Thursday, January 31, 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Love Brought Us Here
Unbow Your Head, Sister

I wasn't that big a fan of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins' previous film whose Best Picture win caused a stir and put him on the A-list of directors. The acting was impeccable from a cast that made you care about people that were damaged or damaging, and one got the sense of hopelessness and of an endless cycle that only reinforced it, despite the gorgeous tones the cinematography of James Laxton painted it with.

One should be grateful for it, though, when the product of the man's work is something like If Beale Street Could Talk, his adaptation (written and directed) of James Baldwin's 1974 novel of love in New York, amidst a backdrop of prejudice, of love that even hate can't stop.

Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are young and in love. She's 19. He's 22. They've been friends since they were kids. Then, they grew up and became more than friendship. 
Their families have known each other a long time, but probably wouldn't if it weren't for the kids. Tish's folks are warm and and inclusive. Fonny's out on his own because of his, but mostly his mother, who is struggling with the burden of raising her family according to the teachings of Christ, but with a less charitable reading of it.
So, when Tish winds up pregnant ("I shoulda said we weren't married" she says in the narration), there's two reactions: Tish's family is warily happy, but accepting. Fonny's father is fine with it, but his mother is livid: "I just pray and I pray and I pray that my boy will come to The Light." But turns on Tish: "I always knew you would be the destruction of my son" and lashes out against "the bastard" Tish is carrying. "You just cursed your own grand-child," Tish's mother Sharon (Regina King) upbraids her and tosses her out.
That is that. Tish and Fonny plan to get married and set their sights on a loft, which is surprising—they find a white guy (Dave Franco) who will rent to them. But then, Fonny gets arrested, charged with the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, who lives across town and out of Fonny's sphere. Seems that Fonny has been set up by a white cop who wanted to bring Fonny in for assaulting a creep (white) who'd been harassing Tish. The arrest is just pay-back for the other incident, and even Fonny's alibi (the ubiquitous Bryan Tyree Henry—he now brings a smile to my face whenever he's on-screen) gets arrested by the D.A.'s office for stealing a car (despite the fact he doesn't know how to drive). The fix is in.
It's the environment of New York at the time. "the black kids were told they weren't worth shit. And everything around them proved it," says Tish at one point in her narration—which has a dream-like reverberation running through it. As she and her family struggle to get a good lawyer (a young eager white dude who insists on being formal and calling Fonny by his given name "Alonzo" to which Tish replies "Call him Fonny. If you're going to defend him, you gotta be family"), Tish takes a job as a token employee at a perfume counter in a department store, the two fathers do whatever they can to raise money, even if it's not exactly legal ("These are our children—we have to set them free."), and Tish's mother takes a trip to Puerto Rico to try to talk to the woman who picked Fonny out of a line-up. They pull together, even as the world threatens to pull the kids apart. 
Jenkins' method of telling their simple story is chronologically complex, going back and forth in time to set up the stakes and challenges at their most emotionally effective moments. And, as with Moonlight, the world of New York has never looked more beautiful, even in the low-light of a basement flat—one may quibble that the Bronx in 1971 was not as portrayed, but it just might be that way through eyes that see with love and will do anything to preserve it.
Tish visits Fonny in prison and tries to encourage him, although it's tough-going—"I hope nobody has ever had to look at someone they love through glass." Their visitations are tough to watch, as Tish and Fonny have barely been out of touch or even in separate frames. They are linked in Jenkins' camera-view, and even when they're not looking at each other, they still hold hands.
It's very much a "you and me against the world" scenario, as most young love tends to be. But, Tish and Fonny are old souls looking to each other to keep hope alive in a threatening environment, looking for saints in the city when they are surrounded by devils. To see light when all around them is darkness and despair.

Maybe Fonny's mother doesn't have it quite so wrong, after all...

Tuesday, January 29, 2019


Casual Cruelty (Till Human Voices Wake Us and We Drown)
"No Matter What They Tell You, We Women Are Always Alone!"

Alfonso Cuarón has come down to Earth.* Not only that, he's come home and he's revisiting the past. His latest film, Roma (nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) goes a completely different route than his space epic, Gravity, and is a far simpler story than it or his other most notable films, like A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, or Children of Men.

The film covers a year in the life of a live-in servant, Cleodegaria "Cleo" Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio, nominated for Best Actress, with no previous acting experience), working for a middle-class family in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, during a turbulent time (both politically and geologically) between 1970 and 1971. With her friend Adelita (Nancy García García), she cleans the house and takes care of the four children of Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a physician. Also, living with them is Sofia's mother, Teresa (Verónica García) and the family dog, Borras.
We go through a typical morning with Cleo as she scrubs the car-port (where Borras resides), gathers the laundry, then picks up the youngest, Pepe (Marco Graf) at school, prepares the children's meals and prepares for dinner for the entire family. At night, she sleeps above the residence with Adelita—aware that Sofia is keeping an eye on how much electricity they use—and begins the day again. She is a part of the family, but more subject to rebuke than any of the children and seems to be getting more criticism from the mistress of the place, as the family is going through a bit of strain—Antonio is spending more and more time away, saying that he's attending a conference in Ontario.
Cleo feels warm towards the children, especially the youngest boy Pepe, and is very deferential to the two elder women of the house, but she can't help but notice things. Still, she keeps busy and looks forward to spending her one day off, as she's been seeing a boy, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a cousin of Adelita's boy-friend. He's pleasant enough, but very proud of his martial arts training—hey, this was before Star Wars, so he has to be obsessed with something.
But, it isn't long before Cleo begins to suspect that she's pregnant—she tells Fermin on one of their dates to the movie-house, but he begs off to go the "lavabo" and...just disappears, leaving her alone to consider her ride home...and her future. She is deathly afraid of telling Sofia, but her employer is entirely sympathetic and insists on taking Cleo to the hospital to be checked out (and so she can inquire about her husband, whose business in Ontario has lasted much longer than was originally predicted). It turns out Cleo is three months along, and she's told to wait in the nursery when the building is shaken by an earthquake. It's just a tembler, but it's enough to send parts of the ceiling down on the incubators in the facility.
Over the next few months, Cleo gets bigger and the family smaller by the absence of Dr. Antonio. It seems he'll be gone over the Holidays and so Sofia decides to take the family to go see relatives over Christmas and New Years, taking Cleo and Adelita with them, and the servant observes there is talk over land-rights and everyone is well-armed should things become a bit rough. She also notices that Sofia is struggling with her aloneness, as she is only too aware that her husband is not at some extended conference in Canada, something that she is keeping from the children. But, Cleo senses it. She knows what it feels like to be abandoned.
Cuarón's style here is strictly controlled (far afield from the loopiness of Prisoner of Azkaban or the POV at all costs and angles of Gravity) consisting of long takes—not unlike the intention of Gravity; the camera takes a position and remains on point, either swiveling slowly to take in the action as it occurs before it, or tracks along perpendicularly to keep the action in frame. It never rushes or jostles and there is no hint of hand-held work, the camera observes without comment or impending any added drama or or psychological intent to the scene. Even the depiction of a riot—the "Corpus Christi massacre" as it was labeled—is photographed with a camera that bides its time, dispassionately.
Roma is photographed in black-and-white, with what appears to be natural light, only a few shots make use of focus, and for the most part the film has a wide depth of field, everything in range in crisp focus and detail. No tricks, no subterfuge. Just recording the scene as it transpires, all of the action reliant on the figures caught in its boundaries.
That ambivalence in the camera extends to the soundtrack as well, certainly the finest work of the year. There is no music to "goose" the emotions or tell you what to think. Any music is source and appropriate to the period and offers no sub-textual comment, even in irony. And the sound design is complex and ever-present; it is a mixture of natural sound and layers and layers of detail, right on up to the sky and its occasional drone from a passing-by plane coming in and out of frame. The sounds are always there, providing a deeper layer to what is going on on-screen, with the sense that life goes on, all around and off in the distance, no matter what happens to the people in out focus. The world moves on indifferently, no matter the attention we pay to the characters we care about.
I love this kind of movie; it gives you plenty to think about, to observe and take things in.
And what one sees is people in turmoil. But, also impacted by what is going on around them, as the world continues to spin and life moves on. It doesn't matter if someone's heart is breaking, the pedestrians still pass by. Nor does a traffic jam care that in the midst of it, a woman is going into labor on her way to the hospital. Newborns are as protected as can be from the germs of the world, but an earthquake makes no concessions for their youth and helplessness; an earthquake quashes humans and germs alike flat. Acts of selfishness are there because those committing them simply do not care about the impact, only the personal benefit.
And that's where Roma hits me in the heart. The writer, John D. McDonald—he of the colorful Travis McGee detective stories—once saged that "the opposite of love is not hate—they're just two sides of the same coin. The opposite of love is indifference."

The world is indifferent. We put God in charge to explain it away, or, in our most kumbaya-moments, link ourselves as one body, troop, congregation or posse, when we're just individual cells commingling and colliding and breaking apart, separate and unequally equal. Laugh and the world laughs with you (if they're paying attention); cry and you cry alone. The world doesn't care. The world's too busy being the world.
That is why seeing the world through Cleo's experiences is so revealing. Her role of servant makes her an ever-present something-to-be-ignored, someone you order to clean the shit and find out, much to your surprise, she's the one you want there when it hits the fan. She is a constant Job on the job, ignored but not ignoring, the paste that holds things together, even under the onslaught of a constant casual cruelty. You care because she cares.

I strongly suspect that Roma will win the Best Picture Oscar and it should, despite some great films competing against it. It has the soul of a great movie, telling its story through image and putting you in another world, apart from your own, a magic lantern of communication. The best of what movies can be.

But, then, I also cynically think it will be because it has a couple scenes in a movie theater. The movie people like that sort of thing.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Don't Make a Scene: Vertigo

A WARNING: This scene, coming as they do at the end, is so SPOILERIFIC, that seeing it, without the accompanying film, will, at the very least, leave you guessing and confused, and at the most, ruin the entire movie for you.  If you have not seen this movie, read no further, but instead, seek out this film.  

You won't regret it.

The Story: One of the most twisted endings in all of cinema—shocking, tragic, and, ultimately, tentative. We don't know if this is really the ending. We leave Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) on the edge, cured of his vertigo, lost of love, but what's the next step? Is it forward to his doom, or back to the safety of the bell-tower?

We don't know. Hitchcock ends it there.

And that couldn't be more appropriate...really, even though the resolution, on the first viewing, screams that it is wrong, at least in audience expectations of a "satisfying" ending. Two women are dead, the culprit has gotten away with murder,* and Ferguson has—again—lost his "dream" woman.

But, what has he lost—really? He's lost the illusion of love, the woman he loved never really existed, although two women who represented that love (one of whom he hasn't even seen!) are now dead. For Hitchcock, for whom the image of an ideal woman in his imagination—blonde, tightly coiffed, corsetted in a conservative gray suit and cool on the outside but emotionally untamed (as so many actresses performances in his films have been overseen, created and re-created)—the ending could not be more personal—the image of love destroyed, as Scottie stands on the edge alone, arms outstretched...and empty. Loss personified.

C'est l'amour. C'est la vie.

Feeling a little bit lost yourself? Some very personal thoughts on Vertigo are here.

The Set-up: After a debilitating accident, San Francisco police detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) is put on medical leave. But a freelance assignment from an old school acquaintance challenges his fragile physical and emotional state in trying to prevent the suicide of the man's wife. He has fallen in love with the woman, and her loss has caused him to seek out another woman in her image. Coincidence? Not in Hitchcock's world.



Scottie's car enters the avenue of tall trees we saw once before along this road. They look sinister in the moonlight.

Shooting forward, we are as though in the front seat of Scottie's car, traveling fast, looking up and ahead to the distant end of the tunnel, and the tall trees flashing by.

Scottie is staring straight ahead, concentrating on his driving. Judy is staring up at the tall trees, wondering, her brow furrowed. Her memory is stirred, but she can't think why.

Shooting forward and up through the windshield. The tops of the tall trees flashing past. Judy's face, highlighted from the dash lights below, faintly reflected.

Judy turns her gaze from the flashing tree tops and looks off at Scottie.

Scottie, still concentrating on his driving, and looking straight ahead.

Judy looking at Scottie, puzzled and slightly apprehensive.

JUDY Where are you going?
SCOTTIE (wryly) To complete my cure.
He glances at her and smiles nicely.
SCOTTIE One final thing I have to do...
SCOTTIE ...and then I'll be free of the past, forever.

He looks ahead thoughtfully.
Quiet, empty, sinister, bathed in moonlight. Far below we see Scottie's car crawl into the square and pass along the road around the green and come to a stop near the entrance to the church. A distant church clock chimes the half-hour.

Judy's face, rigid, frightened, her eyes filled with apprehension. Then, with an effort, she composes herself and glances at Scottie with calm questioning. But he is turned away from her, opening his door to get out.

Scottie comes around the car and opens Judy's door.
JUDY Scottie, why are we here?
SCOTTIE I told you.
SCOTTIE I have to go back into the past.
SCOTTIE Once more. Just once more. For the last time.
JUDY But why? Why here?
SCOTTIE Madeleine died here, Judy.

Pause. He holds out his hand. She shrinks, frightened.
JUDY No, I don't want to go. I want to stay here.
SCOTTIE I need you.
SCOTTIE I can't do it alone. I need you, to be Madeleine for a while. Then, when it's done, we'll both be free.

He draws her out of the car.

JUDY I'm scared.
SCOTTIE So am I, But it has to be done. No, no. I have to tell you about Madeleine, now.

He closes the car door and leads her slightly away, and they stop and look across the green toward the Livery Stable.
SCOTTIE Right there...

He points to the Livery Stable, bathed in moonlight.
SCOTTIE ...We stood there and I kissed her for the last time.
SCOTTIE And she said, "If you lose me, you'll know that I loved you --
JUDY (Pleading) Scottie --
SCOTTIE (Going right on)-- and wanted to keep on loving you."  And I said, "I won't lose you."
SCOTTIE But I did.
He turns slowly, and Judy with him, and he looks up. Her eyes follow his.

The high church tower in the moonlight.
SCOTTIE'S VOICE She turned and ran... into the Church...

He puts his arm around her protectively but firmly, and begins to impel her gently to the church.

SHOOTING from the door. Scottie impels Judy to the door.
SCOTTIE ...And when I followed her, it was too late...

The CAMERA PULLS AROUND as his free hand goes to try the door.
JUDY (Frightened) I don't want to go in there!

Scottie pushes the door open.
SCOTTIE ...too late...
He pushes her into the church with gentle firmness.

The darkness is relieved by shafts of moonlight. Scottie impels Judy toward the foot of the tower.
SCOTTIE I couldn't find her.
SCOTTIE Then I heard her footsteps on the stairs,
SCOTTIE ...she was running up the tower.

It is lit by shafts of moonlight through the slit window. Scottie comes into the area holding Judy. He looks up.

the open stairway spiraling upward.
SCOTTIE'S VOICE She ran up those stairs...
SCOTTIE and through the trap door at the top of the tower, and locked it behind her. Then she jumped.

He is still staring up. Judy is rigid with fright and the memory of that moment.
SCOTTIE And I couldn't follow her. I tried to follow her but I couldn't get to the top.
(He closes his eyes in the agony of remembering)
God knows I tried. I tried but I couldn't get to the top.
(He glances down)
One doesn't often get a second chance. I want to stop being haunted. You're my second chances, Judy. You're my second chance.
JUDY (A frightened whisper) Take me away...
SCOTTIE You look like Madeleine, now. Go up the stairs.
SCOTTIE Go up the stairs.
SCOTTIE Go up the stairs, Judy. (Pushing her to the step) I'll follow.
She starts up slowly, unwillingly. Scottie follows behind her, fighting to keep the impending vertigo under control, trying to keep his eyes fixed on her back to avoid looking up into space.
They move up in silence, and in shadow, their faces occasionally lit by the shafts of moonlight that stream through the open arches of the tower. Judy's eyes are wide and staring; her face and body are stiff with the struggle to keep from breaking under the strain of remembering the last time she went up these stairs.
And Scottie fights his way up behind her.
Judy slows down and comes to a halt at the landing that Scottie barely reached the last time, at the moment of death. She leans her back against the wall for support. Scottie struggles up and comes to a halt near her.

PAUSE, as he gathers himself for the last assault.
SCOTTIE (Quietly) This was as far as I could get. But you went on. Remember?

She stiffens and stares at him.
SCOTTIE The necklace, Madeleine. That was the slip. I remembered the necklace.
A moment, then suddenly she ducks and tries to run past him, down the stairs. He grabs her wrist and holds on.

SCOTTIE We're going up the tower, Madeleine.
JUDY No! Let me go!
SCOTTIE We're going up the tower.
JUDY You can't. You're afraid!
SCOTTIE I'm going to. It's  We'll see.  We'll see.  This is my second chance.

He starts to drag her up the stairs and she fights it, close to hysteria.
JUDY Scottie, please...!
SCOTTIE But you knew, that day, that I wouldn't be able to follow you didn't you. Who was at the top when you got there? Elster? With his wife?
SCOTTIE Yes! And she was the one who died. The real wife. Not you.
SCOTTIE You were the copy, you were the counterfeit, weren't you?.
SCOTTIE Was she dead or alive when you got there?
JUDY Dead. He'd broken her neck.
SCOTTIE He'd broken her neck.  Wasn't taking any chances, was he? And when you got there, he pushed her off the tower, was that it? But you were the one who screamed. Why did you scream?
JUDY I wanted to stop it, Scottie, I ran up to stop it --
SCOTTIE You wanted to stop it. Why did you scream? Since you'd tricked me so well up to then?!! You played his wife so well, Judy! He made you over, didn't he? He made you over just like I made you over. Only better! Not just the hair and the clothes! and the looks! and the manner! and the words! And those beautiful phony trances! That jump into the Bay, didn't you? I'll bet you're really a strong swimmer, aren't you! Aren't you!!  Aren't you!

The blind, frantic nodding of her head as she struggles against him is his affirmation.

SCOTTIE And then what did he do?  Did he train you? Rehearse you? Teach you what to say and what to do?
SCOTTIE And you were such an apt pupil, too, weren't you? You were a very apt pupil! What fun you two must have had, playing games with me! Why did you pick on me?!!  Why me?!!
JUDY Your accident...
SCOTTIE Ah, yes! The accident.  I was a set-up, wasn't I? I was the set-up. I was the made-to-order witness. Where is he now?
JUDY I don't know... Switzerland?
SCOTTIE We'll find him.
They have reached the door to the tower and he stops, with a grim, almost triumphant smile.
SCOTTIE I made it. 
SCOTTIE I made it.
JUDY (Apprehensive) What are you going to do?
SCOTTIE We're going up to look at the scene of the crime. Go on in.

He pushes the door open. She shrinks back.
SCOTTIE Come on, Judy!
He pushes her through and follows her in.

The black shadows are cut by shafts of moonlight. Heavy beams support the great bell hanging at the center. There are additional temporary support beams. Judy backs up against the stonework as Scottie looks about.
SCOTTIE You both hid back there, didn't you?... 'til everything was clear... then sneaked down and drove into town.
SCOTTIE (Glances at her) And then? You were his girl, huh?. Well, what happened to you?

She stares at him, wide-eyed with apprehension.
SCOTTIE What happened to you?  Did he ditch you?

An almost imperceptible nod from her. Scottie almost laughs.
SCOTTIE Oh, Judy!! With all of his wife's money, and the freedom and the power...
SCOTTIE ...he ditched you? What a shame!
SCOTTIE But he knew he was safe. You couldn't talk. Didn't he give you anything?
JUDY (Faintly) Some money.
SCOTTIE  And the necklace. Carlotta's necklace.
SCOTTIE That was your mistake, Judy.
SCOTTIE One shouldn't keep souvenirs of a killing.
SCOTTIE You shouldn' shouldn't have been that sentimental.

A moment, as he stares at her, then he advances on her slowly.
JUDY (Apprehensive) What are you going to do?
SCOTTIE I loved you so, Madeleine.
JUDY (Desperately) Scottie! I was safe when you found me,
JUDY ...there was nothing you could prove!
JUDY But when I saw you again I couldn't run away, I loved you so! I walked into danger and let you change me again
JUDY ...because I loved you and wanted you!
(She throws herself into his arms)
JUDY Scottie, please!
JUDY You love me now! Love me! Keep me safe!
And she is in his arms, pressing tightly against him in desperation, and he holds her tight, and they kiss, deeply, passionately. The kiss ends but they remain together, holding together, and Scottie's eyes are tight with pain and the emotion of hating her and hating himself for loving her.

JUDY (softly, pleading) Love me... keep me safe...
SCOTTIE (Whispering) Too late... too late... there's no bringing her back.
JUDY Please.
Suddenly Judy's eyes, looking past him, go wide with horror.

The figure of a woman draped in black stands motionless in
the shadows by the door.


The black figure moves forward, seems to merge with the shadow
and become part of them.

JUDY Pulls out of Scottie's arms and backs away, terrified.
JUDY (Whispering) No... no...

She is backing perilously close to the edge of the drop below.
Scottie stares at her for a moment, then swings around to see what she is looking at.

The black figure advances into a shaft of moonlight. It is a
THE NUN (Simply) I heard voices...
There is a terrible scream. Scottie swings around again, steps quickly to the edge and looks down. He backs away, his face tight with horror and holds the stonework for support.
The nun comes into the SHOT. She steels herself to look below.
She crosses herself.

THE NUN God have mercy...
She reaches out for the bell cord.

The church bell is tolling. It swings in and out of the picture.
Through the archway we can see the Mission garden below.
Figures are hurrying across toward the church.


Words by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor

Pictures by Robert Burks and Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo is available on DVD from Universal Home Video.

* And this is an interesting point. In the screenplay, Judy blurts that he may be in Switzerland and Scottie says that "We'll find him," but it is left out of the scene as played...probably to keep the audience focussed on the issues at hand and maintain the emotional pitch. There is a lot of explanation going on here—during a particularly frenzied dramatic moment...and Hitchcock, the players, whomever, have simplified the screenplay to keep it on "point" (and I've crossed out those sections of the dialog that were excised, and taken pains to reflect the dialog as spoken in the breakdown). Ferguson's dialog is less formal than in the screenplay, and there's a lot of repetition, not only to reflect Ferguson's agitated state, but also to reinforce key points that might be going by too fast for an audience, and, after all, the whole movie and its hidden plot is being completely revealed for the first time. One could get lost without the careful repetition of information and the changes help audience understanding, both story-wise and dramatically. Rather a nifty solution to a problematic situation, and only shows that, at this point in his career, what a master director Hitchcock was, anticipating the audience's needs, without taking away from the drama...and, in fact, adding to it.