Friday, May 30, 2008

Has the Sci-Fi Genre Been Robbed of Oscars?

In my review of Going My Way, I mentioned the rarity of genre films amongst Best Picture Academy Award winners. Specifically, science fiction, fantasy and horror have traditionally been left out, winning 0, 1 (Lord of the Rings) and 1 (Silence of the Lambs) respectively. In a conversation with Mad Dog afterwards, he wondered what sci-fi/fantasy films I thought deserved to win.

As a confirmed sci-fi nerd, I decided to tackle the question systematically. Besides, if we want to avoid opening up paradoxes then we’ll need a clear agenda for using our time machines and mind control rays to correct Oscar voting.

Here is my plan: I’m going to flip through the 80 year history of the Oscars and retroactively award trophies to the sci-fi genre. This is perfectly in keeping with the traditional academy practice of giving awards to the people who should have won them in the past. Since I am not bound by the byzantine rules that govern the academy, I’m going to do things my way. I’m not constraining myself to the historical nominee lists and I’m going to consider foreign films as eligible in the year they were released.

To make things even more interesting, I’m going to issue statues in three minerals:

1) Gold – For any year in which I think a science-fiction film should have won.
2) Silver – For any year in which I can name at least one science-fiction film that I like better than the film that won (even if it was not the year’s overall best).
3) Bronze – For any year in which I can name at least one fantasy or horror film that I like better than the film that won. These have to be films outside the realm of reasonable reality. Thus a horror film about a serial killer does not count, but one about zombies or pyrokinesis would. Similarly, a medieval epic would be ineligible, but a fantasy involving magic or non-human races would.

Only one award (the best possible) will be given for each year.

For each ceremony I will list the year followed by the original winner in parentheses. My comments and awards will come after. For many dates I’m limited by the breadth of SF I’ve seen, which is a little lacking for the 1950’s and before. Any help is appreciated. On silvers and bronzes, if you’re curious about what film I would have ranked #1, you’ll have to wait for a future series (or just ask in the comments).

Year by Year Revisions:

1928 (Wings): Wings is solid entertainment, but no competition for the landmark Metropolis. Gold trophy.

1929 (Broadway Melody): Even the relatively silly sci-fi adventure Woman in the Moon trumps Broadway Melody’s musical tripe, which rode in on novelty, but is outclassed by nearly every song and dance picture of the 1930’s. Silver trophy.

1930 (All Quiet on the Western Front)

1931 (Cimarron): The prototype for all bloated blockbusters that got showered with molten Oscar gold by short-sighted voters, this overblown western is now universally regretted by critics. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, however, are still considered classics. There were even better foreign films in 1931, but in practicality they never win, so a gold trophy it is.

1932 (Grand Hotel): Critics seem to look down their noses at the now-passe Grand Hotel today, but I don’t know; I kind of like it. A whole slew of horror classics came out, including The Mummy, Vampyr, and The Most Dangerous Game, but I think the best answers are either Freaks the Dr. Moreau adaptation Island of Lost Souls, both of which contain sci-fi elements for the silver.

1933 (Cavalcade): King Kong has stood the test of time far better than Cavalcade, even though its effects are now more charming than terrifying. I can just imagine Kong crushing decade-spanning odes to patriotism and class unity with his over-sized hairy paws. For the record, I consider any giant monster movie with a raging beast more than ten times human size to be sci-fi (plus there's the whole lost world angle), so I don't want to hear any arguments that it shouldn't get a silver at the least. The gold, however, could be argued, but who would dare argue with the mighty Kong?

1934 (It Happened One Night)

1935 (Mutiny on the Bounty): I’m a big fan of this one, but I’d have to say that Bride of Frankenstein is about on the same level. Hell, it’s even better than its original. We’ll call this a silver to stay on the safe side.

1936 (The Great Ziegfeld): Things to Come for the silver. I’m not a huge fan of either, but they have their moments. At heart, I think I like the forward-looking Things to Come more than the antiquated nostalgia, with which I can't relate, that swells forth from Ziegfeld.

1937 (The Life of Emile Zola): Fantasy favorites Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Lost Horizon are in the running, but The Life of Emile Zola is pretty decent. No statues.

1938 (You Can’t Take It with You): Not one of Capra's best, but a sparse year as far as I can tell. I could use some help.

1939 (Gone with the Wind)

1940 (Rebecca): Dr. Cyclops, perhaps the only real sci-fi entry this year, isn't even close.

1941 (How Green Was My Valley): Anything is better than this miserable Irish mining family rubbish that notoriously stole the Oscar from Citizen Kane and Maltese Falcon. Man Made Monster, aka The Electric Man is frankly terrible, but it will have to do unless someone knows of anything better.

1942 (Mrs. Miniver): So sue me if I’d rather see a movie about a lady who transforms into a panther under emotional stress than one about a lady who transforms into a less frivolous woman under the threat of German bombs. “Cat People” takes the bronze.

1943 (Casablanca)

1944 (Going My Way): Only because I haven’t seen a single SF film from 1944, although you can read my sarcastic claim that “Going My Way” counts, here.

1945 (Lost Weekend)

1946 (The Best Years of Our Life): A truly great film, and one of the best WWII "coming home" stories out there. Just the same, I’d probably put the fantasy classic “A Matter of Life and Death” on a short list of 1946 films that I like better. Bronze trophy.

1947 (Gentleman’s Agreement): There are at least five film noirs I can think of that I prefer to “Gentleman’s Agreement” (not a bad film itself), but to nab the silver I'll have to go with the ultra-obscure but brilliantly surreal and prescient Krakatit.

1948 (Hamlet)
1949 (All the King’s Men)

1950 (All About Eve): All About Eve is too good to try toppling, but the 1950's began to usher in some legitimately interesting SF beginning with Panic in the Streets, DOA, Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M.

1951 (An American in Paris): I’ve never understood the enduring popularity of this one. I’ll take The Thing from Another World any day, but even better is The Man in the White Suit. It's about as soft as sci-fi gets, but it works. Gold trophy.

1952 (The Greatest Show on Earth): Despite the ambitious title, it seems like I should be able to outdo it, yet my SF knowledge fails me for 1952.

1953 (From Here to Eternity): A great year for B-movies: Robot Monster, War of the Worlds, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Then there is the largely fantasy-based 5000 Fingers of Dr. T which includes an atomic device (which mean science, right!). Ultimately I'm going to award a silver award based on my love for little-known Brit B-movie gem The Four Sided Triangle. Not to many people would agree that it is better than From Here to Eternity, but its often the case that everyone except me is wrong.

1954 (On the Waterfront): Much as I enjoy Them!...

1955 (Marty): I don't want to put any spoilers here, but I think Kiss Me, Deadly might qualify (discussion in the comments section). The excellent The Quatermass Xperiment provides a more explicitly SF silver.

1956 (Around the World in 80 Days): Forbidden Planet. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Earth Versus the Flying Saucers. This one is too easy and AtWi80d helps by aging quite poorly. It’s kind of a shame that one of Jules Verne’s least impressive and utterly un-sci-fi novels should be his only adaptation to win. Again, my absolute top contenders are all foreign films, so we'll assume academy jingoism should have sealed a gold.

1957 (The Bridge on the River Kwai): The Incredible Shrinking Man is not to be missed, but it isn't in the same order of magnitude as David Lean.

1958 (Gigi): Here's the year that Jules Verne should have won, for The Fabulous world of Jules Verne by Karel Zeman. Mostly based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Myserious Island, but with Zeman adding some of his own stop-motion inspirations to boot. Also good are Fiend without a Face, The Blob and I Bury the Living.

1959 (Ben-Hur): I’d like to think I could take all 212 minutes of Ben-Hur without batting a eyelash, but I’m getting little help from the year’s lineup: On the Beach? The Wasp Woman? Plan 9 from Outer Space? I'll have to call upon The Tingler, a gulity pleasure, though it means that I make gimmick-king William Castle a best-picture winner.

1960 (The Apartment)

1961 (West Side Story): I love West Side Story, but the technically-innovative and marvelously whimsical Czech mixed-media Baron von Munchausen adaption Baron Prasil is something I love even more.

1962 (Lawrence of Arabia): Many would disagree, but I know I have allies in thinking The Manchurian Candidate is worthy of the prize. Should brainwashing and mind control be considered sci-fi? I compel you to think so! Gold trophy!

1963 (Tom Jones ): Tom Jones stood for a long time, with little to oppose it save the underloved Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (aka Fungus of Terror). However, the Czech Republic's ahead-of-its-time space opera Ikarie XB-1 handily unseats it and may even deserve a gold.

1964 (My Fair Lady): If My Fair Lady had ended with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison singing “The Rain in Spain” while being consumed in a hailstorm of nuclear bombs, it might have stopped me from sliding the Oscar over to Dr. Strangelove. Gold trophy.

1965 (The Sound of Music): Alphaville, followed by the The War Game. Silver trophy.

1966 (A Man for All Seasons): Who Wants to Kill Jesse? steals the prize in a bloodless Czech coup. And despite Paul Scofield’s excellent performance, I bequeath his acting Oscar to Olga Schoberova. Just because! (Also, it's worth mentioning the underrated Seconds).

1967 (In the Heat of the Night) It's a bit of a stretch but I'm going to combine the British Privilege and the French Weekend, too dystopian films in the thick of the political turmoil that also produced In the Heat of the Night. We'll call it a silver.

1968 (Oliver!): In what will probably be the least contested retroactive decision of this entire post, I transfer the Oscar to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” How “Oliver!” won, even given its catchy, lightweight charm, I’ll never know. On the long list of 1968 SF I’d rather rewatch would be “Yellow Submarine,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Barbarella” and “Danger: Diabolik.” Gold, gold gold.

1969 (Midnight Cowboys): An odd year for SF. Horrors of Malformed Men, Marooned and The Illustrated Man are all interesting anomalies, but none work as well as Midnight Cowboys.

1970 (Patton): I don’t think I can count 1970’s outpouring of surrealism as SF (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Eden and After, El Topo, etc.), which is a shame. Originally I actually put forward Colossus: The Forbin Project for a silver, but I don't think that holds up. Patton emerges from the battlefield as the victor.

1971 (The French Connection): While both films share a dubious legacy of starting violent cinematic trends, I think “A Clockwork Orange” is the more groundbreaking and provocative work. I wouldn’t quite commit to calling it the year’s best, so silver trophy for now.

1972 (The Godfather)

1973 (The Sting): I'm too big a fan of The Sting to retcon 1973, but it was a year full of oddball contenders: The Holy Mountain, The Hourglass Sanatorium, The Savage Planet, The Day of the Dolphin, Sleeper, Soylent Green, Idaho Transfer, Ivan the Terrible: Back to the Future and Westworld.

1974 (The Godfather Part II)

1975 (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest): The combined cult status of Rocky Horror Picture Show, Death Race 2000, Shivers, A Boy and His Dog, Rollerball, Footprints on the Moon, The Stepford Wives and Black Moon earn a silver even if individually they might not truly rival Jack Nicholson's performance piece. Call it a silver.

1976 (Rocky): The Man Who Fell to Earth? God Told Me To? Maybe even almost Logan’s Run? This is far from my best attempt, but I grant it a silver anyway. Rocky's a popular heavyweight these days and his underdog status is overrated.

1977 (Annie Hall): This is probably my favorite Woody Allen film and there’s only a single 1977 that I unambiguously like more. Fortunately, it’s SF. Can you guess it? “Eraserhead.” Oh, and for the angry unwashed masses, you can pretend I said “Star Wars” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Gold medal.

1978 (Deer Hunter): I’m of the minority opinion that 1978 was just not a standout year for SF. I’ve got no special love for Superman, Dawn of the Dead, The Boys from Brazil, Coma, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or even the gloriously awful Starcrash. No awards.

1979 (Kramer vs. Kramer): The Tin Drum and Stalker are arguably eligible for the steal, but Alien is the obvious answer. It almost gets a gold from me, but will have to settle for a silver since I can think of exactly one better 1979 film (Apocalypse Now).

1980 (Ordinary People): The Empire Strikes Back and The Falls can both handily and independently clinch a silver trophy here.

1981 (Chariots of Fire): Time Bandits would lock in a silver trophy, but since the best film of the year (maybe even the decade) is the vaguely-sci-fi horror movie Possession I think a gold is in order.

1982 (Gandhi): Blade Runner. Solid gold. Enough said.

1983 (Terms of Endearment): I think the year's best is rightfully the French essay-film Sunless although it would never actually win for at least two reasons (ie: Frenchness and using the pseudo-documentary essay format). Therefore, Videodrome is left free to nab the gold trophy and shovel it into its chest oriface.

1984 (Amadeus): Terminator, Ghost Busters and The Brother from another Planet are all up there, but I’m a huge Amadeus fan, with its dueling composers and insight into genius, jealously and revenge. However, throw in 1984, Repo Man and Threads (and as Mad Dog mentions, Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer) for some fierce competition, and I think a silver is not improper. This was originally a bronze, but I'm capitulating before anyone can write in with crazy defenses of Dune or The Last Starfighter.

1985 (Out of Africa): Brazil walks in, guns down all the nominees in the room, and coolly walks away from the carnage with its well-deserved golden Oscar.

1986 (Platoon): I know Platoon has a lot of fans out there, but I think The Fly is just strong enough to buzz off with the silver prize.

1987 (The Last Emperor): OK, The Red Spectacles is probably not the best known or most liked ’87 SF I could have picked, so choose your own. Here are some ideas: Predator, RoboCop, Hellraiser, Wings of Honneamise, On the Silver Globe, Evil Dead II, Bad Taste, Spaceballs. But keep in mind that The Last Emperor is a pretty decent, unquestionably gorgeous film. Silver trophy.

1988 (Rain Man): I have a soft-spot for Rain Man despite its flaws. Nevertheless, I’d take cartoons-come-to-life fantasy Who Framed Roger Rabbit or the magical realism Time of the Gypsies over it. Bronze trophy. (Mad Dog notes that anime heavy-weight Akira should be in the running, and while I'm not an acolyte at that altar, it does deserve a mention.)

1989 (Driving Miss Daisy): Can Batman be considered SF? For this year it is surprisingly hard for me to find pure SF to triumph over such a frail opponent. Oh, wait, wait, wait… Tetsuo: The Iron Man. There we go. Silver it is.

1990 (Dances with Wolves): There’s always Clive Barker’s oddball horror film Nightbreed, but for a genuine silver I’ll have to turn towards one of my favorite animes, PatLabor 2: The Movie.(Note: If you are interested, you don’t have to see the show or the original movie to enjoy.) Verhoeven's undeniably fun Total Recall, a favorite since I was young and fitting way to close out the 80's, can also trounce Wolves.

1991 (Silence of the Lambs)

1992 (Unforgiven): This is a hard one to beat, so I’m going to have to call upon my secret magical realism weapon, Olivier, Olivier, for a dues ex machina. It's got a couple of undeniable sci-fi intrusions so it qualifies for a gold trophy. If you haven't seen it, you might have to buy the VHS used from Amazon or request it from a public library system to catch a peak, but I consider it worth the effort.

1993 (Schindler’s List): Talking animals is the simple, yet brilliant premise of the 1993 cerebral SF classic Look Who’s Talking Now. Nah, just kidding. The year’s best genuine SF was probably Jurassic Park, so Spielberg wins no matter what. No trophy awarded.

1994 (Forrest Gump): I seem to remember liking Forrest Gump though I’m a bit embarrassed by that in retrospect. It bears eventual rewatching. The question is rather something like Stargate or Star Trek: Generations is really any better? For now I’ll use another guilty pleasure, the fantasy-tinged Heavenly Creatures, to nab a bronze.

1995 (Braveheart): City of the Lost Children and the non-SF Se7en are my two top contenders for the year, with Ghost in the Shell not far behind. We'll say that sci-fi has a two-thirds majority to squeeze in a gold statue.

1996 (The English Patient): Mars Attacks, Multiplicity, and Space Jam just aren’t going to cut it, and even the year’s big SF release, Independence Day falls well short of The English Patient. There were a handful of better films this year, but science-fiction dropped the ball.

1997 (Titanic): I like a good Poseidon Adventure knock-off as much as the next guy (though clearly not as much as the next gal), and “Titanic” has an undeniable emotional sweep, technical audacity and flair for the dramatic. Still, I’m far less effusive than the academy. I’ll jump to the far extreme of the budget spectrum – while remaining on the same quality of acting – by picking Cube. Silver trophy.

1998 (Shakespeare in Love): Whether you prefer brooding indie sci-fi like Dark City and Pi or high-concept feel-good blockbusters like The Truman Show and Pleasantville, there was just no excuse to award Shakespeare in Love anything. Of course, everyone in 1998 was so shocked that Saving Private Ryan didn't win, that they too numb to enummerate all the other fine films that were spurned. Here's hoping that the gold trophies heals some of the wounds.

1999 (American Beauty): I was pretty in favor of this victory back in 1999, but the film seems far less daring now that I’ve seen a lot more hard-hitting dramas from the preceding decades. Still a finely acted and well-orchestrated feature, but now I think Being John Malkovich and The Matrix should have split the little gold man.

2000 (Gladiator): I've not felt any drive to go back and rewatch Gladiator over the years, but I've revisited the underrated Canadian mindtrip Possible Worlds half a dozen times, always finding new food for thought. It deserves a gold trophy. Wild Zero, benefitting from taking itself a lot less seriously than anyone involved with Gladiator, is also a fun alternative.

2001 (A Beautiful Mind): 2001 has a lot of arguable cult favorites (Donnie Darko, American Astronaut, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, and Millennium Actress to name a few) that can all lay some claim to the Silver. My vote for the year's best is the anime Spirited Away, a fantasy film that causes the gold to slip through the cracks of my own rules.

2002 (Chicago): The remake of Solaris for a silver. I thought this was just crazy personal bias, but it sounds like Tim (see comments) agrees. I called this a slow year originally, but he also reminded me of Minority Report, one of Spielberg's late career bests.

2003 (Lord of the Rings): Considering that this is already fantasy, I’ll leave well enough alone.

2004 (Million Dollar Baby): I loved Million Dollar Baby, but nothing like the creative solar flare of Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind. 2002 was a year of great ideas, and Primer deserves a mention too. Gold trophy.

2005 (Crash): Fans of V for Vendetta will probably be upset at my suggestion that this battle was even close, but it was. Serenity would have tipped the battle if there was any lingering doubts, so it’s another silver trophy for the shelf.

2006 (The Departed): I applaud a more-or-less action movie taking the prize, but did it have to be a derivative remake of a foreign film on a year when so much better came out? Take your pick of The Prestige, Pan’s Labyrinth, Children of Men, The Fountain and even Renaissance. Au.

2007 (No Country for Old Men): Should it have gone to There Will Be Blood? Maybe. Probably. But SF wasn't even in the running.

2008 (Slumdog Millionaire): WALL-E and Timecrimes are two fantastic sci-fi films that I'd rank over enjoyable crowd-pleaser Slumdog, but since the best film was easily Synecdoche, New York. Since that is borderline sci-fi (more fantasy, I know), we'll go ahead and call this a golden year.

2009 (The Hurt Locker): A silver for The Watchmen. Not as brilliant as the graphic novel, but pretty darn close.

2010 (The King's Speech): A disappointingly safe choice from the academy on a year with much more interesting films. Inception deserves a silver trophy, though it should have been even better, while the year's real winner was Fincher's Social Network.

Final Score:
Bronze: 5
Silver: 29
Gold: 22
Total: 56 (about 67% or 2/3 of Oscar years)

Conclusion: Spin up your time machine and recharge your mind control rayguns, science-fiction has definitively been short-changed and history needs to be fixed!

Call to Arms:
P.S. If you think you know a way to add more (or better) trophies to the stockpile, then put your suggestion in the comments section. Give the name of the original winner and the title of the film you prefer. All I ask is that you make sure to see the actual Oscar winner, too. If I agree with you, I’ll update the list.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Review of Border Incident

Billy Wilder, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and Orson Welles are all director’s who made some of the signature film noirs of the 1940’s and 1950’s, while earning enduring reputations as great directors in a variety of genres. Then there are a handful of names that I mentally associate almost exclusively with film noir, whether fairly or not, such as Otto Preminger and Robert Siodmak. Anthony Mann occupies an interesting state in-between. His fame rests on exactly two genres: film noirs and westerns.

In not particularly remarkable that Mann made films in both genres, as most directors in the 1940’s and 1950’s were expected to make films in any genre the studio selected. The unique quality was in the way he transitioned, making almost exclusively noirs in the 1940’s and primarily westerns in the 1950’s (he would transition again, this time to sprawling epics, for a notable stint in the 1960’s). In a casual sense, based on the setting and time period, it is easy to draw a clear line between his first and second period, yet it’s Mann’s continuity of style and theme that makes his work so interesting.
[Image: All-American good-guy James Stewart menaces a “naked spur” (it will soon be used as a murder weapon) in this noirish poster for the 1953 western.]

Of course, the term “film noir” wasn’t known during Anthony Mann’s heyday, and its pretty doubtful that directors like Mann considered the type of films they made to be a genre unto itself (modern academics still argue against the term even being applied as a genre, but fans know better), so it’s not hard to see why the line might get blurred between film noir and, say, gangster films, thrillers, mysteries, etc.
In Mann’s famous westerns (Winchester ’73, Bend in the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, The Tin Star, Man of the West), of which I’ve only seen a few, he brought over noir’s dark perspective, moral ambiguity and troubled protagonists. His work provides the bridge into the great revisionist westerns of the 1960’s and 1970’s (which I prefer over the classic period) and helped shaped the state of the genre today. I toyed with tracing some of the noir influences in the director’s early westerns, but I still need to see them all. For now I’ll take things from the opposite side of the fence, reviewing one of Mann’s last noirs: “Border Incident” (1949).

“Border Incident” is, true to its title, situated near the territorial zone between the two genres. The story, two undercover cops trying to break an illegal immigration racket, unfolds in the noir tradition, but the expressive use of outdoor wastelands, the cowboy hats and sombreros with rugged rurals underneath and the recruitment of rifles to the usual handgun arsenal, hint that Mann’s next phase is just over the horizon.

“Border Incident” (1949) opens in a somewhat documentary style, with an impossibly solemn narrator explaining about the need for hardworking migrant labor, while decrying the evil men (American and Mexican alike) that subvert the permit system and smuggle workers into low-paying exploitive positions only to rob and kill them on the return trip. It’s surprisingly progressive in its careful assignment of blame on the corrupt criminals, businessmen and officials that run the human traffic trade and away from the shoulders of the braceros (the Mexican migrant workers), but it’s painfully cheesy in its delivery. The same narrator pipes up at the conclusion, but everything worth watching happens in between.

The main action occurs along two lines, both following agents from opposite sides of the border as they adopt criminal identities and insinuate themselves into the system. Pablo Rodriguez pays his way into a group of desperate laborers willing to undergo the danger of cover transport into America while Jack Bearnes arranges to meet with the white ringleaders to sell them stolen work permits (which is probably entrapment, but whatever).

[Image: Before being trucked north in a secret truck compartment, the worker’s hand’s are checked. Smooth palms are a dead giveaway for undercover agents unfamiliar with 10-hour days of manual labor.]

Mann’s two-pronged approach is a great excuse to keep the action coming and the tension constant. The film has the suspense of a good spy film, with all the quiet sneaking and quick-thinking, the nimble physical and verbal escapes, but with none of the high-tech gadgetry to fall back on in a pinch. Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy are on par as Pablo and Jack, sharing the spotlight and alternating the tension and fear. Though they aren’t particularly interesting alone, their interactions and particularly their undercover personas make them quite watchable (the villains are unquestionably more so). I’ll mention that one of them doesn’t make it to the end of the sting operation, but I won’t spoil which one.

The visuals are a real thrill as well, tapping the talents Mann is famous for from both genres. As is often the case in noir, nighttime dominates, swallowing seedy bars and dusty canyons in equal shadow. John Alton, Mann’s frequent cinematographer, is more willing than most to dip things into overwhelming blackness (as he would do most famously in “The Big Combo”), often relying on nothing but silhouettes, though never sacrificing clarity to the point of frustration.

Out of his burgeoning bag of visual signatures, Mann pulls an amazing touch for finding and developing set pieces. He’d later become famous for the expressive personalities of his western landscapes and the first evidence of this skill can be seen in “Border Incident.” The main setting uses two real-life towns on the California-Mexico border that symbolize their proximity and interconnectedness with their amusing names: Mexicali and Calexico. In the region nearby are more eccentric locales, like a water tower prison and a quicksand ravine.

[Image: (Top) A water-tower prison set leads to a scene that will feel familiar to anyone who enjoys the Metal Gear Solid videogames. (Bottom) A great example of noir mentalities taken to pessimistic extremes.]

Even an empty field at night takes on a terrifying potential under Mann’s selective lighting and frantic, yet rhythmic, editing.

[Image: An enormous plow bears down on its victim. Oh, the untilled horror! ]

A more subtle example is the use of bridges in several scenes, a reminder of the many connections across borders (Mexico/California, legal/illegal, etc.) that have both productive and destructive implications.

[Image: (Bottom) A crook escapes across a rail bridge on a motorcycle while being tailed by the police.]

One interesting effect of Anthony Mann shooting on the noir/western borderlands is his use of deep focus and staging in depth. By the mid-1950’s Cinemascope had become de rigueur for westerns and the increased edge-to-edge real-estate reduced the need for layered staging in depth. “Border Incident” comes at a time where it can benefit from Mann’s location shooting while still using noirish deep focus effects that would make even Welles and Wyler proud.

[Images: Just a few of the many deep-focus flourishes.]

There’s a lot to like in “Border Incident” in terms of action, suspense and visuals. In addition, it makes for an enlightening glimpse into the director’s key transition period and, in so doing, marks a notable entry point for revisionist westerns and an ancient ancestor of today’s generation of genre re-visitation (2007 certainly saw its share). Situated precariously between his two most famous cycles, “Border Incident” has tended to fall between the cracks of Mann’s career, but it deserves its own recognition.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Iceberg Arena: Dogfight

In the years between WWI and WWII, public interest in aviation was at its peak. Incorporating spectacular areal photography into an epic celebration of WWI pilots was a surefire recipe for box-office success. The idea gave birth to two classic aerial war films: the first Oscar-winning film and only silent winner, “Wings,” (1927) and the notorious Howard Hughes pet project “Hell’s Angels” (1930).

In the prologue of “Wings,” Jack builds a car, dubbed “The Shooting Star,” with his tomboyish neighbor Mary Preston (Clara Bow), completely oblivious to her affection. Instead, he pursues the much-in-demand Sylvia, unaware that his rich-kid rival David is her real hubby. Awkwardness persists when America joins the war and Jack accidently takes a memento that Sylvia intended for David. Boot camp soon makes best friends out of the former nemeses and they go on to be wingmen in a series of major battles. Jack eventually runs into Mary while he is on leave in Paris, but he’s too drunk to recognize her. The bizarre comedic sequence is a bit out of place, involving animated bubbles (a hallucination which Jack is fixated upon), brief nudity and Mary getting discharged. Called back to duty, Jack shoots down several key dirigibles, but is devastated when David crashes behind enemy lines.

“Hell’s Angels” concerns Roy and Monte Rutledge, two British brothers with opposite personalities. Roy is good-natured and honorable, but terribly naïve and hopelessly in love with Helen (Jean Harlow), who is every bit the “wrong type of woman.” Monte is a fast-living playboy whose cowardice is foreshadowed when he slips out of a duel, leaving his brother to fight in his stead. When WWI breaks out, they become pilots (Roy enthusiastically volunteers, Monte is conned with hilarious ease by a recruiter) and are forced to fight, and unknowingly kill, their former German pal Karl. A nerve-racking, but victorious, campaign culminates in a daring bomb run in a restored German aircraft. The brothers are captured and Roy must make a difficult decision when Monte’s fear finally gets the best of him.

Both films were lavish production, with astounding airborne dogfights, more than two hours of footage and bills running past $2 million (“Hell’s Angels” cost an exorbitant $4 million). “Wings,” though silent, included plenty of innovative camerawork and special effects that made planes appear to burn and smoke as they were shot down. “Hell’s Angels” was reshot halfway through production to include sound (some intertitles remain) and has several scenes in color (using a briefly-vogue dual-color method), including a dazzling blimp crash. Despite their costs, both films made substantial profits.

In addition to their technical ambitions, they share similar plot devices as well. Both films feature a love triangle of two pilots (friends in “Wings,” brothers in “Hell’s Angels”) interested in the same woman. Despite getting less screen-time than the men, an actress holds top-billing in each: first-timer Jean Harlow in “Hell’s Angels” and “It girl” Clara Bow in “Wings.” Both include a “not all Germans are evil” character that aids the Allies despite his nationality. In “Wings” it is a bumbling pilot-turned-mechanic with an American flag tattoo, while in “Hell’s Angels” it is a former classmate of the brothers who gets conscripted into the German Luftwaffe, but misdirects a London bombing to splash harmlessly into a rural lake.

[Partial SPOILER paragraph] There are also some odd coincidences between the two conclusions. Both finales involve flying enemy planes. A main character in each film gets dangerously drunk the night before a final bombing mission and after its success both central protagonists kill their comrade, although under widely different circumstances.

Of the two, “Wings” is probably the worse off for propaganda, presenting the popular all-encompassing image of the Allies pulling together for a common cause be they men or women, wealthy or working class, American or British, etc., etc. All the gung-ho uniform optimism feels awfully one-dimensional, and while it is present in much of “Hell’s Angels,” too, Monte’s less admirable portrayal of a soldier provides a more probing balance of human weaknesses and eroded morale.

“Hell’s Angels” reaches an ideological low (not without its emotional punch) during a scene depicting a German officer ordering his men to jump from a blimp to lighten its load, a command that they unquestioningly obey. Compared to the gentlemanly German ace in “Wings” who risk AA fire to convey a letter to his American counterparts, the villains in “Hell’s Angels” are downright textbook prototypes for the “ve ‘ave veys of making you talk” Nazis from the next generation of war films.

As “love and war” adventures, both of these films are fairly entertaining. The time-worn story unfolds in a manner that must have been as predictable in the Jazz Age as they are now, but the producers clearly relied on the aviation dressing to reinvigorate the routine. The acting is mediocre at best, doggedly fulfilling the necessary formulas while taking backstage to the sweeping action and general heroism.

Yet despite bearing the same flying love triangle mantle, I wouldn’t dismiss these as the silent-film era equivalents of “Pearl Harbor” (2001), nor would I say that their popular acclaim is purely due to patriotic fervor. These early films are highly effective at executing efficient thrills, sometimes ejecting emotional complexity in favor of blazing broad streaks across the sky, but generally landing safely in the bounds of good taste and rousing entertainment. They lack much historical detail, but it helps make historical accuracy a fairly moot point. (Why do filmmakers seem to care more about historical detail the further they get from the event?) As for sincerity, this is no “All Quiet on the Western Front,” but it has plenty of edge over the aforementioned Bruckheimer/Bay collaboration.

Of course, where “Wings” and “Hell’s Angels” really excel is in the production values and presentation. Both include riveting dogfight sequences with footage that balances stunning aerial photography with high-intensity close-ups in the cramped cockpits. The use of cumulous clouds for cover and context provides literal atmosphere and a sense of the majesty, scope and speed of the combat. The highlight of “Hell’s Angles,” a nighttime raid on an escorted bomber blimp almost entirely engulfed in clouds, is probably the best in either film. The imprecise color tinting only adds to the impression of a feverish celestial clash.

On the ground, “Wings” is far the superior filmmaking showcase. Director William Wellman performs a variety of unusual camera gimmicks, including a memorable sequence on a swing and a montage of a gunner bunker getting crushed, along with the camera, by a tank. Ample use of dolly and crane shots help keep the human interest portions from feeling like dry insulation packed between the airborne acrobatics, an occasional complaint with “Hell’s Angels.” Even the partially-animated “bubble” scene, a drunken slapstick sequence of the type I normally groan about, is strangely fascinating in its misconceived ingenuity.

Though neither of these movies is really my type of war movie – I prefer psychologically fraught, grim and gritty anti-war films – they are great examples of packaging mass entertainment and unabashed military propaganda in a single appealing package. I had enough fun simply taking them for what they are that I’ll refrain from conducting a Marxist analysis of their implicit value systems and manipulative societal self-reinforcement. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed them both (I may be biased by working in the aviation industry), but prefer “Wings” for its superior directing over the better character arcs in “Hell’s Angels.”

Winner: Wings

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Review of Perceval

Let me describe the typical Eric Rohmer film:

There are only a handful of major characters, all of them relatively normal, educated middle-class young adults. The central protagonist is introspective and searching for romance, or failing that, any meaningful connection with another. Possibly shy and inexpressive, he/she is still quite talkative and attention is focused on their small talk, personal opinions and weighty philosophical discussions. The setting is present day. Camerawork is never fancy. There is hardly any plot, action, celebrities, close-ups or music. A consistant realism, often spellbinding but occasionally banal, enshrouds the production.

[Images: Some representative shots from Rohmer’s “The Green Ray” (also known as “Summer”) provided as context.]

So when I say that Rohmer’s “Perceval” (1978) is one of the most self-consciously artificial productions I have ever seen, you can understand why it came as a surprise. Audiences did not enjoy the shock, endowing Rohmer with his first financial disaster and sending him back to his roots for the next 22 years. Even today, this detaching musical adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes's incomplete 12th century grail-quest poem sticks out so prominently from Rohmer’s oeuvre that it still invites controversy.
Perceval of Whales is a simple lad, raised by his mother in the countryside so that he won’t be tempted to pursue his father’s fatal career as a knight. As fate would have it, Perceval encounters five of King Arthur’s angelic agents while hunting in the woods and vows to join their ranks with all due haste. Frabrice Luchini plays Perceval as a naïve, but well-meaning singing zombie, an enigmatic unstoppable force that is quick to defend maidens and punish foes. The bulk of the film tells of his rise to greatness and his quest for the Holy Grail, but two other stories are also framed within his: the adventures of Sir Gawain and the Passion of Christ.

[Image: The Holy Grail emitting a benevolent glow.]

The plot and dialogue is extremely true to its source incorporating rhyming couplets and even abruptly cutting off at the point where the author died. Bits and pieces will already be familiar to fans of Arthurian legend or “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Of much greater interest than the tale itself are Rohmer’s maverick production choices.

[Image: The chorus not only has to do narration and music, but they work overtime as real-time sound editors and bit players.]

The stage is set by a chorus singing the exposition and a Renaissance-era sound crew simulating bird calls. Most of these musical accompaniers will get drawn into the plot as minor characters, but their absence is hardly missed by the leads, who are generally fine singing their own narration. The effect is quite odd, but beautiful and frequently funny. Perceval bellows out descriptions of his actions rather than performing them, singing in the third-person along the lines of “He did not know it yet, but he was in love,” and “He told his tale up to now, but to do so for the audience would be boring and redundant.”

[Image: “Curse be this news. And cursed by he who brought it.”]

The set design, easily one of my recent favorites, looks like a children’s pop-up book and is modeled after medieval tapestries. The ground is painted green for grass and blue (with glitter!) for water. Identical metal trees with spherical leaves comprise the forest. When something more than a 2D backdrop is needed for buildings, cheap cardboard and plaster, spray-painted gold, suffices. The castles are usually not much taller than the actors, but ridiculously roomy inside. One or two “rock formations” get recycled to distinguish locations.

[Images: (Top) Monks passing through a dense forest and (Bottom) the Fisher King giving Perceval the bad new about the “uncrossable river” (pictured) that bars his passage for leagues in either direction.]

Somehow Rohmer never lets the set design feel shabby. It’s all so cohesive and meticulously thought-out. Artifice is used in ways that wouldn’t even save money, and often times the cheap-looking props and simple painting must have been expensive and time-consuming.

[Images: A tasteful eye for patterns and a strict color palette of pale green, cornflower blue and gold with highlights in red and purple implies the underlying artistic sensibility behind the flimsy sets and gives the presentation a cleanliness and rhythm.]

When questioned about his radical change in style for “Perceval,” Rohmer defends his decisions by explaining that given his unfamiliarity with 12th century gestures, dialogue, decoration and landscape, it was more honest to embrace the artifice and deliver the original writing unaltered. Even historically-researched recreations would still be just a better lie, rather than a deeper truth.

[Images: It’s like I was actually there!]

The denaturalized, emotionally neutral acting is particularly at odds with Rohmer’s usual sympathetic intimacy and may alienate fans of his traditional work. The 2+ hour running time, visual repetition and triply inconclusive ending (even the side-stories are cut-off) may count as significant drawbacks for some, but I didn’t find them terribly egregious. Objectively speaking, I should admit to selective blindness to flaws when caught up in my ardor for offbeat musicals.

[Image: With special guest appearance by Jesus of Nazareth!]

After the initial shock, one can still perceive Rohmer’s touch still present. His camera holds back from close-ups, giving the actors room to maneuver either on foot or horseback. The framing is simple and straight-on. The “everyday” appearance of the characters is still there, even if they’re wearing period costume. The emphasis on verbal and literary aspects over action and progress remains an important part of appreciating it.

[Image: Troubled male-female relationships figure prominently as per Rohmer’s interest.]

I’m quite fond of Rohmer’s more typical films, too, and I think he’s a worthy, if low-key, member of the French New Wave. One can sense his influence in post-1980’s slacker indies and possibly even mumblecore, though few people my age seem very excited about his work. Maybe “Perceval” is just the film to convince them of his versatility and talent. He’s always been considered a genius of observation, but here’s proof that he may have had a genius of invention tucked away, too. Still, the film had little mass appeal back in 1978 and there’s not much reason to think that’s changed.

Walrus Rating: 8.0

Monday, May 19, 2008

Hall of Strangeness Part XXVIII

Tampopo – (Juzo Itami) Taking the “spaghetti” western literally, Itami created the first Japanese “noodle” western. Truck-driver and modern-day cowboy Goro rides into town to help hapless widow Tampopo turn her noodle shop into the most successful joint in town. The main plot is intercut with unrelated vignettes about food and romance. Cutely colored with a palette of yellow, pink and baby blue, Tampopo contains everything from broad comedy to savvy parody.
Artistry: **** Fun: ***** Strangeness: ****

Tears of the Black Tiger – (Wisit Sasanatieng) – From Thailand comes a western melodrama pastiche with a color scheme borrowed from tropical skittles (expect fuchsia and teal to dominate). Sasanatieng exploits decades of genre conventions to demonstrate how cultural flavor and auteur visuals can still enliven a rusty premise: a doomed love between a mayor’s daughter and a brooding bandit (the Black Tiger himself). The numerous western shootouts are enhanced by emotional excess and quirky hyper-violence (think cowboys wielding bazookas). The music is repetitive, but playfully pinches from classical and spaghetti western tunes.
Artistry: **** Fun: ***** Strangeness: ****

Tetsuo: The Iron Man – (Shinya Tsukamoto) After being hit by a car driven by a metal-fetish masochist, Japanese everyman Tetsuo changes into a scrapheap cyborg monstrosity. Covered in wires, metal struts and whirring power-tool body-parts he soon realizes that his destiny lies in a final apocalyptic battle with the man who triggered the transformation, now also hideously mutated. Techno, stop-star animation and plenty of confusion await viewers of this Japanese Eraserhead. The sequel brings in color and even more intense battles although the attention-grabbing randomness of the original is somewhat ameliorated by a more coherent plot.
Artistry: ** Fun: *** Strangeness: *****

Three Crowns of the Sailor – (Raoul Ruiz) Chilean director Ruiz gives a literary treatment of an old sailor yarn that has the layered interconnectivity of Gene Wolfe, the stream-of-conscious density of Joyce and the temporal elusiveness of Proust. The challenging material is shouldered by Jean-Bernard Guillard playing a cursed sailor who bequeaths his sorry lot aboard a ghost ship to a fleeing murderer. His price: three Danish crowns and a night of prose-heavy storytelling laden with symbolism and strangeness. Maverick cinematographer Sacha Vierny adds suitably disturbing deep-focus imagery.
Artistry: **** Fun: ** Strangeness: *****

Times to Come – (Gustavo Mosquera) Where do post-apocalyptic, sci-fi mind trips and eighties, new-wave music videos go to make babies? Argentina. A fascist military officer and an unstable male nurse duel over the comatose witness of police brutality… I think.
Artistry: *** Fun: *** Strangeness: ****

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Review of The Fifth Horseman Is Fear

Facets’ Czech New Wave and Eastern European catalogue is like a hit parade when almost no one even realized their was a holiday. They’ve amassed an impressive collection, though they’ve been the object of some controversy amongst cinephiles. Many of their transfers come from terrible prints and it is often apparent that little work went into providing restoration, restoring the proper aspect ratio and proofreading the subtitles. I’ve come across any number of disapproving glares from Criterion and DVDBeaver acolytes, though I can hardly condemn them for at least priming the pump for interest in Czech cinema. Besides, today’s featured film, “The Fifth Horseman is Fear,” is an excellent transfer.

Reading about Facets, I was hardly surprised to learn that their CEO has a Czech background. The sheer number and variety of masterpieces they’ve unearthed has few comparisons and you’d almost have to have a special interest in the country to know where all the treasure was buried.

This has a large part to do with Czechoslovakia’s unusual political path through history, especially the dramatic shift from the open and creative period of “socialism with a human face” to the extreme suppression following the August 20th, 1968 Soviet invasion. Films were destroyed, shelved and “banned forever.” Many of the best directors fled or were exiled. Those who stayed had to put up with censorship and blackballing.

The response from the United States had a fittingly political and cinematic timidity: they did nothing except attempt to extricate Shirley Temple, who was touring Prague at the time. Ironically, she would become the first US ambassador to the Czech Republic during the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

[Image: Shirley Temple comes to the rescue of Czechlosovakia, twenty years too early. Soviet anti-aircraft shot down the Good Ship Lollipop as it attempted to extract Temple eastward into Candyland.]

“The Fifth Horseman is Fear” was made in 1964, when a thinly veiled critique of the network of informants and the politics of fear was still possible. Director Zbynek Brynych sets the film during the German occupation at an apartment that is sheltering an injured fugitive.

Dr. Braun is a mid-level bureaucrat working at a warehouse for confiscated Jewish property. When we are first introduced to him, he is wandering through cavernous rooms dedicated to furniture, dishware, books, clocks, musical instruments, etc. Like the photos of shoes and human hair from Holocaust camps, they have a devastating impact because of the vast loss of humanity they imply. Part of Brynych’s evocative, bittersweet tone comes from the way he films such horror with deft beauty.

Braun’s character is any many ways an anti-Hamlet, a man whose commitment to a single decision will be his salvation. At the start of the film he is not very likable, a somewhat pathetic nobody so dissatisfied and frightened within his adopted life that he suffers from hallucinations. His nightmare voyage through the low-life and high-life of Prague in search of morphine may be far more dangerous than taking inventory of teacups, but it brings his values back into focus. By the time the police search his apartment building for the second time, he is the only tenant to have shed the burden of fear.

It is hard not to see Dr. Braun as a coward, a collaborator who has retreated into a cycle of impassive drudgery. When a tenant of his apartment takes in a wounded freedom fighter Dr. Braun is asked for assistance. As a Jew, he hasn’t been allowed to practice medicine since the occupation. He is nervous, scared and annoyed.

Brynych’s approach to fear is unusual. Rather than take the horror movie approach of scaring the audience directly, he shows the presence of fear and the toll it takes on everyday characters. His strategy relies on viewer empathy and contagiousness to spread the sensation, a tactic similar to his subject matter. Though he does dabble in a bit of traditional suspense (most noticeably in the first police raid), his techniques are often more subtle. Frequent returns to a wall full of posters imploring informants to report any suspicious behavior “promptly and accurately” “for your own safety,” along with the way the camera lingers over the traitorous temptation of phones, thickens the brooding anxiety.
The director also uses visual manipulations to unconsciously signal that something is wrong, unsettling the viewer even during moments of calm. One clear example is his anamorphic widescreen framing (see images below). Brynych’s compositions are his strongest element; they are dry and geometric, but hit with a strength bred from fusing artistic and emotional impact. He is a master of textures, of unobtrusively dropping symbolic stilllifes onto the set and, most of all, of eerily shaping unfilled space. When he wants to destabilize the viewer’s comfort, he destabilizes his perfectionist images, creating unbalanced close-ups for unhinging minds.

[Images: Usually such extreme offsetting is compensated by facing the character towards the unoccupied space, the idea being that the gaze carries a balancing weight of its own. Part of Brynych ability to disconcert the viewer comes from withdrawing the expected rules of composition (even when we don't realize we are expecting them) after obeying them studiously for most of the film. See Wong Kar Wai’s “2046” for another example.]

The way Brynych can pull the carpet of symmetry out from underneath us stands in conspicuous relief to the film’s otherwise precise structure and steady tempo. Mirrored scenes and matched pairs become an organizational motif, perhaps in line with Braun’s impeccable neatness. One such doubling is a scene in which a young boy watches a bike rider approach on a wide, empty street. He laughs as the rider comically weaves and stumbles until he gets close enough for us to tell he is seriously hurt. There are no vocals on the soundtrack, only circus music. The scene repeats later, with a different rider and new implication.

[Images: Misplaced comedy has a place in every Czech film.]

Other pairings include the two police raids and twin visits to Braun’s sterile office, a masterpiece of textural set design in which each wall presents a totally different face, each individually devoid of hope and humanity.

[Image: Office of Dr. Braun.]

The beginning and end, camera excursions through a downcast city, also rhyme. In many of these shots it’s hard to tell if Braun is even present (I doubt it), though a lone figure in a grey suit gives off an existential flare. The imagery is some of Brynych best, serving the thematic role of connecting the tension in the claustrophobic apartment to the free-ranging fear of the masses. The lack of plot or character in these bookends reminds me of the disturbing absences in “The Eclipse.”

[Image: Grist for the existentialism mill.]

Music also plays an important role in “The Fifth Horseman is Fear.” As the opening credits play, discordant music is given sudden context when Braun enters a vast gallery filled with confiscated pianos. A more relevant motif is the violin, which shows up at the impound warehouse, a decadent party (where it has an amazing classical duet with a cowbell) and in Braun’s apartment. At one point Dr. Braun is forced to play a piece while a police outfit rummages his room. The talent and passion of his music is one of the rare hints about his past, a revelation of the soul that has been slowly dying since the oppression began.

“The Fifth Horseman is Fear” is so expertly photographed, so politically potent and so thematically deep that it risks neglecting the viewer on a pure emotional level. Somehow this never happens. Without much dialogue and with little background on any of the characters, their plights still seem real, relevant and engaging. The beauty is stark, but heartfelt; more Bresson than Brecht. If you can tolerate a gentle rhythm (read: kinda slow) than add this to your list of must-see Czech New Wave flicks.

Walrus Rating: 8.5 (extra points were almost awarded for the title alone)