REVIEW — Stalag 17 (1953)

FilmJuice have my review of Billy Wilder’s misleading P.O.W. comedy Stalag 17. I say “misleading” as while the film was initially marketed as a tribute to America’s brave prisoners of war, the film’s depiction of life in a World War II prison camp is actually far from flattering.

Originally a hugely-successful Broadway play, Stalag 17 revolves around a group of American POWs who are trying to escape the camp. Using all of their initiative and sneakiness, the men dig tunnels, fashion civilian clothes and scout for weaknesses in German security only to wind up delivering their escapees into the waiting arms of German machine-gun fire. Shocked but reticent to engage in any form of concerted self-criticism, the group’s frustrations wind up being unleashed on William Holden’s Sefton, a cynical individualist who would rather profit from the group’s desires than aid in their fulfilment. What makes this film “misleading” is the fact that, rather than conforming to genre expectations and producing a film all about a bunch of POWs coming together to outwit the Germans, Wilder has produced a film that portrays American POWs as boorish, overbearing idiots. In fact, Sefton’s rugged individualist is quite obviously intended to be the film’s point-of-view character:

Stalag 17 is not exactly the easiest film to get into. In fact, the film is almost completely unwatchable for most of its opening hour. The problem is that the film ostensibly plays lip service to the idea of the Good War by presenting many of the POWs as happy-go-lucky scamps. Stalag 17 is often described as an iconic film as it was one of the first films about the Second World War to present the Germans as figures of fun rather than menace. Just as this vision of the Nazis as effeminate, strutting nincompoops would later inform British comedies like ‘Allo ‘Allo, the idea that prisoners of war could pull off elaborate schemes under the noses of their German captors would later inspire 168 episodes of the American sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. What makes the film very nearly unwatchable is the fact that virtually all of its jokes are embarrassingly unfunny: First we have the incessant torrent of anti-German comments that are really little more than crude xenophobic sniping dressed up as banter. Then we have about a dozen different jokes involving an over-weight man falling over and finally we have a scene in which hundreds of well-fed American POWs scream and gesture lewdly at a bunch of terrified female prisoners. This type of humour might well have passed muster amidst the jingoism and sexism of 1950s America but it actually makes the POWs come across as a bunch of boorish idiots… and therein lays the point.

My review places Stalag 17 in the broader context of Wilder’s career and his tendency to view American society in very cynical terms but it also occurs to me that films like Stalag 17 could very well mark the point at which war-time solidarity left the American cultural bloodstream, taking any and all faith in collective action with it. Sefton’s rugged individualism provides the film with its moral centre precisely because America was entering an age where it became the individual’s moral duty to look to their own advancement whilst questioning any and all conceptions of the public good that were not grounded in material largesse.

 

REVIEW – Boomerang! (1947)

FilmJuice have my review of Elia Kazan’s impressively crunchy but politically ambivalent legal drama Boomerang!

Set in what the film goes out of its way to refer to as a typical town from the American mid-west, Boomerang! begins exploring the political landscape of a small town on the move. We are introduced to the well-meaning reformers who kicked out the ‘machine politicians’ in order to make their home town a better place and how these patrician figures relate to the wider community through institutions such as the local church. There’s even a nice scene where a planning committee is shown and despite the committee having a woman for a chairperson, it’s pretty clear that the real person in charge is the local priest. Given the extent to which the various power-groups rely on each other to stay in power, it is hardly surprising that when the local priest is inexplicably gunned down, the political scene undergoes a crisis with politicians demanding results while newspapers and rival political parties sharpen their knives. The pressure is so great that the police wind up taking shortcuts, arresting everyone in sight and effectively torturing someone into signing a confession.All of this social realism is beautifully realised but unlike similar endeavours such as David Simon’s The Wire, the film does not end with a call for revolution or the liberal conclusion that everything is fucked. Instead, the film seems to conclude that the system is okay because a single corrupt politicians wound up doing the right thing whilst angling to be made governor. This makes for a denouement that is as dramatically unsatisfying as it is confounding of genre expectations:

There is a tendency in American popular culture to treat the legal process as a moral crucible. Well-meaning bourgeois films like My Cousin Vinny and 12 Angry Men suggest that all of humanity’s moral impurities can be boiled away by the system while more politically radical films such as JFK and Amistad draw attention to the failings of the legal system as a way of demonstrating an urgent need for reform.

Having thought about it a bit more, I am struck by the suspicion that treating courtrooms as moral crucibles is a singularly American affectation. America is a country founded by lawyers as well as run by a political class mostly comprising lawyers and so it is hardly surprising that American popular culture has come to believe that court is the place where justice and truth are imposed upon the world. Even comparatively cynical legal dramas such as The Good Wife and Damages present corruption and inequality as incidental rather than systemic problems meaning that they can be defeated by a lawyer who is both talented and righteous. Compare this to a drama such as the French series Engrenages where the French legal system is presented as universally corrupt or the venerable Rumpole of the Bailey, which depicted the British legal system as little more than a playground for ambitious scions of the establishment.

Another interesting question is the extent to which these legal programmes have shaped the minds of the people who viewed them. Children subjected to endless police dramas might be likely to see justice as something meted out by the police just as children trained to see the world through the eyes of the Good Wife would doubtless come to see lawyers as being in the business of keeping the system in line and ensuring that it continues to deliver justice. One of the reasons why a flawed and frankly preposterous programme like The West Wing is well remembered is that it suggested that it was the job of the state to impose justice on the world, which is rather unfashionable in an age where most politicians see their jobs as being all about waging war, locking up prisoners and outsourcing everything to the private sector. An interesting tangent to this issue is the way that American superhero comics explain their protagonists’ capacity to do good.

It used to be that superheroes were frequently patrician figures who used their personal fortunes to fund both their crime-fighting activities and a variety of different charitable works. Thus, Bruce Wayne funded Batman as well as the Wayne Foundation just as Professor Charles Xavier funded both the X-Men and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. While these characters endure, the nature of their financial backing has significantly changed. For example, there was no talk in the 1960s Batman TV series of Bruce Wayne being an industrialist but now it is impossible to think of Batman without thinking of Wayne Enterprises and the incorporation of Batman that took place during Grant Morrison’s extended run on the comic. That’s a pretty substantial message to send to kids: Not only will justice come at the hands of a masked vigilante but that vigilante will be a franchised brand that is owned by a multinational corporation. This idea that only corporations can deliver justice has also leached into the X-Men as more recent X-Men comics cast Charles Xavier as founder of the X-Corporation which funds the X-Men in much the same way as Tony Stark’s Stark Industries funds the Avengers and many of the lower-level supers that inhabit the Marvel Universe.

An interesting counter-point to this drive to incorporation is the group known as Stormwatch. Created as part of the Wildstorm universe, Stormwatch were funded and controlled by the United Nations. However, as time progressed (as Wildstorm comics were purchased by DC) these links to publicly-minded NGOs were put under dramatic pressure as writer after writer chose to depict the UN as a bureaucracy that was as incompetent as it was corrupt. One of the first things to happen in The Authority is that the heroes severed all ties with Stormwatch and took it upon themselves to impose their own ideas of justice on a series of corrupt and incompetent human governments. Somewhat tellingly, the cinematic Avengers began life under the control of the government agency known as SHIELD but Captain America: Winter Soldier revealed SHIELD to be corrupt, thereby setting the stage for Stark Enterprises to step in and provide the group with funding.

On the one hand, this is clearly nothing more than aggressive right-wing propaganda as corporations are effectively using corporate-owned intellectual property to train children to believe that all governments are corrupt and only Capital can save them. However, on the other hand, this is an excellent example of the narrowing of the imagination associated with late capitalism: We are so wedded to the capitalist system that even escapist fluff struggles to portray a world in which only people with corporate backing can hope to make a difference.

REVIEW – White Dog (1982)

WhiteDogFilmJuice have my review of the recent Masters of Cinema release of Samuel Fuller’s racially-themed horror film White Dog.

Cutting to the chase, I really enjoyed this film. Set on the margins of Hollywood, the film tells of an actress who happens to run over a beautiful white Alsatian dog. Forced to take responsibility to the animal after taking it to the vet, the actress nurses it back to health and has all of her care and attention redeemed when the animal protects her from a rapist who breaks into her home. Fuller shoots the dog at night using spotlights that reflect against the whiteness of the fur but not the background meaning that the dog appears to glow in an almost spectral fashion. The otherwordliness of the dog is put to brilliant use when it escapes the actress’s yard and begins attacking black people: The pure white dog devouring black people and covering itself in blood is as striking and troubling an image of racism as you could possibly imagine. Part of what makes these images so troubling is the fact that they could just as easily have been inserted into a film about a heroic white dog that eats evil black people. However, to look upon these scenes as racist or problematic is to ignore the wider context of the film and how the film is really about trying to cure racism:

Fuller intends the dog (tellingly referred to as ‘Mr Hyde’) to serve as a metaphorical representation of human racism and, to a certain extent, he does: One point the film repeatedly makes is that there is nothing ‘natural’ about the dog’s hatred of black people; his fear and hatred were deliberately engineered by people who wanted to use his savagery as a tool of racial segregation and oppression. Another point the film makes is that the techniques required to train a racist dog were pioneered in the days of slavery when plantation owners had a vested interest in keeping vicious attack dogs that would happily kill a black person but never think to harm a white person. These two ideas certainly mesh with contemporary thoughts on social justice and they make a very interesting point about how the racist attitudes that continue to be perpetuated today originated in a time when extreme and dehumanising patterns of racist thought underpinned an entire economic system. Fuller’s metaphorical racist dog also represents how difficult it can be to wean oneself away from racist thought and how some attitudes can be so deeply engrained that unravelling them is tantamount to unravelling an entire personality. However, Fuller’s metaphor only goes so far.

While I think that Fuller’s position is somewhat outdated (one of the first things you learn about social justice is that it’s a white person’s duty to educate themselves and not to be ‘saved’ by black and minority ethnic people) I don’t think it’s racist. In fact, I think that White Dog is a thoughtful and intellectually intense film that tries to grapple with a huge and incredibly different problem. What I don’t understand is the logic of using an intensely problematic piece of fiction as a springboard for that engagement.

White Dog is based on a book by the French novelist Romain Gary which tells the semi-autobiographical story of a dog who has been trained to attack black people on sight. As in the film, a black animal trainer steps in and tries to cure the animal but rather than getting rid of the animal’s murderous urges entirely, the trainer simply reprograms the animal to attack white people instead. As I explain in the review, Gary intended this as a critique of civil rights activists who, in his opinion, were training people to be ‘intolerant of intolerance’. From J. Hoberman’s interesting piece about the film:

Gary and his then wife, actress Jean Seberg, find a stray German shepherd that, they soon discover, has been raised to attack black people on sight. Although told that the dog is too old to be deconditioned, they turn him over to an animal trainer who turns out to be a Black Muslim and vengefully reprograms the creature to maul whites—including, at the book’s climax, Gary himself. (Some of the vengeance in this “found” allegory belongs to the author: Gary disapproved of his wife’s public support of the Black Panther Party, a political stance that put her under FBI investigation.)

This attempt to set up an equivalence between systemic white racism and angry reaction to that racist system will be familiar to anyone who remembers the much-lamented Derailing For Dummies site as the ‘You’re As Bad as They Are!’ defence:

Because they’re angry about the treatment they undergo and because they are aggressive and persistent in wanting to see change happen, you can target this behaviour (remembering that it is unseemly for Marginalised People™ – they’re supposed to set an example at all times by being humble and long suffering) by suggesting it puts them on a par with the people and system that stigmatise, ostracise and target them every second of every day of their lives. This also suggests that reacting to such discrimination is totally unreasonable and out of proportion (they should just take their knocks!) and that has the benefit of indicating your ignorance to just how pervasive and constant this discrimination truly is.

Thankfully, Fuller does not follow Gary down that particular political rabbit hole but it I can’t imagine anyone wanting to base a contemporary critique of racism on a book that suggests black civil rights activists are morally equivalent to people who train their animals to attack black people on sight.

 

 

REVIEW – Wings (1927)

WingsFilmJuice have my review of William A. Wellman’s Wings, the first ever film to win a Best Picture Academy Award.

Set during World War I, the film follows a pair of young men as they travel to France and earn reputations as fighter pilots. Initially antagonistic as a result of having fallen in love with the same aristocratic woman, the two men become friends until the madness of war consumes them both and one accidentally kills the other. As I explain in my review, I pretty much hated this film…

Wings is an absolutely terrible film: Despite having nearly two and a half hours in which to build characters and relationships, the writing fails to imbue the melodramatic plot with any real dramatic weight. For example, we are told that Jack and David hate each other before eventually becoming friends but nothing ever happens to either to stoke the fires of hatred or build a bridge of friendship. David never saves Jack, Jack never saves David and when Jack finally kills David it is done with absolutely zero pathos as the script fails to establish the idea that Jack might at one point have wanted to see David dead. The treatment of supporting characters is equally shoddy as a German-American airman is viciously bullied for comic effect while the women in the film are reduced to sex objects, plot devices, and guilt sponges in what the lead actress Clara Bow maintained was a misogynistic script even by the standards of 1920s Hollywood. Buttressed by inter-titles so ludicrously purple that they could have been lifted from a 1990s video game, the action scenes are surprisingly hit and miss given the vast resources thrown into producing them. Frequently little more than shots of military pilots flying in formation and pretending to crash, these scenes are a microcosm for the entire film as they are of little more than historical interest.

I think it says an awful lot about this film that its lead actress felt moved to complain about the sexism and the fact that her character was little more than a dollop of cream on top of the man-cake. However, the more I watched of this film, the more I came to realise its importance in determining which kinds of films were deserving of awards. As I explain in my review, this film was released in the same year as Metropolis and Sunrise and yet it feels almost childishly simplistic in comparison. Next time you wonder why it is that terrible films win Oscars while genuinely challenging and thought-provoking films are ignored, look no further than the crude sexism, jingoism and inflated budget of Wellman’s Wings.

Watching this film, I actually began to wonder whether one might argue that the American film industry owes as much to German emigres as its space programme – Without German scientists, there would be no Apollo; without German directors, there would be no Citizen Kane. Hmm.

Contrary to my editor’s suggestion, I gave this film an even-handed 3 out of 5 as I think the market for this Masters of Cinema release is most likely to be people with an interest in the history of American film and the unimaginative writing, poor visual story-telling and lazy bigotry of Wings actually reveal a surprising amount.

Keeper of the Clockwork Heart: The Late Films of Kenji Mizoguchi

Late-MizoguchiIn a career spanning thirty three years, the Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi produced a total of eighty three feature films. While many of those films have now been lost and only a few have ever been made available to Western audiences, recent years have seen an attempt to reclaim the legacy of Mizoguchi and introduce his work to a new generation of film-lovers. So far, the most visible element of this campaign has been the very visible release of Mizoguchi’s later films by Criterion in America and Masters of Cinema in the UK. Next week, Masters of Cinema are releasing a blu-ray box set entitled Late Mizoguchi: Eight Films 1951-1956. The set includes:

  • Ugetsu Monogatari (1951)
  • Oyu Sama (1951)
  • Gion Bayashi (1953)
  • Sansho Dayu (1954)
  • Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954)
  • Uwasa No Onna (1954)
  • Yokihi (1955)
  • Akasen Chitai (1956)

My review of the complete box set is now available on FilmJuice. As you might expect for a review of an eight-film box set, the review is kind of long but I think the length was necessary in order to explore not only Mizoguchi’s approach to narrative but also his attitudes to women and how these attitudes to women transitioned over time from bewailing their fate to celebrating their courage and finally to railing at the capitalist system that dehumanises and immiserates them. I personally consider Akasen Chitai to be one of the greatest films of all time as no other film so perfectly captures the ways in which the system bullies and coerces us into betraying each other for personal advancement.

I was actually lucky enough to review some of these films when they were first released on DVD back in 2007:

Re-reading these reviews just now, it’s interesting to see that while my dim opinions of Yokihi and Chikamatsu Monogatari have not massively changed, my feelings on both Uwasa No Onna and Akasen Chitai have improved immeasurably with time. Akasen Chitai may have impressed me at the time but it also stayed with me and had a real impact on how I thought about both the world and film. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few works that have been celebrated for their politics and their devotion to social realism but nothing in either British or Italian Social Realism come even close to the focus and power of Akasen Chitai.

REVIEW – Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den (1957)

Bakumatsu-Taiyo-DenFilmJuice have my review of Yuzo Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den also known as Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate.

Widely considered to be one of the greatest Japanese films of all time, Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den follows Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame and Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman in using the Japanese sex industry as a microcosm for Japanese society as a whole. Indeed, populated by customers from different levels of Japanese society alongside more-or-less successful members of staff, the brothel shows the economic and social forced that twist lives and destroy personalities. However, while both Mizoguchi and Imamura used the miserable lives of their characters to angrily critique and accuse Japanese society, Kawashima takes their travails and plays them for laughs using the character of a charming rogue:

Using the rogue as a foil, Kawashima explores the complex array of social and economic forces that elevate some people but destroy others. This is a world in which people attempt suicide in an effort to escape debtors and fathers sell their daughters into indentured servitude in order to pay off gambling debts and yet, because Kawashima’s rogue stands to one side making snarky comments, the world seems more absurd than it does horrific or depressing. Played by one of the foremost comedians of post-War Japan, the rogue understands the social and economic systems surrounding him and yet he does not feel constrained by either of them. This sense of existential rebellion is particularly evident in the film’s final scene where an old man castigates the rogue for disrespecting the gods only for the rogue to run away laughing and declaring that there’s no such thing as heaven and hell.

Having reviewed this and found it sensational, I am struck by the feeling that there are certain types of film that I could quite happily watch forever and post-War Japanese dramas are definitely one of them. Having said, this is a particularly good one and its lighter tone and engaging characters make it quite refreshingly accessible meaning that it would probably serve as a pretty decent jumping-on point for anyone interested in learning more about post-War Japanese film and given that this has just been re-released by Masters of Cinema, what better opportunity to immerse oneself in one of the 20th Centuries true creative golden ages?

REVIEW – Floating Weeds (1959)

FWFilmJuice have my review of Yasujiro Ozu’s wonderful Floating Weeds.

A colour remake of Ozu’s 1934 film A Story of Floating Weeds, the film tells of a group of actors who arrive in a sea-side town.Initially, the actors present themselves as being in a different world from the residents and so work together to seduce local women. However, as the story unfolds, we soon learn that the head of the company has a pre-existing relationship with a local woman and that this relationship resulted in the birth of a child who has now grown-up.

This is a film all about the boundaries between worlds. The most obvious boundary is the one between the people on the stage and the people in the audience but a more important one is that between the world of the professional actor and the world of the respectable citizen. This perceived boundary serves both to draw the actors together and distance them from the world around them.

The plot revolves around a series of characters who struggle to keep these two worlds separate.  Some consider moving from one world to another, others are repulsed by a world and want to keep it separate from their world of choice and others choose one world only to change their minds and lose themselves in another.  The more the boundaries between worlds are tested, the less substantial the boundaries become and the less substantial the boundaries become, the more the characters come to realise the impact said boundaries have had on their lives.

There are always questions to ask when a widely respected and well-established director suddenly decides to remake one of his best known films (*ahem*). One particularly interesting question is the one posed by the fact that A Story of Floating Weeds was also remade one year earlier by Ozu’s one-time assistant director Shohei Imamura. As I said when I reviewed Stolen Desires back in 2011:

Imamura cut his cinematic teeth as Ozu’s assistant and, when the time came for him to make his own film, it was only natural that he should try to step out of Ozu’s shadow by making it clear how different his sensibilities were to those of his master and how better to make that difference apparent than by directing a vicious attack on one of Ozu’s best-loved films?

If we assume that Imamura’s chaotic and slovenly Stolen Desires was intended as an attempt at subverting the dignity and calm of Ozu’s films, might we also assume that the re-make was intended as something of a response to an uppity former underling? as I say in my review of Floating Weeds, there are moments of violence and melodrama in Floating Weeds that are quite unlike anything you usually find in a film by Yasukiro Ozu. Did Ozu film those scenes with Imamura in mind? Was Floating Weeds perhaps intended as proof that the old man still had it in him to make important films (as with Clouzot’s attempt tomake L’Enfer as a reply to the nouvelle vague directors)? That’s a question for scholars but looking at Floating Weeds and Stolen Desires, it is hard not to speculate about why this remake was made so soon after Stolen Desires.