Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Jiří Menzel | Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (I Served the King of England)

mirrors without an image
by Douglas Messerli
Jiří Menzel (screenplay, based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, and director) Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (I Served the King of England) / 2006, USA 2008

Jiří Menzel’s 2006 film I Served the King of England is, like most of Menzel’s films, both a frothy comedy and a kind of tragic presentation of Czech history. In part the work of this loveable filmmaker has been determined by writer Bohumil Hrabal, who novel was the basis of this and other Menzel films.

      But while most of his works almost seamlessly in its revelations of the comic and tragic, as in, for example, Closely Watched Trains, I Served the King of England seems, at times, almost schizophrenic in its approach to the human condition. Its hero, the diminutive, but still dashing, blond-haired Chaplin-like figure Jan Ditě (the younger version played by Ivan Barnev), is a true innocent (in Czech, his last name means Child), almost a fool whose only desire in life, like a delirious schoolboy, is to become a millionaire. As critics have noted, his greatest goal as a young man is to give pleasure—which is why he is such a great waiter and a successful lover, a favorite the many women he meets—but he is similarly seeking only pleasure, which, much like a selfish child, is his major flaw. The first part of the film focuses on this pleasure-giving/pleasure-seeking world onto which Ditě has attached himself, a world of wealthy bureaucrats and industrialists, who spend their days eating and drinking and  their nights in bed with whores and paid escorts. First working at a local pub, then at the lavish spa, Hotel Tichota, and finally, under the tutelage of the Maître d’, Skřivánek (Martin Huba)—who once served the King of England, as if that might explain his expertise at knowing what his customer's might demand—at the elegant Prague eatery, Hotel Pařiž. Indeed one might almost describe this first part of the movie as a representing an orgy of eating and sexual pleasures, and catalogue it as a kind of beautiful “food” movie, a kind of reverse spin-off of Babette’s Feast. Menzel’s camera, for this first part of the film nearly swoons in the grandeur of its sets, food, and sexual joys, following the dancing waiters as they gracefully turn about their tables and, at one point, when an actress lies, with open breasts, upon a table spinning round her admirers, the camera itself spinning off into a blur of space.

      One of the most charming and disarming scenes is the arrival of Emperor of Ethiopia, where a camel carcass is stuffed with pheasants and pigs, in turn stuffed, in turn, by fruits and spices. Carefully attending to the Emperor, our hero suddenly discovers, as the  Emperor, even more diminutive than him, attempts to award the tall Maître d’, suddenly places the medal around the neck of the smaller statured Ditě.
      Yet we know from the beginning of this fable that not all has turned our well for our hero, since in the very first scene we witness him being freed from prison after serving nearly 15 years. Throughout this series of sensual pleasures we can only wonder what happened. The second part of the film, accordingly, is devoted to the other side of his “innocence,” to the results of such a mindless and selfish search for pleasure and wealth. We also observe him after his release, working to rebuild a small bar, which once was part of a German community, along the Czech border to where he has been consigned. And we perceive the elderly Ditě (Oldrich Kaiser) as a man chastised, without the verve—although still with the libido—of his younger self: a tree-cutting musicologist, seeking trees suitable for producing musical instruments, and his beautiful, but troubled assistant appear on the scene, the latter attracting the attentions of the now aging “child.”

      His downfall begins with what appears to be act of kindness, as he rushes to the defense of a young German woman being attacked by Czech ruffians, outraged over the Third Reich annexation of their country. Our hero seems almost oblivious of the political transformations of his world, and quickly falls in love with the young woman, Liza (Julia Jentsch), such an admirer of Hitler that she has posted a large portrait of the Führer in her bedroom to watch over her as she makes love. The “manchild” simply cannot morally comprehend, it is clear, the implications of her and others behavior, even when he forced to undergo a medical examination in order to marry her. Anxious to serve the Reich, Liza volunteers to become a nurse at the front, while Ditě returns to what was once the Hotel Tichota, now a home for nubile German women to breed with soldiers of the new “master race.” Like a eunuch in a harem, our hero is the only non-breeding male allowed daily “access” to the tall Nordic-like beauties surrounding him.

      But here, the comedy is strained, since we all know that the truth the situation implies. Ditě, although never condemned by Menzel, has become a traitor, as several of his former colleagues, resistant to German intrusions, suddenly disappear. Even when Liza returns from the Polish front with masses of rare stamps stolen from the collection of a Jewish-Polish family, we recognize that her and her husband’s joy in their new-found wealth has been obtained, most likely, with the incarceration and murder of others. When the former spa is attacked by Allied forces, Liza rushes into their room to save the stamps, only be killed by the collapse of the building’s ceiling. Ditě, retrieving the stamp box for her hand, suddenly finds himself the wealthy man he has long sought to become.

     By this time the gentle satiric and outright comedic film has turned sour, and we are not surprised, soon after, when the War has ended and the Communists have taken power, that the formerly “innocent” Ditě is found guilty simply for having so much money, and is sentenced to 15 years, commensurate with the 15 million he is now worth. Attempting in prison to finally join up with the millionaires of the first part of the movie, now also imprisoned, he is once more shunned by them. In his utter naiveté, Jan Ditě is a born loser.
     Accordingly, the aftermath of his story, a tale of unfulfilled desire and his Jan’s slow, patient reclamation of the destroyed past, is far less interesting that other parts of the movie, and, I believe, spreads a kind of pall across the film as a whole. Of course, in part, this more quiet section must be there to represent this idiot-child’s final recognition of the errors of his ways. But even when, at movie’s end, he tosses his remaining stamps into the winds of nature, I still find it difficult to forgive his self-enchanted treason. The bones of all those murdered Jews and soldiers killed by the Nazis rattle the film’s final credits, despite Aleś Březina’s spirited score.

      Obviously, Menzel is preaching a kind of forgiveness, a burial of past stupidities. But this film’s everyman still seems too connected to the sensual pleasures of the palate and the flesh to ever quite forgive him for his unknowing sins. Although, in the final scenes he has gathered numerous mirrors into which he looks at himself in the present and the past—just as he has used mirrors and beer steins to project and distort his pleasures in the first part of this film— most of them reveal nothing, remaining blank are mirrors without an image to cast back. Perhaps the adult Ditě is simply a ghost, having died as the child he was.

Los Angeles, October 30, 2013

Monday, October 28, 2013

Marcel Carné | Thérèse Raquin

in a tomb
by Douglas Messerli

Marcel Carné and Charles Spaak (writers, based on the novel by Emile Zola), Marcel Carné (director) Thérèse Raquin / 1953

Generally when the great French director Marcel Carné’s film Thérèse Raquin is written about—and oddly little has been written about this film, none of my three major film guides (Halliwell’s, Maltins’s and the Time Out guides) even bothering to mention it—it is described as an example of Carné’s transformation from one of the greatest of French film auteurs to an almost second-rate hack; some described it as melodramatic, while critics simply suggest his style of film-making was outdated, particularly with the rise of the French New Wave.

      Certainly this film from 1953 cannot compare with the audacious energy of a film of a decade later such as Breathless, but it certainly outshines numerous Hollywood romances of the same period, and, although it does not have the freshness of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy of a year later, it offers an important link between Carné’s moody fatalist romances of the 1930s and 1940s and the almost cynical film noirs of the late 1940s and 1950s. Whereas Zola clearly set his figures against a naturalist background where societal conditions determined the fate of his figures, Carné explores the psychological natures of his characters, which doom them far more than the class-structures in which they live and by which their lives have been informed.

     Clearly Thérèse (Simone Signoret), given a place to live by her menacing aunt and then forced at an early age to marry her sickly mamma’s boy cousin, Celine (Jacques Duby), has been conditioned to accept life in the most meager of terms, but she well comprehends her own unhappiness and the reasons for it. If she finds it difficult to make a change, it is not so much because of her social inferiority and prior poverty, but her psychological desire to please and her own bourgeois values. Laurent (Raf Vallone), the truck-driver she accidently meets through her husband’s drunkenness (occasioned by Laurent’s attempt to transform the nasty bureaucrat into a useful friend), is, from the moment they meet, ready to run away with her, returning to his native Italy if necessary. But the obedient and self-sacrificing Thérèse, although equally attracted to Laurent, simply cannot give herself up to the moment. She becomes an “adulteress”—the ridiculous word applied to the English version of the film—only because of her smoldering resentment and her disgust of her present life, and her seeming acceptance of Laurent’s love is a slow process that in opposition to his heated animal passions.

      In short, it is their very psychological oppositions that draw them to each other. While Laurent acts impulsively, Thérèse painfully weighs every one of her acts. That she ultimately still agrees to escape with Laurent comes only after the realization that her husband, who has discovered her sexual transgressions, becomes determined to punish her for her behavior. Although she does not apparently know of his plans to lock her up in a relative’s home in Paris, she does perceive that the three days he has begged her to join him in Paris will be only the beginning of increasing demands, as he threatens suicide and other forms of his own death.

     The world in which Thérèse is locked away, in her aunt’s haberdashery shop in the Old Town of Lyons, is almost like tomb in which instead of living life the inhabitants spend their life playing games. The very first scene of the film, in fact, shows Celine and his mother entranced by old men playing a game of bocci, while the disinterested young girl stares at the Rhône river as it flows away from the city. When Laurent is invited by Celine to the house, it is only to join his mother and elderly friends playing a horse-racing board game. If Laurent is interested in a game, it is the play of life in action, and it is fitting that he joins Thérèse upon the train that might seem to be taking away from the closed world of Lyons—although we know it is only a voyage to a world even more enclosed! That Celine and Thérèse have chosen a cabin with a sleeping sailor only adds to the levels of irony, as the inveterate traveler now seems dead to the world.

     At the very moment that it becomes apparent to Thérèse and audience both that she is quite literally choking in the embracement of her sickly and spiritually dead husband, Laurent, in a fit of rage, strangles Celine, throwing him off the train. We hardly are startled by the act; Celine is so clearly an unfit traveler, a man that should never have left his bed.

     But at that very same moment, as the dark pessimism of Carné’s earlier films joins with the cynical pessimism of the post-World War II world, we also comprehend that the relationship between the lovers is doomed, and, that perhaps Thérèse has seen Laurent less as an ideal lover than as a “way out.” Ironically, she must now return to her “tomb,” to her hated aunt’s side as she pretends—now herself “playing” a kind of game—to know nothing about her husband’s death.

      That the couple almost get away with it—when the sailor lies to police and Thérèse’s aunt, who also knew of Thérèse’s sexual transgressions, suffers paralysis upon hearing of son’s death—does not so much offer salvation as it points up the moral conundrums of the period, demonstrating the loss of faith in any social structures that so many suffered during those years, which was already foretold in Carné’s romantic dramas of the previous decade. And though Thérèse is societally “forgiven” the errors of her ways, even after awarded a small monetary sum in recompense, the writer and director, as in many—as in many film noirs—allows them no way out. The symbol of freedom (travel and adventure) that Thérèse so seeks rises up to swallow its own tail, as the sleeping sailor returns to blackmail the couple, determined to get enough money so that he too might join the bourgeoisie, running a bicycle shop!

      Thérèse and Laurent can only give in to the blackmail attempt if they want to survive, but the gods themselves have other plans, as at the very moment they pay him, the sailor is killed by a run-away truck (the tool of Laurent’s own career). We know what they cannot: the sailor has sent a letter to the police, telling them all, destined to be mailed if he does not arrive home at certain hour. In his absence, the young girl to whom he has entrusted the letter goes skipping of to the mail box!

     Yes, the plot creaks. Carné believed always more in the theater than in the audience watching it; but his film, even in its darkest shadows, shines in its allegorical representations of the age-old battle between desire and death. Even if the heaving breasts of Signoret and the bulging pectorals of Raf Vallone suggest a melodramatic approach to life, I’ll take it over the giggling, game-playing adult-adolescents of Doris Day and Rock Hudson of a few years later any day.

Los Angeles, October 28, 2013

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Jean-Luc Godard | Masculin Féminin: 15 fraits précis (Masculine Feminine: 15 Specific Events)

between worlds
by Douglas Messerli
Jean-Luc Godard (writer and director) Masculin Féminin: 15 fraits précis (Masculine Feminine: 15 Specific Events) / 1966

I might never have thought of Jean-Luc Godard’s comic murder mystery as consisting of any “specific” events, suggested by his subtitle, although the innovative visuals of the work do nicely divide it into 15 parts. But those parts consist each of several somewhat vague interactions: some consisting of faux interviews, others of young characters, masculine and feminine, attempting to interrelate to one another with, and, at other moments, slightly pretentious philosophical maxims (“We control our thoughts which mean nothing, and not our emotions which mean everything” of “Kill a man and you’re a murderer, kill thousand and you’re a conqueror, kill everyone and you’re a god” or “Man’s conscience doesn’t determine his existence. His social being determines his conscience.”)  Throughout, with simple youthful desire, the figures of this work find themselves surrounded by strange unexplained events.       

     The pretense of these interchanges is the growing and waning love between a young idealistic Marxist, Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and a budding pop singer, a constantly hair-combing “Coca-Cola” girl, Madeleine (Chantal Goya). The two have little in common except their attraction to one another, and the director’s desire to explore in his essay-like filmmaking the difficulties a younger generation caught between two worlds.

      Indeed, almost everyone in this film is caught between two extremes, man and woman, young and old, political values and consumerism, and numerous other oppositions. As Paul begins to make a pass for Madeleine, she is caught between her child-like pleasures of hairdos, new clothes, and girl-talk with her friends, and the increasing pressure to have sex. When Paul eventually moves in with her and her two girlfriends, he, in turn, is caught between all three women, Madeleine, Catherine (Catherine-Isabelle Duport), and Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert) as, at times they share a single bed, go on group-dates to the local movie theater (playing a kind of musical chairs as they rearrange their allegiances to each other), and move through the dialogue filled with both pop names (James Bond, Bob Dylan, Brigitte Bardot—the latter of whom makes a brief appearance in Godard’s film—and leftist and political icons and events such as Malraux, LeRoi Jones and the Vietnam War.

     Their experiences in this world of the mid-1960s, moreover, veers between a freshness of youth and the violence and prostitution (in several forms) surrounding them. At several moments in the film, older women suddenly shoot and kill their lovers and prostitutes berate their customers, actions without even seeming to register on those around them. But the men equally maltreat and misunderstand their women, with both Paul and his friend Robert admitting that they occasionally have sought out the company of sexual prostitutes and Paul outwardly stating his determination to bed Madeleine. Robert, himself, divides up his days into periods of time where everything is terrible or is just fine:
                         Paul: How’s it going?
                         Robert: [Seated at café table] Terrible!
                         Paul: What’s wrong?
                         Robert: I’m saying things are terrible until 10:00
                         Paul: [To the waiter] An espresso.
                         [To Robert]
                         Paul: It’s 10:05 now.
                         Robert: Really? Then everything’s all right.

      In her review of Godard’s film, critic Pauline Kael gushed over the director’s ability to catch the romantic problems of youth “precisely and essentially”; but I would argue that—even with the film’s lovely veneer of lyrical satire that certainly seemed to define the era even as it was occurring—that this entertaining and quite joyous film-essay does not truly attempt to answer anything, let alone give us “precise” and “essential” perceptions about it. In Masculine Feminine we never do discover the significant issues of gender or sex; we never learn whether either Paul or Madeline might be able to learn from each other or whether the Marxist culture (which Godard would later more deeply explore) and the Coca-Cola consumerism of the film’s women can find any way to co-exist. This young politico is so clearly isolated that he does not even know, or, at least, pretends not to know who Bob Dylan is, and when accidentally encountering a homosexual rendezvous between two men, is clearly disconcerted—if also a bit intrigued.

     By film’s end it becomes quite apparent that faced as he is constantly with the lies and silences of the members of the feminine sex he interviews, that the handsome, brooding, desperately-seeking sad-sack Paul cannot survive in such a world, made apparent by the ambiguous description of his death during an interview in which he kept moving back and further back before his “fall.” Was the interview, we can only ask, held on a rooftop or the edge of a cliff? What we do know, in hindsight, is that Godard, always slightly misogynistic in his works, would, at least temporarily, follow his young hero’s action, turning away from the yé-ye world of Madeline’s mindless ditties to ask and pronounce assessments of culture not so very unlike Paul’s. Certainly most critics argued that the director’s “Maoist” period ended in his own “fall.”

     There are few answers provided in Masculine Feminine, but then Godard’s brilliance has always been in the questions he asks. And the very fact that some of questions are unanswerable by those asked, speaks volumes.

Los Angeles, October 26, 2013

Monday, October 21, 2013

Fritz Lang | M

trapped between
by Douglas Messerli
Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jansen, and Karl Vash (writers, based on a newspaper article by Egon Jacobson), Fritz Lang (director) M / 1931, USA 1933

I cannot imagine of work of 20th art more appropriate for this year’s volume of My Year, with the subtitle “Murderers and Angels,” than Fritz Lang’s memorable 1931 film M. One of Lang’s first titles for this work, “Murderer Among Us,” is eerily close to the title I had first considered, “The Murderer Next Door.” And the subject of this film, a child murderer on the loose in an urban environment, has an uncanny relationship with my own introductory essay, which I describe as “a lament.”

    For all of its thematic of murder and violence, however, Lang’s film is strangely non-violent it what it presents on screen. In the first few scenes, indeed, Lang might almost be presenting an innocent world, as children play in the courtyard of a Berlin apartment building. But the game they are playing is far less idyllic than it first may seem, as one by one they eliminate each other, chanting about a child murderer. Once more Lang slightly misleads us by presenting a woman setting a table for her daughter about to return home from school. But his prowling camera reveals a wanted person’s photo of a serial killer who has preyed on school children, as, very gradually, the woman, Frau Beckmann (Ellen Widmann) begins to perceive that her daughter is late, going to the window and eventually to the door to look for her.

     The murderer is revealed soon after, as we see Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), whistling the somewhat frightening Grieg tune from Per Gynt, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” approach the young child, Elsie (Inge Landgut), buying her a balloon from a blind street-vendor, her ball, soon after, rolling emptily in a patch of grass, the balloon having been trapped in the telephone lines overhead.

      So Lang establishes in spare images the basic theme of the film, reiterated in the movie’s last moments by Elise’s mother “One has to keep closer watch over the children.” Berlin, 1931, is clearly a dangerous world. Actually, as critics have pointed out, however, the central “murderer,” played to perfection by the pop-eyed Lorre, is not seen that much on the screen. Appearing only in these early scenes, in a wonderful moment, soon after, when, facing a mirror he attempts to mimic the dreadful face with which the press has described him, and in the last few scenes of the work, in the startling chase and trials which bring an end to his actions, the killer of this film about murder is mostly absent.

     The real villains of Lang’s work, both the members of the police force and the underworld of the city’s criminals, see themselves as the saviors of the society—albeit for different reasons. But Lang makes clear, without saying a word, that these men and women representing different social forces are perhaps far more dangerous than the murderer among them.

      As Roger Ebert has argued, it is in “the horror of faces” that the director reveals his disdain for his fellow countrymen, who, one must remember, were gradually being transformed into the figures of Nazi destruction. I’m not sure I’d completely agree with Ebert’s characterization of faces of these actors as being “piglike,” but, as they each go about their business, they are certainly not very pleasant or engaging. Both the societally-backed police and the hidden underworld meet in smoky backrooms as they determine their strategies. The police intensify their searches of psychiatric patients and frequently raid operations of the underworld, which, in turn, forces the criminal bosses, believing the social authorities to be idiot bumblers, to organize their own search for Beckert. Business is hurting.

     Beckert, meanwhile, is obviously a man of the middle class, living in a modest apartment, traveling through the city like an overworked member of the middle class, peering into shop windows, becoming a monster only when he almost accidentally crosses a child’s path.

     Without knowing it, Beckert is trapped between these two worlds, as he begins following yet another young girl, the beggars and other street-people closely following him. When they become frightened that he may get away, resulting in another murder, one of their group chalks his hand, depositing the imprint of an M upon the murderer’s coat shoulder. When the young girl notices the strange imprint, Beckert must again go on the run, and he escapes into a nearby office building to hide.

     With far greater competency than the police department, the criminals search the building from top to bottom, eventually capturing the murderer and bringing him to their underground court, replete with a “lawyer” who bravely argues Beckert’s case as opposed to the large “court” gathering who demands his death.

     Beckert’s impassioned pleas that he cannot control his actions, arguing “Who knows what it’s like to be me?” has no meaning in a world of men and women who knowingly and purposely murder, without being driven from within. Just as the mob is about to fall upon him, the police arrive. The five judges at film’s end pass their judgment, sentencing him, it is apparent, to death. But Lang has signified in a manner that evidently the Nazi rulers themselves did not perceive, that the more dangerous murderers are still very much among the society at large.

     Only a year later Lang’s film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, would be described as an anti-Nazi film, and was cited by the Nazis as “an incitement to public disorder” and banned. A year after M appeared in the US, Lang escaped from Germany, later to make films in the US. Some of his later film noirs and other films are quite notable, but none reached the clearly-wrought horrors of his first “talkie,” M.

Los Angeles, October 21, 2013

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Kenji Mizoguchi | Ugetsu

the value of things
by Douglas Messerli

Matsutarō Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda (screenplay, based on stories by Akinari Ueda and Guy de Maupassant), Kenji Mizoguchi (director) Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari) / 1953

The camera sweeps across a lake, moving down into a provincial village of flimsily-built cottages, suddenly immersing us in the lives of the peasants who are terrified of the nearby gun-fire. The time is the late 16th century and the place is the shore of Lake Biwa in Ōmi Province, where the characters are trapped between warring factions.

      Despite the imminent attack of forces hostile to the small village, the farmer-potter Genjurō (Masayuki Mori) is determined—against the pleas of his wife Miyagi for him to stay and home and prepare for the invasion—to take his wares to the town of Ōmizo, where he hopes to sell them for a substantial profit. His brother, Tōbei, a clumsy oaf of a farmer, wants to join him on his trip, his wife, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), also insisting that he stay behind to attend to things. But the men move forward in space, leaving their frightened wives and Miyagi’s son behind.

     Returning soon after, Genjurō proudly displays the heavy gold bars his has earned, while Tōbei, who has encountered a passing troop of samurai swordsmen, is more determined than ever to join the warring forces. The battle cries can be heard even closer to their village of Nakanogō, and Miyagi and her sister-in-law Ohama demand that their husbands prepare for an escape from the impending attack. Genjurō, so delighted by his profits, however, can only continue to work, firing up his kiln once more to create more cups, bowls, and vases for sale. When they are finally forced to flee, he is terrified that the kiln fire will be extinguished and he will have lost everything. Clearly, as his wife warns him, he has lost the sense, like Tōbei, of the “value of things,” having abandoned the love of wife and family for objects, money and what it can buy.

     So Kenji Mizoguchi establishes from the very beginning of his great film, Ugetsu, that war  whether, as he put it, “it originates in the ruler’s personal motives or in some public concern,” creates an aura of violence that “oppresses and torments the populace, both physically and spiritually.”

    The fire in Genjurō’s beloved kiln has gone out, but the pottery has nonetheless baked beautifully, and, upon returning to the destroyed village, he is determined to take another route to town, this time across the lake. The eerie trip across Lake Biwa, with both couples and their son aboard a small boat is one the most beautiful scenes of a film of arresting images. Fog and smoke swirl up against the quiet beat of the oars, bulrushes peeking through the water’s surface. Mizoguchi is clearly taking his characters in a frightening ghost-like world from which there is no return. Suddenly they encounter what appears to be an empty boat, which, they soon discover, contains a dying man, who warns them of pirates, urging them to return to shore. But the now demented brothers will not cease in their voyage, returning to shore only to leave behind their wives and the child. Ohama, however, refuses to leave, and Miyagi is left behind with her son upon her back, ruefully prepared to return to their war-torn home.

     The other three make it to the city, and, once again, Genjurō’s pottery brings in a hefty profit, part of which he shares with Tōbei and his wife, the former sneaking off the moment he receives his share to secretly purchase a suit of samurai armor and a sword before surreptitiously joining with a samurai clan. Left alone, Ohama wanders back toward her village, where, observed by straggling warriors, is captured and raped, leaving her utterly alone and disgraced.

     Meanwhile a noble woman and her servant visit Genjurō’s pottery stand, and order several pieces to be delivered to the Kutsuki mansion. Soon after, the potter packs up the purchases and scurries away in the direction of the mansion, first stopping by a stand that sells beautiful kimonos, one of which he hopes to purchase for his wife, dreaming of the joy with which she will receive it. As Miyagi has previously told him, however, she would rather have his love that these beautiful fabrics. But Genjurō, now completely swept up in the objective world, the world of things in space, cannot resist.

     At that very moment, however, the wealthy noblewoman and her servant appear again, presuming that he may need guidance to their palace. Without even wondering about their reoccurrence, the peasant gladly follows them, as they invite him inside, preparing tea.

     The woman of the manor, the beautiful Lady Wakasa, dressed like a Noh heroine, with burnishes of coal upon her forehead, her face covered with veils, explains that the family and house have previously been attacked, her family members killed, leaving her and three servants. Her father, she admits, haunts the mansion.

     The viewer quickly perceives that something is amiss, that Lady Wakasa is not completely to be believed. But the refined woman, praising the beauty of the potter’s green lacquered bowls, utterly seduces the crude Genjurō, who can only proclaim “I never dreamed such pleasures existed.” Soon after, the beautiful lady makes sexual advances as well, which through the director’s always fluid camera, is presented not in literal terms, but as a kind of visual scroll of events, moving away from their love-making near a stream, to follow the water’s path across the screen to reach yet a more sensuously-wrought scene of the our “hero” ensconced in an open pool where, soon, Lady Wakasa joins him, the rippling water transforming into another image of the two picnicking upon the grass. The viewer, in short, is equally seduced by Mizoguchi’s images as is Genjurō by the lady’s words and actions, as she easily convinces the village potter into a new marriage.

     Back in the war-torn Nakanogō, forces search the village homes in search of remaining women and food. Miyagi and her son briefly hide from the soldiers, fortunately discovered by an elderly neighbor, and taken away to safety in the woods. There, however, a group of soldiers come upon her, demanding her pack of food. Desperate to keep enough to feed her son, she attempts to fight them off, her son still positioned on her back. Stabbed by the soldiers, she collapses.

     Tōbei, observing a defeated warrior demanding that his servant cut off his head in ritual suicide, kills the servant and claims the head, returning to the samurai clan to insist that he has murdered the enemy. He is awarded men and horses, and proudly rides off toward Nakanogō to demonstrate to his wife his now elevated position. Before he can reach home, however, he is convinced by his men and an innkeeper to stay the night in a geisha house to award his soldiers. He does so only to discover his wife within, now working as a geisha. After explaining her plight to her husband, Ohama is embraced by Tōbei, who, having apparently learned his lesson, travels on to their home without his men and armor, a chastened man.

     So ends the comic version of Mizoguchi’s dual tale. The more tragic version is played out with Genjurō’s gradual discovery that his new wife has actually been killed long before and that the mansion no longer exists. The priest who warns him of these facts attempts to exorcise the power of the ghost by painting Buddhist prayers across the potter’s body. Returning to the mansion, Genjurō admits to Lady Wakasa that he has already been married and has a son, and that he now wants to return home. Wakasa and her servant admit that they are ghosts, but have been granted a return so that the Lady might find the love which in her life she had been denied. She now refuses to release Genjurō, but when she perceives the prayers inscribed upon his body, quickly pulls away, demanding that he wash them off. Genjurō reaches for a sword and escapes the house, only to discover the next morning that it no longer exists, is nothing but a pile of burnt rubble.

      So too does the now contrite potter return him, to find his wife, Miyagi, delighted by his return. Holding his sleeping son, Genjurō falls into an exhausted sleep. The next morning he awakens to find himself alone, an older villager knocking at his door. Surprised to see his long-missing neighbor, the elder explains that he has been caring for Genjurō’s son, but that the boy evidently escaped during the night, returning to his old home. Genjurō calls for his wife, the neighbor explaining that she has died. In desire of “things” Genjurō has been left with nothing—except for the inexpressible love for his child.

     In the final scene we witness the son and Genjurō offering a bowl of rice up to the memory of Miyagi. The camera’s track, reversing its original projection, moves from the grave, sweeping up into the air and, once again, soaring over the nearby lake, the scroll of Mizoguchi’s spool of film ending near to where it had begun.

Los Angeles, October 19, 2013

Friday, October 18, 2013

Federico Fellini | Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria)

by Douglas Messerli
Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Pier Palo Pasolini (screenplay), Federico Fellini (director) Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) / 1957

Almost all of Federico Fellini’s films are episodic, and many—as critics have noted—are structured circularly. But none is more circular in form than that of his Nights of Cabiria. Its central character, Cabiria Ceccarelli (Giulietta Masina)—who, one might argue not just at the movie’s center but is the film itself, its raison d’etre—travels through vast spaces of post-war Rome without going anywhere. Her life, filled with dreams and aspirations, remains in stasis, and, accordingly, one might almost describe Fellini’s early masterwork as a comic study in duration.

      Part of the problem with the delightful Cabiria, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his 1998 review of the film, is that this character moves against the rhythms of life itself. “On his sets [Fellini] played music during almost every scene, and you can sense in most Fellini movies a certain sway in the way the characters walk: Even the background extras seem to hearing the same rhythm. Cabiria hears it, but often walks in counterpoint, as if to her own melody.”

      Like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton walking against the storm, the ridiculously dressed, pixyish Cabiria uses this and the character’s other eccentricities to great comic effect, swaying, shrugging, even physically wrestling with others around her to maintain her personal defenses again their cynicism. While her fellow prostitutes dress to reveal their buxomly shapes, Cabiria, in stripes and a matted faux-fur top-coat, emphasizes her skinny impishness, looking, at times, like a young boy in drag instead of a grown and ageing woman. Wherever she goes, an argument is sure to follow, even if nothing is said as when she becomes determined to move from her usual stopping grounds of the Archeological Passage to the posh Via Veneto, where the tall and well-dressed women of the night look down disapprovingly upon her. Any man choosing to go home with Cabiria might almost be seen to be making a personal joke.

      Indeed, in the very first scene of the film, Cabiria’s current boyfriend-pimp, steals her purse and tosses her into the river. Unable to swim, the character almost drowns, saved only at the last moment by children and local worker. Later, she is picked up, after a fight between an well-known movie star and his girlfriend, by Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari), who takes her to a swank nightclub, where she becomes entangled in a bead curtain. Later, at his lovely estate, before she can even take a sip of champagne or bite of duck, he orders her to hide in the bathroom as his angry girlfriend returns. Cabiria spends the night in the bathroom in the dog, sneaking out of the mansion early in the next morning, only to go crashing into the glass doors. At least she has the actor’s signature to prove her “luck.” After revealing her belief in joy and love under the spell of a cabaret hypnotist, another man, Oscar (François Périer) courts her, claiming that he desires the same things in life. Finally, it appears, that Cabiria has found the love she has been seeking; but he too, taking her to a cliff in the woods, robs her and would through her over the cliff were she not to beg him to let her live. Although she bought and, later, sells a ramshackle shack in an industrial field at the edge of the city—a house of which she is very proud—she seems never, at least as we observe her, to actually have even a one-night-stand, let alone a romantic success.

     Cabiria’s belief also extends to all things religious, despite her avocation. But a trip, with other fellow prostitutes, to what purports to be an appearance of the Virgin Mary (a similar situation is played out in La dolce vita) ends with a claustrophobic rush of bodies, terrifying the plucky sinner. A far more spiritual encounter is Cabria’s late night observation of a saintly good Samaritan, who, with his own money, brings food to the desperate cave-dwellers outside Rome. It is there, also, where Cabiria sees what might someday soon be herself, as she encounters a former prostitute, now a haggard and wizened being, living in the dark of these caverns. But even these more spiritual revelations do not truly alter Cabiria’s thinking. Like a dancer moving against the beat, she remains locked in a pattern of refusing to believe the very realities Fellini presents her with. If there was ever evidence that Fellini was not a neorealist at heart, it is in the film; Cabiria, portrayed by his own wife, is the fantasist that the director would soon become.  

     Although Nights of Cabiria ends, oddly enough, with a procession of young and beautiful boys moving forward through the forest, and catching up the forlorn waif in their march, we know that that movement forward will not last long. Surely Cabiria will at some point turn back, retrace her steps, and end up very near to the place where she has begun.

Los Angeles, October 18, 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Victor Sjöstrom | The Scarlet Letter

undoing the past
by Douglas Messerli
Frances Marion (writer and titles, based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne), Victor Sjöstrom (director) The Scarlet Letter / 1926


Swedish director Victor Sjöstrom’s film adaptation of  Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, made during the director’s short “Hollywood” period, is surely one of his best films, and perhaps the most powerful performance ever of its central actor, Lillian Gish. By comparison to this silent work, Gish’s work in the 1930 talkie I watched immediately after viewing this film on TCM, One Romantic Night, seemed somewhat bland and unexpressive. Not so in The Scarlet Letter in which Gish, quite literally, lets her beautiful hair down several times, particularly early in the film when she goes rushing into the woods after her escaped bird. This series of events is beautifully filmed by Sjöstrom and his cinematographer Hendrik Sartov, as his camera fluidly tracks the beautiful young woman dressed all in white—as opposed to the church-going Puritans, clad mostly in black—saying almost everything that needs to be said about this oppressive culture, where even allowing a bird to sing on the Sabbath, let alone running and chasing after it, is deeply forbidden—as if joy and beauty were an anathema to God.

      In the closed and claustrophobic world of Sjöstrom’s Boston, nothing can be hidden from the sight of nosy and viciously gossiping neighbors such as Mistress Hibbins (Marcelle Corday); and punishment for the young steamstress’ transgressions immediately follows, ordered by the elders. It is not enough that she be brought before the kinder church minister, The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (played by the striking Swedish actor Lars Hanson) to be scolded before the entire community, but the now seemingly innocent act puts Hester Prynne in the pillories for her “crime.” As Dimmesdale tenderly releases her from her bodily imprisonment, he is struck by her beauty, which follows, soon after, with a quite steamy love scene, again played in the woods.

     Unlike in Hawthorne’s tale, accordingly, where we only gradually discover the intense sexual relationship between the minister and Hester, here everything is established from the beginning. And the director makes clear from the very first scenes that the hugs and touches between these two beautiful beings is against not only community norms but law, as soon after, we observe the comical wooing of the work’s dunce-like Master Giles of a young woman wherein they are forced to speak to one another over a table through a long tube-like device that keeps them worlds apart. A quick, stolen goodbye kiss, ends in Giles being ousted not only from the house but from his would-be lover’s life.

      In Hawthorne the gradual discovery of the relationship between Dimmesdale and Hester reiterates his and the community’s hypocrisy. But here (in reality, Hanson speaking in Swedish, Gish in English) we are presented with the background events of Dimmesdale’s later “treason,” which create a far deeper sense of sympathy for both the minister and Hester. Here we see both her own flirtations and demurrals as well as the powerful forces of love emanating from the Reverend. As Hester states the obvious, they live in a world that is “afraid of love,” a community terrorized by even the vision of women’s undergarments.

     If that leads us to more fully sympathize equally with Dimmesdale, the director further allows us feel the extreme tensions that the two feel even before Hester’s adultery is revealed through the birth of young daughter, Pearl. Dimmesdale desperately desires to marry this woman—which would have saved their lives—but it is Hester who is most responsible for the situation, not through her sexual responses, but through her lies, through the fact that she has not revealed her marriage to Roger Chillingworth until Dimmesdale is about to leave the country on a mission to the English King. Hester’s crime and punishment, accordingly, is not correctly perceived by the vengeful and cruel community: hers is not a crime passion or wonton sexuality, as much as it is that she, just like most in this community, is unable to face the truth, fearful of losing what she has attained—in her case, the love of Dimmesdale. In short, although she is publically humiliated for her aberrant behavior, she is, in fact, one of them, and like them, desperate to hide the truth.


     This is particularly obvious in this film when Dimmesdale, returning from his voyage, discovers her plight. While he is determined to confess all, she insists that he continue to keep it secret, to serve the community rather than reveal to that society that he and they are all equally sinners. It is this internalization of reality that ultimately dooms not only both lovers, Dimmesdale and Hester, but also the community at large. Even Master Giles’ determined revenge on Mistress Hibbins for her insufferable gossip, is based on a lie, as he, pretending to be her, play-acts in a scene of imaginary gossip against town leaders who accidently (purposely to him) overhear her words. The result is dreadful series of dunkings into a nearby pond.

     The lies indeed insinuate themselves into the lives of all, but particularly into the heart of this more appealing Dimmesdale, who, after saving Pearl from being taken from Hester by baptizing his daughter (itself, in this society, surely a sacrilegious act) spends much of the rest of the film with hand over heart, as he wastes away, daily retreating from living.

     Sjöstrom doubles the couple’s torture by bringing back Hester’s missing husband, Chillingworth, who, as a doctor saves Pearl’s life, but as a husband determines to revenge his wife (and, more indirectly than in Hawthorne’s work, Dimmesdale) by simply reappearing at auspicious moments. If the letter A she is forced to wear to the end of her life might remind her of her supposed sin, the more frightening punishment is Chillingworth’s constant reminder of his knowledge about the truth of the events.

     For a brief moment, these two tortured beings attempt to imagine some way out of their assigned fate through an escape to Spain where they may begin again, where they may free themselves from their tortured past—brilliantly symbolized in the film by Hester’s temporary removal of her A from her dress. But we have already perceived that the A signifying their past actions will be forever emblazoned upon their memories as we watch the young Pearl draw the same figure in the sand, as if beginning her studies of the alphabet. And Chillingworth’s presence simply reasserts that fact.

    It is Chillingworth’s presence, finally, that forces Dimmesdale to make a public confession about his involvement, revealing, in his personal anguish, that the same letter attached to Hester’s dress has been branded by iron upon his chest. Whereas Hawthorne may wonder if this was miraculous event wrought by the hand of God, in Sjöstrom’s far more corporeal rendering of the tale we have no question that the A upon the minister’s chest is a self-inflicted punishment for his own lack of moral daring. Yet again the Swedish director fully redeems Dimmesdale through the man’s confession, which itself, temporarily at least, saves his community by revealing the truth, that all men are sinners, that the mud they sling upon Hester and Pearl is that in which they themselves also walk.

    If the film version differs, quite radically at times, from the beloved fiction, it still works as an adaptation that raises most of Hawthorne’s themes while presenting the work’s heroes in more humane terms. And upon Dimmesdale’s death, in our empathy, we are quite ready to forgive his long silence. This silent film, after all, has audibly asserted what was in his heart.

Los Angeles, October 15, 2013

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Roberto Gavaldón | Macario

living with death
by Douglas Messerli
Emilio Carballido and Roberto Gavaldón (screenply, based on a work by B. Traven, based, in turn, on a story by the Grimm Brothers), Roberto Galvaldón Macario / 1960

Only a couple of weeks before the 2013 Dio de las muertas I saw Roberto Gavaldón’s “Day of the Dead” fable, Macario, as part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s series “The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema,” focusing on the cinematographer for the film, Gabriel Figueroa.

     Macario is a film woven through with  dire conditions and death. From its earliest frames we realize that Macario’s family is near starvation. Working as a woodcutter, Macario (Ignacio López Tarso) brings home heavy loads of wood that hardly afford his family a full meal, and after witnessing a table of roast turkeys—none of them for himself or his children—the father determines that he will go hungry until he can eat a whole turkey for himself. Fearful for his survival, his wife (Pina Pellicer) steals a turkey, stuffing it without his knowing into his satchel as he heads off to work in the mountains.  

     Discovering the bird in his pack, he prepares to eat it, until suddenly a man appears before him, the Devil, tempting the poor worker in order to get a piece of its meat. Unlike Faust, Macario stands firm; he will eat the turkey by himself. A second stranger, God, also passes by, in the guise of an elderly man, similarly asking for a piece of the delicious looking turkey, but Macario again refuses.

      Only when Death appears, dressed as a peasant like Macario himself does the poor woodcutter gladly share the bird, which Death (Enrique Lucero) gratefully receives restoring his hunger for a century, expressing his wonderment that Macario has shared it with him while refusing the other two. Up until this moment, the fable, based on a work by B. Traven, itself a version of a story by the Grimm Brothers, is almost wooden in its fairy-tale like structure, but Macario’s answer—“Whenever you appear, there is no time for anything else.”—takes the film in another direction, toward the mordant wit that infuses Macario’s whole culture, taking us into the dark world of Colonial Mexican life wherein death and life are interfused. Death in this dark tale is everywhere, a far more powerful presence than even the figures called up by the Church.

      Because of easy engagement with the all-powerful figure, Death engages in a perverse kind of friendship with the simple worker, presenting Macario a container of water that, he insists, will work miracles, saving some of those who about to die. The catch is, however, that Macario must look to the head and feet any of those he might attempt to heal; if his “friend” appears at the head of the victim, he is condemned to death, but if he appears at the feet of the sick person, Marcario may cure her or him.     

      The potion is quickly put to the test when Macario returns home to discover one of his sons has fallen into the well and is near death. Fortuitously, Death appears at the boy’s feet, and Macario’s son is miraculously cured. So begins, in this gossip-rich culture, Macario’s fame as a healer, as time and again, he cures local victims near death. In this poor and deprived culture it appears that nearly family has someone dying, and Macario, accordingly, becomes a kind of local hero—although understandably he is hated by local physician, who has none of the simple man’s healing powers, and the undertaker! Together these men contact the authorities, who quickly bring Macario’s actions to the attention of the church figures, who arrest Macario for heresy. They determine he is either a charlatan or a witch, promising, if he is the former, to cut out his tongue, or, if the latter, to burn him at the stake.

     At the very moment, however, fate seems to offer him another possibility. The Viceroy’s young son has grown gravely ill, and the authorities, accordingly, offer the prisoner an out if he can cure the boy. We can predict the outcome: the Viceroy’s son is condemned to death, as Death himself appears the head of the bed. The former woodcutter cries out for a different verdict, but Death is unforgiving, taking Macario—in the most spectacularly brilliant scene in this film—into his private cavern (filmed in Mexico’s Cacahamilpa caverns), where thousands upon thousands of candles represent the lifespan of every being. While the pleading Marcario looks on, death holds up the candle of the Viceroy’s son, snuffing it out before the peasant’s eyes. Death then holds up Macario’s own candle which reveals that the wax is low, the flame fluttering.     

     Terrified by the prospect of his own demise, our hero snatches up the icon, rushing off, with Death on the chase.

     On the same day on which Macario’s wife has sent him off with a full roast turkey, she is worried when he does not return home. She and her neighbors discover him lying in the woods as if he had simply fallen asleep. He is, of course, dead, his half of the turkey left untouched.

     In this Mexican picture, it is not so much Death who controls the characters’ fates, but the characters’ everyday association with and acceptance of the dark forces of the world around them that predetermines their own destinies. In the little village where Macario lives every day is “the Day of the Dead.”

     If this simple tale seems, at times, predictable in its moral simplicity, the beautiful camerawork of its cinematographer, its assured acting, and director Gavaldón’s skills at cinematic storytelling transform Traven’s far clumsier and fatalistic tale into a gem of cinema history. The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film from the Academy Awards and shown at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.

Los Angeles, October 12, 2013.