Tuesday, May 28, 2019
redeeming a tragedy
by Douglas Messerli
Gustaf Molander and Victor Sjöström (writers, based on the poem by Henrik Ibsen), Victor Sjöström (director) Terje Vigen (A Man There Was) / 1917
Generally described as the beginning of the “golden age” of Swedish silent filmmaking, Victor Sjöström’s Terje Vigen (A Man There Was) is a powerfully unusual work in that it is based on an historically-inspired poem by Henrik Ibsen. Moreover, few films spend as much time simply observing the lap of the waters on the sea; even Moby Dick doesn’t expend as much energy on simply studying the roll of waves.
But then the major character of this work, Terje Vigen (played by the director himself) is a sailor who in the earliest scene returns from a long sea voyage to his island home, now determined to remain with his wife (Bergliot Husberg) and his very young daughter. All seems joyful until in the 1809 English blockade the poor can longer get food to feed their families and quickly discover themselves near starvation.
The seaman, Vigen, is determined to do something about it, taking a small boat to Denmark in order to buy provisions, while outsmarting the British navy by covering his boat over with branches. He successfully purchases the food and is headed back home when a British frigate spots him.
The English captain, seemingly without any human feelings, captures the former sailor and sends him off to a British prison for five years.
Almost inevitably, upon his return to his seaside home Vigen discovers that in his absence his wife and child have died. Vigen has now no choice but to live out the rest of his life in utter loneliness, with the sea as his only companion. The brilliant cinematographer Julius Jaenzon and Sjöström himself play out this horrible solitude with a kind of lyric grandeur that clearly attempts to match Ibsen’s poetry, as the constantly roiling sea becomes a metaphor for both his isolation and a sense of endless placidity. Without his desiring it, the sailor has now returned to the kind of longing he expressed early in the film for love and the hearth of home.
A good man still, Vigen quickly rushes out—again in the kind of boat which resulted in his imprisonment—to save those whose lives are in immediate danger. He succeeds in saving them, only to discover that the man he has rescued is the same sea captain who has previously destroyed his own happiness.
The innate pacificism of the Swedes might not be better expressed by Vigen’s determination to not seek revenge, but simply bring the captain and his wife (August Falck and Edith Erastoff) to safety, perhaps in that act redeeming his own life and the memories of his small family.
One could hardly describe this 1917 silent film as a true masterpiece, since the film itself speaks with great modesty despite its then extravagant budget of SEK 60,000. Yet in this film we can perceive the beginnings of the great Swedish film industry which would follow it. In a sense Sjöström’s success begat Alf Sjöberg, Ingmar Bergman, extending to Lasse Hallström, Ruben Östlund and others, as well as Scandinavian filmmaking in general.
Los Angeles, May 28, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2019).
Saturday, May 25, 2019
the shell refuses to sing into the male ear
by Douglas Messerli
Antonin Artaud (scenario), Germaine Dulac (director) La Coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) 1928
Often described as the first Surrealist film, released a year before Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí Un chien andalou, Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) is also far more radical, both as a kind of feminist diatribe and as a statement of the writer’s and director’s complete dismissal and satire of the church, the military, and almost anything else that reeks of class privilege.
In its jumble and overlays of images it is not always possible to see where this short film is going, but we can easily perceive the evil machinations of the lustful priest dying to get his hands on the wife of a highly-medaled French general. It is hard to know which figure, the hallucinating priest or the self-important military husband are more detestable, but both, it is clear, are not worthy of the beautiful heroine. If the general is buoyed by his pomp and circumstance, the obsessed priest is a lecherous would-be rapist who even attempts, at one point, to kidnap her.
As film critic Jillian Olivier writes:
Throughout the film, we feel the oppressive power of the state and
religion, with the state represented by the general, and religion
represented by, you guessed it, the clergyman. The woman seems
caught between the two, as she’s protected by the general
and accosted by the clergyman. But she’s more than just an object
to protect. In fact, she manages to skirt under the protection of Dulac
as the clergyman attempts to capture her attention and body.
In addition to showing us the deepest desires of the clergyman’s
mind, Dulac manages to empower her female character by allowing
her to avoid the lecherous eyes of the audience, as well as the
clergyman. She does this by not allowing the camera to settle
for very long on the woman’s naked body. When the clergyman
tears her clothing away from her chest, we get a clear view, then
the scene quickly turns out of focus as the woman evades both the
clergyman and the men in the audience.
Evidently, upon its first showing basically misogynistic Surrealist audience, spurned on by Artaud’s own criticism of Dulac’s interpretation of his scenario, caused a minor riot. The British Board of Film Censors later declared: “the film is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.”
Yet for all that, this work has survived simply through the audacity of its subject and the amazing power of its images—purposely blurred German Expressionist-like depictions of the hallucinated male gaze of the clergyman, sharply split images of one of the villains with a spear of black contorting his face to reveal his monstrousness, momentary nudity, and gestures right out of melodramatic theater of the day. As an openly lesbian director, Duluc threw out almost all the previous conventions, revealing the power of early cinematic works even before the other Surrealists got to it.
Los Angeles, May 25, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2019).
Thursday, May 23, 2019
a dying society
by Douglas Messerli
Jean Boyer, Camille Flammarion, Abel Gance, and André Lang (screenplay), Abel Gance (director) La Fin du monde (End of the World) / 1931
Abel Gance’s 1931 film End of the World certainly did represent the “end” of a very important thing: the director’s career as a great cinema pioneer. The original film, lasting more than three hours, was edited down by his producer Vladimir Ivanoff—with a janitor, so Gance quipped—to 105 minutes. The acting, moreover, as a critic of the day, Philippe Soupault, wrote, “is a mixture of the pretentiously naïve and the blatantly unrealistic, of the pompous and the trivial.” Gance, playing the role of Jean Novalic, a suffering philosopher-actor idealist, helplessly in the love with the film’s heroine, Genevieve de Murcie (Coloette Darfeuil), was particularly morose and melodramatic in her declamations. Darfeuil’s performance was also more in line with the gestural acting traditions of silent film.
In fact, had this movie been a silent film, it might have gotten away with its melodramatic conventions; as one the first French talkies, released just as Jean Renoir, René Clair, and Jacques Feyder were coming into their own, it was doomed. Gance’s acclaimed career quickly took a nosedive.
Yet, for all that—and despite the fact that the acting and plot both are, at moments, nearly unbearable to watch—End of the World is a fascinating piece of filmmaking. Very much of its day, with World War II fulminating across the European landscape, the film is based on Camille Flammarion’s pre-World War I novel, Omega: The Last Day of the World. Gance and his co-writers took the science-fiction drama of that novel as a metaphor for what was happening in world politics, suggesting that perhaps only the impending death of everyone on the planet—in this iteration through the cataclysmic crash into earth by Lexell’s Comet—might possibly bring the nations together just long enough to escape the devastation of the impending World War. In short, Gance uses science fiction as a potential to avert the inevitable destruction that actually faced his own audience.
The film, in fact, is at least in its metaphors, quite prophetic: the world is almost destroyed, devastating numerous cities and cultures, yet is saved for its tortured survivors. Forget the twisted plot, wherein the idealist Jean’s brother, Martial (Victor Francen), a great scientist and Martial’s financier, Werster (Georges Colin) attempt to save the world from the Machiavellian forces of the (unstated but obviously Jewish) wealthy munitions supplier, Schomburg. The blonde beauty Genevieve, in a series of reversals that strain credulity, falls from grace to decadence—and is punished with death in the elevator of the Eiffel Tower.
The story is simply a froth stirred by Gance (and Flammarion before him) into their moral denunciation of impending war(s) and the end of the world as they know it. The real issue of this movie is the salvation of mankind in a manner that few filmmakers of the day might have bothered to express it. For comparison one might just mention Renoir’s—far aesthetically superior but entirely satirical—The Rules of the Game released at the very edge of the war in 1939. In 1931 Gance was entirely serious; he clearly saw the dangers and willing, at least, to treat the issue with a dire seriousness, perhaps to his own detriment. (I should note that by the time The Rules of the Game reached French audiences, they could no longer laugh at the approaching devastation. It makes one wonder whether anyone looked bac at Gance’s drama with regret for having mocked it.)
The real wonderment of this film, however, is its cinematic experimentation. I one can forget the bad acting, overlook the clumsy cuts that leave the story in mid-action, and blink through some of the overblown aspects of the narrative, such as the comparisons drawn between the scientist-savior Marial Novalic and Jesus Christ, it is still possible to be highly entertained by the cinematic brilliance of Gance’s End of the World, a work far ahead of its time.
Too bad that this movie came at a moment in French culture when people were desperate from something “new”; by decade’s end they would be doomed by the old.
Reprinted from Hyperallergic Review, April 13, 2016.
Monday, May 20, 2019
appreciation and confusion
by Douglas Messerli
Luchino Visconti and Nicola Badalucco (screenplay, based on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice), Luchino Visconti (director) Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice) / 1971
The first time I saw Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, in its 1971 premiere, I was not particularly impressed. The film seemed static, and too dependent upon the Gustav Mahler connection through its music, who himself in 1870 announced that he was gay, despite his marriage to Alma, who went on, after his death to marry Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel. I found the movie by Visconti languid and too fawning about the young Polish young beauty Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). I might, in those days, even agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment:
Visconti…misses, or avoids, the subtlety of the novel's development of the relationship between the two characters. In the Mann version, the man can never really know what the boy thinks of him; they do not speak, and if the boy favors him sometimes with a look or a smile, he favors many others as well, because that is his nature. It is entirely possible, the way Mann tells the story, that the boy is totally unaware of any homosexual implication -- and the man, indeed, may also be in love with an ideal rather than a person. No such possibility exists in the heavy-handed Visconti retelling. The boy's function in the film, which he performs at least two dozen times, is to self-consciously pose in front of the man, turn slowly, smile sweetly, and turn languorously away. This is almost literally the only physical characteristic the boy has in the movie; and Visconti lays on the turns, looks, and smiles with such a heavy hand that the boy could almost be accused of hustling.
But this time, I saw the film in a completely different light. The suffering artist, Count Aschenbach (the great actor Dirk Bogarde), simply does not quite know what has come over him in being so attracted to this young being, and Tadzio doesn’t quite comprehend what to make of the heavy male gaze. In fact, the young beauty is probably gay, without his even knowing it. The strange Wikipedia entry describes him as “being beaten up on the beach by an older boy” on the beach, when anyone with two eyes can see the two lovely young men are simply sexually driven to one another, grabbing at one another’s bodies in an attempt to communicate their sexual desires.
Tadzio’s constant turns to the elderly Aschenbach are both an admittance of the observation of his body, but also represent an utter confusion. Why is the old man looking so intentionally at me all the time. Sexual appreciation and confusion seem to be what is at the center of Visconti’s film: I like that you looking at me, but why? For the sad, gradually dying Aschenbach, the same questions might be asked: “Why am I so very attracted to this boy and I love just looking at him, which reminds me of all my youth and sexuality? In a sense the two are destined to a world which is dying around them—in this case with the composer’s heart disease and a cholera epidemic which no one around them seems to be able to tell the few guests left in the city is occurring.
I once had a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Thomas Vogler, who taught Mann’s Death in Venice, who dared to declare in his classroom that the real problem of this work was that Aschenbach never declared his love to Tadzio.
I remember discussing this once with my friend Martin Nakell, and both of us laughing the audacity of this professorial statement. But, after seeing this film again, I think he may have been right. Had the elder man simply told the young boy that he loved him, that, for him, he represented the beauty of youth he had lost, then both might have comprehended where they stood, man and boy. Sex was, obviously, an impossibility, but the comprehension of desire might have released both of them from their endless exchanges of eyes. The boy would have known where he stood, and the old man might have recognized how his intense gaze was a kind of child abuse. Or perhaps they might have found a kind of middle-ground. You like me for my beauty, and I like you for your appreciation of what I represent. Mann’s short novel suggests such a possibility, the ambiguity which Ebert missed in this film.
The day I chose to watch Visconti’s classic film, my computer was inexplicably not functioning, and I was forced to view it on out TV, on which films, no matter how loud we register them, sound always muted. It was, however, not a bad choice. For Death in Venice, in the end, is a kind of silent movie. Except for the Maler score, hardly anyone speaks, and when they do it is with quiet gestures and almost mute statements. This is a film (and even in Mann’s version) a work of quietude. No one really says what’s truly on their minds. The water laps up to their feet, their hips, and, if you listen attentively, the Venice ocean waters slurp into the city. You can hear them quite clearly, but the character’s voices are always at a hush. Polite, refined, unable to express themselves, the figures are entrapped in the sinking city, unable to express their obvious desires. In the oceanic influx, Tadzio’s and Aschebach’s bodies become utterly intertwined.
Los Angeles, May 20, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2019).
Sunday, May 12, 2019
fassbinder’s absurdist comedy
by Douglas Messerli
Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) Santansbraten (Satan’s Brew) / 1976, USA 1977
Satan’s Brew is now the 27th film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s I have reviewed, and, in one way or another, I have loved every one of these movies. Even my beloved Hitchcock has not fared so well: I do not like several of his apprentice films, and the films from The Birds forward are disappointments that cannot compare with his greatest work of the 1940 through 1960’s Psycho—although I do know that there are plenty of critics who might disagree. But Fassbinder, far more difficult to love that Hitchcock, has not ever completely disappointed me.
How in a brief period of 13 years Fassbinder created so many amazing pieces of cinema is nearly impossible to comprehend: generous support by the German cultural community, governmental and private, a repertory-like group of actors with whom he worked, and lots and lots of drugs and sex probably helped. But it still doesn’t explain the genius of this director.
For years now I had been waiting for Netflix to add the 1976 film Satansbraten to their list; but when it never came about, I finally found it on the new Criterion streaming service and quickly determined to watch it. Now I think it’s one of my very favorites, since it involves absurdist drama traditions, from Artaud and Ionesco to more contemporaneous theatrical artists such as Harold Pinter and Edward Albee with whom I feel a deep commitment.
It is a heady mix of theater of cruelty, farce, and social critique that seems so different from Fassbinder’s other films that some critics, as quoted in Andrew Grossman’s excellent essay on the film, argued for its total exceptionalness in Fassbinder’s short career. As Grossman quotes film historian Thomas Elsaeeer, for example, the movie is “a rare attempt at comedy from a filmmaker who, as commentators have noted, is entirely devoid of humor.”
Christion Thomsen, a critic devoted to Fassbinder’s films, described it as “ultimately nihilistic,” summarizing that “the film is light years away from the time when Fassbinder tried to be positive and constructive and present alternatives to the reigning misery.”
I can’t explain how these important critical figures have seen a Fassbinder who I have never experienced. But, for me, the great director’s films have almost always been filled with humor and a great deal of campy satire. I might almost suggest that Fassbinder’s ability to turn his miserable character’s life into humor is one of his signature qualities. How else to explain the crazy Bonnie and Clyde-like robberies of Love Is Colder than Death, the fetishized murder of the hero of The American Soldier, the absolutely crazed societal replay of popular American films in In a Year of 13 Moons, the melodramatic breakdown of Petra Kant (right out of Djuna Barnes), the crazy adventurers of Rio das Mortes, the absurd gathering of his regulars in Behold the Holy Whore—and the list goes on? If you haven’t a good sense of humor, then you might never comprehend Fassbinder’s darkest films.
It’s simply that in Satan’s Brew Fassbinder opens up all the spigots, turning up the gas, so to speak, on his completely ridiculous figure, Kranz (a marvelous Kurt Raab), a writer, evidently of some note, who has been unable to write anything for years and is now totally broke and unable to even obtain another advance from his publishers.
Kranz obviously stands for the temporary or perhaps permanent writer’s block that perhaps every writer in the world must face and one time or another (except perhaps for Fassbinder and, alas, me). If he is logorrheic, he is also logophobic, unable in the world he now inhabits with his several domineering prostitutes to communicate—except through his terribly bitter fights with his long-suffering and insufferable wife Luise (the indomitable Helen Vita), who not only allows him to have numerous affairs with his prostitute-lovers but continues to argue for her own rights for sex as his married partner. Their conversations, at times, appear to be lifted out of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which in 1976 Fassbinder would have been well aware.
All of this is even more exaggerated by the household existence of Kranz’s brother, Ernst (Volker Spengler), a man much like the mad Reinfeld, Count Dracula’s assistant, with flies, attempting not only to collect them but, after naming each of them, and through masturbation to mate with them. At one hilarious moment Kranz admits to his brother’s obsession, suggesting that he hasn’t succeeded, to his knowledge—“at least yet.” When the unpaid furniture dealers come to collect the chifforobe, they almost take the shy brother, hidden away in its confines, with them.
In fact, Kranz is a kind of Dracula, using the women from whom he begs for sex also as sources of possible income—a reversal of the usual “john,” using even a prostitute, sold to others by her husband, as a possible source of income. Another prostitute, into heavy bondage, writes checks out to Kranz as he threatens (and possibly does) shoot her to death with her own gun.
Yet, when the detective, investigating the incident, shares a foot tub with Kranz and joins his and his wife for lunch, we can’t even be sure that her death wasn’t also just a sexual fantasy.
As Grossman perceptively writes:
What becomes normative in Satan’s Brew is not a state of bourgeois passivity, but a panicked desperation that, taken to its “extreme,” unbridles characters’ ids and returns them to states of irrational infantilism. If the sociopolitical revolutions (of the 1960s, we assume) in which Kranz once believed have died away, he can now do little but succumb to a rising capitalism that bloats appetites but never sates them. Thus afflicted, Kranz is part-beast, part-child, his attempts at dignity dissipating
What’s even worse is that Kranz, ultimately, does begin to write. But this time, perhaps without his even knowing it, in the romantic voice of the beloved German poet Stephen George, whose Nordic images of the German race later became popular with the German National Socialists. When Kranz discovers that the “new” poem he has created is from the pen of George, he imagines that he himself an incarnation of the poet, attempting to look like the poet and even taking on a group of young gay acolytes with whom, we do not know for certain, he now embraces homosexuality.
Louise, meanwhile, becomes desperately ill with cancer—well-earned in her world of absolute servitude—who is taken away to the hospital, with even the retarded Ernst realizing the desperateness of the situation.
Finally, Kranz himself, in his total downward spiral, realizes he has lost the only person who truly might care for him in the real world in which he lives. And he admits for the first time in the film what she has attempted to proclaim throughout: “You’re my wife before God and man!” But in so doing, of course, he admits that his entire life has been a fraud, that he, his poetry, and his identification with George is an absurdity no longer able of being supported. Her death is his death. The comedy is over.
Los Angeles, May 12, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2019).
Wednesday, May 8, 2019
Michael Haneke | 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance)
people on the edge
by Douglas Messerli
Michael Haneke (writer and director) 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) / 1994
The characters of Michael Haneke’s 1994 film, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, never released in the US, is a film about people on the edge, ready to spin out of control in the worlds in which they love or are entrapped. In the larger perspective the German-born Austrian director Haneke suggests through numerous news reports that, indeed, the whole world appears to be spinning out of control, with major battles in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere. And Haneke’s characters are a local version of that vertiginous collapse.
An escaping Romanian boy, an illegal migrant from Romanian (Gabriel Cosmin Urdes), arrives in the city via a truck shipping washing machines, is forced to sleep on the streets and eat out of garbage cans. His major crimes include stealing a Disney-like comic book and, later, a camera through which with he simply attempts to makes sense of the world into which he has escaped. One of the saddest scenes in the picture is his witnessing of a lovely woman with her two children and her dog in a park, all of whom receive more love in the few seconds he observes them than he has in his entire life. What we realize is that such lost children exist today in all societies, hidden or made invisible by our inability to concern ourselves with their lives.
An older man, who visits the bank to receive his pension, is met by his bank-teller daughter as if he were one of her hundreds of unwanted customers. She almost hisses at him, promising to call him that night, but the evening call is more than contentious, as we perceive the lonely man—his wife having apparently died—unable to even have a true conversation with her; he must beg her to put on his granddaughter Sissi, whom he clearly loves. And he makes no attempt to report that the doctor has recently given him a bad bill of health.
Another man prays each morning in the bathroom that his wife might find a way to love him again, and that he can show her his own continued love. When, at the dinner table, he attempts to admit that love, she reacts like a bee has stung her: this is never something you have said, she seems to indicate, basically ignoring his quiet imploring. On her part, she is clearly exhausted as she holds their child as her husband marches of to work, announcing as he does every day that he will be home sometime after 6:00.
A student, not as clever as his peers, contemplates suicide, evidentially even chalking in several stories below his office a picture of where his body might land.
Another man steals a stash of weapons just to financially survive.
A couple, clearly intent on adopting a child, find the young girl they have selected to be hostile, caring more about the room in which she might sleep than in the people with whom she might now have to make contact. Clearly unhappy with the child they have chosen, they later determine, once the Romanian boy’s existence reaches the pages of the local newspapers, (although we’re never certain) to adopt him instead. They represent, clearly, the clumsy conscience of a culture that has previously ignored the weak and dying among it.
In a highly prescient way, the director shows images of Michael Jackson, hinting, way back in 1994, at his sexual molestation of young boys.
These individuals and others are all desperate people, the kind, Haneke reminds us, who live among us every day without our attempting to perceive them or to make contact. In short, this society, pretending to be a caring world, purposely dismisses those most in need. How much this 1994, presumably Viennese world, is so much like our own world today.
Clearly, Haneke has presented us with a kind of explosive world, a society not only ready to spin away, but to blow up, as it does when, simply told by the owner that the gas-station does not take a credit card for the fill-up he has just pumped into his car, the handsome student runs, with basically good will, to the bank across the street just to get cash—the same bank where the old man was rebuffed by his daughter. But when he good-naturedly attempts to intervene in the line, he is brutally shoved away by another man waiting in that line of patient customers. He returns to his car across the street, pulls out a gun, and returns to the bank, shooting so we are told 3 people, possibly some of the very characters we have already witnessed, before shooting himself and dying. In a sense, he releases all the pent up hurt, pain, and emotional steam that all of Haneke’s characters have been holding in throughout this film. And although his action is a horribly violent one, it is hard to judge him in this world of good intentions given the basic ignorance of the people who live in it.
The most amazing aspect of this movie, however, is not in its story, but how it tells it. Haneke breaks his film, as the title suggests, into 71 fragmented incidents, mostly without dialogue. The actions of its characters in each of those fragments are basically inconsequential. Perhaps only the early scene of the young Romanian boy slogging through waters to reach his new world have any great significance. The rest of these fragments are simply about survival in a society filled, given the news reports, with horrific acts of violence. The old man about to die, cooks up a pot of stew; the unhappy couple read in bed before turning off their lights; the couple determined to adopt a child show the child her yet unfinished bedroom; the student attempts to create a puzzle of positioning small pieces of paper in different perspectives that might show his ability to be an original thinker. The young Romanian boy stares in at the city’s wealthy diners, probably suffering stomach pains which none of them might have ever imagined. The director, although clearly pointing to the larger problems, basically remains silent, forcing the viewer to fill in the meanings of his images.
The New York Times Critic Manohla Dargis argued in a 2006 review that this early work was far less accessible than his later films:
“These later, rather more accessible films are very much of an intellectual piece with his earlier work, but Mr. Haneke has in recent years mellowed his tone and adapted a more classical approach to narrative.” But, in fact, I feel that some of the later works such as Code Unknown and Caché, even The Piano Teacher are far more complex and difficult that this simple fragmentary work, which demonstrates, against the behavior of the society’s own behavior, how we are all connected, not only by chance, but in the larger sense by out attempts to survive in communities, local and global. What happens in Vietnam and Somalia, he suggests, happens in different ways in all of our cities and small towns. Violence is not an accident but a result. To ignore the homeless man, woman, boy, or girl on the street is to lose touch with any spiritual connection—which the philosopher-theologist Martin Buber might have argued—is to lose touch with yourself as well.
Los Angeles, May 8, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2019)
Sunday, May 5, 2019
by Douglas Messerli
Ingmar Bergman and Olle Länsberg (screenplay), Ingmar Bergman (director) Hamnstad (Port of Call) / 1948
Ingmar Bergman’s 1948 film Port of Call was his third feature. Although it does yet reveal the artistry of his later movies, it is still a fascinating work and is well worth seeing, at times extremely moving while pointing to several of his later concerns.
Generally, it has been described as a neorealist work, particularly because at the end credits mention of the director Roberto Rossellini. Yet I have always questioned most of the notions that critics have about neorealism, arguing that, in reality, these are quite romantically conceived films that pretend a kind of realism that Rossellini, in particular, eventually abandoned. Certainly this film has very little connection with someone like De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.
Bergman’s work, as critic David Blakeslee suggests, may have more connections with the poetic realist French films, one of which, Marcel Carne's film of a decade before, Port of Shadows, which is obviously hinted at in Bergman’s Hamnstad (its Swedish title which more literally means Port Town). The gritty work was filmed in the Swedish city of Götenberg, on Sweden’s west coast (strangely the only Swedish city I have ever visited), and represents a world obsessed with the hard work at the docks and of the poverty of its citizens. In the end, I might say that Port of Call reminds me more of the great late 19th century realist-writer Émile Zola than its mid-20th century counterparts.
Bergman’s film, moreover, is highly linked to the sea (after all for much of his later life the director lived on an island), and in the film’s first few scenes we see long-time sailor Gösta (Bengt Eklund) on his way back to port to become, once again, a land lubber; yet at almost the very minute Gösta, symbolically speaking, “jumps” ship, he witnesses a young woman, Berit Irene Holm (Nine-Christine Jönsson), leap into the harbor in an apparent attempt at suicide. The young sailor has no choice, as the hero of this piece, but to jump into the water and save her, despite her vehement protests.
These two, we immediately perceive, will be intrinsically intertwined. And the rest of the film, in part, is a kind of study in how this version of Nana has come into the situation in which Gösta first encounters her.
The sailor is quite obviously a quiet and thoughtful guy—after all in one of the first scenes he is reading the read Swedish naturalist Harry Martinson—but in his shy demeanor he seems easily manipulated by his friends, who offer him a bed in their small apartment, help get him a job at the local dock, and insist that he put down the book and go out with them dancing on Saturday night.
It is there, at the dance hall, after being dragged around the room by a gum-chewing teenager, that he reencounters Berit, the two of them immediately interested in each other and quickly escaping the noisy and crowded hall.
Their relationship might almost have moved swimmingly forward, were it not for the continued abuse of Berit’s mother, who whenever her daughter encounters a man threatens to send her back to reformatory school. Fortunately she has a boss in the ring factory in which she works intervenes, freeing her, at least temporarily, from her mother’s retribution. The pretendingly kind juvenile office is right out of a novel by Charles Dickens.
But as Berit increasingly falls in love with her new Romeo, she becomes determined to tell her story, despite Gösta’s suggestion that he need not hear it (“We all have a right for our own lives”), revealing the endless battles between her father and mother throughout her childhood, her sexual rebellion, her several years in a reform school, and other details, all of which end up shocking the somewhat innocent would-be lover.
When a prostitute friend of Berit’s, Gertrud (Mimi Nelson), discovers that she is pregnant, she turns to an illegal abortionist, who feeds the girl a toxic mix of something which ends in her death in Berit’s house, bringing the apparent "sinner" to the police once again. Disgusted with the torridness of it all, Gösta gets drunk, hires a prostitute, and goes nearly mad, breaking his liquor bottle against the bed and almost abusing the woman. Ultimately, he is locked by her john into the courtyard from which he cannot escape.
Critics have mentioned that Bergman was later sorry for this scene, wishing he had never shot this quite melodramatic episode. But actually it is interesting if only because Gösta himself now must experience what Berit has for most of her life: despair, anger, and imprisonment. He might as well now be on that pier about to slip into the waters of death. And in this scene, moreover, we see the character playing out a theme that will recur again and again in Bergman’s work: he is a man conscience suffering for that very fact.
The seemingly tacked-on ending plays that sense of “conscience” out in literal terms, as he finally tracks down Berit again, the two possibly ready to begin the reparations between them and their own pasts. As Blakeslee points out, if this ending seems a little too easy, so too would have been the couple’s total separation and/or deaths. In Port of Call everything is simply open, allowing the characters to determine their own futures, their own lives.
No, this is not Bergman at his prime, but is a work that shows his mind brewing the many tensions between men and women, and women and women that are at the heart of his great works.
Los Angeles, May 5, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2019).
Friday, May 3, 2019
let us now praise not-so-famous women and men
by Douglas Messerli
Agnès Varda (writer), Agnès Varda and JR (directors) Visages, Villages (Faces Places) / 2017
Agnès Varda’s last work, made with photographic artist JR, is an odd documentary, even given her rather eccentric (and I mean that in the best possible way) career. Faces Places (Visages, Villages) follows the pair, this time Varda offering ideas and camera angles more than directorial content, as JR and his photography truck travel throughout rural France snapping shots of individuals, factory workers, farmers, and others, and then blowing them up to large black-and-white posters, which JR
Almost all of them seem absolutely delighted to be photographed, and even more awed by the monumentalism of their faces, proudly pointing out their images in the group portraits, and delighted to become rather famous in the towns and country neighborhoods in which JR’s and Varda’s larger-than-life portraits have now been placed.
In a sense these unknown folk, who work at simple and back-breaking jobs or simply have outlived others not so fortunate, have suddenly become the heroic figures they might always have wished to have be. Instead of the monuments to the great—so pervasive in French life, particularly in the major cities—these hard workers finally receive their own, if temporary, due.
We are never told just how permanent JR’s outsized portraits are, and how quickly in the rain, heat, and winds, these testimonies to their very existence will last. Surely for enough time for them to claim some sense of temporary fame.
But that may not really matter, because JR’s camera as well as Varda’s several cinematographers, Romain Le Bonniec, Claire Duguet, Nicolas Guicheteau, Valentin Vignet, and Raphaël Minnesota, have also captured their faces on a film which they may never see. But we, the audience, recognize this as a kind double tribute accordingly, one at the local level and the other on the international (this film was shown at the Cannes, the Toronto, and other film festivals, winning several awards along the way). And their rugged faces and their open demeanor reveals them, if only briefly as actors far better than those in most of cinema.
Like Bresson, Varda, in this film, uses people untrained to act, but they act so very unassumingly that each of them should win an award, which perhaps they unwitting did when the film was chosen for France’s highest prize for a documentary at the César Awards in 2018.
Along the way the director expresses her joie de vivre, even laughing at herself and the impossible project she and JR have undertaken. At one point she poignantly recalls visiting famed French write Natalie Sarraute near where they snap another photo.
Near the end, JR determines to take pictures of Varda’s eye, now nearly blind, and her small feet, blowing them up and pasting them the sides of railroad oil cars. The railroad-head approves, telling Varda that she will now be taken to places she has never before been. It’s a touching conclusion to this highly populist film.
Varda, in turn, has a surprise for JR. She has made an appointment with Jean-Luc Godard, presumably for her final picture-shoot of the great director. But when they arrive, Godard is not there, presumably having bolted.
One of my friends suggested that this passage of the film was immensely sad. But Varda, herself, proclaims that Godard is a solitary philosopher, which cinema needs in order to survive. Yet, underlying her defense of him, we also perceive that it was Varda, herself, who had the best instincts. Celebrities are not, perhaps, the greatest subjects for film. The ordinary people, running wild in the streets, gathering up things that the society-at-large no longer wants, and workers living in near-solitary in small rural communities are far more interesting in the end. These people are truly appreciative the art she creates about them and their lives.
Los Angeles, May 3, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2019).