'God’s Little Acre'

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When he wasn’t genre hopping from Film Noir to Westerns to epic spectacles and war films, the perpetually underrated Anthony Mann was mixing conventions and mingling styles amongst more indefinable works. These were films like Reign of Terror (1949), The Tall Target (1951), Serenade (1956), and, perhaps his most eccentric picture, God’s Little Acre (1958). Over the course of about two hours, this idiosyncratic slice of quirky, sultry southern life is a fusion of homespun philosophizing, social commentary, sexual pervasiveness, inflated melodrama, and ventures into the downright bizarre.

Based on the novel by Erskine Caldwell, who also penned the source of John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941), God’s Little Acre was officially adapted by Philip Yordan, screenwriter of the similarly unorthodox Johnny Guitar (1954) as well as, later, El Cid (1961), which Mann would also direct. The true writing of the film, however, is somewhat more ambiguous, as Yordan was frequently a front for the left-wing Ben Maddow, a target of blacklist-era suspicion. This sort of indistinct gestation of God’s Little Acre suits the film well, as it too is a schizophrenic blend of diverse narratives, performances, and forms.

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A boisterously animated Robert Ryan, acting here quite unlike he ever has, is Ty Ty Walden, a Georgia farmer bent on finding the gold his grandfather supposedly buried on their farm. He’s aided by two of his sons, Shaw (Vic Morrow) and Buck (Jack Lord, later to star in the popular television show Hawaii Five-O). The latter is married to the stunning Griselda (Tina Louise, later to star on Gilligan’s Island). Animosity between husband and wife is quickly established, and much of it derives from a past relationship she had with Will Thompson (Aldo Ray), who is now married to one of Ty Ty’s daughters, Rosamund (Helen Westcott). It also doesn’t help that the exaggeratedly attractive Griselda causes nearly every male in the film to ogle incessantly; this includes, rather awkwardly, Ty Ty and Shaw. This much of the family is first seen in Ty Ty’s field, which is peppered with mounds of dirt shoveled aside to yield one gaping hole in the ground after another. They’ve been at this for quite some time.

Living nearby, but brought in to be a part of the gold quest, is another daughter, the kooky Darlin’ Jill (Fay Spain). She is the object of Pluto Swint’s lusty affection. Swint is a most unlikely sheriff candidate (who nevertheless does get elected) played by the bumbling Buddy Hackett. It is Swint who suggests that Ty Ty enlist the services of an albino to help him find the hidden treasure. Quite straight-faced, Swint asserts that albinos possess secret powers: “They can see right through the ground.” Ty Ty, who had previously decried superstition (he repeatedly touts a “scientific” approach), is nonetheless quickly convinced. The audience is, for better or worse, denied the albino wrangling, but we soon see that sure enough, this crew has attained this apparently exotic creature. Not that they care (an albino could be from another planet the way they act), he is named Dave Dawson (another TV connection: Michael Landon, future star of Little House on the Prairie). While initially rather reasonable, God’s Little Acre takes a turn to the surreal with this peculiar plot component that doesn’t really get anyone (or the film) anywhere, though Darlin’ Jill, for all the wrong reasons — primarily, and probably solely, his unusual pigmentation — is instantly smitten by Dave. It is, however, darkly ironic to see the farmhand Uncle Felix (Rex Ingram), an African American, standing over Dave with a shotgun ordering him around. And it must also be admitted that the matter-of-factness that follows regarding Ty Ty’s use of Dave is, at times, quite funny: “What would I be doing with an albino if not to get gold?” he asks, as if it should be obvious.

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A side drama, which compared to the gold digging and albino retaining emerges as the more practical narrative, revolves around Peach Tree Valley, home to Will and Rosamund. In this distressed company town, where the chief source of employment and income was the now six months inactive cotton mill, Will persistently drinks (and apparently abuses his wife), as he and the other out-of-work men wait mournfully for the mill to get up and running again. Mann shows his noir roots in these sequences; always shot at night, the lighting of the streets evocatively illuminates the mass of men huddled in the shadows. Will’s combustible nature also gives the sense of danger and dread that ran through so many of Mann’s earliest features. While this semi-urban milieu stands in contrast to the comparatively Western setting of the farm, it’s more than just visual differences that affect the characters. The town vs. farm conflict, coupled with the Will/Griselda past, emerges as a frequent, if underexplored, cause of strife between the brothers and Will. He disparages their toiling away on the farm, while they see him as being uppity in his highfaluting “townie” attitude. This sentiment is also echoed later by the emergence of yet another son, the cotton broker Jim Leslie (Lance Fuller). He lives in the even more sophisticated Augusta, in a nice house full of what Ty Ty condemns as “breakables”. Now widowed, he has made a clear break from his less refined, though more genuine, family, and not without some ill will.

As God’s Little Acre progresses, these various narrative elements collide and merge as the film’s main themes become apparent. Among them is a constant suggestion of naïve stubbornness working for and against the characters. On the one hand, this refusal to deviate from the norm acts as a motivating factor in their lives: if they did change their ways, would they know what to do? Especially for Ty Ty, tenacious routine seems to keep his life worth living. On the other hand, blindly clinging to one’s past — past relationships, past jobs, past rumors — hinders emotional evolution and existential mobility.

With Mann’s notable use of setting in his Westerns and Films Noir, it is no surprise that he skillfully utilizes what this region has to offer, in terms of substantive natural elements, to enhance personalities and action. Aided immensely by the renowned cinematographer Ernest Haller, the photography gives a tangible sense of stifling southern heat. With a majority of the scenes playing out in daytime exteriors, the sun beats down on the performers as they’re constantly wiping their sweaty brow, dirt caked to their glistening faces, and the related violent and sexual pressure enhanced by these conditions grows increasingly hazardous.

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God’s Little Acre also contains a notable attention to detail, in setting and dialogue. In the case of the former, minutia like flypaper hanging from ceilings gives the entire film a localized authenticity. Concerning the latter, down-home moralizing (a “street of sin and shame” outside a saloon) and humble musings (“God never made a finer raincoat than a man’s skin”) contribute to a richness in character development. Other comedic comments, especially from the unpretentious Ty Ty, help to leaven some of the tension in certain parts of the film (his comment about one of Jim Leslie’s paintings being more beautiful than the newly erected Coca-Cola signs comes to mind).

And finally, one can’t really discuss this film without noting its overt sexuality. Made at a time when Hollywood was pushing the boundaries of such explicitness (this was two years after Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, probably God’s Little Acre’s closest kin), the at times comically obvious sexual suggestiveness seems unavoidable, particularly when Tina Louise enters the frame. One scene, for example, borders on self-conscious parody as she, wearing only a slip, cools down by dowsing herself in well water and then intimately encounters Ray, shirt off, smoking and sweating profusely. These moments are never tawdry—it’s all in good fun—and indeed some of the implied sexual banter is quite amusing: “Is that watermelon cool and ripe and ready to eat?” asks Ty Ty when Griselda exits the house bearing the voluminous fruit.

A most unusual film by a tremendously talented filmmaker, God’s Little Acre is an underseen gem of cinematic distinction. Captivating performances (if not fully convincing), exceptional cinematography, and a curiously unpredictable story keeps the whole thing uniquely fascinating in spite of its occasional, inconsequential faults.

God’s Little Acre was released on Blu-ray and re-released on DVD by Olive Films

This REVIEW  was previously published in FILM INTERNATIONAL

'Autumn Sonata'

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“A mother and a daughter. What a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction.” So says Eva (Liv Ullmann) toward the end of Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978). More than any other line of dialogue, in what is a remarkably written film, this gets to the crux of the picture’s thematic concerns. Here the mother/daughter composite of parent Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) and child Eva unleashes an onslaught of conflicting and combative memories, emotions, and personal grudges, all brewing beneath the surface and suddenly liberated during the course of the narrative, in which the harsh realities of a familial relationship in tatters emerge.

Bergman begins the film with a modest depiction of stable domesticity. Eva writes at her desk while her husband Viktor (Halvar Björk), a minister, directly addresses the camera and brings the audience up to speed on his wife’s back-story. Crucially, he twice repeats that Eva has stated, “I feel at home here.” This idea of being comfortable at home and with the simplistic demands that their relatively sedentary life requires is but one point of contrast as Autumn Sonata progresses. Compare this with Charlotte’s comment at the end of the film: “I’m always homesick. But when I get home, I find it’s something else I’m longing for.” In their parsonage, Eva and Viktor are content if not tremendously exciting. The house’s interior suggests a humble situation, as does Ullmann’s unadorned appearance; she has never quite looked so demure and vulnerable. When into this enters Charlotte, very much a worldly and by comparison demanding individual (even her breakfast order is high maintenance), the inevitable conflict begins.

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It has been seven years since mother and daughter last saw each other, and their reunion quickly gets off to a rocky start. Charlotte almost immediately relates in detail the recent death of her lover, Leonardo, and, blind to Eva’s obvious joy at having her mother there, rambles incessantly about herself. “Do you think I’ve changed much?” asks Charlotte. “You’re just the same,” replies Eva, who has remained silently off-screen. At first, it seems Charlotte recognizes her self-centered verbal bluster, but she then proceeds to further discuss her graying hair, her new clothes, her back pain, and so on. Then, less than 15 minutes in, the insults start and it’s clear that this visit is not destined to be a pleasant one. To make matters worse, Eva reveals that her handicapped sister, Helena (Lena Nyman), is staying at the house. Not one to revel in difficulties that aren’t of her own creation, Charlotte is displeased by this reminder of her other daughter’s affliction, something she has long since tried to forget. Ranking as one of Bergman’s finest chamber dramas, Autumn Sonata takes this initially hospitable household and steadily develops it into a confining pressure cooker building on the volatile Eva/Charlotte dichotomy.

With Charlotte being a successful concert pianist, music is understandably presented as a key connection between the two women, and as a major point of dissention. Ever in her mother’s musical shadow, Eva feels artistically inadequate. She plays the organ at church; her mother entertains thousands. When Eva tries to impress by playing a Chopin prelude, she asks her mother, “Did you like it?” “I like you,” is the cold, condescending response. Of course, Charlotte then proceeds to play it better. Bergman here includes his now-famous composition of one face seen frontally and one in profile, signifying the private dividing resonance of this implicit altercation.

Following dinner, which with decoratively folded napkins, candles, and flowers, is meant to rouse the sophisticated Charlotte, more friction arises. When Viktor finally speaks substantially (he has so far sat bemused and mostly quiet), he primarily attempts to psychoanalyze his wife to Charlotte. Later, when getting ready for bed, Charlotte and Eva continue their passive-aggressive combativeness. Prone to theatrical dramatics (alone she soliloquizes constantly), Charlotte’s vitality engulfs the pacific Eva. Most of their conversions alternate between accusations and insults and apologies and compliments, a bipolar back-and-forth of discomforting relations.

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After what for the film’s first half have been really just previews of pent-up resentment, the severity of such antagonism dramatically comes forth in a prolonged sequence confining Eva and Charlotte to a single room in the middle of the night. Awakened by a nightmare, Charlotte is met by a worried Eva. But it doesn’t take long before this concern shifts to a full-fledged verbal assault. For about five hours, the two undergo a relentless and exhausting exchange of hurtful honesty and brutal revelation. Contending that she never felt smart enough, pretty enough, or talented enough, Eva strikes the first blow against her mother’s parenting skills, or lack thereof. Finished at one point, she demands, “Defend yourself.” Charlotte, in turn, responds with her case for herself and against her daughter, but while we understand where she’s coming from, sympathizing, certainly by comparison, is more difficult.

Threads of maternal concern run throughout Autumn Sonata. Obviously, there are the current issues between Eva and Charlotte, but it’s revealed that more lies dormant, stemming back years prior. With Eva, who was frequently dismissed as a girl by her preoccupied mother, her troubles first came about at the age of 18, when she became pregnant and, if not forced to, was at least not discouraged by Charlotte to get an abortion. A second chance at motherhood was also cut short when Eva’s son drowned at the age of three. Subsequently, with barely any time spent being a mother herself, Eva has retained a strong attachment to her own childhood. This ranges from her aforementioned reticence to her later donning girlish pigtails. However, a sense of her motherly love potential does appear in the compassion shown toward her stricken younger sister. Charlotte too recalls a childhood void of physical attention and consideration, and such similar absence of maternal support leaves Eva to wonder if it isn’t somehow handed down; she even goes so far as to suggest that perhaps there is a hereditary tendency for a mother to feel triumph at the cost of her daughter’s misfortune.

During this volley of personal jabs and accusations, Bergman inserts brief flashbacks illustrating some of the events mentioned in the distressing discussion. Though providing a visual reprieve from the spatial constriction of the room, the cutaways aren’t necessarily required; with two such stunning and gifted actresses as his focus, Bergman could have easily just maintained tight close-ups throughout. Like Persona (1966), Autumn Sonata, itself essentially a two-person drama, boasts an impressive visual intimacy, particularly in this latter sequence. Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman are immensely expressive as their red eyes and weary, tear-stained faces reveal an excruciating catharsis of emotional release (Ullmann calls to mind her painfully emotive performance in Bergman’s Scene from a Marriage five years earlier).

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In the aftermath of this nocturnal divulgence of individual torment, Charlotte having now departed, Eva writes her mother a letter. In it, she nevertheless conveys optimism toward their relationship. It’s not clear if Charlotte wholeheartedly concurs, but perhaps some resignation has indeed been achieved. The only question now is of its permanence. Given the abrupt immediacy of their recent purging, it is entirely possible that this hopefulness is temporary and only based on the relative fresh sense of sincerity.

Self-exiled in Norway (due to a convoluted tax evasion charge in Sweden), Ingmar Bergman assembled just a handful of regular collaborators for Autumn Sonata. Ullmann was there, spectacular as always, and Gunnar Björnstrand and Erland Josephson also make appearances. Behind the camera, cinematography by Bergman mainstay Sven Nykvist helps to visually distinguish the film. Starting with the screen behind the opening credits, the picture is color-coded (via lighting as well as set design and clothing) to reflect the titular season and the austerity of the film’s subject matter. Bergman enveloping the imagery in shades of deep oranges and reds and somber greens is reminiscent of his use of dominant reds in Cries and Whispers (1972) and points toward the colorful shift from welcoming warmth to barren danger in Fanny and Alexander (1982).

Finally, the much-heralded casting of Ingrid Bergman is, and was, noteworthy. Magnificently acting in her native language for the first time in more than a decade, this would tragically be the star’s final feature film. A recently diagnosed cancer would take her life just four years later.

Autumn Sonata was released on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection.

This REVIEW  was previously published in FILM INTERNATIONAL

'Rififi'

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The blacklist that shrouded the Hollywood community in suspicion, paranoia, and tragedy during the 1940s and ’50s, a steadily spreading outgrowth of the tactics formulated and executed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), would leave its tarnishing mark on many in the film industry: screenwriters, actors, producers, directors. Seemingly all branches of the motion picture industry were affected by the political upheaval of the time. Some individuals were admittedly marginal in the annals of film history; some were prominent figures with distinguished careers; all were working men and women who, in many cases, found themselves blindsided by the sudden furor.

This back-drop against which one typically places the life and career of Jules Dassin is crucial to his biography and a clear understanding of his working processes, but it can also be a distraction. There is no denying the impact — Dassin was named by colleagues as a former Communist (which he briefly was in the late 1930s); he was subsequently subpoenaed by HUAC in 1952, was blacklisted after refusing to testify, and then chose to leave the United States for France the following year. That, of course, is going to affect anyone, especially a director like Dassin who, with several titles to his credit, including the classics Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), Thieves Highway (1949), and Night and the City (1950), was developing a cinematic proficiency of considerable distinction. Still, as with Elia Kazan, his own controversial role in the HUAC investigations, and his succeeding masterpiece, On the Waterfront (1954), one’s take on Dassin’s work, especially his post-HUAC output, is always prefaced with, or complicated by, how/why/if his films reflected or were a direct result of his personal struggles (just like this piece has been so far). His places of production changed, granted, and his general manner of filmmaking in Europe was obviously going to be different than that in Hollywood, but a filmmaker’s talent is there no matter what. What’s on the screen is what truly represents a film’s significance and quality. That’s why, after one attempts to sweep away this subterfuge of baggage and focus on the movie itself, it becomes easier to see Dassin’s Rififi (1955), his first film made as an expatriate, as the exceptional film that it is, regardless of troubled biographical back-story. Where, when, how, and why Rififi was made is important to history, no question, but its taut, supremely well-paced narrative, technical brilliance, and extraordinary photography raises the film and Dassin himself above the clamor.

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Despite not speaking the language, despite the aforementioned drama still fresh, and despite prior trouble getting film work (Dassin called the period between the blacklist and Rififi “the void”), Rififi nevertheless ended up being a remarkable achievement, part heist/crime film, part noir. These were genres well tread by Dassin before. The immediately preceding four features noted above were marked by their attention to gritty detail, their use of actual location, their atmospheric lighting and set design, and their focus on the criminal underworld — “I think I am a crook at heart,” said Dassin, also acknowledging that he liked “authority to be conquered.” There was also already a rich tradition of such films in France, taking into account everything from Louis Feuillade’s silent serials to Marcel Carné’s atmospheric dramas of the 1930s, to Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or (1952) and Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954) released just before Rififi. Here though, one gets the best of both worlds: an American filmmaker in Paris making the type of film he does best, for a country and an audience that truly appreciated the form.

When our “hero” Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais) is first introduced (only after lingering close-ups of playing cards, cigarettes, and ashtrays, shot in a kind of blatant and tangible detail that reoccurs throughout the film) it’s as a worn, weary, sickly, and somewhat debased ex-con gambler. He has been playing cards all night and he’s out of money. So, he calls Jo (Carl Möhner), a friend and former criminal associate. Jo has a deep respect and love for Tony (Jo’s son is named Tonio), plus he owes him; Tony did time only after not “squawking,” thus leaving Jo to go free. Jo spots Tony the money. He’s the back up (“somebody’s gotta be”), in a procedure that is apparently quite common. This has happened before, but Jo remains faithful.

The two move on to meet a new acquaintance, Mario (Robert Manuel), a more flamboyant character who divulges his latest scheme, a caper involving the heist of some jewels from Mappin & Webb. It’s a proposal with much to gain and much to risk. Tony is reluctant. He is, after all, a beaten down shell of his former self, with a persistent cough only adding to the uncertainty of his abilities and physical state. Being in the noir lineage, once the key female character enters the picture — not quite a femme fatale, Mado (Marie Sabouret) is Tony’s former lover who now sees the corrupt gangster and nightclub owner Louis Grutter (Pierre Grasset) — Tony’s hesitance is swayed. Sympathies are unquestionably with Tony from the very beginning of Rififi (“Rififi” meaning “rough n’ tumble,” according to a nightclub musical number). But when he brings Mado back to his apartment and proceeds to make her strip, to whip her with his belt, and to then kick her out, we are left wondering about this man’s morality. Strange though, just how fast this behavior is forgotten as the film proceeds. In any event, apparently Mado follows money. Tony needs money. Perhaps his motivation for joining in on the caper is as simple as that.

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With Tony signed on, all that’s needed is someone to handle the safe. For that, Mario suggests bringing in an expert, Cesar (played by Dassin himself, using the pseudonym Perlo Vita). He’ll agree, asserts Mario, just to be able to work with the famed Stéphanois — this is the first real sense we get of just who Tony used to be, his reputation one of great renown and esteem. This rounds out the likable and competent quartet, and with the decision settled, the duration of the film, about 90 minutes still, focuses on the heist itself and the aftermath.

Without giving away the events that occur following the theft (one of which includes a betrayal, perhaps the most plausible element of the film echoing some sense of Dassin’s HUAC familiarity), attention must be, and always is, given to the heist sequence. There are some moments in film history that are consistently cited for their brilliance. Everyone knows them, everyone recognizes the skill; it’s basically seen as a matter of fact that such and such a scene/shot/sequence is simply genius, no doubt about it. Rififi’s 30-plus minute B & E, with not a word spoken and no music, is one such example. Production notes point out that Dassin was never a fan of Auguste le Breton’s source novel, “Du rififi chez les hommes.” In it, the heist is a “mere 10-page throwaway” that occurred early in the 250-page text. By comparison, the deft, meticulous, professional execution of the film’s heist, and Dassin’s similarly adept construction of it, is astonishing. The four men move and operate with a distinguished sense of purpose and grace; it’s balletic the way their respective duties are acted out, each coordinated to move in accordance to the action of others (Cesar even wears ballet shoes to help keep quiet).

By this point, Rififi has already integrated many of the crime film’s staple ingredients. There’s the street-wise jargon (“rod,” “sparkler,” “busting chops”) and the settings are notably familiar, from the glittering nightclub, to the streets with perpetually wet cars and pavement illuminated by a dizzying hue of neon phosphorescence, to claustrophobic backrooms and shabby apartments. (These scenic visuals benefit greatly from Philippe Agostini’s black and white cinematography; having worked with Carné, Bresson, and Ophüls, among others, he knew a thing or two about composing impressive imagery.) In the presentation of these generic necessities, and especially in the bravura heist sequence, Dassin further distinguishes the film by his precise direction of carefully arranged shots and sequences. Everything about Rififi feels as intricately deliberate as the film’s famous larcenous centerpiece.

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In an ironic career twist, Rififi proved to be Dassin’s most successful film to date, critically and commercially; among its accolades was the Best Director prize at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival (the film was also nominated for the Palme d’Or). Successes followed with Never on Sunday (1960) — another Palme d’Or nomination, as well as Oscar nods for Dassin’s script and direction — and Topkapi in 1964, a Rififi-esque tale of crime that garnered most of its plaudits for Peter Ustinov’s performance. Dassin’s final feature was Circle of Two in 1981. He would pass away 27 years later, at the age of 96, having lived long enough to see his politics forgotten and his work remembered.

Rififi was released on Blu-ray and DVD by Criterion Collection on January 14th, 2014.

This REVIEW  was previously published in FILM INTERNATIONAL

Martin Scorsese's ‘The King of Comedy’

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It’s understandable if some viewers were a little surprised to learn Martin Scorsese was behind the comedic masterpiece that was last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street. While many of his films have had their fair share of black humor, he had never made what could be considered an outright comedy. The closest he had in the past was The King of Comedy, out now for the first time on Blu-ray. But this is no casual laugh riot. Quite the contrary, this 1982 film is among Scorsese’s most challenging features. Even with a dose of straight comedy, particularly early on, the film’s key themes and the increasing desperation of its primary characters are far from simply comical. Instead, The King of Comedy ends up as a cultural commentary wrapped in a darkly humorous veil, a disturbing work of discomfort, and an extraordinary motion picture.

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In a 2013 interview included on the disc, recorded at the Tribeca Film Festival’s restoration premiere of the movie, Scorsese and Robert De Niro play it coy about even calling The King of Comedy a “comedy.” Both are reluctant to place it in the genre, and insist they never really intended to make it funny. This, however, is somewhat contradicted when Jerry Lewis later joins the two on stage (“You two do good together,” he tells the actor and director). Lewis recalls Scorsese having asthma attacks from laughing so hard and they all note a good deal of improv and behind-the-scenes antics. Even if they don’t want to call it a comedy, it’s certainly still funny. Perhaps Scorsese compromises best, dubbing the film a “comedy of manners.”

Stating he “didn’t quite get it” when he first read Paul Zimmerman’s screenplay in 1974, Scorsese was convinced to do the film by De Niro, who found the material more appealing. From there, in their fifth collaboration, the two discovered the film as they made it, according to Scorsese. De Niro as Rupert Pupkin is one of the legendary actor’s greatest and most underrated roles. It’s unlike anything he has ever done before or since, and while he has given fine performances in many excellent films that followed, it’s perhaps only with slight hyperbole that one could say his turn here was his last truly astonishing achievement.

Pupkin (commonly misspelled and mispronounced, as he frequently notes) is a budding comedian with pipe dreams of late-night television stardom, in the fashion of his idol, Jerry Langford (Lewis), a Johnny Carson-esque personality of tremendous popularity. For now, Pupkin settles with a makeshift stage in his mother’s basement (Scorsese’s mother plays his mom). There, with life-size cardboard cutouts of Langford and Liza Minnelli, he acts out his greatest hits and dreams, with show music, recorded applause, and a laugh track. A bold encounter with Langford leads to Pupkin’s naïve belief that his hero is willing to lend a hand and give the aspiring performer his big chance. To be fair, Langford does seem genuinely encouraging, even if we know he’s simply placating Pupkin in order to get away from him.

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Somewhat unusual for a “Martin Scorsese Picture,” there is comparatively little camera movement in The King of Comedy. This was a conscious decision on Scorsese’s part, who intended to give the film a more sedentary look, not unlike television (at least in the early 1980s). This stationary intimacy results in some powerfully awkward viewing, whereby Scorsese has the camera just sitting back, observing, not flinching or looking away. The undercurrent of potential violence that runs through the film, coupled with Pupkin’s sympathetic desperation, is excruciatingly effective. Scorsese speaks of the “levels of hostility” present in the film, and the comparison to Travis Bickle, De Niro’s character from Taxi Driver, is apparent. Pupkin’s rapid path from admirable confidence, to brazen action, to sheer insanity is troubling, and with the proper trigger, he only seems a block away from Bickle’s vicious neighborhood. Shades of Travis are particularly strong when Pupkin barges back into Jerry’s office building after being kicked out. He doesn’t seem the violent type, but his belligerent drive suggests the prospect of anything being possible. His passive-aggressive interaction with Langford’s secretary is indecent, his blind optimism having given way to egotistical defiance. Pupkin embodies what happens when mere fandom becomes a frightening fixation.

Things come to head after Pupkin and Rita (Diahnne Abbott), the bartender he’s in love with, audaciously show up to Langford’s house. The justifiably perturbed television star chides Pupkin with some much-needed brutal honesty. Now accompanied by his partner in crime and celebrity obsession, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), Pupkin kidnaps Langford at gunpoint (albeit with a fake gun), presuming that with the star as a hostage, the television studio will surely give into his demands — he will now appear on late-night TV. Left alone with Langford, the eccentric Masha reveals herself to be an equally deranged fan. However, she is more obsessed with Langford the man than with being a star, and her threats are more along the lines of sexual molestation than violent brutality.

Remarkably, Pupkin achieves his goal. He’s on Jerry’s show long enough to perform his standup routine before he is promptly arrested. He has no regrets, though: “It’s better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime,” he declares. As it turns out, he’s going to get what he wants after all. He serves a reduced sentence and becomes an overnight celebrity, with money, a book, which will be turned into a movie, and his own television special. Like with Travis in Taxi Driver, the destination to fame and admiration can have a curious path.

The characters are complicated in The King of Comedy, as they regularly are in Scorsese’s films. Even with his rudely inappropriate impudence, Pupkin is not totally unlikable, at least because he’s so pathetic. He gives his own autograph to Rita as a gift and his “office” is a Times Square pay phone, but his dreams are earnest, which makes his reality all the more distressing. The fantasy sequences where we see him and Jerry interacting as he one day imagines are not sad because we know it will never happen; they’re sad because Pupkin continues to think it will. Still, there’s no denying that he’s annoying and a nuisance.

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On the other side of this, Jerry Langford doesn’t quite elicit sympathy without issue. He is dismissive and rude in his own way, and though he does put up with a lot, especially from his fans, ranging from decently complimentary to the overbearingly oppressive, these are nevertheless demands that go with the territory of being a celebrity. Lewis apparently knew where Langford was coming from, basing some of the incidents on what happened to him in real life, but audiences may have a harder time identifying. It’s clear that what Pupkin does is improper and, eventually, illegal, but Langford isn’t exactly a bundle of charm. This blurring of “good” and “bad” characters is typical of Scorsese, with parallels in his work up to and including The Wolf of Wall Street.

Despite similarities with later films, by Scorsese or others, nearly all involved with The King of Comedy contend, with good cause, that it is unique, and what is more, that it is the last of its kind. Scorsese, looking at the film in terms of post-Heaven’s Gate Hollywood filmmaking, when personal, controversial, idiosyncratic movies were few and far between (as opposed to in the 1970s), states that The King of Comedy is one of the last vestiges of “that type of picture.” It’s the “last really great film about culture,” according to Bernhard. A great film about culture, yes, but not the last one, though it was ahead of its time when it comes to the precariousness and fascination of television celebrity.
REVIEW  from SOUND ON SIGHT

‘Persona’

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Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is probably the great Swedish filmmaker’s most perplexing and thought-provoking work; it’s certainly his most surreal. Unusual imagery and curious narrative developments aren’t necessarily foreign to the rest of his filmography, but they have never been as frequent as they are here, nor have they been as overtly inexplicable. (Even if their meanings remain unclear, at least the dream sequences in Wild Strawberries can be clearly identified as dreams; there is no such easy rationalization here.) With so much happening in this 1966 feature, so many levels of story and visual complexity, it’s little wonder that Persona has yielded a great deal of discussion and analysis. And subsequently, it’s little wonder that the newly released Blu-ray/DVD from the Criterion Collection is accompanied by an excellent gathering of supplemental material, enhancing an already fascinating film, which, incidentally, looks superb in this new digital restoration. A booklet featuring an essay by Thomas Elsaesser, an excerpt from the book “Bergman on Bergman,” and a portion of an interview with Bibi Andersson join four new and archival interviews and nearly 20 minutes of on-set footage. There is also the documentary Liv & Ingmar, directed by Dheeraj Akolkar. Not pertaining just to Persona, this affecting and at times troubling film does a good deal to shed new light on the tenuous relationship between Bergman and Liv Ullmann (it’s told entirely from her point of view), and it makes the viewing of their subsequent films together all the more revealing.

Preeminent Bergman scholar Peter Cowie, who has written and spoke extensively on the filmmaker, also provides a visual essay exploring the film’s prologue. This sequence, running nearly 7 minutes, represents according to Cowie, not only a microcosm of the whole film, “but of Bergman’s career and anxieties.” Certainly, this opening gets Persona off to a riveting start. A barrage of images burst from the screen, ostensibly with little to no relation to each other. It’s an assortment of beautiful and haunting visions, all shot, as with the rest of the film, in stark black and white. Nature, violence, sex, humor, old age, death, youth, and war: these apparently incongruous elements illustrate nearly everything that can feed a mind, influence actions, and preoccupy thoughts. Save for the images of war, it’s never quite clear to whom these visions belong as the film progresses. The footage from Vietnam, however, is viewed on television by Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who has suddenly stopped speaking. Oddly stricken during rehearsals, she bears no physical or mental impairment. She has simply become mute: by choice, as a result of some tragedy, perhaps because of the world around her, a general state of despair and hostility represented by these opening shots. In this “poem of images,” as Bergman calls the film, it’s all speculation.

A doctor (Margaretha Krook), while sympathizing with Elisabet (she too recognizes “the hopeless dream of being”), questions the affliction, suggesting that it’s another role, a performance the actress will eventually drop. In any case, a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), is assigned to take care of Elisabet, and the two begin a stay at the doctor’s secluded seaside cottage. There, it becomes clear that both women are tormented. Though still uncertain about what affects Elisabet, Alma attempts to establish a connection by divulging details of her own past, her present, her fears, and her desires. She does so promptly and without a filter. Despite Elisabet’s silence and lack of verbal correspondence, Alma talks and talks. Not obliviously though; she knows she is perhaps selfishly rambling, but she doesn’t stop. It’s not as if Elisabet is contributing, after all, though she does appear to be genuinely interested. Indeed, as we and Alma find out, she is not just casually listening, she is studying.

In his essay, Elsaesser contends that it’s possibly Alma who is taking on the part of an actress. He writes, “Alma finds in Elisabet’s silence the screen upon which she can project all the roles she has always wanted to play. … By dramatizing her own existence in front of her silent spectator, Alma becomes an actress, performing before an audience.” By that same token, an artist’s job, according to Bergman, consists of “recording, making notes, observing, absorbing, and feeding off their environment,” just as Elisabet does when she sits silently watching Alma.

Quickly Alma’s talk becomes more intimate, as if speaking to a psychiatrist or confessor, or sister, or lover. She tells of an explicit sexual encounter with another woman and two young boys, a dubious pregnancy, and a subsequent abortion. Her emotions run the gamut. But perhaps her most revealing comments, at least as far as Persona’s essential themes are concerned, are those that mention how one can become multiple beings, and conversely, how multiple beings can become one. “I think I could turn into you if I really tried,” Alma tells Elisabet. “I mean inside.” “You could be me just like that,” she adds. It’s after this that Alma hears, or thinks she hears (hopes she hears) Elisabet speak, but it’s unclear.

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Gradually, the cordial relationship between the two is ruptured. When Alma discovers that Elisabet has been writing about her, that she’s possibly using her confessions for her own gains, she lashes out. There are insults, accusations, and reconciliation. A lifetime’s worth of emotional strain is condensed in several days. And when Alma purposely leaves broken glass on the ground and Elisabet cuts herself, Persona reaches a decisive point of transition. The film appears to burn up and we get another barrage of assorted imagery, a disturbing precursor of what’s possibly to come. It’s hard to say which actress has the more difficult role here, the fervent Andersson with her incessant dialogue, or Ullmann, who must remain silent and base her whole performance on observation and reaction.

With the gifted Sven Nykvist dependably behind the camera, Persona contains a surplus of astonishing imagery, from the aforementioned montage of disparate footage to the cold, bare walls that make up the hospital rooms earlier in the film. The most prescient and crucial compositions, however, are those that contain Andersson and Ullmann in the same frame. These images range from the abstract to the ethereal, but their greatest significance is when the two are shot in tight close-ups (“uncomfortably close to the camera,” as Elsaesser puts it); they are side by side, often looking straight at the camera. As a result of this “facial chorography,” in Paul Schrader’s words, their similar features become more obvious, as does the film’s preoccupation with exchanging identities. For whatever reason, in whatever way, the two are merging with each other. Regarding the intense shift in drama and the film’s emphasis on struggling identities, Bibi Andersson argues that the film depicts “the chaos a person experiences when they’re in conflict with themselves.” It represents, she says, a “crisis of truth.”

When Mr. Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand) shows up (or seems to; the certainty of depicted events at this point is questionable), he mistakes Alma for his wife. She initially denies it, but he pays no mind, and eventually she assumes the role. Elisabet silently appears as though she’s invisible to both characters (indeed, he may be blind). Soon they return to who they really are … or do they? An extended section of dialogue is repeated, first with the focus on Elisabet, then on Alma, and for a moment, their faces fuse together. “I’m not like you,” declares Alma. But perhaps it’s too late. The sequence ends with halves of their faces frozen together. This single shot, one of the film’s most famous, actually fooled both actresses. According to Ullmann, when she and Andersson each saw it they only recognized the other, never realizing that half of that face was their own.

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As is inevitable with a film in which the image is so tantamount to the narrative, in other words, when what the spectator sees is an integral factor in the film’s progression and preoccupations, Bergman includes a good deal of self-conscious technique. “You are always aware that someone is filming this for you,” says Schrader, who points out several “metacinema tricks.” The characters have direct addresses to the camera, and aside from the moment the film seems to dissipate, there are also shots of film strips, projectors, the filmmaking process, and other films. As Cowie notes, “Cinematography” was the first title of the script. Is Persona, then, about cinema itself, about performers assuming their roles, about the creative process of storytelling, about audience reception and identification? It certainly is, according to Elsaesser, who calls the film “cinema about cinema.”

Persona was written by Bergman in just 14 days, while he was recovering in the hospital. He was quite ill and a previously planned project had fallen through, so these were not the best of times for the director. As such, he was preoccupied with personal, self-reflexive thoughts, and Andersson and Ullmann each acknowledge a level of autobiography present in the film. It is about “two sides of one human,” says Andersson. “Presumably Ingmar.”  “For him, a movie is also a persona,” states Ullmann.

Bergman admitted that, by this point, he was concerned less with the reception of his films. He knew a movie like Persona was demanding on an audience (in an interview on the disc, he stated that it’s not necessarily the type of movie even he’d like to watch, preferring, for example, Westerns or Goldfinger over something by Antonioni). But that’s part of the brilliance of this film — there is so much left for debate. “That’s very important to me,” states Bergman, “the idea that you can never understand a film like this.” What’s more is that it’s all so intensely imagined and photographed. Bergman was no stranger to arresting visuals, but those that make up this film are among his strongest. Persona is thus a supreme blend of ambiguity and stylistic flourish. Like 2001 as a chamber drama, it’s a film that rewards multiple viewings for the depth of character psychology and narrative discovery, and also for its astonishing beauty.