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In April of this year and again in November, the LA Weekly ran a two-part article on the way Hollywood treats women like second-class citizens. The author goes into detail describing the various ways that male studio execs stifle women’s voices. She interviews a number of women, and some men, all of whom confirm that women have a much harder time landing directing gigs, getting scripts produced, and even getting equal pay for work.
It’s pretty depressing, but hardly surprising. Just like every other corporate culture around the globe, Hollywood is dominated by highly-competitive men who see no reason to share power unless they’re forced to. I’d love to see this change, but I doubt that the solutions that are being debated will have any lasting impact. You’re going to shame these guys into sharing power? Good luck. They have no shame. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the endless parade of stupid, empty action films that the studios churn out. Sue the studios? They have lawyers who can drag these things out for years. Even if a settlement offered some concessions, who’s going to enforce them?
So what’s my solution? Let’s take a look at Alice Guy, a pioneering filmmaker who started her career in the nineteenth century. Guy is one of the first people to ever shoot a movie, and after a successful directing career she started her own studio, the Solax Company, in 1910. Acting as a producer and director, Guy made hundreds of films for Solax, and while the studio eventually collapsed, for years Guy was one of the most powerful people in the industry.
I think women filmmakers need to follow Guy’s example. Don’t wait around for the alpha males in Hollywood to change the situation. The change has to come from outside. I realize that building a movie studio takes years, and that there are plenty of roadblocks. Finding financing, getting distribution, putting together a production schedule, all those things are major hurdles. But there are thousands of women in Hollywood who have the intelligence and talent to make it happen, and many of them would probably be willing to give up some compensation for a chance to make movies they believed in.
Hollywood has always been dominated by men, and as long as the billions keep rolling in from the endless rounds of worthless blockbusters, they won’t see any reason to change. The only thing more important to these guys than money is power, and they won’t give anything up unless they have to.
Which is why I say, don’t ask for power. Take it.
If you’re interested in reading the Weekly articles, here are the links.
And if you don’t know about Alice Guy, I urge you to read up on this phenomenal woman. I’m including two links below. There are many gaps in our knowledge of her career, and you’ll find the articles offer conflicting information. What is undisputed is that she was one of the earliest film pioneers, she made one of the first narrative films, and she experimented with sound and color long before Hollywood even existed.
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.
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.
Orson Welles was born one hundred years ago today. Generally I’m not into making a big deal about birthdays, but this seems like an important one. Sure, it’s important to me because Welles had a huge impact on my life, but if you do a search on the net you’ll find that there are many others out there who think the day is worth celebrating.
Mostly these days Welles is remembered for The War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane, two early efforts that made him famous, and in some circles infamous. In reality, he had a long and varied career, starting on the stage, moving to radio, then to film and later to television.
Much of his work in radio survives, but it’s ignored or forgotten. Hardly anybody talks about his brief but impressive career in television. And sadly, of the many productions he directed for the stage, all we have are photographs, reviews and anecdotes. We can only imagine what the Black Macbeth, the modern-dress Julius Caesar and Around the World in Eighty Days were like. There’s very little information about the version of King Lear that Welles staged in New York in the fifties. It only lasted for twenty one performances. And though we do have the text of Moby Dick, Rehearsed, the performance of the play is lost to us forever.
Still, even if we just look at Welles’ career in film, there’s a lot to celebrate. Citizen Kane got only a limited release at the time it was made, but it influenced a generation of filmmakers. Even in its mutilated form, The Magnificent Ambersons is a heartbreaking account of the disintegration of an American family. The Lady from Shanghai, also mangled by the studio, is still a dazzling exploration of desire and corruption.
Much of the recognition Welles received for these early films was inspired by his innovative use of sound and image. But art isn’t just about technical flash. Sure, the early stuff is thrilling. But it’s the later work where he starts digging deeper into himself, and that’s where it really gets interesting. You’ll see some virtuoso camerawork in Touch of Evil, but the heart of the story is the relationship between Quinlan and Menzies. Chimes at Midnight is one of Welles’ most straightforward films in terms of technique, but in telling the story of Falstaff and Hal he seems to be revealing more of himself than ever before. And while many view Fake? as an entertaining trifle, the film offers some profound insights on the nature of art and authorship.
When I was younger, I used to see Welles’ career as a tragedy. Back then I tended to focus on the fact that the studios wouldn’t touch him, and it pained me to see him doing awful movies and silly commercials to finance his films. But as I’ve gotten older, my perspective has changed. Now I can’t believe what an incredible life he had. In his early twenties he was a star on the stage and on radio. At twenty five he finished his first feature. The thing that really impresses me, though, is the perseverance he showed later on in life. Things quickly went bad for him in Hollywood. Working in Europe in the fifties he was always scrambling to find money to make films. When he returned to LA in the sixties, the studios were even less interested than they had been twenty years before. But he kept working. And he kept making movies. And that’s why, in spite of his faults, in spite of his failures, he seems absolutely heroic to me.
Happy birthday, Orson.
If you live in the LA area, you have a couple options for celebrating Welles’ birthday over the next few days. Tonight and tomorrow the New Beverly is showcasing his work as an actor, screening Treasure Island and The Long, Hot Summer. On Thursday and Friday they’ll be showing Orson Welles and Me along with The Cat’s Meow. Not exactly sure why they’re showing The Cat’s Meow, since the connection to Welles’ career is pretty tenuous. But I recommend Orson Welles and Me very highly. In this moving coming of age story from Richard Linklater, a young man goes to work for the Mercury Theatre in its heyday. Christian McKay is fabulous as the young Orson Welles, a brilliant, arrogant, charming monster, alternately seducing and terrorizing his company.
At its Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, the American Cinematheque kicks off its Welles celebration on Thursday with The Lady from Shanghai, and wraps it up on Sunday with Touch of Evil. Every night is worth checking out, but on Saturday they’re screening a couple of films that don’t show up in theatres very often. Many of Welles’ admirers, including me, think Chimes at Midnight is his most personal and most powerful film. His reworking of the story of Prince Hal and Falstaff is both beautiful and heartbreaking. On the same bill is the director’s version of Othello from the fifties. It may not be up there with Welles’ best work, but it’s breathtakingly beautiful, both in terms of image and sound.
Links for both theatres are below. Have fun.
Two women, one young, one middle-aged, sit in a sauna, relaxing after a workout. The older one starts talking about the first time she had a hot flash, in a football stadium, surrounded by men, on a freezing cold day. And it wasn’t until she’d taken off most of her clothes that she figured out what was happening. She tells the younger woman, “It’s like suddenly realizing you’ve been made a different person, and no one’s ever asked you.”
The older woman is Julie. She’s worked in the corporate world for years, struggling to build a career. Early on we learn that she’s just been made CEO of the company she works for. But her reaction on hearing the news is decidedly muted. She seems to be at a loss. Where most people would start imagining their glowing future, Julie starts thinking about her past. She can’t help wondering what her life’s been about.
The Business of Strangers follows Julie as she thinks about the choices she’s made. And the younger woman, Paula, is there to make her think hard. They start off on the wrong foot when Paula, an employee, blows a big meeting. After learning that she’s become the CEO, Julie is feeling generous and tries to make peace, but it’s not easy. In many ways these two are complete opposites. The one way they’re alike is that they both want to be in control.
But their increasingly twisted relationship isn’t just about clashing egos, it’s not just a struggle for power. They need to be in control because they’ve spent so much of their lives being controlled by men. They both understand how hard it is for women to get power. They live in a man’s world, and they’ve had to fight to maintain their independence, Julie in boardrooms and Paula in bars. The younger woman is a footloose bohemian who both resents and respects the older woman’s discipline. Paula will complement Julie, at the same time as she’s looking for chinks in the armor.
Writer/director Patrick Stettner shows how much you can do with a limited budget and couple of actors. Not only has he created two fascinating characters, but the look and sound of the setting they’re placed in extends the emotional tone of the film. Most of the movie takes place in the arid landscape of a chain hotel. The bland, pastel décor and the eerily silent hallways are the perfect backdrop for Julie’s moody ruminations on her empty life. This world of sterile comfort only highlights the fact that she’s really homeless. Stettner’s subtle use of sound emphasizes the hollowness of the environment. We hear the dull buzz of conversation in the bar, the muffled padding of footsteps in a carpeted corridor. And he’s not afraid to use silence. As the film goes on, the passages with no dialogue are filled with more and more tension. Alex Lasarenko’s score is an important part of the sound design. The low-key percussive patterns he lays down in the background create a sense of quiet unease.
Then there are the performances. Julia Stiles shows how far she can go as an actress, playing Paula with shadings that you don’t even catch until the second or third viewing. While in some films Stiles’ face has seemed like a barrier, here it seems like a mask, and you’re never quite sure what’s going on underneath. You’re always a little afraid of what she might do next. Anybody who’s seen Stockard Channing before knows how far she can go as an actress, but she rarely gets roles this good. One of her greatest gifts is that she never seems to be acting. You never feel like there’s any distance between her and the character. She’s very direct, very straightforward, but she adds subtle layers of emotion. With the slightest change of expression or an offhand gesture she lets you see right into character.
At the end, nothing is resolved. Julie and Paula are back at the airport, sitting in the lounge, killing time before they go their separate ways. Paula will go off to find some new situation where she can explore the dark side of human nature. Julie will slide into the role of CEO, running meetings and reading sales reports. She may not be satisfied with her situation, but she’s accepted it. She’s realized that her work is who she is, and that all she can do is keep moving forward.
As usual, I’m taking a winter break. While blogging can be fun, it can also be exhausting. I’ll probably start posting again around the end of January.
And once again, I’d like to give a shout out to the National Film Preservation Foundation. They’ve been responsible for restoring and preserving numerous films thought to be lost, and just this last year rescued the footage Orson Welles shot for Too Much Johnson. That alone would make me eternally grateful to the NFPF, but they’ve done so much more.
If you haven’t been to their web site, a link is below. And if you care about film, I urge you to consider making a donation.
You won’t find Kurdistan on the map. But it’s very real to millions of Kurds. The region they live in has been battered by conflict for centuries, and the boundaries have shifted over and over again. After WWI Kurdistan was divided up among four neighboring countries, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Somehow the Kurds have managed to hang on to their culture and their language in spite of this. In some areas they’ve even gained a fair amount of political and economic clout. But there are also large numbers of Kurds who live as nomads, wandering through the countryside. This life has always been difficult. In recent years, with violence erupting all over the Middle East, it has become nearly impossible.
In her film Blackboards, Samira Makhmalbaf focusses on the Kurds who spend their lives travelling on foot through a harsh and desolate landscape. The story revolves around two teachers who are wandering across the mountains of Iran, hoping to find someone who will pay them for lessons. One runs across a group of boys who are smuggling contraband. The other falls in with a band of nomads who are lost in the wilderness. It turns out all of them are trying to cross the border into Iraq.
It’s clear these people lead hard lives, but those of us who have always had food on the table and a roof over our head probably can’t ever imagine how much suffering they’ve endured. Makhmalbaf slowly reveals pieces of their history, giving us glimpses of the violence they’ve been subjected to, but she’s not trying to win our sympathy. She’s not trying to bring tears to our eyes. Instead, she’s opening a window on the world these people live in.
Makhmalbaf somehow manages to combine rigorous objectivity with breathtaking poetry. She’s a born filmmaker.* She seems to have an intuitive understanding of sound and image. Blackboards is wonderfully simple. We follow two groups of people walking across a barren landscape, watching their faces, listening to them talk. The mountains and valleys that stretch across the horizon, dwarfing these frail travellers, have a stark, surreal quality. They seem both brutally harsh and strangely ethereal. Makhmalbaf uses music sparingly, and so much of the time these people are enveloped by an enormous silence, broken only by the sound of footsteps, scuffling across the dirt, clattering over stones.
The teachers are trying to sell their services, but nobody wants them. For people like this who are struggling just to survive, the idea of wasting time on luxuries like reading and writing seems pointless. An so the teachers, who start out aggressively, insisting that everybody needs what they’re offering, end up becoming beggars, following these desperate people, hoping to earn a piece of bread. At first the teachers can’t even get anyone to talk to them. Both the smugglers and the nomads are deeply suspicious of strangers. They have good reason to be. The boys make their living by acting as mules, carrying contraband across the border, trying not to get shot in the process. Having lived longer, the nomads have suffered more. They’ve persevered through years of conflict between Iran and Iraq, as well as two invasions by the US. The lone woman in the tribe is sullen and stoic. Even after marrying one of the teachers, she answers his questions in single syllables. Later we learn that she’s one of the few who survived when Saddam Hussein bombarded the city of Halabja with chemical weapons. She has no patience for useless talk. She’s too busy trying to make it through another day.
And that’s all the teachers are able to do. At the end of the film, they have nothing to show for their efforts. Border guards fire on the child smugglers, and the boys run for their lives. The nomads manage to cross into Iraq, but the teacher who was travelling with them chooses to stay behind. His divorce from his wife is as simple and quick as their marriage. And she walks off toward the horizon, carrying his blackboard with her.
The fact that she’s the daughter of Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf might have something to do with it. Maybe it’s just in her blood.
Nicolas Roeg’s early films are mysteries. He wasn’t really telling stories. He wasn’t creating drama. In the seventies and eighties Roeg was exploring a new language, melding sound and image, breaking down time and space. I always felt that understanding his films was less important than experiencing them.
That may sound like some kind of mystical rubbish, and there were plenty of people who accused Roeg of being glib and flashy. But from Performance (1970, co-directed with Donald Cammell) to Bad Timing (1980), I think Roeg was really trying to let us see and hear things in a new way. It may not have always worked, but I never doubted his sincerity.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of Roeg’s most ambitious films. It tells the story of the spectacular rise and fall of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who comes to earth and builds a vast financial empire based on startling new technologies. The film was adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis. (Tevis also wrote The Hustler, which was brought to the screen by Robert Rossen in 1961.) While the narrative mostly moves forward, Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg don’t feel bound by traditional storytelling conventions. There are sensual reveries where bodies drift through an empty void. At times we hear sounds that seem to be echoing across the centuries. Time and space aren’t fixed in Roeg’s movies. They’re unstable. Porous. We may get a momentary flash of something that hasn’t happened yet. Or suddenly a window will open on the long lost past.
Mayersberg’s film résumé isn’t long, but it’s really interesting. In addition to The Man Who Fell to Earth, he also wrote Eureka for Roeg. And he wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film Croupier. It’s clear from just those three titles that Mayersberg is interested in outsiders. The first two are expansive, mythic stories of gifted men who build an empire and then see it stolen from them. The third in some ways is the polar opposite, focussing on a man who wants to isolate himself from the world around him, seeking safety in self-effacing anonymity. But all three are stories of individuals struggling with society, and in each one the main character finds himself trying to deal with a world which is basically corrupt.
Roeg is also interested in corruption, but tends to focus less on the world and more on the individual. His characters are often searching for something, sometimes literally on a journey of discovery. Along the way they tangle with sex and death, which in Roeg’s world are always closely intertwined. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, Thomas Jerome Newton seems to be immortal, but he watches everyone around him age, becoming weak and fragile. And while Newton has a wife and children back on his home planet, he’s not immune to desire. He meets a maid in a hotel and soon they’re sharing the same bed.
Sex is a subject Roeg is very interested in, and The Man Who Fell to Earth is more explicit than any other mainstream film I know of from the time. In your standard Hollywood film, sex is almost always about love, and it’s usually reserved for the main characters. That’s not the way it works in Roeg’s world. Love may or not may not be involved, and even when it is, the lovers are never pure. They’re just as vulnerable as real people, feeling loneliness, fear, insecurity and desperation. In his films sex is truly intimate, and that intimacy carries with it all the perils it does in real life.
I’ve seen the film several times, but this is the first time it occurred to me that the three principal talents, Roeg, Mayersberg and Bowie, are all British. Watching it from that perspective, it seemed to be very much about a foreigner slowly drowning in American culture. At first fascinated, then addicted, then overwhelmed and appalled. When Newton arrives at his hotel room in the Southwest, he asks Mary Lou to bring him a TV. Then more TVs crowd into the room. Finally he’s sitting in front of a wall of television sets, all tuned to different channels, bombarding him with chaotic visuals and disembodied voices. He’s confronted with a manic, kinetic collage of machines and animals, sex and savagery. The sensory onslaught becomes so overwhelming that he flips out. When he finally shouts, “Leave my mind alone!” is it just Newton shouting, or are the filmmakers also making a comment on the suffocating effect of American pop culture?
The visual texture of the film is wonderfully rich and extremely intricate. Anthony Richmond’s cinematography takes full advantage of Brian Eatwell’s stunning production design. As editor, Graeme Clifford gives it all a seductive, hypnotic rhythm. The sound is equally complex, thanks to the efforts of Robin Gregory, Bob Jones, Alan Bell and Colin Miller. It’s also important to mention the electronic effects by Desmond Briscoe, who pioneered the use of electronic sound in Britain. And the music is a fabulous crazy quilt of old standards, rock n’ roll, bluegrass and avant garde, to which John Phillips, Stomu Yamash’ta and Duncan Lamont all contributed.
As his career went on, Roeg moved toward a more conventional approach to image and sound. He seemed to be rejecting the oblique, enigmatic style of his early years and embracing a more straightforward kind of storytelling. That’s fine. As people mature, the obsessions of their youth often fall by the wayside. But I keep returning to Roeg’s early work, and I don’t think it’s just a sentimental attachment. There’s something in those movies that keeps calling me back. His films from that time are disturbing, sensual mysteries. Don’t try to understand them. Just let yourself fall into them.
I’ve seen To Catch a Thief a number of times. At first I dismissed it as fluff, but I have to say it’s grown on me over the years. Even if it’s not up there with Hitchcock’s best, it’s still a pretty interesting piece of work. It was released in the mid-fifties, halfway through a decade in which the director made a remarkable series of movies, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest. During this period Hitchcock created some of his most complex, challenging films, and amazingly, he also enjoyed a long winning streak at the box office.
Like other directors who succeeded in Hollywood, Hitchcock understood that he was only able to hold on to his artistic freedom as long as he was able to produce money-making films. It was a balancing act. Sometimes he took chances, and his more daring projects didn’t always fare well at the box office. So he also made films that were calculated to please audiences, films that were conceived primarily as entertainment.
Which doesn’t mean to say that To Catch a Thief is completely superficial. One of the things that makes Hitchcock’s work so interesting is that he could deliver a film for the mass audience that was still subversive. Here he gives us the beautiful stars, the sumptuous sets and the stunning location work on the French Riviera, but at the same time he manages to pose some questions about the glamorous lifestyle that were seeing on the screen. He’s feeding us a slice of cake, but he also makes a point of asking if this is what we should be craving.
On the surface, the film’s tone is light and breezy, and John Michael Hayes’ script has a sharp wit that keeps us from taking it too seriously. The director is offering his audience a voyeuristic thrill by setting the film on the beautiful and luxurious French Riviera. Cary Grant plays John Robie, a gentleman jewel thief who’s gone straight. Grace Kelly plays Frances Stevens, a spoiled rich girl vactioning with her mother. Everything you need for a light, sophisticated thriller.
When I first watched To Catch a Thief, all I saw was the glittering surface. But on subsequent viewings, I started to catch interesting undercurrents. While Robie is a professional thief, the film makes the point that we’re all thieves in one way or another. Hughson, the straightlaced insurance agent who’s trying to recover the stolen jewels, gets uncomfortable when Robie calls him out on the fact that he’s padding his expense account. Hughson doesn’t like it either when one of his clients points out that selling insurance is basically gambling. And Frances, the headstrong heiress, wants to join Robie as a partner in crime, planning a robbery as though it was an amusing game. Throughout his career, Hitchcock kept reminding us that the line between law-abiding citizen and desperate criminal is very thin. The unfortunate heroine in Blackmail, the smug athlete in Strangers on a Train, the glib ad man in North by Northwest, all feel comfortably snug in their daily lives, until a twist of fate puts them on the wrong side of the law. The films may be fiction, but how many of us can say there hasn’t been a point in our lives when we could’ve crossed that line ourselves.
It’s redundant to call attention to Cary Grant’s striking skill and suave assurance. He’s pretty much perfect as the reformed thief. And I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about Grace Kelly’s deft blend of cool wit and casual confidence. I’d rather focus on the supporting cast, which is just as impressive as the leading actors. John Williams made a career out of playing proper Brits, but here he gets a chance to have fun with the role. His drily understated performance is a joy to watch. Brigitte Auber has a strong and lively presence as Danielle, the amoral girl who wants to lure Grant back to a life of crime. But my favorite is Jessie Royce Landis as Frances’ down to earth mother. Landis was often cast as a matron, but in her films with Hitchcock she got to show how much she could bring to those roles. She does what the best character actors knew how to do, and that is to take a type and turn it into into an individual. In this film she gives one of the most enjoyable performances I’ve ever seen on the screen.
In making To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock was surrounded by an amazing team of collaborators. The film’s bright, crisp visual style was crafted by cinematographer Robert Burks working with art directors Hal Pereira and J. McMillan Johnson. Edith Head’s costumes add a layer of sumptuous style. George Tomasini worked as an editor on a number of Hitchcock films, all displaying a sharp sense of pace and rhythm. The only one of the director’s major collaborators from the fifties that’s missing is composer Bernard Herrman, but Lyn Murray’s score is enjoyable and energetic.
The Hollywood system has always demanded that filmmakers bring in the bucks. Hitchcock knew he had to balance his more personal projects with mainstream entertainment. But he also knew that these more conventional films could hold unconventional ideas. To Catch a Thief may appear to be nothing more than a slick, mainstream movie, but underneath the smooth, seductive surface, you’ll find that Hitchcock’s cold, hard intelligence is still at work.