Showboat (James Whale, 1936)

Just saw James Whale's Showboat again, and this time around it was like a a fist connecting with your face; you swoon, you see stars, literally.

It's an odd musical, when you think about it; it basically begins with a great story--of Julie (Helen Morgan), the half-black singer who marries Steve (Donald Cook), her white co-star--then for whatever reason angles off to the less incendiary subject of Gaylord (Allan Jones), a gambler who falls in love with Nola (Irene Dunne), the showboat captain's daughter, and stays with them for the rest of the film.

It's not as if the remainder is negligible, but compared to that moment of terror and tension where Julie and Steve have to prove they're innocent of miscagenation, or the scene where Queenie (Hattie MacDaniel) and Joe (Paul Robeson) argue over a mess of peas, I think it's no contest--Julie, Steve, Queenie and Joe have it over Nola and Gaylord in terms of pathos, passion, humor and bittersweet affection.

That said, this is possibly the best role Jones ever had; I've mostly seen him as the male ingenue in Marx Brothers comedies, where compared to their far more vivid presences he usually faded into the background. Here he's a cad, a harmless one who's more likely to give a woman a hurt look than strike her, but is just as unable to support her; his sudden disappearance three-fourths of the way into the picture is sudden, but hardly surprising--you expect it of him. When he comes back for the finale, it's touching how feeble and out-of-touch he seems; Jones, who usually seems sweet and charming, finally achieves the kind of sad pathos his characters are destinied to achieve (they always needed the Marx Brothers' help to come out all right).

James Whale's treatment is splendidly extravagant--the film opens with the camera swooping down on a lovely diorama, with little cutout figures (their clothes and expressions sketched on) tinkling past a marvelously detailed cardboard town complete with lampposts, banners, verandas. Whale reminds us of this shot when he introduces the showboat itself--he shoots at a low angle, from behind the crowd, so that it looks as if a huge, gaudy building was floating into town (much like that cutout parade floated into the cutout town). He inserts volputuous tracking shots of gigantic, gorgeous sets, and stitches them together with precise editing, the little hairs at the back of your neck tingling from the sheer pleasure generated by his visual style. For the number "Can't Help Lovin Dat Man," he layers the room in light and shadow, so that when Dunne does this odd back-and-forth swaying dance she moves in and out of the light, a girl-child hovering between innocence and sexual knowledge.

Later, Nola and Gaylord have become the star of the show, and Whale gives us that show, complete with a hundred and one disasters and a thousand little tricks of the stage--a simple effect, like a lamp with a reflector rising behind a scrim to represent the moon, and the audience gasps with delight. Whale tops the sequence off with an extended scene of Charles Winninger as showboat captain Andy Hawks, describing what the rest of the play would have been like if if the actor playing the villain hadn't taken sick (frightened off the stage by two belligerent viewers offended by his villainy). Winninger plays all the parts at once, filling his tale with titanic struggles and spectacular slapstick, and Whale shoots him head on, following every pratfall; the audience responds by cheering him far louder than they ever would have if the play had been done properly (you feel as if Cap'n Andy would do the whole show all by himself, if he could). It's theater at its most enchanting, the way Whale presents it; you have to shake your head hard to remember that this is a movie from the '30s, being broadcast on cable TV.

Then there's Paul Robeson as Joe, with his wonderful paean to black male indolence "Ah Still Suits Me" that slyly turns into a loving tribute to his wife Queenie, and, of course, "Ole Man River," one of the greatest song numbers in all of cinema.

The song's opening shot couldn't be simpler: Robeson sits with his back against the wharf pilings, his deep church-organ voice pouring out the words; the camera circles closer and closer, looking for the best place to sit down and listen. Whale inserts terrifying images--of a black man with his arms raised in despair; of slow barges to be toted, huge bales to be lifted; of the jail cell that awaits him at day's end. By the number's end, Robeson's pained, gravid voice--slow not with indolence but with an awesome patience--sounds like the voice of the vast, ageless, knowing river he's been singing about (it may not be God, but it sure as hell feels and sounds like something close). His reprise of the song closes the film, giving it a grandeur it otherwise wouldn't have.


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Gore Verbinski, 2006)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Gore Verbinski, 2006)


My dear Mr. Verbinski;


Greetings from the captain of the "Black Pearl," and congratulations on your commercial success. It has been made known to me through various tabloids that yours has earned the most receipts of any theatrical production yet made, and that you apparently "rule the box-office," much as my own crew once ruled the Caribbean.


All the more unfortunate, then, that fate should assign me the task of reprimanding you for what I feel is a task half-done. "Half-done?" you may ask; "but the box-office! The tremendous popularity of the picture (Odd term that--most "pictures" I know are painted and hang on walls)!" True, but given the success of your earlier effort ("The Curse of the Black Pearl," if I recall correctly) I would have imagined that you and your illustrious collaborators would have both the financial means and freedom to do something better, to improve on what simply was a fortuitous bit of casting on your part--namely, assigning thespian John Depp the task of portraying yours truly on the large screen (and it really is a large screen, apparently; I had taken the liberty of poking at it a few times with my cutlass until told I must seat myself if the show was to start).


Wolf Creek (Greg Mclean, 2005), Dumplings (Fruit Chan, 2004)

Two horror films

Been hearing about Wolf Creek, and on watching it, I have to agree: this is head and shoulder better than Hostel (grimmer, for one--which is all right with me, because here the grimmness is earned), the Saw movies (less absurd by far), and all their flashy ilk. Low-key and moody, it's closer in spirit to the orignal The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with a fairly well-written bare-bones script that takes care to define and create memorable characters we can root for, feel afraid for, and care for when they come to considerable harm (that said, John Jarratt is particularly memorable for his affable "g'day mate"-type bushman with maybe a dark side).

My one big reservation is the director's shooting and cutting style--the handheld photography seems more sloppy than gritty, and this is still the same kind of standard-issue jump-cut editing we see in modern horror movies, meant to give the film edgy creds.

Happy to see Roger 'I'm desperate for clues' Ebert give this film no stars. You go, Roger--right up where the sun don't shine.

Even better, I think is Dumplings, Fruit Chan's full-length version of his Three Extremes short. More complex, more breathlessly erotic, with more horrific details fleshed out fully from characters and story. It's perhaps not as intense as, say, Wolf Creek, but I think it's more unsettling--the quest for eternal youth and the ultimate food thrill, in beautifully realized fable.

This is Fruit Chan's first horror film/thriller, despite the many moments of urban horror or violence in his films, and the outsider's perspective and trademark grittiness he brings to the picture helps immensely (despite being better known for depicting the lower and middle classes, he gets the upper class types here just right, down to the various transactions (that's the right word, I think) between wife, husband, and mistress on issues like money, sex, and children). Terrific film, and it helps that Chris Doyle gives the film a lustrous, brightly colored sheen--including the unsettlingly orange filling glimpsed through the dumplings' gelatinous wrapping.

Note: Googled around, and found--to my horror--plenty of slanderous websites accusing the Chinese of systematic and wholesale consumption of aborted fetuses. Chan's maybe tapping into that sinophobic sentiment with his film, which seems both courageous and reckless--like playing with dynamite to entertain an audience (to his credit, he's careful to show that this is strictly a one-woman operation, not some huge government conspiracy).


Birth of a Nation (DW Griffith, 1915)

Saw Birth of a Nation again recently on TCM and it's hair-raising in ways Griffith likely never intended--you can't believe the shit he puts in here: a Senate taken over by blacks, a courtroom with a black judge and jury; you want to ask "Since when did black people have that kind of power?"

What's startling is how many genuine blacks actually appear in this movie. Can't account for this except I suppose they thought it was a role just like any other, and that they didn't know what the film was really about. Griffith does use blackface for crucial roles--Silas Lynch, the rapist, the faithful servants.

On the other hand, Griffith's bewilderment seems inexplicable: if he was so unaware of the film's effect on blacks, why use blackface in those roles? It implies that he knew blacks wouldn't play them, no matter how hard up for work. Or does 'bewildered' mean his reaction to the white people who protested? That would lower my estimation of him a notch further.

That said, it's tremendously exciting filmmaking, and you get caught up in the climax despite yourself, with a humdinger of an ending because the Klan rides to the rescue. Interesting to note, that assault by the Klan of the black town feels like Griffith's way of restaging his Civil War battle, earlier in the film, only this time the right side wins.

Griffith's final images are fascinating--he's done with the story, and this is where he gets up on his high soap box, and gives us a pious message--Dare we Dream of the Day when Bestial War is Gone, and The Prince of Brotherly Love. We get an image of a man on a horse, towering over all these people writhing on the ground; we have a fifty-foot Christ, half-buried in the ground, with hundreds of the faithful innocents (and they would be innocents, to head for some bearded giant with hands outstretched) gathering around him. Beautiful in a cheesy way, detailed and lovingly staged. A real jawdropper.


Cure (Kurosawa Kyoshi, 1997)

Took a look at Kurosawa Kyoshi's Kyua (Cure, 1997) again, and apparently kids six and up can follow and appreciate this kind of horror--even enjoy it a good deal (they enjoyed Kairo (Pulse, 2001), too).

Several things stand out--Kyoshi just loves long takes, meandering ones that snake in and out of rooms, and frame and reframe actors according to the demands of the scene and what he wants emphasized, or not. The long takes allow him to create several effects: first, any shock or surprise depends on the actors' timing, and not the usual one of editing (as is found in most horror/suspense/action films nowadays). Second, with the action usually framed in medium shot there are no closeups telegraphing what to look for or where to look for it--again standard issue film language for any thriller/shocker. As a result, any gesture, however innocuous (a hand coming out of a pocket, a man bending over a bag) can hide a knife, a club, a gun ready to stab, swing or fire.

Third is the appearance of unity. Kyoshi's films will sometimes have different characters, seeming lapses in plot logic, or even disparate stories, and the only thing that sometimes connects them, the only thing that assures us he's in control or hasn't completely taken leave of his senses, are these snakelike shots. He'll have long expositions happen in these shots, sometimes throw in a plot twist or two, then record how the characters respond to them; or he'll have something happen completely out of the blue, and if we don't throw up our hands and give up on him that's because the shot hasn't ended, and we can hope for some kind of resolution or explanation (which may or may not be given).

Interesting to learn from an interview that he's always concerned with offscreen space--that he insist on that unseen space having some effect on the space onscreen. Those shots may also be his way of trying to relate one space to another to another, not all of them visible, tying all together in one visually intricate Gordian knot.

Interesting too to learn that Kyoshi considers Koji Yakusho, the actor who plays Detective Takabe, his alter-ego, because he's of the same age, and the same generational point of view. Koji's performance here's atypical of many (but not all) of Kyoshi's films--more the kind of macho-posturing, hot-tempered police officer than his usual passive protagonist. It's a delight to see his intense smouldering played against the background of Kyoshi's impassive storytelling style--like he's beating back at the limits set by the film itself, trying to find a way to break out.

Finally there's Kyoshi's influences: in terms of American films a narrow range, from what he calls the end of the "New American Cinema" (for Japan, this seems to be the films of the late '60s) to the advent of Spielberg with "Jaws" in 1975 (actually Spielberg was hardly new, but that was the film that put him on the map). But Kyoshi doesn't cite the usual suspects (Scorsese, Coppola, Altman); his idols are Peckinpah, Aldrich, Fleischer, Seigel--filmmakers who started out in the '50s and, as he puts it, in these uncertain times asks exploratory questions with ambivalent intentions using classic, complex techniques. He sums his style up as something similar, both confused and sophisticated at the same time.

If he hadn't pointed it out, I probably wouldn't have noticed it, but yes, there's something anachronistic about his love for long shots and carefully composed images, as opposed to the current fashion of shock cuts and wildly swaying handheld footage. I wouldn't say I've figured him out completely, but some things have been brought out in the light.


June Allyson (1917-2006)

June Allyson

It's a good obit, but it doesn't mention Allyson's finest (at least to me) role, as librarian Connie Lane teaching Peter Lawford's Tommy Marlowe a little French in Charles Walter's fine 1947 musical Good News.

Lawford spoke French, Allyson didn't, so he taught her how to instruct him in "The French Lesson" scene, which with its half-spoken song predates Rex Harrison's singing style in My Fair Lady by almost ten years.

Allyson wasn't drop-dead beautiful, nor did she project a particularly strong personality onscreen; she was more wholesome and lighthearted than anything (though she did show a dark side in The Shrike (1955) and They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)). By her own admission couldn't sing or dance either, but that didn't stop her from being enchanting when, after "The French Lesson" number she sings "The Best Things in Life are Free." The pure yearning and passion there transcends any suggestion of wholesomeness that might weigh her down (or at least render the issue irrelevant); she fully justifies Lawford's smitten delivery of the lines (spoken as he gazes at her eyes) "they sure are blue."

Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1989)

Robert Osborne introduced Cinema Paradiso on TCM tonight, gushing about what a great film this is, so I finally sat down to watch it.

Huh? It's basically a rehash of Amarcord, I Vitelloni and The Last Picture Show only lobotomized, with gallons of Morricone's syrupy score poured on top. I don't believe Fellini would ever stoop to scenes like the young girl going up to the boy's projection room, or the boy as famous filmmaker crying over his friend's archive of film strips; this kind of 'magic' works wonders in the boxoffice, I suppose, but it's not heartfelt filmmaking, it's shameless tearjerking.

I think I know why Morricone works well with some filmmakers, not with others. Sergio Leone makes films on a grand scale, and demands grand emotions--emotions he doesn't fully buy into; in some sense they're basically there to give his lovingly designed shots emotional heft and and weight, and Morricone works to add to that impact (surprisingly, I think he works well with DePalma too--another stylish cynic who often goes for operatic granduer). When ask to score something intimate and character-driven like this, Morricone's too big; he makes the scene mawkish when it demands subtlety and understatement. Or maybe it's just the director who can't juggle all the elements with the required skill.

Might as well note that a Filipino filmmaker, Mel Chionglo, remade this film as Lagarista (The Film Biker, 2000), which is even worse than this, believe it or not.


Salo, or: The 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1976)

A discussion between me, Saul Symond, and David Ehrenstein of Pasolini's most controversial film:

Salo roundtable

With a follow-up article by Saul:

Reflections on Salo

Excerpt (from the Salo roundtable):

SAUL SYMONDS: Salò has a unique history in my own country, Australia, which is fairly revealing: it was banned in 1976, the ban was lifted in 93, and reinstated in 98. The inability of the censors in Australia to make up their mind about Salò reflects, in a limited but precise way, the fact that Salò has remained a live-wire over the 30 years since its original release. Most films made in the 70s that were considered sexually shocking then, would barely raise an eyebrow now. So why can Salò? A first-glance kind of answer would point to the Sadean nature of Salòs sexual relationships. Its a fair enough answer that Im not quite happy with. I think that Salòs subversive power is directly proportional to Pasolinis cultural credibility. It is precisely because Pasolini has been accorded the status of a great postwar Italian filmmaker that his critique of culture is so effective. With the passage of time, by the laws of a fairly conventional cultural process, Pasolinis status has come to carry greater, not less, cultural clout. The same culture that accords Pasolini such an honoured place, still has the greatest of difficulty in watching his film. Its like claiming that Mr. X is the greatest of chefs and not being able to digest his food. The existence of Salò forces our culture into an aporia from which it struggles to extricate itself. Id like to initiate this jam session on Salò by opening up the question of the nature of this aporia.


Most film critics and theorists repeat Pasolinis claim that the film is a sexual metaphor, which symbolizes, in a visionary way, the relationship between exploiter and exploited. These repetitions consist of analyzing Salò as a sexual metaphor for class struggle and power politics in general, or for Italian Fascism in particular. But the two basic dimensions of Salò the political and the sexual can be read both ways. That is, if Salò can be seen as a sexual metaphor of political relationships, it can also and equally be seen as a political metaphor of sexual relationships. In general, film criticism seems to have preferred exploring the ramifications of the political reading, rather than the sexual one. On a number of occasions, however, Pasolini admitted his fascination with the purely sexual dimension of his film.


DAVID EHRENSTEIN: And its because of this sexual dimension the film has been dismissed by all and sundry.


Needless to say, aforementioned all and sundry have never read Sade. Had they done so they would realize that Pasolini wasnt recreating his own sexual fantasies, but rather staging a very small selection of the sexual fantasies inscribed in Sades massive, very much unfinished work. It is absolutely imperative to read Sade in order to understand what Pasolini has done with his text.


In the three-volume Grove Press edition of Sades writings there are photographs of the ruins La Ciste Chateau the site that inspired The 120 Days of Sodom taken by Alain Resnais.  Resnais was, of course, being a good surrealist. Sade isnt evoked in his work. Buñuel recreates a scene from Justine in The Milky Way, and in the popular cultural imagination Sade is Patrick Magee. The Marat/Sade is a very important piece of theatrical literature. But the Sade it depicts is quite selective. Its better, however, than Kaufmanns Quills, which merely romanticizes Sade treating him as a naughty book writer. Huxley makes this mistake as well in his otherwise sublime After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. He seems to imagine The 120 Days which he obviously hadnt read was something Marion Davies would have found exciting. Its not. Its an impossible book. And Pasolini has made of it an impossible film.


NOEL VERA: Not just an impossible film an absolute, a sort of focal node for the far end of what's possible in cinema. Pasolini takes the text, and (Ehrenstein is right, this should be read first) and infuses it with a breathtaking visual beauty that you do not find in the book, which is a relentless cataloguing of perversions and violence in minute detail that has more of the spirit of the auditorthan the artist in it an obsessive dwelling upon long beyond and way past any notion that this can be in the least bit arousing, much less entertaining.


But there's a fascinating power in Sades thoroughness, this need to imagine every kind of horror and present it in a kind of barely credible tableau (the four friends, for one, insist on kidnapping upper-class or high-born victims, and are perfectly confident that there will be no consequence to this). Pasolinis achievement is to give us a sense, a whiff, of Sades thoroughness (as opposed to merely presenting it complete and uncut, which might have resulted in a ten-hour film), then investing it with the kind of aestheticizing transformation cinema can give Sades tableaus, in effect, backgrounded by Dante Feretti's brilliant colors, surrounded by Osvaldo Desideris luxurious sets, scored to Ennio Morriconi, Frederic Chopin, and Carl Orff's music, infused overall with Pasolinis cool, equally pitiless sensibility.


Then, as David mentions, theres the shift in locale, from some fantasy neverland located outside of France (Resnais may have taken pictures, but Im sure Sade embellished on the actual location) to a Fascist vacation chateau, equating this kind of horror with that particular regime. Obvious connection, maybe, heavy-handed, maybe, but it does bring Sade up with considerable credibility to the 20th century, the denizens of whom I believe he speaks to the clearest.