Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ship of Fools (1965, Stanley Kramer)

Ship of FoolsMy problem with Stanley Kramer's Ship of Fools is twofold: the source material and the adaptation.  Based on Katherine Anne Porter's best-selling (and only) novel, Jewish screenwriter Abby Mann was given the unfortunate assignment analogous to writing an animated short of Anna Karenina.  Only, in the hands of Kramer, the piece must also both heavy-handedly condemn the Nazi party (not a problem as Porter's text hates not only Nazis, but equates the German bloodline with it) but create a sympathetic (if naïve) Jewish character to deliver the message with very broad stokes (very much a problem as Porter's text is often, strangely enough, anti-Semitic and never given bullet-points).

Porter's novel is best as a series of vignettes that allows different faces of humanity to react to larger issues.  Hollywood narrative disallows any such storytelling and instead tries to introduce just as many characters (the ensemble cast pictures 27 in the opening credits) in a medium with a sweeping arc.  Passengers board a German ocean liner headed to Europe from Vera Cruz, Mexico in 1933.  Even the film's tagline presents the characters as stereotype ("Explorer, mistress, vagrant, loafer, artist, tramp...") and it is easier (though unfair) to talk of them in only this way.  The passengers dine, flirt, regret and wax philosophic in a way true to a one-dimensional theme (frivolity) if unfair to much of the tone.  Springboards for insight into the characters are often fumbled in the picture as minor happenstance.  A keystone in the novel involving a minority dying while jumping overboard to rescue a pampered, German bulldog is present here, but only for a lone bastion of humanity to give a grand, Elephant Man nudge to the audience that he was a human being.  The novel's personification of philosophies is traded for soap opera.

Ship of Fools is a tale of disease rotting from the core.  The film has the disease metaphorized on the historic horizon.  Compare Kramer's Ship of Fools to Luchino Visconti's take on Thomas Mann's Death In Venice a mere six years later to expose how highfalutin, broad and misappropriated the former is to a similar tone.  Whereas Death In Venice bathes us in sickly yellows, Ship of Fools gives us an inordinate amount of ill characters who we largely don't remember as ill.  Strangely, Ship of Fools won the Academy Award for best cinematography for a job that mainly skirts the issue--as if a novel of sometimes schizophrenic double-consciousness can be fairly summed up as "black and white."

At its worst, Ship of Fools feels weighty for the sake of weightiness.  The passengers disembark upon arrival in Germany, but the intended cynicism in which our diseased characters search for utopia in a land beginning to reap the hatred that would lead to World War II is lessened as it feels like a period piece-- as if the modern audience has grown beyond it.  This is still a film in which 600 Mexican deportees are one-dimensionally violent and, though the film tries to convince itself they are equals, lest we forget Porter's own source material often equates poverty with racial, genetic inferiority.  Conversely, where Porter's Holocaust terrorized invalids alongside Jews, elderly alongside minority, Kramer's Holocaust is very much a Jewish Holocaust (strange as the lone Jew is still very minor and very doe-eyed).  Worse, it vilifies Germany in a way that edifies America-- a sentiment counter-intuitive to the text.  Kramer and Mann dole blame with much too broad strokes in a way that was much more successful in their Judgment at Nuremberg.  This film wants to feel as important, but often chokes us, guilty of the same weighty frivolity of its characters. -- *½ / four stars

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