The media is full is of the withdrawal of this recently completed film by a major Hollywood corporation. It is an undesirable development. However, a few caveats are in order.
The accusations against North Korea are less compelling than official spokespeople suggest. Internet experts (there was one on Radio 4 yesterday) make the point that the evidence is tricky and difficult to pin down.And the complaints about ‘freedom of expression’ are somewhat hypocritical.
President Obama’s claim to end the boycott of Cuba provides one parallel – as Cuban cinema was one victim of this over the years. Moreover Hollywood is always happy to block films that do not fit with its interests. This Film is not yet rated (USA, 2006) provides a compelling case study of the operation of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. This system regularly blocks access or restricts audiences for films that do not fit its values (though these are not actually available to the public).
In the UK the British Board of Film Classification operates a similar policy of restriction. Judging by the comments that accompany a certificate their major obsession is protecting us from the use of colloquial language – a protection from which Ken Loach’s films have suffered.
Sony Pictures commenting on the withdrawal of The Interview explained that this was due to pressure from exhibitors. A nice reversal of the norm, as it is usually the distributors pressurising exhibitors. You have probably had a similar experience to me at a multiplex on some occasion – the premier release occupying the major auditorium but with a smaller audience than in some of the minor theatres.
From its earliest days the cinema industry has been dominated by major firms largely sited in advanced capitalist economies. And they have consistently denied screen space to competitors, alternatives and especially films that deny their interests. It would be interesting to know if any major Hollywood studio has had a pitch for a tale about CIA plots against Fidel Castro – and what response they gave.
This was my big disappointment at the festival. It wasn’t that the film wasn’t great but that a beautiful 35mm film print turned up from the Dutch Film Museum sans English subtitles. The Hyde Park staff didn’t have time to check the print before the screening so all they could do after the first few minutes was to apologise and carry on for those brave souls (like me) who wanted at least to watch the film. This is one of those things that can happen at festivals with so many films to project from different formats and a constant stream of prints coming in and going out. I don’t blame the cinema. Fortunately, when I got home after the screening I was able to find almost the entire plot spelled out in detail in the ‘Low Countries’ book in the Wallflower Press 24 Frames series (2004).
The film was included in a festival strand dedicated to the ‘European origins’ of ‘Hollywood Greats’ – a slightly spurious title from my point of view since some the directors in question made European films before and after Hollywood exile that were as good as their American films. This was certainly true of Max Ophüls who was born into a Jewish family in Saarbrücken close to the German border with France. He was very successful as a young theatre director in Vienna and then moved into German-speaking cinema in 1929. His early films included the classic Viennese melodrama Liebelei (1933) after which he fled from the Nazis initially to Paris and most of his films up to 1940 were made in France apart from one in Italy and this film in the Netherlands. After four films in Hollywood (three of which were certainly very good) he returned to make four masterpieces in France before an early death aged 54.
Ophüls was most associated with romance melodramas but this film is primarily a form of social satire about the damage money can do to both a society and individuals/families. The protagonist is a relatively lowly bank clerk/messenger who one day loses a large sum of his employers’ money in transit – partly because he stops to talk to his brother-in-law (the process by which the money is lost is revealed at the end of the story). The clerk and his daughter are hounded out of their home and disgraced but then miraculously re-instated in a scam that sees the clerk installed as the magnate of a house-building company. At first he revels in his new wealth (and the daughter finds romance) but gradually he begins to suffer remorse and then nightmares. These finally drive him to confess his part in the scam and he is imprisoned – only to be released when the original money he lost is re-discovered.
Komedie om Geld offers almost a primer on the film styles of the early 1930s. Reported to be the most expensive Dutch film of its period (though costing less than German features), it wasn’t appreciated by the local audience (possibly too ‘German’ in its satirical gaze?). Given some leeway, Ophüls seems to have spent the money on elaborate studio sets and camerawork courtesy of Eugen Schüfftan, already a veteran of German Expressionism who would go on to work with Marcel Carne and others in France after his stints with Ophüls. Three different visual styles/elements combine in the satire. The ‘domestic scenes’ feature the kind of realism that would become better known in Renoir’s films of the period (though Schüfftan had worked on People on Sunday the 1930 film which showed the lives of ordinary Berliners). Ophüls’ depiction of the business world used the studio sets with deep focus – at least one shot reminded me of Citizen Kane. I confess that I did find it difficult to concentrate. I find an unfamiliar language is often as sleep-inducing as silence if there are no subtitles/intertitles. Therefore I didn’t really notice the length of shots or the use of tracking shots which would later became an Ophüls trademark. I did note however that the film displays many of the tropes of German expressionist cinema and especially in the nightmare sequence. In the 24 Frames book there is an interview with the Belgian filmmaker Harry Kümel who argues that the giant Ufa studio invested heavily in Dutch cinema. I’m not sure whether or not Komedie om Geld benefited from this. But what was clear to me was the use of the ‘MC’ (see the image at the head of the post) who introduces the different elements of the story and who presumably comments on the characters. A similar figure will appear in La ronde (France 1950) and Lola Montès (France 1955).
I’d like to see this again with English subs. There are various websites offering on-line viewing. I’m not sure of the legitimacy of these. There is also a Dutch DVD which is listed as having English subs so I may pursue that.
Sometimes considered the pinnacle of Luis García Berlanga’s work, The Executioner is a black comedy, a ‘farce’ and now an intriguing document recording aspects of Franco’s Spain in the early 1960s – a period when Spain was beginning to slowly emerge from isolation and grapple with the modernising world of the rest of Western Europe as well as North America.
José Luis (Nino Manfredi) is an undertaker who wants to go to Germany to become a mechanic. One day his job takes him to a prison to pick up the body of an executed prisoner and he reluctantly finds himself having to visit the home (dingy rented rooms) of an executioner, on the verge of retirement, and his daughter the voluptuous Carmen. She, like José Luis, has found it difficult to keep a relationship going because of her father’s profession. But true love (and sexual desire) leads to the inevitable pregnancy and the couple must marry. Meanwhile, the executioner has the chance to rent a new apartment because of his official status. But he is due to retire – and will therefore lose the apartment. José Luis, in time-honoured fashion must apply for the job in order to ‘keep it in the family’ – and to keep the new roof over the heads of his wife, child and father-in-law. He prays he will never be needed to ‘perform’ – but the first job arrives and it is in La Palma, Mallorca.
As we noted with earlier films by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem, Italian neo-realism was an important influence on oppositional Spanish filmmaking in the Franco era. This film is less neo-realist as such and more related to Italian comedies. It features both one of the best-known Italian actors of the commedia all’italiana in the form of Nino Manfredi and one of the great Italian cinematographers, Tonino Delli Colli, famous for his work with Leone, Polanski, Fellini, Louis Malle etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Executioner was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1963 and won the FIPRESCI Prize. The Spanish government was trying to deflect attention from a death sentence pronounced on a communist leader in Spain and they faced the quandary that Berlanga both attracted much-needed artistic prestige to Spanish Cinema, but also embarrassed a government planning a political execution.
Aspects of The Executioner work as farce and that made me think of the later political farces of Dario Fo but it was another Italian connection that struck me quite vigorously. The central plot device whereby José Luis is forced to go after the executioner’s job to get the new apartment sets up a series of interactions with the public servants of Franco’s state. They all deal with the quandary that faces José Luis in an almost perfunctory way. They know he doesn’t want to do the job, but they’ll happily support his application so as to process their own paperwork. This exposure of rigid bureaucracy is similar to the even more fiendish bureaucratic contradictions found in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Cuban satire Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) in which the problem is not one of finding an executioner but of getting permission to open a coffin because a man has been buried with his worker’s card and without the card his widow can’t claim a pension. Alea had trained in Rome in the 1950s. He’d also probably seen Berlanga’s film at a festival. Another later Italian connection is the Naples episode of De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) in which Sophia Loren is a housewife who must be constantly producing children or the city will take away her family apartment. The plight of workers and their families is shared across Italy, Spain and Cuba despite their different political systems. What makes the Spanish case stand out is the much darker undertones that Berlanga suddenly brings to the fore in the closing sequence. The ‘comedy’ of José Luis being gradually persuaded to carry out his executioner duties for the first time is suddenly made shocking by the switch to a long shot of a cavernous large hall with bare white walls at the far end of which is a small black door (see image below). On the other side is the place of execution and José Luis is dragged across the hall and through the door, fortified by coffee and brandy and held by guards, judges and the priest – the symbols of the Francoist regime – kicking and screaming. The condemned man has already been taken through, relatively quietly. As one reviewer put it, Berlanga is able to show that the execution process affects the innocent working man more than the resigned condemned man.
When I started this post I was a little sceptical about the high status of the film but as I’ve had to think about specific scenes and how they fit together I’m beginning to appreciate how it all fits together. There are no superfluous scenes and Berlanga fits a great deal into the roughly 90 minutes running time. The wedding of José Luis and Carmen is, like that in That Happy Couple, a somewhat farcical affair. They are ushered in to follow a high society wedding and quickly married while all the trappings of the high-class wedding are being cleared away, even the candles are being snuffed out so that they are virtually in the dark. In nearly every incident the working class couple are being subjected to forms of humiliation or mockery/disdain/selfishness. But through it all they grin and bear it.
The closing scenes in Mallorca reveal a Spain beginning to ‘open up’ to the outside world with some kind of international event attracting the paparazzi, English tourists in the resorts and the ‘jet set’ in yachts in the harbour. Franco’s regime would carry on for another dozen years until his death and the eventual restoration of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. Censorship in the Spanish film industry would remain until the late 1970s but you feel that Berlanga (and Bardem) had managed somehow to show both Spanish audiences and the internal film audience that censorship could be overcome with creativity. Berlanga’s co-writers on this film were Rafael Azcona and Ennio Flaiano. The other two lead actors are Emma Penella as Carmen and José Isbert as her father.
There are numerous offers to watch The Executioner free online. I’ve no idea if any of them are legit. Here’s a good quality 1963 trailer with French subtitles:
Critiques of Hollywood often seem to work well when they are made by outsiders. David Cronenberg had never before made a film in the US, but even with Maps to the Stars he spent only 5 days shooting exteriors in LA and most of the film was actually shot in Toronto. Hollywood Reporter‘s reviewer Todd McCarthy brands Cronenberg’s film a failure – or at best a weak and tired satire (Variety didn’t like it either). I’d have to disagree. But then I’ve never been to LA and my ideas about Tinseltown come only from the movies. Cronenberg and scriptwriter Bruce Wagner (a Hollywood insider whose novels draw on his own experiences in LA) seem to have seen all the movies I’ve seen and probably more.
‘Maps to the Stars’ refers to both the tourists maps of celebrity homes, the players in Greek tragedies and also the mystical bullshit emanating from Stafford Weiss (John Cusack on great form) as guru to celebs. He offers ‘massage therapy’ to the Norma Desmond character (Julianne Moore having enormous fun). Sunset Boulevard is just one of the obvious references. Mommie Dearest is quoted in one gag and Carrie Fisher appears in a cameo reminding us of Postcards From the Edge (1990) which she wrote and which starred Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep as a mother-daughter acting pair. The Julianne Moore character, Havana, here attempts to revive her career by pursuing the role taken by her own mother. Robert Pattinson plays the generic role of the outsider in the guise of the struggling wannabe actor who has to take jobs as a limo driver to pay his way and who inadvertently links together the players in this comic tragedy. The tragedy begins with the arrival of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arriving at LAX from ‘Jupiter, Florida’ who wants to visit some very specific sites and needs a driver. It takes a while to suss out exactly who Agatha is with her burned skin covered by long gloves. By then we’ve already met the rest of the Weiss household with 13 year-old son Benjie (Evan Bird), a foul-mouthed Justin Bieber-type star and his controlling mother Cristina (Olivia Williams).
Cronenberg in his deadpan way has suggested that the film is a humane family tragedy. It is that – and an attack on the vacuous industry/society that enables/provokes the acts we see performed by the central characters. It isn’t really an exposé of contemporary Hollywood as such. As Tony Rayns points out in his Sight and Sound (October) review, Wagner’s experiences relate to Hollywood in the 1990s before the domination of superhero movies and animations. Instead, Cronenberg presents the family tragedy in such a way that it reminds us, sometimes obliquely, of earlier films about Hollywood. At times I got flashes of Lana Turner in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and also of Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950) when Agatha quotes lines of romantic poetry (Bogart, a screenwriter has a desperate love for Gloria Grahame). Though not a Hollywood ‘industry’ story, I also thought of James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, when they ‘play house’ in the Hollywood hills. I was intrigued to see that Cronenberg in a press conference answered a question about the ghosts that appear to characters in the film with a reference to the ghost of James Dean haunting the world (“Il est vrai que le fantôme de James Dean hante encore le monde . . . “). Dean is also a link to the Cronenberg film that Maps to the Stars most resembles for me. Crash (1997) was one of Cronenberg’s most controversial – and certainly most misunderstood films. Given that Maps to the Stars involves many scenes of expensive cars gliding between expensive houses and expensive shops perhaps the resemblance is not surprising. I tried at one point to discern whether or not Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky were using the 25mm lens that became their trademark on earlier films. I’m not expert enough to tell, but there were scenes in which the ‘otherworldliness’ of the settings certainly came through the clinical images that director and cinematographer create.
Cronenberg’s Hollywood critics argue that he doesn’t get it and that Wagner’s script is out of date, but taken as a Ballardian speculative fiction with Hollywood memories haunting the tragic lives of its characters, I think Maps to the Stars works well. It’s amazing what you can do in Toronto with a few palm trees!