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Friday, December 31, 2010

Albert Lamorisse | The Red Balloon and Hsiao-hsien Hou | Le Voyage du ballon rouge (Flight of the Red Balloon)





RED BALLOONS
by Douglas Messerli

Albert Lamorisse (writer and director) Le Ballon rouge (The Red Balloon) / 1956
Hsiao-hsien Hou and François Margolin (writers), Hsiao-hsien Hou (director) Le Voyage du ballon rouge (Flight of the Red Balloon) / 2007

In Albert Lamorisse’s wordless classic of 1956, The Red Balloon—a movie I saw as a young man and watched again the other day—a bright cherry-red balloon is retrieved from a balcony by a young French boy, who befriends the object to such a degree that he risks being late to school (he is not allowed to take the balloon on the streetcar) and puts it into the hands of the school janitor for safe-keeping until the end of the day. By the time he has reached home that evening, the balloon and he have developed such a close “friendship” that the red globe patiently waits by the boy’s window until it can be retrieved, and the next morning plays with Pascal, following, rising above, and darting ahead on their voyage through the streets of Monmartre.

The Monmartre of Lamorisse’s film is a post world-war II landscape that reveals many of the buildings in decay and collapse, where the narrow side-streets are filled with boys, like the Roman raggazzi, looking for trouble and a good fight. Accordingly, the young hero and his beloved balloon are not simply involved in a relationship of admirer and admired but soon come to represent an alternative to the high-spirited street boys, who repeatedly attempt to shoot down and destroy the dancing globe on a string. Lamorisse’s red balloon is thus quickly transformed from a bouncing toy into a magical image of freedom and potentiality, and his simple tale rises to the level of fable and myth. Traveling the city with his new-found friend, the balloon’s adventures seem as limitless as the boy’s love and trust.

When the street urchins finally hit the mark, deflating the balloon and destroying it with a sling shot, all the balloons in Paris free themselves from their posting, coming to the boy’s aid and, as he gathers them in, buoying him up into a fabulous ride above the city itself, symbolizing a wondrous escape of the narrow confines of the past.

Twainese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Flight of the Red Balloon is at once an understated homage to this great film, a film of formal beauty, and a strangely amorphous work of improvisation. Although Hou and co-writer Margolin provided the cast (the young boy, Simon Iteanu; his mother, Juliette Binoche; and his new nanny Fang Song) with a detailed scenario and back stories of the characters, cast members were asked to improvise their dialogue. One can imagine such a loose structure producing disastrous results; indeed several critics of this movie felt that it lacked any structure or significant “meaning.” But in fact the film has a great deal of significance—it is only that it says what it has to say in terms of cinematic images rather than long linguistic interchanges.

That does not mean that the characters have nothing to say. Binoche, in particular, presents us with a wide range of actions and reactions that clearly signifies a woman on the edge. As a single mother (her companion has bolted to Canada with her other child, a young girl), faced with financial difficulties (she works as a puppeteer for a children’s theater), Suzanne is forced to balance her obvious love and devotion to her child with having to face the daily frustrations of a tenant (a former friend of her boyfriend/husband) who refuses to pay rent while assuming that he has the right to use her kitchen to cook grand gourmet and outrageously messy meals for his girlfriend and other guests. Her small, cozy apartment is for her thus both a cave of protection and a terminal where all those who might bother and threaten her gather. Binoche brilliantly alternates her gentle ability to survive and love with explosions of frustration and rage; her search for order—represented most clearly in her hiring a nanny to oversee her son— continually is coming into conflict with the disorder of her life represented in the clutter of her overstuffed rooms and her personal ruffled, disheveled appearance which, at times, she is able to stylishly allay. With a dyed blonde head of hair that looks as if she has just risen from her bed, she compensates with layers of clothing, beads against shoulder bags, leather rubbing against silk. In short, she is a volcano of emotional stress, gracefully bending to embrace her son Simon a second before she explodes into anger over the law suit she must bring against the man who lives below. It is as if all the dangerous, winding, streets of Lamorisse’s Monmartre had been encapsulated into one room, one life.

For all of that, we also recognize these crowded rooms as warm, life-giving centers as the innocent Simon and the amazingly calm and centered Song come to better know one another and form a close bond. The balloon of Lamorisse’s film is in Hou’s film largely symbolic, appearing primarily at the beginning and the end of the film, popping by for quick visits only now and then, floating mostly unnoticed outside windows and doors. Song, the nanny, is in fact what the balloon was in the earlier film. Herself a student filmmaker, she tells her young charge about the earlier film, explaining that she is filming a movie about a red balloon. The imaginative world created by the balloon in The Red Balloon is in The Flight gently imparted by the nanny, as she gradually extricates the private world of the lonely Simon and enters the intimate secrets of his life. And just as she invokes and shares the magic of the Paris streets with her charge, she translates the stories and wisdom of a Chinese puppeteer for Suzanne, whose new production involves ancient methods and themes.

Whereas in Lamorisse’s work people in general, unable to accept and comprehend the message of the balloons, were to be feared and shunned, in Hou’s version people must find their freedom within themselves, the balloon is merely a thing, an abstract symbol. It is as if in the fifty some years since the original film, the anthropomorphized object has learned to stay away from both little boys and slings and arrows of those around them. Hou’s red balloon hovers over a museum gathering of children as a simple confirmation of the interpretive interchange they have just had with art. Only in the mind can an object carry meaning and in the mind alone can an object effect a human life.

Los Angeles, January 5, 2008

Douglas Sirk | Imitation of Life and Nicholas Ray | Johnny Guitar


Juanita Moore and Lana Turner in Imitation of Life


Susan Kohner in Imitation of Life


Joan Crawford and Sterling Haden, Johnny Guitar

Mercedes McCambridge dances in Johnny Guitar

IMITATIONS OF ART
by Douglas Messserli

Eleanor Griffin and Allan Scott (screenplay), based on a novel by Fannie Hurst, Douglas Sirk (director) Imitation of Life / 1959
Phillip Yordan, Ben Maddow, and Nicholas Ray (screenplay), based on a novel by Roy Chanslor, Nicholas Ray (director) Johnny Guitar / 1954

and suddenly I saw a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

—Frank O'Hara

On August 21 of this year, I attended the 50th anniversary showing of Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life. At the Samuel Goldwyn Theater of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, the audience was also treated to a special interview of the remaining living major cast members, Juanita Moore (who plays Annie Johnson) and Susan Kohner (who played Annie's daughter, Sarah Jane) by Susan Kohner's son Paul Weitz and film critic Stephen Farber.

Although I had previously seen the film several times on television, I'd never before seen it on a large screen, which is truly necessary for this highly color-saturated and artificed film.

Behind my interest in seeing this movie were several pieces written in 2008 and 2009 by then-sixteen-year-old Felix Bernstein on various aspects of artifice in film and theater and, in particular, a brief discussion of the camp elements in Sirk's works. Just a few weeks earlier, I had also caught a television showing of the 2002 film, Far from Heaven, a film (on which I write in My Year 2002) that is an homage to many of Sirk's films and cinematography. In the end, I realized that all of these coincidences had led up a to necessity to write on this movie and its effects.

Certainly, as many have, one could begin by describing Sirk's Imitation of Life as a soap-opera, or—with another kind of backhand dismissal of the work—as a "woman's picture." In introducing the film to the audience of 1000 viewers, Farber himself, while clearly an admirer of the film, admitted to some terribly clichéd moments of the work, particularly in Sirk's montage of the passing years of Lora Meredith's (Lana Turner) career.

To my way of thinking, however, to use these adjectives is to miss the point. For the film is not simply a tearjerker or even a slightly over-the-top portrait of a woman determined to have a career, but is an intentional—if artful—presentation of the American dream as kitsch.

I have never been able to comprehend the great attraction of so many directors to the vague acting skills of Lana Turner, but Sirk knows a woman determined to be a star when he sees her, and uses Turner's exaggerated posturings to their best effect. In the interview after this film's showing, Juanita Moore revealed that Lana spent much of every morning with her discussing the events of Turner's 14-year old daughter's murder of Johnny Stompanato, Turner's lover, the actress often breaking down in tears. It is clear that Sirk could not have found a more vulnerable and over-wrought figure for his purposes.

Lora Meredith is a woman with a young daughter, surviving on the pittance she makes from labeling envelopes, who by accident meets Annie Jackson (a woman Moore herself described as little more than a Black mammy) with Jackson's daughter in tow at Coney Island. Even worse off than Meredith and her daughter, Jackson and Sarah Jane have come to the end their resources, without even a place to sleep. Jackson craftily negotiates a bed in the Meredith flat in return for all the services of a maid, and, in the process, quickly insinuates herself and daughter into their household.

Meanwhile, would-be photographer Steve Archer (John Gavin), who Meredith also met at Coney Island, has fallen in love with the Turner character: "My camera could easily have a love affair with you." Archer is even willing to go to work at an advertising company to support Meredith. But she, we quickly discover, is utterly determined to become an actress, despite the fact she is no ingénue. At the very moment that Archer attempts to propose, Meredith receives a telephone call, promising her a career. In response to his demands that she return to reality, Meredith summarizes her position and the film's often absurd dialogue: "Well, I'm going up and up and up—and nobody's going to pull me down!"

Indeed, like some rising balloon, Meredith quickly floats away from her moorings, and, as any reader of popular fiction might predict, ultimately loses touch with her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) and her servant-confidant-friend Jackson. Time and again Archer is sent away—indeed the platinum-haired Meredith appears to have become a celibate devoted only to stage and film—and Susie is given "things" instead of love.

If the movie stopped here we might easily describe it simply as a soap-opera. But although Sirk pretends to center the work on the achievements of his star and on the success of those for whom the American dream might be possible, his camera and the script focus instead on the "back" story of the Black mother and daughter living in her house. Although Annie Jackson has long acclimated herself to a the menial and forbearing life, her light-skinned daughter is as determined as Meredith to achieve the American dream, even if it means giving up her own identity and becoming white. While the white figures in the film seem almost oblivious to problems faced by Jackson and Sarah Jane, Annie herself knows them all too well. In response to Meredith's dismissal of Sarah Jane's attitude, Annie replies: Miss Lora, you don't know what it means to be...different..." At another point she summarizes: "How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?" That "hurt" is witnessed time and time again in this film, as Sarah Jane is beaten by her racist boyfriend (played by Troy Donahue) and turned away from all her jobs the moment she is discovered to have Black blood.

While Meredith accumulates, Annie, it is apparent, becomes more and more giving until she has little left to give except her own life. In those humane actions she becomes the only real figure in the film. The title may have you believe that the characters are "imitating life," but their true actions are even more perverted, as one by one they attempt to imitate "art." Just as the film intentionally pushes the limits of its own credibility, so do they seek out worlds that cannot and do not exist. Lora may have become a "star," but we recognize, precisely in Sirk's montage of stage titles, that her string of hits has all the craft of the mediocre plays of Margo's in All About Eve or of Auntie Mame's Midsummer Madness. Archer seeks to become a great photographer, but ends up as an advertising executive. Sarah Jane finds a career as a cheap singer and dancer in dives and supper clubs. Susie imagines herself having a relationship with a man twice her age (Archer). Through his use of popular clichés Sirk reveals that the dreams of this all-white world are also outrageously kitsch. When art becomes a kind of commodity, a symbol of a desirable something missing in life, there is little chance of normality.

The movie ends with another vision of art, with Jackson's theatrical funeral, attended by the numerous friends and admirers who Meredith could not even imagine existed. Decked out with a great singer (Mahalia Jackson), a band, and a hearse pulled by four white horses, Annie's funeral—an event created by Annie herself—is a fuller artistic realization than any of the performances or activities of the other characters. And that creation points not to art, but to another kind of eternal life.

Los Angeles, August 22, 2009


A few days after seeing Imitation of Life, I happened upon a television broadcast of Johnny Guitar, a movie I'd seen once or twice previously, which I suddenly saw in a new way within the context of Sirk's movie. Like Sirk, Ray has often been praised (and criticized) for locating his films in the context of popular genres (in Ray's case most often in teenage melodramas such as his Rebel without a Cause) and for his oversaturated color prints. In this work of 1954 Ray attempts a Western—if you can call it that. For Ray's "western," as François Truffaut has described it, is "phony"; or, if it is a western, it's "the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream."

As most commentators have noted, in Johnny Guitar the standard gender roles are reversed: the two major male figures, Johnny Guitar (played by a laid-back Sterling Hayden) and the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), are in thrall to the powerful saloon-keeper Vienna (Joan Crawford). Guitar, her first love, does not even wear guns, having put them aside in an attempt to alter his life. Vienna's current lover, the Dancing Kid spends most of his time with his all-male gang, only occasionally returning to Vienna's isolated saloon for entertainment. Brooding over her male customers is the simmering, glowering, wise-cracking Crawford, wearing various colors of blouses and pants, generally topped with a bright red scarf tied round her neck. Her lips are the reddest lips in the world.

A savvy business woman, Vienna has purchased her saloon on land that is destined to become part of the railroad, and she plans to sell it and her property as a railroad stop for a hefty price. The problem is that the bar lies in the territory of local ranchers who want no railroad junction in their open lands, no new development that might bring settlement fences with it. Led by an equally powerful woman, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), the ranchers are determined to rid their territory of the Dancing Kid and his followers, along with Vienna. As the movie opens, robbers have hit a stage coach, killing Emma's brother, and Emma and the ranchers arrive at Vienna's saloon to arrest her and the gang.

The heart of this battle, however, is not really financial, but psycho-sexual, for the Dancing Kid has also caught Emma's eye, teasing her with his nightly dances and sexual energy. Emma, dressed almost throughout the film in black, is a closet Puritan, longing for his company while, out of her guilt, seeking his punishment through his death.

In this very first scene, Ray lays out the entire story: Emma and her men will ultimately kill Vienna, unless Vienna kills her first.

The power of the film lies in its dialogue, witty, fast-paced, rarely allowing for a sentimental moment. Hayden and Crawford, in part because of their absolutely opposing temperaments, are near perfect in their dueling tangle of words. In the following dialogue, it is useful to note how Hayden speaks the lines which in most movies a woman might speak, Crawford responding more like a stereotypical male:

Johnny: How many men have you forgotten?
Vienna: As many women as you've remembered.
Johnny: Don't go away.
Vienna: I haven't moved.
Johnny: Tell me something nice.
Vienna: Sure, what do you want to hear?
Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you've waited. Tell me.
Vienna: [without feeling] All those years I've waited.
Johnny: Tell me you'd a-died if I hadn't come back.
Vienna: [without feeling] I woulda died if you hadn't come back.
Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.
Vienna: [without feeling] I still love you like you love me.
Johnny: [bitterly] Thanks. Thanks a lot.

In truth, Vienna has sent for Johnny Guitar to help her in her fight against the ranchers. She seems so self-sufficient, however, so able to keep the ranchers and sheriff at bay, that both her male suitors are almost insignificant. As she puts it to those who would take her off to jail, standing, as she does for much of the early parts of the movie, at the top of a staircase: "Down there I sell whiskey and cards. Up here all you can get is a bullet in your head."

Ray's male characters, like most of Sirk's figures, are ghostly like beings in the real world, living as dreamers determined to mold their realities around an imitation of art: music in Johnny Guitar's case and dance for the Dancing Kid. Consequently, their inner beings are as dimensional as the names they have created for themselves. As the plot meanders toward its expected conclusion, contrarily we suddenly see a different side of Vienna, a woman still very much in love with Johnny and a figure terrified by the difficulties she must face. She is the only one with any depth.

With their mine panned out, little money left, and accused of committing a robbery and murder of which they are innocent, the Dancing Kid and his gang determine to rob the small-town bank at the very moment that Vienna has decided to withdraw her money. The coincidence makes it seem as if she has been involved, particularly since the Dancing Kid kisses her as he rides off with Emma's and the ranchers' savings.

Facing the inevitable, Vienna awaits the posse—quickly rounded up while still in funeral garb for the burial of Emma's brother—dressed in a full cut white dress, revealing an entirely different possibility in her life. The scenes which follow, the vengeful burning of her "estate" by the now near-mad Emma, Vienna's near death by hanging, and her nighttime run are made even more strange and absurd by her costume. Dressed as she is, there is no way to hide, let alone escape.
Quickly changing back into blouse and pants, she leads Johnny into an underground passage that takes the two to their destiny: the hideout of the Dancing Kid's gang and the long-expected duel between the two women.

Determined to settle the battle, Emma fires up the ranchers with hateful statements similar in style to those made by the right-wing during the House on un-American Activities trials, a parallel recognized by many critics and admitted by Ray. Yet even here, the film does not rest in its Freudian implications, as the posse, sickening of the violence, leaves Emma to herself. She kills the Dancing Kid, the only man she has apparently loved, before turning the gun on Vienna (the name, one might note, of Freud's home city). Vienna shoots Emma dead. Love and life win out over hate and Emma's cult of death.

Los Angeles, August 25, 2009
Both parts reprinted in Green Integer Blog (August 2009).
Copyright (c) 2009 by Cinema International Review and Douglas Messerli

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Michelangelo Antonioni | Blow-Up




DECEPTION
by Douglas Messerli

Julio Cortázar “Blow-Up,” in The End of the Game and Other Stories (New York: Pantheon,
1967)
Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra (writers), English dialogue by Edward Bond, suggested by a the story by Julio Cortázar, Michelangelo Antonioni (director) Blow-Up / 1966

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up begins with an image of deception. Released from either prison or a flophouse (several reviewers have suggested the latter), Thomas, along with other denizens of the place, moves slowly through the gate. The skuzzy young man—whose face, somewhat like Pound’s metro image of “petals on a wet, black bough,” stands out (he is played after all by the photogenic actor David Hemmings) against the gauntly determined faces of the others—carries a small paper sack like a treasure, keeping his distance from his fellow inmates, seemingly resisting their friendly (we hear none of their conversation) advances. The moment they have walked away, Thomas turns and walks in the other direction, settling into a convertible and throwing the bag, containing what we now perceive as an expensive camera, into the back seat. If we haven’t guessed, we might at least suspect something is not as it seems—and, indeed, we later discover that the central figure of this film has been on a secretive “shoot,” snapping shots of the men inside the institution for a book of photographs he is planning to publish with the help of his friend, Ron (Peter Bowles).

Immediately after, we are presented with a carload of screaming mimes, what should be a contradiction in terms, out on what appears to be an obnoxious early morning joyride (I once quipped that all mimes should be shot at birth), but is actually a “rag,” a raucous mod-60s way of raising money for charity.

Thomas returns to his studio/home, ready to shoot the “birds,” dressed in the newest mod fashions, over whom he hovers while caressing and kissing each in order to get them to “perform,” while also alternately berating and verbally abusing them. Such evidently is the lot of a fashion model, for despite all the abuse, the women wait patiently between his frequent absences, while new would-be models stand at his door hoping to gain his admittance.

A quick visit to his artist friend Bill next door reveals similar issues of deception and self-delusion. Bill clearly is deluding himself about his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Patricia (Sarah Miles), as we perceive through her and Thomas’s intense glances, a relationship that later is more revealed in her quick visit to her neighbor after having sex with Bill. The artist also iterates what will be a major theme of Antonioni’s work: that his art often seems empty until he can extract an image or idea from it. In other words, what seems to be empty may come to have great meaning if looked at long enough or from various perspectives.

It is a dangerous theme for a filmmaker, perhaps, whose works have often seemed to some critics as being plotless and whose images, although stunningly beautiful, seem to many viewers to be disjunctive.

As I made clear in my discussion of L’Avventura, I don’t “read” Antonioni at all in that way. But many early and even later viewers of Blow-Up felt that it was without a coherent story, that its central issue was about illusion and reality, and that these issues were wrapped up in metaphysical concerns. The reviewer of Variety, for example, began, “There may be some meaning, some commentary about life being a game, beyond what remains locked in the mind of the film’s creator…. But it is doubtful that the general public will get the ‘message’ of this film.” According to Ronan O’Casey, who played the mysterious lover of Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) and the later corpse of the film, a reporter from the German magazine, Der Spiegel, “kept saying,” during an interview with him, “But this movie makes no sense—no narrative thread, no plot line!” A number of critics expressed confusion over whether or not there had really been a murder and a corpse.

O’Casey accounts for the confusion by reporting that, after vast over-expenditures, producer Carlo Ponti (who died on January 9th this year) appeared on the set, closing down further shooting, and that Antonioni was left with no choice but to piece together the fragments he had already filmed.

The intended story was as follows: the young lover, armed with a pistol,
was to precede Vanessa and me to Maryon Park in London, conceal himself
in the bushes and await our arrival. I pick up Vanessa in a nice new dark
green Jaguar and drive through London—giving Antonini a chance to film
that swinging, trendy, sixties city of the Beatles, Mary Quant, the Rolling
Stones, and Carnaby Street. We stop and I buy Vanessa a man’s watch, which
she wears throughout the rest of the film. We then saunter hand in hand into
the park, stopping now and then to kiss (lucky me). In the center of the park
Vanessa gives me a passionate embrace and prolonged kiss, and glances at
the spot where her new lover is hiding. He shoots me (unlucky me), and the
two leave the park intending to drive away. Their plans go awry when he
notices Hemmings with his camera and fears that Hemmings has photos
of her. As it turns out, he has.

In a luncheon meeting with O’Casey—whom his friends know as Case—I pointed out that the original story upon which this film is based is far more disjunctive and disorienting. In Julio Cortázar’s masterful tale—which, according to the credits, “suggested” Antonioni’s work—the photographer comes upon a woman and a young boy (15 years of age) apparently engaged in a romantic tryst. He imagines the boy’s excitement and fear as the older woman toys with him, entertaining possible endings of the story: the boy may join the woman for sex, the boy may get cold feet and run, etc. But suddenly he notices something else: a man waiting in a car nearby. His camera catches the movement of the man toward the couple, and he suddenly recognizes the horror of what he has witnessed: that the man himself is involved in the affair, that he has perhaps used the woman as a decoy, has, at the very least, been the cause of her flirtation. What lies ahead for the boy is not an innocent “first love,” but that “the real boss was waiting there, smiling petulantly, already certain of his business; he was not the first to send a woman in the vanguard, to bring him the prisoners manacled with flowers. The rest of it would be so simple, the car, some house or another, drinks, stimulating engravings, tardy tears, the awakening in hell.” When the man spies the photographer, the boy escapes, the man responding, perhaps, by shooting the boy (or woman): “…the man was directly center, his mouth half open, you could see a shaking black tongue, and he lifted his hands slowly, bringing them into the foreground, an instant still in perfect focus, and then all of him a lump that blotted out the island, the tree, and I shut my eyes, I didn’t want to see any more, and I covered my face and broke into tears like an idiot.” Cortázar’s story is not so much about deception—although the couple certainly attempts to deceive the boy—as it is about misperception, the impossibility of ever understanding the whole of any story, and the dangers of believing what one thinks he has perceived. In a sense, I suggested, we should be thankful to Ponti that Antonioni was unable to bring his film to even greater coherency, for then it might have lost any relationship to its purported source.

In Antonioni’s work the photographer sees nothing, a fact he repeats several times throughout the film. Neither does he proffer any imaginative observations. He merely observes a couple in the park, a woman and an older man, who kiss and hold hands. It is the woman’s demand for his film that arouses any curiosity he might have. The later appearance of a strange, fair-haired man following him—even though we may not know who it is (Case sites it as an example of the illogical film clips with which Antonini was left)—further hints that something is amiss; like Thomas, we instinctively sense he has something to do with the woman, reiterated in the action of Thomas checking the lock on his glove compartment upon returning to his car. When Jane actually appears at his door, we understand that she is not, like the other women in Thomas’s life, hoping to model, to get herself on film—although she tries to deceive him by letting him believe she seeks such a career or is offering him sex—as she is interested in getting herself off film by destroying the images he has taken. To Thomas’s first statement to her in the park, “Don’t let’s spoil everything, we’ve only met,” Jane responds, “No, we haven’t met. You’ve never met me.”

Accordingly, Thomas recognizes her deceptions, greeting her at the door as she attempts to escape with his camera; he, in turn, deceiving her by pretending to return the roll of film while keeping the actual canister.

Soon after, the two young girls, who have earlier stalked him in hopes of a career, return, also willing (but reticent) to have sex in exchange for a “shoot.” Thomas also deceives them in a hilarious satire of an orgy, the group wrestling about in, significantly, purple (the color associated with exaggerated literary effects and turn-of-the century sexual tales) paper like three young puppies rather than lustful adults. The minute he has finished, he orders them out.

Like his artist friend, the photographer attempts to extract meaning from his series of purposeless acts. What we and he at first see is nearly the opposite of what Bill does in his art. Bill’s art is made of thousands of dots of color, from which he ultimately extracts an image. Thomas’s work is outwardly a complete image, a representation of the reality he has seen in the park. But as he grows curious about the glance of the woman in the image and the sequence of the events he has witnessed—as he begins to enlarge those images—we are reminded that photographs are also made up of a series a dots; and the more frequently he enlarges those images the more apparent it becomes that they are not “real” at all but rather a series of dots imitating reality, things of art.

What he and we discover in those increasingly hard-to-read, blurred, and dotted artifacts is the occurrence of a real and horrible act; the seemingly innocent love between Jane and the older man was in “reality” a set up, the murderer waiting in the bushes with a gun. A late-night trip back to the park awakens the young man to a new reality: a corpse lies in the dark. Who to tell? How does one speak the truth to a society whose reality is itself blurred by deceit?

By the time he has returned home, his studio has been looted, all but one of the photographs taken. Attempting to report the events to his friend, he accidentally comes upon Jane in the street, but she disappears as quickly as he has spotted her. He discovers his friend at a party where nearly everyone is drugged, quite literally “out of their minds.” The model who has told him she is on her way to Paris answers his quip, “I thought you were supposed to be in Paris,” with a statement that exposes the extreme level of self-deception these people have achieved: “I am in Paris!”

The next morning the corpse is also missing. Thomas no longer has anything left to prove what he has seen, and can only wonder whether he too has not been deceived. Antonioni ends his film with an inevitable, Fellini-like image of a world where nothing but deception is allowed. The car of mimes reappears, entering the park. There the white-faced pretenders take their positions upon the tennis court, playing, in every sense of that word, a game, Thomas watching in bemused silence. Hitting the invisible ball over the fence, they wait for Thomas to throw it back. He pauses, considering perhaps to what level he needs to participate in this world of deceptions, finally joining the pack, picking it up and tossing it back. Just as suddenly, he also disappears.

In my reading of the film Antonioni has created a clearly narrative, quite coherent work about a world that survives on its own pretense, a world that depends upon everyone being deceived. And, in that fact, Blow-Up presents a world, which like a gigantically expanded balloon, should be prepared for precisely what its title suggests, a great bang, an explosion of the air upon which it lives.

Los Angeles, August 21, 2007
Reprinted with the previous essay as “Looking Back on the Adventure” Nth Position [England], (October 2007).
Copyright (c) 2007 International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Michelangelo Antonioni | L'Avventura






OUTSIDE THE FRAME
by Douglas Messerli

Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, and Tonino Guerra (writer), Michelangelo Antonioni,
(director), L’Avventura / 1960

When L’Avventura was first shown at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, the audience expressed their hostility to the film with whistles, foot-stamping, and derisive shouts. Although the movie was more enthusiastically received by the critics, and won that year’s Special Jury Prize, its American premiere resulted in a near-complete puzzlement on the part of noted critics such as Bosley Crowther, writing in The New York Times. “Watching L’Avventura (“The Adventure”), which came to the Beekman yesterday, is like trying to follow a showing of a picture at which several reels have gotten lost. Just when it seems to be beginning to make a dramatic point or to develop a line of continuity that will crystallize into some sense, it will jump into a random situation that appears as if it might be due perhaps three reels later and never explain what has been omitted.” “’Tis strange,” Crowther concluded.

If over the years Antonioni’s film has grown in reputation, even its admirers have continued to stress the film’s seemingly disjunctive and unconventional narrative. My beloved guide to World Film Directors (published by H. W. Wilson) describes the work as eschewing conventional narrative, as a film “without story.” Film historian Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, in a lovely essay on L’Avventura, reprinted in the New Criterion DVD of the film, describes it as a groundbreaking work that revealed that:

…films do not have to be structured around major
events, that very little drama can happen and a film
can still be fascinating to its audience. It also showed—
and this was harder for audiences to grasp—that events
in films do not have to be, in an obvious way, meaning-
ful. L’Avventura presents its characters behaving accord-
ing to motivations unclear to themselves as much as to
the audience. …They are, to use a word very fashionable
at the time the film came out, alienated. But to say, as
many critics did, that the film is “about” alienation is to
miss the point. The film shows, it doesn’t argue.

In short, while still admitting to the difficulty of Antonioni’s cinema masterwork, admirers argued—concurring with the director’s own comments published in his Cannes Statement—that the narrative was a non-psychological one, that although the characters might be aware of their erotic impulses, being conscious of them does not diminish their force: “The fact that matters is that such an examination is not enough. It is only a preliminary step. Every day, every emotional encounter gives rise to a new adventure. For even though we know that the ancient codes of morality are decrepit and no longer tenable, we persist, with a sense of perversity that I would only ironically define as pathetic, in remaining loyal to them.” Nowell-Smith argues that this non-psychological approach, in fact, changed the face of cinema in representing its characters as doing unexpected things in unexpected places, as acting in ways which are recognizable perhaps but which do not conform to the previous cinematic “clichés of how we think things ought to happen.”

Although I had previously missed viewing this important film, I knew of its reputation and had read just such comments. Upon finally getting the opportunity to view it, accordingly, I was surprised at how differently from both its detractors and admirers I perceived it forty-six years later.

Perhaps it is simply because I prefer non-psychological narratives that I saw the movie so differently. Or perhaps over these many years our perceptions of films and cinematic images have so radically changed that it is difficult to understand the reactions of filmgoers and commentators in 1960, the year when I had just become a teenager.

Maybe one should begin with the dominating feature of the movie: its images shot primarily in shades of gray, the blasted landscape of the island where the action begins, and the several small Sicilian villages and town—with their sometimes menacing and often liberating architectural structures—the central couple explore in the second half of the film, today still seem fresh. As we know through his other films (it is the theme, indeed, of his Blow-Up) Antonioni primarily is a filmmaker whose art is centered on how the camera reveals and creates meaning as opposed to using images to structure a narrative presentation of the real.

The narrative of L’Avventura, accordingly, is a loosely strung series of events. A group of affluent vacationers are gathered on a yacht off the coast of Sicily. Among the passengers are Anna (Lea Massari), her lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), along with Patrizia, yacht’s owner, Raimondo, Giulia, and Corrado. Anna and Sandro have evidently been having some difficulties with their relationship, particularly concerning Sandro’s recurring absences, and—as the group decides to swim and, later, explore a nearby deserted volcanic island, Brasilazzo—she confesses to Sandro that she needs some further time away from him in order to reassess their affair.

The visitors settle down for a pleasant sun-bathe, but when they begin to plan their departure, they realize that Anna is nowhere in sight. At first, they presume she’s simply gone for a short walk, and Sandro and Claudia, in particular, irritatedly search for her. When their efforts fail, the others join in, scouring the small mountainous island, ultimately peering into the waters about in fear of an accident or (is it possible?) suicide. Anna cannot be found, and most the group return to the yacht to seek out help from the nearest police station. Sandro, Claudia, and Corrado remain on the island, a rainstorm driving them into a small cabin they have discovered in their searches. Writing of the movie, nearly all previous commentators have been mystified or, at least, bothered by the fact that Antonioni’s story never reveals what becomes of Anna.

It is during the search for Anna that we first begin to perceive that Claudia and Sandro are attracted to one another; by the end of their search, they desperately attempt to keep a distance between themselves. Sandro leaves the island to check other nearby islands—compelled by the possibility that Anna escaped on a passing boat they may have heard—while Claudia agrees to join the party at the Montaldo’s grand house.

At their palazzo, however, Claudia becomes more and more distracted as she obviously feels increasing guilt for ceasing to search for her missing friend and simultaneously is drawn to reconnoiter with Sandro. Gloria’s vengeful flirtation (her husband has verbally abused her throughout the early part of this film) with the young Prince Goffredo adds to Claudia’s sense of displacement and frustration. Hearing that Sandro is traveling to a small town where a pharmacist has claimed to have encountered Anna, she leaves her sanctuary, meeting Sandro as he is inquires into the facts. After meeting with the pharmacist and his unhappy wife, the couple follows his suggestion that Anna may have taken the bus to Noto. As they travel in that direction their passion for each other boils over, and stopping briefly at a seemingly deserted village whose ugly architecture repels them, they consummate their love in a field nearby.

The rest of the story primarily concerns their vacillating passion set against the landscape of Noto. When they finally check into a hotel on the outskirts of town, having nearly abandoned their attempts to find Anna, they encounter Patrizia and others in the midst of a grand party which they are suddenly expected to attend. Claudia claims to be too tired; Sandro, attending the party without her, is drawn to a girl who, from a distance, looks remarkably similar to the dark-haired Anna.

Claudia is unable to sleep, and when Sandro fails to return, she goes in search of him, discovering her new lover and the woman having sex on a banquet-room couch. As Claudia runs from the building in tears, Sandro joins her, himself breaking down in remorse. The film ends with her stroking his head in apparent forgiveness for his sexual digression.

There is no doubt that the plot I have just recounted is minimal and that character motivations—some of which I have interpolated in my above description—are often left vague. The immensely slow pace of the film’s “story,” moreover—the director’s almost indolent presentation of events (it is not incidental that both female characters spend much of the movie in bed and that near the end of the film, as I have recounted, the major actor is simply too tired to participate in events)—draws the viewer’s attention away from the film’s narrative conventions. Nonetheless, I would argue that the tale of this missing woman and its effects on the characters are quite comprehensible to even a novice of psychological motivation.
This is not the story, after all, of two women who fall in love with the same man, but of the love of three individuals for each other. An early scene on the yacht soon after Anna has pretended to spot a shark (a clear cry for help), in which she and Claudia remove their swimsuits and play a game of “dressing up,” ending in Anna’s offering of her costumes to Claudia (perhaps hinting to her friend that she “take over” her life), reveals the closeness of these two women. I am not implying that the two have a lesbian relationship (although, given the film’s narrative openness, this scene suggests there may be sublimated sexual desires, a possibility reiterated by an earlier scene in which Claudia impatiently and, perhaps, frustratedly waits outside the apartment where her friend and Sandro have sex), but I proffer these incidents up as evidence that they are more than casual friends.

Let me play the role, for a moment, of an amateur psychologist. As anyone who has lost a close friend knows, there is often a mutual attraction—if for no other reason than to share in the inevitable guilt of surviving and the need to heal one’s sense of loss—between friends of that individual. If the relationship has also been a sexual one, as with Anna and Sandro, that attraction can further extend to a sexual desire between the remaining friends. As in many such instances, these two figures attempt to deny that attraction, which only ends in further frustration and greater unassigned guilt. Each can only feel that they are, in part, responsible for whatever has happened; and in this case, they have some reason to suspect they are personally culpable. The pent up emotions can gradually grow to enormous proportions until—as Antonioni has suggested—the codes of morality are broken. Claudia and Sandro are emotionally compelled to release their shared love for Anna in the arms of one another, and everything in their own pasts comes tumbling upon them in that act. As Claudia says, life has become complicated. The gentle strokes that Claudia shares with Sandro at film’s end, accordingly, do not emanate perhaps as much from her acceptance of his personal betrayal as from her recognition that in his sexual encounter with the stranger he has sought to assuage his guilt, to be reunited with the missing Anna. Finally, one must not overlook the obvious, that each of them is an unmarried, attractive young person to whom the other quite simply is sexually drawn.

The reason these characters seem so fresh to us and so removed from the standard cinematic (and dramatic) stereotypes is not because the characters act without motivation—any of the thousands of cartoonishly drawn film figures of the last forty years might be representative of such unmotivated behavior—but because they are so deeply psychologically drawn. These actors behave like real people facing intense personal dilemmas. In opposition to Gloria and Goffredo’s childlike sexual flirtations, Sandro and Claudia are flawed adults who act out the natural whims—the “adventures”—of mind and heart. The only alienation they must face relates to the empty-headed friends of the fiction in which they are imprisoned, for Sandro and Claudia are recognizably close to those of us who wait outside the camera’s frame.

Los Angeles, July 12, 2006
Copyright (c) 2006 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Juan Jose Campanella | The Secret in their Eyes






BEGINNING TO FORGET
by Douglas Messerli

Juan José Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri (writers, based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri), Juan José Campanella (director) The Secret in Their Eyes / 2009; opened in the USA in 2010

Winner of the 2010 Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film, Argentine director Juan José Campanella's film is a smart mix of contemporary detective story, love story, and political mystery, all combined with a bit of film noirish style, which makes it highly appealing, if not a great event in the cinema.

Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín), a former police detective, determined to write a novel on an old, closed case of twenty-five years before, returns to the public offices of his former superior, Irene Menéndez-Hastings to ask her permission for him to reopen the records of that brutal event. I don't know what secret the title is referring to regarding their eyes, but it is clear the moment the two reencounter one another that Benjamín has been in love—and remains in love—with the head-detective, emotions clearly intertwined with the case itself.

The murder of a beautiful young woman, Liliana Coloto, was, we are to understand, a shocking event in Argentinean culture. What we gradually come to comprehend, however, is that it is not the murder itself perhaps that has so shocked everyone—for Campanella photographs the corpse almost as if he were shooting a painted manikin, removing the viewer from any visceral emotion—but the events surrounding the murder, which echo throughout the culture for months after the investigation has begun.

No sooner have Esposito and his perpetual drunken partner, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) intuited that the murderer is not an iterant Chilean and his friend who the Head Prosecutor has quickly rounded up to solve the mystery, than the case is closed. Illegally, Esposito and Sandoval track down a former boyfriend of the dead woman, ultimately proving that he has committed the act.

Yet even as they prove his guilt, the Prosecutor, out of revenge and his own criminally political motivations, frees the real killer, Isidoro Gómez, using him as a goon to murder and punish political enemies. The case, positioned in the period of Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla's horrific reign of terror, is only a reflection of the insanity of the period, when hundreds of men and women opposed to or even thought to be questioning the government where conveniently murdered, dropped from airplanes or secretly tortured to death. It is perhaps that secret horror to which the film points, not to the hidden love between its two major figures.

What we learn eventually, in a film that perhaps has too many twists and turns to permit plausibility, is that the man who most suffers from this murder—despite the fact that the series of events also leads in Sandoval's death—is the young victim's husband, only recently married to her at the time of her murder.

Ricardo Morales seems throughout as the sort of perfect griever, a man who cannot escape the realities that changed his life, but yet seeks no violent revenge, only justice—an near-impossible demand in the society in which he exists. For Morales, however, it is not the larger picture that matters, but the cessation of daily life; the movie begins, in fact, with a voice over describing precisely his position:

On June 21st, 1974, Ricardo Morales had breakfast with Liliano Coloto for
the last time. For the rest of his life he'd remember every single detail of
that morning. Planning their first vacation... Drinking tea with lemon for his
nagging cough...with his usual lump and a half of sugar. The fresh berry jam
he'd never taste again. The flowers printed on her nightgown...and especially,
her smile. That smile like the sunrise...blending in with the sunlight on her
left cheek.

By the middle of the film, however, when questioned by Esposito, Morales suggests that the worst thing about the shell of life is that he is "beginning to forget," is unable to remember certain experiences with and images of his wife.

In Esposito's desire to write about this past, we realize that the two men are in similar positions. The detective himself is trying to recover something, the loss of an intense experience of his life, his rejection of the woman he has loved when he leaves the city to save himself from Sandoval's fate. As Morales has warned him, however, "If you keep going over the past, you're going to end up with a thousand pasts and no future."

Morales should know. For what Esposito finally uncovers is that Morales has himself joined the living dead of Argentine society. After intense questioning by Esposito, he admits to having killed his wife's murderer, that he, too, has become a wanted man. Yet both the detective and the audience perceive that there is something wrong about this admission of guilt. How has the man who admitted to have a "life full of nothing" suddenly come to have a life full of something, if only this guilt?

Upon leaving, Esposito turns back, observing Morales from afar. What he discovers is as horrifying in some ways as the original act. Morales has imprisoned the murderer Gómez, locking him away in a barn, feeding him, keeping him alive—but in total solitariness, in a world of utter silence. When Gómez discovers Esposito as witness, his plea is not that he help him to escape, but to make Morales speak to him. It is love that he has wanted, of course, that has brought him to such hate in the first place, the reason he had killed. And it is that love stolen from him that has turned Morales, as well, into a mad man—a man, like Gómez, with no future, a ghost.

Fortunately Esposito can "turn back," and correct his error by returning to life. He faces Irene, unafraid for the first time in his life of "complications."

Irene Menéndez Hastings: It'll be complicated.
Benjamín Esposito: I don't care.
Irene Menéndez Hastings: Shut the door.


Los Angeles, November 8, 2010
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (December 2010).
Copyright (c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Max Ophuls | Madame de... (The Earrings of Madame de...)




ON THE PERIPHERY
by Douglas Messerli

Marcel Achard, Max Ophuls, and Wademant (writers), based on the novel Madame de by Louise de Vilmorin, Max Ophuls (director) Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…) / 1953

The Comtesse Louise de… is represented in the first moments of Max Ophuls' Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…) by only her hand and arm—a fragmented and disembodied being—at home with the objects which she is apparently reviewing, the boxes of jewels and her closets of elaborate gowns and furs. We soon discover that she is choosing from among these precious objects something to sell—and as her entire body slowly comes into perspective, we comprehend that she is attempting to raise money to pay outstanding debts.

She is, so Ophuls tells us, a pampered and frivolous woman, who might have continued her life in such isolated luxury had she not selected to sell a pair of diamond earrings, given to her by her husband. Among her cherished gems and clothes, the earrings are, apparently, her least favorite thing—also an indication, perhaps, of her position regarding her husband. Apparently, she has had neither the courage nor the trust to tell him of her financial situation, even though it soon becomes clear that he would have quickly resolved the problem and overlooked her financial indiscretions.

Once we have glimpsed Louise we see the beautiful woman so attached to these things. Indeed, throughout the film, Ophuls shows off Danielle Darrieux’s beauty through her exquisite gowns and jewels in the manner almost reminiscent of today’s “fashion” films such as the recently issued The Duchess (2008). Ophuls has been neglected, in part, precisely because of the elegance of his films; particularly in 1950s atmosphere of abstract expressionism and discordant 12-tone music, Ophuls’s highly narratively framed histories of sexual indiscretion and innuendo seemed old-fashioned and out of place. Even in his otherwise positive review of this film, Roger Ebert summarizes one standard view of Ophuls world: The Earrings of Madame de… …is one of the most mannered and contrived love movies ever filmed.” As the reader of my essays on film will recall, I am a great admirer of theatrical filmmaking. But I would argue that, accept for the Macguffin, the reappearing earrings, the love story Ophuls tells, in terms of the great romances of fiction, is not nearly so contrived and mannered as it may seem.

One must also recall, of course, that any focus on women in 1953 might have been seen, in the testosterone-smoke-filled rooms of journalism, as simply uninteresting. Critic Molly Haskell summarizes that position best in Richard Roud’s comments: “What are Ophuls' subjects? The simplest answer is: women. More specifically, women in love. Most often, women who are unhappily in love, or to whom love brings misfortune of one kind or another.”

Obviously things have changed some since those evaluations, and Ophuls' work, thanks to intelligent analyses by critics such as Andrew Sarris, his wife, Molly Haskell, and Pauline Kael, The Earrings of Madame de… is now recognized as a masterwork, even though, as Haskell notes, it “never seems to attain the universal accolade of ‘greatness,’ automatically granted to movies like The Godfather or Citizen Kane.”

Ophuls clearly loved Louise de Vilmorin’s 1951 novel because of the recurring theme of the earrings. It provided him with a structure against which the “real” story, the love between Madame de… and Baron Fabrizio Donati (handsomely played by film director Vittorio De Sica) develops. But in order to even comprehend this structural device, we need to attend not only to the seemingly isolated and pampered world of Louise, but the society of the male characters, represented in an almost dichotomous manner by Louise’s husband, Général André de… (Charles Boyer), a military figure who seems to have stepped right out of a book by Ophuls’s favorite writer Arthur Schnitzler, and the romantically-inclined ambassador Baron.

Proud, loyal, and outwardly loving of his wife, André is, nonetheless, a man of action. Although he appears to easily forgive his wife’s indiscretions, he can do so only because he believes all women inferior to rational beings. They are to be petted and forgiven, never openly chastised. Like Louise’s jewelry and furs, they are not worthy of the passion of anger; they are, rather, possessions, like a military decoration one wears on one’s lapel. It is strange that, although most critics make a great fuss about Louise’s relationship (apparently a love affair that is never sexually consummated) with the Baron, they speak little of André’s mistress, Lola (described in de Vilmorin’s original book simply as “a Spanish lady”). In the French society of the day (perhaps still today) men are expected to have mistresses’, but women are to be shamed by behaving similarly.

If Louise is insensitive about her husband’s expensive gift of the earrings, so too is he to his wife—once he has repurchased them from the jeweler to whom Louise has sold them—by offering them up as a parting present to his mistress. Moreover, Ophuls’ revealing scene of Louise’s and the Général’s living arrangements, each bedded in adjoining rooms into which they shout their bed-time messages, demonstrates that, although André may be a man of valor, he is most definitely not a man of passion. As we discover later in the film, he does not even believe in emotions: “Unhappiness,” he declares, “is an invented thing.”

Is it any wonder then that all of Louise’s friends, the society world into which she is cocooned, wish her a better companion: the Baron Fabrizio Donati, a man whose life is devoted to social skills. Ophuls literally whirls the couple into a relationship as he employs Strauss’s dizzying waltzes as the modus operandi of their romance. Warned never to hope—the Madame is known for leaving all of her hopeful suitors in the lurch—the Baron insinuates himself into Louise’s world less as a male intruder than as an expert thief of the heart.

How different is Louise’s reaction to his gift of the same diamond earrings compared with the gift from her husband. Now, it appears, the earrings—which he has purchased in Constantinople, where Lola has given them up to pay a gambling debt—are among Louise’s most cherished things; she sees them with different eyes.

Pretending to rediscover them in the confines of one of her gloves, Louise proudly wears the earrings to a ball, only to have them snatched away again, this time by her husband, who recognizes in his wife’s treasuring of them, how deeply she has fallen for the Baron. His insistence that she give them up to her baby-bearing niece helps us to realize just how out-of-touch the Madame is with everyday life. Tormented in the loss of her jewels, Louise bends briefly to coddle the new baby as she breaks into tears. But the tears, quite clearly, have nothing to do with the child, but with the loss of her baubles. For Louise is herself still a child, and will never be able to share the fulfillment of motherhood and adult love.

The Baron may be an expert romancer, but he is, after all, still a diplomat, and with Louise’s various indiscretions—her white lies to him, her husband, and even to herself—he has little choice but to break off their relationship. Suddenly the object of so much love and attention is utterly abandoned, without even an escape from the life she was destined to live out. In the beginning of the film Louise declares that she wishes her mother were still living to help her in her decisions. Now she is left only with La Nourrice, her loving and protective nursemaid who would draw her into a darker and even more isolated world of tarot and magic. The violence and anger, lurking just below the surface of André’s seemingly calm demeanor, explodes as he challenges the Baron to a duel—a duel which says nothing of his wife, but is superficially based on the Baron’s opposition to the military.

Against love and diplomacy violence often wins out. Louise, attempting to halt the duel, remains on the periphery of the action—outside of history and event—as she has been all her life, unable to catch her breath. For one of the first times in her existence, her fainting spell is real, as she suffers what most of Ophuls’ heroines ultimately suffer, a heart-attack, a breaking of the heart!

Los Angeles, September 24, 2008
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (October 2008).


Copyright (c) 2008 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

Cristian Mungiu | 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days




THE COLLECTOR
by Douglas Messerli

Cristian Mungiu (writer and director) 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days / 2007

Filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days begins in a Romanian student dormitory, a decaying university building filled with students who run black-market shops out of their rooms, featuring everything from perfume to cigarettes and more serious drugs. It is the last days of Romanian president Ceauşescu’s Communist regime, a desolate time where everything is falling apart. And we immediately sense that for the two women, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), who share a room, their lives are unraveling as well. Gabita is apparently preparing to travel, for she is nervous and confused, and pleads with Otilia to take care of her finances, handing over the money she has collected to her friend. Otilia makes a quick trip to her boyfriend’s classroom, collecting another loan for Gabita and promising she will join him later for his mother’s birthday. As the director quipped in his introduction of this film at the Los Angeles AFI Festival, for the film’s characters “It is clearly one of those days when everything seems to be going wrong.”

This strange feeling of discomfort mounts as Otilia makes a trip to a hotel where she discovers that they have failed to reserve the room Gabita has called about. Otilia, accordingly, is forced to try another hotel, where she has no choice but to take a more expensive room for a longer period of time. Then she’s off to meet the mysterious Mr. Bebe, an appointment for which she arrives late.

At the hotel, where he is asked to leave his iden-tification card at the desk, Bebe vents his anger at Gabita for failing to properly follow his instructions and for sending another in her stead. As suddenly we realize that the voyage for which Gabita has been preparing is not a tryst with a lover or sudden journey home but concerns this hotel, where she intends to have an illegal abortion. Bebe outlines the routine, a sterilized tube will be inserted and Gabita will be forced to lie still until the foetus is expelled. There may be a lot of blood and there is clearly a danger of infection. Otilia is to make certain that Gabita’s temperature does not rise too high. He also outlines the punishment they will each endure if the fact of the abortion is revealed.

When the girls begin to discuss the cost, however, he pretends offense: Has he ever said anything about money? he asks Gabita. They are prepared to spend an amount others have told them it might cost. But now Bebe becomes enraged! Do they imagine he would undertake such a politically dangerous act for so little? It becomes apparent that the cost will be much higher—to be paid not in Romanian lei but with the rape of their bodies. Because she has served as the go-between, Otilia, despite the fact that she is menstruating, has no choice but to sacrifice herself for her friend.

Sex is only the first of many sacrifices throughout the film Otilia undergoes because of Gabita’s incompetency and lies, and, more importantly, because of the patriarchcal government’s intervention into their lives. Escaping for a short visit to her boyfriend’s home, she witnesses perhaps the only alternative to her college preparation as a factory worker (she and Gabita are “tech” majors): the role of a housewife who, like her boyfriend’s mother, cheerfully faces the complaints of her in-laws about her cooking and housekeeping. When she admits to her boyfriend what she has been doing, he can only proclaim that he too is against abortion, which suddenly forces her to perceive that if she were to discover herself in the same situation as Gabita—clearly possible given what she has just had to suffer—there would be no one to support her. In that discovery, she escapes the house only to have to face Gabita’s aborted foetus on the floor of the hotel bathroom.

Unlike American films, where the foetus would surely have been kept out of sight, Mungiu’s camera hovers over the bloody object itself, forcing us to come to terms with the reality and significance of the event.

Again Otilia is sent out into the night, this time to dispose of the foetus. These trips into the city landscape are presented in nightmarish detail, the camera constantly in motion as dark figures appear suddenly in alleys and nearly all public transportation seemingly evaporates. Otilia, like the audience, can only fear for other dangers lurking in this desolate landscape. Bebe has suggested that they throw the foetus down a trash shoot in a high-rise, and when she encounters roaming dogs in the dark city streets, against Gabita’s plea to bury the foetus, Otilia follows his advice.

A final return to the hotel pits the two women in the hotel’s restaurant against a wedding party celebrating in the next room, which only reiterates the fact that these vital young women have been given very few choices in their lives. And after another warning to Gabita to keep her secret forever, the film slams into a dark and sudden end.

Throughout the film we have observed the forceful Otilia gathering up things along the way: while Bebe sterilizes the tube, she rummages through his suitcase, extracting from it a knife. Later, when she is told Bebe has left his identification card, she collects it as well. More importantly, we perceive, she is collecting information from this horrible series of incidents, preparing herself, it appears, for the inevitable circumstances she also may soon be forced to endure.

Like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days—winner of the 2007 Palme d’Or of the Cannes Film Festival—is a testament to the millions of individuals who suffered and survived the bleak Communist regimes as they crumbled. Yet one need only look to the American political right to perceive that many still desire political and religious restrictions of what can only safely be a personal choice.

Los Angeles, November 7, 2007
Reprinted from Nth Position [England], (November 2007).
Copyright (c) 2007 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tom Hooper | The King's Speech




FINDING A VOICE
by Douglas Messerli

David Seidler (screenplay), Tom Hooper (director) The King's Speech / 2010, the screening I attended was on December 3, 2010

Tom Hopper's likeable film, The King's Speech, focuses its attention on the private problems of a very public figure, King George VI of England. For whatever reasons—the movie suggests psychological and physical abuse by his first nanny, the distant imperiousness of his father, King George V, and possibly even the mockery of his defects by his brother, Edward—"Bertie," as he was called at home, suffered a speech impediment of heavy stuttering. In an earlier age such a problem might have been well hidden, but in the growing industrial modernism of the pre-World War II years, radio and public broadcasts were growing in popularity, and the roles of the royal family increasingly imposed public speaking upon them.

Seidler's script nicely overlays several events that force the future king to seek speech therapy. In fact, as early as 1925, Bertie began meeting with the idiosyncratic, Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, and by the opening address at Australia's Federal Parliament in 1927 he spoke "with only slight hesitations." For the film version, his therapy is understandably pushed ahead to the year of his brother Edward VIII's inheritance of the throne, which he abdicated in December 1936 in order to marry his American, twice-divorced mistress, Wallis Simpson—propelling Albert, renamed George, to the role as King.

Similarly, preparations for the British declaration of war against Germany, which occurred on September 3, 1939, are apparently backdated three years (unless I missed a huge narrative swath of time in the movie), so that the important speech about war George VI is forced to make, representing his cure, takes place shortly after his coronation.

I can well understand this collapsing of time in relation to the potential drama surrounding the film's major focus, but unfortunately writer and director do not take advantage of the immensity of these events, only hinting, with a passing reference to the resignation of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin—who had badly misread German determination to attack allies—of their full significance. It might have added a great deal of gravity and meaning of this film to contextualize the personal events within the failures of the next Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, to comprehend the insincerity of Hitler, and the importance of the King's later relationship with Winston Churchill. In all of these international situations, speech was of utter importance; had the King not been able to reduce his stutter, he might never have become the great favorite of the British people he was during those dark days of War. Indeed, his daughter Elizabeth might never have come to power. Some advised that George's younger brother's son should inherit the throne.

For all that, the marvel of this film is the superlative acting of all of its characters, particularly Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue (despite the fact that my ears could hear very little of an Australian accent in his performance). The two play off each in other in a manner so extraordinary that one often feels the movie is much deeper and profound in its character studies than it truly is. Rush plays Logue as an outsider, an eccentric commoner with little respect for or concern of royal distance and social separation, while Firth brings depth to his character by straddling the two worlds, maintaining his royal reserve, while simultaneously struggling against family secrets and even horrors. It is no wonder that the people felt close to him throughout his reign.

The scene in which the reluctant King discovers he truly does have a voice, despite his impediment, is a perfect example of the acting skills of these two performers meeting up the wit of the script:

[Logue sits on the coronation throne]
King George:Get up! Y-you can't sit there! GET UP!
Logue: Why not? It's a chair.
King George: T-that...that is Saint Edward's chair.
Logue: People have carved their names on it.
King George: L-listen to me...listen to me!
Logue: Why should I waste my time listening to you?
King George: Because I have a voice!
Logue: ....yes, you do.

It is being in the presence of such actors and the marvelous ensemble that surrounds them that makes this film so close to great art, and the reason that I ultimately feel frustrated for its own temerity, for its refusal to incorporate the real world in which the lovely fable upon which this work is centered actually existed.

Los Angeles, December 4, 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Jason Reitman | Up in the Air





TRAVELER WITHOUT A BACKPACK
by Douglas Messerli

Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner (screenplay), based on a novel by Walter Kirn, Jason Reitman (director) Up in the Air / 2009

One of the reasons that many people do not like to travel by air these days is the utter impersonality of the trip: the blandly imposing air terminals filled with rushing figures who are herded into lines where they are half undressed and released into the hands of mechanically-smiling stewardesses who hurry them into cramped little spaces where they are discouraged from moving until they reach their destination. Even assembly-line workers might experience more variance. Yet this anonymous world is just what the hero of the dark comedy Up in the Air desires. As Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is described by several women in this film, he is a "man-child" with a phobia for interpersonal relationships. Marriage is clearly not for him. His big goal in life is flying enough miles to receive American Airlines' Ten Million-miler Executive Titanium card. At occasional motivational speeches Ryan teaches people how to travel light, to unload their backpacks, not simply of personal belongings, including their houses and cars, but to free themselves of friends, family, even their husbands and wives:

The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving
is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live
symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans.
We are not swans. We are sharks.

As a hollow man, Ryan has, perhaps, the perfect job: he and the company for which he works fire employees for "for bosses too cowardly to do it themselves." Day after day, he destroys people's lives without giving it a thought.
Ryan's own home back in Omaha, a place he visits only a few days each year, is a dreary one room apartment with nothing in it except a table, some chairs, and a bed. He lives for the most part in planes, hotel rooms, and bars.

Into this perfectly empty world comes a fellow-shark, the beautiful, witty, and wise Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) who seemingly shares the same purposeless passions of Ryan. A minute or two after meeting in an airport bar, they are slapping down airline, hotel, and car rental cards, comparing brands and privileges. The size of Ryan's annual airline miles is quickly turned into a sexual pun, and two rush off to bed with, evidently, several successful rolls in the hay. They seem perfect for one another, clicking open their computer itineraries to determine where and when they can next meet.

Back at the Omaha homebase Integrated Strategic Management has just hired a young Cornell graduate, Natalie Kenner (Anna Kendrick) who convinces her boss that a less costly and more effective way to lay-off the thousands of employees they process each year is to use the internet. For Ryan, of course, this is not only a major job change but a life change, one, we fear, he cannot manage. He convinces his boss and the inexperienced Natalie that before they transfer to the new system she needs to actually know what it is they do, in other words, how to manage people losing not only their livelihoods but their purposes in life.

Suddenly the film transforms from a dark statement about a hollow man, to a comic road film, as Ryan takes to the air with his new trainee who not only has no clue of what she is about to encounter but cannot even pack lightly for the trip. The experienced Ryan empties her suitcase as easily as he has his motivational backpacks, but he has a harder time in convincing this eager, highly committed young girl that his life has meaning.

The process of education is more than comic, however, as we gradually come to perceive that there is some kindness and even purpose in Ryan's man-on-man firings. At one point when an employee just fired painfully asks how will he be able to care for his children, Ryan answers that he should seek a job doing what he truly wants to do, become a chef for which, according to his resume, he had originally trained. Others are encouraged to see their lay-offs as new opportunities. The dozens of firings we witness are even more difficult to watch when one knows that many of the people were actually real workers only recently laid-off because of our current economy.

Natalie's attempt at firing is less successful, as an older Black woman, upon the young girl's offer of the severance packet, responds that she knows what she'll be doing; "I'm planning on jumping off a bridge near my house."

No matter how distressful their encounters are, however, it becomes clear that real human beings are better bearers of bad news than machines. When Natalie finds out that her boyfriend has left her it is through a text message, to which Ryan quips "It's like being fired over a computer."

In the midst of Natalie's sorrow Alex reappears, and Ryan and her calm things as Natalie intimately discusses her goals in life, the more seasoned pair assuring her that her goals will change. When the older duo announce they plan on crashing a tech convention party, the young girl joins them, and together the three, along with a young man Natalie meets, have a great time, with the audience now strongly rooting for the Ryan's and Alex's budding relationship.

The next day, however, teacher and student are ordered to test out the screen method. A beefy Detroit worker breaks down into tears upon hearing the news, and Natalie is forced to firmly send him on his way. As we watch him leave a nearby room and walk down a hall beside them, we witness her turning away so as not to be seen. What was previously done openly and honestly is now something from which she must hide. Summoned to return to Omaha, the two fly off to continue their work via computer.

The experience of working with someone and the growing pleasure of being with Alex has somehow changed Ryan while altering the audience's perception of him. He suddenly switches his plans, rushing off to his younger sister's wedding in Wisconsin, taking Alex along for the ride.
When on the day of the wedding the young groom suddenly gets cold feet, Ryan is enlisted to talk him into continuing with the affair, a bit like asking an undertaker to help with a childbirth.
Yet the brother who has steered clear of his sisters for most of his life, comes through, convincing the young man that life is only meaningful when it is shared with someone else. The wedding continues with a growing sense of romance developing between Alex and a now more vulnerable Ryan. This time when Alex leaves him on her way to Chicago, we can sense, for the first time, his utter loneliness.

Back in Omaha the computers are up and running, workers using their peers to test the new system. Again Ryan bolts, this time hurrying off to Chicago. The formerly hollow man is nearly desperate, we sense, to fill up his life, to entangle himself with everything he has formerly rejected. The woman who comes to door is called from within by a child and a husband. Alex's backpack is already too full for her to share anything more than one night stands.

A lawsuit has just been filed. The Black woman who threatened suicide has jumped from the bridge and died. Nathalie herself is fired, the computer program cancelled. Ryan is ordered back into the air, a man free to continue his job moving from city to city without even having to come up for air. But the man sitting in first class—whom, it is suddenly announced, has just flown enough miles to receive the 7th American Airlines' Ten-Million Miles Card—is someone else, a man with a heavy heart. "The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over," muses Ryan in the closing monologue. For him moving has, at last, become living, while he has become one with his vehicle of motion.

Los Angeles, December 21, 2009
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (January 2009).

Alain Resnais | Mon oncle d'Amerique




BATTLE OF THE SPECIES
by Douglas Messerli

Jean Gruault (writer), featuring the writings of Henri Laborit, Alain Resnais (director) Mon oncle d'Amérique (My American Uncle) / 1980

Resnais' My American Uncle is often described as a "didactic" film, since it features the theories of French physician, writer, and philosopher Henri Laborit, who is interviewed from time to time throughout the film by the director himself. Yet, I would prefer to call it a film "structured" around psychological and philosophical ideas in the sense that Resnais' characters are not so much examples of Laborit's ideas, but are closer to living experiments of his theories in the manner that Resnais himself, at one point in the film, comically suggests: as human rats.

These "human rat" figures include René Ragueneau (Gérard Depardieu), Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia), and Jean Le Gall (Roger Pierre), who each share a strong sense of individual identity, thwarted by family, friends, and the work place. René, born on a farm, is determined to leave home and become a financial success, and ultimately is hired as a textile executive; Janine, raised by a political active Communist family, wishes to become an actress; and Jean, born of a wealthy and well-placed family, seeks political power, becoming for a time the influential director of a state television station like RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française).

Given our current economic situation, Resnais' film seems very contemporary as all three of these individuals lose their jobs, coincidently becoming intertwined in their personal lives and situations. At one point in the film, Jean meets the actress Janine, falls in love with her, and leaves his wife. But their relationship, although filled with passion, flounders when he develops kidney stones. Meanwhile, his wife secretly approaches Janine asking her to allow her husband to return home, since she is near death. Janine, also feeling somewhat entrapped in the relationship, accordingly abandons Jean, but later discovers that the wife has been lying, and that she has now lost her former lover forever.

The painful encounter between them on Jean's family island, and his insistence that he is truly better off with his wife, suggests—as Laborit predicts—that she may react suicidally. Certainly, she seems to have no one or any belief system to turn to in her loneliness and sorrow. Yet Janine, who works now as a designer associated with René's textile company, remains strong, and, agrees with René's boss, that they must fire him as director of the textile firm. When René, who has worked loyally if somewhat unimaginatively all his life, discerns the situation, it is he—the solid Catholic family man, who attempts self-murder. He is saved by a telephone call from Janine shortly after he has tried to hang himself.

In short, if Laborit's predictions sometimes turn out to be correct, they are also miraculously thwarted by coincidence and chance, elements central to many of Resnais' films; and the human rats, accordingly prove more adaptable than imagined, suddenly forging fresh inter-relationships. Life, so Resnais suggests, may not always be a completely fulfilling and joyful experience, but, as these figures demonstrate, neither is anything truly predictable.

The fact is that all three of these individuals also live dream lives, lives of new possibility, represented in Resnais' film by clips from older movies starring Danielle Darrieux, Jean Marais, and Jean Gabin. Although human rats may behave selfishly, imposing their will upon others, although they can force each other to suffer pain or even death, as individuals they can also imagine themselves as someone else, as other beings filled with strength and grace.

Each of these figures also grew up in families that spoke of an "American uncle," a man who had left the world in which the rest of the family remained, a being who, for better or worse, richer or poorer, stood as a kind of talisman for difference or change. These kinds of dreams, these kinds of imaginative possibilities, Resnais makes clear, do not exist for rats. And so the tragedy is over even before it has begun.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Kon Ichikawa | The Burmese Harp / Nobi (Fires on the Plain) / Yukinojo henge (An Actor's Revenge) / Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters)



Two images above: from The Burmese Harp


Two images above: from Fire on the Plain


Two images above: from An Actor's Revenge


Two images above: from The Makioka Sisters

FOUR FILMS OF KON ICHIKAWA

THE PARROT’S BROTHER
by Douglas Messerli

Natto Wada (writer), based on a novel by Michio Takeyama, Kon Ichikawa (director) The Burmese Harp / 1956, released in the US in April 1967

As critic Tony Rayns notes in his essay accompanying the Criterion re-issue of The Burmese Harp, this film was Ichikawa’s twenty-seventh feature, “his first real landmark in his career.” And “nobody in the industry or the press singled him out as a major talent on the strength of the first twenty-six features, all of them company assignments….” What made this feature so different from those others?

Based on a novel by Takeyama Michio, The Burmese Harp had already received popular success in its literary form. Indeed, it had been an important book in helping to heal the Japanese wounds of World War II. As Ichikawa would later tell Donald Richie, “Oh, but I wanted to make that film. That was the first film I really felt I had to make.” But as Rayns observes, although remaining basically true to the story of the book, Ichikawa made several important changes that bring the film into greater focus, and affect the structure and significance of the work.

The original novel, like the film, is the story of a Japanese company stranded in Burma at the end of World War II, attempting to escape the British attacks by crossing over into Thailand. Without food, forced to march through often mountainous and always unknown terrain, and given little aid by the unsympathetic Burmese (the extent of Japanese war crimes committed in Burma would later be revealed), Captain Inouye’s soldiers are a frightened and vulnerable lot.

Yet, as the novel makes clear upon the return of the survivors to Japan, these men seem in better condition than other war prisoners. The secret, and one of the major themes of both the book and film, is that Inouye has studied music, training his men to sing in an choral style that uplifts their spirits—and, one might add sometimes also sentimentalizes Ichikawa’s presentation of the horrors of war. One of their men, Mizushima, has become an expert on the local Burmese harp, accompanying the men’s choruses, and using the instrument to signal news of his forays as a scout. Dressed in the traditional Burmese longyi, carrying the harp, Mizushima, his fellow soldiers tease, looks just like the locals.

The power of their music is apparent throughout the film, particularly when it briefly allows them a few friendly moments in a Burmese village where they are well fed before the villagers scurry off to their huts. Recognizing a possible trap, and quickly observing that the village has suddenly been surrounded by soldiers, the captain orders his men to sing as a ruse while they prepare for battle. But the song they sing, “Hanyu no yado” (a Japanese folk song that in English we know as “Home, Sweet Home”) seems to charm the enemy, as it joins in the refrain, coming forward without shooting. The scene might be entirely ludicrous were the Japanese not soon after to discover that they have had no choice but to surrender, since their country has capitulated and the war ended three days earlier. Music, accordingly, is represented not only as a force that crosses national boundaries, but is—for these men at least—a true salvation. They survive because they have not been forced to fight.

Another Japanese company in the nearby mountains, however, is still battling with the British below. Inouye is determined that his men and all others must survive to return to Japan and help rebuild the country. Mizushima is sent to attempt to explain to the remaining rebels that the war has ended and they should surrender.

His warring countrymen greet him with disbelief, perceiving him either as an enemy agent or as a traitor. Daring this company’s captain to behave with honor, Mizushima is unable to dissuade the unit, all of which are ultimately killed by the British; Mizushima himself is shot.

In Takeyama’s original book, Mizushima is “found and nursed back to health by a non-Burmese tribe of cannibals, who plan to eat him (a theme that reappears in Ichikawa’s 1959 film Fires on the Plain), but in the film version, the surviving musician is nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk, which completely alters the perspective of the work, and more thoroughly justifies Mizushima’s later conversion to Buddhism.

At first, however, Mizushima is not all interested in what he might learn from the monk, going so far as to steal the holy man’s robe as the soldier attempts to rejoin his company at a war camp in the south. Yet his long and painful journey (he must climb the rocky mountains and hills barefoot and is near starvation) radically changes him, particularly as he encounters multiple corpses of his countrymen and other soldiers along the way, all unburied, lying in the open prey to buzzards and other scavengers—one of the worst horrors for a man of a culture that reverences their dead. At one point, he is compelled to drag a few corpses away, burning them, carrying their ashes off.

By the time Mizushima has reached water’s edge near the prison camp, he has begun to rethink his entire life. Many critics seem determined to understand his acts emanating only from his traditional sense of Japanese values; indeed my former Temple University colleague and friend Joan Mellen argues in her book The Waves at Genji’s Door that “Mizushima has decided to sacrifice loyalty to a single group for devotion to a larger entity” uniting “himself with the family of ancestors comprised by these dead.” Accordingly, she sees Ichikawa’s film as “whitewashing” the Japanese troops, as a work with a “lack of consistent point of view or personal commitment.”

I see Misushima’s transformation, however, not simply as an attempt to reclaim the Japanese dead—although that is certainly one of his stated goals in his letter to his captain, read aloud at the film’s end—but as a recognition—a fact also mentioned in that letter—of the meaninglessness of his previous acts, the horror of war itself. He has no other moral choice, accordingly, but to escape his role as a soldier—Japanese or other—and take on a new role as Buddhist monk. His poignant refusal to recognize his own former comrades as they come upon one another on a bridge—a scene introduced by the director and repeated, in Rashomon fashion, from each point of view—is, in fact, a different kind of traitorous act. As the comrades repeat his name over and over in their questioning looks, he not only denies their existence, but the actions of all his countrymen, of soldiers of every country. In that very denial, however, he has forged a new moral identity, a transcendent existence.

Yet Ichikawa’s film is not precisely an anti-war film either, and that is perhaps what makes this work so implausibly rewarding. Neither direc-tor nor character lash out against the soldiers and their acts; they have only done what all soldiers are taught to do: to kill, to survive, to serve the higher order of their nation. Their continued wonderment about their former colleague and their determination, des-pite his refusal to recognize them, to have him join them in their return home, perhaps helps to redeem them as well. It is as if the siren song of music might lure him back, and with him some part of their lost selves. One of the most brilliant images of many stunning visual moments in this film is the company singing at the top of their lungs in an attempt to bring back Mizushima across a wire fence, faced by a group of local Burmese, their faces reflecting both the enjoyment and confusion of their enemy’s vocal performance.

The captain goes even further; seeing a parrot on the monk’s shoulder, he buys its brother, teaching it to repeat “Mizushima, come back to Japan.” When the men convince a Burmese woman trader (the wonderful Kitabayshi Tanie, speaking an Osaka-accented Japanese) to give the bird to the monk, we recognize it not just as an attempt to regain one of their lost, but, as the trader suggests, the return of one brother to the other, a temporary joining of the two cultures.

Mizushima’s answer, to return the first bird, whom he has taught to say “I cannot join you,” expresses only the inevitable truth: his spiritual journey can never be reunited to their earthly desires. After the two forces—the men’s voices and Mizushima’s Burmese harp—are once more momentarily and joyfully married, Ichikawa’s camera follows the monk’s silent turn and disappearance into the haze and smoke of the Buddhist landscape where he must remain.

Los Angeles, February 29, 2008


NORMAL PEOPLE
by Douglas Messerli

Natto Wada (writer), based on a novel by Shohei Ooka; Kon Ichikawa (director) Nobi (Fires on the Plain) / 1959

Just three years after The Burmese Harp, Ichikawa again tackled a story that focused upon the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, this time concerning the retreat of soldiers in the Leyte-Philippine front in 1945. In Fires on the Plain, all traces of sentimentality have disappeared; the commander of this straggling platoon, far less sympathetic than Captain Inouye of the earlier film, begins the movie with a harangue against one of his men, Tamura, who, having contracted tuberculosis, has returned after just a few days at the hospital. His sergeant, who hasn’t enough rations to properly feed any of his men, declares that Tamura is of no use to him, demanding he go back to the hospital and insist upon being admitted. If they will not admit him, he proclaims, he must commit suicide.

The seeming insanity of this command is only the first of a series of absurd demands put upon the living-dead soldiers of Ichikawa’s darkly comedic work, a tale which reminds one, at times, of Beckett’s utterly confused and immobile figures.

Tamura, played by actor Eiji Funakoshi, is what one can only describe as a kind of wise fool, a good and obedient man with little of the ego of the men he meets. When he is told he cannot be given a bed—men still able to walk or even crawl are all refused refuge—he patiently waits with a group of others outside the hospital, many of whom are near death and survive only on tubers the local farmers long ago planted about the countryside.

When the hospital is bombed by American planes most of the bed-ridden patients are killed, as the squatters and hospital staff run for cover, Tamura along with them. The deaths of the escaping patients, forced literally to crawl across the yard in an attempt to escape destruction, is one of the most startling images through which the director reveals the horrors of war.

So begins Tamura’s near endless journey through the Philippine countryside, as he encounters other men from surviving units as they attempt to reach Palampon, where they hope to be evacuated. Sick, malnourished, reduced to eating soil and leeches, Tamura instinctively—if mistakenly—moves away from these soldiers toward the few signs of life he observes, small fires burning across the plains.

That the path he has chosen is the most dangerous one is obvious. At one point, seeing a small church in the distance, he comes across an abandoned town, only to discover outside the small cathedral the bodies of dozens of Japanese soldiers, who en masse have been gunned down. Yet the return of a Philippine couple to retrieve a cache of salt they have buried in their hut, arouses his hopes that he can establish human contact. When he encounters the couple, however, the woman begins to scream uncontrollably, and after silently pleading for her silence, he is forced to shoot, killing her as her husband escapes.

Startled by his own violent actions, he rids himself of his rifle shortly before encountering a pair of outlaw soldiers, Yasuda and Nagamatsu (the later played by popular Japanese entertainer Mickey Curtis), who follow the troops only to sell tobacco in return for food. Gathering with other men at a road and river crossing, they wait for nightfall, hoping to protect themselves from American guns, but as the crossing begins American tanks turn their lights upon the escapees, killing many,

Those living, move gradually forward, some of them prepared to surrender. Again, Ichikawa demonstrates the impossibility of any sane action in war as a young Japanese man, waving a white flag as he runs toward a Red Cross truck, is gunned down by a Filipina guerilla soldier in an American jeep before the Americans can prevent her from what is clearly an act of revenge.

The long march forward is brilliantly captured in a series of dark, satiric images in which one soldier, coming across a dead comrade, steals his shoes, leaving behind his own; a short while later another soldier takes these discarded boots, leaving, in turn, his own nearly soleless shoes behind; another takes these up as he rids himself a shoes without any bottoms.

Near death and nearly mad, Tamura once again encounters his bandit friends, joyful just to be in human company. They offer him monkey meat, but he cannot stomach food and his teeth, now rotten, fall out as he puts it to his mouth. Yasuda, now unable to walk, seemingly cannot survive without Nagamatsu’s help, yet the later sleeps far from him, his bed hidden in the forest, because, as he tells Tamura, he fears his “friend.” And we quickly begin to recognize what Tamura is unable to, that both men are more dangerous perhaps than capture or even death.

As Nagamatsu goes in search of monkeys, Tamura follows him, suddenly witnessing Nagamatsu’s attempt to shoot another soldier before the gun is turned upon Tamura himself. “Don’t worry,” Nagamatsu assures him; he has no taste for infected meat.
The meat they have been eating, quite obviously, is human flesh. When Nagamatsu discovers that his guileless friend has given up his grenade to Yasuda, he hides in waiting, shooting his former companion and, while Tamura looks on in horror, eviscerating his body as he swallows down his innards.

Tamura has no choice but to slip away, running toward another fire he perceives in the distance. Of course it is dangerous to move toward what he has previously been told are places where the natives burn their corn husks, but he is now desperate to reencounter what he imagines as “normal people.”

In war, as Ichikawa has made clear, however, there can be no normality. Gun fire, presumably from Philippine partisans, shoots him down.

Los Angeles, March 18, 2008


ABNORMAL PEOPLE
by Douglas Messerli

Nato Wada (writer), based on a film by Daisuke Itô and Teinosuke Kinugasa), Kon Ichikawa
(director) Yukinojo henge (An Actor’s Revenge) / 1963

Film historians report that after a string of financially unsuccessful films—films that, however, were often critically acclaimed—Ichikawa was assigned to remake Yukinojo henge (An Actor’s Revenge), based on an older novel by Otokichi Mikami and previously made as three-part serial by Teinosuke Kinugasa in 1935 and 1936, starring Kazuo Hasegawa. Critic Donald Richie humorously describes the task to be “like asking Buñuel to remake Stella Dallas.” Yet Ichikawa, working with his wife and life-long collaborator, Natto Wada as the screenwriter, brilliantly rose to the occasion, even employing the original actor, in his 300th movie role, in the lead role of the Kabuki female impersonator Yukinojo and in the role of her secret admirer and the film’s narrative commentator, the thief Yamitaro.

With the use of highly saturated colors and a score that—despite the film’s setting in the Tokugawa period of Japanese history (1603-1867)—employs romantic theme music of the 1950s melodramas as well as contemporary jazz, Ichikawa creates a work that might easily be compared with the films of American directors of the 1950s such as Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray.

During the midst of her performance in Edo, Yukinojo catches a glimpse in the audience of the wealthy merchant Kawaguchiya, accompanied by the corrupt magistrate Sansai Dobe and Dobe’s daughter Namiji, the mistress of the powerful shogun. The two men, along with another merchant, Hiromiya, have been responsible for her father’s and mother’s deaths, the facts of which have been kept alive in Yukinojo’s mind by her manager-mentor. After all these years, it is now time for revenge.

It is clear from the very first scene that the beautiful Namiji has fallen in love with Yukinojo—the fact of which, given Kazuo Hasegawa’s advanced age and his retention of the mannerisms and dress of a woman throughout the film, merely accentuates the theatricality and artificiality of the work. Combined with the introduction into the film of Yamitaro, a charming thief from whose attempted robbery and murder Yukinojo escapes—and who comes to admire and perhaps even love Yuinojo—and Yukinojo’s repeated run-ins with Yamitaro’s competitor, the woman thief Ohatsu—who ultimately declares she too has fallen in love with Yukinojo—An Actor’s Revenge might be dismissed as a strange black sex comedy ahead of its time were it not for the Hasegawa’s brilliant acting and Ichikawa’s refusal to permit what we would now describe as post-modern intrusions to alter the focus of his larger-than-life historical adventure: the destruction of the evil men who destroy anyone in stands in the way of their greed and lust for power.

Through repeated gestures of servility to these proud men, several swordfights, wile, stealth and outright lies Yukinojo gains entry to their houses and is a given a modicum of trust which permits her to carefully weave hearsay and rumor into a net of consequences in which each man is ultimately trapped, as they turn against one another and, particularly in the case of Sansai Dobe, destroy themselves.

Unfortunately, the delicate Namiji, a woman—unlike Yukinojo (a man pretending to be a woman) or Ohatsu (a woman with the physical prowess and unchecked confidence of a man)—finds herself trapped in the net as well, and as her innocence is betrayed, dies. Yukinojo leaves the theater and disappears from sight and, eventually, we are told, even from memory.

In her story, however, Ichikawa has clearly created a legend that explores the complex issues of human sexuality more thoroughly than most films of the day.

Los Angeles, March 26, 2008



SWALLOWING THE POISON
by Douglas Messerli

Shinya Hidaka and Kon Ichikawa (writers), based on the novel Sasame-yuki by Tanizaki Junichirō, Kon Ichikawa (director) Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters) / 1983

Ichikawa’s beautifully filmed adaptation of Tanizaki’s masterwork begins in what is described as 1938 Osaka, at a time when families—in particular the noted Makioka family—join in strolls under the cherry blossoms. These first scenes of the film, rendered in the kind of oversaturated, but slightly fading images that we associate with the cinematic travelogues of the 1940s and early 1950s immediately tells us that this formal display of beauty represented by both the flowers and the carefully chosen kimono costumes of the major characters is a thing of the past, something that will not last.

Indeed, there is a kind of fragility to all of Ichikawa’s scenes throughout the movie, a quality of the film, in its extended close-ups of characters and theatrically presented glimpses into family life, that makes us sense we are witnessing something that at any moment might collapse.

Although Japan is at war throughout much of the film, and the shortages of food and products is every now and then mentioned, one would hardly know from the manner in which these sisters live that Japan was suffering any hardships. Daughters of a renowned shipbuilding father, the four Makioka sisters live in two houses, the larger house ruled over by the eldest, Tsuruko, her businessman husband (who has taken the Makioka family name) and their several children; the slightly smaller home is ruled by Sachiko, a more open-minded and practical woman, married to an accountant (who also is now a Makioka). Because of issues relating to a family “scandal”—the youngest sister Taeko has attempted to elope but the newspapers has mistakenly published the name of the third eldest sister, the quite properly behaved Yukiko—the two have moved out of Tsuruko’s rule and into Sachiko’s smaller domain.

The plot of this complex interweaving of family life, in some respects, bares resemblance to a grand soap-opera; but unlike, say, the American play August: Osage County I review later in this volume, the family battles and sexual intrigues, for the most part, in the work are kept at the level of a whisper. And for that reason, the narrative, at times, is purposely thwarted as characters again and again are cut off in conversation and forced to recover their restraint as servants and other family members come and go; these people most certainly do “duke it out,” so to speak, but smile and bow as they thrust in the knife. The tension this creates demands the viewer pay attention to every word and gesture of this wonderfully talented ensemble, as politesse is subtly transformed into bitter hate, as love quietly acquiesces to despair and pain.

On the surface, the major actions of these sisters center around the third eldest daughter as they attempt to marry her off to a suitable suitor before the independently-minded Taeko ruins all chances of family respectability—something that matters intensely to the Makioka brood.

It is fascinating to watch the procedures as the family meets each potential husband for Yukiko. The formal first meeting with the suitor and family members, however, is repeated in more and more informal settings as Yukiko turns down each marriage offer. The final meeting, with a handsome, young man of a noted family, is a somewhat embarrassing get-together at the man’s own home. Higashiya seems to have tried out every career before becoming a worker in a aeronautics factory, but with him, sitting in the least formal of settings, Yukiko finally finds love.

Taeko, meanwhile, who desires to become a doll-maker, and who lives alternatively with a young “rich kid” without any money and a photographer using her, it appears, to gain a studio, ultimately runs away from home again, this time with the owner of a local bar. When she tells her sister that she now is able to earn money by being a seamstress, we can only note the pained look of Sachiko, as she gently turns away, trying to hide her feelings of shame.

It is this subtlety of feeling and expression along with the genuine love between the sisters and their husbands that saves this work from becoming a Dallas or August: Osage County, that rescues Tanizaki’s great study of mid-20th century Japanese life from a more course expression of stereotypes. Although Tsuruko may imperiously resist her husband’s decision to move his family from Osaka to Toyko, she ultimately gives in to his wishes, seemingly recognizing that despite her desires she cannot continue to live in the past. Although Sachiko clearly suffers over her husband’s illicit affair with Yukiko, she wisely refuses to transform it into a crisis, quietly determining to marry off her sister as quickly as possible.

What is so touching about the relationships of these people is that none of them, except perhaps Taeko, will survive another year. As the fine, melting snow drifting to earth at the end of this film (the original title, Sasame-yuki, means just that: a fine, melting snow) these fragile women, dressed in their elegant wrappings, will likely be unable to suffer through the post-war destruction of Japan. In the last narrative sequence of the film, we witness Sachiko’s husband Teinosuke alone in a restaurant, drinking himself into oblivion as tears fall from his eyes. He has lost his illicit sexual partner, yes, but he seems also to be lapping up what he himself describes as “the poison” he and his family must soon swallow. It is their world, the world of people like the Makiokas, after all, that sent Japan into war.

The final images, set to an almost militantly sweet melody, return us to the picture-postcard world of the early part of the movie, images that we recognize no longer can exist.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2008
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (August 2008).
Copyright (c) 2008 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli