When I watched Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods earlier this year, I was impressed. I thought it was the strongest film he’d made in a while. The script was interesting, the acting was excellent, and I felt he did a good job of using a genre movie to explore the complexity of the black experience during the Vietnam era.
Then a friend of mine, who’d also seen Da 5 Bloods, sent me an essay on the film by Viet Thanh Nguyen that appeared in the New York Times. Reading Nguyen’s piece was an eye-opener, and it made me realize how easily seduced I was by Hollywood genre tropes. He rips apart the myths that American war movies are based on, and talks about the anger he feels as a Vietnamese person watching the US mainstream media perpetuate destructive stereotypes.
Nguyen talks about the importance of Vietnamese people telling their own stories. That started me wondering. In a lifetime spent watching movies, I’d only seen one film from Vietnam. Did the country have its own cinema? If so, had it been around for any length of time? Does the country have an active film industry today?
The answer to all three questions is absolutely yes. It didn’t take me long to find out that the Vietnamese have been making films for around a hundred years, and they have a rich film culture which is still very much alive. Unfortunately, access to movies made in Vietnam is limited. Recent commercial releases are more or less easy to obtain, but many of the older films made by notable directors weren’t available to be streamed or purchased on DVD. This isn’t too surprising. Let’s face it. The US and Europe dominate film distribution in the Western hemisphere. It can be difficult, if not impossible to view films made elsewhere. (Japan being a notable exception.)
I went looking for a film about the war made by a Vietnamese filmmaker, and the title that kept coming up was When the Tenth Month Comes, directed by Dang Nhat Minh. The good news is, it’s available on YouTube. The bad news is, the quality of the digital transfer isn’t great, and the frequent commercial interruptions are maddening. Still, the movie is definitely worth watching.
When the Tenth Month Comes isn’t actually a war movie in the usual sense. It’s not about the soldiers on the front lines. Instead, it’s a meditation on the impact the war has on a single family. Duyên is a young woman whose husband has gone off to fight. Early on she learns that he’s been killed, but she decides not to tell anyone in her village, including her family. While she’s clearly afraid of how the news will affect her father-in-law and young son, it also seems that she’s in a state of denial. It’s as though by keeping her husband’s death a secret she hopes to bury the grief that’s welling up inside of her. In order to maintain the lie, she enlists the help of a teacher, Khang, who agrees to forge letters from her dead husband.*
Shot on real locations, the film has a quiet naturalism that shows the people as part of the village, the village as part of the landscape. Minh lets the story unfold at its own pace, allowing the rhythm of life in the countryside to set the tempo. While the drama builds as the film progresses, he doesn’t push anything. Instead, he lets the emotional undercurrents build quietly, gradually breaking through to the surface. The performers don’t seem to be acting. Their interactions have an understated realism.
As Khang, Huu Muoi Nguyen let’s us know that the teacher’s calm, respectful manner is masking intense feelings that he’s reluctant to express. And at the heart of the movie is Lê Vân’s quietly powerful performance as Duyên. She’s also hiding fer feelings, but the actress allows us to see beneath the surface, subtly communicating the pain and confusion that she feels as wife, mother and daughter.
Again, When the Tenth Month Comes shows life in the village as an organic whole, and that includes folklore, song and theatre. Minh weaves a tapestry of rural Vietnamese culture, making the characters lives and experiences part of a continuous fabric. Rather than vanishing from the face of the earth, the dead live on as ghosts. One of the film’s most powerful moments comes when Duyên performs on stage as part of a local festival. While she can’t bear to tell her secret, she also can’t hide it completely.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is so right. The Vietnamese people need to be able to tell their own stories. The frustrating thing is, they have been telling their stories for decades, but because of the way the distribution of media is rigged, we hardly ever get to hear them. In spite of all the talk about the internet offering unprecedented access to books, films, music, etc., there’s still so much we don’t have access to. Part of this is due to greed, and part of it is due to ignorance, but another factor is our shameless laziness as insatiable consumers of pop culture. We keep getting the same thing over and over again because we keep swallowing the same thing over and over again. We won’t get anything different unless we demand it.
In reading about the film on-line, I found a number of different spellings for the names of the characters. In this post I went with the spellings most commonly used. If anyone who speaks Vietnamese wants to correct me, feel free to write a response to this post.
As I’m sure anybody reading this already knows, movie theatres are one of the casualties of the coronavirus outbreak. The big chains will be struggling, but the theatres that are going to be hit hardest are the small movie houses that show independent films and revival programming.
I was so glad to receive an e-mail from Criterion this morning, explaining that they were part of a campaign to help small movie houses through this tough time. Here’s an excerpt….
On Monday evening, Janus Films and the Criterion Collection contributed $25,000 each to establish the Art-House America Campaign, a fund to offer immediate assistance paying essential bills and key non-executive staff salaries. Most theaters will benefit from grants of $2,500 or more.
You can help, too. Follow the link below to contribute to the campaign. Think of the great experiences you’ve had seeing classic films on a big screen, the way they were meant to be seen. Or the amazing independent films you might have missed completely if your local art house hadn’t booked them. And then think about all the employees who work hard to keep those theatres running, and how many of them won’t be getting a paycheck until the pandemic blows over. If the theatre they work for can even reopen.
Twenty years ago there were a number of independent movie houses in LA. Now there are just a handful. Don’t let the coronavirus finish them off. Please give to the campaign.
The UN reports that we’re in the middle of the largest refugee crisis in history. All over the world people are fleeing their homes to avoid getting hit by a bullet or starving on the streets. Anyone who’s watched the news has seen the images of desperate men, women, and children waiting behind barbed wire fences or drifting on the open sea in makeshift boats.
But refugees have always been with us. Since the beginning of recorded history people have been leaving their homes behind to escape poverty or persecution. Often they gravitate to cities, where they might find a job, shelter, food. And while we don’t like to admit it, cities feed on refugees. People who are desperate to escape are easy prey. If they’re desperate enough they’ll work in sweatshops, hustle contraband or sell their bodies just to feed themselves and their families. And they better not complain, because there’s always someone ready to pick them up and send them back home.
Dirty Pretty Things is set in London in the early 2000s, and it brings us into the lives of people who are living on the fringe, working two or three jobs, renting a room illegally. Okwe is from Nigeria. He works the graveyard shift at the front desk in a hotel, and then during the day drives a taxi around picking up fares. He shares an apartment with Senay, an immigrant from Turkey, paying her cash to let him sleep on the couch. But this arrangement is illegal, because Senay’s legal status doesn’t allow her to charge rent or take a paycheck. So while she has a job cleaning rooms at the same hotel Okwe works at, she has to keep that a secret, too. These people live in constant fear of being caught breaking the rules. When immigration officials knock on the door, Okwe quickly grabs his few belongings and leaps out the window. Neither of them can afford a run-in with the law.
Writer Steven Knight quickly pulls us into the shadowy world these immigrants live in. His characters are drawn in vivid detail, and while these particular people are very much a part of urban London, anyone who lives in a city will instantly recognize them. These are the folks who are just trying to make it through the day, keeping their heads down, doing everything they can to avoid trouble. There are threats on all sides, and the smallest misstep can wreck their fragile existence. Knight takes us on an intimate, uncomfortable tour of the dark side of this metropolis, showing us the London of sweat shops and sex workers, black markets and underground parking structures. The city feels like a sinister beast, feeding on the people who keep it running. Okwe has lived in London long enough to know that life is cheap. But he doesn’t realize how cheap until he enters a flooded hotel bathroom and finds that someone has tried to flush a human heart down the toilet.
The city is hungry, and needs to be fed. Okwe, a surgeon in his native Nigeria, learns that hotel rooms are being used for surgeries as part of a scheme to sell organs on the black market. The guy who’s running this ugly show is Juan, Okwe’s boss at the hotel. Juan is a happy capitalist. He sees no problem with what he’s doing, smiling as he tells Okwe that everybody benefits from the arrangement. The donors get cash they desperately need, the recipients get a new organ, and of course, he gets his cut for setting it up. And if the surgeries don’t always go smoothly, well, that’s just life. Juan finds out that Okwe is a surgeon, and immediately starts pressuring him to join the operation.
The cast is uniformly strong. Sergi López is maddeningly smooth and arrogant as Juan. He’s a master manipulator, sweet talking his marks at first, but always ready to put on the screws when that approach doesn’t work. Juan thrives in the city, because he sees the throngs of vulnerable immigrants simply as a business opportunity. People who live in fear are easy to exploit. Sophie Okonedo plays Juliette, a local prostitute with a breezy, pragmatic outlook on life. She’s tough enough to surive, but she has her soft side, too. Okonedo gives a lively and assured performance. As Guo Yi, Okwe’s friend who works at a hospital, Benedict Wong is both sympathetic and cynical. He brings a world-weary resignation to the role. He’s seen it all, and doesn’t have much hope of things getting better, but he still helps out when he can.
At one point Senay complains to Okwe that he never answers questions with yes or no. He’s always guarded. Chiwetel Ejiofor makes it clear that Okwe is a careful man, never revealing much of himself to anyone. He doesn’t talk about his past or his hopes for the future. He may be carrying a world of feelings inside, but he keeps those feelings to himself. Mostly. His heart aches for all the people he sees struggling to keep their heads above water. But Okwe has to keep his emotions in check. His survival depends on keeping his head down and playing along, so for the most part Ejiofor has to express his feelings in small ways, a look in his eyes, a subtle change in expression. It’s an impressive, complex performance. As Senay, Audrey Tautou also tries to keep her emotions in check, but they’re closer to the surface. Because she’s a woman, Senay is vulnerable to additional kinds of explotation, and the actress lets us see the deep anger and humiliation the character feels at being used by men. In Tautou’s performance we see a proud woman who’s determined to hold herself together, but it’s clear the sacrifices she has to make are taking a heavy toll.
Working in the realm of commercial cinema, it’s not easy to make films that honestly reflect the world we live in. Amazingly, Stephen Frears has made a career out of doing just that. Combining a deft and confident craftsmanship with a passionate interest in telling human stories, this director has worked in many genres, taken on a wide variety of subjects, and somehow kept audiences engaged. His clear-eyed, unsentimental approach gives his films an immediacy that most of Hollywood’s output lacks. While his work is technically accomplished, the focus is always on the people, and the goal is always to involve us in whatever they’re feeling.
Years ago I read an interview with Frears, and one thing he said really struck me. I may not remember the quote exactly, but I can give you the gist. The director was busy working on a new film, and the reporter asked if he was trying to make a work of art. Frears seemed taken aback, and then answered, “No, a work of life.”
Dirty Pretty Things is a work of life.
To anybody following the news over the last few months, it should be clear that sexual harassment and sexual abuse are rampant in our society. It’s not just limited to Hollywood or government. It’s part of the culture we live in. It can poison an institution. It can poison a workplace. And it can poison a family.
Cinefamily fell into all three categories. For years it was a key part of LA’s film scene and its cultural scene. It was a place where employees and volunteers worked long hours, knocking themselves out to deliver a diverse and innovative film program. And for the loyal audience it built, people who were passionately devoted to movies, it truly seemed ike a family. It wasn’t just about watching movies. A lot of people felt a deep connection to Cinefamily.
In August the news broke that members of Cinefamily’s leadership had been accused of sexual harrassment and sexual abuse. The LA Weekly and BuzzFeed News both interviewed former employees, many of whom described a toxic environment at Cinefamily and alleged that they had either been victims of or had witnessed various kinds of harrassment and assault. The two men who were the focus of the accusations resigned. After a couple months of uncertainty about whether Cinefamily could survive the scandal, the board released a statement saying that Cinefamly was shutting down.
It makes sense. It’s hard to see how Cinefamily could go on. But it’s a huge loss to the local film scene. Revival theatres and art houses have become scarce in LA. Competition from on-line media makes it easier to watch movies pretty much anywhere and any time you want. But even though new avenues for distribution have opened up in recent years, most movies were meant to be seen on a big screen and with an audience. It’s a shared experience. Even if you’re by yourself in a roomful of strangers. In fact, sometimes the fact that you’re sitting in a darkened auditorium, just one more stranger in the faceless crowd, makes the experience even more powerful. There are times when the audience reacts as one, when the movie you’re watching brings you together and makes you realize that there are basic feelings we all share.
A while ago I went down to the venue that Cinefamily called home, The Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax. I wanted to take some pictures. It was sad seeing the place all closed up. But this isn’t the first time I’ve seen it go dark….
It started out in 1942 as the Old Time Movie Theatre. Though sound films had become the standard in Hollywood only a little over a decade before, silent films were already largely forgotten. But John and Dorothy Hampton kept Griffith and Chaplin, Pickford and Gish alive by screening their movies at the little theatre on Fairfax for 37 years. John was passionately devoted to the silents, and in addition to screening them he worked hard at restoring the prints in the collection he and his wife built. Unfortunately, John fell ill and the theatre closed in 1979. The Hamptons still lived upstairs during the following years, but the theatre was dark and truly silent. John died in 1990.
The theatre reopened in 1991, thanks largely to the efforts of Lawrence Austin. Apparently he had become acquainted with the Hamptons some time before, and together with Dorothy he brought the theatre back to life. Now called the Silent Movie Theatre, it offered pretty much the same programming as it had when John Hampton was alive, and it garnered a whole new audience. During the years that Austin ran the place he acted as MC, promenading down the aisle before every show as the accompanist who provided music for the screenings performed a playful march. (I remember Hail to the Chief, but other sources say it was Pomp and Circumstance. Both could be correct.) The elderly Austin always dressed formally, always held himself erect. You could see he took pride in presenting these films, and he introduced them to the audience as though the movies were old friends. Regular patrons grew to love him. For a while Dorothy continued working at the theatre, but suffering from Alzheimer’s, she eventually moved to a care facility. Austin had turned the theatre into a successful business, and at some point she turned ownership of the building over to him.
Then one night in 1997, while a movie was playing in the theatre, Austin was shot during what appeared to be a robbery. In reality it was a paid hit, financed by Austin’s partner, James Van Sickle, who was apparently named in the old man’s will. Investigators looking into the crime uncovered much more than anybody wanted to know. Both Austin and Van Sickle had criminal records. Dorothy Hampton’s family accused Austin of having stolen the theatre from her. It was an awful, depressing mess. Those of us who were mourning the closing of the Silent Movie didn’t want to hear the charges levelled against our old friend. It was bad enough to lose the theatre. Now it was as though our memories of it were being stolen.
The Silent Movie went dark again for over two years. It was finally reopened by Charlie Lustman, who fell in love with the idea of bringing it back to its former glory. He was passionate about reviving the theatre, first tackling the tough job of finding financing, and then the even tougher job of finding prints to screen. The box office was open for business again in 1999, and gradually a whole new audience discovered the films of the silent era. Lustman ran the theate for about seven years, but had to give it up when he fell ill with cancer. (Not only did Lustman recover, he turned his battle with cancer into a series of songs and then into a one-man show. Made Me Nuclear premiered at the Santa Monica Playhouse in 2008. He has continued to perform, travelling all over the US to sing for cancer pateints. Here’s a recent post from his Facebook page: “Good morning everyone. I know it’s cliche but I thank God for another day on Earth. Another day to be healthy or ill, rich or poor, happy or sad, for better or for worse…it’s just great to be alive” Check out the page for yourself: https://www.facebook.com/MusicalHOPECampaign)
Dan and Sammy Harkham bought the theatre in 2006, and this was the beginning of Cinefamily. Moving away from silent movies, the theatre began to show an amazingly eclectic mix of films under the leadership of Hadrian Belove. The programming ran from incredibly obscure oddities to crowd pleasing popular hits. I remember among the films I saw there were Film Socialisme and Breaking Away. I wasn’t a regular at Cinefamily, but I remember that when I did go there was a sense of cameraderie about the place. The employees, the members of the audience, all seemed happy to be there.
That’s all over now. As a result of allegations made by former employees and volunteers, Belove and board member Shadie Elnashai resigned in August. In November the board announced that Cinefamily was closing down.
The loss of the theatre is terrible. The loss of trust is even worse. In situations like this people often ask how it could have gone on for so long without coming to light. The answer is that none of us want to believe it. Movies can be lots of different things, but for many of us who love the medium, a large part of the attraction is the escape into a fantasy world. While we’re sitting in the darkened theatre we can be transported to a place where the cruel realities of the real world fade away. A classic Hollywood romance can make us believe that love conquers all. A sci-fi flick may take us to worlds we never imagined. Even a horror film can satisfy our need to believe in justice by showing how the wicked are always punished in the end.
But Hollywood is about manufacturing fantasies. And for as long as Hollywood has existed, there have been guys like Harvey Weinstein. It’s brutally difficult to acknowledge that the industry which has done so much to shape our culture has a long history of protecting sexual predators. But it’s true of Hollywood. It’s true of Washington. It’s true of Wall Street. And you can find the same dynamic at play in churches, in museums, in schools, and in our families. We don’t see it because we don’t want to. Which is why it keeps happening over and over again.
And so another family has been torn apart. The little building on Fairfax is dark again. And LA has lost much more than a place to see movies.
John Huston loved losers. While he worked in a range of genres and told all sorts of stories, he seems to have a had a special affection for the people who just couldn’t make it. Desperate prospectors looking to strike it rich. Cowboys trying to live in the past when the world was moving on. Fighters who kept climbing back in the ring after everyone else knew they were finished. Huston kept coming back to these people, following them as they lived their lives in the margins, fascinated by the way they kept hanging on after the world had given up on them.
Huston’s 1950 adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s novel The Asphalt Jungle is a terse and unsentimental look at a handful of thieves who plan a jewelry heist. But this isn’t a movie about criminals. It’s about people. These are guys who are trying to make ends meet, one way or the other. They may live on the wrong side of town, but they’re just trying to get by like anybody else. And as the story unfolds, we see that they’re not so different from the guys on the right side of town.
Huston doesn’t preach. (With one key exception, which I’ll get back to.) He just follows the characters as the heist unfolds, letting us get to know each of these men, allowing us to learn what makes them tick, what their frailties are. The director worked closely with screenwriter Ben Maddow on crafting the script. In his autobiography Huston says he had great respect for W. R. Burnett’s novel, and consulted with the author repeatedly while writing the screenplay.
The story centers on Dix, a tough guy from the rural South. He has fond memories of the farm he grew up on, but he’s filled with anger over the way that life was taken away from him. The jewel heist could be the big score that allows him to get it all back. The plan is set in motion by Doc, a courtly German immigrant who’s just gotten out of prison. Doc is the mastermind, the man with a foolproof scheme for the perfect job. On arriving in town, he immediately connects with an underground intermediary and sets about choosing his team and finding someone to front them the money they need to get started. The backer they find is Emmerich, a well-respected lawyer who’s having cash flow problems, which seem to be tied to his young mistress.
The Asphalt Jungle is filled with character actors you may have seen many times, but you’ve probably never seen them better than in this film. Cobby is your classic simpering gangster tool, but Marc Lawrence makes his weakness seem all too human. James Whitmore and Anthony Caruso are both in fine form playing ordinary guys who are just trying to make living. To them the jewel heist is just a job. Jean Hagen’s performance as Doll is impressive in its directness. She doesn’t hide behind mannerisms or theatrics. She seems totally vulnerable, completely exposed. It’s a moving performance. Veteran Louis Calhern plays Emmerich, the crooked lawyer, with a degree of polish that speaks of his many years of experience on stage and screen. To put it simply, he’s a total pro. But he also lets us see the cracks in the smooth veneer, the brief hesitations where we glimpse his fear, the deep sadness in his weary eyes. In contrast to this seasoned pro, Emmerich’s mistress is played by newcomer Marilyn Monroe in her first significant role. She’s fine, but she doesn’t make much of an impression here. You don’t get a sense of the personality that would make her a star just a few years later.
As Dix, Sterling Hayden is forceful and intimidating. In this film just his presence on the screen creates tension, in large part because of the anger burning inside him. It doesn’t take much to set him off. The threat of violence is always just below the surface. This makes for an interesting contrast with Doc. Sam Jaffe plays the older man as a thoughtful, businesslike planner, who (almost) never acts on impulse. The actors have an excellent rapport, and this makes their friendship believable. In spite of their profession, they’re both men of honor. They both have a code.
Huston respects these men, regardless of their faults. They may live by a different set of rules than you and I, but they do have a set of rules, and Huston doesn’t care which side of the law they’re on. Which is why the Commissioner’s stern speech to the press at the end of the film, where he lectures them on the importance of law enforcement, seems so completely out of place. The scene was so out of character for Huston that I wondered if he’d been pushed to insert it by the studio, possibly to counter the film’s portrayal of a crooked cop. But a look at the pages in the director’s autobiography that deal with The Asphalt Jungle don’t reveal any mention of studio interference. Whatever the reason for this scene, it’s a sharp departure from Huston’s usual perspective, and to my mind it’s the film’s only real flaw.
But in scanning Huston’s autobiography, I found out that he did run up against the censors on another scene. When everything comes unravelled and Emmerich is facing arrest, he decides to end it all. Huston initially had him going to his study, pulling out a gun, and blowing his brains out. But depicting a suicide onscreen was not allowed by Hollywood’s production code, unless the character was mentally ill. In order to appease the censors, Huston tweaked the scene to show Emmerich sitting down at his desk, starting to write a suicide note, tossing it away, starting another note, tossing it away, and then finally just pulling the trigger. This satisfied the censors by indicating that the character was unstable, and they gave it the go ahead. The way the scene plays out is a classic example of Huston’s laconic, hard-nosed approach, and he actually felt the changes made it stronger. We see a tight shot of the desktop as Emmerich makes his first, then his second attempt to leave a suicide note. Then his hand reaches into a drawer, removes a gun, and a second later we hear it go off. This one brief shot is an intimate glimpse of a desperate man’s last moments.
One of the ways Huston avoids sentimentality is by keeping the music to an absolute minimum. Miklós Rózsa’s score is limited to brief cues at the beginning and the end. The film has a spare, stark quality to it. Certainly most of it was shot on sets, but Harold Rosson’s visuals give the impression that the run down diners and cheap hotels are defined by whatever light happens to be in the room. And the people are defined by the rooms they occupy. The art direction, by Randall Duell and Cedric Gibbons, gives every space a distinct character, from the bare walls and wooden chairs of Cobby’s office to the lush comfort of Emmerich’s home.
Huston may be telling the story of a handful of criminals, but really he’s letting us take a look at ourselves. These men may be on the wrong side of the law, but they’re trying to find the same things we’re all looking for. They want to pay off their debts, buy a piece of land, escape to a place where life is easy and the sun is always shining. And they make terrible mistakes, because, like us, they’re blinded by pride, overconfidence, and greed. Huston would probably be the first to admit he was guilty of all three of these sins. Watching the films he made about frail, fallible, foolish people, we may end up thinking about our own lives. All our dashed hopes. All the mistakes we’ve made. All our plans gone wrong.
I write two blogs, this one about film and another about Los Angeles. Every once in a while I do a post that brings them both together. This one deals with places and spaces from LA’s past that were captured on film. If you’re interested, follow the link below.
We see wide open desert scorched by the sun. Powder blue sky littered with clouds stretching down to the horizon.
We hear an eerie, wavering droning, drifting in the ether. Then a quivering steel guitar slides into the mix.
We see a man wandering through the bright wasteland. The sound of his footsteps barely disturbs the silence.
The bleached colors of this vast landscape are rendered with striking clarity by cinematographer Robby Müller. The trembling metallic tones that hang in the air are played by Ry Cooder. And the haggard man staggering through this barren emptiness is another one of Wim Wenders’ lonely drifters.
Early in his career, Wenders made many movies about people wandering aimlessly from place to place. Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, The American Friend and others focus on lonely souls who feel cut off from the world around them. They don’t have families or friends. They don’t have a home. They find themselves taking off on melancholy journeys, sometimes without even knowing where they’re going. Wenders’ early work is filled with images of solitary people surrounded by silent, empty spaces.
Which is pretty much the exact opposite of what you find in the plays of Sam Shepard, who co-wrote Paris, Texas. The stage, by its nature, generally brings people together in a compact space, and the dysfunctional families of pieces like True West and Curse of the Starving Class fill that space with bitter conflict. Shepard’s characters are forced to deal with each other, whether they like it or not, generally resulting in lively, bruising drama.
So Wenders and Shepard would seem to be an unlikely pair, and the process of writing Paris, Texas was long and complicated. Shooting began with an incomplete script, and the two men were continually rethinking the shape of the film, unsure even of how it was going to end. L. M. Kit Carson was brought in to help shape the final version. Apparently creating the film was an open-ended, collaborative process, and no one quite knew where they’d end up.
It may be the difference in the ways Wenders and Shepard approach their work that gives the film its quiet tension. The opening pulls us in with the mystery of Travis, a solitary, sunburned man walking doggedly across the desert. When his brother Walt shows up to take him back to LA, Travis doesn’t say a word, and we wonder if he’ll ever speak again. After some time recovering in the stillness of the suburbs, Travis seems to come around, but then the question is, will his young son ever open up to him? Even as the end draws near, we never know where the film is going, and at the conclusion there are plenty of things left unresolved.
Travis is probably the best part Harry Dean Stanton ever had, and he plays it beautifully. Starting as a spaced-out, scraggly wanderer who seems cut off from everything around him, he slowly reconnects with reality. Recuperating at his brother’s house he’s like a child rediscovering the world, but there’s always a sense of pain buried inside. One of the film’s most moving moments is a brief scene where he’s walking across a freeway overpass. A haggard, angry man stands on the pavement, shouting nonsense at the cars speeding by below. As Travis passes by, he reaches out and pats the man gently on the shoulder. He knows what it’s like to be lost.
Stanton gets strong support from the other actors in the cast, which includes Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clément and Nastassja Kinski. Hunter Carson does a fine job as Travis’ young son. In Wenders’ films it’s not just the words that matter, it’s the space between the words. One of the film’s strengths is that the actors make the silences as expressive as the dialogue.
The structure of Paris, Texas has a beautiful simplicity. We start in the vast landscapes of the American Southwest, then travel to the comfortable confines of suburban LA, then, at the end, back to the wide open spaces. Art director Kate Altman gives Wenders and Müller the bedrooms, barrooms and rundown roadside concerns that make up the physical and emotional landscape for this story of shifting relationships. Having worked with Wenders on a number of films, editor Peter Przygodda understands the director’s unique sense of timing. Paris, Texas moves at its own pace, always allowing the audience to observe the actors, experience the landscapes. And in the same way, Cooder’s music doesn’t tell the audience how to feel about the action. Instead he allows each cue to grow out of the scene’s emotional tone. The wistful, lilting Canción mixteca is used as a recurring theme. This haunting melody, with its words expressing a painful longing to go back home, sums up the ache in Travis’ heart. But for him, going home isn’t about returning to the place he came from. It’s about finding a way to heal the family that he tore apart.
Paris, Texas may have been a summing up for Wenders, a turning point in his career. While his later films still deal with isolation and loneliness, from this point on his characters start trying to connect with others. In Wings of Desire and The End of Violence we see them reaching out to embrace the world, while The Buena Vista Social Club and Pina are about groups of people who come together to share their joy in music and dance.
In his youth, Wenders seemed to be wondering if love even existed. These days, he’s sure it’s out there somewhere. Maybe it’s just a matter of being open to it.
There’s a fine line between melodrama and myth. And maybe they’re inextricably linked. What is it that transforms a familiar story with a predictable conflict into an archetypal struggle between pride and passion? Emilio Fernández travelled down this road many times, with wildly mixed results. In much of his later work he seems to be a shameless hack grinding out genre flicks. But in his prime, even though he was working within the conventions of commercial filmmaking, he made movies that offered a soaring poetic vision of Mexico and its people.
Enamorada begins with images of cannons firing and soldiers on horseback riding across an open plain. A band of revolutionary insurgents rides into the town of Cholula and takes over. Their leader, General José Juan Reyes, gathers the town’s merchants together and delivers a simple message. They can hand over their wealth to support the cause of the revolution or face a firing squad. But then Jose Juan falls in love with Beatriz, the daughter of one of the richest men in town, and things get complicated.
On the surface, what we’re seeing is a romantic melodrama set during the years when Mexico was in the throes of a civil war. It features some of the leading stars of the time, and the story follows a more or less predictable path. But in spite of the fact that Enamorada is firmly rooted in the conventions of the Mexican studio era, it cuts much deeper than you’d expect. At his best, Fernández was able to burn through the pop culture cliches and tap into his country’s mythology. Though Enamorada is wrapped in the trappings of delirious melodrama, the director uses the story to explore the tension between the material and the spiritual, and by the end it has become a deeply personal meditation on pride and humility.
Like most nations that achieved their independence from a foreign power through violence, Mexico has idealized it’s history. The years of bloodshed and chaos have been woven into a story that glorifies the country’s national identity. Heroes were created and celebrated, stirring tales were told of the brave insurgents who wrested power from the evil oppressors. The truth is a lot more complicated and a lot less pretty. Mexico actually won its independence in the nineteenth century, but for decades the people suffered under a dictatorship that was little better than the previous colonial powers. At the beginning of the twentieth century, anger at the government was so widespread that a series of uprisings took place, which eventually snowballed into the Mexican Revolution. The idea was that the impoverished peasants would rise up and overthrow the government, bringing freedom and justice to the land. It didn’t work out quite that way. While the Mexican Revolution certainly had its share of heroes, over the years it devolved into a a brutal orgy of violence, with “revolutionary” fighters robbing and murdering the peasants they were supposed to be liberating.
Enamorada doesn’t show us the bloody, brutal side of the confict. It gives us an inspiring, poetic picture of the struggle. This is a storybook version of the Revolution. It avoids the messy, ugly side of things, giving us instead a picture of a noble leader and his faithful men. So why should we buy it? If Fernández was just a studio hack using the standard tropes to manipulate the audience, the film would be a slick entertainment at best, and an ugly distortion at worst. He had a sentimental streak a mile wide, and at times relied on his gift for sumptuous visuals and sweeping gestures to work the audience over shamelessly. But the thing that raises Fernández’ best work to the level of art is that he believed passionately in his vision of Mexico.
Which is not to say he believed it was the truth. No saint himself, Fernández knew well the depravity that people were capable of. But he held the conviction that we could overcome our worst impulses and act with compassion and courage. As with the vast majority of Mexicans of his generation, the Catholic faith was deeply engrained in his spirit. His naive acceptance of the church as a beneficent force may be hard for modern viewers to take. How can we accept the director’s portrait of the saintly, altruistic priest after years of shocking headlines about clergy misconduct? And we could also ask how the director, whose mother was a Kikapu Indian, could offer such a glowing picture of an institution that oppressed Mexico’s native people for centuries.
But this actually gets to the heart of who Fernández was. The man was a walking contradiction. While to some degree his faith in the church was wrapped up in a love of symbols and ritual, he also held a deep belief in the teachings of the Gospel, and this is the foundation for the drama that plays out in Enamorada. The noble priest Rafael may be a movie fiction, but he’s there to speak for the morality that forms the basis of Christian faith. When José Juan visits Rafael in the cathedral, he sees a painting of the three kings kneeling before the infant Christ in a manger. José Juan is deeply moved by the image of these men, symbols of wealth and power, down on their knees before a child. For him this symbolizes everything the revolution is about, erasing the lines between the proud and the humble, bringing justice to the world.
But as the movie goes on, the notion of humility takes on a more personal meaning. This proud, stern leader, realizes that he too must humble himself before the woman he loves. For days he’s been going to the grand house Beatriz lives in, waiting beneath her window for a chance to speak to her. One night, when the streets are deserted, he comes again, bringing musicians with him to sing to her. As the trio plays La malaguena, José Juan stands below the window and speaks to her, begging for forgiveness. Beatriz wakes, goes to the window, and peeks out, unseen by her suitor. She hears his words, but can’t bring herself to acknowledge them.
This scene, one of the most famous in Mexican cinema, has a haunting beauty that lifts the film into another realm. Though it’s been clear from the beginning that the tension between José Juan and Beatriz would be resolved, the way it happens is completely unexpected. Here the director goes beyond melodrama, instead speaking to us through breathtaking visual poetry. As José Juan offers his humble confession, the director gives us rapturous close-ups of Beatriz. Though she doesn’t saw a word, we can see that she’s deeply moved.
One of the things that gives this scene such power is the heartbreaking rendition of La malagueña sung by the Trío Calaveras. One of the most popular Mexican vocal groups of their time, they enriched a number of movies with their performances, but I can’t think of another film where the Trío has such an impact. This is the perfect match between the music and the moment. It’s also important to mention Gabriel Figueroa’s rapturous cinematography. Figueroa had an amazing gift for creating rich, resonant images, and for a time his talents were perfectly in tune with Fernández’ vision. For the editing we can thank Gloria Schoemann. Her work throughout the film is sharp and effective, but especially during the scene in which José Juan makes his confession. Because the moment relies so heavily on the images, it’s important that they flow together, that we see the impact the rebel leader’s words have on Beatriz.
There’s no way to talk about Enamorada without talking about María Félix. One of the brightest stars of Mexican cinema, she has a presence that animates every scene she’s in. As Beatriz, the proud daughter of a wealthy family, Félix shows a fierce independence. When her father, on leaving to meet the rebels, hands her a gun, there’s no doubt that she knows how to use it, and that she wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger if necessary. And as José Juan, the equally proud revolutionary leader, Pedro Armendáriz makes it clear that he’s attracted to Beatriz for reasons that go beyond her beauty. Armendáriz was a gifted actor who put his heart and soul into his performances. Subtlety was not his strong point. He displays his passion openly, where everyone can see it.
At the end of the film, José Juan is leading his forces in a retreat from the town, and Beatriz is preparing to marry the devoted American engineer. We know that the two of them will be brought together, and the only question is how. Fernández uses a simple but powerful metaphor to show that Beatriz’ pride has finally come undone. The bride’s fiancee has given her a beautiful pearl necklace as a gift. This elegant and expensive piece of jewelry not only symbolizes the bond between them as husband and wife, but her standing as a woman of wealth and position in society. As Beatriz leans over to sign her name as a married woman, the necklace breaks, and the pearls are scattered in all directions. At the same moment she realizes that her love for José Juan is more powerful than her pride, and runs off to join him.
Enamorada is one of the peaks of Fernández’ career. As he continued making films into the fifties and sixties, it became harder and harder for him to tap into the potent mythology that resonated throughout his films of the forties. Mexican cinema moved away from the naive melodramas of the studio era, and he seemed to lose touch with the blend of passionate emotion, moral simplicity and reverence for nature that made his early work so powerful. He wasn’t alone. As the studios declined in Mexico, the US and Europe, audiences grew to distrust the simple innocence that was a staple of movies made before WWII. Directors all over the western hemisphere found themselves struggling to adapt to shifting tastes.
It would be foolish to accept Fernández’ early melodramas as credible portrayals of life in Mexico. But it would be stupid to ignore them just because they’re not “realistic”. Fernández discards reality in favor of poetry, and with his poetry he writes a history that has a truth of its own.
Looking for connections between an artist’s work and their personal life is a tricky business. No doubt, the connections are there, but generally they’re much more complicated and convoluted than we can imagine. Still, we look for clues to their motives and their manias, their politics and their passions. And at times, the work an artist does seems to reflect their life so clearly, it’s hard not to see it as autobiography.
Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz has many clear connections to the director’s life. The main character, Joe Gideon, is a former dancer who graduated to choreography and then became a director, moving between stage and film. All these things echo Fosse’s own experience. And to take it even farther, Gideon is a compulsive worker who keeps himself going with drugs and booze, chasing one woman after another, madly trying to juggle work and relationships. These things also reflect Fosse’s own life.
In an audio commentary on the DVD I watched, editor Allan Heim says that when he was working on the film with Fosse, he couldn’t help calling the main character Bob. This angered the director, who apparently didn’t want people to assume that Joe Gideon was a surrogate for himself. Heim finally managed to break the habit, but he notes the many connections to Fosse’s own life. In addition to the biographical parallels, a number of the director’s associates, including Heim, are featured in All That Jazz. And how can we ignore the fact that the numerous bottles of dexedrine featured prominently in the film show the director’s home address on the label?
So what are we supposed to make of this? It’s a mistake to assume that everything we see in All That Jazz is a realistic representation of Fosse’s own life. At the same time, it’s a mistake to pretend the connections aren’t there, especially when the tone of the film is so clearly confessional. Fosse felt a need to put his life on the screen, in large part, it seems, to acknowledge his failings. But it’s also important to remember that, like many filmmakers, the director spent a lot of time dramatizing his life. Even if the episodes we see on the screen line up with episodes from the director’s career, they’re stylized and heightened in a way that’s nothing like real life. This is especially true of the last third of the film, which spins off into expressionistic fantasy. There’s no way you can take it literally.
Fosse loved the amped-up, overheated world of musicals. He worked as a dancer and choreographer at MGM back in the fifties, when the studio was churning out frothy, colorful, wildly energetic fantasies that audiences loved. Some of the best musicals of the studio era were made during this time, but the genre’s days were numbered. Though there were a few musicals that hit it big in the sixties, tastes were changing, and audiences were losing interest in fatuous fantasies that always had a happy ending. High profile flops like Dr. Dolittle and Paint Your Wagon almost killed the Hollywood musical.
But in the seventies, a new generation of filmmakers tried to reinvent the form.* Not buying into the easy optimism of the studio era extravaganzas, these directors approached the genre with a more cynical eye. Martin Scorsese tried to mix the glitter and glamour with a dark, disturbing romance in New York, New York. Francis Ford Coppola took a downbeat look at a doomed relationship in One from the Heart. But it was Fosse who somehow managed to reimagine the movie musical within a contemporary consciousness. He scored his first hit by adapting Cabaret, which had been a hit on Broadway. And seven years later he followed it with All That Jazz.
Fosse was never more audacious and never more assured than when he made All That Jazz. Just the idea of putting a character much like himself at the center of a big budget Hollywood musical was pretty outrageous. But pop culture was the stage Fosse chose to live his life on. Showbiz was his metaphor for the world. Of his five films, four of them are centered on entertainers. Fosse was fascinated by the relationship between performers and their audience. He understood the way a dancer or a singer or a comedian could reach out and grab a crowd, creating an electric connection that would hold them transfixed. He also knew how much performers often sacrificed to make that connection, and how damaging the lifestyle could be.
Not that Joe Gideon is a martyr to his art. It’s way more complex than that. Joe can’t stop doing what he does because he couldn’t live without the love and attention that the audience provides. He needs that fix. In spite of his apparent self-confidence, Joe is massively insecure, and constantly pushes himself to do better, because he never feels that anything he does is good enough. And while there’s no doubt he likes women, you have to wonder if he’s driven to chase them, at least in part, because he needs to bolster his fragile ego.
While Gideon has a number of women in his life, three in particular have a special hold on him. There’s his ex-wife, Audrey, who knows him better than anybody. She still loves him, and she stars in the show he’s directing, but she won’t let herself get drawn back into his web. She’s smart enough and strong enough to keep her distance. There’s Kate, his sometime girlfriend, who loves Joe desperately, and still tries to win his heart, even though she’s beginning to realize it’s impossible. And there’s Joe’s daughter, Michelle, who’s totally devoted to her father, and can’t understand why he never spends any time with her.
I should have said there are four women who are important to Gideon. The last is Death, who appears to the director as a female wraith draped in white. They sit together in a backstage netherworld filled with showbiz paraphernalia, Joe right at home at a dressing room table, gazing into the mirror and talking about the mistakes he’s made, the people he’s mistreated. He’s full of remorse, but he doesn’t seem to be able to change his ways. They chat, they laugh, they flirt. Joe is definitely attracted to this beautiful woman in white. For all the film’s high energy and brash theatricality, it’s actually deeply introspective. All That Jazz is a melancholy meditation on life and death.
But that’s not all it is. All That Jazz is also wildly entertaining, with energetic performances, breathtaking visuals, and stunning choreography. The first dance sequence, an open audition set to On Broadway, shows Gideon on stage with hundreds of performers, all trying to make an impression. It’s a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, breathtakingly shot and edited, and it pulls us right into the director’s world. Later we see Joe the choreographer take a paper thin song that he would’ve liked to cut completely and turn it into a show-stopper. The producers start sweating as they realize he’s transformed an innocuous ditty into an excuse for an erotic tour de force. Then there are the final hallucinatory dance numbers that close the film, Joe watching from his hospital bed as his wife, girlfriend and daughter perform brutally ironic riffs on Broadway shows. And extending the showbiz metaphor, as the patient lies buried under bandages and tubes, he sees that his visions are directed by himself, a cynical, detached taskmaster, descending from above on a crane to complain that his star blew the last take.
Bob Fosse died of heart failure at the age of sixty. Apparently he saw it coming. One of the most disturbing things about All That Jazz is the main character’s awareness that he’s pushing himself way too hard, and his apparent acknowledgement that he can’t live any other way. While the incidents we see on the screen may not directly align with the facts of Fosse’s life, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he was using the movie to talk about himself. And more than anything else, that’s what makes this film so moving. Through the movie, Bob Fosse is trying to tell us who he was. Whatever faults he may have had, in All That Jazz he was trying to come clean.
They weren’t the first. Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg was an early attempt to rethink the film musical. And on stage, Stephen Sondheim was pushing the genre in a whole new direction.