Friday, August 27, 2010

Sonata for a Good Man

I proclaim my love for films at every opportunity. And yet, the only time I've written of why I watch them, I claimed that their appeal is that they allow me to sit rooted on one spot for hours on end, with an empty thought bubble over my head. This just won't do. If I cannot talk honestly of wonder and of awe, of wisdom at 24 frames per second from cultures I know little of, of strange and terrible people and places - and all this from the comfort of my sofa - then the least I can do is try and come up with a damn good lie.

What better way to pay homage to the ennobling power of cinema than by writing about a film that is itself a metaphor for why we watch films? Now, thinking too long hurts my head, and the 30 seconds I allotted this threw up three: Hitchcock's "Rear Window," De Palma's "Body Double," and Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo."

The first film seems to think that we're cold, self-obsessed creatures, who look screen-wards - forever judging, forever condemning - merely because we want to say, "See? That's what people are like, and that is why I want no part of them." The second film, more darkly humourous than the first, adds to this that perhaps we watch because we're perverts who like to get our rocks off on-screen, as we can't get any off it. And the third, wittier than the first two put together, writes us off as people who escape into a reel because we're cowards who cannot face up to anyone or anything in the real world; and even when cinema does offer us a pearl that we could use in our lives, we're inclined to dismiss it as "unreal," and of no value in our world of bricks and mortar, of flesh and blood.

Since all that was uncomfortably close to the bone, let's look instead at a fourth: "The Lives of Others." The traditional disclaimer first. I don't give out the whole plot on this one, so you're safe on that count. However, the last I watched the film was a few months back, and, as I'm on vacation, my copy is thousands of kilometres away. So I may get a couple of plot points and quotes wrong; but then, you don't really come here for authenticity, do you?

The film is set in East Germany, a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its citizens are subjected to scarcely believable levels of monitoring by its secret police, the Stasi. One of the more prominent of citizens is Georg Dreyman, the playwright. We're told that he's perhaps the only writer who's both popular in the West and not a subversive. Indeed, while we never see him openly supporting the ideology of the oppressive regime, and has several friends who are subversives, he seems to have no opinion on politics. One of his friends, so exasperated by this, screams at him: "You're not human if you don't take a stand!"

He lives with his girlfriend, the lovely Christa-Maria Sieland. She's an acclaimed actress, who's just picked up an unwelcome - but very powerful - admirer, the minister Bruno Hempf. Hempf, despite all his other flaws, is a man of great self awareness, and knows that in a straight fight with Dreyman for the affections of Miss Sieland, his chances aren't too good. Fortunately, he has the Stasi at his disposal, and sets agent Gerd Wiesler the task of finding some dirt on Dreyman.

Wiesler is as efficient and cold-blooded as they come. Where he differs from his superiors is that he genuinely believes in communism, and everything that he does is in his fanatical devotion to the cause, and not for personal gain.  His interest in Dreyman isn't the career furtherment that would come with pleasing Hempf, but the chance of rooting out a dissident, which is what he suspects Dreyman is. And so, he and an assistant, having bugged Dreyman's flat to the inch, set up station in the attic of the apartment building. The two of them take 12-hour shifts to monitor Dreyman round-the-clock.

Dreyman being the apolitical man that he is, gives Wiesler virtually nothing to hang on him. But slowly, the two artists' world of music, literature and love snakes its way past his defences. Wiesler isn't a man who says much, and even if he were, loner that he is, there's no one he could confide in. Showing his gradual transformation, therefore, is a job brilliantly done. If there's one scene that underlines the emergence of the new Wiesler, it's the one of him reading a poem of Brecht's that he picked up from Dreyman's apartment. Perhaps it makes him realise that nothing lasts forever, not even their stern Republic, and that it is futile ruining innocent lives trying to defend it. Or maybe he finds the idea of saving a frail cloud from being blown away by the wind more interesting than keeping the walls of a fortress - one that may claim to protect the ideals he lives for, but has men as Hempf at its heart - in order.

His new-found compassion is just in time, too. The suicide of a close friend who had been blacklisted by the government, and maybe his discovery of Christa's affair with Hempf, forces Dreyman to leap down off his fence. And Wiesler  must now choose between doing his duty and following his conscience. I will spoil the movie no further for you than say that the first half of the movie struck me as taut political thriller, and the second half as deeply affecting melodrama. (I watched it just after I discovered Almodovar, and couldn't help feel that the second half had a very Almodovar-esque feel to it, and was also rounded off, like many of the Spaniard's films, with a sublime, punchy ending. My companion for the screening, who hates Almodovar - and loves this film - told me very emphatically, though, that I'm a dolt and Very Mistaken.)

There is this scene where Dreyman, playing a piece of music titled "Sonata for a Good Man," asks, "Can anyone who's heard this music - I mean truly heard it - really be a bad person?" The inspiration for the film, apparently, was a quote from Lenin that if he listened to Beethoven's Appassionata more often, then he wouldn't have the heart to bash people's heads in, and finish the revolution. The director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, says, "I suddenly had this image in my mind of a person sitting in a depressing room with earphones on his head and listening in to what he supposes is the enemy of the state and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really hearing is beautiful music that touches him."

Of course, no movie's going to change your life in a couple of hours - unless you be a fruitcake of the highest order. But given time, the wand of cinema isn't quite so imperceptible. "A film is a ribbon of dreams," said Orson Welles. "The camera is much more than a recording apparatus; it is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret. Here magic begins."

Before waxing eloquent of magic, let's acknowledge the flip side: magic cuts both ways. As my mishearing* of these lines goes, "If God can be for us, He can also be against us." If cinema has the power to shape us, to define us, and to give us beauty, then can it also not rot us from the inside? But then again, to quote the very wise Billy Loomis, "Now Sid, don't you blame the movies. Movies don't create psychos; movies make psychos more creative!" And how can that be such a bad thing? Even here, cinema does a service.

In my darker moods, I feel I live in a world as of the Wraiths**; but unlike them who live in shadows, what I know is ceaseless white light. A world of fluorescent lights, white marble spotless clean, and bright-blue swivel chairs. A world shielded by the air-conditioning and the tinted glass from the race of bipeds outside - that dangerous place of nights and dawns and dusks. A world of polite smiles and vicious emails. Of allegiances and hatreds that burn brightly, and then inevitably flicker and harden into apathy once you spy the cracks in their walls - but not before, for the briefest time, you feel pity, affection even; and you see that they're no better off than you, that they too are merely wraiths as yourself, and that they once belonged to that race beyond the glass.

This being the world I sometimes find myself in, how can I not love a movie as this one? - that tells me that no matter how far down the rabbit hole I've gone, there's always hope. And that we do not really need great talents, or herculean effort, to pull ourselves out; a little taste, patience enough, and the tiniest bit of courage will do. That is the message of this film. And that is the hope of all who sit in a darkened hall, waiting for that beam of light.

All right, enough of cheek and tongue. Ingmar Bergman will now lend some gravity with: "Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls."

There are many films that strike me as more imaginative, and many also as better crafted. But no other film has managed to reach down into the dark rooms of my soul as this one has. I've seen it several times now: twice in a hall, with hundreds of other people; other times with just one or two friends; and then, sometimes, alone at home. For me, the last is the only way to watch it. If I could use the inch-perfect ending of the film, and borrow the words before that memorable freeze frame, "This is for me."

*I've since found out that this is called a Mondegreen. And not all that I mishear are improvements over underwhelming Bible quotes, either. "If love is a red dress, well, hang me in rags," makes more sense and, I suspect, is more lyrical than what I heard it as: "If love is a red dress, then hand me earwax."

**I've been reading "The Lord of the Rings" for over a month-and-a-half now, and have reached only the middle, yet. So, in all likelihood, I'll be inflicting my "try too hard to be Tolkien" variations on you for a few months more...

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 4.5 (Cheesy Sci-Fi: The Thing from Another World)

Spoiler Alert: the things of this world are terribly rude to the visitor thing, and you shouldn't read any further, if you don't want to find out how.

One other note. Howard Hawks is credited only as producer. However, given the quality of the film, and that he's one of my favourite filmmakers*, I'm going along with the claims that he ghost directed it.

The Thing from Another World (1951)

So... we have these military types clearly bored, up in their base in Alaska, when a scientific facility near the North Pole informs them that there has been a crash. They gather up a rescue team, headed by Captain Patrick Hendry, pack in a journo named Scotty, and fly off. Even before they reach the site, they're aware of strange goings on: their magnetic compasses are thrown off by a few degrees - possibly caused by the addition of about 20,000 tons of metal to the Earth's crust, about 50 miles from the research station. Of course, no aircraft - that they know of, interject the scientists pointedly - weighs that much.

Over at the crash site, they see an aircraft buried beneath the ice. In a stunning scene, the rescuers, in an effort to estimate the craft's size and shape, spread out and form a perimeter around the outline below them. It turns out to be a perfect circle. A flying saucer... finally! Digging the saucer out being impossible, they decide to use thermite to melt the ice over it. It melts the ice all right, but it has side effects: it sets the saucer on fire.

A gigantic explosion later, they're all seen sprawled on the snow, picking pieces of alien alloy off themselves. So much for their hopes of getting their hands on "the key to the stars." Scotty - a little on the bitter side, due to permission to report the story ("the biggest since the parting of the Red Sea") being withheld - is bitingly sarcastic. Indeed, the US Air Force probably has had better days. As an aside, when they return to the research station, they find a message from General Fogarty, suggesting they use thermite to free the craft, in case it's stuck in the ice. (Scotty: "That's what I like about the Army: smart, all the way to the top.")

They now notice something else - a former occupant of the saucer, also buried beneath the ice. "More thermite?" someone asks tentatively. Nah, they stick with axes this time. A while later, the block of ice, with alien inside, is dumped in a store room.

The lead scientist, a Dr Carrington, with an impressive array of laurels to his name - including the Nobel - wants to defrost the alien. Captain Hendry, though, isn't quite as keen. He wants to confer with Fogarty, up in Anchorage, first. The alien has a distinctly sinister look, you see, and Hendry looks like he's seen his fair share of sci-fi films.

Let's now take a few minutes for character descriptions. The film is, on the whole, populated by extremely likable people. The military, for starters, aren't portrayed as a bunch of stuck-up morons, and are even  - judging by a couple of remarks - heart-warmingly anti-nuke. Hendry, while perhaps on the conservative side, is patient with - and willing to listen to - even the most trying of people, puts up with quite a bit of ribbing by his men, and is an excellent, level-headed protagonist.

He also has a romance thingy going on with Dr Carrington's secretary, Nikki. The two of them even share an interesting moment with a bit of rope, that I hadn't expected to see in such an old film. Nikki isn't the typical sci-fi heroine. She's intelligent, witty, willing to roll her sleeves up, and doesn't scream even once (yes, I count).

The only ones who come across as slightly stuffy are the scientists - particularly Dr Carrington, who, further, is sometimes downright suicidal. A lesser man than Hendry would've dismembered him by the half-way point of the film. It must be said, though, that the other scientists are portrayed in a more favourable light, particularly as the film progresses.

One thing leads to another, and an electric blanket ends up accidentally on top of the frozen alien. An inopportune time for accidents like that, as a storm has just cut them off from the rest of the world. The alien wakes up the soldier on guard duty, with what the latter interprets as a series of blood-curdling moans; but given that the former had spent much of the preceding day in a block of ice, he might merely have been asking politely for a cup of coffee.

The soldier, after firing a few exploratory shots at the alien, decides that screaming and making for his captain may be healthier. By the time the larger party gets down there, the alien has already made his way outside, and is in a kerfuffle with the sled dogs. Despite bets to the contrary, the alien comes out on top, minus a terrifyingly-clawed hand that was won by one of the dogs.

Scotty has a field day with witticisms. "We're liable to become famous. So few people can boast that they've lost a flying saucer and a man from Mars all in the same day. Wonder what they'd have done if Columbus, having discovered America, then mislaid it?"

Study of the severed hand reveals that the alien is a vegetable, and is practically indestructible: a "super carrot," to quote Scotty. He revises this to "intellectual carrot," when Carrington hands in his analysis that this is a planet on which vegetable life has undergone a similar evolution to what animal life has gone through on ours, and that the alien is also very likely mentally far superior to us. ("Its development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors.")

Just after the scientists point out to their incredulous audience that even on Earth, "intelligence in plants and vegetables is an old story; older even than the animal arrogance that has overlooked it," the hand covered with dogs' blood starts to move. "Miss Nicholson. At 12:10 AM, the hand became alive."

Apparently, the alien vegetable lives on blood. We may be no more than a field of cabbages to it, notes Carrington. While no one else seems to relish the reversal of roles in human-vegetable relations, Carrington is near orgasmic and is determined, more than ever, to communicate with the alien. And so, everyone spends five minutes listening to him spouting noble scientific principles.

The others beg to differ, particularly after two of Carrington's colleagues are found hanging upside down in the green-house, their throats slit. They're further alarmed when they discover evidence in the green-house that the crash seems to have brought out the maternal side in the intellectual carrot (he actually looks like an 8-foot greenish man). Most of them have clearly read "The War of the Worlds," and wonder if this is the start of an alien invasion, that would end with us as livestock.

From here on end, the film is a series of competently-filmed encounters between the alien and the humans, with the balance of power swaying one way, and then the other, before the humans emphatically declare victory by making a kebab (vegetarian) of the alien.

Just before the final face-off, Carrington attempts to sabotage the human plans, and makes a last-ditch attempt at peace talks with the alien. The latter's utter bafflement, on being confronted by Carrington, is pretty funny. I bet you'd be bemused too, if, just when you're starting to make salad, one of the vegetables, stems flailing, starts babbling repeatedly, "I'm your friend," in a tone getting progressively shriller.

All in all, a gem of a thriller. It's brisk, and builds tension very well, without ever losing its sense of humour: the characters engage in repartee even when things are at their bleakest. It also manages to convey the incredible cold, and the sense of claustrophobia, with the alien impervious to the cold outside and the humans boxed in by the Arctic storm. Plus, probably because it precedes "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the film uses a proper score, and not the annoying collection of clicks, beeps and techno-wails preferred by the sci-fi films of that era.

The only disappointing aspect is that, while the alien does have his moments, he seems a few braincells short of a cabbage. When the humans set up a trap, to try and fry the alien with electricity, they need him to stand on one particular spot. The sight of nearly a dozen humans staring at him expectantly, one of them with hands poised over a switch - and another throwing axes at him, to guide him back on track, whenever he wanders off - doesn't throw off any warning bells whatsoever, apparently. For heaven's sake!

Can you imagine Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, feeling slightly peckish, and then getting killed by a field of cabbages defending themselves? Perhaps it's an indication that the aliens are more inward looking than us, and do not send their best and brightest across space. But still, a bit of a let down. For everything else, though, two thumbs up, and whole-hearted approval.

I will leave you now with the words of Scotty, as he beams this message to the waiting news corps

"North Pole. November 3rd. Ned Scott reporting. One of the world's greatest battles was fought and won today by the human race. Here at the top of the world, a handful of American soldiers and civilians met the first invasion from another planet. A man by the name of Noah once saved our world with an ark of wood. Here at the North Pole, a few men performed a similar service with an arc of electricity. :a few sentences snipped here for lack of drama: And now, before giving you the details of the battle, I bring you a warning. Every one of you listening to my voice, tell the world; tell this to everybody, wherever they are: watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!"

Coming up next: "Creature from the Black Lagoon"

*The only Howard Hawks film I've seen yet is "Rio Bravo," and I wasn't too enthused by it. However, I'll put that down to John Ford turning me off Westerns for life. Besides, Hawks directed "The Big Sleep" and "Scarface." Granted, I haven't seen either, but I think both films are marvellous testaments to the art of filmmaking.

In my opinion, Hawks is second only to Fritz Lang - none of whose films I've seen, but whose "M," "Metropolis," and "The Testament of Dr Mabuse" are three of my favourites. The one time I've seen Lang, it was as an actor; in "Contempt," where he appears as himself. The trouble is, that film contains several scenes of Brigitte Bardot in the nude, and I can't remember anything else about it, sadly.

P.S. - John Carpenter (sometimes known as Wes Carpenter - and, presumably, John Craven) remade this movie as "The Thing," in the early eighties. Having seen several films of his, he's not amongst my favourites, naturally, and I therefore didn't rush out to grab a copy. However, if you've just put the original in your "to watch" list, I suggest you add the remake as well - if nothing else, it'll give you gloating rights on the comments page here.

P.P.S. - "Psycho" is generally considered the first of the slasher films. "The Thing from Another World," released nearly a decade before Hitchcock's film, seems to me to have the better claim - especially since the Thing is a natural predecessor to the likes of Jason and Freddy; much more so than Norman Bates. Perhaps it's its "sci-fi" label that has robbed it of credit?