Slacker

This movie is enjoying its official 20-year anniversary, so I thought I’d reprint an article I wrote about it, “Stranger Than Texas,” which appeared in Film Comment’s July-August 1990 issue. Yes—1990: 21years ago. Here’s how that happened: I saw Slacker at a 10 a.m. screening at the Seattle International Film Festival in May ’90, drawn by a catalog description that made it sound like my kind of movie; in those days I killed a lot of time in bookstores and cafes, working on projects that never turned into anything or staring off into space or reading. And I liked Slacker a lot, and I interviewed Richard Linklater in a noisy hospitality suite at a downtown hotel. Film Comment editor Richard T. Jameson was supportive when I said I liked this little movie, which didn’t have a distributor but had something. Linklater wrote me with more information and a copy of his first film and a Slacker crew T-shirt, and two months later the piece appeared and John Pierson read it (his account here) and although Slacker would’ve connected up with him anyway (Linklater had already pitched it to him), I was excited that the FC piece had formed a bit of the connective tissue. Linklater invited me to visit the set of Dazed and Confused, but Film Comment didn’t have the budget to send me, and I didn’t have the budget to send me, so I didn’t go, a decision I have always regretted. Here’s the Slacker piece,  a fond memory.

Among the 140some movies jumbled together for this year’s 16th Seattle International Film Festival, perhaps none was more ingratiatingly odd than Slacker, a new low-budget feature by director-writer-producer Richard Linklater. The soon-to-be-27-year-old auteur shot Slacker in 16mm over a couple of months last summer in Austin, Texas. He says the movie comes out of five years’ worth of notebook scribbles and a long-gestating desire to make a film about a teeming assortment of characters who are essentially unconnected, except by the movement of the film itself. Slacker sweeps through the coffeehouses, bookstores, bedrooms, and nightclubs of Austin, and discovers a world of wiggy philosophers, bored romantics, conspiracy enthusiasts, people who vanish and leave behind fictional explanations written on postcards, people who are catching up on a lot of sleep. Slackers.

Linklater is a Houston-born college dropout who eschewed film school in favor of the joys of dinking around with a super-8 camera. “I think film school’s real overrated,” he says. “You spend all year and make maybe one little five-minute movie with three people. Why not just go and make movies?”

Which is exactly what Linklater did. His first feature, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, was a brooding, nearly nonverbal super-8 opus ["It was pretty good. It took place on a train"] that found a responsive audience in Monte Hellman. Linklater raised most of the money for Slacker from friends and relatives, plus, he says, “everything I could come up with—credit cards, savings. We ended up finishing the movie, we got our first answer print back, for 23,000 bucks.” A sale to West German television (they’ll have quite a subtitling job on their hands) and a deferment-friendly cast and crew helped Linklater complete the movie and even pay off investors.

Slacker takes its look and feel from Austin’s college-town, melting-pot atmosphere. “West Campus—my neighborhood—is where all the students who either quit, or have already graduated but haven’t moved on to what they’re gonna do, are hanging out,” says Linklater. “They’re just killing time. So their education continues, but along unsupervised paths—the quest for knowledge and all that vigor is still there, you know. But there’s no action. It’s all ideas and words, but there’s really nothing happening. It’s pre-action. I don’t know if the action ever starts….”

This movie has a form similar to La Ronde, Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty, and, more recently, Chantal Akerman’s Toute Une Nuit: we follow a character only so long as he or she leads us to another character, then follow that person for a while, the another, and another…. Unlike the classical construction of La Ronde, Slacker never does circle back or return to any character. It simply travels across the warped, lonely, eccentric trajectories of dozens of peoples’ lives over a single dawn-to-dawn in Austin, dropping some souls just as they’re becoming interesting, allowing deadbeats to hang around a bit longer than they should, finding something appealing or distracting or just plain drop-dead peculiar in nearly everyone it glances across.

It begins with a guy arriving in Austin via bus and catching a taxi into town. (For a few seconds after the taxi drives out of the frame, the camera watches another cab pull into place—lingering over the possibility of another story about to start.) In the back of the cab, the guy, played by Linklater himself, performs the first of the film’s many offcenter monologues. With postgrad gee-whizdom he speculates on the way separate realities exist in the thing we decide not to do (like, what are the movies happening down each of the yellow-brick roads that Dorothy and the Scarecrow choose not to travel at that crossroads in The Wizard of Oz?). This crazy-quilt soliloquy sets the tone for the rest of the film, which drifts down roads not usually taken.

That’s one of the great things about Slacker: it’s full of the stuff that usually happens offscreen in movies, the scenes of quirkiness and tedium that generally disappear in favor of a plot. Since Slacker has no plot to advance, nothing is extraneous—everything in it is equally important and equally irrelevant. The most significant thing here is that the people keep moving, like fish swimming blindly upstream, and that they keep up their torrent of talk. Linklater’s people say the darndest things.

Most of the actors are nonprofessionals, either friends of the director or people he approached in the street and hired on the basis of their offbeat looks or personality. (The improvised look of the film is carefully scripted, though Linklater worked with the actors to shape their roles.) A lot of these characters are not people you’d want to sit next to during a cross-country bus ride, but they make vivid cameos. An expert in JFK-assassination conspiracy theories (John Slate) corners a woman in a used bookstore and delivers a hilariously earnest description of the Oswald-Ruby vortex. An ebullient ne-punk (Teresa Taylor) tries to sell a couple of acquaintances a true cultural relic: a Madonna pap smear. A UFO-spotter tags alongside a young man and lays out a theory connecting fake moon landings (“You know about the suppressed transmission, of course? No? Well…”), U.S.-Soviet relations, and disappearing children. “I just thought you ought to know,” he says at the end of it all—a line that characterizes many of the movie’s ear-benders.

But this film is no geekshow. Many of the characters achieve something like poignance. A memorable sidewalk scene: a woman from India, describing her homeland, pauses and tells her companion, “The next person who passes us will be dead within a fortnight.” Down the sidewalk and into the frame comes a poor, dear, hapless fellow (Frank Orral, lead singer of Poi Dog Pondering), whose subsequent disastrous encounters at a newspaper box and a coffeeshop suggest that, indeed, his days are surely numbered. For all this scene’s comedy—our last impression of the guy is the offscreen sound of a car screeching to a halt, roughly from the place where we saw him walk into the street—there’s something sweet and haunting about this encounter.

Slacker weaves its way through this digressive population as they cling to whatever will get them through the day—a cause or a conspiracy, a cup of coffee or a newspaper, anything to fill in the all-too-available hours. Linklater has a deadpan but always sympathetic approach to his people; his frequent method of playing scenes in long takes allows the characters to find their own rhythms, and eschews editorial comment. And just about the time you’re wondering how Linklater is going to wrap all this up, he glides into an unexpectedly giddy ending that also manages to be weirdly moving. This is a highly promising film. One character, who declares that he has given up on humanity at large, says, “I can only address myself to singular human beings now.” He’ll have to see Slacker—this movie is full of them.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (The Cornfield #28)

A piece from this film’s re-release in 1998, published by the old Film.com.

“Joy” is a word so alien to the experience of moviegoing these days that it may not actually occur to audiences to expect it. Nobody feels joy over supposedly escapist fare such as Enemy of the State or Meet Joe Black; you just submit yourself to it and go through the grueling paces. We have arrived at a strange moment when the only auteur of the season to catch the sheer, mad exhilaration of making movies is John Waters, with Pecker.

But, truth be told, the movie temperature was not all that different in 1967-68, when Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort was released. That may explain why this glorious film received a lukewarm response at the time, amid the apocalyptic explosions of Bonnie and Clyde and Weekend. Demy had re-assembled much of the creative team that made Umbrellas of Cherbourg a worldwide hit, including Catherine Deneuve, composer Michel Legrand, and designer Bernard Evein; critics inevitably compared Rochefort to Cherbourg, and missed the bittersweet sadness of the rain on the umbrellas. Rochefort is all sun and light and happy endings. How can such things possibly matter?

Well, they do, they do. Young Girls of Rochefort, restored and re-released under the guidance of Demy’s widow, Agnes Varda (arguably a greater director in her own right than her husband), is the moviegoing experience of 1998. It’s ecstasy without agony. And you know it from the first moments: a band of traveling players approaches the coastal town of Rochefort via an amazing “transporter bridge” (kind of a suspended ferry). The dancers get out of their trucks and perform a wordless ensemble dance that flows into the movement of the bridge, as Demy glides into exactly the right angles on this giddy performance.

The story that follows is Shakespearian in its criss-cross formula—or, perhaps more appropriately, Mozartian, since music is the defining element here. (Not all the dialogue is sung, a la Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but a good 85 per cent is expressed in the fifteen-plus songs.) Twin sisters Delphine (Deneuve) and Solange (Francoise Dorleac, Deneuve’s real-life sister, who died shortly after the film was made) plan to set off for Paris to pursue their artistic dreams. Delphine, a dancer, also has an ideal man in mind, little knowing that he will turn out to be a sailor (Jacques Perrin) in town. Solange, a musician, wants to place her new concerto in the path of an American composer (Gene Kelly), without realizing he is the same man she just met in the street and fell in love-at-first-sight with.

The girls’ mother (Danielle Darrieux) runs a little café in the town square, where the traveling players are setting up their fair. (One of the many ironies that add salt to this cotton candy is that this big fair is not an innocent provincial celebration, but a commercial show intended to sell motorcycles and speedboats.) She pines away for an old lover, but doesn’t know that he is now the owner (Michel Piccoli) of a music store frequented by Solange. Meanwhile, two roguish dancers (George Chakiris and Grover Dale) bop around the café and generally mix themselves into everybody else’s lives.

The film is flooded with sunlight and pastels. Of course nowadays the go-go boots and lacquered hair and pop-art shirts are going to look absurd (and, okay, some of the choreography is hilariously bad), but somehow this all adds to the daffy fun of the film. In fact, it may be easier to love this movie now than in 1967, because Demy’s fairy-tale style appears even more perfect and contained, being dated. It takes nerve to portray happiness, and bravery to risk such complete un-hipness. Young Girls is effortless in its rapture, floating along like that suspended bridge, never touching the earth.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (The Cornfield #18)

The Brothers Grimm never named the dwarfs, a point Walt Disney was not about to miss. People like things to be ordered, to be numbered if possible, but at least given a trait and a name to be arranged by. So: Doc, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, Bashful, Dopey, and Grumpy. You spend half your time during Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs just trying to establish who’s who amongst these little men, with the exception of the obviously caustic Grumpy and the fluid, vaguely unsettling Dopey. This effort is not a negative aspect of the movie-watching experience; to the contrary, it keeps interest and curiosity alive during the long midsection of the picture.

According to Neal Gabler’s terrific Disney bio, there was going to be a Deafy until late in the production process, a dwarf who would misinterpret the speech of others, to comic effect. He was replaced by the less problematic Sneezy. In fact, Gabler’s book describes an epic, hugely ambitious production process that makes the Disney studio sound like the interior of the dwarfs’ cottage, a chaotic, communal jamboree of fellows whistling while they work, with plenty of dirty dishes left lying about. Disney borrowed heavily and overreached himself and told the story of the movie to anybody who’d listen. He brought in actual little people to gambol about so the animators could observe how the dwarfs might move, but Walt found the real-life dwarfs not cute. The little miners in the film would have to be cute, thus marking a gulf between reality and animation that still exists today.

Seeing the film again after many years (or just seeing the film after childhood) shows how well it lines up with the great appeal and power of classic fairy tales. Disney has forever been charged with softening the original stories, but Snow White is still early enough to capture all the great elements of something ancient: the harshness of the queen, the reality of the knife raised by the huntsman, the horror of the witch and her poison apple, the glorious downward circling of the vultures as they lazily descend to pick at whatever is left of a villain fallen from a great height. Just as important is the craft of cartooning, as the movie looks so lush and layered and inflected with folkloric Mitteleuropean detail; surely this is what a fairy tale looks like, in as definitive a way as a Gustave Doré’s illustrations.

Still, Disney adds the cuddly. The dwarfs are soft and round in art and personality, despite the abrasive presence of Grumpy (everybody’s bachelor friend who just wants the male comradeship to keep going indefinitely). Snow White is girlish and cheerful and a neatnik, and the prince isn’t much of anything. Almost 75 years later, in Tangled (a delightful movie that holds the sassy and the sincere in good balance, and returns to the realm of Germanic folk tale), the Disney heroine is much more interesting: restless and independent and smart.

I was never in love with Disney movies as a kid – too much born into the age of irony – so I don’t have the residual affection that fuels a lot of people’s memories about them (although Fantasia was re-released for its LSD phase when I was about ten, and thus has a special spot for me). One thing that can be said about Snow White is that it feels like one person’s vision. Despite all the different hands at work, it’s all-of-a-piece. It also has a curious shape, going on very long in its middle section with the dwarfs; a committee approach surely would tighten that section up today, but Disney clearly liked that part. Years of adolescent learning seem to be crammed into a single night as the dwarfs discover Snow White and her organized housekeeping methods and interpersonal skills.

In the end it all seems so tidy, but Snow White does leave its traces with the witch and the apple and the trees formed like threatening arms. We wouldn’t remember the movie if it didn’t have those troubling things, even if they are put safely away. (It would take Pinocchio for Disney to get into some really weird, creepy-crawly stuff.) Seeing the ending now, it is impossible not to see the empire rising, the castle of Disneyland and make-believe, which might be a little unfair to Snow White - but still, there it is, dream and brand waiting in the distance. Maybe that’s why in retrospect Dopey seems so unfunny – he was the calculation, the formula needed to put all this over.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

This piece on Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped was published in the July-August 2005 issue of Film Comment. It’s revived here upon the arrival of Audiard’s A Prophet, which is a triumph. – Robert Horton

A sublimely vulgar yellow sportcoat connects The Beat That My Heart Skipped to Fingers, James Toback’s 1977 debut picture. This French remake retains other aspects of the original, of course: the set-up of the story (a two-bit hoodlum’s classical piano training is re-awakened by the promise of an audition with his mother’s old manager), a terrifically violent climactic fight in a stairway, and the protagonist’s erotic interlude with a gangster’s mistress.

Romain Duris.

But there is much that has been changed by Jacques Audiard and his co-scenarist Tonino Benacquista – characters and subplots added, tone modified. It’s a better movie than Fingers, though a less astonishing one. The main character, called Tom here, now works the shady side of the real-estate street, and coolly uses rats and sledge hammers to roust squatters out of his dilapidated apartment buildings. In Fingers, we know Harvey Keitel is a pianist from the first moments of the picture, but Tom greets us as a punk, all nervous finger-drumming and strongarm tactics and electronica through his headphones. We only learn of his dormant talent when he runs into the music manager. (Romain Duris is spectacular as Tom – when the manager offhandedly suggests he come for an audition, watch Duris’ face as he registers disbelief, self-disgust, and a childlike surge of hope. Duris has the wolfish angles of a smack-withered English rock star, his cheeks sunken and his teeth crowding his mouth – there are shots of him walking down the street where he looks like the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft in the “Bittersweet Symphony” video.)

Audiard’s style, handheld and close to the characters, is keyed off Tom’s jazzed energy. But, in his biggest addition to the original story, Audiard introduces a figure of stillness, a Chinese pianist (Linh Dan Pham) who gives Tom lessons as he prepares for his audition. She doesn’t speak French, and she expresses her alarm at his playing by pursing her lips and microscopically shaking her head. The almost subliminal comedy of her deadpan presence pokes a hole in Tom’s self-regard, and provides a much needed breath of air that Toback’s film never had.

At times the radical shifts in tone suggest the galloping of Tom’s brain, like the way Audiard blurred the mise-en-scene of Read My Lips in deference to his partly-deaf heroine. The soundtrack, too, pulls against itself. Bach scrapes against electronica, a Euro-pop cover of “Loco-Motion” lands hard upon the tasty orchestral score by the increasingly essential Alexandre Desplat. As Tom sits in a nightclub and his business partner jabbers on about real estate, the offending voice fades away as Tom grins at his suddenly renewed affair with Bach, the wall of the club blooming behind him in an ecstatic orangey glow.

As for the yellow sportcoat, it is worn by Tom’s father (the dissipated Niels Arestrup). The jacket is not merely an homage to the first movie, but a measure of the father’s foolishness, an emblem of youth draped on a wheezy older man who actually believes he will marry the hot young underwear model he’s been screwing around with. Of course Tom finds his father’s engagement absurd, yet that penchant for folly is passed on, like much else, from pere to fils. Tom believes that the piano audition might result in his becoming – well, if not a concert pianist, then at least something different from what he has been. In its survey of the impossible business of human skin-shedding, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is more optimistic than Fingers, even if (in one of the film’s final close-ups) Tom still has blood soaked into the cuffs of his white dress shirt, violence and promise oozing into each other. Hope is a fool’s game, Audiard seems to say, but it’s the only game in town.

Code Inconnu

Here is a piece on Michael Haneke’s Code Inconnu from the Nov.-Dec. 2000 issue of Film Comment. I republish it because Haneke’s new film The White Ribbon is bringing him even more international (especially U.S.) attention; obviously, this piece was written before he created the major works Cache and The Piano Teacher. Writing ten years later, the answer to my opening question is “Yes.” –Robert Horton

Is Michael Haneke a modern master? We’ve had so little access to his TV movies (which comprise the bulk of his filmography) outside Europe that the answer may have to be given by a mezzo-European critic familiar with the scope of his work. Based on Benny’s Video, 71 Fragments of a Chronicle of Chance, and Funny Games, this is unarguably a director of authority. Master status or not, it is nevertheless a source of frustration that Haneke’s latest film, Code Inconnu, should be having a difficult time finding a U.S. distributor. Even having a bona fide Oscar-winning movie star in a central role hasn’t done the trick.

Code Inconnu certainly begins like the work of a master. On a Paris street in midday, a woman, Anne (Juliette Binoche), steps out of her building, strides off screen right, and is stopped by a young man—Jean, the brother of her boyfriend. He couldn’t get inside to see her because he doesn’t know the new code to her building—a pun on the title, but also a set-up for the film’s powerful penultimate shot. They travel down the sidewalk as she stops to get some pastries, explaining that she is late for a meeting but the teenager can crash in her apartment for a bit.

Having traveled a couple of blocks along the busy street, the camera, which has been non-commitally paralleling this conversation, now reverses with Jean as he heads back toward the apartment. Halfway there he pauses to listen to some street musicians. Crumpling up a paper bag from the pastries, he (thoughtlessly? intentionally?) throws it into the lap of a middle-aged woman begging for coins on the corner of the alley. Blankly moving on, Jean is accosted by a black kid, Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), near his own age. Amadou saw the littering, and insists that Jean apologize for humiliating the woman. Anne returns to break up their fighting, the gendarmes step in, and this violent but not especially unusual moment is the splash that sends ripples throughout the rest of the picture.

This kind of shot—unbroken for eight minutes—makes for a bravura opening sequence, something Max Ophuls might have dreamed up to link character destinies, if Ophuls had lived to the age of grunge. But it’s not actually the first sequence, although it feels like it. Code Inconnu begins with a prologue in which a little girl, whom we quickly sense is deaf, acts out a charades concept for her classmates at a school for the hearing-impaired. The other kids try to guess the idea—“fear”? “alone”?–but she shakes her head at each suggestion, and the title card comes up before we can discover what exactly she meant.

The film carries a subtitle, “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys,” suggesting the overall pattern. The beggar woman is Maria (Luminita Gheorghi), from Romania, and we will follow her journey as she is deported following the littering incident. The scenes of her family life reverberate against the Eastern European experiences of Georges (Thierry Neuvic), Anne’s boyfriend, a photographer who has been taking pictures in Kosovo. His stark reality shots contrast with Anne’s profession, acting; she is seen rehearsing for and then shooting a movie thriller. We also follow Amadou and his family: his father an immigrant cab driver, his mother a believer in voodoo-like causes for the family’s woes.

These pieces come to us in discrete sequences, often made up of a single shot each. The editing is off-cadence, sometimes cutting in mid-sentence to the black leader that separates the scenes. Haneke’s theme is “involvement,” or non-involvement, as we sense from the street scene at the beginning; how, and to what degree, should these people get involved—with their family, lovers, or strangers in the street or on the subway? How does a photographer become involved in the dying people he is photographing? (Later, Georges rigs a camera so he can take pictures of unsuspecting subway riders, thus perfecting non-involvement.) One sequence consists of Anne at home in her comfortable apartment, temporarily muting the TV when she hears the sound of a child screaming somewhere in the building. What’s the next step? To find the child? Or put the volume back up and get on with the thousand other things that we have to do in the course of a day?

The movie itself struggles to involve its various pieces with each other, but montage achieves its linking. If we can glean meanings from the overlappings of these people, they cannot. A pivotal scene, midway through the film, takes place in a café. (How many Paris movies do not have pivotal scenes in cafés?) Anne and Georges are out for dinner with friends; she is describing the absurd plot of the movie she is acting in, called The Collector. Georges speaks of seeing war in Eastern Europe, but Anne interrupts by asking about a dentist, and the conversation moves on to lighter things. Amadou then breezes past the camera with a date, and the camera joins them for an eccentric conversation that includes a story about his father’s emigration from Mali to France.

Anne recognizes him, and points him out to Georges—but the scene ends, and we don’t find out what happens. Like the stories of her movie and Amadou’s father, we only get the “incomplete tales.” This sense of open-endedness, so common now in world cinema that it is nearly epidemic, feels truer, and more vital, than the truculence of Haneke’s Funny Games. Funny Games may have been the director’s most accessible movie—“accessible” being quite an elastic concept in this context—and it is certainly brilliantly executed, but it’s a great deal of effort, and mayhem, expended on what is ultimately a not terribly fresh idea. (Movies are selling us false notions of the world, in case you hadn’t heard.) The participation of the audience in sadism, and the short-circuiting of narrative expectations (the shredding of the old if-a-gun-is-shown-in-the-first-act-it-must-go-off-in-the-third-act dogma) have been done before; check out Kubrick and especially The Shining for more details. It’s a reductive film in ways that 71 Fragments and Code Inconnu are not.

All the more reason to grant Code Inconnu its admittedly challenging spot in the current movie firmament—and applaud a star on the order of Juliette Binoche for pushing such a project. Binoche, her face looking leaner and harder with age, could hardly have had an easy time with the circles-within-circles business of playing an actress confronted with the basic irony of an actor’s life: reel emotions come easily and expertly, real emotions are crabbed and stunted. In one scene, shot from the back of a theater, Anne stands onstage rehearsing a monologue from Twelfth Night, pouring her heart out to no response from anybody, if there is anybody, in the darkened seats. “Is anybody out there?” she inquires after a long silence, just before the shot snuffs quickly to black. Well, audience? Michael Haneke is asking you a question.

High and Low

Here’s another oldie: a program note about a Kurosawa classic, written in 1981 for a University of Washington film series – thus readers are assumed to have just watched the movie. High and Low turns up on my Ten Best of 1963 list, too. – Robert Horton

Cinema is a window, a window through which we are privileged to watch people and things as they move and break and dance and die. The window can be maneuvered gracefully around people, so that we can observe things from swirling, unbroken flight—as in the way a film director like Max Ophuls made movies. The window might change its perspective many times in a few seconds, showing us different sides of images from angles we didn’t even know existed, to the point where we may wonder if the barriers are gone and we’re now surrounded by the action—as in the way Sam Peckinpah makes many of his sequences. The window may also resolutely sit and watch, unmoving but fascinated by the dynamism within the frame, as people come and go and perform—as in the way Charlie Chaplin made movies.

Akira Kurosawa can do it all, and so, for that matter, can the three guys named above. It’s a pleasure to watch someone manipulate a frame (particularly a CinemaScope—make that TohoScope—frame) the way Kurosawa does; he knows that the decision about what to include and exclude from a frame may be the most important in a film. He takes pride in the window. He also knows, good director that he is, that by the end of a movie the audience should come to know that what they have been witnessing is not only a window; it is also, unavoidably, a mirror.

Kurosawa’s High and Low begins with an unusually seedy and ugly credits sequence; but after the first smoke-filled images of metropolis, we begin the narrative proper with a window; through this window, that same metropolis is still visible. A man moves across the window—it’s dark in the room, and since the only light is entering from the window, behind the man, we can’t clearly make him out. He crosses the room, the camera panning to accommodate, and flicks on a light. Okay, let the action begin.

And begin it does: immediately we’re dropped into a world of corporate scheming and personal back-biting. The fellow who at the nerve center of the shifting frames is Gondo (Toshiro Mifune); this guy is so self-possessed and confident (we won’t know all of the Why for that yet, but will soon be let in on it) that he controls this confrontation even when he’s not saying anything. He’s a man who can keep his cool, even if he is just a tad callous to his chauffeur, a bit cruel to his wife, and perhaps not too interested in his little boy (though they both “like violent games,” as his wife says). Looks like we’re heading into the country of Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well here—industrial hanky-panky, with perhaps a fable of a simple idealist who just wants to make a good pair of shoes. All right, we know from that earlier film that Kurosawa can imbue very personal and cinematically/emotionally justified anguish into even a story top-heavy with social comment, so no problem.

Then the world is broken in two. It’s just a phone call, but few phone calls in the history of cinema can match this lightning-bolt moment. Kurosawa’s cutting and composition in this sequence is just about flawless; the editing is disturbingly jagged and the people, huddled in desperation around a telephone receiver, seem to be falling out of the frame in their panic. Things will never be the same from this point on; lives will be irrevocably altered (some will end) and even the fact that the criminal on the other end of the line has made a clumsy mistake in identification will not remedy that. Thus it’s entirely necessary that Kurosawa bombard us with his editing prowess at this point; in fact, the first ten minutes or so of the film, with rhythmic cutting and pleasing compositions, have been building up for this rupture.

Kurosawa’s ability as an editor will come as a surprise to no one; but let me just pluck one example from High and Low to demonstrate why his reputation is so well-earned. Continue reading

Pauline at the Beach

Eric Rohmer died today, so I am publishing  a piece I wrote on Pauline at the Beach in 1984. It was written as a program note for a film series and presumes the reader will have just watched the movie, so it has both spoilers and a paucity of exposition. Mostly I’m posting it because of the wish in the opening paragraph that Rohmer would live another 25 years and make a movie a year. He didn’t produce annually, but he did survive exactly those 25 years, and managed to put out sixteen more features. I should’ve wished the same longevity for Nestor Almendros, mentioned in the piece. R.I.P. — Robert Horton

Pauline, and les autres, at the beach

One of my favorite cinematic daydreams involves Eric Rohmer: I ask myself, wouldn’t it be neat if Rohmer could somehow make one movie a year, for the next (say) twenty-five years? They wouldn’t all have to be masterpieces; it would be just something to hold on to, something to incorporate into the life cycle. I’m afraid the chances of this are slim, since Rohmer is getting on in years (he was christened Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer on April 4, 1920), but it’s one of those things that make for good daydreams.

Actually, we should feel lucky—Rohmer has been on a hot streak lately. Keep in mind he was a slow starter compared to some of his friends in the French New Wave. Rohmer made short films during the 1950s, and he was editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinema, the magazine in which Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol et al. vented their auteurist spleens, from 1957 to 1963. Those other fellows had already collected an armful of international awards by the time Rohmer completed his first widely-recognized feature, La collectioneuse, in 1967 (though he had been directing for some time already). That film was part of his contes moraux—Moral Tales—and the next entry, Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1968), brought him shoulder to shoulder with the world’s leading filmmakers. After he finished the Moral Tales, Rohmer took time out to pursue projects with settings completely different from the palpably modern landscapes of the six Moral Tales; predictably enough, The Marquise of O… (1976) and Perceval le Gallois (1978) were two of the best and most intriguing works of the decade.

Now Rohmer is right in the middle of another cycle. This one is called Comedies et Proverbes, and so far its titles are The Aviator’s Wife (1980), Le beau marriage (1982), and Pauline at the Beach (1983). Like the Moral Tales, this new series consists mostly of people talking about love, sex, freedom, and more love. For the most part, these people are absolutely ordinary, and their problems, while important to them, are not unusual or earth-shaking. Nothing that can’t be talked out.

Late in Pauline at the Beach, Pierre (Pascal Greggory), the skinny chap who looks a little like the death’s-head hero of Bunuel’s Un chien Andalou, talks about what love means to him. He can’t understand why Marion (Arielle Dombasle), who he loves, insists on loving Henri (Feodor Atkine), who does not love her. Wouldn’t it be logical for people to love the person best for them? Well, yes, that would be eminently logical, but behavior very often doesn’t have anything to do with logic; besides that, if people were always doing what’s best for themselves, life would not be terribly interesting—and an Eric Rohmer movie certainly wouldn’t have much to go on.

Anyway, it’s very funny for Pierre to be saying this, since—although he keeps saying he’s the only clear thinker in the bunch, and that he’s trying to show the other how foolish they’re being—he’s the most illogical in his consuming passion for Marion, who makes it clear right away that she is not interested in him. His peevishness combined with his remarkable knack for doing what’s worst for himself propels him though the series of gaffes that he makes during the course of the film.

But then, the characters in Pauline at the Beach are consistently saying things that are the opposite of what they really mean. In the first scene of the film, Marion and her fifteen-year-old cousin Pauline (Amanda Langlet) arrive at their summer beach place. Marion speaks some of the film’s first lines of dialogue in phrases dripping with TV-commercial sincerity: “Good—there’s no phone. I could spend hours here without moving,” etc. You don’t necessarily have to know what’s going to happen (in fact, you can just about take one look at this woman) to sense that these sentiments don’t exactly come from the bottom of her heart. This is not to suggest that she’s lying—no, that would be an erroneous sizing-up of the situation. Rather, she is the kind of person who enjoys having things her own way—she’s covering herself by saying these things. If the beach turns out to be deadsville, then she will have gotten the peace and quiet she supposedly wants. If, on the other hand, the vacation turns out to be a session of erotically-charged romance (as she probably and understandably expects), she’s ahead of the game. None of her self-delusions or corny sentiments—as when she goes on, a couple of scenes later, about “That unpredictable thing called love”—should be interpreted as condescension or disapproval on Rohmer’s part. Directorial attitude is crucial, and Rohmer’s attitude is one of bemused acceptance. Continue reading

The Magnificent Ambersons

This piece dates to a program note written for a Welles series in 1986. I was a co-founder, with Tom Keogh, of a nonprofit called Seattle Filmhouse, and we brought a few notable critics (Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Thomson among them), as well as Welles’ hard-working latterday cinematographer, Gary Graver, to Seattle to talk about the movies and the life. The note on The Magnificent Ambersons was meant to be read in close proximity to seeing the movie, of course, and reads that way. – Robert Horton

There are films that creep up on you, and there are films that astonish from the first frame. The films of Orson Welles may do many things, but they do not creep, and almost all of his movies begin with a striking image or sequence. None begins more beautifully than The Magnificent Ambersons; in this beginning is the word, Welles’ voice (his only presence as an actor in the movie), which starts its rolling rumble even before the fist image appears onscreen. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” he says, and the screen is still black until a gorgeously-appointed mansion emerges, looming majestically, dominating and defining the lithograph-like composition of the shot—as, indeed, the Amberson mansion and all the rich and sad meaning it embodies will seem to dominate and define and even obliterate the family it houses. Welles’ voice is rich and sad too, with that first line setting a nostalgic tone: listen to the rhyming sounds—magnificence, Ambersons, began—and consider the name Amberson itself, golden and preserving but also smoky, dark, fading, like the amber Sun or the amber son. (Kudos to Booth Tarkington, author of a novel that was partly based on Orson Welles’ father, for the canny choice.)

Welles’ melancholic narration carries us through the opening minutes, an extraordinary sequence that dexterously introduces us to the story and characters (the word “exposition,” with its connotations of clunkiness, is inadequate here). The toy-box methods of Citizen Kane are still in use, as Welles dazzles us with his playful unspooling of the film’s key elements; his narration even breaks in to the dialogue of those bystanders who comment on the Ambersons. The suggestions of youth and vitality are strong, and not just around that brattiest of spoiled brats, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt); even Eugene Morgan’s crash through his bass violin is a comic moment, especially as Welles sets up the shot—Eugene (Joseph Cotten) scurrying up to the camera, the better to tumble loudly in the foreground—and as Welles misleads us with his narration, preparing us for “that prettiest of all vanished customs, the serenade,” only to be followed by the crash. Yet this moment will irrevocably alter, in a tragic way, the lives of the characters. Those busybodies on the street are fruity and comic (Fanny Minafer, you may notice, is among them), but later in the film the gossips and their perceived impact will help kill the last hope of Eugene and Isabel (Dolores Costello).

The vitality of the Ambersons needs to be established, because much of the rest of the film—especially following the shimmering ball and sleighride scenes—charts the family’s decline, and the encroaching darkness that swallows the family whole. The ball sequence, “the last of the great long-remembered dances,” is magnificent, and all the more so because while it displays the beauty of genteel manners and morals, it also shows that the time for such things is slipping away.

The seeming suspension of time also looms in the returns of Eugene, who has been gone—eighteen years have passed, “or have they?”, as Jack Amberson (Ray Collins) asks. Welles’ technique itself conjures the passage of time; those long, sinuous shots that weave through corridors and up staircases and across rooms are the actual embodiment of time passing. Unlike the cut-cut-cut of most movie scenes, these long takes show us events in real time—actors are a little older when the shot is over. In keeping with this scheme, which is really a movement toward death (as we will see as the film progresses), darkness overtakes the house when the ball ends. The guests leave and the family prepares to retire, their figures passing through great pools of darkness—in Stanley Cortez’ exceptional photography, we see some of the most intense blacks ever captured on film. Inky suggestions of suspicion, uncertainty, and mortality swim in these pools, as well as the “ancient recollections” that have been stirred by Eugene’s return.

As George and Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) walk the darkened hall to her door, they hold the first of their extraordinary conversations. Fanny’s words are casual and defensive, as she explains that people should note the presence of an eligible bachelor “without having to make a to-do about it.” The phrase is casual, but her voice rises into a pinched hysteria, which George snottily imitates. But then she savagely mimics him—and we recognize that Fanny, who had just appeared furtive and puny in a hallway shot that Isabel dominated, is in fact a bitter force to be reckoned with. (For all the movie’s visual bravura, these precise vocal effects remind us of Welles’ extensive experiences in radio.) Continue reading

Sunset Boulevard

It begins in the gutter…but of course. A street name, Sunset Blvd., painted on the curb above the sewer drain is a convenient way to present the film’s title, but it also tells us where we’re going: down. Even the abbreviation gives it a kind of slangy, tabloid grit. The title refers to one of the most famous arteries in Los Angeles, but it also evokes the heavy depression of the end of the day—and the movie is about the “sunset years,” and how they can be disastrously handled.

Meet Joe Gillis.

Sunset Boulevard is also about Hollywood, and its corrosive view of Tinseltown might best be summed up with one of its opening images. As we see a corpse floating face down in the swimming pool of a Hollywood mansion, the narrator savors the irony of the moment: “The poor dope. He always wanted a pool.” Hollywood is the place people go, dreaming of their own swimming pools. Little do they know they’ll end up drowned in them.

There’s another level of irony here. The corpse and the narrator are one in the same person. Sunset Boulevard is famously told from the perspective of a dead man, the late Joe Gillis (William Holden), journeyman screenwriter, cynical burnout, self-loathing gigolo. One of the most intriguing pieces of Sunset Boulevard lore is that director Billy Wilder shot an even more outrageous opening to the film: the picture fades in on the Los Angeles County Morgue, where Joe’s dead body, on a slab, begins to converse with the other stiffs, and then to narrate his story. Wilder loved the sequence, but preview audiences got the giggles at the sheer outrageousness of the thing—and it was cut before release.

Gillis begins his flashback with his struggles to make ends meet. He pitches lousy concepts to middle-management studio flunkies, and he can’t bum any more money off his indifferent agent. Spotted by a couple of repo men looking to seize his car, Joe drives into the secluded garage of a Sunset Boulevard mansion, where he is mistaken for someone else and invited in.

The two people in the house are expecting an undertaker for a dead chimpanzee. Perhaps this should have been Joe’s warning that all is not well in the old, decaying house—he also notes the melodramatic wind wheezing through the organ pipes, and the rats in the pool. Still: any port in a storm. The owner of the house is none other than Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star. “You used to be big,” Gillis says with typical gallantry. Norma, who—for a silent star—has quite a knack for memorable phrases, replies with a memorable piece of self-justification: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” When Norma finds out Gillis is a writer, she hires him to edit her sprawling screenplay, which will be the vehicle for her great comeback.

Thus begins Joe’s doomed run as Norma’s housemate, lover, and errand boy. A new pet monkey. In one especially mortifying moment, during one of Norma’s bridge games, she orders Joe to empty the ash tray—and he does. (The weirdness of the moment is enhanced by the other players, a group of silent stars whose past glories must have struck the 1950 audience as rather ghoulishly invoked: Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and the great Buster Keaton.) The entire film is infused with a sense of debasement and humiliation. Take, for instance, the casting of Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s butler, Max von Mayerling. Not only does Max attend to Norma’s daily needs, including the writing of bogus “fan mail” that Norma can reply to, he also happens to be her former husband and director.

The overlapping between art and life is all too unsavory here. Stroheim was indeed one of Hollywood’s most flamboyant directors in the 1920s, a career halted for a variety of reasons (including his own extravagance). He actually directed Gloria Swanson, in Queen Kelly, a film that is excerpted in Sunset Boulevard for the memorable scene of Joe and Norma watching her old movies at night. As magnetic a performer as Stroheim is, there is something uniquely uncomfortable about the similarity between actor and character.

Of course, this is magnified in the case of Swanson, who had been one of the biggest of silent movie queens—as well as the mistress of Joseph Kennedy. Continue reading

The Manchurian Candidate

A piece I wrote on The Manchurian Candidate for a web encyclopedia, and thus meant to be an introduction to a classic. It’s one of the ten best movies of 1962, a list seen here. –Robert Horton

I love Yen Lo. Perhaps you don’t recognize the name? Well, the brain can easily play tricks on a person, as Yen Lo knows better than anyone. Yen Lo is the bald, droopy-mustached, thoroughly malignant brainwasher, played by Khigh Dhiegh, in The Manchurian Candidate. He is a man of menace, but he delivers his evil with a twinkle in his eye—“Always with a little humor,” as he advises a fellow Cold Warrior. Although he is a bad, bad man, Yen Lo is the kind of killer who appears at the door and introduces himself (“Yen Lo—Pavlov Institute?”) with the engaging good cheer of a Shriner in town for a convention.

manchurian5Yen Lo’s perversity is bottomless. Just before toddling off to spend the afternoon shopping at Macy’s, he converses with a Russian agent as they stand in a room with the brainwashed American, Raymond Shaw, who represents their great experimental hope. Without taking a pause between thoughts, Yen Lo traverses the spectrum of philosophy and criminality as he turns his attention from chortling with the Russian to interrogating Shaw: “There’s nothing like a good laugh now and then to lighten the burden of the day. Tell me, Raymond, do you remember killing Mavole and Lembeck?” The incredible horror and fun of the character is at the heart of The Manchurian Candidate, a masterpiece of both suspense and satire.

This is a deeply, deeply twisted movie. Very few films have captured the free-fall sense of America as controlled chaos, or the political process as a facetious circus. Although it is faithful in many ways to Richard Condon’s source novel, director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod added their own quick, savvy energy to the piece, and the actors are downright exuberant in their willingness to wallow in depravity. Seen many years after its initial 1962 release, it feels like an utterly modern film. Would there have been a Dr. Strangelove—that even more outrageous assault on common decency, released a year later—without it?

Condon’s story describes the fiendish plot to program a U.S. soldier for the purposes of wreaking political havoc. Brainwashed after being taken captive in the Korean War, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is unaware of his mission. At key moments, he can be turned into a submissive zombie by clues dropped in his presence—a loaded phrase, or the sight of the queen of diamonds (a suggested game of solitaire is one of Raymond’s “triggers”). Yen Lo puts it this way: “His brain has not only been washed, as they say, it has been dry cleaned.”

Raymond moves in political circles. His mother (Angela Lansbury) is a right-wing mover and shaker, and his step-father is Senator John Yerxes Iselin. The ambitious Iselin, whose name is usually preceded by the prefix “that idiot,” is a pawn of Raymond’s mother, a woman so nightmarish, so pervasively bad, she doesn’t even have a name. These two are perhaps the most satirically poisonous politicians to come out of the cinema; they make Wag the Dog look like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. (Every once in while a critic of the film will suggest that these people are caricatures, to which I would say: try watching real Senate hearings, and then decide which is the more unbelievable.)

Iselin, portrayed with preening unctuousness by the braying character actor James Gregory, is a wicked send-up of Senator Joseph McCarthy, right down to the variable number of communists the senator claims to have on various lists. (Gregory physically resembles another red-baiting politician, Richard Nixon.) At one point, trying to decide on exactly how many communists have infiltrated the government, Raymond’s mother glances down at the ketchup bottle Iselin is using, and settles on “57,” the number of varieties in the Heinz advertising slogan. One of the many ways this film is hip is the way it uses Madison Avenue as part of its texture. Even Yen Lo gets into the act, with his reference to a jingle for Winston cigarettes—“Tastes good,” he grins, “like a cigarette should!” (The man is au courant on pop culture, even from within Manchuria.)

The Manchurian Candidate may be a brilliant political satire, but it delivers its barbs via a gripping suspense structure. A tense prologue gives us a taste of the Korean War, and a sense that Sergeant Shaw is not especially well-liked by his fellow soldiers. Thus it is strange when, back home, we see two of Shaw’s platoon members respond in precisely the same robotic way when asked about Shaw: “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Continue reading

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