5th 02 - 2016 | 3 comments »

Blowup (1966)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Michelangelo Antonioni

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By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


25th 01 - 2016 | no comment »

Aimée & Jaguar (1999)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Max Färberböck

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


14th 12 - 2015 | 4 comments »

The Assassin (Nie yin niang, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Hsiao-Hsien Hou

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By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


17th 11 - 2015 | 9 comments »

Jour de fête (1949)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jacques Tati

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is part of the Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings.

Jour de fête was the very first film I saw that was directed by France’s comic master Jacques Tati, and I’m delighted to say that it began a love affair with his relatively few, but endlessly intriguing filmic creations that I don’t expect to end before I do. Our acquaintance was made in 1995, the year the color version of the film was restored and made available to viewers for the first time by his daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, and cameraman François Ede. It played the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, and I can’t say that the restoration of the failed Thomson-Color experimental color process looked all that great—in fact, it was pretty dreadful, at least to someone who had never seen it in the black-and-white version, or should I say in one of the two spot-tinted black-and-white versions, one with and one without a painter character.

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Still, nothing could hide the genius of Tati and the great love he had for cinema and France. Paying a visit to a one-day fair in a small French town and watching the hilarious misadventures of the local postman, played by Tati himself, was the most pleasant vacation I could take from my big-city woes—woes with which Tati would empathize and lampoon repeatedly in all of his feature films. Jour de fête, his feature debut, was his deceptively simple first volley at the giant maw of modernity.

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The opening image of a caravan carrying merry-go-round horses down a snaking road to a town square, a young boy skipping behind in anticipation, conjures the idea that we are entering an enchanted valley that time forgot. We even have a fairy tale narrator—a severely bent old woman leading her goat and commenting on the people and activities surrounding her. Once in the village, we see nothing but horse-drawn vehicles and bicycles conveying objects and people, even elegantly dressed people come to town to attend the fair. Livestock and chickens walk and flap around the square and freely wander in the homes of their owners.

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As the carnies unload their truck to set up their rides, midway games, and movie theatre, one of them, Roger (Guy Decomble), spies a lovely young woman, Germaine (Santa Relli), beautifully framed in a third-story window. The two flirt across the distance until his wife emerges from their caravan to give him what-for. Nonetheless, Germaine hurries down to the square, and in a sweet and ingenious scene, the two appear to carry on a flirtatious conversation with the dialogue from one of the movies to be played that day substituting for their voices.

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We get an oblique hint that Tati’s entrance is imminent when Roger’s wife is shown to a mailbox where she can drop a letter. Soon, traveling the same winding route as the carnival workers, the real entertainment of the evening arrives. Like an old vaudevillian transferring his act from stage to screen, Tati arrives in the postman character from many of his short films, most notably The School for Postmen (1947), back straight as an ironing board, trousers fastened to his ankles with bicycle clips, and arms flailing to swat the wasp that dogs his descent.

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For the rest of the film, Tati as François performs one gag after another with exquisite physicality. Around the village, he is a friend and helper, someone the villagers turn to as perhaps the only government official around to take a leadership position. For example, in one of my favorite gags in the film, the men of the village are trying to erect a pole in the middle of the square from which they can hang a banner with the French tricolors. The pole bobs precariously around the square until François is prevailed upon to lead the effort. He gets everyone organized, instructs a rope handler how to brace himself with the rope, and the pole gets raised. The cleat that will hold it in place still needs to be secured, but strangely, the man with the hammer keeps missing the spike. As François looks into his face, we get a close-up of his crossed eyes, a dead ringer for silent film comedian Ben Turpin. François moves one of the spikes to the left of the one on the cleat, and our man hits his target dead on.

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However, this regard by the villagers encourages François to adopt an officious manner, causing those who meet him for the first time to make him the butt of their fun. Two of the carnies entice him into a café, get him drunk, and use a handheld kaleidoscope to circle his eye with black pitch. His staggering attempts to get on his bicycle and complete his route see him plunging helplessly into a thicket and attempting to ride a fence that has entangled his bike, scenes that play all the more hilarious for Tati’s uncomprehending distractedness.

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When he finally returns to the square, he and the villagers are inspired by a preposterous newsreel of U.S. postal service efficiencies, including the use of helicopters and parachutes to get postmen through their appointed rounds. François decides to deliver mail “American style,” and devises methods to mount, dismount, and drop off letters with such speed that he even manages to outpace a cycling team on the road. (Is it possible that the USPS decided to sponsor a professional cycling team some 50 years later because of Tati?) The villagers cheer him on all the way as he skewers their mail on hoes, silently sneaks a package containing new shoes onto a block just as the butcher is bringing down his cleaver, and runs two cars off the road. When he finally speeds right off the side of a bridge and into a creek, our ancient narrator picks him and his bike up and rides them into town.

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The ambition of the stunts pushes the film into surrealist territory. For example, a long sequence where his bike takes off on its own, forcing François to give chase, quite reminded me of the absurdist novel by Flann O’Brien called The Third Policeman in which a character steals bicycles when he believes their riders have exchanged too many cells with them and have become more than 50 percent bicycle. Tati filmed without sound, and his ability to play with the soundtrack to insert dialogue and diagetic sounds in addition to his gloriously quaint music allows him to orchestrate his humor precisely.

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For a first feature, Tati has surprisingly strong control, calling on the conventions of silent films and vaudevillian stunts and recrafting them into a cinematic ecosystem all his own. While he was not able to achieve the color palette he so clearly wanted with this film, as indicated by the dialogue he wrote, his later films fairly vibrate with color. Finally, while the horrors of the modern, mechanized world would come in for more specific drubbing in such later films as Mon oncle (1958) and his crowning masterpiece Play Time (1967), his contempt for cars and Parisians gets its first voice here. Jour de fête is an auspicious beginning for a very distinctive and masterful filmmaker.

108708_frontThe Criterion two-disc set includes two alternate versions, a partly colorized 1964 version and the full-color 1995 rerelease version; “A L’americaine” (“American Style”), visual essays on the film by Tati expert Stéphane Goudet; Jour de fête: In Search of the Lost Color, a 1988 documentary on the restoration of the film to Tati’s original color vision; and the original trailer. The film is included in a box set, “The Complete Jacques Tati,” available in DVD and Blu-ray editions.


13th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: The Emperor in August (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Masato Harada

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The story of Japan’s surrender to Allied forces on August 15, 1945, which unofficially ended World War II, is one of obvious interest to the Japanese people. In August 1967, director Kihachi Okamoto’s Japan’s Longest Day, the first major film to deal with this event, premiered in Japan (and showed at the 1968 Chicago International Film Festival), where it was a smash hit. Now we have a new film version of that story. Of course, remakes are standard operating procedure in Hollywood and something audiences around the world are used to, but some in Japan have wondered why The Emperor in August needed to be made.

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Director Harada felt the time was ripe for a retelling, not only to reveal established and new information about the surrender to a new generation of Japanese indifferent to their country’s history, but also to correct some misperceptions about the emperor’s responsibility put forward in two American histories that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and 2001, respectively—John Dower’s Embracing Defeat and Herbert Bix’s Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. His approach eschews the melodramatic style of Okamoto’s film to reveal the workings of Japan’s constitutional monarchy and the real power behind the symbolic power of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito).

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When the film opens, Japan’s war effort is on its last legs, and its government is faced with the decision of whether to accept the Potsdam Declaration Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender issued by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Chinese Chairman Chiang Kai-shek or go on fighting. Harada focuses mainly on Prime Minister Suzuki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), the aged general who reluctantly formed a new cabinet at the request of the emperor (Masahiro Motoki), Army Minister Korechika Anami (Kôji Yakusho), and Chief Secretary of the Cabinet Sakomizu (Shin’ichi Tsutsum) as the main political players in deciding the fate of the Japanese nation.

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Anami is a proud soldier who believes the Japanese could yet win the war through a coalition of all of Japan’s military branches and has the joyous support of the army in pushing for the “decisive battle” on Japanese soil, using the Soviet sacrifice of 20 million soldiers to win the war against Nazi Germany as an example of what can be accomplished. The emperor (Masahiro Motoki) implores Suzuki to persuade the cabinet to accept the Declaration, fearing that there will be no Japan if all of its people are killed; the “new bomb” has already been dropped on Hiroshima, and Nagasaki will be bombed within the film’s timeframe. Suzuki is old and mostly deaf, but he knows that if he presses Emperor Shōwa’s case, he could be executed for treason under the terms of the constitution, which grant no governing authority to the emperor. Sakomizu observes and records every cabinet meeting, an uncomfortable neutral party in a war of words and passions.

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The 2¼-hour film is filled with politicians and military brass moving from meeting to meeting, securing the emperor underground after the Imperial Palace is destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo, and outsmarting the army, which is poised to stage a coup. Yet it is the more personal moments in the film that resonate most deeply. Anami is shown at home having dinner with his wife, daughter, and future son-in-law as they plan their marriage. Despite the material privations and bombing threat, Anami insists that they start the marriage right with a grand affair at the Imperial Hotel, though the venue will change when the hotel is burned in the firestorm. Anami is deeply touched when the emperor asks him late in the film whether the wedding occurred as planned—a show of concern from a godlike man that convinces Anami that his sacrifice of his political position and his life in the honorable ritual suicide of seppuku are in service to a worthy man and his cause.

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The prelude to his suicide—the suicide itself is shown in semigraphic detail, including the politely refused offer of one of his retainers to “relieve (cut off) the head”—is intermixed with scenes of his wife walking for four hours to bring her husband news from a soldier who served under their beloved son, who died in battle at age 20. She arrives in time to see his corpse laid out carefully by his retainers under his uniform, and delivers details of her son’s service as though Anami were sitting across from her drinking tea. The decimated countryside through which she travels is the only time we see the common people of Japan, and their lot is desperate indeed.

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Harada lavishes attention on the gung-ho young officers, focusing on Major Hatanaka (Tôri Matsuzaka) as the touchpoint for all of the young officers who refuse to accept surrender, the loss of national sovereignty, or a diminution of the position of the emperor. The emperor has made a recording for national broadcast in which he reads the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War. The officers seize the radio station, though quick thinking by Sakomizu puts the recording out of their reach. They later try to coerce a general into signing a false order to continue fighting; Hatanaka shoots him when he refuses and forges his signature—an ink impression of his official seal. The passion of these nationalists is furious and intense, a reminder of why war and nativism stubbornly persist.

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The film is mainly procedural and a bit confusing until all of the characters are firmly assigned in one’s mind; a quick review of the history of this event in an encyclopedia would help audience members make sense of some swiftly moving action. Harada offers some visually stunning moments, which include the glow of Tokyo burning to the ground and a vision of fully flowered cherry trees that Suzuki fears will never bloom again if the war continues. His landscape of faces front extremely impressive performances of all the principal actors, with Yamazaki and Yakusho particular standouts, the former full of shrewdness as well as decisiveness, the latter burning with pride and a surprising vulnerability. I hoped against hope that he would wait for his wife to arrive before gutting himself, perhaps allow her to talk him out of it, though, of course, she would never even try, military families being what they are.

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Harada hopes that this film will help frame the debate in Japan about rewriting the country’s pacifist constitution. He wrote a line of dialog with this in mind: “Gun o nakushite, kuni o nokosu” (get rid of the military, save the country).” No one can say for sure whether The Emperor in August will provide the wake-up call Harada thinks his country needs, but his masterful treatment of a crucial historical moment should be must-viewing for any serious cinephile or student of history.

The Emperor in August has only one screening, on Sunday October 18 at 1:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

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

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

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

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


12th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Dégradé (2015)

Directors/Screenwriters: Arab Nasser and Tarzan Nasser

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous coverage

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

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

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

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


11th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Chronic (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Michel Franco

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous coverage

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

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

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


5th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Adama (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Simon Rouby

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In a village in West Africa isolated at the bottom of a large, circular gorge, 12-year-old Adama (Azize Diabaté Abdoulaye) and his friends enjoy an afternoon swimming and diving into a water-filled depression far below a narrow path where some village elders and Adama’s brother Samba (Jack Amba) are standing. Although told to stay with them to prepare for his initiation the next day, Samba defies the elders and performs a perfect swan dive into the pool. His independent nature will prove a trial to the villagers, and especially Adama, when his initiation into manhood is interrupted by an evil omen that he is possessed—an albatross flying high above the village. When he is told he must live with the village shaman, who will try to cure his possession, Samba sets off in the night to join the people of the wind, the Nassaras, in the outside world who have tempted him with gold and adventure. Adama sets off to bring his brother home. Eventually, his travels land him in the middle of no man’s land during World War I’s Battle of Verdun, during which more than a quarter-million French and German soldiers perished.

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In his debut feature film, French animator/director/screenwriter Simon Rouby has turned to France’s past to tell a fable of sorts with flourishes of magic realism abetted in this animated film by a combination of 3D laser-scanned characters and 2D scenery and decors. While France’s colonial past is alluded to, as Samba is enticed to fight for France, while men in the coastal village to which Adama makes his way are conscripted if they don’t volunteer, the film’s main focus is the fish out of water adventure of Adama and his single-minded quest to save his brother.

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The look of this film is both beautiful and a bit disconcerting. The backgrounds in the African portions of the film are impressionistic, with all the beauty of a New Mexico desert. The high cliffs that surround Adama’s village are modeled on the landscape where the Dogon tribes live—North Mali, by the Bandiagara cliffs—though the actual location is left unspecified in the film. Ferrofluids (iron particles mixed with ink that can be manipulated with magnets) and a combination of live-action effects and paintings provide some stunning images, from ghostlike soldiers in gas masks to a sandstorm that pummels Adama on his trip to the coast. On the other hand, Adama and Samba, though designed by Rouby to look lifelike, look anything but. Perhaps in 3D, they accomplish his goal, but in the 2D I saw, they looked like rough CGI.

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Appearances aside, the action and voice actors are compelling and affecting. When Djo (Oxmo Puccino), the strong African warrior who protected Adama while they were crossing to France, is shown in a vast hospital blinded by mustard gas, it is a shocking and terrible moment. His dismay at being sent to a fight an enemy he never got a chance to see shows the gaping distance between traditional wars fought face to face and the mechanized, impersonal death that has grown ever more sophisticated since the beginning of the 20th century. Adama’s naïve wonder at the world outside his village, from the spreading ocean to the truck tracks that seem to line every road, reveals his disoriented curiosity. When he falls in with a French thief who arranges for them both to get to Paris on a truck and then steals Adama’s money, Adama’s tears of loneliness, fear, and frustration in a back alley where he is forced to spend the night are all too real and pitiable.

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Throughout the film, Adama is met with an effigy of a spirit or god that seems to keep him on his course to finding Samba. It appears that Abdu (Pascal N’Zonzi), a beggar Adama encountered in the seaside village who was forced to fight for France, is the embodiment of this spirit; Adama sees him on the Verdun battlefield cursing at the German planes that swoop down to strafe anything that moves. He provides Adama and Samba with the key to survival—to remember their roots—and finishes Samba’s initiation ceremony by making a small cut on each temple that symbolically opens his eyes to the world beyond childhood.

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Adults watching this film will find the coming-of-age story familiar, but the context unfamiliar and sobering. Despite the resemblance of the village to the isolated utopia of Shangri-La, the villagers are real people, with strict rules and rebellious youths. The blood ritual is mild in comparison to other types of traditional initiation rites, but the connection to the out-of-control test of manhood that was The Great War should have audiences wondering which way of life is more civilized. This film may be too intense for younger children, but should resonate with young adults. One of Rouby’s stated goals of helping Europeans and others understand the experience of immigrants from Africa is noble, but the remoteness of a film set 100 years in the past with folkloric content may not be sufficient to open eyes and hearts. Nonetheless, this film may be just good enough to pull it off.

Adama screens Friday, October 23 at 5:45 p.m., Sunday, October 25 at 11:30 a.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


2nd 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: How to Win Enemies (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Gabriel Lichtmann

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Is Gabriel Lichtmann the Woody Allen of Argentina? Although Lichtmann has only made two feature films in 10 years, both deal with his Jewish identity in his big-city hometown of Buenos Aires, both are written and directed by him, and at least one—How to Win Enemies—has an intellectual, sexually bumbling nerd as its main protagonist. How to Win Enemies is, like his own description of his feature debut, Jews in Space or Why Is this Night Different from All Other Nights? (2005), also a sad comedy, and though rather predictable, it is still a well-executed film that holds one’s attention and sympathy for its duration.

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Like Jews in Space, How to Win Enemies begins during one of the more important rituals of Jewish life—a wedding. Max Abadi (Javier Drolas), an attorney in practice with his brother Lucas (Martín Slipak), is marrying another attorney in their firm, Paula (Eugenia Capizzano). We come in right before the end of the wedding ceremony and get to watch Max smash the wine glass underfoot as the guests yell “Mazeltov!” The film cuts to the wedding reception. A nervous Paula asks Lucas whether he can tell that there is a rip in her dress, and he assures her she looks fine and is too good for his brother. He delivers Paula and Max’s speech, which he has written, to the head table, and Max opens the envelope containing the speech, unfolds it, and says the first two lines: “How do you win enemies? By telling the truth.” Then the film flips back to two days before the wedding, when a series of misadventures turns Lucas, an Agatha Christie fan who has written a mystery novel, into an amateur detective.

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The film takes its time moving into the mystery portion of the film with a languorous introduction phase meant to acquaint us with likely suspects to a theft Lucas will find himself investigating. This phase does not proceed as it does in many mysteries I’ve seen because it doesn’t present these characters as having obvious axes to grind or hidden agendas. In fact, most of the suspects seem unequivocally innocent and delightful. The real pleasure of this film is not in solving a mystery, but rather in the perfect vignettes of the talented cast that reveal different aspects of life in Argentina’s capital.

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The mystery involves a set-up in which Lucas is the target. That he feels he was specifically marked and not just some random victim of an opportunistic thief comes from his instincts, not from anything the plot reveals. As he starts weaving the threads of information together from Facebook, to a library, to a seedy part of town, and then closer to home, we meet a very resourceful woman (Inés Palombo) with some muscle to back her up, a sarcastic librarian (Carla Quevedo) who may turn out to be the woman of Lucas’ dreams, and a professional criminal (Ezequiel Rodríguez) who seems to think Lucas isn’t entitled to enter a conference room in his own law firm.

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Lichtmann peppers the film with realistic vignettes that are sometimes comical, but really aren’t all that funny. For example, Lucas is trying to help a woman get an order of protection against her abusive husband, but his witness backs out of testifying. He goes to “Pelícano,” (Sangrado Sebakis) a large, curly-haired fixer to be his witness for hire. Pelícano asks for $3,000, Lucas counters with $600, and the deal is quickly struck—a little larceny in service to a good cause that plays with all the comedic humanity I’m sure Lichtmann intended. We also travel with Lucas through the streets of the city as he follows an attractive woman, very likely a hooker, to an elementary school to pick up her son and bring him back to an apartment complex with burglar bars over the windows. Yes, this is Buenos Aires, too.

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Max’s bachelor party is loaded with attractive hookers and a porn movie blares in the background, but this scene made me feel rather sad for Paula and for Lucas as well. Lucas seems disgusted with the throwback machismo Max displays with entitled ease, and we get the feeling that Paula will be turning to Lucas almost immediately after the ink on her marriage license dries, and that Lucas knows it.

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Most of all, we see Lucas and Max bickering and looking out for each other in equal measure. Lucas puts up with Max’s hooker-strewn bachelor party, while Max indulges Lucas’ reminiscing in their childhood home left vacant by the recent death of their mother. The latter is a scene to which many middle-aged people will relate, revealing an inventory of outdated furniture and decors, shelves of family photos, a kitchen crammed with a lifetime’s worth of gadgets and tableware, forgotten card collections and treasures crammed in the boys’ desk and dresser drawers. These moments of unity appeal to Lucas’ romantic side, while Max has little use for anything that doesn’t matter in the here and now.

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It doesn’t take Lucas long to figure out who Mr. or Ms. Big is—but I was way ahead of him. No matter. When we return to where the film began, the wedding reception, there will be a payoff and a payout. It’s not as satisfying a conclusion as I would have liked—I’m more vengeful, I suppose—but in a movie about Jews, it provides the Old Testament eye for an eye that is not only appropriate, but also inevitable. If Lichtmann is the Argentine Woody Allen—and this is a rather lightweight, conventionally made film in the Allen mold—he is nonetheless graced with a bigger heart and a better eye for the absurdity of human existence.

How to Win Enemies screens Wednesday, October 21 at 5:45 p.m., Thursday, October 22 at 9:30 p.m., and Monday, October 26 at 2:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


1st 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Women He’s Undressed (2015)

Director: Gillian Armstrong

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

My 2015 Chicago International Film Festival coverage kicks off today, and the film under consideration is a real doozy from the brilliant Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong. Armstrong has largely abandoned the feature format she plied with such skill to turn out such enduring films as My Brilliant Career (1979), Starstruck (1982), and my favorite version of Little Women (1994), and turned to documentary filmmaking. While spending about the last 40 years creating her version of Michael Apted’s Up series featuring three girls from Adelaide, Armstrong has kept her focus on women’s experiences and her homeland. Women He’s Undressed combines these two concerns as Armstrong creates a hybrid documentary about costume designer Orry-Kelly, the Australian from the tiny coastal town of Kiama, NSW, who made it big on the other side of the Pacific dressing some of Hollywood’s brightest stars.

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Armstrong combines traditional talking-head interviews and clips from some of the nearly 300 films for which Orry-Kelly made costumes with depictions of Kelly, engagingly played by Australian TV star Darren Gilshenan, breaking the third wall to speak directly to the audience about his life from a stage, the place where Kelly first gained inspiration and experience in show business. As seems to be something of the norm with biopics these days, Women He’s Undressed starts with Kelly’s death, as eight young women dressed in red gowns carry a rowboat like a coffin. The dresses refer to Kelly’s most notorious creation, the red gown Bette Davis’ defiant character wore to the white ball in Jezebel (1938), and the boat the conveyance Armstrong uses throughout the film to propel Kelly away from Australia and through the episodes of his life. “When you grow up with the smell of the ocean, the horizon beckons you every day,” Kelly says early in the film.

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Costume designer Ann Roth, who worked with Kelly, questions Armstrong’s project at the very beginning. “You say nobody knows who he is? Who doesn’t know who he is!?” A string of snippets showing the costumes he made on the backs of a slew of famous actresses, from Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942) to Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958) and Natalie Wood in Gypsy (1962), confirm that even if people don’t know precise details about Orry-Kelly, they certainly know his work.

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The film proceeds roughly chronologically from Orry George Kelly’s childhood and takes liberal dives into his experience of being an out gay man in homophobic Hollywood. His nurturing mother, played by Deborah Kennedy, encouraged his art studies and theatrical ambitions, while his father, a tailor and reformed drunk, propagated a bright pink carnation he dubbed the “Orry,” in oblique reference to Kelly’s being “different” despite his father’s attempts to drum the tendency out of him.

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Much is made in the film of Kelly’s “matehood” with Archie Leach when they were both struggling actors living together in New York. Through Kelly’s narration, we learn that the two had a lot in common and subsidized their anything-goes lifestyle in Greenwich Village by making and selling Kelly-Leach ties by the hundreds. Throughout the film, Armstrong returns to Archie’s transformation into Cary Grant, how Grant played the studio game by giving up his relationship with actor Randolph Scott to marry actress Virginia Cherrill; his subsequent suicide attempt, which Kelly blames on denying his true nature; and his later failed marriages. This throughline provides the private part of Kelly’s biography that producer/director Eric Sherman says he undoubtedly had but had been secretive about to the end of his life. Grant, who never answered any questions about his sexuality, doesn’t come off very well in the film, but this again would probably be true to Kelly’s undoubted sense of betrayal and abandonment.

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The main event, of course, is Kelly’s spectacularly successful career. He was hired by Warner Bros. to bring some gloss to their proletarian style of filmmaking, and he outdid himself. He worked with colleagues Adrian and Travis Banton to make Kay Francis Hollywood’s “best dressed woman,” and Ruth Chatterton, another Warner Bros. star, called his designs “well bred.” His gowns for 42nd Street show the energy of the unforgettable penny costumes and double-hooped skirts that he may or may not have had a hand in creating; the film suggests that he admired the creative volcano that was Busby Berkeley. It was his working relationship with Bette Davis, however, that provided him with his greatest challenge.

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It’s fascinating to learn that Davis refused to allow Kelly to use a metal underwire to boost her sagging breasts because she feared the metal would give her cancer, so he had to design other foundations for her. Armstrong shows us clip after clip of Davis and the challenges her figure posed to Kelly. His tests of fabrics for the red gown in Jezebel were extensive and successful, as many people who have seen the black-and-white film swear it was red that they saw. Another figure that gave Kelly trouble was Natalie Wood’s. Her too-slender form did not make her the ideal candidate for the role of Gypsy Rose Lee, the world’s most famous stripper. Armstrong takes a peek inside one of her costumes for the film to show the padding Kelly used to fill out her breasts and hips.

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Angela Lansbury, who considers herself a character actress, confirms that Kelly’s skill went beyond making beautiful clothes to helping actors inhabit their roles and enhance their performances by matching the mood of each scene. This comment is illustrated through several of the films he designed. For example, clips of Now, Voyager (1942) show the transformation of Bette Davis from a dowdy, mentally unstable woman to a glamorpuss of classic elegance; however, the real touch of genius Kelly brought to the film was in the last scene, when he responded to Davis’ desire that her clothes not detract from the drama of the moment. He puts her in a simple blouse and skirt, allowing her face to register as the most important element in the frame. In another anecdote, we learn that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis went into the ladies restroom at the studio in their Some Like It Hot (1959) disguises to see if anyone would notice them—nobody did!

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Kelly also liked to push the envelope of the stuffy 1950s. His designs for Auntie Mame allowed him to create flamboyant, colorful outfits for the outsized personality of the main character, a visual tweak to the Establishment that defined Mame Dennis. He was determined to bring all of Marilyn Monroe’s sex appeal to the screen in Some Like It Hot. Jane Fonda, who worked with him on some forgettable movies, is interviewed about this film and says that despite not being gay, she was transfixed by Monroe’s pregnancy-swollen breasts, which Kelly saved from censorship by some strategic beading.

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Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards, and his designs were knocked off for retail sale all over the world, a fact the film suggests galled him given that his own atelier went bust. In the end, his hope for a comeback from cancer was not to be, and his wish that, after years of estrangement, Cary Grant would be one of his pallbearers actually did come true, as Armstrong shows someone scrawl his signature in the funeral guest book that opened the film.

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Gillian Armstrong brings almost as much design panache and ingenuity to her film about Orry-Kelly as he had himself. Her strategy of offering a theatrical setting for the imagined scenes with Kelly, complete with stage make-up and tinny sound effects, evoke the era in which he grew up and from which he claimed his influences. The film is hampered only by the familiar talking-heads format that may be necessary to offer detail but interrupts the flow of the film as told by Kelly himself. Where did this script by Katherine Thomson come from? The movie discusses an autobiography Kelly wrote but never published and shows one of his heirs holding it, under orders never to let it slip from her grasp. Did Thomson crib dialog from it? I don’t know. But I can say that as written, the outspoken, entertaining Orry-Kelly in Women He Undressed is as unforgettable as his costumes.

Women He’s Undressed screens Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m. and Wednesday, October 28 at 5 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.


21st 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

Director: Mu Fei

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By Roderick Heath

When we think of Chinese cinema, the dashing products of Hong Kong’s industrious studios or the works of the so-called Fifth Generation of mainland filmmakers like Yimou Zhang or Kaige Chen probably come to mind first. The great flowering of filmmaking seen in the 1930s and ’40s known as the Golden Age of Chinese Cinema is, by comparison, still an obscure and patchily known field. Often voted the greatest film ever made in China, Spring in a Small Town was, much like its characters, almost a victim of history’s heedless motion. One of the last works produced before the ascent of the Communist government, director Mu Fei’s movie was controversial right from its first screening because of its subject matter, and soon was buried and reviled as a petty, indulgent distraction for decades. Fei died barely four years after making it, when like so many others, he was trying to revive his career in Hong Kong.

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The very subject of Fei’s film is the moment of its making, that brief period between the defeat of the Japanese invaders and the Maoist takeover. Fei strove to record that time on a psychological as well as external level, and he depicts it as a moment of collective exhaustion, disorientation, and yearning. For a film hailed as such an achievement, Spring in a Small Town is disarmingly modest and sparse on the surface, describing a chamber drama of finite emotions and domestic concerns. The essential elements of Fei’s tale could easily come from some transcribed Chekhov play, though the actual source was a short story by Li Tianji, who adapted it for the screen. The setting is a ruined mansion, the characters members of a once-prosperous and powerful clan now damaged and declining, their aging servant, and an interloper. The title announces ambiguous, counterintuitive purposes. Spring refers as much to the promise of postwar regeneration as to the turn of the seasons, but the drama’s cloying fixation is a single family’s interior lives rather than the community implied in the title. The implication is, that something like this drama was occurring in small towns across the country, and the film represents the spiritual story of the age.

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The lives of the Dai family are defined by two ruins: the demolished old town wall, a remnant psychic boundary in the mind of the townsfolk and a signifier of the lost social specifics of Chinese social life, and the Dai mansion itself, a more recent victim of war, which sits like the discarded husk of a past and irrelevant existence that depressed scion Liyan Dai (Shi Yu) haunts like a ghost in his own life meditating on his lost inheritances, beset by ill health, which he thinks is tuberculosis and his wife Yuwen Zhou (Wei Wei) dismisses as neurosis. Yuwen makes the trek each day into town to fetch groceries and medicines for her husband, usually taking a detour to walk along the ruined wall with the slight vantage it offers over the flatlands surrounding her world. Lao Huang (Chaoming Cui) is the old family servant who maintains what was once a standalone cottage in the estate, but which is now their refuge. He declares the mansion can be repaired if they tackle it piece by piece, but such resolve is beyond Liyan. The one bright spot in the family is Liyan’s younger sister Xiu (Hongmei Zhang), a schoolgirl on the verge of her sixteenth birthday.

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When not engaged in her pressing domestic duties, Yuwen, who can barely stand looking at her husband, retreats into Xiu’s room to work on her needlepoint. Liyan confronts his wife, trying to talk her into letting Lao Huang go to town instead because he worries about her and finally admits he’s pained she seems to have accepted the miserable situation they’ve all fallen into. The tenuous balance of tolerance sustaining that situation is disturbed when a face from the past climbs over the estate boundary. Zhichen Zhang (Li Wei), a former schoolmate of Liyang’s, left the distract before the war to become a doctor and now has returned to see his friend, who is stirred from his melancholy to greet his pal happily. What Zhichen doesn’t know at first, however, is that Liyan has married Yuwen, who comes from the same town as Zhichen and was his great love.

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Fei’s unusual storytelling devices are in evidence from the outset, working like the title to create a faintly ironic, distancing impression, but which cumulatively help Fei gain a rigorous grip on the viewer. As each character appears on screen for the first time, he flashes the name of the character and the actor in the role on screen, diffusing the theatre bill-like precepts of movie credits from the 1930s into the texture of the film itself, as if to announce both that the identities of these figures and their nature as fictitious entities are vital to what Fei is trying to convey, another ironic touch. Yuwen narrates in the second person as though remembering and experiencing, dropping details like how Huang always tosses medicine out the back door because of a superstition, and noting the painful peculiarities of her marriage not by registering emotions, but facts, such as sometimes, when she’s walking on the wall, she doesn’t go back until night, often doesn’t exchange a word with her husband during their required daily contacts, and declares “I’ll never think about anything ever again.” Liyang tries to confront Yuwen about this elusive, resigned habit she’s developed, and suggests that they should probably split up, an idea that Yuwen, who in spite of everything takes her wifely duties seriously, can’t countenance.

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Yuwen’s method of deploying details as devices of inference and implication is also Fei’s method. Zhichen arrives clad in western clothes as opposed to the Dais, who wear more traditional garb, signaling both the stagnancy of life in this small town as well as the attempts to maintain a link with traditions that have been shattered, and also Zhichen’s promise of the exotic. The doctor has been working as an army surgeon, following the war around as he rattles off all the cities he’s been to to Zhichen: he’s been engaged with the history that has rolled over the top of the Dais. Both world-weary Yuwen and fresh-faced Xiu signal their stirred desires for the doctor by giving him gifts: Yuwen has Lao Huang take him a potted orchid and Xiu a bonsai tree.

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Fei was only in his early forties when he made his masterwork, but he was already a highly experienced and acclaimed figure on the Shanghai film scene. He had worked as an assistant to Hou Yao, a pioneer of early Chinese cinema, before his directing debut with 1933’s Night in the City. His creative verve as a distinctive and inventive artist with a deep interest in studying and celebrating the national culture in the face of a pummeling epoch was quickly acknowledged after he made Blood on Wolf Mountain (1936), seen by some as a metaphor for the Japanese occupation of Manchuria Song of China (1935), a celebration of traditions that became one of the few Chinese films of the era to gain U.S. screenings; and the long-lost Confucius (1940). He filmed several Chinese operas and included elements of that form when he shot the first Chinese film in colour, Remorse at Death (1948). Here, too, he incorporates a musical aspect in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, when Xiu sings to her family and Zhichen as they row a boat along a river. This scene, a nominally festive interlude where the newcomer seems to have stirred the clan from their malaise, is reminiscent of the jollity momentarily patching over coming ructions in the snow sequence in The Magnificent Ambersons (1941), another film concerned with changing societies and the decline of aristocratic cultural mores, whilst the emotions percolating within each of the four boaters, obvious to the camera but not each other, are caught with exacting focus by the director. Spring in a Small Town is certainly on one level about the culture Fei wanted to buttress, seen as subsisting in a state of flux, with awful wrenches behind and ahead. The inconsistent power supply in the town means nightly blackouts, rendering the inhabitants time travelers moved arbitrarily between present and past, the jagged, inescapable immediacy of the light bulb and the floating dreaminess of candlelight. Yet the impossibility of recapturing the past or even cutting the losses of the present is constantly stressed.

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Fei’s feel for placing his actors in settings attentive to the interplay of space and action, nature and human works, echoes Jean Renoir’s subtle, yet cumulatively forceful sense of mise-en-scene whilst skewing his visual effects close to the harmonic ideals of Chinese visual art ,where nature and structure are supposed to exist in balanced interaction. What is disrupted in the ruined mansion and the broken wall, the relation between the functional, resilient constructed form and the teeming, invasive strength of natural growth, is still intact in the less luxurious, near-ignominious, but perhaps healthier life in the cottage. The theme of a troubled marriage and the interloper who promises disruption bears a distinct similarity to one basic plot motif found in another postwar movie type, film noir. However, where noir’s exploration of the blasted and alienated mood out in the boondocks after the great conflict was sublimated into criminal parables, here it is in a domestic drama that violence is exchanged for emotional flurries and the spectacle of psyches twisting in on themselves. The closest western cinematic relative to Fei’s work here is David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Both movies describe potential adulterous affairs, intensely personal, almost eventless tales all the better to unravel the tight wrapping on survivors of wartime, revealing the frustration wrought by subordinating personal desires to communal needs and faced with new choices completely at odds with the settled values all that fighting was supposed to defend and the habits of stoicism. Lean’s graphic, cosmopolitan approach where the repressed emotions unexpressed by the characters are enacted via the filmmaking is largely different to Fei’s style, which is mostly closer to the quietly observant humanism of Yasujiro Ozu.

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The exception to this quiet, observant approach is the most unusual and celebrated device Fei deploys, during scenes of interaction between Yuwen and Zhichen: Fei breaks up the scenes with dissolves, sliding woozily from moment to moment, stance to stance, communicating the force of the couple’s restrained ardour where the structure of time and reality seems distorted, the disparity between psyche and exterior inside the characters registered as a stutter in the film technique. Here Fei’s formal experimentation anticipates New Wave filmmaking’s obsessive fascination for using the texture of cinema itself as a dramatic tool. (Martin Scorsese is one filmmaker who has often employed a similar technical idiosyncrasy. Of course, Scorsese took on a vitally similar theme of thwarted, honourably withheld passion in The Age of Innocence (1993), whilst many of Scorsese’s films deal with a similar notion of characters who feel entrapped by socially imposed identities.)

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Fei’s work here has perhaps echoed through contemporary Chinese film since its rediscovery in the 1980s, with directors as temperamentally diverse as Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien visibly engaged with his legacy. A lengthy, one-shot sequence of the family dining as a vibrant unit resembles Hou’s experiment with sustaining transfixing interaction in long takes in Flowers of Shanghai (1998). The focus on a pair of lovers whose affair must remain superficially chaste inevitably echoes Wong’s In The Mood for Love (2000), whilst the concept of life’s stages as akin to seasons was revisited in The Grandmaster (2014). The first encounter when Yuwen is called out of the cottage by Liyang to meet the guest, who has no idea that his friend married his former flame, sees Zhichen’s shock revealed in a sudden close-up, versus Yuwen’s slightly more prepared, fiercely dissembling glare. Yuwen is quietly transformed by the return of her lover, and not quite in the moony, readily pathos-stirring way of many a guilty romantic heroine.

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Wei Wei’s brilliant performance communicates how Yuwen’s wiry energy and frustrated imperious streak as a waning former belle of the ball have been forcibly converted into their opposite, a languid torpor and an archly dutiful subservience to her role, as if the best revenge she sees for the life she is leading now is to lead it unimpeachably. It’s all in her fingers, as she constantly folds her hands in the proper stance of attention, but lets her fingers strangle each other in increasingly fretful and agitated repression as Zhichen’s tenure at the cottage continues. Although almost always a pillar of quiet, boding rectitude, Yuwen’s coquettish streak occasionally shines through her façade, as does her fearsome passion, which seems sometimes poised to manifest as aggression. Her tendency to seek solitude and seclusion, far from being an asocial or introverted quality, keeps her restrained, as she often seems on the verge of pouncing on the men in her life to break them to pieces or ravage them in frenzy. Fei repeatedly depicts Yuwen lounging on her bed or sitting, apparently immobilised but clearly fixated. Soon it emerges that Yuwen and Zhichen’s long-ago romance was stymied by his lack of standing and worldliness, not even knowing how to get a match made, and then his departure for university, leaving Yuwen to be snatched up by the upstanding and propertied Liyang, only for everything that made him a good match to fall apart. Liyang remains unaware of Yuwen and Zhichen’s past, and he hits upon what he thinks is a good way to make his friend happy and start building the family up again: marrying Zhichen to Xiuhe. The sprightly teenager seems charmed enough by the doctor to be open to the idea, while Yuwen covertly boils at the idea, but agrees to suggest the match to Zhichen. Meanwhile, Zhichen’s own ministrations seem to be working for Liyang, who’s able to leave the house and enjoy himself with the family.

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The giddy, happy drunkenness of Xiu’s birthday celebrations becomes catalyst for tipping the characters closer to their moments of personal moral crisis. Yuwen seems to set out purposefully to seduce Zhichen in his room in a sequence charged to melting point with sexual tension that can only be squandered, the cloud-streaked full moon above a recurring image, as if dictating the strange tides of the human heart. The acme of the romantic longing comes when Zhichen suddenly sweeps Yuwen up in his arms, a few breathless paces away from the bed. He then slowly lowers her and detaches again, the moment gone forever. Zhichen flees, trying to lock Yuwen in rather than let her presence taunt him. She laughs at him through a glass pane in the door and then punches the glass out to release herself, erotic energy transmuted into sado-masochistic violence. Zhichen rushes to repair her wound, essentially reveling in his own grudging emotional impotence.

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The promise of revival Zhichen brings with him as an emblem of a functional and modernising world beyond the river proves in large part illusory, as he stirs Liyang from his depression and gives hope of recovery. Instead, he can’t escape the roundelay of history any more than his friends, and the contradictions he represents sends his patient into crisis. Fei implies that, in the same manner, the confused and contradictory impulses of China’s entry into the modern, westernised world had done it more damage than good, unable to cleave from the pillars of old faiths and not yet able to erect effective replacements—the electric light still gives out at night, the medicine doesn’t always work. Liyang seems to become aware at last that something is going on between his wife and his friend, and the husband, always stringently honest and self-searching to the point of being infuriating, tells his wife he has to get better or he might as well die and stop burdening her.

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The beauty of Fei’s filmmaking and his refrains to nature’s cycles are both ironic in counterpointing the septic tendencies of humans toward fruitless introspection, but also suggest that frailty is in itself a mere aspect of nature. The process of reconstruction has to be first accomplished on the interior level before the will can be found to start piling up the bricks and mixing the mortar. This is a process Fei reflects on early in the film when Liyang tries half-heartedly to do just that, plucking fragments of brick from the rubble of the mansion and stacking them. It’s a fleeting stab at action by a man of no skill or resolve who ceases when he notices his wife watching, perhaps with scorn or with pity or a mixture of both, from a distance. Xiu has the elastic resilience of youth, the promise of a new time living in her gawky limbs. Nihilistic temptations are before the older characters, with Liyang making overtures to Zhichen for the doctor to help him end his life, an act that could clear the way for him and Yuwen. Resisting the inducement to cross that line proves an unstated, but vital aspect of what Fei is depicting, as much as the doctor and the housewife resisting their emotional impulses in trying to reknit the fabric of a civil life in a way that’s more meaningful than mere habit.

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Eventually Liyang attempts suicide on his own with his supply of sleeping pills—a classic version of the Chekhovian gun, as those pills are given allusive import throughout the film, to the point where Zhichen even replaces some with placebos, possibly anticipating such an act—finally bringing this quandary to crisis point. Xiu fearfully begs Zhichen to save her brother, and rather than being left to expire, Liyang’s act proves his friend’s and family’s devotion to him holds fast, his courting of death instead providing a perverse reason to live. Zhichen departs the small town for the sake of himself and the Dais. But whilst the final shots replicate the early ones, they come with pointed difference, dispelling the notion that cycles mean stasis. Yuwen had essentially raised Xiu, but Xiu’s recognition that Zhichen and Yuwen love each other has transformed their relationship. Zhichen walks the road out of town accompanied by Xiu and Huang, having reconnected with his society, whilst Liyang, leaning on a crutch but moving under his own steam, joins his wife on the ruined wall where she stood alone before, giving some hope that the spring really has arrived. The last line of the film, fittingly, is Xiu inviting Zhichen back for the summer. Spring in a Small Town finally offers a very hard-won affirmation.


11th 09 - 2015 | 2 comments »

The Samurai Trilogy (1954-56)

Samurai (Musashi Miyamoto, 1954) / Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Zoku Musashi Miyamoto: Ichijôji no kettô, 1955) / Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (Musashi Miyamoto Kanketsuhen: Kettô Ganryûjima, 1956)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Hiroshi Inagaki

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By Roderick Heath

In 1955, the foreign-language film Oscar, then still a special rather than a competitive award, was given to Hiroshi Inagaki’s Miyamoto Musashi, retitled Samurai for foreign release. It followed Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1954) as the third Japanese winner in four years, a highly visible recognition of the nation’s cinematic renaissance. Inagaki had close links to the stage, having followed his father into theatre acting at an early age. He found work with Nikkatsu Studios as a performer in the early ’20s, and a passion for fusing theatrical and cinematic traditions would define his work. By the end of the decade he was directing and screenwriting.

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Inagaki collaborated on many occasions with Toshiro Mifune, and their work together deserves consideration for the diversity and exploitation of the actor’s gifts over Mifune’s more famous work with Kurosawa: they joined forces on the Samurai trilogy, and then subsequently on Inagaki’s inspired adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, Samurai Saga (1958), where Mifune played the large-nosed hero; the grandiose fantasy epic The Birth of Japan (1959); and Chushingura (1962), a much-admired take on the famous tale of the 47 Ronin. The Samurai trilogy is still probably Inagaki’s best-known work, however, a grand, richly textured, folkloric take on the life of Miyamoto Musashi as mediated by a fictionalised novel by Eiji Yoshikawa and its stage adaptation by Hideji Hōjō. Inagaki at once mythologises and presents a profoundly ambivalent analysis of the life of Musashi, surely the most famous samurai of all time.

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Musashi’s stature and allure combines aspects of legendary western knights, augmented by the peculiar spiritual and scholastic authority of the samurai tradition. Because of his obscure early life and his great career, which saw him cut a swathe through a host of challengers and officially sanctioned swordsman schools and champions, Musashi also gained the extra edge of glamour afforded romantic outlaws and rebels, a lone-wolf hero exemplifying his creed but obedient only to his personal honour. Musashi’s life coincided with the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate, the monolithic power that would rule Japan for 250 years whilst shutting down social mobility and progress. But Musashi’s example, whilst exemplifying his principles, held the promise that anyone could, with discipline and fortitude, become a good enough fighter to take on any force. Musashi wrote important books, including the canonical Book of the Five Rings, about swordcraft, but he was reticent about his background and experiences in his writing, leaving a lot of room for popular mystique. Eiji’s novel bent the historical bow quite a bit, presenting Musashi as a wild youth whose path to the standing of samurai master is a long and gruelling process of self-discovery and self-denial. This notion played to Inagaki’s affinity for finding the nobility in ordinary and luckless people: his Musashi, or Takezō as he was known as a boy, begins as an everyman, craving adventure and elevation, leaving his small village of Miyamoto to join the Toyotomi army, the anti-Tokugawa side in the civil war sweeping the nation in 1600, along with his best friend Honiden Matahachi (Rentarô Mikuni). Inagaki had already, earlier in the ’50s, made a three-part drama revolving around Sasaki Kojirō, Musashi’s most famous opponent, also with Mifune as Musashi. That series had been the tragedy of a potentially great man brought down by his worldly and egotistical aims. The Musashi trilogy inevitably contrasts this concept, and yet Inagaki still finds surprising, even profound ambivalence in taking on such a storied folk hero’s life as he journeys towards his duel with Sasaki, taking Musashi from primal man to modern man, watching him flower from headstrong tough to brilliant but existentially desolate warrior to philosophical hero.

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Miyamoto Musashi unfolds as a tale of complex and shifting allegiances between characters across the breadth of the three episodes in a manner closer to epic saga. At the fateful Battle of Sekigahara, Takezō and Matahachi are mere foot soldiers digging trenches, but Takezō charges into the fray in the midst of the collapsing Toyotomis pursued by Matahachi, who has none of his friend’s nerve and skill. Inagaki’s camera dissolves from the midst of blood and thunder to the sight of his two hapless heroes squirming out of the mud in the midst of battlefield carnage, two losers stranded by the tide of history. Takezō searches for shelter for himself and the wounded Matahachi and eventually bursts into a cabin occupied by Oko (Mitsuko Mito) and her daughter Akemi (Mariko Okada), who survive by robbing the bodies of dead soldiers. They help the two men recover, however, and both women come to covet Takezō, who spends his time trying break in a wild horse he has captured while remaining aggressively uninterested in women. The dynamics described here define the whole series and its insight into Musashi’s character, who remains cursed in his incapacity to relate to women in his life under an assumed policy of monkish asceticism, as he tries to train another wild animal—himself.

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Oko and Akemi subsist under the sufferance of a bandit brigade that controls the area. The bandits demand the bulk of their recovered loot as payment, but when they come to collect and the leader threatens to rape Oko, Takezō comes out of hiding and slaughters several of the brigands in a display of ferocious fighting wit. Oko, beguiled by spectacles of male strength, clasps onto Takezō worshipfully after this feat, but he runs away. Offended, Oko tells Matahachi and Akemi that Takezō tried to rape her, and then she convinces them both to flee with her and the loot. On the way, Matahachi manages to kill one of another band of much less threatening robbers who attack them. Meanwhile, Takezō heads back to Miyamoto, but when border guards of the new regime try to arrest him, he cuts his way through their number and becomes a wanted outlaw.

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Soon Takezō is reduced to the status of a filthy beast subsisting in the hills, as his own family lead the hunt against him partly out of fear of the reprisals by the town governor. The first episode of Inagaki’s series in concerned with how Takezō is elevated from this degraded condition to the threshold of becoming the archetypal samurai. Inagaki portrays these states as points on an evolutionary progression, but vitally related: what Takezō lacks is not fighting ability, but discipline, and discipline, when he attains it, is in its way, just as knotty and self-punishing as base ferocity. The blend of Buddhist philosophy and modern psychology Inagaki turns on Musashi in the course of a narrative that resembles a traditional bildungsroman is woven together with the real incidents of Musashi’s life tweaked to become illustrations not merely of his gathering skill and legend, but also as markers in the war of his head and heart. The catalysts for his transformation are Matahachi’s fiancée Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), and the Buddhist priest Takuan (Kurôemon Onoe), in whose monastery Otsu was raised. Takuan takes it upon himself to capture Takezō and punish him, but also to school him and put his spectacular talent to better use, whilst Otsu becomes fixated with Takezō, freeing him at one point and becoming the only woman he loves. Takuan manages to imprison Takezō in Himeji Castle, where he’s kept with piles of literature to train his mind as prelude to training his body. Takezō never emerges from prison, but rather who he becomes, the samurai Musashi Miyamoto. He is offered a chance to join the retinue of the lord, but Musashi declines, stating he still has much to learn.

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Otsu waits out the term of Musashi’s imprisonment, taking a job at a food stall near a bridge visible from the castle, but learns that his new path demands he renounce women. Musashi encourages Otsu to forget him and get on with her life, but Otsu refuses, equating Musashi’s sense of manly duty to hold true to his chosen creed with her own female duty to hold fast to hers. The Musashi trilogy is then, on one level, a romantic tragedy about two people permanently separated but eternally joined by their ideals. Their lives weave in with others in a tale that travels the expanse of feudal Japan, as Musashi gains ever-increasing fame as a duellist. Early in the second film, he wins one such duel, but when he encounters an elderly Buddhist priest, the priest dismisses him as still just a strong man out for glory with no concept of chivalry, a thought echoed by a weaponsmith who advertises himself as a sharpener of souls rather than swords, and refuses to work on Musashi’s weapon. Musashi, however, meets both challenges with gestures of humble suppliance, confirming that he’s attentive to his faults and still seeking the essence of his creed.

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The second chapter, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, revolves chiefly around the consequences when, seeking out the best schools of swordcraft to test and best, Musashi enters Kyoto and challenges the students of Yoshioka Seijūrō (Akihiko Hirata) to fight with kendo sticks. Musashi lays waste to the students, enraging Yoshioka’s protective clan and friends, who insist on keeping Seijūrō himself from battling the upstart. Instead, they send a gang to attack him, but Musashi fights them off, and when Seijūrō’s brother Denshichiro (Yû Fujiki) comes to fight him, he is quickly killed. Finally, the school gathers together a gang of nearly a hundred fighters to ambush Musashi even after Seijūrō has promised him a fair duel.

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Woven in with this violent drama are the other characters introduced in the first film. Matahachi’s mother Osugi (Eiko Miyoshi), who betrayed Musashi when he sought refuge with her, leaves their home town with an escort, determined to kill both him and Otsu for dishonouring her clan. Matahachi, Oko, and Akemi are living now in Kyoto, Matahachi having devolved into a fetid, pitiful drunk, whilst Oko has taken the wily and opportunistic Toji Gion (Daisuke Kato) as a new lover. Together, their amoral activities counterpoint Musashi’s transformative labours in a manner reminiscent to the Thenardiers in Les Miserables. Toji is trying to make their fortune by marrying Akemi to Yoshioka Seijūrō. The swordmaster, encouraged by Otsu to claim her daughter with force, sexually assaults her, rendering Akemi’s relationship with her mother even more dank and contemptuous. Akemi, more than a little unhinged by the experience, is fixated on Musashi, and she confronts Otsu in laying claim to the ronin’s affections as both women rush to help him as he fights off a Yoshioka gang. Musashi gains a supporter in master swordsmith Koetsu Hanami (Kō Mihashi), who invites him into his household and introduces him to acclaimed geisha and courtesan Lady Yoshino (Michiyo Kogure), who has such composure and poise that even Musashi is astounded by it, whilst she, like Otsu and Akemi, falls powerfully for the great warrior. Most portentously, another young and brilliant ronin, Sasaki Kojirō (Kōji Tsuruta), arrives in Kyoto and studies Musashi from a distance, even intervening unbidden to guard Musashi’s back and keep the Yoshioka gang at bay at crucial moments. Sasaki’s ambition is not ultimately beneficial to Musashi: Sasaki has him marked as his one great rival, and, knowing they must inevitably duel to decide who the best is, is determined to keep him from being killed by hordes or treachery.

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The Oscar the first episode captured may well have reflected, like the acclaim for Gate of Hell, the thrill the exotic beauty both works generated regardless of their dramatic wits, with bright colour effects and historical settings far detached from the transformations overtaking postwar Japan. Inagaki certainly never pretends to tell a realistic story, in opposition to the pungent authenticity Kurosawa strove to bring to Seven Samurai (1954). Inagaki’s filmmaking throughout the three films is tremendous, using any device he saw fit to render his story vivid and quick-moving in spite of the contemplative heart of the drama and the complexities of the human islands we see grazing against each other throughout: the Samurai trilogy is one of the fleet and gripping epic achievements of cinema.

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Aspects of the trilogy have sunk deeply into the cinematic landscape, less celebrated than the influence of Seven Samurai or Yojimbo (1961) and yet detectable in Sergio Leone’s films, which particularly enjoy the notion of antagonists who protect each other to better serve an ultimate confrontation, and as one of the many reference points of Kill Bill (2004-05), and perhaps even George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. Luke Skywalker’s growing ability and search for self-control recall Musashi’s, whilst Lucas’ narratives thrive on similar interlacing plot and character strands across multiple episodes—the final moments of Inagaki’s second film particularly resemble The Empire Strikes Back, 1980. Inagaki may even have coined a quintessential martial arts movie cliché when Musashi awes people by snatching flies with his chopsticks. Inagaki pushes stylisation so far as to include a shot of animated birds flying over a set representing the countryside at dawn, echoing back to the artifice of silent cinema. Like many directors who started work in the silent era but whose careers were still strong in the ’50s, including John Ford and Fritz Lang, Inagaki seemed to lose interest in realistic precepts for cinema and turned back to a deliberately, conveniently stylised atmosphere, the better to play out psychological dramas and rock-ribbed moral tales.

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Inagaki also bends the arc of his storytelling to include discursions into geisha dance and musical performance, as if rejoicing in the fabric of Japanese classical culture. Inagaki’s indulgence of his theatrical and nonrealist reflexes doesn’t mean, however, that these films are stagy: rather, they are filled with vignettes of astonishing illustrative verve. The early Battle of Sekigahara sequences is a brief but thunderous piece of filmmaking, frames packed with charging cavalry and contorting bodies, bolts of myth-writing lightning and pounding rain, whirling slashes of Musashi’s sword matched by the driving tracking motions of the camera. The location photography possesses the clarity and lustre that has long felt very specific to Japanese film, but Inagaki uses his locations with the same painterly élan as his artificial settings, alive to rolling mists, the fires of the rising sun, the wind-thrash of riverbank reeds, the glow of the moon. The duel that represents the climax of the trilogy, a battle filmed as a form of kabuki dance, uses trees to form a proscenium arch and frame the antagonists. Inagaki uses bodies of water as a leitmotif throughout, tethering Musashi’s journey both to coherent geography and to ready moral, spiritual, and experiential cartography. Marshy swamps and high, trickling streams denote the stagnant and violent state of Japan and the wild yet tentative nature of the hero at the outset. Inagaki constantly cuts way to shots of flowing rivers to denote the passage of time and the paths to maturity, whilst bridges across those rivers are both convenient landmarks for the characters, but also symbolically charged places where the characters often meet and form tentative attachments that may later be revised, as with Akemi and Otsu, who first share a moment of sunny, sisterly friendship when they meet and speak of their lost loves well before learning they’re speaking of the same man. The finale of the second film sees Musashi fighting in rice paddies, using the terrain to his advantage. Sasaki shows off swordcraft before the mercurial beauty of a waterfall. Rivers meet the sea in the last film, where Musashi must cross to Ganryu Island to meet his greatest enemy alone on the edge of the ocean and the day, in the null zone between life and death, the perfect Zen location. Musashi’s choice of armament for this grand battle, a hand-carved boat oar, attains special meaning through this motif.

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Paradoxically, whilst Inagaki evokes the most hallowed conventions and traditions of Japanese culture, his Musashi trilogy deals with turmoil on a social and moral level. Inagaki pays acute attention not simply to Musashi’s travails, but also to the way they affect others, most prominently the diptych of Otsu and Akemi but also from characters as diverse as Toji and Yoshino, orphan boy Jōtarō (Kenjin Iida) and braggart horse thief Kuma (Haruo Tanaka), who both become his protégés, and the boatman (Minoru Chiaki) who carries him to Ganryu Island. The voices of such characters are prized by Inagaki to the point where the trilogy starts to feel like a parable for the democratising process gripping Japanese life in the decade since the war, giving a sociopolitical context for Inagaki’s concern for downtrodden and outsider characters. Musashi is conceived as both catalyst and onlooker in this process, presenting a paragon detached from the power structure and upper classes of the age, a hero figure to ordinary people, but in many ways, cut off from such evolution (when Inagaki would cast Mifune as a version of Cyrano, it would allow him to perfectly unite both the exemplar and the outcast in one figure).

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Musashi is himself, ironically, often reticent, even inarticulate, particularly when it comes to the women in his life, who wants things from him he can’t give. When he finally does let his passion boil over and grasps Otsu in a desperately erotic clinch, it so powerful and unexpected a display that Otsu is frightened, and Musashi immediately ceases, suffused with shame. Musashi’s quest for discipline and perfect skill finds outflow in art as well as fighting, as he’s glimpsed creating delicately beautiful expressions of a Zen-infused sense of nature. Meanwhile the great warrior is most at ease with children, like Jōtarō and the doll-like geisha apprentice who becomes his handmaiden in Lady Yoshino’s house and whose solitary, rapturous singing in a garden Inagaki films whilst Musashi is off at another deadly battle, a moment of near-fairytale beauteousness that rejects just about every precept imaginable in an historical action film.

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The conclusion of Duel at Ichijoji Temple ironically contrasts Musashi’s loss of erotic control with his gaining of gallantry: after fighting off dozens of the Yoshioka toughs, he’s finally challenged by Seijūrō, who escapes his own followers who have tried to keep him from attending the honourably arranged duel. Musashi beats him and holds off killing him once he’s sure his opponent is defeated, proving he’s attained both the skill and wisdom not to kill when it’s not necessary. Yet after his lapse with Otsu, he slinks away from his victory a still-chastened and embarrassed wanderer. The long, intricately staged battle between Musashi and the myriad heavies is certainly one of the great combat sequences in any movie, depending on Mifune’s great physicality for its convincing force as Inagaki expertly films how Musashi takes on a mass of enemies, carefully using his blinding speed, precision, and wits to divide their mass into manageable sections. The subplot of Matahachi and his mother ends as a tragicomic aside, both trying to kill Otsu but meeting an amusing comeuppance when Matahachi, who’s trying to pass himself off as Sasaki, meets the real swordsman, who chases him away. Sasaki then shepherds Akemi away from the battleground, and she accuses him of coveting her because he wants anything Musashi has. In the third film, Sasaki gains the success he craves when he’s appointed fencing master to the shogun’s son, albeit only after Musashi proves uninterested in the job and after Sasaki overdoes things in a bout arranged essentially as an audition, crippling a court samurai in a fencing display.

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Sasaki eventually challenges Musashi to a duel, and Musashi accepts, but sends him a letter asking for the date of their combat to be put off for one year. Sasaki accepts, as it gives both men time to create a strategy and conquer their interior troubles. Inagaki pointedly portrays their divergent paths, however. Sasaki settles into the lap of court life’s luxury with the prospect of marrying a lord’s daughter, whilst Musashi continues to wander, eventually settling in a small village on a plain dominated by bandits where he, Jōtarō, and Kuma set about to work the land and teach self-defence to the villagers. The echoes of Seven Samurai here perhaps confirm the swift impact Kurosawa’s film had on the jidai geki genre, but allow Inagaki to bring the story full circle. Where Takezō went to war with a small town, now Musashi sets out to protect one. He chooses a path of abnegation and rude physical labour as the way to school himself for the ultimate trial, and the cause of common humanity rather than statecraft and power.

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As Musashi and Sasaki move toward their destined battle, the counterpoint of Otsu and Akemi’s war for his affection builds to a head as both find their way to the village. Oko has since been tracked down and murdered in revenge by Kohei, the leader of a bandit gang whose brother Musashi killed in the first film, and Toji has joined the bandits. When they capture Akemi in a tavern after she runs off from Sasaki, Toji and Kohei compel Akemi to infiltrate the village and clear a path for their gang to charge in, a game Akemi eventually plays out in anger at the way Musashi accuses her of possessing her mother’s malignant streak. Akemi even tries to force Otsu to solve their rivalry in a battle with axes, but the bandit attack forestalls this, and instead Akemi dies defending Otsu from a lascivious bandit. In many ways Akemi is the trilogy’s obverse protagonist in a way none of the men competing with Musashi manages, and surpassing Otsu’s fervent but straightforward passion. Her path from degradation to a flash of nobility in the moments before death mimic Musashi’s journey whilst Inagaki stresses the realities that keep her from obtaining the same stature, the cruelty of desire and forced engagement with the realities of the world that Musashi conquers by distilling them into the theatre of war, an option not open to many others. Her death comes amidst the final conflagration of the worldly distractions and the dramas of pettier men, seen as the villagers and the samurai defeat the bandits but suffer great loss: the tumult of an evil epoch is fading by the film’s end, and history, represented by the hardiness of the villagers, rolls on.

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The sequence of Musashi and Sasaki’s beach duel is conceived by Inagaki as a moment of perfect crystallisation, both for the narrative and for the experiences and principles of the duellists. For a brief moment each finds a perfect mirror of ability and the perfect moment of pure reality that is at the same time a gate of transcendence. Musashi’s ultimate victory is the result of forces we’ve seen building since the opening seconds of the first episode, a victory allowed by his final achievement of calm in the face of any event: he enters and leaves the arena without expectations, past or future, whereas Sasaki wants it to be the last chore before settling into a life of acclaim and marriage. True to his own principles, Inagaki’s final grace note is not one of triumph, but the awful fall following zenith, noting Musashi’s anguish in facing a future without such a beckoning purpose and, worse, looking honestly at what it cost him to get here.

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26th 08 - 2015 | 2 comments »

Famous Firsts: Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

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

Debut feature film of: Terence Young, director

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Back in November 2008, Rod posted a “Famous First” on Dr. No (1962), which marked the first screen appearance of the James Bond character. The director of Dr. No was Terence Young, and so it is with some sense of continuity that I write about the first of many films in the long and successful career of this underrated British director who peaked in the 1960s with the Bond films, including From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965), as well as The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), Wait Until Dark (1967), and Mayerling (1968).

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Young began his film career as a screenwriter, most notably penning the scripts for On the Night of the Fire (1939), Dangerous Moonlight (1941), A Letter From Ulster (1942), and Theirs Is the Glory (1946), which were directed by his good friend, the Belfast-born director Brian Desmond Hurst. On the Night of the Fire is often considered a good example of early British noir, and this film may have given Young a few ideas about the look he wanted when it came his turn to direct. Shot in Paris, Corridor of Mirrors has the moody shadows and skewed camera angles of a proper film noir. However, it offers a story reminiscent of the horror/thriller Vertigo (1958) of a man searching for a lost love and creating a living woman in her image. Further, there may have been something lingering in the air from the fantasy films the French made when the Germans occupied their country during World War II. Corridor of Mirrors is a dreamy, gorgeous film that, whether Young intended it or not, rips the veil off the nightmare of the Occupation that the subjugated French banished from their filmmaking, making it something much closer to gothic horror film than noir.

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The film starts with the noirish voiceover of our female protagonist, Mifanwy Conway (Edana Romney), a half Italian-half Welsh country wife and mother who tells us that she is hiding a dark secret that puts a lie to her respectability—she is leaving for a few days to meet her lover, who has been writing to her persistently for the past few months. Her rendezvous is to take place at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in the creepy chamber of the notorious that contains lifelike French nobility having their heads lopped off during the Reign of Terror. We look around for her lover and are surprised when she reaches up to take the hand of a wax figure. His is the likeness of Paul Mangin (Eric Portman). We won’t learn what he did to earn a place at the wax museum until much later, once Mifanwy finishes her reminiscence of the strange and intense affair that began in a nightclub when she first saw his fascinating face and determined that she had to get to know him.

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Paul is fabulously wealthy and lives in an enormous and opulent mansion, surrounding himself with rare and beautiful items. His particular passion is for 15th-century Venice, and he preserves all the courtly charms of that bygone era. He drives Mifanwy to his home in a hansom cab and compliments her unconventional dress as being in keeping with his own anachronistic tastes—but he can’t abide her cigarette habit. She returns several times to his home, and one day finds herself alone in it, save for the discreetly hidden servants, and invited by note to have a look around. She discovers a corridor of mirrored doors, behind which are lavish period dresses and jewelry. Unable to resist, she tries one on and is admiring herself when Paul comes up behind her and finishes the look with the necklace and tiara that accompany it. He has had all of these costumes made for the day the woman of his dreams appears; of course, that woman is Mifanwy, the spitting image of the Italian spitfire who made his life a living hell when they both lived previous lives in Renaissance Venice.

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This twist definitely tips Corridor of Mirrors into the horror category, with Paul offering a strong model for the genteel type of Dracula that would become a staple of England’s Hammer Studios, a strangely apt approach considering that this marked Christopher Lee’s big-screen debut, as a party-hearty companion of Mifanwy and her night-clubbing friends. Further, we have a Renfield character in the form of Edgar Orsen (Alan Wheatley), the designer of those fabulous garments who hates Paul for dallying with his lover, Caroline (Joan Hart), but remains chained to his generous patronage. We’re even offered a crazy housekeeper (Barbara Mullen) for the purposes of plot and added menace.

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French cinematographer André Thomas is really the making of the film, setting up a genuine air of romance and dread that carries it through to its somewhat ridiculous conclusion. The first dance between Mifanwy and Paul is a whirl, like a spider slipping a very delicate web around its prey. Who is the predator and who is the prey doesn’t really seem to matter as both people look equally in thrall. The benign first scene in the corridor of mirrors gives way to fear and confusion as Mifanwy’s panic at Paul’s delusions about past lives and worries about his stability have her running through the corridor anxiously looking for the door that will aid her escape, but being confronted by blank-faced mannequins at every turn and reflections of madness. She learns her laugh disturbs Paul, and the sound design of her echoing laugh in Paul’s head matches the multitude of mirror images Thomas captures.

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The script, partially written by Romney, is kind of a mess when it comes to her own character. We are supposed to think Mifanwy is a modern girl who is simply intrigued by Paul’s world and whose cruelty matches that of the ancient Italian she resembles down to the last detail, signalled by her attraction to a poison bottle a la Lucrezia Borgia in Paul’s display case. The switch is neither well-planned nor well-executed, and the consequences of her rejection don’t strike the tragic note they probably should have—and certainly not with the grotesque happy ending the film has in store for us.

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If this and other implausible plot twists are redeemed at all, it is because Eric Portman is such a magnetic and pleasant character to spend 90 or so minutes with. The lavish costume ball he throws to celebrate the rediscovery of his lost love is absolutely enchanting, and Young and company achieve that difficult task of making us feel as though we have really entered another time occurring within our own, as opposed to watching a straight period piece that can be viewed more dispassionately. Thomas and Portman pay close attention to the faces of the players, a handsome and exotic bounty that does much more to put the story across than the expensive-looking sets. All in all, Corridor of Mirrors casts a rather intoxicating spell that fans of classic and horror films should find worthwhile.

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23rd 08 - 2015 | 2 comments »

Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula, 1958) / Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

Director: Terence Fisher

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By Roderick Heath

Christopher Lee, son of an English soldier and an Anglo-Italian countess who had been an artist’s model, had aristocratic roots that could be traced back to Charlemagne. Born in London, he grew with a diverse education and a swathe of languages at his command, a scion both of imperial England’s waning bastions and Europe’s rapidly fragmenting identities. His gifts and experiences would serve Lee well in life, after his step-father’s bankruptcy and the coming of World War II. His service in the war was shrouded in legend ever after, and some have suggested his step-cousin Ian Fleming based James Bond partly on him. After a suggestion by another cousin, an Italian ambassador, Lee decided to try acting after the war. Lee was marked as a potential star and put through Rank’s “charm school” training, perhaps to mint another dashing screen roué like James Mason or Stewart Granger or to put his fencing talents to work in swashbucklers.

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Lee, however, struggled for a long time to find his place in the cinematic scheme of things. Something about him didn’t quite fit—perhaps he had too much premature gravitas, too little untroubled charm, to be the romantic lead in the anodyne atmosphere of early ’50s British film. Lee carved out a career as a character actor instead, playing everything from a spear-carrying soldier in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) to a comedic nightclub owner in Powell and Pressburger’s Battle of the River Plate (1956). Ironically for a performer equipped with a deep, unmistakeable, well-trained voice, he was then offered a role with no lines at all. Lee, who had been dogged by the opinion he was too tall for an actor, was offered the part of Frankenstein’s monster for just that reason. He accepted instantly, perhaps remembering that the same part had turned Boris Karloff, another British misfit, into a star.

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The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) represented a gamble for Lee just as it did for Hammer Films, the small, relatively low-rent filmmaking concern built by actor William Hinds and entrepreneur James Carreras and later developed by their sons Anthony and Michael. After success adapting the Quatermass TV serials for the big screen, the company tried its luck with a series of proper horror movies, a genre that had been largely inactive since the mid-1940s. These films were produced in colour, a choice that would automatically make their product stand out when most fantastical films of the time were cheaply made in black and white, and with the disreputable but commercially smart object of shocking audiences with gore. Lee’s costar in Frankenstein was Peter Cushing, another actor whose career had been varied and frustrating but who had finally become a well-known face working on TV. Reviled by critics faced with its gaudy, painterly, potent revision of both Mary Shelley’s model and the well-worn Universal film series, The Curse of Frankenstein was nonetheless a hit, and Hammer quickly gathered the people responsible back to take on another storied horror property, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Cushing again was cast as the lead, and Lee as the monster that he must fend off. Young screenwriter Jimmy Sangster proved himself ingenious when paired with director Terence Fisher. Fisher, a respected editor, had moved into directing like former collaborator David Lean, but where Lean quickly achieved prestige, Fisher subsisted as a quickie helmsman. Yet, like Lee, such fare gave him a chance to develop a no-nonsense professionalism that would serve his creativity exceedingly well when finally let off the leash, and he proved himself adept at dark melodramas like So Long at the Fair (1952) and injecting such cornball scifi as 4-Sided Triangle (1953) with visual drama far beyond its means.

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Fisher proved to have the perfect sensibility for horror cinema, stimulated by the chance he found to play around with the established tropes of gothic horror. Fisher and Sangster had determinedly distorted the Frankenstein myth to return the scientist to the centre of the tale and strip him of nobility, an idea perfect for the growing cynicism of the atomic age. Faced with the equally hoary figure of Dracula, their take centred squarely on the understanding that the vampire overlord was a version of the ancient folk figure of the demon lover. Some critics have seen the Hammer Dracula as a prefiguration of the movie version of James Bond: a sexual fantasy incarnate, if still here held in check as an image of villainy. The film’s opening credits, exploring the surrounds and interior of the vampire overlord’s castle, resolves in a tracking shot that slowly zeroes in on Dracula’s name carved into the lid of a massive stone sarcophagus upon which blood starts to drip. This vision has a powerful quality as an abstract encapsulation of the visual texture where dusty browns and greys and the violent lustre of gory hues will dominate. But it is perhaps more important as a prototypical pop-art declaration of the Hammer brand and the changing face of pop culture, heralding an awareness of iconography, an idea that the James Bond films would exploit more fully.

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Revising the story for a straitened production and with an eye to a tighter, more intimate story, the filmmakers stripped away much of the foliage of Stoker’s novel, including the long voyage from Transylvania to England, the hunt for the vampire’s resting place, and the wealth of background characters, to concentrate on the essential idea of Dracula as dark force assaulting the Victorian bourgeois idyll and faced down by the forces of iron rationality. Jonathan Harker (Fisher regular John Van Eyssen) was changed from a naïve realtor to a fellow scholar engaged with Van Helsing in infiltrating and uncovering abodes of the undead, letting himself be engaged by Dracula to archive his library as a Trojan Horse warrior bent on tracking down the vampire’s resting place and killing him. Fisher set out to bait the audience into taking Dracula as a figure of campy appeal by having him first appear as a looming shadow at the top of the stairs, and then undercut it by having Lee stride into the light, imperious, courtly, smoothly charismatic. Evil suddenly was sexy.

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Rejecting the images of ruin and infestation that F.W. Murnau and Tod Browning had originally offered in their takes on the material and Expressionist stylisation, Fisher and the Hammer production team instead insisted on a firmly tangible visual texture that is lightly stylised more through use of colour than lighting. Dracula’s castle, first glimpsed under the opening credits complete with a hulking stone eagle statue hovering with unstated menace against the grey sky, is a solid, tangible abode of stonework in a perpetually autumnal land of damp mists and fleeting brown leaves. This setting resituates Stoker’s material in a solidly English tradition of gothic imagery. Sangster discarded all supernatural manifestations, like Dracula’s ability to transform into a bat or a wolf, again for budgetary reasons, but also to aid Fisher’s program to create a universe for his horror material that is substantial, enacted on the level of physical oppression and appropriation. Dracula’s castle dominates its landscape exactly as such castles were built to do: to intimidate and belittle, to ward off and keep out. Harker can only enter by guile. Stoker’s Dracula was a remnant of a legendary past now turned septic remnant; Fisher’s is a still-living force. Dracula’s status as dark romancer was hardly new–Bela Lugosi’s and John Carradine’s counts had both effectively embodied the same idea, in contrast with F.W. Murnau’s rodentlike Nosferatu (1922). But Lee, Fisher, and Sangster pushed the idea into a realm of explicitly erotic menace. Where Lugosi and Carradine compelled with hypnosis, Lee dominates with sensual and corporeal stature, and his close encounters with the women in the films shot unabashedly as erogenous preludes.

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Fisher’s rigorous filmmaking, not as spectacular as Murnau’s or as densely visual as Mario Bava’s, nonetheless made the Hammer brand what it became. Settings are not transformed landscapes of the mind, but islets of obsessively fussy, romanticised folk-memory. Bava, a cinematographer, inevitably offered a decorative eye; Fisher was fascinated by the use of space and the rhythm of structure. Early scenes of Dracula move sonorously through lapping dissolves and deceptive quiet, time slowing to an eerie crawl as Harker enters Dracula’s remote castle on his mission (notwithstanding cheap effects: a “mountain torrent” that looks a bit like someone left the hose on). The sequence leading up to Dracula’s first appearance is a gem of subtle construction. Gaunt’s vampire girl appears in the background as Harker picks up spilt objects from the floor, an unexpected presence bringing unexpected, erotic appeal to the dry-as-dust scholar. Sexual egotism under the façade of gallantry is almost immediately Harker’s downfall when he is confronted after his arrival at Dracula’s castle by a young woman (Valerie Gaunt) who appeals for his help but is actually one of the vampire’s undead companions. Harker is quickly lured close enough for her to launch an attack on his jugular vein, only to suddenly stiffen and dash away. Harker, bewildered, slowly turns and gives a start as he sees a huge, menacing black shadow at the top of a flight of stairs. The shadow advances. Dracula appears, armed with Lee’s looks and impeccably polite authority, instantly dispelling any anticipations of camp amusement. The monster is a charming host, and more importantly, strangely potent. Stoker’s Dracula was a figure out of Europe’s mythical past, a remnant of an ancien regime feeding on the early modern world’s lack of vigilance and credulity for the idea of the past as a haunting thing; Fisher and Sangster’s vampire overlord on the other hand is rudely, impudently alive and assured in tyrannical domain.

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The wry segue from menace to courtly savoir faire gives way later when Fisher restages the sequence for raw horror. This time, when the vampire girl draws close to Harker, his hilariously precious assurances of protective intent are undercut as Fisher privileges the viewer with the sight of the girl eyeing his neck greedily and unsheathing her fangs before plunging them into his jugular. Harker throws her off whilst Dracula appears suddenly in a doorway beyond and between them, in Fisher’s favourite rhetorical device, a single wide shot binding a sudden confluence of actions.

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Fisher then dives in for one of the greatest close-ups in cinema: Dracula, teeth bared, fresh blood smeared on his face, animalistic in his fury at his chattel daring to defy his rule and attack his guest. The effect is delirious after god knows how many viewings: the cool, eerie tone suddenly turns to a display of primal evil, as Dracula hurls his bride about and grips Harker in one hand, squeezing the breath out of him, Lee’s gore-smeared maw elongating with weird and savage glee. Courtly Dracula never returns. The beast is exposed, and it’s a sight so compelling that Lee’s Dracula, for better or worse, would essentially remain in that mode in the next six Hammer entries in which he would star except for a brief scene in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974), where he plays a real estate tycoon and employs a plummy Slavic accent.

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Harker awakens under the threat of becoming a monster himself thanks to the bite that’s festering in his neck, and sets out to destroy Dracula and his bride before the sun falls again. Harker successfully kills the girl, but her death wail awakens the Count on the threshold of night. Harker is terrified to realise he’s trapped in the castle vault with the vampire overlord, and in a memorably dark, mischievous touch, Harker is next glimpsed occupying the girl’s sarcophagus, victim of vampire bisexuality? Fisher fades out on the confrontation in the same way directors of the time faded out on imminent rape scenes.

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The revisions to the novel shifts the rest of the action from England to an enclave of Britons resident somewhere in Austro-Hungary. Rather than Dracula being an exile trying to gain a foothold in a new land, the protagonists are all innocents abroad discovering life is a dank and disturbing adventure. The arrival of Van Helsing (Cushing) in the narrative signals a balancing of scales between good and evil. Van Helsing is first glimpsed with back to camera, face abstract, his status as human, but equal adversary to the monster implied. The hostile innkeeper (George Woodbridge) warns him away from prying into the reign of terror and the conspiracy of silence that enables it, but a barmaid, grateful for Harker’s decency, smuggles Van Helsing Harker’s recovered diary, enabling the erstwhile academic to understand the fate of his comrade. When he penetrates Dracula’s castle, he’s confronted by a hearse carrying Dracula away to new hunting grounds and the sight of Harker looking like a sated leech with teeth in his new bed. Conspiring to kill Harker off in this way provides a neat twist in the familiar tale and also helps make Stoker’s rather awkward narrative a bit more logical. In a manner that would permanently mark the horror film, it also offers a realisation that the traditional, romantic ingénue hero a la David Manners’ Harker in the Lugosi version, upright and decent and slightly effete in the face of evil, was not necessary or even particularly desirable in horror stories Thus, Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough), who takes Harker’s role as husband of the threatened damsel Mina (Melissa Stribling) is something Gough’s amusingly prissy performance grasps intuitively as the essence of stuffed-shirt Victorian urbanity.

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Murnau and Browning had never really seemed to know what to do with Van Helsing as a character in a drama woozy with fascination for the sepulchral. Edward Van Sloan had been appropriately intelligent and resolute in Browning version, but even there he was left a somewhat passive onlooker, a Merlinlike guide for the handsome young men and women who are the familiar protagonists of romantic melodrama. Instead Fisher and Sangster remoulded Van Helsing as a heroic figure, creating a more direct opposition of the avatars of rationality and chaos. This approach both extends and inverts that of the Curse of Frankenstein, where the scientist and monster were made virtually interchangeable to better explore the implications of science without morality. But in Dracula, the scheme is used to study the inhuman aspect of both unleashed priapism and punitive moralism struggling over the fates of the merely human and the pathetically victimised in a tug-of-war. It also bears noting that in Expressionist-style horror, the rare rational figure was an interloper in a dream world, whereas the solidity of Fisher’s vision reimagines the vampire as the eruption of the id into the everyday.

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The rest of Dracula is dominated by the notion of the vampire eating the Victorian bourgeois home first from the outside and then, most ingeniously, from within. Dracula targets first Harker’s fiancée Lucy (Carol Marsh) and then Mina, wife of Lucy’s brother Arthur, in a programme of calculated revenge for the death of the first bride. Lucy’s nightly visitations by the vampire see her lying in thrall in her bed awaiting the black-clad seducer, his approach signalled by stirring autumnal leaves beyond the threshold of her open French windows, whilst James Bernard’s score swirls with increasingly feverish impatience and cloud whips by the full moon. Later, when Dracula sets his sights on Mina, he gets her to hide his coffin in the household cellar.

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The prim and wan Mina turns up the morning after being lured to Dracula’s hiding place with an unmistakeably postcoital glow: Fisher’s wit extends to the impression that Mina has far more blood in her veins after being attacked by a vampire (Fisher purportedly told her to act as if she’d just had the best sex of her life). Whilst Arthur and Van Helsing watch her bedroom windows from outside, the vampire is able to walk into her room for a night of sanguinary passion, a moment as close to the outright erotic as mainstream film could get at the time, Stribling’s Mina the goggle-eyed bird fixated by the beast in her boudoir before he pins her on the bed and caresses her face with imperious appetite. Dracula has been reconstructed, not even the novel’s dark, entitled romancer anymore, but a creature of utterly uncontained sexual appeal. Meanwhile Van Helsing’s attempt to intervene and prevent Lucy’s death fails when the Holmwoods’ servant Gerda (Olga Dickie) clears out the garlic flowers planted to keep the monster out, and Arthur blames Van Helsing for her death. The professor is forced to hand over Harker’s diary as proof of the nature of the evil.

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Lucy’s resurrected form haunts the forests beyond the town, enticing Tania (Janine Faye), Gerda’s daughter, out for moonlit games. Another superlatively mounted, instantly iconic sequence comes as Arthur, with the seeds of expectation planted by Harker’s diary, goes to check Lucy’s crypt and finds her arriving with Tania in tow. The setting is a nirvana of gothic fantasy, with whirling leaves, licking ground fog, and desolate stonework. Sickly intimations of paedophilia and incest abound as Lucy turns from small girl into a dead-eyed parasite delighted at the thought of partaking of her brother’s blood, begging for a fraternal kiss from the appalled Arthur. A crucifix is thrust into the frame, cutting the air between the pair: Van Helsing, the sentinel of implacable reckoning, drives the terrified vampire back and scorches her brow with the touch of the holy object. The dark side of Van Helsing’s heroism is underlined both here and when he subsequently stakes Lucy, giving her rest at the expense of extinguishing a powerfully carnal creature, both victim and byproduct of failed repression. Fisher also takes a moment to observe Van Helsing comforting Tania, giving her a “pretty thing”–the cross–and telling her to wait and watch the sun rise with the solicitude of a favourite uncle. In spite of the brutal necessities and insidious forces in this vision, Fisher accords a simple grace between such Manichaean extremes.

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The flaws of Dracula stem, like its best ideas, from concatenating a complex narrative for a low budget. The relative proximity of Dracula’s homeland and the locale of the Holmwood house here means that the epic pursuit described in the book gives way to a horse chase that could have strayed out a lesser western. Comic relief is variable: the actor and writer Miles Malleson, who had helped pen the screenplay of The Thief of Baghdad (1940), one of the few British fantasy films of its age and in some ways a precursor to the Hammer horror brand (with Conrad Veidt’s Jaffar a definite ancestor of Lee’s Dracula), appears briefly but amusingly as a gabby, absent-minded undertaker, whilst Geoffrey Bayldon contributes less funny stuff as a corrupt border guard. But the proper finale is another breathlessly well-staged sequence that sees the horror film lurching close to something like action cinema. Indeed, Fisher would have an acknowledged influence on later, kinetically gifted, blockbuster filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, and Burton, and Cushing pushed for a climax that had a physicality worthy of Douglas Fairbanks. The production couldn’t quite stretch that far, but the battle between Dracula and Van Helsing has a ferocity that’s still gripping thanks to the combination of Fisher’s jagged edits, the actors, and Bernard’s thunderous scoring. The fight builds to a swashbuckling move where the vampire hunter leaps onto a long table, dashes down its length and pulls down curtains, pinioning Dracula in the sun’s rays, where he agonisingly disintegrates into a pile of ashes, a moment that stands as one of the most quoted sequences in horror cinema, in spite of, and perhaps because of, the resolutely low-tech effects.

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Dracula was a big hit upon release, one that set a horror renaissance that would power on until the 1980s officially on course. Lee later estimated the film made upwards of $25 million, a huge sum for the day. Lee himself declined to play the vampire again, afraid of being typecast. In the interval, Fisher helmed The Brides of Dracula (1960), with Cushing returning as Van Helsing, but that film, though later reappraised as amongst the finest Hammer films, was greeted as a compromise at the time. Finally, after eight years and some commercial stumbles by Hammer and Fisher in working through the classic canon of horror tales, Lee was persuaded to return as the count in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. The result of this deal, has often itself been regarded as a lesser Hammer horror, but Prince of Darkness deserves more respect, in large part because whilst the original Dracula had been a perfect fit for 1958, the sequel has a prognosticative element, one Hammer would ultimately fail to comprehend, leading to its commercial decline. Dracula: Prince of Darkness strips down Fisher’s concept of Stoker’s mythology to an even more purified essence and, with it, the underpinning anxieties and fantasies of much horror storytelling; in doing so, it looks forward to what would happen in the genre in the ’70s. The basic plot is the same as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and other films where a bunch of young people find themselves stranded in some evil locale at the mercy of malignant foes. This time Dracula didn’t even get a single line, and it testifies to the force of Lee’s performance and Fisher’s direction that he doesn’t need any to bend the gravitational flow of the film.

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This time, Fisher and screenwriter Anthony Hinds, a regular Hammer producer working under his usual writing pseudonym John Elder, replaced Van Helsing with Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a creation who, as a religious man, focuses the dualistic take on good vss evil more than Van Helsing could. Following a replay of the first film’s climax, Sandor is glimpsed at the outset berating a fellow priest as a superstitious idiot and warning the Carpathian villagers not go desecrating the dead in the belief the Dracula is still plaguing them. Sandor later warns a quartet of English tourists not to go anywhere near Dracula’s castle, which is missing from maps. The unwitting tourists are brothers Alan (Charles “Bud” Tingwell) and Charles (Francis Matthews) and their wives Helen (Barbara Shelley) and Diana (Suzan Farmer). Charles is the younger, glibber, mostly reformed playboy brother who delights in teasing Helen, the uptight and nervous representative of stiff-necked English mores.

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In spite of Dracula’s death, the locals are still petrified by his memory, a fear that plays a part in the travellers being left stranded before his castle and forced to take refuge there–helped along by a mysterious carriage pulled by a couple of self-directing horses. They find a servant, Klove (Phillip Latham), tending to the castle and maintaining the supposed last wishes of his deceased master to take care of all visitors. Fisher stages Klove’s appearance as a new twist on Dracula’s in the previous film, stepping out of shadow to reveal himself as neither hideously deformed nor towering and charismatic, but rather like someone left Alistair Sim in the fridge too long. Helen quivers with anxiety as she senses the malevolent strangeness behind all of the odd events, but her companions remain oblivious and increasingly irritated by her mood. During the night, the sound of Klove dragging a large chest around draws Alan out to find what’s happening, only for Klove to stab him to death, suspend his body over an open sarcophagus, and use his life blood to reconstitute Dracula from his own collected ashes. Klove then entices Helen out to become the resurrected monster’s first victim/bride. Charles and Diana fight their way out of the castle and take refuge at the monastery headed by Sandor, but Klove brings the count and Helen to the monastery and lays siege.

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Fisher’s direction this time around was more of an experiment in pacing, prowling camerawork suggesting the presence of evil long before it shows its face, a mood of quiet oddness dominating the first half. The narrative is deceptively straightforward, paring away distractions to create a cleverly focused variation on the original’s concerns. Hinds’ script works in elements from the novel left out of the ’58 film, including a version of Renfield named Ludwig (Thorley Walters, in a note-perfect turn), a resident at Sandor’s monastery who lost his mind after some hideous experience near Castle Dracula and now binds books for the monks. He soon proves to be a sleeper agent for the besieging monster, and the key to the moment when Dracula forces Diana to drink his blood from a gash in his chest. Fisher observes the slow gathering of forces that will attack the interlopers, with their readily familiar quirks and flaws plotted exactingly and building to the hideously beautiful sight of Alan’s gushing blood feeding the reconstituting mess in the sarcophagus. Matthews’ Charles makes for a deliberately callow hero, forced to rapidly grow up in the course of fighting for his and Diana’s lives, whilst Diana herself, though in thrall to the vampire later in the film, is, in many ways, the most forthright and gutsy character: her attempt to intervene and save her husband reveals to Sandor a way to kill the monster.

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But Dracula: Prince of Darkness is essentially about Helen, a vehicle for Fisher to return to the obsessive point of duality that drives this fantasy and push the metaphors of neurotic repression and lunatic explosion to an extreme within a single character. She’s insufferable in her vinegary attitude and priggishness, the epitome of a certain cliché of English repression. She’s also the only one with the sense to see the situation for what it is, a Cassandra no one will listen to. Presented to the dark marauder lurking in the castle, Helen is transformed into a devilishly passionate creature, lusting after Diana and clinging tightly to the count. Shelley, who had only gotten to play half of Fisher’s last study in dichotomous female representation, The Gorgon (1963), here describes the shift from lamb to predator with fiendish grace, as when Helen appears at Diana’s window at the monastery, playing the lost and freezing innocent in a vision out of folk myth, then leaping for Diana’s neck with wolfish delight the moment her way is clear.

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Like the use of the monster in Curse of Frankenstein as a way of revealing the monstrosity of the creator, here Fisher reduces Dracula to an almost abstract force peeling away the contrivances of civilisation, anticipating the increasingly blank and faceless avatars of evil that would proliferate in later horror films. When the monks capture Helen, the scene is staged like a gang-rape, Sandor hammering the life out of her. Here Fisher looks forward to the historical savagery and indictments of Witchfinder General (1969) and The Devils (1971). Fisher complicates by not making Sandor an obvious avatar for repressive religious fanaticism, but rather a good-natured, earthy man whose fearsome streak is stirred only by the spectacle of real evil. In spite of his relatively marginal presence in the film, Dracula is not reduced; his authority, and Lee’s, is brought out all the more as he silently and effortlessly dominates any character and any scene he’s in, as when he gestures for a mesmerised Diana to remove her crucifix necklace, a moment that perhaps better than any other captures the level of concentration and rigour Lee poured into his performances as Dracula. The film’s cobra-and-mongoose-like intensity finally combusts for another segue into serial-like action at the climax. Charles and Sandor dash across country to catch the carriage driven by Klove and carrying Dracula and the stolen Diana to the castle. Here the script makes inspired use of a relatively obscure piece of vampire lore, that running water is a fatal barrier. As Charles and Dracula fight on the frozen mantle of the castle’s moat, Sandor shoots the ice until the vampire is stranded on a frigid raft, before he pitches into the brine and sinks to his doom. Naturally, the count would be back. Having broken his ban, Lee would return to the role seven more times, five of them for Hammer. In spite of those films’ varying levels of quality and inspiration, and following a remarkable late-career resurgence as the must-have actor mascot for grand movie fantasies in the 2000s, Lee would, nonetheless and above all, always be Dracula.


8th 08 - 2015 | 2 comments »

Famous Firsts: It’s Trad, Dad, aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm (1962)

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

Debut feature film of: Richard Lester, director

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This weekend, the Film Society of Lincoln Center began a weeklong retrospective of the works of American-born, British-based Richard Lester. The series will of course include his most famous works, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), but will range across his career to include lesser-appreciated films like Juggernaut (1974) and The Return of the Musketeers (1989). What it will not include is his debut feature film. The privilege of seeing It’s Trad, Dad, aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm this week was solely that of the patrons of the invaluable Northwest Chicago Film Society, which, after lengthy negotiation, managed to pry the only projectable print out of the Sony vault for our enjoyment and edification.

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Many movie buffs and Beatles fans know that Lester was hired to direct A Hard Day’s Night based on the Fab Four’s wild enthusiasm for the The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a short film Lester made as a first foray onto the big screen after several years in television. What isn’t as well known is that another Lester effort, a TV pilot called Have Jazz, Will Travel, made an impression on Amicus Productions cofounder Milton Subotsky, another American expat in Britain with a TV background trying to reach the teen market with music, and later, horror films. Subotsky handed Lester a 24-page script, a large roster of jazz and pop stars, and a free hand in filling them both out to feature length. The result was a 78-minute concert film with a comedic story thread and a wealth of visual inventiveness that occasionally tips the film into experimental territory.

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Although the film is nearly nonstop music, there is a story that Lester mines for some great visual gags. The mayor (Felix Felton) of an English suburb goes out to a cafe for a quiet cup of coffee, only to have his repast rudely interrupted by a swarm of teens coming in to dance to the rock ’n roll records on the jukebox. They also watch TV announcer Alan Freeman as he presents such acts as Terry Lightfoot and His New Orleans Jazz Band. The mayor gets the town council to approve a ban on jazz, sending two of the town’s teens, pop stars Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas, on a mission to bring a jazz concert to town to show the townspeople that the music is just good clean fun.

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The wrap-around story affords Lester the only opportunities to indulge his comedic instincts. He shows the mayor crushing records in a vise, only to stop when his aide accidentally (?) hands him a Lawrence Welk record. When Shapiro and Douglas decide to go to London to enlist the aid of Freeman, Lester breaks the fourth wall with a snappy verbal exchange and moves the film strip across the screen to change the town location to the broadcast studio; similarly, when the teens strike out with Freeman and decide to go to a nightclub to try their luck with announcer David Jacobs, he flips the scene again and pops some evening clothes on them for good measure. He ends with more visual zaniness as the mayor, who has unwittingly agreed to a jazz concert in town, sets up obstacles to the bands coming to play. Giant rubber bands bounce the musicians’ van between two sets of trees, and when the van breaks free, the police pile furniture into a high roadblock, only for the van to drive around it.

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Most of Lester’s real work is in trying to provide interesting set-ups for the 26 acts that comprise the bulk of the film, and he largely succeeds. He uses masks to split the images of Terry Lightfoot and his band, creating boxes within boxes that offer the static image some movement. When Helen Shapiro sings, he gets right into the crowd of kids swirling around her and creates an almost flickering effect of her peeking out between the moving heads and bodies. He favors close-ups, perhaps thinking it would be rather funny to move into the maw of a crooner, as he does with the megaphone-wielding singer of The Temperance Seven. The gargantuan images he creates with this effect are rather monstrous, creating an impression not far off from what the mayor objected to—that hopped-up music and teen culture would take over the world, as indeed they did.

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Lester and Subotsky almost pulled off a coup as the first people to capture Chubby Checker on film doing the twist—in this case, the “Lose Your Inhibition Twist”—but lost out when Teenage Millionaire appeared in 1961. The scene with Checker is notable for being at an integrated nightclub where black and white dancers mix freely on the dance floor.

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It is worth noting that the film’s British title, It’s Trad, Dad, refers to the label Dixieland jazz has in Britain—traditional jazz. Thus, the film is loaded with Dixieland bands and music, including Chris Barber and his Jazz Band with vocalist Ottilie Patterson doing “Down By the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” My favorite was British clarinetist Aker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band; Lester seized the opportunity to create a visual narrative for the band’s rendition of “Frankie and Johnny” that presages similar work in the Beatles films.

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A dramatic moment is Gene McDaniels singing the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “Another Tear Falls.” Lester films him first in dramatic silhouette and then maintains minimal key lighting to reflect the song lyrics and McDaniels’ powerfully emotional voice. Sadly, the liberal lipsynching used in the film creates an unintentionally funny moment in this excellent performance when McDaniels takes a puff on his cigarette and ends up spitting smoke for several bars.

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There aren’t many recognizable pop songs, though artists such as Del Shannon, Gene Vincent, and Gary U.S. Bonds were at the top of their game when this was filmed. Sixteen-year-old Helen Shapiro made her screen debut in this film, but she was hardly an unknown; she had been voted Britain’s top female singer, and The Beatles’ first national tour of Britain, in 1963, was as her opening act. Her deep voice and energetic phrasing in “Let’s Talk About Love” demonstrate what a major talent she was.

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How much you like this film may depend on how much you like the music. Although some of the outdated vocal and fashion styles garnered laughs from the audience with whom I saw It’s Trad, Dad, the hands-down favorite of the evening were The Temperance Seven, a cross between the Nairobi Trio and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Their cheeky, untranslated French lyrics and ennui-filled performance are delightfully droll and unabashedly fun. It’s absolutely fitting that they should be in Dick Lester’s very first feature film.

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5th 08 - 2015 | 6 comments »

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Science nerds of the world, celebrate! A tiny film from France set largely in Big Sky Country has put a 10-year-old science prodigy at its center and schooled the United States on the need for more energy efficiency and fewer guns—or something like that. Other reviews I’ve read of this charming family film seem to lean heavily on the subtextual critique of American society The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet apparently packs. Personally, as one of the few Americans who has had a chance to see this film, which was virtually buried by its American distributor, the Weinstein Company (more on that later), I don’t see much to object to from a political or sociological point of view. Jeunet’s adaptation of American Reif Larsen’s first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, showcases the whimsy and sometimes genuine oddity of its director, so well embraced by the hordes of people worldwide who made Amélie (2001) the fourth-most-successful French film ever.

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Larsen’s book is loaded with illustrations and side notes, which must have appealed to Jeunet’s detailed, eccentric visual sense, and the uniquely constructed, but emotionally distant family at the center of the story must have spoken to the dark playfulness Jeunet favors in his scenarios. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is classic Jeunet, a visually stunning film, though somewhat hampered by a lead actor not quite up to the task of carrying the picture and a too-short running time that made for some awkward transitions between the three acts of the film. (I shudder to think what it would have been like if the Weinstein Company had gotten its way and the film were shortened even more!)

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Ten-year-old Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett) lives on a Montana ranch near the Continental Divide with his father (Callum Keith Rennie), a 19th-century-style cowboy, his entomologist mother Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), his teenage sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson), and until his untimely death, his fraternal twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies). T.S. is as much a budding scientist as Layton was a budding cowboy, leading T.S. to wonder how his equally opposite-minded parents had ever fallen in love and gotten married. In an attempt to do something together with his brother, T.S. set up a sound experiment that required Layton to shoot his Winchester rifle in their barn. The rifle misfired, killing Layton, and the family retreated into silence and disconnection, leaving T.S. feeling lonely and guilty.

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T.S. sits in on a physics lecture in which the dreamy, old instructor (Mairtin O’Carrigan) sets forth a challenge to those attending to invent a perpetual motion machine and enter it in the annual Baird award competition held by the Smithsonian. While one smarmy leader of tomorrow (Kyle Gatehouse) scoffs at the old man’s belief in creativity, T.S. approaches him and says simply, “I accept the challenge.” No one should be surprised to learn that T.S. wins the competition and is invited to Washington, D.C. to accept the award. The rest of the film details his journey east and his experiences once he gets there.

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The film is divided in thirds—The West, The Journey, and The East—with a pop-up book of characters introducing each segment in the cinematic version of a bedtime story. Short, but perfect vignettes introduce us to Gracie, roaring about her freakish family, Dr. Clair and her distracted, obsessive muttering about her insects, and Mr. Spivet, revealed in the living room he has commandeered for his frightening collection of taxidermy and cowboy memorabilia. The living room, Dr. Clair’s work room, Gracie’s neo-hippie room, and even Layton’s messy, frozen-in-time bedroom are teeming to bursting with markers of each character’s exuberant personality.

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T.S., whose point of view is privileged as our narrator, gives Jeunet the chance to provide lyrical images for his words, many of which are lifted directly from the novel. For example, as T.S. wonders about the mismatch of his parents, he recalls how they sometimes pass in the hall and touch hands; Jeunet films this gesture in slow motion at about T.S.’s eye level to put us in the moment. In another vignette, he breaks our heart when he shows Tapioca, the family dog, chewing on a metal bucket as T.S. informs us that this is the dog’s reaction to the loss of his master. We learn a lot about T.S from what he chooses to pack for his trip to D.C.—plenty of underwear, different-colored notebooks for different types of writing, his teddy bear, and his bird skeleton, the latter of which would have seemed less quirky if he had also told us that the first curator of the Smithsonian, Spencer Fullerton Baird, was an ornithologist.

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T.S.’s ingenuity in hopping a freight train and evading the railroad bulls is exciting, hair-raising, and pretty funny in parts. The serious-minded boy, with nothing but a box of raisins for the trip, spies a hot dog stand and disembarks the train at night to grab a snack. When he is stopped by a hobo (Dominique Pinon) who is getting some hot tar to fuel his campfire, my heart nearly stopped as well. This nighttime scene amps the potential danger to a boy on his own, even one as clever as T.S., but in the end, the boy’s rationality in refusing to join the hobo in enjoying a campfire tale renders the scene fairly depressing.

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The film went a bit slack for me once T.S. reaches Chicago. He hides his overstuffed suitcase and sets out with a backpack of essentials to thumb a ride. His misfortune is to be seen by a railroad security guard (Harry Standjofski), who chases him to a lock on the Chicago River, forcing T.S. to jump across the opening gates. He is injured in the process, but the guard, fearful for the boy’s life until he reaches the other side safely, begins shaking his fist and yelling again. The film dispenses with the rest of the trip when a trucker (Julian Richings) takes him all the way from Chicago to the front door of the Smithsonian, foreshortening the adventure aspects of the film. It falls completely into caricature from this point forward, as civilization in the form of Smithsonian Deputy Director G. H. Jibsen (Judy Davis), all of the guests at the award ceremony, and a TV talk show host (Rick Mercer, real host of the satirical Canadian program Rick Mercer Report), all behave like cartoon villains of marketing and neoliberal sentiment, sniffling as T.S. stands at the award podium and tells the story of his brother’s death.

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The cinematography by Thomas Hardmeier is breathtaking, making Montana look like a wide-open Garden of Eden and offering some truly interesting views of the freight train and train yards where T.S. passes the night. The 3D effects accompanying T.S.’s scientific musings and animations must have added a great deal of visual interest (I saw the 2D version), though the effect is starting to become a bit overdone in TV and film. Daydreams by both Gracie and T.S. are very amusing and a bit sad, particularly when T.S. imagines his family greeting his phone call from the road with relief and outpourings of affection.

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Unfortunately, newcomer Catlett, though appealing with his nose full of freckles, isn’t a very good actor. He can deadpan pretty well, but his every attempt to cry and feel sad is forced. In the last of these attempts, it’s pretty clear from the way the film was cut that he either was induced to produce a tear after many attempts or went the fake tears route. However, his narration takes us through the film quite well, and he is very believably intelligent. I have to think Bonham Carter was cast based on her fantasy characters in Tim Burton films and the Harry Potter series; she used to be a pretty good actress who did interesting things, and I wish she’d move away from these quirky parts if she can. Wilson is delicious as a typical teen lost among the Addams Family. Rennie not only doesn’t get much to do, but he doesn’t even get a first name. I do want to offer kudos to Jakob Davies, who manages to be a presence of some consequence even as a ghost. He says what we only think when T.S. is subjected to tests by the incredulous adults who literally want to pick his young, bright brain: “So you let them wire you up like a lab rat!”

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The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet isn’t a perfect film, and it doesn’t really burrow into the grieving process the way another thoroughly humane family film, Tiger Eyes (2013), does, but it is a visually stunning, entertaining film loaded with sight gags and some genuine adventure. When the Weinstein Company acquired the distribution rights to the film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the highest-profile deals inked at Cannes.” Rumor has it that Jeunet was punished for not agreeing to the cuts the company wanted with a very limited release—I saw it at the only screen in Chicago showing it—and no publicity that I’m aware of. In addition, perhaps Americans just won’t buy a gentle film without swearing, sex, or exploding anything to entertain the kiddies jacked up on sugar from the theatre concession stands. But the shabby treatment this film received makes its certain failure at the box office a self-fulfilling prophesy.


20th 07 - 2015 | 7 comments »

Mr. Holmes (2015)

Director: Bill Condon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I’ve been lately reading the works of Jonathan Swift and commentary thereon, a man whose self-written epitaph (“Here is laid the Body of Jonathan Swift … where fierce Indignation can no longer injure the Heart.”) proclaimed his vigorous engagement with human suffering. A Protestant minister and dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, Swift’s works cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of his belief in the doctrine of original sin, which was weakened by the growing ascendancy of Protestant rationalism, and his attempt to restore through his writings a vision of human nature as corrupt, licentious, and irrational, and in need of religious instruction and redemption.

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Now having viewed Mr. Holmes, I am tempted to think that Mitch Cullin, the writer of the novel on which it is based, may be a revivalist, though of a much milder temperament, in the Swiftian mold. He chose Sherlock Holmes, the proto-machine man representing the triumph of the just-completed Industrial Revolution and embellished upon thereafter to reach the near-android superman we see in many depictions today, to spin an emotional tale of human flaw, guilt, and redemption. Despite the current, apparent return of preindustrial religion, deities and their emissaries are decidedly out of fashion in pop culture as redeemers. Instead, it is women who die for men’s sins. So it is even for Sherlock Holmes, a man who needs women like a fish needs a bicycle.

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Machines, even well-built, reliable ones, need maintenance and invariably break down after long years of service. Thus, the Mr. Holmes in this emotion-laden story set in 1947 must needs be old, indeed, 93 years old to malfunction in the manner required by the story. But before we can prepare ourselves for his diminished capacity, we must know that we really are dealing with Sherlock Holmes. We first meet him (Ian McKellen) on a train clutching a furoshiki-wrapped box from his recent trip to Japan. A lad is watching an insect buzzing near the window and is just about to rap on the glass when Holmes tells him not to. Like all those stunned by Holmes’ prescient abilities, the boy asks how Holmes knew he was going to do that. The boy’s mother interjects rather unhelpfully, “He loves bees.” Holmes replies scornfully, “It’s not a bee, it’s a wasp. Entirely different thing.”

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As later Holmes scribe H.F. Heard envisioned, Holmes, no longer a sherlock, lives in quiet isolation near the White Cliffs of Dover, where he tends bees. He is tended to by the latest in a series of housekeepers, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a war widow, and her 10-year-old son Roger (Milo Parker). He greets his bees, disturbed to note that some are dead, and tells Mrs. Munro that he wants her to put a tincture of prickly ash—the contents of his box—in his food. Having found royal jelly unable to restore his seriously faulty memory, he has brought the plant back from Japan in hopes that it will do the trick. Indeed, he has written a monograph on the two substances, which we see in flashback handed to him by his host in Japan, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), for his autograph.

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The more important flashback Holmes seeks is to his last case, the one that caused him to retire 30 years earlier. The now-dead Dr. Watson wrote it up as “The Lady in Grey,” but Holmes is convinced that John got it wrong. He decides to write his own account of the case to set the record straight and set his mind at ease, but that is easier said than done. In dreams and free associations, bits and pieces of the case come back to him, but large chunks remain utter blanks. Roger, his own memories of his father manufactured by photos of them together when he was a toddler, joins Holmes on his quest to save the bees and finish his story.

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We are told again and again that the Sherlock Holmes of fame and fortune bears little resemblance to the real man; he never wore a deerstalker, avoids smoking a pipe because it would be unseemly for the real Holmes to seem to be “dressing up” as the fictional Holmes, and lived at another Baker St. address. Presumably, the image of him as an emotionless deducer of facts is incorrect as well, because McKellen’s Holmes is very grandfatherly toward Roger, a bright child Holmes begins instructing in the ways of bees and deductive reasoning, and feeling a vague guilt about his last case that he needs to resolve before he dies.

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The only problem with recreating a fictional character, especially one as iconic as Sherlock Holmes, is that there is no real Holmes at all to provide with a “corrective.” It all becomes so meta—and Mr. Holmes takes this to the nth degree by showing Holmes attending a hokey movie version of “The Lady in Grey” and laughing at the movie Holmes, played by Nicholas Rowe, star of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)—that our impulse is to reject this latest iteration, however more realistic it may be to the life of a very elderly, well-off man. Do any of us really want a touchy-feely Holmes?

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Condon and his cadre of screenwriters, including Cullin, do what they can to offer us helpings of the investigative Holmes, but they aren’t very nourishing. We guess that Holmes suspects something is not right with Mr. Umezaki when Condon’s camera lingers on the monograph’s inside cover just a little too long. Dips into the past, as the last case slowly rises from the fog of memory, show Holmes merely following the lady in grey, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), around until he easily deduces from the information he obtained from his client, her husband Thomas (Patrick Kennedy), what she’s up to. At the same time, it should not have been hard for Holmes to figure out what was happening to the bees, and the fact that he doesn’t opens the door for a melodramatic crisis that would not have been out of place in the movie’s version of “The Lady in Grey,” giving McKellen’s Holmes a chance to get overwrought and Linney to scream “I’m his mother!” at the childless, wifeless old coot.

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It was a nice touch to walk Holmes around postwar Japan, with its mix of G.I.s and women in Western and traditional garb alike. A visit to the charred remains of Hiroshima, where Umezaki found the prickly ash, is too conveniently and offensively set up as another marker of Holmes’ personal growth. Holmes’ harshness with Umezaki is much more in character and forms one of the more effective scenes in the film. In addition, charred Hiroshima, like the rest of the film, looks simply too calculatedly designed to attract rather than repel. The film is altogether too pretty, evoking a tasteful Masterpiece Theatre bauble for transfer to the small screen that one of its coproducers, BBC Films, no doubt intends.

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Parker, as a pint-size sidekick, is pretty appealing as he absorbs everything this old genius has to offer and becomes a bit too full of himself in the process. McKellen produces an indelible portrait of a man on the brink of death, his infirmities etched in painful detail, aided by some exquisitely realistic age make-up, though I was distracted trying to decide if the liver spots on his scalp were real. Alas, Linney’s role is pallid, and even her considerable skills cannot make a silk purse out of it. Poor Frances de la Tour has to play the standard-issue gypsy role of Madame Schirmer, who teaches the exotically outdated glass harmonica. Only Morahan is able to infuse her Christlike character with some complexity, making it almost believable that Holmes would carry an odd mix of eros and moral culpability around with him for so long. Sadly, Mr. Holmes has taken a powerfully evocative character and neutered him in an attempt to show that men are people, too. Mr. Swift would not have approved.


14th 07 - 2015 | no comment »

To Take a Wife (2004)/Shiva (2008)/Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014)

Directors/Screenwriters: Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 2014, with the release of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a truly great family trilogy entered the cinematic canon. As heartbreaking as Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and more violent in its own way than Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, the Amsalem Trilogy spins an emotionally savage tale of human unhappiness as seen mainly through the character of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz), a Jewish wife and mother of four trapped in a miserable marriage to a man who refuses to give her a divorce.

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This trilogy is something of a landmark in Israeli cinema. Formerly dominated by tales of the sabra/Ashkenazi Jewish experience, the country’s cinematic culture is starting to feel the influence of new waves of Jewish immigrants to Israel. The powerhouse sister/brother team of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz conceived the trilogy to tell their story—the story of the Mizrahi Jews of North Africa and the Middle East forced by war to emigrate to Israel. The siblings also dared to do what no other filmmakers have done—expose the scandal of Israeli divorce.

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The first film, To Take a Wife, opens on an extreme close-up of Viviane, who is being entreated in the wee hours of the morning by four of her seven brothers to make peace with her husband of 20 years, Eliyahu (Simon Abkarian). The brothers can’t understand how a pious man who makes a good living and never raises his hand to her could make Viviane so unhappy. She can’t explain how she feels and what exactly Eliyahu does that torments her. She simply chain-smokes and wears herself and everyone else out. Finally, she agrees to see Eliyahu, who has been sitting in their living room during the negotiations, and eventually gives him a peck on the cheek, signaling that everyone can go home until the next meltdown. Like the Elkabetzes’ parents, Viviane is a hairdresser and casually observant Jew, and Eliyahu is a postal worker and very active in the religious community. They moved to Kiryat Yam—the town where the Elkabetzes grew up—along with Viviane’s very large family, the Ohayons, from Morocco, and are just as likely to speak French as Hebrew.

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The second film, Shiva, opens in a graveyard as the camera, shooting at ground level, records the Ohayons, led by matriarch Hanina (Sulika Kadosh), crying and wailing as dirt is shoveled into an open grave. One of Viviane’s brothers, Maurice, has died from a stroke, and the family sets up in his widow Ilana’s (Keren Mor) large house to observe shiva, the traditional seven days of mourning. Blood relatives may not leave the house once shiva has started, must receive all visitors paying their respects, and are to refrain from any activities but thinking about, talking about, and praying for the deceased. Creature comforts, like sitting in an easy chair or sleeping on a bed, are dispensed with as all of the mourners sit and sleep communally on the floor. Into this hothouse of raw emotion comes Eliyahu. He and Viviane have been separated for three years, and he uses the opportunity of paying his respects to try to talk to her.

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The final film echoes the first by opening on an extreme close-up of Viviane as others talk about her and details of her marriage from offscreen. She is in rabbinical court struggling to get a gett, a religious divorce, from Eliyahu. Because there is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, obtaining a gett is an absolute necessity if either party wishes to date without scandal or remarry. Unfortunately, unless the court can find grounds for divorce—and the grounds that would allow the court to compel the husband are very limited—it is strictly up to the husband whether to allow his wife to go free. It is not uncommon for an observant Jewish woman, no matter where in the world she lives, to be stuck in a marriage forever regardless of whether she is living with her husband because he refuses her a gett.

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The Elkabetzes are unabashedly political and appropriately follow the second-wave feminist rallying cry that the personal is political by using this family saga to suggest the larger contexts in which these people operate, specifically, the Mizrahi immigrant experience and the suffocating religious dicta that offer little room for movement, especially to women. We see the seeds of Viviane’s discontent with her marriage in the rule-bound attitude of her husband. He and Viviane have different ideas about parenting and religious observance. In To Take a Wife, Viviane gives her young son Lior (Yam Eitan) some milk after he has eaten chicken to calm his stomach even though it breaks kosher dietary law and excuses her willful oldest son Eviatar (Kobi Regev) from accompanying Eliyahu to synagogue, a refusal that fills Eliyahu with shame. In Shiva, he polices the mourning, pronouncing what is and is not customary and correct, scolding the mourners for not focusing on Maurice, yet behaving hypocritically by using the occasion to try to persuade Viviane’s oldest brother Meir (Albert Iluz) to coerce her to return home.

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The women we meet have little role other than as homemakers and mothers, with Viviane a glaring exception for running her own business. Families hold each other close—too close in many cases—and the shooting style of the trilogy exacerbates this closed familial and religious community by confining the action largely to single locations: the Amsalem apartment, the shiva house, and the rabbinical court. Indeed, the closed proceedings surrounding divorce are so secretive in Israel that Gett created a controversy on its debut for exposing the protracted, unfair process that gives all power to the judges and, ultimately, to the husband. Gett is an ordeal not only for Viviane, but also for the audiences who watch court sessions demarcated by title cards informing us how many months have passed as the court tries to force the marriage back together. After 5 years, the court negotiates a gett between the couple, only to have Eliyahu renege on his promise to go through with it. His stubborn refusal to give Viviane a divorce, though perhaps driven by a terror of losing her, represents his ultimate assertion of control, one that extends past the end of Gett.

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Shiva concerns itself with family politics and nods at global politics as well. The Gulf War is raging, and all of the mourners carry gas masks wherever they go. The gallows humor of the Elkabetzes is on full display when an air raid siren sounds, and all the mourners at Maurice’s grave don their masks and continue to recite prayers at graveside. The war comes closer during the mourning period when a bomb falls close enough to the shiva house to nearly blow through a sheet of plastic covering an incomplete wall. The war has all but ruined the manufacturing business Haim Ohayon (Moshe Igvy) owns and runs, and the brothers who work there discuss their obligation or lack thereof to help Haim out. Haim’s rich wife Ita (Hana Laslo) represents the established generation of Ashkenazim. Her German uncle invested in Haim’s plant from Holocaust reparations he received from the German government, and she wields his family’s martyrdom as a weapon against the interests of her Mizrahi in-laws.

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The films are not devoid of humor, particularly Shiva, which offers the widest cast of characters, displaying to one degree or another peculiar Jewish types. For example, a pair of old yentes watch as Meir frets about the quality of the posters he has ordered for his bid to become mayor of Kiryat Yam. One says his election will create a lot of financial opportunities for his family, perhaps unaware of how bad that sounds, while the other says it’s bad luck to talk about it. Offended that her friend has accused her of putting the evil eye on Meir and his family, she says, “OK, I’ll keep quiet,” a promise she’ll never be able to keep. In another scene, the mourners argue about whether they can eat the gizzard meat on their plates. Apparently, Iraqi Jews can, but Moroccan Jews can’t. Ever-correct Eliyahu wins the day, and one of the women removes the meat, one by one, from the mourners’ plates as Ilana reminisces about how much Maurice loved organ meat, naming each organ like the names of the Egyptian plagues recited at Passover.

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Nonetheless, despite some liberal helpings of humor in both Shiva and Gett, all the films are most memorable for the frightening intensity of the animosity their characters show toward each other. In To Take a Wife, Viviane and Eliyahu have a fight that borders on madness. Viviane, warmed by her reminiscences of her romance with Albert (Gilbert Melki), the lover she had in Morocco before the move to Israel, can only spit venom at Eliyahu’s lack of affection toward her, his thoughtlessness and disregard for her as a woman. He, in turn, accuses her of being a drama queen and failing to appreciate how hard he works, even coming home every day to cook lunch for the family. Their fighting becomes so loud and vicious, we cringe in fear and sadness along with the children in their rooms at how two people who never should have gotten married can tear each other apart for their poor judgment. A similar explosion, which Viviane instigates among her brothers and sisters, occurs in Shiva. All the enforced closeness begun in good humor gives way to simmering resentments, jealousies, and physical confrontations. Saddest of all is watching Hanina cry miserably at the spectacle of her children pouring their disappointments, betrayals, and hates onto each other on the heels of the death of her son Maurice.

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Elkabetz is an actress whose immersive approach to the roles she inhabits lays all of her emotions bare. I am still haunted by her unvarnished portrayal of a needy, careless prostitute in Or (2004), and with her decade-long portrayal of Viviane, she takes her all-in commitment as far as it can go. Viviane is passionate and emotional, almost incestuously affectionate with Eviatar, and catnip to the men who mewl around her: Albert, who comes to visit her and apologize for not leaving his wife when Viviane was ready to give everything up for him, only to be written off as untrustworthy and an insufficiently committed romantic for the volcanic Viviane; Ben Lulu (Gil Frank), an unmarried family friend who barely notices the awkward ministrations of spinster Evelyne (Evelin Hagoel) at the shiva house as he tries to sneak a moment alone with Viviane, stealing a kiss, but seemingly merely a placeholder for the lonely woman; and finally, Eliyahu, deeply in love with his wife but far too rigid in his religious orthodoxy and intimidated masculinity to allow her to be herself. Whether she is having a tooth-and-nail confrontation with Eliyahu or a mournful reunion with her lost love, Elkabetz simmers with love, hate, and love-hate that overwhelm with their force. When Viviane is all but gagged during the gett proceedings, one sees the masculine fear of female self-determination that leads to such repression and the kind of woman who elicits it most strongly.

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Abkarian is an excellent match for Elkabetz, his charisma and masculine certitude offering a hint of why Viviane was drawn to him in the first place. He is certainly not without feeling for her, and his pain and bewilderment at the breakdown of his marriage are almost too excruciating to watch. In To Take a Wife, he is reciting a passage from the Torah at synagogue about a wife’s return and is overcome with emotion and unable to continue. Again, an overwhelming sadness floods the screen, a paean to human misery that culminates in the chain he clamps on Viviane in his vindictiveness and hurt pride.

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Carrying a project like this through over the course of a decade allowed Abkarian and Elkabetz to age and reflect with veracity the long separations of Viviane and Eliyahu. Elkabetz is an extremely attractive woman, but in Gett, she looks rather haggard and faded. Eliyahu has gone gray, but not in a “distinguished” way. In the end, like the country in which they live, their war has been too long and too damaging to continue, but peace remains elusive.


1st 06 - 2015 | no comment »

How Much Do You Love Me? (Combien tu m’aimes?, 2005)

Director/Screenwriter: Bertrand Blier

The White Elephant Blogathon

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By Roderick Heath

Bertrand Blier was for a long time a strong commercial and creative presence in French cinema, with his reputation as a maker of droll, lippy, often outrageous films about that eternal French topic, l’amour, with qualities evoking prime-era Woody Allen’s fascination for urban manners and morals, and Louis Malle’s and Pedro Almodovar’s delight in officially transgressive, but actually commonplace human behaviours. He often took on taboo topics, like an affair between a married woman and teenage boy in his Best Foreign Film Oscar winner Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978) and a widowed man negotiating his young stepdaughter’s crush on him in Beau Pere (1981). Going Places (1974), depicting a pair of male buddies who share women and go queer with each other when there’s no other recourse, was the cornerstone of his career and the film that made Gérard Depardieu a star. Later, he started to gaze back in at the nature of cinema and audience expectations—expectations he had become famous and feted for meeting. Les Acteurs (2000) sported just about every major French movie actor playing a version of themselves in a game of filtered insider self-regard. How Much Do You Love Me? takes a different tack in turning the sign-play of cinematic genres inside out, but it still certainly represents Blier playing a jolly game with his viewers in a way that recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme est une Femme (1961) rather strongly. Although it won the Best Director prize at the Moscow Film Festival, How Much Do You Love Me? was received by many as a severe disappointment, even a disaster, to an extent that almost ended the director’s career: it took Blier five years to make another movie, and I presume therein lies the reason it came my way in this blogathon.

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One of Blier’s recurring topics was the macho bluster of French masculinity constantly found wanting in the face of randy, liberated femininity. Here he partly inverts the theme, as he offers a hero who has been emasculated by life making a play for erotic fulfilment beyond his usual means, a notion usually reserved for Blier’s female characters and eventually asserted here as his heroine makes a similar play to meet him halfway. François Baron (Bernard Campan) is first glimpsed on cold, empty Pigalle streets gazing in on Daniela (Monica Bellucci), a pricey, drop-dead gorgeous Italian courtesan who sits in the window of a hooker bar surrounded by neon light and red velvet. François, a luckless and lovelorn office worker, goes inside and has Daniela sent to his table. He informs her that he has recently won the lottery and has nearly €4 million to waste. He makes her a proposition: he will pay her €100,000 a month to live with him until he’s broke. Daniela accepts with some conditions, including that he’s not allowed to abuse her, and he accompanies her to her apartment where she’ll pack some clothes and belongings. François folds up on the staircase and Daniela calls a doctor. François admits that he has a heart condition, and his organ is being stimulated to a dangerous pace by mere proximity to Daniela. Once ensconced in François’ apartment, Daniela promises to “go slow” with him so as not to kill him, but still operates according to her presumed brief as hired pleasure object, laced with ironic role-playing, as Daniela plays the lusty lady trying to keep her man from going off to work. When she asks what François’ actual profession is, he replies confusedly, “I don’t know. I’m an office worker…I contribute to my country’s economy.” Daniela groans to herself after he leaves, “This will be a barrel of laughs.”

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The opening scenes are reminiscent of Leos Carax’s Lovers on the Pont-Neuf (1991), Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), or Claire Denis’ Friday Night (2002), films replete with themes and images of romantic-erotic melancholy: François gazing in at Daniela from chill, deserted streets, painted in clashing hues of cold blue and uterine warmth and chic textures; silk stockings and high heels and crisp business suit trousers are isolated in one framing in a synopsis of high-class sex business. But this quickly gives way to broad sexual satire a la Friz Freleng or Frank Tashlin, for example, the latter’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). François’ best friend, similarly weary, middle-aged, clapped-out doctor André Migot (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), keeps tabs on his pal’s state of health with suspiciously cocked brows and eyes all too ready to drift over Daniela’s form. At one point, whilst lecturing Daniela to be careful of François’ ailments, André slips into a near-trance and imagines gripping and caressing her breasts.

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Occasionally, when his characters slip into moments of charged intimacy or act on internal desires, Blier suddenly changes his visual texture, turning low-lit, lushly coloured scenes bright and pastel, as if suddenly swerving into Tim Burton’s celebrations of kitschy nostalgia. Airy opera is suddenly heard on the soundtrack, as if mocking the traditional affectations of European art cinema. How Much Do You Love Me? continues to unfold in this manner, alternating moods and modes of filmmaking even as Blier’s story proceeds in a relatively straightforward, even archetypal manner. The basic plot has evident similarities to Pretty Woman (1990) and Something Wild (1987), but tonally seems at first to be heading into the same territory as Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie… (2003) and other Frenchified studies in erotic disaffection. Blier doesn’t subvert his film to make it a merely playful lark: How Much Do You Love Me? slips and slides between tones and styles with Brecthian attitude, trying to highlight the way an audience understands a movie through an accumulation of cues, and then suddenly, wilfully changing those cues.

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Dining with the couple after they return from erotic adventures by the North Sea, André interrogates them for exact details of what they’ve been up to that could have upset François’s heart; they report in detail whilst André tests François’ blood pressure. Finally, André is called to their apartment; he assumes it’s to treat François, but finds on arriving Daniela’s the one feeling ill. When she slips off her nightgown so he can examine her, André promptly drops dead from a heart attack. André’s sudden demise comes as tragicomic antistrophe after his own peculiar romantic crucifixion has been described: filmed against a blank, grey background addressing the camera as if suddenly segueing into one of Alan Bennett’s talking-head TV plays, he tells François and Daniela about his own girlfriend, a nurse name Gisèle who’s dying of breast cancer—except Blier reveals André in his apartment speaking to the empty bed that was hers, the indentation of her head still in the pillow. François and Daniela learn at André’s funeral that Gisèle died five years before. François sits in a stunned and saddened contemplation of mortality, bereft of his only friend; Daniela, stirred by the spectacle, strips down in the background and invites him to come take a “trip to Italy.” Blier could well be commenting on his own sense of impending mortality—he was 66 when this was released, the age when death’s impermeable nature often becomes an immediate anxiety to be coped with, and unsurprisingly for a director obsessed with the way sexuality asserts itself against all barriers, the potency of the sex drive becomes the binary opposite and compensating force in the face of decline.

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François blooms with Daniela: Blier offers the image of the man admiring himself in the camera/mirror, alight with sensual satisfaction and renewed vitality. Daniela comes up behind and joining him in a magazine ad pose, asks, “See how beautiful you are with me?” The film veers back to screwball comedy as Blier depicts François at his workplace where his coworkers, fascinated by his changed disposition, gather in a mass at his desk and then follow him back to his apartment to get a gander at his new woman like a comic chorus out of a Frank Capra or Preston Sturges movie. At their mass insistence, François takes them to his place to see Daniela for themselves, only to find she’s left the apartment, and when she doesn’t come back he sinks into a funk. He goes back to the bar where he found her, and sees she’s returned to her old place in the window, looking as disconsolately sphinxlike as she did before. When François confronts her, she tells him there is another man in her life, her pimp Charly (Depardieu), and that he should forget her. A younger prostitute in the bar, Muguet (Sara Forestier), swiftly attaches herself to François when she hears about his fortune and tries to convince him to take her to the Caribbean. Daniela encourages him to do just that, stating, in her forlorn and defeated fashion, “She’s young…she’s not damaged yet. I’m damaged.” François leaves with Muguet and ignores Daniela as she cries out to him from the door of the bar, but he soon returns, his reflection hovering ethereally in the glass of the window, and Daniela leans forward until her image and his conjoin.

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The clean, graceful, occasionally oblique stylistic lustre in which Blier wraps the film pays off in some intensely affecting visualisations like this, and moments of strong pictorial concision recur throughout, with Blier often using his widescreen frame in multiple planes, suggesting unheard conversations and internal sensations as he cuts Bellucci off from her cast mates. Blier’s capacity to consider and render subtle emotions is constantly evident. Such artful crystallisations sit at odds with the overall tenor of the film, with its skitlike segues and narrative self-sabotage; the more traditional method seems to sit far better with Blier’s abilities than his gestures toward Godardian deconstruction. Yet the messiness of form and intent is part of the charge of weird élan I got from the project as a whole, which finds Blier anything but lazy or clapped out. Blier melds familiar, simple narrative precepts and sentimental characterisations—the put-upon man rejuvenated by the love of a woman who would usually seem beyond his reach and the whore redeemed by a good lover. The very familiarity of these essentials seems to intrigue Blier. At times he wavers toward the almost spiritual aura of Frank Borzage or the classic French poetic realists, filmmakers who often told such tales, and the piss-elegant, ultra-refined late work of Claude Sautet, whose A Heart in Winter (1992) and Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (1996) defined a certain internationally held ideal of what sophisticated French filmmaking should look and sound like. But then he swings back to sex farce and on into New Wave-esque modal games. How Much Do You Love Me? is at once intensely romantic and deeply sarcastic, and Blier seems to be trying to say something about himself and his own sensibility as much as he commenting on genre conventions. It’s possible that Blier, who had been a risk-taker in the ’70s but had become a respectable, well-liked mainstream artist by the time he made this, wanted to regain a cutting-edge lustre by borrowing the work-in-progress fragmentation of something like Charlie Kauffman’s script for Adaptation. (2002). But his guiding idea here seems closer to what fired much of Luis Buñuel’s filmmaking: just as the protean force of human need and affection bends people out of shape, Blier tries to capture that same lawlessness in the very texture of his cinema.

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The cast expertly bridges the chasm of conceptualism. Bellucci, in particular, plays both the walking sex-ed film and the anguished, fracturing demimondaine, rendering both coherent facets of the same persona, her moony beauty a canvas of dexterity, whilst Depardieu is characteristically excellent, spitting out Blier’s rapid-fire lines with wicked force. The notion that matters of sexuality have long been subsumed into a capitalist hierarchy, with female attractiveness mere coin of the realm, is not a new one. Blier’s basic story conceit could be a metaphor for everyday exchanges, the male anxiety that they must busily construct a nest of prosperity to attract and keep a desirable mate, with the added dimension of aspiration fostered in a world filled with celebrity constructs that stir a constant sense of dissatisfaction with the everyday. Either way, the film is built around Bellucci in the same way La Dolce Vita (1960) revolved around Anita Ekberg, not only capturing her physical beauty, but also making it the very linchpin of all this business, presenting her as the essence of desirable femininity. Blier wrote the film specifically with Bellucci in mind, and Blier’s “prostitute” could be relabelled “movie star” and make nearly the same point, as sexuality is commodified and used to entice and frustrate the audience.

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But what does desirable femininity desire? As How Much Do You Love Me? unfolds, it shifts from being François’ tale to Daniela’s, explicating her transfer of allegiance to François. When Daniela returns to his apartment after their encounter at the bar, it’s with a new understanding, but Daniela’s noisy love-making brings down the ire of François’ neighbour (Farida Rahouadj), a book translator, who bangs on their door and angrily suggests any woman making such a racket in the sack must be faking it. François has to hold Daniela from attacking the translator in anger, during a funny scene where the two trade insults based on their mutual lustiness (“I’m from the south!” “I’m from even farther south!”) and the translator recreates her own “earthquake” orgasms. François subsequently confronts Daniela and tells her to stop faking.

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Problem is, once Daniela turns off her practiced act, she can’t turn it back on again when Charly reclaims her. Charly, who also proves to be her husband as well as pimp, visits François’ apartment along with two goons and tells François he should make him an offer, like handing over all of his lottery winnings, if he wants to keep Daniela. Charly is “a man who counts” in François’ parlance—a rich and powerful person, not to mention a scary one, except that he constantly needs to assert his aptness for the role he plays as bringer of bad tidings. “I’m a bad man,” he tells François, and, with his heavy physical presence and clipped, businesslike manner, drops hints about the Sadean extremes he can he go to; he starts to tell a story involving his last, unfaithful girlfriend and some rats that drives Daniela, who’s already heard the tale, to demand he stop talking, frantic with anxious loathing. Charly himself is as utterly defeated by his affection for Daniela as the other men. François seems to choose his money over Daniela, telling Charly he’ll buy a house in Provence instead, an idea Charly likes, too (and suggesting an in-joke aimed at Depardieu’s role in Jean de Florette, 1986), and Daniela leaves quietly with the gangster. Blier dissects another fond pop culture canard here, the image of the gangster as sexually potent overlord: in spite of his imperious posturing, Charly is actually a terrible lay, and as lovelorn in his way as François ever was. With Daniela returned to his swank apartment, and after he escorts her into his private bedroom and instructs her to “make it a boudoir,” Charly has sex with her, but his own sensuality-free humping style pathetically fails to revive Daniela’s professional courtesy. She describes François as having “grazed” her, and reflects that he did the greatest thing a woman in her profession could imagine: “He gave me back my modesty.”

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Charly is so confounded by such statements that first he ushers his goons in to entertain themselves with her, but then shepherds them out again when she screams, “Try to understand instead of playing Godfather— can’t you see I’m losing it?” and he realises what he’s up against: the same force of unruly human will to which he is equally subject. So Charly lets her make up her own mind in a fit of “generosity” whilst warning “it won’t last.” Daniela is free, but when she returns to her new home, she finds François already rutting furiously with the translator. Having unleashed the great lover in François, now he’s become community property just like her (“We’re just being neighbourly.”). Daniela orders him to take a shower and wash off her smell, reclaiming him. But François has one more curve ball to throw at her, revealing that he never actually won the lottery and has simply been using his wages to pass momentarily as a high-roller, never imagining things would play out as they had—he couldn’t have bought Daniela off Charly even if he wanted to. François can barely even keep a straight face as he admits this, knowing it makes no difference between them now anyway, even as Daniela accosts him in anger. He’s right. The couple spend two weeks locked up in the apartment making love until finally François’ coworkers show up at the door, wondering what’s happened to him. Finding him fortified in his pleasure, they invade his apartment at Daniela’s urging and start an impromptu house party.

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This party forms the last chapter of Blier’s creation, and here he veers even more wildly between attitudes as he ends the film four or five different ways according to the viewpoints of different characters. At first, Blier seems to commit the film to the realm of joie de vivre comedy, as Daniela dances in her newly liberated happiness. She’s even delighted by François scuffling with his ogling pals in defending her honour even though she’s happy to acknowledge what they already know, that she’s a prostitute, because it’s all so utterly normal. And yet the line, “Beware of parties, they often end in tears” drops from a character’s lips. François has already signed off without concern to her state and the idea that she might still retain her wantonness. Charly turns up halfway through the party to sink into a chair and gaze wistfully at Daniela, and the translator slips in amongst the dancers, immediately gathering all of the unattached males close to her in interest, including Charly, who flirts with her: “What’s under your pants?” “A thong.” “And under your tight sweater?” “A push-up bra.” “And in your head?” “Turmoil.” Blier takes a poke at national cliché as one of the men protests when the translator slaps him for touching her derrière: “Asses are meant to be touched—this is France.” Charly gets angry and pulls out his gun, declaring he has evil inside him and could kill everyone, but then joins in lockstep with the others as they begin deadpan boogying to the music. The movie breaks down as the characters move swiftly through islets of action from different genres, from stage farce to melodrama, the settings becoming overtly theatrical.

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François catches Daniela making out with one of his pals along with the rest of the partyers, one of whom notes, “He’s taking his punishment” in confronting the inevitable result of his acquiescence, whereupon Charly guns down Daniela, before looking to the camera and saying “I could have done it, if I wanted to.” This is one ending, the tragicomic one, the one that others seem to want, the one where Daniela is an untrustworthy tart after all. Blier reboots: Daniela merely wanders the party in seeming detachment from her surroundings, maybe having absconded to make out with someone else and maybe not, perhaps doomed to feel separate from everyone except her boding, tolerant lover, and settling down for a cigarette of sisterly conciliation with the translator. Choose your own reality. Blier chooses his, not quite losing his wry smirk as he depicts Daniela and François planted in some neorealist’s idea of connubial bliss, the stairwell of the apartment block strung with flapping laundry and Daniela transformed into a flat-soled, polka-dot-dressed housewife, with François’ heart healed. Any or all of these endings might come on, because in storytelling Blier seems to think the same thing as he has one character say of la femme: “There is no never with women.” Is it all just a put-on on Blier’s part, a jivey recourse into po-mo postures to cover creative crisis, or a smart and witty and rebuttal to the idea a film can’t be both ironic and emotionally direct at the same time? Perhaps, again, it’s all of these. To answer the title’s question, though: I loved it, just a little.


29th 05 - 2015 | no comment »

Mamele (1938)

Directors: Joseph Green and Konrad Tom

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When moviegoers think about Jews in the movies, portly studio moguls, skeletal victims of the Holocaust, or nebbishy, neurotic New Yorkers are the images that may spring immediately to mind. Fortunately, the steady stream of historic Jewish-themed and Yiddish-language films coming back into the world via the fine rescue and restoration work of the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF) is offering a larger sense of the breadth and richness of Jewish life. The NCJF’s most recent restoration, now making its way around the world at festival screenings, is Mamele.

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Mamele is a classic and important work for a number of reasons. It is the last Yiddish film shot in Poland, made just a year before the Nazis occupied Poland and began the destruction of the way of life depicted in the film. Mamele also stars “Queen of the Yiddish Musical” Molly Picon, a first-generation American of Polish immigrant parents who started in vaudeville at age 6, launching a highly successful 70-year career during which she would be nominated for a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of an Italian mother in Come Blow Your Horn (1963) and create an indelible Yente the Matchmaker in Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Additionally, it preserves Picon’s trademark musical number “Abi Gezunt” (“As Long As You’re Healthy”) for posterity.

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The film, set in the industrial town of Lodz, concerns the Samed family—father Berel (Max Bozyk), plain oldest sister Yetka (Ola Shlifko), attractive middle sister Berta (Gertrude Bullman), good-hearted youngest sister Havche (Picon), unemployed oldest brother Duvid (Max Pearlman), apprentice locksmith Zishe, and schoolboy Avremel. Mrs. Samed has been dead for three years, but she entrusted the welfare of the family to Havche, who gets her household money from the working members of the family to shop for the home. Her cooking, cleaning, sewing, errand-running, and maternal guidance are variously resented, ignored, or taken for granted, but her promise to her mother is sacred. Havche is lonely and abused—her father beat her when she was late bringing his coffee—but she finds solace in her friendship with Schlesinger (Edmund Zayenda), a promising musician who lives in an apartment across the courtyard.

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Berta is romanced by Max Katz (Menasha Oppenheim), a slick thief who impresses her and Berel with his new car and ready cash. Katz will take what he can from Berta, but his real interest is to get Zishe to make a key to allow his partners in crime to get into a shop adjoining a bank, break through the wall, and rob the bank. An observant Havche follows Zishe and the men, accidentally brings a wall down on them, fishes Zishe out of the rubble, and forces Max to throw Berta over in a hilarious scene in which Havche tricks him into thinking she has a gun on him. However, a petty family argument finally pushes Havche over the edge, and she abandons the family to travel with the Schlesingers to the country. Romance blooms, the family realizes how lost they are without her, and Havche returns to her role of mamele (little mother), with Schlesinger joining the household as her husband.

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Picon originally played the teenaged Havche the mamele on the stage when she was in her 20s. Although the actress was a tiny 4’11”, she was 40 and clearly a grown woman by the time she recreated the role on screen. The gross injustice of a child playing wife and mother to her ungrateful family thus is lost and her self-sacrifice more in keeping with the stereotype of mothers, in general, and Jewish mothers, in particular. Nonetheless, the fascinating cast of characters living modern lives in the big city alongside their religious observances make this film a lively affair. The wit and flair of the dialogue perfectly capture the Jewish personality. For example, a group of men are watching Berel play dominoes in a local hang-out. One asks another for a cigarette, then a match. The retort is, “What do you supply? The mouth?” The film shows a sukkot (temporary house) being built for the Festival of Sukkot, and the women serving food to the men inside. When a young boy asks why his mamma isn’t in the sukkot, his father replies “At Passover, you’ll ask questions…eat!”, a witticism referring to the four questions the youngest at the table always asks at every Passover seder.

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Picon is a terrific and charismatic actress who initially was not a fluent Yiddish speaker. She eventually spoke like a native because Joseph Green, a Warsaw native who maintained a film production company in Poland, insisted she travel to Europe to learn the language and customs from the source. Picon shows off her musical chops not only with a clever rendition of “Abi Gezunt” sung as she prepares a meal, but especially in a vignette in which she talks to her grandmother’s photograph. Picon plays her grandmother as a young girl, a vibrant young woman, a plump matron, and a 78-year-old matriarch, singing about all the different ways she danced through her life. The sequence is well edited to mirror the reminiscences of an old woman, and Picon offers the right amount of comedy and pathos to the stand-out number. A nightclub sequence in which Bullman and Oppenheim offer a slice of contemporary nightlife balances out the more traditional, sentimental elements and opens this stagebound film up a bit.

While there’s no doubting the reality of situations like Havche’s, the film has a fairytale quality to it—a wisecracking Cinderella who gets her Prince Charming while checking to see that the soup is seasoned properly and her ketzele (kitten) gets a saucer of milk before she goes off to get married. I thoroughly enjoyed this showcase of talented performers putting over a classic of the Yiddish stage with just enough cinematic verve to please the discerning cinephile.


You can view before-and-after scenes of the restoration here.

Mamele screens Sunday, May 31, at the Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago. There will be a post-screening discussion with Lisa Rivo, codirector of The National Center for Jewish Film.


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