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Friday, May 30, 2014
woman of discontent
by Douglas Messerli
Gyula Hernádi (writer, based on a play by László Gyurkó), Miklós Jancsó Szerelmem, Electra / 1974
Miklós Jancsó’s Electra, My Love (also titled Elektreia) is a film that could never be made in Hollywood—or for that matter imagined by most Western European countries. A political musical, based on the story of Orestes plays, and centering on Electra might possibly be imagined as a kind of theatrical joke, but to actually present an entire scenario, presented in 12 long photographic shots is almost inconceivable. And, as Electra (Mari Töröcsik) intrudes upon King Aegisthus’ József Madaras) celebratory day—held every year for the now for the fifteen years since her father, Agamemnon’s murder—wandering in a kind of stumbling pattern through the crowds of dancing peasants, nubile nude virgins, singers, comic dwarves, and a column of stridently brutal flagellators, as she speaks her long monologue of sentences such as: “I, Electra, who does not forget. While one person lives who doesn’t forget, no one can forget.” Despite everyone’s attempt to ameliorate and calm the “mad” woman in their midst, Electra remains, as Aegisthus describes her, “the woman of discontent.”
We recognize, in these theatrical cries, the roots of a fable of serious political significance, in which Electra rails again and again against all tyrants, which people such as her deter in their very statements of the tyrant’s lies. But also cannot help but wonder, at times, whether or not Jancsó is also intentionally satirizing his own metaphors; even in the most grand epic presentations of royal ceremony, such as the operatic-like marches of the masses of The Ten Commandments or Verdi’s Aida, have we encountered such over-the-top obsequious demonstrations, as the peasants, like an amateur folk-dance group, run back and forth across the Hungarian putzla amidst the posed scenes of nude women and young boys. And, in a sense, we side with Electra all the more because of our recognition of the absolute silliness of Aegisthus’ celebrations, and his bread-and-circus solutions to his culture’s woes. Even if we didn’t know that Aegisthus is a tyrant, we have to recognize him, in these often meaningless song and dance routines that he is a grand impresario in the manner of someone like Cecil De Mille or Busby Berkeley, carefully managing the masses by parading them in patterns so grand that even they cannot recognize their own beginnings ends. When the peasants are no longer asked to perform they fall to the ground, as if drained of any energy they may once have represented.
Los Angeles, May 30, 2014
Thursday, May 29, 2014
Monday, May 26, 2014
questions and conclusions
by Douglas Messerli
David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame, and Kay Walsh (screenplay, based on the fiction by Charles Dickens). David Lean (director) Great Expectations / 1946
If, as some critics assert, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is one of his tautest, most compressed works, Lean’s film version of 1946, based on a stage version that had already been severely trimmed from the novel—in Dickensian terms, is nearly emaciated. Lean, had not read Dickens’ novel, so legend has it, before he began directing the movie. Yet, as commentators have observed, he often matches the spirit and tone of Dickens’ brilliant work.
The few scenes, in fact, present events that happen at a near break-neck speed, as the fiction’s young hero, Pip (Anthony Wager), wandering home through the local churchyard encounters the terrifying prison escapee, Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie), who not only threatens the young boy with death, turns him upside down to release any food that might be contained in the boy’s pockets, and demands Pip return to him at dawn, bearing food and a file.
With these two fast-moving series of events, we really have the heart of the story, the rest being an unspooling of sorts of the questions and conclusions asked and made by both the film’s major character and its audience.
Early on in the film, Pip is criticized by his older sister for asking too many questions, which she insists results in all the evils of the world. When Pip is suddenly told by a local lawyer, Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) that he has inherited money, becoming a man of “great expectations,” and will be sent to London to become a gentleman, the boy is again told that he may ask no questions about his benefactor. Jaggers advises: “Take nothing on its looks, take everything on evidence. There is no better rule.”
Yet the child, like his society, cannot resist coming to his own conclusions based on appearances, presuming that his benefactor is Miss Haversham. And like the prejudiced and bigoted society around him—a society that would kill innocent children along with their guilty parents, and, as does Estella, automatically demeans anyone of “common” lineage—bases everything on superficial concerns. It is that problem which is at the heart of Pip’s many dilemmas throughout Dickens’ exciting narrative.
Despite his growing awareness of Miss Haversham’s evil intentions, Pip still supposes her to be the source of his improved situation in life, and she, on her part, allows him to believe his own fabrication, further drawing him into her world, a universe bound together with spider-webs that knit together the emptiness of her dead life. Strangely enough, it is only Haversham’s minion Estella that tells him the truth, that she does not truly love him and that he should rid himself of any delusions about her. But here again, Pip refuses to perceive the evidence, seeing only a beautiful woman that, by societal conclusions, could not possibly be a woman of evil intentions.
Similarly, when Magwitch suddenly appears in his (Pip now played as a adult by John Mills) and Henry Pocket’s (Alec Guinness) flat claiming that he is Pip’s benefactor, the young man is appalled, unable to believe what is now quite evident.
Much of the latter portion of this work centers upon Pip’s punishments and willing corrections for his misconceptions and boorish social behavior, in particular his snobbish dismissal of his dear friend Joe. His attempts to help Magwitch escape back to Australia—he willing even to join him—and his struggle to repay Joe for his kindnesses when Pip, faced with debt, grows sick (events mostly excised from Lean’s cinematic version)—only emphasize that the man of “great expectations” has failed to live up to them through his embracement, instead, of societal conventions.
In Dickens’ work, Pip’s punishment seems also to include his loss of the beautiful Estella—a woman who, after all, has nearly trapped him in a loveless relationship equal to the one in which she has become entrapped by Bentley Drummle (Thorin Thatcher). In his first version of his novel, Pip merely spots Estella, who has been forced suffer abuse from Drummle, at a dinner party. But in the 1863 edition, Dickens’ revised the work to have his narrator report, after seeing Estella, “I saw no shadow of another parting from her”—an alteration about which critics have been split for more than a century. Given the issue of “questioning and concluding or assuming” that plays such an important role in this work, I would tend to side with those who find the change to be unfortunate, myself questioning how Pip could even come to love a woman who had so obviously and rather willingly betrayed him and other men, and who, we later discover, is actually Magwitch’s legal daughter, making her—in psychological terms, at least—a spiritual sister.
Lean, who generally in his films plays to popular sentiment, goes even further than usual in Great Expectations, creating a dramatic version of the ending that is the weakest moment of his endeavor. Meeting again in Miss Haversham’s mansion, the two face-off, Estella—hurt by her relationship with Drummle—determined to become another Miss Haversham, to join her mentor in her obsession with the past. In anger and frustration, Pip tears open the windows, throwing the moth eaten curtains and other of the room’s leftovers to floor in order to reveal that everything of Miss Haversham’s world is dust and decay. Arguing that he has never stopped loving her, he takes Estella by the hand as the two leave the house together, she hoping that she can meet his commitment to life.
If Dickens’ revision was somewhat sentimental, so too are many elements of his works, and his choice of a more ambiguous and even possibly positive ending, is still all of a piece with the fiction at large. Lean’s fantastical conclusion works completely against the whole logic of the original concept of Great Expectations, pandering to just those societal expectations that are created not by “evidence” but by “appearances.” One can almost hear Lean and his cowriters querying one another, “how can two such beautiful figures not come together and live happily ever after?” The result is a bit like suddenly marrying off Heathcliff to Catherine in a filmed Wuthering Heights, bannering it with a beribboned message: “And So They Lived….”
If there is much to be applauded in Lean’s film, particularly in Guy Green’s darkly etched cinematography, there is also, as in many of Lean’s works which he seemed determined to turn into literary epics, a great deal of unnecessarily restrained passion and outright schmaltz. If Lean was a perfectionist in setting up his camera’s every shoot, it’s too bad he wasn’t a better literary thinker able to fully perceive the consequences of his tinkering with the original narratives and their plots.
Los Angeles, May 26, 2014
Saturday, May 24, 2014
where is the enemy?
by Douglas Messerli
Alexsandr Dovzhenko (screenplay and director) Арсенал (Arsenal) / 1928
Depending upon which side of the fight you stood in the early 20th century between the nationalist, Petliura-led Ukrainians, the Russian Reds who had ruled Ukraine for hundreds of years and were desperate to keep it within the Russian borders, and the new-developed Ukrainian Bolsheviks, Ukrainian workers who sought some of the values of Russian politics but also fought for an independent Ukraine. The boundaries between these three battling forces were not always clear and, the Bolshevik position, in particular—the position from which Alexsandr Dovzhenko’s important film, Arsenal seems to be arguing—was seen by the nationalists as traitorous, and in fact probably did help in weakening the nationalists and helping the Russians to overtake Petliura’s troops.
Perhaps we should simply say that Dovzhenko tells his story of the 1918 uprising of Bolsheviks at the Kiev Arsenal features a hero, Tymish Stoyan, who seemingly supports the Bolshevik position. But the complexity of Dovzhenko’s work, particularly its use of the classical Ukrainian literary form, “the duma” (an oral lament), makes it difficult to characterize, just as in in his Earth, as a simple embracement of new Soviet values—despite the fact that the Russians themselves saw Dovzhenko’s “Historical-Epic” in that way, and, particularly in the Red-Russians’ charge across the Ukrainian landscape in Episode Six, the director tells the tale through the methods of the older tradition.
In fact, Dovzhenko makes his case for a far-more pacifist view in the very first of his seven episodes as the warring World War I troops attack an empty trench, while Tymish (Semen Svashenko), as a young soldier, arrives to find no one there, crying out as he tosses away his rifle, “Where is the enemy?”
Half-embedded corpses are scattered throughout the landscape; in another short sequence we see a German soldier, suffering from laughing gas, slowly going insane. Despite the continued assaults, the battles we observe are already over. But before they soldiers can even assimilate that fact, new battles are being plotted as Tsar Nicholas, writing a letter in St. Petersburg, seems to have no perspective of larger issues, writing instead of a hunting expedition and the weather. So devastated are the surviving members of the populace who some simply stand in a stupor, one not even registering the sexual assaults she suffers by hands of a local official; a mother who has lost her three elder sons, beats her young boy and daughter; a seemingly docile village man beats his own horse before reclaiming it and pulling it off.
In short, Dovzhenko asserts, at least subliminally, that the Ukrainian nationalist’s forces were in tandem with the Soviet-led Black Sea Fleet, which would ultimately, of course, abandon the Ukrainian cause to support the Soviet domination.
When Tymish joins the Bolshevik strike of the Arsenal, moreover, it is with less political commitment and zealotry than out of a sense of his identity with the working class, which throughout the film, Dovzhenko dramatically represents in dichotomy to dithering, confused capitalists who throughout the film shout out unheard speeches that demand total allegiance to their blather. As most critics have observed, Arsenal is less about the actual uprising that a singular battle between Tymish, as representative of the workers. Indeed, nearly all the figures of Dovzhenko’s film are types, symbols of their positions rather than realist figures who act out deeds of psychologically-perceived values. And Dovzhenko’s style and methods are far closer to the late 20th century director, Sergei Paradjanov, who, also using traditional narrative story-telling methods, created films that relied on a series of emblems, short scenarios dependent upon the visual more than action.
In the end of Dovzhenko’s film, as Tymish, attempting to battle the nationalist forces, finds his gun in empty, the character ceases almost entirely to be a “real” human being, and is transformed into an image that stands for all of the insane destruction which the country, and by extension, the world, has been forced to face. The attackers’ guns no longer can kill him, as he tears open his shirt, rising up—as Uzwyshyn argues—as a visual icon of Edvard Munch’s 1910 painting The Scream. Whether or not Dovzhenko was actually thinking of the painting or not, the image represents that emotion and reveals that the director perceives his “character” less as a figure who stands for a political point of view than as a symbol of the oppression such views impose upon their populaces. In the end, both the reactionary Ukrainian critics of the director’s own time, nearly all of whom damned the film, and the Soviets who saw in this director’s work a viewpoint close to their own, missed, it seems to me, the true message of Dovzhenko’s stunning cinema-making. Making films when he did, Dovzhenko had always to carefully balance seemingly political statements with his own, often avant-garde, film-making procedures. It meant that often he could not make the films he might have desired to shoot, but it also meant that he survived the years of Stalin’s purges without completely abandoning his own values in art.
Los Angeles, May 23, 2014
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
a poor house of artists
by Douglas Messerli
Alberto Lattuada, Tulio Pinelli, and Ennio Flaiano (screenplay, based on a story by Federico Fellini),
Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuado (directors) Luci del varietà (Variety Lights) / 1950, USA 1965
Although in the middle of the Federico Fellini-Alberto Lattuada directed film of 1950, Variety Lights, the central figure Cheeco Del Monte (Peppino De Felippo) suddenly encounters a world of poor artists who live on the streets of Rome or artists who spend their nights in “poor houses,” hotels where the poor sleep upright, locked into position by a wooden brace, the entire movie might be described as presenting a kind “house of poor artists”—artists who not only have little money but are poor performers, singers, dancers, and comedians showing very little talent playing night after night on the stages of small town Italian theaters before escaping, once again, the theater managers and others to whom they owe their salaries. Fellini’s film—and despite the co-direction of this movie, one would have to recognize it as a Fellini’s vision—portrays a whole world of delusional wanna-bes, figures, who have very little to offer, are convinced of their abilities to entertain and are enchanted with the flea-bitten theater companies that allow them the chance to strut their stuff.
Like people everywhere, these individuals weigh themselves by their survival, venting jealousies, false pride, and their desires for love as if they belonged to a wealthy opera company instead of the backstreet popular venue, which even its unsophiscated audiences often mock. Fellini’s and Lattuado’s version of these rough-hewn pretenders is comic and, at times, sentimental; but one might imagine, had he simply pushed his sense of the absurd and exaggerated his types just a little further, he might have ended up with a film closer to Tod Browning’s Freaks rather than to the darkly comic work he actually created. Characters such as Cheeco, Edison Will (Giulio Cali), some of the dancers, and even Liliana (Carla Del Poggio) may be dislikeable, but they ultimately find sympathy in the viewer’s eyes. They are not monsters, even if their behaviors might threaten to break out into violence and chaos. Checco’s new company, moreover—the one hecreates in opposition to the tawdry side-show in which he have previously played--is peopled by far more likeable and innocent figures, particularly the quite talented American trumpet player Johnny (John Kitzmiller), the Gypsy street singer (Vanja Orico), and the gun slinging cowboy Pistolero Bill (Joseph Falleta). Even though this company fails even more than the previous company with whom he worked, there is something redeeming in their far greater-innocence, their devout poverty, and their unquestionable devotion to their arts.
Although there are obvious connections between Variety Lights and later works such La strada and even 8 ½, I would suggest that this early film has far more in common with Fellini’s significant 1959 masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, two scenes in particular which predict the director’s satire of the Italian elite and their hangers-on. The one night that the often hungry and sleep-deprived acting troupe actually are invited to dinner and to spend the night in comfortable beds in the castle of a local Duke (Giacomo Furia) ends badly when, because they have interfered with the Duke’s sexual assault of Liliana, they are asked to leave; like the partiers at the castle of Roman aristocracy, the actors are forced to shuffle off into the sunrise like ghosts without a clear destination in their lives. Shortly after, at a upscale Roman nightclub, Fellini gives us a preview of the bacchanalian-like dancing and sexual coupling of Roman life, including the famed scene of men riding their women like animals while sitting upon their backs, featured in his later film. In many respects, Variety Lights represents a community not unlike the journalists and paparazzi of few years later—the only major difference being these poorer folk have a bit less imagination than their debauching brothers. But in that fact, in their simpleness, they are, perhaps, less destructive and more appealing that those who have reached the pinnacle of success these poor folk seek.
The final scenes of Fellini’s and Lattuada’s concoction reveal just this reality, as the now well-dressed, fur-covered Liliana, finally able to find success with a wealthy burlesque company on their way to Milan, encounters Checco and his company traveling in the opposite direction toward a small Italian village where they will perform that night. Checco is impressed by Liliana’s beauty and attire; she has clearly attained all of her dreams—or has she? We have witnessed her new role: her breast covered with pasties, she balances what seems to be an overweight drag-queen (or one of the ugliest women I’ve ever seen) singing her way down a staircase in a cheap imitation of the Follies Bergère. Frankly, I’d rather see Pistolaro Bill, the Brazilian singing gypsy, and Johnny the trumpeter any day over the kitschy burlesque routine which now pays her bills.
And Fellini appropriately ends his film with another train trip, as we tag along with Checco’s new-found friends, and, more importantly, his return to the arms of his beloved Melina Amour (Giulietta Masina), who he has previously abandoned for Liliana. Yet, while everything has changed for the untalented Liliana, nothing has changed, except the faces, in Checco’s company, as a new girl enters their train car, flirting with Checco as he flirts right back: great actor, director, agent Checco is a self-important fool who will never learn—perhaps for his own protection—who he really is. So if Liliana is blind to reality, so too, suggests the directors, is Checco. For those devoted to theater, only the few moments they stomp the stage floor has any truth.
Los Angeles, May 21, 2014
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (May 2014).