Saturday, June 30, 2007

100 Favorite Films

The following is a personal list of favorites and is intended as nothing more.

A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès)

Tunneling the English Channel (Méliès)

Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene)

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler
(Fritz Lang)
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau)

The Last Laugh (Murnau)

Sunrise (Murnau)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer)

The Man with the Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov)

M (Lang)

Freaks (Tod Browning)

Duck Soup (Leo McCarey)
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

L'Atalante (Jean Vigo)
The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer)
It's a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod)

Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)

Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)
Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (Kenji Mizoguchi)

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges)

The Palm Beach Story (Sturges)

The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson)
Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock)

The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise)

Notorious (Hitchcock)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)

Blood of the Beasts (Georges Franju)

Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder)
Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu)
Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock)

Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi)

The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann)

The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa)

Dementia (John Parker)
Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich)
Night and Fog (Alain Resnais)
Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)
Ordet (Dreyer)

The Searchers (John Ford)

Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur)

Man of the West (Mann)
Touch of Evil (Welles)

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Resnais)
Rio Bravo (Hawks)

The Antoine Doinel Films (Francois Truffaut)

The Apartment (Wilder)
L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni)

La Notte (Antonioni)

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey)
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford)

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard)
8 1/2 (Federico Fellini)
Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller)

Gertrud (Dreyer)
The Naked Kiss (Fuller)

Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki)

Branded to Kill (Suzuki)
Playtime (Jacques Tati)
Weekend (Godard)

Faces (John Cassavetes)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky)
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)

Brewster McCloud (Robert Altman)

Solaris (Tarkovsky)

Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)

Céline and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette)
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog)
F For Fake (Welles)
The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Cassavetes)

Stroszek (Herzog)
3 Women (Altman)

Stalker (Tarkovsky)
Vengeance is Mine (Shohei Imamura)

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker)

L'Amour à Mort (Resnais)

After Hours (Scorsese)

The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky)

Damnation (Béla Tarr)
Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg)

The Decalogue (Krzysztof Kieslowski)

Short Cuts (Altman)

Sátántangó (Tarr)

Good Men, Good Women (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

The River (Tsai Ming-Liang)

The Hole (Tsai)

Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick)

Platform (Jia Zhang-Ke)
Werckmeister Harmonies (Tarr)

Millenium Mambo (Hou)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)

Grizzly Man (Herzog)
Three Times (Hou)
The Wayward Cloud (Tsai)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Rescue Dawn

As gallingly conventional as many of the film's cinematic strategies may be, Werner Herzog's POW-escape drama Rescue Dawn is a surprisingly warm and occasionally thrilling offering from the prolific director. Treating the same material as his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the new film casts Christian Bale in the role of Dieter Dengler, a man whose lifelong compulsion to fly led him to enlist in the Navy under whose auspices his plane was shot down over Laos during a covert Vietnam War mission. Captured and tortured by the Vietcong, he engineered an improbable escape. In the earlier film, we rely on Dieter's narration to depict the events, but here Herzog brings an added immediacy to the material by staging the escape in grand cinematic fashion. Like those great prison break pictures Grand Illusion and A Man Escaped, Rescue Dawn offers a thrillingly suspenseful treatment of the process, but where those films bring a unique thematic and aesthetic perspective to the material, Herzog's film substitutes a surprisingly bland visual style and a willingness to settle for too many easy filmmaking conventions.

Herzog's compositional sense is too great for the film to be completely bereft of visual appeal, especially given such a promising setting as the Thailand jungle where the picture was filmed, but overall his camerawork comes across as lazy and uninspired. He relies heavily on crane shots and hand held work, keeping the camera in constant motion, a strategy that may serve to underscore the film's inherent tension, but leads to many of the shots feeling uncomposed and haphazardly staged. The shooting of a typical scene consists of little more than Herzog moving his crane-fixed camera around to focus on whichever character happens to be speaking. The lack of imagination in the director's visual aesthetic stamps the work as a surprisingly conventional piece of filmmaking. Still, Herzog occasionally tosses off some lovely shots. In one scene, for example, the Vietcong torture Dieter by dunking him in a well. Herzog films most of the action in close-up, but eventually cuts away, ending the sequence on a lovely overhead long-shot with Christian Bale's head poking out of the tiny opening of the well, a small circle off center in an empty field.

Perhaps the pressures of making a studio film have gotten to Herzog, but he relies too often on the sort of cliched filmmaking strategies that dominate many lesser pictures. In one scene, Dieter and fellow escapee Duane (Steve Zahn) make their way downriver on a raft before they realize they are about to go over a waterfall. They jump off at the last minute and the raft abruptly topples over the falls. This sort of "just in the nick of time" contrivance would seem too facile a device to interest a filmmaker like Herzog and yet he employs it again during the film's climax. As Dieter finally attracts the attention of Navy helicopters, he waits for them to lower their ropes so he can climb up. Because the noise of the choppers will surely attract the attention of the Vietcong, time becomes an important factor. At the exact moment that Dieter makes it to the top of the ladder and enters the helicopter, the Vietcong emerge and the American soldiers gun them down. Had he waited another few seconds, he would not have escaped. Considering his last film, 2005's terrific The Wild Blue Yonder, an odd hybrid intercutting a long Brad Dourif monologue with footage taken from a space mission and from beneath the polar ice caps, was as wildly unconventional as anything in Herzog's oeuvre, this sudden taste for by-the-numbers filmmaking comes as a most unwelcome surprise.

The film's conclusion proves even more problematic. After his rescue, Dieter recovers at a military hospital where he is questioned about his covert mission by two CIA officials. When his friends come to visit him, they tell him that unless he escapes he will be sent to Guam for debriefing. The scene then makes an abrupt switch in tone towards straight comedy as his friends effect his escape by wheeling him out on a cart covered by a tablecloth while stalling the officials for time. This unnecessary intrusion serves as a strange and unfunny bit of comic relief, especially since the film's tension has already been resolved and no such moment of levity is needed to offset the seriousness of the proceedings. The comedy, though, soon gives way to galling sentimentality in the following scene. After his second (comic) escape, Dieter is granted a moment of glory as he is welcomed by hundreds of cheering servicemen upon his return. An officer says a few words about God and country and hands the microphone to Dieter to make a short speech. This sort of overblown feel-good conclusion seems designed to appeal to an audience trained to lap up the sort of Hollywood "prestige pictures" that foist an unearned significance upon the viewer. What prevents the scene from toppling the rest of the movie through its sheer inanity is Dieter's refusal to spout the expected patriotic rhetoric when handed the microphone. He instead delivers a koan about emptiness and fullness and the uncomprehending crowd cheers him as if he had instead offered a benediction to his country. This sole note of disharmony is all that keeps the scene from dissolving into its own nauseating sentiment.

For all the aforementioned shortcomings, the film functions quite effectively on the level of entertainment. Herzog has a sure feel for pacing and establishes a sufficient atmosphere of tension before allowing his characters to embark on their escape. When they do put their plan into action, it amounts to one of the most thrilling action sequences in recent memory. Without relying too overtly on the expected payoff of violent confrontation, Herzog deftly maneuvers his characters around the camp, confronts them with the guards, and only resorts to gunplay for a few brief moments. After Duane and Dieter escape the camp, they make their way through dense Vietcong-laden jungle towards the Mekong River, with Herzog sustaining the same remarkable level of tension as before until a rousing helicopter rescue brings the action to a close. Herzog also devotes ample attention to the unique camaraderie that sprouts up between the prisoners, particularly Dieter and Duane, a camaraderie that marks Rescue Dawn as one of the director's warmest pictures. In one scene, the two prisoners, starved to the point of emaciation, take turns listing the foods they would put in their ideal refrigerator. As Dieter objects to Duane's listing of Budweiser as the beer of choice and attempts to substitute a stein of dark lager, Duane interrupts him saying "this is my refrigerator," and then after a pause, "the beer stays". The perfect comic timing of Steve Zahn's delivery makes manifest the laughter that connected the two men even in the midst of imprisonment.

The acting is uniformly strong throughout. Christian Bale fashions Dieter as a larger-than-life figure, always completely confident in his abilities and capable of great ingenuity in the most dire situations. If Dieter seems like an impossibly heroic character, it only benefits the film, since this superhuman capacity for fulfillment creates a wholly captivating screen presence that enables and enhances the audaciousness of the escape. Steve Zahn is also terrific as the hard luck Duane, a man worn down by stomach ailments and lacking his friend's vital drive. Besides providing some of the film's finest comic moments, Zahn offers a perfect counterpoint to Dieter's heroism, a man completely overwhelmed by his circumstances and only able to escape because of his friend's efforts. The interaction between the two actors is wonderfully natural and their friendship surely represents the film's heart. If only Herzog had treated the material with the savage unconventionality it deserves, the film might have ranked among the director's triumphs. As it is, it stands as an often entertaining, appealingly effusive and ultimately frustrating work.

AFI Part Two: More of the Same

It's business as usual at the American Film Institute. The organization's updated 10th anniversary list of the 100 greatest American films (introduced in a live telecast on CBS June 20th) offers plenty to quibble with. But beyond the mere ineptitude of many of the selections (and the selection has improved somewhat with the elimination of such clunkers as Dances with Wolves and the inclusion of such previously neglected films as Sunrise and Do the Right Thing), what is most troubling is the insistently imperialistic attitude towards cinema that the list represents. It is one thing for the AFI to co-opt such questionably "American" films as Lawrence of Arabia (a British production with a British director) and A Clockwork Orange, but to perpetuate the narrow-minded view that the only films worth considering are filmed in the English language is inexcusable. Granted, foreign films would be outside the purview of the American Film Institute, but by positing their list as a ranking of the "100 Greatest Movies of All Time" as their marketing campaign repeatedly proclaimed, the Institute further perpetuates the belief (already held by many American moviegoers) that the cinema outside of the United States doesn't exist. While most savvy filmgoers can easily see through the AFI's false rhetoric, such cinephiles are clearly not their target audience and by promoting the list in such a way, the AFI does irreparable damage to American attitudes towards the world cinema.

If the AFI rankings are intended as an introductory list for the neophyte film viewer (it is unlikely anyone else would take it seriously), it represents a very problematic introduction indeed. Granted, encouraging interested parties to check out Citizen Kane and The Searchers (which jumped 84 places to #12) is admirable, but by interfiling these masterpieces with such outright trash as Forrest Gump and Titanic as well as such popular but dubious "entertainment" as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the AFI presents a warped cinematic worldview that the discerning neophyte will ultimately have to overcome. Such a list does a service to no one except the studios that own the rights to the represented films and whose interests the AFI serves. In addition, the list is largely skewed towards the sort of "prestige pictures" that usually vie for the top prize at the Oscars and are full of overblown sentiment and a sweeping, but ultimately blandly generic aesthetic program. By privileging films like The Shawshank Redemption or Sophie's Choice that strain for a hollow significance, the list prevents more interesting but less insistently important films from earning representation. A movie must be self-consciously epic in its thematic concerns or it need not apply. The question of aesthetics is secondary.

And once again the Spielberg sensibility dominates the proceedings, not suprising considering his oeuvre represents the two strands of film that the AFI favors, "pure" entertainment and the overblown, historically significant epic. Spielberg is thus represented by both his popular entries, like the aforementioned Raiders, and his more serious work, culminating in Schindler's List which cracked the top ten on both lists. A servicable piece of filmmaking, Schindler's List hardly qualifies as one of the great films (or even one of the director's more successful efforts), but the combination of filmmaker and subject guarantees its place near the top of such a list regardless of the film's shortcomings. In all, the director is represented by five films. Spielberg's heir apparent, M. Night Shyamalan (at least until a series of recent commerical failures sidetracked his career) joins the list with his overrated The Sixth Sense as one of the few recent films included on the list. Needless to say, the work of Todd Solondz, Gus van Sant, and even David Lynch is nowhere to be found, despite the fact that Lynch's Mullholland Drive was the best American film of the decade and these three contribute far more interesting work to the American screen than Shyamalan and James Cameron. Perhaps the list's only positive development is the inclusion of more silent films after the bitter declamations that followed the Institute's decision to include only one non-Chaplin silent on its original list (Birth of a Nation). Added to the new rankings are Buster Keaton's The General, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. Still, this hardly compensates for the damage that the AFI's list will continue to do by regurgitating an unreflective and static canon of American film that mixes in an inexcusably high quantity of garbage while passing the whole thing off as a definitive ranking of the "greatest films ever made" not just in America (or England) but on the entire planet.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Lights in the Dusk

If it is still useful to invoke the old debate between form and content, the question of whether a work of art can subsist entirely on its stylistic excellence despite a void of substance, then Aki Kaurismaki's latest film Lights in the Dusk makes a convincing argument in favor of the former. A throwaway plot and indifferent characters should not obscure the film's oustanding formal qualities, and yet, shouldn't a work of art worthy of the name be required to say something? Kaurismaki renders the debate irrelevant as we succumb to his lovely pseudo-noir evocation of a nocturnal Helsinki, his perfect groupings of characters in static compositions augmented by impeccably timed zooms into a character's face, his overhead shots of city streets, the impossibly blond hair of the femme fatale.

The plot, derived from the standard noir set-up of films like Double Indemnity, feels mostly like a necessary burden to be gotten through between Kaurismaki's set pieces. Koistinen (Janne Hyytianen) is an uncouth security-guard with no friends and whose lack of romantic prospects earns him the mocking scorn of his co-workers. He later tells a woman he has "got rock-and-roll" inside him and claims to have ambitions of owning his own security company, but these statements belie the insistent passivity of his character, a being who seems scarcely to exist. One day, a beautiful blond woman (Maria Jarvenhelmi) sits across from him at a cafe. She starts talking to him. They start seeing each other. It turns out the woman works for a group of gangsters and is using him to obtain the security code and keys to a shopping plaza. The gangsters rob a jewelry store and implicate Koistinen. He refuses to denounce the woman and goes to jail for two years because, as the head gangster characterizes him, he is "loyal as a dog".

The downbeat plot obscures the pure pleasure Kaurismaki takes in staging his scenes. In one sequence, Koistinen, making his security rounds, finds a dog tied up outside a bar. Upon entering, he learns it belongs to three leather-clad toughs. Ever mindful of his duty, he confronts the three men about the dog who, we learn, has been kept tied up outside for a week. The men suggest they step outside through the back door and rather than follow them, Kaurismaki leaves his camera fixed on the men's table, their beers remaining in place. In the corner of the screen, another patron talks with his companion, oblivious of the impending violence. Half a minute later, the three men return to their place, laughing, and resume drinking their beers. Kaurismaki then cuts outside to reveal a bloodied Koistinen who makes his way back to the front of the bar before the screen abruptly fades to black. The director's clever staging elides the violence of the confrontation while emphasizing the relative monotony involved in the process. For Koistinen, it's just another day at the office, scarcely worth anyone's attention. Throughout the film, periodic moments of violence crop up but, as here, they almost always occur off screen, as if by showing them, Kaurismaki would disrupt the film's carefully modulated mood and continual sense of drift, a drift emphasized by Koistinen's circular movement both in this scene (in the front door, out the back door, back around to the front) and in several subsequent sequences where the circular pattern is repeated.

In another scene, later in the film, Kaurismaki frames his gangsters around a card table, playing poker and smoking cigars. The scene takes place after the incarceration of Koistinen and seems like a celebration of their success. The director places the four figures around a card table in the screen's foreground with a wall-length window in the right background. His camera remains fixed on the players as they throw down their cards and exhale smoke. Eventually, another figure emerges in the background: the blond woman appears on the left side of the screen with a vacuum cleaner and weaves in and out behind the foreground figures who fail to acknowledge her presence. Although she was instrumental in securing the stolen jewelry, she is not allowed to participate in the celebration, but must continue her service to the thankless gangsters by cleaning up after them. By placing the film's primary movement in the background and having the woman periodically obscured by the gangsters as she moves behind them, Kaurismaki deftly uses his composition to comment on the power interactions in the patriarchal criminal organization. Without the use of any camera movement, Kaurismaki gives us both a seemingly banal glimpse into the gangsters' leisure time and offers a simultaneous wordless commentary on the scene.

Koistinen's one chance of redemption in the film comes through the character of Aila (Maria Heiskanen), a woman who sells hot dogs out of a trailer by the river and whose gestures of kindness to Koistinen are repeatedly rejected. The weakest (or at least the most uneccessary) of the film's characters, the only advantage of her presence is to allow Kaurismaki to frame her trailer (with its red neon sign "Grilli") against the river in a lovely nightime composition. The only one of the film's characters who actively combats her pre-assigned role, she seems woefully out of place in the picture, a refugee from a more conventional film in which a perfunctory redemption is required by the exigencies of a standard narrative arc. Kaurismaki needen't have bothered. Redemption has no place in this world, and we don't need an Aila to remind us. Still, notwithstanding her presence, Kaurismaki has concocted a lovely little film. It may be all surface, but when the surface shines like this one does, we need not look for anything more profound.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The World as Seen Through Videotape: A Reading of Atom Egoyan's Speaking Parts

Atom Egoyan's 1989 film Speaking Parts meticulously details the way communication is mediated by video in the contemporary world. Nearly every interaction in the film is in one way or another filtered through a video image. Emphasizing the pervasiveness of the medium in our society, Egoyan allows videotape to perform a bewildering array of functions. Throughout the film, video serves as instrument of fantasy, as means of communication, as memory, as recorder of truth, as liar, as instrument of oppression, as weapon. Egoyan ultimately presents a world in which we can no longer tell the difference between a video image and reality because we are only accustomed to viewing reality through the filter of video, a state of affairs that creates great difficulty in the sphere of human interactions. Below, I offer a brief reading of the film which glosses the picture's complex plot and outlines the numerous roles video plays in the work. An intricately structured film, Egoyan's skillful handling of its disparate threads results in a coherent and thematically resonant work.

Lisa (Arsinee Khanjian), a hotel maid, is obsessed with a handsome co-worker, Lance (Michael McManus), an aspiring actor who also serves as gigolo to some of the hotel's female guests. Despite Lance's rebuffs, an undeterred Lisa rents the videos of all of his films, films in which his role is limited to that of an extra (he has yet to land a "speaking part"), and watches only the scenes in which he appears, returning the videos half-watched. Lisa's obsessive viewing of these films places her in a voyeuristic role, since her primary goal is to obtain a hidden glimpse into the life of a man she knows in person, even if the glimpse is fleeting and filtered through a fictional role. Unable to communicate with Lance in real life (he remains mute when she tries to initiate conversation), she engages a fictionalized image of him through the medium of video. Unsatisfied by the reality of her situation, she exchanges it for a superior fantasy life made possible through videotape. Egoyan further emphasizes this fantasy element by indicating that some of the films in which Lance has appeared are pornographic, including an S and M video with the actor undergoing torture, of which the director provides us a brief glimpse. By watching Lance in a pornographic setting, Lisa is able to indulge in a vicarious sexual encounter with the actor in a way that would be impossible in real life.

Through her frequent trips to the video store, Lisa becomes acquainted with the clerk, a man named Eddy (Tony Nardi) who supplements his income by filming weddings and parties. Eddy takes Lisa to the back of the store and shows her footage he has shot from a wedding, in which he reduces the father of the bride to tears by asking him a sentimental question about his daughter. Eddy films the sobbing father, a refined, white haired man in close-up, seemingly capturing the truth of the situation with his intimate camerawork. Yet, when Lisa expresses amazement at his ability to evoke this level of emotion, Eddy dismisses it as nothing. It is little more than an act, he explains, in which he feeds the father a carefully selected question that allows him to lapse into easy sentiment without challenging him to reflect on the situation. In the end everyone is happy. In this sense, the videotaping becomes a lie, as a device designed to record objective truth here serves to mediate a superficial, non-reflective conversation in which both the cameraman and subject act out preassigned roles.

As Lisa eventually becomes Eddy's assistant and is given the chance to conduct her own interviews, she attempts to break down this sham communication and restore the video medium to a vehicle for the recording of truth. She breaks off a formulaic interview between a bride and groom to conduct a private questioning of the bride. As Lisa attempts to evaluate the true nature of the relationship between the couple by subjecting the bride to a penetrating interrogation, the bride becomes upset at finding her stock answers no longer fit the questions. "What do you see in Ronnie?" Lisa asks. "When you look at him, what are you looking at?" The bride runs off crying, bringing the interview to a close. The camera, in its attempt to record the truth, becomes an unwitting instrument of the invasion of privacy, an instrument of oppression. When the husband finds out about the interview, he confronts Lisa with her own camera, turning the lens on her. "How do you like it?" he asks, as he brings the camera into menacing proximity. As he descends on the cowering woman, the camera has changed function from instrument of truth into weapon.

Meanwhile, Lance pursues his first speaking part by insinuating himself with the film's screenwriter, a woman named Clara (Gabrielle Rose) who is a guest at the hotel and who becomes his lover. The tragedy of Clara's life is the death of her brother who donated his lung to save her, a tragedy that forms the basis of her screenplay. When not engaged in the film's preperations, she obsessively views video footage of her brother in a video mausoleum, illuminating yet another use of the flexible medium: video as memorial. The film's negotiations take place in the hotel meeting room in which the screenwriter and other staff meet with the film's producer (David Hemblen) via closed-circuit television, an arrangement necessitated by the producer's busy schedule. In one scene, Clara plays Lance's audition tape for him on a small video screen. The performance is thus doubly mediated through video, as the producer watches on a screen within a screen, and is twice removed from the action. If video here serves as a medium of communication, it is a severely compromised one in which the alienation between communicators is prevalent. The closed-circuit television later becomes the primary means of interaction between Lance and Clara when the latter is forced to join the producer at his retreat. Their love-making likewise is performed through video, as they engage a sort of virtual reality intercourse. Everywhere, in these scenes, video serves as a means of communication, verbal, visual and sexual, but in its removal from reality, it severely dilutes the immediacy of interaction.

In the final version of the film-within-a-film, a major change in the screenplay takes place. The original story, as written by Clara, involves a brother's fatal donation of a lung in order to save his sister. The final screenplay switches the sister for another brother, a switch that enrages Clara, who based the role of the sister on herself. As reality is transformed into film, it necessarily undergoes a change, a point that Egoyan emphasizes here by making the alteration in the screenplay a source of such rancor for Clara, who essentially feels herself eliminated from her own work. After Lance, who is offered the role of one of the brothers, unsuccessfully lobbies the producer to revert to the original screenplay, he repeatedly ignores a desperate Clara who only re-emerges at the film's climax. Clara becomes the film's ultimate loser, stubbornly insistent that film capture an exact reality and unable to accept any of the medium's numerous (and more prevalent) additional functions.

The film's climax details the shooting of a scene from the film-within-the-film. The scene in question takes place during a television talk-show, in which the fictional host communicates with the dying brother via a closed-circuit television connecting to his hospital bed. Egoyan concocts an incredibly complex series of layering in which reality is filtered through four successive levels of film and video: first through Egoyan's camera (film), then through the fictional director's camera (film), through the talk-show's camera (video), and finally through the closed-circuit television (video). As the shoot is interrupted by the appearance of Clara who puts a gun to her head, Egoyan constructs a fast-paced montage consisting of a series of short shots which depict the scene through various levels of filtering. The montage mounts to a level of such rapidity that it is no longer possible to distinguish which shots are seen through video and which are seen through only the first level of filtering (Egoyan's camera). In addition, the director intercuts a series of shots of static-filled television screens, implying the insufficiency of the video medium to provide the observer with adequate interpretation of reality. Egoyan suggests that we are so used to relying on the video image for our perceptions that we are no longer capable of differentiating between true reality and fiction, an inability that prevents us from deriving meaning from our interactions. This inability to distinguish is further emphasized by Egoyan's intersecting of the filming with a scene in which Lisa watches one of Lance's videos and hallucinates Lance talking to her. When she returns the video to the store, she confesses to Eddy that she has seen "new scenes" in the movie. For Lisa, the video world and the world of reality have become hopelessly blurred.

The film's final image attempts to break the stranglehold that video has held on the characters' relations throughout the work. Egoyan brings Lance and Lisa together for an intimate encounter unmitigated by video image. He films them in close-up, their faces softly lit against the scene's surrounding darkness. Lisa reaches out and touches Lance's cheek and he responds by kissing her. Egoyan allows Lisa this single moment of live human contact, a contact which serves as an antidote to the sort of video-sex in which Lance and Clara engage. The fact that Egoyan presents the image without the mediation of any video filter sets the scene apart from the rest of the film and marks it as an expression of genuine human interaction, a phenomenon all too rare in an increasingly virtual world.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Flaherty's Indifferent Universe; Herzog's Malevolent Universe

Considered the first documentary, Robert Flaherty's 1922 film Nanook of the North was also among the first cinematic depictions of man living in an inhospitable natural setting. In Nanook, the natural environment, in this case Canada's frigid Hudson Bay, presents an intense challenge to the subsistence of its inhabitants, a family of Inuits seemingly well equipped to deal with the harsh conditions, but who still find daily survival to be a task of great difficulty. Ultimately, Flaherty's portrait is one of indifferent nature and one that would serve as a model for subsequent "natural" documentaries, a cycle culminating some eighty years later in Werner Herzog's film Grizzly Man, a work that modifies Flaherty's view of nature's indifference by assigning a hostile agency to the universe and that takes depictions of nature to new levels of brutality.

In Nanook, the titular character is well adapted to his natural surroundings: skilled in hunting, capable of building canoes and igloos, and knowledgeable about the terrain. Yet, Flaherty repeatedly undermines the viewer's confidence in Nanook's ability to survive, furthering the director's vision of a foreboding and inhospitable environment. In the film's introductory note we are told that two years after filming, Nanook starved to death when he was unable to secure an adequate food supply. Thus when we watch the film, we know that for all the Inuit's struggles for survival, he was ultimately unsuccessful. The picture's glorious hunting sequences, as Nanook kills a walrus and a seal, are thrilling, especially because we know his continued existence depends on these hunts, but they also convey a sense of futility, since we also realize that he is only prolonging his inevitable death.

The film's final sequence finds Flaherty's clearest exposition of a menacing natural world. Following a successful seal hunt, Nanook is forced to expend extra effort in quieting down his dogs who are excited by the fresh meat. When he finally does, he finds it is later than he had expected and he is imperiled by an encroaching storm. As Nanook leads his family home, knowing they will not be able to make it all the way back to their igloo, Flaherty's camera emphasizes the barrenness of the surroundings, a stark terrain of frozen snow threatened by windy gusts and snow squalls. Nanook is finally forced to take refuge in an abandoned igloo and only through this accidental discovery are he and his family permitted to survive. In actuality, Flaherty distorted the reality of the situation to achieve his dramatic and thematic effects. It is unlikely that Nanook and his family were truly faced with impending death, as there were several French and Inuit settlements nearby, but Flaherty altered the facts to fit his conception of the harsh impassivity of the natural surroundings. As the Inuits pass an unquiet night in the found igloo, Flaherty inserts an intertitle emphasizing the "melancholy" nature of the scene: the family in a deserted lodging, the wind blowing furiously outside, the howling of the hunting dogs. Even someone so well equipped for the world of the arctic north as Nanook has the greatest difficulty surviving in the face of an indifferent nature.

In Werner Herzog's world, nature is no longer merely indifferent, but actively malignant. In Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams, which details Herzog's filming of Fitzcarraldo in the Peruvian jungle, the German filmmaker famously characterizes the surrounding environment as "a land which God, if he exists, has created in anger". In 2005's Grizzly Man the sinister environment is transported to the remote reaches of Alaska, where half-mad Timothy Treadwell attempts to live in a state of peaceful co-existence with a group of grizzly bears. The film consists of a running dialogue between two differing viewpoints, both of which Herzog allows to be fully articulated. Treadwell, mostly glimpsed through the series of videos he created during his time in the wilderness, expresses a benign view of nature, in which it is possible for man to achieve true communion with wild animals. Herzog, who delivers a series of voiceovers and appears briefly in the picture, offers a contrasting interpretation. In all Treadwell's footage that he viewed, Herzog explains, there was not one moment where he saw any recognition or sign of mercy in the bears' faces, just a "half-bored interest in food", a sign of the "overwhelming indifference of nature". Herzog's interpretation of nature, however, goes beyond mere indifference. The individual bears may not be themselves evil, but the universe as a whole, according to Herzog, finds its common character, not in harmony (as Treadwell believes), but "hostility, chaos, and murder" and the bears become agents of these malignant forces. In this case, his viewpoint seems to be borne out, since Treadwell eventually succumbs to the wild creatures, eaten by a grizzly bear, a species with which he claimed a special kinship, but who ultimately showed no hesitation in turning against him with the utmost brutality.

Treadwell, Flaherty, and Herzog represent three differing views of nature: benign, indifferent and malevolent. Since Treadwell himself can be considered a director (he left behind many hours of video footage, including deliberately staged sequences), his recordings can be taken as an expression of his own worldview. However, since we only see Treadwell's work as filtered through Herzog's sensibility and since we know that Treadwell's fate contradicted his belief in the communal possibilities of living in the wild, Grizzly Man ultimately gives greater weight to Herzog's point of view, even while acknowledging Treadwell's. Flaherty stands somwhere in between the two, but his perspective is, in the final analysis, closer to Herzog's since both portray a harsh, destructive natural world. They differ primarily in their willingness or refusal to assign an active agency to the universe. While Flaherty is content to view nature as a neutral conception, Herzog, by ascribing a sinister design to the universe, portrays nature as an active instrument of destruction.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

12:08 East of Bucharest

A first-time director with an unusual talent for visual composition, Corneliu Porumboiu introduces the three principal characters of his film 12:08 East of Bucharest, denizens of Vaslui, a small Romanian town, through a series of eloquent static compositions that quickly situate the principals in their small town environment: an elderly man, Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) searches for a cheap Santa-Claus costume, a drunken schoolteacher, Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) borrows money, a television host, Jderescu (Teodor Corban) argues with his mistress. Porumboiu brings these three together in the film's second half, a single extended scene that takes place on Jderescu's TV program and necessitates a shift in the director's aesthetic strategy.

The subject of Jderescu's program, which features Piscoci and Manescu as guests, is the question of whether or not a revolution occured in Vaslui fifteen years ago on December 22, 1989, the day Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown. In Jderescu's formulation, the question hinges on whether citizens converged in the town square before 12:08, the hour of Ceausescu's defeat or only after news of his deposition had already reached the town. If they came to the square only after the decisive hour, Jderescu argues, there was no revolution. Manescu insists he was there prior to 12:08, but a series of townspeople who call in to the show contradict his account. Porumboiu initially plays the Rashomon-like contradiction between points-of-view for laughs, but when it becomes increasingly clear that none of the witnesses saw Manescu on the square and his story becomes increasingly unlikely (Manescu's credibility further complicated by the fact that he was almost surely drunk at the time), the tone switches to one of sadness, especially given Manescu's continued insistence on his revolutionary presence.

In this long scene, Porumboiu abandons the seeming objectivity of his static compositions which defined the film's first half aesthetics in favor of a subjective point of view, reflecting the camerawork of the show's cameraman. This indivudal, a young man impatient with a stylistic approach like Proumboiu's, employs a jarringly mobile cinematographic technique, much to the host's chagrin. When we first see him, he is holding an unmounted camera, insisting on what he considers a more modern aesthetic strategy, but this approach is quickly dimissed by Jderescu. During the taping of the actual show, the camera goes in and out of focus, zooms seemingly at random and frames the wrong characters, the cinematography reflective not so much of a radical aesthetic as incompetence on the cameraman's part.

Porumboiu's strategy here serves a dual purpose. First, it breaks up the potential visual monotony of the forty-minute scene. The director's static camerawork is certainly effective in shorter scenes, but here the rag-tag appeal of the amateurish cinematography mainatains audience interest and creates humor. The visual strategy also serves another, more significant purpose. It underscores the subjective nature of experience which is the scene's dominant theme. By using an impressionistic, shifting camera, Proumboiu further emphasizes the disconnect between Manescu's percieved experience and that of the other townspeople, mirroring the contrast between the scene's subjective viewpoint where the audience sees the action as the cameraman chooses and the rest of the film, dominated by more objective static, medium shots which allow them to decide for themselves which aspects of the scene are most deserving of their attention.

The film's gorgeous final sequence finds Proumboiu returning to this earlier aesthetic strategy. As the television program ends, the cameraman leaves the studio and the director frames him in a stunning shot against a brick building as snow falls on the town. He waits for the streetlights to turn on and, when they do, he proclaims the scene "beautiful as my memories of the Revolution", emphasizing the subjective nature of memory, a theme that supports Manescu's dogged assertions in the face of the contrary experiences of the other townspeople. The cameraman's sense of the surrounding beauty is borne out by Proumboiu's perfect composition, which gives way to four additional snowscapes, as different parts of the town are illuminated. The shots are almost like still photographs, with only the falling snow providing any motion. The film's ending mirrors a similar sequence at the beginning of the work in which the lamps are turned off throughout the town, and it brings the often uproarious picture to a quiet, reflective conclusion. Literalizing the spread of the Revolution, these lovely sequences show off Porumboiu's painterly sense of composition and bring a final sense of melancholy to the director's historical meditation.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street and White Dog

The Museum of the Moving Image's Samuel Fuller retrospective finishes today after several weeks of screenings and the highlight for many Fuller fans came at the end. Yesterday the Museum screened two rarely seen late gems from the director, 1972's madcap comedy-thriller Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street and 1981's White Dog, deemed so controversial by studio brass that it was never released theatrically in this country. Although White Dog was the more anticipated of the two screenings, having amassed a reputation as one of the great unseen masterpieces of the cinema, Dead Pigeon proved to be a worthy accompaniment to the more recent film and a perfect compliment, a piece of wild entertainment to enjoy before tackling the serious provocations of Fuller's final masterpiece.

A delirious post-modern stew, replete with constant cinematic allusions, over-the-top shootouts in unlikely locations (a maternity ward, the Beethoven Museum) and a vivid color palette (the scratchy print notwithstanding), Dead Pigeon on Beethoven tracks the efforts of an American private investigator (Glenn Corbett) to track down incriminating negatives involving a prominent senator with presidential ambitions, efforts which involve the infiltration of a German criminal organization. The PI, Sandy, spends most of his time drugging various individuals and photographing them in compromising situations in order to blackmail them into helping his cause. This ruse is carried out four times throughout the picture, gaining comic momentum with each subsequent effort. One of the film's highlights, and a scene characteristic of the picture's comic sensibility, finds Sandy in a movie theater watching Rio Bravo dubbed into German. Apparently unaware of what film he had paid admission to, Sandy is surprised to see John Wayne on the screen. When Wayne speaks in German, the PI starts laughing. Delighted, he yells out the actor's name. Then when he sees Dean Martin, he repeats the procedure yelling "Dean Martin" to an indifferent theater. According to Fuller, this was Corbett's one deviation from the actor's straight-faced characterization. "Glenn couldn't control his laughter when he saw his pal Wayne speaking perfect German up on screen," the director wrote in his autobiography. "The laughter was so spontaneous, we left the sequence in."

The film's climactic scene, a showdown between Sandy and the leader of the criminal group, Mensur (Anton Diffring), offers a comic twist on Fuller's usual gritty action sequences. Having gained access to Mensur's private chamber under false circumstances, Sandy finds his cover blown and the German pulls a gun on him. A sporting man, Mensur offers the PI one chance to escape with his life: he must best Mensur, a fencing master, in swordplay. Sandy swings wildly with his foil as Mensur toys with him. Finally, in an act of desperation, Sandy grabs all the swords, spears, and axes from the wall (Mensur has a large collection) and heaves them at their owner. Fuller keeps his camera fixed on Sandy, so we see his efforts but not their results. The audience assumes that the weapons have missed their mark, since the expectation is that Fuller would show the immediate result of Sandy's throws if they had hit their target. However, the director deliberately subverts this expectation and only reveals the scene's upshot once Sandy has finished his efforts. Fuller cuts to Mensur and we see him pinned to the wall by his weapons, fatally injured. As Sandy leaves the room, Fuller's camera pans across the wall, emphasizing the sheer amount of weaponry discharged in the struggle, a pan that brings out the absurdly comic nature of the previous scene. By keeping the violent impact of the fight offscreen, Fuller, known for his blunt action sequences, deftly offsets audience expectation and, by showing the result all at once, puts his authorial manipulations in the service of an impressive comic effect.

White Dog is a film that has built up a reputation by not being seen. Bowing to pressure by the NAACP and other groups who hadn't viewed the picture, Paramount shelved the completed film before it could be released commercially. It had its first US screening in 1991 (10 years after the film's completion) at a Samuel Fuller retrospective, which caused J. Hoberman to name it the second best picture of that year, and it has been screened occasionally since, though never given a full theatrical run. Based on the "fictional memoir" of the same name by Romain Gary, to whom the film is dedicated, Fuller's film strips away the novel's dross and goes right to the heart of the material. The novel concerned the discovery and adoption of a dog by Gary and his then-wife Jean Seberg. Eventually they find that the animal is an attack dog trained to kill any black person it encounters. The couple bring the dog to an animal trainer for reconditioning, only to find that the black trainer responsible for the rehabilitation, Keys, has trained the animal to attack white people. As fascinating as this premise is, Gary treats it as little more than an anecdote, a springboard for the writer to offer his musings on American racism and outline his and Seberg's involvement with various radicals. The story of the dog is introduced in the novel's beginning, largely dropped for the remainder of the work, and returns only at the end. All this would be fine if Gary offered interesting material to fill out his book, but his musings offer limited insights and his insistently ironic tone grows tiresome. Luckily, Fuller and co-screenwriter Curtis Hanson have eliminated Gary's extraneous material and focused exclusively on the dog.

A relentless picture, White Dog is one of the cinema's most unsparing treatments of racism. Like Fuller's 1963 film Shock Corridor which features a provocative sequence dealing with racial integration, the director's 1981 film was unwilling to sidestep the main issue and, in the dog, found the perfect means to treat the material with all the bluntness it demanded. In the film's most terrifying sequence, the dog escapes from the complex where it is being reconditioned and finds itself wandering in a black neighborhood. Fuller baits the audience by showing a young black boy standing on the street and then cutting to the dog, suggesting that the child will be its next victim. The viewer here is forced into complicity with the dog, since he is forced to see the boy in terms of his racial identification, to see him as first and foremost "black". For a white viewer, there is no escaping a queasy sense of guilt at the ease with which he adopts the dog's discriminating perspective. Luckily, the boy's mother appears before the dog can so much as snarl and whisks him away to a nearby building. Another man walking by at that moment, however, is not so lucky as the dog chases him into a church and mauls him beneath a stained glass window of St. Francis of Assisi, pictured in perfect communion with a variety of animals, an ironic commentary on the scene transpiring below.

Needless to say, racial hatred is not a condition which dogs learn themselves; it takes human agency to teach them. In one startling scene, the black trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) explains to the young actress who found the dog (Kristy McNichol) the process by which "white dogs" are indoctrinated. When the dog is a puppy, he explains, the owner hires a black wino or junky desperate for a fix and has him beat the dog. The dog comes to associate this cruelty with black skin, which he learns to fear. As he gets older this fear turns into hatred and aggression until he attacks any one with the same skin color as his tormentor. When we finally meet the dog's real owner, who comes responding to ads the actress has placed, Fuller disarms us by showing us a kindly old man holding a box of chocolates and accompanied by two young grandchildren. When the actress questions him, he admits with a smile that he had trained the animal himself to be a "white dog". Fuller, like Hannah Arendt before, reminds us that even the most seemingly innocuous individuals are capable of great barbarity. By showing us evil in all its banality as well as in its full destructive force, Fuller paints a complete and terrifying portrait of the sickness at the heart of society. Such a potent examination of evil may have scared the studio execs, but it has resulted in a film that demands to be seen. The picture screened earlier this year at the Film Forum as part of an Ennio Morricone retrospective and now has shown at the Museum of the Moving Image, so it is possible for interested New Yorkers to view it periodically, but just about everyone else is out of luck. We can only hope a full theatrical release is forthcoming.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Mouchette: Bresson's Suffering Humanity

From Job onwards, the portrayal of noble suffering in a narrative setting has proved problematic. Such a portrayal demands an excessive authorial contrivance as the writer heaps an endless string of indiginities on a character whose otherworldly humility makes it difficult to elicit the audience's sympathy. The audience understandably wants something of the human in their characters and not pure saint. At least Job (and Christ for that matter) registers the odd complaint. In the worst instances of this narrative strain, as in Flaubert's unjustly celebrated story "Un Coeur Simple", the character is all too willing to take on her suffering and this pure resignation, while it may admirably illustrate so-called Christian values, makes the character difficult for audiences to accept. In Flaubert's story, for example, there is nothing in Felicité's character to engage the reader and Flaubert's deliberate stacking of the deck against her seems like the unfair manipulations of a god-like author. It is only Flaubert's flawless prose that gives the story any interest.

In the cinematic world, Robert Bresson has become the poet of suffering humanity. In his 1966 film Au Hasard Balthasar, the director gives us two noble sufferers, the donkey of the title and his owner Marie, who both endure constant cruelty throughout their lives, but persevere with a pure heart. Bresson's masterful mise-en-scène and his refusal to sentimentalize the material allows the picture to rise above its unpromising premise. In Bresson's followup picture Mouchette, he covers similar territory, but complicates the situation by making his sufferer less explicitly "good" than in the previous film, a strategy that works both for and against the director. The main character, the eponymous Mouchette, is less content with her suffering. A tormented schoolgirl, she fights back against her jeering schoolmates by pelting them with fruit. When her mother dies, she refuses the comfort of an old woman, dismissing her rudely. Ultimately, though, the character of Mouchette is inscrutable. Played by Nadine Nortier in adherence to Bresson's characteristic rules for his actors which prohibit any emotion and demand the lines of the script be simply read, the actress is unable to cope with the contradictory elements of Mouchette's character. As long as the character is little more than a noble simpleton, like Marie in the earlier film, this approach works fine, but for the feistier Mouchette, it feels like deliberate obscurantism. For all Bresson's crystal clear images, he seems content to leave his lead character a muddle. As the indignities pile up, the audience is no more moved by the suffering of the inscrutable Mouchette than they were by that of the all too obvious Marie.

Jonathan Rosenbaum has written of the misplaced critical focus on Bresson's spirituality, an approach taken most famously by Paul Schrader in his book The Transcendental Style in Film. What is most important in Bresson, he argued, is his insistent physicality, and indeed the director's portrayal of the raw brutality of his environment is his strength, a strength especially evident in the astonishing images that are Mouchette's chief virtue. From the mud-caked ground which dirties Mouchette's boots to the brawl between poacher and game warden, the physicality of Bresson's world remains its most salient fact. Two scenes in particular are worthy of mention as among the director's finest. Early in the film, a poacher sets a trap in the woods by attaching a wire loop to a branch. Soon a pheasant finds himself trapped, his neck in the loop. Bresson's camera lingers on the bird as it struggles to disentangle itself, its insistent flop alternating with lack of motion as it appears the bird has died, only to start the struggle again. Eventually, the game warden comes and frees the bird and it flies off. Whatever interpretations one chooses to impose on the bird (and its parallels with suffering Mouchette are obvious) it is the sheer power of the image that matters, an image so powerful as to render interpretation irrelevant. Bresson's other great scene involves Mouchette's ride on a bumper car at a fair, the one moment in the film where she seems to enjoy herself, even providing the film's only smile. Everything about the scene contrasts with the rest of the picture. The scene is comprised of a number of quick cuts, differing from the long takes the director favors in the rest of the film. The scene's focus on action and physical contact (the collisions of the bumper cars), though finding its parallels in two later scenes, is much more immediate in its impact on the viewer. And finally, not just Mouchette but all the townspeople seem to be enjoying a moment of happiness, the only such moment Bresson grants his characters. It is these scenes, allied to Bresson's deliberate and near perfect mise-en-scène, that provide the film with its impact. The theme of suffering humanity has become a tired one and one that often rings false, reliant as it is on author manipulations and unbelievably saintlike characters. Although Mouchette is certainly not a saint, the plot manipulations are everywhere present and only Bresson's visual mastery can compensate for a poor central character and a shopworn conception.

Monday, June 4, 2007

On the Misapprehension of Fuller's Shock Corridor

If a recent screening of Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor at the Museum of the Moving Image (June 2, 2007) is any indication, the misapprehension of the director's work continues unabated ten years after his death. An irony-schooled contingent of young viewers seemed content to treat Fuller's masterpiece as little more than a camp classic. Rather than focus on the elements in the picture that were most relevant to contemporary life, the audience seemed to single out those that were most dated and to shower these elements with ironic laughter. It is indeed a natural reaction to cover discomfort with laughter and there is much in Fuller's picture to shake the modern viewer, but the audience seemed to respond more to the hard-boiled dialogue and the medical inaccuracies, as if Fuller's picture was a misguided attempt to realistically portray life in a mental institution. In Susan Sontag's famous essay "Notes on 'Camp'", she suggests that an important aspect of camp is an exaggerated seriousness that results in failure. Certainly Fuller's film can be seen as extravagant in its ambition, but to view his work as a failure is to misconstrue the director's purpose, which is not to create a realistic portrait of mental illness, but to make impressionistic use of the setting to expose the prevailing rotteness at the core of American life. Fuller treats his material seriously and he demands that the audience do the same.

Shock Corridor details the efforts of an ambitious journalist, Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck), to solve a murder by going undercover in a mental institution where one of the inmates was killed. In order to root out the murderer, he must talk with the three witnesses who, despite their insanity, have occasional moments of lucidity during which Johnny has a short period to question them. Fuller uses these interview episodes to address some of the corrosive realities of 1960s America. Almost alone in 1963, Fuller was willing to tackle these issues in blunt and unsparing fashion and his efforts still resonate powerfully today and represent the brutal core of the picture. The first witness he addresses is a young man (James Best) who was captured by the enemy during the Korean War and defected to the Communists. When he returned to his small farming community following a dishonorable discharge, he was disowned by his family. In response to this trauma, he has come to believe that he is a loyal soldier for the Confederacy in the Civil War, a paradoxical reaction to his dishonoring of traditional patriotic notions, notions which remain unquestioned in much of the country. In order to win his confidence, Johnny pretends to be General Nathan Bedford Forrest. When the young man finally has a lucid moment, he narrates his life history to Johnny, but returns to his insane state before the reporter can obtain the name of the murderer. The film's portrayal of mental illness, which tends to lump all mental afflictions together and suggests that all insane people have occasional moments of perfect clarity, may seem laughable to today's audiences, but to treat Fuller's approach so cavalierly misses the point. Fuller uses these lapses into sanity as a blunt instrument to assault the very real problems afflicting contemporary society in both 1963 and 2007.

Johnny's interview of the second witness (a scene that brought the audience's hilarity to a temporary halt) provides the film's most emotionally charged moments. The witness, Trent (Hari Rhodes), a black man selected as a guinea pig to integrate an all-white school, has cracked under the pressure and now, believing himself to be white, preaches the venomous racial rhetoric formerly directed against him. The sight of a black man walking down the hallway of a mental hospital with a sign reading, "Democracy and integration don't mix. Go home nigger" is one the most bizarre and provocative in all of cinema. The fact that Fuller was confronting the consequences of the country's racism in such unsparing fashion in 1963 is astonishing, especially when compared with the tame and irrelevant treatments of the subject in such near-contemporary films (films inexplicably regarded as classic explorations of racism) as 1962 's To Kill a Mockingbird and 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Trent's moment of lucidity occurs as both he and Johnny are strapped to a bed, following a "race riot" instigated by Trent's attempt to assault another black inmate. The haunting black and white photography which fixes the two constrained men side-by-side as Trent relates his experiences creates an image so potent as to render any camp interpretation impossible. Interestingly, the mental hospital serves as one place where racial boundaries are broken down and white and black inmates are granted equal rights. Even here, though, the effects of the world's racism creep into the integrated world of the institution.

One scene that created a big stir among the audience finds Johnny under attack from a group of nymphomaniacs. As Johnny opens a door, he finds himself in a room surrounded by a group of women who leer suggestively at him and close around him in an ever tightening circle. "Great," he thinks. "The nympho ward." As he delivered this voiceover, the audience erupted into laughter, a laughter that only increased as the scene progressed. Fuller's depiction of the nympho ward, a room where dangerously lascivious women stand around awaiting the entrance of an unsuspecting man they can attack, may seem somewhat ludicrous, but it serves to create a potent nightmare vision that has few equivalents in the cinema, and suggests contemporary visions such as those found in the films of David Lynch. As the women close in and begin tearing off Johnny's clothes and biting him, the nightmare of debased, animalistic sexuality becomes complete. Rather than amusement, terror would seem a more appropriate response.

It is unfortunate that for a certain generation, mostly people in their 20s and 30s, dismissive irony has become a natural reaction against anything deviating from the media-sanctioned norm. Accustomed to watching the films of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, audiences are trained to instantly view such material as ironic. This approach may be suited to those filmmakers who deliberately court such a response, but it makes a nonsense of Fuller's achievement. By treating his work as camp, the audience ignores the important things the film has to say to us about racism, war, and blind patriotism, concerns as relevant today as in 1963. The films of the aforementioned directors tell us nothing about ourselves but plenty about their creators' cleverness. The ironic approach that these directors encourage is by no means a universally acceptable one when viewing cinema outside the confines of the ordinary. True, Fuller's vision is so far from realistic that it often borders on the ridiculous, but audiences have become far too dependent on so-called realistic settings, which often aren't realistic at all, but are made to seem so because of the gloss Hollywood attaches to them. Between the Hollywood mainstream and ironic "independents" there is very little room for an approach like Fuller's. His film is so startling, so different from anything audiences are used to seeing, that it tends to baffle unsuspecting viewers. Unfortunately, most of those viewers are content to respond with dismissive laughter instead of actively engaging the work.