Saturday, March 18, 2017

RUNNING ON TIME: T2 TRAINSPOTTING



In 1997 there came a little movie called Trainspotting, adapted by director Danny Boyle and scenarist John Hodge from Scottish writer Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name. It was the loose-limbed story of a group of childhood friends spinning their collective wheels in the working-class gloom of Edinburgh, Scotland, scheming schemes, committing petty crimes, arguing the merits of Sean Connery (and, by extension, Scotland) and trying to sustain those decaying friendships all while rotating in and out of a seemingly hopeless cycle of heroin addiction, indulgence and withdrawal. For me, Trainspotting’s exuberant, hyperkinetic style decorated a somewhat sensationalistic attitude toward tragedy, on a sociopolitical as well as personal scale, and its scabrous energy always seemed too much at odds with the overwhelming lethargy which follows the orgasmic relief of a desperately needed hit. (I guess I’m more of a Panic in Needle Park kind of guy.)

But what do I know? The movie ended up becoming a smash hit in the UK, and a sizable one in the US as well. Many have asserted in the 20 years since it was released that Trainspotting, the movie, was a generation-defining event, and perhaps in Scotland it was. But in terms of its general reception I think it’s more likely, more broadly and more simply a matter of Trainspotting having provided one of those points of demarcation in terms of the vicarious allure of the movies over any shared life experience, in seeing what films specifically end up being, in the market-driven zeitgeist of modern movie-going, the campfire a generation gathers around, which ones carry collective, sometimes slippery, even indefinable meaning for a generation, in the same way that Clockwork Orange or Star Wars or Top Gun or Pulp Fiction did.


Judging by the reaction of the opening night audience in Hollywood for T2 Trainspotting, the much-anticipated sequel to the 1997 film which reunites the director, writer (of screenplay and novel), and the entirety of the original cast, whatever that meaning might be it runs deep—the reintroduction of each familiar character inspired the same sort of cheering and applause that was part and parcel of nostalgia-ready audiences getting their first taste of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And one of the new movie’s most undeniable attractions is in not only in revisiting these excellent actors in these particular roles—they are to a man and woman better than ever-- but in seeing what 20 years has done to them and for them, and of course comparing their own progress to our own.

But as it has been suggested, nostalgia ain't what it used to be. From the first frames Boyle effortlessly recharges, amplifies and recharacterizes the energy that propelled the first film— the nihilistically-tinged forward movement for movement’s sake of our introduction in 1997 to Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), laughing after being hit by a car, running aimlessly from the consequences of some unseen crime, is replaced here by Renton, now 20 years older, making the same mad dash to nowhere, but this time he’s on a treadmill in a franchise gym in Amsterdam, and this time he’s laid out not by an unfortunate driver but instead a heart attack. The suddenness of Renton’s spill generates a laugh, but as with most of the comedy in Boyle’s Trainspotting movies there’s no laughter in the strange stillness that follows. And with that slapstick fall the consequences of the past have only begun to come home to roost.
Renton’s own brush with death compels him to face up to the life he’s been running from for two decades. He returns to Edinburgh ostensibly to comfort his father in the wake of his mother’s passing, but more pointedly to confront those old friends and to somehow make amends (or maybe just assuage his own guilt) for having left them in the Edinburgh lurch and betraying them by making off with the cash from a drug deal robbery at the end of the first film. Those reunions, prickly and dangerous, form the foundation for the second film’s richer, more reflective and certainly more emotionally resonant strategy.


We first catch up with the only one of the four friends still using skag, Spud (Ewen Bremner), who’s stuck in a downward spiral of meaningless jobs, fruitless drug rehabilitation and desperation to stay connected to his ex-wife (Shirley Henderson) and their young son. Renton unwittingly interrupts Spud’s attempt at an honorable suicide, an act which puts Spud yet again at the embarrassed mercy of an ill-timed eruption of body fluids, T2’s most potent, riotously funny nod to the comedy of horrors that was the first film’s stock in trade.

 

Renton’s attempted reconciliation with Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), now grown-up enough to at least go by his given name, Simon, doesn’t go much smoother. Simon is scratching out a living managing a run-down pub on the edge of a bad patch of urban-industrial wasteland, making ends meet by blackmailing local hotshots with the help of his Bulgarian expatriate girlfriend Veronica (Anjela Nedyalkova, who might be Eastern Europe’s answer to Marisa Tomei), and he’s still seething over Renton’s betrayal-- their tentative mutual assessment goes from distanced small talk to a violent brawl in a scary flash.

Kelly MacDonald makes a welcome, although all-too-brief appearance as Diane, now a lawyer whom Renton consults when Simon’s blackmail schemes get him arrested. When she first appeared, the audience cheered MacDonald as if she were the movie’s equivalent of Carrie Fisher returning as Princess Leia. Unfortunately, the movie has no idea what to do with Diane-- she’s escaped the drudgery of working-class Edinburgh only to function chiefly as a measuring stick for Renton’s self-ascribed failure of purpose.


But the elephant in the room (one of them, anyway) is, of course, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), incarcerated for most of the 20 years in between the first movie and this new one, whose improbable escape from a prison hospital and even more improbable return to the Edinburgh home where his wife and son live, with no apparent worry of being tracked down by police, coincide with Renton’s visit home. Begbie has no idea his bete noire, the seething focus of 20 years’ worth of self-righteous rage, is back in town, but you and I, and Boyle and Hodge, know that it’s only a matter of time before the psychopathic Scot, whose accent is so impenetrable that Boyle sometimes accompanies his rants with stylish subtitles, finds out about Renton’s return. And when he does Begbie demands his due like the worst, most vile demons of the past usually do.


The other elephant—heroin— gets plenty of attention as it pertains to Spud’s painful and persistent struggle to ignore the craving in his veins, and Bremner does a brilliant job here conveying Spud’s sense of ultimately being alone in that struggle. He knows that, though Simon is still a cokehead, he and Renton seem to have conquered, or at least tamed their addiction to skag, just another aspect of his life that makes Spud feel as though he’s been left behind. But T2 seems mysteriously reticent when it comes to seriously addressing how heroin addiction was once the central fabric and motivation of Renton and Simon’s lives as well. They tentatively warm to each other, but the specter of betrayal—financial and, as it turns out, sexual—leads to further tension and a reacquaintance with the needle. But as it plays in the course of the movie that reacquaintance is apparently a casual one, and the subject is dropped (for the moment anyway) almost as soon as it is introduced, as if a heroin shot at this point were nothing more than a weekend backslide into bad habits with no more consequence than a bad hangover—a curious misstep for a movie of such surprising empathy and introspection to make.


“You’re a tourist in your own youth,” snarls Simon to Renton midway through the movie, and it’s the sort of self-reflective joke that the movie traffics in to near profound effect. Renton comes back home facing a newly minted sense of mortality and a need to come to some kind of terms not only with his own actions and how they’ve affected his friends, but also with his own sense of torpor, of being saddled by the implications of a rosy diagnosis of health and 30 more years of life coming just at the point when he’s become reacquainted with the desperate aimlessness which has always clung to the edges of his life. Yet the key to T2’s effectiveness is how deeply it understands that Renton’s desperation to reconnect with and reassess his past is shared by its audience. A sequel by definition, promises more of the same, and Boyle’s impish sense of play, refined here into a style far more sophisticated than the one he was honing in 1997, imparts that necessary sense of familiarity.

But T2 becomes its own animal, imbued with the strange, inharmonious mingling of exuberance and melancholy which can only be transmitted through age and experience, by a consideration of the fear of what might happen when another sort of needle drops, into the grooves of the old vinyl Iggy Pop album still sitting in Renton’s bedroom after all these years. It’s a fear acknowledged by the movie’s exhilarating, and horrifying, final shot, which carries chilling echoes from the first film, and it’s one that is ultimately honored by the movie’s commitment to Renton and company as fleshed-out individuals, not simply as snarling attitudes and generational signposts. At the end of T2’s nearly two-hour run, there’s no simple reassurance when the final train pulls out of the station right on time. Those 30 years still lie in wait.

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Sunday, March 05, 2017

SILVER STREAK: MYSTERY TRAIN REVISITED



And now, a dispatch from the Favorites of Youth Revisited Department.

After a long day at work a couple nights ago I sunk into my chair and threw on Silver Streak (1976), courtesy of Netflix Streaming, having not seen it in probably 30 years, at least. You know, one of my favorite things is going back to check out a movie I liked as a kid and discovering that it holds up well, that the things which tickled me about it way back before I became the sophisticated aesthete I am today (…) are still a source of guiltless pleasure. Unfortunately, outside of the presence of Richard Pryor, who doesn't show up until around minute 65 of this nearly two-hour picture, Silver Streak has precious little to recommend to the unrepentant nostalgiac in 2017.

Because for an action-comedy/Hitchcock pastiche, or more accurately an action-comedy movie with a few cursory nods toward the “Hitchcock tradition” (a.k.a. some well-worn plot devices favored by the director), this is a surprisingly flaccid, suspense-parched affair. Most of that Pryor-less first hour is taken up by a steam-free romance between Gene Wilder, a publisher of art books taking an aimless holiday, and Jill Clayburgh, assistant to a famous art professor who just happens to be on board the same passenger train. Their interminably paced flirtation and eventual kissy time is diluted even further by intercut montages of the titular train moving across the landscape in long-shot to the sleepy strains of Henry Mancini's John Williams-in-disaster-romance-mode-esque score. (A little of that one theme goes a loooong way in this picture.)

But even when the gears of the did-he-see-a-murder-or-didn't-he? plot finally kick in (it’s Clayburgh’s boss who may or may not have been glimpsed dangling from the roof of the train on his way to eternity), the movie still never gathers up its slack-- director Arthur Hiller, a determined anti-stylist, was never one to get the pulse pounding, and the limp trajectory of this would-be thriller suggests heavy sedation on his part.


The Pryor character's seemingly random insertion into Colin Higgins' script is welcome, but outside of that famous bit in the train station, this is a pretty tepid pairing. (For the easily triggered and/or the foggy of memory, that scene involves shoe polish, a radio and a lot of shuck and jive-- on her way to bed, my daughter stopped and watched in horror, completely confused by whatever weird movie I'd decided to suffer through this time.) Higgins never figures out what to do with his team besides black guy keeping white guy company, despite a few isolated moments (perhaps improvised?) when Pryor shows us a flash of the anger underneath his genial persona that would never get a chance to rage outside of his concert films, and consequently Wilder and Pryor never really get many sparks going. (I seem to recall that they had a better connection in Stir Crazy, but after this time-travel experiment I'm not entirely eager to find out if my memory is correct.) The thing that their pairing in Silver Streak did make me think of was the missed opportunity, due to studio nerves, to see them together two years earlier in Blazing Saddles, along with the fact that of all the great comics in movie history Pryor’s specific talents as a satirist, or even just a physical performer, might be among the most ill-used.

Pryor, however, remains the best reason to see Silver Streak, outside of the brief cameo by everyone's favorite desert dweller, Lucille Benson ("Where you goin', Steve??!!")—a friend suggests, rightly I think, that however dull Silver Streak might be, it’s probably the closest movie audiences ever came to getting what they really wanted from Pryor, even after having had to wait so long to get it. But on just about every other count this alleged express is one logy ride—even Gene Wilder’s occasional apoplexy seems uninspired-- and it doesn't hold a candle to the delirious trashy fun of a doomed all-star train voyage like the one undertaken in The Cassandra Crossing, which came out a year later and—surprise, surprise—holds up just fine. No, better to ignore the ease of access Netflix has afforded Silver Streak and just rent Cassandra (if you can find it), or go straight back to the source and see The 39 Steps, or North by Northwest, or The Lady Vanishes instead. But then, you already knew that, didn't you?


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Saturday, February 25, 2017

OSCAR PREDICTIONS, MURIEL DECLARATIONS & PEET GELDERBLOM'S "PRETTY MESSED UP"



So, going into the final stretch before the Oscars are announced, I have a question: if you like—no, love this year’s front-running La La Land, does that make you a bad person, or just deluded? Don’t laugh—there may be people at your own Oscar party who will have already come to their own conclusion on that conundrum. This year’s presumptive favorite is so presumptive that people are talking about the film as if it had already won and are projecting as to whether it’s an enduring classic or just another meh-fest to be thrown on the mediocrity pile along with Crash, Chicago, Argo, The Artist and about half of the rest of Oscar’s Best Picture winners since the Academy started handing out awards at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929. It is hard to deny, no matter how much you like or dislike La La Land, that it is precisely the sort of movie Oscar, and apparently every other award-doling group out there, loves to overrate, which is precisely what has happened and why that backlash, which may have been in its infancy before the movie was even released theatrically in the US this past December, seems so firmly entrenched.

But if anything, especially in our age of social media instant gratification, and instant denunciation, the Oscars are designed to be disagreed with, argued about, denigrated and celebrated in roughly equal measure. Most of us who rail on about their failure to represent the actual audience that pays to see movies, and their failure to uphold standards of artistic achievement in the face of outrageous commerce and the sometimes even more outrageous whims of the folks who actually cast votes, will still tune in and get excited, even at a slightly further distance that we may have used to, to root for the movies we’re convinced deserve the honor (whatever we’ve decided that honor might mean) over the other candidates.

So, in these final hours, before the first envelope is opened and before everyone on stage gets a chance to give the alt-right more reasons to insist that “Hollywood” represents everything that is wrong and weird and not “great” about America, I’m gonna play the Oscar game. I will reveal my predictions for the winners in several major categories, as well as the movie I believe should take home the prize (from those nominated), but not before reminding you that in the 30-some year’s I’ve run my annual office Oscar pool I have won precisely twice, and both of those wins, if I recall correctly, were in years when the level of difficulty in choosing sure things was low. Kinda like this year. So maybe if you throw in with my Sybil the Soothsayer-esque picks and fill out your own Oscar ballot per my advice, you’ll do well on Sunday night. Certainly, as well as I will. It’s up to you.

My official stand is this: I don’t follow the trades religiously this time of year and honestly have no idea what the prevailing wisdom of the “experts” might be, so I figure my gut is as good as anyone’s. (Well, maybe not the rock-hard abs of Chris Evans, but you know what I mean.) So, take the picks of this interested outside observer for what they are worth, which may be close to nothing. As the old pinball machines used to say, this column, much like the Oscars themselves, is For Amusement Only.


BEST PICTURE

All the wisdom in Hollywood says La La Land is your winner. I cannot disagree. My prediction: La La Land. My wish: Moonlight, although I would belt a tune by the light of said moon if Hell or High Water pulled off what would be the most ridiculously unlikely upset in Oscar history.

BEST ACTRESS

Again, to bet against Emma Stone is toss your shekels to the wind. My prediction: Emma Stone. My wish: I have loved Emma Sone since Easy A and I will be very happy when she wins, but I would be even happier if Isabelle Huppert could emerge victorious for what I do believe is the female performance of the year in Elle. 

BEST ACTOR

It’s undersized Casey Affleck versus oversized Denzel Washington here. This is the only acting category with some measure of suspense, but I think a combination of residual ambivalence about Affleck’s alleged off-screen behavior and Washington’s surprise win at the SAG awards bodes well for interior pain expressed in the bombastic mode this year. My prediction: Denzel Washington. My wish: Casey Affleck.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Slam dunk for Viola Davis, though anyone who has seen Fences should be able to see this is a lead performance. Savvy positioning in the Supporting Actress category will secure this heavy hitter her first Oscar. My prediction: Viola Davis. My wish: Naomie Harris.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

His impassioned speech at the SAG Awards, speaking as an artist of the Muslim faith, endeared Mahershala Ali to liberal-minded Academy voters as much as his actual work in Moonlight did, and they’ll want him to speak his mind again on the Dolby Theater stage Sunday night. My prediction: Mahershala Ali. My wish: Mahershala Ali, though seeing Jeff Bridges take the stage would be a nice surprise too.

BEST DIRECTOR

Two strong choices from independent films to choose from here, but the pull of the La La Land tide is a formidable one. My prediction: Damien Chazelle.  My wish: Barry Jenkins.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Progressive politics couched in a surprisingly engaging story is a hard combination to beat. My prediction: Zootopia. My wish: Kubo and the Two Strings.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

When a solid humanitarian piece like Life, Animated, which might have won in a different year, is your weakest candidate, you know you’re looking at a real bounty in all the rest. Still, the historical scope and insight of Ezra Edelman’s singular achievement should dominate the voters’ fields of vision. My prediction and my wish: OJ: Made in America.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

My prediction and my pick: Moonlight.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

My prediction: La La Land. My wish: Allied.

BEST FILM EDITING

My prediction: La La Land. My wish: Hell or High Water.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FEATURE

My prediction and my wish: The Salesman.

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIR

My prediction: A Man Called Ove. My wish: Star Trek: Beyond

BEST MUSICAL SCORE

My prediction and my wish: La La Land

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

My prediction: La La Land. My wish: Hail, Caesar!

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

My prediction: “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana). 
My wish: “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” (La La Land).

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

My prediction and my wish: Moonlight.

BEST ORIGNAL SCREENPLAY

My prediction: Manchester by the Sea. My wish: Hell or High Water.

BEST SOUND EDITING

My prediction: La La Land. My wish: Arrival.

BEST SOUND MIXING

My prediction: Hacksaw Ridge. My wish: Arrival.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

My prediction: The Jungle Book. My wish: Doctor Strange.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

My prediction: Extremis.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT SUBJECT

My prediction: Piper.

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT SUBJECT

My prediction: Sing.

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And now a word about the awards that really matter. Winners for the 10th annual Muriel Awards, given by a group of writers and cinephiles among whose member I have been since their start back in 2006 (and named after award cofounder Paul Clark’s beloved guinea pig), began rolling out this past week, in direct competition with the big gold guy, and will continue to do so into next week. I’ve got a couple of pieces coming up for the Muriels, and don’t for a minute think my legendary humility will somehow allow me to somehow forget to alert you when those are posted. But in the meantime, I want to let you know, in the face of all the overwhelming Academy Awards hype and talk of a La La Land sweep, that there still are independently minded awards groups out there who have a mind and an eye toward films that might not be top of Oscar’s mind, and the Muriels constitutes one of the most independent of them all. Here’s what they have already awarded for 2016:

Best Supporting Performance (Male): Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Best Supporting Performance (Female): Lily Gladstone, Certain Women



Best Body of Work: Isabelle Huppert

Best Music: Mica Levi, Jackie


Best Cinematic Breakthrough: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Stay tuned all this week at Muriels headquarters, Our Science is Too Tight, as more awards will be revealed, including the countdown to best film of 2016.

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And finally, if all this award talk is getting you down and you need some stimulating creative distraction, consider tuning in to director Peet Gelderblom’s video essay series, Pretty Messed Up, whose six-episode run at Film Scalpel concludes this coming week in an unusually epic fashion. Gelderblom is the fella who earlier pitted Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma against each other in a Split-Screen Bloodbath and whose director's cut of Raising Cain was approved by De Palma himself and included on the recent Blu-ray of the film. In Pretty Messed Up, Gelderblom specializes in teasing out the subversive and commentative qualities of the mash-up to reveal specific insights and unusual personalities within the elements of the films themselves. Episode #3, "Heading Toward Certain Death," combines audio from Werner Herzog’s acclaimed Antarctic documentary Encounters at the End of the World with the animated comedy Happy Feet, about a flock of musically inclined penguins which, as Film Scalpel put it, results in “a surrealist clash of heavy-handed narration and lighthearted visuals... a clash that, for one thing, reveals the appetite for Hollywoodian hyperboles in Herzog’s dramatic narration.” (This episode was chosen as Vimeo’s Staff Pick of the Week.)

And for his finale this week, Gelderblom is pulling out all the stops. “Brace yourself for the ultimate showdown between good and evil,” he warns. “God vs. Satan,” coming Tuesday, promises a truly epic mash-up, one which, according to the director, is compiled from 24 different films to construct a spectacular clash between Our Lord and Savior and the Prince of Darkness. Expect shock and awe, and maybe even a little controversy. As Gelderblom says, “I
t won’t be a friendly confrontation.”

While you wait for “God Vs. Satan,” you can catch up with all the previous episodes of Pretty Messed Up  at Film Scalpel
.

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

JOSEF VON STERNBERG'S ANATAHAN (1953)



One of the most unusual, and unusually moving swansongs in cinema history, Josef von Sternberg’s Anatahan (a.k.a. The Saga of Anatahan) returns to American screens this spring in a new restoration which seems destined not to only buff up the movie’s obvious visual splendor but also its standing as an essential and fully engaged work of a master Hollywood stylist rather than simply a curious end post to a remarkable career.

In the early ‘50s Sternberg was coming off two movies made for Howard Hughes—the gorgeously sublimated cold-war adventure Jet Pilot (finished in 1950 but cut extensively by Hughes and held up for release until 1957) and Macao (1952), on which Sternberg and Hughes clashed again, resulting in the director’s replacement by Nicholas Ray. Disillusioned by Hollywood, Sternberg, a long-time devotee of Japanese culture, capitalized on his separation from Hughes and began investigating the possibility, one he had been pursuing on and off for over 15 years, of producing a film in Japan with Japanese producer Kawakita Nagamasa. For the duration of World War II that collaboration remained an impossibility, and according to film scholar Sachiko Mizuno in her formidable and richly researched essay "The Saga of Anatahan and Japan" it was delayed further by Kawakita’s status after the war as a class-B war criminal, which meant a three-year ban from working in the Japanese film industry.


Sternberg became fascinated by a story he’d read in the New York Times about Japanese WWII survivors who had been discovered living on Anatahan, one of the remote islands comprising the Marianas archipelago in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. Since he and Kawakita had talked about a Japanese-U.S. co-production that might in some small way address the futility and stupidity of war, the story of what happened on Anatahan seemed like a natural proposition. As quoted in Mizuno’s essay, Sternberg addressed his motivations and desires for the movie:

“The reason why I decided to make a film adaptation of the Anatahan incident was not because the incident is pertinent to the Japanese nor because it happened to non-American people.  How do human beings behave in the most unfortunate situation?  This point is what I am most interested in.  It doesn’t matter what kind of racial background these people have.  This great story is almost as great as Robinson Crusoe… I am a humanist, and I love Japan.  I will never make a film to displease the Japanese people.”


Pointedly, Sternberg felt little obligation to hew strictly to the historical facts of the incident, and that decision is at the root of the movie’s extraordinary empathy, and Sternberg’s innate sense of how style can emerge and serve a work that in other hands might have had a more obviously documentarian texture. Rather than staging the trials of the shipwrecked Japanese naval crew, and the couple they find already living on the island, with “you-are-there” immediacy, the director placed his cast of largely inexperienced Japanese actors on lush jungle sets which on their face might have no more topographic verisimilitude than the average episode of Gilligan’s Island. Yet it won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Sternberg’s more appreciated work with Marlene Dietrich that the thick atmosphere of foliage and terrain to which the sailors must adapt, and especially the marvelously observed detail of the house in the trees which serves as the castle of “queen bee” Keiko (Akemi Negishi) and her abusive but also strangely submissive husband Kusakabe (Tadashi Suganuma), would be so seductively exploited by Sternberg for every ounce of expressive, oppressive beauty. There are moments when Sternberg’s camera creeps through the jungle in hypnotic pursuit of Keiko in which it seems to be under the same spell as that of her mesmerized male subjects. Attuned as we are by the play of light and shadow amongst the leaves and the dense humidity of the atmosphere which is, of course, informed by the intense sexuality of Keiko’s hold over the men, that forbidding foliage takes on the same erotic qualities as the shadow-draped parlors of Dietrich’s mysterious seductress Concha in The Devil is a Woman (1935).

Sternberg also employs another device which might be seen as distancing but in fact serves exactly the opposite purpose. The entirety of the dialogue spoken by the Japanese cast was left deliberately untranslated—Sternberg was obviously confident that the humane universality of his intended point would transcend barriers of language. But the director further augments that point through first-person narration, read by Sternberg himself. To hear an English-speaking non-Japanese relating the nuances, circumstances and poetic implications of the harrowing experience of these survivors, their warring impulses of desire, political and sexual manipulation, and their waning hopes of survival, is to absorb Sternberg’s strategy of achieving a commonality of experience. This is to say nothing of the unexpectedly powerful emotional response to a situation which the movie evokes and from which American audiences at the time might have found themselves intellectually as well as emotionally withdrawn.


The primary marvel of Anatahan, as it turns out, is that empathy which Sternberg teases out of his subject. Ironically, that quality, as much as any of the formal stylistic devices he employed, might be at the core of the movie’s difficulty in reaching and being absorbed by audiences and by history. American audiences certainly might have been expected to resist a film made so soon after the official resolution of World War II that explicitly insisted upon the vulnerable humanity of Japanese soldiers, and by extension the Japanese citizenry, and critics at the time weren't exactly welcoming either. (Los Angeles Times critic Philip Scheuer dismissed the film upon its release as “a curiosity among motion pictures that may have some esoteric interest but that to this itinerant filmgoer is largely a bore.”)

But Sternberg’s master stroke is how that humanity is defined and sustained throughout the film, how it informs even the basest and most indefensible actions of the people who find themselves in the increasingly untenable position of finding a way to survive their experience, much less gaining even the slightest understanding of it. The film ends with a sequence in which the seven survivors emerge from an airplane back onto Japanese soil, and as they make their way toward the camera, smiling, the parade is interrupted by a shot of Keiko observing from a shadowed distance, accompanied by the voice of Sternberg as narrator: “We are home at last, and if I know anything about Keiko, she too must have been here.” Keiko then observes another parade, as each of the dead men approach the camera with grave expressions quite in contrast to the survivors previously seen, her haunted remembrance of those, including Kusakabe, who did not come back, while the distant echo of a samisen and an Okinawan folk song fade into memory on the soundtrack. Similarly, though the experience at the heart of the Anatahan incident may have faded into the mist of history, Sternberg has insured that the valuable lesson of humanity learned in its retelling has not. Like the strings of that samisen, Anatahan continues to reverberate.



(Anatahan is currently playing is Los Angeles through February 21 at the Cinefamily and in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center through February 22, and is scheduled for further engagements in Seattle, Austin, Cleveland and Toronto in March and May. Playdate details and more available at the Kino Lorber Web site.)

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

NOSTALGIA AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE



Nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be.

When the poster for American Graffiti (1973) asked the question “Where were you in ’62?” it was marketing a trend, spiked by the increasing popularity of the theatrical musical Grease, for audiences of a certain age to look backward to a time when life wasn’t ostensibly so complicated, when your life was still out there waiting to be lived, to a time when America hadn’t yet “lost its innocence.” The demarcation point for that alleged loss is often assigned to the upheaval of grief and national confusion experienced in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, so it was no accident that the setting for American Graffiti’s night of cruising, romancing and soul-searching was placed a little over a year before that cataclysmic event. The interesting thing about Graffiti was the aggressiveness with which that nostalgia for that “simpler time” was sold. It may well be that generations before had pined for the days of their youth, but baby boomers were probably the first to have that longing packaged into pop culture, ready to be consumed.


The marketing for Graffiti itself now looks a little on the quaint side, sans the relentless of the multimillion-dollar campaigns routinely unleashed by studios these days. Promotion of the movie rode primarily on savvy marketing to theaters and, most of all, a hit soundtrack album packed with ‘50s and ‘60s doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll, stitched together aurally with bits of dialogue and the howling of Wolfman Jack, the movie’s mysterious presence on the airwaves. The album even came with liner notes which touted the movie’s significance both as a work of cinema and as generational experience. And the whole campaign was so effective that when the movie played at the local drive-in in my hometown it sold out an unprecedented seven-day engagement (most movies ran a maximum of four). All my friends, teenagers in the early ‘70s when the movie came out but who were only three or four years old during the time in which American Graffiti is set, loved the movie’s freewheeling attitude and we hastily adopted small-town cruising as a social model for extracurricular fun. Admittedly, the loss of Kennedy didn’t hit we who were still in diapers when the shots rang out in Dallas as much more than a bittersweet postscript, but I’d wager for most of us the movie, even though crafted as a look backward, felt more like one that was about facing possibilities than telegraphing tragedy.


Near the end of the ‘70s director Philip Kaufman adapted Richard Price’s first novel, The Wanderers, which dramatized the same time period as Graffiti, only from the grittier, more racially volatile perspective of gangs in the Bronx. But whereas George Lucas’s movie may have benefited from its relatively narrow focus (one night, one group of friends), Kaufman never figured out how to cohere Price’s episodic structure, and the resulting film, despite some beautiful directed sequences (there’s a sublimely comedic strip poker scene about halfway through that is one for the ages), is tonally all over the map, moving through fits and starts, thin characterizations and inexplicable mood swings. The resonant connective tissue that might have bound the movie’s broad takes on racism, sexism and the boorish fraternal bonds among the central gangs in the story feels like it has gone missing, and consequently the obligatory cultural signposts which provide the movie’s bittersweet coda— the Kennedy assassination, and then a stumbling upon Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in a coffeehouse— has power but also feels more forced than genuinely resonant. 

By the time The Wanderers was released to a largely indifferent marketplace in 1979 the commodification of nostalgia that Graffiti capitalized on had already given rise to the popularity of groups like Sha-Na-Na and TV shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, which harkened back to “the good old days” with barely a notion of the social upheaval and strife that characterized the strongest moments of The Wanderers even more than the pop music and fashions did. Grease would also have already had the relatively raw complexities of its original incarnation buffed away on the journey to Broadway and its hit 1978 movie version. And that sort of homogenized cultural commodification, looking back from a generation’s distance with very selective vision at recent decades past, is still a very active template. It’s now practically hard-wired into the way American movies approach social and pop culture history, the phenomenon on the ‘80s-centric Stranger Things being but only one recent example.


But wherever that line of demarcation is drawn— at the quiz show scandals of the ‘50s, the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, the Charles Whitman shootings at the University of Texas, the massacre at Kent State, or somewhere else-- all that business about America’s “loss of innocence” should be troublesome to anyone who has any awareness of history, either in a national or a cinematic sense. It’s hard to imagine anyone who knows anything about the history of slavery in this country, or the horrifically desperate times endured by Americans during the economic collapse of the Great Depression from 1929-1939, or the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps during World War II, to mention only three examples, even entertaining the notion that America ever had much in the way of innocence to lose. Take a look at any juicy example of pre-code Hollywood moviemaking (1933’s Baby Face, for example) and ask yourself just how innocent the country seemed. Yet despite the plentitude of evidence to suggest that Hollywood films of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s routinely ignored by omission matters of race in American society or, worse, gave ugly or otherwise embarrassing glimpses into the reality of racial division, they could also be trenchantly, sometimes even subversively observant when it came to poverty and other aspects of (white) social reality.


Recently, partially as a respite from the nonstop barrage of depressing news coming out of my TV, radio and phone, I sat down in front of a sparkling HD print (transfer? restoration? unsure of the proper terminology here) of Gold Diggers of 1933 recently procured by my DVR from Turner Classic Movies. My current interest in/hunger for anything Busby Berkeley had been tweaked by the taste I’d indulged on New Year’s Eve via the compilation doc That's Dancing! (1985), and as I hadn’t seen GD33 in perhaps 30 years I eagerly settled in for some kaleidoscopically choreographed escapist fun. And as I watched it I began to really understand something about the entertainment of the day that had always been somewhat academic before—the reality that audiences in the ‘30s used to flock to extravagant spectacles like this as a way of taking a 90-minute retreat from the oppressive reality they faced the other 1350 minutes of the day, in exactly the same way Gold Diggers of 1933 was functioning for me in that very moment.

Yet for being an ostensible bit of fluff, the movie is still surprising in the way it jumbles fantasy with sobering social consciousness right out of the gate. Berkeley kicks off the movie with a staging of “We’re in the Money,” featuring a young and sassy Ginger Rogers knocking out the tune amid images of glittering lucre and the usual lavish extravagance of a typical Berkeley production number. Two minutes in and audiences are immediately reminded of the movie’s historical context, situated as it was four years into the approximately ten-year run of the Great Depression, and that teeming coffers of cash were the last thing people who came to see this picture in 1933 had at their disposal. Those folks wouldn’t have needed reminding of their dire straits, of course, and that’s one of the things that’s bold and striking about this “frivolous” entertainment, that it openly acknowledges and engages with the troubles of the world while managing to conjure a sublime and comforting bubble of escapism at the same time. (This thematic refusal to shy away from real life is, of course, a hallmark of Berkeley’s work across the board.) 


That the movie ends not with optimistic affirmation and a neat tying-up of the its various romantic entanglements, but instead with its Broadway show’s big finale, “The Forgotten Man,” a spectacle dedicated to the dirt-scratching trials of a citizenry, faithful in the previous war, but bedeviled and ignored and brought down by economic disaster, might be even more remarkable. The number is powerful, of course, weightier than the content of the rest of the show staged by the cranky producer played by sourpuss nonpareil Ned Sparks, and it amounts to a curiously solemn note on which to wrap up such an otherwise effervescent picture, one that was hardly likely to have inspired much happy whistling as audiences headed out the doors from the theater lobby and back to their considerably less sparkling lives. 

Even so, in presumably much the same way as audiences in 1933 must have embraced it, I somehow found encouragement to be taken from seeing Gold Diggers of 1933 which went beyond the emotional bump to be gleaned from its glittering charm, sassy performances and eye-popping staging, and this at a time when we’re not four years into a national crisis but, relatively speaking, more like four minutes into one. Busby Berkeley’s audiences, who would soon enough face the specter of Hitler once they got some dough back in their pockets, somehow managed to appreciate a dose of social reality mixed in with their singing-and-dancing fantasias. It was a sobering and heartening realization that the appeal of Gold Diggers of 1933 could and did go beyond simple longing for days when times (if you believed most movies) were simpler and more appealing. Busby Berkeley managed to honor the real economic concerns of everyone who might have seen it in its time while also suggesting that it was okay to let go of their concern, if only for a little while. This was what movies could do a little over 30 years after they were born. Eighty-some years later I’m left to wonder, with generous doses of optimistic anticipation in counteraction with the inevitable dread, how our great popular artists, the ones we know already and the ones who will hopefully emerge, will address or otherwise synthesize the realities of our suddenly up-ended world in the enlightened age of Trump. 

But if Busby Berkeley could spotlight the conscience among some of the brightest confections studios of the ‘30s and ‘40s had to offer, then Hollywood’s overall selective ignorance when it comes to dealing with race should be seen as even more maddening and disgraceful. For every appearance by Louise Beavers (Imitation of Life; 1934) or Ethel Waters (Pinky; 1949) or Juanita Moore (Imitation of Life; 1959), there were far more regrettable misuses and abuses of performers like Butterfly McQueen (Gone with the Wind; 1939), Fred “Snowflake” Toones (Remember the Night; 1940, The Palm Beach Story; 1942) and of course Stepin Fetchit to offset any illusion that Hollywood was regularly affording anything like basic dignity to people of color on the silver screen.  And once again, given the none-too-faint reverberations of white supremacist philosophy informing the actions of the new president, it’s worth wondering, what does the popular nostalgia for classic movies mean in a time when the insistent battle cry of the Trump campaign, and now the Trump administration, is to somehow make America great again? That campaign slogan has always had an air of insidiousness about it: When exactly, not unlike how the nation supposedly lost its innocence, did the moment occur in which America cased to be “great” in the first place? Because clearly that slogan has regressive implications for blacks and Asians and Native Americans and gays and transgender people that are markedly different, and a whole lot less sunny and optimistic, than might be the case for white Trump supporters, so pinpointing that time carries with it a lot of very scary weight.

Last year, during the outrage of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the attempts by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to ensure ongoing expansion of racial and ethnic diversity among its membership, some friends and I were exchanging thoughts on the situation via Facebook. The tenor of the conversation was outrage over complete lack of color among the 20 acting nominees, as well as resistance that was being registered in some quarters to the changes initiated by AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs in order to promote not only diversity within the Academy but also within the nominees. For what it’s worth, this is a duty which I felt then, as I do now, belongs more squarely on the shoulders of those in power to green-light projects who must be convinced that a movie which wants to tell, say, the heretofore untold story of three black women and their roles in the NASA space program and John Glenn’s successful Earth orbits in the early ‘60s, would have popular appeal across several different demographics. (Thank you, Hidden Figures.)

However, during the conversation one of my friends wondered openly about the obsessiveness of some of the devotion to classic movies embodied by the popularity of Turner Classic Movies. What if, he suggested, the nostalgic reverence for pictures from the period predating the ‘70s, when a period of “blaxploitation” cinema gave way to a more open, confrontational engagement with racism and a more multicultural attitude apparent in casting and storytelling that can be seen in present-day cinema from all over the world, was speaking to something less pure and virtuous than the commonly held “values” concomitant with the notion of a period of “American innocence”? What if underneath at least some of that nostalgia for the relative and perceived simplicity of classic Hollywood fare was a longing for a day when race wasn’t much a subject Hollywood cared to address, when black and Asian and Native American faces (or caricatures) appeared in sinister, subservient, or otherwise demeaning roles if they appeared at all, when darkies and Japs and redskins in the real world knew their place and to stay there?


At the time, before Trump’s campaign had emerged as anything much more than a weird circus attraction (or distraction), this notion seemed to me kind of alarmist, and maybe just a little bit paranoid. But the question has stuck with me over the past year, and it’s prompted me to consider my own appreciation of classic Hollywood with yet another refraction through my usual critical prism. It’s hard for me to imagine that the folks I see every year crowding the hallways of the Chinese Theater complex in Hollywood for the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival are there in any way to celebrate a time when white folks just weren’t often required to acknowledge or deal with “the Other” in our big-screen entertainments, except of course on terms that served to reinforce our various societal comfort zones and our prejudices. But then again, it’s hard for me not to imagine, by actively campaigning and clamoring for a time when America was once “great,” when progressive movements that have, under previous administrations, made life considerably better for POC and LGBTQ communities and, by extension, everyone else didn’t exist, that people who supported Trump aren’t at least tacitly advocating for a return to a happier time when whites didn’t have to worry about their dominance in society being constantly undermined by all those folks crammed in the margins. (And of course for many such advocating is way beyond tacit.)

No, nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be, not when the world seems suddenly more unstable than ever, when Trump and white supremacy-spouting advisors like Steve Bannon are calling the shots and sycophants like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan seem bent on clearing the decks so that their shared agendas might most easily be pushed through. So what does it mean in 2016 to look back with longing on a classic Hollywood period which more than ever seems like such a different world than the one we find ourselves warily navigating through right now? What does our nostalgia for this period in our national and international cinema actually mean? I’m not at all certain I know the answers to those questions, but as with any meaningful and right-minded inquiry I won’t ignore the need to look for them, and I’m exceedingly glad that someone has had the consciousness to even ask.

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