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Directors/Screenwriters: Federico Borgia and Guillermo Madeiro
2015 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Divorce is never a joyous affair. While it may be a relief to both parties, there is usually an instigator who has the courage to throw in the towel and who can more easily move on. The ego blow taken by the discarded partner is not so quickly healed and often results in a quest for love or status of any kind to replace the feelings of unattractiveness and deflation.
In psychological terms, it seems that cars are symbolic of the male ego, and that certainly is the case in the mordantly funny Clever, a new comedy from the Uruguayan filmmaking team of Federico Borgia and Guillermo Madeiro. The duo, who were both born in Montevideo and earned social communication degrees from the Catholic University of Uruguay, have worked together since 2005, honing their unique style in the process of making short films, music videos, and experimental documentaries. In this, their feature film debut set sometime in the early 2000s, Borgia and Madeiro take aim at machismo, chronicling the frustrations of Clever (Hugo Piccinini), a martial arts instructor who, in the opening scene, is sitting in court as the presiding judge grants a divorce to his wife Jacqueline (Soledad Frugone).
Clever did not want the divorce, and soon after the court hearing, we see him persuade Jacque to get in his rusted, blue Chevette and then try to force her to kiss him. She fights him off and disappears behind a gated entrance to the home they once shared. When we next see the couple, it is six months later. Clever has completely shaved his balding head, giving him a tougher look, and painted his car orange. He is picking up his son Bruce (Santiago Agüero) for his weekend of custody. The exes talk to each other amicably, though Clever grills Bruce later about the new man in Jacque’s life.
After a trip to the dojo where Clever teaches, he takes Bruce to his apartment, minimally furnished and very much a divorced man’s pad. Bruce isn’t much like his namesake and Clever’s idol, Bruce Lee, preferring to sit in front of the TV playing videogames on a cheap game console. When he wants to play with Clever’s model cars, Bruce must be very careful—this is a collection as fragile as Clever’s ego. Bruce does delight his father, however, when he notices a car painted with flames as they drive along a Montevideo street. After Clever’s friend and coke-snorting buddy Juez (Ernesto Borgia) strong-arms the car’s owner into telling him who painted it and where he can be found, Clever sets off for the sleepy town of Las Palmas to find the artist who can make his wheels the most badass at the city’s annual car show.
Borgia and Madeiro’s shooting style, ably lensed by cinematographer Ramiro González Pampillón, favors extreme close-ups and slow horizontal pans that provide humorous juxtapositions. For example, we see only the stubbly mouth of the judge in the opening scene as he steams his glasses with his breath in slow motion and rubs them clean. We watch Bruce pumping small dumbbells, followed by a pan to his father pumping considerably more iron in one of many mirror images that dot the film. The directors use slow motion to suggest Clever’s emotions, as when he sees his car after Sebastian (Marcos Escobar), the body-builder/artist, drives it out of his shed; this priceless moment of ecstasy uses a corny love song about sex in a car performed in English by singer Ismael Varela to reveal the dragon-shaped flames along the side and the classic pose of Bruce Lee with hands at the ready painted on the hood.
In the grand tradition of Paris, Australia, in Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) or Werner Herzog’s Wisconsin in Stroszek (1977), Las Palmas is a place that reason forgot. When Clever stops to relieve himself in the bushes, a woman on horseback rides by and shoots his tire out with her rifle. His arrival in town along a long approach appropriately lined with tall palm trees lands him next to a cantina with a red popsicle painted on its side. Everyone near the cantina, including a man wearing a pageboy wig, is slowly sucking on a popsicle, a Las Palmas specialty made of wine from locally grown grapes. Police play pick-up sticks with a handcuffed prisoner and argue about whether he moved a stick. Clever incurs the wrath of the man (Néstor Guzzini) he was told was the artist by rightfully doubting he is who the villagers and he say he is (and slights are not forgotten in this small, possibly inbred town.) Finally, Sebastian and his mother (Marta Grandé) form quite a pair—a muscle-bound, religious mama’s boy who has “a 100 percent latin temperment” and possibly a hard-on for Clever, and a sexually frustrated woman who has decorated their home with hundreds of her paintings and drawings of nude males.
Where Clever succeeds most spectacularly is in the offhand depiction of the masculine psyche. The man whose car sent Clever on his quest is a flabby, hair-covered, unattractive man who projects his desired self-image onto his car. Clever’s car, at the beginning, reflects the shabby state of his ego. He is assertive in Las Palmas, but can’t wheedle his way out of sleeping in Sebastian’s bed—feet to head—and finally simply abandons Sebastian near a small lake where they are shooting photos of the car when it appears that the artist is planning to make a major move on him. His impotence in the face of his wife’s rejection finally erupts when he bashes a large rock through his rival’s windshield, a perfect image of his shattered ego. In the end, he reveals himself to be very much the boy, as he and Bruce sit side by side wolfing burgers down at a sidewalk stand and playing in the cars most suited to them—bumper cars.
This film is filled with oddball moments, gorgeous frames, and most important, a central character whose confusion is touching and funny in equal measure. This is a film to treasure.
Clever screens Saturday, October 24 at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 25 at 6:15 a.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
Adama: An ingeniously animated coming-of-age story depicts a 10-year-old West African whose journey to save his brother takes him into the heart of battle during World War I. (France)
How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)
Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Simon Rouby
2015 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In a village in West Africa isolated at the bottom of a large, circular gorge, 12-year-old Adama (Azize Diabaté Abdoulaye) and his friends enjoy an afternoon swimming and diving into a water-filled depression far below a narrow path where some village elders and Adama’s brother Samba (Jack Amba) are standing. Although told to stay with them to prepare for his initiation the next day, Samba defies the elders and performs a perfect swan dive into the pool. His independent nature will prove a trial to the villagers, and especially Adama, when his initiation into manhood is interrupted by an evil omen that he is possessed—an albatross flying high above the village. When he is told he must live with the village shaman, who will try to cure his possession, Samba sets off in the night to join the people of the wind, the Nassaras, in the outside world who have tempted him with gold and adventure. Adama sets off to bring his brother home. Eventually, his travels land him in the middle of no man’s land during World War I’s Battle of Verdun, during which more than a quarter-million French and German soldiers perished.
In his debut feature film, French animator/director/screenwriter Simon Rouby has turned to France’s past to tell a fable of sorts with flourishes of magic realism abetted in this animated film by a combination of 3D laser-scanned characters and 2D scenery and decors. While France’s colonial past is alluded to, as Samba is enticed to fight for France, while men in the coastal village to which Adama makes his way are conscripted if they don’t volunteer, the film’s main focus is the fish out of water adventure of Adama and his single-minded quest to save his brother.
The look of this film is both beautiful and a bit disconcerting. The backgrounds in the African portions of the film are impressionistic, with all the beauty of a New Mexico desert. The high cliffs that surround Adama’s village are modeled on the landscape where the Dogon tribes live—North Mali, by the Bandiagara cliffs—though the actual location is left unspecified in the film. Ferrofluids (iron particles mixed with ink that can be manipulated with magnets) and a combination of live-action effects and paintings provide some stunning images, from ghostlike soldiers in gas masks to a sandstorm that pummels Adama on his trip to the coast. On the other hand, Adama and Samba, though designed by Rouby to look lifelike, look anything but. Perhaps in 3D, they accomplish his goal, but in the 2D I saw, they looked like rough CGI.
Appearances aside, the action and voice actors are compelling and affecting. When Djo (Oxmo Puccino), the strong African warrior who protected Adama while they were crossing to France, is shown in a vast hospital blinded by mustard gas, it is a shocking and terrible moment. His dismay at being sent to a fight an enemy he never got a chance to see shows the gaping distance between traditional wars fought face to face and the mechanized, impersonal death that has grown ever more sophisticated since the beginning of the 20th century. Adama’s naïve wonder at the world outside his village, from the spreading ocean to the truck tracks that seem to line every road, reveals his disoriented curiosity. When he falls in with a French thief who arranges for them both to get to Paris on a truck and then steals Adama’s money, Adama’s tears of loneliness, fear, and frustration in a back alley where he is forced to spend the night are all too real and pitiable.
Throughout the film, Adama is met with an effigy of a spirit or god that seems to keep him on his course to finding Samba. It appears that Abdu (Pascal N’Zonzi), a beggar Adama encountered in the seaside village who was forced to fight for France, is the embodiment of this spirit; Adama sees him on the Verdun battlefield cursing at the German planes that swoop down to strafe anything the moves. He provides Adama and Samba with the key to survival—to remember their roots—and finishes Samba’s initiation ceremony by making a small cut on each temple that symbolically opens his eyes to the world beyond childhood.
Adults watching this film will find the coming-of-age story familiar, but the context unfamiliar and sobering. Despite the resemblance of the village to the isolated utopia of Shangri-La, the villagers are real people, with strict rules and rebellious youths. The blood ritual is mild in comparison to other types of traditional initiation rites, but the connection to the out-of-control test of manhood that was The Great War should have audiences wondering which way of life is more civilized. This film may be too intense for younger children, but should resonate with young adults. One of Rouby’s stated goals of helping Europeans and others understand the experience of immigrants from Africa is noble, but the remoteness of a film set 100 years in the past with folkloric content may not be sufficient to open eyes and hearts. Nonetheless, this film may be just good enough to pull it off.
Adama screens Friday, October 23 at 5:45 p.m., Sunday, October 25 at 11:30 a.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)
Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)
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Director/Screenwriter: Gabriel Lichtmann
2015 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Is Gabriel Lichtmann the Woody Allen of Argentina? Although Lichtmann has only made two feature films in 10 years, both deal with his Jewish identity in his big-city hometown of Buenos Aires, both are written and directed by him, and at least one—How to Win Enemies—has an intellectual, sexually bumbling nerd as its main protagonist. How to Win Enemies is, like his own description of his feature debut, Jews in Space or Why Is this Night Different from All Other Nights? (2005), also a sad comedy, and though rather predictable, it is still a well-executed film that holds one’s attention and sympathy for its duration.
Like Jews in Space, How to Win Enemies begins during one of the more important rituals of Jewish life—a wedding. Max Abadi (Javier Drolas), an attorney in practice with his brother Lucas (Martín Slipak), is marrying another attorney in their firm, Paula (Eugenia Capizzano). We come in right before the end of the wedding ceremony and get to watch Max smash the wine glass underfoot as the guests yell “Mazeltov!” The film cuts to the wedding reception. A nervous Paula asks Lucas whether he can tell that there is a rip in her dress, and he assures her she looks fine and is too good for his brother. He delivers Paula and Max’s speech, which he has written, to the head table, and Max opens the envelope containing the speech, unfolds it, and says the first two lines: “How do you win enemies? By telling the truth.” Then the film flips back to two days before the wedding, when a series of misadventures turn Lucas, an Agatha Christie fan who has written a mystery novel, into an amateur detective.
The film takes its time moving into the mystery portion of the film with a languorous introduction phase meant to acquaint us with likely suspects to a theft Lucas will find himself investigating. This phase does not proceed as it does in many mysteries I’ve seen because it doesn’t present these characters as having obvious axes to grind or hidden agendas. In fact, most of the suspects seem unequivocally innocent and delightful. The real pleasure of this film is not in solving a mystery, but rather in the perfect vignettes of the talented cast that reveal different aspects of life in Argentina’s capital.
The mystery involves a set-up in which Lucas is the target. That he feels he was specifically marked and not just some random victim of an opportunistic thief comes from his instincts, not from anything the plot reveals. As he starts weaving the threads of information together from Facebook, to a library, to a seedy part of town, and then closer to home, we meet a very resourceful woman (Inés Palombo) with some muscle to back her up, a sarcastic librarian (Carla Quevedo) who may turn out to be the woman of Lucas’ dreams, and a professional criminal (Ezequiel Rodríguez) who seems to think Lucas isn’t entitled to enter a conference room in his own law firm.
Lichtmann peppers the film with realistic vignettes that are sometimes comical, but really aren’t all that funny. For example, Lucas is trying to help a woman get an order of protection against her abusive husband, but his witness backs out of testifying. He goes to “Pelícano,” (Sangrado Sebakis) a large, curly-haired fixer to be his witness for hire. Pelícano asks for $3,000, Lucas counters with $600, and the deal is quickly struck—a little larceny in service to a good cause that plays with all the comedic humanity I’m sure Lichtmann intended. We also travel with Lucas through the streets of the city as he follows an attractive woman, very likely a hooker, to an elementary school to pick up her son and bring him back to an apartment complex with burglar bars over the windows. Yes, this is Buenos Aires, too.
Max’s bachelor party is loaded with attractive hookers and a porn movie blares in the background, but this scene made me feel rather sad for Paula and for Lucas as well. Lucas seems disgusted with the throwback machismo Max displays with entitled ease, and we get the feeling that Paula will be turning to Lucas almost immediately after the ink on her marriage license dries, and that Lucas knows it.
Most of all, we see Lucas and Max bickering and looking out for each other in equal measure. Lucas puts up with Max’s hooker-strewn bachelor party, while Max indulges Lucas’ reminiscing in their childhood home left vacant by the recent death of their mother. The latter is a scene to which many middle-aged people will relate, revealing an inventory of outdated furniture and decors, shelves of family photos, a kitchen crammed with a lifetime’s worth of gadgets and tableware, forgotten card collections and treasures crammed in the boys’ desk and dresser drawers. These moments of unity appeal to Lucas’ romantic side, while Max has little use for anything that doesn’t matter in the here and now.
It doesn’t take Lucas long to figure out who Mr. or Ms. Big is—but I was way ahead of him. No matter. When we return to where the film began, the wedding reception, there will be a payoff and a payout. It’s not as satisfying a conclusion as I would have liked—I’m more vengeful, I suppose—but in a movie about Jews, it provides the Old Testament eye for an eye that is not only appropriate, but also inevitable. If Lichtmann is the Argentine Woody Allen—and this is a rather lightweight, conventionally made film in the Allen mold—he is nonetheless graced with a bigger heart and a better eye for the absurdity of human existence.
How to Win Enemies screens Wednesday, October 21 at 5:45 p.m., Thursday, October 22 at 9:30 p.m., and Monday, October 26 at 2:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)
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Director: Gillian Armstrong
2015 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
My 2015 Chicago International Film Festival coverage kicks off today, and the film under consideration is a real doozy from the brilliant Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong. Armstrong has largely abandoned the feature format she plied with such skill to turn out such enduring films as My Brilliant Career (1979), Starstruck (1982), and my favorite version of Little Women (1994), and turned to documentary filmmaking. While spending about the last 40 years creating her version of Michael Apted’s Up series featuring three girls from Adelaide, Armstrong has kept her focus on women’s experiences and her homeland. Women He’s Undressed combines these two concerns as Armstrong creates a hybrid documentary about costume designer Orry-Kelly, the Australian from the tiny coastal town of Kiama, NSW, who made it big on the other side of the Pacific dressing some of Hollywood’s brightest stars.
Armstrong combines traditional talking-head interviews and clips from some of the nearly 300 films for which Orry-Kelly made costumes with depictions of Kelly, engagingly played by Australian TV star Darren Gilshenan, breaking the third wall to speak directly to the audience about his life from a stage, the place where Kelly first gained inspiration and experience in show business. As seems to be something of the norm with biopics these days, Women He’s Undressed starts with Kelly’s death, as eight young women dressed in red gowns carry a rowboat like a coffin. The dresses refer to Kelly’s most notorious creation, the red gown Bette Davis’ defiant character wore to the white ball in Jezebel (1938), and the boat the conveyance Armstrong uses throughout the film to propel Kelly away from Australia and through the episodes of his life. “When you grow up with the smell of the ocean, the horizon beckons you every day,” Kelly says early in the film.
Costume designer Ann Roth, who worked with Kelly, questions Armstrong’s project at the very beginning. “You say nobody knows who he is? Who doesn’t know who he is!?” A string of snippets showing the costumes he made on the backs of a slew of famous actresses, from Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942) to Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958) and Natalie Wood in Gypsy (1962), confirm that even if people don’t know precise details about Orry-Kelly, they certainly know his work.
The film proceeds roughly chronologically from Orry George Kelly’s childhood and takes liberal dives into his experience of being an out gay man in homophobic Hollywood. His nurturing mother, played by Deborah Kennedy, encouraged his art studies and theatrical ambitions, while his father, a tailor and reformed drunk, propagated a bright pink carnation he dubbed the “Orry,” in oblique reference to Kelly’s being “different” despite his father’s attempts to drum the tendency out of him.
Much is made in the film of Kelly’s “matehood” with Archie Leach when they were both struggling actors living together in New York. Through Kelly’s narration, we learn that two had a lot in common and subsidized their anything-goes lifestyle in Greenwich Village by making and selling Kelly-Leach ties by the hundreds. Throughout the film, Armstrong returns to Archie’s transformation into Cary Grant, how Grant played the studio game by giving up his relationship with actor Randolph Scott to marry actress Virginia Cherrill; his subsequent suicide attempt, which Kelly blames on denying his true nature; and his later failed marriages. This throughline provides the private part of Kelly’s biography that producer/director Eric Sherman says he undoubtedly had but had been secretive about to the end of his life. Grant, who never answered any questions about his sexuality, doesn’t come off very well in the film, but this again would probably be true to Kelly’s undoubted sense of betrayal and abandonment.
The main event, of course, is Kelly’s spectacularly successful career. He was hired by Warner Bros. to bring some gloss to their proletarian style of filmmaking, and he outdid himself. He worked with colleagues Adrian and Travis Banton to make Kay Francis Hollywood’s “best dressed woman,” and Ruth Chatterton, another Warner Bros. star, called his designs “well bred.” His gowns for 42nd Street show the energy of the unforgettable penny costumes and double-hooped skirts that he may or may not have had a hand in creating; the film suggests that he admired the creative volcano that was Busby Berkeley. It was his working relationship with Bette Davis, however, that provided him with his greatest challenge.
It’s fascinating to learn that Davis refused to allow Kelly to use a metal underwire to boost her sagging breasts because she feared the metal would give her cancer, so he had to design other foundations for her. Armstrong shows us clip after clip of Davis and the challenges her figure posed to Kelly. His tests of fabrics for the red gown in Jezebel were extensive and successful, as many people who have seen the black-and-white film swear it was red that they saw. Another figure that gave Kelly trouble was Natalie Wood’s. Her too-slender form did not make her the ideal candidate for the role of Gypsy Rose Lee, the world’s most famous stripper. Armstrong takes a peek inside one of her costumes for the film to show the padding Kelly used to fill out her breasts and hips.
Angela Lansbury, who considers herself a character actress, confirms that Kelly’s skill went beyond making beautiful clothes to helping actors inhabit their roles and enhance their performances by matching the mood of each scene. This comment is illustrated through several of the films he designed. For example, clips of Now, Voyager (1942) show the transformation of Bette Davis from a dowdy, mentally unstable woman to a glamorpuss of classic elegance; however, the real touch of genius Kelly brought to the film was in the last scene, when he responded to Davis’ desire that her clothes not detract from the drama of the moment. He puts her in a simple blouse and skirt, allowing her face to register as the most important element in the frame. In another anecdote, we learn that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis went into the ladies restroom at the studio in their Some Like It Hot (1959) disguises to see if anyone would notice them—nobody did!
Kelly also liked to push the envelope of the stuffy 1950s. His designs for Auntie Mame allowed him to create flamboyant, colorful outfits for the outsized personality of the main character, a visual tweak to the Establishment that defined Mame Dennis. He was determined to bring all of Marilyn Monroe’s sex appeal to the screen in Some Like It Hot. Jane Fonda, who worked with him on some forgettable movies, is interviewed about this film and says that despite not being gay, she was transfixed by Monroe’s pregnancy-swollen breasts, which Kelly saved from censorship by some strategic beading.
Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards, and his designs were knocked off for retail sale all over the world, a fact the film suggests galled him given that his own atelier went bust. In the end, his hope for a comeback from cancer was not to be, and his wish that, after years of estrangement, Cary Grant would be one of his pallbearers actually did come true, as Armstrong shows someone scrawl his signature in the funeral guest book that opened the film.
Gillian Armstrong brings almost as much design panache and ingenuity to her film about Orry-Kelly as he had himself. Her strategy of offering a theatrical setting for the imagined scenes with Kelly, complete with stage make-up and tinny sound effects, evoke the era in which he grew up and from which he claimed his influences. The film is hampered only by the familiar talking-heads format that may be necessary to offer detail but interrupts the flow of the film as told by Kelly himself. Where did this script by Katherine Thomson come from? The movie discusses an autobiography Kelly wrote but never published and shows one of his heirs holding it, under orders never to let it slip from her grasp. Did Thomson crib dialog from it? I don’t know. But I can say that as written, the outspoken, entertaining Orry-Kelly in Women He Undressed is as unforgettable as his costumes.
Women He’s Undressed screens Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m. and Wednesday, October 28 at 5 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
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Director: Kate Geis
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As an inveterate Paul Taylor fan, the prospect of a new movie about this master dancer/choreographer filled me with joyful anticipation. Taylor is one of the last links to the legendary Martha Graham—the “naughty boy” of her company, as she said of him—and is himself one of the last grandmasters of dance. Long retired from performing himself, he is still choreographing new works at age 85. That fact in itself is interesting, as late works of masters in the arts can often have a gravity that comes from their accumulation of experience. Yet, I wondered what director Kate Geis would reveal that hadn’t already been shown in what I thought was the definitive documentary about Taylor, Matthew Diamond’s Dancemaker (1998). Riffing on the title of Taylor’s autobiography Private Domain, Geis’s conceit is that she will reveal the secret of Taylor’s choreographic genius. This she does not do—nor do I think anyone can—but she nonetheless offers accumulative detail in showing how a dance is made, eschewing the more all-encompassing look at Taylor and his dance company in Dancemaker in a way that resonates more deeply for its concentrated focus.
The film moves from the first day of working on a new dance to its premiere in 2010. Taylor explains to his company that he wants to examine a love triangle in a Rashomon-like fashion. It’s doubtful that the dancers have seen or know about Rashomon (1950) and its shifting points of view, but no matter. Taylor gets his point across and casting begins for what will become “Three Dubious Memories,” his 133rd modern dance. All of the dancers say they want to be a part of any new dance, hoping to be part of writing the history of the company and having the pleasure of working with Taylor. Amy Young, too, is anxious to be cast, and when she is given the principal female role of the Girl in Red, she is nervous about being physically and artistically able to give Taylor what he wants. He casts Sean Patrick Mahoney as the Boy in Blue, who disrupts the initial romance of the Girl in Red and the Boy in Green. He gives the latter role to Robert Kleinendorst, perhaps sensing that Kleinendorst and Young had started to see each other (they are now married).
Taylor has written out specific beats and dance patterns for the music he will use, but prefers to work without music as he evolves the piece. He manipulates the bodies of his dancers, offers them shapes to imitate, and verbally instructs them where to move. His plan is to allow the three principal dancers to move freely as full-bodied beings, but restrict the eight-member chorus commenting on the story to flat, angular movements reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics to suggest two dimensions. His ideas sometimes outstrip the dancers’ ability to carry out the movements he wants, and we thus get to witness not only the strength, but also the fragility of a dancer’s body and the need for the artist to modify his vision to the “clay” with which he is working.
Little in Taylor’s method has changed over the years, certainly not from what was shown in Dancemaker. Former dancer turned rehearsal director Bettie de Jong is still his rehearsal director. He still uses reel-to-reel tape to play the music for his dances. He still injects sexual ambiguity into his romantic pieces, as when the principal male dancers seem to reject the Girl in Red for their own camaraderie and possible romance, drawing a swift and powerful reaction from her worthy of the feminist model he had in Graham.
When Taylor finally plays the music for the company—unusually, Taylor chose to use an unsolicited composition from Czech-born composer Peter Elyakim Taussig—the dancers’ interpretations of the moves they have learned gain force and fluidity. Taussig is delighted by what Taylor has created when he sees the dance for the first time in the company’s studio space. Then we’re on to Santo Loquasto’s costume designs and fittings, tech rehearsals with lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, and, finally, the premiere performance.
What I like about Reis’ approach is that we get a chance to watch the dance as it is built, step by step, with little in the way of navel-gazing by the dancers or Taylor. The dancers say they really don’t know much about Taylor, and he deflects any such probing by saying that what he is can be seen in his dances. It is a little frustrating not to see “Three Dubious Memories” danced straight through in its entirety, but in a way, it really doesn’t matter that much. We’ve seen all parts of the dance at various stages and have an insight into what it takes to make and perform a dance that simply watching from the audience can never convey. Dancers are supposed to make it look easy, so the more grueling and painful aspects of the life are never fully understood, though this film is blessedly free of the litany of injuries and parade of deformed feet that characterized Dancemaker.
One the other hand, claims I’ve read that this film is the first to pull back the veil on Taylor and his process are nothing but marketing fiction. Nonetheless, even though it’s not the exclusive look the copywriters claim it is, it is a look, and a very good and well-shot one. If you’re a fan of dance, and especially if you’re a fan of Paul Taylor, Paul Taylor Creative Domain is well worth your time.
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Director: Baltasar Kormákur
By Roderick Heath
Mount Everest has always loomed in my imagination, a behemoth of rock standing like some exposed bone of the earth, puncturing the sky. When I was a kid, I watched the documentary Conquest of Everest (1953), which depicted Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s triumphant ascent, fixated by the scale of the feat. Hillary’s photos of Norgay on the summit, wearing his mask and breathing oxygen, made him look like the first true astronaut, the pair of humans balancing on a pebble and touching the void. A lot of people obviously share this fascination, but some aren’t happy to just watch it on a screen. Forty years later, climbing Everest became a commercial tourist enterprise, professional climbers leading parties of variably rich and enthusiastic amateurs to the peak. The subject of Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest is the mountain’s dormant treachery, the danger always present when climbing its bulk to heights usually traversed only in jets.
In 1996, journalist Jon Krakauer had the painful and dubious fortune to join an Everest climbing party and find himself in the midst of a tragedy that he would report on in his book Into Thin Air. His account inspired a popular telemovie; a small industry of other accounts by survivors, some aimed at rebutting his take on the story; and now, a big-budget feature film. Recently, even worse disasters have struck would-be climbers of the great peak, lending timeliness to a tale that counsels respect for the power nature can still wield over us. Icelandic filmmaker Kormákur, began his directing career 15 years ago with a very different piece of work, the droll and raunchy Almodovar-esque comedy 101 Reykjavik (2000). He has been making movies ever since in both Iceland and in Hollywood, and here makes an overt stab at epic stature.
Mountain-climbing movies have a long pedigree, harking back to the craze for them in Weimar Germany, exemplified by Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst’s The White Hell of Piz Palu (1928), a film that defined a finite blend of wrenching physical intensity and spiritual romanticism associated with great heights where people can die and yet remain, frozen and unchanged, for ages. Mountain climbing is an innately cinematic activity during which even the most banal maneuvers can be charged with visual beauty and a sense of fraught peril. The Challenge (1938) depicted the first climb of the Matterhorn, whilst films over the years of varying degrees of seriousness and excitement, including The White Tower (1948), The Mountain (1956), Third Man on the Mountain (1959), Five Days One Summer (1982), K2 (1992), and Vertical Limit (2000), have all plied varieties of high-altitude melodrama. Everest, in telling a true and largely grim story, has no plot contrivances or great, driving stakes to lean on (like Vertical Limit, which was essentially 1953’s The Wages of Fear on a mountain), leaving Kormákur to create his sense of drama by paying attention to the contrasting spectacles of human-scale ambition and suffering, and the vast, dwarfing vista of the mountain, ignorant of the tiny creatures perambulating up its flanks. The chief players in the impending tragedy are professional mountain climbers Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), men who pioneered opening the mountain to tourism by acting as guides to small, relatively select groups of amateur climbers, who find themselves merely two of many competing operations.
Rob and Scott couldn’t be much more different as personalities: Rob is a sturdy, circumspect New Zealander who leaves his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) at home to ply his trade, whilst Scott is a scruffy, blissed-out Yank fond of a good drink until he snaps into action. Rob is described as a “hand holder” who does his utmost to get all of his clients, no matter how shaky, to the top. Scott prefers a more Darwinian approach, believing only people capable of getting themselves to the summit under their own steam should make the trip—those who can’t hack it can head back down. Both men are intrinsically aware of the disconnect between the mores of dedicated, experienced mountain climbers and the concessions to the people they’re now dedicated to aiding. Mountain climbing can be a group activity, but treats strong, prudent, self-sufficient people the best. The vagaries of nature are indifferent to the timetables and expectations of paying customers. Scott’s tough, terse righthand man, Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), avoids climbing with oxygen, as he feels they lend an air of false security, preferring hard, fast ascents and descents. This approach, however, asks more of the less rugged and experienced types their business depends on than some can manage.
Michael Kelly plays Krakauer, who was going to make the ascent with Scott’s Mountain Madness team, but instead signs on with Rob’s Adventure Consultants outfit and their motley crew of experienced and hardy climbers. Japanese climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) is out to finish her project of climbing all of the “Seven Summits,” the highest mountain on each continent, by taking on the biggest of them all. Americans Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) are two highly contrasting personalities unified by their dedication to conquering the peak after many frustrations in pursuing their love of climbing. Beck is a big-mouthed, wealthy Texan, whilst Doug is a wiry man who laboured at three jobs to put together the funds for the climb, and even then, still needed Rob to give him a discount. Rob’s regular team includes fellow pro climber Andy Harris (Martin Henderson) and loyal manager Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) and newbie team doctor Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki), both of whom provide support at base camp. Rob and his company transport their clientele to the foot of the mountain to begin the rigorous acclimatisation and training process before launching a proper assault on the summit. On arrival, they’re confronted by the army of other climbing teams, some of whom resent Rob’s air of authority as the pioneer of their business and habit of looking askance at shabbier practices, like littering up the camp site.
This competition starts to make the situation tense and dangerous, at one point creating a human traffic jam at a dangerous crevasse crossing point. Teams try to get across this before the rising sun makes the ice brittle, and the delays make it ever more dangerous. Beck has a terrifying moment dangling from the rickety ladder bridge that leaves him shaken and inclined to tear a few angry strips off Rob, whilst Doug shows signs of susceptibility to the lung problems that descend at high altitudes. Faced with the prospect of teams tripping over each others’ toes when making their final ascents, Rob suggests to Scott that they cooperate and make their ascent together. Scott is cautious, aware of the teams’ different styles and ways of handling clients, and the teams’ lead sherpas Ang Dorjee (Ang Phula Sherpa) and Lopsang (Pemba Sherpa) clash heatedly. But Scott eventually agrees to the pact, and they head off during a window of good weather. There are always calculated risks in this business, with a storm cell hovering in the Bay of Bengal that may or may not come their way, an array of bodies that may or may not withstand the strains of more than eight kilometres above the sea, climbing with a squad of men and women who may or may not be able to effectively work together. When a brisk wind that dogs the team up to the South Col dies off, leaving a pristine and perfectly silent moonlit view of the peak, the climbers seem set for a swift and lucky ascent.
Kormákur presents Everest as a blend of movie styles, matching a polished, imposing brand of Hollywood spectacle on the visual level and the cues of an adventure drama, like Dario Marianelli’s thunderous music score, with a finicky, detail-based variety of realism on the dramatic level, exploring not just the whys and whens of the tale, but trying to come to grips with things as subtle as how body language signals differences in people that can help explain how eventually they will die on a mountain. Kormákur doesn’t always elegantly mesh these approaches, in part because of the slicker pretences of his filmmaking and the screenplay by one-time Gladiator (2000) cowriter William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, who has been selling the travails of ordinary people as multiplex fare as far back as The Fully Monty (1997) and who also penned 127 Hours (2009), a tale of similarly punished extreme sports hubris.
Everest is at its best when it sticks to studying the woozy, edgy camaraderie of these mountaineers, the sense of troubled awe found in the landscape, and the accumulation of minutiae that mean little in themselves, but add up to a deadly situation still being talked about 20 years later. Clarke and Gyllenhaal are particularly good as men bound by a certain code, but who approach it in divergent ways—the uneasy, assessing alertness that lurks under Rob’s affable, practiced demeanour, Scott’s tendency to play beach bum in the sky until duty calls and sees him push his body to a breaking point. Rob and Scott become, to a certain extent, victims and culprits in the calamity, men who sell their skills and their hard-won knowledge of the rarefied zones to others whose expectations and naivete, which no matter how hardy and experienced they are can’t entirely be shed until they venture into the deadly region above 8,000 metres, inevitably drive them to make perilous decisions.
Krakauer prods his fellow climbers over their motivations, but finds it hard to extract such nebulous, yet powerful drives from them; Rob fills in with that old standby, “Because it’s there.” The climbers’ overwhelming need to pit themselves against such a challenge and the feeling that they can’t rest until they’ve won against the mountain has no logical end, except perhaps the desire to not simply experience the extreme but to then share the experience. For Doug, it’s a virtually communal act, considering that he’s been partly sponsored by schoolkids and wants to plant a flag they gave him on the summit. Beck seems to be pushing against his own masculine self-image and fear of approaching middle age. Sam Worthington is shoehorned in as Guy Cotter, another climber who takes over communications when the team runs into trouble.
Kormákur emphasises the array of nationalities represented by these errant souls, people truly from every corner of the earth (and this is probably the first and last time in a major Hollywood film where a large percentage of the cast is playing Kiwis). The scaling of the mountain and subsequent events take up a bulk of the running time, and Kormákur handles this extended set-piece extremely well. The shoot was spread over a variety of locations, including some real footage taken near Everest ,but with most high-altitude footage shot in Italy and mixed with occasional, mostly seamless special effects. It adds up to a convincing, dizzying approximation of the experience of climbing the world’s tallest mountain and makes the film a must on the biggest screen you can find.
Kormákur holds a peculiar form of faith with the people he’s depicting. The act of reaching the peak is a maxim in their lives worth knocking on death’s door, and Kormákur follows them step by bloody step on a journey that is a stirring and noble moment in and of itself, but underscored by the anxiety that every extra second spent up that high brings these people closer to the disaster sneaking up on them. In this environment, tiny faults and minor delays become great big problems. Scott rushes down the mountain shepherding a wash-out, injects himself with dexamethasone to guard against pulmonary edema, the high-altitude equivalent of the bends, and heads on up again, pushing his body to the limit exactly when he needs reserves of strength and physical integrity. Beck, who had eye surgery years before, finds his vision going blurry from the altitude and cold and is left dazzled and lost by the trail. Crucial ropes needed to make the dangerous part of the ascent go missing.
Doug is halted by breathing trouble, but eventually he restarts and follows the party at a distance: when he proves determined to summit even as the rest of the party starts descending, Rob sticks with him, a seam of sentiment stirred by Doug’s agonised dedication—but with fateful consequence. A storm sweeps up the valley and slaps the mountain, and the people on it are immediately lost in a violent and freezing flurry that turns the operation into a hectic and lethal free-for-all where even the most experienced are readily overwhelmed. Those well-versed in these events or the various earlier versions will obviously know how these events play out, removing some of the tension from the familiarly constructed narrative, except perhaps for an immersive sense of the shock of the moment.
Kormákur captures the descent into chaos effectively, and makes the first death a particularly heartbreaking moment for not overplaying it: one moment a man is there, the next, nothingness. The grandeur remains, but has turned murderous. But Everest is hurt by a tendency to graze the obvious, like having Beck first appear wearing a Dole-Kemp campaign shirt to tell the audience he’s a bit of a good ole boy through period detail. Later, Beck has visions of his family, inspiring him to battle against the elements and begin an agonising trek, the kind of touch no filmmaker should be trying to ply in 2015. Kormákur has roots in a kind of oddball surrealism, but he would have done better sticking more purely to the docudrama template. The time-honoured desire to encompass a broad audience by appealing to basic reflexes of family relationships stretches a bit far. Actresses of the calibre of Watson, Knightley, and Robin Wright, as Beck’s wife Peach, are called upon to have their four or five minutes of screen time on the far end of increasingly distraught phone calls and do their wobbly-face emoting, in a business that is defined by a passing surreal disconnect between relative proximity and remoteness. This quality is at least drawn out by the pitiful strangeness of Jan’s attempts to contact her husband on the mountain as he struggles against soul and body-grinding forces of nature, proving that modern communications can reach anywhere, but still provide only an illusion of closeness and safety; that this scene is also true makes it especially poignant (also, kudos go for Knightley and Watson’s great Kiwi accents).
On the other hand, a scene in which Peach and her pals try to whip up action from diplomats and politicians from a coffee table war room sticks out for reeking badness, a cringe-inducing attempt to appeal to Republican mores where Peach stirs action with some mama bear growls, with Wright as the only caricature in the film. The final scenes, which depict a dangerous attempt at a helicopter rescue of one survivor at altitudes right at the threshold of the machine’s reach, feel rushed and flimsy, though again, this part of the tale is true. I also wonder why Yasuko’s story isn’t emphasised as much as the other characters, given that it’s just as dramatic and tragic as theirs: as a non-English-speaking woman, is she considered not as universally interesting? The straightforwardness of Kormákur’s approach gives the film crowd-enticing gloss, but also retards to a certain extent what should be a haunting study in stoicism and death. Only the very last shot, which is perfect, captures something of the same melancholy, spiritual grandeur, and vision of eternal stasis that Fanck and Pabst did so long ago.
Everest is ultimately an imperfect and perhaps slightly under-ambitious film, one that misses a chance to explore an obsession with the ethereal and the far reaches of experience in deference to remain a nail-biting hit. But it’s also the kind of big moviemaking with a human core that’s been desperately lacking this year, especially compelling to me when compared to blockbusters that are hollow displays of technique, like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, so I’m willing to forgive its faults. Most crucially, I walked away with a sense of healthy respect for both the living and the dead of Everest, and the mountain itself, which, however hazardous, still looms majestic in the mind, a place where dreams flow, for better and for worse.
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Director: Mu Fei
By Roderick Heath
When we think of Chinese cinema, the dashing products of Hong Kong’s industrious studios or the works of the so-called Fifth Generation of mainland filmmakers like Yimou Zhang or Kaige Chen probably come to mind first. The great flowering of filmmaking seen in the 1930s and ’40s known as the Golden Age of Chinese Cinema is, by comparison, still an obscure and patchily known field. Often voted the greatest film ever made in China, Spring in a Small Town was, much like its characters, almost a victim of history’s heedless motion. One of the last works produced before the ascent of the Communist government, director Mu Fei’s movie was controversial right from its first screening because of its subject matter, and soon was buried and reviled as a petty, indulgent distraction for decades. Fei died barely four years after making it, when like so many others, he was trying to revive his career in Hong Kong.
The very subject of Fei’s film is the moment of its making, that brief period between the defeat of the Japanese invaders and the Maoist takeover. Fei strove to record that time on a psychological as well as external level, and he depicts it as a moment of collective exhaustion, disorientation, and yearning. For a film hailed as such an achievement, Spring in a Small Town is disarmingly modest and sparse on the surface, describing a chamber drama of finite emotions and domestic concerns. The essential elements of Fei’s tale could easily come from some transcribed Chekhov play, though the actual source was a short story by Li Tianji, who adapted it for the screen. The setting is a ruined mansion, the characters members of a once-prosperous and powerful clan now damaged and declining, their aging servant, and an interloper. The title announces ambiguous, counterintuitive purposes. Spring refers as much to the promise of postwar regeneration as to the turn of the seasons, but the drama’s cloying fixation is a single family’s interior lives rather than the community implied in the title. The implication is, that something like this drama was occurring in small towns across the country, and the film represents the spiritual story of the age.
The lives of the Dai family are defined by two ruins: the demolished old town wall, a remnant psychic boundary in the mind of the townsfolk and a signifier of the lost social specifics of Chinese social life, and the Dai mansion itself, a more recent victim of war, which sits like the discarded husk of a past and irrelevant existence that depressed scion Liyan Dai (Shi Yu) haunts like a ghost in his own life meditating on his lost inheritances, beset by ill health, which he thinks is tuberculosis and his wife Yuwen Zhou (Wei Wei) dismisses as neurosis. Yuwen makes the trek each day into town to fetch groceries and medicines for her husband, usually taking a detour to walk along the ruined wall with the slight vantage it offers over the flatlands surrounding her world. Lao Huang (Chaoming Cui) is the old family servant who maintains what was once a standalone cottage in the estate, but which is now their refuge. He declares the mansion can be repaired if they tackle it piece by piece, but such resolve is beyond Liyan. The one bright spot in the family is Liyan’s younger sister Xiu (Hongmei Zhang), a schoolgirl on the verge of her sixteenth birthday.
When not engaged in her pressing domestic duties, Yuwen, who can barely stand looking at her husband, retreats into Xiu’s room to work on her needlepoint. Liyan confronts his wife, trying to talk her into letting Lao Huang go to town instead because he worries about her and finally admits he’s pained she seems to have accepted the miserable situation they’ve all fallen into. The tenuous balance of tolerance sustaining that situation is disturbed when a face from the past climbs over the estate boundary. Zhichen Zhang (Li Wei), a former schoolmate of Liyang’s, left the distract before the war to become a doctor and now has returned to see his friend, who is stirred from his melancholy to greet his pal happily. What Zhichen doesn’t know at first, however, is that Liyan has married Yuwen, who comes from the same town as Zhichen and was his great love.
Fei’s unusual storytelling devices are in evidence from the outset, working like the title to create a faintly ironic, distancing impression, but which cumulatively help Fei gain a rigorous grip on the viewer. As each character appears on screen for the first time, he flashes the name of the character and the actor in the role on screen, diffusing the theatre bill-like precepts of movie credits from the 1930s into the texture of the film itself, as if to announce both that the identities of these figures and their nature as fictitious entities are vital to what Fei is trying to convey, another ironic touch. Yuwen narrates in the second person as though remembering and experiencing, dropping details like how Huang always tosses medicine out the back door because of a superstition, and noting the painful peculiarities of her marriage not by registering emotions, but facts, such as sometimes, when she’s walking on the wall, she doesn’t go back until night, often doesn’t exchange a word with her husband during their required daily contacts, and declares “I’ll never think about anything ever again.” Liyang tries to confront Yuwen about this elusive, resigned habit she’s developed, and suggests that they should probably split up, an idea that Yuwen, who in spite of everything takes her wifely duties seriously, can’t countenance.
Yuwen’s method of deploying details as devices of inference and implication is also Fei’s method. Zhichen arrives clad in western clothes as opposed to the Dais, who wear more traditional garb, signaling both the stagnancy of life in this small town as well as the attempts to maintain a link with traditions that have been shattered, and also Zhichen’s promise of the exotic. The doctor has been working as an army surgeon, following the war around as he rattles off all the cities he’s been to to Zhichen: he’s been engaged with the history that has rolled over the top of the Dais. Both world-weary Yuwen and fresh-faced Xiu signal their stirred desires for the doctor by giving him gifts: Yuwen has Lao Huang take him a potted orchid and Xiu a bonsai tree.
Fei was only in his early forties when he made his masterwork, but he was already a highly experienced and acclaimed figure on the Shanghai film scene. He had worked as an assistant to Hou Yao, a pioneer of early Chinese cinema, before his directing debut with 1933’s Night in the City. His creative verve as a distinctive and inventive artist with a deep interest in studying and celebrating the national culture in the face of a pummeling epoch was quickly acknowledged after he made Blood on Wolf Mountain (1936), seen by some as a metaphor for the Japanese occupation of Manchuria Song of China (1935), a celebration of traditions that became one of the few Chinese films of the era to gain U.S. screenings; and the long-lost Confucius (1940). He filmed several Chinese operas and included elements of that form when he shot the first Chinese film in colour, Remorse at Death (1948). Here, too, he incorporates a musical aspect in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, when Xiu sings to her family and Zhichen as they row a boat along a river. This scene, a nominally festive interlude where the newcomer seems to have stirred the clan from their malaise, is reminiscent of the jollity momentarily patching over coming ructions in the snow sequence in The Magnificent Ambersons (1941), another film concerned with changing societies and the decline of aristocratic cultural mores, whilst the emotions percolating within each of the four boaters, obvious to the camera but not each other, are caught with exacting focus by the director. Spring in a Small Town is certainly on one level about the culture Fei wanted to buttress, seen as subsisting in a state of flux, with awful wrenches behind and ahead. The inconsistent power supply in the town means nightly blackouts, rendering the inhabitants time travelers moved arbitrarily between present and past, the jagged, inescapable immediacy of the light bulb and the floating dreaminess of candlelight. Yet the impossibility of recapturing the past or even cutting the losses of the present is constantly stressed.
Fei’s feel for placing his actors in settings attentive to the interplay of space and action, nature and human works, echoes Jean Renoir’s subtle, yet cumulatively forceful sense of mise-en-scene whilst skewing his visual effects close to the harmonic ideals of Chinese visual art ,where nature and structure are supposed to exist in balanced interaction. What is disrupted in the ruined mansion and the broken wall, the relation between the functional, resilient constructed form and the teeming, invasive strength of natural growth, is still intact in the less luxurious, near-ignominious, but perhaps healthier life in the cottage. The theme of a troubled marriage and the interloper who promises disruption bears a distinct similarity to one basic plot motif found in another postwar movie type, film noir. However, where noir’s exploration of the blasted and alienated mood out in the boondocks after the great conflict was sublimated into criminal parables, here it is in a domestic drama that violence is exchanged for emotional flurries and the spectacle of psyches twisting in on themselves. The closest western cinematic relative to Fei’s work here is David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Both movies describe potential adulterous affairs, intensely personal, almost eventless tales all the better to unravel the tight wrapping on survivors of wartime, revealing the frustration wrought by subordinating personal desires to communal needs and faced with new choices completely at odds with the settled values all that fighting was supposed to defend and the habits of stoicism. Lean’s graphic, cosmopolitan approach where the repressed emotions unexpressed by the characters are enacted via the filmmaking is largely different to Fei’s style, which is mostly closer to the quietly observant humanism of Yasujiro Ozu.
The exception to this quiet, observant approach is the most unusual and celebrated device Fei deploys, during scenes of interaction between Yuwen and Zhichen: Fei breaks up the scenes with dissolves, sliding woozily from moment to moment, stance to stance, communicating the force of the couple’s restrained ardour where the structure of time and reality seems distorted, the disparity between psyche and exterior inside the characters registered as a stutter in the film technique. Here Fei’s formal experimentation anticipates New Wave filmmaking’s obsessive fascination for using the texture of cinema itself as a dramatic tool. (Martin Scorsese is one filmmaker who has often employed a similar technical idiosyncrasy. Of course, Scorsese took on a vitally similar theme of thwarted, honourably withheld passion in The Age of Innocence (1993), whilst many of Scorsese’s films deal with a similar notion of characters who feel entrapped by socially imposed identities.)
Fei’s work here has perhaps echoed through contemporary Chinese film since its rediscovery in the 1980s, with directors as temperamentally diverse as Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien visibly engaged with his legacy. A lengthy, one-shot sequence of the family dining as a vibrant unit resembles Hou’s experiment with sustaining transfixing interaction in long takes in Flowers of Shanghai (1998). The focus on a pair of lovers whose affair must remain superficially chaste inevitably echoes Wong’s In The Mood for Love (2000), whilst the concept of life’s stages as akin to seasons was revisited in The Grandmaster (2014). The first encounter when Yuwen is called out of the cottage by Liyang to meet the guest, who has no idea that his friend married his former flame, sees Zhichen’s shock revealed in a sudden close-up, versus Yuwen’s slightly more prepared, fiercely dissembling glare. Yuwen is quietly transformed by the return of her lover, and not quite in the moony, readily pathos-stirring way of many a guilty romantic heroine.
Wei Wei’s brilliant performance communicates how Yuwen’s wiry energy and frustrated imperious streak as a waning former belle of the ball have been forcibly converted into their opposite, a languid torpor and an archly dutiful subservience to her role, as if the best revenge she sees for the life she is leading now is to lead it unimpeachably. It’s all in her fingers, as she constantly folds her hands in the proper stance of attention, but lets her fingers strangle each other in increasingly fretful and agitated repression as Zhichen’s tenure at the cottage continues. Although almost always a pillar of quiet, boding rectitude, Yuwen’s coquettish streak occasionally shines through her façade, as does her fearsome passion, which seems sometimes poised to manifest as aggression. Her tendency to seek solitude and seclusion, far from being an asocial or introverted quality, keeps her restrained, as she often seems on the verge of pouncing on the men in her life to break them to pieces or ravage them in frenzy. Fei repeatedly depicts Yuwen lounging on her bed or sitting, apparently immobilised but clearly fixated. Soon it emerges that Yuwen and Zhichen’s long-ago romance was stymied by his lack of standing and worldliness, not even knowing how to get a match made, and then his departure for university, leaving Yuwen to be snatched up by the upstanding and propertied Liyang, only for everything that made him a good match to fall apart. Liyang remains unaware of Yuwen and Zhichen’s past, and he hits upon what he thinks is a good way to make his friend happy and start building the family up again: marrying Zhichen to Xiuhe. The sprightly teenager seems charmed enough by the doctor to be open to the idea, while Yuwen covertly boils at the idea, but agrees to suggest the match to Zhichen. Meanwhile, Zhichen’s own ministrations seem to be working for Liyang, who’s able to leave the house and enjoy himself with the family.
The giddy, happy drunkenness of Xiu’s birthday celebrations becomes catalyst for tipping the characters closer to their moments of personal moral crisis. Yuwen seems to set out purposefully to seduce Zhichen in his room in a sequence charged to melting point with sexual tension that can only be squandered, the cloud-streaked full moon above a recurring image, as if dictating the strange tides of the human heart. The acme of the romantic longing comes when Zhichen suddenly sweeps Yuwen up in his arms, a few breathless paces away from the bed. He then slowly lowers her and detaches again, the moment gone forever. Zhichen flees, trying to lock Yuwen in rather than let her presence taunt him. She laughs at him through a glass pane in the door and then punches the glass out to release herself, erotic energy transmuted into sado-masochistic violence. Zhichen rushes to repair her wound, essentially reveling in his own grudging emotional impotence.
The promise of revival Zhichen brings with him as an emblem of a functional and modernising world beyond the river proves in large part illusory, as he stirs Liyang from his depression and gives hope of recovery. Instead, he can’t escape the roundelay of history any more than his friends, and the contradictions he represents sends his patient into crisis. Fei implies that, in the same manner, the confused and contradictory impulses of China’s entry into the modern, westernised world had done it more damage than good, unable to cleave from the pillars of old faiths and not yet able to erect effective replacements—the electric light still gives out at night, the medicine doesn’t always work. Liyang seems to become aware at last that something is going on between his wife and his friend, and the husband, always stringently honest and self-searching to the point of being infuriating, tells his wife he has to get better or he might as well die and stop burdening her.
The beauty of Fei’s filmmaking and his refrains to nature’s cycles are both ironic in counterpointing the septic tendencies of humans toward fruitless introspection, but also suggest that frailty is in itself a mere aspect of nature. The process of reconstruction has to be first accomplished on the interior level before the will can be found to start piling up the bricks and mixing the mortar. This is a process Fei reflects on early in the film when Liyang tries half-heartedly to do just that, plucking fragments of brick from the rubble of the mansion and stacking them. It’s a fleeting stab at action by a man of no skill or resolve who ceases when he notices his wife watching, perhaps with scorn or with pity or a mixture of both, from a distance. Xiu has the elastic resilience of youth, the promise of a new time living in her gawky limbs. Nihilistic temptations are before the older characters, with Liyang making overtures to Zhichen for the doctor to help him end his life, an act that could clear the way for him and Yuwen. Resisting the inducement to cross that line proves an unstated, but vital aspect of what Fei is depicting, as much as the doctor and the housewife resisting their emotional impulses in trying to reknit the fabric of a civil life in a way that’s more meaningful than mere habit.
Eventually Liyang attempts suicide on his own with his supply of sleeping pills—a classic version of the Chekhovian gun, as those pills are given allusive import throughout the film, to the point where Zhichen even replaces some with placebos, possibly anticipating such an act—finally bringing this quandary to crisis point. Xiu fearfully begs Zhichen to save her brother, and rather than being left to expire, Liyang’s act proves his friend’s and family’s devotion to him holds fast, his courting of death instead providing a perverse reason to live. Zhichen departs the small town for the sake of himself and the Dais. But whilst the final shots replicate the early ones, they come with pointed difference, dispelling the notion that cycles mean stasis. Yuwen had essentially raised Xiu, but Xiu’s recognition that Zhichen and Yuwen love each other has transformed their relationship. Zhichen walks the road out of town accompanied by Xiu and Huang, having reconnected with his society, whilst Liyang, leaning on a crutch but moving under his own steam, joins his wife on the ruined wall where she stood alone before, giving some hope that the spring really has arrived. The last line of the film, fittingly, is Xiu inviting Zhichen back for the summer. Spring in a Small Town finally offers a very hard-won affirmation.
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Director: Ernst Lubitsch
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Although it may be inconceivable to many classic film buffs today, the “touch” Hollywood producers most wanted from Ernst Lubitsch when he made the pilgrimage to Southern California in the early ’20s was for epic historical dramas, his claim to fame in Europe. Prestige became the name of the game for the rough-and-tumble film pioneers looking for legitimacy, and Lubitsch was promised a blank check in his five-picture deal with Warner Bros. to create the spectacles that would stamp their studio with class. Instead, the director ended up specializing in fairly inexpensive sex comedies among the rich—and thank goodness for that!
The last of the pictures Lubitsch made for Warner is the charming So This Is Paris, a quintessential example of the Lubitsch touch and one that allows a viewer to really examine what comprises that touch. Setting the story in Paris instantly confers an air of sophistication and allows Lubitsch’s audience to follow breathlessly behind him as he colors outside of the censors’ lines with bold, but safe innuendo. Having a quartet of rich sophisticates at the center of the story further removes it from the humdrum and any suggestion that “just folks” would be as deliciously immoral as the film’s neighbors, Suzanne and Dr. Paul Giraud (Patsy Ruth Miller and Monte Blue) and showbiz performers Georgette and Maurice Lalle (Lilyan Tashman and George André Beranger). Finally, Lubitsch directs his talented cast with an emphasis on the small, realistic gesture, that light touch that, nonetheless, communicates so much.
It appears we are in for just the kind of historical epic for with Lubitsch was contracted when we see an Arabian princess cower on her silken, drapery-festooned bed at the sight of a shirtless Arabian noble coming toward her with menace. He draws a curved dagger from its sheath and leans over the princess—is he kissing her or killing her. In fact, he is doing neither, as Georgette emerges from beneath him to complain about her husband’s performance as they rehearse “The Dance of the Forbidden Suit.” Recovering from this argument, his perambulation through the title dance is cause for embarrassment, as he moves his hands above his head and from side to side, touching each of his breasts, and ending by grabbing them both. The final stage of the dance, carrying his murdered lady away, is foiled by his inability to lift her. Furious, she runs out of the room and brings back a glass of milk and some eggs to fortify his meager strength. The pianist accompanying their performance is beside himself with laughter, and Lubitsch returns to him again and again as he laughs himself limp, amping our own hilarity at this scene of domestic disharmony with exquisite comic timing.
In the somewhat parallel scene that follows, Suzanne Giraud is reading a racy novel about an Arabian sheik. Lubitsch bores in on the last paragraph filled with hot, forceful kisses and the final words of the novel’s heroine: “My sheik!” Miller portrays her thoroughly bourgeois character panting and swooning in her armchair, genuinely turned on by this bodice ripper. A glance out her window reveals Maurice bobbing into and out of view, his bare chest and turbaned head making a sexually intriguing inroad into Suzanne’s passionate imagination, even though he is only leaning over to eat his egg. When her sharply dressed husband, Paul, comes through the door, depositing his walking stick and bowler by the door, she rushes to him and embraces him with the words “my sheik” on her lips. To divert him from her adulterous glance across the street, she pretends to be shocked at the insult of a shirtless man making himself available to her eyes. She entreats Paul to demand satisfaction from the rogue. Paul sheepishly complies, only to discover Georgette, his old flame, at the door and ready to pick up where they left off. Paul returns home without his walking stick and lies to his wife about trouncing Maurice with it. Of course, when Maurice comes across to return it, he makes a play for Suzanne, who can’t seem to decide whether she wants him or not, her reality confused with her fantasy of love. The rest of the picture offers a variety of set-ups involving the illicit pairings about which only Suzanne seems naïve and morally uncertain.
The film is loaded with sight gags and plot devices that build a complex comedy of errors and witty repartee from the script by Hanns Kräly. But it is the performances that sparkle like the over-the-top party dress Georgette wears to the Artists Ball that is the visual centerpiece of the film. Miller’s Suzanne is as dim as she is lovely, the perfect target for Beranger’s unctuous Maurice, who cleans up very well and uses Paul’s walking stick to blackmail Suzanne into allowing him to keep seeing her. It’s hard to believe that Paul would believe Suzanne was dallying with Maurice just because his walking stick was back in the house, but it doesn’t take much to fool Suzanne; Lubitsch also allows for some ambiguity about the relationship when he films Maurice crossing the street to the Giraud residence and then returning with a satisfied attitude to his walk. Tashman is a treasure as a good-time girl, repeatedly giving Paul friendly shoves at the memory of some of their times together, certainly a stand-in for other kinds of contact the pair made. She is an unrepentant flirt and adulterer, a perfect match for Maurice.
Nonetheless, Monte Blue steals the show as a kind of boy-man. He takes his duties as a doctor seriously, as when he races to treat a Mr. Moreau and threatens the cop (Sidney D’Albrook) who wants to give him a speeding ticket with potentially costing a patient his life. However, once he reaches the address and finds that Georgette has lured him there, he completely forgets himself to the pleasure of the moment and engages in a match of insults with the cop, who has followed him. His expletives are so elaborate, the cop has to ask Paul to spell them so he can copy them down for use at trial. It’s a brilliantly timed and choreographed sequence, with Blue throwing himself into the heat of the moment with hilarious abandon. Paul lies to Suzanne constantly, telling her he has put on his best evening clothes to report for a three-day jail sentence his insultathon cost him because one has to look one’s best. Instead, he sneaks out to accompany Georgette to the Artists Ball with innocent Suzanne’s tearful good-byes sending him on his way.
The most famous scene is the Artists Ball, a cacophony of writhing bodies and black musicians set in an enormous space dotted with pillars in the shape of women’s legs. For sheer vivacity, it shares much in common with the imitation Roaring 20s party in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013), and one can practically hear the crowd and music despite the lack of a soundtrack. Georgette and Paul win the Charleston contest and a basket of champagne, which Paul uses to get extremely drunk. It is then that Lubitsch pulls out all his visual tricks, using kaleidoscopic superimposition, skewing angles, and returning often to the increasingly soused Paul who is, ironically, being cuckolded by Georgette at the very table where they are celebrating their victory.
Paul is unrepentant when Suzanne shows up to take him home after hearing his name on the radio broadcast of the ball, mainly because he doesn’t recognize her. In fact, he can’t believe his luck in having a beautiful woman put him in her cab and take him to her home, where he exclaims, “I’ve been here before.” The entire incident wises Suzanne up and gives her the upper hand in their relationship—not because she caught him cheating, but because she has saved him from going to jail through her own skillful bit of lying. The couple share a lovey-dovey breakfast, but it’s not hard to see that there are more merry-go-rounds ahead when the final title card offers the moral of the story: “If you’re planning to sit at a window, put a shirt on.”
So This Is Paris is a rarity only because Warner Bros. claims it doesn’t own the picture anymore and therefore has nothing to gain by restoring and/or reissuing it on DVD. Happily, the solid 35mm print housed at the Library of Congress is available for anyone to project. This film must be made available (hint hint, Flicker Alley!) as a prime example of the legendary Lubitsch touch and, as a bonus, an early glimpse at Myrna Loy’s comedic skills in a small role as the Girauds’ French maid.
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Samurai (Musashi Miyamoto, 1954) / Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Zoku Musashi Miyamoto: Ichijôji no kettô, 1955) / Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (Musashi Miyamoto Kanketsuhen: Kettô Ganryûjima, 1956)
Director/Coscreenwriter: Hiroshi Inagaki
By Roderick Heath
In 1955, the foreign-language film Oscar, then still a special rather than a competitive award, was given to Hiroshi Inagaki’s Miyamoto Musashi, retitled Samurai for foreign release. It followed Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1954) as the third Japanese winner in four years, a highly visible recognition of the nation’s cinematic renaissance. Inagaki had close links to the stage, having followed his father into theatre acting at an early age. He found work with Nikkatsu Studios as a performer in the early ’20s, and a passion for fusing theatrical and cinematic traditions would define his work. By the end of the decade he was directing and screenwriting.
Inagaki collaborated on many occasions with Toshiro Mifune, and their work together deserves consideration for the diversity and exploitation of the actor’s gifts over Mifune’s more famous work with Kurosawa: they joined forces on the Samurai trilogy, and then subsequently on Inagaki’s inspired adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, Samurai Saga (1958), where Mifune played the large-nosed hero; the grandiose fantasy epic The Birth of Japan (1959); and Chushingura (1962), a much-admired take on the famous tale of the 47 Ronin. The Samurai trilogy is still probably Inagaki’s best-known work, however, a grand, richly textured, folkloric take on the life of Miyamoto Musashi as mediated by a fictionalised novel by Eiji Yoshikawa and its stage adaptation by Hideji Hōjō. Inagaki at once mythologises and presents a profoundly ambivalent analysis of the life of Musashi, surely the most famous samurai of all time.
Musashi’s stature and allure combines aspects of legendary western knights, augmented by the peculiar spiritual and scholastic authority of the samurai tradition. Because of his obscure early life and his great career, which saw him cut a swathe through a host of challengers and officially sanctioned swordsman schools and champions, Musashi also gained the extra edge of glamour afforded romantic outlaws and rebels, a lone-wolf hero exemplifying his creed but obedient only to his personal honour. Musashi’s life coincided with the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate, the monolithic power that would rule Japan for 250 years whilst shutting down social mobility and progress. But Musashi’s example, whilst exemplifying his principles, held the promise that anyone could, with discipline and fortitude, become a good enough fighter to take on any force. Musashi wrote important books, including the canonical Book of the Five Rings, about swordcraft, but he was reticent about his background and experiences in his writing, leaving a lot of room for popular mystique. Eiji’s novel bent the historical bow quite a bit, presenting Musashi as a wild youth whose path to the standing of samurai master is a long and gruelling process of self-discovery and self-denial. This notion played to Inagaki’s affinity for finding the nobility in ordinary and luckless people: his Musashi, or Takezō as he was known as a boy, begins as an everyman, craving adventure and elevation, leaving his small village of Miyamoto to join the Toyotomi army, the anti-Tokugawa side in the civil war sweeping the nation in 1600, along with his best friend Honiden Matahachi (Rentarô Mikuni). Inagaki had already, earlier in the ’50s, made a three-part drama revolving around Sasaki Kojirō, Musashi’s most famous opponent, also with Mifune as Musashi. That series had been the tragedy of a potentially great man brought down by his worldly and egotistical aims. The Musashi trilogy inevitably contrasts this concept, and yet Inagaki still finds surprising, even profound ambivalence in taking on such a storied folk hero’s life as he journeys towards his duel with Sasaki, taking Musashi from primal man to modern man, watching him flower from headstrong tough to brilliant but existentially desolate warrior to philosophical hero.
Miyamoto Musashi unfolds as a tale of complex and shifting allegiances between characters across the breadth of the three episodes in a manner closer to epic saga. At the fateful Battle of Sekigahara, Takezō and Matahachi are mere foot soldiers digging trenches, but Takezō charges into the fray in the midst of the collapsing Toyotomis pursued by Matahachi, who has none of his friend’s nerve and skill. Inagaki’s camera dissolves from the midst of blood and thunder to the sight of his two hapless heroes squirming out of the mud in the midst of battlefield carnage, two losers stranded by the tide of history. Takezō searches for shelter for himself and the wounded Matahachi and eventually bursts into a cabin occupied by Oko (Mitsuko Mito) and her daughter Akemi (Mariko Okada), who survive by robbing the bodies of dead soldiers. They help the two men recover, however, and both women come to covet Takezō, who spends his time trying break in a wild horse he has captured while remaining aggressively uninterested in women. The dynamics described here define the whole series and its insight into Musashi’s character, who remains cursed in his incapacity to relate to women in his life under an assumed policy of monkish asceticism, as he tries to train another wild animal—himself.
Oko and Akemi subsist under the sufferance of a bandit brigade that controls the area. The bandits demand the bulk of their recovered loot as payment, but when they come to collect and the leader threatens to rape Oko, Takezō comes out of hiding and slaughters several of the brigands in a display of ferocious fighting wit. Oko, beguiled by spectacles of male strength, clasps onto Takezō worshipfully after this feat, but he runs away. Offended, Oko tells Matahachi and Akemi that Takezō tried to rape her, and then she convinces them both to flee with her and the loot. On the way, Matahachi manages to kill one of another band of much less threatening robbers who attack them. Meanwhile, Takezō heads back to Miyamoto, but when border guards of the new regime try to arrest him, he cuts his way through their number and becomes a wanted outlaw.
Soon Takezō is reduced to the status of a filthy beast subsisting in the hills, as his own family lead the hunt against him partly out of fear of the reprisals by the town governor. The first episode of Inagaki’s series in concerned with how Takezō is elevated from this degraded condition to the threshold of becoming the archetypal samurai. Inagaki portrays these states as points on an evolutionary progression, but vitally related: what Takezō lacks is not fighting ability, but discipline, and discipline, when he attains it, is in its way, just as knotty and self-punishing as base ferocity. The blend of Buddhist philosophy and modern psychology Inagaki turns on Musashi in the course of a narrative that resembles a traditional bildungsroman is woven together with the real incidents of Musashi’s life tweaked to become illustrations not merely of his gathering skill and legend, but also as markers in the war of his head and heart. The catalysts for his transformation are Matahachi’s fiancée Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), and the Buddhist priest Takuan (Kurôemon Onoe), in whose monastery Otsu was raised. Takuan takes it upon himself to capture Takezō and punish him, but also to school him and put his spectacular talent to better use, whilst Otsu becomes fixated with Takezō, freeing him at one point and becoming the only woman he loves. Takuan manages to imprison Takezō in Himeji Castle, where he’s kept with piles of literature to train his mind as prelude to training his body. Takezō never emerges from prison, but rather who he becomes, the samurai Musashi Miyamoto. He is offered a chance to join the retinue of the lord, but Musashi declines, stating he still has much to learn.
Otsu waits out the term of Musashi’s imprisonment, taking a job at a food stall near a bridge visible from the castle, but learns that his new path demands he renounce women. Musashi encourages Otsu to forget him and get on with her life, but Otsu refuses, equating Musashi’s sense of manly duty to hold true to his chosen creed with her own female duty to hold fast to hers. The Musashi trilogy is then, on one level, a romantic tragedy about two people permanently separated but eternally joined by their ideals. Their lives weave in with others in a tale that travels the expanse of feudal Japan, as Musashi gains ever-increasing fame as a duellist. Early in the second film, he wins one such duel, but when he encounters an elderly Buddhist priest, the priest dismisses him as still just a strong man out for glory with no concept of chivalry, a thought echoed by a weaponsmith who advertises himself as a sharpener of souls rather than swords, and refuses to work on Musashi’s weapon. Musashi, however, meets both challenges with gestures of humble suppliance, confirming that he’s attentive to his faults and still seeking the essence of his creed.
The second chapter, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, revolves chiefly around the consequences when, seeking out the best schools of swordcraft to test and best, Musashi enters Kyoto and challenges the students of Yoshioka Seijūrō (Akihiko Hirata) to fight with kendo sticks. Musashi lays waste to the students, enraging Yoshioka’s protective clan and friends, who insist on keeping Seijūrō himself from battling the upstart. Instead, they send a gang to attack him, but Musashi fights them off, and when Seijūrō’s brother Denshichiro (Yû Fujiki) comes to fight him, he is quickly killed. Finally, the school gathers together a gang of nearly a hundred fighters to ambush Musashi even after Seijūrō has promised him a fair duel.
Woven in with this violent drama are the other characters introduced in the first film. Matahachi’s mother Osugi (Eiko Miyoshi), who betrayed Musashi when he sought refuge with her, leaves their home town with an escort, determined to kill both him and Otsu for dishonouring her clan. Matahachi, Oko, and Akemi are living now in Kyoto, Matahachi having devolved into a fetid, pitiful drunk, whilst Oko has taken the wily and opportunistic Toji Gion (Daisuke Kato) as a new lover. Together, their amoral activities counterpoint Musashi’s transformative labours in a manner reminiscent to the Thenardiers in Les Miserables. Toji is trying to make their fortune by marrying Akemi to Yoshioka Seijūrō. The swordmaster, encouraged by Otsu to claim her daughter with force, sexually assaults her, rendering Akemi’s relationship with her mother even more dank and contemptuous. Akemi, more than a little unhinged by the experience, is fixated on Musashi, and she confronts Otsu in laying claim to the ronin’s affections as both women rush to help him as he fights off a Yoshioka gang. Musashi gains a supporter in master swordsmith Koetsu Hanami (Kō Mihashi), who invites him into his household and introduces him to acclaimed geisha and courtesan Lady Yoshino (Michiyo Kogure), who has such composure and poise that even Musashi is astounded by it, whilst she, like Otsu and Akemi, falls powerfully for the great warrior. Most portentously, another young and brilliant ronin, Sasaki Kojirō (Kōji Tsuruta), arrives in Kyoto and studies Musashi from a distance, even intervening unbidden to guard Musashi’s back and keep the Yoshioka gang at bay at crucial moments. Sasaki’s ambition is not ultimately beneficial to Musashi: Sasaki has him marked as his one great rival, and, knowing they must inevitably duel to decide who the best is, is determined to keep him from being killed by hordes or treachery.
The Oscar the first episode captured may well have reflected, like the acclaim for Gate of Hell, the thrill the exotic beauty both works generated regardless of their dramatic wits, with bright colour effects and historical settings far detached from the transformations overtaking postwar Japan. Inagaki certainly never pretends to tell a realistic story, in opposition to the pungent authenticity Kurosawa strove to bring to Seven Samurai (1954). Inagaki’s filmmaking throughout the three films is tremendous, using any device he saw fit to render his story vivid and quick-moving in spite of the contemplative heart of the drama and the complexities of the human islands we see grazing against each other throughout: the Samurai trilogy is one of the fleet and gripping epic achievements of cinema.
Aspects of the trilogy have sunk deeply into the cinematic landscape, less celebrated than the influence of Seven Samurai or Yojimbo (1961) and yet detectable in Sergio Leone’s films, which particularly enjoy the notion of antagonists who protect each other to better serve an ultimate confrontation, and as one of the many reference points of Kill Bill (2004-05), and perhaps even George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. Luke Skywalker’s growing ability and search for self-control recall Musashi’s, whilst Lucas’ narratives thrive on similar interlacing plot and character strands across multiple episodes—the final moments of Inagaki’s second film particularly resemble The Empire Strikes Back, 1980. Inagaki may even have coined a quintessential martial arts movie cliché when Musashi awes people by snatching flies with his chopsticks. Inagaki pushes stylisation so far as to include a shot of animated birds flying over a set representing the countryside at dawn, echoing back to the artifice of silent cinema. Like many directors who started work in the silent era but whose careers were still strong in the ’50s, including John Ford and Fritz Lang, Inagaki seemed to lose interest in realistic precepts for cinema and turned back to a deliberately, conveniently stylised atmosphere, the better to play out psychological dramas and rock-ribbed moral tales.
Inagaki also bends the arc of his storytelling to include discursions into geisha dance and musical performance, as if rejoicing in the fabric of Japanese classical culture. Inagaki’s indulgence of his theatrical and nonrealist reflexes doesn’t mean, however, that these films are stagy: rather, they are filled with vignettes of astonishing illustrative verve. The early Battle of Sekigahara sequences is a brief but thunderous piece of filmmaking, frames packed with charging cavalry and contorting bodies, bolts of myth-writing lightning and pounding rain, whirling slashes of Musashi’s sword matched by the driving tracking motions of the camera. The location photography possesses the clarity and lustre that has long felt very specific to Japanese film, but Inagaki uses his locations with the same painterly élan as his artificial settings, alive to rolling mists, the fires of the rising sun, the wind-thrash of riverbank reeds, the glow of the moon. The duel that represents the climax of the trilogy, a battle filmed as a form of kabuki dance, uses trees to form a proscenium arch and frame the antagonists. Inagaki uses bodies of water as a leitmotif throughout, tethering Musashi’s journey both to coherent geography and to ready moral, spiritual, and experiential cartography. Marshy swamps and high, trickling streams denote the stagnant and violent state of Japan and the wild yet tentative nature of the hero at the outset. Inagaki constantly cuts way to shots of flowing rivers to denote the passage of time and the paths to maturity, whilst bridges across those rivers are both convenient landmarks for the characters, but also symbolically charged places where the characters often meet and form tentative attachments that may later be revised, as with Akemi and Otsu, who first share a moment of sunny, sisterly friendship when they meet and speak of their lost loves well before learning they’re speaking of the same man. The finale of the second film sees Musashi fighting in rice paddies, using the terrain to his advantage. Sasaki shows off swordcraft before the mercurial beauty of a waterfall. Rivers meet the sea in the last film, where Musashi must cross to Ganryu Island to meet his greatest enemy alone on the edge of the ocean and the day, in the null zone between life and death, the perfect Zen location. Musashi’s choice of armament for this grand battle, a hand-carved boat oar, attains special meaning through this motif.
Paradoxically, whilst Inagaki evokes the most hallowed conventions and traditions of Japanese culture, his Musashi trilogy deals with turmoil on a social and moral level. Inagaki pays acute attention not simply to Musashi’s travails, but also to the way they affect others, most prominently the diptych of Otsu and Akemi but also from characters as diverse as Toji and Yoshino, orphan boy Jōtarō (Kenjin Iida) and braggart horse thief Kuma (Haruo Tanaka), who both become his protégés, and the boatman (Minoru Chiaki) who carries him to Ganryu Island. The voices of such characters are prized by Inagaki to the point where the trilogy starts to feel like a parable for the democratising process gripping Japanese life in the decade since the war, giving a sociopolitical context for Inagaki’s concern for downtrodden and outsider characters. Musashi is conceived as both catalyst and onlooker in this process, presenting a paragon detached from the power structure and upper classes of the age, a hero figure to ordinary people, but in many ways, cut off from such evolution (when Inagaki would cast Mifune as a version of Cyrano, it would allow him to perfectly unite both the exemplar and the outcast in one figure).
Musashi is himself, ironically, often reticent, even inarticulate, particularly when it comes to the women in his life, who wants things from him he can’t give. When he finally does let his passion boil over and grasps Otsu in a desperately erotic clinch, it so powerful and unexpected a display that Otsu is frightened, and Musashi immediately ceases, suffused with shame. Musashi’s quest for discipline and perfect skill finds outflow in art as well as fighting, as he’s glimpsed creating delicately beautiful expressions of a Zen-infused sense of nature. Meanwhile the great warrior is most at ease with children, like Jōtarō and the doll-like geisha apprentice who becomes his handmaiden in Lady Yoshino’s house and whose solitary, rapturous singing in a garden Inagaki films whilst Musashi is off at another deadly battle, a moment of near-fairytale beauteousness that rejects just about every precept imaginable in an historical action film.
The conclusion of Duel at Ichijoji Temple ironically contrasts Musashi’s loss of erotic control with his gaining of gallantry: after fighting off dozens of the Yoshioka toughs, he’s finally challenged by Seijūrō, who escapes his own followers who have tried to keep him from attending the honourably arranged duel. Musashi beats him and holds off killing him once he’s sure his opponent is defeated, proving he’s attained both the skill and wisdom not to kill when it’s not necessary. Yet after his lapse with Otsu, he slinks away from his victory a still-chastened and embarrassed wanderer. The long, intricately staged battle between Musashi and the myriad heavies is certainly one of the great combat sequences in any movie, depending on Mifune’s great physicality for its convincing force as Inagaki expertly films how Musashi takes on a mass of enemies, carefully using his blinding speed, precision, and wits to divide their mass into manageable sections. The subplot of Matahachi and his mother ends as a tragicomic aside, both trying to kill Otsu but meeting an amusing comeuppance when Matahachi, who’s trying to pass himself off as Sasaki, meets the real swordsman, who chases him away. Sasaki then shepherds Akemi away from the battleground, and she accuses him of coveting her because he wants anything Musashi has. In the third film, Sasaki gains the success he craves when he’s appointed fencing master to the shogun’s son, albeit only after Musashi proves uninterested in the job and after Sasaki overdoes things in a bout arranged essentially as an audition, crippling a court samurai in a fencing display.
Sasaki eventually challenges Musashi to a duel, and Musashi accepts, but sends him a letter asking for the date of their combat to be put off for one year. Sasaki accepts, as it gives both men time to create a strategy and conquer their interior troubles. Inagaki pointedly portrays their divergent paths, however. Sasaki settles into the lap of court life’s luxury with the prospect of marrying a lord’s daughter, whilst Musashi continues to wander, eventually settling in a small village on a plain dominated by bandits where he, Jōtarō, and Kuma set about to work the land and teach self-defence to the villagers. The echoes of Seven Samurai here perhaps confirm the swift impact Kurosawa’s film had on the jidai geki genre, but allow Inagaki to bring the story full circle. Where Takezō went to war with a small town, now Musashi sets out to protect one. He chooses a path of abnegation and rude physical labour as the way to school himself for the ultimate trial, and the cause of common humanity rather than statecraft and power.
As Musashi and Sasaki move toward their destined battle, the counterpoint of Otsu and Akemi’s war for his affection builds to a head as both find their way to the village. Oko has since been tracked down and murdered in revenge by Kohei, the leader of a bandit gang whose brother Musashi killed in the first film, and Toji has joined the bandits. When they capture Akemi in a tavern after she runs off from Sasaki, Toji and Kohei compel Akemi to infiltrate the village and clear a path for their gang to charge in, a game Akemi eventually plays out in anger at the way Musashi accuses her of possessing her mother’s malignant streak. Akemi even tries to force Otsu to solve their rivalry in a battle with axes, but the bandit attack forestalls this, and instead Akemi dies defending Otsu from a lascivious bandit. In many ways Akemi is the trilogy’s obverse protagonist in a way none of the men competing with Musashi manages, and surpassing Otsu’s fervent but straightforward passion. Her path from degradation to a flash of nobility in the moments before death mimic Musashi’s journey whilst Inagaki stresses the realities that keep her from obtaining the same stature, the cruelty of desire and forced engagement with the realities of the world that Musashi conquers by distilling them into the theatre of war, an option not open to many others. Her death comes amidst the final conflagration of the worldly distractions and the dramas of pettier men, seen as the villagers and the samurai defeat the bandits but suffer great loss: the tumult of an evil epoch is fading by the film’s end, and history, represented by the hardiness of the villagers, rolls on.
The sequence of Musashi and Sasaki’s beach duel is conceived by Inagaki as a moment of perfect crystallisation, both for the narrative and for the experiences and principles of the duellists. For a brief moment each finds a perfect mirror of ability and the perfect moment of pure reality that is at the same time a gate of transcendence. Musashi’s ultimate victory is the result of forces we’ve seen building since the opening seconds of the first episode, a victory allowed by his final achievement of calm in the face of any event: he enters and leaves the arena without expectations, past or future, whereas Sasaki wants it to be the last chore before settling into a life of acclaim and marriage. True to his own principles, Inagaki’s final grace note is not one of triumph, but the awful fall following zenith, noting Musashi’s anguish in facing a future without such a beckoning purpose and, worse, looking honestly at what it cost him to get here.
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Director/Screenwriter: Alex Ross Perry
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Alex Ross Perry has done it again. He has taken self-proclaimed influences as far-ranging as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Roman Polanski, Robert Altman, and Woody Allen and told another annoying story about a relationship break-up and nightmarish partying in the country among the rich and artistic.
Perry has followed in the footsteps of many a modern filmmaker and emulated a particular genre film—in this case, psychological horror films of the ’60s and ’70s—to tackle his newest obsession: “broken women.” He has taken a couple similar to the New York writer (Jason Schwartzman) and photographer (Elisabeth Moss) who broke up in Listen Up Philip (2014), and instead of offering an interesting look at both their lives as they move away from each other—really, audiences get two films in one from an unexpected change in direction from Philip to the more devastated Ashley—here he has chosen to focus only on the effects of the break-up on Catherine, played again by Elisabeth Moss. In addition, he seems to have been reading a bit of Margaret Atwood, as Catherine’s recovery will be thwarted by her revenge-seeking best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston).
In the very true and funny scene that opens the film, Perry offers an extreme close-up of a mascara-smeared Catherine crying and responding sarcastically to her off-camera boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), who utters every platitude ever offered by someone who wants out of a relationship, along with the usual revelations that he had been seeing someone else for a long time, since, as Catherine puts it, “before the accident” that killed her father, a world-renowned artist. James, ever the sensitive soul, reminds her that it wasn’t an accident. Naturally, James finds Catherine’s mourning and aimlessness too much of a drag to be around.
We next see Catherine carrying a bag and an easel along a country road. Apparently, Virginia was late picking her up at whatever depot Catherine alighted in a rural area along the Hudson River to spend time at the summer home of Virginia’s family, resulting in Catherine’s hissy fit. The friends had been there the previous summer, but in an unannounced change of plan, Catherine brought James along with her. The film is littered with flashbacks to the previous visit during which Catherine walks in on Virginia making out with a neighbor, Rich (Patrick Fugit), who takes an instant dislike to her and James and who becomes her arch nemesis during her solo visit. Virginia’s constant spats with Catherine indicate some unresolved conflict between the friends and help to send Catherine into a Renfield-like lunacy by the end of the film.
What is the affront Virginia seeks to avenge? Nothing truly terrible, as befits the milieu of Virginia (“I was born to be part of the modern aristocracy”) and Rich, whose name says everything about his place in life. She simply wanted to spend the previous summer alone with Catherine, who was supposed to be there to help her with some unspecified troubles of her own. Oh, there was a little sparring about Catherine working while Virginia sits idle, and Virginia’s ridicule of Catherine’s “career” as a manager for her father, a job she can neither describe nor defend as anything other than nepotism. Her attempts to make her own art are doomed to failure.
I don’t think the problems of the rich are undeserving of consideration and empathy, but Perry doesn’t seem to agree. He seems to hate the denizens of monied and artistic circles, and he certain hates their pretensions. Yet, his attacks on them are just as pretentious, jokey, and ironic. For example, in a nod to the rotting meat in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), he has Virginia bring a salad up to Catherine, who never touches it. Although only a few days pass in the film, Perry keeps coming back to the salad, noting that the greens are getting a little flat. This is his signal that the sorrows afflicting Catherine that his own fisheye lensing and skewed angles suggest are true madness really don’t amount to anything at all. He tries to take shots at the corruption of money, having a groundskeeper near the shoreline tell Catherine that “people don’t take kindly to that kind of money” before starting his leaf blower and aiming it toward a patch of growing grass with no leaves on it at all. It’s all a joke, this noncritique critique, this savaging of characters who don’t deserve our pity or concern because their lives are so trivial and easy.
Moss becomes a grotesque by the end of the film, dressed almost exclusively in a slip and sweater, laughing with a maniacal look on her face, cowering in corners, finding herself in the midst of a party without knowing how she got there. Virginia, well played by Waterston, shifts from rueful to genuine, providing some cognitive dissonance between how she really is behaving and how Catherine may be perceiving her. The men in the film, particularly Fugit, are shallow caricatures who are not offered the same kind of dual view Virginia is accorded. Perhaps Perry’s stated sympathies with his broken woman prompted a speech he gives Catherine near the end of the film in which she puts Rich and, by inference, all her tormenters in their place, one in which she says “You are worthless. You are weak and greedy and selfish, and you are the root of every problem; you are why depression exists.” Bravo, but so what? What are we to make of this declaration? That there are shitty, self-important people in the world who like to kick a gal when she’s down because they think she’s an asshole?
Maybe I’m getting a little too old to appreciate the point of view of a young filmmaker who prefers to quote from such superior films as Repulsion, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) to finding a way to attach a relationship story to something more substantial. The incessant, ominous score by Keegan DeWitt does almost all of the work of making this a horror film. If you took the music away, it would be a French relationship film. If you added a bright score, it would be a comedy. As it is, Queen of Earth is an engaging but empty vessel.
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Director/Screenwriter: Bill Gunn
By Roderick Heath
In the early 1970s, films about black protagonists erupted in popularity, in mostly urban tales laced with gritty realism and high-powered action, bracketed ever since under the memorably pithy name of blaxploitation. Some enterprising producers went a step further and set out to blend one popular, cheap cinematic brand with another—horror movies. Strange generic crossbreeds, some with infamous titles that evoke cinematic trash-fetish at its purist, like Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973), Sugar Hill (1974), and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976), traipsed onto drive-in and grindhouse theatre screens. These films triangulated commercial impulse, cheerful camp appeal, and, sometimes, clever and socially mindful attempts to upend familiar tropes and remix the symbolic values of horror tales.
When he was approached to make cash in on Blacula’s success, Bill Gunn cringed at the proposition. Gunn was gaining repute at the time as an artist, writer, and stage director: his play Johnnas, first performed in 1968, had just been adapted into an Emmy-winning TV film in 1972, and he had worked on the screenplays of Hal Ashby’s The Landlord and Jan Kadar’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s The Angel Levine (both 1970). Gunn’s entry into horror cinema annals echoed Val Lewton’s 30 years earlier, as he set out to make a mercenary assignment in a disreputable genre serve his personal vision. Gunn realised he could use the motif of vampirism to create a metaphor for drug addiction, and then, in the act of creating it, found dimensions far broader and more original. The result, even amidst the proliferation of strange and original low-budget works both in genre cinema and arthouse fare in the early ’70s, was hailed as one of the most exciting, and showcased at the Cannes Film Festival. But Gunn’s work proved far too uncommercial, even in a truncated version released under the title Blood Couple, to satisfy its producers and the audience they were targeting. For a long time Ganja & Hess remained a legendary obscurity.
Ganja & Hess’s revival owes much to Spike Lee’s remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), an act that can easily be likened to Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (1979) as a labour of cultural tribute and postmodern ventriloquism. Gunn’s work crucially anticipates much of Lee’s aesthetic, as Lee has often tried to accomplish what Gunn does in pushing beyond the dictates of familiar Hollywood forms to create something like a cultural artefact: this movie works on the level of essayistic enquiry and museum curation as well as narrative. The great ferment of the black American cultural scene at the time too rarely found expression on cinema screens at the time. The unalloyed statement of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) helped create the blaxploitation gerne, but Gunn’s work creates a bridging point between the genre and the arrival of more determinedly artistic filmmakers like Charles Burnett and Lee. Ganja & Hess has a Godardian streak, as it privileges musical, painterly, and literary embellishments within its form whilst remaining, above all, powerfully filmic, pausing to listen to characters reading or giving account, offering frames replete with compositions inspired by the static methods of visual art, and crowding the soundtrack with spirituals, blues songs, and tribal chants overlapping and soaking into the psychic patina the film leaves in the mind. Many films from that time played about with cinematic structure and flow to create weird and artistically yearning effects, and Gunn’s work, though sometimes weakly paced and uncertainly assembled (exacerbated by the partially restored, but still choppy state of the remnant film), creates a cumulatively disorientating effect as he begins with a reasonably straightforward story that steadily spirals into an increasingly dreamlike, near-symbolic state of representation and happening.
Ganja & Hess is narrated at the outset by Luther Williams (Sam Waymon), a church preacher who moonlights as a chauffeur for Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones). Hess is an anthropologist and college professor, and Williams describes him in retrospect as “an addict…he’s not a criminal—he’s a victim.” Hess is at the height of worldly success, a wealthy, respected intellectual with a ready command of a panoply of cultural references and ensconced in a balloon of privilege. Gunn announces his intention to play about with the clichés of both horror cinema and black identity in this way, depicting Hess’s devolution into carnal bloodsucker as an investigation into that identity. Most ambitious vampire sagas look for primal urges underlying civilised mores, a pattern Gunn follows whilst taking it a logical step further in terms of his theme.
Hess is researching a long-vanished African nation called Myrthia, and his new assistant, George Meda (played by Gunn himself), has recently returned from Africa with relics of the Myrthians, including a ceremonial dagger. The decline of Myrthia, according to mythology, was thanks to the spread of a mysterious blood disease that turned its citizens into parasitic wraiths, and the dagger plays a part in that transformation, as a victim must be stabbed three times with it, invoking the Holy Trinity despite the ritual’s pagan roots, before being reborn. Meda, like Hess, is an erudite scholar, but uneasy and disturbed by recent experiences to the point where after a night of boozy conversation, Hess finds him sitting in a tree with a noose tied and dangling, ready for suicide. Hess talks him down. The following day, Meda writes a poetic missive and reads it outloud to himself, and then attacks Hess, stabbing him with the Myrthian dagger. Meda then bathes and shoots himself through the chest. Hess arises from the dead and desperately guzzles up the blood leaking from Meda’s corpse: he has been resurrected as a Myrthian vampire.
At first, Hess maintains his upright academic veneer, attending fancy garden parties and conversing easily in French with his son Enrico (Enrico Fales) who’s off at boarding school. He subsists on supplies of blood he steals from the hospital, downing glasses of it in his house, whilst Meda’s body turns stiff and grey in the wine cellar. Hess soon starts cruising for sex and blood on the town, driven by an intensifying hunger that Gunn inscribes on the soundtrack through weird, maddening sound effects and the lapping refrains of a tribal chant, the call of ancient blood tormenting Hess during the day. Hess begins preying on prostitutes and other women he picks up. On one occasion, he picks up a hooker in a bar (Candece Tarpley), and her pimp (Tommy Lane) tries to ambush and knife him in an attempted robbery. Hess, not hurt, battles the man. The prostitute hysterically fires off a gun, accidentally killing the pimp, and Hess drags her into the bathroom and kills her to drink her blood.
Hess’s new life pattern is shaken up when he gets a phone call from Meda’s wife Ganja (Marilyn Clark), who’s been searching fruitlessly for her husband around the world and has now returned to the States broke. When Hess responds to her aggressive queries with “I have had a very difficult morning,” she retorts, “I have had a very difficult fucking six months!” Ganja breezes into Hess’s life, a volcanic personality with an honest, me-first attitude, and she shares an instant arc of attraction with him that threatens to combust sexually and emotionally in spite of what is, to Ganja, Meda’s ambiguous fate. Ganja sets up in Hess’s house and happily bosses around his manservant Archie (Leonard Jackson). Ganja’s happy patronisation of Archie has a satirical note, in observing the readiness of some black folk to readily adopt the hierarchism of white society imposed on them. But the inevitable moment when Ganja heads down into the wine cellar draws nearer.
The almost negligible surface narrative isn’t what makes Gunn’s achievement fascinating. The bluntest interpretation of Ganja & Hess is that it’s a parable about rediscovering the fecundity of African cultural roots and black male virility, with Hess as a denatured and assimilated being flung back into raw and primal realities. This is undoubtedly accurate, though Gunn’s themes and his way of communicating them are more complex and ambiguous than this may sound; Ganja & Hess works most profoundly on the level of meditation, iridescent with the shifting tides of its ideas and aesthetics. Gunn created distinctive characters in the eponymous couple, giving Jones and Clark, two excellent, but underutilised actors, clear space to construct vivid individuals even as Gunn’s covert narrative suggests anti-individualism, a sense of communal identity, as the only recourse for their quandaries.
Jones, who, like Gunn had roots in the burgeoning black theatre scene of the 1960s, had crucially found his place in film history playing the lead in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and returned here in an equally radical and ambitious low-budget horror film, anchoring the film with a performance that captures a difficult person: Hess is by turns brilliant, righteous, cool, imperious, pathetic, anguished, childlike, and quite often detached in the face of his problems. One of the film’s strongest vignettes focuses on Clark’s Ganja as she narrates a tale from her childhood, a moment of pungent disillusionment by her mother over an imagined sexual transgression that set her on the path of self-liberation and self-protection. She retains an aspirational fire that eludes Hess, who seems at first like the ideal modern man, but is revealed as tortured and limited by that very sophistication.
As in many vampirism tales, transformation proves double-edged: like the habit of drug use as a means of fleeing reality or society, the effect is isolating and cumulatively deadening. Hess is ultimately as castrated by his addiction as he is liberated, at least until he strikes upon the idea of making Ganja like himself. When Hess forces himself to retreat from sex with Ganja as the blood lust comes upon him and hides in the attic to down a glass of blood, Gunn shoots it like an act of guilty masturbation, until Ganja tracks him down, drawn to his body like planetary gravity, and makes love to him.
Gunn signals the schismatic and apprehensive nature of Hess’s interior world early in the film when he sleeps, clutching the Myrthian dagger in his hand, and dreams of divergent experiences of being inducted: in one, he and Meda are greeted by a masked white man in evening dress and led through a cavernous mansion, with an interesting note of anticipation of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and in the other, he glimpses the ancient queen of Myrthia (played by Mabel King, whose singing is heard throughout the film) leading tribal initiates through long grass somewhere in the veldt. An essay Meda writes and reads is a manifesto, poetry, and epitaph all at once, a stab at expressing the fraught mindset of a conscientious black man at the fringe of a new age at once hopeful and hazardous. Gunn uses the metaphorical power of the underlying unease created in Meda by his unholy contraction in his exchanges with Hess to underline a less metaphorical sense of their unease as avatars of multiple identities often caricatured as antipathetic— African-American men, artists, thinkers, potential political leaders—and as renegades within those identities, a psychic map of a shared mindset. Meda’s suicidal fixation seems like some lost, romantic revolutionary from a classic Russian novel, whilst his writing recalls James Baldwin. The scene where Hess tries to talk him down is played as dark comedy: Gunn shoots the whole sequence in one shot framed so it sarcastically cuts off Meda’s head, and when Meda contemplates drowning himself instead, Hess notes with pungent cynicism that if a dead body is found anywhere in his neighbourhood, the cops will come straight to his house.
With surprising richness and originality for a first-time filmmaker with a literary and theatrical background, Gunn evokes different cultural dimensions through his film’s form. Luther’s early voiceover suggests a cinema verite account of an addict’s life, with documentary-style footage of Luther leading his flock in prayer, and spacy, washed-out footage of Luther in his chauffeuring guise driving Hess about while he is in the throes of his private suffering, before the timeframe shifts and we see Hess as he was before his addiction. Gunn here grazes the edges of the later craze for “found footage” horror with its glaze of false authenticity as a swift means of both baiting the audience into accepting events it might not otherwise and suggesting dimensions of understanding created by the foregrounding of technique. But Gunn soon moves through cinematic modes, from deadpan realism to outright surrealism. Hess’s adventures on the town as he hunts for blood suggest an ironic assault on the precepts of blaxploitation, as Hess bestrides nightlife looking quite the cool mofo, but preying on, rather than helping out, the black demimonde: Shaft has become Jaws.
Meanwhile, Gunn litters his film with baroque compositions until it feels like the limits of his frames might bust open, often crowding those frames with signifiers and nature and fecund beauty whilst evoking different art styles, from still lifes to the tangled geometrics of art nouveau. He zeroes in on decaying statues and works of art, a panoply of cultural inheritance, mostly Old World European, including icons by Andrei Rublev, intimating Hess’s obsession with mortality and the sustenance of the spirit, even as Gunn scrutinises the thorny relationship between traditional black identity and the Christian church, whose power Hess eventually turns to. Hess’s home is a zone of cultural inheritance, both European and African-American, replete with photos of Sonny Rollins, African statuary, and jazz singers constantly snaking out of his sound system, as well as Victoriana bric-a-brac and neoclassical art. Gunn may well have been playing a joke on the concept of the vampire’s haunted castle, usually tied to the monster’s immortality in signifying the pernicious power of ancient creeds in the modern world, but here suggesting a different brand of troubled, persisting inheritance. Gunn also emphasises the decay of all these artefacts, whilst contemplating the raw and cyclical potency of the living form during sex and acts of violence, death, and resurrection. One of Gunn’s recurring motifs is acts of immersion and bathing, starting with Meda almost ritualistically washing before fatally shooting himself, and circling back to this in the finale when a dead man leaps out of Hess’s swimming pool and runs towards the camera, stark naked, manhood flying like a battle flag.
As the film travels more deeply into the sense of folie-a-deux between the titular lovers, the narrative increasingly breaks down, entering a welter of randomly strange, but vividly illustrative vignettes, like Ganja biting into a rose and finding it floods her mouth with blood and a stone face weeping tears of blood. Ganja’s response to finding her husband’s frigid corpse in the wine cellar leads to a fraught confrontation, but also a peculiar confession from her that amounts to an admission she’s done concerning herself with any problem that doesn’t affect her own fate, and obeying that logic Ganja quietly forgets the all-but-literal skeleton in the closet to get on with life with Hess. The couple marries in front of their polyglot group of friends before Hess initiates the half-willing, ultimately terrified Ganja into sharing his condition, stabbing her and resurrecting her.
It’s a plunge into an ugly state of being at first, and Ganja writhes in bed during her transformation and finds herself feeling cold constantly. When she asks Hess if he feels the same way, he answers that he does, but he’s gotten used to it. Uniting in undead passion, however, fails to cure the anguish that possesses Hess, particularly as it reduces him after a fashion to a cuckold. The couple invites a young man (Richard Harrow) over for dinner, and then Ganja seduces him with the intent of making him her first living victim. Gunn shoots their sexual encounter as a mad flux of images in an erotic-sanguinary frenzy, leaving the young man’s body caked in gleaming blood and Ganja, who had been greedily lapping blood from his dripping wounds moments before, aghast at her own behaviour. Hess helps her wrap the body in plastic and dump it in a field, where Ganja hysterically cries that he’s still alive as Hess drags her away.
It’s tempting to detach Ganja & Hess, with its arty filmmaking, lack of suspense, and overtly symbolic approach to loaded subjects, from horror cinema altogether and regard it as closer in nature to the spacy, interiorised state of mind communicated in many “art” movie works of the period like Zabriskie Point (1970) or The Last Movie (1971). But it fits in with some other horror works of its time with surprising alacrity. As well as tweaking the basic themes of the well-established vampire film for its own purposes, the visual texture is as dense and tangled, if less well-organised, as the same year’s more celebrated Don’t Look Now. Jones’ connection with Romero strengthens the similarity with Romero’s own early work, like Season of the Witch (1971), with its similar focus on shifting sociological mores visualised as a mix of bland modernity and underlying estrangement. Gunn shares a mesmeric fascination with blurred time and psychic dislocation, a tactile sense of nostalgia and association in objects, and a vision of a physical world through which humans move lost and ephemeral, with John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1972). But it’s Gunn’s fixation with the body itself as a vessel of fascination, discontent, and political meaning that feels most vital and prognosticative. Gunn most immediately anticipated David Cronenberg’s feature debut Shivers (1975), which, like Ganja & Hess, interrogates the basic metaphor and travels through zones of weird revulsion before arriving at a perverse heroism in the prospect of emancipation from the sickness of civilisation brought about via biological reassignment. Claire Denis, whose debts to Cronenberg are readily apparent, may also have been remembering Gunn’s film with Trouble Every Day (2001), which posits itself essentially as the tale of Ganja and Meda if they hadn’t been separated.
The last act of Ganja & Hess depicts Hess’s attempt to release himself by turning to religion after reading a passage in a book that explains Myrthian sufferers found release in the shadow of the cross. He attends a sermon given by Luther and then builds a shrine in his house where he sits gazing at a crucifix, beset by visions of running through open fields as if liberated, before he finally dies. Gunn portrays this fate ambiguously, as if pondering whether Hess has found release in sanctification or has annihilated himself trying to cling to a creed that brings only self-destructive. Throughout Ganja & Hess, Gunn suggests a version of the Christ tale absorbed and retranslated, invoking Catholic rituals and the African-American Christian tradition but searching for the primal mythic force and meaning behind it all, a tale of blood, suffering, and rebirth. Either way, Hess finds escape but abandons Ganja, beset with his condition and left alone and bereft—except that Gunn leaves off with the image of the young man Ganja killed earlier springing out of Hess’s pool and running toward the house, caught in a freeze-frame leaping over Archie’s corpse. Ganja smiles enigmatically at the camera. She has her new partner, one perhaps better fitted for her anyway, and the overwhelming impression of this astonishing final flourish is one of survival—black survival, perhaps, but certainly the power as well as fragility of the life spirit.
Ganja & Hess has longeurs, and Gunn’s effects are often uneven, perhaps an inevitability when he’s experimenting as extensively as he was here, but the ultimate effect of Ganja & Hess is rare and powerful. Sadly, the film’s lack of commercial impact meant Gunn never got to develop his talent in film, and both he and Jones would die tragically young within a year of each other in the late 1980s. At least they left behind a worthy totem for their talents.
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Director: Kim Longinotto
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Several years ago, I had a discussion about prostitution with some of my regular commenters. Among the ideas put forth were that prostitution is a victimless crime and that sex workers are free to choose other lines of work if they don’t like what they’re doing. My reply to these ideas was that sometimes a choice is not really a choice and that prostitution victimizes many people, from the prostitute to the family she or he is supporting through this work. I continue to hold these beliefs, and now I have evidence to back them up in the form of director Kim Longinotto’s new documentary Dreamcatcher.
Longinotto is a respected British documentarian who has used her camera primarily to focus attention on women’s issues, such as female genital mutilation and divorce in Iran, as well as such feminist leaders as a group of women who protect and care for the abused and neglected children of Durban, South Africa (Rough Aunties, 2008) and Indian poet, politician, and activist Salma (Salma, 2013). Dreamcatcher looks at prostitution through the eyes and work of Brenda Myers-Powell, former prostitute and cofounder and executive director of The Dreamcatcher Foundation, a Chicago-based organization working to end human trafficking, prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth, and help current prostitutes find a way out of their current lifestyle. Longinotto and her sound recordist, Nina Rice, follow Myers-Powell as she makes her rounds of the streets, prisons, and schools where she connects with at-risk girls and those already in the life, as well as to the home where she lives with her husband and her adopted son, the natural son of her drug-addicted sister-in-law. Longinotto also accompanies her on a trip to Las Vegas where she and an ex-pimp who works with her, Homer, lecture at a conference on human trafficking.
During the opening scene, Myers-Powell is looking for streetwalkers whom she hopes will accept the free condoms she has on hand, as well as some words of help and encouragement. One older prostitute accepts the condoms and climbs into the van emblazoned with The Dreamcatcher Foundation along its side to talk with Myers-Powell. Her story is beyond harrowing, as she talks about being stabbed 19 times by one man and trying to help her friend, another prostitute who was stabbed on another occasion and died in her arms. She can’t wrap her head around the fact that she survived 19 stab wounds, while her friend died from one, and says repeatedly that she doesn’t want to live anymore but is too afraid to kill herself. She leaves the van grateful for having someone to talk to, but it’s hard not to feel that one day soon she’ll get her wish.
That same evening, Myers-Powell finds Marie, a prostitute working in one of the most dangerous areas in the city, a wooded, isolated park. Marie is from Portland, Oregon, and has been on the streets most of her life, starting as a child collecting money for a pimp and graduating to hooking. Myers-Powell listens to her story of abusive pimp boyfriends, guesses that she’s pregnant, and offers her judgment-free help. Marie will turn up throughout the film.
We see Myers-Powell at a women’s prison talking to inmates about the choices they made because they had to survive and celebrating that her record has been wiped clean. Her attorney, Rachel Pontikes, speaks before the group, telling them that Myers-Powell actually made law as a result of her petition to have her prostitution convictions erased; in 2011, Illinois passed the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act, under which survivors can petition a judge to vacate prostitution convictions that resulted from sex trafficking. The celebratory mood breaks something open in the group, as one woman talks of being repeatedly molested as a child, and then tells the shocking story of being beaten severely, having her jaw dislocated, and then being forced to perform oral sex on the man who beat her.
Throughout the film, we meet women who were molested as children, some as young as four years old. In fact, in one of her weekly meetings with at-risk teenage girls, Myers-Powell listens as one girl after another tells about being molested by relatives and the boyfriends of their mothers. Often, these stories are told in an unemotional way, but some of the girls break down in tears or become angry when telling about how they tried to prevent the abuse, but were not believed by the adults around them. Homer comes to talk with them one week, and reveals that he was molested, too, and found a way to feel powerful and wanted as a pimp.
These stories have the important effect of putting to rest such ridiculous ideas as the “happy hooker” or prostitution as a free choice. Clearly, the abuse the vast majority of these sex workers and at-risk girls experienced in their formative years have had a strong effect, causing Myers-Powell to say repeatedly “it’s not your fault” and “you did what you had to do to survive.” This is the language used with rape victims, which, of course, most prostitutes were as children and are at various points during their lives as sex workers. It’s not that surprising that prostitutes have children: when Myers-Powell learns from a teenager who keeps moving out of her mother’s house that she is pregnant, she remarks, “She wanted someone to love her, so she made one. I know, I did.”
Longinotto makes a stab at providing some sort of uplift for the audience. Marie finally leaves her boyfriend and is shown moving into a shelter with Myers-Powell’s help; she says her spirit was touched and that things will only get better. Maybe, but the preponderant feeling Dreamcatcher elicits is despair. Myers-Powell is a dynamic, determined individual who has survived and thrived despite the dead weight of her background, but the repetition of the same stories by girl after girl, woman after woman, made me feel pretty hopeless about reducing human trafficking, never mind eliminating it. This is an important subject, and Brenda Myers-Powell is a lively central character who does more, I’m sure, than hug people and provide positive messages. Unfortunately, as a piece of filmmaking, Longinotto has produced a static bludgeon of what are, essentially, sloganeering talking heads.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: D.W. Griffith
By Roderick Heath
One hundred years have passed since the release of the film long beheld as the very moment cinema came of age, and few films can speak so eloquently as to just how long that century has been. The faiths, ideals, and biases inscribed in the form of The Birth of a Nation, both separate from that form and wound into it with pernicious intricacy, tell us things we don’t necessarily want to remember or countenance, things that appall and beggar as well as things that still stir and fascinate. David Wark Griffith’s achievement with The Birth of a Nation was immediately hailed as a great event in the history of a young art form, but also the spur to furious debate, even murder and terrorism. The frightening power, redolent of some alchemist’s dream of mesmeric influence over a mass populace, of that new art form was confirmed at the same time as its enormous expressive promise. The Birth of a Nation became perhaps the pivotal work of moviemaking’s first quarter-century, overshadowing even Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1922), which it influenced, because it was a colossal hit as well as a successful aesthetic experiment. Griffith’s film would remain the highest-grossing film of all time until at least Gone with the Wind (1939), and perhaps still reigns supreme adjusting for inflation: as costar Lillian Gish put it, it made so much money they lost count. At the time The Birth of a Nation struck many viewers as like a historical document given the vitality and narrative power of legend. Woodrow Wilson reportedly described it as “history written in lightning,” though those words were probably placed in his mouth by his former schoolmate, Thomas Dixon, Jr, who proselytised tirelessly on the behalf of the work taken from his novel. The film premiered 50 years after the end of the Civil War ended, but everyone in the average American movie theatre of the time knew very well that the forces that had caused and ended that hideous conflagration were not yet quelled. Hell, they’re not past even now.
For a long time, no one argued with Griffith’s achievement. Certainly the most hyperbolic descriptions of The Birth of a Nation’s originality were incorrect. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) pushed into the realm of the modern definition of narrative feature film when Griffith was still an actor. A wave of contemporaneous Italian historical films, including Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (both 1913), drove Griffith to compete with their scale and dramatic heft. Most of the editing and filming techniques packed into his work already existed, awaiting the kind of show-off who could synthesise them, and Griffith had laid claim to inventing many in his acts of self-promotion. The famous ride of the Ku Klux Klan at the end of The Birth of a Nation with its cross-cutting structure was actually just a reprise of his earlier work, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913). But the record still tells us that Griffith constructed something his audience felt it had not seen before, defining moviemaking at last as its own continent, for all Griffith’s debts to Victorian-era literature and his conversion of some well-established author’s tricks into visual style.
The Birth of a Nation perturbs now for less abstract reasons: it’s appallingly racist, and not just for modern eyes. In its own time, the film was the subject of bilious protest. Many saw it then as a legitimate account of the era it portrayed; others recognised it as blatant, partisan propaganda and racial libel passing itself off as a common folk-memory. Perhaps the controversy helped its success. The fledgling NAACP gained stature and clout objecting to it. Some blame it for sparking the new Ku Klux Klan campaigns of the 1920s. Violence certainly broke out in some screening locations. Today, the success of Ken Burns’ television documentary series The Civil War (1987) and Edward Zwick’s film Glory (1989) helped restore the Civil War to the centre of modern American mythology in a way that pop culture had rarely seemed comfortable with before, partly by confronting aspects of the war that had long been repressed. For a very long time, the tacit narrative of the postwar period was one of reconciliation between former antagonists, burying the causes for schism whilst inferring that the citizens whose fates were crucial to the war, African-American slaves, were best excised from the conversation, if not in some way to blame for it all. The Birth of a Nation, to put it mildly, records and exemplifies that convention.
Griffith’s film was based on Dixon’s novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Dixon was a South Carolina minister, politician, and pro-South ideologue who had been convinced by the anecdotes he heard as a kid that the Klan had saved the South from rapacious carpetbaggers and lawless freedmen. The Birth of a Nation was initially to be a straightforward adaptation of the novel, and first screened under its title. The contradictions here are many: Kentucky-born with Confederate roots, Griffith had just a few years earlier made a film where the Klan were villains. During production, Griffith’s adaptation of Dixon inflated into something far larger than intended, as Griffith worked without a scenario or screenplay, but simply kept the book in mind whilst conjuring his visions, creating a grandiose pageant begging for a more sweeping appellation. Griffith already had a reputation as one of the movie’s most innovative and distinctive talents: as cornball as a lot of his plots were, in works like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), The Avenging Conscience, and Judith of Bethulia (both 1914), he had impressed viewers with works of a defined aesthetic density far above the run of mostly mercenary amusements. Griffith developed himself as a brand, and when he premiered his new film, he showcased it with a costly roadshow presentation and charged the then-exorbitant amount of $2 a ticket. Perhaps The Birth of a Nation is more a landmark in the annals of hype.
Still, what about the actual film, the relic shining out from under all the rhetorical dust? Does it still shout out its storied power above the din of its controversy? Yes and no. Even without taking on the sorry race portrayals, The Birth of a Nation is a mixture of the crude and the fine. Portions are undoubted displays of great cinematic effect and art, whilst others drag and slouch. The plotting is naïve and occasionally confused, the acting uneven. At times it’s a stock-standard melodrama of the kind readily found in turn-of-the-century novelettes and stage plays, complete with rosy-cheeked damsels in distress, lascivious villains, good-hearted patriarchs, and bellicose mammies. The characters it describes aren’t really people, but are mostly archetypes of a bygone society’s best self-image and basest anxieties.
The first third of The Birth of a Nation is still a vivid creation for all the qualifications, tethering the microcosmic, presented via the families of congressional leader Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) of the North and Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken) of the South, with the macrocosmic drama of erupting civil conflict. Stoneman upholds radical abolitionist policies, partly under the influence of his black housekeeper and mistress Lydia Brown (Mary Alden). In spite of brewing war clouds at the time of Lincoln’s election, Stoneman’s sons Phil (Elmer Clifton) and Tod (Robert Harron) visit their friends the Camerons, whose ranks include sons Ben (Henry B. Walthall), Wade (George Beranger), and Duke (Maxfield Stanley), and daughters Margaret (Miriam Cooper) and Flora (Violet Wilkey), in their South Carolina town of Piedmont. Ben falls in love with a photo of Stoneman’s daughter Elsie (Gish) given to him by Phil. The settled life of the Camerons, the bustle of household work, the roughhousing of the sons and the scampering of the kids, the quiet reclining of Dr. Cameron, is quickly and skilfully sketched by Griffith in the midst of the decorous, homey beauties of picket fences and rose bushes. The Stonemans also get a tour of cotton plantations, where slaves labour and readily dance gleefully for the visitors. Just after the Stonemans depart, Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) signs his call for volunteers, “using the Presidential office for the first time in history…to enforce the rule of the coming nation over the individual states.” War breaks out, and the Cameron sons join the Confederate cause.
Griffith builds these sequences, shifting from the bucolic to the ecstatic, with gathering force, capturing the mood of being swept up in what its characters see as a great, romantic, classical quest. Bonfires and dancing greet the news of war. “While youth dances the night away, childhood and old age slumber,” a title card notes, as the camera studies the snoozing Dr. Cameron and Flora, establishing a quality of dialogue, the existence of separate modes of life even within the frame of a single story. Griffith’s framings are often studied and still resemble the static state of much early filmmaking: his sequences often tend to comprise a few basic compositions, alternating between them. Two crucial aspects, however, imbue them with an uncommon life: the frames are packed with detail, often with Griffith pushing his actors to be in constant movement and expression in relation to each other, usually with elements arranged along diagonal axes to give the square frame depth and a definite dramatic quality. Griffith’s characters often look as if they’re perching on the edge of something, as in early scenes where they hover amidst the columns of the Cameron house, whose design splits the difference between Antebellum manse per Confederate mythology and normal suburban villa to which more of the audience could relate. Most vitally, Griffith cuts constantly, giving his moving pictures the same sense of velocity and a fluidic, implicit sense of relationship, rather than a flatly grammatical one. The depiction of Piedmont’s soldiers heading off to war thrums with a sense of motion and pictorial eloquence–the gyrating crowds in the town square and columns of parading soldiers, the lasses bedecked with flowers and the horses similarly garlanded, the young gallants stealing kisses before riding off, Ben teasing “pet sister” Flora by dangling the Confederate flag over her face as she naps, and the familial pietas of soon-to-be-bereft loved ones waving farewell. Billy Bitzer’s photography, justly celebrated as a grand technical achievement, is constantly striking, particularly the night sequences of bonfire celebrations. Griffith foreshadows with witty asides. A young kitten and pup, pets of the Camerons, tumble into each other and commence what is described as “hostilities” by the title cards.
The wartime sequences are even more impressive for the sense of rolling, panoramic drama. Freed from having to relate the audience to actors at the centre of focus and understanding, Griffith pulls off coups of pure visual power, covering fields of battle and scenes of history purely according to the needs of his camera rather than the call of an imagined stage, letting his images flow in a manner reminiscent conceptually of book plates and theatrical pageants, and sometimes based outright on artworks, but imbued with the illustrative force of cinema. One of the Cameron sons catches a bullet during an infantry charge. Tod Stoneman dashes in, ready to bayonet him, only to recognise his friend and stay his hand, moments before a Confederate bullet cuts him down in turn: Tod collapses, pulling his friend close and dying, leaving them entwined in a brotherly embrace. This vignette is trite on one level, and yet also a perfectly direct, visually powerful encapsulation of Griffith’s message regarding war, as direct and intelligible as anything in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Another Cameron boy dies during the retreat of the army. The burning of Atlanta is depicted in a crude but startling proto-matte shot, in which extras amidst life-size sets swathed in smoke reel underneath a burning model of the town. A long shot of Sherman’s army on the march through the countryside filmed from a hilltop sees the camera pivot to note a mother and her children looking on, an iris effect zeroing in on them before Griffith cuts to show us their faces beholding the annihilation of their world: the victims of war are privileged by the perspective Griffith takes on them over the distant, anonymous mass of men.
The most spectacular war sequence is set in the waning days of the conflict, where Ben Cameron, now beloved by his men as “The Little Colonel,” leads them in an attempt to break out of siege for supplies, only to be held off by Union soldiers commanded by Phil Stoneman. Ben stirs the admiration and then the cheers of his enemies by first helping a wounded Union soldier and then by defiantly dashing across no-man’s-land and jamming the pike of the Confederate battle flag into a Union cannon. Here Griffith wields but also varies a clear sense of geography, via the battlefield framed like a football field with the opponents on either side, studied first in high vistas and then long group shots, and then close studies of individual actions. At one point, the camera charges with Ben and his men, and the sequence builds to the shot of Ben at the cannon filmed from behind the cannon, capturing the pain and heroism of the gesture. This is all utterly familiar filming and editing method today, but represented the cutting edge of sophistication at the time, and moreover still shines with the peculiar intensity of real creativity. One can still almost share the effect that shot of the cannon spiking must have had in 1915, the animate drama and sensatory power of watching an actor, some sets, crew, and a strip of celluloid interact and be manipulated until it seemed as if the essence of life and death have been depicted. Whilst such oversized vignettes dominate the impression The Birth of a Nation leaves, the film is replete with testaments to the value of small gestures and fleeting, but vital, observations as part of the overall texture. There’s the droll humour of Stoneman letting Elsie fit the wig that conceals his bald pate and a guard in the military hospital sighing over Elsie’s untouchable beauty, and a purposeful linkage of images adding up to ideas, as when Ulysses Grant (Donald Crisp) and Robert E. Lee (Howard Gaye) shake hands at Appomattox, followed immediately by Ben and Elsie doing the same.
Griffith synthesised all of this for his own satisfaction, his own family’s part in the war perhaps lingering in the vividness with which he describes the struggle as well as a sense of discovery, the first poet of a new form to describe such a vista. Tellingly, most of what comes later in adapting Dixon more directly is lacking from this part, though early scenes are interpolated depicting Lydia Brown’s Uriah Heep-like patronisation of Stoneman’s Senate opposite Charles Sumner (Sam De Grasse), alternating with her fire-eyed tantrums motivated by her evident desire to be loftier, a desire she later realises as her hold on Stoneman becomes unshakeable and she begins contemptuously ushering Sumner away. Lydia is described as using her power over Stoneman to ends that will have dire consequences, though how and why, beyond pure wilful egotism, isn’t quite described; in any event, Stoneman uses Lincoln’s assassination to begin a forced social revolution in the reconstructing states after the war. Stoneman and Lydia were clearly based on Thaddeus Stevens, leader of radical Republicans, and Lydia Smith, his housekeeper who was probably also his mistress; The Birth of a Nation implies that this fatal act of miscegenation set the stage for civil war. One revealing aspect of Dixon’s paranoid racism captured in the film is how one could easily tweak this to make it seem heroic (as Steven Spielberg would when depicting Stevens and Smith in Lincoln, 2012), in the theme of the oppressed and disadvantaged released from their shackles and using new-found power to redress the moral books, an idea which The Birth of a Nation cannot countenance, and instead hides behind mendacious suggestions that it was rather the quintessence of duplicity and anarchy.
At the same time Griffith dissembles, referring to certain villainous black characters as “traitors to their own race” as well as to the larger nation, though the film infers that because of the bad actions of these specific wrongdoers, all must be subjugated. A clue as to how confused The Birth of a Nation is, politically speaking, is found in its treatment of Lincoln, who is described early on as trampling on states’ rights, as per Dixon’s outright Confederate propaganda, whilst his determined attempts to force the abolition of slavery are avoided altogether. (One scene purportedly cut from the remaining print after early screenings depicted a gang rape of a white woman by black soldiers with the title card “Lincoln’s solution.”) But the film also plays up the more familiar, positive image of the leader when it suits. When Mrs. Cameron (Josephine Crowell) goes to visit her son Ben in a Union military hospital, she learns he’s going to be shot, so she goes to see the President to beg for his life, and he grants her request.
When Lincoln is killed, Dr. Cameron laments that “our best friend is gone.” The depiction of Lincoln’s assassination is a masterly set-piece from Griffith, perhaps indeed the strongest sequence in the film. Rather than merely present the famous moment as tableaux vivant, Griffith instead depicts events with a flow of documentarylike detail, generating suspense with analysis of the mechanics of the act. He notes Lincoln’s bodyguard setting himself up in the hallway outside his theatre box, but then being drawn into another booth to take a look at the play. This gives John Wilkes Booth (played by future director Raoul Walsh, who was also the husband of Miriam Cooper at the time) the chance to storm the box, his act of violence and flying leap onto the stage and infamous cry of “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” delivered at concussive speed, capturing the deliberately theatrical power of the assassin’s deed. Booth’s showmanship suits Griffith’s, whilst history weaves in with fiction: Elsie and Phil Stoneman are in the crowd, and see the whole thing, whilst the President’s murder gives Austin Stoneman his chance to push his agenda unfettered.
One rarely contemplated aspect of The Birth of a Nation is one it shares with much of Griffith’s cinema: women were at the centre of his movies, and in many ways he helped codify the “women’s picture” with his tales of oppressed waifs, degraded mothers, and plucky gamines who soldier through trials. Whilst in hospital, Ben meets the object of his abstract obsession in the flesh, as Elsie Stoneman is working there as a nurse: Elsie forms a bond with Ben and his mother and helps her make the plea to Lincoln. The framework of Dixon’s story demands the ladies chiefly be used as threatened victims, and Griffith was always happy to serve up images of decorously beautiful young women audiences of the time loved. But Griffith emphasises the moral force of motherhood and the determined energy of the young women. Elsie, Margaret, and Flora are all as active in their way as the menfolk, absent from the battlefield, but guarding the gates of civilisation and dodging the predations of the age, as when the Cameron girls and their parents have to hide in their household cellar to avoid marauding Union soldiers in Piedmont.
One early shot captures young Gish’s mischievous screen quality and Griffith’s feel for actors, as she sets her brother racing off and then skips and jumps her way back toward the Stoneman manse, all distracted and tomboyish energy even as she clutches a kitten and looks entirely winsome. Both Elsie and Margaret hold off the men who romance them because of their ethical dimensions: Elsie holds loyal to her father’s creed when she realises Ben has become involved with the Ku Klux Klan, and Margaret refuses Phil’s overtures in memory of her slain brothers. By comparison, the male characters, apart from Ben, are blank slates, operating robotically according to assigned identities, from the young men signing up for state-sponsored carnage to the black and half-caste characters for whom the sexual conquest of a white woman is both their most verboten and most desired object.
As The Birth of a Nation moves into its second half, the focus shifts from war to fractious peace. It’s here the film becomes truly difficult, to say the least, both in terms of art and meaning. Griffith’s freeform exploration of the Civil War gives way to a more settled, straightforward adaptation of Dixon’s novel. Austin Stoneman relocates to Piedmont with his remaining children to oversee the Reconstruction programme being carried out by a horde of soldiers, carpetbaggers, and freedmen. Stoneman’s protégé is the biracial Silas Lynch (George Siegmann). The congressman gets him installed as lieutenant-governor with the aid of a rigged election where local citizens are refused participation whilst manipulated ex-slaves vote. All of this, the title cards inform, creates a state of lawless anarchy in the district, though little of this anarchy is actually depicted. What we do see is Ben Cameron taking inspiration from seeing a couple of white kids scare some black kids by hiding under a sheet and having the brilliant idea of applying the same principle to his brainchild. He creates a militialike force to strike back at the corrupt and chaotic regime and newly free black citizens seeking their rights without exposing themselves to reprisals: the Ku Klux Klan is born. Meanwhile, Lynch becomes increasingly megalomaniacal, believing he can use the black soldiers under his command not just to bully and oppress the Southerners but to carve out a kingdom that he will rule. He wants Elsie to be his queen, and looks for a chance to corner her, though she clearly prefers Ben. The situation comes to a head when one of the black soldiers, Gus (Walter Long), stalks Flora (played as a grown-up by Mae Marsh) with rape on his mind through the forest outside of Piedmont. Rather than submit, she jumps of a cliff. The Klan avenges her death by tracking down and lynching Gus. Lynch responds by threatening anyone proven to be participating in Klan acts with hanging. When Ben’s Klan costume is found in his house, what’s left of the Cameron family is arrested.
The Birth of a Nation’s pretences to creating a Homeric epic of America hinge unavoidably on a slanted portrayal of events that are still somewhat ill-served by film: there is a void in cinematic depictions of the Reconstruction era, and many that do exist take a similarly Southern point of view. Perhaps, as Buster Keaton said a few years later, when he made a Confederate his hero in The General (1926), that’s because it felt unfair to many to kick the losers much more. Gone with the Wind, the film’s immediate successor both in subject and success (and another work almost certainly influenced by it), bent over backwards to avoid Griffith’s mistakes, but created some thorny issues of its own. If there’s a salutary value to the way The Birth of a Nation depicts the dankest, sleaziest, most perverse fixations of a certain brand of American bigot, it is that it properly recorded them for posterity. This allows anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty to see the way the ideas propagated here still define many of its precepts before various masking tactics were adopted–that black men are essentially lascivious, violent apes waiting for a chance to sexually assault white women and brutalise their menfolk, that attempts to reapportion social justice for African-Americans after the war and even today only facilitate the first point, that vigilante justice by gun-toting “ordinary” people is the only force that can stop it, and so forth. In spite of the film’s controversy at the time, there was nothing particularly uncommon about the historical thesis proposed: even President Wilson, a high-minded idealist in many regards, was also a deeply racist thinker whose writings on the topic of the Klan influenced Griffith’s presentation of it. “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright,” a title card says late in the film when two former Union soldiers aid the Camerons in fending off the black soldiers stalking them, a line that’s deeply depressing but also perfectly revelatory.
One of Griffith’s most brilliant flourishes, a highlight of inspiration in the second half, is woven in inescapably with racist pseudo-history: a shot of the state legislature, empty at first, transitions to a later time when the house has been filled with rowdy freedmen serving Stoneman’s political program. This is another moment one can well imagine stunning an audience in 1915. Dissolves, superimpositions, and double-exposure effects had been used before, but Griffith uses them here to create an active, purely filmic device of satirical insight, albeit a vicious, wrong one. The installed black legislators make a mockery of the solemn institution by drinking whiskey, kicking their shoes off, and generally look like they’re having a good time in a way that’s actually not so far from the Marx Brothers’ similarly anarchic treatment of such settings–except by the 1930s anarchy, at least that plied by impish white guys, was cool. One real crux of the quandary The Birth of a Nation presents is that such sensitivity as Griffith often displays can coexist with such unregenerate contempt, in the process of watching art foiled by prejudice. Perhaps the lowest point of this fantasia comes in the concluding scenes when the Klan, having restored justice and order, keep black voters from going out to vote, presenting the beginning of the century of marginalisation and depression codified under the Jim Crow regime as a heroic, even funny vignette in the film, evident in the way the black would-be voters reel out of the bars, see the hooded, armed Klansmen outside, then promptly swivel and retreat. This moment is as despicable as anything I’ve ever seen in a film.
Ironically, most of the black roles are played by white men in blackface. Roger Ebert proposed this was because staging some of these images with real African-American actors would have been too incendiary, but perhaps it was to avoid production conflicts. In any event, the ridiculous look of these performers gives much of the film the quality of grotesque pantomime, accidentally highlighting the artificiality. The Reconstruction chapter has often been celebrated in spite of all this for exemplifying one of Griffith’s great innovations, as he cross-cuts between sectors and streams of action: the Camerons, who escape their military escort and face siege in a remote shack, Lynch in Piedmont taking Elsie captive for a forced marriage, and the Klansmen gathering and charging to the rescue. The second half, however, often feebly executed by comparison with the first, moving stolidly through its relatively few substantial plot points, with many elements left vague, like Lydia Brown’s fate. Amidst shoot-outs and rescues, the true climactic moment comes when Lynch tells Stoneman that he wants to marry a white woman. Stoneman congratulates and encourages him, but then when Lynch tells him that he specifically wants to marry Elsie, Stoneman erupts in outrage. This could easily be tweaked as a moment of satirical insight, making fun of a shallow form of white liberalism that’s perfectly okay with anything in abstract, and indeed it is after a fashion. But it’s also intended as both revelation and comeuppance for Stoneman, who is forcibly shown the logical end point of his politics, and reacts with the same natural repulsion, the storyline implies, any father would in the face of such depravity.
Much of the plotting here is, again, standard melodrama, with Dixon’s bullshit pasted over already very familiar roles and rituals of penny dreadful villainy. What’s new, however, is that stuff is matched here to a show of filmic technique that thrilled the audience of the day and gave unto later filmmakers a blueprint of how to achieve the same result again and again. Yet it also laid the seed of warning for followers, too, in seeing just how easy it could be to follow a programme of storytelling in the new medium that could manipulate them into siding with monstrosities. The famous ride of the Klan proves rather slow and arthritic for a contemporary eye, however. Radical as such technique was, there was still a long way to go in giving this gimmick the kind of rhythmic intensity it could wield. There are some eye-catching compositions, like the Klansmen riding silhouetted against the sky on a ridgeline, but the interpersonal scenes of Stoneman and Lynch arguing and the Camerons and their comrades in the shack returns to flat, two-dimensional framings. Lynch, if he wasn’t so set on marrying Elsie and arguing with her father, could have ravaged her a dozen times by the time the Klan actually reach Piedmont. Griffith would push his new technique much farther in his follow-up Intolerance (1916), where he cross-cuts not merely related but separate scenes, but whole storylines and timeframes.
Near the film’s very end, Griffith recaptures his visual invention as he shifts into symbolism and surrealism through visuals that evoke medieval artistic styles and literary pictorial plates: a diptych of War on horseback waving its sword over a pile of corpses, and another of Jesus reigning over a court of the faithful. Here, the feeling of cinema as art form as well as populist political sentiment are both revealed as perched on a wickedly sharp edge. Film is gaining its method and its voice at the same time as it is emerging from the influence of other art forms, and an accumulated system of meaning depending on assumptions that cinema perhaps served in part as a stronger beam of sunlight than had ever been seen before. The profound contradiction between the film’s ardent statements of pacifism and brotherhood and its equally ardent preaching of fascist, racialist hegemony is strange as well as appalling to me, as if in that disparity, if only one can grasp it, lies the seed of so much that would transpire in the 20th century. The past had been neatly reconfigured into a myth, but already new realities were pressing, begging their own mythologising.
The Great War was raging across the Atlantic when the film was released, and surely on Griffith’s mind as he questioned “Dare we dream of a golden dawn when the bestial War shall rule no more?” in one of the film’s last title cards. So, naturally, soon the Hun would be serving the same purpose black men had in warmongering movies. At the same time, black Americans could see what many thought of them all too clearly, and found that could be a weapon that cut two ways. Griffith himself would be elevated to the stature of god-king of an art form for a short reign, but at the same time was hurt and bewildered by the forced realisation he had created something deeply troubling. He would take up the themes of prejudice, abuse, and other pressing social problems often thereafter, struggling with films like Intolerance, Broken Blossoms (1919), perhaps his best film after all, and The Struggle (1931) to come to grips with such issues. He would fail politically and commercially, but grow poetically. The conflict between this sense of achievement and the urge for atonement would define the rest of Griffith’s career.
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Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut feature film of: Terence Young, director
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Back in November 2008, Rod posted a “Famous First” on Dr. No (1962), which marked the first screen appearance of the James Bond character. The director of Dr. No was Terence Young, and so it is with some sense of continuity that I write about the first of many films in the long and successful career of this underrated British director who peaked in the 1960s with the Bond films, including From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965), as well as The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), Wait Until Dark (1967), and Mayerling (1968).
Young began his film career as a screenwriter, most notably penning the scripts for On the Night of the Fire (1939), Dangerous Moonlight (1941), A Letter From Ulster (1942), and Theirs Is the Glory (1946), which were directed by his good friend, the Belfast-born director Brian Desmond Hurst. On the Night of the Fire is often considered a good example of early British noir, and this film may have given Young a few ideas about the look he wanted when it came his turn to direct. Shot in Paris, Corridor of Mirrors has the moody shadows and skewed camera angles of a proper film noir. However, it offers a story reminiscent of the horror/thriller Vertigo (1958) of a man searching for a lost love and creating a living woman in her image. Further, there may have been something lingering in the air from the fantasy films the French were forced to make when the Germans occupied their country during World War II. Corridor of Mirrors is a dreamy, gorgeous film that, whether Young intended it or not, rips the veil off the nightmare of the Occupation that the subjugated French were required to banish from their filmmaking, making it something much closer to gothic horror film than noir.
The film starts with the noirish voiceover of our female protagonist, Mifanwy Conway (Edana Romney), a half Italian-half Welsh country wife and mother who tells us that she is hiding a dark secret that puts a lie to her respectability—she is leaving them both for a few days to meet her lover, who has been writing to her persistently for the past few months. Her rendezvous is to take place at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in the creepy chamber of the notorious that contains lifelike French nobility having their heads lopped off during the Reign of Terror. We look around for her lover and are surprised when she reaches up to take the hand of a wax figure. His is the likeness of Paul Mangin (Eric Portman). We won’t learn what he did to earn a place at the wax museum until much later, once Mifanwy finishes her reminiscence of the strange and intense affair that began in a nightclub, when she first saw his fascinating face and determined that she had to get to know him.
Paul is fabulously wealthy and lives in an enormous and opulent mansion, surrounding himself with rare and beautiful items. His particular passion is for 15th-century Venice, and he preserves all the courtly charms of that bygone era. He drives Mifanwy to his home in a hansom cab and compliments her unconventional dress as being in keeping with his own anachronistic tastes—but he can’t abide her cigarette habit. She returns several times to his home, and one day finds herself alone in it, save for the discreetly hidden servants, and invited by note to have a look around. She discovers a corridor of mirrored doors, behind which are lavish period dresses and jewelry. Unable to resist, she tries one on and is admiring herself when Paul comes up behind her and finishes the look with the necklace and tiara that accompany it. He has had all of these costumes made for the day the woman of his dreams appears; of course, that woman is Mifanwy, the spitting image of the Italian spitfire who made his life a living hell when they both lived previous lives in Renaissance Venice.
This twist definitely tips Corridor of Mirrors into the horror category, with Paul offering a strong model for the genteel type of Dracula that would become a staple of England’s Hammer Studios, a strangely apt approach considering that this marked Christopher Lee’s big-screen debut, as a party-hearty companion of Mifanwy and her night-clubbing friends. Further, we have a Renfield character in the form of Edgar Orsen (Alan Wheatley), the designer of those fabulous garments who hates Paul for dallying with his lover, Caroline (Joan Hart), but remains chained to his generous patronage. We’re even offered a crazy housekeeper (Barbara Mullen) for the purposes of plot and added menace.
French cinematographer André Thomas is really the making of the film, setting up a genuine air of romance and dread that carries it through to its somewhat ridiculous conclusion. The first dance between Mifanwy and Paul is a whirl, like a spider slipping a very delicate web around its prey. Who is the predator and who is the prey doesn’t really seem to matter as both people look equally in thrall. The benign first scene in the corridor of mirrors gives way to fear and confusion as Mifanwy’s panic at Paul’s delusions about past lives and worries about his stability have her running through the corridor anxiously looking for the door that will aid her escape, but being confronted by blank-faced mannequins at every turn and reflections of madness. She learns her laugh disturbs Paul, and the sound design of her echoing laugh in Paul’s head matches the multitude of mirror images Thomas captures.
The script, partially written by Romney, is kind of a mess when it comes to her own character. We are supposed to think Mifanwy is a modern girl who is simply intrigued by Paul’s world and whose cruelty matches that of the ancient Italian she resembles down to the last detail, signalled by her attraction to a poison bottle a la Lucrezia Borgia in Paul’s display case. The switch is neither well-planned nor well-executed, and the consequences of her rejection don’t strike the tragic note they probably should have—and certainly not with the grotesque happy ending the film has in store for us.
If this and other implausible plot twists are redeemed at all, it is because Eric Portman is such a magnetic and pleasant character to spend 90 or so minutes with. The lavish costume ball he throws to celebrate the rediscovery of his lost love is absolutely enchanting, and Young and company achieve that difficult task of making us feel as though we have really entered another time occurring within our own, as opposed to watching a straight period piece that can be viewed more dispassionately. Thomas and Portman pay close attention to the faces of the players, a handsome and exotic bounty that does much more to put the story across than the expensive-looking sets. All in all, Corridor of Mirrors casts a rather intoxicating spell that fans of classic and horror films should find worthwhile.
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Director: Terence Fisher
By Roderick Heath
Christopher Lee, son of an English soldier and an Anglo-Italian countess who had been an artist’s model, had aristocratic roots that could be traced back to Charlemagne. Born in London, he grew with a diverse education and a swathe of languages at his command, a scion both of imperial England’s waning bastions and Europe’s rapidly fragmenting identities. His gifts and experiences would serve Lee well in life, after his step-father’s bankruptcy and the coming of World War II. His service in the war was shrouded in legend ever after, and some have suggested his step-cousin Ian Fleming based James Bond partly on him. After a suggestion by another cousin, an Italian ambassador, Lee decided to try acting after the war. Lee was marked as a potential star and put through Rank’s “charm school” training, perhaps to mint another dashing screen roué like James Mason or Stewart Granger or to put his fencing talents to work in swashbucklers.
Lee, however, struggled for a long time to find his place in the cinematic scheme of things. Something about him didn’t quite fit—perhaps he had too much premature gravitas, too little untroubled charm, to be the romantic lead in the anodyne atmosphere of early ’50s British film. Lee carved out a career as a character actor instead, playing everything from a spear-carrying soldier in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) to a comedic nightclub owner in Powell and Pressburger’s Battle of the River Plate (1956). Ironically for a performer equipped with a deep, unmistakeable, well-trained voice, he was then offered a role with no lines at all. Lee, who had been dogged by the opinion he was too tall for an actor, was offered the part of Frankenstein’s monster for just that reason. He accepted instantly, perhaps remembering that the same part had turned Boris Karloff, another British misfit, into a star.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) represented a gamble for Lee just as it did for Hammer Films, the small, relatively low-rent filmmaking concern built by actor William Hinds and entrepreneur James Carreras and later developed by their sons Anthony and Michael. After success adapting the Quatermass TV serials for the big screen, the company tried its luck with a series of proper horror movies, a genre that had been largely inactive since the mid-1940s. These films were produced in colour, a choice that would automatically make their product stand out when most fantastical films of the time were cheaply made in black and white, and with the disreputable but commercially smart object of shocking audiences with gore. Lee’s costar in Frankenstein was Peter Cushing, another actor whose career had been varied and frustrating but who had finally become a well-known face working on TV. Reviled by critics faced with its gaudy, painterly, potent revision of both Mary Shelley’s model and the well-worn Universal film series, The Curse of Frankenstein was nonetheless a hit, and Hammer quickly gathered the people responsible back to take on another storied horror property, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Cushing again was cast as the lead, and Lee as the monster that he must fend off. Young screenwriter Jimmy Sangster proved himself ingenious when paired with director Terence Fisher. Fisher, a respected editor, had moved into directing like former collaborator David Lean, but where Lean quickly achieved prestige, Fisher subsisted as a quickie helmsman. Yet, like Lee, such fare gave him a chance to develop a no-nonsense professionalism that would serve his creativity exceedingly well when finally let off the leash, and he proved himself adept at dark melodramas like So Long at the Fair (1952) and injecting such cornball scifi as 4-Sided Triangle (1953) with visual drama far beyond its means.
Fisher proved to have the perfect sensibility for horror cinema, stimulated by the chance he found to play around with the established tropes of gothic horror. Fisher and Sangster had determinedly distorted the Frankenstein myth to return the scientist to the centre of the tale and strip him of nobility, an idea perfect for the growing cynicism of the atomic age. Faced with the equally hoary figure of Dracula, their take centred squarely on the understanding that the vampire overlord was a version of the ancient folk figure of the demon lover. Some critics have seen the Hammer Dracula as a prefiguration of the movie version of James Bond: a sexual fantasy incarnate, if still here held in check as an image of villainy. The film’s opening credits, exploring the surrounds and interior of the vampire overlord’s castle, resolves in a tracking shot that slowly zeroes in on Dracula’s name carved into the lid of a massive stone sarcophagus upon which blood starts to drip. This vision has a powerful quality as an abstract encapsulation of the visual texture where dusty browns and greys and the violent lustre of gory hues will dominate. But it is perhaps more important as a prototypical pop-art declaration of the Hammer brand and the changing face of pop culture, heralding an awareness of iconography, an idea that the James Bond films would exploit more fully.
Revising the story for a straitened production and with an eye to a tighter, more intimate story, the filmmakers stripped away much of the foliage of Stoker’s novel, including the long voyage from Transylvania to England, the hunt for the vampire’s resting place, and the wealth of background characters, to concentrate on the essential idea of Dracula as dark force assaulting the Victorian bourgeois idyll and faced down by the forces of iron rationality. Jonathan Harker (Fisher regular John Van Eyssen) was changed from a naïve realtor to a fellow scholar engaged with Van Helsing in infiltrating and uncovering abodes of the undead, letting himself be engaged by Dracula to archive his library as a Trojan Horse warrior bent on tracking down the vampire’s resting place and killing him. Fisher set out to bait the audience into taking Dracula as a figure of campy appeal by having him first appear as a looming shadow at the top of the stairs, and then undercut it by having Lee stride into the light, imperious, courtly, smoothly charismatic. Evil suddenly was sexy.
Rejecting the images of ruin and infestation that F.W. Murnau and Tod Browning had originally offered in their takes on the material and Expressionist stylisation, Fisher and the Hammer production team instead insisted on a firmly tangible visual texture that is lightly stylised more through use of colour than lighting. Dracula’s castle, first glimpsed under the opening credits complete with a hulking stone eagle statue hovering with unstated menace against the grey sky, is a solid, tangible abode of stonework in a perpetually autumnal land of damp mists and fleeting brown leaves. This setting resituates Stoker’s material in a solidly English tradition of gothic imagery. Sangster discarded all supernatural manifestations, like Dracula’s ability to transform into a bat or a wolf, again for budgetary reasons, but also to aid Fisher’s program to create a universe for his horror material that is substantial, enacted on the level of physical oppression and appropriation. Dracula’s castle dominates its landscape exactly as such castles were built to do: to intimidate and belittle, to ward off and keep out. Harker can only enter by guile. Stoker’s Dracula was a remnant of a legendary past now turned septic remnant; Fisher’s is a still-living force. Dracula’s status as dark romancer was hardly new–Bela Lugosi’s and John Carradine’s counts had both effectively embodied the same idea, in contrast with F.W. Murnau’s rodentlike Nosferatu (1922). But Lee, Fisher, and Sangster pushed the idea into a realm of explicitly erotic menace. Where Lugosi and Carradine compelled with hypnosis, Lee dominates with sensual and corporeal stature, and his close encounters with the women in the films shot unabashedly as erogenous preludes.
Fisher’s rigorous filmmaking, not as spectacular as Murnau’s or as densely visual as Mario Bava’s, nonetheless made the Hammer brand what it became. Settings are not transformed landscapes of the mind, but islets of obsessively fussy, romanticised folk-memory. Bava, a cinematographer, inevitably offered a decorative eye; Fisher was fascinated by the use of space and the rhythm of structure. Early scenes of Dracula move sonorously through lapping dissolves and deceptive quiet, time slowing to an eerie crawl as Harker enters Dracula’s remote castle on his mission (notwithstanding cheap effects: a “mountain torrent” that looks a bit like someone left the hose on). The sequence leading up to Dracula’s first appearance is a gem of subtle construction. Gaunt’s vampire girl appears in the background as Harker picks up spilt objects from the floor, an unexpected presence bringing unexpected, erotic appeal to the dry-as-dust scholar. Sexual egotism under the façade of gallantry is almost immediately Harker’s downfall when he is confronted after his arrival at Dracula’s castle by a young woman (Valerie Gaunt) who appeals for his help but is actually one of the vampire’s undead companions. Harker is quickly lured close enough for her to launch an attack on his jugular vein, only to suddenly stiffen and dash away. Harker, bewildered, slowly turns and gives a start as he sees a huge, menacing black shadow at the top of a flight of stairs. The shadow advances. Dracula appears, armed with Lee’s looks and impeccably polite authority, instantly dispelling any anticipations of camp amusement. The monster is a charming host, and more importantly, strangely potent. Stoker’s Dracula was a figure out of Europe’s mythical past, a remnant of an ancien regime feeding on the early modern world’s lack of vigilance and credulity for the idea of the past as a haunting thing; Fisher and Sangster’s vampire overlord on the other hand is rudely, impudently alive and assured in tyrannical domain.
The wry segue from menace to courtly savoir faire gives way later when Fisher restages the sequence for raw horror. This time, when the vampire girl draws close to Harker, his hilariously precious assurances of protective intent are undercut as Fisher privileges the viewer with the sight of the girl eyeing his neck greedily and unsheathing her fangs before plunging them into his jugular. Harker throws her off whilst Dracula appears suddenly in a doorway beyond and between them, in Fisher’s favourite rhetorical device, a single wide shot binding a sudden confluence of actions.
Fisher then dives in for one of the greatest close-ups in cinema: Dracula, teeth bared, fresh blood smeared on his face, animalistic in his fury at his chattel daring to defy his rule and attack his guest. The effect is delirious after god knows how many viewings: the cool, eerie tone suddenly turns to a display of primal evil, as Dracula hurls his bride about and grips Harker in one hand, squeezing the breath out of him, Lee’s gore-smeared maw elongating with weird and savage glee. Courtly Dracula never returns. The beast is exposed, and it’s a sight so compelling that Lee’s Dracula, for better or worse, would essentially remain in that mode in the next six Hammer entries in which he would star except for a brief scene in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974), where he plays a real estate tycoon and employs a plummy Slavic accent.
Harker awakens under the threat of becoming a monster himself thanks to the bite that’s festering in his neck, and sets out to destroy Dracula and his bride before the sun falls again. Harker successfully kills the girl, but her death wail awakens the Count on the threshold of night. Harker is terrified to realise he’s trapped in the castle vault with the vampire overlord, and in a memorably dark, mischievous touch, Harker is next glimpsed occupying the girl’s sarcophagus, victim of vampire bisexuality? Fisher fades out on the confrontation in the same way directors of the time faded out on imminent rape scenes.
The revisions to the novel shifts the rest of the action from England to an enclave of Britons resident somewhere in Austro-Hungary. Rather than Dracula being an exile trying to gain a foothold in a new land, the protagonists are all innocents abroad discovering life is a dank and disturbing adventure. The arrival of Van Helsing (Cushing) in the narrative signals a balancing of scales between good and evil. Van Helsing is first glimpsed with back to camera, face abstract, his status as human, but equal adversary to the monster implied. The hostile innkeeper (George Woodbridge) warns him away from prying into the reign of terror and the conspiracy of silence that enables it, but a barmaid, grateful for Harker’s decency, smuggles Van Helsing Harker’s recovered diary, enabling the erstwhile academic to understand the fate of his comrade. When he penetrates Dracula’s castle, he’s confronted by a hearse carrying Dracula away to new hunting grounds and the sight of Harker looking like a sated leech with teeth in his new bed. Conspiring to kill Harker off in this way provides a neat twist in the familiar tale and also helps make Stoker’s rather awkward narrative a bit more logical. In a manner that would permanently mark the horror film, it also offers a realisation that the traditional, romantic ingénue hero a la David Manners’ Harker in the Lugosi version, upright and decent and slightly effete in the face of evil, was not necessary or even particularly desirable in horror stories Thus, Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough), who takes Harker’s role as husband of the threatened damsel Mina (Melissa Stribling) is something Gough’s amusingly prissy performance grasps intuitively as the essence of stuffed-shirt Victorian urbanity.
Murnau and Browning had never really seemed to know what to do with Van Helsing as a character in a drama woozy with fascination for the sepulchral. Edward Van Sloan had been appropriately intelligent and resolute in Browning version, but even there he was left a somewhat passive onlooker, a Merlinlike guide for the handsome young men and women who are the familiar protagonists of romantic melodrama. Instead Fisher and Sangster remoulded Van Helsing as a heroic figure, creating a more direct opposition of the avatars of rationality and chaos. This approach both extends and inverts that of the Curse of Frankenstein, where the scientist and monster were made virtually interchangeable to better explore the implications of science without morality. But in Dracula, the scheme is used to study the inhuman aspect of both unleashed priapism and punitive moralism struggling over the fates of the merely human and the pathetically victimised in a tug-of-war. It also bears noting that in Expressionist-style horror, the rare rational figure was an interloper in a dream world, whereas the solidity of Fisher’s vision reimagines the vampire as the eruption of the id into the everyday.
The rest of Dracula is dominated by the notion of the vampire eating the Victorian bourgeois home first from the outside and then, most ingeniously, from within. Dracula targets first Harker’s fiancée Lucy (Carol Marsh) and then Mina, wife of Lucy’s brother Arthur, in a programme of calculated revenge for the death of the first bride. Lucy’s nightly visitations by the vampire see her lying in thrall in her bed awaiting the black-clad seducer, his approach signalled by stirring autumnal leaves beyond the threshold of her open French windows, whilst James Bernard’s score swirls with increasingly feverish impatience and cloud whips by the full moon. Later, when Dracula sets his sights on Mina, he gets her to hide his coffin in the household cellar.
The prim and wan Mina turns up the morning after being lured to Dracula’s hiding place with an unmistakeably postcoital glow: Fisher’s wit extends to the impression that Mina has far more blood in her veins after being attacked by a vampire (Fisher purportedly told her to act as if she’d just had the best sex of her life). Whilst Arthur and Van Helsing watch her bedroom windows from outside, the vampire is able to walk into her room for a night of sanguinary passion, a moment as close to the outright erotic as mainstream film could get at the time, Stribling’s Mina the goggle-eyed bird fixated by the beast in her boudoir before he pins her on the bed and caresses her face with imperious appetite. Dracula has been reconstructed, not even the novel’s dark, entitled romancer anymore, but a creature of utterly uncontained sexual appeal. Meanwhile Van Helsing’s attempt to intervene and prevent Lucy’s death fails when the Holmwoods’ servant Gerda (Olga Dickie) clears out the garlic flowers planted to keep the monster out, and Arthur blames Van Helsing for her death. The professor is forced to hand over Harker’s diary as proof of the nature of the evil.
Lucy’s resurrected form haunts the forests beyond the town, enticing Tania (Janine Faye), Gerda’s daughter, out for moonlit games. Another superlatively mounted, instantly iconic sequence comes as Arthur, with the seeds of expectation planted by Harker’s diary, goes to check Lucy’s crypt and finds her arriving with Tania in tow. The setting is a nirvana of gothic fantasy, with whirling leaves, licking ground fog, and desolate stonework. Sickly intimations of paedophilia and incest abound as Lucy turns from small girl into a dead-eyed parasite delighted at the thought of partaking of her brother’s blood, begging for a fraternal kiss from the appalled Arthur. A crucifix is thrust into the frame, cutting the air between the pair: Van Helsing, the sentinel of implacable reckoning, drives the terrified vampire back and scorches her brow with the touch of the holy object. The dark side of Van Helsing’s heroism is underlined both here and when he subsequently stakes Lucy, giving her rest at the expense of extinguishing a powerfully carnal creature, both victim and byproduct of failed repression. Fisher also takes a moment to observe Van Helsing comforting Tania, giving her a “pretty thing”–the cross–and telling her to wait and watch the sun rise with the solicitude of a favourite uncle. In spite of the brutal necessities and insidious forces in this vision, Fisher accords a simple grace between such Manichaean extremes.
The flaws of Dracula stem, like its best ideas, from concatenating a complex narrative for a low budget. The relative proximity of Dracula’s homeland and the locale of the Holmwood house here means that the epic pursuit described in the book gives way to a horse chase that could have strayed out a lesser western. Comic relief is variable: the actor and writer Miles Malleson, who had helped pen the screenplay of The Thief of Baghdad (1940), one of the few British fantasy films of its age and in some ways a precursor to the Hammer horror brand (with Conrad Veidt’s Jaffar a definite ancestor of Lee’s Dracula), appears briefly but amusingly as a gabby, absent-minded undertaker, whilst Geoffrey Bayldon contributes less funny stuff as a corrupt border guard. But the proper finale is another breathlessly well-staged sequence that sees the horror film lurching close to something like action cinema. Indeed, Fisher would have an acknowledged influence on later, kinetically gifted, blockbuster filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, and Burton, and Cushing pushed for a climax that had a physicality worthy of Douglas Fairbanks. The production couldn’t quite stretch that far, but the battle between Dracula and Van Helsing has a ferocity that’s still gripping thanks to the combination of Fisher’s jagged edits, the actors, and Bernard’s thunderous scoring. The fight builds to a swashbuckling move where the vampire hunter leaps onto a long table, dashes down its length and pulls down curtains, pinioning Dracula in the sun’s rays, where he agonisingly disintegrates into a pile of ashes, a moment that stands as one of the most quoted sequences in horror cinema, in spite of, and perhaps because of, the resolutely low-tech effects.
Dracula was a big hit upon release, one that set a horror renaissance that would power on until the 1980s officially on course. Lee later estimated the film made upwards of $25 million, a huge sum for the day. Lee himself declined to play the vampire again, afraid of being typecast. In the interval, Fisher helmed The Brides of Dracula (1960), with Cushing returning as Van Helsing, but that film, though later reappraised as amongst the finest Hammer films, was greeted as a compromise at the time. Finally, after eight years and some commercial stumbles by Hammer and Fisher in working through the classic canon of horror tales, Lee was persuaded to return as the count in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. The result of this deal, has often itself been regarded as a lesser Hammer horror, but Prince of Darkness deserves more respect, in large part because whilst the original Dracula had been a perfect fit for 1958, the sequel has a prognosticative element, one Hammer would ultimately fail to comprehend, leading to its commercial decline. Dracula: Prince of Darkness strips down Fisher’s concept of Stoker’s mythology to an even more purified essence and, with it, the underpinning anxieties and fantasies of much horror storytelling; in doing so, it looks forward to what would happen in the genre in the ’70s. The basic plot is the same as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and other films where a bunch of young people find themselves stranded in some evil locale at the mercy of malignant foes. This time Dracula didn’t even get a single line, and it testifies to the force of Lee’s performance and Fisher’s direction that he doesn’t need any to bend the gravitational flow of the film.
This time, Fisher and screenwriter Anthony Hinds, a regular Hammer producer working under his usual writing pseudonym John Elder, replaced Van Helsing with Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a creation who, as a religious man, focuses the dualistic take on good vss evil more than Van Helsing could. Following a replay of the first film’s climax, Sandor is glimpsed at the outset berating a fellow priest as a superstitious idiot and warning the Carpathian villagers not go desecrating the dead in the belief the Dracula is still plaguing them. Sandor later warns a quartet of English tourists not to go anywhere near Dracula’s castle, which is missing from maps. The unwitting tourists are brothers Alan (Charles “Bud” Tingwell) and Charles (Francis Matthews) and their wives Helen (Barbara Shelley) and Diana (Suzan Farmer). Charles is the younger, glibber, mostly reformed playboy brother who delights in teasing Helen, the uptight and nervous representative of stiff-necked English mores.
In spite of Dracula’s death, the locals are still petrified by his memory, a fear that plays a part in the travellers being left stranded before his castle and forced to take refuge there–helped along by a mysterious carriage pulled by a couple of self-directing horses. They find a servant, Klove (Phillip Latham), tending to the castle and maintaining the supposed last wishes of his deceased master to take care of all visitors. Fisher stages Klove’s appearance as a new twist on Dracula’s in the previous film, stepping out of shadow to reveal himself as neither hideously deformed nor towering and charismatic, but rather like someone left Alistair Sim in the fridge too long. Helen quivers with anxiety as she senses the malevolent strangeness behind all of the odd events, but her companions remain oblivious and increasingly irritated by her mood. During the night, the sound of Klove dragging a large chest around draws Alan out to find what’s happening, only for Klove to stab him to death, suspend his body over an open sarcophagus, and use his life blood to reconstitute Dracula from his own collected ashes. Klove then entices Helen out to become the resurrected monster’s first victim/bride. Charles and Diana fight their way out of the castle and take refuge at the monastery headed by Sandor, but Klove brings the count and Helen to the monastery and lays siege.
Fisher’s direction this time around was more of an experiment in pacing, prowling camerawork suggesting the presence of evil long before it shows its face, a mood of quiet oddness dominating the first half. The narrative is deceptively straightforward, paring away distractions to create a cleverly focused variation on the original’s concerns. Hinds’ script works in elements from the novel left out of the ’58 film, including a version of Renfield named Ludwig (Thorley Walters, in a note-perfect turn), a resident at Sandor’s monastery who lost his mind after some hideous experience near Castle Dracula and now binds books for the monks. He soon proves to be a sleeper agent for the besieging monster, and the key to the moment when Dracula forces Diana to drink his blood from a gash in his chest. Fisher observes the slow gathering of forces that will attack the interlopers, with their readily familiar quirks and flaws plotted exactingly and building to the hideously beautiful sight of Alan’s gushing blood feeding the reconstituting mess in the sarcophagus. Matthews’ Charles makes for a deliberately callow hero, forced to rapidly grow up in the course of fighting for his and Diana’s lives, whilst Diana herself, though in thrall to the vampire later in the film, is, in many ways, the most forthright and gutsy character: her attempt to intervene and save her husband reveals to Sandor a way to kill the monster.
But Dracula: Prince of Darkness is essentially about Helen, a vehicle for Fisher to return to the obsessive point of duality that drives this fantasy and push the metaphors of neurotic repression and lunatic explosion to an extreme within a single character. She’s insufferable in her vinegary attitude and priggishness, the epitome of a certain cliché of English repression. She’s also the only one with the sense to see the situation for what it is, a Cassandra no one will listen to. Presented to the dark marauder lurking in the castle, Helen is transformed into a devilishly passionate creature, lusting after Diana and clinging tightly to the count. Shelley, who had only gotten to play half of Fisher’s last study in dichotomous female representation, The Gorgon (1963), here describes the shift from lamb to predator with fiendish grace, as when Helen appears at Diana’s window at the monastery, playing the lost and freezing innocent in a vision out of folk myth, then leaping for Diana’s neck with wolfish delight the moment her way is clear.
Like the use of the monster in Curse of Frankenstein as a way of revealing the monstrosity of the creator, here Fisher reduces Dracula to an almost abstract force peeling away the contrivances of civilisation, anticipating the increasingly blank and faceless avatars of evil that would proliferate in later horror films. When the monks capture Helen, the scene is staged like a gang-rape, Sandor hammering the life out of her. Here Fisher looks forward to the historical savagery and indictments of Witchfinder General (1969) and The Devils (1971). Fisher complicates by not making Sandor an obvious avatar for repressive religious fanaticism, but rather a good-natured, earthy man whose fearsome streak is stirred only by the spectacle of real evil. In spite of his relatively marginal presence in the film, Dracula is not reduced; his authority, and Lee’s, is brought out all the more as he silently and effortlessly dominates any character and any scene he’s in, as when he gestures for a mesmerised Diana to remove her crucifix necklace, a moment that perhaps better than any other captures the level of concentration and rigour Lee poured into his performances as Dracula. The film’s cobra-and-mongoose-like intensity finally combusts for another segue into serial-like action at the climax. Charles and Sandor dash across country to catch the carriage driven by Klove and carrying Dracula and the stolen Diana to the castle. Here the script makes inspired use of a relatively obscure piece of vampire lore, that running water is a fatal barrier. As Charles and Dracula fight on the frozen mantle of the castle’s moat, Sandor shoots the ice until the vampire is stranded on a frigid raft, before he pitches into the brine and sinks to his doom. Naturally, the count would be back. Having broken his ban, Lee would return to the role seven more times, five of them for Hammer. In spite of those films’ varying levels of quality and inspiration, and following a remarkable late-career resurgence as the must-have actor mascot for grand movie fantasies in the 2000s, Lee would, nonetheless and above all, always be Dracula.
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Director: Bill Forsyth
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the early years of Ebertfest, I never missed making the trip down to Champaign, Illinois, and the Virginia Theatre. Some of the great films I saw were Jan Troell’s 1996 film Hamsun, Bertrand Tavernier’s L.627 (1992), David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000), and Wu Tian-Ming’s King of Masks (1996). I could never attend the entire festival, as I worked on the weekdays during which it opened each year in April, and one film I missed at the 2008 Ebertfest was Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping. As a fan of the Scottish director’s comedy charmers Gregory’s Girl (1981), Local Hero (1983), and Comfort and Joy (1984), I made special note of Housekeeping as one to watch for. But I never did catch up with it, that is, not until this past week when the Northwest Chicago Film Society projected a vintage 35mm print of the film.
The love this film has engendered in those who have seen it approaches religious devotion. The catch in the throats of the audience members who spoke excitedly about this opportunity to see the film had me intrigued. Then, Chicago-based filmmaker Stephen Cone (The Wise Kids  and Black Box ), who provided the prescreening introduction, said over and over how much he loves the film and the book by Marilynne Robinson and Marilynne Robinson herself. Predisposed to like the film based on Forsyth’s other films, I started to grow both enthusiastic and nervous at this adulation, particularly when Cone asked us to turn off our critical faculties and just let ourselves go with the film. I had been asked by a filmmaker to do that once before, with rewarding results. Did Housekeeping live up to the hype? Yes, it mostly did.
The film centers on a highly impractical woman, Sylvie Fisher (Christine Lahti), the unconventional aunt of Ruthie (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), sisters whose father ran off long ago and whose mother, Sylvie’s sister Helen (Margot Pinvidic), drove them from their home in Seattle, dropped them at the isolated home of their grandmother (Georgie Collins) in Fingerbone, Idaho, and then drove herself off a cliff. The young girls were cared for by their grandmother until her death when the girls were in their teens. Their great-aunts Nona (Barbara Reese) and Lily (Anne Pitoniak) moved in to care for them—narrator Ruthie is convinced it was to save on rent and groceries—but could not accustom themselves to the cold and rugged living conditions. Thus, they tracked down the itinerant Sylvie and beckoned her back to her childhood home to look after the girls. Sylvie’s eccentricities enchant Ruthie but repel Lucille, who is very self-conscious about being ridiculed and only wants to fit in. The clash Lucille precipitates between Sylvie and the upstanding citizens of Fingerbone will end in a kind of reckoning no one anticipated.
Housekeeping strikes as delicate a balance in its storytelling as Sylvie maintains in her restless, preoccupied mind. While fashioning a rather clichéd story of conventionality versus free-spiritedness, Forsyth and his appealing and talented cast offer something more akin to fable. First, there is the remoteness of the time and setting—a small town in a mountainous region in the 1950s. Going even farther back in time is the legend of Ruthie and Lucille’s grandfather, a self-taught artist from the flatlands of Iowa whose enchantment with mountains compelled his geographic move and his fixation on painting them. His family’s notoriety in Fingerbone, however, centers on his being on a train that shot off the trestle above a frozen lake and plunged into the water, leaving nothing but a hole in the ice and a handful of personal effects that floated to the surface. The event shook the sleepy town with excitement, spawning winter picnics on the ice and legends about the snakelike train of the deep.
It’s hard to know whether the loss of her father caused Sylvie’s instability and her sister’s eventual suicide after living a fairly conventional life. But his loss, his absence is only one of the absences that inflect the characters in this film and set the stage for the imagination to move in both delightful and sinister ways, filling the screen with the kind of fanciful images and occurrences for which Forsyth is known, though laden with a good deal of pain and bewilderment along with comedy and celebration.
A sense of foreboding is cast from the very first, as Helen drives through rain and mist to her childhood home, her sing-a-long as the radio plays “Good Night, Irene” (“Sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown.”) a chilling secret she has kept to herself. The hole she creates in her daughters’ lives is every bit as dramatic and fathomless as the one created by the unfortunate train. Sylvie’s appearance gives them their first opportunity to try to learn about their mother and the man she married, though the sisters’ long separation gives Sylvie precious little to tell them. Like them, she can only look to her long-gone childhood for evidence of her life before she started to wander in body and mind; like many who have unstable lives, she gathers objects around her—piles of newspapers, cans, and eventually, cats—creating more unease as her absent-mindedness starts to shade with madness.
Yet, Sylvie’s seems like a divine madness to the lonely, awkward Ruthie. When Sylvie “borrows” a rowboat, outrunning the furious fisherman who owns it and keeps trying to hide it from her, she takes Ruthie to a wreck of a homestead in an unlikely spot in the foothills that is covered in frost all year long because of the lack of sunlight. Sylvie is sure she has seen children there, and has even set marshmallows on twigs to draw them out. Ruthie says she sees them, too, and is more than happy to sleep in the leaky boat with Sylvie under the train trestle, a glowing moon diffuse off the misty lake. There’s no question that this world seems enchanted, a place for pixies and elves and other supernatural beings who rule the natural world, and Sylvie is the siren who is pulling Ruthie into her orbit of restless wandering, riding the rails, and camping with hobos.
The clash of these two worlds can be quite funny, as when representatives of the ladies’ aid society (Betty Phillips, Karen Elizabeth Austin, and Dolores Drake) come to the door to determine whether Ruthie should be removed from the home for her own safety. They try to find suitable seating, but must move newspapers and even a pine cone, which one lady holds carefully on her lap. These women are not made into uncaring monsters, but their discomfort mixed with Sylvie’s nervous, Sunday manners makes for an awkwardly fun time. By contrast, the snub Lucille gives Ruthie at school and her eventual departure from the house to stay with some people in town reduce her sister to miserable tears of dejected abandonment. Another hole has opened up in her life and swallowed her closest friend up with it.
Most remarkable of all is the almost total absence of men in this film. The few who have speaking parts tend to cause trouble, however well-intentioned they may be: three boys free Helen’s car from the mud, only to watch her drive to her death; the sheriff (Bill Smillie) calls the ladies who will put Sylvie and Ruthie’s living arrangement at risk; and the school principal (Wayne Robson) catches up with the girls’ chronic truancy only when they are half-a-year behind. For better or worse, Housekeeping concentrates on the ways and means of women, eschewing cheap sentiment or pop psychology to show the multifaceted ways women and girls conduct their lives and dream their dreams.
All of the performances in the film are wonderful, but I hold particular affection for Walker and Burchill, who create characters of real complexity despite their youth. Their closeness and eventual estrangement feel bone deep and are very affecting. The hardness Burchill eventually adopts seems right for someone whose world was turned upside down three times in her short life. Walker’s painful shyness shows another path girls take in response to disruption.
Christine Lahti creates a very particular spine for Sylvie, with her deliberate, long walk and open arms that embrace the music of the spheres whether floating in a boat or standing on a trestle hoping to feel vibrations through the timbers. In a spectacular set-piece, the town is all but flooded out by four days of rain falling on frozen ground. Sylvie and the girls slosh through the foot of water in their home, rescuing half-drowned mice and trying to carry on with everyday life; Sylvie couldn’t be happier to welcome the water into her home, dancing with Ruthie with a big smile on her face. This joyful spirit is seductive, but is as lulling to the audience as it is to Ruthie as to the danger she poses. For example, the thought of disease never enters her mind, though sanitation and drinking water are at risk.
Not everything in this film works. At one point, Sylvie starts removing the labels from and washing the cans she has left all over the house. The gold and silver cans look just too clean and perfect, just as the piles of newspaper look too carefully placed, and the appearance of cats in the house crosses the border into cliché. One supposes that the inheritance from Sylvie’s mother is keeping the family afloat, but beautiful new clothes for Lucille appear as if from nowhere. Yes, this is a fable, but Forsyth’s habit of ignoring details of everyday life cheapens the film ever so slightly.
Nonetheless, there’s not much wrong with this film, and the finale is a bonafide work of genius. When her panic at the thought of losing Ruthie makes her as crazy as we’ll ever see her, Sylvie commits an irrational act as though it were the most normal thing in the world. She and Ruthie steal off into the night, a pied piper making off with at least one child down a treacherous causeway and into the night’s fathomless vanishing point.
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Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut feature film of: Richard Lester, director
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This weekend, the Film Society of Lincoln Center began a weeklong retrospective of the works of American-born, British-based Richard Lester. The series will of course include his most famous works, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), but will range across his career to include lesser-appreciated films like Juggernaut (1974) and The Return of the Musketeers (1989). What it will not include is his debut feature film. The privilege of seeing It’s Trad, Dad, aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm this week was solely that of the patrons of the invaluable Northwest Chicago Film Society, which, after lengthy negotiation, managed to pry the only projectable print out of the Sony vault for our enjoyment and edification.
Many movie buffs and Beatles fans know that Lester was hired to direct A Hard Day’s Night based on the Fab Four’s wild enthusiasm for the The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a short film Lester made as a first foray onto the big screen after several years in television. What isn’t as well known is that another Lester effort, a TV pilot called Have Jazz, Will Travel, made an impression on Amicus Productions cofounder Milton Subotsky, another American expat in Britain with a TV background trying to reach the teen market with music, and later, horror films. Subotsky handed Lester a 24-page script, a large roster of jazz and pop stars, and a free hand in filling them both out to feature length. The result was a 78-minute concert film with a comedic story thread and a wealth of visual inventiveness that occasionally tips the film into experimental territory.
Although the film is nearly nonstop music, there is a story that Lester mines for some great visual gags. The mayor (Felix Felton) of an English suburb goes out to a cafe for a quiet cup of coffee, only to have his repast rudely interrupted by a swarm of teens coming in to dance to the rock ’n roll records on the jukebox. They also watch TV announcer Alan Freeman as he presents such acts as Terry Lightfoot and His New Orleans Jazz Band. The mayor gets the town council to approve a ban on jazz, sending two of the town’s teens, pop stars Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas, on a mission to bring a jazz concert to town to show the townspeople that the music is just good clean fun.
The wrap-around story affords Lester the only opportunities to indulge his comedic instincts. He shows the mayor crushing records in a vise, only to stop when his aide accidentally (?) hands him a Lawrence Welk record. When Shapiro and Douglas decide to go to London to enlist the aid of Freeman, Lester breaks the fourth wall with a snappy verbal exchange and moves the film strip across the screen to change the town location to the broadcast studio; similarly, when the teens strike out with Freeman and decide to go to a nightclub to try their luck with announcer David Jacobs, he flips the scene again and pops some evening clothes on them for good measure. He ends with more visual zaniness as the mayor, who has unwittingly agreed to a jazz concert in town, sets up obstacles to the bands coming to play. Giant rubber bands bounce the musicians’ van between two sets of trees, and when the van breaks free, the police pile furniture into a high roadblock, only for the van to drive around it.
Most of Lester’s real work is in trying to provide interesting set-ups for the 26 acts that comprise the bulk of the film, and he largely succeeds. He uses masks to split the images of Terry Lightfoot and his band, creating boxes within boxes that offer the static image some movement. When Helen Shapiro sings, he gets right into the crowd of kids swirling around her and creates an almost flickering effect of her peeking out between the moving heads and bodies. He favors close-ups, perhaps thinking it would be rather funny to move into the maw of a crooner, as he does with the megaphone-wielding singer of The Temperance Seven. The gargantuan images he creates with this effect are rather monstrous, creating an impression not far off from what the mayor objected to—that hopped-up music and teen culture would take over the world, as indeed they did.
Lester and Subotsky almost pulled off a coup as the first people to capture Chubby Checker on film doing the twist—in this case, the “Lose Your Inhibition Twist”—but lost out when Teenage Millionaire appeared in 1961. The scene with Checker is notable for being at an integrated nightclub where black and white dancers mix freely on the dance floor.
It is worth noting that the film’s British title, It’s Trad, Dad, refers to the label Dixieland jazz has in Britain—traditional jazz. Thus, the film is loaded with Dixieland bands and music, including Chris Barber and his Jazz Band with vocalist Ottilie Patterson doing “Down By the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” My favorite was British clarinetist Aker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band; Lester seized the opportunity to create a visual narrative for the band’s rendition of “Frankie and Johnny” that presages similar work in the Beatles films.
A dramatic moment is Gene McDaniels singing the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “Another Tear Falls.” Lester films him first in dramatic silhouette and then maintains minimal key lighting to reflect the song lyrics and McDaniels’ powerfully emotional voice. Sadly, the liberal lipsynching used in the film creates an unintentionally funny moment in this excellent performance when McDaniels takes a puff on his cigarette and ends up spitting smoke for several bars.
There aren’t many recognizable pop songs, though artists such as Del Shannon, Gene Vincent, and Gary U.S. Bonds were at the top of their game when this was filmed. Sixteen-year-old Helen Shapiro made her screen debut in this film, but she was hardly an unknown; she had been voted Britain’s top female singer, and The Beatles’ first national tour of Britain, in 1963, was as her opening act. Her deep voice and energetic phrasing in “Let’s Talk About Love” demonstrate what a major talent she was.
How much you like this film may depend on how much you like the music. Although some of the outdated vocal and fashion styles garnered laughs from the audience with whom I saw It’s Trad, Dad, the hands-down favorite of the evening were The Temperance Seven, a cross between the Nairobi Trio and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Their cheeky, untranslated French lyrics and ennui-filled performance are delightfully droll and unabashedly fun. It’s absolutely fitting that they should be in Dick Lester’s very first feature film.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Science nerds of the world, celebrate! A tiny film from France set largely in Big Sky Country has put a 10-year-old science prodigy at its center and schooled the United States on the need for more energy efficiency and fewer guns—or something like that. Other reviews I’ve read of this charming family film seem to lean heavily on the subtextual critique of American society The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet apparently packs. Personally, as one of the few Americans who has had a chance to see this film, which was virtually buried by its American distributor, the Weinstein Company (more on that later), I don’t see much to object to from a political or sociological point of view. Jeunet’s adaptation of American Reif Larsen’s first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, showcases the whimsy and sometimes genuine oddity of its director, so well embraced by the hordes of people worldwide who made Amélie (2001) the fourth-most-successful French film ever.
Larsen’s book is loaded with illustrations and side notes, which must have appealed to Jeunet’s detailed, eccentric visual sense, and the uniquely constructed, but emotionally distant family at the center of the story must have spoken to the dark playfulness Jeunet favors in his scenarios. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is classic Jeunet, a visually stunning film, though somewhat hampered by a lead actor not quite up to the task of carrying the picture and a too-short running time that made for some awkward transitions between the three acts of the film. (I shudder to think what it would have been like if the Weinstein Company had gotten its way and the film were shortened even more!)
Ten-year-old Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett) lives on a Montana ranch near the Continental Divide with his father (Callum Keith Rennie), a 19th-century-style cowboy, his entomologist mother Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), his teenage sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson), and until his untimely death, his fraternal twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies). T.S. is as much a budding scientist as Layton was a budding cowboy, leading T.S. to wonder how his equally opposite-minded parents had ever fallen in love and gotten married. In an attempt to do something together with his brother, T.S. set up a sound experiment that required Layton to shoot his Winchester rifle in their barn. The rifle misfired, killing Layton, and the family retreated into silence and disconnection, leaving T.S. feeling lonely and guilty.
T.S. sits in on a physics lecture in which the dreamy, old instructor (Mairtin O’Carrigan) sets forth a challenge to those attending to invent a perpetual motion machine and enter it in the annual Baird award competition held by the Smithsonian. While one smarmy leader of tomorrow (Kyle Gatehouse) scoffs at the old man’s belief in creativity, T.S. approaches him and says simply, “I accept the challenge.” No one should be surprised to learn that T.S. wins the competition and is invited to Washington, D.C. to accept the award. The rest of the film details his journey east and his experiences once he gets there.
The film is divided in thirds—The West, The Journey, and The East—with a pop-up book of characters introducing each segment in the cinematic version of a bedtime story. Short, but perfect vignettes introduce us to Gracie, roaring about her freakish family, Dr. Clair and her distracted, obsessive muttering about her insects, and Mr. Spivet, revealed in the living room he has commandeered for his frightening collection of taxidermy and cowboy memorabilia. The living room, Dr. Clair’s work room, Gracie’s neo-hippie room, and even Layton’s messy, frozen-in-time bedroom are teeming to bursting with markers of each character’s exuberant personality.
T.S., whose point of view is privileged as our narrator, gives Jeunet the chance to provide lyrical images for his words, many of which are lifted directly from the novel. For example, as T.S. wonders about the mismatch of his parents, he recalls how they sometimes pass in the hall and touch hands; Jeunet films this gesture in slow motion at about T.S.’s eye level to put us in the moment. In another vignette, he breaks our heart when he shows Tapioca, the family dog, chewing on a metal bucket as T.S. informs us that this is the dog’s reaction to the loss of his master. We learn a lot about T.S from what he chooses to pack for his trip to D.C.—plenty of underwear, different-colored notebooks for different types of writing, his teddy bear, and his bird skeleton, the latter of which would have seemed less quirky if he had also told us that the first curator of the Smithsonian, Spencer Fullerton Baird, was an ornithologist.
T.S.’s ingenuity in hopping a freight train and evading the railroad bulls is exciting, hair-raising, and pretty funny in parts. The serious-minded boy, with nothing but a box of raisins for the trip, spies a hot dog stand and disembarks the train at night to grab a snack. When he is stopped by a hobo (Dominique Pinon) who is getting some hot tar to fuel his campfire, my heart nearly stopped as well. This nighttime scene amps the potential danger to a boy on his own, even one as clever as T.S., but in the end, the boy’s rationality in refusing to join the hobo in enjoying a campfire tale renders the scene fairly depressing.
The film went a bit slack for me once T.S. reaches Chicago. He hides his overstuffed suitcase and sets out with a backpack of essentials to thumb a ride. His misfortune is to be seen by a railroad security guard (Harry Standjofski), who chases him to a lock on the Chicago River, forcing T.S. to jump across the opening gates. He is injured in the process, but the guard, fearful for the boy’s life until he reaches the other side safely, begins shaking his fist and yelling again. The film dispenses with the rest of the trip when a trucker (Julian Richings) takes him all the way from Chicago to the front door of the Smithsonian, foreshortening the adventure aspects of the film. It falls completely into caricature from this point forward, as civilization in the form of Smithsonian Deputy Director G. H. Jibsen (Judy Davis), all of the guests at the award ceremony, and a TV talk show host (Rick Mercer, real host of the satirical Canadian program Rick Mercer Report), all behave like cartoon villains of marketing and neoliberal sentiment, sniffling as T.S. stands at the award podium and tells the story of his brother’s death.
The cinematography by Thomas Hardmeier is breathtaking, making Montana look like a wide-open Garden of Eden and offering some truly interesting views of the freight train and train yards where T.S. passes the night. The 3D effects accompanying T.S.’s scientific musings and animations must have added a great deal of visual interest (I saw the 2D version), though the effect is starting to become a bit overdone in TV and film. Daydreams by both Gracie and T.S. are very amusing and a bit sad, particularly when T.S. imagines his family greeting his phone call from the road with relief and outpourings of affection.
Unfortunately, newcomer Catlett, though appealing with his nose full of freckles, isn’t a very good actor. He can deadpan pretty well, but his every attempt to cry and feel sad is forced. In the last of these attempts, it’s pretty clear from the way the film was cut that he either was induced to produce a tear after many attempts or went the fake tears route. However, his narration takes us through the film quite well, and he is very believably intelligent. I have to think Bonham Carter was cast based on her fantasy characters in Tim Burton films and the Harry Potter series; she used to be a pretty good actress who did interesting things, and I wish she’d move away from these quirky parts if she can. Wilson is delicious as a typical teen lost among the Addams Family. Rennie not only doesn’t get much to do, but he doesn’t even get a first name. I do want to offer kudos to Jakob Davies, who manages to be a presence of some consequence even as a ghost. He says what we only think when T.S. is subjected to tests by the incredulous adults who literally want to pick his young, bright brain: “So you let them wire you up like a lab rat!”
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet isn’t a perfect film, and it doesn’t really burrow into the grieving process the way another thoroughly humane family film, Tiger Eyes (2013), does, but it is a visually stunning, entertaining film loaded with sight gags and some genuine adventure. When the Weinstein Company acquired the distribution rights to the film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the highest-profile deals inked at Cannes.” Rumor has it that Jeunet was punished for not agreeing to the cuts the company wanted with a very limited release—I saw it at the only screen in Chicago showing it—and no publicity that I’m aware of. In addition, perhaps Americans just won’t buy a gentle film without swearing, sex, or exploding anything to entertain the kiddies jacked up on sugar from the theatre concession stands. But the shabby treatment this film received makes its certain failure at the box office a self-fulfilling prophesy.
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Director: William A. Wellman
By Roderick Heath
F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) might have won the perhaps more elevated “Most Artistic Production” Oscar amongst the first year’s roll of award winners, but Wings, which took the award for “Best Production,” has been inscribed in posterity as the legendary precursor of every film to capture the Academy’s premier prize. Looked at as a monument to the craft and dynamism of Hollywood filmmaking at the cusp of that first great, wrenching change in the industry, the transition to sound, Wings is indeed a stirring, even staggering relic. Surely taking some courage from the colossal success of King Vidor’s The Big Parade two years earlier, Wings rode the wave of a new popularity for revisiting the dread and grandeur of the Great War. It also virtually invented a cinematic subgenre, the aerial war movie, with the likes of James Whale’s Journey’s End (1930), Howard Hughes’ and Whale’s Hell’s Angels and Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (both 1931), to follow in quick succession. The mythos of World War I’s flying aces remained so powerful that the 1960s and ’70s saw something of a revival, kicking off with The Blue Max (1966).
As a dramatic entity, Wings straddles fashions in moviemaking, mimicking the seriousness of its concurrent bunkmates in the profound statement on war business, like The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but also making a play for a big, broad audience, mixing genres and styles in an all-out quest for audience-grabbing entertainment. In short, it’s a blockbuster, 1920s style. Paramount Pictures bigwigs Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, and B.P. Schulberg saw the cost of the film rise to more than $2 million, a serious chunk of change for the time, on a mammoth production leveraged with the participation of the War Department. At the eye of this storm was a young director who may well have felt fated to helm such a work: 30-year-old William A. Wellman.
During WWI, Wellman, who had briefly played professional ice hockey, had joined up at the age of 21 and flown in the Lafayette Air Corps. This made him the only director in Hollywood with combat air experience. Wellman, bullish, brazen, and all too happy to clash with his actors in the name of art to the point where he was later to be nicknamed “Wild Bill,” had dabbled with acting, which Douglas Fairbanks had suggested to him before the war, after returning home. Deciding acting was an unmanly business, Wellman moved into film production. He worked his way up quickly through crew ranks until he was acting as an uncredited codirector; he released his first two, credited features in 1923. Wings teamed him with two more men with wartime flying experience: actor Richard Arlen and story scribe John Monk Saunders, who would pen many aviator dramas and war films over the course of his Hollywood career and become the biographical subject of John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (1957). Wings was not exactly to be a warts-and-all vehicle for Wellman to dramatise his youthful experiences. Wellman returned often to tales of war throughout his career, including some of the greatest films of the genre, including The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Battleground (1949), as well as his very last feature film, the sadly low-budgeted and miscast Lafayette Escadrille (1959), where he at least pulled off the stroke of casting his son William Wellman Jr. as himself, a young flyer confronted by the grim truths of aerial combat. Wings, by contrast to the spacious, spare, often melancholy tone of his later war films, is a product of youth–the youth of both the director and the excitable industry in which he worked.
Wings aims directly at the youth audience of the late ’20s by suggesting their own way of life (and not bothering to be too exact about clothes and hairstyles)—that what would eventually become teen culture was already warming up just as the war beckoned. He introduces protagonist Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and his neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow) as two all-American kids, proto-flapper and hot-rod-building adventurer. “Jack had once pulled Mary out of a bonfire – and sometimes he regretted it,” a title card informs, hilariously setting the scene for the duo’s oblique relationship, with Mary jumping in energetically to aid Jack in rebuilding his battered car, which, as another card explains, had already provided Jack with the experience of flight several times. Jack and Mary transform the car into a speed mobile, and Mary sets the seal on the creation by christening it the “Shooting Star,” complete with a hastily painted logo on the side. Jack, however, oblivious to Mary’s ardour, thanks her and zips away to take the object of his own desire for a drive: Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who has the advantage of being a girl from the big city.
Wellman’s introduction of Sylvia and her beau, David Armstrong (Arlen), is one of his cleverest and wittiest visual flourishes, with camera attached to the porch swing the pair are resting in, Sylvia plucking a lilting guitar in a picture of fulsome romanticism, only for Jack to appear in Shooting Star behind them. The motion of the swing lends a stroboscopic quality to Jack’s approach, until he arrests the swinging and drags Sylvia away for a jaunt in his jallopy. The old world of quiet days and gentle courting is giving way to the crash-bang pace of the 20th century even before war starts. Sylvia’s affection remains with David, who is the son of the town’s richest man. When war is declared and David and Jack join up, Sylvia humours Jack by giving him a locket photo of herself, but tells David he’s the one she loves.
The days of youth give way to war, and Jack and David’s march off to serve is repeated by thousands of others, including Mary, who is inspired to join the ambulance driving service, and Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel, patenting his squarehead act), a German-American who confronts folks who deride his patriotism by stripping down to shirtsleeves to show off the tattoo of Old Glory on his bicep. He stops this practice after a drill sergeant assumes he’s getting uppity and clobbers him. During training, Jack and David antagonise each other constantly in their ongoing competition for Sylvia’s affections, but after the sergeant makes them square off in boxing competition, they beat each other to a standstill and bond instead, becoming inseparable partners during subsequent flight training.
Gary Cooper pops up as a cadet named White who wakes from a snooze as the duo enter his tent upon their arrival at flight school, dismisses the usefulness of good luck charms, offers the arrivals a bit of his half-eaten candy bar, and then leaves behind what’s left to do more practice flying. White is immediately killed in an accident, leaving Jack and David with no illusions about the danger of the business they’re engaging in. Cooper’s brief appearance here sent him skyrocketing to stardom as thousands wrote to Paramount demanding to know all about him. It’s interesting to consider why: not as conventionally handsome as either Rogers or Arlen, nonetheless, his subtle expressivity, the contrast between the dark shrewdness of his eyes and the beaming smile he gives just before waving them farewell, has the force of someone born to be in front of a movie camera, his register immediately declaring itself both subtler and more complex than the other men. If the plot of Wings is often naïve and aspects of it remain rooted in its time, Cooper is the sudden, looming emblem of cinema growing up, as well as learning to talk.
Schwimpf flunks out as a trainee pilot but becomes David’s mechanic. David quickly declares a tiny toy bear that was a childhood keepsake his charm, whilst Jack puts his trust in Sylvia’s picture. Sent to the Western front, they debut together in battle, sent up with the Flying Circus of Captain Kellermann, this film’s addition to the many movieland avatars of Manfred von Richthofen, aka, the Red Baron. The two rookies prove themselves, though Jack is forced down and nearly killed, and they soon evolve into hardened warriors of the sky, with Jack an ace famed amongst servicemen as he paints his trademark Shooting Star logo on his plane. Wings followed The Big Parade and preceded Hell’s Angels, which was supposed to be a competing production but which would be delayed for years by Howard Hughes’ outsized ambitions. Wings isn’t as sophisticated as either film in contemplating the social breadth of the war’s impact nor as interested in context, happy to present its two young gallants as heroes and Schwimpf as comic relief rather than straining to observe the many types fed into the doughboy ranks, as Vidor did, or the whirl of shifting worldviews and systems, which fascinated as Hughes and Whale, recalling rather Rex Ingram’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1922) as a blend of vaguely poetic wartime tragedy and big, sexy melodrama. It could be argued, really, that Wings leans mostly closer to something like Top Gun (1986) than to any of these, at least until its last act. The storyline is simple and often more than a little archaic. But Wings is made with such epic élan that it stands tall on its own, mostly due to the richness of Wellman’s filmmaking.
Wings is alight with vigorous cinematic ideas almost to the point of being show-offy, riddled with dynamic tracking shots, geometric framings, or shots with actors lunging at the camera—anything to invigorate the visuals. Sometimes Wellman incorporates outright symbolic flourishes, like boiling the defeat of the German army down to an overhead shot of a dead young warrior lying on a Knight’s Cross painted in a parade ground, and a plane’s propeller winding down and stopping in front of a field of white crosses in the background, signifying the death of a pilot amongst the last to fall in the war. That jokey early shot of Jack racing up to Sylvia and David on the swing sets up a visual motif, as many of the battle sequences are filmed and framed the same way, except with the camera mounted on winged steeds with the looming figure behind an enemy plane lunging for the kill.
High-flying exploits were the drawing card for Wings, of course, and the action sequences are quite something thanks to the stunt flyers, many of whom came from the ranks of the U.S. Army Air Force. Impressive is the climax of Jack’s first-ever aerial battle, which finishes with Jack crash-landing and hanging upside from his plane as the enemy continues to rake the wreck from above, and then dashes after an English soldier off No Man’s Land and through narrow, shallow trenches as cannon shells burst around him. The physical staging of the earthbound battle sequences unfolds on that mindboggling scale of many silent films, as the planes dash over recreations of battle-scarred France that stretch far and wide, where whole towns were been erected to be convincingly decimated in bombardments. The painstaking aerial photography makes the most of it all.
The action in Wings has a thrilling, dashing force that for the most part nudges it closer to action-adventure than the grim exigencies of antiwar dramas, but Wellman’s understanding of what he was portraying constantly declares itself in the teeming physical detail and the sense of force and motion he builds into the aerial sequences. Wellman turns what could have been a very simple sequence, a German Gotha bomber being wheeled out of its hanger and sent up on a mission, into a symphony of shots from ground level to high overhead in the same way filmmakers of a later generation might linger over some colossal spaceship, and with a similar implied sense of awe for technology in beauty and menace. One particularly great sequence sees a small town through which soldiers are moving being attacked by the Gotha, with Mary caught out in the street and forced to shelter under her ambulance as the town is blown to smithereens about her. Soldiers hiding in basements have floors above collapse on their heads, and the town church’s steeple is flung like so much rubbish to land on Mary’s vehicle. Jack and David fly in to save the day, cheered on by Mary and the soldiers below.
Both flyers emerge victorious, and they’re decorated by a French general for their achievement, but both men, David particularly, are left tired and anguished by the experience. Given leave in Paris, Jack goes on a wild bender, losing himself in drink and hanging out with prostitutes vying for his attention. Wellman tests the limits of what he could get away with as he surveys the wild nightlife of the Folies Bergere, tossing in visual jokes like a kilted Scot warrior and his black-satin-hugged floozy both bending down daintily to help with one of her shoes buttons, and another hooker stealing Jack’s flyer pin to use as a slight restraint on her plunging neckline. One startling shot sees Wellman’s camera swoop across several tables, noting the types enjoying their boozy flings, including an older lady paying off a gigolo and a lesbian couple, before zeroing in on Jack as he enjoys his cups, illustrating both the motley gallery of Parisian nightlife at the height of war-stoked frenzy and conveying Jack’s giddy, frantic joy in his forgetful drunkenness.
Mary, cruising the streets in her ambulance, hears that all of the American soldiers are being recalled for a big push, and she sets out to track Jack down, following his trail of painted shooting stars to the Folies Bergere, and tries unsuccessfully to extricate him from the arms of his coterie of clinging demimondaines. David skips upstairs with one lady, but Mary, helped by a kind member of the staff, disguises herself as a floozy to win Jack away: Jack, hallucinating bubbles, visualised as tiny animated circles drifting up from his champagne, decides to go with whichever girl is giving off the best bubbles, and shakes them both. Mary wins, of course, but once she manages to stow him safely in a bed, she’s wounded to see Sylvia’s picture his locket, and then is caught changing back into her uniform by a pair of MPs rounding up flyers: they assume she’s been naughty and tell her this will be the end of her war.
This sequence shows off the blend of the corny and the bravura that distinguishes Wings overall, with Wellman’s risqué, authentic sense of the reality of the young servicemen living it up between duels with death blending with silly, crowd-pleasing touches like those animated bubbles, and the goofy cavorts of the storyline as the film finally brings Mary properly back into the movie only to then write her out through some tawdry morality that becomes all the more gaudily entertaining for the blend. Bow, who had risen to the peak of her stardom after It (1927) to become just about the biggest thing in Hollywood, was essentially shoehorned into the film to increase its marketability in a manner similar to her film debut, Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), where she likewise inserted herself into a macho milieu. Her presence in Wings, plying her ebullient, energetic, blithely sexy yet tomboyish persona, is both one of the film’s great pleasures and also one of its problematic elements, as it creates a more than slight dissonance. The subplot of Mary venturing out to war just like the boys has a feminist flavour that’s very apt for Bow’s persona and the moment of the film’s making, and which Wellman accepts casually, even gleefully. But her presence in the drama is readily dispensable, and Bow herself summarised correctly that she was just the “whipped cream on top of the pie.” Her game physical performing and big, bright acting style seem to belong to a different movie in places, and Wellman pushes the film to the limits of tonal elasticity. It doesn’t help that the way the story is structured keeps Jack and Mary away from any substantial romancing. In fact, Jack’s dedication to Sylvia isn’t dispelled even as David wavers on confronting him about it, almost leading to an ugly quarrel between the two men that is interrupted by a call to battle. David, who’s already been morbidly anticipating his demise, leaves behind his keepsake, and goes down in combat.
A German flyer risks a hot reception to drop off word that David has been killed. Jack goes on the warpath, launching back into battle with hysterical bloodlust, not knowing David managed to escape his crash and the attempts of some Germans to capture him, and is sneaking back across enemy territory. Wings’ climactic scenes go all out in display of production spectacle as it recreates the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, part of the great “100 Days” offensive that ended the war, with a rah-rah tone, as the Yankees set the Germans scurrying on the ground. But Wellman’s tart, forceful vignettes continue to flow: two German officers interrupted as they drink beer in an observation balloon and forced to leap clear; a young American serviceman killed by a shell splinter as he smokes a cigarette without anyone realising he’s dead at first; a tank rolling over the top of a machine gun nest as the age of mechanical war finally renders the trench war slaughter obsolete.
Wellman handed out cameras to cast and crew to grab action any way they could, capturing soldiers, tanks, and aircraft in sprawling images amidst well-coordinated battle footage that is spectacular, if a bit impersonal, a triumph of technical cinema that remains detached from the story at hand. Triumphalism is contrasted by an overt swing towards ironic tragedy in the air. David manages to steal a German fighter plane from the Flying Circus, decimates several aircraft on the ground, and wings his way back to his friends. Except that Jack, who’s been flying around mercilessly gunning soldiers on the ground and shooting down enemy planes in his hunger for revenge, zeroes in on David and, assuming he’s just another enemy, shoots him down, David’s pleas as he realises his friend is trying to kill him unnoticed. David’s plane crashes into a farmhouse near a French unit and a military graveyard, and Jack lands to claim a trophy only to realise his mistake.
Wellman stages a lush pieta complete with a French farmer’s wife and her daughter, whose prayers are interrupted by the crash of David’s plane, to bear witness as incidental Madonna and child, and David’s passing is envisioned as an airplane propeller slowing to a stop. Jack kisses David in his death throes, a brotherly gesture that nonetheless brings the overtone of homoeroticism that often percolates under the surface of their relationship to a boil (and which bobs up again in The Public Enemy, 1931), complete with acknowledgement that their “friendship” ultimately was more important than anything else. A farmer helps Jack bury his friend in the midst of fervently dreamlike images—hand-carved crucifixes, crumbling brick, blooming flowers, leafy woods—in an eruption of pre-Raphaelite romantic melancholy as Wellman stages a funeral not just for one sorry hero but for a generation, one he was lucky not to join. David is laid to rest and with him the war, leaving Jack to head home alone to be greeted festively as a hero, but facing up to the onerous task of visiting David’s parents whose stern mourning crumbles before Jack’s distress, the hair at his temples stained prematurely white. Of course, all ends happily as Jack heads home to embrace Mary, and the two are last seen sitting in Shooting Star and kissing under a real shooting star scoring the night sky.
Wellman went on to have a major career and stands as one of the great underappreciated filmmakers, providing something of a darker, diastolic contemplation of American landscape to John Ford’s in the length of his career, with films that responded to the shifts in the zeitgeist. After Wings, he moved on to contemplate the impact of the Depression and the allure of criminality with The Public Enemy and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and wryly analyse the cults of Hollywood and mass media with A Star Is Born (1936) and Nothing Sacred (1937). In the 1940s, The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground, Wellman would get to make the kind of all-but-happenstance war narrative he touches on here, pruning away the box office pretensions and reducing the concerns of his cinema to the experience of men lost in the midst of tumult and agony. But Wings is an exemplar of late silent cinema in its force and visual daring, and still the entertainment machine it was made to be. It deserved, as much as any rival, to be the first Best Picture.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Edward Yang
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The immigrant experience has been fertile ground for many and sundry films throughout the decades, from David Butler’s Delicious (1931) and George Stevens’ I Remember Mama (1948), to Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and James Gray’s The Immigrant (2014). Of course, the seminal immigrant film, especially with regard to young people, is West Side Story (1961). The parallels between the disaffected, semi-rootless youths from barely established immigrant families in New York and their Taiwanese counterparts in A Brighter Summer Day are very striking, indicating the universal problem of trying to adapt to an alien world. Where director Edward Yang’s first masterpiece differs from West Side Story is in its broad, intricate consideration of entire families of mainland Chinese uprooted by the ascendency of Mao Tse-tung and its examination of the transition from one set of cultural values—respect for authority and one’s elders—to another—Western individualism, emancipated youth, and possession-oriented consumerism. In addition, although there is a central love story of a sort in this film, it is not the enmity of gangs that pulls the lovers apart, but rather their conflicting values adrift in an unsettled and unsettling land.
The action revolves primarily around two rival gangs, the Little Park gang and the 217 gang; 14-year-old student Zhang Zhen, nicknamed Xiao (“little”) Si’r (Chen Chang), his parents, and four siblings; and Ming (Lisa Yang), a beautiful 13-year-old girl whose boyfriend and leader of the Little Parks, Honey (Hung-Ming Lin), has run off. The film takes place in 1960, a mere decade after Si’r’s family fled Shanghai in 1949. The Zhangs and other immigrants like them are still looking for a secure foothold in their new country. Mrs. Zhang (Elaine Jin), though a fully qualified university instructor in Shanghai, cannot seem to get certified in Taipei. Mr. Zhang (Kuo-Chu Chang) is a civil servant with a going-nowhere career. Their finances are shaky: they buy their groceries on credit from Uncle Fat (Zhuo Ming), who periodically goes on the warpath to collect what he’s owed, and treasure little but Mrs. Zhang’s good watch and the promises of one of Zhang’s colleagues that he can get them the good jobs they need to really feel secure. The Zhangs, of course, are not alone in their insecurity; Ming’s single mother (Ying-chen Chang) suffers from asthma and has lost at least one position, as well as a place to stay, because of her inability to do her housekeeping job. Their parents’ provisional status and free-floating anxiety has their children looking for a sense of belonging and status as gang members.
The film opens at night with the Little Park gang being trounced on their turf by the 217s. Holed up in a darkened school corridor, the gang discusses Honey’s abandonment and their vulnerability without him. Two of the gang members bring forward a captured 217 member. Honey’s brother Deuce (Wang Zongzheng) picks up a thick, wooden block and offers it to two younger boys to prove they are ready to run with the big boys. When they refuse to take the block, Deuce raises it and slams it hard against the captured boy’s head, knocking him unconscious and sending the young wannabes running. When the boy comes to, Deuce sends him back to his gang with a warning that the Little Park gang will avenge themselves. This sudden brutality is characteristic of what is to come, a sharp contrast with West Side Story’s poetic and relatively infrequent violence.
The main story centers on Si’r and his developing crush and eventual romance with Ming. He spies one night—and the vast majority of this film takes place at night—Sly (Hung-Yu Chen) making out with a girl who turns out to be Ming. Si’r keeps Ming’s secret, even naming another girl as the one he saw, because he knows she pines for Honey. Ming drops her guard with Si’r, seeing him as different from all the other guys who come sniffing around her, and their playful interactions form most of what little daytime activity there is. When Honey returns, Si’r gallantly steps aside like the honorable person his father has tried to teach him to be, even though he is already fairly obsessed with Ming. Time away from her is just filling time at the loathed night school where he talks back to and swears at his teachers and the administrators for their unjust treatment of him, flirting with expulsion.
Like most of the gang members, Si’r has a temper. The importance of saving face and the allure of weapons are all too common maladies of these teens and preteens. Living in houses abandoned by the Japanese, the boys regularly find knives, guns, and even a samurai sword hidden in the rafters—another culture’s detritus waiting for assimilation by these new Taiwanese. A young would-be singer, Cat (Chi-tsan Wang), croons transliterated American pop songs, especially those of Elvis Presley. Cat even receives an answer to a letter and tape he sent to The King saying how gratified he is that his music is so popular in such an isolated, unknown country.
Elvis might never have heard of Taiwan, but it’s clear that for Cat and his friends, the country is also largely hidden, a blank slate onto which they try to graft whatever identity they can. Wang accentuates the unknown, possibly unknowable Taiwanese culture though his almost exclusive use of medium shots and unusual framings, showing people and places half-hidden by window and door jambs, objects emerging from total darkness like ghostly manifestations, shadows of warriors slashing at their rivals in near-total darkness, empty rooms save for one honest soul bewildered to be incarcerated during the Kuomintang “White Terror” to root out Communist enemies of the Nationalist state.
Wang’s interest in this subculture was wide and deep, almost as though he was still trying to understand the place even 40 years after emigrating from Shanghai to Taiwan, a place he left and to which he finally returned. His four-hour film teems with more than 100 characters with speaking parts, including school administrators and teachers, a film crew and actors in a soundstage adjacent to where Si’r attends school, shopkeepers and restauranteurs, police interrogators, doctors and nurses, and many gang members with nicknames like Airplane, Diaper, Threads, and Baldie. Within the drama of the central story are incidents great and small that flesh out this marginal area of Little Park, Taipei. A young Little Park gang member is teased about consuming porn, which he denies reading; he is later seen trying to buy some at a street stall, but runs when he sees Ming and Si’r coming toward him. After they pass by, he goes right back to the stall to finish what he started. In another incident, the director of the film, who has been arguing with its tempermental star, sees Ming and invites her for a screen test—after all she’s a teenager who would fit the part of the young girl better than the actress who “doesn’t look a day under 40!”
Most poignant is the struggle of Mr. Zhang to maintain his beliefs. He blames himself for earning Si’r a major demerit by arguing with the school administrators about punishing Si’r unfairly. He truly believes in being a civil servant and that, in strangely American fashion, one can succeed through hard work and individual initiative. The heart-to-heart talks he has with Si’r every time they walk back from a disciplinary conference at school seem to me like the little Dutch boy trying to hold back the flood of social pressure he sees hovering over his son’s head. The tragedy of this family is that they have tried to be honest without realizing how unimportant in the grand scheme of things honesty truly is. Indeed, why not join a gang when the Communist leadership and the Kuomintang have them.
The notorious climax of the film extends the confusion of youth and the chasm that divides East and West. Si’r tries to please his father by studying to get into day school, and worries about the honor of all those he loves, especially Ming. Ming, on the other hand, runs toward Western values of self-determination. Despite the incongruously demure school uniform she wears throughout the film, she bounces from one boy to another and even tries to seduce her engaged doctor. Furious with Si’r’s jealousy and talk about her honor, she dismisses him as just another boy who wants to change her. At an age when girls often start to go underground under social pressure, she is wise to realize that when you are caught between two worlds, the only hope of survival is to cling stubbornly to your sense of self. Si’r’s answer to her self-assertion is as shattering as it is inevitable, a cry in the dark to the film’s title theme “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
Previously unavailable for decades, A Brighter Summer Day has been restored by the World Cinema Foundation. It has been rumored that it will be released on the Criterion label and air on TCM on September 6 in the wee hours of the morning. Check your local listings to confirm.
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