It’s Not Just You, Murray! – a clever comedy piece by budding film director great

Martin Scorsese, “It’s Not Just You, Murray!” (1964)

Made by Scorsese as a film student at New York University under the tutelage of Haig Manoogian, this short film is a clever comedy piece about a mob boss Murray (John Bicona) who’s commissioned a film crew to make a laudatory biopic about him and his chief enforcer Joe (San de Fazio) who’s been his best friend since childhood. The beauty of the film is in the way Scorsese skilfully packs in experimentation with elements of various Hollywood film genres of the past – musicals, musical comedy, silent film, film noir, gangster movies among others – and with the film-making process itself: photographic stills, a kaleidoscopic montage of one scene multiplied into five that rotate around one another in the manner of Hollywood musicals, cinematic self-reference among other techniques Scorsese uses. At once a spoof of gangster movies and an affectionate homage to aspects of Italian-American culture such as male bonding, the film is a character study of sorts: it’s a look at Murray and Joe, how their friendship has developed over the years and how the two men are close even though it’s obvious to all except Murray himself that Joe’s been two-timing him with his wife and might even be the father of Murray’s kids.

The fact that it’s in black-and-white is no problem for Scorsese who even makes fun out of that restriction by shooting some scenes as though they were part of a silent film, complete with tinny piano accompaniment, or part of a 1930s Hollywood musical, complete with close-ups of a chorus line of girls; other scenes in the short might have come straight out of a serious crime or legal drama from the 1950s, or from an Italian movie of the same period (Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” has been cited as an influence on Scorsese so I assume that film’s being referenced here). All the different styles, filming elements and techniques and references are blended together so well that the flow of the film appears completely natural even though parts of it look old and other parts look new and fresh, even nearly 50 years after its making.

The final scene at the end of the film looks like pure surrealism with all the major people in Murray’s life turning up to celebrate his success and a professional photographer hired to take a photo of Murray and Joe together. The film ends precisely at the point that the camera flash goes off, there’s a big bang and a white cloud of smoke issues to completely obscure the two, er, friends … so does Murray finally realise what Joe’s been up to or does Joe get the last laugh here?

Scorsese’s mother Catherine shows up in small cameos as Murray’s mama, forever stuffing her little boy with spaghetti even when he’s doing jail-time and she has to feed him through the bars!

The film looks back on Hollywood history and forward to Scorsese’s career in making films about the Mafia and his interest in  film culture and its preservation. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in Scorsese’s development as a film director and in film experimentation.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb: black satire on fetishisation of war and technology

Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb” (1964)

Notable as the film that features British actor Peter Sellers in three very different roles, this black comedy is a satire on the Cold War that had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and which extended to the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell, and the attitudes, culture and outlook associated with that period. In particular, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, in which countries refrain from nuclear war due to the fear of universal nuclear catastrophe resulting from detonation of an atomic bomb irrespective of who drops it first, is revealed as an inadequate response to a situation of deadlock which should be resolved by communication and diplomacy, both options being badly bungled by politicians on both sides. The film is outstanding for its cast of actors and their acting: Sellers has perhaps never been better before or since he made the film, and other actors like George C Scott, Slim Pickens and Sterling Hayden also distinguish themselves playing characters on the brink of mental derangement brought about by extreme fantasies and paranoia born from their military training and background.

The narrative divides into three connected strands: General Jack D Ripper (Hayden) is so hung up about the Commies contaminating America’s vitality – there is a clear theme of nuclear power being analogous to male sexuality, therefore paranoia reveals male sexual inadequacy – that he orders a sudden nuclear air strike on the USSR and four bombers take off to drop their loads far deep in Soviet territory. News of the order reaches the White House where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) frantically tries to contact and convince his Soviet counterpart that the attack is a mistake. Muffley tells his War Secretary Turgidson (Scott) to storm the military base where Ripper and his second-in-charge Captain Mandrake (Sellers) are located; Mandrake tries to stop Ripper from ordering the nuclear attack but fails so he turns instead to figuring out the recall code that will stop the bombing. The base is stormed and Ripper’s men, believing they are being attacked by the Soviets, fight back. Ripper commits suicide and Mandrake finds the recall code and phones the White House.

In the meantime the President and his cabinet are shocked at news from the Soviet ambassador Alexei Sadeski (Peter Bull) that the USSR has built a doomsday machine after its politicians read a New York Times article proclaiming that the Americans had already made one. Muffley summons his scientific advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers) who suggests that the ambassador’s statement is a ploy. Sadeski admits the doomsday machine’s secret was going to be revealed by the Soviet government in another week.

Three of the four US bombers are eventually persuaded to turn away but the fourth, headed by Major Kong (Pickens) heads for a ballistic missile complex in remote Soviet territory and in spite of various technological malfunctions in the plane – malfunctions deliberately installed so as to make the job of dropping bombs difficult and so enforcing caution on those who would use the bomb – Kong manages to get it going in a spectacular scene suggestive of sexual penetration and the adolescent schoolboy reaction to “getting it up”. On receiving the news that a nuclear bomb has been released, Muffley and his dejected cabinet begin discussing how they can protect the American population from the inevitable radiation fall-out once the US and the Soviets begin trading inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in earnest. The weird Dr Strangelove, struggling with his atavistic Nazi tendencies, finally stands up and the feared doomsday machine is triggered as suggested by the film’s repeating coda to the tune of Vera Lynn’s famous World War II song “We’ll meet again’.

The various characters in the film draw their effectiveness from the real people who inform them: Strangelove is based on famous German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, physicist Edward Teller, futurist and strategist Herman Kahn, and mathematician John von Neumann; President Muffley is based in part on US politician Adlai Stevenson; and Mandrake is based on British airforce officers Sellers had known during World War II. Mandrake is played fairly straight though it is not difficult to see Sellers’s most famous role of Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther notoriety in the character and Muffley is also quite a straight, non-comic character in spite of the hilarious lines he sometimes has to deliver. Bureaucracy and political ineptitude are targets for satire through these characters. The sinister Dr Strangelove is a metaphor for Nazi scientists and others who fled to the US from Germany while the latter country was descending into flames and hell in 1945, and whose loyalties to America might still be in doubt despite the passage of time. Strangelove worships science and technology and the capabilities and range of opportunities these offer; his character might be said also to satirise those who fetishise technologies of annihilation so much that they rejoice even in the alarming number of deaths the weapons are certain to cause.

Sexual innuendos abound in the characters’ names, the language they use and their actions (Strangelove’s behaviour at the end of the film being an example) and in much of the film’s visuals and the images employed, especially near the end. This suggests that the competition to build up armed forces and military weapons with no thought for their consequences is a puerile fantasy that can only end badly.

Cinematography is employed in ways that enhance the film’s claustrophobic paranoia: the bomber aircraft is cramped, the President’s war room looks bunker-like, sealed off from public scrutiny, the headquarters at Ripper’s military base is made bunker-like as well due to the attacks on it. The film’s climax and conclusion are dominated by scenes of the bomber flying to its definition, all flipping backwards and forwards among themselves, to create a feeling of growing tension as viewers become convinced that the bomb will be dropped in spite of the White House’s best efforts to stop it.

While the film has dated in nearly 50 years as of this time of writing, what with military technology having changed dramatically to the extent that aerial bombing has all but ceased, the point that reliance on technological balance between enemies is fragile at best and dangerously unstable at worst remains and that there is no technological substitute, however seductive, for openness, accountability and diplomacy.

 

 

Cosmopolis: profound road-movie meditation on corporate nihilism and its destruction of people

David Cronenberg, “Cosmopolis” (2012)

A profound and thoughtful film on the nature of the corporate fascist mind-set, “Cosmopolis”  is a quasi-cyberpunk road movie across New York City. Billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) sets out in his stretch limousine early in the morning for a hair-cut appointment. His path is not straightforward for the President of the United States has come to NYC on a state visit and security barricades have been put up in those parts of the city where the limo would travel through, plus his favourite rap singer Brutha Fez (K’naan) has just died and his funeral cortège will also interfere with and slow down the limo. As the limo also serves as his office, Packer meets with his art dealer / mistress (Juliette Binoche), his finance officer (Emily Hampshire), a corporate guru / philosopher (Sandra Morton), a couple of analysts (Jay Baruchel, Philip Nozuka) and his doctor for various appointments. He catches sight of his estranged wife (Sarah Gadon) a few times and tries to convince her to return but she refuses as she needs her energy for work. Throughout the day, he receives news that his humongous fortune, dependent on his prediction of the Chinese yuan’s depreciation being correct, comes crashing down and that his life is in danger from a stalker.

Due to the aforementioned obstructions and an unexpected protest, Packer’s trip to the barber takes much longer than expected – it takes over 12 hours! – during which time Packer reveals himself as a highly complex and troubled man: cold and emotionless externally, yet vulnerable, hungering for real human contact, searching for meaning to his existence and ultimately self-loathing. The plot is flimsy and absurd, and characters speak in a highly stilted and staged way, indicating that the source material is either a novel or a play – as it happens, the film is based on a Don DeLillo novel of the same name. Packer’s conversations with his employees and other people range over topics such as the nature of information and information flows and their value in capitalist society, the distinction between the present and the future, finding meaning in life and the value of wealth and material goods to one’s self-esteem. By night Packer realises that he is a ruined man yet seems quite happy and even feels free; and when he comes face to face with his stalker (Paul Giamatti) who may or may not kill him at point-blank range, he does not plead for his life and even appears to welcome the release that death may bring him.

“Cosmopolis” is cool, calculated and stunningly beautiful in a clinical, Ballardesque way in which the thin line between intellectual, abstract rationality and rich-kid hedonistic psychopathy disappears. The rapacious dehumanising values of corporate capitalism unfold through Packer, his hermetic limo world and the contrast it makes with the rough-n-tumble cosmopolitan world of NYC. R-Patz is an ideal choice to play Packer: his blank and beautiful face conveys subtle emotion and intelligence, and his acting is efficient. One can truly believe that here was once a golden youth, highly intelligent and university-educated, restless and wanting to know and to control more, a thrill-seeker desirous of experience and love, but now perverted by material greed and sensuous hedonism. First indications that his perfectly aligned, designed world will crash around him come from his two analysts and doctor who informs him that his prostate is asymmetrical. It will be interesting to see how Pattinson’s career progresses from “Cosmopolis” onwards: he can act in the kind of challenging role that once upon a time the likes of James Spader, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger chased and if he and his agent can find the right character roles in future films, his star will surely eclipse those of the current generation of Hollywood actors.

The support actors are a little wasted as they are all talented but their roles have very limited screen time: the stand-out is Paul Giamatti as the vengeful and deranged ex-employee who believes killing Packer will restore meaning to his own life. Other memorable characters include the security chief (Kevin Durand) whose whole life revolves around protecting Packer to the extent that he literally is Packer’s shadow and is nothing without him; and chauffeur Ibrahim (Abdul Ayoola) who together with the barber (George Touliatos) provide the warm proletarian contrast to Packer’s world of virtual reality and ruthless control of information and resource flows where real-life people like the security chief can be dispensed with at the barrel of a gun.

There are strong themes of authenticity-versus-inauthenticity, the quest for self-knowledge and identity, and the danger to one’s sanity of being caught up in a world where abstraction and emotionless rationality reign supreme and the need to know and control everything down to the tiniest detail such as the shape of one’s prostate absorbs all one’s attention. Packer represents a profoundly nihilist individual who has become God in his world and it seems appropriate that to be truly Übermensch, he pays for his nihilism by destroying everything he has, including his own life.

Nõiutud saar (The Enchanted Island): a sweet and charming film with a moral about unity in diversity

Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer, “Nõiutud Saar (The Enchanted Island)” (1985)

Another gem from Tallinnfilm studios and this time it’s a cute stop-motion animation short with no dialogue, just harmonica and string-based tune fragments to substitute for speech and emotion and to emphasise action. The style is simple and sweet with appealing characters; even the monster that pops up with rows of sharp teeth bared in the middle of the body where the head should bounce up is endearingly cute. Initially the film appears to be aimed at children but there is a slight sexual though harmless innuendo in the middle of the short.

A small group of fishing folk lives on a tiny island in the middle of a vast flat sea. Each day they row out to catch fish. One member of the group – usually always the youngest or most inexperienced – has trouble putting his boat out to sea and nearly always drowns while fishing. One day though the fishers are overcome by a monster whale; the little guy turns out to have the most guts and gets rid of the whale. However it seems the monster whale has cast a spell over the rest of the group, all the fishers having gone spastic in their attempts to appease their god, so the little feller converts himself into a bird-machine and flies to another realm to fight the evil spirit. He has to do this three times before the spell is finally broken and the fishers return to their normal functioning selves.

The little characters are Swiss-knife cybernetic organisms that change their forms and this is where the animation is most inventive; the little guys’ hands change from fins to harpoons to wings whenever required. They have expressive eyes but otherwise don’t show emotion. The evil that confronts our hero comes in various forms: firstly as a leviathan whale, then as a beguiling lady flamenco dancer (whom our hero defeats by turning into an old-fashioned gramophone player) and then as an even more colossal whale with a hidden secret weapon. The music is charming and whimsical: harmonica represents our hero’s character including his initial awkward klutziness and later bravery while other characters are accompanied by other instruments, mainly strings.

It’s a funny, sweet and charming little film with a little moral for children that it doesn’t matter if they’re not the same as other children in certain skills: everyone is unique and might have a special talent that helps everybody survive together. The fishing folk accept our hero in spite of his incompetence as a fisher as he has other abilities that help them all. The one flaw people might find is that the fishing folk tend to ignore our hero throughout the film and don’t appear to change their attitudes towards him; some change in the way they interact with him might have lifted the film to universal greatness. Disney-style sentimentality is not called for here, just a slight acknowledgement of what he’s done for them is all that’s needed.

Family Plot: skilfully made comedy thriller that deconstructs familiar Hitchcock motifs and themes for laughs

Alfred Hitchcock, “Family Plot” (1976)

Considering that the famous British director was in bad health when he made this film, I find “Family Plot” to be a light-hearted and entertaining comedy thriller about two con-artist couples engaged in deception of one form or another – and trying to outwit each other. An elderly lady (Cathleen Nesbitt), remorseful over the way she treated her unmarried sister and the sister’s baby son years ago, consults phony psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) to find out what happened to the nephew. Blanche scents that a huge sum of money may be in the balance and she and her cab-driver boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern) try to figure out a way to get it; they find themselves on the trail of one Edward Shoebridge who may or may not be dead. They find out during the course of the film that he certainly is NOT dead; what takes them most of the film’s running time to discover is that Shoebridge is also Arthur Adamson (William Devane), a jeweller who is also a thief, a kidnapper and extortionist, and who with his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) and partner-in-crime Joe Maloney (Ed Lauter) is trying to shake off Blanche and George who are determined to investigate exactly what happened to Shoebridge. Hilariously, Shoebridge / Adamson turns out to be the nephew of the elderly lady.

The film is very much character-driven though the casting seems rather uneven: Harris and Dern as the amateur detectives totally out of their depth in a danger-filled investigation are hilarious (though Harris looks old-fashioned in her Doris Day get-up and is required to overdo the slapstick) while Black and Devane seem miscast and mismatched as partners in both crime and romance. Black is too nice to be a villainous vixen and Devane, very 1970s clean-cut and all flashing white teeth, looks a caricatured oleaginous and smarmy snake-oil dealer for a role that calls for him to be amoral and brutal (his back-story among other things includes his having locked his parents up in their bedroom and then burning the house down). Everything revolves around these couples so it’s just as well that in spite of their clean-cut looks, the actors acquit themselves adequately to well in a vehicle that combines light comedy and slapstick with quite dark and sinister themes in a highly improbable plot. For all his stereotyped moustachioed look, Devane pulls off a difficult role of appearing suave and sophisticated while being really malevolent without a redeeming bone in his body.

Admittedly the film looks dated – it looks more late 1960s than late 1970s in spite of the fashions the actors wear – due to the filming techniques used and the curious mix of dramatic orchestral music that was typical of 1960s Hollywood flicks and the harpsichord-toned soundtrack of the sort that became popular in the 1970s. (The music is the work of the famous Hollywood music composer John Williams.) The pace is slow to begin with but after the first half-hour, it starts to move more briskly and becomes enjoyable. Hitch is not averse to throwing in scenes that might remind viewers of “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “To Catch a Thief”: for heaven’s sake there’s even a silly and over-long runaway car scene reminiscent of the car chases of “North …” and ” To Catch a Thief”. Indeed, Hitch seems keen on deconstructing beloved motifs of his: the cool blonde lady in the first 20 minutes is really only wearing a wig; Blanche and George emerge from their wrecked car looking clean and tidy; the idea of opposed twins, represented this time by the scheming couples, bumbling amateurs pitted against intelligent professionals, is played for laughs; and the rocky path to romance, usually strewn with danger, death and the odd psycho killer, is more wacky than spine-chilling.

Hitch knew that he’d been left behind by a new generation of film directors, represented by Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg, and that he himself didn’t have much time left in the world so it’s rather fitting that he revisits familiar themes, plot ideas and motifs in a light-hearted deconstructive way that allows him to say goodbye to over fifty years of directing films. “Family Plot” may not rank among his best films but it is competent in execution and for all its aged looks and the miscasting, it has a zest that’s a bit slow to get going … but once it does, it makes the film fun to watch.

 

 

 

 

 

The Dictator: comedy savages Western self-righteousness, ignorance and hypocrisy

Larry Charles, “The Dictator” (2012)

I confess I saw this latest Sacha Baron Cohen film to see how offensive and tasteless it is. Truly dictatorial “The Dictator” is, in dredging up every known Western stereotype about Middle Eastern / North African countries and peoples, and tin-pot dictators around the world, and throwing it all hard and brutally back in our faces. At once LOL idiotic, puerile and revolting, SBC’s latest comedy vehicle hides a subversive and biting satire on Western ignorance of other peoples, cultures and religions, the West’s cynical support for freedom and democracy in Third World countries which masks corporate greed for those countries’ natural resources, and how easily so-called progressive and idealistic causes can be corrupted by contact with rapacious capitalism and political oppression.

The movie is at once a romantic comedy and a “fish out of water” adventure. Admiral Shabaz Aladeen (SBC) of the oil-rich desert nation Wadiya, located where Eritrea would normally sit (and thereby potentially antagonising real Eritrean people), is compelled to visit New York City to address the United Nations Security Council when that august body threatens to invade his country for stubbornly forging ahead with  a nuclear weapons production program. Little does the feckless Aladeen know that his wicked uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) plans to usurp him and take his place as Supreme Leader so he can “democratise” Wadiya and open up the country’s resources to Western oil companies. Soon enough, Tamir’s hired hitman kidnaps Aladeen but the dictator escapes and finds refuge with Zoe (Anna Faris), an eco-activist who manages a food co-op with the help of Third World refugees. It so happens that the co-op supplies food to the Lancaster Hotel where Aladeen’s entourage is staying so with the help of Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), the exiled former head of the Wadiya nuclear weapons development program, Aladeen attempts to infiltrate the hotel and get rid of his simple-minded double who is being manipulated by Tamir.

Along the way, Aladeen learns about co-operating with people of different origins and cultures, running a business based on lofty idealistic principles, falls in love with Zoe, discovers the extent to which Muslims and Arabs are detested in the West and finally recognises the worth of democracy – or maybe not in all cases.

The film is chaotic and messy (though not as meandering as SBC’s earlier “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation Kazakhstan”) with skits raggedly put together and then wrung and squeezed to their utmost for bad-taste comedy. A scene in which a woman gives birth in Zoe’s store can be excruciating to watch for layering several tasteless vulgarities to the nth degree and the punch-line Aladeen utters when the baby (inevitably) is a girl can be predicted ten parsecs away. The funniest bits are quite subtle and easy to miss, and not for the first time (nor for the last) did I find myself the only person in the cinema – I admit that there were not very many people watching the film with me and we could all be counted on the fingers of two hands – laughing out too loudly at idiotic jokes like the Fallujah Firebomb during the torture scene, the equation of Dick Cheney with Saddam Hussein and Colonel Muammar Gadhafi during the would-be suicide scene and the UN Assembly scene in which Tamir requests Exxon not to use BP oil-rigs in its share of Wadiya’s territorial waters.

Director Charles and SBC pay attention to visual details that lampoon the media and the profligacy of wealthy political elites: two talking heads for a TV news program dissect the performance of Aladeen’s double at a conference and wildly misinterpret his bumbling behaviour as having momentous import for viewers, some of whom might be policy-makers and other government lackeys; and it’s not only Aladeen who is misogynist and has flamboyantly bad taste in furnishings, recreational pursuits and clothing – diplomats from other, better-behaved countries are also portrayed as vulgar twats. The music, chosen by SBC, loudly and merrily runs the gamut from lovey-dovey schmaltzy to trash disco and faux Middle Eastern techno.

The film makes its biggest Laugh-Out Loud impact in the climax in which Aladeen tears up Tamir’s “democratic” constitution and expounds at length on how tyrannies should exercise social and political control over populations: his speech ends up a condemnation of the US (and by implication the entire First World), the global financial industry, the global media (News Corporation and the Murdoch family being singled out in particular) and the way in which a tiny elite – the “one percent” – controls everyone else through debt / global finance and culture.

Just as hilarious and creepy is Aladeen’s management of Zoe’s food co-op, using the violent and unorthodox methods he used as the Wadiya kahuna in turning around the fortunes of the store and winning back the contract to supply food to the Lancaster Hotel. This suggests that progressive causes more often than not end up in bed with the very politically and socially reactionary forces they claim to be fighting, especially when the issue involves identity politics, as in Western feminists supporting NATO intervention in Afghanistan or Jewish activists supporting the elimination of racial discrimination and forms of apartheid in all countries except Israel.  

Another outstanding skit finds Aladeen in the emigre district of Little Wadiya where everyone he meets turns out to be someone he condemned to death years ago but who was spirited away to the US by the Wadiya state executioner; this scene is a commentary on the travails of refugees when they reach what they imagine are countries offering friendship and security but which spurn and consign them to lowly neighbourhoods where they eke out an existence running restaurants catering to their own community. A fourth very funny skit is the helicopter scene in which Nadal and Aladeen chat excitedly in Wadiyan about visiting the New York City sights while two American passengers opposite them grow alarmed at what they think is a discussion of plans to bomb the Statue of Liberty and Yankee Stadium.

The film narrowly escapes charges of being racist and discriminating against Muslims and Arabs by taking on a range of targets and skewering each and every one of them in crude and savage ways: the laugh is on us Western audiences and our smug self-righteousness, hypocrisy and ignorance about peoples and cultures we continue to care less about. Still, I have a niggling feeling that SBC does pull punches when issues of his identity as a Jew and his support for Israel and Zionism come under the spotlight.

Le Havre: emotionally deep and heartwarming film about the value of community, love and friendships

Aki Kaurismäki, “Le Havre” (2011)

A heartwarming comedy drama that focusses on deception and the plight of illegal migrants, “Le Havre” features characters, a plot and a deadpan style that masks deep emotion and warmth typical of Kaurismäki’s films. Failed bohemian writer Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) and his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) live in a tiny house in a down-and-out neighbourhood in the French port of Le Havre; Marcel ekes out a living cleaning customers’ shoes at the town’s main train station together with his friend Chang. One day Arletty falls sick with a stomach tumour and must be rushed to hospital. At the same time, French police intercept a shipping container in which several illegal migrants from Africa are hiding; while the cops and the Red Cross workers are interviewing the migrants, one of them, a young boy called Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), manages to run away. He meets Marcel at the town’s harbour and Marcel, left alone with pet dog Laika, gladly takes the boy in and shields him from the police. From then on, Marcel juggles the task of finding Idrissa’s grandfather and obtaining the London address of the youngster’s mother while keeping him out of trouble and away from Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who has been tasked with the job of flushing out Idrissa and taking him into custody.

The plot is highly improbable and Marcel manages to bluff his way through situations that ordinary mortals would simply fail at: he convinces a detective that he is a lawyer; he reconciles an estranged couple so that his charity concert, intended to raise money for Idrissa’s journey across the English Channel, can go ahead; he and Idrissa have several close escapes from the police. The characters’ dialogue is deadpan comic and doesn’t express any emotion at all; the actors themselves express feeling through eye contact and body language. Obviously the more experienced and older actors do a better job of conveying feeling through gestures and looks than Miguel does as Idrissa but since the young actor is portraying a shy and quiet boy, the one-dimensional character of Idrissa can be overlooked; the emotional centre of the film is Marcel and Arletty, stoic and resigned at the hand life has dealt them both but faithful and loving to each other and able to appreciate small gestures of love and care from each other and their neighbours. Everyone in Marcel’s neighbourhood has suffered hardship but bears up with good-humoured resilience and looks out for one another when the heavy hand of authority invades the street with brutality and bureaucratic indifference.

The comedy addresses in small ways some serious issues in modern French society: the fear and paranoia people feel towards illegal African and specifically Muslim migrants who are imagined to be linked to terrorist groups; the plight of these migrants and poor people like the Marxes, forced to survive in an underground economy disowned by the larger society, itself beset by financial crisis and uncertainty; the thuggishness of the police of whom only Monet proves to possess any humanity in spite of his avowed dislike for people (his character simply underlines the indifference and brutish nature of the police – and by extension, the French government authorities – towards ordinary people; the need for people to dissemble or fake their identities or life stories in order to survive or to maintain relationships. In the end, faith in themselves and hope that life can allow miracles to happen in an otherwise uncaring world are all that Marcel, Idrissa and those who help them rely on to remain and feel alive.

The film’s eccentric style and characters are reinforced by the eclectic choice of music and an enjoyable diversion into a rock’n’roll performance by an ageing Elvis wannabe rock star Little Bob (Robert Piazza aka Little Bob) at Marcel’s charity gig. No-one can say that French people can’t rock after this movie!

Very similar to a previous film “The Man with no Past” which also starred Kati Outinen and with many of the same plot devices, “Le Havre” is a warm and compassionate film about the value of community, love and friendships that cross social barriers and bureaucracy.

 

 

Carnage: comedy of no-manners patronises Americans and diminishes its audiences

Roman Polanski, “Carnage” (2011)

Not one of his better efforts due to the nature of the original play but then again, a comedy from Polanski is almost as rare as teeth in a chicken, especially one as entirely dialogue and character-driven as this. Two school-age boys have scuffled and one has whacked the other in the face with a switch, breaking two of his teeth, so the culprit’s parents agree to meet the victim’s at his home. Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), the parents of the miscreant, have jobs as investment banker and corporate lawyer respectively; the victim’s folks, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly), are somewhat lower class where income is concerned but are more cultured, or at least Penelope is (or pretends to be). In attempting to call a truce and assign financial responsibility for the victim’s dental expenses, the two couples allow their personal lives to take over the conversation via their cellphone calls and their respective civilised veneers, loosened by too many glasses of scotch, fall away; before long, their hang-ups about their marriages, class differences, social consciences, general outlook on life, obligations to their families and a pet hamster explode into the open in the confines of the Longstreets’ apartment.

Polanski is wise to keep all the action based in one room (the Longstreets’ lounge-room) so as to allow the actors to fly freely with their characters. Foster and Winslet excel with their particular characters: Foster the socially conscious and caring writer-cum-artist activist is revealed as an ambitious, narrow-minded and controlling shrew who always has to be top dog; Winslet the high-maintenance trophy wife loses control of herself from drinking too much and vomiting. Reilly and Waltz have rather more limited roles with Reilly playing a mediator and failing dismally and Waltz a workaholic more interested in winning lawsuits on behalf of crooked corporate clients in order to avoid dealing with a failing marriage and a child affected by his parents’ fights and faults. We start to see why the children of these parents might have behaved the way they did: the Cowans’ son wants the attention his parents are not giving him and the Longstreets’ son may be a passive child vulnerable to bullying because his mother coddles him and his father is too laidback to show him how to stand up for himself.

There are incongruities in the characters: what Penelope, who more or less conforms to the popular “champagne socialist” type (socially conscientious, skimming the surface of art and culture so as to appear sophisticated), found attractive in Michael with his non-PC prejudices and cavalier attitude towards small animals is never explained though their differences provide plenty of laughs; and Nancy and Michael are equally mismatched (she a brittle upper class princess, he a dull one-dimensional corporate robot whose life revolves around work) and contemptuous of each other. It’s likely though that the common bonds between them are love of money and status and who married whom for the money is perhaps not too difficult to work out. Initially the conflict is between morally upright do-gooding Penelope and cynical Alan with Michael trying to calm down and jolly people along and Nancy performing her simpering debutante act. The action clearly takes place in a claustrophobic and labyrinthine hot-house apartment though the Longstreets refer to their home as a “house”; usually in Polanski’s films, such a setting reflects characters’ inner states of mind but in this movie the setting merely looks picturesque.

Although the actors are very capable and the comedy is fast-paced and well-timed, the plot itself ends up in a rut: the characters simply keep on finding new scabs to pick at and make bleed and the bickering becomes tiresome. Script-writers Yasmina Reza (who wrote the original play) and Polanski pile on one unpleasantry after another on the characters until they become caricatures of themselves and the action is forced to stop rather suddenly when Nancy petulantly flings flowers about. One presumes the film-makers discovered at the last minute that there were no custard pies in the Longstreets’ fridge.

What themes exist in the film – how the rapacity of Wall Street and corporate culture has found its way into the lives of people like the Cowans and reduced them to mean-spirited, hollowed-out shells who can’t connect with their son; the snootiness of self-styled “liberal” and “progressive” types like Penelope loudly proclaiming their new versions of the 19th-century “white man’s burden” by writing books about wars and poverty in Africa while perhaps ignoring the poverty in their own neighbourhoods; the redneck vulgarity of Michael – are treated in a patronising way. The audience is expected to laugh at these foolish Americans for their self-obsession and identity politics. Yet in laughing at them, we ourselves are diminished; aren’t we just as obsessed with our social identities, how we want people to view us and admire us, and aren’t we also just as unconcerned about the poor people in our midst while we express horror and concern for poor people in distant countries whom we hope we never have to see?

Interestingly the most important part of the film occurs right at the end where we see the couples’ sons being friendly as if nothing had happened between them earlier. This suggests the world in a microcosm: while the parents, self-important and materially wealthy but spiritually lacking, quarrel and treat their children like objects or trophies, the children themselves overcome any social differences and conflicts between them and become pals. If only our elites, obsessed with ideology, destructive economic growth and controlling the public, would just disappear and let the common people sort out the mess the world is in through working together and finding common ground, the planet will regenerate and humanity’s future would be bright indeed. Dream on.

Simon of the Desert: film of a saint dehumanised by his own self-righteous hypocrisy and pride

Luis Buñuel, “Simon of the Desert / Simón del Desierto” (1965)

Buñuel skewers again institutional religion and sanctimonious belief, this time in a satire based on the life of the 4th-century ascetic Simon Stylites who spent 25 years praying and meditating atop a pillar in a desert. Outwardly the saint (Claudio Brook) appears a genuinely humble and devout man but as the film progresses, his pride and self-righteousness prove to be his greatest downfall rather than any temptations offered by Satan (Silvia Pinal) who appears at least three times in different guises. Ostensibly Simon undertook his quest to be closer to God and find peace but subtle hints throughout the film, beginning with his transfer from one pillar to another paid for by a wealthy man, demonstrate a lack of genuine faith and a “holier than thou” self-pride: he neglects to acknowledge his mother and her willingness to suffer in the desert with him, he berates a novice monk for being clean and beardless and he complains about running out of insects and other creatures to bless. Satan comes to him as a sexy schoolgirl, God himself and finally as a guide to a different world which turns out to be our modern Western age. The film drops Simon and Satan, now a modish young woman, in the middle of a discotheque filled with teenagers jiving to a rock’n’roll band: Simon, now smoking and drinking alcohol, and looking like an ivory-tower intellectual who got blackmailed by a beautiful student into a date with her, gets bored and wants to leave but Satan tells him to wait right to the end when she and the others have finished dancing.

As the budget for the film ran out before its completion, Buñuel was forced to finish it quickly and abruptly, hence the completely unexpected climax and denouement in which Simon is transported 1,700 years into the future. I’m not sure though whether, if Buñuel had had more money, the intended ending would have been any better: the aim was to show how Simon’s determination to make himself suffer before God and his pride in undergoing more rigour than anyone else can stand undermine his humanity and resistance to Satan. I imagine the film would simply have piled on more examples of Simon undoing himself by his own actions, losing more of his humanity and purpose in life before he is reduced enough to succumb to Satan’s temptations. At the end of the film as it is, Simon finds he no longer has much in common with humanity and is farther away from God than what he thought himself to be, and that’s as it should be. Whether the final fall from grace should have taken place in a disco jumping with kids doing the latest dance while sax and guitars play around them is another thing: this scene reveals more about Buñuel’s prejudices towards teenage fads of his time than of Hell itself, and I rather feel Buñuel was unfair towards young kids in this respect when other, more genuinely trashy aspects of Western culture, including anything to do with religion and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, could have portrayed Hell in all its sordidness.

Other characters in the film, major and minor, illustrate Buñuel’s opinion of religious ritual, unthinking conformity and the sheer meanness that human nature can descend to. A thief without hands and his wife implore Simon for a miracle, Simon prays to God and the man suddenly finds his hands restored; instead of praising God and thanking Simon for the miracle, the man cuffs his son while the missus starts planning all the work hubby can now do around the house. Two nearby pilgrims refer to the miracle as a “trick” and various monks also treat this miracle and others Simon performs very lightly, even going so far as to suggest that Satan is responsible for putting food in Simon’s bag than Simon himself or somebody else. The only people in the film Buñuel has any pity or feeling for are Simon’s long-suffering mother, waiting patiently for some attention from her son, and a shepherd dwarf who has more good sense than everyone else in the movie combined.

While the plot and the style of the movie are uneven, at least Brook distinguishes himself by underacting and playing his character po-faced straight to the point where Simon becomes a figure of pity or ridicule while Pinal, clearly relishing her devilish role, slightly overdoes the sexiness and eats up the scenery whenever she appears. Buñuel hit on a real comedy duo in Brook and Pinal. Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography is beautiful and the plot allows him to show off his skill in filming from different angles, emphasising spatial (and maybe psychological) distance between Simon and the people he interacts with. Surreal influences – a coffin sliding over the grass, for example – intrude into the film and the plot twist near the end doesn’t seem all that out of place.

Perhaps the movie didn’t turn out as Buñuel intended but “Simon of the Desert” is not too bad as it is; any longer and the film might have become repetitive and boring in its latter half. As the saying goes, less is more, and as Shakespeare once said, brevity is the soul of wit, and “Simon of the Desert” proves both right.

The Exterminating Angel: satire on bourgeois hypocrisy and human inability to overcome oppression

Luis Buñuel, “The Exterminating Angel / El ángel exterminador” (1962)

So far everything I have seen of Luis Buñuel has been supremely first class and “The Exterminating Angel” is no exception. The film is a surrealist fantasy that lampoons the behaviour of the upper class and reveals it as a bunch of cowards, idiots and hypocrites. The plot is simple enough: a wealthy man, Nobilé, invites twenty or so of his pals and their wives to dinner after a night at the opera; after an excellent meal, coffee, conversation and some piano entertainment, the host and his guests discover they are unable to leave the dining-room. (In the meantime, all the servants have fled the mansion.) Over several weeks, the dinner-party guests grow hungry, thirsty and tired, and descend into exactly the barbarous behaviour they decry in working-class people.

The filming technique looks conventional but the dialogue is typically Buñuelian: exchanges are loaded with irony and sarcasm and poke fun at Roman Catholicism and what passes for Catholic morality, and at the guests’ own expectations about their place in society and how the world should revolve around them, their needs and wants. As the days pass, and one hapless man falls into a coma and dies, the guests display moral hollowness (no-one shows any compassion towards the dying guest and his companion), fight over water, make bargains with God, try to kill another guest in a bizarre superstitious ritual and fall into childish ways of solving the problem of leaving the dining-room. Intelligence, logic, any semblance of rationality are all left at the front door (literally, as it turns out) as the guests turn on one another. Viewers discover that all they have in common is their wealth and apart from that, the guests actually loathe one another. There is a suggestion that for some of them, the wealth was not obtained legitimately or was inherited at the expense of other, more hard-working people. (In a later complementary film, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, Buñuel follows seven dinner companions in search of a decent meal together; two of these companions are shown to be a corrupt ambassador and his friend involved in a drug-trafficking scheme.)

The film’s structure is perfect and builds up quickly: disquieting omens about what will happen (the servants feel they must leave the mansion as soon as they can; one of the waiters trips while carrying the first course and spills the food all over the floor; the real evening’s entertainment that revolves around a bear and two sheep must be cancelled) occur quickly and efficiently for comic effect without elaboration; once the guests discover their predicament, the film settles into an easy-going pace in which Buñuel repeatedly shoots satirical barbs at the bourgeoisie through the guests’ foibles and prejudices. In the meantime, citizens and police outside the mansion worry about the fate of the people within but apart from that, life goes on as normal, illustrating the uselessness of the trapped upper class twats.

Significantly the bear proves harmless to the sheep though the hapless ovines end up being slaughtered by the guests. One doesn’t need to wonder too much at the sort of crass entertainment the bear and the sheep were supposed to provide before it was called off.

The film’s climax comes at the very end when, after freeing themselves in a hilarious ritual that they don’t understand, the guests attend church to thank God for saving them, only to discover that they can’t leave the church buildings! The climax is shown as a series of visual collages: the fade-out / fade-in of successive scenes shows the passage of time; other scenes send up political repression as mounted police chase away and shoot at crowds who are either trying to help the trapped congregation or celebrating their freedom; and eventually a flock of sheep is released into the church to be ripped apart and eaten (and their blood drunk) in a mock parody of Mass.

Repetition, reiterations, contradictions and unusual juxtapositions are major themes in the film which may help explain why about the halfway mark the film starts to drag with repeating ideas for some viewers. There is a surreal dream sequence in which voices, representing deeply felt concerns for some guests, speak off-screen while the guests sleep. The repetition suggests that people, even when given the chance, prefer to stick to convention, ritual and habit even when these threaten to destroy them or any chance they might have of achieving happiness. We know what the problem is, who’s oppressing and destroying us, how the oppression is occurring and what to do about our destroyers … so what’s stopping us from taking control of our destiny?