Wednesday, March 30, 2005

#22: Summertime

Summertime, 1955, directed by David Lean, screenplay by H. E. Bates and David Lean, based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents.

At a time when anything European is held up for scorn by the right wing, it's salutory to remember the place Europe once held in the American imagination. Summertime is the zenith of romanticized views of Europe. Or, I should say, a very 1950s way of romanticizing Europeans. It's not the "so cultured! so bored with life! so existential!" romantic European who dominated the 60's, but the 50's version: cultured, but not yet bored, and most of all, sensual.

Katherine Hepburn plays a retired secretary from Akron, Ohio, touring Europe for the first time; Summertime is about an affair she has with a married Italian (Renato de Rossi, played by Rossano Brazzi) while staying in Venice. I can't imagine what this was like as a play, because if you took away the lush travelogue shots of Venice, you'd be left with maybe 30 minutes of film. Those 30 minutes have their moments, but the central love story between Hepburn and Brazzi didn't really interest me. This is one of those movies where the woman says "Renato! Renato!" and it's a big plot point, which is fine for what it is, but not my kind of film.

Even if the main story left me flat, there are some great touches; Jane Rose and MacDonald Parke play an older couple on a mile-a-minute tour of Europe. Their travel agent has planned everything out for them, including an hour of "I. A." (Independent Activity) each day. They're amusingly gauche; MacDonald Parke turns down a drink, saying, within earshot of his Italian hostess, "I'd like to, but this wop food has ruined my digestion." Later, he marvels at the Academy of Venice: "Pictures! Thousands and thousands of pictures. All of them done by hand!" The ugly American is a staple of this sort of film, of course, but these two are a cut above, not least because they're genuinely charming and not unsympathetic. This sort of character is usually only an object of scorn, but Summertime gives them at least a little breathing room.

The movie also succeeded in making me miss Italy; Venice has never looked better. And Lean doesn't have any qualms about shooting the whole thing like it was being made for the tourist board; he has a lot of shots of Venetian landmarks that have nothing to do with the story. Is a character walking into the Piazza San Marco? That's enough to motivate two minutes of basically static shots of architectural details of the palazzo ducale. I'll admit it; when I was there I shot a whole roll of film of the same building, and it fits the story to give in to that impulse and shoot it like a tourist (in fact, Katherine Hepburn carries an 8mm movie camera with her throughout the first half of the film). Although I enjoyed seeing the city again, I prefer a more economical style of directing; with movies like this, people talk about the setting like it's a character. It's not.

This is also the first movie I've seen that unironically cuts from two characters embracing to fireworks going off in the background. No kidding; I always thought that was more of a theoretical cliché than something that ever really happened. And yes, Brazzi runs after Hepburn's train as it leaves the station. He doesn't catch it, though. And Hepburn leaves him, goes back to the states. So in that sense, Summertime is not as hackneyed as it could have been. And Hepburn's performance, especially towards the beginning, is very good; they get exactly right what it feels like to be alone in a city you don't know. Venice was that way for me.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

#17: Salò

Salò o le 120 Giornate di Sodoma, 1975, written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, based on 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade.

Critics often describe movies as visceral. If they haven't seen Salò, I respectfully submit that they don't know what the fuck they're talking about. This film literally made me vomit. (And yes, I'm using "literally" correctly there). I don't think that makes it a good film, but "visceral," in the sense of "affecting the internal organs?" Yeah, Pasolini's got that.

Salò is a small town in Brescia that was the seat of government for the Italian Social Republic, the German puppet state that Mussolini established after the Nazis "liberated" him. Pasolini's movie is a retelling of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, set in Salò during the waning days of World War II. It's kind of a genius transposition: the childish nihilism of de Sade is a good fit for the preening, self-annihilating cult of death that was Fascism. So I give Pasolini credit for that. But that isn't enough to defend this atrocity of a film.

The basic story: four Fascist officials, knowing that the Republic of Salò will soon fall to the Allies, and knowing that they will deserve anything their conquerors care to do to them, decide to really earn their fates. You could say with a straight face that these characters are Rumsfield's archetypical dead enders. They kidnap nine young men and nine young women and retire to a country villa. Once there, they proceed to torment, rape, torture, and kill their prisoners.

I don't really want to go into too much detail as to what is done to these eighteen men and women, except to say that it gets worse as the movie goes on. There are four sections to the film: Antechamber of Hell, Circle of Obsessions, Circle of Shit, and Circle of Blood. In that order. The Circle of Shit, which features a giant banquet of human excrement, is what made me lose my dinner. My body completely rejected what I was seeing. And the Circle of Blood was even worse.

I think Salò is interesting movie to think about in the abstract, but watching it is poisonous. For me, it raises the question of at what point filming atrocities is itself reprehensible. Pasolini clearly didn't intend for Salò to be pleasurable to watch. And I wouldn't say art has to have a purpose, or be enjoyable, to be good. But in this movie, human beings are reduced to objects; they suffer, cry, beg for their lives, betray their companions, and die. There's no interest in them except as bodies; even in the credits, they are listed as "Victims (Men)" and "Victims (Women)." It's impossible to watch this kind of degradation and not be degraded by it yourself; and indeed, that seems to be Pasolini's goal. The end of the film allows us to watch the torture and murder of the victims from a safe distance, through the eyes of the Fascist officials; the viewer is explicitly implicated. A certain amount of viewer implication is a good thing; see Psycho, or Badlands. But this is something else entirely—I don't feel that I have anything in common with the depraved killers in Salò, now or ever.

Pasolini put together this film at a low point in his life (and shortly before he was strangled to death by a male prostitute). After making several successful movies, Pasolini, a dedicated Marxist, decided that by producing entertainment, he was helping keep the masses content and stupid. Salò was conceived as a kind of Brechtian fuck-you gesture from Pasolini to his audience; his stated intention was to produce an "indigestible" movie. Mission accomplished.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

#9: Hard Boiled

Hard Boiled, 1992, directed by John Woo, screenplay by Barry Wong, story by John Woo.

Hard Boiled is about the way violence lurks just beneath the surface of our day-to-day life. The movie is set in Hong Kong, where guns are illegal. It opens with Chow Yun-Fat breaking up a gun deal in a teahouse. The guns in question are hidden in the bottom drawers of birdcages, which, this being a John Woo movie, means there are some slow-motion shots of birds trying to take off during the ensuing shootout. From that point on, we are shown again and again that the more innocent something seems, the more likely it is to be dangerous.

Some of the places guns are concealed in Hard Boiled:

  • Birdcages
  • The second volume of a complete set of Shakespeare in a public library
  • Welded inside cars
  • In a secret room off the morgue of a city hospital

The hospital is a particularly great touch. Woo had a standoff in a hospital in The Killer, but in Hard Boiled, the hospital is the climax of the movie, the site of a thirty minute gun battle. It's really genius to have the gun runners' cache be in the basement of a hospital; if I'm ever running guns (again) I will keep that in mind. But to characterize Hard Boiled as solely a portrait of a world where violence and betrayal permeate every aspect of life is to do it a disservice. It's also about stuff blowing up real good.

So how good does stuff blow up? Real good. Take the warehouse fight sequence halfway through the movie, for one example. A group of eight or nine killers on motorcycles tear into the place, shooting it up from moving bikes. The baddest of the badasses, a guy called Mad Dog, played by Philip Kwok, rides in on his bike at full speed, shooting at someone in front of him, then puts the bike into a skid, still shooting at the guy, steps off the moving, skidding bike, and in one motion stands up and shoots two more guys. There's a real stuntman doing this, it's not an effects shot. The movie's worth seeing for that shot alone.

The Killer had a simple geometric plot. Hard Boiled isn't so easily diagrammed. I suspect this is because Barry Wong, the screenwriter, died halfway through the shoot, before finishing the script, and no one knew where they wanted to go with it. Also, the opening sequence was shot when they had a completely different script, one in which Tony Leung's character was a psychotic who was poisoning babies' milk. No kidding. At some point Leung decided that wouldn't be the best career move for him, so his character was changed into an undercover cop, and the entire movie was rewritten. It's kind of amazing to me the plot makes any sense at all.

And it does make sense, more or less. It's at its best when showing how Leung is forced to betray more and more people to keep his cover. It's at its worst when focusing on the love story between Chow Yun-Fat and Teresa Mo, both cops.

Woo's directing is a little out of control in this movie; it's great for the action sequences. It's interesting seeing this right after The 400 Blows, because Woo clearly learned a lot from Truffaut. Perhaps a little too much; he has maybe ten 400 Blows-style freeze frames. Not all of them make sense dramatically, and the ones that do, the impact is lessened by how often the technique is used. Still, with a Woo movie, whatever else you say about it, you come back to staring slack-jawed at the action sequences. Which I encourage you all to do.


  • The DVD commentary track features Woo, Terence Chang, Dave Kehr (a critic), and... Roger Avery! Avery's commentary has a valuable lesson in it for anyone asked to record a commentary track: don't talk about a project that hasn't happened yet. Avery mentions "Hatchet Man," which he was writing at the time for John Woo to direct. The movie never happened; it was put into turnaround in 1995. (At New Line, actually; I asked around but there's no library of stuff that didn't get made, so the script isn't available). On the track, though, Avery talks about it like it's going to come out in a month or so from whenever you're listening to the commentary.

  • Also, it's not a good idea to talk about Joseph Campbell on commentary tracks. It just isn't.

  • At the end of the teahouse shootout that opens the movie, Chow Yun-Fat does a slide through a bag of flour, which coats his clothes, hair, and face. He then shoots a man in the head at point-blank range; the blood spatters on the flour, for a nice effect. Whoever designed the DVD menus called that chapter "Flour Power." Ouch.

  • John Woo's answering machine plays the music from Lawrence of Arabia.

  • Woo is very good at using his settings to suit whatever emotional beat he's trying to hit. He puts people in cramped quarters when they have to deal with each other, has Tony Leung betray his boss in a gigantic warehouse; this isn't any great observation, but it's something I noticed and I think I could do more often in my own writing.

  • There's a handheld camera shot in the hospital sequence that looks exactly like a first-person shooter; the same kind of tracking through the hospital. It's also a special effects masterpiece--it's about two-and-a-half minutes of action, with squbs, explosives, and elaborate choreography, and there aren't any cuts, it's just one shot. On the commentary, Woo says he decided to try to do that shot because he and his crew were getting bored.

  • The DVD also has trailers for all of John Woo's Hong Kong movies. They're worth watching; he did a Cantonese Opera movie at one point, and a lot of Kung Fu films. Including Countdown in Kung Fu, a very early (1976) Jackie Chan movie.

  • Dave Kehr's commentary is interesting; he talks about The Killer showing at midnight at Sundance and what that was like, and for the most part he's right on when talking about Woo's movies, at least the ones I've seen. The movie Dave Kehr is crazy about, though, I haven't seen. That's Bullet in the Head, which is a Vietnam movie. It looks good from the trailer; I'm going to check it out.
With this movie, I've now finished numbers 1–10 of the Criterion Collection. Next up will probably be Salò.