Thursday, January 29, 2015


In its 19th edition, Berlin & Beyond (B&B) returns to the Castro Theatre, San Francisco's historic movie palace, from Thursday, January 29, 2015 through Sunday, February 1, 2015, before shifting to its alternate venues the Goethe-Institut Auditorium, Palo Alto's Aquarius Theatre, and Berkeley's California Theatre. On display across its four venues are new films from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, including 16 features, 5 documentaries, and a program of shorts.

Stereo (Dir. Maximilian Erlenwein, 2014)—Berlin & Beyond's Lufthansa-sponsored opening night attraction is the U.S. premiere of Uwe Janson's To Life! (Auf Das Leben!, 2014) with lead actress Hannelore Elsner present to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, and a party to follow at Tank18; but, my tastes prefer the West Coast premiere of Maximilian Erlenwein's sophomore feature Stereo, an official selection of the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival Panorama, notable for pairing two of Germany's strongest actors Jürgen Vogel (The Wave, 2008) and Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run, 1998) as hunky greasemonkey Erik and his hooded shadow Henry.

Stereo had its North American premiere at Fantasia and was the opening night entry at the 18th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan). Twitch editor Todd Brown posed: "Is director Maximilian Erlenwein aiming for a career as the German David Fincher? Dark moody visuals, a throbbing soundtrack, cold and clinical violence ... has more than a few points of contact with Fincher's signature style." At The Hollywood Reporter, Boyd van Hoeij likewise lauded the film's "eye-catching, roving camerawork and electro-infused soundtrack", even as he had some issues with the film's complicated narrative reach.

This muscular thriller adds psycho-supernatural elements to rev up an already testosterone-charged narrative about an unassuming garage mechanic Erik (Vogel) who begins receiving unsolicited cautionary advice from a hallucinated hooded figure named Henry (Bleibtreu). Who is Henry? Why is he trying to warn Erik? What is being revealed as Erik's psyche begins to crack open? How will it affect Erik's life when Henry tells him point blank, "You are the bad guy." Toss in a psychic acupuncturist and a whore house called Heaven and Stereo delivers its genre chops with considerable action and style. Erik is one acupuncture needle away from violent mayhem.

The King's Surrender / Wir Waren Könige (Dir. Philipp Leinemann, 2014)—Ronald Zehrfeld is being fêted with B&B's first-ever Spotlight Award in Acting, and the festival is screening three of his films: Inbetween Worlds, The King's Surrender, and Phoenix. I first noticed him as the handsome male lead across Nina Hoss in Christian Petzold's Barbara (2012) and recently saw his performance in Germany's Oscar® submission Beloved Sisters (2014), directed by Dominik Graf. Both Zehrfeld and director Leinemann will be in attendance for the West Coast premiere of The King's Surrender, which won the Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2014 Austin Film Festival, and in which Zehrfeld embodies the conscience of a special forces police officer caught between corrupt colleagues and volatile street gangs. What kicks off as macho camaraderie transforms into a study of compromised loyalties to longstanding friendships. The film also feels keenly relevant with recent concerns over police militarization at odds with a criminalized citizenry, where unrestrained force is the default means to an end. Consequential poignance is added by the desperate needs of a young immigrant boy to find his place in a new country. Boyd van Hoeij's bottom line at The Hollywood Reporter: "A superior, sprawling cops-and-crooks saga." The film's final photographic still is chilling.

The Dark Valley / Das Finstere Tal (Dir. Andreas Prochaska, 2014)—By now it should be clear that I love my genre, and thus I was quite pleased with this late show western added to B&B's line-up. Austria's entry to the 2015 Academy Awards® for Best Foreign Language Film and seven-time winner at the 2014 German Film Awards, The Dark Valley stages an intense stand-off between a lone rider and a corrupt patriarch and his sons who have a high mountain village under siege. Perversity darkens the valley and revenge proves to be remedy. Excellently paced with stunning alpine photography by Thomas W. Kiennast and a commanding central performance by British actor Sam Reily as the Pale Rider Greider.

Exit Marrakech (Dir. Caroline Link, 2013)—As its Centerpiece presentation, B&B offers the charming and thoughtful coming-of-age / road trip film Exit Marrakech, with lead actor Samuel Schneider in a charismatic breakout performance. When 17-year-old Ben (Schneider) discovers he will be joining his estranged father (Ulrich Tukur, The Lives of Others) in Marrakech during his Summer vacation, he chafes at the bit and acts out, refusing to participate in what he perceives to be his father's neocolonialist theatrical tour and opting instead to pursue authentic picaresque adventures in the deserts of Morocco. Among the friends he meets on the street, including a lovely young prostitute Karima (Hafsia Herzi, The Secret of the Grain) with whom he becomes infatuated, Ben will discover a friendship long belated that he never anticipated. Cinematographer Bella Halben captures the spare beauty of the Moroccan countryside and its archaic architecture, providing a vast backdrop to an intimate tale of reconciliation. Schneider will be in attendance to add value to the festival screening.

Amour Fou (Dir. Jessica Hausner, 2014)—The true stars in this formal and stately period piece based on the 1811 suicide pact between Heinrich von Kleist and Henrietta Vogel is cinematographer Martin Gschlacht's studied and painterly compositions, Katharina Wöppermann's production design, Boris Bartholomäus' art direction, and Tanja Hausner's costume design. An official selection in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, Amour Fou's West Coast premiere moves slowly and surely towards its fated end and keeps the eye distracted the whole time with a color palette that contrasts a governing green with magenta, pink and red accents. Amour Fou reveals romanticism as a peculiar and deadly neurosis.

Unlikely Heroes / Schweizer Helden (Dir. Peter Luisi, 2014)—I can recommend the Northern California premiere of Peter Luisi's Unlikely Heroes, even as I remain a bit conflicted at how narrowly it skirts the edges of both poignance and cliché. Perhaps it's safe to call it a poignant cliché that will, undoubtedly, please audiences with its good intentions (it won the Audience Award at Locarno) even though it problematically presents a white protagonist as the savior of a group of infantile-like asylum-seeking refugees. It redeems itself by naming the elephant in the room, such that its denouement achieves effect as Switzerland's national and cultural legend of William Tell is given an ethnicized reenactment. I have to respect what it achieved even though I felt a bit uncomfortable getting there.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

NOIR CITY 13—Half-Time Roundtable

Welcome to a gentle back-and-forth about the movies that have played at Noir City 13 (NC13), the Film Noir Foundation's annual film fest, now at its midpoint at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. My thanks for contributions from Meredith Brody, David Robson, and Brian Darr.

Opening Night (January 16, 2015)
Woman on the Run (Dir. Norman Foster, 1950)
Born to be Bad (Dir. Nicholas Ray, 1950)

Meredith Brody writes in her IndieWire preview: "This year's theme, for lucky Noir City 13: the bonds of matrimony, or, as Eddie intoned: 'Engagement ring, wedding ring, suffering.' …Friday night's thrilling, rather over-the-top sold-out opening night in the 1400-seat Castro Theatre. A glorious new 35mm print of the San Francisco-set Woman on the Run (1950), restored by the Film Noir Foundation in conjunction with the UCLA Film & Television Archive (largely financed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Charitable Trust), debuted, followed by an archival 35mm print of the also San Francisco-set Born to be Bad (1950).

"The always-exquisitely-produced Noir City evening also featured a quick-cut noir montage by Muller protege Serena Bramble, a delightful video from Reel SF comparing the actual shooting locations for Woman on the Run (gasp! some were shot in Los Angeles!) with how those locations look today, and, after Born to be Bad, a screening of its alternate, rather more sly ending shown outside the United States.

"And, mysteriously, the ever-increasingly theatrical Eddie Muller, clad in what he was quick to point out, earlier, was his own dinner jacket, crawled onstage during the intermission, bound and gagged, presumably by his two glamorous peignoir-clad Miss Noir City colleagues, dark-haired Evie Lovelle and redheaded Audra Wolfmann. I was so flummoxed by the sight that I don't remember the storyline behind the skit."

Brian Darr: "The exuberant laughter filling the theatre during the opening night selections Woman On The Run and Born To Be Bad, both of which I'd previously seen only on home video, put these films in a new light. I realized that Woman On The Run fits snugly into the same category as John Huston's The Maltese Falcon: a mystery anchored by a quintessentially San Francisco protagonist who relies as much on her wit as on her wits. Ann Sheridan's nonchalant readings of lines like "the dog is our only mutual friend" is as intentionally disarming to the detectives grilling her character about her missing husband, as it is to those of us holding onto our seats, waiting to find out what will happen next, and being surprised by her emotional transformation over the course of the picture. And Born To Be Bad, though skillful (and surprisingly relevant) in its noir-ish depiction of the personal dangers created by a society's resistance to class mobility, is best appreciated as a feature-length verbal spar along the lines of All About Eve. One wonders how much better it would be remembered if the airstrip scene in its denouement, obviously tacked on by producer Howard Hughes while director Nicholas Ray was nowhere near the camera, wasn't present to pollute the film's final impressions. This unfortunate scene was even included in the alternate ending digitally presented by the festival (and available on the Warner Archive DVD) after the archival 35mm print finished projecting. If the audience's laughter at this scene had a derisive component, it was well deserved."

Along with his contribution to this round table, Brian Darr has likewise written up Woman on the Run from variant angles, first for his Keyframe preview of the festival for Fandor, and then at his own site Hell on Frisco Bay.

Michael Guillén: I have to agree with Eddie Muller that Serena Bramble's talent for editing and mixing improves with each effort. Her cinematic overture to NC13 tantalizingly mashes up Frank Sinatra's "Love and Marriage" with Al Green's "Love and Happiness" while snippeting images of unholy matrimony from the festival's slate of 25 films, all to satisfying effect. Muller emphasized that the poor quality of the clips from Woman on the Run in Bramble's overture was due to nothing better being available to Bramble at the time of editing; but now with the newly restored negative and print, the film is back to visual brilliance.

For those who stayed in their seats after Woman on the Run, NC13 offered a Reel SF video by Brian Rollins (aka "Citysleuth") comparing location shots used for the film, then and now. When it was revealed that L.A.'s Bunker Hill was used to stand in for San Francisco, the Castro erupted into a hissing den of snakes. Reel SF's gumshoe work can be studied in detail at his site. (Note to self: you have to interview this guy to find out how he goes about his research.)

Woman on the Run itself was first-rate entertainment and a triumphant 35mm restoration for the Film Noir Foundation. Ann Sheridan's world-weary wisecracking revealed the touch of co-screenwriter Alan Campbell, better known in Hollywood as "Mr. Dorothy Parker." The film's mid-point reveal amped up the suspense for the film's second half, which culminates at a simulated Playland on the Beach where Woman on the Run's tension literally becomes an exhilarating rollercoaster ride. Perhaps the main iconic signifier of Playland is Laughing Sal, who always reminds me of being a young gay boy in the disco era attending opening night at the I-Beam on Haight Street (October 1977) where Laughing Sal was hired for the night to laugh at the dancing throngs crisscrossed by laser lights. She now resides at San Francisco's Musee Mecanique at Fisherman's Wharf, still laughing and by no means retired.

Opening night at Noir City also ignites my continuing appreciation for the "extraneous" performers in these oft-overlooked films. As they say, just because you're on a diet doesn't mean you can't look at the menu and—as an aging gentleman who was quite a tomcat on the tiles in my youth—my only misbehavior these days lies in catching the eye of minor supporting actors celebrated in noir vehicles. Ross Elliott—who plays Sheridan's husband-on-the-lam—would be one of those. I've known Elliott from TV work, westerns, some sci-fi. Not the most handsome of actors, Elliot nonetheless looks good in Woman on the Run. Then again, a snap-brim fedora and a light-colored trench coat might make any guy look his best. At Movie Morlocks, Richard Harland Smith pays a snappy tribute to the actor.

As for Nicholas Ray's Born To be Bad, it was the first of a quartet of films at NC13 celebrating the career of Joan Fontaine. In the Ray vehicle she's more naughty than bad, as characterized by how effortlessly she can lift an eyebrow with the most insouciant of smiles; deliciously malicious but not—in my book, at least—dangerous. According to wordsmith Phil Cousineau "mischievous" comes from the same root as "achieve" and rose in popularity in the 14th century "to describe a malicious deed or a selfish accomplishment." You can't blame Fontaine's character Christabel Caine for using her wiles to manipulate men. The pleasure in watching this film is in knowing she's not as clever as she thinks she is and wondering how and when she'll get her comeuppance. It was lots of fun to view the film's original ending, which had been rejected by the Production Code office and only released in foreign markets. Pleasurable because it revealed that even comeuppance doesn't necessarily thwart incorrigibility.

Also appreciated Robert Ryan's brusque confidence in this film. Admired when he's wooing Christabel (Fontaine) and she compliments the view from the balcony, to which he quickly responds, "It's better with me in it."

Saturday (January 17, 2015)
Suspicion (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)
The Bigamist (Dir. Ida Lupino, 1953)
Ivy (Dir. Sam Wood, 1947)
The Suspect (Dir. Robert Siodmak, 1944)

I've already offered Frako Loden's capsule on The Bigamist, but David Robson notes as well: "The first piece I've seen at Noir City that felt like an ensemble theatre piece, with everyone seeming equally engaged in a full-bore analysis of the topic at hand. All of the performances are carefully considered, firmly committing to each character's choices without veering even once toward melodrama. Beautiful emphasis at climax on how the choices made will reverberate for the rest of the characters' lives, underscored by the ambiguous and devastating final freeze-frame. Naturally, the Noir City audiences laughed like it was a comedy. (Sidenote: Lupino's job at a Chinese restaurant induced strong visions of her in a full-color but no less gaudy Canton, shot by Christopher Doyle. Maybe in the next life.)"

Meredith Brody: "Sam Wood's Ivy, though beautifully mounted, was something of a disappointment—especially after seeing Joan Fontaine's considerably more witty and nuanced performance of a less-murderous femme fatale in Born to be Bad."

Michael Guillén: Shifting from mischievous to a murderous overachiever in Sam Wood's Ivy, Fontaine once again set her sights on dismantling her goody two-shoes persona with her characterization of the cool, calculating Ivy Lexton who poisons one man who loves her, while framing the next, all in pursuit of the wealth and prestige she prefers. Billed as an "Edwardian noir", Ivy was ripe with mannered details underscoring the pitfalls of social decorum and the challenges of social mobility. I have to concur with Meredith that—by aiming to be cold—Fontaine ends up flat by comparison to her role in Born to be Bad. Still, there was that one wry moment when she begins shopping for her funeral hat. One must look good even when they've been very very bad.

Similar manners set the stage for Robert Siodmak's The Suspect where Charles Laughton excels as a lonely tobacconist whose shrewish wife (Rosalind Ivin, also in Ivy) pushes him to the brink. Everyone I spoke to expected the plot to reveal an affair between Laughton's son and his young protégé Mary Gray (Ella Raines), but we were all surprised by a much deeper (and sadder) story of guilt and conscience. We expect criminals to be punished for their crimes; but, Laughton's performance in The Suspect harkens to Oscar Wilde's sage assertion that no good deed goes unpunished either. Laughton is the master of the reaction shot, even as Stanley C. Ridges as Inspector Huxley was a little too smug and know-it-all for my taste, anticipating plot developments through deductive announcements.

Sunday, January 18, 2015
Shockproof (Dir. Douglas Sirk, 1949)
Sleep, My Love (Dir. Douglas Sirk, 1948)

Meredith Brody: "Sunday offered two screenings each of Douglas Sirk's Shockproof (screenplay by Sam Fuller), starring the then-married-in-real-life Cornel Wilde and Patricia Knight, and his Sleep, My Love (independently produced by Mary Pickford), with Claudette Colbert tormented by Don Ameche (understandably distracted by the sexy Hazel Brooks), and rescued by Robert Cummings—a fabulous double bill."

David Robson: "And where the hell did that title come from? Cornel Wilde tears into the role of a crusading but lovelorn parole officer like a straighter, more pro-active Farley Granger, but in the end he's so swept up in his feelings for parolee Patricia Knight that he becomes weirdly disengaged—the look in his eyes in the third act is that of a man who's watching it all happen to himself, not believing he could have flown so far astray. There's the feeling of Sam Fuller's original sledgehammer script throughout, and even if the climax is watered down by re-writer Helen Deutsch, the final joke seals it all beautifully. Bonus: lovely Bradbury Building interiors."

And on Sleep, My Love, Robson notes: "If the repeated emphases on hypnotism and amnesia don't seal this movie's status as a horror noir, then look out the Courtlands' window at that bridge that appears to end somewhere inside their house. It looks and feels like a portal to some nightmare world, with Don Ameche a smooth but sinister troll living at its mouth. Very much Gaslight+, with Claudette Colbert straining to see through the veil toward some kind of truth, aided by handsome and kindly stranger Robert Cummings. A lengthy stop at a Chinese wedding introduces bridegroom Keye Luke, given a bit more virility and resourcefulness than he ever had as Number One Son—an ongoing franchise in which brothers Cummings and Luke continue to solve crimes could easily have been kicked off by this one."

Brian Darr: "I've been struck by audience reactions to the Noir City films I've attended this year. As many before me have commented, over the years fest-goers have built up a not-undeserved reputation for deflating moments of gravitas by letting out streams of collective laughter at lines of dialogue that may seem particularly dated, or delivered in an overwrought manner. It seems especially to occur for films following female characters, as many of this year's selections do. These reactions can be quite a shock for those who are far more used to watching 1940s and 50s films on DVD or on Turner Classic Movies than in the cinema spaces where they were originally designed to be showcased. Everyone has their own memory of a moment when an inexorable tragedy playing out on the Castro screen is jarringly accompanied by merry delight, sometimes to the point of seriously distracting from the mood its makers were trying to summon forth. However, the audience for this year's double-bill of Shockproof and Sleep, My Love was in fact the quietest I've ever experienced at a screening of Douglas Sirk films. From where I was seated (toward the rear of the orchestra) I heard no giggling, no running commentaries; this was a rapt theatre, silently thrilled to be taking in the next plot twist or striking angle of Patricia Knight or Claudette Colbert in the company of fellow fans."

Monday, January 19, 2015
The Thin Man (Dir. W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke)
After The Thin Man (Dir. W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke)

Meredith Brody: "Monday, Martin Luther King Day, offered two screenings each of The Thin Man and After the Thin Man, neither really noirs, but, as the excellent Noir City 13 program book allowed: 'In honor of this year's festival theme, NOIR CITY steps from its sinister shadows to pay tribute to the most marvelous (fictional) marriage in the history of the movies, the blithe and boozy union of Nick and Nora Charles.' (And here's where I part company with the fanatical 35mm print fanatics: both of these copies were worn and well-used, especially The Thin Man, which often jumped out of frame and was missing a bit of dialogue at a changeover or two. I would have preferred a glossy projected DVD.)"

David Robson: "Offered by Noir City as a palliative to the dark side of marriage explored throughout the series, the first two Thin Man movies spotlight Nick and Nora Charles, per Noir City 'the most marvelous marriage in the movies.' Like all successful married couples, Nick and Nora have both clearly married the coolest person they know, and it is a goddamn joy watching them banter and drink through high society, solving mysteries merrily as they go. The Film Noir Foundation are often at their best when booking 'not quite noir', and these two movies are so blithe and endearing, so engrossing and funny that I doubt anyone was splitting hairs over whether they truly qualified as noir."

At his site Hell on Frisco Bay, Brian Darr has particular fun contextualizing The Thin Man series from its Redbook origins to its tinseltown adaptations. "The Thin Man," he writes, "is one of those classic Hollywood movies that has little to no formal notability, but that stands out from the sea of studio-system potboilers by dint of character and tone." No one would argue that either The Thin Man or After The Thin Man are noir films, but Darr gives some very convincing reasons why they've most likely been selected for NC13's program.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Caught (Dir. Max Ophüls)
The Set-Up (Dir. Robert Wise)

David Robson on Caught: "God, just watch Max Ophüls move. His camera glides effortlessly through the scenes in this movie, not to show off his high style (Birdman this isn't) but to serve the story, to give the characters space to breathe, and grow. Strong drama of a romantic triangle, mining incredible power from the climactic meetup of all three; no punches are thrown, but Ophüls mines exquisite and suspenseful conflict just from his artful triangulation of the bodies of bel Geddes, Ryan, and Mason. Excellent detailing of secondary characters, too, with Curt Bois strong as another well-paid hanger-on of Ryan's (plucked, perhaps non-consensually, from a working class life—his relationship with Ryan could be another movie unto itself) and Frank Ferguson genial as a kindly, sorta wacky obstetrician going halfsies on a medical office with Mason. (And what a gorgeous scene as the camera pans back and forth across bel Geddes' empty desk, capturing a nuanced, respectful rapport between Mason and Ferguson; collegial, not too intimate, but with just the right hint of familiarity, even fondness.) Manages a weird feat of making its audience actively root for the death of an unborn child, which may be as black as noir gets."

Michael Guillén: I concur completely with David Robson as to the compelling choreography of Max Ophüls social mise en scène, particularly noted in the scene where Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) dances with Larry Quinada (James Mason). Not only is Mason admittedly not a very good dancer, but they are jostled about and bumped into by an enthusiastic crowd on the dance floor, which serves to heighten the privacy of their growing intimacy. The contrast of this romantic privacy within a public space rhymes with the visual loneliness rendered in scenes where Leonora is figured diminutively in the vast interiors of the Ohlrig mansion. Along with Woman on the Run, Caught surfaces as a major discovery at FN13 and I look forward to the opportunity to watch it again, though when I'll be able to see it in 35mm on a giant screen with such a rapt, appreciative audience will be anyone's guess.

As the second half of the evening's tribute to Robert Ryan, The Set-Up could be thought of as an early example of what has come to be known as "elevated genre." I'm not a big fan of boxing movies, but—as Eddie Muller offered—The Set-Up is like a boxing movie written by Albert Camus (though written by Art Cohn). It is relentlessly existential and the boxing ring and its environs stands in for a social temperament and a historical moment. Here, again, the film's rogues gallery of characters—the blind man "watching" the game, the fat man eating endless concessions, the wife who scares her husband with her rising blood thirst, the husband who excites his wife with his over-reactive mimicry—accentuate the value of minor characters to populate and flesh out a script.

The locker room was, likewise, filled with coruscating if brief performances. One can't help but wonder what the film might have been like if James Edwards—originally meant to play Stoker Thompson per Joseph Moncure March's poem (March became infuriated when his black character was replaced by a white actor)—had been given more rein than as the supporting character Luther Hawkins. Further, Darryl Hickman as Shanley never looked sleeker.

As for a project ostensibly shot in real time, The Set-Up kept reminding me of television's 24 and its digital timepiece to accentuate the conceit of the passage of real time. In Wise's film, he relied on an old-fashioned clock face to count down the minutes.

Brian Darr: During Tuesday's double-bill of Max Ophüls's Caught and Robert Wise's The Set-Up, I felt I actually observed the audience getting wiser. Though people again seemed for the most part rapt watching Barbara Bel Geddes's roller coaster of a ride into wealth and poverty and back again, they gave Robert Ryan such a resounding round of applause at his first screen appearance as the Hughes-inspired industrialist Smith Ohlrig, that the next line or so of dialogue was muffled inaudibly. When he first appeared as an apparently exhausted prizefighter in The Set-Up however, almost everyone kept their hands apart, as if they realized they'd might miss something if they succumbed to the urge to clap. Ryan's ovation wasn't enough to put a dent in a tremendous second viewing of Ophüls's greatest Hollywood film (according to Jean-Luc Godard), which frequently demonstrated how the German Jewish émigré's fascination with complicated camera movements encouraged a more naturalistic treatment of dialogue than that of his peers. More than once actors would stumble over a line of dialogue in a way that felt very much in line with their characters' state of mind; one imagines another director insisting on a new take, but for Ophüls each take is more of an undertaking. As James Mason, the third star of Caught, would later explain in verse:

I think I know the reason why
Producers tend to make him cry.
Inevitably they demand
Some stationary set-ups, and
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor dear Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he'd never smile again."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

NOIR CITY 13: THE BIGAMIST (1953)—By Frako Loden

Screening in a restored 35mm print courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Ida Lupino's The Bigamist (1953) joins a line-up of unholy matrimonies at the 13th edition of Noir City (NC13) that honors actress Joan Fontaine in a double-bill matinee tribute. As stated in NC13's program notes: "A San Francisco couple (Joan Fontaine and Edmond O'Brien) wants to bolster their unfulfilled marriage by adopting a child. But when a social worker (Edmund Gwenn) checks the husband's background he learns there's a second wife (Ida Lupino) in L.A.! This remarkable film uses a familiar noir framework to turn the genre's tropes inside-out, flipping gender roles and dissecting the pitfalls of buying into the matrimonial myth of 'happily ever after.' "

Back in March 2009 Frako Loden wrote up a profile of Ida Lupino for The Evening Class and I repurpose same for NC13's screening of The Bigamist.

* * *

Ida Lupino (1918-1995), was another actress who turned to directing mid-career. Lupino herself can't exactly be considered lost as a director—she has a decent body of feature-film work and an impressive television resume. But seeing what she left behind, it's tempting to think how many more films she might have helmed had she the opportunity of, say, a Don Siegel, to whom she's often compared with the condescending "poor man's" prefix.

According to Lupino's biographer William Donati, a conversation with Roberto Rossellini had a profound effect on Lupino. Complaining about Hollywood, he asked her, "When are you going to make pictures about ordinary people, in ordinary situations?" He meant it rhetorically, but perhaps she took it personally.

Lupino's directing career began in her early 30s, when she was starring in Columbia productions like Lust for Gold (with Glenn Ford) and her husband Collier Young was a screenwriter and assistant to Harry Cohn. When Young resigned in a fit of anger, the couple joined up with a B-movie production company named Emerald. A few days before shooting began for Not Wanted (1949), director Elmer Clifton had a heart attack and producer Lupino took over. The film, about an unwed mother, was the first of hers that tackled bold and controversial themes such as polio, bigamy and rape.

The Bigamist (1953), a Filmakers production, was made the same year as Lupino's tense, Mexico-set The Hitch-Hiker, often cited as the only true film noir made by a woman. Bigamist's screenplay was written by Lupino's ex Collier Young, who was currently married to co-star Joan Fontaine. A meld of melodrama and mild procedural driven by an adoption agency investigator, the film has only a superficial noirish resemblance to Double Indemnity in that the confessional male voiceover constantly refers to a "Phyllis" living in Los Angeles. At one point it seems Fontaine's businesswoman wife, "in one of her executive moods," will be blamed for her husband's seeking affection elsewhere. But Lupino manages to keep both her and the second, tougher waitress wife (played by Lupino) sympathetic, while lending some compassion to a husband (Edmond O'Brien) whose traveling-salesman loneliness gets him into one fine mess.

* * *

Some further notes from NC13's slick program (designed by the formidable Michael Kronenberg):

"RKO Pictures had distributed many films produced by Ida Lupino and Collier Young through their company, The Filmakers. Tired of losing out on profits, the partners decided to finance and self-distribute The Bigamist on their own. Its failure at the box-office spelled the end of The Filmakers, and unfortunately derailed Lupino's big-screen directing career for 12 years, until she was hired to helm The Trouble With Angels in 1965.

"Collier Young's script was a reflection of his own life: he was married to Joan Fontaine, but his ex-wife was his business partner and the film's director, Ida Lupino. Fontaine took over the role, unsalaried, as a favor to her husband when Jane Greer, originally cast as Eve, had to back out."

The rumored enmity between Joan Fontaine and her sister Olivia De Haviland is abbreviated in the Fontaine quote: "I married first, won the Oscar® before Olivia did, and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it."

Thursday, January 15, 2015


I don't know anyone generous enough to call 2014 a year of great precedence-setting in the movies, but it had one distinction. Never before in the history of cinema was there such a line up of movies, high and low, going after the critics. Movies as relatively unambitious as Chef (2014) and as eclectic as Birdman (2014) weighed in on critical perniciousness.

Over the decades, cinema had fun with lone-vulture critics: your Waldo Lydecker; your Addison DeWitt (recall the blasphemy of George Sanders in All About Eve (1950), helping himself to Matthew 6:26 as his personal introduction!). "General Kael" was the official Skeletor of George Lucas's mighty bad Willow (1988), and Siskel and Ebert clones turned up in Roland Emmerich's Godzilla (1998). No one has yet dealt in fiction with Armond White, still at large despite his expulsion from the NY Film Critics Circle last January.

Despite layoffs, attrition, and the odd suicide, there's still a healthy pack of critics. Rotten Tomatoes can count about 300 for full-court press to weigh in on some blockbuster. Indie films might only get two or three writers to show up and say something. Is aggregation the real aggravator here? A year of poor box office left everyone with someone to blame.

Chef sold the fantasy every idler has had now and again of fixing up a clapped-out food truck and taking it to the nicer parts of the country. It concerns the mid-life crisis of Carl Casper (Jon Favreau), a well-known L.A. restaurateur. Part of what catalyzes his crisis is the repeated attacks of an insanely vicious and confrontational critic Ramsey Michaels (Oliver Platt)—"the most well-known food blogger in the world." Michaels calls Casper out on Twitter, for being a boring chef and a fatty. (Platt's a well-padded man himself so—to use the appropriate culinary parlance—this is the pot calling the kettle.)

On the DVD extras, Favreau confessed that Chef was an allegory for movie making. A scriptwriter pal maintains that Casper is furious because he knows that the critic is right and that, as a chef, he's not "stretching" himself. I don't know if I agree. Firstly, Michaels' insults are so playground level. Secondly, Casper turns out to know exactly what the public wants. Rather than test marketings and taking notes and enduring round table interviews, Casper can take his Cuban sandwiches to enthusiastic gulpers and watch them shovel 'em down without complaint. And the winner-take-everything-in-the-whole-wide-world ending isn't like the fate of any filmmaker I've heard of. (Casper really ends up on top; it's amazing Favreau didn't include a finale of his hero making a hot pressed sandwich of himself, ScarJo and Sofia V on a bed of hundred dollar bills!)

Birdman was far more direct. Riggan, Michael Keaton's actor on the verge of madness, hands it to one of the few figures of elderly female dignity in the cinema today, Lindsay Duncan. The Scots actress here bears the witchy name Tabitha. She's a vodka-soaked critic in a Times Square bar—Riggan gets into her face and rants, telling her to shove her writings up her withered ass.

To her credit Duncan's Tabitha holds her ground. She holds it just as Terence Stamp does, as art critic John Canaday in Big Eyes (2014). Stamp's Canaday is obviously a bitter brute, but he is the one of the few indomitable critics in 2014 film, standing tall against the Keane Kitchskrieg of the big-eyed hobo kids. Canaday can take care of himself, deflecting the dinner fork Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) aims at his eyes using a fast karate block with one hand.

Duncan also stands cold as a lizard, lending her class and authority to some insane dialogue about how she is standing in the gap between washed up movie stars like Riggan and the purity of Broadway. Purity? Really? In the era of Annie revivals and Kinky Boots? "Who'd want to be a critic?" Riggan spits. (Longtime critics think, "I'm sure I don't know who'd want to be. Only the several hundred thousand communications majors trying to take my job, I guess.")

Switch theaters at the multiplex, and you'll see Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner (2014). There, director Mike Leigh depicts a horrible afternoon at John Ruskin's house. The rising young arbiter, played by Joshua McGuire, does that upper-class twit / Elmer Fudd thing with his w's as he attacks Turner's beloved Claude Lorraine. Leigh being Leigh, and Spall being Spall, we must feel pity for an artist like Turner, so sensitive from having to hear wrong-headed criticism that even the true and honest praise starts to sting.

I could go on: Top Five (2014), with Rosario Dawson as a conniving critic, or Wild Tales (2014), in which a diabolical trap is set for someone who wrote a derisive music review.

You could start to feel self-conscious if you were in the critic's trade, but nothing came out in 2014 that matched the most ghastly / hilarious anti-critic movie ever made: Theater of Blood (1973). Vincent Price stars as a scorned ham named Edward Lionheart, snubbed at awards time. To settle accounts, he takes out a London theater critics circle one by one, using a gang of wino groundlings and methods of vengeance found in Shakespeare.

Here's some Titus Andronicus pie for a gourmand (Robert Morley); there's a good soaking in a butt of Malmsey for a wine-snob scribe. Similar baroque paybacks await the rest, since this movie knows its Bard, taking violent demises from the obscurer plays like Henry VI and Cymbeline. The lovely Price, an ambassador to 20th century cinema from the Jacobean era, honors the spirit as well as the lines of Shakespeare.

Occasionally, noble critics appear in cinema, such as Anton Ego in Ratatouille (2007) and Jedediah Leland in Citizen Kane (1941). Everyone knows Ego's speech about the unimportance of critics, as delivered by the voice of Peter O'Toole. Few get the point of the speech: Ego tells the truth about the rats in the kitchen and loses his job for it. Now, that's professional honor.

In Kane, Leland (Joseph Cotton) has to turn to the bottle to deal with that Christian-Scientist-With-Appendicitis problem of hating the bosses' girlfriend's singing. He doesn't finish the review, but at least he was brave enough to start it, knowing he'd be out of work the next morning.

And to counterpoint the backlash against critics in 2014, one remembers the public love for Life Itself (2014), a documentary about the final days of Roger Ebert. Both those who'd been pricked by Ebert's criticism, and those who always felt Ebert was a bland writer, honored the man's bravery. Even Vincent Gallo must have sniveled a little, watching it.

A critic's job can be defined between two parameters. Italo Calvino felt the job of a fiction writer "is basically to raise problems for you to solve." And then there's the opposite point, in that story of Pauline Kael in full pride, "My job is to tell him"—and here she pointed at Sidney Lumet, sitting next to her—"what to do."

In the New Year, I hope for more understanding for the misunderstood and beleaguered profession, and give a promise not to bite except when it's called for.

Richard Von Busack is a staff writer at San Jose's Metro Newspapers. He's the author of The Art of Megamind and has written for Entertainment Weekly, n +1 and He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


The Pacific Film Archives retrospective series "Ready For His Close-up: The Films of Billy Wilder" kicks off tomorrow evening with a 4K digital restoration of Sunset Blvd. (1950) and continues through February 28, 2015 when it wraps up with a 35mm print of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). It's a nearly even tug-of-war between DCP and 35mm projections in the series, so—dependent upon how much of a celluloid purist you are—it's advisable to double check PFA's website. Several of Wilder's signature favorites are present—Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity (1944), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Ace In the Hole (1951), Sabrina (1954), The Lost Weekend (1945), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960)—with a few lesser-known titles to round out the series. As Steve Seid states in his introductory essay: "There are two sides to every coin. The superlative American director Billy Wilder worked the fine, serrated edge between—between dark noirs and ribald comedies, between blithe romance and sorrowful drama. Maybe he was just a realist who saw our lofty aspirations compromised, time and again, by our glaring limitations: somewhere in between is the joke and the crying shame."

Included within the series is Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka (1939), where Wilder's collaboration with Charles Brackett on the script helped launch his career in Hollywood. Often mentioned as a "major disciple" of Lubitsch, in fact, by no less than Jonathan Rosenbaum who compared the two in his Stop Smiling essay "Sweet and Sour: Lubitsch and Wilder In Old Hollywood" (replicated on his website). "Wilder, a Viennese Jew, used Lubitsch, a Jew born in Berlin, as a major reference point throughout his filmmaking career," Rosenbaum asserts, "and to what degree he succeeded as well as failed in emulating his master" is the main issue addressed in Rosenbaum's essay. One presumes that what Wilder is emulating is the oft-cited "Lubitsch touch", which Rosenbaum partially identifies as not "so much a touch as a kind of guarded embrace. It was actually a vision—a way of regarding his characters that could be described as a critical affection for flawed individuals who operate according to double standards." Particularly in his comedies. This can be readily traced to Wilder's own comedies—less sweet than Lubitsch and more sour and misanthropic, even cynical (thus the essay's title)—which employ "the double standard that drives his characters into elaborate and often tortured deceptions."

In his review for A Time To Lie, Rosenbaum expands that lies and their eventual exposures were given "moral weight" in Wilder's comedies involving deceptions in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, from A Foreign Affair to The Seven-Year Itch to Kiss Me, Stupid to The Front Page (among several others). Rosenbaum notes that Wilder "was often accused of cynicism for creating heroes who were so willing to deceive."

In his review for Housesitter, Rosenbaum again associates Wilder's comedies with "the baroque complications that grow out of elaborate lies. The first Wilder examples that spring to mind are The Major and the Minor; Some Like It Hot; One, Two, Three; Kiss Me, Stupid; The Fortune Cookie; and Avanti!. The lies in these movies are about age, gender, politics, prostitution, physical injury, and adultery."

It's unfortunate that Avanti! is not included within the PFA series as this is Rosenbaum's admitted favorite and—when I asked him which of his writings on Wilder he would recommend—he offered his essay "The Sour Journalist and the Sweet Romantic: Billy Wilder in Avanti!", available at his website. What's of immediate interest in his "sweet and sour" ascription is that it has transferred from the Lubitsch / Wilder interaction to rest fully within Wilder himself, though even Rosenbaum himself qualifies: "It would needlessly oversimplify Billy Wilder's oeuvre to reduce it to the dialectical play between two fundamental traits—his journalistic training and instincts on the one hand, which tend to be vulgar, explicit, and critical, and his romantic emulation of the style and vision of Ernst Lubitsch on the other hand, which depends more on ellipsis, suggestion, and lyrical appreciation. I doubt, for instance, that Some Like it Hot (1959) or The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), two very different masterpieces, could be adequately accounted for by this formula. Nevertheless, the interaction between these two particular strains in Wilder's work still seems to account for a great deal of what remains vital and enduring about his gifts as a writer-director."

Irregardless of the fact that his focus is on Avanti!, this essay by Rosenbaum is immensely helpful in situating the strengths and weaknesses of several of the titles in the PFA series and is highly recommended reading. Further insight on a similar gradient can be found in Rosenbaum's Chicago Reader review of Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


When it comes to academics, I have to admit that I am not the brightest bulb on the marquee; but, I am ever eager to learn and—as I was taught by my mentor Joseph Campbell—I am committed to the populist practice of winnowing from the "thickets of jargon" that characterize academic writing those insights or ideas that a non-academic audience might appreciate. That's by way of qualifying that it would be near to impossible for me to "review" Adrian Martin's valuable survey Mise En Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). As accessible as I find his language, his erudition sometimes flies over my head or bounces off my rather blunt forehead. It will take a few more readings for me to feel in enough command of the rich diverse ideas he has presented in this volume to sufficiently "review" same. Why hazard being presumptuous when I can just be honest?

Yet time waits for no man, let alone a reviewer, and I can only respond slackjawed to the swift, brilliant responses of Girish Shambu and Jonathan Rosenbaum to Martin's latest publication. How can they read and absorb so fast?! Girish breaks down the four things the book is trying to do and Jonathan highlights some of its key achievements. Along with Rosenbaum, however, I urge Palgrave MacMillan to provide an affordable paperback copy of this volume as soon as possible.

What I can do, however, in lieu of a review, is to launch a new sidebar on The Evening Class that I'll entitle "Applications", which is really the way I process books. How do I apply what I am learning? Where do the insights gleaned from reading a book like Mise en Scène and Film Style find their way into my spectatorial and critical practice? Let's give it a shot, shall we?

Perhaps the most evident achievement of Mise en Scène and Film Style is its careful and thorough attention to the historicity of such a deliciously vague French term as mise en scène (along with the equally delectable dispositif, découpage, décalage, montage, auteur, genre, cinephilia). If anything, Martin has underscored why I was never clear about the exact meaning of mise en scène and why—every time I asked—I received a variant answer. The history of mise en scène has involved a fascinating variety of applications through an evolving continuum of critical and cultural fashions and nowhere has this been laid out more clearly and helpfully than in Martin's survey. Mise en scène becomes "the term that means everything." Citing Paul Willemen (1994:226), Martin summarizes that a term like mise en scène, though cherished, rarely defines anything precise in cinema. "Rather," he writes, "they mark a confusion, a fumbling attempt to pinpoint some murky confluence of wildly diverse factors." (2014:1) I feel exonerably confused with optimistic room for improvement.

I've been traveling on the film festival circuit with Martin's volume under my arm for a couple of months now and it has been genuinely fun to approach films with his insights, as I've understood them and (again) as I have applied them. This exercise is not meant to be in any way exhaustive as much as indicative of how the book is impacting my sensibility while reading it.

At last year's edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), I had the great fortune of watching POV Award recipient Isaac Julien's Ten Thousand Waves, a heady nine-screen composite of Julien's original installation, projected for its SFIFF audience and enhanced by a fascinating on-stage conversation between Julien and B. Ruby Rich. Bubbling at the surface of my overflowing cauldron of untranscribed recordings, I've never quite known how to approach writing about this split-screen one-off event, which seemed so much more than "just a film." Although in his volume Martin focuses on Brian DePalma's Passion (2012), much of what he says about DePalma's film spoke to my experience of Ten Thousand Waves, especially with regard to the "polyphonic interplay between multiple screens, spatialised across the walls or constructed zones of a gallery" His definition of spatialised cinema as a "version of a gallery-like installation, but brought back into cinema and co-ordinated on a single screen" displaying "evident formal fragmentation, the tension between displayed parts and levels, that we experience in modernist and postmodernist artworks" and his alignment of such a practice with dispositif ("an apparatus, arrangement or set-up of interrelated pieces or elements") has provided the perfect tool for me to return home and finally work on this piece. Wish me luck!

Further, I very much enjoy how Martin speaks through his text to his readership as if he were addressing them from behind a lectern or, even at times, across a café table: "Has not the cinema always been, in some crucial senses, a dispositif? Has it not always been a game with a multiplicity of spaces, looks and sounds? Has it not always been the sum—or rather, the face-off—between the different media that comprise it: theatre, novel, radio, music, painting, architecture?" (2014: xiii.) As someone who deeply appreciates the connective tissue between art mediums, I find that quote inspiring.

In mid-November, en route to San Francisco, my flight was delayed out of Boise due to an early snow fall. Anticipating same, I had the good sense to have Mise en Scène and Film Style close at hand, and read, first: "Part of the argument of this book is a plea to always attend closely and full-bloodedly to this type of materiality in cinema—a materiality that works on the double register of textuality (concrete properties of the constructed, composed work) and the spectator's emotions (the affects that films create in us, the experiences we have of them)" (2014:xvii) and then: "In recent years, some scholars and critics have revived the concept of mise en scène in the context of a general engagement with affect—the spectator's emotional states triggered by a film—over and above the literary or dramatic niceties of thematic meaning." (2014:18)

In that marvelous way that words evoke image, the second I finished reading these sentences I instantly visualized The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), wherein I was much taken by the sequence of dissolves used by Olivier Assayas to film Kristen Stewart driving on curving roads. I loved this sequence because it was purely visual, purely musical, no dialogue, and though it told me nothing about the narrative per se, it filled me with—as Martin termed it—overwhelming affect. I was deeply affected by the sinuous beauty of this sequence. I felt the torque of each curve, and intuited aspects of Kristen's character Valentine that—though not fully articulating her character—allowed me to feel her character and her struggle for autonomy and independence. This aligns with what Martin terms "an energetic or dynamic approach to film style", which introduces "the action or psychic drives into both the making of films and their reception." (2014:19)

A few years back at the Toronto International, I became quite infatuated with Raúl Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) and couldn't absorb enough of his work for months afterwards. For that matter, the passion continues and—thanks to Martin—I now understand a little bit better why: "For Chilean-born Raúl Ruiz, what Sigmund Freud outlined as the mechanisms of the dream-work—the condensations, displacements and overdeterminations that create what we see, hear and feel in our dreams—are the very operations of mise en scène itself. In a striking formulation, Ruiz called these Freudian mechanisms, 'the mise en scène of the dream.' Hence, transporting this concept directly to cinema, all mise en scène, no matter whether it is working on the most obviously dreamlike or the most seemingly naturalistic material, has the function of 'producing displacements of intensity, and condensations' (Ruiz 1999, p. 84). It warps and stresses the scene, twisting it potentially into a strange shape, or an unforeseen direction. [¶] For my part, at the outset of this book, I want to hold onto Ruiz's sense of mise en scène as always potentially transformative—but transformative in ways that refer to the entire materiality of cinema, not solely the inspiration of a director on set or the phenomenological subjectivity of enraptured viewers. Transformation is not transcendence. Mise en scène can transform the elements of a given scene; it can transform a narrative's destination; it can transform our mood or our understanding as we experience the film. Style is not a supplement to content; it makes content—and remakes it, too, in flight." (2014:19-20)

That summarization of the transformative style of Ruiz's cinema could just as easily explain my fascination with the dream works of Olivier Smolders, Charlie Kaufman, or especially David Lynch who—in my estimation—serves the criteria of "strangeness" held out by Paul Schrader as essential to establishing a film canon ("Canon Fodder", Film Comment, 2006). What for years I termed "the Lynchian imperative" I can now accurately reduce to the transformative potential of mise en scène.

Recently, I was fortunate to be in attendance at the world premiere of Dolissa Medina's The Crow Furnace (2014), an experimental essay short which begged the question: "Where's the mise en scène?" In his expert and thorough review of styles of critical analysis, Martin cited a 1956 essay by Jean-Luc Godard ("Montage, My Fine Care") which distinguished between montage cinema ("films essentially structured and formed in editing") and mise en scène cinema ("films essentially created on set or in an environment, in expansive long takes") (2014:54) and I'm grateful for this working distinction to later approach characteristics of a lineage of found footage artifacts.

"If mise en scène is bodies in space," Martin queries further along in his text, "dance scenes are (as we have already observed) prime candidates for pure cinema. But what can a director actually do with these dancing bodies in space?" (2014:58) This question immediately reminded me of my conversation with Wim Wenders whose use of 3D to choreograph the work of Pina Bausch defined the challenge.

When I first began writing on film in 2006 after resigning from a legal career it was largely fueled by an already-existing journalistic impulse inspired by the Diaries of Anaïs Nin, which approached films (in particular, I'm thinking of her journal entry on the 1953 Paris premiere of Gate of Hell) as life-experiences worthy of journal entry. Thus, I appreciate Martin's discernment: "But films are not just the points they make, or even the sum of their thematic structures; they are also palpable surfaces and immediate experiences, sensation-banks and emotional triggers." (2014:107)

Speaking of surfaces, Martin explores the cascading textures of audiovisual art yoked to the computer screen as an extension of filmic mise en scène. He asks: "But what happens when the copresent screen—complete with its user's distractions and the layered, metapsychological effects that result—gets represented back to us 'as is', simply as things that happen on a screen surface, yet staged, timed and fictionalized? This is the premise of the short Canadian film Noah (Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, 2013), which zippily recounts the unraveling of a teen relationship via 'live' social media." (2014:175) Described as a "hybrid-documentary" at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, Noah paved the way for its horrific iteration in Leo Gabriadze's Cybernatural (2014), which was a runaway sleeper hit at last summer's edition of Fantasia.

In his (for me, quite challenging) chapter "The Rise of the Dispositif" (2014:178-204), Martin continues to tackle the reconfigurations of mise en scène within the digital frame by extolling the creativity of the Internet's first true superstars: Nataly Dawn and Jack Conte, aka Pomplamoose, who were fêted at an earlier edition of the Disposable Film Festival (a festival which, singlehandedly, shifted my perceptions of digital imagemaking). Of Pomplamoose, Martin writes: "Their VideoSongs adhere to two exact rules of self-determined construction: 'What you see is what you hear (no lip-synching for instruments or voice). 2. If you hear it, at some point you see it (no hidden sounds)' (TheBestArts, 2014). This dispositif (in this case, there is no better word for it) generates amusing gags: whenever Nataly overdubs herself singing (as she frequently does), we instantly jump to multiple split-screens—in order to maintain the integrity of the game's rules. …Fixed digital cameras, set positions, restrictions on place and action: who could have guessed … that a dispositif could be this much fun?" (2014:182)

Listening to Jack Conte speak about their working methods proved inspirational for me, especially when he detailed how much energy, time and money he put into producing his first album, only to have it fail financially, and how it taught him to "lighten up" in order to succeed. His advice initiated what, for me, became my portfolio approach towards film writing, understanding that what I write on this blog The Evening Class has more to do with a quicker more immediate form of writing than, say, what I might offer to a magazine, or contribute to a publication like The Film Festival Yearbook (an essay which took me seven months to write). In other words there is a value to shifting along a continuum of film writing, from purely cinephilic to critical. These days I add to that portfolio the shoot-from-the-hip short form festival impressions I share on Facebook, never meant to be a bona-fide review, but merely early sketches of what I hope to develop later on down the line. My true pleasure in film writing comes from shifting along this continuum and writing at different pitches of acumen.

Last night I was watching a DVD of Chris Marker's Le Joli Mai (1963) and found myself appreciating it from the perspective of Martin's comments on "kinesics": "Kinesics, for its part, offers a complex breakdown of the body—where film studies, in default mode, usually concentrates on faces (the cult of the close-up, filtered through Deleuze's theory of faciality) and eyes ('the gaze'), on the most obvious gestural work of hands…." (2014:138). There was a lot to digest in that early cinéma vérité documentary of Marker's—his visible presence no less!—but, what I kept noticing were his close-ups on the hands of the Black man, the priest, their expressive gestures, which reminded me, in turn, of the two recent interviews I conducted at the Palm Springs International Film Festival with directors Abderrahmane Sissako and Andrey Zvyagintsev, which required the assistance of translative interpreters. With Zvyagintsev particularly, I was fascinated by his staring me in the eye as he spoke and his demonstrative gestures which proved as eloquent as the interpreter's eventual translations. Further, in both interviews I borrowed from Martin's description of "image-events" as a way to approach certain sequences in their respective films.

I could go on and on, but, I presume at this juncture you get the idea. What makes Martin's study of mise en scène and film style is precisely its capacity to enrichen an educated cinephile's cinematic experience by awareness of the stylistic elements and strategies employed to create any single film and the multiple ways those elements and strategies can be approached and expressed. I'll close with a glance at what I'm finding to be one of the most provocative theses in his volume, that of "social mise en scène", which I've applied to two recent screenings.

The first would be Fabrice Du Welz's Alléluia (2014), which I just caught at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The most recent staging of the infamous "Lonely Hearts Killers" of the late '40s, this film begs a comparative stylistic analysis with its predecessors: Leonard Kastle's The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Arturo Ripstein's Deep Crimson (1996), and Todd Robinson's Lonely Hearts (2006). Armed with Martin's volume, I might actually try to endeavor same.

Martin details the conceptual underpinnings of social mise en scène in his chapter "A Detour via Reality: Social Mise en Scène" (2014:127-154), pointing out that—though it is not a totally new idea in film studies—it's an overlooked path. "With social mise en scène," he writes, "rather than going directly or primarily to the unique, idiosyncratic sensibility or world-view of the maker, we attend to the newly grasped raw material of social codes, their constant exposure and deformation in the work of how a film articulates itself. In particular, it allows us to zero in on something specific: known rituals that are recreated, marked, inscribed in the flow of the film, usually in order to be transformed." (2014:134)

To clarify his argument, he utilizes the listening booth sequence in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) where Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) listen to Kath Bloom's "Come Here"—"a play of stolen glances and half-hidden smiles" (2014:135) that register their awkward attraction and stylistically play out the tension between private feeling in public space.

Boyd van Hoeij could just as well have been consciously using the term social mise en scène when—in his review of Alléluia for The Hollywood Reporter—he focuses on the first meeting between the film's killer duo, Michel and Gloria, staged at a chic restaurant, which he describes as having "the precision of a military airstrike." Van Hoeij details the encounter: "Michel talks a lot and ladles on the gentlemanly charm like nobody's business, while Gloria says little, at once shy and mesmerized by this man. Initially, the handheld camera looks at the couple in profile, going back and forth from one face to another in a single take, which stresses the distance and void between them across the table. But halfway through the conversation, over-the-shoulder shots and reverse shots fuse the two together, as the eye of the person opposite looks straight at the face of the other, whose head is seen from the back in the same shot."

Although van Hoeij is the only reviewer I've read to actually use the term mise en scène in reviewing Alléluia, he appears to be doing so predominantly by way of Manu Dacosse's cinematography, emphasizing grit and grain and "numerous intense close-ups allowing the actors to turn their deranged characters into frighteningly three-dimensional human beings." But his description of how Dacosse's camera "stresses the distance and void between them across the table" comports with Martin's definition of social mise en scène as an effective tension between the intimate and public spheres, and expected and unexpected relations.

Another recent application of Martin's proposed social mise en scène would be the courtroom drama Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014) by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz. The space of a courtroom and the appropriate behavior prescribed to the space is, first, elasticized by a roving camera that incriminates the viewer into the courtroom through brilliantly pitched moments of direct address, and upsets the court's formality through insubordinate and irreverent asides filmed behind the backs of the solicitors from both sides.

Again, I could go on and on applying insights from this masterful volume into my ongoing appreciation of films and I have no doubt that my reviews in the next few months will do exactly that. For now, I hope I have achieved my assertion of how useful Mise En Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art can be to both academic and non-academic alike. I may not be educated enough to write an informed review, but I am smart enough to recognize what a valuable tool this volume is; it's requisite for any cinephile's book shelf. It is, at once, an easy book to read because Martin is intent upon communication of complex ideas, and also challenging for its complexity. I envision reading this book twice, probably three times, and keeping it at hand for ready reference for years to come. It's well worth the price (consider it an investment in your education), though, again, I hope the publishers will see the need to provide an affordable paperback edition. Until then, pardon me if I keep quoting from it in months to come.

Monday, January 12, 2015

PSIFF 2015—ALLÉLUIA (2014)

Raymond Martinez Fernandez and Martha Jule Beck were an American serial killer couple who murdered as many as 20 women during a killing spree between 1947 and 1949. After their arrest and trial for serial murder in 1949, they became known as "The Lonely Hearts Killers" for meeting their unsuspecting victims through lonely hearts ads. They were executed by electric chair in 1951.

In 1969, Leonard Kastle wrote and directed his one and only feature The Honeymoon Killers starring Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco as the nefarious (if celebrated) couple and it's perhaps the entry I'm most anticipating in Noir City's 2015 line-up, having only seen Arturo Ripstein's Deep Crimson (1996), his Hispanicized and stylishly melodramatized adaptation of these events. Neither have I seen Todd Robinson's Lonely Hearts (2006). Anticipating Noir City, however, I made a point of not missing Fabrice Du Welz's Alléluia (2014) at the 26th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), which—as a Belgian entry—was included in PSIFF's World Cinema Now sidebar, as well as being featured in PSIFF's newly-launched and edgy "Breaking Waves" program.

Alléluia screened as part of the Directors' Fortnight section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where Variety's Peter Debruge noted: "Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz makes good on John Waters' prediction that the trashy cult classic The Honeymoon Killers was due for an Internet-era remake." Updating the tale's lonely hearts ads to online dating, Alléluia delivers its "cautionary satire" in unsettling co-dependent spades. Debruge adds: "Du Welz's interpretation serves as an expertly calibrated dismantling of Hollywood's perfect-couple myth, suggesting that love—especially that which borders on obsession—can sometimes be the most toxic force on earth." At The Hollywood Reporter, Boyd van Hoeij's bottom line: "Two rock-solid performances, gritty cinematography and an impressive mise-en-scene make for a great movie."

Alléluia next screened in the Vanguard program at the Toronto International (where David Hudson picked up a few reviews at Fandor's Keyframe Daily, as did Critics Round-Up). At A.V. Club, A.A. Dowd dubbed the film "spectacularly crazy" and "grisly, darkly comic stuff", praising its star duo Laurent Lucas and Lola Dueñas as embodying "these infamous maniacs with can't-look-away conviction." At MUBI's Notebook, Daniel Kasman observes: "Shot close in intimate 16mm, the film juggles tones deftly to capture the loneliness, desire, horror, humor, and absurdity in an amour fou between two single sociopaths who find in each other an intense, primal attraction. But both persons are so distorted, and the love between them thereby turning so distorted, that it leads not to the greatest, strangest love affair—though you could call it that, I suppose—but the most perverse: the man sets up a scheme to seduce and rob women, and the woman, quickly beset by manic jealousy, to kill them." At Cinema Scope, Blake Williams writes: "Fabrice Du Welz's present-day reiteration (complete with online dating) is a formally sleek study of looming insanity, and is prone to innervating jolts of hysteria; it also contains one hell of a balls-out performance by Lola Dueñas. And while it may ultimately go down in memory as that film in which Laurent Lucas mimics Humphrey Bogart's hippo call from The African Queen, its conflation of the ridiculous with the sublime is this neo-extremist's most admirable and stirring manoeuvre to date." Last, but never least, Girish Shambu adds: "The 'termite-art' highlight of the festival. Every frame of this film seems to simultaneously carry a fierce awareness of its meager resources and an imaginative response to it. Most of Alleluia (and almost the entire first half) is shot in close-ups of never-ending invention: partially and playfully lit frames, frames divided into zones, expressionist pools of color, bold graphic strokes, starkly inscribed silhouettes."

Alléluia then bolstered its festival pedigree at Austin's Fantastic Fest where it won Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Actor. Notwithstanding, it was perhaps one of the most sparsely-attended screenings I caught at PSIFF, emphasized by its being projected in the Camelot's largest theater, but—as someone who enjoyed the film—I was glad to see it on that giant screen, slight audience be damned. Alleluia is raunchy and rollicking dark fun whose visual flourishes I relished at every chaptered turn.

As noted in the PSIFF program note: "Courtship is an arcane ritual and love demands blood sacrifices in Fabrice Du Welz's gloriously deranged retelling of the ripped-from-the-headlines cult classic, The Honeymoon Killers. The sordid, sinister tale of two serial killers who swindled and butchered 'lonely hearts' in the late 1940s gets an inspired update here. When a lecherous scam artist (Laurent Lucas) seduces a desperately needy mortician (an elemental Lola Dueñas) through an online dating site, he can't conceive of the impulses he's awoken within her. Her fierce devotion to him is rivaled only by her emotional volatility, leaving her as unchecked as a severed artery. As the lovers embark on a Grand Guignol-like odyssey, Du Welz weaves a dark cinematic spell, amplifying the depraved passion until this dizzying affair grows obscenely operatic."

I've only a few notes to add. In researching Fernandez and Beck, after his World War II service, Fernandez sought work aboard a ship bound for America where a steel hatch fell on top of him, fracturing his skull and injuring his frontal lobe. After his hospitalization, he was arrested for theft and imprisoned for a year, during which time his cellmate allegedly taught him voodoo and black magic. He later claimed black magic gave him irresistible power and charm over women. I'm anxious to see how this plays out in Kastle's film—it's downplayed in Ripstein's—but is front and center in Alléluia where Michel (Laurent) prepares for his first date with Gloria (Dueñas) by performing an "arcane ritual" to The Elementals. In his Hollywood Reporter review, van Hoeij notes "all of Du Welz's films feature religious rituals, often to fill a void in the life of the characters" so it's perhaps no surprise that he should capitalize on this detail. It's fanned into flame when Gloria later joins him in the ritual and they are envisioned dancing naked and silhouetted in front of a raging bonfire: desire as a form of demonic (daemonic?) possession.

With regard to that first meeting between Michel and Gloria, staged at a chic restaurant, which Boyd van Hoeij describes as having "the precision of a military airstrike", he likewise details the encounter: "Michel talks a lot and ladles on the gentlemanly charm like nobody's business, while Gloria says little, at once shy and mesmerized by this man. Initially, the handheld camera looks at the couple in profile, going back and forth from one face to another in a single take, which stresses the distance and void between them across the table. But halfway through the conversation, over-the-shoulder shots and reverse shots fuse the two together, as the eye of the person opposite looks straight at the face of the other, whose head is seen from the back in the same shot." Although van Hoeij is the only reviewer I've read to actually use the term mise en scène, he appears to do so predominantly by way of Manu Dacosse's cinematography, emphasizing grit and grain and "numerous intense close-ups allowing the actors to turn their deranged characters into frighteningly three-dimensional human beings." But I would here apply Adrian Martin's proposed "social mise en scène" as a tool to best understand this sequence, which I've recently gleaned from his important study Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Martin details the conceptual underpinnings of social mise en scène in his chapter "A Detour via Reality: Social Mise en Scène" (pp. 127-154), pointing out that—though it is not a totally new idea in film studies—it's an overlooked path. "With social mise en scène," he writes, "rather than going directly or primarily to the unique, idiosyncratic sensibility or world-view of the maker, we attend to the newly grasped raw material of social codes, their constant exposure and deformation in the work of how a film articulates itself. In particular, it allows us to zero in on something specific: known rituals that are recreated, marked, inscribed in the flow of the film, usually in order to be transformed." (2014:134)

To clarify his argument, he utilizes the listening booth sequence in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) where Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) listen to Kath Bloom's "Come Here"—"a play of stolen glances and half-hidden smiles" (p. 135) that register their awkward attraction and stylistically plays out the tension between private feeling in public space. Boyd van Hoeij could just as well have been consciously using the term social mise en scène when describing how Dacosse's camera "stresses the distance and void between them across the table."

Finally, I assert that my favorite sequence in Du Welz's Alléluia is the intricate citation of the dynamics between Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) and Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) in John Huston's The African Queen (1951) where—as Debruge has intimated in his Variety review—the lamination of Michel and Gloria's relationship upon that cinematic pair reveals an inappropriate identification that at the same time dismantles the Hollywood ideal. The intercutting of laughter is brilliant, and poignantly sobered the moment Michel points out to Gloria that you can see in Bogart's eyes the pain of his cancer and his awareness of impending death. I felt tremendous sadness in this sequence, realizing how much Michel and Gloria both dreamed of a "normal" (i.e., romanticized cinematic) life they were never destined to have.