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Power Trip

[This is my fourth entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]

Nothing I love more than a truly terrifying villain. Heroes are OK, and anti-heroes can make for morally ambiguous fun. But a villain! Someone who cooks up and executes diabolical plans! Someone who’s ambitious and charismatic, even at the cost of ethical bankruptcy. It’s gratifying to identify with a villain. I’m just a human being, you see. I’m cosmically insignificant, a speck in an indifferent universe. I like to fancy myself “good,” at least in the sense that I exhibit empathy and avoid hurting others. But when I see a villain like Dr. Mabuse, the titular mastermind of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), I can’t deny his power. He’s fearless, in control, always one step ahead! I may be a “good” person in real life, but in the dream life of moviegoing I can identify unequivocally with Mabuse and suffer nothing but a mild sense of shame.

As he skulks through the Berlin underworld, Mabuse’s authority is total. Foreshadowing director Fritz Lang’s future use of surveillance motifs (M, The Big Heat), he’s a one-man panopticon, using his victims as informants against one another. Mabuse himself, meanwhile, remains functionally invisible. Either he’s wrapped up in one of his many alter egos, or he’s slipping through cracks in the film’s expressionist architecture. He is the master of modernity, ringleader of the Weimar circus. Everyone is in Mabuse’s thrall, and life in his thrall is a waking nightmare. Of course, it takes one hell of an actor to pull off a towering figure like Mabuse, and thankfully Rudolf Klein-Rogge (later the mad doctor in Lang’s Metropolis) is equal to the task. His broad forehead, beak nose, and piercing eyes are accentuated here, making him look like a physical incarnation of a George Grosz grotesque. His swagger, too, is that of an übermensch, a man swollen with megalomania.

But Klein-Rogge, as mighty an actor as he is, doesn’t create Mabuse alone. Every second he’s off-screen, his performance is supplemented by the dark mythology that rises around him. “One of the most dangerous criminals ever,” for example, is how his police inspector nemesis describes him. “He lives above the city—big as a tower!” cries Cara Carozza, a showgirl at the dancing end of Mabuse’s puppet strings. “He is the greatest man alive!” The terror of those in Mabuse’s orbit inflates his evil stature. The film’s duration (4 1/2 hours) works similarly in his favor, since it provides ample time for him to engineer a network of alliances and betrayals. Mabuse ruins the life of one aristocrat after another; he supervises one convoluted heist after another; he bends the masses to his whims. If anything, Mabuse is too thorough of an evil genius, staging increasingly flamboyant ends for his enemies as the police close in around him.

The film’s second half (entitled “Inferno”) begins with Mabuse cocky and drunk, declaring his intent to become a titan—“churning up laws and gods like withered leaves!!” Yet for all this grandiose rhetoric, his empire is a mere hour or two away from crumbling. After a few more subterfuges and one scene of all-out urban warfare, he’ll be cornered and institutionalized, subjected to a system of disciplines and punishments identical to the one he so recently ruled. (This muddying of the cops/robbers dichotomy is another career-long Lang motif.) And in a final irony, he’ll be back in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, leading criminal enterprises from beyond the grave. That’s symptomatic of how Lang envisions his countrymen: decadent and weak-willed, prime targets for a villain of Mabuse’s caliber. Pessimistic? Absolutely. But vindicated by history with chilling precision, and as true now as it’s ever been.

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And Nothing But the Truth

[This is my third entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]

Thanks to watching a lot of Hitchcock movies and film noir, I’ve always been terrified of being caught in a real-life “wrong man” scenario. The kind where circumstantial evidence links you to a crime—usually a murder—and protest as you may, you’re still arrested, tried, and somehow convicted. Maybe you’re jailed, maybe you’re executed, but the point is that you can’t fight it. Fate has chosen this bad path for you. Fate, and a flawed justice system.

That same nightmare devours Randall Adams, the protagonist of Errol Morris’s groundbreaking documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988). I say “groundbreaking” in part because of its formal construction, but also because, get this, it brought up new evidence and more or less got Adams set free. It’s the rare movie that actually had a direct, tangible effect on someone’s life. Such is the power of Morris’s interview technique (which renders the director himself invisible) and his gradual, multimedia build-up of evidence.

This documentary doesn’t rely on voice-of-god narration or authoritative title cards. Instead, the evidence speaks for itself. The mild-mannered Adams and his one-time acquaintance David Harris (who, per Morris, actually shot the cop in 1976) are given space to tell their respective stories; then, over time, Morris weaves in testimony by investigators, lawyers, and dubious eyewitnesses, deepening our impressions of “what really happened” and developing several layers of “truth.” Concurrently, he establishes a veneer of objectivity through physical data: maps, photos, diagrams, calendars, newspaper clippings, even a drive-in schedule.

But perhaps the most powerful form of documentation in Morris’s toolbox is the crime scene reenactment. His are different from the ones you’d typically see in a true-crime TV special. They’re elliptical, affectless, more oriented toward objects than people, and set to Philip Glass’s typically chilly, minimalist score. Often they reiterate a single point—e.g., that inscrutable series of gunshots—but they also change over the course of the film, adding new angles and details as our understanding of the crime evolves. Here, the truth is malleable. It can always be improved by new, better information.

What’s more, “the truth” can always be skewed during investigation. Midway through the film, defense attorney Edith James suggests that Adams was prosecuted not on the strength of the evidence, but because “he was a convenient age.” At 28, he could receive the death penalty, whereas the 16-year-old Harris couldn’t. Here and elsewhere, the film goes beyond arguing that Adams is innocent, and asserts that the whole of Texan (or hell, American) justice is corrupt. Its priorities are mixed up. It depends too heavily on the judgments of flawed individuals. As Dennis White, another of Adams’ attorneys, explains:

Some policeman… made a decision about who to prosecute and set the wheel of justice in motion in the wrong direction, and they got going so fast no one could stop them.

The past couple years have seen Rick Perry nearly nominated for president and CeCe McDonald jailed by a racist, transphobic justice system. The lessons of The Thin Blue Line are as crucial as ever.

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Brotherly Love

[This is my second entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]

Family sucks. Seriously. You’re born into it—no choice, no argument—and it shapes you, for better or worse. You’re totally dependent on it. It cultivates a sense of responsibility in you, of loyalty and debt. No matter how flawed or fucked up or frustrating your family members are, you still have to accept them as a fundamental part of your life. Your family can please or pain you, but (even through their absence) they are always there.

These truths are at the core of Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Luchino Visconti’s epic of family dysfunction. In its representation of the Parondi brothers, the film captures the thorny coupling of love and hate that characterizes most sibling relationships. The brothers brawl, then reconcile; they hold one another up, then let one another down. Suffocated by poverty, each brother maps out his own dreams: a new apartment, a steady paycheck, fame in the boxing ring. But none can avoid the downward pull of family obligation.

The brother who pulls the most is Simone. As played by Renato Salvatori, he’s a model of blinkered machismo, incapable of adjusting his ambitions (both as boxer and ladies’ man) to fit reality. Initially charming, he quickly outs himself as a manipulative lecher, then slides into delusion and depravity throughout the remainder of the film. He’s the family instigator, knocking down his brothers and ex-girlfriend like dominoes, letting his resentment for Rocco destroy him from the inside.

Rocco’s played by beautiful French star Alain Delon, and he’s the family dark horse. Initially modest and hard-working, his star rises while Simone’s fades: he gets the boxing career, the pride, and (for a time) the girl. But like the rest of his brothers—the newlywed Vincenzo, the peacemaker Ciro, and the preteen Luca—he’s dragged into Simone’s toxic orbit. Violence flows between them like a contagion as, courtesy of the film’s precise structure, we watch their respective subplots grow and intertwine for three rich hours.

For all its fixation on family values, Rocco and His Brothers is never sentimental. In Visconti’s Neorealist vision, Milan is a greasy collection of piazzas and housing complexes; economic mobility is a pleasant myth; and the Parondi brothers are typically clad in wifebeaters and their own sweat. Discontent germinates out of cramped apartment life to the tune of Nino Rota’s often tense, sometimes warm, always sensual score. It’s a seamy, uncomfortable depiction of working-class life that’s brimming with uncomfortable truths.

With this radical honesty and thematic breadth, it’s no surprise that Rocco was a huge influence on the cinema of New Hollywood. Descendants of the Parondi brothers are everywhere, most visibly in The Godfather—a film whose Rota score also has a leitmotif in common with Rocco’s—and Raging Bull, another film about boxing, self-destruction, and sibling rivalry that couldn’t exist without Visconti. Following in Rocco’s stead, these films present unvarnished family life, with all its respites and tragedies, where the only fate worse than being together is being apart.

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The Sorrows of Young Oskar

[This is my first, much-belated entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]

There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eaten too much fish. There once was a gullible people who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the gas man!

Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) plays like a lost fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. It has the same Teutonic roughness, the same cavalcade of sneering villains and magic tokens. In the spirit of “Hansel and Gretel” or “Little Red Riding Hood,” it’s about a beleaguered child in a merciless world. But instead of stumbling along, sprinkling bread crumbs in the forest, Oskar Matzerath bends the world to his will. Uncannily aware of adult hypocrisy, he throws himself down a flight of stairs on his third birthday, vowing never to grow again. From then on, he brandishes his childhood as a weapon.

This is Schlöndorff’s poison pen letter to the previous generation, a “fuck you” to the parents who carried out the Holocaust and destroyed Germany. As the Nazis rise and consume Danzig, Oskar stridently beats his drum. As his mother runs secretly between the two men who may be his biological father, Oskar gazes on in silent judgment. To him, adulthood is a grotesque farce where Nazi rallies degenerate into rain-soaked waltzing, where marital strife leads his mother to gorge on eels. Yeah, Oskar’s a “bad seed”—calculating from the second he leaves the womb, indirectly killing both of his potential fathers—but the film never blames him. He’s been born into a bad nation.

The key here is David Bennent, the Swiss 12-year-old who plays Oskar across two decades of German/Polish history. Not for a second does he hold back to garner audience sympathies. Instead, he’s always pushing forward, growing louder and more abrasive, shrieking and drumming to express his contempt. The same goes for Bennent’s voiceover narration: shrill, conspiratorial, suffused with a childish solipsism but not a shred of innocence. He gives one of the most haunting child performances I’ve ever seen, and it sets the tone for the film’s vision of Nazi-era Danzig as a demented storybook.

Here, corruption and ethical compromise are visually mapped across staid furnishings, like a piano adorned with a radio and a picture of Hitler. The grays and browns of bourgeois life dominate the film’s palette, but reds puncture through that veneer in the form of dresses, fish blood, playing cards, swastika bands, and of course the pattern on that drum. Like Oskar’s glass-shattering screams, these reds are pain and rebellion made physical, breaching the Matzerath family’s complacent surface—a surface that’s reduced to nothing but screams, blood, and rubble by the end of the film.

So this is Schlöndorff’s revenge on those who preceded him: an angry movie, weird to the bone and pulsing with dark magic, so sexually frank that it was briefly banned in Oklahoma. And furthermore, a lush, imposing period epic that navigates political upheaval and warfare with the eyes of a mad child. But what better way to document such an impossibly horrible part of history? Theodor Adorno said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The Tin Drum is a barbaric movie.

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12 Blind Spots for 2012

A couple months ago, Ryan at The Matinee announced his “2012 Blind Spot Series,” a communal attempt to fill in some viewing gaps. I only recently found out about it, but I’m totally on board; any excuse to broaden your horizons, right? So I generated a list of 12 movies I’ve been meaning to see “forever,” but haven’t quite gotten around to watching. They are:

  • Les Vampires (1915-16). I’ve seen the first couple chapters of Louis Feuillade’s groundbreaking 6 1/2 hour serial, but this time I’m going the whole way. If I can watch all of Sátántangó, then I can make it through this.
  • Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922). Again, the reason I haven’t seen this yet is simply “it’s really goddamn long.” But this is early Fritz Lang, so I’ll make the time commitment. (And like Les Vampires, this sounds like a really epic crime thriller. Should be fun.)
  • Jezebel (1938). Bette Davis Henry Fonda William Wyler??! Why haven’t I seen this yet?
  • Black Narcissus (1947). I haven’t seen this yet only because I really want to watch it on a big screen. With any luck, I’ll commandeer a theater and finally get my hysterical nun fix.
  • Viaggio in Italia (1954). As with Jezebel, the answer here is extremely straightforward: Bergman Sanders Rossellini, let’s do this thing.
  • Rocco and His Brothers (1960). I’ve slowly been getting into Visconti, so why not make this my next stop? Besides, Alain Delon is one of the most attractive men who has ever lived, and that’s enough of a draw for me.
  • Dr. Zhivago (1965). To be honest, I’m a little nervous about this one. I’m a fan of Lawrence of Arabia and the cast looks excitingly eclectic, but plot-heavy literary adaptations were a dime a dozen in the ’60s (and often very bad). But who knows. I’ll give it a go.
  • The Tin Drum (1979). I’ve been informed that I actually have seen this controversial movie… when I was 3-4 years old. However, I’d like to see it as a mature adult, specifically one who loves the New German Cinema.
  • The Thin Blue Line (1988). I’ve heard praises like “best documentary ever” tossed at this before, so I’m game. I loved The Fog of War and Tabloid, so my expectations are pretty high.
  • When Harry Met Sally (1989). OK, this isn’t really my kind of movie, but who knows? I might like it. I like a lot of stuff.
  • Twelve Monkeys (1995). Terry Gilliam remade La Jetée as feature-length? Try and stop me.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). I saw the latter two, and I’m a completist when it comes to trilogies. (Which reminds me, The World of Apu and The Idiots should really be on this list, too.) I guess it can prepare me for the upcoming Hobbit fever, too.

Any recommendations about where to start?

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