Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Naked Kiss

The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964) Samuel Fuller started as a reporter at the age of seventeen as a crime reporter for the tabloid The New York Evening Graphic. His style was tough, punchy, and sensationalistic—which he would carry over when he began writing pulp novels, then as a screenwriter, before making a deal to write three screenplays for producer Robert Lippert, but stipulating that he direct them as well. The first films—the low-budget westerns I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona did alright, but it was Fuller's timely Korean War drama The Steel Helmet, that catapulted his career as a film-maker, leading to a lucrative string of films for 20th Century Fox and Darryl F. Zanuck throughout the the 1950's. With studios losing audiences to television and stars forming their own production companies, Fuller did the same, creating Globe Productions in 1957, making low-budget independent films that would be picked up for distribution by the likes of Universal or Allied Artists, who would distribute his 1964 film, The Naked Kiss.
Everything about The Naked Kiss screams "tabloid" and the film certainly begins with a bang, if not an alright assault on the audience. Kelly (the gutsy and indefatigable Constance Towers, who had played in John Ford's The Horse Soldiers and Sergeant Rutledge and been featured in Fuller's previous film Shock Corridor*), a prostitute, from the opening frame is advancing on the camera, swinging her hand-bag as loud caustic jazz blares in the background, beating up her drunken pimp for holding money out on her.

The jerk is knocked flat-unconscious, but not before Kelly, in her exertions, has the wigged ripped off from her head revealing a shaved head—why will be revealed later. With the guy on the floor, she grabs his wallet, snatches "only what she's owed"—$75.00—stuffs it into her bra and gives the guy a final kick for good measure.
She then goes to the mirror, and as the credits roll over the view, she sets her wig back on her head, realigns it, and meticulously reapplies her make-up until she's satisfied, as romantic music swells in the background and she calms down. Pleased with her image in the mirror, she smiles and leaves.

Yee-owtch. What a way to start a movie. The visual pyrotechnics don't get any wilder for the rest of the film's running time, but, throughout, Fuller will be turning small-town soap-opera of the Douglas Sirk-directed variety on it's follicle-less head, veering into areas that make the travails of alcoholism and infidelity in the Sirk movies look like much ado about nothing which, given the way Fuller hated Sirk's direction of his 1949 screenplay Shockproof, it probably is.
It's a couple years later and Kelly arrives by bus to the on-the-surface perfect little burg of Grantville. It's perfect because of police like Griff (Anthony Eisley)—another "Griff' in a Fuller story— who happens to notice her arrival at the bus station because he's busy shipping out a JD who's causing too much trouble in town. Rather than having to deal with the kid, he gives him a bus-ticket and a way out of the jurisdiction. But, it's not so perfect that Griff doesn't notice Kelly the moment she steps off the bus and sniffs out that she's a hooker and helps himself to partaking of the goods—she is, after all, posing as a cheap champagne salesman (for the censors)—and after an evening at his place, he gives her the card for a local cat-house (" a salon, and I don't mean a beauty parlor")...across the river out of town. Cheaper than a bus ticket.
That's not good enough for Kelly, though—she's not the sort of woman who'll be pushed to the sidelines, or, for that matter, around. Nor will she let first impressions determine her destiny. Instead, she'll fight against them. She rents a room from a sweet old landlady and takes on a decent job as a nurse-therapist for crippled kids at the local children's hospital run by the town scion, J.L. Grant (Michael Dante). She runs her ward with an overlay of fantasy, with all the kids as pirates and her the captain. She doesn't allow for self-pity. She doesn't allow for doubt. She gives the kids marching orders and she expects them to march...some day.
She has a reputation for being tough, but committed, dedicated. But, the reputation doesn't know the half of it. She also makes herself the unasked-for caretaker of the nurses at the ward: she counsels a pregnant nurse; she watches in horror as Nurse Buff (Marie Deveraux), who is given money by the madam of the cat-house—the Candy Ala Carte—(Virginia Grey) to become one of the girls and convinces her to stay at the hospital and not take the easy money ("You'll turn into a block of ice. You'll be every man's wife-in-law, but no man's wife. .you'll hate all men and you'll hate yourself...because you'll become a social problem, a medical problem, a mental problem...and a despicable failure as a woman")  Not leaving it at that, she goes to the Candy Ala Carte, confronts Candy in the back-room, gives a quick beating with her hand-bag and stuffs the money Candy used to coerce Buff with in her mouth. Keep the change.
Then, at a party, she meets the town's benefactor, Grant. He's attracted. She's attracted—he's smart, rich, debonair, handsome, a man of the world, and a man of great generosity. A benefactor. She falls hard and allows herself the fantasy that she might be able to settle down with Grant. But, Griff sees what's happening and doesn't approve; Grant's his friend...and he's the town's favorite son and bank-roll. He tells Kelly that that's it. She's out and if she doesn't get on the next bus out, he'll tell Grant (who, innocently, has asked Griff to be best man at their wedding). But, she won't be blackmailed; in front of Griff, she phones Grant and tells him about her sordid past. 

But, instead of being shocked, instead of calling everything off, he becomes more committed than ever. Of course, he'll marry her. He loves her. He doesn't care. What a guy! Griff turns around and agrees to be best man.
Kelly couldn't be happier. It looks like everything is going to turn out just fine.

Sure, it is. "Denial's not just a river in Egypt, honey." Maybe, she's looking too much into the future to see the past, but just the fact that Grant is so accepting of her past should have set off alarm-bells. It certainly does in the audience; this is almost too good to be true. So, of course, there has to be something more to it than Grant's just a forgiving guy in love. And there is. And it goes to the very core of Grantville, looking picture-postcard perfect on the outside, but harboring secrets of such a sordid nature that it threatens the very fabric of the town. Before it's over, there will be a murder, with Kelly accused of it, and a fight for the soul of the town with truth on one side and sanctimoniously hypocritical self-interested lies on the other. With Kelly caught in the middle.
The Naked Kiss is pure pulp-opera, more than slightly sullied. And it rails against the hypocrisy of white picket-fence painting that hides the rot tearing things apart from the inside, making it tolerable because it's merely hidden from view. It looks at "polite society" and reveals it to be a contradiction in terms. Society isn't polite. It's politics. And, it's unfair. The powerful get away with stuff that the ordinary get locked away for. But, rules still apply, even if the powerful think they're above the rules, applying them to everybody below them. It's like the lawyer said about the Golden Rule: "The one with the most gold makes the rules." But, that's not what the Golden Rule actually says. The Golden Rule is about fairness, no matter how much gold one has, how much power can been acquired. Rules apply. And looking away from it, or locking yourself in a tower of ivory, doesn't make it go away.
Maybe The Naked Kiss is Fuller's answer to the more fashionable, "tony" films that Douglas Sirk was making over at Universal during the 1950's, which gussied up social problems, or the economical caste system of the United States, and then just glossed them over with a conveniently opportune solution in a re-write, allowing for an ending that can be matched with swelling strings and triumphant horns. There's nothing triumphant to The Naked Kiss. Exoneration, maybe. But, the real triumph, like Fuller had it in The Big Red One, is surviving. Surviving enough to be able to walk away.

* Towers' villainess role on "General Hospital" was finally killed off in 2017 after 20 years. She's still working at 85. Bless her.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (The Archers, 1946) Controversial film for the majority of its life, although looking at it now, one wonders what all the fuss was about.

"Colonel Blimp" was a political cartoon created by cartoonist David Low as a blow against pomposity and complacency, but writer/director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger ("The Archers") took the name and reputation and turned it into another animal altogether—an epic about manners, regimentation and the Rules of Engagement, both intimate and grandiose.

After serving in the
Boer War, Clive Wynne-Candy (the criminally forgotten Roger Livesey) is embroiled in a sword-duel with a German officer, Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), which results in both men being wounded and a substantial recovery time in the same hospital. The two become friends, and while friendships may last, alliances do not, especially in the European history of the 20th Century. Times change, the borders of countries shift like Teutonic plates, but loyalties...what happens to them? It may seem an odd thing to focus on to American audiences (as we've always fought "dirty" in our wars, bending the rules of warfare to our advantage), but the British throughout that century struggled to maintain a decorum to war, which, if it were not so ingrained, must seem like a flight of fancy.*

"The criminally-forgotten Roger Livesey"
Flights of Fancy are what Powell and Pressburger do best. And despite mis-understanding by, primarily, Churchill (who must have thought it was about him), the film has been unfairly maligned, and expectations for it blown out of proportion. Satirical it is. But also a melancholy treatise on long life and outliving one's epoch. One walks in expecting brash and finds it sad and sweet. And cleverly inventive, in technique and story-line. Deborah Kerr (in a daunting screen debut) plays three women in Candy's life: the woman he gave away to a friend, the woman he married, and his driver during WWII—the arc of a love in three acts for women who resemble each other, if only in the mind of one man.

If nothing else, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is amazing in its look--a Technicolor confection that pops off the screen, a mark of "The Archers.

*However...given the film begins with The Boer War, one can't help but use the word "decorum" a bit sarcastically given the British use of "scorched Earth" policies and concentration camps during that conflict.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

First Reformed

Suffering from Complications
A Letter to the Philistines from the Apostle Paul Schrader

There is a remarkable quality of the ascetic in Paul Schrader's new film, First Reformed, his latest film exploring religion—although you could make a case that everything he's done has had something to do with it, given the director's Calvinist upbringing. But, this one hits the hammered nail on the head and may be his most completely satisfying film he's ever made...although it may confound and frustrate an audience, be they of a religious bent or not. It's an unqualified and non-denominational success. And it's so simple...and so threadbare and low-budget ($3.5 million), it could almost be monk-like. 

Take the aspect ratio, for inescapable instance: First Reformed is shot in the Academy ratio of 1.375:1, that boxy shape that was abandoned in the 1950's for the more heretical widescreen formats designed to lure people out of their homes and away from their own flickering square TV screens. That shape is the shape of old movies and its breadth is so humble, it is practically orthodox.
Reverand Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a former Army Chaplain, been most of his life. He was married. Not any more. When his son came of age, he wanted to join the Army and although his mother despised the idea, his Chaplain father didn't discourage it. Six months later, he was dead in Iraq. The marriage collapsed The reverend left the Forces and through a mega-church called Abundant Life, has become the pastor of an historic landmark in the town of Snowbridge, New York, the First Reformed, which was a way-station on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves on their way to Canada. The church is a tourist attraction (with gift shop) and the congregation is spotty, at best.
"I'm going to keep a journal." he says at the beginning of the film. In that journal, he will pour he thoughts, his dreams, his disappointments—even in the writing—an act he seems as a form of communication, even a sort of prayer. At the end of the 12 months, he will shred it, and burn the shreds leaving no trace behind. Writing a journal (like writing a little-read blog) is a solitary, selfish act, but like any form of communication, it can clear the cob-webs, garner perspective, lay bread-crumbs, and even reveal perspective and truth. It can also mire you in a perpetual loop of self-reinforcement, much like the rabbit-hole Travis Bickle burrows into in one of Schrader's early scripts Taxi Driver. And like Bickle, the Rev. Toller is another of "God's Lonely" men of the writer-director's devising.
Toller is passive. His manner is open, but doesn't reveal much—perhaps because he doesn't have much to reveal that he doesn't channel through his journal. He certainly doesn't reveal much passion or zeal or fervor, and it's reflected by the low attendance at the church.
That changes when he's approached by Mary (naturally) (Amanda Seyfried) who is seeking counselling for her husband, named Michael (Philip Ettinger), not Joseph, who is an environmental activist. Mary is pregnant (naturally and presumably not immaculately) and Michael is encouraging her not to have the child—with the Earth beyond its sustainable tipping point, he is questioning the wisdom of bringing a child into this crumbling world (at the child's age of 50, current coastlines will be under two feet of water). "It's a little girl. What do you say when she looks into your eyes and says 'You knew about this all along.'"
Toller falls back on some yin/yang comparisons and calls upon the mystical—"Courage is the answer to despair. Reason has no answers."

Then, Michael hits him with the ultimate question: "Can God forgive us for what we've done to this world?"

Toller deflects: "Who can know the mind of God?"

"I felt like I was Jacob wrestling with the angels." he writes later. "It was exhilarating."

Exhilarating. That's got to be a charge for someone who's clinically depressed, and that's what Toller is—going through the motions, cutting himself off from people and differing perspectives, which just might show him a way out of his funk...if he was looking for it. But, when the person you grasp onto is also a depressive, and is, in fact, a suicidal depressive, the risk is to stay in your dark comfort zone, but also jump into another rabbit-hole, one that only seems new and different, but is also deeper. 
Did I say suicidal? Who said anything about suicide? Well, Toller gets a text from Michael—"Meet me at the park"—and when he gets there, Michael is dead, having blown his head off with a shotgun. Toller calls the police, and goes with them to inform Mary. Mary has previously seen that Michael had created a suicide vest and informed Toller, who took it away, where it was squirreled away in the garage, away from prying eyes. The discovery that it was missing may well have prompted Michael's final act. But, what was he going to do with it? It couldn't have been any good.
Toller follows the specifications of Michael's will—to proceed over his funeral, scattering his ashes at a toxic waste dump, a dump created by the town's chief business, a paper mill and chemical plant run by Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), who happens to be one of the biggest contributors to Abundant Life and is spear-heading the celebration of the First Reformed's 250th anniversary. A large event is planned with the governor, mayor, and Balq all in attendance, At a lunch meeting between Balq, Toller and Abundant Life's pastor, the Rev. Joel Jeffords (Cedric the Entertainer), Balq reads Toller the riot actor for making Michael's funeral a political act about climate change, which Toller defends as the man's wishes, which he knew because he was counselling him. "You counselled him and then he shot himself..." Balq barks back. "Well, I think before you criticize others, you should take a hard look at yourself, Reverend."
Toller does take a hard look, but at Michael's laptop and all the research Michael had done in his activism. And more and more, he starts to become obsessed.

So, you have a self-isolating man spirographing his own thoughts, you expose him to ideas that have just enough  intersection with his own, ideas that alarm him and touch him simultaneously, then you put in his hands a weapon and a target and you start the clock until it counts down. Schrader was editing First Reformed when he noticed how similar it was to his earlier Taxi Driver, but you don't have to have seen that film to connect the dots and see the fire on the horizon. As Toller's resolve crystallizes, he becomes distracted by Mary, who is still dealing with Michael's suicide.
At one point, in his spartanly furnished rectory, she mentions something she misses about Michael—they used to lie together, feet touching feet, hands touching hands, face to face, aware of each other's breath, heart-beat, pulse. When Toller agrees to do the ritual with her, it is non-sexual, but transcendant, like an out-of-body experience, floating above the floor, imagining flying over beautiful, pure vistas that gradually darken, become sullied and polluted. Talk about losing the moment.
You know how Taxi Driver ended (I assume)—with a bloody catharsis, that becomes misrepresented in the culture as a heroic act, when it was actually a murderous rampage born out of frustration for not having pulled off an assassination. First Reformed ramps up to just such a crisis-point, that is potentially horrifying. One starts to feel one's palms sweat the closer one gets to that Anniversary celebration, even as Toller begins to behave irrationally and starts to break. Oh Lord, here we go again.
But, Schrader, for whatever reason, does something different, staging a form of cinematic intervention that is not only inventive, but actually inspired, making your jaw drop. It's hard to imagine this word being used for a Paul Schrader film, but it's actually sublime, and apt, and, frankly, heaven-sent. It also points to a rejection of -ologies or -osity's, a breaking free and its own catharsis. First reformed is tight, focused, and concentrated, no less concerned with the struggles of the soul and the conscience as with other Schrader films. But, it's brevity, spartan nature and straight-forward narrative make it the best film Schrader has ever done.

And, just when the guy was about to quit making movies.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Olde Review: One-Eyed Jacks

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the kid I was back in the '70's a bit of a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

This Saturday's films in 130 Kane Are Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks and Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1961) This one's something of an oddity--it's the only film directed by the greatest "method" actor, Marlon Brando. But what you will see on the screen is really not the film that Brando made. You see, it's one of those stories where nothing really works right. Brando and a number of script-writers worked on the screenplay for a couple of years. Stanley Kubrick was signed to direct and pulled out.* Then, Brando decided to direct it himself and shot a quarter of a million feet of film over a six month period at a cost of five million dollars. Supposedly, there was about 35 hours of film to edit down to a watchable size. Brando's cut was five hours long, but with some noticeable studio shooting, plot summaries were accomplished and got it down to its current two hours and twenty minutes. So it isn't totally Brando's concept.
What is there in those two hours and twenty minutes? A superbly acted film, based on a script that at times is intriguing and at times is dull cliche. It's a very weird movie. It's weird, but it does show that Brando certainly had an artistic eye for shots, camera angles, sequences that sometimes take the breath away. You'll also see excellent performances from a cast of Brando, Karl Malden (before TV neutered him),** Katy Jurado, Slim Pickens, Pina Pellicer, Elisha Cook, and Ben Johnson..especially Ben Johnson.
Johnson first worked for John Ford in his westerns and evolved into more than a great actor, but one of those genuine screen presences working in film today. When Johnson and another screen presence, Brando, play off each other in a scene, sparks fly across the screen. Those sparks were expected to fly between Brando and Jack Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks, and never appeared. To see these two greats square off is one of the joys I had watching this film, and also, this film contains my favorite epithet in all of cinema....

"Get up, you scum-suckin' pig!"
They just don't write 'em like they used to.

Broadcast on KCMU-FM on November 19th and 20th, 1975

Or over-write them. The parts that you can glean from the current cut of One Eyed Jacks (and no one is rushing to restore the full length version, certainly not Paramount Studios, although Criterion did do a restoration for Blu-Ray that was supervised by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg) suggest an idiosyncratic western with a gritty, grimy feel, which would have made it unique in the western-glut that was happening across theater and television screens across America. Brando's fights were inelegant, and people looked like they got hurt. But the film is a cliche about Authority Figures and Oedipal Conflicts--Karl Malden plays a once-friend-turned-lawman named..."Dad." At one point, Brando's character is whipped in the street before a crowd of on-lookers, and if that doesn't convince you he's a Christ-figure, his tied, outstretched arms just might.

Ulp! It starts to get so thick with things like that, you need hip-waders out in that desert.

* Kubrick says he quit because Brando was wasting a lot of time, and really wanted to direct it himself, so he moved on to a more worthwhile project.
** Malden was (at the time of writing this) appearing in an American cop series called "The Streets of San Francisco," with a young actor of good parentage named Michael Douglas. 

"Get up, you scum-sucking pig!" occurs at 3:55 in this video—he says it to Ben Johnson

Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Written at the time of the film's release.

"One for the Kid"
"The Secret in the Clockworks"

Okay, okay.  Let me get this straight...a Martin Scorsese "Kid's Picture?"  In 3-D?

Honestly, I laughed when I saw the preview.  What could be more incongruous than the director of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas making a film for the kiddies.*  I mean, face it, if Scorsese made a baseball film half the players would be killed by line drives. What's next? Spielberg making a snuff film? Kevin Smith making a good one?

Well, will wonders never cease?
Hugo, the film that Scorsese made for the youngsters runs about 2 hours 8 minutes but feels longer, probably because it has so much on its plate.  A period piece—set post-WWI—about a young orphan, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfieldpossessing the most angelic urchin face since Elijah Wood) who caretakes the extended clockworks inside Paris' Montparnasse station, it also contains a brief history of the birth of the film era, an extended history of the career of French film pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) as well as being a feature-length advocacy piece for one of Scorsese's pet projects, film restoration.  But, lest one imagine a long lecture on the subject, it is so embedded in the film's story as to seem nearly invisible—a message hidden in a film of glass-sugar, so as to make the medicine go down.
Hugo ekes out a mouse-like existence, away from the orphanages, maintaining, unseen, the intricate, but elaborate clockworks that the trains run and the people depend onFrom the crystal clock-faces he can see life passing by and through, the scraps of left-over food that can provide a meal, and across the way the toy-maker's shop (with the very cranky proprietor) from whom he steals the tools and odd-parts to try and repair the last link to his late father (Jude Law, briefly), an amateur watch-maker, who took it upon himself to repair a mechanical automaton, discovered at the museum where he worked—the mechanical man's purpose no one knows

From his vantage-point, Hugo is at the hub of the station's bustling activity and many side-stories, but when the need or the hunger arises, he'll make time to enter that world through any number of vents, passageways and access-doors, usually one step ahead of the persistent Station Inspector, who is trying to maintain his own kind of order in the depot.
It may be a PG rated kids movie, but it is still Scorsese, so there are dark elements running all the way through, like Dickens. And Scorsese is never one for a light touch, no matter what the rating is or to whom the demographic is targeted. Still, it is Scorsese's breeziest project in years, recalling the set-bound, intricate work he did on New York, New York all those years ago. But, with the tools of CGI, the scope is huge and the director swoops and swings through corridors and tunnels and crawlspaces with a verve he's never displayed before. It's Scorsese unleashed, not unlike the doberman pinscher partner of the station garde (Sacha Baron Cohen, who displays a fine depth for physical comedy, as well as a Sellers-like ability to plumb perverseness from the lightest subjects), who scampers like a hell-hound through the station's ornately vast spaces (the most elaborate set-piece is a nearly wordless pre-title sequence that is its own CGI 3-D hurdle-fest, that is also a tribute to the silent film era.** 
Yeah, it's a kid movie, but it's also a relentless love letter to cinema, with craning shots the old masters would have busted Union rules for, emulations of the arty interpretive shots from the silent era—things the neo-realist Scorsese has never attempted before—while at the same time taking a toymaker/magician/film-makers' fascination with capturing what James Stewart (in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich) called "little pieces of time."  It is all a bit of magic, a bit of technology, a bit of art, presented with a stylists' eye for the dramatic.  
And Scorsese, with an army of the best at their cinematic craft—Robert Richardson, Thelma Schoonmaker, Dante Ferretti, Sandy Powell and Howard Shore (Shore's score is wonderfully soaring and French-laced)—including such fine actors as Kingsley, Law, Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Kick-Ass' "Hit-Girl" Chloë Grace Moretz and A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg, have taken John Logan's intricately geared script-work and constructed a well-oiled entertainment machine taking today's technology to recreate an ephemeral past.

Wonders will never cease. Not with directors like Scorsese. Thank God!
Méliès accompanying himself on banjo in one of his films.

* This brings up one of those stories—the ones you repeat over and over again at Family Gatherings—of my Mother's side of the family, when she and her fellow Bannick sisters went to see Scorsese's Casino...because they thought it might be a musical? (!!!!) Casino. The one that begins with De Niro being blown up in a car, and later, a man's head in put in a vise until his eyes pop out, and Joe Pesci is bludgeoned to a pulpy death with a baseball bat—this, after an even more grisly scene where he has sex with Sharon Stone?

I've often wondered at what point in the film did they figure out there wouldn't be any dancing?

** It reminded me of the kids toy-box of Paris opening of Moulin Rouge!, Baz Luhrmann's zest-fest mash-up of period piece and slash and dash modern culture.