Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New Releases: Rage and Ip Man 2

Two lesser items for review this week, but not without their pleasures. Admittedly those gratifications are more to be found in Wilson Yip's kung fu sequel Ip Man 2 which alternates splendid action sequences with less splendid good vs. evil anti-imperalist drama than in Sebastían Cordero's rather tired immigrant love story.

Rage (Slant)
Ip Man 2 (Time Out New York)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sex in Fetters

One of the odder entries in the Museum of Modern Art’s current, massive retrospective of Weimar Cinema, a series that certainly doesn’t lack for its share of lesser-known, outré offerings, Wilhelm Dieterle’s 1928 Sex in Fetters presents itself as a social problem film about prison reform. Best known for his émigré Hollywood work (signed as “William” Dieterle and achieving its highest visibility in the series of high-toned biopics he directed with Paul Muni for Warners in the ‘30s), the Life of Émile Zola director charts a considerably less glamorous milieu in this psychological melodrama posing as a message movie. Set among both the struggling inter-war middle class and the jailhouse crowd, Sex in Fetters suggests the fluidity of the two sets, where impoverished ex-bourgeois often end up imprisoned after being driven by economic or social circumstance into desperate activity.

One such middle-class convict is Franz Sommer (Dieterle), who in the film’s opening act, which establishes the economic morass of Weimar Germany, suffers the tripartite humiliations of having to accept a part-time job as a door-to-door salesman, to countenance his wife’s taking a gig as a cigarette girl and to lie to his snobbish father-in-law about his job situation. When he visits his spouse Helene (Mary Johnson) at the café where she works and finds her being harassed by an aggressive suitor, the sexual affront seems to crystallize the previous assaults on his manhood and he silences the man’s advances with a quick punch to the face which results in his falling down a landing, banging his head and eventually succumbing to his injuries.

But if Sommer’s de-manning had already looked pretty grim, it only gets much worse, for it's the film’s contention that the true evil done by the penal system is its denial of prisoners a proper sexual outlet. As far as jails go, the one that Sommer is sentenced to for three years on a manslaughter charge hardly seems excessively punitive, but Franz and his three cell mates are in a constant state of acute misery because of the brain-warping denial of possibilities for heterosexual release. One prisoner builds a small model woman (with exaggeratedly pointy breasts) out of smushed up pieces of bread, while another, astonishingly, attempts to “unman” himself (the word given by the film’s English translator) with a rock. But other denials of hetero notions of manhood rapidly follow as Sommer gives in to the subtly articulated advances of an effeminate fellow prisoner, while his increasingly crazed wife runs, half-mad, into the arms of her protector, Steinau (Gunnar Tolanæs), an ex-cell mate of Sommer’s who promised to look after her upon his release and who is himself a strong advocate of prison reform. For Steinau, who despite his questionable role in seducing Helene, stands as something like the film’s mouthpiece, denying prisoners conjugal visits can only lead to “evil”, which in the context of the quotation is easy enough to take as meaning homosexual intercourse. Thus in the film’s orientation, Sommer is twice unmanned, first by resorting to an inter-prison affair and then by being cuckolded by his wife.

Dieterle’s film is often at its strongest in making palpable the agony of unfulfilled sexual tension. In one prisonhouse visit between husband and wife, the couple hug, before Sommer drops to his knees and, sinks his head into Helene’s vaginal region in a subtly miming of cunnilingus. The director then cuts in for a close-up of the character’s head, his features largely hidden, while prominent beads of sweat lace his forehead. Earlier, during a stint in solitary, Sommer sketches his wife's face on the wall with a piece of dirt, then, visualizing it coming to life (an imaginative gesture literalized by Dieterle) kisses the cold, filthy surface. Similarly, the secrecy of jailyard hookups is expertly staged in a scene where Sommer’s lover passes him a note with their two names scrawled atop one another while attending a chapel sermon. Dieterle cuts from close-ups of hands and faces to a long shot of the endless rows of prisoners, separated by partitions and made anonymous by their uniformity. It takes the viewer a few seconds to pick out the lovers amidst the crowd, where they sit at the frame’s middle-right, their impending rendezvous granted invisibility to fellow prisoners and (briefly) film audiences alike amidst the apparently homogeneous mass of prisoners.

But for all the filmmaker’s skill at evoking the agonies of involuntary sexual repression that trigger the film’s inquiry into jailhouse reform, its treatment of the central social question can only register as jarringly odd, at least to the contemporary viewer. To alleviate his miseries, one inmate takes his case to the prison doctor and asks him how to avoid going insane without sex, to which the physician replies “simulation”, presumably an inducement to masturbate. But oddly, no one seems to take up the doctor’s rather self-evident advice. Granted, the film already treads what was obviously taboo territory, so it’s no surprise that the screenwriters didn’t want to further push boundaries by adding onanism to the mix, but the highly didactic script presumably addresses what was perceived as a real-life problem. Certainly, no one would suggest that masturbation is a full-fledged substitute for intercourse, but leaving aside the film’s problematic treatment of homosexual relations, certainly a steady diet of auto-eroticism would be enough to prevent a man serving a three-year sentence from going insane.

And yet by not addressing that possibility, except in a brief, largely ignored, coded suggestion, the film essentially negates its own argument that the biggest failing of the penal system is its ban on conjugal visits. As a social message movie, the film fails to convince, but since despite its didactic orientation, it unfolds largely as engaging melodrama, there’s no reason to confine the work to the margins of historical curiosity. Not when the movie ends on a remarkably (and given the nature of the subject matter, inevitably) subtle scene of spousal reunion in which the now estranged pair don’t so much confess their failings as each guess the other’s supposed transgression through lightly proffered hints. Having understood the necessity of compromise and the futility of sexual possession, the couple is now free to resume their relationship on a higher, presumably more enlightened plane.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Releases: The Housemaid and Mumbai Diaries

Under review this week are Im Sang-soo's engaging remake of the 1960 Korean classic The Housemaid and Mumbai Diaries, Kiran Rao's ultimately mediocre, if thematically intriguing multi-character piece. Also up, a re-post of my take on Peter Weir's The Way Back, which I reviewed for Slant Magazine during the film's brief December Oscar-qualifying run and which now opens in earnest.

The Housemaid (Artforum)
Mumbai Diaries (Slant)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bringing in the New Year (Belatedly)

My first six reviews of the New Year (all published this week) run a predictable gamut from the excellent (Zhao Liang's distressing exosé Petition) to the utterly vile (Burning Palms). Other links of note, the L Magazine's year-end poll in whose voting I participated as well as writing the blurb for Lourdes (#12) and my newly established critcWIRE page. Check back with the latter for my rapid-fire (letter grade) takes on contemporary movies, plus links to reviews.

Plastic Planet (Slant)
Burning Palms (Slant)
Petition (The L Magazine)
Twelve Thirty (Village Voice)
Every Day (Time Out New York)
I'm Dangerous with Love (Time Out New York)