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, January 14, 2010

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

Directed by Kevin Willmott
The United States of America

Children: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the Confederate States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all white people, Amen.

I find that one of the hardest things to write about, at least in the format of a review, is comedy. After all, different people have different perspectives on what works in terms of humor. So how do I acknowledge a great comedy without isolating its potential audience? Well, probably the best way is to limit myself to three descriptive categories: premise, execution, and individual examples of humor. For instance, let me describe a scene from the 2004 mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. It shows a bunch of cowboys driving some doggies in front of a classical American Western landscape. Patriotic music is playing, wild horses are galloping, and cowboys wearily ride into the frame. Suddenly, a narrator speaks, “It’s a time when horses come down from the high pasture, and a man prepares for another tough winter. It’s time…for a Niggerhair: An American cigarette.” Now, I wonder how many of you laughed at that image and how many of you got offended. Now, I wonder how many of you would change your reactions to this scene if I told you that it is a fake commercial in a fake documentary about the history of the United States if the Confederacy won the Civil War?

I imagine that some of you instantly found it funnier with the added context. Of course, others will probably be even more offended. But that’s the nature of comedy. So in describing this movie, I will try to limit myself to why it works instead of how it works. It works because it takes a relatively simple concept, a distorted time-line, and runs with it to an extreme. It doesn’t just predict the future, it extrapolates it. No matter how ludicrous things may become, there is always a little nagging feeling in our minds that make us feel like it could really happen.

So how does the Confederacy win the Civil War? Well, because they get France and England to support their cause. In reality, this isn’t very far-fetched. The only reason why France and England eventually supported the North was because of their military victories late in the war. So, we are given a historically plausible reason for why the South would win. But, what next? Well, this is where the fun starts. Instead of just skipping ahead to the 20th Century, we are given a retrospective on post-war American history. How does the South deal with Northern abolitionists? By passing an outrageous tax on Northerners that can be voided with the purchase of one piece of human “chattel.” Where do all the abolitionists and freed slaves go? To Canada. What happens to America after they have been reconstructed? They invade Mexico and South America in order to expand the American Empire. What about the Stock Market crash? They reinstate the slave trade, driving stocks up and replenishing the economy. See a pattern here?

Kevin Willmott, a film professor from the University of Kansas, has done a remarkable job creating a compelling documentary. There are fake historians called in to explain important events in American history. It’s important to mention that C.S.A. is meant to be a British documentary within the film. How else could such controversial topics be so readily explored? After all, dissent has never been very appreciated in post-War America. All religious groups with the exceptions of Christians, Catholics (as the narrator points out was only accepted as “Christian” after a lengthy debate), and Jews (for their contributions during the Civil War) are outlawed. Abolitionist literature is banned. You are either with the Confederacy, or against it.

Scattered throughout the film are scenes from fake movies that have supposedly come out during this alternate time-line. One of the best is a silent film “directed” by D.W. Griffith about the capture of Abraham Lincoln after the surrender of the North. Willmott should receive major credit for perfectly mimicking so many different styles of film making. Even the period acting is dead on: exaggerated during the silent era, melodramatic in the 40s, and bolder in the 50s and 60s. Even his stab at the horror genre with I Married an Abolitionist works perfectly.

The film is broken up into several sections, each divided by commercial breaks. A majority of the humor comes from these commercials. Often, we laugh at the sheer audacity of some of the advertised products, like the aforementioned Niggerhair tobacco or Sambo motor oil. The mascots are frequently actors in blackface or real “chattel” who go around with a smiling face. But there are more to these commercials than sheer shock value. After the documentary proper is finished, we are told that a majority of the products advertised in the film are based off real life products. Even Niggerhair cigarettes were real. In fact, it was only recently that they changed the name. This brings up what is probably this film’s greatest strength: underneath all of the humor is a constant undertone of dead seriousness.

Allow me to explain. One of the many “experts” who are brought in is an old man. He talks about the wars in South America and beyond. And yet, he seems to be enjoying these stories. Even when the Americans were getting whipped in South America he seems to be getting great pleasure from them. And then, he smiles and says it: “It taught them to stay in their place.” And then, it becomes clear as day. For a nation to condone slavery for two and a half hundred years, it would have to condone racism, too. The belief that all men are NOT created equal would have to be prevalent. And that is when the film really begins to shine. It doesn’t just make you laugh; it makes you feel sick to your stomach by the reality that this is who we could have become. When we hear that in this alternative reality Abraham Lincoln is a convicted war criminal exiled to Canada, we gasp. When we discover that with the influx of black immigrants into Canada caused them to give birth to rock and roll and win more gold medals in the Olympics, we are startled by our indignation. Those are OUR accomplishments.

You see, Willmott has created something more than just a funny documentary. He has created a testament to black accomplishments in America. I remember watching it and thinking, “Thank God that this isn’t true. Thank God that we ended slavery. Thank God that we became the nation we did.” It makes the audience more thankful for the mixing pot that America has become. More than a cautionary warning, C.S.A. is a celebration. A celebration of freedom. A celebration of free speech. And a celebration of how far we as a nation have come, and how close we came to missing it altogether.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Démanty Noci (Diamonds of the Night)

Directed by Jan Němec

Jan Němec’s first full length feature film, Démanty Noci (Diamonds of the Night), is a work of complete single-mindedness. At 63 minutes of length, it cannot afford to be anything else. It is about two boys who escape a train destined for a concentration camp during World War Two. The opening is a prolonged scene of the two unnamed boys, played by Ladislav Jánsky and Antonín Kumbera, running through the woods. Gunshots, voices yelling in German, and the sound of train brakes accompany the boys as they desperately make a dash for the forest. Soon, all that can be heard is the sound of their breathing. The train has started back up again and left. Exhausted, the boys collapse onto the ground. For a while, they just lie on the ground, spitting up their own drool and gasping for breath. One of them collapses onto an ant pile and soon his hand is covered with ants. He doesn’t seem to notice at first. It is only after they completely cover his hand does he shake them off. After that, the boys have no choice but to press on into the forest.

This opening scene, while to some may seem boring or indulgent on the director’s part, sets the tone for the rest of the film. What the boys see, the audience sees. Where the boys go, the audience follows. There is no time for exposition. The only back story that the audience is given comes in the form of quick flashbacks to their lives before their escape. We see them in their old town. We see how they are forced to wear strange clothing to indicate that they are Jews. After a time, we understand why they had to run. These flashbacks are completely silent. Němec makes the interesting choice of using the sounds of the boys escaping as accompaniment to these scenes. If a flashback happens while they are running, all we hear is the sounds of their footsteps and their breathing. But perhaps this is appropriate. We get the impression that these flashbacks are memories that are racing to the front of their minds while they escape. Just as a man doomed to the executioner’s block has his life flash before his eyes, so do these boys. Ah, but I think that I am getting ahead of myself.

I should focus on the story. But it’s difficult to do. I could sit here and list all of the scenes individually, but it wouldn’t leave much of an impact. Diamonds of the Night is a dense, thick movie. I liken it to how Roger Ebert once described the writings of Cormac Macarthy, “But McCarthy's prose has the uncanny ability to convey more than dialogue and incident. It's as dense as poetry.” That is probably the best way to describe this movie. It is comprised of simple images: boys running in the woods, ants covering their bodies when they collapse, them drinking out of a stream. And yet it combines these things together to create a powerful narrative. Simple gestures tell more than any dialogue ever could. Consider the following scene.

The boys have been on the run for a while now. Obviously they are getting very hungry. One of them even starts to delicately pick a pine cone apart and put the individual seeds in his mouth. But by some chance miracle, they come across a farm. One of the boys enters the farm to find a woman in the kitchen. What follows is one of the movie’s most fascinating scenes. The boy enters the kitchen and confronts the woman. She stoically stares at him. Then, suddenly, the boy attacks the woman and takes some food. But then, we cut back to the woman staring at him. It was all a hallucination. Then he attacks her again. But this is still another hallucination. We are witnessing the thoughts that are flying through his mind. Should he attack the woman, even kill her, in order to get some food? Is he desperate enough to kill in order to survive? Thankfully, he doesn’t have to answer these questions. She cuts him a few slices of bread. He snatches them and runs out.

The boys share the bread with each other. Unfortunately, they can barely chew the bread. They spit it back out with blood dribbling down their chins. “She must give me some milk,” one of them says. He returns, opens his mouth, and shows her the blood that is caking his teeth and gums. The next shot shows the two of them drinking a cup of milk. All the while the woman looks on. She ties a veil around her head, and walks away from the window. Has this happened before? Is she mourning them? Němec gives no answers. There is no time. The boys must press on.

Eventually they are captured by a local militia. The group is comprised of older men; obviously the younger ones have already left for the war. One of them is so old that he can barely hold his rifle. Back in the town, the militia celebrates with food and drink. They make merry toasts and sing happy songs. Notice how Němec focuses on their loud chewing. We watch the men noisily stuff down bread, chicken, and beer. Was this their reward for capturing these two Jews? After all, just like the two boys they are just trying to survive. But then why do they make the two boys witness their gaiety? Is it to mock them?

The boys don’t have long to ponder these questions. Eventually the celebrations end. Now, it is time for them to be dealt with. They are escorted to the office of a fat German official where they are informed that the court martial will decide their fate. As they wait, the festivities pick up again. The men dance, play music, and laugh. I don’t need to point out that this contrasts perfectly with the boys’ situation. But there is one quick scene that is so subtle that if I don’t point it out, many might miss it. As the boys await the court martial, the camera focuses on two older men dancing. They were part of the hunting party. They lock arms and dance merrily. Suddenly, we cut to the two boys running in the woods. The contrast is unbearable.

But the coup de grace of Diamonds of the Night is the ending. We see them lined up for a firing squad. And then, without any warning, we see their dead bodies lying on the ground. After this haunting specter, we see them alive again. They are slowly walking away from a firing squad. We hear the men take aim and the order is given to open fire. But they don’t. Instead we hear the sounds of them laughing as the boys run into the woods. This ending has confused countless movie goers. It is a double ending: one with them dying at the end, and the other with them escaping. So what really happened to them? I would like to make a humble suggestion that both happened. They were killed, and at the end we see their spirits walking away into the forest. But then again, that is just my interpretation. I could be completely wrong.

But what else can we expect from Jan Němec? As one of the leading figures of the Czechoslovak New Wave of the 1960s, a film movement that arose out of opposition to the communist regime that took over their country in 1948, he made his career out of making strange, yet powerful films. After Diamonds of the Night he made A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966), a bizarre film that was seen as being subversive to Němec’s Communist state. In 1968, he left Czechoslovakia and eventually ended up in the United States. While other Czechoslovak New Wave filmmakers like Miloš Forman went on to find success abroad (Forman would go on to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus), Němec was not as lucky. He would be reduced to video recording weddings (which he nonetheless pioneered). But in hindsight, he did what he had to do to survive. Thankfully, after the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, he was able to return to his homeland and continue to make movies.

Jan Němec

Němec’s return to motion pictures is a great triumph for the cinema. How lucky we are to regain one of Czechoslovakia’s greatest directors. Few others can summon up such celluloid power with so little. Diamonds of the Night is just one example of his incredible prowess. And what a display it is. A powerful film that examines the human condition on a personal level, Diamonds of the Night is one of the masterpieces of Czechoslovakian cinema. Hopefully one day it will get picked up by the Criterion Collection so that the world can finally see what a statement this film makes. Until then, only those lucky enough to find it can spread the word about this forgotten gem. With any luck, it won’t be forgotten for much longer.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

Иди и смотри (Come and See)

Elem Klimov
The Soviet Union

Revelation 6: 7-8:

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

As an American, I find it disturbingly easy to forget that a large portion of World War Two was fought in the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. And why not? In school, I learned about the fronts that involved American soldiers. There were the Beaches at Normandy, the invasion of North Africa, and the Pacific Front. God knows that the soil of Berlin, the beaches of Iwo Jima, and the sand dunes of Africa are stained red with American blood. But what about the USSR? After all, they were instrumental in the Allies victory over the Axis powers. The Battle of Stalingrad is rightfully revered as one of the most horrific, hellish engagements in human history. But I think that as Americans, we tend to diminish the sheer scale of human loss and suffering that took place on the Eastern front. After all, as soon as the war ended, we found ourselves gripped in a Cold War with the Soviets. But a look at the statistics results in a painful reality check.

Exact numbers vary from source to source, but it is generally accepted that the United States had about 407,000 soldiers killed in action. Because of our isolation from the actual fronts of the war, civilian deaths were relatively low, registering in at about 6,000. So, in total, the United States only lost about 413,000 people. Now Germany, the original aggressors, lost about 3.25 million soldiers and 2.44 million civilians, coming to a total of around 5.69 million deaths. The USSR suffered 27 MILLION total deaths. But that is only a rough estimate. Nobody really knows how many Soviets were killed. But the generally accepted figures report that only 12 million were soldiers. That means that approximately 15 million civilians were killed.

Let that figure marinate in your mind for a bit. More Soviet civilians were killed than the combined deaths of the United States, Great Britain, France, Japan, and Germany. How can I, an American, even begin to comprehend the horrors witnessed in Soviet Russia during World War Two? The simple answer is that I can’t. But thanks to fearless movies like Иди и смотри (Come and See) by Elem Klimov, I can at least get a general idea.

As with many Russian films about World War Two, Come and See depicts the war through the eyes of one or two key players. Similarities arise between this film and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962), as both use a young boy as the main character who joins the army to fight against the invading German army. Both can be interpreted as sermons on the loss of innocence. But whereas Ivan’s Childhood alternates between scenes of warfare and memories of his home before the war broke out, Come and See introduces the viewer to a world of harsh realities. There are no fond reminisces here about life before the war. The first time we see the protagonist Florya, he is frantically digging in a sand field trying to find abandoned rifles. He finds one, returns home, and ignoring his mother’s pleas, joins up with the Soviet partisan forces. These first few minutes of film turn the theme of lost innocence on its head. Florya is not a smiling child dragged off to fight in a war against his will. Instead, he smiles as he abandons his mother to go off and fight. His innocence is derived from the idea that the war is one that he can win, one that will not affect his family, and one that he can survive intact. No, he doesn’t think that war is a game, but he cannot deny himself the opportunity to fight back against the evil enemy. So maybe the appropriate word for Florya isn’t niave, but stupid. His ignorance is his innocence. Only the true face of war can reveal to him the realities of fighting.

Unfortunately, he is not allowed to join the partisans. At this point, Florya stops being a soldier. For the rest of the film, he will act as a witness. For the next two hours he will witness a miniature reenactment of the entire European theater. All the while, as if by some cruel preordination, he will survive in situations where others will die. He will escape mines, bullets, and even mass executions. All the while, he will grow older and frailer as the truth about war becomes apparent to him.

Florya at the beginning.

Florya at the end.

In the beginning, Florya enters the forest after he is left behind by the partisans. He meets up with a young woman named Glasha who happens to be in love with the partisan commander. As they return to their village, they become embroiled in a German paratrooper offensive. Florya becomes temporarily deaf after he is almost hit by artillery fire. But no matter, they make it back to Florya’s suddenly empty house. Florya suggests that they go to a nearby island in the middle of a bog where they might be hiding. But Glasha looks back and sees that his whole family had been shot behind their house. Florya, now in denial, plunges the two of them into the bog in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. Almost drowning, they desperately swim across the bog. The mud and water dirties them. Could this be an allusion to Florya’s lost innocence? Probably. As soon as they get across the bog and onto the island, they run into the remnants of their village who tell him that his family had been killed.

So now begins the resistance. Florya joins with three other fighters who go out and try and find food for the villagers. Unfortunately, during a raid on a farm, the others are killed, leaving Florya alone. He comes across a horse and cart and tries to steal it. The owner catches him and is about to punish him when they hear the sounds of approaching Nazi troops. The farmer decides to help hide Florya. So, he buries his partisan jacket and rifle and helps him come up with a new identity. Once they arrive in the village, panic and chaos ensues.

One of the strengths of this film is that most of it was filmed with Steadicam. This helps make the village scene a cacophony of people, screams, and disorder. It is cliché to say that such a technique helps make a film seem more realistic because it makes you feel like you are right there. But in this case, Klimov and his team of editors chose to use the Steadicam to disorientate the audience. We are never quite sure what is going on. This is probably more realistic, as the villagers involved probably didn’t have any idea of what was happening when the Nazis invaded their town. All they knew was to follow the sounds of the shouting and the flow of people. And so we, the audience, follow the flow of the cuts and edits until we reach our destination.

Eventually, Florya is crammed into a wooden church with the rest of the villagers. A German officer announces a grim ultimatum: anyone can leave the church as long as they leave their children behind. Numbly, Florya exits the barn where he is gruffly shoved aside.

He is then forced to witness the destruction of the barn. Grenades are thrown through the windows, machine guns are fired at the sides, and the whole thing is set on fire. Florya watches this holocaust as the German soldiers laugh and clap. A soldier grabs Florya, points a pistol to his head, and forces him to take a picture with him. Both Florya and the audience breathe a sigh of relief when they walk away after the picture is taken. Aleksei Kravchenko, the actor who plays Florya, makes the wise decision to sit back and silently watch the proceedings. His mortified face tells us more than a hundred lines of dialogue ever could.

The Nazis proceed to burn the entire village down. As they leave, they rape one of the survivors who made it out of the church. Unfortunately, her toddler was literally thrown back into the church after she tried to pull him out. All that is left after the Nazis leave is a town of burning buildings. There are no corpses, for they are all burning in the church. Florya plays dead on the ground (or isn’t he?) as a final German comes by, kicks him, and leaves. The massacre complete, Florya leaves what was once a village.

As he walks away, he starts to see German corpses scattered about. The execution squad had the bad luck of running right into an army of partisans. Florya retrieves his gun and jacket and joins them. What follows is a perverse court as the German officers beg for their lives. Of course, they were just following orders. It was all for nothing, as the remaining Germans and the local collaborators are executed. In the last scene, Florya joins with the army as they walk away into the woods. The screen turns black and red letters inform us that 626 Byelorussian villages were burned to the ground along with their inhabitants. It makes the audience wonder if there were 625 other Floryas, too.

So ends Come and See, one of the most terrifying war movies ever made. Even though it only lasts about two and a half hours, almost the entire war is represented: The initial successful invasion, the execution of civilians, the systematic destruction of “unwanted” people, the defeat of the invading enemy, and the trial of war criminals. The fact that the partisans disappear into the forest is symbolic as well, as it represents the uncertain future that the USSR faced after the war. But perhaps the symbolism doesn’t end there.

Could it be that the role of Florya represents the audience? After all, he bears witness to these historical crimes, and yet he doesn’t take a part in them. He is similar to those who never grew up during a war and confront the realities of combat for the first time. His horror is our horror. And at the end when he starts shooting a picture of Adolf Hitler that has fallen into the mud, we join in his anger. Even though we all may have never seen the true face of war, Come and See will make us feel like we have. It is realistic to a fault. This was Klimov’s last film. In 2001, he explained why, “I lost interest in making films…Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.” I share in his sentiment. If I had filmed Come and See, I would have hung up my movie camera, content in the knowledge that I had recreated the past so perfectly. Too perfectly…

Elem Klimov


Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Life of Émile Zola

Directed by William Dieterle
The United States of America

Émile Zola: What does it matter if an individual is shattered - if only justice is resurrected?

Whenever I watch a movie based on historical events, I keep two things in mind. First, is the story historically accurate? Second, if there are inaccuracies, are they forgivable? Hollywood has a long history of flubbing historical details in the name of better storytelling. Sometimes they are unforgivable. Other times, historical inaccuracies can be tolerated as long as the truth is upheld. Take William Dieterle’s The Life of Émile Zola (1937). A fantastic biopic of one of France’s greatest writers, it focuses around one of the most important events of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the Dreyfuss Affair. Many of the details are intact. A Jewish officer named Alfred Dreyfuss was wrongly persecuted and convicted of treason. The army later discovered the real culprit, but kept the whole affair quiet in order to prevent embarrassment. Later Émile Zola took up his cause, wrote the infamous J’accuse, and was put on trial for criminal libel. He was convicted, whereupon Zola fled to England. Dreyfuss was later found innocent and was exonerated and reinstated into the army where he was promoted. And yes, Zola did die of carbon monoxide poisoning before Dreyfuss was reinstated. But let’s look at the facts.

One of the key controversies of the Dreyfuss Affair was the involvement of anti-Semitism among the army. The film acknowledges the possible involvement of anti-Semitism, but then quickly forgets it (It is possible, as Neil Gabler has pointed out, that the Jewish studio moguls didn’t want to bring the issue up out of fear of a potential backlash from society). As for Dreyfuss, he was convicted in November 1894. He wasn’t pardoned until September 19, 1899. The film doesn’t make much distinction over the passage of time. Yes, Dreyfuss grows himself a mighty fine set of whiskers, but nothing really emphasizes how long he was imprisoned. Not to mention that, unlike in the film, Dreyfuss was not reinstated into the French Army and made a Knight of the Legion of Honour until 1906, a full seven years after he was pardoned. The film would have us believe that he was pardoned and reinstated on the same day. He wasn’t even made a Knight of the Legion of Honour until a week later. The final historical hiccup is that Zola did not die the day before Dreyfuss was reinstated, but a whole four years earlier in 1902.

But these complaints can quickly be forgotten if you choose to take it as a piece of historical allegory instead of a pure historical reconstruction. At its core, The Life of Émile Zola is about a man standing up to a corrupt government that allows the persecution of innocent people. If the film had lingered more on the fact the Dreyfuss was a Jew, then maybe the historical parallel would become more apparent. Maybe it would help to point out that in 1937, the year that The Life of Émile Zola was released, new laws were introduced in Germany that completely segregated Jews from “German Aryans.” Now the metaphor becomes clearer. Add to it the fact that the director, William Dieterle, was born in Germany in 1893 to Jewish parents. I wonder if the studio would have made the film without Dieterle, who immigrated to America in 1930 and became a neutralized citizen in 1937.

William Dieterle

Now, it’s true that the Nazis would not invade Poland, sparking World War Two, for two more years. It’s also true that it would be four years until America joined the fight. But this film does have an uncanny prophetic zeal to it. The army scapegoats a Jewish officer for a crime he didn’t commit. He is sent far, far away to be imprisoned. The man who eventually fights for him is extremely reluctant at first, but then attacks with all his power. And when the smoke has cleared, what are the excuses given by those involved? Why, they were just following orders, of course. And besides, it was for the glory of the Army and the Government that it protects.

But historical allusions aside, The Life of Émile Zola is a fascinating film. Starting with his days living with Paul Cézanne in an attic where they burnt books for warmth, the movie follows his rise to success, his struggles with the French courts during the Dreyfuss Affair, and eventually to his death. Paul Muni (who had won the Academy Award for Best Actor the year before in another Dieterle film, The Story of Louis Pasteur) plays Zola as a man burning with an inner fire. Getting his first big success with the story of a street prostitute, Nana, Zola establishes himself as a powerful whistleblower. Indeed, we learn that the army already resents Zola for a scathing work that pointed out the inefficiencies and inherent corruption within the ranks of the army during a recent war with the Prussians. He later only agrees to help in the Dreyfuss case after Mrs. Dreyfuss came to him personally to present evidence. And so, he valiantly fights against the very system that kept Dreyfuss imprisoned. The court scenes where Zola fights against accusations of libel are curiously powerful. They are much more realistic than other Hollywood court scenes. The film Mr. Deeds Comes to Town (released the previous year) comes to mind as an example of these kinds of scenes where good always comes out over evil. Instead, we get a kangaroo court where Dreyfuss’ lawyers are rarely allowed to even ask their witnesses questions. The entire scene burns with a vivid realism.

But what truly makes this film come alive is the gift of hindsight. If only we had seen The Life of Émile Zola as the call to action that it was. Every word, every syllable gains new meaning and importance when we compare them to actual events. Now, I want to point out that this movie did win the Academy Award for Best Film. But be honest, how many times have you ever heard about this movie? Just because a movie wins awards, it doesn’t mean that it won’t become under-appreciated one day. I believe that this film has been neglected. It is a powerful piece of cinema. It is a cry for justice in a time when so few received it. It is a shining moment of conscience in the history of cinema.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Zazie dans le Metro (Zazie in the Metro)

Directed by Louis Malle

Uncle Gabriel: Holifart whatastink!

In a crowded Paris train station, an uncle eagerly awaits the arrival of a train. Said train will be bringing his niece, Zazie, to spend some time with him. He sniffs his nose and says, “Holifart whatastink.” He begins to mock the regular Parisians surrounding him. But his complaints are short lived, as the train arrives and deposits a young girl with short black hair, a vibrant red shirt, and a long grey skirt. She approaches him and says, “I’m Zazie. You my unc?” He lovingly replies, “Me in person. I’m your unc.” As they leave the leave the station, they approach a cab full of people. Zazie walks up to it, tests the door handle, and when it breaks off she matter-of-factly says, “What a crummy old heap.” But pay close attention to its delivery. She doesn’t complain like a spoiled toddler. Instead she speaks as a seasoned cynic. Such is the character of the titular character in Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le Metro (1960).

As you may have noticed, the characters all speak in bizarre slang. This is a far cry from the tight, proper French that is spoken in other French movies. But that is the point. This is a movie of slang talking, risk taking, convention breaking joy. Before the film ends, Zazie will escape from her uncle, raise hell all over Paris, and cause general mayhem and panic. She is the living embodiment of uncontrolled chaos, and she bounces around the city submerged in uncontainable joy.

At its center, Zazie dans le Metro follows Zazie on her quest to ride the Paris metro. Unfortunately, she discovers that the subway workers are on strike. So she must settle with traveling around Paris in cars, taxis, and her own two feet. The story doesn’t really have a plot. Instead it is just a tightly connected series of vignettes that follow Zazie throughout the city. What she discovers is a Paris unlike any other that we have seen in the cinema. As she travels through the market, she passes delightful eccentrics, pushy salesmen, and other general oddities. A group of musicians play without any instruments. Servants dutifully follow their masters while holding ancient sculptures. And the shopkeepers are happy to sell you anything, especially their large supply of goods taken from the United States Army. Throughout the rest of the city, people hustle and bustle at an incredible speed. The city is more alive than it has ever been.

At times she travels with her uncle. They go to the Eiffel Tower where he is accosted by several blond-haired women who swoon over the fact that he is an artist. To escape, he climbs on top of the elevator that takes visitors to the top of the Tower. He then gets out and begins to climb of the railing, up and up into the sky. The women continue to follow him for the rest of the movie, pouncing and stealing him away. All the while Zazie travels up to the top where she can view her domain. The photography of the Eiffel Tower is some of the best ever recorded in the cinema. One wonders how they were able to get certain shots without risking the lives of the actors and cameramen. But that brings me to the next point about this film, the uncontrollable ingenuity of the cameramen and director.

Just like Zazie, this film plays by its own rules. Much of this goes to the credit of the director, Louis Malle. He got his start working with Jacques Cousteau as a cameraman and with Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped (1956). With the release of his first film, Elevator to the Gallows (1958), the world received into its fold a visionary new director. Even though his work didn’t always follow the ideals of the auteur theorists, he is frequently associated with the French New Wave. A period of time starting from the late 1950s and well into the 1960s, the French New Wave was comprised of a group of daring iconoclasts who rejected conventional film making and experimented with new methods of editing, visual construction, and narrative. They believed in the auteur theory, which states that a film is the summation of the director’s personal creative vision. As a director, Malle created a plethora of personal and penetrating films. His work stretched from many different genres, but a constant attribute of his work, especially his earlier work, is that they were subdued and reflective. But here in Zazie dans le Metro, his third film, we see an uncharacteristic energy and spirit of innovation.

Louis Malle

Take one scene inside the building where Gabriel and Zazie stay when they first arrive. The landlord greets them only to receive an unbelievable wave of cursing from Zazie. Stunned, he walks next to a bar where a couple of lovers are whispering sweet nothings and a pair of workers toil away. Suddenly, he starts to scream.

Goddammit to hell! I won’t stand for a little bitch who spouts obscenities like that! She’ll corrupt the neighborhood!

Now, while many would focus on the inherent irony in this scene, I am fascinated by the way that the landlord moves. He appears in different places all over the room in mid-sentence. It would appear to be a jump cut, but behold, the couple and the pair of workers in the background never stop moving. Nor are their movements interrupted or choppy. How did the landlord jump cut across the screen while the rest of the characters stayed in the same place? I would like to propose a theory. I think that it was all one long shot. At certain points I can imagine Malle yelling, “Cut!” Then everybody froze for a couple seconds. The landlord would then sprint across the room to his next position whereupon Malle would yell, “Action!” Then the actors would continue moving as if nothing had happened as the landlord continued his line. That is how I propose this scene was filmed. At least, that is how I would try to reconstruct it.

But understand, this is only one example. In actuality, it is one of the movies more unimpressive effects. Besides it only lasts for a couple of seconds. All throughout the movie, people are jump cutted in and out of the frame, the footage is sped up or slowed down, characters stand still while the set is manually changed around them mid-scene, and the audience is accosted by a multitude of other camera tricks, editing techniques, and rudimentary special effects. During a chase scene where Zazie is pursued throughout Paris, the film suddenly adopts Looney Tunes logic. At one point, Zazie is being pursued down an alley. Suddenly, she puts up her hand. She walks up to a camera that has been set up in the middle of the street. Her pursuer stops to pose for a photograph. After Zazie takes it, she gives him the photo, they admire it, and then the chase continues as if nothing happened. Later she tricks him with bombs that blow up, leaving his face pitch black instead of hurting him. All of this madness is interspersed with a phenomenal close-up of Zazie’s face as she laughs at the insanity of it all. Actress Catherine Demongeot creates one of the great children’s characters in the movies. Her hair, clothes, and lines have all become iconic. But at the core, she is a delightful little hellion who steals our hearts away.

The iconic laughing shot.

It’s rare to find such a joyful, entertaining film. For those who want to study the French New Wave, I would recommend this as the first one that you watch. It is much more kinetic than its brethren and much more exciting. That’s not to say that slow and deliberately-paced films are inferior. It’s just that Zazie dans le Metro is such an infectiously delightful film that I shudder to think what would happen if it was remade as a philosophic treatise. That’s not to say that some haven’t tried. While researching this movie before I wrote this article, I stumbled across a review written by Alice Burgin that says that it is a philosophical film with a clearly stated agenda. Apparently, the characters of Zazie and Uncle Gabriel represent the bourgeoisie and the lower classes and Zazie’s desire to see the city from the metro, the lowest and most basic form of transportation, is a statement on Parisian culture. While I respect Burgin’s work, and I recommend everyone to read it, I disagree. Maybe Malle did intend for this to be a serious class study. But I doubt it. I feel that Burgin missed the point. This isn’t a movie of philosophies. It is a workout of cinematic technique, a tribute to the auteur theory, and a desire to create the biggest mess possible. Go out and find this movie. I say with complete confidence and total seriousness that Zazie dans le Metro is one of the greatest hidden treasures of French cinema.

Here is a link to Alice Burgin’s article:


Saturday, January 2, 2010

Major Dundee

Directed by Sam Peckinpah
The United States of America

Captain Tyreen: “Just what the bloody hell are you doing out here in the first place, Major?”

David Samuel Peckinpah. To this day few directors have had such a widespread influence on cinema as old “Bloody Sam.” As one of the pioneers of the revisionist Western, Peckinpah reshaped the way the world though about the American West. Violent, misogynist, and fearless, Peckinpah's movies reinvented movie violence and the way the world reacted to it. To this day, few films have challenged the mold of cinema as much as his legendary “blood ballet” The Wild Bunch (1969). Its audacity was rooted in its realism, as Peckinpah dared to show what happened when power was given into the wrong hands. In the final shootout, everyone, from heroes to villains and children to young women, were killed. His intentions were noble: to provide a catharsis for audiences who sought violent cinema. By showing the truth, he tried to convince people that violence was an evil, dirty thing. And yet, just like in so many of his films, good intentions led to tragic results. Instead of being turned off, audiences demanded more of the same. Soon, Hollywood was awash in the senseless violence that Peckinpah so despised. Is it any wonder why he abused alcohol and drugs his whole life?

Sam Peckinpah

But things didn't start that way for Peckinpah. Born on February 21, 1925 in Fresno, California, Peckinpah grew up being a cowboy on his grandfather's ranch. He was raised on “trapping, branding, and shooting” as a youngster. It was here that Peckinpah learned how to talk like a cowboy, a trait that would become apparent in the rough dialogue in many of his films. He also learned how to act like a cowboy. And like many of the characters in his films, he witnessed the death of his beloved West. He would later join the United States Marine Corps and serve in China during World War Two. It was here that he picked up his drinking problem and witnessed the violence that would become so prevalent in his films.

Fans of Peckinpah can name several of his greatest and most influential works: The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs (1971), Junior Bonner (1972), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), and Cross of Iron (1977). But to those who know, he directed a little known classic years before Sam Peckinpah became THE Sam Peckinpah. That film was dirty little picture entitled Major Dundee. The story of a group of Union and Confederate soldiers tasked with destroying an evil Apache war chief, Major Dundee can be considered the first true Peckinpah film. That's not to say that it was his first. He actually directed two movies before Major Dundee.

His first film, The Deadly Companions (1961), was more of a learning experience for Peckinpah. While the characters certainly resembled those which would populate his later films, there was nothing particularly interesting about them. For the most part, it is a cut and paste western that could have been directed by anybody else. There was nothing that audiences wouldn't see outside of a spaghetti western. In fact, it wasn't even very violent. His second film, Ride the High Country (1962) is much better. In fact it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. But again, apart from some trademark character development and themes, nothing really set it apart from the other films of the day.

But really, aren't Peckinpah movies because they doesn't make a statement. As many of the characters in his other films would, the main characters learn that it is bad to kill and that ultimately violence leads to nothing. But they doesn't provide any deep, psychological examination of violence that made Peckinpah's movies' classics. And that is what really set Peckinpah's movies apart from the rest: we feel as though we have learned something. His best two films, The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, can be interpreted on two levels. First, they can be interpreted through their gritty and realistic portrayal of violence. The Wild Bunch focused on violence within society and Straw Dogs concerned the innate violence that each soul harbors. Second, they can be interpreted as commentaries on the male id. The Wild Bunch concerns honor and how far men are willing to go to preserve it. Straw Dogs takes a harrowing look at how every man has a desire to protect their homes and what they perceive to belong to them. Each movie places men in extreme situations and examines how they react and how their reactions transform them into different people. The characters are the key factor.

So when I say that Major Dundee is the first true Peckinpah film, I mean it in the sense that it was his first film to try and examine male behavior. The question that Major Dundee seems to ask it: what motivates men to act the way they do? And that is what the film is all about. True, it starts off as a military revenge movie, but as it progresses, we keep asking ourselves why the characters react to situations the way that they do. Why would Yankees and Rebels work together for a common cause when they hate each other so much? Why would racist white soldiers fight alongside of black soldiers? And what drives Major Dundee to seek out the Apache War chief even after it becomes apparent that it is probably a hopeless venture?

Much can be explained by one of the very first shots of the film. We see a destroyed settlement being ransacked by Indians. The ground is littered with corpses which are powerless to stop the Indians from kidnapping their crying children. We then see the credits roll as the settlement catches fire and burns. The chief Sierra Charriba looks over the corpse of a soldier being hung upside down and he shouts, “Who will they send against me now?” After he leaves, Major Amos Dundee arrives to survey the damage. He wants vengeance. And he will go to the Gates of Hell to get it.

Dundee is played by a fiery Charlton Heston. With his trademark growl, he comes across as a man who is used to being in control. Later, when an officer questions one of his orders, all he needs to do is glare at him to shut him up. Heston has always had an overbearing screen presence, and it shows here as he dominates his shots. He perfectly plays the role of Dundee, a man who sees the massacre as a chance to regain lost glory. You see, Dundee was part of the American army in the Civil War. He fought at the Battle of Gettysburg where he made an unspecified tactical error that resulted in him being sent to head a prisoner-of-war camp in the New Mexico Territory. He is obviously a man of wounded pride. Therein lies his motivation: to regain his position. He is not driven by some instinctual racist hatred like John Wayne in The Searchers (1956). All he sees is an opportunity.

But he is also a realist. In order to go after Sierra Charriba, he will need a strong, powerful contingent of men. The camp already has a skeletal guard. So, the only way he can rally up enough men is to hire drunks, cattle wrestlers, cowboys, and of course, the very Confederates that he was sworn to guard. His sales pitch is stern and fair:

You thieves, renegades, deserters, you gentlemen of the South. I want some volunteers. I want volunteers to fight the Apache Sierra Charriba. I need horse soldiers - men who can ride, men who can shoot. In return, I promise you nothing... saddle sores, short rations, maybe a bullet in your belly... and free air to breathe, fair share of tobacco, quarter pay... and my good will and best offices for pardons and paroles when I get back.

But in reality, the Confederates know that this is their chance to make a run for it. They probably could have succeeded if it wasn't for their own commander, Captain Tyreen. Once friends with Major Dundee, their relationship deteriorated after Dundee helped get him court martialed from the U.S. Army. It is implied that this led to his seceding to the South. Even though he wasn't born there, he is the model Southern gentleman. Whereas Dundee stands for personal gain, Tyreen fights for a greater cause: Southern honor. He swears his own and his men's loyalty to Dundee, bit only until Charriba has been dealt with and the three kidnapped boys from the beginning of the movie are rescued. Even though it is obvious that he hates Dundee, his chivalrous ways prevent him from breaking his own oath. Consider this particular piece of dialogue:

Capt. Benjamin Tyreen: [addressing his troops] We will serve under Major Dundee's command. And until that time, any disrespect you show the Major will be taken as a personal insult by *me*.

Jimmy Lee Benteen: Don't you worry none, Uncle Ben, when the time comes, we'll turpentine that cauky, chicken-pickin' Yankee...

Capt. Benjamin Tyreen: I am *not* your uncle, you redneck peckerwood. And if you say one more word, you'll spend the rest of this campaign in *chains*.

Yes, Tyreen remains loyal even though it goes against everything that he wants. He stays loyal when they get close to a group of Confederate cavalry and they have an opportunity to make a run for it. He stays loyal after his men start fights with the black soldiers. He even stays loyal when he has to kill one of his own men who was captured in the act of desertion.

Watching the tension between Dundee and Tyreen is easily the most interesting part of the film. But if you are not careful, you might miss many of the other characters who are part of Dundee's contingent. Among them are black soldiers who requested to join. Their motivation was that they wanted to be taken seriously as soldiers and as actual men. I like to think that the thought of fighting with Confederate troops made the deal more appealing to the black soldiers. Who better to prove their worth to then the very men who kept them down for centuries?

There is also Riago, a “Christian Indian” scout. He is just one of the Indians who aid Dundee and his men during the film. They simply want revenge, as many of them were cast out or left behind from Sierra Charriba's group. Their vengeance (or is it?) is so great that they are willing to be killed and even crucified to track Charriba down, even though they are surrounded by men who hate them and distrust them.

But my favorite is Preacher Dalhstrom. When he signs up to join with Dundee, he is dismissed because they do not need a man of the cloth. His answer is simple: “Seventeen years ago, I married [the killed settlers]. Who that destroyeth my flock, I will do destroy.”

It's often said by travelers that it isn't the destination, but the journey that makes a trip special. Well, that is partially true of Major Dundee. And while the journey may be incredible, the most fascinating aspects are the travelers themselves. The battle of wills between Dundee and Tyreen, the fighting between the troops and the Indians, and the inner turmoil within the contingent itself makes up the meat of the film. And yes, it is very entertaining. I could go on for another five pages about all of the battle scenes, the scuffles with the French Army stationed in Mexico, the similarities with Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and even how this was one of the goriest westerns of its time. But I don't feel that it is relevant. The characters are what make this film. Without them, it could have been just another Western. But Peckinpah's creations propel this film into glory. If his later work explained how men expressed their violent tendencies, Major Dundee had the insight to ask why. It was the start of a glorious and tragic career. It was the dawn of the Age of Peckinpah.