It may seem like bad manners to welcome the Berlin Philharmonic to New York by discussing a film which deals with the darkest period in its history, but I have no trouble pointing out that its creator’s neutral position leads to a fair, even sympathetic treatment of the orchestra and the survivors who tell the story through their personal experiences and perspectives. The humanity and culture of these gentlemen shine through, and through the political murk, the viewer can develop a vivid sense of what made this orchestra and the musicians in it unique. Enrique Sánchez Lansch's Das Reichsorchester is entirely the product of a contemporary German mentality, reflecting the desire of a later generation to understand the many gradations of complicity and innocence, courage and fear, their grandparents could grasp as choices in a political system which left them few.
Jordan Belfort might be content to be a jerk if only he knew that he was one. Or perhaps his jerkiness is as self-evident to him as the truth that life is all about the Benjamins. At first The Wolf of Wall Street seems like the “I was going to be busy all day” climax of Goodfellas extended to three hours and accelerated from Cadillac to Ferrari pace. No other Scorsese movie is so playful, few are so funny; what a thrill to see Our Greatest Director disburdened of the weight of prestige almost to the point of bad taste. Like Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street is a three hour film which never settles down. Instead of exposition, character development, subplot, landscape and wallowing in production design, there are fake TV ads (starting with the one which opens the film, blending with the production company logos), cover versions of once good songs, direct address to camera, the thoughts of characters narrated to us as voice over and several interminably uninspiring “inspirational” speeches. This is the world of a man whose vocabulary, grammar and syntax are made of such ticky-tack.
Simon Callow, in his biography of Orson Welles, cites the Mercury actor, William Alland, on Welles' personal devastation caused by the failure the company's 1938 revival of William Gillette's (1853-1937) Too Much Johnson (1894). According to Alland, who was with him most of the time, Welles "retired into his air-conditioned tent at the St. Regis, where he lay in darkness surrounded by 25,000 feet of film...convinced that he was going to die, racked by asthma and fear and despair." Alland reported "the self-vilifications and the remorse for what he had done to those around him..." Although Welles returned to work and to his favorite diversions soon enough, it is clear that the failure of Too Much Johnson was a major defeat for him.
If anyone needs no introduction, it is Orson Welles, although he in fact introduced himself countless times to movie and television audiences, above all in his many appearances in commercials, and even to live audiences. There is as much misinformation about him as there is about George Washington. (For one thing, Citizen Kane is not his best film, as impressive as it is.) As with any artist, we have to understand his life work as a whole, as compromised as some of it may be, before making judgments and creating hierarchies. The varied activities he pursued—in some cases with substantial success—before he made Citizen Kane are familiar enough, even outside the world of cinephiles, but not everyone has thought about how they worked together to bring him within reach of the innovations of Kane.
Holly Hardman begins her important film, Good People Go to Hell Saved People Go to Heaven, with words in white lettering against a black background—words in a basic, analytical form, first the word “rapture” followed by a series of common synonyms—euphoria, elation, bliss, etc.—then a dictionary definition of the expression, “the Rapture,” Theology; aspect of Apocalyptic Millennialism. In Evangelical and fundamentalist Christian belief, the act of being lifted by Jesus into heavenly skies upon the Second Coming, either before, during, or after the Tribulation (a time of great suffering for those left behind on earth).” Before any moving image appears, we hear a strange, incoherent hissing sound, which becomes clearer as we observe a strapping man in early middle age. The man, who wears biblical robes and flowing hair and beard, is muttering the name of Jesus, as he carries a large cross along a highway. Then he half-chants, “Jesus have mercy, Lawd.” The cross has a small wheel or caster at its base to facilitate the bearing of it. This practical touch hints that the man is not carrying out some fanatical penance, but working.
Apocalypse then. As an act of recollection, The Master captures the Fifties with perfect pitch, all the more remarkable because the film’s creator wasn’t there. Two stories collide from opposite directions. One is the story of an invisible man, a World War II veteran who never recovers from combat. The other is a charlatan savant skimming the gullible and rising to become a cult leader, the Master of the title. One life has slipped through the cracks, as adrift as Okies in the Dust Bowl but desolately lonely. The other life is a round-the-clock power play to grab the golden ring.
For a man of the 1970s, Travis Bickle spends a lot of time looking at and through screens. His world is nearly always framed, either by a movie screen, an old TV, a windshield, a shop window or a rear …