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Director/Coscreenwriter: Federico Fellini
By Roderick Heath
Thanks to the enormous impact of La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8½ (1963), Federico Fellini’s name had been vaulted into the tiny canon of filmmakers whose names were household words. The phrase “Felliniesque” came to spell out a brand of gaudy, sensual, yearning artistry in the same way Hitchcockian meant suspense and DeMille meant the epic. Fellini’s panoramic grappling with the chaotic impulses of society at large and his own internal universe glimpsed in those two films had also seen the tension between the neorealist Italian cinematic model Fellini had inherited and the fantasticality, riven with expressionistic vividness, priapic excitement, and raw showmanship, that he was increasingly drawn to, seemingly resolved in favour of the latter. The rest of his career was to be given over mostly to riotous conjurations of spectacle, to the point where filmgoers would be split into camps, those who would by and large reject Fellini’s later works as monuments to self-indulgence, and those who would continue to greet them as carnivals celebrating artistic personality at last given its proper imperial status in the cinematic realm, in a way previously denied to all but the most rarefied talents. When his adaptation of the ancient Roman novel Satyricon was to be released in 1969, another version of the same book was also being filmed. So, Fellini’s name was added to the title, turning auteur into brand, a promise, an advertising gimmick, and soon his works like Fellini Roma (1972) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) wore their authorial mark like haute couture designer labels.
Fellini had first moved beyond 8½’s fetid self-analysis approach when he made Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a showcase for his wife and consistent collaborator Giulietta Massina that also extended the navel-gazing favour to her, attempting to evoke a woman’s inner life in similar terms to his own autobiographical tale, in flourishes of visual rapture alternated with discomforting personal confessions and obfuscations. For his next feature (with Toby Dammit, his contribution to Histoires extraordinaires, 1967, in between), Fellini took up the fragmentary novel most often credited to Petronius Arbiter, a contemporary of the Emperor Nero, who was famed in his time as a fashion guru and style expert, who nonetheless eventually committed suicide during an epic banquet, an act intended as both escape from Nero’s wrath and a colossal goad to it. The weirdness, extravagance, and decadence of imperial Rome held obvious attractions to Fellini, as a place both to continue the theme of looking at civilisation’s discontents by turning an eye to the past, and a new stage to turn his new delight in pure optical rapture upon. The artistic atmosphere of the late 1960s had evolved at blinding speed, and in some ways Fellini had done his part to help it along. The monologue about doing away with the dead and dated parts of the modern soul in 8½ had been taken up as a generational creed along with aspects of the film’s technique and visual lexicon, and by 1969 Fellini’s once-scandalous approach to sexuality and other corporeal perversities was, if not exactly quaint, certainly restrained. Fellini’s artistic persona was fortunate in many ways, particularly as the things he was wrestling with inside himself were also the things he delighted in provoking others with.
Satyricon was a particularly challenging project to take on in this regard as the book revolves around a daisy chain of sexual couplings, many of which are homosexual. In Petronius’ book, this subject is tackled with blunt and lackadaisical acceptance in the classical way, if laced with Romanesque attitudes still sadly familiar to us today, in which gay activity was often a low and dirty business fit either for comedy or insults with political connotations. Fellini’s ongoing exercise in self-purgation might well have also driven him to take up such a subject. The director’s fascination with physicality as a realm too often ignored by filmmakers usually happy to offer up fantastic perfection, was rich with both fixated fascination and morbid unease. He filled his movies with galleries of oddball types, an allure that with Satyricon branched out into a more complete regard of the body as censorship limits fell away. Fellini’s love of the great, fleshy maternal body, reminiscent of a pagan faith stretching back to the Venus of Willendorf, celebrated in 8½ was his natural theatre of sexual delight, but he pushed past this to try and encompass all forms of carnality. Bodies fill every cinematic orifice of Satyricon, young and muscular, old and pendulous, withered and gross, bulbous and bountiful. A rebellious artist trying to throw off Catholic moralism was also trying to connect urgently with this dance of repulsion and delight. Fellini had offered up some broad queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita, and Satyricon finds him caught in a posture, at once fascinating and perturbing, of trying to encompass pansexual lust as just another wing of the museum.
Fellini also declared that Satyricon was less an attempt to delve into the past as it might have been but rather as a self-conscious modern attempt to dream it – or, as he put it, trying to give it the same atmosphere as an exploration of a Martian city. Right from its early frames, exploring the labyrinthine world where protagonist Encolpio (Martin Potter) subsists in Rome’s lowest, subterranean precincts along with the rest of demimonde populace, Satyricon inhabits a space replete with dreamlike extrapolations of ancient paraphernalia, whilst the characters walk, squirm, wrestle, play, fuck, and fight in spaces alternately narrow and cavernous. Fellini’s imaginative palate here might well have been stretching back to the spectacles of silent cinema. He had already hinted at his lingering fascination for the oversized zest of Italian cinema in those days when he referenced Giuseppe Pastrone’s foundational work Cabiria with his beloved 1957 tragicomedy Nights of Cabiria, a film that wryly correlated the exiled and enslaved eponymous heroine of Pastrone’s work with a would-be modern equivalent. Pivotal images and motifs from Pastrone’s film float to the surface here, like the face of the colossal temple of Moloch, here remembered in a glimpse of a huge sculptural face pushed down an alley, and a violent earthquake shaking the world of pathetically small people with contemptuous energy. Likewise the monumental sets (overseen by Danilo Donati) harken back to the likes of the grand silent projects of Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith, whilst also taking licence from the oneiric worlds conjured by the German Expressionists. Satyricon takes place in a barely liminal place, a fact clear even before Fellini strays into a countryside where the sky glows hallucinogenic hues, like a ‘50s scifi movie’s approximation of an alien world, and ocean-going galleys that look like crashed spaceships, painted in hues alternately trippy and earthy thanks to the superlative cinematography of Giueseppe Rotunno.
Whilst signalling a never-never approach to the Roman text, Fellini’s method actually allows him to get at the essence of another age in ways many more familiar approaches never manage. He creates an infinitely strange scene, full of painted faces and tinny jewellery and totemic objects, ringing dust and febrile sweat and stinky-looking clothes, all so immediate they threaten to peel themselves out of the screen and haunt your nostrils. The early scenes depict Encolpio living in fetid poverty, a student who seems to have abandoned his studies in favour of cohabitation with his beautiful young slave and lover, Giton (Max Born). But his fellow and former lover Ascilto (Hiram Keller) crows on the fact he’s played a vengeful prank on Encolpio by selling Giton behind his back to the actor Vernacchio (Fanfulla) as a pretty face for his stage. Encolpio, after fighting with Ascilto and forcing him to tell where Giton is, confronts the actor, who surrenders the boy when a rich man in the audience reminds him he’s already on thin ice for his habits of satirising the Emperor, making the actor afraid of any further legal troubles. Encolpio is gratefully restored to his bed with Giton, only for Ascilto to come in, and the boy promptly votes to go with him instead, leaving Encolpio alone and desolate again. The earthquake causes the underground complex where Encolpio lives to collapse, and he barely survives. Later, visiting an art gallery, he encounters a friend, the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone). He invites Encolpio along to a banquet being held by the immensely rich Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), who fancies himself a poet as well, but is really a might vulgarian who oversees orgies of self-congratulation and indulgence.
Trimalchio’s orgy is the kind of sequence Fellini always went to town with, an extravagant show of what wealth pulls into the plutocrat’s orbit, but lacking the bohemian bravura that often gripped similar scenes in his earlier films. Trimalchio’s festivities are instead crass spectacles where Homer is recited but the real entertainment highlight is the master ordering Eumolpus to be thrown into the kitchen oven as a punishment for his drunken outburst, after he’s pelted with food for reciting his poems. Trimalchio’s servants do drag the poet down to the kitchen and pour scalding matter on his face, but stop short of actually throwing him into the oven. Trimalchio boasts of his desire to own lands right down to Sicily so he travel the length of Italy without leaving his own property, and confesses to a youth spent as sex slave to both master and mistress as part of his long apprenticeship before becoming a crony of the Emperor, with the inference that anyone else who wants to get somewhere needs to get on with such an apprenticeship. Roast animals filled with smaller treats are sliced open, disgorging their goodies like steaming viscera. Trimalchio is carried up through the hills to visit his future tomb, play-acting the mourning rites and genuflecting obligated by his death for his pleasure whilst he’s alive, only for one of his friends to narrate a comic narrative about “the Matron of Ephesus,” a bride mourning her rich husband who falls in love with a soldier detailed to watch a hanged man’s body in the same cemetery. After the soldier’s charge is stolen, the widow quickly volunteered her dead mate’s body as a replacement to save her new lover from punishment: the moment you’re dead, even the greatest man isn’t worth shit.
The alternately tedious and violently compelling proximity of Eros and Thanatos is an obsessive refrain in Satyricon, depicting a world mostly lacking the kinds of safety cordons between activities and moral precepts we’re used to today precisely because the cycles of life and death move much faster, push harder, demand reflexive action. Antihero Encolpius is finally stricken with impotence – “I’ve lost my sword!” – in the film’s concluding scenes, stripping him of his purest device for expressing his life-lust after his many adventures driven by his own erotic urges and those of others. The only quality that elevates him over most of these others is that he is sometimes touched with an effervescent poeticism that comes at the end of such ventures. When Encolpius and Eumolpus stumble drunkenly away from Trimalchio’s company, they fall down on a ploughed field as the poet recites rapturously and offers his spiritual gift of poetry to the younger man: the path through absurd plenty and grotesque wealth has granted the two men a moment sheer, unbridled beauty and essence-grasping. But Encolpius’ finds his life about to take a strange turn, as he’s picked up from the beach where he fell asleep by slavers and dumped in the cargo hold of a ship, where he finds himself accompanied by Giton and Ascilto.
Friends of the emperor are collecting attractive young men for his sport whilst voyaging to his private island, and this wayward trio have been imprisoned on the ship of rich merchant Lichas (Alain Cuny). During the course of the voyage, Encolpius spies on the master of the ship and his wife Tryphaena (Capucine) in their floating pleasure dome. Caught in the act, Encolpius is forced to battle Lichas, who dresses as a gladiator and fights well. Instead of killing the younger man, Lichas prostrates and ravages him. This twist leads into pansexual romps that finally result in Lichas, smitten with Encolpius, engaging in a marriage rite with him, under his wife’s seemingly approving gaze. But when the ships reach the Emperor’s island, the passengers are just in time to see the Emperor (Tanya Lopert) surrounded by assassins sent by a usurper. The Emperor commits suicide before they can kill him, so they board Lichas’ ship and when he protests their actions, he’s swiftly and brutally beheaded. The prisoners are all dragged off to serve new masters, but Encolpius and Ascilto manage to give their captors the slip and traverse the rocky, unfamiliar shore they’ve been stranded on.
Petronius’ Satyricon was a bawdy, talkative, cosmopolitan affair, both a lampoon of a civilisation at its height and a product of it, sarcastically annexing the wanderers of Greek and Roman mythology and forcing them to play out a humorously debased version of those myths, in a manner other artists would take up from Alexander Pope with his The Dunciad to James Joyce with Ulysses. Fellini, although building his film around characters and incidents from the source, nonetheless offered a very different artistic and conceptual beast, transmuting his basis into something that often looks and feels like the kind of crazy dream you’re supposed to have after eating cheese and olives before bedtime. The book as passed down to us is actually a series of portions and extracts, with perhaps hundreds of other pages still missing. Fellini tried to incorporate the disjointed impression this gives the reader in his own film, which segues with dreamy dissolves and interludes between phases of a narrative that stutters forth as a series of tableaux, resulting in an initially bewildering, even maddening sense of flux pervading proceedings. He also bolstered the impression by utilising deliberately mismatched dubbing for the cast, which, as was common in Italian films of the time, was polyglot. Potter, a British actor, had established his fides for this material starring in two 1968 teledramas, Nigel Kneale’s future-shock parable The Year of the Sex Olympics and Philip Mackie’s The Caesars, an intelligent precursor to the better-known I, Claudius. But he was asked to provide the eye of Satyricon’s storm rather than give a star turn, his form an integral part of the wider canvas.
Upon revisit, Satyricon actually proves quite straightforward, if still governed by its own rambling, discursive attention patterns. Throughout the film, Fellini reduces the screen to a kind of moving fresco filled with bodies and architectural designs, atomising the visual experience. The act of travelling with and through Rotunno’s camera is as vital an act as paying attention to the story or dialogue, indeed moreso, as we are immersed in Fellini’s constructed world. Trimalchio’s banquet is repeatedly punctuated by guests staring at the camera as if it was another, fallible, intoxicated person present to witness this panoply of excess, and elsewhere the photography crumbles into variegated impressions, obliquely viewed. A tracking shot through the underground zone Encolpius inhabits at the outset cruises along a boulevard teeming with vendors, pedestrians, and flotsam of a floating world, and domiciles off the way filled with denizens including ordinary families and prostitutes with clients, all of them reduced to a kind of macrobiological diorama: the fecund business of being conceived, born, surviving, and dying laid out in a wild, near-mindless nest of human animals. Trimalchio’s banquet repeats the same motif, starting with a purification ritual where the guests bob up and down rhythmically in the nude, before the feast where they’re laid out in their prone rows like sardines served up not as food but as witnesses to generosity of the gross overlord. Satyricon certainly offered Fellini a chance to act out his most licentious fantasies about the past as well as way of appealing to the new mood of the cinema audience with his high-psychedelic vision.
And yet Fellini offers such marvels whilst fumbling towards a new fulfilment, however perversely realised, of the old neorealist ideal of laying out society for the camera to see in all its layers. His mural seethes with a sense of life as lived in different zones, with Encolpio’s journey spans highest social level to highest, by dint of his status as bohemian student and artist, perpetually broke but connected with the minds of the empire, and then as a fool of fortune scooped up and dumped down by the shifting tides of social action. The schism between mind and body had been a central theme Fellini chased down again and again, purveyed through figures like the clown in La Strada (1954) who operates from the most bestial urges and evolves into an empathetic human too late, to 8½’s Guido Anselmi, tormented by the needs of his physical and erotic selves even as his intellectual and emotional aspect constantly strives to reconcile his facets. His final acceptance of himself and attempt to move past it opened the gate for Satyricon, which dives into a vision of the past that sees that age mostly free of such schisms. No-one is surprised by any urge of the body or mind, although there are opposing reactions to free indulgence. When Encolpius and Ascilto enter an abandoned villa looking for plunder, they instead find an African slave girl hiding away, who joins the men in a threesome, an interlude that’s notable as perhaps one of the few truly joyful erotic moments in the film. The girl giggles in aroused delight at the two men caressing each-other, three free-and-easy people momentarily released from various forms of bondage in a moment of careless sensual indulgence. Earlier, by contrast, a society wife kissing Trimalchio’s mate with tentative Sapphic fascination stirred the macho outrage and lust of her husband.
Fellini also attempts, amidst all the carnal fetishism, to dig into problems persistent in our communal life. Access to all that splendour is the lot of the rich and powerful. Others are forced to take their pleasures where they can, and the use of other people’s bodies, sexual and servile, is endemic. Encolpio is initially frantic in his desperate desire for his nominal slave, whom he nonetheless gives the freedom of choosing his own path, only to be repaid when the boy rejects him immediately. Vernacchio’s actor troupe hacks off body parts from slaves purchased for performances, then have the actor playing the Emperor “restore” them. Eumolpus is the voice of reason and beauty partly hiding a jealous man longing for sensual delights, bemoaning the decay of artistic and receptivity both thanks to the insidious power of Mammon and luxury dulling the senses whilst craving a little such dulling himself. Trimalchio is revealed as ancestor and avatar of the magnates and moguls who danced through Fellini’s contemporary panoramic works, promising horns of plenty to the agreeable and destruction to the upstarts and time-wasters. The downfall of the young Emperor brings not liberation but a reactionary new regime, no less violent but seemingly more puritanical, celebrating itself with triumphal processions. Some seed here for Fellini’s branding of Fascism as a mixture of holiday camp workout and Busby Berkeley production number in Amarcord (1973). A shot of the crew of Lichas’ ship hauling in the carcass of a dead basking shark recalls the discovery of the mutant sea monster at the end of La Dolce Vita, signalling a continuum, the confrontation with the strangeness of nature and its role as bewildering foil to human arrogance.
One of Fellini’s boldest and strangest inventions was the figure of a hermaphrodite albino, worshipped as a holy oracle and demigod by people in the surrounding district to the profit of his keepers. In the fourth of the film’s hazily bracketed chapters, Encolpio and Ascilto, looking for a way to make some money stranded far from home, kidnap the demigod with the aid of a hulking local. But the trio haven’t reckoned with the pampered and crippled oracle’s inability to survive the heat and dryness of the landscape, and s/he dies of dehydration. The angry third man attacks his fellows in this disastrous enterprise for their ignorance, forcing them to fight back, and Ascilto knocks him out. The hermaphroditic oracle embodies Fellini’s fascination/fear in the flesh taken an extreme, one that edges into territory anticipating David Lynch’s images of perverted birth in Eraserhead (1976) and the new flesh sagas of David Cronenberg, as the sorry creature pants desperately for water. Incapable of speech, rotund breasts jutting from a sickly white form, the oracle is a weird survival of a misbegotten creation ironically taken up as an icon of religious fervour, and an expression of hazy sexual identity beyond the healthy jutting pricks and mighty breasts of Fellini’s homier fantasies. Encolpio, played by the blonde-haired Potter, and Ascilto, by the dark-haired, aptly satyr-like Keller, occasionally come across as arch queer caricatures with their flashing eyes and sneering, revealing the limitations besetting Fellini’s efforts to escape old frames of reference. But then again, everyone else is turned into a Hogarthian study in essential nature, in the yawing lusty mouths of the high society women and the voracious maws of the menfolk.
In this way, Fellini accesses one of the defining elements of a pre-modern literature and mythology, where the characters are functions of social or moral values or their antitheses, and embodiments rather than creatures of psychological reflexes. Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of his protégés and a successor as Italian cinema hero, was moving into similar territory with his takes on Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), equally strange if cooler-tempered, headier explorations of the past through a meshing effect of artifice and authenticity in dialectic. Also like his former collaborator, Pasolini would eventually be drawn to study the recent past evil in Italian life, in Salo (1975), through the prism of classic literature, the dose of black arsenic to Satyricon’s bitter but heady wine in contemplating the twinning of erotic excursion and will to power. Ascilto, when first glimpsed, crawls out of the shadows like a big cat, almost the actualisation of Encolpio’s disruptively horny id. The film’s most beatific visions of human nature, ironically and yet also as a consequence to all this contemplation of appetite, mostly involve death, although it’s also present in Encolpio and Lichas’ surprisingly lovely wedding sequence, an episode of tender affection, complete with the aging businessman dressed as a young bride, that defies cynicism. Following their initial escape from the galleys after Lichas’s murder, Encolpio and Ascilto stumble upon an abandoned villa. They’ve just missed the suicide of the master (Joseph Wheeler) and his wife (Lucia Bosè), after farewelling their children on the road, apparently having been obligated to die as adherents of the dead emperor: the husband commands his wife not to do the same as he slices his wrists and slowly bleeds out, but she follows him into death.
The quiet, even ethereal evocation of loving in the face of death is later rhymed with Ascilto’s death at the hands of a boatman-turned-robber: when he finds Ascilto’s body, Encolpio pauses for a sad rhapsody over the man who has constantly baited and betrayed him but has also been, to the end, a being of enormous life-force, teasing, pushing, defying, aggravating, invigorating. The salutary, totemic quality of these rhyming scenes privileges the characters in them with a sense, however fleeting, of substance achieved in having lived, as opposed to the blithe insubstantiality of actually living, and the tenacity of affections in the face of nihilism. Lichas’s death, which sees his headless corpse collapse to the deck whilst his heads bobs in the water, achieves on the other hand a bleak and shocking effect of suddenly curtailed life and raw violence, his wife gloating from the boat and his husband shocked back out of the bliss of his brief, peculiar nuptials. This moment is linked in turn to Encolpio’s later fight for survival when, in punishment for the oracle’s death, he’s cast into a labyrinth and forced to battle a hulking executioner wearing a minotaur mask. This scene, shot in sweat-inducing close and oblique shots that distort and cut off understanding of the geography, conveys Encolpio’s utter existential desperation as fate has brought him to this nightmarish zone.
Encolpio escapes death by pleading for mercy from the executioner (Luigi Montefiori), who strips off his mask and vows fellowship with him. Encolpio soon learns he’s been the victim of a mean prank, an amusement for the citizens of a town who celebrate a day in honour of Momus, the god of laughter, and his reward for his elegant pleas is to be presented to a woman, Ariadne, whom he must have sex with to cap the festivities. But this is when Encolpius finds his experiences have left him with only a limp noodle. Fate tosses him a salve as he encounters Eumolpus, who has stumbled his way into a lucrative governorship and has now given himself up to pure hedonism in a brothel called The Garden of Delights. Now he’s surrounded with concubines who happily take to the task of trying to restore Encolpius’s virility in a hilarious ritual where some beat him on the buttocks with twigs whilst others ride a swing over his head, with Ascilto gleefully joining them to pile insult upon injury. Finally Encolpius goes to visit a witch, Oenothea (Donyale Luna), whose own tale is pointlessly but amusingly narrated as her past involves lighting tortures with the radiant power of her crotch. But whilst he does regain his potency with the witch, Encolpius is distracted from the fight that claims Ascilto’s life, like a karmic retribution, the loss of his wild and impish second self.
Soon Encolpius learns that Eumolpus has also died, just before he was about to make a voyage to sell a fortune’s worth of slaves. But Eumolpus was at least well-prepared for that end, as, with his body wrapped for the grave, his creditors learn that he’s promised them a slice of his fortune in his will if they will quite literally eat him, piece by bloody piece, a gory task the businessmen nonetheless agree to. This makes for the poet’s perfect kiss-off to banal beings of money he hated so much, and the reductio ad absurdum of the tale’s refrains of wealth, possession, corporeal meaning, and death. Encolpio meanwhile joins the freed slaves in making off with the ship and sailing to a remote island that becomes home and haven. The fantasia finally flickers out to a close with Encolpius reaching a state of being roughly coincident with maturity, joining the escapees from the reach of the imperial yoke, entwining the achievement of personal and political freedom and signalling both as states towards which humans are doomed to strive through all the cruel and amusing learning processes of existence. Perhaps the most pungent quality of Satyricon from today’s perspective, which is sometimes ironically celebrated as an artefact of the era of its making in a manner not dissimilar to the way Fellini in turn looked back to the distant past as a time of lawless possibility, is its attempt to encompass basic extremes of human nature in a manner free of sentiment or nostalgia, enslaved to no-one’s idea of what cinema should look or sound like except its creator’s, vibrating to its own madcap penchant, at once feverishly beautiful and garishly ugly. The film’s last conceit is one of its most brilliant, after commencing with Encolpius’ laments before a wall covered in graffiti, by returning to this motif with the characters all painted on ruins standing on the lonely sea-shore. These people echo through time in faded, remote images, the thrumming blood of their lives turned to dust but some transcription of their nature left persisting in art, fixing their baleful gazes upon the denizens of another, perhaps no wiser time.
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Director: Sergei Loznitsa
2017 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 2008, I interviewed Errol Morris about his then-new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, which tried to make sense of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of the Bush Jr. administration. We talked about why he thought one of the scapegoats who took the fall for the administration photographed the humiliations and torture in which she took part. He said:
In a way, it’s an essential question, and I don’t pretend that I have some definitive answer. I think, in general, we photograph things because reality is peculiar. Maybe we need to stop it and look at it and memorialize it so we can scrutinize it at some later time, refresh our memory of our own experiences.
This is certainly one of several possible reasons we take pictures, and tourists are especially keen to document and view themselves in places they may never visit again as a kind of highlights book of their life. What I find peculiar is not necessarily reality, as Morris suggests, but the urge not only to visit places like Auschwitz or Gettysburg, but to stand smiling before a camera at these sites of mass slaughter. Austerlitz, an unnarrated look at visitors to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp in northeastern Germany, raises these and other issues, and causes a unique kind of self-questioning in audiences who view it.
There are few things more boring than looking at someone else’s vacation pictures, and it is perhaps with this wry thought in mind that director Sergei Loznitsa places his static camera just inside the camp gate to film a long opening sequence of arriving visitors. Several tour groups deposit large clots of tourists outside, many with cameras dangling around their necks or selfie sticks at the ready. We also see family groups pushing buggies and baby strollers, and couples having a day out together. All the visitors are dressed for summer in slogan- or logo-tagged t-shirts, shorts, tank tops, and other light gear.
Many are drawn to having their picture taken in front of or standing like inmates behind the bars of the wrought-iron gate into which the message “Arbeit Macht Frei” is twisted, including a man wearing a yarmulke. That infamous phrase assures us that we are not at just any tourist attraction, but one specifically linked to mass murder. Loznitsa’s choice to shoot the entire film in black and white recalls the monochrome pictures and newsreels that are many people’s only exposure to period images of Nazi prisoners; thus, this choice has the effect of marching these day trippers in the shoes of those who would never emerge from this camp again.
Loznitsa sets his camera up at various locations, but aside from crematory ovens and a tiled room that was probably an exam or autopsy room, we don’t see most of what the visitors see. We watch people standing and moving down a long corridor pocked with doors, some looking briefly inside one of the rooms and at least one woman examining the contents of one for a long time, obstructing other visitors who want to see it, too—is it curiosity about what she’s seeing or just another stop on the tour to be checked off? After she finishes her examination, the camera catches her in the corridor looking grave and isolated while foregrounded by a child moving swiftly in her direction.
It is truly remarkable how a static camera can capture people randomly arranging themselves in very artful compositions. A bridge over a closed-up half-square is empty as a lone figure positions herself in front of the sealed opening to listen to the explanation of what she is seeing on the handset for her self-guided tour. Caught in the narrative, she must stand in place until it is finished as the bridge fills up with tourists moving in either direction. We, then, are the observers of a pure abstraction of disquieting beauty.
Loznitsa offers some details about Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg by way of the tour guides who provide information about the camp to their groups. One Italian guide describes the treatment of the political prisoners who formed the majority of the camp’s residents and the agonizing pain they went through when they were tied to pillars in the yard, their screams unnerving the other prisoners who were being interrogated. Again we see the spontaneous pull of the narrative as one member of the group puts his back to one of the pillars and stretches his arms up as though tied to it to pose for a picture.
What are we to make of this action? It’s a kneejerk reaction to condemn the apparent insensitivity of so many of the people who walk like seemingly mindless cattle through the camp—but then, weren’t Jews mocked for being sheep to the slaughter? Perhaps the photo at the pillar offers a graphic “caption” of how these pillars were used for the edification of unknown viewers in the future. Loznitsa is careful to ensure that we see the look of horror on some visitors’ faces at certain points, particularly at one exhibit we know must be especially meaningful because a large bronze sculpture commemorating the dead and suffering inmates stands opposite it.
We can’t expect people who are not living in emergency to act as though they are. This is history, an edifice devoid of actual threat that, nonetheless, bears witness to the fact that atrocities under the Nazi regime took place here. Those who choose to visit concentration camps may just be along for the ride, to see but not learn. But I imagine many of them and those who watch this film are drawn to examine a side of humanity most have never seen, to learn more about what their ancestors went through, or even to search their souls for their own capacity to do evil. The film takes its title from German writer and academic W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz. Like most of his works that deal with personal and collective memory, his novel depicts a man who fled Czechoslovakia during World War II as part of the kindertransport who works to reclaim his history, which had been banished from memory by the foster parents who took him in and adopted him. Although Loznitsa’s Austerlitz may try some viewers’ patience, it is an excellent reminder that all works of art ultimately are examinations of the relationship of human beings to themselves, each other, and to the world.
Austerlitz screens Sunday, March 26 at 3:15 p.m. and Wednesday, March 29 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Eva Nová: An alcoholic actress faces her family’s rejection and the harsh reality of being old in a profession that worships youth in this compassionate look at human fragility and the need to survive. (Slovakia)
J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)
Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)
Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)
My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: François Truffaut
By Roderick Heath
The evergreen lustre the early films of the French New Wave still retain stems in part from a tangible quality inseparable from the moment and place of their making. That sense of fleet-footed adventure encoded in their frames, captured by a bunch of ragged young men and women spilling out into the streets, informed by a sense of lawless enthusiasm, both in taking advantage of an urban space teeming with life usually edited out of films, not yet gentrified and legally corralled into sterility as so many big modern cities are becoming, and excited by the very idea of tactile communion with an art they had previously only worshipped from the theatre seats, theory and aesthetic, cliché and revolt suddenly fusing into new forms, art as a form of obsidian ore. One vital element that connected most of the early films the movement churned out was Raoul Coutard’s photography. Somehow raw and stripped of the usual cinematic gloss and yet also humming with a sense of quicksilver beauty and poise all at once, Coutard’s work was a great part of that mystique, with Paris as his set decorator, as if Cartier-Bresson or Capa had taken up shooting low-budget movies. Amongst the critics turned filmmaker who formed the core of the New Wave, François Truffaut had earned himself a measure of infamy as a reviewer for his harshness, to the point where he was refused an invitation to the Cannes festival in 1958. He took all the chances inherent in putting his money where his mouth was when he made his first film, The 400 Blows (1959), only to stun everyone with his dynamic, intimate, alternately gruelling and beguilingly autobiographical debut. Truffaut quickly followed that success by helping write the script for his friend and fellow Cahiers du Cinema critic Jean-Luc-Godard’s debut as director, Breathless (1960).
Faced with the question of what to offer as his own sophomore feature, and with most people expecting him to continue in the vein of serious, evocative cinema he had forged, Truffaut balked at the idea of repeating his breakthrough and the kind of praise he received for it. Choosing instead to perform a seemingly radical swivel from personal artist to entertainer, and make a work purely to please himself and other film lovers, he next set out to make the kind of gamy, dynamic genre cinema fare he loved, particularly American gangster films. He chose as his basis the novel Down There by oft-filmed American hardboiled writer David Goodis. Shoot the Piano Player, as the film is generally known, nonetheless proved if anything an even more radically free-form, eccentric, wildly energetic exploration of cinema’s raw textures and testing ground for the peculiar way theoretically trashy material can mesh with personal perspective and creative audaciousness and come out as something entirely new. Shoot the Piano Player has at once the breezy, cheeky flavour of a Parisian bar-room joke and an ultimately lacerating edge of the genuinely mournful, as well as a certain wry, distanced, but substantial perspective on Truffaut’s coming of age as a filmmaker of repute. Goodis’ novel, depicting a fallen piano prodigy and his ne’er-do-well brothers who inadvertently draw him back into their seamy criminal world, has a fascinating key-note that Truffaut latched onto, the disparity between the way we understand art as a zone of yearning, disciplined, transcendent reach, and crime, a grimy, degrading world, by offering a character trapped between both spheres. Truffaut, who had dropped out of school and taught himself whilst contending with authorities of all stripes and living by his wits before finding new grounding in the world of film, surely could understand such a schismatic worldview.
Trouble was, Truffaut supposedly realised during the shoot how much he detested gangsters and found it stymied his commitment to the story, so he turned increasingly towards comedy and burlesque to defuse his discomfort. Right from the film’s frantic opening shots, it’s instantly obvious that Truffaut had no interest in emulating the poised, technically imperious art associated with Hollywood’s noir masters, however. Basic rules of cinema as largely practiced up to that date are instantly, brazenly ignored, as shots hosepipe dizzyingly, focus drifts in and out, and Coutard’s handheld camerawork records blurry car headlights and scantly-lit nightscapes in impressionist smears. Such rudely chaotic beauty and evocation of vertiginous urban menace seems to set the scene for some wildly paranoid flight, as it becomes clear a man is running from a car trying to run him down. But the plunge into action resolves when the man, Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), collides with a lamppost, a comic diminuendo to an opening that comes on with such nourish menace. Chico is helped up by a passing stranger (Alex Joffé) who then regales him happily about his life with his wife in a scene of ribald conversation: the urgency of a life-and-death chase, the essence of genre storytelling, gives way to its ambling, contemplative, gently humorous dissection. Only when it’s done and they part ways does Chico take off in a madcap sprint once more, as if remembering what movie he’s supposed to be in. Chico’s flight brings him to a bar thrumming with evening life, thanks to the combo playing there, led by the pianist Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour) whose poster is on the wall outside. Chico proves to have a distinct motive for coming here: Charlie is in fact his brother, the once-famous Edouard Saroyan, now leading a determinedly modest workaday life entertaining the flotsam of the night. The two heavies who have been dogging his trail, Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger), enter the bar, and Charlie helps stall their pursuit as Chico flees out the back door.
This early sequence in the bar, run by the leather-skinned Plyne (Serge Davri), is a marvel of swift-serve incidents and character sketches, quickly establishing the terse, closed-off nature of Charlie, so different to his criminal yet gabby, friendly brother, and the people Charlie works with or entertains. Such folk include the sleazy but perversely sympathetic Plyne, the wary Mammy (Catherine Lutz), Plyne’s estranged wife still working the bar, and roaming waitress Léna (Marie Dubois), the gorgeous but cagey object of Plyne’s desire. Around them flit vignettes and oddball characters. Two gawky onlookers mull the quality of flesh in the bar (“The other night it was first class quality!”). A man assures his dancing partner he’s interested in her chest because he’s a doctor. Chico chats up Mammy with gaudy patter: “You’re desirable—that’s why I desire you…I’m planning on getting married tonight.” A young man dancing with lovely prostitute Clarisse (Michèle Mercier) gets tired of her teasing way and gives her a slap, only to earn himself gentlemanly retaliation from Chico. Charlie leaps back onto the piano to distract the audience from the sudden invasion by the two heavies chasing Chico, inspiring the singing waiter (singer-songwriter Boby Lapointe) to jump up and regale the audience with his bouncy, cheerfully bawdy song about a man driven to distraction by his wife’s breast enlargements, with lyrics spelt out on screen singalong-fashion. The way Truffaut shoots Lapointe’s performance, momentarily pausing the frantic pace of his images only to focus on a performer who throws out words and vibrates with rapid-fire energy to equal the director’s. Here Truffaut calls back to the Hollywood tradition of shoehorning a musical performance into movies for the sake of broadening appeal, and establishes his own work’s intense feel for the local, street-level cultural life, whilst also offering the director’s own spin on the same phenomenon Godard would later pursue more intently: investigating the synergy of art forms purveyed within art forms, giving the movie over to a performer’s use of space and sound to recalibrate how we react to such elements.
Charlie lives in a drab apartment with his youngest brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), with Clarisse his upstairs neighbour and friend with benefits. Clarisse sleeps with Charlie after both get home from their exertions that night, in a funny scene where Clarisse’s pop sponge of a mind lends proceedings a mode of cultural burlesque as she recites jingles and gives critical opinions of a John Wayne film (“It proves America wants peace.”), and stirs Charlie to make his own joke at the expense of film convention, as he covers Clarisse’s bare breasts with a sheet: “In the movies it’s always like this.” His zipless, pay-as-you-go relationship with Clarisse suits Charlie’s disengaged approach to life, but he soon finds the contracts of identity are about to snap into effect: Ernest and Momo start tracking him, hoping to find a way to use him to track down Chico, who, along with the fourth Saroyan sibling Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), has ripped them off after a robbery they staged together. Léna alerts Charlie to the fact they’re following him, and she walks with him through the night as Charlie grapples more with his unspoken attraction to Léna than with the dogging hoods. The next morning, Fido spots the two gangsters lurking outside their apartment block and drops a milk container on their bonnet from the third floor. When Charlie emerges from his apartment block, Ernest and Momo swoop on him and drag him into their car at gunpoint, and they soon pick up Léna the same way, intending to pressure Charlie into leading them to his brothers, and Léna realises that Plyne let himself be bribed into giving the hoods their addresses. Léna’s quick wits see her contriving to attract a policeman’s attention, giving her and Charlie a chance to slip away from their kidnappers. Léna then leads Charlie to her apartment where he discovers that, far from being indifferent to him, Léna has been worshipping him from afar, aware of his real name and former identity as a famous concert pianist.
Charlie doesn’t bear much apparent resemblance to the gutsy, inquisitive, often exasperating Antoine Doinel as introduced in The 400 Blows. Fido evokes Antoine more, with his pranks, quips, mop of Presley-esque hair and finger-snapping pursuit of the right jive rhythm, every inch the natural-born Parisian rascal. Charlie nonetheless offers Truffaut’s first grown-up hero with a sense of linkage to his young alter ego, grown up and offered a taste of paradise only to be defeated by life. Charlie is alternately defined by his cool, detached manner and his almost crippling fear of human interaction, a fear that predates the various traumas that define his life and seem rooted in the act of distinction that cleaved him away from his brothers and set him on a path to refined artistry and success. He recalls young Chico and Richard tossing stones at the car that whisked away to his piano lessons, their mocking reminder, still resonating with Charlie, that in the end he’s still their brother. Charlie’s seemingly stoic, deadpan approach to most situations life throws his way, from gangsters chasing after his brother to the topless prostitute teasing him in bed, belies a deep-set sensitivity, and the voiceover narration Truffaut allows him affects a Bogartian cool but also reveals his timorousness in the face of challenges like whether or not he should try to seduce Léna, and the mantra of noncommittal he repeats to himself when situation get too emotionally charged.
Charlie has been forged by a form of survivor’s guilt, a trait bolstered by the grim fate of his wife and former career, described in a lengthy flashback halfway through the film. The former Edouard, a struggling musician, had nonetheless been happily married to Thérèse (Nicole Berger), who worked as a waitress whilst he tried to kick-start his career: their daily games of “customer and waitress” in the café where she worked attracted the attention of impresario Lars Schmeel (Claude Heymann), a seemingly fortuitous meeting that resulted in Edouard’s big break, leading to huge fame as a concert performer under Schmeel’s guidance. But the Saroyans’ marriage started to founder as Edouard finally grew more successful, and eventually Thérèse admitted that Schmeel gave Edouard his chance because she agreed to sleep with him. Thérèse then threw herself to her death after Edouard walked out on her, and he completely left behind his former existence, taking refuge for years in anonymous jobs until one day he worked up the courage to tickle the ivories in Plyne’s café again. Finally, the man reborn as Charlie seems to complete his degradation when he and Léna confront Plyne over his betrayal. Plyne, equally steamed as he realises Charlie has “soiled” the lovely Léna, starts a fight that turns deadly as he tries to choke Charlie, forcing the pianist to stab him in the back.
The greatest quality of Shoot the Piano Player is also the most difficult to fully describe — the blithe way it steps between postures of raucous humour and wistfully earnest feeling, metafictional wiseacrey and waylaying emotional directness. Shoot the Piano Player, amidst the pile-up of jokes, genre touchstones, and romantic ephemera, probes what artistic success means in terms of personal identity, a notion that also extends the attitude of investigation as to what forces define us from childhood to adulthood and what happens to the self when its foundations collapse. This preoccupation would continue to bob up throughout Truffaut’s oeuvre, essayed on an epic scale with his subsequent Doinel films but also evident in works like L’Enfant Sauvage (1969) and The Story of Adele H. (1975). Comedy and tragedy here are wound together like the disparate halves of Charlie/Edouard, right from the opening scene in which thriller canards suddenly swerve into a stranger’s wry but poignant story about how he and his wife got married, had kids, and fell in love in that order, and so has the kind of existence everyone else in the film yearns for but fails at. Even the jokey use of Charlie’s dissonant narration leads in with supple force to a sudden swerve in the way this device is employed, when, during the flashback, Edouard tells himself not to walk out on Therese. His conscious, rational self tries to retain command of his instinctual, emotional self, and fails with terrible consequences. Charlie tries to dispose of the disparity, but such traits remain integral to all human experience, even if some, like Charlie’s brothers and their gangster enemies, operate purely on the level of sensual instinct. This idea is illustrated with bawdy gusto when Ernest raves with wild-eyed glee about erotic wonts and consumerist delights when he and Momo have kidnapped Charlie and Léna. They’re like embodiments of the side of Truffaut’s mind that’s a magpie attracted by shiny objects of all kinds, complete with a watch that rings out the score of Lola Montes (1956).
The New Wave directors were often driven to comment sarcastically on the fame they had been granted by their anarchic, rule-breaking impulses, which edged in some cases into genuinely revolutionary sensibilities, as suddenly a bunch of café bums and movie geeks found themselves media celebrities. Part and parcel with this was their study of their own schismatic sensibilities, their simultaneous immersion in the modes of cinema and self-conscious distrust for it, the critic-intellectual’s unease with the instinctively profligate method of art and the needs of the entertainment-seeking audience. Here Truffaut found a sly way to wrestle with the question of whether such a charmed life could continue, or if selling out would be inevitable. Cleverly, Schmeel, the devil who consumed Edouard’s life, is presented not as a charming playboy but a kindly, fatherly type to Edouard, one who enjoys his pet pianist so much he puts his portrait on his office wall. Charlie’s shyness is initially funny, but we learn Edouard’s anxiety and discomfort in the public eye harmed his personality, as he felt a need to boast and feed on acclaim, and fuelled the mounting sense of crisis in his private life even before that calamitous revelation. Success demands a price, the kind of price that hacks into the presumptions and recompenses of ordinary life. Léna’s adoption of Charlie as lover also identifies him unapologetically as potential gold mine, as she admits to him she wants him to return to his old life to give her a better one. This signals the possibility of a rebirth for Edouard, but also puts Charlie on a collision course with every fact of his identity he’s been ignoring. The bleak side to Shoot the Piano Player is rooted in one basic irony: the reawakening that life demands from Charlie promises rewards but instead simply replays bitter experience. To be alive is to be open to pain as well as joy, and whilst for some that very alternation can be a drug-like habit, for others shutdown is the only option to weather it.
Although general audiences initially met it with bemusement, Shoot the Piano Player became a fetish object for movie lovers in itself for Truffaut’s ebullient cinematic stunts, building upon the remarkable camera freeness and willingness to utilise seemingly antiquated or merely functional effects like the iris shot and the freeze frame with definitive authorial intent. It’s still very easy to see what the fuss was about, as even the following decade or so of pop cinema that would relentlessly mine Truffaut and Godard’s works would rarely recreate the pace and bravura ingenuity with which they’re offered. The rough-hewn, almost home-movie-like crudeness apparent in the film’s earliest shots resolves when Chico enters Plyne’s bar into sudden professional precision, mapping out vignettes with Hawksian concision, but offered with a machine-gun pace that flies far ahead of the more measured studio style. Truffaut’s more ostentatious flourishes come on with real wit and bratty showiness, like a triptych shot of Plyne in negotiation with the gangsters revealing him in different postures ranging from noble stonewalling to money-grubbing treachery. Or, most famously, a sudden cutaway after Ernest swears a story he’s told is true on his mother’s life, only to offer a glimpse an old woman suddenly keeling over from a heart attack. As opposed to Godard’s increasingly studious preoccupation with the semantics of expression through cinema, Truffaut remained far more intuitive, catching ideas and whims and condensing them into visual motifs with intelligence but also carefree zest. One of Truffaut’s greatest stylistic pirouettes comes during the flashback sequence, recounting Charlie’s journey to give an audition for Schmeel: his finger hovers for a moment in giant close-up over the doorbell button, the momentousness of the act for the young, talented, but fatally uneasy man captured in all its epic intimacy.
Truffaut, instead of following Charlie within for the moment of truth, instead tracks the glum-faced violinist who was auditioning before him as she leaves Schmeel’s apartment. The sounds of Charlie’s thunderous romantic strains momentarily make her pause, and continue to resound on the soundtrack as she leaves the building and heads out into the streets, presumably, to a life of anonymity, whilst Charlie has been anointed, with the suggestion, ever so ethereal, that something is wrong. The hints of machinating fate Truffaut offers in this disorientating interlude soon takes shape but offers in its moment an islet of mysterious beauty that suggests another level to Charlie’s journey, the power of music, celebrated again by Truffaut in parentheses with his film. Truffaut returns to the musical interlude motif late in the film, during Charlie and Léna’s flight from the law, shots of the car’s progress along misty highways and into snowy alpine hills set to a languorously romantic song about two lovers who signify their continuing ardour with signs like going bareheaded. Similarly dreamy is a bedroom sequence, as Charlie and Léna make love and sleep peacefully together, counterpointed in aching dissolves with the images of Edouard’s old concert posters on the walls – past, present, and future all in flux. The soft edges of such sequences stand in contrast with the violent filmic syntax elsewhere, as in the rush of shots depicting Edouard’s plunge back into his hotel room and out to the veranda only to see Therese dead far below on the pavement, a moment that communicates the suddenness and horror of such a loss in volubly immediate terms. Truffaut even displays outright contempt for standard movie grammar, as in the concluding moments when the criminal Saroyans and their nemeses flee in cars, Truffaut hacking up the action into summary shots, as if contemptuously farewelling these halfwits and bad seeds who leave human wreckage in their wake.
Truffaut’s admiration for Hitchcock, which he would later try to work out in more belaboured terms in his fascinating misfire The Bride Wore Black (1968), is first sighted here during Charlie’s fight with Plyne, drawing on Dial M For Murder (1953) as a desperate fight for life sees a blade sunk into a spine, in a moment charged with perverse intimacy. But Hitchcockian erotic overtones are swapped for the weird spectacle of apparent masculine bonhomie, as Plyne affects to embrace Charlie after their hot heads have cooled, only to then start throttling him, a spasm of sexual-nihilistic disappointment turning the bar owner deadly as Plyne grunts out his fury for Charlie despoiling his idealised, virginal version of Léna. Earlier on Charlie had given Plyne a sympathetic ear when he confessed his crush on the waitress, revealed in his gruff pathos as he readily admitted he was far too ugly to charm her (“Perhaps it’s glands,” Charlie suggests; Plyne replies, “No, it’s my face.”). Charlie’s defensive killing is witnessed by neighbours, but he thinks he won’t be able to prove the circumstances, so Léna and Mammy hide him in the café cellar and then help him flee to his parents’ house in the Alps, which has already been taken over by Chico and Richard as their hideout. Meanwhile Ernest and Momo kidnap Fido, and force him to take them to the same place.
Aznavour’s lead performance was one Shoot the Piano Player’s great coups, bringing to the part surprising physical wit, his weirdly charming molten-plasticine face, and definite comfort with playing the instrument central to the character’s life and way of mediating the world. Although not at the time an experienced actor, he perfectly embodies Charlie’s bipolar nature and wears his sad-sack suppliance as assuredly as one of the trench coats he wears. Some of his best moments come during his first walk with Lena, counting off steps with his fingers behind his back as he tries to work up the courage to take her arm, before starting to suggest they get a drink together, only to find she’s already flitted off into the night. But the whole cast is excellent, particularly the uncanny trio of ladies around him, Mercier, Berger, and Dubois, each a study in a diverse types demarcating different classes and ways of looking at female archetypes. Mercier the black-haired gamine, Berger the classical cool, continental blonde, and Dubois the fresh-faced, brightly smiling urchin: Berger is particularly effective delivering Helene’s long, confessional monologue, prowling around the hotel room in an inescapable shot, pinioned like a butterfly in a collection. Mercier, who would later find great fame playing the cult heroine Angelique in French films, brings an insouciant delight to her role as a featherlight character happy to play bedmate to Charlie and part-time mother to Fido, but who hits the bottle out of guilt after the hoods snatch Fido from under her nose in a vignette of throwaway pathos.
Dubois, who was Truffaut’s discovery for the film (her real name was Christine Herze), has her finest moments breezily handing Charlie the mission of giving her a better life, which Charlie seems to accept with his familiar deadpan stoicism, only for her then to state, with a show of lancing vulnerability as she farewells him to work, that the only thing she really asks of a man is to tell her when things are over. Later, when Lena drops him off at his parents’ mountain house, Charlie is stricken as he tries to work out how to cast her out of his life now that he seems to have been claimed by the family curse, Aznavour’s face calcified by the conflicting desires to cut himself off from her as he’s sure he’ll bring her doom, and the urge to not let her go, resolving with the unspoken wish, “I wish she’d let me finish drinking that bottle.” The drive into the mountains shifts the film’s gear into a more rarefied realm, charged with an ironically dissonant sense of romanticism and melancholia that cuts across the grain of madcap energy seen in the rest of the film, as Charlie settles down to wait out the night with cigarettes and weltschmerz as his brothers crow that their brother has finally joined them. The dawn brings good news, as Lena returns to tell Charlie he’s been vindicated by the witnesses and can return to the world. But it also brings the two hoods, with the canny Fido snatching a chance to give them the slip.
A gunfight between the two gangs breaks out, with Lena, sprinting through the snow to try and reach Charlie’s side, gunned down accidentally. In spite of Truffaut’s improvisatory shooting style, Shoot the Piano Player manages to coherently encompass its manifold impulses, starting off with shots of Chico running and building to the climactic moment when Lena dashes through the falling snow. The film is offered as an embodiment of perpetual motion until suddenly it doesn’t – the gun cracks, Lena falls, and slides down the snow-crusted hillside like a pathetic toboggan, coming to a halt in anaesthetising snowfall, the streetwise yet innocent young lady finding an unexpected fate worthy of some Thomas Hardy heroine. Charlie and Fido dash to find her, but recover only an ice-caked corpse, whilst the battling nitwits speed away to whatever end they deserve. As for Charlie, Truffaut reveals in his final, delicately poignant last shots, he returns to his former place behind the piano with fingers dabbing the keys robotically, playing with stone-faced detachment, hovering again in a place outside of life’s regular flow. Perhaps it was Truffaut’s peculiar faith that cinema could be anything that he wanted it to be that made him think he could offer a film so expansive and unruly in its sense of life and death and how the two sometimes overlap, affirming even in the midst of tragedy a romantic’s conviction that life without love is meaningless, be it human or artistic.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Marko Škop
2017 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most movies about alcoholics tend to put drunken behavior front and center, offering actors a golden opportunity to give the kind of dramatic performances that awarding organizations love (e.g., Oscar wins for Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas  and Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow , and Oscar nominations for Dudley Moore in Arthur  and Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses ). I’ve generally felt that, whether in fiction or real life, people under the influence are the farthest thing from entertaining, but who they are is another matter. Thus, while the title character of Marko Škop’s feature debut, Eva Nová, is addicted to alcohol, her story is complicated, compelling, and deeply moving.
Emília Vášáryová plays Eva, a famous Soviet-era actress in her early 60s to whom we are introduced on the last day of her third trip to rehab. She gives a recitation as her farewell gift to the women in her therapy group, and one of them gives her a tiny plastic camel to remind her that she can go without a drink as long as a camel can go without water. She returns to her flat, goes to a cabinet where she stashed a bottle of vodka before her hospitalization, and dumps it down the sink, turning her head away so as not to catch the scent of liquor. It is a fragile time for Eva, and the emptiness of her apartment seems to weigh on her heavily.
The next day, she boards a train to the countryside to visit her son, Dodo (Milan Ondrík), who lives with his family and Eva’s sister, Manka (Žofia Martišová), in the house where the older women grew up. Dodo’s wife, Helena (Anikó Varga), is not happy to see Eva but invites her in for a cup of tea anyway. Eva’s grandson, Palko (Alexander Lukac), just looks down and refuses to speak with her, and she meets her seven-year-old granddaughter, Noemi (Michaela Melisová), for the first time. When Dodo and Manka return to the house, Dodo refuses to let her stay with them and deposits Eva, her suitcase, and the box of chocolates she brought as a gift on the street. She’s forced to stay at a cheap hotel. The next day, when she checks out, we see that she has eaten all the candy.
This detail of the empty candy box is one of many telling moments that director Škop and Vášáryová use to build an indelible portrait of a vain, weak, older woman whose hungers outstrip her ability to fulfill them. But Eva Nová does more than this—it interrogates the place of women in Slovakian society, and arguably, other societies, and how the ages-old bugaboo against actresses aging plays into Eva’s problems. Vášáryová herself is a legend of Slovak and Czech theatre, film, and television who has claimed the titles of Actress of the Century by the Slovak Journalists Syndicate, as well as First Lady of the Slovak Theatre. Škop strategically positions photos of a younger Vášáryová in Eva’s apartment and uses clips from her films; thus, the actress not only accesses her character’s struggles with alcohol and the damage she has caused to her personal relationships, but also draws on the challenges Vášáryová herself faced at one point in her career trying to continue to work in an industry that worships youth.
Škop has said that he got the idea for Eva Nová from interviewing French superstar Annie Giradot, who covered up her struggles with alcohol, depression, and disillusionment by acting a version of her screen persona for him. Vášáryová is in almost every scene, a true star turn for the actress playing a character 12 years younger than herself (Or is she? Eva may be lying about her age.). Škop’s shooting style is very simple, with straight-on shots of understated moments reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s technique and close-ups that bring us into the space of these characters. The latter technique is especially important for Eva so that we can evaluate the relative truthfulness of her interpersonal interactions, an opportunity we realize we need when we watch her rehearse an apology to her family in the mirror before she turns up on their doorstep.
Škop doubles down on his mirror imaging when Eva encounters the much younger, pregnant wife of her long-time lover at an industry reception, both dressed in red, their repeated images in the bathroom mirrors subtly evoking the horrifying hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Her lover rejected her and her bastard son, and denied her the child he is now having with her replacement. By now, Eva has gotten drunk and abusive, and she is dragged out of the reception as the paparazzi snap the kinds of pictures that made her a pariah in what is the most dramatic scene in the film. Then the film reverts to its air of quiet despair. At home, Eva’s bra strap has crawled back onto her shoulder from its hiding place down the sleeve of her off-the-shoulder dress, another detail of her fight against her aging body.
Although Vášáryová is in nearly every frame of this picture, she does not suck air from her supporting cast. Ondrík is very effective as a man who is beyond bitter with his mother, but bullying to his breadwinner wife and his daughter, whom he trains to repeat that she loves him in an awkward, creepy scene. Martišová is matter-of-factly disgusted with her sister, telling her that she is still paying off the headstone for their mother and rejecting any help other than financial when Eva tries to ingratiate herself. Only Helena gives Eva a break, with Varga hinting at why her character may feel more kindly disposed toward her mother-in-law when Eva confirms that Palko must definitely be Dodo’s son.
Still, Vášáryová shows Eva to be a survivor doggedly determined to keep control of her life. She endures the comedown of working as a shelver in a grocery store and performing a soliloquy for a group of dementia patients at a nursing home. She hangs on to the house where Dodo and his family live after it becomes hers on Manka’s death, refusing to sign it over to Dodo and agree to disappear from his life. In the end, she finds a precarious solidarity with Helena in a final tableau that suggests that women may only have each other to lean on in the end.
Eva Nová screens Wednesday, March 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)
Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)
Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)
My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
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Director/Screenwriter: Carlos Saura
2017 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Eighty-four-year-old Carlos Saura has been making movies since 1956, with 47 directing credits to his name, including his masterpiece on childhood trauma in fascist Spain Cria Cuervos (1976). Nonetheless, Saura lamented during a personal appearance he made some years ago at the Gene Siskel Film Center that the only films he’s known for seem to be his dance films.
I understand how this can be frustrating to a consummate film artist, but in fact, Saura originally aspired to be a dancer, and his own enduring love of the form has resulted in a significant number of the best dance films on the planet, from his incredible flamenco trilogy Blood Wedding (1981)/Carmen (1983)/El amor brujo (1986) to his dance-specific documentaries, including Flamenco (1995), Tango (1998), and Fados (2007). Jota joins the dance documentary group, which are filmed dance recitals created on a soundstage that simulate a live performance in a theatre for the movie-going audience. In choosing to train his gaze on jota, Saura has chosen a dance form close to his heart and roots, a rhythmic, lively dance from his native province of Aragón in the northeastern part of Spain.
The opening title card informs us that the original dance incorporated Arab and Asian elements, and exerted a strong influence on flamenco. Of course, like all art forms, as jota traveled to other parts of the world, it changed, acquiring embellishments, as well as different pacings and stylings. Very cleverly, Saura opens the film with a youth dance class conducted by jota star Miguel Ángel Berna so that we can learn the basic steps that comprise jota in its purest form. After this lesson, it becomes relatively easy to recognize the characteristic heel-toe combination and low kicks that comprise the basic steps of jota in the performances to come. Incorporated into these performances, of course, is the characteristic music that is also considered jota, including in classical pieces by Luigi Boccherini and Pablo Sarasate.
Saura takes a historical look at jota, beginning with a bride’s song from Aragón’s Ansó Valley. The dancers are all in traditional dress from the region and dance a simple, circular jota as they honor the bride. Saura also introduces the music of jota with an Aragónese cantada performed by singers Nacho del Rio and Beatriz Bernad, and accompanied by Miguel Ángel Tapia on piano. Their loud, lusty singing, what Saura has called the “barbarous voices” signaling the independence of Aragónese women, takes place in front of a wall of historical posters and pictures, including one for the film Goyescas (1942) starring Imperio Argentina, who will be shown later in historical footage singing and dancing jota.
There are strikingly dramatic sequences in the film, for example, La Tarántula, which, unlike the Italian tarantella, builds slowly with a dancer laying on the floor covered in a white gauze slowly rising as a group of women dance around her and, finally, spreading her diaphanous, winglike “body” as they all fall to the ground. In another, Berna, dressed all in black, postures solo in front of a four-way mirror. The most affecting of the sequences shows a boy sitting in a classroom look up at rear-projection screens behind his teacher’s desk and watch archival footage of the Spanish Civil War—the battles, overhead bombers, frightened citizens running for cover, and dead children. Not only is Saura going through the history of jota and of Aragón, but also his own history.
Nonetheless, most of the film is a joyous celebration of dance and community, with the requisite number of flamenco jotas. My favorite sequence was the jota from Galicia, which gathered musicians playing everything from the Irish bodhrán to thumb cymbals and featured Carlos Núñez on the Scottish bagpipes and two dancers, one of whom leaped into the circle to dance barefoot, snapping his fingers because he lacked castanets.
The film ends with what I can only call the lounge lizard version of jota, called modern, and a fiesta of people of all ages dancing together to the sounds of the professional singers and musicians, while gigantic, papier-mâché figures circulate among them. Despite being confined to the soundstage, Saura finds visually varied ways to increase audience interest, with mirrors, overhead shots, projection, impressionistic painting, and color screens backing the dancers. This film, called J: Beyond Flamenco in English presumably to capitalize on the familiarity and popularity of flamenco, preserves the more folksy jota form and entertains us with it in all its many forms.
J: Beyond Flamenco screens Saturday, March 11 at 6:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 16 at 8:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)
Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)
My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
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Director: Rosie Stapel
2017 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There are few things I can think of that are as restful and exhausting, rewarding and frustrating, and the very definition of partnership as cultivating a garden. Like the fabled Garden of Eden, human beings can find peace and contentment surrounded by nature, but the minute they start thinking they are the masters of their surroundings, the garden will chew them up and spit them out like pollen from an Anneslea fragrans blossom. Gardeners must be patient, humble, and vigilant to partner successfully with their plants, soil, and climate for bountiful harvests and blooms.
Rosie Stapel seems to have cooked up the idea for Portrait of a Garden, her directorial debut, with Daan van der Have, one of the two featured gardeners in this lovely documentary, and the location choice is more than appropriate. There aren’t many places on earth more plant-mad than the Netherlands. Just as you’ll rarely see a Parisian going home for dinner without a baguette or two in hand, the Dutch provide a brisk business for their ubiquitous city and village flower markets.
The Dutch estate garden featured in Portrait of a Garden was founded in 1630, and has seen its ups and downs in the intervening 400 years. Van der Have and pruning master Jan Freriks had a good deal of restoration work to do when they dug their hands into the soil some 30 years ago. The 85-year-old Freriks is something of a rock star in the horticultural world; his books are known and loved by the estate staff, tree nursery owner and gardening enthusiasts they meet during the film. Freriks is handing down his knowledge to Van der Have, who is no spring chicken himself, in hopes that his skills built over a lifetime of observation, experimentation, and practice won’t die with him.
Stapel takes us through one year in the life of the garden and its tenders, beginning in fall. We first meet Van der Have and Freriks as they work on a wall of espaliers, energetically applying their pruning shears to maintain the flat profile of the trees against their natural inclination to branch and spread. We’ll see them throughout the film sawing away at tree limbs and twisting the branches of pear trees over the lengthy arch of an arbor they have been working to create for some years. They’ll reminisce about Van der Have tempting Freriks out of retirement with the chance to work on an estate garden where heirloom varieties of edible and inedible plants are grown and survivors from the earliest days of the garden still leaf and bloom.
It’s fascinating to watch the various techniques the two men and the other garden staff use in their work. White caterpillers of metal hoops and polyester tissue protect the tomato beds from birds and other animals. A multipronged hand hoe is raked across a bed to create perfectly spaced rows for planting. Thin cotton strings are pulled to hoist individual bean vines up to hang from a crosshatching of string above them. Bales of hay are spread by hand to keep beds warm during the cold winter and early spring. Stapel films the work straightforwardly, with slow, swooping boom shots and slower time lapse photography than audiences are used to seeing. The latter technique works quite well to preserve the relaxation the garden engenders in the viewer, even as the people on screen work hard at the many tasks they have to keep up with daily. Her ingenious shots are complemented by the meditative solo lute of Jozef van Wissen, who scored this film as well as Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).
At harvest time, Stapel’s experience in film art direction and production design comes to the forefront. She shows gardeners harvesting armfuls of luscious-looking rhubarb for the chefs who work in the estate restaurant. Then it’s a veritable card deck of fruit and vegetable varietals, shot overhead and labeled like still lifes at the Rijksmuseum, showing off the richness of our floral heritage. Freriks sees agriculture and gastronomy becoming less diverse because of industrial farming and the decline of growers who use cross-breeding techniques to develop new hybrids that can strengthen a plant line; the estate itself uses only organic pest control such as crop rotation, soil replacement, nontoxic pesticides, and visual inspection to protect the plants against damage or destruction.
Van der Have dreams of having a banquet under the pear arbor when the branches finally meet and the fruit hangs heavy above him. Freriks, however, hates that kind of thing. He prefers his plants and knowing that the work he started long ago as a steward of the earth will far outlast him. Rosie Stapel has ensured that the man himself and some of his words of wisdom also will be accessible for a long time to come.
Portrait of a Garden screens Friday, March 10 at 2 p.m. and Sunday, March 12 at 3 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)
My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
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Director/Screenwriter: Simon Fitzmaurice
2017 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Although Ireland is a modern country and vibrant part of the European Union, the cliché of the quirky, twee micks who let their freak flags fly in the soft Irish mist dies hard in film. My Name Is Emily is no exception, but its protagonists’ eccentricities arise from very real causes—traumatic loss and mental illness. And while these characters skirt the edges of those touched by the faeries, their grounding in something to which we can relate puts a lot of flesh on the bones of this well-constructed mash-up of grief processing, teen romance, and road picture.
We are introduced to our protagonist and guide, Emily (Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films), as she floats, bounces, and bubbles underwater. She has a very lengthy voiceover at the start of the film by which she introduces us to her parents (Deidre Mullins and Michael Smiley) and their odd and loving marriage. Apparently, Robert is a withdrawn person who has retreated to his study to read as many books as possible. The family is held together by the very pleasant, always smiling mother, who doesn’t get a name in this film. One day, Robert decides to emerge and regurgitate everything he’s read, becoming a teacher and then a wildly popular publishing sensation and lecturer who thinks the problems of the world could be solved if everyone had sex all the time.
Everything goes off the rails when Mom is killed in a car accident while lovingly lighting Robert’s cigarette as the two listen to the car stereo really loud because it “makes them feel young.” Robert’s behavior becomes more and more erratic until he is committed to a psychiatric hospital in the north of Ireland after yelling while naked on a Dublin street. Emily is placed in a foster home, where her foster mom, June (Ally Ni Chiarain), embarks on annoyingly cheerful attempts to make the sullen Emily happy. Emily is labeled a weirdo in her new high school; classmate Arden (George Webster), a young man with family troubles of his own, becomes smitten with her; and the pair takes off in his gran’s ancient Renault to spring Robert from his asylum.
My Name Is Emily is something of a sensation in the Irish film world because of the plight of its writer and director. Fitzmaurice was diagnosed with ALS nine years ago and given four years at most to live. His determination to continue his film career, which got off to a good start with the warm reception of his 2007 short film The Sound of People at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, helped him beat the odds not only to make and release My Name Is Emily, but also to live well beyond expectations and start work on another screenplay. It is perhaps Fitzmaurice’s underlying sadness and struggle channeled through his actors that keeps this film from triviality.
Robert, though obviously always a bit of a strange bird, can’t help but suggest Fitzmaurice’s incapacity, but also his vital love for his wife and daughter. Smiley is on top of his game, aided and abetted by Mullins in a sadly underwritten part that she infuses with warmth from her brilliantly beaming face, making her presence—and absence—felt through Emily’s affecting memories of her. Their connection broken, young Emily, played skillfully by Sarah Minto (a terrific physical match with Evanna Lynch), signifies her father’s ultimate failure of her by commenting on the failings of adults who underestimate her emotional intelligence. In the guise of sparing her feelings, they have told her her mother just went away; it wasn’t true, she says, because she couldn’t feel her mother watching over her anymore.
Minto sets an important tone with her unguarded love for her mother and Robert, providing a contrast to Evanna Lynch’s guarded, clenched teen Emily. Stubborn, reticent to the point of near-muteness, she refuses to dissect the aptly chosen Wordsworth poem Splendour in the Grass as instructed, instead interpreting its sexual longing and wistful memory for her uncomprehending yahoo of a teacher (Cathy Belton). Already noticed by Arden, played with touching unsureness by the extremely handsome Webster, Emily rebuffs him with an “I can take care of myself” when he tentatively tries to ingratiate himself by defending her in class. Her prickly remoteness, however, is underscored with slightly lingering looks that preface their eventual romance.
I liked the dynamic Fitzmaurice sets up between Emily and Arden, the former a wildly intelligent, emotional matchstick, the latter an exasperated realist drawn to her spirit and breaking free from his abusive father (Declan Conlon) in a crackerjack scene. He stands with her in a downpour trying to thumb a ride north, then just walks away; seeing the wisdom of his surrender, she follows him. She’s not the surest of leaders, but she always moves first; he defers to her when it’s safe and looks out for her when it’s not. The balance in their relationship is something one doesn’t often find in movies, and it is a definite strength.
On the downside, the film is so artfully photographed, it’s really quite distracting and threatens to take over the human story. I knew I might have trouble from the start when the newly born Emily with a doubtful set of dark-brown eyes dissolves to the blue-eyed, teenage Emily. Fortunately, the film does not repeat this kind of gaffe, and the script only rarely punts to plot conveniences and jumps of logic. I bristled mightily at a philosophy Robert and Emily adopt: “A fact is just a point of view,” painfully close to the newly minted abomination “alternative facts.” Fortunately, Arden objects as well, and Emily begins to experience a world in which the truth can, but doesn’t always hurt. And while Emily slowly reveals herself, she still retains her delicious, singular mystery. My Name Is Emily rewards patience with its generosity of spirit.
My Name Is Emily screens Saturday, March 4 at 6 p.m. and Tuesday, March 7 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
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Director: Jean Grémillon
By Roderick Heath
Jean Grémillon was little-known outside France until relatively recently, in spite his place as one of the progenitors of French cinema’s deeply influential “poetic realist” style. Some of his lack of repute might have stemmed from his wayward career, which suffered through a series of bruising switchbacks in fortune, taking him to zones of both great success and ignominy. A violinist by training, Grémillon’s interest in the link between music and film’s sources of rhythmic propulsion was stirred when he was employed as an accompanist for silent film screenings, and became fascinated with the arts of film editing. He soon started making experimental short movies and then documentaries. When he advanced into feature films in the mid-1920s, he found initial success with an aesthetic approach that attempted to forge a new path at a time when cinematic style was being dominated by German Expressionism’s overt weirdness, Russian cinema’s showy montage schemes, and Hollywood’s straightforward efficiency. Grémillon set out rather to mix naturalistic aspects, including location photography and realistic storylines, with careful visual and dramatic stylisation. Marcel Carne, soon to be probably the most significant of the poetic realists, worked as an assistant on Grémillon’s first movies, and absorbed his ideas. In spite of initial success, the coming of sound saw Grémillon’s efforts to adapt foiled by audiences struggling with the new format, so he went to make films in Germany and Spain. He regained traction at home when he started working with French cinema’s big new star Jean Gabin, who was infamously difficult to manage on set, and yet with whom Grémillon found some measure of rapport.
Grémillon became well-known for making romantic melodramas that tackled ordinary lives through a prism of vivid, heightened situations, and a feel for the less-travelled corners of French provincial life and labour, particularly Brittany, usually with strong admiration reserved for ordinary workers and labourers. The bleak years of the Occupation saw Grémillon’s creativity raised to its highest pitch in the eyes of many, with the three films he released during the war, Remorques, Lumière d’été (1943), and Le Ciel est à vous (1944), usually cited as his greatest achievements. Grémillon’s career ran out of steam in the mid-‘50s as he tried and failed to make several ambitious historical movies, and he went back to making documentaries before dying at 61, whereupon his friend Henri Langlois, the legendary director of the Cinémathèque Française, read a eulogy celebrating Grémillon’s role in modern French film and condemning the studios who cheated audiences of more great Grémillon works. Remorques was a particularly troubled production, as the outbreak of World War II had halted the initial shoot. Grémillon had originally wanted to make it as authentic as possible with location filming around Brest and on ships in his depiction of the working lives of the crews of ocean-going rescue tugboats. But he was left without enough footage, and a brief recommencement of filming in mid-1940 was quickly scuppered by the end of the Phony War. The film’s two stars, Gabin and Michele Morgan, soon fled to America ahead of the Nazi invasion. Grémillon, left to ride out the tides of war and occupation, eventually managed to finish the project by shooting model sequences. His efforts to get the film patched together were rewarded as Remorques became a big hit when it was finally released in cinemas in late 1941.
Although it placed many constraints on filmmakers, the Occupation proved an ironic boom time for French movies, as they had no imported rivals to worry about. The delay for Remorques‘ release might even have been beneficial to the vision of Grémillon and his collaborator, the brilliant poet-turned-screenwriter Jacques Prevert. The cumulatively desolating tale of masculine mission and fleeting passion rendered pathetic in the face of inexorable fate and death found in Remorques, which might have struck an audience in the anxious pre-war days of 1939 as too dour, as happened to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, surely packed the power of public myth two years later, when the country had been beaten to its knees. Remorques – the title, literally translated, means something close to “Tuggers,” although the film’s usual English title is Stormy Waters – opens with a swooping model shot descending on a mock-up of the old, fortified section of Brest, the great French sea port. The opening sequence depicts a social ritual, a wedding, an event for the crew of the tugboat Cyclone, captained by André Laurent (Gabin), as one of his crewmen, Pierre Poubennec (Marcel Duhamel), is marrying Marie (Anne Laurens). The wedding offers a panoramic view of both the tug’s crew and their ladies, and the ways of relating between the two camps.
The first flush of young love is plain in the just-married couple, whilst another crewman, Tanguy (Charles Blavette), is the half-witting target of common mockery because his wife Renée (Nane Germon) is having affairs behind his back. Laurent has been married for ten years to Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud), and they express themselves at first as a perfect union, barely able to believe so much time has passed since their own nuptials. But Yvonne confesses to her husband, in a quiet moment away from the drunken bonhomie of the celebration, that she gets very nervous when he’s away at sea, but immediately dismisses the problem as trivial when Laurent laughs disbelievingly at her words. A messenger interrupts the gaiety with word that a ship is in trouble, and the crew have to return to the Cyclone and get under way, just as a thunderstorm rolls in from the sea. One crewman, Le Gall, is late getting aboard because he’s been having a quick one with Tanguy’s wife, and Laurent dresses him down for it. The tug travels out into the increasingly violent storm, ploughing with agonising difficulty through heavy seas, but eventually beats their main competitor, a Dutch tug, to the crippled ship. Captaining the Cyclone is actually the closest thing Laurent can withstand temperamentally to a desk job, as he used to regularly make long voyages and be away for months at a time during the early days of his marriage to Yvonne. During the night with their husbands off at sea, Yvonne cheerily entertains Marie, but also confesses her dangerously frayed nerves, which are exacerbating a creeping heart ailment diagnosed by her doctor Maulette (Henri Poupon), a man she describes as too good a friend to be fully honest about how bad her disease has become.
Meanwhile, the Cyclone nears the crippled cargo ship, the Mirva XV. The Mirva’s owner-captain, Marc (Jean Marchat), is reluctant to be rescued however, as the bill will be large. He bullies and berates his crew and his wife Catherine (Morgan), who return the contempt happily, whilst Marc refuses to rig a tow rope for the Cyclone, nominally in his anger at their slowness in coming to the rescue. Bedraggled and irate, Catherine at first demands he think of his crew and her before his own hip pocket, and when he continues to screw everyone around, she and some other crewmen abandon the Mirva and row over to the tugboat. This proves a foolhardy exercise that creates great hazard for all involved, including getting two of the just-married Poubennec’s fingers crushed and amputated. Finally, Marc lets the Cyclone take the Mirva in tow, and by morning the seas have calmed. Travelling along the coast, the improperly tied tow rope breaks, forcing Laurent to string a new one. This accident gives Marc an idea, and just as the two vessels enter Brest harbour, he contrives to have the rope give way again, and then makes his own way to dock, cheating the Cyclone out of its salvage prize. Laurent, smouldering with rage, hauls Catherine back aboard her husband’s ship, and clobbers Marc once he gets an earful of his obfuscations.
Gabin and Morgan had first been featured together in Carne’s Port of Shadows (1938), one of the canonical works of poetic realism’s flowering, and Remorques similarly locates itself in a smoky, gritty, lightly stylised version of a working port. Taking on such a milieu, Grémillon courts romantic evocations in essaying seagoing stoicism and embracing the rich atmosphere of Brest and the tugboat community. But Gremillion also emphasises the wearying, nauseating experience of spending hours being tossed about in a tin can on the open ocean, and delves into this job as a rough and dangerous business that regularly claims lives or leaves its practitioners scarred and mangled. Laurent is extremely proud – perhaps to a fault – of his record as a captain, although he’s really only an employee for a shipping company. He complains bitterly after one job goes wrong that now the company will be pleased his record has been spoiled: they don’t like their underlings so unbowed. The humanitarian aspect of the tuggers’ ventures is constantly suppressed in the face of fiscal demands and the daunting realities of the angry ocean. Laurent’s forceful presence and hitherto unquestioned competence as a captain have given him standing and respect unrivalled in his world, befitting France’s top male movie actor. Gabin, whose career had been boosted playing the voice of plebeian cynicism amidst the decaying aristocratic world in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), had been the perfect embodiment of romantic fatalism in the likes of Pepe Le Moko (1936) and Le Jour Se Lève (1939), playing figures pushed into criminality, defying authority until their luck runs out, people close to the very bottom of society’s priorities but invested with unique stature by cinema’s ennobling imagistic force, through which even the most wretched character can become the axis of the universe.
Gabin’s role in Remorques pushes this persona and the attendant aesthetic to almost hallucinatory extremes, but also quietly revises and undercuts it. Still the working class hero, Laurent is however also a confident authority figure, one whose looming downfall is informed more by personal blindness than malign fate and social degradation, whilst still invoking something close to cosmic when the axe falls. Laurent’s laughing disinterest in his wife’s delicate warnings of trouble brewing soon gives way to more urgent implorations and finally a memorable crack-up when Yvonne lets loose on his egotism; even his expressions of tedium and exhaustion are symptoms of his overweening sense of himself as necessary stalwart and linchpin. “People always know where to find me,” he says when chewing out Le Gall, setting the stage for his own degradation. Catherine’s entrance into Laurent’s world, appearing out of the sea like a siren, her remarkable feline eyes burning bright and wrathful in the face of her husband’s sleaziness, seems at first just another absurd vignette in such a working life designed specifically to further goad Laurent’s stern professionalism. But soon of course Laurent is utterly smitten with this lady as she parts ways with Marc once in port and takes refuge in a hotel. She calls Laurent over for a talk, and he lends a sympathetic ear as she explains how once she was a desperate youth in Le Havre who snatched at the first offer of marriage just get out of her rut. Meanwhile Laurent’s sad-sack boatswain Kerlo (Fernand Ledoux, one of classic French cinema’s most quintessential faces) muses on life’s absurdity with proto-existentialist humour when he notes to the cook, “It’s impossible to escape boredom. I know, I’ve tried everything.”
Much of Remorques is set at night, with overwhelming elemental forces looming on the horizon when not already thundering about Grémillon’s protagonists. Photographer Rene-Jacques took a much-loved picture of Gabin during the production which he entitled “La Homme de nuit,” a perfect encapsulation of a certain brand of archly masculine mystique, the iconic French hero almost but not quite dissolving amidst rain and murk. Remorques is obsessed with this quality, but is also more sophisticated as it injects irony and inspects dichotomies until they lose shape. The special effects Grémillon was obliged to shoot for seagoing scenes are weak, but they’re employed in a manner that fleshes out this sense of primeval furies on the loose, as the ships, expressions of human will and rigour, bob amidst crashing waves, staying afloat under all assaults. The warning call of the Cyclone, loud and strange enough to be audible and identifiable from miles away, pulling in the crew for action and alerting the ships they sail out to help of their presence, sounds vaguely monstrous. It’s an appropriately bloodcurdling sound for when the tug circles the disabled Mirva under flare light, wounded ship and prowling tug dancing around on heavy seas. The dichotomy between the reasoned, orderly, settled world left behind back in port is illustrated with perfect economy, and no small technical skill, by Grémillon when he stages a camera movement retreating through the window of Laurents’ apartment, a shot of Yvonne and Marie left behind to their contemplations passing invisibly through the glass into wild rain, in a moment that presages, and in some ways outdoes for thematic relevance tied to cinematic effect, the more famous nightclub roof shot in Citizen Kane (1941). These contrasted spaces, calm, well-found home and chaotic universe, are presented in near-surreal contrast, but Grémillon carefully probes appearances and quickly finds termites in the structure of domestic bliss, as Yvonne is slowly being killed by anxiety although she never ventures out onto the sea herself, slowly dissipating whilst playing out the role of loving wife. “Everyone’s got troubles,” Laurent rebukes Catherine when she first arrives on board: “They should be left at home. Like women.” But his neat distinctions don’t stand up to any pressure.
Catherine, the one piece of salvage successfully recovered by the Cyclone, is cast as sylph temptress tossed onto the shore by the storm to lure in the virtuous Laurent. Except that no-one in Remorques quite fits their part, and Catherine, trying out her land legs again after years entrapped with the despicable Marc, reaches out to Laurent as the closest thing to a friend. Soon they’re drawn into a quick fling both are willing to mistake for eternal passion, before the call of responsibility takes Laurent back to Yvonne’s side and Catherine prepares to move on with the simplicity of someone who knows this drill, giving Kerlo a keepsake to give to his captain as a memento if ever he needs one. Morgan’s eyes, rimmed with tears and phosphorescent with melancholic triumph, attract Gremillion for an epic close-up in her last moments on screen here, as she wishes happiness for Laurent even as she’s already moving on. Remorques manages to coexist in both the rugged vicissitudes of a genre film close to the Warner Bros. working class action films and the Women’s Pictures of the same era. But Grémillon also stands back to consider how the two styles relate to each-other, the web of cultural assumptions and personal fantasies invested in both, the tension between the official doctrines of manly workaday pride and the feminine art of knitting a safe space, whilst adding that most French of topics, infidelity, the hunger for passion that, like the storm, sets all settlements in riot. Arching over all is a metaphysical aspect, something close to the cosmic level found in Frank Borzage’s films, if essayed in a grimmer hue. In spite of the unions civic, sexual, and contractual in Remorques, everyone is some form of solitary vessel floating around the others. “Unhappy people easily recognise one another,” Kerlo tells Catherine: “Life would be too sad otherwise.” The undercurrent of proto-feminist feeling that flows through the film, with both Yvonne and Catherine fighting in their way to avoid being dragged down by the contrasting yet ultimately similar obsessions of their husbands, is wound in uniquely with its accidental status as an Occupation-era film, as frustrations are voiced, taboos abruptly ruptured, suppressed feeling suddenly explode, everything suddenly thrown into flux. Grémillon would take this confluence further on Le Ciel est à vous, where he would cast Renaud as an aviatrix valiantly pursuing a flying record, purveyed as a metaphor for resistance against the fascist yoke.
The first half of the film is close to one, long sequence unified as a series of interlocking events, commencing with careful deployment of the complex mesh of personalities and tones of the wedding, an event that encompasses modes of expression from pompous homilies to wine-soaked bawdiness in the margins, and seguing directly into the Cyclone’s voyage out to rescue the Mirva. This is a sequence of careful, layered physical detail, interwoven with the continuing arguments and running jokes of the crew. The crew of the Cyclone, and the attention of the audience, only finds relief the following day when the tugboat returns to port, after the storm has died. The watery sun invades the humdrum parlours and cafes, presenting the illusion of returned stability and rationality, and washes over the coastline, just in time to catch Laurent and Catherine walking on the beach. There they toe the flotsam left on the sands, and retreat into an abandoned beachfront house where they play-act creating a home, whilst finding a good stage to finally enact what’s been arcing between them unacknowledged. The serious romantic travails are contrasted lightly with Tanguy’s cuckold status, a popular subject of allusive jokes and teasing around the tug. Laurent encourages him to confront his wife, but Tanguy is swiftly disarmed by her dissembling chattering. Later, Laurent, weighing up his own rapidly evolving hypocrisy, tells him to forget what he said, as no-one outside a marriage can really understand what makes each one persist. By this time he’s committed his own crime by being hard to find, away with a woman who’s not his wife, discovered by one of his crew combing the coast on a motorcycle. Yvonne’s awareness that her husband has probably been off with another woman precipitates a gruelling scene of marital grievance-airing, punctuated by Yvonne’s frantic demands Laurent recognise the reality of her problems. Her shots at his very identity, his pride as a worker and leader and a man, by claiming he likes to own things, from his boat to his wife, drive Laurent away in a fury, believing his marriage finished.
The atoll of romantic fulfilment Laurent tries to retreat into with Catherine proves exceptionally short-lived, as Catherine predicts: “The storm is coming to get me. I know what he’s crying. ‘It’s over. You’ve been happy too long. Now it’s time to go.’” Quintessential fatalism for poetic realism, the doomed lovers sprawled on a hotel room bed, transient feelings from beings snatching a moment of bliss. But Remorques shifts into a more intense and spectacularly woeful key for its finale, as Yvonne experiences a heart attack, bringing Laurent back to her bedside for a desperate interlude of pathos as Yvonne suddenly dies begging for Laurent’s avowal of love, his anguished scream echoing out to the others waiting in his apartment. When he appears to them, he’s just the staring shell of a man, obligated to answer the call of duty even in the eye of utter desolation. He paces down to the dock to join the Cyclone, which has to go out on a mission, in another stinging irony, to save their Dutch rivals. As Grémillon tracks Laurent’s progress through the drenching rain and the cold stonework and wrought-iron forms of the Brest waterfront, a strange liturgical recital begins to resound on the soundtrack, invocations of saints and agents dogging his footsteps, surging on to a creepy orchestral accompaniment that cuts out just before Laurent orders the tug to get under way, heading out into the dark. Grémillon’s background in music surely played a part in executing this fantastical yet perfect matching of vision and sound in a climax that counts as one of the strangest, bleakest, and greatest in cinema. It’s an incantatory moment that sets the seal on a domestic tragedy that has a conventional moral aspect, but which expands thanks to this startling flourish into something far more wild and unique. Here Remorques generates a frenzied aspect of baleful prayer, offering a requiem for an entire falling, drowning world, the end of a cinema genre and a human age.
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Director: Paul Leni
By Roderick Heath
Paul Leni’s name might not be as instantly recognisable to movie lovers as his fellows in the legendary days of German “Expressionist” cinema, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Nonetheless, Leni stands with them as one of the major creative figures of that style, of the budding horror film genre, and of the great mature phase of silent cinema in general. Leni beat both directors to the punch in emigrating to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, where he did vital work fusing the concerted visual effects of the UFA approach with the steady, rhythmically intense storytelling motifs of Hollywood, and so perhaps had the most immediate impact on a generation of directors emerging at the time, including Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein. Like Murnau, he would die tragically young and at the peak of his talents, in his case from blood poisoning resulting from an abscessed tooth, a sad and ridiculous fate somehow in keeping with the tenor of Leni’s ripely morbid works. Leni’s initial work in cinema came as a set designer and decorator, a vocation he had learnt in the theatres of Berlin, and soon plied for directors including Joe May and E. A. Dupont. He continued to provide art direction for other filmmakers even after he made his debut as director, Dr Hart’s Diary (1917). Leni’s true calling card was however to be Waxworks, one of the near-mythical works springing from the king tide of Expressionism in German film.
Following Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Waxworks similarly offers an early take on the anthology film, composed of short, distinct but stylistically and thematically related stories. His screenwriter on the project was Henrik Galeen, who penned several Expressionist classics including Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) and Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Waxworks commences with a young poet, played by William Dieterle, later to become a significant director himself, invited to visit a waxworks show that travels with a carnival that’s rolled into town: the carnival is popular but the waxworks is ignored. The poet speaks to the manager of the show (John Gottowt) and his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), and learns they want someone to write entertaining stories to lend mythos to the major figures in the show, which are Harun-Al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad who featured in Arabian Nights, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper, who is conflated here with Spring-Heeled Jack, the supernatural wayfarer who supposedly terrorised London in the late eighteenth century. The poet readily takes up the exhibitors’ offer, and even quickly and amusedly amends a proposed tale when the owner accidentally breaks a limb off the Harun figure; thus the poet begins to tell the story of how the Caliph lost his arm. Leni then begins to illustrate the poet’s historical fantasia, with Harun personified as a corpulent autocrat, played by Emil Jannings. Harun plays chess with his Grand Vizier on a terrace of his castle, only to be disturbed when a cloud of black smoke begins to spoil the day’s splendour. Angry because he was losing the match, Harun sends his Vizier out to track down whoever is making the smoke and execute them. The source of the pollution proves to be the chimney of a baker (Dieterle again), who is married to the most beautiful woman in Baghdad, Maimune (Belajeff again). Delighted with the glimpse he catches of her as she flirts with her husband and then him from her vantage, the Vizier forgets his vicious duty and instead returns to tell the Caliph of this desirable jewel.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), immortal as the founding work of the film Expressionist style, had a cunning metafictional device to frame it, as the protagonists in the central drama of mesmerism and murder were revealed to be lunatics in an asylum, reconfigured into actors in a psychotic’s fantasy. By comparison, Waxwork’s frame has a lighter, humorous quality, as the poet’s fancies are devices for flirting with Eva. Except that Waxworks’ chapters essentially tell the same story over in variances, becoming increasingly direct and intensified in figuring the lovers and the deadly threat. Woven in with this is an equal and increasingly nervous contemplation of the individual vulnerable in the face of ravening power, couched first social and political terms, in Harun and Ivan, and then in the lurking, miasmic pure dread of Jack the Ripper. This first episode offers the theme in a mildly comedic manner, as Harun and the baker make expeditions to claim what the other one has: Harun wants the baker’s wife and the baker, trying to appease her stoked desire for worldly rewards, decides to break into the palace and steal Harun’s wish-granting magic ring. The Vizier’s visit has stoked awareness in both baker and bride of their lowly, straitened circumstances, and their festering resentments break out afterwards, with the baker stomping out on his vainglorious mission with the declaration, “I am a man!” This talismanic phrase recurs with more specific force in Leni’s later film, The Man Who Laughs, but its implicit declaration of the innate rights and stature of the individual echoes throughout Waxworks. It’s not hard to look for its relevance to real-world circumstances at the time – Germany was deep in the grip of the post-war reparations-induced economic crisis. Murnau’s The Last Laugh the same year tackled, again with Jannings, the same theme of desperation and dehumanisation through fiscal crisis.
In the first chapter, this battle resolves comically after Leni intercuts Harun’s surprisingly clumsy, self-satisfied efforts to seduce Eva, with her husband’s adventures. He steals into the palace and penetrates the shadowy, cavernous reaches of his bedchamber, locating what he thinks is the Caliph but is actually a dummy he leaves in his bed when he goes out on such nocturnal adventures. Believing the dummy is the real Caliph, the baker slices off the figure’s arm and flees, dodging guards and finally escaping the palace with a daring leap onto a palm tree that swings him over the battlement. He returns to his home, as his wife hurriedly hides the Caliph in the only secret place available – the oven. The baker’s venture to steal a fake version of the seemingly mystical jewel proves just as vainglorious as the Caliph’s seduction, and it’s left to Maimune to conjure a fittingly advantageous end for all concerned as she pretends to use the stolen jewel to wish the Caliph to appear alive, whereupon he crawls out of the oven, covered in soot but saved from profound embarrassment, and to repay the favour he appoints the baker the official baker to the palace, leaving off with a final image of the Caliph embracing both partners, cheekily redolent of a ménage-a-trois in the offing. This chapter of Waxworks somewhat belies the film’s reputation as a classic specifically of horror cinema, instead signalling a link between the performative professionalism and flimflammer art of the carnival and the stage pantomime, as well as reaching back to the portmanteau storytelling tradition as represented by the Arabian Nights itself, as well as the labours of Germanic anthologists like Hoffmann and the Grimm brothers.
This sense of Waxworks as a cultural bridging point is important in itself. The major “characters” of the waxworks are introduced with the actors who embody them noted at the same time, reducing the great historical figures and the big stars to rigid figures, powerless without poets to animate them. Meanwhile the narrative performs a similar function, turning these real beings into functions of a private mythological and psychological universe. The stylisation of the settings, the quintessential flourish of the Expressionist style, aims not for realism but for a brand of minimalist, almost symbolic representation. Whereas with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang laboured to fuse together the dreamlike aspect of Expressionism’s already-familiar twisting reaches and heavy shadows with a three-dimensional sense of scale and stature, here Leni pushes in the opposite direction, reducing his setting and backdrop as close towards the insubstantial as he can without quite going entirely abstract. The curving minarets and bowing walls of the palace, up which snakes the black spout of the baker’s inconvenient chimney. The awesome yet almost melting halls of the palace interior, where minions steal between warped columns and smoke and incense dreamily fill the corridors, is definitely a place of the mind, an inner sanctum of libidinous greed, whereas the baker’s home is almost a cave, curved and womb-like. The second chapter, shorter than the first, repeats the motif of the mighty, arbitrary ruler of life and death imposing himself on a pair of young lovers. This time, however, the theme is Ivan the Terrible, presented as a glowing-eyed lunatic stricken with a compulsive, almost childlike fascination for the horrors he can reap on just about anyone he pleases. Where Jannings’ bluff, hammy performance was suited for the take on Harun as corpulent, casually murderous but actually easily tamed potentate, this chapter offers Conrad Veidt as an unnervingly fixated, spindly-limbed emanation of the sickliest part of the id, glimpsed moving in a stiff crouch along a dank passage that connects his apartments with the Kremlin’s torture chambers.
This tale, shorter and sharper than its predecessor, strips the bark off the fantasy figuration of lust and power. Leni presents Ivan as a monster governed and, to a degree, held in check by an elaborate network of irrational devices. In particular, a giant hourglass is used to measure how long his victims will be tortured, their names written on the glass. When the sand runs out, so does their tenure on Earth. Ivan’s astrologer, his closest confidant, inspires suspicions in the tyrant’s mind over the loyalty of his head poison-mixer, and so Ivan decides to have him arrested. The poisoner, in turn, vengefully writes Ivan’s name on the hourglass before he’s arrested. Ivan’s dubious pleasures are interrupted with a boyar arrives, asking him to attend his daughter’s wedding. The paranoid Tsar at first takes the old man’s entreaty as a set-up to lure him into an assassination, but then agrees to be a guest, with one codicil: he insists that the boyar dress in his clothes, and vice versa. The Tsar’s instincts prove right, as a hidden gang of assassins tries to skewer him with an arrow as he rides through Moscow, but their bolt, aimed at the regally-dressed figure, kills the boyar instead. Ivan arrives at the boyar’s house and triumphantly announces his arrival, forgetting the detail that the bride’s father is dead. The bride (Belajeff) weeps over his body and her husband (Dieterle) releases a tirade of fury at the Tsar, for which he is instantly imprisoned and tortured. The Tsar also has the bride spirited to his chambers to seduce her. She strikes him with a crop instead, so he drags her down to witness her husband’s sufferings. His pleasure is however cut short as his astrologer brings him the hourglass marked with his name, believing it means the poisoner successfully dosed the Tsar fatally. Ivan spirals into complete insanity as he thinks he’s dying, and he keeps turning the hourglass over, believing this will stay the moment of his death. A title card explains he kept doing this until the day he died.
Here the insistent correlation of the eroticised id with a will to worldly power becomes more distinctly maniacal and driving, whilst the watch-like parts of the story tick on with swift, precise effect. This chapter of Waxworks seems to have had an almost endless influence on many who have followed, most especially Eisenstein, who clearly drew upon it for his similarly arch take on the Tsar in Ivan the Terrible Parts I (1944) and II (1958), reproducing the angular sets and equally angular performances. Leni himself would build upon it with The Man Who Laughs, and Sternberg would draw on both, surely, for his own visit to the realm of the historical fantasia, The Scarlet Empress (1934). The last chapter of Waxworks is very short, almost an appendix, but it’s also the most bizarre and remarkable sequence. Here the poet imagines he and Eva are being stalked around the carnival and town by Jack the Ripper, who seems to disappear like a phantom and reappear, and even manifests in many places at once, as the world becomes increasingly strange and distorted. Finally the poet is shaken awake by Eva: he’s been having a nightmare, and he gratefully embraces his new lover. Here Leni slips all bonds of narrative precept and essentially offers a visualised nightmare, a plunge into a formless state of irrationality, where the poet’s invented enemies and rivals for Eva’s affections void all forms to become a blank, implacable engine of erotic threat. Here is both the seed for the image of the slasher killer who would later maraud his way across many a movie screen in the next century, a psychological conception of threat stripped out of all zone of actual human interest – Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are distant descendants. But Leni’s flourishes of style here also veer into virtually experimental film style in his madly proliferating double exposures and increasingly formless sense of space, used to evoke the complete inward spiral of the psyche towards an ultimate confrontation with that dark character within. Here too is kinship with the lawless effects of filmmakers as diverse as Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, and Maya Deren.
Waxworks made Leni’s name, and within a couple of years he went to Hollywood on Carl Laemmle’s invitation. His sense of humour as well as style and menace might well have put in him good stead with Tinseltown, and his first American project was to film Crane Wilbur’s comedy-horror play The Cat and the Canary (1927). That film proved a big hit, laying down a template that would soon resolve into Universal’s house style of horror and offering fillips of style that still recur in horror films today, like its restless, entity-suggesting camerawork. Leni’s third Hollywood film, The Man Who Laughs, has a legendary lustre today, in part because of its pop cultural influence, particularly on that perennial enemy of Batman, The Joker. There’s an irony in there, as the eponymous hero of Leni’s film, adapted from the novel L’homme qui rit by Victor Hugo, couldn’t be more different to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s enigmatic psychopath. Like Hugo’s other, more famous protagonists Quasimodo and Jean Valjean, The Man Who Laugh’s central figure Gwynplaine represents a politically abused but potentially powerful underclass, and like Quasimodo his exterior ugliness belies his fine, tortuously sensitive humanity. The film also reunited Leni with Veidt on new shores. The Man Who Laughs kicks off with a long prologue where, although the settings are more tangible and vivid, returns to the Ivan the Terrible episode of Waxworks as it depicts the English King James II (Samuel de Grasse) and his jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) descend from palace to dungeon at the news his soldiers have captured the rebellious Lord Clancharlie (Veidt). James gloats over Clancharlie for sadistic jollies as he informs him that, as a punishment in his father’s stead, his young son Gwynplaine has been handed over to a sect of gypsies known as comprachico, who specialise in creating deformed and disabled freaks for carnivals, with the instructions to carve his son’s face into a permanent grin, “to laugh forever at his fool father.”
The opening scenes of The Man Who Laughs are a remarkable string of images and settings. The statue-lined environs of James’ bedchamber. The jester’s malignant face looking out of a secret passage framed by carved monstrosities. The iron maiden closing around Lord Clancharlie as he prays for his son. The wind and snow-whipped shore where the comprachicos, sent into exile by James after they’ve done his gruesome bidding, flock onto a boat but abandon young Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr) to the elements. The mutilated child gropes his way through a blizzard studded with hanged bodies dangling from gibbets, the harvest of James’ repressions. Gwynplaine comes across a woman, frozen to death but with her infant child still clutched to her breast. He saves the baby and brings her to the parked caravan of travelling actor Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who recognises that the baby is blind and demands of the boy, “Stop that laughing!” before he realises he cannot. Ursus takes both youngsters in and they make a living travelling between country fairs. By the time Gwynplaine (Veidt again) and the girl, named Dea (Mary Philbin), have grown into adults, Gwynplaine has gained fame, bordering on folk heroism, as a clown and entertainer. Along with a band of fellow players, he, Ursus, and Dea enact a play written by Ursus called “The Man Who Laughs.” But fate has a mean gag in store when they roll into Southwark Fair in London’s suburbs, a setting modelled after one of William Hogarth’s famously ebullient but also viciously satiric engravings. Here the comprachico surgeon who gave him his remarkable countenance, Dr Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), now living under a pseudonym, recognises his handiwork on Gwynplaine’s face, and writes a letter to the current holder of the Clancharlie estate, the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), a debauched aristocrat and illegitimate sister of the current ruler Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). The message however is intercepted by Barkilphedro, now working for the court and visiting Josiana, and he alerts Anne to this strange and potentially propitious discovery: Josiana has been irritating Anne with her wilfully arrogant behaviour and wanton escapades, and a neat device of punishment is now open to her.
Le homme qui rit was written by Hugo when he was in exile from France for his harshly critical writings on the national authorities, and he wrote it to serve as much as an oddball political parable as a standard historical romance. Leni keeps intact both its nominal setting in English history but also its weird, Ruritanian aspect, using this just as Hugo did – as an excuse to indulge his weird fancies. Although the sorts of things they’re depicted as doing had been real practices in times much further past, the comprachicos were just the first of Hugo’s inventions. After the gruesome, outsized fairytale flourishes of the opening, The Man Who Laughs slowly resolves into something more like a melodrama, if one still laced with dimensions of perversity. Those dimensions resolve as Gwynplaine is tortured by Dea’s love for him, believing he has no right to impose someone of his grotesque stature on her, although she can’t see the affliction. He sees some hope, however, when Josiana visits the fair where he’s performing and, compelled by his strange appearance, invites him to her manor. Gwynplaine, convincing himself that if someone can actually love him in spite of his deformity than he has the right to love Dea, accepts the invitation. He finds himself the object of a fetishist’s electric, potently erotic blend of repulsion and fascination, as Josiana rejoices in his hideousness, clearly turned on by it in a sick way that Gwynplaine correctly senses is merely the flipside of the more familiar horror and mockery he receives rather than a negation of it. But then Josiana receives a letter from the Queen, informing her that now Gwynplaine has been found, he will be restored to his rightful inheritance, and she will be obligated to marry him. Josiana’s rueful laughter, signalling awareness she’s about to nailed to this particular point of her character as her cross just as surely as Gwynplaine’s face is his, sends Gwynplaine running.
This proves the catalyst for Gwynplaine finally allowing Dea to feel the nature of his disfigurement, a moment that resolves with Dea’s gorgeously corny line, “God took away my sight to see the real Gwynplaine!” Both Philbin and Baclanova featured in two other, quite different yet pertinent takes on the fundamental dichotomy presented here, as Philbin had previously played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera (1926), opposite Lon Chaney, and Baclanova would go on to again be the figure of taunting sensuality before the misshapen in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Even on the cusp of happiness, Gwynplaine can’t escape the peculiar trap that is identity: he’s arrested by royal soldiers and taken to prison, to be press-ganged into Anne’s plan for him. When Ursus follows him there, he mistakes a funeral procession for Hardquanonne, who had been captured and held there too, for Gwynplaine’s. Leni continues to stage remarkable sequences, as when the players pretend to be putting on a normal show to keep Dea from learning of his apparent death, and the lengthy finale in which Gwynplaine is presented to the House of Lords whilst Dea, realising he’s alive, gropes blindly to find her way to him. For all its facets of brilliance, however, The Man Who Laughs is peculiarly lumpy experience dramatically speaking, splitting the difference between gothic grandeur, sickly satire, and sentimental melodrama, before resolving in a manner fit for a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. The hoary plot never quite builds to any sequences as memorable as those in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which, interestingly, Waxworks star Dieterle would film in 1939), whilst the attempt to go for a crowd-pleasing tone in the final lap is underlined when Barkilphedro gets his comeuppance, his throat ripped out by Ursus’ loyal dog.
That such a mixture doesn’t entirely blend isn’t surprising, as Laemmle’s determination to repeat the success of The Phantom of the Opera saw a few too many cooks adding to the broth on the script level. But The Man Who Laughs packs a wallop regardless because of the fervour Leni and Veidt invest in it. Here was the perfect role for Veidt and the perfect mythology for Leni. Veidt’s appearance, a dental plate used to make his permanent smile-snarl seem all the more unnatural, offers a face turned into a kabuki mask, rigid and lunatic. And yet watching how Veidt sketches emotions around the edges of this offers a master class in expressive performing. Perhaps the high point of the film, at once hallucinatory and unsparing in its gaze, comes when Gwynplaine first appears on stage at one of his shows. The smile he turns on his audiences gains delirious power, sending the crowd into convulsions and bringing Josiana under the spell of a peculiar charisma, her fixation communicated in a series of superimpositions and dissolves, beautiful (but ugly) man and ugly (but beautiful) man bound together, a visual etude of awareness that one must exist to give meaning the other. His hideousness sparks merriment, becomes a leer of mutual mockery, a telegraph to the common folk suggesting the dark side of the society they live in, and finally locating an accord with them, on the level of frail humanity, the embodiment of all absurdity. To see Gwynplaine is to have an existential crisis that can only be resolved in laughter, whilst the man himself experiences the sexual thrill of intense masochism being satisfied, and exultation in his rare fame.
The vividness of Leni and Veidt’s realisation of this theme surely was to echo on through Universal’s subsequent horror films with their tragic antiheroes. As Gwynplaine eventually rises from the status of clown to lord, he manages the more important evolution, finally voiced when bellows with righteous fury at the stunned toffs and fatuous queen: “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a lord! But God made me a man!” It’s the climactic moment of the film and of the revealing thread of interest that runs through from Waxworks to this film, the depiction of brutal power: Gwynplaine’s declaration of the rights of man is every bit as totemic, and instantly punishable, as the baker and bridegroom’s invective against their tyrants and the evils forced by life in the earlier film. Fortunately, Gwynplaine’s new status cuts a swathe through the stunned lords, giving him a brief window of escape before the Queen’s heavies move in, and he stages a successful flight across the rooftops of London. This sequence , as with the baker’s escape from the palace in Waxworks, reveals Leni’s gifts at the free rush of action as well in creating the tangled moods of psychic anxiety. In spite of the never-never setting of both films, or perhaps because of it, a genuine charge of palpable meaning emerges from such flourishes. Leni’s world is a place of wandering, rootless but free artists and yearning poets, twisted beings full of humanity, and monstrous forces of political and social power. But, most fundamentally, for both the poet and Gwynplaine, the man himself is his own enemy. Leni’s small but still vital oeuvre is charged with this sense of duality. The monster is stalking us; the monster is us.
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Directors/Co-screenwriters: Konstantin Ershov, Georgi Kropachyov
By Roderick Heath
Nikolai Gogol’s story “Viy” was included in a volume of his story collection Tales of Mirgorod. Like his most famous tale, the historical novella “Tara Bulba” included in the same collection, “Viy” was a tribute to the wealth of history and traditions of rural Ukraine and southern Russia and the people who live there, particularly the Cossack nations. Gogol nominally based his story in real myths he harvested in the region, but the tale’s basic underpinnings have a vital similarity to ghost story traditions from right around the world, those stories in which a callow young man on the road encounters an evil spirit in the form of a woman. Gogol essentially invented his variation however, including the title character, a troll king who appears in the climax of the tale, whilst trying to capture the flavour of the parochial traditions he was steeped in and was trying to convey fervently, in an age when literature was often urgently engaged with trying to define the supposed ethereal quintessence of national cultures. Although his literature was often devoted to excoriating the absurd and backward aspects of his time and its culture, Gogol was a committed Slavophile, and eventually finished up subscribing to a brand of fervent religious nationalism. This faith first pushed him to try and extend his novel Dead Souls into a parable exploring the whole Russian character, before burning the new material he had written, depression and ill-health reinforcing his new conviction that art was profane. In the following century, the Soviet government was notoriously averse to morbid and mystical themes in art. When Viy was filmed in 1967, it was the first horror film ever produced in the Soviet Union.
Writer and filmmaker Konstantin Ershov and production designer Georgi Kropachyov joined forces to create a more faithful adaptation and shared directing credits on the result. Another filmmaker contributing to the script was Aleksandr Ptushko, known at the time in Soviet cinema for his special effects work and for directing fantasy films, including a 1935 version of Gulliver’s Travels, and the 1956 epic Ilya Muromets (which Mystery Science Theatre 3000 aficionados might recall under the title The Sword and the Dragon). Ptushko also provided Viy’s simple yet ebullient, ingeniously deployed visual effects. Perhaps to clear ground for a work in a genre held in such opprobrium by the authorities, Viy offers a wry, even comic take on horror film, albeit one that also works up a peculiar intensity in its second half. Gogol’s story was an ideal subject to break the moratorium. A work resting squarely in the classic canon of Russian literature, it was based in safely historical, distant regional traditions and without any suggestion of psychological metaphor or transgressive meaning. Viy is rife with black humour mediating the onslaughts of supernatural menace, with a streak of anti-clerical and socially critical humour that squarely mocks institutions of Russian society held as old, decrepit, and outmoded under the Soviets. “Viy” had already served as inspiration for Mario Bava’s great debut film La Maschera del Demonio (1960), although that story had taken the setting, a Slavic backwater, and the theme of an evil witch tormenting men of learning, and married it to a more traditional type of vampire story and Bava’s potent brand of erotically charged evil. Viy, on the other hand, is closer to “The Wurdalak” episode in Bava’s I Tre Volti della Paura (1963), in conjuring a sense of blasted, paranoid anxiety in the sharp opposition of the great expanses of the Steppes and a claustrophobic outpost under supernatural siege.
The opening scenes hit a note of raucous good-humour as it depicts a mob of young seminarians in a Kiev monastery being released into the unsuspecting world for vacation, molesting washer women, lampooning their rector by trying to make a goat read, stealing food from vendors, and generally running riot. The distinctly unholy behaviour of the religious students, told off by the Rector (Pyotr Vesklyarov) for their wild ways before they flee into the countryside, sets off a tale where the vital tension lies between the way things are supposed to be and the unruly reality beneath, where the ultimate evil is a creature that can see all, as long as it can keep its eyes open. The seminarians travel on foot in gradually shrinking groups as they split and head towards their home towns. Three of the students, theologian Khaliava (Vadim Zakharchenko), rhetorician Tibery Gorobets (Vladimir Salnikov), and philosopher Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), are eventually all that is left of one of these travelling bands, and, as night falls, they get lost in the hinterland. Balking at camping under the stars, they keep groping in the dark until eventually they come across a farmhouse. They beg the old woman who seems to be the householder (actually played by a man, Nikolay Kutuzov) for a place to sleep for the night. The crone replies her house is already full of guests, but eventually agrees to stash them in different places. Khoma gets his bed in the stable on a pile of straw.
During the night, the crone enters the stable and advances on him with an apparently lustful look: “No, it’s Lent,” Khoma exclaims: “And you couldn’t tempt me for all the gold in the world!” But the crone picks him up with peculiar strength, manipulates him like a toy, and climbs on his back, making him carry her like a horse. Once she gets him outside, she grabs a broom and levitates, carrying him under her legs, for a flight across the countryside reminiscent of Faust’s journey with Mephistopheles in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film of that story. Khoma realises he’s in the clutches of a witch, and when the crone lands, Khoma grabs up a stick and furiously beats her. Suddenly, the crone turns into a beautiful young woman who gasps that he’s killing her, and Khoma recoils in shock. Leaving the battered and bleeding girl in the field, Khoma dashes off through the reed-choked swamps and eventually makes his way back to the seminary. But there he finds that his peculiar destiny is not going to let go of him. A gang of Cossacks from an outlying village has arrived in search of him, and arranged with the Rector to ensure he goes with them back to their village, to say prayers for a girl who has died. All Khoma is told is that he was specifically insisted upon by the girl’s father, and that he’s going to attend whether he likes it or not, as the Rector feels he needs a good punishment for his rowdy ways. When they reach the village, Khoma learns that the dead girl, Pannochka (Natalya Varley), named him as the man to pray for her, and her father is local boyar. He demands that Khoma pray in the church over his daughter’s body for the prescribed three night period on the promise of 1,000 gold coins if he fulfils the task or 1,000 lashes if he doesn’t. And, of course, Pannochka proves to be the witch he killed.
Viy has a strain of sly, even cruel irony underlying its playful surface that slowly emerges, as it studies a situation Khoma falls into and realises he has no way out of save death or triumph. To triumph means he must draw on resources he, as a man officially studying to become a religious and philosophical luminary, knows he doesn’t have. The tumult of the raucous, randy, hungry students fleeing the seminary at the outset gives way to glorious surveys of the open Russian countryside, a place of seemingly endless bounties. Only then does the scope of the drama compress, the trio of pompous scholars promptly getting lost in a field as the sun goes down. Khoma finds his world reduced first to the village he is brought to, a septic little kingdom where the boyar rules, and then to the confines of the village church, a place cordoned off from the normal rules of reality, where elemental battles will take place. Khoma however is a citizen of a grey zone that permits him no easy identity: unwilling to devote himself to religious strictures but, as an intellectual in a theocratic society, having no other recourse but the church, he’s been ripped from his roots in the Cossack village: he can still sing along with his fellows from the region, but is left an object of curiosity mixed with contempt. Much of which Khoma deserves. He is, by his own confession, a slovenly student and potential clergyman. Whilst trying to talk the boyar out of forcing him to make his vigil, Khoma denies he’s known for his piety: “I visited a baker’s wife on Maundy Thursday!” He’s better at carousing and eating, but these prove futile escapes from the duty he is obligated to perform. His attempts to escape the village constantly prove embarrassing jokes, as the boyar’s men easily corral him.
This aspect of Viy has a certain thematic similarity to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964), as an outsider finds himself trapped and pressganged into meeting the needs of a tiny, virtually forgotten community on the fringes of civilisation. A quality in Gogol’s writing that anticipated the later emergence of surrealism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and the peculiar imaginings of Franz Kafka is also detectable. Khoma’s situation plays like an inversion of Kafka’s The Castle, in which the protagonist can’t escape being locked in rather than locked out (Dead Souls pivots on a similarly surreal notion, a plot to make money from serfs who are literally dead, but alive in a bureaucratic and financial sense). Meanwhile, the ritualistic structure of the churchman repeatedly going into battle with an evil force that possesses a young girl anticipates The Exorcist (1973), although that film’s iron-cast moral certainties are mocked well beforehand as the representative of holy certitude here is hardly an ideal avatar, and his battle against evil is more like an extended, drunken attempt to simply weather the storm. Ershov and Kropachyov play up the sardonic side of Gogol’s tale in regards to religion and also social power evinced by various forms of elder, be it the Rector who sends Khoma off gruffly to his fate, or the boyar who forces Khoma to do his bidding. In the style of the morality-play quality apparent in many a real folk tale, Khoma represents hypocrisy, drunkenness, and self-indulgence.
Under pressure, Khoma’s roots in the hard-drinking, hard-living Cossack way are swiftly revealed, whilst to the villagers he represents a momentary insight into a way of life usually cordoned off from their own: “Just what are you seminarians taught?” one demands to know: “What the deacon says when he’s in church, or other things?” Khoma, hardly paying attention, performs an expert trick with his vodka cup, making his drinking companions coo in wonderment, “What a great scholar! I want to be a seminarian too!” The filmmakers inject a visual joke as Khoma, thoroughly soused, sees three different versions of the same man emerging from three tavern doors. For all his faults, though, once Khoma feels the heavy hand on his shoulder the smiling face only briefly distracts from, and is forced to go through with his terrifying vigil, he has our sympathy, for his reactions are only to a strange, arbitrary, humiliating world only slightly more coherent than the manifestations of the supernatural that dog him. The sight of the old witch turning Khoma into her personal pony-boy, laced with perverse erotic suggestions even as it’s played for laughs, is echoed later when one of the villagers recounts how Pannochka ran off with one of the young men of the village, who carried her out on his shoulders. The villagers were well aware Pannochka was a witch; only her father had no clue, and although he senses something strange in her dying wish to receive holy rites from this specific, unworthy representative of religion, nonetheless he commits grimly to the task.
Although very different in style with its breezy, straightforward storytelling to the more esoteric aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov, two of Soviet cinema’s highest-profile talents of the day, Viy shares a spirit in common with their works nonetheless, for it tries to convey an authentically folkloric vision and a quintessence of one corner of the cultural inheritance. That’s the part of the psychic landscape within that inheritance, where the collective memory has hazy fringes, the place where ancestors lived and the things they took to be trye still takes on a type of reality, if only in the freakish fancies lurk and the monstrosities parents use to keep their children in line in grimly prophetic parables. The Viy itself, although made up by Gogol, has exactly that quality of something plucked out of a bedtime boogeyman tale. The actual root for the creation is, perhaps ironically, thought to be the Christian Saint John Cassian the Unmerciful, a religious hero who strangely gained a quality close to demonic in later folklore because of his reputation of extremely harsh judgement, and who had similarly incisive, excoriating vision that nonetheless was only selectively uncovered when he brushed back his long hair. Fittingly, Ershov and Kropachyov’s aesthetic in Viy’s fantasy sequences is rooted in stage pantomime and magic-lantern shows, rejecting the realism that was just starting to become dominant in Western horror cinema. Ershov, Kropachyov, and Ptushko utilise the space of the village church as a theatrical space where illusionism reigns. The old wooden carvings and creepy icons painted on the walls and carefully manipulated candle lighting sets the scene, surveyed upon first entrance by the slowly pivoting camera movements, like a bullring or battleground in a Sergio Leone film, ideal for the basic spiritual conflict all the infrastructure of the settled, Christian world is supposed to hold at bay. Stray cats and birds suddenly scuttle through the old, creepy space.
The mounting spectacle of Khoma’s vigils starts with the witch girl climbing out of her coffin and searching for him, whilst Khoma has, in obedience to Ukrainian folk ritual, drawn a magic chalk circle about the lectern from which he reads Bible quotes. The witch is blind to him and held out of the circle, meaning she can only frantically slaw at the invisible barricade, before the cock’s crow drives her back into her coffin. The second night sees the witch levitating her coffin and trying to use it to bash her way through the circle, flying around the church as if in her own personal zero-gravity dodgem car, whilst Khoma bellows panicky prayers and tosses boots at her. When she fails she curses him, leaving him momentarily blind and also with his hair turned snowy white. Moments of pure fairytale strangeness flit by, like a tear of blood sliding down Pannochka’s face as she lies on her bier. The staging in these scenes conveys both a sense of absurdist humour in the confrontations between terrified churchman and vengeful witch, and crescendo of the beguiling strangeness of the supernatural as envisioned here, with the camerawork suddenly turning frantic and aggressive, as when Pannochka furiously stalks around the limits of Khoma’s protective circle, and the sight of her trying to bash through the barrier with her flying coffin. These scenes also get a kick out of the peculiar manifestation of evil in the form of Varley’s pale-faced, dark-eyed teenage witch, a lovely visage possessed of a wilful desire to destroy Khoma. She anticipates Linda Hayden’s flower-decked pagan priestess in The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) in embodying malevolence with the most seemingly innocent, beguiling surface imaginable.
The special effects are lovable for their refusal of complex artifice, and retain that magic-lantern show quality. When the witch levitates with Khoma under her, it’s obvious that they’re on a rotating stage as if in some theatrical production. Khoma’s attempt to flee the village, charging through underbrush, is depicted through looping reversals of film stock, his complete inability get anywhere dictated by the film technique. The finale goes for broke as the filmmakers offer pantomime monsters and skeletal hydras whilst playing games with the visuals – Khoma remains in colour whilst the arising army of the night loom and leer around him in sepulchral black and white. Each of Khoma’s nights of vigil leaves him increasingly fraught and desperate to escape his lot, alternating with vodka-brave pronunciations. When he’s brought out of the church after the second night, he starts into a bizarre dance, an attempt to convince himself he’s just spent a brief, hair-raising time-out from the more important business of carousing, but succeeding only in testifying to his own fraying nerves and sanity. His dance is a pathetic but also vigorous sight, the only likeness I can think of being the infamous “Flashdance” scene in Dogtooth (2010), in depicting someone who knows they’re about to go mad if they don’t escape but also knows they can’t escape and so converts raw panic into a furious proof of life. Kuravlyov’s performance hits grand heights here.
The film reaches a riotous climax as Khoma ventures into the church for his third night with airy, drunken hopes for his future, only to face the final onslaught of the witch’s efforts to break him, as she calls up all manner of ghouls and goblins to attack him. The final monster she conjures is the Viy itself, a monstrous, misshapen troll with outsized droopy eyelids that conceal crystalline eyes that can see through the mystical protective barrier protecting Khoma: the Viy has to get other ghouls to lift its eyelids back so it can see, but then is able to point out their prey and the monsters attack Khoma just as the cock crows for dawn again. Khoma loses his battle with fate, dying from fright as he’s assaulted. But this proves the downfall of the witch and her minions too, as they perish dashing for the shadows because they’ve lingered into the dawn, the witch reverting to her crone’s appearance and her coffin disintegrating, leaving her exposed as a monstrosity. The sarcastic punch-line for all this sees Khoma’s two friends Khaliava and Gorobets back at the seminary, working on restoring artworks and supping vodka on the sly as they try to work out why Khoma failed in his vigil, eventually deciding he didn’t believe in his own spiritual authority enough to fight off the evil, when a true holy man would have simply commanded the monsters to go. Talk about Monday morning quarter-backing. Viy certainly never exactly goes for pulse-pounding horror, more a spry and mordant frisson that evokes the way you get scared when you’re six years old. It’s a delightful annex of the horror genre nonetheless.
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Director: Frank Wisbar
By Roderick Heath
Frank Wisbar is today a fairly obscure name in the roll of classic film directors, and yet lovers of horror cinema still remember him for making two of the genre’s finer deep cuts, each film a variation of the same story, made ten years and continents apart. Born in Tilsit, Wisbar (or Wysbar as his name was originally spelt) was conscripted in World War I and stayed in the army until the mid-1920s, before he went into the film industry. He served as production manager on Leontine Sagan’s legendary lesbian-themed drama Mädchen in Uniform (1931), a success that gave him a shot at directing, debuting with the adventure-comedy Im Bann des Eulenspiegels (1932). Wisbar quickly earned the ire of the oncoming Nazi authority by making Anna und Elisabeth (1933), a follow-up to Mädchen in Uniform with the same stars and gay subtext. To play nice with Goebbels’ new Ministry of Propaganda, Wisbar’s next film, Flag of the Righteous Seven (1934), was an adaptation of German-language Swiss writer Gottfried Keller about romance, bourgeois mores, and regional life in the 1800s. The film won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and Wisbar’s career struggled on for a few more years. Wisbar was however to remain deeply at odds with the Nazis, in part because his wife Eva was Jewish: the state stripped him of his passport and forced the couple to divorce, and after he was finally blacklisted in 1938, Wisbar fled the country. He became an American citizen and found a niche making low-budget features and then TV shows in Hollywood. Eventually returning to West Germany in the 1950s, Wisbar found new but strictly domestic success there again with works about dark chapters in the war like the Battle of Stalingrad and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an adaptation of Wolfgang Ott’s grim precursor to Das Boot, Sharks and Little Fish (1957), as well as post-war issue movies, before his death in 1967.
Fährmann Maria, or Ferryman Maria, could well stand as the last authentic product of the classic German cinema age, that time when the national industry that stood so tall between the Great War and doomed by the rise of Hitler. The great, endlessly influential German Expressionist movement in film kicked off by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) represented the kind of dark, sombre, highly psychologised drama the Nazis instinctively hated, and Fährmann Maria kept something of that style’s essence alive in a time when it had become verboten, although carefully mediated through a nominally more realistic, folksy approach, exploring a supernatural tale in a manner that also evokes a bygone sense of the Germanic landscape and communal identity: the word heimat, homeland, which was for the Nazis a talismanic phrase becomes a mystically tinged destination in the film. One supporting character, a boozy but good-natured fiddle-player (Carl de Vogt), evokes a cheery, open ideal of the parochial character as he’s constantly held up in his desire to return to his home by his love of the jug and a good time playing for people. And yet an undercurrent of intense unease and dislocation defines Fährmann Maria as it takes on a classic motif in German storytelling, the encounter of a young woman with Death personified in a battle between love and nihilism. That motif of Death and the Maiden was born in Renaissance art and transmitted through music like Schubert’s pieces of that title and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Fritz Lang had used it as the basis of his omnibus film The Weary Death (1921), and F.W. Murnau had transformed Dracula into a variant on it in his Nosferatu (1922). Fährmann Maria’s exceptionally simple dramatic landscape, which isn’t actually based on any specific folk tale but evokes many, nonetheless aims to synthesise an ideal variant on this basic conflict that could well have dropped from the lips of some grandmother around the campfire some starlit walpurgisnacht.
The setting is a small village and the nearby ferry crossing that traverses a wide river, the few landmarks in the midst of a landscape of wavering, wind-ruffled pines and twitching reeds, and patches of sucking marshland. The rope-guided ferryboat is tended by an old man (Karl Platen), who maintains the service day in and day out, shuttling people from one bank to the other. The river is borderland between two unidentified regions. A mournful song about a ferry crossing resounds under the opening credits: in the transposition into the first proper scene this song is revealed this song is being performed by the fiddler as he’s shuttled across the river by the old ferryman. The ferryman mocks the fiddler for the ease with which he gets waylaid by his appetites and his rootless habits, and explains that the fiddler’s very coin represents the last payment he has to make to own the ferry outright. That night, the old ferryman is awakened by the dull ring of the ploughshare that serves as the gong for service on the far side of the bank, and he hauls himself out of bed to answer it. When he reaches the far shore, he is intimidated by the grim-faced, black-clad man (Peter Voß) he picks up, and as he labours to get the ferry back to the other side, his tugs on the guide rope become increasingly laborious and strained, until he keels over dead from heart failure, and the mysterious man in black begins to pull the ferry back the other way. The old man has been claimed by Death.
This early sequence is a superb display of technique from Wisbar. Having established the eerie, somnolent, exposed mood of the ferry’s surrounds, he intensifies for physical effect as he cuts between the old man’s face, his hands on the rope, and the implacable visage of Death, the lateral movement of the camera obeying a rigorous left-to-right viewpoint on the ferry’s motion, capturing the sense of strain and the failing pulse of the old man, matched to a shimmering, atonal score, until his hands cease to work properly. Death catches him and lays him down gently, a peaceful fate met at the very apotheosis of the old labourer’s life, his death at the moment of his triumph both a stinging irony but also a deliverance from any form of disappointment. Enter Maria (Sybille Schmitz), every bit the old man’s opposite, a young woman without a home or community, but destined to step into his shoes and face a rather different confrontation with Death. She wakes up after spending a night sleeping in the barn, pausing to listen to children singing in their school house, the pleasure and impossible distance of such inclusivity written on Maria’s face. Wisbar constantly evokes the folk tradition he’s burrowing into here through song and music, arts that bind together communities but also transcend such boundaries – the indolent fiddler is always half-heartedly trying to get home but is just as happy and seemingly more successful out of his native land – as a form of cultural currency people exchange. Maria enters the village and ducks the local policeman, long used as she is to trouble from such earthly powers. The mayor sees her doing this and makes light fun of her, before challenging her to take over the ferry, a job no-one else wants because “the Evil One haunts the far bank,” to prove she can make her stand.
Maria takes on the job, and quickly becomes an object of fascination for some, including a local landowner (Gerhard Bienert) who regards her and questions her brusquely, but soon proves to be establishing romantic rights over her. One night Maria, like her predecessor, hears the ploughshare ring on the far bank, and goes over to fetch her fare. At first she sees no-one, but then spots a man (Aribert Mog) crumpled on the ground: he mutters something fearful about being pursued, and she speeds him to the other bank as a squad of black-clad men on horseback dash through the neighbouring woods and line up on the shore, watching their quarry glide to safety. Maria stashes the young man in her hut and looks after him as he’s badly injured. The man recovers and they fall in love, but then he lapses into a fever and she’s forced to tend to him during his raving dissociation. She must also keep him hidden from locals like the fiddler, who, drunk and boisterous, wants to cross the river, and then the landowner when he comes around to invite her to a village dance. But during the night, Maria answers the gong and picks up the man in black, whose unnerving visage Maria instantly recognises as bringing evil intent for her lover, and the man quickly announces the fugitive is the object of his search. Trying to lead him astray, Maria escorts him into town and becomes his partner in the dance. This infuriates the farmer, who had deduced Maria had a man in her house, and, believing the man in black is him, publically brands her a slut whilst also inadvertently informing Death his prey is back in her abode.
Wisbar seems to have been chiefly under the influence of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) with this film, adapting aspects of its aesthetic, like Dreyer’s use of carefully stylised location shooting to create a different brand of crepuscular atmosphere to the heavy stylisation more typical of the Expressionist mode, and utilising Schmitz, who had played a woman suffering a vampire’s attention in Dreyer’s film. The troubled Schmitz had difficulty landing lead roles in the Nazi-run film industry in spite of her talent because she hardly looked the Aryan heroine, but Wisbar’s casting of her here turned this into a strong subtext lurking behind her character’s yearning for a place and role in the world, whilst also exploiting her specific, wounded beauty in a manner that perfectly suits her character. Maria is caught in the void straddling zones cultural, political, sexual, even life and death. Her tentative smile and large, melancholy eyes describe the strain of her life even as she goes about her work with stoic resolve and tries to keep a flame alight in her spirit. It’s clear she’s fended off a hundred men of the landowner’s ilk, but lets a real smile appear like a spring dawn on her face as she falls for the handsome stranger who embodies all the things she has never had but is forced to join her in this psychic no-man’s-land. Maria, usually dressed in gypsy-like garb that suggest the reason why she’s such an outsider, appears before her lover clad in a new dress, albeit a piece of garb that, with its ruffled collar, seems almost anachronistic even for the film’s vaguely nineteenth century setting, as if casting herself in a role outside of time. And that’s exactly where she is: Maria, whose name instantly evokes religious dimensions, takes over from Charon, shuttling souls between worlds across the Styx, giving her some unspoken form of power that lets her challenge Death himself.
Wisbar’s off-screen troubles lend credence to the hints constantly given throughout Fährmann Maria that he’s not just describing some historical fantasia, however. Although possessed of some lightly used supernatural powers, Death is personified as a resolutely tangible force kept at bay by the rules of the physical world he manifests in, an implacable agent for a dark and oppressive realm. Maria’s lover is specifically characterised as fleeing a repressive government, hazily defined as an imposition of invaders he and his patriotic friends want to drive out, whilst the citizens of the village regard the far shore as a place where the Devil has made dominion. The film’s most powerful images, of the horsemen pursuing the young man ride out of the forest and perch on the shoreline staring at the couple in the ferry, and the first appearance of Death in his trim, black, semi-military uniform, regarding Maria with blood-freezing severity, evoke a definite sensation of totalitarian menace lurking just beyond the limits of the frame and definition. In one scene the young man, in his fever state, begins to enthusiastically sing one of the patriotic songs he and his fellows use as an anthem, suggesting the Nazi love of such anthems twisted into a grotesque dirge that drives Maria into weeping despair. Maria is left cut off from all communal aid as Death realises her deception, even muffling the sound of the church bell she tries to ring to rouse the villagers to the deadly being in their midst with his power, literalising the feeling of being stranded in the midst of a country suddenly wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind to the new predations of power quickly becoming everyday fact. Maria is compelled by Death to lead him through the swamp between the village and the ferry. Maria makes the self-sacrificing gesture that is always the key to the Death-and-the-Maiden tale, and as she prays that her gesture protect her lover, she leads Death along the treacherous path through the swamp, tricking him into falling into the black mud, where he sinks silently into the murk, whilst she manages to keep her footing and escape.
The final shots of Fährmann Maria see Maria and her lover crossing the river along with the fiddler and gazing out upon Maria’s new country, a grace note that seems a fulfilment of the patriotic dream of reclaiming the homeland, but with the vital, sneaky corollary that it’s a victory of the exiles and outcasts over the forces that oppress it. Wisbar’s visual sensibility is attuned to the horizontal in landscape and movement, a particularly tricky art to master for filmmakers working with the boxy classic Academy ratio, and fitted specifically to the environs Wisbar deals with here, the flat, semi-desolate spaces around the village and the glassy waters of the river, the to-and-fro motions of the boat and of Maria’s queasy dance with Death at the village dance filmed alike, the camera’s very range of movement communicating the stark, transfixing linearity of life in this space that finally, towards the end, gives way to the promise of gold sunlight on rolling mountains. Wisbar’s journey, at least for the time being, went in the opposite direction to his two heroic lovers, going into exile and soon finding his real reunion with his wife impossible. A decade later, Wisbar found a niche in the so-called “Poverty Row” studio PRC after a long period on the beach trying to get residency and a work permit. His first American film had been a teen crime potboiler, Secrets of a Sorority Girl (1945). For his second, he leveraged the notion of remaking his best-known work, and the result was entitled Strangler of the Swamp.
The basic plot remained the same: after the death of a ferryman serving a remote town, a young woman named Maria takes over his job and finds herself battling a malign spirit for the life of the man she loves. Working with one of PRC’s famously stringent budgets – none of their films, supposedly, cost more than $100,000 – Wisbar transposed the story into a much more overtly theatrical and classically spooky setting, a bayou swamp choked with reeds and vines traversed by the ferry. Strangler of the Swamp strongly contrasts Fährmann Maria in its approach even as its mood of dislocation and morbid romanticism is retained, whilst the alterations to the story point to a different set of animating concerns for this take. Here, the spectral figure isn’t Death itself but the shade of a man killed by his community, and the death he brings serves a programme of retribution. At the outset, the dead body of a villager who has died in the swamp is brought back to town, where the townsfolk begin to argue frantically about their circumstances: several similar deaths have taken place, all seemingly strangled by vines or reeds wrapped around their necks in grotesque approximation of a hangman’s noose. Many think they’ve been living under a curse ever since the former ferryman, Douglas (Charles Middleton), was lynched as a murderer.
Most of the men involved, including the mayor, Sanders (Robert Barratt), anxiously repudiate the notion even as they clearly live in fear of whatever lurks out in the bayou awaiting them, whilst the women of the village form a determined front, heading out into the swamp to strip down the noose that was used to kill Douglas. Joseph the ferryman (Frank Conlan), whose testimony was vital to identifying Douglas as a killer and who stepped into his post eagerly, sheepishly objects to the women’s proposals that he offers himself as sacrifice to the spectre to mollify its rage: “I’m only seventy! That’s not old for a man! I have plans for the future.” But soon enough, responding to the clang of the gong on the far side of the swamp, he encounters Douglas, a hollow-eyed wraith emanating from the shadows to deliver up stern pronouncements of waiting punishment: Joseph tries to toss the noose the women left on the ferry overboard, only for it to snare on a log, wrap around his neck, and strangle him, thus fulfilling Douglas’ design without any actual violent act. Amongst Joseph’s papers is discovered his written confession to the murder Douglas committed, as well as his admission that he framed Douglas to get his job. But the wraith is hardly satisfied with his death, and continues to await chances to kill off the rest of his lynch mob and their descendants. Joseph’s granddaughter Maria (Rosemary La Planche) arrives in town, hoping to find a place to settle after leaving a life of toil and alienation in the big city. Shocked to learn of her grandfather’s death, she nonetheless determines to take over his job as ferryman. She soon meets Sanders’ son Chris (Blake Edwards – yes, that Blake Edwards) and falls for him, but the curse is hardly averse to tormenting a pair of young lovers.
Wisbar had joined Edgar G. Ulmer in productive exile at PRC. Like another émigré Fritz Lang’s Hollywood debut, Fury (1936), Strangler reads in part as a condemnation of lynch culture in the US, whilst the decision to locate the story in one of his new country’s more primal backwaters echoes Jean Renoir’s venture into similar climes for his American debut, Swamp Water (1942). Strangler of the Swamp might also have represented an attempt by Wisbar and PRC to tap the same well Val Lewton’s horror films had so lucratively drilled for RKO, with a similarly literate, carefully stylised script to the kind Lewton liked, although Wisbar’s concrete approach to the supernatural stands somewhat at odds with the airier, more suggestive Lewton touch. The style here is also quite different to the restrained, deceptively naturalistic approach of Fährmann Maria, here turning the limitations of PRC’s productions into an asset by employing one spectacularly dreamlike, claustrophobic locale, where the totemic hangman’s noose dangles in the wind from an old gnarled tree, the rickety docks for the ferry jut into misty waters, an old, ruined church looms skeletally in the distance, and the town huddles on the fringes. Wisbar’s fluidic camerawork is still in evidence, tracking the course of the ferry across the swamp with cool regard, if not as carefully tailored to fit the geography physical and mental of the story. The guilt and paranoia experienced by the townsfolk has infected the land about them, and Wisbar goes more a sense of gothic entanglement befitting a dense and miasmic sense of corruption, the overgrown weeds of the psychic landscape. He often uses superimpositions to obscure the images, the appearances of Middleton’s withered, eyeless ghost masked by haze, the reeds and foliage of the bayou crowding the frame, as if animated and determined to invade the human world that clings to this landscape.
The result makes Strangler of the Swamp something like the platonic ideal of a dankly atmospheric, low-budget horror film. Severed from the culture and place that informed Fährmann Maria’s folkloric lustre, Strangler refits the story for a place that seems to hover right at the edge of liminal reality, a psychological neverland. That said, the story fits with surprising ease into the dramatic landscape of America’s backwood regions and the stark, moralistic, often supernatural flavour of songwriting in those areas – Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, or Robert Johnson could readily have sung of a similarly elemental tale. Perhaps a seed was planted here for the later burgeoning of backwoods horror as a permanent sub-branch of Hollywood horror cinema. Thematically, Strangler of the Swamp diverges tellingly from its predecessor. Wisbar’s PRC stablemate Ulmer had made his statement of utter moral exhaustion with his famous noir Detour a few months earlier, and Strangler, although ultimately not as nihilistic, seems similarly like a meditation on the psychic landscape left by the war: by the time Strangler was made, the Nazis had fallen and their crimes had stained the soul of humanity. Whereas the community in Fährmann Maria is essentially ignorant and innocent of the uncanny drama unfolding in its midst, Strangler in the Swamp is about vengeance reaching out from beyond the grave to attack a communal guilt – the evil is no longer an invasive one but internal, and the theme of the sins of the father is introduced as Maria and Chris must fight to escape the debt of their parents.
In the climax, Wisbar revisits the moment from the original when Maria finds she can’t make a sound ringing the church bell and stages it more expressly as sequence depicting social exclusion, as Maria dashes through the village trying to find aid, only to have doors and windows slam shut and curtains drawn by the vengeful spirit’s power, shutting off all recourse for his outsider heroine. Both films obviously share a female protagonist who proves that love is stronger than death and offers her own life in place of her man’s, and in Strangler Wisbar takes this theme of feminine strength further. Maria here meets initial doubts she can do her job but readily adapts to it, but the menfolk of the town are variously foolish, self-deluding, and corrupt, where the women are generally wiser and try to act against the curse where their men obfuscate and deny the problem. Chris’s father objects to his relationship with Maria because he knows she’s the granddaughter of a killer, where his mother (Effie Parnell) recognises her character and encourages the match. When Sanders tells his son he can’t marry Maria, Chris retorts that his own father took just as big a part in murdering Douglas, setting in motion the first rumblings of the generational conflict that would define so much of the post-war age. The town lost its church to fire, the ruins standing in moody isolation out in the swamp embodying the wreckage of the local culture’s ethical standing, and Sanders proposes, instead of rebuilding it with the money the town has collected for the purpose, that they use the funds to drain the swamp instead, his onwards-and-upwards rhetoric exposed as an attempt to avoid reckoning with the past.
One significant disparity between Wisbar’s two films is that La Planche, although fairly good in the lead, isn’t nearly as enticingly enigmatic or camera-fixating a presence as Schmitz (sadly, both women also died young), and the standard of acting in Strangler, although competent, is merely customary for a low-budget film of the time and place – even the very young Edwards is too callow to make much of an impression. On the other hand, Strangler isn’t weighed down by the smarmy folksiness of the earlier film’s fiddler character. The finale suffers from the hampered staging dictated by the limited setting, involving a lot of stumbling around in dry ice-clogged corners of the set trying to make it look like action is happening. Nonetheless Strangler of the Swamp stands as an example of what a real director could manage with even the most cynically straitened production of the day, a delicious visual experience that offers a real jolt of Wisbar’s poetic streak, and one of the few major horror films of the ‘40s not to have Lewton’s name attached. As in Fährmann Maria, Strangler’s Maria, exhausted by her frantic and desperate efforts to help Sanders in protecting his injured son from the wraith, offers herself in her lover’s place fends off dark fate amidst the sanctified ruins of the church. But Strangler pushes the import of the sacrificial gesture more strongly than Fährmann Maria, in a narrative shaped by a more personal and urgent sense of responsibility: where in the earlier film Death is outwitted by a touch of native guile as well as the ardent honesty of Maria’s prayers, Douglas is mollified by the gesture and dissolves in the night as Maria gives a benediction for his aggrieved soul. In Strangler, the victory feels quite different, as Maria must redeem the whole community through a selfless act, receiving a forgiveness that cannot be asked for, only granted by the aggrieved dead. Maria triumphs over entropy in her personification, however straggly and assailed she seems, of the finer elements of human nature and of woman herself, a detail that points up the irony in her job title. She is the being who encompasses life, death, and rebirth, who spans both shores.
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Director: Fritz Lang
By Roderick Heath
The title resolves amidst intersecting geometries that coalesce and create a cityscape, ranged with neo-Babylonian techno-ziggurats: Metropolis, instantly a statement worthy of Ozymandias. A super-city where trains and cars shuttle along spanning bridges and aircraft buzz between sky-nudging structures. A great machine that explodes and morphs into a dark god of ages past, accepting human sacrifice into a greedy, fiery maw. A great dial of switches becomes a massive clock crushing its operator. A dark and twisted fairytale abode left like a seed of corruption in the midst of this empire of the will. The outpost of an ancient brand of faith discovered underground, to where the beaten and exhausted tread in search of hope. A beam of light in the midst of a dank, labyrinthine catacomb, terrorising and pinioning a saintly young woman. A robot fashioned in the likeness of a human, all art-deco brass curves and blank features, wreathed by electric arcs, slowly taking on the likeness of the same young woman. The robotic simulacrum dancing like Salome reborn, stirring the lusts of men until their eyes join together in a great mass of rapacious gazing. Statues of the seven deadly sins lurching out of their stalls in a Gothic cathedral, announcing the coming of calamity and death. A mass of desperate children all reaching out for their saviours in the midst of surging flood waters. A rooftop struggle between hero and villain for the life of the heroine, the battle of good and evil staged as vertiginous graph written on the face of a civilisation.
These are some of the lodestone images of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and it’s still easy to feel their power even after intervening decades where their genetic material is woven into pop culture at large. If A Trip to the Moon was the seed of science fiction on screen, Metropolis is its green stem, and much more too. The floodtide of Fritz Lang’s visual techniques and the expanse of the film’s evocation of the future might have met resistance of mind and eye in its day, but even in an abused and truncated form enough of his vision remained to stun the eye and light the creative spark.
Director Lang and his creative and personal partner Thea Von Harbou had climbed swiftly to the peak of the German film industry thanks to highly ambitious, stylistically radical films that provided basic engineering for cinema as it found maturity and began to branch into different streams of genre and style. Lang, working under the influence of Louis Feuillade, had taken his template and pushed it into stranger places with his rollicking action-adventure diptych The Spiders (1919), and had written the script for the film that kicked off the Expressionist cinema style, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). Lang’s first great opus, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), embodied the shock of the new in cinema, telling in the mode of epic melodrama a tale of crisis in modernity by depicting someone capable of manipulating its many aspects, and then his follow-up Die Nibelungen (1924) had delved into the foundational myth of Germany to explore the ructions that cause tragedy and the ideals and fidelities that make civilisations. Metropolis was destined to be the third chapter in this survey, a myth of the future if still based in the pressing quandaries of the present and articulated through a vast array of concepts from the cultural inheritance. Von Harbou wrote a novel specifically to use as the basis of the script, and the production took over Germany’s flagship film studio UFA in the midst of the national inflation travails that helped shake what little confidence there was in the Weimar republic. Lang’s lordly vision took a toll on cast and crew, fortunes were spent, and the reaction to the film’s initial was like cold water hitting hot metal, warping all perception of Lang’s achievement. Metropolis’s sniffy reception sounds familiar today, as many called it a giant would-be blockbuster that is all visual bluster and no substance. A film hated by no lesser personage in the budding science fiction genre than H.G. Wells. A film Lang himself later disowned, perhaps feeling that well had been too badly poisoned.
After barely recouping Metropolis’s massive expense upon release, UFA was compelled to let Paramount Pictures buy it out. Metropolis spent much of the next thirty years being cut down and reshaped, until what was left was so confused many thought it had always been that way. It was adopted as fetish object and style guide by the Nazis, who wanted to emulate its monumental aesthetic and absorb its message system into their own, and Von Harbou herself became an active party member. The film eventually became a pop art moveable feast, including being appropriated as a music video by Giorgio Moroder. Only in the past couple of decades has Metropolis been mostly restored to the point where it can be properly judged and studied according to Lang’s original intention. And yet, in spite of such manhandling, Metropolis still stands as one of the most influential films ever made. Metropolis provided a blueprint for envisioning a wing of the imagination encompassing dreamlike horizons, conjoining both the imminently possible and the ages of humankind so far into a grandiose survey of conceptual iconography. Much like the space opera that formed much of science fiction’s first popular phase on the page and which still survives chiefly thanks to Star Wars, Metropolis tries to comprehend the future and the present in terms of the past, envisioning an age of technical marvel and scientific miracle as a new version of the old alchemistic fantasia and the greatest dreams of imperial domain, whilst asking on what foundations such superstructures grow.
Metropolis is, of course, like most variations on the utopia-dystopia scale, actually an account of the moment of its making, thrown into sharp relief on a mimetic map. The tensions that termite Metropolis are the tensions lurking under the brittle façade of Weimar Germany, where, in the wake of World War I’s calamity, far left and far right agitators had clashed on the streets and nearly seized the machinery of government. The entire apparatus of state had been shaken, and reconstruction, the surge of newness pushing the nation forward, presented a political and social landscape few understood and felt at ease with. Even money wasn’t worth anything. The essential theme of labour versus management was more universal, and the new reality of much work in the early twentieth century, which turned humans into parts in huge assemblies, was taken into Metropolis to its logical conclusion, envisioning a carefully stratified human populace where some live in regimented, downcast, utterly slavish existences, doomed to run the infrastructure that allows more comfortable lives for the rest. Metropolis is the future itself, situated in no identified nation or age. Captain of this great project is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), architect of the city and its Tyrant in the original sense, oligarchic master and civic administrator. Fredersen lives in the “New Tower of Babel,” a skyscraper at the city’s lofty hub.
Metropolis isn’t just a city he has been elected to run or master but his own brainchild, his ego-empire, the expression of human will essayed on the greatest scale. Metropolis is also in part a variation on a familiar conflict between fathers and sons, the stern and acquiescing pragmatism of age versus the idealism of youth, another universal topic also bound to gain impetus in the coming years. Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is the child of privilege, anointed amongst the rich and blessed, free to train body and mind to maximum potential in his days before taking his ease with the procured lovelies invited to the pleasure gardens of the city’s rooftop expanses. But his life is set to be changed by the intrusion of a woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who ushers in a collective of urchins gathered from the lower reaches, to give them a look at the closest thing to heaven, the world Freder inhabits thoughtlessly. This gives the princeling his first sight of inequity and of the woman who becomes the instant lynchpin of his existence. Maria and her charges are quickly ushered out of this exalted sphere but Freder becomes determined both to find Maria and acquaint himself with the lives of Metropolis’s workers. The realm he ventures into proves to be a scene out of a fantasia where Dante co-authors with Dickens and Picasso. Here cowed and regimented workers trudge through blank, institutional corridors and take up work stations at hulking machines where they perform repetitive, arduous tasks for ten hour shifts.
An explosion in a massive machine inspires the horrified Freder to think of Moloch, the wicked god of Biblical lore. Seeing a young worker collapse at a station where he works a dial-like switching control, Freder rushes to take his place. The worker, whose name is Georgy but is snidely affixed merely with the title 11811 by the bosses, swaps clothes with Freder, who sends him to take refuge in his apartment. Freder struggles through the rest of his shift, almost broken trying to keep up with the vital task. Another worker, mistaking him for Georgy, whispers to him about a meeting Maria has called, and Freder joins the workers who descend into the ancient catacombs under the city to listen to Maria give a sermon. Fredersen, wishing to split Freder from Maria and to break her moral influence over the workers and gain an excuse to establish martial law, visits scientist and inventor C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has constructed a perfect humanoid robot, a Machine Man: Fredersen wants Rotwang to give it Maria’s appearance, and use it to stir up trouble.
Lang explained that the root of Metropolis lay in a visit he made to New York in 1924, confronted by the looming grandeur of the city’s skyscrapers, floating like a dream fashioned from glass and steel, erected with all the promise of the age’s new possibilities but also stirring some profound anxiety, a fear of being dwarfed and pinioned by the weight of such achievements. The novel version of Metropolis was then written by Von Harbou as a parable about winners and losers and Metropolis still feels strikingly relevant in choosing this as subject matter, as it remains the basic, ever-urgent matter at the heart of the modern dream. The first target of criticism of Metropolis is usually its storyline, which is usually judged not just simple but simplistic and naïve to boot in its treatment of social schisms. And that’s undoubtedly true on some levels. The film’s recurring motto, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart,” is on the face of it a purely humanistic, essentialist slogan. But it’s not such a great stretch of the imagination to link the magical thinking behind it in regards to social philosophy with openness to similarly trite thought that would soon seduce the screenwriter along with millions of others to the Nazi cause. The solution at the end of Metropolis indicts the troublemaker and presents rapprochement between upper and lower classes as a matter simply of mutual respect and good-heartedness. Fredersen, who has built a city on iniquity and laboured to find an excuse to permanently and violently oppress his working class, is let off the hook because he gets anxious over his own son.
Metropolis is in part an attack on a worker’s revolt as an aim, seeing it as prone to demagoguery and manipulation and destructive in it results. On the other hand, it’s also a fervent attack on capitalist power as self-perpetuating, blinding, and dehumanising. Metropolis proceeds with a plot that is certainly close to comic book. To comment on Metropolis on this level, though, is to misunderstand it crucially. Metropolis invokes a vast sprawl of mythopoeic associations, and represents a clear and direct continuation of Die Nibelungen’s obsessive attempts to grapple with social identity and construction, using the language of mythology as starting point for a work of conjuring that unfolds on levels not just of story and action but in design, costuming, lighting, the entire texture sprawling across the screen. Metropolis betrays an ambition towards creating a total work of art, the gesamtkunstwerk which had been Wagner’s ideal and also had become the credo of the Bauhaus movement, whose cultural vitality and concepts Lang surely had in mind whilst making the film. Metropolis sometimes recalls nothing less momentous than the religious paintings of Ravenna or the sculptures of the Parthenon: we are looking into a way of conceiving the world from side-on, as an illustrative, holistic sprawl. Many of these mythical refrains are biblical, including the parable of the prodigal son and the captivity in Babylon.
Both Maria and Fredersen conceive the world in terms of legend, each employing the tale of Babel to make their own statement: Fredersen’s New Tower, with his gleaming citadel, announces to man and heaven his lordship over all, whilst Maria recalls the calumny and division implied at the root of such mammoth human projects. The speech she gives to the gathered workers is not a literal political tract but a parable recalling the original myth of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, tweaking it into a tract where in the destruction of the great human project came about because the visionaries designing the tower could not speak the same language, literally and figuratively, as the people hired to build it, causing riot and destruction. She casts Freder in the role of mediator, the man who can link above and below both personally and symbolically. Maria herself recalls the history of early Christianity’s practice in the catacombs of Rome, with similarities to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s much-filmed novel Quo Vadis?, casting Maria as voice of Christian charity and brotherhood. Freder discovers her in her underground church amidst the dark and twisted reaches of the catacomb, the sacred an island in the nightmarish space.
Other aspects recall the mythology Lang and Von Harbou had examined on Die Nibelungen, as faces and identities are swapped. Freder cast as a young Siegfried-like hero who ventures out to battle with dragons and finds himself swiftly engaged in a much more profound battle for the future of a society where covert designs and mysterious doppelgangers manipulate events. And of course, that other great Germanic myth, Faust, could be the overarching frame – all this represents what happens when mankind sells its soul for progress. The subplot of the twin Marias echo of one variation of classical Greek legend, one that Euripides utilised in his play Helen, in which the real Helen was duplicated by the gods, with the real Helen being whisked away to Egypt where she lived in captivity and incognito whilst her malicious double caused the Trojan War. The way the Trojan myths entwine the cultural and political with the personal and in particular the sexual points to the similar ambition propelling Metropolis, which was in part designed by Von Harbou as a lampooning of the liberated Weimar “new woman” in the figure of the provocative, sensual, carelessly destructive cyborg Maria, a chimera created by the denizens of the new age to enact their not-so-secret desires. Whereas for Lang, this element fits rather into his career-long fascination with the power of the irrational to warp the sturdiest superstructure of ethics and security, of which sexual desire is the most readily apparent and eternally vexing manifestations.
The crux for the atavistic and futuristic is Rotwang, the archetype of the mad scientist with his wild hair and gloved cybernetic hand whose persona was set to echo on and on through pop culture to come. But he’s also a projection of the ancient figure of the dark magician into a contemporary realm, the alchemist who rewrites laws of nature and steals the power of gods and demons and who worships idols, having turned the visage of his great love into a monument and has pentagrams festooned around his laboratory. Rotwang lives in a twisted, ancient building at the centre of Metropolis. He is linked to Fredersen not just in rivalry as radically different versions of the same titan-genius, but through a very personal link: the lost love was a woman named Hel, who married Fredersen rather than him and died giving birth to Freder. Fredersen’s request of him to aid his designs in regaining total control present Rotwang with a way to destroy him instead, by attacking the city he has built and the son who is the living link to Hel. Rotwang’s name – red wing in English – invokes both satanic stature and political danger. Like Faust, he conjures the Hel(en) figure as incarnation of taunting desirability and illusory object of yearning. His house is a hangover of Gothic fantasia clinging like a weed to the flank of the supercity, but also sits atop a well that leads into the dank labyrinth below the city. Rotwang is the jilted and obsessive lover who has castrated himself in surrendering his hand in creating a facsimile of woman. He knows too well the dark drives of humankind, which allows him to occupy this place, the gateway into secret human motives and the power of the illogical white-anting Fredersen’s ego-empire.
Lang’s obsession with underworlds, first evinced in The Spiders which conceived of a Chinese colony lurking underneath San Francisco and recurring again and again in his cinema, here has bloomed into something close to a form of psychic architecture that conceives of the whole of Metropolis as a mind, complete with id, ego, and superego, rational stretches and irrational depths, its holy and profane women, its young crusader torn between three father figures, one mad but powerful in mind and emotion, one timid and entrapped, the last seemingly dead in all nerves but will. Similar ideas are evinced in a very different setting in Von Harbou’s The Indian Tomb, a novel set in an Indian city (which Lang would film much later) where the progressive Maharajah’s stirred erotic jealousy turns his world into a repressive state and the shiny bastions of the exterior conceal basements where zombie-like lepers. Rotwang chases down Maria after the workers depart, stalking her through the labyrinth and terrorising her with a torch beam, ironically inverts the image of light in darkness as the bringing of terror and the pitiless of eye of technology (the movie camera?) to the subterranean realm where emotion is truth, to torment the holy innocent.
Maria and Freder’s journey is linked with two men Freder helps release from their slots in the great machine, Georgy and Josaphat (Theodor Loos). The latter works as aide to Fredersen but gets fired for not being prompt enough in reports, a devastating act that will doom Josaphat to a degrading existence as unemployable pariah. But Freder, as he did with Georgy, throws him a lifeline by letting him take refuge in his apartment and taking him on as a partner in his venture to change Metropolis. Just as Georgy is a near-double for Freder, his less lucky, anointed brother in look and soul, Josaphat has been Freder’s more human surrogate father almost incidentally as the man who took care of his needs on his father’s behalf. Josaphat’s growth from toady to hero is one of the film’s most entertaining elements. But Georgy has been sidetracked by the allure of the high life, and, fuelled by the cash in the clothes Freder loaned him, he goes for a night on the town in the Yoshiwara Club, the favourite night spot for the city elite. Both Georgy and Josaphat come under the thumb of one of Fredersen’s agents, known only as the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who bullies and blackmails both men into retreating into the underworld. Freder himself is imprisoned in Rotwang’s house when he hears, by chance, Maria’s screams coming from inside. Entering the abode, he finds himself duelling with the automated doors that steadily shepherd him into the attic and lock him in. Rotwang places the unconscious Maria in a mechanism in his laboratory that steadily reconstructs the Machine Man’s exterior into a perfect double of Maria.
The resulting creation is a demonically sensual and taunting succubus operating under Rotwang’s command, and even Fredersen, who knows well what it is, can’t resist when it visits him. Freder breaks out of Rotwang’s house and arrives back at his father’s office in time to see what looks like his father and his lover embracing. The crisis of disillusion on top of his agonised and exhausting adventures is so great Freder collapses in a delirium. The Robot-Maria, sent out by Rotwang to stir up anarchy, performs before the uptown folk at the Yoshiwara Club, Whore of Babylon going jazz age burlesque priestess. The cyborg’s starkly erotic, physically frenetic performance stokes the ritzy crowd, all milk-fed whelps produced by the idealistic, Olympian reaches of the city like Freder, into a grotesque mass of lust. The veneer of civilisation is peeled off like a chrysalis, and soon they’re duelling each-other and staging mass orgies, distracting the scions of the governing class from the chaos about to be unleashed by Robot-Maria’s more pertinent campaign. It takes the place of the still-imprisoned Maria and now preaches destruction of Metropolis’s utility systems, to bring the oppressors low. Freder, Josaphat, and Georgy try to calm the crowd but the workers try to assault Freder, and Georgy is stabbed to death when he throws himself in front of him. Led by Robot-Maria, the workers swarm to assault the Metropolis systems, finally destroying the great “Heart Machine” that coordinates the utilities, paralysing the city. But the workers’ actions unleash a flood that begins to fill their own city with water, threatening to drown their children who have remained behind.
Metropolis would be remarkable enough for the beauty and ingenuity put into what Lang puts in front of his camera, the sets by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Volbrecht, Eugen Schüfftan’s radically innovative model photography, and Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s totemic design for the Machine Man. But the cinematic textures of Metropolis in cutting, shooting, and use of the camera are equally impressive and represent silent cinema at its most innovative, amassing into an artefact that proves, scarcely a decade after the crude yet sufficiently significant grammar of Birth of a Nation (1915) helped officially open up the true cinematic age, just how vigorous the new medium had become, and looking forward to the ebullient freedoms of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Lang had Hollywood’s spectacles his sights, the colossi fashioned by Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille and laid out for stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney, hoping to prove European cinema could not just match such production heft but outdo it for artistry. Lang and his brilliant technical team, which also included cinematography greats Karl Freund and Günther Rittau, explored almost every facet of the medium possible in the time.
The surveys of Metropolis demanded the creation of a landscape through huge mock-ups and complex model work. The scenes of Robot-Maria’s creation and the destruction of the Heart Machine interpolation of photographic elements in a combination familiar in many respects now but still startling in their eye-filling beauty and inventiveness in context. Midway through the film, Lang launches into an astonishing movement after Freder’s discovery of his father with Robot-Maria. Freder’s mental disintegration is depicted in flourishes of abstract animation and herky-jerky editing that resembles the labours of experimental filmmakers. Robot-Maria’s dance is then intercut with Freder’s raving fantasies, in which he sees the Thin Man as evil priest repeating Maria’s sermon as rhapsodic incantation that stirs the forces of death and destruction into motion. The allegorical pantheon of the deadly sins and Death in Metropolis’s cathedral is seen jerking to life and striding out of their stalls. The film is split not into chapters or cantos like Die Nibelungen but into musical signatures – Prelude, Intermezzo, and Furioso.
Lang’s original concept was to have Rotwang literally conjure up magic forces to attack the modern, scientifically enabled world of Metropolis. This idea was mostly dropped but here something of this eruption of the irrational is still present, climaxing in the image out of medieval nightmare of Death slicing the air before Lang’s camera. Lang edges into the realm of outright surrealism here, and does again as he builds to a climactic shot during Robot-Maria’s dance when the screen is filled with that mass of eyes – the male gaze literalised as one great amorphous, greedy force, a shot reminiscent in execution of experimental photography. More subtly, perhaps, Lang’s filmmaking conveys a constant awareness of power relations throughout, befitting a film where the synergies of social relations, positive and negative, are translated throughout into concrete expressions. It’s quietly but surely present in conversational scenes like Freder’s first conversation with his father or the Thin Man’s confrontation of Josaphat, where attitudes of body and expressions define the characters (the latter scene building to the Thin Man’s physical as well as mental domination of Josaphat) in terms of their potency and the regard they show others – the hard line of Fredersen’s tilted jaw as he son appeals to him, only for the young man to realise his father is something like a monster. This aspect is illustrated more explicitly and spectacularly with Lang’s arrangements of human elements in the sequences where workers tread in close, robotic ranks.
The opening scenes depict the workers changing shifts in obedience to horns that blare out around the city, moving between their underground, near-featureless, pseudo-Berber city, the intermediary stage before Wells’ Morlock evolves and start eating the Eloi above, all scored to an unheard yet definite musical rhythm (no wonder musicians like Moroder have been drawn to the film). There are even moments of hand-held camerawork during Maria’s flight from Rotwang in the underground. One of Lang’s most insistent traits during the German phase of his career was the way he turned his awareness of and fascination for contemporary art styles and his utilisation of them to create cinematic effect. This trait had first made itself known in his plan for Dr Caligari’s Expressionistic effects, and in Die Nibelungen had seen him annexing Cubism and art nouveau for decorative and conceptual import. Here, the entire universe has become, on one level, a form of installation art, the marching ranks of workers elements arrayed in harmonies of line and form. Spaces are carefully diagrammed to open up vistas even within the boxy Academy ratio frame of the day, through use of height – Metropolis is a hierarchical tale on both the thematic and visual levels. The linear clarity and rigid control inherent in such stylisation is ironic considering that Metropolis’s concerns are closer to rather different European artists of the day, including the photomontage satire of John Hartfield and the bleak panoramas of Hans Baluschek.
Both Fröhlich and Helm were thrust into stardom specifically for this film, but whilst Fröhlich merely looks the part of ardent young hero, Helm, still a teenager during the shoot and yet attacking the role with astonishing gusto as she inhabits the Madonna-whore schism, is remarkable. Klein-Rogge, the hydra-headed star of Lang’s early films, wrote himself into film legend as Rotwang with his wild hair, gloved hand, and imperious gestures. His role is hurt by scenes still missing from the film, including a violent confrontation with Fredersen that gives Maria the chance to escape his house. The workers lay waste to the machinery that oppresses them but in a self-defeating way. Tellingly, Freder’s other self from the worker populace, Georgy, is defined by his dedication to his work, his understanding that he is in a way necessary to the survival of Metropolis even as it uses him up like an replaceable part. The shattering of order, celebrated by the workers who dance around the toppled idols of technocracy, soon gives way to panic as they realise their children are in danger, and they’re impotent to intervene. Fredersen, who has ordered the Heart Machine’s foreman and worker representative Grot (Heinrich George) to stand down and let the workers do their worst, is stricken himself with the seemingly imminent death of Freder in the flood. By this stage his machinations have even cost him the loyalty of the Thin Man, who responds to his desperate demand to know where his son is with the memorable retort, “Tomorrow thousands will ask in fury and desperation, ‘Joh Fredersen, where is my son?’” Meanwhile Robot-Maria is unbound, leading the frenetic, equally nihilistic revelry of the upper class out of the nightclubs and into the streets. Once the ambitions and pretences of Metropolis work themselves out, it becomes, in essence, a Boy’s Own adventure tale not that far from The Spiders’ cliffhanger suspense set-pieces. This is particularly plain in the finale as Freder, Maria, and Josaphat try desperately to save the workers’ children from the flooding, with Maria wrestling with the mechanism to set off the alarm gong in the town square, and the two men making arduous climbs up a shaft to reach her.
Lang’s acerbic perspective is still in constant evidence, as the climactic scenes hinge upon ideas that would preoccupy Lang in the next decade of his career or so are in play here in the likes of M (1931), The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), Fury (1936), and You Only Live Once (1937) – the terror of lynch mob justice, the accusation of the innocent, the reactive and self-consuming rage of the oppressed, the sinister manipulator of events, the rogue villain whose actions show up uneasy relationship of various social strata. The meeting of those strata is literalised almost comically here as the revelling scions of Metropolis’s upper levels, with Robot-Maria lifted shoulder high as their champion, collide with the mass of enraged workers, chasing the real Maria in the belief she is a witch who has led them to ruin. Somewhere amidst this is an eerie anticipating echo of the grim love affair that would soon come upon Nazi Germany with the almost ritualised, orgiastic invitation of destruction. Metropolis remains tantalising and enigmatic in this regard to this day, in spite of its optimistic depiction of a balance less restored than at last properly achieved. Robot-Maria is the film’s dancing Kali, whipping up the passions of the crowd as a brilliant mouthpiece for an insidious force and then leads the people rejoicing in the moment of pointless and delicious vandalism. In spite of the official message of Metropolis, the power of Robot-Maria’s wild, sexualised, anarchic insurrection feels more heroic than anything the nominal good guys accomplish here even if the result is the old conservative nightmare of such actions, the unleashing of uncontainable forces and unintended horrors. In a different time and different social mood, many a hero in the science fiction genre, from Logan to THX-1138 to Luke Skywalker to Neo, takes up the robot’s iconoclastic mantle rather than Freder’s even whilst stepping into his messianic shoes.
Luckily, the workers chasing the real Maria instead mistake the robot for her: the mechanoid is tied to an improvised pyre, and burnt. Her skin peeled by licking flame, the Machine-Man under the human guise is revealed, and with it not just the tricks of Rotwang and Fredersen but also the queasy face of the next stage of evolution. Rotwang’s degeneration from evil genius to lecher trying to escape Freder with Maria under arm across the rooftops is comparatively unconvincing and a nudge too far in the direction of gothic melodrama, perhaps inspired by the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1922) and surely laying ground for dozens of variations to come. But the staging of this sequence is impeccable, particularly in the moment when Maria falls over a railing and snatches onto a bell rope to dangle over a dizzying drop, the clang of the bell alerting Freder and others to this new drama. Like Rotwang’s house the cathedral is an island of the ancient amidst the city, and the sole place where the schizoid facets of Metropolis can still come together, crux of old and new, high and low, the bleak memento mori of medieval religious imagery gaining new potency in the context of Metropolis’s collapse. Rotwang falls to his death, Freder and Maria are reunited, and Freder literally becomes the mediator in showing Grot and his father how to overcome their pride and make piece. Again, certainly weak sociology, but also a perfect thumbnail for the fairy tale essence of Metropolis as a whole. Both the greatness and the difficulty of Metropolis lie in that essence, as a film that animates the dark and strident fantasies of its age without quite knowing how to critique or contain them. But even the most casual of glances around us at the world today shows that, where most films of its era have joined the ranks of playful relics, Metropolis still has something potent to say. And therein lies some of the deepest brilliance of Metropolis in tethering science fiction, the art of anticipation, with the method of myth, the primal storytelling form—both speak to that moment just over the horizon of experience and foresight. It is never; it is ever.
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Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
By Roderick Heath
An implicit faith in most science fiction is encoded in that name. It is the art of science, the act of understanding, comprehending, grappling with the real. But also an act of creation, of imagination applied to zones of the mysterious and the obscure, tethering the known, the possible, and the imaginable in brief harmony. It is still usually a bastion of a Victorian kind of faith that anything can be penetrated, broken down, conquered. Solaris, as written by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, is remarkable as a rebellious work in the genre, a rejection of this basic precept as a way of seeing and thinking. Lem, like so many Europeans of his generation, had lived through the worst of World War 2 and the grimmest of lessons in the limitations of the human spirit. After the war he studied medicine whilst forging a name as a writer, concentrating on science fiction in part because it drew less censorship at the time. Lem’s fiction became reputed for its stringent and stimulating conceptual and intellectual gravity, and he became one of the most widely-read sci-fi writers of the day. Solaris, his most famous work, was an attempt to sketch that most vital of sci-fi themes, contact between humans and aliens, with the title referring to a possibly sentient planet at the heart of the mystery. But Lem set out to avoid the usual presumption of the theme, that such a meeting, for good or ill, would nonetheless be between mutually coherent entities, in a universe that, however vast and unexpected, is so often envisioned by we poor Earthlings as a realm that will contain beings like ourselves, or at least variations on things familiar, obeying similar rules in the spree that leads from protozoa to sentience. Lem often tackled this idea, from his early novel The Man From Mars on, and with Solaris Lem took on not just the problem of imagining a form of alien life entirely incomprehensible to us, but also wrestled with this human tendency to look for our own image in the aeons, the simultaneous yearning for enigma but also the urge to subordinate it.
Legend has it Andrei Tarkovsky vowed to make a film to counter what he perceived as the chilly, detached, unfeeling streak in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and chose Lem’s book as the right project to examine what Kubrick had left out of his vision. This was an odd move considering Lem’s preference for the heady, theoretical side of his writing, and Lem didn’t much appreciate Tarkovsky’s adaptation, which has since overshadowed the book by focusing squarely and unapologetically on precisely the human aspect of the tale. Tarkovsky wasn’t the first to tackle Lem’s book. Boris Nirenburg’s 1968 version made for TV is sometimes described as the most faithful to the author’s conception, insofar as it focused more on the attempt to understand the planet itself rather than on the human quandaries provoked by the planet’s habit of actualising their psychological preoccupations. Amongst Tarkovsky’s specific inventions was a lengthy first act establishing central character Kris Kelvin and the mystery of Solaris as viewed from the earthbound perspective, in which Kelvin is described as a man outwardly maintaining a forced attitude of rationalism but who Tarkovsky’s visuals suggest is actually a meditative, introspective, mournful nostalgic, a fitting non-hero for Tarkovsky’s annexation of sci-fi as another realm for the poet. The opening shot, of weeds waving slowly under the glassy surface of the lake neighbouring Kelvin’s family home, instantly immerses the viewer in Tarkovsky’s lexicon of obsessive imagistic refrains and establishes the mood of languorous submergence that defines Solaris as a film.
Kelvin (Donatas Banionis, who suggests a Russian Marcello Mastroianni) is a scientist and mathematician who is the latest brave soul to agree to travel to a space station orbiting around the distant planet of Solaris. An entire discipline of science, dubbed Solaristics, has evolved in trying to grapple with this enigmatic object, which seems to be a form of living or at least reactive entity, but no-one has been able to establish anything concrete about it. In the uneasy time before he’s due to be launched into space, Kelvin is visited at his house by a former astronaut who had spent time at Solaris, Henri Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who arrives with his young son. Kelvin, his parents (Nikolai Grinko and Olga Barnet), and Burton watch an old recording of the testimony Burton gave to the international body administrating the Solarist mission. Burton recounted how, during a search for two scientists who crash-landed on the planet, saw a mind-bendingly strange manifestation – what appeared to be a massively oversized human child, standing upon the oceanic surface of Solaris, gesturing up into the sky. Burton’s account was written off and mocked because of its unlikeliness and also because recordings of the flight offered no sight of the apparition. Burton, visibly aged and crushed by his dismissal, is still touchy but also anxious to communicate to Kelvin the reality of what he saw and the problems looming ahead for him. At the first sign of Kelvin’s disbelief he angrily leaves and journeys back to the city, only to phone him back and tell him an aspect of his tale he had not shared before: after returning to Earth he encountered the small son of one of the lost scientists, a boy who was the smaller but otherwise exact image of the mysterious child-giant. Kelvin, boding over this strange news and his own unstated anxieties, burns his belongings in a farewell to his past and his world, and speaks with his father, both knowing the elder probably won’t be alive if and when Kelvin returns.
This lengthy first movement is a slow and often cryptic introduction not just to the story but to Kelvin in elliptical fashion, looking at the world he has been rooted in, the sensual richness of the green Earth and and his fecund but decaying family, as a way of sounding out the quality of his mind. This is vital to getting at what Tarkovsky is delving into with Solaris, but also the film’s most frustrating facet. Usually Tarkovsky’s sense of pacing, deceptively slow and yet building a steady intensity and a system of images that become overwhelming, was masterful, but something seems off about this segment. The scenes of Burton’s drive back to town (with a district of Tokyo filling in for this vision of high futuristic human hive life), often provokes the feeling this is stretched out pedantically rather than artfully. Nonetheless the mysteries set in play here and sketched with cobweb-like fineness soon find their place as Kelvin is confronted with the great unknown in the guise of his own interior life. Sublime rhyme is suggested as Burton’s son encounters a girl in Kelvin’s garden – he looks at her, she regards him with preternatural scepticism and interest, and they dash off to play, first act in the eternal human roundelay, one that will preoccupy the rest of Kelvin’s journey even as he tries to reach out and touch the infinite. The gruelling, ritualised humiliation of Burton in front of the international space agency is depicted, with the contrast between Burton’s younger self and the dilapidated remnant actually present in the Kelvins’ house a before and after diptych warning Kris of the subtler dangers of the mission he’s undertaking. Tarkovsky employs a specific stylistic touch here in portraying the old footage in black-and-white to contrast the lustrous colour of the immediate (this was Tarkovsky’s first colour work), a cineaste’s format joke that also introduces a recurring motif for where past bleeds into present and certain realities seem to become blurred. Shots of the “futuristic” city violently contrast the natural landscape Kris takes refuge in, suggesting one hardly needs go to space to find environs alien and perturbing.
Meanwhile Kris tries to drink in every sensation of nature possible, including the rain gushing down upon his face, for the sake of memory for when he’s exiled to a distant and sterile bauble in space above an alien world that betrays no sign of land or substance, where, to fall asleep at night, the inhabitants tape slivers of paper to exhaust events to mimic the sound of leaves in the wind. Burton’s road trip serves to symbolise not just the looming journey through space but also provides a key into Burton’s pensive train of thought as he rides with his son and his thoughts turn to the most disturbing manifestation on Solaris and the suggested possibility of mysterious union between the mind and the physical possible on Solaris. Kris is forcibly sceptical, and speaks of the looming choice he might have to make, to either withdraw the orbiting satellite, and thus conceded defeat, or making an aggressive attack upon Solaris with heavy radiation, and finally conquer the mystery at the cost of creating a Roman desert. Burton is shocked by the possibility, setting in motion at least the shell of dialectic between scientific curiosity as transcendent and overriding value, or an act of ignorant immorality aiming to destroy what can’t be understood. His father berates him for offending Burton and notes that “the Earth has become used to dealing with people like you,” and indeed Kris is eventually revealed as a man who has habitually broken whatever he’s come into contact with. “I don’t have the right to make decisions based on impulses of the heart,” Kris warns Burton in deflecting his appeals: “I’m not a poet.” Kris’s fate is instantly set, to be forced to do make just those sorts of decisions, and become the instinctive poet of Solaris, a force of total ambiguity that nonetheless proves to have a function that Kris eventually learns to treasure, as it can make real what is lost or desired.
Kris’s arrival at the Solaris station is a terrifying tumble as he momentarily goes out of control. He eventually docks and disembarks safely, only to find the station, far from being a hive of scientific industry, has become a near-deserted husk, sterile and littered with rubbish. Only two fellows still inhabit it, the haughty, critical, nervously serious astrobiologist Dr Sartorius (Tarkovsky regular Anatoli Solonitsyn) and the shambling, distracted, philosophical cyberneticist Dr Snaut (Jüri Järvet). Kris is shocked to learn of the recent death by suicide by a third crewmember, the physiologist Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), who had been the brave intellectual leader figure in what’s left of the Solarist field. Now his body lies icy in a cold room on the satellite, to be taken back to Earth per his wishes. At first both remaining men seem anxious to fend Kris off, and Snaut advises him to take things slowly and carefully. Kris however witnesses inexplicable things, including a man sleeping in a hammock in Snaut’s room, and a dwarf trying to escape Sartorius’ containment. Kris watches a recording of Gibarian’s final moments, and sees flinching at the presence of a young girl, almost like a dogging familiar out of superstition. “Fechner died a magnificent death,” Sartorius declares, referring to the scientist Burton was looking for, but that “Gibarian was a coward.” But in his last message, Gibarian stated, “I am my own judge…It has something to do with conscience.” Soon enough, Kris awakens to find himself now supplied with his own miraculously conjured companion, this one taking the shape of former wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). Somehow, Solaris has the capacity to read minds and reproduce people from the storehouse of memory, with their remade bodies made of neutrinos. But such a visitation is as painful for Kris as it is disorientating and joyful, as the original Hari committed suicide years earlier, after he left her.
Tarkovsky’s approach to Lem’s source material realised the latent power of the idea of Solaris as a lodestone that can realise any aspect of the human thought patterns made for the perfect poetic metaphor, a mimetic tool that communicates the world of dreams, impressions, dynamic thought, but not actual, direct language, a notion that crystallises towards the end with the suggestion that Solaris mistranslates a vital aspect of Kris’s memories into a surrealist but emotionally exact manifestation with rain inside his old family house. Solaris sets in play an attempt to understand memory as a function of life Tarkovsky would return to with a more personal frame on The Mirror (1975), whilst also echoing back to the very sources of poetry in the western tradition in the myths of Orpheus, casting Kris as half-pathetic inheritor of the mantle of seer-hero who gets to resurrect his Eurydice during his visit to a zone of existence that’s over the threshold of reality’s normal demarcations – Kris’s space journey is his venture across the Styx. Solaris both indicts and celebrates the human mind that can only comprehend things that operate like itself. The magic spell Solaris weaves is double-edged, diagnosing the limitations of human perception, but also highlighting anew for Kris as he ventures deeper into this new realm just what that perception is and what has given birth to it. Tellingly, he loves the remade Hari far more than he was capable of loving the original. This simulacrum of Hari is like her in every way, or at least like the version of her that was alive in Kris’s memory, carefully tailored by selective memory and his own emotional responses to be a more perfect edition.
Kris is soon confronted by the fact that not only is Hari redux a sentient, entirely lucid being although she can’t recall her own grim end, but that she has astounding powers of healing and re-composition. At first she needs to maintain close proximity to him – she tears her way through the metal door of his cabin, leaving herself a bloody heap, only for the gashes and wounds to swiftly close up again. When she first appears there’s a telling flaw in the manifestation: the dress she wears isn’t quite right, so Kris has to cut it off. Kris at first tries to dispose of the companion Solaris has provided him with, luring the unsuspecting Hari into a rocket stored aboard the satellite and firing her off into space. This effort, which sees Kris almost burning himself up in the process, is envisioned akin to an elaborate act of self-mutilation or amputation, and Solaris immediately supplies him with another Hari, in full awareness that the first simulacrum is still drifting around in the rocket. He doesn’t try this again, and falls completely in love with the latest Hari. The second simulacrum eventually evolves into a fully-formed woman, capable of arguing for her own existence and autonomy with Snaut and Sartorius in spite of their sniffy, semi-wilful need to dismiss her. Their own embodied burdens are only suggested, although the tiny grotesque that harasses Sartorius seems like the projection of his own stunted emotional self. The way Kris talks early in the film, trying to talk himself into the role of cool rationalist and cordoned empiricist fighting the good fight for science and state, is Sartorius’ full-time persona. He describes Kris’s connection with Hari, half-disparagingly, half-jealously, as a form of “emotional contact” with Solaris. Ageing, gnomic Snaut is more open to the experience Kris and Hari are going through but retains his own brand of scepticism, noting, in the film’s most specific line of dialogue, that what humankind really wants wherever it goes is a mirror, a system that reflects our own obsessions.
Like works in the science fiction genre ranging from Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein through to Alien (1979), Solaris deals in its own way with the same theme of a man giving birth. Such a notion speaks not just of ructions in modernity’s constructions of gender and social role, but cuts to the quick of the entire scientific project in which science, so often characterised as a highly masculine business, tries to impose and rewrite the rules of natural order: all sci-fi might, on this level, be exactly that – a man giving birth. But Solaris squarely preoccupies itself with the most fundamental aspects of humanity; particularly love in all its infinite strangeness, territory sci-fi usually goes weak-kneed in, with Kris inadvertently conjuring a mate, that gate Frankenstein finally stalled before, at least until James Whale took charge of him. Kris rummages through the stages in his life and contemplates not just the manufactured reality of reborn Hari but also the memory of his mother, glimpsed as a loving yet ambivalent woman who used to hide behind the shed and smoke cigarettes whilst he wandered the snowy landscape, and whose youthful shade he calls on to coach him through a moment of interiorised crisis. Hari has vague memories of Kris’s mother disliking her, but for him of course they’re the eternal diptych of the cosmic feminine, alpha and omega to his lifespan. Kris and Hari’s renascent marriage seems to defy all limitations of time and nature, but can’t overcome the fundamental flaws of the human way of knowing, a flaw that echoes the problem with understanding Solaris. The human consciousness is locked within itself but reaches out to others, and what we know is always left incomplete by the limits of perception.
Remade Hari, although just as “real” as her model, is a perfect reproduction of Kris’s understanding of her, tailored, so to speak, by his own psyche to suit his nostalgic ideal. At first Hari is weak, passive, bewildered, unable to stand life without her lover at hand – a veritable caricature of a certain sentimental view of femininity. She gains independence and identity, but also crippling awareness of herself as a construct, experiencing the ultimate existential crisis: humans can deal with the vagaries of existence because of the myriad layers of experience that make us, whereas Hari is forced to confront her direct and inexplicable creation by an incoherent deity, realising the dream of millennia of would-be saints and prophets to know their creator but gaining only suicidal depression from the privilege. The images of Hari’s physical suffering, sliced up after she tears through the cabin door and later when she attempts suicide, reproduce in unnervingly visual terms the interior suffering of a woman who doesn’t seem to have been quite properly constructed in the first place for life in a mean world, now brought back to life and unable to find peace. Like 2001, Solaris is also about the hunt for god, or something like it. Where 2001 essentially presented a myth that made evolution a path leading to its own form of angelic transcendence, the novel of Solaris concluded with something more like an existential despair that god, actualised by Solaris, is an evolving creature as well, and therefore not omnipotent or all-wise. Lem also concluded with the suggestion that the transcendent love that becomes Kris’s refuge was an illusion. But for Kris and Tarkovsky the difference is moot – the fact that mankind yearns for a safe harbour from the ravages and transformations of time and whether it comes in the form of heaven or an alien planet that can offer such a perfect refuge makes for no difference at all. For Kris, encountering love through Solaris offers him a new form of the feeling that borders on divine revelation: “Maybe we’re here to experience other people as a reason for love.”
Tarkovsky’s debut feature, My Name is Ivan (1962), already set in motion many of the concepts and imagined landscapes depicted Solaris but in a more familiar context. Ivan depicted a cast of characters trying to fight the good fight for their identity and culture, adventuring in zones rendered near-abstract and dreamlike, as well as introducing one of Tarkovsky’s prize themes, the collision of innocence and faith with a violent, entropic world. The elusive search by a contemplative hero for a proof of faith and his attempts to understand systems of life at odds with his own understanding echoes his second film, Andrei Rublev (1969). Solaris stripped back much of the spectacle and baroque expansiveness in those films as Tarkovsky continued to search for new ways to tell stories and utilise the cinematic space, and offers a fantastic drama that purposefully avoids most manifestation of the fantastic. And yet Solaris is often held up as Tarkovsky’s most accessible and popular work, chiefly because of its lucid and powerful romanticism. That quality ironically can only be conjured in a remembered, mediated state. Some have noted that Solaris really bears more resemblance to Vertigo (1958) than to 2001 in depicting a man resurrecting a lover only to find the reproduction duplicitous, and in both the legends of Orpheus and Pygmalion are the deep roots.
The myth of Orpheus ties the artist to an eternal attempt to conquer death and conjure the ideal, something Solaris makes possible for Kris. The very act of creation is a constant refrain for Tarkovsky, and Solaris also takes up an unstated but self-evident concern in Andrei Rublev about how art is indeed all that is left of any one artist, their culture, their age, to speak to any receptive ear in the future, if often contradicting or denying the facts of the world that produced it. Rublev’s real, decaying, stylised and idealised artworks, surveyed by Tarkovsky’s camera in the end of that film, here give way to Kris burning his own share of the cultural inheritance, his books and artworks, in a scene that anticipates another variation on the same idea, in Stalker (1979), where a similar panoply of the human reliquary is surveyed left like rubbish in a stream. Tarkovsky is always trying to get at the preciousness and vulnerability of such inheritance as well as the urge of human kind to make such icons, to conquer death and time with such keepsakes but also the vulnerability of such an inheritance to the forces time brings – decay, neglect, the ravages exacted by humanity’s destructive impulses, always in a dance with the creative urge. A reproduction of Brueghel’s “The Hunters in the Snow” hangs on the wall of the space station’s library room, surveyed by Tarkovsky with its depiction, at once lively and haunting, of seekers returning to their community frustrated. This picture both echoes scenes Kris recalls from childhood when his family property lay under blankets of snow and his mother in her solitary, boding mystery, and also comments sarcastically on the enterprise he and his fellow scientists are engaged upon. The work is of art is no one thing, and that is its power and purpose. Solaris offers a device of perfect retention and transmutation, both the ultimate artistic device and a tool that renders art obsolete.
Tarkovsky’s drifting, tentative approach in the film’s first act, in his attempt to depict a state of mind and a way of seeing detached from immediacy even as Kris tries to luxuriate in the physical, gives way to the peculiarly visualised sequence of Kris’s brief, dangerous, almost disastrous shuttle flight from the ship that carts him across the void to the orbiting station. Space travel is represented by a bubble speeding out of the dark, with only Kris’s face, eyes highlighted by pencil spots, spinning before the camera, as if Tarkovsky is deliberately breaking down the distance between the hard and technocratic concepts of space travel and some Carlos Casteneda-like interiorised journey or a yogi’s ideal of astral projection. Solaris itself is glimpsed as a vast ocean that shimmers and teems with hallucinogenic hues, suggesting movement without cause or effect, a search for form in need of design, and sometimes even resembling the wrinkly matter of a brain. The footage recorded on Burton’s fateful rescue flight only seems to capture roiling fluids and white cloud, a survey of dreamy voids (a common visual refrain for Russian filmmakers of the period, transfixing Larisa Shepitko and Sergei Bondarchuk as well, in the search for the sensation of pure release in flight). The planet does seem to react to the interactions between Kris and Hari, the churning of its liquids speeding up and producing curious patterns that mottle the planet’s surface. The environs of the space station might well have influenced the later efforts of filmmakers like George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and Peter Hyams to lend their sci-fi visions the grungy quality that is today much more of a norm, as Tarkovsky surveys this place, clearly designed as the sci-fi magazine ideal of a space station, like some big city bus station at the end of a long day – near-deserted, littered with rubbish, exposed wiring and circuitry. Such a dead space is a self-imposition created by the human need for wonder but also represents the failure of human imagination, created by a way of thinking that has a curious contempt for the roots of aesthetic in nature.
The aridness of the space station and the blank, protean canvas that is Solaris’s surface seem to offer no purchase for human feeling, and yet both are actually stages for just that, as Solaris the film ultimately becomes transfixed by the spectacle of feeling, the needful couple of Kris and Hari. Kris is eventually left feverish and nearly broken by the intertwined fear of losing Hari again, his awareness her continued existence is an egotistical dream made flesh and pain for her, and that they can have no future away from the zone of Solaris’s influence. Tarkovsky’s infinitely patient method builds to three extraordinary scenes late in the film. The first comes at the end of a lengthy scene in which Kris, Hari, Snaut, and Sartorius debate whether Hari can be considered alive, with Sartorius insisting she’s still only a figment in spite of her apparent self-awareness. A change in the station’s rotation sets everything on board, for a precious, transitory moment, completely weightless, untethered from all earthbound laws – a tray of candles and the hapless couple themselves all dancing through air to the inaudible music of the spheres. Hard upon this moment of incantatory beauty however comes Kris discovering Hari dead, having drunk a vial of liquid oxygen. She lies sprawled across the corridor, draped in frost and blood, victim of some forgotten piece of coding in her makeup that drives her towards self-destruction as well as the very real cues her impossible situation give her. The image of her in such a state seems to echo high Romantic poetry and Pre-Raphaelite art in its weirdly eroticised depiction of perfection in death –Wallis’ “The Death of Chatterton” or Millais’ “Ophelia.” Tarkovsky then turns exacting in its evocation of the corporeal as Hari, doomed to eternal life by her alien makeup that does not respect the roots of the human being in our ephemerality, revives, convulsing and shaking as her mangled flesh reorganises itself. This pivots again to recall another Brueghel painting, that of the dead Christ, which so fascinated another Russian artist, Dostoyevsky: the resurrection is only a miracle in the face of death in all its raw and ugly reality.
Kris collapses himself soon after in febrile need to withdraw from this perversion of his idyll, retreating into fantasies of speaking to his mother. When he revives, it’s to learn Hari has again killed herself, this time successfully, utilising a device Snaut and Sartorius built specifically for dispelling the neutrinos these free-radical beings are made from. They’ve also attempted communication with Solaris by beaming an encephalogram of Kris’s brain patterns down at it: now Solaris’s surface is rearranging and throwing up apparent land forms. Kris meditates on the question of whether he should return to Earth and resume his life even if he is haunted by the vast new possible he has grazed, or continue to try and make contact with Solaris. A plant that has sprouted in soil he brought with him from his home suggests new life is possible. But at first it seems that Kris does go back home, as he is next seen back in his old yard, albeit in winter’s icy glaze. A sentimental homecoming seems nascent as he nears his house only to be bewildered by the disturbing sight of a rain falling inside his house, his father contending with the damage to his books. The film’s epic last shot, retreating from high overhead, reveals the house and the grounds exist on one of the new islands formed on Solaris. Has Solaris understood Kris sufficiently to try and provide what he can’t return to as he’s attempted to commune with it in person, or still just mimicking the contents of his mind on a larger scale? Has the Kris we’ve been following been real at all, or just another simulacrum, a retained piece of code absorbed by Solaris and kept with a slight corruption in the file? All are possible explanations for what we see here. But it could also be that Tarkovsky thinks that in the end everyone longs for our own Solaris – that place where nothing ever dies, and we can find everything we ever left, just where we last saw it.
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Director/Screenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai
By Roderick Heath
Wong Kar-Wai was already a major figure on the film scene of the 1990s, but his 2000 film In the Mood for Love made him something close to the cinematic poet laureate of the millennium’s pivot as far as many moviegoers were concerned. Achingly beautiful as a remembrance of things past and a portrait of stymied emotions, In the Mood for Love was both an apotheosis of Wong’s obsessive refrains as a creative force, but also suggested a deliberated about-face from the artistic persona he had built for himself and the style of his oeuvre to that point, rooted as they were in the hyperkinetic climes of his native Hong Kong. Works like Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995) were concerned with the neon-painted lives of young city dwellers adrift in the tides of modern detachment, the suffocating nature of lives spent in the vortex of too much choice and chance. In the Mood for Love, nominally a portrait of two people drawn together but fatefully unable to connect, was more tone poem than narrative, celebrating evanescent emotions in the midst of such human furore, immersing the viewer in Wong’s nostalgia for the milieu of 1960s Hong Kong with its crumbling, seedy, intimate vibrancy, an attempt to grasp at an image-dream of the past swept away in the hoopla of the late 20th century.
Wong’s most excitedly accepted works had a habit of dropping in between other projects he was expending more energy and time on. The genesis of In the Mood for Love hardly suggested it would prove Wong’s most popular film, as Wong had conceived and shot the film as a respite and recourse whilst another, heftier project called 2046 languished in development hell. Wong spun one project from the material of the other, resulting in two films linked by crucial but rearranged aspects, each narrative and its human figurations haunting the other like ghosts. A third film in the mix is Wong’s debut, Days of Being Wild (1988), suggesting that 2046, when it was finally produced, had evolved into a summative assessment and closing bracket for all his films up to that time. 2046 is a partial antithesis to its immediate predecessor in spite of its shared images, themes, and characters–sexual where the earlier film was chaste, purposefully messy rather than singularly focused, a study in the onrush of history both personal and general rather than a wistfully static zone within it. It’s also the director’s most unusual narrative insofar as it takes place in two different times, or two different realities, splitting the difference between mid-1960s Southeast Asia and the year of the title. 2046 isn’t a sequel in the conventional manner, nor is it a second chapter of the same story. A close literary relative would be D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love, which tell the lives of two sisters but can easily be regarded as standalone works or distorting mirrors of each other.
Much as 2046 recapitulates the plot of In the Mood for Love in a series of increasingly less sentimental and satisfactory echoes, the protagonist of 2046, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), writes one part of this story. Or does he only think he does–is he in fact the memory or myth of someone in 2046? Of course, both stories are being created by Wong Kar-Wai in the early 2000s, projecting both backwards and forwards in extending his poetic metaphors to extremes. Chow is nominally the same man seen in In the Mood for Love, but a revision—sour, cynical, and glib rather than intense and honourably disconsolate. He’s first glimpsed breaking up with a lover, Su Li-zhen (Gong Li), a woman who had the same name as Maggie Cheung’s character from In the Mood for Love but who couldn’t have been more different. This lady is a shady femme fatale and professional gambler who always wears a black glove, a creature suited to the smoky, feverish dens of Singapore, the place where Chow has been hiding out since his life fell apart back in Hong Kong. Chow returns to Hong Kong in the spirit of getting on with that life again, and quickly encounters a woman he once knew by the name of Mimi (Carina Lau), who had appeared in Days of Being Wild and who now calls herself Lulu. She doesn’t remember Chow, but he’s able to tell her own story back to her like a narrator, an act she seems to find beneficent. Soon after, Chow tries to find Lulu in the Orient Hotel, where she lives, only for the hotel owner, Mr. Wang (Wang Sum), to tell him she’s left. Chow is struck by the detail that Lulu was living in a room numbered 2046, the same number as the hotel room where he and the first Su Li-Zhen spent time trying to write kung-fu action stories.
Chow asks Wang if he can rent the room, but Wang puts him off, talking him into accepting the neighbouring room 2047. Chow later learns the grim truth Wang was suppressing: Lulu had been murdered by her jazz drummer boyfriend, and her room is still covered in blood. Chow settles into life in the Orient, encountering Wang’s daughters, the forlorn, fraying Jing-wen (Faye Wong) and her scamp of a younger sister, Jie-wen (Jie Dong), and cabaret dancer Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), who eventually moves into 2046. Jing-wen has a boyfriend, a Japanese businessman (Takuya Kimura) who had stayed at the hotel for a time and has since returned home, and now she spends her quiet time learning Japanese, hoping eventually to make the journey to his arms. But her father’s vehemence against the match seems to doom the romance to perpetual long-distance longing. Jie-wen soon visits a form of karma on their father when she, following in Lulu’s footsteps, runs off with another drummer. Meanwhile Chow begins a mutually aggravating flirtation with Bai Ling, who lives a similarly libertine lifestyle to him, and eventually it flowers into a fiery affair. The hotel is an easy place to romanticise. The balcony under the hotel sign is a flying bridge where the lost folk who inhabit its poky spaces retreat for solitary cigarettes or momentary connections with their fellows. But the opera that resounds from Wang’s apartment signals not a love of surging artistry, but rather an attempt to mask his constant, gruelling arguments with his daughters, and in a similar manner, the more insistent truth that emerges is that the hotel is a crossroads where lost souls graze one another.
Chow’s adventures in the Orient Hotel provide the seeds for a science fiction story he begins writing with Jing-wen after she has a bout of severe depression and spends time in hospital. Chow has already had a success with one he wrote called 2046; his and Jing-wen’s follow-up is entitled 2047, set in a future in which the world is spanned by a network of trains, one of which makes a journey to the mysterious destination 2046–a year, a place, a state of mind?–where life enters stasis and people remain immersed in their dreams and memories in escape from the real world. The hero of the story, a Japanese man named Tak (Kimura again), is the first person to ever make the return journey from 2046 because he lost his lover even in that dream world. During the trip, in spite of the driver’s warning not to fall in love with the android staff on the train, he becomes fascinated by one android (Wong again), and tries to puzzle out her behaviour, which might signal that she loves someone else or might be slowly suffering mechanical wear-out. Chow’s working relationship with Jing-wen proves successful, as their story forges a name and new profession for Chow but also troublingly echoes his liaison years before with the original Su Li-zhen. As he did then, Chow falls silently in love with his writing partner. Rather than take advantage of his Japanese rival’s absence, however, Chow lets them write to each other using him as intermediary so her father won’t suspect, and finally arranges a Christmastime phone call between the pair, acknowledging with melancholic satisfaction that the especially cold regions of 1224–1225 the trains in his story pass through were named for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the two days when everyone needs extra warmth.
Wong’s films before In the Mood for Love had been marked by their employment of purposefully arch storytelling techniques, some of them adapted from modernist literature, others suggesting the influence of poetry, fairy tales, even pop songs. Wong foregrounded his stories’ status as just that—stories—with films divided into chapters or mirroring narratives, doppelganger characters, intertwined narrative lines, and totemistic fetishes, like the man who buys canned pineapple cans every day and the girl who obsessively listens to “California Dreamin’” in Chungking Express. At the same time he tried to demonstrate how all such devices were, to some extent, masks of an underlying obsessive drive to record and describe thoughts and feelings almost beyond words. His customarily eccentric take on the great native fictional genre wu xia, Ashes of Time (1994), had presented a collective of familiar stereotypes from the genre but as lovelorn and life-foiled individuals whose existential crises are only interrupted by occasional life-and-death battles that come on ironically more as escapes into pure action than as great climaxes.
Chow’s attempt to write wu xia tales in In the Mood for Love suggested an in-joke on Wong’s part, whereas here the bifurcated narrative split into period romance and futuristic metaphor reproduces the same essential idea of convention and cliché utilised to penetrate to the heart of real emotion. The rag-and-bone shop of Wong’s poetic lexicon is constantly evinced throughout 2046, rooted in the detritus of popular cultures of which, he suggests, Hong Kong was a particularly enriched tidewater where the products of both East and West wash ashore, and things remembered from Wong’s childhood, the fervent, crowded, fearsomely lively yet isolating atmosphere of Hong Kong and the open, rich sense of possibility in Southeast Asia at the time, before the horrors of Vietnam, Pol Pot, and the fall of Sukarno. In the Mood for Love’s final shots, filmed in Angkor Wat, suggested both a longing to regain a mystically tinged sense of certitude rooted in a fractured past and a sense of foreboding, knowing that soon monsters will be roaming over this landscape. 2046 stepped into a new realm for Wong, insofar as that it’s about the act of creation itself, offering in part a meditation on the way experience becomes art, the transposition of ideas from immediate reality into the zone of the fantastic, and back again. Chow processes his experiences into an alternate zone of facticity where emotional states shape that world, and, as Wong did with Ashes of Time, removing the traditional motivations of scifi–usually action and adventure–to study the more ephemeral qualities lurking within genre storytelling.
2046’s attempt to evoke zones of feeling and sexuality beyond the current understanding of such things isolates the underlying mood of scifi like Blade Runner (1982) and makes it the very point of the film’s ponderings. Wong also starts off not with Chow in his ’60s setting, but with the world of his fiction, raising the question as to which era is the dream of the other. Wong’s scifi references cover as much ground as his other cultural influences. Vistas of gleaming CGI neon and surging monorails come straight out of ’70s and ’80s Japanese anime, evoking a common background of such modern mythology in the past-war state of so many Asian cities–Tokyo demolished and Hong Kong turned from colonial outpost to place of refuge and haute-capitalist tide pool, causing both to be rebuilt as carnivals of steel, glass, and neon. The concept of correlating distant future as stage to deliberate on the past is reminiscent of Dennis Potter’s final works Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. Aspects of the story suggest Wong digested an episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, “The Lonely,” down to the fateful number in the title, the year the Serling story was set.
Of course, in one sense 2046 might not be regarded as science fiction at all, given that the futuristic element in the film is presented as something external to or concurrent to its other reality. And yet Wong, uninterested as he is in the nuts-and-bolts methods of technocratic pondering and conceptual fancy with which scifi tends to be preoccupied, engages with another, subtler mode of the genre, a brand that explores how the modern human identity subsists in relation to a vast, strange, implacable universe, and how we coexist with our own mimetic projects and creations. In this regard, 2046 has kinship with major genre works that betray a different sense of science fiction, including Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime (1967) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971), similarly transfixed by memory and simulacra of life, exploring the constant human tendency towards interior travel rather than face up to the universe in all its indifferent grandeur. Ridley Scott’s Replicants would extend the Frankensteinian fear of a creation that refuses to abide and extend the creator’s self, but Wong’s twitchy-limbed fembots, like Stanislaw Lem’s alien planet that gives Tarkovsky’s film its central enigma and motive, only reflect back to the onlooker what they project upon them, embodying but remaining as fundamentally unknowable as the love-object. Chow tries to understand himself through mythic projections of himself and those who torment and fascinate him. A constant visual and thematic refrain is a large speakerlike object on the 2046 train, high-tech equivalent to the hole in the tree where secrets are whispered and stored–a piece of folktale wisdom mentioned in this film and its predecessor. The darkness at the heart of the pit of secrets is the crux of the enigma, the black hole at the galaxy’s centre, the vaginal portal, the id. Nothing that goes there comes back unless changed beyond recognition.
Wong and Doyle conjure gorgeous scifi images in the sleek confines of the 2046 train and the blank-eyed yet mysteriously emotive robots who stalk the deserted conveyance, Kimura’s perfect manga hero their detached and pensive companion-lover. Nor is scifi the only genre Wong rifles, as he steps into film noir and paperback romance tales. Gong’s gauntleted gambler could have stepped out of his frustrated attempt to film the source novel for Orson Welles’ noir masterpiece The Lady From Shanghai (1946). Glimpses of Chow’s own 2046 story being enacted split the difference between noir and scifi, as a cyberpunk gamine lures a man into bed and murders him whilst her boyfriend hides upstairs and spies on them, his dripping tears caught on the plunge by DP Christopher Doyle’s camera as galactic blotches. The images here hark back to Fallen Angels’ assassin lowlifes inhabiting the underside of contemporary Hong Kong that Wong filmed like an alien world. Chow’s shift of modes from writing martial arts tales to scifi suggests Wong had been paying attention to a general critical consensus that scifi provided a new stage for traditional genres to unfold, with the likes of Star Wars (1977) blending motifs borrowed from both the Western and the martial arts tale.
The metafictional aspect of Chow’s adventures in writing suggests an imagined alternative life for Wong himself, one where he subsists as a smith of genre fiction. Hong Kong cinema has for so long been buoyed by its reputation for action and comedy films Wong’s constitutional inability to swim with that tide was enabled a level of freedom by his stature but also left him cut off from the mainstream of his own local culture. Wong may well also have been thinking about the creative pillars of wu xia on the printed page, the likes of Liang Yusheng and Jin Yong, pseudonyms used by men who had created many of the defining characters and motifs of the genre writing for newspapers in the 1950s and ’60s–indeed, Ashes of Time had been adapted from Jin Yong’s stories. Much of the landscape of scifi and film noir had similarly been born of such writers, penning stories for magazines. Rather than dismissing such folk as grubby hacks, Wong celebrates them in his way, suggesting the fuel for all forms of creativity is inherently personal. 2046 is also, as some have noted, the year before the promised self-governing period of Hong Kong after the handover to China runs out, giving the number a foreboding quality, a crux of the political as well as personal. Hong Kong’s status as a world caught in the cross-rip of different cultures, hemispheres, and ways of being, perched uneasily on the edge of history, waiting to be pushed off by some fatal pressure. That sense of anxiety, however subliminal, gives Wong’s work an overtone that remains vital to it (for instance, the absence of it in Wong’s Stateside romp My Blueberry Nights, 2006, doomed that film for all its qualities to feel comparatively frivolous).
2046 unfolds as a series of contrapuntal sequences, stepping backwards and forwards in chronology and between realities. The highly rhythmic yet dislocated structure unfolds is simulated in Wong and Doyle’s shooting. In the Mood for Love’s style was marked by its Matisse-like visual effects, spaces and people alike used as elements in patterns that converge and give way without depth, conveying both the beauty and stasis of the central couple’s affair. 2046’s images flit by at a much faster pace, the dense layers of the period Hong Kong and Singapore scenes, all vertiginously narrowed corridors and universes folding in on themselves, matched to the stripped-back environs of the futuristic train scenes, where the real world moves by in a blank blur. The sense of something urgent underlying 2046 is impossible to ignore even as, essentially, nothing happens. Chow’s voiceover mentions riots convulsing on the waterfront, with the suggestion they’re the first act in an age of disruption that will end the islet time Wong was born in and celebrates. Shigeru Umebayashi’s propulsive main theme for the score underlines this sensation of impetus, contrasting the slower, more yearning, dancing pizzicato of his In the Mood for Love theme and matching the film’s pulse instead to the driving force of the futuristic trains seen dashing through tunnels and neon cities. Wong realises the two periods as polar opposites of atmosphere (if all still painted in the lustrous hues of Doyle’s photography), the clean, sleek, supermoderne environs of the 2046 express where stilted androids cavort and gaze dead-eyed out the windows into digital dreams, and the tangled, bustling, organic furore of period Hong Kong, a world in which Chow and Bai Ling exist bred to it as panthers in the veldt, slipping the cramped hallways, drenched in the hues of red and green and blue that infest the parlours and foyers and streets of the city, at once embracing and isolating.
The film occasionally switches into black-and-white for an aura faintly reminiscent of high-class advertising, apt for iconographic moments of perfection where, like the doomed Scotty Ferguson of Vertigo (1958), Chow finds himself confronted by reproductions of his idealised love object via fetishized talismanic objects and experiences–sharing a drowsy ride in the back of a taxi, the hand in the black glove–as waystations in a journey that loops eternally. Zhang and Leung make for one of the sexiest screen couples in history, inhabiting characters whose connection of a physical level is foiled by their discursive emotional needs. If In the Mood for Love was transfixed by a love affair based in subliminal accord foiled by scruple and circumstance, 2046 studies one doomed by the incapacity of the two lovers to state their subtler desires out loud and their ingrained attitudes even as they find deep carnal satisfaction: Chow constantly holds off Bai Ling’s shows of feeling by continually relegating her to the status of whore whilst she is constantly frustrated by his detachment whilst casting him as the eternally elusive lover. Their early scenes play out as a dance of attraction and repulsion in which they consciously assume characters, he the drawling roué, she the teasing tart, that ensure they don’t really meet, only the guises they put to survive their respective narratives as soiled romantic and fading beauty. Their quicksilver attraction and sexual compatibility founders, however, on their inability to leave behind such guises, as Bai Ling offends Chow by failing to show up for a dinner he gives when he plans to introduce her as his girlfriend to his friends, and he in turn leaves her increasingly wounded as he fails, deliberately or not, to recognise her very genuine neediness.
2046 is also a study in acting, both within and without Wong’s narratives. Leung is his eternally reliable worldly conduit, ensuring Chow always conveys a sense of gravitas and covert discomfort even when he’s being a flip shit. Wong’s cabal of actresses, a critical mass of Chinese screen beauty and talent, are all cast in accordance to classic Hollywood’s rules of casting according to type and essence–Gong in her steely, stoic majesty, Zhang in her defiant but covertly brittle intensity, Faye Wong’s bright-eyed yet melancholic romanticism. Wong even goes so far as to name Zhang’s character after one of the few big Hong Kong stars not in the film. The theme is both supernal and vital: roles and lives lived and unlived spin about each other in strange gravity throughout 2046, whether through the constructed safe zones of fiction or the demands of surviving daily existence in a metropolis, and a natural process of life, the people we are in different times. But within this celebration of words and identities worn like husks is an idea Wong constantly, even obsessively tries to dig into is the ambiguity of the self, whether it’s knowable not just to anyone outside of that self but even itself, and indeed the question as to whether that ambivalence is the essence of human authenticity rather than a failure to locate it. Both Chow and the second Su Li-zhen prize their ambivalence and the difficulty others take in trying to understand them–Su fobs Chow off when it comes to learning anything about her by playing high and low with him for such information, and she always wins. “I’ve seen pretty people disappear like smoke,” Bob Dylan once sang, and it’s a fact of life for Chow, who returns to Singapore towards the film’s end in search of her only to find her vanished, perhaps consumed by her perpetual twilight lifestyle, perhaps having returned to Cambodia where she came from, where she’ll probably also die once that epochal nightmare rolls around.
Chow’s time with the second Li-zhen is described in one of the later chapters although it comes before most of the events depicted in the film, and is bookended by his last encounter with Bai Ling, so we can see tragedy repeating not exactly as farce but surely as ironic inversion. Li-zhen resisted Chow’s entreaty to come with him to Hong Kong just as he refuses to play Bai Ling’s lover again–to be “borrowed” as he put it once before–because he recognises he’s finally found a part he can’t play, an interior reality he can’t ignore for the sake of an external one, and that like himself, she needs to escape the roundelay of simulacrums they take refuge in. Chow’s act here seems cold, as he leaves Bai Ling weeping in her poignant, final loss of illusion, but is actually as kind in its way as his aid to Jing-wen was, for his response here is akin to ripping off a band-aid, a momentary hurt that deflects a deeper and more grievous possible wound, a refusal on Chow’s part to indulge his guises any longer nor to offer Bai Ling the opium that is bogus affection. The concluding images of him are as a sad and solitary figure perhaps resigned to such a state until he can properly lay his ghosts to rest. Unlike his fictional antihero, Chow might not have the will the leave that place where memories surround and immerse, but there is a sign he is reconciled to it, able to coexist in future and past, a gaining of wisdom if not catharsis. The meaning of it all suggests a transposition of the famous last lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to a new setting and new context. All our trains rush on, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Georges Méliès
By Roderick Heath
On the 27th of December, 1895, Georges Méliès attended a special event arranged by the inventor brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. The brothers had recently perfected the machine they called the cinematograph—a creation that combined functions of moving picture camera, processor, and projector—and had been showing off the results around Paris throughout the later weeks of the year. On this night, they invited various showmen and theatrical impresarios to see the results of their labours. The invitees were to be one of the very first movie audiences, and at least one of them would soon become a pioneer of a new art. The Lumières had conflicting aims in the exhibition. They were exposing their creation and hoping to stir interest and publicity, which would help protect it from their many rivals, including Thomas Edison. But they also had avowed high-minded, scientific purpose for their invention on the cusp of dispatching a corps of photographers around the world to shoot documentary footage and exhibit the results. Méliès was an experienced stage illusionist who owned and managed the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, built by that famous magician. Méliès had become a success thanks to his meticulous attention to his theatre’s running and ingenuity in providing its attractions. Like all of the impresarios, he was transfixed by the new mode of communication the Lumières presented, and he jostled with the owner of the Folies Bergère in trying to buy their camera. But the brothers refused all offers.
Méliès got around this by travelling to London and purchasing another manufacturer’s projecting device, which he adapted into a noisy but working camera, at first directly copying the short films the Lumières had made and showing them in his theatre as a side attraction. Méliès discovered peculiarities in this new tool as he went along, as when his camera jammed whilst shooting a street scene. When filming was restarted, a moment of time had elapsed. When projected, Méliès saw the resulting jump and realised this basic quirk of the invention could be utilised to realise tricks similar to what he worked on stage. What was could suddenly become something else, only in the reality of film. Edison had already pulled a trick like this in one of his movies, but Méliès would make it the basis of a new expressive form. Méliès quickly found popularity with his new obsession far greater than what even his theatrical success could aspire to. He built a film studio in Montreuil, brought over his stock company of players, and began making movies with the verve and industry of someone who knew how to make and stage a show, as well as the quicksilver acumen required to adapt to a new medium. Most of his early works were only a few minutes long, but he tackled every subject he could, from ripped-from-the-headlines dramas like Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine (1898) and The Dreyfus Affair (1899), to titillating stag-circuit shorts like After the Ball (1897), and the proto-horror films Le Maison du Diable (1897) and Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899).
Méliès’ work provides the bridge between the show business of one age, the theatre of belle époque Paris and the Victorian era stage fantasia, and the oncoming time of cinema. Illusionism was Méliès’ stock in trade, but it wasn’t just his love of theatrical stunts and sleight-of-hand that would influence his drift towards spectacle and the realm of the fantastic. His was a genuine love for and affinity with such fare, particularly what was called the “féerie” on the French stage—pageants and spectacles based in mythic and supernatural tales, imbued with a light and evanescent quality of transformative wonder, safe for young audiences in their colour, but also dusted with delicate, good-natured eroticism. Méliès captured the essence of this style as he began to specialise in stories exploiting his gift for realising fantastic imagery. In 1899 he made the six-minute Cinderella, an extremely straightforward telling of Perrault’s story. This proved so popular it gained him international clout and international legal problems, as the popularity of his works with pirates became increasingly galling. Under the banner of his production company, christened Star Films, Méliès began work on his most ambitious film to date, spending 10,000 francs and taking four months to create a film over fifteen minutes long. This odyssey was Voyage dans la lune, or A Trip to the Moon, inspired by ideas from Jules Verne’s novella of that title and H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon, via, perhaps, Jacques Offenbach’s light-hearted operatic spin on Verne.
Méliès’ work dated quickly in its day, as the fast-moving tides of technology and taste almost resulted in its total loss, swept away just as CD-ROM and VHS have been in the very recent past. After Méliès fell into ruin and obscurity, his rediscovery came when cinema first started looking back over its shoulder at the past. A Trip to the Moon is so familiar as a totem of pop culture inception today that it can seem near to cliché. And yet it’s as tantalisingly strange, witty, and original now as it was a century ago, a broadcast from the very edges of technological memory and modern reference. Of all the things cinema has been and is now, a seed for so much lies within A Trip to the Moon. It’s an experimental work, feeling out the peculiar textures and tricks of this new expressive form recognising no limits, only a basic set of proposed rules and a governing urge. It’s a protosurrealist’s fantasia mapping out the universe as annex of the interior imagination. It’s a pure auteurist relic created by a man who tackled and manipulated every aspect of his burgeoning craft. It’s a work of spectacle driven by special effects and a desire to wow an audience with visual impact. It’s a spry and funny burlesque on the themes of genre fiction and the stuff of official mythology, as well as the new, exciting, more than slightly terrifying concepts of the age of mechanisation and expanding consciousness marking the end of the Victorian era and the onrush of the new century. Sixty-seven years later, humankind would actually pull off the adventure Méliès conjured.
A Trip to the Moon commences with a gathering of astronomers. The presiding Professor Barbenfouillis (Méliès himself) proposes firing a manned projectile to the moon with a giant gun, much to the excitement and consternation of his fellow scientists. A rival argues with him, plainly decrying his plan as preposterous, an exchange that devolves as Barbenfouillis tosses papers and paraphernalia at his adversary. Others agree to the proposed expedition and the mad-bearded professor shakes hands with them. Like much of the film, this scene seems very simple, with the unmoving camera, the stage-pageant sprawl and mime-show action. And yet it’s stuffed full of allusions, sign-play, and waggish jokes. Méliès depicts not contemporary scientists in the strict, professionalised garb of Victorian science but as medieval alchemists sporting cloaks decorated with celestial objects. Immediately apparent in this vignette is the way sexuality becomes a refrain, and above all show business itself; A Trip to the Moon is a paean to its own evocation of showmanship as a triumphant value. Cute stenographers write down the scientists’ every word, and a line of trim-waisted chorus girls enter to give the senior scientists the gifts of telescopes, which then transform into stools for them to sit on.
This fillip of visual humour has resonance, suggesting the way wonder is often transmuted into stolid function: these men are used to romanticising whilst sitting on their equipment, and their journey is glimpsed as something of a Quixotic tilt not merely at exploration but at regaining lost youthful pluck. Méliès surely hadn’t read any Freud and yet the phallic note in those telescopes is insistent, and recurs later when the chorus girls are needed to help fire off the gigantic cannon. The opening tableau pictures the scientific realm as a cabalistic enclave with roots in weird esoterica and antisocial elitism, but pointing the way forward with industry and inspiration. Perhaps there’s some hint here of the filmmaker’s cunning in regards to his audience’s understanding of forces rapidly changing their lives, an aspect that complicates the film’s usual characterisation as an epitome of an early twentieth century statement of bold forward-looking. Of course, Méliès is also aware that his very film itself is part of those transformative forces, and the very last shot conflates Méliès’ mastery of his new art and the act of heroic discovery. Barbenfouillis’ sketch on a chalkboard becomes great undertaking, as witnessed in the second and third tableaux, as they have their projectile built and great gun forged. The scientists immediately set about modernising themselves, changing out of antique gear into the clothes of Montgolfier-era gentlemen adventurers. Barbenfouillis and his cabal inspect their brainchild’s realisation in the second tableau, but the savants are out of place in this workaday environment, as one man trips over a tub to the great amusement of the workers.
If A Trip to the Moon repeatedly envisions scientific endeavour and venture into branch of show business, these scenes carry a hint of Méliès’ respect for the process required to produce anything wonderful, as the painted backdrop behind the projectile recognisably reproduces Méliès’ own studio. But the arts of Victorian metallurgy and industry become mere cardboard and paintwork. A Trip to the Moon revisited ideas Méliès had first explored in his whimsical 1899 work An Astronomer’s Dream, which had similarly envisioned an arcane concept of a skygazer dreaming of star-riding nymphs and a frightening moon with a man’s face that at one point eats the dreamer hero. A Trip to the Moon reordered these touches into a more elaborate edition, with the film’s famous central image quoting but also inverting the vision Méliès had offered three years earlier, as a product of human labour careens into the eye of the man in the moon. A simple inversion of a personal joke, certainly, but also an idea that reflects a changed attitude. Suddenly, humankind is no longer so at the mercy of the universe’s caprices. An Astronomer’s Dream betrays a certain level of anxiety filtered through comedy, a sense of the world just beyond our ken as both enticing and threatening. The promise of A Trip to the Moon has been the key promise of cinematic scifi ever since, that wisdom and applied intelligence might turn threat into triumph. The dreamer has become warrior with the way of things. And yet, of course, the aura of dreamlike plunge and the image of the cosmic feminine remain powerful in A Trip to the Moon.
Seven years had passed since the first time Méliès saw a motion picture. Cinema was coming together with Promethean fire, and still only a fraction of the distance of the path it would travel. To watch the earliest fragments of moviemaking, the work of Edison, the Lumieres, and the handful of other pioneers in the field, is to stare at the very liminal edge of any sense of the past in motion, and the fleeting illusion of human subjects caught in a moment of life, like some form of spiritualism. How much it would evolve again in the following decade and a half, in terms of the techniques of visual storytelling, shifting from Méliès’ mostly fixed camera to the aggressively mobile and expressive camera of the likes of D.W. Griffith and his generation. Méliès brought a school of illusion from the stage to the screen with the essential presumption that one could be used like the other. To him, the camera was conjuring device and an imaginary audience member in his beloved Théâtre Robert-Houdin beholding the wonders he and his creative team could parade before it. Lack of worry about where the camera was and what it was doing at least freed him to labour on his other effects, as the hand-painted settings and props sprawl across the screen, creating an alternate reality, mysterious, beautiful, protean.
Whilst the film presents only 17 apparent shots with a resolutely rectilinear perspective, it consists in fact of many more: Méliès’ camera passivity is another, carefully controlled illusion. One irony of passing time is that today with many filmmakers competing to outdo each other in masking their technique in elaborate tracking shots and the like, Méliès’ efforts in creating an illusion of sustained reality from a rigorously direct perspective feels less antiquated on at least this level. We can also see the jumps in Méliès’ sense of the camera by looking back to Cinderella with its cluttered but also simpler mise-en-scène and basic camera tricks just three years before—here the shots tend to stand back further, but are also more cleanly composed and energetically arranged. The vibrancy of the sets also betrays a more confident sense of what the frame could contain, what the eye could handle zapping down at it from the screen. The film’s third tableau, a shot of the astronomers overlooking the enormous undertaking of forging the cannon, is relatively brief but one of the most fascinatingly realised and visually dramatic moments, with Méliès using forced perspective, plumes of steam and smoke, and streams of liquid metal. This is a direct transposition of a vivid passage in Verne’s novel, revealing Méliès as adaptor as well as free improviser. The basic visual presumption here is still theatrical, but the shot betrays an interest in conveying process, the art of construction and the spectacle of industry in itself, that has moved beyond the tableaux style into something more definably cinematic, a seed for the epic style in filmmaking. Méliès’ shifts from shot to shot come with dissolves, embryonic film grammar giving the film the mobility the camera lacks.
The next three tableaux are the most familiar moments of A Trip to the Moon, indeed some of the most instantly recognisable in cinema history, endlessly excerpted and anthologised as they’ve been. The moon shot project reaches its moment of truth in the midst of public excitement and publicity coup. The scientists climb into their shell and a cohort of chorus girls load it into the great cannon, before a uniformed military officer (François Lallement, one of the Star Films cameramen) signals the gun to be fired. The shell flies through the ether, and the moon, envisioned like an illustration out of a children’s book with man’s face upon its dial beaming beatifically down upon the Earth, receives the interstellar slug right in the eye. These scenes again take Verne’s novel as blueprint, but subject it to a highly satiric attitude. The great business of conquering space is presented not as pure, stoic, Apollonian venture growing out of diverted military force but a carnival of enterprise that mocks martial swagger—the rifle-toting, trumpet-blowing, flag-waving marine entourage are girls who look like a rough draft for Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties (including Méliès’ lover and later wife Jeanne d’Alcy), sending a bunch of old farts to the moon with a gun blast that needs more than a little womanly priming. Méliès’ mischievous take on great nationalist adventures here betrays his background in drawing political cartoons, as well his impresario’s understanding that there is no event so great that can’t be sexed up a bit.
And, of course, the man in the moon receiving the shell in his eye still blazes with comical and technical genius, one of the greatest sight gags ever to grace celluloid. This sequence utilised Méliès’ technique, pioneered on The Man with the Rubber Head (1902), of approximating what would become the rack or zoom shot (except that the subject was moved closer to the camera rather than the more familiar practice, because the camera was too heavy), to provide a sense of motion. That motion is to give a sense of zeroing in on the moon, which starts off as a vague, mysterious object, charged with enigmatic meaning, then revealed as an animate being who splutters with pain and offence once he gets the iron slug lodged in his brow. Méliès knew well it was a killer image, utilising it as iconography in the film’s last shot and as core advertising motif. Here we seen encapsulated in image and action not just a great piece of humour and a technical innovation, but a pivot of ways of seeing the universe, an idea that legitimises A Trip to the Moon as science fiction and not just playful fantasy. Méliès signals his conversance with a panoply of mythical figures as common motifs in theatrical fancies throughout, and knows his audience is too; the projectile is the hard smack of new scientific possibility right in the eye of a poetic worldview. The idea of landing on the moon is an act of blasphemy according to one unit of values and a simple jaunt to a strange place in another. One irony here is that the filmmaking Méliès was now espousing would soon mostly sweep away the theatrical world he was rooted in, and invent new pantheons of myth to fill in for what he counts as cultural lingua franca. Of course, the tendency of humankind to write its own image on the universe has never really left us. It’s core to understanding some of the most ambitious science fiction films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) depiction of interstellar destiny to Solaris’s (1971) sarcasm towards the notion in encountering the truly alien that can only mimic the onlooker, eternally retarding and frustrating understanding with the collaboration of our most parochial reflexes.
Méliès offers this vignette as a kind of abstract, symbolic commentary on the idea of landing on the moon, only to follow it up with a different, more literal version of the same thing. The shell actually skids to a halt on the moon surface, depicted realistically as a craggy, brutal landscape, if also, not so realistically, as a place with a breathable atmosphere. The scientists climb out of the shell only for it to slide into an abyss, and, amazed by the sight of the Earth rising on the horizon, they settle down to try and sleep. Méliès revisits the core joke of The Astronomer’s Dream here as the snoozing savants either conjure up the spirits of the ether in their dreams or miss seeing them because they’re asleep, and again Méliès evokes the mystical way of looking at the universe with erotic overtones. The Pleiades look down in bewildered amusement, depicted as a flock of disembodied girls’ heads framed by stylised model stars, the snoozing old men still cheated of their true promised land. The moon goddess Phoebe (played by regular Méliès player and stage star Bleuette Bernon) and irate old Saturn argue over what to do about these interlopers, a fight Phoebe wins: she causes a gentle snowstorm that wakens them and drives them follow their shell into the abyss. The concept of the beneficent cosmic force overlooking sailors on the celestial ocean is, in spite of science fiction’s nominal agnosticism, a constant refrain in a lot of the genre’s screen existence, but Méliès’ sense of humour about the notion is rarer, the contrast of beatific Phoebe and ranting Saturn, who leans out of a portal in the side of the planet bearing his name, pictures the gods as comedy neighbours.
Descending into the valleys of the moon, the explorers find an exotic and fertile world where strange transformations can occur—Barbenfouillis finds his umbrella takes root and grows into a colossal mushroom. Here Méliès turned to Wells for inspiration, borrowing his moon inhabitants called Selenites to provide plot complication lacking from Verne, whose space projectile had simply rounded the moon and glimpsed the possibility of strange things existing on the dark side. One of the Selenites, weird, crustacean-like hominids fond of leaping bout like acrobats, erupts from the underbrush and intimidates the scientists sufficiently to make Barbenfouillis strike out with another umbrella, causing the alien to explode in a puff of smoke. He does the same thing to a second Selenite, only for a small army of the aliens to give chase and capture the hapless Earthlings. The captives are bound and paraded before the king of the Selenites, who sits on a throne in an alien city, surrounded by his harem of moon maids. Infuriated, Barbenfouillis wrenches at his bonds and snaps them, grabs the king and hurls him to the ground, exploding him, before the humans run for their lives. Méliès provides a sense of propulsion and quickening rhythm here, spurning the languid, dreamy mood of the scientists’ arrival on the mood as the action becomes urgent. Here we have a resolutely linear, comic book-like sense of action as the heroes flee across the frame into different shots, chased by furious Selenites, but not yet offering simple cuts between the scenes, still delineating the change of scene with the dissolve. The result offers a kind of embryonic montage.
Some have theorised Méliès intended A Trip to the Moon as a purposeful lampoon of imperialist practices and values, apparent in the bumbling but real aggression of the scientists crashing in upon a foreign culture and wreaking havoc. Méliès was probably aware of Cyrano de Bergerac’s own supposed adventures to the moon, part of his subversive method of mirroring absurdity on Earth. Méliès himself had spent time working as a leftist political cartoonist, taking aim official pieties and pomposities, and he had stirred fights in cinemas by explicitly taking a pro-Dreyfus stance with his film about the case. Later, with one of his last epics, Conquest of the Pole (1910), Méliès would be less abashed in poking fun at suffragettes and their opponents. A Trip to the Moon is filled with images smirking at the hoopla of nationalist intrepidity and the idea of timid humans faced with frighteningly wilful organisms. Whilst such readings might easily be taken to unlikely lengths, it is plain Méliès has a lot of fun transposing the template of imperialist-era adventure stories onto the moon, following the same basic pattern as any Tarzan story, but keeping tongue deep in cheek: the explorers tramp into the unknown, are captured by hostile natives and paraded before their overlord who embodies an archaic ideal of lordly domain, before the heroes make their escape. It’s certainly a long way from Wells’ portrait of the Selenites as a sentient race governed by resolutely different social and biological constructs. Blood-and-thunder plotting is, however, viewed through Méliès’ sensibility, the playful, naïve state of early cinema, and the traditions of the féerie, finding comic diminuendo in the fact that the Selenites explode rather than die realistically, and the easy manner in which Barbenfouillis breaks the ropes that bind him. Méliès’ moon bleeds but his Selenites disappear in puffs of theatrical smoke. The universe is alive but life is no more than a moment’s dream.
Méliès nonetheless dashes with breathless art towards his climax as the scientists locate their craft and climb in, whilst Barbenfouilles labours to pull the shell off a cliff, finally succeeding just as a lone Selenite grabs hold of the shell and is dragged over the edge along with it, plunging back towards Earth. This moment suggests Jack and the Beanstalk as another fairy tale influence on Méliès, another story of a naïve man ascending to a strange land, whilst Méliès abandons any pretence to scientific realism in favour of straight fantasy logic. Méliès has the shell splash-land in the ocean, the only use of any real, outdoor location in the film with the shell and splash superimposed over real waves. The shell sinks into the ocean depths, actually a fish tank, and then is pulled back to shore by a ship—a sliding cardboard cut-out pulling a similar mock-up of the shell, from which a handheld puppet waves a flag of triumph. These effects are obviously incredibly primitive on one level, and yet ebullient in their zest and stirring in Méliès’ willingness to use any and every trick to tell his story in as visually inventive and dynamic a manner possible. Here is the essence of a delight in artifice as its own aesthetic value that many a much later filmmaker, from Terry Gilliam to Tim Burton and Michel Gondry, has embraced. Questions of realism or artifice were probably entirely incidental to Méliès considering the nature of early filmmaking, and yet one can’t help but feel he was the kind to choose artifice every time.
The scientists make their triumphant return to their homeland with their Selenite captive, who is paraded before crowds and forced to dance, whilst Barbenfouilles is immortalised in statue as the conqueror of the moon, with the slogan “Labor omnia vincit” on the pedestal. Méliès retains hints of his acerbic side here, with an undertone of violence in the scientists’ success—the statue of Barbenfouillis depicts him with boot planted on the moon with the shell lodged in its eye, whilst the Selenite has been reduced to dancing bear. But the overall tone is one of pure elation, an envisioned moment of triumph that codifies all the confidence and joie de vivre not just of Méliès and his filmmaking team but of the young twentieth century itself, just starting to look up not just in fantasy but true ambition. Méliès evokes the masque dance used to end some theatrical performances in celebratory mood, and underlines his work here above all as an expression of carnivalesque joie de vivre, a work that stands above all as a tribute to the very idea of dreaming big. It was an apex of ambition and accomplishment for Star Films. Méliès had drawn on the theatre world he loved to help augment his vision, utilising friends who were singers in Paris’s music halls as his crew of scientists, beauties from the Théâtre du Châtelet as the cannon girls and star maids, and acrobats and dancers from the Folies Bergère as Selenites.
A Trip to the Moon’s influence is incalculable—every special-effects spectacle, every alien that stalks the screen in every scifi film owes it a debt of gratitude. The influence hardly stops at genre borders either. Edwin S. Porter’s seedling western The Great Train Robbery (1903) would take licence from the film’s shunting film grammar, controlled theatrical viewpoint, and dashing action style, echoing on through a vast array of horse operas and action films. D.W. Griffith would state he owed Méliès everything. The director’s own masterpiece is perhaps a purer fantasy, made four years later, The Kingdom of the Fairies, still just as stagy in some ways but now overwhelming the cinematic frame with shifting planes of vision and effect, and conveying the essence of the féerie Méliès loved so much for cinema’s posterity. But it was A Trip to the Moon that made Méliès the most famous of early filmmakers and which will probably always define his contribution. The only problem with Méliès’ success was that it was so inescapable. He had changed the way a very young art form conversed with its audience and expanded its scope to become a zone of pure creative vision, diverting the form away from the Lumieres’ vision of a tool of veracity. He had set in motion processes that would make him the first real movie king and the first to be dethroned by shifting tastes, evolving styles, and the brusque way of business that would soon dominate what turned quickly from enthusiast’s pursuit to heavy industry. Méliès had employed all that his studio and the theatrical world of Paris could offer, but all that was doomed to be swept away or radically transformed by an age of movable entertainment feasts. The century for which he had provided a fanfare would indeed eventually see men land on the moon after times of grotesque tragedy and grand calamity. The flame of grace that still gutters within A Trip to the Moon, in its charming and naïve proposition of the future by way of the past, is that it remembers that moment when anything seemed possible for us. Labor omnia vincit.
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Director: Ben Wheatley
By Roderick Heath
Ben Wheatley debuted as a director with 2009’s Down Terrace and leapt to the forefront of British filmmaking talents with his second work, the gruesome, tantalisingly semi-abstract horror film Kill List (2011). Since then Wheatley, working in close collaboration with wife Amy Jump, who cowrites and edits his films, made the blackly humorous Sightseers (2013) and the psychedelic period film A Field in England (2014). Part of the potency the duo’s collaborations have mustered wells from the blend of Wheatley’s filmmaking savvy, achieving beguiling gloss and texture with stringent budgets and strong but near-unknown casts, and creative eagerness to smack apposite ideas and styles together. Wheatley and Jump marry the disorientating and enigmatic effects of arthouse cinema to down-and-dirty genre aesthetics, conjure farce and savagery as entwined serpents, and harbour an evident yearning to reinvigorate touchstones from diverse heydays of British cinema. Sightseers, for instance, managed to pitch itself somewhere between Ealing comedy and the eerie stylings of ’60s and ’70s folk-horror films, whilst A Field in England, though never quite coalescing as successfully as its two predecessors, also represented a leap in ambition as Wheatley and Jump explored the familiar theme of the shock of the new, but in the context of the past. High-Rise sees the filmmaking duo moving into new territory in adapting a highly regarded novel penned by J.G. Ballard in 1975 and working with a much more prestigious cast and budget. Still, the material demands that the duo’s edgy, fearless streak be left undiluted.
Ballard, a writer who, like Kurt Vonnegut, transcended his niche in popularity as a science fiction writer to become regarded as one of the most impishly acerbic imaginations of his time, spent part of his youth in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. He later transmuted that desperate experience into his famous novel Empire of the Sun, filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Ballard’s adult viewpoint on the world, one that emerged with increasing ferocity, perversity, and cyanide wit in his writing, was understandably inflected by the grim lessons of his war experience, the spectacle of human civilisation suddenly ceasing to work in the coherent, systematic, antiseptic manner that defines modernity. Ballard’s scifi writing took on an increasing tint of brute parable as he offered mordant dissection of social systems and the underlying assumptions of human behaviour that sustain them. High-Rise levelled Ballard’s cold wit and unsparing sensibility at one of modernism’s temples, the high-rise apartment building, and the attendant commercialism of the boutique lifestyle mythos. The story, although nominally realistic and contemporary to when Ballard wrote it, edges quickly into a Swiftian portrait of what happens as systems break down and primeval behavioural patterns begin to assert themselves.
A few years ago I happened to catch on TV a British semi-documentary film from 1946, The Way We Live, detailed the rebuilding of Plymouth, rejoicing in the promise of apartment blocks as the way of the future for affordable housing. It was both a fascinating and perturbing experience to watch from a half-century’s distance, considering that life in such blocks would eventually become synonymous with slums and social dysfunction in many British towns (and far beyond), as large numbers of poor people were crammed into drab, self-cordoning zones — although now high-rise solutions to space and environment problems in cities are again becoming an trendy notion. Ballard’s target was larger than just architectural cul-de-sacs and the social engineering they’re supposed to enable, though, as his high-rise structure becomes a metaphor for the entire apparatus of human civilisation, with a grand architect named Royal and the floors of the building literalising social caste in terms of floors. Wheatley and Jump, in adapting the novel, made the choice to keep the story set in the 1970s, an idea with perhaps inevitable appeal for the duo with their fetish for retro tropes and styles, but one which also risks stripping the tale of its immediacy and still-pungent relevance, especially considering that with Kill List, Wheatley had revealed a gift for digging into a raw nerve of anxiety and portrayed the blindsiding quality of the late ’00s economic tsunami and the bitter aftertaste of the decade’s geopolitical adventuring better than most any other filmmaker.
High-Rise also keeps intact the flashback structure of Ballard’s novel, which commences with the instantly galvanising image of focal character Robert Laing eating a dog, and works backwards to explain how he came to this moment. Tom Hiddleston takes on the part of Laing, glimpsed at the outset exploring the mysteriously ruined, fetid, broken-down environs of his home, where strange men and dead bodies sit around apparently unnoticed, and the aforementioned act of cooking and eating a wandering dog is scarcely worth a blink. A title card announces a jump back three months to the days when Laing first moved into his new apartment building, the first completed tower in a five block project designed by genius architect and entrepreneur Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Royal’s declared hope for the building is to create a civic crucible that would break down class and other social barriers and create a self-sufficient community unto itself, complete with supermarket and swimming pool, and he’s attracted a great swathe of tenants through the fashionable swank and visionary allure of his construction.
As he settles into life in building, Laing learns that the opposite situation to the one Royal hoped for is rapidly evolving, with a rigid hierarchy built on floor levels. Lower floors are filled with middle-class wannabes whilst toffs and celebrities congregate in the higher. Laing, a pathologist at a teaching hospital, hovers somewhere in between, but he captures the interest of many of his new neighbours, including the much-chased single mother and socialite a floor above, Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and Royal himself, with his tenancy application, which inadvertently portrayed him as a Byronic intellectual. Laing seems to partly fit the bill as a loner, tightly-wrapped, both physically and psychologically. He’s recently been left quietly bereft, but also subtly armoured, by the death of his sister.
Laing draws Charlotte’s further interest when she catches sight of him sunbaking naked on his apartment terrace. She invites him for a session of fine dining and rutting in her apartment, which is interrupted by her young, bespectacled, hyperintelligent son Toby (Louis Suc). Charlotte’s also being pursued by another resident, Wilder (Luke Evans), a virile, fervent, working-class man who’s climbed a few social rungs through his work as a TV filmmaker. He lives on a lower floor with his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their kids. Laing encounters other neighbours around the building, a gallery of variously fussy, pushy, eccentric types, including wealthy, famous, but desperately lonely and fraying actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory); and supermarket checkout chick Fay (Stacy Martin), who starts teaching herself French from a phrasebook Laing buys but leaves behind.
Laing is invited to meet Royal by Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), his gatekeeper, and is bewildered by the rooftop garden, complete with thatched cottage, that crowns the building, Royal’s concession to his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), progeny of a great country house and the patrician mindset thereof. Royal, who limps from an injury he sustained during the building’s construction, needs exercise to keep limber: he asks Laing to be his squash partner and also offhandedly invites him to a party his wife is giving. When he arrives at the party, Laing is embarrassed to find everyone else is in fancy dress (as pre-Revolution French aristocrats, complete with chamber orchestra scratching out a version of ABBA’s “SOS”) whilst he’s in a black suit, and worse, he’s outed as a man who doesn’t understand the vicissitudes of the sphere he has entered. Cosgrove, the hard fist attached to this body politic, tosses him out after a brief window of courtesy, and Laing is forced to spend the night in the elevator when it breaks down. Royal is apologetic over both the humiliation and the breakdown, but he infuriates Laing with unchivalrous remarks about Charlotte.
The elevator breakdown proves, moreover, to be an early sign of the faults Royal dismisses as teething problems, but which soon turn out to be endemic. As the infrastructure of the building breaks down so does the nerve, tolerance, and finally the humanity of its populace. “On the whole, life in the high-rise was good,” the narrator’s voiceover (also Hiddleston) proclaims late in the film, directly quoting Ballard’s text: “There had been no obvious point when it had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.” Part of the essence of High-Rise’s thesis is precisely the idea that perhaps there is no great divide between the petty evils (and ecstasies) of human society and the potential for total descent into what some would call anarchy; indeed, another of High-Rise’s themes is that anarchy is another kind of order. High-Rise eventually moves into overt parable, even surreal territory, reminiscent of the music room no one can leave in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), as life in Royal’s building begins to decay and everyone, instead of reaching beyond it, becomes determined to win their various battles within it, sensing, as the very end signals, that they might at least gain the advantage of being used to it before everyone else has to do the same. It’s also a variation on an eternal theme of postwar British artists, particularly satirists and comedians: the thorny and often insufferable business of living with other people, an inevitable psychological by-product of life on a small island where politeness is not just a pleasantry, but an actual survival skill.
Great swathes of modern science fiction writing have never really had their day on screen, and the best writers of Ballard’s era, including Michael Moorcock, Harry Harrison, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison, conjured gritty, dingy, sexy, acerbic tales that threw off the adamantine postures of earlier genre writing and embraced a cynical and dissident attitude even before the cyberpunk age arrived. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) was one of the few authentic filmings of that style in its own era; Robert Fuest’s take on Moorcock’s The Final Programme (1974) was another. Wheatley’s work here recalls Fuest’s film particularly, evoking devolution as haute couture phenomenon. Wheatley’s decision to make High-Rise in period proves quickly to have been a master stroke, in part because it accords with the material’s wilful rejection of restraint in its metaphors, turning Ballard’s tale into a kind of disco allegory slightly out of time, like Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968). The first half, however, plays mostly like a ’70s sex farce with the underlying note of absurdist dread only registering as the faintest buzz, as Laing negotiates life in the tower and contemplates the uncommon (that is, utterly common) mores of his fellow inhabitants, from Charlotte’s nonchalant approach to sexuality (after they’ve been interrupted shagging by Toby, Charlotte lights a cigarette; Laing asks confusedly, “I thought we were doing this,” to her reply, “We’ve done it.”) to Helen’s broody, frustrated angst, expiated in dreams of moving to a higher floor and watching TV dramas set in the romantic past, and Wilder’s tiger-in-a-cage unease in his environment. Meanwhile the upper classes and their lackeys barely bother concealing their vicious defensiveness, setting the stage for a partial inversion of the world H.G. Wells envisioned in his The Time Machine where the workers would evolve into cannibalistic Morlocks and the bourgeois into effete Eloi: in this vision, the upper classes remain so precisely because of their cold-blooded determination to hold onto privileges, a lack of sentimentality that could be called monstrous or some kind of evolutionary advantage.
Laing, after his ejection from Ann Royal’s party, takes out his anger with quiet precision on one of her other guests and a fellow tenant, the foppish Munrow (Augustus Prew), who’s also one of his pupils at the hospital. Munrow faints during Laing’s instructive dissection of a human head, and though his medical scans come back showing he’s fine, Laing plays a blackhearted practical joke on him by suggesting the scans suggest he might be ill. Shortly after, Munrow throws himself off a balcony to his death. Laing’s mean joke gone wrong proves to be a psychic declaration of war that soon starts to consume the building, where minor faults and breakdowns evolve into systemic failure of power and supply.
Wilder starts a more overt insurrection with a catalyst moment that begins as literal child’s play: Wilder, edgy and itching for conflict during a birthday party for one of his kids, leads the child guests in a raiding party on the swimming pool, which has been cordoned off and claimed for a toff’s wine party. After one of the higher-floor tenants, a newsreader who works for the same TV station, promises to get him blackballed, Wilder releases his anger by purposely drowning Jane’s dog. The pool crashing coincides with a power outage, with the lower-floor residents respond to with a sprawling impromptu party, during which Wilder snorts cocaine and, confronted by Cosgrove, beats the enforcer to a pulp. Wilder certainly has all the potency and force required to lead the lower-floor faction, as social sniping becomes active warfare, but does he have the sense of a cause and the wisdom? His first instinct is stick to his job, endeavouring to make a documentary on life in the tower block even as everything goes to hell, whilst Laing’s instinct is to retreat into his intense, self-composed bubble and wait out the various storms breaking upon his door. But this proves impossible as the block spirals into chaos during the continued blackout, and supplies start to run low. A cabal of upper-floor types led by Pangbourne (James Purefoy), with Ann Royal as patron, begin to create plans to take on the lower floors and throw an even better party, a plan that shades into full-on raiding and pillaging as looting breaks out in the supermarket and it becomes clear survival and prosperity in the building is starting to become a matter of raw force and dominance.
High-Rise, in spite of its nominal period setting, has the genes of dystopian science fiction, portraying a microcosmic society in breakdown and connecting that breakdown to the processes of the human mind itself. Laing compares Royal’s building plans to a human hand—the multiple towers are shaped like the curling fingers closing around the great central car park that, in spite of being wide open, is actually labyrinthine in its confusion—a brain and nervous system, and then finally, a heart. The idea of place becoming a mimetic map of psychological function is an old one in scifi, suggested in Metropolis (1926), and here employed with a hint that it’s an illustration of a war between functional utilitarianism, implied by the resemblance to the hand, the often illogical and mysterious twists of the mind that controls it, and the force of the heart that keeps beating through all. Laing’s name suggests a reference to the influential Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who helped develop a theory that the madness that follows attacks of schizophrenia is the cathartic result of the brain receiving contradictory messages—a notion that describes High-Rise’s narrative and Wheatley’s treatment of it as a whole with great accuracy. As the situation in the tower block worsens, Wheatley’s tone straddles the zones of horror movie consummation and screwball comedy, seeing both the repulsive and hilarious aspects of people acting on their worst impulses as their civilisation declines from consumerist paradise to galvanised class structure to tribal commune.
Futuristic tales of dystopian societies and struggles against coercion have been infiltrating popular cinema of late, with films like The Hunger Games series, Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer (2013), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and the structural conceit of Snowpiercer’s social metaphor suggests the immediate influence of Ballard’s tale. Wheatley’s take on that tale feels, however accidentally, like a riposte to the supposedly dark, but actually simplistic, reassuring heroic fantasies in those films. High-Rise posits Wilder as a possible hero figure, a would-be revolutionary who wears both his class resentment and his masculine force on his sleeve, but he’s led astray in the course of the film by the very violent impulses he can’t control and by sexual egotism that finally manifests in the ugliest way when he learns that Charlotte, who has rejected him, has been Royal’s mistress and that Toby is the architect’s son: Wilder’s response is to break into Charlotte’s flat, rape and beat her bloody, and then make her feed him in a gruesome caricature of normality, with the punch line that Charlotte feeds him dog food, one of the few foodstuffs left in the building. Wilder chows down with straightforward acceptance of a new reality, apparent in some of the building’s other inhabitants. Meanwhile, Helen finds her own succour getting rogered by Lain over the unused stovetop in his apartment, a space he tries in vain to decorate and inhabit; his belongings remain unpacked, with smears of neutral blue-grey paint the same hue as the colour of the sky outside on his walls in his attempt to fashion himself a free-floating life. It’s not until he actually has to fight for ownership of a can of paint in the supermarket-turned-war-zone that he actually proves he wants anything. Wilder eventually half-compliments, half-condemns Laing for his self-possession, the kind of apparently bland, quiet rigour that can actually weather the storm that’s breaking about their ears.
Moving slightly askew from Ballard’s obsessive theme of the distorting quality of technology and its pernicious penetration of the way humans relate to it and each other, Wheatley and Jump’s interest is more compelled by social ritual — its apparent arbitrariness, the very real forces it sometimes conceals and otherwise channels — and also by the rules of power as evinced in the seeming neutral zone of modern life. Sightseers portrayed its mousy social outcasts finding self-realisation in murder, whilst Kill List depicted a returned Iraq War veteran who engaged in killing for hire to support his lifestyle, only to find the bill arriving in the cruellest fashion possible. A Field in England depicted the temptations of control and submission with suggestive political ramifications: some people certainly do want to lord it over others, but is their ability to do so sometimes facilitated by the desire of others to let them, as a release from certain pressures and anxieties of existence? Wilder’s forced ritual of making Charlotte pose as dutiful wife echoes the scene in A Field in England where the necromancer took his enemy prisoner, tortured him, and then forced him to wear a sickly smile whilst leading him like a dog on a leash. Wilder eventually harbours an ambition to climb to the higher levels and confront the god-king Royal, to tear him down or displace him, only to fail to recognise Royal when the two men meet in the supermarket after the architect descends to the lower levels in his attempts to fathom the failure of his creation and the people in it. Royal himself tries to count himself out of the chaos, but is drawn however reluctantly into the upper-floor cabal out of sheer parochial loyalty, as his anointed class’s parties devolve into raw, explosive orgies fuelled with captured riches. Royal finds himself nominated as tribal chieftain, for all his flummoxed cynicism.
Around the travails of the main characters, Wheatley offers a sprawling landscape of strangeness, offering perversely ebullient filmmaking as he charts the decline of the building from chintzy classiness to stygian pit, alternating effects of dreamy fantasia and cokey Scorsesean montages, matched to Kubrick’s ironic classical music cues, whilst visions of Sadean revelry flit by. Ann Royal is forced to run on a supermarket conveyor like a treadmill when she’s caught by a gang of vengeful spivs led by Fay; Jane rides amidst the snobs’ orgy on horseback as a porn-queen take on Lady Godiva before dismounting and asking “which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the arse?” A team of upper-floor raiders led by Pangbourne adopt tracksuits as a uniform and march into the supermarket happy to crack skulls. Wheatley and Jump’s propulsive editing style maintains the free-flowing, anecdotal quality of Ballard’s writing, vignettes of a descent into hell—or heaven, as so many seem ebullient and released in their surrender to completely carnal realities, including Royal and his wife, who shift from mutual contempt to strange loving using Jane as sexual surrogate, the two women holding hands plaintively whilst Royal works away. As the dissolution of the building reaches it last stages, its atomises into camps—women gathered in communal suckling circles, orgiastic sprawls that would make Sardanapulus blush, the swimming pool turned at first into a miniature Ganges where people wash clothes and then a concrete Styx littered with corpses.
Laing eventually finds himself threatened with top-floor defenestration when he refuses the request of Cosgrove, Pangbourne, and others in the upper echelon to lobotomise Wilder; he is saved only by Royal’s intervention. Wilder himself, given a gun by the Royals’ much-abused housekeeper and after Helen has been snatched as a hostage and put to work as a servant, climbs up through the building’s ventilator system, determined to confront Royal, only to stir the wrath of the women who form a kind of gestalt, a band of neo-Bacchantes who respond with lethal group wrath when their priest-king is threatened. Perhaps the most subversive idea in High-Rise is not that there’s a monster lurking under everyone’s skin, but that people are the same in just about any situation, just to greater or lesser degrees, and that after a time, perhaps it’s less our individuality than our shared reflexes that allow us to survive and create worlds together. Wheatley and Jump finally locate weird visions of happiness in disintegration amidst the horror and find a moment to note humanity even in the worst and the creation of new binaries and social zones, climaxing in beguiling moments, like Pangbourne coaching Helen through her labour pains and the final survey of Laing, calm and fulfilled with a harem of wives and a shank of dog leg on his spit.
If there’s a major flaw to High-Rise, it’s that it paints, but doesn’t entirely analyse the social processes Ballard’s satire was evoking. It backs off from some of the novel’s blackest resolutions, preferring to illustrate instead in a continuum of free-form absurdism. I have the feeling a lot of material finished up in the cutting room floor. But the blackout, sketch-like structure is to a certain extent the strength of High-Rise, kicking off the strictures of narrative nicety and, as the narration says of the building populace by the end, surrendering “to a logic more powerful than reason.” Here is the suggestion its characters reach a logical psychic end point akin to survivors of Leningrad’s siege or the bombing of Dresden, continuing with the business of keeping on. Only the very end brings in a genuinely false note, as a speech by Margaret Thatcher about capitalism is heard wafting on the airwaves: this moment serves less to make a solid connection between the late ’70s rejection of grubby authenticity for neoliberal chic and the sharp edge of social Darwinism than confirming just how much their impotence before the Iron Lady and her creed still haunts the British intelligentsia. High-Rise is certainly strong meat, perhaps too strong for many, in spite of its playful flourishes. But for the most part Wheatley and Jump have made their own work, the kind cinema too rarely offers these days—audacious, dynamic, and superbly crafted.
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Director: Mario Bava
By Roderick Heath
Mario Bava is beloved by cineastes as the filmmaker who helped define the modern concept of horror and thriller cinema, as well as the founder of the giallo style that would shape both. But like most Italian directorial talents of the time, including rivals like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, who were not lucky enough to be counted amongst the anointed guard of art filmmakers, Bava dipped a toe in the other genres that were mainstays of the Italian film industry of the day: spaghetti westerns and peplum. Peplum films, a genre more usually known outside Italy as “sword and sandal” (the word “peplum” refers to a type of Greco-Roman toga), told stories based in classical history and sometimes outright mythology, and had been a mainstay of Italian film since early spectacles like Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1913). Thanks in large part to the appeal of imported American champion body builder Steve Reeves, 1957’s Hercules, directed by Pietro Francisci and produced by then-major Italian studio Titanus, proved a huge hit and sparked a general explosion in the genre. The once-parochial brand found an international audience amidst fans of zippy, simple thrills, kids delighting in straightforward action fantasy, weightlifting freaks, and aficionados of campy delights. Once Reeves bowed out of the role, Titanus went through several more beefcake heroes, including Jayne Mansfield’s husband Mickey Hargitay and Leeds-born former Mr. Britain, Reg Park.
Bava had served as cinematographer and special effects whiz on Francisci’s hit. After years gaining a reputation not just as an expert film technician but also as a sure hand at rescuing film productions, including mentor Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956) and the ambitious peplum drama The Giant of Marathon (1959), Bava finally made his proper directing debut with La Maschera del Demonio (1960). It was only natural that at some point, the new filmmaking star would be hired to handle an entry in the Titanus Hercules series, and Hercules in the Centre of the Earth was it. Bava’s forays into the western mode are generally considered his weakest work, but his historical action films are defiantly oddball and striking, in part because he displayed a propensity for mixing genres. On Hercules in the Centre of the Earth he injected a powerful strain of his gothic horror style, and later, in the face of stringent circumstances, blended western plot rhythms with a distant historical setting on Knives of the Avenger (1966). Bava, belated as his recognition was, is today seen as particularly important because of his influence on later filmmakers, including John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Ridley Scott, and others. Hercules in the Centre of the Earth is particularly vital in this regard as a nexus for several later cinematic strands. At first glance, Bava’s lush, baroque, eerie sense of style would hardly seem matched with the aesthetics of peplum, usually shot in the sun-dappled climes of Spain replete with oily guys in loin cloths sparring and chariots trundling across the landscape and releasing basso profundo laughter. But with Hercules in the Centre of the Earth, Bava, who shared writing credits with Sandro Continenza, Franco Prosperi, and Duccio Tessari, created a work that taps into the deepest spirit of the fantastic in spite of his low budget, cramped production, and the regulation tropes of peplum inimical to his dark and anarchic storytelling spirit.
That brings up an interesting point: what films do actually channel the feeling of mythology best? Most movie fans are used to the grandiosity of spectacular takes on mythology, from The Ten Commandments (1956) to Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films and other CGi-riddled recent fare, or the less expensive, but intricately manufactured works of Ray Harryhausen, whose Jason and the Argonauts (1963) shares some of its strongest aspects with Bava’s film. Art movie stalwarts might let their minds drift to the no-less-stylised, but considerably more allusive, purposefully estranged takes of Pasolini on Medea (1969), or Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), films which evoke the often very surreal aspect of mythic storytelling, glimpsed as if through a veil, broken frescoes in glittering fragments rather, if also neglecting their usually strong, orally based narrative values. Hercules in the Centre of the Earth tends closer to the former, and accepts the general rules of the peplum genre, a style generally governed by very strict rules of firm morality and clean-cut heroes. But it also successfully blends a quality of the otherworldly, verging on the hallucinatory, in its evocations of the comic-booklike storytelling essentials of classical heroic myths, to conjure a work that takes place entirely in a cordoned reality.
The film’s opening sees Hercules meeting up with friend and fellow monster-slaying mythic hero Theseus (George Ardisson) somewhere in the Achaean countryside. Hercules is heading to the city of Hercalia after a legendary journey to see his fiancée, the Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo). Theseus, ever the ladies’ man, is too busy making out with Princess Jocasta (Ely Dracò) to notice a gang of hired assassins sneaking up on them, and a wild melee breaks out as Hercules and Theseus fight off the bad guys, climaxing in Hercules picking up a wagon and sending the assassins skittling.
Hercules continues on his way to Hercalia, but he finds the city beset by famine and pestilence, the populace deeply unhappy and believing the gods have cursed them. Deianira herself seems to be under an evil influence, wandering the corridors of the royal palace in a dissociated stupor murmuring Shakespearean odes to Hercules, whom she can’t recognise and instead believes drowned at sea. What Hercules doesn’t know is that Deianira’s uncle, Lico (Christopher Lee), serving as regent during her illness, is actually a black magician who has made a pact with the dark pagan gods which used to reign in the region. He also hired the defeated band of assassins. One of them reports their failure to Lico but still demands to be paid. Lico seems happy to do so, only to lure the unfortunate goon into a trap that guards his treasure horde, causing hidden spears to spring out and impale the would-be killer like a pin cushion and leaving him dangling in gruesome rictus. This kind of clever-nasty gimmick harks back to silent serials and anticipates the flavour of the James Bond films, although that series was still a year away.
Lico’s evil designs are made apparent to the viewer, although Hercules remains oblivious to them for a long time to come. Lico keeps the mesmerised Deianira installed in a sarcophagus in the labyrinth below the palace, intending for her to join the populace of zombielike ghouls already sleeping there. Bava here nods to Nosferatu (1922) as Lico calls Deianira to life, and she stands up from the sarcophagus stiff as a board, and then moves toward the camera in an eerie glide, a flourish Bava would later recycle for a more famous variation in I Tre Volti della Paura (1963). Hercules is warned about the evil befalling the land by Chamberlain Keros (Mino Doro) and decides to speak to the Oracle Medea (Gaia Germani) and delve into the mystery. Medea consults in a stylised chamber of glittering Grecian decor and saturated colours, and delivers her prophecies in a carefully stylised blend of recitation and dance, face hidden by an Eastern-style mask. She warns Hercules that Deianira is under the influence of powerful, baleful forces, and that he must pay a heavy toll if he wants to proceed with any attempt to save her. He volunteers to Zeus to give up his immortality, and once it seems this offering it is accepted by a crack of thunder, the Oracle tells Hercules the only way to break the spell upon his intended is to venture into the realm of Hades and retrieve a totemic stone kept there which can ward off the evil spirits. This mission means penetrating the immutable veil between the living and the dead, and the only way to do that is to sail to the Garden of the Hesperides and fetch a totemic golden apple growing in the branches of a colossal, black tree.
Park was having his second turn as Hercules here. It’s hard to assess his performing skills as he was dubbed first into Italian and then with an American voice in the English-language version (as was costar Lee, amusingly), and many dismissed him as a big lunk in comparison to Reeves. But I find him a strong screen presence, armed with suggestions of delicate humour (as when he picks up one character between two fingers and moves him aside ever so gently), dashes of romanticism (as when he’s reunited with Deianira), and good humour with his fellow actors, even if his job is mostly to stand around showing his pecs, each about the size of Jerry Lewis. Bava’s gifts for employing colour and composition to create a dense, enfolding atmosphere, the essence of his art as a maker of horror films, gives Hercules in the Centre of the Earth a weird and oneiric quality that distinguishes it from a lot of fantasy cinema, particularly of the time, and steers it very close to Bava’s more familiar genre stomping grounds. This approach suits a storyline erected as a pretext to explore the mystical, incantatory corners of ancient Greek mythology, improvising freely on some of its essential themes whilst also checking off some of Hercules’ less well-known labours, particularly his hunt for the golden apple. Most peplum films minimised the fantastical, emphasising instead muscle, brains, and guts as the essentials tools for forging civilisation.
The darker side of the source legends, in which Hercules was frequently beset by curses and maladies and his own chaotic nature, underline the prototypical hero as an essentially ordinary man striving to do good and blessed with great natural attributes, but under the sway of malignant forces that serve as metaphors for the pressures that befall all people, trapped eternally between a presumed divine nature and the chaotic impulses of existence and fate. Peplum heroes were rarely so complicated. Bava’s film exemplifies peplum as a genre on some levels, particularly in the emphasis on legitimate and illegitimate governments, with Hercules presented as the embodiment of right as might, an unquestionably decent and gutsy individual blessed with an outsized strength inseparable from his moral compass. I’ve often wondered if peplum’s obsession with this narrative pattern reflected Italy’s postwar identity crisis as much as any Antonioni alienation fest, with Hercules, Maciste, Ursus and manifold other hunky heroes all posited as wandering, selfless fighters for the oppressed and dispossessed, and combaters of corrupt regimes. They were stringent antitheses to the trend toward antiheroes that would start in the next few years and that still permeate pop culture. Bava maintains the series pattern in making Hercules a simple, good-natured man, but critiques it noticeably as Hercules’ trusting nature blinds him to Lico’s evil, obvious to the audience, just because of who’s playing him, and uses Theseus instead as a figure who invokes wayward impulses and ultimately self-consuming emotional impulses. His womanising at the start is mere frivolous fun, but eventually causes other people great evil when he steals Persephone (Ida Galli) away from Hades.
The journey to the underworld sees Hercules returning to enlist Theseus’s aid, with the intention of commandeering a “magic” ship built by Sunis (Aldo Pedinotti), the only craft that can stand a chance of traversing the sea and reaching Hades. They’re joined by Telemachus (Franco Giacobini), an inept princeling engaged to Jocasta who came looking for her and, confronted by Theseus as a rival suitor, became friends with him instead. (The character’s name is taken from Odysseus’ son, but like several other characters here, only seems to have been named for general mythical association.) Telemachus volunteers to convince Sunis to give them his ship, but instead he finishes up almost drawn and quartered because Sunis wants to punish him for seducing his wife. Hercules intervenes and save Telemachus, and they take the ship whilst Sunis chases after him. On the mystic sea, the ship is assailed by storms, swirling clouds above, and schisms opening in the water, sweeping the ship and its crew onto the shores of the Hesperides. This is a place of perpetual night at the fringe of the underworld, and the Hesperides nymphs are held in check by dark powers, doomed to deliver up anyone who comes to them to the monstrous denizen of Hades’ gateway, Procrustes. Whilst Hercules as a son of Zeus is untouchable, the nymphs send Theseus and Telemachus to sleep in a chamber that serves as the lobby of Hades, where Procrustes lurks.
An implicit faith of peplum films is that few problems can’t be solved by throwing heavy objects around, and that’s still true here, although Bava emphasises how Hercules uses his strength in conjunction with intelligence. Defeated by the height of the tree on which the golden apple hangs and the furious divine storm that shakes it, Hercules instead makes a giant slingshot with a boulder and uses it to dislodge the apple. Hercules’ success breaks the spell forcing the Hesperides to enact Hades’ will, and their leader, Arethusa (Marisa Belli), warns Hercules he has to save his friends from the monster. The mythic Procrustes was a villainous son of Poseidon whom Theseus defeated; here he’s a demonic figure made of solid rock, impervious to Theseus’s sword blows. But Bava stays true to the gleefully nasty modus operandi of the mythical villain, with Theseus and Telemachus tied down on two beds, one too long and the other two short, with Procrustes intending to fit each to the bed by appropriately brutal means. Bava’s Procrustes, a lumbering but unstoppable creature, is a creation charged with peculiar creepiness, perhaps because of its odd, robotic-sounding voice as well as the sadistic simplicity of its intentions.
An interesting note sounds here, in spite of the sequence’s brevity, for fans of Bava and horror cinema in general. Bava takes on a purely symbolic brand of evil in a film that captures the aura of Greek mythology as a realm where the entire apparatus of narrative is psychological and symbolic. As Leone would in his westerns, Bava introduced this blank, atavistic sense of dramatic function sourced in myth to his following horror films, helping to give birth to the image of the masked, implacable, infernally motivated alien threat that would drive the slasher film. What is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) if not a much longer version of this same scene, down to the motifs of betrayed hospitality and the weird logic of a certain brand of cruelty? Fortunately, Hercules arrives before it can damage his friends lastingly, and with his aforementioned talent for hefting boulders around, Hercules grasps that Procrustes can be broken against other stone. He hurls the monster against a cave wall, smashing his body to rubble and breaking open the last barrier to entering Hades. After sending Telemachus to guard the ship and the golden apple, once in the underworld, Hercules and Theseus contend with illusory guardians and threats.
Hercules in the Center of the Earth was Bava’s first colour feature for which he was the unquestioned creative agent, making his instant mastery of deploying it all the more striking. Bava’s eye provides a constant stream of visual delights after Hercules and company set sail: the towering, shaking black trees of the Garden and Arethusa appearing out of ether, the surging, lysergic hues of the clouds as the ship is buffeted by a storm, the glittering tones of Procrustes’ abode, the surreal textures of Tartarus, the surveys of swooning Ruffo, all touched with hints of psychedelia several years before its official arrival as well as the dust of fairytale mystique. Hercules and Theseus’ adventures in the underworld meanwhile look forward to Indiana Jones’ ventures into caves of mystery and danger, with the added threat of illusion and supernatural forces. They negotiate seas of flame and boiling mud to reach the living stone, and slash their way through entangling tree roots that release grotesque screams and wails, which, they realise in a ghoulish flourish, emanate from the souls of the damned trapped in the roots. So often Bava would prove obsessed with damned people clinging onto places and existence, their dark dreams and desires never fulfilled but also never escapable, whilst Greek myth insisted on moral order enforced by overtly totemic, ironic means. These ideas converge here with particularly unsettling import, especially in the truly surreal image of the bleeding vines. Hercules uses some of these to make a rope to cross the last chasm before the resting place of the icon, but Theseus falls into the seething matter below and Hercules thinks him dead.
Theseus is, however, rescued by Persephone (Ida Galli), daughter of Hades, who falls for him instantly and lets him take her out of the underworld. Hercules braves physical agony retrieving the living stone, and he meets up with Theseus and Telemachus on the way out. Theseus keeps Persephone hidden from his friends and obeys her advice to throw the golden apple overboard to the smooth angry waters on their way out of the magical realms. This act saves their lives, and they manage to reach Hercalia, where Hercules uses the stone to awaken Deianira from her trance. But a new sickness begins to grip the city at large, and when Hercules consults Medea, again she tells him Hades has cursed the city because Theseus is sheltering Persephone there. Theseus has become so obsessed with his new lover that the clashing demands on him become maddeningly self-consuming to the point where, unable to renounce her, he instead starts goading Hercules into killing him. This makes for a very Bava plot motif, desire and obsession as forces that defy all limits of mortality and nature, and it can only be reconciled when Persephone chooses to leave for all their sakes. She takes the living stone back to the underworld, but not before telling Hercules who’s responsible for the threat to Deianira and that Lico plans to sacrifice her during a lunar eclipse to gain eternal life and control over the land.
Bava’s flow of visual invention continues even in the relative normality of the palace, which becomes an eerie and insidious place out of silent films, where murder happens in the halls and walls split open revealing secret passages, and builds the memorable image of Deianira glimpsing Lico’s face reflected in a pool of blood leaking from the throat of her slaughtered handmaiden. The finale lets Bava slip his nightmarish imagery and shift fully into horror movie territory, as Hercules chases Lico into the underground labyrinth littered with statues of arcane eastern gods and then up to a pagan stone circle on the hill above Hercalia where he intends to stage his sacrifice of the princess. Lico releases his force of enslaved, flying zombies to hold off Hercules, and in a spellbinding sequence that counts amongst the purest of Bava’s vignettes of gothic style, the lids of sarcophagi shudder and lift, gnarled hands reach out swathed in cobwebs, all painted in Bava’s favourite clashing lighting patterns, drenching reds, greens, and blues.
Fortunately, once more Hercules’ gift for lugging big rocks saves the day, but in a genuinely dramatic fashion, as he rips up the stone circle one monolith at a time and uses them first to pinion Lico and then to fend off the zombies. Finally, the moment of eclipse passes, and Lico, his power broken, bursts into flames whilst his zombies disintegrate. The madcap invention of this climax suggests another nascent genre, crossbreeding action with fantastical motifs that wouldn’t really flower until the 1980s. Hercules and Deianira are safe at last when the end credits roll, even though in the original Hercules myths, Deianira eventually brought about Hercules’ death through magic and sexual jealousy. Hercules in the Centre of the Earth is hardly a perfect film, and enjoying it demands a certain tolerance for the tropes of peplum as a whole and a specific tolerance for Telemachus’ comic relief. But it stands effortlessly tall as a reminder that the essence of the fantastic, even in its grandest fictional corners, can still be captured with imagination and skill without enormous resources.
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Director/Screenwriter: Lara Izagirre
32nd Chicago Latino Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Back in 2013, I sat down with Ben Sachs, former film critic of the Chicago Reader to talk about French filmmaker Claire Denis on the occasion of a retrospective of her work at the Gene Siskel Film Center. As the kickoff guest in this month-long series Ben put together with other female critics and artists in Chicago, I had first crack at giving my opinion about whether women directors have a unique perspective on storytelling that inflects their films. Ben said of Denis’ 2009 film White Material, “The movie, like many by Denis, asks you to intuit the characters’ relationships from impressions of environment and physical behavior.” I added, “There’s a sense of just wanting things to unfold. In my experience, women can be more patient. They’re not as quick to try to figure things out.”
I thought about that conversation yesterday as Spanish director Lara Izagirre’s first feature film, An Autumn without Berlin, did indeed unfold like a complicated origami creation before my eyes. As with Denis, Izagirre is in no hurry to fill in the blanks as she winds her way through her story, and like Denis, her story is very personal. A woman we learn very late in the film is named June (Irene Escolar) returns to her hometown after an unknown period of time away. She gets off a train, walks what seems quite a distance to a squat apartment building and rings the bell. Silence from the intercom is greeting with silence from June until, finally, she say “It’s me. I’ve come back.” Nothing. She ends up at a house where she opens an unlocked patio door and watches a young man (Mariano Estudillo) who is moving his arms to some music none of us can hear. He sees her, welcomes her into the house with a big hug, and then informs her that her bedroom has been dismantled. Ah, must be her brother. Oh, and their father (Ramón Barea), a physician who is out seeing a patient, will be angry when he sees her.
Slowly we watch June reconnect with the touchpoints of her life before she left. She pushes back a cloth covering an upright piano in the house, and we get a good look at a photo of a woman on a table next to the keyboard who looks like June, probably her mother, though that is never confirmed. When her father refuses to speak with her, she returns with her luggage to the apartment building and uses a key to gain entrance. She looks around the darkened apartment she must have lived in at some point because she has the key, running her hand over objects, looking at some writing on a desk, peering into dark and empty rooms. Eventually, the man who refused to let her in the first time, Diego (Tamar Novas), emerges from behind a bedroom door. He is sullen, suspicious, and asks her why she’s there. “To stay with you,” she answers.
The ambiguity Izagirre packs into her scenario extends to her dialogue. Diego and June were married, but why they separated is not clear. “To stay with you,” at first blush, sounds like an appeal for somewhere to sleep now that she knows she’s not welcome in her father’s house, but the larger implication—that she wants to get back together with Diego—hangs in the air like an intoxicating perfume that eventually envelopes the pair and brings them closer and closer together.
Slowly, we are drawn into the rhythms of Izagirre’s film and accept the pace of discoveries in the way we would with a good novel. Indeed, Diego turns out to be a fiction writer with notebooks full of short stories, a clear inspiration for Izagirre’s approach to her narrative. She pays admirable attention to the supporting characters who flesh out the film’s central romance—June’s very pregnant best friend Ane (Nairara Carmona), Diego’s estranged mother Pili (Paula Soldevila), and Nico (Lier Quesada), a precocious boy June has been hired to tutor in French so that he can get into the local French school. Her relationship with Nico, intelligently played by Quesada, a truly great child actor, is an absolute joy to watch as he convinces her to skip out on the lessons and roams the town with her, winning a giant panda at a carnival, fishing with Ane at a nearby stream, and getting drenched in a sudden downpour. He doesn’t want to get into the French school because he thinks it took first his friend’s hair and then his friend. This fear teases out the reason for June’s departure—she was so burdened with grief over the death of her mother that she could not endure the added sorrow of her father and brother.
In the end, the central piece of the puzzle is the very sad impasse between June and Diego. As observant and kind as she is, as loving as the couple becomes over the course of the film, June fails to recognize that Diego suffers from a mental illness. The restless wanderer, June longs to go to Berlin with Diego, who wrote an award-winning story about this dream. Diego, an agoraphobic, struggles to meet June in her world. The pair, beautifully embodied by Escolar and Novas, couple and uncouple like a silk scarf quietly slipping its knot. Izagirre’s delicate film builds an emotional power that is uniquely, proudly female.
An Autumn without Berlin screens Monday, April 18 at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, April 20 at 9 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. Film composer Joseba Brit will present the film.
Burden of Peace: This searing documentary follows Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s first female attorney general, as she tries to dismantle the country’s corrupt, ineffective criminal justice system and prosecute its former military dictators for crimes against humanity. (Guatemala)
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town: A recovering cocaine addict goes more out of control than when she was using when her father takes control of her life in the hallucinatory dramedy. (Brazil)
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Directors/Screenwriters: Joey Boink and Sander Wirken
32nd Chicago Latino Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On many best documentary lists, including the 2014 and 2016 Academy Awards nomination lists, were The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), both of which deal with the Indonesian death squads that brutally murdered more than a million people in the mid 1960s. Both films are very painful to watch, but it is even more painful to contemplate the depths of depravity and utter heartlessness to which human beings can sink. It’s downright crazy-making to know that anti-communist, anti-unionist, and anti-leftist ideology was used as an excuse for the machinelike decapitations and hackings of hundreds of human beings at a time, and that the murderers credited the United States with teaching them to hate communists.
Burden of Peace tells another such story in another part of the world—Guatemala. Perhaps it should not have surprised me that these same ideologies were behind the genocide of 200,000 Mayan people, from babies to old men, the destruction of more than 450 Mayan villages, and the displacement of more than 1 million people during the 1990s and early 2000s—but it did. One survivor said that the killings were with an economic purpose: a hydroelectric power plant and mining operations are now cranking at full steam on stolen land from which the original inhabitants were, ahem, removed. The Guatemalan military government that ordered the killings had the full support of the United States.
It is a miracle that the heroine of Burden of Peace, Claudia Paz y Paz (Peace and Peace), was appointed Guatemala’s first female attorney general. Paz y Paz became a dedicated human rights activist during her time working with Roman Catholic archbishop Juan José Gerardi, who was symbolically murdered in 1998 with a rock to the skull after he named names to a UN commission investigating human rights violations. As attorney general, she set about purging her office of incompetent and corrupt functionaries and then massed an impressive record of successful prosecutions of everyone from crime lords to corrupt officials. It was when she started to target the military leaders who engineered the Mayan genocide that she finally became a painful enough thorn to the country’s power elite to warrant removal.
Dutch filmmakers Boink and Wirten give us the lay of the land prior to Paz y Paz’s installation as attorney general, with pictures of the murdered and missing among the Mayans, dead bodies from gangland slayings and gang disputes, and frightened Guatemalans standing by helplessly as the police and government officials fail them. Then they follow Paz y Paz around as she is driven in what must be an armored SUV to and from her office in Guatemala City and conducts investigations, staff performance reviews, and victim interviews. She doesn’t complain about her exhaustion or the difficulties of trying to get her job done in the face of so much corruption; she finds people willing to work honestly alongside her to try to get the rule of law off life support. She has a picture of former U.S Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on her office wall to give her inspiration. Her objective is to give the people of Guatemala hope and confidence in a system that has been broken for nearly 40 years during the country’s lengthy civil war and numerous military coups and dictatorships. Her most important case, and the centerpiece of the film, is the prosecution of Efraín Ríos Montt, president of Guatemala during the genocide.
There is something about her that makes one breathe easier. She has an open, caring face and an obvious intelligence and determination. The film luxuriates in her presence, lulling one into thinking everything will turn out well despite the formidable obstacles. Thus, it is a real shock when Boink and Wirten turn to one of her most vociferous detractors, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, whose father served in Ríos Montt’s government during the genocide. His Foundation Against Terrorism represents the business elite and the military establishment, and he publishes tracts and blogs that denigrate her and accuse her of ignoring ordinary crime to advance her ideological war against the state. He says, “She may be charming with her soft voice, and you may think ‘O poor, little fatty.’ But she is incapable of being the attorney general. She comes from a different world, the world of human rights.” If your jaw just dropped, join the club. The thinking behind these statements and the insulting, racist comments that come from the defense attorneys for Ríos Montt left me dumbstruck.
The trial is both fascinating and deeply depressing, as Mayan villagers come one by one to the witness stand to testify to what they saw, brutality beyond description but crucial to the trial’s outcome. A victory that becomes a defeat is to follow, and then Paz y Paz finds herself accused of impropriety in office and facing an early ouster. She knows that the establishment intends to undo all she has done, return the crime bosses to the five regions from which they had been eradicated, install more corrupt, incompetent police and prosecutors. Perhaps another genocide is in the offing. I left this film feeling deeply disheartened and pessimistic about the human race, let alone Guatemala. But then I read on about Guatemala post-Paz y Paz—a corrupt president was forced to resign. I hope Claudia Paz y Paz, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and beacon for human rights around the world, knows that her legacy endures.
Burden of Peace screens Monday, April 11 at 6 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town: A recovering cocaine addict goes more out of control than when she was using when her father takes control of her life in the hallucinatory dramedy. (Brazil)
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Director/Screenwriter: Daniel Aragão
32nd Chicago Latino Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The Chicago Latino Film Festival premiered in the meaning-loaded year of 1984, and numerous films it has presented over the years have turned the tables on the all-controlling Big Brother, as filmmakers cast a bright light on political, social, and economic realities all over Latin America, as well as communicate the unique cultures of Latino communities around the world for interested audiences. Brazil is a country that will get its glaring place in the sun with this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio; I Swear I’ll Leave This Town offers an indirect, but pungent look at the social and political shenanigans that likely are afoot at this very moment.
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town is set not in Rio, but in Renife, the home town of the film’s director and a big city that sounds like the Brazilian equivalent of Chicago. It has more than 3.7 million people in its metropolitan area and is a port city that gets its name from the stone reefs that line the city shores. Those reefs provide a metaphor for the stone wall the film’s main protagonist, Joli Dornelles (Bianca Joy Porte), hits up against as she tries to start her life over after a long stint in rehab for a severe cocaine addiction.
The film’s opening scene shows a nude Joli trying to escape from the hospital, fighting two guards, and eventually turning a fire extinguisher on them before being subdued. As he looks on a straitjacketed Joli, who insists she’s cured, the medical director (Luis Carlos Miéle) decides to curse her by granting her wish to leave and predicts that she’ll be back sooner rather than later. Like all addicts, the worst possible scenario for recovery is to return to the milieu in which they were using—and, of course, that’s exactly what happens to Joli.
Joli’s boyfriend, Hugo (Sérgio Marone), fetches her by private helicopter and returns her to her well-heeled politico father, Antonio (Zécarlos Machado). Even though he must have expected her arrival, Antonio and the throng of people gathered on the expansive lawn of his modernist estate for a party treat her like a pariah. He gives her the toughest-love greeting I’ve seen in many a day and orders her to be on call whenever needed to help his campaign to become mayor of Renife.
Every attempt Joli makes to start her life over outside the orbit of her father is dashed before it really starts. He makes sure she loses her job at a restaurant, and when he finds a spoon her friend Manuela (Ana Moreira) brought over to her apartment to cook crack in, he rejects her honest pleas of innocence and has a thug drug her with a tranquilizer. She wakes up in his house. From that moment on, virtually every move Joli makes is controlled by her father, from making commercials to support his candidacy, to accepting Hugo’s marriage proposal, to heading up a recovery program for drug addicts from poor neighborhoods.
Director Aragão has created a free-wheeling, hallucinatory tale that peers inside the kaleidoscope of corruption, sexism, hypocrisy, and classism that characterizes parts of Brazilian politics and society. In today’s atmosphere of celebrity confession and public absolution, Joli could be seen as an indulged brat whose every fall will be cushioned, but her only real privilege was to be shunted away for medical treatment instead of locked in prison when the pain of her life had her reaching for a coke spoon. The depths of her enslavement to her ambitious father are truly horrifying to witness from the inside. Antonio wouldn’t know what to do if she were ever really well, and his role as saboteur seems perfectly in character with his self-serving, snobbish attempts to solve Renife’s problems by obliterating the riff raff and building luxury condos and retail stores on top of their ashes. He doesn’t hesitate to use violence to undo a damaging remark Joli made on live television, nor does Hugo, when he punches her out after she starts laughing uncontrollably following a hand job she forces on him. Indeed Hugo’s engagement to Joli seems pretty darn close to a proxy marriage to Antonio. In the end, her only defense against her father and Hugo and is to slip their bonds by going insane. Joli descends into catatonia, and Antonio agrees to have her brought around through the barbarity of electroshock therapy. It would have been better for him if he’d left her staring mute and motionless into space, but what fun is it to torture someone who can’t react.
Aragão thoroughly scrambles Joli’s world, plunging the audience into her sense of disorientation along with her as his brilliantly variable camera roams freely and his narrative becomes unhinged. Joli’s sexual activities and provocations, including a lengthy masturbation scene and a humorous attempted seduction of her auto mechanic, are reminiscent of the anarchic sexual freedoms found in the Brazilian classic Macunaíma (1969). In general, the film seems energized in the same way as many of the politically and socially provocative films of the Cinema Novo movement that Aragão says influenced his approach to I Swear I’ll Leave This Town. Bianca Joy Porte does most of the heavy lifting in this film, and her magnetic performance deservedly won her a best actress award at the 2014 Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival.
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town is a confusing and often disturbing experience, but it’s also a funny, exhilirating tribute to the power of the oppressed to survive. To those who break the rules for their own gain, be forewarned—what goes around comes around.
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town screens Saturday, April 9 at 8 p.m. and Monday, April 11 at 8 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
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