Çarşamba, Mayıs 31, 2006

Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner: A Retrospective

In 1967, roundabout the Summer of Love, there aired a very curious program in Great Britain and around the world: The Prisoner, ostensibly the follow-up to the successful spy show Danger Man (in the U.S., Secret Agent), with the same star, Patrick McGoohan, who would go on to a sporadic film career (most notably in Ice Station Zebra, David Cronenberg's Scanners, and Braveheart, the star of which--Mel Gibson--once considered remaking The Prisoner). The problem with The Prisoner is that although it began as a particularly surreal episode of Danger Man, by the end of the episode John Drake, if that even was John Drake, didn't get to escape. He was there in the next episode. And then the next. He tried to escape, and he always failed, either pursued by a terrifying white bubble that eats people, or tripped up by more subtler means. He was held hostage in The Village, which has no man-made walls--only the sea and the mountains--and seems like a particularly pleasant resort on the surface, with contented residents, Villagers, who wear colorful striped tee-shirts and hold colorful striped umbrellas over their shoulders, and play chess, and swim, and buy candies at the local shop, and listen to a brass band playing the same shrill tunes over and over and over again, day after day. Only many of them, like the Prisoner, are former spies who are being coerced into giving vital secrets, and they all are issued numbers, their identities stolen. Our hero is No.6; the chief warden is known as No.2, and sits in a globe chair within the darkened confines of "The Green Dome," constantly watching surveillance footage of the Villagers with the Supervisor, a bald man who announces "Orange Alert!" when someone swims too far out to sea; his butler, a dwarf, has no name or number, but neither does he have a voice; and the mysterious No.1, who controls all, is never to be seen or heard, except by a red telephone on No.2's desk.

It must have been an odd thing to happen upon when flipping channels in 1967. Given the limited number of channels in the U.K., you'd probably end up watching it whether the show made any sense to you or not. It was in color, after all. Some of the stories were even quite thrilling in a conventional sense: like when No.6 almost escapes the Village with a sexy girl by trapping them within a crate being shipped to London, or when he fences with his mysterious doppelganger sent to steal his identity, or when he--in each episode, actually--engages in a fistfight with a bunch of thugs in those bright, striped shirts. But for the most part No.6 was kept on the defensive, constantly being shot up with drugs, put under hypnosis, gassed, or forced to endure Pavlovian shock treatment. Like the more haunting photos in your Psych 101 textbook, every unhinged experiment was tried on No.6, each time in an effort to "break" him, and find out why he suddenly resigned his position in an intelligence agency. No matter what he was subjected to, he always kept his integrity intact.

When I was a teenager, my Blockbuster decided to carry all seventeen episodes of the series, and I worked my way through them; I remember they seemed inexplicable. I had never heard of the series before, but the description on the back of the first box, "Arrival," sounded like it was made for this young Kafka devotee. I embraced the abstract nature, the unexplainables, and the bouncing white ball that killed (the Village called it "Rover," since it was the prison's guard dog). McGoohan's overly mannered performance impressed me deeply, and I recited his dialogue devotedly, especially the part where he says he won't be pushed, stamped, et cetera. I was slightly disappointed by the conventional plot outline of "Checkmate," which had such a tantalizing premise (chess with live chess pieces!), but found myself in over my head--and loving it--with the bizarre and satirical "Free for All," and especially the directly allegorical two-part finale. When my parents took me to England as a graduation present, I insisted we drive to William Clough-Ellis' resort of Portmeirion, where the show was filmed, and when I suddenly rounded the corner and looked down into the Village with my own eyes, my breath was taken away. It was intact. It was exactly as it always was. You could practically see the black-suited McGoohan marching down the Village green. In No.6's house was located the Village shop, and here you could buy all the show memorabilia you could possibly imagine: I bought a Village map, of course (just as No.6 did when he arrived), and also a newspaper ("No.6 Speaks His Mind"), a campaign poster ("Vote for No.6"), and assorted other props. A year later I wrote a Prisoner short story, "Soliloquy," for the Once Upon a Time Prisoner Appreciation Society, and I think you can still buy it for a couple bucks online--that was the first time I got published. While making fun of Trekkies and groaning at the slavish devotion one showed to any other television show with a science fiction theme, I never grew out of The Prisoner, and could always return to it with the same glazed and mesmerized stare. Somehow, I've always lived inside the show.

That's not such a bad thing. No.6 is a pretty solid role model. Sure, he's sexist ("Never trust a woman, even of the feline variety," he says when he's betrayed by a black cat), he's violent (in the penultimate episode, he flat-out murders), and although he's clever as hell, his fits of aggression become his own worst enemy when fighting the machinations of the Village and all its various Nos.2. But he never cows to authority, and he never gives in, never squeals, never breaks. ("I may be a fool," he says to No.2, "but I'm not a rat.") He stands up beneath every conceivable torture and coercion. The last two episodes feel like a test for No.6, and they are: they are testing his integrity, and it is maintained, even though, in the finale, he must turn his destructive instinct inward to finally become free.

Prisoner fans are a really strange folk, because they'll insist it's the greatest show to ever air on television, and then readily admit it's flawed. First, you must understand that it was not meant to be seventeen episodes; McGoohan, the producer and chief creative force behind the direction of the series, wanted fewer, but the network wanted more. Seventeen was a compromise. Those episodes written to bring the series up to 17 are padding, and sometimes they let the series down severely. In a way, it's baffling: could it really be so hard to come up with episodes that adhere to the philosophy of the series, are set in the Village, with a No.2 and a No.6 locked in some kind of duel, No.6 trying to escape, No.2 trying to break him? The formula is there. Instead, we get a Western ("Living in Harmony"), a James Bond spoof ("The Girl Who Was Death"), a serious spy yarn (which is equally inappropriate--"Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling"), and "It's Your Funeral," an episode that, each time I see it, seems to make less and less logical sense, as though the writers were desperately typing away under deadline without any clue as to what the thing was about. The others, for the most part, are rock-solid pieces of writing, and are good enough to raise the entire series above the ones that don't pull their own weight (although I have no grudge against "Living in Harmony," which isn't bad for what it is). So there's one main problem: the writers hired couldn't live up to the standards set by McGoohan, who himself wrote many of the series' finest episodes, including the last two. But the other flaw is McGoohan himself, who is so wonderfully naive about the possibilities of the one-hour-drama that he stretches it in all sorts of experimental ways, many of which just don't work. For example, the aggressive nursery-rhyme score gets quite annoying in "Once Upon a Time," and about half of "Fall Out" is tedious unless you just go with it, as I sometimes will. But it was the Sixties. At least be grateful that his naive excess allowed him to insert The Beatles' "All You Need is Love" into "Fall Out," notably transposing the song over a gratuitous machine gun battle. Only in the Sixties.

I adore The Prisoner. Within this series there really are some of the finest moments on television. I hold up, for example, "Free for All," with its spot-on and cynical view of political elections (No.6 agrees to run for No.2's seat, only to become brainwashed and, in the process, lose his revolutionary message, to become just another politician who plays by the rules). Or "The Chimes of Big Ben" with a glorious Leo McKern--everyone's, even McGoohan's, favorite No.2; or the genuinely disorienting "The Schizoid Man," in which No.6 is faced with an exact double and told that he's not who he thought he was. The great thing about "Schizoid Man" is that the ploy played on No.6 begins to work on the audience; even when the two Nos.6 are given different colored suits--one black, one white--to tell them apart, we're still made dizzy by the plot, which asks us to follow that No.2 is tricking No.6 into thinking he's impersonating No.6. It's ingenious. The best plotlines of the series engage in battles on an abstract or psychological level, rather than a direct and obvious one; there's always a fistfight, but more often the real duel is on another plane. Just as "Schizoid Man" is all about breaking down No.6's sense of self, and he must attempt to rally and rebuild his psyche, there's also the intangible battles of "Dance of the Dead," in which No.2 "kills" No.6 in a way that's somehow more significant than if she had actually done the deed, "A, B, & C," which takes place almost entirely in No.6's dreams (controlled by No.2), and, of course, "Once Upon a Time," where the ultimate battle between 6 and 2 is a mental wrestling match, as No.2 first regresses No.6 to childhood, places him in "The Embryo Room," and, over the course of "one teeny weeny week," attempts to break his will across all the Seven Ages of Man! It seems appropriate that in "Hammer Into Anvil," No.6 should fight back not physically, but by constructing an elaborate mind-game to turn No.2 into a paranoid wreck. Essentially, he uses No.2's own overly-schematicized tactics against him.

In these, some of the finest episodes, the writing is top-drawer, although sometimes the sublime touches come at you in other directions. "Many Happy Returns" has not a line of dialogue for about twenty minutes, as No.6 awakens one morning to find the Village deserted, and methodically sets out on a blind journey into the sea. When he finally arrives before his old bosses--here and in "The Chimes of Big Ben"--he's stunned and visibly distressed to find that they're not much different from his new bosses, and only want to know why he resigned.

"The whole world, as the Village?" No.6 asks No.2 in "Chimes." When we finally meet No.1, sitting on his desk are a series of globes. The feeling of microcosm is encouraged in that episode, "Fall Out," as characters begin to act less like themselves and more like allegorical representations, and not even No.6 becomes much more fleshed out than Alexis Kanner's "Dem Bones"-singing hippie rebel, stirring up a rucus among the the masked jurors, each of whom is given a different, broad label. (Throughout the series, there are usually just generalities: a "general," a "colonel," and a "president" all lurk behind the Village's surface, but that tells us nothing.) We're encouraged to think that even though we watch the show safe in our own homes, they're just as much a prison as the Village--think of the RV-like prison cage in the final two episodes, which has all the comfort and amenities while keeping you behind bars. But prisoner, exactly, of what? "Fall Out" has the answer for you.

McGoohan gave all the answers, but the mainstream public wasn't interested. They wanted John Drake, not a Samuel Beckett play, which "Fall Out" seemed like, at times. They wanted No.6 to act like a person, not a symbol. McGoohan reportedly went into hiding for a little while after the series finale aired. People weren't happy, but deeply dissatisfied. The Prisoner would have to become a cult hit instead.

There was going to be a movie remake about ten years ago, first from Mel Gibson, then from the guy who directed Tomb Raider (thank God that didn't happen). For his part, McGoohan, who held the rights, insisted they use his script, and he concocted something so bizarre that it sabotaged the project. I've read an outline, and it's essentially a direct sequel to "Fall Out." McGoohan will never compromise The Prisoner, even decades on, although he did play No.6 again in the wonderful Simpsons parody a few years ago. If you had never seen The Prisoner before, that Simpsons episode would have seemed like the most aggressively bizarre thing in the world. But if you had, it was a delight, and anyway, a Prisoner fans is accustomed to the aggressively bizarre.

The most popular parlor game among Prisoner fans is to concoct a structure of episodes for the series. There are only three that are fixed: "Arrival," and the final two, "Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out." Everything else is up for grabs, as they were shot out of order and aired almost randomly in both the U.K. and the U.S. A&E Home Video has attempted a perfect order, but even they make crucial mistakes, from my point of view. Understanding that there is no set order, because the writers were often working on separate episodes simultaneously, I've just watched all 17, taken lots of notes, and assembled an ideal episode order based upon two principles: (1) clues and data from within the episodes themselves, and (2) a sense of progression and overarching story structure to the entire series. To this latter point, I think the series can be divided in half, from early episodes wherein No.6 is constantly attempting to escape, to the second half, where he's more involved in Village life and tries to destroy the Village from within. If you're watching them for the first time, I recommend you watch them in this order. A justification--my notes taken while I was watching them--follows, but they're filled with spoilers.

1. Arrival
2. Free for All
3. Checkmate
4. Dance of the Dead
5. The Chimes of Big Ben
6. The Schizoid Man
7. Many Happy Returns
8. The General
9. A, B, & C
10. Living in Harmony
11. It's Your Funeral
12. Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling
13. A Change of Mind
14. The Girl Who Was Death
15. Hammer Into Anvil
16. Once Upon a Time
17. Fall Out

A Probable History of The Prisoner: An Episode Guide Justified

#1 Arrival
The debut episode of the series is one of the greatest pilot episodes of all time. In the opening credits and beneath the theme music of Ron Grainer, No.6 suddenly and angrily resigns from his position in a British intelligence agency. As he packs for vacation in his London apartment, he's followed, gassed, and passes out. When he awakens, his immediate surroundings are the same, but the view from the window is different: he's in the Village, a small coastal hamlet in which every occupant is assigned a number. The ruler is an unseen No.1, but No.2, in the Green Dome, is the official actively in charge. No.6 resists telling No.2 why he resigned, and each of his escape attempts are thwarted, either by the strange guardian known as Rover, or by No.2's ingenuity.

The various ideas established in Arrival are quickly explored in the subsequent three “arrival” episodes: the revolving Nos.2 (Free for All), chess as a metaphor (Checkmate), and encouraging No.6 to settle in and participate in Village life (Dance of the Dead). Immediately the first four episodes are aligned, and play together with fluidity.

#2 Free for All
No.6 is encouraged by No.2 to run for the position of the new No.2, on the promise that holding such a position will allow him to meet No.1. Out of curiosity, No.6 agrees. But the democratic system soon proves to be corrupt, as No.6 is brainwashed by the Town Hall into becoming a candidate bereft of revolutionary ideas.

However unlikely it may seem that No.6 would, this early in his stay in the Village, submit to the election scheme concocted by No.2, there are too many clues scattered about this and subsequent episodes to place Free for All anywhere else. He does not know where the Town Hall is, and has to locate it at the information booth, which places it before Dance of the Dead. He promises to find out “who are the prisoners and who are the warders,” which sets up Checkmate, the culmination of this quest. The boat he uses to escape becomes remote-controlled by the Village, in a similar fashion to the remote-controlled helicopter in Arrival; subsequently, he will not use Village vehicles to try to escape. At the episode’s conclusion, No.2 says, “This is only the beginning. We have many ways and means but don’t wish to damage you permanently.” This sets up the progression of techniques used upon the Prisoner throughout the series, increasingly risking “damaging” him. In an episode that’s entirely about No.2, it also seems appropriate to place it as episode No.2.

#3 Checkmate
A chess match using Villagers as living chess pieces puts No.6 in contact with the "Queen," another Villager who wants to escape. He decides they must organize all the Villagers who aren't secretly working for No.2, but paranoia turns the escapees against each other.

Checkmate is an ideal plot for a second episode, but must be placed after Free for All: in having promised to sort out the prisoners from the warders in Free for All, No.6 now sets out to do this; also, in a word association test, he answers “free” with “for all,” a clear reference to those most recent events. The notion of “we’re all pawns, m’dear,” introduced in Arrival, now becomes a major thematic element of Checkmate. No.6 immediately asks a Villager “Who is No.1?”, and another says “You must be new here,” establishing this as a very early episode. This is No.6 testing the limits of Village security, and he also learns that he must place his trust carefully, as all Villagers are subject to paranoia and betrayal under the manipulation of the warders. After this episode, No.6 will not try such simple plans of escape, but more complex strategies.

#4 Dance of the Dead
No.6 is encouraged by the new No.2 to participate in a Village costume ball; he, meanwhile, has discovered a radio he might use to escape, and comes across a fellow Villager, tortured and of broken will, who was a friend of his on the outside.

The last of the “new arrival” episodes; presumably, these four episodes all take place within a few weeks of each other. There is no sense of urgency in breaking No.6; here, No.2 only wants to wear down his will by showing that he has no hope of returning to the outside world, which, by the end of the episode, will presumably think him dead. No.6 thinks he can enter the Town Hall, introduced in Free for All, but is surprised by the new invisible barrier; he’s informed that you can only enter the Town Hall on special occasions, for which the elections of Free for All would certainly qualify. No.2’s cat is introduced, and No.6 associates felines with females; this must be placed before Many Happy Returns, in which the same cat signals the presence of a female No.2 behind the plot, in the dream-like logic of the series.

#5 The Chimes of Big Ben
No.6, sympathizing with a new arrival, tries to help her escape before she can be tortured by No.2 to reveal her secrets. Amazingly, their plan seems to succeed as they make their way across the sea toward London.

“A gap of months” has occurred, and No.6, having been thoroughly defeated and demoralized by the events of Dance of the Dead, is now more accustomed to the Village, but is still not broken. “Are you running out of time?” he asks No.2 at one point. And as he watches the arrival of a new prisoner, No.2 asks No.6, “Do you remember your first day?” Still, the simplicity of the plot must place it before subsequent episodes, which resort to more drastic means to break No.6. More emphasis than before is placed on the question of why No.6 resigned, and he almost tells; a further progression to this central question will occur in A, B, & C. There is a real sense of excitement as No.6 finally breaks away from Rover and the Village perimeter, and it’s clear this is the first time he’s done so, placing it before Many Happy Returns and Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling. The final revelation would have less impact if placed later in the series, for it wouldn’t be as surprising to learn that the Village superiors have gone to such great lengths for a ruse.

#6 The Schizoid Man
No.2 tries to convince No.6 that he's actually No.12, a lookalike sent to drive the real No.6 mad.

The events begin on February 10, and culminate toward the end of the month, leading directly into Many Happy Returns. No.6 has again settled into the village, and begun to trust another woman, on his own terms; again, this will prove a weakness. After The Chimes of Big Ben, we understand the elaborate lengths to which the Village will take its schemes, and The Schizoid Man is less confusing when this is understood; it’s also a much more sophisticated—in fact, brilliant—means of breaking No.6: No.6 is to be convinced that he’s a doppelganger, No.12. A&E Home Video asserts this episode should be placed after The General, due to the presence in the latter episode of a No.12 who is said to have been in the Village for a long time. In fact, this argument’s irrelevant: No.12 is not really a prisoner, but has a name, “Curtis”; furthermore, the entire Village is apparently in on the scheme, for they refer to No.6 as No.12. The No.12 of The General works for No.2 directly, and can withdraw behind-the-scenes for the events of this episode. Put simply, the No.12 of The Schizoid Man is established as a ruse, and should be treated as such. And more importantly, “the General” is referred to several times in this episode; as the General is destroyed in the eponymous episode, you can either assume it’s a different General (i.e. a man and not a computer), or understand the episode The General to be an attempt to explain just who/what “the General” is, tying up that loose end of The Schizoid Man. Finally, given the plot of this episode, it seems appropriate to place it as episode No.6. Numerology is never to be dismissed in The Prisoner.

#7 Many Happy Returns
No.6 awakens one morning to find the Village deserted. Quickly he sets about making a record of its existence, then sets out by sea to find his way home.

It’s irrefutable that the chronology of The Schizoid Man places it directly before Many Happy Returns, which begins at the end of February, and leaves no room for any episode in-between. How satisfying that after the abruptly aborted escape at the end of the last episode, No.6 should wake up next morning to find the Village deserted, and can simply walk free. Of course, it’s only another game of No.2’s. After No.6 came so very close to escaping in the last episode, upper management must decide it’s time, once and for all, to prove to No.6 that even if he leaves the Village, they’ll have the connections and means to bring him swiftly back. Note the appearance of the cat from Dance of the Dead, a clue to the identity of this episode’s No.2. Note also that the location of the Village is now determined to be completely different from the “Lithuania” theory of Chimes of Big Ben; the location will be further confused in later episodes, in particular Fall Out, always emphasizing the disorienting, dream-like quality of the series. (The theory that there are actually several Villages misses the point a little; Fall Out seems to prove definitively that the events of the series are not to be taken “for real.”) When he returns to London, No.6 distrusts his superiors as much as they distrust him, indicating he has already undergone the betrayal of Chimes of Big Ben.

#8 The General
A new method of programming, "Speedlearn," is introduced into the Village, and within a matter of minutes Villagers can learn a detailed history lesson simply by staring into their TV set. The Professor, who invented the method, happily endorses it on camera, but behind the scenes is attempting to escape, which rouses No.6's curiosity about what is really going on.

After Many Happy Returns, in which No.6 finally escapes only to be brought back, the emphasis in the series changes from escaping the Village to simply maintaining his will and defeating the Village from within. The Prisoner of The General is clearly one who’s spent a lot of time in the Village, and is less interested in plotting escape, but takes the time and effort to resolving an unrelated mystery: Who is the General? A General of some kind was referenced in The Schizoid Man, and it’s revealing to think of that General and this one being one and the same; it would also help explain why No.2 places such importance in the General—which may be such an intelligent computer that it concocted the scheme of The Schizoid Man. The No.2 of this episode returns in the consecutive installment, A, B & C. There are two reasons to think that The General comes first, contrary to its placement on the A&E DVDs. For one thing, No.2 is only casually interested in No.6 in this episode, whereas in A, B, & C he feels a desperate urgency to break No.6 as quickly as possible, while under threat of terrible punishment by No.1, represented by the large red phone. When No.6 defeats No.2 in that episode, it’s clear there will be a new No.2 arriving shortly to replace him. Second, and most obviously, in the opening credits of The General he introduces himself as “the new No.2,” but A, B, & C marks the series’ only departure from that script, subtracting “the new.” But a casual examination of No.2’s disposition in both episodes will reveal the intended order.

#9 A, B, & C
No.2's latest attempt to learn why No.6 resigned involves manipulating his dreams: he arranges the unconscious No.6 to meet three contacts from his past, in the hopes that he will reveal his secrets in confidence to one of them. But during the daylight hours, No.6 begins to slowly uncover the operation.

Having been humiliated by No.6 in The General’s finale, No.2 feels a great pressure to break No.6, and he’s threatened by the invisible No.1. In The Chimes of Big Ben, No.6 begins to explain why he resigned to superiors who worry he’s gone to the other side; here, the possibility is explored in full, and we do learn something in the conclusion: he did not resign to sell secrets to someone else. It clearly must be placed after COBB. Note that The General and A, B, & C act not only as a two-parter, but as the exact center of the series. They represent a turn in the direction of the plotlines. After this point, No.6 looks to ways of destroying the Village from within, and increasingly engages in a battle of wills with No.2, culminating in Hammer into Anvil and Once Upon a Time, two episodes in which he turns the tables and “breaks” No.2. The methods used by the various Nos.2 also become more drastic and desperate, and increasingly rely on mind-altering drugs, something they’re more reluctant to use in the early episodes.

#10 Living in Harmony
No.6 is now a sheriff who has resigned his post in a town in the Old West; he soon finds himself in a new town that won't let him leave, and insists he take up the badge again.

A continuation of the technique used in A, B, & C, here the new No.2 decides to make the drug-controlled dreams of No.6 more immersive by placing him in fabricated sets resembling an Old West town. However, the actors still control the dream by speaking into microphones while the landscape is uploaded onto a projection on a screen, as with the previous episode. When this technique is revealed in the final act, both the viewer and No.6 can understand immediately what is happening, since it has been used before. These reasons make it an ideal fit after our episode #9, but there’s further incentive to separate this Alexis Kanner role as far as possible from the two others in the remaining episodes (The Girl Who Was Death and Fall Out).

#11 It’s Your Funeral
No.6 becomes involved in a plot to assassinate the new No.2, and tries vainly to warn No.2 and disassemble the conspiracy.

Now we enter the weak final stretch of the series, when episodes seem more like filler than anything else, and the writers stray from the concept. The only interesting aspect of It’s Your Funeral is that No.6 is fighting to save the life of a No.2, and that the episode preoccupies itself with the politics of being a transitory No.2. But the plot doesn’t make much sense. Anyway, the episode must be a later one, given No.6’s immediate and hostile distrust of a woman sent to his apartment: he says “Many times bitten, forever shy.” He’s been betrayed by young women in episodes like Free for All, The Chimes of Big Ben, The Schizoid Man, and Living in Harmony, so it could easily come after all these episodes.

#12 Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling
The inventor of a device which can place one man's mind in the body of another has disappeared, and No.6 is sent outside the Village to find him--but not before he's made a victim of the device, and now has another man's face.

In the most disposable of all Prisoner episodes (McGoohan was away filming Ice Station Zebra), No.6’s mind is placed in the body of a Colonel and he’s sent to London to find Professor Seltzman, the inventor of the mind-switching device; the Village wants the device’s secrets. Every moment in this episode seems to betray some vital aspect of the premise of the show, from the idea of No.6 having a fiancee (whom he does not visit in Many Happy Returns, or ever mention again) to the final twist, where No.2 seems to think there’s no way to retrieve a man escaping on a Village helicopter. At any rate, little ado is made of No.6 leaving the Village, so presumably it comes after Many Happy Returns; it certainly comes after Free for All, as clips from the episode are shown as padding. It’s also mentioned that he’s been gone for a year, placing it very late in the series.

#13 A Change of Mind
No.6 is branded as "Unmutual" by the Village and forced to apparently undergo a frontal lobe lobotomy. In fact, No.2 fakes the lobotomy and sends his assistant to keep No.6 pacified via drugged tea, hoping that No.6 will now surrender his secrets.

For the second time we see No.6’s self-made gym in the woods (the first time is in It’s Your Funeral), so we know he’s been in the Village for a while. The confidence with which No.6 turns the tables on No.2 in the finale—quickly rounding up a mob of Villagers—shows that he has come quite a distance from his early days, when he was the one constantly being lynched. His time in the Village is about to come to an end.

#14 The Girl Who Was Death
No.6 is now a secret agent in London on the path of a female assassin, the daughter of a villain with a Napoleon complex bent on destroying the city.

In this “fairy tale,” No.6 plays the role of a superspy pursuing a mysterious woman involved in a plot to destroy London. It is, of course, just a storybook read by No.6 to further confuse his captors. To analyze much further would be pointless, although it fits well late into the series—where it’s always been placed—due to No.6’s confident manipulation of his masters. Usually this is placed just prior to Once Upon a Time, where its lightweight charm provides a nice pause before the intensity of the latter, but, as will be seen, there are reasons to rearrange that order.

#15 Hammer Into Anvil
After No.2's brutal interrogation leads a woman to leap out a window to her death, No.6 sets upon a course of revenge. He attempts to "break" No.2 by turning the Village's mind games against him.

The final two episodes, 16 & 17, are a two-parter, but I see the finale as a three-parter that begins with Hammer Into Anvil. After No.2 is seen to be directly responsible for the death of a girl, No.6 sets out to “break” No.2, and what we see is a complete reversal of the typical Prisoner scenario. By the end of the episode, No.2 is so wracked with paranoia that No.6 is a “plant” sent to test his stability that he effectively cowers toadishly at No.6’s feet. No.6 has supplanted No.1. This, coupled with the fact that now drastic measures must be taken, perfectly sets the stage for the final two episodes. Nothing should interrupt that flow. (The fairy tale aspect of Girl Who Was Death could be seen as being referenced in No.6’s morse code signal of “Patty Cake,” and the “baker’s man” recalls the “butcher, baker, and candlestick maker” of that episode. This may not be deliberate, but it works nicely.)

#16 Once Upon a Time
The No.2 of The Chimes of Big Ben (Leo McKern) is brought back to the Village by No.1, to take care of the problematic Prisoner once and for all. No.2 immediately decides upon "Degree Absolute," a method in which No.6 is mentally regressed to childhood, locked with No.2 in "The Embryo Room," and forced to engage in a battle of wills for one week. As No.6's mental state reconstructs itself as the week progresses, the battle becomes evenly matched.

#17 Fall Out
Having earned an audience with No.1, No.6 must first witness the trial of two other rebels: a young anarchist (Alexis Kanner), and a resurrected No.2. No.6 is lauded by the Village President as the ideal rebel, and given a choice: to lead the Village, or to leave it. He asks to see No.1.

The final two episodes bring the series back on course for a terrifically intense and surreal conclusion. Both written and directed by Patrick McGoohan, they remain the most unique hours ever produced for television.

Çarşamba, Mayıs 24, 2006

Children of Paradise & The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

Children of Paradise (France, 1945) * * * *
D: Marcel Carne

Oh God what a great film. This one really smashed me over the head with a bottle (and not a breakway glass prop bottle, either, but real vintage Parisian wine). I don't know what to say. I love that the film is entirely about actors, and what it means to be an actor--a performer, a front, or a marionette. This is considered of the Great Films, but it is not obsessed with delivering the meaning of life. Although it may contain that, too, in-between the details. Baptiste (Jean-Louise Barrault), a mime who performs onstage in the early 19th century falls into obsessive love with a prostitute and carny, Garance (Arletty), who becomes an actress and, in one of their performances, literally is placed upon a pedastal and worshiped by Baptiste's submissive, pale-faced clown. But Garance, who thinks nothing of sharing her body with another, easily succumbs to the charms of the actor Frederick (Pierre Brasseur). Baptiste is kind of a Charlie Chaplin (pathos-laden comedy), and Frederick is kind of a face-pulling 19th-century Jim Carrey, if that helps. And when Frederick achieves success and becomes famous, he still deeply envies Baptiste's artistic integrity; secretly, Frederick wants to play Othello. Baptiste is devastated that Garance would decide to live with Frederick, and so he lives years in jealous resentment while married to another, although Garance claims to love him back. And Garance takes off with a rich count, though he will not be able to truly possess her either.

It might sound like a soap opera, but each character is so sharply defined that they seem to have existed for centuries like archetypes in the collective unconscious; and, in fact, the story does not so much end as continue on after the credits. Nightmarishly, they will always play these roles, actors trapped in a hellish, Chekhovian universe of unrequited love. Over three hours long, and divided into two halves, but not a moment passes that isn't witty, smartly observed, moving, or gorgeous. Carne directed another one of my favorite French films, Port of Shadows, but with Children of Paradise he moves among the clouds.

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (U.S., 1959) * * *
D: Ranald MacDougall

Probably the first "last man on earth" film, of that Cold War, atom-age genre that spawned many other paranoid fantasies about widespread nuclear holocaust leaving only a handful of survivors. Richard Matheson wrote I Am Legend, a novelette that inspired two films, The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston (and possibly a third remake, so often announced but never arriving). Then there's The Quiet Earth and Night of the Comet from the 80's, or Roger Corman's satire Gasssss, in which a mysterious gas leaves only teenagers and children alive, and they're all hippies. This one has Harry Belafonte becoming trapped in a mine while nuclear fallout (or something similar--the science is a bit odd) spreads across the world, killing all within a five-day span. Since he emerges after five days, he's the only survivor in sight, and the most powerful and memorable moments come as he walks through a deserted Manhattan, screaming at the empty skyscrapers. (Filmed in Cinemascope and on vast sets with convincing matte paintings, this is much more impressive-looking than you expect from a film that hasn't even been released on DVD yet. A commentary track would be invaluable, as one can only assume that the scenes shot on location must have been done in the very early morning hours or with very delicately chosen camera angles. Still, you never feel that there are commuters or urbanites lurking just out of frame.) Belafonte eventually comes into contact with a 21-year-old girl, and an interracial romance begins, or almost begins--they spend more time fretting about it than anything else. Eventually, in the last half-hour, a third character enters the picture, and that's when the plot loses its way, and there's a conclusion which Leonard Maltin's movie guide calls "ridiculous," and he's right, not the least because it's forced and illogical.

Ultimately it's in the mold of a Stanley Kramer film, and wants to concern itself with too many Big Issues like race and masculinity and war. It's still interesting enough to recommend, but a more modest, understated conclusion would have been more effective. A complete plot synopsis (with spoilers), and a trailer for the film, can be found here.

Çarşamba, Mayıs 17, 2006

New Website

I spent all weekend on it and now it's debuted and everyone's seen it...OpticalAtlas.com. I'm spent. The neat thing is that one of my interviews, with the lead singer of The Ladybug Transistor, has been reprinted on another website, Rockbeatstone. That interview means a lot to me, because Gary Olson is one of my dear and true idols. One of his albums, The Albemarle Sound (1999), I listen to all the time, but especially whenever I need some uplift. I have some more interviews lined up that are also very exciting for this indie pop geek. My obsession with the Gustave Dore illustrations from Balzac's Droll Stories is quite evident on my new website. I've even used one of his little doodles as my logo:

Çarşamba, Mayıs 10, 2006

Quai des Orfevres

Quai des Orfevres (France, 1947) * * * *
D: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Clouzot was often called the French Hitchcock, for he made two thrillers--Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques--that Hitchcock would have shot and stuffed his mother to have made. Quai des Orfevres is one of his earliest films, and the title refers to the address where a murder takes place at the film's halfway point. Up until then, we meet four characters who circle each other like panthers: Marguerite, stage name "Jenny Lamour" (Suzy Delair), an earthy, forward showgirl who has no qualms in showing anything, Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier), her dumpy husband and accompanist, Dora (Simone Renant), who makes some easy cash by snapping dirty pictures, and Dora's chief client, the sleazy George Brignon (Charles Dullin), who promises movie contracts to young tarts, and has his eyes on Marguerite. Maurice tries to keep the two separated, but Marguerite's ambition proves this to be impossible; when Brignon's body is turned up by the police, suspects hide their motivations, alibis are tested, and secret relationships are brought to the fore.

What makes this film special is not so much the plot--which is the kind you'd read in a cheap pulp novel from the same era--but the execution. Clouzot proves to be a master of detail. When Marguerite, as Jenny Lamour, steps into the audience and sings to a distracted female patron, you can almost see that customer roll her eyes as the showgirl walks away. In one of the many backstage moments, the viewer is struck by how naturally Clouzot depicts Marguerite wiping her armpits with a towel after a performance (in an earlier bit of dialogue, she confesses she sweats so much during a performance that her "panties are soaked"). Best of all is the portrayal of Dora; it's up to the viewer to decipher, from Clouzot's clues, that despite Marguerite's conviction that Dora is having an affair with Maurice, she really is in love with Marguerite.

Films like Quai des Orfevres help the modern viewer understand the sensational thrills American viewers must have had watching European cinema from the postwar period. While American films were locked into the Production Code, and were limited in sexual, drug-related, or violent content, Clouzot and his French contemporaries could get away with murder. There's a graphic suicide attempt, frank sexual dialogue, the aforementioned lesbianism (which really isn't as subtle as I made it out to be), and a moment when Marguerite seduces Maurice in her elaborately-garted lingerie--which is climaxed, so to speak, by a wry bit of symbolism.

The style is equally impressive. Wellesian moments of deep focus hold the attention during long dialogue scenes, and enhance the paranoia (when even someone lurking in the background can be in sharp focus, all eyes must be watching). Another trick to enhance what might otherwise be a dull cross-exchange between characters is the use of a practicing string section that provides their own score; at one point, one of the violinists approaches the frame and it seems almost malevolent. And after an intense police interrogation in which the suspect finally breaks down, the tension is maintained and played with as the police drag their suspect out of the room into the crowd of reporters waiting outside, and the reporters chase them so ecstatically that a few tumble headfirst down the stairs. For a film preoccupied with the details of passion, it seems like a summarizing moment.

Pazar, Mayıs 07, 2006

Day 5: Roger Ebert's 2006 Overlooked Film Festival

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (South Africa, 2005) * * * 1/2
D: Mark Dornford-May

The secret of the last day of the festival is that half the audience is wiped out and doesn't come. So for one thing, you can get some sleep (which is usually badly needed), and you don't need to arrive hours early to get in line. You'll get a good seat, don't worry. Of course, everyone piled into the theater as quickly as they could anyway; I've never seen so many aggressive senior citizens.

Well, if you skipped the last day this year, you're a sucker. First was a real treat: Ebert was awarded the University of Illinois Distinguished Alumni Award (or something like that), which has been extended to him several times in the past, but which he's had to refuse, since some stupid rule meant that he would need to be in town at graduation time--when he's usually in Cannes. This year they finally changed the rule, and presented the ceremony at noon in the Virginia Theatre. Prior to handing over the award, a short video was shown, kind of a "This is your life Roger Ebert." It was a kick to see the old "Sneak Previews" opening credits again, as part of their montage. Roger then talked a little about the history of U of I, and finally led the various chancellors there into the original U of I chant, which was a moment straight out of the history of the Freemasons.

Finally the screening began of u-Carmen eKhayelitsha, a South African adaptation of Bizet's Carmen, the most famous opera of all, and starring a cast of black South Africans singing in the Xhosa language, complete with clicking tongues. The title role is played by Pauline Malefane, who lived in a township very similar to what is shown, and was originally recruited by director Mark Dornford-May (an English theater director) to appear onstage in one of his opera adaptations; he was inspired enough by the mostly-green cast to attempt the film. It has a remarkable opening; as we hear a descriptive passage from Carmen's source material--concerning the physical features of the seductress--the camera lovingly moves over the facial features of Malefane; then the camera flies out of the studio and through the narrow streets of the town, finally flying high above the roofs to view the setting of our play: a modern-day African city. The real tour-de-force moment comes in the recitation of "The Barber of Seville"; as Malefane swings her hips in a dusty crossroads, the men swoon, the women back her up, and finally all are swaying in an African dance to what is recognizable a Spanish-styled music. It has no right to work, but it does: something to do, perhaps, with Malefane's nontraditional beauty--she's no waif, but very full-bodied and proud of it--or simply it's the astonishing originality of this particular mix of image and music. It's hard to believe this is Dornford-May's first film, as he directs with an impressive style and showmanship, doubtless borrowed from his many years directing theater. You can also tell he loves his subjects (what had been intended as a short stay in South Africa has become a permanent residence); the film can be read as a love letter to Malefane. It does get a little plodding in the final act, and it seems to end abruptly, but this is such an imaginatively-conceived work that you're bound to forgive. His follow-up, which played at Sundance this year, is Son of Man, a South African adaptation of the Passion. It's supposed to be even better, and really, one wants to see what Dornford-May will do when he's up and running with this film career.

Both he and Malefane were present for the screening; they're currently working together in "The Mysteries," a touring musical with an African interpretation of the Christian Bible. Malefane spoke at length about auditioning for Dornford-May, and about conditions in South Africa post-Apartheid, both good and bad. Finally, she sang a song, and the walls of the Virginia Theatre reverberated. She received a standing ovation. Where was Marni Nixon? Back on a plane, alas; if she were here, she'd have rushed the stage and thrust her violet in the woman's hand.

Perşembe, Mayıs 04, 2006

Day 4: Roger Ebert's 2006 Overlooked Film Festival

Millions (U.K., 2004) * * * 1/2
D: Danny Boyle

I would dispute Ebert's claim that Millions is overlooked; it did quite well, and seemed to play forever at our local theaters. Families will go to anything in droves so long as it's rated G or PG. Everything these days seems to be rated PG-13, including a lot of films that aren't really PG-13, but owe their hearts to a PG or an R. PG-13 is the miserable middle ground, market-tested.

Millions (PG) is directed by Danny Boyle, one of the best British stylists working, though he's often suffered for lack of good material. His debut was Shallow Grave, a thriller in the darkly comic Blood Simple mode, and it starred his DeNiro, Ewan McGregor. McGregor's career took off the same time Boyle's did, with their film Trainspotting. In England, Trainspotting is like Pulp Fiction: it's a cult film that men of a certain age quote incessantly, and watch obsessively. An adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel about Scottish heroin addicts, it was an art house hit in the States; despite its grim subject matter, the film is bright, alive, and constantly imaginative with its hallucinogenic visuals. Given the keys to the kingdom, Boyle blew it with his follow-up, A Life Less Ordinary, with its hitmen angels and impromptu musical numbers and Claymation ending credits. Imaginative, yes; coherent or entertaining, no. I haven't seen 2000's The Beach, but at least when it flopped, the attention went toward Leonardo diCaprio, fresh off Titanic. Boyle slipped away, did some side projects, and returned to the big screen with 28 Days Later, a zombie film that, as its fans will annoyingly remind you, has no zombies in it. Though derivative as hell (see I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, or its two movie adaptations, Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man; or George Romero's zombie films, Day of the Dead in particular), it was considered the most effective thing he'd made since Trainspotting, and helped initiate a new surplus of modern horror films. The difference between Boyle's horror film and those that followed is that his had heart. You cared about the characters. His next film, Millions, draws from this attribute that permeates much of his work.

Millions is a children's film. It's not just about children, but envisions the world through a child's eyes. Two boys, Damian and his slightly older brother Anthony, move with their widowed father into a new home, which is part of a suburban planning project. Damian quickly builds a surrogate home--out of cardboard boxes--by the train tracks in a nearby meadow, so that when the train roars by, the boxes shake like a rocket about to launch. Out of the sky, it seems, one day tumbles a large bag filled with English pounds. Damian, who has frequent visions of Catholic saints, wants to give the money to the poor (or, really, anyone who wants it); the more cynical Anthony would rather use it to buy off bullies and purchase expensive electronic items. Just about every possibility the bag of money presents is explored in full by the end of the film, with a deadline looming: the pound is about to be converted into the Euro, which will render their cash worthless. The script by Frank Cottrell Boyce (24 Hour Party People) is wittier than you'd expect of a children's film--it's highly possible that the adults in the audience enjoyed the film much more than the kids, in this free matinee--but it's also infused with a child's logic and optimism. After the Q&A (with local elementary school kids), I overheard a few attendees endorsing this as the best they'd seen at the festival. It's certainly the loveliest to look at.

Claire Dolan (U.S., 1998) * * * 1/2
D: Lodge Kerrigan

Hopefully all the children left the theater by the next screening. Claire Dolan is one of those films that has no rating but, nudge nudge, we all know what it would get if it applied for one. Claire is a prostitute working in a New York shot with bleached tones; the apartment and office interiors all seem to glow white, and a chill drifts from the screen. We watch Claire try to escape from her lifestyle: she struggles to pay off the debt to her pimp, who has paid for her mother's medical care; she seeks a protector and a guide out by forming a commitment to a taxi driver, Elton (Vincent D'Onofrio); she buries her mother; she works a day job doing manicures; she keeps some money aside for herself, hidden in a box under the sink. But every moment in this movie, it seems, is interrupted by sex, either with a client or with Elton. We see how she treats the clients--telling them whatever they want to hear, but with a stiff, mask-like expression. With Elton, we can study the subtle ways she trusts him, gives more to him, appreciates his presence. Much of their relationship is illustrated within the sex scenes, either together, or when she is with another man. The way the bodies move speaks volumes, and how they are filmed. Every explicit moment is warranted, and contributes to the story; even when something seems gratuitous or repetitive, director Lodge Kerrigan is involving us in the unrelenting nature of her profession, and preparing us to understand how desperate is her final flight from the city, even though actress Katrin Cartlidge barely shows a glimmer on her steeled features.

Kerrigan seemed mildly embarrassed by the film (he doesn't watch his movies, he says, and only returned to the theater when it was over); he assures us he's moved toward a subtler form of storytelling, with less of a reliance on dialogue and more concentration on behavior. That in itself seems like one of his droll jokes. Claire Dolan is a spare film with hardly any dialogue, and the story pivots on the behavior of the characters, whether it's the way Claire's pimp, played by Colm Meaney, callously drops her cat out of a window while she gets him tea from the kitchen (the moment is never commented upon again, and Meaney only wipes the cat-hair from his clothes in mild disgust), or the manner in which Elton is emasculated by the pimp in a later scene, letting Claire down for good. And, of course, much of the weight of the storytelling is turned over to naked bodies interacting in chilly apartments in a verbose variety of manners. An impressive film.

Junebug (U.S., 2005) * * *
D: Phil Morrison

Junebug, on the other hand, I'm not so sure about. I enjoy it, I laugh with it, I admire its worldview. This is the second time I've watched the film--it was part of our Oscar crush in February--and I thought I'd change my opinion more favorably, but it didn't quite happen. My wife can't stand my resistance; it's one of her favorite films of 2005, and her highlight of the festival was meeting director Phil Morrison and co-star Scott Wilson (from In Cold Blood), and getting them to sign her DVD. Hey, I liked Morrison and Wilson in person, too; it's hard to strongly dislike anything associated with this film.

Embeth Davidtz (of Schindler's List) is Madeline, who works for an upscale art gallery in Chicago, where she meets and instantly marries George (Alessandro Nivola), a country mouse in the city. When the opportunity to visit George's homestate of North Carolina emerges--Madeline wants to woo an eccentric artist to exhibit his work in her gallery--George decides she should meet his family, too. Much of the film concentrates on the culture clash between Madeline and George's family: his mother (Celia Weston), father (Wilson), and younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), but especially Johnny's pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams, who was nominated for an Oscar in the role). Adams is hilarious; wide-eyed, anxious, and deeply in love with her husband, who doesn't seem to quite return her affection, and certainly isn't as enthusiastic about having a baby.

The comedy is all expertly crafted by writer Angus MacLachlan. My only problem with the film is in its later acts, when suddenly the film grows critical of Madeline, and has George turn on her for not having her priorities straight. George, meanwhile, is absent for most of the film (he seems to be off getting gas just about always). As a result, our sympathy is with Madeline, since we (a) view the family through her eyes, and (b) witness her complete openness toward the family, particularly Ashley and Johnny, whom she's even willing to tutor (which proves a mistake anyway). It seems to me the screenplay is out of focus, however well-observed are its final scenes. In the Q&A, Morrison said most of the criticism toward the film was directed at the way George is left undeveloped, but that he justified it because George was an "everyman," and so similar to the urban audience that will see Junebug that he didn't want to waste too much time with a man they already ought to know. But I didn't even know that George is an urbanite. He's so absent from the picture that I didn't accept him as my stand-in; that role went to Madeline. And so I couldn't buy George's late-act criticism of his wife--I wanted to turn the tables on him and ask what he was doing getting gas for several days straight. (Let's face it, he's probably having an affair.)

I still like Junebug; my criticism only pertains to a small, if pivotal, element of the film. It's still well worth the journey for the performances and the unusual amount of warmth afforded the characters. Naturally, the next film to be screened was Bad Santa. Whiplash yet?

Bad Santa: Director's Cut (U.S., 2003) * * *
D: Terry Zwigoff

Ebert introduced the Saturday night screening of Bad Santa as the "Really, Really Bad Santa" cut (the DVD had the "Badder Santa" cut). Then Terry Zwigoff, sitting in an aisle seat in the VIP section, shouted out "Better Santa!" with a grin. So maybe you can call this the Better Santa Cut. One way or another, it had its world premiere at Ebertfest this year, to be rolled out on DVD (with possibly a short theatrical release) later on.

Bad Santa is still a pretty tough comedy, in whatever version you watch. Billy Bob Thornton, in what might be his definitive role (because his role in Sling Blade, however memorable, isn't exactly Billy Bob), plays a perpetually drunk Santa who, with his teammate Marcus (Tony Cox)--a dwarf who plays his elf--works a scheme every Christmas of taking a job at a department store, spending a miserable month with snot-nosed, smelly toddlers on his knee, and then, on Christmas Eve, dismantles the security system after hours and robs the place. Thornton, as Willie, is in a thoroughly ravaged, almost suicidal state as the film opens, but he still has no qualms over following a worshipful kid to his parents' house to rob it; the home is occupied only by a senile grandmother (Cloris Leachman), who offers sandwiches despite the fact that Willie is wearing a ski mask. Eventually, when he feels the cops might be staking out his apartment, he moves into the kid's home, and even has sex with his Santa-obsessed girlfriend (Lauren Graham) in the jacuzzi. Meanwhile, the department store's head of security (Bernie Mac) is onto Willie and Marcus' scheme, and tries to extort them; and the store's manager (John Ritter, in his last role) is in complete neurosis over Willie's increasingly unhinged behavior around the children.

The fact that Bad Santa is a one-joke comedy is beside the point. It's just terrifically funny and cathartic to see what Thornton gets away with in this role, and you keep watching to see how far he and Zwigoff take the material (which originated, in a roundabout way, with the Coen Brothers, who produced). It's clever and it's funny, and to paraphrase Mel Brooks, it rises below vulgarity. In the Q&A, a gracious but deadpan Zwigoff explained the troubled filming, which took place partly in an abandoned department store with no air conditioning, and partly in real malls where Zwigoff would shoot the scene as quickly as possible--minimal coverage--before parents could complain and mall security descend.

I enjoyed Bad Santa when I saw it theatrically, but I haven't seen the "Badder Santa" home video cut, so I can't compare the differences to what I saw on Saturday night. It seemed that Bernie Mac's death was more brutal, but the biggest difference was in what had been deleted: the whole business about the advent calendar that the kid gives to Willie, for example, a joke about why Marcus doesn't drink, and the epilogue. Zwigoff said that he was asked by the studio to shoot extra material to soften some of the film's hard edges, and I assume that the advent calendar was part of that effort. What you get, in this raw form, is a very cold-hearted comedy in which the main character's moral arc is almost microscopic...which is all part of the fun. Still, it doesn't touch his previous film, Ghost World, which would have been a more appropriate selection for an Overlooked Film Festival.

Day 3: Roger Ebert's 2006 Overlooked Film Festival

Somebodies (U.S, 2006) * * *
D: Hadjii

Somebodies received one of the most enthusiastic receptions of the festival. Hadjii, the writer/director/star, was a young student at the University of Georgia whose film professor was impressed enough by his spec Seinfeld script that he asked him to write a screenplay, but inspired by his own life. Hadjii then spent years polishing the script, and after becoming inspired by Tarnation at the 2004 Ebertfest, he decided to begin filming even though the financing wasn't all there; the tight budget (it's shot on video, and doesn't look so great when blown up to the massive Virginia Theatre screen), a cast of mostly amateurs, and a first-time director means that the result is rough around the edges, but it works. For one thing, the gritty vibe is enhanced by the Athens, Georgia locales. (I have a thing for Athens, which had produced some of the most talented rock and pop bands of the past two decades.) Most important, the script shines from all that work, and that's what really matters: it's a comedy that's very, very funny.

There's the whole thing with the Campus Crusade for Christ, or "CCC" (someone asks, "Is that like the KKK?"), where Hadjii is dragged by his girlfriend. He's a churchgoing guy (his church is led by a preacher who turns religious rhetoric into some kind of digressive and deliriously inane slam poetry), but the all-white CCC meeting he attends is, in its accurately detailed reconstruction, horrifying. Hadjii is asked to stand up and introduce himself, and he recounts how he's always gone to church and considers himself a good Christian; a second later, an old friend steps in, recognizes him, and tells everyone how glad he is to finally see him here, since he used to get weed and girls from this guy, etc. It's shot terribly, but it doesn't matter. It plays perfectly. Same with the scene where one of Hadjii's friends applies for a job as a security guard; the guard, white, hires him simply because he's black. And as though to underline the fact, he brings out another black employee, gets his name wrong, and sends him back. That the broad setup should play so naturally is a tribute to Hadjii's astute writing.

We meet his family, who are uniformly crazy in different and very specific ways, and follow him as he begins dating a girl who also seems unhinged at first, until we begin to see that despite her eccentricities she's loving and good for him. Character arcs are minimal; it's a comedy of setpieces. In fact, we learn that Hadjii wanted Somebodies to be a sitcom just like Seinfeld (and it may become one), but it was shot as a feature out of necessity. He says his big filmmaking influence was Larry Clark's Kids, a film that, thank God, this resembles not a bit.

The Eagle (U.S., 1925) * * * 1/2
D: Clarence Brown

Rudolph Valentino is considered the first sex symbol of the silver screen, and it's easy to see why in The Eagle: not because of the overt pre-Code suggestions of real sex, as when Catherine the Great regards Valentino's crotch at close range, or even when a passing reference is made to her famous association with a horse, but simply in how appealing Valentino is. Another festival-goer enthusiastically agreed when I compared Valentino's deadpan charisma to Buster Keaton (and when someone enthusiastically agrees with me, I write about it). Valentino is funny in this movie. He wonderfully plays a scene where he pretends that the ring he bears on his hand, which also belongs to the Black Eagle (his alter ego), is only under his temporary safe-keeping--and, with his back turned, desperately struggles to get it off. And in the scene when he gazes after his beloved, fleeing in a carriage, only to see her lovestruck Aunt waving back at him; his expression seems to have been schooled in the comic school of Keaton. The Eagle's plot is very well-worn by now, less so in 1925 (Valentino, fleeing from the jealous Czarina's troops, dons a mask and seeks revenge against a captain who's committed crimes against his family, while simultaneously romancing the captain's daughter); it's Zorro, Robin Hood, V for Valentino. The formula, of course, works splendidly for a silent film, and as the critics of the post-screening Q&A pointed out--film professors Richard Liskosky, David Bordwell, and Kristin Thompson--director Clarence Brown brings all of the newborn elements of film language to their apotheosis here, having mastered all the visual cues to telling a story. (Brown directed one of my favorite silent films, the stunning Flesh and the Devil.) Brown's tour-de-force moment is a long tracking shot moving back over a large table set up for a feast in the captain's castle. The moment was highlighted by the score of the Alloy Orchestra, performed live in the orchestra pit below; their synths, drums, accordian, pots, and pans reached a crescendo.

This is the third time I've seen the Alloy Orchestra. The first was at 2004's Ebertfest, where they accompanied Buster Keaton's The General, and somehow made their three-person orchestra perfectly emulate the sounds of a chugging train through the movie's famously breathless second half. A year later they played to Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera at the Times in Milwaukee, a sold-out show, before taking the act back to Ebertfest; they're a regular staple at this festival, and provided the main attraction for my wife, who fell for Valentino almost as hard.

Ripley's Game (U.S., 2002) * * * 1/2
D: Liliana Cavani

Genuinely an overlooked film--it was never released theatrically in the United States--this adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith "Ripley" novel stars John Malkovich as the title character, a professional criminal who steals and murders to enhance his standard of living. Matt Damon played a younger Ripley only a few years earlier, which probably prompted this adaptation from the director of The Night Porter. It's a fine thriller that deserved better treatment; the story, as producer Russ Smith explained afterward, is that New Line was so fixated on promoting and pouring money into the Lord of the Rings juggernaut that it let certain other films fall to the wayside (the same thing happened to the Mr. Show feature, Run Ronnie Run, which also went straight to video). Ripley's Game needed Matt Damon to return if it ever hoped for a theatrical release--Malkovich is hardly a charismatic leading man--but it can't have helped that the entire plot concerns Ripley's manipulation of another man into committing a murder (much like Strangers on a Train, which Patricia Highsmith scripted), and subsequently tracking that man's corruption. Here's the clever thing, though: the dupe (Dougray Scott) has been diagnosed with a fatal illness, and when he agrees to assassinate a Russian gangster, he starts down a dark, dirty path that actually teaches him to appreciate life again; in this way, the sociopathic Ripley is like a self-help guru (who sets up bear traps in the living room to snare intruders). All of Ripley's Game, once you understand its tone, plays as pitch-black comedy, no more so than in the scene when Makovich and Scott are forced into killing not just their target, but each of his bodyguards as they stumble into the scene, until the bodies are stacked so high that Ripley remarks, "First class is becoming rather crowded." Ebert draws a direct line between this scene and one in the Marx Brothers' Night at the Opera, appropriately enough.

The Q&A with Malkovich was suitably steeped in more of the gallows humor. Malkovich stated his displeasure over the editing of Ripley's wrench-beating of a mobster on his front lawn. He claims to have hit the stuntman over the head with a rubber wrench for "three minutes...a good three minutes," until the man's skull cracked. All in good fun. The scene was edited to only a few seconds, which Malkovich says ruined the punchline ("Do you think he's dead?").

The next night, Terry Zwigoff, a friend of Malkovich's, would mention he was terrified of directing the man in his latest film, Art School Confidential. He found him intimidating.

Çarşamba, Mayıs 03, 2006

Day 2: Roger Ebert's 2006 Overlooked Film Festival

If you want a good seat for a day's worth of screenings at Ebertfest, you choose breakfast or sleep. Thursday of Ebertfest presents another temptation, as attending the morning panel can sabotage your chance of getting a good seat, since by the time the panel's over, the line at the Virginia Theatre will be stretched around the block. This year I chose good seats over all else, so the panels went by the wayside, and I spent the mornings growing a sunburn in the direct morning sunlight, trying vainly to read a little, making some conversation, staring at the Green Party activists as they asked, again and again, if I was a registered voter in this district. Something new: a petition was being passed down the line asking for reserved seating at next year's festival. I didn't sign it (although by the end of the festival, after so much line-bred misery, I was having second thoughts). My thinking was that I would hate to be stuck with bad seats for the entire festival just because I couldn't get online to buy the tickets fast enough, and I'd always want the freedom to move where I pleased. And besides, who wants to be a snob like those V.I.P.s? We of the morning line would lose all our tough cred (and don't forget our average age is 68).

Man Push Cart (U.S., 2005) * * *
D: Ramin Bahrani

It might be uncool to compare Man Push Cart to The Bicycle Thief, since the latter film has fallen somewhat in stature over the years. But both are neorealist portraits of men in precarious states of survival, completely dependent on a set of wheels to support themselves--a bike, or in this case, a push-cart for selling bagels and coffee. Both are barely keeping their heads above water, and to watch either film is to become immersed in the protagonist's anxiety. Ahmad Razvi plays a Pakistani street vendor who is making payments against his push-cart, and each day tugs it uphill through the streets of New York City like, as Bahrani pointed out in the Q&A, Sisyphus, who in Greek myth was condemned to push a boulder up a hill for eternity; each time he reaches the summit, it falls back to the bottom. Razvi's vendor has just taken a fall, for in Pakistan the vendor was a rock star, but he came to America, his wife died, his in-laws took custody of his son, he lost his money, and now he's reduced to rolling out the cart each morning and making small talk and food for businessfolk who make a more comfortable living. One of them, another Pakistani, offers him work renovating his posh apartment. Then he recognizes him--"I think I even have one of your albums somewhere!"--and Razvi seems to be hiding his anguish. But the man can help him. He has contacts. He can maybe even get him a place to perform. All he has to do is schmooze at some clubs, take a simple job there, get to know people in important places. All of this Razvi doesn't seem to want to do. He's humiliated by the state to which he's been reduced; he's been helpless for so long, he can't stand to help himself, even when he has the potential to form a connection with the pretty Spanish girl in the newsstand down the street.

Man Push Cart is a film of details. Bahrani follows Razvi through each morning's routine, and we see the process of taking the cart out of a storage locker, dragging it uphill through tight traffic, prepare the food. Some small hints of a past emerge, like the small triceratops sticker on the wall that he scrubs with soapy water. Eventually we see a flashback, but it's brief and uncertain; the only details that don't emerge fully in this film are those from the character's past, and that's as it should be. Like Razvi, we are constantly fixed on the present. There's no time for the past when you worry over how you're going to make it to the next day.

As Bahrani points out in the Q&A, Albert Camus's "Myth of Sisyphus" treated the Greek tragic figure as an everyman hero; "Sisyphus is happy," Camus concluded. When I read that in high school, in stuck with me for years. Will that be my lot in life, to tire over pointless goals until I've exhausted myself to death? Now that I've entered the workforce, it's appropriate to be reminded of the existentialist's essay. Bahrani also named Lodge Kerrigan as an influence; Kerrigan was in the audience, to present Claire Dolan, the story of a New York prostitute, a few days later, and the similarity in the gritty approaches of both directors quickly becomes obvious. Both films are about people who resort to low professions to pay a debt and hopefully raise their status, while the audience can only suspect the pursuit is futile. The pimp of Claire Dolan threatens to never let her go, even though she only owes him a limited amount to pay for her late mother's care; the street vendor of Man Push Cart expects to stop treading water when he can finally own his push-cart, but the man he's paying is just as untrustworthy--a simple event can become a great tragedy for someone in his fragile position. The existential philosophy is prominent in Man Push Cart's final half-hour, as the vendor's shame threatens to become self-sabotage, and he practically pushes the boulder back down the hill all on his own. Claire Dolan, at least, ends with a greater note of optimism.

Bahrani shot the film guerrilla-style in the streets of Manhattan, and at least one of the actors isn't up to snuff, but Ahmad Razvi, an amateur (shades of Italian neorealism), is spectacular, and Bahrani, a self-avowed film "nerd," shows complete confidence with his camera. It's a good film, and I suspect his next one, which he is shooting now in Chicago, will be even better.

Duane Hopwood (U.S., 2005) * *
D: Matt Mulhern

Sometimes you wish you'd only just read the three-and-a-half-star review and left it at that. Sometimes you wish you hadn't let yourself down by actually watching the film, which, it turns out, is not nearly as good as the one Ebert planted in your brain. The film is a portrait of a drunk; sounds good so far. David Schwimmer is the title character, his wife is played by Janeane Garofalo, and together they seem like a cute couple, making faces with their kids, while the opening credits roll and a pop song plays. This will be the first pop song montage of about 632 that will occur in the course of the film, so strap yourself in. At the end of the credits, Duane is pulled over for drunken driving by a cop who's also an acquaintance, and he's about to be let off the hook until the cop sees Duane's daughter in the back seat. He loses his wife. He accepts a roommate, a co-worker in a New Jersey casino who isn't all that funny, but wants to be a stand-up comic. He has two shy, gay neighbors, played by Dick Cavett and Bill Buell, who should really have a movie of their own, or at least twice as many scenes. But so far so good. The problem is that nothing is all that well-written or well-acted; there's an early scene in which Janeane Garofalo has to reach dramatic heights that she's never before had to scale as an actress, and she doesn't quite scale them here, either. (She gets better as the film goes on.) You never forget that she's Janeane Garofalo, taking a break from her Air America gig, and she's probably just holding back laughter while thinking about something funny Sam Seder or Ben Stiller did once. She's just Janeane. And David Schwimmer is okay, but that's it; I still want to hand him a Kleenex whenever he talks, or ask him to close his mouth please. Hey, there are plenty of films I love with stars who never quite get me to forget that they're stars. That's okay. It's just that nothing here rises above mediocrity, better performances would have helped (for the record, Cavett is great).

A film with such a simple plot--a drunk watches his life fall apart--needs some really powerful scenes. Scenes that last more than two minutes. Scenes in which the dialogue isn't muted by a pop song. There are two scenes here upon which Duane Hopwood pivots: the confrontation between Garofalo and Schwimmer on a pier early on--which falls apart when Garofalo falters--and an A.A. scene in which Schwimmer finally breaks down. The problem is that he only recaps the entire plot and motivation in dialogue, then storms out of the A.A. meeting. ("Will you come back?" "Yeah, sure." Awww...hope!) But just try to tell director Matt Mulhern the scene's weak. In a post-film Q&A that bordered on parody, Mulhern explained how Schwimmer did one take of the scene, and Mulhern was so impressed that he refused to shoot more. Apparently Schwimmer offered to do another take, but Mulhern wouldn't have it. Wouldn't you know it--the dailies (or, I should say, "daily") proved the scene to be out of focus. But would Mulhern reshoot? No way! Instead he spent months and thousands of dollars digitally touching up the scene so that it would appear just slightly less out of focus. Surprisingly, going to all this work and spending all this money just because Mulhern refused to let Schwimmer do a second take upset some important people involved with the film. Mulhern isn't apologetic. You know why? He's a maverick. He's a wild card. That's the path taken by genius. Oh, and the ending? "It's earned!" Mulhern declared. Because why wait for a critic to tell you that the ending of your movie is earned? He sounded a trifle defensive. (At this moment I'm failing to kill the snark; sorry. But this was the low point of the festival, and I'm glad it came early.)

Spartan (U.S., 2004) * * * 1/2
D: David Mamet

Oh, but Spartan I love. I saw this the night it opened in Madison, and my wife and I must have been the only people in the theater. Scratch that--David Bordwell, Madison professor and author, said he was the only person in the theater opening night in Madison, so it must have been just the three of us, completely oblivious to each other.

Spartan is both typical and atypical Mamet. Typical, in that it's obsessed with head-games, twists, and forcing you to reevaluate what you've seen--although never in the extreme manner of his earlier films. Atypical in that it's a thriller with a budget, and it looks like a thriller with a budget. Val Kilmer stars, and that's my theory as to why it sank at the box office (a big topic in the Q&A); Kilmer hadn't taken top billing in a good movie since--well, Michael Apted's Thunderheart, and that was 1992. (He's had better luck as a character actor in supporting roles.) Kilmer plays a Special Ops agent given the mission of finding the President's missing daughter, a college student; she may or may not have been having an affair with her professor, who may or may not have anything to do with her disappearance--same goes with her boyfriend, or the prostitution ring that may or may not be involved. The joy of watching Spartan is that it never stops to give exposition; you simply hang on and ride with it. Much like in the opening scene, where Kilmer is putting young recruits through a brutal training rite; never mind if you're losing your breath, son, you better keep running if you ever hope to catch her. The plot doesn't turn out to be that complicated, by the time you reach the end. It's just that Mamet doesn't take the quickest route between two points; instead, he draws a maze, and explores every corner. A nice example of Mamet's use of distraction is the protracted preparation for a massive raid on a safehouse in Dubai. At the last second, it's called off, for reasons I won't reveal. You start to wonder just what the last ten minutes of set-up were for. Well, there was some genuine set-up there, it's just that what Mamet never tells you what he's setting up. You enjoy this kind of thing if you enjoy an author who likes to toy with formula and plot structure, so although none of the scheduled guests appeared for Spartan's presentation, it was appropriate that David Bordwell, who's written extensively on plot mechanics, should take the stage to discuss the film's twists. Although I overheard him say the next day, "Honestly, I don't know why Mamet made that film. He's really into machismo right now," and right before Spartan began he let off, "I just hope they don't ask me what that movie's about!"

Salı, Mayıs 02, 2006

Day 1: Roger Ebert's 2006 Overlooked Film Festival

Each year Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, aka Ebertfest, is held in his hometown of Champaign, Illinois; specifically in the Virginia Theatre, a place so ancient that, Ebert says, it was there the Marx Brothers named Harpo while performing onstage. Champaign reminds me of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where I got my undergraduate degree; it's a small town by most standards, but the university and the subsequent residential sprawl make it seem urban in the midwestern environment, and naturally it draws traffic from all the towns in a very wide radius. Now even the Courier Cafe--a malt shop so down-home you expect Barney Fife to wander in--is almost impossible to visit unless you're taking the bus, or you have a sack of change for the parking meters. There's no parking anywhere in this town. We took a tip from the woman working the ticket counter at the Virginia, and searched for a space around the theater's neighboring park and student homes. You get there early; most figure that out by the second day. You get there real early and stand in the weather--the smarter ones bring folding chairs and a book to read--and you chat with the other festival-goers, usually about what played last year and what you liked the best or least. Everyone this year seemed to be talking about Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World, which Anne and I loved (alas, we couldn't see it at the festival), and which most in line--by my word-of-mouth census--seemed to find fascinating, although one man had to vehemently shout, "I hated, hated, hated, hated that movie," reciting the title of one of Ebert's books. "It was the only movie at this festival where I found myself checking my watch. 'When will this movie end?'" If you've ever seen a Guy Maddin film--he strikingly utilizes the expressionistic techniques of German silent film with all the awkward dialogue and sound of an early talkie--then the split reaction makes sense. Even Ebert evoked Guy Maddin's name on stage once or twice during the festival, as did one of his guests.

But you overhear so much while standing or sitting, waiting for films to start, that you absorb the buzz on lots of films that were released long ago. That's the thing about Ebertfest: it's like the unhip Sundance, Cannes, or Toronto. We see a movie or two that hasn't been released yet, but mostly it's films that Ebert finds "overlooked," usually from the past decade but possibly older. That makes for an unusual, scattershot festival. Adding to that experience is the fact that it's become so popular that for the past two years the tickets have all sold out before the individual titles have been announced. You need to plan and dive in blindly, and just hope that Ebert's taste agrees with yours. This was a pretty good year by that standard: twelve films, all of which I attended, and only one did I think was mediocre. Most of the rest were highly enjoyable, and even the ones I'd seen before were worth sitting through again.

On the first day, if you want a good seat, you arrive around 4:00 or so (the first movie began at 7:30). We ate at the Courier Cafe early, checked into the hotel and ran to the line--lucky enough to stand under the awning in the shade. A TV newswoman was searching for interview subjects, and I was one of them. The toughest question was, "Why did you come out here?" I don't know. When I bought the tickets I didn't know what I'd be seeing. I told her it was because I usually agreed with Ebert, which was a stupid thing to say, since I hated every minute of his Crash campaign (never have I seen a critic gloat so much as when Crash beat Brokeback Mountain), and I still think Ebert has a prejudice against any genre film that tries to make you think--unless it's a thriller, as with his selections this year of Spartan and Ripley's Game. But anyway, I assumed no one I knew would ever see this interview, and everyone in the theater would be standing in line and seeing movies, not watching the local news. I hadn't thought about the ushers. ("Hey, you're that guy from Wisconsin who used to go to Sundance!")

My Fair Lady (U.S., 1964) * * * *
D: George Cukor

Before the movie started I told my wife, "It's three hours? It takes her three hours to figure out how to say 'the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain'?" Well, not quite. That only takes about an hour and a half.

Each year the festival opens on a Wednesday with a glorious widescreen movie, preferably 70mm. Last year it was Jacques Tati's Playtime (one of my favorite movies ever--couldn't make it, though); the year before that it was Lawrence of Arabia, screened with its editor, Anne Coates, and Robert A. Harris, who restored it to David Lean's specifications. That experience I typically hold up as the pinnacle of my moviegoing life. (The others? Um, The Saragossa Manuscript on its revival in Seattle...the Sundance premiere of Waking Life with a very nervous Richard Linklater, who hadn't seen the finished print yet, and then participating in the standing ovation afterward...and seeing Return of the Jedi on the big screen as a kid: while my family waited in line outside, I ran to the other side of the theater, put my ear against the wall, and listened to the sound of the speeder bikes racing through Endor, and letting for the last time my imagination draw the pictures, based simply on the sound, before we entered and the whole show unfolded...)

Sitting in the third row, My Fair Lady at 70mm is overwhelming. Audrey Hepburn's neck looks to be eight feet tall. You get used to it. The film begins with all those colorful flowers, and the music seems to make the screen glow in a weird moment of synesthaesia. Any skepticism I had melted away at the very moment I expected it to kick in: when Audrey (or, rather, Marni--more on that in a bit) first sings "Wouldn't It Be Loverly." The way she spreads her arms and then hugs herself while finding that she's somehow hit the right note (even though she really hasn't--more on that in a bit) just works magically, and she even pulls off that precious word which is one of my least favorite in the English language ("chocolates"). I usually stay away from musicals, apart from Maurice Chevalier's or Swing Time or Singin' in the Rain (or, for that matter, Phantom of the Paradise). I think what sold me here is the wit, mixed with a little cynicism, that comes from the original play, Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. It's also the music, every bit as funny, by Lerner & Loewe. I didn't expect to laugh so much, to be so entertained, by a three hour Hollywood musical "event" picture.

My viewing was completely colored by the introduction by Roger Ebert, and the guest he brought; the singing vocals did not belong to Audrey Hepburn (at least, not most of them), but to the offscreen singer Marni Nixon, who also sang for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in The King and I (uncredited, although she was credited for her smaller roles in The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins). Nixon has always been busy in the interceding decades, but she's been raising her profile lately with a prominent role in James Joyce's The Dead (on stage) and with an upcoming autobiography, I Could Have Sung All Night; that title, of course, nods to My Fair Lady, and she still seems immensely proud of her contribution, however hidden, to this Best Picture winner. In homage to Eliza Doolittle, she carried a corsage of violets onstage. This was after film restorer James C. Katz presented a clip of Audrey singing her own vocals in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," and I'll be honest: my wife and I could not tell the difference. That's a tribute to Audrey, in that Marni attested Hepburn worked very, very hard to get as much of her own vocals onto the soundtrack as possible (Marni was actually watching Audrey perform from off-camera, which must have been intimidating, if not infuriating; sort of like continuing your audition after you've already got the part). Before the Q&A ended--late, late into the evening--Marni performed a bit of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" again for us, and her voice sounded just as clear and strikingly beautiful as ever. (Note that although Robert A. Harris was scheduled to attend, he didn't make it.)