Favorite Films: Grizzly Man (2005)

Timothy Treadwell in Alaska’s Katmai National Park

Over the last thirty years, some of my favorite movies were directed by Werner Herzog. So when I screened his Grizzly Man for myself, I was not surprised to find that it was nothing short of amazing. Its subject, Timothy Treadwell as to grizzly bears what Aussie Steve Irwin was to crocodiles and other dangerous denizens of the wild. In the end, both men died because they were exposed to one too many dangers. In the case of Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, they were eaten by a bear that Treadwell failed to charm.

There was always something strange about Treadwell with his Prince Valiant blonde mop. (He had failed to win the role of Woody Boyd in Cheers that was filled by Woody Harrelson.) He spent his summers in Alaska’s Katmai National Park trying to convince us that grizzlies were like warm and fuzzy Teddy Bears. He even camped with a favorite Teddy Bear, as well as a girlfriend.

After Treadwell and Huguenard’s death, German filmmaker Werner Herzog made Grizzly Man, but probably not as Treadwell would have liked. Much of the footage was actually from Treadwell himself, and showed him in his various moods—including defiance at the National Park Service. He did not like to be reminded by them that what he was doing was dangerous. Unlike Steve Irwin, he downplayed the dangers of closeness with the bears. What amazes me was not that he was eventually attacked and devoured by them than that he survived as long as he did.

Grizzly Bear

In his and his girlfriend’s last few minutes on earth, Treadwell was actually filming. Because of the circumstances, he did not have a chance to remove the lens cap, so all he had was an audio track. In Grizzly Man, we see Herzog listening to this track in the presence of one of his associates, Jewel Palovak. Upon finishing, he hands the tape to Palovak and recommends that she destroy it. She did the next best thing: Instead of listening to it, she had it placed in a bank vault. Nobody wants to have his or her dreams turn into nightmares from listening to the death of someone they had loved.

Herzog believes that Treadwell was a disturbed individual with a death wish. Treadwell’s own footage, much of which appears in the Herzog film, bears this out. In fact, I was so disturbed that I had disturbing nightmares the night after I saw the film.\

 

The Death of Stalin

Poster for The Death of Stalin (2018)

In my retirement, I have been seeing more current films than I usually do. Today, I went in the rain to see Armando Iannucci’s dark comedy of the transfer of power in the Soviet Union when Stalin suddenly died in 1953. Predictably, the movie was banned in Russia and several other of the former Soviet Socialist Republics. In fact, I think that in many instances the truth was stretched a bit to make a better film.

Steve Buscemi plays an ambitious Nikita Khrushchev; Jeffrey Tambor, a delightfully cowardly Georgy Malenkov; Simon Russell Beale, an incredibly evil State Security chief Lavrenti Beria; and Michael Palin, an indecisive Vyacheslav Molotov. The actor who practically runs away with the show is Jason Isaacs, playing Marshal Zhukov, who is the only member of the government who is willing to take on Beria.

Jason Isaacs as Marshal Zhukov

One of the weaknesses of the Soviet Union was that the fearless leaders were too fearful to arrange for a peaceful transition of power after their deaths. In fact, according to Simon Sebag Montefiore in his book The Court of the Red Tsar (2003), Stalin’s sudden death caused a such a crisis, so that the staff in his dacha were afraid to confront the body for fear that it meant some sort of trick that would lead them to execution or a gulag.

Georgy Malenkov is initially selected to rule because of his rank in the Politburo, but his cowardice is such that, by the end, Khrushchev is holding the reins of power.

This film is loaded with violence. Beria’s NKVD carry out executions using their sidearms with alarming regularity. There are at least several score of these executions taking place during the film.

So far, this is the best film I have seen this year.

 

 

Letters of Transit

Prop from the Film Casablanca: The Letter of Transit

I have just finished reading a magnificent novel by Anna Seghers entitled Transit (1944). At the time it was being written—around 1942—a film entitled Casablanca was being made starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The film’s “maguffin,” as Alfred Hitchcock would have called it, are certain letters of transit that have been stolen from Nazi authorities allowing the bearer to leave Morocco for any desired destination.

Such was the film’s premise. Above is the prop used as the Letter of Transit, duly filled out in the name of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and wife. Note, however, that the issuer is the “State of France.” At the end of the film, the Laszlos fly to Lisbon from Casablanca, en route to the United States. Strictly speaking, the so-called Letter of Transit is only an exit visa and does not bear the stamp of the Portuguese consul, let alone the American one.

Transit by Anna Seghers

Anna Segher’s novel tells the tale of refugees from the approaching Nazi terror gathered in Marseilles, trying vainly to collect the series of official papers that would:

  1. Allow them to leave Marseilles legally. The document above appears to be an exit visa rather than a letter of transit.
  2. Pass through other countries en route to their final destination. These are the actual letters of transit, and must be stamped by the consular authorities for each country along the way.
  3. A visa allowing entry to their final destination.
  4. Tickets for transportation along each leg of the journey.

Transit follows various Europeans frantically trying to collect the necessary paperwork before any of the stamped legal papers in their possession expire, which would require them to re-start the process.

Quoted in Segher’s novel is this passage from 2 Corinthians 11:25-26:

Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often; in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils of the city, in perils of the wilderness, in perils of the sea, in perils among false brethren.

More Props: The Passports of Victor Laszlo (Here Misspelled) and Ilsa Lund

The hero of Transit is a German worker and prison camp escapee named Seidler who has assumed the identity of a writer named Weidel who, despairing, had committed suicide in Paris. Curiously, he has no desire to leave Marseilles, finding the city to be a destination in its own right. (It wasn’t: The Germans eventually occupied it.) He runs into Weidel’s wife, is attracted to her, and finally merely helps her to leave, deciding to stay behind:

It’s true, I realized. Everything just passes through me. And that’s why I was still roving about unharmed in a world in which I didn’t know my way well at all. Indeed, even the fit of anger that had decided my life back then in my own country was only temporary. I didn’t stay angry; I wandered around afterward, my anger gone. What I really like is what endures, that which is different from me.

I was so blown away by this book that I regard Seghers as the peer of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, and behind only Franz Kafka (who wrote in German). She is probably best known for The Seventh Cross, which was filmed in 1944 by director Fred Zinnemann starring Spencer Tracy and Signe Hasso. During the Second World War, she lived in Mexico, having escaped Marseilles like some of her characters in Transit. She ended up after the war living in East Germany.

 

Westerns Then and Now

Harry Carey Jr and John Wayne in The Searchers (1956)

The Westerns have been with us since the very beginning of motion pictures: The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter was shot in the un-Western-like setting of New Jersey. Within little more than a decade, William S. Hart was turning out reasonably good Westerns which he shot at Inceville, near Santa Ynez Canyon. And in 1917, John Ford did his first oater starring Harry Carey Sr, Straight Shooting. The remainder of the silent period saw a number of stars, including Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson, with Hart and Carey continuing their careers.

It was in 1939 with John Ford’s Stagecoach that the first great sound period for the Western began. Until his death in 1979, the Western was almost synonymous with The Duke. But there was also Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946), with Victor Mature as Doc Holliday.

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946)

The real glory days of the Western came in the 1950s. Not only was John Ford still active, but there were great series directed by Budd Boetticher (Decision at Sundown, 1957) and starring Randolph Scott and by Anthony Mann starring Jimmy Stewart (Bend in the River, 1q952).

The great period of the Film Western was illuminated by the bit of dialog from Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962):

Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Maxwell Scott:  No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Beginning in the 1970s, Hollywood lost sight of the legend. The Westerns were being demythologized by new filmmakers up from television. There were few real heroes, and a lot of scruffy, violent guys with beards. I suppose that Clint Eastwood was the new Western hero paradigm. Although I enjoyed his films, they were not up to the standard set by William S. Hart, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Budd Boetticher, and Anthony Mann.

 

Tonya Harding Revisited

Skater Tonya Harding (R) with Coach

This afternoon, I saw the Craig Gillespie film I, Tonya (2017). I remember vividly the events of 1994, when Tonya Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly conspired with lowlife friends to intimidate rival skater Nancy Kerrigan, but the intimidation turned into a physical attack in which Kerrigan’s knee was broken. Then a bunch of videos turned up on the Internet of Gillooly and Harding’s wedding night with its raucous nudity and sex play. Kerrigan was able to compete again, but Harding was banned from skating competition for the rest of her life.

The film was actually pretty good. The Australian-born Margot Robbie excelled as Tonya; and Allison Janney as her estranged mother LaVon was icily superb.

I always felt sympathy for Harding, because she was a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and from a dysfunctional family. Competition skating in America wants its competitors to be little suburban princesses with happy backgrounds (or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof). Although she was less responsible for the nobbling of Nancy Kerrigan than her husband and his friends and associates, they wound up serving light sentences, but Tonya’s harsher sentence essentially killed her career—for the remainder of her life.

We pretend to be a democracy, but it hasn’t looked that way for some time:  Talented blue-collar girls suffer for not being little bundles of perfection. Tonya is still around, but no longer is she performing triple axels on the ice. She performed brief stints as a wrestler, a boxer, and a racer; and  (according to the film)  she constructed home decks. I wish her well.

Eleven Bogies

Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946)

Today I finally broke down and purchased a DVD of Casablanca (1942), surely one of the greatest American films ever made. It set me on a train of thought about its star, Humphrey Bogart, always one of my favorites. I thought I would give you a list of my eleven favorite Bogie films in the order they were filmed:

  1. High Sierra (1941), directed by Raoul Walsh, one of the greats. Co-starring Ida Lupino in one of her best roles.
  2. The Maltese Falcon (1941), directed by John Huston. With Mary Astor. A classic.
  3. Casablanca (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz. Co-starring Ingrid Bergman. One of the best-loved American films of the 1940s.
  4. To Have and Have Not (1944), directed by Howard Hawks. Co-starring Lauren Bacall. Based on the Hemingway novel.
  5. The Big Sleep (1946), directed by Howard Hawks. To my mind Bogie’s best starring role, with Lauren Bacall. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel.
  6. Dark Passage (1947), directed by Delmer Daves, with Lauren Bacall. Based on a great novel by David Goodis.
  7. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), directed by John Huston.
  8. Key Largo (1948), directed by John Huston. Co-starring Lauren Bacall.
  9. In a Lonely Place (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray. Co-starring Gloria Grahame.
  10. The African Queen (1951), directed by John Huston. Co-starring Katherine Hepburn.
  11. Beat the Devil (1953), directed by John Huston. Co-starring Jennifer Jones. A rare offbeat comedy.

Now I am going to sit down and see Casablanca again … and I will, I am sure, love it again.

 

An Afternoon in Garmonbozia

Laura Palmer Played by Sheryl Lee

Twice a year, Barnes & Noble has a 50% off sale on Criterion Collection DVDs and Blue-Rays. Today, I bought one of my favorite films from the 1990s, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), a prequel based on his two-part television series, Twin Peaks for ABC. The term “garmonbozia” is a nightmarish Black Lodge term meaning pain and suffering. In the movie, the pain and suffering relates primarily to two young women who are killed, and one who is presumably scarred for life: Laura Palmer, Theresa Banks, and Ronette Pulaski.

The so-called Black Lodge is a strange room with no windows, full-length floor-to-ceiling red velvet drapes, and a zig-zag pattern in black and white on the floor. Its permanent inhabitant is Michael J. Anderson (below) as The Man from Another Place. He speaks in a strange, barely understandable dialect which was filmed speaking backwards deliberately, and then reversing the sound track. He eats garmonbozia, which looks very like creamed corn.

Michael J. Anderson as The Man from Another Place and Kyle MacLahlan as FBI Agent Dale Cooper

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was not a popular film when released. No matter, it and the ABC TV series were at least a decade ahead of their time and are just now coming into their own. (Though, truth to tell, I loved the film when it was first released; and only now am I watching the TV series.) Both the film and the TV series are postmodern to the max and greatly influenced the development of films to follow. In an article from the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, James Parker wrote:

Stylistically, the most immediate posthumous effect of all this might have been the gnostic, everything-signifies vibe of The X-Files, but there are glimmering splinters of Twin Peaks in Breaking Bad’s trippy desert-sizzle; in the irruptive, disabling dreamtime of Bran Stark on Game of Thrones; and in the absurdist plot spirals, the gizmos and MacGuffins, of Lost. The Sopranos paid homage with Agent Cooper–esque fugue states and shots of trees blowing in the wind, rippling in their fullness and strangeness. And how is it finally communicated to Tony Soprano, after years of repressed suspicion, that Big Pussy—one of his most trusted sidekicks—is ratting him out to the FBI? By a talking fish, in a delirium, after some bad chicken vindaloo. It doesn’t get more Twin Peaks than that.

I have only a few more episodes of Twin Peaks to watch on DVD and then … and then … I just may pay a visit to the area. I have friends and family in the area.