Chuck Jones, Beep Beep, 1952, animation, color, sound.
A FEW IMAGES, to set the mood: Daffy Duck being bullied by the pencil and paintbrush of a persecuting artist/vengeful God in Duck Amuck (1953); the stricken expression on Wile E. Coyote’s face at the moment when he realizes that he is standing on thin air and a catastrophic canyon plunge is imminent; the lovelorn line teaching himself to make geometrical bouquets in The Dot and the Line (1965).
These moments, and countless others, can be traced back to the pen of Charles Martin “Chuck” Jones, who, when he died in 2002 at the age of eighty-nine, was one of the most honored animators that the world has ever known. Jones was born in Spokane, Washington, and raised in Los Angeles, which his father saw as fertile ground for his own get-rich-quick schemes. Jones père unsuccessfully tried his hand at geraniums and avocados—shades of the Sisyphean trial-and-failure that would be essential to Jones’s comedy—while other recently arrived carpetbaggers were making a pile, as the creation of the West Coast motion picture industry was in full swing. Jones, who was a child extra in Mack Sennett short subjects, might’ve gone into pictures straightaways, but instead he enrolled in the Chouinard Art Institute, a fine-arts academy that was later merged into CalArts. Jones graduated with the intention of becoming an easel painter but instead found work under former Disney associate Ub Iwerks as a cel washer—cleaning the clear celluloid sheets on which character drawings are done, for later reuse—and was thereafter lost to cartooning. From the Iwerks Studio, Jones moved to Leon Schlesinger Productions, an independent which cranked out the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies animations for Warner Bros. After Frank Tashlin’s (temporary) departure from the studio in 1938, Jones earned his first director credit. He would work for Schlesinger, then Warners, until they closed their cartooning studio in 1963, and in animation until the end of his life.
The artist’s ink-stained seventy-year career is the subject of “What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones.” Jointly organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service, the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity, and New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, this exhibition of artifacts opened to the public last Saturday and will remain in place for six months before embarking on a three-year, thirteen-city tour. While at MoMI, the show will be augmented by weekend matinee screenings of Jones’s films, epiphanies when seen in 35-mm Technicolor prints from the director’s personal archive. At a public preview of “What’s Up Doc?” last Thursday, the crowd was treated to a restored print of 1949’s Academy Award–winning short subject So Much for So Little, an awareness-raising plea for proper health care facilities that is both a sterling illustration of Jones’s dynamic visual imagination and a memento of a time in which a reasonable proposal for the public welfare was not considered un-American.
“What’s Up Doc?,” which occupies most of the museum’s third-floor exhibition space, is made up of a sequence of galleries wrapped around a small theater in which a program of Jones’s most famous works are projected on continual loop, the bill-of-fare “hosted” by Pixar’s John Lasseter, one of Jones’s many, many disciples. Numerous smaller screens and projectors scattered throughout the galleries play excerpts from Jones’s oeuvre, a journey leading from his early work (Jones disowned his pre-1948 output) to his 1950s apex to his 1960s adaptations of the works of Dr. Seuss, with whom Jones had previously collaborated on the Private Snafu cartoons, a World War II–era series of instructional shorts for servicemen. Prominent niches are dedicated to Jones’s acknowledged masterpieces, like 1957’s What’s Opera Doc? (a Wagner pastiche with Elmer Fudd as Siegfried pursuing Bugs, who cross-dresses as Brünnhilde) and 1952’s Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (a sci-fi burlesque in which Rocket Age techie ambition leads to mutually assured nuclear destruction). There is also a shrine to Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, two characters that Jones himself invented in 1949, the former inspired by a description of a coyote in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.
Chuck Jones, Duck Amuck, 1953, animation, color, sound.
Twain was a lifelong inspiration to Jones, who writes in his 1989 autobiography Chuck Amuck that the author “used words the way the graphic artist uses line control.” Viewing Jones’s cartoons—or re-viewing, as will be the case for most visitors, for they are part of a shared world heritage—you appreciate just how much of the humor is in the details: a pivot of the hip, a sidelong glance at the audience, various bits of filigree in both scripting and animation. Wordplay-based Duck Seasoning (1952), for example, is all about pronoun switcheroos, but Jones also worked extensively in “silent” comedy, like the Road Runner ’toons or One Froggy Evening (1955), dialogue-free save for vaudeville outbursts at every moment but the crucial one from a singing frog.
In common with Warners stalwarts like Tashlin, Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, and Bob Clampett (the proverbial underrated genius), Jones was master of the killingly funny detail, given resonance through isolation on the screen-canvas. The studio’s house style, determined in part by budgets that were a fraction of Disney’s, was minimalism—this aligned the Looney Tunes look of the late ’40s and ’50s to then-contemporary currents in streamlined design. The history of pre-CGI American animation in the twentieth century is in many respects a story of gradually cutting corners, from the teeming detail of Disney’s first features to the bargain-basement product that Hanna-Barbara assembly-lined for television, the medium which effectively administered the coup de grâce to Warners. The heyday of Looney Tunes was a moment when poverty and ingenuity miraculously aligned, creating works that thrived through what Jones called “the ability to live by the single line—that single, honest delineation of the artist’s intent.”
The “What’s Up Doc?” galleries are anything but minimalist, crowded with posters, promotional folderol, cel art, exposure sheets (a table layout of the shot selection and timing of an animation, down to the last frame), bar sheets (same, showing the relationship between image and musical notation), and other production ephemera, some 125 pieces overall, hung in close proximity to video excerpts of the finished product. Jones’s character style sheets, annotated guidelines as to how to illustrate Bugs or Wile E., offer a privileged perspective on the top-down creative process, while the display items which are of the most interest as standalone objets d’art are the background paintings, like Maurice Noble and Philip De Guard’s futuristic world-building pieces for Duck Dodgers or the southwestern vistas of the Road Runner shorts. Using Jones’s career as a specific point of entry, “What’s Up Doc?” provides an education in the step-by-step collaborative process whereby cartoons were constructed in the cel animation era—the same process that is deconstructed on-screen in the Pirandellian Duck Amuck. (Which may have taught Godard a thing or two about sound track subversion.) Not only does all of this aid in understanding what it is precisely that a cartoon director (or “Supervisor,” as Jones was sometimes credited) does, but it also highlights the contributions of his regular collaborators at the run-down “Termite Terrace” building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, including Noble and De Guard, writer Michael Maltese, musical director Carl Stalling, and man of a thousand voices Mel Blanc.
One can eavesdrop on Jones and Blanc in the middle of Warners voice-recording sessions in the two listening stations which are part of the exhibition, or listen to latter-day interviews in which Jones discusses his formative influences and his technique. Jones was unusually articulate analyst of his own work, a fact that the wall text benefits from, setting up side-by-side illustrations of his inspirations from fine art—Degas, Van Gogh, and Japanese printmaking—as reflected in his cartooning. The former aspiring painter had no thought that he was making anything gallery-worthy, though: Jones didn’t collect the by-products of his cartooning, and that so many artifacts have been assembled in one place and formed into a coherent show is a small miracle. The type of materials on display here were traditionally destroyed as soon as they had served their purpose—remember Jones’s tenure as a cel washer?—and sometime in the mid-’60s a great deal of the Looney Tunes “archive” was unceremoniously put to the torch in the Warners parking lot. As Daffy says in Duck Amuck: “Brother, what a way to run a railroad!”
BY THE SPLINTERY MID-1960s, John Wayne was a hotheaded, potbellied anachronism riding the slow trail to extinction. Lee Marvin had emerged as a cagey new breed of movie tough guy, a resourceful, silver-haired nihilist who climbed out of the slough of deadweight heavies, TV cops, and mobster sadists to stardom. Marvin had sparred with the Duke in a few films before he got his late break with the spoofy-squishy Cat Ballou and won a fluke Academy Award in 1965 (a piece of cute stunt casting and almost a parody-in-advance of Wayne’s self-glorifying, self-burlesquing Oscar victory lap in 1969, True Grit). Then he established himself as a hard-case male presence in The Professionals (1966) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), roles he gave the disturbing conviction of someone who had been in battle, seen actual atrocities, killed men, and been wounded himself.
Defining performances by Wayne and Marvin are found on the newly issued Blu-ray editions of Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) and John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), a pair of myth-worthy American man vs. world tales. Hawks’s film helped write the western playbook—we tend to forget that, not coincidentally, the big, freighted sagas of the West as a crucible for manhood mostly emerged after World War II. Red River is a tug-of-war where the open-air grandeur and harsh imperatives of a giant cattle drive meet human resistance—eventually mutiny—from the uneasy subordinates of Wayne’s rancher-tyrant Tom Dunson.
Dunson is the rugged individualist as an empire of one, taking all the land and cattle he can seize. His reluctant counterweight is the adopted son played by Montgomery Clift, giving an intently sly and appealing performance that unobtrusively presages the rebellions of Brando, Dean, and Elvis (the beautiful icon, not the stiff actor) all at once. For a film that trafficked in on-the-spot classicism, Red River’s chuck wagon full of cowhand archetypes, magisterial wilderness, and Oedipal conflict is studded with modern inflection and attitude: Clift’s bashful ironic-erotic shadings; Wayne’s notably self-aware take on a figure who is part Lear, part Odysseus, part purebred mule–stubborn Texas sonovabitch; Joanne Dru’s no-bullshit interlocutor/love interest who establishes her Hawksian bona fides by taking an arrow in the shoulder as nonchalantly as one of the boys.
Point Blank is an indirect descendent of Hawks’s modernist jaunt The Big Sleep (1946) and a close relative of Don Siegel’s 1964 daylight noir remake of The Killers. (Marvin could be playing the same hit man, returned from the dead for his damn $93,000.) Boorman also borrowed some useful avant-garde tokens and trinkets from Godard and Antonioni, scattered through Point Blank like glittering confetti at a New Year’s party. But the picture belongs to the relentless Marvin, who is practically never off the screen. Boorman’s memoir describes him accepting the role on one condition, and then wordlessly throwing the script out of the window. “His acting was a continuous search for the cinematic metaphor, and this one was so perfect both he and I were in its thrall.”
Marvin’s Walker strides through the movie with a purposefulness that is frightening and thrilling to behold. Unlike contemporaries Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood, Marvin projected an air of unhistrionic menace—next to him, McQueen was an earnest, unmarked lightweight and Eastwood a stick figure caricature, playing at being cool where Marvin embodied an icy intractability all the more persuasive for the shards of pain and doubt and exhaustion you glimpsed around his razor sharp edges.
The John Wayne of Red River gives you the sense of being present at the revival of something ancient and rigid thrust into the cinematic West like a Grecian spear. Homer would have “got” Dunson—more force of self-willed nature than man, imbued by Wayne with a consciousness of duty if not a conscience. He represents one strain of narrative—violent, tragic, and unappeasable—while Clift and Dru set up a counternarrative where love and rationality conquer unreason. Whether the reconciliation that finally results is “believable” and “in character” is beside the point: Hawks loved to play sex roles off each other, reconfigure and rejigger them, and in Red River the biggest sparks fly among Wayne, Clift, and John Ireland’s sultry gunslinger Cherry Valance. Fourteen years later, Marvin would play Liberty opposite Wayne’s Tom Doniphon in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—what goes around comes around, as either Fred or Jack Nietzsche used to say.
Actually, Hawks intended to make Red River the most sexually frank western ever shot until the censors nixed most of the lonesome-cowboy banter. (Appropriately, his next project was I Was a Male War Bride: Nothing for the pencil-pushers to worry about there!) It’s an odd masterpiece, heading toward the inevitable via digressions and feints, until it throws inevitability out the window and shifts into marital comedy (with fist-fight) mode, Wayne and Clift’s symbiotic characters suddenly brought together through the angry ministrations of bride-to-be Dru—though Hawks was prohibited from even implying as much, it’s self-evident they are entering into a marriage à trois whether they realize it or not.
Point Blank, for all the immaculate deadliness of Marvin, wouldn’t be anywhere the same without its secret linchpin, Angie Dickenson. Playing a hardheaded woman who could have stepped out of a dozen Hawks films, Dickenson had the composure to look Marvin in the eye and meet him as an equal. Or smash him over the head with a pool cue, as circumstances and/or foreplay warranted. (Dickenson cut her teeth holding her own with Wayne in Hawks’s 1959 Rio Bravo; she also featured in The Killers, famously getting belted in the chops by Ronald Reagan.) Of all the mod action-figure couples, they had a more viscerally melancholy chemistry than Belmondo and Karina (too convoluted and intellectualized), Beatty and Dunaway (too expedient), or Delon and his mirrors (a hair too perfect).
There was something perversely real about them, their casual alienation, and about the LA caught in Point Blank’s allegorically pictographic net. Boorman and Marvin knew the gangster thriller was done for, but they sensed the idea of a wounded man trying to find his way back from the dead by forging a path up the faceless rungs of a corporate Organization would resonate in all kinds of ways. For one, it made a perfect metaphor for the studio system, with its layers of toadies and cutthroat executives and killer accountants, where your best friend will double-cross you, cut you out of your percentage of the take, and steal your wife, all in a day’s work. Nothing personal.
Wayne in Red River encapsulates virtually his entire future: the honorable stoic in Ford’s cavalry movies, the wild-eyed avenger in The Searchers, the charismatic father-confessor under the forbidding disciplinarian, the broken-hearted lover hiding his feelings under a horsehair shirt, the fading aura of man who fought Indians or his own people as if they were mere stand-ins for Time and Fate, and the anachronism doomed to fall off a generational Clift.
After Point Blank, what was left for Marvin to prove? In 1969, he impetuously ditched the lead in The Wild Bunch to sing opposite Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon, needless to say a disaster of epic proportions. He bounced around for another decade or so until he found one last, fitting apotheosis. He starred in Sam Fuller’s highly personal war-is-hell story, The Big Red One (1980), a project that had been kicking around Hollywood for more than twenty years. Fuller had previously had a chance to make it in 1959, but the deal fell apart when he decided he didn’t want the predictable, overly orthodox star the studio had lined up: John Wayne.
Red River is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection; Point Blank is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.
THOUGH BASED on James M. Cain’s first novel, published in 1934, Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) was the last of the original page-to-screen transfers of the exalted crime writer’s most celebrated books, following Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945). More precisely, Garnett’s film was the last Hollywood adaptation; Cain’s slim pulp classic had already been the inspiration for a French drama, Pierre Chenal’s Le Dernier Tournant (The Last Turning, 1939), and Luchino Visconti’s first feature, Ossessione (1943). Cain’s Depression-era, SoCal-set story, in fact, has traveled widely outside not just US borders—German director Christian Petzold’s Jerichow (2008) is the most recent Postman rethink—but also genres, having inspired a play and an opera.
Yet of all these iterations, Garnett’s rendition of Cain’s tale of torrid triangulation—involving a drifter, Frank, the book’s first-person narrator who both cuckolds and murders his boss, Nick, with Cora, his employer’s wife—remains the best known, even though this film noir is a heavily bowdlerized version of the original. No official tasked with upholding the sanctimonious standards of the era’s Motion Picture Production Code could ever have allowed the dramatization of passages like this one in Cain’s novel, indelibly laying out the woozy s/m dynamic between Frank (played in the film by John Garfield) and Cora (Lana Turner): “I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.” The censors, however, did permit this imperative from Frank to Cora, delivered after they’ve tried to kill Nick the first time—and crucially softened by Garfield’s grin—to stay in the script: “You gimme a big kiss before…I sock ya.” (The Bob Rafelson–directed, David Mamet–scripted 1981 remake of Postman, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, could honor the book’s savage lust, but, unlike Garnett’s film, it strays wildly from Cain’s ending.)
More puzzling, though, is the utter deracination of Nick, whose original surname, Papadakis, is anglicized to Smith (Cora’s maiden name in Cain’s novel); the diner owner is played by the jowly, rotund, South African–born character actor Cecil Kellaway with an accent that betrays his many years in England and Australia. Forgoing the pivotal ethnic anxiety that Cora, who cooks and waits tables at her husband’s eatery, displays in the book—“It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white,” Frank says—Garnett’s monochrome film instead makes Lana Turner a near-blinding vision of alabaster. Turner is first introduced in the movie via a slow tilt up from her white heels to her snowy turban, the camera lingering on her likewise luminous short-shorts and halter top. The dazzlingly peroxided actress, one of MGM’s biggest stars at the time, looks as if she’s just emerged poolside from the Beverly Hills Hotel rather than taking a breather from making enchiladas on the griddle. (Cain’s original title for Postman was Bar-B-Que.)
With such radical surgery done to the source material in its transition to the screen, it’s no wonder that Turner’s temptress is the least enthralling of the Cain-based femme-fatale movie trio; her predecessors—Barbara Stanwyck’s “rotten to the heart” Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (especially) and Joan Crawford’s pathologically daughter-devoted mother of the title in Mildred Pierce—are modeled more closely on Cain’s originals and endure as noir paradigms. Yet twelve years after Postman’s release, Turner’s life offscreen was consumed by an episode tawdrier than any Cain plot: the fatal stabbing of her thug boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, by her fourteen-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, an act quickly ruled a justifiable homicide. Turner’s histrionics on the witness stand during the murder trial and the reams of publicity surrounding her private life after this scandal helped her secure the lead in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), in which she, an actress of limited talents, gives the greatest performance of her career.
The Postman Always Rings Twice screens at Film Forum July 18 and 19 as part of the series “Femmes Noirs,” which runs July 18–August 7.
THEY ARE A SUMMER STAPLE—geezer road movies—as attractive as a humidity-inspired influx of giant water bugs. Though it follows many rules of the genre, Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s Land Ho! is a movie of a different order; its scenic wonders, off-kilter humor and pathos, and the unforced chemistry between its two central characters and the actors who play them will appeal to an audience broader than the senior-ticket set (of which I am a member).
Former brothers-in-law, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) have been out of touch since Colin’s wife died and Mitch’s wife divorced him. Now Mitch, regretfully retired from his medical practice, shows up on Colin’s doorstep with a vacation package for two in Iceland. As generous as he is emotionally needy, Mitch won’t take no for an answer, and although Colin claims he’d rather stay home, the two soon are ensconced in an elegant Reykjavik hotel, eating four-star cuisine, drinking good wine, and smoking pot a lot more potent than Colin remembers from forty years ago.
As an odd couple, Colin and Mitch are better than the sum of their parts. It’s Colin’s empathy for Mitch that allows us to see him as more than a compulsively profane old man, desperate to prove that he’s still a sexual being. It’s an empathy that’s tested almost every hour, even in the middle of the night. Mitch simply can’t bear to be left alone. As for Colin, it’s easy to imagine that if Mitch hadn’t come back into his life, he might have retreated into his shell forever. Instead, here he is eating, drinking, toking, hiking, swimming, dancing a jig on the beach, and talking not only to his old friend but to perfect strangers—most of them women.
By chance, Mitch’s cousin-once-removed and her girlfriend, both doctoral candidates at Columbia, are passing through Reykjavik. Within minutes of their meeting we see what a dinosaur Mitch is in his attitudes about women and can suspect why, even though he’s all bark and no bite, he was forcibly retired. Colin, on the other hand, is simply a lovely man, and, much later, it’s no surprise that he, not Mitch, has a brief fling with a Canadian tourist, with whom the two men luxuriate in a hot spring. What’s unexpected is that Mitch discreetly withdraws, happy to let his friend enjoy the moment.
The idea for Land Ho! originated with Stephens, who proposed to Katz that they take Nelson, her distant cousin and a natural performer, to Iceland and build a film around him. Nelson had played a miniscule role in Stephens’s second feature Pilgrim Song (2012), but was holding on to his day job as an oculoplastic surgeon. Eenhoorn, a professional actor for four decades in Australia and the US, won the attention he long deserved playing the titular role in Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner (2013). That Nelson, an enthusiastic, even reckless amateur, and Eenhoorn, a nuanced, controlled straight man, could jell into an inspired comedy team is one of the joys of the film. The director/writer collaboration of Stephens and Katz, longtime friends who met in the University of North Carolina’s film department, is more difficult to parse. One of the most talented young American independent filmmakers, Katz has a distinct lyrical style that is punctuated by sweetly strange humor. His Dance Party, USA (2006) is a coming-of-age classic, and his more expansive, Portland-based Cold Weather (2010) bends the mystery/thriller genre every which way. Land Ho! seems very much like an Aaron Katz movie, barring that without Stephens, he never would have made it.
Never sentimental, except perhaps for a brief coda that panders to the comedy audience’s desire for a big-joke ending, Land Ho! juxtaposes two intimate character studies—and the overwhelming desire for intimacy on the part of those characters—with the gorgeously rugged, grand-scaled landscape of Iceland. Shooting with the Red camera, Katz’s longtime cinematographer Andrew Reed fashions images of rough beauty. One of them—a startled, upward tilt when a geyser suddenly erupts—is the best visual joke in a movie where great timing—that of the actors and of Katz’s editing—not only belies the seeming casualness of the plot, but proves to be the source of immense pleasure on-screen and in life.
Land Ho! opens on Friday, July 11th at select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
THE JOURNAL ENTRY ABOVE, dated October 4, 1969, was written during the second week of shooting Tristana (1970), Catherine Deneuve’s second—and final—collaboration with Luis Buñuel after the enormous success of Belle de Jour (1967). Abounding in bizarre detail, the jotting succinctly captures Tristana’s impeccable balance of precision and perversion.
As in Belle de Jour—in which Deneuve’s character, Séverine, a YSL-clad haute bourgeoise, finds erotic liberation through byzantine psychosexual fantasies and part-time work at a boutique bordello, where she is christened with the nom de pute of the title—Tristana hinges on the defilement of its eponymous character. When the film opens, Tristana is all in black, still in mourning for her recently deceased mother. The innocent, timid, orphaned teenager becomes the ward of Don Lope (Buñuel regular Fernando Rey), a lecherous, hypocritical, overweening Manchegan aristocrat who wastes no time in seducing her. “I’m your father and your husband,” the Vandyked grandee crows to his charge, who remains a virtual prisoner in the Toledo home they share despite Lope’s professed beliefs in personal freedom and other ostensibly progressive views.
Yet Tristana, all too aware of her life “as a slave,” is not entirely without agency. On one of the surreptitious constitutionals she takes with Lope’s maid, Saturna (Lola Gaos), she meets, and later runs off with, Horacio (Franco Nero), a handsome young painter. But two years later, after a tumor has been discovered in her leg, Tristana demands to be returned to the address of her parent/lover/jailer. “She still thinks of you as her father,” the abased Horacio explains to Lope. This reunion, though, signals a complete shift in power: After the amputation of her afflicted limb, Tristana has the senescent Lope, now all too eager to minister to her, fully under her control.
Tristana, one of the greatest films from Buñuel’s extremely rich late period, bookended by Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) and his final movie, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), exemplifies the director’s skill in skewering the entitled classes. Lope is especially pathetic whenever his false virtue is exposed: Smugly spouting, “Down with work that you have to do to survive,” like some second-rate Oscar Wilde, the nobleman is soon accosting his sister for ten thousand pesetas during a chance encounter in a park.
The mordancy of this project—which Buñuel, cowriting with Julio Alejandro, adapted from Benito Pérez Galdos’s 1892 novel (they set the film roughly three decades later)—is further heightened by the tarnishing of Deneuve’s porcelain perfection. As soon as the actress (who, twenty-six during Tristana’s filming, was already five years into her superstardom) speaks, she is already estranged from us, the Castilian lisp she affects obviously not her own: “This will be a proper Spanish film, I’ll be dubbed, which I sometimes find hard to accept,” Deneuve writes in her Diaries. Playing an amputee was even harder; on the penultimate day of shooting, the actress recorded, “Problems with my artificial leg: it has to be fixed on, turning is disastrous, and we’ve rehearsed so much today that the crutches are hurting my armpits.” But as she prepares to shoot the final scene—when Tristana, now an imperious doña, reveals her capacity for utmost cruelty— Deneuve happily reports a victory: “[Buñuel’s] compliment of the day, and it is one: ‘You’d be great in a vampire film.’ ” Thirteen years later, Tony Scott’s The Hunger would prove how accurate the Spanish master’s prediction was.
Tristana screens at BAMcinématek July 19 and 20 as part of the series “Buñuel,” which runs July 11–31.
Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell, 1995, 35 mm, color, sound, 83 minutes.
THERE MAY BE no historical evidence to support the veracity of the strange tale of René Descartes’s robot daughter, but the story remains compelling for anyone who’s ever been troubled by the emotional currents that run between humans and their handiwork. According to one version, Descartes was so devastated when his daughter Francine died of scarlet fever at the age of five that he used his expertise as a physician to construct a life-size mechanical doll in her likeness. The philosopher was so attached to this surrogate that he brought it with him everywhere—at least until it was discovered during a sea voyage by a ship’s captain, who was sufficiently horrified to throw it overboard.
It’s not surprising that the anecdote is a favorite of Mamoru Oshii, especially in light of the director’s ongoing fascination with technologically enhanced humans and their synthetic peers, who often ponder whether their newly acquired sentience means they get to have souls too. The Japanese filmmaker includes the Descartes myth among the array of references that add a pensive air to the ultra-stylized gun battles and explosions in Ghost in the Shell: Innocence (2005), one of five anime features by Oshii screening this week and next in a series at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Oshii’s futuristic visions are infused with his unique brand of dualism, one that freely pursues heady ruminations about technology’s transformative effects on human consciousness while continuing to indulge the visceral thrills and visual panache expected by anime’s traditional fanboy constituency. First released in 1995, just as audiences in the west were discovering the more adult-themed varieties of Japanese animation, Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga Ghost in the Shell remains the most famous and accomplished example of this tricky synthesis.
In the year 2029, Major Motoko Kusanagi—a cyborg cop with a shapely feminine form—pursues the Puppet Master, a mysterious criminal that has been hijacking the cybernetic bodies that are used as downloadable surrogate selves by much of humanity. Though much pilfered by The Matrix—and just about every other Hollywood science-fiction blockbuster in which minds and bodies roam free from each other in spaces both actual and virtual—Oshii’s film retains its power to startle and seduce. It helps that the film got a gorgeous upgrade in 2008, when Oshii released a revised and re-edited version with the cheeky title Ghost in the Shell 2.0. Most provocative was Oshii’s decision to change the Puppet Master’s gender, a move that further complicates the film’s take on sexual identity and the possible futures for our bodily forms and reproductive urges once the usual strictures of the flesh become irrelevant.
More of a companion piece than a sequel, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence trades in many of the same themes with similarly vivid if more lugubrious effect. (Conversations are riddled with quotes from Nietzsche and Milton.) Here, the partner of the former film’s cyborg heroine investigates a string of deaths involving “sexaroid” units with an unfortunate tendency to blow themselves up. Never particularly interested in the demands of narrative, Oshii uses the noirish plotline as a framework for more idiosyncratic strategies, like a hallucinatory sequence that’s as jarring as anything conceived by the late Satoshi Kon, the fellow anime maverick whose films Perfect Blue (1996) and Paprika (2006) are unparalleled exercises in self-destructing storytelling. Oshii also finds ample opportunity to display his savvy about the ways that technology amplifies an age-old human desire to create real-world vessels for our desires. Thus do the pleasure-bots of our future (and present, for that matter) represent “the ancient dream of artificial life” just as strongly as that mechanical daughter did for Descartes. But whereas the corporeal characters in Spike Jonze’s similarly speculative Her (2013) may despair over the inevitability with which our creations will surpass us, Oshii’s visions of things to come are enlivened by a sense of awe and curiosity about these imminent unions between human and artifice, these mergers whose states and shapes we’re just beginning to imagine.