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Monday, Mar 30, 2009

From Sunday’s New York Times: On March 29, 1973, the last United States troops left South Vietnam, ending America’s direct military involvement in the Vietnam War.


I can’t recall the last time I watched The Deer Hunter in a single, uninterrupted sitting. I suspect, reflecting on the first Vietnam-inspired Hollywood epic (preceding the similarly overstuffed Apocalypse Now by a full year), the extensive overture is necessary not only to set the tone, but to signify, on literal and figurative (artistic) levels the last glimpse of a way of life that was about to irrevocably change. With minimal pretension (that would be saved for the movie’s third act) and effective subtlety, the elaborate, unhurried scenes depicting the plans and preparation for the big wedding illustrate a way of life that, even without the war, was almost obsolete: the steel mills and coal mines, of course, would not figure as prominently in the lives (and livelihoods) of the next generation. Less remarked upon, but equally significant is the vivid depiction of a reliance on religion and ritual that seemed much less archaic in an era when it was not uncommon for first or second generation immigrants (mostly from Europe) to comprise the (invariably blue collar) workforce. As such, the film’s first act is a document of a time that was slouching, not exactly innocently but less than fully prepared, toward the end of its own history. First there was the ‘80s and what the powers that were did to the unions, then the ‘90s and what computers meant for the majority of workers unfamiliar with the Internet.



The Deer Hunter’s second act deals with the horrors of combat and the third act with its aftermath; those are the parts that, while not as deliberate and languid as the less eventful opening act, become weighted down with their own urgency and all-encompassing compulsion to illustrate Big Truths. This is where the (inevitable?) lack of subtlety and (unfortunate) pretension sometimes suck the air out of the action on the screen. Still, the scene where De Niro skips his own homecoming party and paces nervously around his motel room says as much about the alienation and subsequent disillusionment (where he came from, where he went, where he is headed) than most films and books devoted to the uneasy homecoming Vietnam veterans endured. For an unfettered and forceful examination of this awkward chapter in our country’s history, I’ve yet to encounter a work that improves upon Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. But the single scene (from any film, and more immediately than any book) that successfully synthesizes the before and after of that war, and that era, is the brief, devastatingly beautiful scene that concludes the first part of the film: post-wedding and pre-war; no words are spoken but a great deal is conveyed. The world will soon be a different place for the friends headed to war as well as the ones who stayed behind. It is an elegy for folks who are beginning to understand that everything has already changed.


The Deer Hunter, The Last Night


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Tuesday, Jun 17, 2008
It says a lot about Hollywood that the alien American audiences preferred in the summer of 1982 was so innocuous and sentimental you almost expected it to pull off a mask to reveal that it was, in fact, Mickey Mouse.


In the late summer of 1982, two distinct entities from outer space infiltrated planet earth. One was a prehistoric creature with the ability to kill, then imitate its prey: it could attack its victims while remaining disguised amongst them by, in effect, becoming them. The other was an unusual looking but friendly creature, a voyager from another place with god-like powers of healing, an odd voice, and an affinity for Reese’s Pieces.


Guess which one fared better?


Of course, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the hit of ’82, and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing had the famously unfortunate timing of opening two weeks later. That many people did not see it is a shame; that many critics dismissed it is typical. To be certain, it didn’t help matters that the assembled brain trust agonized over the relatively brief, but exceptionally gory special effects. Inevitably, they aged quickly—and rather poorly. While one can appreciate the attention paid to these ostensibly “scary” scenes, they are (ironically? inexorably?) the weaker moments in the film. It being a Carpenter production, cohesion and plot are occasionally undermined in ways that seem half-assed or ham-fisted. Still, after repeated viewings it manages to work on multiple levels, and despite any nitpicking it seems impossible to improve upon. The definition of a classic, perhaps, but it is something more, something more complicated than that. It is a unique and enigmatic movie; in hindsight it is easy to understand how it evolved, over time, from a cult classic to its current status as must-own DVD material (alas, no 25th anniversary deluxe edition arrived in 2007, but the existing Collector’s Edition—from 1998—is quite satisfactory): it needed time to truly find its audience.


So, aside from bad timing and a final product that feels, at times, oddly forced despite the obvious (and well documented) care and consideration that went into it, what is it that remains so right about this movie? For starters, it is to Carpenter’s credit that he assembled such a spectacular cast: virtually all of the actors make the absolute most of their relatively limited screen time, but Keith David, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and Richard Masur are in particularly fine form. As for Kurt Russell, it is amazing to recall that his role as R.J. MacReady came only a year after his testosterone-athon as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (also directed by Carpenter), making this quite the one-two punch for both men. Considerable credit must also be given to Bill Lancaster’s excellent screenplay (to read John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? is both to appreciate where the spirit of this film comes from—more so than the sci-fi classic The Thing from Outer Space that it was ostensibly updating—and appreciate how much Lancaster did with relatively little, in terms of actual plot, character development and drama).



It is, as intended, Kurt Russell’s film, but special mention must be made for the near miraculous performance of Wilford Brimley—a man who is perhaps best known as the wise-cracking senior citizen from Cocoon or as the Quaker Oats guy, or recently (and, thanks to the brilliant monkeys working around the clock on youtube, amusingly), the spokesperson with a tendency to mispronounce the most unamusing word in the English language, diabetes. As Dr. Blair, Brimley’s presence provides an austere integrity and the necessarily brainy moral grounding for events that would otherwise be in constant jeopardy of degenerating into parody. His dead-serious assessment of what is going on—before anyone else has figured things out—invests the growing unease inside the camp with a gravitas that makes it painfully clear, to the viewer, what is at stake. Later, after being secluded in a storage shed, the men visit him in a scene that manages to be sad, disturbing and comical.


One scene in particular offers perhaps the best illustration of why this movie continues to resonate, and why it was not fully successful as either a slam-bam action flick or a serious drama: Blair sits alone, at his desk, running a computer simulation of the diabolically efficient way the alien is infecting his team. In less than thirty seconds, the look on his face turns from world-weary stoicism to resigned acknowledgment of the likely consequences—for the men, and the rest of the world. Interestingly (and again, ironically?) it is probable that the impetus for this particular sequence, in addition to the obvious and necessary advancement of the plot in as succinct and clear a manner as possible, was to show-off the high-tech computer programming, circa 1982. Like the over-the-top transformation scenes, it is more hilarious than harrowing to look at the extraordinarily primitive technology, today. And yet, it worked, then, and works now, because of its stark imagery: in its way, it’s ten times more terrifying to watch the simulated organism at work, one blob on a screen capturing and assimilating its prey, than it is to watch the scattered “money shots” when the creature reveals itself.


Perfection is a word that should never be used lightly, but no other word will suffice for the wonders Ennio Morricone works, scoring this film. The name Morricone is—and should be—associated with brilliance, variety and superhuman productivity, just to pick a few obvious choices. While the list of only his very best efforts is not short, his work here must be considered amongst the top tier: The Thing would be unimaginable without it. Rather than overwhelming, or distracting the action on the screen—as film scores do with distressing regularity these days—Morricone’s music exists mostly on the periphery, in the corners and inside the shadows. Its effectiveness serves an almost opposite purpose to the handful of over-the-top alien transformations: the real horror of the story lies in the tension of not knowing, the dread of isolation and the fear of being assailed by an inexplicable enemy. Morricone subtly embellishes the otherwise silent scenes, where the only sounds are the Antarctic winds, the silence and the darkness. As the paranoia increases, strings are plucked like raw nerves, while stark, almost soulless keyboard drones mirror the growing desperation: the music exists as a wind chill factor, making everything colder and more forlorn than it already is.


And last but certainly not least: The Thing provides one of the best endings of any movie, ever. To use the word perfect, again, would seem silly, but there is no getting around it: the ending is perfect. Indeed, it’s even better than perfect, considering the pressure Carpenter must have felt to inject the type of horseshit heroic conclusion American audiences usually require. Carpenter’s decision to go with the ambivalent ending (which, actually, is truly heroic as opposed to some manufactured deus ex machina sequel-ready sendoff) very likely killed his chance at commercial viability. Carpenter knew this and did it anyway, saving both the movie’s integrity and his soul in the process. The fact that The Thing has attracted video sales ever since is wonderfully poetic justice, and confirms that you can occasionally scoff at the big studio machine and come out okay. Bottom line: Spielberg’s alien may have won the box office battle, but everyone knows that his maudlin Peter Pan wouldn’t have stood a chance at Outpost 31.


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Tuesday, Dec 11, 2007

In celebration of Sidney Lumet’s recent triumph Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, SE&L takes a look back at one of the director’s seminal ‘70s masterpieces.


Is it possible for a writer to be too prescient? Could they be so in tune with the turning tide inside a stalwart of cultural existence that their insight goes from being clever to creepy? Such is the case with one Paddy Chayefsky and his take on the manipulation of the news media called Network. Thirty years ago, critics were agog at the notion that something as sacred as the evening news would or ever could be turned into a platform for demagogic rants, unimportant tabloid scandal, and agenda-based crusading.


Sadly, this brilliant scribe, responsible for The Hospital, Marty, and The Catered Affair, didn’t live to see his scenario come frighteningly true. We now live in a time when information has been usurped by infotainment and 24-hour cable stations offer rant time for the demagogic, exploit every scandal to untold tabloid proportions, and let their left or right freak flags fly brilliantly. You may indeed question whether we have actually come to the point where acts of political crime and social terrorism are run as part of basic prime-time programming. The answer? Ever watch TLC, or Court TV?


When longtime UBS anchorman Howard Beale learns that he will be “forcibly” retired, he makes a shocking statement on that night’s news. One week to the day, he will commit suicide on national television. Naturally, the stunt gets him fired, but the public seems intrigued. Over the better judgment of News Division President Max Schumacher, Beale is left on the air. The next day, he explains his actions with a simple phrase. After years of telling the people the “truth,” he just “ran out of bullshit.” The expletive gets him yanked again, but the climb in the ratings gets the attention of entertainment programmer Diana Christensen.


She sees the possibility of turning Beale into a prophet, a mad monk of the medium spouting off about the ills of society. While simultaneously developing a prime-time show centering on a group of renegade radicals, Christensen approaches corporate bigwig Frank Hackett with a proposal. She will take over the nightly news and turn it into a hit show. Of course, Schumacher refuses, but success breeds strange bedfellows and Beale’s late-night revelation of his new “calling” creates an instant national phenomenon. Suddenly, UBS is not just some podunk pariah. It is now a viable and visible network. However, as with all prophecy, doom and gloom are not far behind and destruction will meet all those who pretend to play God—even if it’s just on TV or in the corridors of corporate power.


When it was first released in 1976, Network was nothing short of a satiric revelation. It hinted at the horrors that could come if TV turned its back on the public interest and instead pursued the all-mighty dollar. It dug deep into the crawling corporatization of the media and argued against allowing multinational interests to filter into and through the fourth estate. It spit on the First Amendment, flirted with outright controversy, and made outrageousness and ridiculousness seem prophetic but improbable. With Walter Cronkite seated behind the CBS chair, trusted like no one else in Bicentennial America, there were no Howard Beales waiting in the wings for their insignificant sound bite of fame.


In 2007, however, Network plays like a blueprint for a myriad of modern pundits. To today’s viewer, Beale becomes a crazy combination of Bill O’Reilly, John McLaughlin, and Geraldo Rivera. Where once the news was a sanctuary of ethical considerations and investigative insight, it has now become a chatty-Cathy coffee-klatch commiserating over the communal back fence, arguing over who’s right, who’s wrong (or left), and how much sex, drugs, and residual rock-and-roll was involved.


As a movie, Network is nearly perfect, one of those cinematic statements that its participants can wear with special, inexhaustible pride. It was a breathtaking final testament to Peter Finch’s acting acumen, a reminder that William Holden wasn’t a longstanding member of the Hollywood hierarchy for nothing, and a realization of Faye Dunaway’s incredible bravery. Everyone in the cast, from corporate raider patsy Robert Duvall to Ned Beatty’s capitalist-as-biblical-serpent Arthur Jensen, radiates a kind of performance flawlessness that one just doesn’t find in most modern movies.


Certainly credit must be given to American auteur Sidney Lumet. He discovered the heart and soul of Chayefsky’s surrealistic statement and infused the entire project with a kind of knowing authenticity that made it even more powerful. For a director whose legendary output is impressive, to say the least (he is responsible for many masterful films, including 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict, just to name a few), Network stands as one of his greatest triumphs. Its compact completeness and sense of plausible implausibility draws laughs out of lunacy, sorrow out of selfish egotism.


True, this is really a writer’s film. There are no action scenes to highlight a filmmaker’s flair or narrative gimmicks (like mental impairment or physical flaws) to show the actors’ obvious bravado. No, what Chayefsky created was a poetry of purpose, a lyrical lassoing of the insanity derived from the post-Watergate world of TV news. He was singing a sentimental, silly dirge to a dying giant and his stanzas as speeches are some of the best-crafted screenwriting ever attempted. There are several standout spoken set pieces, not just the instances where Beale goes ballistic for his nightly news tirades. When the obviously insane newsman tells his audience to go to the windows and yell out that seminal statement of stagnant citizenry, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!,” the words leading up to the chant are far more effective than the catchphrase itself.


Similarly, Ms. Christensen uses a bargaining deal for some James Bond films as seduction, foreplay, and pillow talk during a frantic sex scene. Holden delivers a devastating denouement about broken relationships as he says farewell to his accidental mistress, while Ned Beatty delivers the movie’s main theme—how the upcoming “new world order” will be papered in multinational conglomerate stock options, not U.N. peacekeeping initiatives or CARE packages—like a preacher gone potty.


In fact, one of the most amazing things that you see when you watch Network some 30 years later, aside from how right on its predictions about television were, is how hopeful it seemed. When Beale’s fire-and-brimstone act comes back to bite the UBS executives in their aspirations, the actions discussed to “eradicate” their crisis are unapologetically absurd—at least, that’s how Chayefsky sees it. He is writing from a position of shuttered optimism. He knows things are bad, but he can’t imagine they’d ever get to the point were murder might solve programming problems. He argues that the people wouldn’t cotton to such craven cruelty and they especially wouldn’t tolerate it being shown on national television.


Perhaps it’s better then that Chayefsky left this planet when he did. He missed Morton Downey Jr. and his gladiatorial gross-out as chat show. He didn’t see Pennsylvania State Senator Budd Dwyer pull a .45-caliber Magnum out of a manila envelope and put the business end in his mouth, committing suicide in front of a live press conference crowd. He didn’t get to see Jerry Springer or Richard Bey, or bask in the bloated glow of misguided media moguls Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch. One could easily see the author writing sequels to his critical cautionary tale, adding more and more mania to the multi-channeled glass teat until, spent and defeated, he realized that the boob tube would always win.


If anyone keeps this all grounded though, it’s Lumet. His Oscar nomination for directing was well deserved, as he manages to make the contemptible seem common and the mind-boggling appear minor. He uses actual locations to keep situations authentic and never lets his actors overstay their importance. That is why Finch is so fine as Beale. His is a character that could easily be played for overblown comedy or uninspired pathos and Lumet lets neither occur. Dunaway’s Diana Christensen is the same way. She is an ice queen, a bossy bitch with a Cheshire-cat grin masking the backstabbing knife in her hand. She could have been a caricature, but Lumet lets her be bad for pure badness’s sake.


As Schumacher, Holden is the fulcrum upon which the entire enterprise balances. He is reason looking in on madness, the ethical broaching the source of station squalor and scandal. If we don’t feel for him, understand his personal plight, and accept his occasional lapses (why an affair, and with whom?), we will never believe the movie’s over-the-top tenets. They will feel like sketch comedy, not stinging satire. Lumet is indeed the reason Network triumphs. He knows the game inside and out, and never once lets it fall beyond the boundaries of believability. He knows that, if it’s not real, it’s preposterous—and nothing kills comedy faster than indecipherability.


Though most may not like to admit it, the world of TV is a reflection of what we watch. Programs are not invented on the off chance that we will watch them. Our viewing habits have been studied and consulted over, represented on graphs, and argued over in marketing meetings. Every few years, a film comes along condemning such practices. In the ‘80s, it was Broadcast News (or if you are a little more forward-thinking, Videodrome). The ‘90s had The Insider and the minor Wag the Dog. But in the ‘70s, it was Network and the reverberations from that seismic smack in the cathode ray have been felt all throughout the industry, even as the airwaves turned coaxial and then digital.


While its pronouncements might seem dated and many of its references as ancient as the history on which they were based, this is still a masterpiece of a movie, a great big flailing middle finger to a cultural icon that didn’t heed its warning. In a post-millennial maze of reality shows, prime- time confessionals, and stunt-oriented idiocy, TV has totally lost its way—and we as the audience have let it. Argue about its position as a vast wasteland, but the truth is far more painful. As a mirror to our own internal tendencies, Network is more foreboding than every before. If Chayefsky saw us arriving at this point so many years before, what does the future hold?


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Monday, Nov 26, 2007


When Bobby Darin went from teeny-bopper “splish splash” to pseudo-Sinatra swing, he brought along a vampy, jazzy update of an old Louis Armstrong number with him. Reinterpreting the lyrics to give the tune a ring-a-ding-ding kick, and working all the Brecht/Weill out of the thing, “Mack the Knife” became the singer’s signature song. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, sold a million copies, and went on to win the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1960. Yet few, if any, knew of the original source material. In fact, Dick Clark warned Darin against cutting the track, telling him that if fans ever found out it was taken from an “opera” it would destroy his rock-n-roll cred.


Of course, he was wrong, but even today, the 3 Penny title will throw anyone not aware of the legacy behind Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s riotously influential stage work. Indeed, even a modern revival from 2006 featuring Alan Cumming, Jim Dale, and New Wave chanteuse Cyndi Lauper failed to ignite much interest. Perhaps if people had a chance to see G. W. Pabst’s brilliant interpretation of the material in his 1931 film, they’d realize how phenomenal The 3 Penny Opera really is. The movie is indeed one of the slyest, most striking masterworks ever.


On the day of his wedding, MacHeath, also known as Mackie Messer, otherwise notorious as Mack the Knife, wants everything to be perfect. After all, he is marrying longtime girlfriend Polly Peachum. It’s a very advantageous pairing - she’s the daughter of an infamous London racketeer who controls the beggar trade and his status as a heel remains intact. Also, he’s allowed to carouse and womanize (if only a little) on the side. While finding a preacher willing to enter his literal den of thieves is tough, Messer manages to get hitched. But when Papa Peachum finds out, he is livid. He demands his son-in-law’s head, and propositions corrupt police chief (and Messer ally) Tiger Brown to frame the felon.


When the lawman initially won’t cooperate, Peachum plays his ace. The Queen’s Coronation parade is a few days away. If Messer is not in prison and headed to his death, there will be a poverty row rebellion to interrupt the pomp and circumstance. With all sides playing against and into each other, it will take more than treachery and deception to outwit one another. As in any 3 Penny (or poverty) Opera, it’s the little things overlooked, and the twists of fate unexpected, that end up counting.


G. W. Pabst’s adaptation of Weill and Brecht’s 3 Penny Opera is an astounding cinematic experience - like watching M the musical as filtered through a neo-realistic view of silent-film German Expressionism. At first, you feel overwhelmed by the arch, stylized approach to the story. Told by traveling minstrels and lacking the initial elements of explanation and exposition, it immediately tosses us into London’s seedy port district, a locale overrun with scum, strumpets, and the scoundrels who take advantage of same. As we are introduced to the main characters - master thief (and murderer) MacHeath/Mackie Messer, his gal pal Polly Peachum, and the various members of the twosome’s felonious entourage - and watch the preparations for their soon-to-be grand wedding, we wonder where all of this is going.


For many, the 3 Penny is an unknown quantity, a non-traditional songfest that closely resembles the arcane entertainment referenced in the title. Indeed, the first few numbers - including the instantly recognizable “Mack the Knife” - resemble a Wagnerian war against Gilbert and Sullivan. They’re more arias and sextets than chorus/melody making. While each one of the drawn-out dirges is packed with psychological subtext and social protest, it all comes across as overblown and obvious. How the movie will manage from this point is anyone’s guest.


And then we are introduced to Polly’s corrupt father, a man who actually controls and licenses the beggars in the city. No one can work the streets without his permission, and such a setup is instantaneously intriguing. We want to know more and need it ASAP. But the story does something even better. It takes the situation and amplifies it one outstanding step further. Peachum has a list of possible panhandling personas - the cripple, the crazy, the mute, etc. - and candidates can only choose between those that haven’t met their citywide or regional quota. In one stellar sequence, a newcomer argues with the fierce Fagan over his employment possibilities. The crass, capitalist way Peachum handles his business, and the ragtag group of street trash that wanders through his door (most merely playing at their pathetic state) gives 3 Penny a wonderful cynical edge.


It’s clear why Weill and Brecht were attracted to this 18th century ballad opera (which they then updated). In a country just caving into Nationalism and accompanying Nazi power, the concept of corruption within even the most morose of social situations (the homeless as organized con artists) meshed perfectly with their growing political concerns. When we later find out that police chief Tiger Brown is linked to both Messer and Peachum’s criminal organizations, it adds fuel to an already foul fire.


And then Act III arrives. Peachum, angry that his daughter has married Messer, wants the hoodlum hanged. He threatens Brown with a peasant riot during the Queen’s Coronation if the lawman doesn’t frame his unwanted son-in-law and place him before the gallows. While Messer is mired in the court system, he leaves his racket to his bride, and she turns the burglary and pickpocket ring into a legitimized version of the very same enterprise—otherwise known as a bank. Using their newfound status, and an excess of cash, they save Messer and call Peachum’s bluff. The result is a mass melee between the peasant class and the upper crust who constantly shun them.


As staged brilliantly by director Pabst, this last-act anarchy is unforgettable. A collection of faces both found and fashioned, it speaks volumes about the power in protest while suggesting the senselessness in fighting right with might. Epic in scale if not in visual scope (this was a studio production, limited by the logistics of creating all of London on a soundstage), the clash of classes is then overridden by a last-act truce that speaks more about modern society and who pulls the strings than any movie since, post-modern or otherwise.


When it’s all over, when The 3 Penny Opera wraps up its cutting condemnations and finishes with a flourish, we wonder why we ever doubted it. Even the unusual sonic cues and melodious complexity that keeps everything at arms length suddenly seems silly and easily embraceable. Because of the knotty narrative turns, the backdoor wheeling and dealing, and clearly defined criticism of Germany’s lax citizenry (it’s a similar statement made by Jean Renoir’s revelatory Rules of the Game), what started out stark and dated turns timeless and all too telling. Hats off to Austrian Pabst, who channeled fellow greats like Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau to create an amazing monochrome landscape of shadows and light for the intrigues to play within.


He also does a magnificent job of keeping his characters clear and beyond the obvious caricatures. This is especially true of Papa Peachum. One gets the clear impression that a slight amount of anti-Semitism could be present in Weill/Brecht’s interpretation of the original character. He sure looks and acts like Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. But thanks to Pabst’s careful control of the material, as well as Fritz Rasp’s multifaceted performance, all potential racism is avoided. In fact, even though the entire narrative deals with society’s most unsavory element, 3 Penny never resorts to such cinematic name calling.


It’s safe to say that this ancient allegory, first formulated back in 1728 when Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) suggested John Gray take up the cause of the downtrodden and disenfranchised, is more potent in 2007 than in pre-World War II Europe. Back then, criminals and lowlifes were a cause for scandal, an unacceptable breed given over to censure and individual exile. While Messer makes a compelling mobster, we are never allowed to forget that he once killed an entire family just for the fun of it. Today, thanks to tabloid television and the 24-hour-a-day news cycle, we semi-celebrate such antisocial heroes. They become the “there but for the grace” grooves that feed our need for holier-than-thou judgment.


3 Penny takes such a sentiment and turns it right back at our self-righteous, sanctimonious faces. It asks us to explain why these kinds of characters are so engaging, and makes us realize that they truly exist in all corridors of power—even in ourselves. Weill and Brecht may have been rebelling against a war-weary nation headed toward a complete totalitarian meltdown, but their musical makes us look at our own lack of action in light of such situations. It places us directly in the line of the poor-person maelstrom, and asks us to question why we still don’t care.


Even better, it belies our already staunch cynicism. Everyone thinks the police are corrupt, the wealthy are wicked, the government given over to special interests, and that corporate coffers are lined with white-collar criminality. 3 Penny pushes it all further into farce, suggesting that there’s unbridled badness even among the already unlawful. When Polly proudly celebrates the buying of a bank, we see the simple substituting of one racket for another. When Peachum and Messer talk truce, we witness every backroom deal that drives ethics even further from the standard business/legislative model. It’s all so very modern and yet locked deep within its Victorian England setting. That it suggests such static history makes for an even more disconcerting entertainment.


While you won’t be humming its tunes on the way out of the theater—or while removing the DVD from the player—the music is memorable, especially since it easily encapsulates everything we see onscreen. Indeed, The 3 Penny Opera probably plays better on film than in the theater. Live, the inherent ambiguity of the staging can ruin even the greatest writer’s intentions. But when pasted to celluloid, the tendencies become timeless, and their motives remain solid and concrete. Over the decades, revivals of the show have been less than successful. Movies remain the best way to experience this classic social commentary.


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Wednesday, Sep 19, 2007


There is perhaps no more detail-oriented director than Roman Polanski. All his films, from his initial landmark productions to his later misguided efforts, have concentrated on the minutia and facets of life from which epic circumstances appear to arise. Movies like Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby are not just well acted, brilliantly scripted works of creative cinematic construction, but they are carefully observed sketches of finely intricate scrutiny.


Everything is significant in a Polanski film; the setting, a character’s coat, the view in the window behind an actor, the placement of items on a desk. His moviemaking language, the importance of the camera and framing, the creation of an outside voice to generate tension and drama between the individuals onscreen is as imperative as the words they are saying and the emotions they are expressing.


When everything comes together, the technical and the emotional, there is no better filmmaker. When one is missing, however, or if both are weak, then there is no more artificial movie mind. Polanski is a student of film as a mechanical craft. He is also an artisan, a handmade creator of complex scenarios and interweaving undercurrents. Sometimes his style can substantially outweigh his substance, but he is usually able to balance both to create something magical out of a sort of cinematic geometry.


Polanski’s first full-length feature film, Knife in the Water, is a technical marvel, a masterpiece of composition and perfected camera work. It is filled with startling, glorious black and white imagery, obvious symbolism, and shots of staggering complexity and construction. At its core, it is a three person psychological drama that takes place over a period of 24 hours on a small sailboat adrift in a lake, a simple, subtle struggle between classes and emotions. Yet through its sweeping vistas and rampant artistic touches, it is also a movie of greater scope and universal platitudes.


One can look at Knife and see the start of a thousand future film projects: movies that capture interpersonal and sexual tension between lovers and strangers, spouses, and students. One can also feel the foundation for Polanski’s entire career, a series of movies that deal with untold secrets, unspoken pain, and unexpected connections. No one is who he or she seems to be in Knife in the Water.


The husband is not a brave, successful man; the wife is not a happy, contented partner; and the enigmatic, blond-haired hitchhiker is not the switchblade wielding threat he portrays. They are more than their outer face…but they are also less. Actually, the question becomes who exactly are these people and what do they really stand for? Unfortunately, Knife has little desire to address this quandary.


This is a major misstep in this film. The obvious ambiguousness to almost every event that happens on screen and the characters creating the scenarios renders Knife in the Water cold and calculating when it should be hot with untold tension. This is not a thriller in the traditional sense. We are not witnessing a true battle of wills or a deeply disturbed set of secretly acted-out agendas. Indeed, the characterization and dramatics play out like the languid day on a calm blue waterway. Issues are allowed to drift and stagnate, motives become ill defined and lazy, and the entire story sags beneath underdeveloped plot sails.


Part of the problem here is that we really don’t have anyone to identify with. The husband and wife appear content, yet there is a thread of hatred between them that only flares up once. When it does, the movie crackles and burns. Finally, we are seeing something of the subconscious. But it’s one of the few times where we experience such insight or shock.


The rest of the movie is just too vague, too sub-textual to spell out—or in some cases even hint at—the issues irritating the characters. A great deal of the dynamic between the players here has to be inferred, created in the mind of the viewer from half-heard lines of dialogue, a stolen glance or two, and most unfortunately, from a backlog of similarly structured post-Polanski storylines. If Knife in the Water is indeed a creepy, suspenseful love/hate/horror triangle between disaffected marrieds and an ingenious, insane interloper, the reason for its success as such is purely cinematic craft. Just like any summarization, we keep waiting for the real meat of the story to step forward and be recognized.


Maybe it’s better to view Knife in the Water as not about a marriage on the brink or a young man trying to unseat a dominant male. This is Communist Poland, after all, and no amount of Western allusion can dilute the fact that we are dealing with a strict class structure and sense of social composition. The youth (as this is how he is referred to in the credits) is supposed to be a scared, wild-eyed dreamer, the kind of impressionable mind the Party recruits and debases for the sake of the common good.


Krystyna is supposed to be subservient and dissatisfied with life: wives behind the Iron Curtain don’t have the liberation of America or Europe and marry more out of convenience than love or sex. And the older businessman (or bureaucrat or ranking government official) is indeed the boss, the controlling and commanding dispassionate pawn to dogma that makes the political machine ebb and flow. So there’s not much more of a dynamic that can be created or challenged. These people are doomed to fulfill their State-sponsored roles.


In interviews, Polanski’s stated desire to strip the dialogue back, to only present small, selected portions of these people’s thoughts and personas, is irreparable to Knife in the Water. Perhaps he felt his camera would fill in the blanks, but in reality, that attitude backfires and it becomes increasingly impossible to understand the individual’s motivation or if they even have any. Tension and suspense only work when we feel something is at stake, when something we care for or understand is threatened or about to be. In Knife in the Water, the characters never truly come alive for us. So, in turn, we never really care what happens.


Yet the visual scope and sense of artistic structure mostly makes up for the lack of a fully realized internal element. Indeed, you can watch this film, never once worrying about the people or the plot and simply sit back and enjoy a cinematic impressionist at work. Polanski piles on the unique angles (only Kubrick indulged in more lens and placement machinations) and faultless compositions, making the superficial facets of his film simply exquisite. He uses everything at his disposal to maintain a moody, atmospheric tone. Costumes and setting, blocking and in-frame tableaus, even a fantastically multi-faceted jazz score all combine to create a sense of dread and foreboding. It is easy to see why this is a much praised motion picture. It is probably as close to visual perfection as you will witness, the ultimate blending of the monochrome medium to light and shadow, image and presentation.


Yet one can’t help but be bothered by the vagueness, the sheer lack of specificity that runs throughout the story being told. Like the irritating bearer of information that keeps hinting over and over as to what the secret or the story really is (and eventually fails to divulge everything completely), Knife in the Water‘s all too well hidden agendas eventually grow tiresome. You want someone to rage. You want someone to lust. All this polite positioning is just not dramatic.


But perhaps Knife in the Water is not supposed to represent anything more than these hidden desires and sequestered sentiments of people under the rule of a totalitarian thumb. Setting is as important to Polanski as anything else, and Poland circa 1960 was not a wellspring of openness and experimentation. This trip on the lake is a chance to escape the complex prerequisites of a society under Soviet domination. It is these people’s brief chance to shed the images impressed upon them by the Marxist ideals. These are citizens without power, with only their place within the class configuration to preserve their identity. How they interact on the boat is perhaps how they would do so within any other social setting or Party meeting. This is not a time for in-depth personal revelation, nor is there a communal climate for such.


At most, it’s a chance to test the waters, so to speak, to barely open the door to the psyche and discover the undercurrents of discontent running through each of them. Or maybe this is all just an excuse for Polanski to create a love letter to his favorite pastime of that moment: sailing. Indeed, a boat is merely a knife in the water, cutting a swath along the glass-like stillness of the surface, revealing a small wake of what’s underneath before quickly closing back up. Just like the nick of a blade to the skin. Just like our trio of isolated souls. While far from perfect on the interpersonal level, Polanski’s first feature heralds an artist in full effect.


This is also evident from his work in short films. As part of this DVD package, Criterion collects eight of Polanski’s mini movies. They span the period of 1957-62 and cover all genres, from drama to absurdist comedy. Each movie looks fantastic with only minimal defects. The only real visual issues come with the final short, Mammals. It has a fuzzy, faded look that may have been intentional, or may be the result of age or production problems (after all, it must be difficult to film in the bleak whiteness of snow). Each one of these movies is a masterwork of form, style, and simple near-silent storytelling, even when the plots seem obtuse or illogical. Murder is a brief snippet of crime in controlled shots. Teeth Smile tells a voyeur’s tale from a wonderful, beautifully framed mise-en-scène.


Break Up the Dance is the first experiment in more long form narrative. Here, Polanski tries to challenge tone and show a happy set-up (a swanky, invite only party) followed by an anarchic ending (a gang of thugs literally break things up). Lamp is the notion of progress competing with old world ways. A new electrical system destroys a dollmaker’s shop, and the magic inside, when it replaces the reliable oil lamp therein. The aforementioned Mammals is really an allegory for the battle between man and his nature for evolutionary and social superiority. Basically boiled down to a snowbound tale of one rube forced to pull another along on a sleigh, it’s a game of one-upmanship to see who gets to play master and who gets to be subservient.


The three longest shorts, however, are also the best. Two Men and a Wardrobe tells the tender tale of a couple of jolly furniture movers who suddenly appear from out of the ocean, oversized cupboard in hand. As they move around a cityscape devolving into crime and brutality, the good-natured duo are put upon and ridiculed, refused service in restaurants, and beaten by thugs. The dichotomy between people who are different and the stubborn prejudice of the community strikes chords of instant recognition.


What is not so readily apparent is the quiet gentility in the story and the painful pathos of watching the innocent be oppressed. Equally stirring is The Fat and the Lean, a strange tale of ritualistic patterns that reveals how the ties than bind are more damaging than the ability to break free. As a sad servant tries his best to entertain and care for his obese, dictatorial master, he longs for freedom and a life in the big city, away from service and supplication. It is funny, sad, and stupid all in one big bravura cinematic performance.


But probably the best piece of moviemaking in the whole DVD package is When Angels Fall, the brutally devastating story of an old woman forced to live out her last days with haunting memories of her past as she monitors a men’s bathroom. Surrounded by bums and hustlers, urinals dripping with running water, we see a face devastated by time and fate thinking back and recalling: remembering her youth, remembering young love, remembering family, and always, remembering loss in wartime. Shifting from the black and white realities of the toilet to the faded colors of memory, it shows that Polanski, even as a graduating student from school, was a genius of visual arts.


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