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!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

夜半歌聲 (Song at Midnight)

Ma-Xu Weibang

On a cold and windy night when the rain is falling and the moon is hidden, a voice rings out in the Chinese streets. A large shadow appears and a voice is heard. Singing in a mournful voice, it cries:

My appearance is ugly as a ghost,
my heart is hard as an iron
Only I am alive, I swear I will fight
with the devil king of that feudalism
Ah, Miss! Only you can see through my lifetime
Only you can know my innermost
feelings of apprehensibility
You are the moon in the sky,
and I am cold star near that moon.

We then see a stoic young woman, clad in a white robe, push open a door and walk outside. She listens in silence. For she knows, this song is for her. It is the voice of her dead lover who in life was an actor.

What can I use to vanish your loneliness?
Only this midnight singing
Only this midnight singing.

The song ends and the sky bursts open with a thunderclap. We have just entered the world of 夜半歌聲 (Yeban gesheng), which in English translates to Song at Midnight. A difficult film to locate, even with the Internet at one's disposal, viewing it is a must for anybody interested in movie history. For Song at Midnight is widely considered to be the first Chinese horror film. A tragic tale, it is a loose adaptation of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera. And yet, it is so much more than just an adaptation. It uses Leroux's story as a foundation from which to create a universe of horror and regret.

In the beginning, we are introduced to a young actor named Sun, who has traveled with his acting troupe to an old theater where they are going to put on a show. The movie does not make it clear, but from my own research, I believe that the theater is located in or near Kaifeng, Henan Province. But no matter. They are a traveling theater group who must perform to eat. And so, Sun is given a part to a play that they will be performing. He goes off to be alone where he can rehearse in private. All of a sudden, a shadow appears, and there is singing. Looking around, Sun can't see him. But wait! It is singing the song that he must learn! The two engage in a duet wherein Sun is taught the song by this disembodied voice.

As a result of his lessons, the play is a hit. Sun returns to where he first heard the voice in hopes that he can thank whoever it was that helped him. He is called to the top floor where he finds a mysterious figure in a gigantic black cloak. He reveals himself as a real man named Song Dangping. Thirteen years ago, he was a revolutionary who gained too much attention and had to go into hiding. After three years, he decided to adopt a new identity, the Song Dangping persona, and become an actor. He fell in love with a woman named Miss Li. They were passionate together, but unfortunately Miss Li caught the attention of a local landlord named Tang. In a fit of jealousy, Tang had thugs throw nitric acid on Song's face one night when he was leaving the theater.

Some may complain that until now, the movie didn't flow very well. It certainly didn't have anything that would scare modern audiences. Well, despite its uneven pacing and atmosphere, this is a horror movie. It is at this point in the plot that the horror elements really begin to come into play. Take, for example, the scene where Song's bandages are first removed. Song is sitting in a chair all bandaged up with his family seated around him. As the doctor begins to remove his bandages, it starts to thunder outside. The thunder gets faster and faster, louder and louder. Finally, the bandages are removed, and the room is silent. Suddenly, a massive thunderclap mutes a horrified scream. Everybody in the room is treated with a dutch angle close up. Song stands up with his back towards the camera, heightening the suspense. He walks over to a mirror where we see his face for the first time. He is more disfigured and ugly than Lon Chaney was when he played the role. His face looks like it has been covered in raw meatloaf. And yet,there are his eyes, his nose, his mouth. We know we are looking at a face, even though it doesn't resemble one we have ever seen before. He screams out that he wants Miss Li to think that he is dead. That way, he will never have to reveal himself to her. So, a little girl runs over to her house in the midst of a thunderstorm where she delivers the terrible message. When Miss Li hears it, she loses her grip on sanity. Frantic music and violent camera shakes pursue her as she runs about the house. She finally collapses onto the floor with blood streaming out of her mouth. The framing, editing, pacing, and sound design of these scenes are recognizable pieces of the horror movie vernacular. They are designed to increase the blood pressure, sweat, and anxiety levels of the audience. Indeed, terror was the most important thing on the filmmakers' minds when these scenes were crafted.

It is from this brokenness that Song emerges as a tragic hero. He didn't know that Miss Li would react the way that she did when she heard the news of his fake death. And so, to comfort her, he sings to her every night. But something inside tells me that he also sings as a method of penitence for his mistakes which led to her insanity. It is here that Song begs Sun to help him. Sun agrees, and under Song's directions he goes to Miss Li and tells her not to worry. In her present condition, Miss Li thinks that Sun is actually Song, so she feels happy for the first time in years.

From there, Song helps Sun's struggling theater company by providing him with a play that he wrote himself entitled “Red Blooded." The play is a rousing success. However, Mr. Tang attends one of the shows. In a cruel twist, he sees an actress named Ludie, who happens to be Sun's lover, and falls for her. Just like he went after Miss Li ten years before, Mr. Tang pursues Ludie and even attempts to rape her. When Sun runs in and tries to save her, Mr. Tang, in a fit of jealous rage, shoots and kills Ludie. Song leaps down from the rafters and kills Mr. Tang in a fit of vengeance. Sadly, just like all tragic heroes, Song dies. He is mistaken for a villain by the police and is pursued by an angry mob into a tower (suspiciously similar to the final scene in Frankenstein). Having found out about his past revolutionary activities, the police intend to bring him in. Terrified for his life (but also of the thought that people may seem him the way he truly is) he commits suicide by jumping into the river.

And yet, after Song's body disappeared beneath the water, singing is heard. A familiar voice....

Song at Midnight is not only a vital piece of movie history, but also a fascinating curio. Here is a Chinese studio taking a Western story and reworking it into the context of their culture. It is similar to how Akira Kurosawa took the play “King Lear” and adapted it into Ran by setting it in feudal Japan and infusing it with Buddhist and Confucian morals. It is more than just an adaptation, it is a metamorphosis. From a simple tragedy, Song at Midnight takes The Phantom of the Opera and injects it with a sense of political consciousness. It inspired Chinese filmmakers for years. It even has been remade twice: once in the Sixties in Hong Kong, and again in Shanghai in 1995. This film represents a new age of Chinese cinema. By taking a European story and influence from American movies, the Chinese were able to make a film that was entirely their own. It is far from a masterpiece, but is still a priceless jewel of Asian cinema.

Apologies for a lack of pictures. It was almost impossible to find just the two that I used in this review.


My thanks to archive.org for making this and other fine movies available free for download.

You can download this movie here:

For downloadable subtitles, go here:
And NO!!! It's not a virus.

Friday, October 30, 2009

High Anxiety

Directed by Mel Brooks
The United States of America

Dr. Charles Montague: Enjoy yourself, for God's sake! Get your mind off the Wentworth murder... Accident! Accident!

I'm not entirely sure how to begin this review for one of my favorite comedies. I suppose I could tell you that it is directed by one of the funniest men to ever sit in a director's chair, Mel Brooks, and that it is a parody of one of the greatest directors who ever lived, Alfred Hitchcock. But that wouldn't do it justice. Mel Brooks was more than just a director of funny films. In 1974, his one-two cinematic punch of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein literally changed the way comedy was approached in the movie industry. His first film, The Producers, originated as a hit movie, morphed into a Broadway musical (which holds the record for the most Tony Award wins: 12), and then once again into another movie with the musical's cast! And let's not even get into Hitchcock. Anybody who has taken a casual look at the reviews in this site knows what my opinions are on the Master himself. So, I guess the best way to introduce this film would be to recite its tagline when it was first released: The Master of Comedy takes on The Master of Suspense!

And Brooks certainly is a master of comedy. I would also be so bold as to say that he is one of comedy's greatest auteurs. His style is simple: take a film genre, and parody every aspect of it. When an audience goes into a movie by Mel Brooks, they know exactly what they are going to see. Blazing Saddles, well, it is obviously a Western. Young Frankenstein, horror. Silent Movie, well...you get my point. Once Brooks has established his genre, he goes to work on it with a fervor. I have noticed that in several of his films, the plots are just a means for further satire. For example, I believe that the plot for High Anxiety was created for the sole purpose of including as many Hitchcockian set pieces as possible. You want to parody Vertigo, well, put the characters in a really tall hotel. You want to parody The Birds, place him in a park. You want an opportunity to investigate all the sick, demented, and deranged characters that populated Hitchcock's films, make the main character a psychologist.

And that is exactly what Brooks did. Brooks plays (in his first speaking role in one of his own movies) a Dr. Richard Thorndyke who travels to Los Angeles so he can become the new administrator of the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. What luck! With an insane asylum as a setting, we can parody Spellbound! The institute needs a consultant, so make him a walking German stereotype like Professor Gustav Lindt from Torn Curtain. They have a session where Thorndyke is placed under hypnosis by Professor Lindt. A-ha! Now we can have a parody of The Ring by making Thorndyke get in a mental boxing match with Lindt while they pry into his subconscious. And let's not forget the great climax! A chase scene up an old tower! If you don't understand that reference, then you need to brush up on your Hitchcock. I think you can probably see what I am getting at concerning the logic behind Brooks' method.

But it works well. Of course, all the major Hitchcock films are gleefully skewered. Thorndyke is afraid of heights, he gets attacked by bird droppings, he even gets attacked by a frustrated bellhop delivering a newspaper while in the shower (with a delicious cameo by Barry Levinson, who would go on to direct The Rain Man)! But I find that this film is more than just a collection of satirical set pieces. It shows an endearing love Hitchcock. Not only are his movies parodied; Hitchcock's camera movements are mimicked, his musical scores quoted, and even the actors' performances are modeled after prominent characters from his movies. Many of the references are subtle. So subtle that they can be missed, or even outright ignored by audiences.

Take for instance, the scene where Nurse Diesel (a parody of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and Dr. Montague (played by Brooks regular Harvey Korman) sit at a table and have tea. They are the antagonists, and during this conversation they continue to scheme against the main characters. Brooks chose to shoot the scene from beneath the glass table that they were drinking at. However, Diesel and Montague keep putting down their cups and bowls directly on top of where the camera was positioned. Frustratingly, the camera moves a bit to the side for a better view of the actors. But it is to no avail. They put down the plates on top of it! This continues for the entire conversation as the schemers remain completely oblivious to the camera's struggles. A regular film goer would probably write this off as another Brooks joke, but it is in fact a reference to The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) the third movie that Hitchcock ever made!

How many people, even Hitchcock fans, can say that they have seen The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, or even heard of it? Well, Brooks did. A real Hitchcock aficionado will be floored by all the subtle references hidden all throughout this movie. It proves that Brooks was willing to go to great lengths to prove his love for Hitchcock. And indeed, there is a great energy running all throughout the movie. I absolutely refuse to tell you anything more about the movie's plot, because to tell you anything could result in ruining one of Brooks' jokes. And that is what High Anxiety is: a joke, layered on top of a parody, and covered in satire.

But that leaves one important question: what did Hitchcock think of the movie? Well, Brooks gave Hitchcock a private preview of the film. After it was over, Hitchcock left without saying a word. The next morning, Brooks received a bottle of champagne from Hitchcock. He apparently knew that Brooks was a wine lover. Considering how Brooks had proved himself to be a man of subtle nuance, that was probably all the thanks that he could have ever wanted. I'll drink to that, too.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Wrong Man

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The United States of America

“If you are innocent, then you have nothing to fear.”

I feel a little uncomfortable writing about a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. He is so beloved, so revered, and so studied that I fear that anything I say may be decried as sacrilege by his followers. But I have studied the man and his work, and in doing so have realized that several of his better movies have been ignored or forgotten about. So, it is at times like these that I must gird my loins and take a chance. Because even if everything that I say about this movie is wrong, at least it will get people to talk about it. So, without much further ado, I give you the first (of what will most certainly be many) review of a movie by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock.

For most of his career, Hitchcock made movies based on incredible stories that were designed to keep audiences on the edges of their seats. But frequently, they are derived from the realm of the fantastic. How many people can honestly say that they have been pursued by government agents across the top of Mount Rushmore? How many can say that they have been attacked by insane flocks of birds? Audiences have come to expect many things from Hitchcock: thrills, beautiful blonds, and gripping stories. In a word: escapism. But, what if we were told that one of his movies was based on a true story?

That is exactly what happens at the beginning of The Wrong Man (1956), when we are greeted by his silhouette on a deserted street. He says that he has a different kind of thriller that he would like to share with us. One based entirely in real life. The lights fade, and a jazzy Bernard Herrmann score kicks in as the credits begin to roll. “Wait a second,” the audience thinks, “this is a true story?” Suddenly, they are sitting up a little more straight in the theater. Suddenly, things take on a new meaning. Simple twists take on deeper meaning. Now the audience feels worried when injustice is done, not just outraged. Because maybe it could happen to them when they leave the theater.

The Wrong Man's story is simple Hitchcockian formula: there is a man who is found guilty of a crime he didn't commit. It focuses on the story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, who in 1953 was charged with several crimes that he did not commit. He is played by the eternal everyman, Henry Fonda. We first meet him at the jazz club where he works playing bass for the band. The gig ends, he packs up, and leaves. When he exits the club, he happens to do so right as two policemen walk by on patrol. The image of Fonda walking down the street with two policemen in tow was a nice touch of foreshadowing...

Fonda returns home where he finds his two sons fast asleep and his beautiful wife awake waiting for him. They small talk. Oh? She needs $300 dollars for oral surgery. It seems like she has four impacted wisdom teeth. “You look just about perfect to me,” Fonda lovingly assures. They have already been in debt before. They have seen their fare share of troubles. But the bills always get paid, supper always gets cooked, and he always manages to come home at night by 5:30.

But his wife needs those wisdom teeth taken out. So he goes to the insurance office to borrow on his wife's policy. When he first enters the office, the teller regards him cautiously, as if something is terribly wrong. We see a point of view shot from her side of the desk. By some chance the teller window has bars that resemble jail-cell bars, creating an unsettling profile of Fonda. She seems to recognize him. She confers with the other workers. He resembles a man who has previously robbed them. They look, and he is framed against those iron bars again. The cops are called and they pick Fonda up later that night on his front steps. “Please, can I tell my wife,” Fonda asks. “It'll all be taken care of,” the officers insist. They grab him and force him into the car. As he drives away, he spots his faithful wife in the kitchen cooking dinner. It must be past 5:30. The only thing on his mind is that he is late for dinner with his family.

Upon arrival at the station, he is confronted with the accusation of several local robberies. The evidence begins to appear: He is identified by the insurance teller, he is escorted by the police to the scene of several robberies where he is identified by the store-owners, he fails a handwriting test, and he is positively identified twice in a line up. The police arrest him. The irony is that the entire time, they had been repeatedly assuring him, “If you are innocent, then you have nothing to fear.” Now, based almost completely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, he is no longer innocent. The take his fingerprints and the ink stains his fingers. Fonda looks down at his dirtied fingers. “Is that blood,” we can practically hear him think. He is taken to prison. Silhouettes of prison bars are everywhere: on the floor, on the walls, even the ceiling. Hitchcock takes his time in this segment, utilizing several quick point of view shots that focus on mundane things like shoes, hands, doors, windows. And everywhere are those damned prison bars!! Truly, Fonda has entered the gates from which there is no return. It looks like supper will be cold tonight.......................

From there, the story runs the normal route taken by trial films. He gets put up on bail, gets a lawyer, constructs a case, and tries to reconnect with his family. However, it is difficult because his wife has suddenly become very distant. It doesn't help that two key witnesses who could prove he had an alibi turn up dead right before the trial. Strange circumstances swirl around the trial. And then suddenly, in the middle of the trial, a member of the jury acts out, and a mistrial is called. Fonda is crushed by the idea that he will have to go through the whole process all over again.

But then, the strangest of things happens. The real criminal is caught red-handed trying to rob another store. Fonda is free! He returns to his family, but something is still wrong with his wife. She has gone insane and has been constituted into a mental hospital. Her reasoning is that if she didn't need oral surgery, then Fonda wouldn't have gone to the insurance office, and he wouldn't have been arrested. The guilt destroys her. Thankfully, a last minute title card soothes our worries. Two years later, she leaves the hospital completely cured! Hallelujah! Justice is done! Or is it?

The family had to endure an unimaginable ordeal all because of chance coincidence. Why did Fonda have to get arrested? “Do you have any idea what you have done to me? To my family,” Fonda asks when he runs into the real culprit in the police headquarters. Can the family ever be fully healed? It is for these reasons that The Wrong Man transcends the trial genre and enters that enigmatic realm of the film noir. Yes, it is a Hitchcock movie based around his mistaken man formula. But Hitchcock breaks his rules in this movie. Instead of starting alone and ending with a beautiful blond, just like in North by Northwest and The 39 Steps, Fonda begins with a beautiful wife and loses her in the end to a madhouse. Fonda begins with an ideal life but ends with a broken one.

Film noir has always been a tricky genre to define. Scholars and fans have debated for years whether or not certain films should be considered noirs or not. But one of the most common factors among the film noir genre is the idea of guilt and shame. The film noir hero is a broken hero. It is Humphrey Bogart sitting alone at a bar, afraid of what song may be played next on the piano. It is Jack Nicholson losing the girl in the end despite all his desperate efforts. It is Robert Mitchum working at a gas station, hoping that he has escaped his past. Certainly Henry Fonda playing a loving father doesn't deserve to be a film noir hero. The fact that he doesn't drink almost immediately disqualifies him. He doesn't start as one, but he ends as one. All the anger, hatred, shame, and grief that most noir heroes radiate gets forced upon Fonda by the outside world. He was never in the mafia. He was never a private eye. He was never involved in dirty dealings. But society labeled him a criminal, and he lost everything in the process. He ends the movie as tired, weary, and hurt as most noir heroes begin their movies with. He is the noir hero who never asked to be one. This is the noir film that should have never been. But then again, real life's a bitch, isn't it?


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Kanal (Sewer)

Directed by Andrzej Wadja

Narrator: These are the tragic heroes: watch them closely in the remaining hours of their lives.

While all films have sets, only a very few are able to create convincing worlds out of studio back-lots, warehouses, and outdoor locations. Sets like Presbyterian Church, Washington from McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), the Nostromo from Alien (1979), and even the Factory from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) pull us into another universe. We never doubt for a second that everything is edible in the chocolate river room. We feel so drawn into the movie, that their world becomes our own, and we can't help drooling at the thought of a river of chocolate. Alas, these sets are hard to come by. Most of them are extremely expensive and require incredible amounts of man-power to construct. The aforementioned Presbyterian Church, Washington was literally constructed while the movie was being filmed. But do these sets always necessarily have to be big, elaborate constructions? Isn't it possible to create a small set that engages the audience without detracting from the overall experience? Alfred Hitchcock tried in Lifeboat (1944) by setting the entire film in a single lifeboat. It was only through Hitchcock's genius that we were able to watch that film without visually fatigued. But at a certain level, the lifeboat set can be seen as a kind of gimmick. Genius film that it was, the audience could never detach themselves from the feeling that it was a set, albeit a very small one.

That is where we come to the 1956 film Kanal, which is Polish for sewer. It's director, Andrzej Wajda, one of the true patron saints of European cinema, sets this masterpiece largely in the sewers underneath the city of Warsaw. In the cramped, suffocating darkness, his characters have to struggle through labyrinthine passageways as they strive for freedom. Although the characters started the movie on the surface in the daytime, when they enter the sewers, we forget that there ever was an outside. I remember seeing this movie for the first time, and feeling cold as they crept down the claustrophobic tunnels. I had to turn the light on because I couldn't stand the sight of so much blackness. And at the end, when a few characters manage to “escape” (notice the quotation marks) the light is piercing and alien. Wajda has created a movie with a set that is so powerful, that our own primordial preference for daylight becomes obscured. There is just the sewers, and the poor creatures who inhabit them.

But who are these lost souls? Why are they there in the first place? Well, the fact is that none of them want to be in those dank sewers. But they are forced into them because they are the remnants of the third Platoon of the Resistance of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. They enter them in the vain hope of escaping from the guns of the German offensive. But as time goes on, they get lost, separated, and destroyed. Some make it all the way to the river, only to be blocked by a steel grate. Others make it to the surface, only to literally pop up in the middle of an firing squad. Some die, some simply walk away and disappear. But they all share the same fate; to enter the sewers is to die in the sewers. The opening shot of the film tells us all we need to know about them. In a genius four-minute tracking shot, we are introduced to the players in this great tragedy. We find them bunched up against walls desperately dodging enemy bullets. In the beginning, they had seventy men. Now, only forty-three. “Soon, none,” a sad voice tells us in the back of our heads.

Leading this company is Lieutenant Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski). He is accompanied by an aide named Madry (Emil Karewicz) who will become the doomed lover of their messenger Halinka (Teresa Berezowska). There are many others who will accompany them into the sewers: sergeant-major Kula, officer-cadet Korab, corporal Smukly, and of course, my favorite character, a civilian composer named Michal. Played by an incredible Vladek Sheybal, he is the odd man out, a civilian who just happened to get caught up with the uprising. He too will share their fates in the sewers. But before they enter them, he provides piercing anecdotes with his piano playing that comments on the action playing out before him. The resistance fighters enter a safehouse, and he begins to play Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude. How poignant.

Of course, there are deeper meanings behind these characters. They are not the product of some film studio machine designed to fulfill our expectations of archetypal characters. The screenwriter, Jerzy Stefan Stawinski, said that each character in the film had at least one real-life equivalent amongst the ranks of the Polish insurgency. He can attest to this because he knew them. Oh, I guess I forgot to mention one of the most striking aspects of this film, many of the crew members were survivors of the actual uprising. Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman and actor Tadeusz Janczar were both there, fighting in the ghettos. Stawinski actually used the infamous sewers in real life in order to move from the southern district of Mokotów to the city center. And then there is Wajda.

Wajda's life was forever changed by the Second World War. His father, Jakub Wajda, was a Polish cavalry officer. He met his fate at the hands of the Soviets in the 1940 Katyn massacre where around 22,000 Polish military officers, intellectuals, policemen, and even civilians were murdered. He then joined the Polish resistance at only 16 years of age. His experiences against the Nazi's would influence his career for the rest of his life. Indeed, several scenes from Kanal were based on his own personal experiences.

Maybe that is why this is such a powerful film. With so many people working on a film based on events that they participated in, is it any wonder why it is such a masterpiece? Kanal is actually the second part of Wajda's War trilogy, preceded by A Generation (1955) and followed by Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Most point to the final film in the trilogy as the best. But I disagree. Nothing can match the personal drama and ungodly atmosphere of this film. It actually was the first movie ever made about the Warsaw Uprising. Others would touch on it in the future, most notably Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002). But really, I don't think there is any need to discuss it any more in a cinematic format. Everything that could be said about the event has already been spoken. Such is the power of Kanal: it is a nightmare, a hallucination, a testament to those who died in the gutters and perished in the sewers.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On...)

Directed by Federico Fellini

Orlando: “Did you know that a rhinoceros gives very good milk?”

Why do people say that Fellini's Amarcord (1973) was his last good film? True, it is one of his greatest masterpieces. After the saccharine soaked spectacle of Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and the nonsensical narrative orgy of opulence in Satyricon (1969), it was refreshing to see Fellini return to a more realistic format (i.e. his hometown) where his trademark menagerie of characters could run wild and wreak havoc. But why are critics so eager to draw the line in the sand after Amarcord and ignore the rest of his work? It is possible that many critics believed that it was impossible to follow up such a film. But I have my doubts.......

The point is, those critics who are foolish enough to stay away from Fellini's work after 1973 are fools. By doing so, they miss one of Fellini's greatest artistic triumphs, a movie that may literally be one of the most under-appreciated movies of all time (and I do not say that lightly), E la nave va, or The Ship Sails On...

And what a ship! The plot takes place on a gigantic luxury liner where members of the upper class have gathered to mourn Edmea Tetua, a recently deceased opera singer. They plan to sail to her birthplace, the island of Erimo, where they will release her ashes. What a brilliant move on Fellini's part to shoot a movie on a ship! In such a confined area, it forces his eccentric cast to bounce around and collide with each other like ping pong balls instead of being able to just drop away out of the movie like characters in Amarcord . Thankfully, we have a guide throughout the madness, an Italian journalist named Orlando (Freddie Jones) who directs us around the ship, fills us in on all the juicy gossip concerning the characters that we meet, and all the while keeping us informed on the plot. Just like Giudizio, the town idiot, from Amarcord , he speaks to the audience by talking right into the camera, a fascinating idea that a pitiful few other directors (like Bergman and Allen) have tried.

Unlike his early neorealist pictures that focused on one or two characters, Fellini directs the focus on a true menagerie of characters. In a brilliant review on the Internet Movie Database, author “zetes” from Saint Paul, MN, sums up Fellini's approach to his characters:

“The characters in [this film] are drawn more broadly, with more attention paid to unique physical features and behavioral quirks. This is all in an attempt to have the audience identify the characters - or, more precisely, caricatures (before he made movies, Fellini worked as a caricaturist on the streets of Rome) - in a stereotypical way.

And stereotypes we get. We have English aristocrats, singers, Grand Dukes, prime ministers, princesses, and counts. They interact with each other for the first half of the movie as we would expect characters this late in Fellini's career to. It is completely devoid of reality. It is a perfect bourgeoisie playground. When a giant Russian basso invades the kitchens so he can find a chicken to hypnotize with his voice, the cooks are more than happy to oblige. Excuse me, but don't they have a massive ocean liner to cook for? How could they possibly have time for a hypnotized chicken? Or consider the scene when two opera singers go into the engine room whereon soot-covered workers beg for them to sing. They stop working as the two singers compete in a contest of vocal prowess, all the while perilously leaning over the iron balcony that separates them from a several hundred feet drop. At the end, the workers cheer and applaud and the singers exit the engine room just as clean as they were when they entered, despite all that nasty coal and dust in the air.

But neither of these events holds a candle to the greatest crisis that the bourgeois passengers have to face. As the voyage continues, a horrific stench begins wafting out of the ships hold. When the passengers go down to investigate, they discover the source of the offending odor: a love-sick rhinoceros.

Let that sink in for a moment. The worst problem that the passengers must face is a love-sick megafauna that inconveniences them with its smell. The horror! But don't worry, the crew pull the beast up to the deck, spray it with a hose, and send it back down into the hold with fresh water and hay. Thank heavens the crisis was averted by the valiant crew! Now the passengers can hold hands lovingly and stare into each others eyes as the laugh about the implications of a smelly mammal. And so, the rich return to the lovely lives as they press onwards to their somber destination. All is good and well in the world.

At least until the third day of the voyage when they awake to find the deck crowded with shipwrecked Serbians fleeing to Italy after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo.

Suddenly, their world is destroyed. Some of the passengers believe that they are terrorists, so the captain is forced to move all of the refugees to a corner of the ship. Here we see Fellini's trademark neorealist touch appear for the first time in decades. We become aware of the passengers follies and feel shame. The bourgeois travelers feel it too. They feel Augusto's shame from Il Bidone (1955) or Zampanò's from La Strada (1954). Despite this, the aristocrats try to continue living the way the were before. They go into the grand dining room to dine, but wait, they can see the refugees through the windows. Some try to ignore them. Others pity them. Maybe they can spare just one plate of food......

Movie logic dictates that when two completely different groups of people collide in a light-hearted movie, they will find a way to cross over their divisions and become friends. The same applies to this movie, as the two classes dance and sing the night away. Serbian music blends with opera, beggar dances with king, and there is goodwill towards all men.

Unfortunately, this cannot last. They are interrupted by flagship of the Austrio-Hungarian naval fleet, demanding a return of the refugees. The passengers adamantly refuse. They can't imagine the Austrio-Hungarians actually firing on them. They are royalty, after all. Nobody can touch them. The captain, realizing just how powerful those guns could be, stalls for time. He asks them to first let them disperse Tetua's ashes at Erimo. The Austrio-Hungarians immediately agree. Who didn't love the illustrious Edmea Tetua? So, the ritual is carried out. Tetua's ashes are released to the winds. The Serbians gather their meager belongings and prepare to leave.

I would tell you about the end, but that would be criminal. I cannot deprive you of one of the most emotional endings in the history of cinema. Oh, I can tell you that both ships end up on the bottom of the ocean, but that doesn't give anything away. That would be like telling you that Janet Leigh gets stabbed in the shower in Psycho. Of course it is a powerful cinematic sequence, but you can't say that you know about the scene until you actually see Janet Leigh getting stabbed. The same goes for the climax of And the Ships Sails On...The ships sink, but how they sink, who goes down with them, who gets away on life boats, what do we see getting destroyed, etc, etc. THESE are the defining characteristics of the ending.

And the Ship Sails On... should rightfully be respected as one of Fellini's masterpieces. It combined the social realism of his early work with the visual gymnastics of his later work into one uncontrollable, almost inconceivable work of art. It reconciled the styles of one of cinema's most consistently innovative and daring directors. When it was screened at the 40th Venice Film Festival, it received a fifteen-minute standing ovation. And yet fifteen years later, it would almost be forgotten about. Oh well, the ship sails on, and on, and on...............

Left me gasping for air...,
7 September 2001
Author: zetes from Saint Paul, MN


Monday, October 26, 2009

神女 (The Goddess)

Directed by Wu Yonggang

The Boss: “No matter how quickly the monkey flips, it can never break free from the huge monk's grip.” (Old proverb)

The human face is one of the most complex machines on the face of the planet. It is comprised of roughly 52 muscles and 14 bones. There are parts of our bodies that are much more complex, but the human face has captivated artists for thousands of years. Why? Probably because it is the seat of human emotion. A quick look at a person's face can reveal their mood. Probably for this reason, the cinema has been obsessed with the human face. Nowhere was this obsession more obvious than in the pictures of the silent age. “We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!” declares Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. How true. Faces dominated silent films. Without the presence of sound, actors had to focus all of their energies into their faces and body language in order to communicate their character's feelings. With the advent of sound pictures, this style of acting faded away. That's not to say that is a bad thing. Acting in films has become in many ways better than it was decades ago thanks to the advent of method acting and other new acting techniques. However, there is still something enchanting about watching old silent films and seeing closeups to the faces of actors and actresses who have long since passed away. They seem like ghosts; we see them, but we can't hear them and can't touch them. It is an allure that can drive modern audiences mad, if only they would pay attention.

Tonight, I would like to bring forwards a lost gem of early Chinese cinema. A film that was made in 1934 by the Lianhua Film Studio, the first in Shanghai. To put that in perspective, this film was made before the invasion of China by Japan, before the Chinese Civil War, before Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. Despite the turmoil of the various wars that plagued 20th century China and the Cultural Revolution, one copy of this film survives. It is badly damaged; the film is scratched, the picture jumps around where frames have fallen out, and sometimes giant white “X”s appear for a split second on the screen. But still, the film survives, and with it, a film of unparalleled power with an actress of almost divine skill.

The film is simply titled 神女 , pronounced “shennü.” Translated, it simply means “goddess.” And that is what this movie is about, a goddess is human form, played by one of the true jewels of Chinese silent cinema, 阮玲玉, Ruan Lingyu. But perhaps I should clarify her role first. She is not an actual “deity.” For the term shennü has a double meaning: it can mean a goddess, but it is also a slang word for a prostitute. Indeed, Lingyu finds herself in The Goddess as a single mother who must work as a prostitute at night to support her baby son. This introduces the great duality of Lingyu's role. She is both a Goddess of Protection to her son, but also a lowly prostitute working the street.

The movie uses her dual-life to define her character. When we first get a glimpse into her house, we see several shots of objects laying around her room. They are framed like classic Dutch still lifes, and without a word of exposition, they tell us who she is. We first see her dresser, covered with perfume and makeup. Cut to her wall where two dresses are hanging: one plain and simple, the other a fiery garment of seduction. Then, cut to a child's doll. Then, to an empty cradle. The camera moves up where we see Lingyu cradling her baby.

This woman, who goes unnamed, lives in two different worlds. One, a cramped apartment in a dark alleyway, the other, the bustling streets of Shanghai. In the city, there are neon lights and people crowding around department store windows. It is here that Lingyu picks up clients. With her fine garments, big earrings, and beautifully groomed hair, she poses on the side of the street, smoking a cigarette. She confidently struts the streets as she picks up johns. However, back at home, we see her wearily walk up the stairs to her room. Suddenly, she doesn't seem so confident. She looks tired as she enters her house. She immediately lifts her baby up and cradles him again. She stares out the window at the distant lights of Shanghai glowing in the distance.

What we have witnessed is a complete transformation. Using nothing but body language and her aching face, Lingyu presents two characters in just one body. The ability to promote such emotion was coveted in early Chinese cinema. At a time when the rest of the world had already moved on to talkies, silent films still flourished in China, where actors with strong, regional accents who were not always fluent in the Mandarin dialect could still get acting jobs. Actors needed to be able to tell stories with their bodies, and early icons like Lingyu quickly filled the public's eye as a powerful performer.

After our first witness to her transformation, the story continues along much in the same way that it has for millions of women for thousands of years. She is picked up by a gangster who forces her to work for him. He treats her like garbage, comes into her house unannounced to eat her food and drink her tea, and steals her money which he quickly spends or gambles away. She tries to flee, moving into a new neighborhood. She goes to a pawn shop where she gets money so she can buy a new toy for her baby. When she enters her new home, a familiar hat on the mantle reveals that she has not escaped from her new “employer.” Her baby is missing. “The kid? Oh yeah, I sold him for two-hundred bucks,” he casually states.

Such is the control that this man, known only as “Boss,” has over Lingyu's life. He returns her son, but keeps her under his employ, threatening her to not cross him again. From there, the story whisks along. The child gets older and needs to go to school. She has to hide money from her Boss so she can pay for schooling. The kids surround her son in the schoolyard and call him a bastard. But it' s okay, he has Mommy to go to at night. I need not go into how the story is resolved. The true essence of The Goddess is the relationship between Lingyu and her son and Lingyu's two lives. Ultimately, the two lives cannot coexist, and we the audience know this. So we savor the happy moments that the pair share. The best scene is when one day he shows her how his teacher taught him calisthenics that day in school. He demonstrates how to do a proper squat exercise, then teaches his mom. She joyously does so. Her smile is so bright, we are convinced that she is barely holding back tears of joy. She collapses on top of him, and the two hug. Blissfully, she says, “Mommy's not going out tonight.”

These are the scenes that make us love Ruan Lingyu, and make us mourn her tragic life. Born in Shanghai in 1910, she was married off at age 16 and began her acting career the same year to provide for her family. She quickly became an icon and achieved great fame and critical acclaim. She starred in a number of social dramas that contained suffering women from different classes, including Three Modern Girls, Little Toys, and, of course, The Goddess. However, with her great popularity came public scrutiny from the tabloids. She was so vilely attacked when details of her upbringing and personal life were uncovered, that on March 8, 1934, the same year that The Goddess was released, Ruan Lingyu ingested an overdose of barbiturates and died. It is said that her suicide note contained the line, “Gossip is a fearful thing.” Her death rocked the nation. Her funeral procession was reported to be three miles long. Lingyu didn't go to her grave alone; three women committed suicide during her funeral.

Although she never starred in any sound films and will therefore never hear her voice, we will always have her face. We will have her piercing performances that challenged and dared her audiences to continue watching. You know, it's funny. The night that I first watched The Goddess, I had previously watched Frank Capra's It Happened One Night with my family. It wasn't until later that I realized that both films were made in the same year. Then it struck me that Claudette Colbert had won the Academy Award for Best Actress for playing a socialite on the run in the latter. The most challenging part of that role was her acute ability to wake up in bed with her hair and makeup perfect. She didn't hold a candle to the performance of the Goddess. Sadly, one was forgotten and abandoned in a film archive. It is our duty as film lovers to make sure that this masterpiece of cinema is saved and respected for its brilliance, its daring, and its amazing performance by a doomed actress, destined to wonder the streets of our hearts and consciences forever.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones)

Directed by Luis Buñuel

Don Carmelo: I hope they'll kill every one of them before they born!

On an empty street in Mexico City, a legless man perched on top of a dolly pulls himself along. He is suddenly approached by a posse of gruff young men. The leader of the group asks the poor man for a cigarette. When he refuses, the boys assault him. They tear at his clothes, jettison him to the pavement, and sends his dolly flying down the side of a hill. As the poor man flails around helplessly on the pavement, the youth move on, ignoring his cries for help. Such is the world of Los Olvidados, a gripping film by legendary director Luis Buñuel. By the time the picture has ended, the audiences will have been subjected to one of the harshest stories that the provocative director has ever forced upon the world. It is a story of unflinching honesty and merciless in its execution.

The introduction of the movie informs us that, “Almost every capital like New York, Paris, London hides, behind its wealth, poverty stricken homes where poorly fed children, deprived of health or school are doomed to criminality.” It is these poor children who will be the focus of Buñuel's film. Key among them are Pedro (played by Alfonso Mejía) and an older youth simply known as “El Jaibo” (played by Roberto Cobo). They represent two different ends of the spectrum. Pedro is neglected by his mother who hates him for his behavior. In one scene, after she has refused to feed him when he comes home begging for dinner, she says, “Why should I love you?” So, Pedro must provide for himself in the harsh Mexico City streets. El Jiabo, on the other hand, is an escapee from a juvenile jail and the leader of a street gang. Not only were they responsible for assaulting the legless invalid, they also try to rob a blind street musician. When the initially fail, they track him down after he leaves his perch on the city street, beat him, and destroy his instruments.

Early in the film, El Jiabo locates and murders the person who supposedly snitched on him and got him sent to prison. After killing him, he robs his corpse and shares the money with Pedro, who unfortunately was present during the murder. Now an accessory to the murder, Pedro must live under the constant scrutiny of El Jiabo, who made him swear to keep silent on the murder. After being rejected by his mother, Pedro vows to reform himself and gets a job as a blacksmith's apprentice. However, El Jiabo shows up one day at the blacksmith's shop and steals an expensive knife. Blaming Pedro, the blacksmith sends him to a “farm school,” which in reality is a juvenile rehabilitation program. After a while, Pedro becomes friends with the principal who sends him on an errand with a 50 pesos bill. Once again, El Jiabo shows up and ends up stealing the money. Enraged, Pedro fights El Jiabo and cries out that he was the man who killed the snitch. The conflict continues, and El Jiabo kills Pedro and is then shot by the police.

While it is tempting to dismiss El Jiabo as a regular villain, his relationship with Pedro reveals much more about his character. El Jiabo can be seen as the societal forces that make victims out of children like Pedro. He gets a job, El Jiabo gets him fired. He gets trusted with money, El Jiabo steals it. He tries to do the right thing, El Jiabo kills him. El Jiabo represents every corrupt and sinister part of society that disenfranchises its youngest victims. When he is killed, it does not give the sense that justice has prevailed. Pedro is already dead, his body dumped off a cliff into a landfill, and his mother, having just now realized her love for him, is desperately searching for him. It makes the audience wonder if the only way that Pedro could have been saved was if El Jiabo had not escaped from juvenile prison in the first place.

Buñuel shoots Los Olvidados with a terrifying eye for reality. Before he began shooting, Buñuel researched files from a Mexico City reformatory. He explained, "My film is entirely based on real cases. I tried to expose the wretched condition of the poor in real terms, because I loathe films that make the poor romantic and sweet.” The cast is made up of a combination of professional and non-professional actors, giving the acting a starkly realistic tone. In fact, various elements of the movie, such as the outdoor locations, nonprofessional actors, and a primary focus on society's working classes, are reminiscent of Italian neorealism. However, it is decidedly not in the genre of neorealism.

Buñuel wrote in his 1953 essay, "Poetry and Cinema," “The poetry, the mystery, all that completes and enlarges tangible reality is utterly lacking.” If it is lacking, it is because Buñuel mercilessly cut it out of the final cut. Buñuel was not unfamiliar with the neorealist genre. He had earlier filmed Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan, a documentary about the Las Hurdes region of Spain and their impoverished inhabitants. The most memorable scene would be when a dead baby girl is sent down a river in a basket, eerily reminiscent of the baby Moses story.

But the main reason that Los Olvidados shouldn't be considered a neorealist film is that Buñuel injected a couple of drops of his patented surrealism into the mix. In one scene, an egg is thrown at the camera where is shatters and drips down the screen. Such interaction with the fourth wall would be considered sacrilege for a true neorealist picture. However, the most famous instance of surrealism would be Pedro's dream sequence. It is best summarized by Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine:

Pedro's spirit rises from his body and is tortured by the ghost of the dead Julien and his scantily clad mother—all the while, an inexplicable wind claws at her lily-white nightgown. She floats around the room, smothering her son with love and a raw piece of meat that dangles from her hands.

The scene is absolutely captivating. The entire dream is in slow motion and was actually filmed in reverse and switched forward in post-production. This gives the entire sequence an unreal, incorporeal quality that is made all the more startling when contrasted with the rest of the film.

Upon its original release in Mexico, it was received with hostility from local critics who were offended by the portrayal of Mexico's social problems. However, international critics hailed it as a triumph. Buñuel even won the Best Director Award at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. Today, it is considered the one of Mexico's greatest films. While Buñuel would move on to more sophisticated films concerning the European bourgeoisie, Los Olvidados remains one of his greatest works for its truth and its daring ability to visit the depths of human and societal suffering.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Brewster McCloud

Directed by Robert Altman
The United States of America

Rene Auberjonois: “I forgot my line.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, William S. Burroughs, a leader of the Beat Generation, popularized a bizarre literary technique called “cut-up.” It was a method of writing wherein the author takes a series of texts, randomly cuts them up, and then rearranges the pieces. The results are eclectic and surreal writings that simultaneously confused and enamored the literary public of the day. Ten years later, an American director named Robert Altman would create a motion picture that can only be described as the logical follow-up to the cut-up technique. That film was Brewster McCloud. An almost unclassifiable film, Brewster McCloud seems like it was born of random pieces of film picked up off an editing room floor. Part fantasy, part murder mystery, part police tutorial, it doesn't have a plot so much as a menagerie of characters and situations that somehow seemed to have collided with each other. Coming on the heels of one of Altman's greatest successes, M*A*S*H, it was poorly received by a befuddled public who quickly moved on to Altman's next great triumph, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. But Brewster McCloud remains, a headache to those who remember it and an enigma to those who haven't.

The confusion begins for the audience when they are greeted to an ear-piercing rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner sung by Margaret Hamilton in the Houston Astrodome. The confusion doesn't let up as she is cut off by a black marching band who proceed to perform a gospel rendition of the same tune. Alas, this is just the opening scene and is destined to be forgotten about as the movie flies on to the next scene. Such is the tone of the entire film. Characters will be introduced, scenarios played out, directorial whimsy indulged.

After that strange performance, we are introduced to the character that the film is named after, Brewster McCloud, played by Bud Cort. Well, maybe it is wrong to say that it is “centered” on him. Things happen, and somehow McCloud always seems to become involved. To keep things short and sweet, he lives in the fallout shelter in the Houston Astrodome where he tries to build a pair of wings. Why? Because he wants to fly. Whenever he leaves his home, he becomes the target of ridicule and abuse from the rest of society. But wait! Whenever someone is particularly troublesome or threatening to McCloud, they are hit by a generous supply of bird droppings and turn up dead in the next scene. The cause is McCloud's protector Louise, played by Sally Kellerman, who jealously kills those who intend to harm McCloud. But after a while, the number of bodies begins to frustrate the local police department and a police detective from San Fransisco named Frank Shaft gets called in. Played by Michael Murphy, he emulates Steve McQueen from Bullitt to such a degree that he even sports the iconic quick-draw shoulder holster for his guns.

While Shaft searches for the killers responsible for the murders, McCloud is busy finishing his wings and getting seduced by Shelley Duvall. That proves a mistake, for now Louise doesn't want to protect him anymore and he crashes and dies when he first tries his wings on. The ensemble cast then appears on the field next to his body dressed up like clowns. Each actor takes their bows and the film ends with a lingering shot of McCloud's corpse.

You may notice the tongue-and-cheek explanation of the plot. That is because the plot is of secondary importance when this movie is discussed. What is more important is the film itself; it intricacies, it eccentricities, its virtual anarchy of form. In discussing the plot, I did not even mention the character of the Lecturer, played by Rene Auberjonois, who acts as a narrator connecting the strands of the story together much in the fashion of the P.A. system in M*A*S*H*. Why? Because I don't need to. I don't need to go into a detailed analysis of every single character, line, and scene. What I should say about the Lecturer is how as the film progresses he begins to act more and more like a bird until he starts squawking.

It is impossible to describe an Altman film without talking about the director himself. He was one of the few directors in the history of the craft who could make a legitimate claim to being an original. Describing Altman's style is simple: he worked with gigantic ensemble casts who inhabited vast, intricate worlds and stories, frequently used overlapping dialogue, and always encouraged his actors to improvise. To understand Altman's style is quite a different challenge. I have found that the best and easiest way to summarize Altman is to call him the anti-Hitchcock.

Hear me out:

1)Hitchcock meticulously planned out every single scene and shot in his movies with elaborate storyboards and scripts. Altman frequently improvised much of his movies.

2)Hitchcock stayed detached from his actors and was once reported to have referred to actors as “cattle.” Altman loved his actors. In Ebert's Great Movie review for Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, he wrote “Altman never in my sight, or by report, ever grew angry with an actor.”

3)Hitchcock made tight, concise genre films. Altman's were usually 2-3 hours long and were generally unclassifiable.

Basically, if Hitchcock is a classical suite, Altman is free jazz. And such is apparent upon viewing Brewster McCloud. I feel frustrated with myself at my inability to clearly express what I want to say about this film. The words are there in my mind, but I just don't know how to put them on paper. I will in all likelihood try to review this film again in the future when I have developed my skills as a writer. Now, my fingers and thoughts feel impotent. Plenty has been written on Altman, so I encourage you to go out and read it. Most of his films are available on home video, though you probably have to order them online. But there isn't much discussion on this film. That is why I am pathetically typing away on my laptop trying to bring this movie to the world's attention. But I don't think I can. I can only hope that you will go out and see it. A comedy, a tragedy, a thriller, and even romance, this film defies logic. It defies explanation. A contorted mess of a movie, Brewster McCloud is a true gem of cinematic wonder.

http://www.geocities.com/brewsterfan1/index.html (Most of my information for this review was taken from this source in particular.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Le Сарorаl Éріnglé (The Elusive Corporal)

By Jean Renoir

-No, I'm escaping, just like you.
-Is this your first try?
-My third. I've become a pro at this.

It is not easy to make a comedy about war. Especially a war as devastating as World War Two. There are people who believe that it still is not appropriate to mock the events that happened during the greatest conflict our world has ever seen. Some movies have been able to pull it off like Kelly's Heroes. But still, warfare is the greatest of human tragedies and the idea of juxtaposing it with comedy can seem sacrilege. But some directors have made the bold decision of trying anyway. One of those directors was the great cinematic humanist himself, Jean Renoir. In his penultimate film, Le Сарorаl Éріnglé, Renoir returns to a theme already explored in one of his earlier masterpieces, La Grand Illusion: the prison break.

Most people consider the two companion pieces. After all, the similarities are astounding between the two films. Both are about French soldiers trying to break out of a German prison camp during a world war. La Grand Illusion was based in World War One while Le Сарorаl Éріnglé inhabited the second. Both contain failed attempts executed by determined men who shrug off their loses and continue to try. Both end with just two men remaining making for a border. In La Grand Illusion, the border was Switzerland. In Le Сарorаl Éріnglé, the border is their home of Paris. It should also be mentioned that both were in black and white. Le Сарorаl Éріnglé was the first film that Renoir directed in black and white in over ten years. It raises questions of whether or not he truly tried to emulate his earlier success.

However, to call La Grand Illusion and Le Сарorаl Éріnglé companion pieces would be entirely incorrect. It would be like calling La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful) a companion piece to Schindler's List. They may share subject matters, but they are two entirely different movies with two entirely different agendas. La Grand Illusion is a cornerstone of the poetic realism movement, an early precursor to the film noir genre. It was serious in tone, spoke of the humanity that was innate within us all, and discussed serious social issues. Le Сарorаl Éріnglé, on the other hand, is a comedy. Renoir himself once even said that the movie was simple “entertainment.” The hero is a corporal played by Jean-Pierre Cassel who would later go on to work with such greats as Buñuel, Altman, and Melville in his legendary L'armée des ombres. However, in this movie, he has no name. He is simply referred to as Le Caporal. His goal is simple; he wants to escape from prison and get back home to Paris. And try he does again and again and again.

But he is not alone in the prison. He lives with an assorted mish-mash of French prisoners. It is here that one of the biggest differences between La Grand Illusion and Le Сарorаl Éріnglé becomes apparent: the prisoners and guards themselves. La Grand Illusion dealt with officers and upperclassmen (take the dining scene right after the main characters are captured). The men in this movie are regular foot soldiers. The first one we meet is trying to leave the camp because he is worried about his cows. After being pushed back and mocked by the German guards, he walks away muttering “Mais, mes vaches...” The other soldiers are insurance workers, waiters, and other lowly positions. Contrary to much of the civility shown to the prisoners by the guards in La Grand Illusion, the Germans in Le Сарorаl Éріnglé push the French soldiers into forced labor. The days are long, the conditions bad, and the soup watery.

However, this is a comedy. We know this because in real life, an escaping French POW would not be allowed to live after trying to escape so many times. After he is captured following a particularly bold attempt to escape that managed to get him to the border, instead of getting a quick shot to the back of the head, he is sent to a “disciplinary camp” where he has to endure such tortures as forced aerobics for two months. He returns exhausted, but for the most part no worse for ware. A few spoonfuls of bean stew, a few sips of schnapps, and he's ready to try again. Why is this? Well, if the movie were historically accurate, he would have been killed within the first 10-20 minutes of the movie. No hero, no movie. No movie, no audience, no ticket sales...you can see where I am going with this. So, he must be allowed to continue to escape and the guards must continue to catch him. At this, the audience laughs, and Renoir hopefully gets the funding for his next film.

Unlike so many comedies in foreign languages, the comedy remains intact after being translated. Scenes like the train station escape attempt are genuinely funny; It's rare when the single utterance of something so simple as “auf Wiedersehen” is so funny. Much of the humor comes from the escape methods themselves. They are not as elegant or well planned as those in La Grand Illusion. In fact, we find ourselves laughing at how simple and insipid their methods are. In the corporal's second escape attempt, he and another prisoner lock a German guard in a latrine while they hide on a truck carrying rubble, only to be dumped out in front of another guard. “What are you doing?” The guard yells. “Working,” they reply. They then immediately join ranks with the rest of the workers and being to pick the rubble apart. This is a far cry from the heartbreaking escape scene that required multiple stages and the sacrifice of a main character in La Grand Illusion.

But why did Renoir shoot this movie in such a way? Why is it so light hearted in comparison with his earlier work? Maybe it had to do with the times. In the years following World War One when La Grand Illusion was made, the idea of dignity amongst the upper classes and fair play among civilized men may have still remained. Of course, as the title says, it was all an illusion, but the characters, and certainly the director, tried to act as if it wasn't. However, twenty years after World War Two, after the Vichy Government and the Holocaust, after the Beaches at Normandy and the Firebombing of Berlin, all thoughts of a “civilized” war fought by “civilized” enemies had vanished. All preconceptions of innocence had vanished. The French prisoners now had comedic foils in the German guards because they weren't seen as good-natured men the way they were in La Grand Illusion, but instead as tyrannical, scowling occupiers.

But maybe the tone of the movie results from the actions of the director, Jean Renoir. In the Thirties, Jean Renoir was an internationally renown talent, producing such classics as Boudu Saved from Drowning and La Bête Humaine with such beloved French stars as Michel Simon and Jean Gabin. Then came the war, his flight from Europe to America, and his disastrous attempts at working in Hollywood. After clearing his head in 1949 by directing one of his true cinematic triumphs, The River, in India, he returned to Europe. He then focused on Technicolor musical comedies for his next three pictures. Who knows? By the time he directed Le Сарorаl Éріnglé, maybe he was just in a softer state of mind. But then there is the fact that the studio meddled with the final cut of the film and Renoir later said that he didn't like it. Whether or not the final product of Le Сарorаl Éріnglé actually fulfilled his artistic vision is a discussion best saved for another time. What can be said now is that in the twilight of his career, Jean Renoir managed to pull out one more great film for the ages. That he was able to accomplish such a feat is a testament to his artistic luminescence, which can be best summed up in the words that his friend Orson Welles wrote upon Renoir's death, “Jean Renoir: The Greatest of all Directors.”





Thursday, October 22, 2009

Skammen (Shame)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Eva:Sometimes everything seems just like a dream. It's not my dream, but someone else's, that I have to participate in. What happens when the one who dreamt us wakes up and feels ashamed?

A desolate place, Fårö is a sparsely populated island off Sweden's southeastern coast with less than 600 residents. According to wikipedia, the most reliant source on such things, the island doesn't have banks, post offices, medical services, or even police. And yet, life goes on as it has for countless generations. It is an old place, with its own unique dialect called Fårömålet, that has been purported to be the oldest language in the whole of Sweden. The dialect is derived from the Gutnish language, itself a relic of medieval Scandinavia. Here, in this ancient island where ancient people speak an ancient tongue, Ingmar Bergman and his 40-man film crew set up to make a movie dealing with one of the most ancient themes known to man: war. Well, perhaps that isn't correct. The movie is not about war, but about the people who are unfortunate enough to get caught in the crossfire. From this subject matter, Bergman would create one of his ultimate masterpieces, a film simply titled Skammen, which translates to Shame.

Skammen is one of Bergman's more unusual works. It is not unusual for its characters, its set pieces, or even its cinematography. What sets it apart from most of Bergman's other work is that the conflict that drives the plot originates from an outside source. In most of Bergman's great films, his characters have to struggle with inner demons (Through a Glass Darkly, Wild Strawberries), family issues (Autumn Sonata, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage), and other tribulations resulting in various degrees of existential angst. The rare times that the conflict does not originate within the characters themselves, it is usually from some supernatural force such as Death in The Seventh Seal and The Devil in The Devil's Eye. Even in movies like The Virgin Spring where the conflict arises from the murder of the girl by three travelers, it is assumed that they appeared in the first place as a result from a curse placed by her jealous sister. But in Skammen, the conflict does not come in the form of a couple of travelers, a mental disorder, or even a supernatural force. No, the conflict is provided by bombs. Bombs in the night. Bombs dropped against the enemy, whoever they may be. In Skammen, the conflict is forced upon the characters and the movie deals with how they try and cope.

But perhaps I have been too vague. As in any review, a brief summation of the characters involved is called for. There isn't much to tell. The story focuses on a couple living in Fårö played by two Bergman regulars. The man is Jan Rosenberg, played by Max von Sydow. The woman is Eva Rosenberg, played by Liv Ullmann. They are both are musicians and indeed, a picture of Richard Wagner can be spied on their wall. They are in love but manage to still have the arguments that most couples experience: Eva wants children, Jan does not. Jan sometimes gets weepy, Eva must comfort him. It becomes apparent that Eva is the strongest one in the relationship and so on, and so on, and so on. Who they are is not of importance in this story. It is what they are that makes them such fascinating figures in the context of this film.

They are two people who are living in denial. Denial of what, though? Denial of war would be the quickest answer, but no, Jan seems to get very emotional whenever it is discussed. Denial of each other? In a Bergman film, there could be a million ways to interpret the relationships between various characters. Far be it from me to provide a definitive answer concerning the status of their relationship. But for all intensive purposes, they seem to get along well enough. No, Eva and Jan are in denial of something much more important: reality, itself. Consider the fact that they are two musicians living on the island of Fårö. On an island that doesn't even have a post office, what possible use could there be for two musicians? No, they are two useless people that have nothing to contribute to their society. There is a war, but they don't care. Why bother talking about whether or not you might get bombed tonight when you can talk about how much wine you have left. They accept a fish from a neighbor. Had it occurred to them that the neighbor may not have any other food? It is a war, after all. On such a remote island, how do they get food in the first place? But that doesn't matter, Eva must see to Jan who is crying again.

They are two people who have done the best they could to isolate themselves from the world and society. That is why it is so shocking when the world literally comes to their front door carrying automatic rifles. What possible use could the island of Fårö have for an army? Why invest so much military power on such a sparsely populated island? It doesn't seem to matter. It's there, so it must be taken. The sight of warfare itself is jolting in the context of a Bergman movie. We have seen military might before, such as the tanks in The Silence. But even then, they are only glimpsed at through windows while the characters concerned themselves with other matters. But here, things are much different.

Bergman wrote in his book "Images: My Life in Film":

To make a war film is to depict violence committed toward both groups and individuals. In American film, the depiction of violence has a long tradition. In Japan, it has developed into a masterful ritual, matchlessly choreographed. When I made Shame, I felt an intense desire to expose the violence of war without restraint.

We see people die. We see one side come in and occupy only to be driven out later by the other side. Eva and Jan are abused along the way. First, they are forced to give a fake interview supporting the invading occupiers. Then, when they are routed by the other side, Eva and Jan are punished for the interview. There is no escape for them. They try to avoid the war, it comes to them. They try to be compliant, they are punished for it. They exist in a catch-22 extraordinaire. An almost literal damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation.

In the meantime, the war goes on, people keep getting killed, bombs keep going off. At some point Eva and Jan make friends with a colonel played by Gunnar Bjornstrand. The story progresses and eventually Eva sleeps with him. But why? Is it because she hopes to get pregnant and get the child she always wanted? Is it a kind of passive aggressive blow to Jan who denied her what she wanted most? Or is it because she simply wanted to garner favor with him in the hopes that they will finally be left alone again?

Whatever the reason, the movie ends with Eva and Jan lying with other people in a cramped boat while they flee the island. It is reminiscent of the opening scene when Eva and Jan lie next to each other in bed while their alarm clock goes on and on and on and on. In the first scene, they don't have a care in the world. In the last, they have to drink from a communal jug of fresh water as their new “bed” carries them off to an uncertain future. Their lives have been shattered, their relationship challenged, and all they can do now is just flow with the boat.

So now we return to the title, Skammen. Bergman originally wanted to call this film The War, and then later it was changed while he was writing the script to The Dreams of Shame. What shame? Is it the shame that the characters feel? All we really have to go on is the quotation by Eva listed at the beginning of this review. One reviewer that I encountered online said that this shame would belong to God. If he were to look down at his creation and see the misery inflicted by war upon innocents like Eva and Jan, would he not feel shame? Well, that interpretation is fair enough. But I feel that it is inadequate. The war only comes to the forefront of the story in the last half of the movie. The first half documents Eva and Jam's everyday life. Why would it be God's shame if it focuses so emphatically on them for half the movie?

The answer is of course debatable. But I would like to suggest one more possible interpretation of the title. It concerns the director himself. Bergman was extremely dissatisfied with the finished product of the film. He believed only the second half that involved the actual war was worth anything. Dissatisfied with the script, dissatisfied with the production, dissatisfied with the end result, maybe the shame spoken of concerns the director's own. But then again, I may be reading too deeply into matters that in reality are not of much importance. If that's the case, then shame on me.