Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fires on the Plain (1959) - Directed by Kon Ichikawa

Of all the war films I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain. If it’s possible to have no real battle sequences and yet still make the most gruesome war film even made, I think Ichikawa came really close to encompassing the all-out devastation of war. It is a picture of war that examines the micro level, yet is able to paint with broad strokes. It also lays before us, the ugliness of humanity reduced to nothing but instincts and in so doing, reflects the darkest side in all of us. It is as bleak and unrelenting as any war film I’ve ever seen.

Ichikawa’s film concerns the plight of a private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) on a Philippine Island in February of 1945, who is stricken with tuberculosis. He is forced to leave his squad to seek medical treatment at a field hospital, and is instructed if he does not get treatment there, that he is to commit suicide. He is denied such treatment at the hospital, and decides to wait things out there. Meanwhile, the allies bomb the hospital and the medics flee, leaving Tamura to traverse the countryside by himself. His journey is a memorable one. One that takes him through abandoned villages, over war ravaged mountainsides, leading to encounters with various rag-tag ensembles of half-starved and mostly crazed soldiers. The plot delves into the darkest sides of the human condition, where the option for heroism doesn’t even exist.

Here I want to discuss the astounding camera work in this film. Setsuo Kobayashi was principal cinematographer behind the camera for this starkly filmed masterpiece. His use of the mega wide-screen compositions is as jaw-dropping as any I’ve seen in this type of genre work. He’ll place the action at the far side of the left or right and slowly allow the figure to work his way toward the middle. There are bravura camera movements and tracking shots on the sides of mountains, the close-ups of the malnourished faces, the editing of the bloody action sequences. It is one of the best photographed war films I’ve ever seen, filled with memorable images. Even the images of the actors themselves is something to behold. Apparently Ichikawa kept his actors from eating much during the filming. Their gaunt and lifeless performances are exactly right here….removing all emotion from the proceedings and making it feel like pure hell on earth.

This is a portrait of war that is bleak and nearly post-apocalyptic. At times it almost resembles sci-fi in its absurd surrealism, but it is grounded in bloody violence and harsh language that reminds us that this is all too real. This film exists somewhere between Sam Fuller’s gritty realism in The Steel Helmet, Andrei Tarkovsky’s poetic imagery from Ivan’s Childhood and Coppola’s sense for epic absurdity in Apocalypse Now. Somehow Ichikawa’s film is able to weave these sorts of elements together, without forcing anything, as he presents this story of survival to us. Ichikawa was apparently emboldened to make this film from the time he witnessed the dropping of the Atom Bomb. This inspiration can clearly be felt as the devastation of human body and human soul is examined here in all its gory details. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Duck Soup (1933) - Directed by Leo McCarey

Note: This review of Duck Soup appears at Wonders in the Dark as part of the Top 100 Comedies Countdown, coming in at #4.

At my parent’s house in Chicago there is this photo album with a slightly yellowed and faded photo. In it, is an image of a small boy, about age 4, who is holding an RCA videodisc in his hand. It is a copy of Duck Soup. He has a beaming smile. Yes….that was me. It sometimes strikes me as I look back at that photo and realize how much that film and the Marx Brothers have meant to me throughout my life. Back then, we would go visit my grandparents in Davenport, IA and my uncle would come over to visit in the evenings. He had an RCA videodisc player which he would bring over. He had a remarkable collection of titles. We would watch Shane, The Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, among many others. He also had The Marx Brothers, who were my favorite. He had Animal Crackers, A Day at the Races, and what I consider their best film and a landmark of comedy…Duck Soup. My brother and I would sit down in my grandparent’s basement watching these movies and laughing our heads off. This routine went on for years.

One of the great things that I’ve realized through my many years of watching The Marx Brothers, is how well the comedy can play to different ages. When I watched Duck Soup as a small boy, I was completely infatuated with Harpo’s antics. His pratfalls really need no translation. As I got a bit older, I began to understand Chico and his malapropisms, the way he would botch particular words certainly made sense to my 10 year-old noggin (and made me laugh). Now that I’m older, I am able to get Groucho’s rapid fire sexual innuendos and one-liners. When you put all of this together, you have what I would consider the most varied, wide-reaching form of comedy and probably the birth of the modern comedic sensibility. I’m not sure that any single comedian, director, or comedy troupe can lay claim to the word “comedy” as much as the Marx Brothers can for me. They can probably be credited with creating comedy as we know it today, taking it from an era mainly focused on the stage, to the modern cinematic and television world. When you watch their films, you can feel an almost sitcom-like, episodic structure at times, and it’s clear that everyone from Lucille Ball to Woody Allen to the late night comedians felt their direct influence. Sure Chaplin and Keaton were masters….but silent film is a different thing altogether and I don’t even want to make the argument comparing them.  But, when I think of comedy, The Marxes are number one and Duck Soup is their supreme masterpiece….the one where the songs didn’t suck and the one where they pushed the boundaries the farthest.

Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is appointed leader (dictator) of Freedonia by a woman named Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) who is funding the country (seemingly on her own) to keep the country from bankruptcy. The leader of nearby Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern) wants to take over the country, and in order to start a revolution, sends over two spies, Pinky (Harpo) and Chicolini (Chico) to spy on Firefly and find some dirt on him to….well I’m not exactly sure what they’re after but they certainly want to catch him red-handed! Rufus and Trentino soon begin to woo Mrs. Teasdale together and when Trentino calls Rufus an upstart (upstart!!!??), war ensues.  All of this is basically superfluous as the film mainly functions to allow the Brothers to enact all sorts of mayhem …..on women, political figures and dignitaries, lemonade vendors, soldiers, even themselves.

Duck Soup was the Marx Brothers most sustained bit of lunacy, and there are so many different kinds of comedy that one can find embedded within the film: slapstick, satire, silent-clown and mime, monologues, puns, pre-code shenanigans etc. There are as many different types of things to laugh at in this film that one can imagine. I think of three scenes in particular. One is the scene where Harpo and Chico befuddle and belittle the lemonade vendor on the street through a variety of gags. The lemonade vendor tries to tell them off because he says they’re turning away his customers. Soon enough, Chico bludgeons the guy with wordy absurd-isms, while Harpo frays his nerves with a barrage of physical torment. Another classic scene (perhaps one of the most iconic comedic moments in cinema), is the “mirror” sequence where Groucho stands in front of what he thinks is a mirror, when it’s actually just Harpo dressed up like him. Harpo follows Groucho’s every move, even down to anticipating nearly everything that Groucho does. Their physicality and comedic timing is really funny. But I also find one of the funniest aspects of this scene to be the way that Groucho’s iconic “look”, is aped by his brother. It’s all done in silence though, as if the sequence is straight out of a silent film. The final unforgettable sequence (and maybe their greatest 10-minute stretch that was ever filmed) is the inspired war sequence at the close of the film that plays as buffoonish satire, where in the midst of battle, every scene is rendered hilarious by the fact that Groucho has changed outfits…..wearing everything from Confederate Gray, to Russian Bolshevik, to Coonskin Cap! There’s even moments here where each of them (all four Marxes, as this was Zeppo’s last hurrah) is wearing a different vintage style uniform. It comes as perfect comedic timing when as they are throwing fruit at the newly captured Trentino, the upraised arms and lilting voice of Margaret Dumont suddenly causes the boys to throw their fruit in her direction instead.

Oh but Margaret Dumont! Was there ever a woman so used and abused in the name of comedy!!!!??? I swear this woman was a saint, and probably the Marxes most unsung hero(ine) and one of the keys to their success. Most great comedians need a straight man (or woman), and Margaret Dumont was Groucho’s. Groucho could be wooing her with sexual innuendos and suddenly would turn on a dime and lay into her with put downs: “You haven’t stopped talking since I got here....were you vaccinated with a phonograph needle?”. “I can see you bending over a hot stove….but I can’t see the stove.” Dumont somehow made Groucho’s occasional mean-spiritedness seem justified, as if she needed a comeuppance due to her rather prudish lifestyle. But there would be those moments when you would believe he saw her as the most beautiful woman in the world. It wouldn’t last but a split second, but it was there nonetheless. It was the speed at which Groucho would change his tune, though, that would make their interaction so magnificent….and it would be as if she didn’t even catch the jokes. Groucho apparently considered her to be the “5th” Marx Brother. That’s how important she was.

Many of the Marx films have memorable sequences: The Viaduct Scene (The Cocoanuts), The Letter Dictation (Animal Crackers), The Swordfish Scene (Horse Feathers), The Stateroom Scene (A Night at the Opera), Tootsie Frootsie Ice Cream (A Day at the Races). But Duck Soup not only has the great scenes but the biting social commentary to boot. In the Depression Era, for Groucho to be making jokes about war ("You're a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.") and taxes ("The country's taxes must be fixed and I know what to do with it....if you think you're paying too much now just wait till I get through with it."), it is pretty biting. It is well known though, that the film didn't do as well at the box office as their previous hits and Paramount ended up dropping them. They were never able to duplicate this satire again once they signed with MGM, where they aimed their venom at a much more benign form: The Opera. All of us have certain films that we are very biased towards. This can happen for certain reasons, but for me it’s very hard to view this film objectively. Seeing it at such a young age has ingrained it upon my brain and in some ways, it is probably this film that began the lifelong cinematic journey that I am on. I think back on that picture of me now and all I can say is…. “Wow that kid had great taste in movies.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Le Cercle Rouge (1970) - Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

This film contains such an overwhelming sense of foreboding that even from the early frames one can sense the doom washing over everything. One feels that the churnings and machinations of the people in the film are sort of like a mouse on a wheel, that they will work their tails off and yet end up right where they started….or perhaps worse: that they will succumb and be imbibed through the mouth of fate, which will yield all of their efforts null and void. The fact that Jean-Pierre Melville is able to take such a tone and infuse it with poignancy, suspense, and a respect for the art of devotion is remarkable. He is one of my favorite directors.

Le Cercle Rouge is Melville’s penultimate capstone to a career which has come to define neo-noir for me. His existential takes on the heist and the hit-man are absolutely essential cinema and have come to influence anyone from Michael Mann to Nicholas Winding Refn. His style of reducing cinema to observation (a la Bresson) is put to wonderful use as the observance of craft becomes elevated to a zen-like experience. Le Cercle Rouge stars Alain Delon (who makes smoking a cigarette a must-see event) as Corey, a just-released ex-con who has been tipped off by a jail-guard to a huge heist opportunity. Corey’s path crosses the story of another, named Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonte), who is a just-escaped fugitive who is being tracked across the countryside. Vogel climbs into Corey’s trunk of his car, almost like Vogel is incubating in Corey’s “womb” and the two form a bond. It appears that each of them sense a portent connection. Is it fate that draws them together? The film seems to enact not a sense of coincidence that they are together, but a sense of determined purpose, like this is MEANT to happen. They hold up in Paris, as Corey begins to flesh-out the details of the heist. They turn to Vogel's old friend, an alcoholic ex-cop named Jansen (Yves Montand) (who also happens to be a crack-shot and ballistics expert), to assist them in their quest to rob a high-end jewel gallery. We also follow the exploits of the police investigator Mattei, a man far too uncool for the likes of Delon, but whose chief inspiration is to not only find the fugitive, sniff out the heist, but also to wreak havoc on us, the audience with his ability to foil and outwit the crooks who we are rooting for! The rat bastard!

I won’t pretend to beat around the bush. This film is cool. It’s not over-the-top cool, like his Le Samourai, but it’s utterly stylish, devoid of trumped-up drama, is silent most of the time, and lets the images speak for themselves. Above all, it’s a man’s world, where to find sense in this world, one must have a purpose and craft that one excels at. Our three crooks are either at the end of their rope, or have very little going for themselves. They have a predilection for finding trouble. It’s almost like they don’t really need this heist for the money, though. They need it for validation of their own selves…their own self-respect. Some men are accountants, some salesmen. These guys are crooks.  They pour as much thought and devotion into their heist as anyone would to something incredibly important to them. Melville similarly devotes a religiously observed portion of the film to the heist itself, which goes on for nearly a half hour of running time, most of which is incredibly silent (taking a page from Dassin). In fact the entire heist itself achieves the on-screen artistry of something like a beautiful song-and-dance routine, or a terrifically choreographed fight. We have the balletic movements, the attention to detail, the cause and effect relationships. There’s also an implied deduction that the audience must make at times, because slightly out of the usual order, Melville does not directly implicate us in all the details of the heist itself. Many heist films (a la schlock like Ocean’s Eleven) make it almost too fine a point to include the audience in EXACTLY everything that will happen and when it will happen. Melville understands we don’t have to know as much as the characters do to enjoy the heist scene. We watch and observe, without the burden of pre-anticipation.

If the film is also gorgeously cruel, it’s that ending where our crooks must look fate straight in the eye. Why must Melville remind us that our sins will find us out? Why must Melville remind us that those who risk much to gain, must also risk much to lose? Why Why Why? Melville is too smart to allow these guys to get away with it. Why pander to an audience that is craving for our protagonists, these crooks, to achieve some sort of immortality through their heist? Because life doesn’t work that way. As Elliot says in E.T., “This is reality, Greg”. The difference between great directors, and directors in title only, is that the great ones refuse to budge, refuse to pander, refuse to acknowledge that they MUST do something a certain way. Melville consistently throughout his career was almost fashionably in love with the concept of doom and foreboding. Like I said, from the early frames of this film, one feels the pull of death. It was there from the start. To betray this would be to betray the intent. Melville was like a rock. He was not going to budge. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Lincoln (2012) - Directed by Steven Spielberg

Lincoln just might be one of Steven Spielberg’s least Spielbergian films. I don’t say this as any particular knock against him or the film either. It is no secret that I am a fan of Spielberg and I consider him to have made several masterpieces, my favorites being Jaws, E.T., and A.I. There are so many great films in his canon though. However this one may be least typical. He is often complained of showing too much sentiment and being too telegraphed in his approach..... some feeling he panders too much to the masses. Perhaps last year’s War Horse was the most debated film in recent memory regarding this aspect. Lincoln however often prefers to view things from the periphery, and even at times dares to be boring. Yes Spielberg has attempted making films with historical perspective before: The Color Purple, Schinder’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich. But this one feels different and not so akin to those in that list.

Lincoln takes a look at the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, mainly as it focuses on his attempts to ban slavery through the passing of the 13th amendment. It is based upon the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin and the script was adapted by Tony Kushner. This is not a story unfamiliar to us, as far as history goes. But, I found myself engaged in the proceedings far more than I expected. One of the film’s greatest strengths, is the way that it brought history to life for me. Lincoln, and the attempts to pass the amendment through political maneuverings and underhanded deals, feels very modern, as if things really haven’t changed that much in 150 years. Even though there is the burden of historical inevitability in films like this, somehow the script and the actors make the story suspenseful and prescient. I was incredibly surprised with how the film spends a good deal of time showing us Lincoln’s attempts to basically buy votes, at one time even exclaiming how he’s the President of the United States and SHOULD be able to achieve the buying of votes. Kushner’s script also allows for us to comprehend and understand Lincoln’s own self-doubt, as he admits on more than one occasion to not fully understanding if he has politically and legally overstepped his bounds. In another of the film’s most dramatic angles, we are brought into Lincoln’s very difficult moral conundrum of whether to postpone the Rebel surrender in order to allow time to pass the 13th amendment. It is this element in particular, that made the film very personal, as we realize the gravity of the stress and personal struggle which Lincoln faced on a daily basis.

As I mentioned earlier, Spielberg avoids much of what could be considered direct scenes of audience satisfaction in favor of oblique moments of poignancy. Yes at times, John Williams’s score swells and we see glimpses of the Spielberg that haters love to hate. For the most part though, Spielberg does not give the masses what they would expect. There are three cases of which I will mention. One, is the moment when the House of Representatives is tallying the final votes and instead of showing us the ensuing celebration, Spielberg cuts to a long scene of Lincoln alone in the White House. He soon hears bells off in the distance and we realize along with him what has just happened. Yet it is that quiet moment of solitude where the focus is laid, not on the outburst of emotion in the House of Representatives. Another moment where Spielberg subtly avoids cliché, is the scene of surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse. Instead of showing us a scene where Lee and Grant are in the house together, with the requisite protractedness and predictability, we are not shown any of this at all except a tip of the cap from Lee and the Union soldiers as Lee gets on his horse. The final moment I will discuss (and what appears to be somewhat controversial from some dialogue I have engaged in on the blogosphere) is the assassination of Lincoln, which is not filmed at all and instead the moment is filmed from Lincoln’s young son Tad’s point of view, as the announcement is made while he watches a play at a different theater that night. His ensuing display of emotion is the focus of attention, instead of what would likely have been a predictable moment of John Wilkes Booth’s shot and ensuing melee. I appreciated this point of view for the reason in particular that throughout the film, young Tad had been trying to vie for his father’s attention and it was never enough for him. His realization that his father may be dead and the focus on those left behind is consistent with the overarching tone of the film up until that point.

Spielberg also seems to have taken notes from William Wyler and Sydney Lumet. It is far more an actor’s film than a director’s, and both of those talented men were known for their ability to cultivate the elements necessary to allow for wonderful performances to come through in the actors. There are so many actors here that can chew the scenery. Daniel Day Lewis literally IS Abraham Lincoln as one would expect nothing less from him. Kushner’s script relies greatly upon jokes and stories that Lincoln tells, and although one could tire of such moments, I found them to be a great example of how a man like this has gotten to this position, through relating to people and learning from others. Sally Field as Mary Todd makes us feel the pain of a woman who can literally not let go of past failures. She obsesses over the death of her son Willie and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown for much of the film, brought on by anxiety and depression. That centerpiece argument between Lincoln and Mary Todd as they attack each other over the topic of their son Robert’s enlistment is a direct reminder of how much strain this family was under. There are others though, from the brevity provided by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, to the stern condescension provided by David Strathairn, the film is loaded with lots of acting moments. Janusz Kaminski's low-light cinematography adds the right stylistic elements to a film shot mostly in dark, back rooms. It is not a flashy kind of work, but the photography allows a humble, knowing artistry to present itself.

This is a film that is not easy to do well. On one hand, it dares to be boring, enacting a chamber drama attitude toward a topic that the general public expects to be more bombastic and far reaching. I could see how if one does not pay distinct attention the whole time, one could lose one’s way. For those viewers looking for more artistic liberties to be taken on this topic, they will not find it here. It is a film that is remarkably balanced, often restrained, towing the fine line of historical accuracy, whilst maintaining a propulsive, yet understated brand of entertainment. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Producers (1968) - Directed by Mel Brooks

Note: This review of The Producers appears at Wonders in the Dark, as part of the Top 100 Comedies Countdown, placing at #21.

Mel Brooks became known as a spoof-artist (if spoofing can be considered art), but his first film is quite an original, and perhaps his funniest work because of it. Armed with an insane premise, a wacky set of characters and some great talent, Brooks made perhaps his best film, or at least very close to it. I must say that I had seen this film before about 10 years ago, but upon viewing it for the second time recently I found it even funnier. In fact, as far as belly laughs go, this film ranks right up there with the greatest comedies of them all. It's a non-stop, heaping dose of insanity. It also contains the first real extended performance (not counting Bonnie and Clyde) from Gene Wilder who would become a comedic icon and one of the essential comedians of his era.

The Producers stars Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock, a conniving Broadway producer, who woos a small armada of little old ladies in order to drum up cash to fund his productions. When Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), shows up at Max’s office to check the books, he finds out that Max has been doing some “creative accounting”. In order to avoid legal trouble, Max decides to bribe Leo into a scheme which will make both of them rich. They will produce the worst play that they can possibly come up with (which they believe will close within the first few days of opening) and they will fund their play with money from the “little old ladies”. The play they choose, is a tribute to Hitler and Nazi Germany, called “Springtime for Hitler”, written by a former Nazi named Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), who is whacked out of his gourd and living in NYC in a highrise apartment where he talks to his pigeons on the roof. They presume that the play will crash and that they will abscond with the money and fly to Rio. That is of course assuming that the play fails (Dun Dun Dun!!!).

The first 15-20 minutes of the film in Max’s office are downright hilarious and I find that I cannot stop laughing. Leo shows up while Max is “making love” to one of the old women. Max’s pleas to Bloom once he finds out what Max has been doing is hilarious……as Max yells “HELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLP!!!” right in Bloom’s ear! Another running gag surfaces in the early part of the film when Bloom takes out his little blue security blanket and Max takes it from him. Of course Bloom throws a tantrum and Wilder’s antics are just hilarious. Another section of this sequence is when Bloom's hysterics get out of control. One of my favorite lines comes from this part of the film when Max throws some water at Bloom and slaps him.

Bloom- “I'm wet! I'm wet! I'm hysterical
and I'm wet!....... I'm in pain! And I'm wet! And I'm still hysterical!”

In fact, what's better than to just watch that scene. It makes me laugh everytime I see it. 

There are so many funny moments in this film though: the scene when Max and Bloom go to visit Franz Liebkind for the first time and he’s on the roof of an apartment complex wearing a Nazi helmet and talking with his pigeons; the scene where Max and Bloom go to find the worst director they can think of and it’s a cross dressing man named Roger de Bris (a hilarious Christopher Hewitt); of course the piece-de-resistance- the actual “Springtime for Hitler” musical number, which is totally outrageous and wildly inappropriate, but great comedy. This spectacular number is so insane because it's such a wonderfully awful song and dance presentation that is presented with such gusto! We are shocked as much as we are laughing. There's something about this sequence that even today is crude and I think it's to Brooks's credit that he was able to execute a scene with such poor taste that it has stood the test of time.....and still feels like poor taste (at least to my eyes). 

When the film was released, it was only 23 years after the war ended. The use of Jewish characters and the lampooning of Nazi Germany was a regular occurence in the early 1940's......The Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch all used comedy to highlight Nazi persecution and voice their displeasure through enlightened laughter. But there are relatively no comedies involving Nazis or Hitler from 1942 through the next couple decades. It can probably be assumed that once the full extent of the Holocaust came to light, there wasn't anyone who could have gotten away with a Nazi comedy at that time. Although there are bits of comedy thrown into Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963), it is probably the CBS TV show Hogan's Heroes, that can be credited with bringing back the ability to mock and poke fun at Nazis. This relatively benign show, which aired between 1965-1971, probably paved the way for Brooks' film by allowing the POW camp inmates to continually outwit their bumbling Nazi guards. Now The Producers is far more edgy than Hogan's Heroes was. Of course comedy has and always will have some degree of edginess to it. I'm not so sure Brooks was ever this edgy again (although the repeated use of the N-word in Blazing Saddles does come to mind). It's just really interesting to me that The Producers got made in the first place. Now I know comedy can get a bit more leniency when it comes to controversial subject matter....because it's comedy and of course comedy isn't so "serious" about things.  

What strikes me most about this film though, is Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. They are so funny, and they have such terrific chemistry together that it’s hard not to be somewhat in awe of their rapport. Mostel constantly has this wild-eyed look on his face, like he has just struck gold. I think Wilder went on to have some more memorable roles, particularly in another Brooks masterpiece, Young Frankenstein (1974). But, his work here feels more improvised and completely unhinged. He constantly seems on the edge of either hysterics, tears, or laughter. Additionally, Mel Brooks’s brilliant script is loaded with plenty of propulsion and enough zingers for 2 or 3 movies put together. This one is a real gem and one of the downright funniest films ever made. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

To Be or Not to Be (1942) - Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Note: This review of To Be or Not to Be appears at Wonders in the Dark in The Top 100 Comedies Countdown, placing at #26.

If I had to name the one Ernst Lubitsch film that I simply cannot get enough of, it would be his absolutely hilarious To Be or Not To Be. Now he is probably more well known for several of his lighter musical comedies with Maurice Chevalier, or his work with Garbo, or more than likely his pre-code classic Trouble in Paradise. But I love To Be or Not To Be as it’s not only a magnificently paced comedy with great performances by two terrific leads, but it’s also a really interesting farce, lampooning Hitler and the Nazis right smack dab during the midst of WWII.

The film is really the last of it’s kind during this era. The Three Stooges were the first to lampoon Hitler in their short film You Nazty Spy, which premiered on January 19th, 1940. Charlie Chaplin followed this with his classic The Great Dictator, which opened on October 15th, 1940,  including the famous scene where Charlie as Adenoid Hynkel plays with the giant globe in his office. On March 6, 1942, Lubitsch’s film premiered to critics and audiences that did not appreciate it. It was the last Nazi spoof comedy of the WWII era that I can find reference to. I can certainly understand how those at the time might find it really difficult to laugh at such proceedings involving Hitler and the Nazis. Such subject matter has always come under fire, especially when involving comedic treatment. Everything from Hogan’s Heroes, The Producers, Life is Beautiful……even Tarantino’s recent Inglorious Basterds which was a tounge-in-cheek look at Jewish revenge and revisionist WWII history. It’s not hard to believe that such subject matter will always be controversial. Oh but what funny controversy is THIS film!

Lubitsch’s masterpiece, written with glorious panache by Edwin Justice Mayer from an original story by Melchior Lengyel, is that terrific combination of script and actors. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard star as Joseph and Maria Tura, husband and wife actors who belong to the same acting troupe in Warsaw, Poland. They are rehearsing for a spoof play, satirizing Hitler and the Nazis during the day, and also performing Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the evenings. Maria begins to see a young fighter pilot named Lieutenant Sobinksi, who is a fan of hers who comes to see the play every night. She tells him to visit her dressing room as soon as her husband Joseph starts into his “To be or not to be…” soliloquy. They have a terrific exchange:

Sobinksi “Goodbye….I hope you’ll forgive me if I acted a little clumsy, but this is the first time I’ve ever met an actress.”
Maria- “Lieutenant…. This is the first time I’ve ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.”

Their affair quickly comes to a close when Germany declares war on Poland and Sobinski joins the Polish RAF in England. While there, he meets a suspicious Professor Siletsky, who has obtained names of key Polish underground members and who is headed to Warsaw to meet with Gestapo. Sobinski warns his superiors of the plot and they send him back to Warsaw to stop Siletsky before he gets to the Gestapo with the names of the underground members. Sobinsky ends up needing to utilize both Joseph, Maria and the rest of the acting troupe in order to murder Siletsky, thwart the bumbling Nazis, and even portray the Fuhrer himself through a hilarious sequence of setpieces.

This is one of those films that once it gets rolling it just does not stop. There are so many wonderful scenes in this film that it’s hard to pick just a few to talk about and I want to make sure to highlight key exchanges of dialogue and a few great lines, because that's really one of the great joys of the film. There’s the scene when Jack Benny as Joseph has arrived back to his apartment to find his wife’s lover lying in his bed. He wakes him up and begins questioning him when his wife Maria comes in. There is a rapid fire sequence of dialogue between the three actors that is simply sensational and all the more funny because Jack Benny’s character is completely clueless to what is going on.

Tura- “Wait a minute….I’ll decide with whom my wife is going to have dinner with and whom she’s gonna kill!”

Maria- “Don’t you realize Poland’s at stake!?”

Sobinksky- “Have you no Patiotism!?”

Tura- “Now listen you.... First you walk out on my soliloquy and then you walk into my slippers. And now you question my patriotism. I’m a good Pole. I love my country and I love my slippers.”

Then there’s the scene where Joseph Tura must pretend to be Colonel Ehrhardt and meet with Professor Siletsky. Professor Siletsky meets him at his office (actually the theatre), in his uniform (actually his costume) and says,

Tura- “I can’t tell you how delighted we are to have you here.

Siletsky- “May I say, my dear Colonel, that it’s good to breathe the air of the Gestapo again. You know, you’re quite famous in London, Colonel. They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.

Tura- “Hahaha. Yes, yes…..WE do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.”

This scene ends with Sobinsky murdering Siletsky, which means that Tura must pretend to play Siletsky, as he has left key documents back at his hotel room, which is also where his wife was being wooed by the real Siletsky! When Tura returns to the hotel as Siletsky he meets with his wife Maria. He tells her he (as Siletsky) has to go meet the REAL Colonel Ehrhardt in the Gestapo office.  He has a great line when he says, “If I don’t come back….I forgive you for what happened between you and Sobinsky. But if I come back…it’s a different matter”.

Then there’s the fantastic scene where Tura is thrown by the Gestapo into the room with the dead Siletsky and in order to avoid being found out as a fake, shaves off Siletsky’s beard and puts a false one on his face. This scene has a great lead in and Sig Ruman as Colonel Ehrhardt (Shulz!) has that terrific German accent and those great, big, bulging eyes when he pulls off the fake beard. Perhaps though, the most perfectly timed comedic moment comes as the acting troupe has dressed up as Nazis, including one dressed as Hitler so they can escape from Poland. Ehrhardt is up in Maria’s apartment accosting her as a spy and then pleading for her love when the actor as Hitler comes barging in, arriving as her "lover"…..suddenly seeing Ehrhardt he backs away out the door. She then chases after “Hitler” yelling “My Fuhrer!... My Fuhrer!”

All of the comedy in the film is terrifically hammy and farcical. Jack Benny is wonderful as Joseph Tura, a hack actor who must rise above himself to play the greatest roles of his life. His comic timing is spot-on, and he also plays the role wonderfully tounge-in-cheek. I’m not so sure he ever completely disappears into the role, but that’s part of what makes it so fun. Carole Lombard appeared here in her final film before she died tragically in a plane crash. This film highlights why she was one of the greatest, if not THE greatest comedic actress of her era. Her timing and subtlety is fantastic…. the way she makes remarks as if no one is hearing her. She somehow has a way of delivering her lines so underhandedly that you almost don’t even realize she has just told a joke. She also spends much of the film in a beautiful white gown that is simply breathtaking.

Ernst Lubitsch, a German-born Jew who left Germany in the 1920’s for Hollywood, certainly earned the right to make this film his way. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his film was perhaps both a plea for intervention (to the U.S., which was not yet at war with Germany) and a lament for his own country’s grand mistakes. Now the film doesn’t really make direct references to Jews or Jewish persecution, but it’s certainly implied. His famous touch, which earlier in his career utilized adult bedroom humor delicately and charmingly, was put to good use here as he skillfully handled the fine line of satire and farce regarding a socially and politically charged topic, without forcing the issue or making it seem preachy in the least. I think one of the true tests of a great comedy, is that no matter how many times you see a film, you laugh just as hard if not harder the next time you see it. This is one of those. It never tires and never gets stale and always makes me laugh. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Groundhog Day (1993) - Directed by Harold Ramis

Note: This review appears at Wonders in the Dark, as part of their Top 100 comedies countdown, placing at #28.

Groundhog Day was the summative collaboration between Harold Ramis and Bill Murray that spanned 6 films. Ramis wrote and or directed for several of Bill Murray’s best and most loved early outputs, from the gross-out classics Meatballs, Caddyshack, and Stripes, to slightly more "intelligent" fare like Ghostbusters, but it was with Groundhog Day that a certain key balance was found, eliminating most of the petty and stupid and swapping in the thoughtful, the existential, and the bittersweet. That’s not to say that this film isn’t funny, cause it’s absolutely hilarious. But it’s also something else…..a parable, a morality play, an examination of our humanity.

Unless you’ve lived in solitary confinement for the last twenty years, you already know this film well, and for some of you, you know it by heart. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a TV news weatherman based out of Pittsburgh who is slated to cover the festivities of Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, in Punxsutawney, PA. He travels via news van with his new producer Rita (Andie McDowell), and his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). It does not take long for us to realize what a smug, and arrogant man is Phil Connors. From his constant putdowns of Rita and Larry, to his complaining about the trip, to his hitting on Rita, to his sarcastic coverage of the event itself, it is clear that he has alienated himself from others to the point of no-return. Always on the lookout for himself, his day is one big me-fest. After covering the event, the crew tries to return to Pittsburgh, but is halted by a blizzard (which of course Phil failed to predict), forcing Phil, Rita, and Larry to return to Punxsutawney for another night. Phil wakes up the next morning at the B&B where he’s staying and finds that it’s Groundhog Day, Feb. 2 all over again. This occurs the day after…..and the day after…..and again…..and again. Feb. 2, Feb. 2, Feb. 2……..

Phil Connors is stuck in some kind of pseudo timewarp and the entire scenario has an interesting set of rules that the film lays out for us. For one thing, people are in certain places at the same time each day, and the entire day repeats itself so that if Phil wants to do the same things and be at the same places, the day will be exactly the same each time. However, Phil also has the ability to do new things with each day and approach each day differently if he so chooses, meaning he can alter the course of each day, but cannot affect the time warp in which he is stuck. He can stay in bed all day if he likes; he can skip the Groundhog coverage if he so chooses; he can park himself in the diner and consume massive quantities of food. He can also carry memories from one day to the next, while everyone else starts over with no memory that the day is being repeated. This is partly what makes this film so funny. It’s the way that we see the differences from one day to the next, almost like seeing multiple takes of the same scene being done over and over again. Phil encounters several people at the beginning of each day…..the fat man at the top of the stairs at the B&B, Mrs. Lancaster the B&B proprietor in the dining area (“Do you ever have déjà vu Mrs. Lancaster?” “I don’t think so but I’ll check with the kitchen”), the homeless man on the street, Ned Ryerson- insurance salesman and former high school classmate on the sidewalk (“Watch out for that first step! It’s a doooooozy”). Each day Phil's interaction with them is slightly different as Phil’s consciousness of the repetition takes hold. It’s our understanding of what has happened before combined with what is happening “now” that is so funny.

When you get right down to it, Phil is essentially the only one in existence. He has a memory and a consciousness that each day is being relived. He can take memories and experiences from one day and apply them to the next. But no one else can. This is both why the film is so funny, but also why it can be pitifully sad. In one of the film’s best examinations of Phil’s state, we see a series of days strung together whereby Phil tries to court Rita by learning all of her likes and dislikes, trying to create the perfect day whereby he can go to bed with her. Try as he might, he is never quite able to do it as his attempts to play for self-gain constantly find him out. He’s not fully sympathetic for the whole film, but there comes a time when I begin to root for Phil and really like him and perhaps this has more to do with Murray than anything else. I honestly can’t think of another comedic actor who would have been able to make this role work so well. Murray goes through an amazing myriad of moods throughout the film, from arrogance, to bewilderment, to frustration, to embracing of the carefree, to romantic optimism, to hopeless suicidal despair, to a determination to make a difference in the lives of others and embrace each day as it comes. All of these changes occur through subtle changes in Murray’s tone and demeanor. It’s really a remarkable performance and is probably the genesis of Murray’s later career as a more existential comedic actor. I think there is a clear progression from Groundhog Day to his work in films like Rushmore, Lost in Translation, The Life Aquatic, and Broken Flowers, all of which are films born of a certain balance between the sarcastic, the deadpan, and the melancholy.

What separates Groundhog Day from similar works like Dickens' A Christmas Carol, or Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, is the fact that we have no idea who or what is controlling this exiled existence. It could be God, it could be the Devil, it simply could be fate itself that has dealt Phil this maniacal blow. We simply understand that Phil’s comeuppance is due. I think this element of not fully knowing who has caused this or why this is happening is central to the film’s success. There is a deep examination of emptiness and of nothingness, of depression and pointlessness and Godlessness. I think the film can tend to have a lightweight exterior, but I think it’s just beneath this where the real depth of this film lies. It is not until after Phil goes through the state of suicidal obsession, does he begin to come around, to try and find any semblance of purpose out of his predicament, to find a point to his existence. Also, for many interpreting this film along spiritual lines, there is really no talk of God, outside of Phil himself articulating that he is a god. Spirituality never comes up as a theme. This is a film about humans and their interactions with each other. In a sense, Phil has broken off from humanity and has been set on an island….alone… think about himself and his place and his emptiness and loneliness. His goal is to get back to the mainland and his journey back requires him to profoundly change his behavior and his outlook.

It is debatable, but one of the most interesting discussion points of this film is just exactly how long is Phil stuck in Feb. 2? It could be argued that in order to know the life story of everyone in the diner, and to memorize every Jeopardy answer for the episode that day, it would take some time. However to be able to go from complete novice on the piano, to being able to play piano at the blues concert he leads at the end of the film, it could be argued that he spends many, many years in the time warp. What gets him out of the timewarp is of course that he embraces each day and puts others first. This is after he has resigned himself to making the best of each day as it comes, and this is something that applies to humanity at its core. Call it lame if you want, but I think the film makes you take stock of yourself. Do you take each day as an opportunity to make a difference? Do you even care what happens today? These are the questions the film makes me think about. I’m laughing my way through the film, but the questions gnawing at my brain are there too. Yes it’s funny and goofy and silly at times, but there is so much to chew on, perhaps even more than a film like this deserves to have. When you try to boil it down like that, I think the film becomes perhaps preachy. It's best not to over-analyze it I think. The film is best experienced and watched multiple times and taken as you see it. I’ve been saying lately that there are great films that happen to be funny, and there are really funny films that happen to be great. This one just happens to be both.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Terminal Station (1953) - Directed by Vittorio De Sica

It would be really easy to dismiss De Sica’s and producer David O. Selznick’s famously troubled film as a complete and utter failure. It was butchered by Selznick and the studio from its original 89 minute version following audience previews, and without De Sica’s permission, cut and released at an unbelievably short 63 minutes. This cut was released to U.S. audiences and titled Indiscretion of an American Wife, which not only excised many of the smaller details that the Neorealist movement loved to explore, but it also gave the film a title that is just an awkward mouthful and really doesn’t do justice to the examined state of the two leads in the film.  It’s not just an indiscretion on display, it is a full-on passion play, examining a woman’s temptation to leave everything, her entire existence behind for the sake of her heart’s desire, and an examination of a man who realizes that his soul mate has already been claimed by another. The Selznick cut fared badly upon release. De Sica’s full cut, is another thing altogether. Originally titled Terminal Station (Stazione Termini), it is a quivering and overheated romantic melodrama combining the best elements of Hollywood and Neorealism, creating an achingly passionate film.

De Sica’s film had several writers involved in the script, but amazingly the film’s structure is very simple indeed. Mary (Jennifer Jones) is a married American woman who has traveled to Italy to visit her sister. She has traveled by herself and left her husband and 7 year-old daughter at home in the states. We meet her as she is prepping to catch a train at Rome’s Stazione Termini to leave for Milan and then on to Paris where she will return home by plane. She arrives at an apartment door, fails to knock and returns to the street, heads to the station, attempts to write a telegram and gives up. We quickly find out she has been involved in a passionate and all-consuming affair with a man named Giovanni (Montgomery Clift). She boards a train, but sees Giovanni on the platform and suddenly leaves the train, staying with him at the station while she plans on taking the next train to Paris which leaves in less than two hours. Thus the film then plays out in real time, with Mary and Giovanni dealing with decisions they’ve made over the last month. The suspense and melodrama ratchet up as Mary continually fights her own conscience as she struggles to reconcile and reason her way through any scenario in which would allow her to be able to be a responsible mother and wife and also maintain her passionate love for Giovanni. In her eyes, she must choose between one or the other.

 Mary’s heart wants her to stay in Rome with Giovanni and thus everything grinds to a halt as she gets off that first train and remains stuck in the train station with Giovanni. During the time in the station with him, she tries to make herself listen to her head. She reminds herself of her daughter as she helps out a pregnant woman with 3 kids as she takes her to the nurse’s office. She reminds herself of the promise she made to her husband to always be a family and be there for her daughter. She even uses the run-ins with her nephew Paul (Richard Beymer) in the station to keep herself pointed to her family. As long as Paul is there, he will make her listen to her head and not her heart. This film has some kinship with Lean’s Brief Encounter, especially as it deals with the female lead character and the struggles of her responsibility to her home life contrasted with the passionate needs of her heart. However, in Lean’s film, the relationship remains unconsummated. Here, it is rather clear that Mary and Giovanni have already had sex.

De Sica’s instincts, especially in the longer cut of the film to provide key atmospheric elements, like the surrounding peripheral characters, particularly the ill mother and the Paul character provide key psychological signposts for Mary. In addition, the scene where she attempts to write her lover a farewell telegram is particularly well-drawn, as she can’t even bring herself to quite put her feelings down on paper, as if admitting such a thing to the man behind the counter would acknowledge her mistakes too personally for her to be comfortable. I’ve been in Rome’s Stazione Termini, and it was somewhat comforting to learn that the place hasn’t really changed that much in my eyes in the last 60 years. Much of the terminal appears the same to me today and of course filming on location was an essential element of the Neorealist movement to begin with. De Sica’s focus on emotional purity and realism is extremely effective, especially as he pairs it with the soft-focus glamour shots more reminiscent of Hollywood films. It’s an interesting dichotomy but really works in a film of this stature with leads stars like Clift and Jones. Clift was in his prime at this point, playing sensitive characters with ease as well as characters slightly manipulative and needy like this Giovanni. His role is the less elemental of the two, as the point of view is mainly from Mary’s perspective, though. Jennifer Jones is fantastically believable as a woman who hasn’t felt sexual passion in many years (or perhaps ever), who found herself caught up in something she never imagined would go this far. Her expressive eyes and aching femininity were rarely on display more fully than in this film. De Sica’s camera loves her face, and there are a few close-ups here that really make one pine for the golden age of the Hollywood starlet. The black-and-white cinematography is indeed beautiful as the light plays off her face. I think Jones and Clift make a terrific couple in this film, making me believe that they are sexually compelled to one another, if also sometimes disconnected on an emotional level, as her head is often somewhere else. They are at unequal levels as far as potential consequences of the affair go. Most of the burden is in fact on Mary’s shoulders, with any fall-out affecting more lives in her case than in Giovanni’s.

The film’s fantastic centerpiece is the scene where Giovanni and Mary steal away into a dark and empty train car. This scene is the best and most intense sequence in the film. Their kiss and embrace is framed terrifically in shadow and light, outlining their figures. It is a scene of almost uncomfortable intimacy, as if we as the audience should not even be witnessing it. Their union is interrupted as the police find them and take them to the police commissioner who is about to press charges when he realizes he has an opportunity to play moral judge upon Mary and Giovanni. The commissioner gives her an out if she tells him she will get on the next train. It is at this moment, she is finally able to listen to her head and the film then proceeds onward toward its fateful and emotional conclusion.  Yes the film has a tendency toward floridity and protracted melodrama, but for my money, the emotional clarity and honest character examination is fantastically romantic and observant. It is one of cinema’s great, tragic romances. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pictures of You

I've been looking so long 
at these pictures of you
That I almost believe 
that they're real 

I've been living so long 
with my pictures of you
That I almost believe 
that the pictures are all I can feel

- Robert Smith

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Seduced and Abandoned (1964) - Directed by Pietro Germi

I must admit I’m not quite as familiar with Italian comedies as I'd like to be. If there are others as good as Seduced and Abandoned then you can consider me a fan, though. Pietro Germi’s film from 1964 is a whirling dervish of hilarious farce and satirical absurdities. And it’s all devilishly funny in a way that could only be funny coming from Italy. Somehow this film strikes me as uniquely Italian, playing on familial pride, Catholicism, and the workings and churnings of tradition. All of the comedy plays extremely effectively in the Italian language because the physicality is front and center. There’s not much subtlety here and this film is all the better for it. 

This film starts with a quick and sudden seduction of a 16 year-old girl named Agnese (Stefania Sandrelli) by her sister’s fiancé named Peppino (Aldo Puglisi). After a large meal, everyone is konked out except for Peppino and Agnese. He grabs her and takes her into a back room where unseen things take place. She is quickly thrown into a tizzy by these proceedings and her suspicious behavior is picked up by her mother….who in a fit of fearful anticipation….ahem….takes an examination of her daughter and determines, yes she has not only lost her virginity, but is also pregnant. Of course her father Don Vincenzo Ascalone (a fantastic Saro Urzi whose performance is pure brilliance) soon becomes a raging lunatic: banishing her to the basement (where she is forced to beg to use the bathroom), pursuing and threatening the sexual predator and trying to force him into marrying the girl, concocting a scam in which his other daughter can get a replacement fiancé, and generally trying to maintain some sense of rule and order within his clan.

This film is one of the best comedies that I’ve seen in sometime and it came out of nowhere for me. I had literally no expectations when sitting down to watch as I'd never heard of it. Much of the comedy comes at the satirical expense of Catholic traditions, and familial honor. The father’s sweaty, exasperated attempts to keep his daughter from ridicule and to allow the family name to have some semblance of respect is really the meat of the film. I’m sure that today, this film wouldn’t quite work in the modern's too morally antiquated for that. But seen as a nostalgic look back at a simpler time, it is really funny. Germi even includes plenty of surreal dreamlike sequences, adding a bit of the "Bunuel" to the proceedings. However the aim here is far more lowbrow and common than Bunuel. Germi is aiming at the gut.

Aiochi Parolin’s magnificent and crisp b&w cinematography adds an artistic bent, but not so much that it makes the film inaccessible. The visuals always seems at the behest of the comedy, not from any sort of artistic pretension. The use of the fish-eye camera at times adds to the circus-like proceedings. Germi, though, is careful never to dig the knife in too deeply. You can sense the affection for Italians here and he’s never particularly mean. These events are shown in a light in which the conniving and the ridiculing never quite overcome the power of the family and one comes away with an admiration for the zeal and care for which the father breaks his back for his family. His love is real and the family is the heart of the matter. What a joyful and funny film this is.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Overlord (1975) - Directed by Stuart Cooper

Stuart Cooper’s poignant and devastating anti-war film is a unique blend of surreal poetry and documentary-like realism. It is both a stark portrait of an individual obsessed with premonitions of his own death and also a gathering of the collective consciousness of war. Thus it feels like both a big picture and a very intimate one. Brought to distinctive life by director of photography John Alcott, this is one of the most stunning and visually effective war films I've ever seen. Alcott of course was cinematographer of choice for three Stanley Kubrick films. Overlord in fact recalls Kubrick’s penchant for dream-like setpieces, which of course this film is loaded with. There are non-linear and subconscious visuals interspersed throughout, becoming the central emotive device. Not to mention, there is the fusing of the narrative with actual aerial and battle footage from WWII, creating a swooning, impassioned lament for those who died in the war. 

Cooper’s film regards a young private entering basic training. We follow him from the time he leaves home, to boot camp, to special training site, to D-Day. In the hands of Cooper, Alcott, and editor Jonathan Gili, the plot is rife with moving and piercing images. Central to the film’s effectiveness is the running motif of the young private dreaming/imagining his own death. This occurs repeatedly throughout the film and although often in soft focus, these moments become glaringly clear as a foreshadowing. Several sequences near the beginning of the film actually presage Kubrick’s own Full Metal Jacket, a film that I think might be among Kubrick’s weakest. However, Cooper’s interpretation of the boot camp experience is less the opportunity for insanity to creep in (a la Kubrick), but more to allow the dread, foreboading, and certainty of death to overtake the individual. In fact the dehumanizing aspects of the war machine is better examined in Overlord than in any other film I can think of. 

This is far from an actor’s movie and in terms of character development, is almost nonexistent. We move from moment to moment through the camera lens and the blending of the documentary footage with the dramatic footage. The film is less about tangible moments and more about a feeling. If the effect Cooper was looking for was a deep melancholy and sadness, he certainly succeeded. But also one of the questions that comes up to me in films like this is should the visuals be allowed to be so beautiful in a film of such darkness and sadness? Does the beauty of the image denigrate the subject matter of the film? For me here the answer is no. I think the arresting quality of the visuals creates a deep sensory connection, pulling us into the film’s midst without the need for an emotional connection to the characters. The images are used here to replace traditional narrative and connection to individuals.

If all of this sounds rather highbrow and inaccessible, it’s not meant to appear that way. I don’t think it requires a great deal of dissection to understand this film. It is meant to be experienced from a sensory standpoint, both visually and audibly. Although originally designed to be a documentary, Cooper and Alcott seamlessly incorporated tons of actual battle footage with the narrative footage, often switching very quickly between the two without missing a beat. Their feats here create one of the greatest war films ever made. This is a unique film, containing deep meditations on the mechanics and machinations of war and also on death itself.