Friday, May 28, 2010

Steven Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Steven Spielberg had already plundered his own work as much as his influences by the time he made his first sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Jaws not only served to transport the entire plot of Duel into the ocean but took the sound cue of the "dying" truck for the shark; E.T. reworked Close Encounters of the Third Kind from a child's perspective. That Temple of Doom should bear a resemblance to the director's past work is naturally obvious, but the most visible reference may not be the one you think.

The first scene, the film's most suspenseful and most successfully comedic, takes place in a Shanghai nightclub that looks suspiciously like the raucous party sequence from 1941 (itself vaguely reminiscent of the centerpiece of Tati's Playtime). As with Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple opens with a double cross, as everyone's favorite adventurer/tenure-draining absentee professor delivers the ashes of a Chinese emperor to a client who swindles Jones out of his payment of a large diamond by poisoning his drink and offering the antidote in lieu of payment. The constant use of the Lazy Susan rotating objects around the table and the quick cuts of weapons being readied by the gangsters ratchets up suspense, while the ultimate explosion of the situation plays out in the sort of grandiose comedy Spielberg failed to capture with the film this sequence recalls.

However, even the set pieces subtly lay out the difference between Raiders and its successor. Raiders's first big special effect was a giant rolling boulder that chases the protagonist and nearly crushes him; in Temple, Jones hides behind an equally outsized gong that rolls along the floor blocking our hero from Thompson machine gunfire. It's funny, but it underlines the split in sophistication: the boulder, a three-dimensional object, threatened its hero, while the gong, a 2-D disc exists not behind the protagonist pushing him but beside him where it is no threat. I doubt anyone believed that Indy would have died in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but suspense is a necessity in the booby trap-laden adventure realm, and Temple of Doom -- all of the Indy sequels, really -- never capture the thrills of the original because of scenarios like this, ones that place the hero just to the side of danger so he can more easily quip at its expense rather than in a situation where he might truly be tested.

Indeed, with a sequence placed just after this opening involving surviving a jump from a plane without a parachute by inflating a raft in midair and another depicting a cheesy (but, in fairness, occasionally riveting) mine cart chase, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom exaggerates the already cartoony elements of the Saturday morning serials Spielberg watched and loved as a child into outright farce. This is of course intentional, as no one with the director's storytelling ability could have worked very far into production without seeing this movie taking shape as a cartoon, but Temple of Doom's chief shortcoming is the feeling it exudes of wanting to be a more postmodern take on the material. Replacing the suspense of the first film are images and objects of full-on horror that clash with its sillier moments; had Spielberg and Harrison Ford pushed Indy just a bit further in the aloof, separated direction the character moved for this film, our hero might have provided a more ironic counterpoint for the outlandish ethnocentrism on display. Instead, he looks bemused (sometimes amusingly so) as he stands in the middle of an idiotic display, the sane man locked in the madhouse.

After all, both of his companions are buffoons. One is Willie (Kate Capshaw), a famous American singer performing for some reason (a reason I don't care to know in this intentionally goofy movie) in that Shanghai nightclub on a long-term basis who not so much joins Indy on his quest as constantly drags him down like a manicured, pampered albatross that rises from the dead to peck and squawk at Indy's neck. Spielberg wanted the complete opposite of Marion Ravenwood, who was competent and strong (until the actual story kicked in and she became a damsel, at least), so Willie is nightmarishly stupid and entitled compared to the abrasive and compelling love interest that preceded her. Willie serves only to act like a bimbo in every situation, and her presence begins to grate before she's even finished delivering her first lines. Jones' other pal is Short Round who, much to my consternation, is a child. Worse, he is a child designed solely to be a wisecracking young cad, in the model that is not funny, has never been funny nor shall ever be funny. (The two exceptions to this rule, in the entirety of cinema, are Jackie Coogan in The Kid and Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon. That's an average of one per half-century.) Short Round is the second most clever character in the film, which says more about the too-broad brushstrokes with which screenwriters Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz and Spielberg's buddy George Lucas paint the people than the believability of Jonathan Ke Quan's performance, which had no hope of being anything other than a groanworthy spectacle thanks to the material he's given.

Technically a prequel -- only in a temporal sense, not a narrative one -- Temple of Doom places the hero and his team in India, or a version of it. There is no grounding of reality for this depiction of the second most populous country in the world, and Spielberg's research appears to have gone no further than watching Michael Powell films. The obvious connection is, of course, Black Narcissus, what with a British captain (himself looking more than a little like Roger Livesey in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) presiding over the lavish Pankot Palace, a cloistered abode where the only wealth of the nation lies and colors the occupiers' view of a country they do not truly understand -- to use modern parlance, they never leave the 'green zone.' But there is even a hint of The Tales of Hoffmann in here, as the two unlikely partners share a common goddess, Kali, the dancing death deity personified in one of Hoffmann's vignettes and the subject of brutal cult worship in the bowels of the Indian palace here. In fact, both uses of Kali are blatantly sexual, from the lithe dancing in Powell's film to the penetrative, literally heart-grabbing ritual conducted above a swirling lava pit.

The difference is that Powell, a lifelong and unapologetic Tory, painted his dramatization of India in Black Narcissus as an attack on itself, its own stereotypes proof that the British did not fully understand the nation they nevertheless subjugated and forced its own culture upon. Meanwhile, Spielberg who, for all the love he has received from everyone for making WWII en vogue again, is the image of the "Jew-run, leftist media" that fundamentalist Christians use to scare their children into eating vegetables and agreeing to homeschooling, creates this broadly offensive pastiche of cheap stereotypes born of older movies. This is not to say that Spielberg is deliberately putting forward a racist view -- for all of the offense of scenes like the warped dinner party with eyeball soup and "chilled monkey brains," such moments are too dumb to really get under the skin -- but that he cared more for feeling like a kid again than telling an interesting, suspenseful and witty story, as he did with the first film, which frankly has its own racial issues that I feel are also valid, if overstated. (It's interesting to note, however, that, for all the deliberate use of old-school effects like matte paintings and sound-stage over location shooting, some of Spielberg and George Lucas' trickery was the result of being refused the right to film in India because the government found the script racist.)

The overriding conclusion to take away from Temple of Doom is not only that Spielberg should have stuck to his own mantra of not making sequels for his work but also that he clearly did not fully learn his lesson from 1941, a more ambitious picture that nevertheless revealed how blaring comedy at deafening decibels was just a technological way of fatally overselling the joke. Temple of Doom has damn better effects than those found in 1941, but those effects create an odd split between the darkness of the mise-en-scène and the goofy meaninglessness of how that mise-en-scène is ultimately conveyed. Spielberg is still talented at choreographing jokes visually, such as Willie screaming to an Indy she doesn't realize is fighting for his life that, "This is the night you let me slip through your fingers" only to cut to an obvious but cheeky shot of Indy reaching in vain for the door to get her help. But he still cannot place dialogue longer than the briefest quips into his films without drowning them in the grandiose style of his direction. Besides, many of his sight gags are just too broad, such as Willie struggling to get on an elephant while a gaggle of village women look on, mouths agape as if amazed they allowed themselves to be cinematically represented in such a way.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has its moments, and it definitely succeeds in its unspoken goal, which is to establish the hero as the new James Bond (Bond even took directly from the film's scene of a bad guy being sucked into and crushed by giant rollers in not one but two of its films, via a cocaine-chopping processor in License to Kill and a printing press in Tomorrow Never Dies). Bond films work because their protagonist regards the ludicrous inflation of gadgetry and stunts with detachment, as if every situation, no matter how fundamentally insane or even stupid, is just part of a day's work. Indy takes on that detachment, but in the process he loses the natural, rakish glee of watching him in the moment, replaced by the forced wit of a character smarter than the world around him but not quite bright enough to burst through the film's metaphysics to watch it with us. Furthermore, Spielberg never finds the balance between the more horrific and explicit side of the material, which would prompt the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating as a stopgap between PG and R, and its frothy, lightweight humor, a failure that even the director himself acknowledged. In a making-of documentary, Spielberg contended that Temple of Doom was easily his least favorite of the trilogy (back when it was just a trilogy) because it lacked the personal touch he'd placed in his other work. That's the most astute criticism anyone could offer; Spielberg established himself as a mogul almost instantly in Hollywood because his supremely commercial projects, themselves an anomaly, contained the stamp of auterial themes and personality characteristic of his contemporaries' less bombastic work. Temple of Doom does not contain a stamp or a spark or any other quantity of emotional investment, lacking even a fondness for character the bubbled under the plot conventions of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a running spring that keeps that movie fresh today. The director believes that the best, perhaps the only truly worthwhile thing to come out of the film was his marriage to Capshaw, which is both schmaltzy and completely true.

The failure of 1941 was intriguing for what it could have been, and the occasional overload of saccharin in The Sugarland Express came from an honest place that absolved it, but with the soulless craft on display here, Spielberg at last made his first truly bad film, interspersed with moments of entertainment but bogged down by a lack of personal purpose to a director who certainly didn't need to take on the project for cash. Besides his eventual betrothal, perhaps the most positive outcome of the film was its director's own dissatisfaction with it, one that would spark his first attempt to marry his big sights, big feelings style to a story of true severity, beyond inserting something as ponderous as child slavery in this daffy cartoon, and would set Spielberg along the path to his next major career shift. But more on that another time.

Steven Spielberg: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

More than any of the Steven Spielberg's other films, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial depends on a childlike sense of wonder. The first of the director's works to predominantly feature a child in a major role, E.T. could be seen as a prequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, albeit in a far-out sense. In essence, the film is Close Encounters as told from the perspective of a child, and E.T. may be the only companion piece to present itself as a quasi-prequel by way of the infancy of the camera itself.

Spielberg uses scores of low-angle shots to capture the mise-en-scène, imbuing the early scenes, of the massive mother ship and a group of agents (always framed in such a way to mask their faces), with the heightened of the unknown, the unfathomable. Both the child protagonist and the highly evolved alien are small, and though only one comes from another planet, Earth holds crushing mysteries and exaggerated evils that neither can fully comprehend. I can think of no other Spielberg movie that makes such extraordinary use of light, light that constantly seeps into rooms, light that makes interiors seem stifling and cramped, dreaded light that threatens to expose the benign alien to the forces that which to torture and experiment upon him.

But this perspective also captures the flip-side of the unknown and incomprehensible, that of eye-popping wonder. The stranded alien has just the right amount of intelligence (or, more importantly, the ability to express that intelligence), neither a simpering idiot nor so advanced that you sit there waiting for him to telepathically crush his tormentors into flesh cubes. E.T. has telepathic powers and can learn language rapidly, but he's also been dumped in unfamiliar territory, and the customs and trinkets of this world delight and scare him as they do a child. With only a human kid to guide him, E.T. never travels to the world's monuments, never mulls over the Grand Canyon or the Parthenon or considers the creative glory Renaissance or the wanton waste of the Crusades. He doesn't need to; beer, TV and Reese's Pieces contain enough mystery.

Even the use of light can morph from the ominous quality of flashlights and headlights and blazing suns to something altogether more gorgeous. The two most memorable shots of the film involve light: Spielberg contrasts the oppressive sun that made Elliott's house so lived in yet so uncomfortable with the glow in E.T.'s finger when he heals injured (even dead) animate objects. The microcosmic sun in E.T.'s finger reminds us that, for the discomfort our closest star creates on the frame, the sun is still a giver of life, just one of billions like it yet the alpha and omega of this planet's ability to survive. Naturally, if one of the best shots places an entire sun in a fingerprint, then the other should display the moon, no? There are moments, numerous moments, of E.T. that do not hold up outside of childhood (especially in the ludicrous special edition made in 2002, but more on that later), but its most parodied scene, of Elliott and E.T. flying a bike over an image of the Moon simply too large to exist without causing our oceans to destroy every coastline in the world, works every time.

Spielberg points to E.T. as sort of the Rosetta Stone of his career, the one film that contains the elements to unlock the rest, and that's largely true. Both Elliott and, in a sense, E.T. suffer from the absence of parents. Elliott's father has divorced his mother, something the boy does not fully comprehend even as it impacts his emotional vulnerability; during a dinner near the beginning, Elliott tries to tell his mother of the creature he saw out in their tool shed, and when she suggests he call his father, Elliott obliviously mentions that his father is in Mexico with his new lover, unaware of the pain that statement causes his mother. Elliott's mother tries her hardest to take care of her three children, but the husband's departure places the onus of providing for those children entirely on her shoulders, and Mary spends most of the film stopping in at the house just long enough to get ready to leave again to work. E.T., inadvertently left on Earth when his ship fled from the government agents, has also been left to grow up without a guiding, knowing influence in a threatening world (when Elliott and his brother Mike eventually escape with E.T., they have no idea where to drive; "I don't know streets! Mom always drives me!" the boy screams to his older brother). Ultimately, the mind link E.T. and Elliott share takes on a special resonance when the alien does return with his family at the end, as the alien who beckons E.T. back aboard the ship could most easily be seen as the extra-terrestrial's father, and perhaps Elliott will feel what it's like to have a dad again through him. Probably not, though, but the beauty of E.T. is that, by the end, Elliott no longer needs a father figure to guide him.

Just as no other Spielberg film has so openly dealt with his most personal themes of distant fathers and finding one's way through adolescence, so too are the good and bad aspects of Spielberg's cinema most blatantly on display. The sentimentality is often affecting but occasionally cloying, shamelessly ripping at the heartstrings in its effort to please. Many of the comic interludes are terrific, especially the mash-up between E.T. getting drunk at home and telepathically transferring his intoxication onto Elliott in a science class, but too many overplay the Precocious Child card, either with Elliott himself or his toddler sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore). There are also numerous examples of the toxic professional influence of Spielberg's friend, George Lucas, as Spielberg packs E.T. with so much Star Wars merchandise that the film too often feels like an advertisement for Lucas' opus. I'm sure these references got chuckles at the time, and I imagine that, as the film plays to children, the inclusion of toys and quotes from the most wonder-filled franchise in movie history likely hooked kids who had all the same action figures and dressed up like Yoda on Halloween. But an adult eye can see only dangerous cross-pollination, the kind that would ultimately seep into their collaborative projects and dilute them.

Of course, the biggest weakness of E.T. can only be seen in retrospect, or more specifically in contemporary context with the re-edited version the director released back in 2002. In a completely misguided attempt to somehow make the film more kid-friendly -- for God's sake, Steven, it's a film that's only friendly to kids -- Spielberg edited out guns used by authorities to threaten the young characters as per the adult Barrymore's objection to guns. In their stead, the director placed walkie-talkies in the hands of police officers, thus turning them from the menacing force they are meant to be into overgrown children who might as well be playing Cowboys and Indians and making pew-pew noises to signify shooting. Frankly, however, the greatest offense involves the clumsy addition of digital effects for E.T. The digital touch-ups of Close Encounters are tasteful and only intermittently obvious, but the digital facial movements jar with Carlo Rambaldi's original puppet work. In fairness, even that advanced puppet had its drawbacks, but E.T. looks like a silent comedian with this new "overacting." This example of re-editing may be the most visible example of the negative impact of Lucas and Spielberg's friendship on Spielberg's professional decisions, as one imagines that the director got the idea to unnecessarily muck with things because his buddy got away with it back in '97.

I always felt that the technological hindrances in the puppet worked well within the everyday marvel that E.T. elicits. Sure, the model's not perfect, but it still astonishes, just as TV fascinates E.T. That's E.T.'s greatest strength, one that endures long after I unfortunately outgrew some of the movie's other pleasures. Spielberg, always in love with the old kids' stories and Disney films, clearly bases the story on Peter Pan, a connection plainly visible even without the scene of Mary reading the book to Gertie. Peter Pan concerns a child dumped into a fantastical world that he explores with other kids. But Neverland cannot sustain its hero, who longs for true emotional connection with someone, just as Earth cannot physically sustain this alien (setting up an interesting parallel for Spielberg's adaptation of War of the Worlds years later). For all of E.T.'s flaws, the degree to which the director commits to reworking such classic children's tales shows a man not seeking to capitalize on the box-office draw of family movies -- though E.T. did become the highest grossing film of all time upon release, the second of three of the director's films to hold that distinction at some point -- but genuinely tapped into a sense of eternal childhood. That has its downsides, chiefly a stunted emotional complexity that can be seen here, but the earnestness it engenders keeps me coming back to Spielberg longer after I set aside childish things.

Writing about E.T. presents a challenge for me, because I must acknowledge that it is one of the finest films a child could watch. However, I am no longer a child, nor do I have one of my own to whom I could pass the film down. If I ever do have a child of my own, I shall certainly show this to him or her, and I imagine the joy I took from E.T. as a kid will return as I watch it impart its joy on the next generation. Right now, though, I feel the same way I do when I go to a Renaissance Festival: no longer young enough to marvel at the jousts, not broken down enough by age and the world to light up at seeing all of God's creatures greasily smoked and impaled on a stick for easy munching. For every scene that holds up brilliantly to these post-pubescent eyes, another sags, weighed down by a line reading that ventures too far into the screaming territory of high-pitched indignity or so-on-the-nose-the-glasses-just-slipped-off tidbits involving Elliott's home life or the importance of accepting life's mysteries and growing to love them. Still, this negativity stems from my own position in life, not the film's issues. Only Steven Spielberg could make a film where shadowy adults ruthlessly chase down an alien, only to paint them as eager and empathetic when they finally put the creature on their operating table, and only Spielberg could get away with it. Huh, this film really does epitomize him.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Rolling Stones — Exile on Main St.

There are those who contend that Exile on Main St., the Rolling Stones' most-lauded album (albeit only in retrospect), works better as an idea than an album. I agree, but I also think that's what cements it as the band's masterpiece. To be sure, there's nothing on the album as good as "Gimme Shelter," "Sympathy for the Devil" or "Brown Sugar," to say nothing of the rest of the group's three better-constructed albums. What Exile does primarily is capture a feeling; it just so happens that this feeling contains the whole of rock 'n roll, from its attitude (the down 'n out rebel/aristocratic celebrity dichotomy) to its musical roots (R&B, rockabilly, C&W, soul and blues).

The band recorded the double island while hiding from tax collectors in the south of France in Keith Richards' luxurious villa, hardly the makings for a return to the humble origins of rock. But as fancy as their exile was, it was still exile, and the Stones were still at the time dealing with the ghost of Altamont (Sticky Fingers began this journey with its nightmarish tunes "Sister Morphine" and "Dead Flowers"). Freed from their old label and left to their own devices out in the Riviera, the Stones devolved to levels of bacchanalian excess impressive even for them; the legacy of Exile owes as much to the photographs of Dominique Tarlé, who documented their lascivious orgy in stark, black-and-white clarity.

Sorting out who even played on the album can be tricky, with producer Jimmy Miller filling in for Charlie Watts behind the kit on "Happy" and "Shine a Light" and damn near everyone but Bill Wyman playing bass throughout. Truth is, little of the album was definitively cut with the band's mobile in Nellcôte, but those images are so tied to the sound of the album and the shoddy disrepair with which the group cobbled together these cuts that we may as well just print the legend. After all, despite "Let's Spend the Night Together" and the Altamont debacle, it was Tarlé's visualization of Exile that serves as the modern bedrock of the cultural perception of the Rolling Stones as one gigantic, cocaine-snorting nostril sniffing its way up a Colombian Everest. Somewhat amusingly, those photos may be the reason for Exile's reputation over the actual album, which contains only a few tunes ready for easy radio play, an anomaly for a band now synonymous with classic rock, who enjoy more than a baker's dozen of tracks that receive consistent airplay today. How could their "best" album seemingly contain no hits?

No one thinks this at first, of course, not in the face of the one-two punch of "Rocks Off" and "Rip This Joint." Even the newly remastered edition, a powerhouse update that brings out the bass and scrubs the tracks without cleaning them, the murkiness of the Stones' intriguingly sloppy, incoherent and flailing rockers remains fortunately intact. "Rocks Off," dominated mainly by Jim Price and Bobby Keys' brass as vocals and other instruments fade in and out of fuzzy distortion, sets the tone for an album whose tone is anything but assuredly set, the raucousness of the trumpets belying its desperate lyrics recounting Richards' need to get high just to numb himself from the world. Yeah, these guys are partying hard, but the comedown in just on the horizon, and they cannot outrun it. Even the haphazard production values capture this dichotomy, both the result of all them being too smacked up and distracted to put in hard work even as the fuzziness reflects a certain fatigue.

"Rip This Joint," meanwhile, establishes the aesthetic of this loose and disjointed album, ironically in its tautest number. Just under two and a half minutes, "Rip This Joint" runs the gamut of American rock and its roots, running through country, R&B, even New Orleans jazz. Its exaggerated speed, far faster than anything recorded by Holly or Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis, serves to literalize the exuberance of early rock 'n' roll and its effect on youth. Hell, it even points to future movements in the genre, prefiguring as it does hardcore punk in its incomprehensible wash of guitars.

Both of these opening numbers are tight enough to hook the listener, yet loose and ramshackle enough to prepare him or her for what's about to come. The one-two punch gives way to a loose collection of sounds and snatches of lyrics sufficiently hopeful and despairing to make the case for this album, by a bunch of nouveau riche Brits lounging in a stew of heroin and nubile, willing flesh, standing as perhaps the singular collection of the American songbook. In those opening numbers is the sound of musical independence, the Stones' escape from taxation and their old label lining up to the country's true birth, and both contain the undercurrent of uncertainty and fear that such shifts engender even in the most committed radicals. As the album moves into "Shake Your Hips" and "Casino Boogie," this doubt rises fully to the surface, as the old party mood fades into a perfunctory motion, the revolutionary fervor having cooled into the realization of the burden that comes with freedom.

Oh, but let us move away from this fleeting and tenuous connection, as are far too self-absorbed to belabor something as grand as a historical connection. The lyrics of Exile on Main St. in nearly every case refer to the band, even when they filter a song's perspective through an imaginary protagonist. Exile simply happens to be more resonant than even the sharpshooter accuracy of Jagger and Richards on their previous handful of albums because the band scrambles together the issues weighing on them. "Torn and Frayed," a country-soul mash-up that comes so close to the level of pioneering country/rock crossover artist Gram Parsons that you wonder if Parsons (who visited the band during recording) felt a bit of pressure, could be about either Brian Jones, the Stones' original lead guitarist who'd died of an overdose in 1969, or Keith Richards, who seemed at the time to be heading to an early grave of his own. The unnamed guitarist's state of being, synecdochically defined by his almost Dickensian "torn and frayed" coat, crumbles, but no one cares. "Well his coat is torn and frayed/It`s seen much better days./Just as long as the guitar plays/Let it steal your heart away," Jagger sings as if preparing himself to replace Keith's cold, vomit-choked corpse in a year or two. "Shine a Light," influenced more by the gospel roots of American music, serves as a more touching tribute to Jones. Originally written before Jones' death but with the band's knowledge of his growing addiction, the later-refashioned "Shine a Light" plays both in the moment and in retrospect, describing the band's reaction as their friend drifted away with the added pain of knowing the ultimate result.

What I noticed with Exile after my first listens years ago is that its supposed sprawling nature has been vastly overstated. At less than 70 minutes long, the Exile doesn't even make the most of its double-album format, which could have packed another 15 minutes worth of material (whcih, considering how only one song makes it to the five-minute mark, could have allowed for up to five more songs to make the cut). Furthermore, its pacing moves quite deliberately through its musical hodgepodge. Each side follows a loose structure of vibe and roots music explored, from the proto-R&B shuffles of the first side to the desperate soul of the third. Amazingly, the Stones, regarded to that point (and beyond) by detractors as blatant thieves of Afro-American style, sound not at all like copycats in the various modes of Exile; in every case, this band sounds as if they'd been born to play whatever is currently falling out of their poorly recorded instruments. Most of the band's previous forays into country, save the masterful "Wild Horses," typically showed a group about as far out of their comfort zone as they were peddling psychedelia in the Summer of Love via Their Satanic Majesties Request (more so, even, as that underrated album still hasn't had its fair shake despite its issues, especially in the much punchier mono edition floating out there in the ether). Give one listen to Side Two's "Torn and Frayed" or the moving "Sweet Virginia," however, and you'll hear a band that could have backed Gram Parsons any day.

Side Three showcases a band who made their reputation by posing as bad boys now becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Happy" presents Keith Richards on guitars and vocals and Jimmy Miller on drums as the invincible drug hound rallies from his stupor long enough to express pride of it before slipping back into his lethargic daze, and the excellent but sadly named "Turd on the Run" is a better soundtrack for getting into a drunken brawl than "Street Fighting Man." However, the third side also shows the group retreating slightly in the face of becoming what had previously been just an act. Both the murky, folksy, downright swampy "I Just Want to See His Face," which boasts one of Jagger's most distinct and affecting vocals performances ever, and "Let It Loose" draw deeply and, more importantly, convincingly from gospel and soul, imbuing the record with a genuine pleading not expected from the preening rockers. Not since the rampant fear of "Gimme Shelter" had the band sounded so fragile and unsure.

Nothing compares to "Ventilator Blues," however. Taking its name and mood from the sweltering, airless basement where the band recorded while at Richards' villa, "Ventilator Blues" captures the Rolling Stones at an emotional nadir, the uncomfortable heat of the location bringing out their bad side. Without referencing either Jones or Altamont, the song's lyrics describe a scene every bit as apocalyptic as that of "Gimme Shelter," only this cataclysm is insular and seedy, not spread out over a planet in trouble. In that sense, it captures why Altamont, which the Stones barely planned (as can be seen in the documentary Gimme Shelter), has become the symbol of the death of the counterculture, as it casts aside social concerns in favor of the entitled preoccupations that defined the Me Decade. However, as Mick spits out his double-tracked vocals like a man confessing to his priest that he's about to kill someone, Jagger finally becomes a true bluesman. Few would jump out of their seats to rush to Jagger's side and defend his vocal abilities, but people always sold him short. He didn't try to ape Delta bluesmen because he thought they were cool; he deeply loved Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and all the others. His raspy whine is merely the result of his coming to terms with the fact that, hard as he may try, he will always be a white Englishman. It's an aural compromise between the eternal flame of race music and the technical crunch of white noise -- incidentally a compromise that extends to the entire band on the album's most well-known track, the distorted reggae of "Tumbling Dice." But his singing on "Ventilator Blues," combined with the sinister, choked nature of the instrumentation, works as a better and more convincing blues tune than the group's cover of "Stop Breaking Down" by the King of the Delta Blues himself, Robert Johnson found on Side Four.

If the plaintive country of Side Two and the dangerous and desperate soul of Side Three wore you down, never fear, for the Stones end their excavation of America's musical roots with good ol' rocking blues on and above the level they mastered in the mid-'60s. "All Down the Line" and that Johnson cover are stomping numbers that get the blood pumping after the one-two-three punch of "Ventilator Blues," "I Just Want to See His Face" and "Let It Loose" froze it. The aforementioned "Shine a Light" brings the mood back down, but it's fitting for a benediction to come at the end. At last, the Stones sum up the experience of the album itself with "Soul Survivor," a mid-tempo number that releases the battered and bewildered listener back into the real world.

"Everybody needs a little help sometimes," Jagger sings on "Tumbling Dice," and the central contradiction among the album's many contrasts is how much that's true and false of the band at this stage in their career. Cobbled together with anyone who was on-hand to play, Exile on Main St. perversely sounds like a group effort despite how much of it owes to Bobby Miller and Bobby Keys (his sax makes everything better). Hell, Mick Taylor, Jones' replacement, who despite his his contribution to Sticky Fingers might as well have been a hired hand at the time, provides the most solid anchor for the band's loose experimentation. By far the most technically proficient musician to ever play for the band, Taylor played honest, emotional blues through the flair of a jazzbo. His fluidity powers a number of songs through what might otherwise have been stagnant, scattered jams, most notably on "Ventilator Blues," where his slick slide guitar riff earned him a rare joint credit with the Glimmer Twins. (Taylor's full talent was best on-display live, particularly in the widely-circulated bootleg of the band's 1973 show in Brussels on the Goats Head Soup tour, a show heavy on Exile material. The entire bootleg is essentially one long, invigorating guitar solo, and I suspect that the band never released the scorching album officially because it would have been the best advertisement in the world for Talyor's solo career when he suddenly and acrimoniously split from the band.) And yet, in the middle of it all are Jagger and Richards, still capable of pulling themselves away from their vices to write some of the best tunes of all time. No other record so convincingly runs through as many genres as Exile without forcing itself to cover genres too-disparate to allow consistent flow, something this album contains even with its clashing moods and styles.

Perhaps what makes the record most special, however, is that it shows the band caring more about the music than their image, something they rarely did before and have never done since. After Exile met with mixed reviews and Richards slipped further into his addiction, Jagger, the professionally minded one of the bunch, began to assert more control and threw the band at every fad that might lengthen the Stones' career. Not until 1981's Tattoo You would they put out a great record from start to finish that sounded like a band making music they believed in instead of cashing in on trends. I have not always, or even often, made it through Exile on Main St. in one sitting, yet whenever I have been away from the Rolling Stones for any length of time, for some reason it is always this album that brings me back to them. Of course, when I do listen to it, the reason becomes obvious: the band most routinely singled out as bourgeois poseurs, even above Led Zeppelin, managed to make the rock record about rock, in all its contradictions and contrasts.

The remastered deluxe edition of the album is by far the best edition of the album to date, cleaning up the shoddy production while retaining its intentionally muddiness. What's a particular treat, however (and especially for those who've triple-dipped by now), is a bonus disc of alternate takes, as well as archived tracks partially re-recorded by the band, including work from departed Stones Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor. You can understand why these didn't make the final cut, but the "new" tracks "Plundered My Soul" and "I'm Not Signifying" are the best thing the band has put out since Tattoo You, and some of the alternate takes are dynamite. The scrapped version of "Loving Cup" contrasts with the tight version found on the album proper with a far looser structure, the metaphorically intoxicated innuendo of the album cut swapped out for a literal drunken swagger. This alternate take is better than the one that made the album, and in many ways it captures the album's overall mood of a deflated party better than any one track on the record (for a more in-depth look at this curious case, check out Ben Ratliff's fascinating view on it for the New York Times in an otherwise mixed re-appraisal of the album as a whole). Also worth more than a few spins is a considerably more defiant edition of "Soul Survivor," sung by Richards with feral menace that contrasts with his more enticing outlaw tone on "Happy." The remaster itself justifies buying whatever numbered copy of the album you're on, but these bonus cuts, while not nearly as comprehensive as they might have been, are fantastic and more-than-welcome additions.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie — Director's Cut

The director's cut of John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie omits the first scenes of its longer original cut, beginning with a shot of Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) exiting his nightclub. This version immediately establishes its protagonist through mise-en-scène (with the club entrance subtly hinted to be a birth canal and the outside world a terrifying and unfamiliar reality) to the spare dialogue of Cosmo looking at the empty sidewalks around the club and reassuring the bouncer, after a pause, "All right, Vince. It'll pick up." Cosmo retreats back into the safety of the womb, away from a cold and sparsely populated world, but the damage is done: we know him instantly as both an optimist and a craven weakling, putting on a brave face to deal with the world before running back to the one section of it he can control.

This restructuring defines the greatest difference between the original cut, disliked by its director and star, and the taut director's version: the 108-minute edition instantly aligns the camera to the point of view of its slimy yet oddly lovable protagonist, moving the picture away from the more objective group studies Cassavetes made previously. Even the theatrical version of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie fits more readily into the director's classic style, its looser structure lending itself to even more asides than are present in the shorter version. But the director's cut ties Cassavetes' unique gift for finding the truth of humanity into a more subjective and personal style of filmmaking, centering on one character and his perception of the world around him rather than the real world's effect on multiple subjects.

That this transition should coincide with the false pretense of the director's move into more commercial filmmaking is all the more fitting. After A Woman Under the Influence scored well with critics and, more notably, audiences, Cassavetes's decision to make a gangster picture like the ones he used to act in to raise money for his own movies must have struck at least some of his fans as a crass exploitation of his Best Director nomination.

To be sure, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie contains all the elements of a crime picture: mafiosos, seedy clubs, gambling dens, etc. However, for all of the director's cut sleekness, the film is not, in either form, about anything so simple as a plot. In that single scene outside the club, the start of one cut and a few minutes in the other, Cassavetes makes this film about Cosmo and how Cosmo acts and reacts to events and how those events affect the way he sees the world and himself.

Through this subjective lensing, Cassavetes paints the underworld of the club backrooms through which Cosmo moves in a sickly, garish hue, using color filters and focal lenses to distort the image. Like a womb, the nightclub that Cosmo owns is dimly lit, oddly colored, stifling and sticky. But it's also safe, a place where Cosmo is the boss instead of the unremarkable schmuck, and he relaxes there the way he never does outside its doors, even before the plot catches up to him.

At the start of the film, Cosmo is in good cheer, paying off a long-standing debt to a loan shark (played, amusingly, by the film's producer), thus liberating himself to enjoy whatever profit the club turns for himself. To celebrate, he takes his three favorite dancers out for the night, only to wind up in a smoky room playing cards. Looking at Cosmo hunched over his hand, you can tell before someone comes to cut off his credit, before creditors come a few hours later to speak to him and long before they mention the $23,000 Cosmo now owes them that the club owner immediately got himself back into trouble. Clearly a cyclical occurrence, this new pile of debt does not openly faze Cosmo, who calmly assures the mobsters that he will repay them. (Interestingly, the gangsters draw up numbered forms and contracts as if legitimate money-lenders.)

Then again, nothing ever fazes Cosmo, which is something he's clearly worked at his entire life. He buries his Sicilian temper under the veneer of half-smiles and politeness, which the camera constantly frames in close-up in a futile attempt to pierce this stone wall. When his lover, Rachael, catches him leering over a nubile young girl auditioning as a dancer, she slaps him, nearly forcing that dormant anger to the surface. But Cassavetes and Gazzara deny us this easy (and premature) explosion, sending the scene into much darker territory where Cosmo keeps his cool by gently but horrifyingly forcing Rachael to drink liquor to calm her down. He must maintain order without outwardly losing his temper, even if his actions seem more sinister for his projected calm. Even his oily flesh appears to be a defense mechanism; everything in this film is oily, even for a '70s film -- if everyone in America had just run sponges over their body, the oil embargo would have never have been an issue -- but Cosmo is especially slick. As such, you can never tell if he's really sweating or just covered in product.

Cassavetes significantly influenced the early work of his friend Martin Scorsese, but Cosmo, and the rest of the picture, finds a bizarre but tantalizing balance between Scorsese's own Mean Streets, with its low-ranking and doomed street rat, and Taxi Driver, with its extremely subjective point of view as a man falls apart and loses himself to rage. The initial camerawork, filled with the director's trademark use of hand-held shots, aligns to the goofier, more lethargically tragic side of the club owner: the camera shakes even more than a typical hand-held shot as Cosmo stumbles from the bar back to his table, as if the camera is bobbing along to the trills of the joint's lounge trumpeter (or swaying to his drunken swagger). When Cosmo meets that lady who wants to try out for the Crazy Horse, Cassavetes cheekily shows her via an eyeline match, which lines up the frame to chiefly capture her breasts; when she auditions, we see only her legs. After the mobsters rope him into killing the titular bookie to repay his debt, however, the shaky movements reflect not just the tossing mental state of its protagonist but the pressure that begins to weigh down on him. The deeper into the situation Cosmo moves, the more he understands his fate, giving the shots both a paranoid, crippling fear and, at times, an odd serenity, a resignation and an acceptance of the world finally closing the tiny pocket it opened for Cosmo.

But no aspect of the mise-en-scène captures the truth beneath Cosmo's impenetrable facade than the show his club puts on every night. The cabaret act is a borderline disaster, shepherded by Cosmo's Felliniesque doppelganger, Teddy, a.k.a. Mr. Sophisticated. A lugubrious, pudgy wannabe, Teddy is Cosmo without the ability to deflect, accepting the audience's abuse as he fitfully attempts to add some talent to the proceedings, introducing song and dance numbers that fall apart instantly as the girls cannot remember their lines and the men in the crowd scream for the breasts to come out already. It's a show so wretched and slapdash that frankly nudity is the only thing that could salvage it, and Teddy somehow looks more confused and out of place when the women finally disrobe than he does trying to marshal them into a "classy" act.

The show is just one aspect of the film that works both as a nod to genre convention as well as a character-driven subversion of it. Even in the tightened version, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie contains numerous asides that appear to take away from the plot even as they serve both the story and Cosmo's own perception of it. On the way to kill the bookie, Cosmo's car breaks down in the middle of the road, an initially humorous "when it rains, it pours" situation made terrifying through Cassevetes' shots of incoming headlights growing brighter and larger than I've ever seen car headlights grow in a rear windshield. But that undercurrent of black comedy bubbles to the surface in the aftermath, as Cosmo goes to call a cab and, while still in the phone booth, calls the club to check in on the show. In the one-sided phone call, Gazzara never shifts the tone of panic and defeat but funnels it into high comedy by asking his workers what number the dancers are on before chewing them out for getting things wrong and for not knowing the show after years of practice ("Is it the Paris number?" he exasperatedly asks, before being forced to explain, "Are their cards on the wall reading 'P-A-R...?' "). The desperate humor, underscored by Cosmo's attempts to keep his calm as panic finally starts to take hold, continues when he goes to a diner to buy hamburgers to feed the bookie's guard dogs, at which point he gets into an argument with a waitress who wants to individually wrap the burgers to prevent a mess while Cosmo testily searches for excuses to just get it all in one greasy sack. None of these scenes is necessary in a strict sense, but they work both in maintaining the tension outside of sheer plot mechanics while continuing to burrow into the protagonist.

Cosmo does eventually carry out the task described in the title, but he understands instantly when he hears the footsteps of bodyguards approaching the scene of the crime that his target was more important than a mere bookie, and he knows that the Italian mob sold him out and double-crossed him before one of their representatives comes to chastise the poor man for killing a major player in the Chinese mafia as if he acted alone.

After barely escaping this setup with a bullet in the gut, Cosmo might be expected to open up for a final soliloquy, a "I coulda been a contender" moment. But it never comes. Instead, Cosmo manages to further lock down. Subtly, his actions communicate fear and a need for comfort, as he returns to Rachael and her mother, Betty, who have given him the only semblance of love and care (he even calls Betty "Mom"). He puts on a brave face, but Betty sees through him instantly: she actually cuts off what might have been the start of a generic monologue, damming the build-up of verbal diarrhea of Cosmo starting a winding story about his childhood by saying simply that she doesn't give a shit. With Cosmo unwilling to seek treatment for his wound, she won't indulge his disarming affability, not this time. She does not know the full story of what happened to Cosmo, nor does she care, and despite her affection for the man, she will not allow him to bring danger upon her and her daughter. The cold finality of this scene, its instant and brutal undercutting of hackneyed resolution and "Big Actor" moments, communicates more about this character and how even his loved ones view him than a speech ever could.

At last, Cosmo winds up back in his club for perhaps the last time, covering up his wound to buck up the people who depend on him, and suddenly his stoic endurance of the world's indifference to him seems less a self-serving measure as he applies it to inspiring those even worse off than him. With Teddy at an emotional nadir of self-revulsion, Cosmo pours whatever exists of himself into his doppelganger so that at least some form of him will live on. In his speech to Teddy and the dancers, Cosmo reveals truths about himself, saying "you gotta work hard to be comfortable" as he sits in the club he frantically held together for years just to feel relaxed in it. "I'm only happy when I'm angry," he says, "when I'm sad, when I can play the fool." But these are truths that their speaker does not fully comprehend, as he bares his true self to prove a point about needing to put on another face to deal with the world. (Cosmo frequently talks in such doublespeak and understatement, telling Betty, "I'm not feeling well, to tell you the truth" as he nurses his agonizing gut wound.) His employees take this message to heart, and Teddy even lauds Cosmo's ethos from the stage, calling the effort to achieve comfort, ironically though incessant, stressful work, the "best thing there is in the world."

Cassavetes does not show us Cosmo's ultimate fate, but we can guess from the scene of the club owner not simply announcing the show from backstage but heading out into the spotlight to introduce the act. Without directly, or even indirectly, letting on that this will his last night at the club, Cosmo emphasizes how this peeling, sticky den was his home, and his stumbling, awkward emceeing comes to serve as the joint's, and his own, benediction. After finishing, he stumbles away, probably to die alone, as Teddy comes to the stage and morosely performs his number, sure that the world hates him even as the audience begins to cheer. Teddy receives the open acceptance Cosmo never did, but like Cosmo he cannot recognize that affection. Even the existential despair common to so many noirs can scarcely touch the level of heartbreak in this moment.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The West Wing — Season 5

In all fairness to John Wells, the executive producer/showrunner of ER whose production company launched The West Wing, no one could have taken over for Aaron Sorkin after he and director Thomas Schlamme acrimoniously departed the series at the end of its fourth season. Now, the idea that Sorkin, who placed his name (and usually only his name) on 85 of the first four seasons' 88 episodes, really was the exclusive writer is horseshit. However, even if he really did, Sorkin's biggest impact on those who would have to fill his shoes came in the form of the previous season's finale, a grandiose, gripping cliffhanger that plunged the show into an emotional and political mire that posed a number of deep conundrums between the necessity for the leaders of state to be objective and reasoned and their status as actual human beings, subject to fear, rashness and, most importantly, potentially compromised by human connections.

With Bartlet invoking the 25th Amendment in the wake of his youngest daughter's kidnapping, the president surrendered his position in order to divorce his personal reactions from the power afforded to the leader of the country. It was a humbling display of civic responsibility and personal willpower, even for a fictional character, and with Republican Glenn Allen Walken (John Goodman) immediately taking control, Sorkin ran out of the White House cackling to himself, placing our beloved fake president at the end of his wits, forcing the country to handle a terror attack (and thus raising issues of America's culpability for its covert ops) and even saddling the staffers with a dyed-in-the-wool conservative to add insult to injury. You could practically hear him shout, "Deal with this, fuckers!" as the credits ran.

So, how does Wells, his new head director Alex Graves, and the whole West Wing cast and crew deal with Zoey's kidnapping and the myriad of issues it raised? Why, they solve everything in two episodes. Oh, boy. Narratively, these two episodes are fairly taut, maintaining the tension of the situation as a far more hawkish leader considers which target to annihilate in response to the kidnapping, even if a fast retaliation could get Zoey killed. But even in these strong openers, the seeds for the season's downgrading present themselves: obviously The West Wing is a politically oriented show, but the sight of Toby and Josh launching immediately into political scheming to combat their fears of what Walken might do if the situation drags on robs both of a baseline of humanity that they'd previously shown. For the rest of the season, both characters stretch their always outspoken political concerns and machinations into garish shapes; Wells actually makes the Republicans out to be both morally and intellectually superior to Josh and Toby by refusing to campaign on the perception of Bartlet as too weak to govern out of respect and simple pragmatism (assaulting a man whose daughter just got kidnapped would sink a platform faster than video of a sexual affair).

Perhaps Wells meant that, however, as the fifth season moves away from Sorkin's unabashed liberal optimism into the murky waters of bipartisanship. That shift makes the political angle of show more realistic than ever, and more attuned to the current climate, but Wells uses simple compromise ostensibly to solve major ideological issues. By mixing Republican and Democratic ideas, The West Wing "fixes" Social Security, finds a way to nominate highly partisan Supreme Court justices without watering down experience and passion in favor of safe picks and compares the burst-bubble recession to a bagel for facile explanation and solution proposals.

One could certainly argue for the need for moderation in government, but if just rule simply meant the combination of semi-opposing ideas, wouldn't we have figured everything out by now? Say what you will about the inefficiency of Congress, but I cannot imagine that pure stubbornness could have sustained a system that refused to progress for the sake of saving face beyond a decade (well, maybe two). As we can see now, bipartisanship too often waters down legislation, packing bills so full of concessions that potentially major reform is reduced to something scarcely distinguishable from the current system. This change in the show's tone clashes openly with its own previous aversion to bipartisan politics, with Bartlet's assertion that intense debate produced better leadership than instant compromise. After a time, I began to even soften toward Toby and Josh's hard line against even considering the other side, arrogant as it was, because it showed a backbone the rest of the season lacked. Consider that episode involving the Supreme Court nominations: as easy, too easy, as its solution was, "The Supremes" was easily the most Sorkin-esque episode of the season because it showed two highly opinionated judges bettering their arguments and deepening their mutual respect through constant bickering.

Everything else, though, is too simplified. Within the context of the rest of the fourth season, Zoey's kidnapping prompted an examination of this country's indignation at action taken against us in response to economic and military forces we use to hobble or fund various regimes. Quite rightly, Americans responded to 9/11 with anger, but the question of why we were attacked quickly disappeared with assurances that our "freedom" inspired hatred instead of lingering Cold War foreign politics that place troops and influence where indigenous populations don't want it. I do not expect a television drama to get to the heart of our tangled foreign policy, but Wells frustrates by broaching the subject that America has brought this action on itself and that sovereign nations have a right to defend themselves regardless of their diplomacy toward this country, only to undercut it by portraying our desire for revenge as not just understandable (which it is) but justified. Bartlet's somber quoting of Dr. King about the vicious cycle of violence does not gel with his routine threats of force throughout the season, and too much of the season's focus on the War on Terror tries to have its cake and eat it too, indulging our anger while arguing at the last second for reason.

The season's greatest weakness, however, simply stems from Sorkin's departure. The dialogue lacks much of his wit; lines are still funny, but the rapid-fire hilarity of yore has given way to sporadic chuckles. Only Bartlet's interactions with Abbey and Charlie retain their amusement, while everyone else sounds as if the characters themselves are trying to sound like they used to. They become synopses of themselves, little more than the sum of past characteristics without development and maturity. This can be seen most nakedly in the season's, if not the show's, nadir: "Access." A C.J.-centric episode structured as a news documentary, "Access" serves as a sort-of "greatest hits" for one of the series' most interesting characters, presenting aspects of her we already knew through the emotionally distancing filter of a narrated documentary. Its plot seems to have been cobbled together in retrospect -- undermining its fleeting sense of immediacy at the end by justifying the impossibility of the cameras capturing secret meetings in a time of crisis by "airing" the doc years later -- but the episode's biggest failure is to condense the weakness of character writing into a dense chunk of regression and stunted emotion.

Still, The West Wing does not become truly bad in its fifth season, merely...average. Take out the setup of Zoey's kidnapping and this could have been the show's first season. It certainly plays like one, more so than the deeper, fleshed-out season that introduced the series and its characters. Most episodes are enjoyable, if forgettable, and a few even rank among the series' better moments ("The Supremes," the two-part episode concerning the shutdown of the federal government over an impasse). But its admirable quest to reach across the aisle fails in the face of Wells' simplification of issues and, frankly, of Republicans, who are still portrayed mostly as self-serving, war-hungry madmen (Walken appeared to be a professional, severe man at the end of the last season, only to be shown to be a goofy hawk who insists on bringing his dog everywhere). Overall, I enjoyed the season, but I felt like I lost whatever shred of political idealism the real world hadn't already purged out of me when Josh Lyman stepped out of a vehicle to scream at the Capitol building.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Songs from the Second Floor

The first time I ever truly recognized Sweden as something more than "that place with the chocolate" -- at which point I would remind myself that I was actually thinking of Switzerland -- was when I began to read about the extreme side of heavy metal as a teenager. Now I know it to be a place of good health and a laudable sense of equality, but these initial, tepid steps into the world of death and black metal, looking up both the music and the infamous antics of its practitioners in the Scandinavian section of Europe, painted Sweden and its neighboring countries as places of lingering Norse terror, where latent Viking spirits swirled in the snowfall. (The first Bergman films I watched, for all of their Christian imagery and themes, only enhanced that perception.)

Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor is a comedy that plays entirely into this darker side of Sweden. To even call it a comedy at all sets an expectation for normally adjusted people outside of Sweden -- and I imagine a number of people within it -- that would not remotely match what the film depicts. Songs from the Second Floor is what Fargo might have been like if the Coens had put our lot in with the characters in its endless winter and Andersson manages to capture that feeling of blanketing whiteouts without even needing to use snow.

Then again, there are so many aesthetic and stylistic connections between Andersson's film and other directors that to focus on a thread as tenuous as Fargo is a waste of time. At various points, Songs from the Second Floor recalls Tati's Playtime, Kubrick, Bergman, the painting of Edward Hopper (including one reversal of his masterpiece Nighthawks, shot from the inside looking out), even -- if you ignore their directly contradictory humanism and deep cynicism, the static work of Ozu. Yet the most identifiable connection in this 46-take, 95-minute film is that of Monty Python, albeit Python if it had been less a group dynamic and more openly controlled by Terry Gilliam.

Set in a world of stock brokers and businessmen, Songs from the Second Floor plays like the calmer moments of Gilliam's bureaucratic nightmare Brazil, only to stuff all of the Pythons' absurdity into these more aesthetically neutral and suggestive shots. Andersson's film debuted in 2000, when it lined up to Y2K fears; now, however, its bleak vision of societal ruin via its money-lenders fits all too perfectly and uncomfortably with the current crisis. The common denominator, of course, is economics, and if money is the root of all evil, Andersson contemplates the spiritual health of society when it is itself rooted in money.

Andersson's 46 tableaux play out as loosely interconnected vignettes, every shot but one unmoving yet each shot dynamic and modulating. These vignettes start as quietly hilarious depictions of the world falling apart. A man who's worked at a company for 30 years is fired, and in his desperation he literally clings to his boss' leg in supplication, but the boss simply starts walking down the corridor to his other affairs, dragging the poor man along. The fired man returns home and sits fully clothed at the end of his bed not facing his naked wife, who beckons for some time before thinking to ask if anything is wrong, not noticing that her husband -- with his sweat-soaked, wrinkled clothes, matted hair and ghostly white face -- looks as if he stepped off the set of a silent Expressionistic film (Andersson puts this corpse paint on many of the actor's faces as the film progresses). Elsewhere, a magician attempts to saw a man in half, but the trick goes awry; the next time we see the poor volunteer, he's lying in bed as his sleeping wife's turning threatens to rip open his midsection again. A centenarian who was once a renowned military leader and a wealthy entrepreneur, now lives in an assisted living facility in a bed that resembles a giant crib, barred on all sides by metal as nurses change him. A group of naval officers come to pay their respects for his birthday, but their pomp and circumstance may as well be wasted on a baby. Their formal speech, however, stirs memories within the old man, leading to an uncomfortable flashback followed by an even more terrifying flash of understanding as the man looks around his prison with a look of horrible realization of where his life has led.

It is always difficult to explain why something is funny, if not completely antithetical to the ultimate intention of making the joke funny for someone else, but one could never get at why, or even how, the mordant comedy in this film works. The static manner of Andersson's presentation underscores a world of aimlessness and despair, and the hilarity of seeing a magic trick fail dies in the uncomfortable balance Andersson strikes between Kubrickian distance and a more empathetic quasi-humanism. Songs from the Second Floor is a comedy whose laughs are immediately swallowed in its own void, as if a black hole embarked on a stand-up career.

The lack of clear direction between some of these vignettes is visualized in the movement of the film's characters. An endless traffic jam fills the streets at all hours of the day, with drivers swearing in frustration and inching forward endlessly, yet no one seems to have a destination, certainly not one worth the hassle of this journey. A naval officer on his way the centenarian's birthday stops inside a cab, seemingly more to sit down and enjoy some heat in between walking than to try to reach the nursing home. The officer speaks to the cabbie, the son of a prominent character, discussing how he got distracted from writing a speech by drinking and how he came up with his philosophy toward life. "Life is time and time is a stretch of road," the officer says. "That makes life a journey, a trip." For him, our "map and compass" is tradition, and without them we are "stumbling around in the dark." Then, without realizing the full implication of what he's asking, the officer looks around outside the car windows and asks, "Where are we?"

It's a question asked by many characters throughout the film, and the truth may be that no one knows. People slave away at their jobs, sit in traffic, have goals, but to what end? Everyone with some sort of objective forgets it along the way to completion. The scene that mimics and reverses Nighthawks captures the loneliness of Hopper's original painting, of the women and the unfit men left behind in World War II to eerily empty cities, but it also complicates that isolation by then showing that, from the reverse angle, there is actually a vastly populated world just outside the window as the traffic inches onward. In this sense, Andersson presents the world as a place that is both too confining, in terms of the compartments (be they country borders or segregating customs) that separate mankind, and too large, a vast universe that cares nothing for this speck on the edge of oblivion. One woman who got out of her immobile car to come in for a refresher prepares to head back out and asks the natives, "Does anyone know how to get out of here?" "No," flatly comes the response.

Despite this universal sense of anomie and aimlessness, the film does follow some sort of path by choosing one of its menagerie of grotesque oddballs to follow predominantly. We first meet Kalle (Lars Nordh), a rotund furniture salesman, covered in soot on a subway car, holding in his hand a sack filled with the ashen remnants of his business life. As he stares into the distance, the other passengers appear to break into operatic chanting, their singing signifying both a victory and an omen. As it happens, Kalle burned down his store himself, thus granting him a liberty from a mentally draining job that tormented him but setting up the possibility of discovery by investigating insurance agents.

That fear is lessened, however, when we see how the insurance agents, and everyone else, is too preoccupied with their own trouble to even care whether his business burned down at all, much less who did it. The insurance company doesn't stall payment out of suspicion; it does so because its function is to avoid payment, and an investigation would just cost money where they could easily bury the claim in paperwork for free. Even the clergy has no time for Kalle's despair, as the vicar of a church responds that he cannot sell a house and will take a $200,000 loss. "At the end of your wits...So?" he spits. "Who isn't?"

Andersson hides in that exchange a jab at the hypocrisy of organized religion (that a vicar could somehow scrounge that sort of money to buy a house and then focus on losing that cash over his parishioners' troubles) that will become much more overt part of Andersson's focus. Looking for work, Kalle finds himself at an expo by a booth selling all sorts of crucifixes, as the man running it reassures those who order these crucifixes to resell that the market is good. Y2K, he reminds them, is also Jesus' birthday, and as if the blatant commercialization of God was not already apparent, here Andersson brutally mocks the idea that those who believe the world would end that year would spend their money on trinkets like these because of perceived spiritual quality.

Spirituality is all but dead in this world, though, and the film's routine quoting of poet César Vallejo, who wrote radical polemics about the extreme poor, appears to apply more to spiritual poverty than physical. Then again, that spiritual poverty appears to be linked to financial straits in a world that places so much emphasis on money that a lack of it causes an existential crisis. The link between the supernatural and the coldly capitalist is best illustrated in a scene where an economist, stymied for ideas, gazes into a crystal ball for the answer. Of course, the crucifix "business" also shows where the two lines intersect, and Andersson slyly turns one salesman's failure to hock his supply into a metaphor for a loss of faith. We see the man throwing out a car filled with Savior-on-a-Sticks of all shapes and sizes as he cries, "I staked everything on a loser," an abysmally dark moment of comedy even before you consider the full possibilities of its ingenious pun. Kalle himself becomes something of a Christ figure at the end, though both he and his "followers" turn their backs on each other.

Kalle constantly bemoans his mentally ill son, Thomas, telling everyone who will listen that the boy "wrote poetry until he went nuts," as if intellectualism gives one a clear view of the world, one that would drive anyone insane. This sort of crushing nihilism would be interminable if it wasn't played as absurdist farce. Every scene has something funny in it, and often one joke filters in through background as another one is still continuing in the fore, such as Kalle funnily try to sell a pile of ashes as the Chippendale sofa it used to be when suddenly a group of stock brokers walk by the window in the background flagellating themselves. By inserting such gags, Andersson frees himself to rail against the evils of society without reveling in them. Even a ritual sacrifice comes to be something nonchalant, a normal part of life in a mad, mad, mad, mad world. Plus, the director frames the shot to show the young virgin being watched by religious and military leaders, showing how those who lay down society's guidelines are regressing it to the age of such barbarism. The problem is not that the world has moved into too liberal and unfeeling a territory; it's that it's been held in place for too long, to the point that the planet itself has stopped turning (which might explain why the camera never moves). Capitalism and technology are merely new tools with which entrenched ruler classes exert their power.

Songs from the Second Floor may not contain much hope, save the possibility of Kalle and his flock returning to each other, but at least it allows us the courtesy to laugh at doomsday. So many layers of society are mercilessly skewered, and society so pathetically stalled at the start of the millennium that the film has lost none of its relevancy; if anything, the financial collapse and the latest and biggest revelation of how deeply the Catholic Church's cover-up of child molesters runs give greater clarity to Andersson's attacks on religion and capitalism. Perhaps that's why it's not so easy to laugh at Songs from the Second Floor: it sees too much of us to place the audience at ease. One of its last images shows people at a station in what appears to the bridge between the world and the afterlife, as people drag their baggage (literally and laboriously) into the next world. It's impossible to say whether we're watching this from God's perspective or the Devil's, and the grand and terrible implication of that is that no distinction exists between the two. By that point, anyone who previously wished to point out the irony of a director renowned for his work making commercials using his first feature to lambaste a world run by money might suddenly find himself incapable of speaking up.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Shield — Season 3

Whatever issues weakly scuffed the veneer of the otherwise sterling quality of The Shield are swiftly and thunderously obliterated in its third season. Every show with narrative-based storytelling changes and expands in some way each season: Lost introduced and followed a new group of characters for each of the first few seasons, The Wire focused on a different part of the crumbling system to spotlight. But The Shield thus far has mostly kept the same cast and only added a few new characters. What it does instead, and does brilliantly, is increase not so much the scope but the pressure, using the bigger events of each progressive season to squish its characters just a bit more to see how far they can go before snapping.

With four seasons to go, I don't know how much more these people can take. The previous season ended with Julien's harassment reaching its boiling point and the Strike Team successfully pulling off their Money Train heist, albeit not without leaving some loose ends. Somehow, Aceveda won his election, only for his win to cause more problems as he must work even harder to maintain his image to ensure a rise through the political ranks before he even takes his position as councilman. Meanwhile, Danni Sofer's luck hit its nadir when Aceveda had to list her name among the cutbacks enforced by the chief in one last gambit to cripple Aceveda's campaign.

Each of these developments, even the more positive ones, tighten the screws, which makes it all the more difficult for these cops to maintain their sanity when everything -- almost simultaneously -- goes to shit.

The Strike Team's secrecy alienates its newest member, Tavon, eventually leading to a confrontation between him and the racist Shane that only compounds the strain placed upon the four standing members of the team as those with any connection to the Money Train heist start showing up without their feet. The Strike Team, once an airtight entity whose members covered for each other no matter how hairy the situation, begins to pull apart at the seams as the temptation to touch the cash weighs on the minds of underpaid officers who face mounting financial need and any possible discrepancy leads to paranoid looks and the occasional statement of suspicion.

Each of the members reacts in his own way. Ronnie, having suffered at the hands of Armadillo before the heist, has steeled into a silent and calculating professional, the only one of the team who can reasonably exist outside of suspicion and often follows up on the others. Vic, who must contend not only with Matthew's autism but now Megan's, is in deep enough trouble already before forcing out the excellent developmental therapist helping Matthew when he discovers that Owen is dating Corinne. Vic manages to bounce the guy, only for his satisfaction to be undercut by the realization that the agency has a finite number of therapists and Owen's departure places a red flag on Matthew's profile just as he begins to regress and needs treatment more than ever.

And if Vic is in trouble, then Shane must be about to dive into an even larger bed of manure, which he does when he meets Mara (Michele Hicks). Mara, initially presented as a thorn in Vic's side and a nagging wedge driven between the questionably sexual dynamics of the friendship, a facet of the show that is prodded more this season but stopped just short of moving into clichéd territory. However, Ryan and co. quickly mold Mara into a strong foil for Shane, someone just as rash but also capable of more maturity and civility. Even Shane cannot understand why exactly she stays with him; "She's the first one that's been better than me," he quietly tells Vic when Mackey tests to see whether his buddy will leave this lady. Mara eventually involves herself in the Money Train issue without realizing it, causing a rapid advancement in her character even as it further complicates the existing characters.

The interplay between Mara and Shane, and the effect of Mara's snooping on the Strike Team dynamic, brings to the fore the key theme of the season: trust and lies. Vic tries to woo a K-9 officer named Lauren Riley, only for her boyfriend to find out and attempt to control her life. Danni manages to get back in at the precinct, but only on the condition that she report any and all suspicious behavior to Aceveda. Surprisingly, the officer Danni must report the most is Julien, who finally earns the respect of his other officers only to start exhibiting aggressive behavior as he fights his own sexuality. With Danni back to being a more emotionally constant figure, we can see just how far Julien has slipped because of his inability to be honest with himself.

Some of the twists and turns are downright horrific. Dutch takes the lead on a serial rapist case that forces yet another turn of character when the perpetrator is caught and interrogated. Aceveda, stuck with all the pressures of continuing to run the precinct while preparing for office, gets cornered without backup in a raid and falls victim to a sexual predator, and the experience haunts the captain for the rest of the season. His refusal to tell anyone, out of shame and fear of his public image, alienates him even further from the officers he's about to leave and opens a rift between him and his wife. Aceveda grooms Claudette to replace him as captain, but her attempts to crack down on the Strike Team with her new authority blind her to other decisions. Claudette botches the handling of an undercover case by the Decoy Squad, a group of heavy-undercover officers borrowed from another precinct, and the mistake threatens her advancement and forces her to regain the trust of the squad. Yet she remains a competent and moral force within The Barn, and when she uncovers clues that could lead to the retrials of hundreds of convicts, she risks her career by losing the confidence of every officer in the precinct as well as the politicians.

Racial identity also plays a bigger role in this season. The lynching of a black teenager who painted graffiti so beautiful even the cops left it alone sets off a conflict between black and Latino gangs, and the Korean community, even its legitimate and prominent members, close in and keep out the police when one young man shoots and kills a child. Of course, the specter of the Armenians casts a pall over the Strike Team, and every mutilated immigrant corpse makes them wonder what will happen if the trail ever leads back to them. Even Claudette's flirtation with power owes more to her skin tone than her professionalism; as we can plainly see late in the season, it's not her honesty and ethical code that Aceveda admires.

The third season of The Shield introduces a number of nauseating events that at times made me question whether I needed to see some of it. It is not inherently incisive to show the ugly side of society when one merely does it to rub the audience's face in exaggerated horror; after all, one would hardly point to something like the Saw franchise as truly subversive just because it pushes the bounds of taste. Yet Shawn Ryan has such a strong hold over the material, using these events to direct the characters to a state of confusion and despair that, despite the distinction of the disparate incidents (and the manner with which nearly everyone hides the problem affecting him or her from others), feels shared and more powerful because of it. Where these characters had been sympathetic without downplaying their flaws, now they flirt with a monstrosity beyond their most heinous acts previously shown even as these characters convey so much more loneliness and panic that, for the first time, you start to root for more than one or two of them. As inhuman as so many of them are, you'd have to be the devil himself not to take pity when the universe launches a war on these people and gives no quarter. The fate of the Money Train cash cannot even be called ironic, not only because it comes too far out of left field but because irony implies that fate cares enough to take stock of a situation before it ruins someone; the world in which these characters live just crushes like the spiked walls of an old adventure movie, and you can't be entirely certain when the season ends whether the walls were stopped or if they merely meshed together, splaying all those caught between them.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


[Note: This review has been cross-posted at FRED Entertainment, with a longer section on the specifics of the Criterion Blu-Ray release, its technical details and its supplements. The full review can be found here.]

It is somewhat customary in the review of a classic to point out the age of the opus in question before insisting that it still feels "as fresh as ever." It's a lazy shorthand that can be used for Wagner's Ring cycle, Joyce's Ulysses and Citizen Kane in the same breath, a write-off that attempts to reassure the reader that hallmarks of art do not have to sit in a museum, not even collecting dust because of protective cases. The statement is usually presented on its own, a QED "proof" without demonstration, allowing the writer to move on quickly out of fear that he or she has nothing to add on an already thoroughly analyzed work ("What can I say about ____ that hasn't already been said?" is also a trite shortcut that we have all used at some point no matter how much everyone hates to read the sentence). But, damn it, how can you talk about Fritz Lang's masterpiece, M, without pointing out its continued ability to grip, illuminate and provoke on the eve of its 80th anniversary?

Before one can address the subject of M, one must first consider Lang's career up to that point. The director spent his early career balancing between art projects and action-packed crowd-pleasers. Spiders, first earliest surviving film, is a two-part adventure epic that greatly influenced Spielberg's Indiana Jones series, while Destiny (or Weary Death if you prefer the more accurate translation) was a more Expressionistic story despite its own plethora of special effects (which were so impressive that Douglas Fairbanks bought U.S. distribution rights so he could bury the film until he figured out how to steal those effects for his own Thief of Baghdad). From that point, Lang began to bridge the two, making significant artistic leaps in his next epics, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler and Die Nibelungen, before starting to condense the grandeur of his work into shorter timeframes, starting with Metropolis and continuing with Spies. Spies in particular points toward M, having condensed and refined the crime thriller elements of Dr. Mabuse and lessened the Expressionistic material to a more realistic atmosphere -- even its abandonment of traditional dissolves in favor of faster cutting aided this effect.

Of course, the key difference between Spies (and Lang's next film, Woman in the Moon) and M involved the development of working sound technology and soundproof camera casings. Lang, already an operatic director, seems in retrospect the perfect filmmaker to show the capabilities of the invention.

Contrary to popular belief, M was not the first major sound film; it was not even the first noteworthy German sound film, as Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel premiered a year before. However, in the four years since talkies hit in 1927, nobody explored the boundaries of the technology like Lang. The failure of the early talkies, brilliantly lampooned in Singin' in the Rain (a film that, as a musical, of course depends on sound), was in the tendency for filmmakers to treat the technology like a fad even though nearly everyone embraced it. Apart from the odd exception of Lubitsch's early musicals or von Sternberg's Blue Angel, talkies did not approach the level of the last silents, and when the Depression hit sound became a last-ditch effort to spike theatrical attendance when it first took a dive before later spiking.

But Lang establishes sound as an integral element of the film, inseparable from the rest of it. Sound introduces the child killer who terrorizes Berlin in the form of his voice and a shadow (the most overtly Expressionistic moment of the film and a audiovisual transition point of Lang's career), allowing the murderer to remain out-of-sight and unknown to the audience; later, it is sound that destroys the man when his whistling is the clue that leads to his capture. That whistling, of "In the Hall of the Mountain King," an innately foreboding song with is accelerando structure that builds from an eerily quiet and slow low register to a cascade, as well as the schoolyard rhyme the children sing at the start (carrying, like so many rhymes, a darker undercurrent) adds tension to the film from the start. And nothing conveys tragedy like the mother of wee Elsie Beckmann, the girl the killer abducts, as she calls for her daughter in panic, her disembodied calls played over shots of horribly empty places around the city (a all-too-common device today that was introduced here) before showing the ball the girl carried rolling out from behind a bush and the balloon the killer bought her floating into telephone lines.

It is that minimalism, in fact, that makes M so unique among the director's German output. His previous features, even the smaller ones (or at least the ones that survive) had bombast, swirling in Expressionism and Expressionism-lite. An earlier crime epic like Dr. Mabuse, with its supernatural antagonist, grabbed its audience through an advancement of Feuilladian editing and through the artistic visualizations of Mabuse's mental powers. M, on the other hand, does not put anything in the frame that doesn't need to be there. Consider how much mileage Lang gets out of whistling, how he sets a horrifying leitmotif with "In the Hall of the Mountain King" and later uses it to catch out Hans Beckert, who is himself freaked out by whistling when he is discovered by a lone searcher who then alerts the rest of his posse. Images are likewise spare, from the shot of the chalk 'M' a runner draws on his hand to slap on Beckert's back to tag him as the murderer to Beckert's last attempt to hide in an attic (an oddly and disturbingly prescient image in a film that criticizes the rise of Nazism) as footsteps grow louder until the door bursts open and a flashlight illuminates the culprit. Expressionism allowed artists to paint or film images that suggested ideas, a more universally legible portrait than the works of Impressionism, which convey only the artist's sense of the subject, but M is more immediately arresting than any of Lang's more aesthetically ambitious pictures. The images and sounds are all meticulously chosen to raise tension and put forward a social commentary, which is as didactic as you might expect but layered enough to provide more than a simple anti-Nazi sentiment.

Before M, crime films defined clearly good heroes and incontrovertibly bad villains. But Lang routinely contrasts the police who crack down on Berlin to find the child killer with the criminals who are so affected by the increased pressure that they also decide to hunt for the killer to return things to normal. The clearest distinction between the two groups, brilliantly intercut between planning conferences until it becomes difficult to tell them apart, is the simple truth that the criminals are more effective; in their conference, the criminals speak of forcing landlords and homeowners to allow access to their property for searching, at which point Lang cuts back to the authorities who speak of a similar plan, only for the wizened among them to warn against such a politically disastrous act. When Beckert is eventually collared by the thieving mob, the leader, Schränker (Gustaf Gründgens in the role that led to his immense popularity in Germany during the Third Reich), downplays the killer's demands for legal representation by slyly assuring the man, "We are all law experts here."

Not only does Lang blur the line between cop and criminal, he does so under the pretense of heightened realism (he even struck a deal with police to allow real criminals to work as bit players, and when shooting wrapped they scattered before cops could re-apprehend them). M opens with a gong strike which, according to the commentary track furnished by Criterion, linked the film to the radio newscasts of the day, as if establishing the film as docudrama. At first, M plays like a well-researched police procedural, as Inspector Lohmann uncovers tiny clues and examines them thoroughly as Lang inserts shot of blown-up photographs of fingerprints and psychologically breaking down the handwriting of the killer's note to the press. At this stage, the film's direction centers on the mystery of the killer's identity and follows the legal process as if showing an audience watching a newsreel how police intend to capture the fugitive. That Hans Beckert is based on serial pedophile/killer Peter Kürten, captured only a year before the film's premiere and executed several months afterward, only adds to the ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy.

But Lang subverts his own film, itself already an innovation in terms of detail and precision, by showing Beckert's face, that of a young Peter Lorre, faced still lined with baby fat. That sudden shift establishes Lang's high-minded piloting of the events in directions the audience cannot expect. By revealing the face of the killer, Lang introduces a Brechtian element to the erstwhile realistic film that gives the audience a knowledge the other characters do not have. However, he subverts this influence, using Brecht's style often as another mode of deception, as the revelation of Beckert suggests a change to a more personal profile of the killer, which M never becomes; at times, Lang uses this more objective viewing to lure the audience astray even though it tells us the truth. Even taken on its own, the scene carries an importance, as the shot of Beckert is played with a handwriting analyst describing the killer's need for attention. As Lorre poses in the mirror, his facial contortions of menace and madness matching the descriptions of the analyst diagnosing Beckert's writing as a form of acting. As the letter was meant for the press, we can gather from Hans' sardonic attempt to look and act the way people expect him to that he not only exploits the press but is exploited by them, that the papers will turn him into that grimacing madman to sell more copies.

That mixture of social commentary with the personality of the killer has kept both the examination of Beckert as a killer and the society that hunts him fresh. Lorre gives one of the greatest breakout performance in all of cinema -- there cannot be five others to match it -- as a killer whose motivation is never explained away by a cruel childhood but who nevertheless does not fit into the role of a completely repulsive creature. In contrast to the nefarious blackguard of earlier films, Beckert does not wish to commit his crimes, and Lang often frames the killer in a way that suggests that his actions are out of his hands. He spots one girl in a mirror (portentously framed by a display of knives) and begins to whistle compulsively; he abducts her under the eye of the street rats who watch him, and Beckert must face all of his self-loathing and fear of his uncontrollable urges when the man who marks the killer makes Hans drop his knife, which the girl innocently picks up and hands back to the man who intends to use it to kill her. It's a sublimely edited and framed sequence that shows how Beckert, while unforgivable for his crimes, deserves more consideration than the mob will show him.

Naturally, compassion is the last thing on the mind of a mob. In the wake of the Beckmann murder, Berliners turn on one another, from upper-class men accusing each other and vowing to take each other to court for slander to crowds forming with alarming speed around a kind old man who tells a young girl the time, a move perceived as a lure. Made just before the Nazis took complete control of Germany and overthrew the Weimar Republic, M shows how mob rule both signified the current system, with a section of the criminal community living in open luxury from wealth gained through theft and cheating, and prefigured what Nazi policies would become when they took control, with citizens pointing fingers and naming names against those deemed suspicious. The mise-en-scène of any communal location, particularly the scenes of plotting, are swathed in cigarette smoke, choking the frame as if visualizing the noxious impotence of the authorities to right society's wrongs and their inability to stop the rising tide of fascism and the rampant corruption of a society that more or less posited the cleverer criminals as the aristocracy.

The film culminates in a farcical underground trial run by the thieves, who know full well they will kill Beckert and whose decision to hold their kangaroo court anyway demonstrates how many legitimate trials are just for show. Lang seeps this sequence in irony, with the criminals swatting down Beckert's initial protests that he cannot help himself by derisively saying how none of them can help himself when he's called to the stand. Who better to see through the tricks and excuses than the other people who use them? But Hans throws it right back in their faces, saying they simply rob and swindle and could cease their crimes by looking for work. He, on the other hand, is driven to kill; in one of the most memorable monologues in cinema, Lorre contorts in despair and loathing, passionately recounting how something inside of him takes hold and directs him against his will to murder. "Who knows what it's like inside me?" he cries, and for a moment the mob is struck dumb.

I first saw the film when I had a reactionary view of extreme crime. I scarcely wanted trials for rapists and murderers, much less compassion (even now, as an outed liberal, I will come down swiftly on rape). But M had a profound effect on me, dispensing with sob stories of childhood, an explanation that has by now become cliché in film and in reality, yet still examining how even the most abhorrent crime is not as black-and-white as we would like to believe. There is no forgiveness for murder or rape, but there must be understanding and empathy so that we might find a way to identify the mental imbalance and combat that as a method of crime prevention instead of focusing all of our outrage onto those who have already done their deeds. Lang stresses this in the final shot, after Beckert has been seized from his mock trial to attend an equally pointless one in a true court (he slyly hides how quickly the trial passes through editing, as the arm of an officer lands on Beckert's hand in the kangaroo court as the man says, "In the name of the law" before cutting to the actual courtroom as a judge continues from that phrase and prepares to declare his ruling). Just before the judges hand down the inevitable death sentence, Lang cuts to three of the mothers who lost their children to the monster, who morosely note that no punishment can bring back their children. Even as the director shows the misery and horror Beckert has caused, he also points out how capital punishment only feeds our own thirst for revenge and does not truly administer justice.

It is strange how so broadly sociopolitical a film is personal enough to speak about it from a first-person perspective. Goebbels, the Nazis' propaganda minister, adored the film upon its release, missing the anti-Nazi sentiment expressed within entirely and reading the ending as an endorsement of the death penalty. If that proves anything, it's that the Nazis perhaps weren't as calculating and intelligent as we believe, or maybe they were and could not process the emotion of the film. Goebbels himself rejected what he called "degenerate art," and while he initially made some exceptions for Expressionism he clearly cared more to see clearly defined objects and not the emotions they represented. Here, he saw a film operating in documentary-like fashion to attack the rampant crime of Weimar Germany and the necessity for harsh reprisal to force the seedier elements in line. (It was his reaction to M, in fact, that led Goebbels to seek out Lang to work for the Third Reich, leading to that infamous meeting between the two that has been greatly exaggerated, if it ever took place at all. Goebbels would, however, ban the film after Lang made an unmistakably anti-Nazi feature with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which used literal excerpts of Nazi doctrine, and then fled the country.)

For me, however, M offers not only, within the context of film history, the chance to see the language of fully synchronous sound being developed for the medium for the first time but, in terms of its sheer impact as a movie to be watched, an emotionally devastating statement by a director who was about to quit his country in complete disgust and fear. Thus, M is unmistakably didactic, but its messages are interlocked with its emotional and aesthetic directness. Perhaps the greatest illustration of this comes with the final lines, as a grieving mother makes the most obvious social statement when she proclaims, "You must look after the children. All of you." Clearly a message, the moment nevertheless retains a power when one considers that, at that very moment, the Hitler Youth's membership was growing and would soon become a social mandate for the children of Germany and Austria. These first-wave additions to the Hitler Youth would hit recruiting age by the time the war erupted, ensuring that they would be sufficiently brainwashed just in time for the Third Reich to call upon their loyalty. Lang certainly could not have known how deeply the Nazis would take root and pervert the nation -- much of M's incisiveness is applicable in retrospect -- but that ending runs deeper than a mere Nazi protest.

When different versions appeared in international releases, for example, this ending was typically cut in favor of a happier shot of children frolicking once more, now safe after (we assume) the state put Beckert to death. This is, of course, entirely antithetical to the proper ending, which calls for constant vigilance, not only to physically protect children but to prevent poisonous social ideas from rotting their minds. It's a far more contemplative ending that calls for intelligence and skepticism, and the fact that other countries would remove this out of discomfort of its promotion of questioning authority makes Goebbels' blind reading all the more hilarious. (That the last line, "All of you," was originally "You too" before the final word got lost in irreparable print damage only further emphasizes the importance of the task Lang assigns to parents.) The true ending makes everyone culpable, both for cleaning up crime and raising a more vigilant and noble generation to replace us, all the while balancing the emotion of the scene on its own terms.

And now, I find myself back at the start, doing everything just short of begging to insist one last time that M will grab and provoke you regardless of your politics. When I say that it is superior to the psychological thrillers, sociopolitical statements and police procedurals released today, I do not do so to denounce all contemporary cinema as inferior to the "classics" nor to promote my "refined taste." I merely want to impress upon you how incomplete the life of any film lover is without seeing it -- and we live in a sad time when many people will speak of their love of cinema and never branch out of their own country's output nor even delve deeply into that nation's cinematic history -- and how I can still find this much to write about it after a number of viewings. M will make you ask more of the crime films you watch; more importantly, it will genuinely make you question the justice system and whether capital punishment is acceptable just because it makes us feel a bit better about life. Above all, though, it will show you (or remind you, if like me you haven't watched a Lang film in a while), that Fritz Lang is one of cinema's true originals. This is confirmed by Claude Chabrol, who made a short homage to M for the French TV program Cine parade. When asked about remaking some shots and making his own Langian spins on others, the New Wave director, famous for his own psychological thrillers, noted the difficulty of reproducing Lang's precise detail. I've spent nearly 3500 words discussing why the film sears into me, but Chabrol nicely cuts through the technique, the blocking, the commentary and everything else with six cautionary words to those who would aspire to this film: "Trying to imitate Lang is madness."