Sunday, May 26, 2019


Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” is considered the greatest nonsense poem of all time, inventing its own language and creating a picture of a monster that it is both fearsome and silly. Knowing that, and watching Terry Gilliam’s first feature-length film as a solo artist, 1977’s Carroll-inspired Jabberwocky, gives some context to where the filmmaker is coming from.

But I’m not convinced that all of the above is a good thing.

I don’t quite get what to make of Jabberwocky. I decided to watch it after viewing Gilliam’s latest, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a cursed production about a cursed production and how art can drive one to madness. It’s a dull mess. The cosmos did everything it could to warn Gilliam away from this folly, but the auteur identified with the dizzy Don a little too much, it seems. You’d think after a couple of decades that Gilliam would have figured out The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; my guess is that instead the maestro shed no ideas gathered across all those years, landing this beast with all the brambles and barnacles of various development hells intact.

Too bad then that I don’t see much clearer thinking behind Jabberwocky. I don’t understand what this film is supposed to be. The obvious answer would be a satirical fantasy, mining similar comedic veins as The Life of Brian and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but without the talented Python ensemble to back their American partner up.

Jabberwocky is lit like it’s Barry Lyndon, but its set decorators are more obsessed with grit and grime and making everything oily and dirty. And the director himself with scatological humor. We see more than one person defecate, and the hero of the piece, Michael Palin’s typically clueless Dennis, is urinated on twice. Dennis is every Terry Gilliam protagonist: a befuddled doofus buffeted about by society, trapped in a quagmire of red tape, bad faith, and inexplicable social mores, obsessed with love that is beyond his reach, but ultimately stumbling into some semblance of a resolution.

Palin gives it a good try. This is totally his wheelhouse, after all. Any appeal that Dennis has comes from Michael Palin’s genuine and undeniable likability. The character has no traits worth rooting for--he’s single-minded, self-absorbed, and lacking in finesse or taste--yet one can’t look at Michael Palin’s innocent, open face and wish him to fail.

Ostensibly, Jabberwocky is a quest story. The titular Jabberwocky is terrorizing villages in the kingdom, and our expectation is that once Dennis leaves his small hamlet for the royal city, he will somehow be put in position to slay the beast, and thus be the hero he didn’t know he could be. And we do get there, but not before a lot of detours into undercooked sketches where Gilliam satirizes medieval culture and takes the piss out of more romantic views of the period. You fancy being a knight of the Round Table? Well, be prepared to live in filth and squalor amongst unenlightened people with no real moral compass. The level of humor here is maybe best illustrated by Dennis and the rich merchant of his village, Mr. Fishfinger (Warren Mitchell), laughing about a man who got so scared his teeth turned “snowflake white.” Get it? They are all gross and are too stupid to know it!

Gilliam plays a lot of these moments as an afterthought. In the city, we see other merchants racing their litters, pushing the men carrying them to the limit, just to arrive at court first. It’s a nice way to show how these greedy nobles behave, but there is little payoff. Gilliam is off to the next idea, ill concerned with the connective tissue. Which might be fine if these gags were just funnier. The witticisms aren’t as sharp as the ones we got in Holy Grail, nor does the film have anything to say, a la Life of Brian.

And yes, I know, this is supposed to be nonsense, and I am probably taking my comedy way too seriously. Except, when you’re not laughing, what else do you have to think about but why?

I’d also suggest that if Jabberwocky is intended as nonsense, then its conforming to our narrative expectations in the final 30 minutes of the movie violates its own mission. As predicted, Dennis ends up in service to the knight who goes after the Jabberwocky, and it takes expected deviations from there. Amazingly, with the plot getting more straightforward, Jabberwocky somehow becomes even more flat. I didn’t think it was possible. The monster reveal, however, is fantastic, with Gilliam using extreme angles and an obstructed view to slowly ratchet up the feelings of dread and fear. Plus, the monster is really cool, an appropriately odd-looking practical construction.

Let’s be honest, Gilliam is at his best when he has someone keeping him in check. While Jabberwocky could arguably be forgiven as an effort by a filmmaker finding his own way, it has that overloaded feeling that permeates a lot (if not all) of the director’s work. His best films, like Brazil [review] and The Fisher King, succeed because they are tightened up (I can’t imagine what the studio execs who hated the ending of Brazil would think of Jabberwocky’s finale), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is the example that proves the rule, its volume and excess making it exciting. At his worst, no one appears to be watching--either behind the scenes or in front of the screen (Tideland and The Zero Theorem come to mind). Jabberwocky feels like a filmmaker unleashed...but almost like he still has to crawl before he can really run.

Thursday, May 23, 2019


This review was originally written in 2012 for It is reprinted here on the occasion of the Criterion Channel launching a triple feature of Hong Sang-Soo films that also includes Claire's Camera and On the Beach at Night Alone.

Seongjun is a filmmaker who made four films before abandoning the craft and becoming a professor at a small school in the Korean countryside. On the occasion of The Day He Arrives, the latest from Hong Sang-soo (Woman is the Future of Man; In Another Country [review]), the emotionally wounded artist (played by Yu Jun-Sang) has returned to Seoul to visit a friend, Youngho (Kim Sang Jung). On that first day, the friend is nowhere to be found, and so Seongjun wanders his old stomping grounds, running into an actress he knows, drinking with some film students, and when deep in his cups, visiting his ex-girlfriend, Kyungjin (Kim Bo-Kyung). There is still pain between them, and also some love, though when she sends him away, it seems for the best.

When we see Seongjun again, it's the next morning, and he is back on the hunt from Youngho. If the circumstances look the same, it's because they are. The Day He Arrives, for the purpose of this film, is every day, and every drunken night gives over to the same hungover morning. Seongjun realizes it...and he doesn't. The only time he acknowledges the passage of days, it's when he runs into the actress again. He remembers seeing her the day before, and she remembers seeing him. The air around her is different.

On day 2, Seongjun connects with his friend, and they go out together, hooking up with his colleague, a woman named Boram (Song Seon-Mi). Youngho and Boram are film professors, as well, and they teach together in Seoul. Boram is attracted to Seongjun, she likes his films, and she's curious about his broken heart. He is distracted, however, when they go to a bar called Novel, and the pretty owner turns out to be a dead ringer for Seongjun's ex-lover. Indeed, in a move reminiscent of Bunuel (or perhaps Lynch), Kim Bo-Kyung also plays Yejeon. The director is drawn to this woman, the coincidence is too overpowering. It must mean something, right?

This is the central philosophical question that Hong Sang-soo sets out to examine in his mesmerizing drama. The repetition of events in The Day He Arrives is not an empty gimmick, it's a considered choice that has been undertaken with purpose. As each new version plays out, different things happen. On day 3, an actor friend joins the group. Seongjun also makes progress with the bartender. On day 4, Youngho is drunk and reveals himself a little more. Each character is getting a kind of do-over. They take more risks, speak more truths, and essentially get at what they are trying to get at.

I suppose how you interpret the changes and escalation is going to determine how you assess The Day He Arrives. It may also be a personality litmus test. The liner notes to the film, written by critic James Quandt, are titled "Déjà Vu," but I think that's too tidy a concept for the existential riddle that Hong is posing. His main character sets the parameters when he says he doesn't believe that coincidence has meaning. Life is a series of random events, and we spend so much time trying to connect them, we risk missing that there is only one inevitable outcome. Whatever circumstances keep bringing these people together, whatever common thoughts drive them (throughout the movie, conversations are repeated with speakers switching roles and/or echoing each other in the discussions), this is all chance. For the optimistic among you, the repetition of these happenings ultimately puts luck on your side. In a kind of Groundhog Day romantic scenario, the characters can get better, do better, and get closer to some kind of true connection. If you're pessimistic like me, the randomness only proves to emphasize how alone we, as humans, really are. Every day, Seongjun gets to know the barmaid a little better, gets to like her more, and eventually succeeds in being with her...only to let his own emotional dysfunction dictate his next move. It's like the old saying goes, no matter where you go, there you will be. Seongjun can't help but be alienated. He is eternally the outsider, always arriving, never staying.

The Day He Arrives, for all its long scenes of conversation, is a tightly edited film. For its surreal concept, it's also surprisingly grounded. The acting and the writing are naturalistic. Hong never forces the drama, nor does he spell out his intentions through overly explanatory or self-reflexive dialogue. Instead, his references are subtle, and he lets the actors be themselves within the scene, lets them find the truth. The camera probes occasionally, moving in tighter on a moment when further intimacy is required, but otherwise it's unobtrusive. We hang back and watch, we aren't pushed into the center of the intellectual mystery. This, of course, makes it all the more intriguing. Hong seduces us with the unknowable, and it's hypnotizing. Even as we begin to discern the magician's tricks, the illusion is never dissolved--meaning we are there wholly and completely when the final devastating day comes at last.

Sunday, May 19, 2019


Just about every child fears turning into their parents, but like owners and their dogs ending up looking alike, some developments are inevitable.

So it is in The Heiress, a drama that at its root is about what a father will pass on to his daughter. Everything would be so much simpler were that to be nothing, but since it’s a rather large sum of money, it makes everything complicated.

Olivia de Havilland stars as Catherine, the heiress in question, the sole child of widower Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson, The Fallen Idol [review]). Catherine is shy and plain, having grown up not just sheltered, but stifled by her father’s continually comparing her to his porcelain view of her mother. Sharing the house with the pair is Austin’s sister Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins, Design for Living [review]), herself harboring the ache of a lost love, her own paramour a living memory, the stories she tells Catherine shaping the young woman’s view of marriage and romance.

Catherine is of the age where she should consider her future and the potential for marriage. Lavinia is doing her best to pry to girl out of her shell, insisting she go to social functions and even goading men into asking Catherine to dance. No goading is necessary, however, at one fancy soiree when Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift, Red River) takes a liking to Catherine and begins to woo her. Within two days, they are engaged--a development that makes the good doctor none too happy. He sees Morris as a man of zero means, who blew threw his own small inheritance traveling in France, and who clearly only seeks his dowdy daughter’s fortune, he couldn’t possibly like her for who she is.

Released in 1949 and based on the novel Washington Square by Henry James, The Heiress is a buttoned-up melodrama, crafted with a meticulous attention to the social mores that would dictate how such romantic entanglements played out. Afraid that Dr. Sloper doesn’t like him, Morris jumps the queue and asks Catherine for her hand first; yet, when the doctor rejects the marriage, Morris beggars off, insisting the patriarch’s approval is necessary for their happiness--though the point of contention being whether Morris cares more for Catherine’s good health or for the fact that she’ll only receive 1/3 of her potential inheritance should Dr. Slope so choose.

We never know, really. Montgomery Clift is at his best here. He’s handsome and charming, but also intensely awkward. He seems sincere, but mercurial, so it’s hard to judge his motivations. William Wyler doesn’t cut away to show Morris sharing any secret confidence. The closest we get are his private times with Lavinia; he gets looser around the older woman, more cavalier. It does give us pause. But then, maybe he’s just more comfortable around her because she isn’t judging him. If he is lying, Lavinia would still prefer Catherine be happy to Morris’ motives being pure.

The crux of Henry James’ story, and the script by Ruth and Augustus Goetz (adapting not just the novel, but their own stage play), is how Catherine views herself versus how others view her. If Morris is to be believed, he sees something in her that others do not; if her father is to be believed, she is severely lacking. Richardson plays Sloper as haughty, impetuous, and cruel, but with enough warmth to suggest he does want better for his daughter. In particular, he wants her to find her own voice, though ironically he takes the brunt of it when she does. Little would he expect that his acidity is something she would also inherit.

For her part, de Havilland is marvelous, delivering a nuanced performance that convincingly takes Catherine from spinster to dame. The script allows her to make gradual changes, but when the full transformation occurs, it’s still the same woman, despite being practically the polar opposite to how the character began. I think the real reason for this is that de Havilland brings enough natural charisma and depth to the role, that it allows us to see what Lavinia and Morris see in Catherine, enough to reject public perception. Catherine is the underdog, and to be rooted for. Thus, it stings to see her clam back up, to become her old man--haughty and cruel. Her rejection of the maid’s compliment is as demeaning as all the times Dr. Slope rebuked her. It’s these character moments that make The Heiress so enticing. Smartly, Wyler keeps the pyrotechnics dialed down, and he and director of photography Leo Tover (The Day the Earth Stood Still) keep the camera steady. All the drama is in the dialogue, and a carefully crafted facial reaction is more telling than an emphatic zoom.

What surprises me the most about The Heiress is how it sticks to its vision. That motivations remain ambiguous is a triumph to itself, but that Wyler was allowed to stick to an ending that conventional Hollywood wisdom would usually have deemed too dark puts The Heiress a cut above most other costume dramas of the time. In fact, the increasing mania of the last man standing in the final scene haunts me still.

By the by, for those of you who would have sworn that Clift’s Morris was about to break into the perennial Elvis Presley hit “Can’t Help Falling in Love” when showing off his piano skills, your ears do not deceive you! It turns out that the 18th-century tune “Plaisir d’amour” would later inspire one of my favorite love songs.

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

Saturday, May 18, 2019


Jan Němec’s 1964 debut Diamonds of the Night is all things at once. Simple and complicated. Sparse and detailed. Accessible and challenging. Grounded and poetic.

Based on a novel by Arnošt Lustig, Diamonds of the Night is the story of two young men on the run in World War II-era Czechoslovakia. Having escaped from a train hauling them to a Nazi concentration camp, the boys charge through the forest and countryside, avoiding people, looking for food, and occasionally resorting to desperate acts to survive. Told with little dialogue and shot in real locations, there is a harsh realism to the story Němec lays out. These boys are isolated, without hope, never sure if the people they spot along the way are friend or foe.

Yet, we maybe can’t be sure of the young men either. We have our assumptions regarding whom they might be and why they were rounded up, but as Němec plays with time and memory, slicing up his scenes, splicing in random shots that could be past or present, fantasy or reality, we can’t help but build different scenarios. Němec starts to really play tricks on us when the fugitives rob a farmhouse, forcing the farmer’s wife to make them sandwiches. We see them take the food and go, but we also see them attack her, leaving her unconscious on the kitchen floor. Which was it? What really happened? As we get more information later, we even start to doubt why she was initially scared of the intruders.

Taken one way, the lack of exposition in Diamonds of the Night causes us to question why the civilians that the escapees encounter don’t help them, why these common folk give their allegiances to outside invaders, whom history has already judged by the time the film was made; taken another way, we are forced to question ourselves, why we automatically perceive things a certain way, and if our failure to challenge the known is the reason fascism can creep in and ultimately win out.

Either way, it’s a compelling experience, rarely giving the viewers time to catch their breath, and revealing a director with a firm grasp of his own cinematic vocabulary.

Arnošt Lustig was a real-life prisoner of war and much of his writing was based on his experiences. A short documentary included on the Criterion edition of Diamonds of the Night explores how Jan Němec interpreted Lustig’s work for film. Also included is Němec’s 1960 student film, A Loaf of Bread, based on one of Lustig’s stories.

A Loaf of Bread details three prisoners plotting and undertaking a scheme to steal bread to feed them on a planned escape. Though more straightforward than Diamonds of the Night, it displays a similar tight control, reminding me somewhat of the French noir of Jacques Becker or Jean-Pierre Melville for how the attention to small action builds tension. It’s easy to see the promise in the young director that would pay off four years later.

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