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by Bill Gibron

26 Nov 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.

by Bill Gibron

19 Sep 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.

by Bill Gibron

7 Aug 2007


When it comes right down to it, 1971 was mired in chaos. The Beatles had disbanded, the Kennedys were either dead or hip deep in career cleansing scandal, and the civil rights movement had been usurped by a basic human need among the minority classes simply to stay alive. America took weaponry against itself, as armed youths killed their “educated” alter egos at Kent State while the “silent majority” propagandized a steadfast “love it or leave it” mentality for all to conform to. The anti-war revolution had long gone Madison Avenue and Hollywood, with rebels as well known as their targets of distrust and frustration. There was still a belief that power in the people via politics could cure the country of its present ills, even as more vital men were sent off to meet their end in the rice fields and jungles of Asia.

Years later, Tinseltown just loves to explore the extremes of both sides of the peace sign path. Artists like Oliver Stone have made entire careers out of milking the militant juices from both philosophies for all their cinematic gold. But they never seem to spend time in the middle, in the eye of this ideological storm, preferring to skirt around the outside. Only one work dared to describe the psychic shift circa 1971, to try and condense the wounded spirit of a befouled generation into words and stories. Many thought it an incoherent, self-indulgent mess. The fact that, 36 years later, it is championed as a work of rare insight and power speaks for the willingness for self-examination that existed in the early ‘70s.

So it’s not surprising that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reverberates as strongly as it does, even some three and a half decades down the hash pipe. In its stream of altered consciousness exploration of the US landscape it defines the turbulent moment when conservative society, backed by a paranoid President, stood its ground and decided to take back the nation from the creative and the crazy, one radical or hippie life at a time. It’s the action verb linking the Summer of Love to the My Lai massacre. Like the last remnants of an emotional oil spill washing up on the tired and poor shores of a nation under siege, it’s the socio-political hangover that resulted when the last of the Weathermen went home to crash on their laurels. It’s when drugs stopped being recreational and began requiring rehabilitation. But mostly it’s about loss. The loss of innocence and the replacing of optimism with instant gratification. The loss of idealism for the sake of conformity. And the loss of hope, the hope that, one day, those far too confrontational principles of peace, love, and understanding would somehow be accepted as valid.

One can spend a lifetime trying to decipher the visual and literary imagery used by author Hunter S. Thompson, the swipes at flower power and the resignation of a movement undermined by its own excesses, but, frankly, there is nothing unusual or secretive about his symbols. It is not by accident that the first person Duke and Gonzo meet on their road trip to Hell is one of the great unwashed, a member of the youth movement so lost in his own personal space that mere words undo him. For Thompson, this generation represents the new reluctant enemy. They are the targets of his growing cynicism, placing him in the uncomfortable position of having to side with authority, the one true bane of his tormented existence. Fear and Loathing is about spiritual shift as a continental divide, of a planet removed from its wild gesturing and personal exploration and repositioned back before the Age of Aquarius, to a time when men wore tight shirts and stiff collars and ladies piled their hair like pillows of protection from the harmful rays of rationality pouring off the educated and the elite. From its obvious ridicule of law enforcement to the gradual realization that the healing power of narcotics may, indeed, be a back alley placebo, Fear and Loathing is about the discovery of the bitter man behind the curtain, even as the Great Oz speaks of cabbages and kings.

In Terry Gilliam’s surprisingly faithful adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal work of gonzo journalism, we find the road map for the future, the ground rules for Watergate mixed into the no holds barred ‘I double dare you’ attitude of our new century. Tackling one of the holy trinity of unfilmable books, like William Burrough’s Naked Lunch (of which David Cronenberg’s 1991 film version only captures the merest indirect inkling of) and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (its state of paper and ink opiate almost impossible to capture), Gilliam opts for an unusual cinematic technique. He, in essence, fails to create a film. What he does instead is ply his camera like a time machine, placing the events of the novel in some manner of linear format and then shooting the surrealism out of what results. The main narrative thread is easy to comprehend - Raoul Duke, famed journalist, is sent by a magazine to cover the Mint 400, a popular motorcycle race that occurs every year in Las Vegas. He invites his best friend, civil rights attorney Dr. Gonzo, along for the adventure. What happens beyond this set-up has formed the basis of a hundred literary myths, and has sparked the imaginations of a million wannabe writers.

But for Gilliam, this is first and foremost a journey of the eye (including the third). Characterization is initially all visual: Duke’s cigarette holder, Gonzo’s slovenly gut, the suitcase full of drugs, the pair’s demon eyes behind dark shades and furrowed brows. Only as the movie progresses do we learn true inner details. We hear the voices, the choice of vocabulary, the vomiting of philosophy like the purging of bad mescaline. Gilliam’s filmmaking is at once completely without direction and at the same time more controlled than other projects he has dominated. He allows some scenes to meander wildly out of control, while others are focused to maximum emotional effect. So this is really not a film. It’s more like a fraud foisted upon a recreation. Call it a con artist junkie’s last vision of the Promised Land. Call it a docudream. But it’s hardly a big bucket of popcorn fodder.

Obviously, one of the biggest challenges faced by Gilliam with bringing Fear and Loathing to the screen is finding the right actors to populate Thompson’s larger than literary life personas. Like trying to cast Jesus or figuring out who would properly fill Ignatius J. Reilly’s sweaty sneakers, finding these uneasy riders, this angry Abbott and crazed Costello required a stroke of genius in combination with an equal onset of luck. Thankfully, the perfect cosmic casting occurred when Johnny Deep and “Oscar” winner Benicio Del Toro stepped in to essay the roles of Duke and Gonzo, respectively. Both were born to play the characters they literally inhabit, and yet both had to physically change themselves to take on the proper outer shell. Depp shaves his head for a perfect modern monk look while Del Toro piles on the pounds, De Niro style, to completely transform his lithe structure into the heft menace carried by Thompson friend Oscar Zeta Acosta.

Each actor uses his muse to infuse their depiction of drug use and abuse with wonderful, wired aplomb. Both turn broad, gross caricatures into real people and back again, creating and reshaping their personalities into that rarity in the pantheon of acting, the certifiable eccentric. Thanks to Depp, Thompson’s weird ways, the spastic mannerisms and his unbridled flash, become understandable manifestations of who he is. And in Del Toro, the famous Brown Buffalo finds a man capable of the passion, the rage, and the fire that caused this force of nature to burn so brightly that he eventually exploded, disappearing like a whisper off the ears of the planet. Both actors give amazing performances.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is also filled with details of delirious brilliance: The ether walk into Bazooka Circus, all silent comedy slapstick; Depp’s descent into Adrenalchrome, madness complete with babbling incoherence and Thompson’s trademark banshee wail; the opening rampage down the endless Western highways of folklore; the pop art pretense of old Vegas. But probably the best moment and one of the greatest scenes that Gilliam has put on screen for that matter, is the now infamous “wave” speech, the cornerstone message of Thompson’s messy manuscript. Set to the near lullaby strains of the Youngblood’s “Let’s Get Together” (with its subtle guitar signature like the distant cry of an ambulance) and consisting of Depp reacting to his own voice-over, this one piece of writing sums up the entire aftermath, the comet flameout that occurred once Bobby Kennedy died and the ‘60s were officially declared a no-win situation. From the innocent vibrations of Woodstock to the pool of blood at Altamonte, the “wave speech” is that official final word, the coroner’s inquest into that stillborn promise of peace and love. And like an actual wave, the scene hits and then retreats, dragging the melancholy back out to sea. It’s strange to have a story’s emotional climax so early in the tale—there is more than half of the movie still to go. But just like the decade itself, Fear and Loathing mocks convention and shoots its wad way too fast. We’ve had the epiphany. It’s time to pay the ferryman his evil penance.

There are other great sequences in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, times where the cinematic flash calms down and the wicked wit of the novel unravels front and center. Anyone wondering where the ridiculous war on drugs got its twisted dogma needs look no further than in the puffy faces and closed off necks of the participants at the anti-narcotic District Attorney’s convention. Part cautionary note, mostly caustic character assassination, Gilliam and Thompson get to make their points loud and clear: drugs may be bad, but just look at the kind of man who’s keeping ‘em that way. It’s a shame that this point has not fallen on more willing ears. Fear and Loathing has to be one of the most unsuccessful cult movies of all time. When it was first released, it was met with a universal yawn. Over the years it is constantly referred to as Gilliam’s one true bomb, a grand misstep for the once great director. Many have chalked its failure up to the lack of character one can “like” or “root” for. Others find its mixed messages about the ‘60s and its values old fashioned or blasphemy. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Thompson’s own words, most of the audience was looking “with the wrong kind of eyes.” Only those who had lived through it first hand responded to it right from the start. Others had become too jaded or brainwashed.

But the truth is that now is the true time of fear and loathing. After a decade of prosperity, of global openness and a new sense of community (even if it is online), we seen the nation, again, divided. On one side are the same good old forces at work. Now is the corrosion toward conformity, fostered by horrendous acts of homeland terrorism and a multi-colored rating system of said to exaggerate the sense of terror to new, immobilizing heights. We no longer worry about the domino effect. We are more concerned with the sealing properties of duct tape. On the other side are the easily deluded, the ones who believe that a hit single or a television spot circumvents money to actually purchase happiness. They live for and through the medium of popular culture, lining up to shame themselves for the sake of a sound bite. So the question becomes, where are the truly free? Where are the thinkers and the radicals and those questing for tranquility? Well, inside our newfound quasi-socialism, they are silent. Theirs is the opinion of the discontented, of the traitorous and ungrateful. Their beliefs aid and comfort the enemy and spit readily on our fighting men and women overseas. Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is more than an obituary to the summer of love. It’s the death knell to the power of individualism and thought and a warning for the sinister shape of things to come.

by Bill Gibron

2 May 2007


Sweetie is a strange experience, a movie made up almost exclusively out of hints and suggestions. Nothing is ever discussed outright in this amazingly nuanced narrative, and issues that appear to be boiling below the surface are simply allowed to simmer and soak into everything around them. Obviously, as portrayed by Australian auteur Jane Campion in her first feature film, this is a family hiding a mountain of damaging dysfunction behind their dry, sometimes even dopey, demeanor. Whether it’s just a simple case of one child’s uncontrolled id crashing into the rest of her family’s slighted and submerged egos, or something far more sinister and suspect, the result is a ticking human time bomb waiting to insert itself into situations and simply implode.

As a tale of people picking each other apart for the sake of their own sense of security, Sweetie represents one of the most amazing family dramas ever delivered to celluloid. But there is more to the movie than just a sizable sibling spat with parents unable to control their progeny. In the hands of Campion, fresh from success in the short-film arena, this is art animated, a purposefully arcane cinematic vision made meaningful and important by the way in which this skilled filmmaker positions her lens.

While many will see Sweetie as the catalyst, the crazy deluded sister whose extreme case of angry arrested adolescence leads the rest of her kin towards all kinds of dire decisions, it is actually Kay who plays the mechanism for change more times than not. Always willing to challenge her parents, but never able to find the words to express her emotions, she is all outbursts and whining, pure pain pouring out of her horribly wounded heart. While she is clearly unlike her sibling in outward appearance, inward ability or perplexed personality, she is equally adept at making the familial world revolve around her. Sweetie simply acts out, making her demands as apparent as possible. When they are met, she is only semi-satisfied. She pushes for more, and when she doesn’t get it, tends to revert right back to her spoiled square one.

Kay, on the other hand, is skilled at the silent, suffering approach to approval. She wants everyone to acknowledge her sister’s interpersonal deficiencies and wears her many tiny triumphs as mental medals to prove her priggish superiority. To argue that one or the other is the only causational component is foolish. Both are on paths of stagnant self-destruction and it will take an act outside their control to create a break that will either free them or forever lock the family in a cycle of denial.

Something is being avoided here, and all arrows point to Father, Sweetie, and some manner of unnatural attraction. That Campion doesn’t come right out and scream “child abuse” or “incest” is one of Sweetie‘s more intriguing - and irritating - elements. We don’t like our issues to be open-ended, without clear-cut indicators of side, morality, and meaning. When Kay spies her sister giving “Daddy” a bath, it is an unsettling scene. The sexual aspect is also amplified by both characters’ approach to physicality. Kay is completely cut off from her boyfriend Louis. Sweetie will sleep with anyone—including her sister’s limp lover. So it’s not hard to accept that sometime in the easily-dismissed distant past, Sweetie was a victim of some kind of unhealthy relative relationship.

But maybe that’s not true. Perhaps her overt carnality is just a recent development, a way of dealing with a life overloaded with disappointment. After all, Sweetie lives in a perpetual dream of fame and privilege, a fantasy fostered almost exclusively by her dad. So it could be that her present state of mind creates the perception of childhood trauma, while the truth is actually more complicated and less scandalous than we apparently want it to be.

There are also obvious hints of mental illness with both sisters. Kay has developed such a hatred for trees (naturally, Sweetie and Dad share many a private moment in the family tree house) that she actually attacks the poor defenseless plants with a kind of insular insanity. Her sister, on the other hand, is a “Goth girl, interrupted” mess. Fashions forged out of broken bits of cloth and cut-up dresses, eyes smeared with dark circles of black, Sweetie suggests the kind of kid who has spent decades trying to escape who she is inside. We do get a chance to see her as a youngster, and the pleasantly perky ginger we witness is a shock.

It’s as if Campion is purposefully playing with our perception of the character to keep any and all possibilities about her past in play. Indeed, Sweetie is a film that loves the notion of acuity, of how the seemingly normal can be nutty and an inviolable vice versa. Tossing in obtuse sequences where unusual imagery is intercut into the narrative, and a use of angles that often suggest something slightly askew existing just out of frame, Campion’s compositions make us aware that the images are just as important as the dialogue being delivered and the performers providing the necessary emotional truth.

The cast here is truly amazing, doing something that few films and actors even attempt. Campion has purposefully created individuals that walk the fine line between empathy and ennui, likeability and loathing, and constantly causes them to cross back and forth between the two extremes. At first, we feel this is Kay’s story, and Karen Colston does a brilliant job of getting us on her side. Of course, the minute we arrive at some manner of understanding, Kay contorts and confronts our feelings for her. Similarly, Sweetie is a cruel comic contradiction who would be pitiable if she weren’t such a sensational slag. Geneviève Lemon, required to do most of her acting with her eyes and remarkable bulk, finds the sad soul inside this spoiled sow, and manages to make us care even as Sweetie continually makes us cringe.

As a battle of will between two wounded women, Campion sets up a kind of call and response - or better yet, cause and effect - style of storytelling. The minute her mad bitch of a sibling starts going off the deep end, Kay cranks up the hurt homebody routine. The result is the film’s real theme—that within each family, love and hate become part of a tainted tug of war where nobody wins and everybody loses.

This is best highlighted in the film’s three main subplots. The girls’ parents separate, and sides are instantly drawn. Mom ventures out into the wilderness, ending up a cook for a group of Outback cowboys. Dad initially seeks Kay for help, but we soon learn that he really needs Sweetie to feel calm and complete. Bob, Sweetie’s pick-up “producer” sex partner, also represents the reality of the character’s sense of self. Looking to the obvious junkie for confirmation and affection, she literally drains him of life until he is left, flat on his back and covered in coffee, in a local diner.

Kay’s live-in lover Louis is a little trickier. An admirer of transcendental meditation and spirituality, he original hooked up with his current paramour after learning their love was fated by a fortuneteller. But his eye is constantly wandering, from a fellow TM devotee who flaunts her tantric sex manual, to Sweetie herself, who practically molests him on a trip to the beach. It is clear that both gals are starved for love, needing any manner of recognition, good, bad, or indifferent to fuel their failing sense of self.

It all rushes to a head in the final scene, a sequence that becomes a kind of metaphysical showdown between Sweetie, her parents, her past, and her sister. Kay is also clearly in confrontation mode, making everything that’s happening about her, her decisions, and her desire for change. On both sides of the battle are Dad (staunchly status quo) and Mom (ready to involve the authorities for the first time in decades). When a real outsider is tossed in—in this case, a rascally young neighbor boy named Clayton—it crosses everyone’s wires, leading to judgments that otherwise would not be made, and results that no one could easily have expected.

The ending of Sweetie is indeed odd. It seems to suggest that only one person was responsible for the familial unrest, when we know very clearly that this is not true. As a matter of fact, it even goes so far as to argue that much of the destruction foisted onto the clan could have been avoided had certain “institutional” steps been taken beforehand. Nothing seems really settled either. One character even envisions their life the way it used to be, back before things got out of hand, back when things seemed simple and pure.

By placing us in these contradictory realities, Campion creates a truly unreal atmosphere, a cinematic sense that guarantees Sweetie turns out to be a true motion-picture masterpiece. Riffing on references that she was hung up on at the time (including a closing moment lifted directly out of the David Lynch oeuvre) and purposefully framing her scenes to throw both the actors and audience off guard, the look of this movie is simply amazing. Initially, no one is seen straight on. We view shoes, the side of someone’s face, the top of a person’s head. Then, slowly, people start to creep in towards the middle of the compositions. By the time we get to the end, when anarchy rules the lives of everyone involved, Campion keeps the action centered.

There are also times when blocking provides the necessary undercurrent to an otherwise ordinary scene. While Dad is crying, Mom, Kay and Louis step out onto a vast Australian highway, and the overwhelming vista, matched against Campion’s purposeful placement of her players (Mom up front, Kay off to one side, Louis far off in the background) suggests everything we need to know about whose making the decisions here.

It’s a stunning conceit, one that works much better than a viewer initially imagines. Instead of making everything cold and distant, it allows elements from outside the sequences, as well as information and emotions we’ve experienced previously, to float in and permeate the action. When Sweetie is wrestling with Clayton, we sense something unsettling. As the visual remains off in the distance, we suddenly recall the moment where Sweetie and her father infer some inappropriate contact and the aura of such abuse makes us instantly fear for what will happen next. Similarly, when Louis learns the truth about the tree he planted at the start of the couple’s relationship, the lack of any outward arguing allows us to fill in the blanks from the preceding discussions the pair have had.

In a sense, Sweetie is made up of nothing but the vaguest of recollections, without any real reason or outright rationale for all the tension and turmoil on hand. Sure, the main character is a harried handful, the kind of girl child that will end up dead, drugged up, or deposited in a home for the rest of her restless life. But that doesn’t mean that Sweetie deserves such a fate. She simply wants to share her purpose and pain with everyone. And they too have been more than happy to channel their inner emptiness into her…just like all families seem to do.

by Bill Gibron

20 Mar 2007


Hero worship is an understandable human trait. After all, life provides us with so many burdens that to revere another who seems to have all the answers, or at least provides hope that there are indeed resolutions out there, gives us the necessary will to continue on with the fight. This is especially true in children. Lacking the experiences that mold and manage maturity, they are almost always lost in a fog of their own naiveté. Like the simpleton satellites they are at first, they tend to gravitate towards those who they feel can protect and guide them. Usually, said individual is a person with a demeanor of authority and reserve. They appear calm and prepared, ready to address any situation that the child feels could literally swallow them whole. As reliance turns into reverence, the preparation begins for the inevitable fall. Sometimes, the tumble is gradual, learned internally over time and interaction. In other circumstances, the plummet is predicated on a single incident or idea—a misunderstanding, a glimpsed lack of control, or some unexplainable deed that defies godliness. It’s in these moments where life delivers its most devastating lessons. It demands one apply some personal perspective, and it suggests that the carefree days of youth are about to end.

Though there is a lovers’ triangle at the center of the storyline, the relationship most important in Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol appears initially to be between overworked butler Baines and dotty diplomat’s son Phile. It is hero worship meshed with just a small amount of parental guidance and guardianship. Baines, represented by British legend Ralph Richardson, and Phile, as found in newcomer Bobby Henrey, create a partnership important to understanding the entire unsettled dynamic of this superb suspense-laden thriller. Told almost exclusively from the vantage point of the child and given to moments of haunting beauty, the movie’s narrow focus and streamlined story make Idol an indelible entertainment. We enjoy learning the ins and outs of the French Embassy—the snotty cleaning crew, the haughty assistants to the Ambassador. The set designs are equally remarkable turning a typical multi-story mansion in the swankiest part of London into a labyrinthine maze of mysteries. From the moment we meet Phile, his head thrust between the slats of one of the home’s many elaborate stairwells, we understand immediately that this will be a film about perspective. What we see, what we know, and, more importantly, what we don’t witness and can’t understand will be the cornerstones of everything Reed the director is striving for. And it all is premised on the relationship between servant and master’s son.

Reed goes for a realistic approach in dealing with Phile. Many films cast their narrative around children, but then go on to make the mistake of having the kids be too intelligent or too in tune with the emotions surrounding a situation. Because his parents are so distant, because he has lived in a world surrounded by keepers and intermediaries, Phile has become lost and on his own. In his world, Phile finds solace in freedom, the connection to animals (including a pet snake MacGregor), and the closeness and comfort he senses in Baines. He doesn’t understand that this older man is suffering inside. He only realizes that his best pal’s wife, an insufferable shrew walking close along the borders of madness, hates almost everything he, Phile, stands for. To her, he’s a rotten spoiled brat who has been raised to be disrespectful, demanding, and devil-may-care. Some may argue that the most important adversarial relationship is the predicament between Mr. and Mrs. Baines, or better yet, Mrs. Baines and her husband’s lover Julie. In reality, it’s how the horrible harpy interacts with Phile that marks Idol‘s most important narrative pairing. He is the catalyst for all the confusion in the household, and she is the specter who constantly reminds Phile that adult things are happening throughout his innocent juvenile realm.

It’s the notion of innocent lost, of growing up and understanding the pressures of age that’s the central theme of The Fallen Idol. Even the title suggests the shrugging off of heroes, and the eventual loss of imaginary playmates. Certainly there is an undercurrent involving lies, truth, and cheating, but it too sets inside a grander statement about the end of childhood. There are many moments throughout Idol where Reed lets Phile fall, over and over again. He does so when he sees Julie and Baines in the teashop. It happens again when MacGregor goes “missing.” Another moment has Mrs. Baines sweet-talking the lad into divulging information, while still another has her swaying over his bed, wild-eyed with jealous rage, hoping to get answers to her suspicious questions. As a result, it’s the backwards connection between Phile and Mrs. Baines that makes up the mantle of this masterful movie. What happens between them, from a dinner-table battle of wills to a telling moment of physical abuse that impacts the remaining narrative and sets the eventual tragic gears in motion. It’s not any threat to him that causes Baines to act; it’s the long simmering showdown between his sinister spouse and the household’s only child that forces his more or less emasculated hand.

Ralph Richardson is outstanding here, especially when you consider the complicated role he is required to essay. Baines must be simultaneously alert, genial, alive, dead, disheartened, sad, angry, ineffectual, smitten, lost, and mildly menacing. He has to juggle the authority of the entire household, the constant nagging of his worthless wife, an unrequited love with a gal he cannot possess, and a boy who believes literally everything that comes from his mouth. There’s a wonderful moment when Richardson and Henrey are discussing a murder that Baines supposedly committed while in Africa. As the boy presses for details, living vicariously through his adult friend’s adventure tale, Richardson is resigned and preoccupied, unable to keep the fictional facts straight. Every misstep is met with a question, and Baines manages to repair any damage to his unreal reputation in Phile’s eyes. It illustrates their relationship perfectly—needy, circumstantially abandoned child and faux father figure who can’t quite live up to the status he’s created for himself. It’s a perfect tragic teaming—a boy constantly climbing and a man laying the flimsy foundation from which he will eventually descend. It’s how those events play out that becomes Idol‘s interesting dynamic, and Reed and Greene don’t disappoint.

Reed was definitely a director with an eye for spaces. He allowed his lens to languish over his elaborate sets and locations in order to give the viewer a proper sense of the area before letting his actors exist within it. When Mr. and Mrs. Baines have their stairway confrontation, we’ve been given so many views of the area that we sense how massive—and how dangerous—it really could be. Similarly, when Phile makes his late-night escape to avoid the confrontation between the adults, we’ve already traveled down the fearsome fire escape before. During the day, it looked like an exit to excitement. But in the darkness of a dead English night, it takes on a solid, sinister import. It’s a technique that Reed will employ throughout the rest of Phile’s journey. Shown only as a small shadow against the backdrop of deserted London streets, child actor Henrey is turned into an icon of youth afraid and unsure. When he ends up in a local police station, his tiny stature becomes a perfect point of reference. He gets lost in an oversized coat (and later, a doctor’s blanket) and seeks refuge in the bosom of a blousy prostitute. All the while, we see Phile vanishing into the reality of the world outside the estate, being absorbed by the truth that he never had to deal with—until now.

In the end, what we get is a startling suspense thriller with moments of great joy and harrowing sorrow. We get to witness a world completely foreign and obscure, yet still filled with the kind of kitchen sink intrigue we expect from much lower-class considerations. Reed complicates matters by making all his characters flawed, from Baines’s interpersonal ineptitude and loose temper to Julie’s desire to defend her man at any and all costs. Even Mrs. Baines is a battleaxe with a soul, though it seems vanquished by an internal pain that forces her to brutalize and blame. All of this gets processed through Phile’s unprepared eyes, and the results are disturbing and direct. Locked in his landscape of ascending/descending stairwells, magnificent balcony vistas of London’s old-world wisdom, dark foreboding hallways, and streets loaded with shadows too deep for any child to navigate, he looks up to Baines as his ballast. With a world full of individuals dismissive of such a pesky, precocious brat, Baines represents everything missing in his life—father, strength, honesty, and goodness. All of that is shattered one night when deception drives people unprepared for its consequences to acts both disturbing and defendable. Through the hero-worshiping eyes of a boy, it’s all an unwelcome wake-up call he is ill prepared to participate in. But he must. Now that his Idol has fallen, he has nothing left but himself.

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