Bright Lights Film Journal

DVD Sampler: Cuban Story, The Vanishing, The Joke, Salesman, and Strange Illusion

Jimmy Lydon in Ulmer's Strange Illusion

In DVD land, the world’s your oyster – pearls included (sometimes)

Cuban Story (Victor Pahlen, 1959)

By the mid-1950s, Errol Flynn was enjoying the low high life of a bloated alcoholic and former matinee idol. His extended lost weekend was spent in Cuba, then a decadent playground for American tourists too dazzled by the glittering casinos to notice revolution brewing in the dark, poor villages beyond Havana.

On one of Flynn’s visits, he and movie producer Victor Pahlen were witness to Fidel Castro’s overthrow of army sergeant Fulgencio Batista’s regime. So Flynn and Pahlen set about capturing what they could on camera, and the results are fairly impressive. Neither of them would ever be mistaken for Joris Ivens or Robert Flaherty, but there is rough and raw footage of street ruckuses and teeming soldiers pressing on to Havana demanding a new government. The two don’t blink at capturing the dying and the dead, and one execution may compel you to look away. What cheapens the enterprise is Flynn’s sometimes patronizing and nearly incoherent commentary.

If ever there was an oddity among the greatly expanding DVDs offerings in the world, it is Cuban Story. The Cuban Revolution as seen through the jaundiced eyes of Errol Flynn should give anyone pause. There is no disputing the power or apparent authenticity of the images captured, but Flynn’s propaganda reeks as much as his liquor-ridden breath. This is no place to get a balanced primer in Cuban history. Too bad the DVD’s distributor, All-Day Entertainment, didn’t fill in the gaps with some relevant journalism in their notes. DVD producer David Kalat provides a bit of background, including mention of the United States’ early endorsement of Castro, but those wanting to learn more about Cuba will have to look elsewhere. Kalat opts for a more extensive retelling of Flynn’s debauchery and the pitiful summary of his life and career. His story is morbidly interesting: after making the execrable Cuban Rebel Girls, Flynn died at age 50 in October 1959, less than one year after the Communist Fidelistas took control of Cuba.

Clocking in at 50 minutes, this is one slim volume. A brief introduction by daughter Kyra Pahlen contributes very little to our understanding. But those fascinated by the epic tragedies of Cuba and/or the wonderful horrible life of Errol Flynn will want to take a look. There is no denying that this is an odd moment captured forever – the curious intersection of a revolution and a dissipated Hollywood has-been.

The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988)

The story’s synopsis has a familiar ring: A young couple parks at a rest stop, and the woman skips off to buy sodas. She disappears, and the man’s panic mounts as he realizes that the police and public are indifferent to his loss. The mystery becomes unbearable.

Sounds like an overworked premise for Alfred Hitchcock (The Lady Vanishes), Roman Polanski (Frantic), or Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown), but The Vanishing quickly veers into new and intriguing territories. As directed by George Sluizer, this Dutch-French thriller attempts, and largely succeeds, at getting under the skin. There is no blood, precious little violence, but a decided increase in anxiety. Early on, Sluizer abandons the traditional trappings of the mysterious disappearance subgenre. We soon learn that the abductor is a seemingly mild professor and family man named Raymond, and we are shown his calculating methods. He is one supreme psychotic as understatedly portrayed by a thin-lipped straight-faced Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, but his calm actually comes off as a kind of sanity in comparison to the destructive obsession of Rex (Gene Bervoets) in finding his lost companion Saskia (Johanna ter Steege).

Sluizer employs a number of methods to keep us fixated on the screen. There is a jumping back and forth in time that suggests a homage to the self-conscious editing in the 1960s of Antonioni (Blowup) and Richard Lester (Petulia). He uses long stretches of silence where nothing seems to happen, but still we wait in anticipation. Most noteworthy, of course, is the famous ending. It is routinely praised as one of the most unnerving experience in modern cinema. Certainly it shocks and disturbs, but a case could be made that it is a violation of the filmmaking spirit that precedes it. Did Sluizer have to resort to sensationalism? Raymond’s methods are consistent with his character, but Sluizer’s are not. Not that a more satisfying finale is easy to conceive. It certainly wasn’t found in Sluizer’s vastly inferior 1993 American remake. For that one, Sluizer accepted a softened alternative, suggesting Hollywood seduction won over artistic conviction.

The Joke (Jaromil Jires, 1968)

Ah, Prague Spring: That fertile moment when Czechoslovakian filmmakers took an endearing and bemused look at humanity that resulted in Loves of a Blonde, The Shop on Main Street, and Closely Watched Trains, among others. Facets Video has now released a DVD of The Joke, a lesser-known but worthwhile entry into the Eastern Bloc pantheon.

The Joke lacks the glorious illumination of humanity that informs Loves of a Blonde and becomes a more overtly social and political account of the time. Certainly the basic plot points in this direction. Ludvik, a devil with the ladies, is consigned to six years’ hard labor for a disrespectful postcard he sent to a woman he was hoping to seduce. When he is released, he methodically plots revenge, breaking at least one heart along the way. He comes to represent dissidence, while the eternally optimistic object of his affection is the radiant face of national solidarity. Occasionally The Joke veers from its tone of politics and realism to more existential matters, such as when a character asks “Can destruction ever be good?” Apparently the anti-propagandist Ludvik thinks so, as played with oily conviction by Josef Somr.

At the time The Joke was first novelized, its author Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) was an opposition leader in the reform movement that resulted in Prague Spring, when artists and intellectuals denounced government repression of art and literature. The Soviet invasion in 1968 effectively ended all further creative ferment, and Czechoslovakia was dominated by hard-line communism that tolerated no disrespect.

The Joke’s director, Jaromil Jires, was just coming of age artistically in 1968. Unlike many of his compatriots, he chose to stay in Czechoslovakia and ride out the era. His style bespoke a facility for documentaries, which he made with distinction over the subsequent years. When he returned to features in the early 1970s, they were good and they pleased the censors. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and And Give My Love to the Swallows are lyrical fantasies inspired by the hard realities of politics. For Jires, who died in 2001, compromise resulted in survival.

Salesman (David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, 1969)

Common myth suggests that the late 1960s in America was an era of such tumult that every corner of society was affected. The fashions and sensibilities of popular culture contributed to the idea more than anything, even more than the nightly news. Young people suddenly dominated society, blew down the doors of convention, and made hippies out of such middle-aged relics as Shelley Winters (Wild in the Streets), and Bob Hope and Jane Wyman (How to Commit Marriage). Wasn’t everybody dropping acid and musing over the cryptic meanings in 2001 and Blowup? Richard Nixon and John Wayne mocked their own stodginess on Laugh-In. Agnes Moorehead found a guru and began wearing the world’s loudest caftans on Bewitched. Even the Robinsons of Lost in Space took to mini-skirts and go-go boots, even though they were light years from earth.

Salesman, the exquisite 1969 documentary from David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, reveals a different America. Here are the no-name drones of capitalism trudging through the dreary landscapes of Middle America preying on the vulnerable. Their ties are dark and narrow, and their suits and shirts stink of countless cigarettes. The four main “protagonists” speak to us like ghostly and forgotten modern nomads. Cars, hotel rooms, living rooms – the Maysles gained access to the intimate spaces of the lower middle classes as the salesmen exercised every tactic of persuasion in unloading their $49.95 product. Yes, you have a beloved family Bible, but this one has magnificent pictures. You have two kids and one Bible – who will inherit? I can come back tomorrow to collect that deposit, and we have an easy payment plan. Of course these guys don’t talk about the Bible during off hours; perhaps they’ve never read it. All focus is on making that quota. One startling scene shows a salesman turning on another, scoring a sale on a weaker door-to-door brother.

Salesman has the documentarian’s ring of truth to it – forsaking plot for direct observation, using long takes, and refusing voiceover narrations or any trickery of the feature movie. Even the wipers sweeping across a snowy windshield have the sound of aged authenticity. Some kind of narrative creeps in by accident, as the “Badger” fails at making sales, growing more desolate right before us. The uncompromising unprettiness of the film ranks with Holy Ghost People, Peter Adair’s classic 1966 documentary of the snake-handling Christians of Scrabble Creek, West Virginia. Both reveal a part of us we’d just as soon forget, but both demand that we look again.

Strange Illusion (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

I like schlock as much as the next guy. Movie entertainment doesn’t get much better than Valley of the Dolls and Return to Peyton Place. But Edgar G. Ulmer’s Strange Illusion, a low-budget 1945 noirish thriller loosely inspired by Hamlet, is just plain tedious. Clocking in at 85 minutes, it felt much longer than Kenneth Branaugh’s four-hour adaptation of the same source.

Movies of this rank need theater audiences to feed off their own cult and camp appeal. This is not a flat-out slam of Ulmer. He came from exceptional training, having studied architecture and philosophy in his hometown at Vienna’s Academy of Arts and Sciences. He apprenticed with no less than Max Reinhardt and F. W. Murnau. But he got caught in a vortex of grade-Z filmmaking that he never escaped. He made so many cheapies in Europe and North America that a complete inventory of his movies is fairly impossible.

Some of his work merits remembering, for example, the respected horror flick The Black Cat. As for Strange Illusion, the curiosity factor wears off early. Likable young man (James Lyndon) suffers from nightmares about his rich and seductive mother (Sally Eilers), his dead father, and mother’s creepy new boyfriend (Warren William). Ulmer does we can with no money and no time. He creates an intermittent mood of unease and dread, but the effort is defeated by mean editing, wobbly sets, and line readings by Eilers that evoke Divine without a sense of humor. Certain shots are funny in their obviousness. When mother, her boyfriend, and son meet, there’s a portrait of dad looming overhead as big as any of the actors. It would have gotten a big laugh on The Carol Burnett Show.

Ulmer has many admirers, including certain French cineastes who helped elevate him to the status of minor auteur. Strange Illusion is not without merit, but Ulmer gets cut only so much slack. With the proper resources, he might have been a great director. But what-iffing doesn’t do credit to the evidence at hand. DVD maker All-Day Entertainment prides itself on selling past oddities, but this dark, grainy print isn’t likely to enlarge the Edgar G. Ulmer Fan Club.