Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Descent

Ivorismo Rating*****

The Descent is a killer of a thriller. It's a unique, intelligent, savagely entertaining and bloody movie. Its writer/director, Neil Marshall and his cinematographer sidekick, Sam McCurdy, have created an intense, frightening underground world in the darkness. This British horror-thriller recalls other grueling, contemporary adrenaline-pumpers like Alexander Aja's brilliant High Tension, the original Alien, Saw and Wrong Turn, yet there's also a deft touch of empathy to help us feel something for the characters before the butchery begins. Shooting in a cave, beyond offering the eye the dark subtleties of the gray scale, really helps connect the viewer to the utter horror these innocents step into. It's that good. Yes, it's a scary movie with sharp teeth, but there's more to the story than just blood and entrails.

The Descent refers to a cave-diving expedition undertaken by six women into the bowels of the earth, yet there's also a parallel plummet into a deep abyss. A nightmare of primal chaos.

Plotwise, in a prologue, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) and Beth (Alex Reid) go white water rafting in Scotland. There are hints at a shared tension, but nothing specific until Sarah's husband, Paul, and daughter, Jessica, pick her up and, in the midst of a bland conversation, get in a road accident on their way back to the hotel. Paul and Jessica are killed, but Sarah survives.

One year later, Juno, Sarah, Beth, Sam (Manna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) are reunited at a rustic Appalachian cabin in North Carolina. Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Juno's new friend, arrives and the green-eyed monster of jealousy rears its ugly head as we get a vague hint at the vague dynamics of a number of unspecified relationships. They proceed to get very drunk and pledge to "Love each day."

The next morning they go caving. Having not been climbing for long, the group goes into shock when Sarah is almost killed as a cave collapses behind them. After much argument, Juno admits that she has deliberately taken them into an unknown cave instead of the well mapped-out cave system they had carefully planned for. Juno, with her massive yet clearly insecure ego locked into a notion of discovering a brand-new cave system that can be named after her narcissistic self, clearly disavows the unctuous rhetoric she mouths about plurality and the love of sisterhood. Additionally, Juno has manipulated the only other climbers who already know about their expedition into thinking they are climbing elsewhere, so there can be no rescue. Trapped, with no way out, the group then discover an ancient cave painting and leftover equipment from a previous climber.

When Holly falls and breaks her leg, they are forced to carry her along.  Then, as a claustrophobic, angry Sarah wanders off, otherwise absorbed it takes a while before she sees a pale, humanoid creature drinking at a pool. As a shocked Sarah reacts in panic it scampers off into the darkness. In the melée that follows Holly's throat is cut and Juno defends her from the crawlers. Amidst the chaos and confusion, as matters take on a sort of battlefield reality, Juno accidentally stabs Beth. From then on, everything descends into savagery and a plot I refuse to give away.

This may all sound sort of trite. It's all been done before, you might say, but the essence of the movie is in its total physicality. Often shot from close-up in the utter darkness, each character's body is pushed, pulled, beaten, battered, and stretched to a violent breaking point. Smothering tight canals and cavernous potholes, sometimes illuminated by the light from pink flares, make it seem like a voyage through the rings of hell. Strained beyond the limits of their muscles and bones, these 'fit' women are confronted by the limits of their bodies, friendships, and belief systems.

A quick word about these humanoid creatures the women encounter in the caves. They are, as described by the film's director Neil Marshall, cavemen who've evolved after living underground for thousands of years. They've lost their eyesight, but own acute climbing, hearing and sensatory powers to be able to function in a pitch-black world. By creating a family of ruthless, blind carnivores to go to war with his female athletes, Marshall enriches what otherwise would have been simply a woman-in-danger monster movie.

Happily The Descent doesn't waste much time on the usual Hollywood-style obligatory schematic elements. We learn enough about these characters from their reaction to their predicament. Indeed, the dark, claustrophobic world under the surface is a character unto itself. The film's writer-director Neil Marshall has taken his excellent Dog Soldiers--the story of a platoon of British weekend warrior territorials  out on maneuvers in the Scottish Highlands when they accidentally/on purpose stumble into a group of night hunter werewolves--and simply stepped it up a notch. Marshall and McCurdy love darkness. These caves have a terrifying emptiness, a vacuum full of both imagined and real dangers.

This film is a definite must-see. Buy a big box of popcorn, people. Keep your jaws busy!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Greenland: For Jim Craig on the Day of His Funeral

The oven was ticking.
It could have been a bomb.
You were eating with gusto.
Testing the Thanksgiving turkey
so we wouldn’t get poisoned.
Dinner made you noble.
We were watching college football on your dinky thirteen-incher.
A Kia commercial got me babbling
about my dad’s exploits.
Dead Chinese.
The wounds which occasionally suppurated out of his back,
like tears for his dead mates. And you said:
How N onward got slaughtered at Pork Chop.
Snow melted, wound your clock,
Letting you chug-a-lug your living.
You sliced a hunk of meat, dipped it into gravy.
A to M were slaughtered.
Diamonds glittered out of your eyes and teeth.
You smiled.
The oven clock rang in agreement;
Sweet buttered yams ready.
Like one of those perky girls, waiting to be examined in Kevin’s darkroom.
Her plentiful thighs, fat, sassy.
Then you were crying. Memory.
The dice of the alphabet.

—Ivor Irwin

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Getaway

Ivorismo Rating****

Sam Peckinpah knew how to tell a story. He really knew how to entertain, not just with plentiful dollops of action and violence, but also how to impress film critics because he had wonderful insights into the human condition and the way society and bureaucracies work. At his best, Peckinpah's films worked equally at both a visceral and cerebral level. Movies like Ride the High Country(1962), Major Dundee(1965), The Wild Bunch(1968), The Ballad of Cable Hogue(1970), Straw Dogs(1971), Junior Bonner(1972), Cross of Iron(1977) and even the shrill, high-strung, eccentric Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), are a guilty pleasure for some, but masterpieces of film making craft to me. Forever forced to compromise by the Hollywood oligarchs who ran the old school system, Peckinpah made three total dogs in The Killer Elite(1975), The Osterman Weekend(1982) and the hugely successful at th box-office Convoy(1978), all executed in a coke and booze-filled stupor. Nobody had his work messed with by studio hacks more than Sad Sam. Indeed, anyone who knows their Hollywood lore, surely wonders if the the crazed depressive auteur played by Richard Mulligan in Blake Edwards' black comedy masterpiece S.O.B.(1981), isn't actually based on Peckinpah. Excuse me if you think I'm exaggerating or overstating my case, but I urge anyone who is truly curious as to how misunderstood and underrated his work really was  to compare the hacked-up studio version of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid(1973) to the more recently released Director's Cut which has over 95 minutes-worth of extra footage added to the film. The movie now makes complete narrative sense, versus the original release in which the 'plot' made no sense whatsoever.

Based on a novel by Jim Thompson and adapted for the screen by Walter Hill, The Getaway(1972) stars Steve McQueen and Al McGraw, Al Lettieri and Sally Struthers, along with some of Peckinpah's stable of character actor favorites, Ben Johnson, Jack Dodson, Bo Hopkins, Dub Taylor and Slim Pickens. If you're of a certain age, Mr. Man's Man, Steve McQueen--He of the rawboned, wiry frame, piercing blue eyes and the closed-mouth-uttering-few-words persona, was the penultimate in cool machismo. Brave, quiet and strong, once he became a star, he was very picky about the work he did in The Magnificent Seven(1960), The Great Escape(1963), The Cincinnati Kid(1965), The Thomas Crown Affair(1968), and Bullitt(1968).

Peckinpah and McQueen had been friends for years. Tightly knit already as young actors in New York City and Hollywood, McQueen benefitted when Peckinpah became head writer and sometimes the director of his first T.V. show as a lead Wanted Dead or Alive. Having helped Peckinpah get the job as director of The Cincinatti Kid, McQueen had threatened to quit the film when the ever ultra-sensitive Peckinpah was fired a month into shooting after arguing with the producers over the script. It wasn't quite a man love affair up there with John Ford and John Wayne, but McQueen and Peckinpah understood each other well.

Costarring with McQueen was the incredibly beautiful Ali McGraw. A big star at that moment in time because Love Story had been a huge box-office hit, MacGraw became instantly enamored with sexy boy McQueen, abandoning her movie producer husband, Robert Evans, and giving up the chance to star in two other fine films from 1974, Chinatown and The Great Gatsby. Gossip-mongering aside, I only mention this because, clearly, there was a lot of tension on the set, sexual and otherwise, and it shows in the movie

The film begins at a Texas prison, the focus clearly on one inmate in particular, the zen-calm Carter 'Doc' McCoy (McQueen), who's serving his fourth year of a ten-year stretch for bank robbery. Denied parole, Doc cuts a deal with a corrupt, politically powerful local Sheriff Jack Banyon (Johnson), who conveniently happens to be a member of the prison parole board. The deal involves McCoy pulling a one-shot bank job for Banyon.

Sprung and reunited with his wife, Carol(McGraw), McCoy's meticulous planning goes well and nets the robbers a large amount of cash. Unfortunately, a couple of the robbery crew were hand-picked by Banyon and the double-cross is in. McCoy is savvy enough to have pre-prepared for any betrayal, however. Still, even the ultra-cautious, competent McCoy is shocked to find out that a part of the devil's bargain he hadn't counted on was Banyon sleeping with his wife. Betrayal leads to betrayal, but love still conquers all. McCoy and Carol, after surviving a couple of assassination attempts, go on the run, headed for the Mexican border in El Paso with the money, all the while avoiding capture by the authorities. At the same time, with McCoy's face plastered all over the news, they are chased by Banyon's trigger-happy gang of sociopathic thugs.

What takes the film beyond the usual clichéd kind of heist movie are the peripheral adventures the McCoys' have as a result of being on the run. First there's a brilliant Hitchcockian tension set in motion when Carol is relieved of her bag full of money at a railway station by a bait-and-switch con man who runs away with the case, getting away on the first train he can find. Followed by McQueen, he is quietly hunted down on the packed train and then, just as he opens the case and finds the robbery booty, gets knocked unconscious. It's a brilliant bit of business. Peckinpah at his very best.

At the same time, the most evil robbery crew member Rudy(Al Lettieri), who has been shot by McQueen in an earlier post-robbery attempt to steal the heist money, keeps checking into the fast-running action every now and again. He escapes McQueen and hides out at a doctor's house, proceeding to practice a kind of bully-and-kiss Stockholm syndrome seduction of the physician's venal, horny wife (Sally Struthers). It's pretty kinky stuff as the wounded Rudy is attended to by the frightened doctor and then proceeds to have sex with his wife in front of him. Can this be little Gloria from All in the Family?Again, as with Charlton Heston in Major Dundee, the underrated Peckinpah was brilliant at pulling stunning performances out of underutilized studio and television hacks.

Later, after avoiding numerous traps and ambushes, Doc and Carol hide in a dumpster just as--conveniently or maybe not--a monster garbage truck empties them into its mechanical maw and carries their crushed bodies for miles to a giant trash heap. After the truck leaves they emerge from a pile in the dump like maggots pushing up for air out of a rotted fruit. This is yet another visually brilliant bit of Peckinpah business, a perfect amalgam of storytelling choreographed by Peckinpah's direction, Hill's deft script and the marvelous eye of cinematographer Lucian Ballard which help raise the stake of the film's narrative way beyond the usual mundane crime caper.

Over the years, many of the critics have questioned MacGraw's acting abilities, but the truth is that--as with Jack Nicholson--sharing the screen with McQueen is a thankless task for any actor of either gender. There are not many women in his movies who hold their own next to the sphinx-like macho star, save perhaps Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair and Suzanne Pleshette in Nevada Smith. The lone chick on the set of a hard-drinking, dope-smoking boys' club, McGraw does rather well. Her little girl's voice may grate on the nerves, especially when she's the young Jewish Princess in Goodbye Columbus (1969), but, by the time she starred as the aging Jewish princess in Just Tell Me What You Want (1979), she had learned her craft and was able to hold her own in a town full of McQueen wannabes. Ten years in Los Angeles, hunh?

McGraw is fine in The Getaway. The contrast between the beautiful Choate/Wellesley educated Jewess actor/model and her macho, pot-headed, dour American-Scot of a costar, state-raised in Kansas orphanages, dyslexic and lacking in all but the most rudimentary education, is a massive one. Yet it works very clearly on screen. There really are sparks between them. It's a very uncomfortable moment for a modern audience when, after finding out that she's been unfaithful to him with Sheriff Banyon, he slaps her around a bit, but the truth is it works. It's a moment of passion and needs to be viewed in the context of the time it was made, rather than ill-judged in an out of context way as a piece of bad P.C.

The critic Roger Ebert describes Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway as "a big, glossy, impersonal mechanical toy." But I think that's why I like it. Peckinpah's movies are ultimately all about the same damned thing. Peckinpah's heroes have a clear set of values, morals and ideals. They always go to war with a corrupted universe and rarely, if ever, win. In that sense, the movie dares to veer away from Peckinpah's usual trope of the good guy dying in slow motion after a series of betrayals. In this one, the good guy, albeit a recidivist criminal, gets away with the stolen money and the girl. Good entertaining stuff.

And, last, but not least: Be sure to avoid the Alec Baldwin/Kim Basinger remake at all costs!!!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mean Streets

Ivorismo Rating *****

When I first saw Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets exactly 36 years ago, I was blown into smithereens. Like my first serious piece of ass and eating at Galatoire’s (in a shirt and tie, by God!), there are some singularly pristine experiences we’re all doomed to never repeat. Having grown up an ocean away in Manchester, England, the experiences portrayed had very little in common with my own; yet, somehow, I knew these people just as if they came from my own manor. This movie--made as an independent, the deal put together by two young entrepreneur producers, Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne--proclaimed the flowering of a tiny motor-mouthed whirlwind of a writer-director, Martin Scorsese, and the collaborative collective acting genius of Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel.

Mean Streets is Martin Scorsese’s third movie. A stripped-down, muscular low-budget feature produced on a shoestring budget and shot in New York City’s Little Italy, Scorsese’s brilliant film takes on the mythic Godfather-style storytelling elements of the neighborhood, strips them bare and attacks them relentlessly--albeit with a deft sense of humor-- ultimately leaving them lying ravaged, bloody and naked in the gutter. Yet it’s not so much that the film attacks the romantic notions that surround mobsters and the mafia, grateful patriotic immigrants or the redundancy of the Roman Catholic church, it’s more about feel. Scorsese, forever a master of distilled characterization, plays Mean Streets like a cool jazzy riff. Bobbing and weaving, zigging and zagging as if to the beat of busy busy drummer pounding bass drum, cymbals, snare and tom-tom all at the same time. There’s very little gratuitous chitchat. People barely talk; they exist within their environment as superstition, gesture and body language rule.

The film’s story concerns Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who always talks the talk about being able to do the right thing. Charlie is fanatically methodical about his job as a numbers runner and collector for his good looking mafioso uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova). Yet, as much as he loves hustling for his uncle, Charlie is a devout Catholic who repeatedly experiences profound spiritual longings. As such, Charlie insistence that he is his brother's keeper helps determines his ultimate tragic destiny. The sad loser Charlie feels responsible for is his cousin Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), a crude, willfully ignorant loose cannon of a Sicilian street punk.

Johnny Boy is the last person anyone would want to be voluntarily involved with. A degenerate gambler in hock to a number of sleazy loan-sharks, Johnny Boy is the dope-addled energetic heart of the film. For Charlie, who dreams of escaping the criminal life and opening his own restaurant, Johnny Boy is both a burden and a source of comic relief. Often completely goofy--Mean Streets offers much humor, both verbal and slapstick to go with its constantly impending sense of doom--forever urging Charlie to stand next to him in the fire, Johnny’s sociopathic dealings make him seem more like a bipolar insult comic than the gangster wannabe he insists he wants to be. Witness the hilarious extemporaneous bit the ensemble pull off at the tavern as they riff on ‘What’s a mook!' There’s nothing like watching DeNiro do a goofy little street dance to Lamont Dozier’s ‘Going To A Go-Go’ as he puts a lit M-80 in a mailbox. Unfortunately, Johnny-Boy isn’t simply a cute, droll hothead with a rebellious spirit. Just as you’re thinking the kid might turn out to be fundamentally deep-down okay, he makes sure to gossip about Charlie having an affair with their epileptic cousin, the tall, sexy Teresa (Amy Robinson). The single last thing Charlie needs to happen is for Uncle Giovanni to find out that he’s in love with an epileptic girl who’s carrying their blood.

Teresa, who is just as much in love with Charlie as he is with her, is the only major female character in the film. She alone is able to see beyond the choking, destructive confines of the Little Italy gangster life and relentlessly nags at Charlie, trying to cajole him into moving out with her to live elsewhere.

Constantly in conflict with himself, Charlie, despite showing a clear theological intellectual bent, fiercely embraces the traditional He may have had a better education than Teresa--quoting William Blake and all--but he's also much more naïve. Deeply enraptured by this archaic notion of old-fashioned tradition, as if all the old goombas from the island really do have access to some brilliant secret of life and really are closer to God, Charlie loves to touch fire and act like some dazed mystic.

Beautifully shot in muted grainy color by Kent Wakeford, Mean Streets takes place much of the time in a dimly lit bar run by Charlie's pal Tony (David Proval). The film’s heady mix of male bonding and savage violence anticipates much of what virgin viewers later felt was brand-spanking-new in Good Fellas--including a number of dizzying tracking shots. The film also owns a wonderful soundtrack including scenes which seem choreographed to fit pop tunes such as ‘Rubber Biscuit,’ ‘Pledging My Love,’ the aforementioned ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ and ‘Mala Femmena,’ rather than the other way round.

Cast-wise, Richard Romanus is a stunning mixture of street charm, savvy and caveman savagery as the oldest, toughest member of the group. David Carradine, the star of Scorsese's second feature, Boxcar Bertha, and his brother Robert impress in one particularly gritty scene. Even Scorsese's mother, Catherine, puts in a cameo appearance as she does in most of her son's earlier films. Scorsese himself does a cameo as a hit man in the back seat of Romanus' car at the film's bloody climax. Even this early in their careers, Keitel and DeNiro show themselves to be performers of tremendous energy, skill, wit, imagination and energy.

See it for the first time or see it again! It’s my personal all-time favorite.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Short Distance from the Pennines

Night dissolves into sorghum dawn.
Soggy Manchester sunrise.
Yahweh’s finger tight against the rent jugular.
A trickle by the mountains. The rest
sucked into cumulostratus.
Gray candy-floss pulchritude over Alderley Edge.
And I, just out of the Twisted Wheel,
amphetamines and Mandies tingling under my skin,
blink as rain dive bombs my eyelashes.

—Ivor Irwin

Friday, August 27, 2010

Rocco and His Brothers

Ivorismo Rating ****

Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960) is a marvelous cautionary tale about survival in hard times. 50 years old now, it still holds up splendidly. A strange blend of social realism and operatic melodrama, it somehow still works splendidly. Made by a man of deep contrasts, Visconti was from a ridiculously rich noble family with roots going back to Charlemagne, yet still a committed Marxist. One of the Big Three of Italian NeoRealism, along with Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica, Visconti's work demonstrated a conflict between his Social Realist interests and his experience as a renowned opera director at La Scala, which was steeped in the Western aesthetic tradition. Thus, in Rocco & His Brothers, we have a sort of hysterical hybrid – a black-and-white soap opera with an equal amount of street grit--performed by an ensemble of real and amateur actors.
Contradictions are apparent everywhere. The film may not always make narrative sense, but this is the consequence of Visconti as zealot. Dramatizing the social consequences of Italy's internal Diaspora from South to North is no small mission. His contradictory goals are to make one family socially typical, yet also individually compelling. This is clearly not a sexy concept, yet somehow Visconti more or less pulls it off. All of the characters may be 'types,' yet all are given enough individual character touches that they transcend the problem of being contrived and overwrought that dogs so many other Visconti and Rossellini works.

The central conflict of the film is between the saintly Rocco (Alain Delon) and his ruthlessly hedonistic brother Simone (Renato Salvatori) over the love of a beautiful prostitute, Nadia (Annie Girardot). This clichéd love triangle is compelling thanks to the quality and beauty of the performers. Passion burns the candle at both ends, 24 hours a day for this whole mad Sicilian family. Forced by dire poverty to move from the Sicilian countryside to Milan, the Porondis, a widowed mother and her four young sons, join the oldest son, who's already got a steady job and a fiancé in the big city. Rocco, his mother, his brothers, the prostitute: they all begin as "types". Sure, there's a lot of "Mamma mia!" and hands raised to the Lord in despair. Sure, there's a lot of sweaty machismo. The boys spend a lot of time shouting at each other in their singlets. Yet the inescapable fact is that you can forget about the politics and the stereotypes. The Porondis are all very good looking and way cool!

Somehow, unlike his more mechanical attempts at propaganda in The Red Desert and The Damned, Visconti fell in love with his characters. The director lavishes his settings and characters with a pure Dickensian detail. As with his other masterpiece, The Leopard, Visconti shows a brilliant flair for tragedy and earthy good humor. As the inexorable logic of the plot and the fastidious peeling-of-an-onion detail take place, you can throw away all the specious chit-chat about social-realism and propaganda and just love this movie for what it is.

From the moment they arrive in Milan carrying bags of oranges and wax poetic at their first glimpse of snow, we are with the Porondis and aware of their collective naïveté. In no time at all, Simone (Renato Salvatori) becomes a prizefighter, part of a sleazy gangster's stable of broken-nosed, cauliflower-eared stumblebum gladiators. After winning a few fights, the fruits of victory for Simone are the free drinks and meals offered by nightclub owners. Taking up with a prostitute girlfriend, Nadia, (Annie Girardot) doesn't improve matters. Soon, however, Simone introduces them all to the poison of commercialism, corruption and urban brutality. After doing his military service, the saintly Rocco returns home to find no work and is forced to become a boxer, too. A few good paydays foment jealousy as Nadia, trying to 'reform' at the behest of Rocco and his long-suffering mother (Katina Paxinou), sleeps once again with Simone but flirts dangerously with Rocco. In the strongest scene in the film, the vicious Simone rapes the reformed prostitute right before the gentle Rocco's eyes and then slugs it out with him. This scene rings so true, the reality of the triple defilement is so powerful, so saturated with emotion and violent ambivalence that its rawness is shocking. I defy anyone to watch this scene and not be equally moved and exhausted by it. Anyone who thinks Alain Delon was just a blue-eyed, jet-black locked hunk of prettiness needs to see Rocco.

Throughout the film, Visconti swoops with his camera all over the streets of Milan, offering little stares at paving stones, children, people with other stories, and nooks and crannies full of daily grime and grunge. The passionate emotions of the characters and the screeching drama of the characters sting an audience into a state of empathy and wakefulness. It's Douglas Sirk on steroids. All deeply felt by its director and his ensemble.

Nino Rota's beautiful, passionate score is wonderful. Although Rota is best known for his association with Federico Fellini, his work here is clearly among his best.

Clocking in at 168 minutes, this is a demanding film. For anyone who insists the sixties started with the Beatles and La Dolce Vita, I'd suggest that they really need to start here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Ivorismo Rating****

Rainer Werner Fassbinder met Douglas Sirk at the Munich Film Museum in June 1971. As the history of cinema goes, this truly was a momentous event. Having sobered himself up and steered clear of the rough trade bars for more than two weeks, Fassbinder's aching temporary self-denial from his addictions put him into a state of agonized bliss. Buoyed at basking in the light of the maestro, Fassbinder sat next to him through six of his German-born idol's films. The directors became uber close friends, sharing a correspondence, and Fassbinder--up to that point viewed by Germany's small coven of art critics as a clever former television director with a chip on his shoulder, a provincial East German exile with a penchant for self-advertizement--was able to re-imagine his personal cinema in a completely new way. Sirk, famous for such Hollywood melodramas as All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, and Written on the Wind, walked across Fassbinder's mind like a colossus. Sirk's influence on the flaming young German upstart was both theoretical and aesthetic. Finally freeing himself from the kind of rigid, proto-Marxist thinking that compelled him to spawn what he snarkily referred to as "an oeuvre of orthodoxy," Fassbinder leavened his thinking.

Fassbinder’s metaphor-laden exposés of heartless social ostracism in West Germany had already became more gentle after The Merchant of Four Seasons. Yet his sometimes brutal directorial "touch" still remained very much the same. What Fassbinder adored about Sirk was his remarkable ability to fuse social commentary with soap opera in his screenplays. What we have in Fassbinder's masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a sort of loose bebop version of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. It may not be his most famous film, that kudos tends to go toward Fassbinder's more rigorous, politically correct and historically specific tomes to German history, Veronika Voss, Lili Marlene and The Marriage of Maria Braun, all of which were box office hits throughout the world. Far more eternal than Fassbinder's ironic takes on the modern German state's history, Ali’s story unravels like a bittersweet ball of steel wool. A postindustrial Deutschkeit fable about the fruits of racism and intolerance, it entertains just like Sirk's famous melodramas. Fassbinder's goal as an auteur was not just to subject his characters to the soap operatic beauty of pure misery so much as it was to expose such social mechanisms as racism and suburban conformity reeking havoc on his characters before they have ever loved.

In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a lonely, depressed cleaning lady, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), falls in love with and marries a Moroccan worker, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem). This leads to her being vilified by everyone in her world, especially her immediate family. Indeed, Fassbinder wastes no time in foreshadowing Emmi's dilemma from the start. Walking into the tavern where she first meets Ali, Emmi sees everyone freeze as she makes conversation with the big awkwardly handsome Arab. Fassbinder frames his scenes within windows and doorways and from within a room full of bright yellow chairs. Racism and a sense of isolation dog these characters in this 'new' West Germany. At the same time, Fassbinder's dialogue is filled with the clichés of middle class wannabeism. "All this work," Emmi says with a remarkable sense of gravity and innocence, as if she's pontificating upon a manifesto, "to get a little piece of Heaven."

I've been doing my German homework. I got in touch with my Swabian friend Martin and he pointed me in the correct direction. This is because the film's original German title reads Angst essen Seele auf, which actually translates as "Fear Eat Soul", while the correct German form would be  Angst isst die Seele auf. Deliberately rendered grammatically incorrect, the original title alludes to both Ali's terrible German and his shockingly naïve innocence. Ali's speech is ripe with Chance Gardner/Forest Gump-style aphorisms --"Think much, cry much" and "Money spoil friendship"--to the point where his talking seems canned and mechanical. Consequently, Fassbinder's genius is that, while he has created a sort of transposed facsimile of All That Heaven Allows, the cultural predicament explored in Sirk's film pales by comparison.

The wicked are everywhere in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. They constantly refer to the Turk and his uncivilized behavior. Yet they are the ones who smash in television sets, engage in vicious scurrilous gossip, and make nasty accusations toward the kindhearted Emmi. The film's infamous sea-of-yellow-chairs sequence clearly presages a rhetorical alteration in its view of a society's ambivalence about racism. Out of nowhere, people change. Emmi's crying and oft stated forgiveness for everybody have suddenly healed the wicked world. Inexplicably, the racists have gone through a period of redemption. Even Emmi's obnoxious son Bruno (Peter Gauhe), clearly a racist and never forgiven by his mother for killing the family cat, sends his mother a check for a new television. On the street, Emmi's perverse gossipy neighbors stop to make conversation and ask for favors, complimenting her for her constant kindness.

Change and forgiveness, for Fassbinder, forever the butch masculine queer outsider, whether it's sudden, organic, surreal, or magical, is a natural part of human progress, but still ought to be viewed in a cynical way. Still, the audience may indeed ask if it's really progress if a local shopkeeper begins to act politely with Emmi—despite her husband's brown face—because, really, she simply doesn't want to lose her business? Indeed, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul's second half shows how the constantly silent Ali is also affected by his sudden social acceptance. The 'good' neighbors who used to rant about Emmi bringing dirt into their building ooh and ah over the Moroccan’s big muscles. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul may even evoke a sort of Reaganite ideal to cure a racist world. The trickle-down effect of new money can conquer all resistance once the locals become willing to take a seat on the gravy train.

Still, when it comes to the human soul, neither words nor deeds are quite enough. Fassbinder insists there is still much construction work to be done. Ali is his masterpiece!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The 400 Blows

Ivorismo Rating *****

I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between. Francois Truffaut

The 400 Blows (1959) is absolutely one of the most moving experiences in beautiful storytelling I've ever had. It's the very touching story of a wide-eyed adolescent, very much inspired by the Writer/Director Francois Truffaut's own early life. His alter-ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), is an aggressive, brave boy growing up on the mean streets of Paris, already committed, he insists, to a life of petty thievery. The merciless adult world refuses to see him as anything but a disrespectful troublemaker. Yet as 'street' as the boy is determined to be, there another tender, intellectual side he sparingly shows, exemplified in a scene where Antoine lights a candle before a shrine to the writer, Honore De Balzac, in his bedroom. A rebel with a cause, Antoine learns as he goes along, so that, by the time the film's famous final shot, an achingly slow zoom leading to a freeze frame, shows him looking directly into the camera at the seaside. Finally aware of his surroundings and circumstances simultaneously, having just escaped from a boys' house of detention, Antoine stands on the beach, trapped between land and water, his past and his future.

Antoine is fully realized by Jean-Pierre Leaud, a splendid young actor who exhibits a kind of pure solemn detachment. Already bitter about events which have taken place long before the film's plot began, Antoine is vigilant about harnessing his emotions and contemptuous toward a hypocritical adult world. The actor and his performance meet seamlessly at Truffaut’s behest. Not surprisingly, this movie was the first in a long collaboration between actor and director. They would later return to the character in the short film Antoine and Collette (1962) and three more features: Stolen Kisses (1968), the wonderful Bed and Board1970) and Love on the Run (1979).

All five are truly great works of art, particularly Bed and Board, but The 400 Blows really is Truffaut at play in a class all by himself. Truffaut's first feature is the original film of the French New Wave. Dedicated to Andre Bazin, an important French film critic, it's a sort of poem from the fatherless Truffaut to a man who steered him away from trouble.

There is nothing gratuitous in this film. No fat. None whatsoever! Everything builds incrementally to the impact of that final shot. We first meet Antoine when he is living with his mother and stepfather in a tiny crowded flat where everybody bumps into each other. Antoine's sluttish mother (Claire Maurier) is a bottled blonde who favors tight sweaters and relentlessly nags about having no money to her miserable son and his stepfather. The stepfather (Albert Remy) is actually pretty easy-going. He is not nasty to the boy, or mean-spirited like the mother, but is clearly not emotionally available either. Both parents are away most of the time, neither one paying any kind of close attention to the boy. Basically, Antoine is ignored. He might as well be an object, like a vase or a carpet, for all the attention they pay him. Worse, they judge him harshly trusting in the self-interested based foibles of other vindictive people.

Atypically, in school Antoine has been written off by his teacher (Guy Decombie) as a troublemaker. His mother never even thinks to ask her son his side of the exaggerated tale the teacher tells her about Antoine's bad behavior' at school. Indeed, just like the old blues song says, if Antoine didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have any at all. So, when a sexy pinup calendar is being passed around the room, he has the bad luck to be the one the teacher catches clutching it. Standing in the corner as punishment, Antoine makes faces for his classmates to giggle at before he desecrates the wall with graffiti. That night, when his homework is interrupted by another one of his mother's hissy fits, the boy uses it as an excuse to skip school the next day. Absent again the next week, Antoine tells his teacher the ridiculous lie that his mother has died. Soon, however, she turns up at school, very much alive, her tightly encumbered breasts pointing at the teacher's lying eyes through her wooly sweater like mocking fingers.  Seething with rage, she urges the teacher to punish the boy. At that point, Antoine becomes an object of contempt for both his teachers and parents.

That night, cramped into the narrow alcove which is his 'bedroom, Antoine writes about "the death of my grandfather'' in a close paraphrase of Balzac, whose writing he has memorized as an act of love. It is, of course, composed by the boy as an act of paraphrased homage, it is blown out of all proportion by his hysterical teacher as an act of deliberate, vindictive plagiarism. Humiliated one time too many, Antoine sets out diligently to become a true bad boy. He and a friend steal a typewriter, but, of course, get caught trying to return it. For this outrageous act Antoine is sent off to a juvenile detention home.

Completely abandoned by his parents, his fate is left to the caprices of the bureaucrats who run the social services. The most awful scene imaginable takes place as we witness his parents disgustedly discussing his case with a social worker. Once again, they might as well be discussing a broken vacuum cleaner or a coat. "If he came home, he would only run away again,'' his mother insists. As a result he is booked at a police station, placed in a cell, and then put in a paddy wagon with pimps, prostitutes and thieves. As the boy is driven through the dark streets of Paris, Antoine's face stares out through the bars like a thousand-year-old martyr. The sadness of his existence as he stares out at a mean old world still never fails to move me no matter how many times I see it.

Please don't misunderstand; Truffaut's film is not altogether dark and miserable. Yes, it's shot in a grainy black-and-white in the midst of the Parisian winter, but there are still episodes of pure joy. One pristinely brilliant scene shows a physical education teacher leading the boys on a jog through Paris. Shot from a distance above them, we see the boys escape two by two, until the teacher has only two or three boys to bark orders at. The one moment of redemption and possibility for the family follows one of Antoine's foolish mistakes. After lighting a candle to Balzac, the boy sets his little cardboard shrine on fire accidentally. Angrily, his parents smother the flames, but then their exasperation dissipates, and the whole family goes to the movies and lends up laughing on the way home.

The cinema gave Francois Truffaut a life. This film, made when he was only 27, clearly marks the dividing point between classic and modern cinema. Truffaut is my beloved when we're talking modern directors. Truffaut (1932-1984) died of a brain tumor at 52. He left behind 21 films. All are good. This one is close to perfect!

Monday, July 26, 2010

High Blood Pressure

The military industrial complex grins its evil grin.
Having cagily plotted to kill me in a conspiracy
so nefarious, I wake up fluttery-eyed.
So diabolical, that even my paranoia died.

Somewhere in my DNA. Trapped,
Like a vicious sliver of transparent candy
between two shiny-white American teeth,
my predilection for high blood pressure plots.

Hiding everywhere there’s salt.
Realer than any rumor about God.
Concrete longing. Addiction. Bitter.
Ten times harsher than my wife’s tongue.

Salt. You fucker.
Didn’t consider it ever, till I’ve been forced to do without.
Nothing to look forward to but fruit and vegetables.
Compote, slushies, taking a good shit and death.

High Blood Pressure, baby.
It’s killed more Yids than Zyklon B.
Tonight I think I’ll live dangerous. Eat some pizza..
It’ll be better than sky-diving or shtupping a skanky whore’s ass bareback.

—Ivor Irwin

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cissie’s Song

I took a train to Sault-Saint Marie.
There was a Mississipi virgin waiting for me.
I had a treasure map, an attitude, a longing, a plea.
I said: Can someone help find the old faith in Me?
You won’t believe it, it’s unfortunate, see
 I adhere to the ghosts of Robert E and Stagger Lee.
And she said, I come from Indianola and my name be Cissie Dupree.

Oh Cissie, Oh Cissie, Oh Cissie Dupree.
I go down there. You know where. And I swear you taste like sassafras tea.

We looked hard to find the Queen Victoria Hotel,
where old ladies in corsets and crinoline dwell.
It's a familiar hell, one where satisfaction dwells.
I was all loosy goose, while Cissie cleaned up all my juice.
Now I see there’s nothing in Upper Michigan but tomfoolery,
flannel-shirted hostility. Ol' tore up pictures of  the Pope and J.F.K.
And a treatise in the paper on the way we die today.

Yea, Cissie, Oh Cissie. Oh Cissie Dupree.
I go down there. You know where. And I swear you taste like sassafras tea.

I said, Cissie, Oh Cissie, I think you lied to me!
You played fast and loose about your virginity.
I just wanted to feel like one of them apostles feels,
when the leaven of mercy gets stranded.
This bottle of whiskey, it cannot save me.
You see my heart is so full with an ache for purity,
but it's  just God’s always joking, and now he’s laughing at me.

Oh Cissie, Oh Cissie, Oh Cissie Dupree.
I don’t care about your hymen. Just get back in bed with me

— Ivor Irwin

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Beloved Infidel

I definitely am an infidel.
Own no doubt about it.
My people are the stiff-necked kind and can not be converted.
Before you chop my big head off,
I will trash talk in bad Arabic, grin and wait for payback.

Go on. Bring it on, Bint.
Your scimitar, your sodomy and your suicide vest.
I laugh because you're pathetic.
Bathing in the blood of your enemies, consuming our hearts raw.
A billion lemmings looking toward Mecca.
Cheering for Manchester City.

I look forward to your dirty bomb. The blotting out of the sun.
Americastan: A nation of mutant converts.
Framed pictures of Osama, Farrakhan and Khomeini on the wall.
Anemically keeping our bitches in line.
Veiled. Speaking our Arabic with a midwestern accent.
"Bismallah e-raHman e-raHeem, motherfucker!"

Don't fear the green dawn!
Sharia in Skokie. Palestinian comedians.
The poor, like grains of sand, still poor.
All on the same page, chanting the same Surah.
Don't worry, there'll be a giant selection of prayer rugs at Target.
And the Cubs will finally win the World Series.

Pretending to cooperate, I will eat my humble humus smiling.
Say my jaded phrases with gusto: "Alehu Akbar!" and "Death to the Jews!"
My buddies and me, we'll hoard our supply of bacon and porn,
drink home-made booze, sing freedom songs.
And, hunted by your secret police, we'll die manfully one by one,
Saying, "Yeah! Next year in Jerusalem!"

— Ivor Irwin

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Baraka Kasali in the Congo

To all my friends:

I've been pretty vocal and clear about what a waste of time, energy and money it is to give money to Haiti because most of it's going to end up in Switzerland. If you would like to help the misbegotten and tragedy-ridden of this world in a more concrete way and KNOW for sure you're doing good, please let me alert you to the good work being done by my close friend Baraka Kasali in the Congo. I'm sure you're aware of the perpetual civil war and suffering there. Baraka is a Congolese American who went home to visit, began to teach as a volunteer and has decided to stay. He doesn't need money, he needs French-English dictionaries. Old ones are fine. ANY WOULD BE GOOD!!! Buy them new or used at Amazon or Half.com. If you'd like to know more about where Baraka works in the Congo please go to congoinitiative.org

Send them C/O: CHELSIE FRANK, 7900 Cedar Street, Greenfield MN55373.

Anyone in the U.K. or Eire should just email me to request a local address. Chelsie will soon be coming home for a short trip to the U.S. before going back again. Please help!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Definitely a Whimper

I’ve seen the greatest minds of my generation
busted for malfeasance.
Dinosaurs crying glib crocodile tears.
The codpiece of tenure ripped aside like so much recycled paper.
Staggering through Bridgeport,
foul of breath from ersatz Cuban panatellas,
singing out the true stories of their lives,
fueled by Maker's Mark, Dylan and a heaped tablespoonful of self-pity.
Half-written memoirs, unfinished romains,
the glorious shimmering stank of student pussy in their mustaches.
Trapped in the afterglow of the grins of lesbian colleagues.
How they smile, bask in your misery. A far superior predator.
Marooned with sarcastic kids and anti-trophy wives,
their contempt like question marks burned into your worried forehead
by the tip of the white-hot rapier that was once your own sense of humor
but now belongs to your spawn.
Do you recall? You only went into teaching for the three free months of summer.
To disappoint your parents, write your books,
show off your scintillating repartée at readings and receptions
and shag every little slag.
Giggle when you encounter the winners. Their classrooms trouble free.
Risk averted at the very gates.
The dross propaganda of Derrida, Beaudrillard and f-f-f-fucking Foucault,
dead without a gutter, without a singular tear.
I've seen the greatest minds of my generation purple with envy.
Preaching against the national debt.
Haunted by the prospect of perpetual war,
and a singular dream where their children's children bear prayer rugs.
World's end, as the sun, a pitted, acne-infected orange,
spitting its halitosis accompanied by a bass-heavy worldbeat soundtrack,
weights and measures, whimpers-versus-bangs
God and the devil in the final World Series.

— Ivor Irwin

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


The Digital Conversion box in my head
Gets distracted by errant traffic upstairs.
Keith David: Narrator of all our lives,
pleasantly reciting all our yesterdays, for the right price.
Ken Burns all around. Ubiquitous. Educating Me.
Helping me think American.
Now that the sun, having indeed set, I
no longer a true Englishman.
Having learned to be a stars and stripes liberal.
Now I know all about
The civil war
our national forests
World War Two
Abraham Lincoln
Louis Armstrong
The faces of critics and experts. Their wiseness.
Stanley Crouch’s football head.
The nasel whine of Gary Giddins:
(His voice which reminds me of a kid I punched for no reason whatsoever in school one day,
because the timbre of his enunciation just irritated me)
Thank you all!
I now own the boxed set. The book. The soundtrack.
It's like I know Hank Gates and Simon Schama.
Now I can say, sincerely, at cocktail parties, with a straight face, that
the two greatest betrayals of the Twentieth Century were
The Pact of Steel and Dylan at Newport.
Now can we all hold hands
Shake our bling and sing
“This Land is Your Land!!”

—Ivor Irwin