Sunday, 26 April 2009

Die Screaming Marianne (1970)

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Pete Walker, a Brit-Trash wannabe auteur of the ‘70s, has received some belated attention of late, mostly for his ruggedly gory horror films like Frightmare (1974) and Schizo (1976). Die Screaming Marianne is generally considered one of his lesser efforts. All I can say is that the film’s poorly paced construction, full of opportunistic lapses in logic of motivation and character behavior, and kamikaze bra shots of Susan George, betrays a barely above-average filmmaker. Not helping: a blaring, corny music score from Cyril Ornadel that’s one part Burt Bacharach, one part John Barry, and all bad.

The film’s minatory charge of perversity comes from Murray Smith’s intriguing, almost nihilistic screenplay. Heroine Marianne (George) “The Hips” McDonald is a professional go-go dancer kicking about Portugal, and her gyrations in a vast red room place the opening credits a place in classic B-movie iconography. Marianne’s mode of employment has no further bearing on the narrative, however, as she flees mysterious operatives hunting her down. She falls – literally – into the company of spindly sports-car-driving Englishman layabout, Sebastian (former pirate rock DJ Christopher Sandford).

Marianne flees with him to London, where they shack up, but when he suddenly tries to pressure her into marriage, she smells a rat. So she pulls off a switcheroo where the registrar pairs her not with Sebastian but with his best man Eli (Barry Evans, luvvie hero of the Doctor in the House TV series), a jazz musician (just to make sure we understand this, there’s a moment where he blows tunelessly into his saxophone). Marianne is right to be suspicious: Sebastian hoped to exploit being married to Marianne, because he’s a sleazy mooch, involved, in some fashion, with Marianne’s father, known to all by the fearful sobriquet of “the Judge” (Leo Genn).

Sebastian is also the boyfriend, or something, of Marianne’s half-sister Hildegard (Judy Huxtable). Hildegard is a skinny succubus who lusts more for her papa than anyone, and has no problem with torturing Sebastian when he’s reticent with details over Marianne's whereabouts, on the behalf of the Judge. The Judge seems to be the implacable engine of persecution working to force Marianne to come back to the family villa in Spain before her twenty-first birthday. That’s when Marianne will come into the possession of a Swiss bank account, the benefice of her mother, who fleeced the Judge of money and blackmail material he collected from his long, distinguished service as a bent judicial benchwarmer.

It isn’t long before uber-skank Hildegard (who wears a quarter-inch of blue eye shadow at all times, and it doesn’t smear in the steam bath) is working with Sebastian in trying to knock off Eli and grind the bank account number out of Marianne. Because, as happens all the time in accidental marriages, Eli has proven to be the best possible bloke for Marianne. He’s already fought off what seems to have been an attempt to have him killed back in London. But was his life really in danger from the Judge’s goons?

What is interesting about Murray’s screenplay is that the characters are hard to pin down: the wait to discover their exact natures provides the film’s compelling moments. The Judge proves to be relatively avuncular for a corrupt, amoral tyrant (Genn’s performance despite his age and surroundings is, as ever, possessed of a silken-throated voice and unnerving poise) and Hildegard, initially seeming to be the princess prisoner of a monster (when Hildegard comes on to him, the Judge replies that although he has no moral objections to incest, it would probably prove rather disappointing for her), proves to be a complete sociopath, trying to grill her sister in the steam bath of death, but instead meeting her comeuppance when she crosses the line, at the hands of devoted family retainer Rodriguez (Kenneth Hendel). By the end all the schemes, wants, hopes and desires have been laid waste by the attempt to act on them.

The film had potential to be a peculiarly English, utterly merciless assault on family role cliches, and a particularly scurrilous metaphor for incestuous, patriarchal control. The film threatens to openly acknowledge this embrace of taboo, when, in the opening titles, Genn's glowering fatherly visage is superimposed beside his on-screen daughter's gyrating hips, a prelude to his relentless campaign to bring his daughter home before she becomes "of age". But after toying with the notion, Walker and Murray side-step it, instead offloading the responsibility onto Hildegard, a crazed femme fatale who, like Marianne's mother, has perpetuated a disturbance in the normal father-female relationship. So rather than being radical, it's actually a reactionary parable of good and evil editions of femininity. Overlaid is a meritricous sheen of modish cool, complete with an off-hand detail where Sebastian lies under a newspaper announcing that The Doors have just opened the Isle of Wight concert.

That would be forgivable if the film was better, but Die Screaming Marianne never resolves into anything gaudily entertaining or bitingly subversive. The plot is full of holes and the cinema isn’t good enough to make it unimportant. Climactic action scenes are clumsy, and the necessary edge to illustrate hysterical, obscene passions entirely lacking. However, the finale is affecting for its downbeat, ironic presentation of a heroine who survives and gains material safety and comfort, but is still in truth the same lost, rootless, loveless girl she was at the start. Not quite a grindhouse King Lear. But getting there.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

In the Mood for Love (2000)

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Perhaps through coming to it late, Wong Kar-Wai’s sinuously sensual study of romantic disconnection looks to me like a warm-up for the rather more tangled, less reassuringly sentimental, narrative callisthenics of 2046, still my favourite Wong film, which forcefully combines the two distinct moods of his oeuvre – romanticism and disaffection.
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In the Mood for Love trembles with regret and longing, and remains more a mood piece than a realised story, built around the relatively rare narrative gambit of failing to gain what is in reach. It’s keyed to a note of remembered grace, in a dying fall. It’s not a film that should be embraced too quickly, as it’s easy to do for its hyper-chic pictorial grace, which makes it a kind of coffee-table book for lovelorn cinephiles; nor one to be dismissed lightly, because there is a great deal of evoked pain under its beautifully maintained exterior – much like that of Maggie Cheung’s Mrs Chan. Within the traps of space and duty, the characters meander, prodded and poked by their own regrets, failings, wounds, and wants.
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The portrait of 1960s Hong Kong is exotic and evocative in the best meaning of the words, a world of labyrinthine streets and shoebox apartments in which people grow like orchids on rock faces, beautiful but disturbingly fragile. Where Wong’s earlier works like Fallen Angels threw themselves around in manic desire to communicate an emotional feeling not very clear, In the Mood is rigorous in articulating a mood, and has the studious, frustrated grace of an attempt by an artist to remember a long-distant, vaguely perceived but sharply imprinted, scene glimpsed in childhood.
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The visual compositions, where aspects of costuming and décor combine in sheer swathes of clashing textures, resembles nothing less than a mobile Matisse. Wong uses surfaces, patterns, framings, and objects to subdivide his frames, within which the characters often stand divided off from each-other or kept to one edge of the composition with a balancing presence missing.
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Cheung is photographed like Wong shoots all his leading ladies, as if dipped in a layer of chocolate he wants to bite off – and she's quiet dynamite with her tautly controlled façade hiding a vortex of feeling. Tony Leung gained the Cannes Best Actor award for uncommonly gentle protagonist, the gentle soul editor who's like a bit-actor in his own life. But it's pale compared to Leung's colder, deeper, slyer persona in 2046.
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The finale, set in Cambodia not long before war destroys the region, establishes the political and emotional severing point for this period in history, and Wong’s camera drifts through a ruined temple, drinking in a whole world of lost fancies. As in Hsiao-hsien Hou's Three Times, the lake of peace of the early '60s feels like an unrecoverable eden.
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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

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You don't need to know much about Fred C. Dobbs after taking a quick glance at him. He's a bum, a nothing person. He doesn't look at the faces of the people he's getting money from and they don't look at his. Charity is an exchange of signals - plaintive voice, hand with coin. Momentary guilt and current hunger assuaged. Dobbs is still fairly young. Is he perchance a WW1 vet? Probably not - he complains too much for someone who'd been put through those disciplines. He can still be a swell guy but he's grown barbs on his soul. Silence follows him about. He doesn't look anyone in the eye, that would violate the seal of solitude about him too vividly. His words are short and to the point. He's been the shabby guy with the mangy beard and belongings in a parcel draped upon his shoulder too long. No face, no voice except that cracked hum you use to beg a peso and the bark you bring out to get rid of nuisances. When he meets Curtin, another, younger tramp, that's when Dobbs can talk - they swing into conversation like they have been chatting for months. They're on a level; their thoughts agree because their experiences are in accord. Dobbs talks too much in fact, when he's got the audience. Taciturn he's not. Too long with just his own voice drumming in his head.
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He walks about town, going through the ritual humiliations of begging change, taking his chances as they come. Sometimes the coin is big enough to get clean and shaven, to feel halfway human again, and you've got enough left over for a ten-minute roll with whore down the lane. He can't take on the trades of the locals, can't speak the language, can only walk around looking for occasional good graces. There's a logic to being here, though. If you want extremes, go south or north - west was used up a long time ago - and the south is warmer. Tampico, end of the line, before the wastes of the Mexican interior.
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A subtly crucial encounter comes when Dobbsy keeps accidentally asking the same American tourist for change. "Such impudence never came my way!" the tourist says in John Huston's drawl. "Sorry mister," Dobbsy responds; " I never knew it was you I never looked at your face just your hand and the money you gave me." Huston gives him two pesos: "But from now on - you'll have to make your way through life without my assistance!" Yes, the face means nothing. It is, indeed, an end, as it's the last money Dobbs gets by begging. The next guy Dobbs tries is McCormick, building overseer and con-artist. He screws Dobbs and Curtin and the rest of the workers he hires. That's how it works.
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Except Dobbsy and Curtin find him and confront him. In B. Traven's novel, filled with dime-store socialism, just their combined threat persuades McCormick to part with what he owes them. In Huston’s more flinty idea of macho exchanges, they proceed to beat the hell out of each other. Collective bargaining gives away to aggressive workplace negotiation. The fight scene is dynamic - a fan flitters away above, the lighting is sparse and bare, the smell of old beer, cigarettes and roach droppings redolent in the air as blood and sweat beads fly about with each blow until McCormick gives up as a slimy mess on the floor. Dobbs takes just what is owed them - it's a victory when you can say you're more honest than the guy on the ground.
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All this could be typical experience. As Dobbsy admits to Curtin, all it might mean is that now they've got some dough but soon they'll be back where they were. Curtin shares Dobbsy's curt way of speaking, but he's younger, his eyes still have the liquid look of the innocent, his face under that growth not yet polished by years of sun and dust. When he opens up Curtin speaks with quiet solidity.
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They've met Howard, the old prospector itching to get back to it. They'll need his experience to pull off their one shot. Howard has experience enough, not just of the practicalities but of people. He's uneducated, so his speech is often banally formulated, but it contains all his truth. If Curtin and Dobbs show different stages of the communication-impaired loner, Howard is one curious end of it; he's a fountain of words, the result of all those days on his own in remote places, the pressure of experience, the itch of knowing how much energy you've wasted in a life and eager to use up what's left before dying, and you know you've still got a lot but maybe not enough.
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Howard seems to walk an edge above madness, but he knows he's too goddamned sane. He talks in often insensibly angular sentences, his layered phrases rattling out of his mouth in a near-panic to say what he needs to say. He knows not much can destroy him but also how hard some kinds of pain are to take. He's a man exactly adapted to an anti-social activity, he's struck it rich and lost it all because all he knows is the search. He's a nice guy - he loves life too much not to be - but pragmatic and non-hypocritical to a fault; he's damned if he's going to pussyfoot, so he often makes Dobbs bristle at his harsh honesty. Still he can't hold off tragedy.
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They don't have enough money for the prospecting trip. The savior is a lottery ticket - a bit thin, isn't it, John? But Huston has an old storyteller's feeling that fate should always be close to the centre of a tale, and fate will be less kind later. Also, Huston speaks from experience. When broke in Ireland in the mid-1930s he got his passage home from a fortuitous lottery win. The ridiculous plays a part in our lives, and often does in Huston's films. Traven's dialectic has faded to reveal bare bones, of men against the world whose absurd judgments we call luck and fate. But it isn't bad turns in weather that make for disaster. The whole point of breaking out into the wilderness is so that you become fully yourself, all capabilities coming to the fore, engaging all your possibilities.
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The gamble is huge but worthwhile - enough money to go from poor bum to rich bum. The landscape is raw, vast, scarcely touched. These men, in order to escape the traps of society, have had to go far, to the point where even nearby Mexican townspeople don't know about where they're going, trying to keep ahead of that lousy society propagated by users like McCormick (they can't claim their find, for fear of a mining company stealing it from them). The downside is that the imperfections of a man become large, indeed, become factors as important as the heat of the sun and the distance to water. There is no society to mask the cracks in the personality and force them shut, and Dobbsy, for one, has many.
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But there is camaraderie in our crew - they are a balance of forces. Curtin is stolid and reliable, Dobbsy's aggression can be focused (look how enjoys smashing that rock with that pick-axe), Howard shows them the way. As well as strength and surliness, Dobbs has an almost childish streak in him; in his surprised glee when Howard shows him the first gold dust in the pan, and in his various tantrums. Each of the men have pieces of the same character in them; Curtin isn't above macho confrontations with Dobbs, as when he goads Dobbs after he's accused him of trying to steal his gold, and for a second considers leaving Dobbs in the collapsed mineshaft. Howard confesses that he hasn't been entirely reliable in the past - it's only his age and his practicality limiting his dishonesty. All of them are willing to kill the interloping prospector Cody to keep their gains. But their group is strong - when Dobbs goes through his first intense flush of mania, Curtin and Howard combine to restrain him and shock him back to his senses. It's only when the group is broken and their balance ended that Dobbs becomes truly dangerous.
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In each of the men there is hope - basic hopes, like not having to sleep in hostels anymore - and larger ones. They discuss them around the fire at night. Howard wants a store where he can sit around reading comics all day. Curtin wants a return to an idyll of his childhood - to own a peach orchards like those where his family worked as itinerant pickers. Ironically, the prospector Cody has left his own orchards seeking gold - in the end he and Curtin will swap lives. Curtin's idyll is finely imagined, his personal images of a sweet life so full - communal singing, the juice of fruit dripping on his face, night-time bonfires like the one he's in front of now. The quietest, least forceful of the group is the one with the transcendent streak. Howard wants a small unadventurous business that can sustain him til death. Curtin wants to own land and be involved in growth, but both enterprises are things in themselves, givers of identity and place, settlement. They want a future.
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Dobbs is now. His fantasies are the crackle of the first minutes; he will go to a restaurant, boss the waiters, go lay some broad. He wants to erupt into social life. He lives for that evening of revenge, that's all. Beyond that he has no ideas. When Howard and Curtin want to send money to Cody's widow, Dobbs mocks them; "You boys must've been born at a revival meeting!" Dobbs only respects harsh gods - the grip in his stomach when hungry, the half-remembered revenges he's listed, the bite of isolation. Fear. Money. Money, Dobbs knows, is power. It gets you what you want. He doesn't know what he wants, so money will do in the meantime. More money. Enough so he can find what he wants. Money doesn't stand for anything for him, it doesn't offer a chance at his longest-held wishes - except to take that everyday world he's gazed upon for years, excluded and filthy, and make it dance to his tune.
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Dobbs is marked by his tatty pride; we see it when he spends one of Huston's pesos on a shave; when he doesn't take any of McCormick's money that isn't owed; when he tosses aside Curtin's repayment in gold of the repayment from the lottery win after a stupid argument; when he talks about himself in the third person as "Fred C. Dobbs". All the time on his tramp Dobbs has been nestling his grievances and his sense of injury. He keeps within himself, settling on his anger, but can't avoid it spilling out of him like hot coals. Deep down Dobbs seems in fact afraid. He pledges the selfless partnership between himself and Curtin but on the trail back to civilization Dobbs painfully rips it apart, eventually shooting his pal, believing himself to be the threatened one. In the end Dobbs hasn't a stake in anything beyond the transitory wealth of the gold - a metal only of illusory value. Dobbs has no real center, and thus he disintegrates. But for an ultimately hollow man he has a large number of facets - he is in fact one of the most "in full" characters in film. He is mean, he's friendly, he's sympathetic, he's hateful. He is loyal and he commits an enormous betrayal. As big a failure is he is, Howard has to say that "He not a killer, not as real killers go." Indeed; he doesn't properly kill a friend at a few yards' distance with two shots.
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The novel's interloping character is the half-mad Lacaud, who takes over the mine once the others abandon it. Huston changes this figure to Cody, the American fruit grower. He mirrors Curtin; Curtin mines gold to get what Cody has, Cody goes prospecting out of perceived boredom with his lot. The miners, especially Dobbs, resent him, and vote on what to do about him; Dobbs is for killing him, Curtin against, Howard sums up the situation quickly in his head and goes for killing him. All of them know how it works out here, especially Cody, who presents them with their options. Their firing squad is interrupted by bandits; a gunfight ensues, welding the four quickly into a fighting unit, but Cody dies anyway. The easy acceptance of death that has been imbued upon them is demonstrated when Dobbs can only say "Well - I guess we better dig a hole for him.". Howard, then Curtin, reads out a letter to Cody from his wife - a pulp moment, but necessary, because it establishes who Cody was and evokes what is lost for Cody and also desired by the survivors.
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The plot is constructed along interlocking strands of people and incidents, meshed together by chance and by character. Huston's direction connects the strands without overplaying (which unfortunately Max Steiner's score often buries in a brawl of pompous themes). Characters enter scantly perceived (Dobbs and Curtin's first casual exchange; Howard's high chipping voice rising out a group of huddled men in the hostel, Gold Hat amidst the bandits attacking the train, Cody appearing behind Curtin on the dusty village compound) and often exit without fanfare (Cody killed without anyone noticing in the fight, Dobbs left mangled by the waterhole, the bandits are shot within fifteen minutes of their capture).
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It's a paranoid world where people are always checking over their shoulder, with a continuous sense of threat evoked by interruption, scenes of slow-cooking tension where what is being done isn't acknowledged (McCormick pretending to be friendly whilst preparing to fight Dobbs and Curtin; a nocturnal scene where Dobbs, Howard, and Curtin all go out to check their stashes of gold are intact; when Cody and the miners try to bluff their way through a conversation but all knowing what is coming; Dobbs trying to fake off the bandits).
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The bandit gang led by Gold Hat run through the film as agents of fate, serving both as menaces and comic relief, often both at once. Gold Hat's smile often shifts to a savage mask in the space of a few words like his famous "We don't have t'show you no stinking badges!" cry. Fate entwines Gold Hat and Dobbs; when the gang attacks the train and Dobbs, Howard and Curtin add to the gunfire at them, Dobbs only just misses killing Gold Hat.
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Two seeds of his end are planted - his enjoyment of the power of killing, and his failure to kill Gold Hat. Gold Hat and his scraggly followers represent the debased quarters of humanity, roaming the plains killing, stealing, unable to make any sort of industry. Dobbs, in his downward spiral, meets them exactly on their level as a lost, filthy refugee at a muddy hole. But they're more truly savage than he is. Dobbs in his regression becomes hunched over, shiny-eyed, baring his teeth, talking to himself in a constant patter (which allows Dobbs to inform the audience what he's thinking on his own, a stagy but necessary device). At the water hole the last of the bandits dance around him like jangling, soiled marionettes, mocking the shattered Dobbs' threats, and finally Gold Hat slashes him to death in two quick efficient machete swipes.
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Emphasising the film's themes of transitory life and death at Fate’s mercy, Dobbs' death is quickly left behind as Gold Hat and his compadres strip his corpse, argue over his belongings, and toss away his gold. (Alfonso Bedoya, the professional actor who played Gold Hat, was always being beaten up by his two companions, who were actual local miscreants) They in turn are caught, shot, and Howard and Curtin chase after their gold without looking for Dobbs' body. Death is accepted, and even dismissed, for the simple reason that in these brutal situations forces, quests, and requirements vital to life are so important. Dobbs failed, in essence, to make his life count for something by aiming for a future, which is why he more than the others surrendered to pure avarice and madness; accumulation of wealth without purpose, says Traven's Marxist, is the act of a madman. Huston goes further than Traven when it comes to ultimate loss; in Traven, some of the gold is left for Curtin and Howard to divide. Huston, the arch-fatalist, has them lose it all. But they already have alternatives; Howard's experience and sense have been appreciated by the Mexican village who hail him as a medicine man and statesman. Curtin heads north to see Cody's widow - will he wrangle himself a job or even marry her? - completing his life-swap with Cody. They have been through a life-altering experience in full dimensions, they have lost the edge of hunger that keeps them in motion, now they are looking for what is anchored and assured, and they have gained new forms of strength that make them able to take such opportunities.
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Notably, both the harbors offered to Curtin and Howard are with farmers. They have taken the hugest gamble, lost, and find themselves not so bad off. "Nothing compared to what Dobbsy lost." Howard admits after their cathartic laughter. I find the finale sad in that these men probably won't see each other again, as they split up in the wind blowing across the vast Mexican landscape.
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The influence of lessons learnt during the war is all over Sierra Madre. This was Huston's first fiction film in six years and he had learnt how to use uncomfortable circumstances to advantage. His documentarian's eye meshes with his painterly and dramatic instincts. The camera shots in the various gunfights stick to our heroes, peering down their guns at their targets, close to their faces and their bodies; the bandits they fight with dart and duck distantly, through smoke and dust. The scenes in Tampico at the beginning, especially the hostel, were based on Huston's own recollections of the place during his service with the Mexican cavalry. There is much finely observed detail like the shovels having been worn down by months of labor. The visual sense swings from naturalistic to noir. Many moments rely entirely on visual communication, like the opening with Dobbs roaming through Tampico, and beautiful, intense, eerie scene in the Indian village as Howard tries to resuscitate the child under the gaze of the whole community. The sequence entirely in Spanish where the bandits try to sell the stolen burros and are arrested, were entirely unique - Jack Warner on seeing the rushes thought Huston must have been shooting a Spanish-language version simultaneously - and won from a new sense of realism borne out of the Second World War, guided by the same instincts as the neo-realists. The filmmakers - and their audiences too - had gained new ideas of what the real world should look like up there on the screen.
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Composed 29/7/2002

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

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Park Chan-Wook’s batshit melding of pulp noir and dizzy melodrama is both indefensible and intoxicating as it whisks clichés and canards inherent in everything from Joan Crawford mamadramas to lesbian prison flicks into something often both hideous and beautiful. It builds to a finale that examines one of the more imperative modern reactionary fantasies in a fashion that is somehow both repulsive and cathartic. Sports a terrific lead performance from Lee Young Ae. She does look like Olivia Hussey. And acts better to boot.
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