Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review - The Cool World (1963)

Set amidst the unsavory street corners and Babylonian din of early 60's Harlem, Shirley Clarke's vivid, rough-edged drama tells the story of the Royal Pythons, a scrappy teen-aged gang trying to make a name for themselves. 15-year old Duke, a Python warlord (played with affecting stoicism by first-time actor Rony Clanton), aspires to become the club's president and have a reputation as a killer - for both he requires a gun. He arranges to buy a pearl-handled Colt from a local gangster, and spends the duration of the film frantically hustling to pay for it, violently clashing with a rival gang, ascending the ranks of his own crew, and reaping all that comes along with the top spot.

As she does in better known works like 'The Connection' and 'Portrait of Jason,' Clarke freely blends scripted narrative with elements of cinéma vérité. She forgoes set pieces for a series of authentic city locales, into which she disperses her players; bustling boulevards uptown, deserted playgrounds at dusk, a dreamily rendered Coney Island worthy of Morris Engel. The voyeuristic framework, exoticized setting, casting of non-actors and poor sound dubbing recall the ethnographic fictions of Jean Rouch, who's pioneering works shot in Africa are probably this film's closest antecedents. Like Rouch, Clarke presents a somewhat naive diagnosis of the community that she documents, in this case a relentless death-drive that compels the young African American protagonists to murder each other and pursue their own demise with little rationale. Fortunately for the filmmaker, the vitality and sheer energy of the inner-city neighborhood and its residents shine through.

While the simplistic superimposed storyline hangs a bit loosely from the dynamic imagery, the jazz score by the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet is tight and tensile, nimbly shadowing the onscreen action. The legendary trumpeter gets top billing, but it's Mal Waldron's kinetic compositions that constitute the film's greatest triumph. Waldron, who would go on to craft under-appreciated scores for 'Sweet Love, Bitter' and 'Three Rooms in Manhattan,' provides a masterful selection of moody themes and probing piano cues that complement the narrative in a number of inventive ways. On the boardwalk in Brooklyn, he incorporates a carnival organ that is playful yet ominous, and in one desperately needed scene of tenderness, a music box tinkles while Duke gives an impromptu geography lesson to LuAnne, a childlike teenage prostitute.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Notes on... Muhammed Ali, The Greatest (1974)

In the wake of Muhammed Ali's passing earlier this year, many of the films that immortalized the boxer's legacy in and out of the ring have been revisited, in print and on the repertory circuit. Leon Gast's polished Oscar-winner 'When We Were Kings' an account of Ali's 1974 title bout with George Foreman in Zaire, reappeared at movie-houses across the country, as did Bill Siegel's illuminating 'The Trials of Muhammad Ali,' focused on the fighter's legal travails at the end of the 1960's. Some lesser known titles have wisely been reevaluated (William Greaves' gritty, unembellished 'The Fighters,' reassessed by Richard Brody), while other, more questionable works have remained obscure (Tom Gries' hokey hagiography 'The Greatest,' featuring among many other missteps, James Earl Jones portraying Malcolm X).

Worthy of a fresh look but excluded from recent conversation is William Klein's 'Muhammed Ali, The Greatest.' Likely due to a confusing release history (its first section was put out as a standalone feature with a different title in 1969), as well as an emerging distaste among American audiences and critics for Klein's blatantly anti-U.S. stripe, his artful documentary was and is still rarely shown. It's a shame, as it is a sharply realized portrait of the complex fighter, one that is far more ingenious in conception than any of the aforementioned titles. The film boasts two rather bold formalistic innovations, the most striking of which is a bipartite narrative structure. Its first half, shot in 1964 in black and white, chronicles Ali's quest for the heavyweight championship, trailing him as he trains, whips up media frenzy and upsets the fearsome Sonny Liston twice. The young Ali, then still going by his birth name of Cassius Clay, is pompous yet introspective, confident of his greatness but increasingly aware of the glass ceiling he will inevitably crash into as a black athlete in the stifling racial climate of 60's America. Klein then jumps ahead to 1974 in full color, to the "Rumble in the Jungle" fight with Foreman, where a slightly ripened, but no less flamboyant or dominant Ali regains the title in another shocker.

The elision of the intervening decade - in which Clay joined the Nation of Islam, became Ali, refused to serve in Vietnam, and lost his public and professional stature - exemplifies the filmmaker's oblique storytelling slant. Rather than have one of his subjects speak his views on the state of racial affairs in 1964, Klein shows the stakes. He contrasts ghoulish, cigar-smoking stakeholders conferring about boxers as if they were livestock (distorted with the director's signature fish-eye lens) with stoic undercard fighters, grimly awaiting a grueling punishment that will likely be their moment in the sun. In Lewiston, Maine, the site of the second contest with Liston, the radicalization effect is not discussed but acted out by a group of black teenagers performing a psychodrama at the behest of a white teacher. It begins as a playful recreation of an pre-fight press conference (one student plays a cocky, shirtless Ali, another a journalist) and ends with spirited calls for black power and equality. Ten years later in Africa, the earthy, inspirational image of Ali is juxtaposed with the false magnanimity and authoritarian ubiquity of Zairean President Mobutu, who one cannot help but liken to the parasitic American fight promotors shown earlier. The strong insinuation is that no matter the color of their skin, a champion of the people will always run counter to the oppressor, and ultimately upstage him.

The most audacious of Klein's allusive tactics (and the second of the stylistic contrivances that distinguish his film) is the omission of any footage from the three featured fights. Usage was likely was not allowed due to copyright issues, but the director uses the restriction to his advantage, eschewing the ready-made climax of the title bout. He imaginatively fills in the gaps where the fight would have been shown, with iconic still photographs, flickering ringside montage that imitates flashbulbs but obscures the melee, even boastful, morning-after recollections from the fighter himself. More than a creative way of reframing the traditional sports documentary that demands action, Klein shifts focus to the profound depths of Muhammed Ali as a man, struggling against particularly difficult odds and times. The effect makes the viewer wonder if the film's title refers to Ali's pugilistic prowess, or something else altogether.