Friday, January 12, 2018

War Stories: 1945 and Last Flag Flying

A scene from Ferenc Török's 1945.

1945, by the Hungarian director Ferenc Török, written by Török and Gábor T. Szántó, is a startling piece of work – acerbic and mournful, satirical and humane. It’s set in a tiny Hungarian town just after the end of World War II, when the residents are beginning to get used to the presence of the Russians, some of whom are full of their own new-found power. (One young soldier demands that a civilian alighting from the midday train trade his more elegant hat for the soldier’s rumpled one.) The movie isn’t about the new Soviet presence, however; that’s merely one of the elements Török mixes to create a complex historical portrait. It’s a symbolic ghost story in which the dark secrets of the townspeople – their collusion, for base personal reasons, in the removal of the local Jews to the death camps – come to light when two strangers, Orthodox Jewish Holocaust survivors, enter the town on that same train on mysterious business (burying the dead, as it turns out), unsettling the guilty residents.

Péter Rudolf, in a superb performance, plays István Szendes, the town clerk and owner of the village’s most thriving business, a pharmacy. The neurotic leanings of his wife (Észter Nagy-Kálózy), we discover, are a long-held response to his betrayal of the town’s most prominent Jewish citizen, who had been his best friend. This day, which is supposed to mark the wedding of his son (Bence Tasnádi), turns into a series of physical and psychological disasters. The way the movie is constructed, the unheralded arrival of the Jews – who have no interaction with the townspeople but proceed immediately to the graveyard – has the almost supernatural effect of unleashing the suppressed poison in the town.

Narratively, 1945 overlaps a little with Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2013 Ida, in which a novice on the verge of taking her vows discovers she’s actually a Jew, raised in a convent while the rest of her immediate family was killed during the war; Ida and her aunt, the only other survivor, take a journey to find their remains. But the work that came most vividly to mind while I was watching Török’s movie was a play, The Visit by the Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt. In The Visit a depressed, dilapidated town in an unnamed European country has a chance at rebirth when one of its émigrés, Claire Zachanassian, now the richest woman in the world, offers enough money to set it on its feet again. But there’s a catch. As a young woman Claire was run out of town when her lover, who wanted to marry someone with better prospects, bought off witnesses to claim that Claire slept with them, too, so that she couldn’t prove her lover was the father of her unborn child. Now she wants justice: death for her one-time lover, Alfred Ill, in exchange for the money. Dürrenmatt’s play is a fable in which the inevitable corruption of Ill’s friends and neighbors easily stands in for the way the Nazis were able to enact the mass murder of the Jews (though that reading was clearer in 1956, when the play was first produced). But while I was watching 1945, I thought of The Visit in a different way – as a drama about the impossibility of burying the past. The Schoolmaster, the play’s representative of humanism and the last worm to turn, is still conscious enough (unlike his neighbors) to warn Ill that he’s doomed. Then he adds that he realizes that someday an old woman will come for each of them, to force them to make a reckoning with the evils of their own pasts. 

The Visit is a piece of bona fide expressionism; part of the problem with the unfortunate 1964 movie version by Bernard Wicki which starred Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn, was that its visual style was pictorial realism, which clashed with the material. 1945 looks like realism but it’s right on the cusp of expressionism – unlike Wicki, Török has come up with a style that suits the folk fable. (These are modern folk fables, like Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird – that is, fables that handle distinctly twentieth-century horrors.) We don’t ask who these two Jews are; no one in the town seems to have seen them before. We don’t ask whether the father-and-son gravediggers they recruit are native to the town or have arrived along with them; we see no sign of familiarity between them and any of the citizens. And we don’t ask how the Jews have managed to get hold of the personal items left behind by the dead that they’ve hauled with them in a chest and that winds up being what they place in the grave. Eventually they tell the townspeople, who have gathered anxiously outside the cemetery, that they’ve come to bury their dead, so it’s possible that we’re meant to think they’re relatives. But I don’t think so – their presence is as eerie and unsettling as that of the dancing figure of the plague in Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death.” When one of the characters sets István’s pharmacy on fire, though the action has a psychological motivation, it feels like a supernatural eruption, and when he rushes into the church where his neighbors have gathered for the wedding to report the conflagration, no one moves to help him douse the flames.

The film has a sinister inevitability, like its source material, Szántó’s short story “Homecoming.” The appearance of the Jews doesn’t set in motion the destruction that the guilt of the townspeople has symbolically prepared; it merely confirms it – as, for example, the visitation of the Ghost in Hamlet could be said not to initiate the tragedy but to illuminate the corruption that will bring it on. This is, of course, an idea out of Greek tragedy; think of The Oresteia and especially of Oedipus the King. In 1945, the bride sleeps with her lover on the morning of the day she’s supposed to be married to István’s son, and there’s no joy in the interactions between the parents of the groom. The town is a tinder box on the verge of a conflagration. Going along with the conventions of the fable, the pharmacy fire is a visualization of the moral repercussions of the townspeople’s behavior.

Watching 1945, I also thought about the other recent movie that works like a fable, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. That film is a charmer, beautifully filmed and performed with exquisite delicacy (especially by Sally Hawkins), but it’s precisely the fable elements that I have trouble with. Del Toro surrounds Hawkins’s Elisa and her amphibian swain (Doug Jones) with marvelous characters like the ones played by Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg and Octavia Spencer, but poor Michael Shannon’s scenes as the evil Colonel Strickland are stillborn because del Toro lacks the imagination to do anything with his villains except make them stand-ins for the institutional evils of the world – racism in this case, fascism in the scenes with the sadistic Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth. Perhaps Török’s most impressive achievement in 1945 is that he has fashioned a fable so complex that, though the symbolic meaning is perfectly clear, there’s no didacticism in it.

Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell  in Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying.

Richard Linklater’s latest movie, Last Flag Flying, is based on a 2017 novel by Darryl Ponicsan that he wrote as a sequel to his best-known book, The Last Detail. When Hal Ashby filmed The Last Detail in 1973, he and the screenwriter, Robert Towne, built on the novel’s anarchic spirit and free-wheeling profanity. But the story of two career seamen, Billy “Bad-Ass” Buddusky and “Mule” Mulhall, escorting a sad-sack kid named Meadows to the brig has a distinctly seventies kind of sentimentality at its heart. Billy and Mule, who feel sorry for the kid, do everything they can to make the trip a last-ditch lark – including getting him laid – but they can’t compensate for the injustice of an eighteen-year-old landing eight years in a military prison for having the bad luck to get caught stealing forty bucks from the admiral’s wife’s favorite charity. The point of the story is that the world is rigged by those in authority and the little guy doesn’t stand a chance. The book is enjoyable reading until the last section, and the movie, with its wonderful raucous dialogue and its amazingly charismatic performance by Jack Nicholson as Buddusky, is tremendous fun despite where it winds up. Towne mutes Ponicsan’s thesis as much as possible, and when you think back on the movie it’s not chiefly what you remember.

Towne was smart enough to jettison Poncisan’s worst idea: killing off Buddusky at the end. And Ponicsan himself must have realized what a mistake it was, because in Last Flag Flying, he resurrects Billy. He gives his old hero a bar in Norfolk and reunites him with Mule, now a minister living in rural Virginia with a congregation and a wife, and Meadows, a recent widower who tracks down his old pals and asks them to come with him to bury his son, a Marine killed in action in Iraq. Ponicsan has to do considerable backpedaling to justify Billy’s survival, and it’s basically bullshit, but that’s OK: it’s the only way he could possibly have written a sequel to The Last Detail that anyone would care to pick up. The problem is what he does with Billy and his pals once the story gets rolling. Unlike the first book, Last Flag Flying isn’t very entertaining. What Ponicsan is after is a commentary on Iraq and the way the government and the military lie to us, just as they lied to us during Vietnam. When Billy gets the dead boy’s best friend, who is the body’s official Marine escort, to reveal the truth about how he died, Meadows is so furious at the obfuscation that he refuses the offer of a military funeral in Arlington and insists on taking his son home to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to bury him there, next to his mother.

The screenplay, which is credited to both Ponicsan and Linklater, completely throws out the idea of following up on The Last Detail. Here the three men are named Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), Richard “Mule” Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) and Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell); they served in the Marine Corps together during Vietnam, and the offense that sent Doc to military prison was a drunken folly that they all partook in but Doc took the fall for it. (The movie is vague about what happened, but it amounted to a dereliction of duty that somehow resulted in the death of another Marine.) Doc’s son died in Afghanistan, not Iraq, though that hardly makes a difference to the point of the movie. But the script, presumably on Linklater’s watch, does manage to drain some of the sourness out of the narrative, which no longer comes across as so baldly agenda-driven. In the book, Washington, the Marine escort, goes AWOL during the last leg of the journey, inspired by Billy and Meadows’s refusal to buckle under to the forceful military rhetoric of the Marine colonel. That doesn’t happen in the movie, though the colonel (Yul Vasquez) is still around to represent every Pentagon asshole Ponicsan hates – and is thus an unplayable role, so, terrible as Vasquez is, you can’t blame him. And the posthumous letter from Doc’s son, affirming his patriotism, is no longer used ironically. These are improvements, and Linklater has done a fine job of directing the material so that the movie sustains a somber, valedictory mood even when it’s funny. It’s all of a piece; some scenes, like the one where the three friends tell Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) the story about how Doc lost his virginity, are very well done; and the understated finale is a beauty. But I just don’t like the material.

Since Bad-Ass doesn’t die in the movie of The Last Detail, it would have been easy to forgo the narrative confusion about the reversal of his fate in a movie version of Last Flag Flying. So I assume that the decision to drop the link to The Last Detail altogether had to do with the impossibility of casting anyone in a role that has Nicholson’s fingerprints all over it. (Nicholson himself is now too old to play a middle-aged Buddusky.) And if anyone is no Jack Nicholson, God knows it’s Bryan Cranston. Since Breaking Bad made Cranston so popular it’s generally accepted that he’s a great actor, but though he was reasonably enjoyable in some of the stage play All the Way (where he played LBJ), and he was convincing in a small role in Argo, most of the time he strikes me as a shameless blowhard. His Oscar-nominated performance in the titular role of Trumbo was a thick slice of prime ham, and he doesn’t have a believable moment in Last Flag Flying. Linklater has done his best to tone him down, but weirdly enough it doesn’t help his acting, since he’s still hopelessly fake but he doesn’t even hold the camera. He’s so tiresome that you focus on everyone else on screen – and most of the other actors are certainly better. The part of Mueller doesn’t do much for Fishburne, but he imbues it with more humor and joie de vivre than the character had on the page: though the good reverend keeps insisting that he’s no longer the hellraiser of his Marine days, you can see that he’s having a pretty good time revisiting them. Carell gives a sweet, unstrained performance. And J. Quinton Johnson, who also appeared in Linklater’s last movie Everybody Wants Some!!, has something: his wary eyes flash all the feelings that he’s been trained to tamp down. Cicely Tyson shows up in a brief scene as the mother of the Marine who died as a result of the men’s besotted inattentiveness. (She is as unaware of the truth about her son’s death as Doc is until Sal presses Washington to give it up.) This sequence, added for the movie, is a mistake, but Tyson brings some of her legendary emotional expressiveness to it. I wish Tyson’s movie appearances weren’t so few and far between. However briefly she confers honor on whatever she’s in.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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