Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Szegénylegények (The Round-Up)

Directed by Miklós Jancsó

In the hot sun on the Hungarian puszta, a prison stands silently erect. Its walls are a piercing white that hurts the eyes and serves to contrast against the huddled mass of prisoners within. The men inside are silent. They refrain from even talking to themselves. They just stand around and avoid each others’ glances. Both prisoner and guards partake of this communion of silence. When the interrogators ask questions, they don’t raise their voices. When prisoners are executed, they don’t make a sound. In fact, the only things that can be heard are birds which are never seen. It’s strange, considering that there are not any trees in the area. Their sweet songs seem to mock the prisoners who appear to have accepted the fact that they will never leave the prison.

Such is the setting for this great Hungarian masterpiece. The fourth work of cinematic master Miklós Jancsó’s career, it firmly established him as a major player in international film. Made for only half a million $US, it is a marvel of cinematic simplicity. In addition to being an international success, it was well-received in Hungary, with over a million people seeing it. To put that in perspective, there were only about 10 million Hungarians at the time of this film’s release.

Key to its success is its powerful use of allegory. Jancsó would join the ranks of many other great Eastern European directors like Jiří Menzel and Miloš Forman in using the cinema as a metaphor for Soviet occupation and oppression. Just like the bumbling firemen in The Firemen’s Ball (1967) were a metaphor for a failed Soviet bureaucracy, the inmates and prison guards in The Round-Up have their real world counterparts. In fact, the entire film is an allegory for the failed 1956 Hungarian uprising against Russian-imposed Communism.

The setting is a prison camp for those suspected of following Lajos Kossuth who led the 1848 revolution again Habsburg rule in Hungary. The revolution crushed, all that remained were guerrillas. One such group, led by a highwayman named Sándor Rózsa, was captured. The trouble is, not all of the prisoners were rebels. Desperate to find out if Sándor is among those captured, the guards begin to employ devastating tactics against the prisoners in order to make them break their silence.

A breakthrough for the prison staff comes in the form of a murdered family of wealthy shepherds named the Kis Balogs. They were strangled in their home and had many of their sheep stolen. Suspecting one of the inmates to be involved, the guards pick out one named János Gajdar. Why they pick him is never explained, but the guards have an aura about them that suggests that they know more than they let on. Maybe they already know that he is guilty, but they want him to confess. Whatever the reason behind their selection, their methods of gaining a confession are brutal. They lock him in a cell with the dead bodies of the Kis Balogs and force him to wear the halter used to strangle them around his neck like a bowtie. It isn’t long before he confesses that he killed the Kis Balogs and three other people. The interrogator lays down a chilling ultimatum, “If at the earthworks, you find anyone more guilty than you, someone who killed more people, then you’ll be pardoned. We won’t hang you.

It is unclear whether or not János can trust them to keep their word, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He goes about betraying several prisoners secretly, hoping that they have killed enough people so he can be reprieved. Prisoners are brought out in long lines with sacks over their heads like human cattle so János can try and identify them. Eventually, János accidentally reveals his position as a traitor in front of the entire prison. He is then strangled one night in solitary confinement.

With their snitch gone, the guards employ other tricks to sniff out the conspirators. They quickly find out who murdered János. It turns out that they left a few cells unlocked the night that he was murdered, so finding the culprits was not a difficult job. But even after unmasking them, they are no closer to discovering the rebels. So they employ one of the greatest tricks that I have ever encountered. They allow the prisoners to form a military unit out of former bandits. After they have all been grouped together, they are informed that Sándor has been officially pardoned. The rebels begin cheering, thus revealing themselves. The guards are quick to tell the happy inmates that those who fought under Sándor will still face execution. The stunned men try to escape, but the guards trap them and begin shoving their heads into large sacks, trapping them once and for all.

Maybe I have portrayed this movie incorrectly. It is not a tight thriller that might be constructed by men like David Mamet. Instead, it is a powerful psychological drama. The prison evokes a system reminiscent of Kafka’s most paranoid dreams. One inmate is asked what they did to warrant being in prison. He replies, “They questioned me a lot and I said nothing.” It’s a system where the guards ask the prisoners questions that they already know the answers to. They have condemned people and yet they still interrogate them. Actions are carried out, but rarely explained. It is a movie where a look or a glance is more powerful than a line of dialogue. Take the film’s best scene as an example.

After János’ first attempt at turning in a criminal who has killed more people than he has fails, he quickly meets another inmate with a rap sheet longer than his. In his excitement, he runs to a door behind which guards are stationed and starts banging on it, screaming that he has found someone. When they ignore him, he turns around to see the prisoners staring at him. Not a line is spoken, but it is clear that every single person has figured out that he is a traitor. He starts to walk around the prison yard looking at the other inmates. We get close-ups of their faces which quickly look at him, and then look away. In every face is a look of disgust. Without a word of dialogue, we know János’ fate is sealed. It is in such details that The Round-Up excels. It is why after so many years The Round-Up maintains its power. While words and phrases may lose meaning over the ages, looks, subtle glances, and unspoken communications never lose their impact. It is a film that all peoples of all cultures could understand. The fact that it is in Hungarian is just incidental. It is a story of lies and betrayals, of feelings and not words. Whatever the real life incident that may have inspired it, The Round-Up could draw parallels to untold numbers of stories throughout the world. In this way, Miklós Jancsó has directed a film that is a timeless testament to the darker side of the human spirit. It is, in a sense, an eternal film.

Miklós Jancsó



Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Man with the Golden Arm

Directed by Otto Preminger
The United States of America

Louie: The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn.

Ten years after Billy Wilder would shock the world with the first realistic portrayal of alcoholism in The Lost Weekend (1945), Otto Preminger would stun audiences with The Man with the Golden Arm, one of the first films to ever portray the effects of heroin addiction. The concept is may not seem that unusual today. But imagine what a firestorm it created back in the mid-50s. It created such an outcry that The Motion Picture Association of America originally refused to issue it a seal. It was eventually released without the seal, paving the way for other movies to explore taboo subjects such as drug abuse, abortion, and prostitution (subjects that the director Otto Preminger made a point of dealing with in his films). But despite its influence, The Man with the Golden Arm is frequently forgotten about in the realms of Hollywood lore. When people think of Preminger, they usually think of his film noir masterpieces Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945). But they shouldn’t. The Man with the Golden Arm is a tightly filmed, expertly directed, and devastatingly acted triumph of a picture. It opened the floodgates for a new level of social consciousness in both the public and in Hollywood.

The film centers on the appropriately named Frankie Machine, played by the great Frank Sinatra. Let me get this out of the way: Sinatra will never be appreciated for the great actor that he was. He really was one of the best actors of his era. Anyway, it focuses on Frankie Machine, a heroin addict that just got out of rehab. He walks with a smile on his face because he has successfully kicked the habit. While in rehab he learned how to play the drums and now looks forward to a steady career on the straight and narrow. But fate has other ideas…

While Frankie successfully kicked the habit, he is forced to return to a toxic environment. A former card dealer, he would spend countless nights presiding over illegal fixed poker games. His old boss, Schwiefka, wants him to return to his job and even frames him of a crime so that he gets arrested when he refuses. Forced with staying in jail, Frankie reluctantly lets Schwiefka pay his bail and returns as to his old job.

But Schwiefka isn’t the only force at play in Frankie’s life. Probably the most poisonous relationship is the one with his wife Zosh, a wheelchair-bound invalid who smothers Frankie. Paralyzed after a car accident, Zosh desperately clings to Frankie and begs for him to return to his old job and scoffs at his dream of becoming a drummer. In truth, Zosh is one of the most interesting characters in the film. What’s her motivation? She is willing to let Frankie succumb to his old ways (and habits) just as long as he provides for her. The only way to make enough money to sate her is by dealing in the poker game. Does she not realize that by dealing he could get hooked on heroin again and die? Maybe she is just desperate for his attention since she is an invalid. But again, that doesn’t make sense because it is later revealed that she is faking her injury and can walk. Zosh is a unexplainable character. But then again, that is one of the reasons why she is so compelling. Whatever her motivation, she ensures that even at home Frankie cannot escape the pull of his old life.

And then there is his old heroin dealer, Louis, who sees Frankie as just another expendable customer. To him, it doesn’t matter if Frankie lives or dies. There are plenty of other potential customers. But few have as much dough as Frankie. So he begins to pull Frankie back into the world of narcotics.

Indeed, the only source of calm in Frankie’s life is his old flame Molly (played by Kim Novak). A kind source of understanding and stability, she is the only one who truly cares about Frankie’s well being. Well, that’s not true. There is also his friend Sparrow who follows him everywhere, even into jail. But he comes from the same environment that poisoned Frankie in the first place. Molly is the only truly sympathetic character who wants him to be his own man and escape from his past.

Sadly, the pressure is too much for Frankie. Facing a world that wants him to be just as he was before he got clean, Frankie is forced to start shooting up again. At first, it helps him concentrate. But eventually he gets the shakes. Nothing another fix won’t solve. But soon they start asking for more than money. He can’t get his next fix unless he deals for a marathon poker game. Frankie knows that it is the point of no return, and that he must avoid it in order to make it to his drumming audition. But the monkey on his back is too much for him to bear. He shoots up, deals poker all night, flubs his audition, gets thrown out of the game after he accidentally lets it slip that he is cheating.

After running out of the game, Louis goes looking for his favorite customer at his home. He accidentally discovers that Zosh can walk. Scared of being revealed, she pushes him over the railing of the stairwell, killing him instantly. Now, Frankie is being sough for murder. Facing a corrupt police force that sees him as nothing but a two-bit junkie, Frankie begs Molly for help. She tells him that the only way that he stands a chance against the police is to get all of the heroin out of his system. That means quitting cold turkey. Frankie agrees, locks himself in Molly’s apartment, and quits cold turkey.

Now, The Man with the Golden Arm is a phenomenal film. It features many incredible performances and scenes. But the one that always sticks out is Frank Sinatra going through heroin withdrawal in Molly’s apartment. Even today, over fifty years later, it is difficult to watch. Frankie writhes on the floor, shaking, cursing, crying. He begs to be let out. He screams, aches, and suffers. But Molly loves him and knows that this is for his own good. Sinatra’s performance is truly terrifying to watch. Part of this can only be attributed to the fact that Sinatra spent time at drug rehabilitation clinics and observed real addicts going cold turkey. But a large part of it is Sinatra’s electrifying commitment to his role. It makes the audience wonder if Sinatra’s performance was inspired by junkies that he may have known in real life as a singer and actor. Whatever the cause, whatever the motivation, Sinatra performance as a junkie going cold turkey is the centerpiece of the film. I won’t give any more of the plot away because after such a powerful scene it seems unnecessary. The sight of Frankie Machine writhing on the floor overshadows the rest of the film, even the tragic twists and the inevitable upbeat ending.

But to say that The Man with the Golden Arm has a happy ending is a stretch. Too many lives have been destroyed by Frankie and his habit. Despite the fact that things end on a positive note for Frankie, it is apparent that he got lucky. Where there is one successfully treated addict, there are countless others who are not as lucky. And really, The Man with the Golden Arm is about them. It is about the addict who cannot see in any direction but that which heads towards the next fix. The relationships that Frankie has are symbolic: they represent all of the pressure that junkies face that drive them to addiction. Addiction is too often inescapable. But with a little luck and the support of people who truly love them, it doesn’t have to be the end. Whatever the message, The Man with the Golden Arm is a great film. It shows Preminger at the top of his game. It is filled with an urgency that few films of its era were able to duplicate. The camera sways and flows with all the same acrobatic skill as a film by Welles or Hitchcock. And yet, it doesn’t hide behind camera tricks or directorial sleight of hand. The Man with the Golden Arm relies on its characters and story to achieve greatness. Maybe at the time of its release it was too intense to be appreciated. But in today’s world, we can finally marvel at its neglected cinematic genius. It is films like these that can help us remember why we love the movies in the first place, and why we sometimes need them.


Friday, March 19, 2010

The Tall T

Directed by Budd Boetticher
The United States of America

The Tall T is a film that many will probably never see. It’s not because it isn’t a great film or a particularly rare one. The reason that many will probably never see it is because everything about it seems like a stereotypical Western. In a genre that has been milked as dry as the Western, some would argue even to the point that it is impossible to say anything new with it, few would probably want to take the time to watch such an unassuming film. It stars one of the great cowboys of the silver screen, Randolph Scott, in the lead role. But he doesn’t have the star power that actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or Henry Fonda maintain to this day. To many, Scott’s image on the movie poster or DVD case for The Tall T probably wouldn’t seem any different than any other B-movie actor that inundated the Western genre. The story seems too familiar. Scott must save the damsel in distress being held for ransom from a gang of outlaws. How many times have we encountered that story? And finally, the name itself, The Tall T, doesn’t really do anything to grab a potential viewer’s imagination. It doesn’t have any nostalgic romanticism that titles like High Noon or Stagecoach. But perhaps all of these things are what makes The Tall T such a good film. It doesn’t insist upon itself. It knows the rules of the game and is content to play by them. By doing so, The Tall T transforms itself into one of the purest concentrations of Western cinema ever committed to celluloid.

It’s starts of simply enough. Pat Brennan (Randolph), a tough old cowboy, rides into a stagecoach way station to get some water for his journey into town. It’s obvious that he knows the station manager and his young son. The boy can hardly wait to see him and begs him to let him water his horse. Brennan and the station manager pass jokes good naturedly and the boy asks him to bring him some candy from town. The old cowpoke agrees. Despite his tough-as-leather exterior, he has a soft spot in his heart for the boy. He promises to bring him some on his way back.

After he gets into town, he loses his horse in a bet. Forced to return back to the station in foot, we get a comical scene of him walking down a desert road wearing the very saddle that he rode into town on. In fact, the entire film so far has a friendly tone, much like John Ford’s Stagecoach(1939) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). It’s clear that he would rather not wear the saddle, but he takes it in stride. Just another day as a cowboy…

Thankfully, he isn’t forced to walk the whole way back to the station. He is picked up by his friend Rintoon, a stagecoach driver, who was transporting newlyweds Willard and Doretta Mims. Willard initially refuses to let him on board, but Doretta convinces him to change his mind. As Brennan joins Rintoon at the front of the stage coach, he jokes that this would be the first time he’d been on a honeymoon.

But the jokes end as soon as they return to the station. They are held up by a band of thieves led by Frank Usher. One of them, a heartless killer named Chink, kills Rintoon. It turns out that they were trying to ambush another coach. Nevertheless, they get ready to kill Brennan and the Mims. It’s obvious that they mean business seeing as how they murdered the station manager and his son and threw their bodies down the same well that the boy had used to water Brennan’s horse.

But perhaps I am telling too much about the plot. The rest of the movie transpires in a predictable fashion. The husband cowardly offers his wife for a ransom, is killed after delivering their demands to her father, Brennan and Doretta fall in love, and they manage to outsmart and kill the three bandits. As I said, the plot is pretty standard Western fare. It’s how the director, Budd Boetticher, commands all the different elements of the story and characters together that makes The Tall T such a powerful film. In the incredible three part documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), Scorsese explains, “Budd Boetticher explored the bare essentials of the genre. His style was as simple as his impassive heroes; deceptively simple. The archetypes of the genre were distilled to the point of abstraction…The choreography of basic human passions was his forte. In the seven Westerns he made with Randolph Scott, Boetticher always gave precedence to character over action.

To truly understand what Scorsese means, one need only to examine the most important relationship in the film. It is not the one between Brennan and Doretta, but between Usher and Brennan. Scorsese explains, “In the power play, the hero and the villain were complimentary figures. They shared the same loneliness, the same dreams, and the same ethical code. Somehow, the gentleman and the desperado were fascinated by each other.” The scene where they talk over a campfire about their hopes and aspirations brings to mind the famous coffee shop scene with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro from Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). Both men are obviously impressed by each other. They admire each others’ skills and abilities. Usher obviously respects Brennan more than his own trigger happy men. Brennan realizes that not only is Usher not a simple criminal, but he is someone who may have turned out like him if life hadn’t dealt him harder breaks. But they leave with the knowledge that they could not be partners or friends and that they will eventually have to destroy each other.

Under Boetticher’s direction, even simple cliché’s take on deeper meanings. One of the great unspoken rules of the West is that you never shoot a man in the back. As an undiluted Western, the characters comply with the rule. Well, at least Brennan does. While Chink is content to shoot Mr. Mims in the back when he flees back to town, Brennan warns him before shooting him so that he has a chance to turn around and fire back. This code is so important to Brennan and so intrinsic to his character that he even lets Usher go after killing his two men because it would mean shooting him as he fled. It was only after Usher returns for the ransom money that Brennan can kill him and ride into the sun with Doretta. Instead of merely pertaining to cinematic traditions, the act of not shooting Usher in the back proves the integrity of Brennan’s character.

While some Westerns play to the balconies with epic gun battles, over the top villains, and fantastic set pieces, The Tall T is content with remaining a simple film. It is a story of tough men and an even tougher environment. It is a story where the villains are as honorable as the heroes, at least in their own way. It is a story that has been told since the first cowboy drove his first herd of cattle. While it is an old story, The Tall T is one of its best incarnations. Where other Westerns would run ahead and burn out, The Tall T just keeps rolling on from one town to the next, happy to enjoy the scenery and wondering what is behind that sunset after all.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

タンポポ (Tampopo)

Directed by Juzo Itami

I remember the time that I spent six weeks in Mitaka, Tokyo as a college student in my junior year. I was living in the 2nd Men’s Dormitory with students from all over the world. On one of the first nights there, the entire dorm went to a ramen restaurant named Gutara (which to this day I am convinced is a Japanese approximation of the phrase ‘good ramen’). It was a small, out of the way ramen shop that was so small that several of us had to wait outside for tables to open up. I had never had real ramen before. When they placed that giant bowl of boiling noodles in front of my face, I knew that it was the start of a beautiful relationship. It wasn’t long until my brow was covered in sweat from me leaning over the steaming broth. With a deft motion of my hand I wiped my sweaty eyes and runny nose and shoved another load of noodles into my mouth. The combination of fresh noodles, nori (Japanese seaweed), onion, and generous portions of beef (I suspect it was because I was a foreigner) produced one of the greatest kaleidoscopes of flavors that I have ever encountered. When the noodles were gone I still had a bowl full of broth. But before I could finish it the waiter came by and dumped another serving of noodles into my bowl. Even though the beef, noodles, and seaweed were gone, the noodles themselves were succulent and delicious. I slurped down the broth and stared sadly into the bottom of my empty bowl. I would come back to this beloved ramen shop time and time again to bask in the glory of the perfect bowl of ramen noodles.

Of course, I am not alone in my adoration in the Japanese noodle. The Japanese people are proud and devoted to their own cultural cuisine. I remember talking to a Japanese foreign exchange student back home in the States who said that the thing that she missed most from home was the food. Japanese food holds a special place in the hearts and minds of all Japanese. Even simple everyday dishes like tempura, bento (box lunches), and ramen noodles are revered by those who eat them. So perhaps it is inevitable that a film such as Tampopo would eventually be made. Directed by Juzo Itami, who many consider to be Akira Kurosawa’s successor, Tampopo is as much a love letter to Japanese cuisine and culinary culture as it is one of the freshest and most original comedies of the Eighties.

Billing itself as the first noodle western (an obvious send-up to spaghetti westerns), the story centers around two truckers: Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his sidekick Gun (played by a very young Ken Watanabe). They roll into town on their big rig one rainy night looking for something to eat. Dressed in clothes right out of a John Ford western, the scene is reminiscent of cowboys rolling into town after a long haul and going straight to the local saloon. They stop at a ramen shop owned by Miss Tampopo, which in Japanese translates to “dandelion.” They immediately realize that their food will be subpar when they see that the pot used to cook the noodles isn’t boiling. Despite their occupation, they are obviously experts in the world of ramen. But they don’t have long to eat their noodles. They are attacked by a group of local ruffians who they quickly fight off. Realizing that such occurrences are frequent in Miss Tampopo’s shop, the rest of the movie concerns their efforts to help the damsel-in-distress. But they don’t fight against a legion of black-hat cowpokes. No, they fight to help Tampopo overcome her own incompetence as a ramen cook and her local competition.

They instruct her in every facet of ramen preparation. They practice how to greet the customer, how to remember their order, how to quickly prepare multiple dishes at once, and how to instill dignity and skill into her cooking. Along the way they will spy on their competition, stealing their recipes and observing how they interact with their customers. They even enlist the aid of a homeless old man referred to as “the master” who heads up a motley crew of good natured hobos who somehow manage to prepare four star cuisine from what they can find in the garbage cans behind restaurants. Together they help her open a new ramen shop, appropriately titled “Tampopo”, where they but her noodles to the ultimate test. In a scene that recalls the most intense of showdowns from the old West, they file into her shop to try her noodles. If they drink the broth after they finish, then she will know that she has truly succeeded in becoming a master ramen cook…

Perhaps realizing that he could only draw out the Tampopo storyline for so long, Itami intercuts the main plot with short vignettes involving an eclectic cast of characters. The most prominent are a white-suited yakuza and his girlfriend who engage in something that I can only describe as “food-play.” They reappear throughout the movie trying out different exotic foods (and foreplay) until he is eventually gunned down. As he lies on the street dying, he tells his girlfriend that his only regret is not letting her try wild boar sausages made from intestines stuffed with yams. Indeed, their relationship started when he found her collecting oysters on the beach. When he sucked the oyster out of her hand, they knew that they were destined for each other. So it is only appropriate that their relationship which began with food would end with it.

But there are other storylines scattered throughout to keep the audience’s attention. One involves a shop clerk trying to stop an old lady from squeezing all of his food. Another involves a noodle eating class for ladies where they are instructed on how to eat spaghetti without making any noise so as not to disturb foreigners. These may sound pointless, but they speak on an almost unconscious level about how important food is to Japanese society. The most moving subplot involves a family where the mother has died. They gather at a wake at their house where she miraculously raises from the dead and prepares her family one last meal before laying back down again to die. The husband and children, initially shocked and overjoyed at her temporary revival, choke back tears as they eat the last meal that she would ever make for them. “Eat it now while it’s still hot,” the father orders as he shoves his mouth full of the last rice that his beloved would ever make. To many this would seem nonsensical. But it is strangely touching.

What does that scene say about Japanese culinary identity? In fact, what does this entire movie have to say about how the Japanese view their cuisine? It’s difficult to say. What is clear is that it is an ode to what the Japanese eat. Take one of the first scenes where an old man teaches a young man how to properly eat a bowl of noodles. He goes about it slowly and deliberately, first smelling it, then admiring it, then carefully eating it. He tells him to apologize to the pork before they eat it. The scene tells us that to some, even the simple act of eating is an art. If that is true, and cooking and eating is not just an art, but a realization of one’s cultural identity, then Tampopo is not just a love letter to Japanese food. It is a sacred devotion to that which sustains us from the day we are born to the day that we die.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

دعاء الكروان‎ (The Nightingale's Prayer)

Directed by Henry Barakat

Many would argue that the greatest films are the ones that affect us on a personal level. Films that make us reexamine our lives, our relationships with others, and who we are tend to be remembered fondly by audiences. Then there are other films that make us feel an emotion. Comedies make us laugh, so we feel joy. Tragedies make us cry, so we feel sorrow. Horror films make us scream, and we feel terrified. Therein lies the power of the cinema: the ability to affect moods and feelings to such a degree that it brings forth the deepest of our emotions. But there is another emotion that films produce. That feeling is anger. I’m not talking about the hatred that we feel towards a villain or even to bad storytelling. I am referring to a deep-seated disagreement between a film and its viewer that stimulates feelings of anger. I am referring to films like Fahrenheit 9/11. Those who agreed with its politics saw it as a rallying cry for protest against the Bush Administration in the wake of the Iraq War. Those who didn’t agree saw it as a perfect example of liberalism misleading America and distorting the facts. Either way, the film produced very vocal reactions from those who saw it. In some way, Fahrenheit 9/11 stirred the fires of anger in those who saw it.

But there are other films that are not documentaries that can create feelings of anger. Films where great injustices fall upon the hero (Pam’s Labyrinth) or the “hero” committees great injustices (Bergman’s Summer with Monika) are great examples. But really, each film had an agenda in eliciting anger. What about films which are oblivious to the anger that it creates? Is that even possible? Are there films that set out to tell a story but end up telling a completely different one? I think that there is. It is Henry Barakat’s jewel of a film entitled The Nightingale’s Prayer, a film that tries its hardest to be a story about impossible love, but unwittingly becomes one of the greatest portrayals of gender inequality in Islamic society. This film makes me angry. I hate how the women are treated. I hate the things that happen to the women. I hate how the film seems to ignore these things and tries to become a simple melodrama. And that is why I love this film with a passion. There are not many movies that can arouse such emotions within me. As a film, as a story, as a work of art, it is a phenomenal testament of cinematic power. And the best part is that it probably doesn’t even realize that it is so good.

Based on a novel by Taha Hussein, one of the most influential Egyptian writers of the 20th century, it tells the story of Amna, a young woman who lives with her older sister Hanadi and their mother after their father dies. It is hinted that he died in a state of dishonor, so the three women are forced to leave their community. Life is difficult, but they finally manage to get work. Amna works as a maid for a wealthy family and Hanadi works for a local engineer. The work isn’t easy, but they survive. But things change when the engineer seduces Hanadi and then throws her away. In Islamic society, this is a great dishonor. The shame brought on by her actions is so great that their uncle kills her in front of Amna and her mother. When they beg him why he killed her, he brutally hits them and says, “Hanadi died in the plague.” Of course, there is no plague. But the women dutifully obey him. They don’t question why she needed to be killed, but why the engineer seduced him. This is one of the first warning signals to the audience. The women don’t care that their uncle killed Hanadi, but are only concerned for the man who shamed her. A modern day audience would think to itself, “How does that work? Why don’t they attack the uncle or at least turn him in to the police?” But realize, subservience to the men is automatic. They must never question their male superior. And so they turn their attentions to the engineer.

Amna employs herself into the engineer’s household in hopes to poison and kill him. But she finds herself unable to carry out her plan. She is now trapped in the employment of the man who was responsible for her sister’s death. While there she witnesses him casually seducing his other maid. It is clear that he has shamed many unmarried virgins before. Why hasn’t he been arrested? It’s simple really. If a woman is seduced it must be her fault. The engineer is portrayed as a lustful snake. No sooner does Amna begin to work for him than he tries to seduce her. His advances get more and more violent as Amna’s refusal only sparks his desire. In one scene, he begins to rip her clothes off. It is obvious that if Amna hadn’t managed to get away he would have raped her. So what is Amna’s reaction to this evil man?

She falls in love with him.

Let that sink in for a minute. She falls in love with the man who is responsible for her sister’s death and tried to rape her. As a fan of European comedy-of-manners and farces, I can readily accept the idea of people instantly falling in love with people that they should have no business with. But this is ridiculous. She confesses her love for him and reveals her identity. The engineer confesses that he loves her too. But before they can act on their love, Amna’s uncle returns. He is furious that Amna left him. He had arranged for her to marry a man who would pay an outrageous dowry. To him, Amna is only worth her value in gold. The denial of his money sends him on a rampage. He shows up at the engineer’s house with a rifle to kill Amna. But the engineer valiantly shields her with his body, taking the bullet, and dying. Amna’s uncle tries to run, but he is captured. It is obvious that he will be going to jail, now that he has been caught red-handed in the murder of a prominent man. One wonders if they would have apprehended him if he had shot Amna.

Do you understand why I love this movie so much? It tries to be a tender love story, but it reveals so many hidden injustices in Islamic society. The men can kill women if they shame their families. Men can seduce women and not get punished. Whenever the women are confronted with unbearable news, their reaction is, “Allah wills it.” The only proactive character is Amna who tries to seek revenge on her sister’s death. But she can’t even do this properly as she falls in love with the very man that she swore to kill. And yet the story centers around Amna and her romance with the engineer.

Maybe I am overreacting. Somebody once said that it isn’t enough to love movies, but to love them for the right reasons. So let me give you some other reasons why this is a great movie. The acting is incredible, led by a phenomenal performance by Faten Hamama, one of Egypt’s greatest and most influential actresses, as Amna. The cinematography perfectly captures the setting of Egypt. I felt like there was sand in my shirt after I watched it. And while I may not agree with the character’s motivations, the film manages to make all of the characters feel like real people and not just archetypal caricatures. Not many films are capable of doing that.

But the real reason that I love it is because I know that it will inspire so many different feelings from the people who watch it. Some will feel angry, like me, about the unfair treatment of women. Some will be swept up by the romantic melodrama. And yes, some may think that it is slow and boring (although I think that its pacing is fine, thank you very much). I guess the big question is whether or not the movie was aware of its own message. To answer that question, let’s go back to Taha Hussein, the man who wrote the novel that the film was based on. He was extremely influential, but he was always quite the controversial fellow. He was a leader of the Egyptian modernist movement and fought for enlightenment and rationalism. Oh, and also women’s rights. Now let’s look at the director of the film, Henry Barakat. It seems that he was a fairly well-received director. According to his Wikipedia page he was given the Egypt State Incentive Prize in Arts and Letters of the Supreme Council of Culture, 1995. That seems impressive, at least until you realize that according to his page, his greatest achievement seems to be his 1955 hit Days and Nights where he directed the belly-dancer Zeinat Olwi in one of her best performances. Make of that what you will. It will only make the film more interesting to analyze.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Unknown

Directed by Tod Browning
The United States of America

“At night, when we sleep, in our dreams we are liberated. Our selves, our story selves, are liberated. Our ids are loosed upon our little dreamscapes and -- if we're lucky -- we get to grab the person we lust after; we get to hit the person we hate; we get to wail and scream and moan all we want without anyone scolding us. And, also, we're given access: little repressed fears and anxieties grow into monstrous terrors in our dreams and our true selves become so uninhibited.” – Guy Maddin

Silent films are like dark hallucinations or suffocating dreams. Those who have the patience to sit down and watch a film without any dialogue are familiar with the power that they can cast over an audience. Much as how the lack of sight can sharpen a musician’s ear, the lack of sound can fortify a filmgoer’s eye. In today’s age where a simple thirty minute television show can be a complete assault on the senses, silent films seem like foreign or ancient oddities. They are trapped in the uncanny valley of moving images. Maybe that is why silent horror films are so powerful. True, nobody would claim that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Faust (1926) can scare an audience as much as films like The Exorcist (1973) or The Shining (1980). But that is because they don’t have to. The sight of Cesare mindlessly stalking around a world of twisted alleyways and distorted buildings does not so much inspire fear, but discomfort. Seeing a silent horror film is a test on the nerves because we have been trained to see films with sound. To us, silent films are unnatural. And if they take us into a realm of disquiet, of evil, of fear, then they become some of the most effective horror films ever made.

One such example is 1927’s The Unknown, a daring collaboration between two of the silent eras most important figures in horror: Tod Browning and Lon Chaney Sr. Without both of them, such a disturbing film could not have been made. Browning, who directed other horror classics such as Dracula (1931) would delve the film into two of the things that humans fear most: their own bodies and love. Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, the electrifying actor who portrayed such roles as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), would be there to provide the film’s conflicted emotional center as the main character, a carnival knife thrower named Alonzo the Armless. Together they would create a film that told of unspeakable desire, unrequited passion, and limitless resolve. Truly, this collaboration is one of the greatest forgotten silent film classics ever made.

Alonzo is just another circus freak who has learned to use his feet in the place of his missing arms. He performs a knife-throwing act where he is able to throw an outline of sharp metal around Nanon, the daughter of the circus owner. Played by a young Joan Crawford, she is the epitome of innocence. Alonzo expectedly falls hopelessly in love with her. He only has one source of competition: the circus strongman. But Nanon has an unusual phobia of being touched by men. “Hands! Men’s Hands! How I hate them,” she cries out in one scene. It is Alonzo’s inability to touch her that makes care for him. His own state of castration has allowed him to fulfill his wildest fantasy.

This behavior may seem odd, at least until you pay attention to her father’s behavior. Even though the movie is too old to be able to come out and say it, the audience almost immediately suspects him of sexually abusing her. Why else would she be so terrified of the touch of a man? And why does he seem so jealous of her? After all, he taught her to hate other men. Not to mention that he attacks Alonzo when he discovers his love for her. Unfortunately for him, Alonzo is not as helpless as he seems. He swiftly kills him. Even worse for Alonzo, Nanon sees her father’s murder through a window. She even sees that the killer has a double thumb on his right hand…

Oh yes, perhaps I should have mentioned that Alonzo is not really armless. He is only pretending to be armless to escape from the police. He committed a terrible crime before he joined the circus. Witnesses can identify him by his mutated right hand. So, he keeps them bound to his sides. But on this night, he uses his arms again to commit another crime. The very fate that Alonzo wanted to escape from has become a reality.

Thankfully, Nanon didn’t see his face. In order to win her love, and escape from being identified for the murder, he blackmails a doctor into surgically removing his real arms, turning him into the very monster that he impersonated for so long. It’s too bad that when he returns Nanon has overcome her fear and has fallen in love with the strongman.

The scene where Alonzo discovers this is one of the most powerful performances that I have seen in a silent film. Burt Lancaster said that it was, “one of the most compelling and emotionally exhausting scenes I have ever seen an actor do.” He alternates between laughing and crying, screaming and sobbing. For a man who made his mark in Hollywood by being a human chameleon, warping his own image with groundbreaking (and physically painful) makeup, this one scene could very well be the greatest of his career. It shows Chaney’s raw talent. It isn’t aided by any makeup. It isn’t aided by any costume. It is just a man using his God-given abilities to create one of the most painful moments in cinema history.

And it is powerful because it plays into two of our greatest fears: of being unwantable and unlovable. Few directors have realized what Browning did back in the silent era: people are afraid of their own bodies. That’s why people are uncomfortable around people with disabilities and deformities. Browning took advantage of this fear in his 1932 cult classic Freaks where he filled his cast with real circus freaks who had genuine deformities. So when Chaney comes out on screen without any arms and using his feet like hands, we feel uncomfortable. The realization that now Alonzo will be permanently disfigured adds to the tragic side of the story, but it also feeds into the other great fear: love. Why did Alonzo chop off his arms? Why was he willing to disfigure himself? Because he thought that he would gain Nanon’s love. The love of the only woman who could care for him. The love of the only woman who could ever love his deformity. Now that Nanon is gone, what else can he do without arms? Who else could possibly love him? It is a painful devastation. It is a realization that he will forever be unlovable, and that it is his fault.

While the film is old, the ideas and the fears that it invokes are current and ever present. The idea that you could destroy yourself for a lover who could never love you back is one of the most terrifying things that anyone could ever imagine. The fact that it is so perfectly expressed in so old a film is a testament to its power and to the skill of the filmmakers and actors. It is a short film, but it is one that will stay with you forever. For while we may not live the same life as Alonzo, we all fear the same end. We all fear being ugly and alone.