Friday, October 29, 2010

Daisy Miller (1974)

Peter Bogdanovich's Daisy Miller is an odd mix of two tones that the director usually hits with skillful precision: comedy and bittersweet loss. Based on Henry James's novella of the same name, the film tells the story of an expatriate named Winterbourne who meets a beguiling young American girl traveling Europe with her flighty mother and surly younger brother. A relationship develops between the uptight Winterbourne and the vivacious Daisy, but Daisy quickly becomes the scandal of the American expatriate community and Winterbourne can't quite reconcile himself to the disapproval of people like the rich widow Mrs. Walker.

Henry James is notoriously hard to adapt to the screen because so much of his work takes place below the placid surface of the (in)action of the plot. Bogdanovich bravely waded into these deep waters with his mind set on staying true to the spirit of James. The result is in many ways his least accessible film. It reminds me in some ways of Welles's The Immortal Story, a film of similar somber control. The difference here is that Bogdanovich, a master of comedy, injects this film with a lot of daylight, in both the metaphorical and literal senses.

Most of the comedy comes from the members of the Miller family. Mrs. Miller (Cloris Leechman) is a motor-mouthed set of nervous twitches, while Daisy's little brother (future singer/songwriter James McMurtry) is a grumpy American xenophobe who's none to happy he's stuck in Italy with his big sister and mother.

And then there's Daisy herself, played by Bogdanovich's 70s muse Cybil Shepherd. A viewer's enjoyment of the film hinges in large part on his or her reaction to Shepherd's quirky charisma. Despite her beauty there was always something imbalanced about Cybil Shepherd, a combination of giddy eccentricity on the one hand and fair-haired banality on the other. That probably sounds worse than I mean it, but consider that both of her iconic film roles (in The Last Picture Show and Scorsese's Taxi Driver) position her as a man's unattainable romantic ideal. It's too much to say that she had a mystery about her, but in most of her film roles there's something untouchable about Cybil Shepherd, something a little playful and more than a little mean. More often than not, when she's playing opposite a man, Shepherd seems like a weird little kid pulling the wings off flies. Here, she plays Daisy as a bubbly innocent--or she tries to--but innocence hangs off her like an oddly tailored outfit.

Which may or may not be the point. Daisy and Winterbourne can't seem to ever say what they're feeling. With Winterbourne this makes sense. As played by Barry Brown, he's a man of tight reserve. With his dark, mournful eyes, Brown has no trouble selling us on Winterbourne's morose self-defeat.
(A tragic manic depressive who killed himself just four years after this movie was made, Brown should have been cast as Edgar Allan Poe in a biopic.) But Daisy is tough to figure. There is a scene toward the middle of the film where they dash to make it to a boat, and she turns and looks at him with unbridled joy--a joy she quickly bridles again. It's a terrific moment of acting by Shepherd because it plays off the confusion she usually causes in men: Is she toying with me? Even after the film supplies us with an answer, we're still not sure.

Shepherd is perfect for this role in the sense that you're never entirely sure what she's thinking. Her weakness as an actress, however, has always been that her obliquity doesn't seem to hint at unplumbed depths. She's a shallow actress in the best and worst senses of the word.

Daisy Miller is a fine film in many ways. Its production design is impeccable, and the cinematography by Alberto Spagnoli is often stunning. The supporting cast, particularly Eileen Brennan as the conniving Mrs. Walker, is top rate. Moreover, Bogdanovich shows once again that he is a master of intricate long take (I can't say for sure but I'm willing to bet that this film has fewer cuts than any of his others).

It is a film of surfaces and seems to be the spiritual precursor to Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and Ivory's Remains of the Day--yet Daisy and her goofy family make odd protagonists for such a tale. This goes back to what I was saying at the outset about the mix of tones.

In its day, the film was a notorious flop, suffering in part from the bad press that Bogdanovich and Shepherd's extramarital affair had generated in the tabloids. It ended Bogdanovich's period of skyrocket success, derailing for a time one of the most important directors of his era. Watched today, however, the film is fascinating. I can't bring myself to call it an unalloyed artistic success--but there is something about it. Like Daisy herself, it stays in the mind.

Here's a piece by Peter Tonguette over at Senses of Cinema, a retrospective of Bogdanovich's career with a lot of attention devoted to Daisy Miller.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Beat To A Pulp: Round One

Lock the doors and dig the cash out of the mattress, Beat To A Pulp: Round One is available! I'm proud to be included in this pulse-pounding neo-noir anthology alongside heavy hitters like Charles Ardai, Ed Gorman, Patti Abbott, Hilary Davidson, James Reasoner, and so many more. This tombstone-sized tome is edited by David Cranmer and Elaine Ash and features an introduction by Bill Crider and a history of pulp by Pulp Serenader Cullen Gallagher. You can't afford to miss this book. Asses are kicked, hearts are broken, and we all end up face down in the gutter. Buy yours now!

Also available at Amazon.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Noir City DC 2010

The Film Noir Foundation and AFI roll out Noir City DC October 16th-November 3rd, and it looks to be another raging success. The lineup this year is an embarrassment of riches:

Border Incident-Anthony Mans's gritty illegal immigrant noir, featuring amazing work by cinematographer John Alton.

Stranger on the Third Floor-Arguably the first film noir.

Vertigo-Hitchcock directs Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in one of the truly essential American films.

Criss Cross-Robert Siodmak directs Burt Lancaster and Yvonne de Carlo in a 100% perfect film noir. A masterpiece.

Act of Violence-Robert Ryan and Van Heflin in this long dark night of the soul. A beautiful and brilliant (and vastly underrated) masterpiece.

Pitfall-Lizabeth Scott, Dick Powell, and Raymond Burr in Andre De Toth's love triangle from hell. One of my favorite films.

Pushover-Yet another underrated masterpiece! Bad girl Kim Novak and bad cop Fred McMurray fall in love and hell opens under their feet.

The Night of the Hunter-Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish square off in this Flannery O'Connor meets Caligari nightmare. Brilliant--and not to be missed on the big screen.

And more!

This is an extraordinary collection of films, a mix of established gems and overlooked works of genius. If you live in or around the DC area (or if you just happen to be in town for the Jon Stewart/Stepehn Colbert rally on the National Mall), do not pass up an opportunity to see some of the these works on the big screen in the gorgeous AFI facility.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Virgin Spring (1960)

I've had little success introducing friends to the cinema of Ingmar Bergman. Among the great directors, he is one of the harder sells. For one thing, many of his films seem to embody a distinct sixties European art cinema aesthetic. They move slowly--ahem, I mean, deliberately. Audience-aiding exposition is minimal. Characters swing from frigidity to viciousness and back again. Warmth is rare. Humor is nearly nonexistent. Despair is all consuming. The director's most famous obsession is the silence of god.

So, okay, Bergman doesn't make for swinging Saturday night. His success in American art cinemas in the sixties, let's be honest, owed a lot to his willingness to show sex and nudity onscreen. Since the world has long since rendered most of his films tame in this respect (except for perhaps The Silence) even these minor titillations have been muted. What you are left with are the films themselves.

And, God, what films they are! The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Anna, Persona, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence, Scenes from a Marriage, and
his only film with that other famous Swedish Bergman, Ingrid, Autumn Sonata.
I think my favorite among his works might be The Virgin Spring, Bergman's beautiful production of Ulla Isaksson's adaption of the medieval ballad "Tore's Daughter at Vange". Isaksson's script sticks close to the original folktale about a young girl who is raped and murdered on her way to church by two herdsman (accompanied by a young boy). The killers steal her garments and later down the road make the mistake of trying to sell them to her parents. The dead girl's father kills the men, but when he also murders the boy in a rage he recognizes his sin and repents. (The set-up may sound familiar to viewers of The Last House on The Left which ripped off the basic set-up and chucked all that fuddy-duddy stuff about guilt, sin and redemption--in other words, everything that matters)

The most distinctive aspect of Bergman's work is his tone, a fascinating (and potentially alienating) mixture of surface-cool and below-the -surface torment. In The Virgin Spring, like so much of his best work, we are shown rage and lust and terror through the director's cold, unblinking eyes. The girl's parents exist in a marriage of mutual animosity. Their foster child, the pregnant, pagan bad girl Ingeri prays for her virginal sister's death. The one ray of light in the film is the girl herself, Karin (played by the luminous Birgitta Valberg) and she's raped and murdered. The emotional landscape of the film is a tundra overlying a volcano.

Bergman's gaze renders it all so powerfully. This was his first movie shot by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and together they created one the best looking films I've ever seen. In night scenes, pale faces are etched out of sheer blackness--while during the day, sunlight sits cool and soft on skin. Nykvist was as much a master of light as film noir legend John Alton, and he was the prefect collaborator for Bergman. The story is a parable, a mix of the real and unreal, and the photography captures this quality perfectly. It has the hard beauty of sculpted light.

Acting in this kind of environment is tricky. At the the center of the Bergman oeuvre stands the tall, reedy figure of Max von Sydow, star of so many of the director's best films. With his ascetic face and cavernous voice, von Sydow was to Bergman as Wayne was to Ford and Mifune was to Kurosawa--the perfect walking representation of the director's worldview. Want to know what Bergman thought of life, look into von Sydow's sad blue eyes. In The Virgin Spring, he plays a man robbed of everything but his own sense of guilt. Like Job he questions God, implicates God in the murder of his child, but is forced to admit that he has nothing else to hold onto.

The last scene (changed from the ballad) contains the emergence of the magical spring of the title. After von Sydow has repented of his killings and pledged his devotion to God, a cleansing spring breaks forth under the body of his murdered daughter. It's a miracle. Very few filmmakers could pull off this kind of moment (and since so few filmmakers are seriously interested in matters of faith, it's difficult to believe that most would even try). Bergman, his cast and crew, and his screenwriter, earn the moment with an almost brutal lack of sentimentality. Ingmar Bergman is well aware of three things here: 1) girls really are raped and murdered in this harsh, cold world; 2) miracles such as the pure spring do not happen; and 3) humanity invented stories of the miracles as a way to hold on. It takes an artist as despairing as Bergman to sell us on the idea of a miracle.


Like many of Bergman's works, The Virgin Spring is available in a beautiful edition from the Criterion Collection. It's the one to get.