Sunday, April 14, 2019

COLUMBIA NOIR: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS/SO DARK THE NIGHT/EXPERIMENT IN TERROR - CRITERION CHANNEL


Film noir has long been a passion of mine, and regular readers of my reviews will know I can be rather pedantic over what qualifies a particular movie as part of the genre. As the years have passed, I’ve watched lots of critics and festivals and marketing men bend the term to fit anything that has some kind of crime element in its narrative, disregarding style, tone, and theme in the process.

So it is with the newly opened Criterion Channel’s special collection of “Columbia Noir,” bringing together an unlucky thirteen from the Columbia studio vaults. Upon first entering the new site, I was particularly excited, because out of that baker’s dozen, I had only seen one: Fritz Lang’s bonafide classic The Big Heat.

Sadly, from my initial sampling, the curation here is lacking in rigor. Picking movies from both sides of the set in terms of chronology, at least to start, I have found the selection to be a mixed bag of solid flicks of varied stripes, but not really film noir.


Take, for instance, My Name is Julia Ross, the earliest release offered, dated 1945. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, who went on to make the noir perennial Gun Crazy, My Name is Julia Ross is more an amalgamation of early Hitchcock than traditional noir. It’s like a mash-up of The Lady Vanishes [review] and Rebecca [review], a little bit of mystery and a little bit of gothic atmosphere.

Nina Foch (An American in Paris [review]) stars as the titular Julia, a London career girl excited to gain regular employment as secretary to a rich widower and his mother. Only, as Julia quickly discovers, this gig is not on the up-and-up. The day after she moves into her new quarters, she wakes up at the seaside in an unfamiliar house where everyone refers to her as Mrs. Hughes and treats her like a hothouse flower. What she quickly realizes is that her employers, played by George Macready (Paths of Glory [review]) and May Whitty (coincidentally, Mrs. Foy in The Lady Vanishes), are trying to use her to replace the man’s dead wife, gaslighting Julia in an attempt to cover up the murder.


It’s a good concept, and could be quite captivating in more adept hands, but Lewis and screenwriter Muriel Roy Bolton (The Amazing Mr. X) give the game away too quickly. They never let the audience spend any time in Julia’s shoes, and so there is no suspense. We are privy to the plot she’s been drawn into and never once led to believe she’ll have any trouble getting out of it.

In terms of storytelling, My Name is Julia Ross is equally flat. There is no apparent aesthetic here, no dark shadows or misty moors, nothing to tie the film to any particular cinematic movement. My Name is Julia Ross is a perfunctory B-picture, little more. The screenplay skirts the edges of intriguing issues--the compulsion to kill that drives Julia’s would-be husband, the perception of single women in the city, etc.--but stops short of really giving any of these topics genuine heft.


Lewis followed this film a year later with 1946’s So Dark the Night, a noir tile in search of a matching script. What that moniker finds instead is an Agatha Christie-type whodunit, complete with a genial, yet world-weary detective. In this case, it’s Henri Cassin (Steven Geray, In a Lonely Place [review]), a Parisian police inspector going on holiday. Geray is so likeable and so assured, I thought there must be more adventures of Cassin, that this was part of a series, or at the very least lifted from a pre-existing literary franchise


No such series exists. Cassin was created by a writer named Aubrey Wisberg (Hercules in New York) for the story adapted here. So Dark the Night follows the middle-aged Inspector Cassin on a much needed vacation to the countryside. In the small town, his reputation precedes him, and his presence shakes up the norm. He attracts the attention of Nanette (Micheline Cheirel), the innkeeper’s daughter, and when Nanette turns up dead, her jealous fiancé (Paul Marion) is the obvious first suspect. Only, someone has killed him, too, leaving the normally unflappable Cassin with nothing to go on.

So Dark the Night is an enjoyable little mystery, taking advantage of its rural setting and maintaining an upbeat manner that is antithetical to the usual urban existentialism we associate with noir. Inspector Cassin is a genuine good guy who wants nothing but happiness for his fellow man, and so also far from our expected noir protagonist. In fact, his demeanor should make the mystery’s resolution even more implausible. The climax of So Dark the Night would normally be a textbook example of something you just can’t do in a murder mystery, withholding clues and offering a resolution the audience couldn’t possibly puzzle out on their own, but Lewis--and more significantly, the ever likable Steven Geray--makes it work. Even so, this is more PBS territory than it is noir, more conservative flirting between decent folk than overheated passion amidst desperate degenerates.


On the opposite end of the timeline here is Blake Edwards’ 1962 thriller Experiment in Terror. A stylish psychological potboiler, Experiment in Terror is closer to noir territory, but it’s more indicative of a post-Psycho box office landscape than post-War anxiety.

Lee Remick stars as Kelly, a single woman raising her younger sister all on her own in Twin Peaks, Washington. (Yes, that Twin Peaks.) At the start of the movie, she thinks she is coming home just like every other night, only she is jumped by a man in her garage who knows a little too much about the minutia of her life. He threatens her and her sister if she doesn’t rob the bank where she works and deliver the cash to him. It’s a tense, unsettling scene, made all the more scary by the violent attack Kelly suffers when she tries to call the FBI, believing her assailant to have already gone.

Luckily for her, the call got through anyway, and Agent Ripley (Glenn Ford, Gilda [review]) is ready to help out. Believing this is not the first time this crook has pulled such a trick, Ripley attempts to make it his last by stringing the bad guy along, hoping to figure out who he is before he forces Kelly to carry through on his demand or otherwise has to make good on his own threats.


Edwards is, of course, better known for comedies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s [review] and The Party [review], but he proves no slouch in the suspense department. Experiment in Terror is tense and mostly intriguing, only falling short by maybe being a little long. Edwards draws a sharp divide between his good guys and his bad guys, presenting Ford’s Ripley as the last good man standing guard against a demented criminal future--a trope dating back to Chandler’s The Big Sleep [review] and essential to many a noir antihero. There is a certain inevitability to how the world is changing, suggesting that somehow a destructive fate is unavoidable. And yet, Experiment in Terror lacks the cynicism of a good noir. Ripley is a true believer, and Kelly a shining beacon leading the way, suggesting that civilization should win because it’s good, rather than survive in spite of itself.

And, of course, since it’s Blake Edwards, we get a striking Henry Mancini score, showing as much facility for dramatic tension as he normally does with light melody and irresistible rhythm. It’s the sort of thing Orson Welles rejected from the composer in Touch of Evil [review], a decision I’ve never entirely agreed with--so I’ll give that point to Edwards.

Even as I take some away from the Criterion Channel. Of the three films reviewed, I’d only give Experiment in Terror a full recommendation, noir or no. Let’s hope some of the movies in the center of this virtual collection fit the mold a little better.


Monday, April 8, 2019

SIGHTSEERS - CRITERION CHANNEL

The Criterion Channel re-opens today, now independent of any other service (Filmstruck R.I.P.), and offering movies that extend beyond the physical Criterion Collection. In honor of that, here is a reprint of a review I wrote for DVDTalk back in 2013 for one of the films exclusive to the Channel.



I remember joking in high school about organizing an anarchy club, because of course the last thing anarchists should be doing is organizing. I am sure every teen who gets into punk rock and philosophy stumbles upon a similar gag. I bet you Ben Wheatley would find it hilarious.

Wheatley is the British director responsible for Down Terrace and Kill List. His most current offering, Sightseers, makes pretensions of chaos. It's a black comedy about a vacationing couple whose holiday on the road turns into a killing spree. For Chris (Steve Oram) it begins accidentally (perhaps), but once the impulse is indulged, he keeps indulging it, murdering people who offend his delicate sensibilities in some manner. A dead litterbug is equal to a snobby author driving a better camper. Thinking she needs to join in the fun in order to maintain the relationship, Tina (Alice Lowe) starts killing as well. When Chris disapproves of her choices, she escalates rather than backs down. To his mind, she is acting randomly, he is acting righteously.


Except there are no random acts in film, and so when a filmmaker like Wheatley attempts to get around engaging in meaningful subtext when making a violent comedy like Sightseers, the result tends to come off as shallow and adolescent as a "card-carrying-anarchist" punchline. Sightseers actually joins a spate of recent movies, including James Gunn's Super [review] and Bobcat Goldthwaite's God Bless America, that puts misanthropic men on a violent path that begins with them enacting a justifiable retaliation against some supposed offense, only to acquire a taste for blood and keep acting out for increasingly petty reasons. All the while, a woman cheers him on and, quite often, takes it even farther. All these films maybe begin with a thin veneer of satire before devolving into empty action. Is Chris waging a kind of class war when he kills the man with the new model vehicle or the guy who went to private school and wants to order him around like a serf? There is a point where Wheatley and his actors, who are credited with the screenplay, seem as if they'd have us believe as such, but it's not a defense that would hold up in court.

Wheatley and crew are more intent on making the audience cringe, either from gore or uncomfortable laughter, than saying anything about why they are going after such a response. The gore is more effective than the jokes. The audience I was with consistently cringed on cue, but the laughs were few and far between. In essence, Sightseers is 90 empty minutes of two boring, unlikable people doing terrible things to other unlikable people with no repercussion or reflection. The only time Sightseers really worked were the scenes where the relationship between the lovers begins to fall apart. The pair argue over homicide the way other bored couples would argue over bills and what they might have for dinner. Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" plays over Sightseers' title card, and the film would have been better off had Wheatley kept this theme in mind throughout. (Another music cue, a cover of Donovan's "Season of the Witch," takes on vaguely misogynist overtones, after Chris actually accuses Tina of being a witch who has enchanted him and incited him to evil.) Every action should be a love reaction, thus keeping the motives from being confused. This feeling of dangerous romance resurfaces at the end of Sightseers. The last scene goes a little bit of the way to keeping the movie from being a complete waste of time. But only a little bit, and also a little bit too late.




Sunday, March 24, 2019

DETOUR - #966

People knock themselves out trying to buck Fate.”


To call a film noir cynical is to be a bit redundant. To call it cynical even for a film noir--well, you know then you have something truly acidic on your hands.

Such is Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 sweatbox Detour, the first ever B-movie inducted into the National Film Registry. At a scant 69 minutes, it’s a feverish thriller, its characters always in motion. Even when they are physically stuck in place, their minds are still moving, each player considering the next exit. It’s breathless and exhilarating and a little bit hateful. But you’ll love how hateful.


Tom Neal stars as Al Roberts, a juke joint piano player in love with an actress (Claudia Drake) who has left him stranded in New York to make a go at becoming a star in Hollywood. Fed up with being alone and, let’s face it, both jealous and horny, Roberts starts hitching across the country to see her. In Arizona, his luck seems to turn when he is picked up by Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), a sleaze-ball gambler who is willing to take him all the way to the City of Angels. Ulmer and writer Martin Goldsmith (The Narrow Margin) make no bones about what a dirty guy Haskell is. When Roberts asks him about the fresh scratches on his arms and hands, Haskell tells him they came from a lady hitchhiker who didn’t show her gratitude in the way her benefactor would have liked. “I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world, a woman!” he says, before reminding us that any woman who would hitchhike is pretty much asking for it anyway.

Yup. Real nice guy.


That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”

Fate comes up a lot in Detour. It’s a common noir trope: man can’t outrun his past, nor can he change his destiny. Because we have made our past, and we are our own destiny. You know the cliché: wherever you go, there you are.

So when Roberts’ dame runs off chasing her imagined destiny, he must try to alter his trajectory. Likewise, Haskell has lost his fortune on the ponies in Miami, and now he’s looking to shake his own bad luck loose. Yet twists of fate means each will get their comeuppance. First, a random accident causes Haskell to end up dead, and a panicky Roberts leaves him in the middle of the desert and assumes his identity. Second, instant karma means Roberts picks up Vera (Ann Savage), the very woman that left those scars on the dead man. Knowing that Roberts isn’t who he says he is, Vera blackmails him. He’ll take her into L.A., sell the car, and give her the money, or she’ll make sure he’s sent down for the killing, innocence and circumstance be damned.


And he can’t leave her until she’s satisfied. Possibly because she’s a little bit lonely, possibly because she’s just plain mean. Not to mention her plans keep shifting the more opportunities she sees.
When you think about it, hitchhiking is a perfect metaphor for this kind of randomly predestined happenstance. Each pick-up is a roll of the dice. Factor in that like always finds like, and there’s no way these three people aren’t meeting on the road. It makes for too good of a story, and Fate loves a good story.

Vera is right to hold Roberts’ feet to the fire. He’s no innocent victim of circumstance, it doesn’t take much deliberation for him to do the wrong thing. Tom Neal would suffer his own turn of fate some time after Detour and go to jail for six years for the manslaughter of his wife. A sad but fitting noir end for a noir...well, not hero. Nor antihero. If anyone really roots for Roberts, it’s because Vera is so nasty. Tom Neal is all square-jawed nervousness, and competent enough in the role, but he’s eaten alive by Ann Savage, whose motor-mouthed opportunist dominates every scene from the moment Roberts spots her on the side of the road. While he’s no typical hero, she’s also not really our expected femme fatale. For one, she’s far more of an active participant, forcing action rather than needing to manipulate it with her sexuality. When she does try to seduce Roberts, it’s not as confident as one would expect from a Rita Hayworth or an Ava Gardner; in fact, Roberts’ voiceover lays it out from the start, her looks are not that of a movie star. Savage being an atypical starlet allows for Vera to have a surprising vulnerability, one the actress has the chops to exploit. Vera also has a fate she can’t outrun: a case of consumption that will likely kill her.

That is, if some other terrible calamity doesn’t claim her first.


Yes, Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

Edgar G. Ulmer is infamous for his down and dirty productions. As explained in the supplementary documentary Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, the Austrian director was exiled to Poverty Row, where he established his own bluntly lyrical style as he jumped from genre to genre, shooting pictures under impossible deadlines and even more impossible budgets. Accounts vary as to whether he wanted to work the cheapies to avoid studio interference or if he was left out of big-budget Hollywood after his own noir-worthy bad decision, marrying the boss’ girl. Ulmer himself was a self-mythologizer.  The filmmakers share audio from the man’s interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, which they then compare to known facts--often finding that Ulmer’s own legend is far more interesting.


Detour is a perfect example of what an industrious artist can do on a shoestring. It was shot primarily on two sets: the apartment that Roberts and Vera share in Los Angeles and the car. At least half the movie is in the car, which itself was set up in a Hollywood studio, the only traveling being done by whatever camera crew shot the footage for Detour’s rear projection. Ulmer manages to keep the feeling of confinement intentional. This pair is forever linked. Even as they cover miles of highway, even if Vera finally relents, they can’t escape each other.

Nor can they escape Fate. The transcendence of Detour from forgettable to classic is down to how unrelenting it is. There is no ray of hope. Not even the girlfriend, who in other noirs might be the earthy blonde who offers some kind of respite from the dark underworld; here, she represents temptation, jealousy, and the unattainable. Not to mention our own knowledge about how old Hollywood operated means we fill in some blanks about what we think is really going on with her out on the West Coast.


For Roberts, the more he tries to dig himself out of this trap, the more he becomes entangled. So it is that the second accidental death in Detour is so grisly--but not entirely unexpected, almost like he’s manifested his murderous desires through sheer will. And so it is that we find Roberts at a point where he’s already surrendered, reliving the tale for what might be the first time or the millionth, depending on who you are and when you are hearing it. His punishment is to be a part of this movie, and our reward is to be able to watch it again and again and again.


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

Saturday, March 23, 2019

WANDA - #965


Wanda is one of those rare movies that can be called an “indie legend” and have it essentially be true. More talked about than seen since its 1970 debut, Barbara Loden’s single feature film blazed a trail of inspiration for female directors regardless of its availability. A reputation spread through awe and admiration? Legend! Bonus? Wanda lives up to the reverence.

Loden herself stars as the titular Wanda, a wife and mother who has little desire to be either. At the start of the film, her husband is in the process of divorcing her and taking their kids. That morning Wanda woke up on her sister-in-law’s couch, but once the judge agrees to the conscious uncoupling, all family connections are severed and that crash pad is no longer an option. So begins an aimless journey between different men, different hotel rooms, different handouts. Wanda’s name might as well be “wander,” because that’s what she does. There is never a shortage of men to take advantage of the attractive blonde, and she’s not really choosy either.


Wanda’s storytelling is slow, but deliberate. In some instances, a scene may feel long simply because Wanda is refusing to leave, knowing there is little alternative, her needs driving the edit. Such is the case when she meets Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), the man we see her with the longest. She busts into his bar after closing and ignores him when he’s barking at her to leave, and she further sticks around even after it’s clear he doesn’t own the bar but is robbing it, sucking Wanda into his fugitive lifestyle and ultimately enlisting her to take part in his crimes. In fact, he’s the only man who involves her in anything, forcing her to do the one thing she refuses to do--be involved. In a weird way, perhaps this is the closest Wanda gets to love, a man she lets keep her. A man who compels her to serve in the function of a wife, so to speak, and also to cross moral and ethical lines. Is this why she can’t willingly give him up? In the end, we can sense she has become dependent upon him, rather than the urge for freedom that drove her into his orbit.


Barbara Loden is herself a bit of a tragic figure, her impressive rise cut short. A former model, she became an actress under the tutelage of Elia Kazan, who cast her as Warren Beatty’s sister in Splendor in the Grass [review] and whom she would eventually marry. Loden would die from cancer a decade after Wanda, aged forty-eight, her first film stuck in limbo, her second film adrift in development hell. Likely she never dreamed Wanda would experience a renaissance, much less this far into the next century, but the distance has not diminished the potency of her masterwork. Her vision for Wanda harnesses and upends the usual Hollywood standard for an actress’ worth. Desirability equals box office. Yet, both things are hollow. Desire is fleeting and selfish, and the more Mr. Dennis lets her stick around, the less of Wanda remains. Not that she shows us much to begin with. Loden never writes herself an expository monologue, she never lets Wanda open up about the things that bother her, never exhibits any drive but to refill her wallet and her belly. The closest we get is when the gruff crook interrogates her about the family pictures she carries with her, less interested in her past than he is in her future. It’s like a final quiz before he decides she can stick around, affirmation that she is a naked mannequin for him to dress and to manicure. Only his standards of beauty apply.


None of the men who interact with Wanda are worth a damn. For as calm as she tends to be, they are all nervous and agitated, driven by lust and anger. The closest we get to a good guy is her soon-to-be-ex-husband, who has already replaced her with another blonde, claiming it’s for the betterment of the kids. Maybe it is, we’ll never know. Actually, scratch that, the only good man to lend a hand is the old dude in the beginning who gives her some money. But is it any wonder then that he’s symbolically exiled? Wanda has to trek across a barren landscape to find him all alone amidst rubble and coal.


Not that Loden has made a man-hating polemic here. Wanda’s world is consistently isolated. It’s not until the movie’s final scenes that she does anything communal, and even there, she’s hiding among the numbers, not really one of them. Our glimpse of life outside her bubble is the bank manager who acts to protect his wife and daughters, someone who seemingly does the right things for the right reasons. Is this symbolic of what Wanda has discarded? How does it make sense that she has given up all family ties, yet also can never be alone?

For those who need an object lesson in the male gaze, Wanda serves as a great example of how one can critique said gaze while also effectively dismissing it. Imagine a hypothetical 1990s Hollywood remake starring Sharon Stone, how the camera would likely linger on her naked flesh the morning after every tryst. Loden doesn’t allow for any of that, never hands her camera to her male characters, not even when Mr. Dennis is complaining about her hair and make-up, sizing her up for his own personal tastes. The lens is always sympathetic to Wanda, lingering on her visage, capturing her reaction, her silent depression. It’s about her face, not her body. It’s telling, actually, that none of the men spend any time staring at her when she is in their bed, either. It’s as if they’ve already disregarded her presence.


Though Barbara Loden never made another full-length motion picture, she did make a pair of educational films in 1975. One of them, The Frontier Experience, is included on this Criterion release. Loden stars again, this time as a dutiful wife who journeyed across the American terrain with her husband, only for him to be killed and leaving her to fend for their family on her own. It’s pretty dry, but it’s interesting to see Loden playing a woman who is a total opposite to Wanda: stoic, determined, and dedicated.


Also of note on the disc is I am Wanda, Katja Raganelli’s documentary about Loden, shot just before her death. It features a one-on-one with Loden, as well as footage of her at work teaching acting and at home, including an evening of reading poetry with family and friends, Elia Kazan among them. We are also treated to her career history, from her illustrious Broadway resume through Splendor and on to Wanda. Loden concealed her illness from I am Wanda’s filmmakers, adding more gravity to the serious, thoughtful conversation about her life and art. The centerpiece is a heartfelt, tear-filled confession about her relationship with her mother, and how that has driven her in her choices.


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

Saturday, March 16, 2019

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT - #959


Sometimes I just can’t find my way into a review.

It’s been five days since I watched In the Heat of the Night, and I’ve spent those days skulking past my computer, afraid to make eye contact with the screen, completely at a loss how to begin writing about Norman Jewison’s 1967 cop drama. A landmark of its time, and a template for many well-meaning race-related pictures to come, In the Heat of the Night is a crackling good film. It reminds me of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder [review] in how engrossing it is, how easy to watch, how transcendent of its own genre.


But what perspective do I bring? I can acknowledge it’s a classic. I can graze up against the deeper issues of 1960s race relations and compare it to today, particularly the healthy distrust of law enforcement. I can talk about how Jewison avoids the folly of so many by neither making his black cop a saint nor his white cop a pure devil, how they are flawed men hampered by their own pride, and thus there is no real vindication or redemption for either, they just carry on. Surely all of this has already been said, though. Mayhap I am better served just cracking this process open and getting on with it.

Here’s the easy thing to explain: the plot. A man is found dead face down in the streets of Sparta, a small Mississippi town. The victim is a real estate developer from out of state looking to build a factory in the area. It would change the lives of the unemployed poor, but also disrupt the town’s established economy. In short, there are a few rich white folks that would rather not see the system altered.


Coincidentally, Homicide Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier, A Raisin in the Sun [review]) gets stranded in Sparta on a layover waiting for his train to Pennsylvania. At first he is arrested by an overzealous cop (Warren Oates, Two-Lane Blacktop [review]) who finds an unknown African American with a wallet full of cash suspicious, but once his identity is revealed, Tibbs is asked to participate in solving the murder. Newly appointed Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger, Jubal [review]; On the Waterfront) would prefer not to take Tibbs’ help, fearing it will be more trouble than its worth, but once Tibbs takes the case between his teeth, Gillespie has little say. No one does, not even Sparta’s roving packs of violent racists or the brittle eccentric living in the big house on the outskirts of town. Tibbs won’t stop until the true culprit is in jail.


Poitier and Steiger make a great pair. The former is all forward intensity, and the latter reserved agitation. Gillespie is definitely a racist, but he’s also a pragmatist. One could argue he resents Tibbs as being an interloper from the big city as much as he does his being a black man. It’s a trope now, that the bigoted cop’s saving grace is his adherence to the law, but Steiger avoids caricature. He lives in Gillespie’s skin and isn’t afraid of his bad parts. Likewise, Poitier continues to evolve his own screen presence to keep Tibbs human and not a symbol. He’s the smartest man in the room, but too smart for his own good.


Indeed, the knotted personal drama of the small town is its own education for Tibbs. The murder is almost secondary to the struggles and gossip that informs Sparta’s day to day. Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool [review]) shoots the locales with a gritty vibrancy, never dressing up the shots, letting the people occupy the space. Even Oates’ shit-grinning cop and the petulant ingénue he peeps on (Quentin Dean) have the room to be people. Not very likeable people, but then really, how many of us are? The awesome Lee Grant (Shampoo [review]) also gets a pretty good turn as the dead man’s wife, a determined woman whose sense of personal justice cuts through the petty squabbles.


The only performance that moves close to parody is Larry Gates (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as Endicott, the fat cat who runs Sparta from afar. Endicott is a riff on the mythological Confederate gentlemen, full of privilege and regretting progress. Jewison and writer Stirling Silliphant (The Poseidon Adventure) choose to stage his lone scene in a green house, symbolizing that he is a rare and wilting thing, no longer viable in the open air. This is a cliché we’ve seen before, most notably in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep [review]; here it seems an unnecessary and superfluous brush stroke.


The story of In the Heat of the Night remains every bit as challenging and incisive. The mystery is modern, even if some of the more “scandalous” aspects of it have lost their shock value. You might guess the real bad guy early, but you’ll forget you did amidst all the great character moments that follow. Add to this an ultra cool Quincy Jones score, complete with Ray Charles theme song, and you have a crime classic, its aesthetic perfectly bridging the gap from the squeaky clean studio system and the more grimy 1970s--an in between state that renders In the Heat of the Night truly timeless.


Saturday, March 9, 2019

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER - #963


Sometimes a performance is so transfixing, it overtakes a mediocre movie and elevates it, even as everyone else seems to be operating at half speed. Such is the case of Danny Glover and To Sleep with Anger. No one who sees this film will forget Glover’s performance as Harry, the charming drifter who, even when he’s putting on his best, never seems to be at rest. There is something vibrationally wrong with this man, something that can’t be trusted. As one person describes him, he’s the moon, always eager to show his light side, but never forget that the other side lies in darkness.


To Sleep with Anger is the third film by Charles Burnett, whose 1978 debut, Killer of Sheep, is an important touchstone of independent cinema. There’s likely a lot to dig into when pondering why it took twelve years from that nervy initial effort to this oft-understated drama. (My Brother’s Wedding, released in 1983, sits between them.) The two are very different in tone, but similar in intent; in each, Burnett shows an unvarnished depiction of African American life that was, and arguably still is, rarely seen in cinema. Specifically in To Sleep with Anger, a middle-class family in Los Angeles, but one with deep connections to the traditions and history of its people.

It’s from this past that Harry emerges, having long been absent, to reconnect with his friend Gideon (Paul Butler, a regular on Michael Mann’s Crime Story [review]). Harry is a welcome sight for Gideon and his wife, Suzie (Mary Alice, who later played the Oracle in the Matrix movies), a reminder of old times. Harry brings with him all the shenanigans of misspent youth, and also all the superstitions that the younger generation are letting go. Gideon and Suzie have two boys, Junior (Carl Lumbly, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) and Babe Brother (Law & Order’s Richard Brooks). As these things go, one brother is the responsible golden child, the other the eternal screw-up. They not only don’t have the same beliefs as their parents, but they lack a connection to the oppression that both binds the older generation and haunts them. Harry’s trips down memory lane serves to remind his friends of how things once were.

To Sleep with Anger is essentially a religious parable with Harry serving as a devilish  symbol of temptation. The longer he stays, the more he leeches off the family, and the more he lures Babe Brother towards a life of gambling, drinking, and grift. His presence serves to cause division in the family, and eventually takes a greater toll. Gideon grows ill, and it becomes clear that only one of these men can be in Babe Brother’s life. The path he chooses will essentially be choosing one man’s way over the other’s.

Burnett soft-pedals the religious themes, as he soft pedals just about everything in To Sleep With Anger. He never transforms Harry into a legitimate supernatural being, nor does he fully validate his superstitious rituals. In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of this narrative is how To Sleep with Anger allows room for both Christianity and folklore, with Gideon and Suzie mingling the two.


It’s possible that To Sleep with Anger could have benefitted from that added dose of magic, however. The stakes feel very low throughout, and some of the writing strays so close to a message-driven television movie--with the low-budget aesthetics to match--Burnett might as well have gone for it. There is never any sense of legitimate consequence. Neither Gideon nor Babe Brother seem under any real threat, and only Lumbly brings actual anger to the proceedings, giving Junior some genuine fury in his beef with the little brother that always coasts by.


This might have also given Glover the sort of final scene his performance deserved. He’s all smiles and mysterious stories and seduction throughout, only to have his last scenes feature him capitulating and giving up. For a villain with that kind of tenacious charisma, he steps aside too easily, and it robs To Sleep with Anger of any sense of victory for its other characters. Then again, I suppose that temptation has always been more complex than making the good and moral choice, and that’s why it’s so alluring...and why the alternative can be this boring.



Tuesday, March 5, 2019

THE WAR ROOM - #602


One of my favorite TV shows right now is the political news weekly The Circus on Showtime. Given the current climate, the inner workings of the government and the sniping between pundits and our leaders makes for good television, even if that’s about the only positive it pumps into the atmosphere. If nothing else, the clown show of the Trump administration, Congress, and all the rests is grist for entertainment. Comedy programs like The Daily Show or Patriot Act makes all the shenanigans more palatable, while colorfully infuriating characters like Roger Stone prove a perfect subject for a documentary.

At the same time, it’s all so exhausting. At the end of the initial testimony in Michael Cohen’s recent appearance before Congress, Representative Elijah Cummings, who chaired the proceedings, gruffly lamented the state of things and wished we could somehow get back to normal. I felt that, and as a result of feeling it, I wanted to remind myself of what normal looks like.


So why not go back to a more innocent time, 1993, and the documentary The War Room? The film, by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, follows the core of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for Presidency. Run by George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, this successful bid for the White House was the first election I voted in. There’s plenty of nostalgia for me, a feeling that I was there when we all got it right, even if lately it’s hard not to have a little buyer’s remorse as more of President Clinton’s misdeeds come to light. (If you haven’t yet watched the multi-part The Clinton Affair, do so, and maybe chase it with Showtime’s Enemies: The President, Justice, and the FBI, which traces a pattern of corruption and illustrates how little changes over time; episode 4 also looks at the Clinton impeachment.)


Maybe I should have picked a movie I had seen before or had been vetted for me. My expectations were way off. Though the scandal and vitriol of The War Room seems almost quaint in the era of “grab them by the pussy” and “bad hombres,” it feels far from normal. In fact, it may arguably chronicle the end of normal. Ross Perot, cable news, tabloid exposure, spin spin spin...was it the beginning of the end? James Carville now comes off as positively naïve when he gives his staff a pep talk imploring them to fight back against the smears, and predicting that if they do so successfully, it will end that kind of Republican vs. Democrat rhetoric for good. Little did he know that it would only make his opponents come back harder. And one has to wonder if that naïveté was not only shared by Stephanopoulos, but extended to their perception of all of Clinton’s poor choices. The baby-faced, smirking Stephanopoulos only shows a nasty side once: when he’s threatening a wag who has a list of Bill’s alleged extra-marital affairs. I can’t imagine George looking back now and being proud of running up that hill for his boss.

Then again, maybe one shouldn’t rehash The War Room for how things played out after. Hindsight isn’t really 20/20. It’s more skewed than that, adding a sharper focus. If there’s one thing abundantly clear now, it’s that this film is about a small group of true believers, of wonks coming together for a common cause, to put someone in power that they were sure was the right man for the job. And knowing that, watching them scheme and joke and hone their message is fun. It’s the fairy-tale prequel to All the President’s Men, when the Commander in Chief’s troops were willing to do anything to get him elected, and yet still had their scruples (seemingly; that’s the fairy tale part).


Though I am sure that Hegedus and Pennebaker had hours of footage to cull from, including blow-ups and catastrophes, they choose to build their film out of the smaller moments. It’s the mundane that captures their attention, the bemused looks on Carville’s face when George H.W. Bush is insulting his candidate in his TV, or the way they’ll spend ten minutes haggling over the best word to use in a comeback. I am not sure The War Room illuminates the electoral process in a flattering fashion. These minor skirmishes and petty strategies expose it as basically ridiculous, and running a campaign could be the oddest of odd jobs.


If there’s another thing for sure, it’s that no one will ever likely be able to make something like The War Room again. Everyone working on a major campaign, and especially Carville or Stephanopoulos, is far more media savvy these days. They would likely put on too many restrictions, spend too much time playing to the camera; essentially, with a reality TV has-been in the Oval Office, it’s hard not to see all politics as just another facet of the same reality TV that spawned him.

So maybe The War Room is more normal, after all, it’s just not entirely so. And, let’s face it, not much would remain normal in the decades since. Nor would anything be as compelling than the unguarded honesty of people too blind and determined to know better.


Saturday, March 2, 2019

A SHIP TO INDIA - INGMAR BERGMAN'S CINEMA


Criterion’s recent boxed set Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema collects the bulk of the Swedish director’s films in one place, but rather than just present them in chronological order, the producers of the box decided to curate the movies as if this were a festival, inviting viewers to explore the maestro’s work according to period and theme, hopefully leading them to connections they might not have seen had they watched Bergman's oeuvre more haphazardly (a mission not entirely dissimilar to the stated goal of this blog).

I’m going to attempt to respect that in how I watch the movies. We will see how it goes. I don’t want to front, I can tell you now i won’t always be re-watching ones I’ve already seen, and when I do, I doubt I will review them again. It’s a time issue, really, not a lack of desire. But we will see how the spirit of cinema moves me.

I’ve already reviewed the set’s first two offerings, which you can read here:

* Smiles of a Summer Night
Crisis


In the festival, Crisis, Bergman’s first film, is paired with his third, 1947’s A Ship to India. Both are melodramas with genre trappings, the result of a young filmmaker’s apprenticeship in Sweden’s version of the studio system. Humble beginnings, to be sure, and not dissimilar to the Beatles starting out as a covers band, but as the essay accompanying these movies asserts, it’s good to see that all great artists have to start somewhere.

A Ship to India has much in common with a Hollywood back-lot romance. It hinges on a father/son rivalry over a vaudeville singer. “That damn Captain Blom” (Holgen Löwenadler, Lacombe, Lucien), as his crew refers to him, is a rough personality. He lives with his wife, Alice (Anna Lindahl), and son, Johannes (Birger Malmsten, Thirst [review]), on their salvage boat, working intermittently as the mood strikes him. As his business sits idle, Blom lives it up in town, brawling and drinking, and wooing the chanteuse Sally (Gertrud Fridh, The Magician [review]). When the Captain finds out he’ll be going blind within the year, he decides to cash in his chips. One last job, and then he’ll leave the family and take Sally to India.


This surge of selfishness collides with Johannes’ own plans to get out. He wants to join another ship and make his way in the world--something his father finds laughable. Johannes was born with a small hump on his back, and he is seen as a cripple. His father has treated him as lesser-than all his life. Mother encourages what she can, as do the other men, but it’s not until Sally comes along that Johannes starts to get a little courage.

Narratively, A Ship to India is all over the place. The story takes a while to find its central track, instead sideswiping us with bizarre character outbursts like Johannes getting drunk and nearly raping Sally. Then again, perhaps the young Bergman sees a sort of anarchy in the volatile emotions of the men in the Blom family, since the Captain is prone to violent lashings out, as well. It’s these character complications that make A Ship to India interesting. Captain Blom is a completely sympathetic villain, and Johannes is far from a purely noble hero.  You hear each man express his fears and desires, only for them to turn around and do something awful. I’m surprised Bergman didn’t use Holgen Löwenadler more. He has a presence not unlike Max von Sydow. His moodiness plays across his face like oil slithering through water.


There are traces of later Bergman in this fledgling work. The family dynamics would come to play time and again, all the way through famous later films like Cries and Whispers. There is also an early hint at his love of theatrical presentations. Whenever we are in the theater with Sally, he prefers to shoot from backstage rather than the front of the house, always more interested in what’s behind the curtain than what is in front of it.


But there is also a clumsiness that could have been taken care of with another script polish. The framing sequence that shows us the family five years later is superfluous, and seems to exist only to give us a semblance of a happy ending. Much of the same could have been achieved by keeping to one timeline. It might have even heightened the drama to have so much happen all at once. There is also a lack of vibrancy to most of the staging. Bergman’s performers regularly come off as subdued, and it’s less like they are holding back as a choice and more like not everyone on set is as yet comfortable with working for the camera.

Still, A Ship To India would have been a comfortable B-selection paired with a more prestige picture--something kind of funny to say about an Ingmar Bergman release since “prestige” is practically his middle name, but as noted earlier, everyone has to start somewhere.