Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - March 2009
Why Change Your Wife?
Quai des Orfèvres
Chloé in the Afternoon
Hearts of Darkness
Journey Into Fear (1943)

Flicks - January 2009
The Great Moment (1944)
Love Affair (1939)
Destiny (1921)
Spring in a Small Town
Born to Kill (1947)


Spare Change?
A Film Snob's Favorites of '08




(Frank Capra, 1948).

Spencer Tracy plays Grant Matthews, an independent-minded industrialist who is talked into running for President by his mistress, a newspaper publisher played by Angela ansbury, along with her party bigwig friend (Adolphe Menjou). Matthews’ estranged wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) agrees to present a united front to the public in order to help Grant out, but he soon finds himself compromising his principles in order to win.

The film was adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The script has a refreshingly jaundiced view of politics that gives the story a certain zip. Some things never change—the maneuvering of politicians to appeal to certain demographics, and the disregard for the public good in favor of a strictly competitive view of governance was apparently just as prevalent in 1948 as it is today. But although the picture is intelligent most of the time, and the chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn is good, there are problems that prevent the film from being a complete success.

First of all, we’re supposed to accept that Tracy would cheat on Hepburn with Angela Lansbury. Now, Lansbury in some ways does the best acting in the film—she was less than half Tracy’s age, but makes you think she’s older, while conveying her character’s fierce ambition. But it’s simply impossible to believe that anyone would prefer her to Katharine Hepburn, especially since Hepburn’s character as written doesn’t provide any evidence of why her husband would have strayed from the marriage.

In the movie’s last third, the screeenplay gets bogged down in the moral and political points it’s trying to make, and some heavy-handed speechmaking driving the message home with the subtletly of a sledge hammer. We know that Hepburn will act as Tracy’s conscience, and that he will eventually realize his error and make amends. The way this actually works out, however, is pure wish-fulfillment in the “Capra corn” mode, although I suppose it might have seemed courageous and satisfying to audiences at the time. The script strays from the play at the end, the wit dries up, and we’re left with a fantasy cruelly at odds with the reality of postwar American politics.

State of the Union, then, is a mixed bag, but there are a few pleasures along the way, and a mixed bag that includes Tracy and Hepburn can’t be a total loss. It was the only time they worked with Capra, and that’s too bad because, whatever faults the film may have, he handles the two stars’ scenes together well.

SUCH IS LIFE (Arturo Ripstein, 2000).

Julia (Arcelia Ramírez) lives in a run-down apartment complex in Mexico City where she helps other poor women with folk medicine cures and an occasional illegal abortion. As the film opens, she is going mad with grief, and gradually we learn why: Nicolás (Luis Felipe Tovar), a boxer and the father of her two children, has fallen out of love with her and is planning to marry the youngdaughter of the complex’s landlord, nicknamed “Pig” (Ernesto Yáñez), a fat tyrant who wanders through the barrio in his bathrobe and plans to have Julia evicted as a consequence of the marriage.

The screenplay is by Ripstein’s wife and longtime collaborator Paz Alicia Garciadiego. The theme is the tragically unjust and insupportable position of women in society, limited by notions of sexuality and motherhood that deny them any agency or self-worth. Julia is discarded like an old object, and even her children can be taken away from her. Although “Pig” expresses remorse about evicting her without a good reason, he won’t change his decision. When she seeks solace from her godmother (Patricia Reyes Spindola) a kind of witch or “bruja” figure, the old women only expresses her undying hatred of all men, as if the only alternative to female powerlessness was self-consuming rage.

Ripstein creates a mood of relentless despair and claustrophobia. But rather than use a style of social realism, he employs theatrical and surrealistic elements to convey Julia’s inner torment. The television in her room acts as a chorus to the action, with darkly humorous dramatic episodes and musical interludes that seem to directly comment on her story while expressing her grief and anger. This device is effective in adding a nightmarish touch to the film.

Ramírez is asked to carry the film on her shoulders, with impassioned soliloquies and compelling scenes of emotional disintegration. She’s very good, but her character’s motives are problematic and not sufficiently illuminated, which is the film’s main flaw. As it turns out, there’s a parallel with a tale from mythology that only becomes evident towards the end of this bleak and uncompromising film. Ripstein shot it in digital video, and the remarkable set combined with the brown and yellow color scheme lend the film a distinctive air. This is strong stuff, a bit uneven, but powerful and gripping in its focus on confinement and oppression.

SÁTÁNTANGÓ (Béla Tarr, 1994).

The first thing to come up in any discussion of Sátántangó is its length: “Seven and a half hours!” one might say. “How can you watch that?” It’s a reasonable question. In its theatrical showings, it had two intermissions, which could only have slightly alleviated the audience’s inevitable exhaustion. After the DVD viewing, in which I took four breaks instead of two, I still ended up with a crick in my neck. So the real question, the implied one, deserves an answer: why so long?

A group of impoverished villagers live in an abandoned farm collective in Hungary. A few of them are hoarding the village’s cattle funds so as to run away and make a new life. But then news arrives that a man everyone thought was dead—the mysterious ex-villager Irimiás (Mihály Vig)—is returning, and for some reason he is much feared. The arrival of Irimias, who has agreed to become a police informer, coincides with a local tragedy that allows him to manipulate the inhabitants for his own ends.

This core story, which touches on many themes, especially the underlying selfishness of all authoritarian systems, communist or otherwise, is a loose frame in which diverse episodes and portraits are contained. The village is a place where people are stuck in an aimless existence, feebly striving for one thing or another, but unable to shake off the torpor that keeps them bound. Tarr employs huge chunks of real time in each episode to create an effect that would be impossible in a shorter film: time seems to stand still as we contemplate the eerie spectacle of life without purpose.

The picture opens with a long shot of the farm, with cattle slowly walking across the muddy landscape, the camera just as slowly panning across the scene. This is one of Tarr’s key methods throughout, and it induces a rapt, almost hypnotic state in the viewer. Another is the long stationary take with people moving within the frame. A tour de force in this regard is a drunken dance in the local tavern, first observed by a little girl through a window in an earlier episode, and then depicted full length later on. The scene goes on an on, the people keep dancing and dancing, and getting more drunk, and eventually your mind goes to a different level. Over and over again, Tarr succeeds in breaking through the habit of viewing action through customary dramatic time, stretching each scene until we experience both time and space without the interference of expectation. It is then that the action will pierce the mind with a power grimly comic, satiric, frightening, or tragic.

One early episode concerns a fat, decrepit doctor (Peter Berling) who seems to live on nothing but alcohol, spending all of his time sitting at a desk in front of a window taking notes on the behavior of his neighbors. When he runs out of booze he is forced to make an epic journey through the pouring rain to get another bottle. Another sequence that burns into your mind concerns a disturbed and neglected little girl who is cheated by her older brother and ends up wandering through the forest for a day and a night with a dead cat in her arms.

It becomes clear after a while that the film is moving forward and backward in time with a kind of stutter-step. The black-and-white photography (Gábor Medvigy) is perfectly attuned to the bleak atmosphere. Some of the film’s visual effects are just mind-blowing: a scene with Irimias and his henchmen walking into town is hallucinatory in power: we see them from the rear trudging ever onward in the wind, while piles of trash blow towards and past them through the air.

The length of Sátántangó, one might conclude, is the one essential factor in its style. It can’t be reasonably compared to any other film experience. One’s mind stops chattering, analyzing, or anticipating after a while, and seems to meld with the film’s atmosphere. I imagine that even the audience’s exhaustion is part of the intended experience—by the time the villagers have agreed to follow Irimias on a dubious journey, we may feel ourselves a member of the worn-out, helpless band of wanderers.

RIO BRAVO (Howard Hawks, 1959).

John Wayne plays John Chance, a Texas sheriff who arrests the brother of a powerful rancher for murder. The rancher plots to break his brother out, and the sheriff only has his alcoholic deputy (Dean Martin) and an old crippled jailer (Walter Brennan) to assist him while they wait for the Marshal to come and pick up the jailed killer. Then a young gunslinger (Ricky Nelson) comes to town, and a lady gambler (Angie Dickinson) starts to fall for Chance.

If you judge a western by its action and excitement, Rio Bravo is overrated. The bang-up ending (in which the use of dynamite seemed incongruous to me) is not that special, and most of the film’s scenes are indoors, with people waiting for something to happen. But in a way, this is what makes the picture interesting.

I could be mistaken, but this seems to be the first truly reflective western—in the sense that it self-consciously comments on the western genre itself, and also in the way that it focuses on the development of character types almost to the exclusion of action. Chance sticks to his principles despite the odds against him, while he struggles with his feelings for “Feathers” (Dickinson).”The Dude” (Martin) must stay off the bottle and redeem his past failures. The script, by the old hands Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, deals with themes that we’ve come to think of as Hawksian: a band of friends united by duty and a sense of professionalism, the hero as a man who just does what’s right without a lot of fuss, male-female relationships as a form of sparring. This time the elements seem more explicit—the story simply follows the plight of the heroes in extremis, as they prepare for the inevitable.

The scenes between Wayne and Dickinson (24 years his junior) are both fun and a bit awkward. Wayne is made to seem a bit abashed or flustered in the presence of a smart woman who clearly wants him. The sheriff believes in strict propriety and respect—the girl wants more than that.

There’s a nice scene in a saloon where some quick thinking by the Dude saves the day. Walter Brennan plays his usual cranky old sidekick role—we’re meant to find it really funny but I find it tiresome. Ricky Nelson is obviously inserted in the film for the teen audience. He’s mostly contained and a bit wooden, but he gets to sing with Martin at one point.

I can see why this movie would have a special place in the hearts of those who love the western genre. It is quite consciously a look back, a nostalgic western, both for the form itself and for the career of John Wayne. I have never been a real western lover, so my reaction was mixed. I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about—this film certainly doesn’t have the dramatic thrust or the heft of a great film like Red River. But it’s fine for what it is, a sunset-tinged love letter to the western movie.

(Robert Altman, 1973).

No one familiar with the novels of Raymond Chandler would ever expect an adaptation like this: Elliot Gould playing Philip Marlowe in 1970s Los Angeles. Chandler’s Marlowe was tough and cool, with a very precise way of talking; Gould’s version is a wisecracking slob with a fondness for cats and a rambling verbal style. I don’t doubt that there are Chandler purists who hate this movie, but taken on its own terms this bit of sly revisionism has its own pleasures to offer, and the screenplay is by the veteran Leigh Brackett, one of the writers on Howard Hawks’ version of The Big Sleep.

Marlowe’s friend Terry (Jim Bouton) shows up at his apartment needing a favor: a ride to Tijuana where he can hide out from some big trouble. Marlowe, always the loyal friend, does what he’s asked, and when he returns to LA he is questioned by the police about Terry’s wife, who has been murdered. Word eventually comes from Mexico that Terry has committed suicide and confessed to the murder in a note. Marlowe doesn’t believe it. In the meantime, he’s hired by Terry’s neighbor Eileen (Nina Van Pallandt) to find her missing husband, a writer named Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden). Of course, the two cases end up being connected, but it takes quite a few twists and turns to get there.

The mystery is serviceable: all the loose ends gets tied up, and it makes sense. But Altman is really more interested in the interesting contrast between the old-fashioned figure of the gumshoe and the weird counterculture environment of SoCal. Thus we have Henry Gibson popping up as the director of a bizarre sanatorium in which the alcoholic Wade is being held, and an extended sequence at Wade’s Malibu house that is a little masterpiece of dry comedy, a sort of film noir beach party.

Hayden really adds a special half-cocked sensibility to his character, a poor man’s Hemingway. But Gould is the glue that holds the film together—mixing fear and bewilderment with a laid-back devil-may-care attitude, it’s probably his career-high performance. The film itself is both a satire on Hollywood and its denizens, and an elegy for the old idea of a code of honor, lost forever in the LA smog.

©2009 Chris Dashiell