Top Secret! [1984)

And so we come full-circle.

As in the olden days.

When we first started.

Writing about spy spoofs.

And this is a doozy!

Val Kilmer’s first film.

As Nick Rivers.

Very much Elvis, but equally Beach Boys (at least on the opening number “Skeet Surfing”).

I would call this style of filmmaking “kitchen sink”.

It was a particular type of American comedy in the 1980s.

Fast jokes.

Set pieces.

Elaborate puns.

General silliness.

The setting is East Germany.

In the time of Markus Wolf and the Stasi.

Wolf retired in 1986.

The year after this film (1985), Vladimir Putin started his KGB career in East Germany.

But let’s talk about more important stuff…like how beautiful Lucy Gutteridge is!

A girl and a gun, said Godard.

And for a sequel, another girl and another gun…

Said I.

Port Said.

Fuad II.

Yes, Ms. Gutteridge plays the stunning Hillary.

Which roughly translates to “she whose breasts defy gravity”.

That’s a direct paraphrase.

What?

We almost get the Lawrence Welk Orchestra doing “Sister Ray”, but Nick Rivers and “Tutti Frutti” is close enough to alienate the visiting Russian operatic singer and his caricature faux-Nazi patron.

General Streck.

Not to be confused with Colonel Sturm or Sergeant Drang.

Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers (David and Jerry) strung us along the whole time.

And they directed a fairly decent film here…the triumvirate.

The Nutcracker turns out to be a ballet of literal protrusions.

The prop room is equally literal.

It’s both Joycean and daft.

But I had some genuine chuckles during this film.

They execute a priest as a demonstration.

And his Latin is a knee-slapping litany.

A greatest hits of that dead language.

Legal.  Medical.  String it together.  Make it flow.

Pig Latin.  Cow Latin.  Pidgin Latin.

Yes Elvis.  Yes Beach Boys.  And yes Beatlemania.

Sullivan.  Hysteria.  Hip sway.  Swooning.

Is it a bit of Fritz Lang with the magnifying glass?

Certainly prefigures the backmasking of Twin Peaks.

Swedish as a backwards language.

Like those hidden messages on (back to the) Beatles records.

I want to live in that loft of that Swedish bookstore…

clutching a volume of Strindberg and holding a Ms. Gutteridge.

How could anyone dream of more than two fireplaces at the top of a firehouse pole?

Many references.  The Blue Lagoon.  When Brooke Shields was just 14.

Like the Podestas, we end up next in the script at a pizza restaurant.

(!)

“Straighten Out the Rug” pulls out all the stops…and all the rugs…like Pejman Nozad on vitamins.

An incredibly detailed mock-up of the prison grounds complete with a toy train.

Bovine infiltration.

Eggs Benedict Arnold.

When instead of hollandaise, they’ve secretly replaced the sauce with Folger’s crystal gravy (on loan from the struggling PepsiCo).

While Trump protestors boycott every snack and cranny of this MNE.

But the dénouement is the underwater saloon brawl.

It is actually artful.  Postmodern.  High art in spite of itself.  Dodoism.

We must not forget the yeoman efforts of the great Omar Sharif in this film.

Sadly, Mr. Sharif passed away just this past year in his home country of Egypt.

At least he did not (presumably) need two hours of surgery to wipe the smile off his face.

“Who do you root for in the Virginia Slims tournament?”

“I always root against the heterosexual.”

“Do you know any good, white basketball players?”

“There are no good, white basketball players.”

All of this from the “Match?  Lighter.  Better still.” line which Robert Shaw sweated out of someone to fool his way into James Bond’s presence and trust for a short time…before he chose fish with red wine.

One wonders whether the East Berliners had the jelly-faced joy of seeing this arrogant Hollywood slap at the time of its release?

Most importantly, “kitchen sink” was the style of the ZAZ directors mentioned previously:  Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker.

Kentucky Fried Movie.  Airplane!  The Naked Gun films (with the exception of the last).

This really is a cute film.

And while most of it would have pushed the envelope for 1984, it would almost be a G-rated movie by today’s standards.

Still, there are some jawdropping moments…such as The Anal Intruder (with the Cuisinart on the shelf [in the jailhouse now]).

Turns out the Christopher Atkins character (played by Christopher Villiers) had gotten all the joys of the Russian sailors who rescued him…including sodomy, Karl Marx, Lenin, L. Ron Hubbard, and one more bloke.

And so we wonder…couldn’t the Butthole Surfers have made it into this film?

Just barely.

Three years later they would drop the masterpiece Locust Abortion Technician.

Ah, the Reagan era…

 

-PD

Spalovač mrtvol [1969)

This is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen.

The Cremator.

Directed by Juraj Herz.

Even if you are familiar with the Czechoslovak New Wave, this film will still take you by surprise.

It is a mélange of times and themes.

And truly a horror story.

But there is a Brechtian detachment at work.

This would explain labels such as “comedy horror”.

It’s perhaps more absurd and surreal than it is funny.

But it is certainly frightening.

A very creepy piece of cinema.

Everything revolves around a crematory official/director named Kopfrkingl.

That name alone is enough to jar the most languid viewer at each pronunciation.

Historically speaking, this was not a successful film upon release.

No, it was too weird to be incorporated into the Czechoslovak communist pantheon moving forward.  And so the world would have to wait until 1989 to get a look at this thing.

The whole film feels like a dream.

A bad dream.  With some particularly vivid violence.  [Or vintage violence.]

Mr. Kopfrkingl is a truly, outrageously delusional man.

And he only becomes more so as the film goes on.

Modern viewers might notice a bit of Eric Cartman in Rudolf Hrušínský’s performance as Kopfrkingl.

Seen behind an iconic ribbon microphone, Kopfrkingl invokes the manic strains of Hitler and we feel the sick surge of idiocy grab hold of our dear cremator.

The strangest part of Kopfrkingl’s delusion is his obsession with Tibet.

It makes me wonder whether David Lynch saw this prior to Twin Peaks?

Thubten Gyatso dies, and Hitler comes to power.

1933.

Based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, this tale must be seen to be believed.

There are short-circuit edits akin to Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. 

Indeed, director Herz is himself Jewish.

Truth be told, there have been few films which deal with the Holocaust as effectively (if obliquely) as The Cremator

Every shot of Hrušínský from the back evokes the Peter Lorre of M. 

This is a thoroughly fascinating cinematic experience.

 

-PD

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse [1933)

This might be the one great key of the 20th century.

The skeleton key, so to speak.

We have one of the great directors of all time (Fritz Lang) laying out the operational details of criminal conspiracies.

But perhaps even more, we have the fine line between genius and madness which Hitler was beginning to toe.

It is important to note that Hitler was synonymous with the Nazi party.

He was their God, so to speak.

And yet it seems to me that Hitler was not particularly bright.

A fiery orator?  No doubt.

But not really a criminal mastermind.

No.  There were others.

Things were just getting going in 1933.

We…

become enthralled by intellect.

As our minds are stimulated, we sometimes lose track of any ethical grounding.

Which is to say, intellectuals are the most dangerous.

I would like to fancy myself an intellectual, but I will let the Order decide that.

Yes, dear friends…there is no other way to put it.

Fritz Lang, the prophet, is clearly delineating a criminal Order which would come to rule the world in the 20th century.

His message is far-reaching.

The methods outlined in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse are perhaps most applicable today.

The 21st century (which began on 9/11/01).

Terror for the sake of terror.

Hidden-hand machinations.

The man behind the curtain.

It is no small detail.

Every detail drives Otto Wernicke to the brink of madness.

He is the portly J. Edgar of this affair.

In Wernicke’s case, his opposition are mad geniuses.

Literally mad.

Goethes of crime.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge sums up the problem.

Knowledge is inextricable from high-level criminal insanity.

Dr. Mabuse has studied too much.

And so he spools out reams of handwritten blather.

He reexamines language.

Hinting at post-structuralism.

Language, year 0.

Whirls and whorls and squiggles.

And slowly the comatose “brains” of the operation finds himself a new body.

Each one well-paid.  And each compartmentalized in their knowledge.

We must come back to Max Weber for this one.

A couple of times the word.  simuliert.

The prospect.

That he could be faking it.

Madness.  To avoid the punishment he deserved.

But it seems rather that the psychiatrists have been infinitely engrossed in the case histories of their patients.  [Which is to say in their patients themselves.]

The psychiatrists have the secrets of the 20th century.

And the science rolls on.

On the one hand, we have Ewen Cameron of Project MKUltra.

On the other we have Dr. Steve Pieczenik.

And it is at this point which we need to discuss the counterintelligence apparatus of the Order:  2-B.

It’s not Abteilung.  Something different.  Less significant.  But tasked with the dirty work.  The cleanup.

Mord.  Murder.  Nipping the stragglers.  There’s no leaving the Order.

And so is it any wonder that Goebbels (or Garbage, as Charlie Chaplin rechristened him) had Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse banned in Germany?

Why?

Because it gave away all the secrets.

The secrets of control.  Each level glued together by terror.

And the controlled chaos.  The buildup of addictions.  The incredibly farsighted chess game of our conspirators.

The reign of crime.  A lusty pronunciation.

Vs. a homicide detective wont to sing strains of Die Walküre here and there.

Germany split in two.

Soon enough.

And something as simple as a love letter.

When one least expects it.

Few films deserve the label masterpiece quite like this one.

 

-PD

M [1931)

Perhaps we pay too much attention to the story.

We all love a good story.

But the mark of the genius filmmaker may be found in their method of narrative.  The art of how they tell their stories.

To be quite honest, I wasn’t thrilled to return to this Fritz Lang masterpiece, but I’m glad I did.

It is very much how I feel about Hitchcock’s Psycho.  It is a wonderful film, but it’s not something I want to throw on once a week during the course of kicking back.

M, like Psycho, is a supremely tense film.  Nowadays, when we think of Hitchcock, we might reflect on his tastefulness.  Think about it (says Jerry Lee).  In Hitchcock’s day (a long, productive “day”), things which are now shown with impunity were positively disallowed for a Hollywood filmmaker.  Blood and guts…no.  Hitchcock was forced to artfully suggest.

The strictures guiding Fritz Lang (29 years earlier) were even more conservative.  But even so, M is a genuinely terrifying movie.

Terrifying films are rarely relaxing.  They are not meant to be.

But as I had seen this one before, I was able to focus more on the method employed by Lang.  The truth is, M is a masterpiece.  It really is the treatment of a brute subject (murder) with incredible subtlety.

What is most radical about M is its counterintuitive take on crime.

Within this film, crime is divided into capital and noncapital offenses.

In M, a band of criminals exists which seeks to put a serial killer out of business.  It may seem a strange turn of phrase, but this killer is bad for the business of other criminals (mainly thieves and such).

A town in terrorized.  The police regularly raid establishments.  You must have your “papers” with you at all times.

And so those who survive on crime are so desperate as to adopt (temporarily) the same goal as the police:  catch the killer.

It is not giving much away to tell you that Peter Lorre is the killer.  This is not a whodunit.  It’s a “what’s gonna happen”.  That I will leave to your viewing pleasure.

While I am on the subject of Lorre, let me just say that this is one of the finest, weirdest performances in cinema history.  The final scene is one of absolutely raw nerves.  Lorre is not the cute, vaguely-foreign character he would become in The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca.  Lorre is stark-raving mad.

His attacks of psychosis are chilling to observe.  But really, it is his final outburst which tops any bit of lunacy I’ve ever seen filmed.

Today there would likely be plenty of actors ready to play such a macabre role, but in 1931 this was a potential death wish.

That Lorre put his soul into it tells us something important about him.  First, he was capable of being more than a “sidekick” (as he was in the previously-mentioned Bogart films).  Second, he was dedicated to the art of acting.  Lorre was not “mailing it in”.  Playing such a role can’t be particularly healthy for one’s mental state.

But there’s a further thing.  His final monologue is filled with such angst.  Let us consider the year:  1931.  In the midst of the Great Depression.

But also we must consider the country:  Germany.  These were the waning years of the Weimar Republic.  Three important dates would end this democratic republic:  Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor (Jan. 30, 1933), 9/11 the Reichstag fire (Feb. 27, 1933), and the Enabling Act (Mar. 23, 1933).

The era of M (1931) was the era of Heinrich Brüning’s “deflationary” monetary policy as German Chancellor.  I put deflationary in quotation marks because Wikipedia’s current description might better be termed contractionary monetary policy.

As Wikipedia would tell it, Brüning was essentially instating fiscal austerity (that hot-button term of recent times) concomitantly with the aforementioned monetary approach.  This was, of course, the failure which paved the way for Adolf Hitler to take control of Germany.

And so we find that the historian Webster Tarpley is right when he refers to certain modern-day policy makers as austerity “ghouls”.  Either conservative/fascist leaders across the globe have no grasp of history, or they are looking forward with anticipation to the next Hitler or Mussolini.

It should be noted that Tarpley is coming from a socialist perspective rooted in the Democratic Party of FDR.  His opposition, therefore, would likely brand him as liberal/communist and through slippery-slope logic see the policies he espouses as paving the way for the next Stalin or Mao.

And so goes the political circus…ad nauseam.

Returning to film, we must at least consider this situation in Germany.  The country was still paying war reparations from WWI (though this was becoming impossible because of the internal economic woes).

What is perhaps most astonishing is how much Peter Lorre’s character prefigures the Hitler caricature which has come down to us from history.

War-based societies have a compulsion to kill.  Germany found out the hard way that this is not a healthy default.  Sadly, today’s Germany has not checked the most warmongering modern country on Earth (the United States) enough to make any difference.

The United States has, for a long time now, been breathing…seething for a war.  The “masters of war” are all wearing suits.  Only suits want to go to war.  A true warrior does not want war.  Only those who will go unscathed actively invite war.

But there is an insanity in suits.  A compulsion.  Don’t let the suit fool you.  A suit is, for us grown-ups, the equivalent of a piece of candy…or an apple…or a balloon for a child.  A suit advocating war is saying, “Keep your eyes on my suit.  I know best.  Trust in me.  Look at my impressive degree.”

The suits like places such as Raven Rock Mountain.  The suits won’t be on the battlefield.  And don’t let the 10% who actually fought in a war fool you:  they were in non-combat operations.  Their daddies made sure of it.

So keep your eyes open for the M of American cinema.  Who is the next fascist to take the stage?  Hitler had a Charlie Chaplin moustache.  How dangerous could he be?  Trump has a ginger comb-over.  Surely he’s harmless, right?

 

-PD

 

Die Büchse der Pandora [1929)

Elle est une femme fatale.

Thus sang the chorus.  Der unsichtbar Chor.

On Big Star’s cover of The Velvet Underground.

Third/Sister Lovers.  Alex Chilton from Lou Reed.

And so if we want to really know the prostitute in Vivre sa vie (Godard’s best “movie”), then we must see G.W. Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora.

Pandora’s Box.

Is empty.

See Mulholland Dr.

Blue key.

Lighting.

Her hair.

Louise Brooks.

The gloss of her brunette bob.

Yes, this film is many things.

Confusing?  Yes.

Boring?  Yes.

Genius?  Absolutely.

And here is why.

The two climaxes.

One would fit seamlessly into Fritz Lang’s M…or virtually anything by Alfred Hitchcock.

But the other climax?

It is seconds before.

And worlds more important.

A candle.

Like Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation album.

Two lost souls.

Dreaming.

One is reflecting on a messed up life.  Perhaps.

The other is a messed up life reflecting on nothing.  Just content with a moment’s peace.  Maybe.

Together.

The misfits.

Soon consumed by cataclysm.

An act of God.

Or its opposite.

What I mean to convey is that G.W. Pabst did something remarkable with this film.

It really does read (watch?) like Mulholland Dr. or The Big Sleep.

Something is missing here and there.

Sound!  (for one thing…)

I’ve said it before, but it really does matter who picks the music for these silent films.

It takes some research to know whether the version which has come down to you has anything to do with any official release which might have happened in the year of said film’s premiere.

What I got was Tchaikovsky…and “Greensleeves”…

But, most remarkably…it is the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture (by Пётр Ильи́ч) without the soaring love theme…which is to say, it is the build-ups…the violent cymbal crashes…the angular solemnity which Dvořák’s 9th Symphony also shares (particularly the bold final movement).

But none of this really matters.

What matters is Lulu.  Nana.

Alban Berg.  “Das Messer ist blutig…”

Émile Zola

The fine print.

Frank Wedekind

October 24, 1929

the fear index

abnormally low?

who was ready on December 1st to see the premier of Pandora’s box in new York city?

Yes, I’m afraid the world runs on fine print.

And so the glamorous flapper Lulu had a tortuous go of it (behind the scenes).

The difference between men and women.

Every word is labored now.

Because once you are caught in a font it is a vicious circle.

And so I only urge:

press on through the boredom for at least there is a candle.

-PD

Champagne [1928)

Music changes everything.  How do we start?  Mahler.  I doubted myself.  Barber.  But I was right.  It is that one dissonance which should have convinced me.  The notes rubbing against one another.

And then I slipped.  Like Betty Balfour.  Dvorak?  Berlioz?  No, it’s Sibelius.

A music scholar doesn’t need Shazam.  But I’m a shabby music scholar.  Rags to rags.

Betty Balfour gets to mingle with the ragpickers for awhile, but for her it is riches to riches.

This is a silent film.  Which is to say, it is not silent.

That is the history of cinema.  A misconception.

And music changes everything.  If it’s Giorgio Moroder providing the soundtrack for Fritz Lang…that makes a big difference.

I really lost my way at some point.  I thought I was hearing Mozart…

We thought he wrote a requiem for his pet starling.  Perhaps not.

Yes, at some point we became very lost.  Flying over the Atlantic.  Like the Mary Celeste.  Bermuda Triangle.

It wasn’t the Flying Dutchman.  I think we would have recognized Don Giovanni.  Maybe not.

Betty doesn’t know when to stop.  Lots of seasickness in these early Hitchcock films.

There’s no missing Bolero.  Ravel’s worst piece.  Worlds ahead of most music ever written.

But nothing beats the Piano Concerto in G.

When Betty is weightless…remembering the good times…champagne.  And now she is merely a wage slave.  Trading places.

No talking.  Some intertitles.  And prominently (most prominently) that music!  A choice…by someone.  It makes a difference.

Put a murder to the tendresse of Beethoven.  A birth to Schoenberg.

The orchestra makes a difference.  That flat, unwieldy oboe line…

Yes, I know it’s polytonal, but the intonation is rubbish.  Like the Salvation Army rendition of “Abide with Me” at the beginning of Fist of Fury.  Makes Monk and Coltrane sound absolutely polished.

No, I can’t stand it.  Gordon Harker is great…just as he was in The Farmer’s Wife.  Without italics that sounds positively lascivious.  Thank god for capitalization.

Did Hitchcock predict the stock market crash of ’29?  A case could be made.  Yet here it is charade.

Betty falls prey to Bresson’s predecessor…pickpocket filmed from the waist down.  Rage Over a Lost Penny.  Op. 129.  I’m just venting.

Gordon Harker parenting.  Like Gregg Popovich.  Pride in the name of love.

Nothing’s going very well for Betty.  Taken literally, this is a nihilist coup.  But just ask Bert Williams:  nothing don’t put food on the table.  Nobody.

More like “nothing to see here”…  Hitchcock would lament to Truffaut.  Nevertheless, the particular transfer I have (and the Romantic soundtrack) made this an interesting journey.  Most of all we learn that the auteur theorists were right:  geniuses never make bad films.

-PD

Secret Agent [1936)

If this is propaganda, it is among the most artful of all time.  For it seems to emanate from the mind of an individualist and patriot.  Alfred Hitchcock.

We get our subject material from Somerset Maugham.  Ashenden.

“The wrong man!  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”  Thus laughs “the General” Peter Lorre…a sort of lovable psychopath (if such a thing is possible).  Yes, the wrong man.  It is to Hitchcock’s oeuvre what prostitution is to Jean-Luc Godard’s.  But it is a grotesque moment.  The wrong man.  In this case, it went all the way:  they killed the wrong man.  Just an innocent old man with a wife and a dog.  All in a day’s work for a covert operative…Lorre’s laughter seems to tell us.

No.  Lorre is no typical agent.  He’s a hitman.  He doesn’t mind killing.  In fact, he kind-of enjoys it.  Takes pride in his craft (as it were).  Very clean, he says…strangling, a knife…no guns…too noisy.

But let’s back up to John Gielgud.  To make a spy, you kill the man.  It is quasi-Christian.  The old is gone.  Behold, the new has come.

The perfect spy has no past.  This sort of agent wakes up to read his own obituary.  Before long, he has a new identity.

Though this film predates WWII, its subject matter of WWI is certainly infused with the building tension of a second continent-wide conflagration.

And again we witness James Bond far before Ian Fleming birthed him.  The milieu is the same.  Gielgud reports to “R”…like the “M” we would all come to know and love.  And of course Lorre…himself an M of another type (see Fritz Lang).

Trouble in the Middle East.  Why can’t it be Tahiti?  Where’s Leonard Bernstein when you need him???

“The Hairless Mexican” a.k.a. “The General” Peter Lorre…kinda like the Federal Reserve:  not Federal and no reserves.  Yes, Lorre is quite hirsute.  As for his rank, it is as dubious as his other winning personality traits.

Gielgud’s not very careful…right from the start.  I suppose they should have trained the chap in the dark arts before sending him out into the field.  At least the field is Switzerland (Allen Dulles’ future stomping grounds).

Back to our Bond parallels…the gorgeous Madeleine Carroll, like Eva Green in Casino Royale, stipulates a separate-bed rule as part of her cover (Gielgud’s “wife”).  We wonder whether her character, like Hitchcock and Green’s Vesper Lynd, is of Catholic upbringing.

But for the main course…we get some rather convincing ethics from Hitchcock–a morality which we would scarcely see again in the future of film through to the 21st century.  To wit, espionage is the dirtiest of jobs.  Never mind the old trick of digging though a rubbish bin:  the whole operation is filthy and loused up with sickening concessions.  Hitchcock gets right to the point quite forthright:  murder.  Many of the darkest jobs are just that!  One can spin it anyway one wants, but it is still cold-blooded.

It’s not all fun and games, Gielgud tries to convey to Madeleine.  If you’re here for a thrill, you’d best recalibrate your perspective:  things are about to get real ugly!

It is some scary shit.  Imagine Olivier Messiaen and Giacinto Scelsi collaborating with Morton Feldman for a 45 second piece.  It’s called Sonata for Corpse and Organ.  Their contact has been murdered.  The assassin pulled out all the stops.  Just after the prelude, a fugue of struggle ensued which left a button from the killer’s garments clutched in the dead organist’s hand.  We get a rich, chromatic chord until Gielgud and Lorre realize there’s far too little harmonic rhythm to this chorale.  The bloke’s been whacked (slumped upon the keys).

This button, a single-use MacGuffin, leads them to offing the wrong man.  Poor old Percy Marmont…

At this, Gielgud is ready to quit…sickened by the thought of having innocent blood on his hands.  Credit Madeleine Carroll with a nice performance…especially when she plays the straight (horrified) woman to Lorre’s laughter.

And so, again like Casino Royale, Gielgud and Carroll (madly in love) decide to dispense with the whole mission and pack it in (complete with a resignation letter to “R” from Gielgud).

I won’t give away too much.  Lorre is fantastic:  both ridiculously awkward in his humor and deft in his acting.

Unfortunately, the artfulness of the film which Hitchcock had lovingly built up is marred by a somewhat daft, abrupt ending.

Like this.

-PD

Le Mepris [1963)

I dated Brigitte Bardot for awhile.  Well, not THE Brigitte Bardot, but it might as well have been her.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Ah, but all those hours on the highway didn’t end happily.  No, there weren’t many happy endings for those involved.  Anna Karina.  Jean-Luc Godard.

Contempt.  You must look beyond the characters.  Look beyond the actors.  And even so, you must take note…Fritz Lang as Himself.  It’s like the old U.S. TV tradition of saving that one zinger character for the end of the opening credits.  Say, for instance, you’re watching The Jeffersons or Laverne and Shirley…or even Three’s Company…”and Don Knotts as Mr. Furley” [zing!]

But Fritz Lang isn’t funny.  He doesn’t wear a powder-blue leisure suit.  No, the mood is very grave around here.  Even when we relocate to Capri.  It all begins with a quote from André Bazin.  Twenty-five years later Godard would turn to that quote to kick off his masterpiece Histoire(s) du cinema.  “Le cinema substitue…à notre regard…un monde…qui s’accorde.”  Cinema substitutes in our eyes a world which harmonizes.  Ersetzt das Kino in unseren Augen eine Welt qui harmoniertSostituisce il cinema nei nostri occhi un mondo qui armonizza.

This is the world of Le Mépris.  Babel.  Babble on.  Whore.  Vulgarity doesn’t suit you.  How ’bout now?  Does it suit me now?

He commands me…ou il me prie?  Le Mépris.

Once again we miss Anna Karina.  Two films in a row.  Les Carabiniers and now this:  replaced by Bardot’s ass.  Ass ass ass ass ass.  Blue ass.  Yellow ass.  Natural ass.  The tricolor.  God save the queen!

This was Godard’s shot at the big time.  Like Dune for David Lynch.  “Walk On the Wild Side” for Lou Reed.  Godard as Neil Young skipped Harvest and went directly to On the Beach.

That’s how it goes.  Perhaps it’s why Godard got on with Woody Allen.  Yes, Godard the neurotic drove his life and career directly into the ditch.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200.

He even made the biggest star in France (B.B.) wear the same shabby Louise Brooks wig which his wife (Karina) had worn in Vivre sa vie.  Yes, something is amiss with this film.

I feel the Godard/Karina relationship problems bubbling to the surface.

“No, go do it!  This is your big chance!”

“But you won’t be mad at me?”

“Why should I be jealous of Bebe?”

“You know I would prefer to cast you.”

“Forget about it.  I’m not mad.  I’m happy.  I just look mad because I’m crying.”

Something like that.

All,                                                of,                          that,           aside,

this film couldn’t be more masterful.  It is a precarious film.  It threatens at every turn to fall headlong into a sea of shit, but it doesn’t.  The waters of Capri blue.  Bardot’s golden ennui chevelure.  A white Greek statue and a Shirley card in CinemaScope.  Go ahead and give Ulysses some sky-blue eye shadow and lipstick.  And Penelope.  Pen elope.  Moravia.  Javal.  dactylo.  camérastylo.

The poet’s vocation.  Vacation.  Terrorist.  Tourist.  Coutard.  Kutard.

Casa Malaparte is abandoned.  99 steps and a bitch ain’t one [hit me] (!)  Gulf of Salerno looking out to…nothing.  Ulysses sees something I don’t.  There is no homeland.  Only insecurity.  Die Heimat?  Fritz Lang would know.  Is that a command or a request?  Please tell Goebbels that Herr Lang has politely declined the offer to head up the film efforts of the Nazi propaganda program.  And by the way, he’s leaving the country.  Maybe call up Leni Riefenstahl.  I’ll bet she has a nice ass… lagniappe!  L.H.O.O.Q.

99 steps from the Gulf of Salerno.  that last step’s a doozy [hit me]!

-PD

City of Ember [2008)

Looking at the DVD cover for this film lowered my expectations.  Harry Treadaway cut a rather effete figure and Saoirse Ronan bore somewhat of a sartorial resemblance to her Susie Salmon role (The Lovely Bones).  Fortunately, the dust jacket designers did the disk a disservice as this is actually quite a good movie.

I make a habit of not scrutinizing the list of players prior to viewing films (especially for newer fare such as this).  It wasn’t long into this picture before the phrase “Thank God for Bill Murray!” rang resoundingly in my head.  Indeed, Murray was just what this film needed on many levels.  Conversely, I’m not sure Murray needed this film, but that’s neither here nor there.

We are there.  Ember.  One immediately feels references to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and perhaps also City of Lost Children.  One thing is certain:  the beginning of this affair bears a striking resemblance to the Jeunet film Amélie in its focus on lost, hidden, and wrapped secret items.  One might assume that Ember’s writer Jeanne DuPrau was culturally borrowed from the French by producer Tom Hanks (among others), but her scant Wikipedia bio lists her simply as an American writer from San Francisco.

On to the film proper we see an admirable directing job by Gil Kenan.  In the lights which fall from the artificial sky, we might think of that quasi-classic The Truman Show (1998) (and when the lights emit showers of sparks, perhaps the reference is The Natural from 1984).  City of Ember’s $55 million budget is apparent in the lavish sound-stage city.  There is quite a parallel to the National Treasure franchise (particularly its second installment Book of Secrets) in the end segment of our film.  The narrowly-escaped deluge bears mention as Book of Secrets was released the year before City of Ember.  Even the large staircase to the outer world echoes the original National Treasure movie of 2004.  Of course, we can’t forget that a similar style of filmmaking was already successful at least as early as The Goonies (1985).

Another Saoirse Ronan film also would later feature a sort of underground city (The Host, 2013).  Further parallels could perhaps be drawn between the pernicious blackouts of our film and the home state of our author DuPrau (California).

In simplest terms, Bill Murray is hilarious as always (when allowed to work to his strengths).  Murray plays the mayor of our doomed civilization…generally a scumbag throughout.  Harry Treadaway’s first few lines are delivered rather starched, but he improves vastly over the course of the film to give an all-around fine performance.  Saoirse Ronan (my reason for watching in the first place) is excellent as always.  Her sprinting streaks as a messenger presage the awesome talents of Hanna which she would pull off a few years later.

Truth be known, this is unrecognizable from a Disney movie, but I do not fault it for that in the least.  It is good to see even these largely sanitized stories point an indicative finger at the national security state and the way it operates.  The corruption of power is timeless.  In yet another National Treasure borrowing, the Pipeworks technician Sul keeps the gears of the hydro plant working just as Ed Harris had held the gate open for Nicolas Cage and company to escape the flooded Cibola.  Oh, and the sun also rises…

PD

The Lady Vanishes [1938)

Sigmund Froy.  Was it all just a dream?  The word conspiracy comes from a Latin root meaning, “to breathe together.”  A quick Google search might uncover a Warhol print from 1969 with essentially the same message (over a lithographed photo of the electric chair from Sing Sing).  The poster is a relic from an art auction and sale held Dec. 11th of that year in Chicago at the LoGuidice Gallery “for the Conspiracy Defense.”

This would refer to the Chicago Seven (including Abbie Hoffman).  [N.B.  They were otherwise known as the Chicago Eight until Bobby Seale’s trial was made separate.]  Charged with conspiracy, they were found not guilty of this crime.

Alfred Hitchcock was an expert in conspiracies at least as early as 1938.  If he had made no other films than The Lady Vanishes, he should have been remembered as fondly as Murnau, Lang and Dreyer.  This film is that good!

I didn’t think it so the first time I saw it.  I found it rather dull in fact.  But the talent is there.  This was Hitchcock’s last British film before moving to the U.S.

Margaret Lockwood really is lovely and talented in this strange tale.  The Gasthof Petrus which more or less serves as our beginning locale is filmed with such warmth.  It is really a nimble touch which conveyed this coziness in the fictional locale of Bandrika.  It must be somewhere near the Republic of Zubrowka.

Charters and Caldicott are an amazing caricature of British society.  The two cricket enthusiasts avoid getting involved in anything that would delay their return to the Test match in Manchester until they absolutely are forced to face the facts.

Dame May Whitty is really amazing as Miss Froy.  She was 73 when this movie was made.  What a remarkable achievement!

Michael Redgrave goes from being an obnoxious, seemingly-spoiled musicologist to the saving grace for Lockwood’s dizzied character.

The first death in the film seems rather comical.  A serenader’s song is cut short by strangulation.  We assume from the comic tone of the film that perhaps a Gasthof guest had had enough and went Herbert Lom on the poor fellow.  What we don’t find out till later is that the song was a code…and dear, sweet, innocent old Miss Froy a bona fide spy.

Hitchcock uses some interesting effects in a lovingly magical way reminiscent of the spirit which grew from Méliès’ earliest experimentations.  The effects come as Lockwood’s concussion takes effect aboard the train.  A flower pot intended to knock out Miss Froy instead had landed on Lockwood’s unsuspecting head.  She boards the train anyway, but soon passes out.

Froy.  It is a moment when silent film returns to have its vengeance.  The train whistle is piercing and Lockwood cannot understand the name of her new companion who has so sweetly looked after her since boarding.  The clever spy nonchalantly spells her name in the dust on the train’s window.  Froy.  It will remain till later in the film when it appears just long enough to refortify Lockwood’s belief that the dear old lady had indeed existed.  When the train, at that point, passes into a tunnel…we assume that a waiter in on the conspiracy hurriedly erases the trace.

Once tea is done, the two ladies retire to their cabin (which they share with a rogues gallery of ugly mugs).  Lockwood slips off to sleep.  When she awakens, her grandmotherly friend is gone.  All in the cabin maintain that there never was a little old English lady there.  Lockwood begins to think she’s going mad.  In fact, nearly the whole train is in on the conspiracy.

Human nature is explored in fascinating detail as we see the few people who could help instead choose not to.  They might, none of them, ever end a sentence with a preposition, but far be it from any to venture outside their cozy little selfish worlds to bear witness to someone’s mere existence.  And so Lockwood must go it alone until Redgrave takes up her cause and one becomes two.

A fake Miss Froy is boarded at the only stop.  She is not at all the type…more like a Yugoslavian weightlifter than the dainty Froy we’d known.  Lockwood doesn’t buy it.  As Lockwood and Redgrave dig for clues, they get a little too close to the truth when then find the old lady’s broken glasses in the baggage car.  A fight ensues with the supremely spooky magician (one of Lockwood’s car mates) Signor Doppo.  Dispensing with him after some trouble (a knife fight), they gradually become haggled by a certain Dr. Hartz.  Hartz, a truly ghoulish figure, doesn’t arouse the suspicion of the pair until it is too late.

Leave it to a nun in high heels to give away the game.  By the way, whatever happened to those nuns on the police scanner at Sandy Hook?

The nun turns out to be an indispensable help to the sleuthing couple by dint that she has patriotic reservations about killing a fellow English woman (Miss Froy).  She turns out to be saintly in spite of not being a nun.  On this train she is darn near a literal whistleblower.  She even refuses to spike the brandies which were to be Lockwood and Redgrave’s essential demise (immobilization).

Such great character actors all around…  Philip Leaver as the magician and the cricket chaps:  Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford.  The latter two (Charters and Caldicott) went on to appear together (as the same characters) in three more non-Hitchcock films including Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940).

In conclusion, this film is highly recommended…not just by me, but by the million Mexicans in the hall!

 

-PD