The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

thedeathandlifeofmarshapjohnson_posterToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

On June 6, 1992, a body was pulled out of the Hudson River onto a West Village pier.  Bystanders quickly recognized it as that of Marsha P. Johnson, a well-known figure in the neighborhood and one of the most visible – and colorful – personalities in the ongoing movement for gay and transgender rights.

Born in New Jersey as Malcolm Michaels in 1945, Johnson had moved to New York at 18, where she became a fixture in the drag balls and street life of the Village.  By 1969 she was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, and she was a key participant in the landmark riots that began there when police raided the bar in the early morning hours of June 28 that year.  Popular legend has maintained that she was the first, or one of the first, to fight back – though she herself disputed that claim, stating that she had arrived well after the conflict had already started.  Regardless of the details, it’s undeniable that she was central to the events of that night and the nights that followed, and that she emerged as a leader in the Gay Liberation Movement that sprung out of them.

Consequently, at the time of her death, the local LGBTQ community responded with surprise and outrage when the police, without any substantial investigation, officially declaring her drowning a suicide – despite insistence from friends and witnesses that she had been a victim of foul play.

This still-unresolved controversy lies at the center of filmmaker David France’s new documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” a film whose title both misleads and tells you exactly what you are about to see.

Rather than presenting a straightforward profile of the beloved LGBTQ activist, France’s film instead focuses its attention on a less famous heroine – Victoria Cruz, a case worker on the verge of retirement from New York’s Anti-Violence Project.  Dedicating her final days on the job to the pursuit of long-overdue justice, Cruz is shown re-examining the files and evidence surrounding Johnson’s untimely death.  She interviews the late icon’s family and friends – such as longtime roommate Randy Wicker, who reported Marsha missing nearly a week before her body was found.  She pores through old news clippings and footage, tracks down retired law enforcement officials, and petitions for autopsy reports long hidden in police storerooms.

Like France’s previous film, “How to Survive a Plague,” this movie is not merely a chronicle of events; rather, in following Cruz’ search for truth and justice, it evokes the spirit of activism that Marsha embodied.  The investigation into her death becomes a springboard into not only a retrospective of the struggle for rights and recognition that defined her own life and times, but into an indictment of our culture’s relationship with violence against its marginalized populations – and in particular, transgender women.

Part of the backdrop of the contemporary segments is the 2016 trial of James Dixon for the murder of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman from Harlem whom he had beaten to death after friends teased him for flirting with her.  The highly-publicized case provides a somber observation of how things have changed since Marsha’s nearly-anonymous death, yet also how much they have not.  Dixon’s defense – that he had been humiliated by “being fooled” – has eerie parallels to stories told by Marsha herself about “tricks” who became enraged after discovering her true gender (even after being repeatedly forewarned), and is a common refrain echoed in similar cases before and since.

Ultimately, as the film makes clear, it is uncertain whether Marsha met her end in such an incident, and it is beyond France’s scope to delve deeper into the issue of anti-trans violence.  Nevertheless, “The Death of Marsha P. Johnson” gives it enough of a peripheral glance to serve as a grim reminder of how far our society has yet to go in its protection of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet although it is, at its core, a film about tragedy, it’s also about the resilience of those determined to rise above it.  France gives us plenty of Marsha at her audacious best, displaying the kind of dignity and character that belied her status as one of society’s outcasts – a fringe-dweller forced to make her living as a sex worker even as she was being photographed by Warhol and lauded as one of the LGBTQ movement’s foremost campaigners.  Marsha had it tough, but she devoted herself to making life better for an entire community whose existence was a daily struggle.

Reinforcing this theme of dedication, the movie devotes considerable screen time to Sylvia Rivera, another social justice pioneer who was Johnson’s closest friend.  Archival footage documents not only their side-by-side efforts for the trans community, but also her own fall into alcoholism and homelessness before reclaiming her role as one of the movement’s greatest heroines.

Watching these two “drag queens” (their own preferred self-identification), presented alongside the modern-day saga of Cruz and others who carry their torch, brings home the point of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”  Though France provides the biographical background we expect, and piques our interest with a true-life detective story, his true purpose is not to inform or to intrigue – he wants to inspire us, even incite us.  His movie is no less than a call to action.

Though she never referred to herself as “transgender,” Marsha was nevertheless a fierce activist and vocal advocate for the trans community, and has been embraced as one of their most revered icons.  At a time in our history when the powers that be are pushing back hard against trans acceptance and equality, David France’s film is an important reminder of the humanity at stake.

By using her life – and death – as a means to spread that message, he does Marsha P. Johnson proud.

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Blade Runner (1982)

zgfn3sotgl60bay4ftdnzqcxyiqWhen Ridley Scott’s dystopian neo-noir sci-fi opus opened in 1982, it was overshadowed at the box office – along with a number of other worthy films – by the juggernaut that was Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”  Consequently, it was deemed by the then-reigning Hollywood pundits to be a misfire, and critics seemed to echo that sentiment; though praised for its imaginative visual design – now regarded as influential and iconic – and its provocative thematic explorations, it was greeted with middling reviews that, taken together, marked it as an “interesting failure.”

This lukewarm reception came at the end of a tense and difficult production process in which Scott, who had been far down the list of preferred directors for this long-awaited adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” went severely over budget and seriously past due – eventually losing creative control of the final cut and being forced to bow to studio executives’ demands to cut the running time by nearly half and add a voice-over narration to clarify what they felt to be a confusing plot.

Despite its painful birthing process (and perhaps, in part, because of it), “Blade Runner” went on to become a cult favorite, with an ever-growing legion of fans, and to be re-evaluated by critics – even making appearances high on their lists of the best science fiction films of all time.  Ultimately, thanks to its growing reputation, Scott released a series of alternate versions, culminating in “The Final Cut,” released in 2007, which restored several minutes of previously deleted material and dispensed with the much-hated narration, and which stands today as the definitive edition of the film.

To those new to it, “Blade Runner” is essentially a police procedural set in a future Los Angeles.  The title refers to the name given to special officers whose job it is to track down and eliminate “replicants” – artificial humans created as an off-world labor force who are now outlawed on earth.  One such officer, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is tasked with tracking down and killing a renegade group of these beings who have defied the ban to come in search of answers from their creator.  Constructed as a pulp-fiction detective story in the nostalgic vein of Raymond Chandler, the plot winds its morally ambiguous way through a shadowy underworld – replete with femmes fatale, corrupt officials, secret alliances, and deep conspiracies – towards a final showdown that forces Deckard (and the audience) to question what it means to be “human.”

Revisiting this seminal work over three decades later, those who grew up with it may find it challenging to separate its authentic merits from their fond memories; likewise, those new to its affected mix of high-concept style and gritty action may fail to recognize its impact on a genre whose subsequent development owes it so much.  There are also those, in both groups, who might find its slow-moving plot and relative lack of action sequences less appealing than the genre’s bigger, splashier counterparts.

Nevertheless, there are a number of good reasons why “Blade Runner” has had staying power.

To begin with, there’s the incredible, immersive reality that Scott (along with production designer Laurence G. Paull and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumball) so painstakingly assembled to represent the Los Angeles of then-distant 2019.  Densely overpopulated with an ethnic blend of citizens (predominantly of Asian descent), lit by garish neon, and dominated by advertisements projected at massive scale in every available space, it’s a claustrophobic metropolis that is at once dazzlingly futuristic and depressingly familiar – the logical extension of corporate consumerism run wild and rampant urban decay left unchecked.  Though the causes for this state of affairs are never specifically addressed within the dialogue, the world of the film needs no words to express the volumes of social criticism inherent in its design.  It’s a magnificent example of one of science fiction’s primary functions – to serve as a warning against the worst tendencies of our own world – executed to perfection, and it has justly become a blueprint for world-building in countless films within the genre, ever since.

Then there’s the way it addresses the subject of artificial intelligence.  “Blade Runner” was certainly not the first movie to introduce the notion of an A.I. becoming sentient or developing emotion, but in its deeply philosophical treatment of the idea – and its portraits of its remarkable anti-hero, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his sidekick/lover, Pris (Daryl Hannah) – it goes beyond the usual cautionary approach to address the ethical dilemmas presented by drawing a line between human and non-human life.  These characters are vicious, violent, cruel – but they are not unsympathetic, nor are they without justification.  Rather, their behavior is easily understood as the result of exploitation, mistreatment, and disregard by a system that presumes their lives have no inherent value.  That they rebel against their oppressors is not only understandable, it is unsurprising; and the fact that, in their suffering, they have developed a sense of loyalty to each other and empathy towards others (whether or not they are governed by it) places them in stark contrast to most of the “human” characters we see in the film.  This concept of the misunderstood creation at odds with its creator hearkens back, of course, to that ancestor of all modern sci-fi stories, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but by placing it in the context of this grimly foreseeable future, “Blade Runner” reminds us that the questions it raises are perhaps more relevant than ever.

There are many other factors that contribute to the film’s lasting impact.  The commitment to its noir milieu is not only consistent, but brilliantly apt for a story set within this world of shadows (both actual and metaphorical), and the way this cinematic conceit is meshed with the stylish visual influences of the era in which it was conceived is, at times, breathtakingly artful.  Electronic composer Vangelis envelops the action (and the audience) with his lush, moody, and elegiac score, which evokes the epic scope of both the story’s setting and its philosophical ambitions.  Perhaps most importantly, the screenplay, by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, provides a solid base for the entire package; it weaves complex ideas and implications into a story which both expands upon the source material and remains essentially faithful to it, and it does so through dialogue which echoes the hard-boiled style of the cinematic movement to which it pays homage.

Of course there are also the performances.  Ford, fresh from his first appearance as Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and in between his second and third turns as Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, was at the peak of his appeal and popularity when he stepped into the title role of Scott’s movie (thought he, like the director, was nowhere near the first choice for the project); though at first his cocky persona seems somehow out of joint with the dreary world portrayed here, it is this that makes him a perfect fit for a character whose experiences will awaken the humanity buried beneath his cynical exterior.  Deckard is the direct extension of every smart-ass gumshoe portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the classic film noir of the forties and fifties, and Ford – who rarely gets the credit he deserves for his acting skills – brings that same diamond-in-the-rough essence to the role.  His performance here may not be as iconic as the ones that cemented his status as one of his generation’s biggest stars, but it is just as engaging – and considering the complexity of Deckard’s emotional journey, maybe more impressive.

Sean Young, another star whose acting talents are often overlooked (particularly in the wake of the career-stifling reputation she earned – fairly or unfairly – in the years following her appearance here), is equally well-matched to her role.  More than just a love interest provided to add obligatory romance to the plot, Rachael turns out to be an important element in the film’s brooding meditation on the nature of sentience and humanity; revealed early on to be an advanced replicant herself, the attraction she shares with Deckard becomes central to the self-discovery that parallels his investigations, and much of what makes it believable comes from Young – ethereal yet grounded, distant yet warm, fragile yet confident, she provides a perfect complement to Ford’s energy and gives their pairing a resonance that reinforces its ultimate significance to the larger saga.  She deserves as much credit for the depth of her performance as she does for the stunning beauty she brings to the screen – particularly in her signature look, the forties high-fashion ensemble she wears in her early scenes, which has become emblematic of the film.

As Batty, the replicant ringleader bent on confronting the man who made him, Hauer – previously acclaimed in his native Netherlands – became an American movie star in his own right; his intelligence, intensity, and charisma burns from the screen, putting the audience on his character’s side from his first entrance despite the seemingly thoughtless brutality of his actions.  His climactic confrontation with Deckard, which ends in the sort of Messianic epiphany that might be a difficult sell for many actors, is electric – a powerfully moving star turn that gives “Blade Runner” its greatest weight and ensures its status as a work above the level of many more ambitious science fiction dramas than this one.

Another star-making performance comes from Hannah, whose portrayal of Pris – less advanced than her cohort Batty, but every bit as remarkable – conveys the perfect combination of little-girl-lost naïveté and subtly gleeful sadism, making her as appealing as she is lethal.  As the other two replicants on the lam, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy each have unforgettable scenes of their own.

William Sanderson is heartbreaking as the haplessly unwitting ally enlisted to aid and abet the fugitives in their quest for answers.  Joseph Turkel (as Eldon Tyrell, the powerful genius behind the creation of artificial humans) captures the aloof benevolence of the untouchable elite; a major player in two of the film’s key scenes, his performance makes them all the more memorable.

Though his role is a small one, Edward James Olmos also makes a deep impression as Gaff, the police lackey who serves as a watchdog for the chief (M. Emmett Walsh, also memorable, as always); speaking mostly in a hybrid street slang – derived from different Asian languages – and occupying his hands by making origami figures that provide mocking commentary of Deckard, his sinister presence exudes the hunger of a jackal waiting for its opportunity to pounce – yet he remains inscrutable enough for us to believe that he just might, in the end, turn out to be an unexpected ally.

Whether or not he does, of course, is one of the most enduring questions generated by “Blade Runner” – alongside the possibly related one of whether or not Deckard himself may unknowingly be a replicant.  The answers to those, and myriad others which arise within this unlikely jewel of eighties popular cinema, are ultimately left to the viewer.  This tantalizing ambiguity leaves us, like Batty and his cadre of artificial soul-seekers, with a powerful yearning that has proven strong enough to justify a sequel, 35 years later.

It’s also what has ultimately made Scott’s “interesting failure” an enduring legend that can stand alongside- and, in most cases, overshadow – many of the better-received films of its era.

T2: Trainspotting (2017)

t_two_trainspotting_ver6_xxlgToday’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

A little over two decades ago, though English director Danny Boyle had built a reputation in his native country with his work in theatre and his first movie had just won a BAFTA award, he was still an unknown quantity to the rest of the world.  That changed when his second feature roared onto screens in 1996; immediately embraced by audiences and heralded by critics as a rebirth of Great British Cinema, it became an instant pop culture phenomenon, and suddenly his name was no longer as obscure as the quaint English pastime from which it drew its title.

That movie was, of course, “Trainspotting,” and twenty years later, thanks to its enduring popularity, it has gained iconic status.  Now, at least partly for the same reason, it has also gained a sequel.  Still, “T2: Trainspotting” is no mere effort at pandering to fans; Boyle, now an Oscar-winner and power player, has long spoken of a desire to revisit his breakthrough film because he felt there was still a story to be told.  With the help of original screenwriter John Hodge, he has mined the source novel (by Irvine Welsh) and its follow-up, “Porno,” to flesh out that story, and re-enlisted the now-considerably-craggier original cast to bring it to life.

For those who need a refresher, “Trainspotting” followed the wild-and-wooly exploits of a cadre of young mates – Renton (“Rent Boy”), Daniel (“Spud”), Simon (“Sick Boy”), and Franco (“Begbie”) – as they tried to navigate life (and heroin addiction) in the economically depressed slums of Edinburgh.  It ends with Renton leaving his friends behind in the squalor of their dead-end lives, as he escapes with the hope of building a better one for himself.  “T2” rejoins them 20 years later, as he returns to make amends.  Things aren’t much different, despite the intervening years.  It’s as if time has stood still for these men, or rather they have stood still while time passed them by.  Their world is still defined by the blight of poverty, and the oft-repeated catchphrase, “Choose Life,” seems as much a gilded lie as it was in their youth.  And of course there are still the drugs, with their insidious allure, and the abdication of responsibility which comes with them.  This time around, though, percolating under it all, are a host of long-buried conflicts- with each other and with themselves- which their reunion inevitably brings to the surface.

Boyle directed “Trainspotting” with the exuberant, visually engaging style which has marked his entire output.  Driven by irreverent energy, it was in turn dizzyingly joyous and harrowingly dark, laced with absurdity and irony, and marked by a refusal to rely on the tropes of social realism.  That same vision propels “T2”: it shares the same essential elements (arresting camerawork, bright colors, free-associative imagery, an edgy pop-music soundtrack), and adds a touch of self-referential humor to the mix (clever acknowledgment of the notoriously thick Scottish dialects, for instance, and several nods to the original’s iconic toilet scene).  The new film unquestionably feels like a natural extension of the old- perhaps a bit more sophisticated, and maybe a bit mellower, but no less audacious.

The cast clearly relishes its chance to revisit these characters.  Leading it, of course, is Ewan McGregor as Renton, bringing the same intelligence and good nature which allows us to like this character even when his choices strike us as questionable.  The formidable Jonny Lee Miller is every bit his equal, managing to be somehow lovable as Sick Boy, the inept con artist on the other side of their precarious bromance.  Ewen Bremner is again both comical and heartbreaking as Spud, and Robert Carlyle gives us a Begbie whose ferocity and haplessness have only been magnified by the passage of time.  Finally, new addition Anjela Nedyalkova brings a complex blend of warm and cold- along with a fresh perspective- into the mix as Simon’s Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika.

When a sequel appears to such a revered original, there is always a question of worthiness.  The intervening years have added layers of resonance which help to make “T2: Trainspotting” a compelling two hours, and Boyle and company have certainly brought the same level of energy and expertise to the table.  Its quality is undeniable.  Is it a masterpiece of the caliber of its predecessor?  Not quite.  Does it add something essential to the story?  Perhaps not.  Nevertheless, any film as intelligent, superbly executed, and downright entertaining as this one will always be welcome- and that not only makes it necessary, but very worthy indeed.

Serpico (1973)

Serpico (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Serpico, the 1973 classic by director Sidney Lumet, based on the true story of the first New York police officer to speak up about the widespread graft and corruption in the city’s police force, featuring Al Pacino in an iconic early performance that cemented his status as one of Hollywood’s hottest stars and offering one of the finest examples of the kind of gritty, authentic filmmaking that made the seventies one of the richest and most influential decades in the history of cinema.  Shot entirely on location in the streets and interiors of New York City, it was made on a budget of a million dollars- small even for the time- and made over 30 times that amount at the box office, riding on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that had begun in the late sixties; its financial success helped pave the way for a sort of mini-genre that exposed injustice and corruption in government while exploring the difficulty of maintaining individual honor and integrity in such a dishonest system- a theme found in many of the period’s greatest films, reflecting the zeitgeist of an era marked by disillusionment in the powers that be and a growing mistrust of once-respected institutions of authority.

Adapted from Peter Maas’ bestselling book, the film follows the true story of policeman Frank Serpico beginning with his graduation from the New York police academy and his subsequent rapid rise from beat cop to plainclothes detective; a dedicated and exceptional officer, he excels at his job, using his spirit of innovation and his street-savvy sensibility to become the best cop he can be.  Along the way, however, he repeatedly encounters colleagues who resort to unethical behavior- physical abuse of suspects, accepting handouts and bribes, and, most pervasively, extorting money in the form of shakedowns and payoffs from criminals in exchange for looking the other way.  It’s a tradition that seems to be as old as the police force itself, and one in which everyone is expected to participate; those who refuse are viewed with suspicion, intimidated, scorned, and threatened by other officers.  Though at first Serpico is able to remain aloof to the widespread corruption, the pressure from his colleagues eventually becomes unbearable; he tries to take action through official channels inside the police department, only to find that the entire chain of command- all the way to the top- seems bent more on ignoring and covering up the problem.  When he finally joins forces with a lawyer friend and takes his story to the Mayor’s office, he is again rebuffed.  When his personal life also begins to crumble due to the emotional strain of his professional situation, he finally decides to go public, telling his story to the press and forcing the department to begin a widespread internal investigation.  It is Serpico’s testimony that will be the key to exposing the extensive wrongdoing on the force; perceived as a traitor to his fellow policemen, he is soon placed deliberately in danger while on duty, set up by his partners during a drug bust; shot in the face and abandoned at the scene, he nevertheless survives to bear witness at the hearings conducted by the Knapp Commission, a government agency set up to investigate largely because of his determination to make his story heard.

Though the screenplay for Serpico does take a few liberties with the true events, it is for the most part a faithful depiction of the real story.  Maas’ book, written with the participation of the real Frank Serpico, was adapted faithfully for the screen by Waldo Salt, with later modifications by Norman Wexler, who restructured the narrative when director Lumet decided it was too long.  In order to pack the decade-long saga into a manageable running time, the story is told in a sort of collage, constructed of mostly short scenes which document the progression of events over time; most of the faces change as Serpico is variously transferred throughout the department and makes changes in his personal life, but the thread of continuity is maintained by the main character’s presence at the center throughout and the unchanging circumstances of his dilemma- though the names and places may be different, the underlying situation is always there, showing not only the widespread nature of the problem but suggesting, by extension, that such corruption is a universal issue.  It’s an approach which also helps to reduce the sense that we are seeing a “movie” with actors (though many of them are recognizable faces), lending the piece instead a feeling of genuine, fly-on-the-wall credibility.  This kind of pseudo-documentary authenticity was no doubt enhanced by Serpico’s direct involvement; he was initially present on the set during shooting, until Lumet and producer Martin Bregman deemed him too distracting (or, perhaps, too intimidating) for the cast, and he was Pacino’s guest for several weeks at a rented house in Montauk, where the actor spent time with him in order to gain insight in preparation for the role.

The slice-of-life perspective Serpico uses to take us through this true story of heroism is ultimately made possible by its director.  Sidney Lumet was a filmmaker with a long and varied career, starting as a child actor on Broadway (indeed, the memorable party scene early in the film was shot in the apartment of Sidney Kingsley, the playwright who hired the 11-year-old Lumet to appear in the original production of his classic Dead End), whose studied, realistic approach and emphasis on the psychology of his characters had developed through years of work in the theatre and the early days of live television drama, and had made him the kind of “actor’s director” perfect for helming the strong, character-driven films that dominated the cinematic heyday of the mid-seventies.  Marked by a refusal to sentimentalize and an observational sensibility that allows both an empirical detachment and an intensely emotional connectivity, his style reached its peak during this era when polished Hollywood glamour was supplanted by a stripped-down, cinéma vérité honesty in popular filmmaking, and nowhere is it more clearly on display than in Serpico.  He wasn’t the first choice for the project, however; originally slated to direct was John G. Avildsen, but creative differences with Bregman led to his eleventh-hour replacement- a fortuitous twist of artistic fate, for it’s nearly impossible to imagine the film through the lens of another director.  Lumet’s instincts are a perfect match to Serpico’s story, and his  love for the craft of filmmaking- and for the city of New York, in all its contrasting splendor and squalor, photographed with equal reverence by Arthur G. Ornitz- is as evident as his technical skill here, helping to capture a visceral, on-the-scene portrait not just of the city, but of its people, and transporting us so completely into the place and time that we feel we know it as well as if we were there ourselves.  It’s a more genuine environment than most of the plastic-and-glass urban settings we see in modern police dramas, and one that reflects the economic reality of urban bureaucracy; it also provides a tangible sense of the rough-edged, oppressive conditions which may contribute, in some way, to the temptation for many to abuse their positions for personal gain.  Lumet’s most powerful and effective tool though, is the respect he gives his actors, allowing them to command every scene and placing primary emphasis, always, on their characterizations.  There are no flashy feats of camera artistry here; Lumet uses his lens unobtrusively, in full service of his cast, knowing that the story comes to life through them, and not through cinematic trickery.

Specifically, of course, it comes to life through the actor at its center.  Al Pacino, already proven as an intense and charismatic performer through his star-making role in The Godfather, solidified his status as one of “New Hollywood’s” hottest talents with his scorching portrayal of the title role; he gives us a man of intelligence, humor, compassion and honor, without being afraid to show us his flaws with equal honesty.  His Serpico is a hero whose fight for moral integrity also becomes a fight against himself, as the escalating frustration and pressure bring out his anger, depression, pettiness and self-doubt, and Pacino lets us have it all in an unvarnished and compelling tour-de-force that deservedly earned him an array of award nominations and wins.  It’s all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the film was shot in reverse sequence, in order to accommodate the changes in Serpico’s appearance.  Since his facial hair was required to become progressively more pronounced throughout the story, Pacino grew out his hair and beard before shooting began, and then gradually trimmed it back throughout the course of production; it is routine for a movie to be shot out of sequence, but even so, the clarity of Serpico’s emotional throughline is astonishing, considering it was achieved, essentially, backwards.  Though Pacino carries the vast majority of the film himself, he is surrounded by a fine gallery of supporting players, most significantly Tony Roberts, lending his dry and urbane charm to the role of the department lawyer who becomes Serpico’s friend and ally, and including such stalwart and familiar (or soon-to-be-familiar) actors as John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Lewis J. Stadlen, F. Murray Abraham, M. Emmet Walsh, Judd Hirsch, and Tony Lo Bianco.  The entire cast becomes fully immersed in the film’s reality, without a single “actorish” performance among them- though Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe, as the two significant women in Serpico’s life, seem stiff and more than a little out of their depth as they attempt to share the screen with their formidable co-star.

Serpico, when it was released four decades ago, was as topical and current a movie as you could get, offering for consideration a subject and story fresh from the nightly newscasts and the national papers.  Today, of course, it seems somewhat dated, to the casual viewer; the world it shows us, though utterly authentic in its day, now feels almost quaint, a nostalgic reminder of a time before cell phones and computer networks became standard operating equipment and video surveillance equipment captured virtually every move an officer could make on duty.  The environment and the situations strike us as a pastiche of familiar cop show clichés threaded with liberal naïveté; indeed, the corruption of Serpico’s fellow officers is amateur stuff compared with the staggering cases of corporate and governmental chicanery that have come to light, over and over, in the years that have gone by since.  Even so, Serpico remains a powerful cinematic document of its time and place, infused with a sense of moral outrage and antiestablishment fervor that is still quite capable of moving us.  Much of this has to do with Pacino’s electrifying, impassioned performance, of course; but it’s the film’s focus, built into its screenplay and shrewdly maintained by its director, that ultimately allows it to transcend its era and stand as more than a well-crafted period piece.  Lumet doesn’t care about the details of the corruption against which his hero fights- the nuts and bolts of the investigation are passed over in his movie, with only enough specific circumstance to set the stage for the real drama that concerns him.  That drama is not about the external events of Serpico’s life, but about the effect those events have on his inner self- the struggle, the emotional stress, the conflicting guilt that comes of being forced to betray one deeply held ideal in order to uphold another.  Serpico emerges, most of all, as a meditation on heroism- not the guts-and-glory kind that is usually the focus of police dramas, but the kind required to withstand the inner turmoil that makes standing up for your principles something that is easier said than done.  It offers us a portrait of a real life figure willing to sacrifice the thing which mattered most to him- being a cop- in order to be right with his own conscience, and it does so without the kind of cloying sentimentality that so often makes such movies feel more insincere than inspirational.  The real-life Frank Serpico told Al Pacino, when the actor asked him why he decided to come forward about the corruption inside the NYPD, that he had done it because, “if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”  It’s a rare man who can recognize the importance of such a distinction, and a rare movie that can help us recognize it, too.  Serpico is such a movie, and that in itself- even more than the towering performance of its star- is what makes it a classic.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070666/?ref_=sr_1

 

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Winter's Bone (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Winter’s Bone, the 2010 thriller by director Debra Granik, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell about a teenaged backwoods girl who goes searching for her missing father within the meth-entangled and dangerous web of her extended family. Gritty, realistic, and haunting, it received almost universal critical acclaim but failed to generate much box office success, perhaps due not only to its bleak subject matter but also to its lack of well-known actors; nevertheless, the performance of its young leading player, Jennifer Lawrence, catapulted her to stardom, leading to important roles in two of 2012’s biggest movies- the blockbuster adaptation of The Hunger Games, which turned her into a household name for most of the under-twenty set, and the runaway sleeper hit, Silver Linings Playbook, which may well snag her the Oscar that eluded her here.

Set in a poverty-stricken rural community within the Missouri Ozarks, Granik’s movie (which she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini) explores the dark realities of life within an insular world of strict and deeply-ingrained ethical traditions, where the interrelated and secretive residents keep to themselves and form a tight protective ring against outsiders. In the midst of this isolated world, Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old who dreams of escaping into military service, is effectively the head of a household in which she cares not only for a mentally unstable mother but two younger siblings; her absentee father, Jessup, like many of the local men, is deeply involved in methamphetamines- or “crank,” as they refer to the drug- and is currently on bail, awaiting a court appearance for violating his parole. The town sheriff shows up at her doorstep- catching the immediate interest of the curious neighbors and initiating the lighting-fast chain of gossip that keeps the community informed about everything that happens within its confines- and warns her that Jessup has, in fact, used their house and property as collateral in his bail bond, and if he fails to appear in court, Ree and her family will lose their home. Though Ree, with the fierce and defiant family loyalty she has been raised to maintain, insists that her father will show up, she resolves to go looking for him; she meets, however, with immediate resistance from her closest relatives- particularly her father’s brother, Teardrop, who warns her to keep her nose out of a situation that is more complicated and dangerous than she knows. Not to be deterred, the strong-willed Ree continues to ask questions among the friends and family that make up her extended circle, and eventually follows her father’s trail to a more distant relation, Thump Milton- a terrifying figure who presides over the region’s illegal drug trade. Though he refuses to see her, she persists in her efforts to confront him, even after she begins to deduce that Jessup is already dead; the result of her efforts is a vicious beating from Thump’s ferocious wife, Merab, who then- along with the rest of his family- takes the girl captive. She is unexpectedly rescued by her Uncle Teardrop, who shows up and assumes responsibility for her, swearing she will keep her mouth shut or he will answer for it himself. He tells her that her father is in fact dead, killed by someone in Thump’s gang when they learned he was giving information to the sheriff in order to protect his own family, but that he doesn’t want to know who the killer was because he will then be required by family loyalty to seek vengeance. For Ree’s purposes, however, the important factor now becomes finding Jessup’s body, for if she can prove he was dead before his court date, his bond will no longer be forfeit and she can save her family’s home. Her cause seems hopeless, even when Teardrop agrees to help her despite his oath, putting his own safety at risk; but with eviction imminent, the deeply-rooted code of family honor begins to work its powerful influence, and help emerges from a surprising source. Even so, Ree must still endure a number of horrific tests to her mettle before her family’s security can be restored.

In adapting Woodrell’s novel for the screen, Gravik and Rosellini have focused tighter attention on Ree, removing details about the surrounding characters and their lives and making the teenage protagonist our sole access into the isolated society in which she lives; this allows us, like her, to discover the truth as she delves deeper into the mysteries concealed there. This world seems, at first glance, familiar enough, and straightforward in the sense that it conforms to our expectations and assumptions about the lifestyle of the people that inhabit it- at least, on the surface. So, too, does Ree believe she knows the score; she has been raised in this harsh, savage environment, and she is all-too-well-acquainted with the inflexible morality, the angry and abusive men, the suffering of their women, and the hard-scrabble existence that might better be described as survival than as life. However hardened and wise-beyond-her-years she may be, though, there are unseen depths to be plumbed here that she cannot yet fathom, and we are to accompany her on the grueling voyage of discovery she must undertake. It’s a rite of passage for her, by which, for better or worse, she becomes a fully-initiated member of her “tribe,” and by which, as witnesses, we are forced to set aside our own deeply-rooted preconceptions and see the ancient and universal patterns that tie these strange, seemingly alien people to the same core of humanity that unites us all.

To be sure, it’s a hard pill to swallow; for most of us, presumably, the world of Winter’s Bone seems a horrible, dehumanizing place, populated with people who, locked into a rigid and insulated Old Testament mentality that stretches back for generations and precludes any idea of progressive or compassionate thinking, strike us as just plain mean to the core. The men are brutal and arrogant in their assumption of male privilege, the women bitter and hostile in their endless drudgery, and the notion of equality is a moot point; the roles are proscribed by a tradition as unbendable as the unwritten laws about keeping out of each other’s business. Even deeper than the unquestioning acceptance of socially-sanctioned dysfunction, however, is the mandate against betrayal of blood; family trumps everything, and it is this imperative that fuels the conflict here, placing Ree and all of her relatives- both near and distant, ally and antagonist- in a complex moral dilemma that throws the entire social order of the community out of balance.

It is here where Winter’s Bone connects, perhaps unexpectedly, with the primal archetypes of classical mythology; both book and movie have been compared to the Greek story- as told by Sophocles in the final installment of his Oedipus cycle- of Antigone, in which the title character demands the honorable burial of her brothers’ bodies after her uncle, the king, has declared them traitors and forbidden it. Antigone decides for herself that her uncle’s decree is unjust, immoral, and contrary to the law of the gods; the kingdom suffers in turmoil and the king’s family is torn apart by the conflict, until Antigone takes it upon herself to defy the law, burying the bodies and suffering her uncle’s wrath in consequence of her actions. In Sophocles’ version, she eventually hangs herself while imprisoned, and the king is subsequently punished by the gods, suffering the loss of his own son and wife, for his hubris; in other variations of the tale, however, Antigone is saved by the intervention of the gods, and the natural order of the kingdom is restored. In Winter’s Bone, Ree enacts this same drama, standing against the injustice done to her family despite the danger of retribution from the male-dominated power structure presided over by Thump and his clan; alone among the women of her community, she has no man to rule over her, having inherited- by her father’s abdication- the role of provider and protector, and this in itself is an affront to the ordained status quo; but like Antigone, Ree transcends the social order by virtue of special circumstance, and invokes a power greater than the worldly dominion of Thump and his “kingdom,” the timeless and sacred bond of family. It is this bond that ultimately dictates the outcome of Winter’s Bone, exerting its influence through an irresistible sense of duty and honor, and overriding the unnatural dictate against compassion which has been imposed by an egocentric tyrant.

You might think that a comparative analysis between classical Greek literature and a tale about modern-day hillbilly speed freaks is a case of reading too much into a few coincidental parallels, but Winter’s Bone contains a number of clues that this connection is intended, not the least of which is a climactic journey by boat which evokes a passage to the underworld across the River Styx- a common element of many Greek myths; and should the references to pagan mythology fail to appeal to you, the plot is also rich with suggestions of Old Testament stories about strong and righteous women like Ruth or Judith, who step outside their traditional feminine roles to perform acts of bravery and heroism under dispensation by God Himself. These ancient underpinnings share a strong proto-feminist sentiment, which fits Winter’s Bone, despite its modern-day setting, by virtue of the rarefied environment in which it takes place; the characters live in a social vacuum, created by a combination of economic hardship, mistrust of outsiders, and fundamentalist beliefs, which has left the core of their cultural identity unchanged for countless generations, and though they may be surrounded with the weathered trappings of the modern world- motor vehicles, power tools, and guns (lots of guns, everywhere)- they exist only on its fringes, observing customs established by ancestors beyond their memory. In this context, Ree’s assumption of a moral authority in the search for her father, a self-appointed elevation above the accepted station of her gender, is a serious transgression against the social contract of her people, and the shock waves it creates are momentous enough to rock her entire community.

All these lofty themes and classical allusions add a great deal of resonance and weight to Winter’s Bone, but they are not its whole purpose; layered over the structure of its drama is a portrait of life as it is today for a very real segment of the population. The deplorable poverty of this Ozark community- and thousands like it- fosters an atmosphere of desperation, an attitude of disenfranchised resentment, a dog-eat-dog survival code, and an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice. It’s a place where drugs offer both an easy escape from the day-to-day ordeal of living and an opportunity, for enterprising individuals, to rise above the crushing economic hardship which surrounds them; the cost of turning to this social scourge, of course, is that it turns the community upon itself and forces an even greater isolation from the outside world- a phenomenon seen time and again in poor areas from the rural south to the inner-city streets of the biggest urban centers of the world. In her movie, Gravik uses a documentarian’s approach, creating an in-the-moment authenticity to the action through improvised dialogue, hand-held camera work, and the casting of most of the extras and supporting players from real residents within the Missouri shooting locations. Her scenes play out against a backdrop of ramshackle buildings, cluttered rooms, overgrown yards, and remote woodlands, all saturated in the muted, icy tones of Michael McDonough’s cinematography and capturing the stark character of the region during the inhospitable season of the film’s title. In creating such a tangible sense of place, the director reinforces our feeling of being participants in the drama, making it harder for us to judge these people by our own sensibilities, however much more enlightened we may feel ourselves to be. Even so, the ease with which this society can be used to transpose a story reflecting the moral values of a millennia-old civilization is, in itself, a devastating piece of social commentary.

Winter’s Bone has another level, of course, a more visceral and immediate experience than the intellectual stimulation provided by its reworking of classical myth and its contemporary social observation; it is, on its surface layer, a noir-ish thriller, in which the typical urban landscape is substituted for a bible-belt backwoods setting and the hard-boiled private eye is recast as a hard-edged teenage girl.  It is here that Granik’s movie solidifies itself as superb filmmaking, keeping us riveted with its taut suspense and its constant aura of dread; it’s a testament to the director’s faith in her material that she permits the story to work on its own, eschewing showy cinematic technique or overt depictions of violence and horror. Nothing particularly horrible happens onscreen in Winter’s Bone, with a couple of notable exceptions, but there is a constant expectation that, at any moment, something could go terribly wrong; the air is pregnant with danger, even when we are unsure from whence it comes. When violence does occur, it happens in sudden bursts, catching us unaware and giving it the uncomfortable edge of realism- an approach which only reinforces our constant, nagging fear. As Ree goes deeper into the web of deceit and treachery that hides the answers she seeks, the interwoven relationships and the complexities of the situation become progressively convoluted, making the plot as opaque- and the morality as ambiguous- as in any novel by Raymond Chandler, and despite the pastoral backdrop, the drama is no less gritty. In the end, though resolution is achieved, many questions remain unanswered; in the best noir tradition, the mystery being explored here is really the human experience, and accordingly, the solution can never be complete. The real question of Winter’s Bone is not who did what to whom nor even why they did it, but how to make sense of it and give it meaning.

In all this analytical discussion, it might be easy to neglect giving credit to the cast for their substantial contributions. First and foremost, of course, is young Jennifer Lawrence’s star-making turn as Ree, a remarkable achievement for an actress of any age, in which she forgoes the temptation to sentimentalize and instead gives us an honest portrait of a steely, no-nonsense product of her environment, and yet still manages to let us see the little girl underneath an exterior forced to grow up too fast. John Hawkes is riveting as Uncle Teardrop, another double-edged figure, capturing his volatility and menace and then peeling back the layers to show us the sensitivity and compassion he is forced to repress and the sadness of a man resigned to his station and his fate. Dale Dickey is unforgettable as Merab, perhaps the movie’s most enigmatic character, the sphinx-like guardian at the gate who personifies the adamantine epitome of female power in this backwoods culture- and offers, perhaps, a glimpse of Ree’s future. Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks fame) has a touching cameo as Jessup’s former mistress, tracked down in her home by the determined Ree, and Garret Dillahunt is effective as the sheriff, whose tough-guy front fails to mask his absolute- and justifiable- fear of the people under his jurisdiction. The rest of the cast- many of them non-professional, as mentioned above- add an authentic flavor to the proceedings with their simple, glamourless portrayals; particular mention should go to Marideth Sisco, who makes a powerful appearance as a singer in a living-room bluegrass ensemble as well as contributing her haunting vocals to a handful of other traditional songs prominently featured on the soundtrack.

So, you may ask, is it worth watching? The answer, from my perspective at least, is a definite and resounding yes. Winter’s Bone is a deceptively simple, well-crafted movie that keeps you thinking for days after viewing it, and it’s virtually impossible to find a flaw in its execution, short of nitpicking about divergences from the novel or matters of personal taste. It is not, however, an easy movie to digest, let alone categorize. It presents a harsh and unpleasant vision of a world most of us would prefer not to see, and offers little hope or solace for those who like their slices of life tempered by a Hollywood ending; it will doubtless be equally unfulfilling for viewers who feel the need to walk away with a clear-cut moral stance about what they have just seen. On the surface, it might seem easy to determine the right and the wrong of the various characters’ positions in the events depicted here, but Gravik’s film, like its source novel, will not allow us to make so pat a judgment; though much of what we see may shock us or offend our sensibilities- particularly in regard to the treatment of women and the role of drugs in this community- it is soon becomes difficult to separate our feelings into comfortable black and white categories. Ree is sympathetic, but she her full indoctrination into the ways of her people is never in question- she mistrusts and disrespects the laws and authority of the outside world as much as any of the others, and she makes it clear both by word and deed that she is cut from the same cloth as the rest of her sizable clan; though she fantasizes about escape, she embraces her as a Dolly woman, and there is little doubt that after the final frames, despite the rebellious crusade she has just completed, she will carry on the unbroken tradition of this world, taking her place as a staunch and redoubtable member of the community and teaching the siblings under her charge to respect and preserve its ways. Likewise, Teardrop seems at first to personify everything that is wrong here, unapologetically snorting speed, waving his gun around the kitchen table, and physically dominating “his” women- but as the story progresses we are forced to acknowledge not only his nobility and his kindness, but his own status as a victim of the very behavioral code he represents. He is forced to be a brute, just as surely as the women are required to be subservient. Finally, though the world of Winter’s Bone seems unrelentingly bleak and inhospitable, throughout the film is a thread of the universal redemption that is offered by the shared experience of family; keepsakes, memories, and old photo albums surface throughout the story, and when we see Ree with the little brother and sister that have become, in effect, her children, the dire circumstances that surround them seem distant and unimportant. In the end, it is this sense of the importance of family that comes through, giving us a feeling, however vague, that no matter how much the world may conspire to drag us down, the eternal bond of blood still endures to give us purpose and at least a glimmer of hope that our struggles are not in vain. The title, Winter’s Bone, as explained by the book’s author, is a reference to the idea of a “bone” as a small token, or gift; the coldest season, in this sense, offers up a consolation, for those who work hard enough to find it.  In the story itself, the title is evoked by several circumstances- the most literal will be grimly obvious when it arises- but is, perhaps, finally most pertinent in the way that the tale offers up, out of its difficult and dismaying mix of complications, the clear recognition of family as the center of human existence. It may not be much, but it’s something.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1399683/

Desperate Living (1977)

Desperate Living (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Desperate Living, the 1977 feature by underground filmmaking icon John Waters, featuring an assortment of his “Dreamland” players in the tale of a deranged suburban housewife who is exiled with her maid to a shantytown full of social rejects.  Financed, as all of Waters’ early projects were, on a shoestring budget, it generated notoriety through the outrage it sparked among the lesbian community for its treatment of same-sex female relationships, but it failed to catch on with the public to the extent of his previous hits, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, probably due in part to the absence of his signature star, Divine (who was unavailable to appear because of his commitment to a theatrical project in New York) but also because the “midnight movie” fad which had provided the perfect venue for the earlier films had largely subsided by the time of its release.  Nevertheless, it has taken its place as a cult classic alongside the director’s other works of the period, with which it shares an outrageous, anarchic sensibility and a deliberate intention to provide shock value through its depiction of socially taboo behavior.

The plot follows the misadventures of Peggy Gravel, a housewife from an affluent Baltimore suburb, who has recently returned home- perhaps prematurely- from a stint in a mental hospital.  Paranoid, delusional, and disgusted by virtually everything, she harangues those around her with wild and hysterical rants, accusing the neighborhood children of trying to kill her and reproving her husband for his ineffectualness.  When he attempts to calm her by administering her medication, she assaults him, calling for aid from her maid, Grizelda, an obese black woman whom Mr. Gravel has recently caught stealing from the household, and who now, believing she is protecting Peggy, smothers him to death by sitting on his face.  When the two realize they have committed murder, they go on the run together, attempting to drive out of town in Peggy’s car, but they are stopped by a policeman; instead of arresting them, however, he demands their underpants and some kisses for his cross-dressing, auto-erotic pleasure.  In exchange, he offers to let them escape to Mortville, a sort of hobo jungle on the outskirts of town where the criminal dregs of local society can find safe haven among their own degenerate kind.  The two women make the journey, and find themselves in a derelict town built mostly of cardboard and garbage; after trading a lottery ticket for a guest house owned by hard-edged lesbian Mole McHenry and her girlfriend, Muffy St. Jacques (“the most beautiful woman in Mortville”), they learn that the community is ruled by Queen Carlotta, a sadistic and self-serving tyrant who takes pleasure in degrading her subjects and dispensing draconian punishment to any who dare to displease her or disobey her absolute commands.  As the unlikely comrades settle into Mortville life, they begin their own lesbian affair, despite Peggy’s revulsion; meanwhile, Queen Carlotta’s egalitarian daughter,  Princess Coo-Coo, has fallen in love with the trash collector, and renounces her privileged life to elope with him.  The angry Carlotta has him killed, and when Coo-Coo flees with his body, she seeks refuge in the home of Peggy and Grizelda.  Peggy immediately alerts Carlotta’s goons, and Grizelda, attempting to protect the Princess, is killed in the ensuing struggle when she causes the house to collapse on herself.  Peggy, however, is rewarded for her loyalty to the Queen by being appointed as the replacement for the now-imprisoned Coo-Coo, and as her first duty she sets into motion the royal plan to infect the entire town with rabies, starting with Coo-Coo herself.  Back outside the “palace,” the lottery ticket Mole accepted as rent has proven to be a winner, so she uses the prize money to buy a bargain basement sex change for herself, thinking it will please Muffy, who has been goading her with fantasies about men.  Instead, it repulses her, causing her to admit that she loves Mole just the way she is; the sewn-on penis is severed and thrown to the neighborhood dog, and with their bond renewed, the couple leads the Mortvillians in a revolt against Peggy and the Queen, at last exacting vengeance for the brutality of their regime.

If this narrative sounds a bit convoluted, it’s no surprise; Desperate Living constitutes Waters’ attempt at an epic fairy tale, with multiple characters in interwoven subplots, and part of his particular milieu– at least in these earlier films- is a disregard for logical coherence in narrative structure.  Waters’ story lines are usually threads intended to link together his depraved set pieces, and a great deal of the fun comes from the fact that they are generally irrelevant to the real purpose of the movie, which is mainly to delight and disgust his viewers, preferably at the same time.  The downside to this approach, from a certain point-of-view, is that many of his movies have a tendency to “peter out” rather than build to a climax, with the final resolution often being little more than a means to tie up the loose ends; but Waters, always the iconoclast, has never concerned himself with following rules, and such an aesthetic consideration is as immaterial to his agenda as laws and social mores are to his characters.

This latter point is not strictly true, actually.  Waters’ films are usually populated by people who are greatly concerned with codes of conduct, albeit warped or inverted ones.  Here, for instance, Peggy is motivated by a fanatical devotion to her own brand of decency and decorum, a world view in which she, as a member of the social elite, is the natural recipient of preferential treatment and should be immune from the disgusting unpleasantries of the world; it happens that, for her, those unpleasantries include any form of natural impulse or show of sentimentality or affection.  She hates nature, is repelled by her husband’s touch, and would rather be raped by the kinky policeman than submit to his kiss; yet she is willing to ally herself with an oppressor and give up her own life in service of the ideal of autocratic privilege.  Similarly, the avowed man-hater, Mole, is prepared to transform herself into the very object of her own loathing in order to satisfy the needs of the woman she loves, not just because of her desire to please her lover, but because she is dedicated to her role as protector and provider.  The irony of both characters, of course, is that they personify the things they themselves despise; the victim becomes the victimizer and the militant feminist embodies the negative masculine stereotype she has rejected in others.  In similar ways, the other denizens of Desperate Living enact this paradoxical principle, or else they perform the meaningless reactionary pantomime of the social bystander, chasing their own self-serving needs and pleasures, deluding themselves with rationalizations and platitudes, and expressing outrage when they are met with opposition; Waters shows us a world of degenerates, overseen by other degenerates, and the only unacceptable transgression is the assumption of authority.  Of course, one could open up a discussion about the layers of social satire, political allegory, psychological commentary, or mythological inversion that can be seen within this low-rent fantasy melodrama; or perhaps we might speculate about the filmmaker’s intentions regarding such things as alienation of the audience, subversion of societal values and norms, or the use of cinema as an expression of counter-cultural concerns.  In the long run, however, Waters’ interest in such matters is clearly parenthetical, at best, and his work here- as with all of his films, particularly the “Trash Trilogy” consisting of this and the two previous efforts- has more to do with his creation of a signature mise-en-scène which can best be described as “transgressive camp.”  Even more than that, perhaps, it has to do with sharing his warped sensibilities through the medium he loves.

That Desperate Living is an expression of the filmmaker’s own imagination is certain; as the producer, writer, director and cameraman, he makes sure what shows up on the screen is pure Waters.  The histrionic dialogue, the over-saturation of de-glamorized nudity and sex, the exploration of fetish behavior and insular communities, the skewering of respectable society, the fixation on repellent imagery and ideas; these are trademark elements in his films, and they are all present here in spades.  Desperate Living features copious full-frontal nudity (both male and female), the sexualization of children, a baby in a refrigerator, the human consumption of vermin, sodomy with a firearm, cannibalism, and penile amputation, to name just a few of its dubious delights, and in typical Waters fashion, they are de-sensationalized to the point of banality- which is why they amuse us rather than outrage us.  This, of course, is precisely the point, if there must be a point; Waters shows us that the only thing more ridiculous than human behavior is to be offended by it.

Indulging in this pageant of absurd excess is a cast mostly comprised of the director’s regulars, a troupe of stalwart non-actors upon whose services he has relied upon from his earliest days.  Leading the pack is the incomparable Mink Stole, a fixture in Waters’ films who is here given her most prominent role as Peggy, sinking her teeth with relish into the character as she alternates between hysterical wailing and some of the most ferocious bitchery you will ever see.  She is perhaps (apart from the late Divine) the most proficient purveyor of the curiously bad-but-somehow-great acting that defines the style of the filmmakers’ canon, and Desperate Living offers probably the best showcase of her unique talents.  Accompanying her on the adventure is Jean Hill, a greeting-card model turned actress whose jubilant sass makes her a fitting complement to Stole’s venomous ice queen, and the two exude an undeniable chemistry as they act out their perverted fantasia on Imitation of Life.  Waters newcomer Liz Renay (a notorious burlesque queen, former gun moll, and convicted perjurer, whose scandalous autobiography prompted the director to pursue her for his film) brings a surprising freshness of personality- not to mention her sizable breasts, unfettered onscreen for a good deal of the film- as Muffy, and Susan Lowe as the pugnacious Mole, normally one of the director’s bit players, manages to hold her own admirably in the role originally intended for Divine.  Also notable is Mary Vivian Pearce as the goofily likable Coo-Coo, and “Turkey Joe” in his deliciously trashy cameo as the cross-dressing cop.  The standout performance, though, comes from the sublime Edith Massey, the snaggle-toothed ex-waitress who became a sort of muse for John Waters and a cult icon to boot, as Queen Carlotta.  With her inimitably amateurish delivery, her indescribable physical presence, and her inescapable authenticity, she makes this grotesque character into a mesmerizing spectacle; gleefully punishing her groveling subjects, turning her leather-boy lackeys into sexual objects with whom she engages in lewd- and graphic- excesses, or sweetly bestowing gifts on a pigeon like the skid row vision of a Disney Princess and her animal friends, she is the indisputable highlight of Desperate Living.  The lady had charisma, there’s no denying it.

In spite of the fact that the cast is entirely on target, however, the absence of Waters’ supreme diva, Divine, is keenly felt in Desperate Living.  There is a void, somehow, in the center of the movie, that none of the other personalities can fill.  This is not to say that any of them are lacking in commitment or ability- at least, the kind of ability required of them here- but that some intangible quality is missing that none of them are quite able to provide; it’s possible that this is due to the lack of a strong character to provide central focus in the story, for Desperate Living, in truth, is all over the map- but then so are most of Waters’ films, a fact which audiences easily overlook with Divine’s electric presence as an anchor.  It’s hard, though, to place the blame wholly on this gap for the fact that the movie doesn’t quite work- for, unfortunately, it doesn’t.  Though it is a veritable treasure trove of deliciously quotable lines and ripe with the kind of unforgettable lunatic imagery that keeps us engaged in any given individual moment of the film, it never really grabs us with the unexpected visceral urgency of some of his other works; all the pieces are there, but the whole package leaves us decidedly unsatisfied.  It may be due to the attempted scope of the story, or the fact that the fantasy is so far removed from real experience that it loses the sliver of plausibility which gives the director’s preposterously lurid tales their outrageous edge, but for whatever reason, Desperate Living loses steam soon after it takes us to Mortville, a fact that is particularly disappointing in face of the fact that the film’s first ten minutes are pure, vintage Waters, containing some of the most inspired expressions of his wicked genius he ever managed to create, and setting the bar at a high level which the rest of the movie is then, sadly, unable to match.

Still, for Waters’ many fans, this kind of critical quibbling makes no difference to their enjoyment of its many riches, and for those who are exploring this alternative auteur for the first time, the fact that Desperate Living is not as complete a package as the masterful Female Trouble doesn’t make it any less essential an experience.  There was a certain magic at work in these heady, early years of the Dreamland crew, and it is just as evident in this movie- with its guerilla-filmmaking feel, its grainy 16mm photography, its elaborately shoddy sets built from found objects and refuse, its celebration of filth, and its mockery of traditional cinematic forms- as in any of the others.  What makes it so… well… refreshing (for want of a better word) is that, as always, Waters’ subversive trash is not merely intellectual posturing, nor is it exploitation, for it is clear that all of his participants are equally complicit in his effort to inundate us with perversity; John Waters is a subversive filth-monger because he finds it fun, and because it is an expression of self rather than a calculated pose, he makes it irresistibly fun for the rest of us.  Of course if you are someone who has, as Peggy Gravel puts it, “never found the antics of deviants to be one bit amusing,” you are best to leave this one alone, as well as the rest of Waters’ canon; although his work, for all its over-the-top shock value and subversive topsy-turvy morality, is ultimately as good-natured and sweetly innocent as, say, two naked children playing doctor, for somebody whose sense of humor is not well-tuned to this kind of trashy treat, it’s about as appetizing as a fried rat on a plate.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075936/

Psycho (1960)

Psycho (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 shocker about a series of gruesome murders at an out-of-the-way roadside motel.  Based on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, which was in turn inspired by the real-life case of Ed Gein, a deranged Wisconsin farmer who stole numerous bodies from a local cemetery and murdered several women while living with the corpse of his long-deceased mother, it was heavily deplored by most- but not all- critics at the time.  Thanks, however, to Hitchcock’s sensationalistic marketing strategies and his popularity as the host of the then-current TV anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it was an enormous box office success; it played an important role in changing the film industry’s outdated standards for “acceptable” subject matter and spawned scores of imitators, paving the way for the “slasher” sub-genre of horror films and wielding immeasurable influence over generations of subsequent filmmakers.  Its critical reputation quickly grew, and it is now almost universally recognized as one of the greatest movies of all time, or certainly, at least, one of the most important.

Psycho is one of those films that is so widely known as to be ingrained in the cultural consciousness; it is hard to imagine that anyone in 2012, whether they have actually seen it or not, would be unfamiliar with the once-notorious plot twist that prompted Hitchcock to implore movie audiences not to reveal the ending after they had seen it.  However, on the assumption that there are such people out there who might be reading this, I offer fair warning that beyond this point you will encounter “spoilers,” and you might want to stop here.  Psycho begins in Phoenix, Arizona, with a lunchtime tryst in a cheap hotel between Marion, a secretary, and Sam, her divorced lover from out of town, who cannot afford to marry her because of his crippling alimony payments.  Later, at the real estate office where she works, Marion’s boss entrusts her with $40,000 in cash, instructing her to take it to the bank on her way home; seeing a chance to put an end to the dead-end arrangement of her love life, she instead packs a bag and takes the money to start a new life with Sam, heading down the highway towards Fairvale, the small California town in which he lives.  When a blinding rainstorm makes driving unsafe, she stops for the night at an isolated motel off the main highway, operated by an awkward but sweet young man, Norman, who lives with his elderly mother in a Victorian house on the hill behind the office.  Norman is warm and polite, inviting his weary guest to join him at the house for a light dinner; but after Marion overhears a heated argument between her host and his mother, who angrily refuses to let him bring a female guest into her home, he instead brings a plate of sandwiches to the motel, and the two of them share a meal in the office parlor.  During their conversation, Norman tells Marion that his mother is mentally disturbed and prone to fits of anger, but that he feels obliged to care for her, though it means sacrificing his own freedom, because “a boy’s best friend is his mother.”  When Marion returns to her room, she decides to take a relaxing shower before going to bed- only to have it brutally cut short when the dark figure of Norman’s mother creeps into the room and stabs her to death with a butcher knife.  Upon discovering his mother’s savagery, Norman decides to do the dutiful thing and clean up the mess, disposing of the body and all evidence of Marion’s ill-fated visit- including the stolen cash, still wrapped in a newspaper- in a nearby swamp.  A few days later, in nearby Fairvale, Sam is visited in his hardware store by Lila, Marion’s sister, who has come in hopes that she will find her missing sibling there; they are quickly joined by a private investigator named Arbogast, hired by Marion’s boss to retrieve the stolen money without involving the authorities.  When it becomes clear that Sam is as ignorant as they are to Marion’s whereabouts, Arbogast begins to canvas the area looking for signs of the missing girl’s presence; eventually he arrives at Norman’s motel, where he quickly deduces the young man is hiding something.  After sharing his suspicions in a phone call to Sam and Lila, he sneaks into the house in search of Norman’s mother, thinking to get more information from her, and quickly becomes the next victim in the deranged woman’s bloody rampage.  With Arbogast’s disappearance, Sam and Lila decide to take the investigation into their own hands, and head to the motel to seek answers- but neither is prepared for the dark secrets they will uncover before they can solve the mystery of Marion’s disappearance.

As detailed in the current film, Hitchcock, Psycho was a major departure for the legendary director, a small-budget, black-and-white, sordid and sensationalistic shock piece that no studio wanted to touch.  Even with his prestigious reputation and his popular status as a television star in his own right, Hitchcock had to finance the film himself in order to make it.  It was a risky venture, to say the least, but one which paid off for him in a very big way; the film broke box office records, becoming the highest-grossing release of his career and making him a millionaire.  Its success forced critics to re-evaluate it- those who had been initially dismissive of it as a tastelessly lurid, low-budget shocker, beneath the usual standards of the “master of suspense,” soon praised it enthusiastically and included it on their “best of the year” lists, and it was ultimately nominated for numerous awards (including four Oscars).  In the end, Psycho rewarded its director with the late-life revitalization of an already extraordinary career, made him an even greater power player than he had been before, shattered industry taboos against depictions of sexual and violent content, and won him a new generation of fans- and all at a cost of less than a million dollars.

It was no accident of fate, either; the canny Hitchcock understood exactly what he was doing, and he exerted his meticulous craftsmanship on every aspect of the production in order to achieve the kind of visceral, ground-breaking effect he knew would electrify audiences seeking a new kind of thrill.  To this end, he had chosen his source material for its deeply unsettling subject matter, as well as for its deliberate and merciless manipulation of readers’ sympathies. To keep the budget down, he chose to shoot in black-and-white, using mostly the personnel from his TV series; a few trusted collaborators, however, were also hired, such as graphic artist Saul Bass, editor George Tomasini, and composer Bernard Herrmann, whose previous contributions to his film work had proven invaluable.  He cast the roles with familiar and experienced actors, but avoided using big stars, both to keep salaries down and to prevent personality from overshadowing the story; and- after rejecting an initial screenplay by James Cavanaugh, who had written several scripts for his TV series- he hired screenwriter Joseph Stefano (who had only one previous writing credit, but possessed extensive personal experience as a patient in psychotherapy) to adapt Bloch’s book for the screen.

Stefano’s screenplay remains fairly faithful to the novel in its plot, though a few changes were made to accommodate the requirements of the cinematic medium; most significantly, the central character of Norman Bates was transformed from an overweight, middle-aged alcoholic to a youthful, squeaky-clean boy-next-door.  This was Hitchcock’s direct input, designed to make the character more readily sympathetic to the audience; his likability was crucial for the director’s purpose, which involved tricking the audience- and here’s the big spoiler, for those who care- into identifying with a psychotic murderer.  Indeed, the narrative of Psycho is one piece of trickery after another, enhanced by Hitchcock’s casting of his biggest star, Janet Leigh, as a character who is killed off a third of the way through the movie, and his other biggest star, Anthony Perkins, as someone who not only covers up her death but ultimately turns out to be her killer.  The crucial plot twist- that Norman’s mother is in fact her stolen, mummified corpse and that he himself suffers from a split personality in which he commits the murders while assuming her identity- is kept hidden by shrouding the mother figure in mystery, keeping her offscreen except in shadow, silhouette, or oblique camera angles, and hearing her conversations with Norman from off-camera- which has the added effect of making the audience feel like an eavesdropper.  This is another important element of Psycho, the sense that we are clandestine observers of some forbidden ritual, and it of course constitutes the biggest trick of all- Hitchcock turns us into voyeurs, getting our cheap thrills by peeking through windows, listening at doors, and sneaking into private rooms.  It’s a now-familiar tactic, used extensively by filmmakers wishing to enhance our connection to their subjects and to subvert our affectations of propriety, and Hitchcock was certainly not the first to use it; but in Psycho, he brought it out of the art house, where European and avant-garde directors had been experimenting with it, and into the popular cinema, thrusting mass audiences into a wholly subjective experience and smashing through the “fourth wall” of the camera by making it into a substitute for the eye itself.  We are subtly drawn into this personalized experience from the very beginning of the film, when the camera slowly zooms from a panoramic view of the Phoenix skyline through the window of a darkened hotel room to spy on Sam and Marion as they finish their midday liaison; throughout the rest of the movie we are kept in the action with the heavy use of point-of-view shots, scenes filmed through doors, windows, phone booths, and even a peep hole, and the theme of clandestine observation is layered in by the characters themselves, who overhear, watch, question, and spy on the actions of others throughout the film.

This voyeuristic approach was nothing new for Hitchcock, but rather the culmination of a motif with which he had long been fascinated; throughout his career he had developed techniques for enhancing the audience’s identification with the lens, emulating the natural movement of the human gaze with his camera, using the same point-of-view perspectives and many of the other tricks which would become the dominant mise-en-scène of Psycho.  Likewise, many other of his favorite thematic elements are contained within the narrative- doubtless one of the reasons he was attracted to the material.  Many of Hitchcock’s films feature problematic relationships with domineering parents (sometimes played for laughs, but always containing a decidedly dark undercurrent); his heroes are frequently flawed, even seriously broken, and often unsympathetic, while his villains are usually charming and likable; law enforcement figures are mostly ineffectual or downright incompetent, and “polite” or “normal” society is generally seen to be a hypocritical veneer for hiding any number of unsavory character traits; and, of course,  there is the ever-present icy blond, a beacon of inaccessible beauty, repressed sexuality, and, usually, possessed of a compromised virtue which must be regained.  All of these are deeply embedded in the fabric of Psycho– there are even two icy blonds- and used relentlessly to undermine the audience’s ingrained expectations.  The heroine is a thief, but her victim is a fatuous boor, and her motives are understandable, if misguided; her sister is prudish and severe, while her boyfriend is morose and belligerent; the police are condescending and dismissive, the private eye pushy and sardonic; Norman, however, is shy, kind and endearing, even if his hobby of stuffing birds is a little weird, and he is, of course, the epitome of the dutiful son.  In any standard narrative, it would be clear where our sympathies should lie, but here everything is turned upside down; we root for Marion, and when she is suddenly and cruelly taken from us, we easily transfer our affections to her killer.  We make this willing shift partly because we do not yet know he is guilty, it’s true, but Hitchcock has built his trap so craftily that we would likely take the leap even if we did.  By the end of the film, the director has successfully made us emotional accomplices to both grand larceny and murder, and with his final shot of Marion’s car being pulled from the mud, a lifeless shell representing all that is left of her naive hope for a happy future, he rubs our faces in it.

There is another layer to all this subversive irony, though, beyond just a trickster’s impulse to make us feel dirty.  Our willingness to empathize with first a thief, then a killer, is grounded in what we think we see, what we want to believe, and what we have been trained to expect.  There are plenty of warnings- all the information we need to see the truth is plainly given as we go along, and yet we choose to bestow our sympathy based on romantic illusion.  We want the pretty, decent Marion to be able to “buy off unhappiness,” and we assume the boyish, mild-mannered Norman to be the innocent victim of his mother’s cruelty- from which we hope he can somehow break free without repercussions for his role in covering up her crimes.  This emotional manipulation is achieved by Hitchcock’s mastery of image; he carefully arranges what we see and hear in order to place us in conflict with ourselves, torn between our direct instinctive reactions and our intellectual assessment.  It’s a master con, made possible because of our tendency to mistake image for reality, but we buy into it willingly even as Hitchcock tauntingly tips us off all the way through.  Just as he gives us indications throughout that could easily lead us to recognize the truth about Norman and his mother, he inundates us with reminders about the relationship between image and reality; virtually every scene features mirrors or windows which allow us to see both the characters and their reflections, and most of the plot’s complications arise as a result of decisions based on faulty perception of the surface.  Marion is able to steal the cash because she seems trustworthy, she trusts Norman because he seems harmless, and everyone believes in his mother’s existence because she seems to be in the house.  Even the town sheriff, upon learning about the supposed involvement of a woman he knows to have been dead for years, is uninterested in investigating further because he forms an explanation that satisfies his assumptions.  In the end, Psycho is not about solving mysteries or exposing the pathology of a homicidal personality; it is an examination of- and a warning against- the dangers of living in a fantasy derived from what we want to believe.  We, as the audience, arrange the images to tell the story we expect to see, and when we are brutally reminded by Marion’s ignoble exit from the scenario that all is not what it seems, we fall right back into the clutches of illusion by transferring our sympathies to Norman.  In the climactic revelation, the sight of Norman, shrieking maniacally in his cheap wig and dress as Sam wrestles him into submission and his desperate illusions fall away along with the last vestige of his sanity, we cannot even comfort ourselves that we had no way to see it coming.  It may be a shock, but when we re-examine what has gone before, it is not really a surprise.  We let ourselves be deluded every step of the way, allowing our preconceived judgments color our perceptions; or to put it another way, to paraphrase a key subject from the parlor discussion between Marion and Norman, we have stepped into our own private trap.  This is the true heart of the film- the self-created cage of perception that traps us each and defines the way we see the world.  The image we embrace becomes identified as our reality, but as Hitchcock loves to remind us- and nowhere more vividly than in Psycho– this is an illusion, and one which can lead to the direst of consequences.

With so many volumes having been written about Psycho, it was not my intent to add much to it; clearly, however, I have been caught up in the spell of this much-discussed classic.  Something about this movie begs to be analyzed, explored, and revisited time and again.  There is so much here to stimulate, to intrigue, to perplex.  One can watch the film simply to revel in Hitchcock’s pure technical mastery: the aforementioned ways in which he invites us to participate in his own voyeurism; his ability to build tension with his deliberate pacing and editing, utilizing long, leisurely scenes interrupted by sharp, violent shocks that echo the stabbing of the knife; his use of visual means to keep us off-balance and on edge, such as dramatic camera angles, uncomfortably extreme close-ups, overhead shots, and other signature Hitchcock touches; and of course there is the justly famous shower scene, a 45-second collage of spliced film that terrorized the entire culture in 1960 and still inspires a particular kind of fear today.  You could also focus on Bernard Herrmann’s iconic musical score, a haunting and nerve-jangling composition for strings that Hitchcock himself credited for being 33% responsible for the film’s effectiveness and has been consistently placed at or near the top on lists of the greatest film soundtracks ever written; during the opening credits, you can marvel at the way the music is complemented by the title sequence created by the great Saul Bass, a no-less-iconic jumble of broken, intersecting lines that suggest the jagged turmoil of a disturbed mind as they spell out the pertinent names and assignments of the movie’s participants.

Of course, you can also reap the rewards of Psycho if you dedicate a viewing entirely to an appreciation of the performances.  Anthony Perkins’ work here is as fine an example of screen acting as you are ever likely to see, a masterpiece of understatement with subtle nuances revealing themselves upon every repeat viewing.  It was a role that matched him perfectly, allowing an intertwining of personal experience and fictional subtext that gives Norman a rare level of authenticity and makes him as heartbreaking as he is disturbing; though the character permanently defined his career and resulted in years of typecasting, it provided the young actor with a chance to leave a legacy the likes of which few others can claim.  Often overlooked, but no less definitive, is Janet Leigh’s outstanding work as Marion Crane; offering us an utterly convincing portrait of an everyday working girl, smart and clearly independent, but hiding a desperate longing to find the happier life of which she dreams, she wins us over immediately- and not only because of the obvious sex appeal of the opening scene, in which she helped to break down the so-called “decency code” by appearing in only a bra and a slip- and makes us keenly feel along with her the frustration of her mundane life, the irresistible thrill of her impromptu escape, and the mounting distress and paranoia that comes as she begins to recognize the consequences of her choice.  She is powerfully likable, which makes it doubly cruel when she is abruptly taken from us; this was Hitchcock’s goal, of course, carefully orchestrated by expanding Marion’s story from the brief episode it comprises in the original novel and by casting his most widely-known star in the role.  Leigh was his first choice, and she eagerly agreed to the project without even reading the script or discussing her salary; she was rewarded for her enthusiasm with an Oscar nomination, and, like her co-star, she created an unforgettable piece of cinema history, a rich and layered performance that is so good precisely because it contains no overt histrionics with which to call attention to itself.  The rest of the cast, though their roles are not as complex in dimension, are equally memorable- despite the fact that the director was vocal in his dissatisfaction with John Gavin (whom he referred to as “the stiff”) and that he was, by all reports, punishing Vera Miles for her abandonment of his earlier Vertigo (she became pregnant and bowed out before filming began, forcing Hitchcock to replace her with Kim Novak) by making her character here as unappealing as possible.  As Sam and Lila, respectively, both performers actually provide exactly the right qualities to their roles, making it impossible to imagine the film any other way; and, rounding out the main cast as Arbogast, Martin Balsam is likewise a perfect fit, giving us a canny portrait of a no-nonsense professional whose blunt and rumpled exterior belie the crafty shrewdness underneath.

There is so much to write about Psycho; I could go on with discussions of the layered themes and the techniques used by Hitchcock to explore them, or the brilliance of the stark black-and-white photography and its visual symphony of light and shadow, the contrast between the unglamorous, utilitarian settings and the austere design of the now-famous Edward-Hopper-inspired house that glowers down over the motel- the list is inexhaustible.  Similarly, I could write volumes about the history surrounding the film.  The battles with the censors over such things as the raciness of the opening hotel room scene, the use of the word “transvestite,” and the inclusion of a toilet (never before shown in an American film); the painstaking creation of the shower scene, which took a week to film, and generated obvious controversy upon release as well as much future argument about factors like whether it was Leigh or a body double that was used in the majority of its shots or the extent of involvement by Saul Bass, who drew the storyboards for the sequence but later claimed to have directed it in its entirety; the depth of contribution by Hitchcock’s wife and creative partner, Alma Reville, who- as she had on every film of her husband’s career- collaborated on every aspect of the movie from pre-production to final editing; all these things and more are legendary chapters in the story of Psycho, and you can (and should) read about them in so many other places that it is unnecessary to take any more time with them here.

The most pressing issue regarding Psycho, perhaps, for the “typical” modern viewer, who may have little scholarly interest in the film as a piece of cinematic art history and probably doesn’t care about the virtually unfathomable influence it has had upon every horror film that came after it, is simply whether or not it is still holds up.  Does this seminal, deceptively simple thriller live up to its reputation for inducing terror and inspiring nightmares for weeks after seeing it?  The answer, honestly, is probably not.  By today’s standards, even the most squeamish viewer is unlikely to find any of the film’s once-controversial violence hard to take; the gore factor is minimal, even in the famous shower scene with its chocolate-syrup blood, and, with a mere two killings taking place onscreen, the body count is decidedly low.  Taking this into account, along with the fact that it is virtually impossible to go into the movie without knowing its twist ending (or at least being familiar enough with its many imitators that it becomes easy to spot from very early on), Psycho is unlikely to generate many shocks with jaded modern audiences, and indeed is more apt to produce laughter- a development, incidentally, that would likely have pleased Hitchcock, who always claimed that the film was meant to be a very dark comedy.  Still, even if it has lost its power to scare us outright, it nevertheless casts an eerie and unsettling spell; even with its now-tame level of splatter, the shower scene is a deeply disturbing psychological jolt which plays on our most primal fears and reminds us of our innate vulnerability in the most common and universal of activities, and there is an undeniable creepiness that pervades the scenario, compounding as it progresses so that the Bates Motel and its adjoining house become more ominous and sinister in the bright light of day than in the earlier scenes at night.  Furthermore, instead of a neat and positive happy ending, Hitchcock leaves us with the mocking reminder that the world’s evil can be temporarily vanquished, but it will still remain, hidden in the most innocent-seeming of places, awaiting its opportunity to catch us unprepared; the final sequence of Norman, sitting alone in his cell as we hear “mother’s” voice in his mind, undermines any sense of safe, comfortable normalcy that might have been re-established by the previous explanatory denouement in which the smugly self-satisfied forensic psychiatrist unfolds his pat diagnosis of the murderer’s tormented psyche, and the final aforementioned shot of Marion’s car being pulled from the mud reminds us of the ugly reality of her senseless death- defying any attempt that might be made to assign it a meaning or purpose.  There is no comfort here, only tragedy and a chaos so deeply imbedded it can never be excised.  The power of these observations is as tangible today as it was five decades ago, whether or not Psycho frightens on a direct level, and any viewer seeking more than a cheap, visceral thrill will soon be drawn into the movie’s seductive web of delusion and consequence.  In short, Psycho may be better approached by the modern viewer as a psycho-drama, without expectations of blood-chilling fright and nausea-inducing carnage; indeed, it can be viewed, as its director did, as a comedic exploration of the fantasies in which we wrap ourselves and the mishaps in which they might result, though admittedly this requires a particularly morbid sense of humor.  In truth, of course, Psycho was never really meant to be a horror film, though it may have horrified; as in all of Hitchcock’s work, the real purpose is hidden behind the “McGuffin,” his term for the seemingly vital element around which his plots appear to revolve but which is actually a ruse through which his true concerns can be explored.  The McGuffin here is the mystery itself- ultimately the theft, the murders, and the psychotic delusions of the central character are all merely smoke and mirrors for Hitchcock’s master plan, in which he pulls the rug right out from underneath us and leaves us grasping for support that is no longer there.  Though he dresses Psycho in the trappings of the horror genre, its real riches lie beneath that exploitative exterior, and are ultimately more profoundly upsetting than any cheap momentary shock tactics could ever be.  On this level, from which it has always, truly, derived its greatness, Psycho is as fresh and relevant as the day it was released, and remains a must-see requirement for anyone who considers themselves even a casual film fan.  Personally, I first saw it at the age of ten, alone in my second-story bedroom on a tiny black-and-white TV screen.  It didn’t scare me, much, even at that tender age, but it certainly made a deep impression, and it most likely provided the single film experience that started me on my lifetime cinema adventure.  I’ve since seen it an uncountable number of times, and each time I never fail to be drawn in and to discover something new to consider.  If you are lucky, Psycho will hook you the way it hooked me; at the very least, it will make you think twice about leaving the bathroom door unlocked the next time you shower in a motel.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054215/

Vertigo (1958)

Today’s cinema adventure: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the 1958 psychological mystery that recently replaced Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in the #1 spot on Sight and Sound Magazine’s influential once-a-decade list of the best films ever made. Initially considered a disappointing entry to the Hitchcock canon, at the time of its release it received mixed reviews and barely broke even at the box office- an exception to the usual popularity and success enjoyed by the director’s films. Though Hitchcock himself cited it as one of his personal favorites among his films, it remained largely ignored by his admirers, even during the major reevaluation of his work by a new generation of critics that recognized the director as a true cinematic artist instead of merely a maker of popular entertainment. However, when it was withdrawn from circulation in the 1970s (along with four other titles for which Hitchcock had bought back the rights, intending them as an asset to be passed to his daughter upon his death), its reputation soared, and when it once again became available in 1983 it enjoyed a highly successful theatrical re-release and sweeping critical acclaim. In ensuing years, it has been cited by many as Hitchcock’s masterpiece (a view clearly held by the critics who vote in the Sight and Sound poll); but dissenting voices have argued that it is a flawed, over-rated, self-conscious exercise in pure technique, lacking the director’s usual polished storytelling and sense of humor. In view of this controversy (renewed and exacerbated by its recent promotion to the coveted #1 spot) I couldn’t resist the opportunity to chime in with my assessment- particularly given my own fascination with and appreciation for the work of Hitchcock, surely one of the single most important and influential filmmakers in history, whose innovations and techniques helped to shape the cinematic art form and continue to do so today.

Vertigo, prominently and famously set in San Francisco, is the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson, a former police detective who has opted for an early retirement after his crippling fear of heights led to the death of a fellow officer during a rooftop pursuit. As he struggles to overcome the trauma- and his resultant guilt and depression- with the help of his best friend (and one-time fiancée), “Midge” Wood, he is approached by a former acquaintance, one Gavin Elster, to undertake a private investigation; Elster fears that his wife’s erratic behavior and mysterious wanderings are signs of a growing mental instability which may jeopardize her safety, and after some persuasion, Ferguson agrees to take the case. He follows the coldly beautiful Madeleine Elster on her seemingly aimless, trancelike meanderings around the city, gradually discovering that she has become obsessed with her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who descended into madness and suicide after being abandoned by her wealthy lover; the fascination becomes more ominous when he learns from Elster that Madeleine is unaware of her own relation to the late Carlotta- or of anything about her- which has led him to suspect she has become possessed by the tragic woman’s restless spirit. Refusing to believe in ghosts (and developing his own obsessions), Ferguson continues to tail Madeleine, until, on one of her endless daily excursions, she abruptly jumps into San Francisco Bay. Forced to come to her rescue, he becomes personally involved with her; determined to help her discover the real cause of her strange psychological condition, he begins to accompany the troubled beauty on her obsessive expeditions, and the two develop a powerful attraction that quickly blossoms into an affair.  Now deeply enmeshed in a mystery- one which has taken on a new urgency with his feelings for Madeleine- Ferguson struggles to uncover the sinister cause of her strange compulsions, even as the diabolical secret of her connection to Carlotta threatens to bring on a tragedy that will once again shatter his own life.

The screenplay for Vertigo is based on D’Entre les morts, a novel by French authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose previous work, Celle qui n’était plus, had been unsuccessfully pursued by Hitchcock before being filmed by director Henri-Georges Clouzot as his masterpiece, Les Diaboliques. Though not written directly by Hitchcock, the script was prepared, as with most of the director’s films, under his strict and meticulous guidelines; an early version by playwright Maxwell Anderson was rejected outright, and a second draft by Alec Coppel was completely rewritten by Samuel Taylor- who worked exclusively from the director’s detailed synopsis to create the screenplay which was eventually used.  The resulting scenario, not surprisingly, is rife with classic Hitchcockian elements; most prominent, of course, is the focus on an icy blonde woman who irresistibly lures the hero into a web of illusion and deceit. Vertigo may be Hitchcock’s most personal statement on film in the sense that he uses the slow unwinding of its plot to explore in depth the themes which run throughout his other works. The simultaneous adulation and mistrust of women, the cynical view of romance, the Freudian emphasis on sexuality (the sexual subtext throughout is palpable, at times shockingly overt for a film produced at the time), the psychological connection between sex and death, and- perhaps most importantly- the obsessive fascination with image and illusion and the manipulation of these things to obscure the truth; all these are present, and magnified from their usual level of underlying texture to become the main concern of the film.  In “Scottie” Ferguson’s desperate attempt to fix his broken psyche by rescuing another tormented soul, he becomes fixated on Madeleine Elster as an object of desire; his sexual attraction merges with his efforts to conquer his fears and she comes to represent for him a return to wholeness- to attain her would be to repair his damaged life. However, his perception of her is flawed, partly by deliberate obfuscation, yes, but also by his own self-delusion, and his insistence on making her into his own fantasy threatens to drag him into the very madness from which he believes he is saving her- and also to blind him to the woman she really is.  It’s a dark journey, even for Hitchcock, and offers a grim counterpoint to the idealized love affairs that were so popularly portrayed in many of the glossy and sentimental romantic melodramas of the same era.

This decidedly bleak depiction of love may be one of the keys to why Vertigo failed to capture Hitchcock’s loyal followers upon its first release. His most popular formula was always a blend of romance, humor, and suspense, tinged with darkness, perhaps- even the director’s most likable characters were possessed of a few unpleasant quirks, and his villains were often more sympathetic (or at least more charming) than his heroes- but ultimately reinforcing the traditional Hollywood message that love conquers all, in the end. Vertigo was a marked departure from this tradition, even going so far as to use the audience’s expectations to lure them into the psychological trap its creator had planned,  The film’s first scene- after the expository opening in which we see the tragic rooftop incident that ends its protagonist’s police career and establishes the necessary premise of his paralyzing acrophobia- lulls us into the comfort of familiar Hitchcock territory with the playfully flirtatious banter between Ferguson and his erstwhile girlfriend Midge as he lounges in her apartment; our hero seems down-to-earth, well-adjusted and pleasant, and the tone is decidedly light- indeed, almost jarringly light, considering the gruesome events we have just witnessed.  In true Hitchcock fashion, the scene takes a foreboding turn toward the end, revealing the truth that all is not as well as it seems; but unlike most of his previous work, the ensuing drama never brings us back to the light.  Instead, the mystery into which we are pulled- part ghost story, part psychodrama- takes us deeper and deeper into uncomfortable territory, as we witness Ferguson’s spiral into desperation and obsession; as the film progresses, his banter with Midge becomes increasingly tense and forced as their unreconciled relationship falls apart, and his determination to conquer his inner demons seems more and more like denial. Though the plot is ostensibly centered on solving the mystery of Madeleine Elster, we are really watching the slow and inevitable disintegration of a man who refuses to face the truth about himself- and is therefore incapable of seeing the truth of the situation into which he has been drawn. Hitchcock’s well-known device of the “MacGuffin” (a supposedly important object or situation in the plot that is ultimately irrelevant to the film’s true purpose) is here taken to perhaps its extreme; the entire plot is in fact only a vehicle for the director to delve into the dark corners of the flawed human psyche.

That the mystery story is unimportant is made clear by the fact that Hitchcock solves it for us two-thirds of the way through- another reason for contemporaneous dissatisfaction with the movie; herein, however, lies the brilliance of the piece, for it is in the final section that the true, disturbing power of Vertigo emerges. It is difficult to discuss these scenes without giving away key story points for those yet to see the film, but suffice to say that Hitchcock uses the situation he has craftily set up in order to present an unsettling pageant of dysfunction between two people, each pursuing a fantasy (one of the past, one of the future) and deluding themselves about the true nature of their relationship, marked by psychological abuse, unhealthy fetishization, emotional isolation, and denial of the underlying issues that fuel this twisted romance.  It’s brutal to watch; we know it cannot possibly end well, and that it probably shouldn’t, but because Hitchcock is a master of transferring sympathies we desperately hope- along with these emotionally crippled characters- that it will.

From a technical filmmaking standpoint, there can be no argument against the greatness of Vertigo.  Hitchcock was at the peak of his powers here, with the means at his disposal to accomplish his vision to its utmost perfection. He tells his tale visually, with the eye for angles and composition that made him justly renowned, a fluid camera that pulls our eye subtly but unwaveringly to what he wants us to see, and an uncanny skill for timing and editing that manipulates our emotions irresistibly. He incorporates numerous subliminal means to underscore his true intentions; there is an omnipresent motif of spiraling patterns- not only in the story and in the visual design, but also in the magnificently lush, iconic score by favorite collaborator Bernard Herrmann- that continually reinforces his dominant theme of obsession, a state of mind in which endless repetition and revolution around a central focal point are the key characteristics; a heavy use of reflections to emphasize the interplay between illusion and reality (particularly with regard to identity, another important theme which is further supported by the fact that virtually all of the key characters are called by a different name from their given one); and, of course, the favorite technique of using point-of-view shots to help us identify with the characters onscreen- and, more to the point, to make us into voyeurs.

Always one to strive for full coordination of all elements towards a cohesive whole, Hitchcock’s vision extends through the work of his collaborators, never more clearly than in Vertigo.  To begin with, the legendary graphic artist Saul Bass, who also designed the movie’s classic advertising imagery, contributes a sharp and stylish opening credits sequence, establishing the spiraling motif that permeates the film.  Then there is the aforementioned score by Herrmann, a masterpiece of jangled nerves, relentless tension, melancholy longing, and spectacular release; echoing the strains of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde– another tale of doomed romance- but possessed of the composer’s own unmistakable aural style and distinctively struck in the modernist sound of the mid-20th Century, it is one of the most recognizable pieces of film music ever written- and one of the most effective.  The cinematography of Robert Burks is a masterpiece of late ’50s gloss, capturing not just the mood and atmosphere of the era but of San Francisco- indeed, the extensive location footage provides a dazzling view of the famous local scenery, such that Vertigo could serve as a travelogue for the city; in addition, his exploitation of various qualities of light, from the shimmering haze of a sunny churchyard to the murky gloom of a redwood forest, creates an almost dreamlike immediacy to the images on the screen.  Perhaps most noticeably, there is the stunning use of color throughout the film, painstakingly created by Burks, art directors Henry Bumstead and Hal Pereira, set decorators Sam Comer and Frank McKelvy, and costume designer Edith Head; thanks to their work (and Hitchcock’s meticulous guidance), Vertigo is possibly the most striking example of symbolic color coordination on film- from the dramatic contrast between Madeleine’s blue wrap and the red wallpaper in Ernie’s restaurant, to the jarring dissonance of her blond hair and her classic gray suit, to the surreal neon blue that bathes her apartment at night, the film delivers a magnificently lush palette of bold and subtle hues that elicit primal responses from beginning to end.  This effect is all the more powerful since a 1996 digital restoration (one of the first to be undertaken) returned the movie to its original, pristine condition after years of neglect had left it faded and almost monochromatic.  Having seen both an old print and the restored version, I can tell you it’s like watching a completely different movie, and it makes the greatest imaginable difference in the film’s overall power. Of course, any discussion of Vertigo would be incomplete without a mention of its special effects work, which includes the superb matte effects used to create several important sequences (most notably the bell tower at the mission where both of the film’s climaxes take place), the much-imitated nightmare sequence designed by John Ferren, and the famous “Vertigo Zoom,” used here for the first of countless times, in which a disorienting effect is achieved by simultaneously zooming in on a focal point and pulling back the camera.

Besides all these invaluable contributions, Vertigo benefits from the work of its cast.  Hitchcock, in later interviews, attempted to explain his film’s relative failure by attributing it to the disparity in age between his leading player, James Stewart, and the 26-year-younger Kim Novak, as well as unfairly- and inaccurately- claiming that Stewart had passed his prime and his popularity had waned (the actor actually enjoyed several more years of considerable box office success following his work in Vertigo); it’s true that Stewart may have been a factor in the public’s disappointing reaction to the film, but if so, it had to do with the fact that his character here is a far cry from the light, easy-going persona with which he was associated.  His previous work with Hitchcock had often pushed the boundaries of his gee-whiz image, as had numerous other of his later roles, but with John “Scottie” Ferguson, Stewart’s lovable personality was turned inside out; the good-natured, lackadaisical charm serves as a mask for a morose, deeply troubled psyche, full of self-loathing and capable of great cruelty.  Despite the fact that the actor’s many loyal fans had difficulty accepting him as such a flawed individual, in retrospect it is clear that Vertigo represents one of his finest onscreen achievements; he embraces Ferguson’s bitter darkness whole-heartedly, without attempting to soften it by resorting to sentimentality.  Playing on his own image, he offers a disturbing portrait of a man whose decency and humanity are eroded by depression and obsession, and his haunting performance is the driving strength of the movie- it’s impossible to imagine another actor in the role.  His co-star, Kim Novak, was not Hitchcock’s first choice for the complicated part of Madeleine- he had initially cast the young Vera Miles, who appeared in his previous film, The Wrong Man, but delays in the shooting schedule led to her having to drop out due to pregnancy- but, again, its now hard to picture anyone but Novak as the cool, mysterious, and ethereal focus of the hero’s- and the film’s- compulsive attention.  The director also later criticized Novak’s work, saying that, in retrospect, he felt she was miscast; and others have complained that she frequently seems uncomfortable, stilted and artificial.  Given the nature of her role, however (and once more I am limited by a desire not to provide any “spoilers” for those who haven’t seen the movie), these qualities seem completely apt.  Madeleine, like Ferguson, is hiding her true nature; and Novak ultimately lets us see that underlying her artifice is a sadness and vulnerability that make her heartbreakingly compelling as a tragic heroine.  She is particularly effective in the film’s final third, allowing her warmth- and her real desperation- to come through.

The supporting cast is led by Barbara Bel Geddes, as Midge, Ferguson’s gal-pal, who- though seemingly more solid and straightforward than the two leads- hides her own not-so-secret feelings for her former flame with an act of sly sophistication and smartly casual cynicism; she provides much-needed comic relief, but her own obsession- which leads to serious errors in judgment- is unveiled throughout, tempering the humor with an increasingly uncomfortable sense of emotional panic.  In addition, she represents Ferguson’s last link to the larger world outside of his fixations, and when she exits the film, with the literal slamming of a door and a slow, sad walk down a bleak and empty corridor, her absence is significantly felt; thanks to Bel Geddes’ understated, textured performance, Midge becomes one of the most memorable personifications of the glasses-wearing, “unwanted” woman so frequently found in Hitchcock’s work.  Tom Helmore, as Elster, seems the sad, impotent milquetoast in his few scenes (a characterization which ultimately adds yet another layer to the mysterious plot), and the rest of the cast- which includes some familiar character actors (Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Lee Patrick, Ellen Corby, Konstantin Shayne) along with several unknowns- essay their deceptively small roles with just the right amount of appropriate attitude to further Hitchcock’s subtle psychological manipulation.

It should be obvious by now that I have a lot to say about Vertigo; this is no surprise, because almost everyone who sees it- critic, scholar, or movie fan- has a lot to say about this strange and beautiful film.  It has been suggested that one of the reasons it enjoys such adulation from cinema literati is, in fact, that there is so much to say about it- it is unquestionably a work of art, visually stunning and laden with layers upon layers of symbolism, subtext, and psychology.  Watching Vertigo is strongly reminiscent of viewing a painting in motion, not only because of the richness of its visuals but because of the seemingly endless amount of detail on the screen, each piece of which bears some significance to the film’s overall meaning- or rather, meanings, because like all great art, it opens itself to a multitude of interpretations.  From this standpoint, it certainly qualifies, as much as any of the other contenders, for the honor of being named as the best film of all time.  However, many less-admiring critics have pointed out that, on the more immediate level of pure entertainment, Vertigo fails to accomplish its purpose; the intricate plot is confusing, hampered by a lack of real action, bogged down by clumsy exposition, and hampered by long, uneventful sequences (such as the interminable scenes of Ferguson following Madeleine through the city in his car) that slow the pace to a crawl.  In addition, the story contains details that not only prove to be ultimately irrelevant but, indeed, make no sense; and once the mystery is solved, the central conceit on which the film’s final developments depend is so far-fetched as to pre-empt the willing suspension of disbelief required to make it work.  From my own memory of seeing Vertigo for the first time, I can freely say that all these points affected my reaction to it; die-hard Hitchcock fan as I was (and am), I could not help but be disappointed.  Yet there was a fascination for me here which I could not explain- a nagging feeling that there was something I had missed.  It was years later before I came back to it, but when I did- free from the need to follow a story I already knew- I discovered that to see Vertigo once is not to see it at all.  Dozens of viewings later, I am still discovering it.

Consider this fair warning, then- for the casual viewer, the charms of this much-hyped classic may prove to be invisible.  For those who choose to venture a second look, however, Vertigo begins to unfold itself and display its hidden majesty.  Like the beautiful woman at its center, it is not what it seems- beneath its cold and problematic exterior lies a rich and complex trove of treasures that yields new wonders upon each return visit.  You may not agree with the assessment of Sight and Sound that it is the greatest movie ever made- I can’t say that I do, either- but you would be hard-pressed to find another film which packs so much into such a deceptively simple package.  It is doubtful that Hitchcock- master though he was- consciously intended to create the myriad resonant details which arise throughout his arguable masterpiece; he second-guessed himself frequently during its making, and, indeed, wanted to make changes that were prevented by studio demands- perhaps a rare instance in which such interference resulted in a better movie.  The endless analysis to which this, like all Hitchcock films, has been subjected, would no doubt baffle and amuse a director who, after all, was just trying to make a good movie; nevertheless, as with all great art, the content of the canvas may yield more than even its creator can suspect.  Vertigo reveals much about the depths from which it came, perhaps more than its director could even recognize; it is, in this way, the quintessential Hitchcock film, in which virtually all of the filmmaker’s perennial obsessions were given full expression.  Other of his works may be more entertaining, more frightening, more believable, and more polished- but this one is undoubtedly the most personal, and as such, it is the key to Hitchcock’s universe, in all its darkly beautiful glory.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052357/

 

Gosford Park (2001)

Today’s cinema adventure: Gosford Park, the 2001 period mystery-comedy directed by Robert Altman and featuring an all-star ensemble cast in a screenplay by future Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes.  Set on an English country estate in the early 1930s, it uses the familiar premise of an Agatha-Christie-style whodunnit as a pretense to explore the complex social structure and interrelationships among the wealthy landed gentry and the servant class that runs their households, exposing the busy undercurrent of secrets and scandals that flows beneath the genteel and proper surface of upper class British society.  One of Altman’s most successful films, it was popular at the box office as well as with most critics, and it received a number of awards and nominations, including an Oscar for Fellowes’ screenplay, Best Film at the BAFTAs and Best Ensemble Cast (the rough equivalent of Best Picture) from the SAG Awards.

The film takes its title from the name of the estate on which it is set, owned by Sir William McCordle, where a number of guests gather for a weekend hunting party.  Most are relatives or family associates- Lady McCordle’s sisters and their husbands, daughter Isobel’s suitor, a dowager cousin- but among their midst are also a few strangers, including a Hollywood producer named Weissman and noted film star Ivor Novello.  This elite crowd, however, constitutes a minority of the population here in Gosford Park; the household is crowded with an army of servants, bustling around the clock to serve their masters, and their number is increased by the influx of personal valets and maids who attend the estate’s guests.  As the weekend progresses, rigorous adherence to decorum and tradition dominates the outward appearance of this gathering and its festivities, despite the myriad personal agendas, hidden relationships, false pretenses, secret histories, private resentments, and unseen tragedies that exist behind the scenes.  These underlying dramas are unexpectedly brought to the surface when a murder takes place, prompting the intrusion of the local police inspector whose investigation lays bare many of the dirty little secrets on both sides of the class divide- as well as some which cross that inflexible boundary.  The solution to the mystery, masked beneath layers of assumption, convention, and privilege, may be a simple crime of passion or a calculated act motivated by financial gain- or it may ultimately hinge on the conflict between an unjust social system and the most basic impulses of humanity.

Director Altman was known for his explorations of different subcultures (the military in M*A*S*H, the country music community in Nashville, the Hollywood film industry in The Player), using an interwoven tapestry of characters and events to offer social observation and commentary through the prism of these microcosmic settings; by the time of Gosford Park, his reputation was such that he had no trouble securing the impressive collection of collaborators necessary to bring to life this meticulous recreation of Edwardian country life between the wars.  Screenwriter Fellowes, an actor who had (at the time) never previously authored a screenplay, was approached by the director due to his extensive knowledge of the complex workings of the domestic management of the era and the culture of the serving class upon which it all depended; he wrote a script, and served as the film’s technical advisor as well, allowing him to rewrite and hone portions of his work on the set.  As with most of Altman’s films, some of the dialogue was also improvised during filming, particularly in the scenes involving a large group of actors, lending an authenticity to the sound of the conversations and contributing to the overall feel that we, the audience, are eavesdropping upon the characters’ private lives; even so, under Fellowes’ guidance, the entire, sprawling saga is united with a cohesive singularity of purpose and consistency of style, providing the master director a solid structure upon which to build his own vision.

Altman’s signature format, in which a focused perspective is imposed upon an almost documentary approach to the narrative, at first might seem a bit ill-suited to a costume piece like Gosford Park; we are conditioned by experience to expect a more theatrical presentation in films such as this.  However, the Altman treatment works brilliantly here, particularly given the director’s purpose; like all of his films, Gosford Park is less concerned with plot (though the story is intricately woven and ultimately, very compelling) than it is with its characters and its observations of human behavior.  Like a fly on the wall, we are privy to the public and private interactions of the denizens of this estate and their guests, but these exchanges seem part of a bigger landscape, as if they were individual trees or a babbling brook in a painting of a countryside; in other words, the concerns of the characters are details which contribute to the more significant whole, a complete portrait of a way of life.  The details of a nobleman’s financial schemes or backstairs dalliances are granted no more importance than the polishing of the silver for dinner service; indeed, the mundane details of this rarefied lifestyle are far more interesting to Altman than the various worldly concerns of the characters, and, thanks to his careful choices in focus, he makes them so for us, too.

In keeping with his detached observational technique, the director similarly places emphasis on the intricacies of his characters’ behavior and personalities.  Each individual is seen in relation to the others, illuminating their social roles and the subtleties of the relationships between the various subdivisions, even within the two primary groups.  Money, status, seniority, tradition, convention- all these and more play a part in determining the “pecking order,” and the rules of this rigid structure far outweigh any considerations based on emotion or concern for humanity; there is no tolerance for those who forget or disguise their rightful place in the order of things, and the public display of passion, particularly when it crosses the sacred class boundaries by which the entire cultural system is governed, is a greater transgression of decency and decorum than a discreetly-executed murder.  It is this obsession with maintaining appearances, of keeping all the warts and wrinkles of being human out of sight at all cost, that ultimately emerges as the over-reaching theme of Gosford Park; it is also seen, by microcosmic implication, as the mechanism for the looming downfall of this ponderous, antiquated way of life- for in the deeply buried untidiness of past scandal lies the seed of the consequence which rises from the well-hidden, forgotten depths to strike a blow against the entrenched injustice of the entire system.  In this way, despite its almost reverent depiction of an ultra-conservative world in which even the most downtrodden are contemptuous of change, Gosford Park manages to echo the anti-establishment sentiment usually associated with Altman’s work.

Such socio-political conclusions are left, however, to be drawn (or not) by the viewer; Altman adopts an objective eye, almost like a field researcher doing an anthropological study.  He records the events of the weekend with a slowly moving camera, lingering here or there to pick up an interesting detail or reveal a fact which might not be apparent to the passing eye, and trusting Fellowes’ words to carry the narrative, along with any thematic elements that may be present.  Of course, it falls to the cast to bring life to the script and give the director the behaviors with which to fill his lens; and the collection of superb actors on display in Gosford Park does so magnificently, capturing every subtle nuance of their roles and deftly providing an ocean of subtext without ever disturbing the naturalistic atmosphere that is Altman’s milieu.  Most of these players are experienced in theatre, which serves them well as Altman allows his focus to move freely amongst the characters the way the eye travels around the stage at a live performance; as they conduct their conversations, steal their glances at each other, clear the table, pour the sherry, and all the other living activities on display at a dinner party, the audience may or may not be watching- they must be “on” at all times, regardless.  They speak realistically, often overlapping dialogue and talking simultaneously, as Altman shrewdly hovers just long enough to permit us to hear the crucial bits; and in the smaller scenes, depicting the private moments spent alone or in pairs, though the emphasis is often on what is seen and what is left unsaid rather than what is spoken, the vital information is communicated, nevertheless, through the minutest of gestures and expressions.  It’s an impressive collection of performances, one of the finest examples of true ensemble screen acting in recent memory.

This incomparable cast includes a mix of actors, from the legendary to the unknown, all of whom deliver exemplary performances; a few stand out, deserving special nods, not so much because they are superior but because their roles give them the chance to shine individually. Most noticeable, perhaps, is the always delicious Maggie Smith as a snobbish and acid-tongued dowager countess (foreshadowing her Emmy-winning role in Fellowes’ wildly successful Downton Abbey series a decade later); Helen Mirren exudes the anonymous perfectionism and the crisp, selfless honor of a lifetime in service, and late in the film releases an unforgettable flood of repressed humanity that drives home everything Gosford Park is about; Michael Gambon, as the misanthropic lord of the manor, and Kristin Scott-Thomas, as his icy and discontented wife, personify the insulated ennui of the inconceivably wealthy-and-powerful upper class; Stephen Fry has a remarkable turn as the police inspector, turning the familiar stock character of this genre on its ear by being dull and sycophantic instead of brilliant and unflappable; Emily Watson gives us a portrait of youth and good nature being bent by servitude towards frustration, bitterness and cynicism, putting a human face on the socially-sanctioned exploitation of the serving class; and relative newcomer Kelly Macdonald is charming and likable as the deceptively naive young ladies’ maid who provides our window of access into the austere and intimidating world of the film.  Also lending the weight of their presence are such thespian luminaries as Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, and Charles Dance; a newer generation asserts itself through the work of Clive Owen and Jeremy Northam, and representing the American contingent are the stalwart Bob Balaban and the handsome Ryan Phillippe, as the film producer and his valet, respectively, present for the purpose of researching an upcoming movie project and concealing a number of secrets in their own right.

The three-way combination of director, screenwriter, and cast is supported by a top-notch assembly of technical and visual elements; filmed on location at several authentic English country houses and a painstakingly constructed soundstage set at Shepperton Studios, the atmosphere of Gosford Park is so completely realized that we are wholly transported to this bygone place and time.  The sumptuous production design executed under the supervision of the director’s son, Stephen Altman, and the dazzling array of costumes, designed by Jenny Beavan, all captured by the rich cinematography of Andrew Dunn- these contributions help to make the movie a total immersion in the period it portrays.  Completing the effect is the wistfully nostalgic score by Patrick Doyle, evoking the sadness of a dying age, and rounded out by the inclusion of several songs by the real-life Ivor Novello, performed exquisitely by actor Northam, both on camera and off.

With the popularity of the aforementioned Downton Abbey, many will no doubt be drawn to this previous work by its author; it should be noted that, though the intricacies of English country life are depicted with the same painstaking accuracy as in Gosford Park, the tone here is much different than in the hit series.  Altman’s style and purpose are far removed from the tone of fond admiration which pervades Downton, and his characters are less likely to incur our affections and loyalties than those to be found on Lord Grantham’s estate.  As with all of the director’s work, Gosford Park is not for every taste- the cool detachment, the oddly stylized naturalism, the oblique and almost passive-aggressive social criticism, the ironic and oh-so-dry humor, and- perhaps most of all- the constantly roving focus that makes it difficult to anchor one’s emotional perspective in the story; these are all common obstacles for many viewers who dislike Robert Altman films, and they are certainly present here.  Conversely, fans of the director’s work may be turned off by the movie’s cloistered atmosphere, a far cry from the more free-wheeling, overtly colorful setting of his usual, decidedly American subjects.  Nevertheless, Gosford Park is one of Altman’s most accessible pictures, appealing to a wide range of audiences that might not otherwise be appreciative of his sometimes obtuse approach.  In some ways his most atypical project, and in others a quintessentially Altman creation, it cannot be termed his masterpiece, by any means, but it must be ranked highly in his canon as one of his most successful films in terms of overall accomplishment of its intended goals.  Taken independently from Altman’s other work, it certainly stands as a prime example of what can happen when style, content, and execution come together so coherently that the end result is as polished and nearly perfect as a film can be.  For my part, Gosford Park is the kind of movie that makes me remember why I love movies; even if it’s not your cup of tea (to use an apt expression), it’s worth a look just to see what happens when genuine cinematic teamwork makes all the pieces fit as neatly as a good butler’s tuxedo.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0280707/

Bronson (2008)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bronson, the 2008 biopic about England’s most notorious prison inmate, Michael Peterson (who changed his name to Charles Bronson during his brief career as a boxer), whose reputation for violence and trouble-making has led to his having spent the majority of his adult life behind bars- and most of that in solitary confinement.  Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn and starring Tom Hardy in the title role, the film takes Peterson’s real-life story and presents it in a highly stylized, theatrical manner, focusing on fictionalized vignettes and incorporating some real-life footage to depict some of the most infamous incidents from his long history.  Rather than a straightforward biography, the movie is more a meditation on the enigmatic nature that causes such antisocial behavior, ultimately leaving its subject’s motivations a mystery and offering no concrete explanation for the impulse towards violence.

Bronson frames its story with a narrative conceit in which Peterson presents his own story, to an unseen but appreciative audience, on a bare stage; in various stages of theatrical make-up, and with a considerable amount of flourish, he gleefully relates his life story, beginning with his childhood as the son of typical middle-class parents in the London suburb of Luton.  Intercutting portrayals of real events with his “performance” in the theater, the film proceeds to relate the general outline of his life.  We see his early marriage to a co-worker who witnesses his first crime (the theft of money from a cash drawer in their shop), his subsequent arrest and incarceration for the armed robbery of a post office, and the continual extension of his 7-year sentence due to his repeated assaults on his guards and fellow inmates.  When frequent transfers to different facilities throughout the penal system fail to curb his violent tendencies, he is declared insane and moved to a mental institution, where despite heavy sedation he nevertheless attempts to murder another patient.  Further transfers lead to further incidents, so he is declared sane and set free.  His return to the outside world is short-lived, however.  After a short career as a fighter in the illegal sport of bare-knuckle boxing (for which, at the suggestion of his promoter, he adopts his new name), a jewelry store robbery lands him back in prison after only 69 days, where he promptly resumes his  escalating cycle of violence, despite showing an interest- and some talent- in art, leading to an ongoing campaign of riots, beatings, and  hostage-taking that continues not only up to the making of the film, but to this day.

The challenge for a filmmaker trying to tell this story is to find a way to avoid making it seem repetitive; Peterson’s life is one brutal fight after another, almost all of which happen in prison cells.  In the screenplay for Bronson, co-written by director Refn with Brock Norman Brock, an elegant solution is found with the bold and decidedly stylized narrative device in which the film’s subject presents his own vision of his life in the “theater of the mind.”  Besides providing a unique means of breaking up the action and offering pithy commentary, this technique creates an almost Brechtian detachment in which, constantly alienated from the story by the obvious artificiality of this conceit, we are encouraged to examine Peterson’s tale with our intellect instead of our emotions; yet, at the same time, by allowing the darkly charismatic criminal to speak for himself, Refn and Brock also make it possible for us to make a connection with him that would be impossible in a more standard approach to his tale.  He is permitted to be polished and eloquent in the spotlight of his fantasy, a stark contrast to the brutish, inarticulate beast we see in the scenes of his real life, and the self-satisfied irony of his performance persona confronts us with a defiantly mocking challenge to our attempts to find reason or logic behind his ferocious nature.  In short, the interstitial theatrics convert the proceedings from a straightforward- if stylish- biographical drama to a somewhat surreal cinematic exploration of the violent mind and its disquieting opposition to the standards of civilized normalcy we take for granted.

Despite this artistic spin, Bronson still struggles with the issue of redundancy; the film’s more concrete depiction of events returns, by necessity, to scenes of its anti-hero beating his handlers to a pulp, making it feel like something of a one-note symphony.  Director Refn, however, a Danish-born wunderkind whose later film, Drive, has firmly established him as an auteur on the rise, manages to find a number of creative stylistic tweaks which prevents the movie from seeming like it is stuck in a loop.  Even when we are not within the clearly marked boundaries of the theatrical framing device, Refn maintains a dreamlike sensibility that keeps us unsure of where we stand in the continuum of reality and illusion; he creates a visually arresting and mentally stimulating atmosphere through his use of bold primary colors, odd lenses and camera angles, and an absurdist perspective in his approach to the mundane aspects of the institutionalized settings.  He varies the environment as much as possible, choosing a number of distinctively different backdrops for Peterson’s myriad brawls and acts of terror (particularly memorable is the re-purposed ballroom that serves as a Fellini-esque purgatory for the scenes in the mental institution) and utilizing a surprisingly diverse assortment of jail cells and common rooms- which has the added effect of underscoring just how many times responsibility for “England’s most violent prisoner” is passed from one facility to another.  Most importantly- and more to Refn’s purpose- the ever-changing backdrops and the hallucinatory sense of heightened reality yield a disorientation that keeps us from anchoring ourselves as we experience Peterson’s journey and, ultimately, reminds us that everything we see here is filtered through the skewed perspective of his mind.

In the center, standing in for the larger-than-life figure himself, is Tom Hardy, making a substantial breakthrough in a career which has since led him to participation in blockbusters such as Inception and The Dark Knight Rises.  Given his powerful, commanding performance, it’s no surprise that he has become one of the industry’s most promising stars; his vision of Peterson- with whom he met in person before filming began- is an impressive creation, full of raw, animalistic power (his massive, rock-solid physique contributes greatly in this department) and yet with the spark of considerable native intelligence that makes it impossible to explain away his brutal tendencies as the product of ignorance.  This is a man who knows exactly what he is doing- his violence is a conscious choice, even a calling, and Hardy makes it clear how much pride he takes in it.  What makes his portrayal most effective, perhaps, and in precise tune with Refn’s approach, is the humor he brings to it; ironic, dark and unsettling humor, but effective in helping us into the mind of this flamboyant character.  We may not understand what we find there, but in Hardy’s performance at least, we are captivated by it.  The rest of the performances- small roles, for the most part, reflecting the peripheral nature of others in Peterson’s personal universe- are effective as well, though no one gets much opportunity to shine, save for Matt King as the convict’s fey and seedy former-prison-acquaintance-turned-boxing-promoter and Juliet Oldfield as the young call girl with whom he has a dalliance during his brief taste of freedom.  It’s not meant to be an ensemble piece, however; Bronson is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man show for Hardy, who certainly proves himself up to the challenge.

With such a strong performance to recommend it, showcased in a stylish and visually exciting vehicle by its exceptionally talented director, Bronson succeeds in providing an engaging look at its notorious subject, albeit a highly fictionalized one- numerous facts are significantly altered and others are omitted or made up entirely to suit the purpose of Refn’s vision, which is more along the lines of an expressionist horror film.  The director casts his real-life subject as a sort of monster, though the story is seen from his point of view; Peterson is depicted as a force of chaos, a willful representative of the uncontrollable nature that lurks behind our civilized veneer, and much in the way that Godzilla represented the nuclear demons that lurked in the post-war Japanese zeitgeist, so does this destructive beast stem from our own uneasiness about the wild, untamed impulses surging beneath the surface of our blandly dehumanized society.  Though we struggle to understand the deeper motivations for Peterson’s deranged behavior, he himself offers the simple explanation that he wants to be famous; and in a world where fame and celebrity are the only way to rise above the dull existence of the common throng, it is discomfortingly reasonable to assume that this may, in fact, be the truth.  If he is a monster, he is a monster we have created, and the irony which permeates Hardy’s performance and the film itself aptly underlines this.

Thought-provoking and compelling though this thematic perspective may be, Bronson never really shakes us up in the way other films with a similar take on society have done.  Refn crafts his movie carefully, giving it a distinctive flavor of its own while evoking the memory of such iconic works as Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Lindsay Anderson’s If…, but despite- or perhaps because of- the clear calculation of his vision, in the end the film feels more like an exercise in style than an expression of truth.  Still, that style has considerable appeal, and Bronson, while it may not be gripping, is never boring to watch.  This in itself would earn the film a recommendation, but when Hardy’s deeply committed tour-de-force performance is added into the mix, it’s an irresistible combination.  It may not be a great film, but it offers an exciting early glimpse at the prodigious talent of its two driving forces; both Refn and Hardy are still relatively new in the game, but they seem poised on the brink of long and significant careers, and based on the potential they reveal here, it’s easy to see why.

It should be mentioned that Bronson features a considerable amount of full-frontal nudity, all of it provided by Tom Hardy, thanks to the title character’s penchant for stripping down and covering his body with “war paint” before a brawl.  Depending on your viewpoint regarding such content- and your feelings about Mr. Hardy- this could provide further incentive to schedule a viewing, ASAP.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1172570/