THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Foreign Film: Second Journey)

The Lives of Others (2006)
D.  Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

The Lives of Others is superbly made. The acting, direction, cinematography and score are uniformly excellent and distinctive.

But the real star is the East German police state it depicts.

East Germany’s Stasi was notorious even in the context of Iron Curtain communism. It was the Secret Police force’s Secret Police force, the one with the reputation for maximum Germanic efficiency and cruelty. This movie gives it its due….and also shows how impossible it is to snuff the last tiny spark of whatever it is inside us that yearns to breathe free without literally killing everyone.

That may be why Utopian revolutions (see France, Russia, China, et al) tend to start with a mountain of corpses. But The Lives of Others doesn’t concern itself–or us–with that. It wants to show us how the control mechanisms work once they are fully established.

And to show us, also, how, in the end, even the most efficient and systemic forms of repression depend on humans acting ever and always as robots.

It’s that “ever and always” aspect that creates the intense drama here.

The movie begins by showing us the coldest, blandest, most devoted apparatchik imaginable (Ulrich Mühe ‘s Hauptmann Gerd Weisler). His face is a benign mask. His expressions hardly change a hair throughout the movie, whether he’s interviewing the latest suspect inside the gray, standard issue Police State walls that are hardly distinguishable from the air, sucking up to his chain of bosses, or lecturing his students on the necessities of his and their dedication to the preservation of the Paradise in which they live and breathe something purer than mere Freedom.

He’s a man who can’t be turned.

The Lives of Others hangs on whether such a man can be turned. The fate of everyone else–those above as much as below–depends on whether he’ll be true to the State or become swayed by his exposure to Life.

This Life takes two forms: The Art represented by the people Weisler has been set upon (a playwright and his leading lady mistress, who is also the mistress of Weisler’s boss’s boss), and the Love represented by the woman herself. Life plants a seed of doubt that blooms into resistance once Weisler becomes aware of his boss’s boss’s less than pure motivations for spying on a romantic rival, then turns into existential Doubt, when the rival turns out to be worthy of the State’s paranoia only because he’s fed up with the way his mistress is being treated.

The miracle of Mühe ‘s performance is that, through all these stages, the mask never slips, not even (crucially) in the aftermath, when he is presumably free of the State except for the mark it left on a soul that was born to be marked. We begin by fearing for his subjects and end fearing for him, never more so than when he is (presumably) no longer in physical danger. He gains dimension even as the playwright and his lover are being flattened out by the paranoia that is bound to be engendered by the State he serves.

The movie handles all this adroitly and delivers a balanced sense of absurdism and tragedy.

But it falls a bit short of greatness, I think, because, strangely, it has no politics.

The collapse of Soviet communism is presented as something either inevitable (because a heart beat remained detectable in just enough human breasts like Weisler’s to make it so) or a Miracle on the order of Divine Intervention delivered by Mikhail Gorbachev. I suppose one could read it as suggesting that, where there are enough Weislers, forever proving themselves not quite immune to some purpose which the State cannot, in the final measure, define or control, some form of glasnost will always be waiting around the corner–even, given the film’s mid-eighties setting, that the darkest hour really is just before dawn.

But, at least as it’s presented here, that’s not politics. It’s faith. And I didn’t get the sense that anyone involved would admit as much in open court (or an interview with a film magazine), so it’s that curious kind of faith which tends to emanate from the faithless just after they’ve yet again claimed some New Testament concept (like liberty or free will or egalitarianism) for themselves.

Meaning it’s really not politics.

Add that–or subtract hope–and this would be a film on the order of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (which devastates because it lacks hope and is therefore an honest portrayal of faith’s absence or, if you prefer, helplessness, in the face of human evil’s eternal banality). As it is, I could watch this again tomorrow. As journeys inside a Police State go, it’s a hell of an entertainment, just the sort of thing that makes the nonbelievers think they’ve been in the presence of some higher power (call it Art).

Paths of Glory I may never watch again.

I don’t blame the film’s creative team for not wishing to make a film no one would want to see twice the way I’ll want to see this one twice.

But I can’t help thinking that a journey to Hell should leave a mark that won’t wash off on those of us who were born to be marked.

LOGAN LUCKY (At the Multiplex: November, 2017)

Logan Lucky (2017)
D. Steven Soderbergh

This one is probably worth seeing twice. I don’t say that about a lot of modern movies, including some that are at least as good as Logan Lucky. But the heist plot is compelling–updating the old horse-track thefts lovingly detailed in movies like The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956) to the world of NASCAR. The acting is excellent all around and, unlike Soderbergh’s similarly byzantine (and massively overpraised) Traffic (2000), it builds suspense rather than disperses it, partly by giving reasonable people a few characters they can root for.

Those characters include the half-smart brothers played by Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as though they are exactly half-smart, which means their scheme has just about a fifty-fifty chance of succeeding. Enough of these movies, from The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 950) to now, have ended badly enough for the protagonists for this one to make you feel it might do the same. And enough of these movies, from Gambit to now, have ended happily enough, for hope to remain a reasonable outcome.

Soderbergh seems to know something about splitting that difference. He should make more heist flicks in this vein (which is quite different that the everybody-is-a-star vibe of his Ocean’s Eleven-Twelve-Thirteen franchise, which I modestly enjoyed but have never felt compelled to revisit).

Meanwhile, if I do revisit this one, it will be partly to judge Tatum and Driver’s performances against the known outcome. I have a feeling they made all the exact right decisions, but I’ll withhold judgment on that for a second viewing. Meanwhile, on the basis of that and the plotting alone, I can heartily recommend a first viewing for any fan of the genre.

A few things reach beyond those parameters, though: Starting with Leann Rimes’ performance of “America the Beautiful,” which is on YouTube. I’m not going to link it because it has to be seen/heard in the context of the film to be fully appreciated as the act of genius it is, the first complete obliteration of the distance between parody and the modern style of Passion. I literally couldn’t tell whether she was utterly sincere or wickedly spoofing herself (and every other melisma-addicted performer from Whitney Houston on down), just that it’s the first performance in history that works as well either way (thus making it an apt metaphor for the finely balanced plot). There’s also a funny performance from a nearly unrecognizable Hilary Swank (playing an uptight Fed) that is slightly sabotaged by the one-too-many-twists ending, and a matching one from a wholly unrecognizable Daniel Craig (playing a con who is whatever the opposite of uptight is). All these things, plus an unusually well-chosen-and-applied soundtrack, give me the feeling this is one rare new film that might hold together even past a second viewing. Anyway I’m looking forward to finding out.

I would watch it again, though, even if none of these other fine elements were present, for the performance by child-of-Hollywood Farrah MacKenzie, who gets the mountain accent that every one of the adults shades a little too close to parody or actorly precision just right, and provides the film’s anchor not so much with a beautifully played but rather obvious heart-tug moment involving a John Denver song as by simply being genuine in a movie that has fronting in its bones.

If there’s justice in the world, she’ll get an Oscar nod.

And “It’s my talent!” will become a catchphrase.

RIDE ON JOSEPHINE (Monthly Book Report: 11/16)

All mystery this month. I’ll be reviewing a book of interviews with Ross MacDonald for BWW shortly. Meanwhile I reached the half-way mark in my Josephine Tey Re-read Project, finishing A Shilling for Candles and The Franchise Affair….two novels as different as the pre- and post-war years in which they were published..

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A Shilling For Candles (Josephine Tey, 1936)

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The date is telling. This is an old-fashioned, stiff upper lip, “there will always be an England” style mystery, about as conventional as Tey got. It was her second novel, following on The Man in the Queue from the previous decade (she made her bones as a playwright in between). I won’t say the future isn’t felt here–that WWII isn’t right around the corner–but it’s felt as something to be held a arm’s length.

Again, Tey rides with Inspector Alan Grant and, again, she attaches her mystery to Show Biz. The theater in Queue, the cinema here. As always, the character bits are sharp-edged and beautifully compressed. On her movie star victim (found drowned on the beach of a private hideaway in the novel’s opening sequence):

Nor yet when, tiring of song-and-dance pictures, her ambition had reached out to drama; her rocket had shot to the stars under its own power, it would seem. This could only mean one of two things: that she had remained virgin until her marriage at twenty-six (a state of affairs which Grant, who had a larger experience of life than of psychology textbooks, found quite possible) or that her favor was given only when her heart (or her fancy, according to whether you are sentimentalist or cynic) was touched. Four years ago Lord Edward Champneis (pronounced Chins), old Bude’s fifth son, had met her in Hollywood, and in a month they were married. She was at that time shooting her first straight film, and it was generally agreed that she had “done well for herself” in her marriage. Two years later Lord Edward as “Christine Clay’s husband.”

That single paragraph is powerfully redolent of Tey’s style–one she would go on to perfect at even higher levels after civilization managed to survive the storm clouds gathering deep in the book’s background. The fundamental natures of Show Biz, Hollywood, Scotland Yard, the British national character, and most of the insights you need into three principal players (including the one who’s death has set the story in motion) are all delivered in a single, short stroke. There’s never a moment when you are not aware that you are in the hands of a first rate writer.

The only letdown is the mystery itself, which–despite the lively presence of a tomboy who would have provided a plum role for Hayley Mills if anyone had been smart enough to make a film of this thirty ears later (no one could play her half so well now…thus has England gone)–is along pretty conventional lines. Not only do I not remember who the culprit finally was, a mere two weeks later, I don’t care that I don’t remember.

It would have been easy to guess, from the evidence of her first two novels, that Tey would go on being an acute practitioner of the Agatha Christie school.

Then the war came.

The Franchise Affair (Josephine Tey, 1948)

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This was Tey’s second post-war novel. While it’s not as disturbing or haunting as Miss Pym Disposes (it turns on the dread of failed reputations, unfairly tarnished, rather than the tragedy of a casual murder which punishes everyone but its perpetrator), it is very much in line with her new tone.

No aspect of “civilization” can be taken for granted.

This time the girl who might have been played by Hayley Mills a generation later (again, if someone in either Hollywood or the British Film Industry been the least bit on the ball), is a budding sociopath. A Lolita type arrived just a hair too early for the modernist eye to fall on her and give her a definitive shape (and yes, Stanley Kubrick wanted Mills for his film version of Nabokov’s novel…of course he did). She’s chilling enough, even in the background. I suspect, however, that writing Miss Pym, had taken something out of Tey, a less worldly and accomplished writer, in the same manner that Under Western Eyes took something out of Conrad, and Bend Sinister took something out of Nabokov. The dread builds nicely through the first two thirds of the book and then just sort of disperses, leaving a very nicely drawn middle age love story in its place.

Even there, Tey could be accused of pulling her punch. Not only does the monstrous child not rise to the level of murderer (casual or otherwise), or at least get away with her mischief, but the love story is reconciled on the last page, when it would have been far more poignant and realistic for it to remain broken.

It’s almost as if–perhaps wondering for the first time if there really would always be an England–the Scotswoman who had been born Elizabeth MacKintosh, could not bear to face the cold reality.

For that, she can certainly be forgiven.

[NOTE: The Franchise Affair, along with two subsequent Tey novels, Brat Farrar and The Daughter of Time, both of which I’ll be reviewing in due time, are routinely listed among the greatest crime novels ever written. Why Miss Pym Disposes, her greatest work, does not make these lists is….a mystery. Anyway, the ending reminded me a great deal, in both tone and incident, of the ending of the great Powell-Pressburger film from a few years earlier, I Know Where I’m Going. Somehow it worked better there. Given Tey’s interest in the cinema, I wonder if she was perhaps influenced by that film’s happy glow. One could see how. It starred Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey and it’s worth any effort to track it down.]

SCRIBE (Michael Herr, R.I.P.)

Sunshine, blue skies and 2016, please go away…

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Happens I just read (and mini-reviewed) his masterpiece, Dispatches, here mere days ago. I don’t have much to add, except to note that two of the best filmmakers of his, or any, era, Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket), tried to capture what he had written on film. He even contributed to the scripts. It didn’t help. They didn’t come close. He wrote one of those books where any given word might be worth a thousand pictures. I hope he found a little peace here. It would have been little enough reward for doing the best job of anyone describing why we’ve never walked away from ’68 and never will.

For his memory, then…

 

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HAVING FUN WITH THE CELLULOID SIXTIES

TAMITICKET

Sheila O’Malley recently participated in–and linked to–an interesting poll of best/favorite movies from the 60’s that posted here.

I don’t do a lot of these, but this concept was pretty interesting, mostly because, well, the sixties are always interesting. Besides I haven’t done any autobiography for a while (and that’s what such lists always amount to) and this was something I could get my head around. There weren’t so many contenders it made my head swim (as would be the case in the forties or fifties or probably even the thirties). And there were enough that I cared about to make it worthwhile (as would not be the case from the eighties onward). The poll (which I recommend as interesting reading) had everyone put their choices in order, so I’ll do the same…albeit with commentary:

1) The T.A.M.I. Show (1964–Steve Binder): Greater in every conceivable way than A Hard Day’s Night, which is pretty great on its own. Binder, who directed Elvis’ comeback special among many other things, should absolutely be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This would be a huge cultural touchstone if only for preserving a visual record of James Brown’s stage show, but it’s much, much more than that.

2) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962–John Ford): The source of “Well, Pilgrim,” “You don’t own me,” “Print the legend,” and “Aren’t you proud?” As far as I can tell, everyone who wasn’t aiming for Lesley Gore’s demo pile mistook it for a film about the past.

3) The Miracle Worker (1962–Arthur Penn): For reasons I discussed at length here.

4) Medium Cool (1968)–Haskell Wexler): “The whole world is watching” side of the sixties rendered with harrowing immediacy.

5) The Graduate (1968)–Mike Nichols): “Plastics!” Funny line, sure, but it also feels more like the future we live in than anything else anyone was predicting at the time.

6) Swiss Family Robinson (1960–Ken Annakin): Laugh if you want. But Annakin spent the fifties honing a laughs-n-thrills approach that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made fortunes and legends from a generation later. They’ve given him plenty of kudos and paid plenty of homage (including a lot of direct scene steals and, of course, Darth Vader’s real name). All to the good, but one thing they didn’t ever do was beat his time. (Besides which, Janet Munro was my first movie love, so leaving it off would obviously make me a churl and a cad.)

7) The Apartment (1960–Billy Wilder): I never quite bought that Shirley McClaine’s character would fall for a creep like Fred McMurray hard enough to attempt suicide over him, but, if it’s not quite perfect, this is still the only truly poignant romantic comedy outside of the truly perfect Roman Holiday.

8) The Truth About Spring (1965–Richard Thorpe): There are those who can contemplate a list of what’s best about the sixties without including a Hayley Mills movie. I’m the wrong age and temperament to be one of them, so I’ll just add that if J. Lee Thompson had been able to snag her for Cape Fear–a Divine Intention that was thwarted by a conflict between God’s schedule and Hollywood’s (which was resolved, as these things so often are, in favor of the latter), stung him (Thompson, though probably God as well) for the rest of his life, and, of course, greatly hastened the decline of Western Civilization–it would be on this list instead, and no worse than fourth. (That said: “Tommy…if you shoot Ashton, I’ll never cook for you again!” still slays me.)

9) Monterey Pop (1968–D.A. Pennebaker): The pinnacle of what The T.A.M.I. Show promised–and, with the soon-to-follow deaths of its most dynamic performers (Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin–the latter two already operating at a pace that any rational person watching this at the time must have known could not possibly be sustained)–the first step in the long fall from the mountain-top of the sixties’ dream.

10) Age of Consent (1969–Michael Powell): Features a very young Helen Mirren running around some South Sea paradise with little to no clothing on. Whether God or Satan was responsible for this particular aesthetic choice (which, as far as I’m concerned redeems the sixties all by itself) is obviously a matter for each person to decide in consultation with their own conscience. However, just “artistically” speaking, the beauty is that, either way, that single aspect surely redeems any and all shortcomings–real or imagined–for which this film (or this list!) might ever conceivably be held otherwise responsible.

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Honorable Mentions That At Least Crossed My Mind (In No Particular Order): Gambit (1966–Ronald Neame); El Dorado (1967–Howard Hawks); Charade (1963–Stanley Donen); Psycho (1960–Alfred Hitchcock); Ride the High Country (1962–Sam Peckinpah); Cape Fear (1962–J. Lee Thompson); The Great Escape (1963–John Sturges); The Guns of Navarone (1961–J. Lee Thompson); The Best Man (1964–Franklin Shaffner); Don’t Look Back (1967–D.A. Pennebaker); The Americanization of Emily (1964–Arthur Hiller): Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964–Stanley Kubrick); The L-Shaped Room (1962–Bryan Forbes)

NANCY SINATRA? SAM THE SHAM? KILLING GOOKS? HEY, WHAT’S THE DIFF? (Found in the Connection….Rattling Loose End #15)

From the “It Isn’t Just Elvis They Say Stupid Stuff About” department:

“For the duality I mentioned earlier is really a ruse, since Kubrick has a unified field theory of the psychosexual origins of conflict which manifests itself equally in the perfect discipline and the spotlessly clean barracks of Parris Island and in the chaos, mud and blood of Hué at the time of the Tet offensive. He cleverly embeds the war culture in the US, as represented by Parris Island, and the popular culture of what the grunts all call ‘the world’ in Vietnam. The latter takes the form of some of the most brutalist and repellant popular music of the period — ‘These Boots are Made for Walkin’’ by Nancy Sinatra, ‘Woolly Bully’ by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, and ‘Surfin’ Bird’ by the Trashmen most notably — all played at top volume, in order to present to us a vision of the war as a kind of wild fraternity party.”

(Source: James Bowman, being the sort of pro-war intellectual who works daily to ensure we will win no more wars. Diary entry on Full Metal Jacket published on JamesBowman.net, July 10, 2013.)

I mean, the “brutalist” Nancy Sinatra is one thing. I expect that sort of he-must-be-a-genius-because-no-ordinary-man-would-ever-think-of-it insight from the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve, even those, like Bowman, who–believe it or not–can sometimes pass for intelligent.

But “Woolly Bully?”…“Surfin’ Bird?”

Jeez. Now they’re dissin’ the poets!

These people have no shame whatsoever!

Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs “Wolly Bully” (Television Performance…Proving that one man’s “brutalist popular culture” is another man’s idea of heaven)

And just for good measure, here’s Nancy, circa 1966, conducting somewhat more effective foreign policy than the War…er, Defense Department.

Nancy Sinatra “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” (Live on Italian Television)

SUBJECT TO UPDATING…ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS ON THE SIGHT AND SOUND POLL

I don’t want anybody to get the wrong idea. I enjoy these lists. I just find the narrowness of their scope kind of simultaneously amusing and frustrating. I mean, do they have to always end up being more about the herd-like mentality of professional critics than about the medium itself?

One reason I think these lists (and it happens the same way with books and records) arrive virtually devoid of idiosyncracies is that the process itself is narrow. If I understand it correctly, everybody submits a list of ten, from which of final list of fifty or a hundred is compiled. So I propose a new method:

Instead of listing a “top ten” have each critic send a list of “films I couldn’t possibly in good conscience leave out of my top ten if I knew I didn’t have to impress anyone else.” Some people might list four or five films, some people might list two hundred.

This way, instead of a completely arbitrary number, what you would be getting is a list of films that critics care most deeply about–and I bet at least a few more surprises would percolate to the top. If not to the top ten, then at least the top fifty.

So, strictly for fun:

1920s:

The Passion of Joan of Arc
The General (any Keaton really….But the paucity of entries here tells me I am way-y-y-y behind in my silent film watching)

1930s:

Gone With the Wind (Yes, it’s all that. Deal with it.)
Drums Along the Mohawk
The Bank Dick
Pygmalion (No way I’m leaving Wendy Hiller off this list)
Stage Door
Top Hat
Carefree (Ginger doing “The Yam” and shooting skeet. Fred hanging in. That is what I call art.)
Young Mr. Lincoln
The Rules of the Game

1940s:

The Maltese Falcon
Citizen Kane
The Curse of the Cat People
Double Indemnity
That Hamilton Woman
The Lady Eve
Shadow of a Doubt
Notorious
They Were Expendable
His Girl Friday
The Asphalt Jungle
The Pirate (You keep Debbie Reynolds. I’ll keep Judy Garland)
White Heat
Out of the Past
The Fallen Idol
Fort Apache

The 1950s:

Clash By Night
Orpheus
Beat the Devil
The Big Heat
Roman Holiday
High Noon
A Streetcar Named Desire
In A Lonely Place
The Searchers
Kind Hearts and Coronets
3:10 to Yuma
A Star is Born
The Sweet Smell of Success
Gigi (You keep Debbie Reynolds. I’ll keep Leslie Caron)
Tiger Bay (No way I’m leaving Hayley Mills off this list, though if I really had any guts I’d include The Truth About Spring)
The Naked Spur
Some Came Running
Paths of Glory

The 1960s:

L’Avventura
The Best Man
The Misfits
Cape Fear (The Night of the Hunter was pure abstraction. Max Cady? Him I recognize. And him I fear.)
Swiss Family Robinson (The only film I know for certain Lucas and Spielberg have seen all the way through. Too bad their numberless acolytes have not.)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Miracle Worker
Charade
Dr. Strangelove (Can’t believe Kubrick made my list twice)
The Americanization of Emily
The Apartment
The Graduate
Medium Cool
Gambit (You can never have too much Shirley MacLaine)
The T.A.M.I. Show (Just FYI: If you held me to two, it would be this and The Searchers)

The 1970s:

The Conversation
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
The Bad News Bears (Can’t leave out my autobiography. The Rebel Without a Cause of the seventies, except way funnier. And way sadder.)
I Wanna Hold Your Hand

The 1980s:

The Long Good Friday
Blow Out

(NOTE: I’m not actually opposed to the idea of more recent films being as great as films of the more distant past. I just don’t feel qualified to judge past a certain point because, frankly, I don’t get out much.)