Sunday, November 14, 2010

In Praise of Ishtar

The Harvard Film Archive is hosting an Elaine May retrospective this weekend, and hosting Elaine May herself. The high point of this - though any May film is a high point - is Ishtar, a pristine print, a packed house, and May herself. The others have played a couple times through the years - I've seen them in a cinema over the years - but not Ishtar. It's hard enough to find it on any medium - it was sheer bliss to see it as it should be seen.

I suppose if I'm going to write about Ishtar, I have to write about my history of seeing Ishtar. When it came out, I read the reviews, all of them - that I can remember - atrocious - hung up on the budget, the miscast stars, the awkward mix of political satire and silly adventure tale, and believed them. Over the years, it turned up on TV, and I'd see bits of it - and finally saw the whole thing sometime in the early 90s. (1993, according to the notes I found.) I did not like it. I said the bad reputation was deserved. I thought it had some cute ideas, but they weren't executed well, and whenever it started to get clever, something came along and swallowed it up. I wished it was more like the Marx Brothers - the characters in on the joke. (Even if they were morons.) I suppose the cluelessness of the leads - and the consistency of their cluelessness - was a turn off.

And then? it kept coming on TV, here and there, over the years - I'd see bits of it here and there - and over time, somehow, something changed. I guess, in the simplest terms, it would come on, usually toward the end - and I would stick with it until I was bored - and I found that I didn't get bored. I started forming a new idea of it. It was amusing - crude looking, I would think, awkward and unconvincing, but funny, and sweet, in an odd way. I would watch it when it turned up, and found myself enjoying it, certain scenes - the shootout in the desert; Charles Grodin's line readings; and the songs, which in fact I'd always thought were hilarious. And then? over the years, I saw the other Elaine May films, got a better idea of what she was doing. I saw Cassavetes films, I even saw Luc Moullet films, I started noticing resemblance to Monty Python films - I started to get a context for what was happening in Ishtar, and thought I might really like it if I could see it again.

And when I did see it, a year or so ago, when it turned up streaming on Netflix, I got it - I loved it. The pieces came together - I enjoyed it without reservation. And now - seeing it on the big screen, packed house, Elaine May in attendance, a May and Nichols skit played before the main attraction - it really comes into its own. First - seen that way, it really looks lovely. Seeing it on various TV channels through the years did it no favors - it's a very handsome film, with some superb moments. I will say - for the most part it is a fairly workmanlike film - it's not showy, not too visually clever, just a solid handsome film with 2 or 3 bravura moments (the chase through the marketplace, shot and choreographed in two spaces, roofs and streets, over a couple long takes, is just wonderful). But it doesn't need to do much more - in fact, it benefits from the intimacy of its style. It's a very funny film - but the funniest moments aren't so much in the one liners, the gags, as in the playing of the gags, the delivery of the lines. It's in the timing, in the tone of voice, in the actors movements and faces - it's the way Grodin says, "We did not shoot at two Americans in the desert! We did not!" that slays me.... or the whole scene of Grodin and Hoffman talking politics in a restaurant, with three CIA waiters - Grodin's reactions to Hoffman's question about whether Qaddafi was near Morocco... the joke is a good one (Hoffman not knowing who, or what, Qaddafi is, let alone where Librya is) - but the execution of the joke makes it priceless.

And that's what I missed, more than anything else, back in 1993. I was looking for inside jokes and clever dialogue and missed the joy everyone in the film (from May down through all the performers) takes in the execution of its jokes, in the details, in the pauses and delays built into everything. It's a film about clueless Americans, screwing things up overseas, about ignorance and confusion - and the gags, as much as the plot, are built around cluelessness, misunderstanding - around nothing being what it seems, around people talking past one another, about being wrong about everything. Signs and wonders, always misunderstood - simple conversations misunderstood. No one quite sure when other people are talking in code - like Grodin telling Hoffman to move the camel, Hoffman trying to figure out what this means, what will this signal to whoever Grodin is sending signs to - when in fact the beast is on his foot... I don't know if I can explain this - I mean, if I can articulate the reasons I find this film so delightful, more enjoyable every time I come across it. You can't quote it, exactly - you can't quote it on a blog, definitely - the effect of most of the jokes comes in the line readings, or in the exact situation in the film. You can't quote a pause... The situations are funny, but they are, after all, pretty standard issue adventure spoof situations - it's in the ways they are played, the way the oddball readings of oddball lines create the gentle surrealism the film gets.

And it's in things like the way Warren Beatty walks. It's a big meta-joke that he's a schmuck with the ladies and Hoffman isn't - but what sells the joke is how well he plays it - the way he walks down the street, big and awkward, next to Hoffman's (not quite right, but not quite wrong) hipster slither... He makes himself seem more than a little ridiculous - that takes work, when you are Warren Beatty, especially when you are tasked with making a joke out of being Warren Beatty and being a little ridiculous - but he does. I could watch him all day. I could watch Hoffman or Grodin all day - though I would have to hear them, too.

The problem, of course, is that it ain't easy to see this film. It's not streaming on Netflix anymore - it's never circulated on DVD, not in the time I've looked for it. (There's a Region 2 DVD apparently - that's about all.) It doesn't turn up on TV anymore - it doesn't play theaters - it's still invisible. That's a shame. And I don't quite know how it can change - without demand, it won't become available; if it's not available to be seen, there won't be any demand. It's possible, I suppose, for fans to ballyhoo it - but I don't think talk can do it - and it's not a great quote movie, it's funniest in the delivery and in the situations, the characters - and even if there were ways to find images of it, post those - they don't quite show what makes the film so good. It's a performers' movie, and needs to be seen. It played last night along with a short film, made from Nichols and May's Bach to Bach - not that clip, which is just from the record - this film, made by Paul Leaf. It helps - it's fascinating how much of the aesthetic of their fifties skits is still operating in Ishtar. From the start (that's 1958, I think), their comedy worked as much in the timing, the pauses, the interplay of voices, the emphases, and the characters, and stories coming out of the characters, as in the jokes and lines. A like - "It's so hard to acknowledge the fact that aggressiveness need not be hostile." - is funny enough on its own - but as May says it, it's magnificent... And the joy of a line like this - "I know exactly what you mean! Exactly what you mean!" - is completely in Nichol's delivery. And that carries through to the film - whatever the merits of the story, script, and so on (and don't get me wrong - there's a lot to like there), the real majesty of the film comes in the execution. You need to see it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

November 11

Another Armistice Day is almost gone - a holiday I'm inclined to remember, in its original incarnation. World War I is finally over - the Germans making their last war reparation payment this October - but it's effects haven't gone away. Iraq, most of the trouble in the Middle East, that all goes back to World War I, and it's going nowhere. And as a war, the war itself - it still stands out for its raw horror and insanity and sheer pointlessness. I mentioned last year that a disproportionate number of the best anti-war films were set in WWI - it's hard to imagine any other kind of film about that war. (There were a few, between the wars, in the build up to the second world war - but that is about all.) And it is hard to think about World War I and not think about the plain insanity of war itself. To spend any time thinking seriously about World War I is to turn anti-war.

I spent some time a month or so ago reading about the war - reading about battles. I can't say I've studied it all that much - I grew up a history nerd, a war nerd, reading insatiably about the Civil War, WWII, Indian Wars, the Revolution - not so much about WWI though. And that probably for good reason - there's no way to turn the Great War into anything particularly engaging. There's nothing exciting or heroic about it - even more than that, there's barely any narrative about it. After the first year, it's just murder. Other wars have their moral element, political issues behind the fighting - slavery in the Civil War, the holocaust, and Nazi and Japanese aggression in WWII - WWI just has two groups of more or less unsavory governments fighting over obscure principals or power. And maybe even more than that - the nature of combat in WWI took away the sense of personal investment you can get from WWII history. It's an odd thing, but I probably turned pacifist from reading Audie Murphy - the realization that by the end of the book, all his friends have been shot - hit me. The effect depended, though, on the personalization of those soldiers - on the way they were killed or hurt one by one, over time, individually... something at odds with much of what I have read about the First World War. Killing came in waves, in masses. 20,000 soldiers in a day. (Though by the second world war, people were killing 100,000 civilians in a night; in a second; it's not like WWII lacks in evil.) The scale of WWI's combat - well over a million men shot in several battles, that moved the lines - what? a mile or two? in three months? that would be lost a couple months later? It's hard to wrap your mind around it, the number of men involved, the amount of effort that had to be expended on killing them.

Those are the qualities that make it such a prime source for anti-war films, I think. The madness of it; the lack of moral and political distinctions between the sides; the tendency to swallow heroism and individuality whole (where the fighting is concerned.) I celebrated the day (if "celebrated" is the word) by watching Paths of Glory - which gets at some of this. The arbitrariness of the executions is as good a symbol as any of the complete arbitrariness of the entire war. Those three deaths had no more or less impact on the war than all the others. The mind-boggling stupidity and viciousness of the tactics and strategy of the war are hard to believe, even. But there it is... Kubrick manages a bit of a neat trick there - personalizing the men who died - zeroing in on three of them, while maintaining the sense of randomness in their deaths. They have no chance - their actions are meaningless. They are swallowed whole, but they were alive...

So - to remember - Veterans of all wars, the people stuck in the middle of these things, though they almost never have anything to do with the reasons for being there... and veterans of that war, the war that should have ended all wars, but failed at that as much as it failed at everything else - not ending all wars, but breeding war and horror in its wake. All right.

Start with an interview with the last American veteran, Frank Buckles:

And some vintage footage - here, Ypres, 1914:

The Battle of the Somme:

and gas attack footage:

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Japanese Film Blogathon, 2010

I don't have any content yet, but I have to post a link to this - the second Japanese Film Blogathon, hosted by Wildgrounds. It's probably no secret that Japanese film is one of my passions - I will have to contribute. And I will certain enjoy the reading.

I could start by answering the questions on this page (there is a poll - go answer, if you wish!):

1) What is your favorite era of Japanese cinema? Up to the end of the 30s? 40s and 50s? 60s? 70s and 80s? 90s and 00s?

If I have to answer - the 50s - the old guard (Mizoguchi, Ozu, Naruse, etc.) were still at the peak of the powers - the post-war generation (Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Kobayashi, etc.) came into their own, and were also at the height of their powers - younger filmmakers got their start (Imamura, Masumura, etc.); you had thriving genre cinema, along with art cinema, all of it - pop and art - capable of creating powerful, exciting work... It's an absolute golden age of film. And from an auteurist point of view - Ozu, Kurosawa and Naruse all produced a body of work in the 50s that will rank with any director's decade ever - Mizoguchi comes off below them only because he only survived half the decade. And Ichikawa's 50s work is not far off the mark.

Now - I imagine, if I were able to see as many films from the 30s as I have the 50s, it could challenge the later decade. Ozu, in the 30s, might have been even more impressive than he was in the 50s; the only other major director I have seen even a fair sampling of from the 30s is Naruse - his early work also holds up very well to the later... So I don't know. I do know - the 60s were a strange time - when pop cinema thrived; when the new wave directors created films as impressive as anyone anywhere - Imamura's 60s films can stand with anyone's, Oshima isn't far behind, and many others - Suzuki, Teshigahara, Shinoda, etc. - did fine work as well. The previous generation - Kurosawa, Ichikawa, etc. - continued to make good films, but started to drop off. Kurosawa dropped out of sight for half the decade - Ichikawa's films started to decline (roughly when Natto Wada stopped collaborating with him)... And - if I remember my history right - the film market collapsed utterly. A collapse that continued in the 70s, and knocked even the art film makers out of action - Imamura disappeared for most of the 70s, Oshima was forced abroad, Kurosawa could barely work.... Since 1980 - I think Japanese film has been revived - certainly, a lot of the old guard started making films again, and good ones; new talent emerged, and so on - but at a much more modest level than the past. Though even now, a number of my absolute favorite contemporary directors are Japanese....

2) What is your favorite genre? Jidai-geki/Chambara? Horror/Monster? Yakuza/gangster? Gendai-geki/shomin-geki? Pinku/roman-porno? Anime?

This is harder to answer - because in general, I am not so much a fan of genres as of films - I certainly like art films, and auteurist films - my favorite genres, you might say, are directors. So - Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Imamura, Oshima, Suzuki, Kurosawa, Miyazaki, Kore-Eda, Miike - working across the full range of genres, almost. Though for poll taking purposes, the answer is always Ozu.

But still - go read - and I hope to come up with something of my own for this... it is a subject very dear to my heart.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Welcome Back, 1929!

...we haven't missed you... I refer of course to the election, and the Republicans retaking the House of Representatives. I certainly understand the frustration with the continued difficulties the economy is in - I don't understand why anyone would think that electing Republicans would help. And it's particularly frustrating given that the house has been the most reliably positive branch of government these two years - Obama (to quote Roy Edroso) is a "trimmer and a pudding" - the Senate has been as obstructionist (with 59 or 60 nominal Democrats, or Democrat allies) as any opposition party - the Supreme Court has been quite effectively moved right for decades.... Pelosi was about all you could hang on to.

Well? if 2 years of disappointment cause a huge shift from Democrat to Republican, maybe the next two years will cause a huge shift back - not likely, I'm afraid, but we can cling to it. One of the more annoying traits in recent decades is the tendency to treat the president like a prime minister (if not a king) - to ignore what happens in the legislature, and blame or credit the president for everything. So - if things get much much worse in the next 2 years - a not unlikely possibility - the president will probably be blamed, no matter how much congress is to blame.... or - what is even stranger - the president will be blamed, but reelected anyway, while Democrats in congress will lose seats... It's happened before.

I admit - I don't particularly trust the voters to act sensibly. I don't know how that can be fixed. I think this state of affairs is very carefully supported by the powers that are (mainly lobbyists, though a good many of the actual politicians in power seem to concur) - they work very hard to keep people from voting rationally, to convince people that elections are symbols, that politics is posture, and policy is too complicated for our little heads to worry about. And that this cynicism and inherent corruption is, in fact, inherent, inevitable, and What Politics Is, and stop worrying about it. The stronger minded ignore politics - the weaker minded find someone to hate and cheer for the slogans.... That's a hard attitude to counter, since the only way to counter it is by grinding away at simple stuff - "but what policies do the Republicans hold that you like?" as someone I know kept asking in a recent political argument with someone determined to get rid of the Dems... Maybe John Stewart can save us, I don't know...

Monday, November 01, 2010

Crossing the Line

I want to add a bit more about the style in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Of all the tricks Mamoulian pulls out - the roving camera, the first person shots, all the fancy transitions (radial wipes, lateral wipes, lap dissolves and such), and holding those transitions halfway through, all the special effects and makeup and whatnot - I want to pick out one - the 180 degree cuts, especially between closeups. I suppose those things are just made for me - Ozu fan that I am - seeing it here, in a Hollywood film, is quite wonderful. I like the variety you get, too - the shot opening this post is a reverse angle on the shot opening yesterday's post on the film - that is, a cut between fairly long shots of the audience and Jekyll at his lecture...

Then there is this - starting with a profile shot of Jekyll and a girl at his clinic:

Cutting in to these shots - the girl, starting to walk, and Jekyll encouraging her:

...And later - in the love scene between Jekyll and his fiancee, Mamoulian repeats the series of shots, pushing it even further - starting, again, with a profile two shot:

Then cutting at 90 degrees to Rose Hobart, then 180 degrees to March, then back to Hobart closer, and so on:

It's pushing the principal about as far as you are likely to see. Of course, Mamoulian establishes frontality from the beginning of the film - the subjective camera device justifies it at first, but it doesn't take long for the motivation to disappear, as seen in the shots above.

And all of it sets up and pays off the doubling theme, playing on the image of a man looking in a mirror - and allowing for mathced images across time. Jekyll in the mirror -

...becomes Hyde in the mirror...

And from there - you can expand the principal - Jekyll slicking his hair back - Hyde slicking his hair back (in a mirror, naturally, with Ivy on hand, as before...)

... and so on. A clever, innovative, piece of work indeed, and all its tricks integrated into its story and themes - films like this just make me sing...