Wachowski, Andy and Lana
CLOUD ATLAS C- 67
This is Hollywood
moviemaking at its excessive worst, which unfortunately the movie moguls think
is the absolute pinnacle of box office entertainment, throwing $100 million
dollars into big stars and an entire galaxy of computer graphic designers,
where it takes over a minute during the end credits just to list them all,
using a popular novel by David Mitchell as the source material, where in their
eyes, this is a financial gold mine, a big budget item turned into a colossal
action adventure movie modeled on so many other previous successes, like LORD
OF THE RINGS (2001–03), AMISTAD (1997), ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975),
AMADEUS (1984), or Blade
Runner (1982), among others. In the
eyes of high-priced
Unfortunately, not all
the storylines hold sufficient interest, such as the mid 19th
century voyage across the Pacific, where the entire segment continually plays
to stereotype and could easily have been jettisoned in this near 3-hour
monstrosity. Similarly, equally
uninspiring is another AMADEUS storyline that features a world renowned
composer too ill to continue working until a young upstart with a mysterious
past walks into his life and rekindles his musical inspiration. Do we really care, as there’s nothing
remotely original about either segment?
That leaves four other interweaving stories, where even one of those is
questionable, but becomes significant due to Berry’s strong performance as an
investigative reporter risking her life to get a secret report exposing a
behind-the-scenes power play of corporate greed and theft, where big oil is
intending to create an apocalyptic disaster to rid the earth of the remaining
oil reserves in order to join forces with current owners to buy up monopoly
shares in the nuclear power business.
Typically, the way this plays out,
Cracking David Mitchell's dense tome about how actions ripple
through time to shape and affect souls for the screen must have been a daunting
task, but the Wachowskis (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run)
do a masterful job of translating the ambitious text into a widely relatable
Abandoning the novel's unique structure was a necessary conceit to the responsibility of engaging the fickle attention of a mass audience. For the most part, it works tremendously well, with the three directors adeptly juggling six interconnected plots taking place in different time periods and places around the globe.
A mid-19th century notary documents a perilous voyage across the Pacific; in 1931, a destitute young musician writes to his lover about his experiences as an amanuensis for a famed composer in Belgium; a reporter investigates a corporate conspiracy in '70s California; a present-day book publisher dodges Irish gangsters; a rebellious clone is interviewed before her execution in a dystopian future Korea; and a guilt-ridden tribesman in Hawaii wrestles with his inner darkness when confronted with a seed of hope presented by an outsider from a crumbled civilization.
These diverse stories are deftly connected by cyclical themes of oppression and resistance, love and sacrifice, courage and control. Existing in the visual medium of cinema forces the explicit interpretation of the evolutionary path each soul takes - it's one of a number of ways this adaptation spares the audience some intellectual strain - but it also gives the creative team room to expand upon gender themes and immerse the highly recognizable cast in a surprising number of roles.
The chameleon nature of the first-rate (though still sometimes distracting) practical effects encourages the actors to equally burry themselves in the colourful array of characters. Giving the performances some showiness reinforces the rather overt subtext that stories are embellished and distorted in the telling. That's how myths and legends are propagated, and that's how an elegant story packed with profound sentiments gets lured into a
It's a thematic compromise designed to mollify populist sensibilities, but a relatively minor one in the face of the broad-minded ideals championed and sheer exuberance of the film's cinematic craftsmanship.
The ensemble cast is uniformly strong (especially Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent, but even Halle Berry rises to the occasion), the distinct art direction and special effects for each era are brilliantly executed, as are the required massive leaps in tone and style. And the music, that all-important Cloud Atlas Sextet hits all the right notes of emotional resonance, even if it's not as impossibly iconic as it wants to be, much like the film itself.
“Unfilmable” is an adjective that has been attached to countless well-regarded literary works. It’s meant to convey a novel with a topic so epic or eccentric that translating it to screen would be nothing less than a minor miracle. That hasn’t entirely dissuaded filmmakers. Dune, A Confederacy of Dunces, Naked Lunch, The Life of Pi, Ulysses, Crash, Tristram Shandy, Gravity’s Rainbow, Neuromancer, Catch-22, The Lord of the Rings, Watchmen, The Catcher in the Rye—some of these have actually been produced. Some were even made well. Others, not so much. A few are still in the pipeline. And several will remain tantalizing, forever-unsolvable puzzles for the movie biz.
Among the books often labeled unfilmable is David Mitchell’s 2004 sci-fi hexaptych Cloud Atlas. Somebody finally decided to wrestle that tiger, though, and the results are structurally (if not always emotionally) miraculous—a $100 million genre-hopping art house blockbuster in search of a sympathetic audience. To achieve this Herculean labor took no less than the writing-directing superpowers of the Matrix-making Wachowski siblings (formerly known as the Wachowski brothers) and German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (best known for 1998’s Run Lola Run).
Kudos are definitely in order for even attempting the complex nesting doll of a narrative that is Cloud Atlas. In the first 15 minutes of the film, audience members are introduced to six different narratives in six divergent time periods. With a little patience and a modicum of attention, it’s relatively easy to sort out the tangled fragments. Chronologically speaking, we’ve got segments in 1850, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2177 and sometime way in the far-flung future. Tykwer handles the historical portions, while the Wachowskis (unsurprisingly) deal with the more action-oriented, space-age segments.
Once you’ve got the story sections organized in your head, you’ll
come to realize that each exists as a (possibly fictional) segment in the
following narrative. We start in the late 19th century with a young
The musician’s letters to his lover back home in
The impressive cast includes Tom Hanks,
Overall, the stories hint at a universal unity, reflected heavily in the revolutionary words of our Korean slave girl, Sonmi-451. Her philosophy states that we are all attached to one another, past and present. Hence, our actions, both good and bad, reverberate throughout space and time. As sci-fi philosophies go, it’s more elegant (if less concise) than “Be excellent to one another!” from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
If Cloud Atlas’ morality sounds suspiciously like karma to you, that’s probably correct. After all, our characters do seem to be playing out similar themes and stories (with very similar faces) over and over again. Are we meant to view these people as direct reincarnations of one another? Or is the web here more complex than that? On the surface, Cloud Atlas resembles Darren Aronofsky’s long-gestating vanity project The Fountain. That film too had a single cast enacting stories over multiple timelines. Cloud Atlas has a better sense of humor and feels less like a chatty discourse on destiny.
Despite coming from three different directors, our six plot strands weave together with expert precision, like instruments in a symphony. Occasionally, when the piece is really working, they dovetail beautifully, reaching a simultaneous crescendo of action. My only wish is that the payoff had been larger. The film’s major philosophical points (slavery is bad, do good things and good things will happen to you) aren’t what you’d call radical. And for a story with such a complex, borderline experimental setup, the plot strands all end right where you’d expect them to. I worry that average cineplex patrons will find the film too long and complex, while more adventurous viewers won’t be as stimulated as they’d hoped. Sad that the filmmakers could nail Mitchell’s massive narrative, yet fail to deliver the earth-shattering emotional coda it deserves.
Not quite soaring into the heavens, but not exactly crash-landing
either, Cloud Atlas is an impressively mounted, emotionally stilted
adaptation of British author David Mitchell’s bestselling
novel. Written and directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom
Tykwer, this hugely ambitious, genre-jumping, century-hopping epic is
Mitchel’s 500-plus page book garnered several literary prizes and a huge following after it was first published in 2004, but many would have said that the novel’s unique structure–where multiple stories in different time periods are told chronologically from past to future and then back again—was impossible to adapt to the big screen.
The Wachowskis (with Lana receiving her first screen credit here) and Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International) figured out they could streamline the narrative by cross-cutting between the different epochs and casting the same actors in a multitude of roles. Although this helps to make the whole pill easier to swallow, it also makes it harder to invest in each narrative, while seeing the actors transformed from old to young, black to white, and occasionally gender-bended from male to female, tends to dilute the overall dramatic tension.
A brief prologue features an old man, Zachry (Tom Hanks), telling a story around a campfire, and from hereon in the film reveals how each plotline is in fact a tale told—or read or seen in a movie—by the next one (this is also a process used in the book).
They are, in ascending order: an 1849 Pacific sea voyage where a crooked doctor (Hanks), a novice sailor (Jim Sturgess) and an escaped slave (David Gyasi) cross paths; a saga of dualing composers (Jim Broadbent, Ben Wishaw) set in 1936 Cambridge; a San Francisco-set 70s thriller about a rogue journalist (Halle Berry) taking on a nuclear power chief (Hugh Grant); a 2012-set comedy about a down-on-his-luck London book editor (Broadbent); a sci-fi love story about an indentured wage slave (Doona Bae) and the rebel (Sturgess) who rescues her, set in “Neo Seoul” in 2144; and a 24th century-set tale of tribal warfare, where Zachry teams up with a visiting explorer (Berre) in search of a groundbreaking, planet-shaking discovery.
Despite their myriad differences, the half-dozen plot strands are coherently tied together via sharp editing by Alexander Berner (Resident Evil), who focuses on each separate story early on, and then mixes them up in several crescendo-building montages where movement and imagery are matched together across time. As if such links weren’t explicit enough, the characters all share a common birthmark, and have a tendency to repeat the same feel-good proverbs (ex. “By each crime, and every kindness, we build our future”) at various intervals.
Yet while the directorial trio does their best to ensure that things flow together smoothly enough and that their underlying message—basically, no matter what the epoch, we are all of the same soul and must fight for freedom—is heard extremely loud and incredibly clear, there are so many characters and plots tossed about that no one storyline feels altogether satisfying. As history repeats itself and the same master vs. slave scenario keeps reappearing, everything gets homogenized into a blandish whole, the impact of each story softened by the constant need to connect the dots.
Of all the pieces of the puzzle, the ones that feel the most effective are the 70s investigative drama, which has shades of Alan Pakula and Fincher’s Zodiac, and the futuristic thriller, where the Wachowskis show they can still come up with some nifty set-pieces, even if the production design (by Uli Hanisch and Hugh Bateup) and costumes (by Kym Barrett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud) feel closer to the artsy stylings of Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 than to the leather Lollapalooza that is The Matrix trilogy.
Perhaps such choices go hand in hand with a movie that yearns to be both
arthouse and blockbuster, yet can’t seem to make up its mind. Thus, the
decision to utilize the same actors helps to visually link up the plots, but is
so conspicuous that it distracts from the drama. It’s hard to take
Broadbent’s experience in spectacles like Moulin Rouge! and Topsy-Turvy makes him better equipped for such shape-shifting, and his present day scenario is both the silliest and in some ways, the most touching. But it’s Hugo Weaving who seems to have more fun than anyone, especially when he plays a nasty retirement home supervisor reminiscent of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and does so by getting into full-out drag. It’s an effect that’s amusingly disarming—not to mention evocative of Lana Wachowski’s recent backstory—in a film that aims for the clouds but is often weighed down by its own lofty intentions.
Review: CLOUD ATLAS - Reelviews Movie Reviews James Berardinelli
Oscar Prospects: Cloud Atlas | The House Next Door R. Kurt Osenlund
Cloud Atlas - Washington Post Ann Hornaday
A surprisingly good
movie, small and intimate, under-budgeted, shot in just 18 days, allowing the
actors plenty of freedom of expression, exploring the rarely seen New York City
literary world through a few of its contributors, an aging novelist Leonard
Schiller (Frank Langella), and a young grad student Heather Wolfe (Lauren
Ambrose) who chooses him as the subject of her Master’s thesis, hoping her
interest may resuscitate his career, as he’s been deemed old school, no longer
in fashion, his books long out of print.
Schiller hasn’t published in ten years, but he’s been dutifully working
on his 5th novel, where he shuts himself off in his room and sits at his
typewriter free from any outside interruptions.
Heather is a whirlwind of interest that disrupts the very core of his
being, a graduate from
Schiller has a grown daughter who is nearing 40, the always energized Ariel (Lili Taylor), a former dancer who now utilizes her talents as a fitness instructor, who is something of a disappointment to her father, as he’s always felt her life was adrift. But she looks in on him regularly, makes him warm soup, and loves him dearly, so she’s suspicious of Heather, his newly discovered friend, who after an initial rejection has been making herself comfortable in his apartment. There’s at least a 40-year age difference between them, but Heather is an ambitious go getter, a girl who lets nothing stand in her way, least of all him. Ariel on the other hand, is pursuing the idea of having a baby, with or without a man, believing it’s now or never to start a family. After falling away from one possible boyfriend, she pursues one of the lost loves of her life, Casey (Adrian Lester), and black radical writer who’s interested in restarting a leftist political magazine, but who’s adamant about no more children in his life. Her breakup with him years ago was extremely painful, where she lost a child, so her father can’t bear the two seeing each other again, even if it offers her a temporary happiness.
If all of this is starting to sound like a novel, it is – based on the novel by Brian Morton, adapted by the director and Fred Parnes, so the film exquisitely explores the deeper sides of the relationships, where Langella and Ambrose couldn’t be more fascinating, each in quite different ways, yet their onscreen chemistry is unmistakable, as is the unbridled bundle of joy that Lili Taylor represents, as her relationship with Lester provides insight into her father in ways Heather could never suspect. It’s a strange film that lures us into this literary world with surprising sensitivity and taste, offering intelligence as a means to guide us through, where Heather gets into a spirited debate about Schiller with a Village Voice-like magazine editor, Jessica Hecht, pulling Schiller himself into the argument at one point, but he despises advertisement driven literary works, claiming they lack seriousness and depth. This is a brilliant comment on our times, as we compartmentalize everything we do to such an extent that reading novels is no longer a serious part of our lives anymore, replaced by speed-reading through magazines and journals and newspapers, rapidly exploring the Internet, but rarely taking on profound literature. The difference in character between Heather and Schiller could easily be defined by this single fact, as Schiller is devoted to the old style typewriter approach to writing while Heather on her laptop is looking for a quick sum up of his career that may generate a sales boost for his largely forgotten works, thinking this financial breakthrough is a way of defining his worth.
Heather’s intentions couldn’t be more admirable, and she offers genuine affection, but the difference in perspective coming from their life experiences is startling. The film spends plenty of time unraveling bits and pieces of Schiller’s past, while Heather’s life remains a complete mystery. And therein lies the real problem with the film, amazingly enough with the writing. The acting all around is simply superb, the look and pacing of the film is near perfect, the musical score tastefully restrained, but the writing in the end disappoints, especially the way the story treats Heather, who is a burst of light and a luminous force throughout the film. Take her away and its scary how dark and empty the film feels without her. Perhaps that’s the point, as we’re finally into Schiller’s real world that is filled with all the empty spaces that surround a blank page, but it’s dramatically absent the core feeling that makes this such a tender and brilliantly observed film. In the end, it’s like watching a Broadway show in the dark, with people going through the motions, but we can barely make them out.
A pretty, bright graduate student, Heather (Lauren Ambrose, from "Six Feet Under"), with an impossibly silky curtain of red hair, decides to do her thesis on a brilliant, but out of print author, Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella). They meet for a series of interviews, and they grow closer, she attracted to his genius and stature, and he to her beauty and intelligence. (Their fling his handled delicately and tastefully.) Written by Andrew Wagner (The Talent Given Us) and Fred Parnes, based on Brian Morton's novel, the film begins a little too much like a Woody Allen film, talky and overwritten, but it soon finds its groove. Langella has received much praise for his performance as the stiff, guarded, restrained author, and though I agree that Langella is a magnetic performer, I'm not sure he completely pulled this off; it's difficult to convey stiffness without giving a stiff performance. Regardless, Ambrose is the one who makes the relationship work; her connection and reaction to him finds the holes in the character and patches them (it reminded me of Tom Cruise's ignored performance, enhancing Dustin Hoffman's award-winning one, in Rain Man). But the real reason the film works is the subplot: Leonard's daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), nearing forty, wishes to have a child. She re-connects with her true love, Casey (Adrian Lester), who absolutely refuses. Their stalemate is often more interesting than the main plot, and it provides an interesting counter-balance between couples. It asks: what do we want from this other person? The answer may not be here, but there's still plenty for smart audiences to savor.
Screen International Brent Simon
A superb performance by Frank Langella anchors the
exceedingly literate, engrossing Starting Out In The Evening, a richly
drawn and for the most part artfully understated portrait of an aged novelist
struggling with the flickering flame of creativity's muse. Mainstream breakout
potential is highly unlikely given the film's serene rhythms and preference for
debate over action, but distributor Roadside Attractions should reap solid
arthouse returns courtesy of reliable critical praise and dependable
While not making a marked difference in terms of box office, certainly Langella's recent Tony Award-winning turn in Frost/Nixon, and just-wrapped reprisal in Ron Howard's forthcoming film adaptation, could have a positive impact on profile and awards consideration. Though positioned later in the calendar, Starting Out in the Evening could, like Ryan Gosling's Half Nelson last year, attract exactly the right sort of attention courtesy of the nuance of its lead performance.
(Langella) is a once-famous
Despite having suffered a heart attack the previous year, Leonard still doesn't have much use for self-reflection until Heather Wolfe (Ambrose), an ambitious grad student defined by an obscure hunger for self-definition, enters his life. Leonard's early novels had an electrifying impact on Heather, and she now wants to use her thesis project to spur a rediscovery of his work.
At once shaken and emboldened by their challenging interview sessions, Leonard's staid, respectful tolerance for Heather slowly melts into consideration. An indefinable and precarious intimacy develops between them, but the stars in Heather's eyes dim when she slowly comes to the conclusion that Leonard is too closed-off from certain unacknowledged traumas of his past to ever again write a truly great book. This cooling coincides, meanwhile, with an unexpected turn in Ariel's life when she rekindles a relationship with ex-boyfriend Casey (Lester), a matter that greatly worries Leonard given their differing priorities (she wants kids, Casey avowedly doesn't) in life.
Langella is well known for his stage portrayals of larger-than-life characters — including Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, among others — but his perfectly modulated performance here is one of managed disappointment. Leonard is an emotionally imploded man, able, in his great intellect, to parse and justify his self-interested behaviors. In his stillness and the consistency of his proper actions (both in movement and diction), Langella captures the character's regret in evocative fashion before the story even spells out the particulars.
Adapted by Fred Parnes and director Wagner from Brian Morton's novel of the same name, Starting Out In The Evening is characterized by a great and involving sense of character detail. The movie grapples in an intellectually honest fashion with notions of aging, responsibility and reinvention, and how they intersect with creative fire. Through it all, Wagner (2005 Sundance entry The Talent Given Us) trades in an unfussy style that keeps the focus firmly on his characters.
The one knock on Starting Out In The Evening is that it has such a strong sense of Leonard that Heather is a bit recklessly sketched. While intelligently written — she's certainly no bubbled-headed ditz — the manner in which she, and the movie, eventually address the inevitable elephant in the room, the potential of romantic connection, rings false. Heather's occasional lack of awareness at how others perceive her actions also seems implausible, and after a while, her pluck becomes a bit irksome.
Technical standards are fairly polished and of a piece with the material, if understandably strictly defined, given bankroller InDigEnt's typical production parameters of small budgets, 18-day shoots and available locations. Production designer Carol Strober elicits a warm, believably lived-in feel for academician Leonard's nest, and Adam Gorgoni's discreet score never conjures up explicit emotional signposts.
In Starting Out in the Evening, a new film by Andrew
Wagner, a pneumatic graduate student spreads honey over the face of the elderly
A mutually dependent relationship unfolds between Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella), an old-school writer of the Bellow-Roth-Howe generation of realists, and Heather (Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose), the eager-beaver Brown University grad who worms her way into Leonard's life and tries to persuade him that her forthcoming master's thesis on his work will put a new shine on the old man's dusty reputation.
When Heather, a thief in more ways than one, bursts in on
Leonard's cramped, poorly lit
Starting Out in the Evening is about people who are just ticking over, not just Leonard but his devoted, equally becalmed daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), whom he loves but distractedly holds at arm's length. A former dancer and Pilates instructor whose biological clock keeps murmuring "pushing 40," Ariel is girlish and eager to please in the awkward way of women who have fallen behind in the business of finding an adult identity to grow into. (She tiptoes in and out of her dad's apartment bearing soup.) Her lack of self-definition also makes her both a victim and an exploiter of poorly chosen men, notably a similarly under-evolved former boyfriend (Adrian Lester) whose re-entry into Ariel's life earns the reflexive disapproval of her father, even as he succumbs to the blandishments of a woman less than half his age.
Like Heather, Wagner went to Brown, and his grasp of the clash between old and new academe is witty and quietly assured. But if there's little question about whose side he and Morton are on, neither world gets off lightly, or without sympathy. Callow, ambitious, and raring to connect the dots between what she thinks she knows about Leonard's life and his art (the movie takes a discreet swipe at dirt-driven magazine writing in the form of a canny Village Voice editor nicely underplayed by Jessica Hecht), Heather is a parasite. But she's a useful one, for Leonard, with his fastidious—and, did he but know it, terrified—withdrawal from the world, is the embodiment of snooty ivory-tower detachment. Heather may not know as much as she thinks about Leonard's life, but she galvanizes him, albeit with a high cost to them both.
If Starting Out is a movie about how little we know and how much we presume, it is also about transformation, about heartbreak and halting renewal. There's no vulgar equivalence between Leonard and Heather, and when it comes down to it, Starting Out in the Evening comes down squarely on the side of the old-fashioned literary life. Yet if Leonard may be kept going (and kept out of print) by "the madness of art," he can't proceed without the painful recognition that, as he ruefully puts it, his characters haven't been doing anything interesting. He's always known that the unexamined life is not worth living. Heather may be an intellectual and emotional thief, but she has forcefully awakened Leonard to the fact that the unlived life may not be worth examining.
Every reader knows that the delicate emotional textures of a good book are the hardest things to re-create on film. Some filmmakers seem to know it, too: In adapting Brian Morton's sturdily exquisite 1998 novel, "Starting Out in the Evening," Andrew Wagner (who directed the 2004 feature "The Talent Given Us") may not get every nuance of the book exactly right. But it's rare to see a movie adaptation in which a filmmaker has taken so much care in translating the odd little qualities that make a particular novel special, to preserve the complex and fragile threads of feeling between characters that are often much easier to grasp on the page. "Starting Out in the Evening" is a small picture -- it was shot on location in New York City, in high-definition video, in 18 days -- but it's from a filmmaker who's used his brains to make up for any monetary resources he might have lacked. The picture feels both intimate and immediate, a model for what smart young filmmakers can do with good material.
Frank Langella plays Leonard Schiller, a novelist in his 70s who has achieved moderate acclaim during the course of his career but whose books have drifted out of print. He's been working on his fifth novel for 10 years -- and this is real, old-fashioned work we're talking about, not coffee-shop laptop noodling. Leonard dresses for work, in jacket and tie, and sits down at the typewriter in his study for a specified number of hours each day. He's the kind of old-style writer, in the mold of Saul Bellow and (in his dedication to toil, at least) Norman Mailer, that was already becoming a dying breed when Morton's novel was published. Today -- particularly after the death of Mailer -- these men are even scarcer on the landscape, which gives the story a sharper edge of poignancy.
Leonard's life is changed when an ambitious 20-something graduate student named Heather (Lauren Ambrose) approaches him: She wants his work to be the subject of her thesis. (One of the loveliest qualities of the story is the way it asserts that a life can be changed even when a person has reached his 70s.) Heather wants his approval and his participation (and possibly more), and she's convinced her research will spark a rediscovery of his work. Leonard demurs, but he finds the attentions of this attractive, intelligent young woman difficult to resist. Leonard's daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), a former dancer who's nearing 40 and longing for a child -- she's on the brink of renewing a relationship with an old flame, played by the wonderful Adrian Lester, who doesn't share her desire for children -- is puzzled by the unusual bond that has begun to form between Heather and her father, but she resists passing judgment on it. Still, her own relationship with Leonard has always been complicated and a little prickly: Her mother, Leonard's wife, has been dead for some 20 years. Although Leonard clearly loves his daughter, over the years he's poured more emotional energy into his work than he has into his relationship with her, for reasons that are purely human: Words are so much easier to manage than people are.
Wagner -- who wrote the screenplay with Fred Parnes -- sees that this is a story with no villains, although the threat of emotional treachery is always vibrating in the margins. His actors are all beautifully in tune with the material and with one another. Ambrose gives a very fine and terrifying performance: Even though there's an inviting roundness about her, her dark, glittery eyes suggest a calculating hardness. When Leonard takes her to a party filled with literary stars, she immediately dashes from his side to make a beeline for a powerful editor (played by Jessica Hecht), boldly ingratiating herself in a clear bid to get some work out of the woman. Even so, as Ambrose plays her, Heather isn't wholly unsympathetic -- she doesn't know how to control what she's started, simply because it's uncontrollable. She's a young person who has allowed herself to be guided by impulse and ambition rather than compassion.
Taylor also gives a wonderful performance here: Her Ariel has a breathless, open-hearted quality that makes you want to protect her, but she's not a sap -- the mistakes she makes are the normal ones any of us might make in figuring out what we want out of life and how to get it. She also carries the movie's most beautiful and most wrenching moment, one that I suspect will resonate with any adult who has ever lost, or faced the possible loss of, a parent.
Langella carries the weight of Leonard's mistakes, achievements and missed opportunities on his tweedy shoulders. This is a lovely, fine-grained performance, the sort of role an aging actor is lucky to get, but also one that demands a great deal of surefootedness and sensitivity. Early in the picture he stares at his new young friend with wide, unblinking eyes, as if she were a creature from Greek mythology sent to the here-and-now to confound and test him. Later, as he warms toward her, his cautious openness is heartwrenching. For years now, white male writers -- the old-style kind, like Leonard -- have been out of fashion. These are the kinds of guys we're never supposed to identify with, as punishment for the fact that their view of the world was once treated as supreme. "Starting Out in the Evening" suggests, among other things, that once these writers have disappeared, we'll have lost more than we know. Someday their books will be in style again. Until then, there's no law against feeling something for them. Understanding the human heart is an equal-opportunity affair, and old -- or even dead -- white guys have often done it as well as anybody else.
Starting Out in the Evening Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Reader
Filmcritic.com Movie Reviews Blake French
Slant Magazine [Jason Clark] one of the more misguided reviews out there
New York Times (registration req'd) A.O. Scott
A jaundiced regard for documentary practice pervades Wajda's slice of Polish history, which takes the form of an inquiry conducted by a young, aggressive film-school graduate into the fate, after reward, repudiation and rehabilitation, of a '50s Stakhanovite shock-worker, a record-breaking bricklayer. Film-as-evidence (monochrome flashbacks represent propagandist archive footage) is stripped of its authority just as inexorably as the investigative process meets an impasse at the point where preconceptions and actuality intersect. Wajda builds his own 'detection' story with complete assurance, though it's often difficult to decide whether his visual style is a parody of TV's (an ageing cameraman bemoans the constant use of hand-held shots and the wide-angle lens) or an accommodation of it.
Andrzej Wajda appropriates the structure of Citizen Kane to mount as frank an attack on Stalinist ethics as possible in an Eastern European film in 1976. The mechanics of socialist mythology are explored as an ambitious filmmaker (Krystyna Janda, manic and bizarre) delves into the fate of a worker-hero who fell from official favor. Immortalized in a marble statue, he survives as an archetype while melting away as an individual. Wajda makes fine use of the investigative format in telling his story, but many of the incidental points are unclear, and the ending, pruned by the Polish censors, is totally unsatisfying. Late Wajda is a matter of plot, statement, and little else; his characters are merely functional, his camera style uninteresting. But the material here is compelling, for all its lack of resolution, and the film sustains interest throughout its 165-minute running time.
It wasn't long ago that film critics and consumers alike were scoffing at Vanguard Cinema for a lack of quality in terms of content and technical matters. The company took such criticism to heart and worked to improve both aspects at once. Since that time, they gained access to a number of excellent foreign films, most notably the back catalog for Andrzej Wadja, the Polish directing genius, and have planned their release over time. The latest such release is Man Of Marble (Cztowiek Z Marmuru). Here's what the boxcover said:
"Not only is Andrzej Wajda's award winning MAN OF MARBLE
one of the most important films in the history of Polish cinema, it is one of
the most compelling attacks on government corruption ever made. It is a Citizen
Kane - styled story where Wajda introduces us to a young woman in
The story saw the exploits of the young student director as she led an investigative approach to what the truth behind the bricklaying hero was. Did the man really exist or was he a fiction character of the massive propaganda campaign? As she dug ever deeper, she discovered that Birkut was in fact an ideal man who truly cared for his fellow worker; the basis for making communism/socialism work as espoused by philosophers throughout the years. She found that he embodied the principles needed but was left wholly unprepared to deal with the realities of any system that relies on people and he soon was turned from hero to criminal by those who wanted to use him as a visual aid without his opinion or help. In short, the system that sought to use him as a dumb, malleable worker for their own benefit, quickly tired when he used his position to advocate his fellow workers, at which time he was taken out of the picture after being discredited.
I think Wajda, himself a victim of the political leanings of corrupt governments over the years, hit this one square on the head. Much like his films on Capitalism and War, the famed director presents a compelling cautionary tale that shows how revisionist history works as well as how the powers that be will distort any truths in order to accomplish their goals. Lest you think the movie is solely about the two political systems so properly skewered here, keep in mind that the themes of corruption and misuse of government resources to bury inconvenient people are particularly fitting in these times, regardless of your political leanings. For all it's strengths in direction, acting and writing, I think this one is well worth a rating of Highly Recommended, even without the advertised extras and the minor print flaws. Check it out.
History is replete with examples of regimes that sought to control the media and use it to discredit their opponents for their own gain. In this day of the Internet, even private groups seek to do the same thing, albeit with less degree of certainty, and movies such as this one remind us to be careful how we build, and ultimately destroy, our heroes. I look forward to more releases by Vanguard, particularly if they continue to obtain such gems as this one, but I'd really appreciate it if the company would spend more time restoring the prints before transferring them to DVD. In all though, it was well done and looked better than the small trailer I saw on videotape several years back (even the subtitles are much better on this one).
Man Of Marble. Man Of Iron Polish Film and Politics, by Lisa DiCarpio from Jump Cut
of Marble Acquarello from
With his magnificent war trilogy - A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds - Wajda helped establish Polish cinema as a vibrant force. But as his fellow directors moved abroad and times changed, he gradually found that monumental political works, such as this one in support of the Solidarity movement and its equally ambitious predecessor Man of Marble, failed to engage international audiences. He wrote in despair that Eastern European films seemed 'of little or no interest to people in the West'. Twenty years on, this story of a journalist (Opania) who has to cover the crucial 1980 shipyard strike in Gdansk from the official viewpoint seems even more remote and less relevant. Even so, when it was still topical it was awarded Best Film at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival.
Wajda's remarkable sequel to Man of Marble welds newsreel footage of the Solidarity strike to fiction in a strong investigative drama. A disillusioned, vodka-sodden radio producer is bundled off to Gdansk in a black limousine. His mission: to smear one of the main activists - who also happens to be the son of the hapless 'Marble' worker-hero. But, tempered by bitter experience of the failed reforms of '68 and '70, these new men of iron are more durable than their fathers, not as easily smashed. Media cynicism, censorship and corruption are again dominant themes, this time anchored through the TV coverage of the strike, though the conclusion hints with guarded optimism at a possible rapprochement between workers and intelligentsia. An urgent, nervy narrative conveys all the exhilaration and bewilderment of finding oneself on the very crestline of crucial historical change; and for the viewer, all the retrospective melancholy of knowing that euphoria shattered by subsequent events.
Man Of Marble. Man Of Iron Polish Film and Politics, by Lisa DiCarpio from Jump Cut
KATYN C 75
Despite the historical relevance of this film that attempts to set the record straight in telling the story of a Russian massacre of some 12,000 to 20,000 Polish officers, intellectuals, professionals, and soldiers in the Katyn forest located 12 miles west of Smolensk, Russia in 1940, later blamed by the Soviets on the Nazi’s several years later in a brazen (and at the time successful) attempt to alter the historical record and maintain Allied sympathies with Russia in the West, and despite the importance of unearthing the truth about war crimes, as there were two other similar burial sites in Mednoye and Piatykhatky admitted to by Russian Premiere Mikhail Gorbachov in 1990 totalling nearly 26,000 Poles killed, perhaps a fictionalized war drama is not the way to go about telling a story of this significance, even by a heralded Polish filmmaker who’s own father was murdered there. Unfortunately, the grim tone of this film bears the Spielberg stamp of moral overreach, an honest, good-hearted but humanly flawed attempt that melodramatically overempahisizes the director’s own point of view, which is to make sure audiences will know what to think when they leave the theater. In my view, this is conventional filmmaking at its mediocre worst, as the characters are never fleshed out but are drawn in stereotypical depictions, all emphatically meant to portray a specific type, an honorable Polish army officer in captivity, his loving and long suffering wife and child, good intentioned family and friends who are caught in the middle of not knowing what’s going on, corrupted Polish officers that survived only to be used by the Russians to help convey the “truth” of the Russian myth imposed on the Polish people, idealistic professors and intellectuals who were duped by the Nazi’s and later executed, bold, heroic Polish women who years later would rather die than admit to the Russian lie, next generation students after the war who for decades were not allowed to mention Katyn, subject to signed confessions admitting guilt or imprisonment, and of course, a shadowy Russian presence that only comes to light in a starkly realized final sequence of the massacre itself, where a bullet to the back of the head was Stalin’s method of choice, one after another falling into mass graves.
I can’t speak for others, but the most effective cinema recollections of Holocaust atrocities, battle sequences since WW II, war crimes footage, or even seeing the Japanese bury Chinese citizens alive with bulldozers in the Nanking Massacre of 1937, has been through documentary footage that makes an indelible imprint in one’s memory banks that is not skewed by opinion or point of view, that simply shows what happens – here it is, look for yourself, perhaps something similar to the Rodney King footage. Accordingly, within this film, like Hamlet’s play within the play, are two stunning newsreel depictions of Katyn, one by the Nazi’s in 1943 blaming the Russians (accurate) and the other by the Russians in 1945 blaming the Nazi’s (bogus). Similarly, the director makes excellent use of the Polish officer’s diary that meticulously records being transported from camp to camp as he is being moved to the Katyn forest and then is strangely silent. But this film leaves itself open to so many other subjective criteria, such as the annoying portrayal of the long suffering wife (Maja Ostaszewska, a stand-in for the director’s mother) righteously behaving as if she’s part of a privileged elite class, who always looks and dresses like a well dressed, lipstick-and-hair-always-in-place, movie actress, where the same could be said for almost any other character in the film, none of whom are particularly compelling or memorable. Adapted from Andrzej Mularczyk's book Post Mortem – The Katyn Story, based on the letters and diaries of actual people, few of whom survive, perhaps the strongest and most powerful record left by this film is the singular brilliance of its composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, whose work “The Awakening of Jacob” has been previously chosen by the likes of Kubrick and Lynch, but is perhaps best suited here in his homeland where his music, especially the way it is used in the finale, adds a stunning elegiac reverance.
KATYN (d. Andrzej Wajda; Poland) *** 1/2 Ken Rudolph
Wajda is, and has been for decades, an important master filmmaker; and this film proves that his skills are still vibrant. It's the epic story of an early WWII massacre of captive Polish officers by the Soviets, who tried to change the perception of history after the war by promulgating a big lie that it was the Germans who committed this atrocity. Much of this history came as a revelation to me; and occasionally I had trouble understanding the ins-and-outs of post-war Polish politics. But that didn't stop me from respecting the sheer importance of this film and the tremendous artfulness of Wadja's achievement.
First up was famed Polish director Andrzej Wajda's
Oscar-nominated film Katyn
(4/8), a movie of great importance with a super-powerful climax that otherwise
came across as muddled, disjointed, and rather uninvolving. Spanning from 1939
until after the war when the Soviets occupy
The very fact that this new film has already been prohibited
in my native country,
Killing Field Benjamin B. Fischer
from the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence,
Meanwhile, the Soviets obliterated references to Katyn on maps and
in official reference works. Then, in 1969,
A CRIME and a lie are the twin strands in the shameful tragedy of Katyn: the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police, and the cover-up that followed. Now Andrzej Wajda, Poland's leading film maker, has made his last film (he is 81) about what he calls the “unhealed wound” in his country's history.
Mr Wajda's own father, Jakub, was murdered at Katyn, as were family members of many of the production team. Those killings come in a gruelling, 15-minute final sequence. First, the film shows in sombre and claustrophobic detail the Polish POWs' travels to Golgotha; the occupation authorities' vengeance on their families, and flashes forward to the attempts by the country's post-war rulers to disguise and deface the historical record.
The film has been nominated for best foreign-language film at this year's Oscars. Those watching it should not expect to come away happily humming the dramatic theme music by Krzysztof Penderecki. “Katyn” is based on the letters and diaries of real-life victims—unearthed when the Nazis first came across the mass graves in 1943. The last entry records the Polish officers' arrival at the killing fields. “A thorough search. They didn't find my wedding ring. They took my belt, my penknife and my watch. It showed 0630 Polish time. What will happen to us?”
Expert cinematography, compelling acting, and a story that leaves the viewer both sorrowful and angry, are a strong combination. But they may not be quite enough to convince the judges. “Katyn” is filmed from an uncompromisingly Polish point of view. Some outsiders may find it confusing. One of the most powerful scenes, for example, is the mass arrest of the professors of Cracow University by the Germans. Those who already know about the upheaval that followed the German invasion of 1939 will see the point: the Soviets and the Nazis were accomplices. Others may puzzle.
The moral dilemmas of post-war Polish collaborators are better portrayed than those of the wartime occupiers. If honouring the dead means doom for your family—or for you—is it better to keep silent? Poles faced that choice again and again after 1945, as their new rulers used Katyn as a litmus test of loyalty. But barring one Red Army officer, impeccably played by a Ukrainian actor, Sergei Garmash, who saves his neighbours (an officer's widow and child) from deportation, the foreigners are so villainous as to be little more than sinister mannequins.
Melodrama is perhaps one fault of the film; an oddly sanitised picture of daily life is another. Teeth, complexions and clothes all evoke the prosperous Poland of today more than the squalor and hunger of 1945. Material deprivation brings out the worst and the best in people. But it needs to be shown to make the measure convincing.
Astonishingly, some in Russia are now reviving the lie that the murderers at Katyn were not by the NKVD, but the Nazis. That was maintained during the communist era, but only by punishing savagely those who tried to tell the truth. Last year, as Mr Wajda's film opened in Poland, a commentary in a Russian government newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, dismissed the evidence of Soviet involvement in Katyn as “unreliable”. An Oscar would be a good answer to that.
New York Review of Books Anne Applebaum
Monsters and Critics Ron Wilkinson
Screen International review Lee Marshall in Berlin
Prost Amerika Mati Bishop
The Age review Jake Wilson
The Hollywood Reporter review Kirk Honeycutt
The Katyn Massacre: An Assesment of its Significance as a Public and Historical Issue in the USA and GB, 1940-1993 Masters Thesis by Louis Robert Coatney, December 1993
of Katyn Jamie Glazov from FrontPage magazine,
Killing Field Benjamin B. Fischer
As the title, and superficially the script, might suggest, Aliyah is about a young Jewish
man’s “ascent” to
Sincere and engaging, Aliyah fields a fresh and attractive cast with the director Cedric Kahn taking a lead role. The central relationship between Alex (Pio Marmai) and his overpowering brother Isaac (Kahn) is beautifully conceived and executed, a Cain and Abel push-and-pull that’s satisfyingly subtle and oblique. But there’s a lack of narrative tension that pulls Aliyah up short. The question of whether Alex will ever make it to Israel never feels urgent enough, although Aliyah does make it clear that if and when he gets there, it will be a Promised Land of all varieties of Jews, for better or worse - some running to something, others running away.
Wajeman has made a debut that calls to mind the world of Mia Hansen-Love, adopting a natural approach that takes on specific and yet highly universal themes. Some of the film is opaque: it hints at past events and makes reference to the brothers’ dead mother and unfeeling father, but it never offers an explanation. Yet other sections are over-emphasised and verge on the ponderous.
Ultimately, Alex has a tendency to take a casual attitude to his
own fate which the film finds hard to overcome. Part of a close-knit extended
Jewish family, Alex and his cousins are relaxed about their faith. Yet one has
just returned from military service in
Nothing and nobody seems to be in any real peril in this chatty film. You always get the feeling that just as easily as Alex said he was in, he could be out again. He strikes up a sweet relationship with goy Jeanne (Haenel) but it’s clearly not going anywhere, and he has bittersweet feelings about his ex, Esther (Sarah Picard). As the brothers, Marmai and Kahn are convincing, with director-writer Kahn delivering just the right amount of edge to make Isaac a persuasively realistic bully.
With solid production values and some persuasive flourishes from cinematographer Chizallet, Aliyah opens and closes to Schonberg but remains mostly silent in between, apart from Sixto Rodriguez’ Sugar Man, an odd but effective selection.
Cannes Review Jordan Mintzer at
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body
with her mind
—Suzanne, (Third verse), Leonard Cohen, 1966
First and foremost is Tiaõ, an ambitious young man who aspires to build a coalition of workers to help improve their living conditions while also becoming the point man leading demonstrations against the mayor and the city for dragging their feet and refusing to implement a citywide recycling program, as promised. Suelem is an attractive 18-year old with a strikingly good looking face, but she has two children living with her sister away from the dump that she misses, so she periodically leaves the dump shantytown to visit them in a different dilapidated shack nearby that looks just the same, except they’re wired for a TV. Isis is another attractive young woman with man problems, while Magna (truly the most interesting to me) is more mature, with a world weary expression on her face, as if she’s somehow capable of surviving some of the worst battles, while Irmã is the eldest and the woman who’s probably worked there the longest. All live on the premises and are slowly brought into Vik’s world, as he has a large studio nearby where he takes the photographs, enlarges them to huge, places them on the ground, and then embellishes them with products found in the landfill, a tedious process that includes the involvement of the catadores themselves, who get a personalized taste of the high end art world, all startled by how it looks from a proper distance. What’s interesting is the discussion about what happens next, as Vik’s wife comes to visit and she’s quite demonstrative about how taking responsibility for their lives is beyond any concept of art, as they’re being introduced unto a brand new world with no instructions on how to navigate their way through, claiming they are all fragile and vulnerable. But Vik is not interested in negativity and in no short order rejects his wife’s ideas completely, claiming even if just for a moment if they could live outside the landfill for a few precious weeks and see how the rest of the world operates, that in itself would be a life altering experience equivalent to the transforming power of art.
Next thing you know,
Tiaõ is whisked off to
British doc maker Lucy Walker
(‘Blindsight’, ‘Devil’s Playground’) profiles the successful Brazilian, New
York-based artist Vik Muniz as he executes a project which touches on issues
relating to his own modest background and the responsibility of anyone offering
a temporary leg-up to those with limited opportunities.
Review: Waste Land - Reviews - Boston Phoenix Gerald Peary
Vik Muniz, a well-regarded Brazilian artist living in
A fascinating look at the complex intersections of art and
charity, reality and perception,
Jardim Gramacho is the biggest landfill in the world, taking in
The compelling documentary
Though narrower in scope and lacking the first-person angle,
Cineaste Karen Backstein
In the 1960s and ’70s, revolutionary
Internationally successful Brazilian-born painter Vik Muniz believed that he could make a huge difference. So he left his adopted home in New York to return to Rio—but not to the city’s renowned beaches, tourist sites, or even the gun-packed hillside favelas that have become standard fare in so many recent Brazilian films. Instead, he focused on the ironically named Jardim (garden) Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, and on the people who scavenge in this mind-bogglingly vast mountain of garbage. Muniz was determined to do nothing less than transform their lives through art.
Waste Land—or Lixo Extraordinario (Extraordinary Garbage) in Portuguese—documents Muniz’s work among the catadores, those who dig through the trash to gather all the recyclables, which they in turn sell to large companies eager to get the materials but not to do the labor. Directed by Lucy Walker, with codirectors Karen Harley and Joao Jardim, the film follows Muniz as he chooses several “pickers” to join him in creating a huge painted and collaged canvas, incorporating items scavenged from the trash. He then, additionally, paints portraits of these subjects, often in poses and scenes rich in cultural allusions, such as Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat.
Obviously, one factor that distinguishes Waste Land is the
landfill itself, a site so astoundingly enormous that it becomes an object of
visual and intellectual fascination. Set on the outskirts of the city, Jardim
Gramacho receives 7,000 tons of garbage each day, and serves as the central
But the “garden” is a paradox, too.
Vik Muniz, too, is a fascinating subject, constantly questioning himself and wondering what will happen to his subjects when his project finally concludes. (His friends and family worry on camera about this, too.) Because of Muniz’s introspection, the film actually brings up and debates many of the same questions that viewers might have. When the catadores attend the opening of Muniz’s exhibit, and enter to the applause of the upper-class gallery attendees, it’s hard not to think of Cinderella and what will happen when the clock strikes .
Muniz’s larger-than-life depictions could—in the most hopeful interpretation of his project—turn a mostly “invisible” class of people visible once again
REVIEW: Waste Land Tracks an Artist Who Turns Trash -- and ... Michelle Orange from Movieline
Cinematical [Christopher Campbell] Doc Talk: How Involved Should Doc Filmmakers Be with Their Subjects?
Filmcritic.com Chris Barsanti
ReelTalk [Donald Levit] Where to Look Among the Garbage and the Flowers
Waste Land | Review | Screen Tim Grierson from Screendaily
Image Good Letters: The IMAGE Blog Trash Transformed Jeffrey Overstreet from Image
Waste Land: One man's trash is another man's … art? - The Globe ... Stephen Cole from The Globe and the Mail
Finding beauty among trash and its sifters - Philly.com Steven Rea from The Philadelphia Inquirer
Waste Land - Page
1 - Movies - Minneapolis - City Pages
Eric Hynes from the
Oscar nominations: Weighty matters in documentary and foreign categories Reed Johnson from The LA Times, January 26, 2011
New York Times
(registration req'd) Stephen Holden,
Art Meets Trash and Transforms Life
Carol Kino from The New York
WASTE LAND : Vik Muniz brief bio
WASTE LAND : Vik Muniz PBS Independent Lens
Countdown to Zero Uses Fear and Optimism in Discussing The Bomb Vadim Rizov from The Village Voice
The title of Lucy
Walker's pro-nuclear-disarmament tract Countdown to Zero has two meanings: a
paranoiac's ticking off down the last moments until the bomb goes off, and an
exhortation to work for the cause until zero missiles and weapons remain.
Synthesizing fear and optimism like that requires
Countdown to Zero; The Housemaid; A Screaming Man; Outrage Peter Bradshaw at Cannes from The Guardian, May 17, 2010, also seen here: Peter Bradshaw
The most traumatic experience at
Nukes are a subject that we have long made a semi-conscious
decision to ignore.
The Hollywood Reporter review John DeFore at Sundance,
PARK CITY -- A doomsday doc suggesting that climate change and
eco-degradation aren't going to matter much if we blow up the planet first,
"Countdown to Zero" reminds viewers of old fears most people have put
on a back burner. Convincingly argued and extremely polished, it has theatrical
potential for auds whose reservoir of worry about humanity's future hasn't
already run dry.
Taking cues from a famous JFK speech, the doc studies three ways -- accident, miscalculation, or madness -- in which nuclear weapons might be detonated. Director Lucy Walker (also bringing the lighter-hearted "
Some possibilities seem anything but low-probability, though:
Experts like Valerie Plame and
radiation detectors at shipping docs, which give false-positive readings for everything from CRTs to kitty litter and could easily be bypassed by a few grapefruit-sized chunks of HEU.
With its constant stream of images of the world's great cities -- with "five-mile" circles showing the area of maximum devastation -- the film never lets us forget the specifics of a hypothetical nuclear detonation.
innocent lives a bomb would destroy.
Ending on a de rigueur positive note,
Andrew O'Hehir Valerie Plame on Naomi Watts and nuclear doom, from Salon, May 17. 2010
David Bourgeois at Cannes from Movieline magazine, May 16, 2010
Christopher Goodwin The Blond's Bombshell, interview with Lucy Walker from The London Times, May 16, 2010
Owen Gleiberman at
First and foremost in this movie, even better than the movie itself is the music by Dean and Britta and their former band, Luna, which by itself is worth the price of admission, where their still relatively unknown exposure could use a jump start from this small indie film. Links to available YouTube music videos of songs used in the film will be listed after the review. This is a wildly uneven but comically satiric, capitalistic take on the American Dream gone wrong film, as personified by Pete Cozy (Eric Mabius), a normal and typically easy going guy, living from paycheck to paycheck in the New York suburbs of Long Island, not particularly happy in his job, but he knows and likes the people, even if none of them are really his friends. Working in the marketing division for a string of supermarket chains, this was never his career choice, rather the kind of job he settled for in order to pay the bills, as his real joy is spending time with his lovely wife Sarah (Annie Parisse) and infant son. When his longtime boss retires, someone from corporate headquarters is being brought in with a reputation for being a “real ball-buster.” The new boss’s arrival is, of course, preceded by a moment of brilliance from Amy Schumer as Lila, seen as she walks into the building in the morning when she deadpans “I feel like shit, being human sucks. I hope someone brought donuts.” This defines the prevailing blasé office attitude where casual nonchalance takes precedent over actual work. Of course, who’s brought in to shake things up and get these slackers in line? Susan Felders, rising corporate star, played by none other than Parker Posey, introduced here: Price Check Movie (Parker Posey & Eric Mabius) - YouTube (). Posey is energy in a bottle, given a starring role written for her by the writer/director, where she channels the spoiled and manic nature of her previous role in The House of Yes (1997), where she is literally so narcissistic that she always has to have her way, steamrolling over others to make sure she gets it. Her ruthlessly ambitious personality is both lovably adoring, the way Posey plays it, yet also slightly terrifying, like she’s an unleashed monster in the room.
Posey’s high strung character represents the boss from Hell, the Type-A personality that has you immediately sending out resumé’s for another job, but then she pats you on the back, calls you by your first name, and starts throwing out impossible sales projections that need to be met by next week, accompanied by the shouting of hurrah, clapping her hands, yelling let’s get to work, and deep down, you know she really means it. Immediately you know your life is not the same anymore, as it’s owned by the company you work for. But Pete doesn’t see it that way initially, as he’s a decent and earnest guy, responsible and hard-working, feeling it’s time to step up to the plate and try some of these new ideas, though doubling his salary and making him a company Vice-President doesn’t hurt in buying his allegiance. Sarah’s a little upset that he’s bringing work home with him, that he never has time for his family anymore, but she’s fine with it as she’s finally able to pay off the credit card debt. Hell, she’s even got her eye on a new Volvo to replace that stinker in the driveway. Posey always works best with a straight guy, and Pete couldn’t be more straight and narrow, where she has him eating out of the palm of her hand, supporting her every move, reduced to being a corporate lackey, yet actually excited about implementing these newfangled business ideas. Susan needs a guy like Pete to do all the work, as we never see her do any of it, instead she’s the sleight-of-hand, deviously motivating “bullshit” overseer that expects everyone else to pull their weight, and hers as well. She, of course, takes home the corporate paycheck, while everyone else earns the satisfaction of a job well done, and maybe, in good times, a small Christmas bonus.
In the 40’s and 50’s, Posey would be played by Judy Holliday, where her unbridled enthusiasm would liven up stale business practices, and she’d catch the ear of a corporate mogul who’d find her ideas refreshing and exactly what was needed to prevent the company from being driven to corruption and ruin by the predictable financial experts who were little more than yes men. Half a century later, the company plays with sharks in the water who bully and terrify the workers into becoming yes men, where in reality it’s a cutthroat business where only the strong survive and any misstep only gives them grounds to cut you loose. The meat of the narrative hardly feels like a comedy, and the way Susan manipulates Pete, the financial numbers, and her entire corporate world is an artificially dizzying process that is oftentimes uncomfortable to watch, as it’s saturated in greed and self-centeredness. Susan not only controls Pete’s working life, but she takes over his personal life as well, as he’s forced to spend every waking minute with her. Again, his wife Sarah suspects something’s up, but she’s willing to overlook it because of all the money rolling in. What’s truly unique is the use of the Dean and Britta music playing quietly underneath, where Susan and Pete actually catch them in a live act, which is nothing short of brilliant, but Susan’s only there to be seen with a hip crowd, where she still wants to be the center of attention, barely even conscious that a musical group is onstage, as it’s all about her. Like a Faustian bargain, straight arrow Pete actually falls for this, as he envisions seeing himself up the corporate ladder somewhere on easy street. And it all could have happened, only it doesn’t, as instead of his trusted business ally, Susan in real life is a heartless backstabber, cutting him loose without a second thought, undermining his own ambition with a little of her own, where nowadays it’s considered sound business practice to eliminate the competition. The capitalistic ruthlessness of the film is a bit frightening, dressed up in what appears to be light comedy, even the so-called happy ending where Pete lands on his feet, but it’s a savagely downbeat and dark tone.
“Someone Else” The Working Title Someone Else - The Working Title ()
“Black Postcards” Luna Luna - Black Postcards (Tell Me Do You Miss Me ... ()
“When There is No Crowd” White Fence White Fence - When There is No Crowd ()
“Eyes In My Smoke” Dean and Britta Dean & Britta : Eyes in My Smoke ()
“We Dress Ourselves” Princess Katie and Racer Steve Princess Katie & Racer Steve We Dress Ourselves Rock Songs Music For Kids ()
“Harvest Moon” Pepper Rabbit Pepper Rabbit, 'Harvest Moon' @ Bootleg Theater, 1.19.10 ()
“Mermaid Eyes” Luna Luna - Mermaid Eyes ()
“After the Moment” Craft Spells Craft Spells - After The Moment ()
“Radio” My Hero My Hero Official "Radio" Music Video ()
“Well Well Well Well” The Satin Peaches The Satin Peaches - Well Well Well Well ()
“I Found It Not So” Dean and Britta Dean & Bretta - I Found it Not So ()
“Show You Mine” Alyx Alyx - Show You Mine ()
“Ramona” Craft Spells Craft Spells - Ramona ()
“Night Nurse” Dean and Britta nightnurse - dean wareham britta phillips ()
“Knives From Bavaria” Dean and Britta KNIVES FROM BAVARIA (), also here: Dean and Britta "Knives from Bavaria" Live @ The Warhol in Pittsburgh JANE HOLZER ()
“Ticking is The Bomb” Luna
“Big Toe” Xray Eyeballs Xray Eyeballs - Big Toe ()
“We Are the Dinosaurs” Laurie Berkner The Laurie Berkner Band - We Are The Dinosaurs ()
“All I Ask” Theodore Theodore-All I ask ()
“All Things Merry” Britta Phillips
“The Day Summer Fell” The Sand Pebbles Sand Pebbles The Day Summer Fell ()
PRICE CHECK Facets Multi Media
Pete Cozy (Eric Mabius, Ugly Betty), is a good guy who used to be cool and once had his dream job in the music industry, but now finds himself working in the pricing department of a failing supermarket chain. He has a home in the suburbs which he shares with his loving wife and young son. His position allows him to spend quality time with his family, and they are quite happy, despite the fact that they are living beyond their means. However, everything changes when Pete gets a new boss, the high powered, fast talking Susan Felders (Parker Posey, House of Yes, Best in Show). She is an alpha female, and with her enthusiasm and unconventional ideas, Pete finds himself on the executive track, a new role which both surprises and excites him. As his salary increases, he is busier than ever, and work becomes so demanding that it starts to adversely affect his life at home. Pete begins to wonder if this new career is changing him in ways that he can no longer control, in this smart and honest dramedy about the high price of a middle-class life. The question becomes: What are we willing to do for the life we think we deserve.
Village Voice Chris Packham
At what point do the responsibilities of marriage and family
supersede those of personal actualization and dream fulfillment? A lot of
people would say "at the moment of conception," while others might
suggest that kids are just along for the ride, anyway. Go ahead and found that
puppet theater or artisanal ukulele atelier you've always dreamed of, and just
pack the kids to junior college at 18. Director Michael Walker's Price Check
presents a miniature Faust story in which Peter (Ugly
Betty's Eric Mabius), a husband and new father, grinds away
precious hours of unrecoverable life in the fluorescent-lit head office of a
failing chain of supermarkets. The company sends in Susan (Parker
Posey), a tornadic new vice president with a terrifyingly unstable
personality and epic professional ambitions. Recognizing Peter's intelligence
and stability, she immediately bullies him into naming the office's worst
performers (whom she fires) before doubling Peter's salary and enlisting his
help to ram a difficult new business model past the board. She barges into his
personal life, befriending his wife and inviting herself to parties at his
child's school and to his house on the holidays. During a business trip to
When Parker Posey was crowned "queen of the indies" in the mid-to-late '90s, the title referred to her Sundance-dominating ubiquity. But it could just as well have applied to the Parker Posey type — powerful and wonderfully imperious, with a habit of cutting her underlings down to size.
That's the Posey who turns up in Michael Walker's tense comedy Price Check, where she plays a relentless corporate climber who shakes up a sleepy regional office. She inspires. She terrorizes. Whatever it takes to get the job done.
Posey dominates Price Check, mostly for the better:
She's the conqueror of the boardroom, bold and visionary and castigating when she needs to be, but there's a subtle note of uncertainty that seeps through the cracks. Professional triumph for her seems certain, but what will it mean in the end? Just a few more units sold?
The story is told from the considerably blander vantage of Pete
Cozy (Ugly Betty veteran Eric Mabius), an utterly defeated middle
manager at the
When Susan Felders (Posey) turns up to replace the long-standing supervisor of the pricing department, she instantly recognizes Pete's potential and offers to double his salary for a sharp increase in responsibility. While the money allows Pete and his wife to pay off their debtors and seriously consider a second child, it comes at the cost of nights and weekends and other predictable consequences. For a passive guy like Pete, being put in an intimate working relationship with a voracious go-getter like Susan is a recipe for disaster.
Pete's moral journey — from stand-up married guy willing to
shelve his dreams for family to glad-handing slickster who loses his way — has
been taken many times before, and
Posey, again, is the real heart of Price Check, an
ambiguous figure who introduces chaos into the
Beyond writing a plum role for Posey, who makes it impossible to
fathom anyone else in the part,
Because after all, it's just a carrot.
Sound On Sight Lane Scarberry
Slant Magazine R.
Hollywood Reporter Justin Lowe
Los Angeles Times Barry Goldstein
Chicago Tribune Nina Metz
aka: Young at Heart
Does watching a singing
group that averages 81 years of age sound appealing? What if they choose rock n roll songs, or
even more absurd, a few punk songs to perform?
One could easily find fault with this film, as outside of an amusing
premise which is revealed in the film trailers, what more is there to stick
around for? There’s no real
groundbreaking cinematic material here, nothing particularly novel in the
director’s style of filming a documentary where the camera is nearly incidental,
and the subject matter dreadfully sounds like the sort of thing especially
designed for The Price is Right game
show contestants. Send them on a trip to
Led for 25 years by a strict taskmaster, the 50 something Bob Cilman, who is described by one member as “Tough as nails. He breathes rust,” they are practicing some brand new material for a local performance, among which includes some Talking Heads songs, also a couple that are really tripping them up, “Yes I Can,” a song that was a hit with the Pointer Sisters which features the repetitive use of the word “can” 71 times in the song, and Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia,” which has them all shaking their heads and holding their ears. Cut to a few face shots where members are asked to name their favorite music, which inevitably turns out to be classical, with opera hitting the top of their list. From my perspective, listening to Sonic Youth’s version with this group was a real leap of faith, as one wondered if perhaps this wasn’t beyond their reach. Then we learn a little health background about a few members of the group, a few who have been pronounced dead but survived, several who have overcome what was believed to be terminal illnesses, one who survived 5 bouts of chemotherapy, but somehow they survived. Every man and woman in the group attributes it to their participation in this group, which forces them to focus beyond themselves but to a larger goal. What they have in this performance group is one large support network where they all reach out and care about one another.
Inevitably, members succumb. In the entire history of the group, over 100 members have died. Suddenly, what was a silly movie about octogenarian rock singers turns into a poignant study about impending death. When one of the members dies, which was reported to the group off camera where the audio was still rolling as they sat in a yellow school bus, his death was honored an hour later in a performance at a local correctional facility of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” When they finally perform to a sold out house in their home town, the same situation happens again, where one of the guys who was sharing the lines to the Talking Heads song “Life in Wartime,” the guy who just nailed it in the rehearsals, died shortly before the concert. In tribute, Fred Knittle, a barrel of a man connected to an oxygen tank for the rest of his life, who was introduced in the film singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” at his kitchen table, sings an eerily haunting and supremely touching version of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” easily the seminal moment of the film, as it’s quiet enough that you can hear the pumping rhythm of his oxygen machine. Death doesn’t come much closer than this, particularly in a live performance. Knittle’s acutely apt rendition is perhaps the singlemost outstanding cinema sequence I’ve seen all year, as the raw authenticity emanating from that moment is simply unforgettable. We hear another woman sing an astonishingly beautiful rendition of Sinead O’Conner’s “Nothing Compares to U.” And yes, the group brings the house down singing a wild version of “Schizophrenia.” Apparently the group used to tour singing show tunes and old cowboy ballads, songs from their era, until onstage one night one woman in the group inexplicably broke into the Manfred Mann song “Doo Wah Diddy” and the audience went crazy. The rest is history.
There are a few previously produced rock videos made by the group for the TV show which admittedly don’t have the same spontaneous impact as their live footage, but it does include a hilarious rendition of the Ramones “I Wanna be Sedated,” a group travel video where they’re actually lost on the side of the road in the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere,” or a cheesy Saturday Night Fever spoof of “Staying Alive” shot with background singers and dancers in a bowling alley. But one of the more memorable moments in the film was one man’s utter inability to get the 7 word lyrics right in the James Brown song “I Feel Good,” where even in rehearsals, he was never able to sing “I feel nice, like sugar and spice.” But the song brought the house down anyway, kids were jumping in the aisles, as it’s the idea of rockers on parade having fun that simply makes people feel good. Cilman does an excellent job choosing material for the group, as the lyrics truly resonate beyond the stage into the audience.
While the film is somewhat amateurish, brilliant production values alone do not make a great film, but this film does find its audience by simply showcasing a marvelous group of people who live with the close proximity of death every day, where the mortality in the film is so real, yet throughout it all the group maintains their composure and lives the remaining years of their lives with a great deal of dignity by having a rollicking good time at rehearsals or on the road with a group of their peers, where they all commiserate and work through their losses through music and song, but also still find a wonderful joy in being alive and still feeling appreciated. The emotion in this film may feel a bit raw and raggedly unrehearsed, but since it took 8 decades developing, at this point it’s hard-earned and genuine, and in a youth dominated culture where it’s all about teenage angst and maintaining your youthful appearance, this is a film that makes the rest of us sit up, take notice, and appreciate the elderly.
a partial list off songs:
Bob Dylan - Forever Young
Ramones – I Wanna Be Sedated
Talking Heads – Life in Wartime
Talking Heads – Road to Nowhere
James Brown – I Feel Good
Fix You – Coldplay
Sinead O’Conner – Nothing Compares to U
Sonic Youth – Schizophrenia
David Bowie – Golden Years
Bee Gee’s – Staying Alive
Clash – Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Yes I Can – Pointer Sisters
Jimi Hendrix – Purple Haze
I just saw this movie at the Philadelphia Film Festival. This was an excellent feel good movie. I highly recommend it. It's the type of movie (documentary really) that more Hollywood Studios should make. In the Q&A afterwards, the director commented on how hard it was to get musical releases for the various songs. When you see the movie, you will understand why because the songs were sung by many famous performers and the producers got all of the releases but one, U2's One. During the scene in which one of the characters is in the hospital the scene was supposed to show the character singing One in a past performance interlaced with the current event. Alas, since U2 didn't agree to release the rights, it will never be shown. The director commented that so many people on the production staff would stop in the editing room just to see it. Once you see the movie, you will understand why I say, U2 sucks!
Village Voice Scott Foundas
From the washed-out images to the twee voice-over (courtesy
of director Stephen Walker), this British television documentary about the
titular Massachusetts-based senior-citizens' chorus so slavishly embodies the
creakiest clichés of British television documentaries that you begin to wonder
if it's not all a big put-on—if Christopher Guest didn't direct the damn thing
under a pseudonym. Fortunately,
Don Argott's 2005 crowd-pleaser Rock School illustrated how tough, unsentimental documentary filmmaking can undercut the sentimentality of even the most oppressively adorable subject. School explored the career of Rock School proprietor Paul Green, a mercurial, foul-mouthed teacher whose life goal entails bringing the rock to adorable tots and sulky teens. Young@Heart explores a similarly crowd-pleasing story from somewhere at the opposite end of the age spectrum—it tells the story of Bob Cilman, an iconoclastic teacher brave or foolish enough to teach a chorus of senior citizens songs from artists like The Clash. But any hope that Walker will steer clear of sap vanishes when he guilelessly gushes early on that documenting the choir was like picking up dozens of new grandparents. Walker undoubtedly means well, and his affection for his subjects is palpable. But the "Aren't these geezers adorable?" approach ends up diminishing his subjects rather than honoring them.
Walker's film follows the "Young At Heart" chorus as it tries to learn tricky new songs by Sonic Youth, Allen Toussaint, and others for a climactic performance. The singing seniors turn out to be a gregarious lot delighted to have an appreciative audience for their corny jokes and rambling tales. The film's first half is human-interest-story peppy, but as one chorus member after another stares down his imminent mortality, the film grows darker and more heart-wrenching.
Cilman looks to be almost as intriguing a subject as Green, but Walker unwisely maintains a respectful distance from him and avoids asking tough questions, like whether teaching confused seniors a Sonic Youth song is broadening their horizons, or imposing his own arty taste on folks who'd rather sing the Irving Berlin songbook. Walker similarly stumbles in including homemade Young At Heart "music videos" that come off as cheesy and condescending instead of cheeky and irreverent. Which is a shame, because there's a wealth of great material here, especially a shattering performance of Coldplay's "Fix You" by a soulful mountain of a man named Fred Knittle. In this transcendent, goosebump-inducing moment, the facile gimmick of senior citizens performing the music of their grandchildren's generation disappears, giving way to something truer and more profound: a great singer connecting on a primal level with the heart of a terrific song. It's a wonderful sequence that deserves to be in a deeper, better film.
Anyone who’s ever faced a birthday with a sense of impending
doom, or stared bleakly in the mirror at a causeway of emerging wrinkles, knows
we could all stand to be reminded, now and again, that there are benefits to
growing old, even beyond the obvious (it’s a whole lot better than the
alternative). Thankfully, just such a reminder has arrived in the form of
“Young @ Heart,” an exuberant, affectionate documentary by first-time
filmmakers Stephen Walker and Sally George.
“Young @ Heart” follows the eponymous chorus (average age 80) as they prepare a new repertoire of songs for a springtime tour, putting their signature spin on the classics. Classics like The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads and, naturally, that old chestnut, “Schizophrenia” by Sonic Youth. You can’t truly appreciate the absurdity of certain lyrics (Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” for example) until you’ve heard them read painstakingly aloud by an octogenarian with a magnifying glass.
Led by chorus director Bob Cilman—a wry, passionate candidate for Ultimate Mensch of the Universe—the troupe is populated by a range of characters, many who seem straight from central casting. Irene, a 92-year-old coquette, carpools to practice with sweet Joe, who’s survived multiple rounds of chemotherapy and memorizes lyrics after just one reading, and the irascible Lenny, a World War II pilot drives like a 16-year-old but can’t quite remember the words to “Purple Haze.”
While their vigor and enthusiasm makes it easy to temporarily forget, or at least ignore, the realities of the chorus’ collective age, there are inevitable, harsh reminders. Two members died during the filming process, and another came awfully close (but survived to deliver a truly astonishing rendition of Coldplay’s “Fix You”). Director Stephen Walker does a remarkable job of respecting his subjects’ grief even as their experiences inform and enhance the film’s emotional canvas. Movie death, even in documentaries, can feel like a cheap shot. Here, the emotion, like everything else about the project, feels categorically genuine.
After persuading the initially reluctant chorus to let a film crew trail them for months on end,
There may be people who won’t fall in love with this movie, people who aren’t captivated by its motley cast of characters. I just hope I never meet any of them.
When we were kids, all we wanted to do was grow up to stay up late and eat ice cream whenever we wanted. We don't know when adulthood hits. One day we wake up and have a job and responsibilities. Suddenly, aging terrifies us, as if our lives our end at 50. And then there's Young at Heart, a chorus with members ranging from 72 to 92-plus years old belting out rock classics from The Clash to Talking Heads.
From frame one, we giggle, as 92 year-old Eileen Hall screaming The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" with a grandmotherly British accent. But we aren't laughing at her. We laugh because we're surprised. Surprised by the grit and fire in the voices. Surprised by the vitality of rock and roll. Surprised because old age has never been so alive. The documentary follows the geriatric rockers as they prepare for a new tour. And director Stephen Walker lucks out because there's nothing he could have done other than point his camera and shoot to make the film any stronger than it is. As a documentary, it's raw, unpolished footage. But for its lack of tact, it allows the strength of the chorus' personalities to come alive onscreen.
Every moment of laughter and tears is created by the choir
(not the filmmaker), from Lenny Fontaine driving with the reckless abandon of a
teenager with Eileen and Joe laughing in tow to Fred Knittle channeling Johnny Cash
when singing a duet-turned-solo after the chorus loses a member.
To keep the pace brisk and the mood light,
The spirit of rock and roll is embedded in the singers, but
that's not what we connect with. We connect with their passion and honesty --
two emotions that are rarely found in life, let alone cinema. Where popular
documentaries present a reality filtered through a filmmaker, Young at
Heart allows reality to play out as it happens. The movie could show
audiences that documentaries don't have to be stuffy, politically-driven
creations, but rather can be touching stories of everyday people that are
potentially more moving and enjoyable than any
For me, anything having to do with screening a film, reviewing it, consulting with filmmakers or even doing my own production work, is a labor of love. But today, with YOUNG @ HEART, writing this review goes even beyond that. I had the privilege of screening YOUNG @ HEART when it premiered last year at the Los Angeles Film Festival. From the opening frame, I knew this was something special. Many of you may have read my raves last year. as I screened it, not once, not twice but three times. And obviously the LAFF audience had the same love affair going with this documentary film as I, for it walked away with an LAFF Audience Award and garnered standing ovations and cheers at each screening and the closing night ceremonies. This film and its subjects, speak to your heart and as you will see for yourselves, comes from the heart and is filled with heart. My respect and admiration for the members of the Young @ Heart chorus is unparalleled but for that which I have for their choral director, Bob Cilman, and the film’s writer/director, Stephen Walker, whom I am privileged to know.
Many of us have long been consumed with a fear of aging....and to
a large degree, rightfully so. For years, the mantra was “don’t trust anyone
over 30", then 40 and 50 became feared and dreaded, “wrinkle” became a
watchword and a curse, and by the time one got to be 60 or 70, they were put
out to pasture. And let’s not even think about what happens when you are 80 or
90 or even 100+. For me, age was never something I thought about and thanks to
blessings of grandparents who were vital and active well into their 90's (and
beyond) and a father who in his 70's still works more than full-time in
broadcast television, activity means longevity and vitality. But that’s not how
it is for many who are beyond their golden years and left to their own devices
or, put out to pasture. And luckily, for the good folks of
Back in 1982, Cilman, a passionate musician and artist, became
involved with the
A 25 year work in progress, the chorus has gained international
Getting Bob Cilman to agree to
What Cilman and the group are doing with these songs is extraordinary. They give totally new meaning to songs well familiar to most of us. When Lenny Fontaine sings about “Purple Haze”, it’s no longer about drugs, it’s about dementia. When they sing “I Want to be Sedated”, it becomes the ultimate punk song as the chorus sing sit angrily in an “old people’s home” and the meaning now becomes how people can get treated in those places.
Shot with two cameras around
The prison performance piece one of the most powerful in the film
was a challenge. According to
Editing, key to the success of this project, in and of itself was
a challenge or as
And for those wondering about Academy consideration, take note. There is enough difference between this version and that shown on then BCC to qualify YOUNG @ HEART for submission for Oscar consideration, not to mention, grab Oscar gold as Best Documentary in 2009. Different in look and texture, it is filled with even more joy and emotion, but retains the integrity, spirit and heart of not only Stephen Walker’s vision, but that of Bob Cilman and the essence of the chorus.
You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll stand up and cheer. You’ll leave the theater with a song in your heart and a spring in your step. But more than anything, you will always be young at heart once you see YOUNG @ HEART. This is the single most powerful and personal moviegoing experience you will ever have.
indieWIRE Nick Pinkerton from Reverse Shot
Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice Mark Bell
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Andy Speltzer
New York Times (registration req'd) Stephen Holden
BFI | Sight & Sound | Western Special: Eli Wallach - The Gun ... John Exshaw from Sight and Sound, January 2006
Western special The latest in our Actors series celebrates a veteran performer who often played the heavy against starrier names. His signature role is one of the great Western rogues: Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Stepping out of the elevator I find a short corridor with two identical doors at either end. I look left and right; neither is numbered. I continue to look one way then the other, like an idiot at a street crossing. A line spoken by Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly flashes through my mind: "There are two kinds of spurs, my friend. Those that come in by the door, those that come in by the window." Not very helpful: there aren't any windows and I'm not wearing spurs... This deranged line of thought is interrupted when the door on the left opens to reveal Wallach himself - Broadway legend, Hollywood character star and Brooklyn's greatest gift to the Western. We shake hands and he welcomes me in, grinning as if at some shared joke.
This is not our first meeting. In May, at New York's National Arts Club, I had watched as Wallach, together with his wife of 57 years and frequent co-star Anne Jackson, performed readings of two early one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. In the second - Me, Vashya! (1937) - Wallach played Vashya Shontine, a European arms manufacturer who has been selling munitions to both sides in an ongoing war. Though Me, Vashya! turned out to be poor-man's Chekhov, it was nonetheless vintage Wallach. Cunning, wheedling, threatening, bombastic and vicious by turn, the actor was in his element, his sly, peasant's eyes darting about, his right hand clenched, index finger jabbing upwards in a gesture that immediately recalled his gallery of great movie villains: Silva Vacarro, the oily seducer in Baby Doll (1956); Calvera, the rapacious bandit in The Magnificent Seven (1960); and, most memorably, Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez ("known as the Rat") in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Afterwards he signed copies of his newly published autobiography The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage for an orderly queue of theatre aficionados, each of whom seemed eager to share a special memory of his distinguished Broadway career.
This afternoon, in his spacious Riverside Drive apartment on New York's Upper West Side, he begins by reminiscing about the time he spent in London in 1954 when The Teahouse of the August Moon transferred from Broadway to Her Majesty's Theatre, with RADA students Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole earning £1 a night as stagehands. Wallach is smaller than I'd expected, maybe 5'6", and looks fit and compact in a blue shirt and dark slacks, a slightly jerky gait the only evidence of two hip replacements. His white hair is cropped short and his close-cut moustache and goatee give him the air of a well-preserved Spanish don, an appropriate look for an actor whose best-known roles have been Mexican bandits or sinister Italians (think of the doddering but deadly Mafia boss Don Altobello in 1990's The Godfather Part III), despite his real-life Polish-Jewish background. Or perhaps because of it? The Union Street area of Brooklyn where he grew up was predominantly Italian and he can remember as a child being terrified by a bloodthirsty puppet show, the pupi siciliani that would later influence Sergio Leone's development of the picaresque Tuco.
Wallach worked as a Broadway actor for a decade before making his movie debut in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956), a film constructed from two one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. (The playwright has figured prominently in Wallach's life: it was during a production of This Property Is Condemned in 1946 that he met Jackson; in 1951 he won a Tony Award for his role in The Rose Tattoo; and he and Jackson continue to stage their show Tennessee Williams Remembered.) Baby Doll, with its hothouse plot of two older men fighting for the attentions of Carroll Baker's titular nymphet, brought Wallach his only major film-acting award in a career encompassing some 50 feature films. "After Baby Doll I won the British Academy Award for the best entrée into film," he says. "In America it was condemned by the Church, and Time magazine said it was probably the most pornographic movie ever made, filled with Priapian details that would make even Boccaccio blush. But the British film industry recognised the performance."
Wallach's striking debut came courtesy of 'the Method', an acting technique distilled from the psychology-based teaching of Konstantin Stanislavsky which encourages actors to use "emotional memory" to bring their personal experiences to a role. In 1947 Wallach and Jackson had become charter members of the Actors Studio, the famed rehearsal group co-founded by Kazan which embraced the Method with missionary zeal. Among their fellow members were Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Patricia Neal, with later disciples including Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Montgomery Clift, Jack Palance and Rod Steiger. Wallach himself remains closely identified with both the Actors Studio (which he describes as "a gym for actors to work out in") and the Method, which makes his opening remarks on the subject surprising.
"There is no 'the Method'," he growls, index finger thrusting upwards. "Everyone says, 'the Method' - it's like mumbo-jumbo. Each teacher or director develops their own method." Having already encountered Stanislavsky's theories during his studies at the Neighborhood Playhouse and with Lee Strasberg (who would become artistic director of the Actors Studio in 1949), Wallach soon realised that Kazan and his colleagues were putting their own spin on what 'the Method' should be. "I wasn't convinced that this Method knew the answer to it all. A good actor steals. I take from what's given, the rules of the game, and I sift it through my machine. I take what I need and what I think I can use."
I ask if the technique, combined with his family background, were of help when he made Romance of a Horse Thief (1971), the only film I can think of in which he plays a Polish-Jewish character. "No," he says after a pause. "I played a horse thief. I didn't think in terms of playing a Pole." He then goes on to describe The Wall (1982), about "the uprising of the Poles in Warsaw, which we shot near Krakow, near Auschwitz. There I had the experience of thinking what would have happened. My father's and mother's families were wiped out. It's a part of history that you think could never have happened, and yet it's repeatedly done. To quote Yip Harburg, who wrote Finian's Rainbow: 'We learn this after every war/That life is not worth dying for.'"
Wallach has frequently been cast as a spokesman for the Method, on one occasion participating in a 'Method versus Classical Acting' debate in London organised by Kenneth Tynan in which Wallach and Kim Stanley were pitted against Rex Harrison, Wendy Hiller and Robert Morley. "We were insufferable," he recalls. "We had found the key to great acting and we were a pain in the ass." After the debate a furious Rex Harrison rounded on Tynan, accusing him of trying to destroy the British acting system, while Wallach was taken aside by Harrison's wife Kay Kendall, who said: "Eli, don't mind Rex. We English are so square we have to smuggle our tits past customs." Wallach throws up his hands, still delighted by the memory. "What a sentence! What a thought!"
The most famous proponent of the Method was, of course, Marlon Brando, for whom Wallach acted as both rent collector - when Jackson sublet her apartment to him - and sparring partner at the Actors Studio. He was also to encourage Marilyn Monroe to attend the Studio and she soon became a family friend and occasional babysitter. Wallach first met her during the New York run of The Teahouse of the August Moon, when she visited his dressing-room and asked, "How do you do a whole play?" She was subsequently his co-star in John Huston's troubled production of The Misfits (1961) alongside Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. The film was an adaptation by Monroe's then-husband Arthur Miller of one of his own short stories, but by the time of filming in 1960 the marriage was in crisis. As Wallach recalls, "What was happening in that movie was the undercurrent of what was happening in real life. Her marriage was dissolving. She felt that the cameras were like X-ray machines, and they'd go right through her eyes into her brain so they'd know what she was thinking. It made it terribly difficult."
Monroe's problems increased as filming progressed: her reliance on sedatives resulted in her forgetting her lines, turning up late on set and causing production to be halted. The arrival of Montgomery Clift, himself reliant on painkillers and suffering from depression after being disfigured in a car crash in 1957, briefly lifted Monroe's spirits - she described Clift to Wallach as "the only person I know who's in worse shape than me" - but the effect was shortlived. Wallach, who was committed to begin a play in New York and had become friendly with the beleaguered Miller, got increasingly irritated and by the time production ended (at a cost of $4 million, making it the most expensive black-and-white film since the silent era) he and Monroe were no longer speaking.
He has happier memories of working with Clark Gable, whose character in The Misfits competes with Wallach's Guido for the affections of Monroe's Roslyn. "The first day I worked with Clark he had sent his assistant to come and talk to me, to read the scene we were going to do. Evidently he'd heard about this Method, and these strange blackhaired guys from Brooklyn who were doing it. So on the first day of shooting I'm in my truck, he leans over the window, and John Huston says 'Action!' And Clark is looking at me, thinking 'Who the hell is this guy with his Method?' And I'm looking at him, thinking 'This is the King of the Movies! I hope he doesn't know I haven't seen Gone with the Wind.' Both of us are mesmerised, like animals checking one another out. And Huston said, 'Cut! What's the matter? I said action!' Then, 'Props, bring on the drinks.' We each had a shot of Jack Daniels and then we went into the scene and for the rest of the movie we bonded."
New York actors are not usually noted for their contributions to the Western. James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart provoked universal mirth when asked to saddle up for The Oklahoma Kid (1939) and Bogart compounded the error with a distinctly embarrassed turn as a Mexican heavy in Virginia City the following year. Certainly most stage actors of Wallach's calibre would have rejected out of hand the role of a Mexican bandit who appears mainly in the first and final scenes of a big-budget Hollywood Western, and indeed that was Wallach's initial reaction on reading the part of Calvera, the flamboyant predator he played with such relish in John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven. Yet Wallach could see that the role was short on screen time but long on impact; throughout the film, the audience keeps wondering, 'When's he coming back?'
Wallach had certain advantages over Cagney and Bogart when it came to riding the range. A photograph of him aged eight shows him seated on a pony pretending to be William S. Hart or Tom Mix, the leading cowboys of the silent era. After completing high school in 1932 he was dispatched to the University of Texas at Austin, where he learned to chew tobacco and ride polo ponies and wrote Western sketches when he worked as a summer-camp counsellor. Once cast, he proceeded to bring the Method to bear on the role: what, he wondered, would a bandido jefe do with his ill-gotten gains? Conspicuous consumption seemed the likely answer, and so Calvera was fitted out with silk shirts, gold teeth and a silver saddle. Every morning of the shoot Wallach led his gang of 35 muchachos on long rides through the Mexican countryside, arriving on set sweaty and in character to menace the hapless peóns with lines like, "If God did not want them sheared, He would not have made them sheep." His only regret is that he didn't hear Elmer Bernstein's score before playing Calvera: "Otherwise I would have ridden my horse with more authority."
A one-armed gunslinger bursts through a door and begins to gloat over a grime-streaked figure in a bath. Four bullets erupt from the bubbly water. Tuco Ramirez stands up, covered in suds, and dispatches the gunslinger with a final shot. Wagging his pistol reprovingly, he says: "When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk!"
It's a line Eli Wallach has had to say only twice - once on set in 1966 and once in the dubbing studio a year later - but he's had it quoted back to him a thousand times by fans of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Wallach had assumed it was his performance as Calvera that had caught the attention of director Sergio Leone; in fact it was a moment in Henry Hathaway's 1963 film How the West Was Won. As Charley Gant, Wallach mimes the shooting of George Peppard and his two children before exiting cackling. Leone recalled: "People said to me, 'Keep away from him - he comes from the Actors Studio,' but I knew he would be a great clown."
In a Hollywood Western Tuco would have been a villain of the darkest hue, his list of transgressions enough to make even Calvera blanch, but in Leone's vision and Wallach's playing there's something heroic and moving in his raging against "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". Leone encouraged Wallach to develop the role: Tuco's frantic crossing of himself was an exaggerated version of a gesture Wallach had seen among Italians back in Union Street, while the lines - "You are the son of a thousand fathers, all bastards like you! And your mother it is better not to talk of her!" - were often adlibbed. Wallach particularly enjoyed the scene where Tuco bursts into a store and begins to assemble a gun to his own specifications: "Leone said, 'Well, go in and put the gun together,' and I didn't know how. But he left the camera on and let me toy with it and imagine what it would be like." When it came to the bathroom scene, Wallach recalls, "I said to Leone, 'I'm in the bathtub, in the nude, and this man is going to shoot me and I shoot him. Isn't the water going to get in the gun?' He says, 'Eli, it's only a movie. Shoot him.'"
At one point in the film Tuco says to Clint Eastwood's character Joe, "Blondie, you realise we might be risking our lives?" And indeed Wallach remains grateful to Eastwood for warning him, "Don't be daring. Don't be brave with stunts." For instance, it was at Eastwood's insistence that he and Wallach moved to a position of greater safety during the set-piece dynamiting of Langstone Bridge; after it was blown up they realised that their initial position, chosen by Leone, was deluged with falling rocks and debris.
Wallach seems both surprised and pleased by Tuco's lasting impact: "Even today I sometimes park in a garage where every time I approach the owner whistles the music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and then offers me a special price. I don't get residuals for Italian movies, but this man who runs that garage gives me a break!"
Unlike Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Charles Bronson, who all became major stars as a result of their collaboration with Leone, Wallach peaked as a film actor with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. When I ask him if he regrets that Tuco didn't lead to bigger things, he replies: "No, I never thought of it in those terms. I used to go into agents' offices and they'd have pictures of these handsome movie men and I knew I'd never be up there. I'm a journeyman actor. I didn't think about stardom." So Wallach returned to the stage and television, occasionally enlivening otherwise dire Hollywood films with sharply etched character studies.
As the end of our two-hour session approaches, the 90-year-old actor seems as full of energy as he was at the beginning. Looking back on his long career, he says: "See how lucky I am? As a little boy I used to see these movies where the villain would always heat the sword and he was going to puncture the hero. And here I am in Cambodia [for Lord Jim, 1964], in Angkor Wat, heating a sword and I'm going to puncture Peter O'Toole. I mean, how can you have a better life?"
"A Master of His Craft: Eli Wallach" an interview by Paul M. Riordan from Images
J.T. Walsh Obituary Jim Emerson from cinepad
Raoul Walsh | Senses of Cinema Tad Gallagher from Senses of Cinema, July 2002
Fairbanks' Arabian Nights spectacle presents American silent cinema at its most flamboyant. The collection of sets were said to extend over six-and-a-half acres; the designs, partly by William Cameron Menzies, are a dizzy conglomeration of Manhattan chic, Art Deco, and rampant Chinoiserie, guaranteed to amaze the eyes. Fairbanks leaps and grins through them all, the personification of American 'pep'. Korda's version of 1940 has the quirks and the luscious colour, but this one has the electric energy.
only by the awesome Babylonian segments of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance,
Douglas Fairbanks’ lavish, extravagant The Thief of Bagdad ranks as the
very pinnacle of silent-era spectacle. Yet The Thief of Bagdad’s blend
of Arabian Nights magic, storybook romance, mythopoeic fantasy
travelogue, and sense of wonder and fun is incalculably more entertaining and
joyous than even the best moments of
Taking as its theme the edifying precept
"Happiness must be earned," The Thief of Bagdad introduces
Though at first the thief is a cheerful infidel who believes only in taking what he wants, the path to redemption begins when he falls in love with the caliph’s royal daughter (Julanne Johnston). Initially impersonating a prince to win her hand, the thief winds up scourged and humbled, ultimately seeking the advice of the "holy man" he earlier mocked, who advises him that if he loves a princess, he must "become a prince."
The ensuing pilgrimage takes the thief on a fantastic storybook odyssey ranging from the depths of the sea, haunted by sirens and giant spiders, to the world above the clouds, where he finds the abode of the winged horse and the citadel of the moon. The magic of this mythic journey outstrips anything in the highly regarded, possibly overrated 1940 remake.
With its unprecedented special effects and imaginative sets, The Thief of Bagdad is perhaps the first great achievement of cinematic epic mythopoeia, and the forerunner to the likes of The Lord of the Rings.
Bad Arabs: How
DVD Times Anthony Nield
Walsh: The Thief of Bagdad (1924) Billy Stevenson from A Film Canon
Images (Gary Johnson) capsule review reviewing 10-video Douglas Fairbanks: King of Hollywood
The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray] Kino’s 5-disc The Douglas Fairbanks Collection
Walsh's epic Western has gone down in cinema history as the film that made bit-part actor Marion Morrison into leading man John Wayne (though it needed Ford's Stagecoach to revive his career a decade later). Originally made simultaneously in normal 35mm and a short-lived 70mm process called 'Grandeur', it has recently been restored to its spectacular wide-screen glory. The saga of a wagon trail, the film is more striking now for its wide shots - vast landscapes, wagons being hauled up impossibly steep cliffs - than for the knockabout humour of the character scenes.
The Onion A.V. Club dvd review Keith Phipps
Though the plot of the 1930 Western The Big Trail is one steady march from the banks of the Mississippi to Oregon territory, it's otherwise a film of false starts. Director Raoul Walsh, who enjoyed considerable success in the silent era, and experienced a second golden age from the late '30s on, thanks to films like They Drive By Night and White Heat, employed 70mm film and a then-new widescreen process called "Fox Grandeur," an early form of what would later be known as Cinemascope. As his star, he plucked from relative obscurity a baby-faced, wavy-haired young actor named John Wayne. Trouble was, with the onset of the Depression, few theaters had the technology to show the film as it was meant to be seen. The Big Trail flopped, and Wayne labored on in B-Westerns until Stagecoach made him a star in 1939.
Did audiences miss much? Yes and no. Like a lot of early talkies, The Big Trail struggles to incorporate dialogue gracefully, even breaking up the action with old-fashioned title cards that are more expressive than the exchanges between characters. And even with all the new technology, the story must have looked tired. While traveling cross-country, Wayne seeks revenge on a pair of buddy-killing nogoodniks (Charles Stevens and the much-less-handsome-than-his-son Tyrone Power Sr.) while romancing the spirited Marguerite Churchill. Between the action scenes, El Brendel provides ostensible comic relief as a slow-witted Swede.
Fortunately, film is a visual medium, and Walsh provides one breathtaking vista after another as the scenery shifts from river to desert to mountains. Beyond and above the drama of Wayne's quest for vengeance is the drama of a graceful, committed man moving against landscapes whose magnitude and danger are matched only by their beauty. As a movie, it's only so-so, but as a dramatic travelogue of the American West, it's a treasure.
Key features: Time critic Richard Schickel provides a typically insightful commentary track. A second disc supplies a 35mm version of the film.
A heroic young trail scout leads a
large party of pioneers along THE BIG TRAIL to the West, with Indian attacks,
natural disasters & romantic complications all part of the adventure.
As sweeping & magnificent as its story, Raoul Walsh's THE BIG TRAIL is a wonderful film, as entertaining as it was more than seven decades ago. With very good acting and excellent production values, it lives up to its reputation as the talkies' first epic Western.
John Wayne, pulled from obscurity for his first important movie role, looks impossibly young, but he immediately impresses with the natural charm & masculine authority he brings to the hero's role; he quietly dominates the film with the attributes which would someday make him a huge star. Marguerite Churchill is fetching as a lovely Southern belle who slowly warms to the Duke's attentions. Dialect comic El Brendel is great fun as a Swedish immigrant beset with mule & mother-in-law woes; his appearance in a scene signals laughs for the viewer.
Looking & sounding like a human grizzly bear, Tyrone Power Sr., vast & repulsive, makes a wonderful villain. Slick cardsharp Ian Keith is a sophisticated bad guy. (His famous physical similarity to John Gilbert is very apparent here.) Silent movie character actor Tully Marshall is impressive as a wily old mountain man who helps guide the wagon train. Corpulent Russ Powell, as a friendly fur trapper, puts his vocal talent for making nonsense noises to good use. Sharp-eyed movie mavens will spot Ward Bond as one of the
What will surprise many modern viewers is that THE BIG TRAIL was filmed in an early wide screen process, called Grandeur. More than living up to its name, the picture looks marvelous, with Walsh showing a mastery of the new technology. He fills the screen, every portion of it, with action. Notice during the crowd scenes, how everyone is busy doing real work, which adds so much to the verisimilitude of these sequences. Walsh deserves great credit for being one of the first directors to use wide screen. In addition, the film is blessedly free of the rear projection photography which blights so many older films. It should also be stressed that it is only natural that the soundtrack sounds a little primitive; talkies were still in their cradle. That Walsh was able to use a microphone at all, with most of the scenes shot out of doors, is more kudos for him.
THE BIG TRAIL was not a box office success. In 1930, William Haines' comedies were the big money makers and the public was looking for fare other than intelligent Westerns. Most of the cast slipped into obscurity, including
:: THE BIG TRAIL
Film Freak Central dvd review Travis Mackenzie Hoover
Digital Bits capsule dvd review [Special Edition]
Needcoffee.com - DVD Review Dindrane
This is actually a
remake of several earlier Silent film versions, all based on the 1898 Bret
Harte novella Salomy Jane’s Kiss,
from William Nigh and Lucius Henderson’s SALOMY JANE (1914) starring Beatriz
Michelena, and George Melford’s SALOMY JANE (1923) starring Jacquelyn Logan, to
this early 1932 Pre-Code Raoul Walsh version starring Joan Bennett, where all
three versions are adapted from Paul Armstrong’s 1907 four-act stage version called
Salomy Jane. Set out West after the Civil War during the
mid 19th century, it takes place entirely in the redwood forests of
This early talking film shows how effortlessly Walsh made the transition from Silent to talking pictures, using the opening credit sequence with photograph album photos introducing the cast, but the characters come to life on camera humorously introducing some little tidbit about their character, “I'm Salomy Jane, and I like trees better than men, because trees are straight,” a clever and charmingly amusing aural and visual cue that not only introduces sound, but enhances the audience’s appreciation for the cast even before the movie begins. Another clever device is an optical page-turning effect, where each transitional dissolve into the next scene is a rarely used technique reinforcing the storybook aspect of the movie. And the opening of this film is a true delight, somewhat dated with a black Mammy character, but there’s never the least inference of bias or mistreatment, as she becomes the mother figure, best friend, and playmate of Salomy Jane, Joan Bennett as a feisty young frontier woman who is something of a tomboy in perfect harmony with the natural world around her, at home among the trees, the creatures in the woods, and playing with little children. When she sees the stagecoach arriving, she waves to the driver before running home through the woods, grabbing Louise Beavers as Mammy, where the two have to fend off a half a dozen or more live bears en route, which is a dazzlingly filmed sequence as they are all in the same frame together, no computer graphics, making this a most impressive opening. Eugene Pallette as stagecoach driver Yuba Bill is another revelation, as he’s a hearty old soul who loves to tell stories, something of a Shakespearean Falstaff character with his rotund girth, his gift for gab, his embellishments of stories making him the true hero, and of course, his ultimate cowardliness. Again, when making the transition to talking pictures, it helps to have such a natural born raconteur and scene stealer who is as thoroughly entertaining as Pallette, who eventually became too physically large for screen roles, building a secondary career just doing voice effects. His best scene here is when he describes a conversation between horses, using hysterical voice inflections to describe the different animal’s sound as well as their intentions. If that’s not inventive enough, Bennett, alone in her element, even goes skinny-dipping in the river showing her bare backside where of course she’s discovered by someone she knows only as Man, continually calling him that until the final frame of the film, turning out to be Billy, aka the Stranger (Charles Farrell), who in the opening credit sequence indicates he fought with Robert E. Lee.
A stranger in the midst
is enough to arouse people’s suspicions, as it matches the unusual occurrence
of the stage getting robbed, so the sheriff rounds up a group of men folk to
hang by a tree whoever the culprit is before the night is done. That’s quick and efficient justice in this
outland Western frontier. And if that’s
not enough trouble, Jane is constantly pursued by an assemblage of men competing
for her affections, including card shark Jack Marbury (Ralph Bellamy), the man
in black always seen curling his waxed moustache, or a contemptible swine Rufe
Waters (Irving Pichel) who believes he has an early claim on her, or an overly
pious man running for Mayor who secretly molests women, Phineas Baldwin (Morgan
Wallace), none of whom really catch her interest. But when she hears the handsome Stranger
Raoul Walsh’s other release this year was Wild Girl, which I saw in 1966 and commented: “Beautifully photographed and robustly directed adventure set in the West, centering around a backwoods girl, delightfully played by Joan Bennett, and her dealings with several men: a good-hearted gambler, a hypocritical, lecherous politician, a two-faced rancher, and a young stranger who fought with [Gen. Robert E.] Lee and has come to kill the politician because he wronged his sister. The location shooting much improves the film, and Walsh’s unpretentious handling, speedy pace and sense of humor---as shown in the amusing stage-driver Eugene Pallette scenes---keeps things going even when the script bogs down in plots and sub-plots.”
CINE-FILE: Cine-List Julian Anton
If Raoul Walsh's 1932 film WILD GIRL had any
kind of a reputation, its title would probably have pigeonholed it as just
another steamy Pre-Code film, perhaps something like BABY FACE only set in the
woods. Fair enough: WILD GIRL does have plenty of Pre-Code sensuality; but it
really has more in common with Disney's Silly Symphony cartoons (complete
with storybook-style optical effects, skinny-dipping youths, and friendly
woodland creatures) and its truehearted contemporary B-westerns. It's also an
extraordinarily textured, funny, and sensitive look at a dysfunctional (as in:
Eugene Pallette is in charge) Civil War Outpost in
Wild Girl : The New Yorker Richard Brody
This turbulent and tangled Western, from 1932, directed by Raoul
Walsh—and filmed on location in Sequoia National Park—portrays a rustic
post-Civil War outpost in California in all its sordid, violent, yet romantic
energy. Salomy Jane (Joan Bennett), a barefoot backwoods maiden, innocently
arouses the lust of the neighboring town’s local grandee (Morgan Wallace),
whose predatory past catches up with him in the person of a
On Friday at ,
The film tells follows a rough-and-tumble young woman (Joan Bennett) from
In her biography Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's
Legendary Director, Marilyn Ann Moss writes that the director didn't think
very highly of Wild Girl—or much of his early-30s output, for that
matter. Walsh started the decade with The
Big Trail, an epic western shot in a process called Grandeur, a
predecessor to the 70-millimeter format. It was one of his most ambitious and
self-consciously artful films, though it turned out to be a commercial flop
that nearly brought Fox to bankruptcy. (A major contribution to this failure,
Moss writes, was that only two theaters in the
It was around this time, Moss notes, that Walsh began to rely on a practice that he'd maintain for the remainder of his career. "[A]fter he put in place a particular camera setup, he walked away instead of looking in the camera . . . But he had good reason: he preferred to hear how a scene sounded; he already knew it by heart." The approach might account for the unique tone of Walsh's entertainments, which feel laid-back in their overall pacing and abuzz in their moment-to-moment characterization.
Raoul Walsh Tag Gallagher from Senses of Cinema, July 2002
Raoul Walsh - Senses of Cinema Print the Legend – Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director, by Marilyn Ann Moss, December 2011
"To Save And Project" and Raoul Walsh's "Wild Girl" (1932) Glenn Kenny from Some Came Running
Overview for Raoul Walsh - Turner Classic Movies biography by Shawn Dwyer
Wild Girl Block Films
When skinny-dipping didn't violate the Code 1/2 Michael Phillips from The Chicago Tribune
This is an amusing but lightweight
comedy/musical vehicle for Dorothy Lamour in the early years of her stardom.
Dottie plays a Broadway star who is forever cast in
An epochal rise-and-fall epic of the
gangster cycle, Raoul Walsh's skittering, impetuous The Roaring Twenties
(bookending the glorious ascent of James Cagney's bootlegger with a cold
reception for soldiers returning from overseas following WWI on one side and
the '29 Crash on the other) hits the ground running, but a couple lengths
further back on the track than one would expect. Mark Hellinger's story begins
not with the green-eyed and spry neophyte chump tripsying his way into the
stage door of a hotbox revue, but with the same kid stumbling his way into a
blown-out crater in
Walsh's swift camerawork is almost an extension of Cagney's swift gait. Both seem to be landing each step on the front side of their feet, and the effect is that the camera is anticipating the catharsis between nitroglycerine crime partners Bartlett and Hally to tip the scales of moral alignment back to zero. In the same way, Walsh's punchy interludes in which a radio announcer and cross-fading montages four images deep detail the sociological background of the era (approximating the zingers between page turns in a pulp novel) almost seem to ludicrously trivialize the same economic plight that was played for sympathy in Hellinger's opening credits scroll: "The characters are composites of people I knew, and the situations are those that actually occurred." Climaxing with a tableau that is as iconic as it is melodramatic, The Roaring Twenties revels in a relativism that keeps its momentum fresh and elusive.
It's not clear who's to blame for the
schizophrenic structure of Raoul Walsh's They Drive by Night, but
there's no denying that this overlooked 1940 gem is essentially two films in
one. The first half is a socially conscious depression-era film in which
down-on-their-luck truckers attempt to make an honest living despite their
exploitative bosses. George Raft turns in a solid (if typically one-note)
performance as Joe Fabrini, an upbeat big-rig driver who dreams of becoming his
own boss, and Humphrey Bogart—still a year away from High Sierra and
leading-man status—as Joe's sleepy sidekick brother Paul. Walsh gives detailed
attention to the particulars of the trucking industry, and his tender,
empathetic portrayal of the indignities these working-class stiffs must endure
makes the film's opening feel somewhat similar to a jazzed-up, wisecracking version
of John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. The brothers, fed up with their
employer's refusal to pay wages, strike out on their own, but—typical of film
noir-–their decision to improve their lot in life results in tragedy: a
near-fatal accident destroys their truck and leaves Paul with only one arm. Yet
just as things look insurmountably bleak, in steps gregarious shipping magnate
Ed Carlson, who likes Joe's moxie and gives him a cushy white-collar job
running his firm's trucking operations. Unbeknownst to Joe, however, he's been
hired at the urging of Carlson's gold-digging wife (Ida Lupino), a sexual
predator who's desperate to have Joe as a lover no matter the price. Mrs.
Carlson attempts to woo Joe, who strives to stay true to his friend and his
tough-talking waitress paramour Cassie (Ann Sheridan), and here the film
becomes a flipside The Postman Always Rings Twice in which the plebeian
man refuses to entertain the boss's sexy wife. This jarring shift in focus
unfortunately relegates Bogart to the backburner, but the film continues to
work thanks to Lupino's Mrs. Carlson, whose rapturous sensuality and conniving
insanity turn everyone else on screen into a mere afterthought. Driven mad by
the memory of killing her husband (which she accomplishes via a plan involving
her newfangled electric garage door), Lupino breaks down while testifying in
the climactic courtroom scene, and the performance's brazen lunacy—Lupino's
eyes glazed and makeup askew, incoherent, mumbled words tumbling out of her
mouth—is a testament to overacting virtuosity. They Drive by Night never
coalesces into a coherent whole, but as far as sturdy '40s
They think they got Cody Jarrett…they haven’t got Cody Jarrett.
—Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), just before his inevitable demise
By the late 1940’s, James Cagney was sick of making gangster movies like THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), and THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), films that made him a star, but also typecast him as a tough guy, where he begged Warner Brothers to offer him more variety in his roles, the most successful of which was, of course, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), where his range as a song and dance man and American composer was utterly remarkable. But his career floundered after that, making only four films between 1943 and 1948, so by 1949 he had a new contract at Warners and a commitment to make yet another gangster movie, but this time he hadn’t played a gangster in over a decade and he was 50 years old. With that in mind, they created an iconic role in WHITE HEAT that will forever be associated with him, Cody Jarrett, an outlaw every bit as ruthless as the characters he portrayed earlier, but also energetic and humorous, perhaps a bit savvier, though he’s more of a savage brute here, a seriously disturbed criminal, a deranged psychopath with a mother complex and debilitating fits from migraine headaches, the predecessor to Hitchcock’s Norman Bates in PSYCHO (1960). While poverty was the driving force behind criminal behavior during the Depression of the 1930’s, with gangleader Cody Jarrett it’s a massive ego and a feeling of invincibility. He’s indifferent to the needs of anybody else except himself and his mother, Ma Jarrett, Margaret Wycherly, who played Gary Cooper’s saintly mother in SERGEANT YORK (1941), the only person Cody can rely upon and trust. Loosely based on the life of Ma Barker and her boys, another outlaw gang that gripped the American public during the 30’s, Ma is hard as nails, but overly protective of her boy, basically running the gang during Cody’s absences, handling the money and giving out orders.
WHITE HEAT is designed to be the last of the gangster pictures, the end of an era when career criminals could generate any public sympathy, where instead they are seen as disturbed, antisocial sociopaths living on the fringe of society, where policework was becoming more in vogue with the public, showing signs of more modern and sophisticated methods that were highly popular with the public, especially with the advent of the television series Dragnet (1951 – 59). While the late 40’s is the height of film noir, this film is often mis-categorized as noir due to the blatant criminality on display. Despite the eccentric psychological implications, which are never explored, and the over-the-top performance from Cagney, this is really just a formula gangster picture, where Cody Jarrett is an apocalyptic character already out of step with the times, the last of his era. Cagney indicated he never told Margaret Wycherly how he intended to play his migraine fits, where even in the film the audience is not sure whether to laugh or cower in fear, as his onscreen behavior was just so unexpected to 1949 audiences. A childhood friend of John Barrymore in New York City, director Raoul Walsh was probably the most competent craftsman under contract with Warner Brothers, a director who knew how to utilize outdoor locations and drive the action with an unrelentingly fast pace through editing sequences, an example of classical Hollywood filmmaking, including the musical scoring by Max Steiner that never stands out, but matches the mood onscreen. Even the impressive opening train robbery sequence is a skilled example of setting up the tension by matching the speed of the arriving car (carrying outlaws) with the approaching train (carrying money), where the outlaws, especially Jarrett, are trigger happy, leaving no witnesses.
The film spends an inordinate amount of time and effort attempting to highlight modern police methods, especially radio tracking technology, not so interesting today as it slows down the pace and removes some of the built-up tension. Admittedly, some of the side characters never rise above type, including Virginia Mayo as Jarrett’s well dressed but perpetually complaining wife Verna, or Steve Cochrane as Big Ed, the slick haired man supposedly making a bid to take over the gang, or Edmond O’Brien, an undercover cop named Vic Pardo who becomes chummy with fellow inmate Cody Jarrett while in the slammer, trying to get him to reveal information to help build a case against him. Next to Cagney, O’Brien is really bland and boring, of questionable moral character himself, though there are tense moments when his true police identity might be discovered, but the prison sequences really drag after Jarrett cunningly turns himself in for a lesser crime with the knowledge he’d be out in a year or so. While there are a few moments, such as an attempt on his life and a memorable prison visit from Ma, who’s intense stubbornness seems to run in the family, it’s her later demise (happening offscreen, discovered by Jarrett through a line of convicts whispering what happened into the ear of the convict sitting next to them at dinner) that leads to a major scene of Cagney having a manic fit on the floor of the prison, taking out half a dozen guards in the process, leading to a departure from the originally planned jailbreak. Once Jarrett is out, he has to set matters straight, especially with Big Ed and a guy that nearly kills him in prison, an inmate Cody makes sure comes along during the breakout. As the equilibrium among criminals is being restored, the police obtain the upper hand through Pardo’s ability to tip off the cops and then place a homemade electronic honing device on the truck being used in their next big heist. What makes this film iconic is the legendary finale, expressed with a kind of psychotic glee rarely seen elsewhere, as Cagney simply operates on another level as everyone else. When the cops surprise his gang with numbers and chase him up the steps of a fuel refinery storage tank, hopelessly surrounded and wounded but not out of it, it’s his refusal to go out quietly that we all remember. With flames shooting up all around him before the self-inflicted final blast that has atomic age written all over it, Cagney shouts out to the ghost of his dead mother, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!”—a fitting epitaph for Cody Jarrett.
This film may suffer from star power, much like John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (1956), where the audience tends to over-identify with Cagney, despite his murderous, psychopathic tendencies, as they do with John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, a known Indian hater, where it seems hard to believe that when the film was made, Warner Brothers, who produced both films, felt audiences would identify with Edmond O’Brien’s Vic Pardo, thinking he was the hero of the film. But Pardo’s character is too morally conflicted, as the mere concept of a jailhouse spy is not anyone’s idea of a hero. Pardo was treated well by Jarrett, and was privy to a more human side of him, as Jarrett actually opened up to him, which makes his double cross all the more demoralizing, especially his escape, where the police actually use excessive force, never even attempting to bring in any of the outlaws alive. Instead they were all killed, the entire gang, except one fellow inmate who surrenders near the end. This may be a case of writers and studios thinking so highly of themselves that they actually believe they know better than the public, but audiences loved Cagney and Wayne, where they have become American icons with a longstanding public adulation, where despite their association with violence in pictures, they are beloved family idols where kids at an early age actually look up to them as role models. This is not to suggest either Cody Jarrett or Ethan Edwards are role models, but kids, especially at an early age, are conflicted over this issue, as onscreen they appear to be the heroes. They’re the strongest characters onscreen and they always carry the action. So for kids, if there’s any movie character to emulate, it’s the Cagney or Wayne figure. Their hateful or murderous tendencies are secondary to the power of their performances, where even for adults, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer manic energy of Cagney’s Jarrett as he eats a chicken drumstick in one hand while shooting the rat who finked on him in prison with the other. He’s as entertaining as they come, and his sheer willpower dominates the picture, which is what endears him to audiences even as they know he’s a loathsome psychotic killer who probably deserves the electric chair.
Adrian Martin from 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE:
“Do you know what to do?” barks Cody (James Cagney) at his sidekick at the start of a daring train robbery; when the guy starts replying, Cody cuts him off: “Just do it, stop gabbing!” This headlong, action-only attitude sums up the drive of Raoul Walsh’s films, which (as Peter Lloyd once remarked) “take the pulse of an individual energy” and embed it within a “demented trajectory out of which is born the construction of rhythm.” Few films are as taut, sustained, and economical in their telling as White Heat.
Walsh is a relentlessly linear, forward-moving director whose work harkens back to silent cinema—as in that exciting car-meets-train opener. But he also explores the intriguing, complicated possibilities of 20th century psychology. On the job, Cody kills ruthlessly. Once holed up like a caged animal with his gang—as he will later be imprisoned—his psychopathology begins to emerge: indifference to others’ suffering, fixation on a tough mom, and searing migraines that send him beserk.
Cody, as immortalized in Cagney’s powerhouse performance, embodies the ultimate contradiction that brings down movie gangsters: fantastic egotism and dreams of invincibility (“Look, Ma, top of the world!”) undermined by all-too-human dependencies and vulnerabilities.
The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray] The Warner Gangster’s Collection
After four versions of a single
story, White Heat serves as a "10 years later" epilogue. The
'30s gangster pictures were stylish and set-bound, with snappy visual
storytelling derived from silent-movie grammar. White Heat is more in
the vein of film noir and documentary realism, as it takes to the streets of
From the daring and brutally violent train robbery that opens the film, this
gangster flick has a relentless trajectory that ends only with the incendiary
finale-de-resistance. Director, Raoul Walsh, and cinematographer, Sid Hickox,
have produced one of the tautest and most electric thrillers ever to emanate
Jimmy Cagney as the criminal psychotic Cody Jarrett dominates the screen in a bravura performance that is as dynamic as it is intense. Broderick Crawford as the undercover cop Fallon, is no match for Cagney, and appears flat and almost irrelevant. Cody’s razor-sharp intelligence, and unflinching decisiveness and brutality propel the action – Fallon and the other cops can only follow in his wake. Virginia Mayo is well-cast as Cody’s slatternly wife, and is as cheap and conniving as any gangster’s mole before or since. Only Ma Jarrett matches her in evil guile.
The film-making team conspires to hold you not only in awe of Cody but also to perversely empathize with him. Strange to say he is the only genuine character in the motley crew organised for the final disastrous heist. Even Fallon comes off looking lifeless and less than honorable. The mise-en-scene is calculated to subvert your moral compass. Cody is decisive and acts without hesitation or qualm, while Fallon’s actions are reactive and ponderous. When Fallon tries to sneak out of the gang’s hide-out on the eve of the heist to alert his superiors, he is way-laid and has to concoct a story about wanting to hook-up with his ‘wife’ for the night, as Cody talks intimately and almost poetically to him of his grief for his dead mother, and how he was just ‘talking’ to her when wandering in the brush outside.
In the final shoot-out Cody is pinned atop a gas storage silo at an LA refinery, while Fallon from a safe distance takes pot-shots at him with a sniper’s rifle. Cody won’t go down, and only when he wildly shoots his pistol into the silo is his fate finally sealed. Fallon looks far less heroic…
gets a lot of credit for revolutionizing screen acting with his performance as
Stanley Kowalski in "actors' director" Elia Kazan's 1951 A
Streetcar Named Desire. After five AFI specials, one could reasonably argue
that his reputation as the lynchpin between the era of Nelson Eddy and the era
of Edward Norton has been etched in stone. And so it's sort of ironic to
consider the possibility that James Cagney's last truly iconic performance in
the post-gangster era pastiche White Heat (directed by Raoul Walsh, not
exactly the type of director whose reputation was built on a fastidious
fixation on the Actors' Studio ethic) predates the stripped-down implosiveness
of Brando's display of pectoral scratches and flubbed inflection by two full
Cagney (whose years were finally and discernibly catching up with him, and seemingly all gathering within his much more melonlike head) plays the unhinged Cody Jarrett, a mid-level criminal mastermind who's a big enough threat to have a fat FBI record, but small and fallible enough to still depend on the psychological (and suggestively sexual) support of his devoted mother. As Walsh's film opens, Jarrett is executing a train heist with a small clan of almost-inept henchmen, all of whom seem capable of sullenly reminding Jarrett of the size of their cut and inadvertently taunting his slouching sense of masculinity. Their slovenly indifference to anything but the payoff results in a sloppy heist that only goes downhill from the moment one poor stooge gets his face exfoliated by a busted steam engine. One of the mugs mentions Jarrett's name while he's holding two crusty train conductors at gunpoint, and just as soon as one of the two geezers shoots his mouth off about the slip, a two-bit holdup becomes a bloody, homicidal crime spree, forcing the clan to hole up in a remote cabin with no fire in the fireplace (the smoke will attract attention) and no shortage of sparks between Jarrett's floozy wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) and his flinty-featured Ma. At one point, Jarrett collapses in agony on the floor (he has chronic headaches that, one character later explains, were his only means of attracting his mother's attention as a kid) and is hoisted upon Ma's lap for a sinister neck massage.
Walsh's characterization of Ma as a filial lamprey, driving her son batty with the uncontrollable power of her love and her surreptitiously emasculating prods for Jarrett to make it to the "top of the world" may provide actress Margaret Wycherly with a spitfire role (check out the smug expression on her face as she evades three cop cars on her way home from buying her son strawberries), but it's also nothing more than dime novel psychological hooey, and a far too hasty peek into Jarrett's twisted mental state. The Oedipal overtones of the relationship don't pay off until Jarrett goes behind bars (surrendering to the police for a minor heist that would also conveniently provide him an alibi for the botched train robbery) and unwittingly befriends an undercover cop planted as a mole to spy on Jarrett in the hopes that he'll make some verbal slip-up that will implicate him in the murders he's committed.
Once again, the most denigrated angle of a Walsh picture is the perception of his ostensible disinterest in the motivation of his "good" characters, and Edmond O'Brien's portrayal of the undercover inmate "Vic Pardo" is no exception. Without bothering to quote Manny Farber again, I'll merely counter that O'Brien plays as crucial a role to the film's success as a cornerstone of Cagney iconography as Cagney's own bravura tantrums in the mess hall upon learning of his mother's death. To accept the film's stabs at Freudianism, take note of the transference of custodial duties between Ma and Pardo in the scene in which Jarrett collapses in the middle of the jailhouse assembly line. Pardo drags Jarrett behind a set of shelves and pulls the writhing mass of shaved nerve-endings up to his lap, urgently massaging the back of his neck in a shot that immediately recalls the earlier moment of familial lust when Ma invites Jarrett onto her lap. It's over nearly as soon as it started (I can only presume that in those days the Production Code set a strict limit to the number of seconds two males' bare skin could be in direct contact), but the psychological shift informs the crux of the final betrayal, when Jarrett learns of Pardo's true identity and nearly dissolves into bitter crying jag. White Heat's ultimate message: love's a bitch…even crypto-incestuous love.
White Heat - Film (Movie) Plot and Review ... - Film Reference Ed Lowry from Film Reference
White Heat - Turner Classic Movies Rob Nixon
Articles collection of TCM essays by Rob Nixon
Film Court Lawrence Russell
eFilmCritic Reviews Doug Bentin
DVD Journal Mark Bourne
American Cinematographer DVD review by Jim Hemphill
digitallyOBSESSED.com Jon Danziger
DVD Verdict Steve Evans
DVD Talk Matthew Millheiser
DVD MovieGuide Colin Jacobson
DVD Savant Glenn Erickson, the Warner Gangster Collection
Big House Film Roger Westcombe
TCM's MovieMorlocks.com Not for Nothin’, by Richard Harland Smith
The Spinning Image Graeme Clark)
That Cow Andrew Bradford
The New York Times Bosley Crowther
THEATER OF WAR B+ 90
“We all live off the war, whether or not we acknowledge it. She’s just more dirty and in the trenches. But we all live off the war.”
—Meryl Streep on Mother Courage
This is a sprawling, multi-faceted documentary on the making of a free 2006 Shakespeare in the Park Public Theater production of Bertolt Brecht’s play MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN in Central Park, with a new translation of the play by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner and with Meryl Streep in the role of Mother Courage. Streep has always been hesitant in allowing herself to be seen in early production stages of any work, for it’s easy to find fault while clumsily searching for the right character, claiming: “Process looks like bad acting. Process is not anything you should let anybody see.” But here the cameras are rolling during the first read through, shown after a brief flurry where we see her onstage in full drunken despair. While it’s hard to doubt Streep’s commitment and prowess, her real-life persona of being such a sweet and good hearted person, especially as seen in Robert Altman’s last film PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006), is at odds with the play, where she has to get lowdown and dirty, where she tells us early on, “I’m the voice of dead people. I’m the interpreter of lost songs.” There are surprisingly few sequences from the play itself, most of them short and still evolving, which might seem disappointing, yet this film is full of discussion about Brecht and his family, including a surviving daughter recollecting stories as well as Carl Weber, an assistant director of Brecht’s own 1949 Berliner Ensemble production of the play in Germany starring his wife Helene Weigel. Kushner offers his own views on Brecht, recalling much of his poetry, as does director George C. Wolfe, while writer Jay Cantor places the work in a scholarly Marxist perspective, claiming Brecht discovered Marx late in his career when the only apparent hope for this war ravaged writer was discovering there were strength in numbers, as otherwise, from his disturbing view, mankind was doomed.
The beauty of this film is the continual search for the meaning in Brecht’s life and works, using archival home movie footage that presents a portrait of a lost childhood, as his parents were forced to flee Germany after the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 when Hitler declared martial law and then continually remained on the move to avoid the Nazi’s, from Denmark to Stockholm (where he wrote Mother Courage) to Finland to Zurich to Moscow to Vladivostok, eventually coming to the United States where he was subject to the questioning of the post-war House Un-American Activities Committee so intent on weeding out communists from every nook and cranny of the country, in this case Hollywood artists. Brecht’s testimony is given an amusing spin as the consensus was he was giving a performance, accentuating his supposed inability to speak English well, thereby lying through his teeth while reveling in the senseless futility of even being asked such useless questions, the committee knowing nothing whatsoever about the circumstances people were forced to endure in Europe in order to survive the war. Brecht left America for Europe the day after his testimony, setting a pattern later followed by Roman Polanski who was similarly hounded by an overzealous press. In between bittersweet, profoundly moving songs (newly scored by Jeanine Tesori), Streep can be seen on black and white video interviews offering her own compelling views on the play and why she chose the role, which requires an extraordinary grasp of dialogue, as she’s onstage for the entire 3 and a half hour production, while people around her drop like flies, including the loss of all of her children, the price one pays for war. Briefly seen as an outcry to America’s occupation in Iraq, where a play is not likely to end a war, but as perhaps the greatest anti-war play ever written, a new production does have resonance placing war in a different perspective, offering the audience a sense of connection to the multitude of deaths that have come before, from the thousands and millions of people of all faiths, countries, and continents, who throughout time have anguished in despair over senseless losses they could not understand.
More important, however, is the discussion by some of Brecht’s more ardent admirers, namely theater people, from the directors to the costume room to the props department to the actors themselves, we hear people speak of their roles in this upcoming production while also getting a knowledgeable discussion on the relevancy of Brecht and his works, thought of as the ultimate outsider, writing nearly all of his plays in German while exiled outside his country, knowing his style was a radical departure, but never knowing if his plays would ever be presented before a German audience in his lifetime, never knowing the impact of what he created, while continually remaining an enigma wherever he went. Mother Courage is the ultimate nightmare on the horrible impact of war, where one never knows just how small and desperate people can feel until they are removed from any semblance of the world they once knew, or the people they once loved, where events seem to spin out of control, as if by accident where people can only sit on the sidelines and watch helplessly, seeing “Injustice everywhere, and no rebellion.” Brecht captures loss like no other, where in his plays, characters break out into song, capturing intimate, personal, and demoralizing moments that defy human comprehension, a moral abyss where God is no longer answerable or applicable, where all that’s left in your rotten decrepit life is to be alone, engulfed in a deafening silence.
Von Stauffenberg expressed his political outrage by
attempting to blow up Adolf Hitler at a war summit; George C. Wolfe, Tony
Kushner, and Meryl Streep express theirs by exhuming Brecht’s Mother
Courage and Her Children, adding a few anti-Bush jabs, and putting it on
in Central Park. John Walter’s documentary Theater of War alternates
rehearsal footage with (cleaned-up) stories of the life and times of old
Bertolt. As a onetime dramaturg and Brechtian, I enjoyed the chin-wags and the
glimpses of Streep in rehearsal—especially her quivering admission that she
can’t bear the thought of anyone seeing her process. The movie throws in a
cogent Marxist primer and reminders of all the collateral damage (economic and
physical) generated by our war machine. All I missed was a hint that
Chicago Reader Andrea Gronvall
A longtime admirer of Bertolt Brecht, documentary maker John
Walter goes behind the scenes at the Public Theater's 2006 staging of Mother
Courage and Her Children in
Chicago Tribune Michael Phillips
Three years ago a heavyweight collection of theater artists,
including Meryl Streep,
playwright Tony Kushner
and director George C.Wolfe, entered the ring with Bertolt
Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children." Documentary
filmmaker John Walter enjoyed unusual access to the preparation and rehearsal
of the 2006 New York Public Theater revival. The result is fascinating: part
fly-on-the-wall, part symposium on both Brecht and those who were weaned on his
eternal, granitelike truths regarding the war machine.
At the time of the production, which was staged at the outdoor Central Park Delacorte Theater,
The film sets up subtle connections between Brecht and Kushner, both blessed with great success at a relatively young age. Similarly, commentary on Marxian theory regarding the value and meaning of work from scholar Jay Cantor is intercut with interviews with production associates, including the prop master. Looking splendid in Walter's black-and-white interview sequences, Streep speaks eloquently of her craft. She did the play, she says, because she needed an outlet for the rage she felt every time she saw another Iraq War widow on the TV news, wailing and asking the heavens: Why?
last April Andrew O’Hehir from Salon, April 2008
Moving from one famous playwright, and one political extreme,
to another, we come to one of Tribeca's central niches: the kind of New
York-centric film that's likely to play almost nowhere else, or at least that
will only play to audiences who wish to bask in reflected light from the glow
Actually, there's a great deal to be said about Brecht's life
and work that isn't in "Theater of War," which perhaps, again, is not
precisely the filmmaker's fault. How and why did Brecht's plays, so carefully
constructed to combine popular forms and avant-garde techniques, become the
exclusive province of the left-wing intelligentsia? Is his influence on the
film world purely a question of a bagful of facile formal tricks or something
more profound? (It strikes me, for instance, that Brecht's desire to divorce
the audience from the action and compel rational reflection, rather than draw
the audience into the story and compel catharsis, marks an unresolved division
in the history of dramatic art that still troubles us today.) Given Brecht's
courageous artistic defiance of Nazism and McCarthyism, how do we understand
his accommodation with the postwar regime in
Still, OK, let's be fair. For those interested in the continuing relevance of theater in a society dominated by momentary electronic impulses, in the responsibility of artists in wartime and in the greatest anti-capitalist, anti-government, antiwar and anti-romantic playwright of the 20th century, Walter's cool, capable, stimulating exploration is a must. The scenes of star Meryl Streep, director George C. Wolfe and Kushner rehearsing "Mother Courage" are tremendous, as are Walter's wry, Brechtian digressions into the backstage work of the costumers and prop-makers. None of which stops me from suspecting that if Brecht were alive today he'd be working in reality TV or producing viral video.
I saw this on
So, with that rather severe academic assignment to myself, off I went on a dreary chilly late morning to see this movie.
The movie is strong, strong, good, good. It is a lesson in politics; a summary of the life of Brecht; and a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at a staged production of the play "Mother Courage and Her Children." The significance of the two world wars on Brecht's life is clearly the basis of the Play "Mother Courage," but the opportunity to understand why Meryl Streep (lead in the play), George Woolf (director), Oscar Eustis (director of the Public Theatre), and Tony Kushner (playwright and translator of the play) wanted - needed - to bring the play to the stage refreshed my memory of the cycle of horrors of war and abuse of authority that our present office holders are responsible for. The play is anti-war, even espousing a communistic view of the world, understandable for its time and for Brecht's experiences; but the play produced in 2006, in the midst of a new war is a scream for an end to war.
Best interviews are with an aging man who worked with Brecht in
The movie is standard in many ways containing interviews, images, historic footage, and moments at relevant locations, but is an excellent introduction to the huge tragedy of war and to the relevance of art in civic life.
SEE THEATRE ON THE STAGE! it is alive, as Dr. Frankenstein would say.
PS. Seeing Meryl Streep sweating it out on stage two summers ago in
Courage and Her Children - Review - Theater - New York Times Ben Brantley from The New York Times,
If you ever wanted to watch one willowy human being lift a 12-ton play onto her shoulders and hold it there for hours, even as her muscles buckle and breath comes short, join the line of hopefuls waiting at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park for cancellations to see Meryl Streep burning energy like a supernova in the title role of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.”
This production in search of a tone, which runs through Sept. 3, is not great, to put it kindly. Nor is Ms. Streep’s performance, dazzling though it is, on a par with her best work.
Yet with “Mother Courage,” which opened last night in a Public Theater production directed by George C. Wolfe, the ever-surprising Ms. Streep has achieved what, to my knowledge, is a first in her virtuosic career. Ms. Streep is that rare chameleon movie star who never just plays variations on her own personality. You don’t leave “Sophie’s Choice” or the current “Devil Wears Prada” confusing the haunted concentration camp survivor or icy fashion editor onscreen with the actress who portrays them.
But embodying a tireless entrepreneur of the Thirty Years War — determined to survive with her business and family intact, whatever the cost — Ms. Streep so blurs the lines between Meryl and Mother that for once it is hard to distinguish the dancer from the dance.
For what Ms. Streep does onstage is pretty much what Mother Courage does on the battlefield: thinking fast on her feet, moving with the quick diversionary gestures of a boxer in the ring, pulling out every art and craft at her considerable command to keep alive an enterprise — in this case, a notoriously difficult play that goes on for more than three hours — that otherwise might collapse altogether.
Ms. Streep rattles through her character’s business transactions and homespun philosophy on practical morality and economics with the souped-up patter of a Catskills stand-up artist who fears her act will go dry if she ever slows down. Mr. Wolfe’s interpretation, cued by the jocular and uneven new translation by Tony Kushner, emphasizes the gallows vaudeville of a play that has an all-too-reverberant relevance in these days of war.
Picking up on this barbed make-’em-laugh spirit, Ms. Streep’s line readings recall comics as far-flung as Lucille Ball, Sophie Tucker, Henny Youngman and — in the “heh-heh-heh” chuckles with which she fills nervous pauses — Beavis and Butthead. Heck, there are times when she appears to be channeling all the Marx Brothers at once. She even adopts, to bizarrely appropriate effect, Groucho’s bent-kneed catch-me-if-you-can walk. As for how she looks in her military cap and boots, think of Marlene Dietrich, playing down the glamour to entertain the troops.
For a connective tissue of credibility, the actress throws in vintage Streep-isms, including the folksy verbal and physical punctuations of the repeated, affirmative “yep” and frequent nose-wipings. And when the script approaches tragic terrain — when Mother Courage’s children bite the dust — Ms. Streep provides a master class in the art of electrified stillness.
Do these elements cohere into a fully integrated and affecting portrait? No. The performance becomes a seamless, astonishing whole only when Ms. Streep sings the Brechtian songs that have been newly (and effectively) scored by Jeanine Tesori.
But when a smitten army chaplain (Austin Pendleton) observes, “Often I sit back and watch you, amazed,” he is speaking for the entire audience at the Delacorte. By rights, “Mother Courage” should open for Ms. Streep the same future in advertising endorsements that awaits grand-slam sports champions. I, for one, would love to know what vitamins she takes and how to get them.
As for the rest of the production, well, you can see what the brilliant Mr. Wolfe is going for and speculate on what he might have achieved with more time. “Mother Courage,” written in 1938 and 1939 and first performed in 1941, is one of those great plays that almost never play great — at least, not in English.
The necessary combination of detachment and engagement is as hard as anything in modern theater to get right. (The National Theater’s current production in London of Brecht’s “Life of Galileo,” directed by Howard Davies and starring Simon Russell Beale, comes close.)
Mixing ingredients from the music hall, the lecture hall, the beer hall and the melodrama, Brecht’s epic theater is by design disjunctive. The design elements here — especially Riccardo Hernández’s battered wooden framework of a set and Paul Gallo’s focus-shifting lighting — establish the right come-hither, pull-away tone.
But there has to be an equal consistency of style among the cast members (who here include no less a star than Kevin Kline in a supporting role) — the feeling that they are all working toward the same end, O comrades of the arts, as they step in and out of the action, shifting among dialogue, monologue, songs and authorial annotation.
Such solidarity of spirit isn’t much in evidence at the Delacorte. Even the performers playing Mother Courage’s three grown children — Frederick Weller, Geoffrey Arend and Alexandria Wailes — appear to have emerged from different acting schools. Some of the cast members, especially those playing military figures, seem to have been inspired by the cartoonish warmongers of the film “Dr. Strangelove.” Others, like Mr. Pendleton, go for an “I’m like you” naturalism, pitched complicitly at the audience.
As the libidinous army cook, Mr. Kline, who has appeared memorably with Ms. Streep before, seems to be performing by rote, as if he were still waiting for an inspired approach to tap him on the shoulder. And Jenifer Lewis, as the wily camp follower Yvette, often plays her role as if she were doing a broad-stroke Madea movie comedy (she has appeared in one). But Ms. Lewis also provides one of the high points that reclaim your attention just when the Thirty Years War starts to seem like the Hundred Years War. Her interpretation of Yvette’s bitter song of remembered love is a stunningly calibrated blend of smoothness and harshness, of filigree irony and primal emotion, that suggests what Brecht was trying to achieve. (Ms. Tesori, the composer of Mr. Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change,” demonstrates admirable skill and confidence as a musical mix master, and the show’s band is first-rate.)
To an even greater degree, Ms. Streep finds her best Brechtian self in song. “The Song of the Great Capitulation,” which Mother Courage sings at the end of the first act, is one of the most artful and intense musical performances to be found on a New York stage, as Ms. Streep flutters, fights and wallows her way through her character’s philosophy of life.
Desperation, cynicism, passion that should have died long ago but still flickers against the odds: all this is implied in every gesture, every note. For one luminous moment, you understand what this play is meant to be. By the way, with every song she sings, Ms. Streep suggests that, in addition to endorsing vitamins, she could become a queen of the Broadway musical, should she ever choose.
(Andrew O'Hehir) review
Slant Magazine review Eric Henderson
Meryl Streep Stands Out as Musical Theater Great in Theater of War James C. Taylor from The Village Voice
Theater of War Facets Multi Media
NewCity Chicago Ray Pride
Boston Globe review [3/4] Wesley Morris
Director Interview (Filmmaker)
Director Interview (IFC) Interview by Steven Saito, January 2009
Variety news [2006-08-15] Liz Smith
Meryl Streep Leads Mother Courage and Her Children ... Playgoer from BlogCritics magazine,
The Burning of the Reichstag Shoah Education
New book by Bahar and Kugel based on Gestapo archives from Moscow The Reichstag Fire - How History is Created, (864 pages), book review by Wilhelm Klein from the World Socialist Web Site
Documentary about Reichstag fire and Marinus van der Lubbe 90 minute film, WATER AND FIRE (1998) may be viewed online
Mother Courage Wikipedia
Past Productions: Mother Courage Gideon Lester on the evolution of the play from The American Repertory Theater
Theatre at UBC:
Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht ... historical notes from The
ArtScope.net: Mother Courage and Her Children historical notes by Sandra Marie Lee from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater
Bertolt Brecht biography
Bertolt Brecht biography
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) biography
HSC Online biography and extensive analysis of his works
Brecht study guide
Essay on Brecht and Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo from Symposium, by someoneisatthedoor
FBI Files on Bertolt Brecht while in the United States, 369 pages
Poem of Brecht on the street in Portland General, Your Tank is a Powerful Vehicle, by Bertolt Brecht, stenciled onto the street pavement
IBS: Berliner Ensemble history of the
/ Auf Wiedersehen Brecht?: The Berliner Ensemble has ... Aaron Hicklin from The Independent,
Brecht’s War Primer - 21st Century Socialism Simon Korner from 21st Century Socialism, August 14, 2006
Chicago Reader Dave Kehr
Light-headed MGM musical, with Gene Kelly as a bankrupt Broadway
producer-director who brings his cast and crew to Judy Garland's farm to
rehearse (1950, 109 min.). The director, Charles Walters, is a man of modest
but real virtues who was generally overlooked, unfairly but understandably, in
favor of Donen and Minnelli. His clean, straightforward style has its
The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray] also reviewing IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER
The movie musical's greatest era lasted from roughly 1944 to 1958, and by the end, the genre's top directors, stars, and choreographers had figured out how to use the form to create ethereal poetry one moment and off-the-cuff social commentary the next. The five-disc box set Classic Musicals From The Dream Factory contains one of those late-period masterpieces, It's Always Fair Weather, co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, and starring Kelly as one of three World War II buddies who meet up again a decade after the war, only to find they have nothing in common. The song-score by Betty Comden and Adolph Green contains only one really memorable number—"Baby, You Knock Me Out," sung by Cyd Charisse with a chorus of pug-ugly boxers—but It's Always Fair Weather is an excellent showcase for dancing, marked by innovative, impressionistic routines that have Kelly tapping in roller skates, then with a trashcan lid attached to one foot, then in the middle panel of a three-way split-screen. Throughout, the movie maintains a mood of sorrowful post-war disappointment, as the men who opened the movie dancing together spend the rest of the film dancing alone.
The bulk of the Dream Factory set is taken up by lesser musical biographies: 1946's Till The Clouds Roll By and Ziegfeld Follies, and 1950's Three Little Words. Each has its highlights, but none is as consistent as It's Always Fair Weather or 1950's Summer Stock, which stars Judy Garland as a bachelorette farmer who lets Gene Kelly's theater troupe rehearse in her barn. Director Charles Walters keeps Summer Stock's singing and dancing grounded in real spaces, unlike the revue-style films of the '30s and '40s, where theater stages seemed to stretch to infinity. Here, Walters and company make magic on small, bare stages: Kelly with just a squeaky board and a piece of newspaper, and Kelly and Garland inside a tight circle of square-dancers. Summer Stock has its dry spots, but its highs rival the best of the MGM golden age, especially in the show-stopping finale "Get Happy!", where a stocky, sensual Garland single-leggedly kicks the musical into maturity.
MediaScreen.com Nick Zegarac
Crazy for Cinema Lisa Skrzyniarz
Musicals: Mass Art as Folk Art Jane Feuer from Jump Cut
DVD Times Eamonn McCusker reviews Classical Musicals from the Dream Factory
DVD Verdict [Bryan Pope] reviews Classical Musicals from the Dream Factory
This film as a dense, knotty little piece of poetry, clocking in at under 80
minutes with not an inch of fat on it. Wang deftly orchestrates single-take
master-shots to keep our viewing at a distance. But, unlike other practitioners
of the master-shot school -- filmmakers I admire in their own right, such as
Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhang-ke -- Wang uses the stationary camera and long
take to create slightly more obvious black comedy, like an episode of "The
Carol Burnett Show" as directed by Samuel Beckett. In particular, Wang's
use of the quick fade is excellent. Often, he'll go to blackout just as some
funny or shocking occurrence becomes legible. I may be making this sound like
"difficult viewing," but really, it struck me as a 6th-Generation
Chinese stab at a Jarmusch film, and as such, it's utterly accessible. Here's
hoping it gets picked up for
Asian Films at the 26th Toronto ... - Senses of Cinema Shelly Kraicer from Senses of Cinema,
Although TIFF 2001 didn't have the array of new Chinese
masterpieces that marked TIFF 2000 (In the Mood for Love/Huayang
nianhua [Wong Kar-wai, 2000], Platform/Zhantai [Jia Zhangke, 2000], Yi
Yi [Edward Yang, 2000]), this year's line-up was not at all disappointing.
The standout among new filmmakers was Wang Chao, from Mainland
Based on a short story by the director, Orphan of Anyang focuses on the lives of three people, a criminal, a prostitute, and an unemployed industrial worker and how their lives intersect when a baby is abandoned at an outdoor food stand. The film takes up where Platform leaves off, documenting the results of the swift change from collectivization to individual enterprise in the lives of three marginal characters living in
While eating at an outdoor noodle stand, Dagang finds an abandoned baby with a note asking for the baby's care in exchange for 200 yuan each month. Desperate, Dagang takes the child home and awkwardly begins to care for him. He soon discovers that the mother Yanli (Yue Sengli) is a prostitute and the girlfriend of Boss Side, a small-time triad boss always surrounded by a gang of hoodlums. Dagang finally invites Yanli to live with him if she promises to give up her life of prostitution. When Boss Side is diagnosed with leukemia, however, he returns to Yanli's house and attempts to take back his child as his only legacy.
With little dialogue or cinematic embellishments such as background music or stylish cinematography, Wang delivers filmmaking stripped to its bare essentials with only the clatter of urban street sounds left to penetrate the dreariness. Wang uses a fixed camera and long takes as Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Unlike Hou, however, Wang's film lacks rhythm and energy and its extremely slow pace doesn't create tension or help to illuminate the characters. For example, when Yanli and Yu meet at a restaurant, both sit and eat noodles for a good two minutes until someone breaks the awkward silence. Orphan of
Wang Chao’s first feature, The Orphan of Anyang, is simultaneously deeply satisfying and profoundly unnerving — the unexpected result is a film that approaches the sublime. Like the films of He Jianjun, Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai and Zhang Yuan, all of whom graduated from the Beijing Film Academy after the giants of the fifth generation (Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige et al), Orphan focuses on marginal urban characters — criminals, prostitutes, unemployed workers — left behind by China’s rapid urbanization and decollectivization of the 80s and 90s. The film’s rigour, specifically, the way Wang chooses from among a small set of options, and repeats them in a resolutely controlled way, provokes a certain formal pleasure. What is unnerving is Wang’s gambit of folding the most downbeat feeling of urban anomie around a core of ironically distancing humour; his offbeat juxtapositions ask viewers to struggle with the implications of tragedy and comedy in the same scene.
Single and in his 40s, Yu Dagang is a recently unemployed worker who can’t even afford to eat. In a prologue, he listlessly wanders around devastated, postindustrial landscapes; the film’s action begins with his efforts to barter now-useless company ration coupons for cash to buy food. At a noodle stall, he finds an abandoned baby; its mother, Yanli, has left a note promising to pay for the baby’s support. Desperate, Dagang takes it home. Yanli is a prostitute and the desultory girlfriend of Boss Side, a small-time triad boss with a snazzy entourage of sharply dressed goons. After a couple of nearly silent meetings with Yanli at a noodle restaurant, Dagang, originally intending to return the baby, decides not only to keep it, but also to invite Yanli to join this impromptu family. When Boss Side is diagnosed with cancer, he returns to collect the baby, his only heir. A fight with Side leaves Dagang in prison, and Yanli alone with her child. The film ends with her arrest in an anti-prostitution raid: we see her hand the baby to a stranger just before she is arrested, and an epilogue seems to reunite the family, if only in her imagination.
Granted, this doesn’t really sound like the stuff of comedy. But Wang’s method of shooting distances the viewer from the action, lends irony to the characters’ situations and throws the events of the story into unexpected, disorienting contexts. His actors are all nonprofessionals, and, like Bresson, he seems to have coaxed most of them to be as inexpressive as possible. Orphan looks like it was shot using only natural light, completely on location, though this may not have been a choice at all. Without script approval, independent Chinese directors can’t shoot in studios, and as long as they don’t draw undue attention to themselves, they can get away with filming in apartments or on the street: Chinese official surveillance can’t be bothered to notice, much less prohibit, this kind of filmmaking. At most, it will restrict a film’s access to domestic distribution, and can make a director’s subsequent collaboration with state studios and their resources difficult or impossible. [...]
Just because laws have limits doesn’t mean our lives do. —Paul Hawks (Brian Murray)
This is ultimately one of the most emotionally devastating films of the year, yet also one of the most understated, where so much of the dramatic impact is built on the accumulation of small details that bear an autobiographical stamp of authenticity. While set in Tennessee, it explores the closeness of a small town Southern community without playing on any of the usual stereotypes or prejudices, showing a more generous side of the South that feels more close-knit. Written, directed, acted and produced by newcomer Patrick Wang, a gay Asian-American who grew up in Texas, the film was initially rejected by as many as 30 major film festivals and distributors, perhaps due to the length, until he was obliged to distribute the film himself in true indie fashion, initially starting in just one theater in Manhattan where it generated excellent reviews before slowly building a wider audience. Still, this is the kind of film likely seen by only twenty or so people in the audience, where the experience is dramatically moving, presenting the material in a more respectful manner than what we have become accustomed to seeing on television or in movie representations, where there are push button issues that often lead to explosive fireworks in the manner of KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979), a film that doesn’t really hold up over time, but here it’s more intimate, where much of the carefully observed narrative is quietly ushered in with artfully designed silences that carry the full weight of the material, feeling more like a theatrical experience. This shrewdly written film has a well-designed structure that slowly unleashes its power, much of it told in flashback, where its greatest strength comes from its characters, adding layer upon layer throughout until by the end the audience is fully engaged with everything that’s happening onscreen. Wang’s acting is key, as he’s such a good-natured and level-headed guy, nothing flashy, not without his own faults, but basically the kind of person who defines the word friend, as he’ll be there unhesitatingly and instinctually, providing the calm during the storm, having the good sense not to overreact or take things out of proportion, which is how this subject matter is usually presented.
What starts out as a fairly uneventful and low-key family drama eventually becomes a starkly intense testimonial on the meaning of life itself, not in any grand philosophical terms, but in everyday language that’s impossible to misunderstand, a riveting confessional with profound impact in all of our lives. Using a spare and unpretentious film technique, a no nonsense style where no particular thing stands out, initially the focus is on a wired, energetic 6-year old named Chip (Sebastian Banes), a captivating and endlessly curious kid with two Dads (Cody, Trevor St. John, his biological father and his partner Joey, Patrick Wang), who seems perfectly content with this living arrangement, where he’s smart and obviously thriving in his home life. The routine of their lives is captured in all its simplicity, where the morning cereal ritual becomes so familiar to the audience that we feel like uninvited guests in their kitchen after awhile, where this setting could be just about anywhere, but it just happens to be Martin, Tennessee, where a slight drawl can be detected in the voice inflections. Only after the audience gets comfortable with the “lack” of drama in their lives does the initial drama begin, where out of nowhere, like a clap of thunder on an otherwise perfectly clear day, a life-changing event occurs offscreen where Cody gets in a terrible auto accident, where in a flash we’re transported into Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), a bare-bones, near documentary Romanian exposé on the atrocious hospital standards provided to severely ill patients and their families, where Joey is rather unceremoniously left out of the picture as he is not considered immediate family. While the word gay is never heard, the unforgivable actions speak for themselves and are immediately offset by Joey’s own exemplary behavior, as he does a heartfelt job preparing Chip for what to expect seeing his Dad in intensive care. Like Joey, we are denied admittance to Cody’s final hours, as he dies shortly afterwards. With difficulty, Chip and Joey attempt to regain a balance in their lives, both reluctantly and unknowingly becoming the centerpieces of the film.
As Joey is digging through all the paperwork of Cody’s bank accounts and personal statements, he shares what he finds with Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), who shockingly reports that Cody left everything to his sister in a will written years before he met Joey. When Eileen reports her intentions of raising Chip, using the will as her legal grounds, declaring her beliefs that these were Cody’s written intentions, Joey’s world literally changes, as everything he has come to know and rely upon are suddenly in jeopardy. As the emotional bond between Joey and Chip has already been well established, Joey’s fierce insistence not to part with him does not seem unreasonable, so when Eileen literally kidnaps Chip, refusing to return him after a family overnight visit while serving an order of protection to keep Joey away from him, a multitude of harsh thoughts of retribution spring to mind as the audience is challenged to consider what they would do in similar circumstances. Once more, Joey is locked out of the room, reinforced by his discovery that gay partners have no legal grounds, sending him into an emotional tailspin of despair, seen sitting alone in an empty kitchen. While he is visited by various friends showing neighborly concern, some of whom bring food or drink or just sit around and commiserate with him, often shown in long takes, his solitary life is joyless and empty. This void is interrupted by flashbacks of Joey and Cody together, like scenes of when they first met or shared family holidays, including one unforgettable sequence when they first kiss, a near 9-minute uninterrupted shot leading to the moment when Cody impulsively plays Chip Taylor’s song “Little Darts.” Chip Taylor (Jon Voight’s brother, by the way) plays Cody’s father in the film. But nothing is quite as haunting as having a friend secretly call him on a speaker phone so he can hear the sounds of Chip playing, where he sits transfixed, unable to utter a word, paralyzed in thought.
Overheard by an elderly client whose old books he is rebinding, Joey is again speechless to discover this retired elderly lawyer (Brian Murray) will take his case, urging him to forget about the restrictions of the law, which can be so divisive, but consider how to reframe the issue in more humane terms, where he may not obtain a legal victory, but he might negotiate a better arrangement with Cody’s sister. What follows is perhaps the most devastating and beautifully written sequence of the year, a thirty minute deposition scene taking place in real time, a soliloquy of emotional candor, using a generic setting like Conference Room B for such a confessional outpouring, a scene unlike anything else in recent recollection, easily the high point of the film. Earlier in the film we continually see the back of Joey’s head during key dramatic moments, where it's only during the deposition that he actually faces the camera for the first time, literally exposing himself emotionally, removing the politics and the rancor, but explaining in real and heartfelt terms just what Chip and Cody mean to him, often sounding like what we might hear at a eulogy. This might seem oddly unnecessary, having to humbly explain our feelings to precisely those people we supposedly love, but humans are fallible and often forget the deeper underlying meaning, where it helps to be reminded from time to time, much like the original practice of going to church, only removing the religious implications while retaining the moral lessons. While all drama needs conflict, this film removes much of the vitriol associated with gay political issues and instead integrates Joey into our collective understanding of what’s essential about any marriage and family.
Patrick Wang's moving debut feature appropriates the story
arc of a courtroom drama, but the law turns out to be less pivotal than such
old-fashioned ideas as fairness and decency. Joey (Wang), an interior designer
in a small
Village Voice Andrew Schenker
With an incisive understanding of character, believably naturalistic acting, and lengthy scenes that don’t feel stretched out so much as given room to breathe, In the Family proves that smart direction and an innate feeling for one’s material trumps potentially precious subject matter. Writer/director/star Patrick Wang’s film chronicles the efforts of Joey Williams (Wang) to retain custody of the 6-year-old boy he raised as a son after the boy’s father (and Joey’s romantic partner) Cody (Trevor St. John) is killed in a car accident. As homophobia rears its ugly head in ways both subtle and brutal, Joey fights the efforts of Cody’s sister and brother-in-law to take his son away. But rather than turn this into a melodramatic look at gay victimization, Wang keeps his film pitched at the same level as his mild-mannered hero’s demeanor. Using long, fixed takes, the director makes his argument about family values not through overheated dramatics but simply through observation. Whether watching Joey’s son open a beer and offer it to his dad, flashing back to the first kiss between Joey and Cody, or listening to Joey’s stirring testimony at a legal deposition, Wang evinces a keen awareness of the ways in which family members interact, grieve, and open their hearts to one another.
With its epic three hour runtime, its
no-name creator displaying Wellesian hubris as writer-producer-director-lead
actor in his feature debut, and its chimeric blend of languid art house camera
technique with rigorously concise stage caliber dialogue, who knows exactly why
Patrick Wang's first feature was passed over by 30 major film festivals before
he settled for self-distribution. Do not make the same mistake as the
professionals; this is one of the most exciting and thoughtful American indies
to emerge in recent years. Wang spins an ambitiously original tale of a gay
Asian man in
Slant Magazine Rob Humanick
Writer/director/actor Patrick Wang's background in theater and dramaturgy is on high display in his debut feature, In the Family, an acutely felt, altogether devastating family drama as intimate and affecting as it is sprawling and untamed. Nearly three hours in length, the film is characterized by carefully blocked, deeply focused scenes that unfold naturally, if perhaps uncomfortably, beholden only to life's often overlapping, conflicting, and overwhelming emotions. The premise, concerning adoptive rights in a homophobic society, is unique for button-pushing potential, though Wang's aims here are political only inasmuch as the political intersects with the moral. With no shortage of confidence, In the Family is remarkable for sidestepping bullet-point statements altogether to instead focus on the day-to-day causes and effects of our prejudices and the regulatory systems (social contracts, employment guidelines, family bonds) we frequently submit ourselves to.
Wang plays Joey Williams, lover of Cody Hines (Trevor St. John) and surrogate father to Cody's six-year-old biological son, Chip (Sebastian Brodziak), who's never known a life outside of that with his two fathers. Although they live in conservative Tennessee, they've found mostly seamless acceptance among their hetero familial and work environments, but when Cody dies in a car accident, Joey's status as Chip's second father is called into question, sparked (and backed up in court) by a legal document as old as Chip, in which all of Cody's belongings, as well as Chip, are willed to his sister. From here, things get worse before they get better.
The leisurely yet assured pacing allows the film to make its points through acute reinforcement, delivering a fault-proof human rights debate without once being aggressively or even obviously argumentative. By showcasing its political threads as incidental, it lends them that much more gravitas. In many ways, In the Family is a commentary on hate—that against a foreigner, or a sexual other, or any kind of group—and the ways that hate legitimizes itself and hides inside accepted routines or public policies, but it's also more about love, and understanding, and putting everything aside and talking about "the big stuff" when necessary. Wang's line readings have an assured everydayness, but there's also poetry in his voice, and when he not only asks the big questions, but then proceeds to actually answer some of them, it's so morally invigorating you might just feel the world tremble.
Wang camouflages his emotional punches in the minutiae of daily life, and his uniformly excellent performers suggest a sprawling cast of players in an expansive, obsessively controlled Charlie Kaufman universe—a finely composed ecosystem in constant flux. The film waxes its every moment into a crystalline pocket of time, finding the universal in the microcosmic, and always deepening itself with flabbergasting levels of imbued details. In his exquisitely rigorous commitment to his minimalist, downplayed style, Wang reproduces the chokehold effect of the phone call/hallway sequence of Taxi Driver, and there isn't a moment that lacks that rarely touched level of cinematic intimacy or sense of happened-upon truth. Wang's behemoth creation has already enjoyed a notable impact in its limited theatrical release, which justly speaks to its honesty and universality. The film bears a unique distinctness even as Wang's creative energy parallels some of the same essences as the work of Abbas Kiarostami, John Cassavetes, and Kelly Reichardt, to name just a few major filmmakers who I suspect would appreciate what this unprecedented new talent has achieved.
Chicago Reader J.R. Jones (long version), also seen here: A gay dad fights to reclaim his son in Patrick Wang’s In the Family
In the Family (2011) - Ferdy on Films Marilyn Ferdinand
Review: 'In The Family' A Sincere, Heartbreaking Indie Drama | The ... Christopher Bell from The indieWIRE Playlist
IN THE FAMILY Facets Multi Media
Director interview Godfrey Cheshire from Creative Loafing, May 2012
TimeOut Chicago Ben Kenigsberg
Los Angeles Times Robert Abele
My mother was born in inner Mongolia, not far from the film's location. This is why I've always liked Mongolians, their way of life and their music. When I learned about the extent to which massive industrial expansion is turning the steppe into a desert, and how local administrators are forcing the shepherds to leave their homelands, I decided to make a film that would record their lifestyle before it all disappears forever. —Wang Quanan
Overly contrived Mongolian melodrama about the life of a harried mother Tuya (Yu Nan) who, like many modernized American women, is stressed out from overwork, who due to her husband’s disability of injuring a leg while attempting to dig a well, is forced to perform all the household duties. What’s immediately apparent, despite the immense scope of the infinitely expanding mountainous horizon, is the unlikeable whining and shrill tone of the protagonist who spends much of the time bitching at everyone around her, which has a mildly amusing flavor at first, as if it’s a way of setting everyone straight, except that as time goes on, her anger at the world around her feels incompatable, as she acts as if she expects the world owes her something. While we see multiple shots of the harsh life she is forced to endure, riding endless miles every day on her camel to the nearest water hole which is drying up, and hearding her flock of sheep, one suspects no one else’s life out there is any different. We hear in conversation that her children attend school but not once do we ever actually see them there, nor is there any reference to explain her means of food or support, or even how she obtained her livestock, where sheep are conveniently offered back and forth to one another as local currency, yet there appears to be ample food and water throughout the film. So despite talk of impending deprivation, what we see may be the richest woman in the vicinity for all we know. What’s needed in this film is less a storied melodrama within this obviously unique geographical setting and a more realist, documentary oriented eye. Though part of the film’s obvious appeal is centered in the local customs and colorful costumes, the unsentimentalized wailing music, also the accentuation of landscapes, featuring a relationship between man, animals and the natural world around them, yet by singling out exclusively one person’s home, a good deal of local flavor and simple rhythms of life aren’t explored, as her relationship to her local community is all but nonexistent.
Tuya not once but twice saves the life of an irreverent young neighbor Shenge, who is friendly enough that he appears to be the favorite of her young son, but we continually hear how selfish and vicious his wife is, stealing his possessions while cavorting with other men. Despite this supposed dark cloud hanging over his head, he is perhaps the kindest person in the film, befriending her husband and always willing to help out Tuya and her kids, yet he is also portrayed as a poor fool who never realizes his dreams, who always screws up somehow. When she injures her back trying to help him, which could lead to paralysis if reinjured, she reassesses what she has to do with her life, which is seen in such practical terms that her husband proposes they divorce so that she can remarry simply as a means of support, where her public divorce announcement leads to the immediate arrival of various suitors, as many as 6 in one day. Much of this ritual is seen with an amusing eye for detail, as from out of nowhere, carloads of suitors arrive, some even asking others for directions, featuring a combination of overly solemn as well as grinning men in dark glasses, all of whom bargain for her marital rights. Her one demand is that her disabled husband continue to live with her even after marriage, which all find outrageous, so one by one she rejects them all until a rich oil capitalist turns out to be the highest bidder. Sadly, he also refuses to keep the former husband around either and finds the nicest nursing home in the region and dumps him there – not a pretty picture, perhaps the saddest in the entire film.
Despite her apparent choice, catastrophes occur causing her to continually change her mind and get sidetracked, yet there is always a fortunate solution at hand, much of which feels awkwardly idealized. We never see the bitter effects of winter survival, for instance, which would have to extend over a long duration, challenging even the heartiest souls, yet here winter is reduced to a single one day occurrence, nor does the filmmaker introduce us to others nearby, offering viewers a chance to see how others survive living in such harsh desolation. Instead everything is conveniently seen through the filmmaker’s lens of Tuya’s home, Tuya’s land, and Tuya’s journey (which amounts to no more than one day), all of which leads, of course, to Tuya’s marriage, which both opens and closes the film. Always seen in a more positive light, Tuya is shown to easily rebuff stereotypes of helpless women dependent on men, but instead develops a brash stature of Mongolian Earth Mother on whom everyone else depends, showing her irritation by belittling and constantly complaining about everyone else, as if somehow they will all be shamed into finally acting right. From what we can tell, that’s not about to happen, so complaining, and consoling one’s aches and sorrows in drink appears to be the customary way of dealing with things in Inner Mongolia—not so much different than the local corner pub.
Though his film occasionally threatens to lunge into melodrama, Wang Quan’an’s blending of documentary-style realism with generic tropes – striking camerawork, a pacy narrative, sharp editing, vivid characterisation – lends real impetus to the slight story of a Mongolian shepherdess struggling to support her kids and disabled husband. Reluctantly she agrees to his suggestion that she find a new partner; but she insists any suitor adopt the whole family, hubby included. Tuya’s attempts to achieve this make for an episodic but engrossing story. A refusal to pass judgment and a palpable chemistry between the actors ensure that the film succeeds both as a fable about the pitfalls of rapid modernisiation, and as tough, unsentimental drama.
Wang Quanan's fascinating film "Tuya's Marriage" is a quietly powerful story of female reverence, shot on location against the arresting landscapes of deepest Mongolia, with its immensely graceful protagonist being the prepossessing shepherdess Tuya (Nan Yu), caught between a marital loophole and the tightening grip of subsistence when she's forced to look for a new husband willing to take care of her young children and an invalid ex-husband. Austere and gorgeous, Wang's observations on the encroaching capitalism in a rural land so entrenched in tradition and its collective, scuttles from background to foreground when Tuya explores her options and their economic viability. Wisely eschewing a formal romanticism of the arena, Wang takes us deeper into the all-encompassing humanism of the film, when he chooses a cogitative docu-drama approach to the film, a striking reminder that a film's aesthetics are part of its ethos and message. Triumphing at the 2007 Berlinale with the festival's top prize, Wang delivers a film so complex and rich that it finds its tracts in the human capacity for compassion and sorrow.
Unlike the two faux documentaries which people now associate with Mongolian films, TUYA'S MARRIAGE is a well-acted, intricate and layered story about a strong young woman trying to hold her life together. Very like Gong Li in THE STORY OF QIU JU, Yu Nan plays Tuya, a stubborn and beautiful woman faced with an impossible predicament who must find her way through an onslaught of well-meaning (mostly) but ineffectual men to keep her family together. Tuya's affection for and loyalties to her disabled husband Bater are put to the test when she is forced to find a new husband in order to survive. All along the "obvious" choice, Shenge, her foolish but adorable neighbor, keeps trying to be the hero but falling on his face. Tuya must keep saving the men in her life from near disaster: Bater, Shenge (twice), and even her young son. The film becomes the romance/triangle of one woman and two men - much like JULES AND JIM or even FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (co-written by Wei Lu, who also co-wrote TUYA'S MARRIAGE). At the end of the film, her marriage includes both men, but immediately we see that she must continue saving them from themselves - and keeping everything and everybody together.
An ethnographic melodrama about the pressures facing contemporary Mongolians, Tuya's Marriage concerns the efforts of shepherd Tuya (Yu Nan) to find a new husband after she suffers a serious injury caused by labor strain that could potentially lead to paralysis. Given Tuya's beauty and impressive work ethic, she's soon inundated with suitors, yet the mother-of-two's devotion to her disabled husband, Bater (Bater), with whom she is determined to continue supporting even after finalizing their divorce, makes the process difficult. Chinese director Wang Quanan's film isn't particularly interested in surveying the historic customs and rituals of Inner Mongolians, but it does capture the backbreaking arduousness of their day-to-day life, which for Tuya involves herding her flock of sheep, lugging water 30 kilometers to her home from a half-finished well (the creation of which left Bater lame), and tending to her kids and incapacitated husband, all while contending with a friend named Senge (Senge) who's run ragged by his cheating wife and who not-so-secretly loves Tuya. In some of its characterizations and dilemmas (such as Tuya's attempt to make a go of it with a former classmate who callously ditches Bater at an urban nursing home), Tuya's Marriage can feel a tad overwritten, but in terms of its cultural and emotional portraits, the film's neo-realist authenticity is nonetheless striking. Much of this can be credited to the commanding Yu, whose wind-burned toughness and resoluteness are complemented by a burdensome combination of anger, loneliness, and sorrow. It's also, however, attributable to Wang's honest depiction of the struggles confronting Mongolians, a people who continue to survive thanks to a collective devotion to camaraderie and compassion, yet whose tradition-bound existence—slowly being suffocated into obsolescence by encroaching power lines, cities, and modern mores—is, as Tuya's exhausted marriage-day tears suggest, an increasingly grueling one to maintain.
From the barren yet beautiful landscape of the Inner
Mongolian steppes comes this unlikely, passionate love story, and it's the best
movie out this week, no matter how few of you are likely to heed my advice and
check it out. Chinese director Wang Quanan's third feature (winner of the
Golden Bear at
At first you may fear one of those ethnography-as-fiction Asian films that are long on edifying detail but short on storytelling. Instead, Wang crafts a precise tragicomic circle that begins and ends with the same wedding scene, one whose bride, the lovely but tough-as-nails Mongolian herdswoman Tuya (Yu Nan), has fled in tears. In between those bookended scenes, we learn the complicated back story of Tuya's tears: She has divorced her disabled husband Batoer -- like most of the cast beyond Yu Nan, Batoer is a Mongolian non-actor performing under his own name -- although she still loves him, and has promised to marry the first man who will help her support him.
There's a dry, laconic vein of humor running beneath "Tuya's Marriage," alongside a current of mourning and regret. Shot by German cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier, it offers a series of haunting images that capture without commentary the slow decay of the nomadic lifestyle and the fragile quality of the Chinese state at its outermost edges. It won't precisely leave you rolling on the floor, but I found it a rich and rewarding tale on many levels. Tuya is courted by a number of unlikely suitors, arriving by camel or by tractor or by Mercedes-Benz, most of them understandably reluctant to lose face by keeping their new wife's ex around the house. This genuinely is a romantic comedy, to the extent that Tuya barely seems to notice the plucky, luckless Shenge, a dashing fellow whose own wife has run off with his new truck and a local official. Shenge is smitten with her and eager to please -- and he likes Batoer too (at least at first).
Although totally unknown in the West, Quan is one of the
"Sixth Generation" Chinese filmmakers, occupying a slot on the
wry-realism scale somewhere between his friend Jia Zhangke (another festival
favorite with little Western audiences) and the far better-known Zhang Yimou.
"Tuya's Marriage" has been criticized in some quarters because Quan
shot the film in Mandarin rather than Mongolian (which the characters would
more plausibly speak), but needless to say that detail didn't matter to me.
Worth seeing in a theater if you get the chance, and a must for your Netflix
list down the line. (Opens April 4 in
The setting of inner Mongolia looms over Tuya’s Marriage, winner of the Golden Bear at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival. It shapes every facet of director Wang Quanan’s latest production and forcefully impacts the lives being depicted. There, a barren desert’s sand dunes stretch to the horizon, and survival remains a constant struggle. Nothing comes easy in such a harsh, sparsely populated environment. One of the great feats of Wang’s film is its evocation of just how starkly time can stop and material concerns melt away when one lives somewhere that demands a constant fear of the natural world and its wrath, in this case demonstrated by monumental sand storms and the overwhelming scarcity of water supplies.
Though the narrative advances slowly, Wang (who co-wrote the screenplay with Lu Wei) generates a real sense of the milieu’s particular rhythms. The film achieves a great deal of its impact by establishing the tumultuous, withdrawn setting and then subsequently depicting the steadfast, unavoidable encroachment of modernity and its destructive forces into the lives of the already overburdened characters. No mere cultural curiosity, the picture also tells a story rife with palpably universal emotions, and it’s anchored by what must be deemed an extraordinary lead performance.
Bookended with images of Tuya (Nan Yu) sobbing in a wedding dress, the film chronicles her struggle to support her crippled older husband Bater (the amateur actor’s real name) and young children by running their desert home. In addition to all the domestic handiwork she regularly journeys to and from the sole distant water source. When she suffers an injury and it becomes apparent that she can no longer keep up with the grueling schedule, Tuya and her husband determine it important that they divorce so that she can find someone to perform the requisite hard labor. Yet, to win her any suitor must acquiesce to her one inexorable condition: agree to house and support Bater as well.
To convey the story’s dramatic effect, Wang relies on long takes and extended moments of silence jarringly punctuated with intense bursts of emotion. There’s not a tremendous amount of dialogue, and the actors (most of whom – other than Yu – are first-timers) deliver what’s there in appropriately hushed, tired tones. Very often the filmmaker is content to let the landscape do the talking, and one shot of Tuya frantically searching for her son amidst a blinding, all-encompassing storm starkly conveys the source of the family’s desperation. Thematically, the screenplay presents a fairly devastating portrait of the physical and psychological costs of emasculation and the challenges of the forced reworking of conventional gender roles within the depicted society. It also evocatively parallels the primal nature of life in the desert with the equally insurmountable difficulties posed by the unforgiving facets of modern, bureaucratically controlled existence.
At the same time, beneath the unhurried exterior and its
depictions of Tuya’s deceptively simple day-to-day routine, the movie
negotiates a wealth of complex sentiments that constantly evolve in the
characters. These brew so resolutely, and can be seen so clearly in the
anguished faces at hand, that the periodic outbursts of feeling hold considerable
power. In most movies, an extended scene in which an entire family sits and
sobs would feel forced and melodramatic. Here, it organically emerges from the
repressive constraints, and the profound frustrations, felt by Tuya and Bater.
As the former,
Lucid Screening Tram
BeyondHollywood.com James Mudge
EyeForFilm.co.uk Amber Wilkinson
New York Times (registration req'd) Stephen Holden
The Illuminated Lantern review [4/4] Peter Nepstad
It's North vs. South, Mandarin vs. Cantonese. The local, Cantonese tailor Leung Sing-po suddenly finds himself in competition with a new tailor who has opened up next door and is a northerner, Liu Enjia. They immediately get off on the wrong foot. Liu entices customers in with slashed prices and higher commissions for the tour guides, crippling Leung's buisness. To make matters worse, the interloper has also rented rooms in the same flat that Leung's family lives in. Both are single fathers, raising a daughter of marriagable age and a grade school child each. The tension between the two tailors escalates until each are scheming the others downfall.
There are also some cross-cultural romances as well, as their daughters meet with boys and fall in love. But of course, each girl pairs off with their opposite, northern with southern, and vice versa. It's enough to drive their fathers mad.
This is a very funny movie. This kind of spiteful production often doesn't work, mainly because the characters are too cruel to each other to be very likable. Here, their conflicts are fairly mild, and played with such good humor that you can't help but laugh. Liu Enjia and Leung Sing-po, both portly gentlemen who always play father roles, steal the show and provide almost all the laughs. A priceless moment involves the two trying to drown each other out by singing Opera -- of course, Liu sings Beijing Opera while Leung sings Cantonese Opera (in a falsetto voice, no less).
The girls are charming as well, especially Christine Pai Lu-ming, falling for the shy but wealthy northerner Kelly Lei Chen. And Kitty Ting Hao plays an airline stewardess falling for a Cantonese salaryman. The younger generation doesn't find the cultural differences to be a big deal, while the older generation can't stop bickering over them.
This movie, written by Stephen Soong, is the first of a
trilogy to include THE GREATEST WEDDING ON EARTH and THE GREATEST LOVE AFFAIR
ON EARTH, both written by Eileen Chang. All three pit Liu Enjia and Leung
Sing-po against each other, North vs. South. I'm not sure if this plot line
wouldn't begin to wear thin after three movies, but it held up nicely through
one. Quite popular on its first release, THE GREATEST CIVIL WAR ON EARTH should
still find a receptive and delighted audience today. Change Northerner vs.
Romantic comedies of Cathay-MP&GI in the 1950s and 60s: language, locality, and urban character Kenny K. K. Ng from Jump Cut, Spring 2007
Romantic comedies of Cathay-MP&GI in the 1950s and 60s: language, locality, and urban character Kenny K. K. Ng from Jump Cut, Spring 2007
Strawman is a Taiwanese film set during the Second World War.
At that time,
- MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD - The two brothers, the main actors of the film, avoided the military draft due to eye problems provoked by their mother with this aim in mind. But even then, the family did not escape tragedy, for their sister become crazy after her husband was killed in action. Surrounded by a brood of children (one of whom is named 'Cowdung'), they attempt to feed themselves and their families, a task not helped by occasional requisitioning by Japanese overlords and collaborators.
During the course of the film, an elder brother returns to the village with his wife and two children. He has been quite successful in business in
In the near vicinity there is also a bridge that is a target for American bombs, which leads to the main story in the second half of the film: what to do with an unexploded bomb? Since scrap metal was becoming a precious commodity for the war effort, the brothers decide to take it to the Japanese for a reward. The journey they make with the bomb, and with a local official in tow, is quite a humorous one, leading to a conclusion which is ultimately satisfying, though also amusing in a bittersweet way. END OF SPOILERS -
To simply call this film 'realistic' would be a little misleading. While reflecting genuine historical situations, it does so in a manner reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' 'magic realism'. The performances of the actors, old and young, greatly contribute to this effect. What better mode to show the effects of a destructive war on a village so directly affected by it, yet so alien to it in spirit, than through a lens that is both compassionate, yet has such an accurate eye for irony and the sheer ridiculous? It is easy to see why this film was acclaimed when released in 1987, and I am eager to watch the two other films in the director Wang Tung's 'Banana Trilogy': Banana Paradise, and The Hill of No Return.
***Detailed plot description follows***
The main character of the film is a young man called 'Door Latch', who is drafted into the KMT, and works in a theatrical propaganda unit. Following the illusion of
Later, Door Latch receives a letter from Desheng, and goes to the banana plantation to meet him. Desheng, however, soon loses his mind, raving about their being spies everywhere. Door Latch will spend the rest of the film caring for him. Life goes on, the 'couple' stay together through many difficulties, serious and humorous involving work and neighbours, with Door Latch somehow muddling through his job. The baby grows up and starts school.
The scene then moves forward forty years to 1987. Door Latch (now played by a different actor) has moved up in the company and drinks excessively. Desheng is still there too, still demented and listening constantly to a small radio. Yuexiang's son has now graduated. Importantly, 1987 is year people are allowed to return to visit relatives on the mainland. Yuexiang's son decides to go and look for his grandparents, promising to phone so that his parents can speak with their Door Latch fears that his deception may thus unravel, and Yuexiang also makes an unexpected confession. The film ends with an emotional phone exchange between Door Latch and the father of the man whom Door Latch has replaced. As if speaking with him own father, he accused himself of being unfilial, and receives with tears the news of the death of other relatives.
***Detailed plot description ends***
Best described as a satire, this film combines elements of humour with commentary on the conditions in
Other, less overtly political aspects of contemporary society are the language barrier between native Taiwanese and the new arrivals, the life of the native banana growers, and the support received from
The actors all acquit themselves well, especially the actor playing the persistently youthful Door-Latch. The direction of Wang Tung is unhurried and unobtrusive, which gives time for the humanity of the characters to infuse. I quite enjoyed this second instalment of the 'Taiwan Trilogy', and am looking forward to the last one, (the even longer) 'Hills of No Return'.
'Hill of No Return' is the third
film in Wang Tung's 'Taiwan Trilogy'. It is a fable, recounted by an old man in
the framing story. Set in the late twenties, it has to do with two brothers who
leave their job as hired labourers and go to Chiu-Fen, a mining town, to work
for the Japanese owners. (Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945).
Most of the action takes place in this mining town. The two brothers,
Spread over three hours, various episodes, humorous and tragic take place. In contrast to the other two films in the trilogy, this one is much sadder, which is to be expected, since it is presented as a moral fable. In this tale that essentially revolves around the twin desires for fast money and instant pleasure, there are more 'downs' than 'ups'. The length of the film also allows plenty of time for the characters to emerge as fully rounded and believable people, with the nobility and weaknesses to be expected of human beings.
As with other films of Wang Tung, there is some stunning scenery. The Portuguese were right to call
In sum, this film brings the 'Taiwan Trilogy' of Wang Tung to a close with a long, but involving, cautionary tale which is of historical and human interest. Of the three films, it is the darkest, but not unbearably pessimistic. Life goes on. Though surrounded by greed and lust, there is still love, and hope. I'd recommend the whole trilogy to anyone interested in Taiwanese film, especially those interested in expanding their boundaries past Hou Hsiao Hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. The films can be watched in any order, though I'm not sure if they are available with English subtitles (the copies I viewed contained only Chinese subtitles). These works of Wang Tung, of a consistently high quality, certainly deserve a wider audience.
Even a brief overview of
Pressured by foreign competition, mostly from the
With the death of Chiang Kai-shek
and the diplomatic isolation that followed the 1971 UN decision to recognize
the People's Republic of
Wang Tung established himself as a set designer before turning to directing in the early 1980s. Hill of No Return is the third of his ``nativist trilogy,'' which includes Strawman (1987) and Banana Paradise (1989). Telling the story of two poor men who join the gold rush at the time of Japanese colonial rule in the 1920s, the film is a bawdy working class romp, inventively mixing humorous elements into a melodramatic plot. Indeed, Wang's near burlesque use of caricature struck a compelling contrast to the reserved naturalism of most New Taiwan Cinema, and particularly to the increasing mannerism and austerity that Hou and Yang had cultivated in their historical projects.
When a mining town endures a gold rush at the height of the
Japanese Occupation in the 1920s, two miners seek riches, only to fall in love
in the process, one with a shunned widow, the other with a sick prostitute. The
third installment in a trilogy of historical comedies dubbed the "Nativist
Series" and directed by the important, if relatively obscure Wang Tung,
Hill of No Return is a whimsical account of
Wayne Wang > Overview - AllMovie bio from Hal Erickson
The early brilliance of Wayne Wang. -
By Hua Hsu - Slate Magazine Hua Hsu
Wang, Bridging Generations and Hemispheres
Dennis Lim from The New York
BRIEFLY; Wayne Wang Film to Open Online
Julie Bloom from The New York Times,
Wang's 'Princess' paves way on Internet" G. Allen Johnson from The San Francisco Chronicle,
"Fade to Black With
Auteur Wayne Wang" Elvis Mitchell
interview from Asian Week,
"“Wayne Wang Interview "" Allan Tong interview from Exclaim, October 2007
Magazine | Director Interviews
Interview by Filmmaker
Questions for Wayne Wang - TIME Time magazine,
A little seen film,
probably due to its inconsistently muddled direction, set against the historic
backdrop of Hong Kong’s 1997 transition from British colonial rule before being
handed back over to the Chinese government, this movie is filled with Western
perceived dire predictions of gloom and doom, as if the world would collapse
and freedoms would be forever wiped away by a repressive Communist regime. With Jeremy Irons as a British exile who
works as a Western journalist in Hong Kong, where he’s in love with the city and
doesn’t really know why, seemingly caught up in a romantic notion of nostalgia,
his self-absorbed character and cynical personal outlook couldn’t be more
morose, filled with a dour tone whose negativity all but ruins this movie, as
he narrates the film so his weary point of view is in nearly every shot. The city itself looks terrific with its
vibrant street life filled with hawkers and vendors, the glow of its modern
night clubs and bars, and its scenic harbor teeming with activity. What attracted me to this film were the
actresses Gong Li and Maggie Cheung, a highlight to any movie, and both are
fabulous. Li is a former high class call
girl now living with a successful Hong Kong entrepreneur, but due to her past,
it’s unlikely he could ever marry her, as she would simply not be accepted into
high society. Irons has an eye on her as
well, thinking she’s the most beautiful woman in Hong Kong, and proposes that
they run away together, but she remains cool to the idea, which sends Irons
into a tailspin of despair. In a
parallel story, while walking the streets filming whatever he sees on his
camcorder, he discovers Maggie Cheung, whose brash sense of independence
catches his eye, as she hawks bootleg videos and canned
Wang was born in Hong Kong but has been living in the U.S since he was 17, returning briefly to Hong Kong to work in television until the late 70’s when he returned to make films in San Francisco. His absence is noticeable, as the film has an awkward and decidedly visitor’s feel, not really in tune with the rhythm of the Chinese living there, much of which is separated by the use of English language, where one of the writers is Jean-Claude Carrière, who wrote Buñuel’s BELLE DE JOUR (1967) and THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972), yet there are distinct scenes that are obviously improvised, such as the appearance of Rubén Blades, Panamanian salsa sensation, as Irons’ photo-journalist friend who is down on his luck, also encountering some female difficulty of his own, so Blades moves in temporarily and the two commiserate about their troubles by getting drunk. Blades does manage to sing a song while Gong Li, in perhaps the sequence of the film, mimics Marlene Dietrich singing “Black Market” while watching Billy Wilder’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948) on television, which is a brilliant cross cultural expression. Li has difficulty with English and learns her lines phonetically, as she did in Michael Mann’s MIAMI VICE (2006) as well, which made it difficult for her to deal with Irons preferred mode of improvisation, so the two never develop much chemistry together. Irons causes a horrible scene in public meant to pay back Li for the hurt she was causing him, but the viciousness of his personal attacks reveal an unseemly side to his character. To make matters worse, just as we’re developing zero sympathy for the guy, he develops such a severe case of leukemia that he has only a few months left to live, which changes his entire outlook, as he can no longer hope for the future, but must accept conditions as they are, an obvious parallel to the British view of the governmental turnover, as it too is coming to an end. Actually, all the characters become highly symbolic pieces of the puzzle, as Cheung’s free wheeling flexibility is a perfect match for Hong Kong’s economic future, while Li has to forget her past in order to create a new life, very emblematic of the Chinese view. Despite having free access to Hong Kong during the last 6 months prior to the conversion, the film doesn’t really gel, but the performances of Maggie Cheung and Gong Li at the height of their dramatic appeal are definitely worth seeing, along with the documentary style footage of Hong Kong itself, including the actual ceremonies where it was officially handed back to China after 156 years of British sovereignty.
Time Out review Tony Rayns
Designed to reflect the 'drama' of the hand over of Hong
Kong, Wang's semi-improvised movie was partly scuppered by the fact that
nothing striking happened when China reclaimed its 'Special Administrative
Region' on 1 July 1997. But it's hard to imagine that the film would have
worked out better if there'd been riots on the streets, despite the big names
(Theroux, Carrière) on the credits. Irons plays a foreign correspondent dying
in synch with the British administration, obsessed with both Gong Li
(manager of a chic bar/cheap hooker - evidently representing China) and Maggie
Cheung (a go-getting hustler - evidently representing the confused spirit
of HK). Ludicrously contrived incidents are garnished with desultory dialogue;
the underlying prostitution and slaughterhouse metaphors were wrung dry last
time Wang tackled the city of his birth, in Life Is Cheap. Maybe Wang
has lived too long in
Jeremy Irons plays a gaunt, seriously ailing European
(again), who, in the waning days of
In today's world filmmakers tend not to deal with important
political and economic events as they happen. This is partly because those events
usually catch filmmakers by surprise and by the time production starts the
events cease to be that relevant. There are very few occasions when events of
such nature allow filmmakers to prepare in advance. One of such golden
opportunities was British handover of Hongkong to
The film starts in
DVD Town (Yunda Eddie Feng) dvd review Signature Series
Movie Magazine International review Andrea Chase
Entertainment Weekly review [B] Lisa Schwarzbaum
The Boston Phoenix review Tom Meek
BFI | Sight & Sound | Anywhere But Here (1999) Charlotte O'Sullivan from Sight and Sound, January 2000
Tired of life in Wisconsin, Adele August decides she and her 14-year-old daughter Ann should move to Los Angeles. There, Adele gets a job but doesn't earn enough for the lifestyle she covets. Ann settles into school but still misses her favourite cousin Benny, and finds her mother's mood swings difficult to cope with. Benny visits. Josh, a handsome dentist, calls for a date and he and Adele sleep together. When he fails to ring again, Adele becomes obsessed with him. Benny is killed in a car accident. After a trip home for the funeral, Adele quits her job and spirals into depression.
Shortly afterwards, Adele sneaks into an audition she has strong-armed Ann into attending, only to see Ann mimicking her. The pair row. Ann contacts her father; he's mistrustful and unenthusiastic. Despite their precarious economic situation, Ann's relationship with a boy at her school begins to flourish. In the meantime, her mother has found a new job and acquired a new suitor. Ann is accepted by a college on the East Coast but doesn't have enough money to go. Adele sells her beloved car, and gives the money to Ann.
In-the-name-of-the-daughter movies form a genre all of their own. From such grimly fiendish noirs as Stella Dallas (1937) and Mildred Pierce (1945) to soupy, semi-comedic dramas like Terms of Endearment and Postcards from the Edge, all have at their centre a maniacally aspirational mother whose attempts to control her daughter create an emotional competition between them. The energy it requires to manage the daughter's economic and sexual well-being invariably endows the mother with a vitality that makes her seem socially vulgar, oversexed, but most important of all, alive. However virtuous or demonic, the daughter is destined to play second fiddle. Smoke director Wayne Wang is clearly familiar with this type of woman's picture (there's a direct reference to Terms of Endearment). Keeping the novel's first-person narration - encouraging us to believe the daughter Ann's version of events is the definitive one - he seems keen to redress the balance in her favour.
This version can be reduced to a simple formula: daughter capable and desirable, mother incompetent, dishonest, superficial, jealous, hysterical and pitiful. A few scenes surprise us - such as the one where Ann's mother Adele admits she can't "cope" with going to the posh Christmas party she had previously angled an invite for. It's like a car alarm being switched off. In the horrible ensuing quiet Susan Sarandon's familiar beat-up eyes and toffee-ice-cream voice appear too vulnerable for her suddenly small body and you long for the protective high volume to be restored. Most of the time you see her being knocked back; here we discover how she behaves when she's welcomed. You don't pity her, but for the first time you understand her. Such glimpses of Adele's hidden life are all-too rare. Like the gruff, paternal traffic cop whom mother and daughter meet on Christmas Day, we're asked instead to chuckle and roll our eyes at Adele's eccentricities. There's nothing seriously wrong with her; she just needs to listen to more of the 'good' men in her life. When at the end of the film the cop tells Adele to do right by her daughter, she does.
Sarandon can't transform this kind of fluff into drama, but it's Natalie Portman you feel really sorry for. There's nothing for her to do here. Ann is your typical American success story - a naturally 'classy' individual who resists her mother's attempts to twist the truth. She also overcomes all obstacles in her path, inspiring admiration wherever she goes. Her one rejection - from her father - can be blamed on her mother. Prickly and suspicious when she rings him, dad is unable to separate the two women in his mind - something the film achieves all too easily. As the tag line says, this is a story about a mother who knows best, and a daughter who knows better.
The trouble with this kind of wish-fulfilment is that it's excluding. The film wants us to love Ann but also to envy her and the two sit together uneasily. It's impossible to take Adele seriously, but that doesn't mean you identify with Ann. In fact, by the time she's being waved off at the airport to her brilliant future ("I love you", "I love you too, sweetie"), you may, like me, be praying for a plane crash.
Adele's sacrificing of her car is the last straw. Ann mentions dreams in which she cuts off her mother's feet. In giving up her car - her mobility - it's as if Adele cuts off her own feet. In Stella Dallas we're allowed to wonder at the world Barbara Stanwyck's daughter has been fed into. This film sheds no such ambiguous light on a privileged East Coast education. Adele's self-sacrifice, in other words, gets the full thumbs-up.
Mildred Pierce and Stella Dallas' camp melodrama can of course be improved upon, but Wang and his particular brand of schmaltz prove unequal to the task. As the credits roll, Ann says of Adele, "When she dies, the world will be flat." In its eagerness to give voice to the overshadowed daughter, the film never allows the mother to live. Flat is precisely the word one would use to describe this.
eyeglass-fogging sexual games from the director Wayne Wang. A nerdy, rich
A quiet, unsettling film that is defined by emotional distance and detachment, that can be uncomfortable for the viewer due to what feels like an unbridgeable gulf. Adapted from a collection of short stories by Yiyun Li, a Chinese-American who pits the two cultures against one another in a seemingly disinterested manner, where Henry O plays the Chinese father from Beijing, an old-school communist who maintains a proud and dignified air despite his limited grasp of English, continually jotting down notes in his notepad while he is visiting his daughter in America, Faye Yu, a well-educated and independent minded woman who works in the seemingly impenetrable law library at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. While Henry O is an aging widower and his daughter recently divorced, it’s nearly impossible to pry any emotional information from his daughter who largely avoids him, refusing to confide in him or engage in any personal discussions, claiming she doesn’t have time, that she’s too busy from her job, yet we see her off to the movies alone at nights enjoying an evening away from him.
A sincere film that perhaps stumbles with its overall simplicity, the film is a cinematic essay of immigrant miscommunication on both ends of the world, where during the day Henry wanders to a nearby park bench where he meets an Iranian woman. Both speak in their primary language most of the time, wisely unsubtitled, with only occasional English words thrown in, yet they develop feelings of mutual friendship and trust simply because they have no one else who pays attention to them in their lives. Henry prepares visual feasts for dinner at night, but they eat in total silence as his daughter barely picks at anything and is annoyed when he constantly urges her to eat more. She remains noncommittal and appears to bear a grudge against him, as if he didn’t play a large enough part of her life growing up. Her tone is one of hostile passivity, while the inquisitive father gently prods his daughter about one thing or another, which only increases her resentment.
There are a few clever visual cues, such as the opening and closing bookend sequences. More impressive is the father revealing a personal story about his family history, which remains ambiguous to the audience, as he and his daughter are in different rooms as he speaks, separated by a single wall, where we’re not sure if this split screen image is happening at the same time period, as at one point during his confession she gathers her coat and exits, leaving behind the image of an empty chair. Mostly there’s an unfilled emptiness that pervades every frame of the film, where the characters, like puppets, are moving parts striving to be human. Using extended wordless sequences and a propensity for untranslated words, we’re left with a vague impression of what it’s like getting old, feeling disconnected to your past which is long gone and unconnected to your own children, feeling useless and alone. Henry’s attempts to connect with his daughter are fairly gentle and benign, but she shows little interest, as it turns out he spends more time talking to total strangers who will listen to him rather than to his own family who won’t.
Both culturally specific and achingly universal, Wayne Wang’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers contemplates the ravages of time and distance—physical, emotional and cultural—on a parent-child relationship. Mr. Shi (Henry O), a retired Chinese widower, comes to visit daughter Yilan (Yu) in the U.S. following her recent divorce, only to find that she has no time for him. Left to his own devices during the days, Shi rummages through his daughter’s things, seeking clues to her new self, and strikes up a friendship with a Farsi-speaking neighbor (Ghahremani) who turns out to have family issues of her own.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers plays up the contrast between the old man’s active curiosity and his daughter’s passionless life-on-autopilot, reflected in the spare, impersonal decor of her apartment (which Shi promptly spruces up with a Chinese door hanging). When the inevitable father-daughter showdown arrives, China’s Cultural Revolution emerges as a vanishing point for the characters’ emotional inhibitions, but Wang’s film doubles as a commentary on the emptiness of the West. Far from struggling with the classic immigrant-story dilemma of assimilation, Yilan, at least until her father’s reappearance, seems to have left China behind entirely; in a sense, the spiritual aridity of her life is a sign of how thoroughly Westernized she already is.
After years of maneuvering the
Meticulously paced and beautifully shot, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
brings us into the life of Mr. Shi (Henry Q) at the moment he walks into a
train station in
Mr. Shi has come to
Is there an adult daughter anywhere who doesn't have some unresolved issues with her father? Yilan, who was closer to her now-deceased mother throughout her childhood, is uncertain how to deal with his intrustion into her life. His close proximity and hovering over her start to bring out deeply held resentments in Yilan, who must decide whether to confront her father with truths she knows but has never spoken about.
The film moves as slowly as Mr. Shi's long days alone in his daughter's apartment while she works and stays out late. Once he's papered over the stove backsplash with newspaper to protect it from wok grease-splatter, played with Yilan's Russian matrioshka nested dolls, and rifled through her bills and bank statements, there's not much left to do besides explore the world outside Yilan's apartment. A trip down to the pool nets meeting a ditzy blond in a teeny bikini; that frightens Mr. Shi enough to keep him far away from the pool after that. At the park he meets Madam, an older Iranian lady who lives with her adult son and his wife.
There's a well-placed thread about communication woven throughout the film: Mr Shi and Madam do not share a common language -- he speaks Chinese, she speaks Farsi, they both speak a very little, very broken, English. Yet they are able to communicate and understand each other more than Mr. Shi and his own daughter. Wang underscores this point by not subtitling the scenes between Mr. Shi and Madam -- you don't need the subtitles to get the gist of what they're saying. When Mr. Shi learns about the Russian man his daughter is seeing, she reveals to him that part of what led her to have an affair with him is that she could talk to him -- really talk -- in English, whereas with her husband, with whom she spoke Chinese, she couldn't communicate. Yilan tells her father that speaking in a different language than your own allows you to become a different person.
The cinematography is as precise and spare as the communication between this father and daughter throughout the film. Cinematographer Patrick Lindenmaier has executed each moment to perfection -- every shot is lined up just so, with careful thought given to little details like the placement of a wall in a scene, a recurrent visual element that serves to underline the deep lack of communication between Mr. Shi and Yilan. The music in the film is just as decisive as the shots -- every note carefully placed to enhance the scene (the score actually reminded me a lot of the score for Tony Takatani, another lovely film that moved along at a pace all its own).
The overall effect of the film is soothing, thoughtful, and deeply introspective. The quiet moments give you plenty of time and headspace to ponder the specifics of great filmmaking that sometimes get lost -- the angle of a shot, the perfect ray of sunlight through a window, the shadow across a face, the timepiece precision of single piano notes marking the passage of time. Fast-paced action flicks keep you on the edge of your seat; Wang seats you in a comfortable chair in the perfect corner and invites you to enjoy the scenery and the carefully wrought story of the two people before you. And it's a lovely ride.
indieWIRE review Leo Goldsmith
The Onion A.V. Club review Tasha Robinson
Salon.com [Andrew O'Hehir] which includes an interview with the director
Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Patrick McGavin at
The New York Times review Nathan Lee
Wayne Wang honored at Asian film festival Ruthe Stein from The San Francisco Chronicle, March 15, 2008
Wang Xiaoshuai | Senses of Cinema Dror Kochan from Senses of Cinema, October 2003
Riding Towards the Future: Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle by Elizabeth Wright
FROZEN (Jidu hanleng)
Frozen Tony Rayns from Time Out
Shot in 1994 and reflecting the dark mood
Nitrate Online (Capsule) Eddie Cockrell
Frozen is a passionate cry for artistic freedom from a
culture of repression: since July 1, 1996, it has been illegal to make
unauthorized independent films in China, and the rushes from this
surreptitiously filmed feature (shot in 1994) were smuggled out of the country
and assembled by director Wu Ming with support provided by the Hubert Bals fund
in Holland. Never heard of Wu Ming? That’s according to plan; it’s a pseudonym
meaning “no name” that has been adopted by the established Sixth Generation
filmmaker to avoid reprisals (“I have responsibilities,” the director explained
to a western critic in 1997). A brooding, handsome performance artist prominent
in the avant garde scene of contemporary
Made outside the official Chinese production system, where
directors tend to cloak their subversive political ideas in period garments, Frozen
delivers its most potent statement simply by virtue of its existence. Though
unsanctioned films are strictly forbidden in
Frozen Dan Lopez from digitallyOBSESSED
DVD Verdict Dean Roddey
New York Times (registration req'd) Anita Gates
Shot in 1995 but shelved by its producers
until it could pass the censors, this was Wang's first 'legal' film after two
underground features, The Days and the pseudonymous Frozen. Two
country hicks in
Produced outside the official Chinese production system, Wang
Xiaoshuai's last film, 1996's Frozen, was such a subversive statement
about government oppression that the director credit reads "Wu Ming,"
a pseudonym that translates "Nobody." In spite of the censorship
controversy that kept it on the shelf for three years, So Close To Paradise
comes complete with a credit for Wang, but in this case, the pseudonym seems
regrettably apropos. How better to describe a neo-noir so colorless and generic
that its cigarette smoke is more expressive than its characters? The censors
may be to blame for eviscerating the film, which was reportedly heavily
re-edited before the approved version finally premièred for Chinese audiences
in 1998. There are faint traces of political unrest in Wang's depiction of
late-'80s Shanghai, if only because it houses all the expected noir elements,
such as a thriving criminal underworld, shadowy nightspots, amoral heroes, and
pervasive corruption. But it's hard to tease out the film's intentions when
these same genre tropes are linked to so much empty navel-gazing. Introduced
with a deft flip of a cigarette into his mouth, Guo Tao came to
So Close to Paradise David Walsh from The World Socialist Web Site
So Close to Paradise | review Rachel Gordon
So Close to Paradise : DVD Talk Review of the DVD Video J. Doyle Wallis
New York Times (registration req'd) A.O. Scott
Asian Films at the 26th Toronto ... - Senses of Cinema Shelly Kraicer from Senses of Cinema,
Two Chinese films at
Towards the Future: Wang Xiaoshuai's ... - Senses of Cinema Elizabeth Wright,
The third instalment of the 2001 ‘Silk Screen’ Collection, Wang
Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle (2001), is an ode to the bicycle that has
readily become a symbol of mainland
The juxtaposition of Guei and Jian, and in particular their
contrasting relation to the bicycle, highlights their differences in social
standing and status. Guei is a humble migrant who has travelled to the city
with dreams of gaining stability and a regular income. He finds himself
struggling to survive in a foreign and chaotic environment in which traditional
architecture and customs collide with an industrious and materialistic outlook.
Alternatively, Jian comes from a hard-working and upwardly motivated city
family who are concerned with providing Jian and his sister with a good
education. Jian attends a co-educational school and joins his friends at video
game outlets for after school entertainment. He is not extremely wealthy but as
an urban dweller he enjoys an education, which is enough to clearly set him
apart from Guei. Significantly, not only do Guei and Jian originate from very
different backgrounds but the bicycle represents something very different and
very unique to each of them. The mountain bike grants Jian status amongst his
peers and impresses his girlfriend, Qin (Zhou Xun). He relishes the popularity,
honour and independence that it provides, and is therefore unwilling to
relinquish such an object. At the other extreme, Guei’s relation to the bike is
one of practical need: he is reliant upon it for his new employment. But et
this is not Guei’s only reason for needing the bike. Just as it represents
status and pride to Jian, so it does for Guei. It symbolises his participation
and success in the city of
Wang explores the changing dynamics of contemporary
A very special component of Beijing Bicycle is Wang’s
Wang’s exploration of a city divided between modernity and
tradition is effective without offering jarring juxtapositions of old versus
new. The camera’s smooth transition between different parts (old and new) of
Beijing Bicycle marks his transition from a cinema of
social realism to a more commercial realm. This less critical approach may not
push the same boundaries as his other films, yet Beijing Bicycle still
retains a preoccupation with relevant social issues. Wang’s ode to the
Wang’s Beijing Bicycle, which was winner of the Berlin
Film Festival Silver Bears Award, is also a component of producers Peggy Chiao
and Hsu Hsaio-ming’s ‘Tales of Three Cities’ series. Consisting of six films
set in mainland
film festival: Reviews roundup | Film | The Guardian Peter Bradshaw at
Nothing could be more different than Shanghai Dreams by Chinese writer-director Wang Xiaoshuai, who made the genial Beijing Bicycle. This is much more austere: a semi-autobiographical study of the way families were uprooted from their homes in the cities and forcibly relocated to the countryside in the 1960s. After 10 years of desperate unhappiness and homesickness, one man plots to move back, despite the fact that his wife has settled in perfectly well and his daughter has fallen in love with a local boy. Wang's movie upends the usual cliches about the younger generation yearning for the bright lights of the big city and the film has a granite severity and sombre force.
There's a sequence about one-third of the way through Shanghai
Dreams in which 19-year-old Qinghong (Gao Yuanyuan) hears her would-be
suitor Honggen (Li Bin) playing harmonica in the distance. This sequence begins
with a close-up on Qinghong walking outside her home as we hear the music, and
the camera slowly pans out to the street where we see Honggen hanging out with
Qinghong's little brother and playing his serenade. It's clear from the design
of this brief passage that Wang intends for the audience to mistakenly assume
the music is non-diegetic. We're then supposed to be surprised when we see
Honggen, its diegetic source. Only there's a problem. Honggen's harmonica
playing is only slightly less accomplished than Stevie Wonder's, and his
"spontaneous" tune is a professionally composed theme. I've addressed
this minor element in Shanghai Dreams at some length because in some
ways it exemplifies my problems with Wang's directorial style. There's no
question that by any reasonable measure, Shanghai Dreams is a highly
accomplished piece of cinema. But there is a stylistic schizophrenia just below
its surface. Shanghai Dreams adopts the master-shot approach, although
Wang articulates these long shots with more traditional decoupage. His use of
landscape, the darkened alleyways between homes, or the use of a single outdoor
light source to organize space and architecture within the frame, all serve to
lend the film a deeply etched sense of place, and Wang's use of deep focus
gives these images a heightened solidity. His deliberate pacing only enhances
this effect. But at the same time, Wang seems oddly beholden to classical
narrative forms. What starts out as a quiet observational piece eventually swerves
into melodrama. There's something unconvincing about the way Wang accomplishes
this, and I think it has a lot to do with his handling of incident. Where do
the major third-act complications come from? How do they arise? Like the secret
factory workers' ball (with Travolta-esque disco dancing to Boney M), these
disruptive events seem to be dropped in from some other, less rigorous movie.
This leads me to wonder whether Wang is underestimating his audience, or
perhaps overestimating the value of making "stuff happen" in films.
Dreams | Review | Screen Dan Fainaru
Once a rebel now working in the mainstream, Wang Xiaoshuai draws
on his own reminiscences as an adolescent for
Wang’s family was relocated from Shanghai to the poor, mountainous province of Guiyang, all part of the Chinese authorities’ decision to install fortified industrial cities near the border with the Soviet Union, just in case the differences of opinion might erupt into more than diplomatic skirmishes.
Wang translates this experience into the coming-of-age story of
Qinghong, the daughter of a displaced family, to show how
Though the plot’s personal aspect is only too familiar and easily
adaptable to any geographical location, the social context adds a new facet to
the filmed history of modern
However, the whole package is tied together rather slackly, making it more of a trip down memory lane than a distinct dramatic statement. Festivals may not mind, but distributors should consider some serious tightening of loose ends necessary before it ventures into commercial distribution.
Qinghong (Gao Yuanyuan), though a serious and hard working 19-year-old, is constantly goaded by her tyrannical father (Yan Anlian) to invest every moment of her day into preparing for university. Such an option, he believes, is the only way in which she can prepare for the big city, to which she eventually has to return.
For his part her father still resents how his wife (Tang Yang)
persuaded him to leave
As a result he never stops terrorising his family, regularly – and unsuccessfully - pestering his superiors for permission to return home, seeking hope in rumours of political change and plotting with friends.
But Qinghong, whether her father likes it or not, is at an age when she can not be indifferent to the low key advances of factory hand (Li Bin), who offers her a pair of shining high heeled red shoes. Nor can she resist the temptation to join her friend Xiao Zhen (Wang Xueyang) for some timid partying, where one of the "cool" guys (Qin Hao) launches into a close dancing parody of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
When Xiao Zhen's affair with the dancer goes too far, and Qinghong's rejection of her suitor is received badly, events spiral out of control and lead towards a rather forced and melodramatic climax.
Wang Xiaoshuai draws several parallels throughout Shanghai Dreams. There is the generational confrontation between daughter and father, contrasted with the exasperation of parents who see hopes of repatriation being constantly thwarted.
On a wider scale there is also the parallel process of disciplinary relaxation in the country itself. Parents gradually lose their iron grip on their children and the government closes its eyes to the temporary insubordination of one family who break the rules in the final sequence.
But the film’s final shot resounds to the crack of a firing squad, executing prisoners. The rules of the game have not changed that much after all.
Told at a leisurely, unhurried pace, Wang's elegy works better as an album of souvenirs, lavishing attention on many of the details he knew personally and that were specific to that period, from morning callisthenics to strict codes of dressing. It all offers a pertinent image of communal life that successfully contrasts with private aspirations.
Once he resorts to the personal stories of Qinghong, her family and her friend, however, the piece loses some of its interest and originality.
Though Gao Yuanyuan, as Qinghong, is blessed with a handsome film presence, her bland performance fails to imply the depth of her crisis. Yan Anlian, as her angry father, and Tang Yang, as her long suffering mother, have a much better grip on their roles, with Wang Xueyang, as the vivacious friend, the most memorable of all.
The parallels between Jia Zhangke’s The World (2004) and Wang Xiaoshuai’s Cannes Jury Prize-winning Shanghai Dreams are patent, and not only because Wang memorably appeared as a sleazy, karaoke-loving businessman in Jia’s latest. Both movies seem to reflect the loosening of the government restrictions that have hampered Sixth Generation filmmakers—this marks the first time the Film Bureau has given Wang free rein, his previous aboveground features So Close to Paradise (1998) and Beijing Bicycle (2001) having provoked censorship battles—and the adopting of more polished, arguably more conventional approaches by the filmmakers themselves.
Whereas in The World Jia amplified his visual panache and tightened up his narrative skills, Wang leaves behind the mixed-up youngsters of Frozen (1996) and Drifters (2003) in order to make a stately stab at family melodrama. Though not as audacious as Jia’s films, Shanghai Dreams is remarkable not only for its precision and slow-building emotional power, but the way it extends its teenaged characters’ feelings of confusion and hopelessness to the community around them. As is so often the case in a Sixth Generation movie, the kids aren’t all right. Yet their middle-aged parents are no better equipped to handle the crises depicted here.
In the mid-60s, the Chinese government formed a “Third Line of Defense”
against potential Soviet incursions by relocating urban factory workers inland.
Like Wang’s own family, his film’s central characters were sent from
Naturally, his teenaged daughter, Wu Qinghong (Gao Yuanyuan), is more
uncertain about her proper place. Badgered by her father to study hard so that
she can go away to university, she feels the pull to create some kind of life
for herself there. Even so, she has broken off a relationship with a local boy
to appease Wu Zemin. Qinghong’s best friend Xiao Zhen (Wang Xueyang) is more
brazen about defying the older generation, wondering, “What’s so great about
Yet Shanghai Dreams is more eventful than Drifters, Wang’s
previous feature about young people torn between two places (there, the
contemporary story of a man who returns to
This fraught father-daughter dynamic has always been a potent engine for melodrama. No wonder Shanghai Dreams’ final scenes are reminiscent of those moments in Visconti’s movies when neo-realism gives way to bold operatic grandeur (the whiff of Rigoletto is hard to miss). Until then, Wang plays it relatively subtle—his patient, nuanced evocation of the mundanity and sudden revelations that define teenage existence recalls Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991). There’s arguably a link to Jia’s Platform (2000), too, but Shanghai Dreams is more boldly emotional than any of Jia’s cooler-tempered films. Though some may castigate Wang for his tearjerking tendencies, he creates a satisfying balance of melodrama and stylistic austerity. With Shanghai Dreams, Wang clearly allowed himself to dream a little bigger. Unlike that of the family he portrays, one modelled after his own, Wang’s fate is far from disastrous.
Shanghai Dreams | Film | The Guardian Xan Brooks
Blues (Rizhao Chongqing) Lee
Not so much a whodunnit as a whathappened, the tenth feature by mainland Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle Shanghai Dreams) traces an absent father’s attempt to discover the circumstances behind the police shooting of a son he abandoned fifteen years previously.
A strong performance by Wang Xueqi as the father provides emotional ballast but fails to make up for the glacial pacing of the drama; and although there are some effective emotional tugs and an evocative use of the film’s dirty industrial city setting, the audience’s investment in the slowbuild structure is never paid back in full.
Wang’s films are virtually invisible in
And reticence, not to say downright hostility, is what weathered ship’s captain Lin Quanhai (Wang Xueqi) encounters at every turn as he tries to find out what happened to his 25-year-old son Lin Bo (Zi Yi), news of whose death reached him six months after the fact, on his return from a long sea voyage.
His former wife Yuying (Li Lingyu) refuses to let him in, but from some old newspapers she throws at him, Quanhai discovers that Bo was shot by police after stabbing two people in a supermarket and taking a woman doctor (Li Feier) hostage.
Bo’s best friend, Xiao Hao (Qin Hao) initially refuses to tell Quanhai anything, but agrees to enlarge and print the only photo the father can find of his dead son - a still from the CCTV camera footage of the supermarket incident. There’s a poignancy here as Quanhai contemplates the blurred and pixellated face of the 25-year-old Bo, who he last saw when he was 10; the not-so-hidden subtext is that the father’s investigation is actually an attempt to build some kind of rapport with a son he never knew, and assuage the demons of guilt.
But although all this is there for the reading in the twitches of Wang Xuegi’s impassive face the director never quite seems confident that we’ve got the message, repeatedly flogging the delicacy out of the pixellated-portrait metaphor.
And although some of the meetings the stubborn father forces on friends and witnesses in the course of his quest are affecting, they also have a plodding inevitability about them: it comes as something of a relief to finally meet the policeman who shot the fatal bullet after ticking off the supermarket guard, the girl who was stabbed, the doctor who was taken hostage and the girlfriend whose dumping of Bo triggered his cry for help.
Emotionally, the film is no less linear, moving from tight-lipped closure to something very close to sentimentality (underlined by sparse string melodies that become more insistent and weepy towards the end) as the father discovers that his lost son was obsessed with him, and the sea.
As a film about fathers and sons, Chongqing Blues has some resonance. The film is also chock-full of images of passage and change: the river that flows down to the sea where two key scenes are set; the rusty cable car that connects port and town; shopping mall escalators, monorails, motorway ramps and bridges: all connect with the constant movement that is Quanhai’s career, and also, until he begins questioning it, his life strategy. But the slight, mushy story, and the overly pretty actors cast in the three main youth roles, are not really up to the task of carrying what would otherwise be a stimulating symbolic load.
Before Vietnam, there was Indochina; before the Americans, the French. The languorous first half of Wargnier's epic historical romance is pretty much as you'd expect: plantation-owner Deneuve in impeccably starched jodhpurs, coolies in their place, civilisation transplanted to a hothouse. She begins a passionate affair with a young naval officer (Perez), but he falls in love with her adopted Vietnamese daughter (Linh Dan Pham). When he is sent to a remote outpost on the Gulf of Tonkin, the girl takes after him. And Wargnier follows. Midway through, having involved us so deeply in colonial enterprise, he abruptly cuts our cultural ties and plunges into sweeping revolutionary myth: the lovers go on the run, the girl discovers her people, their struggle, what her role must be. If Bertolucci tried his hand at a mini-series, it would probably look something like this. The allegorical intimations may not be entirely credible, given the piece's lush romanticism; it's rather enervatingly composed; and the pacing could certainly be tighter. But such grand old-fashioned melodrama is almost as exotic as the stunning Vietnamese landscape; it's easy to be seduced by it.
A lethargic opium dream of colonial
This presumptuous if not altogether indefensible notion is
spelled out in the tight relationship between Eliane (Catherine Deneuve), a
rubber-plantation owner, and Camille (Linh Dan Pham), her adopted Indochinese
Thinking she is doing what's best for her daughter, Eliane
arranges to have Jean-Baptiste reassigned to the remote and scenic
Her transformation from Mademoiselle Butterfly to Communist leader becomes complete when she is torn from her lover and their infant son and thrown into prison for crimes against the state. The trouble is we never see the fragile teenager undergo this surprising metamorphosis. Director Regis Wargnier seems far more interested in what the white folks are doing back on the plantation. As with other potentially enlivening events, we hear about it from the coolly aristocratic Eliane. A form of cinematic colonialism, "Indochine" commits dramatic suicide by Eurocentrism.
Clearly Wargnier, who also co-wrote the script, has a fondness
for extended metaphors, preferring intellectual artifice over character
development. None of his characters is particularly complex or consistent, but
Jean-Baptiste is virtually put out to stud as a sexual cynic turned
romance-novel-cover boy overnight. Perhaps it was the MSG that tenderized this
beefcake. Deneuve's Eliane is more interesting, but she is, after all, playing
Wargnier, who learned his craft at the elbow of Claude Chabrol,
does expose the geographic splendors of
LOVER and RETURN TO INDOCHINE Returning to
DVD Review e-zine dvd recommendation Guido Henkel
EAST-WEST (Est-Ouest) A- 93
The second half of the
20th century saw unprecedented horror from the Nazi propagated
Holocaust during World War II, one of the worst atrocities in history by
attempting to eradicate an entire people on racial grounds, systematically
singling out only Jewish people to exterminate.
But most historians agree that Josef Stalin likely killed more people
than Hitler, where tens of millions were sent to the endless wastes of the
Siberian Gulag. But even Stalin doesn’t
hold the distinction of being the most genocidal leader of the 20th century, as
that would be Mao Zedong of China, who is thought to be responsible for the
deaths of over 40 million people, most attributable to famine, forced labor,
starvation, and execution. Having said
that, what’s unique to this film is tackling a subject rarely dealt with in the
history books, namely the fate of thousands of Russians who fled the Soviet
Union after the Russian Revolution, who were lured back in the summer of 1946
by Stalin’s offer of an amnesty where they were supposedly needed in the
reconstruction of a nation decimated by war.
Returning émigrés Alexei (Oleg Menchikov), a Russian trained doctor who
had been living in
Told with a Spielberg, Hollywood epic sweep, France's entry for this year's Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film, you’d think this would fall into the melodramatic, over-the-top category, seemingly modeled on the war-time romance of DR. ZHIVAGO (1965), and while there are a bit too many Russians who also conveniently happen to speak French, the romance is actually submerged into the historical reality, as the film doesn’t overplay the emotions and takes a surprising interest in the individual lives affected and in developing character, where the acting throughout is superb, as is the production design, where the choice of locations can be stunning, contrasting the immense grandiosity of the architecture in the spacious government buildings against the tiny, claustrophobic rooms allotted to citizens. Shot on location in Kiev, in the Ukraine, and Sofia, Bulgaria, the director captures a real sense of desperation and futility, where the bleakness of this family’s trapped existence is really no different than that of other ordinary citizens, as all suffer during Stalin’s reign. Transported to Kiev, Alexei is employed as a medical officer in a large textile factory, where everyday existence in the Soviet Union is permeated with the presence of the secret police, in particular the heightened xenophobia that runs rampant from ordinary citizens to the ruling apparatus, where everyone falls under suspicion. The family is consigned to a small, cramped room in a squalid communal house of drunken unemployed men, where one of the lodgers possesses keys to all the mail boxes and has the task of checking everyone’s letters on a regular basis. Marie is horrified and immediately vows to find a way back to France, but without a passport, they are trapped behind the Iron Curtain and imprisoned to involuntary servitude, where she is contemptuously treated like a foreign spy, and the only reason they remain alive is Alexei’s considerable medical skills. When the elderly Russian landlady of the house is caught singing a French song with Marie, she is rounded up by the KGB agents and imprisoned for consorting with a foreign spy, dying shortly afterwards, where her son Sasha (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) is about be thrown out into the streets. Without a word of discussion, Marie insists they can make room for him, where Sasha becomes like an older brother to their own son, but Alexei is disturbed by the continual lack of privacy at home and how he’s continually hounded at work to prove his Soviet credibility.
The film consistently
supports multiple storylines that occasionally interconnect, extended through time,
given a near historic reach, where a traveling French theatrical troupe happens
to be visiting Kiev and Marie desperately bursts into the dressing room of the
star, Catherine Deneuve as Gabrielle Develay, known for her leftist political
leanings, and hands her a letter to give to the French Consulate in France, an
act Gabrielle can’t ignore. With the KGB
agents literally at her door, this turns into a tricky situation, as it puts
Marie’s husband in a vulnerable position, as he can’t afford to offend the
Communist regime. He’s fraught with his
own personal travails, as due to his wife’s inattention, he sleeps with the
Soviet landlady in the building, immediately kicked out by Marie, so instead he
moves in across the hall with his mistress,
When the Communists hear about this, it all sounds so French to them,
urging him to divorce his wife and receive a large apartment as
compensation. Sasha figures into his own
storyline, as he’s a world class swimmer that falls for Marie, dropped from the
swim team due to his lethargy after his grandmother’s death, where Marie
revives his training regimen swimming in the Dnieper River, where he rubs his
body with lard to protect him from the cold.
Eventually he is welcomed back to the team where his skills may allow him
to defect to the West, and perhaps free Marie from
In 1946 Russian emigrants flock back to the
BFI | Sight & Sound | East-West (1999) Michael Witt from Sight and Sound, December 2000
The USSR, 1946. Responding to Stalin's attempts to lure back Russian emigrants to their homeland, young doctor Alexeï Golovin, his French wife Marie and their son Sérioja arrive in Odessa from France. Many of their fellow returnees are tortured, executed or deported to forced labour camps. Alexeï is allocated a room in a communal apartment in Kiev and made responsible for the health of the workforce in a local factory. He considers any form of resistance dangerous, while Marie remains fixated on escape. At a performance given by a visiting French theatre troupe, Alexeï is paraded by the authorities as a returnee from the west who has turned into a model Soviet citizen. Marie tells celebrated actress Gabrielle Develay of her unhappiness.
The family drifts apart: Alexeï embarks on an affair and Marie takes a lover, teenager Sacha. Implicated in Sacha's escape to the west, Marie is sent to the Gulag. After Stalin's death six years later, she is released. A further two years on, Alexeï and Gabrielle orchestrate Marie and Sérioja's escape to the west via the French embassy in Bulgaria. Alexeï is sent to a labour camp to work as a doctor. He has to wait until the dawn of the Gorbachev era 30 years later before rejoining his family in France.
Following the only modest success of his 1994 study of an army marriage Une femme française, director Régis Wargnier returns in East-West to the slick wide-angle historical melodrama of his earlier hugely popular Indochine (1991). In East-West he sets himself the daunting task of grappling with four decades of Soviet history and east-west relations through the vehicle of a simple love story. At the heart of the film is the relationship between Oleg Menchikov's Russian doctor Alexeï, who settles in the USSR just after World War II, and his French wife Marie, the superb Sandrine Bonnaire here making a rare but welcome foray into mainstream cinema.
Wargnier is at his most comfortable exploring marital love in its various
guises: young passion, physical desire, the onset of antagonism and a mature
sense of mutual support and self-sacrifice. The pent-up energy and erotic
charge of the human body (in particular, the muscular physique of Sacha, the
young swimming champion with whom Marie has an affair) provide a counterpoint
to the monotony of the Soviet regime, conveyed by the blue-grey hue that
pervades the imagery. Wargnier uses water motifs in a similar way: a constant
reminder of loss and separation (Marie and Alexeï arrive in the
East-West is pitched unashamedly as a broad-brushstroke historical
melodrama. But the historical part of the equation is underdeveloped. Wargnier
pays lip service to key dates and introduces a sprinkling of stock figures from
Cold War mythology, but these aren't enough to provide any credible sense of
the reality of daily life in the
Wargnier's attempt to portray this relatively uncharted slice of recent history is, of course, inherently presumptuous; but faced with the task, his film is low on humility. It deploys stylistic grandiosity - as in the irritating recurrent use of unmotivated slow camera tracks - that speaks more of an aimless and distasteful display of manufactured gravitas than of a sensitive approach to historical realities.
It is an established historical fact that, although Adolf Hitler was the most infamous mass-murderer of the 20th century, he may not have been the most prolific. By many accounts, that title belongs to Josef Stalin. The only real differences between the two is that Stalin did not target one particular religious or ethnic group (he was an equal opportunity killer) and his activities were done behind the Iron Curtain, hidden from the eyes of the rest of the world. Yet the more one studies the magnitude of the human rights atrocities committed under Stalin, the more horrified one becomes.
Following the end of World War II, the
Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is happily married to Alexei (Oleg Menshikov), a
Russian immigrant to
East-West suffers from a bit of a split personality. The first half is devoted to the day-to-day grind of Marie's new existence, showing how, almost against her will, she adapts to a joyless life as Alexei gains a measure of influence at his job. When he has an affair with another woman, she throws him out, but his devotion to her eventually wins her back. This part of the film develops slowly, and is predominantly a straight drama. However, shortly past the midway point, East-West turns into a Cold War thriller, as different parties struggle to get Marie out of the country. The extreme difference in tone between the two halves is not unpleasant, but it makes the film seem less like one continuous story.
Two things are consistently good throughout this film: acting and production
design. Filming was done on location in
The score, by veteran composer Patrick Doyle, is both a positive and a negative. The music is extremely powerful and emotive, but there are occasions when it calls attention to itself, in effect overshadowing what's transpiring on-screen. Doyle's work is rarely subdued - he is a frequent collaborator with Kenneth Branagh (having scored all of his films except two) and wrote the music for Indochine - and there is nothing low-key about what he has done for East-West.
In texture, if not in plotting, East-West reminds me of Claude Berri's 1997 feature, Lucie Aubrac. Both are the work of respected directors and feature relatively straightforward narratives set in the recent past (although Berri's movie is based on an historical figure while Wargnier's is not). And, also like Lucie Aubrac, East-West has received lukewarm critical reaction (perhaps because the expectation with films like this is that they're supposed to be slow-moving and thematically rich). However, in terms of presenting the travails of two well-developed characters trapped in a difficult situation, and the way in which their relationship is transformed over a ten-year period, East-West is a strong effort. It tells a solid story that involves us in the plight of its characters.
PopMatters J. Serpico
East West : DVD Talk Review of the DVD Video Jeremy Kleinman
DVD Times Mark Boydell
culturevulture.net Arthur Lazere
east west - review at videovista.net Debbie Moon
Film Threat Joel Maendel
FilmHead.com Matt Hefernan
eFilmCritic Reviews iF Magazine
BBCi - Films Michael Thomson
Baltimore City Paper: East-West | Movie Review Luisa F. Ribeiro
New York Times A.O. Scott
vs. Stalin: Who Killed More? - The New York Review of Books Timothy Snyder,
BFI | Sight & Sound | The Innovators 1960-1970: The big wig Mike O'Pray from Sight and Sound, October 1999
When Andy Warhol turned film-maker, he cocked a snook at Hollywood and the avant-garde, changing both forever
In Harmony Korine's recent no-budget, quasi-documentary feature film Gummo there is a memorable head-and-shoulder shot - slowed down and fairly long-held - of 90s chic icon Chloë Sevigny with her breasts black-taped, gazing into the camera. It is pure Warhol. Her narcissism, knowing sexiness and acknowledgement of the camera's gaze are all characteristic of a type of film-making first practised in early 60s New York, film-making of a shocking audacity that attracted the fashionable yet repelled much of the art world.
Pop artist Andy Warhol's films are important because they influenced two kinds of cinema: Hollywood absorbed their gritty street-life realism, their sexual explicitness and on-the-edge performances; the avant-garde reworked his long-take, fixed-camera aesthetic into what came to be known as structural film - an austere, formalist project.
When he started making films in 1963, however, Warhol knew nothing about the mechanics of film. Whatever he had gleaned about the contemporary underground film scene came from his friendship with Gerard Malanga, who introduced him to the veteran film-maker Marie Menken (one of the 'stars' of The Chelsea Girls, 1966) and took him to screenings at Jonas Mekas' Film-makers' Co-op. However, like any American of his generation he was brought up on classic Hollywood, and he was also familiar with gay porn films of the 50s.
At that moment in the early 60s, Warhol was on the crest of a wave as one of the most important artists on the New York scene, famous for his silk-screen paintings of iconic American figures (Marilyn Monroe), consumer objects (Campbell's soup cans) and dramatic images of death (lurid car accidents, the electric chair). He was an uncomfortable ally of fellow pop artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in their overthrowing of the abstract expressionist school of Pollock, De Kooning and co., who had dominated the art world throughout the 50s. Like Rauschenberg and Johns, Warhol was gay, but unlike them he embraced the swish, camp images and attitudes of the gay world, especially when he turned to film. His stance would come to dominate 60s popular culture. Cultivated camp soon became fashionable, notably in the theatricals of rock groups like the Rolling Stones - in many ways Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's use of Stones' singer Mick Jagger in Performance (1970) is a codicil to the Warholian moment.
Alone among major artists of the twentieth century Warhol committed himself seriously to film, so much so that in 1965 he stated that he was giving up painting. Warhol's prolific output, which ran to many hundreds of films, some only discovered after his death, was all produced between 1963 and 1968. These half-dozen years can be loosely divided into three phases. First, from 1963 to late 1964 there was a plethora of slow-projected (16 fps), silent, shortish black-and-white films shot on a Bolex - the favourite lightweight camera of avant-garde and documentary film-makers. The camera was static and the shooting unedited, the film's length determined by the length of the reel. Second, from 1964 Warhol used the Auricon camera with its built-in sound system (perversely, it was first used for the silent epic Empire). This was an intense, fertile period in which the slow-motion aesthetic gave way to a form of modernist 'theatre' aided and abetted by 'scriptwriter-collaborators' Chuck Wein and Ronald Tavel, the latter a dramatist associated with the Theatre of the Ridiculous. It was then that Warhol launched his 'superstars', including Edie Sedgwick, Gerard Malanga, Viva and the drag artist Mario Montez. These films were often around 70 minutes in length, consisting of two single-take reels, each just over 30 minutes long - for instance, Wein's Beauty #2 (1965) or Tavel's Kitchen (1966), both 'starring' Edie Sedgwick. Warhol told Tavel that he didn't want plot, only 'incident'. The high point was probably reached with the commercially and critically successful The Chelsea Girls. The third phase is brief and not so distinctive, but it expresses a wider ambition and a realist clarity of narrative. In many ways it was an attempt to build on the commercial success of The Chelsea Girls under the driving force of the young Paul Morrissey, who disparaged the early 'art' films. The first step in this direction was My Hustler (1965); notable films of the period include Nude Restaurant and Lonesome Cowboys (both 1967). But after Valerie Solanas' bullets ripped into his body on 3 June 1968, Warhol's film involvement was much more at arm's length, though he continued to lend his imprimatur to films directed by Morrissey, such as Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972).
As a film-maker, Warhol achieved international fame without showing many of his films more than once or twice to small arthouse audiences in New York. Their word-of-mouth reputations sufficed. Sleep and Empire, both made in the early 60s, were more talked about than seen. The regular description of them - a single image shown for hours on end (only really true of Empire) - was enough to evoke awe and disbelief. But these images of extreme passivity (a building, an unconscious man), made with extreme passivity, were unique in Warhol's oeuvre. Most of Warhol's films were of people, often doing very little - or a lot - ineptly. His reputation as an innovator rests in this fascinating combination of a simple shooting style with the 'performances' he elicited.
So what was so new and fresh about these early films? It has been argued that they resemble and were inspired by the early single-reel films of the Lumières and others, but they are quite different. For one thing Warhol's films are genuinely silent, unlike the so-called silent cinema which always had a musical accompaniment. For another their subject matter is not banal. To see Sleep (1963), Eat (1963), Henry Geldzahler (1964) or any of the hundreds of 'screen tests' Warhol shot is to experience something utterly different to anything offered by the early film pioneers. Lastly, in their provocative amateurishness, lack of skill and seeming effortlessness, they were an audacious challenge (and, for many, an insult) to both Hollywood and the avant-garde. Warhol seemed to switch on the camera and walk away. This was film's own Duchampian moment and film has never recovered from it.
The films were also made in a unique context: the Factory, a huge fifth-floor loft (about 100 feet by 40 feet) on East 47th Street. Billy Name had decorated it in silver foil, and opera played incessantly in the background. It became a parody of a Hollywood studio. According to Stephen Koch, Warhol, through Name, Malanga and the brilliant Ondine, gathered "a-heads, street geniuses, poor little rich girls, the very chic, the desperately unknown, hustlers and call boys, prostitutes, museum curators, art dealers, rich collectors". The Factory was classy and glamorous, chic and dangerous, and the door was always open. Drugs, sex and the pale presence of the ultra-hip Warhol provided the nexus for this volatile group, which seemed democratic, but was intensely not so. The sexuality was gay and the drugs were largely amphetamines.
As far as the films themselves were concerned, authorship was an anachronism. The camera was permanently placed ready for action in front of a large couch. Whoever visited the Factory, and was accepted into the circle, could perform on the couch for the 100-foot reel, while Warhol, Malanga, Name or whoever was available operated the camera. As Warhol confessed, film-making was so easy. A selection of these endless rolls of film was put together in 1964, entitled Couch. It showed various people, some famous, some not, doing this or that: hanging out, sleeping, hoovering, eating bananas, sucking cocks, fucking each other, cleaning a motorbike and so on. Silent, slowed down and shot in high-contrast black-and-white chiaroscuro, the work at times had a classic sculptural look - especially the sex scenes. Such narcissism and passivity were utterly new, and created a cinema of fantasies acted out, uncluttered by dialogue, storylines, stars, even - in its dreamlike movement - time itself.
With the Bolex camera using 100-foot rolls of black-and-white film, Warhol also made portraits or what he called 'screen tests' of the New York literati, many of which were not seen until after his death. Almost in a Bazinian fashion, Warhol was interested in the surface of things. Art lies in the there-ness of things. They are fairly orthodox portraits: either head-and-shoulders or tight head shots with a single light, using chiaroscuro effects in the traditional photographic manner. The fame of his subjects - Allen Ginsberg, et al - give them an additional curiosity value. In his more elaborate, Hollywood-mimicking 'scripted' films, Warhol used such strong filmic personalities or physiognomies as Sedgwick, Malanga and Marie Menken. Never banal in the everyday sense of realism, these films are fantasy projections depicting a world both glamorous and dangerous.
Warhol's decision to allow the length of reel itself to be the unifying factor was made in the face of the sophistication of post-Golden Age Hollywood. It was also a gob-smacking stance to take against the American avant-garde film tradition of Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith, who all clung with varying degrees of enthusiasm to editing as a shaping tool. In his bleak, relentless single takes, Warhol became, in an odd way, the ultimate Bazinian in an Eisensteinian montage-based film culture. His work was not simply a development in avant-garde tradition or a marginal snook at the mainstream, but a seismic shift not only of form but of subject matter. Warhol's intense and austere gaze on the supposedly obscene, the sexual and the perverse is now a cornerstone of our visual culture. On the surface he is not as outlandish as other film artists such as Brakhage. His films are not abstract, out of focus, or experimentally disorganised. But they are often very long - a celebration and exploration of boredom, as some have argued.
The later sound camera allowed Warhol to develop a more theatrical style of film-making using the exhibitionists and friends who gathered in the Factory - gays, druggies, transvestites, beautiful men and women, dangerous personalities. The 'superstar' was born: Edie Sedgwick, Mario Montez, Gerard Malanga, Ondine, and later Ingrid Superstar, Viva, Candy Darling - a move, however bizarre, towards Warhol's ambition to make 'real' films. Malanga and others have stated that Warhol always wanted to make such films. On the evidence of the years from 1963 until the Morrissey films, this intention seems ambiguous. To think that a film like Eat - artist Robert Indiana languorously eating a mushroom and playing with a cat for 30 minutes - had anything much to do with Hollywood, you must believe either that Warhol was stupid or that he had some rather obscure game plan. Equally, the two-long-takes film Beauty #2, in which a half-naked Edie Sedgwick is on a bed being encouraged off-screen by Malanga and ex-boyfriend Chuck Wein to indulge in sex with a rather superfluous young man, hardly seems aimed at establishing a Hollywood career - except perhaps for its doomed 'star' with her easy upper-class ways and charismatic screen presence.
Beauty #2 was typical of many of the black-and-white sound films in its focus on sexuality, the ambiguities of 'performance' (people playing themselves) and the disjunction between image and sound. An early sound film was Harlot, shot in December 1964 and 'starring' transvestite Mario Montez in full drag, sprawled on the couch eating a banana with Carol Koshinskie. Behind them stood Malanga and Philip Fagan, Warhol's lover at the time. The sound comprises an off-shot discussion between Tavel and others about female movie stars. Characteristically, it is both a homage to Hollywood and a critique.
It was The Chelsea Girls that reached beyond the small New York scene to a wider international public. Seen by Hollywood directors and moguls, influential European art directors and movie stars, it had an impact rivalled in the same period only by Godard. Comprising 12 single-take reels, The Chelsea Girls was a novelty as a double-screen film, with sound only on one screen so that audiences never knew what was going on soundwise on the other screen. It ran for over three hours. Unlike Empire and Sleep, which were first shown in an installation context with people wandering in and out of the screening space, The Chelsea Girls played in a proper auditorium with big audiences soaking up the antics of Warhol's superstars.
The runaway success of The Chelsea Girls had a discernible effect on Hollywood, resulting in John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969), which features a Factory party at which arty pretentiousness and decadence highlight the poverty of the two leads, Jon Voight's Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo. Schlesinger's movie humanism owes little to Warhol's amoralism. With its sentimentality, facile social conscience and deep cynicism about what Schlesinger saw as the self-indulgent elitism of the Warholian project, Midnight Cowboy can be seen as the establishment signposting the end of the 60s and of the Warholian project.
The art critic Barbara Rose claims that Warhol was "the inventor of the lifestyle of the 60s". He did encapsulate all its idealism, experimentalism, arrogance (even, at times, its silliness) and most of what was understood as cool. Cool is precisely the hijacking of low and marginal culture into the mainstream - borrowing from the black ghettos, from the drug world of the streets, from gay clubs, from S&M dress. Warhol was an artist operating in a tiny elite avant-garde in New York, but only Picasso in the modern period has had such universal recognition.
In the late 60s and 70s, Warhol's innovatory approach to sex, drugs and marginal lifestyles helped turn topics previously repressed by the Hollywood dream machine into commonplace subject matter for movies, formulating a new kind of gritty realism tinged by amoralism. For the avant-garde, meanwhile, Warhol's process and formal concerns were what mattered - in Britain, for instance, in the work of structural film-makers such as Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice, and, more recently, Young British Artists such as Sam Taylor Wood, Douglas Gordon and Gillian Wearing.
Andy Warhol |
Senses of Cinema Constantine Verevis
from Senses of Cinema, December 2002
Dedicated to the Warhol Superstars, plus much more
Philosophy of Andy Warhol Andy
A Pioneering Dialogue Between Actress and Image J. Hoberman from The New York Times,
The '60s Without Compromise: Warhol's Films Watching Warhol’s Films, by Thom Anderson from Rouge (2006)
Edie: Warhol Girl Gets 15 More Minutes Christian Moerk from The New York Times,
UbuWeb Sound - Andy Warhol Accompanying Cronenberg recordings about Warhol from the exhibition Andy Warhol/Supernova: Stars Death and Disasters, 1962-1964, commentary by David Cronenberg, Mary-Lou Green, Dennis Hopper, David Moos, James Rosenquist and Amy Taubin, recorded at The Art Gallery of Ontario, May 19. 2006
FILM REVIEW; A 4-Hour Portrait of the Artist as a Visionary, a Voyeur and a Brand-Name Star Stephen Holden reviews Andy Warhol, a Documentary, a 4-hour documentary film by Ric Burns, from The New York Times, September 1, 2006
The Warhol Sixties by Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett,
David Cronenberg: on Andy Warhol | Film | The Guardian He created his own universe and became its star, by David Cronenberg from The Guardian, September 11, 2006
Edie Sedgwick, a Belated 16th Minute
Caryn James from The
FILM; The Poor Little Rich Girl in Leopard Skin Who Was Warhol's Muse Manohla Dargis from The New York Times, March 31, 2007
Film Rushes to the Screen, Then Stumbles Charles Taylor reviews
George Hickenlooper’s FACTORY GIRL from The
New York Times,
Art world bristles at legal war over Warhol Ed Pilkington from The Guardian, July 17, 2007
Andy Warhol at the National Gallery of Scotland 13 Gallery Images,
Roll Forever Amy Taubin interviews Gus van Sant about Warhol’s legacy from Sight and Sound (August 2007)
Eye, Visual Diary: Warhol’s Films
Manohla Dargis from The New York
Pop art exhibition is a reminder of today's obsession with
copyright Warhol Is Turning in His Grave, by Cory
Doctorow from The Guardian,
Warhol's weird world Ed Pilkington from The Guardian, December 5, 2007
than soup cans: welcome to Warhol according to Warhol Charlotte Higgins from The Guardian,
years after his death, Warhol's junk lends insight 365gay,
Andy Warhol: Motion
MoMA blog post Klaus Biesenbach, December 17, 2010
Ken Johnson’s New York Times review of Andy Warhol's Films December 23, 2010, also seen here: 'Andy Warhol - Motion Pictures' at MoMA - Review - NYTimes.co
Bank Art Blog: Andy Warhol's Silent Film Portraits: a Revie Charles Kessler from
kissing an art? - Andy Warhol's 'Kiss' | Intimacy Demi Morrison from Intimacy,
Best Way to Celebrate Andy Warhol’s Birthday? Watch His Grave. J. Bryan Lowder from Slate,
Bizarre Magazine interview Billy Chainsaw interview with Mary Woronov, August 2004
Jonas Mekas: the man who inspired Andy Warhol to make films Sean O’Hagan interviews Jonas Mekas from The Observer, December 1, 2012
Andy Warhol in UbuWeb Film Warhol’s Cinema – a Mirror for the Sixties, a 64 minute documentary film seen in its entirety (1989)
One of Andy Warhol's first films, and the first to be screened publicly, this 1963 film collects 18 three-minute kisses, with such Warhol regulars as Baby Jane Holzer, Gerard Malanga, Marisol, Ed Sanders, and Naomi Levine.
Dangerous Minds | Andy Warhol's 'Kiss' Richard Metzger
Andy Warhol’s Kiss is probably the artist’s earliest film work that was screened in public. Harkening back to the time when Hayes Office censors would not allow lips to touch and linger for more than three seconds in Hollywood films, with Kiss, Warhol decided to shoot male/female, female/female and male/male snogs that went on for three minutes. The concept was likely also influenced by a 1929 Greta Garbo film called The Kiss which apparently was screened at Amos Vogel’s influential Cinema 16 experimental film society right around the time that Warhol bought his first Bolex film camera.
The Kiss films were started in 1963 and shown in installments during weekly underground film screenings organized by Jonas Mekas. Eventually a 55-minute long version of Kiss was assembled. Among the participants were Ed Sanders of The Fugs, actor Rufus Collins from the Living Theatre, sculptor Marisol, artist Robert Indiana, as well as several of the outcasts and doomed beauties who would come to comprise the Factory’s “superstars.” The woman who you see kissing several guys, is Naomi Levine, who probably also came up with the concept (many of the kisses were also shot in her apartment). Andy Warhol referred to Levine as “my first female superstar.”
c. August 1963:Andy Warhol shoots Kiss Andy Warhol Site
Some Warhol scholars date the Kiss films from November/December 1963. However, Warhol probably started shooting them much earlier - around August 1963 and continued to shoot them through the end of 1964, if not beyond. According to Warhol in Popism, they were still doing KISS movies in the summer of 1964 when Gerard Malanga and Mark Lancaster did one - in August 1964. Malanga and Lancaster were not the only male/male couple in Kiss.
... there is a Freddy Herko/Johnny Dodd Kiss film, but it's not in the preserved version that MoMA distributes. (There are quite a few Kiss rolls not in that MoMA version, by the way -- they were found in their individual 100-ft. boxes). The first Kiss films (mostly with Naomi Levine) were shot prob. in August of 1963, but the series continued to be shot through at the least the end of 1964.
But there are other male-to-male Kisses in the MoMA version of Kiss, aren't there... Andrew Meyer and John Palmer (on the couch in front of the Jackie paintings), and also Steve Holden and somebody..."
According to Bob Colacello, the idea for KISS - close-ups of couples kissing each other for three minutes each - came from the old Hayes Office regulation forbidding actors in movies from touching lips for more than three seconds.
Warhol also produced a silkscreen called The Kiss, based
on a film still from the
Amy Taubin, who would later become the film critic for the
Village Voice, first saw some of the KISS films in 1963 at the Grammercy Arts
CINE-FILE: Cine-List - Cine-File.info Kian Bergstrom
Warhol moved into filmmaking with a torrent of extraordinary work in 1963, including SLEEP, EAT, HAIRCUT, and BLOW JOB, four movies that perhaps best defined the vulgar conceptions of his early work. The genesis of KISS also dates from this year, though it wasn't completed until the end of 1964, and while it has been somewhat occluded by the others, it is as important and devastating a piece of work, and indeed ranks among the best of Warhol's films of any period. Like many early Warhols, KISS is deceptively easy to describe: twelve static shots, running until the reel in the camera is exhausted, are arranged in succession; each pictures two people who kiss for the duration of their shot. The movie is silent and black-and-white, shot at 24 frames-per-second and projected at 16. Irving Blum, the gallerist who gave Warhol his first one-man show, remembered one of the segments of KISS as the first of Warhol's films he watched, recalling that in its opening moments the audience, overcome by the stasis of the images, momentarily forgot it was a motion picture. And then 'the shocked response of everybody in the audience' when one of the men blinked. In its style, KISS recalls, then, one of the central myths of early cinema: that of the astonished spectator lurching with fright when a projected image ceases its inactivity and springs seemingly to life. But in its structure it is nothing less than a confrontation with another foundational moment in early movie history: the Irwin-Rice Kiss, which famously provoked the artist John Sloan to condemn it as vulgar and disgusting not because of its kissing per se but specifically because Irwin and Rice locked lips in a projected, magnified image, and did so three times in succession. Warhol's KISS takes seriously, with brutal candor and the precision of a zoologist in an anthill, the unblinking stare of the camera eye, harnessing early cinema's myths in a circumvention of the medium's own history, in essence erasing the whole of the talkies and their fantasies of finally removing that aural barrier mediating between us and the theatrical world on screen. Warhol will have none of that. For KISS shows us the human animal as fundamentally unknowable, distant, impervious to our attentions and our investigations. Warhol would go on to make greater works (LUPE), and crueler as well (SCREEN TEST #2), but KISS is that skeleton key that allows us entry to his cinematic aesthetic: conflicted and opaque, sinister and aroused, captivated and deliriously distracted. And like nearly all Warhol films, to view it is to experience a world of bewildering transcendence, of bodies metamorphosed into machines of mysterious purpose and unknown origin, and of such overwhelming eroticism and melancholy that every facet of the human form becomes an object of delight.
Bank Art Blog: Andy Warhol's Silent Film Portraits: a Revie Charles Kessler from
Film Review: The Kiss by Andy Warhol | Gather John McIntyre from The Age of Stupid
kissing an art? - Andy Warhol's 'Kiss' | Intimacy Demi Morrison from Intimacy,
Andy Warhol's 35-minute film from 1963 is a slow-motion sequence of a person's face in close-up as he experiences fellatio. Like all Warhol work from this period, it's well worth seeing.
Probably the most notorious of 's films, has been called, jokingly, the longest reaction shot in the history of cinema. In it, an anonymous young man's face is seen in close-up while he receives fellatio from an unseen partner. The serene voyeurism that runs through s '60s films reaches a kind of apotheosis in . Sexuality, which is a distinct subtext in a number of his films, becomes the subject of this one but, in a typically Warholian joke on pornography, all the "action" occurs off-screen.
The films of Andy Warhol (those that he actually had a hand in making between 1963 and 1968, not those to which he merely lent dollars and a name) are legendary, even beyond the art world in which they originated, and “legendary” is an appropriate term for them. For example, among those who know that Empire lasts about eight hours, few can claim actually to have seen it (or even a part of it). Among those who can drop the phrase “Chelsea girls” with an air of intimate familiarity, few could identify one of the actual girls in Chelsea Girls if she walked up and shook their hand.
Blow Job, no doubt because of its salacious title, is one of Warhol’s most notorious works. This notoriety is based purely on the appeal of its title, however, as the film itself is no more or less sensational than Warhol’s other early films such as Sleep, Kiss, or Eat, all films that deliver exactly what they promise. Blow Job is ostensibly a film of aspiring actor DeVerne Bookwalter receiving fellatio from Willard Maas. Those looking for pornographic thrills will be disappointed to know that the film is framed in a static close-up of Bookwalter’s face; the viewer never sees the titular act.
Like all of the films mentioned above excepting Chelsea Girls, Blow Job exhibits Warhol’s early film aesthetic where the artistic act is simply the switching on and off of the camera. All of Warhol’s early films consist of a chosen act or subject—from the Empire State Building to a person eating a banana—framed and filmed. The act is carried out from its logical beginning to its logical conclusion (or, in the case of Empire, the building is filmed from dusk to late night) and the camera does not move. Within these minimal parameters, the smallest details become epic events. The change of film reels every few minutes results in a rhythmic flow of action and non-action. At the same time, the artistry of Warhol’s early films is that he does not always indulge in what is anticipated. In the case of Blow Job’s thirty-five minutes, we expect that the climactic event of the film to be the same as the climactic event of the act, yet the film goes on for another reel after Bookwalter reaches orgasm. He looks at the camera uncomfortably, adjusts his posture as he leans against a brick wall, and smokes a cigarette. Is Warhol making a statement that the act of a blow job includes afterglow, awkward aftermath, and a cigarette? Is he forcing his subject to acknowledge his own exhibitionism? Is he forcing his audience to acknowledge the humanity of his subject? He could be doing all of these things and more. The ambiguity and unanswered questions are what make Warhol’s films so intriguing and interesting beyond facile reactions to their titles, length, and subject matter. That Blow Job is quite a bit less than an actual blow job, yet infinitely more, is what makes it art.
White gay male identity and Warhol Margo Miller reviews Roy Grundmann’s book and the film from Jump Cut, Winter 2006
Andy Warhol's Blow Job Gerald Peary’s review of a book by Roy Grundmann
CINE-FILE: Cine-List - CINE-FILE Chicago Ben Sachs
Employing one set, a few props, and only two different camera positions in the course of 63 minutes, Andy Warhol's very loose adaptation of A Clockwork Orange is nonetheless a work of intense formal precision; those susceptible to it will find the film a spellbinding experience. Anthony Burgess' novel is reduced to just a handful of scenes: a young thug's sadistic assault on some innocent people, his arrest, and his subsequent torture/S&M seduction by state officials. The rest of the film consists of failed gestures of some sort, such as tripped-up proclamations or actors dancing by themselves. As in his later NUDE RESTAURANT (1967), Warhol creates something like euphoria within an apathetic void. Clockwork may not seem like the most obvious choice for Warhol's sole literary adaption (One of Richard Brautigan's quasi-novels would have seemed more a propos); but on further reflection Warhol's aesthetic mingles quite provocatively with Burgess' parable of free choice amidst social oppression. In spite of the restrictions both formal and ideological, Warhol displays a gifted pictorial sense throughout the film. He arranges his actors like a skilled portraitist (No one ever moves more than a couple feet in any direction), with superstar Edie Sedgwick sitting placidly on the right side of the frame for almost the entire duration. Her feminine beauty stands out like stark, contrasting brushstroke against the surrounding canvas of male homoeroticism. (1965, 70 min, 16mm)
Several people who are greater Warhol aficionados than I am have argued that CHELSEA GIRLS is a film of diminishing returns. Seen in light of his other work, and in light of repeat viewings, it becomes a meaner, nastier, uglier film than Warhol fans seem to want. But as someone who has often found the Factory material rather insular and a bit alienating, I think this one may be a summary work. CHELSEA GIRLS doesn’t give an inch. It is long, rambling, self-involved, drug-addled, but it is also so confident in its own fabulousness that it may be the closest thing to a queer equivalent of present-day hip-hop culture. Its unbridled bitchiness is infectious. Pope Ondine, who steals the show, is not a nice person.
Chelsea Girls - Film and Video Center at UCI UC Irvine Film and Video center
Warhol’s two-screen, 12-reel extravaganza marks the height of his creative involvement in filmmaking. One of the last films completed before Valerie Solanas shot Warhol in 1967, Chelsea Girls is both a technical triumph and a showcase for Warhol’s Superstars. Starring Mary Woronov, Warhol’s experimental film masterpiece performs a series of anti-aesthetic gestures: each reel unfolds a mini-narrative bounded by the temporal limits of the film reel and challenged by the spatial distractions of double screen projection. The order and arrangement of Chelsea Girls was at first improvised (to an original score by Velvet Underground); a set sequence for the film only developed over the course of screenings. According to Warhol, “Chelsea Girls was the movie that made everyone sit up and notice what we were doing in films (and a lot of times that meant sit up, stand up, and walk out).”
When I was a kid, I used to think that Ben-Hur was an epic film. No, this is an epic film. I'd propose that what makes an epic film is not just its length or its large cast of characters but how vast and challenging it can be to fully apprehend on one viewing. The Chelsea Girls is composed of twelve little mini-films (or sequences), each running about a half-hour. At any time, two of these films are projected simultaneously on the screen, with the sound of only one being heard. Each of the individual films comprises one shot with no edits. The Chelsea Girls runs three-and-a-half hours, without intermission. The film opens and closes with Nico and in between is a set of mostly improvised performances by Factory regulars. It’s thrilling, funny, boring, creepy, gross, wicked, laughable, disturbing, sadistic—epic stuff. (More reading on the film here.)
The Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol) Reviews Jonas Mekas from the Village Voice, chosen from a selection of Chelsea Girls reviews, September 29, 1966
The Chelsea Girls has a classical grandeur about it, something from Victor Hugo. Its grandeur is the grandeur of its subject, the human scope of its subject. And it is a tragic film. The lives that we see in this film are full of desperation, hardness, and terror. It's there for everybody to see and to think about. Every work of art helps us to understand ourselves by describing to us those aspects of our lives, which we either know little of or fear. It's there in black on white before our eyes, this collection of desperate creatures, the desperate part of our being, the avant-garde of our being. And one of the amazing things about this film is that the people in it are not really actors; or if they are acting, their acting becomes unimportant. It becomes part of their personalities, and there they are, totally real, with their transformed, intensified selves. The screen acting is expanded by an ambiguity between real and unreal. This is part of Warhol's filming technique, and very often it is a painful technique. There is the girl who walks from scene to scene crying, real tears, really hurt; a girl, under LSD probably, who isn't even aware, or only half aware, that she is being filmed; the "priest" who gives into a fit of rage (a real rage) and the slaps the girl right and left (a real slap, not the actors slap) when she begins to talk about God-in probably the most dramatic religious sequence ever filmed. Toward the end, the film bursts into color-not the usual color-movie color but a dramatized exalted, screaming red color of terror.
Chelsea Girls Omar Diop from Rouge
Minds | Andy Warhol's 'Chelsea Girls': Watch the entire 3 ... Richard Metzger, full length film can be
viewed at Dangerous Minds,
I'd only seen brief clips of VINYL on video before this. Andy's CLOCKWORK ORANGE is one of the most overworked surfaces in cinema, as crammed with incident and layering as the original TOM TOM THE PIPER'S SON. Some people are just sitting there to fill out the frame, one dude is getting tortured with a candle in the background right, and anchoring the right foreground is our detached internal spectator, Edie Sedgwick. She drops her purse, bends over and picks it up. The sum total of her involvement.
BFI | Sight & Sound | The Innovators 1920-1930: Now You Has Jazz Laura Mulvey from Sight and Sound, May 1999
In the 20s Hollywood was not interested in the talkies. Then Sam Warner saw the potential for "canned vaudeville", and made it happen.
The brothers Warner as innovators? Jack - no. Harry - yes. But Sam...?
The brothers Warner who became Warner Bros. were four of a large family whose parents, along with many other Eastern European Jews, arrived in the United States in the 1880s. Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack turned separately and collectively to any entrepreneurial activity that came their way until they got into the nickelodeon business. Nowadays Jack, who is identified with Warners in its heyday, is the only brother still commonly remembered. But without Harry and Sam's different but complementary talents the studio would never have reached the big league. They did it by gambling on a new technology: synchronised sound for motion pictures. Here Harry's careful but inspired business management put the company in a position to capitalise on Sam's big idea.
A technological revolution of the kind that swept through the film industry with the arrival of synchronised sound recording is necessarily the product of cultural and economic factors and the culmination of many experiments over an extended period of time. But there are three reasons to celebrate Sam Warner's individual contribution to the advent of talking pictures in Hollywood. First, there should be a place for acknowledging the contingent, almost accidental factors which affect history such as personal obsession or subjective choice, chance elements which may provide the push that sets a historical drama in motion. Second, The Jazz Singer (1927), the best-known Warner sound vehicle, represents a key moment in the history of the US entertainment industry and records the tensions in US popular culture at a transitional moment. And third is the way the personal contribution Sam made to the coming of synch sound was dramatically realised.
Sam was a believer. He threw himself, in the words of a contemporary Warner Bros. technician, "hook, line and sinker" into sound cinema, taking responsibility for producing all the studio's early programmes, culminating in his tireless supervision of the production of The Jazz Singer. Its opening, in Warners' New York theatre, was timed to coincide with the Day of Atonement, which forms the backdrop to the story's narrative climax. Harry and Jack were in New York, expecting Sam and Abe to join them from Los Angeles. But Sam was in hospital after an operation on his chronic sinus condition revealed a serious mastoid infection. He died, aged 42, only hours before his brothers managed to reach the West Coast. It was generally believed that the gruelling task - from June 1925 to October 1927 - of launching Warners' first sound pictures had literally killed him.
But before Sam could inflect the Warner Bros. story Harry had to establish a solid economic base for expansion. In the mid 20s the US economy was booming, with confidence high as the boom had been gathering momentum since the Depression of the 1890s. The film industry had grown up within these conditions, had become 'Hollywood', and had by and large consolidated into an oligopoly of five major studios with vertically integrated control of production, distribution and exhibition, whose products also dominated foreign markets. These studios had no interest in rocking their successful industry by fooling around with new technologies and had turned their backs on the idea of talking pictures. So it was the hungry outsiders - the brothers Warner and William Fox - who were prepared to take chances in the hope of breaking into the closed circle of the 'majors'.
At the beginning of 1925 Warner Bros. had no first-run theatres and no international distribution, both necessities for 'major' profits and status. Harry, who had run the brothers' finances since Sam acquired their first projector to exhibit The Great Train Robbery in 1903, was on the look out for a large amount of outside investment to fund his expansion plans. At the same time Waddill Catchings, an investment banker with Goldman, Sachs, was on the look out for another suitable business to launch into a major national enterprise. (He had already masterminded the growth of Woolworths and Sears Roebuck.) He approved of the way Harry ran Warner Bros. and agreed to raise bank credit to finance a "master plan" of expansion and to join the board of directors. Catchings' Wall Street credibility opened the doors of banks that would never otherwise have considered lending to the film industry. During 1925 Warner Bros. acquired the old Vitagraph Company, including its Brooklyn studio, its distribution structure and ten major theatres. In this phase of the expansion the question of sound never arose, but sound was the basis for what was to become the second phase.
Despite the major studios' complacency, it was inevitable by the mid 20s that sound film would become a reality. On the one hand, by 1924 the basic technology was in place, developed in Bell Labs., the research wing of Western Electric. On the other, the entertainment industry was becoming increasingly dominated by new sound technologies. Radio and the record companies had opened up a mass market for popular music, while dancehalls and vaudeville were booming. After all, this was the jazz age - and the movies were getting left behind, out of synch with the music-suffused atmosphere of the times.
As part of its first expansion plan Warner Bros. acquired a radio station, the first Hollywood studio to do so. KWBC marked the transition to phase two. The station gave Sam, who ran it, the opportunity to develop his interest in electronics. He became personal friends with the Western Electric representative in Los Angeles, Nathan Levinson, who invited him to a demonstration in New York of the results of the company's research and development into sound synchronisation for film. Sam saw immediately that sound could offer the competitive edge that would take Warner Bros. beyond Harry's safe course of expanded vertical integration into all the pitfalls and possibilities of a major financial gamble. His problem would be to convince Harry there was a future in synchronised sound.
The various stories of how Sam tricked Harry into attending a demonstration at Bell Labs. in May 1925 are now part of movie legend. Harry shared the rest of the movie industry's opinion of talking pictures; both his and Sam's accounts of what happened confirm that any idea of "talking" was avoided. Sam persuaded Harry to attend a demonstration of "an instrument that would bring the best music, the best voices and the best instrumentation to the smallest places in the world." The demonstration film included a small band playing jazz. Sam recalls: "He fell harder than I did."
For the Warners synchronised sound did not mean the talkies; it simply meant the addition of song and music to motion pictures. Harry, who with his sister Rose had won dance championships in his youth, is said to have remarked revealingly to Catchings: "If it can talk, then it can sing." This sentiment was certainly in keeping with the live performance/screen crossover spirit of an era when it was customary for exhibitors to put on vaudeville acts as prologues to a main feature. At the same time Broadway was witnessing a series of smash-hit variety shows, and to film their popular song-and-dance numbers would be to extend these live acts into mechanical reproduction and mass distribution. The first intended use of sound cinema, therefore, was for "canned vaudeville".
After Warners' and Western Electric's first agreement in June 1925 Sam devoted himself to the process of learning about sound recording and to making short films as prologues. Warner Bros. and Western Electric formed the Vitaphone Corporation in April 1926, giving Warners the exclusive licence to record and reproduce sound films on Western Electric equipment. Sound technology evolved out of electronics, and one of its key elements was the audion vacuum tube (originally developed by Lee de Forest) for amplifying sound in cinemas. For recording, Western Electric concentrated on the sound-on-disc method.
Western Electric was owned by AT&T, which by the mid 20s was one of the largest companies in the world. Not only had it been able to fund research and development at Bell Labs., but it could buy up patents, fight off challenges from other patent holders and most importantly activate the conversion of theatres to sound, providing skilled technicians and where necessary subsidising exhibitors who could not afford to have their theatres wired. Ultimately it would prove impossible for Warner Bros. to maintain an exclusive licence on the production of Western Electric sound films, but by that time the studio had reached equal status with the big five and moved its sound operations from New York to Hollywood.
Warren, Harold P.
MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE
USA (74 mi) 1966
Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) is an American horror film written, directed, produced by, and starring Harold P. Warren. It is widely recognized to be one of the worst films ever made. The film is infamous for its technical deficiencies, especially its significant editing and continuity flaws; its soundtrack and visuals not being synchronized; tedious pacing; abysmal acting; and several scenes that are inexplicable or disconnected from the overall plot, such as a couple making out in a car or The Master’s wives (clad in oversized girdles) breaking out in catfights.
The plot of the film revolves primarily around a vacationing family who lose their way on a road trip. After a long drive in the Texas desert, the family is trapped at a lodge maintained by a polygamous pagan cult, and they attempt to escape as the cult’s members decide what to do with them…
“The 16mm camerawork (some money shots are actually out of focus) in this un-artistic instance makes the entire show look like someone’s static 1960s home movies with footage from a dull Halloween party thrown in. When the ridiculous dialog is spoken, it’s obviously dubbed in, meaning that there was hardly any (if any) real sound during the shooting, cheapening the surreal viewing experience even more. The film has no sense of pacing (it’s incredible how just under 70 minutes can be stretched), the editing includes a number of jump cuts (hence the “home movies” look), with technique and lighting also being the absolute pits.” DVD Drive-In