Monday, April 23, 2012

A Little Space All to Ourselves: Frank Borzage's Mannequin (1937)

A great silent director who was not martyred with the coming of sound and a great sound director who did not experience the late flowering upon which others of his generation built their critical reputations, Frank Borzage nonetheless can stand beside any of his Hollywood comrades in terms of the clarity of and his commitment to his specific view of the universe - which is to say, there was no one in Hollywood during the studio age who was any more an auteur than the great Borzage, despite what has felt, at times, his outsider status to the auteurist pantheon. Of course, the home video availability (or lack their of) of much of Borzage's better work has been one of the larger obstacles to his broader appreciation, with only the December 2008 release of the "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" box-set belatedly serving to right this historical wrong. A far more humble corrective, Warner Archive's 2009 addition of the director's Mannequin (1937, M.G.M.) on their direct-to-video format contributes not only another strong offering in the director's exceedingly rich Depression-era corpus, but also, quite conceivably, the most precise single articulation of the Borzagian worldview.

This definition occurs early in the director's Joan Crawford star-vehicle, with the Mannequin's Hester Street lead expressing both her feelings and Borzage's point-of-view to boyfriend Eddie Miller (Alan Curtis), as the two sit under the stars on a Coney Island beach: "look Eddie, here's a world," gesturing at the sand. "You and I have this little space all to ourselves; and what we feel for each other shuts out the rest, so what more do we need? That's all people have to fight for is a little place to themselves." Crawford's Jessie Cassidy makes this profession following the picture's opening glimpse into her depressing domestic life, where her long workday in a textiles factory is followed by the sound of screaming babies - as the camera carries her up the rickety staircase - sauerkraut and sausages and the cynical asides of her ne'er-do-well brother Clifford (Leo Gorcey); the boundlessly unlikable Clifford has no intention of finding a job of his own, intent instead to live off the hard labor of his older sister. Jessie dreams of three rooms of she and Eddie's own, which the latter succeeds in giving her after Jessie refuses to return to her family's flat following their incandescent starlit evening. In so doing, Jessie and Eddie become a married, post-Hays Code corollary to Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young's poor, live-in lovers in Man's Castle (1933, Columbia), the Borzage film from which Mannequin will draw most consistently.        

The director, however, begins to divide his characters on the basis of gender, with Eddie professing a greater economic ambition than his wholly devoted young wife, whom he enters in a chorus line to earn extra money while his career as a boxing manager remains stagnant. Borzage elegantly figures this disparity in the differing objects of Eddie and Jessie's gazes during their wedding-night dinner at a Lower East Side, Yiddish Chinese restaurant. As the young married couple dances during this semi-comic sequence, Eddie repeatedly glances at local millionaire John L. Hennessey (Spencer Tracy) while Crawford's Jessie moons at her new husband, never once diverting her attention from the man with whom she wishes to share a little piece of the world. Eddie indeed shows himself unworthy of Jessie's love, both in his lack of reciprocal affection and also in his small-time grifter's mentality. In his desire to get ahead the easy way, Eddie is expressly compared to Jessie's Pa (Oscar O'Shea), who responds to the former's complaints about the deficiency of "the system" by advising his son-in-law to go on "relief" - given that the government was unable to get him a job. It is worth noting that while Borzage remains a poet of the working poor, Mannequin explicitly relies upon a "supply-side" economic model for the picture's strikingly anti-Leftist final act.

As Eddie and Pa converse, lounging in echoing postures as they smoke in tandem in the Cassidy's modest Hester Street flat, Ma (Elisabeth Risdon) advises her married daughter to not waste her life (as she has, having cried herself to sleep for years) with a no-good husband much like her own; instead, Ma proposes that Jessie seek her happiness whatever this might mean, even if she must go about it alone. In this respect Mannequin introduces a generational specificity with the Progressive-cohort immigrant housewife encouraging her daughter, in proto-Feminist fashion, to break with the traditional conception of a woman's place (for which Pa advocates in the adjoining room). In this fashion, Mannequin additionally problematizes the Borzagian conceit as it identifies the limitations of the picture's (and the director's) romantic worldview, particularly when the feelings of the one are not shared by those of the other.

The Borzagian however does find consequent, perfected expression in Jessie's subsequent relationship with Hennessey, with the latter falling for the comely Mrs. Miller upon first seeing her at the Lower East Side eating establishment. Though unaware that she is still married when he discovers her subsequently in the "Gebhart Frolics," Hennessey nonetheless disregards Jessie's marital status, kissing the woman for whom he has orchestrated an elaborate series of parties inviting her 'Frolics' co-workers. Even at this still relatively early stage in the narrative, the spectator has already begun to switch allegiances to 'other man' Hennessey, who not only will provide Jessie all that she lacks materially, but far more importantly, he will give her the selfless love, a fundamentally Christian combination of agape and eros, that provides the core of the Borzagian worldview. Consequently, Mannequin encourages divorce as it taps into the broader de-sacrilization of marriage that spawned the concurrent 'comedy of remarriage' cycle. Borzage's offering perhaps might be classified instead as a romance - in the Shakespearean sense, only partially to echo Stanley Cavell's parallel taxonomy - of divorce.

In this respect, there is a certain anti-Roman Catholicism present in the Catholic Borzage's Mannequin, even if in the larger sense there are few Hollywood films that more fully articulate the faith's mode of being in the world. It is again the Irish-American Hennessey and his beloved who best exemplify this ideal: for the business magnate and his factory girl-cum-wife Jessie, love - and by implication, the family (here in micro-form) - takes consistent precedence over the concerns of the world, which is to say over those of money (to define the film in opposition to a more Protestant ethic). For example, when a newly divorced Jessie first arrives at Hennessey's office, the latter loses all interest in his substantial labor problems that his company faces, focusing his attention instead exclusively and unwaveringly on his visitor. Similarly, when the two spend their honeymoon alone in an Irish cottage, before the warm glow of the hearth in a picturesque, if kitschy definition of the same Catholic value system, it is Jessie now who seeks to block out the rest of the world by discarding a telegram that addresses her husband's financial problems. 

Ultimately, Hennessey experiences financial ruin, thanks to the ill-advised striking of his well-compensated employees. However, Jessie remains true at this most dire moment of crisis, even advising her now broke husband to sell the jewelry that he has purchased out of his deep affection. Indeed, it will only with be with their return to nothing that the Borzagian again comes into crystalline view, as a personal philosophy that, while reflective of the Great Depression and grounded in the American immigrant experience, nonetheless possesses the quality of the universal, a catholicity of the human. All that Borzage's lovers seek is a little space to themselves, the heaven that is referred to in the director's silent masterpiece (7th Heaven; 1927, Fox) and which is spied not in the stars above but in the shanty homestead below in the former's sound equivalent, Man's Castle.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Special to Tativille: "Looking back on Man Bites Dog, 20 years later," by Jeremi Szaniawski

Few films are more deserving of the appellation ‘cult film’ than Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde's Man Bites Dog (C’est arrivé près de chez vous), which went on to become the sensation of the 1992 Cannes film festival, taking three minor prizes home. A brilliant ‘mockumentary’, this senior film school project, midway between the Belgian documentary show Strip-Tease and its fly on the wall aesthetics, and the excesses of Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, makes abundant use of a very dark humor both in its over-the-top murder scenes and its memorable dialogues – which a whole generation of Belgian youth has come to know by heart.

Made on a shoestring budget and on 16mm black and white filmstock (additional scenes were subsequently shot for commercial release), and making deft use of the resources offered by subjective camerawork, Man Bites Dog transcends the paucity of its budget and highlights the complicity between audience and subject in fiction films and reality TV: a documentary film crew follows Ben, a charismatic and voluble serial killer. As the filmmakers come to know Ben’s normal side, his friends and family, they also become gradually involved in his horrible crimes. In an old factory, Ben kills several gang members. Forced to wear a neck brace following a boxing accident, he fails in an attempt to kill again, is identified and put to jail. The crew helps his escape, but it is too late—his family has been murdered by the mob. In the film’s conclusion, Ben, along with the entire crew, is shot in the old building where he had stashed his money.

The film invites us thus to partake in the everyday life of its infamous protagonist, in Poelvoorde’s life-defining performance as an endearing psychopath (a graduate of an art school, he did not originally destine himself to acting). In spite of his ugliness, he endows his character with the candid charm of a child, bringing a lot of appeal to the film. A larger than life figure, emotionally detached from his murders yet deeply connected to the viewer by virtue of his magnetism, Ben is a poet: in some ways he regards what he does not only as an eternal game, but also as an art, and revels in distilling darkly humorous words of wisdom (‘If you kill a whale, you get the environmentalists, Greenpeace and Jacques Cousteau on your back, but wipe out a school of sardines and you better believe you’ll get a canning subsidy!’) peppered with cinematic references, from Michèle Morgan and Jean Gabin to Philippe Noiret. Ben is indiscriminate in his discrimination: midgets, homosexuals, black people, old people, children, pregnant women, postmen and even close friends—all are good to become his next potential victim, or the grist for his comedic mill (‘Once I immersed the bodies of two Arabs in the liquid concrete of a column under construction... Facing Mecca, of course.’). His odious character serves a buffoon function: he proffers racial or sexist slur and we enjoy it and laugh at it by means of distancing sanction. Carrying on this modus operandi, Poelvoorde became one of the audience’s favorite comedic characters in subsequent years.

The mix of the film’s deadpan tone and its outrageous contents (and the fact that many actors, including Poelvoorde’s family, had no clue as to what they were involved in) makes the whole absurdly funny. Ben makes a living off of his victims’ money, but also kills for the fun of it: he relishes the opportunity of an original, creative crime, such as killing an old woman with cardiovascular problems by yelling at her—a means to save a bullet. Ben feels no remorse whatsoever, except when a family of ‘innocent people,’ murdered, yields no money. “Such things should not happen,” he says in all seriousness.

Beyond the dialogues, the dark humor, and the characters’ apparent levity, one clearly sees the reflection on voyeurism, the manipulation of the image and the complacency of the crew in intervening into the reality they film. Ben's violence becomes more and more random and motiveless (he even shoots an acquaintance in front of his friends during a birthday meal), his criminal frenzy motivated and matched by the crew’s insatiable desire to film more, both mutually fueling each other’s insanity.

The film strikes in its questioning of political correctness and how far we are willing to laugh at it all. At first mere observers, the crew begins to get more and more involved in the murders. For most viewers, the breaking point in this gradual participation of the crew in the subject of their film happens in the ‘night watch’ scene on New Year’s Eve, where the inebriated crew, hitherto merely accomplices of Ben, barges into an apartment and rapes a woman while Ben holds the husband at gunpoint, before both people are brutally murdered. The following morning, the camera dispassionately records the bloody aftermath: the woman, who might have been pregnant, eviscerated on the table, her husband shot in the head, naked on the kitchen counter. This scene, which pushes voyeurism to its very limits (and was edited out in several national releases of the film due to censorship concerns), also marks the beginning of the end for Ben, his subsequent decline accompanied by less and less laughter, and more and more reflective pause in the audience. The greatness of the film lies in its ability to balance out dark and cynical comedy with a profound statement on the stakes of cinema and voyeurism. It also highlights the intimate connection between cinema and death: during filming, two crew members are shot, their deaths later referred to as ‘occupational hazards’ by the director. And when they are called upon to help Ben, in his failed attempt to kill a postman, the crew stands back, resuming its non-participative stance, this refusal to kill paradoxically leading to the undoing of their subject and themselves.

The film in many ways brilliantly anticipated and riffed on what would become some of the most morally questionable aspects of present-day reality TV. It also weighed heavily on its real life makers, with Poelvoorde’s proclivity toward excess and violent outbursts very similar to his character’s, and Belvaux’s dark genius leading to his self-destruction. In 2007, the director committed suicide in murky circumstances, having never truly recovered from his debut/masterpiece. Just a few days prior, Poelvoorde, at that time France’s best-paid actor, had refused to help him financially. The actor, who by then had destroyed his wife Coralie’s health by mental abuse and a score of infidelities, descended into an ever deeper spiral of drug, alcohol and dangerous erratic behavior (including smashing his car through a wall while drunk driving, and running away), immuring himself more and more in solitude. Reality had become as sordid as the fiction that led to fame—minus the fun.

Great works of art do sometimes come with their accursed share, and Man Bites Dog—one of the best films of the 1990s—is no exception.

Jeremi Szaniawski is a graduate student at Yale. This essay (in a slightly edited form) is part of the Directory of World Cinema: Belgium, forthcoming later his year from Intellect Press.

Monday, March 26, 2012

New Film: Footnote (2011)

Joseph Cedar's distinctively writerly Footnote (Hearat Shulayim, 2011), recipient of the 'best screenplay' prize at last year's Cannes film festival, falls, for this writer at least, in that easily ignorable, unevenly pleasurable space between modernist art cinema and commercial product that in this country goes by the name 'independent.' A cinema of ideas before personal expression and individuation, of character typologies and an aggressive musical score that would not have been out-of-place in an Italian Miramax import from twenty years ago, Footnote would scream out for the same fate as yesteryear's long forgotten Oscar 'best foreign language' nominees were it not for Cedar's legitimate skill as a Lincoln Plaza hack. By creating brisk narrative art that is as involving and entertaining as it is well-made, Cedar transforms the potentially cloying markers of his idiom into concrete storytelling assets, positive embellishments rather than critical disqualifiers.

Cedar establishes the narrative system that so successfully guides Footnote in the picture's opening set-piece: off-camera, apparent voice-over narration, coupled with on-screen titles, introduces the spectator to a professor Shkolnik in a form that immediately recalls (to cite Tativille co-proprietor Lisa K.Broad) the "information-aesthetic" strategies of American indie maestro Wes Anderson and festival French correlate Arnaud Desplechin. With Shlomo Bar-Aba appearing first and most frequently over these opening shots, the spectator imagines the late middle-aged academic to be the subject of the voice-off, which a subsequent cut reveals to be diegetic rather than voiced over. However, when finally this introduction concludes, Eliezer's son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) rises, vacating the two-shot to give his acceptance speech, even as the very sullen Eliezer remains alone in the now unbalanced shot. This sequence provides not only a model for the film's systematic series of reversals showcasing Cedar's special aptitude for regulating and then undermining spectatorial expectation; it also foreshadows the film's principle dramatic development with an honor presumed to belong to the older more rigorous Talmudic scholar intended instead for his more fashionable, though less intellectually serious son. In this first example, Cedar's content admirably finds a formal analogue.

For this writer, who happens by profession to be an academic, though regretfully gifted with neither Eliezer's fortitude nor Uriel's fashion, Footnote likewise deserves credit for getting it right, for often comedically emphasizing the role of politics, particularly of the personal variety, and for insisting that success and meaningful work often have little to do with one another. Though apropos of the film's systematic reversals the viewer will come to see both Eliezer and Uriel differently over the course of the picture's duration, ultimately Cedar does seem to side more with the overlooked elder and again with his pursuit of knowledge as opposed to his son's impressionist approach and commensurate cult of personality. That Footnote once again is a film of ideas rather than conspicuous auteurist self-expression, of an essentially pre-modernist (even as it verges toward the post-modern) artfully manipulated narrative instead of outright formal reinvention, makes this allegiance all the more appropriate. In content as much as in form Footnote admirably belongs to the neglected middle.