Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Criterion Collection #399: House of Games

By Matt Zoller Seitz

It surely isn't lost on David Mamet that the title of his 1987 debut feature, House of Games, doubles as a three-word summation of his career. From stage to screen, the playwright and filmmaker's tales are rife with hustlers, tricksters and sleight-of-hand artists. Mamet's characters tend to fall into one of two camps: the taken and the takers. Some of the latter are fairly marginal in the greater scheme of things: in House of Games, Joe Mantegna's mind-twister Mike and his partners in deception aren't really a threat to anyone but their marks. Other Mamet takers are more menacing because they represent larger institutions: the mob in Things Change, the blandly ruthless executive branch of the U.S. government in Spartan.

But Mamet is rarely content to depict simple morality plays or contests of will. He self-consciously and deliberately italicizes the characters as characters -- mouthpieces for Mamet's world view and motors driving the plot. The story, meanwhile, is often more of a "story," an interlocking series of situations designed to illustrate Mamet's philosophy of life; he's like Stanley Kubrick in this respect, only leaner, and with less interest in (or capacity for) lyrically cinematic moments. The subtext of many Mamet films is, "You're watching a story because you crave a story; the characters' goals, indeed the characters themselves, are pretexts to satisfy that need." Many of Mamet's projects as playwright, director and hired-gun screenwriter follow hard men in pursuit of what Hitchcock called a "MacGuffin"; Glengarry Glen Ross, The Spanish Prisoner, Ronin (which Mamet rewrote without screen credit), Homicide and Oleanna revolve, respectively, around the leads; the process; the briefcase; the definition of the word "grofaz"; and a report by a "group" investigating sexual harassment charges against a professor. The films sometimes add one more layer of self-awareness by peaking with a twist that surprises, disappoints or otherwise pulls the rug out from under the viewer -- a tactic perfected in 1973's The Sting, in which a couple of con men hoodwinked both their mark and the audience.

Mamet forged his template with 1987's House of Games, newly reissued in a terrific 20th anniversary DVD from the Criterion Collection. Mamet's debut stars his then-wife, Lindsay Crouse, as Dr. Margaret Ford, a psychologist and bestselling author who gets tangled up with a con man named Mike (Joe Mantegna) whose signature line should be every Mamet fan's mantra: "Don't trust nobody." When one of Margaret's patients confesses that he owes Mike a gambling debt that he can't afford to pay, and she visits Mike's smoky headquarters, the House of Games, hoping to solve the problem, Mamet sets off a chain of misdirection that continues through the film's hysterically overwrought climax ("Please, sir -- may I have another?").

In House of Games, the gambit that con men call the "hook" is the scene where Mike tells Margaret that he'll erase the patient's debt if she'll pose as his girlfriend, join him in a high-stakes back room poker game, and then, when Mike briefly leaves the room, spy on an opponent known as the Man from Vegas (Ricky Jay), then inform Mike if the man flashes his "tell" (a bit of body language revealing intent to bluff). The scene is fake-out within a fake-out: the Man from Vegas appears to outsmart both Margaret and Mike and then, when Mike calls him out as a liar, pulls a "gun" that's actually a water pistol and demands a payout that the rattled Mike claims he doesn't have; Margaret, an outwardly tough woman with a major Florence Nightingale complex, instantly offers to write a check covering Mike's debt. The scene is cut to suggest that Margaret, the lone civilian in a room full of hardcore gamblers, is the first character to spot the water dribbling from the water pistol's barrel. In fact, the supposed "screw-up" was part of the con men's script, as was the subsequent, "spontaneous" confrontation between Mike and the Man from Vegas (who's actually George, an associate of Mike's).

This entire sequence is the opening salvo in a long con that illustrates the poker player's maxim, "If you look around the table, and you can't tell who the sucker is, it's you." Margaret's "discovery" of the water pistol con makes her feel smart. But a smart woman wouldn't whip out a checkbook in the presence of a self-confessed "bad man" like Mike, much less willingly return to Mike's orbit (" a dog to its own vomit," in Mike's words) and ask if she can follow him around and write about book about his world. She should know better, but she can't help herself. Or perhaps, deep down, she wants to get taken.

* * *

What a piece of work is Mamet. He's kin to Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese and Norman Mailer, prone to romanticize the same brutes he dissects; half sociologist, half hype artist, utterly valuable. His books on the craft of creativity (including Writing in Restaurants, On Directing Film, and the acting manifesto True and False) are must-reads. His singsong rants influenced everyone from Spike Lee and Kevin Smith to Quentin Tarantino and David Milch. And his meticulous, largely self-taught directing style -- dazzlingly showcased in House of Games, a master class in dramatically functional compositions and camera moves -- should be mandatory viewing for any would-be filmmaker.

Games also marked the appearance of a lot of Mamet's baggage, much of it cumbersome, some downright ugly. Mamet has little use for women, who exist only to support or undermine men. He has less use for intellectuals (a class that Mamet, with his chin-stroking author photos, unquestionably belongs to; interesting bit of self-hatred, that). And he despises psychiatry, therapy and anything that smacks of "sensitivity." This pose is reinforced in Mamet's books about writing, which dismiss organized study of the arts (particularly workshops, college courses and graduate studies) as cons designed to make people who aren't serious feel as though they are. "I don't have any experience with film schools. I suspect that they're useless, because I've had experience with drama schools, and have found them to be useless," Mamet writes in On Directing Film. "Most drama schools teach things that will be learned by anyone in the normal course of events, and refrain from insulting the gentleman or gentlewoman student of liberal arts by offering instructions in demonstrable skill."

Mamet disdains psychiatry and worships "natural" men who aren't remotely curious about why they are who they are; yet his dramas, while hard-edged and profane, are also archly self-aware, and they often build their narratives around reductive, Psych 101 explanations of compulsion, sublimation, repression, projection and the like. The most annoyingly trite scene in House of Games is when Margaret makes a Freudian slip in the presence of her German-accented mentor and Mamet plays the moment straight. The moment is trite because only in bad movies do Freudian slips disclose one's true self; it's annoying because Mamet includes it in a film that otherwise slags psychiatry as a sucker's game. Mamet's third film, Homicide, starring Mantegna as a cop and self-loathing Jew who gets sucked into an investigation that might involve a sect of violent Jewish radicals, had an even more unsubtle Freudian gimmick: it illustrated the idea that the hero had culturally emasculated himself and wanted to be punished by having him repeatedly drop his gun when he most needed it. Mamet plunders pop-Freud thinking while sneering at the culture that birthed it and denying its influence on his work -- a neat trick. He's like a politician who's built a 40-year public service career on running against government.

Mamet's big three animosities intertwine in House of Games' systematic debasement of Margaret, one of only two major female characters in an otherwise testosterone-heavy film, and the repository of Mamet's bemusement at the vanity and impotence of intellectuals and his much proclaimed contempt for psychiatry. The latter is showcased again on the Criterion disc, in a commentary track by Mamet and Jay, an actor, gambler, card trickster and walking encyclopedia of deception. Mamet never misses an opportunity to slag shrinks ("all their kids are insane," he says at one point). Jay's more nuanced analysis of the Margaret-Mike relationship states that Mamet is "conflating, if you will, psychology and the con."

Mamet's Scientology-level loathing of psychiatry pales beside the more nuanced mockery of The Sopranos. That series' creator, David Chase, kids Dr. Melfi's tough-love deadpan, pregnant pauses and smugly certain diagnoses even as he acknowledges that she's right more often than not. Chase's point could be boiled down to, "Psychiatrists are as self-important and deluded as anyone; psychiatry is good at identifying the roots of people's behavioral problems, but almost useless at fixing them, because people are so contradictory that they resist deconstruction, and they often can't or won't change." Mamet's take: "Psychiatrists are con artists with diplomas."

By making both of the film's representatives of psychiatry female (Margaret and her mentor, Dr. Littauer, played by Lilia Scala), Mamet lumps psychiatry in with cultural forces that he believes are trying to psychologically castrate men. The notion of therapeutic culture as a distinctly feminine con game is built into the film's narrative. Mamet's script defines empathy as weakness and reveals Margaret -- the film's most conspicuous purveyor of empathy -- as a parasite who feeds on pain, helps others in order to distract from her own sense of worthlessness, and poses as strong while secretly craving submission and humiliation.

That Mamet's stand-in, Mike, is a better psychologist than Margaret is an easy gag, but incredibly satisfying to moviegoers -- a cliche that flatters every audience member's fantasy of being the coolest person in the room. The character is a dazzling conceit: an abstraction that embodies the seductive adage that instinct trumps book learnin'. The Mike-Margaret relationship inadvertently anticipates the byplay in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway between John Cusack's wimpy, pointed-headed college boy playwright, David Shayne, and Chazz Palminteri's Mafia assassin, Cheech, a scowling thug who turns out to be a natural born writer who knows things you can't learn in college.

The difference is, Mike is content to be a bad man, and digs the awed fascination he provokes in "respectable" people. He's uniquely qualified to hoist the doc on her own petard. He deduces that the transgressive impulses and need for dependence that characterize Margaret's patients are present in Margaret as well, then draws them out and exploits them. Added to which: Mike man, Margaret woman. He's a suave bulldozer; she's a prim fembot who could use a good plowing. When Mike seduces Margaret -- emotionally, by inviting her into his forbidden (male) world; then physically, in a purloined hotel room -- the acts are pregnant with wider insinuations. We're not just seeing a con man dupe and nail a shrink. We're seeing an exemplar of natural manhood ravaging a symbol of feminized, therapy-addicted, "sensitive" culture.

Mamet has a mission -- The Re-Ballification of Man -- and he's been on it for most of his career. In Oleanna, the film and the play, a pompous but essentially honorable professor is goaded into violence by a grade-grubbing fembot student who hits him with specious sexual harassment charges that she knows he can't disprove. In The Untouchables, Sean Connery's gnomic old Irish beat cop, Malone, shows the WASP-y college boy Elliott Ness how to fight dirty, and gallantly endures one of film history's most gloriously spectacular death scenes; Ness honors Malone's example by engineering a nonsensical and probably illegal jury switcheroo during Al Capone's trial and chucking Malone's assassin, Frank Nitti, off a courthouse roof after Nitti has already surrendered. "I have become what I beheld," Ness declares in the end, "and I am content that I have done right." Tellingly, Ness' wife -- the most significant onscreen emblem of the civilized, domestic society that Malone and Ness went medieval to protect -- is identified in the end credits simply as "Ness' wife." In the Mamet-scripted The Edge, Anthony Hopkins' hero character, a soft-spoken, well-read, self-made billionaire, survives a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, outwits and outlasts a much younger fashion photographer (Alec Baldwin) who wants to steal his trophy wife (Elle MacPherson), and slays a grizzly the size of a Winnebago. In Heist, Gene Hackman's thief is an old man who forgets to wear a mask during a robbery, but he still kicks ass and bunks with a saucy dame half his age (played by Pidgeon). Mamet's affinity for manly men is so pure that it's almost childlike. He hypes them even when it's not necessary. "My motherfucker's so cool," Jay's sidekick character says of Hackman in Heist, "when he goes to sleep, sheep count him."

* * *

In an interview commissioned for the House of Games disc, Crouse defends every aspect of the film. When she insists that Margaret truly is the hero of the tale, the character who engages the viewer's rooting interest, she's not too persuasive. She sounds like an actor who's still justifying having accepted a role that no actor with half a brain would have refused. Far more compelling is Crouse's analysis of Games as a dream film -- a non-representational narrative built from bits of Margaret's personality. Crouse repeats the adage that "every person in your dream is you," or otherwise indicative of the dreamer's fears and desires. This interpretation jibes with the movie's hardboiled, not-quite-real aesthetic -- the deliberately stiff, signifier-loaded dialogue; the cartoonishly Freudian character motivations (Margaret's bestseller is titled Driven); and most of all, the cruel magnetism of Mike, a devil summoned by a dirty secret prayer.

"You want someone to possess you," Mike intones, stroking Margaret's hand as she gazes at him in wonder. His musk fogs Margaret's bullshit detector and sets her heart racing. He's Stanley Kowalski rewritten by Ayn Rand. The delight he takes in conquering Margaret recalls Rand's defense of the notorious scene in The Fountainhead where the ostracized genius architect Howard Roark stopped jackhammering a quarry long enough to hate-fuck the book's snooty heroine, Dominique Francon. "If it was a rape," Rand said, "it was a rape by engraved invitation." "You raped me," Margaret tells Mike in the climax of House of Games. "You took me under false pretenses." She's not speaking literally -- their sex was consensual -- but figuratively, and accurately; what Mike did to her was a violation. "Well, golly, Margaret," Mike sneers, "Well, that's what happened, didn't it?" In other words, don't act offended, lady; we both know you wanted it.

Crouse's defense is intriguing, but it only holds up if House of Games can be said to stand apart from Mamet's other movies -- if, in other words, the anxieties and fantasies on screen are credibly Margaret's, and if the situations and imagery are demonstrably different from what we see in Mamet's other films. They aren't. But Mamet's preoccupations and hangups are so engrossing that House of Games is fun regardless. Its style is simple, but its situations are primordially deep, and their provocative, politically incorrect and often silly nature makes them all the more fascinating, because the narrative isn't just about Margaret and Mike.

Given its subject matter, we should know from Games' opening moments that we're being set up along with the doctor -- that things aren't what they seem, that there's no way Margaret can outsmart Mike and his crew because Margaret has ideals and delusions and shame and the con men don't. If we're fooled, it's because the director flatters us as Mike flatters Margaret -- with intent to deceive. The water pistol scene is Mamet the trickster's version of the subsequent scene where one of Mike's compatriots (Mike Nussbaum) walks Margaret through a short con involving paper money and an envelope. Like a con man with a movie camera, the filmmaker positions viewers for a big con by revealing smaller ones. "It's called a confidence game," Mike explains. "Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine."

In his books about creativity, Mamet says that fiction's core appeal resides in the sub-rational desire to know what happens next -- either because you don't know what's coming or because you're curious to see how the inevitable plays out. Congruent with that is the desire to vicariously experience predicaments we'd avoid in life, and identify with iconic character types comprised of ten percent credible psychology and ninety percent wishful thinking. House of Games boldfaces the implied pact between storytellers and audiences.

On the Criterion commentary track, Mamet says that acting and lying engage the same submerged animal trait: the instinct to survive a deadly threat by any means necessary. Acting and lying, Mamet says, plug into "the essence of the cerebral cortex: How do I get away from the wolf that's trying to kill me?" Storytelling feeds the same need. Audiences crave controlled encounters with primal desires and fears; therefore, the storyteller's first obligation is to satisfy that need. To Mamet, drama is a service industry.

That's a cynical attitude, but it's not incorrect, and Mamet proves it on the page. Acts and beats are the DNA of Mamet's drama, archetypal (or cliched) characters his marrow. He gives us "stories" instead of stories -- living, breathing, messy or (God forbid) ambiguous fiction -- because he finds the latter dull, and as phony as Margaret's empathy. (In On Directing Film, he tells would-be moviemakers to study Dumbo, and says that young artists who claim they just want to "express themselves" should compare how people describe a work by a performance artist with how they talk about Cary Grant.) He creates characters like Mike because he knows that viewers crave characters like Mike -- men who, like certain storytellers, can mesmerize and overwhelm us, even when we know they're absurd and believe that we're strong enough to resist their charisma. The big bad wolf wears Armani.

Mike doesn't just suss out Margaret/the viewer as a tight-ass who's nursing a bad-girl fantasy. By italicizing his self-created trickster image, Mike sparks Margaret's healer's impulse (as both woman and doctor) and stokes her need to live for someone else and through someone else. Mike is a professional storyteller; he knows what the audience wants, even if the audience would never admit it. When Margaret excoriates Mike for setting her up, he rebukes her for having the temerity to act surprised. "You say I acted atrociously," Mike says. "Yes. I did. I do it for a living."

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The Criterion Collection #391: if...

By Jeremiah Kipp

“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place,” proclaims Mick Travis, the boarding school rebel who spearheads a revolution in Lindsay Anderson’s anarchic social satire if…. Malcolm McDowell plays the role, three years before he starred as the nihilistic Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and his international celebrity exploded. While the two parts share some similarities—a smiling, cocksure refusal to play by societal rules or toady up to authority figures—their motivation to destroy is quite different. Alex sees the world as a decadent playground for his entertainment, whereas Mick Travis dreams of something better and commits to the idea of burning down the old establishment to make way for the new order. As for what that new order is, he never clarifies, but it will certainly be a reaction against the oppressive, class-conscious regime of pompous, condescending headmasters and the sadistic, smug, paddle-wielding gang of senior classmates called The Whips.

if... opens with the arrival of students after their summer break. Ground rules are laid out: there are the oppressors and the oppressed, with the younger children (labeled “Scum”) attending to the beck and call of their elders. At its most lenient, this involves running back and forth to bring toast and jam during tea time, but if the rules of politesse are not followed to the letter, heads are dunked in toilet bowls or flunkies are instructed to stand under ice cold showers for two-minute intervals. Mick Travis and his handful of bright, idealistic friends are among the seemingly powerless, and they find their strength through cunning subversion. On the first day of the semester, Mick arrives wearing a black hat and scarf covering his entire face, and when he reveals himself he has a neatly trimmed moustache as an act of minor rebellion—a gentle “fuck you” to the powers that be. Mick promptly shaves it off, but not before complaining, “When do we live? That’s what I want to know.” As said by McDowell, with the boyish insouciance that became his trademark, it doesn’t sound sanctimonious.

Played with that deadpan quality we come to expect from highbrow, stiff upper lip British comedy, if… is told with rigorous control, with unobtrusive camerawork and naturalistic, unpretentious sound design. In seemingly arbitrary fashion, the film stock jumps back and forth between black and white and color (with black and white lending a more dreamlike or delicate quality to certain passages). It’s not kitchen sink social realism as seen in the films of Ken Loach (whose Poor Cow also touched a nerve in the late 1960s), since the performances are slightly heightened—even borderline caricature. While Mick’s moustache isn’t weird in and of itself, and there’s nothing radically out of the ordinary in his listening to a beautiful African chant with accompanying drumbeat on his record player, and it’s perfectly befitting that he would have photographs of guerrillas on his wall, these images and ideas build up a cumulative power so that when if… ventures into more overt surrealism, it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch. When Mick steals a motorcycle, slips away from school and has a spontaneous romance with a good looking waitress (Christine Noonan), their courtship involves a slap, snarling at each other like wild animals, and finally rolling around on the floor—clothed and naked in a series of jump cuts.

This surreal quality is playful and often anachronistic (one of the characters who dies suddenly reappears in the headmaster’s study, popping out of a cabinet to say a line of dialogue before lying back, corpse-like, as the drawer is shut upon him). The prefect’s wife takes off her clothes and roams freely through the empty hallways while everyone else is caught up in an occasion of pomp and circumstance. Mick and his friends have an elaborate fencing match, play-acting their way through it like the Three Musketeers until they are entranced by the appearance of “blood…real blood!” It all feels like part of existentialist shrink R.D. Laing’s once-popular belief that madness is the only sane response to an insane world.

All that mania seems like a necessary release from repressive school life, which can stand in as allegory for whatever you like: the routine humiliations of working in an office, the government crushing individualism under its thumb, the necessary catharsis of art and expression in an increasingly corporate landscape, or even a nostalgic trip down memory lane as we realize that the rules laid down in school are often the same ones set forth in life. Reality grows especially harsh as the dictatorial Whips close in on our heroes and dole out a series of brutal beatings—culminating in an after-school paddling in the gymnasium that both hobbles Mick and strengthens his resolve.

While the paddling doesn’t have the blood and spittle of The Passion of the Christ, it plays just as rough. Tension builds when Mick has to wait outside the gym and listen to the beating of two other boys, and then when he takes his twenty lashes we cut away to younger schoolchildren listening in fear as he has to take his lumps. The scene has incredible dramatic power as Mick wipes away a single tear and is called upon to thank his oppressors. This turning point in the film leads to the grand finale, where Mick and his revolutionaries utter no more spoken dialogue and somehow come across a cache of guns and hand grenades that they lethally break out when the parents visit the school on Founders’ Day. It is pure Guy Hawkes-style mayhem, again with a surrealist bent. (One of the villains gets shot in the head and immediately bursts into flame.)

Anderson was well known as a provocateur, both abrasive and caustically funny. He gleefully poked mocking holes into all sorts of cultural institutions—yet he too was repressed in his own way. Quiet about being gay, he never allows the homosexuality in if… to move beyond suggestion. However, if the gymnasium hazing and the climactic shootout are the most iconic sequences, the gay subtext leads to the most striking visual poetry. Young Bobby Phillips (Rupert Webster) shyly watches from a balcony as Mick’s handsome pal Wallace (Richard Warwick) does graceful acrobatics and somersaults on a balance beam. Slow motion transforms Wallace into a moving sculpture, and as Bobby regards him with silent adoration, it becomes homoeroticism at its most transcendent. While not as spirited and confrontational as the rest of if… (it's almost timid in its mildness), it provides a gentle and touching counterpoint to the sharply drawn ironies that abound throughout.

if… was wildly popular in Great Britain, a parallel reaction to the counterculture youth movement’s rage against the conservative regime, but it was equally embraced in countries that suffered under corrupt totalitarian governments. Nowadays, where global culture grows increasingly homogenized, we associate survival with conformity, and it’s refreshing to look back at this late-60s time capsule when young people violently disagreed with that notion. Naughty behavior and a taste for the ridiculous can be, in and of themselves, revolutionary—a refusal to adapt to constructed norms. Mick pushes it to the limit and, as reason and logic take a reprieve, the fantastic and the absurd take over.


Image/Sound/Extras: The Hi-Def transfer of if…, presented in anamorphic 1.66:1, is first rate, with incredible clarity in the image. It is approved by director of photography Miroslav Ondricek, who outdoes himself with beautifully vivid black and white contrasting nicely with evenly lit color sequences. The audio track is likewise restored, and the Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono is clean and clear, with no noticeable hiss. Supplemental materials on the two-disc set are generous, including a feature length commentary by Malcolm McDowell and film historian David Robinson. McDowell’s anecdotes are both informative and funny, and always reverential towards the director who discovered him. Robinson makes an excellent foil, particularly in their lively exchanges about Anderson’s directorial choices. “It was completely arbitrary,” McDowell howls, even as Robinson points out the clever cross-cutting between the Whips, shot in vivid color as they laze about their study playing games of one-upsmanship, and the Scums, in black-and-white as they cheerily make do with a humble meal of pork and beans. The ever-lively, charismatic McDowell adds a personal touch when discussing his first audition for Anderson, as well as some of his shrewd directorial advice and one-liners, and Robinson too seems to have a clear understanding of the director’s character as well as his aesthetics. “His indifference to being liked was matched by his need to be loved.”

Disc Two contains a brief but lively interview with actor Graham Crowden, who plays the whimsical history teacher in if… and discusses Anderson’s paternal, supportive approach to actors. Anderson’s short, Academy Award winning documentary, Thursday's Children, about a school for deaf children, is a fascinating and humanitarian social document. An episode of BBC Scotland’s Cast & Crew has several crew members and Anderson’s protégé Stephen Frears discussing the long shadow if… has cast over the years—and a pre-taped Malcolm McDowell shares even more anecdotes, including the one where he asked Anderson if he could roll around on the floor naked with his co-star Christine Noonan, and his gleeful delight when the director agreed—o lucky man, indeed!
Jeremiah Kipp's writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.

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The Criterion Collection #389: WR: Mysteries of the Organism

By Chris Gisonny

Did you know that fucking is the best way to resist totalitarianism? Me neither but I like the sound of it. In his schizophrenic and hilarious WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), Dusan Makavejev gleefully presents sex as the greatest of all revolutionary acts. The film wears its 60s radicalism with pride, so expect to hear a lot about, you know, revolution, communism, sexual liberation, censorship, and youth. Dated? Preachy? To an extent. But its message is presented in such an entertaining manner that the film remains one of the more worthwhile artifacts of the counterculture.

As to what WR is about, it’s complicated. I could say “it’s a documentary and a collage based around the life and theories of Austrian-American psychologist Wilhelm Reich, a Communist-turned-Eisenhower-supporter who was jailed in the fifties over his controversial theories about ‘orgone energy’ by the typically open-minded U.S. government,” but that wouldn’t quite cover it. The Reich documentary occupies most of the first half and Makavejev provides warm and amusing interviews with Reich’s friends, associates, followers, and the residents of the small town he called home, including a hulking beast of a man who served as both town sheriff and town barber. Reich’s theories revolved around “orgone,” a life energy, uniting us all, which one properly harnesses through sexual intercourse and emotional release. He invented the “orgone accumulator,” which appears to be a big wooden box lined with tin foil that people sit in to cure cancer and various other illnesses. From what I understand, orgone energy is basically like the Force, only in this case you don’t have to be a Jedi to wield its power, you just need to get laid.

The rest of WR is a fragmented mess of absurdities, wonders, and segments that are supposed to represent Reich’s theories. The most noteworthy is a long fictional narrative involving a young Slavic girl, her sexual awakening, her political monologues, and her short-lived romance with a narcissistic, loveless, and murderous Soviet ice-skating champion. In addition, there is the following: footage of poet Tuli Kupferberg, of satirical sixties band The Fugs, dressed as a soldier and taunting affluent New Yorkers with a plastic gun he handles in an appropriately masturbatory manner; interviews with Jackie Curtis, a glitter-faced transsexual of the Warhol crowd; a scene in which Jim Buckley, co-founder of the porno mag Screw, lets a woman make a plaster mold of his erect penis; clips from the ridiculous Stalinist propaganda film The Vow; an interview with Betty Dodson, an artist who paints portraits of people while they masturbate; a severed head which continues to lecture us about revolution; and hey, there’s even a musical number at the end, part of which is sung to a horse.

A good many people might find WR shocking even today, so don’t watch it with grandma unless she has a passing interest in Marxism and pornography. The film’s rallying cry is “fuck freely!” and while that activity isn’t explicitly depicted onscreen, it is certainly being discussed. Of course, the frequent images of nude bodies frolicking and humping are not meant to shock or upset. They instead serve as a reminder that no matter what ideology we follow or what the governments around the world bark at us, underneath our respective costumes we are all human. And I don’t know about you, but living in a country in which a televised image of a nipple can provoke widespread rage and mayhem, that’s still a reassuring thought.


Image/Sound/Extras: WR: Mysteries of the Organism has been unavailable on DVD for quite a long time, so thank the Gods of Cinema who have used their holy prophets at “The Criterion Collection” to get it to you. The transfer is smooth, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and supervised by Makavejev himself. An audio commentary features Daniel Stewart reading from Raymond Durgnat’s 1999 book on the film. There are two interviews with Makavejev, one from 1972 and the other from 2006, the latter being more comprehensive. The disc also includes Hole in the Soul (1994), an autobiographical film made by Makavejev for the BBC. It features some very amusing scenes of an older Makavejev wandering around Hollywood, buying some hip new clothes, and staring in bemused confusion at a billboard for the Schwarzenegger flick Last Action Hero. There are also clips from the “improved” version of WR, a result of the BBC asking Makavejev in 1992 to censor certain scenes so they could show the film on television. Makavejev responded by placing psychedelic computer animation over any scene featuring private parts. The accompanying booklet includes an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Chris Gisonny blogs at What is the Fourth Dimension?, Still Love the Old World, and Trash Cinema 101.

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The Criterion Collection #337: A nos amours

By Fernando F. Croce

Maurice Pialat was, by all accounts, a difficult man. A late bloomer in the French film industry (his feature 1968 debut, L’Enfance nue, was released when he was 43), he was always an outsider, too much of a realist to ride the freewheeling Nouvelle Vague of Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette, and too volatile to settle for the tidy Gallic sophistication of Malle and Sautet. International success in 1980 with Loulou enhanced rather than mellowed his legendary combativeness, and a series of artistic and personal conflicts in the Eighties (including, notoriously, a fist raised in defiance at the jeering Cannes audience when he picked up the 1987 Palme d’Or for Under Satan’s Sun) earned him the nickname “Pialat le terrible.” Just as famous as his prickly temper were his shyness, tenderness, and generosity, evident in the enduring friendship of the cast and crew he reportedly put through the grinder (Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert, who gave some of their greatest performances under Pialat’s guidance, were among the director’s most loyal supporters).

This emotional contradiction is at the heart of Pialat’s worldview, a vision of startling roughness in perpetual bloody conflict with extraordinary delicacy. His filmography abounds in aching loners (the rejected boy in L’Enfance nue, the cancerous matriarch in La Gueule ouverte, the title artist in Van Gogh), yet he is not interested in facilely enshrining their rebelliousness—rather than coddling these characters with self-pity, Pialat pushes them out into the often cruel world, for he is fascinated with the complex ways people come together and subsist, and in the human chaos that inevitably ensues. An emotion will flare up and clash violently with another, but Pialat refuses to judge or pick one over the other; instead, he instinctively pounces on the collision as evidence of the private struggle that is an intrinsic part of being alive. People have a bottomless capacity for fucking up in his films, and that capacity is not only ruthlessly acknowledged, it is also celebrated as an inescapable portion of what makes human beings human in the first place. Often labeled a misanthrope, Pialat is actually one of the medium’s truest humanists, standing alongside Renoir, Rossellini, McCarey, Ozu, Cassavetes, and Altman.

Which brings us to Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire), the protagonist of À nos amours (1983). A fifteen-year-old grappling with sexuality, emotion, and family, she might be the ultimate outsider in the director’s oeuvre, yet Pialat also sees her as something of a mystery. Introduced at summer camp, sunning herself at the prow of a boat while a Purcell aria throbs on the soundtrack, she’s a distant figurehead; in a Victorian gown reciting archaic lines for a play, she’s an image of genteel literary poise. Pialat cuts through both these notions in the following shot, in which Suzanne strides by the side of the freeway in a short red skirt, revealed not as a figure of stillness but a creature of fierce instincts, many of them puzzling even to herself. She sneaks out to meet her sensitive beau Luc (Cyr Boitard), but the brief idyll (with unmistakable hints of Pialat’s early apprenticeship as a painter) comes to a sudden end when she rejects his offer of sex. At a party later that night, Suzanne takes up with a young American bloke and ends up losing her virginity to him. When in an awkward post-coital moment he thanks her in English, she responds blankly in French (“You’re welcome. It’s free”) and later on cries, confused about the experience yet unsentimentally accepting it.

She brings her newfound sexuality back home, where her family, who already needs little incentive to turn a slight squabble into a titanic meltdown, reacts to her casual bed-hopping with free-floating hysteria. Suzanne’s promiscuity unsettles the home, drawing a sort of incestuous intensity out into the open; the Parisian apartment, sketched with a palpable sense of breathing space, sets the stage for a series of familial skirmishes, both harrowing and revelatory in their rawness. Her mother (the superb Evelyne Ker) looks at Suzanne with a mix of protectiveness and jealousy (“It’s disgusting to sleep like that,” she says while gazing at her daughter’s nude body), while her older brother (Dominique Besnehard) reacts to her flings with the wrath of a cuckolded husband. Above all, there’s the father, played by Pialat himself as a bearish force who wavers from tender concern to tyrannical grip with a single slap. The midnight chat between father and daughter, in which he asks her about her boyfriends, kids her about the loss of her dimple, and confides in her that he’ll soon be leaving the family, is not just a beautiful portrait of momentary spiritual union between the characters, but also an exquisitely sustained study of a young actress, whose onscreen give-and-take with her director goes beyond improv exercises and into a feeling of unguarded being.

Indeed, À nos amours would have been a landmark film simply for introducing Sandrine Bonnaire to the medium. The film opens and closes on close-ups of her face, feasting on her rough beauty, her wide forehead, her alert yet wounded eyes. Her Suzanne is in every scene, and throughout the film one feels a transfixed Pialat steering the still-unformed talent, not so much molding Bonnaire as discovering in tandem with the actress the corporeality, force, and shifting emotional depths that would later mark her greatest performances (Vagabond (1985), La Cérémonie (1995), Secret Défense (1998)). Like Renoir, Pialat would often sacrifice technique and plot for the emotional truth of his characters and actors, resulting in abrupt temporal ruptures. A cut for Pialat can mean “ten minutes later,” or it can mean “three months later”: One moment Suzanne and her new boyfriend Jean-Pierre (Cyril Collard) are looking for a hotel after she runs away from home, the next she is back home, trying out her bridal gown while her mother fondly remembers her as a little girl. The resulting impression is one of fleeting fragments of life captured like, to use the title of Kent Jones’ 2004 Film Comment tribute to Pialat, lightning in a bottle—a jarring rhythm which, mirroring the miseries and ecstasies of adolescence, refuses to let us get complacently settled.

À nos amours is based on recollections by Arlette Langmann, Pialat’s longtime writer, editor, and companion, yet it also features one of the director’s own most naked moments. The character of the father was originally supposed to die, but Pialat’s enjoyment of acting led him to change the course of the narrative, leading to the virtuoso engagement dinner that is the film’s most complex sequence. The actors were reportedly still under the impression that the father had died, so when Pialat entered the scene, they were as baffled as the characters they were playing. A nifty self-reflexive trick, but, Pialat being Pialat, he proceeds to push it into a rude, remarkable tightwire act of hurt and confession, with the father-but-really-Pialat praising Pagnol’s talent, commenting on Van Gogh’s sadness, and pretty much insulting everybody at the table. (Both the character and the man come off as equal parts fearless truth-tellers and grade-A assholes: Pialat was confrontational, but he saved the sharpest knives for himself.) After this full-frontal scuffle, however, the film concludes on a note of communion, with one last talk between Suzanne and her father before she flies off to San Diego with her fiancée. Because Pialat understands the teenager’s rebellion as much as the adult’s worn melancholy, there’s little of the adversarial divisiveness which gives, say, Catherine Breillat’s early films their anguished quality. That’s À nos amours in a nutshell: A portrait of youthful ferociousness made with wisdom of lived life.


Image/Sound/Extras: While not quite immaculate (a bit of grain occasionally creeps into the colors), Criterion’s anamorphically enhanced 1.66:1 transfer does justice to Pialat’s delicate, forthright eye for skin tones and lighting. The mono French soundtrack is fierce, particularly during the film’s many slapfests.

Possibly as an admirable attempt at making up for the unaccountable neglect Pialat has met on American soil, the extras department is especially well-stocked. The Human Eye (1999) is an unusually penetrating hour-long documentary on the film, featuring both scholarly commentary and personal remembrances. Archival footage of Pialat on the set reveals the sensitivity which his notorious tyrannical side hid, though there’s a feeling that that side is never far off (as when, in the midst of one of the actor auditions, the off-camera director can be heard provoking Bonnaire into a nervous fit). Catherine Breillat (who clashed with Pialat during the shooting of Police) and Jean-Pierre Gorin provide sharp, insightful interviews, but the most rewarding featurette belongs to Bonnaire, who movingly and perceptively recalls her initial fear as a young performer, her warm relationship with Pialat, and her admiration for his work (which she correctly describes as “realism, but also more… It’s cinema”). A booklet featuring invaluable essays by Molly Haskell and Kent Jones and a couple of interviews with the filmmaker and his cinematographer Jacques Loiseleux rounds out the package.
Fernando F. Croce is a critic for Slant Magazine and the creator of the website Cinepassion.

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