Saturday, April 27, 2013

#155: The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

I don't know how to start this review. I have a difficult time writing about films I consider part of that short list of the greatest ever made. How do I write about a film that's been one of my 50 favorites for more than a decade without sounding like a whirling dervish of gushing hyperbole? If I say this is one of the greatest films ever made, am I just asking for people to say, "No, it's not," especially in this era of snap Internet judgment in which smug contrarians take a superficial glance at a canonical work and shrug "Meh" loudly into cyberspace with ignorant self-satisfaction? Probably, but I'll just have to take that chance. "Meh" is not in my repertoire. Death to "meh." If "meh" is your default setting, you should probably find some new interests. I suggest skydiving without a parachute.
The Night of the Hunter features a once-in-a-lifetime collection of incredible talents, and not just because it was Charles Laughton's only film as director. Laughton was an accomplished movie actor and theater actor/director, and his filmography includes some fantastic work in James Whale's The Old Dark House, Erle C. Kenton's Island of Lost Souls, Leo McCarey's Ruggles of Red Gap, and Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution. The cast includes Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. The film's soundtrack, mostly by Walter Schumann, is full of beautiful and beautifully creepy songs, including "Dream, Little One, Dream," "Once Upon a Time There Was a Pretty Fly," and the spiritual "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a genius with light and shadow, also shot Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, and portions (uncredited) of Polanski's Chinatown. He later said that Laughton and Welles were the only directors he worked with who truly understood light. The screenplay, based on a novel by Davis Grubb (whose short story "Return of Verge Likens" became one of the best episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) was written by novelist/poet/essayist/film critic/screenwriter James Agee, one of the most talented and versatile writers of the first half of the twentieth century.
Mitchum, though one of my favorite actors, did Agee a disservice for years by claiming in his autobiography that Agee's script was a mess and that Laughton had to rewrite most of it. For some reason, this was accepted as gospel until the discovery of Agee's first draft in 2004 proved that his screenplay, though eventually whittled down, included, shot-for-shot, every scene that made it into the final cut. Mitchum also claimed he directed some of the film when Laughton encountered difficulties working with the children, though that has been strongly disputed by almost everyone else involved in the film. Despite his faulty memory and/or propensity for bullshit, Mitchum later named Laughton his best director and Night of the Hunter his best film.
Enough with the credits. All this talent wouldn't mean anything if the film was a mess. It isn't. I have a real problem with films that include shots that serve no other purpose than moving the plot along or presenting information or exposition, and a real admiration for films that make every shot visually interesting. In The Night of the Hunter, every shot pulses with visual invention. Every shot is expressive, beautiful, memorable. Just as impressive is the fact that none of these shots overwhelm the actors, story, or tone. They aren't there to show off or dazzle. Instead, Cortez works with light and shadow to make tangible the intangible emotional and intellectual geography of the characters and their place within the story and its setting.
Laughton does a more than impressive job uniting all these strong, individual talents. He manages to create a cohesive, unified entity out of some strange ingredients. The film combines realism and exaggerated fantasy, German expressionism and American Southern gothic, elements of theater and then-contemporary and silent cinema, dark horror and light observational humor, and a depiction of both the best and worst aspects of human behavior without heavy-handed sermonizing about either. The film is direct, frank, and nonjudgmental about sexuality, particularly female sexuality, which is unusual for a Hollywood studio film from the 1950s, and forward-thinking in its condemnation of revenge, unfortunately considered a virtue by most Hollywood films since and a bedrock of the mainstream American value system, particularly in the rabble-rousing, telephone-game angry-white-man Facebook forward and 24-hour news culture we're presently drowning in.
If you haven't seen the movie yet, here's a brief synopsis. A man (Peter Graves) rushes home to his children with the law after him. He's stolen $10,000 and committed murder during the robbery. He makes his son John (Billy Chapin) promise him two things: 1) Keep a close watch over his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) and 2) Never tell anyone where he hid the money. Graves is soon captured, where his cellmate is Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a self-styled preacher in jail for car theft who has been working his way across the country by ingratiating himself with a series of widows who he then murders and robs. Mitchum is truly scary in the part, particularly because he seems to honestly believe in his warped version of Christianity, in which the murder of widows is a gift from God that provides Powell's salary. Powell hears Graves mention the hidden money in his sleep, so after he gets out of jail and after Graves is sentenced to death and executed, he tracks down the family and worms his way into the heart of Willa (Shelley Winters), the grieving widow. John is a smart kid and doesn't trust Powell, and when things get really dark, he takes his sister and the money and goes on the run. The children are taken in by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), caregiver to several orphans and abandoned children, and Powell goes on the hunt for the children and the money.
A plot description is woefully inadequate, however. This is a film of light, shadow, movement, precise verbal and physical language and facial expressions, visual invention, atmosphere, and mood. It's an experience. An experience that unfortunately wasn't appreciated in its own time. The film was a critical and commercial failure upon initial release, for reasons I can't begin to understand. Laughton never directed another film, though he would live for another seven years. Unfortunately, Laughton and Agee didn't live to see the film become an established classic and a massive influence on a varied group of filmmakers, but many of the other people involved in The Night of the Hunter did. If you haven't seen it yet, make it a priority.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

#154: Nekromantik 2 (Jörg Buttgereit, 1991)

The first Nekromantik is one of those notorious films you hear and read about years before seeing it, if you ever do. At one time banned in its home country of Germany, Nekromantik is currently banned in Iceland, Norway, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and two Canadian provinces, and has been called the most bootlegged film of all time, though that's a statistic impossible to verify. My idea of the movie scared me as a kid and made me feel uncomfortable, even as the film's t-shirt became almost as omnipresent in the late 1980s/early 1990s metal and punk scenes as the Misfits skull shirt. I expected a 1980s German film about corpse fucking to be an unbearable exercise in dreary cinematography, humorless exploitative gore-porn, and general ickiness. I avoided it.
When I decided to watch every film on the Rue Morgue list for this site, I noticed Nekromantik 2 made the cut. I decided to bite the bullet and watch the first film before renting the sequel. My impressions of the film's content and tone were way off, and I suspect most countries that have banned the film haven't taken the time to arrange any screenings. Nekromantik is about corpse fucking and contains scenes of, you guessed it, corpse fucking as well as some extreme gore, but the film is also hilarious, inventive, thoughtfully composed, and a great example of punk and New German Cinema-influenced DIY counterculture that obliterates the lines separating exploitation and art. I liked it very much.
Nekromantik 2 is every bit as good and possibly even better. Buttgereit is working with a relatively higher budget and a more ambitious canvas, and shoots on 16mm instead of the first film's 8mm. Surprisingly, the film has run into less censorship than its predecessor, though the German government seized all domestic prints of the film 12 days after its release and banned it for two years until the case was overturned in 1993. I say "surprisingly" because the protagonist in the sequel is a woman, and female sexuality, particularly transgressive female sexuality, tends to get censors all worked up.
My brief plot description here will contain a few spoilers from the first film, so if you haven't seen it yet and are planning to, you may want to skip this paragraph. Nekromantik 2 opens with Monika (Monika M.), a nurse with a sexual fetish for dead bodies, going to a cemetery to dig up the corpse of Robert, the necrophiliac protagonist from the first film. She read about him in the newspaper and recognized a kindred spirit. Monika takes the rotting body home with her and uses it for sexual pleasure and companionship. She's content with this setup until she meets and falls in love with Mark (Mark Reeder) at an art film theater. (The movie they see is Buttgereit's very funny parody of a bad experimental film: in black and white, a nude couple eat a ridiculous amount of egg cups on the roof of a metropolitan apartment high-rise while the man drones on about various bird genera and species.) Mark is a straight-laced square, though a square on Buttgereit's terms, which means his day job is dubbing American porn films into German. Scenes of his work are some of the film's funniest. Monika genuinely loves Mark enough to dispose of most of Robert's corpse, though she keeps the penis in her refrigerator and the head in a cooler hidden under several blankets in her living room. Her attempts to drop hints to Mark about her erotic proclivities are largely unsuccessful, Mark criticizing these tendencies as perverse. Still, he's drawn to her, and their reconciliation (of sorts) in the film's conclusion is an over-the-top mindblower that even manages to one-up the first film's insane final scene.
The Nekromantik films may appeal only to a small counterculture-friendly niche sensibility, but, despite their reputation, these aren't adolescent gross-out provocations, calculatedly superior winkfests, or hamfisted attempts to be shocking. Buttgereit is a filmmaker like no other, and his presentation is both darkly comic and straightforwardly accepting and matter of fact about his subject matter. There is something bizarrely earnest and even uplifting about these films, though most people you know would probably prefer almost anything else.
As I said already, Buttgereit's films aren't like other movies, but they are part of certain traditions. Buttgereit's dry, dark sense of humor, transgressive subject matter, and independent working methods ally him closely to underground music, literature, and film of the period, and though he's very different in subject matter and the way he moves his camera and edits his material, he shares a peculiar German sensibility with filmmakers like Frank Ripploh, pre-melodrama Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Margarethe Von Trotta that I can't quite do justice to in words other than to again point to the dry humor, the matter of fact portrayal of transgression, and a focused, isolated, uncluttered, labor-intensive, organized urban lifestyle. And there's always that sense of death and an absence of father and mother figures in the generation of filmmakers who followed the Nazis. As Werner Herzog is fond of saying, "We had no mothers and fathers, only grandmothers and grandfathers." There's even a musical number in Nekromantik 2 in the doomed, knowing cabaret ballad tradition that unites such disparate Germans as Kurt Weill, Marlene Dietrich, and Nico. I don't exactly know to whom I could recommend Buttgereit's films, and I wouldn't want to watch them with a crowd of peers with more conventional taste, but I find them unusual, funny, compelling, and true to their creator's sensibilities. I think they are very much worth seeing.