“The Man from Laramie”

Anthony Mann directed eight movies—five of them westerns—with James Stewart that were released between 1950 and 1955. To me Stewart seems somewhat deranged (manic) in Alfred Hitchcock’s single-set “Rope” made before the Mann/Stewart films, so that the break from the all-American Mr. Nice Guy that Stewart essayed for Frank Capra (in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Its a Wonderful Life”) was a joint Hitchcock and Mann enterprise. Stewart played an obsessive voyeur of sorts in “Rear Window” and went on to the obsessive, agoraphobic police officer in “Vertigo.”

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In Mann’s westerns (in order: Winchester 73, Bend of the River, Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie), Stewart generally played someone minding his own business, not very comfortable with women, not seeking trouble but not backing away from any that confronted him. They all turn into stories of revenge. It is not immediately obvious that revenge is driving him from before the start of what is shown in “Naked Spur” and “Man from Laramie,” but in both of them, like the other three, he is riled by affronts from others who impinge on him as he is trying to mind his own business.

I have to say that “Man from Laramie” has the least gripping opening of any of the five Mann/Stewart westerns, even if one can ignore the ballad underlying the opening credits. Will Lockhart, the man from Laramie of the title, is leading a mule train across Apache country, stopping at the scene of an ambush of soldiers, though it is unclear how long ago it occurred. After camping on the battleground for the night, he delivers the goods to store-keeper Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell) who surprises him by telling him she’s sort of sorry that the goods arrived. because with nothing to sell, she had been considering closing down her store.

On his way out, Will notices a repeating rifle for sale and asks the (Pueblo) clerk where it came from. An interest in who has been selling repeating rifles to the Apaches becomes ever more central as the movie continues. But first, he is in the process of filling his wagons with salt so that he was some freight to take back the other way. (Side note: that the New Mexico town is being supplied from Laramie puzzles me, as does explicit mention of it being a stop on the way east, later on…)

Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol, the psychotic son of the main rancher, attacks the wagon train for trespassing and stealing salt. Among other things, he has Will lassooed and dragged through a fire (for which Stewart had no stunt double). The weak heir is a recurrent figure in 1950s westerns (in Sam Fuller’s “40 Guns” it is a brother rather than a son of a generally clear-eyed boss). This one is supposed to be kept out of trouble by a saner surrogate older brother, Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy, who played an ally of Stewart’s picked up on the trail in “Bend of the River”… and the man seeking revenge in Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious”). There’s sibling rivalry, especially since the overlord, Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp, the brutal father of D. W. Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms” and the very harsh father of John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley”) has delegated authority to Vic rather than to his son.

Will and Dave have two more run-ins, the second ending with something that shocks most everyone (including this viewer). Will is not the world’s greatest detective, and his final understanding is not entirely correct. Dave is a gangster who is devoid of compunctions and of sense.

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One can say that Will is saved by a woman, Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon), a tough rancher who was jilted by Alex Waggoman and has been the only rancher not bought out by him. To further complicate matters, Vic’s fiancée, to whom Will is drawn, is the store-keeper, Barbara, who is Alex’s niece.

 

Soap opera, Oedipal psychodrama, detective story, western rolled into one. With striking northern New Mexico (Taos and Santa Fe counties) backdrops filmed by Charles Lang (cinematographer of “The Big Heat,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Gunfight at the O. K. Corral,” etc.) and well transferred to DVD. The only “extra”, however, is a trailer. (Though subtitles are available in an unusual number of languages.)

I don’t know why the Mann/Stewart partnership ended. Stewart made more westerns, including two very good ones directed by John Ford (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Two Rode Together,” the latter much closer to the kinds of characters Stewart played for Mann than the former). Mann directed three more westerns. The one most like the Stewart ones was “Man of the West” (1958) with Gary Cooper playing a role close to the one Stewart played in “Bend of the River” and with Lee J. Cobb as a larger-than-life patriarch/villain. (I haven’t seen Henry Fonda mentoring Anthony Perkins in the 1957 “The Tin Star.”)

Except for the first, shot in black and white, the Mann westerns have striking scenery. The five starring Stewart all have complex not entirely heroic Stewart characters and interesting villains. The most entertaining of these is the corrupt sheriff played by John McIntire in “The Far Country,” though Robert Ryan makes an interestingly wry prisoner in “Naked Spur.” Arthur Kennedy is an interesting second lead in “Bend of the River” and “The Man from Laramie,” but Walter Brennan in “The Far Country” is the most entertaining sidekick of Stewart’s. I am writing myself into a conclusion that “The Far Country” is the best of the four in color (though the least popular and most northern). Ruth Roman in that is less wooden than Janet Leigh in “The Naked Spur” or Cathy O’Donnell in “Man from Laramie” or Julie Adams in “Bend of the River.” Shelley Winters surpasses this weak female competition in “Winchester ’73,” which is probably the tightest of the five. So, if you like psychologically complex westerns, watch them all and pick your own favorite!

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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The grumpy old man and the refugee child

The French title of “The Two of Us” (1967), “Le vieil homme et l’enfant” (the old man and the child) is more precise. The movie intends to be a heartwarming memoir of writer-director Claude Berri’s (Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring) being hidden in the countryside during the Nazi occupation of Paris. In Paris Claude’s Jewish parents were trying to maintain a low profile, something Claude (Alain Cohen. Born in 1958) neither understood nor seemed capable of.

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A Gentile friend of the family arranges for the truculent boy to stay with her parents. The old man, Pepe, played by Michel Simon (born in 1875, who was once Boudu saved from drowning and père Jules on L’Atlante) is a raving anti-Semite (and just as vitriolic about Freemasons, btw) who insists that he can detect Jews by smell. Claude has been taught the Lord’s Prayer and told that he must pretend to be Catholic, and listens with puzzlement to the old man’s rants.

Pepe has a 17-year-old dog whom he feeds, clad in a bib, at the dinner table. Indeed, spoon-feeding the old dog is the first glimpse the viewer and Claude have of his benefactor. The old man has a long-suffering, pragmatic wife (Luce Fabiole, The Bride Wore Black) but no friends except the dog, who is 105 in human years. Pepe adores his new audience and the boy is affectionate.

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In that it is Berri’s memoir, there is no suspense that French police will round him up and turn him over to the Nazis, which leaves only the question of what will happen when Pepe finds that he has been harboring and doting on a Jew.

A major disappointment with the movie for me is that that question is never answered. After the war, Claude’s parents sweep Claude up to take him back to Paris, but there is no scene of them thanking the old couple for harboring (not to mention feeding) their son. As they drive off with Claude looking out the back window, it is not even certain that Pepe has registered Claude’s Jewishness (and the challenge that presents to his confidence in being able literally to smell out Jews).

Simon is a somewhat amusing grumpy(/lonely) old man and Cohen was as liquid a dark-eyed boy as could be found. The relationship built on a false foundation is credible to me, but not especially involving (maybe I was fed too many Disney movies when young and impressionable?). The part I like best is actually the first quarter hour in which Claude’s father (Charles Denner (Z, The Bride Wore Black), who obviously loves his son very much and is very concerned that the boy’s trouble-making is going to get them all hauled away attempts to convince Claude not to make waves. (Zorica Lozic plays Claude’s mother but has little to do.)

 

The “true story” aspect is highlighted in a 1975 conversation between Berri and the woman whose parents harbored him in the countryside. There’s also a 1967 interview of Berri and a longer 2007 one. The Criterion Edition also includes Oscar-winning short, “Le poulet” (The chicken) about a boy child who gets attached to a chicken destined for the stew pot. There’s a very short (two-minute) interview of Simon and a 2005 reminiscence by Alain Cohen (running twelve minutes). Plus an excerpt from the documentary “The Jewish Children of Occupied France.” Apparently, the illustrated booklet which I have not seen has more from Berri and discussions of the film from François Truffaut and David Sterritt.

The black-and-white images are pristine in their clarity and the mono sound transfer cannot be faulted.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Frank Capra Goes Back to Washington

To make a typical triumph of down-home commonsense, breaking from the corrupt smarty-pants of these United States, producer-director Frank Capra drained most of the wit and all the substance of the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “State of the Union” by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (Life with Father, The Sound of Music). The play thinly veiled the story of the 1940 Republican presidential nominee, Wendell Willkie, and his extramarital relations with Irita Van Doren. Willkie had been president of the Commonwealth & Southern Corporation.

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The businessman being turned into a Republican presidential candidate is an aircraft magnate Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), who has been keeping company with the heir of a newspaper empire, Kay Thorndyke (played by the then 21-year-old Angela Lansbury who did not look her age, and, indeed already showed the determination to make a president that she would play in the far superior 1962 “The Manchurian Candidate”).

In the 1940s as now, a presidential candidate has to display (or at least counterfeit) “family values” by parading wife and kids. The estranged wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) thinks her husband would be a good president and realizes that being First Lady would make the liaison between her husband and his power-hungry mistress difficult, so goes along for the campaign ride being orchestrated by oily operator Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou), who assigns a not very cynical newspaperman, Spike McManus (Van Johnson in the Jean Arthur role) to manage the campaign and keep the candidate from too plain of speaking to either his fellow big capitalists or to labor (hoodwinked by union officials).

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The name above the title guarantees that the people’s choice will in the last reel see that he has been duped and denounce those who have been putting him in the race, just like James Stewart’s Mr. Smith in Washington in 1939. Of course, this will inspire the populace to pay attention, stop listening to fear-mongerers and join hands to transcend conflict (“Kumbaya” was not yet known to Americans) and lead the world to peace, prosperity, and a genuinely United Nations (American exceptionalism was not then Republican dogma, see Harold Stassen, who was a 1948 candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and Willkie’s best-seller One World).

The quaintest of many quaint aspects of the very talky and uncinematic “State of the Union” is the reminder that once upon a time the party of Theodore Roosevelt was opposed to monopolies and for world government in a guise other than US hegemony. The only Democrat in the movie is a heavy-drinking Southerner (Maidel Turner, the only carryover from the Broadway cast) who is the wife of a judge (who must have been appointed decades earlier…). But the pseudo-populism has the fascistic resonances that have not disappeared (I will forebear naming contemporary names, and stick to the cult of the leader in Capra’s jingoistic and manipulative worldview.)

The actor who comes through best in the movie is Van Johnson, not usually a favorite of mine. Spencer Tracy can manage the speeches and the deference to la Hepburn, but cannot make the part remotely believable. Hepburn fares better, and Menjou was certainly believable as an oily deal-maker. Lansbury was not bad, though, again, her part was underwritten/miswritten.

The editing is not just lax but astonishingly sloppy. And the DVD is barebones.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

John Ford’s film of sinclair Lewis’s celebration of an idealist physician

I meant to review “Arrowsmith,” John Ford’s 1931 film based on Sinclair Lewis’s (1926) Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an idealistic medical researcher on Lewis’s birthday— (he was born Feb. 7, 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minnesota in a house across the street from his boyhood home, which is the one open to the public).

027616881458_a-1.jpgWhat is interesting now about this early “talking picture”?

 

One of the interesting aspects is the appearance of a black professional man, the Howard University-trained physician Oliver Marchand portrayed by Clarence Brooks. The visiting expert, Doctor Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman), treats him as a peer and, indeed, allies himself with the black doctor in opposition to the white colonial doctors and the British administrators of the unspecified Caribbean location. Nothing registered on my finely-tuned condescension meter in Dr. Marchand’s role.

Colman’s voice and delivery are always a pleasure to hear, though it is impossible to believe that he grew up and learned to talk (as Dr. Arrowsmith… and Lewis did) in Minnesota. He’s also too debonair (debonairness seems innate to Colman, not acquired or grown into!) for the part.

It’s also interesting to see the young Helen Hayes, in the year she won her first Oscar and the year before her most memorable film (“A Farewell to Arms”). Her accent is not as distant from Minnesota as Colman’s and her part is close to monotone: total devotion mixed with winces at being ignored by a research-fixated husband. Although the part is underwritten, it’s not hard to see why Hayes did not become a movie star. The camera does not particularly love her, and she had not yet learned to mug outrageously as she did decades later in “Airport” (for which she won a second Oscar) and turns as Miss Marple and one of the Snoop Sisters

The sequence of scenes set on Caribbean islands during an outbreak of the bubonic plague is the most dramatic and visually striking part of the film. Cinematographer Ray June (Night Must Fall, The Great Ziegfeld, Funny Face) was one of three nominees for that year’s Oscars (the award to “Shanghai Express” is hard to challenge). Both the photography of the suffering islanders and of the high-tech (1931-style) research complex in Manhattan are breathtaking. The latter art deco sets got Richard Day nominated for an Oscar. Those in “Metropolis” spring to mind, but Day had a larger budget.

That “Arrowsmith” was directed by John Ford is enough to make the film of interest to auterists, and there are ford leitmotifs, particularly self-sacrifice. Ford focused on heroic physicians several times, including Warner Baxter fighting cholera at Fort Jefferson in “The Prisoner of Shark Island” and Anne Bancroft fight cholera in China in his last film, “Seven Women” (and one might add Jack Warden’s physician devotes to Polynesian islanders in “Donovan’s Reef”).

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And the source material is interesting. In addition to winning a Pulitzer Prize (which Lewis refused), Arrowsmith was a major component of the Swedish Academy making Lewis the first American to win a Nobel Prize for Literature (1930; he accepted that honor). It has its satiric elements, but is primarily a tribute to medical research (by the son of a small-town physician). I read the novel in junior high (and in Minnesota), so am not going to make the usual “the book’s better” claim. I know that the whole second marriage was lopped off, but since I did not remember the plague-combating, it seems very likely that the film did the Caribbean interlude better.

Oh, yes, the story—with plot spoilers

While attending a provincial second-rate medical school, Martin Arrowsmith discovers a vocation for research, though discouraged from a career by the cranky old scientist Professor Gottlieb (A.E. Anson), though in typical Ford fashion, Gottlieb considers Arrowsmith a surrogate son. Arrowsmith marries a nurse, Leora (Helen Hayes), and tries to establish a private medical practice in a North Dakota backwater (is that redundant? are there front waters in North Dakota? even the Red River…).

Demonstrating experimental methods, Arrowsmith has success with cows, which brings conflict with the state agricultural vet agent. After a visiting lecture (in Minneapolis) by a Swedish (I think) researcher, Sondelius (Richard Bennett), Arrowsmith goes to Manhattan to work at a well-appointed laboratory in an art deco skyscraper, sponsored by Gottlieb.

Plague breaks out in the Caribbean, and Arrowsmith takes a serum he has developed to test there. The ethics of placebo-trial research get debated, but not the testing of drugs on colonized people. Mrs. Arrowsmith insists on going along to the Caribbean, but not to the island where her husband goes with his serum. She contracts the plague in a manner so ludicrous that it makes me reconsider the wisdom of the injunction “Show, don’t tell.”

Chagrined—or maybe grief-stricken—by her death, Arrowsmith throws experimental procedure away and injects the untested serum into everyone… including a young and -eighth billed Myrna Loy whose desire for him is not masked as it would have been by censorship later on.

She follows him to New York, where Arrowsmith is so outraged by the publicity machine of the research institute that he quits and is going off with another research to set up a lab in the Vermont woods, untouched by avarice, publicity, etc. The movie ends without trying to portray such a utopia or giving Ms. Loy the opportunity to be a more interesting wife than Ms. Hayes was.

What is bad

Sidney Howard, who had won a Pulitzer Prize (in drama, for “They Knew What They Wanted” in 1925), wrote a theatrical version of Lewis’s Dodsworth and then adapted it for the screen, and wrote the screenplay for Ronald Colman’s triumph in/as “Raffles” and “Bulldog Drummond,” was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay. I’m not sure all the blame for the lack of flow of the story is his, but he must get the blame for the clunky dialogue. What is dramatic is visual, and I’d credit to Ford, June, and Day.

Blame for the cliché of a devoted wife role can be shared between Lewis, Ford, and Howard.

The casting of Colman and Hayes as Minnesotans is not as bizarre as casting Katharine Hepburn as a Chinese peasant or John Wayne as Genghis Khan, but it does undercut plausibility. (Points should be awarded for the casting of Clarence Brooks as a forerunner to Sidney Poitier’s physician roles.)

The political satire has been excised, at least that of American politicians (the British colonial officials are more villainous than satirized).

Conclusion: The first half of the movie is uninspired and unengaging, but talky exposition eventually gives way to cinema in the New York and Caribbean settings.

© 2003, Stephen O. Murray

 

Languid, borderline static “Uncle Boonmee”

I have seen most but not  all the films that have won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival (the golden palm). I am dubious about some that I have seen (e.g., Barton Fink, Wild at Heart) and actively disliked “Tree of the Wooden Clogs” and “The White Ribbon,” but of the 54 I have seen, the most boring, most inept, and worst is the 2010 winner, “Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat” (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), a Thai movie directed by Apichatpong “Joe”* Weerasethakul. The no-budget first Weerasethakul feature, “Mysterious Object at Noon” (Dokfa nai meuman, 2000) tried my patience and the camera bouncing along in a van nearly made me nauseous, but some of the Thai people interviewed had interesting things to say.

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The 2002 “Blissfully yours” (Sud sanaeha) seemed enervated and also made me queasy with seemingly endless shots of a rash on the back of a Burmese regufee/immigrant in Thailand. The movie won the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.

“Tropical Malady” (Sud pralad, 2004) consisted of two stories, though both are so opaquely presented “story” might not be an appropriate descriptor. I liked the first one with a homosexual encounter in the forest, and there were some arresting shots in the second one in which a soldier meets a tiger (shaman) in the forest. (Both involve the same two actors.) Though many in the Cannes audience walked out and others booed it, “Tropical Malady” won the Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

Though also including some seemingly pointless and lengthy forest scenes, “Syndromes and a Century” (Sang sattawat, 2006) seemed to me to show significant development in the film-maker. It was also split into two stories, this time both involving the same pair (this time male and female) in Thai rural hospitals 40 years apart. It did not play Cannes. It was in competition at the Venice Film Festival, but Venice jurors apparently do not share the euphoric enthusiasm for Weerasethakul movies that Cannes ones do. Weerasethakul refused to make the cuts demanded by Thai censors, and the ban in Thailand became a major brouhaha there.

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Which brings us up to “Uncle Boonmee: Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” The movie that I find not languid but numbing was greeted with critical praise in America as well as the Cannes top prize. I have no explanation for this. The movie does not provide the sort of puzzle that “Last Year at Marienbad” or “Blow-Up” did. There are a series of long and static shots (plus one handheld camera going into a dark cave that is jumpy in the “Mysterious Object at Noon” tradition) in which the dead come back to chat with Boonmee, whose kidneys are failing. (He is cared for by a Laotian who has crossed the Mekong illegally, should anyone be interested.)

Since one of these is his wife, the woman I first took to be his wife must be a sister or sister-in-law (she is counting the take after the funeral in the last part in a hotel room with her daughter and a stray Buddhist monk who wants to shower, but whose room does not have warm water…). The most ludicrous is a son in dime-story Wolfman suit with red lights for eyes. There is also a never seen water sprite who talks to the woman (at great length from a pool in which she gradually enters and floats).

I have read reviewers who claim the movie illuminates Thai(/Buddhist) belief in reincarnation, but I did not register any reincarnations. There are ghosts, one of whom says that ghosts attach to a person rather than a place. Boonmee feels guilty about all the communists he killed earlier in his life. Boonmee goes into the forest just before dying, but I think he will turn into a ghost, not immediately be reincarnated there or anywhere else. In addition to the ghosts and Ed Wood-level special effects, the movie also includes intimations of sex with a catfish, a princess in quest for eternal youth, a long look in the near dark at a water buffalo in a forest stream, characters splitting in half (so they can continue to watch tv and go out to eat), and the monk’s undressing, showering, and dressing (discreetly filmed above the waist, btw). If I have made the movie sound interesting, please believe me that I found it tedious and amateurish (“Ed Wood-level special effects” is not a compliment!)

I also fail to see a “meditation on the afterlife” (my local newspaper critic claimed the movie was that), though there is a discussion with one of the ghosts (in which she says heaven is very boring as well as the ghosts haunting individuals not being attached to a place). I am interested in Thai culture and have traveled through much of the country (as well as being a veteran of slow and opaque scenes in Weerasethakul movies!).

* Weerasethakul studied (Andy Warhol’s “Sleep” perhaps) at the Chicago Art Institute, hence the “Joe.” The DVD has many bonus features including his talking about the movie. I doubt that this would convince me that “Uncle Boonmee” is great and profound, though bonus features often increase my appreciation and valuation of movies.

 

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

“Syndromes and a Century”

I have only seen seven or eight Thai movies. The four that I like least have all been made by writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the only Thai film-maker to garner international art-house attention. Like Taiwanese directors Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang (and to a degree Hong Kong director Wong Kar-War). I suspect masochism as at least part of the explanation for the favor he has found with critics.

Mysterious Object at Noon”  (Dokfa nai meuman, 2000) is very opaque; I’m not sure anything happens in it. “Tropical Malady (Sud pralad, 2004) is mystifying: something happens in each of its two halves, but I’m not sure what. “Syndromes and a Century” (Sang sattawat, 2006) makes some sense. There are some menacing shots of movement through the forest and clouds massing in “Blissfully Yours,” but I’m quite sure that little happens (except for some sex). Little happens at a very leisurely pace — a pace that makes snails seem like speed demons.

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The prolonged opening scene of a medical consultation with a female Western-medicine physcian looks ahead to “Syndrome,” which focuses on the director’s physician parents. Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) and Orn (Jenjira Jansuda) have brought Min (Min Oo) in. He is suffering from a rash. The two women answer the doctor’s questions to him. The younger (Roong) explains that they ran out of the lotion the docor prescribed and show the one she has been rubbing into his irritated skin, which the doctor says has exacerbated the problem.

After Roong leaves to go to work, the older woman (Orn) wheedles for a health certificate for Min. The doctor refuses to provide one — not because Min is too sick to be certified, but because she cannot issue one without some official identification.

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Plot spoiler alert (even though there is practically no plot!

Later, the viewer realizes that Min is not a native speaker of Thai. Although the movie is shot in Weerasethakul’s native northeast (Khon Kaen, in Issan) (and indeed the medical office in the first part is one of his parent’s), Min is an ethnic Karen from Burma (which is west of Thailand). Roong is teaching him to read and write Thai and I cannot tell if he has an accent that would give away his alienness. Roong is paying Orn to get papers for Min, but Min is fired from his job some time around the rolling of the opening credits (nearly 45 minutes into the movie).

Roong drives and drives and drives some more. Some of the time, she rubs lotion into Min’s arm and her own. After what seems an interminable drive, the car moves from paved to unpaved road (but seemingly at the same speed). The lovers set out for their picnic. Min removes his shirt and pants — though I would think that his skin condition would not be helped by contact with leaves and branches in the forest.

Somewhat surprisingly, he knows the way to a scenic overlook. The picnic spread is invaded by red ants. One (only one!) bites Roong.

Cut to a brown male rear humping (and humping and humping — nothing occurs quickly in this movie!). Finally the male finishes and it turns out not to be Min and Roong, but Orn and some never named man. Seemingly this man’s motorcycle is then stolen and instead of walking back on the road, Orn thrashes through the brush.

She spots a surgical mask on the ground. Personally, I would not pick one up if I saw one on the forest floor. And I most certainly would not put it on as she does!

Movie logic is not entirely abandoned, and instead of getting hopelessly lost (or dying from toxins rubbed on the surgical mask or ye olde jungle rot), she finds Min and Roong on a rock at the edge of a shallow river. Roong has just finished fellating Min (at least I think so: it is shot from behind Min and the only sound is flowing water). The fully dressed Roong coaxes the fully dressed Orn into the stream. They cavort and then hold up Min, while rubbing lotion onto his chest (the container is balanced on his belly).syndromes-and-a-century2.jpg

Eventually, they get out of the water. Roong wrings out her wet clothes and places them (in the shade…) to dry and puts on Min’s pants. Orn throws all the picnic good and containers in the stream an lies, steals a cigarette (and money?) and lies on the picnic cloth.

Roong extracts Min’s erect penis from his boxer shorts and fondles it for a while. (This time there is no guesswork/interpretation necessary: it is shot in closeup of her hand and his crotch.) Surely this was censored in Thailand. (“Syndromes and a Century” was never returned from the censorship board though it has no sex and no violence in it.)

The movie ends with a prolonged shot of Min’s right nipple and open armpit and part of Roong’s head not quite touching him.

End of plot spoiler alert (if you didn’t skip it, did you find any plot?)

 

Driving through a Thai town and out through the countryside has some interest, and the substitution of remedies by the patients has some humor — and Min Oo has a very smooth penis when it is extracted and displayed. The American DVD version is sixteen minutes shorter than the Thai theatrical release. I greatly doubt that there is a story that landed on the cutting room floor, and am fairly confident that the Thai verison was even more languid.

There is no music for the thrashing through the forest scenes (or the sex scenes, for that matter). For me, there is not nearly enough there there to merit spending 109 minutes watching. The time spent with Min and the two women trying to help him was not bliss to me. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who earned an MFA at the Chicago Institute of Art) has no interest in entertaining audiences, but also provides practically nothing to stimulate thinking about the setting or situation(s) of the undeveloped characters.

It’s art? Well, it’s “artsy” in the most pejorative sense (pretentious nonsense). It is not ‘artsy” in having beautiful compositions. The compositions and characters and (mumbled) dialog are undistinguished. Occasionally, there are segments of Min’s journal superimposed on the scenes in which nothing is happening, but there is nothing of particular insight in what he writes either!

Neither of the women seem to derive any satisfaction from any of the three sex scenes, though Min also does nothing to indicate enjoyment. He blocks Roong’s first seduction and is asleep or pretending to be asleep when she extracts and hardens his penis jsut before the movie stops.

I mentioned Tsai Ming-Liang at the beginning of my review. I could riff on similarities between his languid voyeuristic portrayals of emotionally inert characters (especially, the three of “Viva l’amour”). There is always a lot of water in Tsai movies, and the last half of “Blissfully Yours” has the river in which all the named characters dip. Those who find Tsai’s films absorbing might enjoy the shots of the women here picking dead skin off Min (and the joyless sexual servicing). I didn’t.

In what is billed as an “introduction” Apichatpong Weerasethakul is engaging (but the talking head is not quite in focus). At least here, he has a story to tell: a sacred tree advising going back to Bangkok for 2 1/2 months when the rains would end.

©2008, Stephen O. Murray