Monthly Archives: October 2010

Carlos – An Incredibly Late, But Still New Review

I have neglected writing about the current movies I have seen, the good (The Social Network – very good actually), the mediocre (The Town, Machete) and the terrible (Hereafter, Paranormal Activity 2, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps).  I get caught up with my countdowns that current releases are pushed to the backburner.  After seeing Carlos last weekend, I decided my critical lethargy had to end, not because the movie is an instant masterpiece (I’m still up in the air on that), but because the movie needs to be seen, especially here in the U.S. where hysteria about terrorism often clouds our understanding of it.  After September 11 terrorists have become the immediate other, like other boogey men from our past: Communists, anarchists, Black Panthers, homosexuals, etc, inspiring more fear than their threat warrants and squelching any thoughtful consideration of it.  The only comparable modern groups that send the same chills down America’s collective back are illegal immigrants and pedophiles (the ultimately terrifying group would be a violent arm of NAMBLA composed of illegal Mexican immigrants).  I would add Muslims to this list but, let’s be honest, in the modern lexicon shamefully driven by Fox News, Muslims have become synonymous with terrorists.

In Carlos director Olivier Assayas does something modern day politicians can’t or won’t do: he historicizes terrorism as a political tactic without demonizing (or celebrating) terrorists, an essential step on the path to understanding anything.  He also created a sleek, stylish film that is eminently watchable, oddly enthralling for most of its five and a half hour run time as it frenetically jumps to locations around Europe and the Middle East with a wonderfully nostalgic musical track.  The movie falls short though in delivering any real insight into the personality or motivations of its subject Ilich Ramírez Sánchez a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, the notorious but almost rock star-like terrorist of the 1970s and 1980s.  We are treated to some stomach-churning episodes of terrorist activity, but we have little idea what motivates them beyond vague calls for the liberation of Palestine or timid denunciations of consumer capitalism.  I use words like “vague” and “timid” to describe their motivations.  The terrorist actions themselves are bold, but the motivations behind them are confused.

Possibly my confusion has less to do with any shortcomings of Assayas’ film and more to do with the enigmatic, almost mythical, Carlos whose political philosophy apparently had little to do with his leadership in terrorist organizations of the 1970s and 1980s.  Sure, he steadfastly called for the demolition of capitalism, but never articulated how bombing a restaurant in Paris or taking hostages in Vienna furthered that goal.  Instead we see the self-perpetuation of terrorism, where violence becomes the goal and ideology takes a back seat, if it ever had a seat at all.  Carlos and his people love the fight; the cause is secondary, something I have always suspected about modern day al-Qaeda terrorists.

Carlos’ ideological and philosophical vagueness is, ironically, rooted in an almost religious Marxist certainty.  But, like modern devotees of the exalted Free Market a la Milton Freidman and Ayn Rand, Carlos requires no evidence that Soviet-style Communism is the answer to the world’s inequalities.  It’s a given.  Anyone with half of a brain can see it to be true.  The only question for Carlos is how to dismantle the capitalistic exploitation of the world.  Fed up with Leftist intellectual masturbation of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Carlos joins the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLPF), ready to fight for the high ideals he and his friends have done little more than talk about in smoky cafes and demonstrate for in pointless marches.  When nothing changes and frustration mounts, taking up arms isn’t a large leap.  But who does he point those arms at?  Carlos’ rage is unfocused and there are plenty of unscrupulous people ready to use and channel it for their own ends.

Assayas shows us how easy it was for governments to manipulate Carlos.  He gives us several scenes where he unintentionally contradicts himself.  He claims to be against imperialistic exploitation of weaker nations, but thinks nothing of working to further the imperialistic ambitions of the Soviet Union.  He denounces the bourgeoisie to one of his girlfriends while being served a gourmet dinner in what can only be described as a bourgeois restaurant.  He also expects respect from his enemies, as officers of opposing sides would in a war, though he demeans and dehumanizes them.  One of my favorite contradictions came late in one of Carlos’ most famous exploits, the storming of an OPEC meeting in Vienna where he and his comrades took member nations’ representatives hostage.  When the operation begins to fall apart, the authorities offer him a compromise.  Though taking the offer would cause his mission to fail, he wants to take it so he and his comrades can avoid jail or death, free to fight another day.  He tells one hostage that he will settle the matter democratically with his comrades.  Unexpectedly they all oppose the deal, sending Carlos into fits of rage.  He angrily tosses out any pretentions of democracy and unilaterally decides to take the deal.  These are the contradictions of a confused man whose only certainty in life is violence.

There are fleeting moments of dialogue about terrorism as a political tool but they tend to be cut short, one of the biggest weaknesses of the picture.  When a faction of Japanese radicals takes the French ambassador and his staff hostage in The Hague, their leader tries to justify their actions by appealing to the ambassador’s own background as a resistance fighter against the Nazis.  The ambassador glares at his hostage-takers and dismisses this false equivalency.  All of your tactics, he says, are the exact things we in the resistance fought against.  This was a rare moment of insight, but Assayas ends the moment abruptly.  I wish he had taken a moment to develop that thought and nurture the distinction between freedom fighting and terrorism (thereby annihilating the silly thought-to-be truism, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”).  But there is just so much for Assayas to cover that he sometimes sacrifices insight so the episodic plot can chug along.

Edgar Ramirez, who brings Carlos to life, is dazzlingly good in the part, so we can forgive much.  He captures Carlos’ charisma and volatility.  We understand why so many followed him, but are repelled by the idea of inviting him into our homes.  We also see that he may not have been as coldhearted as his reputation suggests.  He visibly balks when forced to kill someone face to face, without the physical distance and anonymity of a bombing.  Ramirez skillfully folds all of Carlos’ insecurities, bravado, sexuality, intelligence, and charisma into one believably contradictory personality.  He struts through his scenes with a presence made possible only by his confidence.  Ramirez does a great job of embodying everything about Carlos – and, by extension terrorism – that makes it so destructive, not just to its immediate victims, but to the very cause for which terrorists claim to support.  How many people have been converted to the Palestinian cause because of terrorism perpetuated on their behalf?  Throughout the movie we see acts of violence working against their stated goals, however noble they may or may not be.

Terrorism is a complex issue that deserves serious consideration.  Though Assayas’ film isn’t the final word on the subject, it is an important piece of the cinematic conversation, joining other recent thoughtful pieces such as Munich and The Baader-Meinhoff ComplexCarlos demonstrates how global powers often channel the rage of their most militant supporters to further their own diplomatic ambitions.  Terrorists such as Carlos often remain blind to the more pragmatic reasons governments such as Syria and East Germany supported him, seeing himself as an indispensible soldier in the fight against global capitalism.  However, times changed, pushing state sponsored terrorists like him to the margins, increasingly becoming an embarrassment to those who previously supported him.  Carlos never understands why he is pushed aside because he never understood why he was useful.  He was simply another weapon in the Cold War arsenal of the Soviets (though he never worked directly for them).  He was only valuable because he was able to strike where official Communist states and their allies couldn’t.  That he never understood this, that he thought he was valuable beyond his usefulness for Cold War games, not an international struggle for workers’ rights, doomed him to a future of obscurity, irrelevance, and imprisonment.  He is currently serving a life sentence for his role in the shooting deaths of two police officers in Paris. Too bad the other side of the coin, Osama bin Laden, couldn’t have met a similar fate.  (Don’t be lulled onto the moral high ground by thinking the U.S. had clean hands.  We cheerfully used bin Laden against the Soviets.  And ask anyone in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Guatemala, Chile, to name a few, about the reality of U.S. sponsored terrorism during the Cold War.)

Assayas handles the material of Carlos’ life well, justifying the extended run time, without which we would not have gotten a clear handle on the man, his world, and the people who populated it.  He walks a fine line between vilifying and celebrating the man.  Assayas and Edgar Ramirez were at the screening I attended and the director rightly dismissed the idea that he made a historically accurate account of the man’s life.  He made the movie as accurate as possible, but he set out to deconstruct the myth of the “Jackal,” a term that Assayas scrupulously avoids using in the movie since, as Assayas told us, the press anointed him with that nickname, not Carlos himself.  Assayas set out to make a movie about a man who committed acts of terrorism, rather than regurgitate the myths – both positive and negative – that have clouded our understanding of the man and, more importantly, our understanding of what terrorism is, why it is used, what it means, and how we can prevent it in the future.

The movie only lags in the last part when Carlos is forced into exile after Communism falls, first in Syria then Sudan, transforming into an overweight, satisfied middle class businessman, someone an earlier version of himself would have sneered at.  But the first two exuberant parts would be meaningless – the celebration of the man I feared it was going to be – if it weren’t for the lackluster, seemingly unfocused third part.  Dramatically and cinematically it may stumble, but it is crucial for the complete story and probably captures the uncertainty of the times better than I appreciated while watching it.

The movie has been making the rounds at film festivals and art houses in both the long and a shorter two and a half hour version.  I haven’t seen the short version so I don’t know if it is successful on its own, but I suspect you want to see the long version.  It also aired on the Sundance Channel and I believe you can view it on either Sundance or IFC On-Demand.  Well worth seeing.

GRADE: A-

 

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The Most Overrated, Tiresome Movie of 1936 – The Great Ziegfeld

It may not be fair to call this the most overrated movie of 1936.  Maybe at the time it was overrated – it did win the Oscar for best picture and Luise Ranier snagged her first of two consecutive Best Actress statuettes – but I don’t think there are many who continue to admire it today.  I have to think that the ill-advised nod from the Academy may still steer unsuspecting classic movie lovers to The Great Ziegfeld, but be forewarned.  It is an overblown mess, devoid of emotion, historical context, or biographical information.  The only things going for it are a couple of pretty good musical numbers and a few sincere performances.

Though intended as a biopic of legendary Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell), we don’t learn anything about the man we couldn’t have learned from a blurb.  It was a nostalgic trip for older viewers in 1936 who remembered the acts and shows Ziegfeld popularized from the 1890s to the 1920s, especially the Ziegfeld Follies.  But the movie isn’t any more ambitious than nostalgia, serving up one scene after another depicting how he discovered (or stole) his greatest hits like Anna Held (Rainer) and Fanny Brice (jollily played by herself).

There was a slew of much better movies that were better contenders for best picture.  Any one from my list would do, but also others like Dodsworth and Show Boat (which Ziegfeld coincidentally produced on Broadway).  This wasn’t the first time the Academy flubbed it, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.  They have rarely gotten it right, but they usually pick a movie that is at least good by some standard.  This was one of their worst best picture choices and it’s enough to make me wonder how the Oscars became so prestigious.  

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Best Actress of 1936 – Jean Arthur (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)

Other Notable Performances:

Jean Harlow (Libeled Lady)

Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey)

Isuzu Yamada (Osaka Elegy)

Irene Dunne (Theodora Goes Wild)

Ruth Chatterton (Dodsworth)

Chouko Iida (The Only Son)

Isuzu Yamada (Sisters of the Gion)

Sylvia Sidney (Sabotage)

Bette Davis (The Petrified Forest)

Miriam Hopkins (These Three)

Ginger Rogers (Swing Time)

Danielle Darrieux (Mayerling)

 

This was a tough one for me.  It boiled down to a three-way tie between Jean Arthur, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, who gave three of the best performances of their careers.  I loved Jean Harlow’s determined, but ignored fiancée of Spencer Tracey in Libeled Lady – serving as an energetic counterpoint to Myrna Loy’s reserved performance.  On the other hand, Carole Lombard’s Irene Bullock is a pure treat.  She’s zany and unpredictable, without sacrificing credibility.  We know Irene isn’t an actual person, but Lombard makes us believe she could exist – not a small fear for such a wacky character.

I finally settled on the less flashy performance of Jean Arthur in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  There’s more of an arc for Arthur than Harlow or Lombard, and her journey is genuinely earned.  She plays Babe Bennett, a cynical reporter, ready to do whatever it takes to get the story.  She is particularly eager when her editor promises her an extended paid vacation to get the dirt on New York’s newest millionaire.  Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) has inherited a massive fortune from an unknown distant relative.  The apparent country bumpkin has little understanding of the unwritten rules of fine society, nor does he much care about them.  He freely ignores these phony rules.  Taken out of context reports of his anti-social antics make him look alternately arrogant, crazy and/or stupid.  To get a firsthand account of Deeds’ unpredictable behavior, Babe schemes her way into his life, preying on his neighborliness, decency, and naivety.  She is dismissive of the young man’s plight, apathetic about the damage she is doing.  Like so many movies of the 1930s we see reporters doing anything and everything to get the story.  (I’ve never figured out if they are supposed to be heroes or villains, or some gray area between the two.  I mostly find them obnoxious.)

It wouldn’t be a Capra picture if she didn’t fall for him, but how does she tell him she is really the reporter that has been filing all the distorted, embarrassing stories about him?  Her struggle is sincere, without becoming maudlin.  As she cares more for the man, the more she directs her substantial energy to try and save his fortune from greedy, double-dealing attorneys, and him from the madhouse.  (After all, how else does a society that bases our worth on our bank statements deal with a man who resolves to give away his fortune?)

It’s a great performance by an actress who is sadly not remembered as well as she should be.  She could play hard-boiled, zany, maternal, sincere, and about everything in between.  Her schoolgirl looks and high-pitched voice could have doomed her to supporting comedic roles, but her deep intelligence came shone through on the screen, making it almost inevitable that she would end up playing leading parts like Babe Bennett in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

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Best Actor of 1936 – Walter Huston (Dodsworth)

Other Notable Performances:

Charles Chaplin (Modern Times)

William Powell (My Man Godfrey)

Charles Laughton (Rembrandt)

Spencer Tracey (Fury)

Rex Ingram (The Green Pastures)

Jean Gabin (The Lower Depths)

Paul Muni (The Story of Louis Pasteur)

Warner Baxter (The Prisoner of Shark Island)

Ken Uehara (Mr. Thank You)

Charles Boyer (Mayerling)

Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)

Sacha Guitry (The Story of a Cheat)

Walter Huston (Dodsworth):

Sam Dodsworth is finally retiring.  After decades of nearly continuous work the automobile manufacturer (loosely based on Henry Ford from Sinclair Lewis’s novel) is giving into his wife Fran’s demands to retire.  There hasn’t really been a reason for Dodsworth to work for some time; his plant has been remarkably successful, garnering the man a massive fortune.  But Americans aren’t supposed to be idle – work makes us what we are.  When we get older though, retirement is expected.  The Dodsworths celebrate Sam’s retirement with a whirlwind tour of Europe.  However, it is on this trip that their marriage begins to crumble.  They spent so many years apart that they never had a chance to examine their relationship to see how far apart they had grown while Sam was busy at the office and Fran hosted tea parties at home.  We in the audience immediately understand that they want different things out of the trip, an early indication that their marriage relies more on routine than romance.

Sam is almost childishly giddy over the historic sites and European manufacturing.  His wife is more interested in mingling with European nobility – much classier than society in Zenith, Winnemac (Lewis’s fictional city and state in which many of his later novels took place).  Of course they grew apart long before the trip.  Neither of them knew this until they passed sustained periods of time together, but it isn’t long before Fran (marvelously played by Ruth Chatterton) is dazzled away from her husband by a young nobleman.  Soon Sam has to face the once unthinkable: that his marriage is over, but what does he, a man who assumed the presence of his wife in the future, do now?  Director William Wyler’s Dodsworth is a sensitive and intelligent examination of a marriage’s slow end in a way that would have made Henry James, one of my favorite authors, proud.  (James’s novels are chalk full of naïve Americans being seduced by wicked, worldly Europeans.)

They're excited for two completely different reasons...

Walter Huston breathes such life into Samuel Dodsworth that we never notice acting is in progress.  The evolution of his character is remarkably convincing – from a reluctant retiree to an excited traveler to a disillusioned husband to a happy, complete human being.  Huston made the part so much a part of himself that we can’t imagine Dodsworth without Huston’s gentle gruffness, wide smile, and expressive eyes.  This is one of the least remembered of all the great performances of 1936, but it is one for all movie lovers to rediscover and treasure.

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Best Pictures of 1936 (#1) – My Man Godfrey

Apologies for my lapse in postings over the past few days.  I ran the Long Beach Marathon on Sunday and I have been recovering since then.  Needless to say the pain in my legs has trumped any desire to write and post.  I am now back on track, so on with the best of 1936…

My Man Godfrey

(U.S., Gregory LaCava)

Many (if not most) would probably consider this the wrong comedy to choose as the best picture of 1936.  I’ve already explained why Modern Times, most people’s choice for the best picture of the year, is number four on my list.  Like Chaplin’s classic, My Man Godfrey uses comedy to critique the capitalistic chaos and economic determinism that ruled (and continues to rule) people’s lives in the years of the Great Depression.  Without Chaplin’s overt sentimentality, LaCava’s My Man Godfrey makes its points with finely tuned satire and witty comedy.

We get the absurdity of our unofficial but no less perfidious class system, in which dingbats like Irene and Angelica Bullock prosper while hardworking people like Godfrey and his fellow “forgotten men” languish in the junkyards.  It’s a strange system where Godfrey faces stiff penalties for allegedly stealing a necklace, but Cornelia gets off with a withering look for framing Godfrey (or trying to anyway).  Our economic inequalities are legally codified: a spoiled girl’s necklace is more valuable than a working man’s life.

When Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) finds Godfrey Smith (William Powell) at a city dump during a wickedly insensitive scavenger hunt that calls for its participants to trot in a “forgotten man,” she takes an immediate interest in him.  She is moved and thrilled by the way he tells off the empty-headed society snobs for using down-on-their-luck men in their silly game.  Irene, delighted at his brazen contempt for her peers, offers the man a job as her family’s butler.  Godfrey embarks on the challenge of keeping together the insane Bullock family while putting his own life back together.  He prides himself on doing a good job even when it is not appreciated or deserved.  He goes out of his way to make sure breakfast is served on time, clothes are pressed, and the family doesn’t crumble under the weight of their own selfishness and arrogance while attempting to navigate Irene’s romantic aspirations.  All the while, Godfrey uses his newfound resources to put his old friends from the junkyard back to work without the knowledge of the Bullocks.

The wonderful part of this picture is that LaCava and screenwriters Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind subtly make it clear that we can’t improve the economic health of the country without improving it for everyone.  We can’t ignore some for the benefit of others, a lesson timid politicians in Washington and myopic Freidmanite economists would be wise to consider today when the gap between rich and poor is startlingly wide, maybe even wider than in the 1920s.  This might sound heavy for a comedy, but LaCava made a movie for us to laugh.  The Bullocks aren’t despicable people; they are silly and empty-headed.  One could argue that they are victims of economic disparity as well, albeit victims who eat incredibly well.  They have, however, been duped into believing their money proffers value on them as people, making any other accomplishments besides a good time superfluous.

I’m afraid I am making this movie sound more serious than it is.  Trust me, if you don’t want to think about these issue while watching this movie, you don’t have to.  It’s a comedy, pure and simple, and it is the most satisfying and entertaining movie of 1936.

 

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Best Pictures of 1936 (#2) – Osaka Elegy

(a.k.a. Naniwa erejii)

(Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi)

Mizoguchi’s strong empathy for women continues in this beautiful movie about the double standards women faced in 1930s Japan – a country perilously teetering between tradition and modernity.  We see pieces of traditional life being shed away in favor of modernity, but changes in women’s positions are not keeping up with these unnerving changes.  Mizoguchi uses the tragic tale of Ayako Murai (Isuzu Yamada), telephone operator for a pharmaceutical company whose commitment to her family leads to her downfall, to argue for greater flexibility for women in Japanese society.

Ayako’s family depends on her without realizing or acknowledging her worth.  Her father has been thrown out of work after his company discovered he had embezzled a large sum of money.  Ayako now struggles to pay back the money to keep their father, who spends more time drinking than trying to find a job, out of jail.  Ayako’s younger daughter attends school and their older brother is away at college.  At various times Ayako sacrifices her reputation and life to save each of her family members.  Early in the picture she succumbs to the advances of her boss and becomes his mistress, accepting his money to pay her father’s debts.

Most of her family doesn’t understand what she has done for them (especially her brother who avoids expulsion from school with her anonymous money), so as stories about her being kept by an older man or being arrested for blackmail trickle back to them, they are deeply ashamed and shun her.  There is a poignant scene near the end of the picture when Ayako tries to reconcile with her family but they can’t see past her transgressions, ignoring or failing to understand why she did what she did and how their lives are now better because of her.

Mizoguchi, in his quiet and compelling way, lashes out at his nation’s continued hypocrisy over changing values in just about every area of society except those that involve women.  Osaka Elegy is a beautiful, heartbreaking film where we understand why Ayako does what she does, but we can’t understand why her family refuses to let her back in.  It is this absurdity that Mizoguchi wanted us to ponder as we walk away from the theater.  That Mizoguchi chose to characterize the story as an elegy suggests it never mattered what Ayako did; by stepping out of her traditionally assigned role, even to help her family, she was doomed to tragedy.

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Best Pictures of 1936 (#3) – Sisters of the Gion

(a.k.a. Gion no kyodai)

(Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi)

Few films in 1936 dealt with the lives of prostitutes with the same compassion and empathy as Mizoguchi does in Sisters of the Gion.  Mizoguchi, famous for his proto-feminist films, used the extreme exploitation of the socially lowest women (geishas) to comment on the position of all women in Japanese society and he was less than optimistic about their futures.

In this film we follow the divergent paths of two geishas who are also sisters working in the Gion, the red-light district of Kyoto.  Both sisters approach their jobs and their relationships with men differently.  Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) feels an emotional connection to her clients and holds onto a very real sense of obligation for their patronage.  She even goes so far as to take in a former client who has gone broke and has been deserted by his family.  Umekichi believes her relationships with long-term regular clients are symbiotic – they are there to benefit and support each other.  In a sense, she plays out marital relationships with them.

Umekichi’s younger sister Omocha (Isuzu Yamada), on the other hand, abhors men.  She identifies them solely as a means to an end, using them for what she can get out of them, even getting one man to essentially steal from his employer.  Her philosophy is that if men treat her like any other commodity – an object to be bartered over – she needs to extract whatever (mostly) material benefits from them she can before they take advantage of her, as she believes is inevitable.  Through all of her cooing and cajoling we see little true emotion toward her clients (like her sister would exhibit), but that lack of real emotion is what vain, self-centered men want: attention from a pretty young girl without the messy complications of romance or responsibility.  She plays the part well until she doesn’t need the man anymore, discarding them no matter what the repercussions.

Mizoguchi has presented the two extremes of women’s relationships with men.  In neither of them, he tells us, can women become truly independent or successful on their own terms.  Their lives are always intertwined with men’s.  Their destinies will be determined by the often men, consciously or not.  Can women carve out a middle ground between Umekichi’s hopeful subservience and Omocha’s coldhearted manipulation?  Perhaps, but Mizoguchi isn’t confident.  Both Umekichi and Omocha face disaster despite their differing approaches to men.  Though they represent the extremes, where would the middle ground be?  Where would a woman be able to succeed without a man, either as a husband or as a patron?  In both cases, men would determine how far a woman could go and how independent they would be.  Mizoguchi laments that a woman has to hope for a decent man in her life if she has any chance of being even marginally happy.  This is no way to live, as both Umekichi and Omocha discover in Sisters of the Gion, one of Mizoguchi’s earliest masterpieces.

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