Monday, April 28, 2014

Carl Theodor Dreyer | Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath)

the power of life and death

by Douglas Messerli

Carl Theodor Dreyer, Poul Knudsen, and Mogens Skot-Hansen (screenplay, based on the fiction Anne Pedersdotterm by Hans Wiers-Jenssen), Carol Theodor Dreyer (director) Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath) / 1943, USA 1948

The time is the early 17th century in Denmark, where the church is busy, as it has been throughout the world, accusing elderly busybody housewives and young women of the whom the community women are jealous of witchcraft. Witchcraft can be claimed, evidently, for almost any inexplicable occurrence in this time of superstition and community small-mindedness. An older woman such as Herlof’s Marte (Anna Svierkier) can be seen in league with the Devil merely by speaking evilly of a friend or neighbor, particularly if she might wish that woman’s death. Once one has been accused, moreover, there is little one can do to defend oneself, particularly in an uneducated community where the women themselves may believe they are guilty just for perceiving their unsocial tendencies. Certainly Marte might be described as that, a woman who in the very first scene is represented as cooking up herbs gathered from below the gallows that might do harm to others or protect oneself. For once one is proclaimed a witch the major proof is through torture, in which the accused, in terror for pain the eminent death, often admits to crimes she has not committed.

      Women like Marte, however, are not stupid, and she perceives her best way out of being accused of witchcraft is not denial but gaining the protection the church elder, Absalon Pedersson (Thorkild Roose), who protected another woman—the mother of his second wife, the young Anne (Lisbeth Movin)—from charges of having the power over others of life and death. His motives, as he takes the young girl to marriage without even consulting her, are certainly questionable, and perhaps more evil than anything either woman was connected with, particularly since the elderly pastor did not even seek that Anne love him and that he truly loved her, determining merely to marry her because of her lovely, pure and innocent, eyes, which Marte describes as being full of fire, like her mother’s.

     The gamble on Marte’s part does not work; although Pedersson has saved Anne’s mother, who is now dead, he is not willing to intercede in Marte’s trial; despite her pleas, to which he turns a dead ear, he agrees to meet with her, only to make certain that she does not reveal his connection to Anne’s mother. Terrorized of both torture and death, Marte, however, keeps her silence, while Pedersson’s guilt leaves his mind open to Godly accusations. Perhaps he knows that on the Day of Wrath, it is he and Marte or Anne’s mother who must face Christ’s judgment for his evil acts.

      His wife, Anne, trapped in a household where she finds little love from her husband and discovers absolute hate from his elderly, domineering mother, Meret, overhears the statements about her mother with great interest. In a world in which women have utterly no power, might she, like her mother, be secretly able to wield power even over life and death in men?

      Certainly, Marte, as she is thrown upon the burning pyre believes she has that power, damning a younger pastor, Laurentius (Olaf Ussing) to an early death, and cursing the young Anne to a scandalous relationship with Pederrson’s son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), a boy who has just returned home from his schooling, which will destroy his father.

   Upon seeing one another, the two, in fact, do fall immediately in love with one another and quickly begin a sensual relationship that, in this film of dark and irrational pessimism, stands out through Dreyer’s depiction of the lovers sleeping among the grasses, lounging under apple trees, and luxuriously floating down the farm’s hidden waterways on low rowing boats. If being in league with the Devil can help one to control the lives of others, so Anne discovers, just being a beautiful young girl with a man falls in love can permit her a power beyond anything which she has previously imagined. Indeed, it is not hate that allows her to control other lives, but natural love, a love unfouled by the bedsheets of dirty old men like her husband who give nothing in return. Is it any wonder, as Anne soon confesses to her lover, that she sometimes imagines the death of her husband, a death allowed through the hand of God to allow her and Martin to establish a truer and purer relationship.

      But in this closed society, even an educated man like Martin is subject to irrational fears, to the belief that in his loving the beautiful Anne he is simultaneously sinning again his father. In terms of that society, of course, he truly creating a scandal, as his grandmother describes nearly everything outside of her narrow focus. No matter that the society itself has created a perverse and unnatural world in which they live!

      Dreyer’s powerful film of dichotomies explodes on the night when Pederrson is called out into the night to administer the last rites to the dying Laurentius. A fierce storm is brewing in the landscape, symbolizing the inner storms suddenly facing Martin for the guilt he feels in having made love to his own mother, and the rising flush of hatred and scorn of Anne by Pederrson’s unforgiving mother. As Anne admits to Martin her desires for him and her wishes that Pederrson might die, freeing them to their own predilections, the pastor, returning home suddenly feels the hand of death upon his neck, and returns home to discover his son and wife sitting up in which her assumes is their wait for him.

       In cowardice, Martin retires to bed, while Pederrson, describing what he has just felt, queries her about her feelings for him. He admits that he has never considered her own desires in the whole matter, but still expects her reassurances of love. When, instead, through her bitterness of the way he has destroyed her youth, she lashes out in honesty, the old man screams out in horror, falls to the floor in what appears to me a heart-attack or stroke; since throughout Pederrson has shown little evidence of a heart, we have to presume it is the latter, perhaps a “day of wrath”-like stroke from hand of God himself.

      With the cry, both grandmother and grandson come running to discover Pederrson dead. In his now absolute sorrow for his own behavior, Martin rejects further communication with Anne; yet, as he sits in watch over the body, agrees with Anne to protect her from being proclaimed a witch by Marte.       

       At the funeral, with all members of the family clad in black, accept Anne, draped in white Pederrson asks for forgiveness for his unstated acts, yet proclaiming that no one, in the end, has been responsible for his father’s death When he has finished, however, Merte stands to accuse Anne as being a witch, and Martin, weaker than even the audience might have expected, joins his grand-mother. The head past now has no choice but to ask Anne to defend herself over the casket itself.

       Certainly, we have seen her capable of that; she has previously defended her wish for her husband’s death as conditional, never a direct intention, over the dead man’s body and bible, in order to convince Martin. But just as she is about to argue her innocent, we see that Martin’s cowardice has so completely unnerved her that she cannot go forward: there is no longer anyone there to wipe away her tears, she argues. Any power of life and death that she might have imagined for herself has disappeared. Without love, death is the only alternative, and she invites herself into Death’s arms by the logical admissions of desiring the end of her abusive husband’s life. This is a society that permits no allowance for women, for the weak, for the poor. Only the strong of faith and self-aggrandizement easily survive. And Dreyer’s great psychological study ends with what we know will be her body on the burning pyre.

      When Dreyer’s film was first show in theaters both in Denmark and England, critics found its bleak message nearly unbearable, and criticized the work on just that account. Many viewers, moreover, saw the film as a kind metaphor for the political events of the day, particularly German Nazism and the Holocaust. Dreyer denied those parallels, but did feel it was prudent, given these interpretations, to leave his country for the neutral Sweden for much of the rest of World War II.

      In fact, the solemn dictates of the old men of this Danish community, as ugly and harsh as they are, might be seen far more sensible and tamer—particularly given the these men’s own spiritual doubts and fears—that anything the Nazi’s did, and particularly the attempted extermination of an entire religion and ethnicity. Dreyer’s world may be a miserably dictatorial and immoral world, but those destroyed are not masses of human beings, and the comparison, is accordingly, a weak one, which diminishes the tragedy of the 20th century.

     I would rather see Dreyer’s work as a brilliant proto-feminist work that argues for education and knowledge over superstition and paternal dominance. If the elders of Dreyer’s Day of Wrath control the lives of their closed society, that control is ultimately laughable since they too must face the Dies Irae. Surely the Nazi’s never imagined facing an eerily terrifying “day of wrath”

                                     that day

                                     Will dissolve the

                                     World in ashes

                                     As foretold by

                                     David and the Sibyl!    

                                     How much tremor there will be,

                                     When the Judge will come,

                                     Investigating everything strictly!

Los Angeles, April 27, 2014

Sunday, April 27, 2014

W. S. Van Dyke | The Thin Man

catching up
by Douglas Messerli

Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (screenplay), W. S. Van Dyke (director) The Thin Man / 1934

Early on in W. S. Van Dyke’s comic The Thin Man, Nora Charles follows her dog Asta into a posh nightclub where her husband, Nick has been drinking. As he generally does, he immediately orders her a drink, as they sit down to talk. Nora (Mina Loy) asks Nick (William Powell) how many drinks he’s already had, and he answers, this is my sixth, in response to which, she immediately orders another five drinks to me lined up for consummation. She is, as she explains, intent on “catching up.” In fact, throughout this film Nora is determined to “catch up” with her new husband, to discover his past affairs, to meet his rather eccentric criminal friends, and to attempt to catch up on his exploits concerning an odd inventor who goes missing and is soon sought out for murder.

   The film follows the adventures of the inventor (Gilbert Wynant [William Henry]), his greedy ex-wife, his current double-timing mistress, his perversely psychologist-reading son, and his rather ordinary and charming daughter, all of whom, along with others, are swept up into a series of crimes and murders, which more and more draws ex-detective Nick into its vortex as he attempts to uncover the actual murderer, which does only by inviting all of the possible suspects to his home for dinner.

     Except for the inventor’s daughter, and her mild-mannered lover, almost all of the suspects are a brutal bunch, so it hardly matters when Nick actually solves the crime by perceiving that the body they have discovered is actually the inventor who has been killed by one of his associates. The crime,

as Alfred Hitchcock would have described it, is merely the MacGuffin, which keeps the action moving. What is truly important about Van Dyke’s version of Dashill Hammett’s work, is the relationship between Nick and Nora, a kind of wise-cracking child’s play. Since his wife has all the money, Nick hardly needs to work and prefers it that way, perfectly happy spend his days in an eternal martini hour and to play with the toys Nora was bought him and the dog. And even though it’s dreadfully warm in this New York apartment, Nora is perfectly happy to stay draped in the new mink coat Nick and bought her. It’s the perfect relationship, she slightly mocking him just as he does her as they continue down the path of a completely blasé acceptance of their married state.

      Their married state, in fact, is now California, and there is something almost myth logically fulfilling in the couple’s return east for the Christmas Holiday, whereby solving the outrageous mystery, they allow Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan) to marry her lover and travel back West with them to a world that obviously represented, in 1934, the year this film was made, as a new golden world unencumbered with the nefarious relationships of New York City. I can see the Charles’ now, on their pool-side terrace, serving platters of fresh martinis to the beautifully tanned friends so unlike the blubbering and slightly confused Damyon Runyon-like chaps sitting in Nick and Nora’s cramped New York digs. Finally Nora can just sit back and relax without the need to “catch up” with her husband’s alcoholic consumption and crime-book hunches!

Los Angeles, April 26, 2014
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (April 2014).

Sunday, April 20, 2014

James Ivory | The Remains of the Day

acquiescence and denial

by Douglas Messerli

Ruth Prawer Jhbvala (screenplay, based on a screenplay by Harold Pinter, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro), James Ivory (director) The Remains of the Day / 1993

James Ivory makes very lovely pictures with serious literary concerns, but to me they generally seem more like the kind of filmed series that BBC and PBS used to show than remarkable motion pictures. If the acting is nearly always superb, the costume dramas he creates are dead on birth. And in many respects, so too is his 1993 drama The Remains of the Day a kind of perfumed music box, lovely to look at and to listen to, but almost too fragile to hold for very long—or to turn the metaphor around, it is too fragile of a story to hold our interest for the length of film.


     What this film does have going for it is quite astounding, including the use of four grand country houses, Dyrham Park, Powderham Castle, Corsham Court and Badminton House, all portraying the fictional Darlington Hall. The script, based, in part, on an original treatment by Harold Pinter, is quietly ironic. But the major asset of The Remains of the Day is its absolutely brilliant cast, particularly Anthony Hopkins as Stevens, the meticulous butler who puts service in front all personal feelings. He is matched by the must more pliable and younger Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton, whom he hires as the housekeeper. She too is caring steward, but she can laugh and, under her efficient demeanor, she clearly can love, whereas Stevens seems to have forgotten that emotion. Between them is the equally excellent James Fox who as Lord Darlington, plays a man of passionate and seemingly humane concerns who, unfortunately, is on the wrong side of history and societal moral concerns. He may think he is working to help dignify the German people, but is, in fact, serving his country as a traitor.

     Minor figures such as Christopher Reeve and the American Congressman Mr. Lewis, who later becomes the owner of Darlington Hall, and Hugh Grant Reginald Cardinal, Darlington’s godson, who helps in Darlington’s downfall, round out this excellent company.

     The trouble with the film is that beyond that, in the work’s series of character interchanges, it is mostly all work and no play. To watch its two major figures sparring behind their statements of domestic duties quickly grows tedious; yes, all these conversations are highly ironic, each of them saying one thing while meaning another, but it’s done mostly on the sly and any wit they contain, particularly on Stevens’ end, are expressed in curt and sometimes ill-motivated directions. For all the gloriously adorned meetings and dinner parties at Darlington Hall, we listen into those conversations as if we were ourselves servants. Most of the significance of the film lies in what is not being said rather than what is said, which helps to make us feel throughout as if we are peering into the lives of these figures through frosted windows. When, later in the film, Stevens claims that he did not time to truly over-hear the conversations of Darlington’s Nazi-supporters, we believe him. Stevens’ is a world of acquiescence and denial, and despite the intelligent life we know exists below the butler’s surface through the actor’s remarkable fluid facial gestures, in his commitment to obedient service, he has almost cut himself off from the rest of the world, which may sadden us—particularly when, at the last moment, he attempts to reconnect with Miss Kenton, who has long since married and moved away—it basically cuts its audience off from any emotional commitment to his being. Like Darlington, Stevens is a failed man who is as smug in his commitment to class values as his employer.

    By the time Stevens attempts to reclaim his life, he, like the Daimler he drives, has “run out of gas,” now, like a doubting Peter, denying he even knew Lord Darlington, even though Darlington has, in face, defined his life. When Miss Kenton insists, now that her daughter is having a child, that she cannot return to Darlington Hall under the employment of the new owner, it all seems quite inevitable. Like Darlington, himself, Stevens will die as an outcast, alone. There are, he discovers, no “remains” of the day left. And we, once more, may be saddened by that fact, but we have known all along that by refusing to say anything of consequence, refusing to express love or moral outrage, one’s life itself becomes insignificant, as does, alas, this well-made film. It may be, polished up and gracefully performed as it is, pretty to look at, but like Steven’s night, it is ultimately empty.


Los Angeles, April 20, 2014

Guy Maddin | Keyhole

redecorating a haunted house
by Douglas Messerli
Guy Maddin and George Toles (screenplay), Guy Maddin (director) Keyhole / 2011, US general release 2012

After an intense shootout, a group of hoodlums regroups within the living room of an old house, trying to determine which of their members are dead. The living are asked to line up against the wall facing out, the dead should face in, demands the group’s temporary leader, Big Ed (David Enright). The “dead” are forced to leave the house, where the police will surely gather them and send them to the morgue. So begins the seemingly zany mash-up of the gangster movie, the haunted house horror film, and a metaphysical speculation by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin.

       And from this scene on we enter a strange surrealist-like world where ghosts mingle with the living, sometimes even while they are engaged in sex, and figures, like Calypso (Louis Negin) and Ulysses (Jason Patric) are intertwined with other cartoon-like figures such as Johnny Chang and the forever masturbating-Yazie playing Brucie, Ulysses’ now-dead son. And for a few moments, before Ulysses finally shows up carrying the body of nearly-dead woman named Denny (Brooke Palsson), we almost feel that this cacophony of genres and character types will result in nothing but a campy pastiche. Yet anyone who has seen a Maddin movie, knows that the director is absolutely brilliant in his ability to juggle various opposing elements, weaving them ultimately into a kind pattern that Penelope herself might have envied.

     Ulysses’ wife, however, is here called Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), and it is her love and the home life with his three boys, Ned, Brucie, and Manners (the latter of whom the gangsters and captured, tied up and bound) that this Ulysses has returned to claim. In order to recover that past, he is forced to go through the house, room by room, gradually calling up through ghostly visions, the other-worldly emanations of Denny, and a recharging jolt from the electric chair created by his son Manners, a figure he pulls with him throughout journey through the house.

     In Greek myth, Hyacinth was a beautiful young male, beloved by Apollo, who, when playing discus was killed when the jealous Zephyr blew the stone into Hyacinth’s body. Loved also by the Thracian singer Thamyris, Hyacinth also represented one of the first examples of homosexuality in Greek mythological story-telling. But in Maddin’s mythology, Hyacinth is simply a beautifully sorrowful flower with her father, Calypso, chained to her bed, and her current lover Johnny Chang controlling her every move. Since her children and husband have all been killed off, she has few alternatives and is clearly bitter about her situation—although she also is fascinated and frightened by the possibility that Ulysses may somehow be able to reach her room.

     As looney as it sometimes seems, Maddin’s tale is a kind of Proustian story in which Ulysses orders in interior decorators to return the haunted house into the beautiful home it had once been, at that same time he, room by room, attempts to remember the whole of his past life. With the help of the drowned Denny, his son Manners, who once loved Denny, and the jolt of electricity, he gradually reclaims time, and with Manners’ help puts everything back in its precise spot, freeing Calypso (whose bonds Hyacinth has already severed) and Hyacinth at the same moment he destroys Chang. And, if at first, the film may have seemed dense and incomprehensible, it gradually, scene by scene, begins to make narrative sense. If, in his lifetime, Ulysses has ignored, squandered, and destroyed his near perfect home life, by Keyhole’s end, most of his gangster friends have been eliminated, and he and his family returned to their former lives. Time past has not only restored but reclaimed.


      But, of course, we know it’s only in fiction and film—expressions of the imagination—that such things actually happen, and, in that sense, Maddin’s movie becomes a sort of rumination of the restorative power of film itself. If gangster and horror films dole out the bloody dead, so too can cinema retake its past, unrolling that pattern, like the Penelope of Homer’s myth, weaving and unweaving a pattern of life and death until it again becomes a blank space on which to reinvent history. Through the keyhole a Ulysses may only be able to glimpse fragments of the life once lived, but by opening the doors to every room he can finally cleanse the haunted house of its ghosts.  


Los Angeles, April 19, 2014