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the red duchess
Man with the Gun (1955)
Dark, intense, violent, brilliant Mitchum Western.
there should be a sub-genre in the Western called 'the Robert Mitchum Western'. Mitchum's brilliant, idiosyncratic, usually undervalued Westerns import his film noir persona to etch some compellingly dark character sketches, and bring an elegiac world-weariness more familiar from the films of Sam Peckinpah. 'Man with the gun' is one of his best. Directed by Orson Welles protege Richard Wilson, it is a stark, monochrome beauty, full of chilling silhouettes and terrifying outbursts of savage violence, as Mitchum comes to tame a town terrorised by a monopolist with a private army. Mitchum's regression from soft-spoken stranger to deranged murderer, with a host of dark emotions in between, is a marvel of expressive, physical acting.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
A film worthy of the superlative superlatives - Kubrick's masterpiece, best film of the 1970s, one of the 20 best of all time...Etc. Etc. (spoilers)
Like the sustained cinematic fugue it is, 'Barry Lyndon''s opening scenes provide a theme that will be treated to increasingly virtuosic variations throughout. Barry's father is killed in a duel. Barry lives with his mother who refuses to remarry. Barry loses his virginity to a woman playing a role while playing cards. These are the great threads - Fathers, Duels, Mother, Sex, Women, The Unattainable, Masks, Games, Gambling - weaving into the web that will eventually trap Barry Lyndon, Fate like a spider picking him off sadistically limb by limb.
'Barry' is structured around duels - the film begins and climaxes with one; key plot points centre around duels and 'organised' brawls. These duels are not just of the fencing/shooting type - they can be a stand-off in gambling; the deceptive games men and women play; the punishment meted out by fathers on stepsons, elder brothers on young half-brothers; a summons to redundancy; the phlegmatic defiance of a crippled cuckold; the attempt to hoodwink an officer. it doesn't even have to be negative - Barry's introduction to the chevalier begins with tacit antagonism, ends in a moving and genuine friendship. these duels are tests Barry must pass, traps he must avoid in his forward movement towards status and wealth.
But this duality has more thematic resonance than that, signified in the name-change form Redmond Barry to Barry Lyndon. It is a conflict between the individual and society, between that individual's genuine self, if there is such a thing, and the masks he adopts to hide any defects that self might have. The moral significance of the duels change as Barry moves from being a passionate lover to a ruthless schemer. For all Thackeray's ironic wit, there is a moralising streak in his novel, not necessarily of the 'Don't rise above your station' variety, but suggesting the unhappiness waiting for anyone who will forsake their true character for glittering, but fake baubles.
Kubrick takes this material and makes it his own, framing another story about a criminal outsider and a rigid, immovable social structure far more powerful than its individual constituents. Masks for Barry aren't necessarily a fragmentation of his identity, a degeneracy of his values. They are his way of beating the system, of infiltrating the fortress and destroying it from within. Far from becoming a monster, Barry is deliberately shown as both a debauchee and a loving father (the theme of fathers, from Barry's dead one, to his two benevolent father-figures; his replacing Bullingdon's father and his relationship with his own son, contrasted with the figures of mothers, is a powerful theme throughout)
It is a cliche that Kubrick is a bleak misanthrope and 'Barry Lyndon' doesn't suggest otherwise, with its farcically horrifying vision of war, and the more lethal machinations of society. The film deliberately sets in conflict (another duel) two 'times', a historical time of war and Great Powers, linked to Barry's journey from fugitive to aristocrat, and a circular time, in which events simply repeat themselves, and nothing ever changes. This is the Age of Enlightenment, where 'progress' was the soundbite, the idea that the sum of human knowledge and hence the sum of human happiness could be improved.
kubrick, bleakly, counters this - visualised in a film of staggering beauty, a successful attempt to fuse all the progressive art forms of the of the era (painting, theatre, sculpture, architecture, landscape gardening, music etc.) into a blinding whole - with scenes, especially the climactic duel with Bullingdon, suggestive of regression, primitivism, a reversion to tribalism (which, in effect, is what happens, a social order regrouping and expelling the outsider). The Church is now a henyard covered in straw, dark stage for a primitive rite, one that has been repeated throughout the film, denying all progress. the ritual, tribal drums make this overpoweringly apparent.
Barry ends up back where he began: worse, with the loss of a leg. Decades on, nothing has changed for Lady Lyndon either, signing cheques for her new 'husband', her son. The last date we see is 1789, that famous date of Revolution in France, spiralling out everywhere else, but not here, and Kubrick implies, not really anywhere. the old cliche, 'Plus ca change...'
Call me sentimental (or Irish) though, but in that final duel, when Barry refuses to kill his enemy, the light shining behind him through the narrow slits, the white doves flapping around him, suggest a religious interpretation, a suggestion that Barry may lose the world, but is somehow saved, redeemed: condemned to repetitious purgatory on earth, but beyond, who knows? Because this is Kubrick's second duality, his own, a miraculous balancing act between a film of pure abstraction, and a moving, funny, horrifying character study. Throughout Barry is made ridiculous, the dupe, the victim, and yet always retains our sympathy (largely through that heartbreakingly pained face) making even us atheists desire some salvation for him.
The film's greatest scene - the gambling table, where Barry and Lady Lyndon stare at each other in the candlelight like clockwork figures forced into humanity, is a masterpiece of cinema translating minimalist acting into genius - Ryan O'Neal in this film gives one of the great performances thanks to Kubrick, worth a thousand of yer celebrated hams.
the most unnervingly honest film to come from Hollywood in ages.
'Loser' is Amy Heckerling's 'Candide', in which a naive optimist is sent out into the world, only to discover that it is unjust, exploitative and brutal. The best thing about 'Loser' is its casting and the expectations it creates: where 'American pie' was a sweet romantic comedy disguised as a scatalogical exposure of man's basest instincts, 'Loser' is a scatalogical exposure of man's basest instincts disguised as a sweet romantic comedy. The ironic references to Mena Suvari's most iconic role - 'American Beauty' - expose the paedophilia driving that work's sentimentality. This is a film of unimpeachable integrity, as ugly and unpleasant as the characters it satirises, 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' in Hell. So much integrity, in fact, it's virtually unwatchable.
Elena Lowenstein is enchanting.
There are some people who try to reclaim 'Nadja' - along with Abel Ferrera's 'The Addiction' the most stultifyingly pretentious film ever made, bludgeoning the audience with Wim Wenders-like globs of pseudo-philosophical gabble and supposedly 'arty' screes of visual incoherence - by suggesting it is comic. But laughing at what, exactly? Horror films? You have to know what horror films do before you can mock them, and director Almedeyra hasn't a clue. American indie films? Probably, but it replicates that mind-numbing mindset so faithfully, it forgets to be funny about it. Students, whose existential angst and elevated notions of 'beauty' find expression in My Bloody Valentine records? Definitely. Elena Lowenstein as Dracula's Daughter (and Breton's Nadja?) is so gorgeous in her designer Grim Reaper cape, she may even replace Death from 'The Seventh Seal' as my iconic nightmare of choice.
Bergman's rich, deceptive masterpiece (spoilers)
'Wild Strawberries' is the account by a 78-year old man of a day spent on the road with his unhappy daughter-in-law and three young hitch-hikers, as he travels to receive an honorary doctorate for 50 years service as a doctor, scientist and inventor. The film is full of bitterness and unhappiness - Marianne has left her emotionally congealed husband because he refuses to inflict a baby on the world (that old chestnut); they crash into and give a lift to a married couple who seem like refugees from a latter Bergman movie, lacerating in a sado-masochistic relationship. Isak Borg has a series of dreams and memories pointing out the emotional failures of his life. And yet the movie ends on a note of tranquillity and tentative reconciliation. all the old doom and gloom stuff that riddled earlier Bergman movies - God, death etc. - is wonderfully parodied in the figures of two male hitch-hikers whose metaphysical boxing matches sublimate frustrated desire for the third.
With hindsight, we can refract 'Strawberries' through the lens of its sister picture, Bergman's last masterpiece 'Fanny and Alexander'. In 'Strawberries', and old man looks back at his life, filmed by a young man; in 'Fanny', Bergman himself is the old man looking back at his youth. As with 'Fanny', not everything in this film is as it seems, and as with all Bergman films, what seems to be narratively transparent is actually a labyrinth strewn with mines for the unwary viewer.
We should remember at all times that 'Strawberries' doesn't unfold on an objective 'realistic' level, but is a memoir shaped by an old man with certain vested interests. Early on, his daughter-in-law accuses him of being an egoist behind his old-world charm, and we should remember this when faced with a resolution that seems to be brought about by his good offices. It is significant that Borg's reputation - for either goodness or failure - is not shown or proven to the audience, but discussed and analysed by other characters, both in the real life story and in the dreams and memories (i.e. he is analysing himself). In the very process at which he is supposed to be enlightening himself about his life's failure, he remains absent from life, a detached observer, not reaping emotional reward or pain because he has put himself mentally above them (literally, as a man lying alone in bed).
The movement of the film is actually quite negative. The film is that rare thing, a European road movie. Whereas the American variant is usually a journey into the unknown, the future, a journey of progress, Europe cannot offer that freedom, it is too small, too cluttered, too marked by history. So a European road movie, while seeming to go forward, is actually a journey backwards into the past. The physical landscape through which Borg drives is also a mental landscape, as he passes crucial personal landmarks, the summer house in which he was 'betrayed' by his fiancee, his mother's house, the petrol station whose owners he once helped.
Bergman is used to playing with layers of narrative reality, muddying the boundaries of dreams, wishes, reality etc. At the first stop, the summer house, Borg transforms, through memory, a physical landscape into the world of the past, as he watches his fiancee seduced by his brother, the key moment in his life that seemed to deaden him emotionally. This isn't even memory - he wasn't there - it is a projection, an imposing of his fantasy, his will on a truth he will never access. He is brought back to 'reality' by a young woman. Except this woman is played by the same actress as the one who played his fiancee, and they share the same name. this may be coincidence, or it may be part of the defence mechanism of a man who killed human contact with logic, the very logic with which he is writing this memoir we're watching, providing the redemption in which we're expected to believe (later, the petrol shop owners, in a real-world scene, are far too young to remember kindness from decades previously, suggesting narrative boundaries well and truly erased). This is before any of the 'official' dream sequences.
There is a logic, a progression. The film begins with a dream, where an old man sees his own death, having ordered his life in such a way that he remains alone, like his dad (Oedipal resonances not just in his dad's handless watch, but the blind eyes as a sign under it), and ends with a dream, with an old man returning to his birth, the sight of his father and mother, his younger self non-existent. The point before betrayal, before the messiness of life. Borg finds tranquillity in a dream of non-being. if this is happiness, reconciliation, peace, than God help us.
Haneke is probably the best thriller director we have.
There is a scene in 'Code Unknown' in which a young boy nearly falls off a high-rise, watched with impotent horror by his parents. It reminds us, as with 'Funny Games', that Michael Haneke is a major suspense director, as alive as Hitchcock or Polanski to the voyeurism, violation, manipulation and eroticism inherent in the thriller genre. However, Mr. Haneke rejects this talent as lacking high-mindedness, and instead produces State-0f-The-Nation/Continent lectures whose insipidity of content is only matched by breathtaking formal excellence. Resist the wagging finger, and enjoy the supreme confidence of a director with the most exciting facility with the punishing long take since Godard.
The Falcon Takes Over (1942)
Entertaining, unusual, comic early take on the film noir universe.
This little known entry in a minor series might ring a few more bells when it is known that 'the Falcon takes over' is the first adaptation of Raymond Chandler's wonderful novel 'Farewell my Lovely'. And rather good it is too. Unlike its more famous successors - Edward Dmytryk's 1943 'Murder my sweet' and Dick Richards' 1975 remake, both the very definition of earnest film noir and neo-noir - this film has a vein of parody, irony and wit, that brings it closer to Robert Altman's iconoclastic 'The Long Goodbye', or, at the very least, Eddie Constantine's Lemmy Caution series of films in France.
Of course, this has largely to do with the fixed needs of an already established series, to which any source material was fitted - Chandler was clearly just another hack writer towards whom little respect need be paid. There is none of Chandler's profound disillusionment here, no attempt to trace a society or analyse its corruption. this is the noir equivalent of a Broadway musical comedy, with background strictly a setting, like a ship or a drawing room, in which familiar types do their routine.
There is no angst-ridden, isolated, defeated knight Philip Marlowe here; in his place is the Falcon, a heavy, louche, even leery amateur of dubious sexuality (like Lemmy he is clumsily eager for the ladies, and tends to bed them as soon as he meets them (or in such a way as Hollywood code could at the time suggest); but he lives a determinedly bachelor life in a large house with his 'bit of rough' sidekick Goldie, who likes to wear incongruously svelte dressing gowns in the morning (another kind of Hollywood code), his unseen fiancee fortuitously miles away).
It is important to stress that in the very early days of noir, there was an in-built awareness of the need for parody. Noir is a powerful vision, especially in a culture of such blinding, gaudy brightness as the US. But sometimes, in its macho fatalism and frightened misogyny, it can be an exhausting vision - too much straight noir can be bad for your mental health.
But this is not to say that 'Falcon' is just a big joke. Like that other great serial film that transcended its modest origins - 'Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death' - it is closer to the horror film than the detective genre. Moose Molloy's lumbering, unthinking violence is similar to Karloff's Frankenstein. The scene where the Falcon, impersonating a drunk, first meets him, is filmed with mock-horror sensationalism, as is O'Hara's creeping up on Goldie's neck later. There is an attempted murder in a fog-wafting cemetary. The scene at Jules Amthor's exotic haven has the feel of those Egyptian horrors like 'the Mummy' Universal used to churn out in the 1930s, while the soundtrack has the mysterious anxiety of horror rather than the strident fear we expect from noir.
In a genre which centres on the detective, on knowledge, on the possibility of explaining and repairing breaks in the social and moral order, the intrusion of horror will be disturbing. It asserts the opposite - the limits of knowledge, darkness over the light of reason, the vulnerability of bodies, the point of breakdown. the Falcon in this mystery is singularly inept, and is only saved from death by a singularly unconvincing deus ex machina. He is utterly exposed, his reason and detective status irrelevant faced with the cold fact of Death in a lonely forest, a very horror milieu. In this way, the amiably silly 'Falcon' is actually closer to the spirit of Chandler than more 'serious', faithful versions (Despite the scriptwriters' brave efforts, though, the plot is typically intransigent!).
It has become one of the cliches in talking about 'Vertigo' that it is Hitchcock's most personal work, a naked confession of his desires for blonde actresses in general, for Vera Miles (who was originally intended to play Madeleine/Judy) in particular. In this model, Scottie Ferguson who makes over Judy Barton in the image of another woman and destroys her in process, is Hitchcock making over Kim Novak in the image of a pregnant Vera Miles.
This is all well and good, if a little facile, but isn't the true Hitchcock altar-ego in 'Vertigo', a man whose place of business is introduced by Hitchcock's cameo, Gavin Elster? The seemingly stolid, amiable craftsman creating mad, mind-bending murder plots, and then disappearing for ever, just as Hitchcock creates in 'Vertigo' a truly Borgesian labyrinth without a centre, lets generations of critics loose in it, and vanishes with the map? The plot of 'Vertigo' is pure illusion, a phantom narrative starring a possessing ghost, formerly an actress; in trying to recreate a phantom, to become Gavin Elster, to possess a possessed woman (in both senses - by Carlotta Valdes; by Elster), Scottie merely duplicates and proliferates more and more phantoms until he wanders around in a world that doesn't exist.
There is a school of thought that presuasively argues that 'Vertigo' is a Surrealist film - one critic even suggests that Scottie dies at the beginning (and how on earth was he rescued from a rotting gutter; by the criminal?), and that the rest of the film is a dream. this is convincing because the film follows a dream logic, in its repetition, overlaying and transformation of scenes, characters, motifs, colours etc. When Scottie has the famous nightmare after Madeleine's death, the nocturnal view of Scottie, with 'SP' blazing in neon that began the film, with Scottie and the policeman pursuing a miscreant, is repeated here. Why?
One thing is for certain, this nightmare sequence is the key moment in 'Vertigo'. There is a pattern in the film where characters take on the characteristics of other characters, like ghosts, most obviously in the case of Judy and Madeleine. In the film's second half, Scottie begins with his mind blasted, emptied of his own personality. He begins it leaving a mental institution. He is ready to become someone else. He wants, both unwittingly and, after the discovery of the necklace, consciously, to become Elster, the creator of the film, the potent God who created a world and convinced his actors it was the real one. The man who got away.
Scottie fails to become Elster because he becomes Madeleine, another of Elster's creations. Madeleine tells Scottie the imprecise details of a recurring dream she has - Scottie in his nightmare enacts her dream and her fate. The end of the film will see him trying to extricate himself from his role and his Creator, but he will only repeat it, once again causing an 'innocent' woman to die for his own masculine vanity.
The film is full of blatant visual imagery expressing male and female principles, but it is Scottie who is feminised, who ends the film paralysed in a vaginal arch, just as earlier he stood in his doorway and Elster's actress stood with (the sardonically named) Coit Tower behind her. These arches are not just the female principles Scottie gets lost in, they are the proscenium arches of master playwright Elster, whose signature is found throughout the film, right from their first meeting, he relating his plot on a stage, Scottie the audience listening.
'Vertigo' was recently shown at the Irish Film Centre on 70mm. Some clown fouled up the sound. Normally this would be a vandalism punishable only by torture, but this time it gave me a chance to do something I'd always wanted to do, but was always prevented by Hitchcock's narrative intractibility - follow the story through the paintings. There are so many paintings in every room in 'Vertigo' (and in Scottie's is one of those scientific patterns of the opening credits, linking him again to the female object).
In Midge's study, the images of the female are fetishistically Surreal, fragments of the female body and their clothes (just as Scottie is decapitated/castrated in his nightmare) - in one painting above her sofa, where Scottie lies, surrounded by pictures of women, is an abstract study of fragments as if an explosion has just taken place. In Elster's room, ships naturally predominate, especially a storm scene where light on the left where Scottie stands meets the dark turbulence on Elster's, the side Scottie will cross into. The sound, I'm afraid, came back, and I once again got lost in the labyrinth, but I'm determined to do this properly some day. I did like the child with the code in the gallery behind Scottie (Carlotta's child? The child none of the characters have?), and the forest scene in the mental hospital, reminding us of the sequoias.
Still the greatest.
Galaxy Quest (1999)
The most intelligent (and yearning) Hollywood film in ages.
I guess you would need to have seen at least one episode of 'Star Trek' to even begin to get this - I haven't, and so was slightly bewildered as to what was going on, why many people already consider it a classic. I enjoyed it because some of it was funny - the silly accents of the Tertians; the moving bravado of the washed-up Nesmith; the performance of Sam Rockwell as Guy, his name signifying his function as a kind of everyman link between the different layers of reality the film portrays. The visual effects, supposed to be tacky, still rise to some spectacular moments: the desert ghost world where the crew seek berillium, intensely orange after all the uniform grey; the climactic scene where Nesmith and Gwen must run through a corridor of huge rapidly punching lever-things.
As the film moves towards its climax, it is difficult to gauge the tone. It clearly starts out satirising the imagination-defeating banality of nerd-conventions - the fans dressed as aliens unable to tell the difference between a tacky show and reality, or who have willed it into a reality, are mirrored by the aliens who mistake the show for historical documents, and despite their scientific brilliance (like their human counterparts) are dubiously figured as mentally retarded, with their stupid laughs and jerky movements.
If we have gotten reckless or intellectually threadbare enough to call 'Being John Malkovich' Borgesian, than the same epithet can more validly be applied to 'Galaxy Quest', where a whole series of times, realities and representations, initially separate, conflate, leading to the bizarre finale, as the space heroes return to another Convention, this time genuine adventurers - the difference between actors and roles; actors and their roles of 20 years ago; actors who must play, and indeed become their roles of 20 years ago; fans who create an actual reality from a non-existent fantasy; fans from the real world who become indispensible figures in the fantasy which is now a real world (phew!).
The end is quite mind-boggling, where it is impossible to untangle the boundaries of reality and fantasy. So what began as satire of a phenomenon synonymous with being a loser, and almost fascist (the military parade that first greets the actors in the Star port), becomes a celebration, not really of losers redeeming themselves, but of the place of fantasy in everyday life, and its power to transform it. I don't mean politically restructure society; just the old post-modern ideas of reproduction and illusion. After all, we live in a 'real world' where a non-existent, fantasy language, Klingon, can now be studied at universities, as a 'real world' mode of communication. The real world has no place for heroes and goodness, but we can still pretend these things exist.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Flawed, but frequently brilliant, Kubrick classic.(spoilers)
'Paths of glory' is considered by many to be a Kubrick masterpiece, especially by those disenchanted with the later works, and their seeming abandoning of humanism. 'Paths' is a very humanist work, not so much an anti-war film as an anti-authoritarian film. It is a timely work, an implicit critique of a 1950s, conformist America ruled by a military hero President. It takes the idea of order - military order as a metonym for social order - and shows how it is paradoxically used to create an Absurdist universe, where a General fires on his own men, where drunken cowards are put in positions of life-determining power, where a man dies not for any logical reason but because he drew lots.
In this way, the film is very much of its cultural time, the post-war world of the existentialists and the Theatre of the Absurd - the closing weeping at a song the soldiers don't understand can be seen as an equivalent to the Nietzchean laugh that closes Sartre's famous short story 'The Wall', a pointless affirmation of a universe where order creates disorder, and man must die, as these men will as they march to the Front in a few moments.
This philosophical underpinning serves to reinforce the critique of Eisenhower's America, the cowing of men into mindless, slobbering beasts at the mercy of their capricious masters; an anti-Semitic world (something the Jewish Kubrick would have been responsive to); a world where the apparatus of law and culture, those great Enlightenment forces of humanism, join forces with the military to validate and conceal the profound subversion, by authority, of natural justice. Visually, this is most powerfully expressed in the obscenely beautiful, symmetrical scene, where Saint-Auban, the army and the mansion behind him, reads out the death sentence.
There are many pointers to the later Kubrick here, in particular the exciting use of cavernous interior space to alienate the individual from himself, his environment, his status, his fate, as well as to visualise a kind of mental deterioration or decadence, in this case the mind of the army, the State, the decadent West. One must admire Kubrick's integrity in a vision of unremitting brutality - he sadistically tantalises us with possibilities of Hollywood-style redemption (the parodic religious symbolism - the mud on the barracks walls like three crosses, the floods of divine light pouring into the cell; the hopes of a deux ex machina when Bax finds about General Mireau's murderous intentions).
With great subtlety, as he would do throughout his career, the camera, supposedly the viewer's guide to the truth, is put in the service of authority, leaving us with the near-impossible task of disentangling what it shows, how it moves (those awesome tracking shots moving at the behest of officers) and what it represents. The scene where the army try to take the anthill, soldiers dying all over the place, literally unable to move, caught by a a freely, relentlessly mobile camera, like the generals urging them on, is an astonishing case in point.
And yet I don't think it's a totally successful Kubrick picture. There are concessions to audience sensibilities - Mireau is punished - too late, but punished; the singing scene, though ultimately pointless, does affirm a humanity in a world Kubrick has shown has very little. The caricatures of the Generals are too easy, if very funny, the case is too one-sided: how can we not sympathise with the innocent victims (although, being men, who must die anyway, they are not really innocent). When Camus wanted to explicate existentialism in 'The Stranger', he chose a murderer. Later Kubrick films would centre on paedophiles, rapists, criminals - it is how we cope with the moral ambiguities they throw up that true argument lies.
Dax shows the possibility of integrity and human decency in such an absurd world. Even here, through, Kubrick's intellect is not static. Like must Kubrick heroes, Dax's unity, his sense of masculine power and capability, is diminished not by his defeat by authority (his speech to Broulard means he remains morally powerful and unified for us), but by his Kubrickan split between his feelings as an individual, and his social (in this case, military) role. When the condemned men walk to their deaths in that amazing scene of death-ritual (like 'Barry Lyndon', super-civilised Western society is underpinned by the most barbaric rites), Colonel Dax's monumental impassivity and his uniform, condemn the men and legitimise their death. As Ionesco warns 'Arithmetic leads to Philology and Philology leads to Crime'.