Chandler and the Movies (and Poetry)

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep has been filmed twice with a famous American actor playing detective Philip Marlowe. Humphrey Bogart started it off in 1946 and Robert Mitchum reprised the role in 1978. Bogart’s is the one to see, directed by Howard Hawks and co-starring Lauren Bacall. Here’s a clip with the wonderful Dorothy Malone in her only scene. Much of the dialogue is right out of the novel.

There’s a lot to look at and wonder about in this scene: the way the book shop is named Acme (like in an old Looney Tunes cartoon), the photo of FDR on the wall, the pocket handkerchief Bogie sports, Malone’s pince-nez, the bottle of “pretty good rye” Bogie just happens to have in his pocket…

Hawks had William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett work on the script for this movie. You may know Faulkner from his novels and, er, his Nobel prize a few years later. Brackett was a successful sci-fi writer; she also co-wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back.

I had read The Big Sleep before I saw the movie and was a little surprised by Bogart as Marlowe. He’s not at all how I had imagined Marlowe, who is usually described as a big guy, constantly getting blackjacked and drugged and beat up by gangsters and corrupt cops, only to quickly snap back after a couple slugs of whiskey (surely one of the more ridiculous tropes of detective fiction).

Bogart might be alone in portraying not one but two famous detectives from American fiction. Five years earlier he had played Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, John Huston’s directorial debut. In his novel, Dashiell Hammett describes Spade as big, six feet tall, looking “rather pleasantly like a blond satan.” French critic Nino Frank, in his 1946 review of the Huston movie, wondered about Bogart as well:

As to the leading man, it is Humphrey Bogart: He is good, but not how we imagine this author’s heroes (no more, it may be added, would the William Powell type). That’s Hollywood.

(Powell played the lead in the series of movies based on Hammett’s novel, The Thin Man.)

Robert Mitchum, a combination hunk and galoot, is probably closer to the Marlowe of the books. The problem is the English director of The Big Sleep remake must not have understood that in Chandler, Los Angeles is practically a character, and so set it in London, which simply doesn’t work.

No amount of additional American actors in the newer movie (Jimmy Stewart, Richard Boone, Candy Clark) can make up for the loss of LA. It’s like filming a Faulkner novel in Toronto and changing some of the characters’ names to boot (in the remake, old man Sternwood’s daughters, Vivian and Carmen, are now Charlotte and Camilla).

To my knowledge, Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake has only been filmed once, and it was a failure. Although star (and director) Robert Montgomery is a credible Marlowe, most of the film is shot from the point of view (literally) of Marlowe. Maybe this idea looked good on paper, but it doesn’t work at all and loses much of what makes the novel interesting.

After publishing this novel in 1943, Chandler went on to work on screenplays for several films, including Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), from James M. Cain’s novel; George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia (1946), an original screenplay; and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), from Patricia Highsmith’s novel. The first two got him Oscar nominations.

The Lady in the Lake feels very cinematic, and I’m surprised it was never made into a more conventional detective movie. The chapters are short, averaging about six pages each in my paperback edition, and the setting usually changes from chapter to chapter, creating the sense of movement that we expect in a modern detective story.

For example, the first two chapters take place in the waiting room and then office of Marlowe’s wealthy client, then a chapter at a suspect’s house, then a chapter in front of another suspect’s house across the street, then the drive to Little Fawn Lake via San Bernardino and Puma Point.

One thing about traditional detective movies is how so many scenes are just interior shots of people talking. These are not action pictures in the modern sense. For example, The Maltese Falcon has very few exterior scenes; in fact much of the movie takes place in Spade’s tiny apartment.

As a modern movie, Chandler’s novel could easily include plenty of outdoor scenes. Most of Chandler’s stories take place in LA or its environs, including the town of Bay City (a fictional Santa Monica). That’s true of this novel as well, but it also contains quite a few chapters that take place at Little Fawn Lake and in the resort town of Puma Point, almost rural and certainly rustic by our standards today.

Other than in a couple of short stories and a final novel (Playback), I don’t recall Chandler’s detectives spending much time outside of LA. And it sounds as though Marlowe, the solitary drinker and student of chess, doesn’t much like these locales. Here’s his description of Puma Point:

It was still broad daylight but some of the neon signs had been turned on, and the evening reeled with the cheerful din of auto horns, children screaming, bowls rattling, skeeballs clunking, .22’s snapping merrily in shooting galleries, juke boxes playing like crazy, and behind this out on the lake the hard barking roar of the speedboats going nowhere at all and acting as though they were racing with death.

Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, the angel of death in any little holiday spot she’s visiting, darkness accompanies Marlowe wherever he goes.

Still, this could be done as an ironic comic scene, the sort of thing that breaks the tension for a little while in a detective movie. As Marlowe tells us, and you can almost hear him in voiceover: “At Puma Point, summer, that lovely season, was in full swing.”

There are poetic qualities in a lot of Chandler’s sentences. And it’s not just the striking similes that detective fiction is notorious for. Although there are some good ones in The Lady in the Lake:

His door closed on the pneumatic closer and made a sound like “phooey.”

We started off side by side, as friendly as puppies again.

He looked at us like a horse that had got into the wrong stable.

I think my favorite bits in Chandler, though, are the sentences that can sound like throwaway lines from Law and Order. Often ironic, they’re sometimes even metrical:

The whiskey won the fight, as it always does.

The star on his left breast had a bent point.

“Something,” I said out loud, “is all wrong with this scene.”

If you write poetry, a good exercise is to take an author with a distinctive style or voice and try to capture something of their writing in a poem. Not just imitation or pastiche, but rather like what Dana Gioia did in his memorable poem “In Chandler Country.”

The title tells us precisely where we are, and the first lines grab brilliantly at the style of Chandler’s writing:

      California night. The Devil’s wind,
      the Santa Ana, blows in from the east,
      raging through the canyon like a drunk
      screaming in a bar.

If this were prose, it might be considered fan fiction. But unlike most fan fiction, Gioia rivals the original. Here’s the opening of Chandler’s 1938 story, “Red Wind,” which the poem alludes to:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight.

The speaker of Gioia’s poem is Marlowe himself, perhaps old and retired now, ruminating on past cases during a hot, sleepless night, his memories triggered by the kind of wind that was ever-present during the “Red Wind” case, thumping and howling at the windows.

Gioia captures the feel of Chandler’s prose and converts it to poetry using unobtrusive blank verse. It’s so natural sounding you might not even recognize it as that.

And like Chandler, Gioia goes for the pithy throwaway line as well:

      The weather’s fine as long as you don’t breathe.

© 10 Franks 2023

Wonder Woman

Directed by Patty Jenkins; written by Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs, based on the character created by William Moulton Marston; released 2017.

The title character of this eponymous epic is never named. She is simply known as Diana. Only we, the viewers, know her as Wonder Woman. This allows the movie to remain slightly more serious than it would be otherwise. While nicely alliterative, “Wonder Woman” can sound a bit silly if you say it aloud too often. And in this movie that would have happened quite a few times. Since Diana is a comic book hero, she is headstrong, resolute and brave, plunging ahead while others hesitate. All they can do when she turns her back and hurls herself over a battlement is call out her name: Diana! Diana! Diana!

As if that would stop her. For Diana is an Amazon, of Greek myth fame. Well, almost famous — few stories about the Amazons survive. Aeschylus described the Amazons as a nation of men-hating warriors. Jason and his Argonauts wisely avoided doing battle with them. The Amazons were said to have fought against the Greeks in the Trojan War. Their chief city was Themiscyra, somewhere in the Caucasus. And they’re the daughters of Ares, the god of war. That much we know.

Sounds like a good back story, right? Well, maybe, except that isn’t the path the screenwriters followed, choosing instead to create their own ersatz mythology. In this retelling, Themiscyra is now an island paradise, hidden from the world like some tourist-free Santorini of the imagination. The Amazons are still warriors of a sort, fond of sparring and ancient weaponry, but they’re rather reluctant warriors, withdrawn from the world, almost isolationist. And Ares is now the sole surviving god, having offed the others in a primordial battle that we’re given as kind of a back story to the back story. Never mind that in the Iliad Zeus claims to be as powerful as all the other gods and goddesses combined, here he’s dead by Ares’ hand alone.

With his last breath Zeus designated the Amazons to be the protectors of his human creation, although it doesn’t sound like they’ve ever been very active in their assignment. This changes when American flyer Steve Trevor crashes off the island’s coast, WWI Germans in hot pursuit. Steve’s loyalty is to his mission and he’s anxious to leave the island. When he finally does, Diana accompanies him, intent on finding and defeating Ares and thus ending the war. And so at last we arrive at the basic conflict: Ares as opponent of humankind, Diana as our champion.

I would have settled for “Ares” as a symbolic menace, a shorthand term for the “darkness within,” as Diana calls it, or perhaps what Freud called Todestrieb, or death drive. But this being a comic book movie, Ares had to be something more, something tangible that Diana can battle. It’s easy to forget about this requirement since we’re not given any evidence of Ares’ physical existence for quite a while in a fairly long movie, only Diana’s OCD-like insistence that Ares is out there and that she must defeat him. When we finally do meet Ares, he turns out to be more Old Testament Satan than Greek god, and with an incoherent wish: to restore Earth to its pre-human state, sort of an Eden before the Fall, presumably with himself as the sole resident. Ah, if only this were the story of Diana leading the Amazons in a revolt against their own father, at least that would be something that might have made a bit of sense.

Brian O’Nolan, the secret identity of Irish novelist Flann O’Brien, once said that “The meanest bloody thing in hell made this world.” He might as well have been talking of World War I, the senseless slaughter of millions, the mud and misery, the seedbed of 20th century warfare and atrocities. Wonder Woman tries to give us this world, but by the time we get to the trenches of Flanders, the movie seems to sense that it’s been going on too long and that we’re impatient for the battle royal to begin — you know, to see Diana strut her stuff. Once the camera follows her up and out of a trench, that’s the last we see of trench warfare; it’s pretty much Diana in action from there on out.

But that’s not such a bad thing. Somehow out of all the comic book tropes, magic stirs at times in this movie. And make no mistake: there are a lot of tropes here, starting with Diana’s opening voice-over narrative and the resulting flashback to the story we’re about to see. Much of the credit for the magic goes to Gal Gadot, as Diana, and Chris Pine, as Steve Trevor. The character of Trevor has a lot of baggage to carry. If Diana sees this mess of a world as a kind of manmade hell, then Steve is her guide to the underworld (and to London, for the requisite fish-out-of-water scenes). He also functions as love interest and, in a throwback to World War II movies and comics, as the leader of a vaguely amusing ragtag bunch who lack only a nickname for the cliche to be complete (Dirty Dozen, Howling Commandos, etc.).

But Gadot is the real star here, even though the movie could easily have been titled Diana and Steve. In retrospect, casting Gadot must now seem rather obvious, but at the time the choice was surely inspired; the list of Gadot’s previous roles does not suggest that Diana would be a breakout part for her, that she would be so good in it. Much of this begins with Gadot’s voice, which has a slightly rough edge and at times comes out pitched rather low. And then there’s her accent.

Movies give us many of the sounds of world English, particularly the American accent in all its variety, the accents of Great Britain and Ireland, of course Australian and New Zealand, even the sounds of Caribbean and Nigerian English. Recall the various accents in a TV show like Lost, for example. Perhaps we haven’t heard as many Israeli actors in our entertainments and so Gadot’s accent comes across as unplaceable to our untrained ears. And of course that’s exactly what you want in a movie like this: something different, something intriguing, something a little exotic.

Sadly, the movie’s secondary characters are mostly forgettable or so oddly turned out that you might think they popped in from some other production. The pecking order of bad guys in action movies is pretty rigid. There’s the big bad, but the hero never takes him down until the very end. Before moving up the food chain, as it were, there’s always a couple-three henchmen or lieutenants to deal with first, often unremarkable villains of the second rank, typically sporting bad accents. In Wonder Woman, these hapless parts fall on the shoulders of the Germans, in the form of General Ludendorff and Doctor Maru.

It’s a movie truism that if Nazis did not exist, we would have to invent them. Ludendorff and Maru can’t be National Socialists since the party doesn’t yet exist, but they are certainly Nazi precursors, anticipating action movies set 20 years later. Ludendorff is all burning anger and ambition. Maru wears a mask over part of her face to hide what we suspect is a scar from a laboratory accident. She is a mad scientist and a sadist after all. You know these two conspirators are evil before they utter their first lines; you could pick them out of any lineup. In other words, it’s hard to take them seriously. (It’s a pity true evil isn’t so easily recognized. Eichmann sniffled and snuffled with a head cold during his Jerusalem trial, looking every bit a schlub and a nobody.)

Wonder Woman is not a great movie, but within its genre it’s a very good one. By comparison, many movies of this ilk will now begin to look juvenile and garish, if they don’t already. But can it be viewed with pleasure by those not steeped in comic book lore and convention? The movie certainly seems intent on fixing itself firmly within the DC firmament, as an early scene shows Diana receiving a delivery from a truck marked Wayne (as in Bruce Wayne). A more rewarding approach might have been to let Wonder Woman define and inhabit its own universe, without any regard to its place in the franchise.

© 10 Franks 2017


Written and directed by Kogonada; released 2017.

What are we to make of this little movie, with its themes of family and work, set incongruously amidst splendid modernist architecture in the middle of America? Is there anything new here, anything to think about and remember, or is Columbus just another art-house film, lovingly crafted to be sure, but fated to drop into the cultural bitbucket, occasionally referenced but seldom viewed?

Jin (John Cho) has come to Columbus, Indiana, where his father has been stricken during a tour of the city’s architecture. Jin meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a local girl who lives with her mother, Maria (Michelle Forbes). Only two other characters are significant: Casey’s co-worker, Gabriel (Rory Culkin), and a friend of Jin’s father, Eleanor (Parker Posey). Each main character gets plenty of dialog and screen time, letting director Kogonada avoid the necessity of creating mere types.

Something is troubling these characters. You can see it on their faces in the frequent portrait shots the movie gives us. But what is it?

Freud said that work is critical to binding us to reality. Films often have difficulty showing ordinary day-to-day work and its role in people’s lives. In Columbus, all of the characters work and we see and hear quite a bit about their jobs. Jin is a translator of books; Casey and Gabriel work in a library; Maria works in a box factory; Eleanor appears to be some sort of agent. Casey also seems to function as a kind of caregiver for her mother, who looks chronically exhausted, perhaps from the life she has led, full of bad boyfriends and periodic drug abuse.

Maybe not uplifting or even satisfying work, but they all have pretty decent work compared to people in other times and places: no grubbing in the dirt, no foraging for food, no fight for survival; their lives have plenty of time for reflection and relaxation. And yet the malaise has not lifted.

Is this just a portrait of our times, the qualified unhappiness of so many in the modern era, the vague ache that cannot be located?

Much of the pleasure of Columbus is visual. Just as the camera gives us lovely portraits of the various characters, it also gives us beautifully framed shots of Columbus architecture. Shouldn’t this setting be a source of joy and wonder for its inhabitants? Undoubtedly it is for Casey, even therapeutic, but she tells Jin that most people in Columbus are unaware of their surroundings, residents of an architectural Eden who rarely lift their eyes to the heavens, as it were.

Columbus is also a very quiet movie; there are no car chases. Quite a few scenes are of Casey and Jin walking about the city, viewing architecture and talking. If a part of your brain has gone numb from years of on-screen explosions, crashes and screaming in the night, this movie could be the tonic you need.

I did find something odd about the sound in Columbus, though. Perhaps it was just the sound quality of a typical cineplex, but there were times when the dialog grew so soft I found it impossible to follow. Was this deliberate? Perhaps a hint at this possibility is given in a key scene, where Jin demands that Casey tell him in her own words what “moved” her about a building and, after a couple of false starts, she finally does. But we’re given her speech only as a shot behind glass, without sound, only her lips moving, as though the words themselves were beside the point.

We also get what look like identical shots of Jin’s father and, later, Jin, standing alone, back to the camera, contemplating the lush greenery behind one of the famous Columbus buildings. There’s also some discussion of the possibility that architecture can heal. Is this a prescription for the dark cloud that hangs over us, the heavy atmosphere that never completely lifts? That is, put down the smartphone and just gaze in complete silence at the beauty around us.

Much will undoubtedly be made of Richardson’s performance: her quiet, dead-on portrait of a Midwest girl trying to find her way into the future without parental guidance. In fact, Casey and Maria’s roles are reversed in many ways, with Casey playing the part of the concerned parent constantly checking up on a daughter’s whereabouts.

One scene that stands out in my mind is when Casey shows Jin the school she attended. It’s a building almost without architecture and could very well be the backside of a mall, but this place has meaning for her. After Jin falls asleep in the car, Casey suddenly cranks up the radio and begins to dance in the car’s headlights. Apparently this is how she deals with the frustration that has been building up inside her. Others might turn sullen and depressed, or violent and full of rage; Casey just dances wildly by herself in front of her old school.

Columbus certainly passed one of my tests in that I was still reliving it in my mind two days later. But what exactly is the takeaway of a movie like this? It doesn’t have a very satisfactory story arc since it doesn’t have much of a story. There’s some tension, but very little drama and nothing much really happens. Perhaps it should be viewed more like a beautiful painting or building rather than as a narrative work. What you retain is as much how the piece made you feel as what you learned from it.

© 10 Franks 2017


Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón, released 2013.

Handed a familiar woman-in-jeopardy role, Sandra Bullock does what she can with it. There’s no slasher or serial killer at her back, just the icy vacuum of space and a bad case of nerves, and at times we find ourselves wishing there was something chasing her. As it is, the camera has almost nothing to cut to except the sumptuous Earth itself, hanging there gorgeous and seductive like a giant blue Rorschach blot. Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone has no one to talk to most of the time except herself and Bullock can’t quite pull off the one-woman show.

George Clooney only sticks around for a little while as Stone’s mission partner, veteran space dude Matt Kowalski, mercifully floating away before his voice can drive us crazy. He pops up again later during Stone’s low-oxygen hallucination, as though to remind us how good we’ve had it without him.

Gravity has a well-trod linearity to it, but there are some visual delights in this movie. One of them, of Stone tugging open an airlock and nearly getting blown out into space, is so good it’s repeated later and the fright it engenders is no less for the repetition. And if you’ve ever wondered what an astronaut wears under her spacesuit, well now you know: sleeveless undershirt and spandex skivvies. Watching Bullock strip is fun — perhaps not quite as much fun as Jane Fonda in Barbarella but probably as unintentionally good as a serious movie can get.

Gravity is not a bad movie, but it doesn’t succeed at solving the problems it creates for itself. The marooned-in-space astronaut, half crazy and lonely as Robinson Crusoe, is an ancient trope well-explored in sci-fi movies, from big budget (2001: A Space Odyssey) to shoestring (Love) to everything in between (Silent Running). Does Gravity break new ground here, bring any new insights to bear? Well, a female protagonist is a nice touch, if only to drive home how awful this movie would have been with, say, Clooney’s Kowalski as the surviving crew member (morphing into a slightly different sub-genre: space horror). And Bullock is probably not a bad choice, either, although this kind of movie has no place for her comedic talents.

I have no knowledge of (and little interest in) the genesis of Gravity‘s story, but at times it felt as though the screenwriters started with what was probably a solid (although not original) concept: solitary survivor of space mishap forced to conquer both her own fears and some recalcitrant equipment to survive. Given this concept they then worked back from there, creating their own story debris as they went along:

  • Why is she there? Dunno; space experiments are pre-packaged, much-tested modules, never accompanied by the teams that created them.
  • Why did the Russian satellite explode? Explanation is unconvincing.
  • What’s “pulling” Kowalski that makes him decide to unclip and sacrifice himself so that Stone might have a chance to survive? The whole scene is dumb and we’ve seen it a thousand times in war movies.

For whatever reason, space movies seem to be natural places for examining mankind’s “relationship” with technology in a way that films about Formula 1 racing or aircraft carriers are not. But Gravity doesn’t have much to say here really. The space gear is clean and white and groovy looking, but it serves a purpose similar to architecture in a haunted-house movie: great if it’s distinctive, even better if memorable, but let’s get inside and find those ghosts!

The title also invites speculation, given that it names something decidedly missing in space. At best it feels vaguely metaphorical; at worst it’s misleading, like calling a film Respiration instead of Breathless.

The ending reinforces one’s suspicion of metaphor, but metaphor for what? Stone crash lands in a lagoon, floats on her back to shore, then struggles to her feet on zero-g-weakened (though smooth and shapely) legs, staggering away on the beach. The end. Does “gravity” stand for “home,” like in some family-in-crisis movie? The elements are present (mom: Stone, dad: Kowalski, child: Stone’s deceased daughter), but my mind refuses to go there.

Or is “gravity” meant to suggest that Stone finally accepts her daughter’s death (which, oddly unremarked upon, was also the result of an accident)? This seems credible, but the movie handles everything related to the daughter so clumsily. In a novel, a long interior monologue might suffice here to tie everything down, but the movie provides no cinematic equivalent. Thankfully we’re given no flashbacks, but the generic details we are given sound like Stone is making it all up. It’s enough to make you cry out for renegade robots and little green men.

© 10 Franks 2015

Hannah Arendt

Directed by Margarethe von Trotta, written by Pam Katz and Margarethe von Trotta, released 2012.

What a challenge this movie must have been to make for German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. Start with the subject: a writer, an intellectual, a bonafide egghead with an accent to boot. A writer is not necessarily the kiss of death for a movie if sufficiently eccentric or self-dramatizing (think Truman Capote), but in Hannah Arendt we have a chain-smoking, hardworking, no-nonsense, middle-aged German scholar with books like The Origins of Modern Totalitarianism and The Human Condition under her belt. If that isn’t enough to scare off even the most earnest filmmaker, I don’t know what is.

Other things that this movie has going against it include:

  • Lots of German dialog, requiring English subtitles, although this is nicely balanced by the authentic German accents of the various characters’ English, something we don’t hear very often in English-language movies.
  • The problem that isn’t a problem in a novel or written biography: namely, that much of the magic takes place out of sight in the writer’s mind.
  • And finally, the cultural and historical events that swirl around the characters, all those things that are so unfamiliar to many of us. Quick: what happened between JFK’s election and assassination? (Blank, Bay of Pigs, blank, Cuban missile crisis, blank.)

Fortunately we have Barbara Sukowa’s Arendt at the center of the movie, rarely off-screen, always wondrous to gaze at, her cigarette addiction both a little frightening and comical at the same time, an inspiring and charismatic teacher, it would seem, if the scenes with her students are any guide.

Happily, von Trotta largely confines the film to the early 60s. Unhappily, she attempts to summon bits of Arendt’s relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, her mentor and lover in the late 20s and early 30s. This is done as awkward flashbacks that feel artless and stagey compared to the naturalistic scenes of the main narrative in 60s New York.

Other scenes are also a little clumsy. The reactions of critics and fellow faculty members to Arendt’s writings are vital to our understanding of Arendt’s stubborn, determined nature, but these men are mostly presented as a kind of bitchy chorus — whether this is due to poor casting or uncertain direction, I can’t tell.

More agreeable are the scenes with Arendt’s good friend, American novelist Mary McCarthy. These are mostly delicious and play better to von Trotta’s natural strengths as a director. Her early films often portrayed sisters and here we have odd-couple gal pals Arendt and McCarthy playing sisterly roles and it works wonderfully. A scene of them shooting pool in a nightclub feels almost anachronistic, yet it’s anchored in the past by the haze of cigarette smoke, the bottles of booze, the men in suits in the bar behind them: period filmmaking at its best.

The opening scene of the 1960 nighttime abduction of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina by Israeli agents has a dreamlike quality, as though sneaked in from a thriller. Beautifully lit and shot, we later discover a useful purpose of this scene: as a contrast to the actual black-and-white footage of Eichmann’s 1961 trial which von Trotta skillfully integrates into her movie (a smart decision to do this rather than trying to reenact it). Most of us have seen bits of Eichmann’s trial before, for example in episode 10 of the Inside the Nazi Hunters TV series, but here at last we have a satisfactory context for this footage: Arendt’s dawning realization during the trial (she covered it for The New Yorker) that there’s something else going on here that seemingly everyone has missed, that evil on an unimaginable scale can occur even under a mediocrity like Eichmann, who squints and grimaces and blows his nose as though he doesn’t even know he’s on trial for his life.

The English titles of two of von Trotta’s early films are The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) and The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978), movies with memorable titles even if the films themselves are largely forgotten. In the spirit of these works one can almost be forgiven for thinking of this movie as The Important Discovery of Hannah Arendt. Biopic, historical drama, period piece, the movie also serves as an antidote to much of what we see on screen that passes for the world of the 60s. If Mad Men shows how the era’s images were created, Hannah Arendt shows how its words were made.

© 10 Franks 2015


Directed by Mamoru Oshii, written by Kazunori Ito, released in 2001.

In brief: Virtual reality sci-fi film by Japanese anime director Mamoru Oshii, filmed in Poland with Polish actors, featuring a dramatic musical score that rivals that of, say, The Last of the Mohicans.

“I am cold Ash. I’ve been playing Avalon for a long time. I know this game as well as anyone, but I couldn’t tell you how or when it got started, or who controls it, or how it’s supposed to end […]  But there is a goal: to go beyond the game – to something more.”

So goes some of the first dialog, spoken in voice over as we watch Ash in battle, her long dark cloak swirling behind her. These lines also serve to sum up what you’re about to see in case you’re unfamiliar with the basic virtual reality storyline. And this does not occur until the 6:00 mark, which should give you an idea of the film’s pace.

Some sci-fi buffs might consider this film slow, boring and pretentious, but for the rest of us this “exercise” is fascinating. I call it an exercise because at times it hardly seems like a film, or rather there doesn’t seem to be enough here for a complete film.

But has the everyday ever been transformed into the otherworldly so easily? In this case, by filming everything with a sepia tint, ordinary modern-day Poland becomes a dreamscape.

Avalon is an illegal virtual-reality game, a product of technology and programming, but one can’t overlook the film’s many references to insanity: from the asylum-like cells where players strap themselves in, to the soup kitchen full of lost souls, to the clinic where “Unreturned” players are institutionalized, their minds lost somewhere in the game. The shot of the catatonic patients lined up in wheelchairs on a balcony, perhaps taking the sun but oblivious to everything, is particularly striking, like a TB sanatorium for the mad.

If you want to rewatch the musically dramatic scenes in this film, skip forward to the 8:00 or 1:28:00 mark and enjoy.

A note on the dialog: The Netflix streaming version of this film is dubbed into English, rather than the original Polish with English subtitles. And the English doesn’t quite match quotes from the subtitled version that I’ve read elsewhere, indicating a different translation was used. Sometimes dubbing and translation can wreck a film, but in this case the uncredited actors doing the dubbing are perfect: their lightly accented English lends itself to the otherworldly feel of the entire production.

And why not dubbed? In Oshii’s Assault Girls (2009), a kind of sequel to Avalon, the players begin speaking in Japanese and the Game Master quickly admonishes them: “Local languages are not permitted in the game” — at which point they switch back to their very odd-sounding undubbed English.

Best line ever: “Real life – is that what this is? I suppose there must have been a time when this seemed more real to me than the game.”

What makes this film a gem: Małgorzata Foremniak’s performance as the world-weary Ash. And of course Kenji Kawai’s music, recorded by the Warsaw Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir.

© 10 Franks 2015