25 February 2006

100 films: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

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starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens
written by: Terry Southern & Stanley Kubrick & Peter George, from the novel by George
directed by: Stanley Kubrick
NR, 93 min, 1964, UK

Widely hailed as the greatest black comedy ever filmed, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb[1] is Stanley Kubrick's subversive take on a common Cold War theme[2]. Deranged Brig. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has sent his squadron of planes an order to attack the Soviet Union as they held at the fail safe point, and subsequently made it impossible for anyone other than him to call the planes back. When news of this reaches Washington, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) calls his advisors to the war room, where General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) suggests the best plan of action may be to back the planes up with a coordinated all-out offensive that's sure to cripple the Soviet forces and limit American casualties to twenty million, tops. But the Russians, to everyone's surprise, have just completed a "Doomsday Machine" designed to destroy all plant an animal life on the planet, and even they cannot prevent it from retaliating.

Combine the plot details with the direction of Stanley Kubrick, and it's probably safe to assume that few people in 1964 automatically assumed Dr. Strangelove would be a biting political satire. But on second thought, maybe they did. In retrospect, Dr. Strangelove feels like a departure from Kubrick's normal fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980), and Full Metal Jacket (1987)[3], but Dr. Strangelove pre-dates them all. So a comedy doesn't seem like a Kubrick project to us, but it makes sense when you view it in context. This is a man who had done several self-produced projects, which he had parlayed into the Kirk Douglas war film Paths of Glory (1957). When Douglas couldn't get along with Anthony Mann, he replaced Mann with Kubrick for Spartacus (1960), primarily to serve as a figurehead through whom Douglas could operate. Naturally, this didn't work. Kubrick took over, then made Lolita (1962), a lighthearted[4] version of the Vladimir Nabokov novel that featured a supporting turn by Peter Sellers. All this is to say that when you view Kubrick's career in that sequence, a Peter Sellers dark comedy isn't all that unexpected. In fact, it's a rather natural progression.

But enough history, let's look at the film itself. The primary settings for Dr. Strangelove are deceptively simple: the interior of a plane, the War Room, and Brig. General Ripper's office. Apart from a few others, that's pretty much it. A knowledgeable audience member realizes that much of the film is shot on sound stages[5], but a couple of choices in staging and camera work gives the impression of so much more. The plane interiors are filmed as if the camera is being operated by one of the crew. There are no long tracking shots or wide establishing shots. The shots are instead framed in a way that at no time are we given the feeling that the production has taken out a chunk of the plane so that the camera can get the perfect angle. This gives the scenes a cramped, uneasy feeling further heightened by the borderline mental instability of the pilot, Maj. T.J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens). Our level of closeness to him and the rest of the crew is uncomfortable, especially when you consider the nuclear bombs stored below. Contrast that with the scenes in the War Room, where Kubrick goes to great lengths to show us just how big it is. He seats all the advisors around the type of enormous round table you only see in a movie, with a circular florescent light hovering overhead. Behind them is the "big board", a large map of the Soviet Union with lights indicating the position of the planes. The room itself is so big that even the widest wide-angle shot cannot show it all. Clearly rooms of this size do not exist, but Kubrick uses it to remind us of the great power the men in this room hold, but at the same time, he often puts them in the lower part of the frame, an indication that despite all their power, there is little they can do in this situation.

And the one man in the room who should be able to prevent a nuclear holocaust, comes across as the most ineffectual of them all--President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers). Originally conceived by Terry Southern as a character with a bad head cold[6], the President is shocked to learn that not only has someone authorized an attack, but that there's no way to bring them back. And to top it off, the bill that enabled such a bizarre scenario is one that he approved. It is a politician's worst nightmare. Of the three characters Sellers plays in the film (Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove), this is the most memorable, or at the very least my favorite. His telephone conversation with the Soviet Premier ranks as one of the best comedic exchanges in all of cinema, and it's all that more impressive that we can only hear one half of the call. The Premier is drunk, so Muffley must explain things to him multiple times and deviate from a very important issue to reassure this man that "Of course I like to speak to you! Of course I like to say hello!" The three-pronged performance by Sellers is clearly one the best from this comedic genius[7]. Much of Muffley's scenes are played against Gen. 'Buck' Turgidson (George C. Scott), a military advisor a little too enamored with the business of war and highly distrustful of the Russians. Scott, a criminally underrated actor, is perhaps the best thing in the film. Chomping violently on multiple sticks of gum, he's all big movements and facial contortions, ready to fly off into a rage at a moment's notice. Secretly he's thrilled with the turn of events and a little perturbed that he must waste valuable time convincing this damned politician to launch a coordinated attack. Acting-wise, Scott is off in his own little world, but it's important to note that even as he launches nearer and nearer to madness, he stays firmly grounded in the reality of the film. Few actors can chew the scenery with such vigor without detracting from the film. It's a fine line, and Scott walks it perfectly.

There's little doubt that Dr. Strangelove serves as the high-water mark for anti-war films, but it also ranks alongside not only the best comedies ever made, but also the best films. For such a timely film, it feels as fresh today as it did in the Cold War. But what's most remarkable is that it was even made at all. Imagine the modern equivalent: a dark satire about terrorism featuring the melody "We'll meet again" playing over footage of the explosion. It's the sort of bad taste no one would permit, but when you have people as bold and talented as Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers, they find a way to make it work. In their able hands, the gruesome becomes absurd and the horrific becomes somewhat campy and sweet. It is, hands down, one of the greatest things ever put on film.

[1] As I am extremely lazy, from here on out I will refer to it by the film's abbreviated title: Dr. Strangelove.

[2] See also Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964) as one of the better examples.

[3] If you get a chance, check out his filmography on IMDB.com, particularly the stretch from Spartacus (1960) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

[4] At least, that's what I'm told. I haven't seen it.

[5] Shepperton Studio in England, to be precise.

[6] Scrapped because Peter Sellers was so funny the rest of the cast couldn't keep a straight face.

[7] It earned Sellers his first Academy Award nomination for acting, following a nomination for the Live Action Short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960). He would later be nominated for his quietly brilliant turn in Hal Ashby's Being There (1979). Of course, he is best known as Insp. Jacques Clouseau in the original Pink Panther films.

20 February 2006

100 films: Persona

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starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook, and Gunnar Björnstrand
written and directed by: Ingmar Bergman
NR, 83 min, 1966, Sweden

Ingmar Bergman's Persona opens with a barrage of images, none of them pleasant, designed to put an audience on edge. Or perhaps the goal is give the casual filmgoer a chance to leave before the difficult subject matter arrives. Either way, they appear to be unrelated to the narrative of Persona, or maybe they're everything. Hard to say for sure. Some of them are Freudian, some comic, some famous, and a few are just weird, but Bergman's trying to establish something here, be it a reminder that this is all just a movie, or an indication of what's to come, or a feeling of unease. Whatever his motives, it's an effective sequence, as it tends to get different reactions from different audience members, to the point that no one can seem to agree what Bergman's trying to do.

What follows is the a story of Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson), a young nurse put in charge of the care of Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann), a famous actress who has inexplicably stopped talking. By all accounts she is not sick, nor is she emotionally damaged, she just refuses to talk. So Alma does the talking for her, revealing more and more until it's difficult to see the line where Alma ends and Elisabeth begins. This culminates in the film's most famous image: a split screen combination of Ullmann and Andersson, made to appear as if they are one person. Then, we get another barrage of images.

It is, to be completely honest, a little off-putting and weird.[1]

So let's assume that's Bergman's desired effect--to put us on edge and creep us out a little bit--and go from there. What we get is a compelling dynamic between Andersson and Ullmann, two actresses at the top of their profession, in a film that can't help but showcase their talents. Save for a few brief appearances by a nurse (Margaretha Krook) and Elisabeth's husband (Gunnar Björnstrand), this is a two-woman show that relies heavily on the abilities of the leads, and they are more than capable. Andersson appears to have the more difficult role of the two, as she has all the dialogue, talking for long stretches about everything and anything, partly as a means of filling the silence, but partly, I assume, because it's cathartic. After a while, though, the catharsis is no longer enough and she begs Ullmann to speak, to say anything at all. Naturally, this is triggered by something, but more than that it's just a culmination of being with someone for weeks and never hearing them speak.

The highlight of Andersson's monologue is a story she hasn't even told her fiance, one involving a female friend, a nude beach, and two very curious teenage boys. It is a charged, erotic scene we are never shown, but Andersson is so vivid in the telling of it, that you'd swear it was done in flashback. The entire infidelity occurs while her fiance is at town for the day, yet she does not hesitate to cheat. And the film being a Bergman film, we don't spend time questioning the moral implications of her act, for it is enough that the act was committed in the first place. Live Ullmann, her audience, does not judge, does not react violently, she does not even seem mildly surprised. She just takes it all in, silently smoking and listening, a perfect sounding board.[2]

But why? Is Ullmann studying her, preparing for her next role? Or is the entire thing a dream, and if so, who's? It's possible that the two women are actually two halves of the same person, hence the split-screen final shot. The way Ullmann plays the character, she gives the impression that she knows, but isn't telling. As does Bergman in his camera choices, which are all very clean, composed, and beautifully lit by legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist. But part of the appeal of Persona is that neither the film, nor the filmmakers, seem inclined to tell you what's going on, and that open-ended question mark adds more power than a hundred answers. Everything seems likely, even the extremely unlikely, and by keeping us guessing, Bergman keeps us watching, time and time again.

[1] And I love Bergman, but the images sort of creep me out.

[2] One thing the film doesn't really get into is the fact that a perfectly silent person can get more information out of someone than a person asking questions. This is probably how Andersson opens up to Ullmann.

16 February 2006

100 films: La Meglio gioventù

the best of youth
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starring: Luigi Lo Cascio, Alessio Boni, Adriana Asti, Sonia Bergamasco, Maya Sansa, and Fabrizio Gifuni
written by: Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli
directed by: Marco Tullio Giordana
R, 366 min, 2003, Italy

Every so often a piece of art, be it a painting or a sculpture or a song, comes along that reminds you just how good art can be. Such is the case with Marco Tullio Giordana's masterpiece La Meglio gioventù[1], a six-hour film about the nature of love, loss, and living itself. Following Nicola Carati (Luigi Lo Cascio) and his brother Matteo (Alessio Boni) over the course of forty years, Giordana explores their lives, their relationships, and the experiences that take them from starry-eyed optimists about to embark on an exploration of Europe to an adulthood unlike anything they could have ever imagined.

The plot is too big and varied to easily summarize here, not to mention that one of the film's joys is seeing the varied twists and turns it takes, so suffice it to say that it follows these two brothers as their lives take vastly different paths. Nicola falls in love, has a child, and becomes a psychiatrist, while Matteo seemingly out of nowhere joins the army and later becomes a cop, despite his disregard for rules and order. From there, Giordana weaves a tapestry of family, friends, lovers, and Italy herself, creating a world so rich and fully-realized that the audience feels as if they are somehow part of it. Characters come and go and the dynamics of relationships change over time, and by the end of the film you're so invested in these characters and their lives, that you wish the film would go on forever. The film's six-hour runtime, which seems daunting at the start, at the end doesn't feel nearly long enough. And in a world where 90-minute movies seem desperate for ways to fill the time, this is a truly amazing accomplishment.

So how is it that La Meglio gioventù achieves this herculean task? Partly by embracing the luxury that the runtime affords. Giordana spends the first hour or so establishing his two main characters and setting a pace and a style that slowly and quietly draws the audience in with the confidence that pays off exponentially in the film's second half. This is not to say that the first half is by any means boring. Rather, it is clearly building to something bigger than cheap theatrics or the conflict of a single storyline. And by taking the time early on to create a multitude of sympathetic, three-dimensional characters, La Meglio gioventù gives itself a scenario later on where even the smallest moment may be enough to break your heart because it's so easy to imagine that the Carati family is an extension of your family, so when something happens to them, it feels as if it's happening to you. It is not impossible to imagine an audience member who feels closer to this family than his own.

Revealing too much of a film like this tends to take away some of it's impact, so I won't dwell here on specifics, but it's worth noting the performance of Luigi Lo Cascio as Nicola. In a film of extraordinary performances, his is clearly the best. With little more than the addition of some gray hairs and wrinkles, he must play a character spanning forty years, from the wild-eyed idealism of his youth, to the heavy heart of middle age. And he's absolutely fantastic the entire way. His is not necessarily the most difficult role in the film, but as the lead, he serves as the ballast around which the rest of the characters revolve. Naturally, it isn't the type of film that shows up in the Oscar discussion, but his performance is on par with the year's best. It is also worth noting the role Italy plays in the film as more than just a setting, but as an actual character. Several of the film's key events are triggered by important moments of Italy's history, some of which are arbitrary and some of which are vital. The film was originally developed for Italian television and I can only imagine how it must have played differently for people with an intimate knowledge of the history. If it can bring tears to the eyes of an American in his mid-twenties, how much more powerful must it be for an Italian in his sixties?

To call La Meglio gioventù an epic, as most do, is an attempt to reduce it to something manageable, when in reality it transcends the meaning of the word. For beyond the limits of the epic is filmmaking in the grandest sense. It is the territory of Kieslowski and Bergman and Fassbinder[2], men who created works bigger than a single film and subsequently changed the landscape of film itself. And while La Meglio gioventù is not quite at that level (only a select few are), it is perhaps as close as anyone's gotten in the last ten years. Without question, it is the best film of 2005[3].

[1] Translated in English as The Best of Youth.

[2] Specifically I'm referring to Kieslowski's Dekalog (1989) and Trois couleurs (1994), Bergman's Scener ur ett äktenskap (1973), and Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).

[3] It was released in Italy in 2003, played the festival circuit in 2004, and was released in New York on 2 March 2005. So while officially a 2003 film, I would consider it a 2005 film for such purposes.

13 February 2006

100 films: C'era una volta il West

Once upon a time in the west
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starring: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale
written by: Sergio Leone & Sergio Donati, from the story by Leone & Dario Argento & Bernardo Bertolucci
directed by: Sergio Leone
M, 165 min, 1968, Italy/USA

As Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) rides the train west to join her new husband, he is gunned down by the notorious Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless villain after McBain's considerable fortune. Upon arrival, she learns the gruesome details of the murder and desires nothing more than to sell her inheritance at an auction controlled by Frank. But an unlikely team of Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and Cheyenne (Jason Robards) work together to block Frank's power grab.

At first glance, this seems to be a somewhat standard plot for a western, but in reality it isn't. What's written above is the cliff notes version, condensed and simplified for your convenience. The actual plot, as it unfolds during the course of the film, is a great deal more complicated. The alliances of the three men in regards to each other or the woman are constantly in flux, never approaching a state where you can definitively say who is in cahoots with who. Naturally, this tends to be a point of confusion that isn't helped by Sergio Leone's unwillingness to provide any more backstory than is absolutely necessary. So the audience spends a lot of time trying to figure out who's going to kill who, which depending on your point of view is either a brilliant choice by Leone or a terrible one. If you view it as brilliant, then the argument is probably that in the wild west allegiances are always in flux, no one is to be trusted, and it adds to the general suspense of the film. All of these things are true. At the same time, this leaves Leone free to ignore basic things like character development and dialogue for his specialty--wide, beautiful landscape shots with a transition to a close-up of someone's eyes. And there are a lot of close-ups of people's eyes, usually complimented by squinting. Call it the Clint Eastwood effect.

The credits contain three "story by" credits, which is a lot for a film that doesn't contain much actual story, so allow me propose a theory on how this particular idea was born. Leone, in the process of trying to make Once Upon a Time in America (1984) was told by the studios that they wouldn't fund it unless he made another western for them to capitalize on the box office success of his Fistfull of Dollars trilogy.[1] So, being frustrated with the constraints of the studio system, he did what any great filmmaker would do. He rounded up two of his fellow Italian filmmakers[2] and headed for the bar. There, they came up with the outline of a story that Leone could turn into a western on par with his earlier works. But, they didn't bother to fully flesh out the story[3], figuring Leone could just fill in the gaps with landscapes and close-ups and music and the rest of his bag of tricks. And they were right, to an extent, but I think the film suffers a bit upon close inspection.

As a result, C'era una volta il West is, above all else, a classic example of style over substance. The prime instance being the opening sequence of three gunmen waiting for a train. Leone uses nothing but natural sounds (and a couple flies) to build the suspense of these men simply waiting. We assume they aren't going to welcome whoever is on the train, but we have no idea who that person is, why they are waiting for him, or what exactly they plan to do with him. So when the train arrives and no one emerges, we let our guard down for a moment, only to find Harmonica has gotten off on the other side. They stare each other down the way people do in westerns and Harmonica kills all of them. It's an undeniably cool way to start a film. From there on out it's one cool scene after another--some of them merely fun, some of them breathtaking--but few of them spend any time strengthening the film's core, so if you fail to buy fully into the cool factor, C'era una volta il West can tend to leave you cold. There are only so many times you can look at someone's eyes without being able to look deeper before it gets repetitive, and Leone crosses that line a couple of times.

Technically speaking, this is a better film than Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (1966), but that's primarily due to the budgets. What C'era una volta il West lacks is what Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo had in spades--a raw energy that made the film feel alive. And while C'era una volta il West has some amazing moments, it occasionally has the feel of a great director coasting along, killing time until he can make the film he really wants to. In short, he's too proud to make a bad film, but his heart just isn't in it. So, what could have been amazing is merely very, very good. Definitely worth watching multiple times, but not quite up to the standards of greatness.

[1] This part is true.

[2] Bernardo Bertolucci, best known for Ultimo tango a Parigi (1972), and Dario Argento, a rather well-known director of thrillers and father of the actress Asia Argento.

[3] Again, pure speculation on my part and probably not true.

10 February 2006

current cinema: Paradise Now


starring: Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal, and Amer Hlehel
written by: Hany Abu-Assad, Bero Beyer, and Pierre Hodgson
directed by: Hany Abu-Assad
PG-13, 90 min, 2005, Palestine

A Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee, Paradise Now tells a personal story of terrorism from the perspective of two terrorists preparing to become martyrs for the cause. Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), two ordinary Palestinians prone to killing time with a bong on a hillside, are chosen for a suicide mission--a retaliation for a crime against their people--and must quickly come to grips with the full impact of a decision they seem to have made long ago. Both are resolute in their conviction, until the carefully orchestrated plan goes awry and Said is forced to make his way back to a home base in chaos with the live bomb still strapped to his chest.

Paradise Now continues the trend of narrative films by filmmakers struggling to come to grips with a world where terrorism becomes less shocking by the day. Rather than being some horrific anomaly, these acts are approaching a point where they are a normal part of life, and with that familiarity comes an increased willingness to explore the issues at hand. The end result of this, we can hope, is an increased dialogue between cultures that find communication so difficult. Because if a few films can cut through the fray, they may allow us to empathize with the other side, and vice versa. At least, that's my hope.

In Munich, Steven Spielberg follows a group of assassins as they avenge the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics. The killers, to no one's surprise, are Palestinians who attack for reasons unknown. It is a senseless killing, but one that cannot be ignored, and the film follows a group as they avenge those deaths. And now we have the other side of the debate in Paradise Now, a film set 30 years later but part of the same eternal struggle. Said and Khaled, the two martyrs, are avenging some Israeli act against their people[1]. In reality, they might as well be retaliating for the killings in Munich, further proving the point made by both films that violence just creates more violence. Watching the two films, it's easy to see why these people have battled this way for so long, for both sides are absolutely convinced that they are the victims. But more importantly, both feel that this is the absolute best way to show the world that they cannot be treated like this, that they will react swiftly and violently. But what if neither of them had anything to react to? Would the killing stop? Perhaps, but I somehow doubt it.

Much like Munich, Paradise Now attempts to tell this story by personalizing it, by staying close to a select few protagonists and letting us identify with their struggles, the idea being that if we can identify with the people doing the dirty work, then we can more easily relate to the larger issues involved. This is one theory. The other is that by staying so close to a protagonist, we are less likely to agree with a situation that puts our hero in peril, for we do not wish them any harm. Therefore, we can find faults in the system that straps a bomb to Said and Khaled's chests and sends them through a wire fence to kill as many soldiers as they can. I'd like to think the latter is true.

And the easiest way to make the audience root for a protagonist to stay alive is by introducing a girl. So the day before he is to become a martyr, Said makes a personal connection of sorts with Suha (Lubna Azabal), the daughter of a great martyr. She, having felt first-hand the effects of losing someone so close to her, is active in human rights organizations and serves as the film's conscience. It is Suha who argues for peaceful alternatives and tries to dissuade Said from his intended mission, but Said has baggage of his own, and it isn't as simple as just being able to fall in love. But we want him to fall in love, and the film uses that to cast this noble martyrdom in a negative light without resorting to some ham-fisted soapbox speech.

For a while, we think she may be enough to keep him alive, as Said appears to be questioning the wisdom of the mission, and Khaled reminds him why they are doing what they are doing. But when everything goes wrong and Said is missing, Khaled breaks down and Said, on his return, is suddenly resolute. Effectively they switch, but the film never gives us a good reason for Said's sudden reversal, and it therefore doesn't ring true. It's the film's only major flaw, but it's a pretty big one, as it tends to undercut the film's emotional impact.

Beyond that, Paradise Now serves as an important contribution in the terrorism dialogue precisely because it's a film made by the terrorists themselves that attempts to shed a little light on why they do what they do. But more importantly, we see the struggle necessary to carry out these acts of immense violence by very ordinary people who've simply had enough. They aren't evildoers who hate freedom. They are people who crave freedom and equality and everything else we hold dear. They just don't have access to it and they don't have a means by which to get it. And when they did, it was given to someone else.

[1] The film mentions the act briefly, but it didn't register with me and they didn't dwell on it, so I assume it to be of minor importance in the great scheme of things.

08 February 2006

100 films: A Streetcar Named Desire

streetcar named desire
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starring: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden
written by: Tennessee Williams, from the adaptation of his play by Oscar Saul
directed by: Elia Kazan
NR, 122 min, 1951, USA

Frazzled, worn-out school teacher Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) visits her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) in New Orleans on a leave of absence. Despite having come from a family of considerable reputation, Stella has married Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando)--a proud brute of a man--and settled in a crummy two room apartment in the low-rent district where drinking and violent outbursts are the order of the day. During Stanley's weekly poker game, she draws the interest of Mitch (Karl Malden), but as they begin their romance, Stanley begins to question aspects of her story. The more he hears, the more he begins to believe that Blanche may be lying or mentally unstable or both.

Winner of four Academy Awards[1], including three for acting alone[2], A Streetcar Named Desire is commonly referenced as one of the pinnacles of film acting. Led by Vivien Leigh's quintessential portrayal of Blanche DuBois and one of Marlon Brando's earliest displays of his unique brand of animal magnetism, Streetcar feels more alive than most adaptations of plays dare dream. Leigh plays DuBois as a wounded animal constantly fearing the next brutal attack, and she has that ability to make your heart break, but as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that she's not entirely a victim, that she's got a few ulterior motives and dubious schemes. And that makes her a dangerous woman to get close to, but she's in many ways more dangerous to herself. Her increasing state of mental instability means that she's drifting further and further from the classy innocence she's striving to maintain, and her past choices have required a facade that's eventually just lies built on lies built on an illusion and good looks. But her looks are fading, and with it her entire persona is crumbling. And that can lead a woman to desperation. To be sure, it is a difficult role. Some have called it the most difficult female role in existence. And Leigh is perfect. She gives the character more layers and nuances than the audience can process, but she does it all so convincingly that she gets lost in the role[3].

Marlon Brando, in only his second film, brings an explosiveness to the screen that few actors have ever been able to match. His impassioned cries of "Stella!" may just be one of the most popular audition selections for the struggling method actor, but what defines any great Brando performance isn't the rage, but the humanity. There's a real duality to Brando where he can be brutal one minute and decidedly feminine the next, as the "Stella!" scene so aptly shows. My grandmother loves to tell me stories of Brando's effect on the women of his day[4], and one of the things she's constantly pointing out is just how gentle he was. The prime example is his handling of the pigeons in On the Waterfront, but it's also visible here is how he interacts with Stella. While he's prone to fits of rage, it's obvious that he loves and adores his wife and would never intentionally harm her. He's a violent man with a tender heart, and that tenderness is the primary source of his appeal. It also helps that he was an immensely talented actor with a range and dynamism that's hard for us to fully comprehend because it redefined film acting. Seen through the lenses of history, this is a great, ground-breaking performance, but I imagine that in 1951 it was nothing short of a revelation.

Not to be forgotten are the performances of Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch. Both received well-deserved Oscars, but both are overshadowed by the leads. Hunter is torn between her allegiance to her fragile sister and her husband, and is able to toe that line effectively. Malden, character actor du jour, gets a rare opportunity to play a character pursuing romance, and he takes full advantage of it.

Beyond the acting achievements, it's worth noting Tennessee Williams' screenplay, which comes off as natural and organic, despite being adapted from his own play.[5] A lot of that is performance-based, but Williams gives the film a strong backbone to operate from. Elia Kazan's direction moves the film at an efficient pace that essentially just keeps the action moving and lets the actors build their performances. He doesn't impose on the story, instead letting it develop and ensuring the characters are foremost. Ultimately it's a wise decision because the performances are some of the greatest in all film history. When you have two talents like Brando and Leigh, a great director helps them as needed, then gets out of the way.

[1] It won: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Karl Malden), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Vivien Leigh), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Kim Hunter), and Best Art Direction. In total it had 12 nominations, including: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Marlon Brando), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Music, Best Picture, Best Sound, and Best Screenplay.

[2] The only other film to do that was Network (1976).

[3] As the story goes, later in life Leigh had trouble distinguishing where she ended and Blanche DuBois began. This form of a bipolar disorder is easy to see in the character, and may have had negative long-term effects for the actress.

[4] She was in show business, but she wasn't one of them.

[5] I have not read the original play, so I have no idea how much was changed.

06 February 2006

100 films: Sommarnattens leende

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starring: Ulla Jacobsson, Eva Dahlbeck, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Jarl Kulle
written by: Ingmar Bergman
directed by: Ingmar Bergman
NR, 108 min, 1955, Sweden

Successful lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) has a young wife (Ulla Jacobsson) he hasn’t slept with, a son (Björn Bjelfvenstam) who lusts after his father’s wife and maid, and a dormant love affair with a well-known actress (Eva Dahlbeck). After a visit to the theatre, he meets his former mistress’s new love–a jealous military man (Jarl Kulle) prone to dueling and boastful claims of infidelity. But few in this arrangement seem content with the cards they’ve drawn, so the women begin planning the means by which they can get the men they truly love. Naturally, this involves several underhanded techniques, including a wife wagering her husband that she can seduce Egerman in under fifteen minutes, and a button that moves a bed from one room to the next without waking the occupant[1].

All of this is filmed with tongue firmly in cheek by master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, thus making Sommarnattens leende a traditional comedy, a bit of a departure for Bergman as we know him, but perfectly normal for a young director largely unknown outside his native Sweden. Bergman had yet to make the masterpieces Det Sjunde inseglet (1957), Smultronstället (1957), and Nattvardsgästerna (1963)[2], had yet to plumb the depths of despair or question the nature of God or inspire the term “Bergmanesque” for generations of film buffs the world over.[3] Still, this is Bergman, so Sommarnattens leende is a comedy not so much because it includes humor, but more because it lacks that all-encompassing sense of desperation we come to expect. It’s like calling fifty degrees balmy in the middle of winter.

Oh, but what a lovely fifty degrees it is. Beyond a token pratfall, the humor comes in sharp little jabs meant to be both devilish and witty at the same time. The film is dark, sadistic, amoral, and a lot of fun. Bergman’s main skewer is Fredrik’s son Henrik, a minister in training who spends long hours reading aloud the works of Martin Luther and preaching virtue, but is at numerous opportunities succumbing to the temptations of the flesh. For these indiscretions he is understandably tormented, but Bergman gets great delight not by showing his torment, but by ridiculing it as the idealism of a foolish youth. There’s no mistaking that the film views Henrik as an idiot. He has the respect of no one, not even himself, and he loathes a father who, from what we can tell, appears to be a reasonable man. But Henrik cannot seem to strike a balance between his actions and his beliefs. In one scene he is sleeping with the maid, but the next morning when she attempts to seduce him, he runs away ashamed. In a world where infidelity is bandied about minus remorse, this makes him the object of scorn.

Probably the best way to describe Sommarnattens leende is as a vicious comedy of manners. The jealous military man, Count Carl Magnus Malcolm, declares before his wife, “I can tolerate my wife's infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger.”, then declares the reverse before his mistress, with little thought as to how either woman will react. Later, he challenges Fredrik to a duel of Russian roulette where between spins of the chamber, they toast to each other’s health. Essentially what Bergman does is take a normal, Victorian scenario and infuse it with his worldview, his fallacies, and his dark sense of humor. Sommarnattens leende is a comedy, but more importantly it is a vital piece of the Bergman filmography for it shows a side of him that we don’t often see, and rarely account for when we think of something as “Bergmanesque”, even though it fits the criteria perfectly. We tend to forget that Bergman had a sense of humor, which is a shame, because it’s razor sharp.

[1] This had been previously used by a King so that he may “frolic” with another man’s wife, one of the many benefits of royalty.

[2] For those of you who don’t speak Swedish, that’s The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Winter Light, respectively.

[3] Naturally, you can see all of those things in his earlier work, but he had not really entered the radar of the English-speaking world yet.

03 February 2006

100 films: The Manchurian Candidate

manchurian candidate
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starring: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury
written by: George Axelrod, from the novel by Richard Condon
directed by: John Frankenheimer
NR, 126 min, 1962, USA

SSgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), stepson of U.S. Senator John Iselin, returns from the Korean War as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. The members of his platoon, to a man, swear that "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life." Only he isn't. Not even close. So when Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) can't shake a recurring dream that Shaw killed two members of their platoon while they were prisoners of war, he investigates.

The Manchurian Candidate is one of those films that can't seem to stay out of the spotlight, yet is frequently ignored. Richard Condon's novel was viewed by a great number of people as being too touchy of a political subject to be portrayed on film.[1] Not surprisingly, the film was censored in the Communist section of Europe, and when reports came out that Lee Harvey Oswald was supposedly inspired by the film, it was pulled from circulation[2] and later suppressed by Sinatra himself after the rights reverted to him.[3]

Yet, despite all this controversy, the film has faded enough from our collective memories that Jonathan Demme found it necessary to remake the film in 2004 with Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber.[4] This is the sort of thing to be expected for a film that hasn't aged well or was never all that well-known in the first place, but John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate resonates well today, despite having its roots in Cold War propaganda. In fact, it could be argued that the original feels more politically urgent today than the remake. Therefore, the original has aged extremely well, even as its villains haven't, or the remake is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Or both.

It's the opening sequences of The Manchurian Candidate that draw us in so effectively, giving us just enough information to make us realize that something is amiss. We meet Raymond Shaw as a man hated by his men, who are then taken captive when their guide turns out to be a Communist agent. Shaw is then being decorated with a Congressional Medal of Honor he doesn't seem to want. Then, in Marco's stunning dream sequence, we watch as a brainwashed Shaw kills two members of his patrol in cold blood as the rest of his men sit and watch, absolutely convinced they are sitting through a meeting of a ladies garden club meeting in New Jersey. But when Marco, after describing his dream to his superiors, is asked how he personally feels about Shaw, he describes him as "the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being" he's ever known. If that isn't enough to grab your attention, then you may just be a lost cause.[5]

From there, the film continues to twist and turn as it reveals level after level of corruption and deception, all the while maintaining the audience's suspension of disbelief. Shaw has been chosen as the brainwashed assassin partly because of who he is. If used properly he can be a weapon beyond suspicion and therefore ideal for high-profile assignments such as killing political leaders. But the plan is not perfect. Shaw is accidentally triggered by the conversation of a bartender, allowing Marco to deduce the mechanisms by which the weapon operates.

A lot of the weight of this film rests on the primary actors, who turn in great performances across the board. Laurence Harvey uses his ability to be almost zombie-like to great effect, but is able to show a depth to his character that most actors would not be able to find, for it is deep and repressed and barely a flicker, but it is there and it is vital to the film. Angela Lansbury earned her third Oscar nomination[6] for the difficult role of Shaw's mother, and James Gregory does an entertaining riff on McCarthyism as Sen. Iselin, but Frank Sinatra is our protagonist and the film depends on his character. We tend to forget that Sinatra was once viewed as a legitimate actor. He won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity (1953), was nominated for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and here is a compelling lead. There's more dramatic weight to his performance than you'd expect and with his natural charisma, he's an easy protagonist to get behind.

Above all, this is John Frankenheimer's masterpiece. The dream sequence in the garden club is one of the greatest in all of cinema and the rest of film follows suit, revealing the plot much as you'd play a game of solitaire--one card at a time--and it's only when you get to the hardest cards to reach that the whole thing comes together. That is, if you can avoid the Queen of Diamonds.

[1] As the story goes, when Sinatra broached the subject with John F. Kennedy, JFK's main concern was finding an actress who could convincingly play the mother.

[2] Not true.

[3] Also not true.

[4] This, of course, was a terrible idea that resulted in a terrible movie. On its own, the remake is a lackluster, convoluted thriller, but compared to the original, is nothing short of an abomination.

[5] Or as the original posters, in a rare instance of the hype being accurate, read, "If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won't know what it's all about! When you've seen it all, you'll swear there's never been anything like it!"

[6] The other two were: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and Gaslight (1944). She later went on to star in the TV series Murder, She Wrote.