Del Ruth - 05 December 1933 - EMPLOYEES' ENTRANCE


USA 1933
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Running time: 75 minutes

Wall Street has long had its wolves. Before DiCaprio and McConaughey there was Warren William – a man whose lycanthropic features extend beyond the mere physical. He’s got a hot dog saunter and a dismaying knuckle wag. Glance once at the arches of his ears and you’ll see refinement. Glance again and it’s ferocity. His greazed back hair (sic.) is the follicular embodiment of predation. William plays Kurt Anderson in EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE, a dept. store manager who wiles his way into “supreme control,” of the company’s board. Up from the diaphragm and out through gritted teeth, the arriviste summons his modus operandi. “There’s no room for sympathy or softness. My code is smash or be smashed!” And one wonders if the same philippic didn’t underlie his headshot as it made studio rounds. His role in UNDER EIGHTEEN (Mayo, 1932), SKYSCRAPER SOULS (Selwyn, 1932) and THE MATCH KING (Keighley/Bretherton, 1932) trained depression-era audiences to expect this ruthless profiteering sort.

And then there’s Loretta Young. In January of ‘33, Movie Classic magazine mused, “now is the time for some good poet to come to the aid of his country, and write an ode to the wistfulness of Loretta.” I doubt that poet ever did come along, but I still have hope. Ms. Young plays Madeline, a talented and witty ingenue. Her screen presence boasts a kind of voltaic immediacy. Whether enthused or depressed, her inner and outer lives seem electrically linked. Young’s multivalence contrasts against William’s, whose energy seems to be always deployed from reserves that are shaking in his belly, waiting to be growled into being. Madeline would rather be hired for her brains than her beauty, but when times are tough, well, she won’t be so undignified as to decline a job. Even if there are a few strings attached.

One of the most beguiling scenes in EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE takes place as Anderson prowls the floors of his store, listening to the sound of a piano. He ventures on a model home meant to show off an assortment of domestic wares. Its proportions are navigable but not quite to size. The camera sees him stepping over a miniature picket fence, like a giant, unconcerned with the domicile’s pitiable defenses. Upon entering, he sees Madeline at the keyboard and his compulsion is apparent. But it’s a kind of shameful fantasy on Anderson’s part, to be caught pining under such impractical, homey surrounds. After all, this is the prig who will later say, “when a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out of a window. That’s the trouble with most men – they don’t realize when they’re through.” But this isn’t the only contradiction Anderson demonstrates.

There’s a brief aside midway through the film, where a store customer asks a sales clerk, “where is the basement?” The clerk answers, “it’s on the twelfth floor.” The customer sputters something, clearly incensed, and the action yields to the next scene. It may seem just played for laughs, but I think it holds the key to this film’s unflinching critique: that competition turns meaning on its head. Precisely when competition seems the only way to survive, it must also produce the extinction of meaning. It will be another 61 years before the Coen brothers release THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, which is, in several ways, a nihilistic reboot of pic.

5 December 2013
Twitter: @akronfilm/@kurtiss


“Department Store Girls—This is your picture, about your lives and your problems! See what happens in department store aisles and offices after closing hours! Girls who couldn’t have been touched with a 100-ft yacht—ready to do anything to get a job! Beautiful models who whisper their dread of the “Boss” who can “make” or break more women than a sultan!”

~~ Studio Ad Copy (1933)

“Packaged by Warner Bros.—the most prole-oriented of studios—as the suave, cynical personification of ruthless capitalism run amok, William plays a tyrannical department-store manager with a bust of Napoleon in his office in Employees’ Entrance (1933). Showing this Thursday on the first of four William double bills, the film is the actor’s quintessential vehicle: A workaholic, physically intimidating sexual predator, William twice beds winsome shop girl Loretta Young (the first time when she needs a job, the second after she marries his assistant) and repeatedly bests his timorous board of directors: “My code is ‘smash or be smashed.’ Employees’ Entrance capped William’s career year, which was also the Depression nadir: 1932.”

~~ J. Hoberman,

“For a brief period in the depths of the Great Depression, the so-called Heel of Heels was a genre onto himself. Working mainly for Warner Brothers, Williams played a succession of slick, overbearing scoundrels. He was an oilier, more self-possessed Gordon Gekko, with a cool to which bumpkin Donald Trump could only aspire possess — the suave, cynical personification of ruthless capital run amok.”

~~ J. Hoberman,

Panahi - 21 November 2013 - CLOSED CURTAIN


Iran 2013
Directed by Jafar Panahi, Kambuzia Partovi
Running time: 106 minutes

A blizzard of noble arrows descend on us from Iran. Past the artisans of other modern national cinemas, her archery is synchronized in dreamy and deliberate form.

“The slow arrow of beauty. The most noble kind of beauty is that which does not carry us away suddenly, whose attacks are not violent or intoxicating (this kind easily awakens disgust), but rather the kind of beauty which infiltrates slowly, which we carry along with us almost unnoticed, and meet up with again in dreams; finally, after it has for a long time lain modestly in our heart, it takes complete possession of us, filling our eyes with tears, our hearts with longing.”
~~ F. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

This ranged attack has been called the Iranian New Wave. Its first swelling broke with the work of Abbas Kiarostami.

“I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. …Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.”
~~ Abbas Kiarostami

Tonight, the first notion to resist is the idea that slow or quiet films are somehow lacking in efficacy. Rather, properly executed, they lull us into a vulnerable state – the inceptive posture from which the infiltration of ideas proceeds unimpeded.

The second notion is that Jafar Panahi, who’s come to represent the New Wave’s second surge, has authored only a meta-fictional biograph in CLOSED CURTAIN. It’s been called a working-through of the prolific artist’s house-arrest and, indeed, confinement is present here. Unlike the imposed nature of the author’s arrest, however, the film’s confinement is principled and self-disciplined. The writer character, played by a prepossessed Kambuzia Partovi, seems to embody the very work of repression. In drawing the curtains, he blocks the light from outside, ostensibly so that he can protect his dog and accomplish his writing. But why does he also plaster over movie posters and mute the television? Aren’t they a kind of “inside window,” to the outside? One of the posters he obscures is LE CERCLE (Panahi, 2000). Coincidentally, It shares its French title with LE CERCLE (THE RING), a horror movie about an encounter with a wretched girl who climbs through a television. It’s not the state that’s hounding him, it’s all manner of troublesome and foreign intrusion. The dog is something like a fearless muse, an innocent soul able to look upon the devastation of the Real without the flinch of complicity. And Melika (“moonlike”) provokes, overturns and destabilizes, eventually drowning in her own choppy tides. Altogether, Panahi depicts a house in sotto voce turmoil. Its ghosts, fantasies and projections are both at odds and in cahoots. If CLOSED CURTAIN is a personal allegory, it’s not only that. And if it’s not a film (like his previous film under house-arrest, THIS IS NOT A FILM), then it’s something more than a film. It’s a discursus on the possibilities of becoming for an ingenious, censorious, rebellious and storied people.

Asghar Farhadi is a key director in Iran’s third generation of the New Wave. His arrowheads, like A SEPARATION (2011) and THE PAST (2013) are less oneiric than those of his forerunners, but no less infiltrative. I look forward to the development of Iran’s cinema, even while its past continues to possess me in dreams.

21 November 2013
Twitter: @akronfilm/@kurtiss

“Stop comparing this to Charlie Kaufman. Iranian cinema was doing self-reflexive before Kaufman did his 1st book report dressed in costume as the book he was reporting on. Besides, Kaufman’s nebbish neuroses are worlds removed from the very real forces constricting Panahi. And yet, Panahi’s film is the more expansive, even as it is very much the id-driven, emotional flip-side to THIS IS NOT A FILM’s logical questions about how to practice his art when his art has been denied him. Allegorical narratives collapse into surreal, metacinematic muse pursuit, the shift occurring in an unvarnished long shot peering into a mirror like some black box rendition of Kieslowski. If TINAF’s experimentalism and daring not only showed its maker unbowed by his harsh sentence but capable of opening up new possibilities of structural and narrative possibilities, CLOSED CURTAIN builds on that, an honest-to-goodness film that continues to splinter and reform as Panahi enters the frame and interacts with the figments of his imagination. Sure, the collapse of a thin allegory for the artist’s direct presence suggests a certain level of didacticism, but A) f*** you, that he is speaking at all is more powerful protest than anyone else can match, and B) ignores how he handles his anxieties and fears as the impressionistically affect him, not as social rants. But if the mystery woman slipping in and out of the frame represents Panahi’s worries about losing his voice, he should take some solace in the fact that this established master continues to put out his boldest, most adventurous work, and he can’t even leave his property.”
“Closed Curtain was another film of mental and physical turmoil projected with considerable restraint and confidence into a drama. Another Jafar Panahi film stuck inside a home, another image of Panahi himself stuck, trapped, behind curtains and doors. A drama of isolation and despair which reveals itself halfway through to be purely expressionistic, the actors literal projections of fears and thoughts of the mind and soul. A door is opened to the night and the poor quality digital camera cannot handled the darkness, which bursts into flames of unstable black pixels, a portal to unknown threats and blank emptiness. In a mirror, Panahi steps into frame and gradually replaces the older man (a timid screenwriter, protectful of his outlawed dog) and young woman (a complex figure: suicidal and a snitch) as the central protagonist whose thoughts—or is it just his house?—are occasionally filled with the words and worries of the two. But the director-actor’s demeanor, despite the sorrow, is as unflappable and open as always: a gentle, warm presence, the intimations of suicide seeming almost antithetical to the simple tone of the man’s body, his aspect. Which is why the admission of such darkness, of such solitude and doubt comes across with such force. And I cannot tell if the closing image, free and jailed at once, is a hope or fact.”
“Closed Curtain uses Panahi’s beach house to create a metaphysical reality in which he appears as much a political prisoner in his real life as he does within his creative world; the fantastical escape offered to him by his characters’ diegesis seems both restrictive and enticing. Melika invites him in a recorded iPhone video to follow him into the water to kill himself; she disappears into the ocean in the video, and we soon watch him start recording a video where he does the same. The film then rewinds the footage and he reappears, dry and unharmed. In Iranian postmodern art, the symbolic use of natural objects and places is an important motif in underscoring the sojourns of its characters, and there are few natural elements more symbolically powerful than the warm, seductive immersion of the ocean. Panahi’s symbolic journey won’t end with drowning waters, but in Closed Curtain he articulates exactly how warm and enticing the waters can be.”

Lubitsch - 14 November 2013 - NINOTCHKA - Quotes

USA 1939
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Running time: 110 minutes

"Garbo brings her incredible sensual abandon to the role of a glum, scientifically trained Bolshevik envoy who succumbs to Parisian freedom - i.e., champagne. The film includes a historic encounter, when the great instinctual artist of the screen meets the great stylist and technician of the stage — Ina Claire, as a Russian grand duchess. The fur flies exquisitely."

– Pauline Kael

“Of course, no one doubts that Garbo is going to melt, but the lovely thing about the film is the way chat and smiles do the trick. She doesn’t have to be convinced by some ponderous arguments over political destiny. Flirtation does it – the most egalitarian weapon”

– David Thomson

“A sparkling, witty political fairy tale from 1939, about a cold but beautiful lady commissar (Greta Garbo) who melts to the bourgeois charms of Paris and Melvyn Douglas, jeopardizing both honor and career. That’s love. Garbo fully complements the casual sophistication and stylistic grace of director Ernst Lubitsch, cleverly playing off her dour public image. The satire may be mostly a matter of easy contrasts, but the lovers inhabit a world of elegance and poise that is uniquely and movingly Lubitsch’s.”

– Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

“In 1939, the New York Times declared, “Stalin won’t like it!” This sentiment marked Ernst Lubitsch’s classic comedy, NINOTCHKA, as a send up of Soviet-communist life. And it would later bolster Louis B. Mayer’s case before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His plea was that, yes, MGM has made films like NINOTCHKA that, “kidded the life out of communism.” The film stars Greta Garbo, “The Solitary Swede,” who became so yoked to her character’s line in the 1932 film GRAND HOTEL (Goulding): “I want to be alone.” Two years earlier, when her film ANNA CHRISTIE (Brown, 1930) was being publicized, MGM wanted audiences to know that the silent film starlet’s first talkie was a big deal. So they spread the slogan, “Garbo talks!” Nine years later, in NINOTCHKA, it was “Garbo laughs!” And no advertising campaign would let you forget it. The deserving director chosen to crack Garbo’s grimace was Ernst Lubitsch. His farcical fingerprint on the fabric of film history had already become known as “The Lubitsch Touch.” Billy Wilder’s script delivers Garbo from the dour life of a Soviet emissary and into the warm embrace of Western materialism. Contemporary audiences should have no trouble seeing the satire on both sides of the iron curtain.”

– Kurtiss Hare

Lubitsch - 14 November 2013 - NINOTCHKA


USA 1939
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Running time: 110 minutes

You may not know The Song of the Volga Boatmen by name, but you’ll probably recognize its theme. Of its melodic lines, there is one five note sequence traditionally used to signify portent and certain doom. Ba dum dum dumm dummm. “Yo heave-ho! As the barges float along,” its lyrics lament. It wasn’t until 1941, two years after NINOTCHKA was released, that the tune really took off in the States. Under Glenn Miller’s baton, the song acquired the now- slack-now-taut-ness of a ‘40s swing ballad. The new chart-topper kept its Slavic melody, but the thrum and bounce of the rhythm section are Western as a Reveille.

For each historian, a different refrain. Was it the dab-hand with which Ernst Lubitsch recontextualized European politesse for laugh-hungry American audiences? Was it his signature use of the “superjoke,” in which the punchline is delivered just after you think you just heard the punchline? Was it the way he brought out the charm in duplicitous ne’er-do-wells? Or could it have been the integral way music wove itself into the fabric of his films? These semblances, and many more, had already come to be known as “The Lubitsch Touch” – an appropriative gesture to rival that of Glenn Miller’s baton in scope and singularity.

Melvyn Douglas plays the cocksure Count D’Algout, who fled to Paris after the Soviets tore the imperial state asunder. He lives a modest life of leisure in the employ of Duchess Swana, who calls him her, “little Volga boatman.” When three graceless envoys come to Paris from Red Russia in order to sell a collection of imperial jewels, D’Algout is dispatched to intercept them for his employer. They were hers once, before the revolution, when Russia was White. When the envoys bungle the negotiations, unmoored in a sea of capitalistic methods, their stern superior (played by a stoic Bela Lugosi), sends an exceptional comrade: the monochromatic Ninotchka (Garbo).

If the Lubitsch touch had come to stand for an ever-widening circle of traits, then Greta Garbo’s reputation was a more constrictive figure. The silent film starlet made her first talkie, ANNA CHRISTIE (Brown), in 1930. “Garbo talks!” was the headline. Her role in the 1932 film, GRAND HOTEL (Goulding), ushered in the tabloid nickname, “the solitary swede,” and that unforgettable line, “I want to be [let] alone.” The trade mags might suggest that any break from her reputation was worth advertising. So when pic was promoted, the press announced, “Garbo laughs!” It worked; audiences flocked to the picture. MGM implored Radio City Music Hall: “Don’t pronounce it – hold it over!” In 1941, when Garbo reunited with Melvyn Douglas in TWO-FACED WOMAN (Cukor), it was “Garbo at her gayest!”

Interestingly, NINOTCHKA only partly keeps its promise – when Garbo first cuts up, we can’t hear her laughter at all (the whole room is laughing with her). From then on, all we get is a few snickers. Perhaps MGM didn’t offer a high enough price to afford a full-on belly laugh. It would only be fitting if this had something to do with Garbo’s estimation of her own prestige, which coincidentally belonged to the people.

14 November 2013

Fiennes - 24 October 2013 - THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY


United Kingdom 2012
Directed by Sophie Fiennes
Running time: 136 minutes

I became aware of Slavoj Žižek sometime after the popular zenith of Occupy. I was living in San Francisco. It’s a productive, modern city. Perhaps capitalism didn’t count on peninsular deployment. You can tell it improvised. (In fact, as Žižek might tell you, capitalism is nothing but a series of catastrophes and improvisations.) Industry spreads South. Hop the 101 and there’s YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Netflix. Any further South and you’re in Monterey Bay. It’s not enough to see capitalism’s destruction, one must see its anti-production – the excrement which accompanies its phones and pharmacies. It creates yards of abandoned 747s in the Mojave, “stripped of their substantial content.” Pure useless object. And, for now, we have places to put this junk. Out of sight, out of mind.

But in those seven miles squared that make up the city proper, every color of the social spectrum collides. If THEY LIVE (Carpenter, 88) had been set there during the dotcom boom-bust-boom, I’m not sure John Nada’s sunglasses would’ve been strong enough. The inherent tensions are writ so plain and in such proximity. The homeless aren’t ignored or cursed at, they’re part of the neighborhood. The obscenely rich wear jeans and sneakers and eat $4 Banh Mi sandwiches in the Tenderloin. Once, when I was walking home from work, crowds of well-meaning electric-haired hedonists were swelling for Love Fest, an outdoor rave held every year in The Heart of the City. A homeless woman, dress hoisted, dragged her ass on the sidewalk leaving a shit stain behind her for lack of toilet paper. She didn’t seem troubled. The house music droned and I continued home.

All this is not to lay a guilt trip. It’s to sketch an image of the paradoxical nature of the highest possibilities of capitalist production. It’s heavy stuff sometimes, but that’s where Žižek shines. He’s a kind of manic prankster philosopher – always worried that if he stops talking, his listeners will stop listening. And nobody tells a dirty joke in a Slovene accent quite like he does. He’ll tell you he likes Hollywood cinema, Christianity and Rammstein. He’s been eager to publish his take on everything from The Wire to ZERO DARK THIRTY (Bigelow, 12) to Psy’s Gangnam Style. He loves Marx, Hegel, Lacan and Wagner. One wonders if he’s entirely performative and if that fact matters.

Žižek is on record as having not seen tonight’s film, because he can’t stand the sight of himself. Neither did he see THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA (2006), his previous collaboration with director Sophie Fiennes. It’s clear that Fiennes is conversant in the theorist’s work. Following Žižek online, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of anecdotes and punchy comebacks to accepted wisdom. So the elegant transitions Fiennes has delivered here should not be undervalued. The film is chock-full of subtle juxtapositions and inside jokes that nip at our attention: Žižek waxes prosaic on the “basic insight of psychology,” as we roam the austere chapel from THE SOUND OF MUSIC (Wise, 1965); he drinks a Coke (slogan: “It’s the real thing.”) not on a movie set, but in the desert (presumably The Desert of the Real, from the title of his 2002 book); sacred chamber music backs Žižek’s Marxist dissection of commodities and their transcendental content; Fiennes returns Žižek to Travis Bickle’s urban bunker from TAXI DRIVER (Scorsese, 76) after he finishes discussing another DeNiro role in BRAZIL (Gilliam, 85). As she repositions him in locales from earlier in the film, the montage takes a pyramidal shape, broadening its scope sequence by sequence. When Žižek comments on the vampiric nature of the Rose character in TITANIC (Cameron 97), Fiennes includes a memorable cross-dissolve between Kate Winslet’s eye and Gloria Stuart’s eye – from young Rose to old Rose – and the tonal impact of the transition is hideously rewritten. In my estimation, a world with more of this kind of perversion would be a better one.

24 October 2013