16th 06 - 2016 | 2 comments »

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951/1984)

Directors: Elia Kazan/John Erman

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

During an interview about her recent appearance on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Gillian Anderson said that for actresses, the character of Blanche DuBois is the equivalent of King Lear for actors—the most demanding of roles. Vivien Leigh, who put an indelible stamp on the role in the 1951 movie version, said Blanche “tipped me over into madness.” Ann-Margret, who played Blanche in a 1984 television movie version, acknowledged it as the hardest role of her career, commenting rather drolly: “I play a character who is a nymphomaniac, an alcoholic, and a psychotic. It’s not a musical.”

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A musical it certainly is not. A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the bleakest, most primal works ever created, pits the illusory world of a desperate, half-crazed Southern belle against the brutal reality of a modern-day caveman in the heat-drenched squalor of a New Orleans slum. And yet it teems with a kind of music—the lyrical dialog of Williams, the great modern poet of the stage descended from a grand Tennessee family as reduced in circumstances in the 20th century as the fictional DuBois clan that spun Blanche and her sister Stella out as its tired, last remains.

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Streetcar is my favorite play, one I’ve seen several times on stage and in two film productions—the famous Oscar-winning prestige picture from Warner Bros. and a made-for-TV production that aired on the ABC Movie of the Week. The former earned its lead actress, Vivien Leigh, an Oscar, and the latter garnered Ann-Margret a Golden Globe award and an Emmy nomination. Comparison may be beside the point, as it is, I believe, the text itself that indelibly brands everyone who comes to Streetcar for the first time and colors their view of the best interpretation. Nonetheless, although many people may think I’m crazy to class a TV movie with a film made by the mighty Elia Kazan and starring two bonafide movie stars—as uneven a boxing card, they may think, as that between Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois—Ann-Margret, Treat Williams and their director, John Erman, more than hold their own.

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Little is different in the set design and costuming from one version to the other, though the TV version eliminates the wrought-iron elegance from the Kowalskis’ apartment building, helping to identify it more properly as a tenement. A basic, but not insignificant, difference between the two productions is that the earlier one is shot in black-and-white and the later in color. Harry Stradling, a cinematographer whose career began in the silent era and who could shoot anything from musicals (Easter Parade [1948], My Fair Lady [1964]) to high drama (Suspicion [1941], A Face in the Crowd [1957]), opens Kazan’s film in a bustling train terminal that tees off a gritty, restless style that has more than a hint of Manhattan to it. Bill Butler, whose major claim to fame is lensing Jaws (1975), shot the color Streetcar with a gauzy, nostalgic look that opens with Blanche’s sun-dappled trip through the genteel Garden District and gradually dims as she moves into the heart of darkness that is Elysian Fields, the rough quarter where Stella and Stanley live. There is a languid, moist quality to the look that suggests the damp heat of a New Orleans summer and more closely matches the action and dialog indicated in the script.

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Both films take liberties with the script. Both are shortened, but choose different elements to eliminate. Importantly, Williams collaborated on the Kazan screenplay with Oscar Saul, so the choices were largely his; the TV movie credits the adaptation to Oscar Saul alone. I love that the Kazan version retains Stella’s revealing and image-rich speech about Stanley’s first act on their wedding night (“Why, on our wedding night—soon as we came in here—he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light bulbs with it. … I was—sort of—thrilled by it.”), but the Production Code demanded that the reason for Blanche’s disgust with her young husband was his lack of ambition, not the discovery of him having sex with a man. Stanley’s rape of Blanche is represented by her face reflected in a suddenly smashed mirror. In Erman’s version, the homosexual text is restored and the rape made explicit as Stanley straddles Blanche on the bed and tears her clothes.

Of course, the most important differences can be found in the performances of the actors as guided by their directors. It is here that I will part company to a large degree with the consensus opinion that Leigh, Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as Stella, and Karl Malden as Mitch comprise the ultimate dream team for this work. In many ways, I prefer Ann-Margret, Treat Williams as Stanley, Beverly D’Angelo as Stella, and Randy Quaid as Mitch. Here’s why.

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Let’s start with Kazan’s version. Brando originated the role of Stanley on Broadway, under Kazan’s direction, to great acclaim, so it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the film version employing both men is the definitive version. Brando, of course, was one of the most electrifying actors of any generation, and his beauty and physicality work perfectly to explain why the refined Stella DuBois would throw over her aristocratic, but impractical heritage when offered the reality of the best sex of her life for the duration of her life. It seems, however, that Brando has taken literally Blanche’s description of Stanley’s animalism: “There’s even something sub-human—something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Maybe he’ll strike or maybe grunt and kiss you!” For much of his performance, he mumbles flatly, crossing other players’ dialog in a jumble of semi-coherence. Brando’s early confrontations with Blanche seem disconnected; he has far more to say to Stella about Blanche’s wardrobe than to Blanche herself, reflecting the strong connection between the pair.

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Leigh plays Blanche as a hysteric from the get-go. She talks so fast that no one statement gets more emphasis than any other. Now, I have known mentally unstable people with logorrhea, and so this choice is not out of place. It renders Blanche something of a ghost, drained in many ways of personality, a waif we really can believe has to depend on the kindness of strangers. As the hard knocks continue, especially living with the contemptuous Stanley, Blanche’s desperation and growing lunacy overtake more everyday matters. It is in these latter stages of the film that Leigh really shines. She embodies Blanche’s delusions with the conviction that it’s a blessing to tell “what ought to be real.” The weariness of facing the world and her fading fortunes—“God love you for a liar,” is her ironic retort when Stella tells her how well she looks—slips briefly during her last hurrah as she attacks Stanley with a broken bottle, but crumbles immediately in his grip.

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My favorite line reading from Leigh is during her flirtation with the young newspaper boy (Wright King) who comes to the door when Stella and Stanley are out. She has flattered him by guessing he was smart enough to avoid being rained on by ducking into a drugstore for a soda. “Chocolate?” “No, ma’am. Cherry.” “Cherry! You make my mouth water.” The sly double entendre of that last line hits the ear like a bell because of the fleetingly expressive, somewhat offhand delivery of someone who is trying to keep control of herself and assert her power and desire at the same time—very fitting for a schoolteacher turned sexual predator. In this instance, she completely bests Ann-Margret’s nakedly sexual line reading.

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Kim Hunter has to play Stella like a cockeyed optimist to give weight to her relationship with Blanche. I was struck by her upbeat offer to put a shot of whiskey in a glass of Coke when Blanche asks, “Is it just Coke?” By this point in the drama, it’s clear that Blanche has been hitting the bottle pretty hard, but Hunter’s Stella seems utterly unconcerned, perhaps lost in the delusions Blanche spins to maintain her tenuous grip on a home, a future, and her sanity. Nonetheless, if this was Hunter’s and Kazan’s intention, it undermines the “happy” ending when Stella chooses to face reality and leaves Stanley (perhaps to return?). Otherwise, Hunter works extremely well with Brando—it can’t have been hard to express desire for a man as charismatic as Brando, but she is also very convincing as a wife who loves her husband and isn’t afraid of him or of expressing her opinions.

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Karl Malden is, in my opinion, almost a complete misfire as Mitch, Blanche’s awkward, mama’s boy of a suitor. He seems to have entered the quarter by way of Hell’s Kitchen, adopting neither a proper Southern accent nor bearing. He looks like he’s trying to compete with Leigh when he should be overwhelmed by Blanche’s practiced seduction. Oddly, when it’s time for him to hold his own with her after learning of Blanche’s sordid past, he just seems to fall out of the scene as Leigh reflects back at Mitch with pride and venom his own fantasies of Blanche as a spider luring her victims to the Hotel Tarantula.

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This brings us to the John Erman production. Erman directed some of the best older actresses in the business in TV movies, including Sylvia Sidney, Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, and Lee Remick. In addition to Streetcar, he directed Ann-Margret in three other TV movies: Who Will Love My Children (1983), the marvelous The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987), and Our Sons (1991). Erman helps his leading lady harness her natural sensuousness and use it to give Blanche more grounding and substance than Vivien Leigh’s Blanche. Ann-Margret fills her line readings with meanings that reveal Blanche’s state of mind, from a subdued, quizzical “Can this be her home?” upon her first look at Stella’s building to her genteel, slightly coquettish response to Mitch asking to kiss her: “Why do you always ask me if you may? Why should you be so doubtful?” Indeed, she brings out the Southern gentleman in this quiet man who seems a very unlikely comrade of Stanley’s.

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Ann-Margret’s physicality works in her favor as well. When she emerges from Blanche’s frequent hot baths, she luxuriates in a sense of refreshment and a reinvigorated body. She puts on a dress like a woman caressing her beloved: “Clothes are my passion,” she says as she flicks and examines a fur on her arm. Ann-Margret said that when she went at Williams with the broken bottle, she told him to be prepared for a real fight. Blanche makes several passes at him, with Williams making an interesting game of pretending to take her threat seriously. She never had a chance, of course, but her determination makes her madness in the final scene all the more heartbreaking.

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Quaid is, to my mind, the perfect Mitch, soft-spoken and kind when allowed to be himself, driven to rash and cruel behavior when he’s drunk and disillusioned. He’s like the male version of Blanche with less breeding. Beverly D’Angelo is a terrific Stella. Her performance shows the troubled relationship she has had with Blanche and the DuBois clan, deflecting Blanche’s criticism of the way she left the family and Belle Reve with a firm, “The best I could do was make my own living, Blanche.” Later, her response to Blanche’s “Is it just Coke?” is a resigned and slightly disgusted “You mean you want a shot in it.” I didn’t feel the connection between D’Angelo and Williams as strongly as with Hunter and Brando, but they had some nice, familiar moments, such as the girlish, wheedling way Stella asks Stanley for some money to take Blanche out during Stanley’s poker night and her playful greeting and full-bodied hug after he returns home the morning Blanche implores her sister to leave him.

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Will Treat Williams make anyone forget Marlon Brando? Probably not, but he’s a sexy man in his own right who actually gets to bare his well-toned torso during his first encounter with Blanche, allowing viewers to share in her carnal stare. His violence doesn’t explode like an inferno the way Brando’s does, but he keeps an undercurrent of menace through most of his performance. To see him play a seducer and likely murderer of a teenager in 1985’s Smooth Talk is to understand this aspect of his persona at its most extreme, and I enjoyed that he didn’t make Stanley such a simian dolt, but rather invested him with an intelligence Blanche would like to ignore.

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Erman maintains a leisurely pace, allowing us to sense the passing of time from Stella’s first revelation that she’s pregnant to her baby’s birth and imagine the building tension in the Kowalski home. He gives his actors room to explore their characters’ moods and actions in this way as well. While both versions of A Streetcar Named Desire are fine works, if you only know Kazan’s, you’re missing out on a real treasure.

The John Erman Streetcar is available here on YouTube.


17th 04 - 2016 | 4 comments »

Knight of Cups (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick

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By Roderick Heath

Terrence Malick’s late period has seen him more productive than ever at the cost of robbing his output of the almost magical allure it once had through scarcity. Once he was easy to idealise as an emissary of artistic stature redolent of a very different time and cultural frame, the reclusive poet broadcasting occasional, deeply considered artistic happenings from on high. But when he brings out three films in five years, he becomes just another filmmaker in the marketplace. Yet his work has defied the usual crises and swerves that befall aging auteurs to become ever more personal, rarefied, and bold, charged with a sense of questing enthusiasm and expressive urgency. Whereas in his early work I tend to find what Malick wants to say a bit obvious even as he laboured to say it in the most ravishing way, his later work suggests an attempt to articulate concepts and emotions so nebulous and difficult they cannot be conveyed in any meaningful way except when bundled up in that strange collection of images known as cinema, gaining a sharpness and urgency that risks much but also achieves much. This is a large part of why I’ve been moving against the current and digging what Malick’s been putting down all the more since The New World (2005). The New World marked a point when Malick really first nailed the aesthetic he’d been chasing, apparently formless in the usual cinematic sense, but actually fluidic and dynamic, more like visual music than prose, his stories unfolding in a constant rush of counterpoint, the visual and the verbal, each nudging the other along rather than working in the usual lockstep manner of standard dramatic cinema.

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By comparison, I recently revisited Days of Heaven (1978) and find it gorgeous but inert, like a fine miniature in a snow cone. The pursuit of a horizon glimpsed in a dream, at once personal and lodged in a folk-memory, admirably articulated, but too refined, too stringently, self-consciously fablelike to compel me. The New World finally set Malick free because it allowed him to alchemise his preoccupations and poetic ideas, his obsession with the Edenic Fall, into the simplest vessel whilst still engaging with concrete history and a very solid sense of the world. Somehow Malick has become, in his old age, at once the wispiest of abstractionists and the most acute of realists. Knight of Cups feels like another instalment, probably the last, in an unofficial, but certainly linked cycle he started with The Tree of Life (2011) and followed with To the Wonder (2013). Malick has been translating his own life into art for these films, albeit tangentially, through a mesh of disguise, displacement, invention, and simple reflection. Knight of Cups completes the sense of journey from songs of innocence to songs of experience; the depiction of childhood’s protean possibility rhymed with adulthood’s regretful mourning as depicted in The Tree of Life has given way to the specific portrait of love found and lost in To the Wonder, and now, hedonistic abandon and the open void of modernity amidst the elusive promise of the land. It’s a report in the moment that rounds off the tale Malick’s been contemplating since The New World, a portrait of what’s become of that innocent land the white man conquered.

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Christian Bale inhabits the role of Rick, a screenwriter living it large in Los Angeles, but dogged by a lingering inability to form real emotional connections and the gnawing onus that is the fate of his family. That’s just about all the plot there is to Knight of Cups, which unfolds like a fever dream of recollection, pushing the flowing, vignette-laden, high-montage style Malicks’s pursued since The New World to a point that is both an extreme and also a crescendo. In compensation, Malick adopts a very simple, but perfectly functional division into chapters, each named for a card in the Tarot and dominated by a depiction of one of Rick’s relationships, whether passing or substantial, with various women and family members, or turning points in his experience. “The Moon” recounts his grazing encounters with dye-haired young wannabe Della (Imogen Poots). “The Hanged Man” depicts his uneasy relationship with his father and brother. “The Hermit” follows Rick through the indulgences of Hollywood, attending a party hosted by mogul Tonio (Antonio Banderas). “Judgment” sees him briefly reconnecting with his ex-wife, medical doctor Nancy (Cate Blanchett). In “The Tower,” Rick is tempted by Mephistophelian manager Herb (Michael Wincott). In “The Sun,” he becomes mesmerised by a fashion model, Helen (Frieda Pinto), who embodies pure beauty and practises tantric yoga. “The High Priestess” sees him hooking up with stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer), and visiting Las Vegas with her for a dirty weekend. In “Death,” he becomes involved with a married woman, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who falls pregnant and doesn’t know if the father is Rick or her husband. Finally, “Freedom” depicts his ultimate decision to leave Hollywood and finding happiness with Isabel (Isabel Lucas), a girl he often sees dancing on the beach.

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The Knight of Cups is also a tarot card, of course, one that notably changes meaning according to how it’s looked at, encompassing the alternately quicksilver brilliance and inane nature of the young adventurer and will to disorder, a reminder of the closeness between the two. Rick is evidently the Knight, one who is not so coincidentally often in his cups. He’s also correlated with the prince in a fairy tale his father is fond of who travels to a distant land on an important mission but is bewitched by a magic potion and forgets his identity. Near the start of the film, Rick meets with two agents (Patrick Whitesell and Rick Hess) who have orchestrated his transfer off a project on which he was floundering and attached him to a top comedy star, a move that brings Rick to the peak of his profession. Rick lives nonetheless in a small apartment that barely displays any sign of real human habitation apart from his bed and laptop, as two thieves find to their chagrin when they break in and try to rob the place. He is shaken by an earthquake close to the film’s beginning, the first momento mori that jars him out of any sense of confident self-satisfaction. Soon, Rick wanders the city gobbling up sensations and distractions. He cavorts with models, actresses, and scenesters he can now pull with his growing wealth and freewheeling enthusiasm, but is nagged at by the omnipresent evidence of a concurrent reality, represented by the down-and-out folk he brushes against on the streets of LA.

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The film’s prologuelike opening scenes see Rick on the town, riding the streets with models and partying hard in scenes of ebullient, carnivalesque high life, where geishas and costumed artistes frolic and life seems utterly ripe. An experimental film being projected on the wall invades the film itself, a beautiful woman shifting through guises, masks of cardboard and make-up floating around her face, identity turned protean and cabalistic—essentially introducing the basic theme of the film around it. Then, the earthquake shakes the town. In the first “chapter,” Rick meets Della, who describes Rick’s problem as one commonly diagnosed in writers by those close to them: “You don’t want love—you want a love experience.” But she also recognises that he’s a man who’s been switched off on some fundamental level for some time. She begs him not to return to such a state again, and the rest of the film depicts his struggle to really feel and open himself up. Rick’s deeper spiritual and emotional maladies are soon revealed as he visits his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) at his offices, in a strange sequence that might be memory, dream, or a blend of the two, as Joseph seems to be alone in a vast building and washes his hands in filthy water. Joseph’s health and sanity become niggling sources of worry for Rick, whilst Joseph boils over with Learish anger and sorrow. Rick also maintains an uneasy relationship with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley), a former junkie turned street minister, often submerged in the shoals of human wreckage Rick contends with. These three beset survivors are closely bonded by rivets of love and wracking pain because of the suicide of a third brother, Billy. When any of the three come together, they often clash, sometimes in heated and physically eruptive manner: a dinner the trio have together devolves into Barry hurling furniture around.

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Rick’s success has been achieved by remaining switched off because of a fear he admits in contemplating his failed marriage to Nancy. Nancy, in a motif reminiscent of Javier Bardem’s minister in To the Wonder, is glimpsed treating broken and sickened individuals from the fringes of society, contrasting Rick as he eddies in a zone where he’s aware of his inconsequentiality even as he experiences a very real sense of burden. Joseph’s thoughts are repeatedly heard in voiceover, as if the ailing father is trying still to guide his Rick, who, nominated as the successful progeny, wears the double burden of fulfilling the familial mission and holding up, psychically if not financially, the remnant of their pride and prospect. But Rick’s perspective is not just one of fashionable ennui: it’s one that touches everything he sees with a sense of charged fascination and transient import and meaning. One of the film’s high points is also one of its seemingly most meandering and purely experiential, as Rick wanders Tonio’s estate surrounded by a boggling collective of random celebrities and pretty faces. Rick explores the gaudy environs of Tonio’s manse, a gigantic placard advertising tasteless wealth, a neo-Versailles, whilst on sound we hear Tonio’s explanations of his love life, comparing his womanising habits to daily cravings for different flavours of ice cream, the confession of an easy sybarite.

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At first, the smorgasbord of flesh and fancy is bewildering and entertaining, the perspective that of a professional rubbernecker, but as the day goes on, booze is consumed, people dance and cavort, and eventually start plunging into the pool. Malick starts off the sequence with shots of dogs chasing balls in the water and then segues into models dressed in haute couture, complete with giant heels, seeing something both beautiful and highly ridiculous in these visions, where rose petals flitter through the air to rest on the shoulders of the anointed, straight out of some neoclassical painter’s concept of decadent pleasures in the days of Rome. By the end, everyone’s in the water, squirming in the liquid, a crescendo of absurd yet affectionate observation of the desire many have to exist within a perpetual party. The LA setting robs Malick of his usual places of meditative peace, the wavering grasslands, the proud sun-scraping forests. Swimming pools, the omnipresent symbol of prosperity in LA, become under Malick’s gaze numinous portals aglow with fervent colour, places where the moment anyone enters they instantly transform into a different state of being. They’re tamed versions of the ocean, a place Rick constantly returns to with his women or by himself, the zone of transformation and grand, impersonal force. Something of a similar insight to one Sang-soo Hong explored in his The Day He Arrives (2012), charges Knight of Cups, if in a radically different fashion, as Rick’s various relationships, whether brief or substantial, see him constantly returning to the same places and sights to the point where they seem both interchangeable and looping—going to the beach, driving the streets, visiting his girlfriends’ homes—evoking the evanescent rush of the early phases of love, but then each time seeming to reach a point where he can’t go any further. At one point he’s visited by old friends who knew him as a kid and have kids of their own, a zone of experience he hasn’t yet penetrated, emissaries from an alien land.

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One noticeable lack from most of Malick’s earlier films was real, adult sexuality. After finally delving into that with To the Wonder, Knight of Cups is frankly sexy, as it portrays Rick’s successful entry into a zone that would strike a lot of young people as paradise. But there’s still a fascinating, childlike sense of play apparent in the film as Rick cavorts with naked nymphs he picks up. Malick moralises none of this, seeing it merely as the inevitable result and pleasure of putting a large number of good-looking, well-off people into a similar environment and letting them have at it. Knight of Cups brings the implicitly autobiographical narrative Malick wove through The Tree of Life and To the Wonder into a new phase, patterned seemingly after Malick’s time spent as a screenwriter in the early 1970s and leading up to his eventual self-exile from the movie industry. Again, of course, there’s good reason not to take all this simply as memoir, but rather as a highly transformed, aestheticized attempt to convert experience into poetry. That aesthetic is one of memory—fallible, fluidic, selective, associative. But there’s no hint of the period piece to the result, which is as stylistically and sociologically up-to-date as anything I’ve seen lately, engaging contemporary Hollywood and indeed the contemporary world in all its flailing, free-falling strangeness, the confused impulses towards meditative remove and hedonism apparent in modern American life.

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Knight of Cups is, as a result, one of the most daring formal experiments I’ve ever seen in a feature film, an attempt to paint entirely in the mode of reminiscence, a tide of epiphanies. Malick’s early films were obsessed with the exact same motif of clasping onto a mood, a way of seeing, an impression from the very edges of liminal experience. But his techniques have evolved and transformed those motifs and are now inseparable from them. Knight of Cups seems random and free-form, but actually is rigorously constructed, each vignette and experience glimpsed as part of a journey that eventually resolves in some moderately traditional ways. Amidst Malick’s now-trademark use of voiceover to give access to the interior world and thoughts of his characters and music to propel and define various movements, he also uses here snatches of recordings of poetry, recitation, and drama, including John Gielgud’s Prospero from Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) and lines from The Pilgrim’s Progress. With such hallowed, high-culture refrains shattered and rearranged into mantralike capsules of eerie wisdom ringing out, Knight of Cups is at least as concerned with the cornucopia, enfolding and smothering, that is modern life as it is with Rick’s immediate personal concerns, and to a certain extent, Rick is merely a scarecrow to hang it all on, the vessel of perception whose journey through life is, like that of all artists, one of both immersion and detachment.

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One clever aspect to this is that Rick is hardly a nonentity or even a cliché emblematic of Hollywood shallowness. If The Tree of Life and To the Wonder were overtly concerned with spiritual and religious impulses as well as the worldly matters of growth and love, in Knight of Cups, that has faded to background noise. Here Malick suggests constantly that in the modern world, the divides we used to be able to set up to corral zones of experience—enterprise, spirituality, sexuality, intellectualism—cannot be maintained in such an age. The urge of the spiritual seeker is still apparent in Rick, perhaps all the more urgent when stripped out of the pieties of childhood and small-town life and set free in the louche embrace of modernity. Armin Mueller-Stahl appears briefly as a minister advising Rick on how to try to engage with life as he moves closer to making a real break. But the matter here is the allure of the profane, and indeed, an attempt to create a truly modern definition and understanding of it—the intoxicating, but also dispiriting effects of superficialities, the strange hierarchies that turn some people into the tools and suppliants. Some have seen this work as an anti-Hollywood moan, but it’s not the usual shrill satire or snooty take. The narrative does infer that Rick’s role is so inane that it barely registers in his stream of consciousness, and the essence of Malick’s complaint seems to me to be that although the movie industry attracts, employs, and sometimes enriches artists, it so rarely asks them to truly stretch their talents, like making Olympic-level sprinters compete in three-legged races.

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Malick actually seems to see Hollywood as rather comical, a candy castle for perma-adolescents. Rick’s dabbling in decadence is far from extreme: sometimes he gets blotto and has a lot of sex. Malick maintains much the same goggle-eyed, wide-open sensibility towards the strange places where Rick finds himself, from Tonio’s party to the pornocratic sprawl of Vegas and the strip club where he meets Karen. The placidity of a Japanese shrine offers the balm of calm, but Rick’s real transformative visions come amidst the partygoers of Vegas, a place that counts as some gigantic, if tacky, work of artistic chutzpah. There he gazes up at dancers dangling from the ceiling enacting a visualised myth of birth, slipping out of a chrysalis above the swooning, frenetic joyfulness of the people on the dance floor, an event of communal magnitude, something Rick is happy to exist within but cannot entirely join. Malick comprehends the magnetism of a place entirely dedicated to immersion in sensuality, a place where Rick lets the strippers lock him in a cage. Malick sees something genuinely telling here—that in the most adult of activities are the most profound expression of a desire to devolve back into the childhood, a place of play and free-form existence. But it’s also another stage for Rick to study to reveal his own persistent problem. It’s entirely logical then that in Malick’s mind, Karen, a bon vivant with a gift for moving freely and easily in the world, is probably the most complete and easy person glimpsed in the film, capable of chatting amiably with both pimps out in the surreal wilderness near the city and moguls ensconced in its gilt chambers.

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Rick’s fascination with all his women encompasses their ways of interacting with the world and their individual identity, and also their commonalities, their mirroring points of fascination and ironic disparities. The faint, but definite glint of hard, ambitious intent in Della’s eye as a wanderer far out of her zone both rhymes with and also contrasts Karen’s similar status as a wanderer, but one who has no programme in life other than giving herself up to experience whilst making a living in the profane version of Helen’s job. Rick’s regret at never having a child with Nancy segues into Elizabeth’s bitter, crucifying pregnancy. Rick’s own internal argument is actualised in glimpses of characters who bob through his life. Cherry Jones appears as a wisp out of his past, someone who knew him and his family way back and who recalls how he once told her he felt like a spy in his own life. Wincott’s Herb declares he wants to make Rick rich, but Rick contemplates his ruined father, who remembers that “Once people envied me…” and measures the ultimate futility of success as measured in exclusively worldly terms. The Tree of Life evoked Death of a Salesman in certain respects as it analysed the figure of the American patriarch, and here Malick’s casting of Dennehy, who found great success playing Willy Loman in a recent revival, is another tip of the hat to Arthur Miller’s work. At one point, Dennehy is glimpsed treading a stage before an audience, one of several fragments scattered throughout the film of a purely symbolic reality and glimpses of oneiric netherworlds buried deep in Rick’s mind, as his father has become an actor, a seer, a fallen king, Lear on the heath or Prospero’ magic failing on his lonely isle.

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Malick’s methods both chew up the talent he hires at stunning pace, but also presents an entirely democratic employment of them in service of a vision that tries to encompass a sense of nobility in every individual. Knight of Cups is at once a display of Malick’s solipsism in this regard, his casual readiness to use a raft of skilled actors simply to inhabit the free-floating, sometimes barely glimpsed human entities that graze the camera in his films, and yet invigorating and reassuringly uninterested in the usual caressed egos of Hollywood film. Every performer is ore, mined for their most precise gestures, looks, words. Malick’s use of voiceover allows him to grant all characters their moment of insight and understanding as if gathering the fruits of years of contemplation, rather simply relying on what they can articulate in the flow of the banal.

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Whereas To the Wonder suggested Malick’s intention to incorporate aspects of dance and particularly visual art into film, here Malick’s artistic arsenal is rooted securely in the language of modernist literature reconstituted as cinema. The rush of images has the ring of Joyce’s technique and the very last word heard in the film, “Begin,” evokes the famous affirmative at the end of Ulysses, whilst the visual structure recalls John Cage’s take on Joyce’s aesthetics, “Roaratorio.” But Malick also shouts out to some of his filmic influences. Della is initially seen wearing a pink wig, recalling a Wong Kar-Wai heroine, a nod that acknowledges the influence on Wong’s free-flowing style and obsession with frustrated romanticism on Malick’s recent approach. Malick also reveals selective affinities with some signal cinematic gods for filmmakers of his generation: as with To the Wonder, I sense the imprint of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) in presenting the main character as both actor and viewer in his life. The narrative, like many artistic self-contemplations in film, recalls Fellini’s (1963) whilst other motifs evoke Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) as Rick circles photo shoots, fascinated and knowing about the arts of creating illusory beauties whilst confronting interior voids. But Malick ultimately rejects the roots of their works in a pernickety moralism that blends and confuses Catholicism and Marxism, chasing more a Blakeian sense of life and existence as a polymorphic surge that must be negotiated and assessed, but cannot be denied.

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Rick’s late agonistes with Elizabeth signal the end of the process Della identifies at the start, of Rick coming to life again but also facing the sort of emotional crucifixion from which his detachment spared him, both a price exacted and a perverse kind of reward found in genuine suffering: “It binds you closer to other people,” Mueller-Stahl’s priest notes. This event finally drives him out of LA, and he hits the road, exploring an American landscape of his youth and dreams that has forgotten him and that he, too, has forgotten. He seems to reconcile with his father and brother in a scene of violent catharsis, and takes his father to visit a former workplace, a heap of glowering, indifferent industry. By the very end of the film, Malick signals that Rick escapes LA, settles down with a woman, and finds a certain level of peace and healing living in the desert. Isabel seems deliberately filmed more as an entity than a person, the archetype of the type of woman who has flitted right through Malick’s work, a dancer and a priestess who leads Rick into caves for candlelit rites whilst the mountains that Rick has envisioned as symbols of everything his life wasn’t now soar above him. It’s arguable that in such imagery Malick finally retreats into a safe zone of symbolism, where much of the value of Knight of Cups is that it’s a work well outside his regular purview. But the truly radical quality of Knight of Cups is how completely untheoretical it is, the power of lived experience blended with urgent need to express in the most unfettered ways welling out of that experience. It’s both an explanation and a blithe feat of expressive legerdermain, not caring if we keep up. It’s cinema, stripped to the nerve.


11th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

Free Entry (aka One Day of Betty, 2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Yvonne Kerékgyártó

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One type of film I’ve charted through my own experience is the coming of age of a teenage girl. Having been a teenage girl myself, I remember the films that attracted me during those exciting years—the quite appalling Where the Boys Are (1960) and the touching The Trouble with Angels (1966). A vestige of personal interest in these films remained when I was in my 20s and made a minor religion out of visiting and revisiting Valley Girl (1983) and Mystic Pizza (1988). Since then, my need for such films has abated as my interest in them as a film critic has grown up along with the subgenre. I’ve been pleased to see such films tackle a more diverse array of stories that cross into other genres—horror (Heathers [1988], Ginger Snaps [2000]), mystery (The Virgin Suicides [1999]), and biopic (The Runaways [2010]). Despite the quality and relative success of these films, Hollywood seems to have abandoned the teenage girl. The best such films I’ve seen lately have come from Europe, including the exuberant “buddy” film We Are the Best! (2013, Sweden), the tough gang drama Girlhood (2014, France), and the film under consideration here, Free Entry, from Hungary.

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Free Entry, the feature film debut of Yvonne Kerékgyártó, is something of a breakthrough for Hungarian filmmakers as a whole. The movie’s life began in 2011 with a no-budget shoot that eventually yielded five 5-minute web episodes that formed the series FreeEntry (2012). The series won awards, including a monetary prize that allowed Kerékgyártó to expand the concept into a feature film. In the process, she became the first Hungarian filmmaker to receive federal funds for postproduction and DCP creation. With a high-quality DCP to submit to film festivals, Kerékgyártó’s small movie about two friends who start breaking the bonds of childhood after they sneak off to a music festival has found its way to audiences all over the world.

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Doughy-faced 16-year-old Betty (Luca Pusztai) is introduced sulking alongside her single dad (Róbert Kardos) as he drives her to meet her friend V (Ágnes Barta) at a Budapest train station and urges her to comb her punk-style hair. The girls have a cover story about going to the country together to visit a relative of V’s. Instead, they stash their luggage at the station and head to the annual Sziget Festival held on a North Budapest island in the Danube River. They make a stop at the apartment of Wolf, (Péter Sándor), a friend of Betty’s brother, who gives them some marijuana to sell.

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V looks more mature and thinks every man is hot for her, though her aggressive advances and Lolita sunglasses pretty much force a response. Betty is more businesslike and responsible, disliking V’s flirtations and the guys she picks up. Eventually, she gets tired of V’s antics and tries to do her job selling Wolf’s weed. Two security guards become suspicious, examine her entry bracelet, find it is a forgery, and evict Betty from the premises. With this separation, V and Betty make their own discoveries that turn their reunion the next day into something of a triumph for them both.

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Kerékgyártó shot Free Entry at the real Sziget Festival, and though her cast held to a tight, well-rehearsed script, Kerékgyártó’s roaming camera picks up every nuance of a music festival, from the overflowing trash cans to the spontaneous dancing and singing that add to the authenticity and joy of the presentation. When Betty finds a cellphone in a port-a-let and realizes it belongs to someone she knows—someone who is with one of the girls’ favorite bands (and one friendly to the film’s director)—Kerékgyártó is able to film backstage and capture Betty and V’s excitement at receiving such special treatment. At other moments, the girls join the rest of the crowd jumping up and down, waving and shouting, as such groups as Hungarian alt-rock band Quimby and South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord entertain the festival goers.

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The easy rapport between Pusztai and Barta makes the friendship of their characters completely believable. It is very true that opposites often become friends, balancing each other’s tendencies and teaching each other lessons in behaving responsibly or running loose. I was quite reminded of the dynamic between Angela (Claire Danes) and Rayanne (A. J. Langer), from the late-lamented TV series My So-Called Life (1994-95)—the former dreamy and intense, the latter flamboyant, reckless, and a budding alcoholic. Indeed, Betty and V do an awful lot of drinking in this film, which scared me just a bit while reminding me how much excessive drinking is a time-honored rite of passage that I, too, indulged.

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Another time-honored tradition of youth is acting before thinking. Although they plan to be at the festival all week, neither girl has thought to bring a tent or extra clothing for the cold nights ahead. The only food they have is a melon that Betty has to bash on a rock to open. After the girls get separated, V wanders through the tent city of festival goers looking for a place to sleep. Her anxieties surface in an effectively confusing, nightmarish scene as she comprehends how vulnerable she really is in a sea of strangers and an altered state of mind—the girls took a hallucinogen with two boys they met. Betty, on the other hand, starts for home, but eventually ends up at Wolf’s. Perhaps because of his name, she grabs his guitar and very competently sings Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’s “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” in one of the most original scenes of its type I’ve ever seen.

There’s nothing terribly revelatory or ground-breaking about Free Entry, but it gets my full endorsement because it so brilliantly and realistically captures a crucial moment in time that escapes us all too quickly.

Free Entry screens Sunday, March 13 at 5 p.m. and Thursday, March 17 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

One Floor Below: Another tale of personal disharmony inflected by the past from Romanian New Wave director Radu Muntean, this film brilliantly explores the conflicts experienced by an ordinary man who withholds information in a murder investigation. (Romania)

Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


7th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

One Floor Below (Un etaj mai jos, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The opening scene of master Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean’s new film, One Floor Below, is deceptively simple. Sandu Patrascu (Teodor Corban) is in a Bucharest park running off some extra pounds and throwing sticks for his dog, Jerry, to retrieve. Their play is interrupted when Sandu hears someone tell another man to put his dog on a leash; the dog is aggressive and could tear another dog apart. Sandu steps over to meet the barking dog and says, “I used to have a pit bull like that,” to which the dog’s master responds, “So you’ve got yourself a teddy bear now.” Sandu replies that “it was a bargain,” but what kind and with whom remains a mystery. In this one brief scene, Muntean has laid out the personality of his central character, a man whose darker instincts and need for self-protection under the repressive Communist regime have abated, but not disappeared.

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Of all of the great filmmakers who formed the Romanian New Wave, Muntean is perhaps my favorite. He has found an understated, seemingly effortless technique for combining the personal and the political in a way that illuminates both. He dramatized in a surprisingly leisurely style the behavior of a small group of soldiers and some ordinary people on the extraordinary day in 1989 when dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown in The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) that brought the absurdity and tragedy of those lost years into laser focus. His portrayal of a disintegrating marriage in Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) offered a probing look at the emotional violence that simmered under the surface of the newly free country. With One Floor Below, we gain insight into the effects of the police state on the Romanian people and the still-yawning gulf of misunderstanding that lingers.

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Sandu, his wife Olga (Oxana Moravec), and their son Matei (Ionut Bora) are a modern happy family. Sandu and Olga run a business together helping people cut through the red tape of vehicle registration and licensing and share parental concern and responsibilities for their precocious 12-year-old son, who, of course, spends most of his time playing video games and posting online. They host a small family gathering to celebrate the birthday of Sandu’s mother (Tatiana Iekel), and Sandu gathers regularly with his buddies to watch sports on TV—one night, when they seem distracted, Olga threatens to change the channel to “Romania’s Got Talent.”

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Sadly for Sandu, he has the misfortune to return to his apartment building while his unseen first-floor neighbor, Laura (Maria Popistasu), is arguing with a man inside her apartment about a trip she is taking with her sister to Italy. Instead of going straight up the stairs to his home on the third floor, he listens at the door. Just then, the man emerges; it is his married second-floor neighbor, Valentin Dima (Iulian Postelnico). Sandu hurries away. The next day, Laura is found dead in her apartment. When the police come by to investigate, Sandu mentions nothing of the argument.

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It’s not hard to sympathize with Sandu. He has a great life after years of deprivation, and all he wants to do is get on with it. He never asked to be involved in a murder investigation—he only knew Laura to say hello to, after all—but here he is sitting on some explosive information. Worse, Dima seems to be going out of his way to get close to Sandu and his family, asking Sandu to help change the registration on his car, playing video games with Matei, offering Matei and Olga advice on how to upgrade their computer system, even accepting a plate of food from Olga. What’s his game? Why won’t he give Sandu his wish and go away?

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One Floor Below interrogates the secrets and lies that grease the wheels of every society. In the context of a repressive society, it’s not hard to imagine Sandu and people like him listening in on private conversations, if not to inform the secret police, then to ensure they avoid associating with people who could prove dangerous to them. It’s also reasonable to assume that Sandu would be reluctant to share information with the police out of simple conditioning. Corban had me believing in Sandu’s goodness through his carefully built signs of a guilty conscience. Sandu loses his appetite, defends Laura’s honor to his friends who assume she was a slut who got what she deserved based on nothing but their need to gossip and have an answer to her murder, and mumbles painful condolences when he runs into Laura’s sister, also played by Popistasu, trying to get inside Laura’s mailbox.

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But he is also timid, a man who could lose the confidence of his neighbors and the clients on whom he relies for his living if he “turns informer” to tell the truth of what he heard. Muntean is careful to show the extent of the bureaucracy that envelops even something as benign as the department of motor vehicles. Romania may not be a dictatorship anymore, and secret police may not be around every dark corner, but the mechanics of that society are still in place. Nobody of a certain age—certainly not Sandu—has forgotten, and it is the silence that results from living in such conditions that intrigues Dima, a young man who would have been a mere child when Ceauşescu’s regime fell.

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Of course, it’s hard to forget that this kind of conspiracy of silence is exactly what allowed the atrocities of Ceauşescu, Stalin, Hitler, and many others to begin and continue. Despite our sympathy for Sandu, we can’t forget that self-interest is to blame for so much injustice in the world. Perhaps justice for one woman isn’t worth misery for an entire family. Perhaps the police will find the killer anyway. The brief catharsis that Sandu experiences feels good for him and for us, but the ultimate price may prove to be too high. As Romania continues to build as a nation, Muntean offers its people thought-provoking scenarios through which to build their social conscience as well.

One Floor Below screens Sunday, March 20 at 5:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 24 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


28th 02 - 2016 | no comment »

Anton Chekhov 1890 (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: René Féret

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

On April 28, 2015, actor/director/screenwriter René Féret died, less than a month shy of his 70th birthday. Féret is something of a mystery to moviegoers outside of France; his only directorial effort to have gained widespread distribution is Mozart’s Sister (2011), a fictional imagining of the largely unrecorded life of composer and pianist Maria Anna (“Nannerl”) Mozart, lost in the shadow of her brother as her sexist father pushed him to the forefront, and without a single extant work to her name. Mozart’s Sister was the first film Féret made about a famous person, but his directorial oeuvre is filled with autobiographical works and stories that revolve around families, and he frequently casts members of his own family in them. Anton Chekhov 1890, his final film as a director, encapsulates many of his interests with his distinctly French point of view.

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Unlike Nannerl Mozart, a great deal is known about Anton Chekhov, the towering Russian writer who is credited with helping to found the modernist movement in literature. His short stories were much admired by his countrymen, writer/artist/art critic Dmitri Grigorovich and legendary writer Leo Tolstoy. He was very close to his five siblings and mother, though he generally despised his Bible-thumping father, and brought the family under one roof when he became their sole financial benefactor. He was also a practicing physician all his life and loved a great many women while avoiding marriage until three years before his death from tuberculosis at age 44.

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Féret hews close to the facts of Chekhov’s life and chooses judiciously which elements to dramatize, beginning in 1890, when Chekhov is first approached by prominent publisher Alexei Suvorin to begin writing stories for his St. Petersburg newspaper, New Times, and ending with the first production of The Seagull in 1896. His approach to depicting that life gains inspiration from Chekhov’s naturalist approach to drama in his four timeless works, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.

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Féret’s fortuitous choice to play Chekhov, Nicolas Giraud, is a handsome, quietly charismatic man much in the mold of the writer himself, the center of attention for the whole family. When Suvorin (Jacques Bonnaffé) and Grigorovich (Philippe Nahon) come in search of “Antosha Chekhonte,” whose short stories published in a small paper startled them with their originality, the family bands together to keep Anton under wraps until they can determine the pair’s intentions. Féret establishes in this opening scene of high spirits the particularly close bond between Chekhov and his sister, Masha (Lolita Chammah), and his four brothers, who all sleep together, two in bed and the rest on the floor.

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It is Anton’s bonds with brother Nikolai (Robinson Stévenin) and Masha that punctuate the turning points in Féret’s drama. Nikolai is a talented artist suffering from tuberculosis whom Anton persuades to abandon his dissolute life in St. Petersburg to come home, where he will illustrate Anton’s works and be cared for properly. Nikolai has the idea that he wants to visit a penal colony on the island of Sakhalin to view its living conditions, and makes Anton promise to travel with him. When Anton fails to prevent his brother’s death, he decides temporarily to give up writing—Féret has Giraud melodramatically toss a couple of manuscripts into the fireplace—and undertake the arduous two-month trip to Sakhalin. The result is the sociological treatise The Island of Sakhalin, published in 1893-94.

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Masha appears to be the true love of Chekhov’s life. She copies all of her brother’s works to be submitted to his publisher, is his confidante via correspondence about his life in Sakhalin, and is the person through whom Chekhov meets Lika Mizinova (Jenna Thiem), a woman in a loveless marriage with whom he has an affair. Although Lika’s love for Anton is unrequited, her parting words to him after his final rejection become part of Nina’s dialogue in The Seagull.

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Féret portrays the Chekhov circle as similar to the doomed families in his famous plays, emphasizing the consumptive Nikolai, the ardent romantic Lika, and Anna (Marie Féret), a teacher at Sakhalin who has shaved her head as an example to her lice-ridden students and, of course, fallen for the kind, flirtatious writer whose works she adores. At the same time, Féret offers a Francophile interpretation of their story. L’amour takes a very prominent place in the film, with Lika and Anton’s affair (and Thiem’s obligatory nude scenes) and Anna and Anton’s repressed affair consuming a fair amount of screen time.

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It appears Féret shot largely with natural lighting, and his DP, Virginie Surdej, makes the most of the candlelit interiors and natural landscapes. One scene where Anton interviews Sakhalin’s prisoners in what looks like an empty barn has them emerge from the shadows near the walls into the light coming through the door as Anton enters and sits at a desk recording their experiences, an effective visual metaphor for the revelations Chekhov will soon publish. Féret uses music only when filming action, which, to me, seemed like unnecessary filler to attract our gaze. The production is rather too pretty, a collection of well-appointed drawing rooms, picturesque estates, and spotless, fashionably dressed characters. Even the prisoners seemed to have carefully arranged rags and dirt.

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The Seagull was not a success when it premiered and didn’t gain recognition as a masterpiece until it was remounted in 1898. Féret doesn’t give us this information, preferring to allude to the radical transformation in acting styles that must have confused audiences by having Chekhov berate his actors during a rehearsal for their artificial line readings and melodramatic gestures. Of course, melodrama has fallen far out of favor, but I wonder whether Anton Chekhov 1890 might have benefited from a more passionately Russian approach similar to what John Huston achieved in sounding some very Irish notes in filming James Joyce’s, The Dead (1987)—a similar family affair that was the director’s last film. Regardless, Anton Chekhov 1890 is a well-crafted period piece that does justice to its subject.

Anton Chekhov 1890 screens Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. and Thursday, March 10 at 8 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


25th 02 - 2016 | no comment »

Home Care (Domácí péce, 2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Slávek Horák

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

If we live long enough, we will be confronted with the crisis known as middle age. Some middle-aged men live the cliché of ditching their longtime mates for someone younger with whom to start their second adolescence, but the vast majority of them simply choose to berate and abuse their partner to express their fear of aging and feelings of entrapment. Among middle-aged women, routine and manic activity often cover for their terror of being left alone and, more important, the feeling that they’ve wasted their lives conforming to society’s rules. Home Care, the debut feature of Czech director Slávek Horák, examines a self-sacrificing home care nurse who, compelled by personal calamity, looks for more out of life.

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Home Care opens with a static camera regarding an open green surrounded by trees. Some distance away, a deer moves into the frame and stops. After some moments, the camera shifts to Vlasta (Alena Mihulová), dressed all in beige and humping two large bags of medical supplies as she makes her way along the edge of the green to call on a patient, the first of several she will visit well into the night by foot and by bus. Her rounds can be difficult. A vicious dog bars her way at one home, and she has to fish a piece of meat out of her sandwich to distract him long enough to get inside. Another patient locks her in his bathroom to avoid getting an injection, forcing her to escape out the window.

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At home, Vlasta lives in passionless coexistence with her crusty husband, Láda (Bolek Polívka). Although the couple starts each morning with a comradely shot of slivovitz, Láda treats his wife like “twice the freight and half the fun” and embarrasses her in front of her sullen daughter, Marcela (Sara Venclovská), and Marcela’s boyfriend, Robert (played by director Horák). Láda often refuses to drive her to or from work, even when she’s missed the bus or the weather is foul, because he says they spend more on gas than she makes working for the impoverished Czech healthcare system.

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One day, as she’s hoofing it in a downpour, a neighbor offers her a ride on his motorcycle. Although she is reluctant to accept—his nickname is “Speedy”—she climbs aboard. They promptly crash. Speedy breaks several bones, but Vlasta suffers only minor lacerations. In the process of treating her injuries, however, the doctors discover that she is seriously ill. Vlasta does what many desperate people do—she seeks alternatives to the Western medicine she herself practices and starts demanding more from her life.

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The double meaning of the title Home Care signals the division in Vlasta’s life, dedicating herself to the care of others while neglecting the care she needs herself. Vlasta’s discontent and fate gained rather poetic expression when I realized that Horák means for us to associate Vlasta with the deer in the opening scene—similar in color, moving on foot, vulnerable. I initially wondered whether the deer would be shot by a hunter, but it is Vlasta who is in peril; when she goes into a deep trance during a session with a spiritual healer, she dreams that Láda has hit a doe on the road that transforms into Vlasta herself.

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The film’s view of spiritual healing is fairly standard-issue. Hanácková (Tatiana Vilhelmová), Vlasta’ dance teacher, has a wise-beyond-her-years quality and encourages her to brighten up her wardrobe, pamper herself, and believe in the power of touch when she warms a spoon with her hands, bends it, and hands it to Vlasta. Miriam (Zuzana Krónerová), the spiritualist, has Vlasta drink her own urine and bond with a dead tree to heal her soul. Vlasta’s outrage that none of their ministrations are aimed at curing her ironically kicks her back into her own life to take care of business and settle her feelings with her family.

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Mihulová and Polívka seem born to play husband and wife. Their alternately comic and callous behavior offers a very believable look at a wilted marriage, and their awkward return to each other is touching and also terribly sad for having come so late. The scenario also offers a realistic look at Czech home care, as Horák based some of the interactions between Vlasta and her patients on stories from his mother, a home care nurse herself. His affection for his characters comes through even when they are behaving at their worst, and shooting the film in his parents’ house, workshop, garden, and vineyard in his hometown of Zlin adds a sweet regard and comfort in the skillful environmental shooting. Some of the homey touches he brings to the film include the tradition of burying a bottle of slivovitz on the birth of a child and then digging it up to toast the child’s wedding, crooning folk songs, and forcing women to sit on towels to keep their ovaries warm. A touch of the much-beloved Czech absurdity can be found as road workers construct an underpass for frogs.

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Conventionality is not something I associate with Czech cinema, but Home Care’s story and execution are as safe as can be, which perhaps explains why the Czech Republic chose it as its official 2016 entry for the safely conventional Academy Awards. Nonetheless, Horák and his crack cast infuse this familiar story with humor and heart.

Home Care screens Saturday, March 12 at 8:15 p.m. and Tuesday, March 15 at 8 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


12th 02 - 2016 | no comment »

The Last Rites of Joe May (2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Joe Maggio

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Dennis Farina had one of the more unlikely routes to show business fame and fortune. A dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan, he spent nearly 20 years with the Chicago Police Department before he was elevated from acting as a consultant on Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) to performing a small role in the movie. Farina knocked around the Chicago theatre scene, garnering the support of his fellow cops, who came to see and cheer him on. Chicago actors were hot in the 1980s, and Farina was swept up in the talent scouting that took such stage actors as William Peterson, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Cole, John Malkovich, and Gary Sinise on to bigger and better things.

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Farina’s Sicilian-American mug and unmistakable working-class accent didn’t outfit him for romantic leads in Hollywood, so, unsurprisingly, he played a lot of cops and crooks. Indeed, Mann would return to Farina again, casting him as cops in the classic 1986 film Manhunter and the TV series Crime Story, and as a crime boss in the TV series Miami Vice. What I always appreciated about Farina’s approach to his characters was that he never overplayed their toughness. His real-life experience prevented him from hyping the potential threat his characters posed, allowing his natural gravity from having walked in those shoes do the talking for him. At the same time, he found something individual in each of them and understood the delusions and vulnerabilities that might drive a man to choose a tough-guy profession. I became startlingly aware of just how great an actor he had become after watching one of his last films, The Last Rites of Joe May.

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Joe May looks at a few weeks in the life of its title character (Farina), an aged short-money hustler of stolen goods who has just been released from the hospital after six weeks’ treatment for pneumonia. He must have been admitted in warmer weather, because the thin leather coat he wears is no match for the brutal dead of winter that greets him on his way back to his apartment in Little Italy, on the near West Side of Chicago. When he arrives, things look different. His belongings are missing, and signs that a child may be around (drawings on the refrigerator, frilly bedspread, toys) dot the apartment. Unexpectedly, he surprises a young woman in the shower. It seems Jenny Rapp (Jamie Anne Allman) and her daughter Angelina (Meredith Droeger) are living there; the landlord (Phil Ridarelli), thinking Joe died, rented the apartment out from under him and tossed all his belongings. A shocked Joe is next to be tossed by an equally shocked Jenny. Now homeless—even his ancient car has been ticketed as abandoned and towed away—Joe has nowhere to go and nothing to do but ride a bus until he is kicked off. One night, Jenny finds him shivering at her bus stop. She takes pity on him and offers him a room in the apartment. He immediately prepares to resume his “career” and get his life back on track.

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Farina plays May as a man who has followed his delusions all his life, believing he was destined to do something great and ruining his relationships with his family and friends in the process. His life has been self-centered, petty, careless. His old age is a betrayal of how he sees himself—vital, tough, charismatic, a force to be reckoned with. He rejects the advice of his friend Billy (Chelcie Ross) to move into a retirement community with him where he can socialize and relax. Joe’s life project is unfinished, he hasn’t achieved his potential yet, so relaxation is out of the question. The less Farina does, the more he says about May—his quiet determination and a mind racing to outpace the bad fortune that is overtaking him, but not knowing what to do.

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According to director/screenwriter Joe Maggio, he based the character of Joe May on the impoverished, displaced pensioner who is the title character of Vittorio de Sica’s classic drama Umberto D. (1952). Unlike Umberto D., Joe May never succumbs to pathos or melodrama. Farina’s May meets the world with bravado and refuses to let his belief in himself crumble. When he goes to see Lenny (Gary Cole), the fixer who fronts him the stolen goods he sells for a percentage of the take, Joe makes a big show for the drivers waiting outside for their hoodlum bosses to call, using what little money he has to hire a taxi and have the driver (Craig Bailey) open the door for him. Lenny’s contempt is palpable, but Joe is polite and controlled.

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Sure he is going to get back into the game, he finds that Lenny has fixed him up with a 50-lb. hunk of grassfed New Zealand lamb (“It sells itself.”). It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry as we watch Farina hump the slowly thawing meat all over town as one grocer after another throws him out on his ear. Farina shows varying shades of anger, exasperation, fatigue, and defiance as Maggio records a day of effort move into a night of failure. Joe loses his courtly ways with Lenny when he goes back to get some respect and spits venom at one of the drivers who tries to offer him some money to tide him over, a cruel act that Farina plays to rip some sympathy for Joe from our hearts. He’s not willing to give Joe a pass, even though we might be.

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His saving grace is the tenuous friendship he forms with Jenny and Angelina. Farina’s May is more embarrassed to see Jenny naked than she is shocked to see a stranger in her bathroom. Somehow, he finds it within himself to accept her charity, choosing to believe he can help with the rent, though he has barely a dollar to his name. He bristles at looking after Angelina when Jenny wants to have a romantic weekend away with her boyfriend, Stanley (Ian Barford), a Chicago cop; he was never around for his own son and doesn’t see himself doing “woman’s work.” He proves his inadequacy when he can’t even babysit Angelina properly, “losing” her when he dumps her at Billy’s rest home while he is trying to land a deal. Nonetheless, when he learns that Stanley beats Jenny up and intimidates her, he realizes that it’s finally time to square things with himself, to live up to his potential—which, surprisingly for him, is to do something for somebody else.

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Maggio’s script is very observant, very attuned to what happens to us when we find the world has passed us by before we are ready to go. Joe’s neighborhood bartender (Matt DeCaro) still fronts him a boilermaker from time to time, but the gentrifying neighborhood is now overrun with hipsters who look at Joe’s tavern as the perfect “old man” meet-up bar. One of the hipsters even tries to buy Joe’s leather jacket for its retro cool look, insulting its current owner. When Jenny and Angelina buy Joe a record player for the few opera records of his the landlord didn’t toss in the garbage, we know it’s come from a junk shop, a relatively worthless relic that still fits Joe’s present need.

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Maggio’s camera, lensed by Jay Silver, offers the real Chicago, far from the famous buildings, marquees, and lakefront that most films use as signifiers, a great tribute from a New York native who changed the location of the film from his city when he cast Farina. This film lingers on outside-the-Loop streets, underpasses, working-class residential neighborhoods, and meat-packing facilities. I’d almost say this film isn’t recognizably anywhere to people who don’t live here, but the presence of Farina and a raft of other Chicago actors gives the film a distinctive voice and vibe. A rap of the knuckles on a tabletop signifies thanks and recognition, short, plain-spoken sentences and expressive looks emphasize the understated staccato of a Chicago conversation, inadequate outerwear gets a matter-of-fact “That’s a little thin for the weather.”

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The Last Rites of Joe May is full of small, telling moments that paint a picture of a place, a time, and especially a man whose life amounted to something after all just in the telling of it. The film builds believably to its inevitable end, honestly earning Joe the respect he craved all of his life. Dennis Farina’s tour-de-force performance is an appropriate legacy for a great actor who shared his soul and passion to the end of his life.


5th 02 - 2016 | 10 comments »

Blowup (1966)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Michelangelo Antonioni

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By Roderick Heath

Michelangelo Antonioni was a relatively minor figure in the European film scene until 1960. The former economics student and journalist entered the film world in the days of Mussolini’s regime, and started his directing career making documentaries. His early labours offered hues of the oncoming neorealist movement, depicting the lives of poor farmers in Gente del Po (1943), plied under the nose of the dying Fascist state but then lost amidst its collapse. He had the honour of being sacked by Vittorio Mussolini, was drafted, started fighting for the Resistance instead, and barely escaped execution. But when he made his first feature, Cronaca di un amore (1950), Antonioni began to blaze a trail off the neorealist path, following a contrapuntal instinct, a readiness to look into the voids left by other viewpoints, that would come to define his artistry. Although slower to make his name, he nonetheless formed with Federico Fellini the core of the next wave of Italian filmmakers. Antonioni helped write Fellini’s debut film The White Sheik (1951) before he made his second feature, I Vinti (1952), a three-part study of youths pushed into committing killings, a sketch for Antonioni’s recurring fascination with characters who barely know why they do what they do. Then Antonioni suddenly became a cause celebre, when his L’Avventura (1960) screened at the Cannes Film Festival. The film was met by jeers and anger from some of the audience and greeted as a ground-breaking masterpiece by others. L’Avventura took on a relatively obvious but powerful idea: what if you set up a film as seemingly one kind of story, changed tack, refused to solve the mystery presented, and used the resulting discord and frustration to infer a different, less ordained meaning?

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Antonioni sold this idea as something like a Hitchcock film without the suspense sequences and reduced to the studies in emotional tension Hitchcock usually purveyed under the cover of such gimmicks, with rigorous filmmaking and an antiseptic approach to his characters’ private obsessions that left them squirming without recourse before his camera. Antonioni was now hailed as the poet laureate of “alienation” cinema, a filmmaking brand digging into the undercurrent of detachment, dissonance, and unfulfillable yearning lurking underneath the theoretically renewed, stable world after the cleansing fires of war and the ascent of modernity. His was the intellectual, Apollonian side to the same phenomenon observed in youth films in the U.S. and Britain like The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955); eventually Antonioni would try to unify the strands with Zabriskie Point (1970). Antonioni followed his breakthrough with two films to complete a rough trilogy, La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962), and his first colour film, Il Deserto Rosso (1964). For Blowup, he shifted to London and its burgeoning “swinging” scene. Blowup, like L’Avventura, superficially repeats the gimmick of setting up a story that seems to promise regulation storytelling swerves, and then disassembles its own motor. Blowup’s murder mystery seems designed to point up a cocky young photographer’s defeat by ambiguity and lethargy and the dissolution of his own liminal senses. Or does it? Again, there was a Hitchockian side to this, taking the essence of Rear Window (1954) and its obsessive correlation of voyeurism with filmmaking, whilst inverting its ultimate inference. But Antonioni took his motivating concept from a story by Argentine author Julio Cortazar, “Las babas del diablo,” based around a man’s attempt to understand a scene featuring a pair of lovers and a strange man he spots in the background of photos he takes of Notre Dame.

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Cortazar’s main character became lost in the unreal space between the photo and his own imaginings, projecting his own anxieties and emotional journey onto the people he inadvertently captured, particular his sexual apprehensions. Antonioni skewed this template to serve his own purposes and to reflect the strange new zeitgeist festering as the 1960s matured. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 sent ripples of profound disturbance and paranoia through the common experience. Conspiracy theorists began scouring photographic evidence for evidence to support their claims even before the Zapruder film came fully to light. Antonioni tapped into a percolating obsession, which joined also to a growing mistrust of public media at large, by reconstructing the central motif of Cortazar’s story to become one of apparent murder—perhaps an assassination. But Antonioni had been playing with some other ideas in the film since his career’s start. I Vinti contained one story set in London, depicting a shiftless young poet who discovers a dead body and tries to sell the story to the press: there already was the peculiar ambiguity of approaches to crime and the weird mix of venality and empathy that can inflect the artistic persona. Antonioni seems not to have lost the reportorial instinct honed in his documentary work. Like Dostoyevsky, he took on tabloid newsworthy stories about murder, vanishings, delinquency, and the sex lives of a new class jammed just between the real masters of society and its real workers. He followed such lines of enquiry through the social fabric of his native Italy at first, and then out into the larger world.

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The aura of abstract elusiveness Antonioni’s works give off tends to disguise how much they are, in fact, highly tactile films, keenly aware of place, space, and décor, and constructing mood and inferring meaning through the accumulation of elements. Where Fellini increasingly celebrated the inner world and the furore of the individual perspective in the face of a strange and disorientating age, Antonioni became more interested in the flux of persona, the breakdown of the modern person’s ability to tell real from false, interior from exterior, even self from other, and had to find ways to explain this phenomenon, one that could only be identified like a black hole by its surroundings. Cortazar’s protagonist, moreover, was a writer who also dabbled in photography. Antonioni made his central character, Thomas (David Hemmings), a professional photographer whom he based on David Bailey, quintessential citizen of Swinging London, an angry Cockney kid who became the image-forger of the new age. Thomas’ sideline in harsh and gritty reportage from the edges of society for a book on the city he’s working on—he’s first glimpsed amongst a group of homeless men he’s spent the night taking clandestine shots of—suggests Antonioni mocking his own early documentaries and efforts at social realism. Thomas has a side genuinely fascinated by the teeming levels of life around him, but in a fashion that subordinates all meaning to his artistic eye and ego. He shifts casually from wayfarer amongst the desperate to swashbuckling haute couture iconographer, engaging with haughty model Veruschka in fully clothed intercourse, and irritably bullying another cadre of models until he gets fed up, projecting his own tiredness and waning interest onto them, and walks out.

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Thomas takes time out with his neighbours, painter Bill (John Castle), and his wife Patricia (Sarah Miles): Thomas takes recourse in Patricia’s wifely-maternal care now and then, whilst Bill stares at his old paintings and explains that he has no thoughts whilst making them and only finds hints of meaning later, a statement that recalls Antonioni’s own confession that he approaches his works less as systematic codes than as flows of epiphanies eventually gathering meaning. Thomas is nakedly on the make, a businessman-artisan who longs for wealth to become totally free. He has designs on making a real estate killing, hoping to buy a mangy antique store in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood (“Already there are queers and poodles in the area!”) from its young owner, who wants to sell up and hit the seeker’s trail to Nepal. Wasting time before the store’s owner returns, Thomas starts clicking snaps in a neighbouring park, eventually becoming fascinated by an apparently idyllic vignette of two lovers sharing the green space. The woman (unnamed on screen, called Jane in the credits, and played by Vanessa Redgrave), who’s much younger than her apparent lover, spots Thomas and chases after him with a frantic, breathless desire to obtain his pictures. Thomas haughtily alternates between telling her he needs them—he immediately sees how to fit them into his London panoramic, as the perfect quiet diminuendo from all the harsher facts on display—and promising their return, but is surprised later on when she actually turns up at his studio. There have been signs that she and an unknown man might have been trailing him around the city, including watching him during his lunch with his agent, Ron (Peter Bowles).

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Thomas’ studio, usually a scene where his will reigns, now becomes a kind of battleground, as Thomas, fascinated by Jane’s manner, at once nervous and uncomfortable but also sensual and self-contained, keeps using promises of the photos to get her to stick around; she, desperate to obtain the pictures, tries using sex appeal to prod him into submission. The two end up merely circling in a toey, searching dance (albeit with Thomas briefly schooling Jane on how to move to Herbie Hancock’s jittery grooves), their actual objectives unstated. Jane’s pushy determination arouses Thomas’ suspicions, so he allows her to finally dart off after trading her scribbled, fake telephone number with a roll of film—a blank roll in place of the one she wants. Thomas then begins studying the pictures of her and her lover in the park. Slowly, with a relentless and monstrous intimation, Thomas begins to see signs that far from being a romantic tryst, he was actually witnessing an intended crime, with Jane acting as the honey trap to bring the man to the scene, whilst her unknown partner lurked in the bushes with a gun. At first, Thomas thinks hopefully that his presence foiled the killing, but on looking even more closely, realises the target had been gunned down whilst he was arguing with Jane, or is at least apparently lying motionless on the ground. “Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out,” Thomas says with glib, but minatory wisdom to Jane, in reply to her cover story about why she wants the pictures. Eruptions of irrational occurrence and suddenly, primal mystery in Antonioni’s films don’t really sort anything out, but they do tend to expose his characters and the very thin ice they tend to walk on.

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As if as a punch line to a very strange joke, Blowup became a pop movie hit, mostly because it became prized as a peek into a world about which many outside the scene fantasised, and its snapshot, now precisely a half-century old, still lingers in exotic fascination for many as time capsule and aesthetic experience. Blowup’s strangeness, implicit sourness, and assaults on filmic convention might even have helped its success, the aura of shocking newness it exuded perfectly in accord with the mutability of the moment. The ironies here are manifold, considering Antonioni’s insinuation that there’s no such thing as the sweet life and that cool is a synonym for wilful ignorance. One could suspect there’s a dash of the dichotomy apparent in Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics, plying the allure of behaviour the moral framework condemns. But that would come from too glib a reading of the total work, which, in spite of its stringent evocation of a helpless state, is a lush, strange, attractively alien conjuring trick, a tale that takes place in a carefully cultivated version of reality, as much as any scifi or fantasy film. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) perhaps owed something to its patient, subliminal method and seeming ambling, but actually highly controlled form. Hitchcock himself was transfixed by it. Its spiritual children are manifold, including not just Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola’s revisions on its themes (The Conversation, 1974; Blow Out, 1982) and attempts by later Euro auteurs like Olivier Assayas (demonlover, 2002) and Michael Haneke (Cache, 2004) to tap into the same mood of omnipresent paranoia and destabilised reality, but more overtly fantastical parables like Logan’s Run (1976) where youth has become a total reality, death spectacle, and nature an alien realm, and The Matrix (1999) where the choice between dream and truth is similarly fraught. There was often a scifi quality to Antonioni’s films, with their sickly sense of the landscape’s colonisation by industry and modernist architecture like landing spaceships, the spread of a miasmic mood like radiation poisoning, the open portals in reality into which people disappear.

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Blowup is a work of such airy, heady conceptualism, but it is also ingenious and highly realistic as portraiture, a triumph of describing a type, one that surely lodged a popular archetype of the fashion photographer in most minds. Thomas is a vivid antihero, but not an empathetic one. In fact, he’s a jerk, a high-powered, mercurial talent, a bully and a sexist with hints of class anger lurking behind his on-the-make modernity given to ordering his human chess pieces how he wants them. Hemmings, lean and cool, the fallen Regency poet and the proto-yuppie somehow both contained in his pasty frame, inhabits Thomas completely. When he and Redgrave are photographed shirtless together, there’s a strong erotic note, but also a weird mutual narcissism, as if both are a new species of mutants Antonioni can’t quite understand that will inherit the earth, able to fuck but not reproduce. Thomas seems like a glamorous, go-get-’em holy terror for much of the film, a study in prickish potency and constant motion—perhaps deliberately, he’s reminiscent of Richard Lester’s handling of the Beatles in places, the free-form artists at loose in the city with a slapstick-informed sense of action. But Thomas slows to a dead stop and fades away altogether by the film’s end.

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Space is the subject of a silent war in Blowup. Within his bohemian studio Thomas is king, able to construct a world that responds entirely to his needs. Antonioni uses its environs to create a system of frames within frames, subdividing his characters and their interactions. Thomas’ ambition to annex the antique store represents a desire to expand a kingdom, and he roams through London keen to the process of the homey old city putting on a new face, whilst energetic young students engaged in the charity ritual known as the “rag” dress as mimes and roam at loose, claiming everything as their own. The empty public facility of the park becomes, ironically, a cloistered space to commit a murder. Later, when Thomas returns to the spot, he finds the victim’s body still sprawled, pathetic and undiscovered, upon the greenery. “He was someone,” is all Thomas can bleat at one point as he tells Patricia about the business, indicating both his bewildered lack of knowledge about the man to whom he’s been left as the last witness, and also his forlorn realisation that the man’s death is the mere absence of his being.

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The giant airplane propeller Thomas buys from the antique store delights him, a relic of technology, the promise of movement now purely a decorative motif for his studio. Thomas craves freedom, but has no sense of adventure: “Nepal is all antiques,” he tells the store owner when she says she wants to escape her wares and their mustiness. Thomas’ talent has made him a magnet for wannabes, a fetish object himself in minor celebrity. His curiosity for Jane, with her intensity pointedly contrasts his insouciance towards two would-be models (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills) who come hoping for a shooting session, but essentially become a pair of temporary houris for the flailing macho artist. The sequence in which Thomas and the two girls, known as only as the Blonde and the Brunette, sees Thomas revealing a scary side as he monsters the Blonde, only for this to quickly transmute into a gleefully childish, orgiastic moment as the three wrestle and fuck on the floor of the studio. Afterwards, the two girls worshipfully put his clothes back on. For them, it’s a graze with success in all its filthy glory and a moment of holy obeisance to the figure of mystical power in the new pop world. For him, it’s a moment of barely noticeable indulgence, a distraction from the far more interesting mystery before him, which in itself stirs a need in him he barely knows exists, like Jane herself. During their long scene together, Thomas pretends a phone call, possibly from Patricia, is from his wife, apparently just to tease Jane. He casually invents a history and a home life that he then completely revises until he’s left in honest limbo. The image of elusive happiness of Jane and the man in the park and the mystery of Jane stirs a wont—and then proves a total illusion, a siren call to annihilation.

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The film’s crucial movement, a high point of cinema technique and style, comes as Thomas investigates his pictures. He zeroes in on anomalies and blurry, seemingly meaningless patches, even the inferences of his “actors”’ body language, and marks out points of interest and uncertainty. He then makes new prints blowing up these spots. Each reframing and zoom is a partial solution to the last puzzle and the start of a new one, until his studio is festooned with what seems an entire story, which Antonioni can now move through like a primitive flipbook protomovie. It’s a miniature film theory class, a lesson in constructing to elucidate a reality that would have otherwise been missed in the clumsy simplicity of human perception. It’s also a journey in transformation, turning the idyllic moment Thomas prized so much into a menacing and terrible opposite, and dragging Thomas himself through alternating states of obsession, pleasure, depression, and finally nullification, the film character invested with the same alternations of emotion and perception as the audience watching him.

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Blowup fades Thomas out before it fades out itself, and his subjects are revealed as even stranger than they seemed: Jane’s frantic attempt to ward him off, the man’s slightly sheepish, slightly haughty disinterest. In both readings of the situation, something shameful is happening. The lurking killer’s posture and shadowiness are reminiscent of Reggie Nalder in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), but the thunder of Hitchcockian climax has been replaced by the shimmering, Zen-touched hiss of the trees. The aesthetic key comes from Bill, an artist working in a purposefully diametric medium, the man trying to make form out of his own strange chaos, even stating, perhaps superfluously, that it’s like tracking a clue in a detective story. The two art forms collide, mingle, reforge. Aesthetic is no longer décor, but challenge, way of being, even a danger.

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What was profoundly disturbing in Antonioni’s moment has become a playful norm. Today, the manipulation and transformation of images, usually for trivial purposes and day-to-day entertainment, is commonplace. YouTube is crammed with ingeniously faked reels of monster sightings. Anyone who’s worked on retouching a picture with Photoshop has been through the experience of Thomas seeing, say, the eye of a beautiful woman turning into a swirling galaxy of colours and then an array of completely abstract cubes. The difficulty of manipulating film, with its complex chemical properties, has given way to the perfectly malleable states of digitisation. The idea that photographic evidence can automatically or even momentarily be granted complete trust is archaic. Cinema verite gave way to reality television. More seriously, huge amounts of time, energy, and bandwidth have been devoted by some to investigating footage of the moon landings and the 9/11 attacks for proof of conspiracy and mendacity, often provoking staggering incredulity over how different people can look at the same thing and interpret it in vastly different ways. Antonioni was looking forward to our time even as he rooted his film in the mood of a particular time and place—the saturation of the image and the charged, near-religious meaning it takes on in spite of being evidently profane. Many in his time saw a Marxism-inflected, Sartre-influenced meaning in his work as diagnoses of the eddying feebleness that descends when political and social motivation are subsumed by a meaninglessly material world. This was almost certainly an aspect of Antonioni’s thinking, though it also feels reductive: like all art, it wouldn’t exist if what it said could be summed up in a pamphlet. The experience itself is vital, the passage its own reality.

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Thomas’ ultimate confrontation is not simply with impotence, but also with the vagaries of experience itself, as all proof of his experience vanishes and with it, assurance it ever happened. Antonioni toys with the idea that revealing the truth is only a matter of looking closely and seriously enough for something, but then undercuts it, suggesting that on a certain level, reality breaks down, or perhaps rather like the sense of matter in subatomic particles, is displaced and transmuted. Thomas becomes half-accidentally the witness to a murder, not just because he sees it, but because his merely human memory is the only repository for it after his photos and negatives are stolen. Once the murder’s done there’s no real purpose to action, something his “he was somebody” line again underscores—the only real spur to intervene in a crime is to prevent it, whereas anything afterwards is only fit for an undertaker. Thomas finds the man’s body in the park, but the drama’s over. He can’t do anything except try to enlist Ron to give independent testimony to his witnessing. Perhaps, far from simply accusing contemporary artists and audiences of ditzy political detachment, Antonioni was most urgently trying to portray his experiences as a filmmaker, his attempts to capture raw and unvarnished truths on film and then seeing that truth dissolve because of the vagaries of life and the medium shift under study. At the same time, Antonioni imposed rigorous aesthetic choices on his creation, going so far as to repaint houses in the streets where shooting took place to communicate interior states through exterior sign play: he had become an imperial creator even as he mocked his own ambitions.

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The famous performance of the Yardbirds towards the end of the film in which Jeff Beck smashes his own guitar is crucial not as a mere indictment of a slide into neon barbarianism many of Antonioni’s generation saw in the rock ’n’ roll age, though that note does sound, but also a summary of Antonioni’s confession. Here is an artist’s anger with his art and his tools, his sense of form and purpose breaking down in the increasingly nettled sense of what to say and how to say it in the face of a modern world slipping away from any coherent design of understanding. The hip audience watch mostly with faces of stone, happy to let the artists act out their feelings, sublimating temptations towards excess, destruction, anarchy. Although Antonioni’s recreation of the mood of the time was the very opposite of the florid unruliness we associate with the era’s cultural scene, there’s definite sense and accuracy to his portrait, his understanding of the underlying psychic transaction. This scene converts the film’s larger experience into a jagged epigram.

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Thomas needs and uses the mystery he uncovers to shock himself out of a stupor, only to find it doesn’t transcend his situation, only exemplifies it. The film’s last few reels turn into a dumbstruck odyssey for Thomas as he seeks Ron to take him to see the dead body, but is distracted by seeing someone he thinks is Jane enter a mod concert venue. He ventures into the concert looking for Jane, whose brief seeming appearance and then disappearance is one of Antonioni’s finest sleights of hand, and comes out instead with the guitar’s neck as a battle trophy, like the two models with him earlier, for the attention of the famous, only to toss the trophy away, its momentary totemic power spent. He then tracks Ron to a posh party where everyone’s doped to the gills and can barely lift a finger in response to Thomas’ news.

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Some complained at the time that Antonioni’s tendency to find the same qualities in the countercultural youth and bohemians he studied in Blowup and Zabriskie Point as he did in the tepid bourgeoisie of Rome was wrongheaded and phony. But time eventually proved him right in many ways. There’s a cold, mordant honesty to the sequence in which Thomas sits watching a bunch of bohemian toffs getting high, the new lotus eaters buying out of a reality they’ve barely glimpsed anyway, faintly anticipatory of Kubrick’s historical wigs with people underneath in Barry Lyndon (1975), glimpsed in Restoration artlike friezes, and grindingly familiar to anyone who’s been surrounded by very stoned people at a party. Thomas’ resolve dissolves amongst their uninterest and his own exhaustion. He awakens the next morning, restored but now with the grip on his fever dream lost.

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The closing scenes provide a coda much like the one Thomas wanted for his book: perhaps he’s projected himself after all into the zone of his fantasies, a state of hushed and wistful melancholy. Thomas finds the body gone. The drama he happened upon has now dissipated, replaced by the gang of students who have been crisscrossing his path since the start, making up their own realities. Tellingly, these characters are the only ones who have ever made Thomas smile. Thomas finally finds solace, or something, joining in, to the point where the sounds of a real tennis match start to resound on the soundtrack to accompany the fake one the mimes are playing. It’s easy to read this as the final collapse of Thomas’ sense of reality, but it’s also the first time he simply stands and experiences without his camera, his interior reality allowed scope to breathe. Perhaps what we’ve witnessed is not the defeat of the artist but rather a rebirth.


29th 01 - 2016 | no comment »

Wings (крылья, 1966)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Larisa Shepitko

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

“War is hell” is a truism for most people, as it should be, but the fact that large numbers of people continue to wage war and fight shows that a lot of people have a lot more complicated, even positive relationship with it. Such films as The Hurt Locker (2008), American Sniper (2014), and even The Third Man (1949) suggest that for some, war offers purpose, thrills, and profits that no other experience in life has or possibly ever will. The excitement and romance of serving one’s country in combat is at the core of Soviet filmmaker Larisa Shepitko’s Wings, a film that offers a unique perspective on the familiar subject of the “old soldier,” as well as a telling commentary on Soviet life, by focusing on a female fighter pilot whose glory days are long behind her.

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Nadezhda “Nadya” Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova), a decorated veteran of World War II, is a school superintendent and civic leader in her provincial town. She faces the usual difficulties of Soviet bureaucrats of the time—her shoddily built school is crumbling, her small staff works overtime to make repairs and manage the day-to-day running of the school, and her students are undisciplined and insolent in the face of authority. During a gathering at which she is to accept an award for the school, some teasing between a male and female student gets out of hand, and the boy shoves the girl hard against a post. An outraged Nadya, her moment in the sun ruined, demands that the boy apologize in front of her guests and his peers. When he refuses, she expels him.

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This incident is only the first of several in which Nadya must confront the breakdown of the values she holds dear and the respect she once commanded. Nadya, who never married, has an adopted daughter, Tanya (Zhanna Bolotova), who has grown distant from her. She learns after the fact that Tanya has married her college professor, Igor (Vladimir Gorelov), an older man Nadya has never met. Hurt that she was not consulted nor invited to the wedding, Nadya invites herself over to the newlyweds’ apartment while the couple is entertaining a gathering of Igor’s male colleagues. She listens to the men talk, pinpoints the philosopher of the group as Igor, and goes over to shake his hand. She has guessed wrong, and fumbles awkwardly as Tanya introduces her to Igor.

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Despite her very contained and defined look—a severe haircut, close-fitting suits, and buttoned-up blouses—Nadya is a woman who doesn’t seem to know where she fits anymore. Shepitko emphasizes the irony of her situation in her opening shots: a close-up view of a tape measure moving quickly around a body as a tailor records the dimensions of a person who turns out to be Nadya. She adopted a girl instead of a boy because she thought mothers and daughters become closer, yet this plan hasn’t worked out at all. She commanded respect as a flyer, yet now her students draw unflattering pictures of her on their chalkboard and tell her to her face that they despise her. She is refused entry into a restaurant because it doesn’t seat unescorted women, and is sent next door to a tavern mainly populated by men and treated like one of the boys. She visits a museum that has an exhibit honoring Soviet fighter pilots and finds her picture in the collection—she is quite literally a museum piece, her previous life as dead as the bones her curator and would-be boyfriend collects.

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Her longing to break free asserts itself frequently throughout the film. As we all do at moments of stress, disappointment, or boredom, Nadya escapes into daydreams. She imagines an open sky around her, the sun peeking through clouds, as Shepitko’s camera dips and tilts from inside Nadya’s thoughts. During a sojourn to a riverside beach, Nadya watches planes glide through the sky doing barrel rolls and finds herself traveling to the nearby airfield where one of her former comrades is training these pilots. The two reminisce and talk about getting the gang together for dinner and drinks, though they and we know this gathering will never happen. Too much time and life have passed. Nadya has only her memories now, including one of the man (Evgeniy Evstigneev) she would have married had his plane not crashed, and her duty. As she tells Tanya, “I never even knew such words as these: ‘Let someone else do it.’”

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Shepitko’s eye and ear for detail are admirable. Nadya asks the curator if anyone has brought him a samovar for his collection, referring to an outmoded teapot she no doubt used in her younger days in sarcastic reference to her own age. Shepitko shoots a close-up of a high heel sinking into the school’s cheap floor, turned to putty by a pervasive dampness. She very effective isolates the charged look between Nadya and the student she expelled at the crowded tavern and catches the paralyzed look of the curator when Nadya abruptly asks him to marry her. Shepitko honors the solidarity of women of a certain age when Nadya and a restaurant owner bond over a cup of coffee and dance joyfully together in a spontaneous burst of energy. That energy extends to the final, inevitable scene where Nadya may or may not have found herself again. The open-ended shot of a patch of sky ends Wings on an ambiguous note.

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Shepitko was a student of Alexander Dovzhenko, one of the most important early Russian filmmakers and a pioneer of montage theory. She died in a car crash in 1979 with only a handful of credits to her name, though her final feature film, The Ascent (1977), made her international reputation by winning the top prize at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival. However, it’s easy to see from Wings that Shepitko was on an upward trajectory that would have lasted for years had she lived. Her able direction of both the camera of Igor Slabnevich and her actors, especially the many shades she elicits from Bulgakova and the pointed portrayals of her supporting cast, mark her as a particular talent steeped in a film tradition not even Soviet control could contain.


25th 01 - 2016 | no comment »

Aimée & Jaguar (1999)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Max Färberböck

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

At least through February 28—Oscar night—it’s a pretty sure bet that people will be talking about Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) and its six nominations, including Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the best actress and supporting actress categories, respectively. Carol is the latest, but certainly not the only lesbian romance to hit the big screen in a big way; indeed, Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. As I started thinking about films that deal with this topic, my mind went to a feature directorial debut from Germany, Max Färberböck’s Aimée & Jaguar.

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Like Carol, Aimée & Jaguar is based on a book. Unlike the former film, which derives from the semiautobiographical novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, the German film is based on the published correspondence of Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim, two Berliners whose love affair spanned the final two years of World War II. What makes their story especially compelling is that Wust was a middle-aged wife of a Nazi soldier and mother of four and Schragenheim was a 19-year-old Jew who hid her religion and worked at a Nazi propaganda newspaper from which she secreted information to the underground working to topple Hitler and his regime. Wust and Schragenheim don’t get the happy ending intimated in Carol—instead, the couple is ripped apart by the SS on an especially happy day for them, with Felice presumed dead following her deportation to Thereisenstadt and possible forced death march at the very end of the war.

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As though to emphasize the real basis of his story, Färberböck bookends his story, quite unnecessarily, with an elderly Lilly (Inge Keller) moving into a retirement home and discovering that one of its residents is Ilse (Kyra Mladeck), her former housekeeper and a friend and lover of Felice (Maria Schrader) before Lilly came on the scene. A voiceover from Ilse leads us back to the dangerous and, at least for our characters, thrilling days of 1943 Germany. Felice, an orphan, lives with Ilse (Johanna Wokalek) and her parents, plays up to her unsuspecting and adoring boss (Peter Weck), and pals around with a coterie of lesbians who live like it’s the decadent ’20s, not the fascist ’40s. One night, at a concert, Ilse sees her employer, Lilly (Juliane Köhler), out with a German officer while her husband, Günther (Detlev Buck), is fighting on the eastern front. Felice comments to a jealous Ilse about how attractive Lilly is and contrives to make contact with her after the concert, a brief encounter that lets the women get a good look at each other.

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Felice insinuates herself into the Wust household, eventually organizing a party there with a group of her lesbian girlfriends. Günther, suddenly returned from the front, jumps into the middle of the lively goings-on. When Lilly catches him making out with Ilse, she brings her discovery rather excitedly to Felice. The younger woman takes the opportunity to kiss her, and earns a slap for her trouble. But the ice has been broken, and eventually Lilly succumbs to Felice’s seduction and sets up housekeeping with her in Lilly’s spacious apartment.

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Aimée & Jaguar is an intriguing film that offers much food for thought, particularly in comparison with Carol. Whereas Haynes’ film is tightly produced and directed, with strong attention to period detail, Aimée & Jaguar is episodic and too beholden to the imagery of Weimar Germany and media depictions of the decadence of the time; Marlene Dietrich’s top hat and tails feature in a “wedding” ceremony between Lilly and Felice, and Felice and her friends pose for naughty pictures to be sent to the soldiers at the front in a scene that could have come from a Pabst film from the 1920s.

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In other ways, Aimée & Jaguar captures a life force that the circumscribed Carol never really approaches. Felice and Carol are both predators, the former seeing if she can conquer a Nazi hausfrau of startling conventionality, the latter seeing an easy target in the fascinated and inexperienced store clerk she seduces. Both women are enigmatic, hiding their secrets from all but their intimates, and the extent to which either woman loves the new woman in her life is very much open to debate. But Carol is a fetishized mannequin of ’50s propriety, whereas Felice lives “now, now, now,” as excited as she is concerned about the closeness of death, delighted by the subversion of being welcomed into the anterooms of the Nazi power structure.

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The choice to focus equally on both Lilly and Felice (Schrader and Köhler were both named best actress at the Bavarian Film Awards, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the German Film Awards) offers a strength Carol eschews in favor of privileging the female gaze of Carol’s lover, Therese. Lilly is an absorbing creature, welcoming ranking Nazis into her arms with a rather comic flourish after she sends her older children to the zoo with Ilse for the umpteenth time. She gets an inkling of the Nazi sting when her parents (Sarah Camp and Klaus Manchen) interrupt one of her trysts, sending the hapless officer (Jochen Stern) into hiding; when they make disparaging remarks about the country’s leadership, he emerges unashamed and menacing, warning them to watch what they think and say.

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Lilly’s excitement at receiving a series of poetic and stirring love letters, signed only “Jaguar,” sends her into a tizzy guessing at their author. Felice certainly knows how to prime the pump of a conventionally romantic woman. When they finally end up in bed, Lilly holds her slip modestly over her breasts, trembling uncontrollably with fear and desire as Felice talks gently to her, asking whether she should stop, describing her feelings as matching Lilly’s. The scene is so tender, so erotic, everything the perfunctory, overly choreographed sex scene in Carol was not. Subsequent sex scenes are bold and frank, as Lilly experiences a love and joy she never thought was possible. Her fits of jealousy and anger at being shut out of complete knowledge of her lover are fierce and real. When Felice finally reveals that she is a Jew, Lilly’s response is breathtakingly knowing: “How could you love me?”

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Aimée & Jaguar matches Carol in a certain kind of loveliness, a separation of the world of the lovers from the outside world, as when Lilly and Felice go swimming one bright day in a nearby lake surrounded by lush greenery. Yet, the ugliness of the time intrudes frequently. Rubble from repeated bombings of the city background many scenes, and one of Felice’s friends is gunned down in the street. Glowing red skies are both beautiful and horrible, a succinct reminder of the sickening bloodshed in and around Germany’s capital and throughout Europe. Felice’s friends warn her of the danger she has placed herself in, but some sort of compulsion—perhaps it is true love—keeps her at Lilly’s side. Unbelievably, Lilly visits Felice at Thereisenstadt as though it were just a local jail. Could this breach of the mass denial Germany was laboring under have hastened Felice’s death? No one can say for sure, though I personally don’t think it could have made much of a difference one way or the other.

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On the downside, the film’s structure is a bit too loose. Günther pops in and out of his home so easily that it seems the eastern front he’s serving at is East Berlin. Lilly’s fourth child remains resolutely off-camera until near the end of the movie. Finally, the Berlin underground operates in such an obvious way in this film, I’m surprised it could have operated at all. On the upside, there is an equal mix of Germans who hew to the party line and those who maintain a relaxed, even helpful demeanor toward the “subversives” in their midst. The camaraderie of Felice and her friends is warm, youthful, and protective. Lilly’s rash actions—divorcing Günther and visiting Felice at the concentration camp—show her naivete and are met with horror by Felice’s friends. When she says, “Now I’m one of you,” the women and we know she is too far separated by her experiences to ever understand what their lives have been like under Nazism. Aimée & Jaguar describes an intense pas de deux of love, but maintains a strong foothold in the world of its time. Its rich performances and balanced approach to its central couple make it a nourishing experience.


6th 01 - 2016 | 13 comments »

Man in the Wilderness (1971) / The Revenant (2015)

Directors: Richard C. Sarafian / Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu

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By Roderick Heath

The story of Hugh Glass contains the essence of American frontier mythology—the cruelty of nature met with the indomitable grit and resolve of the frontiersman. It’s the sort of story breathlessly reported in pulp novellas and pseudohistories, and more recently, of course, movies. Glass, born in Pennsylvania in 1780, found his place in legend as a member of a fur-trading expedition led by General William Henry Ashley, setting out in 1822 with a force of about a hundred men, including other figures that would become vital in pioneering annals, like Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and John Fitzgerald. The expedition had a rough time over the course of the following year, often battling warriors from the Arikara nation. Near the forks of the Grand River in what is today South Dakota, Glass was attacked by a bear and terribly mauled, and his party on the expedition believed his death was inevitable. Fitzgerald and some other men, perhaps including Bridger, were left behind to watch over Glass, but for whatever reason, departed before he had actually expired, taking his rifle with them. But far from dying conveniently, Glass, alone in an inhospitable wilderness, instead began to recover. Living off the land and, at first, literally crawling his way to safety, Glass headed for the nearest sure outpost of western civilisation, Fort Kiowa, about 200 miles away. He was helped by friendlier Native-Americans tribes and eventually made it to the Cheyenne River, where he built a raft and floated downstream to the fort. He later confronted and recovered his rifle from Fitzgerald.

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Glass found only temporary reprieve from the violent death that would eventually come 10 years later, when his luck ran out and the Arikara caught up, but the account of his ordeal has been told and retold, lending him a kind of immortality. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest work, The Revenant, takes on Glass’s story via the highly fictionalised novel by Michael Punke, and Iñárritu and coscreenwriter Mark L. Smith embellished the tale further to illustrate not merely a great vignette of trial and suffering, but also a panoramic experience of a time and place that’s less than two centuries in the past and yet seems near-fantastical. It’s not the first film to take direct inspiration from Glass. Man in the Wilderness was the second of two films Richard C. Sarafian released in 1971, the other being his most famous work, Vanishing Point. Man in the Wilderness fell into obscurity by comparison, perhaps because it was overshadowed by a host of similar films at the time, including A Man Called Horse (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Man in the Wilderness is, after a fashion, also a product of a legendary time of pioneers and radicals impossible to recapture in an age of more insipid labours, except this time the disparity is merely one of artistic modes. Sarafian’s film is a totem for the fresh, sun-dappled, smoky-grainy stylistics of American New Wave cinema, whilst Iñárritu’s comes with a hefty, technically demanding contemporary production with a massive budget trying to recapture the same feeling of extreme experience and offer that peculiarly contemporary aesthetic, high-powered moodiness. Both films are nonetheless fascinatingly unified, and divided, by their approaches to Glass’s tale, and by their stature as products of filmmakers at the height of their respective powers.

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Man in the Wilderness imposes pseudonyms on its characters for the sake of independence and portrays its main character, redubbed Zachary Bass (Richard Harris), as an Englishman, whilst also introducing an element of loping surrealism in Sarafian’s vision right at the outset: his “Captain Henry” (John Huston) commands from the deck of a boat that has been repurposed as a huge cart dragged overland by a team of horses, allowing his expedition to tackle both water and land as he aims his team toward the nearest big river to catch the spring melt. Immediately, Man in the Wilderness recasts Glass’s narrative as a variation on a theme by Melville, a tale of hubris on land rather than sea: Huston, who adapted Moby Dick into a film in 1956, here takes on the Ahab-esque master role, one which also fits neatly into the run of such corrupt overlord figures Huston would play in this period, most famously in Chinatown (1974). Iñárritu is less fanciful if not less referential or less preoccupied with symbolic dimensions, as his version of Ashley, also called Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), is forced to leave behind his river barge as well as all the furs the team has obtained after a devastating attack by the Arikara that leaves most of the party dead. Iñárritu quickly reveals his own points of adherence as his camera drifts through eerie, sunray-speared forests straight out of some imagined cinematic handbook of Terrence Malick’s (suggested title: “How to Be a Transcendentalist Filmmaker in 2,346 Easy Lessons”), with a strong dash of Herzog as Iñárritu’s camera roams restlessly around his characters on their small raft. Iñárritu creates a jittery, incessantly neurotic mood that suggests that, far from finding limitless freedom and romantic self-reliance in the wilderness, these pioneers are lurching into a bleeding sore in the Earth partly of their own making. Iñárritu and cowriter Mark L. Smith also quickly introduce fictional aspects of Glass’s story, as they portray Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as accompanied by Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his teenage son by his native wife.

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Glass’s life before he joined the Henry expedition was, by all reports, already amazing, including a stint of piracy under Jean Lafitte and a spell living with a Pawnee tribe. He married a woman of the tribe and helped represent them in a delegation to the U.S. government. So Hawk isn’t at all an improbable invention, underlining both Glass’s attachment to and affinity for the land and its inhabitants, an affinity too few of his fellows share, as well as lending grim consequence to his character’s preoccupations and the odyssey ahead of him. Iñárritu’s Glass is haunted by the memory of Hawk’s mother, killed in an army raid on their camp, and Glass is marked with enigmatic infamy by his fellows for having killed one of the army soldiers who threatened his son. Fitzgerald, called Fogarty in Sarafian’s film (played there by Percy Herbert, whilst Tom Hardy takes the role in Iñárritu’s), is portrayed in both films as an antsy, truculent, paranoid exemplar of the white pioneer, with a side order of racism and a dose of fear-and-trembling religiosity in The Revenant. Iñárritu makes sure we know whose side to take when his Fitzgerald keeps insistently calling local Indians “tree-niggers.” To a certain extent, Sarafian’s Bass combines aspects of Iñárritu’s Glass and Fitzgerald, presenting a man stripped out of his world and adapted to a new one, solitary and haunted, motivated by almost inchoate need and sometimes seeing the mother of the child he left in Britain, Grace (Prunella Ransome), in foggy memory. Sarafian’s film is a sprawl of hazy browns, yellows, and pale greys, whereas Iñárritu paints with blue filters just occasionally relieved by the touch of the sun.

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Early in The Revenant, Fitzgerald tries to spark a fight with Glass and Hawk in his anxiety and boiling anger following their battle with the Arikara and their looming cross-country hike, a gruelling journey made all the more bitter by their lost fortune. Fitzgerald takes out his resentment on Glass as the man who knows the land and has the cool mastery over it and himself that Fitzgerald lacks. Fate puts Glass at Fitzgerald’s mercy, although Fitzgerald only accepts the sorry and dangerous task because Henry offers him a bonus. He, Bridger, and Hawk remain to keep vigil, but Fitzgerald, who once survived a scalping by Indians—he has the semibald patch on his pate to prove it—is so afraid of being caught again by the war party on their trail that he knifes the protesting Hawk to death, dumps Glass in a shallow grave, and lies to Bridger about an imminent native attack to get him to flee with him. In Man in the Wilderness, Fogarty and the avatar for Bridger, Lowrie (Dennis Waterman), flee when they really do when seeing Indians close by, and, when they meet up with Henry, the commander acquiesces to their decision with a pep talk: “Man is expendable. We’re exploring new frontier – we must always push on and give our lives if need be.” Henry all but invites becoming Bass’s nemesis, not just by not going back for him, but also by anointing himself as representative of all the forces and powers by which Bass has felt persecuted. As the film unfolds, the two men fight long-range psychic warfare, Bass making a spear and aiming it with gritted teeth at the distant mountains Henry is trying to cross, Henry firing his guns into the whirling snow behind his wagon train at the invisible opponent. But Henry has his own bewildered feeling for Bass, as he gave the runaway a place on his ship when he was a youth and wanted to be his father figure; instead, he remained locked out by the coldly self-reliant exile.

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The Revenant’s title comes from a nickname attached to Glass, a French word meaning to come back or be reborn, and both Sarafian and Iñárritu emphasise Glass/Bass’s story as one of both literal and mystical resurgence. Sarafian’s Bass emerges from his rough grave with some piece of his spirit now infused with the land, and his former fellows begin to see the landscape as charged with portents of his survival. Visions of the stalking revenger torment Captain Henry and Fogarty, to the point where Fogarty accidentally guns down Lowrie, thinking he’s Bass back from the dead. The meaning and import of Bass’s experience isn’t discussed or turned into images as literal as The Revenant’s, but rather diffused throughout the textures of the film. Both Man in the Wilderness and The Revenant wrestle with Glass/Bass’s journey as a tale replete with religious, or at least spiritual, overtones, but also present the hero himself in a state of deep crisis about his belief systems, an insistence that suggests just why Glass’s story fascinates them, as Glass travels as far, physically and in terms of life force, from other men as it’s possible to get and then begins his return. Iñárritu loads his take with images of both shamanic and Catholic concepts of rebirth, as Glass crawls out of the grave, emerges from a ritual hut after surviving a bout of sickness, and later is disgorged from the belly of a horse he climbed into to keep warm. He also enters the (possibly imagined) ruins of an abandoned frontier church replete with faded murals depicting devils and angels. “God made the world!” a hand-lashing, Bible-bashing teacher instructs bewildered and smouldering young Bass, and Sarafian’s film studies the divergent tug between the call of the sublime hidden somewhere in the landscape and his hatred of abusive powers claiming to work in the name of an almighty.

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By contrast, Iñárritu’s take on Glass, whilst offering a similarly ecumenical view of spiritual impulses, nonetheless offers what is essentially a passion play, a Catholicised fetish tale of suffering as the way to truth. Both films also depict Glass/Bass’s revenge-seeking journey with a sense of anticipation over whether he’ll actually carry it through. The question of whether to take revenge is couched in terms of maintaining something like an ethical system in the face of a nihilistically indifferent land and a focal point for Bass’s already deep-set sense of alienation and aggrieved fury in the face of humanity’s contemptible side. Iñárritu’s Glass, on the other hand, has a more obvious spur to chase down and confront his enemy—the murderer of his son. Hikuc strikes up a woozy amity with Glass in part because they’re both bereft wanderers, but it’s Hikuc who conveniently spells out the message that vengeance is God’s province, not man’s, and the question becomes whether Glass will heed the credo of vengeance belonging to the Lord and bring mercy to the terrible reaches of the Earth. Meanwhile, authority as represented by Henry is, in very 1971 fashion, posturing, despotic, and grave in Man in the Wilderness; authority, in very 2015 fashion, is callow, well-meaning, and barely competent in The Revenant. “Zach fought against life all his life,” Captain Henry says of Bass, who is presented as a classic prickly antihero of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a self-reliant misfit who can’t handle domesticity, has contempt for standard religion as plied by figures like Henry as representative of the self-righteous, hierarchical world, and who only finally begins to regain a reason to engage with humanity, ironically, because of his betrayal and abandonment. Shortly after he’s left to die, Bass is found by a band of Arikara on the warpath, whose chief (veteran actor Henry Wilcoxon) gives him a blessing, an act that arms him spiritually on the way to recovery.

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Sarafian’s world is happenstance, gritty and eerie. Iñárritu’s is enormous, but also reaches incessantly through the nightmarish for the ethereal. Iñárritu, although not universally admired, comes to the material right off the Oscar-garlanded success of Birdman, or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), and he’s been lauded as a major talent since the release of Amores Perros in 2000. By comparison, Sarafian’s vision didn’t get much time to mature: a former TV director, he seemed poised for a major career with Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness and produced a handful of other cultish films, including Lolly-Madonna XXX and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (both 1973), few of which were successes at the time, forcing him back into TV and very occasional features. Nonetheless, Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness stand as one of the most coherent units of filmmaking of the ’70s, complimentary mythical takes on the death and resurrection of the American spirit in that age of great national questioning. Vanishing Point’s hero, Kowalski, is contemporary man, riding his chrome horse across the landscape towards his inevitable date with death; Bass is both his ancestor and spiritual counterpart, clawing out of the Earth and relearning how to live in an Ouroboros-like chain. Man in the Wilderness is as shaggy, earthy, and fecund as Vanishing Point is shiny, modern, and solipsistic. Both films start in the present but explore their heroes’ lives via interpolated flashbacks: we see Grace, who had to contend with his restless incapacity to live a normal life and his decision to leave their son in her mother’s care after Grace died, whilst moments of dreamy, proto-Malickian beauty drift by, including Bass, lying tattered and agonised, staring up at autumnal trees dropping their leaves on him in languorous slow-motion, his lost lover’s face fading in and out of focus over maps of autumn detritus.

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Vanishing Point was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose script referenced a peculiarly Latin-American brand of symbolic journey also reflected in Iñárritu’s comprehension of his material, which amplifies to the point of overloudness many of the ideas already present in Man in the Wilderness. Iñárritu has plainly long been fascinated by characters on the edge of the mortal precipice, whether explored in personal experiences fending off death or desperation in the likes of 21 Grams (2004) and Biutiful (2009), and caught between worlds, as evinced in Babel (2006). Iñárritu’s Glass is equally at odds with his nominal civilisation but has his place in a new one, again in a manner familiar from a lot of post-Dances With Wolves (1990) westerns. Iñárritu’s visual approach to The Revenant varies the one he proffered in Birdman, often punctuating the film with virtuoso linked camera movements, at once drifting and propulsive, and including staging several violent action sequences in seemingly unblinking single takes. In Birdman, the visual scheme emphasised both theatrical unity and the transformative power of its protagonist’s vision, as well as the impelling intensity of his neurosis. In The Revenant, Iñárritu regards the landscape as a sprawling system and a much larger stage through which his characters wander, apparently both free, but also locked in by the scale and indifference of the land and, even more unavoidably, the brutality of other humans and the wilderness of one’s own mind. But dreams and reveries have just as much import for Iñárritu as Sarafian, interpolating throughout Glass’s visions of his dead wife and other awesome, terrible sights around the west, like a mountain of buffalo bones and the smoking ruins of his village.

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Iñárritu’s narrative incorporates a motif that suggests a tribute-cum-inversion of John Ford’s canonical western, The Searchers (1956), as he weaves in a rival storyline with Glass’s. The Arikara band’s leader, Elk Dog (Duane Howard), scours the landscape because his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), has been kidnapped, and his belief that Henry’s party took her sparked the initial assault on them. At one point, he trades Henry’s recovered furs to a band of French trappers led by Toussaint (Fabrice Adde) in exchange for some horses, unaware that this party is the one holding Powaqa captive as a sex slave. Glass finds succour when he encounters a Pawnee loner, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), who shares offal from a felled bison with him, and later, recognising Glass is in danger of dying from infection, seals him up in a hut and plants maggots on his wounds to clean them. Glass emerges from this ordeal greatly recovered, but finds in the meantime that the French trappers have murdered Hikuc. He comes across them as Toussaint is raping Powaqa, intervenes, and lets Powaqa kill Toussaint before distracting his fellows whilst she runs away. Glass now has two gangs of incensed enemies on his trail. By contrast, Sarafian’s Bass remains much more of an onlooker, witness to the often surreal on the wilderness. He watches helpless as a small party comprising a white mountain man and his Indian family and companions are assaulted and wiped out by others on the warpath, but the funerary pyres the war party light near the dead bodies gives Bass the gift of warmth for the first time in weeks; he is also able to salvage spearheads and other tools from the attack. Later, he watches as a native woman gives birth in the midst of the woods whilst her man waits beyond a cordon of taboo, a spectacle of pain and exposure that nonetheless communicates an overwhelming charge of life’s unruly beginning and power, forcing Bass to think at last about the son he left behind and marking his own, genuine moment of spiritual rebirth.

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The Revenant comes pouncing out of the underbrush, a careening, unstoppable beast of a film, much like the bear that gives its hero a very hard time. Iñárritu’s film is a visual experience of great verve and occasionally astonishing invention, utilising cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s incredible talent and turning his eye on terrains of grand mountains, snows, rivers, blood, filth, fire, night and day and, most zealously, the sepulchral beauty of magic hour. Iñárritu unveils a vision of nature as hell and cathedral, forge and fire. The director’s new obsession with plying his tricky extended shots and wowing the audience with how’d-they-do-that-isms conjures at least one great sequence, when Glass is awakened by the arrival of the Arikara war party and forced to flee on his horse only to ride over the edge of a cliff, pitching himself and his mount into an abyss. Lubezki’s recent shooting style, which he pioneered to mighty effect on The Tree of Life (2011), has brought to modern cinema something of a panoramic effect, utilising extreme wide-angle lenses, but with looming, lunging actions in the foreground, imbuing even simple actions with epic stature and lucid beauty. Iñárritu leans on this effect like a crutch throughout, when the camera is roaming. Unlike on Birdman, though, this incessant movement here seems to foil the energy and effects of his actors, who are often reduced to filling in unnecessary spaces. The more sophisticated Iñárritu becomes in terms of his filmmaking, the more scanty and heavy-handed his and Smith’s screenplay seems, the more repetitive in its action and straining in its search for significance the film becomes. The second hour of the two-and-a-half-hour film concentrates on Glass’s recovery and agonised journey, but ultimately gives less convincing a sense of his method than Man in the Wilderness. It’s not enough for Iñárritu to have his motif of death and rebirth or stage one sweeping chase sequence—he gives variations on both several times.

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DiCaprio’s genuinely good performance does far more to put flesh on Glass than the script ever does, presenting a man who’s in deep, soul-twisting pain long before the bear gets him, a being used to the laws by which frontier life is lived: it’s there in his eyes as he polishes his gun and keeps a firm lid on his son’s mouth. By the end, he’s suffered so much he enters a kind of rhapsody, and the thirst for revenge cannot be sated; it can only be transmuted into a different kind of rhapsody. But Hardy, who stops just this side of broad, has the juicier part as the half-mad Fitzgerald. The film desperately needs more of the eccentric character power of the scene where Fitzgerald tells Bridger about a revelation that a duck he came across was God and had a vision of the interconnectedness of things, just before he shot and killed it. Even this scene, though, doesn’t seem to have a point to make other than to underline Fitzgerald’s already underlined mixture of weird conviction and cynicism. Dialogue in early scenes is so awkward-sounding like it might well have been translated from Spanish. But to be fair, Iñárritu is making his first true epic film, perhaps the first since Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) that tries to mate the worship of expanse and macrocosmic survey that defines the epic with a volatile, near-experimental aesthetic. At the core is an appropriately epic purpose, an attempt to invoke the breadth of the American historical experience as crucible of trial, suffering, and violence, of contention with nature as an alternately brutal and sublime passage of arms, and with human nature, the bitterest of wildernesses. A point of reference here could well be D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death worship at the heart of so much formative American mythology and an attempt to move beyond it, to explore the emergence of new faiths, binding ideas, and crossbreeds of culture created in such a time and place. But Iñárritu doesn’t give enough of that, and it’s also hard to shake the feeling after a while that he just adores all the handsome gore and portent as some kind of art. Sarafian includes the birth scene to give a pungent, urgent image of life counterbalancing death, down to the mother biting through her babe’s umbilical cord. Iñárritu, on the other hand, can handle manly suffering by the bushel, but can’t handle its opposite. His art only exists in a hysterical flux.

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Sarafian’s film is far more becalmed and classical, though in many ways, its approach is not only similar but, in its early ’70s manner, more sensible, balladlike in moments of wistfulness and muscular in action. It’s also much shorter, but still manages to conjure a mythic tone through the force of its images and the surging drama of Johnny Harris’ score, whose old-fashioned romanticism directly contrasts The Revenant’s surging atonal drones and thuds from a battery of composers. Wielding a sense of nature untouched both by human hands and CGI tweaking, Sarafian actually explores his hero’s mindset via flashbacks and the utilisation of the landscape as mimetic space, where Iñárritu rather merely states it: we know what the world means to Bass in a way that’s much richer, and less sentimental, than Glass’s pining for his wife. Indeed, Sarafian’s structure is more successful here than in Vanishing Point, where some of the flashback vignettes laid on formative crises a bit thickly. Richard Harris, an actor who could be sublime or a colossal hambone depending on his mood, was at his best for Sarafian as DiCaprio is for Iñárritu: both actors seem to revel in simply inhabiting their roles with a minimum of dialogue, their reactions to the shock of cold water, the feel of the earth, and the texture of blood entirely real. It could also be said that Sarafian does a slyer job inverting the audience’s viewpoints, as he offers a vignette depicting the Indians recording the sight of Henry’s land-boat in a painting, a glimpse of the strangeness of western enterprise through native eyes. Sarafian presents his Native Americans in their tribal contexts, in their fully formed social life, so starkly contrasting the bizarre, lumbering, unnatural expedition they make several attempts to wipe out.

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Sarafian’s film could well have had significant influence, or at least psychic anticipation, of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), which revolve around similarly absurdist adventures of western world-builders seen in stark remove. By contrast, in spite of the powerful technical accomplishment of The Revenant and the often extraordinary beauty of its images, its aesthetic seems mostly second-hand, marrying long-take machinations in competition with Alfonso Cuaron to Malick and Herzog’s visual habits, with hints of a dark, wilfully odd brand of historical filmmaking that bobbed to the surface now and then in the ’70s and ’80s, like Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1984) and Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983), and a rather large dab of Chuck Norris. Both Sarafian and Iñárritu build to action climaxes that underline the hero’s development of a new sense of moral compulsion, albeit here, at last, in notably different ways. In Man in the Wilderness, Captain Henry and his compatriots find the river they’ve been making for has dropped and the cart-ship literally finishes up stuck in the mud, forcing the party to stand and fight off a massed Indian attack. The Indian chief, seeing Bass approaching, clearly believes he’s been spared by cosmic forces to gain his righteous reward, and gives him the opportunity of taking his revenge with the trapping party entirely at his mercy. In The Revenant, catching wind that Glass might be alive, Henry leads men out to find him, and they bring him back to Fort Kiowa, whilst Fitzgerald tries to rob Henry’s safe and runs off, ahead of approaching justice. Henry and Glass ride after him.

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Man in the Wilderness ends stirringly with Bass finally refusing to take revenge, instead simply vowing to return home to his son with a look of weary gratitude and uninterest in Henry and then tramping on. The rest of Henry’s party start trailing after Bass, abandoning their quest and likewise starting off, humbled and delivered from their own baggage, physical and mental. By contrast, the addition of Hawk and his murder to Iñárritu’s narrative has created a more immediate melodramatic spur that Iñárritu feels bound to satisfy at least partway, and so we get Glass and Fitzgerald fighting it out in a savage death match in the snowy wilds, knifing each other and biting off body parts with hateful gusto before Glass has a last-minute attack of morality and instead kindly sends Fitzgerald floating off to be scalped by Elk Dog, who happens along with the recovered Powaqa and the war party and are watching the fight with bewildered interest. Glass’s act of mercy towards Powaqa saves his life here, but the mechanics of this sequence are so clumsy and thudding that Iñárritu fails to deliver the moral lesson he wants to. Sarafian’s finale is the consummation of his work; Iñárritu’s is a bridge too far, an underlining of the director’s habits of unsubtlety and fondness for chasing down the obvious. Finally, the two films stand as ironic avatars of their filmmaking periods. If Man in the Wilderness is an underrated classic that was virtually ignored because of the wealth of such works in its time, The Revenant is a failed attempt to make a masterpiece in a time when Iñárritu will be praised for his ambition to drive cinema into new territory.


14th 12 - 2015 | 4 comments »

The Assassin (Nie yin niang, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Hsiao-Hsien Hou

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By Roderick Heath

Hsiao-Hsien Hou is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and also one of the most rarefied. A visual poet of the highest order, Taiwan-based Hou has nonetheless avoided most of the tendencies of other rapturously cinematic filmmakers, preferring to make quiet, intimately textured dramas that often barely count as narratives. Hou could be broadly described as a minimalist, but this doesn’t quite encompass the lushness of his visions or his quiet, yet rigorous, experimentalist bent, his ability to take cinema apart and reassemble it with the bare minimum of gestures. With Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou tried to tell a story with a very few, almost entirely static shots, and yet was able to enliven them to a degree that makes the experience riveting. His Three Times (2005) told the story of modern Taiwanese history entirely through the fragmentary experiences of a triptych of lookalike lovers from three different epochs. Hou approaches film like a classical Chinese poet, inferring elusive ideas in his meditation on surface beauties and flitting lightly over his chosen theme, in a manner where seeming superficialities instead take on holistic meaning. The Assassin seems on the face of it a jarring change of direction for Hou, a digression into that perennial genre, wu xia, the historical martial arts action tale.

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The great masters of that form, like King Hu and Tsui Hark, long struggled to introduce flourishes of artistry and personality into a style driven by an urge towards kinetic movement and familiar archetypes. But Hou follows Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Kaige Chen, and Yimou Zhang, the most acclaimed Chinese-language art film makers of the time, into this realm. Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) were balletic, richly crafted films that nonetheless stuck very close to the essentials of wu xia, and indeed tried to create exemplars of the form. Wong, with Ashes of Time (1995) and The Grandmaster (2013), played more deeply with the form and structure, as well as story patterns, though he still revelled in the spectacle of motion and conflict that forms the essence of the genre. Hou goes further in subordinating this style to his own preoccupations, to a degree that The Assassin barely has a likeness in modern film. The closest comparison I can come up with is with Sergei Paradjanov’s folkloric cinema works Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Legend of Suram Castle (1984)—films that sustain a certain brand of narrative but prize evocation of past times and modes of life, an explication not merely of a bygone time, but also a total immersion in an alien way of looking, feeling, and experiencing.

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The Assassin is an elusive and taciturn work that doesn’t entirely dispense with the expectations of its chosen mode of storytelling, but does push the viewer to adopt a different sense of them. Hou prizes mystery, with a purpose: he evokes a world where treachery and violence are so endemic that almost anyone could be guilty of something, but where the responses to such a condition must inevitably be complicated. The core theme of The Assassin isn’t political so much as personal and moral, but there’s also a definite sense of parochial political inference to the film as well: although set in mainland China sometime in the 8th century, the situation of the state of Weibo, where the tale unfolds, resembles that of modern Taiwan.

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Usually, the presence of an action hero in a tale signifies the need for action, but Hou’s film is predicated on the ironic inversion of this supposition. His heroine, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), has been trained since childhood to be a perfect killer—a lithe, silent, dynamically light-footed physical specimen who can deliver a death blow as lightly as the brush of a butterfly’s wings. Her gift is illustrated in the first sequence when she stands with her mentor and master, princess-turned-Buddhist nun Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu), watching a procession of state officials through a blissful copse in the countryside. Jiaxin instructs Yinniang to kill one of the officials, a corrupt and murderous man. Yinniang easily dispatches the man in the wide, open daylight and escapes barely noticed. The tensions set up here, between the shimmering, evanescent beauty of the woodland, with its promises of natural bounty, and the hatched seed of murder and depravity that is the dark side of human society, defines the rest of the film. Jiaxin has schooled Yinniang as the perfect engine of justice, a swift and detached instrument she can use when she targets someone she feels deserves a comeuppance in a world where the people who most deserve such ends are often the most shielded. But Yinniang shortly reveals a streak of independence and sentiment antipathetic to Jiaxin’s purpose, when she lurks in the rafters of a palace, watching another targeted official playing with his grandchildren and cradling a newborn. Yinniang drops into the room before the official but immediately starts to leave: when the official throws a blade after her, she spins and contemptuously knocks away the weapon, making it clear that she’s chosen not to kill him whilst leaving him aware how close he came.

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Jiaxin isn’t happy with a mere gesture and threat, however, and she curtly informs her protégé that she’s going to be returned to her native province of Weibo to kill Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), her own cousin and the governor of the province, as an ultimate test of her grit. This mission is intended as a punishment, a severance, and a consummation for reasons that slowly resolve from the murk of complex, worldly tussles both vital and trivial. Yinniang is returned to the fold of her family. Her uncle is Tian’s provost Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), but Yinniang’s youth was even more tightly entwined with the current regime at the Weibo court and its overlord. She was raised to be Tian’s wife, but then the arrangement was broken in favour of Tian’s union with the current Lady Tian (Yun Zhou), a woman from the powerful Yuan clan. Yinniang’s exile began after she tried breaking into the Yuan mansion, making it clear that she was going to be a nuisance. Her parents hurriedly agreed to the proposal of Jiaxin, who is the twin sister of Tian’s mother Princess Jiacheng, to take her away and look after her. Her relatives and their friends at court are perturbed at Yinniang’s return as a cool, black-clad, silently boding presence. Yinniang’s taciturn manner buckles when her mother (Mei Yong) presents her with a jade ringlet, one of a matching set, and explains the regrets that have permeated their lives since the Yuan marriage took place and Yinniang left. A pattern of broken and warped relationships has beset them since the Emperor’s sister, Jiacheng, Tian’s mother and Jiaxin’s twin sister, married the old Governor of Weibo. Yinniang weeps silently over the ornament, symbolic of breaks between past and present, families, and loyalties.

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This moment is, in spite of its early arrival in the unfolding of The Assassin, a crucial pivot in the film. Emotional epiphany is far more important than the to-and-fro of court conspiracy in which the characters wind themselves until their lives resemble less a spider’s web than a fouled-up cat’s cradle. Although Yinniang’s arrival spreads ripples of awareness and tension through the Weibo court, nobody connects her at first with the black-clad swordswoman who keeps appearing mysteriously in the gardens and fights with the guards. She appears before Tian and his mistress in the palace chambers, seemingly caught eavesdropping but actually affording Tian the knowledge, as she did for the official she spared, that she’s watching and waiting for some ineluctable purpose. Tian chases after her but holds off when he realises who she is and she makes clear she’s not after a fight. He remains silent about the incident, perhaps because she’s the least of the problems in his court. Tian himself has already set in motion a crisis when he reacted with bratty anger to the counsel of one of his ministers, Chiang Nu (Shao-Huai Chang), warning him against getting involved with the plots of other governing families in nearby provinces and agitation against the imperial court. Chiang finds himself exiled at the insistence of Tian and his fellow ministers, whereupon Chiang briefly feigns paralysis from a stroke to escape possibly heavier wrath. Wheels within wheels are turning. Former ministers have a terrible habit of being captured by assassins on the road and buried alive. Both Lady Tian and a sorcerous eminence gris connected to her have agents reporting the possibility that one of Tian’s mistresses, court dancer Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), is pregnant.

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Hou’s source material was a collection of swordfighter and supernatural stories by Pei Xing dating back to the Tang Dynasty, a famously prosperous and culturally fecund period in classical Chinese history that also threw up much of its folk legends (Tsui Hark has recently mined the mythos of Judge Dee, a real figure of the time transmuted into folk hero, for two recent movies). Xing’s story was brief; a skeletal frame begging for a more developed narrative. Hou remixes elements and changes the plot greatly, but also stays true to its essential presentation of Yinniang as a woman forcibly imbued with great, deadly talents taking it upon herself to shepherd the best rather than exterminate the worst. Usually, when such stories are approached by filmmakers, they’re transferred to the screen as straightforward tales of action and adventure—just look at the many adaptations of ancient Greek myths. But any scholar of mythology knows that such stories encode deeply held ideals and peculiarities, maps of the psychology and social structure of the worlds from which they emerged: many are as much maps and poems as they are narratives. Hou sets out to capture the evocative side of such tales.

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The Assassin’s extraordinary visual and aural textures create a mood that moves both in concert with, but also in intriguing detachment from this tangle of motives and actors. Silk curtains ruffling in the breeze and the licks of mist rising off a lake are observed with a sense of beauteous longing, a luxuriousness Hou refuses to give to the political drama. In some ways, Hou’s approach mimics Jiaxin’s programme of assassination: the context is smokescreen, the action all, in a world that’s rotten to the core, where everyone has become some kind of operative of the corruption. In other ways, Hou purposefully contradicts that programme, lingering on the intense, near-hallucinogenic beauty of this past world, the intricacy of the way it’s bound in with nature, in opposition to the modern world.

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Upon her return, Yinniang is re-inducted into the feminine space of the court, wrapped in the lustrous hues of a highborn woman in a place that seems almost pellucid in its placidity and contemplative quiet. Here Princess Jiacheng plucks an instrument, and it seems like a breath of tension never touches them. But, of course, Hou, who evoked the brutal and deeply competitive side of brothels in Flowers of Shanghai and Three Times, understands the bind of power, soft and hard, in such a hermetic world. Hou writes thematic jokes into the visual pattern of his film: the shift from brilliant monochrome to the rich and iridescent colour that comes after Yinniang is sent to Weibo reflects the jarring movement from Jixian’s rigid worldview to Yinniang’s own, more complex viewpoint. The ugliness of much human activity is contrasted with the beauty of the world and our own arts, but, of course, beauty and decay are never distinct. Yinniang is in abstract a familiar figure, the killer with a conscience, and her relationship with Jixian evokes the title of another of Hou’s best-known films, The Puppet Master (1993); it would be very easy, one senses, for Yinniang to continue through life as an empty vessel operating at Jixian’s behest, as being a tool is far easier than being a moral arbiter and being defined, like a distaff Heathcliff, by exile, rejection, and forced repudiation of her love. But when confronted by human frailty, Yinniang judges, not from sentimental weakness, but because she comprehends that all actions, good and bad, take place in the real world, not some platonic state of ideals. The stringent sense of purpose and expression of identity often can be observed in people performing mundane things or simply living life, and The Assassin, in spite of the deathly portent of its title, is built around such actions—a man cradling a baby; serving women preparing a bath; kids kicking around balls; Tian practicing combat with his son and dancing with Huji and the other court dancers, suggesting a frustrated artist and performer; Lady Tian being assembled like a machine with the regalia of her position by her handmaidens. Hou thus finally aligns his visuals with his heroine’s, noting the way life teems and possesses tiny glories even in the midst of foul truths.

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Themes of political corruption and the toxic qualities of monolithic power are ones many recent Chinese-language filmmakers have tackled in recent years, often in historical contexts, including Zhang with Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Xiagong Feng with his Hamlet-inspired The Banquet (2006). It’s a completely understandable preoccupation, given the nation’s long, uneasy relationship with the political forces that have governed it and the anxieties of contemporary filmmakers in a time of tremendous social and political rearrangement. But Hou’s attitude to it is distinct, worrying less about who’s committing what crimes and plots and why, in favour of noting the impact of loss and violence on individuals. Yinniang’s life is one of severed roles, like the jade amulets that symbolise her and Tian’s betrothal, which also originally symbolised Jiacheng’s separation from her home. Tian himself is first glimpsed reacting like a tyrant, but he’s soon shot like a sneak-thief in his own palace, stealing into Huji’s chamber to grasp a moment of succour and to explain the weird languor in his heart: he’s a total prisoner of his inherited life, a life he ironically gained despite being an illegitimate son of the last governor, just like the child in Huji’s belly whose potential threat stokes ruthless reprisal by enemies in court. Life in the Weibo court is a cage, where someone will always be plotting to kill someone else or snatch the reins of power. Yinniang listens in to Huji and Tian while hovering amidst the dangling drapes and veils that willow in the lazy drafts of evening like a spectral emanation, the agent of death and justice reduced to a remembered ghost in her own life.

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At one point in the story, Tian approaches his wife and speaks to her of how Chiang must reach his place of exile unharmed, unlike the horrible fate that befell the last minister to pass the same way. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Lady Tian is earpiece and interlocutor, as well as active agent, of the Yuan family and rival political factions. Shortly after, riders are sent out after Chiang and his escort, Feng. Hou doesn’t elucidate whether Tian is asking his wife to use her contacts to save Chiang or make sure he meets a grim fate: the levers of an enigmatic machine of power are being pulled. Chiang’s party is waylaid on the road, his bodyguards die bravely, Feng is wounded and taken captive, and the killers start burying Chiang alive. A mirror polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who overhears the battle nearby, ventures out of the woods to try to help them, distracting the killers long enough for Yinniang, who’s been shadowing the exile and her uncle, to arrive and carve a swathe through the assassins. Yinniang takes her father and the two men on to a small village, where they’re able to recover from their wounds. This sequence is the closest thing to a traditional action scene in The Assassin, where Hou finds incidental humour in the polisher’s dash-and-dart efforts to escape the hornets he stirs up by intervening, contrasted with Yinniang’s poise, and a gasp of melodramatic force as Yinniang saves the plucky artisan. But of course, it’s not the causes for the action here that are vital, but rather Yinniang’s reaction to it, her action on behalf of her uncle and Chiang a statement of her own moral compass.

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Hou’s use of doppelgangers and characters whose roles merge emphasises a feeling of duplicitous and untrustworthy surfaces and identities. But it also echoes deeper, as if we could also be watching a Buddhist narrative of combating the elements in one’s self, whilst also recalling the splintered selves of Three Times and their three different modes of living: The twin princesses whose different interpretations of duty diverge in complete passivity and coldly detached, punitive action. Yinniang and Lady Tian and Huji, all prospective or actual mates of Tian. Tian himself and Chiang, two men with near-identical names, the truth-teller and the man afraid of the truth, but able to shuffle it off into a dead zone. Yinniang’s fleeting appearances in her assassin garb that stir up Tian’s guards also brings out another mysterious female figure, this one with features obscured by a gold mask and swathed in flamboyant colours: this figure stalks Yinniang after she saves Chiang and challenges her to a duel in the woods near the village. The masked woman gives Yinniang a gashed shoulder, but Yinniang is able to break her opponent’s mask, and the strange woman has to retreat before it falls from her face. The two women continue on their separate ways with an almost comic sense of diminuendo, but Hou notes the fractured disguise lying amidst the dead leaves.

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At first glimpse, this is all rather cryptic, but closer observation reveals that it makes perfect sense: the masked assassin is actually Lady Tian herself, the woman who stepped into Yinniang’s place as Tian’s wife and who is also her equal-opposite as a martial artist, defending her turf from adherence to a credo of vested, familial interest, an interest she also obeys when turning her sorcerer ally on Huji. In another sense, the masked woman is again an aspect of herself that Yinniang has to fend off, the side that would work for venal causes, the side of herself lost in the world. Qi’s performance is one of intense and baleful near-silence in equal contrast with last year’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, where she was vibrantly comedic. She never lets Yinniang turn into a stoic or enigmatic blank, but instead seems to hang about the film even when not on screen like an old cape, the intelligence of her eyes a constant source of emotional tenor. The only time she speaks comes after she’s wounded by the masked assassin, as Chiang sews up the gash. She murmurs her new understanding of a seemingly obscure parable about a caged bird told to her earlier by being delivered a painful object lesson in the limitations of her strength and the price to be paid for meddling in systems too strong for an individual to combat, a truth that eludes Jixian’s program of assassination. Entrapment is one of Hou’s constant motifs, but so is liberation. In Three Times, he identified, more brilliantly than most any other artist of contemporary times, the peculiar anxiety that comes with ultimate freedom. The Assassin is more of a statement of overt hope, as Yinniang staves off all her shadow-selves and worldly parameters, as she realises her carefully imbued powers belong to her and give her something no one else in this time and place has, save for a humble merchant like the mirror polisher—the right to decide her own fate and morality.

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Lim Giong’s score, with its odd and eclectic instrumentations, gives the film a peculiar pulse, surging during fight scenes, but more often vibrating under the visuals in dull drum thuds, counting off the minutes until the next eruption of violence. But The Assassin is, above all, a visual experience, a film in love with elusive flavours of experience and littered with moments of extraordinary, tremendous exertions of filmic craft to capture moments that feel ethereal and featherlight: Yinniang’s vantage on Tian and Huji through curtains with guttering candle flames rendered by the focal range as hovering wisps of fire, a battle between Yinniang and Tian’s guards filmed from a distance amidst trees where only flashes of colour and movement can be seen, and the final meeting of Yinniang and Jiaxin on a hilltop where curtains of mist rise and swirl about them as if the shape of the world is dissolving. Nature is charged with such astonishing power here that it becomes another character, not a threat like the jungles of Herzog and Coppola or a stage like Lean’s desert, but a place of escape and revelation, where things that are hidden in the human world are exposed, but so, too, is a more elusive sense of life.

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Yinniang’s heroism at the end is to expose villainy and pay homage to the one real loyalty of her life; once she does this, she exposes herself to the vengeful disdain of Jixian. This proves ineffectual: Yinniang is no longer a tool. The climax of the film isn’t an action scene and doesn’t even include Yinniang, as Tian, aware that his wife has conspired against his lover and also probably played a part in the death of his father, confronts her in a steaming rage, and their son places himself in front of his mother as a human shield, suddenly rendering the furious overlord an impotent tantrum-thrower, utterly trapped by life and role. The last glimpse of Yinniang sees her leading her charges on to a new land, dissolving from sight like the fading dew of morning, entering myth as she leaves behind the ephemeral obsessions of the world that created her and nurtured her to the point where it could no longer contain her.


10th 12 - 2015 | no comment »

Carol (2015)

Director: Todd Haynes

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s hard to believe that Todd Haynes has been making movies of some significance since 1985, when he launched his career with Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, a short film about the love affair between poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Since this audaciously experimental beginning, Haynes has dealt explicitly and implicitly with gay themes, as with his examination of the sexually fluid glamrock scene through the eyes of a gay journalist in Velvet Goldmine (1998) and a camouflaged look at AIDS in his environmental-health horror story Safe (1995). He has also developed revisionist versions of classic films that have served as touchpoints for the gay community, including his TV miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011) and Far From Heaven (2002), his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s “taboo” older woman/younger man romance All That Heaven Allows (1955) that pulls the conformist veil off the Eisenhower era to reveal the real social pariahs of the time—homosexuals and interracial couples. Haynes’ concerns have remained outside the mainstream for most of his somewhat sparse career, perhaps limiting the amount of work he could have accomplished, but also giving him the space to look at the films that influence him and find creative ways of capturing their appeal without succumbing to their amber-coated attitudes. In this respect, Carol represents the apotheosis of Haynes’ filmcraft.

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Haynes once again turns to a mid-20th-century source, Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, to mine the period details with which he seems so enamored as well as the repressions and widespread prejudices of the period that will stand in opposition to the would-be lovers, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Interestingly, the barriers to happiness for the couple in All the Heaven Allows—class and age differences—face Carol and Therese as well and are compounded by their same-sex attraction. In truth, however, neither woman seems to have any trouble being in love with another woman; it is the reaction of Therese’s suitor, Richard (Jack Lacy), and especially Carol’s estranged husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), that puts them in a complicated bind.

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The film opens near the end, with the audience casual observers of two women we soon learn are Therese and Carol as they sit across from each other in a restaurant. A young man spies Therese and goes up to greet her and invite her to a party. Reluctant at first, she agrees to go when Carol arises and says she has to meet some people anyway. The film then flashes back to Carol and Therese’s first meeting in the department store where Therese works and proceeds chronologically from there, as Carol pulls the barely formed Therese into her orbit, her bed, and, eventually, her life.

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Haynes’ choice to name his film Carol instead of “Therese” or “Carol and Therese” reveals something interesting about gay relationships, especially in more closeted times, as well as some myths the straight world has held regarding homosexuals. Carol is older and has pursued lesbian relationships throughout her life; in fact, her former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson), is godmother to Carol’s daughter Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim). Thus, Carol offers Therese the mentorship characteristic of gay relationships of the time. At the same time, her seduction of Therese is practiced and, frankly, predatory for the first half of the film—a perfect example of the “recruitment” homophobes fear. The revelation of Carol’s affair with Therese during her divorce proceedings further aggravates homophobic notions that she is a degenerate influence and blocks the slam dunk mothers of the time usually had in retaining custody of their children.

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Haynes’ focus on Carol also presents a model of homosexuality that is more assertive and positive than it might have been had Therese been the center of attention. Therese is little more than a lump of clay who admits that she acquiesces to everyone because she has no idea who she is or what she wants. Her idea of rebellion is to “forget” to wear her Santa hat at work and to suggest that Carol buy her daughter a train set instead of a doll for Christmas—a gift Therese coveted as a child, in the script’s small nod to her hidden butchness. Even the stare she fixes on Carol when she first sees her, though insistent, is terribly repressed, so glazed over that it might be mistaken for something other than attraction, say, spotting her long-lost mother or recognizing the woman who seduced her father away from the family.

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Carol quickly moves in on Therese, who instantly agrees to every invitation—to lunch, to Carol’s country estate, to take a road trip to Chicago and beyond. It’s sadly funny to watch the men in their lives stomp around like Rumpelstiltskin when they realize they are neither needed nor wanted. Richard can’t believe Therese won’t join him on a cruise to Europe—at his expense—and isn’t thrilled that he wants to marry her in opposition to his usual tom-catting ways. Harge keeps harping on Carol that she’s his wife and is supposed to want him, though his tragedy is that he is deeply in love with Carol and tries very hard to woo her back, turning vindictive and calculating only to unleash his pain at her and protect their daughter from her possibly harmful influence. Lacy creates a certain simple, straightforward man in Richard, one whose ordinariness makes him seem a bit like a pale caricature. Chandler defies expectations that he will eventually explode in violence and seems all the more impotent and pitiable for being, actually, a good man.

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Haynes flings all his balls in the air, moving them skillfully in rhythmic orbit around each other, adding in and subtracting balls from his circular tale. He punctuates scenes with telling looks, charged touches, and fetishized objects, like the gloves Carol leaves on Therese’s counter to ensure they’ll be in touch again, the toy train shot from above as it describes a small, closed loop, the tartan hat Therese wears in many scenes, a blatant emblem of her schoolgirl innocence longing for experience, and Carol herself, with her luxurious golden locks, ruby-red lips and enveloping fur coat that rivet our attention. Haynes’ regular cinematographer, Edward Lachman, offers us a Technicolor dream, highlighting the breathtaking colors that accompany scenes shared by Therese and Carol, while offering muted, cool colors when Therese is on her own or bereft at her separation from Carol, as well as gauzy, dreamlike sequences that make his images indistinct and private. Haynes finally winds back to where the film started, but shot from a different angle to reveal the changes the previous scenes have wrought on Carol and Therese.

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Blanchett delivers a complicated performance—all surface and sheen in the beginning, the gradual defrosting that happens during the road trip, and finally, a completely open declaration of who she is and what she wants when facing down Harge. Mara, on the other hand, doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve, which seems contrary to what young people usually do, and remains a mousey presence whose main attractions for Carol seem to be her refined name, her slight ability to play the piano, and her eager youthfulness. When Carol tells Therese that she loves her, it seems sincere, but the final look she gives a slightly more wised-up Therese is tantalizingly enigmatic.

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Honestly, I don’t believe in the sincerity of this love story, but Carol accomplishes something more interesting—it honors authenticity, devalues social convention and wealth, and presents a capstone tale that validates the tremendous gains made by the LGBTQ community in the past few years. It must have given Haynes great pleasure to acknowledge this progress in the best way he knows how—by continuing to chronicle and reinvent the gay experience for audiences everywhere with exquisitely crafted and directed films.


29th 11 - 2015 | no comment »

James White (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Josh Mond

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I want to get one thing straight at the outset: I do not see James White as a movie about a self-destructive, self-centered, rich-ish 20-something who needs to grow up. The character of James White is not the problem that needs figuring out in this film. In fact, from where I sit, James White, as played brilliantly by Christopher Abbott, who is never offscreen, is a sensitive human being who feels everything so deeply and sees everything so clearly that he uses sex, drugs, and alcohol to beat reality back to a tolerable distance. James White is likely a difficult person to be with and live with because of how he deals with his sensitivity, but those who focus on these difficulties will miss the larger beauty of James and the film itself—the opportunity to understand how to behave when someone is grieving and how to undertake the sad privilege of caring for a dying loved one.

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We first meet James in a pulsating nightclub where the in-your-face glitz and noise form an insignificant background to the almost full-frame shots of James’ sweat-soaked face and hair as he gets visibly more wasted as time goes by. Eventually, the scene shifts to a nice apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), is sitting shiva for James’ father, her ex-husband Barry (Scott Cohen). Nick (Scott Mescudi, who also provides the evocative score), James’ best friend from childhood, has flown in from Europe to lend his support, a support he must know James will need desperately in the weeks ahead. The shiva, a bizarre exercise given that Gail is not Jewish, is loaded with people from Barry’s life with his second wife, Karen (Sue Jean Kim), and friends of Gail’s who cruelly greet James with remarks like, “We always thought you’d end up in prison.” James and Nick leave the gathering to drink and find a couple of one-night stands to take to a hotel. When they return to Gail’s, the mourners are watching a tape of Karen and Barry’s wedding. Incensed at the insensitivity of this act toward his mother, James throws everyone out of the apartment. Very soon thereafter, he decamps to a posh Mexican resort with Nick, where he meets fellow New Yorker and future girlfriend Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), drops acid, and is called back home by a frantic Gail, who has learned that her cancer has returned.

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Josh Mond’s perceptive first feature is shot in a way that refuses us the comfort of distance. His extreme close-ups, handheld camera work, and honest dialogue force us into James’ world, a world of loss, pain, and above all, love. The searing first scene in the nightclub gives us no clue as to what kind of a man James is or what his story will be. We are as disoriented as he is, and Mond keeps us off balance throughout the film. There is no settling into a familiar narrative rhythm, as James remains constantly on the move, free-falling through what plot there is, making tentative connections episodically and living in the raw through sensorial experiences as oppositive as beatdowns and being beat off by Jayne. In Mexico, the ocean laps at him, and an LSD trip makes his excursion through a shopping mall almost tactile for the audience as he and his friends reach toward the colorful baubles on display in a kind of parody of the dazzling allure of acquisitiveness.

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The painful truth of James’ life is his ironclad connection to his creative, dependent mother who raised him without the presence of James’ father to provide him with a strong sense of direction in life—indeed, James never even met his father’s second wife until the shiva. James, a would-be fiction writer who promises more than he has so far delivered in the way of actual work, seems stuck in place, but some of his paralysis is beyond his control. Gail excoriates him for being a slacker who lives off her, while in the same breath condemning him for not being where he says he will be, for not being there for her. In fact, James has given up long stretches of his life to care for her through her various bouts with cancer. We see just how much when he races home from Mexico to be her advocate, her caregiver, her son during her final illness. His extreme competence in taking care of his mother shows what skills he was required to hone during the time of life when newly mature adults are establishing career trajectories and looking to settle down. His friendly alliance with Gail’s home care nurses shows that he has this drill down pat, while subtly emphasizing that no one else in Gail’s life seems to be around to help carry the water. Cynthia Nixon’s beautifully off-balanced intensity completely sells the double-bind Gail has necessarily put James in.

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Mond moves into the intimate space of illness as we watch Gail remove her wig after the shiva to reveal a spiky, short hairdo that hints at the hair loss she experienced as a result of chemotherapy, and then in her gradual spiral to the end of her life. We see her embarrassment when she vomits suddenly, her temporary victory in getting her fever down, her helplessness when hospitalized with only James to scold the call nurse for not cleaning up the diarrhea she is sitting in. In the most touching scene I have seen in years, James is with Gail in their bathroom at home after she has just been sick. He asks her where she wants to be. Paris, she says. She leans her head on his chest as he starts to describe a beautiful life in the City of Light, where he lives with his wife and two children. She lives in her own apartment just a few doors away, close enough to visit frequently to play with her grandchildren and dine with them. It is in this moment that we see the essential utility of being able to escape, to pretend for a little while to get over the horrors of each moment leading to death. Who would be callous enough to deny either of them this harmless comfort?

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Of course, escape for James and Gail is only temporary. Eventually, the reality of Gail’s imminent death results in a vigil of James, Nick, Jayne, and a number of the people who attended Barry’s shiva. Gail’s death rattle is frightening and so very final. James’ despair is almost too difficult to watch, but the aftermath offers us another dark chasm of uncertainty. Mond has softened the blow somewhat by writing in an editor (Ron Livingston) at New York Magazine who seems willing to hire James when he gets his act together, and the enduring presence of Jayne in James’ life is unexpected, but welcome.

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Nonetheless, James is alone. Whether he will weather this raging storm is very much in doubt, and that heartbreaking reality forms a coda to his sadly tenuous life.


2nd 11 - 2015 | no comment »

To Sleep With Anger (1990)

Director/Screenwriter: Charles Burnett

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

A teapot filled with marbles that falls from the fridge and breaks. Leaves placed under the feet of a sick man confined to his bed. A broom brushing the tops of a man’s shoes, filling him with terror. These are the portents and prescriptions of the superstitions that drive the humorous, but still rather horrifying tale of a family plagued by the literal devil they know from L.A. Rebellion director Charles Burnett.

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Burnett is best known as a chronicler of the African-American experience in his home city of Los Angeles. His 1978 debut feature, Killer of Sheep, is a somber look at the soul-deadening effect of poverty on a slaughterhouse worker from Watts and his own temptation to sin. His vibrant second film, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), again focuses on an L.A. family, with the clash between a ne’er-do-well and his striving older brother providing another type of African-American story. To Sleep With Anger, Burnett’s third feature, is his first to use professional actors, but the thread linking it to his earlier works remains strong. The folklore his parents and grandparents shared with him during his formative years offered him a different template for exploring the African-American community, one that allowed him to tell a horror story of his own that can easily join other cautionary tales passed through the generations.

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To Sleep With Anger opens during a nightmare. Gideon (Paul Butler), a retired transplant to Los Angeles from the Deep South, sits in a chair as though posing for a portrait like the one of his ancestor hanging on the wall behind him. Burning Bush-like flames emerge from a bowl of fruit sitting on the table next to him. Soon, Gideon’s feet are on fire as well, and the flames lick at the legs of the wooden chair that supports him. When he awakens, he complains to his wife Suzie (Mary Alice) that he can’t find his toby, an amulet his grandmother gave him to ward off evil spirits. He then invites her unsuccessfully to join him in bed for an afternoon delight; this is the last time we’ll see Gideon feeling so frisky. Burnett is about to plunge him, the rest of the characters in To Sleep With Anger, and us into a world of superstition, family strife, and earthly minions of the devil working to snatch troubled souls at their most vulnerable.

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The monster in the story is a genial elderly man from “back home” named Harry (Danny Glover) who shows up on Gideon’s doorstep the day after his nightmare after 30 years’ separation. Gideon and Suzie welcome him with open arms and tell him that he can stay as long as he likes. They introduce him to their oldest son Junior (Carl Lumbly) and pregnant daughter-in-law Pat (Vonetta McGee). Every time Pat tries to shake Harry’s hand, her unborn baby kicks her—a sure sign to us, if not to her, that something is rotten in the state of Harry. Gideon’s younger son, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), is a lazy, unstable disappointment to his parents and the cause of frequent family arguments. He is married to Rhonda (Reina King), a real estate broker who detests her in-laws’ homespun ways, but not their services as babysitters; Babe Brother and Rhonda keep late hours working and partying, and frequently fetch their boy Sunny (DeVaughn Nixon) from Suzie and Gideon’s in the middle of the night.

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Harry’s appearance and the steady introduction of a slew of down-home cronies who are more than willing to abet Harry’s attempts to corrupt Babe Brother with corn liquor and dice reminded me of the return of the ghostly lover of the grieving protagonist and his increasing disruption of her life in another 1990 film, Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply. In the latter film, the emotional dysfunction that allowed in the supernatural mischief makers is obstinate, unresolved grief. In the same way, Gideon and his family are made vulnerable to Harry and his bad intentions not because of a lost toby, but because Gideon’s anger and disapproval fracture his relationship with Babe Brother and Rhonda and infect the rest of the family. It only takes Harry walking Gideon through a railroad depot, where Gideon has a vision of working like a slave to lay track, to awaken a deeper anger, one that lands him in a mysterious coma.

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Burnett works slyly to illustrate how the accumulation of grievances or unintended consequences of seemingly harmless deeds can work like a magical curse to create an annus horribilis for anyone. Gideon’s fury with Babe Brother, as well as his sedentary lifestyle and fatty diet, suggest he is ripe for a stroke. Suzie’s nostalgia and overly compliant nature allow Harry to roost, and with Gideon out of commission, to decimate their flock of chickens and ruin their carefully tilled vegetable garden. Junior’s self-righteousness turns him from being his brother’s keeper to nearly being his brother’s killer. Babe Brother and Rhonda represent a couple who want too much too fast, easy pickings for a similarly inclined Harry.

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Nonetheless, Burnett is serious about his fable. Harry, too, lost his toby decades before, and there’s no question that Burnett wants us to believe he is the devil. It is hinted that Harry murdered several people back home, and he proudly brandishes his weapon like an elderly Mack the Knife. He sets some very lascivious eyes on Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), an old girlfriend from back home who has been saved and who advises Suzie to poison Harry if she gets the chance. Linda is like a beautiful, white-haired, avenging angel, singing gospel songs that cut Harry to the quick. Harry eventually is defeated, and Gideon’s family is healed in a hilarious denouement that closes this tale in a celebratory manner.

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Danny Glover has Harry’s oily manners and menace down to an exact science. Burnett said Glover was worried about being typecast playing older characters (he was 44 at the time), but he asked to read for Harry unprompted after spending some time with the script. Brooks plays Babe Brother with all the pain and anger of a child who doesn’t know how to do what’s expected of him and is condemned for it. When he finally asserts that his name is Sam, Samuel, he finally lets go of his flailing adolescence. Mary Alice, with the face of an angel, is particularly good in a scene where her old beau Okra (Davis Roberts) suggests that she should marry him if/when Gideon fails to recover because they are lodge brothers—her widening eyes and tight mouth show the emotional depths that her warmly superficial character rarely reveals. I also really enjoyed Reina King, who could have come off as a bitch supreme after sitting in her car in front of her in-law’s house during Sunday dinner, but who brings a lot more nuance to her largely self-involved character when Babe Brother really starts going off the rails.

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Cinematographer Walt Lloyd’s rich colors that somehow manage to suggest sepia add to the fairytale trappings of this fantasy, and film editor Nancy Richardson shows the great timing that would boost her to a major career in this, her second feature. Most of all, Burnett creates a fulsome community of saints and sinners, chicken coops and pigeon cages, gold watches and rabbit’s feet—a colorful gumbo of African-American life that was rare to see on screens in 1990 and that remains all too rare to this day.


12th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Dégradé (2015)

Directors/Screenwriters: Arab Nasser and Tarzan Nasser

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When most of the world hears about Palestine, it’s usually in connection with military or police actions, not for anything to do with art and culture. Indeed, for many people, it is hard to conceive of something resembling daily life, let alone artistic expression, in a country so battered by external and internal war and political strife. But, of course, life does go on for the people who make their home there whether by choice, necessity, or simply the inability or lack of opportunity to go anywhere else. With Dégradé, twin brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser have offered the rest of us a window into what it’s like to live in a battle zone.

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All of the action takes place inside Christine’s Beauty Salon or on the wide, dirt street that fronts it. Christine (Victoria Balitska) is a married Russian who has lived in Gaza for 12 years and has a 10-year-old daughter (Nelly Abou Sharaf) whom she keeps shooing away from the window to do her homework until her father comes to pick her up and take her home. The salon is stuffed with a dozen women waiting their turn with Christine or her assistant (Maisa Abd Elhadi). Christine is working on the hair and make-up of a young woman (Dina Shebar) who is to be married that very evening, and the assistant spends most of her time on her cellphone, crying and arguing with her boyfriend Ahmed (Tarzan Nasser), a gangster standing just outside the salon with his automatic rifle and a lion he has “liberated” from the zoo to serve as his pet. Night will fall without a single woman walking out the door with a new look.

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As the women swelter all day in the salon—use of the fan is too much of a drain on the three hours of power the area gets each day—the inevitable arguments become the focus of the story. The mother (Reem Talhami) and mother-in-law (Hude Imam) of the bride clash about whether Christine should cut or put highlights in her hair, taking up their posts in the traditional war zone of familial merger. A chain-smoking, middle-aged woman (Hiam Abbas) who could have been inspired by the lyrics of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” keeps her scowl trained on the other women and especially on the assistant who is supposed to be giving her a full beauty treatment for her date later that night with the man to whom she coos seductively into her cellphone. A religious woman (Mirna Sakhla) trades barbs with a potty-mouthed woman (Manal Awad) stoned on Tramadol who may be her sister. What that pair is doing in the salon is anyone’s guess, but without their terrific comedy act, the film would be humorless and possibly unwatchable. To top the ensemble off, a woman days away from giving birth walks in with a friend or relative to add her imminent contractions to the party.

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If this film had been made in almost any country other than Palestine, I would be trashing it for its sexist set-up and unoriginality. However, radical Islam is highly sexist, and the beauty salon is one of the few places where women can go and where they can dress as they like. Every time one of them leaves the salon—and that only happens two or three times in the film—she must put on a head scarf. The assistant dons a burka as well to tell Ahmed to move his lion away from the shop, only to get scolded for not completely covering her hair. We don’t learn the names of any of the characters aside from Christine and Ahmed, which emphasizes the marginalized position of native women in Palestinian society under Hamas. What a waste of human potential!

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Nonetheless, the Nassers give voices to the voiceless. The religious woman is no supporter of Hamas; she thinks that one ruling power is as bad as the next and that Hamas is not truly adhering to the ideals to which she has dedicated herself. Christine, interestingly, says she’s gotten used to life in Gaza, that it’s not much worse than Russia and much less expensive. The potty-mouthed woman can’t seem to stop talking and talking, saying one rude thing after another as her foil tells her to shut up, and finally assigning each of the women to a ministry in the government she would run if she could. The assistant is besotted with her gangster boyfriend who makes her miserable, but she can’t seem to give up on him—a metaphor for the desperate Palestinians who cling to hope through Hamas.

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The women’s endless wait to be served by Christine and her assistant seems a sad commentary on the failure of Hamas and the world to bring stability and a measure of freedom to Palestine. In fact, the salon will find itself in the middle of a firefight as Hamas attempts to retake the lion from the street thugs. What insanity is it to carry out a war in the streets to save face over the theft of a single animal! In the end, drunk on its own power and anger, Hamas destroys what it says it wants to defend. This film is not a pleasant one to watch, but it does put one’s own troubles in perspective and evoke a certain admiration for the people who carry on and have hope in the face of overwhelming misery.

Dégradé screens Thursday October 22 at 6:15 p.m., Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m., and Wednesday, October 28 at 12:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (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)


11th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Chronic (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Michel Franco

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Mexican director Michel Franco is a man whose creative brief is life and death. His clear-eyed look at grief, bullying, and retribution, After Lucia (2012), is something of a modern horror masterpiece made all the more terrifying because the behaviors on which it focuses are all too human. In his new feature, Chronic, winner of the best screenplay at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Franco again takes unblinking aim at a chronic condition of the human animal—mortality.

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David (Tim Roth) is a home health nurse working for a Los Angeles agency catering to a wealthy clientele. When we first see him, he’s parked outside a house waiting for a young woman to emerge. When she does, he follows her car to a college campus. Then he takes off for work. Next, we see a wasted woman (Rachel Pickup) leaning motionless against a tiled wall as a handheld shower head positioned near her sprays water on her naked body. David steps into the frame and repeatedly squeezes soapy water from a sponge onto her body, as much for her physical comfort as to clean her. His cheerful efficiency and calm command are a balm to Sarah, who is his patient, and her sister (Kari Coleman) and her sister’s family when they pay what very well could be their last visit to her. When David goes home, he visits the Facebook page of a young woman named Nadia Wilson (Sarah Sutherland) and scrolls through her photos, an action he will repeat several times during the film. Was this the woman he followed from her home?

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Over the next few days, David sits with Sarah, fixing her a bit of food, helping her stand, putting her in a wheelchair, getting her into her nightgown. One morning, he arrives for work and finds that Sarah has died. Angry that the night nurse has not washed her because the family told her not to touch Sarah, he slams into Sarah’s bedroom, shuts the door, washes her lifeless body, and puts a nightgown on her—a rather grisly echo of our first encounter with the dying woman and her caregiver. That evening, after his usual run on the treadmill at his gym, he goes to a bar. A couple who have just become engaged buy him a shot to toast their good news. When asked if he’s married, he says he was but that his wife died quite recently. Her name was Sarah. The three toast Sarah instead of the engagement.

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What are we to make of David? He seems like a man looking at life from the outside, as though some part of him is dead or on life support and using his work to connect with others like himself. Even more, the fact that dying people allow him the privilege of journeying with them to the end makes his declarations that they are members of his family quite plausible. It’s not easy for the actual families of the dying to make that connection, which arouses their jealousy, and one of his patients, Marta (Robin Bartlett), aware of the mutual dependency that has developed between them, uses it to manipulate him to help her die.

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Franco reveals David’s backstory slowly, not allowing us to put the pieces together quickly or easily and not resolving questions that arise from our newfound knowledge. His is a fly-on-the-wall approach that uses static framing to observe actions loaded with meaning for the characters but that go unnoticed to anyone outside their circle. As with After Lucia, a hidden grief leads to psychological disaster and is at least partially responsible for David’s too-close contact with his patients—a stark contrast with the detachment of real caregivers similarly observed by documentarian Frederick Wiseman in his brilliant Near Death (1989)—as well as an estrangement from closer engagement. When Sarah’s niece (Maribeth Monroe) tries to talk with David about her aunt at the cemetery following her funeral, he refuses to speak with her—her need is more than he can bear.

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Tim Roth is beyond brilliant, containing his emotions behind a brittle wall that cracks only once, heartbreakingly. His quiet, compassionate approach to his patients makes death a bearable event. For example, as he washes Sarah, he doesn’t shrink from her limp, skeletal corpse, which requires his careful manipulation. When he helps Marta die, he works quickly and without hesitation to push four syringes of a drug that will arrest her heart into a catheter in her neck. I don’t know how Pickup was able to look so convincingly dead, but she betrayed not a sign of life, and Bartlett’s stillness was a model of how death can move gently, imperceptibly over life. Michael Cristofer, Bitsie Tulloch, and Tate Ellington were all terrific as stroke patient John and his grown children, the latter of whom are grateful and then hostile toward David.

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Finally, the ending of this film has been criticized by some as abrupt, unsatisfying, or a failure of imagination. It is abrupt, but it is entirely consonant with the theme of the film and the many ways that death is the ultimate leveler. In giving us films that make us think and help us negotiate the big questions of our lives, Michel Franco is an incredibly brave and committed artist. His films are priceless gifts to us all.

Chronic screens Wednesday, October 21 at 8:15 p.m., Thursday October 22 at 8:30 p.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (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)


5th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Adama (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Simon Rouby

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 that 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.

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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.

Previous coverage

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)


21st 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

Director: Mu Fei

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


26th 08 - 2015 | 2 comments »

Famous Firsts: Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut feature film of: Terence Young, director

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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).

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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 made 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 banished from their filmmaking, making it something much closer to gothic horror film than noir.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Grade
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