John Garfield’s last film–made in 1951, shortly before its talented and neglected director, John Berry, was driven into European exile by the Hollywood blacklist and Garfield himself died of a heart attack at 39 (many believe because of related pressures)–is a fitting and powerful testament to the actor’s poignancy and power as a working-class punk. (As critic Thom Andersen has noted, he is an “axiom,” especially in relation to the socially caustic noirs that proliferated in Hollywood just before many of the artists involved in them were hounded into silence by the HUAC.) Here Garfield plays a hoodlum in flight from a bungled robbery, falling for a young woman (Shelley Winters) and holding her family hostage as he oscillates wildly between mistrust and a desire to be part of this family circle. Combining an effective script (Guy Endore and Hugh Butler adapting a Sam Ross novel), superb cinematography by James Wong Howe, and a keen sense of working-class manners shared by Berry and Garfield, this is a highly affecting thriller that draws us relentlessly into its plangent moral tensions; with Wallace Ford, Selena Royale, Gladys George, and Norman Lloyd. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, February 26, 6:00 and 7:30, 443-3737)
From the February 19, 1993 Chicago Reader. I may have underrated this movie. — J.R.
THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Aki Kaurismaki
With Kati Outinen, Elina Salo, Esko Nikkari, Vesa Vierikko, Reijo Taipale, and Silu Seppala.
Here’s what Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismaki has written about The Match Factory Girl:
“Suddenly, last spring, I was running aimlessly around the city, talking too much and twisting and shaking my head in the most ridiculous way.
“The next day I spent lying silently under my bed and hated myself bitterly. In revenge I decided to make a film that will make Robert Bresson seem like a director of epic action pictures.
“Later, I named this piece of junk The Match Factory Girl (Tulitikkutehtaan Tytto), as the name is long enough to be easily forgotten.”
A few glosses on the above:
(1) It’s typical of Kaurismaki, who’s given to dandy’s gestures, that we don’t know what he means by “revenge,” though we certainly know what the film’s mousy title heroine, Iris (Kati Outinen), means by it.
(2) The statement clearly asks to be read as a series of hip disclaimers: “running aimlessly,” “talking too much,” “twisting and shaking my head in the most ridiculous way,” “this piece of junk . . . [whose] name is long enough to be easily forgotten.” In one way, it is a refusal of seriousness on the same level as the film; in another, it’s a statement of seriousness on the same level as the film. You can pick either. Or better yet, both.
(3) Even without the help of Aki Kaurismaki, Robert Bresson seems like a director of epic action pictures.
(4) I like The Match Factory Girl, even though, as Kaurismaki implies, it’s easily forgotten — unlike the epic action pictures of Bresson. Even at his worst, Bresson can’t be accused of making stylistic exercises; even at his best, as in this movie, Kaurismaki can’t be accused of making anything else.
(5) I’m unable to determine whether the Finnish title of The Match Factory Girl in any way resembles the Finnish title of Jean Renoir’s silent adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Match Girl (1928). If it doesn’t, it should.
After the opening credits on Kaurismaki’s film, which are accompanied by what sounds like a very cold Finnish wind and a literary quotation I’ll get to later, it begins with a virtual industrial documentary on the manufacture of wooden matches — starting with the huge logs that are stripped down into what look like rolls of paper, which are then cut up into individual matches and collected into boxes, which are then wrapped in what looks like brown paper. (As suggested above, Kaurismaki is more adept at loose gestures toward meaning than at being concisely meaningful — impression is all. The important thing is that he treats each shot as if it were a separate expositional unit, a slight advance in information.) Only toward the end of this procedure do we see hands tending the boxes, which a wider shot shows are the hands of Iris.
She is just finishing her shift, and reads a book on the streetcar going home. Then she stops off at a grocer’s for food. Her mother (Elina Salo) is smoking a cigarette and her father (Esko Nikkari) is writing something when she enters the flat; either a radio or TV plays in the background. (We never find out what he’s writing or the fact that he’s her stepfather, as the press materials and credits identify him.) Iris sets the table and prepares dinner, and the three of them eat it in silence. A bit later we see on TV a Helsinki news report of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, among other events of the day; while the mother watches and the father dozes, we see Iris in front of a mirror putting on eyeliner.
Next we find her sitting alone at a nightclub, a wallflower. One shot shows all the women seated on both sides of her leaving either the frame or the nightclub (it hardly matters which) with men, until finally Iris, sipping a soda, is the only thing left in the frame.
As in her first appearance in the film — and in a later shot that triangulates her, a jukebox, and a billiards table — Iris is frequently designated by the camera as a “thing,” an object among objects. This cruelty and irony recall another of Kaurismaki’s models, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who specialized in studied, painterly depictions of working-class victims — characters turned into objects by “society” and Fassbinder alike. Kaurismaki combines some of this feeling for formal composition with a musical sense for pauses and silences in the duration of shots. This means that The Match Factory Girl feels like a formal exercise even when — or perhaps especially when — it evolves from straight melodrama into a hoot.
The next stretch gives us more of the same: Iris all alone reading in a cafe and in a laundromat, doing the ironing while her parents watch TV, back at work tending matchboxes on the assembly line. Then, after she collects her paycheck, she sights a dress in a boutique window and stealthily brings it home with her, folded inside a shoe box. After turning the paycheck over to her parents, she opens the box in another room, takes out the dress, and finds that both parents are watching her. Her father slaps her, says “Whore,” and walks out of the frame; her mother says, “Take it back.”
Cut to Iris renting a public shower stall while carrying the shoe box containing the dress. Cut to a pan across another club, this one a disco where she scores: a man with a mustache and beard (Vesa Vierikko), as poker-faced as she is, asks her to dance and takes her home to his modern upper-middle-class flat. In the morning we see him leave her money on a table while she’s still asleep, just before he goes out. When she wakes up, she apparently doesn’t notice the money; she goes into the kitchen and writes him a note consisting of “Call me,” her phone number, and “Iris.” (This is when we first find out her name.)
The terseness or absence of dialogue, the gruff brutality of the parents, the heartlessness of the man, and the emotional nonexpressiveness of all four characters evoke the world of Bresson, especially his consecutive harsh rural fables of the 60s, Au hasard Balthazar and Mouchette. Though Kaurismaki’s style is usually less radical than Bresson’s (he doesn’t focus on the characters’ feet, for instance), his content — the designation of an abused heroine as someone to be monosyllabically fucked over by brutes — seems directly inspired by Bresson’s, though Kaurismaki doesn’t make any allowances for behavioral differences between impoverished French farmers and a well-to-do Helsinki hotshot, for instance. After Iris has suffered further callousness from her lover, finds herself pregnant, and winds up being treated even more miserably by him, her apparently deliberate miscarriage is depicted in an elliptical manner — she walks out of frame and a car screeches to a halt offscreen — that’s straight out of Bresson.
For all his powers of abstraction, Bresson is obviously interested in saying something about mankind in general and rural French society in particular in Au hasard Balthazar and Mouchette. By contrast, even though Kaurismaki has identified The Match Factory Girl as the final part of a trilogy (after Shadows in Paradise and Ariel) “dedicated to the memory of Finnish reality” — a look at that country’s working class, which he seems to regard as “what’s left of Finnish culture” — he defines that reality less through direct observation than by appropriating the attitudes of other filmmakers.
This brings us to the literary quotation that opens The Match Factory Girl: “They most likely died of cold and hunger far away there in the middle of the forest,” attributed to a character in Ivan Turgenev’s Countess Angelika. Kaurismaki’s gloss on the quotation, expressed during an interview, was “I feel that Turgenev’s description applies very well to the Finnish people, who seem meant not to be noticed.”
Clearly determined to be noticed, but knowing full well that Bresson’s uncompromising directness would land him in trouble, Kaurismaki adopts the postmodernist irony of Fassbinder and some of the hip irony of his pal Jim Jarmusch to ease the pain. He piles more and more misery onto Iris to make the movie comic, turning it into “playful” camp melodrama, cutesy S and M. And by God it works — the ending of The Match Factory Girl is the best thing in the whole picture.
Who cares if the ending invalidates most of what precedes it? Entertainment is supposed to be disposable, to make room for new entertainment; art just sits there like a big lump in your chest and won’t go away. Which would you pick if you made a Finnish movie that you wanted to get to the United States? (Even as entertainment, it’s taken three years for The Match Factory Girl to reach Chicago.)
Ultimately Iris’s awful plight is treated not so much as pathetic or tragic as hilarious. I won’t reveal how the story ends, but it’s an extreme and “satisfying” melodramatic finale deliberately inspiring camp laughter, not belief. It’s as if Kaurismaki were admitting he couldn’t believe in such an overdetermined story to begin with — or at least can’t respond to it, which in postmodernist terms may come to the same thing. So he’s opted for the irreverent pleasure of genre excess, which will slide him past what he can’t cope with on its own terms. Critic Matti Apunen puts it this way: “Kaurismaki walks the thin line between melodramatic over-emotionalism and subtle irony. His comical intentions are barely to be recognized: the stronger the tragedy, the stronger the comedy.” Or maybe he’s dealing in underemotionalism, unsubtle irony, and blatant comical intentions: the weaker the tragedy, the stronger the comedy. Whatever.
This is the Chicago premiere of a first-rate, 167-minute Canadian documentary by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick about the brilliant linguist and radical political commentator Noam Chomsky, probably the best living critic of American foreign policy as viewed through the media. He’s so articulate and intelligent that this extended look at his thought remains compulsively watchable throughout, and the filmmakers pull off the unlikely feat of making a film about him genuinely humorous in spots (1992). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, February 20, 3:00, and Sunday, February 21, 6:00, 443-3737)
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Renzo.
This brilliant hour-long video by independent filmmaker Mark Rappaport (The Scenic Route) is in effect a subversive piece of film criticism that departs from the fictional conceit of Hudson himself (represented through clips from his films and by actor Eric Farr) speaking from beyond the grave about his homosexuality and what this did or didn’t have to do with his countless heterosexual screen roles. Part of what emerges, to hilarious effect, is the extraordinary amount of male cruising and number of barbed allusions to Hudson’s gayness that his movies of the 50s and 60s contain; what also emerges is the sexual ideology of the period. Though much of this essential work is extremely funny, it is also very much about death in relation to movies (1992). (Music Box, Friday and Saturday, February 12 and 13, midnight)
I’m currently working on the book-length catalogue for a month-long retrospective that I’ve programmed for the Austrian Film Archives and the Viennale this coming October, a series entitled “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.” (At least this is the title in English; the subtitle in German will be different.) I’ve chosen 55 features and shorts, and one of the features is Joe Dante’s Matinee. Already one of my biggest regrets about my selection is that I didn’t find room for more than one Dante feature. (By contrast, there are two features each by Albert Brooks, Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton, Elaine May, Frank Tashlin, John Waters, and Billy Wilder — not to mention two features with Jerry Lewis, two shorts each by Chuck Jones and Owen Land, two shorts [one silent and one sound] with Laurel and Hardy, a feature and a short [film and video, respectively] by Jim McBride, and no less than three Tex Avery cartoons.) Maybe next time….
This review appeared in the Chicago Reader on February 5, 1993. —J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Charlie Haas and Jerico
With John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Jesse Lee, Lucinda Jenney, James Villemaire, and Robert Picardo.
I suggested a few new promotional gimmicks for the play — a closed black coffin outside the theater and Oriental incense to get the audiences in the mood. The stage manager agreed to try another of my ideas — Count Dracula would vanish on stage in a cloud of smoke, then suddenly reappear in the audience. Snarling at the frightened spectators, he would again vanish and appear back on stage. I began to learn firsthand the value of good publicity and showmanship.
Adolf Hitler was unwittingly to teach me the lesson again nine years later. Hitler was indirectly responsible for opening the doors of Hollywood for me. — William Castle, Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul
It’s not the Russians — it’s Rumble-Rama. – Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) in Matinee
As luck would have it, I saw Joe Dante’s ferocious and lighthearted new comedy, Matinee — about John F. Kennedy “standing up to” Nikita Khrushchev while the world held its breath — barely an hour after reading in the paper that the world was holding its breath to see if Bill Clinton, in his first days of office, would “stand up to” Saddam Hussein. Despite the intriguing coincidence I doubt that many of my colleagues will jump to the conclusion that Dante has made a movie with anything at all to say about the way we live and think today. (Remember Deep Cover: just another cop thriller, most said or implied, with no relevance to the Bush administration or to our own lives.) After all, Matinee is set during the Cuban missile crisis — it’s about war fever in 1962. Moreover it’s extremely funny, charming, and entertaining, the way movies are supposed to be but seldom are nowadays. To assume that anything that’s so much fun is also telling us something about how we behave both as film spectators and as warmongers, not only three decades ago but right this minute, is to grant a seriousness to our amusement obviously greater than the culture can bear.
But consider how the dark side of spectatorship and the ideology of popular entertainment — the way movies turn us into gremlins — has been central to all of Dante’s best work, even at its most nostalgic, film-buffy, and apparently frivolous. His 1984 Gremlins gave us adorable little beasties that turned into monsters very much like us — especially in their bratty behavior when they watched a beloved Disney cartoon feature in a movie theater. The Dante segment in Twilight Zone–The Movie amplified this idea by establishing a vindictive, Sadean universe created in the mind of a little boy who’s watched too many cartoons, while the nightmarish finale of Explorers gave us the world of American TV strained through the consciousness, physicality, and technology of extraterrestrials.
Dante’s 1989 The ‘Burbs, which conjured up an old-fashioned horror movie, brought the critique of spectatorship even closer to home by ridiculing the xenophobia of a suburban man (Tom Hanks) spying on his next-door neighbors and satirizing the uninvolved voyeurism of teenagers watching and enjoying this snoop as if they were plunked down in front of their TVs. The somewhat earlier Innerspace brought new meanings to notions of voyeurism and coexistence by following what happened when a miniaturized Navy pilot (Dennis Quaid) got injected into the body of a hypochondriac (Martin Short), creating intercut parallel narratives that were like movies within movies. Even Gremlins 2: The New Batch, though it’s the least ambitious conceptually of Dante’s recent efforts, brought back the beasties as grubby little versions of ourselves at our most consumerist.
A horror-movie schlockmeister is the central character in Matinee — a jovial showman named Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) who’s clearly modeled on William Castle, master of the horror-exploitation gimmick (and underrated director of some earlier noir-ish B-films like When Strangers Marry and The Whistler). Woolsey’s relation to the Cuban missile crisis is clarified when he takes on the role of surrogate father to 15-year-old Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), who has recently moved to Key West with his family. Gene’s father, who’s in the Navy, has been “sent out” to parts unknown on the day the story opens, shortly before a special bulletin interrupts Art Linkletter’s TV show People Are Funny to bring on President Kennedy demanding the withdrawal of offensive missile sites recently spotted in Cuba.
In fact, Gene’s father never puts in a single appearance in Matinee — unless one counts some brief glimpses of him in a home movie his wife (Lucinda Jenney) tearfully watches — so one might say that, mythically and emotionally, Kennedy in his sole TV appearance is the father’s replacement. But Woolsey — “America’s number-one frightmaster,” as he calls himself — is present in the opening scene, in a trailer for his latest horror production, which Gene watches; shortly thereafter we learn that Woolsey will be appearing in person at the theater, on Saturday, to present a special matinee preview of his film. In fact, as soon as Woolsey appears in the flesh, not long after Kennedy’s speech, he becomes the movie’s most important patriarch, supplanting Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson (who appears briefly at UN hearings on TV), and Gene’s missing father — a more ideal version of all of them.
Soon after Woolsey arrives for his show — which involves an elaborate setup with buzzers under the seats and apparitions in the aisles, neatly summarizing some of Castle’s most celebrated gimmicks — the panicky theater manager (Robert Picardo) objects that the country is “on red alert.” “Exactly,” says Woolsey. “What better time to open a horror movie?” And as we discover, Woolsey’s arsenal of scare tactics is every bit as effective as Kennedy’s. Just as the fear of nuclear holocaust creates a hoarding panic among shoppers at the supermarket, Woolsey’s own show reduces his audience to hysterical popcorn fights even before the movie starts. Similarly, the two scaremasters prove equally successful at inspiring hasty retreats; shortly after Woolsey averts disaster by conjuring up a fake nuclear holocaust to drive the audience out of the theater, it’s reported in the news that the implied threat of nuclear holocaust has attained comparable results with the Soviets: Khrushchev has promised that the missiles in Cuba will be dismantled.
I don’t mean to imply, however, that Matinee is didactic, devoted to simple one-to-one correspondences, preachy meanings, or pretentious undertones. And for those who might object to my claims about the movie’s contemporary relevance — those who consider the Cuban missile crisis “serious” and the war drums being beaten in Saddam Hussein’s ears not, as well as those who think the reverse — my point is merely that the movie traces the kind of unthinking giddiness and/or blood lust that fear produces in an anxious audience. Whether the sources of anxiety are Castle’s Homicidal and Nikita Khrushchev or The Silence of the Lambs and Saddam Hussein, our taste for horror-movie monsters who provoke bloody reprisals has persisted for most of this century — a taste that becomes especially pronounced whenever our trigger fingers get itchy. (Less persistent are our memory and awareness of the human cost of scratching those itches — most recently, even currently, our slaughter of innocent ethnics unlucky enough to live under the thumb of Saddam Hussein and therefore ideally suited as cannon fodder, for our grand humanitarian schemes as well as his.)
The glory of Dante’s comedy in this movie and others — as aided and abetted by his usual production team, producer Michael Finnell, cinematographer John Hora, and screenwriter Charlie Haas — is that it suggests poetic parallels without insisting on them. Just as a backstage bomb shelter — a chamber in which Gene and his radical girlfriend (Lisa Jakub) become briefly and romantically trapped — bears an interesting resemblance to a bank vault, the kind of war fever Matinee examines has more than one point of contact with the emotions elicited by bad low-budget horror films: Matinee satirically cross-references early-60s fears of nuclear holocaust with Woolsey’s ludicrous new picture, Mant, about a man transformed by radiation into a giant ant. (”Young lady,” one character intones, “human-insect mutation is far from an exact science.”)
Inhabiting a corner of junk heaven in all his pictures, Dante clearly regards each project as a fresh opportunity to show off his appreciation of pop culture. And his pleasure in using familiar bit players such as Jesse White (here the owner of a theater chain) and Dick Miller and John Sayles (members of Citizens for Decent Entertainment) is palpable. As a TV illiterate, I can’t comment on the way TV shows past and present have affected casting decisions and the dialogue, though when it comes to movies Dante has obviously taken full advantage of his resources. It doesn’t seem accidental, for instance, that Cathy Moriarty — Woolsey’s somewhat resigned girlfriend, leading lady, and all-around assistant — reminds us through her accent of her debut role in Raging Bull.
We glimpse a profusion of 1962 “one-sheet” movie posters in the lobby of the film’s theater, the Key West Strand — a pantheon including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Hatari!, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Lonely Are the Brave, and Confessions of an Opium Eater. It seems Dante is ticking off his favorites, even if this means working in many more posters than one could imagine such a theater displaying at once. He’s also created many “excerpts” from movies showing in the theater — including a Mant trailer, Mant itself (both in black and white), and something called The Shookup Shopping Cart, a color feature that suggests both Frank Tashlin and live-action Disney. At the same time that Dante has a field day brutally satirizing our desire to scare ourselves and others, he also re-creates early-60s clichés with a relish and a feeling for detail that come very close to love.