Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Night at the Opera (1935): “and one duck egg”



“For the first time in the Brothers’ cinematic careers, they had pulled in a large portion of female fans. The price for this widening appeal could not be fully calculated at the time. Only much later did the cost become apparent.  In A Night at the Opera Harpo remained as silent as a stone, Chico kept his accent and his pianistic style, and Groucho still walked the walk and talked the talk. Some of their bits were among the funniest ever written and performed on screen. Yet a close examination shows that the old fire was banked. Instead of making sport of romance, they now facilitated it. Instead of whacking away at the powerful institutions of government or the military or education, they battled the toothless enemy of grand opera.  At [Irving] Thalberg’s insistence the crew of maniacs had become hilarious but harmless uncles, like the later Laurel and Hardy. They were not outrageous anymore, they were only frivolous; they were not surreal, they were only foolish; they were not daring, they were only impolite. Not that the Brothers minded. They were the first comedy team to become a box office attraction in the sound era. MGM proudly announced proudly announced plans to put them in another glossy vehicle, complete with ten-week road tryout.  Thalberg had been proven correct on all counts, the Marxes were flush, and the receipts kept pouring in.”
- Stefan Kanfer, Groucho (2000)

- Are you sure you have everything, Otis?
– Well, I haven’t had any complaints yet.

The Marx Bros. had not been a hit with women when Irving Thalberg took them on for Sam Goldwyn’s MGM.  Thalberg gave them a plausible narrative, a big budget, and the best writers for A Night at the Opera, their first MGM movie.  A slick production with great gags and set pieces delivered one of the studio’s biggest hits and a gross of $5 million – big money in 1936. The scenarios had been honed on the road across America, with the famous stateroom scene and other key scenes played to live audiences before production began.  The soppy romance delivered the dames and the boys’ antics the rest of an appreciative crowd, with only one major critic giving the film the thumbs down.

- That woman? Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you.
– Really?
– Of course, that’s why I’m sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that? <If she figures that one out, she’s good.>

A Night at the Opera is a very funny movie and includes many memorable scenes and lines, and with a sincere ring of pathos.  The chaotic stateroom imbroglio, the opera finale with Groucho spruiking for dough from the balcony and Harpo literally ripping up the scenery, the wonderful  sanity clause stand-up between Chico and Groucho,  the achingly funny moving hotel beds routine, the sparks that fly between Groucho and Margaret Dumont, and the wonderfully irreverent takedowns of the great character actor Sig Ruman as Gottlieb,  the pompous opera impresario.  Fittingly the ‘last’ musical interlude, on deck with the Italian migrants heading for the New World, has a real dignity and pathos that gives the melodrama a harder edge.

 - Hey you. I told you to slow that nag down. On account of you I almost heard the opera.

Is Kanfer right though? Were the Marx Bros. tamed by Thalberg?  I think he makes a strong case, though which side you come down on is a matter of perspective.  A Night at the Opera is a great, very great Hollywood comedy, and on those terms there is more to celebrate than lament.  If however we compare the movie to their earlier pictures, the Marx Bros. are no longer subversive, they are no longer protagonists but facilitators in a narrative that, if we are truly honest, is as hackneyed as they come – a totally predictable romantic triangle that maintains its claim to seriousness despite the best antics of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo to expose its banality. The Marx Bros. were no longer radical, and A Night at the Opera marked the beginning of a lamentable decline. The team had been co-opted by the establishment, and it had been so easy.
- Never in my life have I received such treatment. They threw an apple at me. 
- Well, watermelons are out of season.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Horse Feathers (1932): “You can’t put the wall over my ice”


Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo.  Three clowns and a straight man. Anarchists all. Whatever it is, they’re against it.

Gonzo intellectual and all-round eccentric Slavoj Zizek from Slovenia has posted a short video on YouTube.  For those who know what the appellation means – I can’t make head nor tail of it – Zizek is a  Lacanian-Marxist philosopher. Quick, get me a four-year-old child. Zizek posits that Freud’s construction of the human psyche applies perfectly to the three erstwhile lunatics Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.  The video is titled ‘How the Marx Brothers Embody Freud’s Id, Ego & Super-Ego’. I am not quite sure what to make of it, but let’s explore how the elephant got into Groucho’s pyjamas.

Zizek says Groucho, “with his nervous hyper-activity”, is superego.

I don’t know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I’m against it…
And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,
I’m against it!


Chico “the rational guy, egotistic, calculating all the time”, is ego.

Professor Wagstaff: In case I never see you again, which would add ten years to my life, what would you fellas want to play football.

Baravelli: Well, first we want a football.

Professor Wagstaff: Well, I don’t know if we’ve got a football, but if I can find one, would you be interested? I don’t want a hasty answer, just sleep on it.

Baravelli: I no think I can sleep on a football.


And, “the weirdest of them all, Harpo, the mute guy, he doesn’t talk”, is id. “Freud said that drives are silent… The id in all its radical ambiguity… childishly innocent, just striving for pleasure… But, at the same time, possessed by some kind of primordial evil, aggressive all the time. And this unique combination of utter corruption and innocence is what the id is about.”

In Horse Feathers, in the speak-easy while Chico is in the back-room filling a bottle of Scotch and a bottle of Rye from the same container of hooch,  Harpo passes a poker-game and when he overhears one of the players say “Cut the cards”,  he pulls an axe from his raincoat and happily obliges.  Later, Harpo stokes a raging fireplace with a spade filled from a pile of books.  Indeed, the movie’s original ending which was cut (and replaced by the bigamous marriage scene with the three villains scrambling to be the first to hump their new bride) had the college burning to the ground after another fire lit by Harpo, while the musketeers play cards.

Some see a social critique of sorts in Horse Feathers, and you can pretty well read what you like into the narrative about college football, which is essentially only a pretext for a string of gags and absurdities melding irreverent and raunchy vaudeville with subversive attacks on authority.

The movie was a box-office smash in 1932, and both the in-crowd and the intelligentsia wasted no time in claiming the Marx Bros as their own. Stefan Kanfer laid out the critical response in his authoritative biography of Groucho (2000) quoting from articles in Le Monde, London’s New Statesman, and Time magazine, which had the boys on the cover of the August 13, 1932 issue, and referring to Groucho’s “unsquelchable effontry.”  The left-leaning New Statement gave the reportage a surrealist twist: “They [the Marx Bros.] introduced the psychological disturbance that is caused by seeing something that is mad and aimless… something which, if not utterly disconnected, depends for its connections on the workings of the unconscious.”

Put simply, Horse Feathers is damned hilarious.  Ask a four-year-old child.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar (Canada 2011): “She hugged you after you cried”




“Don't try to find a meaning to Martine's death.
There isn't one.
A classroom is a home for...
It's a place
of friendship, of work,
and courtesy.
Yes, courtesy.
A place full of life.
Where you devote your life.
A place where you give of your life.
Not infect a whole school
with your despair.”

­- Monsieur Lazhar

A teacher hangs herself in the classroom before school.  A tragedy?  Was she driven to it? Do her sixth graders know why?  Is one of them to blame?

Are physical demonstrations of care not welcome in the classroom?  So many rules and so little room for simple humanity. 

A new teacher, a somber decent man from Algeria, Bachir, as wise and scarred as his years replaces the lost Martine.  The wall of the classroom have been repainted, her desk emptied, and a psychologist employed.  Still a specter lingers. Who has the greater pain, the children or the new teacher?  He must guide the children from the dark forest of loss, and suppress his own angst.  Death and injustice, from two worlds apart.

He reads his own composition for their correction:

The Tree and the Chrysalis by Bachir Lazhar

After an unjust death,
there's nothing to say.
Nothing at all.
As will become plain below.
From the branch of an olive tree,
there hung a tiny chrysalis
the color of emerald.
Tomorrow it would be a butterfly,
freed from it's cocoon.

> Its. I-t-s.

The tree was happy
to see his chrysalis grown,
but secretly, he wanted to keep her
a few mor years.

> More, m-o-r-e.

"So long as she remembers me."
He'd shielded her from gusts,
saved her from ants.
But tomorrow she would leave
to affront alone predators and poor whether.

> Weather, w-e-a.

That night,
a fire ravaged the forest,
and the chrysalis
never became a butterfly.

At dawn, the ashes cold,
the tree still stood,
but his heart was charred,
scarred by the flames,
scarred at grief.

> Scarred by grief.

When a bird alights on the tree,
the tree tells it about
the chrysalis that never woke up.
He pictures her, wings spread,
flitting across
a clear blue sky,
drunk on nectar and freedom,
the discreet witness
to our love stories.

A story of love and grief.  The love that binds and the grief that keeps us apart.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Big Deal on Madonna Street (Italy 1958)



“Rubare è un mestiere impegnativo, ci vuole gente seria, mica come voi… Voi al massimo potete andare a lavorare.” [Robbery is a serious craft, you need to know what you are doing, not like you guys… the best you can hope for is honest work.]

A wacky gang of incompetent penny-ante Roman felons hatches a heist with hilarious consequences.  This is all that really needs to be said about this classic cinematic caper from the masters of la comedia all’italiana, the writing team of Furio Scarpelli & Agenore Incrocci, and director Mario Monicelli, but of course dear reader you have come here expecting more. At least four-to-five hundred words, choice turns of phrase, a display of filmic erudition, and a certain – even if counterfeit – humility. Oh well, if I must.

As well as a neo-realist patina in the scenes filmed on the streets of Rome courtesy of DP Gianni Di Venanzo, there is a dark expressionism in the night scenes that gives a dark edge to the comedy in Big Deal on Madonna Street. More on the flip-side later. Piero Umiliani contributes a boppy jazz score, which adds a lot to the fun.

There are also extensive connections with De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves from a decade before which go beyond the thematic. For those who are familiar with De Sica’s film there is a discomfiting irony in a scene at the start of Big Deal on Madonna Street where a stolen pram is sold to a fence – the petty larcenist saying he is reduced to pinching prams as almost all cars and bicycles are now fitted with alarms – and later with the gang stealing a movie camera to case the scene of the heist from the very same flea market where De Sica’s Antonio desperately searches for his bicycle. Then there is the engaging comedia in Bicycle Thieves from Antonio’s young son Bruno, who in his innocence is the aching counterpoint to the father’s despair.  The comic relief afforded by his presence is to be cherished.  His first scene when he is cleaning the bicycle for Papa’s first day on the job is full of pathos and humour – Bruno telling Antonio that the pawnbroker didn’t look after the bike as there is now a scratch on the pedal and that he would have complained.  This is by way of saying that in Monicelli’s film as in De Sica’s, the unique flavour of the Italian language is integral, and with a number of the character’s speaking different dialects, the individual characterisations have a spice all their own. Sadly so much of this expressiveness is lost in translating the dialog for the sub-titles. The line I quote at the top of this essay is redolent of an idiom and humour that can never be fully translated.

Humour. The essence of true comedy is the unexpected. Whether from razor sharp wit, innuendo, risible delusions, or slapstick, laughter is truly unleashed when we are caught by surprise, when unassailable absurdity is topped by the even more ludicrous; and we are again reduced to tears of joy, aching sides, and uncontrollable fits of coughing.  Your soul skips and oxytocin fills your blood-stream. All is well with you, and the world.  But just in case you get too carried away Monicello has a poor sod – un povere disgraziato – chased into the path of a tram and killed. Cut to the crematorium and Toto in dark glasses:  ”Better later than sooner.”

If the essence of true comedy is the unexpected, the key to great comedy is love. An empathy with the absurdity of existence, of its ultimate futility, and a sad fondness for the pathos of life.  The attitude that yes we are miserable but heck we can die laughing.  This madness takes hold of De Sica’s Antonio when he blows whatever money he has left on lunch in a restaurant.   The original Italian title for Big Deal on Madonna Street, I soliti ignoti aka “The Usual Unknown Suspects”, has a savour of this pathos (while its aptness is revealed in a newspaper headline shown on the screen just before the end title).

I wonder what was going through Mario Monicelli’s mind as he prepared to end his life by jumping out of a hospital window in 2010 at the age of 95.  Perhaps he was thinking thoughts like those he admitted to in an interview he gave three years earlier: “Death doesn’t frighten me, it bothers me. It bothers me for example that someone can be there tomorrow but me I am no longer there. What bothers me is no longer being alive, not being dead.”

This idea of  ’absence’ as loss is behind the greatest moment in I soliti ignoti, which is not found in the rollicking absurdity and high jinks that lead up to the disaster, nor in the towering stupidity and incompetence of the heist proper, but on the early morning after when the perps straggle out onto the deserted streets of Rome, say their goodbyes, and go their separate ways. A palpable regret suffuses the screen and your own heart aches for your loss as well as theirs.  Arrivederci.  Till we meet again.

Zéro de Conduite: "Like a scattered student""


I would rather smell the way boys smell–
Oh those schoolboys the way their legs flap under the desks in study hall
That odour rising roses and ammonia
And way their dicks droop like lilacs
Or the way they smell that forbidden acrid smell
- Patti Smith, ‘Piss Factory’, 1974


Me? Looking like a scattered student
I follow exuberant girls through the green chestnuts:
They know I’m there, and turn towards me
Laughing, eyes brimming with indiscretion.
I don’t say a word: I just stare at the flesh

Of their white necks framed by tresses:
I follow the curve of their shoulders down
Their divine backs, hidden by bodices and flimsy finery.

Soon I’m ogling their boots and socks …
Burning with fever, yearning for flesh.
They think I’m silly. They whisper to each other …
-And I feel kisses blossom on my lips …
- Arthur Rimbaud, ‘TO MUSIC: Railway square, Charleville’, 1870

I hated high school.  Stupid regimentation and oppressive teachers.  Corporal punishment from self-righteous frauds.  Six cuts of the cane across the hand you didn’t write with.  Basher  would sneak up behind you in class and hit you hard on the head with the attendance book.  Heinrich  the crypto-fascist enforcer of discipline loved to shout and humiliate.  “Attention! At ease!”  We sotto voce: “Fuck you, Jack”. Prefects in blazers for black shirts.

No girls – just the odd female teacher – if she happened to be young fetishised to distraction.  Under stairwells to look up skirts. They knew and slowed down. That fetid smell of grey flannel and ammonia.

The deputy-principal and principal, both Mr Brown’s and both balding old bastards – “Bing” and “Bong”. Bong never soiled his hands, while Bing had a cupboard full of canes: short ones, long ones, thin ones, thick ones. He climaxed each time he hit you – red-faced and on the edge of apoplexy – pausing on each stroke to catch his breath and force up your outstretched hand to inflict the maximum pain. Your hand throbbed for hours.  I wish I had had the gumption to climb onto the roof of that hell-hole and pelt those jailers with whatever came to hand.

The French film-maker Jean Vigo (1905-34) hated his boarding school and dreamed a wild dream of schoolboy revolution.  The son of a Catalan anarchist, and consumptive, he made only four films in his short life. While his last film, L’Atalante (1934), is his masterpiece, his first and third films À propos de Nice (About Nice 1930) and Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct 1933) are exhilarating forays into an artist’s discovery of cinema as personal expression, anarchic joyous experiments in which we enter the world of a magic lantern. A mosaic surprise of the potential of cinema to not only observe the concrete in new ways but to express our humanity, to wonder, to rebel, to satirise, and to laugh.

Zéro de conduite: young devils at school a 45 minute fiction talkie about boys at an elementary boarding school rebelling against the mindless discipline, is not only anarchic, but inspired comic lunacy from a fountainhead of deep love for childhood, and the joy of life lived with spontaneity and without pretence.

A new teacher points the way: he is indulgent and playful. He is awed by everything. In the playground he suddenly starts impersonating Chaplin’s tramp, then grabs a ball from the boys and runs. On an excursion into the town he leads the boys a merry chase after a young woman he fancies, and you see she is having as much fun as the audience.

In their dormitory a gang of agitators instigates a surreal pillow-fight and mock crucifixion – slowed down on the screen against the musical score played backwards.  Total chaos.  A lecherous teacher outed and the revolution begins: “You’re full of shit!” (Vigo’s father who died in prison in suspicious circumstances had changed his name to Miguel Almereyda - Alyamerda being an anagram of  ”y’a la merde”, literal translation “there’s the shit”.)

The rebels take to the roof on a civic occasion and pelt the literally stuffed shirts from the Board of Governors on the dais below with rubbish. The stern midget principal – played by a young boy affecting a manly voice and demeanor - with a beard nearly as long as he is short scurries away for shelter.

Surrealism as fun shot at all angles and in frenetic montage, with a liberating asynchronous score of unbridled vitality. Mad strategams, irreverent language, and kids sick of eating beans throwing them at each other.  Zero for conduct!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Dentist (1932)


The pre-coder The Dentist is about as close as Hollywood ever got to Dada. W. C. Fields wrote and starred in this late Mack Sennett talkie about a dentist who would rather be creating havoc on the golf-course than torturing his hapless patients.  Running at just over 20 minutes you get good value with a lot more than a laugh a minute.

No ifs and buts, Fields was a misanthrope and a misogynist.  Cruel, base, and egotistical, he lays brutal sway over all and sundry, family or stranger, friend or foe.

Liker most dentists of the period, his surgery is part of his home. We find him at breakfast being served by his adult daughter.  No wife in sight.  We get standard gags about his lost glasses being on his head and the morning paper hidden under his arse.  Fields’ side-winder voice delivery hooking you every time.

Wandering into the kitchen to show his daughter an article in the newspaper, Fields gets her attention by patting her back-side while she is bending over looking into the ice-box, and discovers she is in love with the ice-man – she thinks the pats are from the beau. He doesn’t approve and a running gag will be his attempts to lock her away.  More strange and disquieting of course are the forbidden yet overt sexual undertones.  TV censors seem to have missed this when they cut a later less unsettling albeit more obvious sexual sequence involving an unorthodox extraction procedure that is more about penetration.

Fields wants to get in a round of golf before his first appointment. On the golf-course he of course is hopeless, makes crazy interpretations of the rules, and in a fit of piqué throws his caddy after his golf-bag into a lake, after having knocked out another golfer from a shot hit with deliberate negligence, and then complaining when the victim’s knocked-out dentures get in the way of a put!

Back in the surgery, we witness a cavalcade of patient abuse and withering one-liners.  A dizzy wailing broad with a toothache displays her legs and ample behind – more than once – as she bends over to show Fields where a dog bit her on the leg.  The dentist’s drill – sounding more like  pneumatic road equipment – is deployed with careless abandon.  Teeth are spat out and ducks released from a capacious beard – the owner’s mouth found only after the use of a stethoscope. An extraction from a female patient with rather long legs becomes an extended ‘dry-hump’ as the pliers do their difficult work, with one of her high heels ending up stuck in one of Fields’ trouser pockets.

Penetration, pain, sadomasochism, biting, stomping, sex, contempt, incompetence, demolition, more sex, and farcical characterisations.  Bunuel and Dali eat your hearts out!

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Miracle of Morgans Creek (1944)



Small town 40s America. Picket fences, porches, and quiet tree-lined streets.  Places with names like Bedford Falls and Morgans Creek. Wise mothers, irascible strict fathers with hearts of gold, dizzy older sisters on the cusp of womanhood, spunky older-than-their-years younger sisters, and nerdy suitors.  Movie-houses and jalopies.  Record-stores and dances at the country-club. Thoroughly integrated foreigners (but no black faces).

Myth or reality?  A dream or the place where we would have wanted to grow-up? Fantasy or fact?  Either way, Preston Sturges stood ready to lampoon. Most say savagely, I say gently.  We all say brilliantly.

Fast-paced, witty, over-the-top, irreverent, and a barrel of laughs.  What else do you want from a comedy?  Audiences in 1944 must have been more than satisfied: The Miracle of Morgans Creek was the biggest grossing movie of the year.

The scenario for 1944 was a humdinger.  Trudy Kockenlocker – love that name! – connives to get her nerdy suitor Norval – yes! -  to fool her Dad so that she can attend a dance party for local servicemen leaving for the war  - without him and borrow his car! – while he sits out a triple-feature at the movies.  She gets drunk on spiked lemonade, hits her head on a ceiling lamp during some wild dancing, and turns up at 8am outside the theatre.  She remembers little of what went on until the early hours – except getting married to a GI whose name sounded like Ratzkiwatzki?  Later she learns she is pregnant.  Breen from the Hays Office, who by all accounts was sympathetic, let it through, though changes were needed to get a suitable rating; such as Trudy being married before consummation, and that it all happened after a bump on the head.

The story is nicely framed as a flashback, with a canny segue featuring the State Governor and ‘The Boss’, two characters reprised from Sturges’ 1940 film about political corruption, The Great McGinty (which earned Sturges his only Oscar for the screenplay).  The action kicks off from the first frame as two old guys frantically enter the local newspaper office yelling to hold the presses. They scramble for a phone and ring the State Governor with a BIG story – we don’t find out what the fuss is about until the end.  The titles appear with the old fellas yelling and gesticulating madly regardless. “I started the whole thing…”

We are soon introduced to the Kockenlocker ménage. A happy wacky household you would love as your neighbours. Trudy, her grumpy old widower Dad who is the town cop, and 14yo sister Emmy.  Trudy works in a record-store and is still a ‘minor’ – under 21 in those days. Officer Kockenlocker is played by Sturges regular William Demarest; the role is his metier, melding perfect timing with pratfalls and exquisite lines like “Tell your sister the house ain’t paid for, will you?” to Emmy, when the house starts a-trembling as upstairs in her excitement Trudy kicks up a storm getting ready for the fateful dance. Emmy retorts: “She knows that, Papa. You tell her every day.”  Diana Lynn is perfectly cast as Emmy.  Precocious and cute as a button, she shines and shines.  Betty Hutton is great as Trudy, imparting a fresh dizzy innocence to the shenanigans.  Her tipsy inebriation when she turns up late at the movie theatre after that night of hanky-panky is a comic delight, and Eddie Bracken as the put-upon Norval is the perfect foil.

Norval’s car is the worse-for-wear after Trudy’s night on the tiles:

- You’ve been drinking
- Who’s been drinking? I never had a drink in my life!  How dare you insinuate I’ve been drinking?
- You certainly don’t get what you’ve got on lemonade.
- I certainly did.
- All right.
- What have you been using on my car, a pickaxe?
- Is this your car? I was wondering where I found this old jalopy.

Norval, the prototypical nerd is an orphan who boards with a local lawyer and his wife. He has been sweet on Trudy since they were little kids and works in a bank to “get rich and to buy her things someday”.  With the pregnancy a reality to be dealt with, wily Emmy hatches a scheme to wangle Norval into what he wants anyway:  marrying Trudy and making the coming confinement legit.  Suffice to say nothing goes to plan.

Sturges started the picture with only a handful of pages from the uncompleted script, writing at night for the next day’s shooting, and did not have the ending until the eleventh hour.  The result is a truly engaging story with razor wit, deft characterisations, and frantically funny sight gags, with just enough slapstick to hold off any resistance from the viewer.  He satirizes everything and everyone, from opportunistic politicians to marriage, motherhood, and romance.  Even the army and the war don’t escape.  A newspaper headline screams “Hitler Demands a Recount” after the ‘miracle’ is revealed, and a new caring policy for MPs uses ‘psycholology’ (sic) to handle wayward men in uniform.

Sturges may pillory his characters but deep down he has a soft affection for them.  Decency is rewarded and only hypocrisy and cant punished.  There is a wonderful scene at the end at the local fire station where the town worthies are discussing Norval’s fate – he is in the local jail – don’t ask! It turns into a melee after Kockenlocker snr tries unsuccessfully to take a swipe at the local bank president, who is responsible for Norval’s arrest.  This sequence, like other crowded scenes in the film, is shot in medium close-up, giving it all an hysterical urgency.  Emmy disturbs proceedings by telling her Dad a certain event is imminent! All rush for the staircase down to the garage, but Kockenlocker snr takes the fast way down the firemen’s pole. Inexplicably he stalls once he hits the ground – what is he waiting for?  Waiting for the bank president – so he can bop him!

The framing scenes are beautifully handled with the situation in the Governor’s office becoming ever more chaotic as the news unfolds and lackeys begin to fill the room – again tightly framed by the camera. The lightning-fast repartee of the Governor and his chief aide are brilliantly delivered in long takes.  Brian Donlevy as  Governor McGinty and Akim Tamiroff as “The Boss” are an awesome comic team:

- You mean he’s [Norval] still in jail, you dumb blockhead?
- Yes.
- Well, get him out.
- But how can I, Mr. Governor, with all those charges against him?
- By dropping those charges, you dumb cluck. You wealhead!
- Now, get me that banker on the phone.
- His charter is cancelled!
- And the justice of the peace!
- His license is revoked and his motel is condemned
- There’s only one thing more, Mr. Governor, the marriage.
- What’s the matter with her marriage?
- She’s married to Norval Jones. She always has been.
- The guy married them, didn’t he?
- The boy signed his right name, didn’t he?
- But he gave his name as Ratzkiwatzki.
- He was trying to say Jones. He stuttered.
- What are you looking for, needles in a haystack?
- Then how about the first Ratzkiwatzki?
- He’s annulled.
- Who annulled him?
- The judge, who do you suppose?
- Retroactive. Get Judge Mendoza on the phone.
- I’m getting it.
- He’s out of the picture.
- He was never in it.
- Get me those guys on the phone.
- Who do they think they are, anyway? Hello, Mendoza.

All’s well that ends well…

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Ozu: The pathos of things

Ozu's Tokyo Story
I made an interesting cinematic connection when reading a piece in the UK Guardian yesterday. The article, an edited extract by Oliver Burkemen from his book 'The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking', was titled 'Failure can be Inspiring: be positive, stay focused on success, we tell ourselves'. But the true path to contentment may lie in learning to be a 'loser'. Burkeman adopts the Stoic view of life: the ideal state of mind is tranquility – “not the excitable cheer of success”. In introducing his thesis Burkeman relates that there is a Japanese expression, mono no aware, that roughly translates as ‘the pathos of things’ and captures, in Burkeman’s words, a “kind of bitter-sweet melancholy at life’s impermanence – that additional beauty imparted to cherry blossoms, say, or human features, as a result of their inevitably fleeting time on Earth”. Yasujiro Uzo immediately came to mind, and that expression seems the essence of his cinema. Uzo’s pathos also imbues the prosaic with this bitter-sweetness: clothing drying on the line in a back-yard, idle smoke-stacks against a clear sky, or the simple joys of a bus-ride.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Woman of the Lake (Onna no mizûmi - Japan 1966)










Yoshishige Yoshida’s Woman of the Lake starring Yoshida’s ravishing wife and muse Mariko Okada is concerned with an ‘errant’ married women who has an affair. When nude photos of her taken by her lover are stolen she is forced to confront her bondage to men. The film is a radical critique of the subjugation of women as possessions and sexual objects. As is typical for Yoshida, his narrative though linear is fractured and sometimes obscure. There is a resolution of sorts but the ending is not final – the closing scene fades to black as a train enters a railway tunnel.

Yoshido has made a great film. He only gives glimpses of the photos and is more concerned with what they mean and as the catalyst to the scenario. Once they are stolen they become motifs representative not of their subject, but of a woman’s rights, and the battle she must engage in to recover her body from those that would oppress her. But it is more complex than this, as Yoshido does not use words but images to relay inner states, and as in life, not all is as it appears, nor is everything explained. The final 30 minutes are redolent of all sorts of things that are quite shattering. Near the end the husband is waiting for the unfaithful wife to have it out with her – and he falls asleep! The shots of Okada moving through the carriages to the end of a moving train are immensely powerful and elevate the act of walking to poetry.

The picture is amazingly modern: an expressionist tour-de-force with the b&w photography employed in wide-screen staging and dynamic use of deep focus to exquisite effect. It looks so contemporary – Okada sports oversized sunglasses currently back in vogue; and European – with Okada wearing flowing dresses and her luxuriant dark hair offest by elegant scarves.  To my mind Yoshido challenges Antonioni as the central motif of 60s cinema. Amazingly very little has been written about the film.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mad Men - Season 5 (2012)


As a Mad Men die-hard from its inception, I must admit I am tired of its glacial pace and shallow denizens, but having invested in the first four seasons, I am committed to seeing out Season 5, after the 2-year hiatus.

The opening double-episode of the new series was same old same old.  Shallow, vain WASPS who have learnt nothing over 6 years. Don has hit 40 and is as clueless as he was when he stole a dead man's identity.  There was some unusual humor, but I wouldn't describe it as hilarious.  The same old clichés. Hick clients who all look and sound the same, and over-sexed middle-aged white men screwing younger women - anyone for a ruck – wink wink?   Why have a token black and a token gay? Save money and have a gay black guy at a boring party with some mildly arousing sleaze.  Heck, who doesn't like a surprise party? As to the treatment of race, it has an icky Seinfeld-feel.  Almost as loathsome as Larry David's foul-mouthed hanger-on in Curb. But the period detail remains awesome.  Some decent characters are needed fast. 

My best TV show of the current crop has to be Homeland - intelligent and gripping television, where things actually happen and deep questions are posed.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Due soldi di speranza (Italy 1952)


Due soldi di speranza is an engaging neo-realist tragi-comedy from little-kown writer/director Renato Castellani. A story of young love between a chronically unemployed ex-soldier and a willfull firebrand of a girl in an economically depressed village outside of Naples, employs high farce to telegraph the depth of social disadvantage in the immediate post-war years and the hypocrisy of state, church, and peasant mores. A maelstrom of impulsive actions reach a climactic rebellious act, which while glorious is steeped in tragedy.  A deft work with wonderful cameos and authentic vignettes, framed by a cheeky insouciant score from Alessandro Cicognini. The two leads Maria Fiore and Vincenzo Musolino are a delight.

Received a BAFTA for best film in 1954 and director Castellini was awarded the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1952.



Our Friends In The North (BBC TV - 1995)


The British TV drama series Our Friends In The North is compulsive viewing. At £8m it did not come cheap and the BBC took years to find the courage to give the project the go-ahead.

Writer Peter Flannery worked on the script for six years, and he delivers real lives where the tragedy is slow and cumulative and not on a grand scale but no less human or devastating. Quality English-speaking TV drama with a conviction and veracity only the British can deliver. Indeed, nothing since has come close in quality and historic sweep. There is a seething anger with the failure of the political process and the betrayal of progressive aspirations, which 16 years later, is still manifestly justified.

Contemporary popular music is used sparingly but very effectively in conveying not only the zeitgeist but in establishing a sense of time and place, and a shared history that crosses international borders.

There are no heroes and each character is flawed – as we all are – why blame ourselves when we can blame someone else? Still friends after 30 years, but are we? Nothing left to say, and where were we when we needed each other. We leave family behind and then at the end the truth too late. And working people are still the scapegoat and their desolation aways the solution.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Separation (2011)

Ironically, A Separation, a film about family conflict and social antagonisms, reminds us of what unites us. That for all the mad accumulation of weapons, and hard political rhetoric on both sides of the East and West divide, there are children, old people, wives, husbands, mothers and fathers, all struggling with life’s vicissitudes.

A young middle-class family in Tehran is torn apart by the ambitions of the wife who in seeking more freedom and better opportunities for herself and her 11-yo daughter wants to emigrate. The husband can’t leave an elderly father burdened by dementia. She unsuccesfully petitions for a divorce and then moves out to her parents as she won’t leave Iran without her daughter, who wants to stay with her father.  He hires a poor working woman from the outer suburbs to care for the grandfather while he is at work.

All too human frailties on both sides of the marriage, between the sexes, and across class divisions lead to tragic consequences.  The husband as well as care for his fractured family, must now navigate the maelstrom of a chaotic but not uncaring judicial system.  There are no villains in this story, only real people with problems we can all relate to.  The film-maker does not take sides and leaves it to us to develop our own responses to what unfolds.  In the end a child is asked to make an impossible decision – and we never know her choice – even though she says she has made it, tears streaming down from her hurt tender eyes.  It is the innocents that suffer most: the daughter, the grandfather, and the young daughter of the carer, all buffeted by the passions raging around them.

The film has a deep humanity and an assured veracity that holds you transfixed.  It has an unwavering cultural integrity and an unflinching commitment to realism. The director takes you into the family home with a disciplined hand-held camera and uses the confined space with imagination and flair. His mis-en-scene is richly redolent, with close-ups used to convey emotions with understated clarity. Outside he uses medium long-shots brilliantly: the harrowed carer desperately trying to find the grandfather on a busy street after he gets out of the apartment, and a wonderful scene of the carer and child from the back on a bench waiting for their bus home, the little girl’s legs dangling.

Yet there is something that disturbed me. The wife in leaving her family is selfish.  In our societies we can say this and it has no consequences beyond the immediate circumstances.  But in a society like Iran’s the actions of the wife and other women in the film can be seen – I believe not unfairly  – as troubling.  The patriarchal argument could easily be made that what unfolds in the film is what happens when women are given more freedom.  As an Iranian film I can’t help but feel that it may have a reactionary consequence. Though this hopefully comes not from an intention of the film-maker, but from the script which leaves the wife’s character not as deeply explored as the husband’s.

Beautifully acted with beguiling performances from the children and grandfather.   The young child of the carer is young enough to wear cute clothes and her angelic bewilderment adds color and true pathos.

An essential film.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a big disappointment. I have read most of Le Carre’s novels, and while critics find his 70s work superior, I prefer his most recent output as it reveals a weary disillusionment, and a greater concern for the tragic ‘collateral damage’ that is inflicted by so-called democratic regimes.

The film is a flashy anachronism suited more to the cold war years. The world has moved on. This is not to say it could not have been better. Rich period detail and an intelligent script are pluses, but the pace is glacial and there is little if any of the tension you would expect from a spy thriller. There is intrigue but the action is plodding. A big mistake was casting a major star Colin Firth in a minor but pivotal role – anyone with half a brain knows who the mole is at the get go.

The denouement is so flat you wonder what the hell you have been doing for the last two hours. The story should have focused more on the mole, Karla (the Soviet spymaster), and Control, very ably played by John Hurt, who we see much too little of. Some unnecessarily graphic gore is really indulgent. Definitely over-rated, and BAFTA is being patently parochial in naming it one of the best films of 2011.