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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.
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.
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.
Tennessee Williams didn’t just write about sex, he celebrated it. At a time when American culture was still pretty straightlaced, he put eroticism front and center in his work. Some people thought his plays were scandalous, and actually, many of them were. Joyously scandalous. Williams had an amazing gift for combining lurid melodrama with heartbreaking poetry. His racy themes made him a target for criticism, but they also helped push him into the spotlight. The upshot was that he became one of the people who transformed American culture in the fifties.
But like so many people who lead the charge, Williams did run into a few brick walls. He was able to get away with pretty much anything when he was writing for Broadway. Not so much when his plays went to Hollywood. Even though the production code’s influence was waning, the studios still censored themselves. It must have been tough for Williams to see his work mangled. But it may have been even more painful for the writer to see the one film he wrote in complete freedom taken out of circulation and buried.
Baby Doll wasn’t an adaptation. Williams wrote it himself for the screen. It’s about a nineteen year old girl who’s married to a man twice her age. But there’s a catch. The marriage won’t be consummated until she turns twenty. Her husband Archie Lee, a lecherous Southern businessman who runs a cotton gin, can’t wait for her birthday, which is just two days away when the story begins. But Baby Doll isn’t so sure she wants to seal the deal. Archie’s business has run into trouble, and the life of luxury he promised hasn’t materialized. The mansion they live in is a decaying wreck. And to make matters worse, the furniture’s about to be repossessed. This is not the life of ease that Baby Doll expected.
There was probably no one better suited to bring Williams’ vision to the screen than Elia Kazan. He knew how to kindle the energy and intensity the playwright’s work required, and he understood William’s wicked sense of humor. Kazan’s film of A Streetcar Named Desire brought out all the play’s emotional violence against the background of a sultry, expressionist New Orleans. But Baby Doll is a comedy, and so Kazan creates a softer mood. Shot on location, the film has an easy, rambling rhythm that seems to grow naturally out of its setting in the rural South.
Cinematographer Boris Kaufman seems to feel the landscape as much as he sees it. The sun’s fading rays scattered across a withered field. The flat, harsh lighting of a small town cafe. The wistful sadness of a rainy day. He seamlessly melds the weathered landscapes of the South and the crumbling grandeur of the old mansion into the same visual fabric. Kaufman had a gift for finding a film’s emotional tone. The film is a comedy, but the images also reveal the pathos in the struggles of these small town folks. Kenyon Hopkin’s sensual score also plays an important part. The strings glide along with a silky indolence, while the insinuating sax has a sensual, lazy warmth.
You can’t talk about this film without talking about the actors. Williams’ script gives them a lot to work with, and they all wring everything they can out of their parts. Karl Malden’s Archie Lee is an ignorant bully, but there are times when you can’t help feeling sorry for him. He’s so dumb he has no idea why his life is so miserable. Eli Wallach is brimming with vitality as Vacarro, the Sicilian immigrant who’s made a success of himself even though the townspeople hate him. Vacarro may be ruthless, but he’s not cruel, and Wallach let’s us see a glimmer of compassion under his hard surface. And at the center of it all is Carroll Baker’s Baby Doll, a child who doesn’t realize she’s become a woman. The actress plays the role with a bracing mix of innocence and carnality. As physical as her performance is, she also handles Williams’ dialogue beautifully. She brings a heartbreaking sweetness to the film’s melancholy final line.
Baby Doll is a lively, entertaining and beautiful film. But it came out in the mid-fifties, and the world just wasn’t ready for it. The Catholic Church denounced it as pornographic. The Legion of Decency and other groups came out against it. After a brief release, Warner Bros. pulled it out of theatres. Williams was bitterly disappointed. The film had its defenders, but a few glowing reviews weren’t enough to counteract the storm of criticism. Baby Doll went back into the vaults, and sat there for decades. In spite of the amazing number of talented people who worked on this movie, it was pretty much forgotten for forty years.
Film is a funny business. There are so many artists who go to Hollywood and get completely beaten down. The movies they try to make get mangled, and sometimes even buried. But Baby Doll is back in circulation again, and it’s proof that sometimes the artists win out. Williams had a great sense of humor. I can almost hear him laughing from the grave.
Bertrand Blier loves to shock us. He knows we’ve been taught to suppress our desires, to stifle our impulses, to always play by the rules. Society tells us that theft, prostitution, incest, and murder are wrong, but for Blier they’re all just part of life. In his world there are no rules, only lines to be crossed.
Tenue de soirée is all about crossing lines. The first scene takes place in a crowded dance hall. A shabbily dressed married couple are seated at a table. The wife is complaining bitterly about their poverty. The husband meekly responds by telling her she’s beautiful and that he loves her, which only infuriates the wife further. And then a heavyset man who’s overheard the conversation walks up and slaps the wife across the face, knocking her to the floor.
The husband and wife are Antoine and Monique. The heavyset man is Bob, a thief. He invites them to join him in a life of crime. Within the movie’s first fifteen minutes Antoine and Monique have broken into two houses, stolen money and clothes, and seen their trailer home explode in flames. Now that they’ve met Bob, their lives will never be the same.
Monique falls into this new life happily, but Antoine is a bundle of nerves. Not only is he constantly afraid that their crimes will lead to jail or worse, he’s totally confused by the amount of attention he’s getting from Bob. The happy-go-lucky thief flirts with his nervous friend, but denies he’s queer. Then he flirts some more, and now he acknowledges that yeah, maybe he does like having sex with guys. Before long Bob is proclaiming that he loves Antoine passionately. Antoine is completely freaked out.
You could almost say that Bob is Blier, and Antoine is standing in for us, the audience. Bob is completely unpredictable, taking every situation and turning it on its head, never allowing Antoine to get comfortable. In the same way, the writer/director keeps throwing us one curve after another, always keeping us off balance. Bob tells Antoine he loves him, and genuinely seems to mean it, but minutes later he’s selling Antoine to an old friend for a stack of crisp bank notes. Bob makes a home for Antoine and Monique, building a life of quiet domesticity, and then goes about deliberately tearing the whole thing to shreds. Each time we think something’s been resolved, there’s a new twist and the film goes off in a different direction. It may seem like chaos to us, but to Blier, it’s just life.
Blier’s stories are all about ripping up the stories we cherish most. They don’t have the structure or the symmetry that we’re comfortable with. Tenue de soirée is an especially aggressive assault on all the things that most of us hold dear. Blier doesn’t even let us settle into a comfortable rhythm. No sooner does one outrageous episode end, than he hits us with another unforeseen crisis. Is this endless parade of insane adventures believable? Of course not. Or maybe I should say, it’s not believable in the usual sense of the word. Tenue de soirée is certainly not realistic, but I don’t think Blier cares about realism.
Blier is interested in people, and the people in his movies are completely believable. They’re just as petty, foolish, greedy, and insecure as the rest of us. But Blier loves his characters, in spite of their faults, and that’s why we still care about them even when we see them at their worst. The director wants to push them to the limit to see what they’re made of. Often, they fail the test. But that doesn’t matter. Their failure just means they’re human.
The film is breathtakingly energetic and funny, in large part because it has an amazing trio of actors at its center. Gérard Depardieu, Michel Blanc, and Miou-Miou are all startlingly alive, and their performances are so compelling that we don’t stop to think about how improbable their adventures are. Blier has his characters run a dizzying gamut of emotions, and the actors always seem to find the right tone. They always make it ring true.
In the end Bob finally pushes everything too far, and instead of whining and moaning, Antoine picks up a gun. He’s had enough. He chases Bob into the streets and hijacks a car, forcing Bob to drive at gunpoint. Antoine has suffered too many humiliations, and it seems he’s finally reached his limit. He can’t go on with this life any longer.
But of course he does. They all do. In Bertrand Blier’s films there are no endings. Somehow life just goes on.
Work. Love. Art. Life. All these things are intertwined, but sometimes it’s hard to keep them in balance. In fact, it’s often impossible. Sally Potter knows this, and yet she keeps trying to bring them all together. Her movies are about the constant struggle to find that balance. And in The Tango Lesson she puts that struggle at the heart of the movie.
First off, Potter plays herself, a filmmaker trying to focus on the work she needs to do in order to create her art. At the beginning of the movie we see her getting ready to work on the screenplay. First, she has to prepare the space. We see her standing in the sunlight in a sparsely furnished room, vigorously cleaning the table she’s going to write at. Next she lays a stack of paper on the table, and next to it, parallel to it, a pencil. We can tell by the careful, methodical way she approaches the task that this is someone who values order. Maybe a little too much.
But this isn’t just a film about making a film. It’s about the creative process in general. Things don’t flow in a straight line. Disruptions are part of the process. Distractions become the focus. Potter is walking down a street one night and hears music. She follows the music into an auditorium where she sees a man and a woman dancing the tango on stage. Entranced by the performance, she lingers after the show and introduces herself to the male dancer, Pablo Veron, also playing himself.
“You use your presence on stage like an actor in a film,” she tells him, a complement only a director would offer. “Do you work in the cinema?” he asks. From the first words they speak, their relationship is defined by the work they do. Potter wonders if Veron ever gives lessons. It turns out Veron has always wanted to be in films.
This is the beginning of a complex relationship, with Potter and Veron each playing multiple roles. Teacher, student. Director, actor. Man, woman. The relationship changes according to the roles they play. Veron is completely comfortable as the performer on a stage or the teacher instructing a student. In other words, when he can be in charge. Things are different when he isn’t the one calling the shots. Potter understands that when the two of them dance the tango, the man is in charge. But Veron doesn’t understand that when the two of them make a movie, the director is in charge.
As in most relationships, these two people are at the mercy of complex and conflicting desires. An artist has to be selfish. A lover must be unselfish. Veron seems genuinely attracted to Potter, but she could also offer him the chance to be in the movies. Potter becomes fascinated by the idea of making a film about the tango, but it could also be a way to stay close to Veron. It’s not always easy to be sure of what their motivations are. They may not even be sure themselves.
We watch this messy, multi-layered relationship unfold against the backdrop of the tango. In between the intimate conversations and the dramatic quarrels, Potter gives us a series of stunning dance sequences choreographed by Veron. We see the two of them performing an intense and intimate tango on an empty dance floor. There’s an ecstatic nighttime duet along the banks of a glittering river. And toward the end the two are joined by other dancers in a dramatic ensemble piece. Showing dance on the screen can be difficult. If the filmmakers aren’t sensitive to the rhythms of the performers, a beautifully choreographed sequence can be wasted. Fortunately, editor Hervé Schneid seems to have an intuitive understanding of how each scene should be shaped. His cutting is perfectly attuned to the movements of the dancers.
Cinematographer Robby Müller’s expressive black and white photography gives the movie richness and depth. He catches the moods on the actors’ faces and the way their bodies move through space. The film’s emotional landscape is also shaped by its subtle underscoring, the work of director Potter and multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith.
There’s no doubt that these two people care for each other, but they also care about their art. Passionately. The relationship may not survive, but whatever happens, Veron will go on dancing and Potter will go on making movies.
In 1968, screenwriter David Sherwin and director Lindsay Anderson made If…., a savage and surreal film about a small band of rebels at a British public school. Malcolm McDowell plays Mick Travis, a brash teenager who won’t accept the status quo. The whole film is a brazen assault on Kipling’s England, the bastion of tradition, held together by sadistic violence, the church, and a rigid class structure.
But that was the sixties. In 1973 Sherwin and Anderson brought Mick back in O Lucky Man, but he’d changed quite a bit in the course of five years. No longer the brash rebel, now Mick wants nothing more than to fit into the system, and to be as successful as possible. Starting off as a coffee salesman, he ends up roaming over the whole of England looking for the things he thinks will make him happy. Not surprisingly, those things are harder to find than he thought.
Both films are subversive, but in completely different ways. In O Lucky Man, the self-righteous anger that energizes If…. is gone. Now the attitude is a kind of amused detachment. British society is so strangely unreal that all Sherwin can do is laugh at it. And Anderson, the cynical idealist, joins in the laughter. He simply stands back and observes as policemen and politicians, scientists and financiers, complacently go about their business, lying, cheating, and stealing. And Mick is always at the ready, eagerly waiting for his chance to jump into the thick of things.
As terrifying as some of Mick’s adventures are, we can laugh along with Sherwin and Anderson, in part because they keep reminding us that we’re watching a movie. In fact, O Lucky Man begins with a film within a film. We see a brief silent prologue in grainy black and white. McDowell plays a peasant working on a coffee plantation. When he’s caught stealing a handful of coffee beans, the word “unlucky” flashes on the screen. Just as the authorities hand down a horrifying punishment, the screen goes black and the word “NOW” announces that we’re jumping into the present.
Playwright Bertolt Brecht wanted the audience to be aware that they were watching a story unfold, and in the sixties a number of British filmmakers embraced this approach. Writing about film in the fifties, Anderson insisted that the polished productions coming out of British studios encouraged the audience to become numb and complacent. He wanted to shake things up, and to create a cinema that put people in touch with the real world. He wanted to make movies that would push the audience to question the status quo.
O Lucky Man is all about questioning the status quo. We see Mick stumble into one situation after another, and he’s willing to go along with anything if he thinks it will get him what he wants. He’s so blinded by the shiny objects he’s chasing that he doesn’t bother to question anything. As a result, he’s tricked, beaten, tortured, and finally jailed.
Prison changes him. Sort of. Determined to live a better life, he’s spent his time behind bars reading and thinking. Having studied the great philosophers, he’s realized that happiness doesn’t come from chasing wealth. Mick has decided to renounce worldly possessions and devote his life to helping people. He thinks he’s found the answer. He doesn’t realize he’s just chasing a different shiny object.
The backdrop to Mick’s dizzying journey is a sweeping panorama of England, and I’m not just talking about the landscape. He gets to dine with the fabulously wealthy and serve soup to the desperately poor. He watches porn with local politicians and staggers into the sanctuary of a country church. One of his sales calls takes him to a large factory where he finds that no one there will need his coffee, since the entire workforce has been laid off. As he waits in the reception room of a corporate high-rise, he’s horrified to see one of the employees jump out the window and plunge to his death. At first he tries to master the world, meeting it with cocky self-assurance. Next he tries to serve the world, wearing a mantle of abject humility. But somehow the world doesn’t seem to appreciate his efforts.
McDowell radiates a beatific optimism as he wanders through the battlefield of life. Over and over again he gets hammered, and each time he bounces back, ready to take on the world. Not quite thirty when he played the part, McDowell has a freshness and openness that make him seem truly innocent. He makes one horrific blunder after another, but we can’t condemn him because he really doesn’t seem to know any better. In his wanderings he runs into a wonderful cast of supporting actors, who magically turn up over and over again in different roles. It’s a tribute to the talents of Rachel Roberts, Mary MacLeod, and Arthur Lowe, that even though we recognize their faces, they’re still completely believable in each new incarnation. Young as she is in this film, Helen Mirren already appears to be completely at ease as an actress. She seems to fill the screen without even trying. And of course, there’s the incomparable Ralph Richardson, always oddly askew and strangely compelling.
The score is by Alan Price, who wrote a beautiful set of songs for the film. Once again reminding you that you’re watching a movie, Anderson uses Price and his band like a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action as Mick goes through each new adventure. At first the director cuts away from the action to show the band performing in a studio. But halfway through the film, as Mick is making a desperate escape from another harrowing situation, Price and the band show up in a white van and offer him a ride to London. The story and the mechanisms being used to tell it flow together. Unlike most filmmakers who hide the mechanics, Sherwin and Anderson put them right up front for all to see.
This approach reaches its logical conclusion where Mick, dazed and disoriented, wanders into the casting call for a film entitled O Lucky Man. Director Lindsay Anderson spots him, decides he’s worth a test, and has him stand in front of a white backdrop as a photographer snaps pictures. The jaded director gives monosyllabic orders to his crew, while the photographer shoots Mick in different poses. And then Anderson says to Mick,
“Just do it.”
“What’s there to smile about?”
Finally the director loses patience, and whacks Mick with his script.
The next shot is a close-up of Mick, set against the white background. For a long moment, his expression is blank. And then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, we see his mouth curl into a smile.
Is this the beginning of wisdom?
I’ve heard people complain that Dead Presidents tries to do too many things. Some see it as an unsatisfying cross between a gangster flick and a war movie. Others see it as an ambitious but unsuccessful attempt to chronicle the Black experience in America. Many people complain that it goes on too long and has no focus.
Personally I don’t feel like Dead Presidents falls into any one category. Though directors Allen and Albert Hughes have made genre films, this is one case where I think they were reaching for something different. And this may be part of the reason why some people don’t respond to it. Dead Presidents doesn’t follow the usual dramatic arc. It’s more open ended. The story follows a young Black man named Anthony Curtis as his life unfolds. We first see him as a young man from a comfortable, middle-class home in the Bronx, then as a soldier in Vietnam, and finally as a vet dealing with poverty and alcoholism.
The Hughes Brothers are talking about America here, and there’s no doubt they see the system as destructive. But this isn’t a social tract and they don’t make Anthony a helpless victim. It’s more complicated than that. We see that as a young man Anthony could have gone to college and he decided to enlist instead. We see how black men were used as fodder during the Vietnam War, but the film makes it clear that blacks weren’t the only ones who were traumatized and crippled by the violence. We see Anthony come back home to a family he’s totally unprepared for, and how instead of dealing with the situation he gradually shuts down.
No doubt the Hughes Brothers could have jacked up the drama by giving us a bad guy to blame. But that also would have simplified things, and in Dead Presidents the directors are aiming for something more complex. They give us a sweeping view of a society where the deck is stacked. The country is always fighting a war somewhere, poverty is a prison that few can escape, and drugs are readily available for those who want an easy way to kill the pain.
Larenz Tate gives a moving performance in the leading role. Anthony is an average guy, a decent guy. Even as he sinks deeper into depression and bitterness, Tate keeps us with him. We can see that this young man could have done so much better, which makes it even harder to watch his downhill slide. Keith David plays Kirby, who lost a leg in the Korean War and now runs a local bar. Kirby is kind of a father figure to Anthony, and David plays the role with a touching mix of toughness and affection. The older man wants to help his young friend, but he’s caught in the same trap. Juanita is the mother of Anthony’s child, and she knows she’s caught in a trap. Rose Jackson’s nuanced performance shows us that even though Juanita loves her man, she can’t hide her mounting frustration. She wants to build a better life, and she won’t wait around forever.
Desperation finally drives Anthony to desperate measures. He and Kirby plan to rob an armored car. The heist goes horribly wrong. In the end, Anthony, Kirby and their accomplices all end up under arrest or six feet under. When Anthony is in court waiting for sentencing, he’s given a chance to speak and mentions his service in Vietnam. The judge, a WWII vet, is outraged, and tells the prisoner that Vietnam wasn’t even a “real war”. Then he hands down a sentence of fifteen years to life.
And the last we see of Anthony, he’s on a bus heading for prison.
A hand reaches into a cage and grasps a small bird. An elderly man is performing a magic trick to amuse a small girl. As he goes through the motions of making the bird disappear, we hear a voiceover explaining that there are three parts to a trick, the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. Basically, the magician shows you something ordinary, and then makes something extraordinary happen. The voice goes on to tell us that even though we may think we’re trying to figure out the secret, we’ll never find it.
“Because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really wanna know.”
Christopher Nolan likes to explore the way we perceive things. And beyond that, he’s interested in why we perceive things the way we do. Memento seems to be about a man who suffers from a rare memory disorder that keeps him from understanding his own life. By the end of the film, it appears that the disorder may be his way of coping with a past he can’t bear to face. Inception follows its main character as he dives into peoples’ unconscious minds to unlock their secrets. But as the story progresses we realize that his quests always end up bringing him face to face with his own demons.
Nolan never dug deeper than he did in The Prestige, a story about two magicians who spend their lives playing with the audience’s perceptions. Robert Angier and Alfred Borden are constantly competing with each other, both onstage and off. Angier is a showman, a natural performer who knows how to dazzle audiences. Borden is a thinker, always analyzing what he sees, living his life mostly inside his head. In different ways, both men make huge sacrifices in order to achieve the acclaim they seek. They both want to astound the world. But their rivalry isn’t just a contest between two ambitious performers. It’s wound up tightly with a bitter personal feud. Angier blames Borden for the death of his wife, and is determined to take revenge. Their battle goes far beyond competitive one-upmanship, starting with violent, vengeful pranks, and evolving into maddeningly elaborate mind games.
While all this is going on, the film is also playing some mind games with us. The Prestige is a dazzling, extended display of cinematic sleight of hand. There are plenty of films that keep stringing us along with twist after twist, and while they’re sometimes fun, they usually don’t have much going on beneath the surface. In The Prestige, Nolan uses these twists to make us question the way we see things, and asks why we see things the way we do.
The movie is based on the book of the same name by Christopher Priest.* Nolan wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, and I gather they made some significant changes both in terms of plot and perspective. In the film, the Nolans seem to be making the case that magic isn’t so much a matter of creating an illusion as it is playing with perception. The magician prepares the audience by setting up a certain frame of reference, and then the audience is astonished to see something that doesn’t conform to their expectations. What they’re actually witnessing may not be so remarkable in itself, but because of the way they’ve been led to perceive things, it seems like a miracle.
It’s a sign of how the good a performance is when it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. And it’s a sign of how good the casting is when all the performers seem absolutely right in their roles. Before I get into talking about the actors, I’d like to give credit to casting director John Papsidera. He found exactly the right person for every part, starting with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. Jackman’s Angier has the looks and the charm, the arrogance and the insecurity of a popular performer who’s desperate for the audience’s approval. He shows us how an ambitious young man is gradually consumed by an obsession he can’t control. Bale was the perfect choice for Borden. The actor often seems a little distant onscreen, a little withdrawn. This is absolutely right for Borden, who is always on guard, always protecting his secrets. He may have a wife and a child and a mistress, but he doesn’t give himself fully to any of them. Bale’s reserve makes it clear that Borden doesn’t quite connect with the world around him. His mind is always on magic.
But as I said, the whole cast is impressive. Rebecca Hall plays Borden’s wife Sarah with a tender sweetness, which makes it all the more awful to see her slowly broken by the misery of trying to share her life with a man who can’t share his. Scarlett Johanson has a striking assurance as Olivia Wenscombe, Angier’s on-stage assistant. This is a woman who’s smart enough and tough enough to survive in a world run by men. Michael Caine is obviously a favorite of Nolan’s, but the director has never given Caine a part as rich and complex as this one. Caine’s performance as Cutter, the aging sorcerer’s apprentice, is a reminder of how gifted the actor is. Cutter is part father, part hustler, part counselor, part con artist. He starts off as a mentor to both Angier and Borden, a crusty old pro teaching them the tricks of the trade. As time goes on, he gets drawn into and ground down by their rivalry. Caine plays the part with a straightforward simplicity, and at the same time brings a thousand subtle shadings that make the character absolutely real.
And then there’s David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. While Bowie painstakingly assumes the courtly manner and the measured speech of the legendary scientist, he brings a presence that gives his performance a powerful resonance. Tesla is something of a mythical figure. A brilliant inventor who played a major part in shaping twentieth century technology, he’s largely forgotten today. Of course, his part in the film is fictionalized, but it doesn’t seem far fetched to portray him as a man who stands at the nexus of science and the supernatural. And though we may think of Bowie as a flamboyant rock star, in reality he was a thoughtful, sensitive, orderly man, who spent much of his life exploring the overlapping worlds of art and technology. The two men may not be as different as they seem. Bowie brings a quiet intensity and a deep melancholy to the role of Tesla, a scientist who understands all too well that his inventions have the potential to cause terrible destruction.
While Borden and Angier perform their tricks in brightly lit theatres, much of the actual work they do takes place in dimly lit backstage areas and dingy workshops, away from public view. They take their bows in the spotlight, but they live in a world of shadows. That world in which they work their dark magic was carefully created for the film by production designer Nathan Crowley and art director Kevin Kavanaugh. Cinematographer Wally Pfister’s richly detailed images capture a million subtle shades of grey, brown and black. David Julyan’s dense, brooding orchestral progressions reinforce the feeling that we’re exploring a psychological and moral netherworld. And as I said earlier, the film relies on cinematic sleight of hand to work its own disturbing magic, jumping back and forth in time and using misdirection to shape the way we see things. Lee Smith’s deft, expert editing makes it all appear seamless.
Since The Prestige, Nolan has focussed on making big budget action flicks, which he does pretty well. I think he’s tried in those films to push the boundaries, but in the end they always seem to fall back on familiar Hollywood formulas. When the producers are gambling a hundred million or more on a feature, they generally want the director to give the audience what it’s expecting. The Prestige doesn’t do that. Instead, it plays with the audience’s expectations. It challenges viewers to look for answers, not just to the superficial puzzles posed by the plot, but to deeper questions about who we are and how we see the world. And at the same time, it asks us why we spend our lives searching for answers.
“Because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really wanna know.”
While surfing the net for info to write this post, I came across the web site maintained by the author of The Prestige, Christopher Priest. Apparently he published a whole book about the making of the film, which he called The Magic. And on his site he posted a brief summary of his thoughts on the movie, both positive and negative. I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but it’s fascinating to get his take on the film adaptation. You can read it yourself by clicking on the link below.
I need to take a break. There’s been so much going on the past year or so, it’s gotten hard to find the time to post on a regular basis. I’m thinking I’ll take about six months off, and maybe get back into the blogging thing some time in the summer. There are plenty of movies I’d like to write about, so hopefully after a little time off I’ll be ready to dive back in.
I do have another project I’m working on. I’ve been writing for over thirty years, both fiction and non-fiction, and very little of it’s been published. In the not too distant future I hope to launch a web site where I can post some of the longer stuff I’ve written. It’s still in the works, and it might take a while, so I won’t make any promises. But if I can get it off the ground, I’ll post the link on this site.
Thanks to those of you who have been following the blog. Looking forward to reconnecting this summer.