Thursday, November 8, 2018

They Had Faces

Bette Davis works more than just her eyes in The Star (1952),
creating a powerfully human portrait of an actress unable to deal with growing older.

Near the end of Stuart Heisler's The Star (1952), a screenwriter (Paul Frees) looks across the room at a crowded Hollywood party and points out a woman he says has the perfect face. At that stage in the film, it's no surprise when the shot changes to reveal the object of his admiration is Bette Davis, playing washed-up film star Maggie Elliott. As in even her weakest films, her face is one of the picture's saving graces, often creating layers of meaning that go beyond anything the script could suggest. Dan Curtis' Burnt Offerings (1976) is a wretched mess of a picture except when she's on screen. Then it turns into a heartbreaking consideration of the ravages of age. In some of her early Warner Bros. films, when the studio tried to treat her as just another leading lady, her characters fairly pop off the screen with a supernatural energy that makes the films more about a powerhouse actress chomping at the bit than whatever sorry plot she was stuck with.
The Star is the best of her attempts to follow-up on the success of All About Eve (1950). As a woman fighting against the crushing reality that she's grown older in a Hollywood that only values youth and sex appeal, she's electric, even if the script keeps getting in her way. After she leaves an auction of personal effects that's only going to pay off her creditors, she has to deal with her freeloading sister and brother-in-law. The scene starts well enough, with her trying to explain her financial situation to them and point out that a lot of her lost fortune went to helping them. Davis plays this with sincerity and a touch of wit (the way she widens her eyes to feign innocence while dropping hard truths is one of the best weapons in her bag of tricks and gives lie to the claim that she couldn't play comedy; I mean, what the hell was All About Eve?). But then she has to blow up at them, and the whole situation starts to feel phony. Davis is too powerful, too much a force of nature, for us to believe anybody could take advantage of her as they have. And though she's an expert at delivering rants (in 1934's Of Human Bondage, her verbal attack on Leslie Howard is downright horrifying), she can't do it if the lines aren't there, and in this film, they're not.
Right after her sister and brother-in-law leave, however, she pulls off a surprising little bit of acting that jolts you back into the character's reality. She angrily sweeps her makeup table clear and then grabs her arm. It's a little thing, but it sums up her character's plight perfectly. She's too old for gestures like that. Through the course of the film, Maggie has to learn that she's also too old for the leading roles she used to play.
Later in the film, her agent manages to land her a screen test for a supporting role as the young leading lady's older sister, a downtrodden farm wife. Convinced she should be starring in the film, she plays the scene as if she were a young sexpot. When the agent takes her to the studio to find out how things went, she gets one of the studio's editors to screen the test for her. We don't see much of the test (we've already seen her filming it). Instead we see her face as she watches it and realizes what a fool she's been. Her response is riveting, and it paves the way for the film's denouement. Unfortunately, the scriptwriters then decide to give her lines. They're not needed, and given that we've already seen everything we need to see in her face, they seem ludicrous.
When Frees pitches his script to her at the party, which triggers her final crisis, the writers manage to stay out of her way for once. The film he pitches is basically the one we've just seen, about a star unable to adjust to aging. Unfortunately, the script then has him go for some kind of high moral. The woman's problem is that she's been so busy being a star that she's forgotten how to be — gasp! — a woman. It's not just that the idea is dated. After watching Davis power her way through the film for slightly over an hour, it's downright insulting. What's wrong with being a star if you can also deliver on her level? Her marriage may have fallen apart (because her actor-husband couldn't take her being more successful), but she has a daughter (Natalie Wood) who adores her and has even won the heart of a former co-star (Sterling Hayden) who bails her out when she's arrested for drunk driving. Even while still trying to rebuild her career, she would seem to be doing pretty well for herself by the film's patriarchal '50s standards.
That either-or proposition, that a woman can be either a star (read success) or a woman, was the one flaw in All About Eve. The scene in which Davis' Margo Channing evaluates her supposed failure as a woman is much better shot than anything in The Star, but I remember women hissing her big speech when I saw the film in a revival house in the '70s. Of course, All About Eve has a lot more going on than that one idea, and I don't think anybody watching it seriously believes that Margo is going to stay retired for long after she marries Bill. The Star, however, seems to be built around the proposition that to achieve success as a woman Maggie has to give up everything else, and Davis' powerhouse performance gives the lie to that idea.
Hayden and Wood are the only actors in the film who are really a match for Davis. It's not that the rest of the cast is bad. It's filled with reliable character actors like Warner Anderson as her sympathetic agent and Minor Watson as the studio head who agrees to give her a screen test, but they don't have a lot to work with. Hayden's character is more developed and parallels his off-screen life. He was doing work on Maggie's house when she spotted him and had him tested for a film in which they ended up co-starring. Since the war, he's given up acting to run a small shipping business (Hayden always preferred sailing to acting). Their scenes are like a meeting of old and new Hollywood — the studio-bred Davis taking on the young independent Hayden. She knows enough to share the focus with him. I wonder if Davis also realized that, as was the case with other aging stars like Joan Crawford, she needed a leading man with Hayden's craggy masculinity to make her love scenes believable duets rather than ludicrous solos.
She really connects with Wood, as well. The younger actress was 14 at the time. That's considered the awkward age for child actors, though we may all wish we had been that awkward at her age. She's gangly and effusive, but with her big eyes and her strong focus on Davis she seems a better mother-daughter match for her than Davis' own biological off-spring (the film made the two lifelong friends, while the less said of Davis' daughter at this point the better).
Good as Hayden and Wood are, however, they're very much supporting players, simply in terms of screen time. The film is all Davis, and she more than justifies the investment of 90 minutes. She always claimed this was one of the best scripts she was offered in the '50s. She did The Star after turning down Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) and lost the Oscar to Shirley Booth's whiny, masochistic performance. She would later regret that decision, but I think she made the right choice. Lola is too downtrodden a character for her. In fact, most of the prominent roles for women in her age range (think 1952's Sudden Fear or 1956's The Bad Seed) were such victimized creatures she wouldn't have worked in them. The only role she could have really sunk her teeth into was Serafina in The Rose Tattoo (1955), which, appropriately went to Anna Magnani, an actress often referred to as "the Italian Bette Davis."

Even beneath Charles Schramm's impressive scar makeup, Liza Minnelli has the eyes of a star in
Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.

Liza Minnelli's follow-up to her Oscar-nominated turn in The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) is far from her best film. It has all the flaws of Hollywood's attempts to get "with it" in the late '60s and early '70s. The editing and storytelling are choppy, the plot goes nowhere, and the sound recording is awful. At times the characters seem to be talking from inside a meat locker. There were directors who could make things like that work. Robert Altman turned the meandering narrative into an art form in films like M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and his masterpiece, Nashville (1975). But for Otto Preminger, who did some of this best work in tightly plotted films noirs like Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), it all seems just so much affectation. If it weren't for a few performances, the picture would hardly bear looking at.
After decades of seeing Minnelli turn in strong performances as everyone from Sally Bowles to Lucille Austero on Arrested Development (not to mention her unjustly neglected turn in Stepping Out), it's tempting to say any view of her performance in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is colored by hindsight. Certainly the character, as written, is a little too self-consciously quirky (another trait of '70s screenwriting). Junie Moon is a carefree young woman who's been scarred when a date turned out to be deranged and poured battery acid on her face. In the hospital, she befriends Warren (Robert Moore), a gay man confined to a wheelchair following a hunting accident, and Arthur (Ken Howard), an epileptic incorrectly diagnosed as mentally challenged since childhood. They decide to set up housekeeping in a tumbledown shack near the Massachusetts shore.
As they face a series of crises brought about by insensitive neighbors and a landlady (Kay Thompson) who seems to have wandered in from some Italian horror film, the script frequently calls on Minnelli to go from zero to 60 in an instant. And the flashback to her disastrous date turns her into such a manic party girl you may wonder if they didn't undercrank the camera for those scenes. She's all over the place. But when Minnelli has to connect with another actor, she really looks at them. Those wonderful, Margaret Keane eyes of hers carry a lot of focus and intensity. It may be jarring when she has to jump to a big emotional effect, but once she's there, she's totally committed. Even when the character puts on airs, there's nothing phony about her. For the moment, at least, she believes in her affectations. And she shares her mother's gift for surprising bursts of wit that temporarily undermine the more sentimental moments. She holds off going for the obvious tug on the heartstrings, saving the big emotional punches for the film's end.
Minnelli provides an emotional center for a film that doesn't seem to have a consistent acting style. The script by Marjorie Kellogg (adapting her own novel) seems to draw its notion of gay men from some community theatre production of Noel Coward. Moore has a series of plummy lines to deliver, which he does as though playing to the back row of the balcony (he was primarily a theatre director, most noted for the original off-Broadway production of The Boys in the Band). In contrast, Howard is beautifully naturalistic as Alan, even during stylized flashbacks to his tortured childhood, when he was bullied and sent to a home for mentally challenged children (these are the best flashbacks in the film; the other figures look like two-dimensional, black-and-white ghosts, which is truly disorienting). His character is immensely appealing, as is James Coco as a lonely fishmonger who falls for Minnelli, even though he realizes she's drawn to Howard. And Anne Revere, who had worked for Preminger in Fallen Angels and Forever Amber (1947), has two lovely scenes as a hospital social worker. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was her first film in almost 20 years, after being blacklisted in the '50s, and she's lost none of her authoritative sincerity.
Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is also rather challenging from a political standpoint. 1970 doesn't seem that long ago for some of us old farts, but it's shocking to hear Moore called a "queer" and a "cripple," Howard's seizures referred to as "fits" and the terms "retarded" and "feeble-minded" thrown around in reference to his childhood.
There's also a reminder of how far the screen has come (or likes to think it has come) in dealing with sexuality. When Coco treats Minnelli's chosen family to a weekend at a seaside resort, Moore hooks up with a hotel employee (Fred Williamson) who appears to be turning tricks on the side. The two flirt so much you're waiting for something to happen. But during a night out, Williamson takes Moore to a black nightclub, where they pick up two African-American women. Williamson takes one off into the sand dunes, while the other seduces Moore on the beach. No wonder Williamson tears up the group's hotel bill. After leading Moore on like that, he's got to come across with something. For a gay audience, however, the whole plot line is another case of getting screwed by the film without getting kissed.
Yet there's still something strangely compelling about the picture. It's as if Minnelli were holding together the meandering plot and plethora of acting styles by force of sheer will. Because the picture was shot in the Northeast, it's filled with great, if underused theatre actors like Ben Piazza, Leonard Frey, Nancy Marchand, Clarice Taylor and Julie Bovasso. The whole thing is framed by shots of Pete Seeger walking through the woods as he sings his "Old Devil Time." The scenes represent Preminger's most relaxed work in the film. There's a faux symbolism to the piece; the lyrics saying "No storm nor fire can ever beat us down" seem to point up the resilience the characters strive for. But while Seeger's on screen, the film is just there. We get to sit and appreciate the beauty of the woods, the authenticity of his singing and his great weathered face. And somehow it doesn't matter that the picture doesn't really get anywhere, as long as it comes back to him.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Closets and Complexes

Harris Dickinson's stricken face at the end of Beach Rats

In the final shots of Eliza Hittman's sensitive independent film Beach Rats (2017), the rootless teen Frankie (Harris Dickinson) stares at the fireworks over Coney Island. Earlier in the film, he and his friends had looked on them with disdain. They found no great thrill in the display, even if he uses it as a conversation starter with Simone (Madeline Weinstein), a pretty girl he sees on the pier. But now, his life a mess, he watches them through pained eyes. Is the weekly display all he has left to look forward to? It's a gripping image, made more powerful by the way it echoes the ending of Francois Truffaut's first feature, The 400 Blows (1959), the famous freeze-frame on Jean-Pierre Leaud's face as his Antoine Doinel looks at the ocean for the first time and realizes it's not really the escape from his tortured life for which he had hoped. To say Truffaut's film is the screen's greatest portrait of youth at risk is hardly to denigrate Ms. Hittman's work, but rather to put it in perspective among the screen's more powerful portraits of the way young people can feel trapped in a world that seems to offer no real future.
Truffaut drew on details from his own childhood to paint Doinel as a victim of his parents' almost malicious neglect. Hittman's Frankie suffers from neglect, too, but it's more a matter of circumstance. Frankie's father is dying of cancer, and his well-meaning mother (Kate Hodge, in a deeply felt performance) is understandably preoccupied with caring for him and keeping the bills paid. Without guidance, he just hangs out with his friends, shooting hoops, getting high and trying to pick up girls. They support themselves with petty crime. While waiting to get on the bumper cars at Coney Island, one of them lifts a wallet from the person ahead of them. Frankie steals his father's painkillers to share with his friends and sell for a quick buck. At one point, he even pawns his mother's jewelry.
There's another difference between Frankie and Antoine. Frankie is gay. In the first scene, he cruises an on-line hook-up service looking for a man to talk to. Eventually he starts meeting the men from the site. Not that he's out to himself. In his view, he's just what's called an "MSM," a man who has sex with men. For the most part he dates older men for fear of hooking up with someone who might know his friends. When he meets one of his tricks in public, he almost panics. The man is one of the bartenders on a party boat Frankie's gone to with his friends and Simone, and when the guy tries to send the group free drinks, claiming the girlfriend is too pretty to have to pay, Frankie is furious. Later, when his friends catch him on his way to another date, Frankie tells them he only hooks up with gay men because they have drugs, lying that he gets high with them and then leaves them cold.
There's a price to pay for this dishonesty. In two of the three gay encounters shown in the film, the men simply treat Frankie as a receptacle. It's interesting that the only one who actually spends time with him and seems to care about his enjoying the encounter is the guy who tries to comp him for drinks later. And Frankie is finding the façade of heterosexuality harder to pull off. It's not just that his friends catch him. When he hooks up with Simone, he can only perform once, and only then by running to the bathroom to psych himself up in private. Hittman doesn't go for the obvious by having him pull out some gay porn to get in the mood, but you're pretty sure it's not Simone he's thinking about.
Hittman handles all of this with an objective sense of restraint. She's not there to judge the character; she just wants to show us what his life is like. When Frankie's father dies, she doesn't milk the scene for easy sentiment. She just shows the family gathered around his hospital bed in the living room. The slowing of the heart monitor is the only clue that this is the end for him. At times she may be a little too restrained. You may find yourself longing for a big, fiery confrontation out of '50s kitchen-sink realism. And there's no big climax at the end. After Frankie lets his friends beat up a trick, the first younger man he's tried to meet, he simply runs off to Coney Island to watch the fireworks. Yet that final image of him is haunting. It stayed with me long after some forced crisis might have.
Hittman's helped greatly by Dickenson's performance. He has a gift for getting inside his character and letting us see the world through his eyes (his performance as the telekinetic teen in this year's The Darkest Minds was one of the few saving graces of that mediocre effort to launch a sci-fi/fantasy franchise). Even when you can see Frankie making stupid choices, you know why he's doing it, and Dickenson draws you in enough to be on his side.
With its seaside setting and depiction of vagrant youth, Beach Rats calls up another association — with Federico Fellini's second feature, I Vitelloni. Like The 400 Blows, the Fellini film is semi-autobiographical, with the director represented by Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), the group's philosopher who eventually runs off to Rome to build a new life. The two comparisons make the ending of Beach Rats even more painful. We know that Truffaut and Fellini eventually moved beyond their adolescent problems to become major filmmakers. But what does poor Frankie have? Doinel had the movies and his love of Balzac; Moraldo, his questioning. There's no indication in Beach Rats that Frankie has any special talent. He can charm girls for a while, and he can steal drugs (if it doesn't require too much planning). Under the credits, he takes pictures of himself from the neck down, the kinds of shots people post to sell their bodies while keeping their faces hidden. At that moment, Hittman turns the gaze on her male star and, as the male gaze in cinema most often does to women, reduces him to disjointed body parts. By the end, that seems to be all he has to offer, and he doesn't seem to have the intelligence or maturity to survive that for long.

 The two reasons to see King Cobra: Garrett Clayton and Christian Slater

If anyone had the brains and maturity to survive a life in the sex trade, it's the version of Brent Corrigan (the stage name for Sean Lockhart) played by Garrett Clayton in Justin Kelly's King Cobra (2016). As written by Kelly and D. Madison Savage and played by Clayton, Corrigan is almost the Eve Harrington of gay porn. In his initial interview for porn director Stephen (the film's name for Bryan Kocis, who actually discovered him), he comes off as a young naïf. But the camera is on, and before long he's taking his clothes off in a scenario that's far from unfamiliar to anybody who's seen more than a few solo films. After he agrees to work for Stephen, there's a brief shot of him in his room as he tries out different ways of wearing a baseball cap. That's where you see the wheels start clicking. It's a wonderful actor's moment, as Clayton takes us inside the character to show him rehearsing the image he'll use to sell videos over the next several years.
The humor from that scene carries into the way Kelly depicts Corrigan's early films for Cobra. He mainly focuses on the set-up scenes and seems to enjoy the cheesy dialogue and cheerful non-acting. As a result, the films made for Cobra come off as silly and queasy and little bit erotic all at the same time.
Clayton's portrait of the young macher is matched by Christian Slater's performance as Stephen. There's an openness to his work here I've never seen before; even in the recent TV series Mr. Robot, he seems more focused on projecting an attitude than getting inside his character's head. But he seems totally in synch with the porn producer he plays in King Cobra. Stephen is just as much of a schemer as Corrigan, but he's also a Pygmalion who's fallen hard for his Galatea. You can see the pain in his eyes when Corrigan starts fighting for his independence, even as you know that he's been ripping him off for years, underpaying him for videos that are pulling in six figures each. By the time he reaches his sorry end, dragged through the legal system when Corrigan reveals he was underage when he made his first videos and eventually murdered by a rival producer, you can't help but feel sorry for him.
The film is based on the real-life story of Corrigan's relationship with Kocis and their legal battles when Corrigan tried to break free of his control to forge his own career. It's there the film starts to fall apart. Kelly goes to great pains to depict Corrigan as Kocis' victim while also trying to keep the director sympathetic. When Kocis reveals he's copyrighted the Brent Corrigan name, Lockhart finds he can't work anywhere. Nobody wants him as anything other than Brent Corrigan. That's not true, however. In reality, Corrigan made three films as Fox Ryder before reaching a settlement to use the Corrigan name. In addition, the scenes of his abjection are a drain on the film, and though Clayton plays the wronged innocent well, it doesn't really work with the way he's been depicted as a schemer. It's as if Kelly wants us to laugh at the character's machinations and then suddenly feel sorry for him.
The film's biggest problem, however, is in presenting Kocis' killers, a pair of hustlers turned porn producers played by Keegan Allen and James Franco. Allen is perfectly fine as the young stud who's fallen for a life of privilege with his lover/pimp/producer, but Franco has a rare misfire as the more volatile half of the relationship. The character is a master of self-deception. He lives beyond his means and thinks the tacky porn films he makes with his lover are his ticket to the big time. Franco seems to be too smart for all that. When he has to get violent, he can't get a convincing rhythm going, and his scenes threatening and browbeating his partner fall flat.
There are also moments of almost self-conscious artiness. Stephen has a taste for classical music, which is established early on. For most of the film, the classics are confined to his scenes. When the police come to arrest Franco and Allen, however, the soundtrack switches to Schubert's "Ave Maria." Only it's not just the "Ave Maria." It's a mash-up with "Love Me Forever," a song setting lyrics by Tim Kvasnosky to the Schubert music, and the original Latin text. "Love me forever and pray for us sinners?" It's a strange muddle, but by then, so is the film.

The real star of The Gay Deceivers, Michael Greer (r.), and the man who should have been one of its stars, Christopher Riordan (below)

Imagine a romantic comedy set in an apartment complex for gay men. The piece is shot in the pop, crayon-box colors of the late 1960s. The leading man is the landlord, a flamboyant gay man in a happy, long-term relationship who acts as den mother to the tenants. He decorates their apartments, gives them romantic advice, provides a sympathetic ear and even cooks for them if they need help in the kitchen. The complex's resident hottie is always on the prowl, even as he's caught in a frustrating romance with an Army recruiter who has to keep the relationship a secret. When a pair of straight boys move in, pretending to be gay to avoid the draft, everybody sees through them but plays along just to twit the dimwitted dolts and even tease them into a few compromising situations. Most of us would lap something like that up.
Unfortunately, that's not The Gay Deceivers, a 1969 sex comedy that makes the mistake of focusing more on the straight boys than on their gay neighbors. Of course, that's the nature of the period. Homosexuality had only been allowed as a screen subject since 1961 (when William Wyler finally got the Production Code Administration to approve his rather overwrought adaptation of The Children's Hour), and was treated mainly as a subplot when it did turn up. Back then gay men and lesbians only appeared as either perverted villains or tragic psychological mistakes.  My images of gay representation in that era are dominated by the failed primetime soap Executive Suite, in which a woman confesses to her best friend that she's in love with her (at the time, one "confessed" to homosexuality, because it was still a crime in many states), then runs into the street only to be hit and killed by a garbage truck. The fact that the tortured lesbian was the incandescent Geraldine Brooks and the object of her affection Patricia Smith, a good character actress but hardly the type to whom one would write sonnets, just made it even more ridiculous. At least there are no garbage trucks in The Gay Deceivers.
What there is, however, is an illogical plot in which a rich, white law student (Kevin Coughlin) whose family could easily have bought him out of the draft gets his childhood buddy (Lawrence P. Casey), a lifeguard and gigolo (the straight kind, so it's OK) to pose as his lover so they'll be classified 4F. When they think the recruiting officer (Jack Starrett) is spying on them, they move into the gay complex while trying to keep Coughlin's family and girlfriend from learning about the ruse. It should be the set-up for a door-slamming farce, but their labored efforts to keep up the pose without sacrificing their love lives aren't exactly funny.
What is funny, however, is the complex and its residents. Michael Greer was already out and proud when he made his film debut as their landlord, Malcolm. Director Bruce Kessler, who apparently was committed to making a good movie, gave Greer his head, resulting in a more positive depiction of homosexuality than was originally in the script. Unfortunately, that only applies to Malcolm's scenes. When he's not on-screen, there are still some painful lines about gay people being child molesters, and Coughlin's and, particularly, Casey's stereotyped attempts to pass as gay. Yet there's also a powerful scene near the end, when Coughlin's father finds out about the ruse and tells him about the real-world consequences of his behavior, particularly should he become a lawyer. This all tends to give the film something of a split personality as it mocks homosexuality in some scenes, celebrates it in others and seriously acknowledges the consequences of anti-gay bigotry.
None of that seems to matter when Greer is on-screen, however. His relationship with his partner (Sebastian Brook) is the most mature, positive pairing in the film (certainly better than Coughlin's stock parents — stern father and ditzy mother — or his relationship with his judgmental girlfriend, a role that forces the talented Brooke Bundy to function as resident turd in the punchbowl). One scene Greer added, in which he fixes breakfast for the new tenants, is a comic delight. As the radio plays an arrangement of the "Habanera" from Carmen, he dances around the kitchen, at one point even putting a rose between his teeth. It's the kind of thing that would be insufferably over-the-top in the hands of a less-accomplished actor, but Greer's movement is so controlled and, at times, even graceful, he pulls it off. The script requires not one, but both of the straight boys to look in at different times and mug to the camera to register that they can't believe what he's doing. In the theatre, that's what we call "milking the cat." Frankly, the young men would be better advised to study his performance as a lesson in how to play farce.
They'd also be well-advised to study Christopher Riordan's work as Duane, the resident hottie. Riordan doesn't have a lot to do, which is a pity. He's an experienced dancer who knows how to make every movement count, and he's smart enough to know how people behave. When he first shows up, he delivers the "cruise of death" to the two guys with skill and precision. During the costume party scene, the camera keeps cutting to him for good reason. Not only does he look terrific (he's done up in hippie garb, and let's just say, his beads are very well supported), but he also drops his pithy observations on what's going on with all the skill of a young Eve Arden.
The Gay Deceivers did surprisingly well at the box office, which historian Richard Barrios credits to Greer's performance. He should have had a great career, but after playing Queenie in the overwrought film version of Fortune and Men's Eyes (1971), he was so typed in gay roles he found it hard to get film work (he wasn't the only one typed; Coughlin, who wasn't a bad actor, had trouble finding work after The Gay Deceivers). It's too bad the screen hadn't progressed enough to star Greer in a series of films as the landlord, with Riordan more prominently featured. Imagine how much fun that might have been.

Alexander Bracq shot through shadows in Seeing Heaven, an image as cloudy as the rest of the film

At the start of Ian Powell's Seeing Heaven (2010) we learn three things about the romantic young hustler Paul (Alexander Bracq): he's the most beautiful man porn director Baxter (Lee Chapman) has ever seen; he's trying to find his long-lost twin brother, also an escort; and whenever he has sex, he has visions of his brother, so he agrees to star in Baxter's newest film hoping all that sex will lead him to the man. Therein lie most of the film's problems.
Calling somebody "the most" anything in a visual medium, is generally not a good idea. There's a reason Alfred Hitchcock never showed the audience the first Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca (1940). Nothing could live up to her description. It's not that Bracq is unattractive. It's just hard to buy him as the most beautiful man anybody has ever seen. Hell, Chapman is lots hotter. Does the man never look in the mirror?
As for Paul's wanting to find his twin: Bracq, most of whose credits are for stunt work rather than acting, is such a weak actor it's hard to believe his wanting anything. Playing objectives seems to be somewhere outside his wheelhouse.
The idea of having visions during sex might work for a soft-core thriller. But Powell's script also has Paul experiencing visions while he sleeps, when he looks at art and when he watches other people have sex. So, why does he need to star in a porn film to find his brother. It would seem a nice trip to a museum would do the trick.
I guess that would mean cutting the videos of him shooting the porn film. They're not that hot, certainly not as much fun as the porn scenes in King Cobra. Here, it really is like finding gay Skinemax among your cable channels. Frequently after a torrid love scene, the two guys get out of bed wearing underwear, which isn't a physical impossibility, but I mean, why bother.
If the whole thing moved more quickly, the ludicrous plotting might work on at least a camp level. You could laugh at it and make wisecracks in between the lines. But this thing is so slow, you begin to think you could play Mourning Becomes Electra during the pauses.
It's also bristling with self-importance. It's not just the moody scenes of people staring at each other or even the morose Baxter chain-smoking through his own sexual encounters (and never at any other time). Baxter's dream is to make one more porn film so he can finance the serious script he's written, which would cast Paul as the most beautiful man in the world. At the film's end, after a bunch of strained revelations, including another producer's plot to drug Paul into doing bareback scenes, Baxter decides his more serious film is just another way of objectifying the young man, so he throws his script from the balcony of his apartment…one page at a time…in slow motion. It already seems hypocritical for the film to want us to feel guilty about watching the sex scenes.  Since they're really not all that hot, it ultimately seems like the height of self-deception.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Looking Back: While the City Sleeps

Loving old movies can create some moral conflicts for those of us struggling with generations of white male privilege. Let's face it: some classics seem positively antediluvian in light of contemporary advances in human rights. I may have been thrilled by Gone With the Wind (1939) when I first saw it as a teenager (and it's still something of a technical wonder), but the aging progressive in me is as appalled at its glorification of racism and rape as the theatre artist is embarrassed at Vivien Leigh's dated performance (yes, it's dated and now seems phony, and somebody had to say it). I'm moved by the butterfly-coming-out-of-its cocoon story and the mother-daughter conflict in Now, Voyager (1942) but can't get over the feeling that Bette Davis' Charlotte Vale could do a lot better than Paul Henreid's spineless Jerry, both romantically and artistically. One remedy for this, of course, is to search for signs of enlightenment in unlikely places — the unconscious feminism of the working women movies of the 1930s, the rare depictions of African-Americans as dimensional human beings in films like Alice Adams (1935) and In This Our Life (1942) and the coded commentary on sexual repression in pictures like Cat People (1942) or Rebecca (1940), for example. For the rest, we sometimes tie ourselves into ideological pretzels trying to justify our enjoyment of films that seem to be designed to perpetuate antiquated power structures.

The women of While the City Sleeps: Rhonda Fleming, Sally Forrest and Ida Lupino, the bad, the good and the in-between.

  Fritz Lang's next-to-last U.S. film, While the City Sleeps (1956), combines a 1950s view of sexual politics and women's roles with Lang's heady combination of cynicism and humanism. The picture is a strange study for fans of his work. While the script he co-wrote (without credit) with Casey Robinson echoes two of his major themes (the pervasiveness of corruption and the devastating consequences of compulsive behavior), because of its low budget it doesn't have the look of most of his other films. There's little of the high-contrast lighting that dominates film noirs like The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954) or proto-noirs like his best film, M (1931). Nor does it put you into the disturbed mind of a character like Rotwang in Metropolis (1927), Hans Beckert in M or even Lee Marvin's Vince Stone in The Big Heat. The only brief peek into the thinking of the serial killer played by John Drew Barrymore (billed as John Barrymore, Jr. at the time) is the opening sequence.
That opener is one of the film's most effective scenes, suggesting another Langian theme, the inevitability of fate. Barrymore, clad entirely in black leather (this was two years after Marlon Brando made the look both sexy and threatening in The Wild One), delivers a package to the apartment of a young woman we don't see at first. We only hear her as the janitor (Vladimir Sokoloff) accepts the delivery. When Sokoloff leaves, Barrymore returns, claiming to have delivered the wrong package. As the woman turns to check her delivery, there are a few quick cuts following Barrymore's line of vision as he notices the door has a pushbutton lock and fixes it so he can slip in later. The camera then follows the woman as she fills the bathtub. We hear the door open. She turns and screams, caught in the web of fate we've seen woven around her.  Without changing shots, Lang has transformed the omniscient camera into the killer's point of view. It's an unsettling effect, in a film full of destabilizing moments.
The film's focus isn't on the killer, however, but rather on the staff of Kyne, Inc., a major news organization covering the case. Early on the CEO (Robert Warwick) dies, leaving the company to his playboy son (Vincent Price). Price spent most of the '40s and '50s on the brink of stardom, with solid supporting performances in A movies and starring roles in B pictures (this film is sort of a B+, packaged for United Artists, but released through RKO years after it was a major studio). In his first scene, as he prepares to meet with the heads of the company's major divisions, Price plays layers within layers. His Walter Kyne is dealing with paternal rejection, feelings of inadequacy over not knowing the business, a grudging respect for some of the department heads, contempt for others and admiration for his best friend, "Honest" Harry Kritzer (James Craig), the head of the photo service. Freed from the responsibilities of playing the romantic lead, Price can project the character's immaturity and even a feminine side that makes Walter one of the picture's most compelling characters.
Walter decides he needs to create a management position to run things for him. In a childlike move, he makes the men compete for the job. It will go to the person who finds out who the serial killer is. It's a fascinating contrast to M, in which the serial killer is hunted down at the command of a powerful and very capable crime lord because the police hunt for the psychopath is interfering with business. Here the hunt is spearheaded by a boy man appealing to the greed and ambition of his underlings — a parting shot at American culture before Lang's return to Europe, perhaps.
The competition is the device that brings the women into the plot. Since the picture was made in the 1950s, it's not surprising that there are no women up for the job. Instead, each of the three men tries to use one of the top-billed female characters to win.
"Honest" Harry doesn't really care about finding the killer. He's having an affair with Walter's wife, Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming), and wants to use the connection to advance his case. Fleming — who usually played heroines, most notably in Technicolor films that took advantage of her red hair — is the complete trophy wife. She's got Price wrapped and wants to get Craig the job so she'll be in control of both men at the top. Lang doesn't have time to create a lengthy backstory to motivate this. His world is simpler, more brutal than that. Dorothy is a woman whose sole asset is her beauty. She trades on being something men want to possess, and becoming the quiet power behind the scenes at Kyne is her way of making the two men in her life pay for the privilege. At times, her husband doesn't even seem to care about her. In one scene, she works out in a leotard while he ignores her to practice his golf swing. When Harry calls to ask for an afternoon assignation, she has no trouble fobbing her husband off with a transparent lie so she can meet her lover. Fleming plays all this with great relish, as if it were a relief to cross over to the wrong side of the moral compass for a change.
The newspaper's editor, Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), is older and has a wife at home who's barely seen. But he enlists the TV network's chief news commentator, Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), for help. Mobley has a pretty young fiancée, Nancy (Sally Forrest), who also works at Kyne, as a secretary of course. Though she's accepted Mobley's proposal, she's made it clear that she doesn't intend to hop into bed until they're married. In fact, the proposal comes at the end of a prolonged courtship scene in which Mobley tries to get her into bed with no luck. So of course they set her up as bait for the killer. It's as if the woman Mobley loves has to be punished for her independence, which offers an interesting parallel to the killer's victims, who also live alone, suggesting a self-reliance that's a threat to the mother-fixated psychopath.
Although Nancy can hold her own in banter with the men working at the paper, she's still clearly a sex object. Her boss (George Sanders) thinks nothing of invading her personal space while they're working, and Mobley is constantly calling her for a little sexual banter while he watches her through the glass walls at the office (the open office space at Kyne is one of the film's more unsettling elements; everybody is always on display, always being watched and judged). It doesn't help that Forrest is the weakest of the film's three leading ladies. She had done some strong work under Ida Lupino's mentorship in films like Not Wanted (1949) and Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), but in this picture she's a little too arch. Her attempts at witty badinage with Andrews fall flat and rob the character of what little power she has.
In the moral world of Lang, Forrest is the almost totally good woman, which makes her dispensable (like Glen Ford's poor wife in The Big Heat), and Fleming is the bad woman who must be punished (like the judge's wife in the same film). But Lang also depicts another type of woman, the good-bad woman, someone who's morally suspect yet ends up doing the right thing. That's not necessarily a guarantee of survival. Characters like Joan Bennett's in Man Hunt (1941) and Gloria Grahame's in The Big Sleep may be valorized in their pictures, but they don't make it to the final credits alive.
The good-bad woman here is Lupino, as Mildred Donner, the paper's sole female journalist. Mildred does nothing to hide the secret of her success. She parades around the newsroom in a mink coat everybody knows she didn't buy for herself. In the competition for the management job, she works with her current mentor, Mark Loving (Sanders), who runs the company's wire service. Loving may be an oily chauvinist, a role Sanders played perfectly in dozens of films, but he's not about to risk losing Mildred to the killer. Instead, he enlists her to spy on and distract Mobley.
Lupino was pretty independent on her own. After putting in time as an ingénue, mostly at Paramount Pictures, she struck out for meatier roles with an intense performance as a cockney slattern in William A Wellman's The Light That Failed (1939). It was the kind of breakout role that had established Bette Davis as a major dramatic actress in Of Human Bondage (1934), which led to Lupino's being signed by Davis' studio, Warner Bros. There she delivered a series of fine, neglected performances, often in films turned down by Davis (all of the studios kept actors on hand as threats to their major stars). After seven years of that, Lupino went independent, even setting up a production company with then-husband William Dozier. There she stumbled into directing, taking over when the director of their first film, 1949's Not Wanted, had a heart attack and couldn't finish the film.
At the time she started directing, Lupino was the only woman in the Director's Guild. Her work is a fascinating combination of toughness and subtlety, characteristics of her work as an actress. In addition, she pioneered in dealing with social issues like illegitimate pregnancy (Not Wanted) and rape (1950's Outrage). Her low-budget films made money, but in the era when television was rapidly replacing low-budget filmmaking, she naturally moved into television, where she proved a major asset to series like Have Gun Will Travel and Thriller.
She also kept acting, thank God. Like Price, she seems to have fun bringing layers to her character. When Mildred sets out to seduce Mobley, she plays a combination of opportunism, lust and loneliness that makes the scene more fun than Andrews' more conventional love scenes with Forrest. The two have the easy rapport of pros at the top of their game, and you may wish he'd dump his treacly girlfriend for the woman with more of an edge. They just seem like a perfect pair.
By the film's end, Lang has given each of his leading ladies the fate he seems to think they deserve. Although Andrews has set Barrymore up to stalk Forrest, she manages to elude him and ends up marrying Andrews, who's assured of a bright future at the paper. Fleming's character is punished. First, she's attacked by Barrymore (in one of those coincidences that only exist in the movies, her love nest with Craig is across the hall from Nancy's apartment, and when Barrymore can't get at Forrest, he goes after Fleming). Nancy saves her from that (she may be boring, but she can muster up pluck when needed). But that ultimately exposes the affair and leads to her being cuckqueaned (that's the female form of "cuckold"; look it up on Wikipedia). When Mobley and Day learn Forrest has saved a potential victim, they send Mildred to interview her, and Mildred recognizes Dorothy as the boss's wife. She uses that info to maneuvers herself into a position as Walter's personal assistant and, it's implied, his mistress as well. Mildred has graduated from reporting the news to helping run the news service and from minks to just about anything she wants.
In 1950s terms, that's a victory (and certainly better than the fates of most of Lang's good-bad women). By contemporary standards, of course, it all seems a little sour. Mildred is too good at what she does to have to put out for the boss to get ahead. But then, the whole film, even down to the happy endings, has a certain smarminess. Maybe that's intentional. Lang seems to be drawing parallels between the killer's compulsions and the compulsions of the men at Kyne. He may be driven to kill, but these guys never met a drink they couldn't turn down. And their competitiveness sometimes seems as unhinged as his violence. They also seem to share his misogyny, which in his case is painted as a sign of arrested emotional development.
When first we see Barrymore, he looks great in his leather outfit, and he moves with a dancer's ease. When the film picks him up again, watching an on-air editorial in which Andrews baits him, Barrymore has to act…with lines…which turns out not to be such a good idea. His mother (silent great Mae Marsh) comes in and starts giving him a hard time. The contrast in their acting styles reinforces the meanings. Marsh had become a star working for D.W. Griffith. With sound, she moved into supporting roles, becoming a member of John Ford's unofficial stock company. She clearly knows her way around a role and plays the concerned mother with quiet dignity. Meanwhile, Barrymore tries to act all over the place. He doesn't stand a chance. The killings aren't just a psychosexual attack on his mother' they're a form of artistic revenge because mommy can out-act him so easily.
He's hardly the only man motivated by his hatred of women. Day and Mobley's manipulation of Sally, Loving's pimping out Mildred and Walter's casual neglect of Dorothy all reflect the same basic hostility toward women. Is Lang reporting this, supporting it or condemning it? It's always hard to tell when we bring our own contemporary values to older films.  Lang is such a masterful filmmaker we'd like to place him on the side of the 2018 angels in all things. Certainly his social conscience — which led him to tackle topics like the exploitation of labor, lynching, capital punishment and political corruption — suggests an awareness of basic human rights. But that has to be placed within the context of his period, when the patriarchy and white primacy seemed the natural order.
As an artist of some considerable accomplishment, however, his work eschews any two-dimensional parroting of the dominant paradigms of his day. He gravitates toward fully developed characters, which creates the greater potential for their being interpreted through a variety of lenses. A director who could humanize the child killer in M and, in his final moments, even lend him a degree of sympathy, isn't going to fill his movies with cookie-cutter characters of either gender. Although his most virtuous women tend to seem a bit underdeveloped (like the morality that shaped them?), his aptitude for presenting flawed, very human women in search of a moral compass seems almost revolutionary compared to the depictions of women in other works of his era.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Rediscovered Gems: War Requiem

The faces of War Requiem: Nathaniel Parker, Sean Bean and the incomparable Tilda Swinton

I'm currently preparing to direct a production of Stephen MacDonald's Not About Heroes, a moving play about the friendship of British poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen during World War I. Doing a play like that at this point in history has become an emotional challenge for me. The play speaks to my own pacifism, my long-standing belief that humanity needs a massive reframing of its views on violence. At the same time, I feel caught in a political landscape that fills me with anger every day. It's easy to seduce yourself with images of Trump, his political enablers and his cultish supporters writhing in agony. There are times his behavior makes me wish hell existed, though I realize that's the same kind of thinking that leads fundamentalists to threaten hellfire and damnation for everything from same-sex love to wearing yoga pants in public.
After a fulfilling day of auditions to find the perfect actors for the two roles, I was in a very vulnerable state when I decided it was time for a reviewing of Derek Jarman's War Requiem, his 1989 tribute to Benjamin Britten's monumental work and Owen, whose too short life inspired Britten's composition. I had watched the film years earlier and found its imagery compelling but a little beyond my frame of reference. I was fairly new to Jarman's work at the time (I think I'd only seen his 1986 Caravaggio) and didn't know much about Owen beyond the fact that he had been killed in World War I. Watching it again years later from a more informed space, I was deeply moved. I now consider the film and Tilda Swinton's performance among the screen's greatest accomplishments.
In his Washington Post review of the film on its 1990 U.S. debut, Joseph McLellan called it "the first music video that must be taken seriously." (Quick note: I only heard of this evaluation in podcaster Alonso Duarde's informative introduction to the picture on Filmstruck—just giving credit where it's due). That evaluation seems a bit reductive both of music videos and Jarman's film. There were some pretty damned good music videos before 1989, including Jarman's own work for Marianne Faithful and The Smiths, not to mention innovative work from other filmmakers for artists like ABC, Devo, Cyndi Lauper and Bonnie Tyler. I would suggest that even lighthearted videos like ABC's "The Look of Love" and Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" are well worth serious consideration. These videos transcend the commercial end of the form, the sale of music.
In addition, McLellan's assessment reduces the film to the level of marketing tool. It seems to suggest that 26 years after Britten's premiere recording of War Requiem, Jarman suddenly felt the need make a promotional video to increase the recording's sales.
Rather, War Requiem is a fascinating confluence of three artists — composer, poet and filmmaker — to create a wholly new work of art. To obtain the rights to the 1963 recording, Jarman had to agree to present it complete and with nothing else on the soundtrack during the performance. That's a blessing to music lovers who may have cringed at what MGM did to the ballet in An American in Paris (1951) or the cuts Woody Allen took in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" at the start of Manhattan (1979). All Jarman adds are a bell ringing at beginning and end and a recording of Laurence Olivier's reading from Owen's "Strange Meeting" before the music starts. The images he plays against the music, however, carry the film beyond a mere recording of an admittedly fine composition.
Jarman visualizes the music in three ways. Some sequences are played against montages of newsreel footage from World War I, with images from World War II, Korea and Vietnam added for the "Libera Me" (the images of wounded soldiers may be too intense for some). Using Nathaniel Parker, in his film debut, as Owen, Owen Teale as The Unknown Soldier, Swinton as a nurse and Sean Bean as a German soldier, Jarman also creates his own images related to the war, jumping through time and space to show Owen in the trenches with his men, children celebrating Christmas, Owen with his mother and Swinton grieving over his dead body, among many other visuals. Finally, the second half of the "Requiem Aeternam," the "Libera Me" and the "Offertorium" play against short wartime stories, the only clear narratives in the film. The first shows men going through the initial stages of training, with Parker and Teale becoming friends. The second depicts a brief moment of détente between Teale and Bean, enemy combatants, disrupted when Parker fires at Bean. The third plays out the story of Abraham and Isaac as depicted in Owen's "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young," in which the poet changes the ending to have Abraham defy God to sacrifice his son "and half the seed of Europe one by one."
For the actors, this seems like a return to silent cinema. The "Offertorium" is the only section, however, to present the stereotyped image of silent acting as an exercise in scenery chewing. That seems natural, as the segment is an extended allegory, painted in broad strokes.  Even there, Parker, whose Owen takes the Isaac role, maintains his more naturalistic style from the rest of the film. Nigel Terry, who had played the title role in Caravaggio, is the leering, bloodthirsty priest, performing for an audience of lecherous, gluttonous one-percenters. Their gleeful overacting is jarring, but it's meant to be. Positioned as Owen's fantasy as he writes the poem and reads a Bible (that, in a typical surrealistic touch for Jarman, is overgrown with grass), the embroidered acting style is quite logical within the world of the film.
For the rest, the actors perform silently and simply, often matching their movements to the music's rhythms. That hardly stifles them, but rather seems to liberate depths of emotion tied into the music. Swinton, in particular, is a marvel to behold. In the "Requiem Aeternam," she mourns over Owen's dead body with an impressive physical commitment. When she puts her fingers over her eyes, you may be afraid she's about to pluck them out. The "Sanctus" plays over an extended medium close-up of her braiding her hair (Is this a reference to a section of "Strange Meeting" Britten did not use in the Requiem?). As the music swells, she transitions into laughter and then intense grief, gradually moving her arms and hair to the music in an extended dance of the emotions. It's a devastating sequence and one of the most amazing bits of acting I've seen on film.
As the images fly by, it's hard not to notice reflections of other visionary directors — Murnau, Dryer, Kurosawa and Vigo come immediately to mind. But I think a good deal of the film's aesthetic has a more theatrical basis. You may find yourself frustrated that the classical diction of tenor Sir Peter Pears and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who sing the settings of Owen's poems, can be impenetrable at times. And Olivier's reading of "Strange Meeting" is the kind of plummy overplayed verse that makes my teeth heart. It's more about caressing each consonant than communicating meaning. But that, too ties into the film's artistic goals.
This combination of images, eschewal of an over-arching narrative and devaluing of language, for me, are a reflection of Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. Inspired by a performance of Balinese dance he saw in 1931, Artaud advocated for a theatre of visual and aural images that bypassed language and logic, which to him seemed to be dominating the French theatre of his era, to affect audiences on a visceral level. This penetration to the viewers' psyche is the cruelty in Theatre of Cruelty (though many have associated it simply with the imagery, mainly because Artaud's primary examples were production plans for pieces that would have dwelt on human savagery).
Ultimately, I think this is what Jarman is doing in War Requiem. As the images build, there's no sense in trying to tie them all together. You simply have to let them wash over you, accepting the bits of narrative he supplies while opening yourself to the effects of the imagery. When he ends the archival footage in the "Libera Me" with shots of mushroom clouds, I found my brain trying to reject the image as trite and overused even as the rest of my body was breaking out in goose flesh. At that point, logical thought simply didn't matter.
The fragments of language that you can make out from Owen's poems add to the overall effect. Artaud valued language only for its aural aspects, though you can make a case for the cultural associations from words and phrases playing a role as well, with the power of those associations heightened by their being divorced from any extended syntax. The opening line of Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth," "What passing bells for those who die as cattle?" comes through clearly in the opening movement as young men race into position for wartime training. "Bugles sang" from "But I Was Looking at the Permanent Stars" counterpoints the suffering of the men in the trenches during the second part of the "Dies Irae."
The fragmented words achieve their greatest power in the final scene, the end of the "Libera Me." There's a visual reconciliation between The Unknown Soldier and the German soldier who had killed him. Teale poses as Christ in a re-creation of Piero Della Francesca's "The Resurrection" as Bean approaches him with a basket of poppies. This plays against a setting for tenor and baritone of Owen's "Strange Meeting," but the only really clear line is "Let us sleep now." It's a lovely moment that balances but hardly eradicates the violent images that have preceded it, the end of a symphony of images and sounds that shows Jarman's filmmaking at its best. And it represents a powerful humanistic message, as Jarman moves his imagery from desolation and violence to reconciliation, from war to its opposite.

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If you want to read more about War Requiem, I heartily recommend Jim Clark's blog entry on it at Jim's Reviews - Jarman's War Requiem. I discovered the page trying to identify the painting of the resurrection Jarman copies at the end of the film and found Clark's insights fascinating. It's also a valuable research tool, as he includes information on Owen and Britten and an annotated text of Britten's piece. He even includes the full versions of poems Britten only excerpted.

They Had Faces

Bette Davis works more than just her eyes in The Star (1952), creating a powerfully human portrait of an actress unable to deal with g...