Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times

Last year NoShame released another giallo box set focusing on a director (Emilio Miraglia) that might leave even casual fans of the genre scratching their heads (the other being Luciano Ercoli’s “Death Box Set”). Miraglia was far from a prolific director, but did put out a pair of noteworthy gialli in the height of its glory: “The Night Evelyn Came Out of Her Grave” (1971) and “The Red Queen Kills Seven Times” (1972). NoShame’s impressive box set comes with a “killer queen” action figure making it officially more awesome than the complimentary log that comes with the “Twin Peaks: Special Edition.” I’ll be reviewing “The Red Queen Kills Seven Times” today with a review of the other film to follow at some indefinite future date.

“The Red Queen” is a real winner, and lets you know just how good it will be without wasting any time. The introductory prologue features a little blonde girl (named Kitty Wildenbrück) playing with her doll. Her mean brunette sister, Evelyn Wildenbrück, steals it and runs into their father’s cozy study, within a dwelling that looks like a manor mutated into a castle. There, to the horror of her sister and wheelchair-bound father, she proceeds to stare at a creepy painting of a black queen stabbing a red queen and then stabs the doll repeatedly while screaming “I hate you!”

[Image: (bottom) I don’t think this girl is acting…]

The scene so neatly summarizes the whole of the human condition that Miraglia might as well have stopped the film there, but he goes on. The patriarch gathers the two girls onto his paralyzed lap and relates to them the terrible story behind the painting: every 100 years a pair of sisters who are intense rivals undergo a terrible curse. The “black” sister kills the “red” one, only to have the young woman reborn as a vengeful spirit that butchers seven victims, ending with the “black” sister. No worries though; the next iteration of the cycle is more than ten years away. The audience is left to wonder if this seemingly inconsequential backstory may, in fact, be foreshadowing some later event. Hmm…
[Image: The dialog subtly helps the viewer to make the connection between the painting and the present day characters.]

The opening credits play as a montage of Evelyn being mean to Kitty establishes, beyond any residual doubt, that a rivalry exists between the two girls. The scenes show Evelyn perpetrating such merciless acts of unadulterated evil as pushing Kitty out of a swing and jumping out of a bush at her. One can sense that a brutal slaying will not be long in coming (at least not in terms of screen time).

Sure enough, a camera cut and a decade+ later Kitty is all grown up (played by the beautiful Barbara Bouchet of “Don’t Torture a Duckling”) and listening to a lawyer execute her father’s will on the very year the curse is supposed to occur. Evelyn is not around, but it turns out that Kitty has another sister named Franszika (Marina Malfatti) who is also getting a piece of the pie. However, the lawyer announces that their father did not want any of the inheritance distributed until a year after his death.
[Image: Barbara Bouchet as adult Kitty]

The two sisters are a little nervous and jumpy, since they are both well aware that Kitty recently killed Evelyn, albeit accidentally. They are even more rattled when Evelyn’s drug-addicted psychotic ex-boyfriend (Fabrizio Moresco, the “giallo Steve Buscemi” who also has a role in “Death Walks at Midnight”) appears from behind a door to demand her whereabouts.

[Image: Kitty “accidental” bashes Evelyn’s skull against a statue and lets the corpse drift down river, witnessed by Franszika and Franszika’s husband, Tobias.]

We soon learn that Kitty and Franszika work in the fashion industry along with their friend’s Rosemary and Lulu (and every other female character in a giallo ever).

[Image: (from left to right) Lulu, Rosemary, Kitty and a girl who considers a pink-and-purple-striped turtleneck to be the peak of high fashion.]

When a bevy of gorgeous corpses start turning up of people close to Kitty, everyone in the know starts to whisper about the Wildenbrück curse. While I would not normally jump to any conclusions without irrefutable evidence and due process of law, the killer is seen and described as looking exactly like Evelyn in a red queen cape.

[Images: The red queen (top) fifteen seconds from killing, (middle) eight seconds from killing and (bottom) one second from killing.]

Though the plot might seem pretty cut (heh heh) and dry from the outside, Miraglia has plenty of twists to unleash. He goes on a touch too long with his stream of bloody murders (probably extended just to get the coveted number 7 into the title) and unnecessarily holds back on the delicious plot. However, I felt he kept me ravenous for more as opposed to starving. The tidbits he throws into the audience grow meatier and meatier. Miraglia ultimately manages to complicate and unbalance our expectations, while keeping us engaged and excited. Perhaps his neatest trick, which borders on showboating, occurs when he seemingly unveils the truth in a climatic moment and then immediately trumps it with second revelation a single scene (and less than a minute) later.

[Image: Could the killer queens be just as much a victim, misunderstood and unloved…?]

Emilio Miraglia’s camerawork and inventive, playful style is enormously entertaining to watch. To a greater extent than Ercoli’s duo of films, which was occasionally carried more by Susan Scotts performance, there is a sense that Miraglia was closer to developing a unique visual style and might have gone on to greater success. His sets feel like a clash between gothic architecture and sixties mod. The Wildenbrück manor broods in dark earth tones and sharp edges (emphasized by a pair of deaths at the hands of a cornice and a wrought-iron gate, respectively), while the interiors and fashion are colorful and curvy, slathered in swaths of trippy stripes.

[Images: A continuum that shows the ease with which Miraglia moves between old world and new world sensibilities of design and color theory.]

The fashion is an inextricable element of “Red Queen’s” appeal, indulging in extremes of kitsch rivaled by only a few other giallo. Much of the credit must go to costume designer Lorenzo Baraldi (his credits include “Portrait of a Nude Woman” (1981) which I would think would not have needed his services) who was clearly at least as interested in radical color combinations and dizzying op art as he was in showing off the assets of cast.

And now for a montage:

[Image: An admittedly excessive fashion montage. And yes… those are pentagon glasses.]

The dazzling glint of candy-colored plastic, the garish hues of trendy blouses and the bright flash of fashion photography seems to suggest a world of light and freedom bordering on hedonism. Though there is a brief scene of nudity (that occurs with near-comic suddenness), the film relishes clothes far more than skin (it even received a PG rating in the US). Miraglia would seem to suggest that fashion and design is a tool for individuality, assertion and power rather than merely Mulvey’s “to-be-looked-at-ness.” It is interesting to note that almost all the roles of power (and most of the roles in general) belong to women. Even the killer must don the queen’s cape to murder.

Most of the characters are involved in the process of creation and production, with Lulu being the only fulltime model. Lulu is also depicted the most negatively and while her sexuality makes her one of the most exploited characters in the film, she is at least as often the predator as the prey when it comes to relationships.

There are a handful of male roles, most of them rather minor and lacking in agency, including Mr. Wildenbrück (trapped in a wheelchair), Tobias (who limps), Evelyn’s boyfriend (devastated by addiction) and the usual ineffective police officers. Even Martin, Kitty’s fiancé and the presumed male lead, gets scarce screen time. He can’t marry Kitty because he must look after his aggressive, threatening wife, who has been committed to an asylum. Though he puts in some investigative footwork, he is ultimately unable to save Kitty when she needs him most.

[Image: Ugo Pagliai as Martin Hoffmann, Kitty’s boyfriend.]

I would suggest that Miraglia does not even set up the central themes of his film in terms of gender opposition. From the outset, he defines the curse (the centerpiece of the plot) as the rivalry of two women. Men only enter into the picture incidentally. The new-found (well, kind of new) freedom of the career girl and her powers of creative expression as both producer and consumer replaces the standard conceit of male heroism, machismo and chivalry.

The villain, then, is really nothing but the remnants of the past; the old world primitivism represented by the medieval architecture, faded paintings and an ancient curse. The thrilling finale even takes place in a flooding tomb (complete with rats pouring from the drains in advance of the water) filled with rot and decay. Then, too, the sisters must contend with the past in another form: their childhood memories and guilty consciences.

[Images: Kitty, who has not actually donned her symbolic color for most of the film, wears a bold contrast to the dour concluding sets.]

“The Red Queen Kills Seven Times” comes together much better than the average giallo. The director, screenwriter, cinematographer, costume designer and composer (a terrific score by Bruno Nicolai) are all in sync with each other. They create a thriller that looks and sounds as it should with a script that actually works and enough acting chops to pull it off. The film is not particularly scary, and it has more silliness than your average Argento or Fulci flick, but it is also likely to have broader appeal.

Walrus Rating: 8.0

[Images: Well, broader appeal to people who don’t mind shots like these.]

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Knee-jerk Response to It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

It has been a while since I last foamed at the mouth as the result of a terrible movie, but “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” (1963), the subject of this knee-jerk reaction, has me absolutely rabid with anger, frustration and condemnation. The film had a lot going for it, and I knew that it was held in very high regard by some. It ranks as the 75th highest grossing film (adjusting for inflation) and sports what is arguably the greatest comedic all-star cast ever assembled: Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jimmy Durante, Peter Falk, Buddy Hackett, Buster Keaton (though he doesn’t appear in the surviving cut), Jerry Lewis, Ethel Merman, Carl Reiner, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, The Three Stooges and many, many more. Spencer Tracy plays the “straight” counterbalance as a police chief.

At the beginning of the film, a speeding driver flies off a cliff and is fatally injured. Before he dies he tells a crowd of disparate onlookers about $350,000 buried under a “big W” in Santa Rosita Park. They initially pretend not to believe the “ravings” of the dying man, but after some arguing, the inevitable free-for-all race begins. Meanwhile, an underappreciated police chief tracks their movements and prepares to arrest them all after they’ve led him to the money.

It isn’t a lot of plot, so one would figure that the screenwriters were leaving plenty of room for non-stop hilarity, especially considering that they had 161 minutes (192 in the original cut), Cinerama’s massive 1:2.35 aspect ratio, almost $10 million dollars to budget and the combined talents of American’s then-best-known comedians to work with. However, after ill-advisedly sticking it out to the end of this hulking, limping trainwreck of flat, uninspired gags and pointless face-dropping I had nary a single laugh to show for it. If failed potential was the sole standard of judging films, this would be the worst comedy I’ve ever seen. Objectively, it is not quite the worst, but it certainly stands as a testament to unfunniness throughout the ages, effectively exposing how dull and dated mid-20th century mainstream comedians now appear.

Can we expect the same thing in another couple of decades when we look back at the closing of the century? Probably. Am I making irresponsible blanket statements in a fit of temporary, bad-movie-inspired wrath? Sure. However, the fact that not a single actor of the dozens present in Mad+++ rises above the film’s mirthless, vacuous trajectory and stale, embarrassing script gives me reason to brood. Ron Liddle’s recent op-ed in the Times Online reflects exactly how I feel, lamenting the deaths (metaphorically speaking) of comedian Mel Brooks (who secretly died at birth but walked around as a zombie, strangling jokes for most of his career) and Woody Allen (who continues to thrash around on the floor, but considering that all his recent films stink like rotting corpses I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s just autonomic twitches). At least we laughed at the time, right? Oh, wait… I wasn’t alive then…

In fairness, leaving each comedian to explore their own individual style and perfect their own routines seems to resist the erosion of time far better than cramming famous names and faces (not so famous anymore) into an attempt at the ultimate comedy. Many comedians who crafted highly personal and idiosyncratic styles are, paradoxically, the ones that transcend time and audiences. Conversely, director Stanley Kramer’s attempt to broaden the humorscape enough that every American could understand the blunt, cartoon antics and unadorned stereotypes simply bulldozer’s every potential high point.

He had the hubris to declare his film “a comedy to end all comedies,” which, if it had been true, surely would have succeeded only in the apocalyptic sense. Perhaps his travesty was the culmination of some dark art meant to tear an entrance into a dimension of pure unfunny that would suck the laughter from the throats of every man, woman and child. Kramer should have known better (and Spencer Tracy, too, for that matter) having worked on far superior efforts. The director worked best wielding another type of hammer and hitting viewers over the head with preachy, but decent, liberal odes like “The Defiant Ones,” “Inherit the Wind,” “Judgment at Nuremburg,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”

I’ve let myself digress far from the actual movie and descended into the type of name-calling and hyperbole that isn’t particularly informative to those who haven’t yet seen the film (but it sure is fun and possibly therapeutic). However, if you’re with me so far and not yet convinced, then there’s still a chance I could save you from seeing “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” should it try to mug you in a video store or break-and-enter through your TV screen. Here is a mere handful of specific reasons to charter a course around Kramer’s lifeless World:

First of all, it is probably a safe bet that no comedy should break the 2.5 hour barrier. Even if our gut is being exercised with healthy bouts of chuckling, our butts complain after sitting through too much slapstick. Mad+++ makes no attempt to justify its running time except its vainglorious desire to be crowned epic-emperor of the genre. The untrimmed fat hangs languidly from this bulging mass, with repetition used to fill the time the screenwriter’s have neglected. You’ll be subjected to looking at endless “wacky” car chases and listening to redundant reiterations of each character’s over-established one-trait personalities.

Ethel Merman is particularly bad as a shrieking, bossy mother-in-law (a cliché Hollywood can’t seem to get over) who leads a backwards march into the sexist depths of the distant past. Jonathon Winters gets to wave his arms around and turn his face red about a dozen times, which is probably supposed to tie into physical humor somehow. Sid Caesar plays every alpha-male husband gag as if he’d already resigned himself to being replaced by a robot. Most of the characters get trapped in subplots that don’t progress even though the inter-cutting revisits them multiple times. One gets an impression that we are watching has-been jokesters mired in quicksand. Spencer Tracy’s plot thread seems to move in particular slow-motion with all his words and deeds predestined within the first few minutes and telegraphed so loudly to the audience that no surprise or satisfaction is possible.

The movie attempts to dash forwards head-long, but ends up moving in fits and starts. The auto stunts and “quick-witted” dialogue (also not funny and lacking in chemistry, dynamism and cleverness) can’t pull the pacing out of the narrative quagmires. In the film, there is a scene where a car breaks down in a tunnel and we see a single tire come rolling out of the darkness. That last tire, unable to come to rest after the crash, captures the unmerited tenacity with which the film continues through the final 45 minutes. Except that in the case of the film, there isn’t even momentum to carry it onward.

The single, interminably repeated theme is that people are greedy and selfish. Perhaps that would explain why all these comedians took the sizable paychecks they were offered for this film. Perhaps the producers flattered and told them they were “comedy greats” that needed to be immortalized in this ultimate “masterpiece.” I wonder if any of them had any precognition of how poorly it would hold up.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ramble on Westerns

Having recently though about what I like to read in other blogs, I’ve decided to introduce a new series called Rambles. These will be more casual, free-form posts in which I’ll talk a little about what I’ve been thinking, doing and watching in regard to films. It will give me a chance to briefly mention some of the movies I don’t intend to review and also to spout opinions that aren’t necessarily about a single picture. Hopefully it will provide a little extra personality to the Film Walrus, although feel free to skip them if this type of thing bores you (they’ll be clearly marked).

For my first ramble, I’d like to talk a little about westerns and my relationship with them, because they have been on my mind a lot recently. I’ve also been viewing (and enjoying) far more than I usually do from a variety of cycles including the classical (“The Naked Spur”), the revisionist (“Heaven’s Gate”), the spaghetti western (“Sabata”) and the contemporary (“3:10 to Yuma”).

The western has traditionally been on of my least favorite genres. Even when I became seriously interested in film I often consciously avoided them because even “the greats” (especially those by John Ford) left me unimpressed at best and incensed at worst. I found them to be uninspired, ugly and dated. I was annoyed by the simplistic morality and disagreed with the painfully conservative patriarchal model that preached isolationism, vigilantism, imperialism and sexism as obvious moral rights. Plenty of them have an implicit fear of progress, technology, intellectualism and diversity. Throw in the racist depictions of American Indians, flat stock characters and low production values and you have a pretty unappetizing menu.

I still don’t like many of the first wave, the B/W B-movies from before the 1940’s and I’m yet to get over my disdain for Ford, Wayne and much of the classical regulars. However, discovering the revisionist American westerns of the 60’s and 70’s and the underrated spaghetti westerns awakened me to a whole new set of possibilities. The often brutal amorality of the protagonists was a breath of fresh air and the realism-smashing creativity provided something to get excited and interested in. There was Ennio Morricone’s brilliant scores (and other composers with daring, grandiose music) and plenty of darkly charismatic characters that weren’t just self-important meatheads (every John Wayne character) or lame Jesus surrogates (Shane). I don’t think that expressionistic violence and cynical anti-heroes are absolutely necessary to keep me entertained, but it took a fundamental shake-up to the underlying assumptions and conservative approach latched to the genre before I could see its more subtle attractions.

There are still duds amongst the more modern westerns and gems in the old-school oeuvre. I’m remain skeptical of whether the wheat-to-chaff ratio makes investigating your average western worthwhile, but these days I do occasionally get excited about one. There is something fascinating about the artificiality (across all generations of the cycle) and the industry/audience obsession with this quintessential “genre.” There is so much tradition; so many clichés and rules that span setting, plot and themes. Perhaps only Tolkien fantasy comes close the repetition of so many arbitrary (certainly history provides only the slimmest takeoff point) elements. By comparison, science-fiction has almost no rules and spans into an enormous array of subgenres and unique variations.

What this allows is a unique opportunity to examine an artist(s) at work within the very narrow confines of self-imposed constraints, a bit like learning to appreciate Dogma 95, a nursery of bonsai trees or some equally specific craft. Rather than attacking westerns as repetitious, I’m coming much closer to enjoying the minor variations on old formulas, the idiosyncratic touches on basic stereotypes and the once-invisible presence of specific styles, techniques and influences that distinguish each film.

It still doesn’t make the average western rival the occasional creative spark that leaps from the nearly uniform tangle of wires. My favorite westerns are still some of the most conspicuous exceptions to the old formulas: “Dead Man,” “American Astronaut,” “El Topo,” “Django,” “Keoma” and “Johnny Guitar.” However, I can now tolerate a much higher number of films, and adopt a simpler aesthetic appreciation for doing an oft-done cliché particularly well.

This brings me to “3:10 to Yuma” a western remake in theaters now (Sept 2007). It doesn’t seriously vary or subvert the genre in any drastic way, but it is quite brilliant in its use of character dynamics, scene construction (not just the sets, but the situations, atmosphere, blocking and cinematography) and not-quite-what-your-expecting genre devices. Not all of the recent attempts at reviving the genre (“Open Range,” “The Proposition,” “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”) have impressed me unduly, but this one did. I’m actually makes me excited to see what new cinematic stranger might shamble into town next.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Hall of Strangeness Part XX

The Night Porter – (Liliani Cavani) Max (Dirk Bogarde) leads a dull but manageable existence as a 50’s-era hotel clerk who occasionally satisfies the needs of rich female clients. His long-hidden past as an SS officer for the Nazis is suddenly revisited when he runs into a woman he sexually tortured at a concentration camp, now married to a famous composer. Pressured by an ex-Nazi conspiracy to kill all witnesses to their former crimes, he confronts the woman. Against all logic they find themselves insatiably drawn into their former relationship. An intriguing, intelligent and surprisingly non-exploitive film about sadomasochism that was despised by most Western critics but embraced abroad.
Artistry: *** Fun: * Strangeness: ***

Nocturne – (Edwin L. Marin) This classic era film noir was a hit in 1946, but hardly gets talked about or noticed anymore. Its strange little eccentricities make it interesting enough to be more than a historical footnote. Lt. Joe Warner (George Raft) is investigating the suicide a pianist, but comes to believe that it was murder. The weird part is that there are ten suspects… all named Delores! Joe lives with his mom, who takes a surprising obsession in his work and can often be heard explaining police forensics to her garden club. Joe gets suspended for relatively mild tactics and ends up falling in love with his prime suspect before getting to the twisty truth. Artistry: ** Fun: *** Strangeness: ***

On the Silver Globe – (Andrzej Zulawski) In 1976, Polish mad-genius Zulawski attempted to film a four hour adaptation of his grand-uncle’s “Lunar Trilogy,” widely regarded as the greatest work of science fiction never translated into English. After shooting for two years, the footage was seized by the communist authorities and Zulawski went into exile. A decade later, he recovered the surviving 166 minutes of film and edited them into a semblance of his original vision. The result is a multi-generation mythical messiah epic of unrivaled ambition (the scope of “2001” and “The Lord of the Rings” pale in comparison) wherein the stranded lunar astronauts of the opening scenes have become revered gods by the warring religious sects of the civilizations they birthed… within the first third of the story. At once incomprehensible and incandescent, “On the Silver Globe” make’s Zulawski’s other masterpiece, “Possession” (1981), seem like a concession to mainstream genre cinema.
Artistry: **** Fun: ** Strangeness: *****

Orpheus (1950) – (Jean Cocteau) French director Cocteau melds poetry and cinema is the bizarre 1950’s retelling of Orpheus. When Orpheus’ friend Cegeste is killed in a motorcycle assassination, he is lead through a mirror into the afterlife where he transmits obscure poetic insights to Orpheus through the radio of his Rolls Royce, now chauffeured by a friendly ghost. It gets weirder from there.
Artistry: **** Fun: * Strangeness: *****

Paperhouse – (Bernard Rose) Anna Madden is an introspective young girl who withdraws into her dreams to escape her loneliness. One day she draws a house in her notebook only to encounter a life-size simulacrum in her next dream. She soon realizes that any details she adds to the picture while awake, like trees and toys, await her when she sleeps. The consequences can vary however, as when she draws a companion in one of the upper windows and finds that by failing to depict his legs, the boy materializes as a bitter cripple. Things take a turn for the wicked worst when she attempts to draw her ever-absent father and, unable to capture the nuances of his face, she rashly scribbles out his head. The off-kilter set-design beautifully captures the disproportioned, oblique art and psychologically ruptured mind of the naïve child
Artistry: **** Fun: **** Strangeness: ****

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Review of The Saragossa Manuscript

Stumbling upon Wojciech Has’s “The Saragossa Manuscript” (1965) this past weekend (much like the protagonist’s do) was one of those happy accidents that confirms ones faith in trying new things. There is nothing quite like this eclectic Polish art film and yet it fits neatly into the development of modern cinema. It takes its influence from “1001 Arabian Nights” and H. P. Lovecraft (the source novel, however, was written by Jan Potocki long before Lovecraft) and paved the way for the elliptical structures in films by Bunuel and Lynch (“Mulholland Drive” and “Inland Empire” both owe a great debt).

“The Saragossa Manuscript” takes place in Spain, where a soldier seeks refuge in an abandoned house. There he discovers the hefty manuscript from which the story takes its name. So enthralled is he with the illustrations (which include a lobster and lesbians on opposing pages) that he begins to read the book even as cannon fire shakes debris from the roof and the enemy surrounds his position. He is joined by another soldier who declares that one of the stories is about his grandfather. He starts to read it aloud.

We transition into the life of Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) a newly appointed captain in the Walloon Guard. He is riding with two gypsy servants through the Sierra Morena Mountains to accept the assignment. Warnings that evil spirits stalk the area fail to breach his brio and he decides to spend the night on haunted ground.

[Image: Alphonse being brave and thirsty.]

When his men run off and his food runs short, he takes shelter in a rundown inn. There he is invited to feast with a pair of beautiful Muslim sisters. They inform him that he belongs to their lineage on his mother’s side and that they desire to marry him to preserve the pure bloodline. Alphonse’s Catholic faith wanes quickly at the prospects of wealth and a threesome.

[Image: Zoom in to ogle the sisters’ enormous earings.]

When he wakes up, he is lying near the hanging corpses of two criminals in a field of skulls and destruction. Was it all a dream? As the events begin to repeat themselves in a new variation, Alphonse tries to maintain his courage. Later, when he tries to escape the area, he is captured by the Spanish Inquisition. Will he be ensnared forever within the curse of that benighted land?

From this minimal introduction, one can not grasp the scope and depth of “The Saragossa Manuscript.” Alphonse’s enigmatic dilemma (is he trapped within a nightmarish scheme by some twisted conspiracy, or within an actual nightmare, or within a dream of a nightmare?) is just the tip of the iceberg. The elliptical plot digresses down multiple paths, creating a dense network of vaguely interconnected stories that branch into other adventures.

By my count, there were two regular flashbacks, two double-nested flashbacks, three triple-nested flashbacks, two quadruple-nested flashbacks and even a quintuple-nested flashback. That’s not even including returns to previously interrupted flashbacks or ones that wind around and meet back into each other. One of the DVD editions comes with a structure diagram to keep track of the plots, something which I found myself recreating to organize my notes. Characters who appear to be the main protagonist fade into framing devices as they tell or listen to some new yarn. Director Has scales up and down the web, sometimes to help us out, or to expand on a theme or to stitch a loose end into the grand tapestry or sometimes just to make things more confusing.

Throughout the movie, the titular tome makes many appearances (despite the fact that the unfolding events are supposedly a part of its long-winded script) and it lurks in the mise-en-scene like a ghostly presence. Perhaps it is the very specter that haunts Alphonse. At one point, the Walloon guardsman almost spoils his own ending by reading its pages and in another instance he is allowed to write in it.

[Image: A scheming Cabalist reprimands his sister for nearly ruining the finale by leaving the book (in which he is currently a character) lying in the open.]

Further complicating the narrative game at play is the asymmetrical configuration. Character’s adventures first take over and dominate our attention solely, but gradually they lose control of their adventure and later appear only irregularly. Some tales conclude neatly while others are left hanging or kept ambiguous. In fact, the soldiers who originally open the book are as trapped as anyone else, since they are locked into reading the subsequent stories and never revisited. And what are we to think about the soldier’s introductory claim that “This story is about my grandfather, Alphonse” considering the way Alphonse’s story ends?

Complimenting this intricate design are visual compositions equally based around depth and layers. Has must have grown up with a strict father who often admonished him frequently, “Young Wojciech, even if you are filming a sprawling landscape, always keep something in the foreground to balance the shot.” The effect helps keep the film visually interesting, aided by Mieczyslaw Jahoda’s crisp B/W cinematography and a restless, wandering camera that seems to glide effortlessly through the interconnected tales.

At exactly three hours in length, this elaborate Polish experiment should be terribly boring, but it’s not. Each of the sub-stories is entertaining in its own right with enough meta material to merit tying them all together. Without seeming uneven or erratic, the film manages to encompass horrific, gothic, romantic, mystic, comic and erotic elements. There are even a couple buckles swashed. I think that given the motifs of death, conspiracy and the supernatural that the film could best be called fantasy-horror, but the genre boundaries are never very clear.

Ultimately “The Saragossa Manuscript” is one of those avant-garde puzzle box films that I’m extremely fond of, but also a bold, unabashed celebration of the storytelling art. Many people will give up within the first third of the film, but others will stick it all the way through, alternating between clapping their hands and scratching their skulls.

Walrus Rating: 9.5

Monday, September 10, 2007

Iceberg Arena: Celestial Entranceways

Technically speaking, there is very little in common between the content of “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) and “Gates of Heaven” (1980). The first is a big-budget western epic with a now-famous cast and the latter is a low-budget documentary about the relocation of a pet cemetery. The fact that the two movies bear similar names and were released exactly a month apart (Nov. 19 and Oct. 19 respectively) must be regarded as pure coincidence, but it is upon this coincidence that I am basing today’s Iceberg Arena comparison.

If I put in my mental aerobics tapes and do some serious stretching, I suppose I can come up with some other commonalities. The films were both landmarks in important auteur careers and changed perceptions about the role of directors and the viability of their respective genres. Both movies performed unexpectedly at the box office, but came into their own on the small screen.

Gates of Heaven:

“Gates of Heaven” (1980) marked the feature debut of director Errol Morris, now widely regarded as one of the greatest working documentary makers after such brilliant works as “The Thin Blue Line” (1988) and “The Fog of War” (2003). As an amusing side-story, prior to completing this movie Errol Morris had made the acquaintance of Werner Herzog. The German director stated that if Morris ever finished a film, he’d eat his shoe. Les Blank’s documentary short “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” shows Herzog true to his word (an authorized torrent is available here under "les blank").

The inspiration for this film was a headline Morris came across: “450 Dead Pets Going To Napa Valley.” Morris traveled to the city and began shooting footage about the current presence and the possible relocation of a California pet cemetery. Morris’s choice of topic and approach were groundbreaking at the time. He took a rather apolitical, unspectacular suburban story and delves into it through a process of interviewing that often strays, digresses and travels tangentially to the main “scoop.”

What fascinates Morris is clearly not the topic itself so much as the people involved. Their inoffensive quirks, personal reactions and often comical idiosyncrasies become the focus of a humanist odyssey into the relationships between mankind and their domestic animals. Extensive interviews introduce us to the owner of the pet cemetery, a competitor who “reprocesses” animal corpses, a developer who wants the property, vets, taxidermists and the many pet owners who share their loneliness and happiness; their obsessions, dreams and eccentricities.

At 85 minutes, the film runs fairly lean, with Morris able to pick and choose from a vast repository of interview footage. His approach isn’t always much to look at, but his honed editing, keen observation of human interest and natural humor and the somewhat stream-of-conscious all-over pursuit of whatever seemed interesting to follow up on, established Morris as documentary auteur. His film, without particularly compromising that bare minimum of integrity the subject warranted, threw out the detached elitism of classical documentaries and ushered in an era of adventuring free-wheeling directors who found exotic subcultures without needing to travel to Africa or South America. Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” (1989) owed a clear debt, adapting the approach into the idea of the director as muck-raking star.

Heaven’s Gate:

Michael Cimino became a household name after the success of his Vietnam war/homecoming tale of friendship, love, suffering and disillusionment: “The Deer Hunter” (1978). The 1970’s had continued building on the indie success of films like “Easy Rider” (1969) and the concept of the auteur director with complete artistic control was reaching a peak. Cimino had long harbored a desire to shoot an ambition western based around the Johnson County War in Wyoming and United Artists agreed to fund the project for the newly “hot” director to the tune of $11.6 million. 40 million dollars and 220 hours of celluloid later, Cimino completed his epic (numbers according to wikipedia).

The nearly four hour original cut featured Kris Kristofferson as James Averill, a Harvard graduate who becomes the sheriff of a Wyoming county cracking along an economic divide. Dirt-poor immigrants fill the street and are forced to steal cattle for food from the rich land barons (led by a young Sam Waterston) who all but control the region. The Stock Growers Association (as they call themselves) hires out-of-town killers including Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken, also young) to kill some 125 immigrants that they deem to be criminals or anarchists. Hours pass before the movie gets to the real action, and Averill and Nathan pass the time by fighting for the love of a kindly whorehouse owner, Ella Watson (Isabella Huppert).

Vilmos Zsigmond helps carry the film with some fantastic cinematography. The rich, golden sunset hues give the film a rustic tone and the audience is literally swept through the enormous authentically-recreated city by the craning camera work and ever-swirling gusts of dust, dirt, steam and smoke. The art department nails the look and feel of the 1890’s burgeoning frontier town with a sense of population mass and attention to detail missing from run-of-the-mill western productions.

Despite the cohesive visual design and historical fidelity, much of the plot and character core fails to attract interest. The lead three (Kristofferson, Walken and Huppert) are quite passable, if not particularly charismatic or memorable, but the minor cast is packed with flat, uninteresting roles. Though they hardly lack for screen-time, Cimino’s script seems to treat the cast like minor chess pieces, to be moved about like props and disposed of in empty gambits at emotional reaction. Often they speak only their foreign language (with no subtitled translation) and they spend most of the film being loud and ignorant. It is hard to believe that we are expected to sympathize with the immigrants when we see them spending their time gambling on cock fights and engaging in illegal activity (granted they don’t deserve to be murdered but they shouldn’t be stealing either). In the worst of the three final battles, they are shown to be utterly incompetent and even suicidal, circling around the exposed enemy without actually firing back.

There are two other battles at the end of the film that are significantly better. They serve as a belated reward for anyone still watching and awake. The siege of a meager log cabin by an army of gunslingers is particularly strong, with the editing set to a strict metronome. The jarring visual, aural and temporal disparities highlight the abruptness and madness of the chaotic violence. The technique is used again in the final showdown, diving in and out of the combat to convey the grit and trauma of the local “war.” These scenes function like a western-era “Apocalypse Now” complete with the alienation, disillusionment, political overtones and unglamorous portrayals of the participants.

Ultimately, the monochromatic yellow-brown of the film and the grandiose composure of the picture wears out its welcome and then some. Cimino’s lingers about his ho-hums scenes in a way that all too clearly reveals his self-indulgent pride for every frame. Twenty minutes hunks go by with nothing really happening and enough extraneous material is left in to create an entire film of its own (perhaps, “Heaven’s Gate: The Masochist’s Cut”). The producers sensed this and cut 70 minutes for the theatrical release. It’s really hard to blame them. Accusations that the film was a bloated disaster can only be refuted by taking refuge behind the camera techniques and soundtrack.

After dismal box office returns (breaking the current record for loss), United Artists was on the rocks and ended up being sold to MGM. Although many other factors were involved, blame is piled on the film for ending the age of auteur directors with unlimited creative control. Michael Cimino was unofficially blacklisted along with the entire genre of westerns, which were all but abandoned for the next decade (until Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” in 1990). In the mid 80’s Channel Z aired Cimino’s 226 minute version (coining the term and concept of the “Director’s Cut”) to critical acclaim (a complete turnaround).

I tend to consider everyone to be partially in the right. Cimino really did have a breathtaking vision and driving ambition. The producers correctly assessed the project as too expensive, long and unwieldy. The critics in 1980 were right to attack the opulent waste and excruciating tempo. The critics in 1985 were right to claim that it wasn’t as bad as the initial reaction implied. The truth at the heart of it all is that “Heaven’s Gate” is just an inflated, mediocre film whose essential dynamics and message are delivered better by any number of films (say, “The Great Silence” (1968)). The sad truth is that even if it isn’t a complete disaster, who has time to drop almost four hours on a mediocre movie?


Although our competitors look a little like David and Goliath, the outcome is hardly in question. Errol Morris’s little pet project (heh) “The Gates of Heaven” is easily the superior film, with its witty and winning immersion in the minutia of suburban eccentricities. Meanwhile, Michael Cimino’s pet project is a thrashing yeti with matted fur and a weight problem. Maybe when it dies it can be buried in Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Review of The Face of Another

[Images: Yes, those are casts of ears in the background.]

Sadly, Hiroshi Teshigahara, is not a household name in the US or even in his native Japan. It isn’t a name that particularly rolls off the tongue, but I’m going to try and say it aloud more often in the hopes that he’ll get more recognition. Teshigahara was a Japanese avant-garde director who plied his trade during the rising Japanese New Wave, alongside such better known names as Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. His career was not particularly long or productive, but it did result in several intellectual and artistic oddities well worth a look.

I first became aware of Teshigahara when a 35mm print of his masterpiece, “Woman in the Dunes” (1964) played in my hometown during high school. I didn’t go see it, but I remember thinking it sounded interesting. Years later, I checked out a tattered VHS copy from a library and was simply amazed. In the film, an urban everyman finds himself trapped in a hut at the bottom of a sand pit with a mysterious native woman. The story is simple, but profound and powerful both as a literal and metaphoric idea. It could be described as erotic existentialism, and it unquestionably the best film ever made about sand. Including the book by Kobo Abe, it ranks with the contributions by Sartre and Camus as one of Existentialism great masterworks. It is also one of my favorite films.

Finding this or any other film by Teshigahara was formerly quite difficult. A box set was released in Japan a few years back, but there has not been a US DVD released. That is, until now. Criterion’s new box set (part of a banner month in July) is a must own item for lovers of Japanese cinema. It includes three collaborations between Teshigahara and Abe from their early careers including “Woman in the Dunes.” I was a little nervous about seeing “The Face of Another” (1966), because my expectations were so high. Teshigahara, however, does not disappoint.

“The Face of Another” is science-fiction, although what makes it an eye-opening experience isn’t imaginative ideas or special effects. Rather, the film exists within a surreal, psychological dreamscape that feels both alienating and timelessly relevant. It takes place in its own present day (1966) and reveals a fear of the growing phenomenon that was ‘changing the face of the world’ at that time: cosmetic surgery.

Mr. Okuyama is an engineer who has lost his face in an accident that takes place before the film begins. In the opening scene, he delivers a monologue about his injury while behind an X-ray screen. A series of uncomfortable close-ups show us only his jaw bone moving up and down as he speaks.
We next see Okuyama in his home, his face wrapped like a mummy’s in layers of bandage. Though he is almost always squarely in our sites, he doesn't squirm away from the role of a difficult and dislikable enigma. Despite his injury and traumatic experience, not to mention his physical loss and permanent stigma, he makes himself immediately unsympathetic. Though he is tormented on the inside, he can not overcome his self-loathing and cynicism and lashes out with emotional sadism. He wields his disfigurement like a weapon against his wife and boss and every stranger he meets in the street.

The aggressive, confrontational behavior of the protagonist is a wonderfully fresh and convincing performance. Actor Tatsuya Nakadai spits out every line of bitter poison through the side of his crooked lips and acts like he is anesthetizing his own physical and psychological wounds by inflicting pains upon others. In Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (1952) Kanji Watanabe uses social awkwardness to make a positive difference in the world. Mr. Okuyama, by contrast, uses it for selfish cruelty.

Okuyama falls under the spell of his nameless psychiatrist, a man who has coincidently developed a method for creating a realistic face from a special form of plastic that looks like silly putty. The doctor suggests that Okuyama become his first patient and eventually Okuyama agrees. It is clear from the outset that the doctor is more interested in the psychological effects than the medical, and he delivers long, heady discussions about the freedom and power of disguise and anonymity.

[Images: Mr. Okuyama contemplates the reconstruction of his face.]

The two men select a down-and-out average-looking man and offer him a generous fee for permission to make a cast of his face. In the man’s nervous reaction to the idea and the doctor’s ominous reassurances, one can feel the danger in the air. Soon the surgery is completed without a hitch and Mr. Okuyama’s wears a “human mask” indistinguishable from the real thing.
[Images: Facial hair is applied as the final step to disrupt the artificial smoothness of the plastic and establish total realism.]

Just as the doctor predicts, Okuyama’s identity is quickly subsumed by the power of the mask. He buys a new apartment and begins to lead two lives. He's disturbed by a yo-yo obsessed mentally handicapped girl who can identify him by smell (she lacks the high cognitive functions for facial recognition), but otherwise he relishes the freedom.

In gradual increments, however, Okuyama begins to lose touch with reality. With the anchor of identity cut loose, he drifts into immorality and insanity. His sick mind begins to formulate a master plan: to seduce his own wife. When he succeeds, and far too easily, he goes on a rampage. Deprived of contentment, he wonders through the streets with his doctor/psychiatrist/mentor and experiences a terrible vision of a faceless, soulless world.

The idea behind “The Face of Another” is not particularly new or groundbreaking. The film was clearly influenced by “The Invisible Man” (1933) and Franju’s “Eyes without a Face” (1960) and the themes would later be watered down and used for comic effect in the Jim Carrey vehicle “The Mask” (1994). If anything should deaden the shock and gravitas of the film, it would be the fact that cosmetic and reconstructive facial surgery are now commonplace in our society.

However, Teshigahara’s film still remains effective and troubling today. The reason lies in how the director chooses to present his story and the depth to which he is willing to explore the topic. Like much of great science fiction, the interest lies less in the inventions themselves than in their consequences. Abe (as the screenwriter) questions whether the face is really just the skin and hair of physical appearance, and implies that our personality is far more fragile than we’d like to admit. The film starts our dark and dims the lights until the dystopic finale. One can feel Okuyama’s mind caving in on him like the encroaching darkness of a fading candle; the mask entombing and smothering his psyche even as it opens up a whole new world to him.
[Image: Two of the psychiatrist’s patients: (top) resting on a giant ear and (bottom) experiencing a hallucinatory vertigo.]

Audiences would be hard-pressed to miss the Faustian overtones of Okuyama’s relationship with his doctor. The crafty psychiatrist is always whispering in Okuyama’s ear (e.g. "Yield to the mask. Accept it!") and ultimately sells him a second life (of sorts) at the cost of his already-vulnerable soul. In the pessimistic final scene, Okuyama seems hypnotized by the overwhelming clash of infinite freedom and inescapable fate. He makes the only decision available to an existential character in the confrontation between ‘god’ (or in this case, the devil) and its creation.

Like the X-ray from the opening seen, every thematic nuance is exposed directly to the viewer. The film is so talkative that the screenplay would read like a philosophical treatise more than a pulp novel. Okuyama and his doctor spontaneously offer surprisingly poetic and dramatic comments on their situation: "I want to extinguish every light in the world and gouge out every eye," "Loneliness and friendship will bleed into each other," "I have so many selves [that] I can't contain them all," and so forth.

To some this will be unbearably pretentious and alienating. Even art house regulars may find that the lack of subtly goes hand in hand with a paucity of charm. The up side is that Abe gives us more than enough to contemplate, bringing complexity to a subject that might have seemed trite and mining fear and horror out of what could have been mundane.

The film would not be nearly as mesmerizing without Teshigahara’s virtuoso visual style. His rigorous formalism and ultra-modernist B/W aesthetic have few comparisons except, perhaps, Imamura’s brilliant “The Pornographers” from the same year. The film uses bold contrasts of harsh solid fields and intricate patterns, often within the same frames (see the first screenshot in this review for a good example). There is a conspicuous precision to which spaces are bare and which busy. The division of the screen is made even more pronounced by the frequent use of strong lines in often unusual configurations and occasional oblique angles.

[Images: (top) The doctor’s office/lab with it’s curiously blank wall. Note the way that the line between floor and wall is blurred so that other horizontals and verticals dominate the arrangement. As an interesting side note (loaded with foreshadowing), the door in the rear left is indeed opening up unto a close-up of a woman’s hair washing onto a beach. (middle) An isosceles triangle staircase? (bottom) Okuyama’s bandages hanging to dry on clothesline. They fragment the screen (and, symbolically, his wife) in a clever manner. A lesser director would have tried to accomplish the same effect with a clichéd “shattered mirror” reflection.]

The sets evince the internal desolation of the characters, and have a structured emptiness that encompasses both the depopulated exteriors and minimalist interiors. The artificial atmosphere is used for shameless artiness and it makes the viewer quite conscious of the filmmaker’s hand. Teshigahara uses a preponderance of extreme close-ups and extreme long shots (more the former than the latter), to make the focus of scenes undeniable while still depriving the viewer of sure footing.

[Images: Our protagonist, disguised as a stranger, pursues and seduces his wife in a scene as devoid of emotions and humanity as these shots imply.]

Part of Teshigahara and Abe’s brilliance is the way they bear out their themes with impeccable detail and coverage and yet somehow deny us access to the individual elements. We never see Mr. Okuyama’s original face. We don’t get to know for sure if his wife is faithful. The doctor’s personal life and long-term goals are unrevealed. The dialog at first seems to be an explicit entrance into understanding, but ultimately it is so academic in nature that the real motivations and emotions are hopelessly obscured. Though this strategy of presentation is often quite compelling, it also means that the film is more of a message, a warning, than a fully-fleshed narrative.

Teshigahara expands the range and implications of what would otherwise be a fairly simple and straightforward message by creating a parallel story to Okuyama’s own. It is given only a fraction as much screen time, but is almost equally as fascinating. The second story follows a beautiful young girl with a disfiguring burn (presumably the result of exposure to the atomic bomb) covering one half of her face. She goes about her daily life, suffering the indignities of men (including her mentally handicapped father) who are both attracted and repelled by her. She has a close and possibly incestuous relationship with her brother. [SPOILERS here to end of paragraph] At the end of her subplot she drowns herself in the sea. Her brother witnesses her demise and stabbed by a lance of light that transforms his anguished form into a flayed bull.

[Images: I’m not even going to try and explain this one.]

As further food for thought, one can spot plenty of strong hints at a political dimension. The facial reconstruction at the heart of the plot may be a metaphor for post-war reconstruction and degradation of personal identity may be a stand in for the loss of cultural identity in a rapidly modernizing Japan. I’ll leave those themes to be addressed by those who have read Abe’s book (I plan to eventually!).

“The Face of Another” is far from straight horror or sci-fi, but it has enough of both to qualify (it is both stimulating and chilling) and to be interesting to (extremely) open-minded genre enthusiasts. I’m certain it will have much more appeal to fans or art house experimentation, ultra-modernist composition and Japanese 1960’s weirdness.

Walrus Rating: 8

And if you liked "A Face of Another" there's no reason to stop there. By all means check out "Woman in the Dunes" or "Pitfall" as well. Both are, in my opinion, superior even to this fine work. I consider the DVD box set to be one of the best releases this year.