Night of the Living Dead

As someone who used to see about a film per day – in recent years, more like two or three per week – I knew I was in for a shock when I moved to Shelter Island, New York for a job that lasted from 4th of July till this week: Zero cinemas and a house with poor Wifi meant practically no movies.

 

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Somebody’s a Zombie.

My first visit to a cinema back in the city just had to be something both classic and entertaining. Luckily a restored Night of the Living Dead was out. I loved it from the first shot – more like a regional indie film than pure horror. And the content, about a black man and white woman confined to a house together, started with so much promise.

Its problem – and not in a theoretical sense, I mean, it kept us from enjoying the film – was the female characters. One is a vicious nag, one is hopelessly in love, and one, The Woman, is in such shock she turns hysterical by minute ten and needs a slap across the face just to ineffectually help The Man, a little.

The girl who becomes “a ghoul” and takes a trowel to her mother’s face has the most get-up-and-go of any of them! For kicks I took a quick look at the 1990 remake, and in the first five minutes the heroine fights back more than the 1968 heroine did the whole time.

There you have it. Seeing a good film is so satisfying, that seeing an okay film gives you  the feeling you get when you want s strong cup of coffee and all you have is diner Bunn-o-matic. You feel like a ghoul yourself.

Toni Erdmann

The movie theater was packed at a matinée of a two and a half-plus hour German comedy. Had me in stitches the whole time.

“Stitches”? The whole time? I enjoyed it the whole time, but one of the many charms of Maren Ade’s script for Toni Erdmann was its sad, bittersweet tone, even when it went completely madcap. Then again, even when she’s being screwball the metaphorical content is on point, even poetic.

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Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller  in “Toni Erdmann.”

Ade teaches screenwriting at a university in Berlin, and her scripts are always writerly – her feature Everyone Else at the 2009 New York Film Festival arguably more so than this one. The success of Toni Erdmann shows that a dose of humor makes the medicine of a dense script with a subtle sense of conflict and resolution to go down smoother.

It only takes a few scenes to establish that its lead character Winfried, an old, divorced music teacher, will go to any length for a joke, including cheap disguises and ludicrously fake identities. A scene with his ex-wife and her family, and the obvious fondness they have for him, shows what a harmless goon he is. That goes a long way in helping us forgive him as he crosses line after line with his daughter.

Winfried’s daughter Ines is a power-yuppie worming her way into the elite levels of European capital, and Winfried crashes her corporate-centered social calendar among oil speculators in Bucharest by using the pseudonym Toni Erdmann. If most dreamy-eyed screenwriting students are writing stories about sons and daughters hitting an impermeable wall in their fathers, their teacher (in Berlin, anyway) has written a masterpiece that turns the journey around: A father is trying to enter his stone-cold daughter’s world.

The script also achieves something most writing students would get a rap on the knuckles for, but Ade does it so seamlessly no one minds: It starts out as Winfried’s story, but after he appears to leave Bucharest for the first time, Ines steps in as the main character. Elegantly done.

It has one of the most perverse sex scenes I’ve ever laughed through, and a very memorable birthday party gone wrong. At the end of her nerves emotionally, her doorbell blaring, Ines has to answer it naked, and decides to turn her birthday party into a nakedness-required affair. One after another her colleagues arrive and get sent away, with a few exceptions, and you figure you can see where the gag is going. But that’s just the start of it!

It’s probably going to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar, so it will be around.

Elevator to the Gallows

Louis Malle was to the French New Wave what the Kinks were to the British Invasion. Though he is not the first name you think of associated with it, nor the second or third, he is clearly of it and did many of the things it did first and better.

That’s what occurred to me yesterday as I left the matinée screening of Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) on the last day of its run at Film Forum. It was quite a sight: There were two dozen of us, by my count, which included one couple and all the rest of us solo viewers. What is it about arthouse cinema that inspires the same kind of following as weekday masses, where widowers and heartsick people worship in semi-private? But I digress…

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Jeanne Moreau and Yori Bertin, “So tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you-ou-ou.”

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, written by Malle and Roger Nimier based on a novel by Noël Calef, was released in France on January 29, 1958, but didn’t come to the U.S. till the summer of ’61. In that interval, both The 400 Blows and Breathless came out. In the U.S., Hitchcock released both North By Northwest and Psycho, and a Papist became president. What a time.

Malle’s better known film The Lovers (Les amants) was also released in the fall of ’58, and in the interval between Elevator‘s French and U.S. releases, The Lovers caused a famous obscenity trial in Ohio, which it ultimately won. (The Kinks later got blackballed by the U.S. music business, and couldn’t tour right when the Beatles and Stones were solidifying their following with major U.S. tours.) So The Lovers became known as Malle’s first big film, and its upper middle class characters, and decidedly middlebrow atmosphere, put him at odds with the New Wave.

Elevator to the Gallows is basically a pulp novel story with higher aspirations, like lots of early Truffaut and Godard, and also looks like a New Wave film. Seeing Jeanne Moreau’s face lit by flashing lights, her makeup smudged, makes it feel like a low-budget labor of love. In the new digital restoration, you can see the boom operator’s reflection in the glass phone booth. Having seen it, I feel like I’ve been to Paris in ’58, and I can’t say the same for the Plaza Hotel or Mount Rushmore, as many times as I’ve seen North By Northwest.

Like Psycho, it begins like a step-by-step crime film, but instead of killing its heroine and becoming an admittedly unique whodunnit (a dull one, in my opinion), it sustains the tight time frame in three different stories: Tavernier, the man who just killed his rival, stuck in an elevator; the woman whose husband he just killed (Moreau) having a meltdown because she believes she’s being stood up; and the impulsive teenagers joyriding in Tavernier’s car, using his name. This all goes on a delightfully long time till the final unraveling.

The young couple playing the part of rebels is every bit as compelling as the kids in Breathless or A Band Apart, but Malle would never have been content with a story that was all about them. When Moreau finally tracks them down, it’s like an adult has broken up her teenagers’ beer party. Never mind your theater of rebellion, a broken heart is at stake here.

This is the kind of art-babble that kept me from going to grad school, but here it goes:

Elevator to the Gallows is ultimately a conflict between what medium is authoritative. It starts with the crime novel, which is just a point of departure. You know Tavernier will ultimately get caught, it’s in the title, but which crime will he get caught at, and how? Once he’s in custody, the free-wheeling New Wave locations give way to 100% atmosphere. The police station looks like a minimalist theatrical set, and we see some of the Malle we’ll get to know in My Dinner With Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street. It looks like interrogation – simple dialogue – is going to one-up the detective story, and have the last word, but in the end it’s photography that’s decisive.

It’s often remembered for its Miles Davis soundtrack, and that’s a good enough reason to keep watching this film:

The Organizer

Italian director Mario Monicelli is getting a full retrospect at Film Forum right now, and I for one have signed up for a crash course. Last night was The Organizer (I Compagni, 1963). Written by Monicelli with the screenwriting team of Age & Scarpelli, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay – a real head-scratcher, but I digress.

"Marcello! Marcello!" La dolce vita, this ain't.

“Marcello! Marcello!” La dolce vita, this ain’t.

Such an easy-to-like film, and yet it kept getting deeper the more I thought about it afterward. Italian viewers around this time had already seen strike films and were familiar with the hagiography of the socialist movement, so setting a bittersweet comedy inside a textile strike in Turin in the 1890s was presumably a little subversive, tweaking the Marxist orthodoxy, and yet you sympathize with the strikers the entire time.

Working 14 hour days, the workers decide to walk off an hour early one day, but botch the signal, and afterwards a finger-pointing match ends in a snowball fight into which a professor-labor organizer on the run from the law arrives. The fact that the nerdy martyr-for-the-movement Professor Sinigaglia is played by none other than Marcello Mastroianni, otherwise the embodiment of mid-century cool, is just the first delicious thing about this film.

Going back to the Neorealists, the Italians were always scrupulous about giving their working-class characters serious flaws. Even when they were sentimentalizing them, you never get the message that there is anything inherently superior about proletarians, and a part of your heart sinks with sympathy whenever a character opts to collaborate with the reactionaries. The Organizer continues that tradition but goes a step further: Professor Sinigaglia, with a face like Trotsky and Lenin, is touchingly unable to say for sure that he’s doing any good, or at least he has gone native in the working class enough that he knows he has no common vocabulary to express it. “Why do I do it? Because I have a head full of foolish ideas,” he says, while sharing a bed with a worker in true 19th Century style. He even steals from his hosts.

I’m a quick study for screenplay structure – who’s the protagonist, and what his or her arc is – but I’m still chewing on this one. Is it the strikers as a group? That elusive, socialist notion of a mass protagonist? I haven’t seen Matewan in fifteen years, but I’d much rather go see The Organizer again tomorrow than try it over again.

ANDREI ZVYAGINTSEV’S “ELENA”

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film Elena is going to be in theaters for the next few weeks, at Film Forum in New York till at least the 29th. Anyone who remembers The Return (2003) is excited to check it out – and anyone who’s worked with me knows I talk about The Return a lot.

Critics are seeing Elena as a fable about the money-obsessed Hobbesianism of contemporary Russia, and it certainly works as that. I caught opening night, however, when Zvyagintsev was there in person, and he said it wasn’t originally set in Russia! He had a deal to make a film in English, and he and writer Oleg Negin wrote it to be shot in the UK. The deal fell apart, and they reset the story in Moscow, changing practically nothing.

The story is about a retired nurse whose second marriage to an older, wealthy man has become stressed by her financial needs. Her son from her first marriage lives in a Soviet-era housing project near a nuclear plant, and can’t seem to stop drinking or having babies. Her husband never hesitates to indulge his own daughter, who acts like a Russian you’d meet at a shoe store in Soho, but is fed up with his step-son and refuses to give him any more money. When the husband suffers a heart attack, and vows to make his wishes explicit in a will, Elena makes a rash decision on her son’s family’s behalf.

It’s a story in which bad deeds can go unpunished, and in which the viewer is paid enough respect to see the villain given a fair hearing. Elena’s husband sensitively apologizes for the times when he is too harsh about it, but he appears to have his step-son figured out. Elena, for her part, is a nurturing mama turned criminal who shows equivocation before acting, and later regret for what she has done.

You never doubt when you watch one of Zvyagintsev’s films that you are in the hands of a story-teller who knows exactly why he is taking as long as he is at showing any one narrative step. Kitchen appliances, morning shaving routines, and the sliding doors in Elena’s ultra-mod Moscow apartment get shown in all-consuming detail, with lots of attention to audio, and each set up has at least a modest payoff later on. Zvyagintsev has been called the inheritor of the Tarkovsky mantle, but his films are tighter and therefore easier to watch than Tarkovsky’s. Compared to his Turkish contemporary Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Climates, Distant) who uses similar pacing to create similar philosophical atmospheres, he is downright snappy…

…to a point! The dullest part of this film is Philip Glass’ soundtrack. (In his defense, he didn’t compose specifically for it; the film used his Third Symphony.) You get the sense that Zvyagintsev or his producers feared that we’d get bored by the naturalism throughout Elena, particularly in the long sequences when characters travel from one location to another, and compromised by covering them with some Philip Glass to make it seem a little more like every other international film. Maybe I’d have been bored to tears had I seen it without the soundtrack, so I can’t say for sure, but this seems unnecessary. That spatial distance between luxury condos in central Moscow and the rust belt on the perimeter, is after all what’s at stake in the film. I was on the edge of my seat while an automatic espresso machine spat out a double shot, I wasn’t about to object to an extra minute of the heroine’s preparation while riding the train.

The Return is still probably the film to see to get to know Zvyagintsev, but this one is sticking with me too.

Charlie

Zvyagintsev (R) with a translator in NYC, May 16.