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Wednesday
Jun282017

BEAT THE DEVIL, Redux

"In the South of France, anything is possible!" Andre Bazin once declared. That is the setting for the 1951 novel Beat the Devil, and though John Huston's one-of-a-kind, endlessly funny film version moves the action to Italy’s Amalfi coast, it preserves the anything-goes spirit. Now, "the longest running cult favorite in history," as James Monaco called it, is back, thanks to a new 4K restoration, in all its strange, uneven glory. Even today, people exist who can recite swaths of its dialogue as if it's verse. 

Humphrey Bogart plays a middle-aged roustabout who, according to the novel, once rather had the reputation of a "second Lawrence." Those were the "good old" prewar days; now, the social order is upended, the Atomic Age looms, and he is reduced to being a hired agent of "the committee"—a a comic little crew, as would-be international men of intrigue go. As Roger Ebert notes in his Great Movies essay on the film, we smile simply upon sight of the great character actors comprising this seedy gang, staking everything they've got on a plot to make a fortune in the illegal postwar uranium rush in British East Africa: Peter Lorre, Robert Morley, Ivor Barnard, and Marco Tulli.

For much of the movie, we simply spend time with this amusingly motley crew as they wait. They wait for the safe-as-houses SS Nyanga to become seaworthy in the backwater coastal town, where crumbling villas perch on cliff sides, monuments to faded glory. They wait in a saloon in the shaky boat on the high seas. They wait as castaways. All the while, they grow more and more paranoid, suspecting each other of double-crosses at any moment. 
 

There are other stranded Africa-bound travelers. Jennifer Jones, hair dyed blonde, plays a woman who, shall we say, "uses her imagination rather than her memory." (She tells lies that are "truer than true," as she puts it). That is, she's a blithe fabricator—right up until the great moment when she finally, deliciously, tells the truth. She's married to the silly Edward Underdown, a stiff-upper-lipped Englishman whose confidence about the way the world works marks him as a man of the old world—and something of a fool in the new one. 

Underdown is much admired by Bogart's wife, the wonderful Gina Lollobrigida, playing an Anglophile. ("Emotionally, I am English," proclaims the uber-Italian actress). Jones, in turn, carries a torch for Bogie. The restoration removes some censorship, but even so, the movie is not nearly as pungent about this double infidelity as the novel. That is to say, with the exception of a restored, and scandalous, shot featuring Lollobrigida's cleavage. (The old version faded out before her bust could fill the screen.)

The novel was the creation of Claud Cockburn, the great Scottish/Irish journalist and communist. (The credited "James Helvick" was a Cold War sobriquet: the novel and film appeared at the height of the blacklist and McCarthyism.) Every week in the '90s I would eagerly pour over Claud's son Alexander's mighty two-page column in The Nation, "Beat the Devil," named in homage. Huston, a friend of Cockburn's, was keen to turn the novel into a film, yet he turned up in Ravello, where cast and crew had convened, with more enthusiasm than script. (Treatments by Cockburn himself, as well as by Anthony Veiller and Peter Viertel, hadn't work out.) David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones's husband, thought to bring in the hot and controversial young writer Truman Capote. (In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips noted the sly joke that Lorre's hair is dyed to look like Capote's.) 

Capote's great innovation was to turn the material into a campy parody, making the picture a sendup of '40s adventure movies. Pauline Kael, a big BEAT THE DEVIL fan, went so far as to say it "finished off" the form, much as THE LONG GOODBYE later would the private eye genre. Actually, I think Capote could've taken it even further in the direction of parody—cf. S.J. Perelman spoofing Raymond Chandler. And didn't the '40s pictures themselves sometimes have a knowing wink? A few scenes feel like they're not sure if they're straight; as Kael noted, Bogie doesn't seem always to be in on the lampoon. 

As the set became a party, Capote legendarily made up the screenplay as he went along, beating a daily deadline, with Huston handing out the pages to the cast right before filming. Upon examination, however, much of the funniest dialogue is right there in the Cockburn novel, including Lorre's line that many Germans in Chile have become called "O'Hara," as well as Lollobrigida's quoting of the novelist George Moore, cited approvingly by Ebert. ("I believe," he writes, that Moore "has not been quoted before or since in any movie.") On the other hand, some of the most-loved lines seem to be Capote's, including Lorre's famous "time" speech. On the other, other hand, Lorre and Morley sometimes made up their own dialogue on the spot. Whatever its tangled provenance, it must be said that the "screenplay," as it plays on screen, is a witty and cagey adaptation, sparkling with "bon mots." 

For the first time in decades, the visuals sparkle as well, thanks to the new 4K restoration overseen by The Film Foundation and Sony Pictures's Grover Crisp. Its limpidity will shock you if your previous viewings, like mine, were on scratchy VHS. The restorers went back to the original 35mm negative. (Asking if we couldn't have a nice 35mm print alongside the DCP as part of the restoration feels almost churlish, or like one of those existential questions). Freshly scrubbed, Oswald Morris's gorgeous black and white cinematography gleams with granular detail and texture, as well as an almost 3D sense of depth. A shot framing Bogart and Jones canoodling high above the Tyrrhenian Sea is breathtaking, almost vertiginous: when the camera pulled back and up, I felt I might fall right through the frame. In my notes I have, "the view is stunning"; later, when I looked up what Farran Smith Nehme wrote at Film Comment, I was pleased to see she felt the same.  

The restoration removes Bogart's narration, and thusly the movie's flashback structure. It runs roughly five minutes longer now. Much of the added material restores Jones and Underdown's stroll from near the beginning of the novel; fans of the book will be glad to have restored to celluloid Jones discussing her Spanish nurse, and why it's important to spit first. A Rita Hayworth pinup in the office of the "Arab inquisitor" (Manuel Serano, with hookah, naturally), previously obscured by a shadow, can now be seen in all its glory. The laughs everyone had making BEAT THE DEVIL are contagious: after 64 years, it's still a hoot. By the end of this freshly showered version, my face ached from smiling.

John Huston's BEAT THE DEVIL (1953, 95 min, DCP Digital) plays at the Gene Siskel Film Center from June 30 through July 5. Check Venue website for showtimes. 

Saturday
Jun172017

BAND AID (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

I was mixed, leaning affectionate, on Zoe Lister Jones's BAND AID. It's worth a look. To read my review at CINE-FILE Chicago, please head here and scroll down to the "Also Recommended" section.

Wednesday
Jun142017

RAISING BERTIE

Margaret Byrne's empathetic, thought-provoking RAISING BERTIE begins with a rushing road. A teenager, Reginald ("Junior"), comes bicycling towards us. The film introduces us to him and two other young African-American males living in Bertie County, North Carolina, and over the next hour and a half we get to know them. To make this film, Byrne ensconced herself in the community for six years, reminding me of the way Barbara Kopple settled into HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. We watch these boys grow into men, sharing in their hopes, dreams and struggles. Thus, RAISING BERTIE deserves a place beside the great achievements in longitudinal film, from Michael Apted's UP series to Richard Linklater's BOYHOOD to Steve James's HOOP DREAMS. It upholds the worthy tradition of social-issues filmmaking as practiced by Frederick Wiseman, Albert and David Maysles, Gordon Quinn, and Chicago's own Kartemquin Films, which produced. It's also fair to say that it makes us think anew about some of the problems inherent to cinéma vérité. 

We hear a lot about at-risk urban youth, less of their rural counterparts. Rarer still is an approach that values what these young men feel—in a word, that treats these lives as if they matter. After all, our culture teaches young men to keep it all in. While the cliché is that these men are not "articulate," in fact there is a music to their language. The film often subtitles their speech, for the benefit of we outsiders who don't have an ear for it.

Junior has a great smile that, in a flash, can turn into a grimace. David (“Bud”) is a generally good-natured young man with a volatile temper. He works with his dad, who runs a landscaping business tending to the big houses on the wealthier side of town, and he also drives a tractor in the cotton fields. Davonte (“DaDa,” pronounced with long A's) is a quiet fellow who wants be a barber.   

At the outset, Junior says something that gives us an idea of how innocent he is —how he's just a kid—but also of of the adult, ugly realities he faces. He says that when he grows up he wants to be rich, so he thought about selling drugs. However, he never really wanted to; plus, his mother says she'll whup him. So maybe he'll just be a "secret agent." (Or, failing that, a mechanic.) He likes living in Bertie and "smelling the corn."  

Bertie's population is 80% black. There's not a lot to do for work or recreation. There are, however, a lot of opportunities to get into trouble. As a title advises, there are 27 prisons within a 100-mile radius of Bertie County. In fact, DaDa's brother, who boasts the memorable sobriquet "Mickey Mouse," is locked up. His brother is, DaDa admits, something of a kingpin among local drug dealers. DaDa and his mom, Esther, care for Mickey Mouse's baby while he's in jail. 

DaDa, Bud and Junior attend an alternative high school called the Hive, expressly set up to meet the needs of black boys. Vivian Saunders, the kindly executive director, wants to pull suspended boys off the streets and back into the school system, while giving them the "love and caring" they don't get there. "I tell them they can be educated at the Hive or be educated in jail," says Saunders. While DaDa is bright—he has a nice ironic sense of humor—he's always required extra time for his schoolwork. The Hive makes him feel like he can learn. When the school board shuts the Hive down, the boys awkwardly integrate into the official Bertie High. Saunders worries, have we given them the tools to survive without getting in trouble? She offers an interesting analysis of the role of violence in these young men's lives: "It goes back to being a tenant farmer," she says. "They have to prove themselves through violence and joining gangs."

The violence seems to spring, as well, from a fierce disinclination to be looked down upon—to be "disrespected."

Violence can be passed down. Junior's mom Cheryl is a survivor of domestic violence at the hands of Junior's dad, who went on to murder a subsequent girlfriend (and a deputy). One of the movie's most heartbreaking scene is the one where Junior visits him in prison. Even Bud's dad, the hardworking landscape architect, beat him until he "peed himself," according to Bud, as a method of discipline. 

Seen in the background in a shot at Bertie High School is a banner reading, "Children learn what they live." 

Cheryl, Junior's mom, works three jobs, yet she still eventually loses the house. Esther, Dada's mom, is estranged from his dad, Ernest, who comes off as a rather self-centered man with a drinking problem. Movingly, DaDa still yearns for his approval and attention. Veronica, Bud's mom, is a cherubic, religious woman who works at the chicken processing plant. 

Byrne's mode is that of the observer-documentarian in the cinéma vérité tradition. She does not appear on camera or interject; there's no narration. Her camera is unobtrusive, if not quite invisible. Her subjects address it. Early in the film, Junior, taking a quiz for a job application, asks the camera for help figuring out "How much is that?" (No answer is forthcoming.) On the other hand, sometimes they forget about it altogether. Junior kisses his girlfriend, Tomekia. When she calls his attention to the camera, he says, "Aw shit, I didn't see that."
  
All documentary filmmakers wrestle with issues of the filmmaker's responsibility and the conflicts of interest between subject, film and audience. Byrne's navigation of these tensions is thoughtful and sensitive. It's marked by a real kinship with these young men, a trust I assume was hard-won, surmounting differences of class, race and gender.
 
Writing about Richard Leacock, David Thomson astutely observed that cinéma vérité "has tended to founder on the everyday and mundane. Secretly, it has the journalist's uneasy lust for disaster or breakdown, for the moment when the subject 'cracks.'" There's really only one scene where I wondered if the interests of the filmmakers and the interests of the subjects perhaps diverged a bit. We pile into a car as the boys, restless and buzzed, go out looking for trouble. The find another group with whom they have a beef. When a fight breaks out, the camera looks on. The scene got me thinking about the duty to intervene, the camera as catalyst, the cinéma vérité tradition wherein the director is meant to "just film what happened."  
 
RAISING BERTIE then, is a construction, an organization of time, a mosaic made with grace and artistry. Byrne gives us beautiful compositions, painterly shots of the squat trailers, clotheslines, cotton and lettuce fields, and the little downtown. There are nuances: after a scene where DaDa's dad disappoints him regarding promised money for new shoes for prom, Byrne cuts to a shot of shiny new shoes on DaDa's feet on prom night. The wistful score provides a melancholy counterpoint to the action, with reverberating guitars, keyboard washes, and plunked piano.  
 
We watch Bud, now a 20-year-old senior, becoming an angry man. He seems on his way to being a bully, or worse. He gets caught with a "shank." He rallies, though: I won't forget him proudly displaying the senior class project he worked so hard on, about being a landscape architect. DaDa, as a 16-year-old freshman, finds that Bertie High is less inclined to afford him the extra time he needs for his work. We share his joy when he finally graduates. Junior, feeling lost, becomes a 19-year-old junior, then a 20-year-old repeating a grade; finally, he drops out. 
 
We see him at twilight, skipping stones down the road he once bicycled. He opines that sometimes, "It's like you ain't even here."
 
Near the end, there is a scene in which Junior keeps feeding dollars into an amusement game where you try to grab an iPod with a claw. The game is rigged: what you want is always going to be just out of your grasp. Yet he keeps playing, always hoping the result will be different. It would be easy to find all sorts of metaphors—for Junior's resiliency, for American society—here. What it shows me is that he hopes. And there is hope. Saunders secures funding to re-open the Hive, and as the film ends a new generation of kids files in.
 
When we leave Bud, DaDa and Junior, they're shouldering adult responsibilities. Bud's a father; DaDa and Junior are on the cusp of fatherhood. They're going to be good dads, we know it. We feel like they're going to make it—though we've also come to see how it could all go away for them in an instant. We wish them the best, and those of us lucky enough to be born into more privileged circumstances might reflect upon the grit it took for them to rise above their challenges, and what could be done to make American life a little more equitable. We also feel like we've experienced a film with something like the grain and complexity of real life.  
 
It ends as it began: looking down that road in Bertie, North Carolina. 

RAISING BERTIE begins its run on June 16 at Black World Cinema at the Studio Movie Grill Chatham (210 87th St.) – Check the venue website for showtimes. The filmmakers will be in person at the weekend screenings. 

Friday
Jun022017

THE PINK EGG and ANIMAL CONDENSED>ANIMAL EXPANDED #1 (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

Be curious about the curious films on offer at the 24th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival. For CINE-FILE Chicago, I wrote about THE PINK EGG and ANIMAL CONDENSED>ANIMAL EXPANDED #1. To read my writeup, go here and scroll down. Also, check out the full CUFF slate.

Friday
May262017

THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

Both the austere adult aesthete you see before you now, and the happy kid who loved the Muppets I once was, want you to go see THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER at the Music Box! Read my writeup here, under "Crucial Viewing."