78/52 [2017] – A Valuable & Enlightening Documentary for Cinephiles

The numbers in the title of Alexandre O Philippe’s documentary 78/52 (2017) represents the number of camera setups and cuts that were required to make the ground-breaking and terrifying ‘shower scene’ in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece Psycho (1960). The endlessly deconstructed scene which occurs less than an hour into the movie and lasts for nearly three minutes happens to be the foremost subject in this fascinatingly obsessive documentary feature. 78/52 is Alexander Philippe’s third cinema-based documentary. His previous works includes The People vs George Lucas (2010) and Doc of the Dead (2014), both the movies serves as a commentary on the moments in cinema that spawned a fresh pop culture. In 78/52, Philippe is more specific, bringing in wide variety of talk-heads, including authors, editors, directors, sound engineers, actors, and film scholars, to riff on the significance of this 3-minute cinematic mayhem, from the perspective of cinema history as well as from the overall American cultural landscape of the 1960s.

The documentary opens with Edgar Allan Poe’s infamous quote (The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”) which may earn a valid contemptuous remark from the feminists. Nevertheless, Poe’s disputed ruminations have provided certain unique aesthetic and thematic designs for the horror cinema. The graphic emotions of fear and panic created by Poe’s narratives found its cinematic equivalent in Alfred Hitchcock’s stylistic elements, which reached its peak with the ‘shower scene’. Addressing this pivotal scene from social context brings certain intrigue to it. Prior to the making of Psycho, in the late 1950s, film-makers have started to test the boundaries of censorship by smartly visualizing taboo-breaking themes. Otto Preminger’s engrossing courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is quite often cited as an example of this censorship-baiting approach. With Psycho, Hitchcock played much-elaborate prank on censors and casual movie-going public. A handful of visuals from Psycho, including the shot of flushing the toilet, happened to be path-breaking in small ways. But the biggest shock for the 1960 audience must have been the idea of seeing a naked woman in the shower – although silhouetted through translucent, foggy curtain. Little did they know that the extremely shocking aspect hadn’t happened yet.

In Psycho, the unanticipated development is witnessing the alleged leading lady Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) being brutally stabbed to death in a shower during her overnight stay at a remote motel. The first half of Alexandre Philippe’s documentary sets the stage to scrutinize this scene by demonstrating what it did to the culture, how it shattered certain social myths, and how it entirely changed the cinematic landscape. A good number of these insights are derivative and some are bit crazy, taking it into the territory of ‘Room 237’ style madness. But some insights are interesting, especially the one about how Psycho broke the notion that bad things in cinema couldn’t happen to someone in a domestic space. The notorious on-screen incident didn’t happen at an abandoned quarry or in the woods, but in a space where civilization is thought to have limited the unbridled flow of violence. The cold war analogies seem a bit of a stretch and there are other shaky statements and reductive assertions, particularly due to selection of talking-heads, who doesn’t exactly bring an analytical eye to the subject at hand.   

But once the general talks trickle down to observe the astounding technical specifics of the ‘shower scene’, 78/52 gets far more interesting. One thing I loved about these portions is the editors, sound engineers and film enthusiasts get into the minutiae of the edits and its subsequent effects. Editors like Walter Murch, Bob Murawski, Chris Innis and Amy Duddleston (editor of Gus Van Sant’s ill-fated 1998 remake) provide acute reflections on why the scene was crucial in terms of editing (exploring every little shift in camera position). At one point, it’s opinionated that despite the chaos conjured in the scene everything was carefully planned, meaning every camera set-up, edits, and its impact on viewers are thoroughly designed with foresight. Amy Duddleston, editor of the remake, says how they shot and cut the scene in similar manner and yet failed to match the magic of the original. It tells something about the utter futility of trying to duplicate a particular movie magic. Another key element of the shower sequence is Bernard Hermann’s shrieking score, which like the visuals revolutionized (and also endlessly parodied) music in horror films. As with previous documentary works on Hitchcock, due space is given to analyze the auteur’s art from the perspective of his own psycho-sexual preoccupations and Catholicism. There are other astounding details in the commentary of the scene: the history of the symbolic painting that Norman Bates uses to cover up his peephole; about the 27 varieties of melons that were tested to mimic the sounds of a knife slashing flesh; and the remark on Hitchcock’s ingenious method of extracting voyeuristic complicity on the part of audience.

Adding further to the documentary’s charm is the interview of Marli Renfro, the body double for Janet Leigh in the shower scene. The old woman isn’t an expert on cinema, but her revelations based on the incidents within the set are much fascinating than the scholars’ dissections on the topic. Director Philippe points out how Janet Leigh was only partially involved and the total absence of Anthony Perkins at the set. Philippe has also included certain stylistic nods to Hitchcock's approach by shooting all the interviews with green-screen and then projecting into a space that looks like Bates Motel (an efficient black-and-white reconstruction). To underline the motif of voyeurism, Philippe makes each interview subjects sit down and watch the scene (subsequently offering their different takes on it). The documentary does include a number of women (Illeana Douglas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Karyn Kusama, Chris Innis, etc) to perceive the scene beyond male gaze, and to may be assuage the criticisms the 'shower scene' has evoked from certain feminist circles. The documentary could have been bolder and profound by adding true feminist criticism about the scene (the violently misogynistic cinema that followed Psycho was mentioned in passing). Including detractors into the mix would also have provided unique perspective on the scene. Nevertheless, the film sharply showcases the film-maker’s great ability to create strong connection between a viewer and his work, so much that the images create an everlasting psychological impact. Compared to the contemporary movies’ special-effects induced set-pieces and dubious money-shots, Hitchcock’s shower scene still retains its power and vitality. 

Alexandre Philippe’s 78/52 (91 minutes) is essential viewing for movie-lovers, whose razor-sharp examination on the iconic scene from Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ prompts an urge to revisit it. It lends string of potent views to the accepted magnificence of this horror cinema classic. 



Cuba and the Cameraman [2017] – A Vibrant and Grounded Look at Life under Fidel Castro

American freelance journalist and documentarian Jon Alpert have for over the four decades reported and gathered stories from places like Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, etc. He has made documentaries for broadcasting networks like HBO, NBC, and PBS. Jon's latest documentary venture is an amalgamation of  his 40 plus years visits to Cuba, capturing the island nation’s cultural allure, grand socialist dreams as well as the harsh realities. Employing cinema verite style of film-making, Jon Alpert’s Cuba and the Cameraman (2017) distills thousand hours of footage into an enthralling 2 hour documentary, which includes Jon’s semi-regular access to Fidel Castro himself.

The film opens on the occasion of Fidel Castro’s death (November 25, 2016), hailed as a great socialist leader in some quarters and censured as an autocrat by others. Although Jon Alpert covers the big events surrounding Cuba from the early 1970s to the recent times – Castro’s visit to United States, the Mariel Bay boat-lift, post-Soviet Union economic crisis, etc – the documentary’s primary focus lies upon three working-class families, who are visited once in six or seven years, over Jon’s 45 years of Cuban visits. Each of the visits subtly convey a lot about the country’s progress (or lack thereof) and provides a much grounded perspective of the so-called Cuban socialism. The approach pretty much reminds us of Michael Apted’s landmark 'Up Series' (which followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964 when they were seven years old; the last part was 56 Up, released in 2012).

Jon Alpert was one of the few American journalists to get closer to the complicated socialist leader of Cuba. In the 1970s, he and his crew, including his wife and film-making partner Keiko Tsuno, took all the state-of-the-art video equipment to Cuba. And, it was all so heavy that they carried it around Havana in a baby carriage. This is said to have first caught Fidel Castro’s eye, which allowed Jon to gain his first interview with the socialist leader. Using his natural charm and persistence, Jon eventually wins over the leader and happens to be the only American journalist to closely cover Castro’s 1979 visit to US (for a speech at U.N.). It is initially made clear that Jon Alpert, like many of us, is drawn by the ideals of Cuban revolution and Castro’s obscure charm. But soon that first, surface impression gives way to a more clear-eyed look as Jon begins to acquaint himself with the working-class families, whose struggles and tenacity mirrors the regime’s failures and yet the country’s undying spirit. What starts off as a mere romanticized view of Cuba paves way to an intimate observation of stagnant lives, filtered through constantly evolving cameras.

Cuba and the Cameraman could be frustratingly apolitical at times. Jon shows the island nation’s period of heightened political tensions, shortages and blackouts, yet it’s very short on political commentary. Like many of the Cubans, who swear fealty to the strict regime, while also continuously facing the heavy toll of the socialist policies, Jon Alpert partly adores the Cuban leader and partly mourns for the proletarians’ agonies. Some may find the documentarian’s apolitical stance as immoral and confusing. Jon does show us the unguarded Castro in few moments, who is otherwise very mindful of projecting his strongman image (always dressed in uniform and not seen without the famous Cuban cigar). However, the genuine personal connection between Fidel and Jon keeps the harder questions out of the conversation. At its best, Cuba and the Cameraman is a wonderful personal visual diary, riddled with spectacular emotional moments.

What makes the documentary a must-watch is the chronicle of Jon’s long friendship with salt-of-the-earth Borregos’ family. The three farmer brothers (Cristobal, Gregorio, and Angel) Borregos farm always welcome the journalist with a beaming smile and a bottle of rum to mark the occasion. Jon first meets the brothers when they are in their 60s. They happily work on the fields, raise livestock, and always win over Jon in arm-wrestling matches. The encounters consistently happen for more than 30 years, and in the intervening years the old peasant brothers face numerous troubles. This depicts the real consequences of U.S.-led blockade and the fall of the Socialist bloc in 1990s. Moreover, the country's free yet gravely under-funded, under-equipped healthcare system is scrutinized much closely. Jon also follows two families in Havana city: Luis, from his days as young working man to political prisoner to his eventual turn as pioneering businessman; and the family of Caridad, a bright schoolgirl who once dreamt of being a nurse but gets married at tender age of 14 and the tough times eventually pushes her towards American shores. Alongside the visual document of these families’ plight, the camera also tours around the broken, unchanging corners of Havana.

Jon Alpert largely considers his travels as a means of ‘making friends’. Considering the fraught US-Cuba relations in the past decades, his achievement couldn’t be easily dismissed just because of the lack of staunch political stance. The ground-level portrait of the people and the country, enlaced with relentless curiosity and exuberance, mostly resist our urge to complain. Most particularly, Cristobal and his brothers’ perseverance and their smile bestow an everlasting impact on us. The brothers’ ability to find beauty and happiness in the simplest things makes up for the documentary’s vibrant heart. And, whenever they are swamped with problems and after hearing their news of demise, genuine tears wells-up our eyes, much more than Cuban mourners filling the streets after Castro’s death, chanting, Yo soy Fidel!” That in itself -- the ability to look beyond Castro’s long shadow cast over Cuba -- is a great triumph of ‘Cuba and the Cameraman’.   


The Nile Hilton Incident [2017] – An Intriguing and Moody Neo-Noir

A dingy urban landscape mired in systemic police corruption, venal political set-up, and powerful corporate elites makes up for the right set-up for a typical gumshoe yarn. Furthermore, include a weary, conscience-stricken police officer, a femme fatale with a sultry voice, and a brutal murder, you might just be remembering those glorious monochromatic noir films of the 1940s. But Swedish director Tarik Saleh in The Nile Hilton Incident (2017) takes all these familiar elements and sets it in modern Egypt (in 2011) as its frustrated citizens are gearing up for a historic uprising. Swedish-Lebanese actor Fares Fares (played ‘Assad’ character in the adaptation of Jussi Adler-Olsen ‘Department Q’ novels) plays the brooding, doomed, chain-smoking central character, wading through the atmosphere of iniquity and perfidy with scorn and suppressed wail. He makes this movie compulsively watchable, despite Saleh’s slightly messy script. Moreover, the perfectly ingrained cultural specificity enriches the noir/pot-boiler staples of the narrative.

Righteous anger crackles in Cairo in the weeks leading to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The President Hosni Mubarak’s crooked regime has provoked hordes of protestors to take up the streets and demand his removal. Politicians, tycoons, and police try their best to hold on to this life-line of corruption and unbridled power. In this crumbling situation, a famous pop singer Lalena is found murdered in the premises of a swanky hotel. The victim’s face is plastered around the city on billboards and normally this would be a high-profile case. But the police force remains nonchalant. The chief assigns the case to Commander Noredin Mostafa (Fares Fares), an unscrupulous detective who has risen through hierarchy through nepotism. Extracting money for him and his colleagues is more important than extraditing justice. Degenerate attitude is the only thing that trickles down from the top.

Considering the people’s collective frustration, which Noredin indifferently watches on TV, the corruption might only be worse in other contours of government institutions. After entering the crime scene, Noredin searches the dead woman’s handbag and without a second thought steals wad of cash. His uncle the Chief is delightfully eating the ordered fish, while the singer’s corpse with bashed head is lying on the carpeted floor. That just seems to be the way these things work here. The superior officers learn that a Sudanese cleaning lady named Salwa (Mari Malek) has possibly seen the killer, but they brush it off and closes the case as suicide. To investigate Lalena’s murder means suspecting some of the very powerful men in Egypt. And that wouldn’t end well for the police officers. However, Noredin stumbles onto the reason for Lalena’s killing through the roll of film, he discretely took from the crime scene.

In the photos, Lalena is intimate with Hatem Shafiq (Ahmed Selim), a most prominent real-estate developer, whose face is also plastered on billboards, advertising about the upscale development projects he’s constructing. Shafiq is also pals with the President’s son. He is clearly an ‘untouchable’. Meanwhile, the illiterate and undocumented Sudanese maid goes into hiding after learning who she saw in the hotel corridor. Despite his superior's order Noredin pursues the case leads and he gradually develops a conscience. At the same time, the dead girl’s beautiful friend Gina (Hania Amar) emerges, also a singer, unearthing the detective's  feelings of romance and lust (he is grieving over his wife’s accidental death). The other members of police force warn him to consider the sensitivities attached to the case. But Noredin, affected by the climate of rebellion, wants to find the real killer.

The Tahrir Square protests and the distinctly Egyptian undertones provide the narrative with an interesting context. Saleh has remarked that he based his script after following the murder case of a Lebanese Singer (Suzanne Tamim) in Dubai. It happened in 2008 and in the ensuing investigation an officer of national Egyptian police force was arrested. Furthermore, a very famous and powerful Egyptian businessman was also involved in the murder. The case was widely covered by the Egyptian media. Saleh instead opts to set his murder story in Cairo, a few days before the Revolution. This brilliant backdrop offers Saleh to equate Noredin’s redemptive attitude with that of the incredible societal uprising. Saleh’s strikingly animated debut-feature Metropia (2009) was about an oddball protagonist, uncovering a terrifying conspiracy. I didn’t watch his second feature Tommy (2014) which was touted as a thriller with noir elements. With The Nile Hilton Incident, Saleh more successfully blends his social commentary with deft aesthetic choices. Pierre Aim’s cinematography (La Haine, Polisse) engulfs the bustling urban jungle under hazy brown smokiness. Saleh-Aim’s foray into noir stylistics, including the vividly lighted criminal underworld dens, mostly blends well with the narrative elements.

At times, the film feels too overwrought (especially after Noredin's tryst with Gina), but the heartbreaking finale packs a hefty punch. As the mystery draws to an infuriating conclusion, withdrawing from Noredin’s tiny conflict to capture the mass of uproarious citizens in movement, the bitter irony tries to decimate the last vestige of hope within us. But there’s some sort of hope in watching an individual and a society wanting to fight the putrefaction that’s considered the norm. Altogether, The Nile Hilton Incident (111 minutes) is an effective Egyptian spin on the classic film-noir style. 


Bomb City [2017] – A Distressing and Thoughtful Fact-Based Drama

Hate and violence is diffused through every culture in the world, and so any gruesome crime committed in a fit of fury conveys few universal truths about the polarized communities. The killing of 19-year old Brian Deneke that occurred in Amarillo, Texas in 1997 deftly portrayed in Bomb City (2017) tells one such timeless and timely tale; timely, because of the current levels of social and political division in America. Tensions had long been simmering between high school football players (jocks) and punk rockers (punks), both white-skinned. Conformity is the most sought out quality in this conservative town, where the teenagers are often angry, bored, and restless. After a nice soccer game in the evening, the youngsters blow off steam by arranging beer parties and cruising the streets in daddy’s car. But the punk rockers with their Mohawk hair, heavy steel chains, and leather jackets engraved with image of skull and crossbones represent cataclysm and chaos for the church-going, upper middle-class community. Director Jameson Brooks sharply indicates this rift in the movie’s earlier portion, delineating how the narrative is much more than one youngster’s murder.

Debutant film-maker Jameson Brooks and his co-writer Sheldon Chick are Amarillo natives, whose colorful observations regarding social expectations of the town provide an array of impressive moments. Both Brooks and Chick have also humanized the characters on both sides, without making one side entirely good or bad. The title not only refers to Amarillo’s close proximity to the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant, but also denotes the cultural conflict that ticks like a bomb. Dave Davies plays the role of doomed protagonist Brian Deneke, a green Mohawk-haired youngster and a member of the local punk scene. He is living away from his caring, working-class parents and shacked up in a dilapidated warehouse with his friends. The place also serves as their music venue.

Jameson Brooks opens the movie in a riveting fashion. It’s night time in Amarillo. A gale blows through the empty neon-lit streets. The only human presence is seen in the parking lot, where two groups of teenagers are getting prepared to smash each other. Just as the fight is about to pick up, the shot is cut to the bright Amarillo courtroom, a moody buttoned-up lawyer (Glenn Morshower) holding the punk’s jacket, imprinted with words ‘Destroy everything’ (actually a reference to Deneke’s favorite band, Filth which calls for ‘destroying our preconceptions’). The lawyer laments about the message we want to bestow our children for generations to come. Soon, it becomes clear this man is not prosecuting the murderer, but rather vilifying the victim (from his choice of clothing to music) to justify the cold-blooded murder perpetrated by his client. Then the narrative moves back in time to scrutinize the build-up to inevitable violence.

Brooks largely succeeds in putting the viewers in the shoes of Brian Deneke, a member of an often maligned sub-culture. The script showcases how for Brian, punk music was a means to express his frustration and anger about life and everything. He is enthused about a teenager attending his punk music concert. He slightly frowns when the girl (Maemae Renfrow) he likes lit up a cigarette. Brooks and Chick although doesn’t depict Brian as a martyr, their sympathies clearly lie with these alleged oddballs. Early when the band plays their loud music, Brooks juxtaposes it with the ferocity found in a Friday Night game. For all their hostilities, the two groups are shown to be embracing different means available to burn their excessive testosterone. The football doesn’t go well for the home team. Cody Cates (Luke Shelton), a baby-faced junior player laments about their defeat with his bros in a snack hut. In comes Brian's friends for a coffee, and Cody to fit in among his bros, addresses Brian with a, “whats-up, faggot?” The ensuing minor verbal altercation foreshadows the bloody ones to follow.

The film depicts the irreparable crime of 17 year old jock Cody (pseudonym for real perpetrator Dustin Camp) in a hard-hitting, clear-cut manner. However, the real villains of the story are the ones who judged this shameful case in Amarillo courthouse. Defense attorney Warren Clark’s (in real-life it was Cameron Wilson) declamations would seem like exaggerated writing, but most of his hateful words were actually ripped directly from the courtroom transcript. He unashamedly exploits the jury members’ prejudices, painting the punks as violent miscreants and their opposers as pillars of the church-going community. The final light sentence of Cody Cates (Dustin Camp) that shocked the community perfectly represents the privilege and baseless biases saturated throughout every facet of the society (including the judicial system; the judge presiding Brian Deneke’s case feared reprisals, and even sealed the names of the jurors).

Brooks’ directorial technique to cut back and forth (between courtroom and past events), and doling out information in parcels, largely helps examining the dynamics within the clique and hostilities between them. There’s certainly a lack of restraint in the way the director overtly and repeatedly depicts the thematic intentions. And, at times the visual flourishes overwhelm the emotions or intimacy portrayed on-screen (for example, Brian and his girl friend Jade’s moment of intimacy in the grass fields). Despite such unsubtle or loud techniques, Brooks’ sharp characterizations allow us to fully immerse ourselves in the raging cultural battlefield. The most commendable aspect of the writing is not turning Brian’s killer into a one-dimensional bad guy. After the sad incident, the camera is placed inside Cody’s car, as the teenager’s adrenaline rush is slowly replaced with self-awareness and outright panic (Shelton is excellent in this scene). Of course, Cody’s lack of remorse eventually makes us despise him, but the film-maker refrains from judging him or presenting him as an inhuman creature.

One of the interesting inventive choices is to include Marilyn Manson’s post-Columbine speech on ‘blame and violence’ which is heard in parts in the opening and ending of the narrative (he mentioned Deneke’s death in the speech). Manson’s speech may indicate a specific moment in the late 90s in America (he forlornly questions, “Is adult entertainment killing our children? Or is killing our children entertaining adults?”). But the cliques, consisting of teenagers desperately desiring to blend-in as well as stand-out, is present in all cultures since the intolerant society continues to judge/punish individuals by their outward appearances. In this fashion, Bomb City (95 minutes) is a deft observation of male angst and also makes an impassioned statement on the perils of social conformity and ostracization.