R.I.P. Dean Jones

Dean Jones was a Disney star who appeared in all of the movies I watched as a kid. He was a familiar face by the time I was 7 years old. Herbie the Love Bug, I mean, come on. That Darn Cat with Hayley Mills! I was obsessed with Hayley Mills as a child, even though her heyday came before I was born (the awesome Flame Trees of Thika notwithstanding, which I watched with my parents). I wanted to BE Hayley Mills. A child star. I adored That Darn Cat!

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The New York Times has a very nice obituary.

But I will love Dean Jones forever for his stunning version of “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company. First of all, the song itself is an anthem of hope and pain and striving. The lyrics are too piercing to bear, if you have experienced loneliness (as we all have). The yearning for someone to be there, to love you, to experience “being alive” with you. The song has that classic Sondheim difficulty: it’s “talk-y”, the lyrics are conversational and yet poetic. There’s not a typical rhyme scheme. You have to really act it. Otherwise it won’t come off, it’ll just sit there as a melody. There is no way to fake this one. No way to phone it in. Your awesome singer pipes will not save you if you can’t FILL the song. Dean Jones’ version, captured forever in the cast recording, is definitive, and the one we all know. Young Raul Esperanza came along in the Broadway revival and breathed new life into the song, approaching it with the same passion and emotional understanding that Dean Jones had. We heard it anew.

There’s a fascinating documentary about the recording of the cast album for Company in 1970. The most famous bit is Elaine Stritch working on “Ladies Who Lunch” in the recording booth, and putting herself through hell to get it right. (If you haven’t seen it, look it up. It’s on Youtube. It is one of the clearest portrayals of true PROCESS that I have ever seen in my life.)

But the clip above is also excellent. It’s the same thing, only it’s Dean Jones, working on “Being Alive” in the booth, with his cast members.

Rest in peace, Dean Jones.

Posted in Actors, Music, RIP | 2 Comments

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (2015): Another Defiance of the Ban

The movie I am most looking forward to, coming soon to the New York Film Festival, with a release afterwards, is hounded/oppressed/gifted Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Taxi.

Jafar Panahi, who directed angry funny award-winning films such as The White Balloon, Crimson Gold, The Circle, Offside, was arrested in 2009 under suspicion of making a film critical of the Iranian regime. (His films are all critiques of the regime.) The arrest made international news. He was imprisoned. He went on hunger strike. I was so crushed and upset I hosted an Iranian Film Blogathon, knowing it would do no good, but knowing also that tyranny requires privacy to do its worst. I wanted to do my part to deny the regime that privacy. All my Panahi stuff is here.

He was released, and then waited for his sentence, under house arrest. During that time, he made a film (illegally) in his own apartment called This Is Not a Film which was then snuck out of the country on a zip drive inside a pastry to premiere at Cannes. (The film is extraordinary, there is nothing else like it. The closest analogy, which I said in my review, is to Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis.”)

Panahi’s sentence came down and it was devastating: a 20-year ban on film-making (Panahi is in his 50s), travel, and interviews with foreign journalists. Except for the travel part, Panahi has disobeyed all of those bans. He remains under house arrest, although his situation has loosened up a bit, and he continues to make films, albeit under outrageous limitations. Every time he makes a film he puts himself at risk. Anyone who appears in any of his films, collaborates with him, helps him, can expect to be harassed, arrested, or worse. (His partner on This Is Not a Film, who leant him the camera, was arrested, his passport taken away from him). It is a sign of his stature that people continue to act in his films, collaborate with him. They take those risks. After This Is Not a Film a couple years passed, and I had assumed that that, tragically, might be it. It was devastating. His situation is outrageous.

But then last year, another film came out. The Closed Curtain, which was on my Top 10 of last year. He can no longer shoot out on the streets of Tehran (all of his films are outdoor urban films), so he shot The Closed Curtain inside his summer house on the Caspian Sea. I found the film both valedictory and heart-wrenching. I couldn’t imagine what would come next. It seemed so final.

And now, God bless human freedom of expression and hang the consequences, Panahi has another film out. This one is called Taxi and it takes place entirely inside a taxi cab driving through the streets of Iran. You see how clever he is? How he gets around the ban? They’re just driving around, that’s all.

He himself plays the taxi driver.

I am going to a screening of Taxi in late September and I cannot wait. The trailer just launched and it looks amazing.

What is going on with Jafar Panahi is the most important thing happening in the cinema world today.

Jafar Panahi is the true definition of the word hero.

Posted in Directors, Movies | Tagged , | 7 Comments

S/He & Me: A Theatrical Cabaret, by Alexandra Billings

My great friend Alexandra Billings, who has a great supporting role in the Golden-Glove-award-winning Amazon series Transparent, who is a professor of acting, my partner-in-crime in all things Celebrity Cult (you know the one I mean), a brilliant cabaret performer with 30 years of theatre experience, has written a cabaret show called S/He & Me: A Theatrical Cabaret, directed by Joanne Gordon. Californians: it’s running September 25 – October 11, 2015 at Cal Rep at the Studio Theatre. I wish I could be out there for it.

Here is the show’s opening monologue performed by Alex. Alex IS love, and the only reason that she IS love is because she has been through the shit, and come through on the other side. I learn from her every day.

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The Books: The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17; “On Mentioning the Unmentionable: An Exhortation to Miss Pankhurst”

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On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-17

In the last excerpt from this collection of Rebecca West’s early journalism, I talked a lot about her feminism, and the form it took: where it came from and how she coincided with and then differed from the mainstream movement, led by women like Christabel Pankhurst. West, despite her involvement with the “ism”s of the day, was not a joiner. She did not subscribe to groupthink, she did not go with the flow.

Here, in the 1913 essay from The Clarion, Rebecca West sets her sights on Christabel Pankhurst’s relatively new crusade against syphilis, a scourge of the day and certainly a huge problem, but West balked at it being lumped in with the feminist movement (it’s something she returns to again and again). STDs could be, literally, a death sentence in those days, and the shame of it kept women (and men, West reminds her readers) from getting help. Much of West’s feminism had to do with economics, but a lot of it had to do with the social status of the single woman, how she was infantilized and condescended to. She couldn’t go out alone, she couldn’t go out with men, she would be branded a whore … and so what the hell then? It put women in a double/triple bind.

However: Pankhurst’s obsession with sex, STDs, seemed unseemly to West, especially since it started to take the turn towards prudishness, celibacy, and a general hatred of the monsters that were men. This, to West’s clear and analytical and yet emotional mind, seemed unrealistic. Also, not TRUE. If you knew men, then you knew that not all of them were terrible. If you had sex, then you knew that not all sex was a power-play. Many men were looking for love too, and yes, in all the wrong places. They went with prostitutes because “nice girls didn’t” and the whole culture was both sex-crazy and sex-phobic and it made people literally insane. West saw the whole thing.

Pankhurst seemed to be removing herself from the important field of action and retreating into an ideological fortress, and West thought that was bad for feminism. It made them all look like lunatics, and it made them the embodiment of the judgments of their opponents (that they were all man-hating unwomanly women). West fought back. To go against the grain, then and now, is a daunting prospect. If you go against the party-line, you are treated as an apostate, a traitor. I know this will ruffle feathers, but I actually agree with some of Chrissie Hynde’s recent statements. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look it up. And now she is being excoriated left and right, people saying, “I like her music, hate her views” and it’s all so predictable I want to stab myself. Chrissie Hynde was raped. If these social justice people want to demand that people do not have contempt for their “lived experience” then why are they doing the same thing to Hynde? Can’t we at least consider the possibility that her views also come from a personal place, that her motivations are not somehow sinister? What is so dangerous/threatening about considering that what she says is a practical and grown-up way to look at the dangers women face? Nope. You just label it as “blaming the victim”, and the argument is seemingly over. Honestly. And to say, “I should be able to walk down the street in my underwear and be totally safe” seems to me to be living in La-La Land. This attitude is not keeping women safe. It is making women believe in some Utopia instead of realizing they need to step up and take care of themselves. I used to dress extremely proactively when I was young. It was the era of the Kinder-Whore. I loved that style. I was harassed all the time. I was attacked as well. I had some very hairy moments. (And I didn’t DESERVE these things. NOBODY “deserves” these things. But to say that there was zero correlation between my outfit and the harassment is ludicrous. And to say that removes me from responsibility. It turns me into a victim and that I won’t have. It also is a reversion to the Victorian era when even a glimpse of ankle was seen as provoking and dangerous. Fuck THAT. So I will dress how I like, but not be an idiot about it. Be cunning, make good choices, read Gavin de Becker’s Gift of Fear. We live in a dangerous and unfair world as women. Be smart.) My cop friends, back in my Kinder-Whore days, gave me self-defense tips, wrestling me to the ground and telling me what to do if I was in a tough spot. They didn’t say “Well maybe don’t wear a corset and a tiny kilt and ripped fishnets at 11 o’clock at night when you’re out by yourself.” They said, “Go for the eyes, Sheila. Don’t go for the nuts. Go for the eyes.” Their attitude became my attitude: Dress however you want. And be ready to defend yourself. But mentioning how a woman is dressed is so “not done” now (and yes, I get it, for good reasons) that it’s hard to even discuss it. The issue is not monolithic. There are varying degrees, shadings, complexity. See what happens when you limit language? You stop being able to discuss things at all and so when Chrissie Hynde strolls in and says the “wrong” thing, everyone’s heads explode with outrage. It is never a good sign when you are AFRAID to speak your mind. I get afraid to say, “Yeah, actually, I think Chrissie has a point, guys.” And here I am: saying it on my site. What are you going to do? Arrest me? Shun me? I understand the enemies of women are everywhere, and looking for ANYTHING to keep us down and back. And I don’t want to “give them anything” to help them. But honestly, misogynists are stupid people. They see things in black-and-white. They are uninterested in subtlety (or, worse – they can’t even perceive subtlety) and so an in-depth conversation is impossible. I feel like saying, “Okay, boys. Back off and let the grown-ups talk now.” So I understand why the battle lines are drawn. But the commentary about Hynde is a perfect example of how this whole thing works, and has always worked. Mainstreamers set the agenda, outsiders speak up, they are shouted down if they are not “in line” with the main agenda, they are sidelined, scorned. I mean, look at Camille Paglia. Only in the La-La Land of Ideology could she be described as “dangerous” and a “reactionary,” (words Gloria Steinem used in an interview to sum up Paglia).

West felt Pankhurst’s focus on sex was harmful to the movement, it was limiting it, it was dialing it down to the personal. West also took issue with the prudishness of it, as well as the vicious anti-male attitudes. It alarmed her. She writes early in her article: “One must love humanity before one can save it.” She sensed Pankhurst slipping off into hatred of man, and that was a dead-end street. West’s bag was economics and the Industrial Revolution had destroyed the quality of life for both women AND men. Adjust the economic disparity and life would be better, freer, for everyone. Working-class men were just as held down as working-class women, although working-class women were often blamed for more (the disintegration of the family, etc.) But Pankhurst blamed ALL men, and West had to say, “Now, now, venereal disease is ALSO a social and economic problem, not a male problem.” In an earlier article she wrote plainly, “I deplore rancor against men”, quite a thing to say when the men in power were imprisoning her suffragette sisters and throwing them down flights of stairs. But West was smart. She was only 20 years old, but she was smart.

This article is a response to an article about venereal disease by Christabel Pankhurst called “The Dangers of Marriage.” (Pankhurst, by the way, was not married. Neither was West.)

Excerpt from The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-17: “On Mentioning the Unmentionable: An Exhortation to Miss Pankhurst”, by Rebecca West

But the real crime in Miss Pankhurst’s article is her attitude towards those who suffer from sexual disease. She begins splendidly with the sweeping statement: “Men before marriage and often while they are married contract sexual disease from prostitutes and give this disease to their wives.” With a sharp pang one will see Miss Pankhurst on the Day of Judgement, sweeping all our fathers and husbands and sons down amongst the goats. She elaborates her point of view with vehemence:

Never again must young women enter into marriage blindfolded. From now onwards they must be warned of the fact that marriage is intensely dangerous, until such time as men’s moral standards are completely unchanged and they have become as chaste and clean-living as women.

These consequences are not only suffered by the persons who wantonly contract syphilis in the course of immoral living. They are suffered by innocent wives … and numbers of women who have inherited from their forebears the terrible legacy of suffering … and there are men who also suffer, though they have learned so little by it that they seek in immoral intercourse new infection, which they in turn transmit to generations yet to come.

Enough has surely been said to prove the dangers of marriage under existing conditions; to show the injury done to women by the low standards and immoral conduct of men.

Dear lady, behind whom I have been proud to walk in suffrage processions, this is rather a partial view. If we take it that your statements are literally true, have you no pity for the immoral men? We must be sorry for the man who loses the bright glory of love on the streets. He lives in a city and leads a tame life till he becomes tame and loses the wild thing’s scorn for a pleasure that is stale, unecstatic, grimy. All the time he is invited to brood on sex by us, by women. For there is the army of rich parasite women who have nothing to do and no outlet for the force in them except to play with sex and make life its gaudy circus. And there is the other army of women who will beseech him to buy their sex because it is the only thing they have that will fetch money. The fallen man may be something that quite certainly no woman wants as a lover and he becomes very soon something too cheap and dirty to have much to do with, but he is as much a victim of social conditions as the fallen woman. Moreover, had Miss Pankhurst studied the subject for more than three weeks she would have known that disease strikes down for the most part the young; that most of its victims are mere youths, sometimes perilously ignorant, who are bewitched by tawdry lures before their maturity has shown them the difference between the white, flashing thing of passion and the shabby substitute sold by gaslight.

But this scolding attitude of Miss Pankhurst is not only ununderstanding, it is also a positive incentive to keep these diseases the secret, spreading things they are. Doctors who were studying this matter long before Miss Pankhurst or I were born have complained bitterly that their efforts will come to nothing so long as sufferers are intimidated by a hostile social atmosphere into being afraid to acknowledge the nature of their illness and thus to seek advice as the best way of treatment. As the great Duclaux said: “The struggle against syphilis is only possible if we agree to regard its victims as unfortunate and not as guilty …” Only so will sufferers be encouraged to come forward and acknowledge themselves centers of infection. Let Miss Pankhurst ask herself: Would any of these hundreds of thousands of people who have innocently contracted such diseases – who have inherited it, who caught it while attending to the sick, who have been infected by the use of a cup or a towel that had previously been used by an infected person – be likely to be frank about their malady in a social atmosphere influenced by “The Dangers of Marriage”?

The strange uses to which we put our new-found liberty! There was a long and desperate struggle before it became possible for women to write candidly on subjects such as these. That this power should be used to express views that would be old-fashioned and uncharitable in the pastor of a Little Bethel is a matter for scalding tears.

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On This Day: September 1, 1939

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From Newsweek: Scenes from the invasion of Poland

From MSN: Friends, foes, mark WWII’s start in Poland

Hitler’s speech on Sept. 1, 1939, from Berlin:

To the defense forces:

The Polish nation refused my efforts for a peaceful regulation of neighborly relations; instead it has appealed to weapons.

Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes. The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Poles no longer are willing to respect the German frontier. In order to put an end to this frantic activity no other means is left to me now than to meet force with force.

German defense forces will carry on the battle for the honor of the living rights of the re- awakened German people with firm determination.

I expect every German soldier, in view of the great tradition of eternal German soldiery, to do his duty until the end.

Remember always in all situations you are the representatives of National Socialist Greater Germany!

Long live our people and our Reich!

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Hitler reviews the troops in Warsaw, October 5, 1939.

Excerpt from Viktor Klemperer’s stunning diary I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941:

September 3, Sunday afternoon

This torture of one’s nerves ever more unbearable. On Friday morning blackout ordered until further notice. We sit in the tiny cellar, the terrible damp closeness, the constant sweating and shivering, the smell of mold, the food shortage, makes everything even more miserable. I try to save butter and meat for Eva and Muschel, to make do myself as far as possible with still unrationed bread and fish. This in itself would all be trivial, but it is all only by the way. What will happen? From hour to hour we tell ourselves, now is the moment when everything is decided, whether Hitler is all-powerful, whether his rule will last indefinitely, or whether it falls now, now.

On Friday morning, September 1, the young butcher’s lad came and told us: There had been a radio announcement, we already held Danzig and the Corridor, the war with Poland was under way, England and France remained neutral. I said to Eva, then a morphine injection or something similar was the best thing for us, our life was over. But then we said to one another, that could not possibly be the way things were, the boy had often reported absurd things (he was a perfect example of the way in which people take in news reports). A little later we heard Hitler’s agitated voice, then the usual roaring, but could not make anything out. We said to ourselves, if the report were even only half true they must already be putting out the flags. Then down in town the dispatch of the outbreak of war. I asked several people whether English neutrality had already been declared. Only an intelligent salesgirl in a cigar shop on Chemnitzer Platz said: No – that would really be a joke! At the baker’s, at Vogel’s, they all said, as good as declared, all over in a few days! A young man in front of the newspaper display: The English are cowards, they won’t do anything. Ad thus with variations the general mood, vox populi (butter seller, newspaper man, bill collector of the gas company etc. etc.) In the afternoon read the Fuhrer’s speech. It seemed to me pessimistic as far as the external and the interal position were considered. Also all the regulations pointed and still point to more than a mere punitive expedition against Poland. And now this is the third day like this, it feels as if it has been three years: the waiting, the despairing, hoping, weighing up, not knowing. The newspaper yesterday, Saturday, vague and in fact anticipating a general outbreak of war: England, the attacker – English mobilization, French mobilization, they will bleed to death! etc., etc. But still no declaration of war on their side. Is it coming or will they fail to resist and merely demonstrate weakness?

The military bulletin is also unclear. Talks of successes everywhere, reports no serious opposition anywhere and yet also shows that German troops have nowhere advanced far beyond the frontiers. How does it all fit together? All in all: Reports and measures taken are serious, popular opinion absolutely certain of victory, ten thousand times more arrogant than in ’14. The consequence will either be an overwhelming, almost unchallenged victory, and England and France are castrated minor states, or a catastrophe ten thousand times worse than ’18. And the two of us right in the middle, helpless and probably lost in either case … And yet we force ourselves, and sometimes it even succeeds for a couple of hours, to go on with our everyday life: reading aloud, eating (as best we can), writing, garden. But as I lie down to sleep I think: Will they come for me tonight? Will I be shot, will I be put in a concentration camp?

Waiting in peaceful Dolzschen, cut off from the world, is particularly bad. One listens to every sound, watches every face, pays attention to everything. One learns nothing. One waits for the newspaper and can make nothing of it. At the moment I do tend to think that there will be war with the great powers.

At the butcher an old dear puts her hand on my shoulder and says in a voice full of tears: He has said that he will put on a soldier’s coat again and be a soldier himself, and if he falls, then Goering … A young lady brings me my ration card, looks at me with a friendly expression: Do you still remember me? I studied under you, I’ve married into the family here. — An old gentleman, very friendly, brings the blackout order: Terrible, that it’s war again – but yet one is so patriotic, when I saw a battery leaving yesterday, I wanted more than anything to go with them! No one is outraged by the Russian alliance, people think it is brilliant or an excellent joke – Vogel’s optimism (yesterday: We’ve almost finished off the Poles, the others won’t stir themselves!) is to our benefit in coffee, sausage, tea, soap etc. — Is this the general mood in Germany? Is it founded on facts or on hubris?

The Jewish Community in Dresden inquires whether I want to join it, since it represents the National Association of Jews locally; the Confessing Christians inquire whether I shall remain with them. I replied to the Gruber people that I was and will remain Protestant, I would not reply to the Jewish Community at all.

Note how on September 1 the Fuhrer declared lasting friendship with Russia in two words. Is there really no one in Germany who does not feel a pang of conscience? Once more: Machiavelli was mistaken; there is a line beyond which the separation of morality and politics is unpolitical and has to be paid for. Sooner or later. But can we wait until later?

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September 1, 1939

Excerpt from William Shirer’s Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 (more excerpts here):

BERLIN, AUGUST 31 three thirty a.m.

Tonight the great armies, navies, and air forces are all mobilized. Each country is shut off from the other. We have not been able today to get through to Paris or London, or of course to Warsaw, though I did talk to Tess in Geneva. At that, no precipitate action is expected tonight. Berlin is quite normal in appearance this evening. There has been no evacuation of women and children, not even any sandbagging of the windows. We’ll have to wait through still another night, it appears, before we know. And so to bed, almost at dawn.

BERLIN, September 1

At six a.m. Sigrid Schultz – bless her heart – phoned. She said: “it’s happened.” I was very sleepy – my body and mind numbed, paralysed. I mumbled: “Thanks, Sigrid,” and tumbled out of bed. The war is on!

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It’s a “counter-attack”! At dawn this morning Hitler moved against Poland. It’s a fragrant, inexcusable, unprovoked act of aggression. But Hitler and the High Command call it a “counter-attack”. A grey morning with overhanging clouds. T he people in the street were apathetic when I drove to the Rundfunk for my first broadcast at eight fifteen a.m. Across from the Adlon the morning shift of workers was busy on the new I.G. Farben building just as if nothing had happened. None of the men brought the extras which the newsboys were shouting. Along the east-west axis the Luftwaffe were mounting five big anti-aircraft guns to protect Hitler when he addresses the Reichstag at ten a.m. Jordan and I had to remain at the radio to handle Hitler’s speech for America. Throughout the speech, I thought as I listened, ran a curious strain, as though Hitler himself were dazed at the fix he had got himself into and felt a little desperate about it. Somehow he did not carry conviction and there was much less cheering in the Reichstag than on previous, less important occasions. Jordan must have reacted the same way. As we waited to translate the speech for America, he whispered: “Sounds like his swan song.” It really did. He sounded discouraged when he told the Reichstag that Italy would not be coming into the war because “we are unwiling to call in outside help for this struggle. We will fulfil this task by ourselves.” And yet Paragraph 3 of the Axis military alliance calls for immediate, automatic Italian support with “all its military resources on land, at sea, and in the air.” What about that? He sounded desperate when, referring to Molotov’s speech of yesterday at the Russian ratification of the Nazi-Soviet accord, he said: “I can only underline every word of Foreign Commisar Molotov’s speech.”

Tomorrow Britain and France probably will come in and you have your second World War. The British and French tonight sent an ultimatum to Hitler to withdraw his troops from Poland or their ambassadors will ask for their passports. Presumably they will get their passports.

Later. Two thirty a.m. – Almost through our first blackout. The city is completely darkened. It takes a little getting used to. You grope around in the pitch-black streets and pretty soon your eyes get used to it. You can make out the whitewashed curbstones. We had our first air-raid alarm at seven p.m. I was at the radio just beginning my script for a broadcast at eight fifteen. The lights went out, and all the German employees grabbed their gas-masks and, not a little frightened, rushed for the shelter. No one offered me a mask, but the wardens insisted that I go to the cellar. In the darkness and confusion I escaped outside and went down to the studios, where I found a small room in which a candle was burning on a table. There I scribbled out my notes. No planes came over. But with the English and French in, it may be different tomorrow. I shall then be in the by no means pleasant predicament of hoping they bomb the hell out of this town without getting me. The ugly shrill of the sirens, the rushing to a cellar with your gas-mask (if you have one), the utter darkness of the night – how will human nerves stand for that long?

One curious thing about Berlin on this first night of the war: the cafes, restaurants, and beer-halls were packed. The people just a bit apprehensive after the air-raid, I felt. Finished broadcasting at one thirty a.m., stumbled a half-mile down the Kaiserdamm in the dark, and finally found a taxi. But another pedestrian appeared out of the dark and jumped in first. We finally shared it, he very drunk and the driver drunker, and both cursing the darkness and the war.

The isolation from the outside world that you feel on a night like this is increased by a new decree issued tonight prohibiting the listening to foreign broadcasts. Who’s afraid of the truth? And no wonder. Curious that not a single Polish bomber got through tonight. But will it be the same with the British and French?

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Auden, an ex-pat sitting in New York, wrote the following poem about it. The poem has an interesting history in and of itself. Auden deleted the final two stanzas. (They’re included in the collection called Early Auden and are included below.) Auden proclaimed later that he was ashamed of this poem. Auden edited the famous valedictory line “We must love another or die” to “We must love another and die”, a totally different meaning and indicative of his conflicting feelings about this poem. I think Auden didn’t like that it sounded like he was patting himself on the back for his own humanism. E.M. Forster declared that because Auden wrote the words “We must love one another or die” he would follow Auden anywhere. That was a common response to the poem, and maybe one of the reasons Auden disliked it so much. But still, it’s an astonishing piece of work and it stands as a document of that day: Auden’s feelings about it, his editing of it, his rejection of it, is also part and parcel of those horrible chaotic end-times.

SEPTEMBER 1, 1939
by W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Posted in On This Day | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

August 2015 Viewing Diary

Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine (2000; d. Bahman Farmanara).
A profound and touching (and very funny) film from Iran, written and directed by and starring Farmanara. It tells the story of a death-obsessed film director who hasn’t made a film in years. He mourns his dead wife. He can’t get new projects off the ground (an explicit political point about artists in Iran: they live a living death). There’s an All That Jazz-ish quality to some of it, as well as multiple clear nods to Woody Allen. It’s beautiful.

Moon (2009; d. Duncan Jones)
One of my favorite films from 2009. The illusion that there are two Sam Rockwells walking around on that Moon station is so complete that you forget about it almost immediately. Deep film about identity. Haunting score by Clint Mansell. Sam Rockwell’s performance is out of this world. Literally.

Footlight Parade (1933; d. Lloyd Bacon, musical numbers by Busby Berkeley)
I love this movie. I love the show-girls racing from theatre to theatre in their special bus, the bus zooming by with frenzied blurred images of all of the girls changing into their next costumes through the windows. As a kid, Footlight Parade represented the launching-pad of so many fantasies, of life in the theatre, life in vaudeville, running around in tap shoes, that the fantasies are indistinguishable at this point from my actual personality. Some of us don’t “put away childish things.”

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 4, “Paper Moon” (2014; d. Jeannot Szwarf)
This episode is better than I remember. Yes, there are too many flashbacks and way too much talking and the actress playing Kate is unable to carry the emotion of the episode. But there are so many great scenes of Sam and Dean talking, arguing, discussing … Four, I think. Four!! Dean saying the word “embarrassing”. I forgot about that. When has he ever said that word before? It’s also gorgeously filmed, dark and rainy. So I’m much better with it now.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 5, “Fan Fiction” (2014; d. Phil Sgricca)
Perfection.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 6, “Ask Jeeves” (2014; d. John MacCarthy)
This cast is HILARIOUS. “Did anyone else just wet themselves?” Dean staring into the knight’s armor. Sam being sexually harassed by the cougars and trying to casually touch them with silver knives to see if they are monsters. Goof-balls all around and I love every one of them. Plus Flowers in the Attic references. So I’m good.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 7, “Girls, Girls, Girls” (2014; d. Robert Singer)
Oh Hannah/Caroline. Naked in front of Castiel. Nope. Nope to the nth degree. How many plot-lines can one episode hold? It’s too much! Also, the actress playing Hannah forgets, constantly, that she is supposed to be a supernatural being, unused to human-ness. She hasn’t tapped into the ONE THING that could make the character interesting. Buh-bye Hannah. Meanwhile: sex trade and human trafficking. “Fancy lady” returns. The insane contingent of Supernatural fans, based only on the TRAILER for the episode, bombarded the poor writer on Twitter with accusations that he was a “rape apologist.” Poor guy. What on earth were these bozos talking about? They hadn’t even seen the episode. I liked that Dean was on a dating site. Yeah, it was never mentioned again (and that’s a flaw: you set up something weird or interesting like this, you might as well explore it further, especially in an “all over the place” episode like this.) but I like Sexpot Dean, on the make Dean.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 8, “Hibbing 911″ (2014; d. Tim Andrew)
Glorious. “Save ya a seat, Jodes!” Off-screen: “Jodeo!” “Jodeo?” The final confrontation with its supposed Woodstock-gone-wrong vibe doesn’t work at all and there’s too much talking and explaining (and, again, the young actress is not up to the task) but the rest is so awesome that I seriously want a Sherriff Mills-Donna spinoff. Plus, all the Bob Dylan references. So much fun.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 9, “The Things We Left Behind” (2014; d. Guy Norman Bee)
Remembering now the “all over the place” quality of Season 10, which I am pretty all right with. I like its mess. I am bored with some storylines (Hannah, Castiel in general, Crowley – who started out so strong in his bromance way), but there’s enough going on with the brothers that I’m good with it. (I think the show is stronger, anyway, when the overall Arc doesn’t dominate too much. It’s not that kind of show. Or, that’s not the kind of show I care about. HENCE: I’m good with “all over the place”-ness.) One of the things I think is great is that Dean has “come back” from hiatus with all kinds of problems: Hell. Purgatory. Domestic Life with Lisa. So we see that transformation and how these changes operate him. Here, with the Mark, we see how specific he is in working on whatever these challenges are. The effect of the Mark does not look like Hell … or Purgatory … or Suburban Life. What happens to him when he’s under the influence of the Mark is not just the violence … it is how LOST he feels. That interior “wait … where am I” look, that’s been there from the beginning. It’s so subtle, and so specific, and it’s all on him. He came up with that.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 10, “The Hunter Games” (2015; d. John Badham)
First of all: John Freakin’ Badham. Second of all: I get the sense that a lot of people disliked the actress playing Claire. I really like her. She is clearly still a little girl, and her bravado is ACTING tough, because she needs to. But you always see that child. Sounds a little bit like Dean. I think she’s lovely. Not totally crazy about the Castiel Domestic Arc, and hate “I like emoticons” (can’t stand “Cutesy” Castiel: Ugh) but in the context of the season (which is all about families – broken families, families reuniting), I think it works. However: this episode is worth it for the cracked-mirror shot of Dean early on, as well as the moment when he steps forward to face Metatron, one of the most gorgeous shots of him in the entire series (another one being the shot of him hiding in the police station in the pilot. They started early with The Beauty.) Again, the three-pronged plot (Dean/Sam/Metatron, Castiel/Claire and Crowley/Rowena) is a bit much. But yay, Cain!

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 11, “There’s No Place Like Home” (2015; d. Phil Sgricca)
Charlie! The final scene is killer. Some of Ackles’ best work. Charlie (Felicia Day) brings out something totally unique.

The Gift (2015; d. Joel Edgerton)
Loved it. reviewed for Ebert.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 12, “About a Boy” (2015; d. Serge Ladouceur)
Glorious.

Digging For Fire (2015; d. Joe Swanberg)
I don’t like Joe Swanberg’s stuff but I liked this.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 13, “Halt & Catch Fire” (2015; d. Serge Ladouceur)
This one didn’t really have reverb for me, but I liked Dean’s tortured mien on the college campus with all the pretty girls. He couldn’t take it. A sign of life, human regular life.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 14, “Executioner’s Song” (2015; d. Serge Ladouceur)
The buildup to Cain’s return. Things getting serious. The Crowley-Rowena thing … I don’t know. I like the Shakespearean treacherous court thing they’ve got going on … but there’s something missing. It makes Crowley so irrelevant. Like, what are you still doing here? (And I love Crowley.) Also, the scene with Cain and Dean was awesome – and Dean falling over afterwards was great. But this is an issue with Supernatural: you build up this whole thing, the Mark of Cain, what it is doing to Dean, how it is killing him (this happened in Season 9 too) – and then, in the end, what happens with Cain? A fist-fight. Like any other fist fight. Yeah, Cain says mean things that cut Dean to the core. But … that’s it? The Mark just makes you … have a particularly brutal fist fight? Both actors are playing the subtext, HARD, and they fill in the blanks in the scenario with their considerable gifts, and make it an apocalyptic emotional meeting of the minds. But still.

Ricki and the Flash (2015; d. Jonathan Demme)
I liked it.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 1, “Nothing Important Happened Today, Part 1″ (2001; d. Kim Manners)
Kim Manners starting us off on the final season of The X-Files. These are two very intense episodes. Mulder is gone. Doggett and Monica Reyes are rising. I think Robert Patrick is superb in what was a thankless role. But taken outside of the context that he is “replacing” Mulder or whatever: he is his own guy, with his own arc, and I love so many elements of his performance. I love his skepticism, his wry humor … but what makes it for me is that his face is so sad. It is etched with pain. This is a man who is one of the walking wounded. I also like that he is surrounded by tough mouthy broads and he never once belittles them, shows contempt for them, or tries to lord his male-ness over them. He’s not like that. He listens, he argues, he shakes his head in disbelief, but Season 9 is about a triangulation partnership: three people. Very difficult. But the dynamic works.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 2, “Nothing Important Happened Today, Part 2″ (2001; d. Tony Wharmby)
Paranoia and melodrama.

Criminal Minds, Season 1, Episode 3 “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (2005; d. Kevin Bray)
I like to let off steam watching this show. I don’t know why. I’ve seen these episodes a million times.

Criminal Minds, Season 1, Episode 4 “Plain Sight” (2005; d. Matt Earl Beesley)
Ditto.

10,000 Saints (2015; d. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini)
Enjoyed it, reviewed for Ebert.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 3, “Daemonicus” (2001; d. Frank Spotnitz)
Doggett and Reyes investigate a case. Scully is busy being a new mother. She enters the action only sporadically. It takes some getting used to. But I found the two new actors wonderful together. Also, please kiss, you two.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 4, “4-D” (2001; d. Tony Wharmby)
A near-death experience that will then be mirrored at the end of the season.

Tom at the Farm (2015; d. Xavier Dolan)
A bit much, and it doesn’t really work, but there are parts of it that are gorgeous. Dolan is young. Super-young. Who knows what will happen with him. Reviewed for Ebert.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 5, “Lord of the Flies” (2001; d. Kim Manners)
Another gross bug episode. What is it with Kim Manners and bugs?

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 6, “Trust No 1.” (2001; d. Tony Wharmby)
HOLY SHIT. “Dearest Dana.” Dearest Dana???? Breath-taking.

Criminal Minds, Season 1, Episode 5 “Broken Mirror” (2005; d. Guy Norman Bee)
Women are in danger. Always.

Criminal Minds, Season 1, Episode 6 “LDSK” (2005; d. Ernest R. Dickerson)
It’s interesting to see how the series grew. It’s still pretty self-conscious here, with the behavioral analysts being super-imposed on imagined action on a green screen behind them, “imagining” their way into the killer’s head. It’s pretentious. They dropped that “device” pretty quick. Mandy Patinkin is amazing: coiled and focused and pained and smart.

Fast & Furious 4 (2009; d. Justin Lin)
Watched while I was recovering from surgery because it’s comforting and entertaining. Mum got sucked into it too. That opening sequence with the tanker and Michelle Rodriguez. Amazing.

Criminal Minds, Season 1, Episode 7 “The Fox” (2005; d. Guy Norman Bee)
Serial killers are everywhere. And they are smarter than you and me. Always. And hey, Guy Norman Bee!

Criminal Minds, Season 1, Episode 8 “Natural Born Killer” (2005; d. Peter Ellis)
Hi, Peter Ellis!

Survivor’s Remorse, Season 1, Episode 4, “The Decisions” (2014; d. Bradley Buecker)
A re-watch before Season 2 premiered. My cousin Mike created the show. My cousin Kerry has appeared on the show twice. My brother Brendan is on the writing staff. I am proud of my family. This is a terrific show.

Survivor’s Remorse, Season 1, Episode 5, “Out of the Past” (2014; d. Mike Mariano)
One of the best things about Survivor’s Remorse is how it sets you up to think an interaction is going to go one way, due to our preconceived notions. And then … boom. The undercut. We see a more human and flawed version of events. It’s so refreshing.

Survivor’s Remorse, Season 1, Episode 6, “Six” (2014; d. Victor Levin)
A woman emerges from the past. We get more backstory. This is a family that really cares about each other.

His Private Secretary (1933; d. Phil Whitman)
Early John Wayne, before he became “John Wayne”. It’s cheaply done, it’s barely an hour, but John Wayne is really good. It’s easy to be good when the entire industry is set up to please you, to give you the best roles, to create movies around you. It’s not so easy to be good in something shallow and thrown together: Wayne is charming, funny, natural, and sexy.

The Shooting (1966; d. Monte Hellman)
A moody mysterious masterpiece. It’s out on Criterion, with a video-essay on the great Warren Oates by my friend Kim Morgan. Get it. The Shooting stars Warren Oates, Millie Perkins and Jack Nicholson. It’s incredible.

Gimme Shelter (1970; d. Albert Maysles, David Maysles)
I’ve seen it a bunch, of course, but this time, still in recovery from surgery, I listened to the commentary track, which is fascinating. The insider view of what it was like on that crazy awful day.

Supernatural, Season 2, Episode 18, “Hollywood Babylon” (2007; d. Phil Sgriccia)
A re-watch in preparation for a re-cap, whenever I’ll get to it. I love this episode.

Supernatural, Season 2, Episode 19, “Folsom Prison Blues” (2007; d. Mike Rohl)
“Poor … giant … Tiny.” Another great episode, one of my favorites in Season 2.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 7, “John Doe” (2002; d. Michelle MacLaren)
Michelle MacLaren’s first directing job. It’s amazing. The light is all saturated and bleached out, a glamorous and yet dried-out look. Robert Patrick’s breakdown, when he remembers, again, about his son, was heart-wrenching. He’s so so good! Why doesn’t he get enough credit for this performance? What a character.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 8, “Hellbound” (2002; d. Kim Manners)
Monica Reyes is a bit nutty, even for the X-Files people. I like that, though. They aren’t setting her up as a kook, or a Mulder stand-in. She is her own thing. It would have been so easy to make fun of that character, or to set her up as “female competition” (yuk). Instead, she’s an excellent collaborator with her own view on things.

Phoenix (2015; d. Christian Petzold)
One of my favorite movies of 2015 so far. Review here.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 9, “Provenance” (2002; d. Kim Manners)
Here we go.

Break Point (2014; d. Jay Karas)
Watched to review for Rogerebert.com. It opens this Friday.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 10, “Providence” (2002; d. Chris Carter)
Intense. Scully’s baby is rising in importance.

Straight Outta Compton (2015; d. F. Gary Gray)
Another one of my favorite movies of the year thus far. Review here.

Stella Dallas (1937; d. King Vidor)
You know, I cry every time. Especially that scene when Stella goes to see her husband’s new woman and says “Please take my daughter.” That scene is KILLER. Stanwyck has no vanity. That character is a mess. A complicated mess. She does not hold back.

20 Fingers (2004; Mania Akbari)
Directed and written by the hugely talented Mania Akbari (she’s a formidable person), 20 Fingers also stars Akbari with Bijan Daneshmand – the only other cast member. Daneshmand is also a talented and fascinating guy, known mainly as a producer. This is a short film, barely over an hour, but it features a series of vignettes, written by Akbari, showing the contemporary issues facing individual men and women in Iran. Some are funny-ish, some are disturbing (the first one especially), and some are interesting in the way that good writing can remain on the surface but also suggest disturbances in the depths. These two actors are incredible. They play a series of totally different characters. Oh, and each vignette is just one take. The cumulative effect of all of this is devastating. One of the unspoken and yet totally clear subjects of the film is how patriarchy doesn’t really empower men after all: it weakens them, makes them brittle and small and afraid. It’s not just about what patriarchy does to women. Patriarchy RUINS men. Bold and radical.

Five: Dedicated to Ozu (2003; d. Abbas Kiarostami)
Kiarostami is so intellectual in his process and a wonderful manipulator of events onscreen. This film is made of a series of long takes (five in total), dedicated to the great Japanese master of the long take Yasujirō Ozu. How to describe these long takes? There is no dialogue. One involves a cluster of dogs lying on the beach (each “take” happens on the beach). One involves a piece of driftwood being sucked back out to sea. One involves the reflection of a full moon in a small pool of water. One involves an army of ducks marching along the beach. There is a structure to these events. The takes are all about 10, 15 minutes long (some longer). It may try your patience. But what ends up happening is you start to get drawn into the images onscreen, repetitive and yet always in flux, and all kinds of thoughts and associations start coming up as you make your own sense of what is going on.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 11, “Audrey Pauley” (2002; d. Kim Manners)
Amazing episode. Loved it. it reminded me of “In My Time of Dying,” the Supernatural episode also directed by Manners.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 12, “Underneath” (2002; d. John Shiban)
A Doggett-centric episode, a dirty-cop police procedural. I love Robert Patrick so much (have I said that??): he is positively riveting onscreen. “You broke my heart,” he says to his partner with such openness I gasped.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 13, “Improbable” (2002; d. Chris Carter)
Burt Reynolds shows up. Burt Reynolds!! I adore this episode. It reminded me of Jacques Tati, with its understanding of math, its symmetry, its group scenes where people move in seemingly random ways but that make sense in a larger pattern. It ends with a musical number. This episode is insane and I am in love with it.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 14, “Scary Monsters” (2002; d. Dwight Little)
Moody Monster of the Week.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 15, “Jump the Shark” (2002; d. Cliff Bole)
Lone Gunmen-centric. Moving towards the end of the series now: re-visiting all of the characters who populate this world. I cried at the end.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 16, “William” (2002; d. David Duchovny)
Duchovny’s style as a director is so damn romantic. Heart-wrenching episode.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 17, “Release” (2002; d. Kim Manners)
Tying up a loose end with Doggett’s back-story. Doggett Doggett Doggett. I’m so taken with this man, his closeups, the thoughts, the emotions, the blazing blue eyes filled with pain. Maybe he’ll be okay after all. Mark Snow pulls out all the stops with his stunning score.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 18, “Sunshine Days” (2002; d. Vince Gilligan)
Cannot EVEN with the Brady Bunch theme! “Bobby? Cindy??” TOO MUCH.

The X-Files, Season 9, Episode 19, “The Truth: Part 1 and 2″ (2002; d. Kim Manners)
Kim Manners brought the series to a close. Mulder returns. I’m now getting used to seeing Scully and Mulder kiss and that may be the most unbelievable thing about this series. The final shot … with its womb-like intimacy … was gorgeous. Closing the series out. I am sure fans were hoping for more. Or, some fans. But ultimately: what matters in this life? What truth is the most important? The ties that bind us together, our connections, and our love.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008; d. Chris Carter)
Really really enjoyed the second movie. It’s a relationship movie. Mulder has a beard.

Man of the World (1931; d. Richard Wallace)
An early Carole Lombard. It’s interesting to see her, pre Twentieth Century, when she emerged as the screwball-dame comedic genius that we all know her to be. Here, she plays a straight leading lady, charming and gorgeous and thoughtful, but with not one funny line. William Powell is gorgeous and sad, living a bad life, filled with guilt. And loved the ending. Unexpectedly dark. But right, ultimately.

We’re Not Dressing (1934; d. Norman Taurog)
What is not to love about this movie? Let me list the details:
1. Norman Taurog, eventually known for directing most of the Elvis movies, directed this maniac film.
2. Bing Crosby as a sailor, who sings constantly. He sings as disaster ensues. He sings five full songs, and the songs are long as hell. He’s gorgeous.
3. Carole Lombard, now fully emerged as her comedic self. Watch her facial expressions as Bing sings to her.
3. Ethel Merman, singing, and riding a bicycle through the ocean in her pant suit.
4. A roller-skating bear.
5. Ray Milland as a tuxedo wearing Prince, desperate to win the favor of Carole Lombard.
6. All of these people are shipwrecked on a deserted island. Or, they think it’s deserted, when actually there are two other people living on the island. Those two other people are:
7. George Burns and Gracie Allen.
8. Carole Lombard is a spoiled rich brat. Bing Crosby sings love songs to her but also treats her callously. “Callously” as in: he attempts to rape her because it’ll serve her right. Later, he says to her that she wouldn’t have even been worth it. And this is the HERO of the film.
9. At one point, Carole Lombard, soaking wet, stands behind a rock and disrobes. She wrings out her filmy sheer underpants. She hangs them out to dry. So for the rest of the movie you know she is stalking around commando. So there’s that. But then a brisk wind whips the underwear into the air, and carries them through the tropical forest where they land at Gracie Allen’s feet, unnoticed at first. Gracie then proceeds to put on Carole Lombard‘s underwear, thinking it is her own.
10. Can you tell this is Pre-Code?
11. This movie is literally INSANE.

Update: Found this gif online of Carole Lombard in We’re Not Dressing standing on the ship-deck and hearing Bing Crosby sing from the deck below. I can’t stop watching it.

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Straight Outta Compton (2015)

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Man, this has been a great year for music biopics (a genre that tends to follow the predictable old “and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened” structure). Love & Mercy and Straight Outta Compton? In the same year? Both films are on my (ever-growing) list of favorite films of the year. (Thoughts on Love & Mercy here). (and FYI, my favorite films so far: Girlhood, Ex Machina, Ocean of Helena Lee, Welcome to Me, Magic Mike XXL, It Follows, Mad Max, About Elly (made in 2009 but just getting a release now), and Phoenix.)

Love & Mercy was an unconventional look at two crucial periods in Brian Wilson’s life, with Brian Wilson played by Paul Dano and John Cusack, a bizarre choice on the face of it: they look nothing alike, they don’t even have the same essences as actors – but in the context of the film, and its non-realistic and poetic emotional landscape – it worked. It was about the art and it was about the psychology. That was what it cared about, not “and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” The biopic structure is so seemingly set in stone that it’s refreshing when a film decides “Nope. Not gonna do that.” (Another pet peeve is the focus on salacious details, drug addiction, the horrible side of fame, the bad behavior. Boy do biopics like to revel in that stuff. Yes, all of these things may be true. But do they illuminate anything about the MUSIC of the genius at the heart of the film? Do they let us know (or even care) WHY this person was so important that they deserve a biopic in the first place? (I have bitched about this before, in terms of biographies, especially in this piece about Peter Manso’s vicious biography of Marlon Brando.) There’s been a bit of controversy about Dr. Dre immediately following the release of Straight Outta Compton, due to his “misogny” and past mistreatment of women – but honestly … well. The controversy got an eyeroll from yours truly – and I thought Dre’s apology was heartfelt and sincere. We saw enough in the film to know these guys were partying hard and exploring the boundaries of promiscuity like all rock stars have done before them, with women mostly irrelevant except as crowds of barely-clad available sex partners… but there were far more important things going on with NWA than their personal foibles as men or boyfriends or husbands. Maybe it would have been interesting to show Dre’s early history of assaults. Who knows.Dr. Dre is a pioneer, and one of the most important figures in music in the last 30 years. His personal flaws were plenty in evidence in the film, as it was, but what matters in the story is his music, his producing, and his thought-process, how he thought about music. That’s what I care about anyway.)

Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, and produced, in part, by NWA member Ice Cube (whose son, O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his dad in the film – spitting image!), has all of the trappings of the typical biopic (origin story, growing fame, rock-star acting out, controversy, etc.) but brings to the table more anger, more heart, and an intense understanding of why it was that NWA struck such a nerve (and why they still matter – maybe even more now). If NWA had come along earlier, it might not have gone down the way it did. They may have stayed in their corner of Compton, putting out little records on little labels, and wouldn’t have become superstars. The time was right. The connection of men was right. The zeitgeist was right (something the film really gets, and represents in just one or two scenes. Eazy-E bailing Dre out of jail, asking him: “So why’d they arrest you?” Dre: “I was just standing there. Literally. I was just standing there.”) If the Rodney King beating hadn’t happened in the middle of their heyday, (basically proving that their most controversial song was not “inciting” or “dangerous” – it was just a bunch of guys explaining what they saw when they looked out the window, and what they experienced in their own neighborhoods – or, as Ice Cube said in an interview, “That song is a warning“), perhaps they wouldn’t have become such a cultural flashpoint, argued about in the highest halls of power in our nation. Who knows. But the fact remains that it did happen and NWA changed everything. And the proof is in the fact that all of those guys (except, sadly, Eazy-E, of course) are still around, superstars, moguls, producers, Renaissance men. These guys meant business.

In telling the origin story (and further on, but it’s set up from the get-go), the film does not sacrifice the most important element, the thing that holds it together: why these guys were friends, their dynamic as a group. God, it’s great. Each man is so distinctive (and I’ll rave about the casting in a second), and you can tell how the group operates. There’s such a sense of camaraderie – not just in the early scenes, but it’s most apparent there because later on, conflict arises and they all (famously) go their separate ways. But there’s such humor and listening and goofing off between all of them, open arguments about who does what and they work stuff out, and a give-and-take – none of it seems forced. This cast!! There’s a great scene that takes place after Ice Cube left NWA and came out with a solo album, with a song (“Vaseline”) dissing everyone in NWA, calling people out by name. The remaining members of NWA sit around listening to it, and there are some girlfriends there too, and everyone is rocking their head to the beat (almost against their will), and bursting out laughing when their name comes up, even if it’s in a mean context. Is it a betrayal to say, “Uhm … yeah, that’s a good song. I liked it.”? They all can’t help it. It’s good. Then, of course, the situation changes, and people get pissed and NWA decides to retaliate, with their own dis song. But that first reaction is where the glue of the film is, why it all works so well. It’s human. The biopic can be so strict in its linear story-telling, in its emotional thru-line that humanity and subtlety and nuance sometimes is wiped out. Everything becomes black-and-white. Not so here. These people are connected. They all grew up in the same block. They’ve known each other forever. Of course there’d be some humor and appreciation of what Ice Cube created, even if he’s rocking the insults. They know the score.

The casting is superb. When we first see each character, we get a little credit beside them, so we can locate who is who, but honestly, even without those credit lines we would know. Corey Hawkins (so excellent as Dr. Dre) looks a little bit like Dr. Dre, the high cheekbones, small eyes, the wide planes of his face. He’s enough like Dre that you accept it immediately. He also has the same sense of absorbed gravitas that Dre brings to the table. He’s a man being treated like a boy by the culture and he’s had it. Jason Mitchell, too, as the wiry energetic Eazy-E, the crazy curls jutting out from underneath the baseball cap, as well as the hyperkinetic intelligent essence. Jason Mitchell doesn’t have a lot of credits to his name, and while Straight Outta Compton is a true ensemble drama, he has one of the most challenging roles in the film, the guy with the most going on in a lot of respects, and Mitchell is extraordinary. Eazy-E was the one who financed NWA’s first record, with the massive amounts of money he made as a drug dealer. Eazy-E was the one who found them a manager, the controversial Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti – who also played Brian Wilson’s agent in Love & Mercy). Eazy-E didn’t seem to see himself as a rapper in the beginning, but once he got into the booth, at Dre’s encouragement, he went nuts. He was brilliant. It’s subtle, but that scene makes you understand why Dre is a brilliant producer. He senses things in the person in front of him that even the person doesn’t know is there.

I mean, remember that famous line from Eminem’s “White America,” the first song on The Eminem Show, an album that busted him through to the next level of fame/notoriety/omnipresence/legend-icon-villain status:

And kids flipped when they knew I was produced by Dre
That’s all it took.

“That’s all it took.” says Eminem, one of the biggest stars in the world. Eminem always gives Dr. Dre the props, for seeing his talent, ignoring his skin color as irrelevant, and investing in him. Dre’s involvement was a message to the black rap fans: “This white guy is cool.” The two of them are both rigid tireless perfectionists, who would rather make music than … live life outside the booth, basically. But that line from Eminem speaks to Dre’s power, his influence, how meaningful his involvement in any project. This is not news, obviously, and Straight Outta Compton starts out 10 years before Eminem came around, but in the scene when Eazy-E gets into the booth and Dre works with him, you understand HOW and WHY this became the case. Dre helped other people realize their potential, be bold, go for it, but make sure you do it all on the damn beat.

Eazy-E was separated from the rest of the group due to his loyalty to Jerry Heller, and the money issue (the money is a huge plot-point in the film). And then, of course, his death from AIDS. That’s a lot. Jason Mitchell is extraordinary navigating all of this. A beautiful character: smart, scared, righteous, fun, funny. You can see why his death would bring everyone together again, because he was so essential. O’Shea Jackson Jr., as mentioned before, is Ice Cube’s son, and doesn’t have to work hard to get his father’s mannerisms or voice tones down: he already has them. What an honor, right? To play your famous dad? But also what a challenge. It could be daunting, it could be setting yourself up to fail. He’s excellent. Ice Cube knew that something was not right with the money, he knew they were being stiffed somehow, but he looked at contracts and didn’t understand what they were saying. This is such a common problem with young stars who suddenly make a lot of money. People who barely have a high school education are suddenly millionaires and have to trust other people to manage their money, and how often does that go totally south? But Ice Cube knows something is “off.” He can smell it. It’s due to that conflict that he leaves (but not before smashing up label exec’s office with a baseball bat. Great scene.) In this particular thru-line of the film, knowing Ice Cube’s eventual career (movies, writing, music), you can see that this guy is going to learn everything he has to learn about the business side of things so that he will not be beholden to anyone else ever again.

And then there’s Dre. DJ-ing, trying to take care of his girl and his baby, but they’re all crashing at his aunt’s house, and everyone is getting pissed off and impatient. Dre is the focal point, or … more like the fulcrum of a wheel. The other people gravitate towards him, and then circle around him. This is true as well of Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor, in a chilling performance), who steps in later, sets up Death Row Records, and runs it like a criminal operation, complete with barking vicious dogs and sketchy characters who beat people to a pulp in order to get what they want. It’s a terrifying “scene” and you can start to feel the East Coast/West Coast rap war building. Dre gets sucked in, and then finally extricates himself, setting up his own label, Aftermath. All of these things made headlines, but Straight Outta Compton invests in the details, the small details that make a “scene” seem real, that make us understand what was going on, the vibe, the motivations, the needs of all of the parties involved.

More great casting: Keith Stanfield (so wonderful in Short Term 12, and heartbreaking in his small role in Selma – I met him at Ebertfest when they played Short Term 12) walks into the studio later in the film, a new face, and his mannerisms, his voice, his attitude, his entire ESSENCE, just screams “Snoop Dogg.” I saw it with a huge audience and the second he showed up I felt the rustle of recognition around me. Amazing. The same is true with Marcc Rose, who is only seen once or twice, through the glass in the booth, starting to record, Dre focused on him, and my God, that’s 2Pac Shakur. He was so beautiful, had that glamorous look to him, the huge blinding smile, the open vibe. This was at the height of the Death Row Records situation, with barking attack dogs down the hall, and Suge Knight looming over everything in his strong-arm capacity. That one scene, with 2Pac in the studio working with Dre, and Suge Knight having a raging (horrible) party down the hallway involving torture and humiliation, told us everything. This shit was going to get ugly. And we all know it did.

Straight Outta Compton gets the little details right, the interactions, the various friendships, the arguments about money, the nuts-and-bolts of behavior, eloquent and unselfconscious, that is part of the reason I love movies. But it also gets the social and political aspect, something that demands to be addressed with a group like NWA, who got warning letters from the FBI about “Fuck Tha Police”. The FBI. They were told not to perform the song during a concert in Detroit, a warning that they (famously) ignored. A riot broke out. Cops swarmed the stage. The audience flooded out into the street, shouting “Fuck Tha Police!” It was unbelievable, and reminiscent of the nationwide controversy involving Elvis, the riots at his shows, the protests, the smashing of his albums by PTA groups and outraged DJs, the warning from police in Florida that he NOT MOVE during his concert, or else they would arrest him afterwards. Elvis obeyed, and yet rebelled by wiggling his little finger during his performance, and sexual frenzied riots broke out because of THAT. (The concert scenes in Straight Outta Compton, in general, are superb. They film a lot of it from the stage-side, looking out at the audience, so you can see the masses of people, black and white, jumping up and down, middle fingers raised. The cops glowering on the sidelines.) That song brought them national headlines, and there are news clips of poor white Tom Brokaw, trying to describe what was happening, and I like Tom Brokaw but boy he comes off as patriarchal and scold-y. This has happened with rap from the beginning, but it was the innovation of “gangsta rap” that got the white folks nervous. These guys, like NWA and Public Enemy, were saying shit that nobody wanted to hear in mainstream America. Rodney King made it palpable to the rest of us. Anyone who saw that beating video (and we all saw it) and thought that Rodney King “had it coming” is not just part of the problem, they ARE the problem, a problem still alive today. Ice Cube joked at one point that the big yellow warning stickers put on their records helped them make their millions. Kids are gonna check out anything the grown-ups say is “bad” for them. And, as always, the audience was “in on the joke.” White kids, black kids … they may have responded to those raging songs in different ways, but they all know the difference between Art and Reality. Or that art expresses reality, art is personal, art comes out of a personal landscape, and these guys were personal. They were not created by a label. They were not following a trend. They WERE the trend. You cannot “create” something authentic like that. It has to emerge on its own, and Straight Outta Compton, showing the police presence on the streets of Compton, with cops completely over-stepping their bounds, flat out harassing any group of black men who dared to stand together on a corner shooting the shit, shows the landscape from which these guys emerged, and does so in a visceral way. You can’t harass an entire population like that and then be SURPRISED when they’re pissed off.

So I’ve talked a lot, right? Clearly I loved the movie. It’s beautifully put together, it focuses on character and friendship, the ties that bind, it also focuses on money and business, the way young artists can be taken advantage of, especially when they rely on others to take care of things. These guys learned shit the hard way. It shows why and when the breaks between them happened, but it also shows that throughout it all, they were doing things FOR each other. Maybe the feud got tiresome to those watching. Maybe everyone wanted NWA to bury the hatchet and fucking get back together already. Everything that happened happened because these guys were connected. The river runs deep with all of them. Dr. Dre’s sweet younger brother was killed, and it’s horrible. I loved the scene between Dre and his brother where they talk on the phone while NWA is on tour. The brother is young, he’s in high school, he wants to join his brother on tour, he begs to be allowed to come with. Dre counsels him to hang in there, keep going to school, he can join him in a bit. Before they hang up, Dre says, “And make sure you always use a condom.” The brother says, “Yeah, I still have that pack of condoms you gave me!” Like, 2 years ago? It was adorable, the audience burst out laughing. These are very important scenes, not only story-wise, but to show the bond between the men in the group. Eazy-E’s illness, heartbreakingly portrayed by Mitchell (Eazy-E has no idea why he’s so sick, he assumes and his wife assumes that it’s a respiratory infection) … mortality is serious, and these guys lived with it every day on the streets of Compton, the threat all around them, and maybe none of them expected they’d make it to adulthood anyway. But when people close to them actually die, the mourning is intense, wordless, devastating.

Straight Outta Compton is affectionate, that’s for sure, but it’s also important. It understands what these guys meant, what they still mean. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time when America was fracturing openly, trying to understand itself, trying to hold off the forces of chaos and being unable to do so. Marginalized voices were taking over the airwaves. NWA was the voice of that political and social chaos, the voice of the oppressed who decided they could not, would not, take it anymore. And what better way to spread that message than through art? The montage-clips that roll during the final credits are pure celebration of their accomplishments since then. It was incredibly moving.

NWA were First Amendment champions. Ice Cube was asked about his controversial lyrics in some interview and he said, frankly, “This is rock ‘n’ roll.” Like … put it in the right context, people. Since when has rock ‘n’ roll been “nice?” The best rock ‘n’ roll rocks the boat, upsets the apple cart, speaks the truth, changes the world.

NWA weren’t prophets so much as they were truth-telling reporters. Like Thomas Paine in 1775 waving his inflammatory pamphlets around on the streets of Philadelphia and igniting a revolution, the match to the flame. NWA ignited something. Something that continues to burn today.

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Gena Rowlands to Receive 2015 Governors Award

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The announcement just came in that the 2015’s Governor Awards will be going to Gena Rowlands and Spike Lee (what a pairing – although it seems to me Spike Lee is damn young for an Honorary Award. Strange.), and the Humanitarian Award is going to the well-deserving Debbie Reynolds.

Unfortunately, the Powers That Be have now moved the Governors Awards to another night, and don’t include them in the regular broadcast (a travesty: celebrate the history of the industry as well as the accomplishments of those who are giants in the field, and let everyone see it!). But still, the news of Gena finally being honored is so exhilarating.

Here’s a brief clip from the video-essay written/narrated by me about the work of Gena Rowlands, included in the special features on the Criterion release of Love Streams., Rowlands’ husband John Cassavetes’ final film (in which he also appears).

The film is a wild and unpredictable masterpiece and one of those films I couldn’t quite process when I was a younger woman, and now that I am no longer young, it doesn’t seem “out there” at all. It almost seems like a documentary. Purchase it at that Criterion link if you haven’t seen it already. It is not available elsewhere, and had long been un-see-able, except at festivals. In this recent post for Rowlands’ 85th birthday, I put up a bunch of links to other Rowlands essays I’ve written.

So congratulations, dame Gena. It was nice to see the excitement spreading on Twitter and elsewhere after the announcement was made.

Gena Rowlands is one of the best actresses who has ever practiced the craft. She has no heirs.

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Happy Birthday, Tuesday Weld

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From the great “Pretty Poison” (1968) with Anthony Perkins. And below you can see her as the creepily blank and heart-achingly gorgeous teenage majorette in the fantastic opening sequence of the film.

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See Pretty Poison if you have not. Don’t miss Kim’s rhapsodic essay to Weld in general, and Pretty Poison in particular. In Pretty Poison, Weld shows up as the bombshell blonde teenager, restless in her small-town life, bored out of her mind (Weld was thrilling when she was bored because then she started yearning for excitement/stimulation/something to DO … and by that point, look out). She’s looking for escape and release, she’s empty on some level, and emptiness can be filled by bad-ness just as easily as it can by goodness. Bad-ness is certainly more exciting.

Also:

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From the wonderful “Wild in the Country” (1961).

Weld was only a teenager when she made Wild in the Country but she is sexy as hell in this as the wild-child bored-out-of-her-mind so-horny-it-hurts bad-girl who torments Elvis Presley’s character, a man trying (under court order) to stay good, clean, on the right side of the law. She practically begs him to “take” her. With all of her wild and impulsive shenanigans, there is a quiet moment in the middle of the film, with Presley and Weld perched on a rickety back stairway, and he sings, and she listens. There’s a stillness, a communion between these two hard-to-be-pinned-down and misunderstood-sex-outlaws … when everything slows down, and they can just be. They’re kindred spirits.

Elvis puts her off until, in the kitchen scene, after he adjusts her dress strap (because he’s aroused by that flash of uninterrupted creamy shoulder), he finally succumbs in an act of aggression that you rarely saw in Elvis films after this, where he was basically the somewhat submissive and amused recipient of the attentions of hordes of women. But Weld brought out the tiger in him.

I mean, who can blame him? Tuesday Weld was (and still is) irresistible.

Weld and Presley dated (if you can say that either of them ever “dated” in a traditional sense) and Weld had this to say about Presley:

He walked into a room and everything stopped. Elvis was just so physically beautiful that even if he didn’t have any talent . . . just his face, just his presence. And he was funny, charming, and complicated, but he didn’t wear it on his sleeve. You didn’t see that he was complicated. You saw great needs.

You could also say that she didn’t wear things on her sleeve. She was complicated but she didn’t walk around broadcasting that. You could also say that you look at her and see “great needs.”


Tuesday Weld and Elvis Presley.

Tuesday Weld has one of the most passionate and devoted fan bases on the planet.

I mean, remember this?

Matthew-Sweet

That album came out in 1990. She now works so rarely. Her heyday was decades ago. But there she was. Aggressive. Insolent. Knowing. And stop-you-in-your-tracks gorgeous. Her self was in her face, but you wondered what life was really like for her. You were never quite sure. It made her compelling. Unforgettable.

She’s still out there. Happy birthday, Tuesday Weld.

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Phoenix (2015); dir. Christian Petzold

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The collaboration of director Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss is one of the pleasurable partnerships of our day and age. It’s exciting that these two have “found” one another, and that they continue to make films together, the latest being Phoenix, one of my favorite films of the year thus far.

The roles Hoss has played for Petzold, in Barbara, Yella, Jerichow (and others, but these are the three I have seen), are different but all utilize her considerable gifts of transformation, complexity, withholding, tension, sometimes unbearable release. She’s a phenom of an actress. She’s also got that old-school movie-star awareness of the camera, and how her body moves through space and what stories that body language can tell. (This is almost a lost art.) It’s not news that many of Petzold’s films are basically unofficial remakes of classic Hollywood films, the most obvious being Jerichow‘s lifting of the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice. And now, with Phoenix, with its clear Vertigo inspiration. The stories Petzold tells are about Germany, either now, post-Berlin-Wall collapse, and Germany in the past (recent, like Barbara, which takes place in 1980, or Phoenix, which takes place in the direct aftermath of WWII.) Yella is about the post-collapse period, as is Jerichow, with the undeniable legacy of decades of separation, with East Germany undeveloped in comparison to its stronger Western sibling. Integration was not easy and brought up many issues about history, economics, family, identity. This is Petzold’s milieu. (My first review for Rogerebert.com was Petzold’s Barbara, and I’ve also discussed Yella here on my own site.) I highly recommend all of his films.

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But PhoenixPhoenix with its pure appreciation of melodrama (another lost art), and its devastating plot-twists of betrayal and hope, brings Petzold (and his partnership with Hoss) to the next level. This is a great film. Vertigo is everywhere, in this story of a dead woman who is seemingly resurrected, and the man who is haunted by her, his wife’s double, or is it his actual wife? Questions of identity proliferate in increasingly complex ways. These issues also made me think of the wonderful A Woman’s Face, where Joan Crawford in one of her best performances plays a woman with a disfiguring scar across her cheek.

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Her self-esteem is nil and she hangs around with a group of corrupt Germans, and she’s a thief and a liar. She’s not a thief BECAUSE she has a scar, but her personality has been formed by outside perception of her, the cringing reaction of others, placing her on the outside of the human community. Once she encounters a kindly plastic surgeon (basically while robbing his house), he tells her he can make that scar go Bye-Bye if she likes. Give her a fresh start with a new face. Once the scar is gone, and Joan Crawford herself emerges, in all her striking beauty, her problems have only begun – because: beauty is skin-deep. And someone who has cringed from human attention for her whole life will not suddenly blossom into a Swan without any set-backs. She is still suspicious and terrified, unused to beauty. And Crawford’s acting is superb because even in the “beautiful” scenes, the character always has an awareness of the scar that was once there. These are melodramatic plot-twists, and melodrama is something today’s modern audiences find too neat, too clear, too “obvious”. Ah, someday I hope our culture will be released from its love affair with realism and its suspicion of the obvious. (I talked about that a little bit in my review of Joe Swanberg’s latest, Digging for Fire.) . Shakespeare didn’t care about realism. Viola and Rosalind dress up as boys, cavort about, sometimes in the presence of those who knew them as girls, and nobody goes, “Huh. You look awfully familiar …” The disguise is accepted because that’s the way you get the good juicy misunderstandings and deception required to make the classic Shakespearean final scenes, of recognition and resolution, so satisfying.

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Phoenix, with its reliance on coincidence and suspension-of-disbelief, is a melodrama and a noir, with a great understanding of its themes and what it wants to express. Along with identity, the main question here has to do with guilt. Who feels guilty? Who doesn’t? Even when someone’s lack of guilt is right in front of you, it’s common for humans to forgive, or at least try to excuse it, especially if it’s coming from a loved one. There has to be some other explanation, right? This person I once knew can’t actually have been a monster … can he? Petzold looks at these questions unblinkingly, with a relish in the build-up of tension, the withholding of Nelly (Hoss’ character), her submissive cringing character, her health and face destroyed by the concentration camp, and her disoriented hope that her husband Johnny may still be alive, that a reunion with her German husband is still possible.

Petzold keeps it simple, the period expressed simply in the clothes, the cars, the music, and a huge pile of rubble on a street. You don’t need much more, CGI reconstructions of the entire destroyed city, for example. Petzold’s one pile of rubble is theatrical, evocative.

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The action is confined to a couple of blocks, with one foray into the country suburbs of Berlin. Nina Hoss walks through the rubble, unsteady on her feet, lost in a huge man’s raincoat that hangs on her thin shoulders. Her face, destroyed by a gun-shot in the final days of the war, has been re-constructed, and she wants to look exactly as she did before. Or at least as close as possible. She doesn’t want a fresh start. She wants her old life back.

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At first with bruises around her eyes, and a swollen nose, she wanders through Berlin, and slowly her face heals, and she emerges, beautifully, as her former self. But are there changes still? We only see her former self in blurry sepia-toned photographs, laughing and free with her husband and German friends, photos she stares at longingly, trying to imagine her way back into that lost world. Does Nelly look the same? How much is there a resemblance? Petzold does not care about the reality, or the plausibility: it is enough to know that the plastic surgeon did a pretty good job, and she is now back to looking like herself. And yet her soul, her spirit, no longer “fits” her appearance. Her soul rattles around inside her, bucking against the walls of her body. Emotion throbs across her surface, coming upon her in uncontrollable waves. She appears to be always on the verge of hyperventilating. She seems so frail that you are amazed her fingers can even hold onto her purse.

Nelly has one friend left, a Jewish woman named Lene (the equally extraordinary Nina Kunzendorf). Lene works with the American-led coalition to help identify the Jewish returnees, of which there were a couple, and the piles of dead scattered in the camps and mass graves throughout Poland. She puts on glasses and stares at piles of corpses through a magnifying glass, cross-checking any tattooed numbers visible, with her piles of lists on her desk. Lene looks to Palestine, though, as her new home. She is resourceful, she already has a lead on an apartment in Haifa, she wants Nelly to come with her once she has healed. Staying in Germany is not an option. They are surrounded by monstrous collaborators, former Nazis, and regular citizens who did nothing to help the Jews. The atmosphere itself stinks, and Lene’s posture and gestures show the superhuman level of endurance of the character, devoted to her work, but desperate … desperate … to get out.

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The plot twists and turns, the appearance of Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, a wonderful actor who is also part of Petzold’s regular repertory company), the scenes in the Phoenix night-club filled with American soldiers and regular Germans and German show-girls, with Nelly standing on the side-lines, looking for her husband through the black netting falling over her face from her hat … seep the film in its own atmosphere of emotional intrigue and doomed powerful hope. Nelly is a ghost. As she says to Lene early on, “I no longer exist.”

But maybe reuniting with Johnny will make her exist again. Maybe life is still possible. Johnny stares at her, through her, before doing a double-take. Boy, she is the spitting image of …

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What unfolds is so fascinating, so upsetting, so deep with the ultimate questions of our human condition (what IS identity? does having someone look at you and KNOW you mean you exist? Or can we exist in isolation? Who should feel guilty? What does guilt mean and what does it look like? What do our faces mean, the faces we were born with? Is it who we are? If we change our faces, do we change our souls? Can a leopard change its spots? And, taking that further: can Germany change? Can Germany get back to where it was before? – I mean, this is what the film calls up, constantly, with echoing reverb … in every single scene). The set-up is strong and theatrical. As with Vertigo, you must believe. And once you believe, the implications of the film expand, encompassing you, encompassing me, in ways that approach the Mythic. Myths help us understand who we are, why we are, and where our faults may emerge from, the deep wells of collective experience from which we act, behave, think, feel, are.

With the understanding that the piece contains spoilers, I must point you to my friend Farran’s the various cinematic references utilized by Petzold in Phoenix, essential in trying to understand Petzold’s intent, both cinematic and realistic, his understanding of story, his nods to the past, his spins on familiar themes. But again: SPOILERS.

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Phoenix is so strong in its particulars that by the time the final scene comes (and it is a doozy) you have been waiting for something like this, hoping for something like this, the tension of Hoss’ performance is so great, with its silent quivering unbearable withholding … and yet the reality of the final moment, as it unfolds, as Hoss and Zehrfeld perform it, what actually happens, in other words, is far more powerful and heart-stopping than anything you or I could dream up. A guy sitting behind us said, even before the screen went to black, “Wow.” And he kept saying it to his friend as the credits rolled, and he was still saying it (among other things) as they picked up their belongings and went to leave the theatre. We stayed to watch the credits, and as the guy exited the theatre, still talking about the movie with his friend, I heard him say, one more time … “Wow …”

It was a beautiful underlying accompaniment to our experience of the final moment, and the film entire.

Yup. Wow.

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