DISCLAIMER: I wrote these as promotional blurbs for film screenings a million years ago. A lot of it is really awful now that I’m rereading it. Please forgive me.
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI – Screened: September 1, 2011
On an October night in 1913, Czech poet Hans Janowitz was walking through Hamburg’s notorious Reeperbahn, looking for a girl “whose beauty and manner attracted him.” He followed her laugh into an adjacent park, where she vanished into the shrubbery with a man. The laugh abruptly stopped. Unnerved, Janowitz hung around and finally saw the shadow of a man emerge, his face like an “average bourgeois” as he passed. The headlines next morning read “Horrible sex crime on the Holstenwall!” Janowitz attended the girl’s funeral, convinced that he had witnessed the crime; and there he locked eyes again with the “average bourgeois,” who seemed to recognize him.
This incident served as the inspiration for Janowitz’s script, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, albeit abstracted through the prism of a shattered Imperialist Germany. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that German film starts with 1919’s Caligari, and while the term “Expressionism” is often applied loosely to all films from the period, Caligari is one of a handful that plays by the aesthetic rules of that movement, with its jagged set design, chiaroscuro lighting, and stilted, arrhythmic performances. The cinematic German Expressionists (the movement was already underway in drama and art) were not concerned with what they considered mundane reflections on nature or the recording of simple facts. It wasn’t destruction, death and totalitarianism they wanted to expose but the interior visions these things provoke, filtered through the senses and refracted back as a more accurate representation of human experience. Mind giving form to matter, not the other way around — the driving creative force of the writers and set designers.
But mind giving form to money was preferable to the producers. They brought in director Fritz Lang to help make the surreal story more palatable (and exportable) but, due to other commitments, he had to drop out of the project early on. Despite his short tenure, Lang’s one recommendation infuriated the writers by bookending the narrative with “lunatic asylum” segments that they felt undermined the script’s anti-authoritarian message. Thus, the murderous, sleepwalking “everyman” manipulated and controlled by the totalitarian master became a deus ex machina by a guy in a straight jacket. Both the producers and new-director Robert Weine loved the idea and felt it would give Caligari more international appeal, putting the upstart German film industry on the map.
Other events helped to do that. And after Hitler and what the West perceived as the complete acquiescence of the German citizenry to Nazi will, the film’s subtext was so undeniably clear that the framing device hardly mattered anymore. Instead of the first classic horror film, Caligari became a huge unheeded warning cry that things were still amiss in the collective German psyche, that the servant /master game was still brewing behind the scenes in the Weimar Republic, or so thought expatriates like Siegfried Kracauer, whose 1947 study From Caligari To Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film set the scholarly debate framework for decades to come, until feminist film theory began to challenge some of those sacrosanct ideas. The film’s reputation continued to grow. Over the decades, it became an art house perennial, the iconic image of somnambulist Conrad Veidt (later the lead Nazi in Casablanca) cropping up on album covers, advertisements, and t-shirts. Of all the Weimar era films, only Lang’s Metropolis can claim such a lasting impact on our popular culture.
THE JOYLESS STREET – Screened: September 15, 2011
On March 10, 1925, Otto Rothstock, a 25-year old dental technician, entered the publishing offices of writer and social activist Hugo Bettauer. As a curious Bettauer watched on, Rothstock calmly locked the door behind him, turned to face the desk, and fired a revolver five times into Bettauer’s chest at point-blank range. Such was the harmonious union between politics and art in Germany’s Weimar Republic.
Okay, in all fairness, Austria. Bettauer was a well-known and publicly-despised left wing journalist and author who had managed to carve out some notoriety for himself via his scathing exposes of the Viennese bourgeoisie, his weekly publication credited with at least one corrupt official’s suicide. He called for legalizing abortions, advocated for married women to retain their maiden names, and railed against existing sexual mores, which he criticized as pious, patriarchal, and out of step with the new spirit of modernity. Rothstock was a budding Nazi, convinced that his impromptu assassination and subsequent surrender (he hung out on the office sofa and waited for the police to arrive) was a public service in the grand name of Austrian nationalism, to rid the state of at least one fly in its ointment. Bettaeur lingered on for a week or so. Rothstock was deemed “insane” and back on the street in 18 months. A small-yet-prescient window into the future.
Although popular in his day and publishing 3-4 novels per year, Bettauer’s literary legacy (if you could call it that, given his almost complete obscurity) rests on two works, both of which were serialized in Austrian newspapers. His most famous, Die Stadt ohne Juden from 1922, or City Without Jews, gained more of a reputation after the war, when it was reassessed as an ominous harbinger of things to come (the use of freight cars strikes a particularly eerie parallel.) In Bettauer’s alternate reality, however, the Viennese citizenry expel all Jews from the city only to realize that, without them, their capital is crumbling and culturally deficient, at which point the mayor welcomes them all back with open arms and much public pageantry. The fact that the author uses this mass expulsion as a comically-improbable extreme to heighten the novel’s satiric impact only reflects the pre-1933 limits many Europeans placed on state-sponsored antisemitism.
But oddly, it was Bettauer’s 1924 Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street) that got him killed: an indictment of the corrupt Viennese establishment dressed up as a murder mystery. Like “crime” writer Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? or communist Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris, Bettauer used the “penny-dreadful” genre as a vehicle to communicate broader universal truths to the masses, to pose uncomfortable questions and shed light on hypocrisies and social inequities. And purportedly, it was this that director and fellow Austrian G.W. Pabst saw in Bettauer’s novel as well.
For his film adaptation, Pabst ditches some of the novel’s more melodramatic elements and puts the transient presence of the “street” front and center, a dark and claustrophobic artery tenuously linking its disparate inhabitants. Pabst’s love of Bertolt Brecht is in evidence, with lives alternately shaped and destroyed by poverty and opportunity, struggles for simple sustenance juxtaposed with a crass, opulent hedonism. Greta Garbo gets her big non-Swedish break here, quickly snatched up by Hollywood shortly after the film’s release and hitting it big internationally. Even more impressive is the performance of screen veteran Asta Nielsen, who comes across as hauntingly ethereal in scenes, part mousy librarian, part powdered drag queen. Werner Krauss, who plays the butcher, is better known for being the sadistic doctor in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. His only requirement of Pabst was that his dog get good screen time as well. But of everyone, it’s the multi-faceted protopunk genius of dancer/actor Valeska Gert, as the owner of the brothel, that steals the show.
Very few of the silent films now considered masterpieces of the German Weimar era have the difficult history of The Joyless Street. Granted, it was not uncommon for international silent films to suffer at the hands of foreign editors. With no sound synchronization to worry about, editors and projectionists could (and did) butcher at will, deleting entire sections, rewriting intertitle cards between shots, or whatever was needed to “sanitize” a film and get it past local censors. In a couple of snips, brothels became orphanages and sex workers became volunteers for the Salvation Army (to cite two German examples, the latter from another Pabst film). The relative completeness of its German counterparts—Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Der Golem—reflects the fact that, much like today, horror is tolerated better than sex in the U.S. market, particularly in the 1920s when cinema was still a burgeoning industry and hypersensitive to any critiques of its morality. So a cheery Teutonic rumination on starvation, sexual degradation, and economic collapse was sure to bring the x-acto knives out in force. Almost immediately, 150 minutes became anywhere from 120 to 90 to 57. Some reviewers of the day could not even piece together the basic narrative. A second obstacle faced by the restorers was the lack of any existing intertitles in the original German. For the purposes of this restoration, Filmarchiv Austria painstakingly recreated these using a combination of a 1926 censorship report, an early draft of the shooting script, and foreign print intertitles retranslated back into German.
The result: as close to Pabst’s finished vision as we will ever see, and an incredible restoration achievement that was over ten years in the making.
PANDORA’S BOX – Screened: September 29, 2011
“Sex was the business of the town. Inside my Berlin hotel, the cafe bar was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the streets outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation. Actors’ agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian Quarter. Race-track touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of sportsmen. The nightclub Eldorado displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians. Collective lust roared unashamed at the theater. Just as Wedekind says, ‘They rage there as in a menagerie when the meat appears at the cage.'” — Louise Brooks, “Pabst & Lulu.”
Of all the Weimar films, it is perhaps Pandora’s Box that has undergone the biggest reassessment by film scholars over the past sixty years, going from a much maligned failure upon its 1929 release to one of G.W. Pabst’s essential masterworks today. Much of that has less to do with Pabst than with the enduring and mysterious legacy of its major star, Louise Brooks, an American actor not particularly adept at sticking to the expected playbook of the Hollywood studio heads. One quick read through any of her acerbic essays from later in her life provide plenty of points for possible collision between Brooks and the old-boy studio network. Many women could no doubt navigate it with clenched smiles and gritted teeth, but Kansas-born Brooks, always ready to speak her mind, was not among them. When she got the call from Pabst to come to Berlin, she had little to lose and few bridges left to burn. German film scholar Lotte Eisner tells the story of showing up on the set and seeing Brooks sitting in a chair between takes, reading a book that she assumed to be American pop culture fluff or dime-store romance. Haughtily confronting her, Eisner was embarrassed and shocked to see it was Schopenhauer’s Essays in translation. In her later classic work on Weimar film The Haunted Screen, it was Brooks, not Pabst, that Eisner praised as a genius.
Eisner’s initial hostility should be seen in context. Even before casting was finished, German literati attacked the idea of a base film (film was perceived as inferior to stage and still a novelty at best) derived from Frank Wedekind’s two dramas, Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora, which the film synthesizes into a single narrative. Incorporating elements later adopted by stage Expressionists, Wedekind’s dialogue-driven dramas were highly controversial for their candid, if highly stylized, assault on pious sexual attitudes of the late 19th-century. And when, during the high-profile casting search, German actresses like Marlene Dietrich were passed over for an American, it was the final insult. Berlin reviews were brutal and the film failed miserably.
Problems on the set are legendary. Brooks spoke no German and had to be coached phonetically on all her lines (silent film viewers were excellent lip readers and often complained when lip movements failed to match the dialogue text.) Pabst could only communicate with her in broken English. Alice Roberts, unhappy about playing one of the screen’s first lesbians, requested that Pabst speak seductive French to her from offstage so she could make it through her tango scene with Brooks with her moral universe intact. The veteran actors didn’t hide their hatred of the lead, calling Brooks the “spoiled American” brought in to portray “their beloved German Lulu.” Instead of diffusing these onset tensions, Pabst often worked, in his quiet and erudite manner, to exacerbate them, knowing this would only heighten the intensity of the performances. The tactic, however ethically questionable, worked to perfection. Brooks said she had the bruises on her arms to prove it after several physical scenes.
Today, Brooks’s naturalistic performance and iconic look, with her laissez-faire disposition, black bob and bangs, has come to personify the post-WWI “Jazz Age” mentality, the embodiment of joie de vivre and sexual liberation. In Pandora’s Box, the fact that this impulse leads to the ugly inverse says more about masculine paranoia over the erosion of traditional power balances than the emergence of any feminist ideals. Perhaps it is that disorienting dichotomy–championing the new in one fist while reinforcing the old with the other–that strikes such a continued chord with viewers, as the film gets reinterpreted through the filters of media theory.
Strangely, despite their large age gap, both Pabst and Brooks were at the ends of their careers. Pabst made two incredible sound films–Westfront 1918 (1930) and Kameradschaft (1931)–before fading into obscurity with second-rate costume dramas during the Nazi years, which was thankfully the extent of his collaboration. Brooks was blacklisted after she refused to return to Hollywood and convert her silent performance in The Canary Murder Case into a sound version, another actress ultimately dubbing in her lines. The ensuing smear campaign that her voice did not translate well into sound sealed her fate in the industry. She taught dance lessons for a while before becoming a recluse in her Rochester apartment, only leaving to replenish her library book supply. She wrote extensively during this period and had many articles published in The New Yorker and various film journals, later assembled into the well-received book Lulu in Hollywood. It was Henri Langlois and the exploding French film community of the 1960s that brought Brooks to a new generation, with a big retrospective at the Cinematheque Francaise, to which she was invited and treated as royalty by the younger New Wave filmmakers of the day.
NOSFERATU – Screened: October 13, 2011
One has to wonder what actually succeeded among German moviegoers during the 1920s, since most of the films now lauded as classics were so maligned in their day. Amazingly, given its accessibility and continued fame nearly a century on, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror falls into that sad category. It was the first effort by the newly-formed Prana-Film, one of the first “indies” that attempted to compete with the state-sponsored Universum Film AG, or UFA, which enjoyed a virtual monopoly in German film production. But an unexpected intervention by outside parties ensured that Prana-Film’s first release would also be its last.
German-born Murnau himself came from a comfortable life, if harsh and disciplined by today’s standards. Formally trained as an art historian, he abandoned an early painting career after realizing his efforts were, in his own words, “like Raphael without hands.” His time spent as a reconnaissance pilot in the First World War and the death of a close friend altered him considerably, and Murnau, already fragile psychologically and physically, withdrew further into himself. His alienation was not helped by his hidden homosexuality; or, to be more precise, its legal interpretation as defined by Paragraph 175 of the penal code, Germany’s infamous and long-standing law on “unnatural fornication” that equated homosexuality with bestiality. Although there was an increasing grass-roots call for 175’s repeal from 1919-1929, there was a parallel movement for its expansion, which would ultimately come to fruition under the Nazis in 1935. Thus, much of Murnau’s private life, compared to egocentric peers like Fritz Lang, remained shrouded in mystery for many years.
His first project, an anti-war film, never got off the ground due to the overall unwillingness from financial backers (the topic was not broached on German celluloid until its literature ventured there first.) Falling in with other artist friends with connections, his luck improved. Subsequent projects, including an early version of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde starring Conrad Veidt from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, are now sadly lost through a combination of bombs, neglect and nitrate. With 1921’s Schloß Vogelöd (The Haunted Castle), some took notice of his knack for horror, and Prana-Film, formed by filmmakers with an affinity for the occult, approached Murnau with their idea.
Inspired by Hugo Steiner-Prag’s illustrations for Gustav Meyrink’s fantastical novel The Golem (1915), Nosferatu took its design aesthetic from an entirely different source than the cliched, 19th-century Victorian romanticism that so defined the vampire genre of the day. There was nothing suave, debonaire, or attractive about the ratlike vision put forth by Murnau and actor Max Schreck, a then-unknown that, due to his last name meaning “to frighten or terrify” in German, many believed to be a pseudonym for some more prominent actor who wished to remain anonymous. Unlike his peers, Murnau abandoned the elaborate studio sets and filmed on location in parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia, which was virtually unheard of in those days.
It is, of course, all the more ironic and satisfying that what became the quintessential vampire film in the history of cinema is the very one ordered destroyed by the Stoker estate. The film’s producers naively believed that altering the storyline and changing names could circumvent rights claims by Stoker’s widow. The courts didn’t see it that way. At her request, all prints were to be recalled from distribution and destroyed immediately. One print leaked out to the international market and never made its way home; that was the oft-circulated legend anyway. As it turns out, prints surfaced piecemeal for decades and were slowly reconstructed to match Murnau’s production notes, including tinting specifications–many black-and-white German silent films were intended to be screened this way–and mood preferences for the score.
Murnau emigrated to Hollywood and made Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which was nominated for an Academy Award and still believed by many to be his greatest work, despite his disillusionment with the American system. In 1931, he died in a car accident in California, at the age of 42.
At this late stage, the massive gaps in Murnau’s oeuvre will likely never be filled, with fewer and fewer lost films being discovered from the “archives” of broom closets and theater basements. But as a recent jackpot of “lost” John Ford films found in New Zealand shows us, film preservation can often take freakish and unexpected turns.
MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM – Screened: October 27, 2011
Like Gray Gardens, Eat the Document, and Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story, Mädchen in Uniform is one of those rare films whose only availability in the pre-Internet days came through the grainy bootleg copies that film buffs passed around hand to hand. Examples of female directors from the Weimar years are almost non-existent. The first one often discussed is the technically-gifted, politically-clueless Leni Riefenstahl, an actor until 1932’s The Blue Light, her directorial debut. She is of course better known for aggrandizing the Nazi rally at Nuremberg in her Triumph of the Will (1935) and was handpicked by Hitler to accompany the Wehrmacht into the invasion of Poland to get action footage for newsreels; the first “objective” embedded journalist I suppose.
Luckily, for a little leftist balance, we have Leontine Sagan. Sagan started her career with Max Reinhardt, acting and directing for the stage before turning her attention, albeit briefly, to filmmaking. Of the two feature films she directed, Mädchen in Uniform (1931) is her only surviving work, released just at the launch of German sound film; and while not as sonically groundbreaking as Fritz Lang’s M, it nevertheless stands as a great achievement from that difficult transitional period and pushes boundaries in other areas.
Upon release, Mädchen in Uniform was a huge success in Germany and the most acclaimed film by a woman director to date. It also sold well in most countries that chose to import it, although an initial U.S. ban was purportedly only lifted after the direct intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt. Part of its German popularity surely stems from its being an adaptation from a novel, The Child Manuela by Christa Winsloe, which is based on her own boarding school experiences. While it remains unclear how Sagan was brought on board to direct, the film is one of those rare occasions where both director and screenwriter were women, as was virtually the entire cast. Since Sagan had zero experience in filmmaking, the experienced director Carl Froelich was brought on board to supervise the technical aspects and act as a “consultant.” To this day his influence on the film is still a point of considerable debate among film historians, particularly with regard to how much pressure he exerted on the narrative. Feminist film theorists tend to undermine any positive contribution, or at least remain leery of his intentions, while actors like Hertha Thiele later sang his praises and offered belated insights into the onset dynamics between the cast, Sagan, Winsloe, and Froelich.
Looking back on the film’s critical readings, one sees an interesting shift through the decades. In 1931, while the underlying homosexual overtones were noted and commented upon, this was not seen as a particularly important aspect of the story, at least with regard to media attention. Perhaps this had much to do with context, given the over-the-top sexual liberation of Weimar Berlin, where a suppressed love affair between headmaster and pupil would have been quaint compared to Marlene Dietrich’s raunchy performance in The Blue Angel, the film that took the LGBT subculture in Berlin by storm, according to Hertha Thiele. Hence, until the 1960s, scholarship and critical reception focused almost exclusively on the film’s indictment of Prussian militarism and its dehumanizing and destructive influence upon German society, which was by far a greater concern among the nation’s cultural cognoscenti. Thiele says that this was also the narrative angle emphasized by Froelich, despite his later collaboration with the Nazi Party.
But times, and interpretations, change. And today, first and foremost, Mädchen in Uniform is seen as a landmark moment in lesbian filmmaking, not only because of its content, but also because of the team responsible for its creation, with the openly-lesbian Winsloe and somewhat-more-closeted Sagan overseeing all stages of the creative process. It was a fleeting moment not to be repeated by either of them. The following year, Sagan co-directed a watered-down male version for British audiences, Men of Tomorrow, an odd title given its retrograde ideals. She later moved to South Africa and directed for the stage for the next forty years. Winsloe’s end is more tragic: near the end of World War II, she was murdered in a French forest for “associating” with a suspected collaborationist. The four Frenchmen who murdered them said that they thought the two women were Nazi spies; Winsloe, a staunch anti-fascist with Communist leanings, was anything but. All four were acquitted of any crime.
As for the actors, the success of the film resulted in the hugely-popular teaming of Hertha Thiele – Dorthea Wieck being joined again for Carl Froelich’s Anna und Elisabeth (1933), where they again played lovers, albeit ultimately punished for their transgressions at the film’s end. More notably, Thiele had a significant role in Bertolt Brecht’s radically-progressive Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World? (1932). Although the Nazis had already banned most of the films in which she starred, Goebbels approached Thiele with an offer to work for the Party’s propaganda machine, to which she famously declared “I do not switch direction every time the wind blows,” and shortly thereafter left for Switzerland, where she remained for many years, working in medicine.
When interviewed shortly before her death in 1984, Thiele said that she still received fan letters weekly, not from her then-current television work in West Germany, but from new generations of lesbians deeply affected by her anguished performance as Manuela from fifty years before.
M – Screened: November 10, 2011
The fact that, after viewing Fritz Lang’s M, one will never hear Grieg’s Peer Gynt in quite the same way again speaks volumes of the film’s most brilliant asset: its innovative use of sound. M is, without question, the high water mark of Weimar era cinema, and the best film of Lang’s career in the eyes of many, including his own.
But let’s back up a bit. Any meaningful discussion on the merits of M must be properly placed within the context of the coming of sound to the medium itself. Through the din of today’s hyper-accessible, multi-media white noise, it is hard for many to comprehend silent film as anything beyond an inferior and defective medium that was only improved upon with the sonic innovations of the late 1920s, when the sound-stripping of celluloid finally synchronized aural with visual. But this is unfair; at the least a simplification, at the worst a gross injustice to the sophistication of the medium. By the coming of the first sound feature The Jazz Singer, silent film had evolved into its own complex film language, with its own rhythm, its own set of aesthetic rules; for example, by his masterwork Der Letze Mann, German director F.W. Murnau had managed to purge the ubiquitous intertitles altogether in favor of a universality of vision that transcended all languages and national demarcations. The artists’ protectiveness of this evolution can be seen by the reaction to the proposed transition, particularly from the creative elements. Producers and studio heads saw the gimmick and the novelty, and the subsequent dollar signs. Actors and directors saw the destruction of their craft by technicians and artless “inventors” who capriciously hocked their wares to an industry that could not resist this shiny new toy. After all, this was no small change; it was jumping off a cliff so to speak. The film medium was still relatively new and on tenuous footing. One misstep and all could come crashing down. For Germany, France, and the other European nations struggling to get films exported abroad, the problems went far beyond microphone placement and minimizing set noise: the coming of sound can be seen as an early instance of American dominance via cultural hegemony, an attempt to assert control over the international entertainment market under the dubious guise of “innovation.” At home, the new sound medium allowed studio heads the freedom to abolish existing star contracts and renegotiate on terms favorable to them, which they did with impunity, getting rid of a lot of squeaky wheels along the way. So no, it wasn’t just about getting to hear Al Jolson sing.
So back to Lang….Okay, a brief digression. In 1952, baritone-sax-great Gerry Mulligan moved to L.A. and started performing at the Haig with some other newcomers, including Chico Hamilton and Chet Baker. Red Norvo had just finished a tenure there and the upright piano had been removed from the stage to accommodate his older style of jazz. Mulligan–partly out of convenience, partly out of curiosity and the desire to push himself into uncharted territory–asked the management to leave it as is. As is evidenced in the earliest surviving demos, without the piano for harmony, this new quartet struggled with odd arrangements and awkward attempts at improvisation. But within weeks, their own unique song structures emerged, a West Coast jazz language built as much around communicative silences and pauses as East Coast bebop’s was all about bombast, speed, and notes-per-second.
M is Lang’s “pianoless quartet” moment, the point at which he struggled with a shifting technical variable–his first sound film–and ultimately envisioned something new, a use for audio beyond the banal conveyance of dialogue. He pioneered how sound could be manipulated to heighten the impact of constant intercutting between scenes, such as M‘s two concurrent discussions on how best to approach the capture of this troublesome child murderer, one happening at the police station, the other among the various “union” representatives of the criminal organizations, with Lang drawing ironic parallels between these two seemingly-opposed entities. In today’s films, such a montage is standard and barely noticeable, even a tired cliche. But in M, it still somehow feels fresh and revolutionary. Similarly, his use of operatic leitmotiv to impress upon the viewer the disintegrating chaos of a killer’s internal psyche is also highly advanced. And above all, the incredible intro sequence, with the girl’s abduction told through the repetitive, increasingly-distressed, off-screen calls from her mother, stretched across a triage of haunting sequential images: a human silhouette on a “Wanted” poster; a child’s rolling ball; a balloon snagged on a power line.
Lang’s oft-repeated tale of fleeing to France in the “dead of the night” after being approached by the Nazis to direct propaganda films has always held more than a whiff of fish story, with its self-aggrandized danger and egocentric escapism, as if his notoriety and position would have had no impact on his fate. Perhaps that is true. But like Pabst, who also declined to serve, I suspect he would have been simply ignored and marginalized. Contrary to his version of events, he did flee with all of his money and resources intact and also made several return trips to Germany from Paris before the outbreak of war.
Although fellow ex-pats Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder achieved a level of success in the US rivaling Lang’s, it is only the latter whose cinematic greatness is divided equally between the pre and post war eras, with a cinematic canon spanning two languages. Lang would go on to direct some of the biggest and most important film noirs of the Hollywood era, particularly 1953’s The Big Heat, starring Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. In M, within Peter Lorre’s complex serial killer, we see the early blueprint for what would become Lang’s trademark motif, and a cornerstone of practically the entire film noir genre: the doppelganger in conflict, the intermarriage of good and evil, and the non-judgmental exposure of the “grey zone” between the two.
ROME OPEN CITY – Screened: February 2, 2012
“Back then it was inconceivable to film in a real location, to shoot in a passageway, to bring cameras into stairwells. Shooting in the streets was unheard of. ROMA, CITTA APERTA represents something new because I tried to make a film the way it should be done, accessible to everyone, outside the control of the big studio system and all the slavery that entails.” — Roberto Rossellini
Despite their “Pact of Steel” and heads-of-state handshakes for the newsreels, the Italians and Germans had a long history of hating one another both before and during the Second World War. Behind their chest-beating about the founding of a new Roman Empire, the Italians always seemed only marginally interested in what was going on. It took them five years to defeat Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), this stalemate broken only when they violated the Geneva Conventions by using poison gas. Their 1940 invasion of neighboring Greece, intended as a display of machismo to Hitler, turned into a fiasco from which they needed a full-scale German military bailout. On the Germans’ end, Italians were incompetent buffoons and they didn’t even bother to tell them what they were doing most of the time. Mussolini read about the outbreak of war with Poland after the fact, and that lack of communication, and underlying distrust, would be repeated again and again. Germans were Nordic supermen who fought to the end, Italians were lazy Mediterraneans prone to surrender: so goes the logic even today among many military historians. To their credit, most Italians, apart from ardent fascists and anti-Semitic contingents within the Vatican, saw the biological superiority aspect of Nazism for what it was: an empty ideological tool used to justify domination. Although he did pass racial decrees in 1938, Mussolini dragged his feet on any broader Italian participation in the “Jewish question” for a long time, although more out of fear of civil backlash than any humanitarian concerns. As Germany exerted more influence over the nation’s affairs, over 7,000 Italian Jews would be deported and executed by war’s end (see De Sica’s The Garden of Finzi-Continis for one narrative on this).
Everything collapsed in late-1943/early-1944, the setting for Rossellini’s film. American and UK Commonwealth forces landed in Sicily in the summer of 1943 and began moving north. Italy surrendered immediately and was split into a Fascist north, run by an exiled Mussolini and occupied by the German army, and a south that was cooperating with the Allied occupation. A slow grind through the mountainous regions south of Rome commenced. How to handle the city was a touchy situation. No one wanted to be held responsible for its destruction, particularly the Allies, who were taking heat for their highly-publicized flattening of the ancient monastery atop Monte Cassino, mistakenly labeling it as an outpost for German artillery spotters. As they lost control of Cassino, the Germans declared Rome an ‘Open City’, a military term for a city left undefended in hopes of not having it destroyed by invading forces. Rossellini’s love for dark comic irony is on display here, as we quickly come to see within the first five minutes that Rome is not quite as “open” as its title implies, as German SS, fascist police, and “Communist” (often anarchists or apolitical working-class, to be more precise) partisans fight for control. As in most German-held territories, the partisan movement gained steam as liberation drew nearer and suppression efforts intensified, with roundups of suspects and 5:00 PM curfews becoming the norm.
Although often overlooked when discussing the film, its shocking pivotal moment has foundation in fact. On March 3 1944, Teresa Gullace was in downtown Rome with scores of others whose relatives had just been detained due to suspicious activities. As she cried out for her husband and fought to get past the German blockade to pass bread and clothing through the bars of his cell, a German soldier withdrew his pistol and shot her in the neck. Six months pregnant with her fifth child, she bled to death in front of the horrified crowd, including her husband. The killing of Gullace and her unborn child incensed Italians and became a galvanizing focal point for Roman resistance. Sadly, it was only the beginning. (See my next blog on De Sica’s Two Women for more discussion on the resistance movement.) Fabrizi’s Don Pietro is an amalgamation of two priests, Giuseppe Morosini and Pietro Pappagallo, both of whom provided assistance to the underground against the wishes of the Vatican, and were summarily executed by the Germans. This spirit of cooperation and mutual respect between clergy and “godless” communists would quickly unravel after the war but it does show some measure of help coming from rebellious elements within the Holy See, who we now know, at its higher levels, secured secret passage for numerous wanted Nazis via their so-called “ratline” to South America.
Despite the occasional lapses, there is no disputing that Rossellini’s Rome, Open City stands as a seminal moment in the new post-fascist Italian cinema that came to be known as “Neorealism”: it was shot on low quality black-market film stock; the German army shown are actual surrendered P.O.W. Germans; portions of the city were still being fought for as filming began; and bombed out locations were just that. To put it mildly, the chaos and discombobulation of the city provided the perfect backdrop that needed little assistance from art design. Such gritty realism was eons away from the escapist “telefoni bianchi” films of the Fascist years, as they were derisively labeled, where Roman mistresses in opulent penthouses called their rich industrialist lovers on large white telephones.
There are, however, clear signs of melodrama and Hollywood artifice, from the swelling score, to the subjective point-of-view camera shots. Rossellini did take some flak from his hardcore Neorealist peers for hiring Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi in the title roles, both of whom were well-known comedic actors of the day that began their careers in vaudeville. The interior sets, such as the Nazi headquarters, were built in the basements of buildings in downtown Rome, and it is here that artificial lighting and more conventional studio set-ups come into play. The Nazis themselves are what you would expect, i.e. 2D stereotypes of evil incarnate, with the notable exception of the Austrian defector from Monte Cassino. Modern viewers might also notice the effeminate nature of lead Nazi officer Bergmann, paired with his lesbian femme fatale informant. Even at this early stage, homosexual “deviance,” sadomasochism, and Nazism were being merged in subtle and not-so-subtle ways for popular consumption.
By all accounts, director Rossellini and co-scriptwriter Fellini shared a love for dark humor and irony that is evident in several scenes, particularly involving children. Children were of vital importance in Italian culture of the day, and they figure prominently in much Neorealist cinema; here, they are small adult partisans, taking comic beatings from their parents for staying out past curfew, when in reality they are not playing bocce but setting explosives. From Rome, Open City to The Bicycle Thief to The Children Are Watching Us, they come to embody rebirth, hope, and the potential for progress and modernity.
Overall, Rossellini is pretty easy on the Italians for their part in the war. This can be annoying, especially given his three preceding propaganda films, with their heroic pro-war message, albeit a state-mandated heroic message. And while that can be understood, although not justified perhaps, under the watchful eye of Vittorio Mussolini, Benito’s son and head of the fascist film industry, the same cannot be said of Rossellini’s independent postwar efforts, when he had full freedom to explore civilian complicity in war aggression. To his credit, in his subsequent film, Paisan, Rossellini does delve into more murky moral territory, criticizing both occupiers and liberators. By war’s end, Italian crimes in Abyssinia and Greece were pretty low down on the atrocity list, and self reflection didn’t really pull in returns at the box office. Rome, Open City, with its tragic humanism and empathy, was a huge success for Rossellini and opened countless inroads for Italian cinema abroad. His refugee cohort from the fascist film industry, including Antonioni, Fellini, De Sica, and Visconti, would all have new opportunities as Italy reconstructed itself and Cinecitta studios became one of the prime movers on the European film scene.
As for the lasting impact of Rome, Open City almost seventy years on, I find it fascinating that Anna Magnani’s tragic scene seems to have become so interwoven with Italian popular consciousness that its narrative inventions appear even on a postage stamp commemorating Gullace, as the latter watches the truck driving away with her husband, thus mirroring the film, not the reality. I can think of no more fitting tribute to this humanistic work’s influence and ongoing legacy.
LA CIOCIARA / TWO WOMEN – Screened: February 9, 2012
(Note About Version: Only available domestically in poor-quality budget editions, the copy being screened is the recently restored European version by Fondazione Scuola Nazionale di Cinema, with English subtitles transposed and synched by Watzek.)
Although Italy did have a nascent film industry in the silent era–its most significant contribution being Cabiria, which influenced segments of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance–it never achieved the heights of other nations. Its mediocrity was further cemented by the Fascists’ 1922 “March on Rome” and their assumption of power. From then on, artists and intellectuals were subject to suspicion. Some, like politician Giacomo Matteotti and Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, were assassinated or imprisoned until death; others, like writer Alberto Moravia, author of the 1957 novel on which Vittorio de Sica’s film is based, were luckier.
While his peer Italo Calvino is more familiar today in the U.S., Alberto Moravia was one of the most widely read and translated Italian writers from the 1950s-1960s. When he was barely into his twenties, he self-published his first novel, Gli indifferenti (The Indifferent Ones/Time of Indifference) in 1929, setting off a literary firestorm in Italy. The darkly comic novel of a corrupt and crumbling bourgeois family earned Moravia a coveted spot on the infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the list of banned books maintained by the Vatican. Politically, the Fascist state saw Moravia as a bit of a dilettante with leftist leanings; that is, a corrupting influence on Italian culture, to be sure, but not really worth their time otherwise, and certainly not a threat to match that posed by their Marxist opponents.
Because of this, Moravia wouldn’t really hit his creative stride until after the war, when most of his greatest works were written–La ciociara (Two Women), Il conformista (The Conformist), La noia (Boredom), Il disprezzo (Contempt)–most of which were transformed into classics of European cinema during the 60s and early 70s. La ciociara (literally The Woman From Ciociaria but released in the U.S. as Two Women) was the first adaptation to be filmed. It was based on the experiences of Moravia and his wife, writer Elsa Morante, as they took refuge from the war in the countryside east of Rome, in the hills of Ciociaria. There, the couple slept in barns and lived off the hospitality of the rural village communities, Elsa Morante working on the initial framework of what would become her great first novel, Menzogna e sortilegio (House of Liars). The awful events in Ciociaria that followed provided Moravia with his own inspiration.
On the night of May 19th, 1944, as the hills and valleys around Ciociaria were liberated by the Allies, Moroccan colonial troops of the French Expeditionary Corps went on a celebration spree to commemorate their victory over the Germans. The numbers are still contested, but it’s estimated that between 2,500-4,500 Italian women, including children and the elderly, were raped in the region. Estimates of the murdered go as high as 800, some of these the rape victims themselves but the majority being family members who tried to intervene. For hours, the hills echoed with screams and gunshots. Eventually, 15 Moroccans were court-martialed and shot for their participation, with scores of others sentenced to hard labor. In Italy, the raped came to be known as “marocchinate”, or roughly “those who’ve been ‘Moroccaned’.” Concerned about the brewing public relations firestorm, it is rumored that the Allies clandestinely arranged for women from North Africa to be brought in and “serve” in the expeditionary corps’ camp as “volunteers” in hopes of preventing future incidents. The “marocchinate” later received compensatory pensions from the Italian government for their suffering. Moravia shows the origins of this suffering for what it is: random, indifferent, “liberating.” Obviously a film from 1960 cannot push the same boundaries as its fiction counterparts, but de Sica’s naturalistic approach to the material does justice to the indictments in Moravia’s source text.
In a genre dominated by plots about Roman males, La ciociara stands apart from other neorealist films through its emphasis on women protagonists and provincial Italians, and also through its relative absence of children as a driving motif. Cesira and Rosetta drift from place to place, directionless and in survival mode, wanting only to exist and be left alone. The character of Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is the conflicted, schooled voice of intellectual conscience, embodying elements of both priest and partisan, ready to assume his measure of guilt for twenty years of his nation’s destructive apathy. His gentleness, inner conflict and existential hopelessness is a far different amalgamation from the black-and-white, good vs. evil stereotypes so prevalent in earlier war films, like Rossellini’s Rome Open City; to some degree, this shift reflects a greater willingness for Italians to question their own complicity ten years after the fact.
Since the script sticks closely to the novel’s narrative, it can be argued that La ciociara owes more to the combination of Sophia Loren and Alberto Moravia than to director Vittorio de Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini. While the latter can be felt as the driving creative force behind their early collaborations Umberto D. and Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief), the strengths of La ciociara really lie elsewhere, which is probably why it is the most overlooked film of de Sica’s career. When Anna Magnani turned down the role due to other obligations, it was she that suggested Sophia Loren to de Sica. The director took a lot of heat for her casting, both because of her young age and her attractiveness, which critics saw as a softening of the novel’s hard edge. But after seeing her, it’s hard to imagine anyone else commanding the role of Cesira with such power and strength. At the 1960 Academy Awards, Loren achieved the unimaginable feat of taking Best Actress for her performance, the first ever given to a non-English language role and a huge coup for the Italian film industry (the fully-fluent Loren did her own English dubbing for the film, which no doubt carried much weight in this decision.)
La ciociara was Loren’s big break and sparked a creative resurgence in de Sica as well, as he entered the last decade of his career. Over the next four years, he would complete two more outstanding films with Loren–Oggi, ieri, domani (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) and Matrimonio all’italiana (Marriage Italian-Style)–making her an international sensation on par with Marcello Mastroianni, with whom she often starred.
THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS – Screened: February 23, 2012
It’s ironic that one of the finest film indictments against Western colonialism sounds like the title of a bad History Channel documentary. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, released in 1966, stands, along with Costa Gavras’s Z, as one of the few meaningful political films to come out of Europe in the 1960s and, even today, holds great relevance to the current political situation in North Africa and the Middle East.
America’s post-1945 plans are well documented: secure the world’s markets, control its resources, convert war production to domestic goods, remake West Germany and Japan into hi-tech capitalist satellite states, and leverage them to help the U.S. dominate the global economy. Above all, avoid sinking back into another Great Depression by forcing the world to buy our toasters and guns, both designed to break periodically. What would be the developing world’s role in all of this? Enrichment of a tiny percentage of global elite loyal to American business interests, who would control their civilian populations by force and crush any leftist populist resistance to the siphoning of their national resources. Anyone against this agenda would be against freedom.
One overarching concern began to preoccupy capitalist planners: there were tens of thousands of liberated partisans across Europe, and most of them were still armed. All had suffered greatly under the occupation, where they cut communication lines and staged quick attacks. In short, they had done their bit, and they all now wanted some say in how the governments returning from exile patched up their nations. Support for former leaders, while easy to keep congealed during the Axis occupations, started to dissolve rather quickly as the parades ended. In Italy, this took the form of increased radicalization away from the right wing, with Communists, Socialists, and to a lesser extent Anarchists, all making giant political headway. In 1946, the Italian Communist Party and the Socialist Party took the majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly, the provisional body in charge of drafting a new constitution for Italy, which meant that the Christian Democrats were now the minority clerical party. This was totally unheard of and reflected an increasing public hostility towards Catholicism and its complicity in the dissemination of Fascist doctrine. U.S. policy makers were terrified by this power shift and now saw a legitimate Communist victory in the 1948 electoral process–not a Bolshevik-style coup–as a real possibility. To compromise and control these free elections, the U.S. government funneled huge amounts of money into a propaganda campaign and used Italy as the first testing ground for its newly-formed National Security Council, which was created to advise the President on matters of foreign policy. That crucial counterinsurgency operation is beyond the scope of this blog but does make for enlightening reading of declassified government documents; suffice it to say, the Fascists would have been proud, particularly since many of them were elected back into the posts from which they had only recently been displaced. This became the pilot project for subsequent CIA-backed attacks throughout Latin America, where the violence and atrocities mounted tenfold.
For North Africa, the rotating door of European imperialists fighting self-serving wars on the backs of their colonial subjects meant the arrival of an unexpected power vacuum. The same occurred in southeast Asia, where the Japanese occupiers vacated parts of French Indochina (Vietnam). The U.S. shrewdly put the final nail in Britain’s colonial coffin by stipulating, in the terms of its Anglo-American Loan of 1945, that the U.K. first liquidate its overseas assets in the Commonwealth, thereby ensuring American global dominance for decades to come. Britain would be paying annually on that bill until 2006. As for France, I’m not sure of the whys behind its staunch determination to stay in the colonial game when it was so clearly outclassed by the new heavies, but they went at the task with considerable enthusiasm and arrogance. Vietnam’s war of independence against France and the U.S. is well documented, although you’re supposed to call it something else. The last-minute cancelling of the North/South unifying elections due to fear of Communist victory, just as in Italy, says all you need to know about the U.S./French dedication to democracy abroad. In Algeria, France also had, well, some trouble letting go.
Gillo Pontecorvo is the best directorial example of the swing towards radicalism in postwar Italy. His output next to his peers is minuscule, with primarily The Battle of Algiers and Quiemada commonly discussed today in film circles. It was Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci who first coined the term subaltern, which advocated that indigenous histories be told from the perspective of the colonized rather than the colonizers; and although Algiers cannot be said to be a true subaltern film due to Pontecorvo’s direction and Italian financing, it nevertheless reflects a thorough understanding of the mechanisms of oppression and dominance, and their impact on human rights. More importantly, the idea for the film originated with the Algerians themselves. It was Salash Baazi, a former member of the FLN (the Algerian freedom fighters, by then victorious) that first approached Italian producers with the idea of filming the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, the FLN commander imprisoned by the French and later freed to become a long-standing member of the Algerian government. The first draft, done by an Italian screenwriter before Pontecorvo’s involvement, reflected the angle still so prevalent today, that is, the narrative vis-a-vis the conscience-stricken imperialist soldier who uncovers the “truth” about his nation’s actions. Thankfully the FLN rejected this idea and a second draft was produced that provided a more balanced approach. This persistence of the FLN, that their story be told with some modicum of fairness, is a very important point to keep in mind since it is this exact fairness to which Pontecorvo respectfully adheres when coming on board. Indeed, Pontecorvo went to great lengths to include the past participants, including the casting of Yacef himself as the FLN leader. The secular, politically-driven FLN were as ruthless and tenacious as their French occupiers; in that sense, it mirrors almost exactly Israel’s ongoing dominance of the Palestinians through their illegal occupation of the West Bank, with the endless checkpoints, harassment, torture, and indiscriminate bombings.
The film’s significance today is multi-faceted. The Battle of Algiers has been used by both the oppressed and the oppressor, depending on the spin, and yet it still stands as a strong political statement, created at least in part by then-powerless voices attempting to eradicate imperialist systems of tyranny and control.
OTTO E MEZZO – Screened: March 8, 2012
By the early 1960s, Neorealism had run its course. The scars of war and the abysmal social conditions that gave rise to the movement were finally receding into the past. More importantly, Italy was embarking upon an age of intense industrialization and progress, and their cinema reflected this desire for modernity. Much of this was driven by an energetic youth culture, not unlike that found in France, Britain, and the U.S., where the pop markets became dominated by a new demographic. Italian composers Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota were redefining the role of the film score by using unconventional approaches to sound and questioning the rules of what constituted “acceptable” instrumentation, adding anvils, whistling, manual typewriters and dissonant harmonicas to the mix. Sergio Leone “out-Westerned” the Western with Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistfull of Dollars) and Il buono il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), creating an odd international hybrid of the classic American genre which came to be known as the “spaghetti western.” On the “artsier” side, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni were redefining modern narrative and pushing the boundaries of linear storytelling.
Like so many others, Federico Fellini started his career during the war years, at first as a screenwriter, and then moving on to camera work in 1943; never one to feign intellectualism, he acknowledged later that this was to avoid conscription and not from some deep innate love of cinema art. Nevertheless, he found that he enjoyed his work and quickly developed a knack for organizing cast and crew. His first major artistic contribution of the postwar period was acting as co-screenwriter on Rossellini’s Rome Open City, and several of the film’s moments of dark comic humor are undoubtedly his. Despite the film’s anti-fascist views, Fellini was notoriously apolitical for the entirety of his career and admitted this openly, a position for which he often caught flak from Italian progressives. By 1963, he had already achieved international recognition with La strada (1954), Il bidone (1955) and Le notti di Cabiria (1957) to his credit. But it was 1962’s scandalous La dolce vita, starring Anita Ekberg and then-unknown Marcello Mastroianni, that had him proclaimed a “public sinner” by the Pope, a title Fellini no doubt wore with great pride.
History shows that the biggest success can segue into the biggest paralysis. So it was with tentatively-titled “La bella confusione” (The Beautiful Confusion), the project following La dolce vita. Fellini later described this terrifying moment of paralysis with an affinity that seemed to reflect its central importance to his creative maturation. By his own account, he unexpectedly hit the creative doldrums for what was to be his eighth feature film (the “1/2” is for an earlier co-credit). Things became so dire that both friends and financial backers began to question his ability to get things going again, with the project stopping and starting several times over the course of the year. His initial idea was to have Marcello Mastroianni play a disillusioned writer, not realizing that Mastroianni had just done the disillusioned writer bit in Antonioni’s La notte. Fellini found his sole idea dead in the water. Then, the what-seems-altogether-obvious-now dawned on him: why not make him a disillusioned filmmaker instead? The elimination of this barrier between himself and his protagonist was a bold and risky autobiographical move but one that ultimately paid off. After that switch, the problems in the creative process evaporated and things fell into place rather quickly.
One cannot really talk about the transition between “neorealist” Fellini and “oneiric” Fellini without acknowledging the revolutionary impact of psychology on his narrative and visual style. To treat the sudden onset of acute depression, he began psychoanalysis in the early 1960s and became an ardent admirer of Jungian thought, of Jung’s theories of anima/animus and subconscious archetypes. Seeds planted in La dolce vita came to fruition by 8 1/2, with its meandering and self-reflexive narrative. Fellini later talked at length about his supervised experiments with LSD during this time period, and it is clear that this drug had some impact upon his fractured approach to narrative, the merger of plausible and impossible, the solid with the symbolic. From this point onward, and for the next twenty years, “Felliniesque” would gain cultural ground on “Kafkaesque,” eventually becoming the de facto shorthand for all situations surreal, circuitous, or dreamlike. And it is this odd intangibility that makes 8 1/2 still so engaging today.
RED DESERT – Screened: March 22, 2012
“Modern man lives in a world without the moral tools necessary to match his technological skill. He is incapable of authentic relationships with his environment, his fellows, or even the objects which surround him because he carries with him a fossilized value system out of step with modern times.” — Michelangelo Antonioni, Cannes, 1960
If Federico Fellini was the flamboyant, self-reflexive modernist of the 1960s, Michelangelo Antonioni was his brooding, existential twin, a sort of shadow self. Both directors, along with Jean-Luc Godard in France, essentially reinvented cinematic narrative over the course of the decade. After starting off rather conventionally, Antonioni embarked on a unique trajectory with L’avventura in 1960, with its unresolved central conflict, creeping slowness, and sparse, almost non-existent dialogue. Its Cannes premiere caused boos and catcalls from the crowd, with star Monica Vitti and Antonioni fleeing the theater, or so goes the legend. L’avventura became one of the most polarizing and debated works in the history of Italian film. The two films that followed–La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962)–moved along similar thematic lines, with all three loosely called a trilogy by film scholars today.
Although it was De Sica who initially filmed La ciociara (see other blog entry on that film), Antonioni is really the artistic spiritual kin of existentialist writer Alberto Moravia, who was at the very forefront of Italian literature throughout the 1950s-1960s. La notte, in particular, bares more than a passing resemblance to Moravia’s seminal 1954 novel Il disprezzo (Contempt), which Godard later filmed in 1963. Above all, Antonioni and Moravia are equally obsessed with the inability of human beings to interconnect in a real and genuine manner, to get beyond the facades of the everyday. Their protagonists are often embedded in inner conflict, stranded in situations of social and psychological alienation that are as self-perpetuating as they are unavoidable. And it was Antonioni who codified this shared vision of modernist isolation for the cinema, perhaps none more successfully than Il deserto rosso (Red Desert), from 1964.
Red Desert is Antonioni’s finest moment, combining his earlier stark visions and narrative ideas with a full Technicolor palette (all films prior were black-and-white). Admittedly obsessed with cinematography (he was an avid artist growing up), every frame of the film is a tightly composed work of art. Antonioni has often commented on how Red Desert is often misinterpreted as his “anti-industrialism” film, with its spewing nuclear reactors and factory landscape. In fact, his intent was quite the opposite and reflected popular Italian attitudes of the day: these were symbols of civic progress, of modernity, of entering a new era in Italian history. Environmentalism was not on the radar, as there was still an “away” for Italians to throw things to in 1964. Watching the film today can leave quite a different impression. Shot during the winter months, the landscape still lacked the bleakness Antonioni required, so, in an inspired fit, he had the ground and foliage covered in a dust of grey paint in order to accentuate the colors he had carefully selected as the psychological focal points for certain scenes.
Antonioni’s following three films were done in English for MGM, including the immensely popular Blowup (1966) and the counter-culture manifesto Zabriskie Point (1970); Antonioni’s failed attempt to get 10,000 extras for a lovemaking scene in the California desert should clue you in about the latter. The director was frustrated by Hollywood interference and, after The Passenger with Jack Nicholson, he returned to Italy. Although finishing several other projects, his legacy today rests on his hypnotically spartan early-1960s output, which revolutionized modern film narrative.
FISTS IN POCKET – Screened: April 5, 2012
“In Italy, the family is an almost holy institution, a pillar of society, and to criticize it is considered outrageous.” — Marco Bellocchio
In many ways, the Spirit of 1968 started three years earlier in Italy, thanks to Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca), released in the relative calm of October 1965. The incendiary film sent shock-waves through Italian culture and was vilified for its irreverent and irresponsible attitude towards traditional Italian family values and Catholicism.
At a mere 26, Bellocchio is the first director in our Italian film series that comes from the babyboom, a generation of bourgeois-bred, highly-educated children rebelling against the conventions of their parents. “Disrespectful” mouthy kids with attitudes was nothing new, of course, but the 1960s crop held considerable cultural clout due to the massive shift in postwar demographics. And they weren’t just pissed off about the usuals, like not having access to a car and unrealistic curfews. They were pissed off about war, about church, about sex, about inequality, and, above all, about traditional family structures that they considered oppressive and outdated. In Italian life, the sacrosanct nature of the core family was something always held in high regard: in Rossellini’s Rome Open City, the family structure is disrupted and ultimately destroyed by outside forces, the Nazis and Mussolini’s fascists; in De Sica’s Two Women, mother and daughter struggle united against all obstacles to survive; and in virtually all Italian neorealist cinema, children embody the hope of the future, doing their bit dutifully in the reconstruction of their nation, never questioning the sanctity of the church or the supreme wisdom of their elders. Even the modernists to follow toed this line: Fellini’s closing shot for 8 1/2 is of his boy alter ego, his anima/animus; and Antonioni’s familial bond between mother and son in Red Desert is unquestioned, if a tad destabilized.
So, given its predecessors, Bellocchio’s anti-family, anti-hope, anti-everything manifesto was the molotov cocktail of Italian modernism, intended to burn both Pope and parents. Aesthetically, it was a return to extreme minimalism, far away from the increasingly baroque works of Fellini and Rossellini, both of which Bellocchio disregarded as has-been, sell-outs; he particularly loathed Fellini’s conflicted hand-wringing over Catholicism. But this wasn’t strictly an issue of young turk vs. his elders, as Bellocchio admitted his admiration for the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel, a man with a penchant for mocking religion and societal hypocrisy. Indeed, ideologically-speaking, Bellocchio shares more with Buñuel than with any of his Italian counterparts, the notable exception being Marco Ferreri and his caustically satirical “western” Don’t Touch the White Woman!
As always, the reality of Bellocchio’s vision is somewhere in the middle. He openly admits the film is not autobiographical in any way. His parents helped to finance the film, and it was shot at his mother’s country villa, so not quite the sea of bourgeois discontent he belittles so mercilessly on the screen. Still, Bellocchio’s bleak vision is the first taste of what would quickly balloon into a full-scale international counterculture in a few year’s time, with riots in the streets of Paris, the “levitating” of the Pentagon in the U.S., and Baader-Ensslin’s “Red Army Faction” carrying out terrorist attacks on the Springer Press corporate headquarters in Hamburg.
GOJIRA – Screened: September 3, 2012
“The theme of the film from the beginning was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind. . . . As long as the arrogance of human beings exists, Gojira will survive.” — Tomoyuki Tanaka, Producer of Gojira
Although mainly ignored by the first wave of film historians due to its “escapist” trappings, no analysis of modernist Japanese cinema would be complete without pausing to examine the postwar classic that sparked a 20th-century export business unto itself: 1954’s Gojira, or Godzilla, King of the Monsters as it was released in the United States. I confess that it is difficult for me to view the original film today without seeing it through the haze of nostalgia for its copious (and often unintentionally hilarious) knock-offs, so synonymous was the lizard king with cheap Saturday afternoon programming on WTBS throughout the 1980s, where rubber suits wrestled clumsily atop a sea of pagodas and Japanese men in cool skinny ties and horn-rimmed glasses pointed skyward, shouting asynchronous English dubbing. Often he would heroically come to defend Tokyo from some mutated antagonist only to destroy it himself in the next film; this, my young brain could not reconcile. What was wrong with him? He seemed a capricious beast at best, and I never did understand how he ended up with that creepy son.
But before the goofiness of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster or Destroy All Monsters, there was Ishiro Honda’s classic original, Gojira (on a technical note, Godzilla is not an inaccurate American translation but an alternate of Gojira using a different transliteration scheme; Toho Studios themselves assigned the film this title for export abroad, feeling it would be more “pronounceable” to westerners.) The film did not exist in a cultural vacuum and is but one of a long string of outstanding 1950s science fiction films with deep humanist undertones and leftist subtexts–The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to name but a few of the better A-list titles. These films stood as bold counterpoints to the proto-Fascist attitudes that would soon come to embody the great McCarthyists’ witch hunt for Hollywood’s elusive “Bolshevist fifth column.” In fact, burying these allegorical themes within the innocuous escapism of the science fiction genre became one of the few ways for artists, many of whom were highly-politicized radicals, to openly oppose the American political status quo. Gojira, of course, has nothing to do with Communism, or even overt anti-Americanism for that matter. But the film nevertheless asserts its own humanitarian message, and a message that has a surprising amount of complexity and depth, given that it is essentially about a giant lizard stomping on things.
Two separate events acted as catalysts for the film. First, King Kong was re-released to Japanese audiences in 1952, on its 20th anniversary. It was a massive success, and Tokyo’s film studios all began toying with the idea of creating special effects films, then still a very small industry. This goal intensified following 1954’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, whose plot shares more than a few passing similarities with Gojira, albeit with fewer radiation overtones.
But the biggest influence on the film, or at least on how its script resonated with its contemporary Japanese audiences, was Castle Bravo and the fate of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon #5. On March 1, 1954, the crew of this tuna fishing boat watched in shock as a massive atomic mushroom lit up the horizon–so massive that it took a full eight minutes for the sound to reach them. It was the first H-bomb detonated by the United States as part of the Castle Bravo program, from the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands. There was no advance warning. Native islanders of the closest atoll were evacuated, but the blast was twice as large as anticipated, with fallout raining down on at least a dozen inhabited islands officially outside of the danger zone. Lucky Dragon #5 pulled in their nets and headed home, realizing that they would probably be unable to escape the approaching radiation and fallout, which fell upon them several hours later. The boat’s radio operator became sick in the coming days from radiation poisoning and died a drawn-out and excruciatingly painful death over seven months. His dying wish was that no one else on earth die as a result of atomic weapons. The growing resentment at the United States, kept mostly in check throughout the occupation, now exploded in a widespread wave of anti-American rage. The Japanese public was furious that they were given no advance warning of these dangerous tests (the U.S. intentionally kept this a secret lest the H-bomb fail to detonate and embarrass them in front of the world, particularly the Soviets.) To make matters worse, it was learned that the Lucky Dragon was the closest tuna boat, but not the only one in the area impacted, many of whose catches had already been sold to market and entered the Japanese food chain (also mirrored in the script, as other boats “vanish” due to unknown forces.) In all, between 1946 and the partial ban in 1963, the U.S. carried out 105 above-ground nuclear explosions in the Pacific, at which point they were moved to Nevada.
And it is here that Gojira vs. Godzilla becomes its own ideological showdown of sorts. It is a unique moment in film studies, where two products are produced, for two separate markets, both from the same source material, one by the conquered, the other by the conqueror. Unfortunately, for those at the time waiting for a smoking gun of censorship, they were disappointed I suspect. There are passing references to the contaminated tuna, and a striking scene where a Japanese woman tells her three small children, all of whom are about to die, that they are about to “go see Daddy now.” Most intriguing is a scene showing the open public debate in the Diet (the Japanese parliament) between those wanting to suppress Gojira’s H-bomb origins and those angrily demanding that it be announced to the world, thereby exposing the falsehoods of the bomb-testers. You can sense at once that this scene would be destined for the cutting room floor when edited for U.S. distribution, which it was. Gone also are the poignant hospital scenes where Emi attends to the child victims of radiation sickness. Other references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki are also eliminated, and while some involved have claimed that this was not intended to alter the message of the film, the deleting of all passages that mention past U.S. war atrocities is surely no accident done for the sake of just “tightening a script.” The original references were hardly vitriolic or accusatory, and their paranoid omission clearly says more than the statements themselves. In fact, the American cut of Godzilla does not delete large swathes of content and keeps the humanitarian, anti-nuclear message fully intact. Newly-shot footage of Raymond Burr, as reporter Steve Martin, was shot and included to tie the various plot threads together. This has the added consequence of removing the viewer from the immediacy of the action, and these non-political aesthetic issues are the most common criticisms leveled at the U.S. version today.
After watching Gojira again, I was struck by the sheer scale of its apocalyptic vision, its sense of utter hopelessness and nihilism. Its contemporaries, from King Kong to Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, used stop motion animation and kept destruction to a minimum; a few collapsed buildings, a few dead. In Gojira, Tokyo burns from end to end. And I can’t help but wonder what these visuals did to a citizenry that had just endured the worst incendiary fire-bombing in history less than ten years earlier, torching miles of the city (87% residential) and leaving over 100,000 dead, another million injured and homeless. Given the time and proximity, I would have a hard time classifying that as escapist entertainment.
HIGH AND LOW – Screened: September 13, 2012
To this day, Akira Kurosawa is undoubtedly the most influential non-Western filmmaker in the world, and definitely the most celebrated from Japan. In fact, by the time you are typically exposed to his work, you will have already seen the films of dozens of American directors borrowing freely from his style, particularly from the 1970s. He is also accused, or maybe criticized is a better word, of being overly influenced by Western culture and too entrenched in Hollywood’s cinematic conventions, especially when compared to his younger, more radical peers, Suzuki and Oshima. Much of this is a by-product of Kurosawa’s subtlety, which can often serve to mask deeper meanings; some key point that other directors would belabor to death, Kurosawa will pass over in a flash, maybe as bits of dialogue between actors. Above all, Kurosawa asserted, film is about telling a good story, and his career-long obsessions with authority, conflicts of conscience, and the “darkness of the human heart” (to use his phrase) all come into play brilliantly in High and Low, what I consider to be the finest film of his career.
The Japanese title, Tengoku to Jigoku, is more accurately translated as Heaven and Hell, and it is here that Kurosawa sets up the dichotomy that will define this film. They are themes visited earlier in both Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949), mainly, the precarious chasm between the haves and have-nots. But whereas these early film-noir works reflect more haves than have-nots and are driven by narrative’s from the perspective of the marginalized and disenfranchised, High and Low–a creation of the fully modernized “success” story of postwar Japan, and from an older Kurosawa–takes a different approach. Although quick to praise and cherish his Western influences, he was careful to differentiate between respect for its cultural movements and blind acceptance of its economic and political institutions, which he felt too often led to inequality and social strife. What was unique about Kurosawa was his ability to empathize with the humanity on both sides, to have his characters undergo transformations through struggles and suffering, and nowhere does he do this better than High and Low, which is essentially a simple kidnapping/ransom scenario, adapted from an American crime novel, King’s Ransom by Ed McBain.
Kurosawa’s selection of this source work is interesting given the events going on in Japan at that time. In the years leading up to the film’s release, several high-profile child abductions and/or murders had galvanized the nation and highlighted serious shortcomings in Japan’s archaic penal code, which had undergone only small alterations since 1907. Specifically, “simple kidnapping” was punishable by a mere 1-5 year prison term. Furthermore, this was often applied unevenly and reflected certain class/gender biases that had been shifting but ever-present in Japan since the days of the Shogunate. Kurosawa came down firmly on the side of the reformists, and High and Low can be seen as both a great crime film and a topical vehicle reflecting broader civic concerns within the Japan of 1963.
The novel itself is boilerplate, its characters cardboard: the criminal is punished, the wealthy protagonist’s dogged determination wins the day, his business and wealth restored, etc. Kurosawa takes these clichés and twists them into a massive tapestry of Japan during modern/westernization. A Marxist when he was younger, Kurosawa was disheartened by the capitalist transformation and how it was eroding empathy between the classes. Mifune, a fixture in most of Kurosawa’s films since Seven Samurai, does an incredible job playing the stern artisan still trying to hold true to his ideals in a culture now preoccupied with profit margins, not true craftsmanship. Heat permeates the film, and Kurosawa often juxtaposes this air-conditioned industrialist on the hill (less than 1% of homes in Japan had air conditioning in ’63) to the miserable and desperate man in the hovel below. At the novel’s end point, the film is only half over, Kurosawa boldly changing track, switching protagonists altogether, and focusing intensely on the police as they track the kidnapper, who spirals into chaos. The final scene is handled masterfully, its lack of resolution and absence of easy answers at the very center of Kurosawa’s “darkness of the human heart.”
In closing, a word should be said about the film’s most profound technical achievement: cinematography. It was the first time Kurosawa worked with the TohoScope aspect ratio, and even today, High and Low remains one of the most striking films ever to use widescreen. Actor movements and camera angles were coordinated and blocked meticulously, particularly in the first half inside Mifune’s home, where some shots last as long as five minutes of continuous, unbroken interaction between the cast. It is a true testament to the days when widescreen meant something besides “just more.”
HARAKIRI – Screened: October 4, 2012
Although his life’s body of work is relatively small, Masaki Kobayashi produced two landmark films of Japanese cinema between 1959 and 1962. The first, The Human Condition, is an intense nine-hour rumination on Japanese atrocities through the eyes of one dissenting soldier. Although based on a novel, Kobayashi himself had served during the war and, like his protagonist, had resisted offers to be advanced into the officer class, preferring to remain rank-and-file. The work reflects Kobayashi’s broader world view, that all hierarchies of authority are ultimately destructive and should be resisted by the individual. This theme becomes the nucleus of several works to follow, the finest of which is 1962’s Harakiri (a.k.a. Seppuku).
For our screenings, Harakiri is the sole example of a genre that was enormously popular with mid-century Japanese audiences, that is, the jidai-geki, or what’s known in the West as costume dramas or period pieces. More often than not, these were escapist, action-oriented films, with very little in terms of controversial subtext. There were notable exceptions, however, the most famous of which is Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Despite that films greatness, Kurosawa often had a conflicted and confused view of feudal Japan, a caustic, critical eye jaundiced by romanticism and nostalgia for the past. It is an aesthetic of his work that brought both accolades and derision throughout his lifetime, and I think it would be fair to say that Kurosawa was more concerned with building up than tearing down, with offering quasi-egalitarian alternatives that some interpreted as wishful thinking, given the long-standing class divisions in Japanese culture.
Kobayashi, although a champion of Kurosawa’s work and close friend, could be seen as the converse. He possessed the caustic edge that Kurosawa lacked and used this to greatest effectiveness in Harakiri, a story that relentlessly dismantles the untouchable “golden age” of the Tokugawa era and exposes it for what Kobayashi believed it was: a thin facade of honor and nobility atop a foundation of hypocrisy and indifference to human suffering. Of course, Kobayashi’s pointed message transcended its safe jidai-geki setting. Japanese viewers at the time understood that he was also taking aim at the war criminals and military industrialists, as well as the new western-style capitalist corporations overtaking Japan, the zaibatsus, which he accused of domination masking as democracy.
As happened with so many other Japanese directors in the 1960s, the studio system stifled one of its most creative, if dissident, voices. Kobayashi found his opportunities drying up and eventually formed the film collective Yonki-no-Kai, or Club of the Four Knights, with fellow filmmakers Kurosawa, Ichikawa and Kinoshita. Despite the noble idea, the complete failure of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den, and his subsequent suicide attempt, doomed the collective from the outset, with it producing only one script before disillusionment set in. Still, Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition and Harakiri stand as two bold anti-authoritarian statements that could have never been produced at any period before in Japanese filmmaking.
GATE OF FLESH – Screened: October 18, 2012
There are certain notorious collaborations in popular culture that, over time and subjected to endless rumors and speculation, assume mythic proportions. We seem particularly fascinated by the misunderstood creative genius battling the stodgy conservative corporation to which they are financially beholden, whether it’s Orson Welles trying to eek out funds for one more film, or Lou Reed giving the big “f- you” to RCA with 1975’s Metal Machine Music; it’s the centuries old Artist vs. Patron relationship transferred to the world of litigation, where, instead of having to compose harpsichord essercizi for thirty years for some king’s “gifted” daughter, you can instead “compose” 65-minutes of guitar feedback and call your contractual obligations fulfilled. Such is our fascination with the genre-warping works of Seijun Suzuki, the rebellious bad boy of 1960’s Japanese cinema, and his now legendary showdown with Nikkatsu Studios.
During the late 1940s, as the US attempted to remake Japan it its image, the film industry underwent a period of contraction, with a dozen or so film production companies consolidated into essentially three firms. One of these, Nikkatsu, shorthand for Nippon Katsudō Shashin, promised young filmmakers the opportunity to rise quickly through the professional ranks. Seijun Suzuki answered that call, hoping to bypass the long apprenticeships that were the norm in those days. It was a time when the United States had direct ideological control over what Japan could and couldn’t say within its film narratives, a sort of occupation-imposed Hayes Code more concerned with signs of resurgent nationalism than enforcing the rule that adulteresses must always get killed in act three. These restrictions created an atmosphere of banality in filmmaking, with only the cleverest and most influential of directors able to pull off anything of lasting substance. Alas, in 1951, Suzuki did not fall into this category, and the majority of his early output is the typical contractual stuff: long-forgotten escapist tales, costume dramas, the occasional light comedy. It would be years until he found his voice, or rather, until he was entrenched and confident enough to insert it into existing scripts. The first signs came with 1963’s Youth of the Beast, which critics generally consider the real launching point of his career; and, not coincidentally, the point at which he began to butt heads with Nikkatsu, pushing the envelope for what they considered to be acceptable content.
But it was Suzuki’s subsequent film, a 1964 “NikkatsuScope” full-color assault called Gate of Flesh, where he truly became creatively unhinged (in the best sense of the word). This is particularly clear given the film’s source material, Taijiro Tamura’s 1947 novel of the same name, which was a lurid tale of postwar prostitution during the American occupation. The first film adaptation, released in 1948, was a toned down version subject to all of the censorship restrictions previously mentioned. So essentially, Suzuki took the novel’s narrative and ran amok, upping the smut ante with spitting Machiavellian prostitutes, aimless veterans, bully GIs, a bit of sadomasochistic flagellation, and a random dead cow to keep audiences partially shocked and thoroughly confused. The intense, vibrant color palette chosen by Suzuki and set designer Takeo Kimura (a color assigned to each of the four lead “pan-pan girls”) contrasts wonderfully with the dingy, burned out surroundings of occupied Tokyo. The result is unlike anything done by Suzuki before, and one wonders, given Nikkatsu’s emphasis on producing accessible popular films and clear-cut narratives, how some of these scenes even saw the light of day. It was one of the first domestic films to challenge Japanese censorship laws, and many scenes were cut for international releases, making the narrative more disjointed than it already was, which surely didn’t help its critical reception. Furthermore, the negative portrayal of Americans did not play well with Japan’s cultural ministers; the 1964 Olympics, held that same year in Tokyo, was the nation’s moment to shine, to show off its newfound modernity to the world, not rehash old grudges from its imperialist past. Gate of Flesh was a sensationalist embarrassment miles away from the tranquil and non-threatening works of establishment directors like Ozu.
Nikkatsu’s message was consistent and clear: essentially, “Stop being an artsy weirdo, just make the damn movies.” Given the plots that followed Gate of Flesh, one gets the impression that the studio made a concerted effort to restrain Suzuki’s creative meanderings by providing straight-forward genre narratives with little room to maneuver. Both Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded To Kill (1967) were, on paper at least, rather conventional yakuza “mob” films until they passed through the Suzuki filter. Nikkatsu was in dire financial straights and needed the latter to be a big box-office success in the action genre. But audiences got an inept killer obsessed with the smell of boiling rice and a crime film that, well, sort of forgot the crime (or at least the elements that the genre’s audience expects). It was the final straw: Nikkatsu saw the finished product and axed Suzuki immediately. Despite commendable-if-futile protests from fellow Japanese artsy weirdos, the unemployed director had no real supporters, at least none with deep pockets. He was effectively blacklisted from the industry and would not direct a film again for ten years. Interestingly, when he did have full creative control, his films tended to suffer from excessive length and rambling incoherence; in the end, it seems the meddling Nikkatsu was good at doing one very important (if unintentional) task in the creative process: pulling Suzuki back just enough from the edge for him to make interesting and unique narratives.
Today, along with Jean Luc Godard and Agnès Varda, Suzuki is one of a dwindling handful of master directors from the “golden age” of international cinema still living.
HOUSE – Screened: November 1, 2012
Film in Japan in the late 1970s was in a difficult spot. The heady days of the Japanese New Wave were over, and American film was beginning to start its decades-long dominance of the global cinematic marketplace. Even past greats were not spared the slump: Akira Kurosawa was unemployable after the failures of Dodeskaden (1970) and the Soviet co-funded Dersu Uzala (1975) and altogether written off by the major Japanese studios. Genre films that once brought a consistent stream of box office revenues began to suffer as audiences grew bored of endless yakuza mob scenarios and tired samurai tales. But most damaging of all to mainstream Japanese cinema was its own gradual shift towards pinku eiga (“pink film”), or what in the West was commonly known as “sexploitation” films. Since the mid 1960s, independent studios had focused on offering the public sensationalist subject matter that pushed the envelope on acceptable content and censorship (e.g. last week’s Gate of Flesh). By the 1970s, desperate to remain relevant and competitive, the movement was quickly co-opted by the mainstream, who could put their considerable budgets behind erudite titles like Apartment Wife: Affair in the Afternoon and Female Convict #701: Scorpion. The content remained similar to that offered for years by the indies, but these were backed with larger budgets and higher production values, and were often more successful as a result. Things went a step farther with Oshima’s highly-controversial and more artsy In the Realm of the Senses (1976), which featured actual on screen sex between actors; censors banned the film completely in Japan–a ban still in place today–and it faced countless troubles elsewhere, even among the most open-minded cinephiles. As for external threats, both Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Spielberg’s Jaws (1976) were game-changers of magnanimous proportions, drastically upping the ante with regard to audience expectations of action and horror films. That is what Toho Studios wanted, and what they hoped director Nobuhiko Obayashi could deliver them: something scary, hi-tech and preferably exportable in the same way that Godzilla had been for them twenty years before. What they got was House.
Although his first feature, Obayashi started his career in the late 1950s, doing experimental film with Takahiko Iiamura and Donald Richie, with whom he would co-found a collective in 1964. From there, he went into advertising and became known in industry circles for his popular and ironic Japanese T.V. commercials with stars like Kirk Douglas and Charles Bronson, the latter shirtless on horseback in Monument Valley, espousing the benefits of Mandom deodorant as “All the World Loves a Lover” plays in the background. Honestly, one could retire after such an achievement. But as luck would have it, he was then approached by Toho to work on a new film project, albeit a B-list film, but a feature nonetheless.
Just why he was handed a horror film when his background was cowboy deodorant is somewhat unclear to me. Still, from the fantastical results of House, it is clear that strong synergy exists between the two. Maybe it was his lack of being tied strongly to the conventions and trappings of the horror genre that gave him the ability to improvise so wildly and embrace surrealist and absurdest tendencies. His daughter gave him many ideas for the script, including much cat-related material, which he worked on for nearly two full years before shooting began. Having specialized in popular short narratives with teenage girls as protagonists in his 1960s film work, Obayashi again returned to this dynamic. But instead of skipping rope and gossiping about boys, they are being eaten by pianos and stalked by an elderly cat-woman. An unavoidable progression perhaps. The film was a big success in Japan, and, while not at Hollywood blockbuster level, still easily buried the A-list romantic comedy to which it was attached on the Japanese marquees. Of 1970s horror films, only Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria, coming out of Italy that same year, achieves the same overwhelming ambiance of sound and image.
Today, House stands as the prime example of just how freakishly original Japanese horror films could be, before everything became the standard creepy ghost girl with white kimono and Joey Ramone bangs. If it only had the Mandom.
THE EMPEROR’S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON – Screened: November 15, 2012
“The termination of the war has been brought about solely through the benevolence of our Sovereign. It was His Majesty himself, who, apologizing to the spirits of the Ancestors, decided to save the millions of His subjects from privation and misery, and to pave the way for an era of grand peace for generations to come.” — Prince Higashikuni to the Diet about Emperor Hirohito’s surrender to the U.S.
“I really came to dislike Okuzaki. He was chaotic. In the film he sounds logical only because of skillful editing.” — Director Hara on his subject
To say that Japan has always fallen a bit short in apologizing for, or even acknowledging, its epic aggression of 1931-1945 would be a gross understatement. Maybe “criminally recalcitrant” best summarizes their approach to this somewhat thorny period in their international relations. Compared to Germany, where there was an increasing level of youth outrage and leftist insurrection as the decades wore on, Japan was relatively insular on the matter, more often casting themselves in the roles of victims of atomic catastrophe, which they undoubtedly were. Still, citing Hiroshima and Nagasaki as pinnacles of human cruelty does not require a high level of introspective reflection and conveniently avoids any admittance of culpability. Even Emperor Hirohito, amazingly absolved of all responsibility for 15 years of violence, would have the audacity to include himself in this “victim” category, being duped as he was by clever Japanese militarists. Surely no one in Washington believed such nonsense, but for the sake of a smooth occupation, it was agreed to strip him of all authority and allow him to remain a figurehead of the nation state, a “divine” powerless puppet in an Americanized Japan. Overnight, Hirohito became a warm and fuzzy facilitator of national healing. Questioning this was beyond the pale, and those Japanese politicians that publicly did so quickly got back in line.
Out of this expanse of sad denial comes the voice of Kenzo Okuzaki, the focus of filmmaker Kazuo Hara’s 1987 documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Yukiyukite shingun). Okuzaki, a veteran and captive of the New Guinea campaign, has no qualms about loudly speaking (his version of) truth to power. In equal turns refreshingly conscientious and disconcertingly unhinged, Okuzaki is tireless in his role as historical truth-seeker, the aging voice of a manipulated and sacrificed Imperial youth, screaming into the face (often through loudspeakers affixed to his car) of those he feels responsible for its execution. With incredible focus and drive, particularly given the decades since war’s end, he confronts his former superiors and tracks down the fellow survivors of his Engineering regiment, which was decimated in one of the most notorious disasters of the conflict. Hara stays in the background, constantly filming his fascinating subject and refusing to intervene in volatile situations, even where perhaps it was his moral responsibility to do so, at least in the eyes of some of his critics. Like Michael Moore and the Maysles Brothers, Hara does not pretend to be the objective observer, detached and aloof, documenting events as they unfold. He recognizes his part as a tacit instigator, as a social agent in the convoluted chain connecting himself with his chaotic subject. Yet, he clearly has a great respect and sympathy for Okuzaki and admires his tenacity and complete lack of propriety, his obsessive drive. The film is not without its moments of dark humor, as Hara has freely admitted. As scenes unfold, viewers find themselves squirming uncomfortably as Okuzaki presents his calling card with an eerie congeniality. It is simply unbelievable when, over calmly poured tea and smiles, he launches into questions about cannibalism and accuses superiors of atrocities punishable by death.
Like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the seminal 9-hour documentary on the Holocaust, Hara avoids dwelling in the past. There are no newsreels, no historical voice-overs. The visceral and lasting pain of the war is expressed in the present, in the fractured stories and violent outbursts, in the melancholic faces that just want to forget and move on. This is what is so remarkable about Okuzaki: he seems incapable of moving on. He is stranded in time, holding on to beloved grudges while probably suffering from some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In Shoah and Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, participants speak with a certain degree of detachment–even nostalgia–from the events that altered their lives. But in Hara’s film, the urgency with which Okuzaki carries out his mission makes one feel as though the conflict is still raging, as if he is fighting to end a genocidal war happening at that very moment, not one that ended thirty-five years earlier. Only it does still rage, in Okuzaki and others conscripted (or convinced) to fight wars of imperial aggression for honorable and “just” causes. Needless to say, the causes continue, and the deceived seem to deal with it in different ways. Some drift further towards patriotism. Others just want to erase it forever. And occasionally, some, like Okuzaki, devote every remaining moment to attacking the authoritarian institutions they feel are responsible for wrecking their young lives.
When released in Tokyo in 1987, the film renewed the debate about civilian complicity in the war effort. It helped to shatter long-standing myths of Emperor Hirohito’s peaceful benevolence. And more importantly, it removed the stigma of shame that still hung over many families whose men were taken captive during the war, as opposed to dying gloriously in the service of their “benevolent Sovereign.”
TITICUT FOLLIES – Screened: February 5, 2013
“Bridgewater, like any maximum security prison, is not the kind of place you parachute into and hide in the hills and make forays into the cell blocks when nobody’s looking…. It took a year for me to get permission to make Follies.” — Frederick Wiseman
Although American censorship of cinema has fluctuated with shifts in morality, only one film has ever been subjected to a court-ordered injunction for reasons other than obscenity and national security. That film is Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies; or, as it came to be known for decades within the judiciary, Commonwealth v. Wiseman.
Where is the line between social activism and exploitation for commercial gain? How does one balance the public’s right to know with patient privacy, particularly when violation of the latter is justified, at least in the mind of the violators, as an altruistic campaign for more humane living conditions? And to what extent can one individual bend the law to serve what they perceive as the “greater good”?….
The setting is Bridgewater State Hospital, a Massachusetts correctional institution for the criminally insane. A young Boston University law professor who had recently turned to filmmaking approached the superintendent and began discussions on the possibility of filming a documentary inside the facility. Wiseman was no stranger to mental health: his mother was a prominent mental health advocate and philanthropist in Massachusetts for years, and Bridgewater had long been a case of controversy within the state for its primitive conditions, being part asylum, part prison, and funded by two separate state agencies with differing agendas. Consisting of 139 buildings over 1,500 acres, Bridgewater served several distinct populations: a hospital for the criminally insane; a prison for alcoholics; a facility for “defective delinquents suffering from gross retardation;” and a treatment center for the “sexually dangerous.” (These differing populations, and the various levels of expectant patient privacy rights granted to each, would be a large part of the controversy when the case hit the courts.) Bridgewater was used as a threat, as bargaining leverage in job negotiations and to keep the state’s mental health employees in line: “Do what you are told, or we will reassign you to Bridgewater.” It was somewhat Soviet sounding and no doubt created the intended chilling effect on those who received it. Even more confusing was the merger of medical and penal. Security guards sometimes took orders from doctors but also directed them in certain situations. Conflicts of authority abounded; and patients were in the middle.
Follies is the textbook case of verbal contracts gone awry. On the surface, and from the reaction to the film afterwards by the agencies involved, it would appear to the casual observer that Wiseman used deceptive tactics to film inside the facility, that the administration was duped by a declaration of false intentions. But the official record shows that not to be the case at all. In fact, the superintendent with which he first initiated talks, Charles Gaughan, who held Harvard degrees in English and Psychiatric Sociology, was himself interested in bringing attention to the horrible conditions present at Bridgewater, in hopes of obtaining public support for additional funding. The meetings he held with Wiseman and his associates were extensive and involved detailed discussions on Wiseman’s philosophical and social activist approach to documentary filmmaking, as well as Gaughan’s explicit intentions. Wiseman was in no way undercover or clandestine in his actions, or even shooting where he was not supposed to: he was merely capturing average workdays, with average slightly-bored employees going through the motions, with average patients enduring treatment that was considered humane by state standards. When finished editing, he screened the film before Bridgewater’s administration, per their agreement prior to filming. They provided their unanimous approval to move forward with release. There were plenty of moments where someone at Bridgewater could have second guessed the wisdom of such a decision, or pondered public reactions to forced tube-feeding and naked men wandering in stark corridors. But amazingly, no one did.
The hows and whys of the legal disaster that followed are way beyond the scope of what can be covered here. Suffice it to say that there was a good degree of back-pedaling by Bridgewater, at Gaughan’s level and above, once the film premiered at the New York Film Festival and outraged reviews starting hitting the press (oddly, some critiques in the media focused on Wiseman’s decision to show an old man nude, apparently not bothered by the old nude man being subjected to humiliation and mistreatment.) Ultimately, Bridgewater pulled the violation of patient rights card to get a court-ordered injunction to prevent release. It was shelved in 1969, the Supreme Court denying to hear the case. Thereafter, Wiseman could only show the film to mental health professionals and had to obtain full documentation from all present that they were licensed and able to attend under the terms imposed by law. Suits brought against the state of Massachusetts by the families of several who died from neglect at Bridgewater cited the suppression of Titicut Follies as a significant contributing factor in their deaths. The fight continued, and the case was not resolved until 1992, when the courts basically ruled that patient rights were no longer an issue for the film since many of them were now deceased. It was only then that Titicut Follies could be publicly shown.
Today, Titicut Follies stands as a stark reminder of how corrupt, entrenched, and indifferent some institutionalized systems can become if left to their own devices. Equally, it exemplifies the power of those from without (Wiseman) and within (Gaughan) to challenge these systems and bring them before public scrutiny. Wiseman went on to found Zipporah and has made countless films now considered classics of the cinema verite documentary form. Thus far, however, none have ended up the meandering ethical and legal saga of the long-banned film that kick started his career.
SALESMAN – Screened: February 19, 2013
“I forget who the poet is, but a famous English poet said something like, ‘There’s no sound more beautiful, whether it’s in the city or in the country, than the sound of a knocking on the door.’ …. To that I would add, ‘Unless it was a Bible salesman.'” — Albert Maysles on Salesman
If brothers Albert & David Maysles excelled at one point in documentary filmmaking, it was finding the quiet drama in the seeming banality of the everyday. And while their other subjects–the Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter and the eccentric Beales of Grey Gardens infamy to name but two–are often better known, it is Salesman that has always affected me the most. Maybe it’s the simplicity, or rather, the complexity of something that on the surface seems so simple. After all, documenting Bible salesmen on their day-to-day peddling routes through suburban Boston could have been unbearably dull. But it isn’t. In fact, I would argue that what is captured–and importantly, brilliantly edited together–exemplifies a sort of quintessential Americanism: a fusion of huckster commercialism, quasi-religiousness, human frailty, and a good dose of sales guilt, all stretched over the classic Horatio Alger myth of “working your way up from nothing.”
Of course, this myth works out well for some, not so well for others. So it is here, where four men–all assigned animal names by the Maysles to describe their attitudes: The Rabbit, The Bull, The Badger, and The Gipper–have mixed success peddling overpriced Bibles to families that can ill afford their $50 price tag. Very early on, Paul Brennan, the Badger, is clearly different from the rest. Especially awkward are the scenes where all men are together talking about their day’s work, Paul clearly not cut our for the task. Despite his rationale for why the sales aren’t happening, and the caustic behind-the-scenes tone he takes on with regard to his clients, he seems almost too self-aware of the superfluousness of his job, of the fact that what he is doing is essentially meaningless and manipulative. The Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, their incredible editor, hone in on this pathos as the key to their narrative. They admitted later to developing a deep empathy for Paul and maintained a long relationship with him well beyond the filming. Paul is also Irish, and the Maysles, growing up in an antagonistic, anti-Irish Boston neighborhood and raised with those views themselves, saw this as an important peacemaking moment for them.
Today, Salesman could be seen as the film that introduced the term “cinema verite” to a wider audience. The term originates in the works of Soviet director Dziga Vertov and his idea of the “Kino Eye,” as seen in his radically experimental The Man with the Movie Camera. The lens simply captures life as it unfolds, without any intervention or narrative artifice from the director. Later this was taken up by french filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch, who coined this term for “truthful cinema.” Nevertheless, it came to embody certain aesthetic ideals and little else, philosophically speaking. At this point in the study of film and media theory, no sane person would argue that the “cinema verite” style is any more “truthful” than that given by someone like Michael Moore. Typically, it is now often shorthand for a documentary that lacks narration or any clear framing devices or contexts for the viewer. Today we really take this form for granted, but in the mid-1960s, almost all documentaries used the newsreel approach, with the omnipotent voice over bringing down the narrative like a sledgehammer, not only providing context but also compensating for the fact that often no microphones were present for the subjects being filmed, with most sound done post production. The Maysles’s “direct cinema” approach (both brothers hated the pomposity of the phrase “cinema verite”) built upon earlier, more subtle traditions, like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and the African documentaries of Rouch. The Maysles were “embedded” filmmakers–Albert on 16mm handheld camera, David on the mic and portable reel-to-reel–traveling with their subjects or, in the case of Grey Gardens, practically living in their homes. The Maysles’s reasoning for this was at the very core of their artistic vision: gain their trust, and the rest will follow. The philosophy worked remarkably well for their three essential films, Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens.
But in today’s “reality”-obsessed, media-savvy culture, Salesman is amazing for another reason: the lack of self-consciousness of its subjects. Somehow, no one seems to think it strange to have two men filming in their homes, nor do they think it appropriate to get the curlers from their hair, or put on an overshirt, or not smoke at the table with the baby present, or turn down the wobbly, blaring elevator music on the new hi-fi system. Granted, the brothers did work to get the trust of their main subjects, but there was no such trust with the working class families whose homes they entered; just a quick explanation of this being part of a “human interest story.” After all, it’s what the Maysles Brothers loved, getting at the realness of people in the moment, not in a mocking ironic sense, but in a humanistic and sincere way. And there is no film where this sincerity comes through stronger than Salesman.
DON’T LOOK BACK – Screened: March 5, 2013
“If we were someplace else I’d punch you in your goddamn nose.” — Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman to hotel manager
Although documentaries on music and musicians are numerous, most mainstream ones come across as promotional vehicles or linear overviews of careers that seem like 90-minute music videos. It’s unfortunate, because things began quite differently. In fact, the 1960s saw some of the best music documentaries of all time, including Gimme Shelter, Monterey Pop, and D. A. Pennebaker’s venerated classic covering Bob Dylan’s 1965 U.K. tour, Dont Look Back (sic).
The intro sequence alone, with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” playing and Bob Dylan dropping cue cards one at a time, has been copied and parodied so many times in popular culture that people have often seen the references before the referenced. It was originally conceived by Dylan as a sort of Scopitone movie, a French invention that was essentially a jukebox that played a 16mm film, the forerunner of the music video. Although by 1967, this song could almost be seen as Dylan nostalgia–so fast was his trajectory into, and through the other side, of the rock scene–at the time of shooting it was likely a sly dig at the folkies, flaunting his new noisy aesthetic that would come to define much of his middle career. The then-recently-released “Subterranean Homesick Blues” hangs heavy in the air throughout the entire film, a harbinger of what was to come. Teenage girls complain to him and Dylan shoots back with “Oh, you’re that type, I get it,” before kindly reframing with “But I like to play with my friends…You don’t mind if my friends play on my record, do you?” Today, it is impossible for us to comprehend what an alien sounding and oddly structured song this was for fans accustomed to “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Although these were recorded just a couple of years prior and can be heard on car radios throughout the film, promoting his concert appearances, Dylan is so clearly bored with these tunes while performing live that he flies through them at fast tempos. They feel like necessary obligations en route to the new introspection of “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Gates of Eden,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Dylan is so canonized within American popular culture today, it is important to remember his place in music in 1965, when he continued the process of stepping away from a folk scene that he had outgrown creatively but which still clung to him as their conduit into the semi-mainstream. The first small step can be seen in 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, where he abandoned politics for poetics while keeping the acoustic aesthetic completely intact. At the time of this tour Bringing It All Back Home had just been released, which saw Dylan split literally in half: Side 1, electric; Side 2, acoustic. The next album, Highway 61 Revisited, would see him take the full electric plunge. It was a huge artistic gamble, tossing away an entire folk fanbase that loved and supported him for a rock scene that knew nothing of his music, only that he was some Woody Guthrie wannabe in a train conductor’s hat. It’s worth bearing in mind that Dylan could have very easily fallen on his face and ended up a mockery, rejected by both audiences.
Pennebaker’s grainy, unpolished film captured a musician at work like no one had ever seen before: goading on reporters; playing Hank Williams in his hotel room; looking utterly exhausted. Some of the confrontation scenes themselves are now classics of rock pop culture, referred to in such shorthand as “The Science Student,” “The High Sheriff’s Lady,” and “Who Threw the Glass in the Street?” It is incredible to think that by the time Dont Look Back saw its 1967 theatrical release, Dylan was done. He had conquered electric, inspired countless imitators, cut two more albums–one of them a double, Blonde on Blonde–and toured endlessly against hostile crowds with the Hawks (The Band) in tow. Pennebaker was there to film this too, through Europe in 1966. The final product, never officially released but known as Eat the Document by generations of bootleggers, was dark, depressing, and utterly unwatchable. In it, drastically underweight and strung-out, one sees very clearly the end that was fast approaching; and it’s probably sheer luck that Bob Dylan didn’t end up on the roster along with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Brian Jones. The eventual crash was both chemical and literal: amphetamines; heroin; vitamin-B12 injections; and the infamous (and still debated) July ’66 motorcycle wreck that almost broke his neck. Dylan, barely 27 years old, went into hiding and started fresh, back to acoustics for the subdued John Wesley Harding LP, not touring again for nearly eight years.
AMERICAN DREAM – Screened: April 2, 2013
One of the most devastating and shameful developments of postwar American society was the war waged on organized labor by corporations, in collusion with the Reagan Administration, from 1980-88. To assign an end date is deceptive, of course, since we continue to feel the waves to this day. The era began appropriately enough, with Reagan acting as a “mediator” in the air traffic controllers’ strike, where he “permanently replaced” 1,400 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controller’s Organization. This sent a clear and unmistakable message to companies from coast to coast: “Clean house, we’ve got your back.” They took it to heart too: Phelps Dodge in Arizona in 1983; Chicago Tribune in 1987; Caterpillar in 1989; and perhaps the most famous of all, Hormel in 1985, the subject of Baraba Kopple’s Academy-Award winning documentary American Dream.
After the stagnation of the 1970s economy, the horrible recession that hit in 1982 provided corporations with the perfect pretext to crush labor, an opportunity that had not presented itself since the 1930s. This was the beginning of what would later be codified as globalization, and economists Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison outline the situation quite clearly in their 1982 book The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry. In the quest to remain “globally competitive,” companies were willing to do whatever it took, even destroying the very social fabric of communities that had devoted their entire working lives to the success of their firms.
It started in what is called the “Frostbelt” of the northeast, first with the steel mills, then spreading to other areas of manufacturing. Reagan’s public relations team were brilliant propagandists, pushing patriotism and national pride, the myth of the “home team” and language designed to foster illusions of equality, community and collective struggle (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1989 book Fear of Falling for a good discussion of this). Suddenly “union” became a dirty word. Unions were un-American, greedy, out for themselves. That this view was even embraced by large portions of an increasingly-conservative working class that unions had supported for decades is a testament to the efficacy of the smear campaign. Concurrently, the management consultant industry boomed as corporations looked for ways to increase their profit margins by slashing wages, benefits, and pensions. Factories moved in droves to the south, the “Sunbelt,” where labor was cheap and migrants plenty.
The packinghouse P-9 strike at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota showed how far manufacturing management was willing to go in this new era: they closed the old factory, built a new “hi-tech” one that resembled a prison (where worker injuries reached epidemic proportions), and demanded deep wage cuts. And this was during a string of double-digit record profits for Hormel, which was outstripping its competitors by huge margins. Several years earlier, at the behest of the United Food and Commercial Worker’s (UFCW), P-9 had already reluctantly agreed to a set of concessions that dramatically increased management’s power. So when a clause in this earlier agreement was invoked, demanding a unilateral 23% pay cut across the board, P-9 geared up for a fight. Tired of the UFCW selling them down the river, they brought in Ray Rogers of Corporate Campaign Inc., a consultant firm which specialized in high-profile media assaults on corporations, typically with boycotts and pressure strategies on banks and stakeholders. It galvanizes worker spirit but the impact on Hormel is minimal. As the months wear on, the International and UFCW withdraw all support and striker benefits, even encouraging P-9 members to be scabs and cross their own picket lines. Some choose to do so, burning bridges with their neighbors, their friends, their family members. Others block streets, get hit with teargas and arrested, refuse to give in. The destruction of the social fabric, as predicted.
On the bright side, American Dream highlights a new energy in labor, one that shows how out of touch the national labor leaders had become, with their exorbitant salaries and willingness to negotiate with unfair corporate demands. This new spirit is summed up well by one striker late in the film, when he realizes that the P-9 membership, even after months of pickets and civil disobedience, will ultimately have to pick between unfair concessions or unemployment: “Fuck ’em, we’ll find something else,” he says defiantly, walking away from the union hall mic.
ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS – Screened: September 12, 2013
“I showed a Paris not of the future but at least a modern city, a world already dehumanized.” — Louis Malle
The question of where to start a retrospective of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) is problematic. All would agree that 1959 was the explosive year, the year that Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour galvanized the movement and brought French filmmakers into the vanguard of European cinema. But like all cultural movements, stirrings were happening earlier, the best example of which is the film that I’ve selected to kick off the fall lineup: Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud), from 1958.
Stylistically, Louis Malle is a notoriously difficult director to pin down. His career from the very beginning–which starts here incidentally, in 1958, at 25–has been filled with idiosyncrasies and an aversion to easy pigeonholing. It would have been simple to stick with a formula that worked and keep producing slight variations on a theme; after all, more complacent directors have spent entire financially-lucrative careers doing just that. But remarkably Elevator to the Gallows is Malle’s only thriller in a career that lasted 30 years. Soon he would be on to projects as diverse as The Fire Within, the story of a man’s last day before suicide, and Zazie in the Metro, his outlandishly anarchistic adaptation of the modernist French novel by Raymond Queneau. Malle was not a member of the clique of critics-turned-directors whose names are now synonymous with French New Wave: Truffaut, Charbol, Rohmer, and Godard. Malle came from a prosperous family of French industrialists and grew up in a world quite unlike that of Truffaut and his boy alter-ego, Antoine Doniel, in 400 Blows. But like Malle, they all shared an obsession for the grittier elements of classical Hollywood cinema: the film noirs of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder; the dark domestic weirdness of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray; and the tight narrative meticulousness of Alfred Hitchcock.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Elevator to the Gallows is, in a sense, the first New Wave thriller, or perhaps the first New Noir. This is even more noteworthy given its screenplay’s origins in a rather bland boilerplate novel that caught Malle’s eye. After cutting his teeth as an assistant cameraman to Jacques Costeau and Robert Bresson, Malle took the work to a writer he admired, Roger Nimier, and suggested a collaboration. Nimier thought the story ridiculous but agreed on the condition that they rethink things, keeping the good bits, tossing the bad, and expanding when necessary. One key change in their adaptation is the emphasis given to the female character, who goes from prop to protagonist. For this important role, Malle cast Jeanne Moreau, a stage actress then primarily known for parts in B-films. Her melancholic performance was precisely what the film required: it becomes a film not about murder, but about loss and frailty, propelled forward by Miles Davis’s jazz score and the slow tracking shots that follow Moreau through the rainy Parisian streets. Gone are the voice-overs of noir past, with their clichés and canned fatalism. Instead, Moreau’s internal monologue reflects an existential ennui about the modern world, a world debased and morally askew, “already dehumanized” as Malle notes above. In what would go down as one of the most well-regarded jazz soundtracks of all time, Miles Davis famously played the score live, watching the film on a screen in the studio while his quartet improvised, adding, as spectators and participants, new layers of emotional complexity. Throughout these drifting street night shots, the presence of Davis and his trumpet becomes an essential component just as key as Moreau to achieving Malle’s narrative goals. In doing so, they created something entirely modernist and new, a thriller not afraid of large silent spaces, contemplative, and even romantic.
The symbol of the road is important here, a metaphor for transition and lack of permanence. Like his peers, Malle shared an obsession with the street, for the stark naturalism of the postwar Italian “Neo-Realist” movement best exemplified in Rosselini’s Paisan and Rome Open City (of their European contemporaries, it is probably he, along with Bresson, who exerted the most influence on the early aesthetic of the New Wave, particularly cinematography and sound.) The release of Tri-X black-and-white film in 1954 is an often overlooked moment in the history of film. For the first time, it allowed for naturalistic lighting, for actors to look grainy and devoid of the Hollywood gloss, for crews to load into a pram with nothing but a camera and a mic and film quickly on location. The film’s technicians were aghast at the early takes. Jeanne Moreau should only appear beautiful, they said. Why would Malle put her in the rain and make her look miserable? Such was the state of French film, with upbeat picturesque motifs on Parisian romance the norm in those days.
Also of note are the script elements critical of French foreign policy and its colonial militancy abroad. Although not known as a particularly political director, Elevator does project a general war weariness creeping into French culture, with snide dialogue jabs at war profiteering in Algeria and Indochina, as well as the worthy plot point of a military industrialist being killed with his own gun.
So Elevator to the Gallows holds a unique spot, being neither the opening salvo in the New Wave’s assault, nor championing and upholding the outdated “cinéma de papa” (“Dad’s cinema”), as the young turks arrogantly referred to the French film establishment. It stands as a remarkably polished and competent first film from a director who would go on to create a body of work as diverse as Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Atlantic City (1980), My Dinner with Andre (1981), and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).
400 BLOWS – Screened: September 26, 2013
“In 1959, we were living a dream. Everything was happening in ways that would have been inconceivable two years earlier.” — Francois Truffaut
Today it would be difficult to imagine anyone arguing that film is not art, that directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford are not artists on par with an Ibsen or a Chekhov, but these are relatively recent concepts in cultural studies. In terms of cultural cache, film had always been the red-headed stepchild of the stage, a prejudice held over from the silent film era. Films considered grand critical successes were often based on dramas or novels. After all, what was a movie besides a filmed stage performance? What was the camera besides an obstacle to be overcome between actors and audience? And what was a director besides a hired technician whose job it was to massage another’s work into something commercially viable?
Film had been analyzed before. Throughout the 1930s, German intellectuals of what came to be known as the Frankfurt School (mainly Sigfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno) had written about the “distraction industries” from a sociological perspective in the newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung. But there were no critical journals dedicated to film studies, just industry magazines like Variety that concentrated on movie reviews, gross earnings, who was wearing what, etc. That’s why Cahiers Du Cinema was a game changer. The journal, founded in 1951 by a small clique of fanatical French film enthusiasts, would go down as one of the most important developments in the history of film, not only modernizing the form, but also altering the very foundation of how we talked about it. In fact, so deeply embedded are the French New Wave’s core tenets to contemporary film discourse–the auteur theory, shot-for-shot mise-en-scene, the concept of caméra-stylo, or “camera-as-pen”–they are simply givens of our critical nomenclature.
Truffaut’s 400 Blows was the breakout New Wave film at Cannes in 1959, along with Resnais’s and Duras’s Hiroshima Mon Amour. But while the latter belied Resnais’s slick professionalism and Duras’s gifts at complex narrative, 400 Blows was a different type of New Wave experience. Truffaut’s childhood parallels that of his child lead, and it was one of the first times in the history of cinema where a director drew upon the mundane and painful aspects of youth, not in an empathetic, reformatory manner, but simply to show childhood as it really is through the eyes of someone living it: a panache of escapism, confusion, complacency, boredom, occasionally run-ins with the authorities. Like his protagonist, Truffaut was a lower-class kid, bouncing within a system of reformists, with a father he never knew and a mother who was indifferent at best. He found refuge and escape in the cinema, thus beginning a lifelong obsession with American film that he shared with his peers at Cahiers Du Cinema, many of whom would be at the cutting-edge of European filmmaking before the decade was out. But it was Truffaut who first kicked that door open, allowing him the financial means to fund other projects, which he generously did, such as Godard’s Breathless the following year. Somewhat gun-shy politically, he was never the militant activist that Godard later became, a split which eventually led to their falling out with one another and never reconciling before Truffaut’s untimely death from cancer in 1984.
In many ways, the naturalism of 400 Blows is now the norm. But in 1959, it was unheard of for most directors to improvise in the ways that Truffaut did, to give any actor, much less a child, the ability to go off script and just be themselves. The interrogation session where Atonie is being questioned, with Jean-Pierre Léaud running with lines of dialogue that seemed fitting to him, is one of the most melancholic and impressive scenes in all of the New Wave. Indeed, Truffaut seemed psychologically intertwined with his Antoine Doinel doppelgänger, as Jean-Pierre Léaud would return three times to play the same character again over the next twenty years: Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979).
HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR – Screened: October 17, 2013
“You can describe Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour as Faulkner plus Stravinsky.” — Jean-Luc Godard, 1959
Given the rise of the documentary form in the second half of the 20th century, it seems somehow fitting that the film that would come to define modernism in narrative cinema began its life as one. It was to be called Picadon–“The Flash”–and was to be the first French/Japanese collaboration on Hiroshima’s devastation by the A-bomb. It was a risky proposition. Impossible to imagine today given its cultural ubiquity, but in 1959, the last thing anyone wanted to talk about was World War 2. Even the Holocaust itself was taboo and beyond the realm of popular discussion until a film by Alain Resnais called Night and Fog premiered in 1955, a stark, harrowing documentary that has lost none of its punch in the last sixty years. It was this work that caused the project’s producers to approach Resnais, convinced that he could give the same treatment to the catastrophic event that helped launch the Cold War. What they got, however, was something different and entirely unexpected. What they got was the first modernist narrative masterpiece of postwar cinema, Hiroshima Mon Amour.
Why Resnais decided to abandon a form, the documentary, in which he had just experienced such a resounding success is a bit of a mystery, especially since he had never directed a fictional feature film before. It is clear from his own reflections that he had grave doubts going into the project, right up to the flight to Japan with cast and crew, wondering if the entire undertaking would end up a colossal failure. Given the script with which he was working, and the fact that he was determined to alter very little of it to suit conventional narrative form, it is easy to understand his anxiety. After all, this was not a love story that embraced the viewer, quickly provided familiar stereotypes, and proceeded into a three-act, run-of-the mill plot of conflict with tidy resolution. No, this was something weird, something that made up its own rules, something that pushed the audience to places it had never been before. Hiroshima Mon Amour would be the first of his many collaborations with great writers, this time with Marguerite Duras. Having made an impression in French literary circles with her novel Moderato Cantabile, with its odd shifts of time and space, Resnais contacted Duras and asked if she would be interested in writing a script. Following a few brief conversations, Resnais gave Duras complete authorial control over the finished screenplay, even in light of the fact that she had never written for film before. They decided the film would be about the bombing, yes, but more importantly, about a 36-hour love affair between a French woman and a Japanese man, about the conflicts between memory and present, about the trauma of the past and its ongoing influence over one’s life. Duras herself, as it would come to be known in her later works, such as 1984’s The Lover, had been deeply affected by a teenage affair with a 30-year-old Chinese man in French-Indochina, and it is almost impossible not to spot the emotional debris of that experience in the female lead, played by Emmanuelle Riva. Although one of many films derived from the works of Duras in the 1950s-60s, it is the only one imprinted deeply with her sense of self, where her ideas are embedded and crafted carefully within the script and not a watered-down attempt at transferring her complex literary rhythms into a conventional and linear film narrative. Later, when she would try her own hand at directing, her scripts suffered from a slowness and lack of action that is absent in Hiroshima Mon Amour, which speaks to the pair’s respective strengths as artists: Duras handling the big philosophical ideas; Resnais and his editor skillfully tying the disconnected bits together.
The narrative itself is broken down into five distinct sections. The first, running 15 minutes into the film, is the most abstract and disorienting, a brilliant montage of image and sound: intimate shots of hands caressing skin; historical images of bomb-burned flesh; a series of tracking shots through a Hiroshima memorial museum; a B-grade Japanese re-enactment film from the late 1940s; all overlain with two voices, whose identities are withheld for the entirety of the sequence. It is a testament to his faith in Duras’s craft that Resnais did not attempt to move this section elsewhere within the story. Few films in the history of cinema had ever demanded so much of an audience, denying them framework or foundations for a quarter of an hour, without any anchor apart from the fragmented sentences and how these comments relate to the action shown on screen. As this section ends, a more linear narrative begins, but one which is constantly shifting between past (the woman’s traumatic remembrances of occupied France and her German lover in Nevers) and present (the 36-hour affair with a stranger in Hiroshima, played by Eiji Okada.) One of Duras’s greatest gifts as a novelist is that of dialogue, and Resnais wisely allows her the freedom to toy with language and meaning in much the same way as she does in her fiction. Contemporary filmmakers, such as Wong Kar-Wai with In The Mood For Love, borrow heavily from the look and feel of Hiroshima, particularly the tendency for private moments to reveal themselves in public spaces, albeit public spaces that are vast, isolated, and devoid of a public. A peculiar and elusive sense of dread permeates the film, perhaps reflecting the fact that, at any given second throughout the late 1950s, hundreds of bombers were circling the globe 24-7, all filled with nuclear payloads that could be dropped on a moment’s notice. Today, this fact would strike many as nostalgic and darkly comical, but given the Strangelove-esque revelations of close-calls and technical snafus that have come to light in recent years in both American and Russian archives–from bombers breaking apart in midair over the Carolinas, to malfunctioning Soviet first-alert systems in Eastern Europe–this dread was more than justified.
Interestingly, although it makes no bold political statement, Hiroshima Mon Amour was kept from the main competition at Cannes in 1959 due to its content. Those running the festival were concerned about upsetting the United States and gave the film a separate slot, where it garnered accolades and eventually earned the International Critics’ Prize. It ended up being the runaway hit of the festival, along with Truffaut’s first film, 400 Blows. Resnais was older and not part of the French New Wave clique, and yet, Truffaut, Godard, Roehmer, and other directors hailed Hiroshima as a masterpiece of modernism, proclaiming it the most important film yet of the postwar period. They predicted that it would still be watched and discussed in thirty or forty years time, a conservative prediction that has fallen short now by several decades.
CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 – Screened: October 24, 2013
In the 1970s, film studies in Great Britain and the United States took an interesting turn. Scholars lessened their preoccupation with retrospective, hero-worship analyses of the oeuvres of individual directors (e.g. “John Ford is a genius and here is why”) and took up the mantle of other socio-political movements that were drastically altering the landscape of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Foremost among these was feminism and the study of gender representation, which opened up multidisciplinary areas of research previously ignored and, in turn, deeply invigorated film scholarship.
Well, everywhere except France. French film scholars remained a recalcitrant, old-boy network, with only a small cadre of researchers pushing against a canon that had become almost unquestionable it its position of cultural dominance. As one feminist scholar, Genevieve Sellier, points out in her study Masculine Singular, it is the “blind spot in French historiography of the New Wave.” Part of the problem is that, almost from its inception, the New Wave was a movement intensely reflexive and self-conscious, bordering on narcissistic. It cemented its ideology quickly via its own journal Cahiers du Cinema, essentially carving out an identity within its pages, with more “objective” critics falling in line without too much protest. For an “avant garde” movement on the cutting edge of modernity, it was suspiciously comprised solely of white men, and the exceptions to this can be counted on one hand. Last week’s film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, covered one of these, the writer Marguerite Duras, whose full command of the script placed her on par with director Alain Resnais. This week’s screening covers the second key figure, Agnes Varda, director of 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7.
Varda started her career as a photojournalist before shifting into filmmaking in 1954, with the important work La Pointe courte–an odd hybrid of ascetic romance and fishing village documentary–which today many non-French scholars cite as the origins of the New Wave. Varda admits that she is often more concerned with the objectivist, documentary elements of her work and even went so far as to say that Cléo from 5 to 7 was a documentary on early-1960s Paris with a story about a sick girl overlain onto it. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, Varda was clearly influenced by the nascent cinéma vérité movement then taking off in France, best exemplified in the works of anthropologists/filmmakers like Jean Rouch, with Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer) from 1960, and Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx’s Les raquetteurs from 1958. She was most closely affiliated with what came to be known as the Left Banke movement of filmmakers, whose tastes leaned towards leftist and literary; this group also included her husband Jacques Demy (Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour).
Cléo from 5 to 7 is unique in several aspects. At the most obvious level, it is the first New Wave narrative to be both directed by a woman and to have a woman as the lead protagonist. These two components together are key, as all New Wave representations of femininity on screen up to this point had been masculine stereotypes of women, e.g. the doomed, 19th-century-romantic man unable to find his true inner artistic self due to a relationship with a woman who will eventually destroy him. Conversely, Cléo from 5 to 7 has at its core two transformative hours (90 minutes technically) in the life of a woman who is sick and awaiting a diagnosis. We follow her from location to location, from cafes to rehearsal sessions, to meetings with strangers to mini-breakdowns. She wanders. She meets random people for conversations, listens to herself on a jukebox. In a brilliant twist, Varda cleverly paints her as a somewhat vain petit-bourgeoisie minor celebrity ye-ye singer, which prevents over-sentimentalizing her subject and thus avoids slipping into a maudlin vibe. It is a clever move which gives the viewer the perfect amount of distance from the subject, being able to sympathize with both her fear of mortality and the rolled eyes of friends that accuse her of being an insufferable drama queen.
Apart from Cléo and Hiroshima, the only comparable New Wave film to feature a strong female lead that avoids some level of patriarchal spin is Louis Malle’s 1960 adaptation of Zazie in the Metro, which contemporary scholars have refreshingly reanalyzed as a sort of anarchic, riot-grrrl manifesto against the suffocation of a sterile, postwar, male-dominated Paris. That many New Wave directors hated this film and others that failed to conform to their strict worldview does speak volumes about the accusations later leveled against them as “masculine-singular” sexists, as they replaced the cinema of their fathers with one just as ideologically suspect.
VIVRE SA VIE – Screened: November 14, 2013
“The camera is a witness.” — Godard on Vivre Sa Vie
Jean Luc-Godard’s first flight was slow and iffy. Although a prolific writer for Cahiers Du Cinema, he was the last of the French New Wave directors to complete a film, and his initial work ethic does not instill one with great faith in his abilities: no script; a storyline that continued to mutate on a daily basis; no shooting permits; a cast and crew kept in the dark until the last minute. And yet somehow, Breathless, released in 1960, quickly became the pinnacle of urban Sixties Euro-chic and remains today arguably the most famous French film of all time. On its heels came two financial and critical disasters: A Woman Is A Woman, a comedy/musical Cinemascope extravaganza that left both public and critics confused, and Le Petit Soldat, a political film–Godard called it an “adventure” film–about France’s escalating colonial war in Algeria, which received the coveted honor of being denied both the “visa d’exploitation” and the “vida d’exportation” from the French government’s Minister of Information, meaning it was banned both at home and abroad. During this time, he met and married Anna Karina, who had leading roles in Woman and Soldat, with the pair also famously appearing in Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 as the two silent actors in the film within a film, something that surely appealed to the self-reflexive cineaste in Godard.
But the honeymoon period was short-lived. Godard was psychotically jealous and went so far as to ask Karina to stop acting once they were married, to which she responded by accepting a leading role in a film by Jacques Bourdon, Le Soleil dans l’oeil. On location in Corsica, and growing increasingly estranged from Godard, she fell in love with her co-actor Jacques Perrin and had an affair. Back in Paris, she told Godard about Perrin and that she wanted a divorce. The possessive Godard completely destroyed the furnishings of their apartment and left. Karina attempted suicide, taking an overdose of barbiturates that by all accounts would have killed her had Perrin not unexpectedly broken into the apartment after not hearing from her. While Karina was hospitalized, at a bistro Godard challenged Perrin to dice (a New Wave duel?) and then poker, which was interrupted by a public fistfight with photographers. Both then went to Karina’s bedside. It was through this lens of harmony, and a shaky reconciliation with Anna Karina, that Godard approached his next project, Vivre Sa Vie.
More so than with most directors, it is nearly impossible to separate Godard’s artistic output from his contentious and volatile private life. New Wave scholars have that demarcation line between his marriage to Karina and his growing radicalization in the wake of the 1965 escalation of the Vietnam War. But it is starting here, with Vivre Sa Vie, that both Godard and Karina broke new ground, or at least pushed heavily on its boundaries. Part of the reason that it is hard to differentiate the couple from the film is the personal nature of the work itself. The lead is Nana, an obvious anagram for Anna, and the somber script, based on twelve “tableaux vivants” (or “living paintings”) in the life of a sex worker, is in turns vengeful and empathetic. Whereas in the past Anna Karina was a lead, in Vivre Sa Vie, she becomes the film’s raison d’être, the focus of both Godard’s passion and his hatred.
Technically speaking, Godard had never worked this way before. Sets were static, mics limited, cameras heavy and immobile. Each scene was often comprised of several long takes meticulously set up by Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard, with few cuts or edits. It was the first film ever to abandon post-synchronized sound, the process where ambient sounds and dialogue are added or embellished in the studio following the shoot. Godard, completely committed to this idea of capturing snapshots of authenticity, wanted all sound recorded on a single track, on the set, which meant even more limits to actor movement and blocking. The song coming from the jukebox must sound like a song coming from a jukebox, and not act as a brief segue into a full-fledged studio recording: it was a strangely philosophical approach to sound that he stuck to religiously throughout the shoot. The camera, although moored, swings pendulously within scenes, often obscuring faces or shooting actors from behind as they speak to one another, as in the extended opening sequence where Nana speaks to her ex at the bar, our only glimpse of their facial expressions cast via the mirror behind the counter.
Despite the liberation inherent in the title, which roughly translates as “to live one’s life”, in the end, this is inescapably a film about Godard and Karina’s demise, a melancholic-if-beautiful exercise in which one often feels the uncomfortable role of psychoanalytic voyeur. Anna Karina puts in one of the best performances of her entire career (her tear-streaked face as she watches Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc remains one of the most famous film stills of all time), and Godard would rarely give such autonomy to a female protagonist again. Despite this being an attempt at drawing them closer, if anything, it seems to have done the exact opposite, as Karina would again attempt suicide before the production was finished and Godard could often be found sleeping on the floor of his producer’s office. Nevertheless, they managed to continue working together, collaborating on such classic projects as Alphaville, Band of Outsiders, and Pierrot Le Fou, before going their separate ways. Today Vivre Sa Vie remains the subtle, understated flashpoint of the brilliance that was to come.
PIERROT LE FOU – Screened: November 21, 2013
“In my other films, when I had a problem, I asked myself what Hitchcock would have done in my place. While making Pierrot, I had the impression that he wouldn’t have known how to answer, other than ‘Work it out for yourself.'” — Godard
As the 1960s became politicized, so did sectors of the French New Wave. The artistic philosophies that once united the directors into a common cause began to collapse. In the wake of the Paris protest riots of 1968, their ideological assertion from ten years prior, that the true aesthetics of film art transcended politics, was quaint and hilariously naïve. Cahiers du Cinema became a platform for extremist Marxism and drew hard, red lines in the sand, questioning the allegiances of all directors and asking what they were doing for the “movement.” Even the magazine’s founding fathers Truffaut and Rohmer were not spared its editorial ire, despite the former’s public stand against colonial French involvement in Algeria. The only director to sometimes get a pass was Jean-Luc Godard, starting with Pierrot le Fou.
At the tangential heart of Pierrot le Fou is a genre that meant much to Godard and the entire French New Wave: the crime story, particularly film noir and the American hardboiled literature that gave rise to that movement. Although on the fringes in their home culture, crime writers such as Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson, and James Cain were nothing short of rock stars in postwar France, whose literati championed their works as existentialist masterpieces, using lowly populist genre fiction to assert broader truths about the human condition. Truffaut’s second film, Shoot the Piano Player, was based on a novel by Philadelphia-born David Goodis, and one could point to Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows as arguably the perfect distilment of noir and street. Godard had, by the time of shooting Pierrot le Fou, mined the crime genre extensively with Breathless, Band of Outsiders, and Alphaville. He now set out to shoot Lionel White’s 1962 novel Obsession. To be fair, Godard was never very kind to the authors whose works he chose to adapt. Even when he stuck extremely close to the source narrative, like in Contempt, he publicly described Alberto Moravia’s novel as a “nice, vulgar one for a train journey, full of old-fashioned sentiments.” As for the affectations of the crime genre, he had always been liberal with his interpretations and unafraid to toss convention aside whenever it bored him. One week before shooting began, he realized that he no longer cared for the story and even less about telling a crime tale. It was his moment of crisis, an inspirational meltdown not unlike Fellini’s preceding the project that would become his own landmark, Otto e mezzo (8 1/2).
Of Pierrot le Fou, Godard has said that he felt as if he were making his first film. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Jean Paul-Belmondo, made an international star by Godard’s first film Breathless, agreed to work on the project for a drastically reduced fee, as a favor to his friend. Anna Karina, his go-to female lead and recently-divorced wife, would play opposite. This was also fitting, as Obsession, the darkly-comic story of a man entering into a doomed relationship with a woman who destroys him, now became, at least in part, Godard’s nihilistic portrait of the relationship that he felt had destroyed his life. By all accounts, his divorce from Karina–and more specifically, what he obsessively perceived as her betrayal–had brought him into an extended psychological crisis from which he was incapable of extricating himself. The shoot was incredibly tense. Belmondo later described their on-set interaction as like “a cobra and a mongoose, always glaring at one another.” Fights and explosions were commonplace. When Karina asked “What should I do?” on one scene due to his cryptic script, Godard supposedly screamed “You have a mouth to talk with, don’t you?!” Entire sections of the film were improvised, with Godard having only the vaguest outline of where he was going with it all. In the end, the film’s caustic world view owes much more to the French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline than any hardboiled crime writer; at one point Belmondo’s Ferdinand Griffon (a.k.a. “Pierrot”) even recites from Céline’s London Bridge: Guignol’s Band II.
Apart from the conflicts with Karina, Godard was clearly entering into bold, new political terrain here. If he had reservations in the past about protesting French oppression in colonial Algeria, all such concerns seemed to evaporate with regard to Vietnam. The troop escalation of 1965 cemented his rage against America and their dogged attempts at imposing colonial rule on a nation fighting for unification and independence. The spontaneous “troop performance” sequence with Belmondo and Karina still holds up brilliantly, even more so for it being 1965, several years before mainstream protest started in earnest. I can not think of a single American film from this time period that so ruthlessly lampoons American war culture and its racist stereotypes of Asians. And lest one believe that Godard’s Marxist leanings place him on the side of the Russians, there’s Pierrot’s insightful fable about the Americans and Soviets meeting the man on the moon. Everyone is selling something after all.
Although considered a colossal failure at the time, and not even distributed in the U.S. until 1969, Pierrot le Fou would inspire a generation of underground and indie filmmakers who were drawn to its revolutionary form, its dark humor, and the struggle of its adrift protagonists as they search for some illusory sliver of happiness in an otherwise insane world. Chantal Akerman calls it the determining moment in her artistic life. “I went to see the film because of its intriguing and funny title. When I came out of the theater, I was on my own little cloud. I didn’t try to analyze the how and why of it: I knew I would spend my life making films. Period.”
THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION – Screened: February 6, 2014
“A guy loses his temper on the set and he’s a genius. A woman loses her temper on the set and it’s the wrong time of the month.” — Penelope Spheeris
The 1980s occupies a weird spot on our cultural landscape. Things that seemed important are almost completely forgotten; what seemed irrelevant, now sacrosanct. The generation born at the decade’s tail-end have nostalgic longings for those micro-expressions of identity conveyed so meticulously through analog “mixed tape” culture, where hours were spent picking strong lead-ins and balanced transitions that said something profound (or at least quasi-profound) about your sonic relationship to friends. Although anyone hardly thought about it then, it was a key social function of music that the digital realm has been unable to replicate despite 15 years of trying. Its depersonalized blandness isn’t fooling anyone. At best, my Spotify friends menu becomes a virtual snapshot of the perusal of LP spines in someone’s living room; and at worst, an annoying feature you hunt to kill in the program’s preferences.
Watzek Screens “80s Indie” has selected an admittedly minuscule cross-section of what would, ten years later, explode into the Sundance-fueled indie phenomenon that continues on to the present day. I hesitate to use the term “Indie” for this series, but to be honest, in the 1980s, these movements had no names. You were either mainstream or virtually non-existent, since no journalist cared enough to label you anything; or, if they did, you became a new version with your qualifier attached (e.g. “the black Woody Allen” for Spike Lee.) Around the late 80s, terms like “alternative” and “postmodern” began to gain ground and became shorthand for lazy journalists who knew very little about the music scene but needed a quick, if generalized, descriptor. As for film, it was even worse. The 70s staple of “art house” was typically used but made little sense. If using “underground”, your work often got lumped in with exploitation films and softcore porn. Such was the cultural landscape when young filmmaker Penelope Spheeris shot her gritty landmark documentary on the Los Angeles hardcore/punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization.
It’s safe to say that Spheeris would agree with the old maxim about getting the highest financial return on your least fulfilling work. Many screenwriters, actors, and directors have talked of being rewarded well for their mediocrity (if that mediocrity sells), then using that money to finance risky projects that speak to them in some deeper, more profound sense, a sense divorced from the realities of the entertainment marketplace. By her own admission, today Spheeris would fall into this category, relying on the profits from her huge formulaic Hollywood films to pay for the work she loves doing. But Decline was her fist-feature film, and she did not yet have that luxury. Instead of the porn venture they were hoping for, she convinced a couple of San Fernando Valley producers to take a chance on investing in a documentary about the booming underground hardcore music scene then happening in and around Los Angeles. Although getting them literally no return, it was a fortuitous investment, artistically speaking, as many of these bands would, despite their brief existence and zero mainstream notoriety, later be regarded as the vanguard of the American independent music scene. Although there have been several contemporary documentaries that, to varying degrees, canonize the 80s hardcore movement, Decline stands as a primary cultural document of L.A.’s punk subculture. Some criticism has been leveled at it over the years, not without reason. But Spheeris walks an impressive line between identifying with the scene, respecting its collectivism and revolutionary spirit, while also displaying its dirty laundry, its ignorance, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since its earliest origins in Britain, as part of its fuck-you arsenal, early punks had used Nazi iconography like the Swastika or Iron Cross (first sported by Detroit’s Ron Asheton of the Stooges as a choker) to incense the older generation, and to some extent this trend continued in the U.S., despite some bands’ efforts at mocking or undermining Fascist ideals in their songs. But while the band Black Flag fully got the irony of their Puerto Rican lead singer performing “White Minority,” I’m not so sure some of their fanbase understood the finer points of such satirical moves. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, artist Raymond Pettibon, whose album and flyer art epitomized L.A. hardcore, remarked on the negative aspects of the scene:
“It was more about what you can’t do than what you can do. There were restrictions. Any intellectual curiosity was discouraged. Any humor was discouraged. ‘Don’t learn another chord’… You had to pretend to be a moron, basically. I mean, Sid Vicious was the most important intellectual figure…”
Pettibon’s comments highlight a problem exemplified several times throughout the film. World views of some bands (when loosely expressed) did not correlate with those of the fans, many of whom were coming in from L.A.’s suburbs and carried with them a different set of life experiences. Bands like X and Circle Jerks held more liberal viewpoints, while others that did not make it into the film, like The Minutemen, were pretty much straight Marxists. Other key political bands from California, like San Francisco-based Dead Kennedys, are entirely absent as well. Perhaps part of this is due to Spheeris’s timing. After Ronald Reagan won the Presidency in 1980, the scene grew more outspoken and political as it galvanized around a common foe, especially the D.C. hardcore scene, with bands like Minor Threat. But the D.C. scene was vastly different, just as those of Portland, Boston, and Austin assumed the cultural proclivities of their surrounding parent cultures. As for L.A.’s parent culture, its mythos is a binary narrative, of success or failure, of making it big or not, and its punk scene embraced the pessimistic dystopian flip-side of Hollywood’s fantasy utopia, while avoiding the articulation of any viable alternative.
The scene would not last long, imploding by the mid 80s as hardcore morphed into various sub-movements and the emergence of college radio and the proliferation of zine distribution offered those bored with the mainstream a broad range of diverse sounds from every region of the country. Due to several high-profile cases–particularly, it should be noted, the 1988 “East Side White Pride” beating death of Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw in southeast Portland–hardcore gradually became synonymous with the White Aryan Resistance skinhead movement. Americans didn’t care about the philosophical nuances between the historic leftist working-class “Oi!” skins and the Nazi-fetishizing psychopaths. If you had a shaved head and liked music with so many beats-per-minute, you were a skinhead and dangerous; and that probably killed the scene faster than anything. It would take another ten years and the popular acceptance of “grunge”, when bands like Nirvana cited Black Flag, X, and Portland-based Wipers as key influences on their craft, for hardcore/punk to shed the Aryan white-power associations that it had, in many ways, created by its own carelessness and ignorance.
POLYESTER – Screened: February 20, 2014
Director John Waters in conversation with Mike Kelley, “The Dirty Boys”, Grand Street, No. 57, Summer 1996:
Waters: Do you understand how you have computer sex? I don’t.
Kelley: I know people who do that. You get into these chat groups.
Waters: So, it’s like phone sex, only you type?
Kelley: You can do a lot more pretending; like you can pretend to be the opposite sex, and the other person doesn’t know.
Waters: Phone sex I get. But how do you act butch on a computer? Do you misspell? Do you write in bad English?
Kelley: Yeah, I guess so. “My warge hands, dese hands, they weach out for youse.” I don’t know.
With our nation’s humor now stranded in the doldrums of irony, it is difficult to remember a time when it was not so, when neither cross-dressing nor foot fetishes were part of our popular lexicon. But in 1981, things were very different. It was the year that accidentally-hilarious melodramas like Mommie Dearest and Endless Love raked in millions of dollars and derailed the careers of Faye Dunaway and Brooke Shields, respectively (while both films made inroads into the gay community for reasons wholly unintended). Arthur was the biggest grossing comedy. And John Waters’s film Polyester, well, it didn’t really register, even as it saw Waters shift ever so slightly towards a more mainstream look and feel, a transition that would lead to his breakthrough Hairspray by decade’s end, a film that launched Rikki Lake’s career and, sadly, was Divine’s early exit at just age 42.
Polyester is, of course, best known for its “Odorama” gimmick, where scratch and sniff cards were distributed to filmgoers upon entering the cinema. This was a nod towards the 1950s gimmicks popularized by filmmakers/hucksters like William Castle, whose ridiculous onscreen “Fright Break” timer in the thriller Homicidal Waters remembers fondly:
“Castle simply went nuts. He came up with ‘Coward’s Corner,’ a yellow cardboard booth, manned by a bewildered theater employee in the lobby. When the Fright Break was announced, and you found that you couldn’t take it anymore, you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light. Before you reached Coward’s Corner, you crossed yellow lines with the stenciled message: ‘Cowards Keep Walking.’ You passed a nurse (in a yellow uniform?…I wonder), who would offer a blood-pressure test. All the while a recording was blaring, “‘Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward’s Corner’!” As the audience howled, you had to go through one final indignity – at Coward’s Corner you were forced to sign a yellow card stating, ‘I am a bona fide coward.'”
While “Odorama” wasn’t quite as inspired or elaborate, the viewer saw a number on the screen, scratched the appropriate circle, and received anything from airplane glue to roses to dirty feet to new car smell. Among many vaguely familiar with his work, John Waters is best known for his long association with childhood friend, fellow homosexual and drag queen extraordinaire Divine (a.k.a. Glenn Milstead.) Both grew up in Baltimore and maintained a love/hate relationship with the city, the hate manifesting itself comically in Waters’s great gift for parody and satire. Polyester is first and foremost a brilliant manic send-up of the “women’s picture” genre of the 1950s-60s best exemplified in the works of directors like Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, Magnificent Obsession), films that both Waters and Divine grew up watching, and with which the LGBT community has always held in fascination, reworking the subtext to fit their own world views. Other gay directors, like Ranier Fassbinder, would create contemporary versions of these classics in other languages, like his Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, while directors like Waters projected these melodramatic plots through their own warped filters of suburban Baltimore, where his biggest goal as a rebellious child of Catholicism was to own a porno theater. In a sense, he achieves said goal, as he makes good use of both smut peddlers and Catholic sisters here.
Like all good modernist melodrama from the Sirk period, the lead is a woman, only it’s Divine in drag, who is called Francine Fishpaw, an unhappy alcoholic who fantasizes about escape. In one of the most masterful casting decisions of all time, Waters hired former teen heartthrob (and gay icon) Tab Hunter to play the lustful middle-aged object of Francine’s affection. Tab Hunter, while not officially out at the time, was long rumored to have been homosexual, although the studio’s publicity departments had once worked overtime to connect him romantically to fellow teen stars like Natalie Wood. By 1981, as far as traditional Hollywood was concerned, his career was pretty much dead in the water, and for him to embrace Waters’s vision while mocking his own beefcake status was an inspired and wise career move on his part. But through the course of its 90 minutes, Waters takes aim at everything in this film, from marriage, to abortion, to sexual fetishes, to nuns on hayrides. His cast of non-professionals (and professionals who are hilariously overacting) only lend to its awkward aesthetic of an after-school teen television special gone horribly, well, drunk.
REPO MAN – Screened: March 6, 2014
“Go West, young man, go West. There is health in the country, and room away from our crowds of idlers and imbeciles.” — Horace Greeley, 1833.
“There’s fuckin’ room to move as a fry cook. I could be manager in two years. King. God.” — Zander Schloss in Repo Man.
How Alex Cox, only 29 and fresh from UCLA film school, ever got Repo Man released and distributed by Universal Studios is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps they felt like there was enough spark left in the then-fading punk LA subculture to sustain a shoestring film shot on just $160,000, or at least to break even on such a gamble. It was, of course, the first big leading role for Emilio Estevez, whose Otto was the epitome of directionless, disenfranchised Reaganomics, and the polar opposite of the disappointing “humanistic jock” he became in the following year’s The Breakfast Club. The two films are worth comparing, not because of Estevez’s involvement, but because of how they embody different takes on teen narratives. Hughes could not avoid the maudlin. Characters must succumb to fits of melancholy introspection where they outline the pain and anguish of their young lives, ultimately highlighting the common bonds that draw them together in doing so. Repo Man was a different kind of teen film, showing the dreary, non-glamorous side of Los Angeles and roping in a pending apocalypse, alien subplots sans aliens, and Harry Dean Stanton. It was anarchy. And it sent a clear message to a cadre of young filmmakers, like Richard Linklater, that teary exposition and epiphany is not always the best path for youth in film. Sometimes its better to dish exposition on social mobility options within the fast food industry and leave it at that.
Today, Alex Cox is probably best known for 1986’s Sid & Nancy, the bio-pic on late Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious and his alleged murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungeon, which, like Estevez in Repo Man, would launch Gary Oldman’s Hollywood career. Sid & Nancy, although sparking debates within the underground music scene at the time of its release, has aged quite well; the issues that people had with it–primarily its gross inaccuracies and stereotypes of the London punk scene–are today moot points, as these histories have been documented dozens of times over the ensuing decades, by both participants and scholars. Cox’s films have always been connected, in varying degrees, with music subculture. Repo Man is a particularly striking example. It premiered to critical raves but due to overall public indifference and confusion closed within two weeks. The soundtrack, however, sparked just enough sales and charted just high enough for Universal to reconsider their decision. But it wasn’t the re-release that gave Repo Man its longevity; it was the nascent-but-exploding market of VHS that really circulated the film where it needed to go, that made it passable from friend to friend, either literally or word-of-mouth recommendations. It was one of the first films whose primary success rested on its VHS reputation alone. By the late 1980s, Repo Man would be acknowledged as the best indie film of the decade, its use of irony and pot shots at everything from dying California hippy culture to dead end jobs making it a clear forerunner to later (and lesser) films like Napoleon Dynamite.
BLACK POWER MIXTAPE – Screened: February 3, 2015
Ever since capitalism was forced to shift from slavery to wage exploitation, it has attempted to co-opt and control people of color on a global scale by various means. More often than not, this takes the form of state violence and coercion, and, at least since 1945, the U.S.A. has taken the global lead in this role. Whether targeting domestic radicals at home or indigenous “populists” abroad, who have the audacity to refuse the relinquishing of their material resources for western use, the United States abysmal postwar record is clear. Numbers vary (often because we don’t bother to count), but in Vietnam’s war for independence against western colonialism, it’s now estimated that we murdered around 1,700,000 Vietnamese between 1965 and 1974 (British Medical Journal study, 2008); and that doesn’t take into account the French period back to 1955. Our record in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa from the 1970s until today speaks for itself, and the violence perpetrated among people of color within our own borders has often been called an internal extension of our nation’s external behavior against the southern hemisphere. Throughout social media, the core tenets of white capitalism are now being called on the carpet daily by those it most exploits. The Black Lives Matter movement, like the Black Panther Party before it, is a pivotal moment in the ongoing struggle for social justice in America. They disregard the “rogue cop” fallacy and push issues of police violence further by questioning the processes and the policies. While demanding accountability for the murderers, they go further and point out that these “bad apples” are in fact working as intended, protecting the broader aims of institutionalized capitalism by killing members of a black underclass whose “loosies” somehow challenge the profit margins of U.S. corporations. For this spring’s lineup, Watzek Screens has selected six films covering revolutionary struggle by people of color against capitalist authoritarianism and state violence. Films will cover the Black Panther Party and the FBI’s assassination of BPP members Hampton and Clark, the American Indian Movement’s Wounded Knee occupation at Pine Ridge, and international films on FLN’s fight against the French in Algeria and Vietnam’s war against U.S. dominance. We will end with Arresting Power, the recent documentary on historical police violence against the black community in north Portland.
There really is no single pivotal moment within the Civil Rights movement that led to its ideological diffusion. It was a gradual process throughout the mid-to-late 60s, the culmination of increasing white violence in the face of black non-violence, including the murder of key figureheads MLK and Malcolm X under suspicious circumstances. Although government ties to each have long been debated, hard evidence is lacking, apart from admitted CIA surveillance activities and attempts to actively discredit King with smear tactics. Self-defense, empowerment, and black pride became the new rallying cry for those tired of the absolutism of non-violence.
In the late 1960s, a group of Swedish filmmakers came to the United States to document this nascent black power movement. For whatever reason, the footage they shot ended up unlabeled and forgotten in a Swedish Public Television vault for thirty years, until it was reassembled and released in 2011 as The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75. Its structure is loose by design, allowing large spaces for black activists to speak in their own words, with narration and readings of select texts provided by The Last Poets’ Abiodun Oyewole. A centerpiece is an interview with BPP-member Angela Davis, then imprisoned in California in 1971 on trumped-up, 1st-degree-murder charges for the death of Judge Harold Haley, a charge for which she was later proven not guilty. Like Malcolm X before them, Davis and other Panthers fostered a solidarity between people of color movements worldwide, particularly in Algeria, Angola, and Vietnam. While placing their own struggles squarely within the context of capitalist exploitation of black Americans, they nevertheless made broader connections with fellow victims of imperialism abroad by supporting, however possible, subaltern societies of the global South who had zero voice (at least in the North) and who were suffering horribly under carpet bombing and chemical defoliation.
Mixtape shows the players speaking for themselves in both text and image. Next week’s The Murder of Fred Hampton will get at the heart of the matter, at what can happen to a motivated, charismatic revolutionary of color who works to galvanize an impoverished urban black community around issues of social justice, white violence, and capitalism.
THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON – Screened: February 15, 2015
Last week’s screening Black Power Mixtape provided an overview of some key players in the black power movement. This week, we will look specifically at the murder of two black activists by the State and the coordinated collusion between the FBI and the Chicago Police Dept. to eradicate the Chicago arm of the Black Panther Party through terror and violence.
On the night of March 8 1971, a handful of activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the federal offices in Pennsylvania and raided file cabinets. The stolen documents they obtained confirmed earlier suspicions of how far the FBI was willing to go to infiltrate and destroy domestic organizations dedicated to issues of human rights and social justice. The FBI’s program went by the name COINTELPRO (for Counter Intelligence Program), and its main target was the Black Panther Party, which it deemed a terrorist organization and a threat to national security due to its calls for black empowerment and especially its anti-capitalism. The FBI used false communications, agent provocateurs, and, with the aid of local law enforcement, assassination to splinter and destroy the organization.
The Chicago chairman of the BPP was Fred Hampton, a charismatic leader whose first arrest in 1968 was for stealing $71 in ice cream and delivering it to children in the neighborhood. Above all, Hampton was a brilliant networker and speaker, a builder of bridges between groups with like social agendas, however tangential. Even among South Side’s apolitical gangs, he worked hard to push the Party’s message of empowerment and community control and actively sought their solidarity and support. Like the BPP more broadly, he saw Socialism as the only answer for working black people in America and championed international unity among oppressed people of color, promising solidarity with any group, black or white, that would align themselves with the BPP’s ideals of transnational liberation for all suffering under capitalism and colonialism.
The FBI decided Fred Hampton had to go. The State would not tolerate a supreme teacher in the mold of OAAU-era Malcolm X, delivering radical messages of global outreach and p.o.c. unity that transcend religious divides. Through a manipulative quid pro quo, they pressured a 19-year-old black man earlier arrested for car theft to act as an informant; William O’Neal gained access to the BPP’s brownstone headquarters and, even more effectively, became head of security and Hampton’s bodyguard. He provided floorplans of the apartment and flagged the location of Hampton’s bedroom.
On December 4, 1969, at 4:30 am, there was a knock on the door of the BPP apartment. Mark Clark, on security watch and armed, walked to the door and asked, without opening, who it was. “It’s Tommy,” a voice said. “Tommy who?” Clark asked. “Tommy gun” came the prearranged cue. Through the door, Mark Clark was shot in the heart and died instantly. As he body convulsed, he pulled the trigger of the gun he was holding as the Chicago Police fired 90 rounds into the apartment. Fred Hampton, who had been drugged earlier by informant O’Neal and possibly never regained consciousness, was badly injured on the mattress in his bedroom; a later autopsy showed that he was killed from two shots fired into his skull at close range, finished off by the cops once inside, who were overheard saying “He’s good and dead now.” With their main target dead, they continued to fire into the other rooms, later charging all of those shot and injured with attempted murder, including Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s 8-mo-pregnant fiancee.
Despite the falsified ballistics tests, Mark Clark’s reflex shot was the only bullet fired by the BPP. Hence, there was no “wild firefight” as reported by the Chicago Police, who quickly held press conferences to laud the great achievements of their officers and proclaim the community safe from the militancy of the Panthers and their dangerous breakfast program for children. Within hours of the assault, the Panthers called in the film crew who had been filming Hampton’s speaking engagements. This team began to make a documentary quite unlike the one they started out to shoot. Their footage, which contradicted accounts given by the CPD and FBI, would further open up massive holes and inconsistencies in the State’s official version of events. Crucially, the Panthers also opened up the crime scene to the public, and over 25,000 Chicagoans filed through to see the blood-stained execution space for themselves, to see the nails in the wall the CPD attempted to falsify as bullet slugs fired from BPP guns. The Chicago Tribune, initially supportive of the police’s version of events, changed their coverage when the amount of contradictory evidence became clear, and their reporting added to the damning documentation already gathered by the BPP and the photographic evidence taken by the filmmakers.
The civil case would drag on until 1982, as the FBI and CPD worked hard to stall the proceedings of the Hampton and Clark families. Two FBI documents obtained in that 1971 classified file theft, including O’Neal’s map of the apartment, revealed his role, and the feds involvement and attempted cover up. In the end, “justice” (if one could call it that) prevailed in the form of a monetary settlement of 2 million. None of the police officers, nor Cook County/State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, and obviously none of the FBI agents, were ever indicted in the murders. The ensuing public scandal did cut short Hanrahan’s political ambitions and facilitated increased black activism within the city, but the Chicago BPP never fully recovered from the blow. It says volumes about America’s political class and the mainstream media’s subservience to it that Watergate became the historic benchmark for the abuse of State power and not COINTELPRO. It seems the state-sanctioned murder of leftist minorities always takes a backseat to hotel break-ins and tape recordings if the political elite are the ones being wiretapped.
I would never say that Fred Hampton is currently in the national spotlight because he is a revolutionary person of color buried and obscured by the white power structures of our nation, his execution a footnote at best within our so-called institutions of higher learning. But the number of times I have seen this documentary and this case mentioned over social media in the past 12 months is more than I have seen in the past 20+ years combined. A new generation of people of color are keeping Hampton’s memory and message alive, screening this documentary in communities, engaging in important conversations, and exposing the continuum of white supremacy and violence that is still a hallmark of American capitalism.
INCIDENT AT OGLALA – Screened: February 22, 2015
“We’re trying to regain what we had in the past, being human beings and being involved in human society.” – Stan Holder, Wichita AIM leader
During the height of its power and influence, the Black Panther Party was an important symbol to other oppressed people of color, both at home and abroad. Among these was AIM, the American Indian Movement, a group of radical Native American activists who drew inspiration from the BPP’s program of zero tolerance for America’s authoritarian power structures. Like the BPP, AIM had no shortage of historical grievances to add to its agenda. One of their earliest actions, in 1972, was partnering with other indigenous rights groups from the U.S. and Canada to trek cross-country, from California to Washington, D.C., in the Trail of Broken Treaties. Once there, Nixon refused to meet with them or acknowledge their lengthy list of demands but the protest established AIM as an important new grassroots movement and caught the FBI’s attention. It’s widely believed that the FBI did not discontinue their counterintelligence program following the outing of their murder of BPP leader Fred Hampton in Chicago. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support the contention, made by Russell Means, Dennis Banks, Ward Churchill, and others in AIM, that the FBI ran the exact same counterintelligence program of informants, disinformation, and “bad jacketing”against the American Indian Movement, tactics employed with such effectiveness against the Black Panther Party in the years prior.
Corruption on reservations was first and foremost on AIM’s agenda. In the lead-up to the most famous AIM occupation, they accused the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of inciting violence and fostering an atmosphere of intimidation and fear on the Pine Ridge reservation as a means of social control, further asserting that this was all done in collusion with the FBI, whose agenda was the splintering and eradication of all radical minority organizations. There was a failed procedural attempt at removing the corrupt head of the BIA, Dick Wilson, who was believed to be responsible for many murders and mysterious disappearances at Pine Ridge, with the help of his security forces. Just like with the BPP takedown by the Chicago police, the BIA–specifically Dick Wilson and his self-proclaimed GOONs (“Guardians of the Oglala Nation”)–became the triggermen for the FBI, working to undermine and destroy efforts of indigenous independence and solidarity.
Things came to a head on February 27, 1973 with the famous Wounded Knee occupation.
Incident at Oglala was the first (and only) mainstream documentary dealing with Native American radicalism in the 1970s. Its scope is focused primarily on the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation and the subsequent case of AIM-member Leonard Peltier and his alleged (and highly contested) involvement in the murder of two FBI agents injured and then killed execution-style in a firefight on Pine Ridge, a case for which he is still serving a life sentence in Canada.
HEARTS AND MINDS – Screened: March 7, 2015
“For twelve centuries we fought against China. For 100 years we fought the French. Then came the American invasion–500,000 of them–and it became a war of genocide.” — Father Chan Tin
“The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is cheap in the Orient.” — General William Westmoreland
Throughout the late 70s-80s, Vietnam became the focal point for a broad range of American films, some dealing with combat (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War), some with aftermath (Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Born On the Fourth of July), others using it as a setting for adaptations (Apocalypse Now as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Then there was the deluge of POW films from 1983-86, with even Gene Hackman (Uncommon Valor) getting on the solider-of-fortune vigilante bandwagon. Within Reagan’s creepy and bankrupt culture of nationalism, the Vietnam “Prisoner of War” movement went into overdrive, fueled by a fervent anti-Communism permeating the mass media of 1984, the year of Reagan’s re-election. Newt Heisley’s flag image, created in the early 1970s, was suddenly plastered everywhere. In the midst of this, and perhaps as a reaction against it, new documentary forms were taking shape. These new filmmakers were social activists and balked at the notion of a so-called “balance” that they were constantly being accused of lacking. The first was Rafferty-Loader’s Atomic Cafe in 1982, an examination of Cold War hysteria told through an incredible collage of newsreels, educational films, and other “duck and cover” pop culture. The second was Michael Moore’s Roger & Me in 1989, his swan song to Ford and Flint. But both owe much to an earlier, lesser-known 1974 film that Moore has called “not only the best documentary I have ever seen, but maybe the best movie ever.” That film is Peter Davis’s Hearts & Minds.
The impact of the Vietnam War on U.S. policy is well known: it made conscription unsustainable, drafted soldiers being too much of a liability both on the battlefield and once returned home. Reagan’s administration realized indigenous mercenaries like the Contras could be financed, armed, and trained to terrorize their own pro-democratic activists without working-class American youth getting their hands dirty. Until the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, things went totally underground for the better part of a decade, public reaction to Vietnam being a prime reason for this shift in intervention. But until coming across Hearts & Minds, I had never seen Vietnamese villagers speaking passionately about what this war wasn’t (a fight against Communism) and was (the apex of an ongoing Western colonial war of genocide against a people fighting for independence and national unification.) Nor had I heard the view articulated so well by former-Sgt. William Marshall, who lost an arm and a leg and was furious for what his country had drafted him to do in the name of nothing. In many ways, it reminds me of Studs Terkel’s book “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II, which serves as a compendium of human experiences across the board, the quotations around “good war” intentionally ironic. In the same vein, Hearts & Minds could be nested in the same, this being the warm-and-cuddly Lyndon Johnson phrase used to discuss what needed to be done for victory: to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people (which “people” is subject to debate).
The film, shot just as the war was winding down, is a fast-paced compilation of interviews without narration. This was a very rare approach for a documentary on war. Newsreel style was still the norm; think the BBC’s World at War series and Laurence Olivier’s refined narration. By contrast, Hearts & Minds was honest and matter-of-fact, attempting to soften the conflict for no one. It reminds the viewer that war is also about human remembrances and raw emotional experience, not large tactical arrows outlining which division went where and why. The participants run the gamut to policy makers to people on the street, both in America and Vietnam. Infamous “hawks” like Kennedy-aide Walt Rostow openly belittle and insult Davis when he asks for an honest accounting of the conflict’s origins, saying that rehashing that is “pretty goddamn pedestrian stuff at this stage of the game.” He is but one of several who openly assume that their version of the war is the only one in existence, the only one that matters, the only one scholars need concern themselves with for the historical record. Luckily, there are interviews with Daniel Ellsberg (leaker of the Pentagon Papers), Barton Osborn (CIA agent who quit and blew the whistle on covert operations), and a host of others who tossed their bureaucratic careers aside to speak out against the injustice they’d helped to sustain in some way. Alongside these are the stories of two U.S. servicemen: Randy Floyd, an air force pilot who flew 98 bombing missions; and Lt. George Coker, a returning POW who had just spent the majority of the war in captivity. Through great editing, their own perspectives unfold gradually, scene by scene, as do those of dozens of others, like Detroit-born William Marshall, and peace-activist Bobby Muller, who would go on to found the Vietnam Veterans of America.
Most intense are the scenes with the Vietnamese, all of whom spoke up despite very real dangers for doing so (the war was still going on during early filming.) There are the victims: the coffin maker, who looks over his shoulder while speaking; the two sisters, whose prolonged silence and sadness at the end of the scene pushes an intensity onto the viewer which is almost unbearable; the Catholic and the Buddhist, both aligned in their views on the Vietnamese struggle for independence; the angry, grieving father who demands an explanation of what he had ever done to Nixon for him to come there and murder his family; the man who says to a friend, after looking at the camera, “Look, they’re focusing on us now. First they bomb as much as they please, then they film.” Then, there is the lavish country club banquet of the South Vietnamese capitalist class, the recipients of the billions in American foreign aid pouring in, one of which makes the incredible admission that “We saw that peace was coming, whether we liked it or not.” The comment is astounding, delivered without a pause, and really says it all. U.S. corporations can be seen encroaching throughout Saigon: Sprite trucks, Coca-Cola plants, toothpaste billboards with smiling Western women, even the ridiculously out of place Bank of America. Eerily, CBS logos, intended to be a “ubiquitous eye that is watching all”, are ordered left on the bodies of Vietcong corpses by soldiers in the field as an ominous calling card.
In the end, what is so relevant and sad about Hearts & Minds today is the fact that little has changed. The fabrications for foreign invasion by American policy makers continues. Consecutive administrations still lie to keep up some modicum of popular support. The jingoistic hysteria following 9/11 was nothing new, nor was the xenophobic nationalism that accompanied it. Even General Westmoreland’s racist quote has now been uttered in a thousand variations over the past ten years, just replace “Oriental” with “Muslim.” But perhaps most telling are the prescient closing words of ex-bomber pilot and activist Randy Floyd when asked what was learned from it all: “Nothing. The military doesn’t realize that people fighting for their freedom are not going to be stopped by changing your tactics, by adding more sophisticated knowledge. Americans have worked extremely hard not to see the criminality that their officials and their power makers have exhibited.”
ARRESTING POWER – Screened: March 14, 2015
Portland might be at the forefront of progressive composting, but in terms of racism and police violence against people of color, it is no different than any other urban center in America. The incredible documentary Arresting Power begins with an excruciating play-by-play of the 911 calls leading up to the murder of Aaron Campbell, who, feared suicidal by his family after the death of his brother, was shot and killed as he attempted to defend himself from a police dog attack. It is only the beginning of a long string of examples, some discussed in depth (Kendra Jade, Rickie Johnson, Tony Stevenson, Keaton Otis), others noted in passing between sections, but all where police killed and attempted to justify the use of their excessive violence. As Walidah Imarisha has explored in her examination of Oregon’s racist beginnings, the state was founded as a white refuge and has a long history of exploiting minorities for labor, while not allowing them to settle permanently. The notorious Lash Law was technically on the books until 2001. In the 1920s, Oregon also had the highest per capita membership of the KKK in the nation (approximately 14,000).
In the wake of systemic police violence in Albina, a group of black activists in north Portland founded the NCCF, the National Committee to Combat Fascism, in 1967. Members of this organization (Kent Ford, Percy Hampton) went on to spearhead the Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party. Like the Oakland and Chicago chapters of the BPP, they emphasized community empowerment, self-sufficiency, and public safety within the black community, starting breakfast programs at Highland Community Church and a free health clinic on North Russell, named after Chicago BPP chairman Fred Hampton. The historical incidences described are beyond belief, but the unjustified killings all follow typical patterns of police violence: claims of non-existent weapons, fleeing black “suspects” defined as “threats”, racial profiling and the absolute debasement and lack of concern among white people in authority for black people’s lives. Great sets of interviews with Joann Hardesty (Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice & Police Reform) and non-violent protesters attacked and arrested by police during marches for Kendra Jade in 2003 reflect a culture of intimidation and violence used to squelch public dissent.
The directors–Jodi Darby, Julie Perini, Erin Yanke–scratch 16mm film at the sites of the killings just as graphite rubbings are made from gravestones. These segments are used as segues, with names of the victims shown on screen. It is an unsettling and effective method of respectfully acknowledging a list of names so abhorrently long that no single documentary could adequately cover each story and give redress to the social injustices reflected in each. The fact that filmmakers would have to pick and choose from such a long list of “justified” killings is telling and only reinforces the fact that Portland is more concerned with fulfilling the state’s historical dreams of white capitalist enclave and gentrified hi-tech playground than investing in our increasingly displaced and struggling communities of color.
DRUGSTORE COWBOY WORKPRINT – Screened: October 18, 2018
“It wasn’t me, pal, I ain’t hit no poison shops in years!” – Matt Dillon as Bob, Drugstore Cowboy: Workprint
No film ever shot in Portland has come to personify the city like Gus Van Sant’s 1989 breakthrough feature Drugstore Cowboy. In fact, it holds such a place of prominence that the impatient are already gearing up this month to celebrate its 30th anniversary based on production instead of release date, with screenings, walking tours of locations, etc. The only local screenings scheduled so far are for the normal 101-minute version. Van Sant seems to have little interest in re-visiting other cuts of the film, which is understandable. Editors exist for a reason. Anyone who has ever had to sit through an awful “restored” director’s cut understands this. Most works are harmed more than they are helped. In interviews, the sole editorial point of conflict mentioned by Van Sant was his unwillingness to cut William S. Burroughs from the film, as requested by the studio. There were also several moments in his commentary for the 1999 DVD release, done with Matt Dillon, in which he questioned the necessity of a few edits or changes to the shooting script. But overall, he sounded content with his first big-budget Hollywood experience and did not come across as having compromised his ideas for the sake of money.
While the original is fine, an alternate videocassette version does exist. Its provenance is sketchy. I’ve had it since 1993ish but there’s no record of its existence online that I can find. It was likely a “workprint” VHS transfer of an early proposed cut, intended for editing. Or maybe it was a rejected alternate version submitted to the studio for review. Whatever its function, it adds around 20 minutes to the film’s running time, while also eliminating or using alternate takes for some scenes that were included in the final Avenue Pictures release. (I’ll try and call them Avenue and Workprint to keep it straight). Calling this Van Sant’s cut would be presumptuous, since I don’t know him and have no idea how he feels about the removed content. That being said, the Workprint does feel a lot more like Mala Noche–his previous feature, also shot in Portland–and makes for a grittier experience, with no special effects, no jazz score, no drug paraphernalia optics, not even credits. Appropriately, the grainy print takes on the aesthetic characteristics of a 16mm afterschool TV parable about the black hole of addiction.
Before I get into specific differences, a bit of background on the source material. James Fogle was an infamous Pacific-Northwest drug addict and pharmacy thief, and the shooting script was based on an unpublished manuscript of his, which was picked up by Delta only after the film’s success, in 1990. The book is loaded with dialogue, with some passages ridiculously long, stilted, and unnatural sounding. Van Sant and Dillon, in the original DVD commentary, discuss the copious amounts of colorful text written by Fogle and the attempts at condensing that into script form, while retaining some of his key phrases, like “poison shops,” “dope fiends,” and “T.V. babies.” I did a quick analysis, and all of the removed major scenes–and most of the dialogue therein–are present in Fogle’s novel. With the Workprint just passing the two hour mark, in an era when films were rarely over 90 minutes, the cutting of entire sequences was likely to tighten the pace. The same can’t be said for the inclusion of alternate takes and the differences in tone created by those. It seems that at some stage in the editing process, Drugstore Cowboy began to drift from Van Sant’s darkly comedic intent. These nuances can be subtle and hard to spot; for example, a line delivered by Matt Dillon in Workprint will be hilariously paranoid, while the Avenue cut would utilize an alternate take of the same scene, but with Dillon conveying anger or hostility. Overall, there is an increased 1st-person viewpoint for the Avenue cut, while the Workprint includes more scenes for which Bob’s character would not be present, such as conversations between pharmacists and supporting characters.
Second, there’s the music. Since the videotape lacks credits, for years I struggled to find out what the songs were, and there is still one Hawaiian slack-key guitar piece that I can’t figure out. It’s unclear why some of the Workprint songs were removed from the Avenue cut. Perhaps licensing issues, or maybe they were always intended as placeholders for Elliot Goldenthal’s dissonant jazz cues, which comprised half of the original soundtrack. One sequence in particular deserves mention. It occurs halfway through the police’s duplex raid, as Detective Gentry and the cops hunt for the hidden dope stash. Instead of Bob answering Gentry’s question “What’s it gonna be?”–as in, “Will you give us the drugs or will we trash your place?”–there is a pause. Instead of an answer, Elis Regina’s voice drops in from nowhere with the opening line of “Águas de Março”, and her duet with Tom Jobim then continues over a montage of furniture demolition, the knifing of sofas, the emptying of cereal boxes; there is a brief exterior shot of the shadows of axes coming down in the duplex windows, then a slow pan up a landscape of leftover debris: Coca-Cola bottles, Fidel Castro’s photo, furniture legs, insulation. In the Avenue cut, there is just a fade to black after Gentry’s question and a truncated debris shot, without music, ending with the cast sitting covered in blankets for reasons that are vague (since the preceding scene of cops shredding their clothing was removed.) Approaches like this epitomize the differences between the two versions. Maybe it was Hollywood, with one eye on the editing clock. Just as they wanted Burroughs removed, perhaps they trimmed all bits tangential to the storyline. But the “Águas de Março” sequence in Workprint is really exceptional and the film lacks without it. Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” is still present but less prominent, being used as source music in the apartment’s interior, not an incidental cue.
Apart from music, there are several great added sequences from the novel. Diane’s sister comes by to bring clothes and belittle Bob, which explains their ill-fitting clothes in the Avenue cut. In two other missing scenes, Diane attempts to score drugs from a doctor, and Diane and Rick talk out a plan to continue stealing following Bob’s departure to rehab. Of the alternate takes, the one at the rehab clinic when Bob is being asked questions by the social worker (brilliantly played by Beah Richards) is altogether different, with a slow French New Wave-ish back-and-forth pan as he answers her questions. Another vastly improved sequence is when Nadine asks if the crew can get a dog, thus starting the hex spiral. Canned dramatic music is inserted here. “It’s over. We ain’t going to the coast. We ain’t going anywhere,” Bob mutters behind horns, strings, and crashing percussion that sounds like it’s ripped from a 70s TV crime procedural. It’s clear that many funny elements did not survive. Odd lines from the novel that are admiringly goofy in Workprint (“Hot dawg!” is a keeper) are gone from Avenue. It seems that at some point in the editing, the decision was made to emphasize Bob’s patriarchal toughness and redemption at the expense of junky weirdness and paranoid melodrama.
This shaky redemption is conveyed through the bookending device that begins and ends the original film. From the outset, in the ambulance, we hear Bob’s half-dead, mellowed-out opinions about everyone on his crew as we watch their home-movies running through his brain. We are not allowed to be introduced to the characters through their actions. We must first hear Bob’s impressions of them and how he has come to define their identities, assigning him an omnipotent God-like quality from the beginning. Conversely, the linear Workprint cut starts in a more egalitarian manner, loud and fast with aerial car shots of the crew en route to the “epilepsy routine”, using an anachronistic Skinny Puppy song that is very far in tone from Abbey Lincoln’s “For All We Know.” It ends cold-stop, in the ambulance, with the head-shot of Dillon said to be modeled on Warhol’s short film Blowjob. Unlike with the Avenue cut, there’s no rehash of the home-movie at the film’s credits, over a replay of “Israelites”, a sequence which always felt to me like a tired Hollywood trope, the equivalent of a blooper reel designed to uplift any audience members who may have become depressed after hours of addicts. Interestingly, according to Dillon and Van Sant, the handheld home-movie sequence was shot by the cast post-production and was designed to be used for promotional purposes. (A photo from that day, taken against the famous Lovejoy columns, became the main image on the one-sheet poster). Which begs the question: if this was done post-production and intended for advertising, why was it then edited into the final film? In Workprint, there is no nostalgia, no redemption, no resolution. The end is abrupt and arbitrary. In the book, Bob is dead-on-arrival. The TV Babies win. The hat hex is complete.
NOTE: Workprint version is not available in Watzek’s circulating collection. Screening restricted to Lewis & Clark College community.
BY THE LAW – Screened: November 15, 2018
“The theme of the picture By The Law is alien to our viewer in script and essence. Considering the instances of pathology and hysteria [in the film], it is a sick phenomenon in our cinematography which harmfully affects our Soviet screen.” — A.R.K. (Association of Revolutionary Cinematography), 1926.
“We may be accused of being morbid or misanthropic, but please do not forget that our film is about the modern English middle class–surely the most inhuman of all.” — Lev Kuleshov, 1926.
It is strange when a 92-year-old Soviet film can say so much about the contemporary world. Class violence, retribution, environmental chaos–all are active ingredients in Lev Kuleshov’s “constructivist Western” By The Law (Po Zakonu). Viewing it today, from what some geologists are calling the Great Acceleration period of the Anthropocene, is like peeking into a creepy apocalyptic window of past and future. Like Marx, the Soviets believed that capitalism would destroy humanity; and lo and behold, here we are, on the way to our own Easter-Island party, with investors buying up escape-pod properties in New Zealand to ensure that this model survives for their entrepreneurial offspring, who will presumably sell shares in the Norwegian Seed Vault. /communist_rant
The coming of Russian film coincided with the creation of the U.S.S.R., the world’s first modern worker state. It provided the opportunity for a clean break from the literature and drama of the 19th-century, both of which the Soviet intellectuals rejected as bourgeois tools of domination controlled by the aristocracy. With 80% of the Russian population illiterate, it was believed that this new visual medium would usher in a transformative era of avant-garde modernity, offering a conduit through which the nascent nation could educate and galvanize the people. Like rail lines and power grids, film would connect the disparate corners of the Soviet together. It would create social cohesion between ethnic groups and help authorities overcome the huge communication hurdles of time and space.
But things got weird. The period of genuine openness and experimentation was over fast and in steep decline after Lenin’s death. Anything avant-garde suddenly became elite, epicurean and subject to suspicion. Film plots were required to be both entertaining (without being “too American”) and reflect deeper socialist worldviews, a concept called Socialist Realism. Many in the industry, particularly directors, screenwriters, and cinematographers, struggled between these two worlds. Their continued employment and access to funding meant keeping the cultural commissars satisfied with works that met this criteria. As if it wasn’t hard enough making wheat quota subplots stimulating, the films should also be exportable abroad and appeal to international audiences.
It was within this confused climate that the Kuleshov Collective, a close-knit group of actors and technicians started by director Lev Kuleshov, set to work on a new project in 1926. (Kuleshov pioneered several techniques of early film montage theory that today would be taken for granted; one is called the Kuleshov Effect, which asserted that one shot placed beside a second can alter a human’s emotional interpretation.) The Collective’s biggest success thus far had been in 1924, with the brilliant satirical comedy The Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, which lampooned both American and Soviet stereotypes equally. But the group was now on shaky ground after its disastrous follow-up, when a long and confusing sci-fi film called The Death Ray was thoroughly hated by everyone. Kuleshov knew that the collective’s next project had to come in on the cheap and be a hit. While it would have been easy to fall back on the safety of West’s comedic formula, he happened across a gloomy story by American socialist writer Jack London called “The Unexpected” and decided to adapt it with screenwriter Victor Shklovsky. Finishing the script in 12 hours, they started scouting locations outside Moscow that could serve as the Yukon. They spotted the “huge and forlorn” pine tree first, near the Tsaritsino ponds. Then the Collective built a small shack on the banks of the icy Moskva River. The majority of the film would be just three actors inside this claustrophobic interior. It would be the cheapest Russian production of all time.
Ultimately, it’s the performances of Aleksandra Khokhlova (as Edith) and Vladimir Fogel (as Dennin) that make By The Law so exceptional. Aleksandra Khokhlova was Kuleshov’s spouse and creative partner. Like the others in the Collective, she had starred in most of his previous films; but unlike the men, she was mercilessly mocked and insulted by critics for her angular looks and skinniness. Lev Kuleshov hit back, saying “The commercial pursuit of beauties and names is none other than hidden pornography or psycho-pathology for which there is absolutely no place in Soviet cinematography.” The best English write-up of the film belongs to American poet Hilda Doolittle, better known as “H.D.”, in the 1928 issue of the film journal Close-Up. Watching the German version Söhne in a Switzerland theater, she described Khokhlova’s performance:
The gestures of this woman are angular, bird-like, claw-like, skeleton-like and hideous. She has a way of standing against a sky line that makes a hieroglyph, that spells almost visibly some message of cryptic symbolism. Her gestures are magnificent. If this is Russian, then I am Russian. Beauty is too facile a word to describe this; this woman is a sort of bleak young sorceress…Her face can be termed beautiful in the same way that dawn can be termed beautiful rising across stench and fever of battle…This sort of raw picked beauty must of necessity destroy the wax and candy-box “realism” of the so much so-called film art. It must destroy in fact so much that perhaps it does “go”, as one of our party said, “too far”.
This notion of “too far”-ness echoes a similar comment made by Cinema Front critic Viktor Pertsov, as noted by scholar Denise Youngblood in her Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era 1918-1935. Pertsov criticized Kuleshov for not guiding the viewer to moral judgment or providing a social key with which to decode the film, which he described as “hermetically sealed.” While meant negatively, today this hermetic sealing is precisely what makes this movie so radically accessible to new viewers. Unlike other Russian films from the period, it ties itself to no historical event or revolutionary act but merely works its way through its own myopic microcosm of greed and madness, close-up by close-up, breakdown by breakdown.
Kuleshov was known for making dangerous physical demands on his actors, although the confined interior of By The Law theoretically made for safer working conditions. The shoot was carefully timed to overlap with a spring thaw and flood event. Actors would freeze, be submerged, and have off-screen airplane propellers blow snow and sleet into their faces. Kuleshov described the expereince in Fifty Years In Films:
Spring came, the ice on the river broke. We went on shooting, but suddenly it became apparent that we were having quite an unusual flood: the river water was inundating the cabin, its level steadily rising. The wet cables produced electric shocks whenever one inadvertently touched them, but Khokhlova affirmed that “electricity made her feel more intensely”. While a close shot was being made, Fogel lay bound on ice in the fire-hose rain and airplane wind for two and a half hours. (p.228-229)
Vladimir Fogel was better known for his comedic roles in hit films like Chess Fever, where his neurotic performance shows his gift for physical comedy. But today, it is his portrayal of the exploited and embittered Irishman in By The Law that stands as his highest achievement. Kuleshov wanted extreme states of being from the faces of his actors. This is why the Collective practiced incessantly using still photographs and études, trying to move beyond the cliched facial expressions so common to the stage. Truly extreme states of being, they believed, could never be attained through psychological immersion. In that sense, they rejected theater theorist Stanislavski’s approach as a mere dressing-up of canned Victorian melodrama. Actors were mechanical beings subject to the laws of science. Ana Olenina summarizes this well in her article “Engineering Performance: Lev Kuleshov, Soviet Reflexology, and Labor Efficiency Studies”:
Kuleshov’s explorations were driven by his conviction that the performer must exploit the abilities of his or her body to the maximum extent and create corporeal spectacles that would strike the audience with their unusualness, dynamism, and perfection in every detail. Thus, the acting études and films created by Kuleshov’s troupe in the 1920s were marked by a clear tendency on the one hand, toward tragicomic grotesque and buffoonery, and on the other hand, toward extreme physical performances (p.300).
Although the end product was criticized for its “Americanism,” it was a big enough hit to prove the end of the Kuleshov Collective, as Fogel and others departed for the stable paychecks offered by the larger Soviet film factories. Fogel would soon play the proletariat couchsurfing homewrecker in Bed & Sofa, followed by The House on Trubnaya. Tragically, he killed himself in 1929, although likely not for the reasons stated by Kuleshov in his memoirs (because of “uninteresting work”). On the other hand, his suicide did coincide with the coming of sound film, a difficult time for all actors but especially international ones. Aleksandra Khokhlova, failing to meet Soviet beauty standards, could only get work in Kuleshov projects. Soon, she would turn to directing films herself, including an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s An Affair of the Clasps (1929), Sasha (1930), and a documentary called Toys (1931).
In closing, the score of this particular DVD restoration deserves mention. The majority of silent films have no remaining soundtrack notes with regard to what should be played during a screening. This is true for By The Law. Most restorations go the safe route and commission a solo piano score, or something orchestral from the time period that fits. Luckily, the Austrian Film Museum decided something different was needed and went with electronic composer Franz Reisecker, who had previously worked on a score for Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin restoration. His dissonant and fractured tones work brilliantly alongside Kuleshov’s images. “I was fascinated with actress Aleksandra Khokhlova, because of her very particular expressive style, and then with the montage and Kuleshov’s highly artificial visual language,” Reisecker said in an interview. “It reminded me of Spaghetti Westerns. I went back to Ennio Morricone’s music for Sergio Leone’s films and developed some sounds based on the bell motif. Then there is a sequence that almost has the character of a dance track when they find gold…and despite the groove there is a hint of threat in the sound.”
THE VIET BROTHERS – Screened: February 21, 2019
“I have taken my most prodigious and acrid fears, madness and loneliness, determined their locus in both my real and imagined history, and fashioned out of them a story that is kaleidoscopically reflective in form and content.” – Vu N Pham
For our spring semester event, Watzek Screens is excited to have the opportunity to collaborate with local Portland filmmaker Vu Pham. On Thursday, February 21st, at 7:00pm, he will be present on campus (Miller Building, Room 105) and screening several short films, which collectively comprise a series called The Viet Brothers. They are: Spec for Sway of the Knife, My Brother, Baby Ipecac, and The Cutting Shadow. In addition, he will also be previewing a “mood reel” from a film entitled The Horizon Is A Scar, My Love. Q&A with Vu Pham following the films! Many thanks to Azen Jaffe, Kamala Woods, Brendan Nagle, Justin Counts, John Bergstrom, and Vu Pham for their assistance in coordinating this special event. This screening is FREE and open to the public. Directional signage will be present on campus for those driving in. Please come and join us for a slice of the strange and sublime!
WHERE: Lewis & Clark Campus, Miller 105, 0615 SW Palatine Hill Road
WHEN: February 21, Thursday, 7:00pm
Vu Pham is a Portland based writer, director, producer, and actor. He is a refugee from Vietnam whose work has been significantly influenced by personal and historical trauma, existential philosophy, and transitory life on the fringes. He has won grants from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, been showcased by the NW Film Center and the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, and was recently shortlisted for the Sundance Institute’s Asian American Feature Film Fellowship. His work and his story have been featured by OPB, The Oregonian, the Willamette Week, and DiaCritics. His films have played in such festivals as the Portland International Film Festival, San Diego Asian Film Festival, and Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. As an actor he has had the honor of working with actors Harrison Ford, Brendan Frasier, Jonathan Groff, and Cori Stoll. Vu considers the followings acts to be an accurate summation of his existence: sleeping, dreaming, building towards his ideals, destroying that which was built, and rebuilding.
STROSZEK – Screened: October 17, 2019
“It goes in circles.” – Bruno S.
“It is not something that is low class. It is a big thing and you can move it anywhere. For postwar Germans, the mobile home was almost a dream home.” – Werner Herzog
The script for Stroszek was drafted almost on a whim in just four days, a guilt-driven vehicle written specifically for street-musician-turned-actor Bruno S. after Herzog promised the lead in Woyzeck to his longtime collaborator Klaus Kinski. Bruno had previously starred as the lead in Herzog’s Every Man For Himself And God Against All, a semi-fictionalized biopic on the life of Kasper Hauser, in 1974. Stroszek would be Bruno’s own biopic of sorts. Indeed, it is hard to separate the background of Bruno Schleinstein from the backstory of Bruno Stroszek. According to Herzog, Bruno was abused so severely by his mother that he initially lost the capacity to speak at age 3. Abandoned by her, he spent the next 23 years of his life in a cycle of institutions, constantly escaping and being recaptured, each confinement more punitive and horrific than the last; quite literally, mental health care administered by Nazis. Herzog first spotted him in a 1970 documentary on West German television on marginalized peoples, Bruno der Schwarze – Es blies ein Jäger wohl in sein Horn. For money, he drove a forklift at a steel factory. For play, he sang 18th/19th-century songs in public spaces accompanied by his accordion, xylophone, and bells. (The use of “S.” instead of “Schleinstein” derives from a common German newspaper practice of identifying juvenile delinquents by only their first letter to maintain anonymity; his ongoing use of it in adulthood might signify the importance of past traumas in shaping who he was.)
Many viewers in the United States probably saw Stroszek as a German’s cynical darkly-negative view of working-class America, mocking its truck stops and trailer parks. But contemporary paratexts for the film, especially Herzog’s commentary for the 2001 DVD release, paint quite a different picture of his feelings towards Midwesterners, whom he called “genuine, with no bullshit” and the exact opposite of New York and Los Angeles snark. He picked the area around Plainfield, Wisconsin because of the mystique given to the region by filmmaker and friend Errol Morris, who had been working there on a project about serial killer Ed Gein. Having an obsession with American auctioneers (“It is the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism”), Herzog had filmed a documentary in Pennsylvania for German television in 1975, called How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck. The master of ceremonies at that event was Scott McKain, who made a deep and profound impression on Herzog, calling him “a brilliant man, one out of thousands.” His role as the apologetic screw-turning capitalist banker in Stroszek is unmatched. Similarly, Herzog’s car had broken down during a trip to meet Morris in Wisconsin, and he was rescued via tow-truck by mechanic Clayton Szalpinski and his assistant Ely Rodriguez. Herzog said he stored them all away in his brain for later. Indeed, the casting remains the best of any of his films. Eva Mattes was the only professional actor, having been in several great Fassbinder movies, like The Bitter Tears of Perta Von Kant; four years later, in 1980, she starred in Helma Sanders-Brahms’ feminist masterwork Germany, Pale Mother. The acting agency who represented the elderly Clemens Scheitz warned Herzog that he was “not quite right in the head anymore.” His mathematical equations on animal magnetism, which Herzog worked into an improvised scene with Wisconsin deer hunters, made him the perfect choice for Herr Scheitz. With Bruno, he had previously been in Every Man For Himself And God Against All. The two German pimps from the film’s first half exude capitalist darkness, negotiating their ownership rights to Eva’s body. Herzog had seen boxer/actor Norbert Grupe, a.k.a. Wilhelm von Homburg, in an infamous interview on a German broadcast in 1970, calling it the best thing he had ever seen on television. The other pimp actor, Burkhard Driest, was a writer and painter who had once served time for armed robbery when he was about to finish his law exams. The shoot was contentious behind the scenes but congenial on-set. The technical crew hated the film, hated the script, hated Bruno, hated Scheitz. They also hated the ending and refused to film it, so Herzog did most of that alone, or maybe with second-unit cameraman Ed Lachman, who seemed to be the only crew person having a good time. His contributions to the work were considerable, particularly his ability to improvise believable American truck-stop dialogue on the fly for unexpected “actors” they asked to participate.
Like Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, it begins with a prison release. And like Franz Biberkopf, Bruno is forever imprisoned: through the barred fingers he flashes in front of his face periodically, to the similar wooden schematic he builds for Eva to explain his interior self; the latter exposition shows Bruno taking off on an improvised autobiographical tangent, demonstrating how he was forced to hold urinated bed sheets over his head for hours in the rain after institutional beatings. But there is no exit, they are always shutting doors on Der Bruno, trapping him in a foreign landscape of rubber toy tomahawks and brainwashed barnyard animals. The pick-up circles, the lift cicles, “Is This Really Me?” with his beloved mynah bird now a frozen turkey in this Appalachian abyss. “Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity,” Herzog has said. “It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.”
As his two film performances drifted into the past, Bruno S. continued making music and painting until his death in 2013, still living in the same Berlin apartment seen in Stroszek. When asked by the New York Times in 2008 about his movie star days, he answered, in typical third-person: “Everybody threw him away.” But a new generation of outsider artists, inspired by his genuineness, his brokenness, his humanity, would come to champion him as a beacon of authenticity in these bullshit times.
Bruno S. is a man to me
You’re just some dude with a stilted attitude
That you learned from TV
— “Color Bars” Elliott Smith