Friday, March 30, 2012

Don Levy | Herostratus

burning up
by Douglas Messerli

Don Levy (screenplay and director, based on an idea by Levy and Alan Daiches) Herostratus / 1967

Levy's 1960s masterful film, Herostratus, is, as critic Amnon Buchbinder has noted, "among the most influential of unknown films." Its method of imagery shows up in numerous European and American movies, from a broad range of directors including Antonioni, Kubrick, Godard, Resnais, and Ashby. Yet none of these can quite match the raw intensity and, at times, overreaching pretensions of Levy's powerful work. It was his only full-length film, clearly synthesizing all of his concerns—scientific, psychological, political, and artistic—of his short life. Levy committed suicide at the age of 55 in 1987.

      Although this film certainly does have a narrative, it would seem almost pointless to talk about plot. The film begins with a handsome young man on the run (Michael Gothard as Max) and ends with a similar scene, Levy's structure being, a bit like Hitchcock's Vertigo, circular. It is as if Max were living out his terrors as in a nightmare, never able to escape the endless pattern of disgust and desire.

     Dressed throughout the film in white, Max is for most of the work, a kind of virgin hippie, a man whom he himself describes as being at the bottom of the scrap heap. His dreary little room, its walls covered with newspapers and other ephemera, a doll hanging by its neck on rope, parallels his own inner state, a kind of empty rebellion that cannot seem to reach expression—much like the angry young men of Britain's late 1950s and the later drugged out hippies of both England and the US of the decade when this film was made. He is, in part, trapped by the social extremes of the age—extreme wealth and painful poverty—controlled by large institutions who use erotically laden psychological effects to sell their goods (even the orange latex gloves attached to the film's model, Helen Mirren) to the populace at large.

     His anger is best expressed by Levy through Max's mad ax-swinging revenge on his landlady as he maniacally destroys his own habitat. Yet he is unsuccessful even at that. He is, simply put, a failure at everything. Presuming himself to be a poet he writes absurd love poems while never having engaged in sex. As his nearby tenant, Sandy (Mona Chin), observes he is unwilling even to express his own mind, to chance engagement with the universe. The advertising executive Farson puts it best: he has created nothing, done nothing, been nothing. In short, he is no thing but an agent of the world in which he lives.

     In Greek history, Herostratus was a young man who, seeking notoriety, burned down the Temple of Artemis, a lavishly constructed tribute to the goddess of the hunt, the wild, and childbirth, by King Croesus, a building that was recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When captured, Herostratus not only admitted responsibility for the arson, but proudly proclaimed to have accomplished the act, hoping to gain attention. The authorities executed him, and, in an attempt to condemn him to obscurity, forbade the mention of his name under penalty of death. Nonetheless, we know his name today through the historian Theopompus's Hellenics.

     Max is burning up inside, perhaps, but puts nothing to fire in the world. With ax in hand, rather, he visits the offices of Farson, proposing a bold idea to gain himself attention: he will offer the rights to his own death, a suicide by jumping from a high building. The very fact that Farson actually considers this proposal reveals the extremes to which he and his society are willing to go to make money, his readiness to sell life itself, a theme repeated throughout Levy's film through highly artificed, somewhat surreal images of overdressed models and, in particular, scenes of a dancing stripper spliced together with images of the slaughterhouse, the carcasses of dead animals juxtaposed against the body of a living temptress: meat against meet. Even Farson's cold-hearted secretary-lover, Clio (Gabriella Licudi), wants nothing to do with Max's proposal, but nonetheless, is enticed into the project by sexually rewarding Max a final dinner and his first sexual encounter with a woman.

      The full level of Max's naivety is revealed when he falls in love with Clio, determined now, for the first time, to cling to life. Farson's revelation, however, that her love has been paid for by him, not willfully given, and his lies about her reactions to the hesitant boy's sexual skills, sends Max over the edge, a psychological reaction that, however, is not matched by his suicidal jump. Instead, Max accidentally kills a rooftop photographer, who falls trying to save Max from what appears to be an attempted jump.

     The "accidental murder" sends Max—representing a kind of tragic mix of James Dean and Malcolm McDowell—on the run once more; but this time we know that he has no place to go, that the run will lead only into homelessness and death. The actor who played Max, Gothard, himself committed suicide in 1992, at the age of 53.

Los Angeles, March 29, 2012

Monday, March 26, 2012

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne | Le Gamin au véto (The Kid with a Bike)

the case of the missing father
by Douglas Messerli

Jean-Piere Dardenne and Luc Dardenne (writers and directors) Le Gamin au véto (The Kid with a Bike) / 2011, USA 2012

My companion Howard and I had arranged for tickets to see the Dardenne brothers' The Kid with a Bike at the Los Angeles AFI Film Festival in 2011, but at the last moment the festival switched the time of that movie with another, and we determined, to our disappointment, not to wait around to see the Dardennes.

     I was joyful, therefore, to be able to see the film at the local theaters in March of 2012, particularly since, as readers of my reviews well know, I am a big fan of the Belgian film makers.

     Although a bit smaller in scale than some of their other films, as well as missing some of the issues of race and immigration that underlay their other films, The Kid with a Bike is in keeping with their oeuvre, particularly L'Enfant and the father-son relationship in La Promesse. As in L'Enfant, where actor Jérémie Renier sells his newborn baby on the black market and later uses young boys to commit criminal acts, in The Kid with a Bike the same actor has rid himself of the burden of his son, Cyril (the charming Thomas Doret) before the film has begun, locking him away—at least that is the way Cyril sees it—in an institution for unwanted children. Apparently, it has all happened very quickly with little explanation, although we later comprehend that the father, Guy Catoul, has gone bankrupt and is without the resources and abilities to raise his son.

     For Cyril, who clearly adored his father, the facts are nearly inconceivable; surely his father would not have sold his bicycle! And throughout the first third of the movie, Cyril tries to escape time after time, in an attempt to return to his original apartment, hoping to be reunited with his father. Tracked down by institutional officials, Cyril escapes into a doctor's office within the apartment building, clinging to a woman patient in defiance of their determination to again "imprison" him. Hoping to convince Cyril of his father's absence, the officials allow him to return to his apartment where he finds no sign of his former life, later discovering that, despite his disbelief, his father has actually sold the bike.

     A day later, the woman patient, Samantha (Cécile de France), touched by the incident, arrives with the bicycle she has purchased back from the buyer, returning it to the boy. For the child, the bike clearly represents his only link with his beloved father and previous life, beautifully showing off his cycling skills to the woman before asking her to become his weekend guardian, to which she surprisingly agrees.

     The search for his missing father, however, does not end, as Cyril tries desperately to track down his father's whereabouts. Finally, on one of his weekend visits, Samantha, who has gotten the father's address from the institution, arranges for a meeting between father and son, warning Cyril not to expect too much.

     Whey Guy does not show up for their meeting, she doggedly visits his apartment where his current lover reveals that he "setting up" her restaurant for the night's dinner crowd. Even at the restaurant, however, Samantha and Cyril are rebuffed. Although the boy sees his father inside through a window, Guy has turned on the music so loudly—evidence surely of his attempts to block out the real world—that he will not respond to their knocks. When they finally face off with the man through a back entrance, the father-son conversation does not at all go smoothly, as both try to briefly pretend that nothing has come between them. Cyril pleads with his father to take him back soon, or, at least, call him, carefully repeating his phone number at the institution. But it is painfully clear that he will do no such thing, and when Samantha returns to claim the boy, Guy takes her aside, demanding that she tell Cyril he must never come back, insisting that seeing his son is too stressful, betraying the selfishness of this man-boy who will not even consider what his rejection has done to the child. As she begins to drive away Samantha attempts to relay his dreadful message, but returns to demand the father tell his son himself what he has told her. Cyril hears the awful news stoically, but as he and Samantha begin to drive off, falls into a fit of self-destructing blows to his head. His face remains scratched throughout much of the rest of the film.

     Lovingly, Samantha begins to try to restore some sense of love to the distraught boy—even though it costs her a own love relationship—but her attempts seem to fall on deaf ears. Although it is clear Cyril wants and needs her love, the only prize of his life comes from his past, in the form his bicycle, which local teens try to steal from him several times. This leads, ultimately, to a meeting with a man, Wes, who describes himself as "The Dealer," as he woos the young kid—whom he names "Pitbull," on account of Cyril's fierce fighting battles with those who would steal his bike. Slowly pulling in the young Cyril, in a scene that parallels exactly what a sexual predator might do to draw a victim closer (a grown man, he invites Cyril into his bedroom to play electronic games), Wes offers a place for him to stay and a kind of "brotherly" love missing from the boy's life.

     Samantha is justifiably angry with Cyril's refusal to answer his phone during the games, and even more terrified by his encounter with "The Dealer." What she does not know is that the petty criminal is already plotting to use Cyril in a criminal action where he will hit a cafe owner over the head with a bat, stealing his daily earnings.

     When Cyril attempts to leave the house, Samantha locks him up, even pulling him away from a second attempted escape from a second-story window. When he finally attempts to leave through her attached hair-salon, she pulls him back yet again, this time with his stabbing her in the arm with a shop utensil and escaping into the night.   

     Cyril nervously enacts the attack, but is forced to also bludgeon the man's young son when he suddenly appears on the scene.  Since Cyril may have been seen by the son, Wes refuses to take the money the boy has stolen, rejecting Cyril and warning him that he will kill him if he involves the man in any way with the event.

     Having now been rejected even by the outsider, Cyril returns to the restaurant where is father is chef, presenting him with a gift of his robbery, hoping, of course, to allow Guy to invite the boy back into his life. When his father yet again refuses to have anything to do with his son, sending back over the wall into the night, the boy Cyril drops the stash and rides off, returning to the only place he has left to go, Samantha's house. The police have been to see her, and with Cyril she drives to the station.

     In the penultimate scene of the film, restitution is made: the money has been found and returned, "The Dealer" locked up, Samantha agreeing to pay for the father and son's hospital bill. Cyril is made to present a formal apology. The father accepts, but his son, who refuses the apology, has not joined him at the meeting.

     Cyril has finally come to terms with his situation, his former violence qualmed as he joins Samantha for a bicycle outing and picnic, he agreeing to her plans for an evening barbecue with a young friend and their family. Sent out to pick up some charcoal for the grill, Cyril is accosted by the boy he has clubbed and is forced to escape back into the wooded area where "The Dealer" and his gang have a small shack. In order to escape his attacker's blows, Cyril climbs a tree, for which the other boy retaliates by throwing a rock which hits Cyril, sending him into a fall to the ground. Startled by the series of events, the attacker reunites with his father who demands they call an ambulance. At the same time, however, he cautions his son that if Cyril is dead, they should claim that the boy attacked him, instead of the other way around. Before the ambulance arrives, however, Cyril, still somewhat shaken, stands up. The cafe owner insists that he wait for the ambulance—he may have a concussion—but the boy refuses, moving off to his bike and purchase of charcoal, riding away, presumably to his new home and life.

     Throughout this touching film, the themes have centered upon escape and an attempt to return to a world that no longer exists, both of which result mostly in violence and obfuscation. By film's end, however, the central character has discovered how to accept nearly unbearable facts, and with that acceptance has come a stronger love and sense of family that he had previously had. If the world seems cruel and unjust, so suggest the Dardennes, one can survive through faith and a belief in a new life. As usual, the filmmakers have transformed a realistically simple story, one that may occur thousands of times each day, into a kind of situational fairytale that helps us to find moral ground.

Los Angeles, March 25, 2012

Saturday, March 24, 2012

David Lean | Brief Encounter

an overwhelming desire
by Douglas Messerli

Noël Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, and Ronald Neame (uncredited, based on a play by Noël Coward), David Lean (director) Brief Encounter / 1945, USA 1946

Flip through almost any standard video guide and you will read of the high praises for David Lean's romantic melodrama, Brief Encounter—so much so that, at times, one might almost think of the film as a British classic. Halliwell's Film Guide (a volume intolerant to most movies) declares of the film, for example, "An outstanding example of good middle-class cinema turned by sheer professional craft into a masterpiece." On the other hand, as my favorite quick guide, Time Out, argues: "Much beloved, but still exemplary in demonstrating what is wrong with so much of British cinema,"

     The work has a story, even though it is hard to say the film has real "events." A suburban woman of Milford, England, Laura (Celia Johnson) once a week travels to the city where, after shopping, she takes in a movie theater, returning by the evening train to her conventional marriage and two children. Much of the story centers around the small tearoom, and it's mostly comical residents, near the train's waiting platform, wherein travelers sip tea and munch on pastries.

     On one such visit, Laura stands on the platform when another train, not stopping there, passes, throwing a small cinder into her eye. Inside the tearoom she asks for a glass a water to wash her eye free of the painful bit of grit, whereupon a man, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), stands up to help, noting that he is a doctor.

      This simple event is almost forgotten until the following week the two run into each other again, this time at a busy restaurant where almost every table is taken. Accordingly, the two share a table and, later, an afternoon at the movie house. Charmed by the idealistic doctor, Laura intrigues the married Alec with her strong sense of self and her easy laugh (as he later puts it: "I love you. I love your wide eyes, the way you smile, your shyness, and the way you laugh at my jokes"). Feeling a bit guilty, the couple furtively make plans to repeat their outing the next week, but this time the doctor, who fills in once a week at the local hospital for a friend, does not show up until Laura is at the tearoom at the train station, where he hurriedly explains his absence as his train, traveling in the opposite direction as hers, arrives. The two again plan an outing the next week.

      Their next venture together, a comical boating trip downstream, quickly develops into a furtive relationship, in which they both admit their love for one another. When they take a drive into the country on this penultimate meeting, however, he purposely misses his train, intending to stay at his doctor-friend's flat, into which he invites her. She refuses, returning to the station and her voyage back to Milford, but at the very last moment, rushes from her train, running through the rain to the flat in which she has left Alec. At almost the same instant she arrives, however, the friend returns early, so that she is forced to rush out the back entrance, ashamed for what has almost occurred.

     Realizing the impossibility of their relationship, and the dark consequences arising in both their relationships with their spouses, he announces upon their final meeting that he will be traveling with his family to Africa, and will never see her again. Painfully, they sit together in the tearoom—which, in fact, has been the very first scene of the film—awaiting perhaps a tender goodbye, until one of Laura's chattering, suburban friends enters, and the two are unable to say anything. When Alec's train arrives he has no option but to tenderly squeeze her shoulder before disappearing forever, Laura rushing out of the tearoom as another train passes, possibly intending suicide to squelch what she describes:

                 I had no thoughts at all, only an overwhelming desire not to
                 feel anything ever again.

She returns, however, to the tearoom, riding home with her incessantly chatting friend to suffer out the night, as she mentally repeats the events to her seemingly unaware husband, as he studies a crossword puzzle. As they are about to go up to bed, he approaches her:

              Fred Jesson: You've been a long way away.
              Laura Jesson. Yes.
              Fred Jesson: Thank you for coming back to me.

So this tale of guilt for an imaginative, if not actual, sexual digression ends.

     Perhaps in the immediate postwar context of English and American life, wherein returning soldiers might have at least wondered about the faithfulness of their wives during their absence, this all meant something. Lean seems focus to play on the chastity of Laura despite her duplicity and her would-be faithlessness. The lure of  illicit sex seems perfectly balanced with the draws of home and hearth.

      Yet the dramatization of these events, accompanied by the lush romanticism of Sergei Rachmanioff's Paino Concerto No. 2, seems almost goofy, as if some high drama where being played out through perfectly ordinary events. As Laura herself describes her condition, she is almost hysterical about feelings that "can't last."

               This misery can't last. I must remember that and try to control myself.
               Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts
               very long. There'll come a time in the future when I shan't mind about
               this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheer-
               fully how sill I was.

   But she does not want to forget, but to remember, for Alec is clearly the superior of the two men in her life, just as we suspect (without ever being allowed to see her) that Laura is a better choice for his love than Alec's wife. At least, Alec is allowed to have an adventure; he is on his way, after all, to Africa, while Laura must remain in the little community of Milford with no real actions behind the passion she has inwardly felt. One almost feels she has been a bit betrayed by her creators, having asked her to express such intense emotions for no sensual rewards. What is there even that she might be allowed to remember?

     The film, accordingly, has riled up for both its central character and its audience feelings that are never fulfilled, transforming the cinema from being a true romance or even melodrama into merely a symbol of one. It's so hard to get excited, I am afraid, over a symbol. One has to ask, what is all the fuss about? Although Laura may have temporarily been caught up in an "overwhelming desire," this viewer, at least, is thoroughly underwhelmed.   

Los Angeles, March 23, 2012

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dziga Vertov | Man with a Movie Camera / Three Heroines

the mad cameraman

Dziga Vertov (writer and director) Человек с киноаппаратом (Man with a Movie Camera) / 1929
by Douglas Messerli

Vertov's film begins with a written prologue:

                    The film Man with a Movie Camera represents

                    of visual phenomena
                    WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCENARIO
                    WITHOUT THE HELP OF THEATRE
                    (a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
                    This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the
                        creation - ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY - on the basis of its
                        complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.

 Vertov had randomly shot over 1,775 shots, employing his wife Elizaveta Svilova to cut and piece them together as a representation of a day in the life of a city (in this case, Odessa) in 1929.

      Certainly Man with a Movie Camera is intentionally experimental, using numerous techniques from double exposures, slow motion, freeze frames, split screens, close-ups, and long tracking shots to what is described as Dutch angles, a tilt of the camera to the side creating vertical lines at an angle to the frame.

      Yet one certainly cannot describe this documentary as being without narrative. It begins, in fact, with the above manifesto as a kind prologue before showing, from within, a movie house, as the crowd enters, the seats seeming to automatically fall from upright position to the horizontal in long rows. The crowd is seated, a curtain rises, and an orchestra is poised to begin as a short stasis creates tension before the conductor brings down his baton on the Alloy Orchestra, a group which creates not only a driving rhythmic music but incorporates sounds such as sirens, crowd noise, the cries of babies and much else.

     The narrative is made immediately apparent, as a woman is seen sleeping upon a bed, an alarm clock blares, and another woman sits up to wash her face and change into her dress. Although Vertov's work begins rather slowly, it quickly picks up a speed that drives the numerous daily routines, from traveling to work by bus, train, streetcar and other modes of transportation to the masses' arrival into the heart of the city where they begin their numerous daily routines that take us into the late afternoon when the host of figures engage in multiple entertainments, including theater, sunbathing, and various engagements in sport events.

     At the center of this narrative is the central character, an almost manic cameraman (Mikhail Kaufman) who with camera in hand hops upon various forms of transportation, climbs bridges, and mounts machines, tracking scenes from below and on high as he risks his life to capture energy of city living.

     But, of course, we know that despite the cameraman's busy demeanor that there is yet another camera trained on him, and that, in fact, the film is not just a movie about a "man with a movie camera," but is a more self-referential film, a movie about a movie maker. The stars of this narrative are the cinematographer, Vertov himself, and the tool he uses to accomplish the task. At one point the camera seems to actually come alive, taking itself apart and reassembling its own being. At another moment we witness the mad camera man atop his own camera. And again and again, while the masses go about their daily chores, the cameraman and his camera race across the screen to track the actions of the Soviet folk it—again mostly in a pretense—"secretly" shoots. This is not exactly candid camera, however, for although Vertov is said to have distracted several of crowds from the fact that they were being filmed, the very outsized version of his machine surely encouraged some of his figures to pose for the camera, or, to put it another way, to "act."

     Except for the statement of no intertitles, accordingly, Vertov's manifesto seems to ignore what it claims to have accomplished, creating instead a kind of theatrical narrative whose actors are the cameraman and his camera among a cast of thousands of extras. No matter, the film is still today one of the most remarkable documentaries ever made, long ahead of its time using techniques that influenced 20th and 21st-century filmmaking.

     If at times Man with a Movie Camera, particularly near the end, seems—as Vertov's critics had argued—gimmicky and even manipulative, overall the work is a remarkable achievement, representing as it does a vast landscape of pulsing city life.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2012

 rescued pilots

Dziga Vertov and Elizaveta Svilova (directors) Tri geroinia (Three Heroines) / 1938, the print I saw was at The Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater on March 24th, 2012

If Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera is an exciting mélange of cinematic experimentations, his and his wife’s Three Heroines is a rather straight-forward, at time amateurish, propagandistic tribute, less to the three heroines of its title, than to Stalin and the Soviet system.

      It is true that Vertov and Svilova, true to their beliefs, did not use voice-overs or devise numerous acted out scenes for their documentary. Indeed Vertov’s more radical methods were now devalued by the Soviet film heads. Accordingly, this film was little seen in the Soviet Union and completely unknown to the rest of the world.

     The three heroines are air pilots Raskova, Osipenko, and Grisodubova, who attempted to make a first nonstop trans-Siberian flight. They failed, crashing into the Soviet taiga, and for several days their whereabouts were unknown.

     Higher-ups, however, insisted upon detailed searches and, eventually the three were discovered alive and still in good health. The irony is that this threesome came to be better known having failed than they might have had they succeeded in their mission. After mending, the women called home to their husbands and children—their joyful communications caught by the documentarians camera in some of the moving scenes of the film—before they were taken by train on the long journey back to Moscow. Along the way, the three made numerous stops, the woman laden with medals and flowers, presenting speeches proclaiming the greatness of the Soviet system and the beloved protection of Stalin. Unlike the West’s neglect of Amelia Earhart, they argue, the Soviet system cares about its would-be heroes and all its citizens, of which their salvation is an example.

     By about the third or fourth such speech even the most ardent viewer grows weary, and the constant repetition of a song of these tiaga-trotting women, alternating with praises of the USSR—the major link between their picaresque travels—rather than charming the viewer, drills the ditty into his head.

     Certainly, there are lovely moments, and the imposing views of small Soviet villages are often fascinating as Vertov’s and Svilova’s camera remains in near-constant motion. But this time, without many cinematic tricks, the document seems uneventful and flat. Long live the Soviet people and their great protector Stalin and Soviet Commisars!

Los Angeles, March 27, 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Joseph L. Mankiewicz | The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

time passes—and passes
by Douglas Messerli

Philip Dunne (screenplay, based on a novel by R. A. Dick), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (director) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir / 1947

Basically a well-made romantic melodrama, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir would hardly be worth talking about without its three remarkable leads, Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, and George Sanders, and even then there’s not a great deal to write home about. Yet this comic tear-inducing film is strangely interesting just because of its nearly impossible structure.

     Briefly I’ll recount Phillip Dunne’s simple screenplay based on the novel by R. A Dick. Raising up her daughter in her mother-in-law’s house after the death of her husband, Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) decides to go it on her own: over the objections of both Angelica (the mother-and-law) and Eva, her sister-in-law Lucy takes her small inheritance, their family maid Martha Huggins (Edna Best), and daughter (Natalie Wood) and moves to a seaside residence, Gull Cottage, to live in semi-isolation. The rental agency tries to dissuade her from moving into Gull, since—as we soon find out—it seems to be haunted by its former owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), a former sea captain who is said to have committed suicide.

     Despite the ghost’s lame attempts to scare the new tenant off, Lucy stands firm, determined to stay put. When the small payments she has been receiving stop, the mine in which her husband had invested having gone bust, the Captain dictates the unvarnished adventures of his life to her, she typing them up, putting them in order, and selling them as Blood and Swash to a London publisher fond of sea tales.

     During the writing sessions, inevitably, Lucy and the ghost have fallen in love, both realizing that it is an impossible situation; even the Captain admits that she should find a “real” man, and disappears from her life.

                    Captain Daniel Gregg: You must make your own life amongst the
                    living and, whether you meet fair winds or foul, find your own way
                    to harbor in the end.

    Lucy’s new love interest turns out to be children’s writer, Miles Fairley (George Saunders) who writes under the name of Uncle Neddy. He visits her by the seaside, and she travels to London to visit him, there encountering his unexpected wife and hurrying off the moment she makes the painful discovery, the wife admitting that it has not been the first time.

    So ends this pleasant fantasy. The only problem is that the film still has more than a third of a reel left! What to do with the rest of the time?

     Director Joseph Mankiewicz and writer Philip Dunne obviously had no clue, using that space for a long series of “time passes” sequences, as Lucy walks the beach through sun and storm, night and day, a signpost inscribed with her daughter, Anna’s name (facing in to the shore, instead of out to sea) gradually sinking into the sand. Were it not for Bernard Herrmann’s lush orchestral imitation of rolling waves, it would be nearly unbearable. As it is, the film has grown tedious enough, as the years pass and pass, that we are absolutely delighted with the sudden visitation of the now grown up Anna, her new beau in hand.

     In a mother-daughter conversation, Anna admits that she too, as a young girl, had fallen in love with Captain Gregg, of whom Lucy is now convinced has been only a thing of their imagination. Even so, she declares, she has her memories, something the audience, by this time, has nearly forgotten.

Left alone once more, Lucy continues to age, dying in her favorite chair, freed, now that she is also a ghost, to join Captain Gregg for, one presumes, eternity, which the audience might feel it has already experienced.

     If only the Captain had hung around a little longer—as he did in the later television series—it all might have been more fun.

Los Angeles, March 18, 2012


Monday, March 19, 2012

Jean Renoir | The River

the end begins
by Douglas Messerli

Rumer Goden and Jean Renoir (writers, based on the novel by Rumer Goden), Jean Renoir (director) The River (Le Fleuvre) / 1951

In many ways, Renoir’s great film The River behaves somewhat like a traditional film. There is a plot, for example—borrowed from Rumer Goden’s fiction of the same name—centered around a happy Anglo-Indian family, immersed in Indian life and religion. Renoir portrays that world, in beautiful color, as almost a kind of Edenic life, where The Father (Esmond Knight), the head of a Jute company, and The Mother (Nora Swinburne) overseeing five daughters and a young son, along with a nanny and other servants. This Eden not only encompasses their beautiful house and yard, but extends to the village around them and particularly The Ganges, the holy river around which most of the local activity is based. Both this family's and their neighbor’s lives are highly involved with the Hindu traditions surrounding them.

    Into this Eden comes a kind of Adam and Eve in the forms of Mr. John’s (Arthur Shields) daughter, Melanie (Radha), who looks like her Indian mother, and the neighbor’s cousin, Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), an American soldier who has lost his leg in battle. With their appearance the young girls of house next door now have a romantic model in Melanie and a focus for their coming-of-age fantasies in the handsome Captain. In particular, the gangly Harriet (Patricia Walters) and her more mature friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) vie for the attentions of the listless Captain, while Melanie becomes torn between her distant relative and a local Indian boy.

    We observe these interrelationships, as well as become educated in the local customs and community traditions, through the eyes of Harriet, who wants to be a writer and shares her aspirations and romantic achievements with the Captain. But it is the red-headed Valerie who most attracts the Captain’s eye, as the two play flirtations that she is not ready to act on, and which, in turn, painfully hurt Harriet, particularly when she observes them kissing—a kiss, she imagines, might have first been hers.

     Both Mother and Nanny wisely watch over these teenage fixations, knowing all too well that they are necessary for maturation. When Harriet’s young brother, however, becomes attracted to the movements of a nearby cobra, eventually being killed by its bite, these minor melodramas turn into tragedy, as Harriet, who knew of cobra’s existence, suffers both rejection by the Captain and now the guilt of her brother’s death. Attempting to put an end to her life, she takes a out a skiff into the dark night currents. Fortunately, she is observed by Indian boaters, who follow and save her, the Captain returning her home.

     Although they have lost their son, the family soon can rejoice with the birth of a new child—another daughter! And so, the end begins anew. Life is renewed for the entire family and community, just as it is expressed in Hindu thought.

     Yet, for all this “story,” Renoir’s film is not so much a tale of the family as it is a kind of panoramic documentary of Indian life. By far, the greatest number of images are not focused on the purposely amateurish cast and their quiet joys and sorrows as it is on the market place, the jute factory, the holy shrines, and, most importantly, the river and river life.    

     Filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who worked with Renoir on this film, criticized The River as being too centered upon its Anglo figures; but I would argue that the story, lovely as it is, hardly matters alongside of Renoir’s engagement with Indian culture and landscape. A kite, images of Kali, Indian dances, piles of jute, heaps of vegetables, capons, cobras, small containers of oil, bowls of milk, and the bronzed bodies of Indians matter far more in this movie than do the comings and goings of the Anglo family and friends. The colors of this landscape are one of the central focuses of the film: the reds of the rivers, the greens, blues, yellows, and white of toys, dresses, and floor paintings are the true subject of Renoir’s meditation.

     As critics have noted, Renoir was personally effected by his Indian sojourn, he himself admitting that he could talk endlessly about his year-long experiences there.  Clearly The River is different from almost every film he previously made. The high wit and social commentary of a work such as Rules of the Game is completely missing in this gentle document. Forward action has been transformed into repeated gestures of survival. Harriet cries out to her mother after her brother’s death: "How can you carry on as if nothing had happened?" To which her Mother replies: “We don't We just carry on."

     So too does Renoir back away from human evaluation, focusing instead on the simple rhythms of life. Bodily movement and dance are also at the heart of The River. While Renoir’s Indian characters are almost always in motion, gracefully carrying their burdens upon their heads, steering their boats into port, joyfully swimming, mesmerizing a snake, celebrating the marriage ceremony in traditional movements, using their hands and feet to say hello or goodbye, Renoir’s Anglo folk are gangly and clumsy: they spend much of their afternoons flat on their backs, asleep on the lawn; the one-legged captain can hardly dance and loses his balance; the child, imitating the snake-charmer, is destroyed. If Renoir has kept the plot of Godden’s Anglo story, he has made a film that is thoroughly Indian in its rhythms and hues.

Los Angeles, March 17, 2012