The Keep (1983)

Do Nazis (Tangerine) dream? An SS jeep battalion, led by Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow), drives through misty mountains—a Leone-size close-up of Woermann’s eyes (shutting, opening, shutting, opening) connects the fog of the subconscious with the fog of the (super)natural world. A Romanian village materializes—a mother rushes to pull her young daughter out of the conquerers’ path—and the vehicles roll up to a stone citadel that seems torn from an UFA super-production (and points the way toward Sokurov’s hauntingly somnolent Führer bastion in Moloch). As both Woermann and a wizened caretaker note, this edifice appears built not to withstand an attack from without, but within. Nickel crosses line the walls. It’s only a matter of a time before some National Socialist mincemeat (who see the glowing baubles as silver) unleash a maniacal demon. He’s basically Frank from the four years-hence Hellraiser, a red-eyed soul-sucker who kills to strengthen his body, which is shaped at its peak like a steroidal samurai. The dragon’s Siegfried is Glaeken Trismegestus (Scott Glenn), who journeys from Greece to do ’80s-optical battle with his nemesis and play tantric-sex Mesmer to Eva Cusa (Alberta Watson), daughter of the mad, mad Jewish scientist (Ian McKellan) who is brought in by replacement Nazi Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) to uncover the keep’s secrets. The story is complicated, yet wispy—it hardly matters (a good thing). The dialogue is functional and, as in writer-director Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, barely distinguishable over the ambience. (Another eccentric sound mix or poor materials provided to Netflix Instant? At least it’s in widescreen.)

It may sound like I hate…I actually love. This is visionary work—call it maudit if you wish, but there’s beauty in the breakdown. I was with it from the start, but it was the extended pullback from the demon’s first victim (flying over, over, over the cavernous interior of the keep) that sent those tell-tale shivers up my spine, the kind that signal greatness even among myriad flaws. The can’t-kill-this-performance overacting by almost all the male leads (Prochnow’s exit speech is some kind of bad?/good? apotheosis, as is the entirety of McKellan’s role—the “love what you’ve done with your hair” scene from X2 in aeternum) are dwarfed by the visual schema: The way the monster, shrouded in vapor, tenderly carries a nearly-raped Eva back to her father. How McKellan—formerly wheelchair-bound, now miraculously healed—stands triumphantly into backlight (power occludes all humanity, political-moral affiliations be damned). How Byrne’s Kaempffer meets his end: forced to consider the burned visages of his own soldiers—the Nazi horror turned back on its purveyor. And then there’s Mann’s woman: for most of the running time, Watson’s a damsel in decade-of-excess-hairdo distress. She almost laughably falls into Glaeken’s arms (only the spellbinding imagery, by Excalibur DP Alex Thomson, puts it across). And then she suddenly mutates into the movie’s soul—granted the final freeze-frame, looking back toward the man she’s lost, like Cotillard in Public Enemies (“Bye, bye blackbird”), Gong in Miami Vice (“This was too good to last”). Whether this was entirely Mann’s decision—an alternate ending is reported to exist in which the lovers are reunited—is unknown. He’s rumored to intensely dislike the film, and it’s certainly the queer duck of his oeuvre. Would that we all could quack with such oddball brilliance.

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“The Perfect Kiss” (1985)

A lengthy BBC interview with Jonathan Demme around the time of Beloved led me to his video for New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss,” which I had never seen. Its before-the-camera subjects are, of course, legend, as are the behind-the-scenes talent (the DP is Henri Alekan of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast; the great Agnès Godard is also credited). It’s a perfect embodiment of the director’s spirit—clear-eyed, empathetic, enamored of faces, possessed of the belief that, despite our differences, we humans have a great potential for harmony. Henry James’ instruction to his nephew Willie—which could serve as an encapsulation of Demme’s cinema—came to mind (“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”)

It upsets me to no end to witness the brickbats hurled at Demme’s recent output. I had half-an-hour to kill yesterday and threw on his unfairly maligned The Truth About Charlie, ostensibly a remake of Charade, though what struck me this time out was how beside-the-point that is. Removed from the uproar that greeted it upon release, the film suddenly took on its own life, its eccentricities—the world music soundtrack, jumping in as it feels like; Tak Fujimoto’s expressive hand-held cinematography, I think one of the first big productions to make extensive use of digital for outdoor scenes—even more profoundly affecting than when I first encountered it. (The medium shot in “The Perfect Kiss” where Peter Hook strums the bass while a ghostly figure bops along in the background even parallels the first Charles Aznavour interlude in Charlie.) That Hollywood backed this loving paean to the French New Wave is one of those bizarre flukes of the business, and one I’m increasingly thankful for. The point being that, even with several films I’m not all that enamored of (Philadelphia; Jimmy Carter Man From Plains), Demme still has the spirit and soul that people praised in his ’80s work, but which, after The Silence of the Lambs (also often maligned for all the wrong reasons), a number of my colleagues seem to feel he abandoned or lost. To me, that just isn’t so.

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Twice-Told Tales (1831-1837, 1842)

Hawthorne’s philosophical precision is a constant inspiration—whether his tales are fantastic or realistic, they are always grounded in human experience (and such varied experience!). It’s interesting, with books, to see what sticks: my heart and mind store images much more vividly than words. I have to work harder to intuit meaning, to feel beyond the text. Since it doesn’t come as naturally, that’s probably why books are an arm’s-length art for me. And still I try… Two things that stuck here—

From “Foot-prints on the Sea-shore”:

“And when, at noontide, I tread the crowded streets, the influence of this day will still be felt; so that I shall walk among men kindly and as a brother, with affection and sympathy, but yet shall not melt into the indistinguishable mass of humankind. I shall think my own thoughts, and feel my own emotions, and possess my individuality unviolated.”

From “The Sister Years”:

“Nothing so much depresses me, in my view of mortal affairs, as to see high energies wasted, and human life and happiness thrown away, for ends that appear oftentimes unwise; and still oftener remain unaccomplished. But the wisest people and the best keep a steadfast faith that the progress of Mankind is onward and upward, and that the toil and anguish of the path serve to wear away the imperfections of the Immortal Pilgrim, and will be felt no more, when they have done their office.”

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Ministry of Fear (1944)

When the clock struck twelve for Cinderella, the fantasy was over. In Fritz Lang’s world, that’s just the start of the adventure. The fairy tale allusion is surely intentional, and certainly Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) must feel like he’s waking up from a (dark) dream: Imprisoned in an asylum for mercy-killing his sick wife, he promises upon release to lead a quiet, uneventful life. First, though, he wants to hear, see and be around people (constantly, this espionage tale feels as if it is grasping at, striving for the humanity that its Nazi villains would quash without a second thought). London is the destination, but first there’s a stopover at a county fair where Neale inadvertently procures a pastry with a secret baked inside. A faux-blind hitman attacks while the SS blitzes a nearby munitions factory. One of them doesn’t walk away. From there it’s a pulp pileup: a lithe psychic (introduced, single shot, as both shadowed devil and hallowed angel), an Expressionist seance (the spirit of Mabuse is present), Dan Duryea (flaunting tailor’s shears like Carradine the kitchen knife in Kill Bill). There’s even a knock at modern art when a Picasso-like graphic reveals itself as a doorbell—but where, exactly, do you press? (Is this caustic bit of satire Lang’s? Source novelist Graham Greene’s? Another’s barb?) An old-biddy patriot’s group and an antique bookshop (“Sometimes I loathe people who like to read”) each front for more sinister goings-on, and there’s something off (or is there?) about Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), the Austrian gal who falls for Neale. No one is fully in the moral right: Neale wonders if killing his wife was the right thing. The blonde femme gets the weightiest challenge (“You wouldn’t shoot your brother, Carla?”). Well of course she would—this is WWII, but it’s also planet Earth. Lang has no illusions of angelic or demonic purity. Everyone’s a mess of contradictions, and even a happy ending can be corrupted by a seemingly harmless (and hilarious) utterance—let them not eat cake. Wrapped up in that punchline, of course, is an all-too-real horror: how easily history becomes an ephemeral jest.

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Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires) (2010)

It helps, no doubt, that they’re easy on the eyes. Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider, metteur en scène (-en costumes, etc) Xavier Dolan—all beauties, and specific enough that the anxieties of influence hardly matter. Is confidence (in look, in ability) all you need? Case by case. Here, as in I Killed My Mother, Dolan has the filmmaking chops and emotional insight to homage whomever he pleases. Why repeat the names of those who came before; Dolan’s love is his own, and very present tense despite all the “vintage” (the word itself is dissected and left for dead in the banter between Chokri’s Marie and Dolan’s Francis—frenemies to the end, both obsessed with Schneider’s Nicolas, he of the multiple beauty marks). Perhaps too schematic in its rhyming-couplet, monochrome sex scenes, as well as in the faux-confessionals with Marie and Francis’ circle of friends, talking about relationship woes past (incredible array of faces, though, especially the Ray Ban-bespectacled Jewish girl). The grace notes come moment-to-moment (no profound harmonies overall), though the party sequence midway through, segueing from Dalida’s cover of “Bang Bang” to House of Pain (and including some De Palma-circa-Femme Fatale shoe adoration), is brilliantly sustained. Schneider is the perfect impossible object, statuesque (visually linked to Michelangelo’s David, of course) and cruelly self-aware of his golden-locked gorgeousness. Francis has the right idea: such perfection must be retched out of the system like a hairball. But, wink-wink (at who?), Louis Garrel is always waiting in the wings…

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Babes in Arms (1939)

Vaudeville’s dyin’ and only Mickey Rooney’s got the will to defibrillate the death-rattling corpse. He’s a bundle of peppy energy who’s clearly meant to be charming (and perfectly paired with neurotic-even-at-17 Judy Garland). But mostly he comes off as a pint-sized dictator holding onto a bullshit dream (everything’s gonna be all right, America—just keep on keepin’). The best scene is also one of the most troublesome, as he leads a group of next generation performers in a vigorous march through town to the title song. The Nelson Eddy manqué at his side lends just the right amount of authoritative baritone, and when they reach the square, director Busby Berkeley pulls out all the rigid-patterning stops. Everyone marches in lock-step rhythm, girls seesaw and swing as if under the taskmaster spell of a metronome. And then…a bonfire so eerily evocative of a Nazi book burning (but suffused with let’s-put-on-the-show conviction) that I couldn’t help but wonder if Berkeley was inspired by newsreel footage of Germany the way a number of our current filmmakers are by 9/11 videos. Exploit and scare? Keep the populace in their place? I wouldn’t put it past Busb, which doesn’t dilute the troubling brilliance of the scene—ideologically muddled, yet strangely subversive. That’s more than can be said for the penultimate minstrel show number, which is crass, cruel and skin-crawlingly endless (casual racism peppered with golly-gee smiles). It’s fitting that the performance is interrupted by a torrential downpour, as if God himself was offended by these militantly animated juveniles as much as local meanie Margaret Hamilton (of course), whose send-the-little-shits-off-to-school spiel becomes more sympathetic as the film goes on. Rooney does Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore and President Roosevelt impressions. “Führer” is rhymed with “Shearer” (as in Norma). And it all ends with the kids selling a simplistic version of the American dream to a rapt audience while aligning themselves in individuality-shattering arrangements. Risking the reader’s ire, I ask in all sincerity: Could Berkeley be our Riefenstahl?

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Stomp the Yard (2007)

Opens like a dystopian fiction, complete with a Big Brother-esque eye/tagline that’s defaced from the second-person singular to the first-person plural (the sci-fi vibe is maintained for a good while). The dancing is filmed with that Private Ryan intensity that Ridley Scott perverted in Hannibal and Black Hawk Down. The emotional effect is more cumulative than immediate. Whenever the dancers stomp and the camera earthquake-shakes I can’t help but think more fondly of production house Screen Gems’ considerably less slick You Got Served, which has a more honest, homegrown feel, despite its silliness. (It’s the TV Star Trek where Stomp the Yard is J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek—I prefer my Klingon attacks on rickety, tipping sets, I guess, rather than flawless, technically-airbrushed otherworlds.) Funny that both films share “Beautifull” Meagan Good, very charming alongside star Columbus Short as the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who finds his calling at the all-African-American Truth University. With a completely straight face, the film connects his step-dancing quest to the work of civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Credit cast and crew with making us believe it, for the most part, even if the pro-education message-mongering does weigh things down needlessly. There’s a discussion to be had about race in these modern musicals I’m watching: the lily-white Center Stage, the have-it-all-ways-or-as-much-as-Disney-allows Step Up series, the ghetto-chic of You Got and Stomp—though at least You Got has some credible, innately complicated supporting characters like Esther Scott’s Grandma (much more than her “Mmm-hmm!” platitudes). Interesting that the ’80s musicals I’ve seen, like Breakin’ and its sequel, paint African-American life with a rainbow (or at least presents it as a very, very likely outcome—Reagan’s morning?). With You Got and Stomp, it’s “Guns, guns, guns.” And, perhaps more truthfully, when glory comes (MTV-sanctioned, of course), the films don’t negate or deny the tragedies that came before.

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The Cape: “Scales on a Train” (2011)

The best back-from-commercial intros on television: succinct, direct—dividing each act into bite-sized chunks. Poetic junk food. (“Scales”; “The Cape vs…”). Dialogue follows a similar pattern (“I’m gonna end you!”) though there’s something off about it whenever David Lyons (as uninteresting a presence as Andrew Lincoln on The Walking Dead—also a non-American assaying a mesa-flat all-American) opens his mouth or blank-stares with the baby blues. The idealized father thing is intentional and knowing (and still reverent in conception), but with Lyons it’s less meta than meh-ta. TRON: Legacy did the Daddy hero-worship better, but then TRON: Legacy had several Jeff Bridges’. Based on the atrocious speeding-train rear projection, the Cape producers couldn’t afford to buy Bridges lunch off the BK dollar menu. (The best gag—the hero unable to use his retractable poncho because of high-speed winds—is lost in the digital breeze.) The good guys are uninteresting (“I knew Orwell, Summer Glau…” you want to say) so look to the margins: A talented performer like Mather Zickel (unsung among the Rachel Getting Married ensemble) brings depths to the other man/surrogate parent. Vinnie Jones as the reptilian adversary gets flashes of a “pity me” backstory that he pushes out of sight and mind by ramming his head, hooligan style, against the bars of a cage. Dayton Callie’s the mayor (’bout time). And, oh, Keith David. His joy is infectious. No wonder Aronofsky picked him to dildo-degrade Jennifer Connelly—his grin banished all dubious suspicions. Here it’s a “Gladys Knight and the Pips” toss-off that knocks off the socks (or as Bergman apocryphally had it after screening Jurassic Park, “puts on the pants”).

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