A Dark, Dark Man

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Originally published on Ink 19 on April 8, 2021

A Dark, Dark Man
directed by Adilkhan Yerzhanov

Like many of you who love cinema, I was devastated upon reading the news that the great director Bertrand Tavernier passed away on March 25th. Throughout that day, I felt genuinely blessed to have had the opportunity to speak with him in person four years ago on the occasion of a small retrospective of his work that took place at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, California. In many ways, that moment for me was a culmination of a lifelong appreciation of Tavernier’s work which began with a stroke of luck of sorts, as the first film of his that I ever took in was his widely appreciated 1981 feature, Coup de Torchon, which years later, when I eventually devoured the rest of his filmography, was still the film that I always returned to when I thought about the distinct strengths and artistry of Tavernier’s work.

Truth be told, I was barely a teen when I saw that film, and I had not read the Jim Thompson novel that it was based on (Pop. 1280), but there was something that appealed to me in the way that Tavernier approached the ugliness that was inherent to the film’s setting of a corrupt and floundering small town in colonial French West Africa in the days before the Second World War. The film’s antihero, a bumbling sheriff named Lucien (played by the brilliant Philippe Noiret) is a drunken philander who is so marginalized by those around him that he willfully becomes a non-entity in the place where he is supposed to represent some semblance of the law. In the early moments of Coup de Torchon, Tavernier applies an almost Chaplin-esque level of buffoonery to the hapless Lucien, but when our sheriff casually decides to execute and frame all of those in his way to inadvertently right the environment around him, the shift in tone illuminates and further amplifies the evil inherent in the colonialist practices of the era and the uselessness of trying to uphold the policies of a place whose mere existence is a crime.

In Tavernier’s honor, and for the first time in a decade, I rewatched Coup de Torchon on the evening of March 25th, and perhaps due to it still being fresh in my mind, when I watched Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s neo-noir, A Dark, Dark Man, the next evening, I felt an effective, and perhaps an unintentional, nod to Tavernier’s masterful film.

Yerzhanov’s feature is set in present day Kazakhstan in a region that is as far off the world’s radar as the 1930s West African village in Coup de Torchon. And similar to the opening of Tavernier’s film, at the start of A Dark, Dark Man, we observe the silent interactions of a group of people in an expansive space where the neglected natural setting has left little to consume for personal survival. At the center of this interaction in this opening scene of A Dark, Dark Man is Pekuar (Teoman Khos), a harmless-looking man with a cognitive disability, who is joyfully playing an elementary school game in a depleted cornfield with his girlfriend, Adema (Adema Yerzhanov), and a young boy. We then cut away to a law enforcement official in a barn examining a very grim crime scene involving a small dead child under a bloody blanket. As the officer emerges from the barn, he collects Pekuar and bribes him with chocolate bars to masturbate into a cup, the contents of which are then planted as evidence onto the dead body by the officer. As this bleak moment unfolds and leads to Pekuar thoughtlessly agreeing to take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit, we see the other officers on the scene engage in an absurd and infantile game of pantomime that seems pulled out of an Aki Kaurismäki comedy, but placed against the vile framing that has just occurred, it only serves to amplify a feeling that we are in a place where normal societal rules have been completely abandoned.

It is here where we meet the film’s antihero, a young policeman named Bezkat (Daniar Alshinov), who stoically rides into this tableau in his nondescript black sedan, complete with a Tangerine Dream-like score blaring on his radio and a cowboy hat on his head. Cinematically, Bezkat is being set up as a might of right, but that possibly heroic role ends quickly when Bezkat is commanded by our previously pantomiming officers to collect the planted evidence found on the dead child’s body to seal Pekuar’s fate. As our hapless officer does his duty and chronicles what he discovers on the lifeless body in the barn, he casually gobbles down a bowl of ramen. Clearly, Bezkat has had to fulfill this role on more than a few occasions, and when he returns to the station with his suspect, our young detective is charged with another task that also seems too familiar to him—the task of murdering Pekuar to close the case, which Bezkat also agrees to do without complaint.

With no real agency or desire to resist, Bezkat sets off to keep this endless cycle of horror in motion, but before he can do so, a journalist from the city named Ariana (Dinara Baktybaeva) has arrived in town to follow Bezkat to ensure that an actual investigation of this child’s murder will be done properly. Ariana’s concerns about a miscarriage of justice have brought her to this village where a recent spay of murders of several orphaned children have led to a different bodycount of captured suspects who have all been mysteriously found dead from suicide while in police custody. And so, with the officers who rank above Bezkat unable to do little more than squawk about Ariana’s presence because of some unknown outside power that has sent her there, she is off to bird-dog Bezkat, who must now also take Pekuar and Adema with him as he goes through the facade of finding the real killers.

As with Lucien in Coup de Torchon, Bezkat in A Dark, Dark Man is able to commit his crimes without any real opposition, which sets up both men who serve as law enforcement officials to become pure representations of the failures of their respective governments to monitor their actions—Lucien in a far flung West African French colony on the brink of war, and Bezkat in the last of the Soviet Republics to declare independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Where A Dark, Dark Man differentiates itself from Tavernier’s film is primarily seen through the impact of Ariana on Bezkat. True to its pre-World War II era, the idealist schoolteacher Anne in Coup de Torchon, a character whose arrival should inspire in Lucien a sense of order and fairness, instead becomes another traditionally virtuous entity who is usurped by the dysfunctional colonialist social order. On the other hand, Ariana, a big city journalist in contemporary Kazakhstan who must stand tall against corrupt local government officials, crooked cops, and gangsters, manages to exact some influence on our antihero through her decency and commitment to the truth despite the constant threat of violence against her. As Anne in her day was limited to just the chalk and a blackboard in her schoolhouse to communicate with those around her, does Ariana’s strength then emanate from the possession of modern devices that can eliminate the geographic isolation of this small Kazakh village, or is it Ariana’s keen understanding of her native country that provides the necessary connection to Bezkat to affect him? This mystery behind Ariana’s ability to persuade then becomes a key reason as to why A Dark, Dark Man excels as a modern noir.

Though there are no direct references to Coup de Torchon in Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s impressive feature, our director, with help from Galymzhan Moldanazar’s score and Aydar Sharipov’s cinematography, instead alludes to a myriad of noirs such as Felix Feist’s The Man Who Cheated Himself, Michael Mann’s Thief, and Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks to misdirect our belief in what the outcome of the film will be. From the very beginning of A Dark, Dark Man, we have an understanding of who the evildoers are and how desperate they can be, but we still attentively watch to see if anything will be done to distance this community from a corrupt status quo and move it towards a place where it can afford to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

https://adilkhanyerzhanov.com/en/films/a-dark-dark-man/

Generoso Fierro


LA Inspired Apocalypse: Ed Laroche’s Almighty

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There’s something paradoxical about Los Angeles as a city. Right beneath the neon lights and the glitter lies a deep layer of decay and loss. Under the bright California sun lies both buildings of glass and steel and abandoned, empty buildings of eras long past. It’s a city of hopes and dreams, both simultaneously fulfilled and unfulfilled. Thus, it is of no surprise that LA has inspired film and literature for nearly a century, and after living here for only a few months, I understand why this is the city of film noir.

Consequently, after reading Ed Laroche’s post-apocalyptic Almighty, I was not surprised to learn that he has lived in this City of Angels for his entire life and that Almighty was released in 2008, the year of the modern economic collapse we remember most.

Opening Image of Almighty

Set in a wasteland hill and plain then mutant city possibly in California in 2098, Almighty grabs that sensation of lost hope and despair ever rampant in LA and pulls it to the surface. After a devastating economic collapse in the future, a new Great Depression arrives. And in addition to the crippling economic failure leaving people homeless and without any infrastructure to re-create the society they knew, a major military conflict stifles any potential to return to normalcy, and an experiment has gone very wrong, leaving an entire section of the region filled with infantile mutants covered in boils who were once human but now roam the desolate streets looking to tear apart animals and returning to a great mother for sustenance.

As expected with any great economic downturn, some people attempt to sustain themselves on meager means while others resort to crime. In the world of Almighty, those who resort to crime band together as a group of paramilitary vultures, bringing terror to the people who bypass their headquarters far outside of the city and picking off whatever they can from their victims. On one of their attacks on an RV filled with supplies, the group, known as Golden State, capture Del, a volunteer medic, after they murder everyone else in the vehicle. Held prisoner for days, she finally tries to escape, but her captors stay quickly on her tail and confront her.

However, as the captors narrow in on Del, an unknown guardian and protector fires from an unseen location, allowing her to survive. After the blink of carnage that eliminates seven of the captors on Del’s trail, Fale, an androgynous woman, emerges from the tall grass in the field to the clearing where Del lies to explain she has been hired to rescue and return Del home. Immediately, the two jump on Fale’s bike to begin the long trek back, but unfortunately, that first battle will be the easiest one the two will encounter for the rest of the rescue mission.

Most of Almighty focuses on the grim state of the world through the eyes of Del and Fale, with Del as the crestfallen and jaded idealist and Fale as the ultimate survivor and mercenary. Both are new to this world of all lost hope, and both try to adapt and maintain their own humanity as the line between human and animal blurs. As a result, the mission of Almighty serves merely as a framework to the plot; the meat of the volume lies in all of the post-apocalypse terrors they encounter and the consequent effects on their relationship as humans in a dying world.

For a graphic novel set in catastrophe, Almighty has an enormous amount of restraint. Laroche never overburdens the dialog, and he presents every moment of violence and action with an incredible amount of detail and viscera but quickly balances it with a moment of reflection or assessment of the damage done. In addition, the visual style of the volume follows a similar ebb and flow, with action sequences drawn with a sharp style with disorienting and unstable energy and more narrative sequences drawn with a more static, calm style. Reading Almighty feels like a natural harmony between stress and rest and despair and hope.

Ultimately, Almighty explores the fundamental question of what exactly draws the line between human beings and animals. By setting the story in a world where society has been broken, Laroche can ask that question without the frivolities and the pseudo-stability we find in our civilized world and hone in on an answer when that line of humanity is truly tested. He offers his answer in the graphic novel, but as with any great work, he leaves you the room to decide on your own.

Almighty exploits our greatest fears of when the world goes wrong in a large metropolis and, through its horror inspired methods of removing the blocks of civilization that we have become so familiar with, forces us to think about what lies beneath all of the baubles and the images we create for ourselves. As I wander through this land of image myself, I wonder what lies beneath all of the sparkling glass and gold as well. To get a hint of my answer and the one Laroche has proposed with Almighty, you only need to look to the abandoned theaters and offices with decaying ornate plaster and gilded molding in almost every neighborhood in LA, and soon you will see.

Almighty by Ed Laroche is available via Blackhalo Productions. 

 

Long Before “Inherent Vice” And Even Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” Stephen Frears Gave Us “Gumshoe.”

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gumshoe lobby card

“Gumshoe” Lobby Card from 1971

With all of the deserved praise being bestowed up the new post-modernist detective film by Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice,” I thought that this week I would take a look back at “Gumshoe,” the debut work of Stephen Frears and a favorite dysfunctional detective film of mine, that, like our PT Anderson film and Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” would take the best ideas of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and spin them in a way that is less concerned about a cohesive narrative and more about the small moments and gestures of a flawed private eye.

Though we now recognize his talents, I had always wondered how director Frears had been able to land a talent like Albert Finney for his first film.  After all, Finney had been on an epic roll as an actor since his sensational debut in Karel Reisz’s 1960 British New Wave masterpiece, “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.”   And with Tony Richardson’s “Tom Jones” and Stanley Donen’s “Two for Road” included in Finney’s oeuvre from the sixties, it just didn’t add up that Finney would go for this odd role of a hapless comedian turned private eye in “Gumshoe” for a then virtually unknown Frears. Perhaps it was that Frears had directed some television for the BBC?  But it is more likely that it was due to Frears having been the assistant director for two of the finest English films of the late 1960s, Lindsay Anderson’s “If…” and Karel Reisz’s “Morgan!”

“Gumshoe” combines two of my favorite genres, film noir and the lesser known “everyman who gets in way over his head” genre, a la “North by Northwest” and “Into The Night.” Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a small time comedian and bingo caller who would rather be the next Sam Spade. One day, Eddie decides to put his fantasy to the test and places an ad in the paper offering his services as a private investigator, which gets immediate results. Eddie goes to a local hotel where he meets the big man who tells him that he has a job for him and proceeds to give our Eddie a package with a thousand pounds, an address for a book store that deals in the occult, and a gun. Bizarrely enthusiastic, Eddie takes the job and is soon thrust into the exact world that he has always dreamed of, complete with corpses, femme fatales, and a whole lot of trouble. Not surprisingly, Finney eats up the screen and seems to love playing Eddie with all of that character’s nods to Mitchum and Bogart. In every scene, Finney just looks like he’s in love with his trench coat.

“Gumshoe” shares much with the newest Paul Thomas Anderson film in that its humor and drama switch up on you so fast that you start to not care about the plot. And I’ll say that with both films, I am perfectly OK with this approach as by 2014, we know that we aren’t making the next “Maltese Falcon,” so why not carve it up into tasty bits and give us a main character who just seems to glide through the body count? Also with both films, all of the supporting characters add the necessary color needed to make any noir a blast to watch, and the classic noir-ish dialog here spoken with Liverpoolian accents becomes as entertaining as watching a Thai Western for its ethnocentrism.

Sadly, one major error in the film is the score by Andrew Lloyd Webber (yes, the guy who did “Cats”), which never seems right for any scene. It is as if he was hoping to score a different, more serious kind of noir than the one that was before him. He doesn’t kill it, but his music, which frankly is too intense for many scenes, was just not the best choice for our young director, even if Frears himself wanted the score to supplement the disorienting environments and events in “Gumshoe.” The other tragic error in the film, and one that might keep it from a repertory theater screening anytime soon, is its casual use of racial epitaphs, which in a film like 1973’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” make complete sense given the vérité of its titular lead character, but in “Gumshoe,” it just comes off as a clumsy attempt to make a bad joke that I cannot imagine was even that funny in 1971.

Gumshoe Trailer :

Despite these two errors in judgment, “Gumshoe” is successful in giving us a character who you can say was one of the first to demystify the classic hard-boiled detective; Altman’s very successful version of a sloppy Phillip Marlowe in “The Long Goodbye” wouldn’t be released for another two years. Sadly, “Gumshoe” did not find an audience in 1971, so it would be another fourteen years before Frears would make a feature film again, but he would come back with a vengeance by directing Terence Stamp in the massively underrated and terribly serious 1984 British gangster film, “The Hit” before becoming one of the hottest English directors of the 1980s with “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Prick Up Your Ears.”

So, if you haven’t had enough well-intentioned mess of a detective after seeing “Inherent Vice,” I think a trip to “Gumshoe” will give you not only a different take on the messy private eye but also will hand  you a world class actor in Finney and a soon to be brilliant director in Frears, whose first go at it was trying to break up a noir the best he could.