Tuesday, August 08, 2006

New Film: Talladega Nights


Adam McKay's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, from a McKay and Will Ferrell screenplay, might just represent Hollywood's fullest engagement with American consumer culture (or at least NASCAR's hyperbolic variation) since Frank Tashlin's classic 1957 satire, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. Like Tashlin's comic masterwork, McKay's Ferrell vehicle (he is, surprise, the titular Ricky Bobby) utilizes a spectacle-intensive technique wherein live action commercials are inserted into the body of the film -- though in the marked exception of Talladega Nights, the products being shilled are real products, and the commercial insertions are in the middle of the film, rather in the beginning (over the credits) as with the Tashlin picture. Of course, the hand-wringing has already commenced vis-a-vis the film's mimicking of NASCAR ad culture, revealing nothing so much as the new puritanism of those who would decry the creeping presence of product placement in film art. Amazingly enough, I did not slip into Applebee's after the film -- in spite of the fact that there was actually an Applebee's in the Times Square multiplex where I saw Talladega Nights -- just like I did not make clothes out of the size fourteen women I murdered after watching The Silence of the Lambs. I do, however, find myself craving chipotle shrimp-stuffed chicken breast smothered in Monterrey Jack and a bottle of chianti, for what it's worth.

No, the point to the film's incessant commercialism is ultimately verisimilitudinal -- this is what NASCAR is like, and for those not in the know, it works: if you're a Dale Earnhart, Jr. fan, you're gonna drink Bud, and you've probably done so since you were six, when Bud Light started to taste like water to you. (Oh, all this jesting is in good fun; the truth is that I'd much rather watch NASCAR than say the NBA, and am knowledgeable enough to know that Jimmie Johnson is again in the points lead and that Jeff Gordon and Jr. are in real trouble this time.) And indeed, McKay, Ferrell, et al. make the most of this environ, which is perhaps most brilliantly sent up over one particularly juicy dinner scene, wherein, amidst a sea of Domino's boxes, KFC buckets and two liters of Coke, Ricky squabbles with his speed groupy wife over which is the best Jesus to pray to -- he prefers the infant Christ -- while his violently precocious boys, Walker and Texas Ranger, or T.R. for short, threaten their shrinking maternal grandfather.

Speaking of grandfathers, it is their paternal grandpa and Ricky's deadbeat dad, Reese Bobby (Gary Cole, in the best grandfather performance since Gene Hackman's magnificent Royal Tenenbaum) who really chews up his scenes, particularly when he reconnects with his son to help the latter regain his love of speed -- be it in getting his son to drive with a cougar to steady his nerves or by forcing him to outrun the cops after he tapes coke to the bottom of his son's car and then proceeds to snitch on him. Likewise, John C. Reilly as his best pal Cal Naughton, Jr. and Jane Lynch as his mother prove equal to Ferrell's comic brilliance. And then, of course, there's Sacha Baron Cohen's French Formula One drive, Jean Girard, who would seek to dethrone Ricky, before later admitting that his one dream in life is to move to Stockholm with his husband (Andy Richter in the arm-candy role he was born to play) and design currency for dogs and cats.

But in the end, this is a Will Ferrell vehicle, and the big guy doesn't let us down, whether he's running around in his tighty whities convinced that he's on fire -- this happens more than you might think -- selling pork rinds or wrestling the aforesaid cougar, Ferrell shows himself again to be the most dependably funny one-man show in American screen comedy today. And if you do go, stay through the final credits for Lynch's bed time reading -- and discussion of Southern lit. -- with her grandsons. After all, this is the type of American filmmaking where little distinction can be made between the closing credit blooper reel and the gags in the picture itself.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

New Film: Miami Vice

Michael Mann's Miami Vice is, if nothing else, certain to be the year's best looking American film. Transmogrifying his palette with the pastel and Caribbean hues of South Florida and its Latin American neighbors, Miami Vice follows the director's masterful Collateral (2004) as an articulation of the beauty of the urban landscape, dictated by the vibrant neon lighting -- particularly the electric blues -- that bathes the City. In terms of the aforesaid color schema, Mann registers Miami and its environs in a tapestry of mint greens, whites and pinks (which even combine in particularly aestheticized lens flares) that connote the tropical flavor of the region; the surrounding seascapes are even more startling, particularly, in one over-saturated sequence where Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Gong Li speed over the sea blue-green straight between Miami and Havana -- on a mojito run -- leaving a bright white wake behind.

Indeed, the appearance of these locations is not just background to Miami Vice but is central to the film's discourse -- as were the nocturnal, postmodern Los Angeles cityscapes of Collateral. And like that film, Mann manipulates the picture's narrative structure to call attention to this precise feature. Here, Mann structures the relatively looser plot (compared with the tight scripting of the previous feature) around movement between Miami, Havana, Haiti, Columbia and Brazil. In this way, Miami Vice effectively articulates Miami's unique position as an interface between the United States and Latin America, as well as the sense in which America is less a nation-state than a continent -- and therefore the degree to which the contemporary American experience necessitates the expression of numerous regional variations.

Moreover, Miami Vice shares a similarity to that most American of genres -- the Western -- with the directors' previous forrays into cop land, be it his neoclassical meta-western Heat (1995) or even Collateral and its echoes of the pre-determined structure of Budd Boetticher's Seven Men from Now (1956). In the case of Vice, the clearest predacessor may just be Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959) and in particular that film's climactic shootout: as with that earlier picture, Mann's officers enact a flanking manuver around the sides of their opponents. Nonethless, Vice's stylistic élan shares as much with Wong Kar-wai (Gong Li's appearance almost feels like a reference in this respect) as it does with Hawks' Hollywood classicism -- though it should be noted that Mann similarly uses a very classical shot-reverse editing style in the cutting of his film. (Adding to this classicism, Mann utilizes pyschologically-incisive sound work, as for instance when the pair enter the South American kingpin's car and the music cuts out entirely, suggesting the gravity of the situation in this particularly stark artisitic choice.)

Collectively, it might be said that Mann puts style before substance, or to be more generous, that for Mann, the style is the substance. This is not to suggest that Mann's film lacks an ideological content. In fact, Mann expressly argues for an existentialism imbibed with the moral relativism that South Floridian life seems to ooze -- be it the visceral sex that seems aware of the film's axioms that "probability is like gravity" and "time is luck" (and in a very Wongian turn, that time seems to "run out" for two of the characters) or even in Mann's seductive aestheticization of violence. To be sure, this is a city where a vice squad is very necessary indeed.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Movie that I've Seen the Most...


Slate recently ran a feature asking a number of esteemed film people which motion picture they've seen the most. When initially I read the piece, many of the responses struck me as improbable: for instance, does Phillip Lopate (one of my favorite critics, mind you) really expect us to believe that he's seen Mikio Naruse's Flowing more than any other film, given particularly that it is and has always been unavailable on any format in the United States? Or how about Judd Apatow and Bottle Rocket? Come on Judd, you and I both know that a sensibility like yours could have only been forged through serial viewings of Meatballs.

Speaking of which, it speaks well to the parenting skills of Lawrence Kasdan that his son Jake has seen Ghostbusters more ofter than the more ignominious, aforementioned Reitman. Given my own age and upbringing, it would seem likely that I too should cite a film similar to the junior Mr. Kasdan's -- if not Ghostbusters, then perhaps Return of the Jedi (my favorite movie when I was five, before I ever saw it), The Goonies or Back to the Future. Then again, I was never a serial movie-viewer as a child, meaning that even with these early favorites, one could count the number of times that I actually saw them on one hand. Likewise, I am not one to catch The Wizard of Oz or It's a Wonderful Life, every time it airs, though I do have that tendency when it comes to Dumb & Dumber (good thing I don't make a habit of watching TBS). No, my obsessive streak manifested itself only after I began to seriously engage with individual films as works of art. As a result, excluding those films that I've viewed in a professional capacity, a few come to mind as genuine contenders: Max Ophüls' Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's (1969), Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959) and the likely winner, Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari (1953).

The first time I saw Ugetsu followed shortly after my discovery of the Sight and Sound polls of the 'ten best films of all-time,' in the back of a Roger Ebert tome, the title of which I no longer remember. At the time, I remember my fascination with the idea that there might just exist films that I had never heard of, but which were nonetheless objectively among the greatest films ever made. I supposed that Ugetsu, like the equally mysterious La Règle du jeu/The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) was one of these films. I was right, but I certainly didn't get it at first -- to me, Ugetsu was an interesting, if a somewhat dull ghost story, just like La Règle du jeu was some kind of impenetrable hunting film. I was wrong... and so very stupid.

My second time with Ugetsu marked my first appreciation of the film as a masterpiece, having since discovered the director's Sanshô Dayû (1954) and Street of Shame (1956) -- and in the process, the manner in which his mise en scène served to guide his spectators' attention. Three, four, five and six (viewed over four consecutive nights in the sad comforts of my childhood bedroom, well after childhood) established my current opinion of the film: that it is that rarest of all breads, the perfect work of art. (The only other film that I have ever viewed in multiple consecutive days was Letter from an Unknown Woman -- another manifestly perfect film --which I additionally screened back-to-back one night; this distinction for me, interestingly enough, it shares exclusively with another Ophüls' film, Lola Montès [1955].) By my count, then, this latest viewing of Mizoguchi's masterpiece was my seventh, if I'm not forgetting a time or two. And as with each of my previous viewings, Ugetsu once again showed itself to possess a richness that transforms and deepens upon every viewing.

On this occasion, seeing it for the first time on Criterion's pristine DVD transfer from late last year, I was struck most (counter-intuitively, perhaps) by the narrative's management of physical reality, metaphysical reality and dream/reality. To be more precise, Mizoguchi invests these three ontological categories with the same hyper-realistic verisimilitude so that none is distinguishable by its visual treatment, not that there isn't embellishment. For example, when the protagonist Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) examines a set of kimonos for his wife, Miyagi (Mizoguchi axiom and one of the most talented actresses in the history of cinema, Kinuyo Tanaka), the latter appears through a rear doorway, accompanied by a sudden, light lilt in the film's soundtrack. Indeed, a similarly sentimental theme procures the same effect in the celebrated scene wherein Genjurô crosses through his abandoned residence before re-entering to find his deceased wife waiting for him. Of course, Mizoguchi famously films this sequence in a single, unbroken take, seemingly disclosing Miyagi's entrenched presence in the same place through which Genjurô had walked only moments before (seemingly as Mizo pulls his camera back slightly, at one point, to reveal a new trajectory). In so doing, Mizoguchi produces a narrative logic where the external world and the spiritual realm cohabit the same space. In fact, the metaphysical imbues Mizoguchi's story, from the disembodied, acousmatic voice of Lady Wakasa's (Machiko Kyô) deceased father to her own posthumous population of the terrestrial realm.

At the same time, these incursions of spiritual figures into the physical universe are on multiple occasions referred to as dreamt, providing another potential source for their presence in the narratives, as projections of character subjectivity. If there is thus slippage in Mizoguchi's narrative, Ugetsu continues to portend the logic of a narrative completely under the control of its creator. Ugetsu is the way it is because its art; it possesses no necessity to distinguish between fact and fiction, dream and (metaphysical) reality. All inhabit the reality of a work that is ultimately distinguished by its determination to convey the tragic consequences -- and fatal ones for the women of the narrative -- that result from the quest for glory, be it materially or in terms of reputation. Truly, Ugetsu is a confirmation of those Buddhist axioms (from the 'Four Noble Truths') that state that all is suffering and that suffering comes from desire; Ugetsu is, in other words, a Buddhist fable that promotes the modest values of home and hearth, contentment.

It is also a meditation on the place of art and of the trappings of success: Genjurô's dissent begins when he is flattered by Lady Wakasa's appreciation of his art. Had only he been satisfied to make his pottery side-by-side with his wife, rather than thursting for wealth and later fame, the tragic consequences of his desire would have never come to fruition. Parenthetically, both of these themes can be said to represent the director's autobiography, and can therefore bestow Ugetsu with the title of "personal art": his sister was sold as a geisha to pay for his education as a painter.

Speaking of his background, my companion in this viewing, Lisa Broad, pointed out that Mizoguchi's palette effectively registers every gradiation of black, white and gray in his unequalled mastery of visual technique. To this, let me add that Ugetsu's compositional grace is a product both of this painting in light and shadow, and also in a compositional manipulation that relies heavily upon diagonal framing that seems to bespeak an internal harmony: a spare tree in a courtyard or meadow frames a seated protagonist; jutting, perpendicular beams parallel the head-lines of conversing characters; etc. Often, it is worth mentioning, Mizo utilizes overhead angles to forge these undeniably painterly spaces.

The point is that this is an artist who is in complete control of his medium, manipulating form according to the dictates of his subject. Another telling example of his free use of the art form is the well-known sequence where Mizoguchi's camera follows a small stream of water out of a hot spring, over stones, and to a field which, by virtue of a lap dissolve becomes a grassy meadow where the ritualistic infidelity between Lady Wakasa and Genjurô. Here, the mise en scène is no longer dictated by a spatial-temporal unity of time and place, but by the emotional cause-and-effect inherent in the hot springs' passion and the devotional, nay obsessive love that Genjurô succumbs to in the field.

Ultimately, the fabulist nature of his narrative makes all things permissible. At the same, his mature style, and particular the visual grace of his mise en scène make for a work that seems to harken back to the promise of early sound cinema, as my partner also stated. Or, as I would add, were we to discover some day that cinema can not progress aesthetically beyond the 20th century, this will be the pinnacle of the art form. A cinema of infinite beauty and of deceptive complexity in its conflation of ontological categories. To echo Luc Moullet upon its French commercial release, Ugetsu is the simplest and most complex film in the world.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Hold Back the Dawn: Well Worth Seeing Even if it Means Sitting Next to That Guy with the Backpack Eating Soup


As Film Forum's well-timed summer swashbuckler series draws nigh, the merits of the concluding Billy Wilder retrospective are easy to miss -- after all, is there a director this side of the "master of suspense" who is less in need of revival than Mr. Wilder? Besides, I can think of no theatre that I find less pleasant -- save perhaps Brooklyn's Pavilion with its nacho cheese-encrusted upholstery -- than the Film Forum, which somehow manages to attract the single most ill-mannered bevy of unlikable losers that one has ever witnessed, in any one place. If you want to know what happened to that guy in your class who combined a 105 i.q., know-it-all attitude and a serious misanthropic streak, he's wearing his backpack to $5 movies (with his $50 membership) at the Film Forum where he eats soup and curses at the couple behind him for daring to whisper during the coming attractions of movies he's already seen 15 times. But heaven knows he loves to see movies on the big screen... in part because his cable was turned off in 1995 after his checking account finally ran dry without the infusion of bi-annual Stafford Loans. Plus, who likes to spend time in an unfurnished, Stuyvesant Town high-rise without air conditioning and only pickles and miracle whip in the fridge? God knows that an ump-teenth screening of Sunset Boulevard sure beats the alternative; and if you have to shout at that pretty-enough undergrad Spanish major from Northern New Jersey seated two rows back, then so be it -- she shouldn't be there anyway if she just wants to talk to her date about that chemically-unbalanced roommate of her's.

So yes, the prospect of another Wilder retro. in light of these specifics didn't exactly set my heart a flutter -- that is, until I saw two words under a couple of the titles: Mitchell Leisen. To those who are not in the know, Mr. Leisen remains one of the least appreciated directors of Hollywood's golden age, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his collaborations with such acclaimed screenwriters as Preston Sturges and the team of Wilder and Charles Brackett, which of course accounts for its inclusion in the series. While of course it must be admitted that Leisen's career cannot approach Wilder's five decades of relevance in particular, there can and should be no disputing his aesthetic inventiveness and the protean engagement of generic categories that the works showcase. Leisen is no mere placeholder for his more famous screenwriters, as they learned the directorial trade. Rather he is a classical artist, whose peak deserves to be remembered among the glories of Hollywood's greatest age.

That peak, spanning approximately five years between 1937 and 1942, includes both of the films featured in the FF program, 1939's Midnight and 1941's Hold Back the Dawn, which despite being the recipient of six Academy award nominations including best actress (Olivia de Havilland), best screenplay and even best picture, remains unavailable on home video and as a consequence, largely forgotten. Even Midnight lacks the following it deserves as one of the finest romantic comedies of that form's superlative moment; suffice it to say that it is not yet available on DVD, even if one could reasonably argue that it is superior to Wilder and Brackett's other great collaboration of 1939, Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka. (That these two films are both exceedingly funny makes their oversight even more inexplicable.)

Thankfully then there are art houses that cater to the permanently unemployable, as were it not for the Film Fourm Wilder series, I may not have had the manifest pleasure of seeing my third Leisen film Tuesday night, the aforesaid Hold Back the Dawn. For starters let me concur with that year's Academy voters in their nominations of Leisen's film in the acting, writing and best picture categories: all were undoubtedly deserved, starting with Ms. de Havilland's vivid portrayal of semi-dowdy school mistress Emmy Brown, who is seduced by Charles Boyer's Georges Iscovescu during a 4th of July elementary school trip to a Mexican border town which she chaperones. Miss Brown proves easy work for the Continental, who only hours before had learned of a loophole in getting the American visa that he and so many others had coveted: marrying a Yankee. Former mistress Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard) supplies him not only with the strategy, but with the ring as well.

With the holiday over and the bus fixed -- Brown and her school children are forced to spend the night in Iscovescu's hotel lobby after one of the parts mysteriously goes missing -- the new Mrs. Iscovescu crosses back over the border, anticipating a reunion with her gentleman husband in the allotted four weeks. Parenthetically, the misbehavior of the students against a disgruntled mechanic who sadistically desires one young man's punishment, even offering to do it himself, provides the film with some of its grimmest humor -- one suspects that there is far more Wilder/Brackett here than the film's romantic helmer. In the meantime, Iscovescu recommences his affair with the vampish Dixon before being interrupted first by a border official that seems to make the border community his home away from home, and then by the unexpected, early return of his new bride.

Without giving up too much of the film's wildly uncoiling plot, it almost doesn't need to be mentioned that Iscovescu will have something of change of heart concerning the new Mrs. Iscovescu. Yet, it bares mentioning in the context of the film's analysis, at this moment at least, for the style that Leisen brings to sequences wherein the couple are forced together in the nation's less accessible hinterlands. There is, for instance, something virtually Eisensteinian in the director's compositions of both cactus-framed dirt roads, and more spectacularly, a Mexican church that is filled with hundreds of lit candles for a sacramental affirmation of marriage. (Eisensteinian in that it almost prefigures that director's depiction of Ivan the Terrible's coronation in the film by that same name.)

Then there is the subsequent scene in which Mr. Iscovescu, partially succumbing to a sudden, uncharacteristic guilt, decides that it is better if he doesn't consummate their marriage. After faking a shoulder injury, we see him spying on the de Havilland character sleeping in the back seat of the caravan. Gazing at her through the rearview window, Leisen distills the gentleman's desire into her rising and falling bosom. It is indeed in brief moments and relatively understated gestures like this that Mr. Leisen shows himself to be a director with startling visual flamboyance.

Not that there is anything small about Leisen's visual imagination. Take, for instance, the car chase that Iscovescu provokes near the end of the picture. Here, in radiant black-and-white photography, Leisen not only summons the visceral excitement of the sequence, which he does quite effectively, but he moreover explicates the process by which, against all odds, Iscovescu escapes from his police/immigration pursuers. We see how he turns off his lights, slips behind billboards, etc. to get to his love. Similarly, in the earlier sleeping scene, Iscovescu not only fakes his injury, or tells the Mrs. of his pretend infirmity, but we see him stage the feigned accident, again offering a case for a believable outcome to an improbable scenario.

By this juncture, Leisen has fully succeeded in involving his spectators in a picture where ultimately much is at stake -- at least in my case, I was hoping that Iscovescu and his wife would live happily ever after, however cruel and undeserving the former might be. Without saying too much more about the film's plot trajectory, suffice it to say that happiness seems quite unlikely by the time the narrative devolves into said car chase.

As to the ending, anyone knowledgeable of Leisen's ouevre may suspect a happy ending (ala Midnight and Remember the Night) whereas the same conclusion in Wilder's body of work (think Double Indemnity, 1944) is far less certain. Significantly, then, it should be noted that Hold Back the Dawn manipulates a structuring device wherein Iscovescu recounts the tale to a director whom he once met during his days as a continental socialite. That the director is played by Leisen is of no minor importance, as is the fact that he is directing Veroica Lake and Brian Donlevy, whom he actually made I Wanted Wings with that same year (1941). In effect, the film proper could almost be said to have two endings, a Wilder/Brackett and Leisen one, were one to judge their competing temperaments. Regardless, the Wilder and Brackett penned flashback structure (which of course the former employed to famous effect in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard [1950]) can at least be said to represent a way around classical Hollywood codes of the time.

Friday, July 14, 2006

More Than Meets the Eyes

Given my recent move from an increasingly sketchy block in the Bowery -- think of that -- to the outer-reaches of brownstone Park Slope, a switch of allegiances was in order from Central Park's Summer Stage to Prospect Park's equivalent, Celebrate Brooklyn. Good thing the former decided to go in a strangely anachronistic first-wave Lilith Fair direction this summer, while Celebrate Brooklyn's highlights centered upon a more palatable series of silent movie screenings, accompanied by big-name instrumental outfits, such as last night's teaming of indie demiurges Yo La Tengo and the underwater films of French auteur de science Jean Painlevé.

With Yo La Tengo being for me the more known quantity (though I will admit that my interest in them is relatively minor) Painlevé would be the true wild card in the evening's entertainment. Suffice it to say that sea creatures delivered swimmingly though the three-piece looked like they had found their born vocation: scoring crustacean films. Before I speak further to the source of the films' relative quality, let me say of the performance that Yo La Tengo recommended themselves both for their admirable dexterity in inventing scores that seemed perfectly attuned to the animal life depicted in each of the unique shorts as well as for the compositions' success in propelling the loose narratives, and also for their execution of the individual pieces, which never once impeded upon the patient biological poems. Yo La Tengo weren't the stars here, as much as they deserved to be.

No, the sea horses, the baby jellyfish and octopi took center stage last night, showing that Painlevé's shorts have lost little fascination since they were first screened nearly eighty years ago. Ultimately, the same factor that made them extraordinary then still make them extraordinary today: they show us a real world that we wouldn't otherwise see. Indeed, it is here that one might imagine these films as exemplars of an Epsteinian view of cinema's vocation -- they improve our perception of the real world. Not only, in fact, does Painlevé greatly magnify his often invisible to the naked eye subjects, but he slows down the stock to lay bare their mechanics. In this way, one can see cinema's potential for artistry, not in transforming reality into something different or even in showcasing it unmodified, but rather in dissecting it through the tools at the filmmaker's disposal. Again, Painlevé's corpus allows us to see what we could not ordinarily see. They stand as an ontological definition of the cinema in their own right, now decades behind its time theoretically, but still with the power to awe in their capacity to capture the invisible beauty of the real world.

Which leads me to another recent screening which now strikes me for its similar purpose: Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. Like the Painlevé corpus, A Scanner Darkly proceeds according to a desire to improve upon optical limitations -- in this case, the external world versus an internal one. From the opening sequence, Linklater highlights an interest in representing the drug-addled subjectivity of his characters. Using roto-scope technology, which effectively translates live-action filmmaking into animation (which he famously introduced in 2001's Waking Life) Linklater externalizes the drug-fueled hallucinations -- the archetypal crawling insects -- that open the narrative. From here, the selected technology, which of course possesses a ready-made link to its subjective content, is best utilized in visualizing Dick's own extra-realistic creations -- as with the suits that continually remake their form, selecting from millions of separate details of bodily appearance.

As far as its capacity to illuminate, however, Linklater's film remains subject to the limitations of his and source author Philip K. Dick's perspectives on the topic. If A Scanner Darkly is supposed to be a critique of the drug wars as some critics have suggested, the paranoia of the film's narrative would seem to unhinge any reasonable negative criticism of said policy. If, as seems more narratively justified, A Scanner Darkly is a memoriam to those friends of the creators' who suffered the unjust rewards of addiction, then one wonders what function A Scanner Darkly ultimately serves: what does the film help us to understand; what makes it persuasive of anything, other than the dangers brought about by drug use, which we are nevertheless reminded are somehow unfair? Of course, one could rejoined that the Painlevé films offer little more purpose than to see, which is about what A Scanner Darkly does as well. Then again, what the shorts provide is a glimpse at something true, and more than that, something beautiful; they are sustained, asetheticized conveyances of a reality that our eyes do not allow us to see.

This is not to say that A Scanner Darkly is absent of any merit: particularly of note is Robert Downey Jr.'s appropriately "animated" performance. Even Keanu Reeves seems to have found his ideal performative venue -- the cartoon junkie everyman. Yet the film's self-indulgent lamenting, to mention nothing of the supremely uninteresting quality of its characters and their lives, makes A Scanner Darkly far from a pleasant affair. Unfortunately it offers neither depth of insight or beauty to mitigate against that first strike.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Steamboat 'Round the Bend: John Ford's Classic (Rediscovered) Mid-Western

As the story goes, in 1950, during a heated debate of the Director's Guild of America, John Ford stood up and introduced himself in the following manner: "My name is John Ford, I direct Westerns." Ever since, this avatar of the Western genre has born the epitaph in the same way that Hitchcock has the title of "master of suspense" -- as a slightly derisive, although not entirely incorrect signifier of their primary contribution as a film artist. Of course, Ford did work outside of the Western genre on occasion, producing works that rivaled, when they didn't equal the best films he made in his signature genre (such confirmed classics as The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man all come to mind). Still, Ford has and undoubtedly will remain the leading formulator of the American national myth in the genre best-suited to the subject.

Indeed, it is significant that Ford's subject was largely consubstantial with the Western genre itself when one considers his legacy outside the immediate contours of this famed category. There are, for instance, the three films he made with legendary Oklahoma-born humorist Will Rogers in the mid-1930s -- Doctor Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat 'Round the Bend (1935) -- each of which showcases the pair's overlapping interest in Americana, though again from a position outside the Western genre (though, for the sake of full disclosure, let me add that I have yet to see the first of these three and am relying upon secondary sources). In part, the difference between these films and those of his western corpus are their settings: New England, the rural South of the late 19th century and the Mississippi Delta respectively. Nevertheless, as is evinced by the third of these films, Steamboat 'Round the Bend, which will be released on DVD July 25th as part of the Will Rogers Collection, Vol. 1, even the director's non-western subjects allow Ford the space to parse the myth that he was instrumental in creating -- the foundation of an American civilization.

To be sure, Steamboat 'Round the Bend represents a near complete grafting of the Fordian western onto the setting of the Mississippi delta; liberally, the mid-west. First, there is the mega-theme of the creation and persistence of civilization in a hostile environment, which has since been ascribed the generalization of the garden-desert dichotomy. Here, Ford opposes the riverboat people, exemplified by Will Rogers' Doctor John and his nephew Duke (John McGuire), and the so-called "Swamp Trash," one of whom Duke slays in response to their mistreatment of a young beauty from their ranks, a Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley). While it is agreed that Duke acted with justification, Dr. John nonetheless prevails upon him to turn himself in, thereby upholding the rule of law in the midst of the lawlessness of the swamps. That Dr. John and Duke conclude in this fashion demonstrates their deep faith in the institutions of civilization, even as it might mean that the latter will be hung due to the absence of the killing's one witness, and the one man who might exonerate Duke -- the New Moses, one of the River's self-styled new prophets.

Meanwhile, the Swamp Trash, looking for Fleety Belle, arrive determined to exercise their mob rule against the girl and her supposed corrupter. At this point, Dr. John intervenes, claiming that the pair are married and are therefore above their recriminations. While initially this isn't the case, Duke and Fleety Belle do eventually tie the knot in a courthouse ceremony, which Ford invests with a sacramental significance -- the large group of mostly fugitive witnesses turn away from the newly married couple, respecting the intimacy of their marital union as they hold each other in their make-shift prison chapel. It is, in the parlance of Andrew Sarris, a moment of pure chivalry, prefiguring that wonderful moment in The Searchers (1956) where the Reverend diverts his gaze as Ethan Edwards' sister-in-law studies her relation's military uniform. In gestures like these, Ford's worldview seems to become unassailably virtuous.

This is not to say, however, that Steamboat 'Round the Bend is without humor. It is, as a matter of fact, a film whose comedy touches on the grotesque, particularly when a mobile wax museum becomes kiln for Dr. John's racing steamship, and subsequently when Duke is granted his last request of seeing the completion of the steamboat race which, unbenounced to him, his uncle has entered in order to reach the governor before the hanging can take place. Once the steamboat rounds the bend, the hangman rushes to get the job done with a perversely good natured-efficiency and conviviality.

Buffeting these events, particularly on the boat, are the alternately manic and committed performances of Stepin Fetchit and Berton Churchill -- New Moses in the flesh -- respectively, to say nothing of the more mild-mannered witticisms of Rogers. (As to Fetchit's performance specifically, suffice it to say that it hardly holds up to the scrutiny of contemporary political-correctness, which of course says less about the quality of the film that it does the mores of the past and the present.) As with many Hollywood films of this moment, it is sustained by its brilliant supporting players -- Irvin S. Cobb as Captain Eli is another notable. Similarly, Steamboat 'Round the Bend also features a series of well-lit interiors, especially on the steamship, that remind us once again that Gregg Toland did not invent depth-of-field. Moreover, in the more global, early sound cinema sense, Ford's film demonstrates a fascination with curios, whether it is the traveling wax museum that Dr. John & co. manipulate to impress a rather close-minded community of Confederates -- before tossing it in the fire -- the saw that Duke plays in jail (here's your singing cowboy) or the revivals that take place up and down the Mighty Mississippi.

Speaking of religion, Steamboat 'Round the Bend also manifests a specifically Fordian view on the subject that is not always so clear in the director's work. Taking the director's final film, 7 Women (1966) as a template -- assuming that he has sympathy at least for Anne Bancroft's irreligious doctor -- one might surmise that while the director is not himself religious in his orientation, he does allow that there are some with this view who nevertheless can be considered good -- yes there is something vaguely ridiculous and mocking to figures like the New Moses, who Ford compares expressly to the spirits' peddling Dr. John, who medicates the people with an elixir he calls Pocahontas in a manner comparable to the New Moses and his old-time religion; Ford opens the film, importantly, with these two salesmen. However, when called upon, New Moses does come through, and with a certain gusto that succeeds in making him sympathetic, if not endearing. If anything, Ford's view on the matter might be characterized as at once agnostic and also respectful of its function in producing the civilization that counteracts the lawless mentality of the desert… and the swamp.

Returning, indeed, to this over-arching division, if the swamp is in fact a place for anarchy, the river is a space where civilization counteracts this less ignoble tendency -- it is the settlement of Tombstone or the Edwards' homestead to the surrounding wilds. Here, a sort of para-civilization rules, exemplified by not only Dr. John's steamboat -- which importantly is piloted by the young Fleety Belle who has exchanged a tablecloth for an antebellum dress -- but also by the religious services, the communities that hug the thoroughfare, and even in the steamboat race that concludes the film: rivalries are resolved not through vigilante justice but in carefully-regulated contests that of course feature just as much cheating as a film of Steamboat 'Round the Bend's light comic tone allows.