freedom without freedom
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
freedom without freedom
by Douglas Messerli
Yuri Klepikov and Larissa Shepitko (screenplay, based on a novel by Vasil Bykov), Larissa Shepitko (director) Восхождение (Voskhozhdeniye) (The Ascent) / 1977
Larrissa Shepitko’s 1977 film, The Ascent begins with the punctuated crack of gun fire between a group of Russian partisans and a Nazi death squad, and ends in a mad cackle of laughter by one of the work’s major figures. In between Shepitko paints a terribly bleak but visually beautiful landscape of woods and snow of Belorusia.
Having run out of food and the energy to move forward, the men, women, and children of the partisan unit send two of their best soldiers—the powerfully athletic Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) and the crack artillery officer, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov)—on a voyage to a nearby farm to bring back food. Rybak leads, while the slightly sickly Sotnikov follows. They reach the farm—where, evidently, Rybak had once been hidden and made love to the farmer’s daughter—only to find it burned to the ground, obviously destroyed by a German unit. Accordingly, the two are forced to walk through the brutal landscape to a nearby town, where they encounter an elderly headman (Sergei Yakovlev) who they perceive as a Nazi collaborationist. They kill a lamb, but leave the traitor to live.
As they attempt to make their way back to the woods where their unit awaits them, they are again spotted by a roving German unit. Rybak, despite his burden of the lamb, makes it to the woods, but the weaker Sotnikov is shot and wounded in his leg. Trapped in the open, he attempts to shoot the approaching Germans, but finally, points the gun at himself, so that if they come to get him, they cannot capture him alive.
At the last moment, Rybak returns and in a stunningly dramatic tussle with body and nature, pulls Sotnikov to safety. The director follows this with a long scene in which Rybak—about to leave the near frozen Sotnikov in order to find a place of safety— reveals, through tender hugs and kisses, his brotherly love for his fellow soldier, promising to return for him. This beautiful scene is both chaste and slightly homoerotic, an astounding mixture of pure human love that is seldom expressed in such a genre.
Rybak spots a small cabin nearby and drags his friend into it. But there, suddenly, they discover three small children waiting for the return of their mother. When the mother, Demchikha (Lyudmila Polyakova) returns she is angry and defensive for their intrusion, fearful of the results; but when she perceives that Sotnikov is wounded, she grows more sympathetic. At almost the same moment, however, a jitney of Nazi soldiers arrives, on the lookout for the two Russian partisans. Apparently their leader has previously had sex with Demichikha and stolen her pig, as he again forces his way into the cabin. Hiding out in the attic, the Russians are forced to watch what will surely be a gang rape, until Sotnikov, who has been coughing up blood for some time, can no longer control his silence. The soldiers are discovered and, along with Demichikha are carted away, the three children left behind to starve.
And as the group, beginning with the tortured and dying Sotnikov, begin to be interrogated by a Nazi interrogator, Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn), we suddenly begin to see this formerly weak ex-math teacher become incredibly strong, a least with regards to his inner conscience. Refusing to reply to any of the interrogator’s question, even taunting him, Sotnikov quickly grows in stature before our eyes. If Rybak seemed to be the hero of the previous scenes, we now rethink our perceptions of this man of loyalty and faith. Despite his condition, he even endures through the torture of a branding iron in the form of a Russian star imposed across his chest.
When Rybak is called to the interrogator, by contrast, he answers most of his questions straight-forwardly. Although refusing to give out information on the whereabouts of his unit, he nonetheless seems almost ready to collaborate, particularly when Portnov offers the possibility that he might make a good German policeman.
By the time the two, along with Demichikha, the elderly headman whom the two have previously encountered, and a young girl who has been in hiding, are brought together, we suddenly perceive these previously random figures, beautifully shot in frieze in the dark cellar, as an emblematic-like portrayal of figures surrounding Christ. Rybak is now determined to save his life, while Sotnikov is prepared to die. Demichikha, who we now perceive as a kind Mary Magdalene, is still furious about being taken from her children, but expresses her love of the young girl, a kind of Mary. The headman, whom we now discover was not a collaborationist, but an agent for a large partisan group stationed nearby, becomes both a Peter and a doubting Thomas in one, praying for enlightenment. Sotnikov, looking moment by moment, more like a Russian Orthodox embodiment of Christ, asks Rybak to help him live until the morning, when he will claim that he alone committed the acts of which they accuse all the others, perhaps saving his companions. The struggle with nature has been converted from a battle with the natural elements to a struggle within; if Rydak was the hero within the snowy landscape, it is Sotnikov who proves himself as the victor in the battle of his personal nature.
When morning comes, his confession does not work on the cynical Nazis, but Rybak’s acceptance of Portnov’s offer, frees him, while the others are taken out to be hung, Rybak steadying Sotnikov as he stands on the box which, when kicked away, ends his life.
The holy ones are all hung, Rybak congratulated for being a “good rabbit.” As the headman’s wife passes the Russian soldier, she hisses what we have now known for some time: “Judas, Judas, Judas.”
As the German soldiers turn to celebrate their dinner, Rybak enters an outhouse, attempting twice to hang himself by his belt. He fails.
Called in to join the others, Rybak perceives that the camp gate has been left open, the cold snow of freedom beckoning him. Might he run? He begins to laugh, painfully and madly laughing because he now knows that for him there can no longer be any freedom possible.
Los Angeles, New Year’s Eve, 2013
Saturday, December 28, 2013
by Douglas Messerli
Emilio Del Solar, François Ede, and Raúl Ruiz (screenplay), Raúl Ruiz (director) Les trois couronnes du matelet (Three Crowns of the Sailor) / 1983, USA 1984
Raúl Ruiz’s stunning Borgesian-like tale, Three Crowns of the Sailor, begins with a murder—
dealer, my mentor, my master in the art of polishing diamonds,
my tutor at Warsaw Theological School. I got nothing out of this
crime except the ring he offered me many times; several hundred
marks; a collection of old coins, of no value; and a long letter where
he advised me to leave the country.
—and ends in a second murder, the same student killing a sailor whom he has just met that evening. What led the Polish student (Philippe Deplanche) to murder his tutor is never explained, unless we are to interpret the “long letter” left behind to have been a warning from his tutor. We better comprehend why this violent student murders the central story-teller of Ruiz’s film, the sailor (Jean-Bernard Guillard), whose interconnected stories constitute the major action of the film.
Running from his dastardly acts, the young student meets up with the desperate sailor in a highly dangerous part of town, and, after being shot at, seeks out the older man—despite his pretended cynicism (he is an atheist, he declares, who does not believe in the “afterlife”)—primarily to buy himself some more time and possibly find a way to ship off.
The sailor, in turn, wants something from him, three Danish crowns, which, we later learn, are demanded from him by the captain of his boat in order to spare his life. In fact, the idea of “paying back” whatever has been given to one is crucial throughout this story, as the “hero,” continually borrowing from his friends, racks up a substantial debt which comes to symbolize, of course, what he owes through the process of living. All the young boy has to do is listen to the sailor’s long story, but the young are always dismissing what they might learn (clearly he has also dismissed the lessons of his tutor), and the student of this cautionary tale seems at times to be more interested in drinking and sleeping than in attending to the sailor’s amazing stories.
Through intense close ups and a dizzying overabundance of objects and dazzlingly rich scenes, the viewer is very much put in the situation of the often stuporous student, forcing us to cling to the sailor’s narratives just to escape the panoply of often confusing images thrown out like a magic carpet before our eyes. As the reviewer from Time Out commented: Ruiz’s film is “a dream of a picture in every sense.”
It also represents a dream narrative, wherein everyone is someone other than themselves. In fact the shiftless “hero” cannot even find himself in his home town of Valparaiso, Chile. Like numerous other young men in the city, he has no job nor meaning in his life, and spends of his days just wandering the streets or dinking in a local bar—until he meets up one day with a man appropriately called “the blindman” who tells him of arrival of a ship on which he might get passage. But even the blindman, not truly blind, warns him not believe him, giving the younger man the money to pay for the drinks so that others will believe he has paid for them. The two drink together throughout the afternoon. But soon after, the blindman is discovered near death on a pier, refusing, as he dies, to even recognize his own blood: “someone has painted me red!” Soon after our “hero” meets up with an older sailor who begins to tell him his tale, but just as suddenly disappears from sight, the younger man suddenly realizing his has been wandering the streets talking to himself. Yet moments later he comes across the very boat which the blindman has named, goes aboard, and, even without experience, is welcomed to join the crew.
A quick trip home to pack his duffel results in sad farewells from his family and an impromptu party given in his honor, in which his sister’s fiancé—now the family’s only possible breadwinner—begs the soon-to-be sailor to remember him. A beautiful woman called “the princess” arrives to dance the last dance with him, suggesting that it is good he is leaving because if he had stayed he might have fallen in love with her and committed suicide. She is, she proclaims, determined to never marry, and is responsible for of her lover’s deaths.
So begins a series of stories, some interlinking, some oddly placed in this storybook narrative, but all colorful (the present of the film is shot in black-and-white, but the adventures are in lurid color) and narratively quirky. It would be pointless to describe all of these tales, some of which are nearly indescribable in any event. The wonder of this film is seeing them played out on the screen. But we do, ultimately, perceive links.
In Singapore, he happens upon a young boy, whom he is told is actually a wise elderly man, 90 or older, who every time he eats grows younger. Consequently, the now child hardly dares to consume any food. Overcome by a paternal feeling, the sailor again borrows money to put the child into a safe home.
In Tangiers he and a woman friend are attacked and threatened by two-would be robbers, with knives held to their throats. In his attempt to escape the assailants, the sailor is arrested along with the thieves and imprisoned. In jail the two thieves and he gradually develop a deep friendship, becoming like brothers to him. They eventually escape by killing a priest to gives them daily theology lessons, insisting that the guards open the jails to the door as he speaks. The murder, quite obviously, resembles the one with which the film has begun.
Finally returning home to Valparaiso, the sailor discovers his previous family has all died, after hearing of his return and death through an automobile accident the day before. Everything, including the entrance to the house has been turned upside-down.
In the end, the sailor again “borrows” money to establish a restaurant in Lisbon, inviting his new family to join him, but Ruiz’s camera scan of them shows that, apparently, there will be no cohesiveness between them. The only connections lie in the sailor’s mind.
A second major thread of these narratives is the idea of “otherness,” as the sailors all refer to our “hero” as the “other,” from the beginning warning him not to become to befriend them too closely in danger of trading places. Although these men eat and drink like normal beings, there is a great deal strange about them, as he perceives them intimately showing off their tattoos to one another—tattoos that are all “letters.” He, himself, is assigned a letter by the ship’s captain: N, representing perhaps a kind of “Nth position,” or “anything,” a “neuter,” a “nothing.” The captain of the ship, who constantly sings Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” will allow no salt on board, although we all know it to be necessary for animal life. Nor do his shipmates, despite their constant consumption of food, ever defecate. Worms crawl out of their feet, arms, and chests. They are, quite obviously, dead, and the ship in which travels is a “ship of the dead.” As the other, we can presume, he is the only living being on board.
When we connect the sailors’ “letters” with the letter left by the tutor for the young Polish student—a statement, in short, of the boy’s destination, the course of his life—we cannot but perceive that the young, inattentive student is now, himself, an “other,” a person separated from the talkative sailor and his new-found family. The handsome boy is also a kind of neuter, a nothing who will have to be punished for his ignorance through a life of hard living.
As the sailor finishes his tale and the two drunkenly move out of the lit-up dance hall in which the story has been told, the young man pays his three Danish crowns, found by him in the hands to the dead tutor, the antique dealer. He now seeks his reward in being signed on to the sailor’s ship, but the sailor suggests that he hasn’t yet earned the right.
Just as the sailor and his friends have killed their “tutor,” the priest, so too does the student turn on the sailor, grabbing a club and brutally beating him again and again, then helping him up and even apologizing, before felling him with a final and deathly blow.
The student, having suddenly perceived the lesson of the sailor’s tale, ends this memorable movie with a statement that suggests he now knows everything: joining the crew of the ship, including the man he has just killed, he speaks: “You always need a living sailor on a shipful of dead. That man was me.”
Los Angeles, December 28, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position (February 2014).
Thursday, December 26, 2013
on thin ice
by Douglas Messerli
Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell (screenplay), David O. Russell (director) American Hustle / 2013
David O. Russell’s 2013 film, American Hustle, concerns a fraudulent and demented vision of the American Dream that has long been a staple of American film and drama, from Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons to numerous of Edward Albee’s plays centered on characters who, through whatever means possible, are determined to reinvent themselves and financially “succeed.” In film, we perceive a more comic variation of this theme in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, in which Barbara Stanwyck and her gambling father con a naïve Henry Fonda, she later transforming herself into a British heiress to get her revenge.
Two down-and-out losers, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale)—a small-time con-artist and owner of several dry cleaners throughout New York—and Sydney Prosser (a stunningly beautiful Amy Adams)—a former stripper—meet at a Long Island party. Although neither is what one might describe as a good “catch”—Irving is overweight and already married and Sydney is a clever manipulator—they recognize themselves in one another and immediately fall in love.
With Irving’s long experience with conning (he runs a small art-gallery featuring fakes out of his dry cleaning business, and takes others “to the cleaners” by offering them loans which are never paid out) and Sydney’s brains, good looks, and her suddenly acquired British accent (along with a new name, Lady Edith Greensly) the two quickly escalate their petty thievery into a thriving business. That is, until they are suddenly caught in the act by a rookie FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), in the midst of the transaction.
Every one of the figures in this film of the late 1970s and early 1980s is obsessed with clothing (outrageously patterned and brightly colored or just as outrageously sexually revealing), hair, and makeup, as if the outside of their bodies might represent something that they knew they were not within.
Richie, like the other two, is also out to transform himself by rising up in the agency ranks. Accordingly, he offers freedom to the two in return for their help in a bigger con that might catch at least four bigger con-artists. At first the couple consider taking their money and running off. But one redeeming quality, his love of his wife’s young boy, puts a damper of that decision. And then there is the wife, herself a dangerous ditz who—with her alcohol-induced accidents, including a house fire and, later an explosion of a microwave—puts the boy’s life in danger. Although he has long begged her for divorce, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is a passive-aggressive manic who cannot abide any change in her pampered life.
The success of Irving and Sydney’s past scams has depended on what Irving describes as “working from the legs up,” gradually reeling in their suckers, often by saying no, and keeping their robberies relatively below radar, mostly by asking only $5,000 to help people at the end their rope to open foreign accounts and obtain loans. Suddenly, working with Richie, the two quickly discover themselves out their league, so to speak, as the FBI agent keeps upping the ante by involving, at first, a fake Arab sheik and a local northern Jersey mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who, hoping the sheik will invest in the Atlantic City casinos who will hire the people of his Camden to find jobs, is convinced, after original rejecting it, to the take the bribe. He promises, and we believe him, to make good use of the money.
When it’s determined that the sheik must become an American citizen before he can invest in the casinos, Carmine suggests he might pull strings with several New Jersey congressmen and senators, and all hell breaks loose, as Richie, smelling success, now sees a way to entrap several even larger prey. Before these clever small-time con-artists even know it, they are involved with the mob, with their very lives at stake.
Beyond that, there are the FBI higher-ups, refusing at nearly every point, the tools of entrapment, from a suite at the Plaza, to a helicopter for the arrival of the fake sheik, to say nothing of the millions and millions of dollars used for the briberies. When major mafia mobster, Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro) circles the hook, Richie nearly salivates, suddenly perceiving how he might make one of the biggest catches of all time! The small-time hustle, however, as Irving and Sydney perceive, has turned into an unmanageable fiasco. Both want out, but are no so intensely caught up in what later would be described as “ABSCAM,” that, for different reasons, they determine to go straight, beginning to rid themselves of all the lies and prevarications of their lives. Even more complexly, Sydney becomes sexually interested in “Richie,” while Irving bonds deeper and deeper with Carmine and his family.
Even more disastrously, Irving’s jealous and lonely wife Rosalyn falls in love with one of Tellegio’s men, spilling the beans about the impending FBI sting and almost assuring her husband’s murder—along with her own and her son’s. Indeed, things grow so out of control that Russell’s film reminds one, at moments, of a screwball comedy like Bringing up Baby—only, as we are told in the very early moments of the film, “Some of this actually did happen.”
Some of the logic and even relevance of the film’s scenes, just as in Russell’s previous film, Silver Lining Playbook, gets lost in the director’s clearly improvised antics of Jennifer Lawrence in the later part of the film. By film’s end the actress has taken her character so humorously over the top, there is hardly anything left of her stick-figure stereotype, as she drives off with her mobster lover into the Miami sunset.
Yet in the final twist of these American hustles, the director and screenwriter magically pull several more rabbits out of their hat that stave off mobster hits and release Irving and Sydney, and even commute Carmine’s prison sentence by spinning up a tale that takes Richie down again to the lowest peg on his office totem pole by implying that he either exhorted the missing 2 million dollars or was fooled by the con-men he employed to do the job.
Throughout the film, Richie’s disapproving boss, Stoddard Thorsen, attempts to use a private story to warn his young assistant of the dangers of his acts. Growing up in Duluth, Minneosta, Thorsen recalls, he, his brother, and father used to go ice fishing. On cold winter days they would dig a hole, drop a line, and wait in the cold air for a nibble. He remembers it as a beautiful event. But one October, after a brief frost, his brother wanted to go out fishing, and he had joined him, the father warning that it was not yet time, suggesting that the ice cover was still too thin. The first time he tries to tell this story, Richie interrupts him, suggesting he knows the moral of the story, that Thorsen fell in and nearly drowned. Thorsen denies that that was the story.
A second time Thorsen tries to tell the story he mentions that he and his brother were fishing, when they saw their father approaching them, he going out to meet his father before the elder discovered his brother fishing on the lake. Again Richie interrupts: “All right, so the brother fell in and died!” No, Thorsen again proclaims, that isn’t what happened. By brother died years later.
The running gag is not repeated, and we never do discover what the true story was meant to reveal. I’d suggest, however, that the third alternative, the father falling in and drowning, is, at least, what might have happened. Certainly, in the end, that is what happens to Richie, who, in his surety of righteousness himself suffers at least a symbolic death, a return to his miserable apartment where he lives with his mother, visited every day by a plain-looking mother-determined fiancée to whom he is unattached and of whose existence he cannot even admit. In a year in which so many major films—Dallas Buyer’s Club, Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, Blue Jasmine, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Russell’s movie, to name only a few—feature characters who are failed and flawed, even despicable beings, the righteous, those who cannot see, as Sydney argues, that they too are lying to themselves, become, perhaps, the true villains.
Los Angeles, December 26, 2013