AFI Fest 2014: Wednesday, November 12

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Day Five: Suha Arraf’s Villa Touma (2014)

In the spirit of recent posts at Krell Laboratories (“Rethinking the American Canon”) and Girls Do Film (“A Realisation…and a New Year Resolution”) on the paucity of work by women directors, and in the less lofty spirit of just getting my sh*t together already, this post is on the last AFI Festival film I saw (you know, last November), written and directed by a Palestinian woman. Each blog writer noticed she hadn’t posted much about films directed by women and made a commitment to seek out, and post about, more such films. Brava, I say. And, me too, I also say. In the thus-far short list of directors about whom I’ve written there is nary a woman to be seen. Shameful.

Both Krell Labs and Girls Do Film are engaging, well-written film blogs (Krell Labs even has a quotation from Samuel Johnson!), each covering very different territory from the other. I suggest you scoot over to at least one of them now and promise to peruse the other later. I’ll wait here.

Alrighty. As Louis CK said about an entirely different activity, “Here we go!”

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Writer and director Suha Arraf

The final film I saw at the AFI Fest was director Suha Arraf’s Villa Touma. It is a quiet film, in comparison to some of the others I saw, but no less absorbing. There are almost no men to speak of. (That’s not why I liked it so much. … Okay, maybe that’s not the only reason I liked it so much.) Most of the film stays inside a villa belonging to what’s left of the Touma family, in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. The Toumas are an old Christian family—Ramallah used to be largely Christian, and they now comprise a significant minority there. One of the neat things about Villa Touma is that the “now” of the film isn’t entirely clear. At first, it looks like the 60s or maybe the 70s. When the film eventually moves from the house to the city, it becomes clear that it’s much later than that, sometime close to now (2014), but probably not right now (2000-something).

Since the Six-Day War in 1967, the Touma family has been whittled down to three unmarried sisters, used to being respectable and upper class but now running out of money. None of them works, and being aristocratically respectable seems to mean that, as women of a certain age and background, the sisters remain decorously cut off from social life. That’s certainly what it means to the eldest sister, the implacable, imperious Juliette (Nisreen Faour), and what Juliette says, goes. villa-touma-movie-posterAnother of the sisters, Violet (Ula Tabari), was married, but so briefly it doesn’t appear the relationship was even consummated. Given that her arranged marriage was to a much older man (who inconveniently died almost immediately), Violet doesn’t miss her husband so much as she misses the status accorded a married woman. She keeps her wedding dress hung over the only mirror in her bedroom, looking at the dress rather than at herself in the mirror. The dress keeps her from facing the passage of time. But her refusal to acknowledge her reflection is also a denial of herself as a person whose life has changed since her wedding day. That dress is one of the many signs that, for Violet and her sisters, Juliette and Antoinette (Cherin Dabis), time stopped somewhere in the late 60s, when they each lost so much.

The present comes to stay in the form of the sisters’ niece, Badia (Maria Zreik) the daughter of the brother they loved…until he married a Muslim woman, shaming the family. Eighteen-year-old Badia has grown up in an orphanage. When the sisters agree to take her in, she is nervous about living among strangers, especially strangers who have as many unspoken rules as her aunt Juliette does. The list includes a refusal to discuss either of Badia’s parents. Juliette figures they can marry Badia off quickly, after outfitting her with the appropriate training—a little piano, a little French, what folks used to call comportment—and some clothes “reflecting her status.” Juliette is determined to reestablish the family’s good name (and perhaps to bring a fellow with some money into the fold). The predictable clash between an unhappy, mothballed past and a freer but equally perilous present ensues. Watching it take place, though, I was fascinated.

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Some vintage clothes are classically stylish. Some…aren’t.

Thankfully, what doesn’t happen is a series of amusing-yet-poignant episodes in which vibrant youth helps its crotchety and staid elders catch up to the present and re-learn how to enjoy life. Instead, all four women have real, intense personalities. Unlike characters in a mainstream Hollywood film (especially female characters), these women have not been diluted into kinder, gentler characters by the end of the story. They change, yes, but there are no grand epiphanies at Villa Touma. The sisters, or at least Juliette and so Violet and Antoinette by default, remain bound to some traditional ideas about what sort of behavior is acceptable for women, especially unmarried, aristocratic women. And so, the ending the audience wants for these women doesn’t come to pass, at least not all of it. It is sad in a very real way, without being terribly depressing. One does not leave the theater (or couch) feeling like the world is an awful place and human beings a plague upon it. Neither would I call the film “a darkly comic fable” as the NY Times did, but it has many moments of humor.

PageImage-531262-5249353-photo2copy5Rather, Villa Touma is a film that offers its audience the time and visual space not just to appreciate each actress’s performance but to notice those performances in ways we often can’t in “bigger” films—films in which there’s more plot to get through, or expensive effects or locations by which we need to be impressed. The soundtrack in this film is often simply ambient noise—and Villa Touma, as you might expect, is a pretty quiet place. The space of the house is shot in ways that invite you to notice how dated the tasteful decor is, and how the sisters move through the house as if parts of it are somehow off-limits, already wrapped up and packed away. The characters interact with the space in ways that are both graceful and telling, and the women are often arranged in forms that suggest the embrace of a tradition both nurturing and stifling. Some of this blocking is repeated over the course of the film, sometimes with the same shot set-up, sometimes from different perspectives. The ritual of eating meals and taking tea together is perhaps the most important of these; it provides the audience with a subtle calibration of the shifting ground under the Touma women’s feet.

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Suha Arraf and Cherin Dabis, the writer, director, and now actress who plays Antoinette, the youngest of the sisters, were present at the AFI screening in November. One of the topics Arraf discussed is the dispute between herself and various Israeli state agencies over what nationality the film is given when presented at festivals. Arraf insists the film is Palestinian, but the Israeli economy minister, the Israeli Film Fund, and the Israel State Lottery beg to differ. They are demanding that Arraf return what amounts to something over half a million dollars to these various institutions that provided funding for the film. It looks like there hasn’t been a resolution yet, unless it just hasn’t been reported. Villa Touma premiered at the 2014 Venice Film Festival as Palestinian. According to The Hollywood Reporter, at screenings in Toronto and London, the film remained nation-less.

From the admittedly little I know about the situation, it seems petty for the various funding institutions to demand their money back. It’s not like Villa Touma is the next Gone with the Wind; I suspect most of that money is simply gone. And, more to the point, presumably Arraf was given the funding based on some description of the story, if not an actual script. If that is the case, these funders knew the characters were Palestinians, were speaking Arabic, that it would be a “Palestinian story.” What, other than political points, is to be gained by labeling the film Israeli? There’s an interview with Arraf about the film here. And an earlier NY Times story here.

The Hollywood Reporter, by the way, described the film as stodgy and the performances as wooden, noting that festival audiences are more likely to be “generous” in their assessments. I can’t agree with any of those statements—slow and deliberate is not necessarily stodgy, the performances were vibrating with life, and festival audiences are often snootier than the snootiest professional critic. Sometimes you just want to punch the two dudes standing in line in front of you at festival screenings, those guys who are loudly making it clear they really appreciated, on an intellectual level, the most broadly offensive film at the festival. Or who are busy dissing the most controversial film there as bourgeois. (They’re almost always dudes, and they’re always in front of you because they got there first, the longer to stand in a line that advertises how ahead of the curve they are.)

Villa Touma is still on the festival circuit and scheduled to be at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival at the end of this month (January 2015). This is Arraf’s first fiction feature, but her other screenwriting credits, Lemon Tree (2008) and The Syrian Bride (2004), are both available on disc via Netflix, and Lemon Tree is available for rent on Amazon Prime. There are clips of both on Hulu+.

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British Empire in Film Blogathon: “The Heart of the Matter” (1953)

This post is my hopelessly late contribution to the excellent British Empire in Filml_47066_ebf103e2 Blogathon (thank you, crippling four-day migraine). Go check out some of the other fine entries! When you’re done reading this one, of course.

George More O’Ferrall’s The Heart of the Matter is an adaptation of Graham Greene’s wonderful 1948 bummer of a novel of the same name. As a representation of colonial Sierra Leone, where the whole story takes place, it isn’t especially illuminating…except of course for the marked absence of black characters or local events impinging on the plot in any way. On the one hand, it’s not a bad adaptation of the novel—it does a fine job of preserving what is arguably the core of the novel, that is, Scobie’s struggle to do right by his Catholicism in the context of his extramarital affair (and, er, British imperialism). On the other hand, the film has chosen to eliminate any of Greene’s meditation on colonialism or race, which is, in the novel, intimately tied to the narrative of Scobie’s Catholicism. (For instance, in the film, Scobie has an affair with a young white woman, Helen. The novel’s Scobie has an affair with a Sierra Leonean woman, who is, naturally, black.) I try not to judge movies based on how well they do something they weren’t trying to do in the first place. It’s hard, though, to forgive a movie set in colonial Sierra Leone with a colonial policeman as its protagonist that isn’t interested in either of those things. Of course, to act as though those things go without saying is a very colonial attitude. And take a look at the film’s poster with its realistic representation of the white characters and the anonymous, stylized natives below them.

The fine Trevor Howard plays Henry Scobie, a colonial police officer in Sierra Leone during World War II. Howard is a strong argument for watching this film. Conveying the internal struggle of someone wrestling with questions of eternal damnation and the suffering of others is no small achievement and he does a remarkable job. Being properly British, Scobie isn’t given to displays of emotion but we can tell, even when his face goes stony, that he is suffering. Scobie’s stiff-upper-lippiness is in stark contrast to his wife, Louise. Played by Elizabeth Allan in a thankless role, she is shrewish and unstable, partly as a result of the being ostracized by the colonial community. Mostly she’s just unlikeable.

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Scobie being importuned by wife Louise.

Greene’s protagonist is filled with a sense of duty motivated by the pity he feels for others—his wife, the young woman with whom he starts an affair, the law he’s charged with upholding. This is a familiar theme for Greene. It is the motor that drives the hero in his novel Ministry of Fear, a characteristic which does not show up in the Fritz Lang’s film version (which I wrote about here). It’s nice to see somebody take the Greene malaise seriously. At the beginning of the film Scobie is already in the unenviable position of being married to someone whom he doesn’t love and who makes him miserable and, because he’s Catholic, someone he cannot divorce. (I do wish people would stop misspelling cannot as can not.) Scobie believes he is responsible for the unpleasant person Louise has become. In order to fulfill his sense of obligation to her, he borrows money from an unscrupulous Algerian trader Yusef, so that she can travel to South Africa. Yusef (Gérard Oury) is almost as interestingly complex as Scobie. He is a product of French colonialism and, though he is the closest thing to a villain here, we sense there is a corner of him that wishes he weren’t so corrupt. That corner wants to be Scobie’s friend. There’s an excellent shot of Scobie returning to his bungalow, where Yusef is waiting for him. The staging makes Yusef an unseemly bump in Scobie’s path to the better person he so desperately wants to be, the corruption that spreads itself out over everything in Scobie’s life.

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Publicity still of Helen (Maria Schell) and Scobie (Trevor Howard)

Scobie is convinced that he is responsible for his wife’s misery and for the misery of the woman he truly loves, his mistress, Helen (Maria Schell, sister of actor Maximilian Schell). When Louise, a practicing but less conflicted Catholic, insists Scobie accompany her to Mass, Scobie is faced with a theological dilemma. If he goes to Mass and accepts communion without having confessed, i.e., in a state of mortal sin, he damns himself for eternity. If he doesn’t accompany Louise, she will know something is wrong. Neither can he simply confess his transgression. For his confession to be absolved, Scobie must truly mean it when he promises to stop committing adultery. Otherwise, he remains a mortal sinner. Because Scobie can’t stand the idea of adding to his wife’s misery by exposing her to his affair, he is literally damned either way.

One of the triumphs of Greene’s writing, and, I think, Howard’s acting, is that we sympathize with a character whose deepest-held beliefs are ones we likely don’t share. Indeed, Scobie’s actions may seem unfathomable in their unnecessary self-destructiveness. Partly this is an effect of making Scobie such a sincere and devout Catholic. Howard makes us believe that Scobie’s doomed attempts to live up to his God are necessary, for him. He never expects anyone else to live up to his strict Catholicism—it is his belief, not others’. He believes he is causing others to suffer, and that if he does “the right thing,” he will be able to ameliorate their suffering. It’s the paradox of a kind of magical thinking: the arrogance of believing we have magical power over things we can’t control combined with the selflessness of someone overwhelmed by pity for those around him.

There are some wonderful, less miserable moments in the film, as when Scobie reads to a boy rescued from a torpedoed ship in the British hospital. Scobie is provided a morally uplifting book titled A Bishop among the Bantus: Twenty-five Years in Africa. The boy, who, like many children, has very firm ideas about how the story should go, inspires Scobie to some artistic license so as not to disappoint him.

“Is it a murder story?” the boy asks hopefully. Scobie offers him the title, claiming that Bishop is the name of the hero.

“But you said A Bishop.” Honestly, the child is remarkably alert given that he’s been floating on wreck off the coast of West Africa for forty days.

trevor1“Yes,” Scobie pauses. “His name was Arthur.”

“What a soppy name.”

“Yes, but then he’s a soppy hero.”

“Heros aren’t soppy,” the boy insists.

“The real heroes are the Bantus.”

“What are Bantus?”

“They’re a ferocious gang of pirates.”

“Does Arthur Bishop pursue them?

“Yes, he’s a secret agent. He—er—dresses up as a seaman and he—er—sails away on a merchantman so that he can be captured by the Bantus, and he discovers all their secret hiding places so that when the time is right, he can betray them.”

“He sounds a bit of a cad.”

“He is. And you know he falls in love with daughter of the captain of the Bantus. That’s when he turns soppy. But there are bags of murders before then,” he assures his now-eager audience, and proceeds to invent a suspenseful yarn about Arthur Bishop pursuing Blackbeard, the Bantu.

It is during this moment of freedom from worry and spiritual conflict that Scobie seems the most himself. It’s no accident that this is also the moment he meets Helen, another rescued passenger, who falls in love with him. I wouldn’t mind Trevor Howard reading me bedtime stories, either, especially if they’re filled with bags of murders and ferocious pirates.

The film also offers an impossibly young and slick—and unlikeable!—Denholm Elliott.

The film also offers an impossibly young and slick—and unlikeable!—Denholm Elliott.

The film uses only ambient sound, so all the music in the film is local to Sierra Leone. It’s quite wonderful and there’s a fair bit of it. Something else in the film from Sierra Leone is John Akar, who plays Scobie’s valet, Ali, the only black part with anything resembling character development. Akar would later become Director of Broadcasting in Sierra Leone.  In case you’re wondering, as I was, Sierra Leone achieved independence in 1961.

The movie is streaming free on Amazon Prime and definitely worth a watch.

Don’t forget to read more of the British Empire in Film Blogathon posts!

 

 

 

 

AFI Fest 2014: November 11

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Day Four: Takashi Miike’s Over Your Dead Body (2014)

I had a ticket to Song of the Sea, the new animated film by Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, 2009) but couldn’t make it. I’m looking forward to seeing it, albeit on a much smaller screen, when it comes out on DVD. I don’t expect it to come to Santa Barbara, but I’d be delighted if it did. Maybe it’ll be in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival lineup in January.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgbXWt8kM5Q&w=560&h=315]

…and now for something completely different.

I love Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins (2010), although I haven’t yet made it through his brutal Ichi Ichi-The-Killer-Poster13-Assassins-Posterthe Killer (2010) and not for lack of trying. (And I haven’t tried Audition [1999], either, though I mean to.) Miike has a great eye, and he constructs breathtakingly beautiful mise-en-scènes. Over Your Dead Body is no exception. It’s a gorgeous film. Of course, the other thing Miike is known for is gore, often sexual in nature. Over Your Dead Body is also no exception in this regard, but the gore was (for me) manageable, and in retrospect, I think the gore really did matter in the context of the story. The film is a sort of cross between revenge-driven horror (a Miike staple, from what I understand) and what some film scholars have called “body horror.” Body horror would include lots of Cronenberg and films like Carrie (1976) that focus on horrors that originate within the human (and most often female) body.

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Ebizô Ichikawa as the cruel Kosuke/Iemon

It’s unfair to focus on the gore, however, even though it may be the first thing one remembers, because the majority of this film is gore-free. The film meanwhile makes use of a number of sub-genres, most noticeably that it’s structured as a play-within-a-play. The main characters are rehearsing for a live performance of Yotsuya kaidan, one of the most famous of the more recent Japanese ghost stories (rather than 18th-century ones that became films like Mizoguchi’s wonderful Ugetsu [1953]). These traditional tales often start with romance and end in some richly-deserved and bloody revenge, not unlike Over Your Dead Body‘s frame story, the affair between the play’s lead actors, Kosuke (Ebizô Ichikawa) and Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki). The actors’ affair mirrors or doubles or is maybe caused by the relationship between their characters Iemon and Oiwa and which the actors play again and again. (In addition to being a play-within-a-play, Yotsuya kaidan is said to be based on actual events, adding another layer to the story.) There is some supernatural influence here (keep your eye on that creepy doll), but Miike never offers an explanation for the events, which I think works just fine. The film creates a trance-like sense of suspended animation, and an “origin story” would undo the effect, diluting it into a dreary One Missed Call (2008) sort of affair.

maxresdefault-1The acting is excellent, particularly Ichikawa as Kosuke/Iemon, but it’s the art direction/staging (by Yuji Hayashida and Eri Sakushima) that blew me away. One of the most interesting things about the film is the way it cheats at being a play. We watch a lot of the performance unfold as though we were an audience at a live play—but an audience with an unnaturally mobile eye, contributing to our growing sense that something here is just…off. The camera weaves around the actors and through the set, avoiding any sense of a static adaptation of a drama. When the camera tracks back to include the rest of the warehouse rehearsal space (see above) with its rows of desks for the director, actors, and technicians, it’s often jarring because we’ve forgotten they’re there. But by the last third of the film, that off-stage space has become part of the play’s stage for us, as well as for Kosuke and Miyuki, apparently trapped in the roles they keep performing.

teaser-overyourdeadbodyHardcore Miike fans may be disappointed if they’re looking for gore, but as a film and as a story, it’s excellent. (Most of the gore is based in the 19th-century story, the result of Oiwa being poisoned.) If you’ve enjoyed other horror films based in Japanese folklore (which is a lot of ’em nowadays), this will be right up your alley. It’s also worth seeing if you’re interested in the interplay between stage and screen, though you may have to avert your gaze when Miyuki/Oiwa goes looking for the fetus she’s convinced she’s conceived with Kosuke/Iemon (and I’m guessing that’s not an episode in the earlier version).

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I do want to hunt down some other adaptations of Yotsuya kaidan, as I love Japanese ghost stories almost as much as I love more well-known fairy tales. But in the meantime, I have my final Fest film to write about, Villa Touma, the only film I saw, I am sorry to say, that was directed by a woman.

Also coming up, my much-delayed entry in the British Empire in Film Blogathon, George More O’Ferrall’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter (1953). And eventually, I’ll get to Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die. Eventually. Villa Touma and Heart of the Matter were not light-hearted romps, so I may well need some frothy-Lubitsch-type palate cleanser before tackling Lang’s Hangmen (which is, in comparison, almost a light-hearted romp).

Thanks for reading!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljT3sxER6fA&w=560&h=315]

AFI Fest 2014: November 10

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So this is the movie I took my Mom to.

Mind you, that wasn’t the original plan. We planned to see Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s new film about the painter J. M. W. Turner. That was before we realized the film was 149 minutes, and we agreed we weren’t ready to commit to almost 3 hours of sitting. The Iranian Fish & Cat was what I had tickets to next, so Mom figured she’d tag along. We whiled away the time before the film with some very nice drinks at the Roosevelt Hotel across the street. I had a Spiced Cucumber Collins (Hendrick’s Gin, lime, shishito pepper, cucumber, and mint) which was quite refreshing. I heartily recommend trying to recreate it at home. Yum.

flyer_largeThere was a healthy line for the film, which the AFI schedule advertised as a “horror comedy art film,” like “a Friday the 13th installment directed by Alain Resnais.” While that is one of the finest descriptions I have ever come across, I suspect that it did the film a disservice by attracting people who were expecting more Friday the 13th and less Alain Resnais.

It’s hard to say much about the film without utterly ruining it. Here goes.

The film has been making the rounds of festivals and doing very well, but there is no sign yet that it will be distributed. It certainly should be. However you want to categorize the film generically, it’s worth seeing for the formal experiment. The 134-minute film is one take, but what’s really interesting is how the director, Shahram Mokri, uses that formal restriction to play around with time. The assistant programmer who introduced the film argued that it has flashbacks. I’m not so sure that’s what they are; regardless, there is something tricky (not gimmicky) and fascinating happening with the element of time. The film mostly follows its characters around, often literally from behind, slowing down and elaborating on the “West Wing” walking and talking method of shifting from one character or group to another. This allows the viewer to “return” to scenes that have already happened, from a different perspective.

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Yes, they are each missing an arm, in case you were wondering.

 

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An earlier set of creepy twins (“The Shining,” 1980).

 

0Aside from its formal value, the film is beautiful and often darkly funny. I was enchanted by Babak, one of a trio of possibly murderous restaurant owners, played by Babak Karimi. If you’re familiar with Iranian film, you may recognize him as an editor and actor. (He was in Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film A Separation.) That’s Karimi in the poster up on the left. He has some wonderful sequences, including the beginning—a riff on American horror films, in which a car full of young adults who have gotten lost on their way to a campsite stop at a run-down restaurant to ask for directions. Babak’s response to the young man’s request for directions is to ask for his ID. Repeatedly. And to ask him whether or not the gate they passed was closed. Repeatedly. The kid is lucky he got his ID back.

I spent the first 40 minutes or so chafing against my expectations (more Friday the 13th), but once I let go of them, I enjoyed the film immensely. So did my Mom. If it does get picked up, I do hope that whatever tiny marketing campaign it gets does it justice.

If you’re interested in finding a screening of the film, check out the film’s official website hereVariety has a brief write-up of the film here.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gft318xTAdg?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

I’m still really looking forward to seeing Timothy Spall make this face on a big screen. (And the paintings. Of course. Obviously.)

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Bluebeard in Black and White: Fritz Lang’s “Secret Beyond the Door”

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This is my contribution to the Fairy Tale Blogathon hosted by the always-fascinating Movies Silently.

Check out more of the posts there!

Let me start this post about Secret Beyond the Door by blaming the enchanting Angela Carter. Carter (1940 – 1992) wrote some of my favorite books, including The Bloody Chamber (1979), which is a collection of feminist (and often erotic) revisions of fairy tales. If you’re familiar with Bluebeard, you’ve probably figured out that the title of that book is also the title of a story that revisits the Bluebeard fairy tale. Carter is an amazing writer; she (re)wrote a lot of fairy tales as well as writing about how they work and why they’re important. You might have heard of her story “The Company of Wolves,” a version of Little Red Riding Hood from the same collection, made into a peculiar and magical film by Neil Jordan (1984), or her novel The Magic Toyshop, turned into the equally unsettling film by David Wheatley (1987). I think Carter’s may have been my introduction to the Bluebeard story, which is doubtless why it’s one of my favorite fairy tales.

As with so many fairy tales, it’s not a great template if you’re a lady: The Bluebeard figure, an older, often ugly or darkly handsome, wealthy, and mysterious fellow, courts and marries a beautiful young woman and spirits her off to his desolate castle, country house, log cabin, or what-have-you. At first the new wife is dazzled by the jewels, the dresses, the fancy parties (or she is miserably isolated, depending on the version). Soon, the husband has to leave for business. He entrusts his wife with all the keys to the house except one. Never, ever open the door to this one room, he says. Well, obviously, that’s the only door she is interested in opening. She contrives a way to get into the room and discovers the dismembered corpses of Bluebeard’s many and sundry previous wives (suggesting a tiresomely predictable terror of women who seek knowledge). When the husband returns and (somehow instantly) realizes the betrayal, he murders her. Or, in some versions, the wife’s brothers come galloping to her rescue. The punishment of the woman is typical, as is the Victorian-ish addition of male rescuers. Meh.

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If you’ve read any books like, say, Jane Eyre, or seen a movie from the 1940s, like, say, Gaslight (1940), this plot will probably sound pretty familiar. According to scholar Maria Tatar, another wonderful author who writes an awful lot about fairy tales and folklore, Hollywood in the 1940s was rife with Bluebeard stories, and for good reason. Women were marrying strangers—beaus who had returned from the war not quite the same as when they left—and married women were discovering that the man they’d married, recently home from the war, had become a stranger. Part of the strangeness was this new undercurrent of violence—in the men’s dreams or nightmares, stories they told or wouldn’t tell their families about their war-time experiences, and sometimes that violence that spilled over into the family.

Now that we’ve got that out of way, let’s also take a moment to blame Fritz Lang. It’s been sort of a Lang-y month around here. I recently wrote about his 1944 film Ministry of Fear, I went and saw Hangmen Also Die (1944) at the Skirball Cultural Center (which is hosting a noir exhibit focusing on its many émigré artists—if you’re in the LA area, go, go, go!), and now Secret Beyond the Door (1947), Lang’s version of the Bluebeard tale, or his “wife-in-distress film,” or “paranoid’s woman’s film,” depending on which critic you read. Lang is a master of mood and lighting (assisted by some fantastic cinematographers), and for me, this is what carries Secret. It doesn’t hurt that it stars Joan Bennett (a sometime Lang favorite) and Michael Redgrave, but the plot is so goofily Freudian that if Bennett and Redgrave weren’t adrift in Lang’s parallel universe, the film probably wouldn’t work.

7614704076_5ffbd86407_zIf you’re willing to accept the film as a kind of nightmarish Freudian fairy tale, it’s quite something. The opening sets the mood: an animated pond with submerged flowers (created by Disney specially for the film) and Celia (Bennett) speaking in a dreamy, hazy way about her wedding, as though it’s a memory. In fact, she is approaching the altar, about to marry Mark (Redgrave). As if waking from a dream, Celia’s voice-over worries, “I’m marrying a stranger.” Like all therapy sessions, the story begins in the past.

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What could go wrong?

The trouble starts on the honeymoon when, as a joke, Celia locks Mark out of her room. Thus begin the lying, the silences, Mark’s locking himself up away from his new bride. All she really knows about Mark is that he’s an architect, and he “collects” rooms, “felicitous rooms for felicitous people,” he says. He theorizes that the way spaces are built can determine what happens in them. Celia quite sensibly tells him he’s touched in the head. When they return to Mark’s isolated manor in the States, Celia realizes just how little she really knows about her husband. I won’t spoil the series of surprises that await her, but rest assured, they are Jane Eyre-sized revelations.

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Oh. That.

I will tell you that Mark’s collection of rooms (all but one) are introduced to Celia and their housewarming party guests. Each room is an exact replica (with as many of the original furnishings as possible) of a murder room, a room in which a real man murdered his wife, his mistress, or his mother. Nothing weird about that. When Celia points out that he used the word felicitous to describe the rooms, he explains that the word means “apt,” or “well-suited.” (“Look it up, darling,” he says rather snottily, but to be fair to Celia, the word can mean either apt or pleasantdelightful.) Mark’s architecture magazine is, in fact, named Apt. 

Secret Beyond the Door hits most of the Bluebeard marks: naïve young woman’s sexual awakening, marriage to a mysterious man who keeps secrets, including the room he won’t allow her to go in. The new husband is moody and unreasonable. She is isolated out in the country, and her only family, her brother, dies before she meets Mark.

25Tatar notes that Secret Beyond the Door, like many of the 1940s Bluebeard film plot lines, is actually female noir. Rather than a damaged man set irrevocably on a destructive path, helped along by a suspicious and very attractive woman, the Bluebeard pattern gives us a psychologically unstable or masochistic woman who succumbs to the initial charms of mysterious (and older) man. One of the things that’s interesting about this is that it can give the female character a lot more agency than you might expect. Celia puts up with a lot of crazy from Mark, but she is impressively strong-willed and once she decides to stick with him, she is determined to figure out what happened to him, to help him overcome his, well, frigidness. Mark becomes more and more helpless in the grip of some mysterious neurosis, and, risking her own life, it is Celia who must save him. The shift is visible in Lang’s placement of Celia and Mark relative to each other as the couple snuggles in the hammock at their hotel, first on their honeymoon at the beginning, and then when they return to the same hotel at the end of the film (see below).

As you might imagine, Lang and his cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, turn what might have been a warm, even cozy house into a nightmare labyrinth of claustrophobic, shadowy rooms and hallways. We often find Celia lingering in doorways and hallways, liminal spaces that emphasize her unstable status in the household and how uncertain she is about who she has really married. Many conversations between characters are abruptly interrupted by a third character and never finished, adding to the atmosphere of invisible menace.

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The family’s collection of creepy masks: Nope, nothing to worry about here.

Celia’s rising alarming is mirrored in our own sense of instability in this narrative, in which things are not as they seem. Who is the victim? Who is the villain? Who is(n’t) crazy? And what do those lilacs represent? Mark’s career as an architect also calls our attention to how spaces are used, and not just those dark hallways or murder rooms. Mexico, where Celia and Mark meet, get married, and briefly honeymoon, is a Mexico of the mind, or perhaps of the libido—an exotic otherworld in which the natives are passionate and untamed. (It’s a convenient and creaky stereotype for the picture’s symbolic system, and it could just as easily have been Spain or a country in Africa, as Lang’s version of Mexico has nothing to do with the real place or its real people.) The scenario in which Celia and Mark meet is terribly contrived, but that’s part of why it works—Celia and Mark were destined to meet. Joan Bennett is wonderful as a woman who appears trapped in a dream she can’t quite get a grip on, and Redgrave manages to be loftily aristocratic, manic, and, in rare glimpses, charmingly down-to-earth.

Don’t pay any attention to reviews that call the film “a pretty silly yarn.” It is a pretty silly yarn, but so are most fairy tales. The plausibility of the story line is beside the point. Like all fairy tales, the film’s power comes from its imagery and the pull of the strong but often submerged instincts and emotions that fairy tales have always narrated. (I also think the film works better than Spellbound in its use of psychoanalysis–everything Beyond the Door is overdetermined from the get-go. There are no half-measures with Lang.) Give yourself up to the film and enjoy the beautiful and unsettling ride.

Before.

Before.

The making of Secret Beyond the Door was nearly as fraught as Mark’s psyche, with Bennett’s marriage to producer Walter Wanger breaking up, Lang having an on-again off-again affair with the screenwriter and bullying his cast and crew. The TCM article has some juicy details.

If you’re interested in Bluebeard (or other fairy tales), check out some of the many versions, with illustrations and

After.

After.

lists of related novels and films at fairy tale compendium Sur La Lune.

In addition to the 40s films noted above, other versions of Bluebeard include magician Méliès’ Barbe-bleue (1901), Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), which I wrote about here, a 1944 Edgar G. Ulmer version I can’t wait to watch (streaming via Amazon Prime), and Catherine Breillat’s 2009 Barbe blue.

More Bluebeardiana:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aj41N5ET5Y&w=560&h=315]

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Undercurrent-1946[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2q8QJ5qNUI&w=560&h=315]

AFI Fest 2014: November 9

AFIFEST2014logoMy two Sunday movies at the Fest were Run, written and directed by Philippe Lacôte, and then A Hard Day, written and directed by Kim Seong-hun, both from this year.

I was excited to see Run not only because it sounded great, but because it’s a movie from Côte d’Ivoire and there just aren’t very many of those yet. One of the things I love about films is the opportunity to see places that I’ll never go from the perspective of someone who lives there. Run was filmed in Côte d’Ivoire and neighboring Burkina Faso, and it is beautiful country. The film was beautiful—the colors and the shot constructions. The director was at the screening and took some questions afterwards. He explained the film is meant to operate on three levels of reality: personal, social, and mystical, and that each of the three “acts” of the film represents part of the country’s history.

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The film stars Abdoul Karim Konaté as Run, whose coming of age story in some ways mirrors his country’s history. The film is largely a series of flashbacks after Run murders the Ivorian Prime Minister (formerly a paid thug) at the beginning. As a child, Run wants to become a rainmaker. The local rainmaker takes him as an apprentice, and this section of the film offers some of its most breathtaking landscapes. When that doesn’t work out, he goes to work for Gladys the Greedy, a beautiful and enormous professional eater, played by Reine Sali Coulibaly in a funny and touching performance. (Lacôte explained that Gladys, who was originally going to be played by Gabourey Sidibe, is based on a real [male] professional eater who came from Mali.) In the third section of the film, one of my absolute favorite contemporary actors, the incomparable Isaach de Bankolé (a regular in Jim Jarmusch’s films), plays the last of Run’s mentors, Assa. De Bankolé was born in Abidjan, the largest city in Côte d’Ivoire, and where much of the film’s action takes place.

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Gladys (Reine Sali Coulibaly) and a young Run (Abdoul Bah)

With any luck, the film will get picked up at the festival and lots more folks will be able to see it. Here’s a clip:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SDrpfbnKUk?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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A Hard Day was my second film—another midnight screening. The director was also in attendance at this one. Unfortunately, given that the screening ended just before 2am, no one had the stamina for a Q & A. The audience loved the movie, and it’s definitely the most fun I’ve had so far. I’m a big fan of South Korean crime thrillers, starting with The President’s Last Bang in 2005, which I saw at the always-excellent Wisconsin Film Festival. A Hard Day is a really good film. The first twenty minutes or so are especially impressive and the rest of the film does justice to its great opening. This is going to sound like I’m ruining the plot for you, but what I’m about to describe is really only the beginning of what is a very long bad day for the main character, so trust me and read on.

A corrupt cop (Lee Sun Gyun) has left his siblings to finish preparations for their mother’s funeral in order to drive back to his precinct to hide some incriminating evidence from the Internal Affairs officers who are about to show up. His sister calls and gives him a (justifiably) hard time about how soon he’ll be back. He also gets a call from his young daughter, Mina, to remind him to bring her a chocolate cake. And his fellow corrupt cops back at the precinct are calling about the evidence that will incriminate all of them and is not being hidden. Unfortunately, our hero, Detective Ko, is the only one with a key to the drawer containing said evidence, so all the other cops can do is stare despondently at the drawer. In the middle of all this, his car slams into something, cracking the windshield and denting the front end. It turns out that Detective Ko’s day has gone from bad to much, much worse. He has accidentally killed a man. When Ko sees a police car heading towards him, he hides the body…by putting it in his trunk.

Shortly thereafter, Ko is back at the morgue with his family and an extra corpse. His colleagues show up to discuss the impending catastrophe and alert Ko that the Internal Affairs guys are on their way to him, now, at the morgue. In a panic, Ko makes another really bad decision—to hide the corpse in the only place no one will look: his mother’s coffin. He is wracked with guilt—and in a particularly hilarious moment, he promises his mother’s corpse that he will make it up to her. What ensues is a genius combination of genuine suspense and something close to slapstick, involving yellow balloons, a noisy toy soldier, and the cross from his mother’s coffin.

2014+-+A+Hard+Day+(still+2)Like a number of fine South Korean crime thrillers, A Hard Day masterfully blends the thrills of a crime story with some very dark humor (my favorite kind). But the drama wouldn’t work if we didn’t actually care about Ko—and we absolutely sympathize with him. We want him to escape the Internal Affairs cops, get the dead guy out of his mother’s coffin, and make it home to his daughter with her chocolate cake.

For whatever combination of reasons, American action films don’t seem interested in offering their audiences real characters anymore, and so the movies are hollow and unsatisfying, however good they may look. The last action heroes (sorry) I can remember caring about from an American movie are Nic Cage and Sean Connery in The Rock, which was almost 20 years ago now. (Oy vey, I’m old.) Hollywood, take a lesson—this is how you make a real action movie.

 

Coming up next: The weirdest Iranian film you’ll probably never get to see.

 

Trailer for A Hard Day

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33xuvdscFqQ?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

AFI Fest 2014: November 8, 2014

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I’m not sure why every screening at the AFI’s annual Fest isn’t packed, regardless of the day or time. It’s FREE. F.R.E.E. I have a ticket to see Sophia freakin’ Loren honored at a screening of Marriage Italian Style (1964, Vittorio de Sica). Technically, it’s a voucher, and I have to pick up a ticket and start standing in line early enough, but whatever. It is free. AND THERE ARE STILL VOUCHERS AVAILABLE. What is wrong with people? You can take a drink into the shows at the Chinese cineplex (which is most of the screenings), and the Fest is a great for spotting celebrities. What’s not to love?

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My first film this year was Quentin Dupieux’s new film Réalité. Dupieux is indie-famous for his film Rubber (2010), about a murderous rubber car tire, which, admit it, is the greatest premise you’ve heard in a long time. AFI are fans of Dupieux, and his film Wrong played at the Fest in 2012. Réalité is cut from the same cloth as those films–it’s got the same unsettling combination of real humor and surrealism. “Real humor” because often films that are surreal fail embarrassingly at incorporating humor. David Lynch is the master of brilliantly combining humor and surrealism. Needless to say, most people aren’t David Lynch. (And YAY for new “Twin Peaks” episodes in 2016!!)

There is a fantastic bit at the beginning of Réatlié that felt like a Jacques Tati gag. An aspiring director, Jason (Alain Chabat), is pitching his film to a producer, Bob (Jonathan Lambert). Bob asks Jason to describe his film, but before Jason can get a word out, Bob insists that he have a cigar. Jason doesn’t want a cigar. Bob offers him a cigarillo. No, thank you. Not to worry—for non-smokers, Bob has regular cigarettes. (It’s like Dean Martin as an alcoholic on the wagon in Rio Bravo just sticking to beer.) Bob insists that Jason have a cigarette. Not wanting to offend the producer, Jason relents. Within four seconds, the producer has snatched the cigarette out of Jason’s mouth, complaining that Jason is such a poor smoker, it’s no fun to watch him. Pointing out that the air is stale, Bob then suggests they go out on the balcony for Jason to pitch his idea. Every time Jason is about to start pitching his film, Bob interrupts. It is both very French (both actors are French) and very funny.

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“I’m your pusher man.”

The movie involves several intertwined plots that may actually all be the same plot. Characters wake up from dreams that involve other characters that had appeared to be part of a sub-plot. Eventually Jason begins encountering another version of himself as he goes about trying to fulfill the producer’s one condition for signing a contract. Jason’s film is about murderous television sets (sound familiar?) that make people stupid the more television they watch. (“So it’s sic-fi,” says Bob.) Soon, the homicidal televisions start killing people with “waves.” People are in agonizing pain, they bleed from every conceivable orifice, and then they die. Everybody on the planet. The End. Bob’s only condition for producing this masterpiece is that Jason find the perfect groan of agony for these stupid human victims. “I want an Oscar for that groan, Jason!” he says with not a trace of irony. (Jason later has a dream of receiving an award for the best groan, but he can’t go up to get it because he’s stuck to his seat.) In an attempt to help Jason relax so that he can find the perfect groan, he and his unsympathetic psychoanalyst wife go to see a movie. Playing at the theater is a movie called Waves, and of course, it is his movie. He stands up in front of the screen and tries to convince the audience that they need to stop watching the film because it doesn’t exist yet. And that the groans will be better when he’s finished. His wife is mortified. I didn’t think of it at the time, but it all sounds very Woody Allen.

Is Réalité a good film? Absolutely, and I enjoyed it. But it’s a style of film—I don’t think it’s quite a genre—that I don’t love. Maybe the color and the violence of a Lynch film make the Möbius-strip-like quality of the narratives more palatable. Maybe I got impatient because it was a film about making films and involved too much navel-gazing. I liked a lot of things about the film, including John Glover (“Smallville”), of all people, who plays an ex-documentary filmmaker named Zog working on a new film for Bob (starring a girl named Reality). There was something kind about his character, his insistence that Bob be patient while watching the rushes. So much of the film’s humor depends on cruelty towards the characters, I wish there had been a little more of him.

 

FaithbookI hung around for the midnight movie, Alléluia, a thriller directed by Fabrice Du Welz, starring Laurent Lucas and Lola Dueñas (an Almodóvar regular), and shot in 16mm. It’s based on the same story, the Martha Beck-Ray Fernandez murders, as the pulpy The Honeymoon Killers (1969). Alléluia was riveting in a demanding sort of way—so much so that the film sometimes felt like mostly a tight close-up on Dueñas’s Gloria, sometimes just her eyes. (Though there was of course less of that than it seemed like there was.) That demanding intimacy was perfectly apt—Gloria is willing to overlook a lot in a fella, including being seduced, conned, and abandoned, but when Michel (Lucas) sleeps with other women in order to con them, while Gloria lurks about posing as his sister, she loses whatever is left of her mind. Almost immediately after meeting Michel, she drops her daughter with a neighbor, and she and Michel set about fleecing lonely women. But Gloria can’t stomach the part of the con that involves Michel’s infidelity. She is crazily possessive from the moment he seduces her. The morning after, he cons her out of some cash. In a brilliant moment, once she is out of his line of sight, she runs breathlessly up and down stairs to get for him, then stops before he can see or hear her to catch her breath. Handing him the money, she smiles, saying, “If you don’t help the people you love, you don’t really love them.” This is exactly the response that Michel’s manipulation is intended to elicit, but when he doesn’t call, she tracks him down. Michel confesses who he really is (not a shoe salesman, as it turns out) and she seems to accept him as he is. It is their mutual acceptance that seems to doom them (and, of course, the women Gloria will later slaughter).

ALLELUIA-AFF 120x160.inddMichel is a Humphrey Bogart fan. He has film posters; he takes Gloria to see The African Queen (1951)a film about another pair of misfit lovers. I’m hoping the über-creepy scene of Michel and Gloria laughing at the film, intercut with Katharine Hepburn and Bogart laughing at Bogart’s hippopotamus imitation hasn’t ruined The African Queen for me. Michel also reads crime fiction—Simenon’s Maigret stories. We know serious trouble is brewing when Michel and Gloria set their sights on a beautiful widow who also reads Simenon, and has a daughter almost the same age as Gloria’s. The assistant programmer who introduced the film pointed out that Lucas is reminiscent of Klaus Kinski—”but handsomer,” she was quick to add. There is definitely something around the mouth that is Kinski-ish, and that sort of shiftiness that Kinski had (you never knew when he would just go off) makes Michel seem simultaneously insincere and vulnerable.

Both the leads are tremendous. Gloria at first elicits our sympathy; she seems naive…and then absolutely terrifying. Michel is at first appalling and then sympathetic (though not redeemed, not by a long shot). He has a wonderful speech on his first date with Gloria about being able to tell what sort of person one is based on their choice of footwear. He’s got Gloria’s style pegged, and we don’t know if he’s been stalking her or if he really does understand her in some way. It’s an impressive narrative/directorial feat, making those two sociopaths sympathetic, and making their relationship so compelling, while still maintaining a moral center, not allowing us to excuse any of the pair’s crimes simply because they’ve found each other. I’m interested in seeing Du Welz’s first movie; Calvaire (2004) is a horror film, and given Alléluia, I’m looking forward to being horrified.

 

All in all, not a bad first day. Up next: Philippe Lacôte’s feature debut, Run, and another midnight screening, this time A Hard Day, a crime thriller directed by Kim Seong-hun.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Ministry-of-Fear-swastikaAfter the first couple of paragraphs, this post is pretty much nothing but spoilers. Ye’ve been warned.

During the 30s and early 40s, Austrian-exile Fritz Lang wanted to make not just anti-fascist pictures, but anti-Nazi pictures. In the American studios where Lang began making movies in 1936, this was a hard sell for much of the war. He did make four films in which Nazis are central to the plot—Manhunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946). Of these, Ministry of Fear is the only one that has no actual Nazis* in it. Ministry is instead filled with collaborators, making everyone a potential threat.

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A mischievous Lang at a typically Expressionist angle.

The film, adapted from the Graham Greene novel, opens with our hero, Stephen Neale (the sporting Ray Milland), being released from an institution where he’s been remanded for the “mercy killing” of his wife. In other words, Neale has been something of a collaborator himself. (He brought his dying wife some means of killing herself but couldn’t bring himself to administer it. Unbeknownst to him, she found it and killed herself.) Since the trial, Neale has been resting up in the Lembridge asylum.

In the Criterion Collection liner notes for the film, Glenn Kenny describes Ministry as a “nightmare film” rather than a Nazi film—that is, a film like Lang’s earlier M (1931) or the Mabuse (1922; 1933) films, movies in which the Ministry of Fearprotagonist is not so much involved in a plot as trapped in a psychologically overwrought context, an atmosphere rather than a real place. That atmosphere—which Lang excelled at—veers uncomfortably between oppressive and angst-ridden. Even before we know what sort of trouble Neale will get himself in, there is an unnerving emphasis on the passing of time. The film opens on a clock—the one ticking away the minutes until Neale is once again a free man. When he buys a ticket back to London at the Lembridge rail station, the clerk says he’ll have it “in the wink of an eye.” The train, however, Neale has to wait for.

To pass the time, Neale attends a village fête (pronounced by all and sundry as “fate”) benefitting the Mothers of Free Nations charity. Looking a bit dazed by what appears to be more social interaction than he’s had in a long time, Neale is first pressed into guessing the weight of a cake—made with tightly rationed eggs—and is then compelled to have his palm read. And here is where things go sideways for Neale.

The palmist tells Neale he will make a woman very happy; Neale protests, “I’m not married.”

Ministry palmist

“Well, you will be!” she practically shouts at him. “You’ve made at least one woman happy,” she insists, but Neale doesn’t want to hear any more about the past, and who can blame him?

“Don’t tell me about the past,” he says, “show me the future.”

Unfortunately, these turn out to be the magic words the palmist is waiting to hear from a Nazi spy. Brushing issues of romance aside, she informs Neale that what he really wants is that cake, and she tells him what guess will win it for him. (For a cake everyone insists is very light because of those rare eggs, the “magic” weight of the cake is pretty heavy.) Confused, but cheerfully following directions, he returns to the cake stand and offers this new weight, winning the cake.

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It’s a Congratulations-on-getting-out-of-the-asylum cake!

Just as he is heading back to the station with his prize, the fête ladies stop him. The real spy (the criminally under-appreciated Dan Duryea) has materialized, and he wants his cake. The ladies insist that they’ve made a mistake, and that this new fellow has guessed much more closely to the “real” weight. Neale triumphantly points out that his original guess is much closer to this new weight than the angry, bowler-hatted interloper’s and heads back to the station. Fate, indeed.

In such circumstances, what can a spy do but send in a fake blind man to share Neale’s train carriage and steal back the made-with-real-eggs-secret-spy cake? Neale offers the fellow a slice (using the pocket knife all gentlemen used to carry), but rather than popping it in his mouth like a normal fake blind man, the man crumbles it in his fingers as though trying to find something in it. While the two men share the cake, the Nazis begin bombing a nearby munitions factory. The train slams to a stop. The fake blind man, not finding what he was looking for in the cake, whacks Neale over the head, hops off the train, and makes off with the rest of the cake.

The bombs are going off, the train is stopped somewhere in the countryside, and we can see the fake blind man scurrying off with his contraband, but Neale comes to pretty quickly. And this is where things get weird. Neale gathers himself, jumps off the train, and runs—towards the Nazi bombs—after the man who stole his cake. Just take a minute to savor that.

Of course, things have to clatter off the rails for Neale to really reassimilate. In order to rejoin civilization, he needs to be purged of his guilt in collaborating in his wife’s death. When Neale confesses his part in his wife’s death to his new love interest, Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds), they are even Underground, so that Neale can re-emerge a truly free man. Now, he can be the good guy, pursuing collaborators and Carla with a free (well, free-ish) conscience. So, when he says, “Show me the future,” it isn’t so much an unfortunate coincidence as a gateway to actually having one.

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Carla (Marjorie Reynolds) in a fabulous Edith Head suit with a slightly spooked Stephen (Ray Milland). Hey, remember the box in “Kiss Me Deadly”?

Austrian exiles Carla and her brother, Willi, run the Mothers of Free Nations, which has been hijacked by Nazis spies and collaborators. As Neale runs around London trying to find out who stole his cake, he and Carla are constantly framed in doorways, suggesting both a sense of being trapped and that somehow the pair are inescapably visible to their pursuers. In an attempt to track down the cake-foisting palmist, Neale and Willi attend a séance, and the angry man who wanted his cake (Duryea), turns up—and then gets shot, apparently with Neale’s gun. Then we see a second dour, bowler-hatted fellow tailing Neale.

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Bowlers, bowlers everywhere…

Neale is surrounded not only by people with suspect motives but also by fakes of one sort or another. Neale’s palmist was the spies’ replacement for the regular palmist, a professional fake who runs the séance. (But of course Neale’s palmist is quite real in that her readings turn out to be quite accurate.) There is the fake blind man, of course. The man who wanted the cake and then gets shot at a séance later turns up with yet another name, as a tailor, and very much not dead. The second bowler-hatted man who seems so menacing is a good guy. One can’t even be sure of the cake. The unknowableness of others’ motives until it is perhaps too late is essential to the queasy atmosphere Lang creates, and it is superbly effective at conveying an aspect of the terror Nazis were so good at manufacturing: paranoia. Upon finding the names of various suspect persons in their files, Carla exclaims to Willi, “They’re Nazis, Willi, I know it! The same as they were in Austria. It’s the way they work, all around you, knowing about everybody, everything, where to find you. …They’re here.” It’s this sense of collaborators hiding in plain sight, turning up everywhere you go, that I think makes Ministry of Fear not only a classic Lang “nightmare” film, but a Nazi film as well.

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Hillary Brooke as the real Mrs. Bellane, psychic.

Ministry of Fear is often introduced (or dismissed)  as one of Lang’s lesser films, but recently—especially since the Criterion re-release in 2013—interested parties are making a case for it. Perhaps trying to see the film as an anti-Nazi picture has masked its finer qualities. Looking at Ministry of Fear as a noir, a genre for which Lang is justifiably famous, might shift the focus to what the picture does (really) well, rather than its failure at things it’s not trying to (and maybe couldn’t) do. It certainly hits many of noir’s high (low?) notes: an imperfect man in over his head, the constant sense of unease and danger, typical noir angles, framings, and some noir-ish lighting.

Ministry is a fine film either way, not only because it’s Fritz Lang; it had loads of talent working on it. I’m becoming quite a Ray Milland fan, especially after watching this and another 1944 Milland picture, The Uninvited, a ghost story directed by Lewis Allen. Art director Hans Dreier (who has a whopping 535 credits on IMDb) worked on both, to wonderful effect. The unflappable and very tall (6′ 6″) Alan Napier (Alfred to Adam West’s Batman, for those of my generation) is also in both pictures. Character actor Dan Duryea, no slouch at 6′ 1″, deserves a post of his own; here, he gives us what Kenny describes as “uncharacteristic but altogether deliberate blandness” in a character who turns up like a bad penny, helping to evoke the paranoid sense of imminent betrayal that pervades the film. Plus, Duryea gets to dial a phone with a pair of ludicrously enormous tailors’ scissors, which look like an overisze prop for Hitchcock’s 3D Dial M for Murder (1954, another Milland picture).

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Unfortunately, Ministry of Fear isn’t currently streaming on any platform I’m aware of—you just gotta wait for it from Netflix or buy it (or get it from your library, of course—mine had it!).

Here’s a peek – the fake blind man and the cake:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Svuz0HEeslc?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

(*There is no one in the film who identifies as a Nazi, no one sporting jackboots or spouting fascist rhetoric. But one can make an argument for Carla’s brother Willi as one of those apparently affable Nazis who are inevitably revealed as cold-blooded bastards, both because of his false “old boy” avuncularity and the fact that he is the person giving the other collaborators their marching orders.)

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More Reading on Ministry of Fear:

MUBI essay focusing on the romance between Carla and Stephen

Turner Classic Movies’ page on Ministry of Fear

Bosley Crowther’s 1945 New York Times review 

IMDb’s page on Ministry of Fear

 

World War I: King and Country (1964)

This post is a part of the fantastic World War I in Classic Film blogathon hosted by the always intriguing Movies Silently and Silent-ology – go read the other excellent posts!

 

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One of the great—and somewhat overlooked—films about World War I was originally made for television in Britain, filmed entirely on a claustrophobic set with a small budget and a tight schedule (just under a month). Directed in 1964 by Joseph Losey, an American ex-pat across the pond, King and Country is based on a fictionalized memoir (Return to the Wood), also made into a play (“Hamp”). Never broadcast in Britain, it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1964, where it was quite popular.

The film is just under an hour and a half, and like its predecessor Paths of Glory (1957), it doesn’t waste time. The story begins with Private Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtenay) already locked up in a makeshift cell, with a bedstead for a door, charged with desertion. Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) arrives to defend him at the trial the company will hold just behind the trenches, in the bombed-out buildings of Passchendaele, near Ypres, in Belgium.

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The location of the trial, in those crumbling structures, already suggests the corruption that will guide the proceedings. But the conflict in the film isn’t just between the immoral inertia of army command and, at least during the trial, Hargreaves; it is also a class conflict. When Hargreaves arrives, he has nothing but contempt for the working-class Hamp. Before meeting Hamp, he insists to Hamp’s platoon leader that the trial is “a waste of time,” and that Hamp should be shot because, as a soldier, he is broken.

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Tom Courtenay as Private Arthur Hamp and Dirk Bogarde as Captain Hargreaves.

Hamp certainly is broken, and Courtenay’s lost and exhausted look throughout the film conveys this with pathos. Hamp, a cobbler like his father and grandfather, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and between army indoctrination and traditional class distinctions, he has been trained in deference to his superiors. When Hargreaves inquires, “Do you know why I’m asking you these questions?” Hamp’s reply is almost cheerful: “You know best, sir.” He assures his platoon leader, “I’m sure I’ll get a fair trial.” Hamp trusts the system. Specifically, he trusts the system to recognize that what the army has labeled desertion was nothing more than an uncontrollable bodily urge to get away (not unlike the diarrhea Hamp is plagued with at several upsetting moments in the film).

Quite obviously suffering from shellshock, Hamp simply goes for a walk, ten days after returning from the front. As Hargreaves learns during his interview with the Private, Hamp has been soldiering for three years at one battle or another. As Hargreaves points out during the trial, this is longer than many of the officers under whom Hamp serves. He is the last survivor of his original platoon. Hamp has nearly drowned in a foxhole. Hamp’s friend, Willie Bryson, is blown up next to him, what’s left of Willie’s body landing all over Hamp. And recently, Hamp has received a letter from home informing him that his wife has left him for another man. When he “deserts,” Hamp simply wants to get away from the noise of the guns. Insofar as he’s thinking about what he’s doing at all, he thinks in a vague way that he will walk home to Islington.

Hargreaves loses his crusty upper-class contempt for Hamp during the interview before the trial. Hargreaves is sure Hamp is not his equal intellectually or socially, but he does understand that Hamp has been traumatized. It is painfully obvious that Hamp did not plan to desert—that he didn’t plan anything. Hamp is portrayed as a man who may not be capable of planning anything. He even joined the army on a dare. Courtenay’s Hamp is unable to articulate a defense, perhaps because questions like, “When did you decide to leave?” and “Why did you leave?” simply don’t make any sense to him. As Hargreaves argues during the trial, Hamp “had not the power to decide whether to stay or go.” Hamp does have, Hargreaves notes, “an embarrassing honesty, which made him a bad witness in his own case.”

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Courtenay, Bogarde, and Losey on the set.

The danger of Hamp’s character is that he might come across as a cipher—a blank—for all the poor saps in the trenches. Thankfully, Courtenay makes Hamp a real person, makes his initial trust in the system and his genuine confusion at his own behavior believable. Nor does Bogarde, who brought the script of the play to Losey, dilute Hargreaves’s classism. It may be Hamp’s naïve belief that everything will “come out all right” that first moves Hargreaves.

The screenplay sounds like a play—Hargreaves’s closing remarks are clearly the centerpiece—but the film doesn’t look like one. During the action, that is, the talking, the camera remains static, but between those scenes, the camera is notably mobile. What is most remarkable about the film visually, though, are the occasional cuts to photographs, many from the book of World War I photographs and paintings Covenant of Death. In one especially grim cut, as Hamp starts telling Hargreaves something: “Do you know, it’s funny,” we suddenly see a photo of a dead soldier, just barely distinguishable from the mud in which he lies, face-down.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyJbgh9ZNZg?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

While the trial can be seen as a riff on the one in Paths of Glory for a similar crime, another reference comes to mind: Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, originally published in 1938. I haven’t the faintest idea if Losey ever encountered it, but it is a long anti-war essay, which touches on classism (and, of course, sexism). Woolf inserts a series of

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's *Paths of Glory*.

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick’s *Paths of Glory*.

photographs in the essay—there are no butchered soldiers, as I recall, but there are images of military pomp and circumstance. One of the first still images we see in King and Country is, according to TCM’s essay on the film, of “King George V riding with his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II” before the war. If you’ve read Three Guineas, that still in the film immediately calls it to mind. One can imagine Woolf appreciating the film’s tic having characters employ euphemisms (“uh…what you’re accused of”) rather than saying “desertion.”

The film isn’t subtle, but Hargreaves’s disgust at the trial—however futile—is gratifying. The officers simply want to get it over with, and they seem happy to take the Medical Officer’s harangue about Hamp’s “cold feet” at face value. Hamp went to Leo McKern’s doc, who prescribed what he always does for what he believes is cowardice: an invigorating pep talk and a diahrreatic the intestinally-challenged Hamp really doesn’t need. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that, although the officers have convicted Hamp as a deserter, they have recommended leniency and imprisonment, rather than execution. Less surprising, but no less infuriating, especially as we believe Hamp has narrowly escaped a death sentence, is the cable from HQ overriding the officers’ decision. The platoon is moving back up the line to the front the next day, and an example must be made—I kid you not—for morale. How shooting a comrade, someone you fought next to, is supposed to improve your mood is a mystery.

But it gets worse. Because Hamp’s platoon members don’t want to shoot him, they manage to bungle the execution. Hamp is riddled with bullets but not dead. Using his own pistol, Hargreaves finally shoots him in the mouth. And that is where the film ends. It is left up to the audience to decide whether Hargreaves acted as he did in order to help Hamp, to put him out of his misery—and in disgust at the system which has butchered him—or whether Hargreaves is simply disgusted with the platoon’s incompetence and feels he has to step in as an officer and fix what the privates have botched. It is, in a way, the most interesting part of the film.

TCM has a video of the film’s grim and graceful opening, which for some reason, refuses to embed here.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/413826/King-Country-Movie-Clip-Royal-Fellowship-Of-Death.html

 

Literary postscript:

When Hargreaves and Hamp’s CO (Peter Copley) commiserate about the news from HQ (which, to be fair, wouldn’t have happened if the CO had just taken responsibility and not cabled them), they speak in poetry. In what is the more affecting quotation, to me, Hargreaves looks in the mirror and says, “There is a porpoise close behind me and it’s treading on my tail.” It’s from the Mock Turtle’s Song in Alice in Wonderland, with it’s refrain, “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?” The fish in the song later insists, “You can really have no notion how delightful it will be/When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters out to sea!”

Hargreaves finishes the thought with some lines from John Masefield’s poem “Biography,” to which Hamp’s CO responds with lines from the same poem: “When I am buried, all my thoughts and acts/will be reduced to lists of dates and facts/and long before this wandering flesh is rotten/the dates which made me will be all forgotten.”

 

1984: Wheels on Meals (Kuai can che)

This post is part of Forgotten Films’ 1984 Blogathon. So much 1984. So little time.

The year 1984 was not awesome in a lot of ways. But it was a great year for films – check out the other 1984 Blogathon entries – and it was a big deal specifically for Hong Kong: The Sino-British Joint Declaration (the agreement to hand HK back to China in 1997) was signed. Combine 1984, movies, and Hong Kong, and you get films like Wheels on Meals, directed by Sammo Hung, produced by Raymond Chow, and starring Jackie Chan, Sammo, and Yuen Biao, a year after their collaboration in Project A. Not too shabby.

While Wheels on Meals (more on that especially silly name below) didn’t win any Hong Kong Film Awards that year, it has hung around pretty well as a result of some fine martial artistry brought to you by Jackie, Sammo, and the less well known, but demonstrably wonderful Yuen Biao.

The story is predictably and blissfully ludicrous. Thomas (Jackie Chan) and David (Yuen Biao) are cousins running a food truck in Barcelona. Perhaps this is because David’s father (Paul Chang) is in a Barcelona loony bin. Perhaps not. Don’t ask questions—according to Wheels on Meals, there was a large HK ex-pat community in Barcelona in the 80s. There is also a fair amount of discussion about characters’ nationalities, specifically as an explanation for their various proclivities and behaviors. Hiding in their apartment after a tryst, Thomas and David’s randy neighbor insists, “Italians can’t live without love,” while his wife waits outside the door with a shotgun. The Italian also points out that “All you Chinese know is work.” When Thomas and David exit by the window to avoid the continuing fracas (and get to work), the Spaniard downstairs opening his shop exclaims, “Don’t you Chinese use stairs?!” (Well, no, you don’t take the stairs, not if you started training in the Peking Opera School at the age of six, as Jackie, Sammo, and Biao did, together.) They excuse their acrobatics by explaining that “the Italians are fighting on there.” Best of all, not five minutes later, Sammo is describing himself, out loud, to another person, as “an inscrutable Chinese.”

This weird obsessiveness with nationalities becomes relevant (insofar as anything here is) when we learn that David’s father has fallen in love with a fellow loony, the Spanish Gloria. This is how the Thomas and David meet Gloria’s daughter, the lovely Sylvia (Lola Forner), or “Princess” as the boys call her.

son-of-man-1964(1)Meanwhile, in what a viewer might be forgiven for thinking is another film altogether, Moby (Sammo), a fledgling private eye, is asked by Magritte’s “The Son of Man” (Miguel Palenzuela) to find the daughter of a woman named Gloria. Before we can go any further, you must know that something awful has happened to Sammo’s hair. Perhaps as the result of some freak Spanish weather event, he appears to have been subjected to a bad perm. Sammo’s characters are usually pretty goofy, and let me tell you, the perm does nothing for Moby’s professionalism.

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It turns out that Thomas and David’s Sylvia is the woman Moby’s client has been looking for, and, thankfully, hijinks ensue. Moby’s client is dressed like Magritte’s Son of Man at least partly because he is (or used to be) the butler for the family Gloria used to work for. At this point, the narrative is revealed to be a crazy riff on an 18th-century novel: Gloria, once a maid in the house of a rich family, was raped by the head of the household. She fell pregnant (as one did under such circumstances, narratively speaking) and was kicked out—ending up in the loony bin. The male heir of the family now wants to hunt down Gloria and Sylvia and eliminate them so they cannot make any claims on the family fortune. This turns out to be pretty stupid, since neither of them has any idea there is a fortune which they might claim…until someone kidnaps them.

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There is a lot of enjoyable silliness between Thomas and David visiting the loony bin and Moby trying to act like a professional private detective, given that he appears to believe private eyes dress like a flashier Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (1955).

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There are a few teaser fights here and there—a training session between Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, the boys defending Sylvia from Mondale’s henchmen—but the real fighting starts when everyone ends up at the villain’s castle.

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The centerpiece is Jackie’s fight with Benny “the Jet” Urquidez, but this isn’t to slight Yuen Biao’s fight with Keith Vitali–an altogether more goofily choreographed and acrobatic encounter. Meanwhile, Sammo is left to face the villain alone. Once the villain dons his fencing mask, however, what you’re really watching is Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung fighting. You can see why, of the three, all of them charismatic and gifted fighters, Jackie Chan is the one pitted against Urquidez, the main event. Jackie is a ham–but not such a ham that we’re allowed to think he’s a clown like Sammo. Yuen Biao gets a lot of the sort of stunts here that Jackie made a career of–moving through furniture and riding walls to physically outwit his opponents.

Stay tuned below for some clips of the fighting. I know that’s why you’re here.

 

So, just how 80s is all this silliness?

1) Legwarmers and sweater vests

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2) Headbands

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…and a matching jacket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2) This:

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3) Did I mention Sammo’s Jeri-curl?

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4) Traditional Spanish music as played on a synthesizer

6) The Knight-Rider-esque screen in the cousins’ food truck

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7) Skateboards

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8) Assholes on dirt bikes ruining everybody’s good, clean fun

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Apparently, this what Hell’s Angels ride in Barcelona.

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9) A random shot of people who may or may not be the main characters riding horses on a beach at sunset

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I mean, that’s what you’d guess this guy’s name is, right? Mondale?

10) The villain’s name is Mondale, played by a guy named José Sancho. Honestly, I’m not making this up.

 

So what’s with that crazy title?

According to a post on IMDb: The film is titled “Wheels on Meals” instead of “Meals on Wheels” because of superstition. Golden Harvest had produced two flops beginning with “M,” Megaforce (1982) and a film titled Menage a Trois. The company’s executives changed the title hoping this film would avoid the same problems.

 

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kq6k3EYx8rU?list=PLu7LQmHpiQqbkDDoO8Kcj–edxkBe_SC-&w=560&h=315]

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eI2dzMEzX2w?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

I couldn’t find a good clip of Yuen Biao from Wheels on Meals, so instead, here’s an amazing sequence from the slightly more old-school Magnificent Butcher (1979). Yuen Biao is the guy in the white shirt fighting a dude with a knife (or two) inside (rather than outside). It’s all pretty amazing, but you can appreciate YB’s acrobatics here. Magnificent Butcher stars Sammo, who co-directed with fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGQHlG9f4Fw?rel=0&w=420&h=315]