Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Medium Cool (1969) - Directed by Haskell Wexler

Many of the time-capsule films of the late 1960’s don’t play nearly as well as they used to. Last time I watched The Graduate I found it slightly more awkward and kitschy than I recall. Also, Easy Rider was a little bit too in love with itself last time I saw it a couple years ago. Same goes for Midnight Cowboy, which although wonderfully acted, is a bit self-conscious despite the fantastic acting. Each of these films I really like for the most part and consider them to be fine American films from their era, but none of which I would consider to have much of an impact upon me and my understanding of cinema today outside of their historical perspective. I think their scope goes little beyond their time-capsule quality as a window into the late 60’s. Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool is an exception to this rule, however. For some reason, Medium Cool was not canonized the way that it should have been. There are small circles, especially among critics, who have sung it’s praises, but I’m hoping the recent Criterion release will shine more light on it.

Wexler wrote, directed, and photographed this masterful piece of 60’s filmmaking that just might be the best American film of that decade to my eyes. In the film, there are a few converging plots lines that are at first loosely framed and then slowly begin to coalesce around the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where the riots took place between the Chicago Police and demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War among other things. We follow a news photographer named John (Robert Forster) and his sound man, Gus (Peter Bonerz) through Chicago on various outings as they film a car accident, and cover various stories. We also follow the exploits of a young boy, named Harold (Harold Blankenship) and his single mother Eileen (Verna Bloom), who are living in a small apartment. These stories cross when John catches Harold near his car and chases him, thinking he’s trying to damage his car. In the chase, Harold leaves behind a pet pigeon in a box with his home address on it. John arrives at the home to return the pigeon, where he meets the boy and his mother, with whom an initial attraction is made. They tentatively begin a relationship, and just when things start heating up, Harold runs off into Chicago on his own, and Eileen goes searching for him through the crowds and rioters protesting in Chicago, while John is filming the coverage at the convention.

Unique in its presentation, Medium Cool is an influential film with lots going on. It is one of the most effective, and one of the first, to portray the weaving of fiction and non-fiction within the same film. We have fictional characters winding their way through actual events (The Convention, The Riots etc.), with the lines between the film’s sense of fiction and reality continually blurred by the context within which it was shot. This blurring effect occurs even more so, by the fact that Wexler photographs the film with a cinema verite style, making the film feel like a documentary, even as he weaves pastorally beautiful sequences together, particularly the flashback memories of Harold and his father, making the film feel life-like and also cinematic at the same time. This approach can also be seen over twenty years later in a film like Kiarostami’s magnificent Close-Up, where he continually blurs the lines between reality and truth and our perception of them. With most of the Wexler's film made in Chicago, it’s also very much a slice-of-life in big city Chicago 1968, with lots of outdoor sequences of the El Trains, the projects and ghettos, and also Grant Park etc. Most of the film is particularly un-shy about topics of media distortion and ethics, racism, women’s liberation, sexual liberation, war and violence, political upheaval… all makes me feel like I understand what it was like back in 1968, far more than those other films I mentioned above. Medium Cool captures a tenseness and angst present in those times, with the memories of assassinations and social/political unrest fresh in people’s hearts and minds.  I find there are element’s of Wexler’s film that can also be seen in something like Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where angst and tension is on high alert. It’s also a film that speaks to us today, with the topic of media manipulation and the way we cover national tragedies on our news stations that continue to be divisive. There’s a particular sequence where John and Eileen are watching a news presentation on the television, and John has a monologue reflecting how the nation has begun to get used to national tragedy and we have a procedure for how the media covers these events and how the nation reacts with almost premeditation and desensitization. These statements feel just as relevant today as they would have back then. The particular instances might differ….rather than assassinations we have terrorism…..but the underlying commonalities are there.

Few photographers of his era were better than Wexler. This film is one huge example of his talent, using a variety of camera techniques and framing devices to capture the spirit that he was intending. In the film's final centerpiece, the riot sequence is amazingly well captured, with Verna Bloom wearing her bright yellow dress, standing out amidst the police and demonstrators….the hand-held camera roving about capturing the chaos. It’s almost hard to believe Wexler was able to pull this off as it’s so shockingly spontaneous. His sense of humor is also rather amusing, throwing in sly jokes just to keep the film from getting too high-minded, like the overlapping sound technique of using crowd noise during a sex scene among other visual and aural gags throughout. Although it’s not really a film of memorable characters, the ideas therein and the conceptual design really are the major assets. This is often the focus of European films from the 1960’s, like those of Godard….where the politics and ideas relegate the human element to the background. Stylistically, the film also belongs to a certain sense of the American New Wave, along with works by Cassevetes, which to me are also playing extremely well these days. As a lasting work of cinematic innovation, there are few American films that are as striking and memorable as Medium Cool

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Last Wagon (1956) - Directed by Delmer Daves

As further confirmation that Delmer Daves was the western genre’s great moralist director, we have this fascinating and pointed psychological western to point to. The Last Wagon, along with others from Daves in this era, like Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma, make distinctive reference points to Biblical allegories….each film examining the west as a sort of proving grounds for faith, justice, and moral uprightness. Daves positions his characters in situations that cause them to question their sense of right and wrong. These temptations and conundrums are positioned against men of good mental and spiritual fortitude in Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma. But in The Last Wagon, our protagonist is of questionable moral standards to begin with and even we the audience aren’t quite sure what to make of our own judgements of him.

Daves co-scripted the film and helped create a fiendishly clever psychological mess of a plot. Comanche Todd (Richard Widmark), named so because he was raised mostly by Comanches, has been captured by Sheriff Harper as Todd was wanted for the murder of Harper’s three brothers. After taking him captive, Harper and Todd meet up with a wagon train, and Harper ties Todd to a wagon wheel to keep him captive. Tempers flare when some of the wagon train members begin to show care for Todd, while Harper wants none of that. During a fit of confusion, Todd manages to kill Harper, leaving the wagon train to deal with Todd themselves. A group of younger individuals from the train decide to go skinny dipping during the night, Jenny (Felicia Farr) and her brother Billy (Tommy Rettig), Jolie (who’s half Native American – played by Susan Kohner) and her racist step-sister Valinda (Stephanie Griffin), and two other young men named Ridge (Nick Adams) and Clint (Ray Stricklyn). When they all arrive back at the wagon train in the early morning, they find everyone has been slaughtered by Apaches……except Todd. This positions all six of the young survivors into a situation whereby their only hope of survival is to let the seemingly “evil” Todd lead them across the dangerous territory to safety…….if they can trust him.

I’m not sure Daves could have found a more perfect actor to play Comanche Todd than Richard Widmark. Widmark was of course typecast a bit during his days as morally corrupt and slimy, often playing bad guys or good guys gone bad in numerous film noirs and westerns throughout his career. Widmark has a fascinating ability, though, to rise above this sort of typecasting through his impressive range. Here he’s believably tough, rugged, fatherly, caring, daring, vengeful and just about any other adjective you could use to describe his character. What works so well is that we are never quite sure of what he’s capable of. His past exploits, as assumed by most of the 6 survivors, are seen in different lights. Jenny finds a rugged handsomeness and danger in him that she is attracted to, and at one point even grimacing with pleasure as Todd digs a knife into an Apache’s chest. Billy finds Todd to be a father figure, learning from Todd’s teaching and mentoring while he is leading them through the dessert. Valinda despises Todd completely, not trusting him one bit and fearing for her safety, despite the fact that he saves her life after she’s bitten by a rattler. Ridge and Clint can’t quite make up their minds most of the time, as their own fears of inadequacy to care for the group force them to follow Todd’s direction even though they don’t always like it. Jolie finds a quiet camaraderie in Todd, as his sympathies and understanding of racism she appreciates. Widmark is able to reflect back all of these qualities that are needed in convincing fashion, and it’s one of his best and most confident performances.

Many things are done to near perfection in this film: Wilfred Cline’s terrific Scope cinematography, the excellent action sequences (love those gunpowder explosions), the terrific supporting roles (especially Felicia Farr as the sexually yearning Jenny….in fact Farr added fine performances to Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma as well), the self-aware script that doesn’t shy away from topics of racism, fornication and spirituality. True though the plot is the sort of thing that could be construed as cliché, the film elevates beyond the usual through the continued Biblical reference points. On more than one occasion, there’s mention of preaching and the Bible, with even mention of Todd’s birth-father being a circuit preacher. This allows for an appropriation to Todd as wandering prophet or savior to this group of 6 people. He preaches, prophesies, and enacts lessons of survival and safety and protection to his newfound family or “congregation” if you will. It’s almost like he’s Moses leading the Israelites through the desert. At the end of the film, the question of law versus justice comes into play, as Daves’s script allows for a very pointed examination of judgement….both man’s and God’s. Our understanding of Comanche Todd and everything we think he’s done gets turned upside down in the finale, with God smiling down on him in reprieve  based upon his lifesaving exploits, which although on the surface seems wishy-washy,  is actually not dissimilar to the miraculous rain shower at the end of 3:10 to Yuma based on Van Heflin’s faithful service, or even Glenn Ford’s redemption and survival at the end of Jubal by refraining from adultery. These endings are all remarkably consistent and in line with Daves’s unique brand of psychological western.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Act of Killing (2012) - Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Back in 1966, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was published. It was a book based upon research, interviews, and relationships forged with the murderous criminals who killed the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Truman Capote, as is alleged, ended up forming a morally troubling relationship, in particular with Richard Hickock. Documented in Bennett Miller’s masterful Capote, this relationship formed between Hickock and Capote is based upon Capote ingratiating himself with the killer, lying to him to gain secrets in order to complete his story. At about the same time as Capote was researching his book, across the world in Indonesia, a mass murder was taking place. After a failed coup attempt by the Indonesian Communist Party, the Indonesian Military (perhaps motivated by the state government) formed death squads who went across the country murdering purported communists, and ethnic Chinese, among others. Up to 1 Million individuals were murdered in one of the largest mass murders of the twentieth century. 40 years following the atrocities, Joshua Oppenheimer, in researching the events in Indonesia, somehow managed to befriend himself to some of the death squad leaders in order to get the first hand account of what went on. I don’t know what Oppenheimer had to do in order to get the stories and point of view he has achieved in The Act of Killing. He may have had to lie about his intent, much like Capote may have had to do. But one thing’s for certain: The methods justify the end result.

Oppenheimer’s documentary took 7 years to complete. He places his camera amidst the lives of a small handful of death squad leaders who are still living relatively prosperous lives. In their own country, they are seen as heroes who purged the country of a ravenous scourge. I must admit, I have heard very little, if anything, about the mass murders prior to seeing this film. In relation to the Cold War that was ongoing at the time, it’s not hard to believe that this sort of story could have been twisted by journalists into propagandistic headlines. Oppenheimer mainly focuses on Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry in North Sumatra, who in the 1960’s, were movie theater ticket sellers, who somehow became death squad leaders, personally killing up to 1,000 people. Their passion for movies continues to this day, as Oppenheimer films Anwar and Adi’s desire to make a commemoration of the killings that they performed over 40 years ago. With a strange glee, the two men, along with other volunteers, spend much of the film in costume, playing out scenes from gangster films and westerns as they re-enact murders they committed. In one horrific scene, they stage a large scale “attack” on a village, with fires, and screaming women and children running for their lives. In between these scenes of horror, we witness the men talking about their lives, their fears, memories, and nightmares. There is even discussion of how the men have been able to compartmentalize their minds to allow for the justification of the murders.

It’s hard to know how the film was originally intended to be seen from the perspective of Congo and Zulkadry. If they were hoping to somehow look good through all this, they certainly weren't self-aware enough of how their murders would be viewed by the international community. After our experience with the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, it’s hard to believe and comprehend how we can exist in a world today that let’s such criminals as these killers not just live in freedom, but be celebrated. This film plays as a sort of real-life horror film, capturing a terrifying and nearly surreal sense of injustice and terror. Congo revels in showing his grandsons a moment that was filmed where he is being “interrogated at knife point”, as he proudly shows off to the next generation the work that he did. It almost makes you sick to your stomach. When Congo exhibits a bit of emotional remorse at the end of the film, as he retches off to the side of the camera, it sort of mimics the internal feeling I had the whole time watching the film. It literally makes you ill, watching the horror and injustice.

If any good can come of this film, maybe somehow the injustice  on display will be overturned someday, but even I know this is mostly wishful thinking. Stories like this are hard to film, because one must infiltrate a society and a way of thinking to be able to film them. In all likelihood, there may be a silencing of this story within Indonesia. Oppenheimer’s real feat was finding the men in the first place and somehow building trust with them. Like I mentioned, there is a potential that Oppenheimer achieved his ends through sketchy means. It is reported that initially Congo was pleased with the final result, but is now potentially worried about the reception and publicity it may receive in his own country. It’s hard to believe that Congo would want his story to look like this, but it does just the same. If there is any justice in this world, there will be some kind of headway made in Indonesia and I'll continue to hope for justice despite my skepticism. Perhaps this film is just the beginning of the story on these mass murders.