a bit much. The director seems to have lost his restraint in direct proportion to his main characters' loss of dignity.

Goddammit, pour me another drink.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Love may conquer all, but it can't do it without putting in a good fight first.

Or so we may glean from Marcel Carné's 1942 romantic fantasy Les visiteurs du soir (The Devil's Envoys). In this medieval tale, two minstrels arrive at a castle in the midst of festivities for an oncoming marriage. The Baron Hugues (Fernand Ledoux, La bête humaine [review]) is joining his daughter Anne (Marie Déa, Orpheus [review]) with the noble Lord Renaud (Marcel Herrand, Fanfan la Tulipe [review]). She is a young romantic, he is a slightly older pragmatist. Presumably their union is advantageous in some other way, as they don't really love one another. Renaud doesn't believe in such things.

The banquet has been wearing on for several days, and while not starved for food, the attendees are starved for entertainment, and their demands are turning toward cruelty. As the riders approach, they are met with a man who lost his pet, a bear that was shot by the partygoers for sport. Inside the castle, the guests laugh at three deformed little people brought in for their amusement. Only Anne has enough shame to turn away. The songs of the minstrels please her, they sing soft ballads about longing and love. Renaud doesn't care for them.

As it turns out, the minstrels are no ordinary players. We have already seen them perform special tricks: the male singer resurrected the distraught man's bear, while his companion questioned his off-model compulsion to do good. Dominique (Arletty, Children of Paradise) and Gilles (Alain Cuny, The Milky Way [review]) are former lovers who made an undisclosed deal with the devil. He now owns their souls, and they travel looking for more of their kind for him to possess. Their mission is to find situations such as this and throw a spanner in the works. Gilles seduces Anne with his songs of fidelity, whereas Dominique catches Renaud's eye by being that which he can't have. Both of Satan's minions turn things on their head by switching the roles around and upending emotions. Renaud becomes a romantic, while Gilles grows cruel with Anne. The unsuspecting mortals betray their own best interests for that which they don't really want. To further gum things up, Dominique also offers herself to the Baron, who is longing for his dead wife. Pretty soon, the father-in-law and groom will be squaring off for the right to love the same woman.

Les visiteurs du soir is a carefully rendered morality play in which privileged individuals who are amused by the misery of the less fortunate have the tables turned and become the playthings of a power greater than their own. At first, the seduction is quiet and almost idyllic, like one of the forlorn songs Gilles performs throughout. He in particular is quite the dullard, brooding over a love he cannot have. Anne inspires the kindness that lies dormant in her suitor to resurface, and he legitimately falls for her. This goes against protocol, and so the boss man has to come to fix what the boy did wrong.

The arrival of the devil at the castle kicks Les visiteurs du soir into a whole other gear. This Beelzebub is played as a devious imp by Jules Berry (Le jour se lève [review]). Presenting himself as a nobleman lost in a storm, he pushes his way into the party, poking at the weaknesses his envoys have discovered and then exposing them to the rest of group. He arranges for Anne to be caught with Gilles, and then manipulates the Baron and Renaud into a duel. Carné has fun with this supernatural character, who can appear in different places at once and otherwise bend space and time to his will. Berry makes for an excellent jester. He is agile both physically and verbally, and his permanent smirk gives his wicked deeds a pleasurable edge. At the same time, the director and his writers, Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche, also humanize him. The unshakeable love that Anne has for Gilles proves too much for the devil, and his need to break and possess her reveals that, at least in this narrative, evil is caused by the absence of something. The devil is the creature that he is for the lack of anyone to love him.

Given the time period and the conditions under which Carné made Les visiteurs du soir (some of which is covered in the documentary that appears as a supplement on the disc), some added meaning could be read into the film. The Nazis occupied France, and filmmakers were urged to join the collaboration and make pictures that promoted the "go along to get along" cause. Carné and his crew made their movie independent of Goebbels' propaganda machine, seemingly choosing a medieval fantasy tale to avoid any modern correlation. Yet, it's possible to see Les visiteurs du soir as veiled commentary on the perils of the Vichy government. If the Baron had been more wary of outsiders, had he and his daughter and her fiancée not been so quick to please these people that held sway over them, disaster might have been avoided. Only Anne manages to come through with her principles. The tyrant is powerless when confronted with her purity. Her ideal for living and loving is stronger than his, and in the end, he is a petty fool.

As interesting as this history is, it's also immaterial to one's enjoyment of Les visiteurs du soir. Any well-made art is both of its time and separate from it. It's quite easy to enjoy the movie for what is on the surface. Carné's concoctions still delight. His playful special effects, both simplistic and clever, still create a sense of magic. In my favorite sequence, Dominique strums her mandolin and stops time. Then she and Gilles pluck their targets from the frozen scene and lead them into the garden, where lovers enjoy one another amidst the topiary. Arletty is particularly alluring here. Her mysterious eyes and reserved manner invite the viewer to want to know more, which is the exact opposite effect to Cuny's brawny mope. His sad wailing in his prison cell is almost comical to behold.

Making Cuny a hunky leading man is the one illusion Marcel Carné can't pull off in a movie that is full of wonderful creations. The castle, the costumes, the odd creatures in the shadows--the director achieves his cinemagic by being meticulous in his detail, but also by treating it as if it were normal. There is nothing overdone about Les visiteurs du soir. The movie has been built with the same uncluttered clarity as we see in art director Alexandre Trauner's unassuming paintings, which Criterion have used to decorate their Blu-Ray package. (I quite like that the inside of the case is the inside of the castle.) The direction is as unfussy as the movie's message: it's all about purity, about staying true and staying the course. It's the simplest seduction of all, no devilish tricks required.

Special note should be made of the gorgeous high-definition transfer on the Les visiteurs du soir BD. The film has been restored lovingly, so that the black-and-white image looks sharp and shows very little blemish. It makes me all the more eager to check out the other new Marcel Carné disc, the re-release of Children of Paradise. The roadshow version of the new print is said to be stupendous, and I can't imagine any less from Criterion's HD treatment of the same.

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

Saturday, September 22, 2012


I am surprised this never made it over here from my Confessions of a Pop Fan blog, where I reviewed the film during its revival run. I think maybe when the Criterion was announced I intended to do a separate piece. I'd still like to one day, as I think one's impression of Resnais' masterpiece changes viewing to viewing, but in the meantime, here are my thoughts from April, 2008.

Last Year at Marienbad is a rumination on an affair. Twelve months before, X (Giorgio Albertazzi) met A (Delphine Seyrig) and the two had an affair--or so he says and so she denies. The "plot" of the film is X trying to get her to admit to what happened. They had made an agreement to meet after the year was up, so that she could remove herself from her husband, M (Sacha Pitoeff). The film is structured as a string of elliptical, poetic remembrances, the same event revisited in multiple ways, the setting and the circumstance changing. The director, Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), is attempting to replicate the variables of memory and the flickering flames of passion. A romance may be alive for the man in one way, but alive for the woman in a completely different way, and fear of the future will alter its existence even further.

So it goes, over and over, M's insistence, A's denial, an off-hand admittance, a retreat. All the while, M circles the room, looking like a holdover from Dr. Frankenstein's lab, luring other men, including X, into a card game they can never hope to win. The game is another series of patterns, a sequence of cards displayed the same way each time, removed in a different order, but always with the same result.

Some viewers are going to find Last Year at Marienbad maddening, particularly the first time they see it. The screenplay is by experimental French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose book Jealousy used similar tactics to show a suspicious husband driving himself insane, and I so hated it when it was assigned to me in my first semester of college I've never read another of the man's books. Marienbad will require less of your time, but the film almost demands more patience and concentration, because Resnais, working with director of photography Sacha Vierny and art director Jacques Saulnier, has created such a gorgeous film, it's hard not to stop paying attention to what is happening and just stare. (Special mention must also be given to editor Henri Colpi, because Marienbad is the kind of picture that most likely really came alive in the cutting room.)

Shot at various locations in Bavaria, the opulent estates and posh interiors used for X and A's wanderings are tremendous. More distracting, however, is Delphine Seyrig. Outfitted in gowns from Chanel, she is one of the most dazzling women to ever appear on a movie screen. In some scenes, she wears a dress made entirely of feathers that is to drool over. With her inky black hair and pale skin, Seyrig is practically otherworldly. Though on the surface she must portray a chilly demeanor, her lies are apparent in her face and tentative movements. There seems little debate that A is the woman X is looking for. If she's not, if he really is mistaken, then she surely wishes he wasn't. If his tale is invented, then the variations are merely bait in a fishing expedition. Concoct enough scenarios, and maybe she'll agree to one of them.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Just how much is $300 worth to you? It's a question that Ayako Murai, played by Isuzu Yamada, must ask herself in the 1936 movie Osaka Elegy. Directed by master dramatist Kenji Mizoguchi, using a script written by Yoshikata Yoda from Mizoguchi's original story, the film examines young Ayako, a girl in her early 20s working as a switchboard operator at a pharmaceutical company, as she is confronted with a difficult offer at a time when she can really use some help. Her father (Seiichi Takekawa) is running out of time to pay back $300 he embezzled from his work, and Ayako is lacking in options. Her boss (Benkei Shiganoya) has offered to set her up in her own apartment so she can be his mistress. She gives in, trading her honor for the money to bail her father out. She even secures a new job for him.

It's a fairly simple moral conundrum, and a fairly simple plot, but Ayako is anything but a simple character. She is at first ill-tempered, and then accepting, and before long, even scheming. After things go wrong with the boss, she zeroes in on another old man from the company (Eitaro Shindo) and bilks him for money for her brother's tuition. It's hard to tell if she is truly troubled by her adopted lifestyle. She certainly likes the trappings that come with it, and her main complaint is being left high and dry when the boss' wife finds out (she is played by Yoko Umemura, who is also in the other film covered here, along with much of the rest of the cast).

Even so, Ayako is at heart a romantic, and it's in the courtship scene with Nishimura (Kensaku Hara), an admirer, that Yamada plays the role the most naturally. It's as if this is her true self, and the rest is the put-on we suspect. Yet, Mizoguchi keeps us on our toes. He underlines Ayako's deception--she tells Nishimura she works in a beauty parlor--by setting their pivotal scene in an artificial environment. They are dining inside a department store café, but the ambient noise is piped-in recordings of birds singing. In a true outdoor scenario, their melodic whistles would make the rendezvous idyllic. Here, we know the emotional framework cannot stand.

Mizoguchi, working with cinematographer Minoru Miki, shows a facility for arranging his shots to emphasize the social positioning of the different characters. When we are first introduced to Nishimura and Ayako, they are in different parts of the office, but in sight of one another. They are a separated by the glass booth where Ayako runs the phones. Mizoguchi uses a point/counterpoint set-up to go back and forth between them, foreshadowing the fact that despite being so close, there is much distance between the would-be lovers. Later, when Ayako returns home after her shame is revealed, Mizoguchi places Ayako in the extreme foreground, while her family gives her the cold shoulder in the background. It's easily the most heartbreaking sequence in Osaka Elegy. Ayako's family subjects her to a devastating double standard. Her father stole, but his sins are forgiven. Ayako did what she did to help out, but she is rejected as a "fallen woman."

In the final scenes of Osaka Elegy, Mizoguchi transforms uncertainty into defiant determination. The audience is made to be concerned for Ayako's well being, and then we are taken along as she makes the decision we hoped she would make for herself. In the last shots of the movie, Ayako walks on with a new pride and spring in her step. As Koichi Takagi's music rose, I half expected her to break out into song. The closing image is of Ayako walking toward the camera, looking those who would judge her (the audience), directly in the eye. She may not have solved her problems or even know where she's going, but in that look, we see Ayako is determined to be judged no more.

Isuzu Yamada returns in Mizoguchi's next movie, Sisters of the Gion, which was made the same year as Osaka Elegy and serves as a kind of companion film. In fact, there is a pretty smooth transition between. Osaka Elegy ends with movement, and Sisters of the Gion opens with it. The first thing we see is a tracking shot through a curio shop that is shutting down, passing by the vultures who've come to the bankruptcy auction, and over to Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya), the failed owner. He is in the back room, being nagged by his wife, and he's had enough. Furusawa decides to leave and go live with his geisha mistress. There is another great tracking shot here, following Furusawa down an alleyway, and then crossing the street, stopping as he goes on in the other direction. There is a noticeable overall increase in movement in Sisters of the Gion. Mizoguchi and Miki travel with their characters, taking us down corridors and alleys as if we were entering into secret places, and the camera also probes these spied-upon lives. The film's final scene has a memorable zoom, emphasizing the main character's isolation and the pointed criticism in her closing speech.

That main character in question is Omocha (played by Isuzu Yamada), and she is the younger sister to Furusawa's mistress, Umekichi (Yoko Umemura). Both women a geisha, but there is enough age difference between them that their experience with the profession is different. Umekichi has been in the "pleasure district" since she was very young, whereas Omocha was able to complete an education first. As a result, Umekichi is more servile, whereas Omocha attempts to assert more control over her life. Sisters of the Gion is essentially the story of her trying to maneuver it so that both she and her sibling have wealthy patrons. To do this, Omocha must get rid of Furusawa, convince an admiring clerk at a kimono shop to make her a dress, and then manipulate both of the men's rivals into taking her and Umekichi on as permanent mistresses. She's pretty tricky, but all of her deviousness catches up with her. In the film's final act, too many of her schemes intersect, and it threatens to leave the girl stranded.

Again, however, Mizoguchi sees a social double standard in his melodrama. (He once again crafted the story, with Yoshikata Yoda drafting the screenplay. Pretty much the only member of the main team that changed here is the editor.) Omocha's final speech doesn't just stem from frustration over her own failure, but from the belief that she is only filling a required role, one that society asks of her and then blames her for. The men want the geisha, but then the girls are shamed for their efforts. "Why do there even have to be such things as geisha?" she cries.

It's an interesting question, and proof that the ethical hypocrisy of "slut shaming" has been around for quite a while. Despite Omocha's brattiness, and partially because of Yamada's charisma as an actress, our sympathies largely lie with her through Sisters of the Gion. She's right, her sister is a doormat, and Furusawa is a lout. The kimono clerk (Taizo Fukami) makes a stupid decision, but for selfish reasons. All the men want something from the geisha, and they want it without any lasting commitment or conseqeunce. Omocha sees that she has to look out for herself, because any one of these guys will--and does--leave her at the first sign of trouble.

Both Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion could have easily slipped into "crime doesn't pay moralizing," and had these been post-code American movies, they probably would have. What Mizoguchi has done is progressive, but he's sly about it. The drama is nuanced enough that neither the women nor those who dismiss them are completely right or wrong, and that's all the more daring when you think about it. People love absolutes, and they love to be absolved. Mizoguchi has taken a chance in confronting these cultural standards head-on and examining them honestly, putting blame where it belongs, including with some who may be watching. It's a gamble that pays off. Both films continue to be relevant nearly eighty years later, which is a sad commentary all on its own.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

QUADROPHENIA (Blu-Ray) - #624

"Oh, yeah? What's normal then?"

My first Who concert was seeing the Quadrophenia revival in the mid-1990s. It was a pretty amazing experience. How often do you get to see one of your all-time favorite bands performing one of your favorite albums? The second time I saw them was sometime later, in the early 21st Century, not long after my novel with the Quadrophenia-title, Cut My Hair, had come out. It was at the Gorge up in George, Washington, a massive open-air theatre with, as the name implies, a massive chasm behind it. Not unlike the cliffs of Brighton at the end of Franc Roddam's 1979 movie version of Quadrophenia.

At that point, many of the songs from the project were still in the Who's setlist, and when Pete Townshend was introducing "Drowned," he noted that, in his travels around the world, people always grabbed him to tell him how Tommy had changed their lives. Except in the Pacific Northwest. Then it was Quadrophenia, how much they understood and identified with Jimmy. It's not often I willingly count myself amongst the weirdoes of my region, but in this case, I was a joiner. Count me as part of that group.

I wrote a couple of years ago about my connection to the Quadrophenia album, part of a music related project on my Confessions of a Pop Fan blog [read it here]. I also wrote about the movie once before, reviewing a touring print for the Portland Mercury when Rhino released the movie on DVD in 2001. That review went something like this:

Hollywood always gets it wrong. For anyone who has gone to the cinema to see their favorite book brought to life on screen, anyone who has a passion that some studio exec decided he could exploit, this is not a hard theory to get behind. Hollywood takes what's good and fucks it up.

This makes Quadrophenia the rarest of beasts. Not only is it an adaptation of a rock opera by The Who, but it's a rock opera about a particularly exclusive subculture, the mods. Pill-poppers, clothes-shoppers, scooter-hoppers--the mods were a special breed of '60s wild child that eschewed the dirty rock aesthetic for a more fashionable, mannered look and the shuffle of American soul and R&B. Released in 1979, Quadrophenia coincided with a mod resurgence propelled by bands like The Jam, who emulated The Who and the original fast fashion of Carnaby Street.

The genesis of the story, though, came six years earlier in the form of Pete Townshend's double Who album. The title refers to the peculiar psychological malady of Jimmy; a character designed to represent the four diverse faces of the band. Quadrophenia was perhaps The Who's most textured album, full of grace and raw emotion, following Jimmy on his journey of self-discovery. When it came time to bring the opera to life, it required a more subtle touch than Ken Russell brought to Tommy.

The solution? Townshend and the filmmakers traded most of the music for the story. In scruffy Phil Daniels, they found their perfect Jimmy. Through female troubles, parental misguiding, brawls on Brighton beaches, and the destruction of an idol (AceFace, played by none other than Sting!), Jimmy ends up on the other side of himself, a new person.

Best of all, director Franc Roddam pulls no punches. Gone are the cartoony good kids of early rock 'n' roll films, replaced with the crazed reality of one of the most exciting times in modern history. The good folks at Rhino have restored Quadrophenia for release on DVD, and by way of promotion, Portland is getting a rare opportunity to see it on a real screen. If you pass it up, then you're out of your brain.

Funny enough, I didn't see the theatrical showing then, though I think I saw it on the big screen back in my college days, at a revival theatre in Westwood, CA, the same place I saw Raging Bull [review] for the first time. Before that, it was a worn-out VHS, copied from another VHS by putting two VCRs together. Ah, the good old days.

At most, I watched Quadrophenia once since I wrote the Mercury review, though it's possible to assume it has really been ten years since last I saw it. Watching it again on Blu-Ray was simultaneously familiar and comfortable and illuminating. I was struck by many things that never really occurred to me on prior viewings. For one, how Roddam takes his time with the story. He let's the aimlessness of youth dictate the pace, including digressions, distractions, and the uncomfortable waiting for something, anything, to happen. In league with this, I was taken with how sensitive a portrayal Phil Daniels pulls off. Jimmy is a troubled mess of emotion, and his ever-changing moods play out on his face. He's always going through something. Particularly watch the lonely moments, the solo rides on his scooter, the spacing out in his bedroom--Daniels makes sure that it never appears as if Jimmy's head is empty or his emotions ever settle. On the contrary, Jimmy knows no peace.

There is an itchiness to Quadrophenia that, even at 40, is all too recognizable (Michele Rosenthal notes something similar at Criterion Affection, too). 1960s mod culture, like most youth movements, was born out of disappointment with how life is turning out. When you grow up, you are either promised certain things that don't pan out or offered only unattractive opportunities. Jimmy is desperate to have a life, to have a connection, to have some purpose. This is what draws him to being a mod. Not only is it not boring and predictable like the rest of adult life, but it offers him a chance to belong and a clear ladder of success. Get the scooter, get the suit, get the girl; have the right records, learn the cool dance moves, be popular. It allows you to both define yourself as for something and against something, be it the rockers or the general conformity of a workday existence.

Of course, most subcultures have their own empty promises. The unintentional hypocrisy underscoring most of them, particularly the ones that espouse individualism, is that you are being a nonconformist by conforming to something else, regardless if it's something other than the norm. Mods have a uniform. You have to look and act a certain way. In my high school years, my peers and I wore black to "stand apart," and while the mass we were reacting against was larger than us, we were still a mass ourselves. I like Jimmy's dad unintentional parable about self-discovery. He tells his son about the boy's uncle, who was also confused like Jimmy, and never could follow through on anything, including suicide. He eventually fell down a well and drowned. It's bleak and ironic, and also a strange foreshadowing to where Jimmy was heading.

Jimmy's salvation is in his disillusionment. The more institutions that crumble for him, the more he is left with just himself. His friends aren't there when it counts, and romance died in a dirty back alley. The frustration and futility of seeing AceFace as not a rebel leader, but a lackey, is just the final straw. The existential outcry of "Me!" shouted from the cliffside and the destruction of the ultimate mod symbol, Ace's scooter, providing a kind of metaphorical suicide a la Camus, is the last separation Jimmy has to make. That Roddam lets the explosion dangle, lets the last image of Quadrophenia be Jimmy's transcendent action but without Jimmy himself, has a haunting brilliance. It's the only mystical moment in the movie. Jimmy has disappeared. (If only Jimmy could have known what we know about Sting, he'd never fall for his routine. It's amazing how Ace looks like a smug prat from the very first scene once you no longer believe that Sting, in any iteration, is remotely cool.)

It's really a testament to good coming-of-age stories that they don't stop being potent even as the audience gets older. It's because they are about identity and what it means to be a human more than they are about youth vs. adulthood. Quadrophenia is about the origin of oneself, about gathering all the disparate elements of who you are, the pieces being pulled in different directions, and consolidating them into a whole. It's a lesson well remembered at any age. What I think does come across now that I am older, though, is recognizing the full scope of Roddam's production. When you're younger, it all seems so inclusive, it's all about Jimmy, boxed in by the TV frame, and you forget to notice that this is actually being staged on a rather large canvas. Roddam wrangles an unwieldy cast in service to an unwieldy script, and the final scenes, shot with a sweeping vision by Brian Tufano, show us just how small Jimmy is in a great big world. It's the existential contradiction: recognizing the absurdity of our place in an indifferent, gigantic universe is the only way to get comfortable with being who we are within it.

Note: Images featured here are from promotional materials and not from the Blu-Ray being reviewed.

Monday, September 3, 2012


My reviews of non-Criterion movies from August.


2 Days in New York, the new one from Julie Delpy. Really, if I were Chris Rock, I'd have tapped out after 12 hours.

The Bourne Legacy, the underprivileged stepchild of the Bourne series still manages to be enjoyable despite some deficiencies.

The Campaign, the Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis comedy is best at insult humor, not so much at political satire.

Celeste and Jesse Forever, an almost-there down-to-earth rom-com, co-written by and starring Rashida Jones. I love her, but the script loses focus and eventually lost me.

Dark Horse, Todd Solondz hates comedy almost as much as he hates you. And fat people. And everyyyyyyyyonnnnne!

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike remakes Kobayashi in 3D, but without any other added dimension.

The Impostera twisted true crime documentary about a story that's so out there, you almost won't believe it.

Killer Joe, a depraved new scorcher from William Friedkin, starring Matthew McConaughey his most finger-lickin' good role.

Lawless, Nick Cave writes, John Hillcoat directs, and Tom Hardy stars. Mm-hmm.

Oslo, August 31, a heartfelt new personal drama from the director of Reprise.

Paranorman, the second effort from Laika suffers from some growing pains. Great animation, but an overly wordy script.

Searching for Sugar Man, an amazing music documentary uncovering the secret history of the artist known as Rodriguez.

Sleepwalk with Me, in which Mike Birbiglia tries to make friends and influence them to understand his problems.


The Devil's Needle, and other Tales of Vice and Redemption, three silent films tackling the worst of Amercia's sins, ca. 1915.

Fernando Di Leo's Madnessstarring Joe Dallesandro as a human 2x4. It's neither mad nor is it any good. Discuss.

Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: The Chuck Jones Collection, gathering the director's Sniffles and Hubie & Bertie cartoons under one cover.

Misfits: Season One, a clever superpowers show from England.

Monsieur Lazhara surprising example of quality feel-good cinema, adding a nice spin to the inspirational teacher genre.

Once Upon a Time in Anatoliaan astonishing remodel of the police drama as existential parable. From Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the director of Climates. Best movie of this whole batch!

Private Hell 36a tightly wound noir with Ida Lupino. Directed by Don Siegel.

Les Vampires, the 1915 silent crime serial from Louis Feuillade.