Dark Horse: a bleak and surreal comedy satire on dysfunctional middle class suburban families

Todd Solondz, “Dark Horse” (2011)

A bleak comedy expressing despair over the human condition, “Dark Horse” revolves around life’s losers, those who for various reasons are unable to achieve their dreams, fulfill their potential and live up to their own (and others’) expectations, and end up alienated, frustrated and forgotten. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is in his mid-30s, living at home with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and working for his father’s real estate company; his main joys in life are the obsessions of his teenage years, namely sci-fi toys he buys at the toy store in the shopping mall. He meets a young woman, Miranda (Selma Blair), at a wedding and becomes besotted with her. From this moment on, Abe pursues Miranda, and they come close to marrying, but Abe’s own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, combined with resentment at his parents and older brother’s treatment of him, threaten to derail the two’s future happiness.

The film is notable for its character study of a no-hoper pampered adult-child character with many unlikeable qualities and a feeling of self-entitlement, and of the dysfunctional family in which he grew up and which either indulges him or treats him dismissively. Jordan Gelber actually succeeds in making the unpleasant and self-centred Abe strangely sympathetic and touching. Blair’s character Miranda doesn’t appear all that convincing as an apathetic and depressed young woman, over-medicated and despairing that she will never achieve the literary career she had hoped for; her irrational behaviour in accepting Abe’s marriage proposal (and thus sending him onto a trajectory that means his days are fast running out) in spite of her inability to truly love him may bewilder viewers. Walken and Farrow offer solid if restrained support as the disappointed father and indulgent mother and Justin Bartha’s contribution as the successful older brother whose good fortune sends Abe into constant rages is equally matter-of-fact and all the more devastating. Probably the outstanding performance though comes from Donna Murphy as the real estate company secretary who of all the characters may genuinely care for Abe … though the film offers many alternative suggestions about the nature of her feelings towards him and becomes distinctly surreal and open-ended at its conclusion.

As a satire on American family life in a society where success and conformity to social mores count for more than individual eccentricity and striving for one’s hopes and dreams, the film never quite succeeds, perhaps because Abe, his parents and the people around them are too self-absorbed and self-pitying to realise that their lives are collapsing around them as a result of their considerable character flaws. The tragedy is that Abe never gets the opportunity to get to grips with his situation due to Miranda’s odd and selfish behaviour. The plot is very disjointed and becomes more fragmented as it continues, and one is not too sure from whose point of view the story is being told.

Modern Times: sympathy for the underdog and horror at a machine society enforcing conformity and repression

Charlie Chaplin, “Modern Times” (1936)

In its own way, “Modern Times” is significant as an example of how one actor / director adapted his style from making and acting in silent films to working in sound films. Contrary to what contemporary audiences might imagine, the leap from silent film to sound film was not smooth and quick; many silent film actors’ careers actually ended with the arrival of sound films, and some audiences then still wanted to see silent films and did not favour sound films. Like everyone else working in the film industry then, actor / director Charlie Chaplin had to adjust his style of acting and the scripts he wrote to accommodate sound and the changes that sound film brought, and the rather uneven result can be seen in “Modern Times”. Significantly “Modern Times” is the last film in which Chaplin plays his famous character known as the Little Tramp. The film is also a sympathetic treatment of the common man and how he copes with life in Depression-era America and a rapidly industrialising and increasingly mechanistic society, and for that may be important as a counterweight to other Depression-era films which escaped into fantasy and did not generally deal with the plight of ordinary people thrown out of work and unable to find jobs.

The film is basically a series of comedy skits united by a vague plot in which the Little Tramp tries to find his niche in a mechanical society where everyone must find his or her place as a cog in a vast machine hierarchy and must conform to the demands of industry and government. The Little Tramp starts out working on an assembly line in a factory and is subjected to bullying by his foreman and the boss, and manipulation by an inventor who tries to interest the factory boss in a complicated machine that can feed his employees lunch in 15 minutes. Crazed by the mind-numbing repetitive work and the pressure to work faster and do more in less time, the Little Tramp ends up causing havoc and disrupting the factory routine. Not for the first time in the film do the police turn up and cart the fellow off to jail; the use of police to enforce conformity, create terror and stifle worker grievances and protests is a running theme throughout the movie.

After serving time in jail (during which the Tramp helpfully arrests some criminals for the police), the protagonist is tossed out onto the streets and expected to find work on his own. He meets a young homeless woman known only as the Gamin (Paulette Goddard) and together they try to find work and create a nest of their own. The Tramp goes through jobs such as roller-skating security guard for a department store, an assistant to a mechanic and a singing waiter in a restaurant. Just as it seems that the Tramp and the Gamin have finally found their calling as entertainers, the Gamin’s past catches up with her in the form of two orphanage officials and the two must flee for their lives.

Plenty of laughs are to be had in the slapstick – the most memorable scenes are the early ones in the factory where the Tramp gets caught up in the machinery and the feeding machine, and his roller-skating scene in the department store close to a sheer drop – although some comedy scenes lay on the situational humour very thickly and for too long. Overacting on Chaplin and Goddard’s part is the order of the day. The comedy is both relief to and contrast with the pathos of the Tramp and Gamin’s desperate situation: they need to work to survive and to put a roof over their heads, yet they are too individualistic and rebellious to stay at their various jobs for very long. At the end of the day, they have chewed their way through a variety of unsuitable jobs, and their future prospects look very bleak, yet as long as they have each other, they have hope that times will be better and that maybe one day society will accept them for what they are.

In these two characters, Chaplin expresses his hope that humans will rise up above the technology that threatens to engulf and enslave them with courage, imagination and not a little cheekiness. The irony is that the Tramp and the Gamin desire the same things that most Americans were after – secure jobs, money coming in, a house and maybe family life – yet time after time bad luck, the period in which they were living, advances in technology that put people out of work and the pair’s past peccadilloes come to haunt them. Yet whatever hits them, the Tramp and the Gamin take their problems in their stride.

Yet even in this film, Chaplin only seems to go so far: the Tramp’s fellow work colleagues seem hell-bent on conforming and dehumanising themselves for their bosses, and Chaplin’s treatment of workers engaged in street protest and the Tramp’s involvement in it is superficial. If Chaplin had any sympathy for the trade union movement and the notion of class struggle, he does not show it here. Unemployed workers are reduced to petty crime to survive – they apparently cannot appeal to trade unions or their communities to help them. Ultimately Chaplin’s message to his audiences to keep their chins up and hope for better times, just as the Tramp and the Gamin do as they walk off into the sunset, starts to look like an excuse to avoid the issue of fighting for social justice and calling people’s attention to the exploitation that they suffer from their political, economic and cultural masters.

The Gold Rush: a fun and clever film of comedy, drama, romance, horror and thriller elements

Charles Chaplin, “The Gold Rush” (1925, revised 1942)

In reality, the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush must have been a harsh, grim and ultimately disappointing experience for many prospectors who flocked to the goldfields hoping to strike lucky and be endowed with material wealth for the rest of their lives. Most people however would have come away empty-handed and even those who did find gold, did not always keep it but frittered their fortune away in gambling and died in poverty. In British-American actor / director / script-writer Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Gold Rush”, his Lone Prospector (played by Chaplin himself) finds quite a bit more than fortune: he finds adventure, a good friend, fame and perhaps lasting love. The film cleverly combines slapstick comedy, drama, romance and even elements of horror and thriller as the Lone Prospector is tested by trying and dangerous incidents before he achieves what he set out to do.

The film divides into three parts, each milked for their comedy potential. In the first part, the Lone Prospector narrowly escapes predation by a bear, being killed by a wanted murderer and the appetite of a fellow prospector, the gourmand Big Jim (Mack Swain). Notable scenes include one in which Big Jim and the crook fight over a rifle, the rifle butt constantly pointing at the Lone Prospector no matter where he runs to, in their cabin; and the shoe-eating scene where Chaplin turns munching on the tongue of his old tough shoe into a sumptuous make-believe meal fit for a king. In the second part, the Lone Prospector goes into town and falls in love with flighty dancer Georgia (Georgia Hale) at a music hall. The little man is bullied by the music hall patrons and made fun of by Georgia and her friends. The third scene reunites Big Jim and the Lone Prospector as they search for Big Jim’s mining concession where by accident they discover a rich lode of gold that makes them multi-millionaires. The ultimate test though of the Lone Prospector’s character awaits him as he follows Big Jim about on the luxury cruise liner posing for fawning paparazzi.

In spite of all the many scrapes and humiliations heaped upon the Lone Prospector, Chaplin’s character carries himself with quiet pride and humour. A number of scenes in the film, notably the scene in which the Lone Prospector waits in vain for Georgia and her friends to show up for a New Year’s Eve dinner and celebration he has meticulously prepared, draw audiences’ sympathy for his lonely and marginalised condition. If there is anyone in the universe of Hollywood silent film most deserving of love, companionship and sympathetic treatment, it should be this little man who, though small and physically weak, nevertheless shows spirit, pluck and quick thinking (and equally quick foot-work!) in all the predicaments that befall him.

At times the plot seems disorganised: the wanted criminal is disposed of in a deus ex machina avalanche and the Lone Prospector’s rival for the affections of Georgia disappears without his sub-plot being adequately tidied up and resolved. How Georgia ends up on the same ship as the Lone Prospector and Big Jim do has to be put down to the need to end the story quickly; the romance feels forced and when the little fellow and his lady love walk off into the sunset, one feels that one of the two will worship money and the riches it buys more than the s/he loves the other in the pair. Romance will not last long and at least one person will be reduced to poverty again.

It’s a fun and entertaining film, and it’s more absorbing than I imagined it would be due to its clever and seamless inclusion of comedy, pathos, tender emotion and even cynicism. The revised 1942 version with musical soundtrack and Chaplin’s narration do not add anything to the film’s plot or the comedy sketches; indeed, the music can be annoyingly intrusive and shrill. Best then to see it as it was originally done, as a silent film with a piano soundtrack.

Kakekomi: historical soap opera drama labouring under several sub-plots to tackle serious social issues

Masato Harada, “Kakekomi Onna to Kakedashi Otoko” (2015)

A light-hearted historical drama set in Japan during the early 1840s, “Kakekomi …” combines comedy with some social criticism of contemporary Japan’s economic austerity policies and their effects on more vulnerable members of society. Based on a novel “Tokeiji Hanayadori” by Hisashi Inoue, the film’s plot revolves around the plight of women who desire to escape unhappy or dysfunctional marriages to abusive and violent men. Jogo (Erika Toda) is a young working-class woman who flees her slave-driver husband’s iron foundry when she hears of the Buddhist temple at Tokeiji which takes in women wishing to leave their marriages on the condition that they spend two years working on tasks set for them by the monks and nuns there. On her way to Tokeiji, Jogo meets O-gin (Hikari Mitsushima), a courtesan who has left a rich merchant and who is also on her way to Tokeiji. They enter the temple together and under the kindly yet watchful supervision of motherly Genbei and the head nun commence their 24-month working stint. Being of the lower social orders, Jogo performs the more menial tasks while O-gin, who had offered to pay for Jogo to undertake sewing, is shoved into working at less physical and more refined tasks. They are soon joined by Yu (Rina Uchiyama), a woman of the samurai classes who has fled her alcoholic and violent husband and who intends to avenge her dead father, killed by hubby. (What a lovely fellow.)

Tokeiji temple relies a great deal on its doctor Shinjiro Nakamura (Yo Oizumi) who nurses a desire to become a published writer and who provides much comedy relief in sticky situations where he bluffs his way through with clever wit and brazen bravado. And sticky situations come, one after the other: O-gin sickens from terminal tuberculosis and another woman suffers from a false pregnancy. Shinjiro must treat both patients without looking at them under temple rules. Yu’s husband threatens to come and kill her. Shinjiro and Jogo become attracted to each other but must conduct their romance clandestinely, since Jogo must not look at men during her 2-year confinement. Shinjiro nearly comes a cropper at the hands of O-gin’s jealous lover and his hired thugs. In the meantime, the local governor Torii, intent on enforcing a severe and authoritarian rule over his territory, shuts down restaurants and entertainment venues. He tries to shut down Tokeiji temple and forcing all the women there to return to their husbands by hiring a woman to pose as another unhappy wife and in that disguise report on any scandals of nuns or inmates falling pregnant, that could be used as pretexts to close the place.

The film strains under its several sub-plots but manages to tie them and resolve them all in its last half-hour. The plot is sometimes confusing and fragmented, with some sub-plots very weakly developed and settled in quite implausible ways. The sub-plot with the mole barely lasts a few minutes and the mole quickly disappears from the rest of the film. The slapstick comedy does become tiresome but at the same time it provides relief from tensions that build up in the plot’s attempts to tackle serious issues such as mental illness, death, corruption, domestic violence and survival in a repressive society that treats its women badly. The temple is a microcosm of the wider society and Jogo finds she is not completely free of abuse from other women who look down on her.

In spite of the considerable obstacles placed before them, Shinjiro and Jogo do eventually walk off to a happy future together, and their efforts make manifest the film’s message that with the passage of time, social change can and does bring freedom and hope for a better life if people work, learn and study together.

What character development exists is limited to Jogo’s growth from a frightened and much put-upon girl into a self-confident and mature young woman; the other characters, even Shinjiro, remain static. The acting ranges from excellent to utilitarian. The cinematography pays much attention to nature and the passage of time as reflected in the passing seasons, and to the lavish settings of the film. The film works well as a historical soap opera dealing with a particular institution that helped one downtrodden section of society, one largely forgotten by most Japanese after the Meiji restoration in 1867.

The Makioka Sisters: a flat commentary on tradition and modernisation alike through a soap opera plot

Kon Ichikawa, “The Makioka Sisters” (1983)

Admittedly this is a beautifully shot film and its style is very graceful but even the skill and experience of a director like Kon Ichikawa – who lacks the flair of a Kurosawa or a Mizoguchi – can’t hide the fact that the source material novel by Junichiro Tanizaki is an extended soap opera. From what I’ve read about the film, it follows the novel quite faithfully. The film revolves around the activities of four sisters living in Japan in the late 1930s, during a period of greater militarisation in the country, though if you’re not paying deep attention, the historical background can escape you as the main characters tend to ignore events around them but are obsessed with maintaining family traditions and status. In that aspect of the plot alone, one theme of the film is people’s preoccupation with fading traditions and customs to the extent that they completely ignore political, cultural and economic changes around them until too late the results of those changes hit them hard and force the abandonment of the very rituals that had been sedulously cultivated over and over.

The older Makioka sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko, both married to men of lower class who have taken their surname, busy themselves with finding a suitable husband for their third sister, Yukiko, who is painfully shy and who prefers the company of Sachiko’s young daughter Etsuko. The fourth and youngest of the Makioka sisters, Taeko, cannot marry until Yukiko is disposed of appropriately, so she spends her time making dolls in her studio and rejecting the advances of dissolute ex-boyfriend Okubata. She becomes attracted to photographer Itakura, of whom her older sisters disapprove because of his lower class background. Itakura dies from an ailment and Okubata tries to pressure Taeko to return to him. Taeko rejects Okubata emphatically and becomes involved with a bartender, Miyoshi, whom her sisters eventually accept because at least he is honest and hard-working. Meanwhile Yukiko is introduced to various prospective suitors, all of whom are twice her age, and nearly all of whom are found wanting in some way.

The film traces the decline of a once-prosperous merchant family and its eventual break-up: Tsuruko must follow her husband to Tokyo after he is promoted at work and this transfer forces her and her husband to rent out the Makioka family mansion for who knows long. Sachiko’s husband Teinosuke is an ineffectual clerk lacking in leadership qualities who has an eye for pretty ladies and is not really looking forward to Yukiko leaving his household in the event that she accepts a marriage proposal. Tradition and custom clash with the realities of a changing, Westernising society, and not always for the better.

The plot seems quite fragmented, with plot strands developing but being resolved off-screen, which may annoy Western viewers. At one point in the film Okubata threatens to blackmail Teinosuke and Sachiko and create a scandal over money he spent on buying jewellery for Taeko but the frisson this provides is very brief because the film then cuts immediately into a scene taking place in a future in which the money has been paid and Okubata has gone his own way. All characters seem to represent types and are rather one-dimensional. Male characters generally seem quite ineffectual and inadequate in some way. The women tend to be much firmer and more resolute but they waste their energy trying to preserve customs and ideas that have long outlived their usefulness and relevance.

Adherence to tradition and ritual, repeated over and over, as in the constant match-making rituals that Yukiko is forced to undergo, starts to look ridiculous. No-one ever asks Yukiko if she even wants to marry, let alone find out what kind of suitor she would prefer. The other alternative, becoming modern and finding one’s niche in the commercial world, does not look appealing either: Taeko gives up her doll-making enterprise, rejects her financial inheritance and becomes a seamstress to support herself and Miyoshi; and Tsuruko resigns herself to giving up the family mansion and its heirlooms to follow her husband to Tokyo when his employer requires his transfer as part of his job promotion. In all of this, the choices presented by the nature of the capitalist society of the period are stark and unyielding, and one must bend to the system’s demands or be left isolated and unwanted.

The film is lavish in its visual style though the use of nature-based scenes to indicate the passage of time and the impermanence of life is a well-worn stereotype in Japanese film-making; it seems ironic that a film about fading traditions that have lost their meaning through repetition should itself rely on film techniques that through over-familiarity have also become tired.

When all is said and done, the film seems very flat: a hack work by a hack director. Whatever the merits of the original novel are – it is a highly regarded work of 20th-century Japanese literature – may have disappeared in transition from page to screen. A work that appears ready-made for cinematic or television mini-series adaptation turns out to be more resistant than it first seems to be. We may read in that failure a final criticism by the novel on capitalist society.

The Eel: tale of redemption labouring under too many complex abstract themes

Shohei Imamura, “The Eel / Unagi” (1997)

Japan’s boys in blue have an enviable record in obtaining a near 100% rate of criminal convictions and never more so than when the criminal walks into the police station, calmly announces that he’s just killed his wife and places the bloody knife on the customer services counter. Thus begins a complex character study in which a man, burdened with guilt and a heavy past, claws his way back into society and thus redeem himself. After eight years in prison for killing his wife whom he caught in flagrante delicto with a lover, Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) moves away from Tokyo and with the help of his Buddhist priest parole officer makes a new life for himself as a barber in a country town. The community is populated with some oddball types who include a young man who borrows Takuro’s barbershop pole in the evenings to attract UFOs.

Initially business isn’t great because Takuro is a morose taciturn fellow who talks only to his pet eel, acquired at the prison. Then into his life comes a mysterious young woman Keiko (Misa Shimizu) who has just attempted suicide. Takuro saves her life and in gratitude Keiko offers to work as his assistant. The priest parole officer approves of the arrangement and soon Keiko starts attracting business for the barbershop in town and beyond with her grace and beauty. She falls in love with Takuro and Takuro himself struggles to repress his desire for her. But as life would have it, Takuro’s former prison-mate Takasaki turns up as a local garbage collector jealous of Takuro’s luck in finding a new life and threatening to expose Takuro’s secret past; and Keiko’s past catches up with her as an old flame (Tomorowo Taguchi) tries to extort money from her mentally fragile mother and comes to threaten Keiko herself.

The film’s style is smooth, graceful and studied with moments of intense emotion and slapstick humour that don’t really sit well together. The early scenes suggest that a gritty hardboiled drama is in the offering but as the film progresses, director Imamura seems to find handling some climactic scenes rather too confronting and intense as these are turned into improbable farce. The film is mainly driven by its characters and in this the two leading actors excel: Yakusho as Takuro combines patience, stoicism, self-guilt, remorse and repressed desire in the one taciturn character and Shimizu plays a complex self-conflicted woman who at first appears submissive and virginal but is later revealed as a passionate and assertive businesswoman who beats up her gangster boyfriend.

The film is an interrogation of contrasts within and between people and what these say about the rather schizophrenic nature of modern Japanese society. Individuals may deal with these contrasts and the stresses they create by indulging in odd and eccentric pastimes: Takuro by talking to his eel, Keiko’s mother by imagining herself as a flamenco dancer and the young townsman by trying to communicate with extraterrestrials. Takuro’s dead wife Emiko and Keiko are compared and contrasted in their sensuality and their homely domesticity, most notably in their offerings of lunch to Takuro. Takuro finds redemption in running a barbershop and talking to his eel while Takasaki is unable to find authenticity and a path in life despite chanting Buddhist sutras constantly. Madness appears to be a constant theme: Keiko frets that she might have inherited her mum’s unstable nature and Takuro has periodic hallucinations. At the end of the day, we don’t really know if Takuro really did catch Emiko with a lover. This possibility together with some disturbing implications are dealt with rather flippantly by Imamura by having Keiko fall pregnant with a baby whose paternity is unknown. Takuro accepts Keiko in her pregnant state but one wonders whether the way in which he passively agrees to support Keiko and her unborn child really does signify a wholehearted acceptance of Keiko with all her faults and foibles or if this merely suggests Takuro’s accommodation with society and its pressures.

It may well be that Takuro was truly himself when he killed Emiko, only to lapse back into his deadened self to face the consquences. His behaviour towards Keiko as their working relationship becomes close may either be interpreted as Takuro rediscovering his true emotional self, or paying off his karmic debt or simply acting as he should since he is on parole and must behave properly. The tension throughout the film comes from viewers’ knowledge of Takuro’s early intense rage and whether it will erupt again to such devastating effect. At the end of the film (spoiler alert), there is a real possibility that Takuro will not return to Keiko and that Keiko herself may return to her old job in the city.

The letters that Takuro receives in the film may or may not be real and the film suggests that Takuro’s real problem is his inability to be true to himself and to give and receive love. Takasaki plays on his mind quite a bit to the extent that Takuro has difficulty accepting his hallucinations about the man for what they are and projecting his hallucinations outwardly in ways viewers may find disturbing.

Ultimately the film suffers itself from the burden of its abstract complexity and the various mind games it plays with the audience. The movie starts off strongly but then doesn’t quite know whether it wants to be a romantic comedy or a drama of passion. Most of the support cast tend to be one-dimensional and parts of the plot appear as an after-thought: Takasaki is introduced quite late in the piece as a foil for Takuro and Takuro’s relationship with his eel is rather undeveloped – the eel is made to symbolise aspects of Takuro’s life that remain hidden and also carries him through his transition from prison life to civilian normality. Though when at last Takuro releases his eel into the sea, one must ask whether this means Takuro has regained what he lost in his distant white-collar job or whether he has finally accepted that mainstream society requires him to stay emotionally dead.

Hitchcock: offering banal fluff about Hitch’s marriage, ignoring complexities behind the making of “Psycho”

Sacha Gervasi, “Hitchcock” (2012)

Fifty years after Alfred Hitchcock released his film “Psycho”, both director and movie alike remain subjects of fascination for many people throughout the world. Now Sacha Gervasi has offered his version of what was happening in Hitchcock’s life during the making of “Psycho”. Alas and alack, Gervasi’s eponymous movie gives us fluff about the state of Hitchcock’s marriage to Alma Reville and her contribution to Hitchcock’s success. There is actually very little in the film beyond the usual banal excuses about taking risks as to why Hitchcock felt compelled to adapt Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho”. Instead of some serious insight into Hitch’s motivations and decision to make “Psycho” in black-and-white film, we are treated to a needless sub-plot that involves Alma and the script-writer who wrote the screenplay for an earlier Hitchcock film “Strangers on a Train”.

The film is neatly bounded in two scenes of Hitch (Anthony Hopkins)  presenting the film to the audience as though it were another episode in his famous 1960s TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. The early part of the movie when Hitch, flush from the success of his latest hit “North by Northwest”, starts scouting for a new film project, finds it and then tries to get funding for it from Paramount Studios, whose head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) is aghast at the idea of a film based on the life of a notorious serial killer, is very interesting for what it says and highlights about how artistic creativity and integrity are too often squashed by commercial considerations. The studio and censorship agency featured in the film think they alone know what the public desires. Initially Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) also opposes hubby’s determination to make “Psycho” but both she and Paramount Studios relent when Hitch decides to self-finance the film. The process of hiring actors for the various roles takes place, Paramount Studios gives Hitch the studio lot and technical crew he needs, a script-writer is found to adapt the Bloch novel, and away Hitch goes.

Feeling under-appreciated and tired of treating her husband like a baby because he refuses to give up his bad habits and exercise, Alma is attracted to the idea of working with her friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) on a screenplay. This work takes her away from Hitch and “Psycho” and causes a rift between her and him when he suspects her of having an affair with Cook behind his back. Predictably “Psycho”, when completed, turns out rather badly and soon the Hitchcocks are facing financial ruin. Then Reville discovers that Cook has been romancing another woman behind her back. She promptly flies back to Hitch’s side, agrees to help him on the post-production process of “Psycho” and – well, whattaya know? – “Psycho” ends up slaying the cinema audiences in the aisles.

A second, more insubstantial sub-plot also underlies “Hitchcock”: this is Hitch’s private world in which the serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) carries out his gruesome murders and mutilations of various women in Wisconsin state in the 1950s with Hitch imagining himself actually at the scene of several of these crimes, watching Ed do his grisly work and hearing him talk about it as well. This part of the film frankly isn’t needed and could have been left on the cutting-room floor. Ed’s contribution to “Psycho” comes across as very vague and we also learn nothing about his background and the psychological and physical isolation of the man and how that influenced his thinking and behaviour.

The marital rollercoaster of Hitch and Alma makes for entertaining viewing and gives Hopkins and Mirren opportunities to enrich their characters (though Hopkins with all his padding seems uncomfortable) but ultimately it is very banal and superficial, and turns the two into just another middle-aged couple in mid-life crisis. Alma mothers Hitch and he deliberately behaves like a petulant child: big deal. Part of the problem is that Mirren all but steals the show from an overly made-up Hopkins: one could cast her as a stolid, pasty-faced and overweight peasant babushka in a faithful remake of a Soviet tractor musical and she would still look like a far too sexy 60-year-old. Indeed, the first shot we see of Mirren in “Hitchcock” is in bra and slip, just as the first shot of Janet Leigh in “Psycho” itself was done in bra and slip. The mundane probability is that Reville, while important to Hitch in his work, was not an equal partner as “Hitchcock” suggests. If she had been even half as sixty-something siren-like as Mirren, she and Hitch would have had more children other than just their daughter Patricia who inexplicably is whitewashed out of the film in spite of landing a small role in “Psycho” as Marion’s secretary colleague in the real estate office.

The other actors bravely hold up their own: special mention goes to Toni Collette as Hitch’s long-suffering bespectacled assistant and to James D’Arcy for nailing Anthony Perkins in an audition scene in which he puts his hand between his legs and massages his thigh (same as what Perkins himself did in a scene in “Psycho”). Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel look like startled rabbits about to be made roadkill by a semi-trailer at night with headlights on in their respective roles as Janet Leigh and Vera Miles but they otherwise perform competently. Probably the only actor who really lets down the side is Huston who is one-dimensional as Cook.

The film feebly tries to explore Hitch’s supposed obsession with his leading ladies and his puzzlement over why they always “betray” him (with the insinuation that they do so because he is too controlling) but glibly resolves the issue by reconciling him and Alma, his true “Hitchcock blonde”. The reality is much more complex: the film attaches too much attention to the apparent “blonde” obsession and ignores Hitch’s sympathy for women, the way they are treated by society and are expected to sacrifice themselves and their individuality for marriage and child-bearing. There is nothing said about Hitch’s hostility towards authority figures and the way he portrays the police force as indifferent, incompetent and sinister in “Psycho”.

“Hitchcock” could have said far more about Hitch’s battles with Paramount Studios and the censors, and what these say about the social and political climate that prevailed in the United States in the late 1950s / early 1960s. At a time when Stephen Soderbergh is reported to have found Hollywood unwilling to finance his biopic about the US entertainer Liberace because the movie is – wait for it – too gay (duh?), “Hitchcock” could have been an interesting commentary on how talented film-makers are often forced to take quite dangerous personal risks and improvise ways of subverting studio restrictions and censorship rules, in the process turning out quite remarkable works.

Frida: conservative bio-pic turns artist Frida Kahlo’s life into unfunny and crude soap opera melodrama

Julie Taymor, “Frida” (2001)

A very pretty and colourful film on the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954), “Frida” plays the artist’s life straight, concentrating on her personal life and loves from the time she was a teenager to the last weeks of her life. Although the film can be quirky in parts, having been directed by Julie Taymor, and makes good use of Kahlo’s paintings and other works to show audiences the connection between Kahlo’s emotions and feelings about events in her life and the art she produced, ultimately the whole shebang is very conservative and even dull towards the end as it drags towards the artist’s death. I guess in the current political climate, Taymor and actor Salma Hayek, who nursed an ambition to make a film about Kahlo’s life for a long time, have done what they could and played safe by narrowing the scope of the bio-pic to a straight retelling of Kahlo’s life and portraying Kahlo herself as an icon and role model for women.

The film starts in 1922 when as a school-kid Kahlo (Hayek) first meets Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) who was at least 20 years older than she was and already famous as a painter of murals. A couple of years later Kahlo suffers the trolley-car accident that was to affect her health for the rest of her life and direct her life away from studying medicine and becoming a doctor and to painting. After painting for some time, Kahlo remembers Rivera and asks him to evaluate her paintings so that she can decide whether she should continue. Rivera gives her paintings and painting ability the thumbs-up and so begins a long and tortuous romance between Kahlo and Rivera and their involvement in socialist revolutionary politics. Although Rivera and Kahlo marry, Rivera continues to have affairs with other women and over time this causes a rift to develop between the two. To infuriate Rivera, Kahlo herself embarks on affairs including one with Parisian chanteuse Josephine Baker and one with one of Rivera’s girlfriends. The last straw comes when Kahlo discovers Rivera making out with Cristina her sister and she boots hims out of her life. Divorce quickly follows.

Along the way Rivera accepts a commission to paint a mural “Man at the Crossroads” for Nelson D Rockefeller (Edward Norton) at the Rockefeller Center and the couple go to New York City for the course of the commission. When Rockefeller discovers Rivera has included a portrait of Vladimir Lenin in the painting, he demands that Rivera remove it but the muralist refuses so the commission ends and the couple return to Mexico. In the film the mural is destroyed and nothing more is said about it although in fact years afterwards Rivera was able to recreate the mural in Mexico from photographs taken of the original work. By 1937, Rivera and Kahlo have separated but go through the motions of being a married couple to give shelter in Kahlo’s childhood home to Leon Trotsky and his wife who have fled Stalin to come to Mexico. Predictably Trotsky and Kahlo are embroiled in an affair that upsets Trotsky’s wife Natasha and so the Russian couple must leave Kahlo’s house. That’s about the extent of the politics in “Frida”.

Although it’s probably too much to expect a 2-hour film to be exact on all the details of Rivera and Kahlo’s life together, “Frida” skips out some very significant details such as the fact that Rivera was an atheist and often railed against the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexican society and culture. Details about aspects of Kahlo’s life are often missing as well which lead to some lapses in the script and dialogue. The whole film is reduced to a sometimes unfunny and crude soap opera melodrama in which Kahlo and Rivera come off as a stereotyped cartoon couple who find they can’t live together while married but then find they can’t live separately after divorce.

After Kahlo’s death, I half-expected there might be a few titles stating that Rivera remarried after Kahlo’s death but died in 1957. It seems rather cruel that the film should have left this fact out – I’m sure the audience would have loved to know that after Kahlo’s death Rivera realised she’d been the best thing that ever happened to him – but this would have been inconsistent with the film’s intended portrayal of Kahlo as a contradictory creature who wanted to be independent and have a career yet wanted to be Rivera’s wife and to cook all his favourite meals and bear his children.

Where the film excels is in detailing Kahlo’s colourful character and eccentric fashion sense, and how her paintings were an extension of her emotional life, her pride in Mexican culture and life, and her private pain, both physical and psychological. The exuberance of Mexican culture is apparent although the portrayal can be stereotyped with an emphasis on the “exotic” aspects of the culture (such as the obsession with death and the Todos los Santos celebration in which families visit the graves of dead relatives and have parties with them). The Kahlo family home is a significant character in the film.

The actors do good work with what they are given and Hayek probably gives the performance of her life but overall the film isn’t remarkable and doesn’t do the figure of Kahlo much justice. The gender politics behind the making of the film ultimately pulls it down. One wonders why women like Julie Taymor, who already enjoy advantages that didn’t exist in Kahlo’s time, have to mould Kahlo to fit the template of independent career woman married to her art and philandering husband instead of just showing Kahlo as she was, warts and all. I’m sure Kahlo would have appreciated that.

 

 

Hysteria (dir. Tanya Wexler): a light-hearted giggle that riffs on women’s oppression and choosing between principle and respectability

Tanya Wexler, “Hysteria” (2011)

A romantic comedy very loosely based on historical fact, “Hysteria” purports to tell how Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the world’s first vibrator in 1880. For much of history up until the early 20th century, physicians (mainly male) had been treating various “conditions” in their female patients – conditions that might now be recognised as sympomatic of frustration both sexual and non-sexual, anxiety, depression, menstrual problems or even dissatisfaction with a limited, mostly home-bound role in society, but which were grouped into a catch-all ailment known as female hysteria (from which the film takes its name) – by masturbating them until the women experienced orgasm. The practice was lucrative for doctors since the women usually ended up being repeat patients (ahem!) but clitoral and vaginal massage was taxing for the doctor as the technique was difficult to master and appointments with patients could take hours. Hence there was a need for massage devices that could shorten the time required to treat patients from hours to minutes and during the 19th century, various treatments and devices including hydrotherapy and vibrators operated mechanically or by clockwork were invented. Thanks once again to Wikipedia for the information!

As for the film, the plot is a love triangle of Shakespearean “The Taming of the Shrew”  or Austenesque “Pride and Prejudice” inspiration: a young idealistic bachelor doctor (Hugh Dancy)  in need of a proper medical profession after being sacked from yet another hospital job because his belief that germs cause illness upsets the medical establishment applies for the role of assistant to Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) whose practice is doing a roaring trade among the desperate housewives of the middle class. Dr Dalrymple specialises in relieving mild forms of hysteria among these ladies. Darcy’s doctor Granville is a hit with Dalrymple’s patients too but quickly develops repetitive strain injury which causes a problem for him in the surgery. At the same time he is pressured by Dalrymple to become his partner, eventually to take over the practice, and marry his younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) but older daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an activist and prototype suffragette who runs a school and community centre for the poor in London, catches his eye and eventually his heart.

After losing his job because of his injury and sympathy towards Charlotte, Granville together with foster brother Edmund St John Smythe (Rupert Everett), a tech-buff and dissolute layabout, invent what they call a portable electric massager which they test on Dalyrymple’s maid Fannie and some of Dalrymple’s patients. The invention proves a hit and make Granville and St John Smythe rich. Meanwhile Dalrymple learns of Charlotte’s desperate plea to a wealthy couple for money and tries to foil her plan; this dastardly bastardry leads to a shakedown of one of Charlotte’s friends who then seeks her help by gatecrashing Granville and Emily’s engagement party. In the chaos that follows, Charlotte lands a right jab on the constable’s cheek which puts her in jail. She faces a sentence of incarceration in a mental asylum with a forced hysterectomy and Granville finds himself called upon as an expert witness with Charlotte’s life, health and future in his hands.

There’s a message about how women were patronised as infantile by the medical profession and how the problems they suffered from having limited choice and control over their lives and careers were swept into the medical basket to be treated as a physical and mental abnormality. Women like Charlotte who behaved outside the decreed societal stereotype appropriate for their class could be deemed mentally ill or defective and faced imprisonment and drastic surgery that could affect their health permanently and cut short their life span and quality. The romantic comedy format bravely tackles this issue of women’s oppression in a light-hearted though rather superficial  and forced way. The actors play fairly stock characters: Dancy is awkward as Granville and just manages to make the character credible but the others, Gyllenhaal and Everett in particular, acquit themselves. Gyllenhaal  plays a feisty and intelligent socialist feminist and Everett does his foppish gay aristocrat routine. Jones has a demure and obedient Victorian young lady stereotype to work with and makes the best of what she can with the limited role.

The direction is often superb with some wonderful scene set pieces – Pryce, Dancy and Everett donning goggles, as if about to travel to the moon in a home-made rocket, while preparing to use the massager on a portly matron are a hoot – and the plot cleverly juggles two narrative strands into one smooth and giddily paced whole. The script is so light that if one were to release it, it would float to the ceiling (with apologies to Kate Jackson of the old Charlie’s Angels series) and the ending is rather too tidy and predictable. Light farce follows in a finale consisting of a montage of silent scenes in which the massager’s fame spreads far and wide across the green and sceptred isles.

“Hysteria” turns out to be a fun giggle but no more. There’s a danger that in a film of its type, serious issues are reduced to bawdy comedy; “Hysteria” just manages to stay out of that Peeping-Tom / Carry-On zone by deftly presenting its protagonist with a moral dilemma of either being true to his principles or opting for false respectability.

Un Chien Andalou: a special once-in-a-lifetime visual experience

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, “Un Chien Andalou” (1929)

Famous surrealist film that never fails to shock and surprise despite having been made over 80 years, “Un Chien Andalou” is that special once-in-a-lifetime what-the-fuck-did-I-just-see?! picture that you must treat yourself to, to say that you have truly lived. No plot or narrative to speak of, this is a series of scenes mostly unrelated to one another except by a dream logic in which Freudian free association of dream images determines what happens next after each scene. No point in looking for hidden messages then: but there are messages a-plenty in the objects that appear throughout the film, many of which represent ideas and themes that were to recur in Buñuel’s films throughout his career.

The short memorably opens with a scene in which a man (Buñuel himself), mesmerised by the full moon, prepares a razor and cuts into the eyeball of a young woman (Simone Mareuil) who sits calmly on a chair. The film cuts abruptly in time and space to a man (Pierre Batcheff) dressed in nun’s clothing with a box around his waist riding a bicycle and coming to grief on the road; the young woman we met earlier sees him from her apartment window and rushes to help him. There then follows a series of scenes in which it’s not clear whether Batcheff is playing one man or two men or even two cloned representations of the same man with perhaps one of them being the real thing and the other something imagined by Mareuil’s character. Batcheff studies his hand from which ants crawl out of a hole, attempts to seduce Mareuil whom he imagines in various stages of undress and manages to haul out from nowhere in particular in the apartment two grand pianos with animal carcasses draped over them and two dazed padres (Jaime Miravitilles and Salvador Dali) attached to the lot with ropes.

The film jumps around in the temporal dimensions – we go back in time, forwards in time, whatever – and spatially as well: “narrative” flow moves from the apartment to meadows without an intervening transition from urban to suburban to rural landscapes; and Mareuil steps out from the apartment straight into a beach scene. Books turn into guns, moths carry grinning skulls on their backs and if someone’s mouth disappears, be careful not to apply too much lipstick to your own mouth or your smelly armpit hair ends up on the other person’s face.

There’s probably a vague over-riding theme about human relationships and the ritual of courtship and many visual ideas in the film were to recur in later Buñuel films: bashing priests and religion generally, fetishism, lust and desire, rebellion, to name some. Everything is played straight and matter-of-fact and this is an unexpected paradox for a film about dreams and free associations of ideas and visual images. The shock value may have disappeared but the film’s playful and cheeky manipulation of narrative, plot and montage still threaten a major rearrangement of one’s brain cells with every viewing.