Monthly Archives: September 2016

  • The Clan

    El Clan

    Pablo Trapero (2015)

    I saw The Clan the day after seeing the second episode of National Treasure on television.  I thought about the Channel 4 drama as I watched Pablo Trapero’s movie, which is certainly dull enough to make the mind wander.  National Treasure, inspired by Operation Yewtree, has two more parts to go so it may be premature to pass judgment but I don’t think that, as a drama, it’s up to much.  The director, Marc Munden, makes everything look either bleak or lurid:  the story is taking place in the existential hell that the central character – Paul Finchley, a venerable TV comic accused of past sexual offences – has created for himself and his family.  Munden appears to have encouraged a similar approach on the part of his cast, especially his leading man.  Robbie Coltrane has none of the plausibility or surface charm that Paul Finchley would have needed to become what the double-edged title says he is – Coltrane is, rather, an expressionistic study of the national treasure’s massive bad conscience.  But to assess it according to dramatic criteria is largely to miss the point – and the power – of National Treasure.  It’s a primetime television treatment of an inherently shocking subject:  many viewers will feel that Marc Munden’s infernal visualisation of that subject isn’t just appropriate but necessary.

    The Clan is more than inspired by historical events.  It’s the story of the Puccios, an actual middle-class family in Buenos Aires who, during the 1980s, kidnapped a series of rich victims whom they held captive and, once they’d collected the ransom money, murdered.  Although it isn’t suggested that the Puccios were the tip of a national criminal iceberg, the CV of the paterfamilias Arquímedes, the prime mover in his family’s criminal operations, connects these with the country’s political history.  During the military dictatorship that seized power in Argentina in 1976 and retained it until 1983, Arquímedes worked for the junta’s intelligence services, helping to make opponents of the regime disappear.  After the Falklands War, Arquímedes finds himself out of a job and turns to a form of crime that isn’t state-sanctioned.  The Puccios were and still are notorious in Argentina.  According to Wikipedia, The Clan, on its release in August 2015, ‘had the largest opening weekend of any Argentinean film in history, with a box office total of 32 million pesos and 505,000 tickets sold between opening Thursday and Sunday, representing 53% of all cinema-goers’.   The success of Trapero’s move has now led to a TV series about the family.  Like National Treasure, The Clan compels by its subject the attention of the audience for which it’s primarily designed.

    In London, The Clan is unsurprisingly being screened predominantly in arthouse cinemas.   Because this is a foreign language film set in a specific time and place, perhaps audiences will see it as politically trenchant.  The insertion of a few bits of news film featuring Argentine politicians of the 1980s in effect encourages this response.  Some arthouse viewers may well approve too of the fact that Pablo Trapero doesn’t seek to ‘glamorise’ the Puccios – that is, to make them challengingly sympathetic in any way.  Once he’s supplied a picture of the moneyed social circles in which they move and increasingly thrive, Trapero and his co-writers, Julian Loyola and Esteban Student, don’t even present their pathological lifestyle as one that’s become shockingly normal to the family members.  Arquímedes and his wife Epifanía have five children, three sons and two daughters.  In different ways and to a varying extent, at least four of the children try to distance themselves from what their father is up to but Trapero doesn’t do much to develop these elements.  When the eldest son Alejandro, a star rugby player, falls in love, his girlfriend Mónica doesn’t become an outsider of much consequence:  she’s incurious about Alejandro’s family and arouses limited suspicion among them.

    The Clan offers little insight into its characters and lacks the drama of either substantial personal conflicts or complicated plotting.  It consists largely of description of the Puccios’ wrongdoings, including the abduction and abuse of their victims.  This probably hasn’t harmed box-office takings:  in one of the film’s flashiest (nastiest) sequences, the torture and killing of one victim is cross-cut with Alejandro and Mónica having sex in the back of a car.  Elsewhere, Trapero counterpoints what’s on screen with a catchy choice of music for the soundtrack.  These ironic pairings of sight and sound are remarkably obvious.  Although it’s always good to hear the Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’, its repeated use in The Clan is offensively crude:  Trapero first plays the song to score images of la dolce vita of the Puccios’ social world then, at the film’s conclusion, to accompany shots of the family’s being brought to justice.  As Arquímedes Puccio, Guillermo Francella has a convincing professional impersonality:  perhaps no one but a close observer would notice his piercing light-blue eyes and the signals they give of what lies beneath.  Since the film doesn’t, however, give much idea of how people outside the family wrongly suppose Arquímedes is respectably spending his days, Francella’s subtlety is wasted.  It’s easy to believe too that the amiable pin-up boy Alejandro, as played by Peter Lanzani, would avoid suspicion among his rugby teammates et al.  The trouble is, a viewer of The Clan doesn’t get to see in the bland Lanzani’s face any more about Alejandro than his friends see.

    28 September 2016

  • Seven Days in May

    John Frankenheimer (1964)

    Released in America fifteen months after The Manchurian Candidate and just two weeks after Dr Strangelove, Seven Days in May has always been overshadowed by those contemporaries.  This is fair enough – it’s much less imaginative than either – but Seven Days is still a forceful political thriller and, like the other two movies, an illustration of how American film-makers in the early 1960s were able to draw on Cold War anxieties to create intelligent and commercially successful cinema.  (Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, also released in 1964 and which I’ve not seen, may be another example.)

    Rod Serling’s screenplay for Seven Days in May is adapted from a 1962 novel of the same name by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W Bailey II.  The premise is an attempted military coup in the USA, by a group comprising Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior politicians dismayed that the incumbent president has signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union.  The group’s leader is the charismatic General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancester), head of the Air Force.  His cabal has set up a secret combat unit, based in El Paso, Texas.  They plan to use the opportunity of a government-planned nuclear alert exercise to seize control of the country’s radio, television and telecommunication networks and to oust President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) and his administration.  A week before the alert exercise is scheduled to take place, Colonel Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey (Kirk Douglas) – another Pentagon insider, who reports direct to Scott – gets wind of the existence of the clandestine ECOMCON (Emergency Communications Control) unit.  Although Casey too is strongly opposed to the disarmament pact, which he fears the Soviets will renege on by launching a nuclear attack, he feels compelled to put the White House in the picture.

    There are few surprising and no subversive twists here.  Although the plot is nicely detailed and the melodrama exciting, they lead ineluctably to a finale in which the liberal democratic order not only prevails but is thoroughly vindicated.  President Lyman is so honourable that he stops short of using personal letters obtained by Casey from a Washington society hostess (Ava Gardner) who is Scott’s former mistress, in order to blackmail the General into resignation.  Lyman’s decency is rewarded when, at the eleventh hour, another letter materialises:  a handwritten confession from a navy vice-admiral who knew about the planned coup though he declined to participate in it.  The document is recovered from the wreckage of a suspicious plane crash that killed the President’s aide (Martin Balsam), who had travelled to Europe to obtain the confession.  Scott and his co-conspirators eventually resign midway through a presidential press conference.  As the vanquished Scott instructs his driver to ‘Take me home’, Lyman resumes his press conference with a ringing affirmation of core American values.

    Kirk Douglas, who worked with John Frankenheimer to secure the screen rights to the Knebel and Bailey novel, wrote in his autobiography about an alternative ending to the film that was shot but discarded:

    ‘General Scott … goes off in his sports car, and dies in a wreck. Was it an accident or suicide? Coming up out of the wreckage over the car radio is President Jordan Lyman’s speech about the sanctity of the Constitution.’

    An accident or suicide or even some other cause – to rhyme with the earlier plane crash?   In any event, it’s a pity the film-makers didn’t use this ending, which would have given Seven Days in May an ambiguous sting in the tail.  Like The Manchurian Candidate, the film is made in black and white.  Unlike the earlier film, it’s morally black and white too:  Scott and Lyman are practically the Manichaean candidates.  One is all the more conscious of the films’ differences because Frankenheimer directed them both.  He does a very capable job on Seven Days but from the start he’s imposing threat and fearfulness on the material rather than letting these qualities emerge from it.   Even in the opening credits, the nuclear warhead graphics and the relentless, menacing percussion of Jerry Goldsmith’s score have a strong-arming effect.   There’s plenty of tangy and penetrating dialogue but, unlike George Axelrod’s for The Manchurian Candidate, it sometimes sounds like stage-play dialogue. In the early stages of Seven Days, characters seem to make entrances primarily in order to explain who they are and to register their main personality traits.

    John Frankenheimer is very good, however, both with his actors and in staging set pieces – like the opening fracas between opposing groups of demonstrators outside the White House and, especially, the climactic press conference.  Lyman and the assembled journalists are seen mostly in long shot in the background; television screens in the foreground show the president closer up and are a persistent reminder of the plotters’ aim to take over the airwaves.  Ferris Webster’s editing, unobtrusively fine through most of the film, is noticeably brilliant here.  The communications technology in evidence in Seven Days in May – the television images, the CCTV screens and electronic date-and-time display in the Pentagon building – are particularly evocative of the period.

    As President Lyman, Fredric March’s face shows the strains of office and the fear of what he may have brought on America.  Often at the same time, March’s line readings convey Lyman’s sharp mind and ability to exert his authority economically and decisively.  March’s characterisation is so secure that, even when the President is required to spout wordy, pompous rhetoric, it’s convincing – not merely as political verbiage but as what this politician would come out with.  March, a master actor, gets across how rhetorical fluency increases a speaker’s self-belief and belief in what he’s saying; he expresses no less superbly the ebb and flow of Lyman’s confidence in the Oval Office showdown with Scott.  His delivery of the President’s pronouncements at the press conference is perfectly weighted.  General Scott’s tired, wary appearance at an opening interview with a Senate committee, his bearing throughout and the jagged anger behind his eyes during the big scene with Lyman ensure that Burt Lancaster is often impressive to watch.  He’s never so good to listen to:  the combination of that idiosyncratic speech rhythm and Lancaster’s tendency to surf his lines is a problem (especially when there are so many lines).  It seems from what he wrote later that Kirk Douglas didn’t have a happy time making the film but he gives a very good performance doing what doesn’t come naturally to him.  Casey has to do a lot of listening:  Douglas listens surprisingly well and doesn’t overdramatise the series of moral dilemmas Casey has to wrestle with.  As one of these dilemmas. Ava Gardner has a used, bruised quality that makes her beauty unusually touching.  Edmond O’Brien does a richly entertaining turn as a witty, dipsomaniac senator loyal to President Lyman.  John Houseman’s uneasy gravitas, as the senior navy man whose signature proves so crucial, is just right.  Some of the playing in other small parts isn’t so good – George Macready is particularly awkward as a member of Lyman’s cabinet.

    The first of the President’s grandiloquent outbursts comes when his aides urge him to face ‘the enemy’ and Lyman explains what that enemy is:

    ‘… Scott, the Joint Chiefs, even the very emotional, very illogical lunatic fringe:  they’re not the enemy.  The enemy’s an age – a nuclear age.  It happens to have killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him.  And out of this comes a sickness, and out of sickness a frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness.  And from this, this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white and blue.  Every now and then a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration.  For some men it was a Senator McCarthy, for others it was a General Walker, and now it’s a General Scott.’

    The ripple of aghast laughter that ran round NFT2 when Fredric March was speaking these words made it pretty clear that people were thinking of the hopelessness of a different age and that this has brought forth the degraded ‘champion in red, white and blue’ who is now the Republican candidate in the 2016 US presidential election.  The script’s mention of ‘General Walker’ reflects a contemporary real-life pertinence.  Edwin Walker, seemingly the inspiration for the General Scott character, was a vehemently anti-Communist senior figure in the US military in the 1950s and early 1960s. His public candour resulted in his falling out first with President Eisenhower and eventually resigning his commission during the first year of the Kennedy presidency, in 1961.  It’s well known that a preview of Dr Strangelove was scheduled for 22 November 1963 and that Stanley Kubrick eventually cut from the film a pie-throwing sequence which included the line ‘Our beloved President has been struck down in his prime’.  That reference to General Walker gives Seven Days in May, the story of attempts to get rid of an elected president, its own startling coincidence in relation to the death of John Kennedy.  In April 1963, Edwin Walker was the intended victim of a failed assassination attempt at his Dallas home.  No arrests were made at the time of the incident.  The gunman was later identified (and confirmed in the report of the Warren Commission) as Lee Harvey Oswald.

    25 September 2016

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