Sunday, 13 April 2014

Review : Paths of Glory (1957)

This review originally appeared in Issue 7 of So Film magazine

Three soldiers are condemned to die by their own army's firing squad when an entire regiment fails to take an impossible German position in Stanley Kubrick's WWI masterpiece Paths of Glory. Kirk Douglas is the commanding officer charged with defending his men from the corrupt machinations of the cogs of war, in what remains one of the most damning indictments of internecine conflict and crippled humanity.

"There's no message. It is certainly not a film either for or against the army it portrays. At most, the film is against war, because war is capable of forcing men to make terrible choices."
(Stanley Kubrick - Cahiers du Cinema, 1957)

Stanley Kubrick had been to war before, and he would of course, go again. For his feature debut, Fear and Desire (1953) the director established an anonymous conflict occurring 'outside history,' one which occupied 'no other country but the mind.' Little seen until recently, it's a film of rough-hewn edges and overt conspicuousness, displaying little of the formal chutzpah than would quickly come to define his work. Yet the film also served to employ a default register that he would return to time and again, one that would colour his choices of adaptation and lead to accusations of coldness and distance even from his most evangelical of disciples.

Kubrick was one of cinema's sharpest of satirists. He was also one of its most subtle. That's not to say he was always playing for laughs, more that he was seemingly pointedly attuned to the absurdities and grotesqueries of human behaviour, as apparent in his quartet of war films as in his adaptations of those like-minded bedfellows Thackeray, Nabokov and Burgess. Even with his straightest face on, the technological Babel representing the peak of mankind's hubris comes unstuck in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) at the hands of one its own creations - before, of course, being cosmically belittled in the face of a far greater sentient power.

Of course, he'd most demonstrably satirise the machinations of the war machine with the bitingly farcical Dr. Strangelove (1964), but such commentary proves no less penetrating in the dramatic cadences of Paths of Glory (1957), even if this time they're played out in a distinctly minor key.

If Spartacus (1960) is the one film in Kubrick's filmography usually considered the odd-man-out, given his last-minute appointment and accendence of control to studio and star, Paths of Glory is in many respects as much of an anomaly, serving as it does as both the director's most straightforward star vehicle and subversion of the very same.

Kirk Douglas' Colonel Dax may carry the empathetic air of liberal heroism, bearing the chin and torso of identifiable movie-stardom, but his Pyrrhic victory over one superior officer amounts to little in the all-consuming fog of war and insidiously entrenched corruption.

Retaining the tripartite structure of Humphrey Cobb's novel - itself based on a real-life incident that took place during WWI - Kubrick fashions Paths of Glory into a chess game of  absurd, Kafkaesque irrationalities, played out between opposing factions of the same side, that of the French army. The lives of three soldiers serve as pawns to be manouevred and taken, just as a conversation on the best way to die in battle exemplifies the futility of what poet Thomas Gray (from whom Cobb took his title) meant when he wrote that the "Paths of Glory lead but to the grave."

The film begins with a meeting between Adolphe Menjou's General Broulard and the ostensible villain of the piece, George Macready's General Mireau in a luxuriously ornamented château. Broulard details the necessity of Mireau's men taking a key position dubbed The Anthill within the next two days. As we cut from such ornate surroundings to a wide-shot of No Man's Land, before pulling back into the French trenches, Kubrick establishes the first of a series of oppositional positions that echo throughout the film.

It's not just in the locations themselves that such dichotomous positions are effected but also in the way they're shot. There's a documentary realism to the scenes at the Front, contrasted with the camera's dance around the decorative interiors of the Generals' château. A cut from Colonel Dax' sparse quarters to his superiors waltzing through their ballroom proves as illustrative of each camp's concerns as a later cut from the aftermath of the execution to Broulard and Mireau heartily tucking into their lunch.

Kubrick's rightly celebrated tracking shots through the snaking trenches also serve as echoes of Thomas Gray's poem, each portents of a character's fate. The first follows General Mireau as he delivers the attack order to Dax, whilst the second sees Kirk Douglas' Colonel marching towards the inferno of the Anthill assault itself, his men cowering against the walls. The final shot sees the three prisoners - victims of a ludicrously arbitrary selection process - led towards their execution, Kubrick's pitch black humour barely submerged as one stumbles and wails, while another is carried on a stretcher, unable to stand.

If the shambolic courtroom scene that sees the three soldiers sentenced to death for cowardice - taking place in a vast hall of the château, its chequered floor further illustration of the war games at play - allows for Douglas to make clear his (and no doubt the audience's) position, it's a later scene that allows for Kubrick to propose the aforementioned subversion of any such heroics.

"You've spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality... You're an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot," says General Broulard after a futile outburst of righteousness from Dax. The Colonel can shout all he wants about the preceding "mockery of all human justice", but it's the General's witheringly muttered "unfortunates" that sound the loudest, as he exits the only one left unscathed.

Kubrick's cynicism abates for a brief moment in Paths of Glory's celebrated final scene, as a young German girl (Susanne Christian, the future Mrs. Kubrick) is hauled onto a stage in front of a baying mob of soldiers. "A little pearl, washed ashore by the tide of war," she begins to sing, as the crowd's boisterousness shifts to hushed and affected nostalgia. It's a starkly unsentimental moment, the most purely emotional in all of Kubrick's work, a crack of humanity in the armor of those in the film's final lines given the order to return to the Front.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Review : James Dean x 3

This review originally appeared in Issue 6 of So Film magazine.

It wouldn't be until 1982 that director Robert Altman mounted his little-seen and underappreciated film that tackled the lasting cult of James Dean at close quarters with Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Twenty-five years earlier, barely eighteen months after the actor's fateful drive to Salinas in September 1955, Altman had already enshrined him in legend with a documentary rushed into production to capitalise on the myth-making process that swiftly followed the star's death at just 24 years old.

"[The audiences] had made James Dean, and they wouldn't let him go," began the opening narration to The James Dean Story (1957). "To keep him close they made a legend in his name... He seemed to express the things they couldn't find the words for: Rage! Rebellion! Hope! The lonely awareness that growing up is pain... [He was] a hero made from their loneliness. A legend woven from their restlessness, their energy, their despair..."

Embalmed in popular culture on the strength of just three feature films (only one of which was released during his lifetime), Dean remains to this day as defined by what he represented - an icon of the cult of the teenager as manifested in his finest performance - as much as by the tragic circumstances of his death. The poster-child of a generation, it's surprising how little-seen his films are today, Dean seeming to exist wholly independently of and apart from the work that shot him to fame in the first place.

With Park Circus bringing newly remastered prints of his films back into cinemas this month, it's a welcome opportunity to reassess his work for three distinctive filmmakers, to cut through more than half a century of iconography to find the actor beneath the legend.

"They dug up a Mastadon somewhere in Siberia," proclaims Raymond Massey's wannabe fridge magnate father in Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955), "been in the ice for thousands of years and the meat was still good." Dean's breakthrough performance (he'd had tiny roles previously for the likes of Sam Fuller and Douglas Sirk), at once celebrated for a Method-addled naturalism that worshipped at the shrine of Brando and Lee Strasberg, has been on ice now for almost sixty years. So is the meat still good?

It's without doubt the actor's most affected performance, and the stodgy melodrama within which it's framed is hardly representative of Kazan at his best. There's plenty out there to read on the impact this newly-minted acting style had on audiences (and fellow performers) at the time, but viewed retrospectively its Oedipally-inflamed histrionics can be a large pill to swallow whole. Where Kazan had previously played the old and new schools of performance off each other for the claustrophobic theatricality of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), it's simply too much here, even for all the Biblical allusions writ large across Paul Osborn's screenplay.

It comes as no surprise that Kazan would drop the widescreen ratio for his next feature, given how uncomfortable he appears to be with it here. Whilst his later rural sojourn Wild River (1960) would demonstrate a greater confidence in image-making, his random canting and compressing of the frame in East of Eden feels less psychologically motivated and more for want of any better ideas on how to bring a scene to life visually.

So thank god for Nicholas Ray, a director in absolute command and mastery of the widescreen image. Not only is Rebel Without a Cause (1955) Dean's crowning achievement, it's also up there with Ray's best work. Gone are the raging neuroses of East of Eden's wellspring of self-pity, replaced by a sharper sense of focus in Dean's performance. The white T-shirt and red jacket may be the look that defined him - Ray's use of colour still astounds - and the 'chicken-run' race his most famous scene, but it's the film's tender and barely submerged take on teenage sexuality that feels truly modern.

It's the quintessential teen movie, instigating a raft of imitators to follow in its wake - including one by Altman, The Delinquents (1957) - yet it's in its deconstruction and reconstruction of the 50s family unit that finds the film at its most affecting. Sure, it can press it's point a little theavily at times (notably Jim Backus as Dean's dad, emasculated in a floral apron), but the sequence where the trio of kids play house before the final shootout ends with a tableaux heaving with emotional weight and repressed suggestion.

There's not much beyond James Dean's performance with which to recommend his final film. George Steven's Giant (1956) is a lumbering Mastodon hardly worth the effort of defrosting. Clocking in at just under three and a half hours, it's an epic soap opera of class divisions and oil strikes that collapses under its own obesity way before it gets bogged down in the racial melodrama with which it limply closes. 

Dean has one great scene as he confronts Rock Hudson's landowner, slicked in the oil he's just struck on his tiny plot of land, but he's very much the supporting player to Steven's message-making and (surprisingly non-widescreen) love for the Texan skies. Dean injects some much-needed life into proceedings elsewhere, proving a welcome antidote to the buttoned-up classicism of the filmmaking and fellow performances. It's hard not to be taken in by the way he moves through the landscape, often in silhouette against the sun. More than anywhere else, Dean seems to demonstrate an awareness of the images he was forging out of gesture and pose, despite Stevens' determination to cut him down to size - in life and on film. Little did he know that the only reason anyone would sit through Giant sixty years on was for those small moments, few and far between, when a legend in the making would pull down his Stetson and steal a scene from under him.

Interview : Ben Mendelsohn

My interview with Starred Up's Ben Mendelsohn for Little White Lies can be found here :

Monday, 24 February 2014

Review : Wake in Fright (1971)

This review of the Masters of Cinema re-issue of Ted Kotcheff's remarkable Wake in Fright (1971) was originally published in Issue 5 of So Film magazine.

A scorched existential nightmare pickled in warm beer and sweat, Wake in Fright resurfaces after more than forty years in absentia to assert its position at the top table of the Australian New Wave. A box office flop upon its initial domestic release, this despite an enthusiastic reception at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival - where a young Martin Scorsese proved an early champion - the film remained out of circulation until an impassioned search for a salvageable print by its editor in 2004 turned up the original negative, marked 'For Destruction' in a Pittsburgh vault.

Digitally restored at 4K by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Wake in Fright receives a limited theatrical run followed by a typically stellar Dual-Format presentation by those doing the Lord's work for Eureka's Masters of Cinema imprint. An opportunity to experience it on the big screen prior to an inevitable purchase is one not to be passed up, something made immediately apparent by the opening 360 degree, Leone-riffing panorama of its Outback setting.

Much like Nic Roeg's Walkabout, released the same year, the sun-blasted landscape sets the stage for a series of awakenings. Yet where Roeg pitched his tale of burgeoning sexuality and colonialist anxieties in his default poetic register, Wake in Fright's eruption of unchecked masculine primality takes a darker path, deep into the realms of sozzled Conradian fever-dream.

John Grant (Gary Bond, a dead ringer for Lawrence-era Peter O'Toole) is a teacher in the one-room school of the no-horse town of Tiboonda. Bonded by the education authorities to the tune of $1,000 to work out his contract, his pretensions to urbanity hold little currency in what he perceives to be a cultural wasteland. Heading back to his girl in Sydney - a swimsuit clad figment of mental flashback - an overnight stay en route in the town of Bundanyabba (locally, The Yabba) sees his plans quickly head south when he loses all his money at a coin-toss game in a backroom gambling den.

At the mercy of the kindness of strangers, of which there's no shortage willing to extend him a beer or ten, Grant becomes forcibly embedded in The Yabba's hive of sociopathy, led down a road that sees his tenuous grip on civility stripped away at every turn. Yet there's a difference here in the conflict between mind and body, between intellect and carnality, to that which would similarly surface in Sam Peckinpah's contemporaneous Straw Dogs. For all the degradation suffered by Grant through Wake in Fright, the local yokels remain catalysts and enablers, the true antagonist in this case emerging from within rather than from without, a version of himself closer to the surface than he'd care to admit. As the local copper points out to him when explaining how the coin-toss betting system works, "Every man knows what's coming to him, he just goes out and gets it."

Like in the game of two-up in which Grant loses his way out of The Yabba, there are two sides to every coin. The head to his tails is manifested in Donald Pleasence's booze-saturated doctor, Tydon. Where Grant wrestles with his tenuous social values, Doc has little shame in abandonding them to the bottle and his baser instincts. This manic Mephistophelean nihilist, whilst hardly on the right side of sane, possesses a greater sense of self-awareness than the id-repressing Grant.

Canadian-born director Ted Kotcheff would reprise aspects of Wake in Fright's elemental survivalism and small-town hostility to far greater commercial appeal a decade later with First Blood, but nothing he would go on to make - nope, not even Weekend at Bernie's - would suggest the formal virility on display here. Static widescreen compositions registering space and isolation at the start give way to a stylistic delirium tremens and claustrophobic intensity in the film's latter stages, all shaded in greens, yellows and ochres - the colours of the Outback scrub, bronzed flesh and flat beer.

It comes as little surprise that editor Anthony Buckley worked so hard to ensure Wake in Fright's re-emergence, given how terrific his initial contribution proved. A late montage takes on a nightmarishly hallucinogenic power, all leering faces, sweaty bodies and glazed eyes, as homoerotically charged horseplay under a swinging lightbulb takes a sinister turn.

Yet the film's apex of both horror and form comes with a sensationally mounted, booze-fuelled kangaroo hunt. By no means easy to watch - the sequence prompted a dozen walkouts at its initial Cannes premiere - what begins as a thrillingly dynamic daylight chase through the bush, descends into a brutal display of cruelty and violence. Buckley spliced footage from an actual hunt into that with the actors, and no punches are pulled in its depiction. A disclaimer at the end of the film states the filmmakers intent to draw attention to such activity, but it remains a difficult sequence to stomach.

There's a Twilight Zone vibe to the surreal final stages as Grant determines to escape the purgatorial Yabba (echoed in John Scott's otherworldly scoring), before Wake in Fright finally comes full circle, much like its opening shot. Its distribution history may have it pegged as just another Ozpoitation flick, but it's as deserving of its place in the Masters of Cinema series as any other, a startling re-discovery of one the great Australian films.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Review : Hard to be a God

My review from the Gothenburg International Film Festival on Aleksey German's modern masterpiece, Hard to be a God for Little White Lies can be found here :

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