Author Archives: cmaddren
In the seventies, Hollywood was trying to figure out what to do next. The major studios had pretty much collapsed in the sixties. High-profile movies with big stars were bombing at the box office, while low-budget films that ignored all the accepted rules were raking in millions. Realizing that the old formulas weren’t working any more, but clueless as to what the younger generation wanted, studio execs greenlighted a number of offbeat projects in the hope they’d get lucky. It was a heady time. Sure, the studios still put our plenty of bland rubbish, but for a while when you went to the movies you knew there was a chance you’d see something new and different.
Scarecrow was definitely different. From the opening scene with two guys standing on opposite sides of a lonely country road, not speaking a word of dialogue, you can tell this movie has a rhythm all its own. For the most part, Scarecrow just follows these two rootless men, Max and Lion, as they hitch across the country. In place of a plot, you just have people, and the film takes it’s own sweet time, letting you get to know each of the people these two guys encounter.
Max has just gotten out of jail, and plans to open a car wash with the money he saved while he was doing time. Lion has been away at sea, but now he’s decided he has to go back home and try to connect with the child he fathered but hasn’t seen. At first, the two don’t have much in common, aside from the fact that they’re heading in the same general direction. But over time they become fast friends, and we realize that one thing they do have in common is that they’re both terribly naive. They may be grown men, but in many ways they’re as innocent as children. Neither one really understands the world around them.
As Max, Gene Hackman shows what made him such a unique and compelling actor. He has an unselfconscious openness, a fuzzy looseness that makes him seem completely accessible, but he also has a presence that holds your attention and an energy that’s a little scary. You’re always a little afraid of what he might do. Al Pacino plays Lion, and he still has the freshness of a young actor who’s willing to take chances. Lion is kind of shy, unsure of himself and of the world around him, and his reactions often seem as spontaneous as a child’s.
But the whole cast is wonderful. Eileen Brennan just has a small part as an irascible barfly, and still makes an impression in the short time she’s on screen. Dorothy Tristan radiates an easy warmth as an old friend that Max decides to drop in on. She never says a word when he starts flirting with her partner Frenchy, but you can see the twinge of jealousy in her eyes. Ann Wedgeworth plays Frenchy with an unabashed openness that’s totally winning. She immediately falls for Max, and she can’t stop flashing her huge smile, just waiting for him to make a move.
It’s not just that the actors are in fine form. Director Jerry Schatzberg knows how to use them. Again, this movie is primarily about people, and Schatzberg shapes each scene to bring us closer to the characters. Screenwriter Garry Michael White gives him a lot to work with. You have to wonder if White didn’t spend some time hitchhiking himself. He seems to know these people and their world well. The cinematography, by Vilmos Zsigmond, slowly unfolds a panorama of the American landscape. This movie was shot in the bars and coffee shops, cheap hotels and bus stations that line this country’s rural highways. Zsigmond shows us the worn and wasted beauty in all of it without ever making us aware there’s someone behind the camera. Editor Evan Lottman is completely in tune with the movie’s vibe, throwing away the rule book and letting the people and the places determine the pace.
Max keeps talking about his car wash. Lion keeps thinking about the day he’ll get to see his child. What makes their story sad is that both of them are going nowhere. What makes it beautiful is that at least they’re going there together.
Jane Campion has had her ups and downs. First getting attention as an independent filmmaker in Australia, she broke into Hollywood with an offbeat fairy tale, The Piano. Her much anticipated follow-up, Portrait of a Lady, tanked at the box office and didn’t appeal to critics. Nobody knew what to do with the lovely and disturbing Holy Smoke, and In the Cut, a modern day noir, was a little too twisted for mainstream audiences.
With Bright Star, Campion went back to making small films for small audiences. But maybe intimate is a better word than small. This quiet, introspective movie may have been shot on a limited budget, but it has more weight than almost anything made for mainstream audiences. If Campion has turned away from Hollywood, it’s only so she could embrace the bristling honesty that’s at the core of her work.
Bright Star tells the story of the romance between Fanny Brawne and John Keats. Brawne was an independent-minded young woman in love with the art of making clothes. Keats was a willful, brilliant young man obsessed with the art of making poetry. Their relationship was a slow, deliberate dance that started with them circling each other cautiously and ended with them embracing each other rapturously. It’s easy to see why the material appealed to Campion. She’s always been fascinated by relationships. And in speaking about Bright Star, she’s said that she was interested in telling a story about people who talked.
Words are crucial to this movie. The words spoken by these people are full of meaning. The characters write letters, read aloud, quote from memory. These people take words seriously, sometimes too seriously. An offhand opinion can start an argument. A light remark may cut someone deeply. In part this is because these lovers, at times so supremely confident, are also terribly insecure. If they burn others with their scorn, it’s probably because they feel they’re burning inside themselves.
Bright Star is a period piece, but Campion doesn’t just take us back to another time, she immerses us in it. This film is so sensually rich you can feel the crisp fabrics and smell the freshly cut flowers. Image and sound are carefully woven together, allowing us to experience the pace and feel of this vanished world. We see the way light falls across a finished hardwood floor or filters down through a grove of trees in spring, courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser. We hear the faint rustle of stiff skirts bustling down a dark hallway and the hushed chatter of birds drifting on the ether of a lazy afternoon. I wish I had a better idea of who to congratulate for the ravishing sound design, but in this area the credits are complex and not always easy to decipher. I hope that I’m not too far off in singling out sound effects designer Craig Butters, production sound mixer John Midgley, and sound effects editor Sean O’Reilly. My apologies to those others whose names I haven’t mentioned.
Campion credits Janet Patterson, who designed the costumes, for bringing an organic approach to her work, finding clothes that fit the actors rather than dressing them in fashions drawn on a page. Fanny’s dresses, hats, and shoes all show the meticulous care she takes in everything she wears. John’s clothes, on the other hand, show how little he thinks about his wardrobe. His mind is on other things. Patterson also served as production designer, and she shows the same care in creating the settings. The rooms these people occupy feel lived in, the poets lounging in their dusky library surrounded by stacks of books, the Brawnes busying themselves about the house in their tidy, joyful domesticity.
Campion’s technique is more simple and direct here than in her previous films, but her insights are a complex as ever. She seems to have relaxed into a kind of serene classicism. In Bright Star she chooses set-ups that are more or less straightforward, finding compositions that catch what’s happening between the characters without driving it home. This puts the focus on the actors, and the leads deliver wonderfully nuanced performances. Abbie Cornish uses the slightest changes in her expression to register sudden, sometimes violent, changes in Fanny’s mood. As played by Ben Whishaw, John may seem distracted, disengaged, but it slowly becomes apparent that he’s keenly aware of the world around him and painfully sensitive to it. Paul Schneider is excellent as John’s zealously devoted and very jealous friend. Thomas Brodie-Sangster doesn’t have much dialogue, but he plays Fanny’s brother Samuel with an easy grace. And I have to say that Edie Martin has a kind of magical charm as Toots.
It’s not easy for directors like Campion to get films made. A project like this is clearly not going to make it with mainstream audiences, which means running down the money often takes longer than making the movie. I hope she’s done with Hollywood, because I’ve seen so many filmmakers get beaten up trying to play that game. But going the independent route isn’t easy either. It usually means more control, but it also means working like a dog to get funding, and a lot less attention when your work finally gets shown. It’s a tough gig. We should do everything we can to support her, and all those like her.
In the twenties, Charlie Chaplin was sitting on top of the world. An international star and owner of his own studio, he had complete control over the films he made. Chaplin worked at his own pace, taking as much time as he needed to get things right. He might spend days on a single scene, and if later he decided it wasn’t right, he’d go back and shoot it all over again. If he felt like he needed a break in the middle of shooting, he’d shut the production down and go back to it when he was ready to resume. I can’t think of another commercial filmmaker who had the same freedom.
Chaplin started out making shorts in the teens. His early efforts were rough, but by 1920 he’d mastered the medium, and it’s important to understand what the medium was in those days. In the silent era, commercial filmmaking relied on characters that were easily recognizable stereotypes, and stories that were told in the clearest possible terms. Without dialogue to help define more complex characters and situations, filmmakers had to use a visual language that was simple and direct.
When Chaplin came on screen as the Tramp, audiences recognized the character immediately. He was the little guy, the ordinary fellow who didn’t want any trouble, and spent most of his time just trying to get by. Put him next to a burly roughneck or an elegant society woman and the situation was clear right away. Without a word being spoken, it was easy to see he was either dealing with an antagonist or an aristocrat, and audiences would naturally be rooting for Chaplin, the underdog. The plots were just as simple, setting up blunt contrasts between love and hate, kindness and cruelty, selfishness and self-sacrifice. They appealed to the audience’s most basic emotions, and at their best, the silent films of the studio era had a primal power that was irresistible.
City Lights is one of the prime examples of this kind of filmmaking. The story is real simple. The Tramp falls in love with the Blind Girl who sells flowers on the street. When he finds out she needs money, he (sort of) steals the cash to help her out, but ends up going to prison for the crime. You can’t get much more melodramatic than that, but Chaplin uses this soap opera storyline to create a film that’s funny, beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking.
These days there are lots of people who complain that Chaplin’s work is too sentimental, and even in his own time there were critics who held that view. All I can say is, it works for me. If I thought that he wasn’t sincere, that he was just trying to manipulate the audience, then I’d be angry at this fraud who was tugging at my heartstrings. But I think Chaplin absolutely believed in the world he created on the screen. Not to say that he believed it was realistic, because he certainly knew that his movies relied heavily on artifice. The reality he was reaching for was an emotional one. Even if the situations were sheer fantasy, Chaplin tried to make the emotions ring true.
One of the reasons Chaplin was so good at putting us in touch with his characters’ feelings is that he understood the relationship between the performer and the camera. For his comic scenes, he spent endless hours shooting rehearsals so that he could fine tune every gesture, making it fit precisely within the frame. The sequence where we see him gazing at the statue in the store window is a classic example. The whole thing is shot from one angle, but it’s absolutely the right angle. Chaplin shot reel after reel of rehearsals, slowly working out a subtle choreography that can wring laughs out of the smallest gesture. In the scene where he meets the Flower Girl, played by Virginia Cherrill, it starts out sweetly charming, then there’s a sense of wistful longing, and suddenly we’re laughing at a slapstick gag. Chaplin accomplishes all this with the simplest set-ups, but he always makes sure that the camera is positioned to pick up everything the actors are doing. It’s not just the expressions on their faces, it’s the way they stand, the way they walk, the way they move their hands. The storyline may be pure melodrama, but scenes like this are a subtle, complex dance.
City Lights shows how completely Chaplin understood silent filmmaking, but he never figured out how to deal with sound. His art was built on the poetry of popular melodrama. The images were so simple you didn’t need words. When he finally started making films with dialogue, the words seemed like excess baggage, weighing everything down. He certainly has some interesting things to say in movies like The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux, but in those later efforts it seems like he’s trying to explain himself, rather than trusting us to understand. In City Lights he doesn’t need to explain anything. We don’t have to hear what Chaplin is saying. We can feel it.
The animation of the studio era settled early on into a comfortable pattern. These short cartoons usually showed funny animals doing crazy things. While you might find a few examples of verbal humor, for the most part the comedy was intensely physical, with characters chasing each other, hitting each other, and sometimes blowing each other up. You really wouldn’t use the word “subtle” in talking about the cartoons of that time.
Until Chuck Jones came along. Jones started out in the early thirties on the bottom rung of the animation ladder, but by the end of the decade he’d become a director, working under Leon Schlesinger at Warners. His early efforts were uneven, with just a few hints of his personality showing through. It wasn’t until after WWII that he really hit his stride, but by 1950 he had created a style that was completely his own.
Every director who worked in the Warner Bros. animation department had their own take on the stock company of characters. Bugs Bunny imagined by Bob Clampett was not the same as Bugs Bunny imagined by Friz Freleng. But Bugs Bunny imagined by Chuck Jones was something else altogether. Instead of relying mostly on madcap slapstick, Jones imbued his work with subtle shadings you didn’t see in other cartoons. Daffy’s wild ranting would suddenly melt into a pathetic display of helpless incomprehension. Jones would take a moment between gags to show us Porky cock his eyebrow in a small gesture of weary disdain. In the split second before a bomb went off, we’d see the Coyote overwhelmed by total despair.
Jones reshaped the Warners stock company to create his own, very personal, fantasy world. His way of drawing the characters was distinct from the other directors at Warners. Instead of the crisp, sharp lines that previously defined Bugs, Porky and Daffy, Jones’ lines could be fragile, sinuous, twisted, eccentric. In the course of a seven minute short, Jones would take you from displays of raging hysteria to scenes that were oddly touching.
What’s Opera, Doc? is one of Jones most complete efforts. It’s certainly not the first time cartoons parodied the world of opera, but in Jones hands’ it’s not just a parody. Sure, he’s making fun of the mythic heroes and doomed romances, but with its vast landscapes and dramatic vistas, this short cartoon revels in the gorgeous excess of opera. Jones is in love with the very thing he’s satirizing.
In the first scene we see a warrior’s majestic shadow cast on the side of a towering cliff. Then the camera descends to show us that the shadow belongs to Elmer Fudd, decked out like Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring cycle. In this case, Elmer’s not out to destroy the evil dragon Fafnir, but to hunt down Bugs Bunny. The story is the same one we’ve seen in dozens of other shorts that feature these two characters. The comedy comes from seeing them play out the same routines against the extravagant backdrop of grand opera. Instead of hunting Bugs with a shotgun, Elmer now summons the destructive forces of the storm to hunt his prey. When Bugs goes into his familiar drag routine, this time he’s not just a sexy vixen, he’s Brünnhilde, lying on a divan in an elegant pavillion.
In animation, everything we see on the screen has to be created from scratch, and the best animation directors have always relied on teams of talented people who make this happen. On What’s Opera, Doc? Jones had top-notch crew, all of whom had worked with him for years. It’s worth mentioning them all by name. The story comes from long-time Jones associate Michael Maltese. The animation was the work of Ken Harris, Abe Levitow and Richard Thompson, with Maurice Noble doing the layouts and Philip DeGuard taking care of the backgrounds. Editing and sound are by Treg Brown. Milt Franklyn did an excellent job of condensing the music from Wagner’s massive Ring cycle into just about seven minutes. Elmer’s voice is by Arthur Q. Bryan, and of course, Bugs’ voice is provided by the incredible Mel Blanc.
What’s Opera, Doc? came toward the end of Jones’ tenure at Warners. The studios that had animation departments were shutting them down, and it wasn’t long before Jones and his crew were shown the door. It’s a shame, but it was inevitable. Over the course of three decades the animators at Warners created an incredible body of work, turning out some of the most imaginative cartoons you’ll ever see. But making those cartoons was becoming increasingly expensive, and after 1950 the studios were doing everything they could to cut costs. Jones went on to some excellent work on television, but the golden age of studio animation was over.
As Porky would say, “That’s all, folks.”
Can we ever understand our parents? Probably not. When we’re young they seem impossibly clueless and unfair. As we get older, as life starts beating us down the way it did them, we may start to empathize with them. We may begin to get some insight into why they were so angry and frustrated. But we can’t ever really understand what they went through because we can’t ever understand the times they lived through. Inevitably, their world is different from ours.
Still, we have to try to put ourselves in their shoes, if only to understand ourselves better. When we’re young, we see ourselves as the center of the universe and the setbacks we suffer seem horribly traumatic. When we get older, hopefully we start to realize that other people have suffered, too, and that when we put it all in perspective, the difficulties we’ve experienced often pale in comparison.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is generally credited with starting the blaxploitation cycle that flourished in the seventies. Certainly it made Hollywood aware of the fact that there was money to be made off black audiences, but the film itself has little to do with the routine genre flicks that followed. Melvin Van Peebles made Sweetback because he wanted to create a hero for an audience that didn’t have any movie heroes. He was sick of having his community misrepresented, when it wasn’t being completely ignored, by Hollywood. And so he decided to make a movie that would inspire Blacks. The movie he came up with was cheap, raw, and ragged, but it was also lively, imaginative and burning with anger. Black audiences had never seen anything like it, and they flocked to the theatres where it played.
I’m a little skeptical of Mario Van Peebles’ claim that he initially didn’t want to play his father in Baadasssss!, the story of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. To my mind, he’s the only one who could’ve played the part. There were probably other actors who could have done a fine job with the role, but no one else could’ve brought the same intense commitment to it. Maybe the idea scared him at first, but whatever his reservations, I’m glad he took the part. Seeing the son play the father sets up a resonance that vibrates throughout the movie. This isn’t just another film inspired by true events. This is Mario Van Peebles conjuring up the demons that possessed his father.
And his father was possessed by many demons. A smart, proud, angry man, he was determined to make Sweetback no matter what it cost him, and it cost him a lot. We’re not just talking about money, either. Melvin’s obsession with putting the story on the screen put a tremendous strain on his family, especially his son. In Baadasssss!, we see Mario being recruited by his father to play the young Sweetback, and how the boy’s initial enthusiasm turns to extreme discomfort. He wants to be a part of what’s going on, but he’s obviously freaked out when his dad asks him to play a pretty explicit love scene with an older woman. When Melvin makes Mario go through with it, it’s clear the boy is wounded. And the film’s strange reflexive quality makes the sequence especially poignant. This is Mario, playing Melvin, telling his own story within his father’s story.
But I don’t want to make Baadasssss! sound like some depressing psychodrama. It’s actually really entertaining. This improbable story of how an outsider with no money made a hugely successful independent film is totally engaging. The script, by Mario Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty, is full of outrageous episodes, all of which are apparently based on the actual facts. The early scenes, where Melvin and his friend Bill are trying to raise the money they need, are very funny. We’re introduced to a huge cast of characters, and it’s a sign of Van Peebles’ skill as a director that he not only makes them all distinct individuals but he also shows us how the relationships between them develop. When the shooting begins, everybody’s excited and enthusiastic. By the time they wrap it up, they’re all completely fried, ground down by the grueling schedule and the overwhelming obstacles they’ve had to face. But the ones who stick it out have all grown from the experience. None of them will ever be the same after having taken this journey.
I think it’s a journey Mario Van Peebles had to take. Watching the movie, it’s clear that being the son of a rebellious iconoclast like Melvin Van Peebles could be really tough. But watching the movie it’s also clear that Mario has a growing awareness of the fact that his father’s intensity and anger were a reflection of the era. As a child, Mario must have thought at times that his dad was completely crazy. But then, he never could have made Sweetback if he’d been completely sane.
When the history of America is told, it’s often portrayed as a series of movements, driven by the people, pushing this country slowly toward an ideal of justice and equality for all. I’d like to believe it was true. But really, that version doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
At the beginning of The Departed, we see images of the violence that erupted in Boston in the seventies when the courts ordered desegregation of the city’s schools. As scenes of chaotic street clashes flash past, we hear a voice telling us how the Irish and the Italians fought to get their piece of America. The narrator’s advice to the Black community is simple.
“No one gives it to you. You have to take it.”
We may not like to think of America this way, but much of the country’s history was written by various warring factions taking power any way they could. This is how the great factories of the industrial era grew. This is how the unions got the factory owners to make concessions. It’s how the country expanded its territory from coast to coast. It’s how our cities were built. It’s nice to think that the US became a world power because of our belief in principles like freedom and democracy, but usually those principles take a back seat to ruthless self-interest.
Director Martin Scorsese has explored this territory before. While morality is crucial to his vision, he knows that high principles often get trampled underfoot in the day to day rat race. He’s fascinated by characters who struggle to survive in a corrupt world, and he doesn’t offer those characters easy choices. The issues aren’t laid out in black and white. It’s not that simple. While The Departed could be described as a story about cops and robbers, the relationship between the two is so complex and incestuous that it makes it difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys. They’re all rolling around in the mud together.
It’s been widely reported that The Departed was inspired by a thriller from Hong Kong called Infernal Affairs, but there’s another source that’s also important. Much of the story is based on the real life career of crime boss Whitey Bulger, who ran most of the illegal activity in Boston for years. Being from Boston himself, screenwriter William Monohan was the perfect choice to take the earlier film’s outline and work it into this new context. And this isn’t just a matter of being familiar with the city. Monahan knows the people, he knows the culture, he knows the life.
Like any city, Boston is made up of various overlapping groups. The Irish have a long history there. And as with any ethnic group, the Irish are divided into different sub-groups. You’ve got the working class guys who live on the south side and cling ferociously to their customs and their culture. Then you’ve got the upper class guys who want to climb into the cozy world of high-end condos and pricey restaurants. And then you’ve got the guys who are stuck in between.
That’s the crux of the conflict in The Departed. It starts with two young men brought up on the south side, both of them desperate to get out. Their escape route takes them to the state police academy, where they both graduate with high marks, but the paths they follow put them on opposite sides of the law. Colin is a mole working for crime boss Frank Costello. Bill is a straight arrow cop assigned to infiltrate Costello’s gang. This symmetrical pairing, the crook playing cop and the cop playing crook, could’ve ended up being a simplistic gimmick. But Monahan reaches deep into these characters, pulling away layer after layer, showing us what makes these two “southies” tick.
Colin is picked up by crime boss Frank Costello as a kid and groomed for the role he’s going to play. Frank is no simpleminded thug. He knows that to stay ahead of the law he needs to have inside information, so he sends Colin to school knowing that he’ll rise quickly in the state police. And Colin has no qualms about playing the role, using his intelligence and his education to build the kind of life he’s always wanted. He dresses well, dines at fine restaurants, and buys a condo that has a view of the Massachusetts State House. Colin gazes out the window at the gold dome that caps the dignified, classical structure. It symbolizes everything he wants, and he’s certain that he can have it all, if he just plays his cards right.
Bill, on the other hand, is an honest man who spends his days with thieves and murderers. He’s chosen for the job, in part, because he learned early on how to adapt to different environments. His parents’ separation meant that even as a kid he led a double life, playing the good student and dutiful son when he was with his mother, then playing the roughneck southie when he hung out with his dad. Bill joined the state police hoping to put all that behind him. He has no family and he wants to start a new life. Unfortunately, his background makes him the perfect choice to infiltrate Costello’s gang.
Thrust into this role, the lawman/thug, means the conflict that’s always troubled him is now at the center of his life. Bill thinks he can handle it, he wants to do the job, but really he’s falling apart. Being from Boston, being Irish, being a man, he tries to play it tough, insisting he has nerves of steel. When he’s by himself, though, he’s popping pills to numb the pain. He has no family. No friends. Even his identity is a question mark. Only his two superiors know who he really is. When one of them dies and the other disappears, Bill is completely isolated.
Questions about identity are at the heart of The Departed. The two main characters are both living a lie. Bill does it from a sense of duty, but Colin does it to get what he wants. He has carefully constructed the persona he presents to the world. Smart and ambitious, he knows that he can rise through the ranks if he maintains the proper image. His boss tells him marriage is one of the keys to success, and Colin, already understanding that, zeros in on a psychologist who works with law enforcement. Does he care for her? Maybe. Will she be useful? Absolutely.
Scorsese has made gangster movies before, but The Departed is very different from Mean Streets or Goodfellas. In those earlier films he used vivid color and kinetic camerawork to pull us into the mobsters’ world. The Departed is much more subdued. Obviously, the look and feel of Boston sets the tone to a degree, but production designer Kristi Zea and art director Terri Carriker-Thayer use the city to create a world of muted colors and subtle hues. The dark wood and weathered brick of the south side is contrasted with the clean, conservative blues and greys that define the offices of the state police. This is carried further by costume designer Sandy Powell. Colin’s crisp suits show that he’s dressing for success, while Bill’s denim jackets and work boots make him fit right in on the south side. In addition, we see all the characters wearing a variety of baseball caps and sweatshirts to let us know whose side they’re taking. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, a veteran of several Scorsese films, seamlessly weaves all this into a coherent, unobtrusive visual fabric. Ballhaus’ cinematography is impressive in its simplicity and directness. He always finds the right tone without ever calling attention to his work.
The movie is called The Departed, and when death isn’t in the foreground it’s hovering in the background. Aside from the parade of corpses and caskets, the characters often talk about those who’ve passed away. Frank asks a man in a bar how his mother’s doing, and the man answers that she’s on her way out. “We all are,” Frank responds jovially. “Act accordingly.” In the final scenes, bodies pile up left and right. At times the killings happen so quickly it takes a minute to figure out what went down. This is one of Scorsese’s most cynical films. There are no winners. By the end of the movie, almost all of the principals are among the departed. In the final shot, the director gives us an image of a golden dome rising in the background as a rat scurries across a railing in the foreground. A symbol of human aspiration side by side with a symbol of human frailty. And in the end, it all adds up to the same thing.
In the late forties Mexico was changing rapidly. Industrial growth fueled the economy. Thousands abandoned their farms for manufacturing jobs in the city, where construction was booming and mass media was becoming a part of daily life. Of course, all of this meant that the culture was changing, too, and the family was a central part of Mexican culture.
Buoyed by the booming economy, the Mexican film industry was riding high, and family dramas were a popular genre. A number of movies were made about the pressures that drove mothers and fathers, sons and daughters apart, but generally everything came together in a happy ending that reinforced the importance of traditional values. This was a Catholic nation, after all. If a son strayed from the straight and narrow, he had to repent. If a daughter disrespected her parents, she had to beg forgiveness. No matter how bad things got, order had to be restored before the music swelled up and the credits rolled.
It was unusual in this era for a Mexican filmmaker to question those traditional beliefs that supposedly held society together, but that’s exactly what Alejandro Galindo does in Una familia de tantas. In this film Galindo presents a portrait of a middle-class family living a comfortable life in Mexico City. He shows us first the rigid discipline that holds the family together, and then he shows us how that same rigid discipline tears the family apart.
The Cataños are a typical middle-class family of the period. The five children and their parents live in a large house which is run with an iron hand by Sr. Cataño. He dominates the household, insisting that all the proprieties be observed. A child is not to leave the room without permission. No one sits down at the dinner table without saying a prayer. When he gives a command the children scamper to obey.
And this rigid order is overthrown by a young man selling vacuum cleaners. This smooth-talking salesman with an answer for everything belongs to a new breed. Roberto is hard-working and ambitious, and smart enough to see the potential in the household appliances which are now becoming available to anyone with money to spend. He goes door to door, speaking with such glib assurance that his customers don’t know quite how to respond. He invites himself into the Cataño house when one of the daughters, Maru, is home alone, never thinking that this would be improper. He is only focussed on selling her a vacuum cleaner.
When Sr. Cataño finds out that Maru was alone in the house with a stranger he’s furious. After learning that this brash young man is coming back in the evening to seal the deal, Sr. Cataño can hardly wait for the encounter so he can overwhelm the intruder with outraged indignation. And when Roberto arrives, the self-righteous patriarch lays into him with an angry lecture. But he’s met his match. Roberto at first tries to politely calm the outraged father, but when it’s suggested his motives for entering the house were improper, he becomes outraged himself. And when he mentions that he’s supporting his widowed mother, Sr. Cataño is taken aback. The stern patriarch’s own values make him suddenly docile. Being a devout Catholic, he understands that respect for motherhood trumps everything.
And of course, he ends up buying the vacuum cleaner.
It’s important to say that Sr. Cataño isn’t fundamentally bad. He loves his children and wants the best for them. It’s just that he’s so completely immersed in the rigid culture that shaped him, he sees any deviation as a sin that must be corrected. Because his children are afraid of him, there’s a wall between them. When he talks, they listen. When he asks them a question, he will only accept the response he considers correct. As a result, he’s completely isolated from his own family. He has no idea what’s going on in their lives.
The story is centered on Maru, the young woman who was unfortunate enough to let a salesman in the house. She’s fifteen years old, and her family is her whole world. That world is dominated by her father. She would never think of challenging him. But then Roberto enters Maru’s life and her world starts to change. Roberto talks to her about his ambitions, his hopes, his fears, and she has no idea how to respond. No man has ever talked to her this way before. She’s completely stunned when he asks her what she thinks. No one has ever asked for her opinion.
Maru’s quinceañera, the celebration of her fifteenth birthday, is a hugely important event. As is traditional, Sr. Cataño throws an elaborate party to mark his daughter’s passage to womanhood. He dances the first dance with her, stiff and stately, but obviously proud of Maru. Afterward, he makes a dignified speech about the importance of this moment in a young woman’s life, and the responsibilities that she must fulfill. In his mind, her future is completely settled. He’s got it all figured out.
Unfortunately, this is where everything starts to fall apart. Maru is already is in love with Roberto, and deeply unhappy about the fact that Sr. Cataño has already chosen another suitor for her. But she’s shaken to the core when her father beats her older sister savagely over a suspected breach of propriety. From this point on she gradually realizes that she has two choices. She can go on living in fear, or she can run for freedom.*
As Maru, Martha Roth gives a remarkable performance. Her transition from obedient child to defiant woman takes place in a very short time, but Roth makes it completely believable. Maru is riding an emotional rollercoaster, and we have to ride it with her. There are many moments when the film could veer off into melodrama, but Roth always keeps it real. David Silva seems completely at home on the screen, but without the self-consciousness that some stars betray. He has a presence that makes him the center of attention, and at the same time he’s completely absorbed in the role he’s playing. Roberto may be a fast talking salesman, but Silva shows us that he also has other sides. Eugenia Galindo plays Sra. Cataño expertly. She knows better than anyone the price for confronting Sr. Cataño, and the actress shows us the struggle that goes on within her as she slowly realizes the cost of her husband’s authoritarian attitudes. The director was fortunate to have Fernando Soler playing the father. In the hands of a less gifted actor, Sr. Cataño could have become nothing more than a monster. Soler plays the role forcefully, and at times he’s terrifying, but he also brings depth to the character, allowing us to see the moments of doubt and uncertainty that make him human.
Honestly, the entire cast is excellent. Galindo shows his skill with actors, not only eliciting fine individual performances, but making the ensemble feel like a real family. The morning chaos in the bathroom, the subtle glances at the dinner table, the whispered conversations behind closed doors, all add up to a richly detailed portrayal of life in a middle class household. As for the visuals, Galindo’s style is simple and straightforward. He often lets the camera hold a master shot, observing the actors as they play out a scene, cutting only when necessary. He seems to know intuitively where to place the camera, allowing it to serve the actors, telling the story with a fluid, unpretentious ease.
You may be asking why the screenshots I’m using to illustrate this post look so fuzzy. It’s because I was working from a cheap DVD where the source material looks like it was 16 mm and the transfer is less than stellar. Sadly, this is currently the only way you can view this movie. I posted on another Galindo film a while ago, and complained about the fact that his work was only available in sub-standard releases with no subtitles. Really, this is true of the vast majority of Mexico’s cinematic output, and it’s a terrible shame.
I was encouraged recently when I heard that MOMA was showing a Mexican noir series. Hopefully this will encourage more people to explore the country’s cinema. Una familia de tantas is just one of many remarkable movies waiting to be discovered by English-speaking audiences.
I’m sure many readers will be startled to learn that the central character is a fifteen year old girl who’s being groomed for marriage. These days we see this as deplorable, but in post-war Mexico it was an accepted part of the culture. We can condemn it, but we should be keep in mind that American cinema from the studio era is filled with attitudes that seem pretty shocking today.
The generation of filmmakers who grew up after WWII came to revere the directors of the studio era. Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fassbinder, Godard, all had tremendous respect for the guys who worked under contract, took the scripts that got handed to them, and still managed to turn out movies that were personal and passionate.
The director who has probably gone farthest in exploring his relationship to that older generation is Wim Wenders. It’s not uncommon in films made from the 70s on to see cameos by the studio veterans. But Wenders didn’t just have these guys do walk-ons. He made them a part of his cinematic world. For him, putting Sam Fuller in The State of Things wasn’t just a nod to a mentor. It was a sign of friendship, and a statement about the continuity from one generation to the next.
Another filmmaker that Wenders was close to was Nicholas Ray. The older director had already appeared in Wenders’ The American Friend. They had not known each other long when Ray was diagnosed with cancer. Within a year his health had deteriorated to the point where it was clear he didn’t have long to live. And that was when they decided to make a film together.
Lightning Over Water isn’t really a documentary, though it is a document. It’s not fiction either, though the people who appear in it do act out scenes. It doesn’t fall into any category, and it’s about many different things. You could say it’s a film about filmmaking, and also about art. Fear pervades the atmosphere throughout, but love is just as present. And death is always just beyond the horizon.
While both men are credited as directors, it’s clear that Wenders is leading the way. Ray is so weak that it’s sometimes hard for him to finish a sentence. He’s wracked by coughing fits. Just lying down in bed is so painful it makes him cry out. And because Wenders realizes that he’s the one in control, he’s overwhelmed by the responsibility. At the very beginning he tells Ray that he’s afraid of exploiting him. Ray dismisses the idea, but it’s clear that Wenders is extremely uncomfortable with this project.
He shouldn’t have been. You can hear the joy in Ray’s voice when he first greets Wenders. This frail old man shouts from his bed, “I’m ready to start work again.” Even if the line was written out in advance, it’s clear that Ray means it. Toward the end of his career he turned to teaching because Hollywood wouldn’t give him backing to make another movie. While he kept himself busy with other projects, he always wanted to get back in the game. Now, when he knows he’s dying, he’s got one more opportunity to make a film, and he’s determined to seize it no matter what the cost.
Ray seems completely at home on the screen. In spite of his weakened, wasted frame, he shows no sign of self-consciousness. He allows the camera to see him at his worst, and never shies away. There’s a strange beauty in this “performance”. He’s confident, even defiant. We can see where many of his onscreen protagonists got their swagger from. This is a man who’s dying of cancer, and the first thing he does on waking up is light a cigarette. You want to grab it out of his hand and throw it away, but you also know that would be pointless. He’d just light another one.
Wenders, on the other hand, is extremely uncomfortable in front of the camera. Aside from the fact that he seems stiff and awkward, you can tell that making this movie was an awful ordeal for him. It’s bad enough that his close friend is obviously very near to death. On top of that, Wenders is constantly concerned about invading Ray’s privacy and sapping his strength. The younger man wants to stop the whole crazy thing. The older man keeps insisting that they forge ahead.
Then Ray dies. And we find ourselves at a wake on a Chinese junk in the waters off Manhattan. The dread that permeated the film up til now is gone. The cast and crew trade stories, share their views the experience, and drink a toast to their dear, departed friend. One of the crew speculates that dying was his final act as a director. “He made us finish it. And the only way he could do it was to die.”
As I write this, I realize that the audience for this film is very small. Only the people who know Ray’s work, or know Wender’s work, could possibly be interested. It doesn’t have a story, it doesn’t offer a clear-cut resolution. The film jumps unpredictably between reality, fantasy and the hazy netherworld inhabited by the people who stand behind the camera. On top of that, it’s a very intense, very painful look at a man who’s dying before your eyes. But it’s also a testament to a friendship that was stronger than death. And a moving portrait of two men who loved each other very much.
Jean Renoir was not cut out for Hollywood. Like many European directors fleeing the Nazis, he landed in LA around the beginning of WWII. And like many European directors fleeing the Nazis, he found himself faced with a choice between working on genre films or hardly working at all. He made a few movies that more or less fit the standard Hollywood mold, but that wasn’t really what he was interested in. The studios wanted movies about gangsters, dancers, cowboys and comedians. Renoir just wanted to make movies about people.
In 1944 he got his chance, but it didn’t come easy. According to the AFI web site, Renoir was not interested when he first read Hugo Butler’s screenplay based on the novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Perry Sessions. But he must have seen possibilities in the project, because he ended up rewriting the script himself. Having signed Joel McCrea and Frances Dee for the leads, producers David Loew and Robert Hakim arranged distribution for the film through United Artists. But when McCrea bailed out because of creative differences, UA wanted to bail, too. Loew got them to reconsider by threatening to withhold other productions that the distributor was interested in. Zachary Scott and Betty Field stepped in to replace McCrea and Dee. And Renoir began shooting the film that was eventually titled The Southerner.
You can find a few different stories in The Southerner, but really it’s just about a family trying to scrape by living on the land. At the start of the film, Sam and Nona are picking cotton on a plantation, barely making enough to get by. Sam makes a deal with the boss to take over a nearby farm that’s been lying fallow for years. The film follows the Tuckers as they clear the land, plow it and plant it, always struggling to overcome the obstacles that life puts in their way. Instead of inventing an artificial plot to give the film structure, Renoir allows the passing of the seasons to give The Southerner its rhythm.
Apparently the director had wanted to shoot in Texas, but ended up having to find the locations he needed in California. Cinematographer Lucien Andriot’s handling of the natural light shows both sensitivity and subtlety. We can feel the heat beating down on Sam and Nona as they’re sweating in the dusty fields. We can see the sky reflected in a placid lake as Jot goes wading by the shore. And while there’s a fair amount of studio work, the sets blend almost seamlessly with the real locations. Production designer Eugène Lourié, a longtime collaborator of the director’s, not only makes the Tuckers’ scraggly house seem a natural part of the landscape, it also feels completely lived in.
The film has a wonderful ensemble cast. Charles Kemper disappears into the role of Sam’s amiable friend Tim. Veteran character actor Beulah Bondi is in fine form as Granny. If she’s cranky and difficult, it’s because life hasn’t been easy. Her face and her body appear to have been worn away by the elements. The child actors here don’t seem to be acting at all. Jay Gilpin and Jean Vanderwilt are surprisingly unselfconscious as the Tucker children, Jot and Daisy.
But the movie is centered on Sam and Nona, played by Zachary Scott and Betty Field. They’re an idealized vision of rural Americans, simple, hardworking people who just keep moving forward no matter how hard things get. Usually Hollywood turns characters like these into tedious clichés. Here Renoir uses his gentle, unforced approach to put this humble couple at the center of his poem about the rural South. Betty Field plays Nona with a straightforward simplicity that’s easy to take for granted. I’ve seen the film a number of times, but it’s only recently that I began to appreciate how good her performance is. Field had a long career on stage, screen and TV, but she never called attention to herself or her work. As a result, she was overlooked during her lifetime and now she’s pretty much forgotten. As Sam, Zachary Scott seems like an agreeable, easygoing guy, but there’s a toughness beneath the surface that gives the character strength. Scott was an intelligent, versatile actor, who, like Field, seems to have faded into obscurity. It’s too bad. They both deserve more attention.
While Renoir felt that The Southerner was the best of his American films, it’s never gotten the attention that his earlier work received. These days it’s fallen into the public domain. It’s available on DVD, but the quality isn’t great. My guess is that the distributor started with a faded sixteen millimeter print. This movie deserves better. I have no idea how many prints are out there, or what condition they’re in, and I know restoring and remastering a film can be costly, but I wish somebody would put together a quality re-release of this movie. The Southerner has been neglected for far too long. Won’t somebody adopt this beautiful orphan?
Since the beginning of commercial cinema, filmmakers have been adapting stories that were successful in other forms. There are a few different reasons for this. Sometimes it’s just because producers feel safer investing in a property that’s made money for somebody else. But it may also be that a writer or director sees the possibility of bringing something new to a story, a way to reimagine it in another medium. And this is really crucial. If all you want to do is create a faithful adaptation, what’s the point? Making a movie just to illustrate somebody else’s work is a waste of time. A novel is an experience in words, and you can’t recreate that on the screen. It has to become an experience in image and sound.
Of course some stories migrate through many different forms before they reach the screen. Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin was published at the end of the thirties. It was an autobiographical novel based on his experiences living in Germany in the early thirties, when the country was falling apart and the Nazis were rising to power. Isherwood kept a journal during those years, and later used the material to create the novel. In it, he compares himself to a camera, passively recording what he sees, storing it for later, when he’ll have the time to develop and print the images. This is key to the way Isherwood approached his work. His novels are generally episodic, undramatic. Rather than trying to force life into a fictional framework, Isherwood was more interested in allowing life to unfold on its own.
This is an aspect of the author’s work that John Van Druten intended to highlight when he adapted Goodbye to Berlin for the stage and called it I Am a Camera. Actually, he focussed mainly on one part of the book, the chapter entitled Sally Bowles. Sally was a young English woman that Isherwood roomed with in Berlin. In most ways they were complete opposites, but for a while they became close friends. Sally was desperately searching for a rich man to marry while she halfheartedly pursued a career on the stage. In writing the play, Van Druten eliminated much of the book’s detail and gave it more structure, but he was faithful to the tone of the original. The passive young man at the center of the story is always slightly detached from whatever’s happening in front of him, always a little aloof from the hurly burly of life.
In the sixties, Harold Prince obtained the rights to both the book and the play with the idea of creating a Broadway musical. Joe Masteroff wrote a show that was loosely based on Van Druten’s play, with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Cabaret opened in 1966, and was a solid success. It had even less to do with Isherwood’s book than Van Druten’s play did, but audiences loved it. A road show version toured the US, and in 1968 the musical opened in London.
It was only natural that Hollywood producers would take notice. And by the time Cabaret appeared on the screen it would be transformed again, moving even further from the book that Isherwood had written as a young man. Interestingly, the film version deleted some of the elements that made the show so successful on stage, and reached deeper into the characters. Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay fleshes out the relationships and spends a good deal of time exploring the decadence and violence that defined Berlin in the early thirties.
Looking at the film today, it seems like Bob Fosse is the only person who could have made it. At the time, the producers had other candidates in mind. Fosse had only directed one movie, Sweet Charity, which tanked at the box office, and he didn’t have much credibility in Hollywood. To their credit, the producers took a chance, and Fosse showed everybody how far he could go as a director. The film he made of Cabaret was a sharp break with tradition, and it had to be. The lavish song and dance spectaculars made by MGM in the forties and fifties had set the standard for the genre, but times had changed. Throughout the sixties the studios had been throwing money at bloated productions of Broadway musicals that sank at the box office. Somehow they didn’t understand that the audiences flocking to see M*A*S*H and Easy Rider didn’t care about Lerner and Loewe.
It wasn’t just Fosse’s skill that made him the right choice for the movie. The director was the son of a vaudeville entertainer, and grew up performing in burlesque. He’d made his way up the ladder, working in Hollywood musicals as a dancer and then as a choreographer. All his life, Fosse was immersed in show business, and show business was the lens he used to look at the world. Much of what makes Cabaret so thrilling is its unabashed theatricality. The numbers that take place at the Kit Kat Club grow out of what’s happening in the characters’ lives. In the novel and the play, we’re told that Sally sings in a cabaret, but we barely get a sense of who she is as a performer. In the musical and the film, her performances at the club become crucial, and, especially in the film, they comment on what’s happening in the world outside. This wasn’t a new idea, but in the past this device was almost always used to serve a romantic comedy plot. The people who brought Cabaret to Broadway used the songs as a mocking commentary on the corruption and the violence of the world outside, and Fosse pushed that even further.
The film Cabaret could have ended up being a brutally cynical spectacle that alienated audiences, who might easily have been offended by the way it turned musical conventions inside out. Instead, the film became a huge success, in large part because of its showbiz energy and its spectacular cast. Certainly Liza Minnelli was a big part of the equation. The role seems to have been written for her, and she plays it with a startling combination of vivaciousness and vulnerability. Offstage she has a capricious charm that wins us over. Onstage she has an energy and power that are overwhelming. Minnelli herself is a showbiz creature, and to a degree the role seemed an expression of who she was. While she’s been impressive in other films, Sally Bowles is still the part she’s most closely associated with.
As Brian, Michael York is at the opposite end of the spectrum, a mild-mannered young Brit who wants to write but for the time being supports himself teaching English. York’s low-key intelligence is the perfect foil to Sally’s over the top theatricality. And in spite of the chasm between them, the two actors make the relationship convincing. These two people are miles apart, but they still care about each other.
Joel Grey had played the role of the MC on Broadway to great acclaim, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the film. Strangely, Fosse resisted casting Grey and reluctantly agreed when the producers insisted. Grey’s performance isn’t just energetic, it’s ferocious. He gleefully throws himself into every number, unabashedly working the audience over, going as far as it takes to get a laugh or a round of applause. His intensity is scary, especially in the later part of the film as we see the threat of violence becoming a part of daily life in Berlin. The MC goes on grinning maniacally as the Nazis grow more bold, the brutality taking place on the streets slowly bleeding into the shows on the stage.
Fosse wasn’t the first director to pry movie musicals away from the traditional stagebound approach, but he uses cinematic devices in provocative new ways. He resorts to parallel editing a number of times, and each time with striking effect. Cross cutting from a knockabout stage show to a brutal beating on the streets makes the violence doubly frightening by underscoring the fact that the show just goes on even as innocent people are being assaulted. One of the most daring sequences is built around the song Maybe this Time. We see Sally alone on the stage under a spotlight, the accompaniment playing quietly in the background, and she begins to sing. But after the first line, Fosse cuts to a brief scene between her and Brian. Then back to Sally on stage, another line of the song, and then back to another short vignette. You’d think that interrupting the song would ruin the scene, but in fact Fosse’s approach heightens the tension and makes Minnelli’s performance even more powerful. Though you wouldn’t call Cabaret fast-paced, each scene flows seamlessly into the next. Editor David Bretherton shows a sharp sense of rhythm, and handles the complex dance sequences beautifully.
The film is visually dazzling, and no doubt a good deal of credit goes to cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Throughout his career, one of Unsworth’s trademarks was his sophisticated handling of light. We see the cheap boarding houses and the dingy cabarets through a sensual, erotic haze. But even as we’re being seduced by this divine decadence, the film will shove us up against the ugly realities of pre-war Berlin. In fact, one of the most interesting things about the movie is the way it keeps pulling us in, and then, without warning, punches us in the face.
Cabaret is very different from the novel that Christopher Isherwood had written thirty years before. But it had to be. Fosse and his collaborators looked at the book and the play and the musical, and borrowed from all of them, but created something new. It may be a story about Berlin in the thirties, but it became a success because it resonated with audiences in the seventies. And even if you’ve seen it before, it’s well worth watching again, because it still reflects the world we live in today.