12 August, 2016

Citlalli's Prayer

The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire has been better documented by more learned scholars than me;  suffice to say it was the significant event in the colonization of The Americas.  In 1521, Hernán Cortés took control of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec kingdom became the colony of New Spain.  On its rubble, Mexico City was born.  “Social historians like to focus on the fact that Cortés destroyed Tenochtitlan,” says Historian Felix D. Almaraz, “but what they conveniently overlook is that out of the rubble Cortés created Mexico City [which] became the political, religious and cultural center of New Spain.” 

Floods of Missionaries poured in, evangelizing the native Indians.  More than just a religion, The Church permeated Mexican society.  Long accustomed to the powerful priests of the Aztecs, the Indians readily adapted to the icons and rituals of The Roman Catholic Church.  Even the fundamental belief -- Christ’s sacrifice on The Cross -- was easily meshed with the Indians’ ancient belief in the power of blood sacrifice.  Several Indian Gods were Christianized, taking on the identity of The Catholic Saint.  Most significantly, the Aztec Goddess Tonantzin was resanctified as The Virgin of Guadalupe, an Indian incarnation of The Virgin Mary.  “There’s no question,” says Historian Raquel Aubio-Goldsmith, “that The Virgin of Guadalupe is connected to the indigenous past because of where she appeared, on a hill where there had been a temple to Tonantzin.  The person who sees her was an Indian, Juan Diego [this is now 1531], and her appearance opened the possibility of bringing people into Christianity.”

By the end of The 16th Century there was a wide network of shrines to The Virgin of Guadalupe throughout Mexico, and Her appearance to Juan Diego was documented by Miquel Sánchez in 1648.  The devotion continued to grow, especially when She was credited with ending a deadly epidemic that ravaged Mexico City in 1736.  In 1737 She was proclaimed Patroness of Mexico City, and in 1746 her patronage was accepted by all the territories of New Spain (which by then included part of present-day California as well as regions in Guatemala and El Salvador).
But The Virgin of Guadalupe’s role in Mexican history is not limited to religion, as She played an important role in Mexican Nationalism.  In 1810, Miguel Hidalgo named Her the Patroness of his Spanish revolt;  their battle cry, “Long Live Our Lady of Guadalupe.”  During a religious revival in the late 19th century, preachers declared that She not only freed Her people from idolatry but reconciled the Spanish and indigenous peoples in a common devotion.  In 1914, Emiliano Zapata carried Her banner when he entered Mexico City.  And in The Mexican Civil War (1926-1929), the rebels again championed her image. 

She is more than just Mexico’s Patroness.  She is the country’s mother. 

                   What does this mean to the enchanting tale of a young lady dreaming of something more in present day Los Angeles?  For Citlalli, the lead character in today’s story -- as well as Diana Kongkasem, its Writer-Director -- I imagine a great deal.

                   But we’ll get to that.

                   Citlalli’s Prayer, an eleven-minute Short from Kongkasem’s 2002 New York University Film Program, is the story of a young girl who is bullied at her new school and looks to a certain magical mother as her safeguard and safe-haven.  It is a simple story but that’s part of its strength.  I’ve already called it enchanting, and it’s easily that, but -- as a fairy tale, a parable -- I’ll also call it magical indeed because -- while the audience is left impressed by the artistry (crucial to all entertainment, even magic) -- Kongkasem wisely leaves us wondering what has happened.  More significantly, she lets us decide what it means.

                   It may seem trite to say the story is told from Citlalli’s point of view, but that’s not quite accurate.  Instead, it feels as if Kongkasem -- clearly comfortable in a child’s world -- has made us Citlalli’s invisible friend and we’re going through Citlalli’s life directly beside her.  To wit, when we see her Mother, we never quite see her face, as if we never raise our child’s head that far;  alas, I wish this was the same for The School Teacher.  (It’s also worth pointing out that even when we see the embodiment of our magical mother, we never quite see Her face either.  But more on Her in a moment.)  Whenever we interact with the world, being right next to our child heroine, it’s always from that level.  When we do experience another, the change is pointedly personified by … well, faith.

  Shot on 16MM in 1.33 (that wonderful square of old) by Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Cake, Dope) in a beautifully tinged palette, we find ourselves immersed in Citlalli’s world.  We could easily turn off the Color and find ourselves immersed in Jean-Pierre Jeunet shot by Gabriel Figueroa.  And that feels deliberate;  not decreed by monetary restrictions.  Kongkasem doesn’t take our hand and lead us into her film but instead drops us -- full deep end -- into her painting.  Set-in and shot-in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, there are no -- and consider the subject matter -- postcard pics of The City Of Angels;  no Hollywood sign or Beach or even Downtown … and that’s a good thing.  This is a story that belongs in Citlalli’s bubble.  Not at all claustrophobic (the opening shot is clouds against a bright blue sky) but -- whether inside or out -- there’s little room to breathe … again a good thing.  We feel Citlalli’s yearning to break free right along with her.

                And that painting?  When the palette is truly vibrant, it’s with the splashes of how Citlalli sees the world;  all its beauty in what she finds beautiful:  the Papel Picado hanging like stars in her bedroom, the painting of The Virgin of Guadalupe on the street wall as she walks to school, the flowers in her school’s courtyard.  Even when the bullies are bullying -- a heartbreaking beat in any context (and Kongkasem applaudingly sidesteps cliché) -- we’re not stricken for our hero because we know she’s better than they are.  (Admittedly, “better” is a tough word.  Not just at her Arts & Crafts but smarter, wiser;  wholly purer.)  All wonderful brushstrokes against the canvas.  In fact, so sure are the brushstrokes that Citlalli’s Prayer could be a Silent -- again a good thing -- the nuance of story well balanced by Kongkasem’s hand and in the face of our child hero, portrayed by newcomer Emily Suzuki.  It’s tough not to root for a young lady being bullied, but that doesn’t take away from Miss Suzuki carrying the film;  and us along with her.

               Kongkasem’s mother is Mexican, by whom she’s wonderfully influenced, so it’s no surprise this thesis should showcase that heritage.  But what’s interesting about today’s story is instead of using Mexicans as characters -- and I don’t even mean caricatures -- or religion as pepper to make the plot something “more” -- darker, brighter, sexier, more poignant;  any of the clichés for which it’s too often used -- Kongkasem simply tells her story in that world.  In fact, it isn’t “showcased” at all but portrayed as everyday reality;  likely because that’s simply who Kongkasem is (was at that age).  It’s not difficult to infer Citlalli is a young Kongkasem in the same way Richard Dreyfuss was Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (that film of theirs specifically because of the intangible wonders they -- Dreyfuss the character and Spielberg the storyteller -- face).  Kongkasem uses a very real scenario, untampered by a single drop of “type,” to showcase what’s really important here:  the fantasy;  in my mind, the parable.

               Which brings us round to our history lesson;  that brief reminder of who The Virgin of Guadalupe is, how she came to be, what that means.  Brenda Canela (whose resume ranges from CSI to Little Miss Sunshine to Call Of Duty:  Ghosts) portrays Her embodiment but, really, The Virgin of Guadalupe is in every scene;  just as much as Citlalli.  And Her presence is felt just as much in today’s “institutions:”  instead of New Spain, it’s an urban school;  instead of the conquering of an indigenous tribe, we face school bullies.  And just as much as The Virgin of Guadalupe lifted Her people above the rubble of a newborn country, so does She lift Citlalli above the mediocrity imprisoning her.  And again -- I must stress this -- none of this is in caricature.  Or by type.  Or told melodramatically.  Rather, culture and religion are, here, as part of everyday life as oxygen.

And that makes it even more breathtaking.

I wonder if another great Mexican filmmaker saw today’s film and was as impressed.  His Pan’s Labyrinth -- made six years after Citlalli’s Prayer -- is also an enchanting fairy tale about a young lady yearning to break free from her world.  And Kongkasem certainly foreshadows Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece in its magical quality -- its take on magic -- including our introduction by a haunting lullaby.  Both raise the question, “Is the fantasy real?”  While Kongkasem’s Citlalli escapes into the arms of The Virgin of Guadalupe, we then see her walk back into the school;  and while Del Toro’s Ofelia lays bleeding, we then see her find her parents.  Do both child heroes find enough peace in the fantasy to accept reality?  Is that the magic? 

And is that enough?

It’s too often quipped, “Great art should make us think.”  I don’t believe that.  But it should make us feel.  It doesn’t always happen (or to each their own), so when it does with something as simple as an eleven-minute Short Film from fourteen years ago, yes, I’m enchanted.  So, in that, Citlalli’s prayer has whole-heartedly been answered.

09 July, 2016

Prince Valiant

            Hal Foster.

            If you know the name, you know why I’m opening with him;  and how great an Artist -- Writer and Drawer -- he was.  And if you don’t know the name?

            In 1928, Harold Rudolf Foster began one of the earliest adventure comic strips, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan.  But, like all Artists, Foster wanted to do an original and, in 1936, while still on Tarzan, pitched his concept to William Randolph Hearst.  The newspaper tycoon was so impressed with Foster’s work that he offered Foster a -- get this -- fifty-fifty split of the gross.  Naturally, The Artist said yes.  Foster began work on Derek, Son of Thane, later changing the name to Prince Arn.  But it was King Features Manager Joseph Connelly who had the best name yet … and so Prince Valiant was born.

Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur (its first official title) premiered on 13 February, 1937, its first full-page -- Strip #66 -- appearing in the Sunday “New Orleans Times Picayune.”  [Remember Full Page Strips?  A comic taking up the full page of a newspaper -- usually Sunday -- as opposed to the three or four panel horizontal line we’re accustomed to today?  If you don’t, search out the best:  Foster, Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon), Milton Caniff (Terry And The Pirates), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy).  Really breathtaking work.]  And Mr. Foster himself ran Prince Valiant for thirty years, officially ending in 1971 with Strip #1788 (though he’d write and sketch some until 1975).  Now, you think thirty years is impressive?  Heh.  Prince Valiant is still running.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look here --

And what a run;  an epic adventure that has told a continuous story during its entire history, its stretch now totaling more than 4000 Strips.  It’s regarded by comic historians as one of the most impressive visual creations ever.  (And, to note, its format does not employ word balloons -- those white ovals next to characters' mouths when they speak – instead the story is narrated in captions … yes, still to this day.)  Comics archivist R.C. Harvey argues that Foster and Alex Raymond “created the visual standard by which all comic strips would henceforth be measured.”  Foster was a major influence on The Golden Age of Comics (‘30s – 1950) including Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (Superman), Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (Captain America) and Bob Kane (Batman).
In 1970, Foster was suffering from arthritis and began planning his retirement.  He had several artists draw the Sunday pages before choosing John Cullen Murphy as his permanent replacement in 1971.  In the late 70s, during an operation, prolonged anesthesia took Foster’s memory … and he no longer remembered ever doing Prince Valiant.  He passed away in 1982.

                  Look at that.  That’s from 1937.  And it is breathtaking.  While it’s rare I include a picture other than the movie’s one sheet, I will here for two reasons.  First, I don’t need to tell you how great Mr. Foster was, you can now appreciate that for yourself.  And you can see how faithfully Hathaway & Company told this story in our movie today (including taking story points directly from the strips, and more on that in a bit).

                 Jumping ahead now, remember when I opened the Jesse James write-up talking about its music?  Here’s another -- even better -- example for you. 

                 One of the first movie soundtracks I bought was for our movie today.  Not one of the first I had, per se, as my parents had vinyls of many (one of theirs Diana and I still own -- and play -- is a compilation of Errol Flynn Scores);  nor was it one of the first movie soundtracks I owned (the first I remember anyway was Star Wars, bought for me by my parents).  I mean the first movie soundtrack I searched out and bought on my own.  This was in Junior High and I went to my local Tower Records;  this was ’88 or ’89 and I wasn’t purchasing my own vinyl yet, though I did splurge passed the Cassette for the CD.  (Come to think of it, I doubt they made a Prince Valiant Cassette and $19.98 was expensive for a CD, especially when the U2 Rattle & Hum Cassette was $10.98.)  But so it went for me to enjoy this particular Franz Waxman any time I wanted.  (And if that name -- Franz Waxman -- sounds familiar, I boasted about his Objective Burma! violins in that write-up.)  Well, enjoy it I did.  Still do.  Prince Valiant is, for me, one of the Top 10 Themes period.  (For those of you that know it -- sorry, spoiler? -- when Waxman brings it back as The Singing Sword during the end duel in that slow, echoey, bell-and-string manner?  Goosebumps.  Still.  Period.)

                And look at the first time we hear it.  This is how an Arthurian Adventure is supposed to open:  that music over the 20th Century Fox Logo, then CinemaScope (only a year old), then The Sword -- gleaming silver and gold on red velvet -- over which our Main Title appears.  And those backplates to the opening Title Cards?  Twenty-six years before Queen rocked Alex Raymond drawings in Flash Gordon (1980), yes, that’s Hal Foster art setting the stage for this;  one of the last, great, old-school pageantries --   

Prince Valiant (1954)
w Dudley Nichols
    Based on King Features Syndicate’s “Prince Valiant” by Harold Foster
d Henry Hathaway

                 Thank you again, dear readers, for joining me in these Top 5s.  So far for Miss Leigh we have --

                  Holiday Affair

              -- and today we continue in Period Swordplay, this time in Arthurian England.  Bosley Crowther wrote for The New York Times, in part:

Have you read any good comic books lately?  Do you know what's going on with Prince Valiant, his close friend, Sir Gawain, and the other knights of King Features' Table Round?  If you do, then you have a good idea of what to expect from the big CinemaScope film that Twentieth Century-Fox has concocted from Harold R. Foster's "Prince Valiant" cartoon.

For Director Henry Hathaway and his associates have whipped up this clanging costume film in precisely the spirit and the aspect of the comic-book original.  The hero is a glowing idealization, a straight high-school four-letter man, dressed up in a black wig and the garments of a free-wheeling Arthurian squire.  The villain is a double-crossing rascal in the plumage of a Round Table knight.  And the action is a wide-screen conglomeration of Douglas Fairbanks and horse-opera derring-do … in a full blast of Technicolor and stereophonic sound!

                      (And I love -- right there on our one sheet -- “You see it without glasses in CinemaScope,” a jab at the as-current trend of 3D.  That fad’s big hits in ’54?  The Creature From The Black Lagoon and, yep, Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder.)

Comic books have always been a great mine for stories.  Sure, there have been hits for years, beginning with Buster Crabbe as Buck Rogers in 1936.  And do you remember the Don “Red” Barry Red Ryder Serials opening by pushing in on a Comic Book Page, one of the panels coming to life?  Or Wild Bill Elliot as Red Ryder and Bobby Blake as Little Beaver literally stepping out of a Big Little Book at the beginning of their Republic pictures?  There were the many Serials in the 40s, great Animation from the 60s through today, and big, big theatrical hits such as Superman (1978) and Batman (1989).  Hollywood has always been a gold rush business, but its current stampede is also something of a Renaissance.  As I write this -- July, 2016 -- we’re in the fourteenth year of a Comic Book Movie heyday, beginning with Spider-Man in 2002 through the Bryan Singer X-Mens and Christopher Nolan Batmans (Dark Knights) to Marvel’s all-but lock on popcorn munchers since unleashing their palette of Iron Man (2008), The Avengers (2012) through this year’s third Captain America outting, Captain America:  Civil War.  (Marvel appears so unstoppable that other companies are mirroring their model:  Warner Bros. with its Superheroes and Universal with its Monsters.)

                   Prince Valiant, then, is a --
Sorry, I was about to move on but a quick digression.  If you don’t know -- more importantly if you don’t love -- The Rocketeer (1991) you must find or rewatch or both.  It isn’t just a great example of how to make a Comic Book Movie, but how to make a great Movie.  Okay, moving on …

Prince Valiant remains as great from almost forty years before that.  Stepping out of the pages of the Hal Foster comic, Writer Dudley Nichols and Director Henry Hathaway -- and to a great extent in this movie particularly, Production Designers Mark-Lee Kirk & Lyle Wheeler and Cinematographer Lucien Ballard -- capture the look and feel of King Features’ Camelot perfectly;  including -- natch but key -- Robert Wagner’s hair.  Well, since Prince Valiant's -- the comic's -- years-in-the-telling storyline was so sprawling -- remember it’s still one continuous legend -- the property languished at MGM, where no writer could get a handle on it.  MGM allowed its option to lapse, and the property was picked up by 20th Century Fox where Mr. Nichols built his Script by selecting panels from the comic itself.  Think I’m overstating?  Watch the movie and take a look at these actual comic panels (this image a page from Diana's and my ’51 Hastings House Book Reprint).

See what I mean?  And that's just one example.  I really love stuff like that.  And when Val comes into Arthur’s Throne Room at the end -- the showdown with The Black Knight -- that outfit he’s wearing there -- the red cape, the round silver shield with the horse in its center -- well, there he was.  For the comic strip fans -- remember, our movie today came out in ’54, Hal Foster’s tales very much a contemporary popularity -- there was Prince Valiant.

               I don’t care how old you           are, the kid in you cheers.

Touching on the Behind The Scenes as I do, we already touched on our Writer and Director in the Rawhide write-up;  they having worked on that together.  So let’s quickly run through the Cast.  As the love-to-hate Sir Brack?  None other than James Mason who hit his stride in the 50s with The Desert Fox;  The Prisoner Of Zenda (1952) with Scaramouche star Stewart Granger;  A Star Is Born (1954);  20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954);  and, perhaps his most famous, North By Northwest.  Unmistakable with his cool, crisp voice, my favorite is The Last Of Sheila which, if you don’t know it, wow are you in for a treat.  Who else?  There’s Sterling Hayden as Sir Gawain.  You probably know him as Captain McCluskey in The Godfather or, for you Stanley Kubrick fans, he’s in The Killing (1956) and Dr. Strangelove.  [Sorry, speaking of Mr. Kubrick, James Mason is of course in Lolita (1962).]  As our lovable old Viking Boltar?  Yep, Victor McLaglen who you John Ford fans will spot immediately, but he’s also in the masterpiece Gunga Din (mentioned often throughout these write-ups) and he sailed the seas with Old Ski Nose in The Princess And The Pirate (indeed to appear in a future Top 5 with Virginia Mayo).  Interestingly, as I made a point to separate Rawhide the Movie from the Clint Eastwood TV Show, it would be in that TV Show -- the circle now complete? -- that Mr. McLaglen would give his last on-screen performance.  One more?  Okay.  Any Falcon fans out there?  George Sanders or Tom Conway?  They played brothers in the famous detective series and were brothers in real life.  Well, that's Tom Conway as Sir Kay sitting at The Round Table. 

  And Miss Leigh?  I’m sorry we haven’t chatted about her at all yet in this one;  a bit like Ty in his Witness For The Prosecution write-up (and that was his last;  in that Top 5 but also, for him, at all).  Of the five films in Miss Leigh’s Top 5, this is, admittedly, her least chattable.  But I love the movie so much I had to chat about it.  She’s great in it, even if she’s not given anything to make her stand out (unlike in, say, Scaramouche;  what might have been just another damsel role but isn’t).  Interestingly, she’s not unlike Victor McLaglen as Boltar.  He brings such a joyous brutishness to that relatively small role that Boltar ends up shining, and Miss Leigh does the same.  What might really be an “eh” role is heightened by her playing it, especially the moment when Gawain wakes up and she’s standing there looking down at him, the crowned “halo” around her.  Not far at all from what Kirk Douglas’ Jonathan Shields says in The Bad And The Beautiful:  “When she’s on the screen, you’re looking at her.  That’s star quality.”

  Up next?  A very different turn indeed for our star as she maneuvers her darkest role in Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil.