Review: Morris from America (2016)

Morris in Germany, surviving any way he can

By Zeke Trautenberg

Hip hop unites the introverted thirteen-year-old Morris (played with subtlety and economy of emotion by Markees Christmas) and his widowed father, Curtis (the ever-funny and vulnerable Craig Robinson). The close and playful relationship between father and son is encapsulated by the first scene of the film, in which they argue over the virtues of Jeru the Damaja’s 1993 hypnotic “Come Clean.” (“Freaky freaky freaky freaky flow / Control the mic like Fidel Castro”). The two live in the decidedly un-gangster city of Heidelberg, Germany. With its red rooftops and idyllic setting along the Rhine, Heidelberg presents a stark juxtaposition to Morris’s Bronx-inflected hip hop fantasies.

Hartigan’s film hews closely to the typical structure of the coming-of-age film, with its interweaving arcs of romance and internal and external conflict, that culminate in the protagonist’s self-realization and growth. However, Morris form America does not replicate the genre so much as use its conventions to explore themes of race, masculinity, and fatherhood during a time when being black and from America is a struggle for the moral right to exist, let alone engage in civic life. Amid these serious themes, Hartigan adds playful visual motifs, like a scene of museum patrons and statues bobbing their heads in tandem to the music from Morris’s headphones. Meanwhile, the film’s superb soundtrack, which features songs by hip hop artist Jay Stone among others, captures Morris’s New York bravado and his struggles to adapt and to fit in.

With his brown skin, doughy features, and Yankees hat, Morris plainly stands out in Heidelberg. His dad, who works as a coach for the local soccer team, is his sole friend and confidant. Morris passes the laconic days of summer walking around the idyllic city on the Rhine listening to hip hop and taking German-language classes with his good-natured teacher Inka (Carla Juri). Aware of her Morris’s loneliness, Inka encourages Morris to visit the local youth center so that he can make friends and practice his German. At the center, Morris sits removed from the other teenagers and ignores insults from a boy who calls him “Kobe Bryant” and asks if he plays basketball. This is the first of a series of racially-tinged insults and jibes that Morris bears with a mix of stoicism and exasperation. It is only when Morris’s disastrous performance during the youth center’s talent show that his frustration turns into rage.

For the German teenagers at the youth center, Morris’s blackness, Americanness, and masculinity are refracted through popular culture and consumption. The young American is labeled a basketball player, a “good dancer,” a rapper, and a drug user, but these superficial stereotypes and discrimination reflect the limits of cosmopolitanism and openness in twenty-first century Germany. In this vein, although Morris from America does not allude to the massive influx of migrants and refugees to the country that coincided with the production of the film in the summer of 2015, the racism—overt or otherwise—directed at Morris reflect broader tensions underlying the country’s social fabric.

Morris’s relationship with Katrin (Lina Keller), a rebellious blonde girl who he meets at the center similarly reflects the intertwined relationship between Morris’s blackness and his Americanness. Katrin alternatively teases and shows affection for the American boy, who seems to represent a rebuke of her beautiful, but monotonous city. After meeting Morris, she invites him to a party and then humiliates him by spraying his pants with a water gun. Although she later tells Morris this was a prank meant to be reciprocated, the young American does not get the joke. This pattern of acceptance and rejection continues throughout the film, but the good-hearted, forbearing Morris recognizes that the impulsive Katrin is not mean-spirited. She too is anxious to escape “German dickheads” of Heidelberg. Although Morris’s infatuation with Katrin is never entirely reciprocated, she takes hold of his adolescent psyche.

Parallel with Morris’s struggles with identity, we see his single father wrestle with how to raise his adolescent son. Having lived in Germany during his career as a player, Curtis is aware of its history and the latent danger of intolerance and violence aimed at men of color. While Curtis’s exhortations to his son to let his dad know when he is staying out late are understandable to any parent, they gain a sense of urgency in Morris’s case, as his adolescent naiveté belies his earnestness and self-composure. Curtis does not aim to stifle his son’s growth into adulthood or his creativity. Rather, he urges his son to engage honestly with his passions, be they rap, German girls, or otherwise.

The complicity between father and son is exemplified by a self-recorded mixtape Curtis gives to his son. When Morris discovers that the cassette contains his father clumsily rapping a Notorious B.I.G. cover, he dismisses his dad’s short-lived music ambitions. Ironically, his father has the similar criticism for his son. After reading a set of conceited and misogynist lyrics in Morris’s notebook, Curtis ironically remarks: “You need to rap about how you don’t know shit.” He encourages his son to wax poetic about his own experiences, a message that the budding young man takes to heart, declaring in rhyme before an audience of ecstatic German techno fans: “Morris in Germany surviving any way I can.” However, his father would not have him survive on his own. Rather, Curtis says, they should stick together, because after all they are “the only brothers in Heidelberg.”

Director: Chad Hartigan

Running Time: 91 minutes

Country: USA/Germany

Photos: Beachside Films/Lichtblick Meida/INDI Film

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

An orphan finds solace in family and film

By Zeke Trautenberg

Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an empathetic portrait of a young man grappling with belonging and loss. The film continues Waititi's exploration of of loneliness, acceptance, and the nature of familythemes which were at the center of the New Zealand filmmaker's previous features Eagle vs. Shark (2007), Boy (2010), and the satirical vampire comedy What We do in the Shadows (2014).

The protagonist of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a pudgy orphan of Maori extraction. Ricky expresses himself in haikus and wears brightly colored clothing that attests to his passion for hip hop, but which masks his sensitive soul. The film begins with Ricky’s transfer from a group home to the New Zealand bush, where he is sent to live with his new foster parents, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill). Ricky’s villainous caseworker and the film's antagonist, Paula (Rachel House), has little hope that the new situation will work out. Before handing Ricky over to his new foster parents, Paula urges them to be vigilant of Ricky, whom she calls a “bad egg.” with a history of stealing stuff, burning stuff, spitting, and loitering, among other mildly antisocial activities.

After halfheartedly escaping from his new foster parents during his first night at their remote house, Ricky adjusts to his unfamiliar rural surroundings. He gradually comes out of his shell, coaxed by his foster mother, who dotes on him with food, takes him hunting for wild pigs, and composes a song in celebration of his birthday on her portable Casio synthesizer. After tragedy befalls the household, Ricky stages his own death-by-burning, and escapes into the vast woods that surround the house. Hector follows him, but after he finds Ricky he injures his leg in a spasm of anger. The two remain in the woods while Hector’s leg heals, but their disappearance triggers a national manhunt.

Waititi’s film takes full advantage of New Zealand’s spectacular scenery. The film opens with an aerial shot of the mountainous forest where Ricky and Hector go on the lam. However, the film does not lose itself in the overwhelming green of the landscape. The subtle and not-so-subtle costumes in the film—a cat sweater, oversized hoodies, red and blue plaid shirts—add to the film’s sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of its characters and reflects the film's playful approach to genre. The synthesizer-inflected score by Moniker provides a contrast between between the foreboding wilderness and the characters' intimate relationships.

The structure of Hunt for the Wilderpeople mirrors the tension between the rigid meter and free rhyme scheme of a haiku. The film is divided into ten chapters and an epilogue, with each chapter title reflecting a place ("Broken Foot Camp"), a shift in fortune ("Turn of the Tide"), or a change in Ricky's perception of himself ("Famous" and "A Normal Life"). The film’s clear structure contrasts with the film’s mishmash of genres, ranging from buddy comedies to Hollywood action movies. The self-reflexive qualities the film’s structure and genre elements extend to its characters. Ricky pokes fun at his weight, while his caseworker acts out her unhinged baddie role with self-aware glee. In the end, even the grumpy and reserved Hector embraces his “bushman” persona and embraces the teenager who helps him come to terms with own grief and loss.

Director: Taika Waititi

Running Time: 101 minutes

Country: New Zealand

Photo: Piki Films/Defender Films/Curious Film

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Review: Weiner (2016)

Weiner is a tragicomic portrait of ambition, narcissism, and second chances

By Zeke Trautenberg

Behind the political sheen, who is Anthony Weiner? What makes him tick? Is Weiner, a seven-term former Congressman and failed candidate for mayor of New York City, a flawed hero or an impulsive clown? And why did he let Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg film it all?

These questions are at the center Kriegman and Steinberg’s documentary about the ambitious New York politician whose comeback was derailed mid-campaign by a sexting scandal. Weiner sent dozens of sexually explicit images and messages to numerous women over the course of several years. His personal indiscretions first captured headlines in 2011. The ensuing furor prompted Weiner to resign from Congress. More images resurfaced in 2013 during his campaign for mayor. Weiner, who was leading in the polls, was undone by the hydra-like scandal. He finished his campaign with a whimper, receiving only five percent of the vote.

With his telenovela-ready nom de plume, Carlos Danger, Weiner was a character ready made for a media and political landscape that thrives on the cults of celebrity, scandal, and short attention spans. In their documentary, Kriegaman and Steinberg embrace the complexities of Weiner the political animal during the thirteen-weeks in the lead up to the vote. The documentary depicts a multifaceted character: Weiner is at once a wiry rubber band of narcissitic compulsion, a firebrand populist, a thoughtful father, and one-half of a Democratic-power couple—Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin is Hillary Clinton’s long-time aide and confidant.

The film opens with a video clip that establishes Weiner’s political personality. We see Weiner, on floor of the House of Representatives, indignantly calling out Republicans for thwarting passage of a bill providing support for 9/11 emergency responders. The scene ends with a full-throated mic smash; a moment of choreographed defiance and outrage that is the most effective tool in Weiner’s substantial political repertoire. More clips show political pundits celebrating Weiner’s excoriating take down of Republicans. Weiner may not be a folk hero, but he is a compelling political actor and a jolt of energy to a Congress defined by inaction.

In the film, we see Weiner’s campaign unfold, rising and falling like a bulging bell curve. Armed with hand held cameras, the directors doggedly follow Weiner as he basks in media scrums; jumps, shouts, and dances his way through a dizzying variety of parades; recites Rodney Dangerfield jokes in the back seat of his car to his beleaguered communications director; engages in an on-air mud slinging match with host Lawrence O’Donnell (“I think there is something wrong with you,” O’Donnell declares); speaks with a campaign advisor about pulling off a Bulworth in the last weeks of his campaign; and withstands the icy glare of his exasperated spouse. Like The War Room (1993), a landmark political documentary of politics in the late-twentieth-century, Weiner engages with its subject up close; blurry genitalia, pinapples, and all.

What makes Weiner a fascinating character is not his vapid desire for recognition—a tendency he shares with Presidential candidate and one-note hype man Donald Trump—; but rather his determination to question the moral values of those who would judge him, or even worse, write him off as a mere sideshow. Indeed, the question of whether Weiner did anything wrong lingers with the viewer after the film. Weiner argues that his only definitive transgression was to lie his constituents and to have a funny name. He contends that the Greek chorus of the press merely “played their part” in dwelling on his scandals, and were captivated by them because “they don’t do nuance.” However, Weiner’s part in his own undoing is not trivial: he willingly opens up his private life and exposes his family to the scrutiny of Kriegman and Steinberg’s camera and those of the media. Ironically, he aims to shape a self-aggrandizing narrative of his political comeback, without foreseeing how quickly things would mutate out of his control.

In addition to the dramatic story the documentary tells, it is shaped by the self-awareness of its protagonist. At the end of the film, Weiner observes that even though the documentary that bears his name will be swallowed by the “vortex” of his scandals, he hopes that it will provide the opportunity for history to revisit him. “I wanted to be viewed as the full person that I was,” Weiner wistfully reflects. Anchored to this tragicomic figure, the film bobs up and down like a buoy amid a turbulent sea, its uneasy movements telegraphing our troubled times.

Directors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg

Running Time: 96 minutes

Country: USA

Photos: Edgeline Films/IFC

Review: Bulworth (1998)

Bulworth is an incisive satire of American democracy at the doorstep of a new millennium

By Zeke Trautenberg

The opening titles of Warren Beatty’s film Bulworth establish a national political climate of cynicism and lethargy in the midst of the 1996 presidential primary. Superimposed over a black screen, the titles announce that Bill Clinton is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination, while Senator Bob Dole has locked up the Republican nomination. Senator Jay Billington Bulworth, an incumbent senator from California, is behind in the polls against an upstart challenger for his Senate seat going into the final weekend of his campaign. The titles declare that amid this uninspiring panorama of politics as normal, “the populace is unaroused.”

The first scene in the film, a wide shot of the Capitol in the rain, underscores this dreary reality. This morose atmosphere is similarly captured in the subsequent shots of an empty moonlit hallway in the Capitol and then of the eponymous Senator alone in his shadowy office. Bulworth is crying himself to sleep as variations of his own television advertisement play on repeat. Each of these ads begin with the photogenic Senator, bathed in sunlight, proclaiming “We stand on the doorstep of a new millennium…” This mise en abyme of asinine political ads overwhelms the flesh and blood Bulworth, who sits crying in a chair. Amid this weepy tableau, the camera pans across the wall of the Senator’s office where images of more inspiring moments hang like specters of an idealized past. There is a photo of a young, long-haired Bulworth in Washington, an image of Jesse Jackson during his 1984 presidential run, and a sketch of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night of the California primary in June of 1968.

This last image looms heavily over the film. Although nearly thirty years have passed, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination informs Bulworth’s paranoia and his disillusionment.  Bulworth shares little in common with the idealistic and principled Senator from New York; he is a washed-up and compromised Clintonian Democrat of the 1990s, eager to please corporate interests, cut back the reforms of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s transformative Great Society, and raise as much money as possible. Even worse, Bulworth reveals himself to be corrupt when he takes a large life insurance policy from an insurance businessman, in exchange for squashing a bill that would regulate the industry. The policy is part of Bulworth's scheme to have himself killed. In a move that satirically and explicitly draws connections to the tragic legacies of Robert and John Kennedy, Bulworth takes out a contract on his own life—a scheme he christens the “Weekend Research Project.”  Ironically, his imminent assassination shakes him out of his malaise and goads him into action.

Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, where he is on a last-minute fundraising tour, Bulworth decides to break with all political common sense: he speaks his mind and tells the truth. Tailed by a CSPAN crew, Bulworth, wantonly travels across Los Angeles, at first guided by his campaign schedule, and then by his tempestuous impulses. For much of the film, Bulworth is accompanied by Nina (Halle Berry), a young woman who appears impressed by Bulworth’s truth-telling at his first campaign stop, a black church in South Central. At the church, Bulworth takes the pulpit and begins reading his stump speech, but after a few sentences he tosses it aside. The topsy-turvy camera alerts the viewer that Bulworth is poised to break with the standard operating procedure. Abandoning the script like a rogue Mr. Smith, Bulworth goes on a tirade against corrupt politicians, the insurance industry, and endemic racism. He chides his audience for voting for the Democratic party, observing that the party takes them for granted. Further provoking the crowd, he asks, “What are you gonna do, vote Republican?” Trying to temper his boss’s off the cuff remarks, Bulworth’s campaign manager (Oliver Platt) declares to no one in particular: “Never underestimate the value of a frank exchange.” Platt’s impotent character is one of the funniest parts of the film: unable to maintain control and spin the truth, he descends into a narcissistic, cocaine-fueled mania.

The poster for Bulworth

The poster for Bulworth

In addition to its connection to the genre of political satire, the film is a portrait of a racially segregated and economically stratified city. In addition to the church in South Central, Bulworth traverses a range of distinctive locations in the city, including a mansion in Beverley Hills where he meets with Hollywood power-brokers; a hip hop club; the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel, a white Lutheran Church in Pasadena, and a TV studio. The Senator’s displacement is an allegorical device that reflects the racial tensions of Los Angeles in the years after the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and in the midst of the O.J. Simpson trial. As he grows closer to Nina, Bulworth meditates on his own past as an idealist politician and revels in memories of the Black Panther leader Huey Newton. In of the most pointed exchanges of the film, Bulworth asks Nina, “why are there are no more black leaders?” Nina responds that the decline of the industrial economy and organized black labor in Los Angeles, which blossomed during World War II, has hollowed out the black middle class and left a dearth of leaders capable of representing the black community.

The film represents Bulworth as an imperfect surrogate for black Angelinos, who ostensibly voices the community’s relevant issues and demands. The Senator is depicted as a well-meaning but clownish character. The Senator raps throughout the film and is fascinated by the term “the nappy dugout,” but these discomfort produced by the character's actions make him more, not less, complex and subversive.  And while the film occasionally detours into caricature, especially in its depiction of African American women, it nevertheless maintains a sympathy for its subjects and its hard edged critique of a Democracy that excludes many. The film’s exquisite 1990s hip hop soundtrack, which features songs by Pras (“Ghetto Supastar”), Cypress Hill (“Insane in the Membrane), and NWA (“100 Miles and Runnin’”), is a testament to the film’s authenticity and its earnest engagement with black culture.  

Beatty outside the McGovern campaign office in Beverley Hills

Beatty outside the McGovern campaign office in Beverley Hills

Beatty himself was and remains an outspoken champion of liberal politics. He campaigned for Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and in the late 1990s he briefly flirted with a Presidential run. His long filmography also reveals an obsession with politics. Among the most notable of these films are the conspiracy-thriller The Parallax View (1974); Shampoo (1975), which is set on the eve of Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 and which he co-wrote; and the Bolshevik Revolution epic Reds (1981), which he co-wrote and directed. However, Bulworth is Beatty's most personal of these politically-inflected films, especially its finally shot, in which Beatty the director conjures the spirit of Bobby Kennedy.

Bulworth is a potent portrait of America at the end of the twentieth century. Its depiction of economic inequality, universal health care (“Only socialized medicine will save the day”), the legacy of the First Gulf War, racial divisions, and O.J. Simpson—whose life and times have recently been reexamined in film and television—, resonate in the aftermath of the Affordable Care Act, the Black Lives Matter movement, and America's continued military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Likewise, traces of the film’s incisive satire can be seen in the recent television show Veep and the documentary film Weiner (2016), which chronicles the disastrous mayoral campaign of Anthony Weiner, a man who like Beatty's fictional Senator, indulged his impulses. In the year 2016, amid a contentious Presidential election rife with demagoguery, xenophobia, and racism, we could use our own Bulworth. Although before you take the stage, whoever you are, remember to mic check one two.

Director: Warren Beatty

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Country: USA

Photos: 20th Century Fox and AP

Review: The Measure of a Man (2015)

Brizé’s film is a humanist portrait of a man struggling to make ends meet

By Zeke Trautenberg

The climax of Stéphane Brizé’s film The Measure of a Man comes in the final third. The film’s protagonist, Thierry (Vincent Lindon), dressed in his security guard black suit and tie, stands uneasily a harshly lit bare room with three of his fellow supermarket employees. Thierry’s creased brow, drooping moustache, soft-spoken baritone voice, and hunched shoulders reveal his own moral distaste for his job. Next to Terry stand the store manager and another security guard. The three are interrogating a cashier from the store, whom the manager accuses of hoarding customers’ discount coupons. As Thierry and the viewer know, this backroom j’acusse is motivated by more banal and far-reaching economic motives than mere theft. The store’s management is looking to cut back on staff and reduce its pension liabilities by finding reasons to fire employees. Thierry and his fellow security guards play a key role in this scheme, spying on their fellow employees with the aim of uncovering fireable offenses.

The camera captures Thierry’s sense of anxiety and moral turpitude as it pans in shallow focus between Thierry, the manager, and the other security guard. The cashier, in the background, is out of focus and disoriented, as the weight of the charges swirl around the room. At first the cashier, a long time employee, denies her guilt, but finally she admits that she did save the coupons. She offers to forgo her bonus in order to keep her job. However, the manager is unforgiving and claims that he has no more trust in her. The camera cuts away before we see her being fired, but the viewer can infer the outcome of this jarring backroom trial.

We arrive at this scene after following Thierry through his struggles to find a job after a long period of unemployment. Thierry worked as machinist, but his skills are outdated in the highly-segmented and unequal economy of early-twenty-first century France. Thierry and his family try to make ends meet in an economic environment where austerity politics and downward mobility are the order of the day. The film is a potent allegory of how the exigencies of a globalized market and economy and government austerity policies have diminished the legacy of the postwar French welfare state. The unemployed Thierry is on the front lines of a difficult economic environment and a changing Europe. He has to grapple with an unresponsive government and rigid labor laws that harm both employers and employees. The trappings of the middle class—a car, a mobile vacation home, and a comfortable apartment— are now luxuries for Thierry and his family.

The Measure of a Man is part of a tradition of humanist filmmaking in France that stretches from Jean Renoir to Claude Sautet to Claire Denis. Like these filmmakers, Brizé shows great compassion for the workers and the struggles of everyday families. And like Renoir in The Rules of the Game, Lindon, who won the award for Best Actor at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival for his role in the film, fashions a character of immense moral depth.

Brize’s film is economic in its cinematography and mise en scène. The handheld camera work by cinematographer Eric Dumont captures the complex character of Thierry and underscores the film’s psychological intensity. The staging of the action is claustrophobic and interiors are starkly lit. Structurally, the film has much in common with the irregular pacing and experimental montage in Denis’ Nenette and Boni (1996). As in Denis’ film, we enter sequences in medias res without a clear sense of how much time has passed between one segment and the next. Another work that closely parallels the film’s tone and plot is Kafka’s The Trial (1925). Like Josef K., Thierry undergoes a series of trials in his search for employment. He faces a government official, a banker, a group of his peers tasked with evaluating his interviewing skills, and a Humans Relations expert, who gives one of the least inspiring eulogies in movie history. Notwithstanding these trials, Thierry’s life still holds room for joy. Although his face remains inscrutable, when he dances with his wife and bathes his disabled son, we sense that Thierry, however briefly, is at peace.

Director: Stéphane Brizé

Running Time: 93 minutes

Country: France

Photos: Nord-Ouest Productions/Arte France Cinéma

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

Review: Quo Vadis (1951)

The spectacle of terror and the Hollywood antihero

By Zeke Trautenberg

Shot in vivid Technicolor on colossal sets teeming with thousands of extras, MGM’s Quo Vadis is an iconic Hollywood epic. Mervyn LeRoy, the film’s director, had knack for big budget epics and working with studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner. That Quo Vadis was shot largely in Rome at the famed Cinecittà studios only enhances its connection to the glamour of classical Hollywood cinema and the excess and monumental scale of early Italian cinema.

Set in 64 A.D., the film opens with the return of a Roman legion from a campaign in Britain. As the troops march down the Appian Way towards Rome, a voice-in-off tells describes the system of oppression that undergirds the empire. “The individual is at the mercy of the state,” he declares. Equally distressing is the fact that Roman tyranny does not distinguish between classes: “High and low alike become Roman slaves, Roman hostages. There is no escape from the whip and the sword.” The commander of this legion is Marcus Vincius, played with unwavering hubris by Robert Taylor. Taylor’s leading man good looks, masculine vitality (highlighted by his shining armor and hairy chest), and unwavering belief in his own expceptionalism make him an ideal American cinematic hero in the early Cold War and Hollywood Blacklist era (the conservative Taylor was a “friendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee). No slave girl can resist the hero’s emphatic line readings.

Nero serenades his retinue

Nero serenades his retinue

As Marcus and his troops approach Rome they are detained outside the city by the Praetorian Guard and told to make camp. The commander objects to this edict and determines to confront the Emperor Nero, played with the unrestrained glee of a spoiled man-child by Peter Ustinov. Marcus’s wily uncle Petronious (Leo Glenn), intervenes on his behalf and Nero grants Marcus permission to enter the city before the parade of legions returning from the four corners of the empire.

At the home of Aulus Plautius (Felix Aylmer), Marcus encounters a beautiful woman with flowing red hair (Deborah Kerr), who he initially mistakes for a slave girl. She is none other than Lygia ,the daughter of the Lygian kings. She was taken Rome as a baby and adopted by Plautius. Like her adopted parents, Lygia is a Christian. During Marcus’s stay they welcome Saint Paul, who has come to spread the gospel in Rome. While Marcus doggedly courts Lygia and the Christians gather in the city, Nero’s delusions of grandeur grow. These multiple plot lines converge in an explosion of death, destruction, and creative willpower.

The masses before the Imperial palace

The masses before the Imperial palace

Quo Vadis draws heavily on the legacy of early Italian cinema. Although it is the first Hollywood adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novel of the same title, two productions of Quo Vadis were produced in Italy in 1912 and 1924. Prior to the Second World War, films about Roman history and myth proliferated and established a model for the epic film. Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) and Carmine Gallone’s Scipione l’africano (1937) incorporate many of the features that distinguish LeRoy’s film: a singular hero, colorful villains, competing virgin and lecherous female love-interests, massive sets, a sprawling cast, strongmen, kitschy costumes (epitomized by the ubiquitous peplos garment), oversize sets, lavish production design, a thunderous score, and an underlying moral allegory the emphasizes strength, purity, and virtue. These tropes surface again in subsequent cinematic adaptations of Greco-Roman history and myth, most notably, the plum genre films produced between 1958 and 1965. Like these early Italian and peplum films, the maxim of Quo Vadis is bigger is better. The magnitude of the film’s ambitions are underscored by Miklós Rózsa’s thunderous score and the bold costume design, in particular the green and gold ensembles worn by the lascivious Empress Poppaea (Patricia Laffan).

LeRoy’s film embraces broad allegory over subtle nuance—in addition to Saint Paul, Saint Peter and Jesus appear in the film. (The Coen Brother’s film Hail, Ceasar! (2016) parodies Quo Vadis’s representation of Christ, who in both films is “tastefully” shot from behind and also appears as a burst of light). The opening narration of Quo Vadis frames the film as a Manichean struggle between the peace-loving and inclusive Christians and the unhinged Nero (the film, like the novel, draws on the historian Tacitus’s negative portrayal of the Emperor in his Histories). However, the epic model of good versus evil is steadily undermined by the portrayal of Nero. The film depicts the Emperor as a morally corrupt, vain, and tempestuous character, it also represents him as an antihero artist. He is a quixotic leader whose ambitious, hallucinatory, and fiery creative endeavors mirror the film’s grandiose depiction of Roman history.

“The Most Colossal Ever!”  proclaims the  1951 Poster for  Quo Vadis

“The Most Colossal Ever!” proclaims the 1951 Poster for Quo Vadis

Throughout the film, Nero seeks the favor of his advisors for his artistic endeavors. He composes songs, tells jokes, and builds a model the creation of his new Rome, “Neropolis.” He sets fire to the city to realize his simultaneously apocalyptic and utopian artistic vision. Nero’s earnest, though destructive, creative endeavors subvert the initial framing of the film as a moral allegory. Underlying this surface level allegory is a more complex and nuanced one about the process of artistic creation and spectacle. After all, Nero says that he envisions a “spectacle of terror” when he proposes burning Rome to the ground. His advisor Petronius warns him against his ambition: “Burn a city in order to create an epic. That’s carrying the principle of art for art’s sake too far.” Notwithstanding Petronius’s criticism of art for art’s sake, the film depicts the burning of the city with the tonal and emotional intensity of Karl Bryullov’s romantic painting The Last Days of Pompeii (1830-1833).

Karl Bryullov’s  The Last Days of Pompeii  (1830-1833)

Karl Bryullov’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1830-1833)

On the one hand, the film’s apocalyptic representation of a smoldering city fits its emphasis on binary contrasts and Christian morality. Rome embodies excess and its immolation is divine justice ironically wrought by the man who believes that he is a living deity. On the other hand, Quo Vadis indulges in the horrors of this devastation, which culminates in the persecution of the Christians, who are fed to the lions in the Coliseum. The tension between the film’s moralizing framework—laid out in the initial voice-over narration— and its depictions of mass violence converge in the figure of Nero, whose mix of vanity and insecurity make him the most complex, and therefore human of character in the film. In his desire to please the mob and, by extension, the viewer, Nero is a subversive and ironic personification of the epic Hollywood filmmaker. Early in the film, as Nero surveys the passing parade of legions and the thousands of Roman citizens in the Forum below, he asks: “Do I live for the them or do they live for me?” This self-reflexive question encapsulates the duality at the core of Nero’s antihero artist identity: his creative impulses are accompanied by the yearning for an audience to his “terrible spectacle.” These parallel and complementary elements converge in Quo Vadis’s fever dream of a city aflame.

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Running Time: 171 minutes

Country: USA/Italy

Photos: MGM

(First published in Párrafo 451)

Review: Brazil (1985)

Brazil is a dystopian love letter to cinema and a terrifying story of citizenship in the information age

By Zeke Trautenberg

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil depicts a city of grey concrete apartment blocks, groaning air ducts, and mountains of paperwork sorted by a mass of grey-suited bureaucrats. This dystopian world of the information age exists in stark contrast to the sterile, utilitarian, and efficient future promised by companies like Apple and embodied by mid-century utopian urban planning projects like Brasilia. In this fictional city, order coexists with dysfunction. Elevators have minds of their own, heating systems fail, and an intransigent government imprisons and tortures its own citizens with impunity.  

From the beginning, the film plays with the viewer’s expectations and perspective. The film opens with a shot of a cloud-filled blue sky. Titles on the screen announce that it is 8:49 p.m. and “Somewhere in the 20th Century.” These titles set the pattern for the contradictions and ellipsis that characterize the film’s larger narrative and structure. The time (8:49 p.m.) is definite, but the place and year are not specified. Likewise, the phrase of “Somewhere in the 20th Century,” instead of “Sometime in the 20th Century,” emphasizes the connection between time and place. The twentieth century is not just a temporal epoch, but a place to be depicted, explored, and imagined on film. This first scene concludes with the camera moving towards the darkened city below.

The protagonist of the film, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), lives in this forbidding city. Sam holds a prominent position in the document department of the Ministry of Information, where he assists his inept boss with reams of paperwork and daydreams about a mysterious blonde woman—who later materializes as the government suspect Jill Layton (Kim Greist). This Leviathan-like ministry, whose operating budget consumes seven percent of the gross national product, implants itself into every crevice of the city. Its insidious reach is conveyed in Constructivist and social realist style posters pasted across the city, which feature sinister slogans like “Suspicion Breeds Confidence,” “Don’t Suspect a Friend. Report Him,” and “Mind That Parcel. Eagle Eyes Can Save A Life.”

The film’s intricate plot is set in motion by a case of mistaken identity. When Harry Buttle is arrested instead of Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro), Sam becomes embroiled in the government’s anti-terrorist campaign. The Deputy Minister of Information blames “Bad sportsmanship” for the rise of terrorist bombings and declares: “A ruthless minority of people seem to have forgotten good old-fashioned virtues. They just can’t stand seeing the other fellow win.” The class divisions and resentments alluded to by the Deputy Minister, are reflected in the spatially and economically segregated city. However, Tuttle and Jill Layton, the government suspects, never articulate a set of demands or specify their opposition to the government. The closest thing we hear to a manifesto is Tuttle’s declaration to Sam: “We’re all in it together, kid.” Ironically, this statement also appears on a billboard showing a smiling nuclear family and their dog in a sleek blue car below the word “Happiness.” The duality of this phrase—on the one hand its a statement of solidarity and on the other a marketing slogan—underscores the larger narrative and structural ambiguities of the film, which in turn demand an active viewer.  

In addition to the exploration of marketing, Gilliam’s film explores cinephilia, what Susan Sontag calls “the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired,” and draws on a number of cinematic intertexts. Like the other men at the Ministry, Sam is drawn to the screens throughout the office that broadcast movies and television. The wall in his room covered with posters of glamour style photographs of early twentieth-century film stars. And when it is mentioned that Casablanca (1942) will be shown on television, Sam expresses his enthusiasm for the film by uttering Humphrey Bogart’s famous line: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” The similarities between Bogart’s line and Tuttle’s parting phrase are unequivocal and reflect the centrality of cinephilia in the film.

Beyond these direct references to cinema, Gilliam’s film engages with the medium itself and draws connections with silent film-era characters. The oneiric sequences of the film—which feature Sam as a flying glam-rock warrior doing battle with a giant armored samurai—serve as allegories of cinema and its capacity to create. In the same vein, Sam’s dream of a city rising out of the earth serves a metonym of the film’s representation of a fictional metropolis. On a related note, the ingenuous disposition and elastic movements of Jonathan Pryce’s character recall Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in Modern Times (1936) and Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). Tati’s film in particular offers a unique lens through which to consider Gilliam’s film. Both works depict worlds that are inundated with technology, but also profoundly alienating. Whereas Monsieur Hulot is a fish out of water, adrift in a rapidly urbanizing and modernizing post-war France, the protagonist of Brazil is an insider, albeit a naïve one, who seeks to uncover the invisible layers of an all-consuming bureaucracy.

Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati’s  Playtime

Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati’s Playtime

Brazil is part of a sub-genre of twentieth-century science fiction films that center of the dystopian city. Other films that form part of this lineage are Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). The production design of these four films emphasizes monumental scale of the city and the diminutive size and power of its citizens. However, in terms of its narrative and production design, Metropolis is Brazil’s closest cousin. Both depict vertical cities and link power to monumental and self-contained structures. The New Tower of Babel in Metropolis and the headquarters of the Ministry of Information in Brazil are imposing buildings that embody the power of capitalism and the state, respectively. And while there is no physical equivalent to Metropolis’s utopian Eternal Gardens in Brazil, both films portray a hero who becomes disenchanted with the urban elite and in his efforts to help the oppressed, unearths the dreadful human cost of sustaining the city.

The vertical city of  Metropolis

The vertical city of Metropolis

The key difference between Metropolis and Brazil is the kind of economies they depict. Whereas the Metropolis centers on an industrial economy managed and owned by a wealthy capitalist class, Brazil portrays an information economy controlled by a state bureaucracy that operates with impunity. If the voracious mouth of Moloch in Lang’s film exemplifies the exploitation of the producer-based economy, then the short-circuited gizmos in Sam’s apartment reflect a consumer-centric economy, in which technology pervades domestic life. Gilliam’s film satirizes the fetishization of the citizen as a consumer: even terrorist suspects are referred to as “customers” by the security services. In this dystopian society, citizens’ contract with the government is not social (in the Rousseauian sense), but transactional. The values of liberalism—belief in the dignity of all, equality before the law, freedom of speech—are incompatible with a totalitarian state that is only accountable unto itself.

The information-based, consumer-centered economy depicted in Brazil is not benign. It is monitored and controlled by bureaucrats who follow an endless number of regulations and adhere to an opaque set parameters. However, the purview of state power extends beyond the collection of information—torture is also part of the government’s repertoire. In our era of mass government spying in which information is consumed and exploited with impunity, the film’s story of naked and unchecked power resonates. However, what makes Brazil so vital and prescient is Sam’s final, terrifying revelation: masked or unmasked, injustice endures.

Director: Terry Gilliam

Running Time: 132 minutes

Country: USA

Photos: Embassy International Pictures/UFA/Criterion Collection

(First published in Párrafo 451)

Review: Capone Cries A Lot (1985)

Seijun Suzuki’s tale of a singing immigrant is a poignant love letter to cinema

By Zeke Trautenberg

Seijun Suzuki is best known for the dozens of films he made while employed at Japan’s Nikkatsu studios in the 1950s and 1960s. Noir thrillers like Youth of the Beast (1963), Tokyo Drifter (1966), and Branded to Kill (1967) depict a violent and rapidly changing post-war Japan. Many of Suzuki’s Nikkatsu films feature Joe Shishido, an actor whose plastic surgery-enhanced chipmunk cheeks and gangster cool complemented Suzuki’s anarchic plots, eccentric production design, and frenetic cinematography. Suzuki’s satirical 1985 film, Capone Cries A Lot stars Kenichi Hagiwara, a former boy band idol, who matches Shishido’s intensity and complements it with a knack for screwball physical comedy. Hagiwara plays Umiemon, a naniwa-bushi (rōkyoku) singer, who immigrates to 1920s San Francisco with Kozome (Yūko Tanaka), the young wife of another naniwa-bushi master. The film portrays their trials and travails as they adjust to the unfamiliar and frequently unwelcoming society across the Pacific.

The film opens in a traditional Japanese home, where Umiemon has traveled to study under the direction of Kozome’s husband. The master singer, however is not present, and the upstart singer is seduced by the mischievous Kozome, who bears an ominous tattoo of a green octopus on her back as punishment for a past infidelity. These initial sequences are replete with Suzuki’s perennial jump cuts and masterly choreographed slapstick set pieces that culminate in the severing of a finger by the desperate Umiemon. The baritone-voiced protagonist is finally taken under the wing of another naniwa-bushi master, who initially passes himself off as Kozome’s husband. In one memorable scene, the two sing insults at one other as they stand on a cliff perched over the blue-gray ocean, their fists gripping the others’ balls.  

Umiemon’s decision to take leave of his master and immigrate to Prohibition-era America is not entirely accounted for—plot holes are another endearing element of Suzuki’s films—, but his move was a common one for tens of thousands of Japanese men and women following the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Many Issei settled in the West Coast and Mountain West of the United States, where they labored in mines and on railroads. This migration, which continued largely unabated until a series of restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s, reshaped the social and cultural dynamics of towns and cities across the American West.

In the film, early-twentieth-century San Francisco is depicted as a diverse city of black, Chinese, Italian, and Japanese-Americans. Umiemon settles in the Yokohama House, a hotel that doubles as a saloon and brothel. The bright interior of the hotel, with its yellow, orange, and turquoise walls, recalls the saloon in Suzuki’s gangster revenge film Tokyo Drifter. And as in Tokyo Drifter, the hotel is the site of an elaborately staged shootout. The production design in the rest Capone Cries A Lot is similarly idiosyncratic. Much of the film was shot an abandoned theme park in San Francisco; a brightly lit merry-go-round is a recurring set piece. The carnival-like setting amplifies the film’s representation of America as a place where modernity (embodied by the garish billboards for Ford Model-B, Dentyne gum, and Hershey’s Choclate), wanton violence, and racism exist side by side.

After Kozome’s gambling debts force her into prostitution, Umiemon moves into an open-air, latticed steel tower with dozens of other Japanese immigrants. He plies his trade in a plaza, but his songs, which one Yakuza member compares to the croak of suffocating frog, do not appeal to an American audience. Umiemon’s dream is to sing before the president—a fantasy unlikely to be realized unless you take into account the President of the Night, Al Capone.

The third act of the film finds the naïve singer joining the local Yakuza. The Japanese gangsters recruit him not because of his voice, but by virtue of his knowledge of Sake brewing. Freed from her indentured servitude at the brothel, Kozome also asserts herself as a dominant force in a place that she ironically calls “the land of gender equality. The lady with the octopus tattoo negotiates with Al Capone, establishes a floating brothel, and endeavors to transform herself into a modern American woman.

A tone of melancholy and sharp sense of injustice lie beneath the film’s slapstick humor and stylistic flourishes. Umiemon captures the pain of racism and discrimination in a song about American Indian resistance in the nineteenth century. Umiemon, his throat muscles tensed and his face vibrating sings: “So much hatred and malice . . . . Sandcreek.” These lyrics refer to the 1864 Sandcreek Massacre, an event in which U.S. Army volunteers murdered hundreds of Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians. In linking the histories of American Indians and Japanese-Americans, Suzuki establishes a link of solidarity between ethnic and racial minorities in the United States. This racial animosity and tension are also reflected in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, who hold signs reading “America for Americans,” a minstrel band in blackface, and the internment camps of the 1940s, which appear towards the end of the film. In the era of Black Lives Matter, mass deportations, and entrenched social inequality in the United States, Suzuki’s sharp-edged story of the Japanese immigrant experience in twentieth-century America resonates with poignancy and urgency.

In addition to its incisive portrayal of social and political issues of twentieth-century America, Suzuki’s film is a love letter to cinema. Capone Cries A Lot is a gangster film, a samurai picture, and a western. Umiemon’s naniwa-bushi songs, which range from tales of samurai exploits to songs about Al Capone’s teary disposition, exemplify the manic blend of genres. Likewise, the protagonist’s fervent impersonation of Charlie Chaplin in front of a movie theater underscores the film’s debt to silent era comedies. Notwithstanding the prominence of these cinematographic references, the triumphant moment of the film comes in the form of music. In a hollowed-out concrete building, a group of black jazz and blues musicians jam to the rhythm of a naniwa-bushi tune, injecting Umiemon’s mournful baritone vibrato with a whole lot of soul.

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Running Time: 130 minutes

Country: Japan

Photos: Capone Cries A Lot, K Enterprises/C.C.J.