Sunday, November 22, 2020



I’m 60 years old, and though I still have an alarming collection of blind spots in my experience, I have seen a lot of movies in those almost-22,000 spent days. But last weekend I was able to erase one of those blind spots and replace it with a vision of clarity that was, to me, quite unexpected.

Around 8:45 p.m. I started looking at the new Criterion Blu-ray of the uncut, original four-part, four-hour presentation of Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979), based on Carlo Levi’s memoir of his political exile in a remote village in pre-WWII Southern Italy, a time defined and scarred by Mussolini and that fascist regime’s attempt to impose a new colonial presence in Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia. It had been a long day the day before, and by the evening I was plenty tired— I figured I’d just dip into the disc and take a gander at how it looked, with no expectation of actually watching it, and if I did certainly not getting any further than an hour or so before drifting into unconsciousness.

But the alchemy of the movies is a mysterious thing. From the opening images of Gian Maria Volontè as Levi, bearded, solemn, in repose and surrounded by a multitude of paintings of his own creation, to the title card “1935” imposed over a shot of a train which bears Levi to the town of Galiano, in the province of Lucania on Italy’s southern bootheel, to the slow revealing of a culture in the impoverished Galiano, people, traditions, customs and superstitions left behind in the wake of the rest of the country’s economic development and relentless political oppression, the movie’s patient gaze, its nonjudgmental approach to its characters and their environment is established immediately, and I was transfixed, hooked.

As Levi is introduced to the various people who will expand and enrich his own dissent from the fascist establishment that has made him (and a few others in the town with whom he is not allowed to speak) a political prisoner, I found myself succumbing to its rhythms and knew after 10 or 15 minutes that I was in for the long haul. But it was hardly a chore. It is a rare thing, but when I began truly absorbing Christ Stopped at Eboli I felt myself succumbing to what Rosi wanted to show me, and the way he wanted to show it, in a particular fashion that I can’t recall experiencing often in other films. There was a distinct sensation of my mind and body sinking into the imagery which, on this spectacular new Blu-ray, has a clarity and richness that promises the sort of seduction few movies are capable of fulfilling.


I spent four hours seeing the world of these Italian peasants, who for Mussolini and his enforcers existed simply as subjects and fodder for war, through Levi’s (and Rosi’s) eyes, feeling my way toward an understanding that would, like it would for Levi, I suspect, remain just out of reach while also changing his life forever. And there are sequences in the film that are capable of inspiring tears that are themselves as mysterious as the imagery that inspires them. Levi’s travel by bus to the town occurs during a modest rainstorm, and the sublime reminder of those raindrops on every surface, often imposed over Levi’s face behind the windows of the bus, are subtle reminders of emotions untapped, unrecognized, that will eventually make their way out from the crevices of the world the film so sensitively observes. Later, Levi attempts to teach some of the children of the town how to paint, and I found myself, without any cynical provocations of sentiment projected by the director or the actors, in submission to torrents of emotion that I couldn’t readily explain to myself. Such is the totality of the experience of seeing Christ Stopped at Eboli, which has for me amounted to what feels like a life-changing experience, one that has contained within it the possibility of a genuine expansion of perspective, of yielding to a way of seeing the world that days later feels like it’s in there tinkering with my synapses, becoming an essential part of the blood flowing through my veins. The movie, a giant vision of humanity, feels like it has only begun to expand inside my head. 

I’m 60 years old, and I certainly didn’t expect, sitting by myself on a quiet Saturday night, to discover a relatively less-well-known film that deserves consideration as one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. But that’s what happened. Christ Stopped at Eboli is surely a landmark in this old man’s continuing experience of education about life and the movies, and I cannot wait to see it again.

During our current age of unparalleled worry and despair, which has only been slightly ameliorated by the ongoing exorcism of Donald Trump, a demon who has proven himself as persistent, problematic and pestilent as Pazuzu himself, and whose influence will linger beyond his inevitable expulsion from the White House, sometimes it feels like the thing we (or at least I) need most is a good laugh. And if you are like me, that laugh might feel and sound a little weird when comes along, especially if it comes unexpectedly, simply because the physical sensation of a good guffaw has become a relatively rare thing. So, when I feel like there’s one coming on, I’m a whole lot less picky about where it comes from, especially it comes from a movie. Case in point, Balls of Fury (2007), a post-Will Ferrell-esque sports comedy about a disgraced Ping-Pong champion played by Dan Fogler (an actor clearly having been groomed up to this point to become his generation’s Curtis “Booger” Armstrong), whose life falls into disarray after a humiliating defeat as a young athlete at the Olympics and who ends up on the path to redemption after being conscripted by the FBI to investigate the arms dealer who killed his father. Said arms dealer also happens to be a deranged Ping-Pong fanatic with a fetish for “Oriental” trappings whose annual island-based tournament Fogler will infiltrate in pursuit or justice and revenge.

If all this sounds familiar, it should, for Enter the Dragon is definitely the template point of entry here. The island compound, a feast of Asian design and ambience despite actually being located in the jungles of Central America (a joke the movie doesn’t do a lot with), has its funniest echo in the master of the house, a madman decked in elaborate cheongsam and equally ornate pompadour and pigtails, played by Christopher Walken. Before you can say James Hong or Jason Scott Lee or Cary Hiroyuki Tanaga or Maggie Q, all of whom appear here in largely successful efforts to get laughs and to dash any appearance of pandering to or exploitation of Asian stereotypes, it must be said that Walken’s character is not supposed to be Asian—he’s a transplanted Brooklyn mook who fetishizes the mantle of the sinister Asian kingpin because, well, he’s deranged, but also because Shih Kien did it so memorably as Han in the 1973 Bruce Lee classic, so of course this guy would want to as well. In a career filled with sublime weirdos, this Walken turn is among his sublimiest.

Balls of Fury doesn’t have aspirations to greatness. It is content to shamble along, generating silliness and giggles and, yes, even an occasional belly laugh, and then after about 75 minutes it gets tired and less interested in the jokes than just embracing the formulaic wrap-up one might expect in the forms it parodies an sending its audience on its way. But it’s a fundamentally good-natured picture with a lot of unexpected inserts and asides (my favorite—stock footage of Ron and Nancy Reagan apparently rapt with suspense over the outcome of Fogler’s Olympic debacle) and beautifully timed slapstick—the CGI- enhanced table tennis is a consistent hoot, but nothing is funnier than the outcome of Fogler’s smug attempt to defeat the paper walls of his faux-Chinese palace prison, only to discover some old-fashioned reinforcement on the other side. (That’s all you’re getting from me—see the movie.) And in addition to the cast mentioned above, it features humorous turns from Thomas Lennon (the film’s cowriter) as Fogler’s obscenely arrogant German Olympic rival, who of course finds his way to the tournament; Terry Crews as another overly enthusiastic, pec-tacular tourney competitor; Aisha Tyler as Mahogany, Walken’s sultry, dart-blowing second; and Diedrich Bader, in an amusing flip of one of Dragon’s central plot elements, as the leader of Walken’s harem of kept male concubines, wheeled out for the confused delectation of Walken’s largely male hetero guests. (Only Hong, who is blind, enjoys the gift without either judgment or, apparently, awareness.)

As I implied, the movie peters out around the three-quarter mark, but by then you will likely have laughed (or at least smiled) enough to not much care. Ultimately, it is very simply just good, undemanding company, a welcome distraction from matters far more serious. We have sometimes asked more from our comedies, and sometimes we have gotten it, but right now cheap jokes might just have value well beyond their sell-date or their release date, and the 13-year-old Balls of Fury, whose temperament suits its age perfectly, will paddle your balls with them.


The Anna May Wong vehicle Daughter of Shanghai (1937), directed by Robert Florey (Cocoanuts, The Beast with Five Fingers) is a snappy little thriller that has little filigrees of pre-Code insouciance and transgression—Wong is decked out for maximum sex appeal throughout, even though her character feels somewhat neutered, by and large, by the boundaries of the script and by what Hollywood, despite casting her in the lead and providing the stalwart and talented Philip Ahn as her ostensible romantic counterpart, was willing to let her do. But the movie, written by Gladys Unger (Madam Satan, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and Garrett Weston, who had a hand in the scripts  for White Zombie and It’s a Gift, starts with a shocker—a plane smuggling illegal immigrants from China (copiloted by a very young Anthony Quinn) is spotted by federal agents, and before the plane has a chance to be grounded, the pilots literally dump their unfortunate cargo, via a floor that unexpectedly opens beneath them, from 10,000 feet into an ocean tomb below. That’s the sort of opening that, in a movie from any era, seals an audience’s attention, and for the first two-thirds of his brisk 62-minute running time, Florey stages the action with sharp detail and flourishes of German Expressionist style that keep the plot humming pleasurably along.

Wong is the daughter of a businessman who has made good in America, but who is under pressure from these same smugglers to channel a new shipment of ready-made slaves into the country. He refuses, and when he takes Wong along to a meeting with some FBI agents (Ahn included) at the mansion of a concerned socialite (Cecil Cunningham), along the way he’s brutally murdered. By sheer luck, Wong escapes the same fate and makes her way to the socialite’s home, where she explains the situation to the woman and the agents, before deciding that she must take action on her own to track down a sleazy associate of her father’s (Charles Bickford) who operates a nightclub which doubles as a hub for the exchange of money for illegal aliens. She’s also keen to seek out the identity of the criminal mastermind behind the whole operation, information that is revealed somewhat sooner than a viewer weaned on mysteries of this sort might reasonably expect.

It’s never a bad thing to see Wong in action, but if Daughter of Shanghai is a reasonably solid showcase for her talents, and itself a more than reasonably well mounted drama of its type, then it is also, perhaps too predictably, also a showcase for the limits of vision ‘30s-era Hollywood had for actors who belonged to different races than the white majority who made films at the time and who went to see them. After a set-up, and a poster, which leads a viewer to expect Wong will tear through the picture, undermining the underworld machinations behind her father’s death in relentless search of truth and justice (or is that simply an expectation imposed by the perspective of a viewer 80 years removed from the time of this film’s release?), it’s more than a little deflating to watch Wong subjugated to the sidelines in the film’s climax, cowering in fear from the shadows as the rest of the cast gets their punches in on the way to “THE END” while she is inexplicably reduced to the damsel in distress. Ahn, however definitely involved in the physical action, is in the end himself rescued by the deus-ex-machina appearance of the villain’s never-less-than-likable Irish chauffeur, whose well-timed crack shot saves his Chinese friends from a fate they apparently were incapable of escaping from themselves.

It may have to be enough that Wong and Ahn and the other Chinese cast members are treated with obvious respect, by the above-board characters in the film and the filmmakers, in Daughter of Shanghai, and that the movie itself is a nifty piece of action filmmaking which gets to its often surprisingly brutal business in the efficient, no-nonsense fashion of its day. The real history of the experience of Asian-American actors in film history is, of course, a sobering counter to the simple joys of a picture like this, but so too is Wong’s luminescent star power its own corrective to the narrowminded dictums of the studios, who couldn’t see actors like Wong and Ahn for who and what they were, even as they showcased them in unpretentious little jewels like Daughters of Shanghai.   



1 comment:

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Like you, I didn’t expect much from Balls of Fury, and got that and a little more. I saw Dan Fogler as a sub-Chris Farley, although I think your Booger Curtis idea is closer.

But Fogler was absolutely the best thing in Fantastic Beasts - in that he’s like this era’s Billy Gilbert or something. So I’m willing to watch more.