Wednesday, May 21, 2014


1902. The golden days of the "old west" are dead (if, in fact, they ever existed). The Industrial Revolution is well underway. In the mountains of Washington state is a shantytown centered around a filthy saloon/hotel, where the snow and mud never seems to end. This is where the title characters meet, opportunistic John McCabe and seasoned professional whore Constance Miller, surrounded by bearded men who haven't seen in a bath in months and a trio of hookers with little experience and even less sex appeal. This is a western? A mere two years after Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (both 1969), it's not surprising that Warner Brothers not only balked when distinctive director Robert Altman delivered his final cut, but had no idea how to market this genre-defying oddity. Naturally it did poor business. The years have been kind, however, to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. As in many Altman films, the overlapping dialogue and lack of discernible storyline  take some getting used to at first, but patience will be rewarded with a film virtually like no other.

Altman gives us the barest of storylines: McCabe comes into the filthy mountain town, establishing himself as a fabled gunfighter and a skilled card shark before setting up a piss-poor excuse for a whorehouse. After riding the girls into town (juxtaposed with a cross being erected at the top of the newly built church), the women set up shop in outdoor tents; one goes nuts and tries to stab a john to death. Enter Mrs. Miller, a British import with vast experience in the cathouse game, who partners with McCabe to build a bigger, better house of pleasure for the town's men. This all threatens to fall apart when a mining company makes an offer to buy McCabe's share of the town, an offer he refuses at his peril, as the company is known for hiring professional gunmen to plug a bullet into anyone they can't reason with. This synopsis makes McCabe sound far more intricately plotted than it really is. The dialogue is tough and memorable, the characters complex and sharply drawn, but story is secondary to mood and atmosphere, captured splendidly in the film's isolated Canadian wilderness locations. Imagine Altman's M*A*S*H* in the early 20th-century in the dying west, minus the gallows humor, and you have a pretty fair idea of what to expect from this film. Altman cast one of Hollywood's most handsome leading men, Warren Beatty, in a role that is perhaps his best work, and Julie Christie gives a mesmerizing performance that shows off quite a bit of range, earning an Oscar nomination in the process. The cast includes a number of Altman favorite regulars, including Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, John Schuck, Corey Fischer, Hugh Millais (perfection as the smarmy killer), and Bert Remsen.

Judging by the number of walk-outs during the film at today's screening, it might be safe to say that this unusual Altman film is still a polarizing work and not the established masterpiece we film folk rightly believe it to be. It is barely a western, even in superficial terms, taking place in a locale several hundred miles north of the usual genre locations; the climax of the film takes place amidst swirling snow. Our protagonist is not much of a hero, or an anti-hero for that matter, and his heroine transforms from strong-willed business partner to uneasy drug addict. Both of them are at their lowest points by the finale. But that's what makes McCabe so interesting. Besides the gob-smacking visual style courtesy of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, its deconstruction of western mythos makes it perhaps the most original revisionist western of the 1970s. There are nods to genre film classics that may be easy to overlook amidst all the grime and discomfort. As in The Gunfighter, among others, McCabe is presented as a man with a past he's trying to leave behind. This past turns out to be pure folklore. As in High Noon, no one helps McCabe duke it out with the assassins sent to take him out, but to be fair, they're a little occupied trying to put out a fire that threatens to destroy the town church. The town forges on without him, making his survival by the end credits vastly unimportant. Business will continue as usual without him, leaving him behind in the wake of "progress". The film's most gut-wrenching scene actually recalls a pretty consistent western trope, wherein a naive young man is tricked into pulling out his gun, then shot in cold blood for sport. That is the best of many scenes that will stick with you once the credits roll.

Adding another love-it or hate-it element to the film is the score by Leonard Cohen, made up of acoustic folk songs with lyrics that sound improvised on the spot, with a kind of rambling weariness that fits in perfectly with the rundown atmosphere of the film. While watching the film, I was reminded of the unusual scrubbed-clean musical western Paint Your Wagon from two years previous. There are obvious similarities in characterizations and narrative elements, but McCabe is without doubt much more interested in brutal realism over genre escapism.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is showing twice more this week, Thursday and Friday at 1:30 in MoMA's Theater 3. See it!

Friday, May 9, 2014

OTHELLO (1952)

Orson Welles may be the only classic Hollywood auteur who has a following for what he almost accomplished. The man was seemingly incapable of delivering a complete masterpiece, full of false starts and moments of genius in films unfortunately damaged by his massive ego. Even Citizen Kane is not the perfect film as many claim, though it is certainly his best. Witness Othello, a film that took three years to complete yet still feels rushed in many spots. Welles' connections to Shakespeare went back to his youthful theatrical days, when he was mounting an all-black production of "Macbeth" (where Welles, as an understudy, first performed in blackface, as he does here) and a fascist Italy variation of "Julius Caesar". There are moments of that rebellious Welles to be found in this troubled production, even if you sometimes blink and miss them. The most noteworthy must be his re-imagining of the Cassio assassination attempt, now set in a bathhouse due to a costuming snafu leaving the production without the proper attire for the sequence. Welles, in a moment of creative innovation, clad his actors in towels and carried on with the shoot. Time is money. The entire production history was recounted in star Michael MacLiammoir's book "Put Money in Thy Purse". If it's anything like his performance of Iago, it must be sinfully good, campy reading.

Whatever misgivings there are about this film, it remains the best screen version of Shakespeare's tale of treachery and marital jealousy, which ultimately says more about the other lackluster approaches to the material. Its ragged production history shows, especially in bewildering editing choices that would make Doris Wishman blush in embarrassment and unfortunate post-dubbing that will look familiar to fans of low-budget Italian exploitation films. But emerging triumphant through the production errors are the sterling performances of Welles as Othello, bold and bombastic as the role should be played; MacLiammoir, slimy and reptilian, holding a little dog as a Bond villain would stroke his cat; Robert Coote, the perfect simpleton Roderigo. The right actors reciting Shakespeare's prose makes all the difference in the appreciation of the work. Where the film soars and everything works is the final act, including the bedroom scene between Othello and Desdemona. The suspense is palpable, the lighting moody, the editing taut. It makes one wonder why Welles never attempted to make a pure horror film. This surely is the mood and scene delivery Shakespeare dreamed of when the bard envisioned the original play. The wonderful Fay Compton, familiar from so many Hollywood film character roles, is given her chance to shine in the final act as Desdemona's maid, Emilia.

Welles' Othello is a fascinating mess, with flaws aplenty that actually contribute to its charm and appeal. The dubbing, often teased by critics, gives the whole affair a distinctive otherworldly ambiance, and some of the awkward editing beneficially amps up the pacing. Especially worth noting, the cinematography is a startling thing of beauty, capturing the gorgeous sets and scenery in a lavish and cost-effective way. Any other shortcomings are very easy to overlook when they're presented in such pretty wrapping paper. And I have to give Welles all the credit in the world for doing what often feels impossible in movieland: making something cinematic and captivating out of traditionally stage-bound Shakespeare plays. Very few films are able to pull this off. Welles' Othello certainly does. The film is currently touring the US in a new restored version courtesy of Carlotta Films. You should go out of your way to experience what all the fuss is about. I imagine you will be pleasantly surprised. See it.

IDA (2013)

Playing at Film Forum is a little film from Poland called IDA, which is doing the nigh impossible. Through quiet, thoughtful observations of two women from a family destroyed by the Holocaust, it approaches the historical tragedy from a very different perspective, disquieting because of what it doesn't show or say but what is often left unspoken. Writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski chooses his words carefully,  or abandons them altogether, as he follows the mismatched pair through small villages and cold forests on a quest for the truth behind a painful family secret.

Shot in stark black and white, IDA perfectly captures the bleak hopelessness of Communist Eastern Europe as it existed for decades and in some cases still endures if you go off the beaten path in former Soviet satellite nations. The atmosphere is still permeated with the aura of tragic recovery that this film vividly captures so well. The sky is perpetually overcast, the landscapes barren and forboding. The cities are largely empty, reminders of the previous generations extinguished decades previously. Photographed primarily in motionless single shots, the film at times resembles a series of aged snapshots of a time long past. The unpaved roads, the jazz band (the genre became very popular in Soviet Europe), the suspicious citizens, it's all so eerily accurate. And what of these women? The title character, Ida (or Anna, her adoptive name), is discovering the truth of her identity after being raised and nurtured into a life of nunnery in a convent. In the first scene, she learns she is in fact not an orphan and has one surviving relative, an aunt named Wanda. The mother superior insists that Anna visit Wanda and stay with her as long as she needs before taking her final vows. Their first encounter is awkward, almost confrontational. Wanda reveals that Anna is in fact named Ida, and she is Jewish, the sole descendant of a family exterminated during the war. Wanda has become a Soviet judge, sentencing enemies of the state to death, but seeing her niece, who is a dead ringer for her deceased mother, brings back vivid memories of her lost family and an important crime whose culprits she has never brought to justice.

First-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska is appropriately angelic and curious for the role, and makes a large impression with those deep searching eyes, but it is the cast's other Agata, Agata Kulesza, who runs away with the film as Wanda. Her character is sardonic, bitter, driven by anger and self-hatred, and absolutely captivating throughout all of her moods. Kulesza has won two Best Actress awards on the festival circuit and in a more just world she would be in the running for an Oscar. It's one of the most moving performances you'll see this year.

I'm positive that the ending of the film will divide viewers down the middle. Personally I hope to see the film again soon to catch the nuances and moments I may have missed, and to re-evaluate how I feel about the paths of Wanda and Ida by the rolling of the credits. The fact that you will keep thinking about this film days later is a testament to its very effective dramatic power. There is a narrative moment involving a stained glass window that left me breathless. Cutting through many other releases of grander scope and scale, IDA has quickly vaulted to the front of my list of favorite films of the year. See it.