1st 04 - 2010 | 4 comments »

Sanshô the Bailiff (Sanshô dayû, 1954)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

By Roderick Heath

Kenji Mizoguchi’s legendary 1954 film is an arresting blend: a story derived from folk-tale themes, essayed with a rigorous clarity of storytelling, and realised in the most beautiful and involving cinematic terms. Mizoguchi is often cited as being Japanese film’s most perfect and lucid stylist, and Sanshô the Bailiff would certainly bear that reputation out. If his great rivals Ozu and Kurosawa preferred, respectively, the quiet, intricate intimacy of close, deeply personal drama or an expressive, elemental sense of nature and the soul, Mizoguchi rather evokes both sensibilities and sets them in subtle conflict. These tendencies can be seen in the intricate way Mizoguchi offsets the rhythms of his human drama, replete with cruelty, parasitic and hypocritical governance and officials, hard moral choices, and bleak chances, with the calm abundance and simplicity of nature, imbued with an undercurrent of spiritual longing. His work in Sanshô is both utterly heartfelt but also the product of a thoroughgoing ironist, as ideal and actual, nature and humanity, baseness and transcendence lock in a defiant, grueling struggle.

The film opens with a storytelling technique reminiscent of the in medias res tradition of classical sagas, as the family of Masauji Taira (Masao Shimizu) makes the journey across Japan to join their patriarch at his distant job post. His wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), son Zushiô (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), and the daughter Anju (Kyôko Kagawa), whom he hasn’t seen since she was an infant, are going on foot, accompanied only by their female servant Ubatake (Chieko Naniwa). Camping one night in a district that is rife with slave traders, the family are visited by a priestess (Kikue Môri) who offers them shelter. But the offer was a ploy to get Tamaki and Ubatake into the boat of two slavers who try to leave the two children behind: in a panicked struggle, Ubatake falls from the boat and drowns and Tamaki is taken to Sado Island and forced into a life of prostitution. Zushiô and Anju are sold to the estate run by Sanshô (Eitarô Shindô), bailiff for the state of Tango and defender of the interests of the entrenched aristocracy—he manages the estate of the Minister of War—who maintains a strict and brutal hegemony over a large population of indentured servants. Sanshô’s son Taro (Akitake Kôno), quietly disgusted by his father’s inhumanity, learns of Anju and Zushiô’s parentage and advises them to conceal their real identities and wait to until they are older and stronger to break free.

Zushiô takes on the name Mushu, after the place of his birth, and Anju becomes Shinobu, and they survive for 10 years amongst Sanshô’s slaves. Zushiô becomes hardened and callous, emptied of any intention to escape and preferring to get in tight with the bailiff, even carrying out one of his standard punishments for attempted escape—branding on the forehead—on an old man. When Anju hears a newly arrived girl singing a song she heard on Sado Island, in which her and Zushiô’s names are mentioned, it seems to confirm that their mother is still alive and living under the name Nakagimi. Tamaki is indeed still alive, and her captors are so fed up with her attempts to escape they have hobbled her by cutting her Achilles’ tendons. Zushiô is initially contemptuous of his sister’s attempts to talk him into escaping, but when they obey Sanshô by carrying a old and sick slave woman, Namiji (Noriko Tachibana), into the forest to die now, Zushiô comes around. Anju insists that Zushiô take Namiji instead of her. But once he’s gone and the bailiff’s men are roused, Anju drowns herself in a lake to avoid inevitable torture. Zushiô finds shelter at a monastery where Taro has become a monk, and Taro and the abbot endeavor to help him make contact with the prime minister in Kyoto.

For many good reasons, the exalted spheres of Japanese cinema in the late ’40s and ’50s were preoccupied with a deeply ruminative, urgently humanistic philosophy that arose from the country having to contend with the wrenching cultural and physical fall-out of the Second World War. That soul searching tended to be explored through historical parable. Sanshô is one of the most sublime results of that era, and, in spite of its formal beauty and warm heart, it’s also a coldly realistic film that tells a grim truth about Japan’s feudal past that’s virtually unimaginable in the Technicolor plasticity of Hollywood historical movies from the same period. Nor is the film at all hesitant about describing the interests of power and varieties of exploitation—physical, fiscal, political and sexual. It’s made clear early in the film that Taira was sacked for attempting to ease the burden on his citizens rather than meet the demands of a militarist government. Sanshô himself is protected and honoured for his capacity to turn human suffering and ruthless oppression into piles of money for the government coffers.

Later, as he attempts to assert his claims, Zushiô finds himself forced to sneak about the prime minister’s residence to have any hope of seeing the all-powerful official, reduced to despairing pleading before being dragged away and imprisoned. Whilst the minister and the state he serves are capable of recognising nobility—Zushiô carries an idol that was given to his clan decades before by the prime minister’s ancestor—and restore Zushiô not only to rank but give him the governorship of Tango as compensation, he soon learns he isn’t entirely empowered to end slavery or even legally punish Sanshô when his misdeeds are restricted to a private estate. Justice is entirely subordinate to the regular running of the state’s machinery and the interests of powerful men. From the smallest to the highest level of the society portrayed, people make commodities of each other, and respect is a debased currency as hierarchy is constantly abused.

Mizoguchi doesn’t offer any actual portrayals of violence, and yet the key moments of corporeal cruelty that punctuate the film are all the more effective for their judicious presentation of how this mass of exploitation is enforced: even when the physical damage is only hinted at, it’s impossible not to cringe during the scenes of branding and Tomiko’s hideous punishment—the antithesis of torture-porn. The narrative’s steady, committed assault on the aristocratic family unit—mother turned to whore, children as forced labourers, father a figure of distant impotence—becomes a tour through the precincts of hell for the most stable and hallowed of social institutions. This necessary awareness of the true state of things is, however, inextricable with Zushiô’s final dedication to realising his father’s ideals: the secure walls of social roles that have been violated by his family’s travails give him an awareness of the terror and complexity of life that is alien to the invested folk around him, and drives his determination to keep the wheel in spin for people beyond himself and his kin.

For all the high tragedy, darkness, and cynicism that permeate Sanshô as a narrative, however, it’s also a cracking good yarn that powers on with Dickensian twists of fortune and fortitude of moral meaning. The breathless intensity of the storyline is undeniable, and that’s something of a lost art these days in so much cinema and literature—the capacity to retain the depth of great art and the force of fine melodrama in a singular shape. Mizoguchi and his screenwriters Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda make the teeth clench with clever delaying devices, like Zushiô’s initial failure to make the prime minister listen and in the finale in which he tries to track down the woman known as Nakagimi only to be put on to the overeager tart (Teruko Omi) who’s inherited that reputed name first. By this time, Zushiô has triumphed not only over Sanshô, but also over the self-interested world he represents; Zushiô used the power given him by the prime minister to ban slavery, against the protests of his advisors and knowing that his action will surely end his career nearly before it begins. Sanshô, in retaliation, sends his men to knock down the decree signposts, which is what Zushiô counted on, for he can now exert his right to seize Sanshô for destroying the governor’s property, leading to liberation of the estate’s slaves.

But it’s a victory for other people more than Zushiô himself, as he learns of Anju’s death and grimly weighs his future as the former slaves party, riot, and finally burn down Sanshô’s manor in a nihilistic consummation. Hanayagi’s performance is the most compelling in the film (although no one is less than excellent), essaying an individual who passes through almost insensibly strange contortions of luck and station. His character swings from extremes of stiff-necked, glowering inhumanity to frantic pleading and unendurable, almost metaphysical terror as he appeals to the prime minister, to troubled but determined efforts to live up to his father’s creed and rescue what’s left of his family life. With him stand Tanaka and Kagawa, two pools of feminine calm and rooted conscience driven to terrible ends by their determination not to cave in to mere force.

Mizoguchi’s formal invention in interpolating fragments of explanatory flashbacks has become a common device in filmmaking, especially Japanese genre cinema, and yet it seems uniquely fresh and concise here. In a few deftly composed minutes of film, Mizoguchi describes the characters who will preoccupy the drama, their reasons for being in their current predicament, and the dangers, both emotional and physical, that await them: revealing the circumstances by which Taira lost his job and with a brilliantly economical flourish, panning down from Taira’s humiliation by a samurai general to show Tamaki’s reaction, before dissolving back into the present-tense as she takes a cup of water from a river, lost in pained reverie even as she tries to reunite the family. As the family makes it trek, Mizoguchi offers precisely composed shots encompassing characters and landscape that suggest a harmonic completeness to their world, usually offering frames filled with water, earth, flowers, and sky. The relationship between the material and spiritual lives of the characters is constantly entwined with physical setting, courtesy of Kazuo Miyagawa’s photography. In later scenes, as when Zushiô finally visits his father’s grave, he finds it caked in flowers brought by his grateful subjects; Mizoguchi restores here the pellucid beauty of the early sequences, once again including sea, sky, land, and humanity in the shot. Anju’s suicide, a careful composition of the dim light of dusk and the utter stillness of the water, evoke the soothing end of pain and a forlorn, beatific deliverance.

When Zushiô finally finds his mother, now aged, blind, and devastated by too much loss, it’s on the edge of a beach that’s been turned into a wasteland by the literal calamity of a tsunami, but that all too accurately reflects the shattered lives and mental states of the last two Tairas. When Zushiô apologises in grief for not returning as a great man or saving Anju’s life, but having tried to stick by his father’s principles, Tomiko, grizzled and crushed but not lost, assures him that if he hadn’t done so, she’s sure they would never have been reunited at all. It’s a simple message, but delivered with force and conviction. In cumulative detail and effect, Sanshô the Bailiff is like the universe in miniature. l

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28th 09 - 2009 | 15 comments »

Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

Director: David Lean

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By Roderick Heath

A contradiction of Ryan’s Daughter is that, in spite of the sheer expansiveness of its style and production, it’s an often painfully intimate tale. The film’s antiheroic romanticism is nailed solidly together by two rigid spikes: one, a bolt of irony that borders on cruelty as the characters’ fantasies seem to be fulfilled only to be snatched away to leave them squalidly floundering, and the other, a steely insistence upon moral backbone. David Lean’s penultimate film, the calamitous reception of which drove him from the cinema screen for more than a decade, nonetheless carries the flavour of a crucially personal piece of work—more personal, indeed, than the mighty but disjointed Doctor Zhivago (1965), his big previous success.

Although it retained the vast cinematic expanses of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter was, in many ways, a return to his roots, a point illustrated by his bringing back Trevor Howard and John Mills, who had been leading men in his Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946), as character actors. Like Encounter, Ryan’s Daughter is about an adulterous affair. Like Madeleine (1950), it follows a transgressive heroine who is harshly punished for the perception of that transgression. Unlike the crisp domestic simplicity of those earlier films, however, Ryan’s Daughter appropriates the whole of Ireland as its canvas, essaying in lustrous sprawls of earth, sky, and sea. Although, like Zhivago, it contrasts private passion with civil conflict and elemental force, the film’s far more focused, and the way those aspects relate are more acutely paradoxical.

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It’s 1916, and Ireland vibrates with the spirit of revolt and detestation of the occupying English soldiers. Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) is the spoilt, starry-eyed daughter of Thomas (Leo McKern), the publican of a small coastal village where everyone is essentially faced with the same problem: soul-crushing boredom. Rosy reads romantic literature and harbours a crush on her former teacher, Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum), the closest thing to a bohemian in the district. The most respected figure in town is Father Hugh Collins (Howard), embodiment of muscular Christianity; the least respected is the deformed, childish Michael (Mills). But they are two men united in their love of fishing and their protective impulses for Rosy, and, like she and Charles, distinct from the townsfolk.

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Rosy declares her love for Charles, and he, despite his misgivings over their age difference and his own lackluster temperament, gives in. Their wedding night is a calamity, and Rosy is soon driven in wayward circles by her dissatisfied yen until fate tosses her a dubious answer to her prayers: Major Doryan (Christopher Jones), a shell-shocked, limping British war hero who takes over a base situated close to the schoolhouse Charles runs. Charles waits moodily for their affair to burn itself out, and the townsfolk, getting wind of it, ostracise her, but a tenuous balance continues until an IRA hero, Tim O’Leary (Barry Foster), comes to retrieve a shipment of arms dropped off the coast by German ships.

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Ryan’s Daughter’s genesis was when Lean and writing partner Robert Bolt planned to adapt Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Upon hearing that a rival version might beat theirs, they decided on a looser adaptation, and relocated the tale to a more dramatic location, while retaining the tart flavour of Flaubert’s work. For anyone paying attention, Ryan’s Daughter is often excruciating in the proliferation of humiliations small and large—sexual, emotional, and social. The hugeness of nature’s overflowing force contrasts the pettiness of the people, and yet connects to their slow-burning passion. For Bolt, the script was a love letter to star Miles, his wife, and for Lean, the film seems almost an emotional autobiography. At the time it might have looked out of date, but today it seems more a riff on certain clichés that inverts their meaning.

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The characters, except for Doryan, who merely snatches at opportunities to alleviate his shellshock, are defined by attachment to private myths, but these can manifest in very different ways. Doryan, for lacking them, chooses self-annihilation. Rosy is the obvious linchpin, her expansive nature intricately connected to the rhythms of the world. Charles, too, is defined by his fantasies, as hinted by his love of Beethoven, and manifesting when he traces the prints Rosy and Doryan have left on the beach, imagining Doryan in the dress uniform of another era’s cavalier and Rosy in a refined yellow dress, as Maurice Jarre’s intelligent score spirals in Beethoven-ish vigour. It’s a scene that bares the workings of Charles the man, and explicates his reaction to Rosy’s adultery, feeding as it does his own need for oversized gestures even as it tortures him. Michael is tormented by his adoration for Rosy, thinking, in his childish way, that if he does as the other men do at Rosy’s wedding, or if he imitates Doryan, that he might appeal to her. He tends to reflect the lacks of others back at them: the villagers’ casual cruelty in tearing off a lobster’s claw; the foolish enthusiasm in love of Rosie and Charles and of the villagers again in playing with weaponry; and echoing Doryan’s gammy leg when following him. The villagers cling to a different fantasy of transcendence, that of the rebellion, a fantasy consummated in aiding O’Leary haul the weapons from the grip of an apocalyptic storm.

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To approach Lean’s “epics” without a sense of his use of landscape as not merely backdrop but a spiritual barometer for his characters, a pantheistic linkage of human nature and elemental rhythm, is to miss much of their point. But it’s there in the throb and rush of the trains that drive through Brief Encounter and in Madeleine, where the electrified, sensual reels of the poor dancers offsets the surrender of bourgeois Madeleine to sexual passion. It’s present in the clawing trees and blasted spaces that terrify Pip in Great Expectations, and the manifestation of Miss Havisham’s diseased psyche that is her house, which Pip, unlike his counterpart in Dicken’s novel, awakens to and revolts. Lean, the product of a Quaker upbringing in which a private ethical compass is paramount, rebelled and led an often errantly sensual life himself, full of fractious unions. He gravitated to such fraught tales of friction between just such a compass and fervent impulse. In his later films, there is a larger contrast between that sort of private confusion, and larger, less easily perceived patterns of duty and manipulation. In Ryan’s Daughter, Rosy’s need for eruptive passion hands the villagers a scapegoat when O’Leary is caught and the guns impounded right at the moment of their triumph. His capture was the fault of Rosy’s own father, equally given as he is to proselytising for the rebellion but happy to collect money as an informer who, finally, is forced to betray O’Leary.

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At the film’s heart is sex—indeed, bad sex: subjects still new to the mainstream cinema at the time, the latter hardly tackled directly before. Specifically, it highlights the crushing failure that is Charles and Rosy’s wedding night, when he, crippled by anxiety and repression, and she, hoping for a transcendent glory, are both left stewing, having passed through a Hogarthian nightmare of a wedding feast in which the bored, horny locals mock the anxious couple, subject Rosy to a parade of meaty kisses, and pelt the windows of their room with grain. And yet, Charles is a strong, virile man—he’s Robert Mitchum, after all—and Rosy and he have a charged exchange when she encourages him to sit without his shirt after a day’s digging during tea so she can enjoy the sight of his body. Later, when Rosy and Doryan rendezvous for their first coupling, they ride into a dark forest, the floor of which is lined with purplish flowers, tinged both with unknowable threat and promise. Ironically, the following sexual coupling is the only misjudged one in the movie, using corny, natural motifs to reflect the tides of Rosy’s orgasm.

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Rosy’s search for personal bliss explicitly contrasts the town’s search for communal excitement, cut off as it is from direct expression of passions. “It’s either married or virgin ‘round ‘ere,” Doryan’s predecessor as commander of the camp (Gerald Sim), warns him. Early on, the lads and lasses of the town stand on opposite sides of the single street, eyeing each other in teasing, frustrated ranks. When Michael comes between them, brandishing the colossal lobster he’s caught that seems to encapsulate both his own personal ugliness and the arbitrariness of cruelty, the young men fall on him to the wailing, hysterical delight of the girls. It’s a sexless orgy that anticipates the great communal frenzy on the beach, and then Rosy’s Calvary, during which the whole town delights in stripping off her clothes, cutting off her hair, and mocking her sensuality.

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Despite the film’s breadth, the most telling details come in small, even barely perceivable gestures: when Doryan strips off his overcoat, halting a typist’s labours in recognising the telltale red ribbon on his tunic; when Rosy realises that her father is the traitor everyone thinks she is; the sand that confirms Rosy’s adultery, caked in her hat; when Rosy rushes out to greet Doryan in the night, thinking Charles is asleep, and a cut back to Charles watching them from their house immediately severs the romantic intensity of the moment, halting the swooning surge in the score with the force of a punch in the belly. Ideas are filtered through chains of imagery and totems of character.

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How Lean shoots his characters, especially in the first 15 minutes, encapsulates their relationships to both the world and themselves. Rosy reigns on the clifftops and meadows, adrift like her wind-snatched parasol. Hugh and Michael are at home in the bitter honesty of the sea. Charles is constantly walking the sand of the beach, between the two realms, and discerns Rosy’s affair through the marks it leaves there. Doryan, when he arrives, is insistently associated with stark, rough-hewn stone and the ruins of the ship in which he finally destroys himself in an auto de fé. The townsfolk always appear in masses, sliced through by or enveloping the major figures. Like Zhivago and the Dickens works he adapted early on, Ryan’s Daughter is droll, but increasingly, unamusingly barbed in its caricature of self-important, self-appointed apostles who shrink before individuals whose authority of spirit is unquestioned, but, like termites, overwhelm the heroes with their numbers.

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It’s perhaps legitimate to criticise the film for conflating disparate ideas—D. H. Lawrence sensuality in the woods abutting a Flaubertian scorn for provincialism and private fantasies, with some of Synge’s roughneck poeticism and acid portraits of the Celtic character for flavour. And yet it’s precisely the film’s contrapuntal rhythm contrasting those different aspects that is its soul and point, the alternations of whimsy and tragedy, ardour and humiliation. The smallness of gestures revealing the largest of failings, the contrasts that interrogate rhetorical tropes like “love” and “bravery,” the latter as crucial an element as the former. “A brave man’s a brave man,” Ryan says to Doryan as both compliment and rebuke when he comes to drink in the pub, “whether in Irish green, British khaki, or German grey.” Ryan works himself to a pitch of heroism in pulling guns from the eye of the storm, after calling up his English masters who will wait to deflate the heroic moment. Doryan, in listening to the Captain’s account of his own fear that he’ll disgrace himself in battle, can only tell him: “You don’t know what you’ll do.” All he remembers of battle is cowering and squirming in the muck. It becomes clear in the end that Charles, with his unflinching capacity to face the worst in himself and the world and still stand up, is the bravest chap around.

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Mills won a Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Michael, and he does it supremely well, but it’s a gift considering the role, and Howard and McKern would have been just as rightly rewarded if they’d gained the statuette. Mitchum’s presence in the film is odd, and yet, on reflection, it’s hard to see anyone else doing a better job; his Irish accent is fine, and that resolutely down-to-earth style he possessed as an actor serves his character’s gentleness perfectly. Miles was Oscar-nominated, but lost to Glenda Jackson’s similarly lusty, ambitious character in Women in Love. Still, Miles plays Rosy beautifully, achieving that most difficult of arcs in film acting—not just growing older, but growing up. Broader, but enjoyable performances come from Marie Keen and Arthur O’Connell as the village’s chief bigots, Mr. and Mrs. McCardle, and Evin Crowley as the tarty, nasty Moureen, who blooms in girlish joy when she gets an excited kiss from O’Leary. Jones practically disappeared after this film, by his own choice, but he was extremely effective here, perhaps even more than Lean’s original choice Marlon Brando might have been: his Doryan is deeply alienated, almost operating on a different time scale to the rest of the characters, and certainly living in a different reality to them. He vaguely portends Michael Sarrazin’s Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), insofar as he looks like a romantic hero and yet is crudely stitched together, an alien being created by the shock of modernity.

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It’s confirmed in the finale that heroism can be the opposite of what it can appear to be. Charles and Rosy have to muster real courage and walk out of the town pretending that their marriage is solid and that they don’t care about the locked doors and jeering whistles that send them off. They continue to maintain their self-possession even when the wind snatches away Rosy’s hat, revealing the horror that is now her hair to a stunned Michael. The end is, in a way, a cleansing fire, and, interestingly, Charles and Rosy are the only characters in a Lean epic to emerge in one piece, galvanised in personality and outlook. In bidding them farewell, Hugh crossly tells Charles that if they’re thinking they’re better off splitting up, “I doubt it! That’s my gift to you—that doubt!” It’s not much of a comfort, but we still feel like cheering.


24th 03 - 2008 | 11 comments »

King of Kings (1961)

Director: Nicholas Ray

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I looked at my desk calendar today and saw a holiday designation I hadn’t noticed before—Easter Monday. Whether this was meant to allow employers to give employees a Monday off per their paid-holiday schedule, a strange expansion of Christian observances, or just me being obtuse, the calendar worked to my advantage. I decided it wasn’t too late to post an Easter review of the Samuel Bronston epic King of Kings.

I have a rather strange relationship with Christianity. I was raised as a Jew in an overwhelmingly Catholic town. Most of my friends were Catholic, and I went to a Catholic university, at which my simple and sincere question (“What is the Holy Trinity?”) in one of my required theology classes received the whip-necked stares of my classmates and the surprised, gentle look of my instructor, an ordained priest, who gave an explanation that I still don’t understand. Whereas I have a pretty broad knowledge of Christianity and its culture—especially Catholicism—very few Christians know much about the religion and culture into which I was born and into which Jesus was born. Perhaps because of my largely secular upbringing and my studies in college, I observe religion today much as a sociologist or anthropologist would. I mean no disrespect to persons of faith in my review of King of Kings, but the story of Jesus Christ is just that to me—a story that informs what I know about Judaism and what it became. I intend to evaluate how well this film tells its story.

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King of Kings, a remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic of the same name, is a life of Jesus of Nazareth. It begins with the Roman conquest and occupation of Judea. The return of Roman subjects to their home towns to be taxed according to the new Roman census gives us our first glimpse of Joseph (Gerard Tichy) and Mary (a radiant Siobhan McKenna), returning from Galilee to Bethlehem. The town is unruly, and an innkeeper tosses some apparently drunk guests into the street. Joseph asks for a room for his pregnant wife. The innkeeper says there is no room, but he could open a stable stall for them. Jesus is born, and Mary cradles him in her arms as three kings alight from their camels, place gifts at her feet, and bow their heads to the ground.

King%20of%20Kings%20Lucius.jpgThe governor of Judea, Herod (Gregoire Aslan), learns of a prophecy that a powerful prophet has just been born in Bethlehem. He summons the head of the Roman guard Lucius (Ron Randell) and instructs him to kill all the newborn males in Bethleham. Lucius, who from the first strikes one as a decent, intelligent man, says he does not kill children and will not obey. Herod reminds him of his duty to the emperor and, reluctantly, Lucius carries out his orders. Despite the bloodshed, the target of the hunt has been spirited away by his parents to Nazareth. Herod has what seems to be an asthma attack after the murders, and we watch his son Herod Antipas (Frank Thring) allow his father to die as viciously as his father ordered the deaths of babies.

Soon Pontius Pilate (Hurd Hatfield) and his new wife Herodias (Rita Gam) arrive to govern Judea. He’s unhappy with the difficult post, but his wife reminds him that whoever can rule Judea can rule the world. He’s got his hands full. Rebel leader Barabbas (Harry Guardino) is making plans to attack the Romans and free Judea. The region is a powder keg, with all Jews on their guard. It is in this atmosphere that Lucius and other Roman soldiers move through the land to conduct a census. He arrives at Nazareth where he encounters a wary Joseph. “No trouble,” he assures them, “just conducting a census.” Mary and Joseph are accounted for, but their son Jesus is not. Lucius asks him where he was born. Jesus replies, “Bethlehem.” Lucius pauses, regards the lad carefully. Finally, he tells Joseph, “Get him registered as soon as possible.”

I really liked this set-up of the story. It introduced all of the important characters, set them in their time and a realistic landscape (the film was shot in Spain), and presented them largely as ordinary people living real life. I got a sense of the injustices against which the Jews railed—from the breaching of the sacred Temple of Jerusalem to the slaying of its priests in a perfectly choreographed launching of spears (perhaps too perfect) and the heavy taxation under which the poor populace labored. Certainly, if any group of people was ready to accept a savior, these people were, and their religious teachings gave them the hope that one would appear some day. Of course, people like Barabbas were not willing to wait for divine intervention. I was reminded of the two paths to freedom represented by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as I watched Jesus, the prince of peace, and Barabbas, who embraced violence. I also was reminded by Herod’s actions of the Torah story of the deaths of first-born Jews at the hands of Pharoah’s troops to prevent the arrival of a deliverer—Moses. The current story, of course, will turn out much differently. Instead of the slaying of Egyptian first-born to loosen Pharoah’s hand, the Christian god will sacrifice his own first-born to deliver them, if not physically, then spiritually.

Soon, Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) is a man who is ready to take up his calling. He goes into the desert to purify himself. The harsh landscape is beautiful and forbidding. We only hear the devil call out to Jesus—there are no visions, only Jesus’ denials of Satan. When he emerges, he recruits his apostles, beginning with Simon Peter, a humble fisherman. The line, “I will make you a fisher of men,” is poetically powerful and sets us up for the many famous lines that Hunter mainly utters with conviction. One crucial exception is the Sermon on the Mount. Hunter’s answers to the many questions he is asked—questioning is a very Jewish practice for their rabbi—are convincing, but the askers are mere reciters. I’m told that many of these people were Spanish and were dubbed in English. It would have been better to bring in some English speakers for Hunter to work off of. The Sermon on the Mount is a dull thud in this film.

Other scenes are vibrant. Brigid Bazlen as Salome is a wicked, wicked girl consumed by her appetites. She finds the captured John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) to be a curious animal. There’s no question that in this interpretation, Salome has encouraged Herod’s lust for her. Her dance, though tamely not the striptease it was meant to be, is still erotic. When she asks for the head of John the Baptist, her offhand remark that she “wants to look at it,” is amoral thought itself. The scene is completely satisfying.

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Another beautifully wrought scene is the slaughter of Barabbas’ army, caught between the outer and inner walls of Pilate’s palace by a ready and waiting Roman army. The rebels seem at first to be holding their own as the Romans pull back, the better to draw all the Judeans within the gates. When the Romans unleash their full fire power, they roll over living and dead Judeans alike, forcing their retreat—right into the Roman spears protruding through the slatted gate. Barabbas, atop a wall of the enclosure, looks down at the strewn bodies of his men and screams. He gets an arrow in the leg for his trouble, but his despair is far more painful.

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However, the Last Supper, played like a rudimentary Passover ritual that transforms into a communion ceremony, is strangely lifeless. When Jesus tells Judas (Rip Torn) to do what he must quickly, there is no pang of sadness in either man. The superb Hurd Hatfield makes the most of Jesus’ trial for sedition and blasphemy, as does Ron Randell, his appointed defense attorney. There was much more passion between these men than ever passed between Jesus and his apostles. The Passion seemed deliberately bland, causing the last third of the film to lose an enormous amount of steam. The final shot made me laugh at its hokey symbology.

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Nicholas Ray should have been able to turn out a work of splendor and intimacy, given his track record. The first half of the film does have those two attributes in spades. I have to wonder if studio interference might have been to blame for the film’s stillborn second half. Orson Welles lends his magnificent voice as the narrator of this well-known story, bringing it alive whenever he speaks. Miklos Rozsa’s score is grand and bombastic, not really my cup of tea but certainly accomplished and epic in nature. The Overture, Intermission, Entr’acte, and End Music reminded me of a time when lengthy films were structured like plays and that I experienced firsthand watching The Sound of Music in a movie theatre. They even sold programs. This structure lends gravity to the film and provides audiences with a thoughtful break; I wish this practice would return.

King of Kings infers how a blend of paganism and Judaism became the new religion. Jews reject the use of human images for worship (hence the film’s depiction of protests against posting plaques of the Roman emperor on the Temple pillars), but Christians embrace such images. The traditional Easter meal of lamb echoes the Jewish sacrifices to their god. The film also hints at the conversion of two Romans, Lucius and Herodias, foreshadowing the eventual conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine and perhaps the introduction of some Roman pagan rituals to this new state religion.

King of Kings may be pleasing to many Christians who find inspiration in the story of Jesus Christ. It certainly is a thrilling and epic tale. Unfortunately, this version starts to breathe life into it, only to fall into the trap of reverence, primarily in the more remote acting style that overtook many of its principals—especially Jeffrey Hunter. By bowing to convention, King of Kings loses connection.


8th 02 - 2008 | 12 comments »

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Stanley Kubrick

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

2001: A Space Odyssey is a true landmark in the history of filmmaking. Eschewing conventional storytelling techniques and showcasing the most technically accurate environment ever committed to film to that point (including defying the movie convention that there is sound in space, which, of course, there is not), all without the use of computer animation or manipulation, Stanley Kubrick’s monumental achievement still has not been bettered in its genre. It looks better, probes deeper, and unsettles more effectively than any scifi film—or many other types of movies, for that matter—I can think of.

Yet, I have read more times than I ever expected to how boring 2001 is, how pretentious, how unengaging. It blows my mind that I even feel the need to defend this masterpiece, but perhaps that’s exactly what makes it a masterpiece—even now, audiences have not caught up with it. Like every great work of art, it continues to challenge, confound, and inspire. So, I’m here to try to show you what I see in this work and try to convince naysayers to give it another go.

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The story can be summed up fairly easily. Starting in prehistory with the emergence of proto-humans, we see apelike men and women in a pack feed at a water hole somewhere in Africa and squabble with other family groups. One day, a piercing vibration attracts one pack. A mysterious black monolith has seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Fearing it at first, then fascinated, the members of the pack end up stroking and hugging the object. Shortly thereafter, they learn to use tools. They learn to kill their rivals with these tools.

In the longest flash-forward in movie history, we find ourselves on a space shuttle, empty except for one sleeping passenger and the shuttle’s crew. The passenger, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), is on his way to the moon to investigate a strange phenomenon—a monolith like the one we saw in prehistoric Africa has been dug up. It, too, emits a powerful electromagnetic burst that the men on the moon find piercing.

Eighteen months later, we are on a spaceship headed for Jupiter, where the burst from the moon’s monolith was aimed. Two astronauts, Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), are active on board, while three of their colleagues are in hibernation to conserve energy and food. The HAL 9000 computer watches over the entire ship, its flawless brain, calm voice (supplied by Douglas Rain), and vacant pinpoint of a red eye making it the sixth member of the crew. One day, HAL seems to go a little wacko with power and decides the human component of the mission is flawed and needs to be jettisoned. HAL kills everyone but Dave. Dave then “kills” HAL. The mission to Jupiter continues, where Dave finds the monolith that received the transmission from the moon monolith. What happens to Dave may signal a change in the course of human evolution.

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What I love about Stanley Kubrick is his macrocosmic engagement with humanity, not just its situation comedies and dramas. Even when his films zero in on specific characters (e.g., Barry Lyndon [1975] and Eyes Wide Shut [1999]) he successfully links their actions into the larger scheme of things. 2001 is the apex of his engagement with human existence, spanning as it does the first appearance of human beings to what appears to be a rebirth as another, more evolved form. Not only does 2001 examine the ultimate challenge of the human project—understanding the nature of life in the universe—but it also creates ultimate images of enormous beauty and power that seem prescient when compared with photos taken by the Hubble telescope at the outer reaches of the solar system, for example, the so-called stargate of speeding and swirling colors. He also seems able to mine innerspace, creating an environment for Dave that is both alien and familiar to reflect the singular experience the astronaut is going through.

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Kubrick was known for his incredible skills with a camera, starting his working life as a photographer and managing, from his very first directorial effort, every aspect of the images in and about his films—from camera movement and framing to movie posters and marketing literature. He uses his circular setting and sweeping camera work—for example, following Frank as he jogs and shadow boxes on the ship’s circular deck—to create a sense of disorientation, even alienation, in the audience.

He was a true visual artist with a strong appreciation for fine art. Art shows up in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, which features Kubrick’s wife’s paintings adorning the walls of the Harfords’ Manhattan apartment, and in 2001, in which Dave’s drawings of the ship and his hibernating colleagues are critiqued by HAL as showing improvement. In fact, they are very good, and in this, one of many small details, Kubrick signals a major theme in 2001: the hubris that comes from assumed superiority.

This exchange between a television interviewer talking with the crew and HAL sums up the philosophical issue Kubrick is exploring:

Interviewer: HAL, you have an enormous responsibility on this mission, in many ways perhaps the greatest responsibility of any single mission element. You’re the brain and central nervous system of the ship, and your responsibilities include watching over the men in hibernation. Does this ever cause you any lack of confidence?

HAL: Let me put it this way, Mr. Amor. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.

The television interviewer comments that he detects a certain pride HAL has in his abilities and asks Dave and Frank whether HAL has real feelings. Dave answers that HAL is programmed to behave in a humanlike way to make the mission easier to manage for its human crew, but whether HAL actually has feelings is anyone’s guess.

2001%20EYE.jpgThe way Kubrick directs this film clearly shows that he believes HAL has feelings, maybe more than his human protagonists do. I can feel a presence, an intelligence beyond programming, in the red aperture HAL uses to keep watch on everything. Unbelievably, HAL does seemingly make a mistake when a part the computer predicted would fail proves to be in full working order. Dave and Frank, fearing for HAL’s competence, make the hard choice to disconnect his higher functions and proceed on their own. Like any sentient being, HAL fights for his life when he kills Frank and the hibernating crew members, and attempts to lock Dave out of the ship.

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HAL’s pride is severely damaged by his mistake and Dave and Frank’s loss of confidence in him. In addition, HAL is the only crew member who knows the true purpose of the mission to Jupiter—to contact what scientists believe is an extraterrestrial life form. HAL may even feel threatened by aliens that might be more intelligent than he is; after all, he was programmed by human beings who didn’t send monoliths all over the solar system. HAL’s hubris, then, is his tragic downfall, leading to the most poignantly disturbing scene in the film. When Dave enters the giant computer to disconnect HAL’s higher functions, HAL tries to reason with Dave, reassure him. Then realizing that the end is near, he pleads, “I’m afraid” and repeats over and over that he can feel his mind beginning to go: “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

Where HAL takes his mission very personally, the humans seem relatively unconcerned. For example, Frank half-listens to a transmission from his parents wishing him a happy birthday and politely acknowledges HAL’s birthday greeting. Dr. Floyd is the essence of chilly politeness as he deflects questions about his mission from several Russians he meets on the space station that is the waypoint between Earth and the moon. The entire scene is deeply superficial, projecting a jaundiced view of humanity that began when the first proto-human clubbed another back in the African prologue.

Kubrick saves his awe for the things we can’t know. Does HAL have feelings? Is there other life in the universe? Are we being watched? He is, so far, the only filmmaker who has captured the awesome nature of space. With so many stunning images, I went nuts trying to choose the photos for this article.

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The Space Baby—an obviously conscious, aware being waiting to be born—has to be one of the most primal and effective images in film history, perhaps even human history. It has invaded my dreams more times than I can remember, particularly at times when I was going through a sea change in my life. It is an archetype of enormous power. The alignment of heavenly bodies illuminated by a dawning sun is inspired and breathtaking. The monoliths themselves, those mysterious, black, featureless slabs, tap into the unconscious, both fascinating and frightening. The image of Frank in his orange space suit and blue shoes, struggling with his severed air hose and then spinning lifelessly in the vastness of space, is a nightmare made real.

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Kubrick’s musical choices tell his story with the utmost beauty and economy. The optimistic view of humanity’s progress in space just after the prologue is accompanied by the buoyant sounds of Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” waltz. The intrusion of the alien presence is scored by the hair-raising atonalities of Romanian composer György Ligeti. Richard Strauss’ heroic rendering of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of the superman and will to power, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” perfectly conveys the hubristic dimensions of the narrative.

There isn’t a detail in this film that’s extraneous. Therefore, while dialogue is spare, a wealth of information is being imparted to us visually, aurally, and through the emotions of the unconscious. The everyday world discourages a deep connection to any of these senses, preferring that we put them in service of everyday tasks that ultimately have little meaning. Through 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick has given us both the time and the space to reconnect with our grandest aspirations.


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