“Spielberg”: The artist who refused to use his wisdom in politics

Tuesday night, Oct. 10, HBO ran Susan Lacy’s 147-minute biographical documentary “Spielberg”, about the trend-setting filmmaker Steven Spielberg,  now 70.

The documentary starts with a clip from David Lean’s 1962 classic “Lawrence of Arabia”, which I saw twice (the second time in 1989 at the AMC Uptown in DC). Spielberg says that seeing the transformation on Peter O’Toole’s character from two particularly striking scenic shots made him want to become a filkmmaker.

By age 22, he had made a 140-minute sci-fi film called “Firelight”, which is a prelude to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, although at the end of the earlier film we learn that the aliens want to turn people into zoo animals.

One of Spielberg’s most striking early successes was “Duel” (1970), between a motorist and a truck, where Spielberg introduced new techniques of camera movement to carry along the psychological transformation of his central characters. Spielberg defends his refusal to make the truck explode at the end;  the slow death of the road rage assailant is seen as much more fitting.

I would see “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” twice, the second with a friend the night of the Jan. 20, 1978 blizzard in New York City when being in Times Square was fun. Spielberg says that music was the way the aliens could show their commonality with humans.  The film used models of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (even playing with mashed potatoes to make a model of such) as a visual conduit to anticipate what would happen.

He goes on to explain “The E.T.”, which at first did not envision presenting an alien.

Another sequence, of course, was the “Jaws” movies, which Spielberg insisted be filmed in the water (with a mechanical shark).  I can remember segments from this film being shown in the upstairs lounge (above the disco) in the Gay Nineties in Minneapolis.  “Jaws” was based on the novel by Peter Benchley, which tended to make fun of its hapless characters, going so far to mention how a police officer central character had lost all the hair on his legs from the chafing of over-starched uniforms.  Does this really happen?

The Color Purple” would be a different kind of period piece, without John Williams as composer. The film is memorable with the performances of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. Spielberg held back in allowing a lesbian subplot really come forth in this 1985 film.

Schindler’s List” would become one of Spielberg’s most important historical films, with its own commemoration of the Holocaust, as a German businessman tries to shelter Jews from the Nazi raids.  Spielberg explains his use of black-and-white with the girl with the red bonnet.  I remember seeing the film at the Avalon in Washington DC.

Spielberg also discusses his 1998 film about D-Day, “Saving Private Ryan”, with Matt Damon as the private.  The film, rated R for only its battle violence, shows men reacting to seeing their own legs blown off, or their own guts hanging out as they die.  Spielberg considers it a horror movie, which children should not see.  The physical desecration of men in battle makes an existential point, that no matter how much we pretend to honor war veterans, it is the men themselves who make the personal bodily sacrifices, whereas for most of us life will go on as normal afterward.  There are no victims, only casualties.  No wonder enemies of America tend to view civilians as partially complicit combatants.

The film covers the founding of DreamWorks, which is described as an independent film studio — its first film was “Peacemaker” (1997), an early film about nuclear terrorism prescient of today (which I saw shortly after moving to Minneapolis at the Mall of America).  The studio, which has often affiliated with Paramount or Disney for final distribution, is pretty much viewed now as a major. It actually got a national security visit after 9/11.

Toward the end of the film, Spielberg makes the political point that we have to solve these big world problems of inequality and environmental destruction, or many of us will pay personally. He doesn’t want to run for president.

Name:  “Spielberg”
Director, writer:  Susan Lacy
Released: 2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  HBO, 2017/10/10
Length:  147
Rating:  NA (PG-13)
Companies:  HBO Documentary
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2017 at 3:45 PM EDT)

“I, Olga Hepnarova”: In the 1970s, a bullied Czeck woman becomes a terrorist

I, Olga Hepnarova”, directed by Tomas Weinrab and Petr Kazda, is  brutal-to-watch account of a terror incident in Prague on July 10, 1973, which happens to be my 30th birthday.

Olga (Michalina Olszanska) is a 20-something woman who grew up in a “good home” in Communist Czechoslovakia, but was repeatedly bullied for non-conformity (not available to men). She wanders through psychiatric facilities and a dorm-based job before dropping out and plotting her revenge. The black-and-white film has two explicit lesbian scenes early and middle.

She writes a brief paper “manifesto” where she plans revenge.  A little more than an hour into the film, she drives a truck onto a sidewalk, as the camera shows the people falling to the side. This anticipates several terror attacks that have happened in the past two years, not all of them Islamist (the one in Times Square was not).  She asks for the death penalty and her hanging body, viewed, is shown at the end.  She uses the German word Prugelknabs, for victims of bullying.

Her rhetoric hits on an existential point, that when a “random” civilian gets in the crosshairs of a terrorist, that person pays personally as there is no way to undo this.  Imagine that idea in conjunction with Pulse in Orlando.  Terrorists view all civilians as conscripted combatants, if as a result of karma.

This is an unpleasant film to watch.  But some audiences will want to see documentary accounts of wha made someone like James Holmes go mad.

There is some discussion of mental illness and schizophrenia.  In some ways, Olga reminds me of a couple of female patients at NIH during my stay there in the fall of 1962.  There is an early scene where she tells a therapist that she doesn’t like people or find much value in ordinary interpersonal relations.

Modern Prague (Wiki).

Name: I, Olga Hepnarova
Director, writer:  Tomas Weinrab and Petr Kazda
Released:  2016
Format:  1.81:1, black and white, Czech
When and how viewed:  complimentary Vimeo private screener from distributor, 2017/7/22; DVD available 7/25
Length:  104
Rating:  R
Companies:  Strand Releasing
Link:  Strand, Movietimes

(Posted: Saturday, July 22, 2017 at 1 PM)

“Austerlitz” shows Nazi concentration camp tourism

Austerlitz”, by Sergei Loznitsa, provides a curious film concept. In a 94-minute exercise in trolling people in black and white, the filmmaker portrays tourists to visit the museum-exhibits of the Nazi Holocaust concentration camps Dachau and Sachsenhausen.

The first ten minutes of the film portrays nothing but a people-watch of tourists entering the gates near a sign reading “Arbeit macht frei”. We notice many are carrying phone headsets to listen to commentary. Then we do start hearing some tour guide content.  One of the most interesting is that the early camps were set up for intelligence purposes: to interrogate possible dissidents against Hitler, and even intercept plots to kill Hitler.  Only later did the Jews, as well as gypsies and homosexuals, become recognizable populations.

There is a chilling scene where a guide with a British accent explains how the victims were told to expect a shower, before getting gassed with Zytron.  One couple has a picture taken in front of a black crematorium.

As for the tourists, many are attractive, slender, young white males, ironically what you expect in a gay bar. You will see the same people, with recognizable T-shirts, based on companies or sports teams, more than once.

I was not aware of this massive level of tourism. I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau on a Tuesday morning in late May, 1999, having arrived on the night train to Krakow from Berlin, and then taking a taxi to the site (about $60 for the day).  I don’t recall that there was any crowd, maybe a few other tourists walking around at some distance from me.  I did visit rooms with shoes and skeleton remains, and dorms.  I walked along the notorious railroad tracks.  I don’t recall having a headset.

In the first chapter of my novel “Angel’s Brother”, a “part time” CIA agent, married and living a normal life of a history teacher in Texas, visits Birkenau the way I did, and in a light crowd, meets a mysterious college student and rides back with him.  Why both are there develops with the story.  There was one scene in the film of a young man off by himself, on a cell phone, sitting near a wall, who looked like the college student in my novel.  There may have been one other person from the US that I recognized, appearing twice with the camera going blurred the second time, a rather strange effect.

Wikipedia picture of Dachau.

Auschwitz-Birkenau visiting information.

Name:  “Austerlitz”
Director, writer:  Sergei Loznitsa
Released:  2016
Format: 1.85:1, black and white
When and how viewed:  MICA Brown in Baltimore, 2017/5/7, fair audience
Length:  94
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Imperativ, Deja-vu
Link:  official

(Posted: Monday, May 8, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

“Frantz”: Ozon’s post World War I mystery

Frantz”, the latest film from Francois Ozon, is a period mystery, with a pacing that reminds one of Hitchcock.  It is set in another world Germany and France in 1919, after World War I. before the inflation and reparations got really bad in Germany.  The present time of the narrative is filmed in black and white Cinemascope (like Hud), with the flashbacks in a sepia color.  The film is in German and French, with subtitles.  The name of the tragically deceased character is deliberately ironic.

Anna (Paula Beer) grieves the loss of her fiancé Frantz (Anton von Lucke) and regularly puts flowers on a cemetery mark, even though his body was lost in the trenches. One day an appealing young Frenchman Adrien (Pierre Niney) shows up at the cemetery.  Frantz’s father, a doctor, asks him to leave and blames him personally for the horror Germans endured, and says he could never treat him (violating the Hippocratic oath). But Adrien wills his way into the family.  We learn that Adrien is a concert violinist, like Frantz had been, but struggles with hearing loss after the war.

The backstory shows how they became friends in Paris (with a hint of gay intimacy), and later presents their tragic accidental and fatal encounter in the trenches, setting up the moral dilemma for the movie.

Yet, there are signs of a bizarre romance between Adrien and Anna.  There is a swimming scene and then beach, where the camera dawdles on Adrien’s smooth chest, and then shows the only war wound, near the appendix.

But after Adrien returns to France, Anna goes looking for him, setting up some more ironies in the plot.

There’s a bizarre barroom scene where Frenchmen sing “La marsellaise”, out of Berlioz and out of “Casablanca”, but with some twists in words.

The movie has a brooding film score by Philippe Rombi, and some typical recital pieces, including a movement from a Tchaikovsky Quartet, and what sounded like an Alma Mahler song (I didn’t see it in the credits).

There’s a scene where Frantz’s father blames all fathers for goading their sons to fight for country.

There are critical scenes in the Louvre in Paris, looking at a painting of a suicide by Manet, with viewers filmed from behind, a technique from a famous scene in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and in Brian de Palma’s “Dressed to Kill”.

The tone of the film reminds me of “The White Ribbon“, which sets up pre-Fascist ideas.

The color scheme is the inversion of what happens in my screenplay “Do Ask Do Tell: Epiphany”.  I put present day (on a space station Rama world) in sepia;  true events on Earth in backstory in full color, and fiction embedded in a leading character’s writings in black and white, all anamorphic wide screen.

Name: “Frantz”
Director, writer:  Francois Ozon
Released:  2017
Format:  2.39:1 Cinemascope, Black and White with sepia color for flashbacks  (French and German, subtitles)
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St.  2017/4/9 fair crowd   (Casablanca was in Dallas at the Inwood Theater in 1982)
Length:  111
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Music Box Films, Mars
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, April 8, 2017 at 11 PM EDT)

 

“Deadline – U.S.A.” — 1952 classic tale about courage in journalism

The 1952 classic film “Deadline – U.S.A.”, directed by Richard Brooks, seems timely now, given the issue of journalistic integrity as challenged by the new administration of Donald Trump.

Humphrey Bogart plays Ed Hutcheson, the managing editor of a newspaper called “New York Day”, said to resemble the “New York Sun” which had folded in 1950.  One day Hutcheson is told that the newspaper’s owner, Margaret Garrison (Ethyl Barrymore) wants to sell the paper, apparently to a competitor who would put it out of business.

About the same time Hutcheson learns of a gangland murder, with connections that suggest that the real motive for the sale is to cover up an organized crime conspiracy.  Hutcheson pursues the story, and is even pressured not to publish by advertisers.  The script mentions ideas like “ignorance of facts”, libel, and makes an indirect reference to “the right to be forgotten.”  There are a couple of interesting courtroom scenes.  Finally, the mother of one of the victims provides and important clue, a diary. As the movie closes, Hutcheson publishes even as he is threatened.

The screenplay is terse and follows the pattern of maintaining urgency.

The music score by Cyril J. Mockridge and Sol Kaplan reminds me of the music of Arthur Bliss.

Name:  “Deadline – U.S.A.
Director, writer:  Richard Brooks
Released:  1952
Format:  1.37:1  (Black and white)
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD  2017/2/28
Length:  87
Rating:  PG-13 probably
Companies:  20th Century Fox, Kino Lorber
Link:  n.a.

(Posted: Wednesday, March 1, 2017 at 8:15 AM)