25th 10 - 2014 | 6 comments »

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Director: Roger Corman

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By Roderick Heath

When you want to talk about Roger Corman, you have to take into account that there is at least three of him. The most famous is the low-budget film director and producer whose name became a by-word for cheap and tacky movies, building small empires from the stray audiences and industrial detritus of the movie business, and whose career has stretched from providing screen filler for drive-ins to VHS shelves to VOD. The second, the won who received a special Oscar, fostered the careers of dozens upon dozens of actors and filmmakers, some of whom went on to have major Hollywood careers, by giving them jobs in his low-rent domains, trusting young on-the-make talent in the same way that he, lucky in his time, got unexpected breaks and became a film director before he was 30.

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The third Roger Corman is perhaps the most controversial, insofar as many deny he exists, and yet has been acknowledged elsewhere ever since Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival: the important American filmmaker. Corman’s ingenious touch and wily acumen as a director, perpetually motivated by the most nakedly mercenary wonts and yet somehow always characterful and idiosyncratic, had been apparent since his early work like The Day the World Ended (1956), and his first work in the horror genre, if a rather jokey one, The Undead (1957). Those films were made at a time when Corman’s place on the lowest rung of Hollywood belied his status as one of the few filmmakers in town tackling the psychic underside of modernity via perfervid little fantasias designed to tap the tastes and wallets of young audiences. This he essayed through a brand of cinema that seemed, through its very sparse and straitened creativity, to approximate the mind-space of Elizabethan theatre: even something as magnificently absurd as The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958) has the kind of delightful quality to it that suggests a play put on by talented kids after raiding the old chests laden with forgotten potential props in the attic. Usually working with screenwriters Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna, Corman’s films, for all their diverting lacks in production values, often had rich conceptual cleverness and an impudent take on storytelling niceties that often legitimately strayed into the territory of the post-modern. Just as a crudely lettered sign could fill in for a forest in Shakespeare’s day, a man in a tatty monster suit could be the hinge for Corman’s films to become little fugues and bonsai myths.

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In 1960, Corman made a move up-market. American Releasing Corporation, the company run by B-movie specialists James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, had morphed into American International Pictures, thanks in part to Corman’s gift for penny-pinching and money-spinning, and their seizure of the nascent youth market. Corman sold them on the idea of making a more ambitious type of product to what they had so far done: to make a relatively classy horror movie in colour, to try and reach the same market Hammer Studios had recently uncovered. Needing a subject to go up against Hammer’s repertoire of Gothic literary sources, Corman chose as a subject a specifically American source of horror fare, one that was also, conveniently, in the public domain: Edgar Allan Poe. The first film he adapted from Poe, House of Usher, proved such a hit that AIP immediately became a dominant force in the new, wide-open post-studio era of exploitation cinema, and Corman made a slew of Poe adaptations in the next four years: Pit and the Pendulum and Premature Burial (both 1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (both 1963), and The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia (both 1964), as well as two films that fit thematically if not pedantically into the series, the famously, hastily assembled The Terror, and The Haunted Palace (both 1963), named for a Poe poem but actually the first film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story.

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Corman turned from his usual writing team and commissioned a screenplay for House of Usher from well-regarded sci-fi writer Richard Matheson. Matheson was contributing scripts to Rod Serling’s epochal TV show “The Twilight Zone” at the time, and Corman also used scripts by another of the show’s writers, Charles Beaumont, for the Poe series. But the true key to the success of the series was gained when Corman obtained the services of Vincent Price, a stage and Hollywood actor who had a frustrating career in movies for fifteen years, usually playing smarmy upper-crust playboys or menacing Byronic types, until House of Wax (1953), one of the few major American horror films of the decade, had turned him at last into a niche star. Price started drifting towards becoming a full-time horror actor as the decade wore on but many of the films didn’t know what to do with him, for instance The Fly (1958) which cast him as straight man. Once he encountered Corman, all that changed. Corman offered him roles that stretched his gifts and played on his capacity to shift from avuncular to menacing on the drop of a hat, and offer facially and vocally expressive performances influenced by theatrical melodrama perfectly attuned to the stylised, expressionistic needs of Gothic horror. Price starred in all of the Poe films except for Premature Burial, which featured Ray Milland, lending his inimitably over-large style in cunningly pitched variations that confirmed his second career as a cult figure. In Pit and the Pendulum, the second of Corman’s Poe films, Price plays two parts which merge towards the end, conjoining those two poles of his personality.

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Pit and the Pendulum opens with a desolate and eerie vista traversed by a lonely coach, setting the film’s toey, tense mood in motion. Poe’s original story, one of the most brilliant examples of the writer’s gift for composing what seem like remembered nightmares recorded in lucid detail, was a tale of sadistic suffering anticipatory of Kafka and Orwell, set in a Spain where the terror of Inquisition becomes a cosmic force, and the hero is only rescued in the last few sentences by an avenging army. Corman’s budget couldn’t cope with that, so he and Matheson stuck close to the template that had worked on House of Usher, sticking with the Spanish setting and theme of the Inquisition but shifting the location to a remote castle and revisiting the gambit of an outsider, this case John Kerr’s invasive Englishman Francis Barnard, entering a family house dominated by an intense and morbid air of familial guilt. Worked into the story is a greatest hits-like collection of Poe themes like burial alive, personality possession, erotically-tinged guilt and melancholic obsession. Francis comes to Spain in search of facts about a woman, in this case his sister Elizabeth, who had married Spanish nobleman Nicholas Medina (Price), but has recently died in mysterious circumstances.

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Arriving on the blasted, Salvador Dali-esque shoreline where Medina’s castle teeters on the edge of a sonorously rolling sea, Francis bangs on the door and demands admittance with a haughty, bullish determination to learn why his sister died. He soon finds himself up against a thicket of confused explanations, with the mood of distrust heightened by Nicholas’ bleary sense of responsibility, and the sketchy details of Elizabeth’s demise which prove to have been partly covered up. Soon Francis pries from Nicholas, his sister Catherine (Luana Anders), and family physician Doctor Leon (Antony Carbone) the truth as they know it, that Elizabeth died from a heart attack, caused by her accidentally sealing herself into an iron maiden in the torture chamber conveniently located in the castle’s basement, which morbid allure had drawn her to: the chamber had been constructed by Nicholas’ father Sebastian, an infamous torture artist employed by the Inquisition.

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Unlike the mostly mood-driven House of Usher, however, Pit and the Pendulum develops an inwardly spiralling mystery with the classic Gaslight (1940) theme of machinations to drive a person mad for worldly gain. The characters try to solve strange portents infesting the castle, including signs that Elizabeth may well have risen from the grave, a possibility that touches Nicholas deeply. The trauma behind Nicholas’ quivering anxiety and specific fear of burial alive is rooted in an anecdote Catherine has to relay to Francis: Nicholas secretly witnessed Sebastian (also played by Price in flashback) luring their mother (Mary Menzies) and her lover, his brother Bartoleme (Charles Victor) into his torture chamber, where he bashed Bartoleme’s head in and tortured their mother before walling her up alive. Although Leon assures them that Elizabeth was quite dead, the mysterious sounds of her beloved harpsichord being played in the night, a whispering voice shocking the maid Maria (Lynette Bernay) whilst cleaning Elizabeth’s room, and Francis’ discovery of a network of secret passages, begin to suggest the true situation is stranger. Francis eventually theorises that Nicholas is creating the disturbances himself, because he’s mentally unbalanced and suffering dissociative fits. Acting on the possibility that Nicholas’ own belief that Elizabeth might still be alive or at least to satisfy Nicholas’ obsessive anxiety, the men break their way into the sealed crypt below to investigate. In her coffin, they find a gnarled and twisted body that does indeed seem to have died in screaming agony whilst sealed in alive.

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The blend of firmly geographical realism with an undertow of obsessively morbid style that steadily eats into the texture of the film until it breaks out in hallucinogenic blooms, exemplified by Pit and the Pendulum, became Corman’s specific touch. Amongst Corman’s Poe films, this one had probably the most evident, immediate impact on some of Corman’s rivals, particularly Italian brethren including Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda, from whom he in turn stole Steele: Freda remixed the plot of Pit and the Pendulum for L’Orribile Segreto del Dr Hichcock (1962). As Paul Leni and Tod Browning had done years before, Bava would accomplish so masterfully on Operazione Paura (1966) and John Carpenter would manage on Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), Corman transforms environment and the absence of people and action into a dramatic element key for creating tension and mystery, as cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s camera restlessly probes the Medina castle in the night, the camera suggesting a lurking intelligence in spite of the absence of human presences, long before the eerie sounds of Elisabeth’s harpsichord begin to echo about the castle.

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Author Stephen King has said the moment of the discovery of Elizabeth’s entombed body marked the start of a trend towards ever-more-intense shock-effect horror in the genre, and it is arguable that the film provides the bridge between the lip-smacking sadism of The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and the eventual sub-genre based around torture as source of horror that flowered regrettably in the last decade or so. Where Hammer had effectively drenched its horror films with Technicolor to paint them in illustrative verve that made them stand out at a time when the genre was usually too cheap to afford colour or still essaying mood through Expressionist lighting, Corman was the first filmmaker since Michael Curtiz’s work with two-colour Technicolor in the early ‘30s to really seize on the format as an expressive tool, carefully employing costuming and décor in commentary. In spite of the cramped budgets, Corman’s eye for talent snared him two collaborators with years of experience in studio cinema, Crosby and art director Daniel Haller. The palette they created for Pit and the Pendulum grips the actors in a world of musty browns and greys, the dust and dirt of the grave infesting the frames, except for carefully coordinated splashes of colour.

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Corman was fond of blurring the boundaries between distant past and future, and even dramatized the idea in Teenage Caveman (1958), as time eats itself, ouroboros-like. Even the land around the castle has been desiccated as thoroughly as by nuclear fallout, one way in which Corman manages to link the threat of desolation he had explored with real fascination in his scifi, with its nuclear age angst, with Poe’s timeless psychological realm. In a similar way, Les Baxter’s scoring, the most inventive of the composer’s work on the Poe series, utilises electronic sounds and strange, almost musique concrete effects throughout, throbbing and droning in weird, echoic manner, recalling the score of Forbidden Planet (1956) but with futurism replaced by atavistic dread. When Steele’s Elizabath finally appears, rising like a wraith from the shadows, she is nonetheless wrapped in brilliant white with blood-stained fingers, a perverse angel crawling her way out of the fetid psychological trap her husband’s obsessions inadvertently forced on her and which she has now turned into a weapon. Corman would get to work out this concept most fully in the colour codings of The Masque of the Red Death, where he gained Nicholas Roeg as a collaborator. It’s hard not to read Corman’s background as a trained engineer – a career he abandoned after two weeks – in the precision of his use of space and elements, as well as the on-time, on-budget ethic he stuck to as a filmmaker.

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The Poe series tends to take pre-eminence in serious appraisals of Corman’s oeuvre, understandable considering their higher budgets and concomitant, relative smoothness and vivacity, although they do lack to a certain extent the antic humour, self-reference and self-satire that define so many of Corman’s cheaper early films, which shone out particularly bright in the knowing burlesques on Poverty Row enterprise and minor entrepreneurial artistry in A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors, the multi-genre send-up in Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), and his mini-epic of meta-humour, Rock All Night (1957). But the bare-boned, apocalyptic morality plays he was also good at – The Day the World Ended, Gunslinger (1956), The Last Woman on Earth (1961), The Intruder (aka Shame, 1962) – provided a basis for the conceptually hermetic, sparsely populated, intensely oneiric worlds he conjures in the Poe films. One of the most interesting aspects of Corman’s works lay in how, even in his cheapest films (indeed, sometimes particularly there), he was one of the few directors of his era who incorporated visual art as both an element in the films and as stylistic guide, in a fashion similar to how other filmmakers were leaning on Saul Bass to inject their work with the same veneer of stark, modernist quintessence. The pretences to classical integrity in the Poe series stymied his playfully deconstructive instincts his early films often displayed, but Corman compensated by turning the films in referential pieces, quoting Poe on screen during the films to provide literary bookends to his visualisations. The opening and closing credits depict seething colours, a simple effect rendered with paint running in oil, making everything in between some like the feverish product of a mad artist. Artworks that seem to contain the remnant personalities of their subjects becomes a recurring motif in Corman’s films, here manifesting first when Nicholas shows Francis portraits of his father and of Elizabeth, rendered in anachronistic styles, and later, in the waking-nightmare finale, ghoulishly stylised paintings of hooded monks glaring down at the tortured hero, turned into twisted, elongated icons with a faint of echo of Eisenstein’s perversion of medieval Russians into human illustrations in Ivan the Terrible (1945-57), breaking down the barriers between set, décor, costuming, and camera effect. Reality starts to melt on the edge of mortality as the paintings are doubly distorted by lens effects and screen-flooding colours.

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Corman’s later, brief shift into semi-experimental, psychedelic film with The Trip (1967) notably followed on from both the technique and themes he was exploring here and elsewhere in the series, presenting the mind unfettered experiencing past, present, and dream-state in a melange. Moreover, a theme that threads through much of Corman’s oeuvre, a portrait of the attempt to create as a process involving eternal frustrations and cruelty to both self and others, blithely portrayed in stuff like Rock All Night, A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, but more seriously engaged repeatedly in the Poe films, The Trip, and elsewhere, here crystallises as Nicholas laments his incapacity to transcend through art in his attempts to capture Elizabeth’s face on canvas, and so, again like many of Corman’s antiheroes, recreates himself to cope. Corman’s noted admiration of Ingmar Bergman, again expressed more completely in Masque of the Red Death, feels most acute in this theme with similarly obsessed the Swedish master, if essayed in far more high-falutin’ ways. True to the intensely psychological understanding Corman and Matheson both shared in relation to Poe’s tales, they relentlessly link the dank, mysterious abodes beneath the castle with the fetid areas of the mind, the castle a mimetic map of that mind, and signal that in spite of Nicholas’ surface vulnerability he maintains a dangerous and obsessive link with his father’s world. When Francis first enters the dungeon, Nicholas appears suddenly from a closed door – a trick Corman repeats when Elisabeth bursts into the film – behind which the sounds of machinery working have startled Francis and Catherine: all Nicholas will say is that “machine needs constant repair.” Why on earth Nicholas needs such a machine we only learn in the climax.

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The deliberate, patient, neurotic tempo of Pit and the Pendulum tightens a spring that won’t release until the finale, but punctuated with brief outbursts of hysteria and intensely rhythmic fulcrums, including the sequence where the men break into Elizabeth’s tomb that sees the hacking pickaxes becoming time-keepers counting down to their own entrance into the tomb, and the later scene where Nicholas finds himself exploring hidden passages. He’s drawn on by the siren call of what sounds like his dead wife, the dazed and terrified man becoming steadily more distracted, at first cringing as he touches thick cobwebs and then stumbling through them without noticing. When Nicholas follows this labyrinth to the opened tomb and sees something climbing out of his wife’s coffin, Corman doesn’t shift the beat, but watches just as calmly as Nicholas retreats in panicky fear and finally collapses until Steele’s Elizabeth suddenly erupts from the shadows screaming his name, turning her husband, or her prey, into a scurrying animal and then catatonic cuckold. Nicholas survives however by going constructively mad, as it becomes clear that Leon and Elizabeth are lovers who have plotted to destroy Nicholas by driving him mad. Nicholas then arises, his own personality subsumed by his murderous, tyrannical father, closing the very circle of inevitably inheritance Nicholas had feared but also armouring him against evil.

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Price gives a quintessential example of his gift for oversized, expressive style, perhaps indeed one of his most florid, although his showiness, perhaps deliberately reminiscent of grand barnstorming melodrama actors as Tod Slaughter, disguises his skill. Price shifts between personas with consummate ease and provides the film with its dramatic nexus, telegraphing Nicholas’ quivering boy-man fear and anguish striated with fixation, his constant worry that he might inevitably inherit his father’s evil dooming him to just that. Next to him, everyone else except for Steele looks stolid and strained. Kerr, whose big claim to fame prior to this was appearing in Tea and Sympathy (1958), has the relatively thankless job of playing Francis, who mostly comes on as obnoxiously insensitive, but he’s effective enough as sounding board for Price’s spectacke and plays the character with admirable chilliness that makes Francis seem, at least for the first two-thirds of the movie, to be something like its villain, relentlessly pounding on vulnerable and empathetic Nicholas’ fragile nature. Francis proves however to more a hapless interloper, in a vein that renders him intriguingly close in function and identity to the “final girl” as that figure would arrive in the ‘70s horror genre, as he loses all agency and undergoes terrible suffering and has to be saved by a woman and servant: here Corman and Matheson clearly signal something changing in the genre. Anders, who also appeared in Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide the same year, had a kind of raw, slightly uncertain charm that suits her character, who retains innocence amidst the emotional wreckage that is her family legacy and has avoided her brother’s neurosis but certainly feel the weight of experience, staring blankly into her own imagined version of family horror as she narrates it to Francis.

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For horror fans the undoubted appeal of Pit and the Pendulum acting-wise lies in seeing Price and Steele together. That promise was partly hampered, as Steele had her speaking voice post-dubbed by another actress, because her regional English accent sounded oddly out place amidst the mid-Atlantic brogues everyone else in the cast adopted to play Spaniards. Nonetheless Steele’s physicality blazes for her few minutes on screen in her first major movie after being promoted to genre stardom by Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960), her remarkable face, the very image of the femme fatale capable of shifting between modes of porcelain doll-like beauty and utter evil, leering gleefully over Price’s prone form, sweetly mocking him with the litany of people who have betrayed him or sinned in his immediate life. Gloating pleasure turns abruptly to queasy fear as Nicholas starts laughing back at her, and grasps her as if the most intimate lover’s embrace as Elisabeth squirms fearfully in his arms before gagging her and shutting her in an iron maiden. Transformation via psychotic breakdown unleashes demonic sexuality as Nicholas/Sebastian gives Elisabeth a voracious kiss. This wonderful moment nails down the base erotic element in so much of the horror genre, the alternations of power within sexuality, the broken wall between desire and hatred, as well as the performative skill of the duo.

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Nicholas’ insanity next leads him to chase down Leon, who plunges to his death in a secret pit, and so Francis, who stumbles down into the dungeon in search of Nicholas and finds him now entirely subsumed by the personality of Sebastian: Nicholas knocks out Francis and substitutes him for Leon as stand-in for Bartoleme, and subjects him to Sebastian’s ultimate torture machine – the pendulum. Nicholas/Sebastian gloats over his tethered victim before setting the torture machine in motion and memorably welcomes Francis to his zone of nullification of reason, giving it names from a panoply of cultures and describing it as the ultimate metaphor for the state of human kind before setting the gears in laborious motion and the machine begins lowering the blade remorselessly towards Francis’ stomach. Price goes gleefully for the rafters here in one of his bravura shows of theatricality, but both he and the film also, finally reach the point of crisis they’ve been working to with sneaky skill, both filmmakers’ showmanship and torturer’s converging to offer a spectacle of torment that allows perfect summation of both the plot and the obsessions of the characters, from Nicholas’ torment/fascination to Francis’ obsession with knowing the whole truth and being given an intimate lesson in fate.

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The final action is entirely riveting, as Catherine and servant Maximillian (Patrick Westwood) break into the chamber: when finally they gain entrance, Maximillian battles Nicholas whilst Catherine tries to halt the pendulum, resulting in Nicholas falling to his death beside Leon and Francis only saved by the thinnest of margins. This is thanks in no small part to Catherine’s pluck and awareness, which up until then have been neglected, another of Corman’s most integral themes. The ending is technically happy as the good guys stumble away unharmed, and yet Corman saves up one of the most coldly ironic final shots in horror film history, as Catherine, Francis, and Maximillian leave the dungeon. “No-one shall enter this room again,” Catherine vows, only for Corman to veer his camera back to the iron maiden from which the gagged Elizabeth stares in silent mortification, doomed to the nastiest possible punishment for her crime. The ritualistic final quote direct from Poe that ends the film ironically fills in a description of the very sound Elizabeth can’t make: the primal scream of purgative fear.


2nd 09 - 2013 | no comment »

Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963)

Director: Alain Resnais

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Alain Resnais can rightly be called the grandmaster of French cinema. At 91, he continues to work and create films of bold experimentation and a deep feeling for the joys and suffering of being alive. Deeply marked by the traumas of war, his films have examined the psychic meaning of both World War II and the Algerian War for independence, conflicts that drove a wedge into France’s self-image, reawakening the fissures within the country that had led to the French Revolution of 1789. Royalists, sometimes eugenic in their belief in the hereditary superiority of the aristocracy, pitted against the common folk in France and its colonies belie the myth of a united country fostered by Charles De Gaulle and the Popular Front during the 20th century. The myth may have been necessary to prevent France from plunging into another bloody civil war over the betrayals of Vichy, but the roiling undercurrent of rage and animosity would not be quelled, particularly among France’s filmmakers. The “quality” films against which the French New Wave rebelled were a meager attempt to calm nerves and ease suffering through a headlong plunge into nostalgia. The New Wave would have none of it, though the appropriation of another country’s reaction to postwar malaise—what the critics of the French New Wave dubbed “film noir”—was still another form of avoidance for a country that had not found a language to speak the unspeakable.

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As artists often do, Resnais tuned into the cultural zeitgeist and his own unease as a witness to the outrages of Vichy and Algeria and crafted a series of films that offered both a visual catharsis and a pointed critique of attempts to erase the past by confusing reality with a less precise and damning narrative: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Last Year in Marienbad (1961), and the film under consideration here, Muriel, or The Time of Return. The first film was explicit, if not graphic, about the human cost to life and love of World War II, and the second an examination of memory and the fracturing of the simplicity of love that was a hallmark of pre-WWII life and a symbol of France to the world. With Muriel, Resnais develops and marries those themes in a film that commands one’s interest through the urgency of its emotion.

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The story is simple. The widowed Hélène (Delphine Seyrig) and her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée) await the arrival of Hélène’s old flame Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), whom Hélène has asked to come to see her at her home in Boulogne Sur Mer. Hélène and Alphonse were lovers in 1939, just before the Nazis invaded France, and Bernard has recently returned from military service in Algeria. While Hélène perhaps hopes that she and Alphonse can return to a time before conflict tore them apart, Bernard is haunted by what he has witnessed and participated in while serving in Algeria. The film chronicles the attempts of Hélène and Bernard to assuage their pain by coming to terms with the past.

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The strategies Resnais uses to expose the psychological traumas his characters have suffered reflect the fractured nature of their reality. Bernard has given Hélène the impression that he is engaged to a woman named Muriel and is forever disappearing from the flat he and Hélène share to visit her. In fact, Muriel is a horrific memory that he feels compelled to revisit time and again by watching some film he shot while in Algeria in his ramshackle studio above a stable. Wracked by guilt over what he and the men in his unit did to her, he tries to amass evidence of the incident, though it is unclear what he intends to do with it. It seems more important for him to keep the memory alive, to avoid the trap of forgetfulness or putting the war behind him, as his comrade Robert (Philippe Laudenbach) has. Thus, Bernard constellates the France that cannot forgive and forget the Vichy collaborators and the horrors they visited on their brothers and sisters, as well as the France that condemns the widespread colonial torments of a “noble” France against the Algerian people.

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Hélène, too, is haunted by the past, and the perhaps too obvious metaphor for her nostalgia is the antique store she runs out of her home, living with and using furniture and decorative items she intends to sell in the careful, provisional manner one holds memories in one’s mind. (Indeed, Boulogne is a similarly provisional abode, a town bombed near to flat, with pockets of the old world juxtaposed with modern architecture.) Hélène’s reunion with Alphonse has an odd tenor to it, with Alphonse wanting to embrace and kiss her, but Hélène avoiding both, still stung by Alphonse’s abandonment of her. Like Bernard, she wants to find out what happened, to get her facts straight so that she can move forward without the nagging doubt that something important was missed. Like Robert, Alphonse has seen fit to paper over the truth to mooch off whatever marks are near at hand, including the attentions of his mistress Françoise (Nita Klein), who accompanies him as his “niece,” and approbation for his service to his country during the Second World War and Algeria. In fact, Alphonse is a bigot who never went to Algeria, and he fails to note his real relationship with Françoise or his marital status to Hélène.

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Françoise is an interesting character to ponder. More than 20 years younger than Alphonse, Françoise is a Parisienne, instantly recognizable as such to the provincial residents of Boulogne, a sophisticate who thinks it would be, to use today’s parlance, “funny” to meet her lover’s old girlfriend. She tells Bernard, who has seen through her ruse, that there was just something about Alphonse that she responded to, and the fact that he was married seemed little more than a detail. The French tradition of men having a wife and a mistress is a long one, but in this instance, the illicit relationship seems a conjoining of habitual liars. When faced with the pain and earnest questioning of Hélène, Françoise comes to loathe the day they met. It’s hard to face the past, even when it’s not your own.

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Resnais uses quick cuts at the start of the film to confound the usual establishing shot—we may eventually figure out where we are, but what Resnais seems more interested in establishing is a subjective point of view, our location, the monkey mind that records and randomly rolls through images and thoughts both immediate and distant. Similarly, the passage of time is imprecise, and the melancholy Hélène may display in one scene immediately cuts to a festive dinner, as though to show her state of mind while in the midst of everyday activities. Seyrig expertly balances her character’s various depths, making the abrupt cutting more coherent than it might have been, and her haunted compulsion to visit the town’s casino seems a physical need as strong as a junkie’s for heroin. Beside the callous obviousness of such characters as Alphonse, Robert, and Françoise, she ably shows what becomes of a broken heart. While less skilled than Seyrig, Thiérrée’s conscience provides another touchpoint of truth in a film filled with mendacity. Further, Resnais’ use of the elements, particularly when Bernard goes horseback riding on the bluffs looking across the water toward England, grounds the film in a reassuring timelessness that helps stabilize the audience in this highly unstable scenario.

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While Muriel is the work of a developing filmmaker and has a certain obviousness in some places, for example, a view of Bernard through a kaleidoscope that shows him fractured, it is nonetheless an honest film that accomplishes its mission to bear witness to some uncomfortable truths by helping its audience share the emotions of its vulnerable and sensitive protagonists. Better than a talking cure, Muriel offers a symbolic release. It’s a beautiful and still urgently needed film.


20th 06 - 2010 | 9 comments »

Murder on a Sunday Morning (Un coupable idéal, 2001)

Director: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One Sunday morning in May 2000, the Stephenses, a Georgia couple in their 60s who were vacationing in Jacksonville, Florida, left their room at a Ramada Inn for some coffee. They were confronted by a man who demanded money and, tragically, Mrs. Stephens was shot and killed. With little to go on besides a description of the killer—young, skinny, black, wearing dark shorts and a t-shirt, and carrying a Derringer-type weapon—police stalked the neighborhood near the motel for someone who fit the bill. Patrol officers spotted 15-year-old Brenton Butler, skinny and black, walking on the street and decided to stop him. They asked him if he lived in the area (yes) and if he would mind talking to the investigating officers to offer any information about the neighborhood he might have (no). Butler got into the squad car and was driven to the motel. Mr. Stephens took one look at Butler seated in the back of the squad parked 50 feet away and identified Butler as the killer. Police brought Butler closer to Stephens and asked him if he was sure. “Yes. I wouldn’t send an innocent man to jail.” That ended the police investigation. Butler signed a confession and was put on trial for first-degree murder and armed robbery.

When news of the arrest was broadcast, Jacksonville public defender Patrick McGuinness was driving to his office. He recalls thinking that this young man had thrown his life away and the life of his victim. But McGuinness would soon have a change of heart: “As I learned more, I became increasingly angry.” He and Ann Finnell, a 23-year veteran of the Jacksonville public defenders office, made righteous use of their anger to defend Brenton Butler to prevent a travesty of justice from taking place.

Murder on a Sunday Morning, winner of the 2002 Oscar for best feature documentary, poses the kind of story that must have had a natural attraction for French director De Lestrade, sharing as it does similarities with Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s classic tale of criminal justice run amok. Of course, the fictional Jean Valjean, who is hunted relentlessly by police inspector Javert when he escapes from prison, did commit a crime. But, his crime (stealing bread for his starving family) and his punishment (eventually, a death sentence when his escape attempts were taken into consideration) reflected a repressive society that was willing to condemn a man just for being poor and trying to take care of his family. In the Stephens case, Brenton Butler was brought into the criminal justice system for the crime of being black near the scene of a crime, thus, the more ironically apt French title, The Ideal Culprit.

As Finnell eloquently puts it near the beginning of the film:

Officer Martin came in and candidly admitted that the only reason Brenton Butler was even stopped that morning was because he happened to be a black male walking in the neighborhood. Now think about that. That means for every African American in Jacksonville, Florida, if they happen to be walking down the street lawfully going about their own business, not doing anything wrong, that they are subject to being stopped and asked to get into a police car, and driven away from what they’re doing, and subject to being shown to the victim of a crime with the possibility that that victim would identify them under the most suggestive of circumstances, that being that they happen to be sitting in the back seat of a police car and most victims would think that they wouldn’t be sitting in the back seat of a police car unless they had done something wrong, right? So that’s where we are today in Jacksonville Florida, and I personally find that to be disgusting and reprehensible.

The film offers straightforward coverage of the pretrial preparations and trial itself from the point of view of the defense. McGuinness and Finnell are shown examining evidence collected at the scene of the crime, questioning the man who found Mrs. Stephens’ purse in a dumpster on his daily rounds of collecting aluminum cans for recycling, marking the time it would take for Butler to get to the crime scene from his home based on when his family saw him in the morning, and so forth—in other words, conducting their own investigation. The police didn’t check the purse for fingerprints, and they never recovered the murder weapon. Butler’s attorneys also tore into the confession, wondering why a young man on his way to fill out a job application at a local Blockbuster would bother after just making off with $1,200 of the Stephenses’ vacation money. Nothing added up.

De Lestrade takes us seamlessly through the knowledge and logic the defense attorneys used to reconstruct what happened after Mrs. Stephens died. Tourist killings in Florida were making the news domestically and internationally (no doubt, this is why De Lestrade learned of the case), and the police needed to put people in jail to protect the tourism industry. With a witness ID, the system could move swiftly to conviction and incarceration. Lazy, more inclined to believe a white witness than a black defendant, and skilled at getting confessions through intimidation from black defendants through a black enforcer, Det. Michael Glover, the police acted with impunity to railroad Brenton Butler. Their shoddy work and cruelty—including a beatdown by Glover of Butler—make McGuinness’ disrespectful attacks on their professionalism and character a pleasure to watch.

Particularly satisfying is McGuinness’ cross-examination of Det. James Williams, who wrote the confession that Butler signed, one that he claimed was in Butler’s own words but finally was forced to admit was his own creation. McGuinness relates in one of his typically interesting and caustic comments to the filmmakers that he and Williams talked before the testimony in the hallway. Williams, no fan of the public defender, sarcastically remarked on McGuinness’ smoking “another one of your cancer sticks.” McGuinness replied, “I always like a cigarette before sex,” accurately predicting that he was going to screw Williams in the courtroom.

It’s sad and sobering to see the Butler family deal with their ordeal. Brenton is stoic until his mother takes the stand to testify to his whereabouts on the morning of the murder. As she starts to cry, the camera moves to her son, his face wet and streaming with tears. His father prays with him from across the thick glass in the prison visitors room and says, “God don’t make mistakes,” a belief that many people, including me, would find hard to take given the circumstances of this trial. Frighteningly, the indifferent police work meant a real killer was still out on the streets able to kill again. Again, McGuinness makes this point for us. I admit, I’ve gotten so used to documentary directors narrating and inserting themselves into their films (the curse of Michael Moore), that I was jarred—in a good way—by De Lestade’s decision to let his subjects do all the talking for themselves.

Since Brenton Butler was tried and exonerated in less than an hour, we’ve seen some big changes in race relations in the United States. But the pushback has been hard, and this case is sadly echoed in the recently passed Arizona law that could see a lot of innocent people stopped, like Butler, for walking while Latino. The question of police torture and forced confessions is alive, if being given a low profile in the cowed media, in Chicago, as the trial of former Area 2 Commander Jon Burge for allegedly torturing more than 200 criminal suspects (many of them black) between 1972 and 1991, to force confessions is underway. The judge in Butler’s case, when thanking the jury for its service, called the U.S. criminal justice system the best in the world. That may be true on paper, and the judiciary worked in this case, but we’ve got quite a ways to go before we can truly claim that reputation.


17th 04 - 2008 | 17 comments »

An Interview with Errol Morris

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are few film fans and no documentary buffs who don’t know the name Errol Morris. During a long and distinguished career, Morris helped free an innocent man from prison with his investigative documentary The Thin Blue Line, had Gates of Heaven made one of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, and finally won an Oscar for his 2003 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Morris’ skillful blend of interviews, reenactments, and archival and new footage moved the documentary form away from the monotonous talking-head format and toward a more engaging, contemplative form. His new film, Standard Operating Procedure, mixes his time-tested techniques with the infamous photographs of the torture and humiliation of Iraqi detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison to help viewers get beyond the borders of the images and consider the bigger picture. How could an American president and his staff approve of torture and how could the American Congress and public sit quietly by and let the low-level MPs take all the blame?

My interview with Morris took place on April 15, 10 days before the film’s official opening. After a rocky start, we settled into a more contemplative conversation about what seems to be the (hopefully) temporary insanity of the American populace and America’s need to come to terms with a radical change in its self-image dating back perhaps as far as Vietnam. This article represents a nearly complete transcript of the entire interview. My comments are in italics.

After watching this film, I felt that the people in it were guilty as hell and being self-justifying.

Let me ask you a question. What is Sabrina Harman guilty of?

I would say that she participated in some of these abuses, and she didn’t speak up.

What would you have done if you had been at Abu Ghraib the night of Al-Jamadi’s murder, you saw that all of your commanding officers were participating in a cover-up, you realized that much of what was going on around you was a matter of policy, what would you have done?

It’s a difficult question. If it were me, I probably would have excused myself and gone somewhere else.

You’re in the middle of a war zone. Where do you go?

To my quarters, anywhere away from the abuse. But it’s a tight situation. The Army is chain of command. I suppose if you’re told to shut up, that’s exactly what you do. That’s what they felt they needed to do. But I will also say…

And yet Sabrina took these pictures.

And that’s a good question. Why? She said it was in order to document what was going on. There were a number of people who took videos, a number of people who took photographs, several hundred.

Thousands. And it was an amnesty period where the guy who essentially ran the prison ordered the destruction of all the evidence. These were not destroyed, I think, for one simple reason: they provided evidence to deflect blame from people who were really responsible.

And yet if they were destroyed, nobody would have ever known.

Why do you say that?

No physical evidence.

How do you think the media have become aware of these photographs?

I imagine somebody turned them over to a newspaper, a journalist.

Which is what happened. We live in a digital age in which it’s very easy to take photographs and easier to distribute photographs around the world. Hard to destroy everything. The photographs taken of Al-Jamadi, the corpse, we wouldn’t have any knowledge of this murder if they had not been taken by Ivan Frederick, Chuck Graner, and Sabrina Harman. They had nothing whatsoever to do with the murder or the cover-up. The people responsible have never been charged with the crime. In this instance, what makes them the center of evil?

I don’t think they’re the center of evil and I’m not trying to suggest that they are. I’m merely suggesting that was my reaction when I watched this film, and that I would have liked to get interviews with higher-ups.

I was not interested in interviews with higher-ups. If people want the same cookie-cutter movie about Iraq, there are plenty you can go see.

But you talk about putting the photographs in a context, otherwise we don’t really understand what we’re seeing.

And to that end, am I required to interview every single person in the U.S. government? You have so much god-damned context. America puzzles me at the moment. There is an immense amount written about the higher-ups. What the fuck does America need to be convinced that the material is staring them in the face? Do they have to be hit over the head with a smoking gun? What would you like? What is your dream interview that you would have liked to have heard in this particular movie to clarify things for you?

Not to clarify…

Then to do what?

If you’re only going to present, just as in a trial, only the evidence that the lawyers want you to hear. I’ve been on a jury, and I had lots of questions that I was not allowed to ask. I only got what they wanted me to see, and from my point of view, if I just look at what these people are saying and what they’re doing…

If it seems like I’m saying they’re lily white, I’m not saying that, and my apologies, because I’m not making that argument. But I’m making a somewhat different argument that…hard to know where to even start. You look at a photograph, you think you know what the photograph is about. You don’t. You look at the photograph of Sabrina Harman smiling next to Al-Jamadi’s corpse, you think she’s responsible for the murder. She isn’t.

To me, which is the worse crime—the thumb up or murder? People don’t see the murder. People are obsessed with the thumb and the smile. It’s an essay on the Cheshire Cat. You see the smile, you don’t see the cat.

You see what you want to see. I think that does stick out more than the gruesomeness. You can only handle so much gruesomeness, and there is a level of disbelief in the American public. These are not who Americans are.

It’s denial. Much easier for all of us to blame the seven bad apples. That’s the easy way out. I think it’s really interesting and I don’t think any accident here that both the left and the right accept them as monsters. It doesn’t matter. The left says, oh, they’re monsters because of the three-headed monster in the wings—Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. That three-headed monster made them into monsters in its own image. The right says no, no, no, no. They’re monsters to be sure, but they’re monsters because they’re monstrous, self-directed monsters, rogue monsters. Seven bad apple monsters. But monsters, both left and right.

It allows us to blame somebody, to actually push this away from ourselves and not deal with it. It allows us actually not to look any further than the photographs because then we can say, “Oh this is it. Done. Finito.”

It seems a theme through a number of your films to take the monster and put a human face on.

This is correct. Thank you.

I think this film carries on in that grand tradition. I also think it will be misunderstood.

I think all of them have been. Look, you’re talking about a film that’s coming out about a story that has fingerprints all over it. This is not The Thin Blue Line, this is not a story that people don’t care about, that they don’t know about. Everybody knows about it. They’ve seen the pictures. Along I come claiming there’s a story hidden here that hasn’t been seen that is also a story about scapegoating, that Abu Ghraib really needs to be investigated. It never has been. The photographs I think effectively prevented an investigation. Easier just to look at Lynndie England or Chuck Graner or Sabrina Harman and say this is the problem.

I even think the bad apples got George Bush reelected in 2004 because they gave him someone to blame. It’s them, not me. You want to know why the war is going south, why the insurgency is growing, why there are all these beheading videos. Actually, with the beheading videos it’s even more cause and effect. These guys embarrassed America. The crime here is so perverse and so odd, is not the stuff depicted in any one picture, it’s the existence of the pictures embarrassing the administration, embarrassing the Army, embarrassing America.

Why did they do it? Why did they photograph these things? Why did they video them?

Go back to Sabrina. In a way it’s an essential question and I don’t pretend that I have some definitive answer. I think, in general, we photograph things because reality is peculiar. Maybe we need to stop it and look at it and memorialize it so we can scrutinize it at some later time, refresh our memory of our own experiences.

Sabrina says she took the pictures, she says this again and again in the letters, to expose the military as “nothing but lies.” She was lied to. She also knew that a lot of the things around her—this is just the opposite of the faceless automaton picture we’re given of these people—she was aware that what she was doing was wrong. She was aware that there was some horrendous moral compromise here. She was uneasy with it. She imagined…that was a way of creating moral distance, but it was also a way of analyzing and also perhaps imagining yourself as the whistle-blower, imagining yourself as standing up against this. I somehow think that some of those pictures were acts of disobedience. They were saying, “We know what you’re doing. We can show people what you’ve been up to, the real cards you have in your hand.” The real irony of it is the pictures were turned around and used against them. They thought that in many instances they were protecting themselves.

It’s unfortunate that you were not allowed to talk to Graner. Graner certainly did seem to be the ringleader. Did you get that impression?

My impression is that this all comes down to one night, the night of the pyramid. There was horrible, horrible abuse in that place that goes far beyond some photographs. We’re fighting a war of humiliation—sexual humiliation. We have been from the very beginning, a war, I guess, to show Saddam who’s boss, who’s got the biggest stick. We’re a country of 300 million people who had a foreign policy of “Kill Saddam.” I don’t mean a foreign policy for the Iraq region or the Middle East. That was our complete foreign policy, the sum of it. What I’ve watched is a story of humiliation and rehumilitation, the administration’s attempt to humiliate Saddam, the use of women in American military prisons—American women to humiliate prisoners.

Do you think that was a specific directive to them?

Absolutely. It’s one of the sickest things about this war—how women have been used. To think the fact that there are women in the military, suddenly the military is egalitarian. I think there’s a sick—I don’t know how to describe it any other way—undercurrent to all of this. Using American women to humiliate Iraqi men.

Which is simultaneously humiliating to the women, who didn’t want to be in the picture in the first place.

There you go. I often think that Graner in his crazy-type way when he put Lynndie at the other end of that tiedown strap and took the picture and later cropped Megan Ambuhl out of the picture, that he was creating a little vignette about the war, you know, American male dominating his American girlfriend, who in turn is dominating an Iraqi man. It’s a crazy, crazy story. These bad apples humiliate America. The administration tries to humiliate them, and so it goes.

Somehow, we remain blissfully unaware of the real nature of this war, the real content.

I was looking at some polls, and only two weeks after the photos came out, the public were already not wanting to see them anymore. They said, the press has covered this too much, they were wrong to show those photographs. Just two weeks after, when earlier they said, this is an outrage. The American psyche switched that fast.

I really want to know where you read that stuff. That’s really fabulous.

I’m not saying anything remotely original or even interesting—we live in a world of spin. There’s a glut of information. It’s spun, the photographs come out, they essentially become a political football. Nobody stops to say maybe we should find out what really transpired there. There’s tons of investigations, a laundry list of investigations, none of which really produce a conception of what went on, almost as if the goal was obfuscation, and it becomes this crazy, polarized world where we’re all concerned with blame.

There’s information out there. If we wanted to, we could impeach this president. How many torture memos do you need to see before you realize the administration is into torture? The odd thing about the world we live in now is do people care about the information that’s right in front of them? I thought, and this is a crazy idea, to come at the story in a different way. It may irritate people because they have their own ideas of what the story should be, but if you approach it in a completely different way, you’re liable to find out something that people don’t know about. If you’re following that same herd path, the chances of finding something are much, much, much less.

It goes back to that Cheshire Cat concept. We see the smile, and we don’t see the murder. It’s almost a metaphor for the entire war. You can’t force people to see what they don’t want to see, what they’re not predisposed to see. I don’t really know how things have gotten to this point, it’s one of the great mysteries of America at the moment. The values that make this country a great one seem to be forgotten. And one value that I keep going back to is It’s a Wonderful Life and Potterville. It’s a movie in part about little guys sticking together against the big, bad guy. It’s almost like a version of It’s a Wonderful Life where we’ve jumped to blaming the little guys, that Potter and his cronies can walk away scot-free. I’m a populist. It’s not a level playing field, no society will ever be, but you can pay lip service to it, you can try to move in the direction of greater rather than lesser equality.

You don’t watch the big guys pin medals on each other’s chests and the little guys go to jail. I think restoring them as people is important, I really do. It’s a first step. I bristle at the idea of seeing them as evil incarnate because it’s a way of abdicating our own role.

If we don’t face our shadows, we’ll never conquer them.

I think you have to and I think one of our great shadows is this war. I feel it much more so than I did of the war during which I came of age—Vietnam. This one seems crazier to me. Maybe it’s ideology that I didn’t grow up with, but it’s hard to see rhyme or reason in any of this, and it’s hard to know why there is so little opposition in Congress and America to it.

Can we have an update on “Nub City”?

I still want to make it, I have the script. There’s two kind of quasi horror movies that I wanted to make. One of them is “Nub City” and the other the movie about Ed Gein. I think of all the movies I’ve wanted to make that I haven’t made. I’m too slow. Doing this kind of movie is just plain exhausting. But I hope it sparks questions.

My review of Standard Operating Procedure is here. Be sure to read Errol Morris’ blog on the New York Times.


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