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Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

Even in 2017 there still remains a relative void of criticism surrounding latter day Soviet Cinema available in English. For the most part critical discussions of Russian cinema during the late Soviet period tend to center upon the Gosinko’s repressive policies or the election of Elem Klimov to the position of First Secretary of the Filmmaker’s Union in May 1986 (roughly corresponding with the Glasnost). In auteurist terms, the discourse surrounding Soviet cinema during this period is predominantly concerned with two filmmakers; Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov. This limited view of Soviet cinema hampers the discourse of either subject since a concise and detailed context remains elusive.

Rada

It is these conditions that prevent me from going in depth with tracing the production history of Emil Loteanu’s lyrical 1975 film Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven. I can however provide a minimum of context by simplifying some aesthetic trends in the Soviet Cinema. Auteurist discourse and the capitalist machine that has come to be an intrinsic part of it would stipulate that Soviet cinema could be divided into three separate schools (by “schools” I mean spheres and/or origins of influence). There is the Dziga Vertov school, the Alexander Dovzhenko school, and of course the Sergei Eisenstein school of filmmaking. By looking at the heritage of Soviet cinema in such broad strokes, categorization of a film becomes relatively simple. If Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven has any relation at all to these three “schools” then it is surely to that of Dovzhenko. Like Dovzhenko, and later Parajanov, Loteanu’s cinema is preoccupied with insular cultures trapped within the USSR. All three filmmakers employ expressionistic camera angles and moves to convey a mysticism that while always remaining ambiguous never loses its inherent familiarity, like reiterations of motifs from almost forgotten fairytales. Loteanu is not as gifted an image maker as Dovzhenko though, nor is he an avant gardist innovator like Parajanov. Emil Loteanu opts to negate controversy and to derive much of the power of his films from his long collaboration with the composer Eugen Doga.

Those familiar with Loteanu’s much more popular international co-production Anna Pavlova (1983) may be surprised that most of the filmmaker’s career was as defined by his literary adaptations as by their music. Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven is a musical; produced during the height of Loteanu’s collaboration with Eugen Doga. In adapting Maxim Gorky’s short stories Makar Chudra and Old Izergil for the screen, Loteanu conjures images of gypsies that look shockingly like those images we have come to associate with European Westerns. This is not entirely surprising when one considers the social and political parallels between outlaws, bandits and gypsies within the two seemingly disparate cultures. Gypsies serve many of the same functions in Russian folklore as Westerns do in American and Western European traditions in terms of providing a romantic depiction of a societal “outsider” and the moral code that both isolates the “outsider” while also drawing the “outsider” into the fabric of our shared moral understandings which, at times, differ from the laws of our society.

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

The romantic depictions of gypsy outlaws and their Robin Hood existence are all designed so that within a sequence a musical climax is reached, erupting from fable to musical ecstasy and flamboyance. The economy of images in Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven privileges wide shots that ground characters either within the context of a mass (the gypsy communities) or of a location (urban versus pastoral). Balancing this aesthetic program is Loteanu’s use of POV close-ups. The close-ups in Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven are sensual and emotional, using a shallow depth of field to isolate subjects in the center of frame, confrontationally communicating emotion in a manner that is almost direct address. The spatial discrepancies between wide shots and POV close ups make up a rhythm that coincides with the rising and falling of Doga’s music in the soundtrack. Often the film will, as a scene progresses, speed up the rate of cutting in anticipation of the music and then, once the song has begun, cut to the beat of the music. This dialogue between the auditory and the visual in the film, its ebb and flow, is well suited to the gypsy folk style of music, imbuing the film with an overall sense of folkloric fantasy and the sort of revelry one associates with such spectacles.

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven finds its most entrancing and memorable images in the scenes between the ill fated lovers Rada (Svetlana Toma) and Zobar (Grigore Grigoriu). The scene where Rada appears almost like a phantom out of a thicket to tend Zobar’s wounds contains the most expressionistic of shots in the film. As Rada approaches Zobar with her hand out, the camera takes a position twenty degrees to her right, with a shallow focus that is sharp only on her hand. This eerie emergence gives way to their sensual exchange as Rada tends Zobar’s wounds, conveying to us, in visual terms, that it is Rada who is seducing Zobar (an interesting role reversal).

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

One of the reasons that Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven is not better known in the West today may in fact be due largely to its relative “low-brow” stature and wide commercial appeal. The year Loteanu made Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven also saw the release of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975). Though Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven may hold the record for the widest release of a Russian film in all of time (and made an international star out of Svetlana Toma), it doesn’t have the intellectual merits of a film by Tarkovsky, which is to say that it can never find its stride with a contemporary Western audience whose motive in seeing most foreign films is predicated by the notion that a foreign film should affirm one’s intelligence and cultural literacy.

-Robert Curry

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The Square Peg

“Why make it sad to be gay? Doing your thing is O.K. Our bodies are our own so leave us alone. Go play with yourself-today.” – John Lennon, The Gay Liberation Book, 1972

German film poster

The subject of homosexuality had arrived at a watershed moment by 1967. The mainstream of Hollywood could no longer repress depictions of homosexuality into the niche of lesbianism in accordance with heterosexual male fantasy. Successes like Andy Warhol’s My Hustler (1965), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) in the underground cinemas of New York and other urban centers had paved the way for new characterizations of queerness in the American cinema at large. Until 1967, depictions of male homosexuality had been limited to Tony Randall and Rock Hudson’s relationship in a slew of films with Doris Day or to foreign film markets. Anyone familiar with the works of such critics and film essayists as Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Richard Dyer, Andrea Weiss, and Mark Rappaport knows at this point how brutally closeted Hollywood was (and still is). That is to say that there exists a large body of film criticism dedicated solely to deciphering the coded messages of queerness in the cinema.

Homosexuality in the novel is an entirely different matter. Gay characters were not as restricted as their Hollywood counterparts by the mid twentieth century. Though still a controversial “subject” from the perspective of the American mainstream, homosexuality in the novel enjoyed a rare degree of liberty. It is important to note that depictions of homosexual love that were the least bit explicit were bound to get an author’s work branded as the worst kind of debauched pornography (such was the case with Jean Genet for instance). It was into this milieu that Carson McCullers unleashed her novel of longing and repressed desires Reflections In A Golden Eye in 1941.

When, in 1967, Warner Brothers released their film version of McCullers’ novel, the film bombed terribly. In part this was due to the general conservatism of America as a whole, and partly because Reflections In A Golden Eye wasn’t released in the same manner of distribution as the films of Warhol, Smith, and Anger. The presumed target audience for such a film was not going to be interested in a John Huston film, nor were they going to rush to some “square” theater if a hip and happening alternative theater is showing something more in line with the times (Warhol, Smith and Anger). Or even worse, they wouldn’t want to be seen attending a screening of such a film for fear of being outed.

It does make sense for a Hollywood major to select material like McCullers’ novel to adapt into a film. This is primarily because the novel is so adept at articulating its character’s sense of repression and guilt that it would be easy, while adapting the work, to imbue it with enough heterosexual paranoia as to negate any realistic depiction of queerness, thus continuing to vilify and deride homosexual characters. So where the novel’s focus is clearly the existential crises of identities distorted through social repression, the film recasts the circumstances of the novel to focus instead upon the theme of queerness as subterfuge of traditional heteronormative marriage.

The Penderton stables

Of all of John Huston’s films, Reflections In A Golden Eye is by far the most unusual. He certainly doesn’t appear at first to have been the director most suitable for the material either. Huston’s name, and indeed his legend, centers on the kind of machismo one associates with Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer. Huston’s reputation as an auteur had only recently been established by Andrew Sarris in the early sixties. When he made Reflections In A Golden Eye most audiences knew Huston better as a larger than life adventurer who directed such beloved films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948). What was perhaps Huston’s greatest gift, however, were his abilities as a screenwriter. A talent that Warner Brothers neglected to enlist when adapting McCullers’ novel. The screenplay was penned by Huston’s close friend Gladys Hill (who would work again with Huston on The Man Who Would Be King) and Chapman Mortimer (an alias of Scottish author W.C. Mortimer).

The film Reflections In A Golden Eye centers upon two couples which provide the center of its narrative complex. There is on the one hand Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) and his wife Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor) and on the other hand there is Lt. Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and his wife Alison Langdon (Julie Harris). Within this primary complex the couples are intimately linked, not by friendship, but sexually; Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon are having an affair. Which leads to the next outer ring of the complex. Both Major Penderton and Alison Langdon have found new outlets for their affections that are impossible to physically, and therefore sexually, obtain. Major Penderton longs for Private Williams (Robert Forster) just as Alison longs for Anacleto (Zorro David), her servant.

Alison’s relationship with Anacleto is the most unusual in the film. Her servant is depicted as extremely feminine yet retains a gender ambiguity. However, with blocking Huston conveys another level in the relationship. The compositions of Alison and Anacleto together recall classic depictions of Sapphic love. This suggests that Anacleto, due to his inherent degree of intimacy and his constant proximity as well as his androgyny, is merely a substitute or surrogate for Alison’s lesbian impulses. This relationship goes undetected in the narrative, for Lt. Colonel Langdon is so hostile and homophobic toward Anacleto that he never truly observes his wife’s companion. These are all details concerning Anacleto that are never actually articulated by the character himself. As both Langdons project their unique concepts of Anacleto’s identity on to him, he is destined to remain relatively neglected in the film.

This can also be said with regards to the character of Private Williams. When we are first introduced to Williams in the film he is observed nude, voyeuristically watching the Penderton’s house. As he becomes more daring, eventually breaking in to watch Leonora sleep and steal a kiss, he provokes the attentions of Major Penderton. Williams, like Anacleto, remains relatively abstract and unknown to the audience. Instead we are left only with the reactionary sense of fear provided by both Pendertons and the sexual longing provided only by Major Penderton.

Brando & Keith

This complex, akin to a planet and it’s satellites in orbit, clearly places the idea that it is the queerness of Alison and Major Penderton that has undermined their marriages to the point where their spouses have no recourse other than to have an affair. The result of this chain of cause and effect is brutal and sadistic towards the films queer characters. Alison, with the aid of Anacleto, commits suicide in a sanitarium to which her husband has had her committed as they await their divorce. Likewise, Major Penderton, once exposed, is unable to reaffirm the necessary masculinity to retain either his wife’s respect nor the regard of his fellow officers. Major Penderton, at the end of the film, has been emasculated by his wife, scorned by his fellow officers, and rejected by the object that he desires. In both characters’ cases it is essential to, as with most people practicing a queer or alternative lifestyle during that time, to remain in the closet. This unjust circumstance has the effect of Stockholm Syndrome, where the emotional ties in marriages like the ones depicted in Reflections In A Golden Eye are very real, as is the sense of self-identity that is born out of such emotional intimacy. The film Reflections In A Golden Eye, unlike the novel, casts queerness as a tragedy.

Yet, there is more to Reflections In A Golden Eye than just the dramatic complex of its relationships. Like so many of Huston’s films during his late and most provocative period (commencing in 1964 with Night Of The Iguana and concluding with The Dead in 1987), there exist moments of such truthful visual poetry that entire sequences appear to transcend or entirely re-contextualize the rest of the film. From the start Huston has employed a wide variety of powerful signifiers. First, there are the Penderton’s horses which come to represent fertility, then the Privates’ uniform which represents the facelessness of the unknown, and finally, a thicket that comes to represent crucifixion. Still, the most moving sequence in the film occurs the second time Major Penderton goes riding on his wife’s favorite steed, hoping to catch a glimpse of Private Williams sunbathing in the nude atop a boulder.

The sequence unfolds in a series of long takes, panning with Major Penderton through the woods. Soon, shots of Williams are interspersed, but the framing stays wide. Then, the close up on Penderton’s face. Brando, seemingly doing nothing at all, conveys in a few briefly sustained shots a wellspring of emotions. In Brando’s eyes one can feel the carnal desire, the fear of these desires, and even more the fear of one’s self realized, confronted. What follows is the most disturbing but effective sequence in John Huston’s career: the rebuff, and the thicket in which Penderton becomes terribly scratched, then the beating Penderton administers to his wife’s horse. All these elements provide a climactic and nightmarish catharsis. All of Penderton’s repressed emotions, beautifully communicated by Brando using just his face, come pouring forth powerfully in a violent stream of frustration.

It is tempting to credit the powerful sequence addressed above and its sense of atmosphere that permeates the rest of Reflections In A Golden Eye solely to John Huston, given his adeptness for psychologically intense character investigations as evidenced by Fat City (1972), Wise Blood (1979), and Under The Volcano (1984). But the uniqueness of this moment in the careers of both Marlon Brando and John Huston indicates otherwise. Not to mention the contributions made by cinematographer Aldo Tonti, whose previous credits include films by Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.

Keith, Taylor & Brando

All of Brando’s subsequent scenes in Reflections In A Golden Eye are replete with the same emotional intensity. This enables the film to transcend the script’s queer shaming agenda to become what is probably the most impactful portrait of closeted homosexuality in the mainstream of American cinema until the 1990s. But this makes Reflections In A Golden Eye all the more problematic. The audience has the opportunity to emote with Major Penderton in a way that is denied to Alison and Anacleto. Similarly, Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon come of progressively more and more elitist, sleazy, and bigoted. Such characterizations are hardly out of place in a drama set on a military base, but it does signify an obvious preference on Huston’s part for the character of Major Penderton. Essentially, it is a matter of Huston and his collaborators working against the script to do two things. First, to humanize an outsider character that typically would not be allowed to appear so sympathetic and realistic. Secondly, to showcase a major star and celebrity as a means to get away with a sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual.

Brando himself is a major part of the visual complex employed by Huston in Reflections In A Golden Eye. It is uncertain if John Huston was aware of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising or if he ever saw it. Regardless, the film Jonas Mekas described as “brilliant” upon its premiere provides an association or reference point for the visual schema of Reflections In A Golden Eye. Anger’s sordid tales of biker boy debauchery and satanic euphoria that compose Scorpio Rising employs an image of Marlon Brando, taken from László Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), of the star decked out in tight black leather. The mirror images of Anger’s own biker beauties with that of their idol/ideal metamorphoses the Brando image from The Wild One beyond its original context and into a signifier and fetish item. This fetishized image of Brando is recalled, intentionally or not, in a brief scene in Reflections In A Golden Eye where Brando, wearing an under shirt similar to that which he wore in The Wild One, ogles his biceps in a mirror. So in one instant, Huston is able to re-orient Brando/Penderton as a fellow spectator, idolizing and fetishizing his own image while also re-enforcing, beyond a doubt, the queer potential of the Penderton character.

It should be noted that not only were most homosexuals being oppressed or living closeted lives in 1967, but that even in the wake of Reflections In A Golden Eye filmic depictions of queerness within the mainstream still struggled to escape vilification (or heterosexual male fetishization in the case of lesbian depictions). One of the few depictions of homosexuality in the sixties that was not designed to shame or vilify came two years later; Stanley Donen’s Staircase (1969). Staircase could get away with a more “truthful” or sympathetic depiction of homosexuality than Reflections In A Golden Eye because the two stars (Rex Harrison and Richard Burton) were notorious womanizers that no one could take seriously in the parts of homosexuals (something that couldn’t be said for Brando), the source material had been a hit show for playwright Charles Dyer, and its ad campaign trivialized the subject matter to the point of farce (needless to say, Staircase met with the same fate as Reflections In A Golden Eye at the box office). Filmic depictions of queerness from the sixties that have become popular now like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968) and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait Of Jason (1967) had a severely limited run in American art-houses, thus negating any national exposure and remaining completely inaccessible to most of the gay community. In this way the explicit depictions of homosexuality remained exactly where most of America wanted them in the sixties; in the margins of our society.

-Robert Curry

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Vinyl en Vogue

Commedia Sexy All Italiana

Though the soundtrack music of a film often escapes serious consideration in most formal film criticism, anyone who has made a film and had the luxury of an original soundtrack is well aware of the importance of the music that lends itself to the image. I found this to be particularly true for myself with regards to my last feature, scored by Stephen Mercy. Luckily, with vinyl in vogue again, there are a number of labels issuing the formal debuts of soundtracks as well as reissuing established favorites and cult classic soundtracks. The overwhelming majority of these releases is catered to the latter genre of cult films. This shouldn’t be surprising considering the ample opportunities for profit permitted by special and limited editions of novelty items in any collector’s market.

Perhaps the strangest novelty release, that I am aware of, is Commedia Sexy All’ Italiana (published by Mediane Libri in 2007). This is a handsome hardcover book of stills from Italy’s “sexy comedy” genre that also comes with a CD that anthologizes a number of the themes from the most notable of these films such as Bora Bora, Loving Cousins, Prickly Pears, Chaste and Pure, etc. The music is varied, covering a number of genres but always with that distinct Italian sound that those familiar with the Crippled Dick Hot Wax label’s Beat Of Cinecitta Vol. 1-3 will certainly enjoy. Most of the films covered in the book’s single essay by Gordiano Lupi are unavailable in the United States. So this “document” of film stills and musical themes is really the only extensive insight we have into this genre of Italian filmmaking available in English. Though it may not seem essential to the study of Italian cinema or world cinema as a whole, the once enormously popular films referenced in this book speak to a nation during a specific period. Not to mention the role this release could play in expanding the surveys of sexuality in the cinema.

Bobby Beausoleil's Lucifer Rising soundtrack

Another impressive releases of this re-issue frenzy was the boxed set The Lucifer Rising Suite: The Music Of Bobby Beausoleil. Released by The Ajna Offensive in 2009 and again in 2013, this release collects not only the final score for Kenneth Anger’s last epic, but also a number of alternate versions and outtakes. The set, pressed on colored vinyl, also includes an in-depth booklet charting the evolution of Beausoleil score as well as two full color posters of original artwork by the composer. Anyone interested in the history of Lucifer Rising’s production history or Kenneth Anger in general will find this release essential. Not only does it do a thorough job of casting the now infamous production of Lucifer Rising perpetuated by Kenneth Anger and his unauthorized biographer Bill Landis in a new light, it also dispels the notion that Beausoleil was an opportunistic hack.

A similar package was put together by Blue Jazz Records in 2015 for the release of Kailash. The music contained within this set is composed of solo piano versions of music for the film Kailash (directed by Florian Fricke and Frank Fiedler) and the Popol Vuh versions of the same compositions. This release also anthologized a number of related piano recordings by Fricke made between the sessions for the soundtrack in 1978 and as recently as 1989. So like The Lucifer Rising Suite: The Music Of Bobby Beausoleil, Kailash is a compact history of a musical document and its relationship to the images that inspired it. It is also worth noting that a DVD of Kailash is included in this double album set.

Florian Fricke

Kailash, in the Blue Jazz Records package, pinpoints succinctly the aesthetic exchange at work between filmmaker Werner Herzog and the band responsible for the scores to such films as Aguirre The Wrath Of God, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht and Heart Of Glass. Fricke and Fiedler’s film, Kailash, functions as a meditative travelogue of their pilgrimage to the far east. But their choice of images, and the duration with which they confront us with them, all signify an opening up and expanding of Herzog’s aesthetic treatment of place. In this way Kailash is far more comparable to Herzog’s own Fata Morgana than it is to his more traditionally narrative features. For Fricke and Fiedler the emphasis is the effect of space on man within a context that requires far more in terms of audience participation than Herzog’s own films which are in many respects often hindered in this mode by their narrative which permits a notion of removal in its spectator. Fricke’s compositions, spartan and ethereal, reflect this sense of space and duration, obscuring and abstracting the musical themes that came to define his work with Herzog.

The last release that I think is worth discussing in-depth is the Death Waltz Recording Company release of Joe Delia’s soundtrack to Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 in 2014. Despite the popularity of Ferrara’s film, Delia’s score had never been pressed to vinyl before. Here one can hear the original soundtrack remastered under Delia’s supervision in a clear, crisp mix. This pressing also includes extensive liner notes and comments by Delia, as well as an original poster by Alice X. Zhang. Fans of Ferrara’s work will find all of this to be great fun as well as an excellent tool for dissecting and re-evaluating Ferrara’s first truly successful feature.

Previously I have discussed at length Dagored’s re-issues of Claudio Gizzi’s soundtracks for Paul Morrissey’s films Blood For Dracula and Flesh For Frankenstein. I’m happy to say that Dagored has maintained their output of high quality soundtrack reissues. Similar labels have also put out equally impressive editions. Doxy Cinematic has released the soundtracks to Orson Welles’ The Trial and John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues while the label Finders Keepers has issued releases of Andrzej Korzynski’s score for Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession and Jean-Bernard Raiteux’s score for Jess Franco’s Les Demons; to name just a few that I have been most excited about.

Ms.45 gatefold

This is not merely a renaissance of sorts solely to be enjoyed by avid record collectors. The information and insights provided by releases such as those mentioned above provide serious and compelling insight into these comparatively obscure films. For the first time, the soundtracks to films are being released with the same care and attention to detail as the films from which they have originated. This affords new frontiers in many respects for the critical discourse surrounding these films. I believe it is essential not to allow such opportunities to slip away (especially when so many pressings are in limited editions).

-Robert Curry

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Starring Roger Moore As James Bond

RogerMoore_007-1600x720.jpg

One couldn’t help but be saddened by Roger Moore’s passing at age 89. My heart sank when I read the news on Monday morning. Roger Moore is best known as the man who played Ian Fleming’s famous spy James Bond in more films than any other actor. His depiction of Bond may be the most parodied, but in many respects that sense of parody was initiated by Moore.

Sean Connery’s Bond is a tough, sexually aggressive and predatory character. He reflects the feeling of masculinity in jeopardy of his times, as swinging London gave way to the summer of love and sexual liberation. When Connery first played Bond, the Beatles sang only love songs, when Moore took over the mantle in 1973 with Live & Let Die, the Beatles were no more, there was only Wings.

Moore’s interpretation of James Bond reflects his times, from Black Power to Watergate, to Reagan. For Moore, Bond offered audiences an escape from the horrors and the monotony of their everyday existence into a world of absurd cartoon physics, wacky gadgets, gorgeous women, and terribly corny puns. Moore never took Bond too seriously, he knew it was absurd, and he knew that was what kept people coming in droves to see the Bond films.

Live & Let Die (1973), The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) are Moore’s best Bond films. The writing is taught, the sleaze is thick, and the glamour is tacky. In these films the milieu of Fleming’s novels are best preserved. Moore’s self awareness in his part, combined with this aesthetic made him more inviting in many ways than Connery had been, and certainly less predatory. The gigantic set pieces of Moonraker, Octopussy and A View To A Kill were yet to come.

As Roger Moore began his tenure as Bond in the early seventies there had not yet been Star Wars, nor had United Artists become so totally dependent upon the grosses of the Bond films for its survival. As all of this changed, the films grew and grew in there spectacle, to the point that Moore’s take on the character seemed out of place. By the mid-eighties, with Reagan in office, the chauvinism of Bond was no longer to be interpreted as a dark joke, but to be celebrated quietly (as it eventually would be in the hands of Pierce Brosnan). Bond couldn’t be “camp” anymore.

Given the progress of film technology, it is Moore’s excellent sense of camp that actually makes his films the most accessible in the pre-Brosnan era of Bond (Connery’s first two outings are by far the best, but the films that followed are equally as trite as Moore’s worst pictures). From a historian’s perspective, it is fascinating to watch Moore’s early Bond films in terms of their give and take relationship with Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite films as well as other films of the Blacksploitation genre.

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Die hard fans of Bond tend to be dismissive of Roger Moore’s contributions to the franchise, preferring the hard hitting antics of Daniel Craig or the classy and sleek delivery of sleaze of Brosnan’s Bond. But I remember as a kid in the third grade telling my father that I had seen two Bond films at a sleepover. He warned me to avoid the Roger Moore films. I didn’t do as my father asked because I wanted to see for myself; and I actually enjoyed them. They were funnier than the other films, and they felt more removed like a dream.

Roger Moore’s version of James Bond is very much a dream. The world of those films is not the serious matter of life and death we associate with the idea of Bond. Roger Moore knew he was inhabiting the “dreams” of young men, and his films reflect that, they invite us to share that dream, in all of its silly prepubescent logic.

-Robert Curry

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Alien: Covenant

The best part of Ridley Scott’s latest offering, Alien: Covenant (2017), is when Michael Fassbender kisses Michael Fassbender. The film features Fassbender in dual roles as the androids David and Walter and, of course, they kiss. This is bound to be great fun for fans of the actor, but it pinpoints a troubling side to Scott’s cinema. If one considers that it is the film’s villain, David, who kisses his double Walter, one cannot escape the legacy of villainizing characters who do not conform to heteronormative sexual practice. The stand-out representative of this trend in Scott’s films is Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in 2000’s Gladiator.

Alien: Covenant

Repetition is the theme of Alien: Covenant in more respects than just the one stated above. For it seems that the narrative of Alien: Covenant is born out of a fusion between James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and Erle C. Kenton’s The Island Of Lost Souls (1932). Thus, Alien: Covenant is as predictable as 2012’s Prometheus was subversive. There is now, more than ever, a sense of formula to 20th Century Fox’s Alien franchise. Not only does Alien: Covenant rehash familiar narratives, it also recycles it’s characters. By casting Katherine Waterston as the protagonist Daniels in a position within the narrative not dissimilar to that of Ripley in the original films, Scott has diminished the subversive potential of a female protagonist within a science fiction film.

Ridley Scott’s strengths as a filmmaker are, however, very much present in Alien: Covenant. The attention to detail in the set design and the pervading sense of atmosphere render this mediocre film far more visceral than it has a right to be. This does not redeem the series of special effects and stunts that send us blundering through Alien: Covenant’s narrative though. A criticism that seems applicable to almost all of Scott’s work.

Interestingly, this pattern of repetition or doubling appears to have extended beyond the confines of Scott’s work on its own terms. Just as Ridley Scott began his career by emulating Stanley Kubrick in his underappreciated first feature The Duelists (1977), so has Denis Villeneuve been emulating Scott since 2013’s Prisoners. This aesthetic intersection only occurred to me when the latest trailer for Blade Runner 2049 played before Alien: Covenant. Villeneuve is quite literally replacing Scott as he helms the sequel to the acclaimed 1982 film into the world of the franchise. My impressions of Blade Runner 2049 are actually quite similar to those I had of Alien: Covenant upon first seeing the latter’s trailer; haven’t I already seen this? Within this complex of subtle codification it is entertaining to ponder if Ryan Gosling really is to a generation of viewers what Harrison Ford was before him.

-Robert Curry

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Stanley Kwan & The Death Of Ruan Ling-yu

“Woman’s awareness of herself is not defined exclusively by her sexuality: it reflects a situation that depends upon the economic organization of society, which in turn indicates what stage of technical evolution mankind has attained.” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1952

Maggie Cheung as Ruan Ling-yu

Critical discourse typically presents a cinematic celebrity or persona, be it that of a performer, director, producer, etc., in binary terms; either in circumstances of fetishization or philosophication.  Even then, in terms of cinematic depictions, the former far succeeds the latter.  Films such as Larry Peerce’s Wired (1989) present this fetishization in the most trivializing and offensive manner, though, in spite of itself, a highly marketable one.  Few films have been able to transcend this exploitative stance on biographical material concerning actors and filmmakers.  Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) is a rare exception.  Unlike most commercial films with similar subjects, Rappaport manages to balance both biographical information with critical investigation.  In Rock Hudson’s Home Movies Eric Farr plays the titular subject, and it is he who walks us through clips collected from Hudson’s filmography and offers us a biographical context, as well as a new perspective with which to view and analyze these selected clips in a context indigenous to the 1990s.  Hence Rappaport’s film tends to be more anthropological than it does anything else.  The approach Rappaport takes towards his subject in terms of technique demands a great deal of the spectator, accounting for why so few have followed in his footsteps outside of the vein of short video essays.  On the surface, Stanley Kwan appears to be marrying both techniques and aesthetics together in his film Actress (1992).  However the cross textual relationship between both sections of Actress complicate such a reading in how one aspect of the film informs the other within a binary complex.  

One part of Actress is set in 1992 and shot on video.  This section charts the legacy of the films subject, Ruan Ling-yu, to varying degrees. The other section of the film follows Maggie Cheung in the part of Ruan Ling-yu reenacting the events that resulted in the famous actress’ suicide in 1935 at the height of her career.  These two different sections are shuffled together, a moment from one section may be echoed in another, and vice versa.  The effect is that Actress is as much about the death of Ruan Ling-yu as it is about how her death shaped her legacy.

Kwan is interested in what Ruan Ling-yu’s persona means and how audiences have come to deal with it.  In American terms one could roughly equate Ruan Ling-yu’s legacy with that of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe.  For Kwan there are two kinds of images at work in Actress; the immediate and the abstract.  The abstract images represent the “immortal” aspect of Ruan Ling-yu’s persona.  These images are collected in the film in the 1992 pseudo documentary section, though they are all of the past.  Each of these images are of Ruan Ling-yu herself, either in clips from her films that coincide with Cheung’s reenacting of their production or from old newspaper clippings.  The images here are of Ruan Ling-yu as she once was and has remained, immortalized by the camera, rendered exclusively to the confines of our collective imagination.  The immediate images represent the mortal part of her persona; the flesh and blood.  This is rendered in Cheung’s performance as Ruan Ling-yu in a fabricated reality born out of Kwan’s imagining of her life.  Here the audience emotes with the character of Ruan Ling-yu as it shares in her experiences; an inclusive experience as opposed to the exclusive experience of the other section.  It is also telling that it is the fiction that is more of a reality to an audience than the reality of Ruan Ling-yu remembered and discussed in the documentary section.

Center Stage

That these immediate images consist primarily of Ruan Ling-yu’s domestic life and her life at work at Lianhua Film Company.  In both contexts (home life and work life) the primary concern is with how a woman navigates societal constructs that are male dominated.  Within the depictions of Ling-yu’s work-life it is also important to note that Kwan goes out of his way to show the audience some of the workings of a production that do note concern Ling-yu; there is no narrative agenda or motivation.  What this enables Kwan to do is to reinforce the notion of male dominance.  The film directors, the cameramen, the gaffers, boom operators, etc. are all male, and each has a hand in constructing the filmic image of the Ling-yu character, defining her persona for the public.  Ling-yu’s work is that of a performer, one of emotion and experience.  The juxtaposition of these two types of creative invention or work epitomize the sexual politics of the early thirties, articulating the presumed roles of both sexes within the societal machine.  Scenes that concern Ling-yu’s love life, her adopted daughter and mother, her first husband and so on reiterate the female’s submissive role at home.  Ling-yu’s stoicism, another societal mandate of the time, during these sections suggest that her work as an actress was the only means of an emotional outlet available to her.

The 35mm film contrasted with video is a more visceral representation of binary complexes at work in Actress.  This can be read as an echo of the immediate and the abstract, the then and the now, the real and fantasy, the male and the female.  The manner as well as the content of the documentary style footage is distinctly more female than the 35mm fantasy of Cheung’s reenactment.  In these sections set in the early 90s Kwan points his camera to Ling-yu’s niece, who knew her, as well as Maggie Cheung, who plays her.  We are given two female perspectives of Ruan Ling-yu.  These perspectives also work within a binary complex.  The intimate and the superficial acquaintance, the domestic and the public persona.  Each woman’s testimony compliments as well as contradicts one another at times, rendering Ling-yu as a more complicated abstract; unknowable.  

The 35mm sections of Actress that interrupt and disperse the video section conforms to a more romanticized perspective.  Kwan shows us imagined reality, a past made tangible, if only briefly, through illusion.  Kwan’s masculine gaze is controlled and effective, taking measures never to trivialize the characters.  One could even argue that his homosexuality, his outsider status in China, allows him to relate to Ruan Ling-yu in a very intimate way, identifying with her feelings of suppression.  Regardless, Kwan is allowed a greater selectivity of the images he shows us in this section since the images are born out of his own creativity and not out of another’s reminiscence or conjecture.  

Ultimately, Actress is concerned with Ruan Ling-yu’s death.  Every aspect of the film has been staged or selected by Stanley Kwan to give a context as to why Ling-yu committed suicide as well as to the legacy that she left behind.  This framework exaggerates the multiple binary complexes within the film as well as presents Ruan Ling-yu as an allegorical figure.  In China, the mark of the end of early cinema is often pinpointed with the death of Ling-yu, just as in American cinema this is pinpointed, more or less, by the release of The Jazz Singer (1927).  That Kwan makes this film and frames it in this historical context at the close of the twentieth century has a good deal to do with his later project Yang+Yin (1996).

Actress

Yang+Yin may be a more traditional documentary feature on the history of Chinese cinema, but it represents the same impetus as Actress.  Looking back at China’s cinematic history from the nineties, in both films, Kwan finds constants in the overall character of his national cinema.  In Yang+Yin Kwan examines these constants from the outside, almost anthropologically, while with Actress he looks first at the human catalyst of cinematic art, focusing on the most iconic and renowned of Chinese film stars.   The sense of mortality in both films is essential to their readings.  Kwan sees Ruan Ling-yu in much the same way as he sees the cinema as a whole; a conflict between immediate expression and its impact with the legacy and reappropriation that that work inevitably will assume with the passage of time.  

-Robert Curry

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Fear City: Abel Ferrara In Transition

Fear City

Abel Ferrara’s career, and more importantly his influence upon the American cinema, has almost exclusively been within the vernacular of the genre film.  Most consistently, he has worked within the crime film or neo-noir genre.  In the 1990s he found his greatest critical and commercial successes with the films King Of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and The Addiction (1995).  If one considers that, with the exception of The Addiction, all of these films are crime films, one begins to understand how important the aesthetic milieu of the genre is to his work.  For although The Addiction is more specifically a horror film, it too cannot escape many of the aesthetic trappings of his neo-noir works, a significant fact since this case of aesthetic appropriation occurs in virtually all of his non-crime films in one form or another.

It’s also important to note that Ferrara’s contemporaries, as varied as Jim Jarmusch, Michael Mann, and Sara Driver, are all essentially postmodernists as well as minimalists, though the latter is often only true out of budgetary necessity.  That said, Ferrara and Mann are the only two who are principally concerned with finding a means by which to align classic genres toward more contemporary political concerns as well as to contemporary aesthetic tastes.  Mann does this with an uncanny aptness for “updating” what is essentially old material (1986’s Manhunter), while Ferrara subverts and deconstructs his genre films in the process of discovering new possibilities for characters that appear to initially be archetypal in many respects.

However, what can never be stressed enough, particularly during the phase of Ferrara’s career between the pornographic 9 Lives Of A Wet Pussy (1976) and the intimate epic The Funeral (1996), is the impact of Nicholas St. John as screenwriter.  St. John and Ferrara are both equally the authors of the films made within this twenty year span and any discussion of these films should consider both men’s contributions.  We know from the extensive supplemental features on the Artisan DVD release of King Of New York that the Catholic guilt, self-sabotaging machismo, and sexual ineptness of many of these films’ protagonists is the product of St. John’s own neuroses.  Similarly, the strong visual rhymes in these films, as well as the extensive use of shadows and quick pans are the product of Ferrara’s visual sensibilities.

Of the films Ferrara directed that Nicholas St. John wrote between 1976 and 1996, perhaps one of the most unusual is Fear City (1984).  Though in many respects Fear City represents a failure of sorts, it is still a highly compelling failure that is worth considering more than once.  What sets Fear City apart from the work that preceded it is that it moves away from the grindhouse style of The Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1982) in favor of the  mainstream neo-noir with an ensemble cast.  

Noir lighting in Fear City

1984 was the year for neo-noir.  The stage had been set in 1982 by Paul Schrader’s Cat People and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (both films homages to director Jacques Tourneur).  1984 saw not only the release of Fear City, but also Brian DePalma’s Body Double, and the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple.  Body Double and Blood Simple would popularize the neo-noir, giving it enough commercial longevity to see the genre through the mid-1990s.  What Body Double, Body Heat, and Blood Simple all set out to do is to make a forties style thriller, or film noir if you like, with a contemporary setting and photographed in color.  The success of these films is therefore not on their ability to adapt a forties aesthetic for the eighties, but to succeed as postmodernist constructs, paradoxically critical of the mechanics of the genre even whilst those mechanics are being employed for the perpetuation of the genre itself.

Fear City’s influences are only generally those of Jacques Tourneur in so far as Out Of The Past (1947), Cat People (1942), and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) represent some of the most potent and disturbing fantasies about American identity crisis ever shot in black and white.  Tourneur’s influence is therefore inextricably tied up in any dialogue concerning a film whose aesthetic concerns are those of film noir.  More specifically, Fear City appears indebted to Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1949), Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), and Nicholas Ray’s largely underappreciated On Dangerous Ground (1951).  

The manner in which Nicholas Ray depicts the squalor, immorality and sleaze of the big city in the opening of On Dangerous Ground seems to have set a precedent for Ferrara’s Fear City.  Both films open with a bang, bringing the audience face to face with some of the more unpleasant aspects of urban living.  This sets the tone for each film.  Fear City idealizes the trappings and dressings of early 80s Times Square, and is happy to challenge its audience to accept this locale as the heart of the film’s narrative thrust whilst On Dangerous Ground uses this device as a means to ground the protagonist of the film in a space more closely associated with thrillers than the space the protagonist ultimately ends up spending most of his time in; the snowy countryside.  

The Robert Ryan police detective of On Dangerous Ground, one could argue, also informs St. Johns’ writing of the Billy Dee Williams character in Fear City.  Both characters are tough on crime, immorality, and those who choose to keep the company of either.  Yet Williams’ character is written to be more by the book than Ryan’s, but only just so.  In either case, both characters are clearly the product of the archetypal “honest cop” first glimpsed in Robert Siodmak The Killers (1946) as portrayed by Sam Levene.   There they diverge.  In Fear City the only black character of note is Williams’ hard-nosed good cop.  This stands in opposition to the typical delegation of black characters to the peripherals of the narrative, mostly in roles of henchman or drug dealers.  Ferrara and St. John prefer to privilege Williams’ character with authority.  This subversive act turns the race politics on its head, and would be echoed again in the Lawrence Fishburne/Wesley Snipes relationship in their later King Of New York.

Billy Dee Williams

The Set-Up also seems to have influenced the means by which Ferrara and St. John articulate the dregs of society in Fear City.  Fear City shares The Set-Up’s penchant for brief ensemble scenes whose relevance to the narrative is unclear, more motivated by ambiance.  There is an explicit connection between how Robert Wise stages and photographs the boxing match in The Set-Up and how Ferrara echoes that approach in Fear City.  Neither prefers the stark approach of Mark Robson’s The Champion (1949), favoring an inclusiveness where, even if the audience for the fight is not shown, they are certainly heard.

There is also a strong correlation between how Wise depicts and treats the Robert Ryan/Audrey Totter relationship and how Ferrara and St. John depict the Tom Berenger/Melanie Griffith relationship.  In both The Set-Up and Fear City each character in a relationship is allowed an autonomy and an acceptance of that autonomy by their partner.  This is not typical of American cinema in the forties, film noir, nor neo noir.  One of the fundamental narrative tropes of the genre is a character of one sex’s desire for control or possession of a character of the opposite sex (Out Of The Past, Gun Crazy, The Killers, On Dangerous Ground, Body Heat, Body Double, Cat People).  St. John and Ferrara embrace this anomaly as a means by which to modernize their interpretation of the genre.  It also enables them the chance to further counter the inherently misogynistic aspects of Fear City along the same lines as they had done prior in Ms. 45, though that will be discussed later.

Finally, Gun Crazy provides St. John and Ferrara with a rough sketch of their protagonist (Tom Berenger) in Fear City.  Gun Crazy’s Bart (John Dall) is an expert marksman who cannot bring himself to hurt another living thing because of a childhood trauma, much in the same way that Berenger’s Matt Rossi gives up boxing and violence in general after he inadvertently kills a man in the ring.  In Gun Crazy and Fear City each man must navigate their own moral code, only to forsake it at the climax as a kind of redemption.  It’s important to note that Rossi, unlike Bart, does not forsake his code in either a sacrifice nor as a form of self-martyrdom.  Rossi’s abandonment of his moral code is motivated by his love for Loretta (Melanie Griffith) and his desire to protect her.  When Rossi boxes again, it is to defend Loretta and kill the maniac who has been assaulting strippers.  Bart’s death and his moral break is unusually Christ-like, which seems more fitting within the context of Fear City and/or Rossi, since Rossi’s Catholicism figures largely in how he views his own morality as well as the ramifications of his own actions.  Before Rossi sets out to confront the murderous maniac, he goes to confession with the intent of procuring God’s forgiveness and salvation before the murder even occurs.  The dividing factor between Bart’s behavior and Rossi’s, which St. John stresses, is Rossi’s own fear of himself, of God, and his fear for his own soul.

Though these aesthetic threads link Fear City with film noir explicitly, these aesthetic tropes have, themselves, been so integrated with St. John’s own private concerns that they carry through, connecting with the later films such as Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral.  In terms of auteurist theory, Fear City functions as a conduit for textual exchange.  Fear City can, however, only be defined as such by the means with which Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John mutate and pervert their cinematic inheritance to serve their own subjective interests as filmmakers.

These mutations and perversions of genre mechanics by Ferrara and St. John go beyond the inverted racial politics of Fear City.  One of the most attractive aspects of the film is its treatment of women.  What may be the strongest sequence in Fear City occurs early on in the film and is indicative of Ferrara’s treatment of women in his films as much as it is a compression of the entirety of his previous film Ms. 45.  The sequence begins with an opening credit sequence of topless girls and strippers at work in Times Square.  From there Ferrara cuts to Berenger arriving at the strip joint where Melanie Griffith (one of the “models” employed by Berenger) is performing.  Berenger and his partner go into an office to negotiate with the facility’s manager.  From here, Ferrara cross cuts to Griffith’s performance, her cheering male audience, and the serial killer’s first murder (his victim is a stripper as well).  This dynamic use of montage equates the masculine gaze with acts of sexual violence, voyeurism with sadism.  

Melanie Griffith

More importantly, the women in Fear City are not the women of film noir.  They are neither victims nor predators.  They are autonomous units with fully realized and complex relationships.  The candor with which the filmmakers address Melanie Griffith’s character’s sexual fluidity immediately allows her character to transcend the audience’s assumptions that she is merely an object of desire and sexual fulfillment.  So although women are sexualized in the film, that sexualization is consistently undermined much in the same way as the sequence I cited above.  This jockeying back and forth between the polemics of sexual representation within the narrative milieu of Fear City represents the foundation for Ferrara’s interpretation of sexual politics in all of his films to follow.

The postmodern impulse of Fear City to subvert the very genre to which it aligns itself is not just the singular fancy of Abel Ferrara, it is inherently implied by  the very notion of neo-noir.  It is still of consequence to note a significant aesthetic shift that heavily informs the postmodern renderings of the genre.  Consider that by the eighties American cinematic tastes and sensibilities had shifted dramatically since the forties.  The idealization of heroes who are as good as they are corrupt, but nonetheless heroic, as epitomized by Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past, had given way to heroes that were even more flawed, and thusly far less heroic.  Gene Hackman seems to have best captured this post-sixties shift in sensibilities with his roles in Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Penn’s Night Moves (1975), and Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973).  In each of these three films Hackman is the “any man” in a quite literal sense.  As the seventies unfolded as the “me” decade, so did a new romantic notion of heroism.  It is from here that the neo-noir of American cinema adopted its new archetypal hero, the burnt out cousin of Robert Mitchum (played by Tom Berenger in Fear City).

Currency is not the exclusive motivation behind Ferrara and St. John’s post-modernist approach towards their material.  Films with an explicit relationship to what is commonly considered film noir had never really stopped being in vogue, nor did their production ever cease.  In the decade prior to Fear City’s release three of the most notable films to have an affiliation, if not an interest, in noir were released; Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The American Soldier (1970) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973).  None of these three films is neo-noir, each attempts a far more ambitious deconstruction of noir than what the more complacent neo-noir genre can attempt without becoming branded as “art-house”.  The significance of these three films and the manner with which they engage in a dialogue of noir aesthetics is that through the demystification and deconstruction of noir within the complexes of each of these three films one finds the very distillation that enables neo-noir to exist as a viable commercial genre.  Bertolucci appropriates a noir lighting scheme to lend psychological colorings to his images within a historical drama; Fassbinder breaks the narrative and visual tropes of noir down to a Brechtian minimalism to find the heart of noir’s allure as a romanticized fantasy; Altman denies every aspect of noir in his film except the promise of a nostalgia for film noir to be fulfilled, even though he has no interest in keeping that promise.

Tom Berenger

Fear City, as most neo-noir films do, implements each of these three tactics to a degree.  But Fear City, along with Body Heat, Blood Simple, Pulp Fiction, etc., is different from The Conformist, The American Soldier and The Long Goodbye mainly because the authors of these later films earnestly believe in the fantasy of film noir.  

Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John see film noir as a quintessential narrative construct in which to work.  Fear City represents an honest conviction and belief in the power of that genre.  That said, what is even more important about Fear City is that the genre of film noir/neo-noir is employed, distorted and manipulated in the search for an emotional truth.  This is Fear City’s greatest success.  The film may not live up to the superficial genre delights of Kasdan’s and Tarantino’s films, nor the analytical complexes of Fassbinder, Altman and Bertolucci, but it does find a filmmaker successfully mapping an approach to genre that is wholly unique and will be put to practice for the rest of his career.

-Robert Curry

 

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