Steve Binder, The T.A.M.I. Show, 1964, Electronovision, black-and-white, sound, 123 minutes.
CONSIDERED THE FIRST ROCK-’N’-ROLL-CONCERT FILM, The T.A.M.I. Show turns fifty this year, though its unsurpassed exuberance, not just onstage but also off it, assures that it will remain forever young. The acronym in the title stands for the unwieldy “Teenage Awards Music International,” a tag that’s partially misleading. No competition was staged (which isn’t to say that there’s no one-upping) and no prizes handed out, though of the twelve acts assembled, three were indeed from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. These British-invasion bands (Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, the Rolling Stones) shared the stage with Motown stars (the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes), surf-pop groups (the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, the latter also serving as the concert’s doofusy hosts), and four other luminaries in as many different genres—none more thrilling than Mr. Dynamite himself, James Brown.
Filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on October 29, 1964, in front of a screaming, jacked-up crowd of three thousand (primarily students from a nearby high school), The T.A.M.I. Show was directed by Steve Binder, who later in the decade would helm the music-variety TV show Hullabaloo and Elvis Presley’s ’68 comeback special, broadcast on NBC. (Jack Nitzsche, one of Phil Spector’s most prominent lieutenants, was the musical director.) Binder shot the concert on television cameras in Electronovision—an early hi-def video system—then transferred it to 35 mm via kinescope. I don’t know whether there’s a proper term for the Vaseline-smeared lens (Lube-o-Vision?) used for the close-ups of Lesley Gore and her Aqua-Netted flips as she performs her emancipation proclamation “You Don’t Own Me.” But the effect, rather than being irredeemably corny, gives a touching tawdry gravitas to Gore’s soaring vocals as she demands her independence. The singer, only eighteen at the time and soon bound for Sarah Lawrence, is the most eager of the concert’s acts to connect with the audience members, who are roughly the same age she is; she smiles, waves, says “Hi there!” softly into the microphone. Two lines in “You Don’t Own Me” could serve as a tagline for The T.A.M.I. Show: “I’m young, and I love to be young / I’m free, and I love to be free.”
Yet some of those shrieking teens were freer than others. The T.A.M.I. Show was recorded three months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. Significantly, the concert—even if attended mostly by white kids (and specifically white girls)—was integrated, extending to the corps of wildly frugging backup dancers, who include Teri Garr and Toni Basil. Yet not even their speed-of-light hip gyrations could match the electrifying moves of Brown, the show’s penultimate entertainer. (Much to JB’s displeasure, the Stones concluded the concert; Mick Jagger, dazed by what he’s just seen from the wings, appears slightly terrified as he takes to the stage.) Brown’s four-song, eighteen-minute set—consisting of “Out of Sight,” “Prisoner of Love,” “Please, Please, Please,” and “Night Train”—essentially marked the first time he performed his raw R&B for a predominantly white audience. He shimmies across the stage on one foot, does splits, and, during “Please, Please, Please,” enacts his legendary cycle of collapsing, being comforted and bedraped, and restorming the mic. (Some of the Godfather of Soul’s T.A.M.I. set—and its effect on the five pasty, skinny newcomers who followed it—is re-created in the recently released JB biopic, Get On Up.) Part Pentecostal preacher, part sex machine, Brown initiated every one of the adolescents at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, regardless of race or gender, into adulthood.
János Szász, The Notebook, 2013, HD video, color, sound 104 minutes. László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt (Egyik Iker and Masik Iker). Photo: Christian Berger.
HUNGARIAN DIRECTOR János Szász’s new film is based on Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook (1986), the first and eeriest novel of a trilogy that follows the grim fortunes of identical twins Claus and Lucas (each name an anagram for the other) during and after World War II. Allegedly for their own safety during foreign occupation (no country is identified), the twins are sent to live with their grandmother—a “witch” suspected of having poisoned her husband. They purchase a notebook to record their experiences, which, in keeping with their uncanny mind-set—one begins a sentence that the other completes—are written in the first-person plural in a prose as affectless as it is artless. Facts and actions, however brutal, are stated bluntly, without apology or embellishment. Determined to harden themselves against wartime conditions, the boys whip, cut, and curse each other to immunize themselves to attacks from local freaks, beginning with grandma. So hardened do they become that when their mother returns to reclaim them, they refuse to leave. They help their grandmother die at her request and promise to look after her farm. When their father returns, he too is rebuffed. In an attempt to escape across the border, he steps on a mine and is killed, which, it is implied, the boys both anticipated and counted on. To try living apart, Claus uses his father’s body to step safely across the border, while Lucas remains behind.
The film, cowritten by Kristóf, is generally faithful to this plotline. But like many films about the horrors of war, the story’s brutality and violence are more in-your-face—as opposed to the novel’s spare, understated style—and images of sadistic behavior are amplified by sound effects, registering every blow. Szász sets the tone with his opening shot: a close-up of the sleeping boys—their faces spooned together as the camera encircles them across the widescreen. It is both touching and unsettling. This is followed by a joyous homecoming scene as the boys embrace their father, returned from the front. Contrary to the novel, the film has the father give them the notebook as a parting gift, which renders both more ironic and more disturbing the final scene, indicating how far apart they have all grown.
The young actors who play the boys—László and András Gyémánt—are visually arresting to be sure, but their shared mind-set is often conveyed via rote gestures that border on the comic. For example, when roused to anger, they assume a creepy stance and look telepathically at each other before walking menacingly toward an object of threat. Apparently, Szász wanted to evoke the kind of demonic behavior reminiscent of such classic sci-fi as Children of the Damned. Or perhaps he intended to simply throw us off, so that even when the boys show a capacity for kindness—as when they bring food and blankets to a dying soldier, or sympathize with a kindly Jewish cobbler—we are still uneasy about just how to read their behavior.
The novel’s hellish vision of humanity is powerful because it is concise and understated, and because readers can supply the historical context. Szász was faced with the task of trying to invest overfamiliar events with a fresh perspective, with understandably mixed results. We can attribute the exaggerated, often grotesque aspects of the grandmother’s behavior and language to the natural distortion of a child’s viewpoint. But other images—e.g., Jewish families being marched off to the camps to the malicious sneers of the townsfolk—don’t entirely escape cliché. Films often show what novels only imply, so when we see the boys planting a grenade in a stove to punish the priest’s housekeeper for an act of cruelty, it’s no surprise that we also see it blow up in her face.
No story of this kind would be complete without sexual predation: The housekeeper, after telling the boys she’s old enough to be their mother, then slips into a tub with them and masturbates under their very noses; nor are we surprised when an officer of the occupying army expresses undisguised erotic interest in the twins. Here, as elsewhere, the film’s strategy to find an equivalent for the novel’s sober perspective is to contrast coarse depictions of human behavior with the blank expressions of our twin protagonists.
Whatever else it may reflect, the film’s hyped-up, quasi-surreal style seems, intentionally or not, to set us up for something the director may or may not have had in the back of his mind, and that no viewer could possibly suspect without having read the two succeeding parts of the trilogy. Without divulging too much, suffice it to say that everything we see in the film, as well as the very premise of the narrative, are upended in the final novel, aptly titled The Third Lie. Whether Szász is planning a sequel (or two), I don’t know, but if so, it would place an entirely different perspective on how one reads this film.
The Notebook opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, August 29.
THE COVER IMAGE of the Criterion booklet for John Cassavetes’s Love Streams (1984) Blu-ray is a doozy. Who is that motherfucker in the goofy hat? (And what’s love got to do with it?) It’s Cassavetes, naturally, but that chintzy gardener’s chapeau makes him look like he’s auditioning for the role of Torgo in a John Huston remake of Manos: The Hands of Fate. It is an awesomely unflattering look—the face moist and sickly (it’s supposed to be rain-soaked, but here it looks like fever sweat on a wax effigy), eyes darting and ever-wary, the full-frontal effect ludicrous, scary, guardedly self-aware, and desperately, inscrutably sincere. If ever a shot screamed “warts and all,” this is it.
Love Streams is, in part, Cassavetes’s version of a slapstick comedy: The central, repeated gag is the epic amount of baggage Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) lugs from train station to train station to, eventually, her brother Robert Harmon’s (Cassavetes) house in the hills. Harmon is supposed to be a hotshot writer working on a book about “nightlife,” but this seems like the flimsiest of pretexts for Cassavetes to interact with an assortment of mostly younger women. He’s a nebulous artist-playboy figure who acts like a private eye of the heart. Almost as an aged, adrift/bereft version of his early Johnny Staccato character, he stalks the mysteries of romantic, familial, filial, and artistic love; also, like any P.I. worth the salt in his wounds, he even gets beaten up in the process. (In more ways than one.)
It’s tempting to see the movie as Cassavetes’s Long Goodbye: Besides the flaky, bittersweet affinities with Altman’s classic, this was his literal last hurrah. He received a diagnosis of terminal cirrhosis of the liver shortly after shooting began and reconceived/rewrote the picture on the fly. A sense of summing-up comes with the territory, yet it’s his most open-ended film, sometimes feeling as much like starting-again-from-scratch as a summation. Examining the pieces of his life’s work, he reevaluates his motives and methods, poking at them, kidding them and kicking them like the tires on a used car.
Joined in mid-blur-of-consciousness, in Love Streams continuity constantly gives way to dream logic and dream logic takes up residence in the most humdrum everyday objects and objectives. Separate plot motifs are streams that crisscross the movie and intersect for a moment, then go on as if headed for different movies. The film is more an anthology of stories that bleed into each other than a linear narrative: The subject is the inner life, but with its breathtakingly cavalier shock cuts and elisions, the dominant sensation is of zigzag movement where the viewer is being tugged forward, sideways, and backwards at more or less the same time. Dream sequences are shot with a mundane, real-time excruciation (when Rowlands assumes the guise of a poolside prop comic and tries in vain to make her husband and daughter laugh) or affectless theatricality (an operetta of reconciliation). A hair-raising one-minute chase down a steep hill isn’t a dream but has a sense of surrealism erupting in the midst of a quiet California neighborhood: Cassavetes is at the wheel and there’s a sense of real danger, working without a net or stunt doubles.
Slapstick though is as much an organizing principle as anything: Sarah’s mountains of trunks and cases, the menagerie of animals that she later brings back to the house, miniature horses disgorging from a taxi like clowns at a flea-bitten circus; Robert tending the animals inside his home/ark as though he were Noah under a Southern California flood. A frisky set piece where Sarah goes to a bowling alley to pick up some spares and/or a man foreshadows elements of The Big Lebowski, packing as much smudgy weirdness into a few minutes without making a whole ostentatious federal case about it.
Playing brother and sister (though the movie is very coy about that for the first hour or so), Cassavetes and Rowland encompass a whole fierce spectrum of family relations: absent father/smother-mother, siblings in love with their own reflections in each other, most of all a couple of recalcitrant children seemingly incapable of ever outgrowing their neediness or fear of “real” intimacy (whatever that is). In this ballet of disorientation and regression, Love Streams harks back to the most potent, poignant, impossible stream of all. Not love but alcohol—as self-medication, as a means to self-expression in a culture that tamps emotions down, both a permission slip and an all-purpose excuse from responsibility for actions, inactions, failures, and calculated blackouts.
The supplemental material that comes with the Love Streams disc is terrific. It features the critic and novelist Michael Ventura’s making-of documentary, “I’m Almost Not Crazy,” and a Ventura commentary that encapsulates the Romantic-aesthetic-personal thrall Cassavetes had for his devotees. Each one captures the Cassavetes ethos of better-alchemy-through-chaos: means and ends, experience and experimentation, all pitched together into an extended family endeavor, where a sense of belonging, purpose, undivided loyalty, and Us (Team Cassavetes) vs. Them (the Phonies, the Cowards, the money-mad Entertainers) mentality played out in creative, confounding terms. It’s a more intensely private version of what the larger, convention-bound public took from the Godfather films and The Sopranos. On Cassavetes’s love-it-or-fuck-you terms, the blood and passion wasn’t gussied up and spoon-fed to you from a silver Hollywood punchbowl.
Love Streams pours out like a hemorrhage, but a comic, operating-theater-of-the-absurd one. Of this I know whereof I speak: While working on this little bauble, a surgically repaired (or so I believed) spot in my mouth suddenly burst, opening up a nasal-size passage into my sinus and dumping out big black gobs of congealed blood, pus, and tissue into the bathroom sink, sending me to the emergency room. I am positive Cassavetes’s first impulse when handed a metaphor like that would be to use it first and ask questions later. Disease as serendipity-doo-dah, Method Criticism in Action, and perhaps too a gently gruesome reminder that his critics have holes in their heads just like his characters.
Love Streams is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
IN THE FIVE YEARS PRIOR TO 1900, average life expectancy in the US increased from thirty-nine to forty-seven years; cities were gradually wired for electricity, which replaced gas illumination; the x-ray was invented and also the motion-picture projector. This transformative moment in all the sciences is the setting for The Knick, a ten-part hospital series currently on Cinemax.
What makes The Knick (short for a fictionalized version of New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital) the latest instance of auteur TV is that it is directed, photographed, and edited in its entirety by Steven Soderbergh, a continuation of the hands-on practice that has distinguished his movie career. Not to labor the obvious, the director is as much a workaholic and control freak as is The Knick’s central character, the hospital’s audacious, driven, ruthlessly competitive chief surgeon, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen). Soderbergh is a chilly director—that’s a description, not a criticism—but his empathy with Thackery, whose mind is on fire even as the rest of him is a mess, turns The Knick into a hot show, or at least a constantly simmering one that boils over at least once or twice in every episode.
The writers, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, handed Soderbergh a B-picture melodrama with familiar network TV tropes—Grey’s Anatomy, House, and ER crossed with bits from every show David Milch created. The dialogue is mostly wooden, but there are snatches of insight and wit, as when the liberal head of the hospital’s board, August Robinson, gives a lesson to its louche, bumbling financial manager Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb). In the nineteenth century, Robinson explains, men amassed wealth through material resources, but in the twentieth, people will get rich by controlling the immaterial, including the aforementioned electricity and X-ray technology, which he has generously provided to The Knick. Strings attached.
Thackery’s foil—first an adversary, later an uneasy ally—is a “negro” surgeon, Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), son of the Robinson family’s housekeeper and childhood playmate of Cornelia Robinson (Juliet Rylance), who has assumed most of her father’s duties on the board. Edwards is as impeccably groomed and controlled in his demeanor as Thackery is disheveled, sweaty, and, by the way, drug-addicted—cocaine by day and opium by night. Thackery’s character is based on an actual surgeon, William Halsted, as famous for his cocaine and morphine habits as for the radical surgeries he performed. Having presided over the first season coked to the max, perhaps Thackery will spend the second (Soderbergh has already committed to another ten episodes for 2015) nodding out.
A graduate of Harvard Medical School who trained in Paris and London, where surgical procedures were in advance of those in the U.S., Edwards has a lot to offer the Knick, but Thackery, reflexively racist, resents being told who to hire and also doesn’t want to deal with losing patients and staff because the Robinsons want to create an integrated hospital. Edwards, however, not only digs in his heels, he creates a secret clinic and surgery in the basement where he treats the black patients the Knick turns away. It’s next to the room where they store cadavers and the pen where they keep the pigs that the surgeons practice on, when there’s no money to buy human remains. The Knick is an upstairs/downstairs series as well as an uptown/downtown one. Regardless of the hospital’s mission to treat immigrant poor of the Lower East Side, the board wants the Knick to move uptown, where “Mount Sinai Jew Hospital” is, so it can serve a more moneyed class of patients.
The Knick doesn’t trade in nostalgia. The New York of 1900 was filthy, corrupt, and lawless; almost anyone could be bought, and money ruled. Racism, sexism, and classism were undisguised, and the gap between rich and poor was taken for granted. In a particularly telling, beautifully underplayed moment, Cornelia is at the bedside of an Eastern European woman, perhaps in her late twenties, who is dying of tuberculosis. Hearing the woman implore her twelve-year-old daughter to leave so she won’t be late for work, Cornelia arranges for her carriage to drive the girl to the sweatshop.
While Thackery and Edwards are the central characters, Cornelia and two other female characters grow in importance throughout the season, their presence having less to do with the scripts than the exceptionally strong and subtle actresses Soderbergh chose for the roles and his propensity for focusing his camera on characters when they are not speaking. (As usual, it’s the men who do most of the talking.) The great Cara Seymour plays Sister Harriet, a dark-humored, chain-smoking nun. The hospital’s resident midwife, she’s seen too many women suffer and die giving birth or from botched attempts at abortion to turn her back on desperation, even at the cost of her immortal soul. Newly come from Kentucky to the big city, the capable though inexperienced nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson, who recalls the young Andie MacDowell of sex, lies, and videotape ) gradually becomes our eyes and something of the series’ moral compass. Since this is a hospital show, she and Cornelia will do their part in fulfilling the genre by being drawn into unsuitable, torrid affairs. Bodices removed from glowingly lit breasts balance operating room butchery. The Knick is nothing if not a show about the body, and Soderbergh seems to have been liberated to make both the most sensuous and erotic and also the most nauseatingly visceral images of his career.
Television has always been more an aural than a visual medium. But as movie directors have turned to making series TV, the priorities have occasionally been reversed. Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (2013) was thrilling for its images of primeval New Zealand. Cary Fukunaga’s True Detective (2014) and some episodes of Breaking Bad (depending on who was directing) were great rural landscape movies. There are gorgeous images in The Knick, but more exciting, they are composed and edited to keep the mind as well as the senses alive. Shot on multiple locations in New York, the period detail is not simply decorative but speaks to basic issues of power, money, science, the body and its mortality. Soderbergh shot almost the entire series hand-holding the RED Dragon, currently the most low-light-sensitive high-end digital movie camera. (The military has cameras that can see in so-called total darkness.) The handheld camerawork is almost never obvious, but it keeps the image alive and contingent; darkness and shadows are everywhere—even in the bleached-out winter exteriors, the notable exception being on the stage of the operating theater where the whiteness is blinding until the blood pours.
Most TV dramas, even those that are photographed in so-called film style, light the actors’ faces so intensely that they seem to exist in a separate dimension from the background. Soderbergh favors natural light for exteriors and a minimum of practical lights for interiors, which allows him to play with focus as well as shadowing for expressive purposes. But what makes Soderbergh a great filmmaker (albeit one who seldom has had scripts commensurate with his talent, The Knick not excepted) is his juxtaposing of image and sound (words, effects, and music). There is a sequence late in the series where Thackery, in the throes of cocaine withdrawal, is forced to sit through a hospital board meeting. The camera holds tight on his face, as sweat drips from his forehead and the muscles around his eyes and mouth twitch and contort. Throughout the shot, we hear the voices of the board members but the sound—if one can say this about sound—is out of focus, the words hardly intelligible. It’s a common enough device (sweaty face, distorted sound), used to indicate that someone is about to pass out, but it’s the length of time that Soderbergh holds the shot—minutes rather than seconds—that causes us to experience it kinetically, as a sensory experience in our own body.
Or take the sensational ten-minute opening of the first episode: sex, drugs, and The Knick’s equivalent of rock ’n’ roll—graphically depicted high-risk surgery. In the red-gold haze of an opium den, a young Asian woman, naked except for a thin robe that floats behind her, gives a wakeup call to a client named Johnny. The client, Dr. John Thackery, now dressed for work, climbs into a carriage for hire, where he prepares for the morning by shooting up with liquid opium, readily available from the hospital dispensary. As the carriage drives through the muck-covered streets and Thackery readies his morning pick-me-up, we are introduced to The Knick’s signature musical score—repetitively looped, throbbing, skidding, minimalist electronica by Soderbergh’s frequent collaborator, Cliff Martinez. Here, the quickening pulse and screeching upward glissando is precisely synced to the seconds before the needle finds the vein, evoking the anticipation of the orgasmic rush of the drug itself. As a cocaine-saturated movie experience, The Knick has the edge on Goodfellas (1990).
The longest scene in this ten-minute introduction is a surgery so bloody that even this hardened viewer turned away the first time she saw it. Never mind, you can do what you want without embarrassment in your living room, and if you rewatch the episode, you probably won’t be as nauseated. A woman is being given a Caesarean section. From the first incision, made with the equivalent of a box cutter, it’s clear that her uterus has ruptured and she’s going to bleed out. Nevertheless, the surgeons and nurses give it their all, turning the handle of the primitive siphoning apparatus (it’s the only sound we hear), filling bottle after bottle with gushing blood, trying to get the baby out and the artery sewed shut. But to no avail. Soderbergh moves his camera in, its lens as close as the surgeons’ eyes and hands. The gory spectacle is not gratuitous; this is where the series lives and its reason for being—to depict the dark ages of medicine and what it took to bring it into modern times.
The remainder of the first episode is overly cluttered with the introduction of characters and setups for various plot strands. And the second episode suffers in the same way. Don’t give up. By the time you are midway through Episode 3, I suspect you’ll be addicted.
The Knick plays Fridays at 10 PM on Cinemax with repeats during the week. Episode One is currently available for free on YouTube.
Chris Marker, Level Five, 1996, Betacam SP, color, sound, 106 minutes.
CHRIS MARKER, the French multimedia artist who more than any other individual has been identified with creating the essay film, was always an outlier, an anomaly, and this exceptionalism continued even after his death in 2012 at age ninety-one. Marker was remarkable, if not unique among artists of his generation, in having designed a digital monument to his own body of work, an online footprint that would remain once he himself was gone. This was Le Musée de Marker, an archive and gallery located on the island of Ouvroir, in the online virtual world of Second Life, which since 2003 has provided a canvas on which users can create their own domains. In the weeks and months following Marker’s death, mourners pilgrimaged to this shrine in droves, there to find Marker’s nimble mind still freely at play.
That Marker clearly foresaw the age of Internet afterlife while most of the world was still learning to check e-mail is evident in his 1997 film Level Five, which begins a seven-day run at BAMcinématek on Friday, August 15. This, the film’s North American theatrical premiere, will run concurrent to the beginning of BAM’s two-week Marker retrospective, which spans from his early boots-on-the-ground travelogues like Sunday in Peking (1955) and A Letter from Siberia (1957) to the twenty-first century and an engagement with the new digital unrealities of the fin de millennium.
Level Five comprises two primary narrative strands which twine around each other. The first concerns a woman named Laura, who appears to direct-address the viewer from a cluttered, windowless office. (The part is played by artist-actress-director Catherine Belkhodja, a polymath like Marker.) As it comes out, Laura is in fact speaking to a lover who has logged off of this mortal coil under mysterious circumstances. She has been attempting to complete his final project, a virtual replay of the Battle of Okinawa, the last real engagement of World War II, which was accompanied by catastrophic civilian casualties when islanders instructed by Imperial Japan not to allow themselves to be captured alive committed suicide en masse. Laura hopes to “rectify malignant fate” by undoing the tragedy of the event, but she finds that the virtual world that her lover has left behind is not so pliable, stubbornly resisting her attempts to alter the physical facts of history. The film’s other strand consists of images from Japan and Okinawa, purportedly footage taken by Laura and her partner and given to Marker for editing. Included in this is archival footage and interviews with the likes of filmmaker Nagisa Oshima and, most affectingly, Shigeaki Kinjo, a proselytizing Christian who, as a teenager, helped to massacre his family according to the nihilistic, scorched-earth dictates of the Japanese army.
This is devastating stuff, but part of Marker’s brilliance lies in realizing that groaning solemnity alone does not properly denote meaning or understanding. He personally narrates much of the film, and his particular authorial voice is everywhere, its defining note combining the heft of authority with sheer lightness, the feeling of being borne along by a mind that skips across centuries and national boundaries without the slightest evidence of strain. Around every corner there are unexpected digressions—to Napoleon’s reported contempt on hearing of the gentleness of the Okinawans, to John Huston’s pioneering PTSD study Let There Be Light (1946), or to the history of the David Raksin–penned theme for Otto Preminger’s Laura, a work whose relationship to Level Five is as crucial that between Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). In combining Laura’s story with that of the Okinawans, Marker examines the memory of tragedy on both the individual and historical scales. The unifying element is loss: Laura’s lost love, the Okinawan loss of identity…and a loss that is still to come, which Marker already sees clearly. Says Laura: “If some future ethnologist sees these images, he’ll ponder the funeral rites of the strange tribes of the late twentieth century. I’ll be pleased to give details. Yes, it was customary for such tribes to address a familiar and protective spirit known as a computer. They’d consult it on everything. It kept their memory. In fact it was their memory.”
This is more than prescient, and miraculously so when we consider what a tough time cinema has had with the Internet—think of the wave of Web-novelty movies roughly contemporary to Level Five, titles like The Net and Hackers (both 1995), which today are punch lines unto themselves, or of Michael Haneke’s recent announcement of a forthcoming film to be called Flashmob, which warrants a tidal wave of preemptive eye-rolls. Level Five manages to buck this trend, in large part because it puts no premium on trying to seem cutting-edge. Laura accesses a social network called O.W.L. (Optional World Link) using V.R. goggles that resemble nothing so much as the top of a popcorn popper, while the hypermedia effects are fuzzy and homemade, the results of Marker’s self-taught dabbling in HyperStudio. Level Five is lo-fi sci-fi, a mode that Marker’s time-trotting La Jetée (1962) might be said to have invented—while in using deliberate obsolescence as a tool to interrogate the new digital realm, the artist’s aesthetic is Tumblr-wave Web 1.0 retro avant la lettre.
Marker shunned the festival spotlight while puckishly cultivating an air of mystery about himself. In his separation of private individual and public avatar—in his case, a cartoon cat alter ego named Guillaume—as in his leapfrogging rhetoric, he was distinctly proto-Internet. We can say that Marker was almost certainly not born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, as he insisted he was, but the truth of his life is no less strange and improbable. He came into a world where the Russian Civil War and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial were making headlines, and exited in the era of military drones and social networking. In his passage through, he never ceased in his efforts to understand the whole mad world, to comprehensively synthesize the sum total of knowledge to date. Now gone from the earth but floating in “a Sargasso sea full of binary algae,” he is a sane, compassionate, and humorous guide, one to be returned to time and again.
THE HOLLYWOOD TEN: The sobriquet given to a group of “unfriendly witnesses” (eight screenwriters, one director, and one producer) still stands as shorthand for an ignominious era of red-baiting, stirring outrage nearly seventy years after they were jailed for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about alleged communist ties before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Less enshrined, however, are the films made by this notorious decad—not to mention those by the hundreds of other blacklistees who followed in their wake—prior to their banishment from the movie industry. An act of passionate, assiduous scholarship, Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s video essay Red Hollywood (1996, though reedited and remastered last year) argues for the politically progressive salience of this often neglected corpus.
An expansion of Andersen’s 1985 essay of the same name, Red Hollywood braids excerpts from fifty-three films from multiple genres, spanning the 1930s through the early ’50s; interviews with blacklistees Paul Jarrico, Ring Lardner Jr., Alfred Levitt, and Abraham Polonsky; and a shrewd, occasionally wry text coolly read by Billy Woodberry. (One of the LA Rebellion filmmakers, Woodberry and his neo-Neorealist Bless Their Little Hearts from 1984 feature prominently in Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, an equally astute, fervent work of cine-archaeology from 2003.) At issue in Red Hollywood is the claim, made at the time by both the supporters and detractors of the HUAC-branded pariahs, that the blacklistees’ influence on popular cinema was “insignificant at best.” Through a series of chapters—“War,” “Class,” “Sexes,” “Hate,” to name a few—Andersen and Burch’s treatise cogently advances the idea that these films, in fact, evince unmistakably leftist ideas.
Some of the titles highlighted in Red Hollywood will be familiar to those with only a cursory knowledge of the HUAC era, namely Body and Soul (1947; scripted by Polonsky) and Force of Evil (1948; directed and cowritten by Polonsky), both of which star John Garfield. The proto-Method actor—hailed in Woodberry’s narration as “an axiom of left-wing film of the ’30s and ’40s”—and his Body and Soul costar Canada Lee, a civil rights activist, are the most tragic cases in Red Hollywood’s necrology. Both men, who refused to name names or denounce colleagues, died of heart attacks—Lee at age forty-five, Garfield at thirty-nine—within twelve days of each other in 1952; for them, as for many others, the blacklist and its unfathomable pressures became a “literal death sentence.”
Yet several titles in Andersen and Burch’s seamless compilation are much more obscure. Exhumed and recontextualized by the filmmakers, two vehicles starring Ginger Rogers particularly stand out. Tom Dick and Harry (1941), written by Jarrico, includes a lengthy dream sequence that sends up the horrors of middle-class aspirations; Tender Comrade (1943), directed by Edward Dmytryk and scripted by Dalton Trumbo, two of the Tenners, champions communal living for four female airplane-factory workers whose husbands are overseas fighting in World War II. Though not mentioned in Red Hollywood, the political leanings of the lead actress heighten the subversiveness of both movies: Rogers was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a rabidly right-wing organization cofounded by her mother, Lela, in 1944. “We could run the joint like a democracy,” Rogers says to her three roommates-to-be in Tender Comrade—a lofty goal horribly corrupted by elected officials and studio executives offscreen.
Red Hollywood plays at the Film Society of Lincoln Center August 15–21 in conjunction with “Red Hollywood and the Blacklist,” a series, selected by Thom Andersen, of nine movies directed or written by blacklistees.
SMACK IN THE MIDST of the usual summer glut of digital behemoths and bulging muscles, Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy—his latest, bittersweet semiautobiographical homage to the French New Wave—comes as a relief. With nary a special effect in sight, the film revels in ravishing black-and-white ’Scope, the stunning limpidity of which makes one wonder why it’s been used so infrequently since the heyday of Kurosawa and Imamura. Given the simplicity of the story and settings of Jealousy, the wide screen might seem a luxury, but the format is friendly to the film’s semi-improvisational style and allows the emotional distances between characters to echo throughout each frame. Even the uncluttered vistas of a park are overcast with a sense of melancholy.
Except for the presence of a cell phone in one scene, the film could easily be set in the mid-1960s, when Garrel had just begun his career and his declared mentors—Bresson, Godard, and Truffaut—were in vogue. There are even hints of Truffaut’s alter ego, Antoine Doinel, in the befuddled look of the main character Louis (played by Garrel’s son Louis) when he is ditched by his new girlfriend Claudia (a wonderfully brooding Anna Mouglalis). Yet the film seems less an act of nostalgia than a jaundiced reaction to the current state of cinema. Its physical look alone can be read as a critique of the visual banality of so many French imports over the past few decades.
As always, Garrel is preoccupied with the labile nature of romantic love. But he’s the flip side of Éric Rohmer, whose amorous chronicles, however unresolved, are more ebullient than doleful. Rohmer’s characters talk incessantly about their feelings, while Garrel’s rarely elaborate beyond flat, invariably controverted declarations. Garrel’s father Maurice cautions his son in Emergency Kisses (1989) that “cinema is not just pictures,” yet the dialogue in Jealousy reveals little about the whys and wherefores of character behavior. No one talks about what bothers them; they just act out, a dynamic that makes their wide-screen interaction all the more pitiable. As Marianne, one of love’s casualties in Garrel’s I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991), sums it up, we were happy, and then we were not.
Louis and Claudia are both stage actors, an ironic commentary on the paucity of meaningful speech in their lives, in which things just unfold and then come to a halt. When Claudia, depressed over the impasse in her career, picks up random men, we know that another sudden, unexplained split is imminent. Yet when she walks out, Louis seems completely perplexed. How deeply he feels the loss is mitigated by those sardonic Doinel-like touches. If these characters seem incapable of thinking deeply and learning from what happens to them, it may be because Garrel believes that psychological probing is futile, or out of fashion, or just too hard.
But if romantic attachments are notoriously fragile in Garrel’s work, blood relations endure, apparently on and off the screen. In Emergency Kisses, Garrel, Sr. plays himself as devoted father to his five-year-old son, Louis. But as he told an interviewer, he is represented in Jealousy not by the adult Louis but by Charlotte, the fictional daughter of Louis and Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant), whose breakup is the catalyst for the narrative. This child, played by Olga Milshtein, a spunky ingénue with indelible presence and charm to spare, is, like the young girl in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, a pivotal figure who must navigate the fallout of her parents’ separation. Her role is established in the second shot, following one of Clothilde crying in the kitchen, her loneliness complemented by the expansive emptiness around her: Charlotte, hearing her mother pleading with Louis not to leave, gets up to peek into the other room. Like Maisie, Charlotte is instinctively inquisitive, although she belongs to a decidedly different class, and so is freer to sympathize with her mother while remaining devoted to her father and friendly with his new girlfriend.
In one scene, Louis and Charlotte snuggle and tussle so spontaneously that you would think, given the peculiar dynamics of this tribe, that they are actually father and daughter. But the truth is more affecting and ironic: The scene is a replay of one in Emergency Kisses in which director Philippe as a younger man wrestles lovingly with his real son, the same Louis whose playful reenactment with Charlotte feels like déjŕ vu, a ritual by which he gets to father his real father in the guise of this five-year-old surrogate.
In the final scene, recovered from a botched suicide attempt, Louis sits in the park with Charlotte and his sister Esther, two attachments presumably above the fray and miseries of male/female relationships. In the spirit of the cross-references and overlaps of Garrel’s work, we might recall that only at the last moment in Regular Lovers (2004) do we learn through a narrator that François (also played by Louis Garrel) has killed himself. But if the revelation comes as a shock, it is surely because the lonely interior of that character has been no more accessible to the viewer than it was to the woman he loved. The virtual inevitability of this tragic divide between lovers, in which neither can fully open to the other, may be the strongest and most heartbreaking theme of Garrel’s work.
Esther is played by the actor’s real sister, the director’s daughter, and so in the last scene of Jealousy, autobiographical tension persists. It would seem then, as one of the film’s intertitles suggests, that when most of our hopes and illusions collapse, we get to “keep the angels,” i.e., our children. However disillusioned its view of romance, Garrel’s new film manifests genuine love for these lost characters and for the wonderfully engaging people who impersonate them.
Jealousy opens Friday, August 15 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, and Friday, August 22 at the Laemmle Royal Theater in Los Angeles. It will be available on iTunes beginning Tuesday, August 19, and on Amazon Instant, Vudu, and Google Play on Tuesday, August 26.
Patrick Lung Kong, Teddy Girls, 1969, color, sound, 107 minutes.
LAST SUMMER, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens hosted a complete retrospective of the films of Wong Kar-wai, with Wong in person, impossible to miss in his famous shades. Very few of his fans, however, recognized the beetle-browed, seventysomething man with jutting cheekbones whom Wong bowed before upon meeting, as a pupil bows before a master. This is a matter that MoMI intends to address with a retrospective of that very same figure: “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: The Cinema of Patrick Lung Kong,” running August 15 to 24.
Patrick Lung Kong was born Kin-yui Lung in 1934 to a family that had relocated to Hong Kong from Anhui Province, China. The boy was raised by his grandmother, though spent the war years touring with a Cantonese opera troupe—his father was a hua dan, that is, one who plays female parts. Preparing for a career in business at the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce, Lung was introduced to Catholicism by a classmate and subsequently converted. This led to his first screen acting, in a church-produced film, and then to a role in something called Crime of Passion in the Hotel for the Shaw Brothers’ Cantonese-language unit; he was rechristened “Lung Kong” and played one of the villainous roles that his sharp features assured he would be typecast in.
Cantonese was the principal spoken language in Hong Kong at the time that Lung Kong was coming up through the system, but Cantonese films were consigned to a second-class role, increasingly marginalized as the 1960s progressed, with big budgets allocated to Mandarin productions. Lung Kong’s dedicated outsider status was reflected in his self-identification with Cantonese cinema—he turned down a lucrative deal to direct in Mandarin for the Shaws, instead signing up with Singapore-based Sun Ngee, and with his second film, Story of a Discharged Prisoner, which opens MoMI’s retro, made his mark definitively. Cheuk-hong Lee (Patrick Tse), nabbed after a botched break-in, comes out of a fifteen-year prison stint determined to go straight, though his old triad boss (Sek Kin) and a meddling police inspector (Lung Kong) have other plans for him. The film is shot in black and white, with a punchy camera style both emphatic and empathetic. It is self-consciously “modern” in its brisk cutting, use of limber handheld camera, and hands-on grasp of burning social issues, its contemporary slang and location shooting on city streets, among the ramshackle squats of Kwun Tong, and at Stanley Prison. This was Hong Kong New Wave, 1967.
The year 1967 has a particular significance to the Hong Kongese, marked as it was by almost daily bombings and violent demonstrations, in which leftists protesting British colonial rule clashed with police. While Story of a Discharged Prisoner expressed something of the period’s political discontent, Lung Kong was not a joiner, and his independence and singularity of vision earned him the admiration of a generation of ambitious young movie buffs. Among the number who visited the set of Discharged Prisoner at Wader Studio was John Woo, who would use the basic elements of the film’s plot for his 1986 A Better Tomorrow, which appeared at a moment when the Cantonese cinema, and the boots-on-the-ground production methods innovated by Lung Kong, had prevailed. A Better Tomorrow’s producer, Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China), will appear alongside Lung Kong at the museum on Saturday the 16th for a screening of the film, whose Chinese title is the same as that of Lung Kong’s, much as the title of his 1969 girl delinquent drama, called Teddy Girls in English, contains the same character (“To fly,” 飛) that appears in the title of Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990), essentially creating the “Youth in flight” genre which Wong would later mine.
Patrick Lung Kong, The Story of a Discharged Prisoner, 1967, black-and-white, sound, 119 minutes.
Like Discharged Prisoner, Teddy Girls starts off with a careening blast of go-go energy. Some mashers in a discotheque decide to pick on the wrong chick, Yu-ching Hsu (Josephine Siao). She gives them bottles to the skull for their trouble and winds up fighting for pole position inside a girl’s reformatory before bonding with her fellow inmates and busting out to bring revenge to her loathsome stepfather (Lung Kong, again). The film may be the purest expression of Lung Kong’s balance of exploitation’s vulgar vitality—it could be a distant relation of Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters (1975)—with a compassion founded in the Catholic tradition of social responsibility and charity. The latter quality occasionally announces itself in outright didacticism, as in the moralizing coda voiced by Kenneth Tsang’s reformatory head in Teddy Girls. In such moments Lung Kong may seem preachy, although, as critic and screenwriter Shu Kei has observed, no one is successfully saved by the social-service organizations that play such a prominent role in Lung Kong’s early films: the halfway house in Discharged Prisoner, the reformatory in Teddy Girls, or the school for the blind in The Window (1968), which has Tse as a feckless hood, introduced in Rebel Without a Cause red, forming an unlikely bond with the sightless daughter of one of his victims, played by Siao. (This relationship dynamic was an inspiration for Woo’s 1989 The Killer, while I’d bet that Rebel director Nicholas Ray’s wounded outsiders are a point of reference for Lung Kong.)
Lung Kong’s own disillusion and estrangement deepened as he found himself increasingly at odds with the Hong Kong film industry and society in general. Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (1970), a free adaptation of Albert Camus’s The Plague, was shorn of at least a half hour and effectively mutilated before release. What remained was still sufficiently inflammatory to make Lung Kong a target for blowback from the leftist press, thanks to his alleged metaphoric linkage of the pestilence and the Communist dissent of ’67—hard to see what all the fuss was about now, but the film’s panorama of a city gripped by panic remains impressive. To this, accusations of oversympathy with former Imperial conquerors were added with Hiroshima 28 (1976), a reunion with Siao that has her playing a tour guide in the ruined postwar city. By this point, this most Hong Kongese of Hong Kong directors had begun to drift into the position of artist-in-exile: Hiroshima 28 was shot on location, and Mitra (1978), Lung Kong’s last film to play theatrically, was filmed during a trip to Iran to premiere his Japan-set film at the Tehran Film Festival. For Love Massacre (1981), chronologically the last directly Lung Kong–affiliated film to play MoMI, he headed for California to play producer for director Patrick Tam. The film synopsizes as a rote slasher, but it’s elevated by a cast and crew loaded with future HK New Wave luminaries—Tam will go on to direct his watershed film Nomad the following year, Brigitte Lin stars, and production designer William Chang, later responsible for the sumptuous textures of Wong Kar-wai’s films, created the film’s Pop art–besotted look. Love Massacre is a direct bridge between pioneer Lung Kong and the new revolution in Cantonese cinema then underway, as well as a bridge to his new home.
Lung Kong left Hong Kong for good in 1982, immigrating to New York, where he lives today in Staten Island. He has spent his retirement years studying calligraphy and the erhu (two-string), has remained active in charitable organizations, and has not directed a single film for public consumption. (He has, however, worked periodically as an actor, most prominently in Jet Li’s Black Mask.) The final numbers that summarize his truncated directorial career—eleven years, a dozen films—belie his importance to Hong Kong, and therefore world, cinema. In keeping the light burning for Cantonese cinema in Hong Kong during dark days, in his devotion to the milieu of lower-class characters and petty gangsters, Lung Kong’s films paved the way for those of Woo, Wong Kar-wai, and Hark—the old saw about the Velvet Underground is applicable here. Lung Kong’s films are not merely transitional, however, but compose an integral body of work unto themselves, made with a verve born of purpose, passionately engaged with the city that they emerged from, attentive to the textures of both everyday and political life. Lung Kong’s films arrived right on time for a generation of Hong Kong cinephiles, but too soon to afford him a long and prosperous career. Luckily, it isn’t too late for New York moviegoers to discover what Hong Kong has known for a long time.
FRENHOFER, C’EST MOI, Paul Cézanne was said to have said about the principal character in “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” (The Unknown Masterpiece), a short story by Honoré de Balzac from the year 1831. In the little-known tale, two younger artists, Nicolas Poussin and the more established Porbus, spend time with Frenhofer, an aging master. As the three drink wine and eat smoked ham, they exchange thrilling ideas about art and originality, finally settling on the question of Frenhofer’s unrealized masterpiece, a painting that has been vexing him for years. When Frenhofer finally completes the work, the two ingénues are deeply disappointed by its manifestation—able only to make out a series of strange lines and an obscured foot. Frustrated by their response, in a fit of frenzy and madness, Frenhofer dies in the night after having burned his canvas first.
Balzac’s tale, however arch and exaggerated it might be as a neat parable for all kinds of things—among them neglected genius and painting as a tortuous and torturous journey—has a great deal in common with Fifi Howls from Happiness, a documentary of beauty, intelligence, and wit about the late artist Bahman Mohasses. Like The Unknown Masterpiece, Fifi, too, is about art and iconoclasm. It also features two young artist-pilgrims who come to bask in a mad master’s glory at the end of his life. And yet, in Fifi, there is a fourth, crucial, personage: in the form of the filmmaker, Mitra Farahani, a temptress who hovers on screen and off, coaxing our hero into life in his twilight years.
As the film opens we are led to wonder: Whatever happened to Bahman Mohasses? A beloved rebel of the modern art scene of 1950s–70s Tehran, he made distinctive sculptures and paintings that featured surreal animal-like forms and figures—contorted, missing hands and feet, exaggerated, lustful. Hard-smoking, foul-mouthed, and full of soulful pessimism, Mohasses had no illusions about the nasty world he lived in; any democracy was as bankrupt as any dictatorship, and all rulers were crooks. “But I am only one John the Baptist preaching alone in the desert. It will make no difference,” he declares at one point, surrounded by works inspired by war and pestilence. It is one of many acid statements to come.
Colorful stories ensue. During the ’60s, Mohasses was commissioned to produce a sculptural likeness of the royal family, but the Shah rejected it, complaining that it was unflattering. At the time of the 1979 revolution, another sculptural commission, The Flute Player, had some of its bulging parts (private and otherwise) removed by agents of the nascent Islamic Republic. (Sweetly, they deny this, and say that the pieces in question simply broke off.) Mohasses left Tehran during the revolution that would oust the Shah and bring Ayatollah Khomeini to power, and his life swiftly became the stuff of rumor and, finally, fabulous myth: They say the last time he was in Iran he destroyed all of his work; he is living in Rome, surrounded by young boys; he is solitary, working in his native city of Rasht, on the Caspian Sea.
He is, it turns out, in Rome. But before turning to the room in the Hotel Sacconi in which he lives, Fifi cuts to an archival film from the year 1967, a pithy feature about the young Mohasses made by Iranian state television in which he is shown to be a frolicking bon vivant engaging in café life, painting feverishly in his studio as if enacting a parody of being an artist (“It is a need for me exactly like taking a piss”), declaring himself of historic significance, and so on. It is a whole film within a film, and even then, rendered in grainy black and white, the subject burns bright.
In Rome, now in his 80s and no longer making work, Mohasses is bewildered by the petite female filmmaker before him. Farahani, whose syrupy voice serves as siren-like narration, clearly wants something from the legendary figure, but like anyone on a treasure hunt, she is probably aiming for the stars. And yet, this is not a standard encounter between the journalist and the murderer, for the artist-murderer pushes back. Mohasses the subject probably directs the director as much as she directs him: Put this in, say this, shoot this…end with this. “I will tell you my life story so that every idiot doesn’t write my biography the way it suits him,” he says.
Death is the specter that hovers in and around this work. More than a knowing film about filmmaking, Fifi is profoundly about what remains. Worrying about posterity, Mohasses announces, is for losers. By now, we’ve learned that the rumors about the artist destroying his own work are true. Among the few works that remain is the Fifi Howls from Happiness of the title, a faceless, handless grotesque of abundant breast that hangs on his wall. “I can’t sell her,” he confides, as if she encapsulates all the truth he knows.
But before he leaves this earth, Mohasses receives one last commission by the two younger artists with whom we began—Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh—both in evident thrall to their iconoclast-hero. One night, they all sit watching Visconti’s The Leopard with its poofy baroque costumery and intrigue, and Mohasses sheds tears. Not unlike Visconti’s fading prince, the aging artist is a distinguished leopard—elegant, knowing, out of place. And yet, his fate, like poor Don Fabrizio’s, will be to leave this earth cruelly, eaten by jackals.
The end of Fifi—which is difficult to watch and inspires equal parts sadness and agitation (for is the film apparatus itself part jackal?)—comes soon after. As the artist chokes on his own blood and declares, matter-of-factly, “I am dying,” the filmmaker, Farahani, who is right there, summons up his voice as if he were addressing her: “This is the most real image I could have given you.”
Fifi Howls from Happiness is now playing at the Lincoln Plaza in New York and opens at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on Friday, August 15.
Frank Simon, The Queen, 1968, color, sound, 68 minutes.
A MAN AND A WOMAN: The words—the title of Claude Lelouch’s smash 1966 French melodrama—appositely appear on the marquee of Manhattan’s Paris Theatre on West Fifty-Eighth Street, just above the bottle-blond head of effete Richard, one of the key figures in Frank Simon’s documentary The Queen (1968). This riveting chronicle of a 1967 drag competition makes Lelouch’s hopelessly het movie seem all the more démodé for the fixed categories in its name.
In his essential, haut-homo compendium Screening the Sexes (1972), urbane arbiter Parker Tyler praised Simon’s film for its “quite unconscious dignity”; one of the more remarkable aspects of this pre-Stonewall document is, in fact, its eschewal of homophobic sensationalism in favor of nonjudgmental curiosity. The organizer and emcee of the pageant, and the occasional voice-over narrator, is Jack Doroshow, alias Sabrina, who says of his female alter ego: “I’m twenty-four years old, but in drag, I come on like 110. . . . Like a bar-mitzvah-mother thing.” Indeed, the contest itself, held at the highly reputable Town Hall, is about as risqué as a junior high homecoming dance, as depilated men in Ronettes-esque bouffant wigs and thick maquillage show off matronly floor-length dresses to the musical accompaniment of a tuxedoed combo. Violating the decorum is Mario Montez, providing a bit of intermission entertainment and introduced by Sabrina as “a hell of a nice guy”: Sporting a ratty wig and five-o’clock shadow, Warhol’s first drag-queen superstar (Andy is seen fleetingly in the audience) sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” horribly off-key, botching the show tune’s platonic as plutonic.
The discrepancy between Montez’s signature guileless performance style and the exhaustingly rehearsed movements of the contestants (“Try to center your chorus line,” instructs Jack, who also barks specific rules about the proper removal of a duster) points to the different ways of “doing” drag—as varied in its possibilities as its practitioners are. The most absorbing moments of The Queen happen not onstage but off it, particularly when the camera lingers in the run-down hotel rooms where the out-of-town contestants (Miss Washington State, Miss Chicago, etc.) are bunking. Here, dressed primarily in LBJ-era standard duds—trim button-down shirts and chinos—they nonchalantly discuss, in a range of regional accents, draft boards, boyfriends, and levels of tolerance back home (“Everybody in that town knew I was gay ever since I was five years old”).
Tyler described The Queen as “all about transvestites and their search for an honest public and private image”; although the word transvestites chafes today, his assessment still strikes me as the perfect précis of Simon’s film. For some, that search included considering gender reassignment, then wholeheartedly rejecting it: “I certainly do not want to become a girl, even if I could have a baby,” avers the contestant from Maryland. Others later accepted it; the abovementioned Richard, aka Harlow, aka Miss Philadelphia, would undergo the procedure in 1972. Harlow, crowned the pageant winner, is read furiously by Crystal LaBeija, one of a handful of black competitors, indignant at placing as third runner-up. Ten years after her loss at Town Hall, Crystal would transform ball culture in Harlem by initiating the “House of ” nomenclature, the taxonomy that structures The Queen’s direct descendant, Paris Is Burning (1990), and that epitomizes the concept of “public image.”
The Queen, which concludes Queer/Art/Film’s “Summer of Drag” series, screens at the IFC Center on Monday, August 11.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR began one hundred years ago this summer, which is another way of saying that this is the hundredth anniversary of the modern world. The historical convulsions set in motion by the events of 1914 changed everything—arts and letters no exception. When hostilities were opened, the Italian Futurists clambered for the clangorous front, while the disillusion of Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit waited on the other side of the trenches. Many of the chief litterateurs of decades to come passed through the crucible of the war: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a French cuirassier, rode into battle on horseback as men would’ve a century prior, when Europe last experienced all-out war. Siegfried Sassoon caught “friendly fire” in the head and survived, while fellow poet Wilfred Owen wasn’t so lucky, strafed by a German machine gun a week before Armistice. Driving an ambulance in Italy, Hemingway collected some souvenir shrapnel, but Scott Fitzgerald, for all his dreams of martial glory, never got further than Camp Sheridan outside of Montgomery, Alabama. Some years hence, Fitzgerald would have Dick Diver in his 1933 Tender Is the Night visit the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, and muse over the war he’d missed. “You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you can remember,” Diver says of the requisites for fighting in the trenches,
You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafes in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and wedding at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers… Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.
As that “love battle” betrayed its true gristly toll—countless fingers, toes, arms, legs, ears, noses, eyes, genitals, guts, and lives—the art of moving pictures was entering its bumptious adolescence. British, French, and German troops had dug into the muck that would constitute the Western Front by February 1915, when still noninterventionist Americans were going over the top in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the film that defined screen treatment of the battlefield for a generation in its reenactments of the Civil War. (With the Siege of Sebastopol, prequels to the present conflict.) Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1919) and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Little American (1917) are among the earliest screen treatments of Europe’s self-immolation in the massive mobilization of prints that constitutes the Museum of Modern Art’s five-week series “The Great War: A Cinematic Legacy,” a feat worthy of Gen. Pershing. The program traces representation of the war from Griffith and DeMille—for all the innovation of their technique, still indebted to sentimental Victorian dramaturgy—to twenty-first-century offerings like Joyeaux Noel (2005) and War Horse (2011) of which, come to think of it, the same might be said.
There is, however, an identifiable sweet spot in MoMA’s lineup. What was then still called the Great War reached its peak popularity as a screen property in the years 1930, ’31, and ’32—near enough that the war is still fresh in the collective memory, distant enough that it could be faced…or mined for spectacle, as in Hell’s Angels (1930), the megaproduction of a twenty-two-year-old millionaire named Howard Hughes. Hughes took to the sky to shoot the film’s staggering aerial battle scenes, while he left the inglorious task of staging the dialogue to hired help James Whale. Whale was a veteran, having enlisted straightaways in the Worcestershire Infantry Regiment after seeing firsthand the zeppelin attacks on London depicted in Hell’s Angels. Second Lieutenant Whale served with distinction before going MIA during the Flanders Campaign, spending the remainder of the war at Holzminden prison camp, where he pursued a fondness for amateur theatrics that would blossom into a stage career after the war. His greatest success in the theater was the West End production of Journey’s End, a R. C. Sherriff play concerning life in the trenches, starring Colin Clive—in 1930, it would become Clive and Whale’s debut film. (Whale is better remembered today for more fantastic horrors, having twice directed Clive as Dr. Frankenstein.)
Left: D.W. Griffith, Hearts of the World, 1918, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 117 minutes. Right: Rex Ingram, The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, 1921, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 132 minutes.
Hughes’s flying circus got off the ground in the first place as an attempt to one-up the then-reigning champ of dogfighting pictures, Wings (1927), whose director “Wild” Bill Wellman had been chosen largely on the distinction of his combat experience with the Lafayette Flying Corps. A film whose vertiginous airborne scenes, done without safety net or rear projection cheats, remain simply awesome, Wings will be playing MoMA along with Wellman’s mauled final film, Lafayette Escadrille (1958). Recommended supplementary viewing is his 1933 Heroes for Sale—available on volume three of TCM Archives’ Forbidden Hollywood Collection—a remarkable portrait of the difficulties faced by returning veterans readjusting to the home front, starring Richard Barthelmess.
Barthelmess, a star for Griffith early in his career, plays leads in The Patent Leather Kid (1927) and Howard Hawks’s The Dawn Patrol (1930), both at MoMA. In the latter, he’s the leader of a British squadron who faces a new level of psychological torment when he’s grounded behind a desk, sending other men to their deaths. Hawks, who’d spent his war years stateside as a flight instructor in Texas, got in some “combat hours” here flying an enemy German plane, and The Dawn Patrol is one of the earliest instances in which the director’s ethos of male camaraderie and self-reliance appears in a form recognizable from great later works like Only Angels Have Wings (1939)—a film which Dawn Patrol in many ways presages. (Barthelmess returned from semiretirement for Angels, baring fresh plastic surgery scars.) Curiously absent here is Hawks’s Sergeant York, a morale-boosting biopic of one of the U.S. Army’s most decorated WWI combatants starring Gary Cooper which was released in the precarious summer of 1941, though one can see Cooper opposite Helen Hayes, both supernally gorgeous, in Frank Borzage’s lyric 1932 film of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
As represented by MoMA’s program, 1930 was a watershed year—and not only for Hollywood productions. This was the year of G. W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918 and Niemandsland, two of several films from Germany on the slate, offering perspectives from the other side of the trenches. It was also the year of Lewis Milestone’s, er, milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran who’d been conscripted out of secondary school, the film following a group of classmates through a similar recruitment and into the meat grinder.
After the boom years of the early ’30s, there was through the course of the decade a marked decline in the output of trench drama, and MoMA’s program reflects a long lull before the vernacular American “Frenchmen” of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). These were the post-’33 years in which the Production Code made its presence felt, when it became more difficult to deal frankly with the experiences of men at war. This wasn’t the only source of potential censorship: The Road Back (1937), the Whale-directed follow-up to All Quiet on the Western Front, also from a Remarque novel, was cut down before release when Universal Studios submitted to pressure from the German consul in Los Angeles, representing the PR concerns of the new government. These were also the years of Fire over England (1937) and Hollywood Anglophilia, when America’s interests were being subtly aligned with those of our British cousins, and when pop culture had ceased to look backward to the dead of the Somme and had begun to look ahead to an uncertain future. For how could a property as popular as the Great War do without a sequel?
“The Great War: A Cinematic Legacy” runs August 4–September 21, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.