Sunday, July 23, 2006

Happy Loving Couples

LEMMING
(Dominik Moll, France, 129 mins.)


08.jpg

Happy loving couples make it look so easy
Happy loving couples always talk so kind
Until the time that I can do my dancing with a partner
Those happy couples ain't no friends of mine.

-- Joe Jackson, "Happy Loving Couples" (1979)

*****

This sly psychological thriller could've easily been titled Red Herring, but let's
face it, Lemming has more of a ring to it. In any case, after the triumph of With
a Friend Like Harry
, I went to Dominik Moll's follow-up hoping lightning would strike twice. It comes close, but this time, Moll may have bitten off more than he can
chew. Then again: lemming, bite, chew... How could it possibly be any other way?

As in Harry, Laurent Lucas is back as a sort of middle class everyman. His Alain
Getty is an efficient, self-satisfied engineer, who has recently been transferred
to suburban Toulouse and has just moved into a slick new house with loving wife Benedicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Science of Sleep), who doesn't work (they
are currently childless). Just as they're settling into their new environment, the
Gettys decide to invite his boss, Richard Pollock (Andre Dussollier, Un Coeur en
Hiver
), and spouse Alice (Charlotte Rampling, Heading South) over for dinner.

Even before the Pollocks arrive, strange things are happening. Well, one thing,
at any rate: The kitchen sink becomes clogged. Alain tries to unscrew the drainpipe, but his tools aren't up to the task. No matter. He has other things to attend to...
Like dinner, which is a disaster. First, the Pollocks are late. Then, Alice won't get out of the car. Finally, she emerges, but won't take off her sunglasses. Then, when Richard gets a call, she starts in on him. "One of your whores?" she asks. "Salad?" Alain asks after an uncomfortable silence. Too late. Alice twists the knife again before tossing her wine at Richard. He apologizes, and tells the Gettys they'll be going. The "model couple," as Alice snidely describes them, breathes a sigh of relief.
205px-Lemming.jpg
Lemmus lemmus
Later, Alain takes a second look under the sink. This time, he's able to unscrew the S-curve where he finds a small, wet creature. He carries it down to the basement, places it on a table, and promptly forgets about it. The next day, while her husband is at work, Benedicte discovers that the "hamster" is still alive and takes it to a veterinarian. He informs her that it's actually a lemming, and that they're native to Scandinavia. How did it get into Alain and Benedicte's plumbing, let alone France...?
From that point forward, everything goes to hell in a handbasket. I don't think
it's giving too much away to say that it isn't the poor lemming's fault. The ques-
tion is whether any of these characters resemble the rodent. As a specialist tells Benedicte, lemmings aren't suicidal-though one of these people will take their life before the film is over-it's a myth. They try to swim while migrating, he explains, and sometimes they drown. He neglects to add that lemmings are very stupid.
With Harry-titled Harry, He's Here to Help when I caught it at 2000's Toronto International Film Festival-Moll elicited frequent, mostly positive comparisons to Hitchcock and Bu/+/-uel. Lemming continues in that vein. It also evokes Claude Chabrol, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Michael Hanecke (especially Cache). In other words, you never know what's going to happen next and whether or not to believe your eyes, as when Alain imagines that Alice is influencing his once-sweet wife's actions.
lemming.jpg
There's also a lack of visual clutter. Compositions are often clean, white, crisp.
Those who found Harry "gimmicky" or overly-clever are likely to cast an even
more jaundiced eye towards Lemming. Personally, I quite liked it, even if the
storyline is more convoluted and attenuated than necessary. (I should also men-
tion the use of Strauss and Ligeti on the soundtrack. A tip of the hat to Kubrick?)
As for the acting, it couldn't be better. Lucas and Gainsbourg remain believable even as their characters become increasingly strange/estranged. Not so with Rampling's Alice. I didn't believe her for a second. She is, to quote Kathleen Murphy, "a construct." Fascinating to watch, but it's hard to believe a woman this cruel could possibly exist. Then again, that's one of the reasons I go to the movies: To experience things outside my everyday purview. In the end, Mssr. Lemming is a Macguffin. It's Alice that actually sets the plot in motion. She may be "incredible," but she's also necessary, and represents Rampling's creepiest characterization yet.
But Lemming ultimately lives and dies by Lucas's performance, and I'm happy
to report that he gets the job done. Like Charles Berling (Ridicule), I tend to think
of him as one of France's more reliable "utility players," i.e. an ordinary-looking
guy who gives consistently good performances, but rarely gets the credit he deserves as he's often paired with showier actors (like Harry's Serge L/>=pez). In this case, Lucas-with a major assist from Gainsbourg-proves he can carry a film. Rampling may give Fatal Attraction-era Glenn Close a run for the money, but Lucas can run circles around Michael Douglas. With two hands tied behind his back. And a leg.
05.jpg
Working with Dominik again...has been a great pleasure. I think about him a great deal
in my everyday life. He has shown faith in me and I shall always be devoted to him.

-- Laurent Lucas on Dominik Moll
*****
Lemming opens at the Varsity Theater on Friday, August 4th. The Varsity
is located at 4329 University Avenue N.E. For more information, please
click here or call 206-781-5755. Images from OutNow and Wikipedia.

Happy Loving Couples

LEMMING
(Dominik Moll, France, 129 mins.)


08.jpg

Happy loving couples make it look so easy
Happy loving couples always talk so kind
Until the time that I can do my dancing with a partner
Those happy couples ain't no friends of mine.

-- Joe Jackson, "Happy Loving Couples" (1979)

*****

This sly psychological thriller could've easily been titled Red Herring, but let's
face it, Lemming has more of a ring to it. In any case, after the triumph of With
a Friend Like Harry
, I went to Dominik Moll's follow-up hoping lightning would strike twice. It comes close, but this time, Moll may have bitten off more than he can
chew. Then again: lemming, bite, chew... How could it possibly be any other way?

As in Harry, Laurent Lucas is back as a sort of middle class everyman. His Alain
Getty is an efficient, self-satisfied engineer, who has recently been transferred
to suburban Toulouse and has just moved into a slick new house with loving wife Bénédicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Science of Sleep), who doesn't work (they
are currently childless). Just as they're settling into their new environment, the
Gettys decide to invite his boss, Richard Pollock (André Dussollier, Un Coeur en
Hiver
), and spouse Alice (Charlotte Rampling, Heading South) over for dinner.

Even before the Pollocks arrive, strange things are happening. Well, one thing,
at any rate: The kitchen sink becomes clogged. Alain tries to unscrew the drainpipe, but his tools aren't up to the task. No matter. He has other things to attend to...
Like dinner, which is a disaster. First, the Pollocks are late. Then, Alice won't get out of the car. Finally, she emerges, but won't take off her sunglasses. Then, when Richard gets a call, she starts in on him. "One of your whores?" she asks. "Salad?" Alain asks after an uncomfortable silence. Too late. Alice twists the knife again before tossing her wine at Richard. He apologizes, and tells the Gettys they'll be going. The "model couple," as Alice snidely describes them, breathes a sigh of relief.
205px-Lemming.jpg
Lemmus lemmus
Later, Alain takes a second look under the sink. This time, he's able to unscrew the S-curve where he finds a small, wet creature. He carries it down to the basement, places it on a table, and promptly forgets about it. The next day, while her husband is at work, Bénédicte discovers that the "hamster" is still alive and takes it to a veterinarian. He informs her that it's actually a lemming, and that they're native to Scandinavia. How did it get into Alain and Bénédicte's plumbing, let alone France...?
From that point forward, everything goes to hell in a handbasket. I don't think
it's giving too much away to say that it isn't the poor lemming's fault. The ques-
tion is whether any of these characters resemble the rodent. As a specialist tells Bénédicte, lemmings aren't suicidal -- though one of these people will take their life before the film is over -- it's a myth. They try to swim while migrating, he explains, and sometimes they drown. He neglects to add that lemmings are very stupid.
With Harry -- titled Harry, He's Here to Help when I caught it at 2000's Toronto International Film Festival -- Moll elicited frequent, mostly positive comparisons to Hitchcock and Buñuel. Lemming continues in that vein. It also evokes Claude Chabrol, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Michael Hanecke (especially Caché). In other words, you never know what's going to happen next and whether or not to believe your eyes, as when Alain imagines that Alice is influencing his once-sweet wife's actions.
lemming.jpg
There's also a lack of visual clutter. Compositions are often clean, white, crisp.
Those who found Harry "gimmicky" or overly-clever are likely to cast an even
more jaundiced eye towards Lemming. Personally, I quite liked it, even if the
storyline is more convoluted and attenuated than necessary. (I should also men-
tion the use of Strauss and Ligeti on the soundtrack. A tip of the hat to Kubrick?)
As for the acting, it couldn't be better. Lucas and Gainsbourg remain believable even as their characters become increasingly strange/estranged. Not so with Rampling's Alice. I didn't believe her for a second. She is, to quote Kathleen Murphy, "a construct." Fascinating to watch, but it's hard to believe a woman this cruel could possibly exist. Then again, that's one of the reasons I go to the movies: To experience things outside my everyday purview. In the end, Mssr. Lemming is a Macguffin. It's Alice that actually sets the plot in motion. She may be "incredible," but she's also necessary, and represents Rampling's creepiest characterization yet.
But Lemming ultimately lives and dies by Lucas's performance, and I'm happy
to report that he gets the job done. Like Charles Berling (Ridicule), I tend to think
of him as one of France's more reliable "utility players," i.e. an ordinary-looking
guy who gives consistently good performances, but rarely gets the credit he deserves as he's often paired with showier actors (like Harry's Serge López). In this case, Lucas -- with a major assist from Gainsbourg -- proves he can carry a film. Rampling may give Fatal Attraction-era Glenn Close a run for the money, but Lucas can run circles around Michael Douglas. With two hands tied behind his back. And a leg.
05.jpg
Working with Dominik again...has been a great pleasure. I think about him a great deal
in my everyday life. He has shown faith in me and I shall always be devoted to him.

-- Laurent Lucas on Dominik Moll
*****
Lemming opens at the Varsity Theater on Friday, August 4th. The Varsity
is located at 4329 University Avenue N.E. For more information, please
click here or call 206-781-5755. Images from OutNow and Wikipedia.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

An Intelligent Primitive

A GIRL IS A GUN aka AN ADVENTURE OF BILLY THE KID
(Luc Moullet, France, 1971, 35mm, 100 mins.)


060526_inside_moullet_billy.jpg

"Reminiscent of the finale of Duel in the Sun, but pushed to the level of excruciating lunatic farce, with a touch of Fuller's madness."
-- Jonathan Rosenbaum

Sometimes described as an "acid Western," A Girl is a Gun is not so much a freak-out--no special effects, no trippy graphics--as it's just plain weird (a subtle distinction, but a distinction, nonetheless). Of the four Moullet films I've seen, including Tati-esque short An Attempt at an Opening, this bizarro riff on the classic American genre is also the least funny. I don't mean that as a dig. It's just that I had pegged Moullet as the most comical Cahiers contributor-turned-auteur when this entry came along to up-end my thesis.

It's not that A Girl Is a Gun doesn't have any laughs, but that it doesn't have as many as the witty Brigitte and Brigitte or ironic Comedy of Work, with its shambling Mike Leigh-meets-Aki Kaurismäki vibe. Just as Brigitte was a product of its time, so too is A Girl is a Gun. One film is unmistakably part of the French New Wave, while the other has more in common with Anglo-American counter-cultural classics, like the Terry Southern-penned The Magic Christian (with Ringo Starr) or the Jack Nicholson co-written Head (with the Monkees).

In other words, there's a rock and roll spirit running through this thing, even if it doesn't feature any rock stars. Then again, Jean-Pierre Léaud comes close, I suppose. His "Billy le Kid" is certainly dressed for the part with his floppy hair, striped trousers, and fashionable boots. He could fit as comfortably into the Old West as the Carnaby Street scene of the early-1970s. But it's the droney soundtrack, by Moullet's brother Patrice, that plunges into full-bore psychedelia. A Girl is a Gun is also dubbed into twangy English for most of its running time. It wasn't a decision foisted upon Moullet, but rather one he made for himself. It definitely adds to the weirdness.
165px-Billykid.jpg
The only known picture of Billy the Kid
As for Billy, the character, he's a man on the run, both from the white authorities and the scalp-happy natives. The setting is the Mexican border. Whether that means Texas or New Mexico, I couldn't say. At times, the landscape looks like something out of a John Ford film, i.e. Monument Valley. At others, it evokes the craggy Italy of Antonioni's L'Avventura. (Moullet makes use of desert, forest, and rocky hills.) I think both impressions are intentional, especially since there's a purposefully pretentious moment in the picture when Léaud looks into the camera, in frame-filling close-up, and explains that he doesn't understand Woman, but is willing to learn.
Also, he spends the first 15 minutes dragging Woman around by a rope. Her name is Ann and she's played by the full-figured Rachel Kesterber (The Last Tango in Paris), who has a good inch on Léaud. (He may be prettier, but she's sexier.) They meet cute, by the way, when he digs her out of the sand, ties her up, and takes off for the border. You could write off his behavior as sexist, but just wait. First, it occurred to me that Moullet was commenting on Ford's The Quiet Man, in which John Wayne drags Maureen O'Hara around Ireland. Also, the balance of power will shift, so it's not as if Billy is trying to "tame" her. Rather, he doesn't trust her (gender aside). Once he realizes she's okay, he unties her. Alas, his suspicion is justified.
The two spend the last 15 minutes running from and towards each other. Is it love? Or hate? By this point, A Girl is a Gun has morphed from a Western into full-blown melodrama. Moullet has cited King Vidor's Duel in the Sun as an influence and that definitely comes across although, as with the other selections in the "French King of Comedy" series, it was shot on a shoe-string budget and the print isn't in the best of shape. That said, not one of these films is available on video: You snooze, you lose. Plus, A Girl was edited by Jean Eustache (The Mother and the Whore with Léaud).
Speaking of the late Eustache. In writing about Brigitte and Brigitte, I referenced Tigrero, a film made by Aki Kaurismäki's brother Mika, which features Sam Fuller and Jim Jarmusch. Well, I'm convinced that Jarmusch, who dedicated Broken Flowers to Eustache, borrowed the final shot in this film for Mystery Train. Just substitute Masatoshi Nagase for Léaud, replace blood with smeared lipstick...
mystery train.bmp
Luc Moullet
Note: I had intended to write about Comedy of Work (1987, 90 mins.) and Attempt at an Opening (1988, 15 mins.), but that was before I realized I would take up so much space with A Girl is a Gun. Suffice to say both are very funny and well worth your time. If you need more encouragement, please click here.
"Fuller is a primitive, but an intelligent primitive, which is what gives his work such unusual resonances; the spectacle of the physical world, the spectacle of the earth, is his best source of inspiration, and if he is attached to human beings, it is only to the extent that they are themselves attached to the earth."
-- Luc Moullet on Sam Fuller
FRENCH KING OF COMEDY: SEVEN WONDERS OF LUC MOULLET runs from July 21-27 at the Northwest Film Forum. A Girl is a Gun plays with An Attempt at an Opening July 24-25, Mon. and Tues. at 7 and 9pm and Comedy of Work plays July 26-27, Wed. at 7pm and Thurs. at 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave., on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please visit www.nwfilmforum.org. You can also call 206/329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The11th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival Round Up

marquee.jpg
Marquee of The Castro Theater: Home of the 11th Annual Silent Film Festival
http://www.silentfilm.org/home.htm

What a fantastic event! I have to say this is the best film festival I've ever attended. First, the programming was incredible. The films selected covered a wide range of style, genre, stars and periods. The programming started with the transcendent romance of Seventh Heaven and ended with the good natured but biting satire of Show People and in between included the following genres: western, social drama, gothic adventure, erotic drama, slapstick, Soviet comedy and The Unholy Three which defies an easy genre name- carnival crime caper I guess. Plus each film was in itself an entertaining and well made movie. Even the film I found the weakest, Au Bonheur Des Dames I was still glad to watch in a theater a second time. (It also screened at this year's SIFF.) I enjoyed seeing the same film with a completely different accompaniment.

The breadth of styles in accompaniment also added to the charm of the festival. Each film had a unique and appropriate score provided by different soloist and groups. I especially enjoyed Mike Mortilla's piano accompaniments to Bucking Broadway, Sparrows and the Laurel and Hardy shorts. Another stand out for me was The Balka Ensemble's accompaniment of The Girl with the Hatbox. Having a score played on traditional Russian instruments was perfect for the Soviet comedy. I also appreciated the conductor's explanation of the history of the Balka prior to screening the film.
Another aspect of the festival that I liked was the speakers and guest interviews before and after the films. Three stood out for me: festival patron and board member Frank Buxton comments on Laurel and Hardy, Christel Schmidt from the Library of Congress, and Harry Carey, Jr. My original impetus for coming to the festival was for the screening of John Ford's Bucking Broadway. Then I found out that Harry Carrey, Jr. would be there in person. He was the son of the two stars and a member of John Ford's stock company. I was not disappointed: the film was great and Mr. Carrey told some great Ford stories and signed copies of his excellent memoir: Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in The John Ford Stock Company.
The speakers were part of an overall imparting of film knowledge to the audience that included slide shows before each film and excellent essays on each film included in the program. The slide shows featured stills with captions relating to each film and informational slides including interesting facts about the films and their stars. Not only did it give you something to do while waiting for the film to start, but it enhanced your viewing of the film.
What this all boils down to is people make this festival great. The programmers' passion and ability to pick great films to share with their festival goers. The benefactors and sponsors willing to put money and time into mounting the festival. The guests and speakers willing to attend and impart their knowledge and reminiscences about these great films. A courteous and helpful staff of volunteers making each day of attendance a pleasure. And a theater full of passionate movie goers. I would love to see a festival like this in Seattle. For more information on the festival please go to: http://www.silentfilm.org/home.htm

Sam Fuller and Luc Moullet

Brigitte and Brigitte
(Luc Moullet, France, 1966, 35mm 71 mins.)


"The young American filmmakers have nothing to say, Sam Fuller even less than the others. He has something to do, and he does it, naturally, without forcing it. This isn't a small compliment."
-- Luc Moullet


Last week, I received my order for Sam Fuller's autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking (2002). The first thing I did was to look up Luc Moullet in the index, since the late writer/director (Shock Corridor, The Big Red One, etc.) appears in this film. Well, Fuller doesn't reminisce about Brigitte and Brigitte, but he does recall his first encounter with Monsieur Moullet:

"During rehearsals one day [for 1954's Hell and High Water], Victor [Francen] brought a French movie magazine to the set. It was called Cahiers du Cinéma (Cinema Notebooks). It had a distinctive yellow cover and was edited by a man named André Bazin. The magazine's contributors were young men named Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Luc Moullet. I'd never heard of the magazine or its writers. The publication was refreshing, with passionate, in-depth articles about techniques and themes in contemporary movies. Victor translated a few passages from Cahiers that praised me and my work. I was surprised and thrilled. That was the beginning of a long love affair. I was a fan of the magazine for many years. Cahiers was a fervent supporter of my work. Luc Moullet later wrote an article ["Sam Fuller sur les brisees de Marlowe," 1959] comparing me to Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe, for Chrissakes! I could hardly shave after that came out, having to look at myself in the mirror, the ghost of Doctor Faustus over my shoulder."

In truth, Fuller merely cameos in Brigitte and Brigitte--as "Samuel Fuller," naturellement--but it's a charming bit, nonetheless. Moullet's absurdist comedy actually revolves around two young women who meet in a Parisian train station. Both have recently arrived from the provinces to attend the illustrious Sorbonne.

Though one is small, dark, and right-wing (Françoise Vatel, who also stars in A Comedy of Work and The Smugglers), the other taller, blonder, and communist (Colette Descombes), they're both wearing the same preppy outfit (wool pea coat, plaid skirt) and their hair is styled in the same chic 1960s manner. They're even toting the same patent leather handbag.

[b&b image]

An instant friendship is forged. The Brigittes get an apartment together and do everything as a twosome--sightseeing, studying, dating. It's a Gallic Ghost World as directed by a more upbeat Godard. Brigitte and Brigitte is certainly as post-modern, since it's also a film about film, like A Band of Outsiders. In other words, the Brigittes, like the ménage à trois in The Dreamers, are constantly watching, reading up on, and even interviewing people on the street about movies.

They find it difficult to come to any firm conclusions. One filmgoer, for instance, claims Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Jerry Lewis as the best filmmakers, the next claims those three as the worst. Who to believe? All they know is that Fuller is The Man. Alas, they find it easier to come to a conclusion about their friendship. As with Ghost World's Enid and Rebecca: It isn't built to last.

Moullet is now into his fourth decade of filmmaking (32 films and counting). He started writing for Cahiers when he was 18 and released his first film, four years later, in 1960. Fellow Cahiers scribe-turned-auteurs Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol also cameo in this minimalist gem that the notoriously grumpy Godard described as "revolutionary." (Rohmer plays a professor, Chabrol a lecherous uncle.)

[image]

Samuel Fuller (1912-1997), meanwhile, who also began his career as a writer, would go on to appear in the films of several other directorial disciples, including Steven Spielberg (1941), Wim Wenders (The American Friend), and Finland's Mika Kaurismäki (Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made with Jim Jarmusch).

Next up: Comedy of Work and A Girl is a Gun aka An Adventure of Billy the Kid (with French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud).



Brigitte and Brigitte plays the Northwest Film Forum July 21-23, Fri. and Sun. at 7pm and Sat. at 9pm (plus Sat. and Sun. at 5pm). The full series, FRENCH KING OF COMEDY: SEVEN WONDERS OF LUC MOULLET, runs from July 21-27. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave., on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Chico! Diane! Heaven!

Seventh Heaven
San Francisco Silent Film Festival

janet oscar.jpg
Director Frank Borzage; Oscar; Actress Janet Gaynor

Relationship expert Dr Joy Brown once said "Romance is the poison of the twentieth century." After watching Seventh Heaven in a crowded theater last night, all I have to say is "What a way to go!" Judging from the sobbing and applauding I heard last night at The Castro, evidently everyone else pretty much felt the same. Isn't it amazing that a love story created about eighty years ago can still profoundly move a modern audience? Why?
Because of great film making that like Chico and Diane's love transcends the physical plane and touches the soul.

Seventh Heaven tells the story of Diane who lives in the slums of Paris with her sister who physically abuses her. When Diane cannot bring herself to lie to their newly arrived Aunt and Uncle about how the two women supported themselves, they lose their chance to leave their dire lives. Diane's sister chases her into the street meaning to kill her. Chico, a young sewer worker intervenes to save her first from her sister, then from a police round up of street walkers. He is forced to take Diane home with him when the police inform him that they will investigate his hasty claim that Diane is his wife. Not surprisingly the two fall in love, to only be tragically parted by right when Chico proposes to her. Will they be parted forever? Watch the movie and find out for yourself.
What makes the film great is the change wrought in Diane by the redemptive power of love. It is romantic love but it is closely interlinked with the love of God. From the time the lovers meet to the end of the film their love is linked to God's love through dialog, visuals, and metaphors. Their love which is both physical and spiritual brings her grace. Diane grows not only to love Chico but herself. When Chico leaves her, after a self performed marriage rite using religious medals in place of rings, to go to war, her sister shows up. As she has before she starts to beat a seemingly helpless Diane. When she rips the necklace with the medallion from Diane's neck, Diane turns the tables and vanquishes her sister in a furious attack. Diane will no longer allow herself to be victimized. The applause from the audience was thunderous.
Janet Gaynor rightfully won the first Oscar for best actress for a combination of this film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Street Angel. Her performance as Diane is luminous. She engages our sympathy from the beginning. Every emotion from despair, love, hope, to fear she conveys with her face and eyes in a subtle but effecting manner. Charles Farrell plays Chico with the right amount of charm, fun and seriousness. Chico is brash and cocky but displays an amazing emotional depth when he falls in love with Diane. If he gives her self-confidence then she gives him vulnerability. Frank Borzage, the director, manages to make a lushly lyrical film that tells the emotional truth. He balances romanticism and realism in a way most directors would be incapable of doing.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Works for me


KUOW is flogging this evening's The Works as featuring a segment on movie blogs. Will John and Matthew keep it local? Tune in at 8pm!



Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Busby Berkeley Dreams

The Gang's All Here
(Busby Berkeley, USA, 1943, 35mm, 103 mins.)


I haven't seen you in ages
But it's not as bleak as it seems
We still dance on whirling stages
In my Busby Berkeley dreams

-- "Busby Berkeley Dreams" (Stephen Merritt, Magnetic Fields)


A mixed bag usually denotes a product of mediocre quality. Well, The Gang's All Here may be mixed, but the strengths so outnumber the weaknesses that a few seem necessary to keep this thing tethered to the Earth.

Weak spots start with the leads: Alice Faye (showgirl Edith), James Ellison (soldier Andy), and Sheila Ryan (Andy's childhood sweetheart, Vivian). The latter two are bland, while there's a world-weariness to Faye's performance, which adds interest, but doesn't really work for the part. With her womanly figure and deep voice, she seems too matronly for a young buck like Andy. On "No Love, No Nothin'," her voice drops so low, she sounds like Nina Simone. Not a bad thing to be sure, just out of place.

The supporting cast, however, provides the character lacking in the leads. First, there's the middle-aged trio of frog-voiced butterball Eugene Pallette (The Lady Eve) as Andy's father, towering high-kicker Charlotte Greenwood (Oklahoma!) as Vivian's mother, and prim-faced Frank Capra favorite Edward Everett Horton (Arsenic and Old Lace) as her father--the ideal foil for the real star of the movie.



That person is, of course, Carmen Miranda (showgirl Dorita), for whom the phrase "force of nature" was invented. Granted, the Brazilian Bombshell's singing is so-so and her acting is telenovelas-style broad (her dialogue consists entirely of malapropisms), but her dancing is a treat. And she trips the light fantastic in some of the silver screen's highest platform heels (according to Kenneth Anger, she stored her cocaine in them). The golden pair in the opening sequence make Dorothy's ruby slippers seem dull in comparison. As for her elaborate costumes, they must be seen to be believed, but my favorite was the green and purple butterfly ensemble.

So that's the cast, i.e. a mixed, but mostly sparkling bag. As for the plot, it's a bit of fluff about how wealthy Andy falls for working class Edith just before he's posted to the Pacific. The main reason to catch this technicolor extravaganza is for Berkeley's jaw-dropping dance sequences.

Now often described as "psychedelic," I find it hard to believe this stuff was ever considered commercial, since that word has come to mean safe, sanitized, boring. These numbers are anything but. To quote Anger (Hollywood Babylon II), "He made surrealistic, voyeuristic, erotic musical dream fantasies which made eyes pop and pricks stand up around the world."

Miranda's "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" is the best known bit--and for good reason--what with all the organ grinders, tiny monkeys, and dancers toting giant phallic bananas. It's a blast, but so are the other set pieces, including one with kids in polka dot outfits ("The Polka-Dot Polka") and a spooky one for which the chorines have traded in their big bananas for neon hula hoops ("Shadow Waltz").



David Thomson (A Biographical Dictionary of Film) goes on to add, "He [Busby Berkeley] was daring enough to give us unalloyed cinematic sensation, as in the imperceptible plot of The Gang's All Here, which contains in its opening sequence one of cinema's most breathtaking traveling shots and, at its conclusion, the endlesslessly erectile banana routine--lewdness has never been as merry."

As if all that weren't enough to send The Gang's All Here into the stratosphere, it boasts Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, closes with disembodied heads singing "A Journey to a Star," and begins with "Brazil," one of the most strangely enchanting songs of all time. (Also, one of the 20 most covered--by everyone from Liberace to Wire.) Modern viewers are likely to be more familiar with the 1960s version by Geoff and Maria Muldaur in the Terry Gilliam film, but Ary Barroso penned "(Aquarela Do) Brazil" decades before. In The Gang's All Here, the head of Aloysio De Oliveira sings the samba first before tossing it to a full-bodied Miranda. And we're off!

Some people say I dress too gay,
But ev'ry day, I feel so gay;
And when I'm gay, I dress that way,
Is something wrong with that?

-- "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat"
(lyrics Leo Robin, music Harry Warren)




The Gang's All Here, in a new 35mm print, plays the Northwest Film Forum July 7-13, Fri.-Thurs. at 7 and 9pm (Sat. and Sun. at 3 and 5pm). The opening night screenings are FREE for members. The NWFF will also be screening 42nd Street (July 14-16) and presenting Chris Jeffries' "Kaleidoscope Eyes: Songs for Busby Berkeley." Jeffries will be performing new songs for dance sequences from Berkeley films July 20-23 and 27-30. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.