Monday, October 29, 2012

Jean Grémillon | Remorques (Stormy Waters)

made to disappear
by Douglas Messerli

André Cayette (adaptation from a novel by Roger Vercel), Jacques Prévert (scenario and dialogue), Jean Grémillon (director) Remorques (Stormy Waters) / 1941

 Although Grémillon’s emotive soap-opera, Remorques, was begun in 1939 in pre-war France, by the time it was released the south, under Vichy control, was divided from the north and west of France—the site of this movie’s action, Brest—which was controlled by the German army. When audiences began attending this film in November 1941, the Atlantic sea, as critic Dave Kehr points out, was a military zone, with no operating civilian vessels, while in the movie, the focus is on the crew and operations of a tugboat, The Cyclone, which comes to the rescue of endangered vessels. The entire movie, moreover, was done in the style of French poetic realism common of the 1930s films such as Quai des Brumes (also starring Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan) and Le Jour se lève, which suddenly had little meaning for a war-torn culture. As the critic for my Time Out film guide, Bob Baker, notes: “Sometimes, as when Morgan contemplates the dead starfish which Gabin has given her, it [Remorques] feels precisely like the last European movie of the 1930s.”

      Perhaps its fantasy-like quality was the very thing that allowed this film to be released without censorship and why it found its audience of the day. A moody film about storms and inexpressible, illicit love, Remorques might almost be said to symbolize the emotions of the period. The film begins with a wedding, where locals briefly speechify before the large hall is given over to dancing. One of Captain André Laurent’s (Gabin) sailors is being wed, and the whole town, so it seems, is in attendance. As the banquet is abandoned for the dancing floor surrounding it, Grémillon’s camera creates an deep perspective featuring a kind of inside-outside dichotomy, as servants begin clearing tables, while outside and surrounding the open-pillared wall the dancers spin, the camera following them. This stunning swirl of motion suddenly ends, after a long pan back through the hall, following a messenger as he enters to report an SOS: the freighter, the Mirva, is floundering offshore. Suddenly the whole festival world—a world surely of another time—is shattered, as the dancers cease, the bride is separated from the new groom, and Laurent’s wife, Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud)—who has already revealed that she stops “living” when her husband goes to sea—is terrified of again having to wait out the night alone.

      Like soldiers off to war, the sailors gather, moving to their boat under the leadership of their highly decorated captain. From the deep alterations of black and white of the first scene, Grémillion’s film turns into a gritty study in dark black and fading lights as The Cyclone goes speeding off in search of the sinking vessel (scenes clearly shot with miniatures). On board that vessel are frightened sailors who refuse even to help toss a tow-line and a greedy captain, Marc (Jean Marchat), who hopes the boat will sink so that he claim the cost of the goods aboard. Only a few independent-minded sailors and Marc’s thoroughly disgusted wife, Catherine (Morgan) have the courage to embark on a small rescue boat in order the reach the saving tug.

      They are rescued and a toe is attached to the Mirva, which mysteriously is cut; another toe is attached and it too, this time under the orders of the captain, is cut. Since the vessel is no longer in danger, the sailors and Marc’s wife (who has found temporary refuge in Laurent’s cabin), are returned to their vessel, Laurent and his crew unable to claim the payment due them for their salvage attempts.

      Despite his numerous commendations, accordingly, Laurent is demeaned by his company’s representatives and he threatens, to his wife’s approval, to resign. Unbeknownst to him, Madame Laurent has been having heart flutters, which her doctor seems to ignore, and she is terrified, as she admits to the new bride, of “dying alone.”

      Meanwhile, Catherine has left her husband, moving into a town hotel. A chance meeting with Laurent develops into a near obsession, and before long, while he checks out a possible new home by the sea, they wander together, he offering her the starfish mentioned above, and she proffering him her deep kisses. In contrast to the sea scenes, their seaside romance is played out in almost blindingly bright white, which can only remind us of the previous wedding and the comments of Laurent’s own ten-year bride at home, who at the wedding quipped: “What’s like a bride? Another bride.”

      The sensuous and brooding Catherine, however, is anything but a bride. She, as she herself recognizes, is unlike Laurent’s wife—“Faithful women must exist”—another kind being. As she expresses it: “Girls like me were made to disappear.” Against the bright white of the set, she is dressed primarily in black. Of course, that very fact makes her beauty all the more blinding, as Laurent’s vision becomes blurred, his head literally whirling in the turn away from his fidelity.

      Throughout most of the film, Laurent has been proud to have his friends and fellow-sailors know his whereabouts at all times, but in the last scenes, as he secretively embraces Catherine, it takes some time for his cohorts to discover his whereabouts, and their boat misses the opportunity to answer an SOS, their competitors on The Dutch having already set out for the rescue.

      Soon after, he is sought out again; his wife has had a serious attack, and he hurries off to her, while Catherine, realizing it is time for her disappearance once again, begins to pack.

      Laurent rushes back into the arms of his wife, she ecstatically embracing him before she dies. But even death is not strong enough to hold him when he is told that The Dutch itself is now floundering. He speeds away as Grémillon, who began his life as a composer, builds up a chorus of rising chords and prayers to every biblical figure from Daniel to Mary, both in a prayer for Laurent and his crew and a lamentation for Yvonne’s death.

     By film’s end we sense the death not only his Laurent’s wife and all she has come to symbolize, but we observe the destined disappearance of Catherine and the romantic world she potentialized. Laurent is left only his battles and the bravery with which he encounters them. If there was ever a requiem to a lost world, Remorques is it. The past and everything that it represents has been, so it seems, “made to disappear.”

Los Angeles, October 28, 2012
Reprinted from Nth Position (November 2012).

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sergei Paradjanov | Sayat-Nova (The Color of Pomegranates)

sing! die!
by Douglas Messerli
Sergei Paradjanov (scenario and director) Սայաթ-Նովա (Sayat-Nova) (The Color of Pomegranates) / 1968

Fast upon the end of the post-Stalinian thaw in 1964, a time when suddenly Paradjanov’s previously beloved Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and his concept of “poetic cinema” were beginning to be condemned, Sergei Paradjanov began filming his scenario, Kiev Frescoes, a documentary of the painter Hakob Hovnatanian of Tblissi. After only the few first scenes, shooting was interrupted, and the director was unable to obtain the authorization to continue. Returning to Erevan, despairing of not being able to accomplish another film, Paradjanov quickly began shooting Sayat-Nova, a film about the life and work of the great 18th century Armenian poet. The editor of Paradjanov’s Seven Visions (translated from French into English and published by my own Green Integer press in 1998), Galia Ackerman, writes of the vicissitudes of this period:

                   But the noose was tightening around his neck. In the Ukraine
                   where he had signed letters in support of dissidents, he—an
                   Armenian from Tblissi—was accused of “Ukrainian nationalism.”
                   His film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, was pulled from the
                   screens. The shooting of Kiev Frescoes was indefinitely
                   blocked on grounds of “bourgeois subjectivism and mysticism,”
                   and “ideological deviation.” The reels of test footage were seized
                   by the authorities and shredded. Preserved in that state, they were
                   returned to him twenty years later. The few tests that remained
                   intact were to be shown at the 6th Munich International Film
                   Festival. Intermezzo, another feature length film whose scenario
                   he wrote…was immediately banned.

     In Erevan, shooting of Sayat-Nova was constantly delayed, changes demanded. Frustrated by local authorities, Paradjanov wrote his now famous epistle to authorities:

                    I was thirty-nine when a series of sad circumstances forced me
                    to come to Erevan. I am now forty-two… It’s hot. Peaches are
                    two rubles a kilo.I’m suffocating in schemes and poorly ventilated
                    hotel rooms, keeping company with cockroaches. I strongly
                    urge that Sayat-Nova be banned and that I be sent back to Kiev.
                    I am willing to abandon the cinema. Kiev Frescoes and the
                    repression of Tarkovsky are more than enough for me.

Indeed, Paradjanov did ultimately renounce his great film after it was cut by some twenty minutes. Yet today it remains his masterwork, a film that illuminates and defines his overall achievement. That such a loving and often witty work could be accomplished in such bleak conditions is almost unthinkable.

     Like all of his mature films, Sayat-Nova or The Color of Pomegranates, is a legendary tale presented in a series of static tableau, whose visual elements determine any narrative embedded in them. Even Paradjanov admitted that this film, more than any of his others, would likely be unable to be comprehended by any but an Armenian audience, but also declared that his people “are going to this picture as to a holiday.”

       Despite the apparent obscurity of its narrative and images, however, the cinematic effect of the various tableaus is absolutely stunning, highly theatrical, and, as Paradjanov’s works often are, reverently comic. Early on the film portrays the young “poet of song’s” (played by female actress, Sofiko Chiaureli) childhood discovery of sexuality through peering into a Turkish bath where he observes both naked men and women, the breast of one appearing to him as a giant conch shell, a scene replayed over and over again throughout the work. Born the son of a wool dyer, the poet, Aruthin Sayadian, watches as the dyers throw the colored wool clumps, the colors of the national flag, from the vats. The juice of pomegranates leaks out a pattern of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia. The Catholics are buried, the poet falls in love and is married, the poet enters a monastery and dies. Lace veils, drying books, rice, bread, and coffee beans, roosters, peacock tails, dancers playing out a bawdy story, young singers sprouting elk horns, and numerous other symbolic and talismanic objects play out a growing narrative that is simultaneously completely subjective and yet, in Jungian terms, universal. Even if the audience cannot precisely say what each tableau depicts, its powerful beauty “suggests,” like the Armenian miniatures upon which they were based, complex layers of meaning, some of which leaks through in each successive scene.

      Below I have reprinted a short scene from Paradjanov’s scenario which may help to give the reader a sense of the screen action, this miniature depicting Sayat-Nova’s budding love for the Princess:

                              The Princess is Making Lace

       The palace of Irakli, the princess’ apartments.
             Anna’s young hands making lace…
             Sayat’s young hands strumming strings. He was singing the love of Majnûn
          Glorifying Laïla’s beauty, he nodded his head, his eyes closed…
             Anna slowly fixed her eyes on Sayat… Her fingers mechanically worked
       the thread….
             In the recesses of the room, Anna’s young friends portrayed sexual pleasure,
             sadness and
             They embraced a llama.
             Peacocks fanned their tails…
             Boys imitated nightingales…
             Sayat sang Majnûn’s love and glorified Laïla’s beauty!

     The Color of Pomegranates, accordingly, is not a movie of immediate revelation, but a work that requires several viewings, much in the way the culture itself might have read the original collections of visual miniatures or the way children read, again and again, their most treasured books.

      In a world of quick and sudden consumption such as ours, Paradjanov’s films, particularly this one, asks us to enter each frame as we might a poem, delighting in each tableau the way we might take joy over the richness of a poet’s language. The Color of Pomegranates, moreover, is a work about language, beginning with the poet’s words—“I am the man whose life and soul are torture”—and ending in the recognition that his role has been, all along, to “Sing!” and “Die!”

     I first watched this film that demands such a close “reading” with Guy Bennett, who introduced me to Paradjanov sometime in 1996 or 1997. And I have treated myself to its beauties many times since. Watching it again the other day, although I felt that the Kino recording had lost the richness of the colors I had first witnessed, I was again struck with the absolute wonderment of the director’s tableaux vivants. And I can’t wait to visit them soon again. This is a film you will want to own, to put away in your library, and take it out to see year after year. Too bad it isn’t shown at American movie theaters in the same way!

     Like his subject, Paradjanov must have felt, even during the film’s making, “In the healthy and beautiful life my share has been nothing but suffering.” On December 17, 1973, Paradjanov was arrested in Kiev, accused of numerous petty acts of criminal behavior and, finally, charged with homosexuality, which was a very serious crime for repeat offenders. He was sentenced to five years of heavy labor, unable to make a film again until 1985.

Los Angeles, October 27, 2012

Friday, October 26, 2012

Francis Ford Coppola | The Godfather II

being strong
by Douglas Messerli

Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo (screenplay, based on the book by Mario Puzo), Francis For Coppola (director) Godfather II / 1974

There is a horrible moment early in The Godfather II when Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) young son, Anthony, celebrating the day of his first mass—and after being almost literally swallowed up in the festive events for people he does not even know—is kissed goodbye by his mostly inattentive father. A conversation between the two follows:

                          Michael Corleone: Anthony, I’m going to be leaving very
                                  early tomorrow.
                          Anthony: Will you take me?
                          Michael: No. I can’t
                          Anthony: Why do you have to go?
                          Michael: Because I have to do business.
                          Anthony: I could help you.

Although Michael suggests that someday the child will help him, we know, echoing as it does with Michael’s earlier statement to his father, “I’m with you now,” by film’s end we know that no one can “help” Michael. Although Anthony remains living at the end of The Godfather II, his father has ostracized him from his mother, Kay (Diane Keaton), murdered his favorite uncle, Fredo (John Cazale), broken with his father’s gangland friends from New York, and done in one of the giants of the Miami-Las Vegas underworld, Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). Michael’s mother, Carmela (Morgana King) has died, and his sister, Connie (Talia) has had her life destroyed by his brother’s various interventions “Michael, I hated you for so many years. I think that I did things to myself, to hurt myself so that you’d know—that I could hurt you.”). The adopted brother, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) has been painfully, for him, demoted in the family operation. The bigoted and sleazy Nevada Senator Pat Geary has been brought into Corleone control, while federal government investigators attack. Despite Hyman Roth’s boastful statement earlier in the film that he, the Corleone’s and others are now bigger in wealth that U.S. Steel, Michael sits silently brooding at the end of this film as one of the loneliest men ever portrayed in a moving picture. In his office at the empty boat house, he is quite certainly sailing alone, with no one left to love him or whom he might embrace.



One of the reasons that Coppola’s second Godfather film is so powerful is because he is a study in differences or changes of generation. No matter how horrifying is the Sicilian world from which the Corleone family (whose real name was Andolini) had escaped, Vito’s father, brother and mother being brutally killed by the local Don Ciccio, no matter how lonely and isolated were Vito’s early years in the New World, the first few months waited out in a hard bed on Ellis Island, Vito, Michael’s father, was a man of love, a man who gradually surrounded himself with family and friends who were willing to do anything for him, as he would for them. Certainly that begat the nefarious world in which Vito ultimately created, but at its heart, his world was always filled with community. In the early scenes of lower Manhattan Italian life, the streets are teaming with people, filled with the energy of young and old, good and evil, clandestine robberies and public performances, selling/buying and cheating—all  rubbing up against each other.

      Many of these parallels are quite obvious. I have already mentioned the previous film’s beginning wedding, filled with joyous life, and the quite lifeless affair of Anthony’s coming of age, where the Senator hypocritically welcomes the Corleones (without once attempting to properly pronounce their name) to Nevada, the band cannot even imagine a song like “Luna mezz’ o mare,” whose rhythms can only suggest “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and during which the Don, like his father, meets with people—in this case to most deny them their pleas rather than accept.

      While Vito Corleone’s world was centered, for most of his life, in New York, Michael’s central focuses are now Las Vegas (which is never even shown in this movie) and a rebel-pocked Cuba which is about to explode and close itself away from mafia activities. New York, his father’s former friends, Clemenza and, particularly in this work, Frank Pentangeli, have been abandoned. The beautiful, if modest home of Vito, reminds Michael only of what his father taught him: “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Despite the gated estate of Lake Tahoe in which he now lives, Michael and his family are attacked and their lives threatened, something almost unthinkable in the old Corleone home.

     Perhaps the most terrifying difference between Vito’s world and Michael’s is connected with Hyman Roth, and the film suggests that descent into the netherworld from the moment Michael leaves his estate to visit the older man through Nino Rota’s descending chords and almost slightly sickening melody.

     Roth is portrayed as a childless man, living in a quite ordinary bungalow in Miami, watching, like any elderly retiree might, a baseball game (“I loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstien fixed the World Series in 1919). About his darkly lit rooms (utterly different from every scene in the Corleone’s New York home), flutters his wife, attired a bit like Mamie Eisenhower, in fluted ruffles; Roth turns up the television and closes the door to maintain his privacy. Here love and loyalty are expressed in phrases of passivity, as he recounts his long-time friendship with Moe Green, whom Michael killed in the first installment of Coppola’s trilogy: “When I heard it, I wasn’t angry; I knew Moe, I knew he was head-strong, talking loud, saying stupid things. So when he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, this is the business we’ve chosen.” Passionless, Roth has clearly made a pact with the devil, living long beyond the age one might have expected; as Michael quips earlier: “He’s been dying from the same heart attack for the last twenty years.” Even Michael’s attempt to have him strangled in Cuba does not kill him. Later, when Roth is homeless and unwanted by every country, Michael suggests a hit on Roth when he attempts to return to the US:

                       Tom Hagen: It would be like trying to kill the President; there’s
                              no way we can get to him.
                        Michael Corleone: Tom, you know you surprise me. If anything 
                              in life is certain—if history has taught us anything—it’s 
                              that you can kill anybody.

Such a philosophy might almost represent Roth’s own. But this time Michael succeeds, destroying even the film’s Faust.

      Perhaps, as Connie suggests, Michael has just been attempting, all along to “be strong,” but in his involvement finally with a man like Roth, he has taken the “family” as far away from the light—an essential symbol of home and hearth Coppola has used throughout his great works—as possibly could. Despite all the evils that may have existed in Vito’s home, it is impossible to imagine him brooding in the dark, and, as we recall, Vito Corleone died joyfully chasing his young grandson around the garden in a children’s game. The frozen present Don could never have bent his body in that way toward his son. No, Anthony, there is nothing you can do for your father; he already one of the living-dead. Crime may have financially paid-off, but there is no one there to collect.

Los Angeles, October 25, 2012

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Michael Gordon | Pillow Talk

over the line
by Douglas Messerli

Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin (screenply, based on a story by Russell Rouse and Clarence Green), Michael Gordon (director) Pillow Talk / 1959

Watching Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk again the other afternoon, I recovered an old memory from youth. My mother and father seldom attended films; I can remember only about 10 times in their entire life when they did, three or four of those times with the whole family in tow. But in 1959, I remember one morning after which they had gone to see Pillow Talk—while I cared for my brother and sister—my mother recounting the entire story with great joy, giggling—something this not so happy homemaker seldom did—as she relayed the details of the plot. My mother loved both comedies and romantic dramas, the latter of which my father disdained. At the ripe age of 12, I was even more dismissive that he: I, who had become enamored with the plays of Genet, Ionesco, Pinter, Beckett and Albee, would never have attended such “fluff,” and could never have imagined that someday I might even choose to discuss the film.

      Now that I have watched this film numerous times, I realize that my mother, as much as she had enjoyed the movie, had not perceived any of the film’s darker aspects. Indeed, when I first saw Pillow Talk, years later, and the two Rock Hudson and Doris Day films that followed it, I was a bit shocked. Not only did Pillow Talk reconfirm what I had long suspected—and which, being the “good boy” I was, kept me from having intercourse with the opposite sex straight through my college days—that the male was expected to forcibly rape a desired woman, was even encouraged by policeman to haul their bodies off to their apartments through the New York streets, but that women—at least the smart, good-looking, working women who Day represented—had to be lured through plots of great deception into the arms of men in order to accomplish the sexual “act.” No wonder I had been a virgin all those years! Sex was so inexplicably complex. Who had time for anything else? With a guy, I soon discovered, all you needed to say was “let’s go to bed.”
      Just as startlingly, I perceived, like several of the films of Carey Grant, the authors had embedded jokes and situations throughout their script that eluded to and played with the fact of Rock Hudson’s homosexuality, creating a kind of “other” film hidden below the surface of the first—the one that most Americans, like my mother, had so enjoyably read.

       Accordingly, while seemingly a story of love or, at least, “attraction,” Pillow Talk, in my reading was a story of deception, indeed numerous layers of deception. Songwriter Brad Allen (Hudson) has a busy life seducing and deceiving various women, singing a ditty he has written to all of his “loves” by simply changing the name each time he sings it, a trick overheard by Jan Morrow (Day), with whom he shares a party line, as she attempts to make and receive calls. Frustrated by Allen’s telephonic trickery and angry with his holding the phone line hostage, she reports him to the telephone company, who send out an agent, who herself is seduced by Allen. (Jan: “Can you believe that? They sent a woman. That’s like sending a marshmallow to put out a bonfire.”)

      Working as an interior decorator, Jan is being wooed by one of her wealthy clients, Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall), who, unbeknownst to her, is also the financial backer of Brad Allen’s musical shows on Broadway. At the party of another of her clients, Jan encounters a young soon-to-be Harvard grad, Tony Walters (Nick Adams) who insists upon driving Jan home from his mother’s Scarsdale mansion. They are only a few miles into the voyage before Tony is pawing Jan, and she, to sober him up and quiet him down, allows herself to be taken to a small supper club, where, by coincidence, Brad sits with one of the club’s performers, one of his girlfriends. Overhearing part of Tony and Jan’s conversation, and realizing suddenly that the attractive, dancing woman is also his formerly invisible telephone sparer, he begins the long series of seductions by playing a shy, gentlemanly Texan, Rex Stetson, lonely in New York.

      Easily disposing of the drunken Tony (as he later does with Jan, Rex simply picks him up and carries him off), the two drive away in a taxi, beginning a series of dates where, using reverse logic, Brad makes utterly no advances, appeasing Jan’s good-girl defenses. Their phone sparring sessions continue, during which she admits she has found a lover, he querying his behavior, at one point even suggesting that Rex may be a homosexual—a man who “collects recipes and little bits of gossip—a screenwriting insinuation that employs the actor to openly question his own sexuality.

      Still attempting to marry her, Jonathan also reveals his love for Jan to Brad, who uses what he learns to good effect, thus deceiving not only Jan, but his best friend.  At another point when visiting his friend’s office Brad/Rex spots Jan leaving, he ducks into a nearby doctor’s office, a doctor who just happens to be an obstetrician. When the nurse queries him if his visit is for his wife, Brad insists he himself has not been feeling “right,” a joke which implies that it he is who may be pregnant. Reporting the fact to the doctor arouses a kind of dizzy wonderment in both nurse and doctor that is played out not only once, but three times in the film (Doctor: “There may be a man who has crossed a new future.”). I guess we must presume that Hudson was what is called a “bottom,” a man who likes to get fucked.

      Obviously—this is after all still 1959—Brad must get his comeuppance, as Jan discovers in a Connecticut hide-away to where he has lured her for the “kill,” that Rex Stetson and Brad Allen are one and the same, as, just in time, Jonathan arrives to save her. She cries all the way back to New York.

      But Brad, this time around, has truly fallen in love and approaches Jan’s dipsomaniacal maid, Alma (Thelma Ritter) for a clue to how he may return to Jan’s good graces. She suggests that he hire her to decorate his own apartment. To keep the firm for she works from losing the money, Jan agrees, using all of her designer skills to create rooms that suggest a tawdry, carnival-like exaggeration of Brad’s sexual behavior.    

      As I suggested earlier, her revenge is reciprocated by his literal “rape” in that word’s original meaning of “carrying away a person by force,” as he takes her to his apartment, revealing that he has cut himself off from his old life, she employing his own traps (locked door, unfolding bed) to keep him from leaving as she falls into his arms with the happy ending of pillows and implied babies rolling behind the credits—assuring my mother, I am certain, that everything had turned out just swell, but leading me to believe that the writers’, characters’ and directors’ deceit had just begun, reifying as it had, everything they had previously satirized and mocked. It’s the kind of late 1950s entertainment, to my way of thinking, that not only crossed the line (both the telephone lines and the sexual line), but lied, while winking, even to itself.

Los Angeles, October 24, 2012




Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sergei Parajanov and Dodo Abashidze | Ashug-Karibi (Ashik Kerib)

1001 days on the road
by Douglas Messerli

Gia Badridze (scenario, based on a story by Mikhail Lermontov), Sergei Parajanov and Dodo Abashidze (directors) Ashug-Karibi (Ashik Kerib) / 1988

Soviet-Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s last film, Ashik Kerib, is one of his most joyous films and is representative of his directorial style.

     The story, based on an Azerbaijani folk tale, is an utterly simple one. A young man, Ashik Kerib (Yuri Mgoyan) is determined to marry his beloved, Magal (Sofiko Chiaureli). The man and his mother celebrate the potential betrothal with a ritual bath, flower petals and pomegranates (all standard emblems in Parajanov’s work), while the young couple wile away the time, like any young couple, counting the petals, “He loves me, he loves me not.” Soon after he and the mother meet with the girl’s father, bearing him a basket of flowers. Upon receiving the itinerant young man, however, the father is outraged. Who can dare to receive the hand of his “daughter from heaven” with a basket of flowers instead of money. The vagabond is cast from his house, while Magal swears she will wait 1001 days for Ashik’s return as he begins the long voyage in search of his fortune.

    Strangely, little of his presumed adventures are represented in Parajanov’s film.  His rival for Magal, Kushud-Bek tricks him as he attempts to cross a river, stealing his clothing and returning home to declare Ashik dead, announcing his intentions to marry Magul.

     Old woman retrieve Ashik’s lute from the river and return it to him. Another minstrel, now an old man, dying in his home town, receives Ashik’s music and attentions, as the young man returns him to the road (“minstrel’s must die on the road,” declares Ashik) where numerous camels are passing; the old man dies as Ashik pours pomegranate juice over his lips and buries him with the small treasures tossed to the minstrels from the caravan.

     Guardian angels, both blowing upon conch shells, summon him to play at a wedding for the blind—at which he joyfully performs—and, soon after, call him to the wedding of the deaf and dumb—at which he again joyfully performs.

     At another point he meets up with a wild band of thickly mustachioed men; Ashik himself steals a man’s mustache and beard (glued on his face) and enters the house wherein the chief’s harem sit shooting machine guns. When commanded to perform, he finds himself unable to play and is sentenced to be fed to the lion, a large paper-Mache beast with a spinning head. The evening before, however, he spends in the harem, enjoying their sexual pleasures.

      Escaping doom, Ashik is given a magic steed to ride through the skies, arriving back in his hometown in time for the 1001th day! He still has no money, but wins the bride’s hand by magically returning his mother’s eyesight with the sweat of his stead.

      The brief story I have recounted, however, can hardly give one of sense of the wonderment of Parajanov’s work. For as in his earlier masterwork, The Color of Pomegranates, Parajanov reveals these brief adventures through a long series of tableaux vivants, brightly colored ‘scenes” that portray everything from beautifully carved Azerbaijani bowls and chalices and other vessels, paintings, rugs, mosaic tiles, holy books, and drawings, as well as his highly and often outrageously costumed characters. Although these often hint at original Azerbaijani dress, they are, at heart, almost campy theatrical dresses in which the characters, also highly painted, dance, gesture, and gesticulate in a manner related to Kabuki theater, gay camp comedy, and puppetry. Most often filmed head-on, Parajanov’s frames represent a kind of delightful, child-like story-telling that makes its own artifice absolutely apparent. And while these iconic objects and costumes often make reference to the culture, they are very seldom “symbolic” in the way Andrei Tarkovsky’s—Parajanov’s close friend to whom this film is dedicated—natural images, artworks, and household possessions are. Entering a Parajanov scene is more like drifting through the topsy-turvy world of Gilbert and Sullivan, where cultures and their stories are lovingly revealed while simultaneously being made fun of.

Only Parajanov, who spent five years in Soviet prisons, tried for both his art and his homosexuality, could have created these stunning pastiches—dark worlds with glittering jewels at their heart—and there is nothing like his films anywhere else. Lionized in France and elsewhere in Europe, little is known about this great director in the US. I can only hope that with time that utterly changes: for it is American audiences who are missing all the fun.

Los Angeles, October 22, 2012


Monday, October 22, 2012

Konrad Wolf | Sonnensucher (Sun Seekers)

learning to smile
by Douglas Messerli

Karol George Egel and Paul Wiens (writers), Konrad Wolf (director) Sonnensucher (Sun Seekers) / 1958, released 1972

By a fluke of Nexflix fulfillment, I watched East German director Konrad Wolf’s Sun Seekers on the 87th anniversary of his birth. Celebratory as that may seem, however, only one of my film guides, Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia, even mentions Wolf, and none of my several video guides gives an entry to Sonnensucher, despite the high reputation and importance of this film to East German and even Russian cinema.

      Spawned in the early years of the Khruschev Thaw, Wolf’s film, espousing as it does the goals of Socialism and the Communist Party, seemed assured of release. But because of the film’s honesty about the conditions it explores in the East German-Soviet shared uranium mines of Wismut and its open presentation of the ideological differences of some of the Soviet and German workers in the camp, it aroused controversy and was shown to the entire Politburo. Although some changes were demanded, overall the political leaders praised the film, and it was authorized to be released on October 5th, 1958. At the last moment, however, the Soviet embassy in Berlin intervened to ban the work, perhaps fearful of its documentation of the Soviet’s struggles in the international arms race and its negative presentation of the party boss, Weibrauch. By the time the film was finally released in 1972, the topical issues of the work had lost their potency, although the movie had continued to gain an underground reputation among East German film makers. In 1975, Wolf received the Society for German-Soviet Friendship’s Art Prize for this film and his 1968 work, I Was Nineteen.

      Seeing this masterwork so many years after its creation, I was still struck by its powerful revelations and the honesty—despite its seemingly naïve arguments that the motivation of the German-Soviet mines were to protect the world from the American monopoly and the outbreak of World War III—about life in this militarized outpost, which, at times, almost reminds one of a town out of the American wild west.

      But the high quality of Wolf’s black-and-white images, particularly those set deep within the mines are what particularly stand out, which, along with cinematographer-composer Joachim Werzlau’s score—which alternates between modernist fanfares and unexpected jazz interludes—are what makes this film so significant.

      The make-up of Wismut workers, misled Germans who unaware of working conditions and the level of environmental damage, were drawn there by the high wages and promises of a better life, and the outcasts sent there, former SS officers, ineffective or haunted Russian military leaders, and German prostitutes, had predetermined the explosive events the film outlines. The film begins with a none-too-innocent, but reluctant country girl, Lotte Luz (Ulrike Germer), escaping from the arms of a local, none-too-attractive farmer, her aunt (presumably) shouting at her for being a whore and slut. The girl, learning now to hate all men, escapes to Berlin into the arms of Emmi (Manja Behrens), an overage prostitute who was evidently a friend of Lotte’s mother before her death. Although Emmi attempts to send the girl home, Lotte refuses, determined to make a better life through hard work.

     In a local Berlin bar, Emmi meets up with an old friend, Jupp König, whom she has hidden from the SS as the two worked in the circus, and who now is on leave from Wismut. Lotte also meets a young man with whom she hesitantly dances until a fight breaks out between Jupp and others, and the police are called. Both women, now arrested and lectured to by East European social workers, are sent to Wismut, where, at least Emmi looks forward to reencountering Jupp.

     As the two women become acclimated to the wild life of Wismut, we also begin to uncover the pulls and tensions taking place among the males. One of the major pit bosses, the one-armed Franz Beier (Günther Simon) first spots Lotte and orders her to his home where, presumably, he will engage her in sex. But when she shows up and resists, he admires her spirit. When asked whether she is a good girl or a whore, Lotte replies she doesn’t care, to which Beier praises her. She must seek the most of out of life, obtain, like himself, the highest of positions, he asserts; and, most importantly, she learn how to smile. He frees her, untouched.

     Beier, we quickly discover, is a man of contradictory pulls. On one hand he is an authoritative boss, almost puritan when it comes to sexual matters and demanding that his workers endure the harsh conditions of the mines without many rewards. On the other hand, he stands up to the Russian heads in his attempts to improve mine conditions and clean up the environment in which they work. Such demands mean a lesser output in uranium ore, and he given a limited amount of time to achieve the changes upon which he insists.

     Soon the young miner Gunther (Willi Schrade) also spots Lotte and almost immediately falls for her. At one dance, he and the Soviet engineer Sergei (Viktor Avidushko) vie for Lotte’s attentions, with Gunther, certainly the courser and less suave of the two, winning out. But we soon recognize, despite her passive acceptance of Gunther’s marriage proposal, that Lotte is more attracted to the handsome Sergei, who has lost his wife, the same age as Lotte at the time of their marriage, in a savage attack by the German SS.

      One of the major problems of Wolf’s film is that, while centering much his attention on the often strong-minded Lotte, throughout much of movie she necessarily appears passive. Despite her instincts at survival, she is also a young country girl without the wisdom of knowing how to improve her condition in the world of shifting power-playing males in which she has been thrust.

Sergei may attract her, but Gunther, at least, has offered her marriage and a true house. He even obtains a marriage license, but instead of returning home where she has planned a celebration, he gets drunk, carousing with another woman.

      Outraged by his brutal return, in which he pulls down a new painting of a mountain goat (a creature, it is suggested, that she resembles) she has just purchased, Lotte leaves him only to become once more involved with the older Beier. This time he offers her a larger and better home, a life far better superior as the pit boss’s wife, and she accepts. At the same time, however, Beier’s life is changing for the worst. The workers, dissatisfied with his seeming disinterest in their welfare begin to rebel, the wily Jupp—who has now married his Emmi—intelligently defending the boss. Tired of their ineffectual party leader, Wihrauch (Erich Franz), the miners demand Jupp take on that position. 

     The Russians and East European leaders, moreover, are fed up with the slowness of Beier’s “improvements” and his lack of uranium production, forcing Sergei to play the mediator—since he speaks both Russian and German—to be mediator between Beier, with whom he often seems to detest, and party leaders. Wolf effectively presents these discussions in both languages, in Russian (without translation) and German (with English subtitles). Although the audience can generally glean the substance of these talks, accordingly, we are put in very much the same position as the German workers and Beier who cannot always entirely comprehend what they are being accused of.

     Beier’s problems become even more complex as he arrives home to discover Lotte packing her suitcases. She is pregnant, she declares, and the child is not his son. Once again, Beier, despite his sometimes offensive manner, reveals himself as a man of some honor, as he insists she unpack and stay: he will welcome the child into his own home. Suddenly a smile spreads over the mostly glum face of the girl. In a real sense, Lotte and her friend Emmi are the only ones who have truly found the “sun” which the others so desperately seek.

       Finally almost finished with mine improvements, Beier oversees the miner activities at the very moment with the new cables, obviously defective, catch fire. He orders one part of the mine to be exploded in order to put out the fire, but in so doing entraps himself, Sergei and two others in a closed-off pocket. Although a team of rescuers attempt to reach them, Beier, who has been hurt in the explosion, is in a fever, finally revealing to Sergei that it was his battalion that murdered Sergei’s wife. Sergei’s answer, that he has known that all along, is perhaps one of the most devastating revelations of Wolf’s film. We can now comprehend just how painful all those mediating conversations must have been to him, and it explains his often outward impatience with the former SS soldier. But the fact that Sergei has continued to work with Beier obviously reveals both men’s commitment to the higher ideal of their cause.

     Rescuers arrive, but too late for Beier, who has died soon after his confession. The last scene of the film portrays Sergei leaving the camp, as Lotte, child in hand, kisses him goodbye—almost passionately in comparison with her tentative love-making throughout the rest of the film.

As she moves back to the city of Wismut, her small son behind her, the sun, for one of the first times in this film, is truly shining.

Los Angeles, October 21, 2012