Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Kapo (1959) - Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

Once in a while I see a film that is deeply unsettling. In the case of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1959 film called Kapo, I am not the first nor the last that will be troubled by it. In fact, in order to be respectful for the subject matter, I refrain from posting any screenshots from the film. I didn't feel right about searching through the film for artistic screen shots considering the subject matter. Kapo is about the Holocaust and is one of the first fictional films to deal with the subject in its entirety. There were a few films prior to it that dealt with parts of it, such as 1948’s The Search. In 1955, Alain Resnais made the documentary, Night and Fog which chillingly detailed the lasting horror of the event. In some circles, Night and Fog is the final and last word on the subject. In 1959, only 14 years after the Holocaust, two films would emerge in the same year. One was The Diary of Anne Frank, of course based on Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and also on the dramatic stage play that appeared on Broadway in 1955. Pontecorvo’s film was an original work, with a screenplay written by Pontecorvo, who was Jewish, and Franco Solinas. In doing some research after watching the film, it turns out that Kapo is on the short list of the most divisive and troubling films in the history of cinema, not just for what's in it, but for what it started.

Pontecorvo brought his love of Italian neo-realism, and Rossellini in particular to Kapo, a film that concerns 14 year-old Edith (played by Susan Strasberg fresh from her stint on Broadway as Anne Frank), who is transported with her Jewish family from Paris to Auschwitz. Through some coincidences and unique occurrences, she obtains an alternate identity there and takes the name and number of a recently dead prisoner. She is now Nichole, a non-Jew with a criminal past. She gets sent to a work camp because of these events. While there, she does everything she can to stay alive, as a character suggests to her, but begins to break down morally and lose her dignity, as others warn her not to. Kapo concerns a very unique type of story that actually occurred throughout the Nazi concentration and work camps and one which I was never aware of until seeing the film. A Kapo was an inmate who was given a job by the SS to be barrack supervisor or warden and who dished out punishment to their fellow prisoners to keep them in line. A Kapo was treated better than most prisoners and had more access to food and other items of need. There are numerous cases following WWII in which Kapos were indeed charged with war crimes, much like the Nazis. In the film, Nichole, after selling her body and soul to achieve warmth and food, is offered the job of Kapo. She takes it.

What the film attempted to do, tell a fictional story replete with melodrama and martyrdom, was considered objectful in the worst sense. Famously, Jacques Rivette of The Cahiers du Cinema renounced the film wholeheartedly in an essay based on one specific scene. There’s a scene with a brief tracking shot where a woman named Terese (played brilliantly by Emmanuelle Riva) throws herself on the electrified barbed wire. Rivette wrote: "Look however in Kapo, the shot where Riva commits suicide by throwing herself on electric barbwire: the man who decides at this moment to make a forward tracking shot to reframe the dead body - carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final framing - this man is worthy of the most profound contempt".

Famously French Critic Serge Daney was so in agreement with this paragraph at age 17 that he decided to become a film critic. Later in life, he wrote a fascinating essay on Rivette, Kapo (which he never even saw!!!) among other things regarding the limitations that art should take. He also highlights a scene in the well-known Rossellini film, Rome, Open City (1945). There’s a famous scene where Ana Magnani is gunned down in the street and the camera is at a particular angle where you can see her garters and underskirt as she lies there dead. Daney says regarding this scene: “(Rossellini) was hitting “below the belt”, but in such a new way that it would take years to understand towards which abyss it was taking us.” Both Rivette and Daney of course are referring to the "moral irresponsibility" of artistically framing up something that could or should be considered un-filmable, unless one wants to be considered sadistic or voyeuristic. Only recently, Quentin Tarantino was taken to task for his Inglorious Basterds (2009) both panned and praised, which contained highly objectionable material to some, regarding revenge related to Nazi atrocities. I think Kapo works on a similar but far more benign type of level, as I was less troubled with the dramatization and artistic sensibilities of the subject matter, and more over the morally troublesome portrayal of a Jew as the main antogonist of the film. Other Nazis in the film are at worst, faceless and at best, docile. Nichole is by far the perpetuity of evil in the way that she has turned into an animal, one which is capable of selling out her fellow prisoners in order to live. I struggled with this moral conundrum during the film and still do. This film stares you in the face and presents the viewer with a near unimaginable horror - that of the persecuted becoming the persecutor. I cannot deny that the film contains both potential to deeply move and infuriate. It’s both a masterpiece and a failed examination depending on your view. I don’t think it’s possible though to not be moved or troubled by it. It will definitely bring out a reaction to everyone who sees it. Pontecorvo would take the criticism from this film into his next film, The Battle of Algiers (1966), which is rightly praised for its hard-line, unsentimental look at the Algerian War.

I realize though, that I’ve spent an entire essay talking about a film that I cannot wholly recommend regarding its virtues. What I can say for sure, is that it is a landmark kind of film, one which film-viewers must see to determine what side of the argument they fall on. Is this melodramatic and objectionable exploitation or is it a vital and important work with commentary on one of the darkest periods mankind has ever known? For Pontecorvo, although he fails at times to get through the story without contrivances, he succeeds in telling an effective and engaging story that did occur in forms just like it. Morally troubling as it may be, Kapos existed. Their stories of the persecuted becoming the persecutors are some of the most morally difficult that I can think of. Perhaps this film’s greatest legacy then is telling a story that no one else has dared to tell ever since, for better or worse. I can't even imagine if someone tried to make this film today what untold numbers of people would put forth an outcry. I'm not sure any film on the Holocaust will ever be made without severe critiquing though. For me, the film’s unique place in history, its divisiveness and important centrality in the determination of whether art should bear a responsibility, make it essential.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Close-Up (1990) - Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Close-Up is Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s great masterpiece and is a transcendent and unique film experience from beginning to end. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen another film that works on quite the same level as this one does. Perhaps it’s because of the unique circumstances surrounding the film. Kiarostami’s subject in the film is a man named Hossein Sabzian. He was arrested in Iran for fraudulently portraying himself to the middle-class Ahankhah family, as the real-life Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, director of such films as The Bicyclist (1987) and Gabbeh (1995). Close-Up basically documents the events of the case as well as the court-room scenes involved in the trial. What’s so fascinating is that Kiarostami actually used the real persons concerned in the case, Sabzian as well as his accusers, to portray themselves in the story.

In trying to analyze the impact of this film, there are so many layers of the onion to peel back to fully grasp everything going on. In one sense, the film can be taken as a pseudo-documentary. I mean the film does depict actual events that took place in a style that could be interpreted as a documentary. One can especially look to the courtroom scenes, which are filmed in a grainy 16mm and everything has the aura of real-life, not the cinema. In fact, these scenes are so tense and lifelike that you sometimes forget that you’re watching a movie. These moments are that well portrayed. Additionally, Kiarostami himself appears in the film early on, interviewing certain key members of the case and getting the court’s permission to film the case, as well as asking the defendant if he would allow him to film the case in court. The continual presence of the boom-mike in certain scenes also lends us to intake this film as a rough-hewn documentary. Ah but it’s not that simple.

Other scenes in the film are clearly cinematic, not documentarian in their impact. In the opening prologue we’re introduced to a journalist who also has a few policemen in tow, taking a taxi cab to arrest someone. At this point in the film, of course, we have no idea of what is about to happen, but this sequence contains some brilliant overlapping dialogue and a long car ride, something that Kiarostami would employ in his later films as a sort of calling card. Another “cinematic scene” is one in which Sabzian goes through the act of introducing himself to the mother of the family on a bus. Sabzian and the woman have cinematic dialogue and the film has the polished look and feel of a “movie” as these scenes are recreated for us. Another brilliant scene done this way is the whole scene leading up to Sabzian’s arrest in the family’s home. Nearly Hitchcockian in its suspense level, we’re pulled into the game of cat-and-mouse as the family suspects that something is amiss, and we sense too that Sabzian knows his time is up.

Above all of this though, the film can be called purely cinematic throughout the whole thing. We know that this film has been put together, molded, crafted carefully by a director who loves to toy with the idea of cinema that oozes with art and artifice. We are to become at once lost in the whirlwind of cinema disguised as reality. This tug-of-war between cinema and reality within the film is what gives it its power. Of course the film has much to say on the role of actors and directors. Sabzian has pretended that he is a director and in one sequence in the court, he is asked if he would be a better actor than a director and he comments that yes he would be a good actor. There’s an interesting exchange during this sequence:

Interrogator – “Aren’t you acting for the camera now? What are you doing now?”.
Sabzian – “I’m speaking of my suffering. I’m not acting. I’m speaking from the heart.”
Interrogator – “What part would you like to play?”
Sabzian – “My own”.
Interrogator – “Haven’t you already done that?”

This important sequence highlights two key reference points. The first is internal to the film, in the fact that the interrogator is referring to the fact that Sabzian’s court case is being filmed. But the other layer is the external component in that Sabzian, through pretending to be a director, won himself an acting role in his own story, which is Close-Up. It's terribly ironic, but Sabzian gives a brilliant performance as himself. I’m not sure it can be said any other way, but it’s certainly a performance and I found him to be piercingly poetic onscreen. As the capstone to the film, there’s a brilliant denouement that is heartrending in the best sense of the word, as a haunting score plays over the action that finally and absolutely brings the cinematic brilliance of Kiarostami to the fore. Kiarostami has continued to gain acclaim over the years and this film is a great foray into the examination of a fascinating artist. Close-Up is an example of a film that transcends the limitations of cinema to bring us something that is unique, infused with life and enduringly challenging. It's also one of the very best films of the 1990's.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

On the Town (1949) - Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen

Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s first collaboration as directors yielded one of their finest creations. Although they would go on to helm perhaps the greatest of all musicals, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), we shouldn't overlook On the Town. Neither had directed a film before, but they took on an established hit in the Broadway smash of the same name that ran during the 1940’s. On the Town came featuring some wonderful songs by Leonard Bernstein, some of which were dropped in favor of new songs by Roger Edens. It is a film that strikes you first of all because it features some on-location shooting in NYC in color, which gives the film some real pizzaz and lifeblood. But there is also just a cavalcade of great song and dance sequences that elevate the film to the upper echelon of movie musicals.

Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) are three sailors who have 24-hours of shore leave in NYC. They of course want to see the sights of New York but mostly want to find some ladies to have some fun with. Gabey falls in love with Miss Turnstiles (Vera-Ellen), who is the featured “subway pin-up” of July and spends much of the film trying to track her down. Chip finds a cabbie, named Brunhilde played by Betty Garrett and Ozzie meets up with Claire, an "Anthropologist" played by Ann Miller. All of them meet at the top of the Empire State Building to begin their night on the town. It’s interesting to note here that sex plays an interesting part in the film. Sure, we assume that the sailors want to hook up with a lady for the night, but what’s amazing is that the women in the film are the aggressors, especially Betty Garrett and her continued come-ons toward Frank Sinatra. She repeatedly mentions “come up to my place” in a song routine with him. Even Ann Miller’s Claire is quite the animal as she seduces Munshin and explains to him that she had taken up anthropology to get over her obsession for men. Well apparently it didn’t work because she shimmies and shakes her way to his heart in her showcase tap routine.

There are some outstanding song-and-dance numbers in the film and of course the opening “New York, New York” number is probably the most memorable song as the fellas sing their way across Manhattan with several great iconic images of the city. What I was most impressed with though were the terrifically choreographed dance sequences replete throughout the film. As mentioned, Ann Miller gives a powerful tap dancing sequence in the museum in front of the dinosaur skeleton during “Prehistoric Man”. Vera-Ellen gets a great pseudo-dancing setpiece during the “Miss Turnstiles Ballet” as we’re introduced to her interests from ballet, to painting to football and track. All the while she is changing outfits and adjusting the dance to mimic the movements of the particular topics. I love the finale of this scene where she boxes, kicks and knocks out a bunch of guys. This exuberant scene is a great blending of dance and storytelling. Vera-Ellen and Gene Kelly also share two wonderful scenes together. One is the delightful dance during the “When You Walk Down Main Street with Me” scene where their courtship is played out on the dance floor and the other is the lovely shadow-enhanced dancing scene during the “A Day in New York” extended dance in three parts near the end of the film. Surrealist and notably artificial aspects of this scene, involving light and depth of field heighten the emotions of the dance and make the scene more tragic. It’s probably the film’s most beautiful moment.

Although it’s clearly not on the same level as Singin’ in the Rain (But what is?), there is a remarkable level of consistent excellence throughout the film. I think the acting and storyline feel like a good match too. It’s not too serious. Also, the running time of 98 minutes feels right. Kelly and Donen’s musicals were never too long, which is appropriate considering the plots of the films. With the Rogers and Hammerstein adaptation films, the running times of many musicals began to balloon, which began a tradition that would last into the 1970’s of creating epic musicals, some which I like (The Sound of Music) and some which I don't (South Pacific). Kelly and Donnen’s MGM gems are musicals for people who like their musicals fun, colorful and quick paced.  On the Town maximizes all of these to great effect.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Set-Up (1949) - Directed by Robert Wise

Boxing movies have become so ubiquitous that I have a theory that the vast majority of people easily watch more boxing movies than they do actual boxing matches and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that at all. From Rocky (1976) to Raging Bull (1980) to Girl Fight (2000)to Cinderella Man (2005)  and beyond, Hollywood seems to release a boxing movie every other year of so, with mixed results. 2010's The Fighter came to great acclaim in some circles, although I didn’t care for it nearly as much as others did. I liked some of the performances, but I found the actual boxing scenes to be lacking a visceral quality and included an annoying commentary from Jim Lampley. At the other end of the spectrum, is Robert Wise’s taut and brutal masterpiece The Set-Up, which is not only a brilliant boxing film but a first-rate film noir, hovering precisely between the genres and ultimately transcending them both.

Robert Ryan, in perhaps the greatest performance of his career, stars as Stoker Thompson, a nearly washed-up boxer, who’s been hovering around mediocrity for what appears to be his entire career. He has always been hoping for that big break but is nearing the end of his career, both through his own age but also through the pressure of his wife Julie (Audrey Totter) who doesn’t want him to be turned into a vegetable. In nearly real-time, the film plays out with Stoker arriving at the arena, waiting his turn in the locker room with the other boxers in his troupe as he prepares for his match with a much younger boxer named Tiger Nelson. What Stoker doesn’t know is that his manager has struck a deal with Tiger’s manager for him to take a dive that night.

As a pure boxing film, The Set-Up ranks up there with the best of them. Stylistically, the boxing match that makes up the centerpiece of the film is filmed in real-time, with entire rounds played out before us. This fight is infused with a heavy dose of realism. Many of the camera vantages are from the perspective of the audience. I also love the choreography of the boxing match itself. We realise that these boxers are not world beaters; they are tough guys making the circuit and their boxing reflects this. Thus, it feels brutal, desperate and utterly devoid of trumped-up heroism. Boxing here comes across as an ugly carnival show, and adding to this environment are quick asides to certain sadistic audience members as they encourage the boxers to kill each other. One other plus to this scene is that there is no side commentary from a broadcaster to the match. We’re smart enough to know what’s happening in the match and don’t need a "Jim Lampley" telling us what we already know. I can think of very few other boxing scenes in any other movie that are portrayed better than the one in The Set-Up.

What elevates the film is the moral complexity brought about from the fact that Stoker is not told of this deal to take the dive, providing the film with the existential crises that is so prevalent in film noir. It’s so suspenseful for the audience to know more than the Stoker character knows in this plot. As Stoker continues to perform better as the match goes on, there comes a point where Stoker knows more than we do, switching the suspense and leaving the audience in the dark. Film noir elements come to the foreground especially in the last 15 minutes of the film following the boxing match and it’s not fair for me to give certain key plot points away. Let’s just say that the brutal boxing match just completed is nothing compared to what Stoker faces once the match is over. Of course in film noir, shadows and mise-en-scene play a huge role in setting up the psychological fear facing the protagonist. There’s a great scene as Stoker wanders around the darkened and empty arena after the match is over. He disappears down a darkened corridor and returns, his face bathed in harsh white light while everything is shadow around him. Needless to say, I love everything about this film from its quick pacing, to great performances, cinematography, and boxing sequence. This is one of my favorite film noirs and favorite sports movies.