Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Between the Covers

It was during the depths of the Great Depression that bunch of American Jewish youths sat down and created a whole new art form. The art form was the comic book, and the youths had names like Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, Bob Kane, and Jack Kirby. This art form flowered under the scepter of European anti-Semetism, and one of the peculiarities of the Golden Age superheroes was that they are without exception powerful Aryan types – Exactly like Hitler wanted to create.

Michael Chabon’s novel plants itself firmly in the middle of this explosion of creative energy. The title characters are the creators of a super-hero called The Escapist, and everything about these two and their hero has the feel of authenticity about it.

Sammy Clay is the imaginative young son of a former vaudeville strongman. His cousin Josef Kavalier is a young Czech who left behind a fledging career as an escape artist and a family at the mercy of the Nazis. Indeed, the approaching war casts a pall over everything, including the comics that leap from the pencil of Joe. Kavalier needs to get his family to America, and throws himself into the artwork in a frenzy. His tales of the Escapist smashing Nazi agents become a hit.

For Joe, the work is just a means to an end – The end being getting his younger brother Thomas out of Czechoslovakia. His fury at Germany finds its way unto the panels of his comics – and also into everyday life.

“On the southbound platform, a few feet from the cousins, stood a dark glowering gentleman – reading the cut of his topcoat, or some indefinable emission radiating from his chin or eyes or haircut, Joe felt certain that he was German. This man was giving them the fish-eye. Even Sammy had to agree afterward that the man had been giving them the fish-eye. He was a German right out of a panel by Joe Kavalier, massive, handsome in a prognathous, lupine way, wearing a beautiful suit. As the wait for the train dragged on, Joe decided that he did not like what he considered to be the superior manner in which the theoretically German man was looking at him. He considered a number of possible styles, in German and in English, of expressing his feelings about the man and his fish-eye. Finally opting for a more universal statement, he spat, as if casually, onto the platform between him and the man. Public spitting was common enough at the time in that city of smokers, and the gesture might have remained safely ambiguous if Joe’s missile had not overshot its mark. Spittle frosted the tip of the man’s shoe.”

And that is how Joe Kavalier comes to get beaten up by Max Schmeling. Other icons of the time, such as Orson Welles and Salvador Dali make small appearances, but this novel is really story of regret and of families lost and found. It’s about two talented cousins, and a woman who loves one, yet marries the other, and about a man trained to escape from anything who tries to escape from his life, and finds that he can’t.

Friday, July 21, 2006

On Location

Fritz Lang (seated) on the set of Human Desire.
I'm sceptical as to whether Fritz should be wearing a white hat.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Landscape in the Mist

The quest undertaken by the adolescent heroes of Theo Angelopoulos’ 1988 film "Landscape in the Mist" gives us a bad feeling right off the bat. The pair – 14 year old Voula and her 5 year old brother Alexander are looking for their father, without knowing who or where he is, apart from the fact that he is in Germany. We know that, but they don’t appear to have given it a second thought.

The two children have run away from home, and the first time we see them, they are rushing to the station to catch a train to Germany. A vendor sees them and jokingly asks, "Are you here again?" This makes sense a few seconds later as the two lose their nerve and go back home again. Why are they running away? There is no indication that their mother is abusive – We don’t even see her. The movie doesn’t spend any time establishing what they’re running away from. It is more interested in what they are running to. The children have come up with their own ideas about the missing father, and Alexander dreams about him often.

The pair actually manages to get on the train on their next attempt, and manage a short ride before they are thrown off for not having tickets. It’s at this first stop that we meet their uncle (the mother’s brother) It’s from this uncle that we get the crucial information that the father that the kids are seeking doesn’t even exist. He’s a fabrication by the mother to hide their illegitimacy from them.

There’s a bizarre and heartbreaking sequence at this first stop, as well. The children are walking at night, when out of nowhere a tractor drags a dying horse and drops it literally at their feet. As they examine the stricken animal, and Alexander breaks into tears, a rowdy wedding party troops out of a hotel in the background, and parades off into the night. No one in the party even notices the scene in front of them. The metaphor is clear – The children are on their own, and the world takes no notice.

Soon afterward, they get a ride with a friendly young man named Oreste, who is part of a travelling theatre troupe. He feeds the children and shows them his costumes, and Angelopoulos is clearly establishing him as a surrogate father figure.

There is a second surrogate, who is not so kindly, however. A truck driver picks the two up and buys them lunch. He seems nice enough, but soon pulls the truck over and forcibly pulls Voula into the back with him. This scene is restrained, but is nonetheless harrowing, as the camera stays back and shows only the hanging tarp on the back of the truck. A couple of cars pull over in the background, and we think that they might deliver the girl from her attacker, but they drive off again. The driver gets out, and them slowly we see Voula’s legs come out. She sits on the edge of the truck, and finally we see a trickle of blood come from between her legs.

The children cross paths with Oreste a second time, and it quietly becomes evident that the strange father/child bond works both ways. Oreste has his theatre group, but appears to always travel alone. He has stated early on that he is scheduled to join the army soon, and the time with the children seems to salve a deep loneliness in him as well.

We now come to a surreal scene, which is the most memorable in the film. As Oreste sits on a dock, a gigantic stone hand starts to rise up out for the water. We begin to hear the sounds of a helicopter, and when the camera goes back to the statue, it is attached by cable to the helicopter. It rises out of the water, and is carried away. This scene makes no sense from a literal standpoint, as the hand rises by itself, and the chopper seems to magically become hooked to it after the fact. So what does it mean? The image, I think, is meant to indicate the loss of love and companionship. The sight of the hand drifting away is a dream-like wave goodbye, and we later see this motif repeated when they say goodbye to Oreste on a deserted highway.

This film carries a melancholy air about it. When we first meet Voula and Alexander, logic dictates that there can’t really be a happy ending to their journey. They left their home lured by the possibility of meeting a loving father that doesn’t exist. The people that they meet on the way are much like them, in that they need to establish some kind of connection.

The eventual arrival in Germany in a fog-bound rowboat concludes the film on an uncertain note. The children are alone even then, and they struggle to make out detail in the mist. Eventually a tree comes into focus, and the film closes on an image of the two of them clinging to its trunk. The viewer wonders what will become of them in this strange country, all alone in a world that doesn’t care how vulnerable they are. They see the tree, but all we see is the fog.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

Somewhere in the late sixties, the term “Revisionist Western” entered the filmic vernacular. The old, traditional Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks were on their last legs, and the new ones that were being made tried to look at things with fresh eyes. Films like “Little Big Man”, “Soldier Blue”, and “Posse” took the Western template and superimposed the values of the sixties unto it. Some of these films were good, and some weren’t, but they all had the conceit that they were taking the Western in new directions.

This idea was, however, completely wrong. It begins with an unspoken assumption that all the Westerns that came before were safe, cookie-cutter product, and that they didn’t really make social statements. Sorry, no. What is John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” if it’s not revisionist? What about “Cheyenne Autumn”, or “Two Rode Together”? Hawk’s great “Red River” injected Oedipal shadings into a cowboy setting. Hell, you can make the case for Ford’s “Stagecoach” as a revisionist Western, with its comments on class and social hypocrisy, and it was made in the thirties!

I said above that some of the “new” Westerns were good, and I’d like to comment on one of the best - Philip Kaufmans’ “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid”, from 1972. This film is built on the Jesse James saga, but it isn’t interested in good guys and bad guys. In this story, there’s enough bile for everyone.

The film opens in the mid 1870s when a bill was in the Missouri legislature that would have offered an amnesty to the James-Younger gang. The gang has staged several high profile robberies, but they have a lot of public support, and a Robin Hood-esque appeal. Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) is content to lay low and wait for the amnesty to come into effect. Robertson plays Younger as a world-wise sage to whom crime is only a job. On the other hand, Jesse James (Robert Duvall) sees it as a holy calling, a crusade. The Civil War is still going on for him.

Early on, Pinkerton agents ambush Younger and some of the others, and Younger is wounded. James takes this opportunity to plan a daring raid on a bank in the far-off town of Northfield, Minnesota. James is portrayed as a fraud throughout the film, and never more so than here, where he goes into a trance-like state to conjure up the name of the town they will be going to. It is later revealed that Younger had mentioned Northfield before.

The main dynamic in the film is the relationship between the two heads of the gang, Younger and James. Younger is the man of the future, who can see ahead to the time when he won’t have to rob banks. James, on the other hand, is caught in an endless loop of past crimes to be avenged. We hear James recount his time with the Confederacy, and his role with Merrill’s Raiders in the Lawrence, Kansas Massacre.

“They say we killed 1000 Yankees there.”

Younger gets up off his sickbed and goes to try to prevent the Northfield raid, which would jeopardize their amnesty. Hopping a train on the way, Younger learns that the amnesty has been defeated, and thus he decides to go ahead with the raid.

The train ride has gotten him to Northfield ahead of James, and he learns that the bank in question is broke. Younger comes up with the idea of posing as a cattle dealer and fooling the townspeople into putting their savings back into the bank. The bank manager is an accomplice in this, little realizing that he is facilitating the robbing of his own bank.

As it was in “The Wild Bunch”, one of the underlying themes in “TGNMR” is the encroachment of progress and how the old ways are changing fast. There is a little scene where a steam tractor comes around a corner, and the members of the gang are visibly startled by it. A calliope is set up on the street in front of the bank, and the struggle to get it to work mirrors the efforts of Younger to set up his robbery.

The robbery itself is a disaster, as James morphs into a twitching psychopath and kills a bank employee. Two members of the gang are killed, and Younger and the rest go on the run. The pursuit and capture of Younger and his gang are fairly perfunctory, but what is notable is the way they are paraded through Northfield in a cage, like animals. The people come out in droves to gawk and cheer.

Jesse and Frank James, meanwhile have escaped and as they escape on a wagon we get a chilling indicator of the fate of an elderly woman who sheltered them earlier in the film. Jesse doesn’t have time for remorse, however, because he is already planning who will be in his new gang. In his mind, the war rages on.

On this Date

I came upon Barbara Stanwyck by going backwards. My first memory of her was as Victoria Barkley, matriarch of TV’s “The Big Valley”. It was a bit of a revelation when I became a cinephile and started to see her at the height of her powers, in stuff like “The Lady Eve”, “Meet John Doe”, “Stella Dallas”, “Sorry, Wrong Number”, etc.

The above photo is from 1941’s “Ball of Fire”, the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs send-up directed by Howard Hawks and written by one Billy Wilder. Barbara owned the film as the singer and mob moll Sugerpuss O’Shea, but it was her next Wilder script that proved to be her touchstone role – as Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity”. When I watch that film, I’m always amazed at the different notes that she hits – Sexy, conniving, vulnerable, strong.

And yes, I know those last two are contradictory.

Barbara Stanwyck was born on this date in 1907.

Friday, July 14, 2006

On Location

Robert Aldrich accentuates a point to Gaby Rodgers and Ralph Meeker on the set of Kiss Me Deadly.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


I have to confess that I have a special fascination for films about World War II that were actually made during the war. Many of them seem to have a certain authenticity that came from living in that time and in those circumstances - An authenticity that can’t really be re-produced after the fact.

The legendary "Archers" – director Michael Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger made "Contraband" in England in 1940, and it’s a classic example of what I talked about above. Set in London during the Blitz, this is a film that knows details such as having a maitre d’ ask a diner if he is bringing a gas mask into the dining room.

The film opens in a small English resort town, as the Navy sees a Danish ship passing, and gives the order for it to be detained. The ship’s captain is Anderson (Conrad Veidt) and he’s a tough cookie. He first refuses to obey the order to stop, and when he finally does, doesn’t go to meet the boarding Brits, instead making them come to him.

We get to briefly meet some of the passengers, most notably Mrs. Sorenson, a strong-willed divorcee played by Valerie Hobson. She and the Captain butt heads early on over her refusal to wear a life jacket, and one of the delights of this film is watching two smart, stubborn people banter.

After an interview, the British officers develop sufficient trust to give Anderson a pair of shore passes, for him and his First Officer Skold. When it comes time to go ashore, the passes are gone and Sorenson and a talent agent named Pidgeon are gone with them. Anderson is furious, and he and Skold head ashore in a small skiff to find them. A schedule torn out of a paper leads Anderson to a train, and he finds his quarry hidden behind an open copy of Variety. He loses Pidgeon, but decides to keep Sorenson close to him.

A trip to her aunt’s house reveals a surprise – There are men waiting for her. There’s a marvelous scene where a German agent who somehow manages to be both warm and menacing questions Sorenson. Anderson listens to this from a couch, and this is how he discovers that she and Pidgeon are agents carrying info about German spy ships.

Anderson and Sorenson are tied to together under the watchful eye of a surveillance camera. The way they plot their escape together is one of the centrepices of the film. Watch as they position themselves so that the camera can only see her, then listen to the sounds of the building. There is someone playing a banjo and a fine male singing voice, and Sorenson gets and idea of the layout of the building from listening to the footsteps above her. Anderson manages to wriggle out of his bonds, and in an inspired plan, starts turning the lights in the building on. London being in curfew and under a blackout, this brings the police to the door, and Anderson gets out.

The problem is, since the entire city is in blackness, he doesn’t know where he was being held. This leads to a search of nightclubs, looking for one with a banjo player and a male singer. He seems to have found the right one, then is told that they have never had a male singer. He is just about to leave, when a female singer starts into a song – A singer with a decidedly masculine voice. Bingo!

The blackout plays a pivotal role in "Contraband." So much so, in fact, that when the film was released in America, it was called "Blackout". The final confrontation with the Nazi spy takes place in the dark; with both men feeling their way around, and trying to get a shot off at one another.

Powell and Pressburger are best known in America for the masterpieces they created a few years later, like "The Red Shoes", "Black Narcissus", and "A Matter of Life and Death", and Powell himself essentially had his career destroyed with "Peeping Tom" in 1960. These films are all high points, but they are by no means the only ones. "Contraband" is one of their notable early films, and it’s a terrific, tight little thriller. It sure feels like it was made by someone who knew what being at war was like.

Note: The credits indicate that Deborah Kerr has a small uncredited role in this. I sure didn’t notice her. If anyone else has, let me know.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

On Location

The principals of Psycho huddle up

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Between the Covers

It was a decade ago that I first ran across Mark Helprin. The novel was “Memoir From Antproof Case”, and the story of its nameless, coffee-hating protagonist grabbed me in a big way. Imagine a narrator who has been a murderer, a patient in an asylum, a WW2 ace, and a thief who rips off millions in gold bullion. That’s the way things are in Helprin’s universe – The adventures are big, bawdy and rotated a little bit off-kilter.

So here we are again with “Freddy and Fredericka”, his first novel in a decade. We know the title characters already – The Prince and Princess of Wales - He stiff, intellectual and hound-eared, she blond, beautiful and vacuous. Due to their penchant for embarrassing the Royal family, they are banished to America until Freddy can prove himself capable of assuming the throne.

The duo’s story is like “On The Road” filtered through Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and begins with them being dropped naked into New Jersey, and includes stealing art, fighting forest fires, working in a Medieval Times-themed restaurant, and in the novels’ inspired centerpiece, running the campaign of the foppish Presidential candidate Dewey Knott.

I laughed out loud at this novel. Often.

“Freddy had been to all the major places in America that were even vaguely like England. In favour of playing polo in Virginia or making a speech in Cambridge, he had skipped the West except as a place, in the late fifties, to kill large animals, and was unfamiliar with it other than by looking down from the Concorde on his way to Los Angeles or San Francisco. And these, as far as he was concerned, were cities with a tenous hold not only on America but upon the earth. The first time he had seen San Francisco he has come from the sea on Brittania and he had assumed he was hallucinating. He loved it, but he never stopped believing it was only a puff of ether. He had gone inland in California, once, to visit a walnut ranch, but apart from that had known nothing other than a strip of Pacific coast ten miles wide. Now they were in the West that neither he nor Fredericka had experienced except as a terra-cotta-coloured carpet so distant that it might have been the textured wall of one of the neopalaeolithic buildings Freddy so distained.”

The Marquee

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

On This Date

Take a moment to pour yourself a drink – Tequila would be best – and join me in a toast to the late, great, Warren Oates. Warren would have turned 78 today, and they aren’t making his type anymore.

When he was finished with the Marine Corps, Warren decided to try his hand at acting. This was in the 50’s and the golden age of TV Westerns, and Warren found his niche playing heavies on various series.

At the same time, Sam Peckinpah was honing his skills on such series as "The Rifleman", "The Westerner", and "Trackdown", and he and the fledging actor struck up a friendship. Peckinpah eventually moved to the big screen and when he made his early masterpiece "Ride The High Country", Oates was with him as one of the white trash Hammond brothers.

In the amalgam of beautiful moments that are "The Wild Bunch", my favorite belongs to Warren. When William Holden’s Pike comes to collect him to go and get Angel, their conversation is a marvel of economy. Pike says simply "Let’s go!" and Warren gives this wry little smile and replies "Why not?" Damn right.

My personal favorite Oates role, however, isn’t with Peckinpah – It’s in Monte Hellman’s "Two-Lane Blacktop". Driving a cool yellow GTO, Warren steals the film out from under its boring-as-sawdust headliners, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. As a lonesome hot-rodding knight errant, he’s the one whiff of real humanity in the film.

So here’s to you, Lyle Gorch.

Here’s a little something for the piano player.