Sunday, April 19, 2015

Wings (1966) - ES 11

I never even knew such words as these: "Let someone else do it.”

Even though neither Wings nor the Ukrainian filmmaker Larisa Shepitko were all that prominent on the broader cultural radar of 1966, this debut film by a young female Soviet director definitely speaks to the emerging debates about the role of women in society that took place in the same year that the National Organization for Women was founded in the USA. Just as the film I most recently reviewed here, Seijun Suzuki's Fighting Elegy, concerned itself with a number of issues and concerns regarding the handed-down understanding of masculinity, so also Wings provides insight into the lives of women who were beginning to move into positions of authority and influence traditionally held by men, though from a much more subtle, reflective and nuanced perspective. While Suzuki goes about his business with a full-frontal sensory assault of male horniness and aggression, Larisa Shepitko, merely in her late twenties at the time of her debut feature film's release, shows an uncommon sensitivity and awareness of the insecurities and social pressures facing not merely "older" women, but practically anybody who has achieved noteworthy success at a relatively youthful age but then has to go on with the rest of their life, wondering what the next act will be that continues to make them as relevant and vital as they've become accustomed to.

Now before I proceed any further, let me just say that this is another one of those posts that won't necessarily go into as much depth on a film as I have in the past. I've already given Wings an extended review and commentary on two separate occasions: first, in my Journey Through the Eclipse Series back in the summer of 2010 (wow, four and a half years ago already!) and also in the early days of the Eclipse Viewer podcast, a couple years later in the third episode I recorded with Robert Nishimura, well before I began my present collaboration with Trevor Berrett on that program. (Re-listening to that episode evoked a certain sense of nostalgia, I must admit...) I have to be candid here and acknowledge that I had more to say about the film on those two occasions than I do at this moment, but I did watch Wings again the other night just to maintain my integrity here. :)

The gist of the film is that it's an extended character study about Nadhezda (Nadya) Petrukhina, a female fighter pilot whose exploits earned her the status of decorated military hero in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's "Great Patriotic War" (which is how the USSR referred to World War II.) At the beginning of the movie, she's just assuming the duties of headmistress of a vocational school for teens, and is immediately faced with a crucial test of her leadership abilities when a pair of disruptive students call her authority into question in a very public setting. Alongside this new set of professional challenges, Nadya is going through some critical passages in her relationship with her daughter, who's promised to marry a man some fifteen or twenty years older than her. And on top of all that, Nadya is simply entering into a phase of midlife doldrums as she begins to question the value and significance of all that she's been pouring her energy into for practically as long as she can remember. It's a remarkable piece of work for a woman who was just embarking on what looked to be a very promising career as a creative artist in what was undeniably a challenging cultural environment. Shepitko was Ukrainian by birth, subject to the authoritarian whims of the central Soviet bureaucracy. But as events in her native land have demonstrated over the past year or two, Ukraine and Russia are two distinctively different parts of the world. With a slightly enhanced awareness of the rift that presumably was lurking between those two societies, artificially conjoined in the USSR's post WWII imperialist expansion, I'm now intrigued to learn more about how Shepitko navigated through the system to the point where she could make a film that did indeed stir up some ripples of approbation from the Soviet censorship boards at that time.

I'm content to let stand all the observations I shared in those earlier reviews - my main takeaway from this week's revisit was mainly just to marvel again at Shepitko's confident assurance in guiding us through a series of very naturalistic scenes of interpersonal exchanges, conflicts and disappointments. Those encounters quietly, gradually build toward a climactic moment of self-actualization and transcendence at the very end of the film - at which point she (almost literally) leaves us hanging in midair as we're basically forced to draw our own conclusion (as speculative as it must be) as to what happened next to the protagonist Nadya. My preference is to think that she exulted in that moment of discovering and reclaiming her freedom soaring through the sky, accomplished at least a provisional resolution of some of the loose ends of her life that sat in disarray before her, and made a good choice to land the plane safely before resuming the responsibilities she'd signed up for and was more than capable of fulfilling. But as the saying goes, your mileage may vary! I admire Shepitko's courage in leaving it all so open-ended for each individual viewer to sort out.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Fighting Elegy (1966) - #269

You just don't understand men!

The story of how Seijun Suzuki's career as a prolific Japanese director was prematurely derailed by his studio bosses at Nikkatsu, due to his stubbornly insubordinate creative interpolations and unconventional approach to narrative, has become somewhat legendary over the years. The short version of the story tends to focus on two films that were released concurrently with each other by Criterion on two separate occasions - as spine numbers 38 and 39, on DVD in 1999 and in an overhauled Blu-ray/DVD edition in 2011. The films definitely belong together, as they each focus on yakuza themes. Tokyo Drifter, from early in 1966, is Suzuki's uber-cool, ultra-stylish, neon lit gangster fantasy saga, while 1967's Branded to Kill stars Japanese action icon Joe Shishido as an ambitious but loopy hit man engaged in ruthless competition to be the supreme assassin of the criminal underworld. As it turned out, the latter film's barely comprehensible story line, and Suzuki's indifference to making his movies sufficiently accessible to mainstream audiences, drove his producers to exasperation, so they canceled his contract and effectively blacklisted Suzuki from directing any more feature films for the rest of the 20th century, eventually resurfacing in 2001 with Pistol Opera, a film that practically picks up where Branded to Kill left off.

Well, that's not an entirely accurate recounting of the facts, but that's basically how the mythology of Seijun Suzuki seems to have been passed on according to any number of articles I've read over the years. The truth, as usual, is more complicated than that, as Suzuki did continue to make films throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, but they were certainly few and far between in comparison with the hectic pace he established in the first phase of his career: an astonishing 40 films between 1956 and 1967 - approaching four films a year when you do the math.

But as I said, much of the attention that Suzuki has earned in recent times tends to focus on those two early Criterion titles, even though his output is among them most amply represented in the Collection. One of the films that's too easily overlooked, maybe because it's kind of buried in drab packaging in a nearly bare-bones DVD dating from 2005, is Fighting Elegy, his second-to-last job for Nikkatsu. On the surface a frenzied comic romp about rowdy young men gone wild, it came out in the fall of 1966, smack dab between Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. In my view, Fighting Elegy is a much more personal and heartfelt film than either of the highly stylized and sometimes brazenly experimental works that bookend it. But don't assume based on that assessment that it's any less bonkers.

Fighting Elegy draws much more from Suzuki's life story and Japan's pre-WWII history, a shared experience that many of the adults of his time could relate to and place themselves in. Whereas a neck-deep entanglement in the yakuza crime syndicate could serve as a rich metaphor for any number of interpersonal conflicts and concerns that viewers might relate to, the social milieu of this film was much more ordinary and common: a military prep school (or two) of the type that many young men approaching the age of conscription were sent to in order to toughen them up for use as cannon fodder in the imperialist campaigns that the government was starting to engage in by the mid-1930s. I hardly need to elaborate on the emotive and thought-provoking possibilities inherent in a story of young men coming of age at a crucial juncture in their nation's history, just on the brink of a promised glorious triumph that swiftly deteriorated into profound, abject tragedy.

The set-up involves a particular young man, Kiroku, who boards with a family that's converted to Catholicism. He develops a crush on their beautiful and musically talented daughter Michiko, and struggles mightily to maintain the stern ascetic discipline of a young soldier in training. His awkward efforts to repress emerging sexual energies fuels a raging irritability that lands him in a lot of fights, which in turn get him expelled, sent to a different school and mounting pressures to exercise self-control lest he prove himself unsuitable for service to the Emperor.

Of course, what Suzuki does with all that narrative potential may appear to some to fall short of the mark, as we're presented with a succession of slapstick brawls, brutal beatings and silly boner jokes that probably won't make a lot of sense to viewers who haven't acclimated to his madcap style or spent much time watching Japanese films of the 1930s (or films from later decades that sought to capture the spirit of those times.) While I won't claim to be any sort of expert on Asian cinema, I can say that I've watched enough of those kinds of movies in recent months to feel like I get where Suzuki is coming from as he lampoons the testosterone-fueled ethos of his formative years. A pair of podcasts I recorded earlier this year on the Eclipse Series sets Kinoshita and World War II and The First Films of Akira Kurosawa certainly delve into that mindset. Along this line, I can also recommend titles like Kobayashi's The Thick Walled Room and The Human Condition (almost the polar opposite of Fighting Elegy in their relentlessly serious tone), Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain, Kinoshita's Twenty-Four Eyes and especially Suzuki's own Story of a Prostitute which offers up something close to a female-perspective counterpart to the story told in Fighting Elegy. And then there's Yukio Mishima's incredibly harrowing Patriotism, released just a few months earlier, that amplifies quite valuably the events that are portended in the final scenes of Fighting Elegy as a group of soldiers march into Tokyo to participate in an attempted coup that played a significant role in radicalizing Japan's ruling authorities even further.

With sufficient background then, I think a viewer is better prepared to glean more value from watching Fighting Elegy than might otherwise result. Without it, there's still a lot to appreciate, as Suzuki's directorial instincts, supported by a highly capable crew, create some rather wildly amusing action sequences, hilarious sight gags and even a few scenes of evocative beauty toward the end, when the tone abruptly shifts from farcical to elegiac, as befits the title that Criterion chose to go with when translated from the Japanese. It's listed on IMDb and elsewhere as The Born Fighter, a sobriquet for the belligerent yet sympathetic Kiroku that was just as descriptive of the inspired visionary Seijun Suzuki, who no doubt poured a bit of his own soul into this project and brought the character to life.

Next: Wings

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Le deuxième souffle (1966) - #448

This isn't your usual killer. He's doomed and he knows it.

Before any images are seen at the beginning of Le deuxième souffle, viewers must first read through two short texts. The first, a disclaimer assuring us that the film is not intended as an endorsement of either career criminal Gu Minda's homicidal "code of honor" or the deceptive and brutal tactics used by the French police, in "this work of fiction based on a novel" (as if the redundancy of that phrase somehow distances them from any potential culpability for copycat behavior by either the gangster or law enforcement elements who might be watching.) Presumably, the apologetic reminder was tacked on by nervous studio heads fearing some kind of censorious reprimand from the voices of decency who would object to director Jean-Pierre Melville's amoral stance in presenting such violence to a mass audience as entertainment. I have a hard time thinking that Melville would have put the statement in the film himself, and I also have to assume that he wasn't exactly pleased that it led off the program.

However, the following text was surely appended according to Melville's instruction: "A man is given but one right at birth: to choose his own death. But if he chooses because he is weary of life, then his entire existence has been without meaning." It's the kind of existentially lofty grand pronouncement about the condition of the universe that French intellectuals routinely bestow upon their audiences, a well-practiced skill that they've elevated into its own art form. But it's also one of those aphorisms better designed at making an impact on a casual observer for its short-term impression of profundity; upon more extended, serious reflection, the essential hollowness of the statement when applied to real life shows it to be grandiose bullshit. There are a lot of people (men, women, children) who die in circumstances that have no bearing at all on the intrinsic meaning of their lives, and certainly a lot of deaths are not "chosen" in any rationally meaningful sense of the word. But if we strip away the axiomatic insistence that hovers over this bold pronouncement, then a brief glimmer of truth begins to break through. For those who reach that point of maturity and self-determination where their actions actually do go on to influence, if not completely dictate, the manner of their death, then it's quite reasonable indeed to ponder the choices they make. We can even speculate about the internal motives that an onlooker might be able to discern from the patterns of behavior that preceded that moment of fatal determination.

With those two considerations in mind then, as a film Le deuxième souffle, which is usually translated into English as the equivalent of a "second wind," might best be understood as a doomed man's extended "last gasp." It's that gulp of breath taken in the midst of that tension between distancing himself from the unintended implications of his actions as they're perceived and interpreted by others, while also retaining a claim of meaningful autonomy over the meaning of his life. Every step of Gu's journey puts him in significant peril from both the law and the criminal underworld, for each of these forces wield their own form of punitive justice - soul crushing confinement and humiliation from the one, and brutal execution at a moment's notice if caught by surprise by the wrong people from the other. From the initial jail break where we first meet him, through his fortuitous return to Paris to settle some old scores and bail his few close comrades out of trouble, to his incognito escape to Marseilles and voluntary enrollment in a major platinum heist, Gu is a man operating under protest, continually repudiating through word and deed the assumptions of his rivals that, under significant enough pressure, he'd break the rules that prohibit even a robber and killer as he is from betraying his partners in crime. Gu is a man capable of any form of brutality in the execution of a job, or an enemy, but to accuse him of actually squealing to the police, of turning informant - that's an accusation that he cannot let stand under any circumstances.

So we can understand his outrage when he is eventually tricked into spilling the beans, in a brilliantly staged set-up by undercover police playing the part of gangsters in charge of the territory where Gu is hiding out, awaiting ship's passage to Italy that will smuggle him into a less dangerous situation. The cops' successful emulation of the mob's uncompromising tactics catches Gu off guard, to the extent that he blabs crucial information aimed at clearing up his captors' misunderstanding of his role in the platinum robbery, that is then caught on tape. It's the kind of fateful slip-up that Gu should have seen coming, should have been wary of stumbling into, would never have happened if he had retained the sharp-edged determination and steely reticence required of a man in his position. As far as we can tell, it matters little to him whom he has killed, what relationships he's had to sacrifice or the costs of his crimes to countless victims, known and unknown over the course of decades lived as a crook. What finally drives Gu to exasperation, even to the point of suicidal despair, is the idea that others who know him would draw the conclusion that he'd violated the code of honor, caved in when the authorities leaned in hard, gone soft in order to win himself some concessions when it came time for the judge to render his verdict. Whatever other pains, deprivations or even death Gu might have to accept as his fate, as much as he could control it, he was determined to not let his final reputation be that of a stool pigeon.

Jean-Pierre Melville cuts himself a considerable swath of film time in order to establish that point, and he does so with gritty, slow-burning clarity over two and a half hours that simmer with emotional tension and patient confidence that the end of the story will justify his deliberate approach. It's clearly a declaration of deeply felt principles that mean a lot to a man who fought in the French Resistance during World War II. He had undoubtedly seen numerous examples of how that code was both upheld and transgressed by friends and foes alike, and over the course of subsequent decades as a filmmaker who operated somewhat outside of the conventional establishment, the allure of safety, compromise and betrayal seems to have been met with his own expression of continued resistance as well. Indeed, he makes a point on several occasions in the supplemental interviews that accompany Criterion's DVD release of Le deuxième souffle that he continued to stand apart from both the mainstream French film industry and the nouvelle vague directors like Godard and Truffaut who had previously regarded him as a role model and forerunner of their own cinematic movement. Melville turned down films routinely, he claimed, simply because he didn't feel like making them, even though some of the titles he mentioned went on to become commercial successes, and even though he was acting against the advice of esteemed figures like Jean Renoir, who encouraged him to take any job offered to him simply because such opportunities were not to be taken for granted and might not be extended in the future.

Perhaps in these interviews, Melville was engaging in a bit of self-mythologizing; he certainly gives every impression of a man capable of doing that, and with great relish, in just about every recorded conversation I've ever seen from him. But even if that's the case, I find him a fascinating and compelling study, as an artist in particular, and the way he tells his stories. I always like to find a quote from the film to start off and, in a way, provide a theme for each of the reviews I post here. I like the one that I found, spoken by Inspector Blot as he recognizes Gu's final trajectory to a bloody resolution that will clear a few other victims, deserving or not, with him when he makes his exit from the world. But really, some of the film's greatest dialogue can't be quoted here - thoughts and feelings communicated through knowing glances, between Gu and Manouche, between Blot and the assorted miscreants he's destined to spend his life pursuing in an endless game of cat and mouse. Poignant moments of eye contact that contain recognitions of strength, vulnerability and character that resist tidy codification in "the rules," written or unwritten as they may be.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) - #735

You're one day ahead of the game. Better blisters than neck burns. Come on.

Filmed back to back, with just one week of prep time scheduled between them in the summer of 1965, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind are about as close to "twin productions" as any two movies can be. So it makes plenty of sense that Criterion packaged them together last fall when they brought these early works of Monte Hellman to the attention of their considerable fan base, just as it makes almost no sense nowadays to view either of the films as standalone titles if one really wants to yield the fullest benefit from the encounter. They're organically connected, carrying the same cinematic DNA in each cell, the fruit of a productive conjugal relationship between the potent (but officially uncredited) funding source of Hollywood renegade Roger Corman and the fertile, ripe creative partnership that Hellman forged with a yet-to-become-famous Jack Nicholson.

But as a father of twins myself, I understand how easy it is to over-emphasize the pair at the expense of neglecting individuals who are, despite their singular origin, still distinct from each other, with their own unique characteristics that deserve to be respected and celebrated on their own terms. Furthermore, when one half of the dyad goes on to earn a wider share of acclaim than the other, a special effort must be made to balance out the recognition just to keep egos in check and spread the love with an even-handed consistency.

Maybe that's why my fatherly instinct seems to be kicking in a little as I consider what it is that I want to say on behalf of Ride in the Whirlwind. By the standards of the average Criterion viewer and critically-informed cinephile, The Shooting is the favored golden child of the two: more challenging in its structure and abstract minimalism, with poetic flair that delivers a bracing compendium of existential despair and incipient socio-political critique of mainstream values that effectively gets the jump on even more radical polemics yet to follow. In comparison, Ride in the Whirlwind is more like the traditional action-focused cowboy movie that you might want to recommend to watch with your western-loving grandpa as a refreshing but not quite incendiary take on genre conventions - a bit safer, more predictable, less risky and daring.

The story opens up with a classic Wild West trope - a stagecoach robbery conducted by masked highwaymen. Their crime nets them a cashbox, but also leads to the formation of a posse determined to roust the bandits from their mountain hideaway. The outlaws know that the law will soon be in hot pursuit, and they've got their lookouts in place to secure whatever advantage they can, whether it be for escape or armed resistance.

Trotting squarely (but unknowingly) into the line of fire are three cowboys just passing through, looking for the shortest route back to Texas. They stumble into the robbers' lair, each crew sizing up the other to determine the level of danger they present. Satisfied that neither party wants to stir up trouble, they all settle in for the night, resting up to make their respective departures the next morning. But their plans are disrupted when the aforementioned posse arrives, quickly and silently surrounding the hideout, ready to shoot or lynch whatever lowlife scoundrels happen to fall into their hands, skipping over the judge and jury part of their assignment straight to the role of executioner. It's more efficient that way.

Despite their indisputable innocence regarding the bandits' misdeeds, the range riders understand that they can't take the risk of trying to explain their situation to the vigilantes, who are intently fixated on hanging first, asking questions later. Their only hope for escape is to avoid capture and make a break for it. A desperate bolt into hostile terrain offers them a taste of relief and freedom, for the moment - at least the two who survive the escape attempt. But once they discover that they've been backed up into a box canyon that offers no realistic chance to make a more lasting exit, new tactics become necessary. At the midpoint of the film, Ride in the Whirlwind pivots from a tense state of siege to a wary cat and mouse game, as the cowhands resort to using a hastily improvised appeal that might coax a hard pressed family of homesteaders to peaceably "lend" them a pair of horses so they can make a getaway while also avoiding their inevitable discovery by the posse that has now dispersed across the region to track down the last remaining fugitives. The set-up succeeds at engaging our interest, keeping us guessing as to who will or won't survive and avoid capture, and steering our thoughts (or at least, mine) toward considering the plight of innocent suspects who happen to fall into the gears of a brutal system of warped law enforcement that will snuff out their lives in a moment simply because the power and weaponry are put into the hands of men who don't want to be bothered with the task of weighing evidence and dispensing justice. In that dilemma is found the ongoing relevance of this fifty year old film to circumstances in our American streets that dominate the headlines today.

Still, it's that plainness and overt disclosure of the film's underlying message that lowers the tantalizing fascination and contemplative intrigue when compared to Ride in the Whirlwind's "twin brother." Even though I think such an evaluation is fair and accurate in an objective sense -that The Shooting is clearly the more interesting movie - I can't help but come to the defense of Ride in the Whirlwind in pointing out its advantages. Along the lines I alluded to above, this is the probably the preferred film to suggest to a more general audience that may not be quite as inclined to meander for an hour in the desert, chasing down an unknown bounty for motives that are never explained, only to be left with a dried-up canteen that drips out just a few ambiguous riddles for sustenance. That's the journey that The Shooting leads us into, whereas the more compactly contained Ride in the Whirlwind offers us a hearty draft of action, suspense, chase and showdown, all the classic elements of a solid western tale, told from a suitably (but not overly) cynical point of view, and wrapping up with a gulp of narrative resolution that delivers so much more to quench their thirst.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Shooting (1966) - #734

It's just a feeling I've got to see through.

Considering that The Shooting was produced on a shoestring budget, green-lit by a notorious producer of B-movie exploitation flicks and never given much of a chance to establish its popularity through proper first-run theatrical distribution, this 1966 debut film by Monte Hellman has fared exceptionally well in terms of its critical reputation and relevant longevity. At least, that's how things turned out for the film toward the end of 2014 when the Criterion Collection saw fit to release it alongside another film, Ride in the Whirlwind, that I will review here in the near future. Before those movies, which were filmed back to back over the course of a single summer, almost miraculously found their way onto Blu-ray, they had been relegated for decades to the backwaters of obscurity, part of a cheap package deal that confined their distribution to syndicated matinee and late night TV broadcasts throughout the latter half of the 1960s, until the emerging fame of Jack Nicholson, who acted in both films and was instrumental in their production as well, sparked interest in these overlooked artifacts from early in his career. That led to a brief theatrical run in 1971, which is when the poster atop this column dates from. Thus, we see Nicholson ("Violent, Sadistic, Merciless") featured prominently in the marketing campaign, along with the suggestive promise of "unequaled climax" and the obligatory attractive woman, while poor Warren Oates is reduced to fourth billing, even though this is really his movie, from a performance standpoint at least.

But aside from that momentary flash of interest, and a warm reception accorded to The Shooting by appreciative Parisian audiences of 1968 who were held in its sway at least partly due to the endorsement of the editorial staff of Cahiers du Cinema, the film continued to languish as a rarely seen cult item, garnering occasional praise from those who'd had a chance to lock in and acclimate themselves to Hellman's stripped down existentialist scenario. Up until the time that Monte Hellman himself started dropping hints in social media that more of his work would soon be released by that label, a lot of us, even those who enjoyed his previous Criterion entry Two Lane Blacktop, hadn't heard much about either this film or its companion piece. But over the course of 2013-14, Hellman kept his friends on Facebook (of which I am one) consistently up to date on the progress of his project, and that element alone has made this one of the most unique releases that I've had the pleasure of tracking since I got so deeply invested in this movie watching hobby. As the disc's array of supplements, which showcase Hellman in dialogue with many of his colleagues who helped make the film nearly 50 years ago, make clear, the release of The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind is as much a celebration of the earliest phase of the contemporary American independent cinema movement as it is a showcase of these two features, which may not rank exceptionally high on the list of "important classic films" but are still quite fascinating and compelling specimens in their own right.

To recap the story of The Shooting is a fairly simple task. In the old American West, presumably sometime in the late 19th century, an isolated quartet of wary, mistrustful loners join to pursue a unknown fugitive across a bleak desert landscape, and the suspense of their journey holds the narrative together. One of them is a woman, who's never given a name despite the pleas of one of her infatuated male companions for her to disclose it. Two of the men, Gashade (Oates) and Coley, are on friendly terms with each other, with Gashade clearly dominant and Coley a simpleton who serves almost as comic relief in the early portions of the story. They're enlisted by the woman, who promises to pay them a thousand dollars to assist her in a trip across the desert. As they make their way, she discloses her true purpose, to stay on the trail of a man she's tracking down. Midway through their journey, the trio are joined by Billy Spear (Nicholson), a sinister gunslinger whose cold-blooded hostility ramps up the element of danger and menace exponentially. It's gradually revealed that the gunman and the woman are collaborators who don't necessarily have Gashade and Coley's best interests in mind. But Billy's sharpshooting skills and sociopathic demeanor, combined with the barren wasteland that their search has led them into, vanquish any thoughts of rebellion or abandonment. Gashade in particular understands that even though he can't predict the outcome of this long, slow-motion chase, he needs to see it through to the end, regardless of the danger that is obviously mounting each step along the way.

What really gives The Shooting its distinction isn't the story, which is a fresh enough take on old Western movie conventions but nothing extraordinary or unique, or even the "unequaled climax" which, in keeping with the polite request in that poster, I won't spoil here. (That ending is more of a riddle than a stunner, anyway, packed with enough ambiguity and unresolved allusions to warrant a comparison with Persona in the liner note essay by Michael Atkinson.) Nor is it even the satisfaction of discovering a pair of excellent acting performances by a young Jack Nicholson and Warren Oates in his prime.

The aspects of The Shooting that I most enjoy are the arid atmospherics, a dusty palette of creamy blue skies, sun bleached rock and bone dry scrub, a geophysical desolation that accelerates the mounting psychological pressure weighing down on each member of this discordant hunting expedition, but especially Gashade as he comes to grips with the fact that he's on a one-way trek into oblivion. His character hooks us in by virtue of his stoic determination to maintain constant vigilance in the midst of great danger, while compensating for the overly earnest foolishness of his sidekick Coley and the woman's unwillingness to give up any more information about her objectives than is strictly necessary to stay on the trail of her prey. Billy, meanwhile, is a wily, satanic adversary - Nicholson's trademark evil dead-eye grin had already been refined to perfection - who could easily kill whomever he wants to at any given moment - easy because he possesses the ability to do so and lacks any conscientious inhibitions that would get in his way. But he derives more pleasure from watching his fellow travelers sweat (literally, and profusely), keeping one eye fixed nervously on him as they meander across the blazing sands. Gashade's non-heroic tenacity in sticking with this miserable detour in his life's journey, doing what little he can to keep Billy's malevolence and the woman's monomania in check despite the apparent futility of ultimately prevailing when all is said and done, functions as the mirror that Monte Hellman holds up for us to gaze into. What do we see staring back? The image will vary for each individual.

The disc's commentary track, Atkinson's essay and several of the supplements all provide ample documentation of the influences of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and the assassination of John F. Kennedy on this story, so I'm content to merely cite those references here and avoiding pounding those nails any further. My bottom line on The Shooting is that it's gratifying to see a small-time film fueled with big ideas and creative ambitions get this top notch presentation after languishing in obscurity for so long.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966) - ES 9

Brilliant! Uncomfortable! But what can you do?

I'm going to make this post an easy one, since I've already both written and podcasted at length about William Klein's 1966 feature film debut, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? Both of those links connect you to the Criterion Cast website, which is my other main outlet on the internet for sharing my thoughts and opinions about movies. I'm entering the film here in my timeline just to make it as comprehensive as possible, in accordance with the revised rules for this site that I adopted at the end of 2014.

But I did watch the movie again, just to see if I could glean any new insights to offer up this time around. The main distinction of this viewing compared to when I watched it for those earlier posts is that I took in Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? immediately after a weekend immersed in the enigma of Ingmar Bergman's Persona. So the similarities of the two films definitely jump out at me: their close focus upon and fascination with the expressive power of the female face, and the various ways that it can function as a persuasive but concealing mask for whatever true thoughts and emotions lurk behind the gaze. Both movies also seek to amuse us by how they exploit the tools of their medium to create novel visual effects, frame messages, distort perception and seduce the audience, with the added twist of pointedly reminding us of their self-conscious presence in the creative process. We never see either Bergman or Klein on camera, but they are still very tangibly present in their work. We can practically feel them nudging us, a self-satisfied grin on their face as they admire their own cleverness, confident that we'll be equally impressed with their various optical tricks and flourishes.

Of course, Bergman and Klein were at very different stages of their directorial careers - Klein being the precocious upstart, just entering the cinematic realm after establishing himself as a brilliant and much-imitated fashion photographer, while Bergman was an assured master of his craft, going about the business of reasserting his supremacy at a time when critics were beginning to speculate whether he had lost his touch. And I certainly don't intend for any false equivocation as far as my esteem is concerned. Persona is a major statement, deeply resonant and endlessly explorable for new discoveries and extended reflection. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? is much more hit-and-miss, a series of sketches and experiments of inconsistent quality that nevertheless effectively captures the spirit of its times while continuing to provide insightful comment on the pop culture and media biz that followed in its wake.

The charm of Klein's film is found in the overload of visual stimulation, absurd satire and hyperactive unpredictability of where it will go with each succeeding scene. In retrospect, having worked through this and the later films in Eclipse Series 9: The Delirious Fictions of William Klein, it's nice to get back in touch with the relatively jubilant and whimsical side of Klein's humor, before societal conditions and his own fatigue at resisting the corrupting influence of commerce tipped his political views toward a radicalism that seemed to grow more heavy-handed with each new project. (Even though I also dig that rowdy anti-establishment stuff we get in Mr. Freedom and The Model Couple quite a bit. But I'll get into all that sometime in the future, when those films get their own revisit here.)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Persona (1966) - #701

You should go on with this part until it is played out, until it loses interest for you. Then you can leave it, just as you've left your other parts one by one.

In August of 1966, two productions by artists not typically associated with each other, who were nevertheless arguably at the very peak of their powers, made their respective debuts. The Beatles, four young Englishmen riding a wave of incredible popularity and controversy ("bigger than Jesus") unprecedented at the time as far as pop music combos were concerned, released their album Revolver on August 5. A few weeks later, Ingmar Bergman's Persona was issued in a limited theatrical run, gaining wider distribution in Sweden later that fall and finally reaching the USA in March 1967. Unlike the Beatles, who were still widely regarded as impetuous young mop tops, a lightweight teenybopper fad due to diminish into obscurity at any moment, Ingmar Bergman was already far into his career, approaching middle age, and practically obliged by contemporary movie critics to press up against the frontiers of what was both permissible (in terms of mature, adult-oriented subject matter) and achievable (in terms of cinematic and stylistic innovation) with each new film that bore his name. Indeed, that suggestive possibility was the very tagline that was attached to Persona when it hit the American scene: "A new film by Ingmar Bergman" communicated exactly enough, all that needed to be said, to lure seasoned cinephiles and  curiosity seekers alike into the theater to see what the wily, provocative Swede had unleashed this time.

Ever since his international breakthrough The Seventh Seal, but especially in the wake of his "Absence of God" trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence), viewers had come to expect a stimulating blend of philosophical musings, candid sexuality, artfully luminous imagery and a stagecraft at once complex, forthright and starkly minimalist in the way he positioned his actors before the lens of the camera. His ability to recruit performers, particularly women, who were strikingly photogenic and possessed of sharp intellects only added to the appeal of his films to the global intelligentsia, who sought them out as soon as they became available.

Though I'm not prepared or looking to provide an in-depth commentary on Revolver, I think the nearly simultaneous release of that album and Persona is worth mentioning because in my opinion, they both had a similarly monumental impact in the subsequent development of their respective arts, and they each stand out as signature cultural achievements of the era. A large factor in what made them such special works is that they each incorporate a peculiar self-awareness of the media that they employ to get their message out to a mass audience. This was the heyday of Marshall McLuhan's dictum that "the media is the message/mess age/massage" - a notion that neither the Beatles nor Bergman were exploring all by themselves, even though they both appeared to be operating at a high level of awareness in recognizing the inherent possibilities.

Revolver opens up with a short sample of audio tape being fed into a playback device, with brief moments of warped sound, an irregular tempo and a spoken countdown cut into the finished master recording just before the music starts. Throughout the remainder of the album, a careful listener is drawn in beneath the surface catchiness of radio-friendly melodies and clever lyrics, as we hear sometimes subtle, and often overtly demonstrative, studio tricks: overdubbed vocal tracks where the lead singer is also providing his own backing harmonies, reversed tape loops, strange sound effects, curious emphasis on sounds made by the human voice ("ah-ah Mr. Heatthhhhh...", for example) and sonic textures unlike anything that had ever been captured on vinyl before. Clearly, the Beatles were pushing beyond even the lofty mastery of the AM radio charts that they'd demonstrated over the previous two years. Their increasing comfort in the studio (aided by brilliant collaborators like producer George Martin and sound engineer Geoff Emerick), the sheer brilliance of their cumulative talent, and the expansive lyrical and conceptual vistas opened up by the band's experiments with psychedelic drugs positioned them at the very forefront of musical innovation in a time of astonishing creativity throughout Western culture.

Meanwhile, around that same time up in Sweden, Ingmar Bergman was wrestling through another bout of prolonged depression, marital failure and crippling doubts about his artistic purpose going forward. Despite his impressive track record and international success, he had already stumbled badly in his most recent film, a moribund comedic effort from 1964 titled All These Women. It was his first movie shot in color, and was deliberately designed to showcase a lighter side of Bergman's outlook on life, perhaps something along the lines of Smiles of a Summer Night, which indeed proved to be a very successful template for witty sex comedies that would be filmed by later directors following in his steps. (All These Women is conspicuously absent from the Criterion Collection, at least as of this writing, though you can watch it on their Hulu Plus channel.)

I have no reason to speculate that Ingmar Bergman was dabbling with mind-altering substances, as the Beatles freely acknowledged they were doing at the time (though I wouldn't be at all surprised if he had - his age, temperament and reputation imparting a more discreet approach to the subject.) But either way, he definitely had some serious head trips going on in the months leading up to the filming of Persona. A recent hospital stay, necessitated by illness both mental and physical, triggered memories of a childhood experience, seeing corpses in a morgue. A weird moment, not quite a hallucination but still rather vividly recalled, in which he imagined one of the dead bodies opening its eyes, was one of several pivotal influences that informed the conceptualization of his next film. He also felt a surge of inspiration from the idea of casting one of his former lovers, Bibi Andersson, alongside a highly recommended new Norwegian actor Liv Ullmann, the woman with whom he would soon fall in love, in a psychology-heavy drama that would perhaps be regarded as a worthy follow-up to the acclaimed films he'd directed in the early years of the decade.

Since 1963, a lot had happened in the world cinema scene, and Bergman was at risk of being regarded as old, passe, retrograde. More crucially, he understood his need to work out his psychic dilemmas in the only way that had proven to be reliably effective in his adult life: through his art. Stirred into a creative whirlwind, he pulled together the basic elements of the project in a mere fourteen days, penning a script that was initially titled "Kinematografi," until his producers at Svensk FilmIndustri objected and insisted that he come up with something more commercially plausible.

And much like the Revolver album, the new film that Bergman presented to the world in 1966 was a tour de force loaded with masterful technique, profound feeling, weighty subject matter and marvelously playful surprises, all evidence of a top notch creative team rallying with brilliant craftsmanship behind a compelling headliner. Ever since its premiere, Persona has maintained a formidable reputation as one of cinema's most beguiling yet satisfying enigmas - eminently watchable and intriguing, even if it doesn't yield an easy explanation or convenient resolution as to what it is exactly that Bergman is trying to say. It's a film that stirs deep emotional responses from those viewers who can track with the director and his twin female muses as they take us on a journey that mesmerizes, confuses, allures and challenges at various turns.

I think I've done a credible job so far extolling my admiration for the film. But what is Persona actually about? What do I make of this perplexing narrative that initially seems to be about a pair of women, one of whom is suffering from a strange psychological breakdown that's rendered her mute, and another who's been assigned to be her attending caretaker but lapses into some problematic boundary violations as their relationship drifts from professional duty to intimate codependency - and from there, shifts to a different plane altogether where we gradually realize that things are not what they seem, even if we can't quite specify what they actually are?

Yesterday I summarized my ideas about Persona on Twitter thusly:

"My working theory on PERSONA at this moment: Ingmar Bergman's autobiography of a repressed transgendered schizophrenic." 
(Soon after that, I was sent a helpful correction by @VladZhao, informing me that it's better to use "transgender" without the "-ed" at the end - this article explains why.) Though I was being just a bit flippant in the construction of my thesis, the ideas behind it do provide the most coherent framework I can come up with for explaining why Bergman chose to tell the story this way. So here goes my fuller explication...

As the film's original working title indicates, this is an exercise in cinematography, a very deliberate capturing of the auteur's message in a particular format - celluloid running through a projector. That fundamental process is put on the screen at the very start and we're reminded of that several times throughout the film, and at the end as well. Obscure snippets from cinema's past (and Bergman's youth), along with harrowing images freighted with portentous spiritual significance (a nail-pierced hand, a sheep being slaughtered, a monk's self-immolation) and a playfully subversive, nearly subliminal shot of an erect penis, flash past us without explanation. Sex, death, religion, fear, laughter, absurdity - all the fundamental elements of life thrown together in a cinematic primordial ooze from which Persona emerges. We then see a new series of images, corpses laid out on gurneys in stark monochromatic close up, remnants of lives recently expired. Among them is a boy, somewhere in his early teens, who suddenly moves even though he initially appears just as inert and dead as the others. He's presumably naked under his sheet, but as it turns out, he's just resting and turns his back to the camera as soon as he realizes that he's being observed. He finds a favorite book and starts to read. One of the corpses abruptly peeps its eyes at us and we're off.

The boy, portrayed by an actor whom Bergman employed three years earlier when he made The Silence, recapitulates one of that film's important moments, as he holds his hand up to a railway car window. observing a line of tanks that have moved in to occupy and pacify a troubled city. Now his hand reaches up to a glass screen, on to which are projected the faces, in tight close up, of two women who look similar but not identical to each other. Who is this boy, and who are these women?

My interpretation is that the boy is an idealized version, cast by the mature Ingmar Bergman, of his adolescent self. The boy, just emerging from puberty, is staring into his future and projecting his identity into these two women - the outreached hand being a sign of connection and bonding with them both. The women's faces are beautiful, gracious, wise and compassionate in a way that the gangly, awkward boy intuitively understands he will never be. Even though nobody would ever make the case that Ingmar Bergman was ugly or physically repulsive, he nevertheless was never physically capable of the subtlety of expression that faces like those of Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson and his other (typically gorgeous) female leads could convey to an audience. And since Bergman was a deeply perceptive, sensitive soul, he utilized the poetic license and artistic freedom granted to him to use women as expressions of the deeply conflicted dualism that he had been wrestling with throughout his adult life, and perhaps even longer.

The women can be seen as representatives of those dueling aspects of his nature that continually plunge him into relational crisis and fits of existential despair at his inability to sustain both domestic tranquility and creative vitality. The actor, Elizabet Vogler, is a successful performer whose achievements have earned her a level of recognition and flattering acclaim that in some ways she feels is undeserved. The general public that admires her performances has no idea what a manipulative scoundrel she is in her personal life. The nurse, Sister Alma, is a more mundane, less ambitious person, seemingly content to do her work, spend time with her boyfriend and envision a future that is utterly unremarkable in its ordinariness. When given the task of attending to Elizabet's odd collapse into muteness, Alma is initially hesitant, wondering if she possesses the mental rigor necessary to withstand such a challenge, since her patient (soon to become her adversary) has made a deliberate choice indicative of a deep determination to withdraw from mainstream society.

Despite that initial hesitancy, Alma accepts the assignment and quickly finds herself both intrigued and overwhelmed by the new responsibility. Even though she never utters a word in reply, only directs her gaze toward her new found companion, Elizabet turns out to be a compelling magnet that draws and sustains Alma's confidence. That trust encourages Alma to begin sharing intimate details of her personal life, admissions that she's never shared with anyone else, presumably because she fears the backlash of their judgment and criticism. Elizabet is supremely detached, unaffected by even the most tawdry disclosures of sexual indulgence or romantic ambivalence with her current boyfriend and assumed fiance. Alma has found a level of expressive comfort with this empathic listener that life seldom affords. Her guard is totally down, to the point that she seems to forget that her primary role in Elizabet's life is to help rehabilitate her back into some semblance of social normalcy.

Soon enough, Alma learns that Elizabet is not as trustworthy as she'd been led to believe, when she discovers that the actor has written a letter to her husband revealing a condescending attitude toward her nurse. Elizabet's careful listening is not quite as supportive in nature as Alma had assumed; it's more functional. She's gathering material from the lives of everyday, unpretentious people that can be repurposed later for dramatic effect, adding Alma's ordinary stories of moral controversy and emotional turbulence to her inventory of gestures and expressions that are the actor's stock in trade. Suddenly, Alma feels exploited, ashamed and bitter. She lashes out at her patient, at first with passive aggression - setting up a shard of broken glass where she knows Elizabet likes to walk barefoot. When Elizabet does indeed cut her foot on the glass, the two women's eyes lock as they each immediately recognize the severe rupture that has occurred between them. Suddenly, the film snaps, a few images from the prologue invade our field of vision, and we're pulled out of the drama, back into our seats, reminded that we are observing staged events reeking of artifice, no matter how compellingly they are portrayed.

When the narrative resumes, the veiled hostilities hinted at in Alma's evil gaze just as the film breaks are opened up and amplified more blatantly, with verbal and physical threats that culminate in a bloody-nosed Alma frantically clawing at Elizabet's face. The escalating anger provokes only a response of disdainful laughter from the actor, further infuriating the nurse as she grasps the inability of even her most ardent outrage to move the artist to a level of personal disclosure that matches her own sincerity. Suddenly seized by a sense of superiority over her convalescent patient, Alma lets it rip with a scathing criticism that tells Elizabet in clear terms just how sick and twisted she has become, regardless of whatever aesthetic or philosophical justifications the performer might use to excuse her choices. That diatribe, of course, offends Elizabet quite a bit, and she charges out of the house to take a long walk along the rocky beach.

A thoroughly magnificent and heroic tracking shot captures Alma's desperate, hysterical pursuit of Elizabet as she realizes the mistake she's made. But it's hard for us to know how Alma's interpreting her own actions. Is she sorry for having behaved so unprofessionally, so out of character according to the medical training she's undergone to prepare her for this work? Or is she simply dismayed at the fact that she's made Elizabet mad at her and put their friendship in jeopardy? Alma's emotions run the gamut in this scene, from desperate pleading to haughty indignation to abject misery, all in the space of a minute or two, and they're met with Elizabet's determination to escape the clutches of this pathetic woman who's grown too attached and familiar now, an implacable indifference to every verbal thrust and parry that Alma directs her way.

I'll pause my recap of the story of Persona for a moment to just clarify how I see these two women embodying Bergman's "schizophrenia" - his split personality, if you will. Elizabet is of course the creative professional side of him that is exposed to the world, but only on terms that he strictly controls, at least to the best of his ability. What he has to say to us is carefully limited to those published artifacts that he releases into the broader culture, but beyond that, he has nothing else to share and is content to keep his secrets to himself. That's all reflected in Elizabet's silence, even though she continues to keep her eyes open, always paying attention to what she sees happening around her.

Alma represents Bergman's ordinary self - the husband, father, lover who has to relate more intimately with those closest to him, who feels that sense of connection and responsibility to do what's right, to sacrifice his own comforts and well-being to some extent for the sake of others. This aspect of himself, burdened by conscience  and sentimental attachments, is more vulnerable, easily irritable and emotionally reactive to life's ups and downs. It's also more susceptible to guilt, inhibition and the manipulation of others who would thwart his freedom to pursue artistic or sensual interests as they develop within him.

So in a nutshell, the conflict between Alma and Elizabet is an outgrowth of Bergman's own divided personae - the two masks he wears as he oscillates between the public and private expressions of his thoughts and feelings. In a scene that occurs shortly after the big blowup on the beach, we see Elizabet's husband show up unexpectedly, where he somehow mistakes Alma for his wife, despite Alma's attempts to correct his error and clarify her own identity. His misperception persists even to the point that he and Alma make love (off camera) even while Elizabet impassively watches their passionate encounter. The husband leaves soon after, allowing the two women some privacy to finally do their best to reach some kind of reintegrating solution.

In the last major scene of the film, Bergman locks his camera on the faces of Elizabet and Alma as the nurse offers her conclusive analysis of what led to her patient's disturbed condition: the actor's profound ambivalence regarding a pregnancy that she allowed due to some critical feedback about lacking maternal characteristics. Her unsettled emotions and growing contempt for the developing child exploded into an unresolvable paradox, as Elizabet recognizes how wrong she is to despise an innocent baby, but is too committed to her ideals of artistic and emotional integrity to deny the intensity of her feelings. In spelling out this indictment, Alma assumes a stance of judgement over her patient, insistently denying that "I'm not like Elizabet Vogler," but as she does so, her sensitivity and compassion are stirred as she recognizes her own hypocrisy, having had an abortion herself earlier in life. Who is she, after all, to render a negative opinion on how Elizabet has responded to life's pressure? Alma has more in common with this "sick" woman than she dares to admit even to herself - a lot more, even to the point where they become, at first momentarily, and by the end of the film, permanently fused, two incompatible but codependent halves now destined to merge into a whole, who will somehow find her way onto the bus that will return her back to the ordinary future that awaits her in the soft open air prison of civilized human society.