Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thoughts on Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" (2009)

The villains in Michael Haneke films are often cold-blooded, amoral psychopaths that live, undetected, among us.  When accused of a crime, they look right through their accusers.  Other people's lives mean nothing to these antagonists.  It's beyond cruelty.  Those who dare to have empathy for others are looked down at with contempt.  They are gods in their own minds, and we are less than ants. 

Haneke's goal is for us to recognize how dangerous these people are.  Because they are immoral, it is impossible for the rest of us to even deal with them in any kind of legal, or even social, manner.  They don't play by our rules, and if we assume, even for a moment, that that they will be amenable to our rules, then we are doomed.  They will steam roll us.  While we are debating the rules of the game, they have already taken the ball and shoved it down our throats.  And they do it apologetically, almost as if they are sorry for our weakness. 

In Haneke's "The White Ribbon," set in a German village in the year prior to the outbreak of the Great War, a series of violent accidents and crimes go unanswered.  A doctor out for a horseback ride has his horse tripped out from under him by an invisible wire, breaking  the doctor's collarbone.  An older woman who works in the local land baron's sawmill falls through a rotten floorboard and dies.  The baron's young son is found tied upside down to a tree, his back whipped.  And a young retarded boy, the daughter of the doctor's mistress, is found in the woods, his eyes nearly gouged out.

The townsfolk are concerned by these events, but fail to see how they might be connected.  Only when the last boy is severely wounded does the village school teacher, who might represent the village's conscience, begin to notice that some of his students are reacting strangely to the deaths.  We never see the students kill or even injure anyone - although we do see the baron's son accosted after he recuperates fro his own injuries.  What we do see is bland, fake concern for the injured, that probably masks a different motive. 

Ultimately the crimes in the village are never solved.  The retarded boy and his mother, who had gone to the police in the nearby larger town to express her own suspicions of who committed the crimes against her son, disappear.  The doctor, who we discover might be sexually abusing his own teenage daughter, also leaves town unexpectedly.  And the baron's wife flees the village, taking her children to Italy. 

A note found with the last boy suggests the attacks might be punishment for the crimes of the fathers.  The doctor, in addition to possibly abusing his daughter,  might be the father of the retarded boy.  The baron's son might be punishment for accidental death of the old woman.  If the attacks are a form of retribution, however, they fit no logical moral code. 

While the victims, and perhaps the perpetrators, of the crimes disappear, the children who might have committed the violent retribution, and their abusive parents, including the town pastor, remain,  Their callousness, coldness, and antipathy also remain, setting the stage for even greater disregard for human life.  These are the children who would live through the Great War, the collapse of the German economy,  and the rise of a fascist regime in which their own evil would find a place to thrive.      

Friday, October 7, 2011

Johnny Depp to star as Nick Charles in a new "The Thin Man"

I just read about this "The Thin Man" remake being produced by Johnny Depp.  While I appreciate Depp's acting and his ability to produce quality films, I wonder why they are choosing to remake such a well-loved film.

Remakes are fine when the story is easily adaptable.  Some stories can, and should, be told over and over again for different generations.  Each new approach can bring something new to the story.  "The Three Musketeers" can and should be remade every generation, if not sooner.  The same for "Dracula" or "King Kong" or any number of historical dramas.  These stories benefit from retelling.

Films that are associated with a particular actor or performance, however, bring risks.  Those films might benefit from a remake in the right hands.  The recent adaptation of "True Grit" was successful because of the unique skills of the Coen Brothers and the good casting of Jeff Bridges.  Other remakes, such as Gus Van Sant's literal remake of "Psycho," failed miserably.

I welcome a new take on Dashiell Hammett.  His novels are dense and complicated and deserve a good adaptation.  In some ways I wish the Coens were working on this.  Their "Miller's Crossing" is a loose adaptation of "The Glass Key," Hammetts novel about mobbed-up political wars.  "Miller's Crossing" is actually an improvement on the Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake version from 1942, which was something of a step backwards from an earlier 1935 version staring George Raft.

Hammett's most popular novel, "The Maltese Falcon," was perfected on film in 1941 with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade.  The first adaptation, from 1931, was racier than the classic Huston version, but suffers from a weak performance from Ricardo Cortez (who, you might ask?) as Spade.

We associate Bogart with Sam Spade for a reason - he's great at those hard-nosed, loyal, cynical tough guy roles.  He attracts women but he's somewhat indifferent to them.  He needs to solve the puzzle, first, and women can wait.

William Powell, as Nick Charles in "The Thin Man," is also irreplaceable.  He's a cynical, funny, street-wise ex-cop who has what used to be called "savoir faire."  He's a fish out of water, a regular guy who married-up and has to float equally well between two worlds.  William Powell had that capacity to earn your confidence.  He does it on screen between himself and his fellow actors, and he did it between himself and his audience. 

I'm optimistic about Depp bringing his own characterizations to Nick Charles.  He can play a loveable eccentric, or a handsome guy who everyone wants to be friends with.  He has the star power to attract a good supporting cast - I'm especially curious about who will play Nora, as she hasn't yet been announced.  Their interplay will make or break the film.

I have absolutely no faith, however, in Rob Marshall as the director.  He does big budget pictures that, so far, have shown little nuance.  The success of the film will rely on the screenplay and on the Nick and Nora relationship. 

But the whole thing could flop if Marshall doesn't capture the heart and soul of Hammett's original novel.