Friday, August 28, 2009


METROPOLITAN (1990, USA, Whit Stillman)
Of course there’s a God! We all basically know there is.
I know no such thing.
Of course you do! When you think to yourself — and most of our waking life is taken up thinking to ourself — you must have that feeling that your thoughts aren’t entirely wasted, that in some sense they are being heard. I think it's this sensation of silently being listened to with total comprehension that represents our innate belief in a supreme being, an all–comprehending intelligence. What it shows is that some kind of belief is innate in all of us. At some point most of us lose that, after which it can only be regained by a conscious act of faith.

And you’ve experienced that?
No, I haven’t. I hope to someday.

It is a truism universally acknowledged, that Whit Stillman is the Jane Austen of indie film. But truisims only become truisms because they're at least partly true, and this one most certainly is. Both Austen and Stillman bring an affectionate irony to their carefully observed studies of romance and social ritual among the young and privileged, whether in rural Britain around the turn of the eighteenth century or in uptown Manhattan at the end of the twentieth.

We don't want to like these people: they have too much, they are too full of themselves. We delight in the author's gentle skewering of their pretensions, the understated portrayal of their follies and the quietly relentless exposure of their casual cruelties. All too eager to see the high and mighty fall, we intuitively trust Stillman and Austen to be our guides in these exotic locales: their knowing attention to detail proves them to be insiders, their ironic distance shows them to be like us.

Little do we know, it's all authorial strategy. These writers love the worlds they describe, love the characters they create, and in spite of ourselves we find before long that we've been won over. That sort of affection is contagious, and we end up bigger-hearted people for the experience.

In METROPOLITAN, we enter the world of debutante balls and exclusive Park Avenue afterparties through the character of Tom Townsend, a bookishly intelligent and humorless young man who is inadvertently drawn into "The S.F.R.P." (the Sally Fowler Rat Pack) when a party of preppies mistakenly conclude that they've commandeered his cab. Tom disguises his inability to afford cabfare (or a decent overcoat) with high-sounding principles, they (approvingly) label him a "public transit snob," and he's in – all the while hiding his desperate loneliness and desire to fit in behind a deliciously transparent intellectual posturing, his attendance at the social functions he pretends to disdain cloaked in a condescending quasi-anthropological curiosity.

But his disdain and ours begins to fall away as the outspokenly snobbish Nick takes Tom under his wing, tutoring him in such matters as detachable collars and "the standards and ideals of the UHB" (the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, which they prefer to terms like "preppie" or "yuppie."). The artistry in the way Stillman crafts his story is seen most clearly in the way he shapes our perception of Nick (brilliantly played by Chris Eigeman, who became a fixture in Stillman's films), as an initial impression of grating arrogance gives way to genuine respect and affection. Nick may not be like us, but by the end of the film we may wish we were more like Nick.

In his introduction to the Penguin edition of Pride And Prejudice, Tony Tanner calls the story "a drama of recognition," which is to say, of re-cognition: as events unfold, not only the characters are called on to change their initial judgments of other characters, but so too the reader. Just as Elizabeth Bennet must revise her original assessment of the "proud" Mr. Darcy, and, in the process, expand her view of the world, so are our perceptions – indeed, our prejudices – challenged.

There is something significantly Christian in this shift from judgment to understanding, affection, even respect. One might call it the perspective of grace. In fact there are any number of other little markers that seem to hint at the writer-director's transcendent intentions. The opening credits are heralded by "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," the opening phrase elegantly rendered by piano and string quartet before a sassy segue into the film's neo-Jazz Age theme. We are introduced to Audrey (the film's Fanny Price, a virtuous heroine whose favourite novel is Mansfield Park), then the title card "Manhattan – Christmas Vacation – Not so long ago" gives way to a shot of the Pan Am building, its office windows illuminated in the shape of a cross. Tom is swept up into the Sally Fowler afterparty, and we reach what Stillman describes as "the original beginning of the film": an intense after-midnight conversation about the existence of God. "And you’ve experienced that?" "No, I haven’t. I hope to someday." Which certainly tells us much about the essence of these characters, the gap between their sophisticated theories and their meagre life-experience, but which also seems to be the culmination of a whole sequence of references to Something Beyond the narrow concerns of the debutantes and their escorts.

One recurring motif in the film is the tendency of these naïve sophisticates to resolve any conversation about another character's short-comings or questionable moral behaviour with some variation of "Well, he's basically a good person." Only the brash, truth-speaking liar, Nick, sees further into things. We take as essentially comic his early instructional monologue to Tom:

You haven't seen this? Detachable collar. Not many people wear them anymore, they look much better. So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned to supposed convenience. It's a small thing, but symbolically important. Our parents' generation was never interested in keeping up standards. They wanted to be happy. Of course, the last way to be happy is to make it your objective in life.
I wonder if our generation is any better than our parents'?
Oh it's worse. Our generation's probably the worst since… the protestant reformation. Barbaric. But a barbarism far worse than the old-fashioned straightforward kind. Now barbarism is cloaked with all sorts of self-righteousness and moral superiority.
You're obviously talking about a lot more than just detachable collars.
Yeah, I am.
Yet this is very much of a piece with his much more costly admission of personal guilt later in the film;
Charlie: So you're just another hypocrite!
Nick: That's not hypocrisy. It's sin.
For all Cynthia's dismissive response that "It's hardly that," we feel that a deeper, starker truth has been spoken than we've heard in all the earnest self-disclosures and intellectual theories that comprise the bulk of the film's dialogue. And later, when an evocative return to "A Mighty Fortress" underscores one of the film's most touching (yet understated) scenes, that ancient hymn almost becomes Nick's theme.

It would be a mistake to read METROPOLITAN as essentially a religious film, yet there's no denying that faith – Protestant Christian faith, in particular – is part of the essential fabric of Whit Stillman's world. As his characters move from the debutante balls of METROPOLITAN to the dance clubs of THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO to overseas careers in BARCELONA, the childhood protections of naivete and privilege erode: Stillman's characters are increasingly confronted with their own limitations and mortality, and find themselves reaching for something beyond what money, youth, and social standing can provide.

Fundamentally, though, these are not message movies. If there is serious spiritual intent beneath these delightfully comic surfaces, fear not – it's cleverly concealed, if indeed it is there at all. Whatever these films may intimate about eternity, the chief pleasure they offer is the opportunity to spend time in the company of the gracious, erudite Whit Stillman and his earnest, bright, "basically good" young friends – however filthy rich they may be.

It bears mention that not everyone ends up liking these characters: for some viewers, the initial perception of pettiness, arrogance and self-preoccupation is only confirmed by ninety minutes spent in their presence. If Audrey alone is hard to fault on these grounds, her attraction to Tom may nonetheless baffle: what is there in his clued-out prickliness to win her love beyond a poorly disguised insecurity? But whether or not one finds her fondness for the wounded outsider sweet or admirable (or even an embodiment of grace), it is nonetheless entirely believable, played to understated perfection by Carolyn Farina, a non-actress discovered working the Macy's perfume counter. I think one of the film's real achievements is that it leaves room for us to draw our own conclusions, observing its characters acutely but never dictating our response – much in the manner of Jane Austen herself, or Noel Coward, even Oscar Wilde, who may not always like their characters, but always enjoy them. Whether or not we share Whit Stillman's author's affection for Audrey, Tom, Charlie and Nick, we can still delight in their wit – and in their witlessness, wittily observed.


There is a very fine Austin Bramwell article on all three Whit Stillman films at "First Things," a Catholic journal of "religion, culture and public life" (though I'm not nuts about his last paragraph).

The Criterion DVD of METROPOLITAN is available as part of the Videomatica collection, on loan at the UBC Koerner Library.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

VIFF Countdown Begins

Fall approaches, and so does the Vancouver International Film Festival. Jason Morehead's TIFF picks at Filmwell have me wondering what Soul Food there'll be at VIFF this year. A little nervous - the festival dates (Oct 1-16) coincide with THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT at Pacific Theatre (Oct 7-17), in which I play Butch Honeywell, so three daytimes, four evenings and one afternoon a week are out. Hoping to see ANTICHRIST (Lars von Trier), CREATION, CLEANFLIX. Fingers crossed!

September 5
Sneak Preview Guide Available at locations around town. Click here for more info

September 12
Complete program published on (film info, schedules)

September 18
2009 VIFF Program Catalogue available

September 19
Cash sales begin. Tickets can be purchased in person with cash and at the VISA Advance Box Office, Vancouver International Film Centre, 1181 Seymour St.

October 1 - 16
The Festival

Jason Morehead picks CREATION

My compadre over at Filmwell posted his Top Ten picks for TIFF, a couple with real Soul Food potential. Here's one...

CREATION (Jon Amiel, United Kingdom)

In this day and age, science and religion seem to be completely at odds with one another. On the one hand are scientists such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Meyers who campaign vociferously against religion. On the other hand are folks who have come to view science — and scientists — with increasing skepticism and even contempt. And much of this mutual antipathy swirls around Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, along with its scientific, philosophical, and social interpretations and implications.

So I can’t help but wonder how a film that depicts Darwin — a man some believe to be one of the greatest minds of all time, and that others believe to be the source of many of society’s ills — as a man struggling with his own faith and doubts about both God and science will go over with both groups.
And here's the description from the TIFF website
Featuring riveting, impassioned performances from real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, Creation is a profoundly humanist rendering of the story of a man whose scientific ideas famously and irrevocably changed the world.

It's 1858 and Charles Darwin (Bettany) has returned from his far-flung geological explorations on the HMS Beagle to settle into a quiet life in the British countryside. He begins work on On the Origin of Species, destined to become perhaps the most widely read book of natural science. In it, he outlines his theory of evolution through natural selection, inspired by discoveries about the transmutation of species that dispelled the prevailing religious beliefs of the day. After receiving a twenty-page letter from Alfred Russel Wallace describing similar theories, Darwin forges on to finish and publish his work. Met with instant success, the book enacts a paradigm shift within Darwin's lifetime, inaugurating a new era in biological science.

Rather than simply recount these well-known details of Darwin's life, however, director Jon Amiel explores the hypothesis that history is written more by the inner workings of the human heart than by a strict adherence to scientific fact. Darwin and his religious, God-fearing wife, Emma (Connelly), lost their first daughter, Annie (a feisty and charming Martha West), to illness when she was nine years old. Darwin fought to overcome his guilt and grief while trying to cope with his increasing estrangement from Emma, who in turn watched with sadness and horror as her husband grew more ill by the day and distanced himself from his four remaining children.

An ongoing imaginary conversation between Darwin and daughter Annie provides the thematic and structural thread of Creation, as she leads her bereaved father to eventual catharsis so he can persevere with his now-legendary work. Her unwavering commitment to her father's revolutionary ideas is testament to our continued need to reconcile heart and brain, faith and science, love and the life we lead in its wake.

Jason Morehead picks CLEANFLIX

My compadre over at Filmwell posted his Top Ten picks for TIFF, a couple with real Soul Food potential. Here's another...

CLEANFLIX (Andrew James/Joshua Ligairi, USA)

A few years ago, a bit of a controversy erupted when companies began offering versions of popular blockbuster movies sans sex, nudity, violence, and language. While popular amongst some groups, such as Mormons, the businesses predictably raised the ire of filmmakers, who resented having their movies reedited and resold. Cleanflix follows the rise and fall of this cottage industry amidst government crackdowns and sex scandals.

As someone who is keenly interested in that tenuous balance between celebrating artistic freedom and making moral and conscionable choices about the media (i.e., films) that his family experiences and enjoys, Cleanflix’s subject matter hits home.

What I find reassuring about the film, and what might prove to be critical to its success, is that the filmmakers — Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi — aren’t removed from the subject matter. They grew up within the Mormon community where the industry first got its hold, thus giving them access to key people in the controversy. Which I hope will make for a more nuanced discussion of the matter.
And here's the description from the TIFF website
Mormons can be movie lovers too. The problem is that their religious leaders strongly discourage R-rated content. As one Mormon prophet explained, “The mind through which this filth passes is never the same afterwards.” In order to better serve their Mormon clientele, enterprising video stores in Utah started to offer “clean” versions of popular titles like The Matrix and Titanic. Using digital editing software, self-appointed censors removed nudity, gratuitous violence and profanity, then mass duplicated the clean versions for DVD rental. Soon the idea took off, and multiple franchises sought to capitalize on brands like Clean Flicks and Flick's Club. For a brief spell, it seemed like the perfect business.

Unfortunately, no one consulted the copyright holders. Hollywood figures such as Steven Soderbergh, Curtis Hanson and Michael Mann became vocal opponents of having their work re-edited. As quickly as the clean movement blossomed, it started to unravel, with legal threats from Hollywood, accusations among rivals and even a sex scandal in the backroom of a clean video store.

In Cleanflix, directors Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi chronicle the rise and fall of the clean movement. Having grown up in the Mormon community, the duo gained close access to the main players that outsiders might never have achieved. The controversy over cleaning films raises further questions: Who gets to set cultural standards? Does what we watch affect how we behave?

The film gives a broader context for understanding the Mormon institution (known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) by talking to its adherents and those who have dropped out, most notably the playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute, known for the dark themes in scripts like In the Company of Men and Bash.

As events unfold, one thing becomes clear: in movies, you can skip over the parts you don't like. But in real life, you can't.

Thom Powers

Monday, August 24, 2009

Aug 28 - Sep 10: LORNA'S SILENCE, Dardenne brothers

Fantastic news! After a string of four straight masterpieces - and I don't use the word loosely - from the Dardenne brothers (LA PROMESSE, ROSETTA, THE SON, L'ENFANT), I've been eager to see their latest. In the past, their films have screened in Vancouver for three or four nights at Cinematheque, maybe a week, but we've got fourteen days to catch LORNA. Can't wait!

Lorna's Silence (Le Silence de Lorna)
Aug 28 to Sept 10
Ridge Theatre
Daily at:4:00, 7:00, 9:15
Plus Sat, Sun, & Mon (Sept 7) at 1:30

Lorna, a young Albanian woman living in Belgium, has her sights set on opening a snack bar with her lover Sokol. In order to do so, she has become involved in a scam conducted by Fabio, a gangster. . . .

Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Cast: Arta Dobroshi, Jérémie Rénier, Fabrizio Rongione, Alban Ukaj, Morgan Marrine, Olivier Gourmet.

Cannes Film Festival (France) Won: Best Screenplay (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) Nominated: Golden Palm (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
César Awards (France) Nominated: Best Foreign Film
European Film Awards Nominated: Best Actress (Arta Dobroshi)
Lumiere Awards (France) Won: Best French Language Film

The Dardenne brothers previous four films can all be rented at Videomatica. Of course.

Friday, August 14, 2009


From the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, the first husband of Joy Davidman Gresham,
who later married C.S. Lewis.
Saturday, August 15, 2009 - 7:15pm
Monday, August 17, 2009 - 7:15pm
Check out Geeks, Freaks & Rubes for more on Gresham and the film.

Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Friday, August 14, 2009 - 9:20pm
Sunday, August 16, 2009 - 7:30pm
Monday, August 17, 2009 - 9:20pm

Brand new Bluray edition arrives at Videomatica August 18

One of the "Loose Canon" of thirty films that show up on all seven of the "Greatest Films Of All Time" lists I compiled early this summer - with one of the most famous opening shots in film, 3 minutes and 18 seconds of continuous suspense without a single edit.
Thursday, August 20, 2009 - 7:15pm
Saturday, August 22, 2009 - 9:15pm
Monday, August 24, 2009 - 7:15pm

continues at Hollywood 3 (Surrey), Station Square 7 (Burnaby), Scotiabank (Vancouver)


CAT PEOPLE (1942, USA, Jacques Tourneur, Val Lewton / DeWitt Bodeen screenplay)
I've tried to make you realize all these stories that worry you are so much nonsense, but now I see it's not the stories. It's the fact that you believe them. We don't need a King John with fire and sword, we need someone who can find the reason for your belief and cure it.

You're drawn to her. She's sexy, sure, but not like the mankiller in a velvet gown that's on the posters. She's petite, shy, unsure, gorgeous eyes. Kittenish. Lonely, there's a sadness there, some secret wound. You just want to help her, and she wants to be helped. She's hungry for it. If you go for that kind of thing, you're doomed from the start.

The artistry of this film is something nobody expected. RKO Pictures hired a producer cheap and gave him a tiny bit of money and said, "Here, nobody went to see CITIZEN KANE, it cost us a fortune and lost us a forture, make us some creature features, people go see those and they don't cost much. WOLF MAN made a pile: here's a title, CAT PEOPLE, see what you can do with that. If you make a few bucks, we'll want more. Now scram." You can almost smell the cigar smoke.

So Val Lewton hired himself a like-minded director, and they set out to make some art, which nobody expected. It's gorgeous to look at, it's moody, it's understated, it's troubling: it's what horror might feel like in real lives. These two take seriously what this kind of movie usually just exploits, and the result not only sold a million tickets, it earned itself pages and chapters and volumes of commentary, and (fifty years later) a place in the National Film Registry. CAT PEOPLE is psychologically complex, it's geniunely sexy and hauntingly sad, and when it comes to the creepy stuff you gotta have in a picture like this, it plays for keeps.They're not called "supernatural thrillers" for nothing: when the subject is treated with this kind of respect they're not only thrilling but theological: the supernatural is rendered spiritual, grounding otherworldliness in this everyday world, and taking seriously things like sin and the human condition.

Lewton and Tourneur's artistry and integrity make this an unexpected classic, a movie to return to over and over again. But I think what really sets the hook is Simone Simon's presence in the central role. It's not a perfect performance: at times she's making faces, just a bit, at times she's pouting or indulging or playing it up ever so slightly. But you know, maybe even that contributes to the power of her work here – who is it that's self-consciously manipulating her own emotions, the slightly stagey actress or the slightly off-kilter young woman she's playing? If at times the effect is calculated and slightly false, is it the audience or the "good plain Americano" in the picture that she's performing for? (Is it part of the "not-quite-rightness" the pet store animals pick up on?)

Those slight (and I suppose delicious) false notes aside, Simon creates a portrait of troubled desperate-to-be-goodness you won't easily shake. "You might be my first real friend." The damaged loneliness she embodies – partly it's that accent, so softly exotic, distinctly other – is something contagious, like a plague. Perhaps it matters that the terrible evil she flees is placed but not named: she comes from Serbia, where she has witnessed (or taken part in?) terrible things, and even this scrap of geography roots her not in generalized horror movie evil, but in specific atrocities a modern viewer can all too readily bring to mind. She is fleeing not just something spooky but something specific, and something specifically evil, a legacy of very real human horror.

She has a horror of drawing close to anyone, of knowing or – mostly – being known. Her isolation is for protection. But the power of the film lives in this ambiguity: does she fear for herself, or those she might come to know? Saint Paul – that hard-shell New Testament bastard – breaks your heart when he pours out his own: "The thing I do is the thing I don't want to do, the very thing I hate. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" He doesn't name the sin, or the thoughts that haunt him, but I wonder what memories and impulses rise up even now, in this new life he clings to with such ferocity. What residue remains of the man so driven and steely he'd reveled in the deaths of so many of Jesus' followers?

It's all there in Irena, in the way she draws close to this man who walks into her life, draws him close but won't be known. The talisman she makes of that bizarre statue in her apartment, the way she says "Christian" and the way she says "Satan," the fear in her eyes as she crosses herself when the cat-like woman calls her "sister." It's the white-knuckle Christianity of one who knows the darkness, has loved the darkness, but now resists its pull like a recovering addict fighting the compulsion to use. No wonder the film's abiding feel is more of melancholy than terror.

Irena isn't the film's only memorable character. Kent Smith is a more wooden performer – definite B-list forties performance, here – but whether the screenwriters wrote for what they knew they could get, or the director cast well, or whether everything about this unlikely miracle of a movie was blessed by some all-pervading cinematic good fortune, he's the utterly perfect counter-force to Irena's urge-and-emotion exoticism. And the beautifully shaped contour of his story eovkes such a complex response: at times we feel he's just the sort of guy she needs, we're grateful for his feet-on-the-ground common sense, yet it's shot through with something that grows increasingly repellent, a sort of fundamentalist materialism that begins to smell like arrogance or willful ignorance. He's smitten, we feel his tenderness toward this frightened kitten in our bones, so we feel his frustration and disappointment just as tangibly when she is unable to draw close, even after their marriage: the moments when we see each of them on the opposite sides of a door – once on their wedding night, once on the night when she weeps alone in her bath – are scenes of unshakeable poignancy. And when (Paul) is increasingly drawn to his co-worker – Irena's opposite, thoroughly American and straight-forward, a little bit pretty and a little bit tough, she says what she feels and goes after what she wants – we both understand and don't. Irena warned him things would take time, he promised he'd wait, but when he's faced with a bit of unhappiness that goes on a bit longer than he's used to, so much for the promise. He's a faithless lover, he's not the self-denying knight on horseback we all wanted him to be – he's just a perfectly normal red-blooded schmuck like any one of us. We understand, we ache for him – hey, a guy deserves a little happiness, this is America after all! – but we see the self-first-ness that eventually borders on cruelty, and we partly figure whatever might happen to him, he's got it coming.

"Less is more" say the artists, and the Lewton/Tourneur CAT PEOPLE could serve as Exhibit A if they ever have to defend their claim in court. (Paul Schrader's remake could be called to the witness stand as some sort of proof by contrast. Or maybe his movie is the crime?) Rather than monsters and hideous bestial transmogrifications and explicit violence and gore, we get shadows and silence and precise edits and carefully calibrated, utterly mundane sound effects: the sound of high heels on pavement, a braking bus, the shrill distortion of a woman's voice in an indoor swimming pool. (One is reminded of that other minimalist Frenchman who grounds his spiritual transcendence in the sounds and textures of everyday physical observations, Robert Bresson. And by that comparison, and the fact it's not dismissable out of hand, we recognize how very unusual a monster movie this truly is. More Bresson to come in the boys' next outing…)

So how does the story end? Happily. The cheapy horror thriller made back all the money CITIZEN KANE lost, it ran so long that the critics who dismissed it opening weekend had to go back for second looks and rave reviews, and the money-minded studio chiefs came up with a bit more money and another swell title ("I Walked With A Zombie. Think it'll sell?") to see if Val and Jacques cold come up with another high-class supernatural thriller.

To be continued.


Available at Videomatica


CAT PEOPLE (1982, USA, Paul Schrader, screenplay w/ Alan Ormsby, DeWitt Bodeen story)
You can see why this God-haunted, Total-Depravity-Of-Man-obsessed ex-Calvinist Schrader would be drawn to this landmark supernatural thriller. But as you might guess, his sensibilities are all wrong for it, and the genius – not to mention the spiritual frisson – is completely lost. Understatement becomes overstatement, what's implicit he makes explicit: sexual undercurrents open out into rancid sloughs of prostitution, promiscuity and incest, and the threat of violence is more than threatened – we even get to see a melodramatic Malcolm McDowell slurp down some human entrails. Lovely, if that's your kind of thing. The religious elements that Tourneur takes more seriously than expected are sensationalized here, robbed of any potency: instead of Irena holding hard to Christianity to keep her darkest impulses at bay, her brother is the religious one in the family, part of a fanatical cult; the T-square that offered unexpected protection in the first film is as utterly ineffectual in Schrader's film as we would have expected in the first place. The celebrated park and swimming pool scenes are both here: on the commentary track the director refers to them as obligatory scenes, and that's pretty much how they feel. Oh yeah, the girl in the pool this time is topless. It's that kind of movie. Watch the original.

Available at Videomatica


I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943, USA, Jacques Tourneur, Val Lewton / Curt Siodmak / Ardel Wray screenplay, Inez Wallace article, loosely adapted from Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre")
How do you ever expect to get to heaven, with one foot in the voodoo houmfort and the other in the church? Some of this native nonsense... The houngan has his prescription, Dr Maxwell and I have ours.
You never talked about voodoo before, Mrs Rand.
It's just part of everyday life here.
You don't believe in it?
A missionary's widow? It isn't very likely, is it?

If CAT PEOPLE affects us so potently because of our compassion for its central character, this follow-up from Tourneur and Lewton achieves its greatest effect by maintaining a chilly, chilling distance. Again, a young woman (possibly in peril) is at the centre of the story, but we view her with an odd detachment: she seems a sweet enough girl, but perhaps her immediate attraction to the cold, even cruel Paul Holland distances us from her from the outset – her psychology grows increasingly complex as the story progresses, and it's not easy to hope (or imagine) that everything will work out for these two.

The concentrated pathos of the earlier film is replaced by something altogether eerier and more disquieting, though once again there's a pervasive sense of melancholy, even despair. Somehow, events on this Caribean island seem fated, orchestrated: the naïve Canadian nurse is walking into the middle of something her good old northern common sense hasn't prepared her for. We learn early in the story that the narrative ground we walk on is soaked in blood and human misery: the plantation was built and farmed by slaves, the figurehead of the slave ship (which the servants call "T Misery") has been built into a fountain in the centre of the courtyard, and everything on the island seems fated to end in the sadness that flow from that tragic history.

Before producer Val Lewton was handed the keys to the shop and a (very small) wad of cash to make some little movies of his own (and big money for the studio), he worked on the much-bigger-budget classic REBECCA, which is somewhat derivative of JANE EYRE where he served as story editor. The premise of both stories is evident enough here. A Caribbean plantation owner hires a young nurse to care for his wife, who is kept in an isolated tower room. Though she is awake, and can walk around, she is sedate, completely unresponsive: the locals call her as a zombie, one of the living dead. As in those other two stories, a terrible mystery draws us forward through the story: how did such terrible things come to pass? What – and who – could have caused such misery? And, because this is a Lewton-Tourneur picture, easy answers will be elusive, and there will be a strong suggestion that they are at least partly spiritual.

If you are hoping for a horror movie, ZOMBIE will disappoint: even seemingly climactic scenes mystify rather than thrill, paying off only in mood and a slow accumulation of character detail. In fact, by the final third of the film even the the basic narrative seem to dissipate. This is a strange aspect of the film: on careful viewing, it becomes evident that every necessary piece of the rather complex story is provided, yet we still notice an odd dislocation to the narrative.

This may be due in part to the elision of certain story elements which would be expected in most films: their absence means we have no more awareness of the progression of things than individual characters may have, or at times even less. We are able to fill in the narrative gaps by intuition and by assembling scraps of dialogue and behaviour, but we are forced to "lean in" to the story, and even our heightened attention leaves us with a sense of mystery, unsure that we have the full story. Kind of like life.

At one point, a scene involving significant plot developments (which appears in the original screenplay but was either not shot or deleted in the editing room) takes place indoors: we are outside with the nurse and a servant woman, minding a stubborn horse, getting only glimpses of the men inside and hearing nothing of their dialogue. From this point on the telling of the story becomes more and more odd, the narrative threads increasingly disconnected – just as the story grows more and more inescapably supernatural. Most screenplays zero in on a central line of action in their third act: ZOMBIE seems to do the exact opposite. If CAT PEOPLE suggested Robert Bresson in the use of sound and the understatement of its performances, this film not only carries forward those techniques but adopts similarly elliptical story-telling style – and in so doing, evokes a similar sense not only of mystery, but of Mystery. (Of course, Bresson's distinctive "transcendental" style didn't emerge until THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, still seven years in the future: you don't suppose Robert watched a lot of RKO horror flicks, do you?)

The film has been widely celebrated for it's use of light and shadow: blinds, screens, gauzy curtains, leaves and even a prominently placed harp which appears to have no other function in the film but its visual interest (and a perfectly placed contribution to the soundtrack, tagging the end of an establishing shot that watches the shadows its strings cast on a sheer curtain blowing in the night breeze) give a remarkable sense of depth and texture to Tourneur's meticulously framed black and white images.

But the film's most striking image is the bust of San Sebastian. The servant who brings Betsy Connell to the plantation underscores its identification with those who have suffered on the island, calling it by name ("T Misery") and speaking of the sculpture as if it were human;
"A man, Miss. An old man who lives in the garden at Fort Holland, with arrows stuck in him and a sorrowful weeping look on his black face."
"No miss, he's just the same as he was from the beginning, on the front side of an enormous boat. The enormous boat brought the long-ago fathers and the long-ago mothers of us all, chained to the bottom of the boat."
"They brought you to a beautiful place, didn't they?"
"If you say, Miss. If you say."
Tourneur's films are remarkable for their anti-racist sensibility: not only is this film grounded in a hatred of slavery, but its portrayal of the Caribbean people of colour and their religious practice is extraordinarily accurate and respectful, free of the racial stereotypes common to other films of the day. No wonder the film had such immense popularity with African-American audiences at the time.

Like the statue of King John in CAT PEOPLE, there is something emblematic, almost sacramental, about this gruesomely beautiful sculpture to which we return so frequently, often at moments of greatest misery. Through most of the picture the camera shows us the carving at eye level in full or three-quarter profile, sustaining in the viewer's mind the primary identification of this as the figurehead of a slaveship. But as the film reaches its ultimate climax, something quite remarkable happens to the way this image is presented to us, causing us to re-interpret its significance, drawing out a distinctly spiritual layer to the way we read it.

A character makes a choice to co-operate with what appear to be supernatural forces on the island, then turns to the image of Saint Sebastian that stands in the fountain at the centre of the plantation garden. For the first time the statue is touched: the character grasps one of the arrows imbedded in the figure's chest and moves the arrow up and down to free it from the carving. We feel the violence of this tangibly, in our ribs: we've long been aware that this image has come to represent the general sufferings of the slaves and their children's children, but suddenly we're reminded that this carving is also the likeness of a specific saint and martyr, and we almost physically feel that his suffering is being enacted before us. Then the camera cuts to a full-on front perspective, viewed from below, and we see not only the image of a Christian martyr, but a striking evocation of Christ himself, whose suffering was echoed not only in the death of Sebastian and in the agonies of generations of slaves, but which is being carried forward in the film's present action. Now we see not only the profile but the face of suffering, the willing victim's eyes turned heavenward, the camera's upward angle drawing our eyes to something like a circle of thorns which crowns this man of sorrow. In the darkness, the water that streams down the figure's chest appears to be blood.

A further ritual death is carried out, a tragically relentless collusion of supernatural forces and human decision that is in itself a judgment, a damnation, at the same time as it may be a rough kind of salvation – at any rate, it provides the release, the terrible catharsis, of authentic tragedy. Perhaps a curse is now broken, or perhaps it has at last been fulfilled.

We are drawn into this story by a mystery, a dark and essential question: who is responsible for Jessica's condition? What crime or sin or failing led to this unnatural state of things? A once-beautiful, once-beloved woman is trapped between life and death, her will – that singularly human, singularly divine faculty – extinguished? As an African-Caribbean voice intones a final, funereal prayer, a judgment is rendered – a particular selfishness is named, and deemed wicked, and we receive a final answer to the question.

Or do we? Have we traced the evil back to its source, and in knowing it and naming it, broken its power? Or have we merely uncovered one more face of evil, yet another outworking of a malady far more pervasive? Are its consequences at last put to rest with the ritual sacrifice that climaxes the film, or is something greater and more universal needed?

In the final analysis, in the final prayer, an "answer" is offered to the mystery at the centre of this mythic tale. And yet, it is nothing like the whole truth, nothing close to satisfying. We remain as unsure of precise cause and effect, unconvinced about such precise assignment of culpability and responsibility, just as we are unclear about so many other features of this dark dream. We are uncertain, even, which of the film's characters is the zombie of its title. The one who strolled on a beach, or one who journeyed through a midnight cane field? Or some other character whose will was surrendered to forces darker and more powerful?

Someone chooses to play God and ultimately, with the best of intentions, sentences a woman to a living death – there is something of the Frankenstein myth being played out here. Another character, gripped by an irrational urge to lash out, lives in the grip of the shadows of his own nature, fearing what other beautiful things might be destroyed – Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, with all its thundering Pauline wretchedness, comes to mind. One brother is consumed by jealousy, another by bitterest resentment, and any number of Old Testament tragedies are invoked. Ancient sins carry forward from generation to generation, as a privileged few profit from the misery of the many – is it any wonder that a final judgment is wrought? Or that, when it comes, it counts for so little, changes almost nothing.

And to think – all the studio wanted was a monster movie.


Available at Videomatica


STARS IN MY CROWN (1950, USA, Jacques Tourneur, Margaret Fitts screenplay, Joe David Brown novel and adaptation)
There's no writing on here. This ain't no will.
Yes it is. It's the will of God.

Fans of the moody supernatural thrillers Jacques Tourneur lensed for Val Lewton in the forties or his noir masterpiece OUT OF THE PAST may find little appeal in this sunny, easy-going tale of a small town parson set just after the American Civil War. But of the twenty-nine feature films he directed between 1939 and 1965, Tourneur often cited this as his favourite. A gentle, non-assertive man by all accounts (uncommon traits in a film director!), this is the one he fought to do;
I went to see Eddie Mannix who was the boss at MGM. He said, "It's a little B picture. We can't pay your price." To which I said to Eddie, "I'll do this picture for nothing." He said, "We're not allowed to pay you nothing because there's a Guild and we'll have to pay you the minimum." So I said, "Fine. Pay me the minimum."
In some ways, he sacrificed his career to get this movie made: once he'd agreed to make a film "on the cheap," studios never again paid him more than a fraction of what he'd earned on previous assignments.

Why was this project so important to Tourneur? One wonders if he may have felt an affinity with the story's central character, the transcendently decent Reverend Josiah Gray. Chris Fujiwara paints paints the portrait of a remarkable man, "quiet, caalm and humane," in his definitive work, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall;
Paul Valentine said "Tourneur was a delightful, lovely man, and he treated everybody like they were his own family members. And we enjoyed it. There was never a loud word, never an argument." Robert Stack thought him "shy and pleasant"; Gregory Peck said he was "smiling, easygoing." To Peter Graves, he was "a kind man and a good director…. So many Hollywood directors were gruff and abrupt. I remember him as kind and patient." During production of THE FLAME AND THE ARROW, Tourneur walked off the set because Burt Lancaster had been terribly rude with a technician without any reason." Tourneur explained: "I detest people who insult those who can't defend themselves. I told him that if it happened again I would abandon the film, and he was very docile after that."
In one memorable sequence near the beginning of STARS IN MY CROWN, the no-longer-pistol-packin' preacher discovers a man teasing the simple-minded "Chloroform" Wiggins with a bull-whip: the scene is agonizingly protracted as the victim tries to laugh it off, fuelling his tormentor's compulsive cruelty, until finally Grey – a Civil War veteran – intervenes. The scene blazes with Tourneur's passion for justice and his compassion for the powerless and outcast, while it's unexpectedly gracious conclusion restores a remarkable affability and harmony to the community. Esteemed critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls it "one of the most neglected films in the history of cinema… It recalls some of John Ford's best work in its complex perception of goodness, and I can't think of many films that convey a particular community with more pungency."

One also senses that Tourneur's intense desire to direct this sweet-spirited, faith-affirming story, which seems so out of step with the darker subjects and style of the films he's more famous for, has a great deal to do with its spiritual themes – themes which are treated with surprising seriousness in his horror pictures. We've sensed that this guy really takes evil seriously: now we begin to wonder if maybe he really believes all the God stuff, too.

STARS is loaded with God stuff, no mistaking, and it's not just the general clerical do-gooding of too many minister movies. The town's new doctor is antagonistic to the Reverend Josiah Grey and his religion – "I'm not interested in souls" – but when medical science has failed and the young doctor's wife, Faith, is on her deathbed, he calls for the man of God, whose bedside prayers bring miraculous healing. Perhaps more significant (and certainly less melodramatic) is the healing of Doc Harris's soul. Early in the film his antipathy toward the parson extends to condescension toward the entire town, but the minister deals graciously with his enemy and makes room for him to gain the trust of the community, until in the end the man of science sits beside Faith on a pew in the church, singing the pastor's favourite hymn, "Stars In My Crown."

The tension between scientific reductionism and spiritual reality may be this auteur's most distinctive theme: interestingly, STARS is unique among Tourneur's films in finding a reconciliation between the two. The director's "magnificent obsession" with another sort of reconciliation provides a second link between this atypical film and his other celebrated works: a fierce passion for racial equality that's all the more remarkable given the fact that these films predate the full blossoming of the civil rights era.

While the screenplay draws little attention to it, the common perception that the Civil War was in part "the war against slavery" provides a perfect historical context for the story of a man who has set aside violence as a means but continues to fight for the same end with the weapons of peace. (Characters intent of building a new life are central to CAT PEOPLE and OUT OF THE PAST). The pioneer preacher might use his status as a Civil War hero to win the respect of school children or stand up to the town bully, but he leaves his guns at home when it comes time to face a mob of Klansmen intent on lynching a black farmer and taking his land – far and away the film's most powerful scene. Viewers who find themselves impatient with the quiet, pastoral (heh heh heh) tone and pace of the first eighty minutes really must hang in for the powerfully filmed climax. Josiah Grey's confrontation with his racist neighbours, their identities (and humanity) masked by white sheets, prefigures one of the best-known and most moving scenes in American film, Atticus Finch's vigil on the jailhouse steps in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

I've got to think that a 24-year-old Harper Lee saw STARS IN MY CROWN when it played the local movie house in Monroeville, Alabama. Who knows, maybe she shared popcorn with her peculiar childhood friend, Truman, who would have been less impressed than she with this nostalgic portrait of a small town much like theirs, with its obvious sense of community and shared values, as well as its less obvious cruelties and racism. A story about adult matters, told by a child: the story of a wise and peaceful man, a man of immense integrity and courage, who simply will not stand by and let his town be less than it might be.


Available only on vhs


CURSE OF THE DEMON ("NIGHT OF THE DEMON," 1957, UK, Jacques Tourneur, Charles Bennett / Hal E. Chester / Cy Endfield screenplay, Montague R. James story)
You could learn a lot from children. They believe in things in the dark, although we tell them it's not so. Maybe we've been fooling them.

There's too much demon for me, and much too soon. I love Tourneur's grand theme – "I make films on the supernatural, and I make them because I believe in it" – and this, his last journey into the fantastique genre, is saturated with dialogue that goes straight to the heart of his favourite and most fascinating questions. But in this picture, I wonder if it isn't all a bit much? There's a thin line between theme and message, and when things get obvious we grow impatient.

Dr. John Holden (another of this director's uber-Yankee rationalist-materialists) travels to England to debunk a Satanic cult, only to be confronted with the reality of evil when he finds himself under a deadly ancient curse. He encounters any number of "believers," from seancing grannies and the sort of not-so-tourist-friendly British country folk who would later show up in STRAW DOGS and WICKER MAN to Fifties-sexy kindergarten teachers who won't take any of this guy's guff because they majored in psychology. (Reminds me of Dr Science: "And remember, he's smarter than you: 'I have a master's degree….'") None of whom make a dent in Doc Holden's boiler-plated and compulsive skepticism.

Problem is, the narrative deck is stacked against the good doctor from the outset, so there's no room for the sort of ambiguity and psychological suspense that make CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE so effective. Is Irina right about this whole fatal feline thing, or is she psychologically troubled? For the longest time, we don't know, so we can at least empathize with (and many times even agree with) the common-sense perspective of her practical Americano boyfriend. In ZOMBIE, we never do really know what's nuts-n-bolts explicable and what's the legacy of the past and what's full-on voodoo "more in heaven and earth" supernatural stuff – or even whether the spiritual carryings-on are evil or benign.

But in CURSE, we spend almost a full minute with the demon only six minutes in, a twenty foot wolf-bear-godzilla type beast that walks out of the darkness in that gravity-free, jerky way bad movie monsters have, all covered in unkempt black hair and flames. Violins swirl, horn sections bombast, there's this screechy noise like the wheel on some kid's wagon needs to be oiled, and a guy in a bowler hat screams, panics and gets electrocuted. And I'm thinking, this is a Jacques Tourneur movie?

Not exactly, at least not according to Jacques. When JT signed off on this one there was no monster at the front end, and at the back, only a four-frame glimpse of something that might be a demon, or might not be. "The scenes in which you really see the demon were shot without me. The audience should never have been entirely sure…" The flaming black horned critter is courtesy of the producer, whose monster picture was darn well going to have a monster in it, thank you very much. "They ruined the film by showing it from the very beginning."

I'm afraid he's right. In a film that's completely preoccupied with questions of skepticism and belief, that's centred on a character whose stubborn commitment to scientific rationalism only slowly gives way to something… well, more rational… the presentation of a big, hairy, incontrovertibly real demon in Scene Two is a serious problem. When he first opens his mouth he's obviously just plain wrong about things, the audience knows better, and the more he opens that mouth, the more annoying he gets.

There are marvelous elements, though, in spite of studio tampering. When we first meet Dr Julian Karswell, the purported Satanist, he's playing cribbage with his old mum, and the film's most effective scene (loaded with ambivalence, irony and uncertainty) takes place at a party he holds for the local children, complete with clown nose and everyday magic tricks. "I see you practice white magic as well as black." "Oh yes, I don't think it would be too amusing for the youngsters if I conjured up a demon from hell for them." There's something about the scene's utter Englishness, and its suggestion that supernatural parlour games may cloak real occult forces, that could have come straight from one of the supernatural thrillers of Charles Williams,the author who was such an influence on C.S. Lewis, (particularly in That Hideous Strength). "You know, the devil has something here. Very pleasant." "He's most dangerous when he's being pleasant."

The best way to watch DEMON may be to imagine the film as the director intended it. Let go of the producer's certainty that there is a big, nasty demon, and give Doc Holden a chance by leaving things up in the air. After all, most of us share at least a measure of his skepticism, don't we? If not about all things spiritual, at least about ghosts and demons and things that aren't the family dog but do go bump in the night. The interfering Mister Chester's "real" Scary Monster only succeeds in robbing the film's real horror any sense of reality, and that sells Jacques Tourneur's vision sadly short: he would have defined things less, left more to the imagination. As they say at the end of the film, "Maybe it's better not to know."


Available at Videomatica

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Filmwell Index

In May 2009 I started writing for Filmwell, a new movie site that also features writers Jeffrey Overstreet, M. Leary, Mike Hertenstein, Alissa Wilkinson and Jason Morehead. I'll use this post to index various Filmwell pieces I want to keep track of.

Favourite Articles

Rushdie, Kansas & Oz (Oh, My!) 6/2/09 (MH)

Goodbye Solo, This American Life, and Ramin Bahrani 3/24/09 (AW)

My Contributions

Andrei Rublev: The Passion According To Andrei (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966) 7/08/09

The Big Apple & Les Fils Dardennes 5/27/09

Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982) 8/5/09

Commemorating “The Crossing” 8/7/09

Communists, Catholics & WW2: Leon Morin, Priest 5/31/09

Did Leigh Film Trigger New Legislation? 7/28/09

Filmwell’s Book of Filmmaker Wisdom: Excerpt 3 - Kiarostami 7/13/09

Jacques Tourneur, B Movie Auteur (Part 1): Cat People (1942) 7/30/09

Jacques Tourneur, B Movie Auteur (Part 2): I Walked With A Zombie (1943) 8/4/09

Jacques Tourneur, B Movie Auteur (Part 3): Stars In My Crown (1950) 8/11/09

Jacques Tourneur, B Movie Auteur (Part 4): Curse Of The Demon (”Night Of The Demon” 1957) 8/13/09

Lahr Vid Clip: L'Enfant 6/1/09

Leftovers: A few more thoughts on movies that feed the soul 8/11/09

Loose Canon: a rough consensus on 30 great films 5/20/09

The Lost Films of Rolf Forsberg 6/3/09

The Man Who Planted Trees (1987, Frédéric Back) 6/10/09

Mundruczó’s Delta Evokes Tarr, von Trier, Joan of Arc 6/25/09

O’Connor Meets Huston: Wise Blood (John Huston, 1979) 6/17/09

Prokudin-Gorsky Reflected in Silent Light? 7/14/09

Revanche (Götz Spielmann, 2008) has all the right influences 7/03/09

"Revisiting Tarkovsky": Lincoln Center, July 7-14 7/8/09

Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002) 7/13/09

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Joel & Ethan Coen, "World Cinema"

Back in 2007, we posted the Dardenne brothers' contribution to CHACUN SON CINEMA (To Each His Own Cinema), an anthology of short films commissioned to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Festival. Now another entry appears on YouTube, by the Coen brothers, featuring the star of their recent NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Sweet. (Thanks, Jeff.)

Leftovers: A few more thoughts on movies that feed the soul

Jeffrey Overstreet posted a more-than-you-can-eat smorgasbord essay on (soul) food movies yesterday at Filmwell, in response to Alissa Wilkinson's reflections "Julie, and Julia, and Me." Chef Overstreet's menu includes such mouth-watering films as PIECES OF APRIL, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN, WINGS OF DESIRE, RATATOUILLE, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, and many more - including those mentioned below...

When CHOCOLAT was in theatres, two widely varying responses deepened my appreciation of the film; Frederica Mathewes-Green brilliantly and forcefully made the case for what bothered me about the film, then Loren Wilkinson (Regent College) drew out what was right about the film - as is his way.

And yes, I'd have to agree that BABETTE'S FEAST is pretty much the ultimate "soul food" food movie. My experience of the film was a curious echo of the experience its characters: until the feast began, I was as cold toward the movie as those frosty Scandinavians were toward one another. But that all changed. And when you talk about the sacramental nature of that sacrificial feast, I can't help thinking of the final scene of PLACES IN THE HEART, a surprising, arresting sequence that lifted a good film into something like greatness.

The "food for the soul" metaphor that figures so prominently in Jeff's movie writing is one that's also important to me - obviously, I suppose, given the name of this blog. I found that BIG NIGHT especially connected with those themes in my own experience.

And two films come to mind that you Jeffrey didn't mention. I love the way BROADWAY DANNY ROSE - Woody Allen's warmest film - is centred around a pair of meals. And while I haven't written anything about it, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE is a great favourite, and definitely calls for a return visit since the June release of Criterion's DVD.

Saying grace in the movies surely merits its own essay - LES MISERABLES and PIECES OF APRIL come immediately to mind. My favourite would have to be Joe's prayer in THE STATION AGENT.

But surely the last word must go to THE GODFATHER: "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli."

All available at Videomatica

Saturday, August 08, 2009

I Am Sam: Commemorating "The Crossing"

A little something to commemorate the occasion,
forty years ago today: 11:35AM, August 8, 1969.
from I Am Sam (Jessie Nelson, 2001)

Edited from Wikipedia: In Danny Boyle's Trainspotting the four main characters walk towards a climactic drug deal processing the "wrong" way across a street crossing: the scene takes place as they walk out of Smallbrook Mews across Craven Road to the Royal Eagle, 26–30 Craven Road, Bayswater. The 1998 Walt Disney movie The Parent Trap featured a brief imitation, including a freeze frame to make it obvious: after Hallie arrives in London, she and her mother walk across the street together, on the same street, zebra crossing, and with the same cars as the Abbey Road album cover, as the song "Here Comes The Sun" plays. The very final shot of the Spanish movie El factor Pilgrim (The Pilgrim Factor) by Alberto Rodriguez and Santi Amodeo features the four main characters crossing Abbey Road in procession. I Am Sam, which features covers of Beatles songs as its soundtrack, includes a scene in which several characters walk across a zebra crossing carrying pink balloons.

I AM SAM, TRAINSPOTTING and THE PARENT TRAP all available at Videomatica