Running Out of Karma: Two by Woo


Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Here are reviews of a couple of lesser, but worthwhile nonetheless, John Woo movies.

Heroes Shed No Tears (1986)

Sharing a title and nothing else with Chor Yuen’s 1980 wuxia epic, this was John Woo’s project immediately preceding his breakthrough A Better Tomorrow and only released after that film’s success. It’s easy to see why Woo had initially decided to leave this unreleased. It’s probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen from him, the kind of movie people who don’t like Hong Kong movies think all Hong Kong movies are like. That said, it’s still a ton of goofy fun.

Eddy Ko leads a small commando squad of Chinese mercenaries into the Golden Triangle (the nebulous border region between Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam that is the source of much of the world’s heroin, or at least was in movies from the 1980s) to arrest a drug kingpin and bring him to justice. They get the guy and escape, chased by his heavily-armed men. At the Vietnamese border, they arouse the ire of the local army outpost (led by the great Lam Ching-ying, probably most well-known as the star of the Mr. Vampire series), who join the chase. The Army then forcibly enlists the assistance of the local hunter-gatherer/ninja tribe. Of course, for some reason Ko has brought on this mission into the most dangerous place on Earth his young son, generally useless sister(?) and elderly father, who must of course be protected (the father doesn’t last long, spoiler!), along with a whiny French woman they rescue from the Army along the way.

So what we have is the makings of a pure chase-through-harsh-terrain movie, along the lines of Cornell Wilde’s The Naked Prey, Powell & Pressburger’s Ill Met By Moonlight or Rambo: First Blood Part II. For better and worse, this is more in the class of that last one than either of the first two. There’s a lot of guys standing around with really heavy machine guns mowing down bad guys who can’t shoot straight and a lot of poorly motivated plot turns. Only the most obvious is the unanswered question of why this guy brought his family along. Did that bit of exposition get cut out and no one noticed or cared? Is it somewhere in the 11 minutes that were in the Hong Kong version that aren’t in the 82 minute international cut, or did Golden Harvest cut it out even before releasing it locally? IMDB says those 11 minutes have an expository scene between Ko’s character and his “sister-in-law”, so I guess that’s how she’s related and maybe that explains it? Who knows.

Beyond that is a truly bizarre idyll near the end of the chase. Ko has led his motley crew to a hut  located on stilts in a clearing in the jungle, occupied by a spacey American. The American is an old friend of Ko’s (they saved each others’ lives in the War), and lives in this hut, surrounded by explosives, trip wires and bombs of all kinds, with three women in flowery dresses that never seem to speak. Now, I don’t know what’s stranger: that with three armed bands of killers bearing down on them, our heroes decide that a straw hut packed to the rafters with high explosives is an ideal defensive position, or that on the eve of said attack, rather than preparing for their defense, the American and his lady friends partake in some R-Rated drugs and group sex debauchery. I mean, sure, you don’t have to shed tears, but how about a little common sense?

Once a Thief (1991)


If Cherie Chung hadn’t retired after making this movie, and maybe had gone on to star in some Wong Kar-wai movies, would she be better known today? She was one of the key Hong Kong actresses of the 1980s, beginning with Johnnie To and her debut The Enigmatic Case and including classics like Winners and Sinners, The Story of Woo Viet, The Dead and the Deadly, An Autumn’s Tale, The Eighth Happiness and Peking Opera Blues. Patrick Tam even built a whole movie around her and named it after her (Cherie of course, a bizarre romantic comedy in which lust for the star inspires the men around her (the other Tony Leung and longtime Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen) to increasingly dangerous and ill-advised behavior). She retired because she got married (something of a trend at the time, this kind of thing also cost us some prime Michelle Yeoh years), but she’s still only 54 years old. Someone should bring her out of retirement (her husband, sadly, died several years ago).

Anyway, she has almost nothing to do in this screwball heist movie, wherein she’s the love object for both Chow Yun-fat (in full-mug comedy mode) and Leslie Cheung. The three of them, orphans, grew up under the tutelage of an evil thief, Fagin-style, and now they’re using their powers against him, sort of. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Basically they steal European paintings from elaborately designed defense systems (like the one that hangs in the wine cellar of a castle, behind a secret door in a fog-enshrouded room, because that’s where you want to display your favorite and most valuable oil paintings: in a damp basement behind a rock wall) and the father guy is a jerk. Cheung and Chow do all the thieving, leaving Chung at home (where she belongs!) to worry and do the cooking or something. And pass from one lead to the other (there’s an apparent death, followed by an apparent paralysis), Cherie generally lands with the healthiest hero.

The heists are fun, the action is great (a neat car chase, someone inexplicably featuring a variety of evil security guards driving French station wagons), the comedy occasionally funny and the 1991 fashions exceptional, and did I mention that one of the final villains is a magician who shoots fire out of his hands and throws playing cards to deadly effect?, but this premise is one Woo would revisit a few more times, I think because he never really got it right (he directed a Canadian TV movie remake that was later spun into a series that lasted one season in that country after the Fox network didn’t pick it up in the US.) Compare it to Johnnie To’s caper heist/romantic comedy Yesterday Once More, which is faster, funnier, and cleverer with more emotional depth and visual panache.

Some Notes on George Sidney’s Bye Bye Birdie

You can follow 30 years of the evolution of youth culture and its relation to show business just by following musicals from years that end in ‘3’.

1933: Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street
1943: The Gang’s All Here
1953: The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, Give a Girl a Break
1963: Bye Bye Birdie

As the years go on, the youth get younger: early 20s in the 30s and 40s, college in the 50s, high school in the 60s. At the same time, the performance dream gets more remote: the 30s and 40s stars are performers, albeit not particularly successful ones (yet), with the war in 1943 making everyone seem more adult than they are (and the musical itself breaking down that facade, Busby Berkeley’s masterpiece ultimately reducing everyone to colored light and singing heads). In the 50s they’re just starting out, in the 60s the stars seem to occupy another planet (Birdie is an object of worship/jealousy rather than an aspirational figure).

The next decades take that estrangement even further, as not only are the characters in the musicals no longer performers, even aspirationally, with their soundtracks (usually) removed from the filmic space to the non-diegetic ether, but the movies themselves are no longer even set in the present. Rather than engage with the youth culture of today, their directors revisit their own youth (either lived or experienced on-screen).

1973: American Graffitti
1983: The Outsiders
1993: Dazed and Confused
2003: Down with Love
2013: Inside Llewyn Davis

(This is partly a result of the arbitrary year-end choice. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Pump Up the Volume, Clueless and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench would be examples of attempts to document contemporary youth culture within the musical form, albeit still with the music removed from the performances on-screen. See also studio-era films that celebrated the filmmakers’ youths, like Meet Me in St. Louis or The Strawberry Blonde). Still I think the general trend toward nostalgia is worth noting.)

Anyway, Bye Bye Birdie seems to me to be an inflection point, a last gasp of the lower-budget studio musical (big budget musicals were increasingly dominant, before they too would crash, dragging the whole system with them by the end of the decade) before The Beatles arrived the next year and blew everything to hell. As an attempt for studios to grapple with the rock and roll phenomenon it’s a lesser version of Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It, and as a film it could have used more Tashlin-style surrealism. As it is, the director, George Sidney, was always at his best a more conventional Tashlin anyway, a steady hand with adaptations like Show Boat or Kiss Me Kate with a tendency to vulgar excess when let loose with Esther Williams in films like Jupiter’s Darling. His patience and skill in utilizing the full-length of the Cinemascope frame with long, lengthy shots in the big group dance sequences goes to show that if they stick around long enough, even the weirdest directors become classicists.

As for the stars, well, Ann-Margaret. To go back to where I started, take a look at the evolution of the female heroes of those films: Ruby Keeler, Alice Faye and Debbie Reynolds are all of a type: cute, girls next door, pretty but unthreatening. Ann-Margaret though sings a whole song about how awesome it is to be young and hot. The film isn’t about her becoming a star (though it is certainly a star-making performance), but rather about her learning to take control of her own life. As the film begins she’s obsessed with Elvis-clone Conrad Birdie (whose sexual charisma is such that he inspires every woman in town to either faint or have a seizure in the film’s first big group number) and in love with local boy Hugo (gladly submitting to future wife-hood through the pin-placement (pointedly not pin-exchange) ceremony). Through various plot machinations, she learns to take control of her own desires, break Birdie’s spell and reunite with Hugo on her own terms. Though she’s still aspiring to wifeliness, at least its because that’s what she’s decided she wants. Viewed another way, the film can be seen as a tragedy in that this poor girl can’t really imagine any other role for herself: either sexual object or homemaker.

Janet Leigh’s story somewhat parallel’s Ann-Margaret’s, in that ultimately she has to use her sexuality to inspire some jealousy in Dick Van Dyke’s songwriter/scientist. That she does so at a Shriner’s convention, and has to work really hard to get those men to notice her is kind of hilarious. 36 year old Janet Leigh still looks fantastic, and once the men finally see that they become a tidal wave. Leigh seems shocked by what she’s unleashed in them, as though it was mere social mores that kept them from pawing after her, but once pushed so far they could no longer be restrained. Thus are the dangers of rampant female sexuality: better keep it locked down in wifehood!

And then there’s the fact that Dick Van Dyke really wants to be a chemist, and his big career move in conjunction with Ann-Margaret’s father, Paul Lynde(!) is to start selling amphetamines to animals (they dope a turtle) and humans (they dope a ballet conductor). I have no idea what to do with that.

This Week in Rankings

Over the last few weeks, as I’ve been preparing for an upcoming episode (or two) of They Shot Pictures on Vincente Minnelli, I’ve been watching a lot of musicals. I wrote about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Oklahoma!, along with a couple more Tsui Hark movies for Running Out of Karma (which at this point has more about Tsui’s movies than Johnnie To’s but whatever), Seven Swords and The Blade. I also wrote about a couple of excellent 2014 films: Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

In podcast news, we’ve had two episodes of The George Sanders Show since the last update, on Paul WS Anderson’s The Three Musketeers and the Ray Harreyhausen Jason and the Argonauts and a baseball episode on Pride of the Yankees and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Also there’s our super-sized They Shot Pictures episode covering Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli. And I handed out the Endy Awards for 2006.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. You can find short reviews of most of them on my letterboxd page.

You Were Never Lovelier (William A. Seiter) – 22, 1942
The Pride of the Yankees (Sam Wood) – 27, 1942
The Gang’s All Here (Busby Berkeley) – 3, 1943
Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli) – 9, 1943
Thousands Cheer (George Sidney) – 21, 1943

Cover Girl (Charles Vidor) – 18, 1944
The Clock (Vincente Minnelli) – 9, 1945
Ziegfeld Follies (Vincente Minnelli) – 30, 1945
Easter Parade (Charles Walters) – 15, 1948
Take Me Out to the Ballgame (Busby Berkeley) – 30, 1949

Lovely to Look At (Mervyn LeRoy) – 28, 1952
A Star is Born (George Cukor) – 8, 1954
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen) – 16, 1954
Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann) – 48, 1955
Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey) – 15, 1963

The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison) – 18, 1968
The Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg) – 29, 1974
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (John Badham) – 6, 1976
Bugsy Malone (Alan Parker) – 31, 1976
Sorcerer (William Friedkin) – 7, 1977

Caddyshack (Harold Ramis) – 10, 1980
Boy Meets Girl (Leos Carax) – 11, 1984
They Live (John Carpenter) – 4, 1988
The Blade (Tsui Hark) – 6, 1995
Seven Swords (Tsui Hark) – 16, 2005

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller) – 34, 2008
The Three Musketeers (Paul WS Anderson) – 17, 2011
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) – 1, 2014
Journey to the West (Tsai Ming-liang) – 2, 2014
Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas) – 4, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Tsui Hark’s The Blade

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

The Hong Kong New Wave burst onto the scene in the late 1970s with a radical new approach to the genres that had dominated the local cinema scene for the previous decade or so, specifically for our purposes here, the martial arts film. Countering the elaborate costume epics of Shaw Brothers auteurs like Chang Cheh and Chor Yuen were grungy, darkly violent fantasies of swordplay like Patrick Tam’s The Sword and Johnnie To’s The Enigmatic Case (To is not generally lumped in with this first New Wave batch, but I think he meets all the arcane requirements). Tsui Hark’s first feature, The Butterfly Murders brought a modern visual aesthetic to the genres, with lighting and shadows creating depths and obscurations where the Shaw’s studio kept even the bleakest scenes bright and colorful. These films, along with modern day stories like Ann Hui’s Boat People and harrowing tales of angsty teenage violence like Yim Ho’s The Happening, Tam’s Nomad and Tsui’s Dangerous Encounters – First Kind, were critically lauded, and some even managed to find an audience (as well as help launch the movie careers of icons like Andy Lau, Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun-fat), but fairly quickly most of these New Wave directors were absorbed into Hong Kong’s mainstream.

Tsui imported Hollywood technicians to make his effects-driven wuxia spectacular Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and hung around the Cinema City studio making goofy comedies with the wags there (Working Class, Aces Go Places III). He also made a pair of genre-bending masterpieces, Shanghai Blues and Peking Opera Blues. As well he branched into producing, helping revitalize John Woo’s career with A Better Tomorrow and continued his experiments with effects-driven wuxia with Ching Siu-tung and A Chinese Ghost Story and the Swordsman series. Then, with one of the five films he made in 1991, Tsui revived the kung fu film with his epic Once Upon a Time in China, firmly establishing Jet Li as a superstar and launching a renaissance in period fighting films. A renaissance which, with the warp speed of Hong Kong generic cycles, had largely played itself out by the mid-1990s.

Then, in 1994, Wong Kar-wai, like To excluded from official New Wave status on a technicality (he didn’t start in movies until it was too late), finally released Ashes of Time, his reinvention of the wuxia film, after a shoot so long and grueling it spawned not one but two masterpieces during its creation (Chungking Express and eventually that film’s spin-off Fallen Angels) as well as a hilarious parody of the same source material, featuring mostly the same cast (Jeffrey Lau’s The Eagle-Shooting Heroes). Ashes harkens back to the New Wave projects of modernizing the martial arts genre, with a convoluted plot structure (made somewhat clearer in the recent Redux version, the only version currently available, though there is a DVD of the original somewhere, I saw it 15 years ago), narration in Wong’s idiosyncratic fashion and a story that focuses more on Wongian themes of lost love and memory that it does on fighting. The fights themselves (choreographed by Sammo Hung, another director with an argument for being considered New Wave) are modernized as well, shot in a grainy, up-close, constantly moving style, smearing the action into a blur of dust and costume and blood. Ashes of Time, of course, failed to do much business and Wong didn’t return to the genre until this past year’s more traditional but still impressive for sure, The Grandmaster.

So that brings us to 1995 and back to Tsui Hark. The Blade, one of the three movies Tsui directed that year, probably inspired by Ashes of Time, is also a New Wave modernized wuxia. But where Wong infused the traditional swordplay story with lush visuals and swoony spirals of wistful longing, Tsui exposes the dark violent core of the genre, remaking Chang Cheh’s classic The One-Armed Swordsman with the gory glee of his 1980 kung fu cannibal film We’re Going to Eat You and the nihilistic heart of Dangerous Encounters – First Kind. He does for wuxia what Chang’s The One-Armed Swordsman did for the state of the genre at the time of its release in 1967. Chang’s film began an apparently inexhaustible cycle of films about violent men with elaborate honor codes torn between the demand for revenge and the desire for peace. Echoes of Chang’s films can be found throughout the martial arts films of the 70s, the ‘heroic bloodshed’ policiers of the 80s, the kung fu revival of the 90s and the cop-triad films of the 21st century. What he brought to The One-Armed Swordsman was a new kind of violence to the genre, both graphically physical and torturously psychological. In contrast to King Hu’s more stately, abstract wuxia vision, which was revising the traditional form (say Kwan Tak-hing’s Wong Fei-hung kung fu serials of the 1950s) in a different direction at the same time. The differences between the two directors can be seen in a sampling of the titles: Come Drink With Me, A Touch of Zen, Raining in the Mountains vs. Vengeance!, The Blood Brothers, Crippled Avengers. Chang’s heroes lead short, bloody lives, but they die standing up, finding a kind of transcendent heroism in their sacrifices for the sake of their honor codes, while at the same time implying the nullity at the heart of those same codes. The New Wave revisions to this tradition excised the heroism and emphasized the nihilism, the films of a generation raised by refugees in a densely-packed laissez-faire oasis trapped between two violently opposed worlds. Extremely bloody, jarringly (as opposed to gracefully) violent films of deep shadows and jagged cuts, where every character is venal and ugly, our heroes only slightly less so.

To The Blade, Tsai adds a narration in Wong Kar-wai’s style, the voice of the master’s daughter. A sociopath in both films, manipulating two of her father’s pupils into a competition for her affection; in Chang’s film it is she, in a burst of anger, who slices off the hero’s arm. In this remake, though she’s no less unpleasant, she’s as much a victim as anyone, and a fitting narrator for our film, a tale told by a lunatic. The arm is lost defending her from bandits, positioning even the crazy daughter as one of the good guys in this world. These bandits menace the town, trapping and decapitating a monk and inspiring fear and loathing wherever they go. We’re introduced to them at the start of the film, as they entertain themselves by capturing a dog in a bear trap, shades of the opening to another nihilist classic, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. The hero, Ding-On, and his friend, Iron Head, work in a foundry, making swords. Iron Head attempts to organize a resistance to the bandits while Ding-On doesn’t want to get involved. Ding-On leaves, the daughter chases after him, bandits attack, he loses his arm.

As in Chang’s film, Ding-On is rescued by a farm girl (covered in dirt and illiterate, barely verbal even) and nursed back to health. They in turn are menaced by the bandits, and eventually he learns some one-armed kung fu. Meanwhile, Iron head and the daughter search for Ding-On, and Iron Head becomes obsessed with a local prostitute. In the bleakest inversion of every inn scene from every Shaw Brothers movie, where see the loud and lascivious revelers slap her around and have their way with her, as Iron Head watches, seething from the balcony above. Finally he acts and rescues the girl in an orgy of destruction. But, because everyone in this world is the worst, he finds he has to tie her up to keep her from going back to her old life. It wasn’t a romantic heroism that drove him to save her, but the lustful drive to possess. As she watches Iron Head’s degeneration, herself tied up as well, the last shreds of the daughter’s sanity surely shatter.

The various factions come together, as they always do, in the finale. Ding-On realizes that the bandit chief is the same magically-tattooed assassin who murdered his father, and revenge is exacted; a whirl of spins and leaps, everyone wearing black, everyone getting sliced open. The villains are defeated, but there’s no chance everyone lives happily ever after. The world is too far gone for that. The best they can hope for is a little while to rest a bit before the horrors begin anew.

Not surprisingly, the film failed to find an audience at the box office, as the many of the bleaker New Wave efforts failed 15 years earlier. (Blame for this is often laid at the feet of the cast, with no names and a lead, Vincent Zhao, who is not the iconic star Jimmy Wang Yu was in the original. I think the cast is just fine, though. It’s hard to be charming under a pile of muck.) Shortly thereafter, the exodus of talent from Hong Kong to Hollywood accelerated: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Sammo Hung, John Woo, Corey Yuen, and in 1997, Tsui himself. The martial arts film was seemingly played out, with Johnnie To and Milkyway Image’s triad sagas, along with fellow travelers like the Young & Dangerous and Infernal Affairs series, capturing the Hong Kong action audience. The opening of the Chinese market led to some spectacular wuxia arthouse films, stately productions like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Yimou’s trilogy of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, John Woo’s epic Red Cliff and Tsui’s own Detective Dee films and a variety of films about Ip Man (five in the last three years, I believe, including Wong Kar-wai’s), while new effects technology has lent a glossy sheen to even the lowest budget productions. But as far as I’ve seen, no one has yet taken up the black mantle of the New Wave wuxia film.

On Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West

When I was young, in the first half of the 1980s, my punishment for whatever childhood infractions I committed was being made to stand facing a wall for some indeterminate amount of time (probably ten minutes, but which felt like and hour or two to an eight-year old). I committed a lot of infractions, so I became quite used to this, in fact I learned to enjoy it. I’d stare at the wood-paneling (1980s), count the small nail holes, follow the flow and swirl of the knots and the minute contours of the wood. Forced to stare at the same thing for a long time, I learned that if you look at it long enough, anything can become interesting, I learned that boredom is something that can be overcome.

Little did I know this experience was training me to watch Tsai Ming-liang films. This hour-long short (available free this week only here), a continuation of his shorter 2012 film Walker, observes Lee Kang-sheng as he walks, dressed as a monk in flowing red robes, through a city. This time it’s Marseille, and there appears to somewhat of a plot, hinted at in the title and clarified in an accompanying note from Tsai:

“His walking, so special and so slow, in all the four corners of the world recalls that of Xuanzang, the holy monk of the Tang dynasty, who traveled thousands of kilometers seeking the holy scriptures. In the classical Chinese novel “The Journey to the West”, Xuanzang frees the Monkey king from his prison at the foot of a mountain. In Marseilles, there is a rock that resembles the face of a monkey: in the bay of monkeys. Fashioned by the effects of time, Denis Lavant’s face is like these rocky shapes and I am irresistibly attracted to it. That was how I started to think of Lee Kang-sheng walking on his face…”

The film opens with its longest shot, an extreme closeup of Denis Levant’s face, lying on a diagonal, half in shadow. As Tsai forces us to stare at it at seemingly interminable length, the face becomes something else, an alien landscape of valleys and mountains and rivers and crevasses; every pore, every grey a story, every fold of Levant’s now 50+ year old face containing multitudes. We’ll revisit this face at the seaside, I assume at the Bay of Monkeys Tsai refers to, making literal the transformation from face to landscape.

Most of the film though chronicles the monk’s journey through the city. These shots come with a fun, Where’s Waldo-esque challenge as you try to pick him out in the crowd (hint: he’s the thing that’s not moving). But they also seem to be allegories for Xuanzang’s journey. A pungent red wall becomes perhaps the scene of a mighty battle the monk witnesses, a long staircase a descent into the underworld. The monk begins to appear in reflections, the mirror in a man’s apartment, a glossy wall overlooking a plaza packed with travelers and people at play (a crowd gathers around a man playing the piano, another man sets adrift giant bubbles). Are the mirrors indicative of his journey to “the other side”? In one of the film’s final shots, the monk is being followed by what looks to me like Denis Levant, also walking very slowly past a sidewalk cafe, following a patch of sunlight. The Monkey King, freed at last, being led back to the East?

Tsai leaves us with this postscript, from the Diamond Sutra:

All composed things are like a dream,
A phantom, a drop of dew, or a flash of lightning,
That is how to meditate on them,
That is how to observe them.

On Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel

The Andersonian hero makes his own world. Not exactly a fantasist, he (and it’s almost always a he) is a man out of time. An aspiring thief (Bottle Rocket), a master thief (Fantastic Mr. Fox), wildly impractical teenagers (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom), a discoverer of hidden worlds (Life Aquatic), families of prodigies (Royal Tenenbaums, Darjeeling Limited). Their opponents are the depressing realities of everyday life, the warn-down depressions of middle-age (Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore), the accumulated disappointments of unrealized dreams (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited, Royal Tenenbaums), or simply friends and family who lack their creative ambition and would rather settle down for a quiet life (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bottle Rocket, Life Aquatic).
Ralph Fiennes’s M. Gustave is The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s explicitly designated man out of time. A lone patch of civilization in the barbarous world of a fictionalized inter-war Central Europe. Dandyish and perfumed, prissy and effete, he swears like a drunken Marine and is very committed to his duties as concierge, going so far to please his guests as to sleep with all the rich, elderly ladies who come to stay at the palatial hotel (for he is their holding action against the inevitable declines of age). Against him stands not merely a personification of the real world or a more practical counterpart, but rather the systemic decline of civilization itself, murderous greed and the rise of fascism. Set against not merely the greedy inheritors of one of Gustave’s lover’s fortunes, but the increasingly menacing martial forces of a Nazi-like state, Grand Budapest Hotel is, I think, the first Anderson film to acknowledge an outside political reality whatsoever (rather than simply politics as family and personal relationships). That it deals with a phony version of an 80+ year old movement should come as no surprise.
You can divide Anderson’s heroes into the young and the middle aged. The kids seem like they’d be out of place at any time, their interests are not contemporary (playwriting, saving Latin, Benjamin Britten, Jacques Cousteau and young adult novels that don’t revolve around vampires), their diction unusually formal (a device that afflicts all Anderson characters, but is especially jarring coming from the young), a convoluted mix of ten cent words, out-dated slang and contemporary bluntness. The middle-aged look back on their youth as a lost golden age as they find themselves set adrift from the family and friends that supported their dreams in their youth (it’s not hard to see Max Fischer in Royal Tenenbaum, Sam Shakusky in Steve Zissou). The young seem old and the old seem young. These heroes are occasionally arranged in (surrogate) father-son relationships: Rushmore, Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom. Such is the case in Grand Budapest with Gustave serving as mentor-hero to war orphan Lobby Boy Zero (and further relationships which cascade down the decades to the present day).
Not exactly nostalgia, but a longing for and a burning desire to resurrect the past is the guiding spirit of Anderson’s mise-en-scene. Dollhouse diorama worlds of right angles, 90 degree pans, stop-motion animation, obsessions with books and the readers of books. It’s a dynamically two-dimensional cinema, colorful and bright and flat, so resolutely idiosyncratic that it’s damn near impossible to find a review of one of his films that doesn’t utilize the world “stylized”. His cinematic references tend to be more spiritual than specific lines or images, the Lubitsch of the 1930s infects every scene of Grand Budapest Hotel without citation, as the essence of Night of the Hunter snuck its way into Moonrise Kingdom. The artificiality of his world is compounded by an ever-expanding repertory of character actors, recognizable faces in outlandish make-up and costumes populate the edges of his stories, while the central roles are as often played by unknowns as knowns. These are ultra-modern approaches to an ancient filmmaking form: the repertory of actors recalling the studio era heyday when each new film promised a Guy Kibbe or Lee Tracy or Frank Morgan or any number of other character actors grown familiar and lovable through repetition. The visual style moves even further back, to the flat staging of the silent era, and of course even beyond that to theatre and literature. But rather than Guy Maddin-style attempts at recreating the earlier, imperfections and all, Anderson updates the old forms with the latest technology, breathing new life into abandoned forms.
Idealistic and innocent, but certainly not naïve, M. Gustave is more like Anderson’s young heroes than his burned-out contemporaries (Mr. Fox as well is a grown-up idealist). But as a remnant of an earlier age, he shares with the older heroes a nostalgic worldview, a looking-back at a lost golden age, though the mechanics of that looking is more convoluted than ever, with a nesting doll flashback structure (each era with its own aspect ratio) that recalls Passage to Marseille, among other things. Gustave is already out of place in 1932, yet we see him thrice more removed: in a story the aged Zero recalls in 1968, recounted by the Author in 1985, read by a young girl in 2014. In 1932 we see the end of M. Gustave’s era, the death of one of his lovers, the war that takes over his hotel and then his world. In 1968, the hotel is falling apart, kept barely alive as a crumbling shadow of itself by Zero (though pointedly not as a link to Gustave, but to his wife, to the time he was happiest:, for 1968 Zero is himself a man out of time). In 1968 the triumph of barbarism is assured and by 1985 it’s victory is almost total: even the children brandish weapons as a young boy interrupts the Author’s address to the camera with a (toy) gunshot (he apologizes shortly thereafter, a slender thread of civility). In the present, even the author is gone, like Zero, like Gustave, he can only be found in a snowy cemetery, civilization kept alive in his book. The girl is alone, but the grave is not abandoned. Keys hang from his tombstone as at a concierge’s desk, left by admirers, despite the degradations of history, there are still some who believe in M. Gustave’s lost world.

On Oklahoma!

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are generally credited with ushering in a Golden Age of musical theatre, this 1943 play marking the first truly integrated show, with music, lyrics and story seamlessly interwoven. Of course it wasn’t the first (Show Boat did much the same thing 15 years earlier, to say nothing of the operettas from the 19th century onward that did as well, but whatever), but it was a huge hit, inspiring many imitators, some of which are actually good. Similarly, the 1955 film adaptation was followed by a new form of musical film: more or less direct translations of stage musicals, often excruciatingly long, presented as roadshow extravaganzas (more expensive tickets, super widescreen formats, elaborate sets and locations). These films, increasingly bloated and dull, eventually killed the musical as a viable American film genre and played no small role in bankrupting the studio system that had been in place in Hollywood since the 1920s.

The film is incompetently directed by Fred Zinnemann, because if you’re going to make a film of the most successful musical of all-time, why hire someone who knows anything about directing a musical? No Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen or even George Sidney for these producers, not even the director of the original stage version, Rouben Mamoulien. Nope, instead they hired the guy who did High Noon and From Here to Eternity, a Less Than Meets the Eye Oscar-generating machine who had never directed a musical before and never would again. Zinnemann shoots the film as if he’s entirely uninterested in the dance sequences, the choreography of which, by Agnes DeMille, is reportedly as influential as the play’s form. But I can’t tell because half the time, when Zinnemann hasn’t framed the shot so the dancers are piled on top of each other is indistinguishable clumps, you can’t even see the dancers’ legs (at least in the Cinemascope version, maybe the Todd-AO version is framed better (the film was shot in two different formats simultaneously, with different takes for each version. Todd-AO was a 70 mm widescreen format developed by the film’s producer, Mike Todd)). Instead of using long shots with the head-to-toe framing that Fred Astaire famously insisted upon, framing that emphasizes the formal beauty of dancers in motion (the fundamental pleasure of the art form: what’s the point of dancing, after all, if you can’t see the body move?), Zinnemann repeatedly moves his camera in on the actors, framing them from the waist up or in 3/4 shots, apparently to heighten the dramatic emotions of the scenario, the way you would film a straight melodrama or comedy (think of Howard Hawks and standard Classical Hollywood film style). Of course, most of the people dancing were chosen for their dancing skills, not their dramatic abilities (especially the background dancers, who often find themselves cut out, not just at the knees of waist, but out of the sides of the frame as Zinnemann is too close to shoot all the choreography).

The film and play’s centerpiece sequence is a long dream ballet sequence that closes the first act. I am positive that this would have been amazing on stage in 1943, and the set design in the film is pretty cool, with blazing orange skies and floating frames of buildings (a church, a stairway to nowhere, the outline of a doorway). But by 1955, filmmakers, certainly inspired by the stage Oklahoma!, had been engaged in a decade-long battle of one-upmanship, from the ballet in The Red Shoes to the finale of An American in Paris to the “Broadway Melody” sequence in Singin’ in the Rain and beyond, they had been pushing the expressive limits of ballet in cinema. Compared to the Barn Dance sequence in 1954’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (which, like Oklahoma! features a scene of a group of girls dancing in their underwear, except in that film you can see their feet), with Stanley Donen’s expert shooting of Michael Kidd’s ridiculously athletic choreography, nonetheless grounded in popular 19th century dance forms, or even some of the stranger bits of Bob Fosse’s choreography in 1953 films like Kiss Me Kate or The Affairs of Dobie Gillis or his dream sequence dance in Donen’s Give a Girl a Break (I think it was a dream, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it), or 1955’s My Sister Eileen, the ballet here, as a girl inhales a mysterious Eastern narcotic and imagines herself and her lover replaced by ballet dancing doppelgangers, is dull, cramped, and unimaginative.

Not only that, but the story itself is kind of appalling. Set around the turn of the century (just before Oklahoma achieved statehood, not long after the Oklahoma Territory had been carved out of Indian Territory, not that we’ll see or reference any Cherokee here), the plot centers on the parallel love stories of two cowboys. The first, played by Gordon MacRae (think Howard Keel without the charm or self-consciously boisterous pomposity), is in love with Shirley Jones (cute, spunky), who is in love with him, but because of plot they don’t just say it and get on with their lives. Instead, Jones agrees to go to the evening’s box social with Rod Steiger, who of course is a psychotic weirdo. Steiger works as Jones’s “hired help” and is marked in multiple ways as an outsider in the community (one lyric mentions that he has darker skin, if I heard correctly, either a racial reference or an acknowledgement of the fact that because he works all day, his skin is tanned by the sun, in contrasting to the pure white blondness of Jones), a transient laborer, he’s the object of all kinds of xenophobic and racist conjecture. (Of course, if he’s so horrifying, which everyone seems to agree on, why would Jones ever conceive of going to the dance with him? Ugh.) Repeatedly mocked and insulted (MacRae even goes into his home, apparently threatens to lynch him (playing with a rope Steiger has lying about), and then the two sing a duet about Steiger killing himself (Steiger’s singing is a highlight)), Steiger then indeed turns murderous, confirming everyone’s suspicions of the menace he represents. He’s ultimately vanquished, accidentally of course, absolving MacRae of any guilt, confirmed in a quick trial in which the local federal marshal is threatened and blackmailed into perverting the proper legal process, because why not.

The other story serves as a comical counterweight to the more dramatic central plot. Gloria Grahame plays a girl beloved by cowboy Gene Nelson, just home from Kansas City where he has earned enough money to marry her, per the standard set by her father, James Whitmore. Grahame is also hanging around with Eddie Albert, the local promiscuous Persian peddler (pronounced “Purr-is-ian” in the film’s unrelenting Okie idiom), Ali Hakeem. It seems Grahame has a problem with sluttiness, and her singing of this to Jones (“I Can’t Say No”) is easily the best part of the film. Grahame sings in a thin, high-pitched voice and fills out the number with some hilarious eye and facial expressions, not even Fred Zinnemann could dampen her incandescent lunacy. Almost as great are a pair of girls who float around the margins of the film, showing up in most every dance sequence to add a little ballet and interact, usually wordlessly, with the main characters. When they popped up out of nowhere during a duet between Grahame and Nelson in the middle of the film, I decided they were spectral apparitions, haunting this small town like the twins of the Overlook Hotel.

The succes of Oklahoma! the movie was followed by increasingly long and expensive musicals, as Hollywood kept chasing the next high, but for every My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music there were a half dozen Doctor Doolittle‘s and the whole thing eventually collapsed. While there were still occasional great musical movies being made in this era (I really like My Fair Lady, for example), after Fosse’s Cabaret in 1972, there have been almost zero successful, popular musical films made in Hollywood. The form survives on the margins (Pennies from Heaven, Sita Sings the Blues, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench among other indie films, or experiments like Coppola’s One From the Heart) and in Disney cartoons (and even that only barely, having been supplanted by the non-musical Pixar model). And, of course, there was the execrable film version of Fosse’s Chicago, which somehow won a Best Picture Oscar when it is, in fact, among the Worst Pictures. I know that for me at least, as a kid, constant exposure to the films of Rodgers and Hammerstein positioned me as decidedly anti- the musical as a genre of film I was at all interested in. It wasn’t until my late teens and early twenties when I tentatively moved from Singin’ in the Rain to other films starring Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire that I began to realize that here was a film form as vital, as dynamic, as cinematic as has ever existed. It’s just that Rodgers and Hammerstein killed it.