I’ve watched a couple of those East German films about the war now. Of the two, Gerhard Klein’s The Gleiwitz Case from 1961 is definitely the one worth searching out. It’s based on an incident most people read about and then instantly forget, that the Nazis staged an attack by Polish nationalists on a German radio station and then used it as a pretext for, you know, subjugating an entire damn country. It’s shot in stark B&W with a million unconventional camera angles, and it’s best described as “unstuck in time”, with flashbacks and flash-forwards taking up as much space as the present-time story. It’s also quickly paced without seeming to skimp in any way, and the acting is all fine, too. I’m running through this it’s-all-okay checklist just to say that its origins as a GDR film don’t taint it or turn it into a platform for Soviet ideology. It’s legitimately good. It has two extraordinary sequences, in fact, one in which, through a series of percussive Citizen Kane-type flashbacks, we’re marched through the experiences that mold the leader of the commando squad into a rabid monster. The best passage, however, comes when the political prisoner whom the Nazis have selected as their patsy (they dress him in a Polish army uniform, then shoot him and leave his body at the radio station) is being transported to Gleiwitz. When the car brakes at a railroad crossing, the endless train carrying German soldiers and materiel toward the border causes him to realize with dawning awareness that this ride only goes one way.
Joachim Kunert’s The Adventures of Werner Holt (1965) is less experimental than Gleiwitz, but it’s still odd to see a conventional Hollywood epic built around the experiences of two German boys from high school to the end of the war. It’s expansive, sexually aware (hot chicks galore in it), and well-made, but it’s a meandering and unnecessary 165 minutes long. It was a huge hit and won several festival awards, though, and both it and Gleiwitz appeared at a time when the West German studios were pumping out serious treacle, the stuff that Fassbinder, Wenders & Co would soon be rebelling against.
What’s impressive is that both films probe deeply into the lives and backgrounds of their fanatics without either rationalizing or judging them. (I mean judging them from a bullying, triumphal point of view—a totalitarian point of view. Obviously the movies are anti-Nazi, anti-murder, etc.) I’ve got a couple more of them ordered, and it looks like the filmmakers were primarily interested in understanding the process by which normal people submit to a totalitarian regime, which is of course a surprise. They came up with some hardcore story lines, too. These summaries come from Amazon:
The Axe of Wandsbek – The Nazis need a hangman to put a group of political prisoners to death. Teetjen, the town butcher, makes the biggest mistake of his life: facing bankruptcy, he agrees to do the dirty deed.
The Second Track – Station inspector Brock is witness to a robbery. When he fails to report one of the culprits, he experiences flashbacks to his earlier failure to take a stand against Nazi persecutions years ago. The Second Track is the only East German film which explores the theme of former Nazis leading normal lives in the GDR.
Rotation – Ranked as one of Germany’s most important films ever, Rotation is the story of a German family that becomes divided over supporting the Nazis. The father considers joining the Nazi party purely to improve his finances. But after he helps print resistance leaflets, his son, a Hitler Youth member, betrays him.
The Gleiwitz Case
I was watching the end of I Vitelloni, with Franco Interlenghi looking out of the train window at his dead-end hometown as it rolls away from him for the last time, and I suddenly flashed on Quentin Compson, when Shreve asks him why he hates the South: “I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”
When I decided to compile a list of the best art to come out of World War II, it took me all of about two hours to realize it was one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had. Between the ceaseless stream of nominees for every category, hallucinatory arguments with myself about what merited inclusion, and the burgeoning awareness of all the material I haven’t explored or even heard of (this latter bit exacerbated by the flood of suggestions from various friends), I’d obviously bitten off more than I could chew—or even gum. I did manage to put together a provisional list of favorite films about the war, which, of course, is probably where this was going all along. I’m posting it here, the better to tinker with it in the future and in hopes that it might exorcise the demon that led me into this suicide mission to begin with.
Naturally it’s a subjective list: these are movies which satisfy me to some high degree emotionally, dramatically and aesthetically. Their quality as “war films” ranks low on the totem pole. Judged just by its combat scenes, Saving Private Ryan would certainly make the cut, but since its action is in service of a false, even pernicious, idea, I left it off. I’m also not smitten with gung-ho heroism, hence you’ll search in vain for The Sands of Iwo Jima here. For me the value of the World War II film lies in its concentration on the unlikely protagonist; fittingly, the war against fascism gave rise to some of the most egalitarian-minded films in the history of cinema, with many of the greatest ones coming from the Axis nations. The protagonists here aren’t heroes because they’ll charge a machine gun. The vast majority of them are little people, often weak, often cowardly, and almost always unprepared, but the intensity of their reactions to the cataclysm around them makes Bogart’s famous line in Casablanca—“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”—look simply wrong. Even the characters in uniform work to stay alive mainly to return to the normal, non-military life that existed for them before the world lost its mind. These movies make their characters’ humanity the subject of their stories, even in such cases as Army of Shadows or The Conformist, where that humanity is subordinated to a wider cause. Asterisks appear by the titles which mean the most to me—the ones that landed closest to where I live.
I close things out with a short list of films which most people dote on, and several of which are considered classics, but which, for one reason or another, have the same effect on me that The English Patient had on Elaine Benes; I mention them not to be a contrary asshole, but simply to forestall the incredulous query “You mean you haven’t seen The Pianist? Why, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world!” I also omitted a handful of films I love or admire (The Long Voyage Home, A Matter of Life and Death and Notorious among them) in which the war was mainly an incidental or peripheral factor. And, obviously, I’ve omitted the ton of movies that aren’t worth ranking at all. (Hail, The Battle of Britain! Ave, The Secret of Santa Vittoria!) God knows what movies I’ve forgotten, overlooked, or need to catch up on, but I’d be grateful for tips on all of them.
The Mortal Storm (Borzage 1940)
49th Parallel (Powell 1941)
To Be Or Not To Be (Lubitsch 1942)
The Pilot Returns (Rossellini 1942)
Went the Day Well? (Cavalcanti 1942)
Casablanca (Curtiz 1942)
Air Force (Hawks 1943)
The More the Merrier (Stevens 1943)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell 1943)*
This Land Is Mine (Renoir 1943)
Le Corbeau (Clouzot 1943)
Lifeboat (Hitchcock 1944)*
Western Approaches (Jackson 1944)
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges 1944)
Hail the Conquering Hero (Sturges 1944)*
Rome Open City (Rossellini 1945)*
Objective, Burma! (Walsh 1945)
They Were Expendable (Ford 1945)*
La Bataille du rail (Clément 1946)
Paisà (Rossellini 1946)*
Les Maudits (Clément 1947)
Germany Year Zero (Rossellini 1948)*
Home of the Brave (Robson 1949)
La Silence de la Mer (Melville 1949)
Battleground (Wellman 1949)
Decision Before Dawn (Litvak 1951)
Forbidden Games (Clément 1952)
The Caine Mutiny (Dmytryk 1954)
Attack! (Aldrich 1956)
Kanal (Wajda 1956)
Four Bags Full (La traversée de Paris) (Autant-Lara 1956)
A Man Escaped (Bresson 1956)*
The Burmese Harp (Ichikawa 1956)
The Battle of the River Plate (Powell/Pressburger 1956)
The Cranes Are Flying (Kalatozov 1957)
The Devil Strikes at Night (Siodmak 1957)
Bitter Victory (Ray 1957)
The Enemy Below (Powell 1957)
Ice Cold in Alex (Thompson 1958)
Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa 1959)
The Ballad of a Soldier (Chukhray 1959)
The Bridge (Wicki 1959)
General della Rovere (Rossellini 1959)
Il Federale (The Fascist) (Salce 1961)
Der Fall Gleiwitz (The Gleiwitz Case) (Klein 1961)
Hell is for Heroes (Siegel 1962)
Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovsky 1962)
The Great Escape (Sturges 1963)
It Happened Here (Brownlow/Mollo 1964)
Diamonds of the Night (Němec 1964)
King Rat (Forbes 1965)
Army of Shadows (Melville 1969)*
The Conformist (Bertolucci 1970)*
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (De Sica 1970)
Distant Thunder (S. Ray 1973)
Lacombe, Lucien (Malle 1974)
The Mirror (Tarkovsky 1974)
Overlord (Cooper 1975)
Seven Beauties (Wertmüller 1975)
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini 1975)
1900 (Bertolucci 1976)
Mr. Klein (Losey 1976)
The Ascent (Shepitko 1977)*
Cross of Iron (Peckinpah 1977)
The Tin Drum (Schlöndorff 1979)
Christ Stopped at Eboli (Rosi 1979)
The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder 1979)
The Big Red One (Fuller 1980)
Das Boot (Petersen 1981)
Night of the Shooting Stars (1982 Taviani)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Oshima 1983)
Come and See (Klimov 1985)*
Au Revoir, Les Enfants (Malle 1987)
Empire of the Sun (Spielberg 1987)
Hope and Glory (Boorman 1987)
Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata 1988)
Story of Women (Chabrol 1988)
Black Rain (Imamura 1989)
Europa Europa (Holland 1990)
Schindler’s List (Spielberg 1993)
The Thin Red Line (Malick 1998)
Indigènes (Bouchareb 2006)
Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood 2006)
Vincere (Bellocchio 2009)
Murderers Are Among Us (Staudte 1946)
The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler 1946)*
Shoeshine (De Sica 1946)
Without Pity (Senza pietà) (Lattuada 1948)
The Search (Zinnemann 1948)
The Third Man (Reed 1949)
Pigs and Battleships (Imamura 1961)
Das zweite Gleis (The Second Track) (Kunert 1962)
Wings (Shepitko 1966)
Camp de Thiaroye (Sembene 1988)
Enemies, a Love Story (Mazursky 1989)
Memory of the Camps (Bernstein/Hitchcock 1945)
Days of Glory (Visconti/De Sanctis/et al. 1945)
(The Battle of) San Pietro (Huston 1945)*
Blood of the Beasts (Franju 1949)*
Night and Fog (Resnais 1955)*
The Sorrow and the Pity (Ophüls 1969)*
The World at War (BBC 1973)
The Memory of Justice (Ophüls 1976)
Shoah (Lanzmann 1985)
The Doomed City: Berlin (Darlow 1986)
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Hara 1987)
Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (Ophüls 1988)*
The Eye of Vichy (Chabrol 1993)
Not For Me
The Great Dictator (Chaplin 1940)
Let There Be Light (Huston 1946)
Stalag 17 (Wilder 1953)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean 1957)
Kapo (Pontecorvo 1960)
Two Women (De Sica 1960)
Judgment at Nuremberg (Kramer 1961)
The Pawnbroker (Lumet 1964)
The Night Porter (Cavani 1974)
The Damned (Visconti 1969)
Sophie’s Choice (Pakula 1982)
Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg 1998)
The Pianist (Polanski 2002)
Downfall (Hirschbiegel 2004)
Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino 2009)
I got the Blu-Ray of Seven Samurai yesterday, and spent most of last night rolling around in it like a pig in shit. It struck me that one sequence which gets generally overlooked—the consummation of Katsushiro and Shino’s relationship, and its aftermath—shows off Kurosawa’s skill as well as anything in the movie. At that point of the movie—three hours into it, the night before the climactic battle—it’s hard to believe Kurosawa is putting his forward thrust on hold while this little playlet acts itself out, but it’s filled with so many beautiful, psychologically right details that I never want to skip past it. The lovers’ bodies writhing in the infernal firelight, Shino’s sensuous post-coital countenance just before she spots her enraged father, the reflexive decency with which Kambei comes to her aid when Manzo begins beating his daughter (“Stop this brutality!”), the camera’s sudden leap behind Katsushiro when Kambei realizes that he’s the samurai Manzo is raving about, the onset of the rain, and finally the winnowing of the scene to its essentials: first the villagers, and then Kambei, and finally Manzo, all drifting away, until only the lovers are left, Shino sprawled in the mud, Katsushiro standing with bowed head in the downpour.
It also struck me how right Kurosawa was to emphasize the warriors’ grief and fatigue. Katsushiro “becomes a man” by sleeping with Shino, and the next day he reaches another level of maturity when he kills his first bandit (though the camera cuts away with such quickness that a first-time viewer might not even realize the significance what’s just happened), but he reaches his most important milestone at the very end of the battle. Aching to avenge Kyuzo’s and Kikuchiyo’s deaths, he can only run in hysterical circles until Kambei grabs him and says “All the bandits are dead!”—at which point he falls to his knees and sobs. His education is complete now, but he becomes a true samurai only by taking on the sorrow that’s been Kambei’s all along.
James Agee is remembered today for a few things: his perceptive, funny film criticism; his script for The Night of the Hunter; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his exhausting but indispensable prose poem about Alabama tenant farmers, a book which taken simply as a thing is as fundamentally an American object as a handful of dirt from the Little Bighorn battlefield or Alan Shepard’s Mercury capsule; the atmospheric remembrance of his father’s sudden death in the novel A Death in the Family; and the myriad stories told by those who encountered the loquacious, footloose, irrepressible Agee in the flesh.
But he ought also to be remembered for this essay, which provides a glimpse of American daily life in a past that’s much closer than it seems. It lay in his papers, undiscovered, for almost 50 years, and it came to mind again two weeks ago after the Roberts Court decided to rip the guts out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If a look back at history doesn’t provide reason enough to sustain the VRA, what Rick Perry did less than two hours after the decision came down tore the veil off its opponents’ intentions. The gains granted by the Court to gays provided a watershed moment in America’s civil rights battle, but if Texas and other backward states are indeed allowed to roll the clock back on minorities, we’ll have taken one step forward for four or five very large steps back.
America, Look at Your Shame!
I keep remembering those photographs of the Detroit race riots which appeared in PM. Pages of them, and that typically PM headline, all over their front page.
AMERICA, LOOK AT YOUR SHAME!
That disgusted me, as their headlines so often do, but as I looked at the photographs I got a good deal of respect for the paper in spite of everything. Then I realized that with a few exceptions PM had cornered the photographs. They were unavailable to any other paper. That was as perfect, and typical a low as I had ever seen them touch. I wanted to write them. Or to do them as much damage as I possibly could. The liberals and the left. They had never shown themselves up better.
Look at your shame, indeed.
There was one in particular, that I couldn’t get out of my head; one of the less violent of them. It was the one which particularly showed that there were white people who were not only horrified by the riots but brave enough to do all they could for the Negroes. It showed two young men. They were holding up a terribly bleeding Negro man between them, and they looked at the camera as if they were at bay before a crowd of rioters, as perhaps they were not. The mixture of emotions on their faces was almost unbearable to keep looking at: almost a nausea of sympathy for the hurt man and for the whole situation; a kind of terror which all naturally unviolent people must feel in the middle of violence; absolute self-forgetfulness; a terrific, accidental look of bearing testimony—a sort of gruesome, over-realistic caricature; which was rather, really, the source of those attendant saints or angels who communicate with the world outside the picture in great paintings of crucifixions and exalted agonies
The thing that made it so particularly powerful to me was that both these young men, one of them especially, so far as you could judge by study, were of a sort which is often somewhat sneered at, by most bad people and by many pretty good ones: rather humbly “artistic,” four-effish people, of whom you might think that any emotion they felt would be tainted, at least, with fancy sentimentality.
It made me ashamed of every such reflex of easy classification and dismissal as I have ever felt—the more ashamed, because I had to wonder whether, in such a situation, I would have been capable of that self-forgetfulness and courage. It made me half-ashamed to keep looking at them, for that matter, as I had been doing again on that afternoon I am especially thinking of now. I care a great deal for such photographs; they do more, in certain ways, than any other art can. But there is also, in proportion to its best use, something criminal and indecent about the camera; and there is a great load of guilt on the eye that eats what it has predigested.
On this particular afternoon, which was the Sunday after the riots, I was up on East 92nd Street seeing a friend of mine, a photographer, and we spent quite a bit of the afternoon looking through things he clipped and a few I had brought along. I had not seen my friend at leisure for a long time and we had a particularly good afternoon of it, in which the photograph I am speaking of turned up powerfully but casually, and moved off to become a sort of tinge in the back of the mind. By the end of the afternoon I had the unusual, gay sort of good opinion of myself, my friend, photography and what my senses could enjoy, which you are liable to get out of whiskey and easy pleasure if work causes the latter to turn up seldom enough. By the time I left to go downtown for supper, I was at the high point just short of where intoxication begins to droop into clumsiness or melancholy; and the minute I was outdoors the streets, in the very beautiful late of afternoon weather, improved, that if it can be improved, with the feeling of being alone for a little while, and with the sharp, tender enjoyment of a city I am ordinarily tired in.
At 91st Street, on York Avenue, I got on an 86th Street crosstown bus and sat far forward on the right. It started nearly empty, and filled up rather quickly; I did not much notice when, or with whom, because I was looking out a great deal through the front and side windows, especially as soon as the bus swung west onto 86th Street and the street and the bus were filled with the low, bright sunlight. It was a light so gay, generous and beautiful, it was almost as if it tasted of champagne and smelled of strawberries, hay and fresh butter. What it smelled of more, of course, was carbon monoxide, which can also be a festal sort of smell, when everything is right, and was now; and the edges of the hundreds of doors and windows, along the street, were cut in a blue-gold, clean compound of sunlight, monoxide and stone. I watched all the people, puddling and straggling along the walks, and as usual, wondered which were the Hitchcock agents and which were the harmless, and what might be going on in each mind as they thought, if they did, of what was happening to Hitler and his idea and his people, over where it was dark now, and they were counting their losses in the East, and giving out modified reports in the middle, and staggering under the bombers from the west. In an easy insensitive way, I began to be very sorry for all those people caught in the hopeless middle; even for Hitler and his damned idea, so monstrous except that they already seemed so hopeless.
Around me, I realized the bus was thicker and thicker with people, some standing, some packed on the seats, all swaying, pleasant and patient-seeming in the green and gold light which filled the bus. Across the aisle were some sailors, sitting, their faces very young and very red, in their very white uniforms. Halfway back in the bus were some young soldiers; the same quality of variegated physical perfection and of almost indecent cleanness, which so few civilians ever seem to have—like so many priests, or Sunday babies, or little girls in bride-of-heaven regalia, but even more likable; dumb, very likely, cruel, very possibly, developed and perfected for something I feel no trust in; yet about the best thing that ever turns up in human life. I liked them a great deal, and all my doubts of it cleared; I might not be perfectly sure what I wanted, but I was no longer personally sorry that within a week I was coming up for induction; I was almost glad; and if I were taken, many things could be worse. One of them, very possibly, would be to come out the other end of the war, still a virginal civilian.
I liked them still better as I watched them and began to hear them. I especially noticed one quite strong young sailor, just across from me; a big boy, bigger than I am, a little; and because his eyes and his face had a good deal in them which as a child I used to fear, and have always been shy of, I now liked him particularly well. It was the sort of face which only turn up, so far as I know, in the South—heavy jaw, a slightly thin yet ornate mouth, powerful nose, blue-white, reckless, brutal eyes. I knew the voice just as well, and the special, rather crazy kind of bravery; they made me feel at once as isolated and as matchlessly at home as if I were back in the South again. Nearly all these boys, it turned out, were Southerners, the soldiers as well as the sailors, and the loud large sailor and the loudest and littlest of the soldiers were just finding this out about each other. One was from Atlanta; the other knew Atlanta very well. They began testing each other out on street names and bars, then on people, which did not go quite so well, and now and then the others chimed in with a wisecrack or an exclamation more simpleminded, They were happy as hell to run into each other like this—not even Viennese refugees can lay it on so thick, and enjoy it so much, as Southerners when they meet by surprise in an alien atmosphere. They were drunk, about as drunk as I was, and that helped; but they would have leaned on their dialects like trimming ship in a yacht-race even if they were sober. It is a very special speech, as unattractive to most Northerners as it is dear to natives, and I will not try to reproduce it here, beyond suggesting that its special broadenings, lifts, twangs and elisions, even if you didn’t know the idiom by heart, which I do, were as charming and miraculous as if, in the same New York bus, a couple of Parsees had saluted each other according to their own language and ritual.
A part of it, of course, was that they were basically insecure; it was insecurity and the southerner’s incomparable, almost pathic pride, as well as love of country and loneliness and the aching contempt for the North, which made them so spectacular, made so many Northerners on the bus look warm, cold or uneasy accordingly, and made the young sailors and soldiers begin to vocalize about the niggers on the bus and the God damned niggers in this f—ing town and the f—ing niggers all over the whole God damned f—ing Nawth. The word cut across my solar-plexus like a cold knife, and the whole bus, except for those two voices and the comments of their friends, was suddenly almost exploded by an immensely thick quietness. I glanced very quickly back; one of the soldiers met my eyes with eyes like hot iron, and two seats behind him sat a Negro (it is a word I dislike, but most of the others are still worse); sat a colored man of perhaps fifty, in nickel-rimmed glasses, a carefully starched white shirt, and a serge suit, managing so to use his eyes that you could see only the nickel rims and the lenses.
The flailing voices went on and on, more and more fanciful, naked and cruel, and though I was listening with great care for every word, and heard every word, I was also so occupied that I heard very little, and remember almost nothing, now. It was all the old, ugly routines; what we wouldn’t do to Boy son of a bitchin nigguh that tuck a seat by a white woman if we was in Atlanta; dey would; get a Nawthun nigguh down deah, you’d see what dey’d do; yaanh, reckin dey’d see thang a tyew. Three any ovem tried it, black rapin bastuhds; but there was very little of this I heard, because I was too sick to hear much, and too busy. I was trying to think what to do and what to say. I had, repeatedly, a very clear image of the moment I would get up, draw a standee aside, and hit the big young sailor who was, after all, very little bigger than me, as hard as I could on his bright, shaven jaw. I also had, repeatedly, the exact image of what would happen then. Singlehanded, that boy could tear me to pieces; what the crowd of them could do was a little beyond my imagination. I had the image of looking him in the eye; various ways, in fact, of looking him in the eye. One was the cold, controlled rage which is occasionally used to pick a fight and which my kind more occasionally uses to bring a sexual quarrel or an intellectual argument as near to nature as we are likely to go. One was the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger look which is liable to compound some genuineness of feeling with plagiarisms from photographs of Lincoln and paintings of Veronica’s veil; it is occasionally used, and effective, when somebody else’s neurosis goes wild, but unless you are too good a human being to know you are using it, there is no uglier or more abject device of blackmail. One, worst of them all, was the blank eye which commits itself to nothing. But none of these, it was easy to see, were of any use unless I was ready to back them up physically, and I could hear, just as clearly as I could visualize, the phonograph-records of talk they would bring on; nigger-lover is the favorite word. I was also trying to think what to say; for I know from the past—and might have known by some of the Detroit photographs if I had thought of them just then—that their kind of talk and even action is sometimes completely quieted by the right kind of talking, and better quieted then into sullenness; quieted into deep abashment. I have a friend, a small and elderly man, who would have brought that effect almost instantly. But his size and his age would have been a part of it; still more, his perfect self-forgetfulness, his unquestioning intrepidity. I was neither small nor elderly, nor self-forgetful, nor intrepid, nor singlehearted in any one of my perceptions or emotions; I was simply fumbling at words and knowledges: Look here. What are you fighting this war about. I know how you feel, I know you’re from the South, I’m from the South myself, I know (I may be but the way I say it makes it a lie). Things are different there, and all this you see here goes against every way you believe is right. But you’ve got to get used to it. You’ve got to know it. This is one of the main things this war is about (is it? is it?). If it isn’t about this we might as well not be fighting it at all (we might as well not, indeed). You’ll ask me where I’ve got any right to tell you what you’re fighting for. I’m not even in uniform. I’m not I know but I’ll be in one soon—next week (will I? do I want to be?). But that’s not the point anyhow (this is falling apart). Anyone on this bus has got a right to know the point and to tell it to you, white or black (I sound like a Tennessee senator; race, creed and coluh), we’ve got to make this a free country where every human being can be well with every other human being, regardless of race, creed or color, we’ve got to make it a world like that. I don’t believe you mean the harm you say, honestly, but you’ve got to realize it, you might as well be fighting for Hitler as to fight for this country feeling the way you do.
It was all so much cotton-batting on my tongue. I couldn’t gather a phrase of it together and make it mean anything, even to myself. Talking to them, talking for the corroboration of most of the bus, unable to talk in my own language because my own language would mean nothing even if I could use it with enough belief to make it mean something to me. All the hopeless, bland, advertising-copy claims of the Four Freedoms was running in my head; all the undersupplying of the Chinese; all the talk of the “magnificent courage” of the Red Army, and all the Rice Krispies which took the place of a second front; all the Bryn Mawr girls, planning to police post-war Europe; all the PM articles and the Wallace speeches and the slogans; I cannot know to this day with how much justice they undermined me, and with how much cowardice. I only know I could not believe a word I said; and had images of saying it and having the hell beaten out of me, and other images of saying it with effect; and other images of a fight which could be stopped by cops who are as much a phobia to me as rats; and others of modest and of carefully worded and of modestly rhetorical statements by myself, repeated in the press; a small yet not wholly undistinguished instant in the history of the world’s long Fight for Freedom; that hit me with self-disgust like a blow in the belly; and I noticed that the big sailor was now standing, and an elderly Negro woman had his seat.
Whether he had stood rather than sit beside her, or out of an instant genuine courtesy, quickly repented, or out of mock courtesy, I could not tell from anything he was saying; and this still further perplexed me. If his motives were the first or the third, then it was more than even I could bear, not to fight him; if he had felt one moment of reflex courtesy, I felt friendliness towards him in spite of all he was now saying. I listened hard, to learn, and could not make out. One reason I could not make out was that I was also listening to the woman. She was talking very little, and crying a little, and telling him, and the whole bus, that he ought to be ashamed, talking that way. People never done him no harm. Ain’t your skin that make the difference, it’s how you feel inside. Ought to be ashamed. Just might bout’s well be Hitluh, as a white man from the South. Wearing a sailor’s uniform. Fighting for your country. Ought to be ashamed.
There was an immense relaxation in the quiet through the whole bus; but not in me. I caught the eye, at that moment, of a man about my age, in one of the longways seats across the aisle. He was dressed in a brown, Sunday-looking suit. He may have been a Jew, and more certainly would have described himself, without self-consciousness or satire, as “an intellectual.” We looked at each other, and a queer, sick smile took one corner of his face, and I felt in my own cheeks that tickling, uncontrollable, nauseating smile which is so liable to seize my face when I tell one close friend disastrous news of another.
I remembered the photograph in PM, and looked sternly at the floor, with my cheek twitching. That evening I told of the whole thing, as honestly as I could, to several people who were down for drinks. They were quite shocked by it, and seemed also rather favorably stirred by my honesty. That embarrassed me a good deal, but not as painfully as I wish it might have, and I found their agreement that they would have done the same almost as revolting as my own performance in the doing act, and in the telling.
So now I am telling it to you.
I think Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica is pretty damn great, but I may be inherently biased toward any movie which has De Sica’s heart and that crowded, millenial World Cinema vibe, and which manages to be an unsentimental road/buddy-movie to boot. In fact, it’s not too weird to say that Lamerica is what Midnight Run might have looked like if Francesco Rosi had directed it.
It’s set in Albania just after the Commies lost power in ’91 and the country was on its ass. A slick Italian swindler, planning to set up a shell company so he can abscond with the government grant, picks as his front an old man who’s been a political prisoner for so long—50 years—that he’s mute and half-mad. The swindler assigns a young helper, little more than a thug, to babysit the old man and make sure he shows up to sign the necessary papers as CEO of the fake company. But the old man toddles off when the kid isn’t looking, the kid chases after him, and they’re soon stuck out in the countryside, at the mercy of each other and Albania’s cratered economy.
Because I’m an incurious dumb-ass I’d had no idea that the relationship between Italy and Albania was this complex, but it’s been a problem for centuries. During the war Italy occupied and then annexed Albania, I knew that much, and Albania still has a love-hate fascination with Italy since it’s the closest model for Western democracy and luxuries. (A recurring image in Lamerica: clusters of Albanians taking in, and transfixed by, cheap Italian TV shows.) The picture’s style is naturalistic, though its portrait of a society still reeling from the Hoxha regime is so creepy that I at least hope it’s been heightened. The barely reformed prison in which we first see the old man makes the Midnight Express prison look like a Holiday Inn, and there’s a hair-raising scene in which a pack of street urchins attach themselves to the old man like half-pint barnacles and manipulate him with predatory grace into an old bunker to roll him. This is a world in which even a simple lift in a lorry involves being jostled along with 75 other men, and when near the movie’s end the young hero finally finds a bed to rest on, it doesn’t matter that it’s nothing more than a filthy cot—we’re exhausted along with him.
Glenn Kenny’s reprinted an old interview he did with Scorsese when home video was a new thing, and the ensuing comments made me realize that sometimes I still get flashes where home video feels like a miracle. When I was a kid I understood that TV would show Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein about once a year, but that was a model of reliability compared to the days when missing, say, The Conformist during its theatrical run might mean having to wait 25 years to get another crack at it. One reason I appreciate old-timey critics like Sarris, beyond anything they ever wrote, is the dedication it would’ve taken to hunt down the most obscure Allan Dwan movie and then create whatever mnemonic devices they had to in order to remember its details because—very probably—they were never going to see it again. That rarity lent a lot of magic to scanning repertory house calendars when they came out because you never knew when some movie you’d been hammering your friends with for years would be on it.
I have to say, though, I’m having a time getting my head around streaming. I like collecting stuff and I also like just staring at shelves of things, be they movies or books or what-have-you. Yeah, I probably don’t need that copy of Wellman’s The Call of the Wild in my closet, but I like knowing it’s there. And when I think of the scores of movies I do feel like I need to own physical copies of, there’s so many of them I may as well go the semi-whole hog, even if physical discs look like a losing technology.
Talking Points Memo has a great collection of Inauguration Day photos up. Click the pix for the large version, especially “FDR 1933”.
McKinley 1897, with Grover Cleveland
West Point Cadets, Wilson 1913
Suffragette Parade, Wilson 1913
Kick it off with Roy Ward Baker’s 1953 Inferno. Robert Ryan is a tycoon who breaks his leg in the California desert; his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and a business associate, who are having an affair, decide to leave him for dead; Ryan, who inherited his wealth and is thus “untested”, decides to prove his scrappiness by crawling out of the desert and taking his revenge. It’s not an easy movie to categorize. It’s definitely noir-spiced, but it’s also a modern Western, it has a concentrated Bressonian quality during Ryan’s efforts to fashion a rope, and it was shot in dazzling Technicolor and 3-D—the latter most obvious during a fistfight in which the combatants make a point of tossing lanterns and chairs directly at the camera. Most striking is the tone of Ryan’s stream-of-consciousness narration during his ordeal: it’s quiet and good-humored, not at all the rage-fueled monologue you’d expect from Robert Ryan in that situation. (Ryan would have had a lock on The Hulk if they’d been making Avengers pictures in his time.) Fleming and her swain are also down to earth—not caricatures of lecherous evil—and the ending ties things up is a satisfying way, with a zinger for a closing line.
James Benning’s Landscape Suicide is split up into separate but equal looks at two murder cases, one which is draped in infamy (Ed Gein), the other (a high-school student’s status-envy knifing of a classmate) only relatively famous. The two parts structurally mirror each other, with meditative shots of the locales of the killings and their environs (the snow-sludgy Wisconsin prairies, the malls and suburbs of California) sprinkled between re-creations of the killers’ police house confessions and staged material that provides a tonal commentary on the events. (In the section about the teenager, a young woman is seen talking on a phone in her bedroom while “Memory” from Cats plays—in its entirety—just loud enough to drown out her words, but we see her going through a gamut of emotions, including one bit of speed-acting in which she completely loses her shit one moment only to start laughing merrily the next.) There’s a lot of remarkable acting here, but I was really floored by Rhonda Bell, who, though barely moving a muscle in the 15 or 20 minutes she’s onscreen, expresses so many shades of apprehensiveness, regret and cluelessness that it’s mind-boggling.
Gervaise is Rene Clement’s adaptation of Zola’s novel L’Assommoir about the mother of the character Jean Gabin played in Renoir’s La Bete Humaine. Humaine’s web is woven around the idea that both of Gabin’s parents were drunks (and depressives), and that people’s inherent inability to grow past their parents’ shortcomings seals their fate. I read ahead of time that Gervaise made a splash because of its direct approach to poverty and alcoholism, but I still wasn’t prepared for it. From the opening scene on it’s just the most doom-laden thing imaginable. Gervaise (the character) doesn’t really go off the deep end until the very end—she keeps fighting her fate, and fighting it, but it’s all working against her. How fucked up is it? Well, in one scene Gervaise’s husband comes home drunk and passes out on the bed, and when we see him he’s clearly vomited all over himself and the pillow next to him; their little girl Nana runs into the shot and instinctively touches her father, then recoils—and wipes her hand on a dry patch on his pants, before running out of the room. (Nana will grow up to be a prostitute; Renoir also filmed her story.)
Essential Killing maintains its dream-like tone even during its fairly convincing imagining of the rendition process (including waterboarding). Neither of the two name stars—Vincent Gallo and Emmanuelle Seigner—has so much as a single line of dialog in the entire picture (without it ever feeling mannered or monotonous), and Gallo must’ve gone through some real hell running barefoot through Norwegian forests at 30 below zero. It’s a political movie only to the extent that it’s impossible not to notice that the occupying forces, although unnamed, all speak English in American accents, or that the country Gallo’s originally captured in looks just like Afghanistan, or that with his long beard he looks just like a Taliban; mostly it’s just a Rogue Male type narrative about a man on the run in the face of increasingly distressing circumstances. In any case it’s a wonder that a 72-year old director could come up with this much energy, but it’s also only Skolimowski’s second movie since he took a 17-year break from filmmaking to devote to painting. I’m happy for him and everything—he’s always said painting was his first love—but it hurts to think what we missed out on in the meantime.
Essential Killing is intelligently tasteful, as Skolimowski’s movies always are. (He’s particularly strong on endings, and this one’s no exception.) He co-wrote the script with a fellow Pole yet the chatter among the GIs is fluid and believable—a lot more so than the cartoony bluster the characters spout in Platoon or The Hurt Locker.
Red Beard has some nice qualities but Kurosawa lays on the humanist stuff so thickly that it’s all congealed by the end. Most critics call this film the end of his middle period because, among other things, it was his last movie with Mifune, but it feels more like the beginning of the Dodeskaden/Dersu Uzulu period—everything’s a little more schematic and blunter. Mifune got top billing because of who he was, but it feels like he’s barely onscreen, and it’s a 3-hour movie. A long 3-hour movie.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Two Men in Manhattan is clunky, unmotivated and chockful of bad acting, but a fun 84-minute ride nevertheless. Melville made it in between Bob le Flambeur and Leon Morin, Priest, and if you don’t count Un Flic it’s the only one of his movies that’s undeniably worse than the one that came before. When the French delegate to the U.N. misses a vote and can’t be found anywhere, a French reporter and an unscrupulous alcoholic photographer start scouring Manhattan over one night looking for him. There’s no great mystery, the guy just croaked at his mistress’ apartment, so the movie is really an excuse for Melville to indulge his love for America—and for NY in particular. The hunt takes the pair to the Mercury Theater (in mid-play), Capitol Records (a jazz song played in full), a strip-club “in darkest Brooklyn” (the African-American dancer obligingly strips on camera) and, again and again, Times Square. (Flower Drum Song was on Broadway; Separate Tables was in the theaters.) The city looks great in both natural lighting and high contrast B&W; in places it looks as good as it does in Manhattan or Sweet Smell of Success. Melville himself, droll as all hell, does a creditable job as the reporter. (The bad acting I mentioned above is courtesy of the female secondary players, who compensate by with their fabulous looks. Melville’s eye for the female form was sharper than Kubrick’s.) The best work comes from Pierre Grasset as the shitheel shutterbug who’s cashing in on other people’s misery. You can smell how jaded he is.
Christian Carion’s Farewell is one good spy flick. Great characters, acting, writing, the whole shmear; it even made me tense and I never get tense in movies anymore. Despite the prominence of his mug in the ads, Dafoe is barely in it—the real star is director Emir Kusturica, who resembles John C. Reilly’s face screwed onto Brendan Gleeson’s body. Farewell offers a credible take on what Moscow streetlife and social gatherings must’ve been like during the Cold War, and scenes that usually drive me nuts—wives nagging their husbands about their dangerous work, guys telling their bosses “I’m the one taking the heat so you have to back me up here!”—are done just right. It’s “based on a true story” and it was based on some French book, but this thing alleges that the Kremlin had the drawings for the space shuttle, our nuclear codes, and even the White House’s digicodes and food delivery schedule. Bonus: Fred Ward doing a good-enough Ronald Reagan imitation. There’s even a scene of him and David Soul discussing the shift in perspective at the end of Liberty Valance.
Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! is so good—and smart—and funny—that it hurts. It’s about a woman in East Berlin who goes into a coma a month before the Wall fell. She was an ardent German socialist and party member, and when, after reunification, she comes out of her coma, the doctors warn her son that any shock might kill her. So begins an extremely funny masquerade, as the son goes to increasingly elaborate pains to explain such capitalist intrusions as the giant Coca-Cola banner across the street, and recruits his Gareth Keenan-like buddy to help him create nightly “newscasts” reporting on the fictional tidal waves of unemployment and drug addiction sweeping through West Germany. Through all this the movie keeps quietly churning toward its real subject, which has to do with a long-buried family secret. But, man, it’s just so rich. In one scene the mother, feeling her oats, sneaks out of the house and onto the street, only to be greeted by strange, un-Communist graffiti—a swastika, a penis—and other alien sights. Becker hasn’t made another feature since then (2003) but supposedly has something in the works now. In the meantime, though…wow.
Alessandro Blasetti’s Four Steps in the Clouds – A traveling salesman meets a young pregnant woman who’s on her way home despite knowing that her family is going to disown her when they find out the news. The baby’s father has fled to god knows where, so the girl convinces the salesman to make a quick appearance, posing as her husband, so her family will take her in. This leads to a Hail the Conquering Hero-type escalation of lies, mostly comic in nature, but the mood changes radically in the final 15 minutes, when you realize how much the experience has meant to the salesman. The final scene is shot through with the same kind of life-wrecking regret that Peter Riegert finds at the end of Local Hero. All this is especially surprising considering the movie came out in ’42—I’m quite sure the values on display here won’t be found in any German films from that year. (Four Steps was remade in ’95 as A Walk in the Clouds, with Keanu Reeves and Anthony Quinn. I’m passing on that version, though.)
Guy Debord’s last movie, the palindromically titled In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (or We Spin Around the Night Consumed by the Fire), is an essay about a society making war on itself, equal parts spleen, egotism, egalitarianism, and pessimistic cultural history. It’s a collage of photos and film scraps, with a great many aerial views of Paris, advertisements, water-level views of Venice (which Debord, like Pound, seemed to see as a cultural utopia), photos of himself and unidentified friends, and long quotations from French and American commercial films. (The only two I recognized were Children of Paradise and The Longest Day.) In a long opening passage (which he begins by labeling his audience idiots, sheep, zombies, etc.) he goes after the young professional class leading comfy, empty lives (it came out in ’78)–obvious-sounding stuff but in his hands both damning and fascinating. The narration—I’m not sure if it was Debord himself reading it—struck some surprisingly emotional notes for the author of The Society of the Spectacle. It’s something I’d be careful about recommending to people, but I sure am glad I saw it.
And finally, two good noirs—strike that. Make that, one good one, and one that’s really good. They Won’t Believe Me has the big-name stars—Jane Greer, Susan Hayward, and Robert Young (at his very best) as a guy who keeps tripping over the dick he can’t keep in his pants. Great women characters, especially Hayward’s greedy slut who gains some substance as the picture goes on.
City That Never Sleeps was a little Republic picture with such an unwieldy plot that it’s virtually indescribable. A Chicago cop, played by Gig Young, wants to quit both his job and his wife so he can take up with a burlesque dancer. He falls in with a shady lawyer and an increasingly crazed gangster–Edward Arnold and William Talman respectively. (Talman played the perpetual chump Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason, but only after turning in a bunch of wonderfully psycho performances in various noirs, including my beloved Crashout.) Lots of location shooting around Chicago, including a gripping nighttime foot-chase down the El and two men going to Fist City alongside the third rail. The best scene, though, focuses on a secondary character, a washed-up actor who’s been reduced to dancing around as a “mechanical man” in the burlesque house’s show-window. The scene where, while still wearing the Tin Man’s makeup, he tries to entice the stripper with his pathetic fantasies of the far-off places he’d take her to approaches Touch of Evil-levels of insanity, and the movie’s denouement is set in motion when he sheds a single telltale tear.
I was just downstairs having a smoke, and it’s Wednesday so the building is having its cruddy little farmers’ market down there, and there’s a fair amount of foot traffic wandering through the courtyard. Something I saw down there must’ve reminded me of a time when I still lived in Houston, and I was rushing to some appointment and needed to know what time it was. (I’ve never worn a watch.) A businessman was passing by, and after I asked him for the time and he gave it to me, the following question popped unbidden out of my mouth: “Is that the right time?”…as if, for some arcane reason, a person might set his watch an hour off and then, when asked by a stranger for the time, deliberately give them the wrong answer. It seemed a reasonable question in the split-second before I asked it, almost like small talk or a different way of saying thanks, but he was an accomplished and well-heeled chap, a serious man unused to inanities from such as I, and he gave me a glare both bewildered and slightly hostile before growling out “Yeah!” in a gruff voice which sounded like, You may think you’re being funny, but…you’re fucking with the wrong man. It was only after he walked away that I considered how the question must’ve sounded to him, and to this day every time I think of that scene it busts me up no matter where I am. And so it was just now when, even though nothing outward had happened, I started shaking with laughter amongst the office-workers toting away their bags of pistachios.
Same deal with something that happened about 10 years ago. I was seeing a woman I’ll call Lulu, and I was at her house on a weeknight and we’d just been fooling around. I had a meeting or something the next morning and felt like I needed to go home and sleep in my own bed, so I was getting dressed and getting ready to go, while Lulu was bugging me to stay. (No way of fitting “understandably” into that last clause without sounding like a cad, but you know what I mean.) Anyway, she was sitting up in bed naked, and she was chiding me and pretending to be mad, and I was apologizing and trying to explain my side of things when, in a completely adorable way, she suddenly cried out YOU’RE A STINKER!, then threw the blanket into the air so that it settled like over her whole body like an Arabian tent. When I left I could just see one of her eyes peeking out at me from the blanket.
One more. This one was circa, I don’t know, sometime in the late ’80s, and my roommate at the time was hooked on meth. By day he maintained a surprisingly normal existence, even managing to keep his job teaching at a private school despite doing things like running into school one Sunday morning for a faculty meeting that was actually scheduled for the next day. One night he and I were driving somewhere and he needed to buy some gas. We pulled into a station and he got out to pump it, but in his mental fog he grabbed the regular pump and started trying to fit it into his unleaded-only gas tank. He didn’t see his mistake when it didn’t fit, and he kept on trying to push the pump into the tank despite such priceless clues that something was wrong as the loud metal-on-metal kunking noises coming from his hands. I was getting out of the car to see what was up, and saw a girl of about 17 at the next pump who was studying TJ doubtfully as he continued struggling with the nozzle, looking like he was working on a math problem. Suddenly she said, “Hey, mister, you’re trying to fit an unleaded pump into a regular gas tank,” at which point TJ suddenly lifted his head as if coming out of a trance and yelled “HUH?!” Turning around, intending to hang the hose up and get the right one, he instead managed to tangle his feet up and trip over it, doing a belly-flop at the girl’s feet as she jumped yelping out of the way.
There’s at least one more story like that—a friend and I accidentally demolished a motel’s driveway canopy in Fort Kearney, Nebraska—but I’ll give it a rest. Probably none of these stories translate here, but they all tickle the shit out of me enough that if I think about them anywhere, I start laughing like a daft man.
it’s too bad Gorge Lucas is not aliv e becuase the specil effects in this movvie are BAD. The man with lepresy looks like he had makeup on and when Jeesus “walks upon the water” it obviously double exposure and does not look real AT ALL. This is also a very TALKY movie. I do not believe Jeesus was booring. Also, you ccan tell that Peter Pasterini is some kind of Commuist because of the inflamatory things that Jeesus says. In the Bible, fro instance, he throws MONEYCHANGERS out of the temple. I am not a Bibblical scholar and do not know what a moneychanger is, but in this movie Jeesus chases some hard-working merchants away, whidh is DEFINTIELY not in the Bible! Jesus was not a Angry Man! The Crucifiction scene touched me, though. I begna to cry when Mary got upset and so I give this movie 1 out of 4 stars.
Urm…naturally, I kid. But I did recently watch A Futura Memoria, a feature length biography of Pasolini that focuses more on his intellectual evolution than on who he knew or slept with. (It doesn’t even get to his film career until it’s more than halfway over.) The Italian intellectuals in this thing sure are different than our intellectuals–their dumbest one doesn’t sound dumb or phony at all, and even the government minister who was part of the effort to persecute Pasolini throughout his adult life states his reasons for it in really cogent ways. Some of the more famous talking heads include Moravia, Laura Betti (the actress who played Sutherland’s fucked-up wife in 1900 and who wrote a book about Pasolini and the government), and Franco Citti, who starred in Accatone (and played the bodyguard of Michael Corleone who didn’t betray him in Part 1), along with various writers, politicians, boyfriends, etc., all of whom still seem a little awed by Pasolini’s genius and contradictions.
Late in his life, disillusioned by what he called the “homologation” of modern life (basically, the homogenization of culture due to rampant consumerism), he split with the Italian student movement, writing a famous essay which took the side of the cops because they represented the last ends of the peasant class while the students represented a new middle-class to be overcome. He became an admirer of Rudi Dutschke, the German student leader whose ideas owed a lot to Gramsci, and the filmmakers interview one of Dutschke’s friends who knew Pasolini well. The guy finally says he wishes he could talk to the kid who killed Pasolini and, bang, suddenly the film crew, along with the German guy, is standing on the spot where the murder occurred talking to the killer, who’d already finished out his sentence. The guy’s quite forthcoming about what happened that night, but the interviewers don’t ask him the one thing I’ve always wondered: Did he know who Pasolini was when he ran him over with his own car?
Great as it is, this doc is actually just a bonus feature for another documentary, one that Pasolini himself made while scouting locations for The Gospel According to Matthew. It sort of foreshadows the homologation line of thought in the sense that Pasolini originally wanted to shoot Matthew in Palestine and Israel, but had to abandon the idea because the land was too built up, too developed and modernized, while the locals who he’d need as extras were too Arabic looking. The doc covers the process of him coming to that conclusion, and it’s really kind of a road picture since it consists of a long road trip with Pasolini and a hired Catholic priest who was familiar with the Holy Lands. The priest was a pot-bellied, balding, bespectacled frump on the outside, but he was a good choice–a man of substance. When Pasolini realizes he has to change course the priest gives him the best advice in the world, telling him to finish his trip and to just spend the time soaking up the atmosphere of the Holy Land and then to let that ferment into something personal that the film would spill out of. Which is exactly what Pasolini did…(He wound up shooting it in Sicily and Morocco.)
Also, I just stumbled across this little encounter, which I had no idea even existed. It’s actually a damn good interview, and Pasolini reads an Italian translation of Canto LXXXI very, very beautifully towards the end, though the translation in the subtitles is for shit. Here’s the original text…