Although Claude Chabrol has worked predominantly in the crime genre, and adapted much mystery fiction, very few of his films are straight whodunits. Crimes may be the central feature of these films, or the catalyst at least, and investigations may shape these narratives and bring them to their conclusion, if not resolution. But Chabrol is usually more interested in focusing on point-of-view, of the killer, the victims, the suspects, the community, than in any who's-the-killer games. So 'Au coeur du mensonge' belongs to a relatively marginalised (and recent) position in Chabrol's filmography; its most famous predecessors are 'Cop au vin' and 'Inspecteur Lavardin' (although there are important echoes of earlier Chabrol classics like 'Que le bete meure' and 'Le Boucher').
However, just because we don't know who committed the two murders until the end, this doesn't mean Chabrol is only interested in artifical games. The limits of the whodunit paradoxically give Chabrol the freedom from delineating the psychology of the criminal, to something much more interesting to him; in other words, the unknowability of other people, especially those we love, live with and think we know best.
Chabrol's films are so self-contained and remote, that it's rare to find him concentrating on 'topical' issues. Here the subject is the all-too-familiar paedophile rape and murder of a young girl in the woods. She was last seen at a lesson with her art teacher, Rene, and suspicion immediately falls on him, in one of those oppressive small towns where the Internet will never outpace malicious gossip. If we didn't know whodunits, we might think so too - he is lame, shifty looking, whiny, and a failed artist experiencing mental breakdown who thinks his masseuse wife, Vivianne, is having an affair with a slick media personality, G.R.
There are other suspects: G.R. himself, his criminal go-between, and Rene's friend, Regis, even, as the coroner cheerfully suggests, a woman with strong hands and gloves - an exact description of Vivianne earlier. But it is Rene everyone suspects, especially the new Chief Inspector, Lesage, whose personal stake in the case (she has a daughter of the same age as the dead girl) makes her determined to bring him to justice.
'Mensonge' is a psychological study in the guise of a mystery thriller. We are asked to follow Rene's reactions to the murder, social ostracism, artistic failure etc., and yet we're not told whether he's the murderer or not, or any of the other characters, which would surely be a crucial element in anyone's psychology! so these two impulses - towards psychological truth and towards a mystery story which necessarily precludes the audience having any access to the character's psychology, puts it with the same level of knowledge of characters as the other characters, making for an effectively tense film, which, beyond its mystery trappings, asks whether we can ever know anyone, when trust, or self-confidence, or faith in 'reality' is gone.
The film links the idea of lies (characters concealing truths, making realities out of lies), with art (painting - Jacques revels in panoramas and trompes d'oeil; the second murder is 'composed' like a painting). Throughout, various media for the diffusion of truth - painting, TV, books, recitals - as well as the police investigation, with its need for artistic resolution, are highlighted, interrogated and undermined (even a last minute confession is suspect, and the denouement, appropriately, takes place in a deep mist). Chabrol's blithely elliptical narrative style further compounds our uncertainty. As with every Chabrol, the surface every character sees, or creates, is as treacherous as a trompe d'oeil. As the child-murder in the forest, echoing 'Diary of a Chambermaid', suggests, Chabrol is letting out the closet Surrealist in him.
The funniest film you'll see all year - a rare treat for old cinephiles.
This short is a cineaste's delight, a parody so lovingly detailed it becomes a celebration. 'Je t'aime John Wayne' is a reworking of Godard's classic 'A bout de souffle'. In that film, Jean-paul Belmondo played a petty hood who modelled himself on Humphrey Bogart. In this, Kris Marshall is Belmondo, aka Tristan, a middle class English boy in love with all things French - he speaks ponderous French all the time, dresses sharply, philosophises, epigramises (sic?), poses.
The director of this film, Toby MacDonald, however, succeeds where Godard 'failed'. In 'Souffle', we were intended to notice the disparity between Belmondo's Frenchness, posturing and insignificance, and Bogart's mythic cool. Unfortunately, Belmondo is so charismatic and cool and funny, filmed in energetic, sunny monochrome against a delicious jazz backing, that he himself, unwittingly, became a figure of mythic cool. Tristan is not the first person to be dazzled by Belmondo's persona - sure, I've done it myself, snarling 'Te es vraiment deguelasse' at my mirror. France, to foreign eyes, especially in the 50s and 60s, is so romantically cool. So Godard fails.
England, however, is not very cool, especially when it tries to ape European sophistication. So although MacDonald expertly mimics Godard's enthusiastic jump-cut style and breezy music, Tristan is less successful. Every attempt at cool is hampered by bathos. The name 'Tristan', for a start, is public-school naff, and his brilliant answering machine message (with the Duke threatening any caller) is spoiled somewhat by his mother's middle class concern. A rendezvous we assume to be a romantic account with an unobtainable blonde turns out to be his loud little sister, who brings a little friend (he punishes them by bringing them to an excruciatingly pretentious art movie). A long exercise in posed cool turns out to be an uncool wait for a very uncool bus. Et cetera.
This is all very amusing, but could seem like rather a petty object of satire - middle-class pseuds trying to be French. The film transcends this pettiness in two ways. Firstly, although Tristan is ridiculous, he is never a contemptible figure of ridicule. this is where the Englishness comes in - the disparity between Tristan's dreams and reality becomes poignant. Ultimately, the film affirms these dreams, the power they give Tristan to transcend his banal reality, even if he is so lost in them, he has no more purchase on any kind of reality. This is helped by the pastiche stylings being rooted in a very real, documentary London.
Even more than this, the film's fun conceals a melancholy elegy for European cinema and its decline. Godard may have made a film about a slavish imitator, but his film, despite its borrowings, was something radically new, which contained the possibility for revolutionising the cinema. Twenty years later, however, it was as if it hadn't been made, cinema settling into the rut of offensive banality it's been happy to be stuck in since. Unlike Godard, MacDonald is as much of an imitator as his hero - we no longer believe in the possibility of anything new in cinema: it's sad, but significant, that one of the most inventive films around at the moment should be a pastiche of past glories.
It is so rare in these times to find a film so utterly bereft of cynicism, and so warmly sympathetic to people, in all their variety and flaws, that it would be churlish to do anything but celebrate. Some critics have complained that 'Together' has adopted a sneering tone towards its subject matter, a collective living in 70s Stockholm, in which more hackneyed emphasis is put on rows about washing-up and petty ideological points than the genuine spirit of good-will that made them set up a collective in the first place.
They must have been watching a different film to the one I saw - not only is the portrait of the collective affirmative, but it is made into a kind of magical space with transformative powers - it protects the weak, gives refuge to outsiders, opens the minds of the closed but essentially decent outsiders. It is a magnet, which drags towards it those in need of spiritual change, those for whom the social grind of 70s Sweden, supposedly the most liberated and liberal in the world, is too much. It manages the difficult trick of celebrating alternative communities and dropping out, while retaining the integrity of the individual and the family.
This collective is a magical space in the Shakespearean sense, a kind of Forest of Arden with its own special glow surrounded by the grey oppressiveness of normal society. It has no place for false freedoms, austere puritanism, selfish sexual promiscuity, narrow ideological nit-picking. Although it effects change on outsiders, its power comes from its ability to change within, to adapt - its power is not destroyed by the introduction of TV or meat, it is strengthened because their introduction respects the freedom of others.
Again like Shakespeare, it is not just a magical space, but a testing ground, a spiritual test for those of essentially good faith. This is where I got a little queasy and could sympathise with the critics. With any test, some people must pass, some must fail; to allow someone to enter, someone must be thrown out. It's a fair enough satiric point that en essentially decent man is turned by a soulless society into a spiritually empty, drunken wife-beater. And it's completely lovable that Moodysson should take this potential monster and make his spiritual progress the heart of the movie.
But to make this possible, somebody must be expelled. And this is Lena, whose nymphomania is demonised as destructive, even paedophiliac. The scene where she is thrown out is dangerously close to Lester Burnam's throwing a plate in 'American Beauty' - where a weak man finally puts a strong, overbearing woman in her place. We are meant to cheer; I found it uncomfortable. It seems Moodysson's big, inclusive heart wasn't big or inclusive enough.
I found 'Together' very watchable and likeable, but something of a disappointment after 'Show me love'. Maybe the jokes weren't funny enough. Maybe the multi-character format is more suited to ironic distance (e.g. Altman) than warmth, although Edward Yang pulled it off. Maybe the characters, through amiable, aren't distinctive enough - with the exception of introverted Lisa Simpson prototype Eva, with whom I worryingly identified, it was hard to care about the characters.
The use of Abba to add a built-in melancholy for the overall optimism was inspired - I loved the fact that the 70s recreation was less in the period detail than in the zoom-heavy, dark-colour style - even the genitalia was filmed in 70s porn murkiness.
Unprecedented and extraordinary - Chris Morris is a Jonathan Swift for these yahoo-ridden times.
In these brightly Orwellian days, where cynical governments can smile 'Trust me...' and know we will fill in the blanks 'I'm lying' and not care; where 'biting' satire is left in the sole hands of a cricket-loving impressionist; where the laurel of 'great comedy' is placed on the head of yet another formulaic spoof of fly-in-the-wall documentaries; in these grimly shining times, Chris Morris is a dark beacon of sense, moral fury, fierce intelligence, intransigent vision; a man of endless, astonishing invention, intimidating energy and a gleefully, pranksterish sensibility.
The problem with today's 'satire' is that it sets up an 'us against them' opposition, in which we snicker with the satirist at a host of immovable, indifferent caricatures. Most of our most prominent satirists are of the same generation, background and ideology of the ruling classes, and their humour has the flavour of locker-room ribbing rather than devastating anger. Most satire consists of an audience talking to itself, reassuring itself of its own worth, its own values against targets so clearly ridiculous they don't really exist. It is satire as easy listening, as reassuring as old socks.
The reason many people don't like Chris Morris is not because of the 'taboo' subject matter he tackles, but because he doesn't play fair, he doesn't play cricket. He never allows the audience the comfort of complacent complicity. if we sneer at another hapless celebrity duped into piously anguishing over some preposterous non-issue in an obscene public gesture of their own ethical value and depth, we are stating that we are truly 'authentic', that we would never be caught out, that our values are sound. And then Morris will insert a crass joke that strips away the warm cloak of lazy irony - an imitation of the author of 'A Brief History of Time', for instance - that repels us, shakes us out of a cosy 'us vs them' mentality, forcing us to face up to the complexity of what we're watching, or - shock, horror! - think for ourselves.
When I was watching the 'Brass eye' repeats recently, I was struck by how little they had dated, how exhilirating and intellectually stimulating, as well as cripplingly funny, they still were. Surely a media satire, with its inbuilt topicality, should become instantly anachronistic. You could argue that this is a damning indictment of a media that hasn't changed its mind-numbing habits in the last half-decade. I would argue, however, that 'Brass eye' is not really a media satire at all, or is not one fundamentally, despite its destructively accurate potshots at sensationalism, the paucity of media intelligence, a culture with a media that no longer records or reflects reality, but actually creates it, as in the recent case of a major Sunday newspaper printing photos of paedophiles, encouraging the public to savage them, conveniently creating the next morning's news. This is all an essential part of what 'Brass eye' does.
But it is more than that. Morris is our century's Jonathan Swift, and last week's 'Brass eye special' on media hysteria about paedophilia was his 'A Modest Proposal', a satire so savage, so angry, so uncomfortable, so ironic in the true, original sense of that phrase, that people mistook the satire for its object, because Morris held up a mirror to our society, a totalitarian, propaganda-corrupt culture posing as a democracy; and to ourselves, we who conceal brutal, fascist instincts under a guise of ethical concern. We didn't like it, and rather than acknowledge our own darkness, we tried to smash the mirror. Like Swift, Morris has always been more concerned with language and ontology than the media per se, the way words no longer mean what they are supposed to mean, in the way the advance of media technology has created an illusionistic world in which 'real' people have to live, in which we try to make the illusion real, to devastating results. And yet, again like Irishman, the sheer invention with which Morris records this communicative decadence channelled through language, liberates and gives some hope - but only if we accept the challenge of 'Brass eye'.
Good things about 'Chicken Run': genuinely feminist; even more genuinely socialist (in an Old Labour, let's-all-help-each-other-out kind of way). It magnificently mocks hollow American bluster, and its animated style is refreshingly different, if stilted, in a world of Hollywood conformity.
Less good things: formulaic plot. Dearth of interesting characters. Insularity of vision. Average, rarely hilarious dialogue. Gleeful luddism. Island mentality, unironically referred to as reward. Hackneyed aping of Alan Bennett sans humour or pathos. Very British.
What could have been another tiresome superhero-foils-the-villains film becomes subversive deconstruction in the hands of John Woo. By shooting in an audacious, fragmentary, ironic style; by alluding to a number of directors - Leone, Melville, Kubrick etc. - whose metier has been to undermine the ideal of the conventional action hero; by once again (after FACE/OFF) invoking Franju, inserting his famous white birds signifying madness at the precise moment when Ethan 'Colin' Hunt is preparing to save the day; by associating the central triangle with earth, wind and fire, and leaving out water (Robert Towne, remember?), without which we would all die, Woo undermines the film's retrogressive assumptions, giving us a seriously compromised hero. The colours are to die for. Genius.
Anyone who has seen Balabanov's eerie OF FREAKS AND MEN may be shocked by this very straightforward thriller about a young army deserter who becomes an efficient killer. Its tale of betrayal is reminiscent of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, and Danila is also very much like The Man With No Name, a motiveless stranger pitting two enemies against each other until they are wiped out. The opening sequence (sparse forest, castle, robed woman, intimations of S&M) suggest Gothic,as does a certain burial sequence, but, try as we might, we cannot get away from the sheer amoral banality: a gloriously unneurotic hero, a sweet boy who does everything people of his age should (loitering, discman, drugs, concerts, parties etc.) and just happens to be handy with a gun (he is also the only worker in this former worker's paradise).
Many films have visualised the conflict between Law and Desire, but few have created such an eerie dreamlike space for it as this movie. There are elements from the other great Universal films - character comedy from Whale; sexual themes figured in petrified imagery from Freund - but this film's suspended dread is all it's own, where seeming flaws (clumsy compositions, wooden acting, slow pace) become serious virtues; and you find yourself sweating for some reason. It also manages to reject all the reactionary assumptions of Stoker's original novel. It doesn't feel like a great film, but its grip is unshakeable.
Brief history lesson: in Eamon DeValera's founding 1937 constitution of this illustrious nation, there was a special place accorded to the Catholic ideal of the family, which, to maintain its neurotic sanctity, was linked to the Holy Family itself, resulting in a great deal of repression and marginalisation for those who did not fit this admirable ideal. This notion of family extended to society as a whole, where a series of male authority figures - priests, politicians, civil servants, teachers etc. - were surrogate fathers, while women stayed at home, breeding these giants.
In recent decades this homely image has been smeared as our father figures are revealed as paedophiles and criminals. The ideal of the family, linked to a tarnished Church, has come under pressure as a result. PINNED is the story of one such family. The film opens with the reassuring voice of Gay Byrne, icon of middle Ireland, introducing the Angelus, a residue from the Catholic years. THE GODFATHER-style, the solemn ritual intercuts two narratives, the shooting of a drug-dealer by two gangsters and a man shooting up at what seems like a kind of altar. Shooting/shooting up; drugs = new religion - you see?
One of the most common complaints about 'contemporary' 'Irish' 'cinema' is that it has exchanged one set of cliches (Oirish blarney, romantic countryside blahblah) for another (gritty urban 'realism', drugs, gangsters). I many be wrong, but I think PINNED may be a parody of the latter trend. The central parents, opening junkie and his ex-addict wife, are an hilarious send-up of this kind of hand-wringing claptrap, all risible anguish and dodgy thesping. The 'action' set-pieces are comically inept, the dialogue is a scrapbook of dusty platitudes, the snarling gangsters are marvellous caricatures.
As usual 'realism' is a very thin veneer for the most shameless melodrama. The religious overtones may be ironic, but there is definitely a (very Irish) attempt to sanctify the mammy. A 26-minute short co-funded by the national broadcaster (Lemass' beloved arm of government) cannot be expected to provide social or political context, but the recreation of Dublin's seedier environs is curiously threadbare, although the theft in the Powerscourt arcade (hive of 'sophisticated' bourgeoisie) is probably supposed to have an alarming frisson.
With excellent production values for a short, A WOMAN SCORNED is a disturbing insight into the mind of a bitter woman lying in bed at might, her advances violently repulsed by her snoring lover. Flooded in gorgeous neon blues and reds, she tosses and turns and the film follows, in an elegant patchwork of past, present and murderous fantasy, the fragmentation of her mind figured in the changes of visual register, from glaring colour to grainy monochrome; from sexual ecstasy to empty loneliness; from talk to silence; dream to reality.
These last two become increasingly blurred, as she thinks of different ways of dispatching her lover (all, significantly, with a sexual twist), which are shown in gruesome detail, a bit like an uncomic UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. Snippets of the past involving a friend of hers lead to assumptions (i.e. adultery) that aren't completely explained (is she just imagining it?), but when she looks in the mirror next morning, the friend's strangled corpse reflects back. Unlike the Sturges film, dream definitely does not turn to farce, and if this is chilling, than there are fewer films as concise as this in describing the alienation, mistrust and festering anger and hurt that comprise most relationships.
A documentary as breathless as its subject, RUNNIN' MAN manages to pack into 26 minutes 40 years in the life of Melvin Van Peebles, known to most as writer-director-composer-actor of SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAAAADASS SONG, arguably the only Blaxploitation film worthy of the epithet 'great'; but he is truly what used to be called a Renaissance man - novelist, musician, stock trader, activist, astronomer etc. He prefers to be called a Survivor.
40 years into 26 minutes doesn't go, and the headlong rush of disparate achievement leaves us pondering one interviewer's accusation, that Van Peebles is a jack of all trades. The facts are these - one of the first black men in the US air force, he left the uncongenial political atmosphere of his home country for Europe, in particular a Paris always open to artistic bravery.
Having directed a few shoestring shorts, he discovered a French law whereby novelists could get grants for filming their work. Novels promptly written, he made an extraordinary feature about interracial love, visualising the white woman's fear of consummation as tribal cannibal rape. The film won a prestigious American award, and Van Peebles was flooded with Hollywood offers, it being assumed he was a (white) Dutch auteur. In the heated climate of the late 60s, Van Peebles became a prominent sympathiser of the Black Panthers, but turned out a few compromised Hollywood 'liberal' films.
Angry that Hollywood had earmarked him for the role of token black director, he took Columbia's money, and produced with complete independence, starring, as the credits boasted, 'The Black Community', SWEETBACK, a film, despite its flaws and contentious assumptions, still sings with savagery and beauty. It was the bomb with black audiences in America, who saw it as the first truly black film, and went on to become the highest grossing independent feature of all time.
Reactionary whites were predictable appalled at such an aggressive celebration of black experience, one that showed indifference to cosy, compromised accommodation. The happy ending didn't help either - violent rebels should be punished. Hollywood responded by blacklisting Van Peebles, banning the film from export until recently, and creating its own neutered blaxploitation movies in response. But Van Peebles kept on going, writing revolutionary Broadway shows and bestselling novels.
I said that these were the facts - the problem is that the documentary is too one-sided, or at least, one-voiced. There is little contribution from the man himself besides repeated shots of him jogging, and wonderful archive footage. There are no interviews with film or cultural critics, or other directors or politicians to put this extraordinary man in context. The metaphor of running (a motif, er, running through all his work) is overextended, suggesting flight rather than confrontation. Still, there's lots of priceless clips from his very-difficult-to-see early films, lovely Van Peebles music, often cited as an early influence on hip-hop, and a tone of deserved righteous homage.
With a tighter script, this could have been a classic - Rodriguez's flights of fancy are repeatedly, if I may say so under IMDb guidelines, beaten down by extended scenes of static exposition, implausible plot mechanics, and the dictates of genre. But THE FACULTY is still terrific - a proper horror with proper scares and restrained, justified self-referentiality; an excellent teen-pic centring on recurrent fears about conformity, independence, authority figures and sexual awakening.
Just because you keep referencing INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (love the switch to 'books', Kev!), doesn't mean you're not INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. For better or worse, society and cinema has become less political, so instead of panic about reds or McCarthy, we have more general fears (task-force modernisation etc.). But these are still valid. The thing about this conformity is that in a way it is collective, erasing class, racial and generational boundaries; it sees itself as a force for good, a way of making the alienated, the abused, the geeky fit in with the nice people. The film's whole conflict centres on a verbal pun, aliens versus the alienated. The conformity is only quelled when the disparate outsiders form a group, a sort of conformity in itself (it's no surprise that an ultra-conformist is the first to be revealed as bogus).
The film gives an alarming picture of life in American high schools, which doesn't seem that far-fetched to me now, having seem some documenataries exposing this metonymic environment. As you would expect, there is the usual, horribly violent, bullying of the clever; the cruel taunting of the different; the apotheosis and corruption-enabling of the football team. Even within this latter unit, there is rupture and doubt, as one star-player sees the system's fraud for what it is, sees how it makes a mockery of his own self-worth.
But the students aren't the only dissatisfied ones. The teachers are so disillusioned by the favouritism of the football gods at the expense of their own subjects, that they turn to drink, 'medication', arid sarcasm, and general indifference. This is perhaps an indictment of a system that fails its hypersmart kids, but we rarely get to see the teachers' side. So when the alien horrors begin, it's not just an allegory, like BODY SNATCHERS, for a cruel conformity that already exists, but shows up the failure of a certain kind of current conformity.
One could say that the film is just a catch-all expression of a certain, rather smug, alienated adolescent mindset; that the whole world is out to get you, from your peers, the girls you fancy, to teachers, parents, police. The profusion of narcotics strengthens this interpretation, the idea that all events are one big bad trip (there is a delightfully subversive subtext here which seems to contradict Richard Ashcroft). This would explain the lumping of every enemy figure together. The fundamental misogyny would be typical of teenage boys still at the episcopal-bashing stage. There are some excellent rites revealing tensions within the group, where the individualism of mistrust threatens to explode the resistance. But resistance to what? What is the coda bitterly suggesting?
What is most enjoyable about FACULTY is its rejection of current accepted horror practice, based on the slashers of the 80s, where the emphasis is very much on editing. There are, of course, some jolting cuts here (Rodriguez is, after all, the best editor in the business), but the best scenes are a result of careful compositon, striking, haunting images and an intelligent use of space (the almost army-camp restriction to campus reminds one of Ferrera's BODY SNATCHERS), which owes more to the Universal horrors of the 1930s, the B-movies of the 1950s and Romero's allegories - the LIVING DEAD-like scenes of faceless mob attack are truly frightening yet very funny.
The old cliche about crackling feedback on a radio being tuned into a recognisable melody is certainly true here, a film that opens with chaos and confusion, a breathless introductory montage of an air-controlling station, full of incomprehensible computer graphics, strange noisy men going through private rituals, confusing, though clearly important stakes. The film continues in a group vein, which is immensely wearing, as we watch a bunch of 30-somethings bond with their own coded language and gestures. Eventually, though, the film broadens out, becomes more tolerably conventional, as we are introduced to families, adultery, leisure time, Italian restaurants, even wide rugged Colorado spaces - ironically, the film also narrows its focus, as it analyses the inexplicable mythical stand-off between its two leads.
It is remarkable that something as phoney in conception as this can yield some genuine truths. The initial emphasis on the group and male cameraderie invoke Altman and Hawks, but Newell doesn't follow through (two other films it reminded me of, in the controllers' singular speed info-reading, were Herzog's HOW MUCH WOOD CAN A WOODCHUCK CHUCK and STROZZEK, two bitter fables about American capitalism)
The setting up of the initial conflict is too abrupt (some genius annoying you with his motorbike does not justify a life-destroying obsession, although the resulting, immature coffee-spilling overturn is very funny), and the endless reruns of crises in American masculinity, close, as ever, to homoeroticism, is rather wearisome, just as macho as Arnie, but with smarter words.
We are warned in a comic sequence involving schoolkids not to read too much into the metaphor (or is it simile?) of the ivory air-control tower, but it seems less about saving lives than the creation of a mythic space in which the central anxieties are played out. The struggle in the plane cockpit is just about plausible as a sign of Nick's mental breakdown, but the contrivance of the bomb takes the film out of character observation into the improbably fantastic, without the latter really becoming an extension of the former. The whole last third is fairly underwhelming anyway, probably because a film that is fuelled by John Cusack's mental and verbal agility must slow down when he does; the use of wives as extensions of the masculine game, though, seems less forgivable.
In spite of all these worries, I found PUSHING TIN a most enjoyable film. The characterisations are superb, and the initial irritations are revealed to be part of the protective armour these alienated characters wear. Because we believe (more or less) in the central quartet so strongly, in spite of the improbabilities of their relationships, the sadistic plot-twists growing out of character become exhilirating, as we squirm with the exquisite surprise of 'you can't!' inevitability.
The delineation of two madnesses, one hyperactively verbal, the other self-effacingly passive, allows for some great comic stand-offs; the film laughs at their immaturity while making it central to its momentum. Again, after some bogus attempts at atmosphere, the dialogue spits comic truth all over the place, so loose and true it might almost have been improvised, yet so tight and structured it could only have been written by craftsmen. Even icky cheerslike gestures are regularly deflated, undermining the cosier impulses.
Mike Newell is no Alexsei Balabanov, but he is adept at the jarring comic detail and the intricacies of close-knit groups threatened by outsiders, while there are a couple of excellent flourishes, such as our first sight of Nick out of the tower alone, speeding down the highway, anticipated by the whoosh of an aerial shot, a brilliantly ironic, explanatory movement.
Of course, for this kind of character- and dialogue-driven film to work, the acting must be spot on. Billy Bob Thornton reveals all the near-psychotic wearing down of life in a resigned smile, a crazed peace; but this is Cusack's film, as initially irritating and eventually winning as ever; his nervy logorrhea and preposterous macho gestures achieving a charming grace. I was going to take my first terrified flight this summer. Not now.
This joyous Leone-conceived Western has been called a critique of Sam Peckinpah (that other great 60s genre revisionist), and elaborates the same theme, the passing of the Old West. MY NAME IS NOBODY is much more interesting than that in its combination of dream, farce and elegy. It borrows its style from its two heroes - Jack Beauregard is an aging gunslinger with fading eyesight, and the film is full of strange optical effects, trompes l'oeil, lurches in perspective, halls of mirrors etc.; while Nobody is like a figure out of a dream, randomly passing through a series of absurd situations, making a mockery of old nihilistic values.
This is Leone's triumphant reductio ad absurdum of the traditional Western, where hoary ideals are revealed as murderous nonsense, and manifest destiny becomes pinball passivity. All the traditional elements - the wide open spaces; the move from Europe to the West; the closure of shootout - are mocked or reversed. This whizzing carnival is creamed by an audacious Morricone score, mixing parody (hoedown Valkyrie), menace and beauty (the gorgeous, breezy, 70s theme song that will colonise your mind. For ever.).
By far the most popular kind of film produced in 70s France was the policier, in which dogged detectives and po-faced policemen plodded through dour crime narratives after charismatic criminals. Generally reactionary, many featured Alain Delon, along with Jean-Paul Belmondo, France's biggest star.
MONSIEUR KLEIN is a very different Delon policier. Set in Occupied Paris, its police are Gestapo stooges doggedly and po-facedly seeking out phoney Frenchmen, with one of whom Klein, Catholic, collaborationist-befriending, art-dealing war-profiteer, seems to be confused, with inevitable consequences.
Losey's nausea-inducing camerawork, his use of ugly colour and shadows which literally swallows up the brightest of film-stars, the recreation of Nazi France, the playing with ideas of play, the combining of exciting thriller with Borges and Kafka, makes this one of the best films of the 70s.
This strange short fluctuates in tone from soft-focus fantasy to deadpan comedy to a sombre treatment of death. This trajectory might mirror the moral progress of the hero, 18-year-old birthday boy Chris, an averagely selfish teenager, who comes to an awareness that there are other realities outside of his own. For a film set by the sea, it is very claustrophobic, as we move from the inside of someone's head to a messy teenage bedroom to a gloomy death bed; this sense of suffocation and entrapment is appropriate to lives standing stock still, allowing the detritus of life to litter up around them, swallowing them up.
The film's narrative focus shifts abruptly from the melancholy dreams of Dad to the unusual dilemma of his son. It's unusual in our youth-saturated culture to have a film which sympathises with a parental figure, but Dad is almost zombi-like as he stares into space, dreaming, crushed, disappointed, sad. The scene where he slowly, unansweringly replaces the receiver blaring with an irate ex-wife, explains everything - he is the kind of paralysingly passive person who can do nothing to change his life, and only alienates others to fury.
His son plays guitar, is casually destructive and always sponging. On 3.33 a.m., the exact time of his 18th birthday, he awaits the expected special gift, and is presented with a bill for a quarter of a million dollars for upkeep, allowances, presents etc. Dad throws him out and won't see him again until Chris has bought his dream boat.
This might seem a monstrous abrogation of parental responsibility, but we feel a great deal of amused sympathy for this pained, neglected man, and his action does have, unwittingly, the desired effect. It is clear that he is close to break down, and it is painful to watch his speedy decline as the only thing left for him, his son, disappears.
In an effort to raise funds, Chris answers a newspaper notice advertising for sons. In a rundown shack which seems to boast Gothic interiors he finds a dying woman who has somehow let down her own son, and promises boys of his age a bequest for company. When Chris arrives, his predecessor runs fleeing from the house, making us fear the worst; but Ms. Crabb's understandable grouchiness and insults soon give way to the pains of remorse, and the more physical rattles of death. As if to alert us, she reads a book on Rembrandt, and this section is shot in a brooding darkness autumnally lit as in that master's paintings, an eerie combination of death and an ungraspable spirituality.
It's rare to see a short tackle so many themes - parents and children; coming of age; mid-life crisis; death; dreams and reality etc. The character triangle of reconciled men and dying woman might seem misogynistic, but the very lack of female input seems to account for the sterility of the men's lives, if only to clean up their mess.
It would not be wrong to suggest that the Sylvester/Tweetie series is just another variation on the gleefully vicious Tom and Jerry model, in which a seemingly insignificant creature constantly outwits and eludes his prodigious feline foe. In 1940s Hollywood, however, unlike today, formula was not necessarily a synonym creative laziness, and these short six minutes are packed with hilarity, invention and hilariously inventive violence.
The chief pleasures are Mel Blanc's gloriously funny, iconic, voice-doubling (he does both Thylvesther and 'I tawt I taw' Tweety); the transformation of the seemingly restricted domestic milieu (with its representative prisons, the cage and catbasket) as a space for anarchy and freedom, with Sylvester the cat-rebel constantly undermining the mistress (the only human we see - husband at work? War victim?), by eating her canaries; the beautiful, cool secondary candy colours and strong outlines, reminiscent of THE PINK PANTHER (cartoon) and EUROTRASH; a compositional style that is almost surreal in its well-chosen placing of resonant signifiers in an otherwise minimalist environment; and the exquisite action which is not too far from Itchy and Scratchy in its choreographed sadism.
The film's movement is almost theoremetical (sic?), as Sylvester the budgie murderer becomes the budgie murdered, while Tweetie takes over his power and his murderous characteristics (marked in the shifts from catbasket to cage and vice versa). Sylvester's death is a bit of a shock here, considering the longevity of the series - this must have been intended as a one-off; the final division of spoils tells you a lot about the filmmakers' intentions.
A film dreams are made on. (possible spoiler in last paragraph)
The more great cinematic masterpieces one sees from the past, the more impatient one becomes with the unimaginative compromises of the present. And so one might start dreaming of the perfect film one would like to see made today, with all the invention and flourish once available, but would not now be dared. In my case, it would be a mixture of silent movie, 50s melodrama, and deadpan Bunuellian surrealism. Astonishingly, this is precisely what OF FREAKS AND MEN offers. Ungrateful wretch that I am, I feel a little dissatisfied because it conforms so precisely to my high expectations, but then I remember what I could have been watching in my local multiplex instead, and rejoice.
Like TOM JONES, FREAKS' prologue is filmed in the style of a silent (without even music), as it gives what seems to be a back story, but is just as enigmatic as what follows. But although sound eventually returns, and its devices are crucial to the film's effect, the film, beautifully, retains the same aspects of pre-talkie cinema - the gorgeous sepia monochrome, with blanched actors' faces giving the impression that we are watching a group of dummies partaking in a wry Grand Guignol; the use of intertitles; the use of silent projection speeds, which heightens the actors' movements, making them more abrupt, more singularly removed from reality. The style, as in the silents, is largely static too, so that meaning resides in the remarkably rich compositions and editing, rather than fluidity of camera movements.
This 'staticness' (sic) is thoroughly appropriate to a film set largely indoors, featuring characters who are at first metaphorically and later literally imprisoned. The melodramatic use of framing, as developed by Ophuls, Sirk, Powell, Minnelli and Ray, is utilised here to make tangible this oppressive interiority, so that the Victorian bric-a-brac seems to overwhelm these characters, as they are framed, trapped, in doorways, mirrors, etc. This use of mirrors is audacious and playful, visualising the characters' fragmentation (between duty and desire; public and private; mind and body; bourgeois propriety and underground vice etc. - it is significant that these trapped figures eagerly absorb the products of photography, while the photographers themselves have perfect freedom of movement, can navigate all the realms of the city, including land and sea. It is when the pictures begin to move (cinema), and the photographers limit themselves to the bourgeois apartment, that entropy sets in); but also suggesting a fantastical, magical realm, one of transformation, abrupt and unexpected turns of events and intrusions.
This gives the film its dreamlike momentum, in which these stuffed mannequins act, not to realistic motivation, but to the promptings of desire, a dream logic; or are acted upon as such. The sieving of emotion, the bizarre, unexpected plot twists, and character actions, the turning of events that do not necessarily follow logically, all create this oneiric state, as does the setting, a huge wintry Russian city that seems to have no-one in it besides the main characters, a kind of Eastern ghost town.
The film's movement is circular and repetitive, beginning and ending with a man entering and leaving the city. Scenes are repeated. The film is very reminiscent of contemporary literature, the restrained Gothic of Robert Walser for example - the deadpan horror of the subject matter, the repeated motif of the labyrinth, all speak of an indefinable anguish.
FREAKS' content, a tale of power-shifts in terms of sexualised exploitation; of the bourgeois realm of power and influence being taken over by servants, murderers, sadists and pornographers; of the ruthless degradation of innocence and difference; of the betrayal of cinema, then in its infancy, and full of promise, as an instrument of exploitation, all seem to point to the upcoming Revolution and violent change of social order, which would use cinema as its key disseminator of the 'truth', but the actions of all the characters seem so unwilled and arbitrary, and the horrors are so jaw-droppingly funny as well as ghastly, that such a boring analogy would be diminishing, and deny the 'victims'' own complicit desire.
In this film of walls and ceilings, the scenes that seared my brain are those of a somnolent boat gliding on the river, or the sublime, suicidial ice surf at the close, or the enchanted, Cocteau-like courting of Anna and Putilov through the roof-tops of St. Petersburg, scenes dazzlingly saturated in milky magic.
When we think of the great Hollywood films, we probably think of sensuality, the way they manipulate our emotions through suspense, fear, laughter, sensation, melodrama. BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT might seem to be the antithesis of this kind of film - its cold, formal, mathematical, forbidding distance. It is as brutally insensitive to audience weaknesses as Tom Garrett is to his fiancee - like Lang, he creates a plot to prove something; his lack of humanity, though, counteracts the supposed humanitarianism of his cause, even before we discover his real motives.
DOUBT is a cruel movie, which makes its 'implausibility' and 'unrealism' (sic?) part of its theme. Most Hollywood films offer us a hero, no matter how flawed, with whom an audience can identify, with whom they can experience the ups and downs, joys and pains, dangers and relief; he will generally have some redeeming feature, eg Norman Bates' gentleness, Roger Thornhill's charm. Lang refuses us such luxury. Tom is a deeply unpleasant man from the start. There are two realms in the film, that of life, a passive realm, of women, who depend on the time and money of men, who must prostitute themselves for status (both Susan and the strippers); this is a sensual world of the body.
Then there is the male realm, icy, intellectual, where plans are hatched, where gods tamper with life and law, use them as playthings, ideas. Tom's dilemma is that he belongs to both. Initially, we are led to suspect that Tom's decision to experiment is a chance to slum, to visit the seedy dives prohibited by his airless upper-middle-class milieu before his marriage, an example of double standards in a male-dominated society.
But even at an early stage, the ease with which he assumes his role, his familiarity with the environment, the codes, the language, make one suspicious. So then we query Austin's interest, his chilling suggestion to use a man as a guinea-pig to test the unfairness of capital punishment. He is the classic liberal in the abstract, the sort of man who would justify the gulags as necessary for the greater good. When Tom fobs Susan off with an affirmation of physical desire, we notice Austin's strange look, and wonder if he is trying to set Tom up, wary of his social ambitions or sexual predatoriness (where is Mrs. Spencer)?
Tom is a classic noir (and even Victorian) split personality. He navigates two environments, two histories, two (even three) women. Either way, he has committed two crimes, either killing the girl, or planting evidence, obstructing the course of justice. This is a bleak Hollywood instance of the 'hero' being punished, killed, revealed not to be a hero. So who is? Hardly Susan, a mere nuisance in the men's big schemes - her taking over power, by running the paper, and trying to inject emotion into the chilly plot by sentimental appeal dries up like a tear in the desert. Her ex-lover, the dull, dutiful policeman, is in the ironic position of trying to save a murderer from death row, so the latter can marry the woman he loves (the sordid sexual engine of this plot motor is unmistakable and unpleasant).
DOUBT has been praised for its geometric austerity, its theorem-like drive. Every shot is dominated by lines, rectangles, and especially triangles, from the sets and camera movements to the placing of characters. But what does the theorem demonstrate? The easy manipulation of American justice (Tom is only foiled by a stupid slip)? The inability of anything, law, art etc. to explain the randomness of life? In its extreme formalism, its spare mise-en-scene, its profusion of screens in different scenes (eg the restaurant and the courtroom) makes the film feel Oriental, and, like AI NO CORRIDA, there is an analysis of surveillance in the public sphere, from the cameras recoding the trial to the DA's trampling the spirit of the law for political gain. There are two extraordinary sequences in this chilling film - the opening execution, a mixture of funeral march and dream; and the pan in the jail over the prisoners that must have been in Godard's head when he made WEEK END.
As important (and unseen) in its way as SALT OF THE EARTH.
This film was commissioned and promptly banned for 35 years by the US War Department. It exposes the violent mental effects of the Second World War on returning soldiers undergoing treatment in a psychiatric hospital. It is truly harrowing to watch these beaten men, especially in the context of offensive RAMBO-like propaganda movies churned out in the previous half-decade, strong men who fought for their country, who won medals and purple hearts for bravery, breaking down, in tears, paralysed, ashamed, gibbering, shellshocked, haunted by terrifying recent memories, family problems etc.
It is completely understandable to see why this was banned. America was gearing up for two of the defining moments of its history - McCarthyism, with its fascist vision of what it meant to be American; and the post-war consumer boom, embodied in conformity and the nuclear family. Here is a film that dares to show the horrors, neuroses, psychological pressures of the military, of family, of conformity, horrors directors like Nicholas Ray could only allegorise. As such, the film is a rare breath of literal truth in a period of evasion and necessary sublimation, and is, thus, as inspirational as SALT OF THE EARTH.
Huston has claimed that in his war documentaries he didn't intrude his directorial stamp, just let the stories tell themselves. This is a nonsense in any film, but especially so here. The credits claim that no scenes were staged, and the patients were made aware from the beginning of the presence of cameras (Huston says that their own personal demons meant that they barely even noticed them, and indeed, the patients who were filmed were more successfully treated than those who weren't! This IS America!).
This many be true, but the manipulation of effects, the spacious camera movements expressing alienation, the leading narration, the neurotic score, the dreamlike compositions, the heightened cinematography (by the great Stanley Cortez, who would use his experience here to harrowing effect in Fuller's SHOCK CORRIDOR) all cohere to create a very definite vision, one that is probably more truthful than 'straight' observation would have been, and one that undermines the script's attempts at all-American optimism and hope.
Maybe they are just stiff in front of a camera, but the psychiatrists seem to me unnecessarily abrupt, intrusive and authoritarian, their so-called cures and explanations deeply unconvincing, displaying an almost Messianic arrogance in one sequence, where one tries to make a man walk after one trick (is the title, God's life-giving injunction in Genesis, therefore ironic?).
Some of these traumas would later appear in some of the great American films of the next decade, such as BIGGER THAN LIFE and WRITTEN ON THE WIND, and as Huston well knew, documentary could never reach the insights of fiction, but it is bracing to see such traumas in the raw.
What a wonderfully savage way to bow out for the 1940s best American director.
This lopsided, stunning comedy is Sturges' last masterpiece, a bitter denunciation of culture, and the most savage dissection of marriage in the cinema. It is more shocking than 'Othello', sadder than 'Ulysses', both of which it alludes to. Like Othello, Sir Alfred de Carter is a celebrated, civilised hero whom jealousy drives insane; both men are linked to culture - Othello tells bewitching stories, Carter conducts - and both are failed by culture, which cannot elevate base, murderous, misogynistic instincts.
Even better, for a Hollywood movie by a (till then) popular director, is that it attempts some of the formal daring of Ulysses. One of the reasons the film's structure seems so strange is that it doesn't follow a traditional narrative movement (eg of a play, novel or film), but tries to match the abstract patterning of music (like the episode 'Sirens'), the film's subject matter. The development of themes, motifs, antiphony, repitition, give the film the same fluidity, richness and depth of a symphony, and this plays havoc with our conventional narrative expectations.
Further, like 'Oxen In The Sun', which relates narrative in styles pastiching the 'best' (clean, proper, elegant) of English prose, before collapsing in a babble of slang and dialect, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS develops its story through the history of popular classical Romantic music, from Rossini, to Wagner to Tchaikovsky, from populist musical entertainment made for the people, to solemn music drama more appropriate to cathedrals, to sophisticated souffle dilution, before Carter's narrative collapses into slapstick and farce, wholesale destruction, mirrored in the grotesque, carnivalesque, distorted music, and the painful lashes of feedback.
Sturges' view of marriage is alarmingly bleak, not just including the reprehensible coupling of pompous, sterile miser August Henshler (a priceless Rudy Vallee) and his bored sarcastic golddigging wife, Barbara (like her sister - Carter's misogyny is not without some justification; and the film is a rare Hollywood analysis of class). The film opens with symbolic ominousness, as a wife waits at an airport for a husband who is lost somewhere in the sky, possibly in danger. Their reunion is sheer theatre, complete with audience and critics; and their first night together is rudely interrupted (witnessed) by the man whose intrusions will be central to the following plot, Tony. The film is full of this idea of theatre, that the lives we lead are mere crippling performances for a society full of begrudgery, indifference and contempt.
The important thing about the early scenes is how much Carter is to blame, how useless he is at marriage beyond the pleasureable physical duties. He is almost always away from his wife, or putting her off when he is there, delegating his responsibilities to his secretary so that he might as well be her lover - Carter's jealousy is really only a hypocritical smokescreen for guilt and neglect. He thinks throwing money and dresses at Daphne is enough - he is closer to August than he would care to admit.
His abrasive ego and violent clipped wit is hugely amusing and full of a brisk energy, but it consumes and negates all around him. He is an all-powerful man, a magician, the centre of public attention - he can make a legion of men do his bidding, and make hundreds more applaud him for doing so. This necessitates a regulated life, all the elements therein subservient to his will. So when his wife is possibly having an affair, he loses control. His sense of wholeness is split, but this is figured in the fragmentation of his wife (when he first suspects, she is reflected in a mirror; in the next sequence, she is divided into three by a double mirror), so bound up is she in his self image.
After a slow start, this is monstrously funny, and Carter's decline is dramatised in his change of comic registers, from verbal ('intellectual') comedy, to broad, 'vulgar' slapstick, from construction (of neat sentences etc.) to destruction, from activity to passivity. Decades before Cultural Studies came into being, Sturges links Dead White Male culture to masculinity and the arbitrary, brutal power of patriarchy is shown in all its unlovely violence.
The fantasy sequences are delirious, wicked, frightening and plausible (with disorientating zooms into Carter's eye reminiscent of VERTIGO)., and a thrill to see in a 40s Hollywood film, but Sturges is well aware that the pleasure we get from Carter murdering Daphne (explicitely eroticised) is very real, a release of what we (men anyway) feel but would never admit. In this way, YOURS is a forerunner of PEEPING TOM.
Although this is definitely the work of a misanthropist, there are glimmers of humanity, especially Sweeney the detective, whose loneliness is genuinely moving; he is the only character for whom music actually enriches. It is odd that a late 40s American film featuring detectives should have that figure as a receptacle of hope and humanity, and the man of culture, breeding and nobility the noir hero.
There are some unexpectedly delightful bits of irrelevant business, such as Daphne and August dropping things from the balcony on an old dowager. Sturges' use of space and architecture to dramatise emotion is once again masterly and Antonionian - the whole final third is a superb depiction of domestic alienation, Carter's ignorance of his own home revealing about his marriage; when he goes to confront Tony, the corridor's geometry is a chilling vanishing point; his mute walk through Tony's room is like the perambulaitons of a ghost.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is Leone's most sustained attack on the American values psychically embodied in the Western, and contemporaneously being globally disseminated culturally, corporately, militaristically (the Cold War, Vietnam). for instance, the Civil War (and this is THE great Civil War movie, shorn of heroics and ideals) is deliberately decontextualised, so that we have no simplistic dichotomy between noble abolitionists and evil racists, or arrogant Yankees and honourable Southerners. Robbed of context, war is seen for what it is, a mass slaughter, a gigantic mirror firing squad searing the land, the logical outcome of progress.
The Civil War is often seen as the defining moment of the American 'idea', the victory of certain ideals about liberty and fraternity. Here prized Amercian liberty is a sprawl of corpses and limbs. The 'good' Yankees, the ones who might be seen as carriers of the official myth, are lame, dying, ineffectual, drunk, neurotic, in both cases prone, helpless to stop the victory of evil. The truth about America, embodied in Angel Eyes, the one effective, powerful Union leader we see, is one of torture, robbery and murder.
Many have compared the prisoner-of-war camp sequences to World War II - Angel Eyes' Gestapo-like interrogations; the prisoners' orchestra like those in many concentration camps; the equation of the compound with these camps; the wholesale fleecing of prisoners; the trains jammed with prisoners going to their deaths. What is shocking is that the men equated with Nazis are the bringers of liberty to slaves, and the creators of a space for the American dream, free from European abuses and corruption. Leone shows that American history - the genocide of natives; the history of slavery (and Civil Rights was a traumatic issue is the US at the time); the obscene culturalisation of capitalism and its concomitant military Imperialism are not all that different from the Nazi project (never mind that it was the spillover of the Civil War that offset the Wild West).
What is most bitter of all is that in the midst of this holocaust, the mythic machinations of capitalism, as adumbrated in the opening DOLLARS films, continues unabated. Indeed, so powerful is the drive of Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes, that is can actually remove the obstacle of a full-blown war, clear history and human idiocy out of their ritualistic games (the bridge sequence). History tries to catch them; they are swept up by it on occasion, but constantly elude it, looking on at the spectacle just as we do, hitting the remote control when they're sated. It could be said that they are finally marginalised by the reality of America and history, that the grotesque, extreme close-ups are replaced by sweeping long shots full of anonymous distracted mass, but it's really the other way around, America and history have no way of stopping the mythic drive, indeed it depends on it.
GOOD makes all 'traditional' Westerns look thin. Like 'Ulysses', every scene is a classic in itself, rich in detail, character, incident, critique, meaning and form. Who'd have thought in the 1960s that the greatest, most celebrated and influential Italian director would not be Antonioni, Fellini or Visconti, but a hack of sensationalist oaters. But Leone's overwhelming mastery of form is near its peak here, as he brings together all the thematic concerns of the first two films. The opening vignettes adumbrate the terms of reference - ugly is defined by gluttony and constant quick-witted flight; bad is a frightening display of murderous, yet humorous efficiency, pinned down by a curious code of conduct; good embodies a systematic defiance and humiliation of the law, inhuman greed, betrayal and attempted sadistic murder.
The geometry of circle and triangle are repeatedly invoked to underpin the fabled linearity of the west, endless combinations from the boy at the well and the climactic shootout, to the opening triangle of Angel Eyes and Tuco linked to food, Blondie not. The themes of the family (Angel Eyes' opening slaughter; Tuco and his brother), religion (the monastary hospital; Blondie as Tuco's guardian angel, with the power to give and take life; his Jesus-like ordeal in the desert, taunted by the devil), the place of the body in a mythical landscape (and Blondie suffers a horrible lashing in the desert), and the contrasting of these mythic archetypes with gross, concupicent humanity, a humanity that opens and closes the film, because this is Wallach's film, a man whose crimes have understandable motivation (women, food, money for comfort etc.), who must live in while the abstractions haunt the Western landscape.
The score, though frequently parodic and comic as ever, is one of Morricone's most beautiful, though always ironic; its elegiac, ethereal adagios scoring scenes of intolerable barbarity. In a film bursting with comedy and action, with scenes of great formal beauty (watch Angel Eyes' exit after his first slaughter), of unforgettable set-pieces, the hallucinatory finale in the field of death, where the quest of the movie (and all American quests?) is equated with the grave, where the hilariously sexualised rite is rudely interrupted, has got top them all.
This belated tenth anniversary BBC tribute to the third greatest show of all time (the first episode aired Christmas 1989) is pretty much what you'd expect - interviews with the creator, producers, voice actors, celebrity guests, animators, composer etc., interspersed with illustrative clips and a narrative history that tows the conventional line. The conservative heart of this supposedly 'dysfunctional' and 'radical' show is mercifully admitted - it's as hard to take satire seriously from murdoch-employed millionaires as it to root for Thomas Crown; and the reason the film has 'adult' levels is so children can be surveilled (who wants subversion their parents enjoy?).
The programme does pinpoint the reason for the show's success - a depth of character which does not inhibit disruption when the need arises; an expressive freedom that allows expressionistic, dream, fantasy sequences run riot; a crucial mix of comic registers. Dan Castellenata is deadpan hilarious in interview, sweetly displaying the range of his genius. Not enough Monty, though. Hopefully too much evisceration won't spoil the magic of the whole.
This film's interest lies less in its indifferent, sweetly bourgeois bourgeois-baiting, than in its dramatisation of Vadim's mind, his sense of power in having 'created' Bebe; his emasculation as she transcended and abandoned him. This schizophrenia is given the revenge treatment here as Bardot navigates a liberating plot, eventually escaping stifling social respectability and imperiously mastering sadistic lover. This is filmed, however, in a fetishistic way, diminishing her sexual power, while leaving her nakedly vulnerable to the masculine gaze.
A tragicomic antidote to the usual child-grouch mush. (possible spoilers)
KIKUJIRO is Kitano's NORTH BY NORTHWEST, a hugely enjoyable, almost parodic precis of a mighty oeuvre - we have the shy young protagonist and his violently unstable father figure from BOILING POINT; the disjunction of sentimental music and violent imagery from VIOLENT COP; the beachgames idyll, suspended in time and place, from SONATINE; echoes of KIDS' RETURN, such as the two tapdancers; the devastating intrusion of mental fragility from HANA-BI.
Of course, NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a masterpiece; KIKUJIRO, for all its many merits, isn't quite. The first half, detailing the quest of an incongruous pair - diffident, lonely boy who lives in his imagination, abandoned by his parents; and abruptly grouchy, middle-aged, henpecked husband search for former's mother - is full of great Kitano things, but seems to me a touch manipulative; the how-can-you-resist-it stoicism of the eternally disappointed boy; the swathes of romantic music that are sometimes undermined, but not always; the trying-a-bit-too-hard performance of Kitano himself, managing to mug shamelessly while retaining a rigorously deadpan demeanour (nevertheless, he has never been funnier, ).
Like I say, though, it's full of good things, avoiding the blatant sentimentality of CENTRAL STATION or THE STRAIGHT STORY (KIKUJIRO is a film which is anything but straight - it begins with repeated shots of Masao crossing roads, bridges etc, as if signalling some kind of progress will be achieved, from childhood to maturity or something, but Kitano's subtle way with flashbacks means he, and we, are constantly going around in circles).
This is very much a boys' film; not in the sense of startling violence or macho posturing (this is a Kitano film full of day-glo and angel bells), but in its fantasy. The quest is a search for a woman, the mother (Kikujiro's also), that first, perhaps stifling, experience we all have of life. The quest, therefore, might be seen as a return to the womb. But it fails halfway through, where a Hollywood movie (like THE STRAIGHT STORY) would end. The best stuff is still to come; the end of the journey (the woman) is made irrelevant. The quest is also an escape for Kikujiro from his permanently disapproving wife, back into a childhood where he is bully, in control; the temporary commune the pair set up is all-male.
To accuse Kitano of misogyny would be absurd; the film is shot through with the child's sensibility as expertly as Stephen Dedalus' in Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' (we are watching, after all, Masao's snapshots). This is a boy who early in the film stands tiny, alone, in a huge all-weather because nobody bothered to tell him about the suspension of summer soccer practice. In the corresponding scene near the end, he is no longer alone, chased on the pitch by his friends.
The linearity of the film is constantly disrupted, and finally abandoned after the quest fails - Masao is a child, after all, and must be entertained; and so we stop for entertainments, jugglers, human robots, funfairs. There is even the sense that Kikujiro's erratic irascability is all just a show for Masao, his mishaps as ritualised as performances - like a cartoon, he emerges unscathed from his very physical misadventures. This is crystallised in the glorious second half, where Kikujiro/Kitano, director of entertainments, struggles to keep the child constantly amused - this is as joyous as 90s cinema got, an affirmation of imagination, friendship and play. But absolutely no women.
There is a lingering feeling of traditionalism in these gestures. Although Masao dresses like his American equivalent, and lives in hyperWestern Tokyo, Western culture doesn't intrude very much in his life. He doesn't watch TV or collect Pokemon cards. In the opening sequence, when we see him wandering about Tokyo, we see him framed against ancient Japanese signifiers, temples, lamps, the equivalent of those headless seaside cartoons you see in Brighton, etc. Further, KIKUJIRO is shot through with fantasy, dreams, hallucination, and the most astonishing, otherworldly colour, and these are always heightening and making absurd the film's realism - the recurring shots of Masao sleeping, and the unsignalled shift in time, suggest the events exist as much in Masao's head as actually happening. But his subjectivity is highly ritual, stylised, like Japanese theatre, as if he is some kind of unconscious receptacle for a vanishing culture. (And, they always seem to have a spare pot of make-up handy)
For all its comedy, its variety, its humanity, its sense of the preposterous, KIKUJIRO is one of Kitano's saddest films. Although connections are formed in this eerily underpopulated Japan, the overriding sense of arbitrary fate and violence, of the increasing selfishness and soullessness of modern life, are painfully apparent. Curiously, Kitano's most open film in terms of space, is his least expansive in terms of thematics and effect - the compressions of genre seem to suit him best. This is still one of the best films of the year, as a middling film from the world's greatest living director must be. The Kitano style is awesomely confident, his unemotional, uncluttered, static framing, his comic editing and ellipses, his unobtrusive way of revealing emotion through landscape.