Friday, November 30, 2007

BREATHLESS - #408



Upon its release in 1960, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (À bout de soufflé) was like an explosion of cinematic ideas. Having set fire to the standards of film criticism in the fabled journal Cahiers du cinema, Godard and his cohorts were ready to walk it like they talked it. Working from an idea by Francois Truffaut, and featuring Claude Chabrol as "technical advisor" (pretty much a fake credit), the film was ground zero for what would be called the French New Wave (or Nouvelle Vague), a movement that would renounce uptight, stale conventions in search of a new, modern voice.

As with many great auteurs of modern movies, Godard began his career by working in the genres that inspired him. Breathless is a gangster picture with the crusts sawed off. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel Poiccard, a low-level tough guy with delusions of Bogart. He makes claims of having been in the army, and we're told that he once was a flight attendant, but now he's a thug, making faces at himself in the mirror to get his expressions just right. Michel and one of his girlfriends, Liliane (Liliane David), want to be in the movies, but it's so much work. Better to just pretend you are the thing you imagine you are.

Michel's decisive transformative moment comes at the start of the picture. On a joyride in a big American car, he gets chased by a pair of motorcycle cops and ends up shooting one of them. Now a murderer, he heads back into Paris to try to score cash that is owed to him and one more roll in the hay with Patricia (Jean Seberg), a cute American with a pixie haircut. She's got a surprise of her own for Michel, one that could complicate things if he ever stopped trying to get in her pants long enough to think about it. Michel wants her to be a typical gangster moll who lies to the cops and acts as his accessory in whatever crime he's got going, but Patricia isn't sure she's going to be able to postpone growing up long enough to keep playing Michel's bad boy games. Is it perhaps a none-too-subtle nod to Godard's journalistic roots that Patricia aspires to be a reporter, and it's she who will see the dead-end in Michel's overdone ideas?

Then again, his action beats her words in the end. The Godard with the camera beats the Godard with the typewriter.



Though the plot mechanics of Breathless are as old as Scarface--one of the many touchstone films mentioned in Godard's irreverent trailer for the movie, and George Raft's quarter-flipping is likely the inspiration for Belmondo's tic-like ritual of rubbing his lips--but the upstart director busts all of the boundaries off the genre and flaunts the rules of moviemaking to boot. His freeform, freewheeling plot doesn't settle for point A to point B conflict-resolution simplicity. At times, he steps away from the plot altogether, with one of the longest sequences being an extended conversation in Patricia's room with no mention of the bounty on Michel's head being made at all. Then again, most noir antiheroes get themselves screwed up through jealousy and not being able to let go of that one particular girl. In that sense, Michel is no different than the sappy Burt Lancaster of Criss Cross or the sadistic Lawrence Tierney of Born to Kill. If it's not the money, it's the dames.

That leaves attitude as the biggest difference between Breathless and the American gangster pictures Godard emulates. Attitude, and size. Like American cars, American movies are bigger. They are also heavier. Burt Lancaster, be it in Criss Cross or The Killers, was never able to shake off the inevitability of fate. His doom weighed on him. Jean-Paul Belmondo never seems to suffer at all. If he breaks a sweat, it's only in the rarest of scrapes. Belmondo is a manly presence, reeking of musk and lumbering forward with a jungle cat's swagger. He's also kind of ridiculous, completely obsessed with getting laid and with how he looks. No wonder he declares he's tired in the end, it's a lot of work keeping up such appearances.

Still, Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard give Belmondo a big playground to show off in--all of Paris itself! Breathless is shot on the street, seemingly on the fly with the sidewalk gawkers left in for posterity, and then edited with a persistent wink, jumping between takes and comically juxtaposing image and sound. A lot of Breathless feels like it was made up as it goes along (once again putting aside the noirish air of inescapable destruction), like a couple of guys grabbed some cameras and some toy guns and went running around shooting stuff until they had a movie. True or no, it's kept Breathless feeling healthy and alive for nearly fifty years, crystallizing a spirit of freedom that many are still trying to crack open and use.

Yet, there will never be another like Breathless. Though many of the Godard films in the coming years are even looser and more playful, the first time always has something special. There would be no repeating the Belmondo and Seberg chemistry, no better illustration of the oft-repeated "a girl and a gun" formula, and no putting the lid back on after the seal was broken.



Originally written October 23, 2007. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

BORDER RADIO - #362



The 1980s was a wayward decade for a lot of people, but for punk rockers in particular, it was definitely not the best of times.

Punk was spawned from the boredom of the late 1970s, but it didn't take long for it to go mainstream. By the mid-'80s, the movement had been assimilated by popular culture and many of its icons had traded in their bad boy ways for a much shinier Yankee dollar. This left those who wanted to maintain the original vision of the genre in a bit of a wasteland: too out of date to matter, too stubborn to just fade away.

The 1987 independent feature Border Radio sits itself down smack in the middle of this conundrum. Made itself with a punk rock spirit, it was shot on 16mm black-and-white film over several years with a trio of student directors at its helm. The screenplay was written in tandem by the filmmakers--Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging), Dean Lent (now a cinematographer), and Kurt Voss (Down and Out With the Dolls)--but in the spirit of true collaboration, it was fleshed out on set, with the cast improvising new scenarios. The result is something loose, ragged, and short, like a punk song on film; the downside is, like a lot of punk, it's a little shallow, stuck on one note for the duration.

Shot in Los Angeles, Border Radio features several important members of that city's music scene. Chris D., a member of the Flesh Eaters and Divine Horseman, plays Jeff, a popular cult musician who has seen far too much compromise creep into his act over the years. His friend and bandmate, Dean, is played by John Doe, leader of the seminal rock band X. Additionally, the score is done by Dave Alvin of the Blasters (whose pre-existing song also provided the movie's title), and he also shows up in Border Radio as a guitarist who has become estranged from Jeff. For rock stars, all three of these gentlemen are distinctly lacking in the charisma department. Their amateurish acting is just the beginning of Border Radio's problems, however.

When Jeff and Dean were at the end of their rope, they teamed up with obnoxious hanger-on Chris (Chris Shearer, Grace of My Heart) to rob a nightclub who they felt had exploited them (how punk rock is that?). As Border Radio begins, some thugs from the club have come looking for their money, and so Jeff hightails it down to Mexico, leaving Dean to take the beating and his wife, Lu (Luanna Anders), to answer the angry phone calls from Jeff's record label and take care of their daughter. On her search for Jeff, Lu gets suckered in by Chris and soon learns the true story about the robbery. She organizes a road trip to retrieve the pouting performer, but since this is the aimless 1980s, any journey of this kind is going to end up as self-reflexive and ironically pointless.

Border Radio bears the influence of Jim Jarmusch. It goes for the same kind of meandering ordinariness that was the hallmark of early Jarmusch classics like Stranger than Paradise. This is a difficult conceit to manufacture, however, you have to have a special eye for it. Either none of the three directors were cut out for this kind of storytelling or there were too many cooks in this kitchen, and so no real direction could be found. Border Radio is all over the place. It has traces of road pictures, crime movies, faux documentary, and kitchen-sink drama, but it never settles on one element long enough to give the movie any cohesion. At one point, John Doe even declares that he's in a western, and there truly is the whiff of the outlaw lingering around the production, but when it comes down to it, Border Radio plays it a little too safe to truly stand apart.

So, the sum of all these parts is that Border Radio is an interesting curio of its time. While some of the participants went on to greater cinematic glory--Anders has made some good pictures, and John Doe has been excellent in quite a large number of character roles--Border Radio is merely the entryway at the edge of that glory, and it comes off as such.



Originally written January 16, 2007. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

EARLY BERGMAN - ECLIPSE SERIES 1

"Everyone seems to have exclusive rights to hell." – Valborg (Mimmi Nelson) in Ingmar Bergman's Thirst



The Eclipse Series is a new offshoot of the Criterion collection designed to showcase lesser-known works by great directors in a moderately priced, no-nonsense package. For filmmakers with a large catalogue, giving each and every one of their movies the full treatment with bonus discs overflowing with extras and commentaries will take forever, so Eclipse will rescue films from further down a given director's roster, skipping over the cursory supplemental materials.

Early Bergman is the first set of movies in this series, and it brings together five pictures by legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman from before the career upswing that began with 1955's Smiles of a Summer Night. In many ways, Bergman is the quintessential art house director. The stunning original images he created for one of his most iconic films, The Seventh Seal, are the first parodists and detractors turn to when they want to do a send-up of foreign films. If the level of satire pointed at an artist is a measure of that artist's success, then Ingmar Bergman is up there with Edvard Munch and his painting The Scream as the pinnacle of that kind of flattery. Having stood behind the camera for sixty-six movies, including his most recent masterpiece, Saraband (2003), I think Bergman can handle the scrutiny.



* Torment (Hets) (101 minutes - 1944): The only film in Early Bergman that Ingmar did not direct, Torment initiated his transition from the world of stage plays to the movie theatre. Bergman wrote the screenplay for Torment and served as Alf Sjöberg's assistant director, including lensing reshoots on the final scenes when the more seasoned director was unavailable. Though this was merely the beginning of Bergman's illustrious career, many of his thematic hallmarks are already on display.

Set in a Swedish boarding school, Torment concerns itself with the plight of a sensitive senior, Widgren (Alf Kjellin). Like most of his fellow students, Widgren can't stand the enforced requirements of an academic career, but his education takes a turn for the worst when the affectionately nicknamed Caligula (Stig Järrel), the school's most hated teacher, makes harassing Widgren his personal project. The boy finds some solace in Bertha (Mai Zetterling), an attractive girl who works at the tobacconist, but another man is stalking her. His dark shadow grows larger and larger until it obscures all the joy in their romantic rendezvous. As his two problems converge, Widgren is faced with having to solve both of them before he can graduate into adult life.

Torment is a coming of age story with overtones of a psychological thriller. Though it never evolves into a cat-and-mouse game or even involve things that go bump in the night, Sjöberg films Bertha's misguided admirer using gothic lighting. Shadows stretch up staircases and threatening hands reach out of the darkness to snatch Bertha by the back of the neck, the way the stalker will later dangle her kitten in front of her. Yet, this isn't a fatal attraction scenario. No punches are thrown, no knives are raised; rather, Widgren is caught up in a Bergman drama, and the young filmmaker's eye is already trained on the oppressiveness of institutions and man's inhumanity to man. More than he needs to learn Latin, Widgren needs to learn to not let these outside forces bog him down. At times, Torment moves a little slow, but its portrait of sadism is still powerful. The nightmares experienced both when awake and asleep are harrowing (Caligula has a particularly nasty speech about the only time he ever feared death), and Widgren's personal triumph manages to shine as a result.



* Crisis (Kris) (93 min. - 1946): Bergman's full directorial debut kept a tentative foot back in the theatre world, as he adapted a play by Leck Fisher. The titular crisis doesn't refer to any physical threat or dangerous situation, though there is at least one character poised on a mortal precipice that he may never return from; rather, any crisis faced in this story is one of the soul. The film is a morality tale, and the circumstances of the narrative forces all the people involved to question the choices they have made and where they are in their ethical lives.

Nelly (Inga Landgré) has grown up in a small town under the care of Ingeborg (Dagny Lind), a poor music teacher who took the girl in when her mother abandoned her. Eighteen years later, Jenny, the mother (Marianne Löfgren), has returned to take her child back to the big city with her. Nelly has been dreaming of a more inspired life. The rural existence bores her, and she isn't interested in the kindly veterinarian (Allan Bohlin) who wants to marry her. She's more intrigued by Jack (Stig Olin), the gregarious imp that follows behind Jenny. He's dangerous and flashy, and Nelly can't help but accompany him and her mother on their return to Stockholm.

It's easy to divine where the sympathies of the film lie. The provincial narration feels at home in the little village, and it disappears once everyone is in the city. The division in Nelly's allegiance isn't the only crisis that must be confronted; her choices also force Ingeborg to question where she stands as a woman of faith and Jenny to wonder if her material pursuits have served her well. Even the devil-may-care Jack turns out to have things that trouble him. He is perhaps the most divided character in the whole story, and so he pays the ultimate price. Bergman's translation of the play skirts dangerously close to the edges of the potboiler genre, but it always maintains his characteristic stoic composure. Only the film's score betrays the inner passions of the characters, the orchestra swelling like the lust that burns in their breasts. It's a very traditional soundtrack, and the young director seems to struggle a little with the old conventions of movie making. His choices aren't always surefooted and sometimes come off as too mannered. At the same time, he also shows an inventive visual eye, using dissolves and double-exposures to excellent effect, especially in Ingeborg's nightmare and Jenny's discovery of Jack and Nelly's indiscretion.



* Port of Call (Hamnstad) (97 min. - 1948): At the start of Port of Call, one person is coming into the harbor, and one person is going out. Gösta (Bengt Eklund) arrives from the East Indies by boat, while Berit (Nine-Christine Jönsson) tries to leave by jumping off the dock and into the ocean. Gösta isn't the one who leaps in after her, but when he runs into her again at a dance hall, he strikes up a relationship with her, a decision that may end up making him her knight in shining armor by default. Berit has had a rough life. Strife at home led to a misspent youth, which led to her being sent to a girl's reformatory and putting her in the sort of endless cycle of turmoil such systems perpetuate. It's hard for her to get close to anyone because she is scared her past will cause them to push her away, a catch-22 Port of Call will try to solve.

For his fifth feature, Bergman breaks out of the confines of city and town life and goes outside, shooting on location at an actual working shipyard. The use of a real backdrop sets the stage for a more realistic script, sexually frank and unflinching in its depiction of a hard-hearted world. If Gösta at first seems like a two-dimensional character, it's only because he lives without feeling. He can fight for a girl, sure, and even tell her he loves her, but it's not until Berit tests the levels of his commitment that he also has to test himself. His emotional explosion is intense, but his switch from blunt instrument to sensitive soul is convincing. At one point, Bergman has Eklund look straight into the camera as if he is addressing the audience as much as he is talking to the hooker in the room with him, and the effect is chilling.

In some ways, Port of Call is almost like the B-side to Torment. In the earlier film, we see the effects of an abusive educational system on a young man; here, it's the consequences of a revolving door penal system. In that sense, Port of Call is ahead of its time, noting that most houses of reform are really just brutal breeding grounds for future problems. Bergman draws a remarkably nuanced performance out of Nine-Christine Jönsson. As Berit, she is troubled and neurotic, but she also has flashes of defiance and real tenderness. It's an early hint of his affinity for working with actresses, which would later result in some of his best-known films.



* Thirst (Törst) (84 min. - 1949): Thirst is the only picture in the set not to be written by Ingmar Bergman, and while the final product grasps for a certain storytelling sophistication, it doesn't quite get a hold of it. Written by Herbert Grevenius, who collaborated with Bergman on several other films, and adapted from short stories by actress Birgit Tengroth, the structure of the story is an attempt to mirror the tangled relationships of its characters, but not every knot comes off as if it were tied with the same rope.

The bulk of the story features a troubled couple, Ruth (Eva Henning) and Bertil (Birger Malmsten), as they return to Stockholm after a visit to Italy. The Europe they are touring has been blasted by war, its scarred landscape analogous of the emotional ruin the pair finds itself in, the hunger of the starving peasants akin to the couple's need for love. Ruth takes center stage from the get-go. Plagued by insomnia and alcoholism, her mind drifts to remembrances of her love affair with Raoul (Bengt Eklund), a cad who kept her as his mistress until she became pregnant and then cast her aside on the slimmest of pretences. A botched abortion has now rendered her sterile and created health problems that have ruined her dancing career. Eva Henning is the best thing about Thirst. She imbues Ruth with a manic energy, jumping from pole to pole in the space of a sentence or two. One line she's up, the next line she's down. Switching between her past and present lends Thirst an almost noirish feel. Like a hardboiled hero, she's trying to outrun a past that is always going to be with her. She even narrates her own agony.

When we stay with Ruth and Bertil, the movie works. Bergman would return to exploring toxic marriages time and again through his long filmography, and the way these two are slowly killing each other with their verbal poison is just as potent as any of the director's later masterpieces. It's when Bergman leaves them for a side story that things start to break down. Bertil has a romantic failure in his past, as well. He was involved with a widow named Viola (Tengroth), whose physical illness seems little more than a way to mask her greater problems. There are incisive parallels to be drawn between Bertil's two lovers, showing his tendency to fall in love with damaged women; however, instead of weaving his past into the main story the way they did with Ruth's flashbacks, Bergman and his writers instead decide to show Viola's present. In three long segments, they show Viola abandoned to her own out-of-control depression, victimized by her doctor (Hasse Ekman), and preyed upon by an opportunistic lesbian, Valborg (Mimmi Nelson), who just so happens to be a friend of Ruth's. Not only is the coincidence a little too easy, but Viola's story stands too much on its own to feel like an integrated part of Thirst's narrative. Viola's first appearance shows up so deep in the story, it's too late to shift gears.

The ending of the movie also comes off as a cop-out. An important sequence is revealed to be a dream almost as an afterthought, like someone came in after Thirst had been cut and insisted they polish up the ending so as not to bring the audience down. The noir is whitewashed right out of it.



* To Joy (Till glädje) (99 min. - 1949): It's fitting that the Early Bergman boxed set would be capped with To Joy, because of the five films here, this is the one where Ingmar got everything right. It opens with a concert violinist being pulled from rehearsal to be told that his wife and daughter have died in a freak accident. Overcome by grief, he ponders over the seven years they had together. Beginning when he was a young and socially awkward loser who had to be pushed to see the love staring him in the face, through marriage and children, his professional failure and cold-hearted infidelity, and full circle to him discovering love all over again right where it had always been, the flight of memory ends as fate deals the man the rotten cards the opening scenes showed us. The deaths are a foregone conclusion that hangs over the film, and what will be done once they come is the big question mark. Bergman's script is passionate, romantic, and unflinchingly honest about the foibles of the scenario's lead figure, Stig, played by one of the director's regular collaborators, Stig Olin. The violinist's priggish obstinacy is smoothed over by the tender grace of his wife, Marta, depicted with warmth and beauty by the lovely Maj-Britt Nilsson. She stands strong, and it's with that strength that she pulls Stig back from the brink.

When you consider that Bergman had recently gone through his second divorce, To Joy reveals itself to be painfully close to real life. His portrayal of Stig is almost like an act of self-immolation, the director laying his own difficult artistic temperament on the table to be dissected. Stig consistently acts selfishly. His failure as both a musician and as a husband can be related directly to his inability to give completely of himself, to ever be so lost in a moment as to not be thinking about how it might advance his image as a genius. In a bitter bedroom scene where his affair is brought to light and Marta begins to cry, he tells her to cut it out, there is no one else to hear her sobs. He has no concept that anyone could genuinely feel, it must all be for show. If Stig ever wants to have anything good in his life again, he's going to have to learn otherwise.

Any sense of tentativeness in Bergman's direction is gone by To Joy. He understands every move he needs to make in the film, from the heavy moments where Stig's ugliness really comes to bear all the way to the playful moments, slipping on different narrative voiceovers or showing the affection and humor that allows Stig and Marta to stay together. It's a direct precursor to the couple that featured in Scenes from a Marriage and Saraband decades later. This is also an early instance of Bergman taking us backstage, showing us the secret lives of performers, which would show up again in films as far apart in years as Smiles of a Summer Night and Fanny & Alexander. Even Stig's artistic mentor, the old conductor Sönderby is a hint of things to come, as the role is filled by Victor Sjöjström, Bergman's own real-life mentor and the star of one of his best films, Wild Strawberries. Perhaps it was the personal nature of the script, or maybe it was just down to having eight features under his belt, but when Bergman called a wrap on To Joy, he had a truly great motion picture in the can.

***



Though these five movies lack the formalism and assured direction that would eventually make Ingmar Bergman one of cinema's most distinctive directors, his main thematic interests are already starting to emerge in Early Bergman. Throughout his career, he has always been fascinated by what drives people together and tears them apart. Be it the interpersonal relationships of women or the special dynamics of marriage, a Bergman film is almost like a game of Jenga where the building blocks are human interactions. By removing one element at a time, he finds what pieces really matter, what aspects of each personality allows their relationships to stand and which ones create the inevitable downfall. Amidst this turmoil, his characters step up to some line, are forced to confront issues of faith and identity, and test their strength. Sometimes they end up okay, sometimes it all goes to hell, but the movies almost always ring utterly true.

If the styles of the films given here seem hesitant or all over the place, it's only because we are seeing an artist change his career focus from one medium to another, learning a new craft and trying to find his personal voice. That's the fun with a collection like Eclipse's Early Bergman: by putting these films together, it allows the viewer a greater understanding of how an artistic vision can come into focus.

The debut release from Criterion's new Eclipse series, Early Bergman is the portrait of a filmmaker in development. Using five movies spread over five years, the playwright and theatre director went from stage to screen, beginning as a screenwriter and easing straight away into captaining his own features. Trying on a number of genre trappings and experimenting with the language of film, Ingmar Bergman created his own style of interpersonal dramas, tracking the conflicts of conscience and the struggles of individuals against larger institutions--be they physical (school, bureaucracy), personal (marriage), or grand (religion, life itself). Some of elements work better than others, but by the fifth movie, the auteur emerges, and the journey from baby steps to running a real marathon is an education for film fans that also manages to be involving, thought provoking, and entertaining. As an experiment in presenting a moderately priced (about $16 a movie at full retail) package of films minus the bells and whistles, I deem it a success. Not every film in history needs to be combed over and celebrated with documentaries, commentaries, and other bells and whistles. Eclipse and Early Bergman are all about the movies, and that's just all right with me. It doesn't always have to be bigger, brighter, faster, more...you know?



Originally written March 27, 2007. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

UNDER THE VOLCANO - #410



Mexico has always been very good to John Huston. He directed several movies set south of the border with consistently good results. In 1948, he shot The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and showed what the pursuit of gold could do to a man's soul. In his 1984 film Under the Volcano, there is no tangible treasure being sought. The soul is already too far gone, everything else is immaterial. Or perhaps it's the soul itself that's being hunted for.

It's the Day of the Dead, and a drunken Englishman named Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) wanders from bar to bar in search of more drink. Recently divorced, he's resigned his post as the British consul to Mexico, but it's not clear if either event is related or if these are the sorrows he seeks to drown. All that is obvious is that he is lost and heartbroken, stuck in a world that celebrates death without any real awareness of the consequences of it. It's 1938, and as veteran of WWI, he knows what war is--or so he says. His tales of his escapades grow larger the drunker he becomes, proving he's an unreliable source. (Is it possible he didn't resign as consul, even, but was defrocked?) Regardless, Geoffrey sees his country tumbling once more into a clash with the Germans and taking the rest of the world worth it. He even believes that the Nazis are funneling money into Mexico to form a political party there, a story his journalist brother, Hugh (Anthony Andrews), has come to Mexico to investigate.

Geoffrey is at the end of his tether. A well-meaning friend drags him to church to pray, but his efforts are pitiable. He can only manage to ask that his ex-wife, Yvonne (Jacqueline Bissett), return to him. It's possible the Virgin Mary heard his pleas, because Yvonne shows up at the bar where Geoffrey has chosen to greet the following morning. She escorts her husband home, shocked by his state of inebriation. It's hard to see her return as a blessing, though, more like divine retribution. Brother Hugh is also in town, having come to see his older sibling after dropping out of the Spanish Civil War (he was sympathetic to the Communists). Seeing his wife and his baby brother together is like being stuck between two live wires for Geoffrey. He believes that at one time they made a cuckold out of him.

It is here that Huston hangs Geoffrey out to further unravel. A day journey brings more alcohol, confrontations, and puts Geoffrey in the midst of the political turmoil he wisely advised Hugh to ignore. As night descends, the man gets more drunk and his situation gets more surreal. He shares drinks with midgets, whores, bandits, and a grim reaper or two. Geoffrey dreams of being William Blackstone, a frontiersman who walked unimpeded amongst the natives he studies; instead, Geoffrey has wandered into the abyss. The volcano metaphorically erupts.



John Huston pretty much had his movie as soon as he cast Albert Finney. Guy Gallo's script, adapting a novel by Malcolm Lowry, is verbose with drunken poetry. The part of Geoffrey demands that the actor feign high levels of intoxication at all times. Finney takes this on not just in his speech patterns, but in his physical presence, as well. He moves like heavy weights hang from invisible chains clamped to various parts of his body. The actor and his director revel in the morbid humor of the situation, the ridiculous things he says, the exaggerated reactions. Geoffrey's fellow Brits are all posh and mannered, seemingly above the surroundings they scamper through as tourists, whereas the Mexicans regard Geoffrey with the suspicion they would afford any outsider of this kind. To all of these people, he is either tragic or an opportunity. Whether they want to help him or rob him, it makes no difference, they all want to fleece him of something.

Under the Volcano was shot on location, using real Mexican towns rather than constructed sets. Huston must have seen the sparse reality of these places and realized that they would be different enough to the Western eye to stand as his figurative underworld. They appear to Geoffrey as the unexplored territories that Blackstone traveled to, full of friendly people and things to discover. Only it's already been discovered, civilization has been there, and the very concept of civilization has been rendered meaningless. The whole of everything seems to be slipping through Geoffrey's grasp. The tequila-soaked old man wants to take action, to do something to save the world, to do something for himself. Sadly, all he seems capable of is opening another bottle. The energy has been spent on drinks. What's left to do? Either wait it out or embrace the end.

The besotted man's final fate is, like the rest of the movie, buoyed on tiny pillows of comedy but ultimately tragic. Man wrestling with death would be a regular theme in Huston's later work. He was seventy-eight when he lensed Under the Volcano, likely grappling himself with the shifting movie business and its destruction of art for the sake of commerce. The great director was an old master who persevered through many different cycles of cinematic history, from the golden age of the studio system through the unleashed glories of the '60s and '70s. The blockbuster '80s would be his final act, and this is the movie that kicked it off, in its own way kicking against the system and what was probably expected of a director of his advanced age. Seeing this film, one can only conclude that Huston may have been under the volcano, but it was only so that he might push the lava out with his bare hands.



Originally written October 23, 2007. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Monday, November 26, 2007

MOUCHETTE - #363



Mouchette is a young girl living in a hard world. Growing up in a small French town, she is subjected to derision from her teachers, the taunts of lecherous boys, and enforced labor from her bootlegger father. While regular life goes on all around her, Mouchette is forced to just watch. An anonymous kindness buys her a ride on the bumper cars at the local carnival, but the fun can never last. Real life will always intrude.

Robert Bresson's 1967 feature, Mouchette, is a harsh study of human cruelty. Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) couldn't have the odds stacked higher against her. The one person in the world that would likely show her love is now immobile. Her mother (Maria Cardinal) is too sick to get out of bed. Given her position in the family, maybe her illness is an indication of what happens to caring individuals in this rough existence. Regardless, it forces Mouchette to take on the motherly tasks, preparing everyone's meals and feeding her younger sibling. At one point, it even looks like she might try breastfeeding when there is no fire on the stove to heat the baby's milk. She's going to be forced to be an adult even before her body is capable.

And yet, in so many ways, Mouchette is still a child, and often a petulant one. It's hard to blame her for lashing out, though. Most days after school, she hides in the ditch and throws mud at the girls who laughed at her in class. To get home, she cuts through the backwoods, staying off the regular roads everyone else takes. It's not just a symbol of her outsider status, but also her place of solace. Out in nature, she can be alone, and it demands nothing in return. Perhaps that's why Mouchette shows more compassion toward a wounded rabbit than she does just about anyone else in the picture. (Mouchette is based on a book by Georges Bernanos, who also wrote the novel that inspired Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, another story where the solace of the natural world leaves its titular character with nowhere to hide from dark inevitabilities.)

Nature is unpredictable, however, and a bad storm ends up stranding Mouchette in the forest, the wild weather patterns setting up the wild night that will remove the last pieces of Mouchette's childhood. After an altercation between a poacher (Jean-Claude Guilbert, Au hasard Balthasar) and a gamekeeper (Jean Vimenet), Mouchette runs afoul of the poacher, and by the time she gets home, things there are taking a turn for the worse. The townspeople can sense the change in her, and the initial sympathy they extend to her is soon withdrawn. It doesn't matter, though. Mouchette doesn't know what to do with their kindness, anyway. Her final act in the movie could be one last indulgence in childhood that brings dire consequences, or she might be knowingly hurtling herself into the fate she's accepted. The beauty of the lingering final shot is that Bresson leaves the question up to you.

Mouchette bears some resemblance to Robert Bresson's previous feature, Au hasard Balthasar, the story of a small donkey who suffers the abuse of just about every human he encounters, and through his suffering, shows himself to be more human than they are. Little Mouchette is a more complex creature, because she is afforded the range of human responses. She can suck up her fate, harden herself against it, or retaliate in kind. Bresson favored working with non-actors. He referred to them as "models," and he pushed them towards performances that weren't performances, that were more a series of reflexive actions, movements that were so contrived they came off as natural. Nadine Nortier had never acted before Mouchette and she would never act again, thus making her the perfect model for Bresson to animate. The girl barely speaks through the picture, instead silently observing as the rest of society moves against her. Her expression gets harder as the obstacles pile up since any indulgence in a smile or laughter has only been met with a more violent slap (sometimes literally). Her face practically becomes a clenched fist. The performance is tragic and heartbreaking, not because Nortier lets us in, but mostly because she keeps us out.

Perhaps most striking in the face of Bresson's increasing disgust for our species' never-ending capacity for selfishness and meanness is the fact that he never let's his heroine give up. Even as she frustrates us with her tight-lipped stoicism and her bratty retaliation, it's hard not to cheer Mouchette on. Early in the film she cries often, but after that fateful turn, she gets it all out and doesn't let anyone make her cry again. As I reconsider that ambiguous ending once more, I lean toward seeing it as a finale that comes with one last act of defiance. Mouchette doesn't give in or give up, she takes charge.

Of course, she also does it alone, so maybe Bresson isn't letting us off the hook after all. Maybe standing against a hard life only takes us to harder, more isolated positions. In the prologue, Mouchette's mother refers to a stone that is inside her, a metaphor for her illness. But then, it could be where we all end up, weighted down, and the more we struggle, like one of the bird's ensnared in a poacher's trap, the more it hurts. Bresson only releases Mouchette by letting that full weight land on her, and thus pushing her under.



Originally written December 30, 2006. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

BLAST FROM MY OWN PAST: DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST - #222

Back in 2004, my editor at Oni Press, James Lucas Jones, asked me to contribute a DVD column to his relaunch of the Oni website. His emphasis was going to be on content, and though it was a comic book site, he felt there was enough crossover in the collector's market that it made sense. One certainly acquires and catalogues one's Criterions the way you would comic books, what with the spine number and all. The column was called "Can You Picture That?" and was a reference to the Dr. Teeth song in The Muppet Movie. It marks my first stumbling foray into regular movie criticism, and I find it sort of adorably naive now. These pieces are no longer available online, so I'll begin reprinting the Criterion ones here. Below, you will find my first--spoiler warning and all!--published February 17, 2004. I have excised the introduction and the second review, which was Disney's reissue of Alice in Wonderland.



[SPOILER ALERT: Okay, it's a comics site, and I know how you hate your stuff to be spoiled. The first review is more of a critical analysis. It tells everything. You've been suitably warned.]

#222 in the Criterion series is Diary of a Country Priest, the meditative 1950 film by Robert Bresson. It’s an interesting film, one about interpersonal relationships and the struggles of one man to be successful at his vocation.

On one level, Diary of a Country Priest is a religious picture, both a critique of modern religious life and an affirmation of the core faith. But that might be too simple, and for me, it held a deeper personal meaning when read with an eye on theological existentialism.

The Priest of Ambricourt is, as the title suggests, the Catholic leader of a small country parish. He is young, and this is his first assignment. This means, of course, he is starting at the bottom. He has been assigned to a hard-luck town, a place so cynical even the children attempt to tear this poor man down. Due to illness, his body is racked with pain, and as a result, the priest’s mind can’t grasp peace. He is attempting to forge a path with his beliefs, to do some good, but can’t find his way. As we learn from the voiceover that accompanies the writings of his diary entries, he can’t convince the townspeople to follow his lead, nor can he even find the simple companionship of honestly befriending them, and it’s causing him to doubt himself. His mentor from a neighboring town can do nothing to aid him. This stern yet kindly father figure is full of practical wisdom, to be sure, but all of his advice is designed to get a person by, but not to really engage. The worst thing he says is probably, “You’re not one of those who can speak and yet say nothing, but unfortunately, that’s what’s called for.” In an existential world, where all you have is yourself and your actions, doing nothing is the worst thing you can do.

No, the more important credo comes from the disgraced doctor who informs him that his motto is “Face up to it.” It’s a simple code for a man to live by. If life hands you a problem, then just deal with it. If the townspeople tell lies about you, you’ll live. And when the priest does become actively involved, counseling the Countess in the nearby manor, there is a certain irony in that the peace he brings her troubled soul may be the last straw for her ailing heart. A little contentment is too hard to come by. His supposed meddling is blamed for her death, yet he knows he did right (he even has a letter from her to prove it, but why show it; he himself says he’d defend his position against lies, but when only the truth is told, he’d rather be judged on his own merits--part of why he also doesn’t defend himself against charges of alcoholism). Everything is conspiring to keep this poor loser down, but he won’t sacrifice what he believes.

Ultimately, though, he is tossed one last obstacle, perhaps the worst of all. The Priest of Ambricourt is faced with his own death. He has contracted a cancer that one so young should never have contracted. It’s all over for him, hopeless. He considers another life. There is the foreign legion, which a young man he meets suggests he’d be perfect for, understanding what it’s like to live a life apart, a life with more heart--but that would just be trading one service for another. There is the other priest he knows, whose own illness has caused him to retire to private life, but the Priest of Ambricourt sees only damnation there. He can’t understand how his friend would give up on himself, and spends several of his last breaths trying to woo him back to the church.

The final shot we see of the Priest of Ambricourt of him alone in a dingy room. He looks out the window at the sun, and then turns back into the grime. Bresson illuminates his face, shining a light on his wide-eyed, ambiguous expression. We learn in postscript that as he died, he accepted his fate, saying, “All is grace.” He took every challenge life tossed at him, and he faced up to it, he held on to his beliefs. Kierkegaard called it the leap of faith, and certainly that is what we can intuit he is making as the light comes down on him. No matter how bleak it got, the Priest of Ambricourt believed there was something more, never giving up on his own design for life.

Some commentators suggest Bresson held the same place in cinema as his titular character represents for the clergy, railing against practicality while maintaining his vision (and said commentators often also take a much more downbeat view of Country Priest, reveling in the character’s failure rather than his resolve). I don’t think this is an uneasy equation to accept. There is a certain loving look to how Bresson shot his avatar. He tends to bathe him in warmth, giving him soft edges that are apparent in Criterion’s beautiful transfer. And then at the moments of transcendence--when he has passed out in the woods and receives aid from his enemy, the final revelation--he takes the fuzziness away and shoots his priest with absolute clarity. The composition can be gorgeously breathtaking, and for me, lends to the theory that this is an affirmation of one man’s triumph in the face of darkness.



Tuesday, November 20, 2007

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE - #359

This is the second of two reviews, along with Overlord, that has a permanent link from the movie's entry at the Criterion site.



Krzysztof Kieślowski's 1991 feature, The Double Life of Véronique, is a mysterious little movie. While it does tell a story in a semblance of conventional narrative, it's also an emotional jigsaw puzzle, a feat of storytelling agility that puts a lot of trust in its audience. Kieślowski is stingy with the exposition, instead asking us to follow and not to worry about where we are going. Our belief that he will get us somewhere will be its own reward.

Irène Jacob plays Weronika (pronounced Veronika), a Polish girl whose career as a pianist was crushed along with her finger in a car door. She is now in Krakow to pursue singing and by chance ends up earning an important seat on a famous choir. Her artistic pursuit comes with a price, however: it is putting a strain on her relationship with a man she left at home, and it also takes her away from her father, increasing her feelings of anxiety. She has a pervasive sense that something is missing in her life, that she is out of place with the universe.

Cut to a random day on the street of Krakow as a tour bus from France goes through the city square. Looking at the bus, Weronika spots Véronique. Also played by Jacob, Véronique is an exact double for Weronika, something the Polish woman recognizes instantly. The French version doesn't see the other at all, but something has now clicked between them, and they go away from this encounter with a connection, even if one of the pair has not discovered it yet.

Eventually, the story shifts to France and Véronique, a music teacher who shares some of the same concerns about identity as her Polish doppelganger. These become particularly strong after certain events happen to Weronika. A phantom pain is beamed across the European borders, and Véronique is possessed with a grief she cannot put a name to. A sensitive woman, this feeling of loss and dissociation forces her eyes open to the world around her, leading to another chance meeting. While Véronique's class watches a marionette show, the teacher and the puppeteer, Alexandre (Philippe Volter), notice one another, and when the performance is over, Véronique can't get this man out of her head. Shortly after, mysterious packages begin showing up in her mailbox, objects that connect her to Weronika for the audience and Alexandre within the story, and the missing element that Véronique has been searching for begins to come into view. This, too, will have an emotional cost.

Irène Jacob is luminous in the picture. She and Kieślowski were amazing for each other. While they were both excellent apart, their other work never quite compared to their combined efforts on Véronique and, a few years later, Red. Just like other famous actor/director couplings like Gong Li and Zhang Yimou, or even De Niro and Scorsese, they draw performances out of each other that no one else can get. As both versions of Véronique, Jacob manages to make them distinctive while giving the two women enough crossover to make it clear they are of the same spirit. It extends beyond the simple change of hairstyle or langauge. It's in how she emotes, how she carries herself. Weronika starts off more eager, given over to the sheer happenstance of living, whereas Veronique is more melancholy in her search. She maybe feels the love of others more distinctly, but by a tragic turn, also feels more alone because of it.



Kieślowski plays tricks with our perceptions in Véronique. The movie opens with a cityscape that is askew, knocking the viewer off balance. As he pulls back, we discover our point of view has been from a little girl looking out either a window or a kind of skylight, and we're unsure if what we saw was a reflection or the real thing, and even if it was right-side up or upside down. Later in the movie, we look at the world as it passes us in bus windows, imperfections in the glass causing pieces of the landscape to go in and out of distortion, or peering through a clear marble that has stars inside, casting a dreamy glow on the world. Similarly, Véronique's paramour is a puppeteer. When he makes two dolls that look like her and shows her how to manipulate them, it's almost like he is giving her the key to her own destiny, showing her how to be more active in her own life; at the same time, it has ironic results, as the appearance that he may embody the unseen force that wishes to take control (bringing the two Véroniques together or keeping them apart?) has the polarizing effect of pushing Véronique away. Even here, the meaning is purely down to how it strikes you. One doll is being brought to life, the other lays dormant on the table. What does the absence of one half of the equation mean for the identity of the other? Like the many images that double and mirror one another in Véronique, would they have had the same significance if shown all alone?

Though The Double Life of Véronique revels in the unexplained, it's never pretentiously obtuse. The master's touch that Krzysztof Kieślowski gives to the film is to invoke our power of intuition. He is an expert at showing and not telling, but showing us in a way that makes us feel the events rather than intellectualize them. The final shots of The Double Life of Véronique are only a couple of snatched, silent moments. It doesn't put the entire picture into a little box and hand it back to us, telling us everything that the story meant, but yet we somehow walk away with a full sense of those things anyway. It's an experience you never forget, and it's why fans of the film have been so eager to finally see it released on DVD. Like the best memories from important times in our life, to relive and reexamine what Weronika and Véronique go through reignites those feelings and reaffirms the power of human instinct in our interactions with the people around us and, most of all, ourselves.



Originally written November 21, 2006. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Monday, November 19, 2007

THE LADY VANISHES - #3



The term "popcorn movie" is generally applied to films that are entertainment at its most pure. The kind of movies that are full of twists and turns and we dare not look away as we scarf down our popcorn, stuffing our face with fluffy snacks while our eyes are stuffed with movie fun.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 British thriller The Lady Vanishes is definitely a popcorn movie. This tightly plotted lark is custom built for suspense. Its charms are simple and true, the very kind of movie folks mean when they say, "They don't make them like that anymore." Though the original Criterion DVD, released in 1998 as the third in their long-running series, has been out of print for some time, The Lady Vanishes has returned at last, spruced up with a new transfer and a second disc of bonus features.

The Lady Vanishes opens in an out-of-the-way European town. An avalanche has stranded a host of travelers at a mountain resort overnight. No trains can leave until morning when all of the snow is cleared. The first twenty-five minutes of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder's script stays put at the hotel. Hitchcock and his writers are taking their time setting everything up, creating a false sense of security as they introduce the various characters that will become important once the mystery is underway.



Amongst the stranded are Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), two cricket-obsessed Englishmen trying to get back to Manchester in time to catch the last match of the season. Also hailing from the British isles is a loving couple (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers) who are married--just not to each other. Elsewhere, there is the spoiled socialite Iris (Margaret Lockwood), who throws her fiancée's money around like it was nothing, making sure she gets whatever she wants with plenty of well-placed bribes. This includes getting Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a scholar with a yen for folk dancing, thrown out of his room because the dancing he's studying makes too much noise. The two bicker over the situation, but Gilbert's seen the world, he's dealt with the overly privileged before.

And, of course, there is Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), the kindly governess ready to return home after six years of teaching music to mountain children. She is a kindly old lady, friendly to all, accepting of everything. While the rest of the cast trundle on chasing their own interests, Miss Froy enjoys the simple pleasures of life.

Not all is as it seems, however, and Hitchcock teases us with hints of darker doings. The serenading musician that Miss Froy enjoys under her window gets strangled, his attacker seen only as a sinister shadow. The next morning, when Miss Froy prepares to board the train, someone drops a planter on her. Only, they miss and clock Iris on the head instead. In its way, this mishap is convenient, because when Iris passes out while riding the rails, it gives everyone a convenient excuse to suggest that she's imagining things when she awakes to find Miss Froy gone. The Spanish couple in the travel car with her claim to have never seen an old English woman, as do the porters and everyone else on the train. Iris knows what she saw, but a respected doctor (Paul Lukas) also traveling on that line lends credence to the theory that the concussion has caused Iris to hallucinate. Only Gilbert is willing to listen to her, and that's just barely.

Once Miss Froy is gone, Hitchcock throws The Lady Vanishes into high gear. While he took his sweet time for the first third of the film, it was only to gather steam to really put the pedal to the metal when he started rolling out the thrills. Without the time spent with the other characters, the confusion stacking up around Iris wouldn't have made as much sense or had the same impact. We know that the lovers, for instance, are trying to keep a low profile, and so when Hitchcock has them lie about having seen Miss Froy, the audience is privy to their motives. It means we can believe in Iris, and her frustration is our frustration--perhaps even moreso, since we know how she's being duped.

At least to a degree. Hitchcock keeps the secret of Miss Froy's disappearance constantly out of reach. By the middle of the third act, I was almost convinced he was never going to tell us, and I wasn't sure that it would really matter. The sheer pleasure of The Lady Vanishes is how things continue to tumble down, piling on the obfuscation. The plot is like the avalanche that stranded everyone in the mountains: the more that falls, the more we have to stick with it. Each answered question brings up two more that are unanswered, and as viewers, we're so invested, we're not going anywhere until it's all sorted out.



As the engineer of this train ride, Hitchcock drives The Lady Vanishes with unparalleled glee. The old master took great delight in the silly things people do to preserve their own interests. A pulled shade means a great deal in a Hitchcock movie, because everyone has secrets they want to hide. This makes it all the more easy for the bad guys to keep the cover-up going. If everyone who could expose you is ducking out of the way so they aren't caught for something else, you're in the clear.

The Lady Vanishes is full of black humor and sly winks. Those winks are most evident in the relationship of Iris and Gilbert. Their meeting--her egocentric pouting, his caddish behavior--is a classic movie version of cupid's arrow. You just know these two are heading toward romance. He, of course, sees it long before she does. Why else would he hang around when there is so little evidence on her side? When his intentions do finally become clear, it's a wryly-humorous confession. How can Iris not swoon when Gilbert says he likes her because she reminds him of his father? Here I thought all boys wanted to marry their mother. What would Freud say?

Of course, Hitchcock is as much of a master of having fun with Freud as he is at creating suspense. There's a reason he puts this story on the rails. It's so that train can go through all those tunnels! Though, ironically, one of those times the tunnel not only keeps Gilbert from getting what he wants, but it erases the one clue Iris has managed to find to prove Miss Froy was really there. Surely Hitchcock isn't saying sex will only frustrate us and make us lose clarity?

Then again, such notions are part of the overall Maguffin of filmmaking. Details of this kind keep us entertained and looking in the wrong direction while Hitchcock pulls his tricks off to the other side. Thus, The Lady Vanishes keeps us riveted to the screen, oblivious to any implausibility, and ready to go wherever this locomotive takes us. As with Hitchcock's later and greatest work, it's the kind of movie that just gets more intriguing the more you watch it. Details give way to details, and the more you know, the more fun you have. Popcorn after bucket of popcorn, The Lady Vanishes never dulls.



For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

READER MEET AUTHOR - November 22, 2007

A short interruption of our usual content to let anyone reading this blog who may not be aware of my other work that I have a special event coming up this week.

This Tuesday, November 20, 2007, I will be reading at Powell's Books on Burnside in Portland, Oregon. The event starts at 7:30, and it's free. I'll be reading from my latest novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? and maybe a short story.

I hope everyone in Portland can make it. It's a big room, I don't want to sit alone.

Here is the entry on the Powell's site. If for whatever reason you need more info about the store, including location address, etc., their site should have it.

Spread the word!

I should have a review of the new edition of The Lady Vanishes up soon. Coincidentally, that movie is mentioned in Horizon as part of a short section where one of the main characters rides the rails and ruminates about Hitchcock movies and trains. So, this all ties in. I promise!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

SAWDUST & TINSEL - #412



Ingmar Bergman is one of those artists who took some time to bloom. His early career is populated with a string of films that weren't successful financially, and which show a director struggling to find his voice. Made in 1953, Sawdust and Tinsel is his thirteenth film, and it precedes his breakout feature, Smiles of a Summer Night, by two years. Even so, in the video introduction he recorded for Sawdust in 2003, Bergman calls it the first good movie he made, despite a tepid response from critics and audiences.

To take it further, I'd daresay that Sawdust and Tinsel, released on DVD for the first time by the Criterion Collection, has more in common with his late '50s masterworks like The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring than Smiles does. In this early Bergman motion picture, we can begin to see the complicated emotional drama and penchant for off-kilter imagery that would define much of the Swedish filmmaker's work.

The film opens as a ragtag circus makes its way across the European countryside early in the morning. Cold, battered, and quiet, this caravan shows little of the fun and frolicking that is usually associated with circuses. The ringmaster, Albert (Ake Grönberg), goes and sits with the driver of the lead wagon, and the horseman reflects on a story from seven years before, when the troupe's pasty-faced clown Frost (Anders Ek) caught his wife Alma (Gudrun Brost) swimming naked with a bunch of soldiers who paid her to strip for them. Encouraged by the others to be a man and take back what is his, Frost doesn't have the cajones to stand up to the soldiers. The best he can do is swim out and bring his wife to shore. The laughter of the crowd strikes him as if riddled by bullets, and the poor clown--a stand-in for the common everyman, it could be any of us under that make-up--collapses. Instead of carrying his wife back to camp, she has to carry him.

This early anecdote serves two purposes: it shows the dark cloud that hangs over Albert's circus troupe and acts as an indicator for how Bergman is using performance and spectacle purposefully. For this interlude, he and cinematographer Sven Nykvist give the story an old-time look and feel. The whites are blown-out, and the heavily pantomimed action runs mostly without dialogue, the only audio being music, like a silent film. It's as if Bergman is backtracking. He is making a modern film, but by using old film styles, he takes one step back, taking us along with him toward even older performance arenas, the circus and the traditional stage.




Once the circus gets to town, Bergman puts together a multifaceted social drama, the structural complexity of which, as well as the focus on infidelity, makes it a darker cousin to Smiles of a Summer Night. Who wants to be with whom, and whom will they sleep with instead?

The current stop happens to be the town where Albert left his family, and he intends to go see his wife (Annika Tretow) and two sons for the first time in three years. This makes his current lover, the Spanish horse rider Anne (a buxom Harriet Andersson), feel insecure. Deciding this is her time to get out of the circus life, she goes into town thinking that a lothario actor (Hasse Ekman) will take her in. It's not a bad instinct, because Albert is also trying to jump from the caravan and settle back down at home. Both of them are dreaming larger than they are capable of. Here, though, is where Albert's story crosses with Frost's. Realizing that Anne has cheated on him, and denied by a wife whose financial security depends on Albert staying out of her life, his very manhood is called into question. Will he just drop down and take it like Frost, or is Albert capable of more?

Sawdust and Tinsel in a lot of ways feels more like fodder for Federico Fellini than it does Ingmar Bergman. The Italian director loved looking backstage and showing the lives of performers. One mustn't forget, however, that Bergman has written and directed stage plays his entire career, even after he retired from film, and he wrote about actors even as late as Fanny and Alexander. At this stage in Fellini's filmography, he would have been more fascinated with the female performers than even Bergman was. Though Bergman calls attention to the thin line between performing for the pleasure of others and prostitution, and the humiliations women often suffer, Sawdust and Tinsel is more in tune with the male cuckolds. The men are at various times framed in mirrors, either searching for or revealing their true nature in the glass. There is a split between Albert, who can barely face himself, and the actor, Frans, who isn't afraid of the things he so deviously hides.



In a similar vein, Bergman also uses make-up as a metaphor. Both the circus performers and the actors wear make-up in their work. Frost uses heavy powder to completely obliterate any pretense to being socially functional, whereas Frans wields it as a weapon of seduction and deception. When he and Anne are alone, the phrase "war paint" takes on a whole new meaning. Frans notes how poorly Anne's make-up is applied and tells her that he can show her how to do it properly. The sexual threat of the scene is clear, the tension rising as Anne first submits to the treatment and then tries to get out of it.

Adding further to the layers that separate these people is Bergman's clear delineation of the social strata that puts the circus at the bottom of the pack. The theatre people have a permanent place in town, but just as with everything else with the actors, it's a false placement. They can play the part of being respectable citizens, but they are wolves in sheep's clothing. Frans would make no more suitable a husband than Albert. Both types of performers are really just grist in the town's entertainment mill.

The final act of Sawdust and Tinsel takes place entirely at the circus. It's the performance night and the morning-after tear down. Under the big top, Albert is meant to be the master, and it's here that Bergman will lather on the irony and mete out his punishment. The tragic flailing of the ending is painful to watch--a reeling, impressionsitc battle of both body and will. When it comes down to it, the circus ring is its own circle of Hell, closed and unbending. Thus, it's fitting that the end of the film first shows Frost and Albert walking alone, men who see their position in this world all too clearly, bringing both a bitter resignation and one hope's a happy acceptance.



For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Friday, November 16, 2007

THE THIRD MAN - #64

"It's not that I enjoy puddling in the mess, but if there's a mess, I feel that it's our duty to look at it." - Graham Greene, writer of The Third Man



There's a wonderful symmetry to Carol Reed and Graham Greene's classic of British noir, The Third Man. In something akin to the interplay of light and shadow that so epitomizes the movie's visual style, there is also an interplay of various elements in the story itself. Perception and reality, reputation and action, and the solid, old fashioned morality of good and bad. Survivors in this story stand in the gray, neither too enveloped by shadow or too exposed by the light. Forcing the world to conform to an either/or scenario will only be your downfall.

The Third Man is the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a pulp novelist who has traveled to post-War Vienna on the request of his school chum, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Believing he is coming to the bombed-out city to help with a medical charity, Holly is surprised to discover that Harry has died in what the police are calling an accident. Other versions of the story suggest it's murder. The loud and brash American wants Calloway (Trevor Howard), the more reserved British officer who had been investigating Harry, to look into the incident, but in Austria--a territory now divided by several different nations and thus criss-crossed by various standards of laws and lawlessness--such deaths will all come out in the wash. According to his police file, Harry Lime wasn't a very nice dude, and the city's populace is better off without him. Holly refuses to accept that Harry isn't the stand-up guy he always knew--even though even he admits that Harry was always running some kind of racket--and starts poking his nose where it doesn't belong. He's consistently warned away, but his cowboy naivete shoves him hopelessly forward. It's Graham Greene's self-reflexive critique--the writer is going to have to learn the difference between the easy morals of the printed page vs. the complications of the real world.

The title refers to a mysterious figure who was there at Harry's death but whom no one will officially identify. Holly believes the key to finding the truth is uncovering the identity of the third man. In another nice piece of symmetry, Holly picks up a female sidekick along the way. Anna (Alida Valli) is a Czech actress who was Harry's lover, and she's the only person besides Holly who will ever swear to Harry doing a bit of good. Together, they will have their belief in the man they knew tested, and Holly will also become smitten with her. Does he really love her, though, or is it a kind of playground payback for another indiscretion years prior? (Anna even calls him Harry a couple of times.) Or, once again, must it really be one or the other? All we really know is that only Anna's cat is truly loyal to the missing figure. He doesn't trust Holly, but he still has a thing for Harry.

The Third Man has earned a reputation based on three major components. First, the dark visual style. Reed plays up the noirish paranoia by taking full advantage of shadows, showing men in silhouette or their figures cast across a stone wall. The climactic chase through the Austrian sewers is dizzying and exciting, taking us down into the metaphorical underground of men's souls via the foreboding tunnels pumping their real world waste. The second component is the zither music, and the famous Harry Lime theme that would become an international hit.

The third, not coincidentally, is Harry Lime himself. As played by Orson Welles, he is an attractive scoundrel. When he shrugs and asks his pal what the big deal is, it's hard not to chime in, "Yeah, Holly, what's the big deal?" His entrance in the movie is often cited as one of the most famous in cinema. Where first there was darkness, then there is light, and with it, Welles' impeccable naughty-boy smirk. The amazing thing is that Welles is barely in the movie, only a couple of scenes. Oftentimes, when a movie is about how everyone is obsessed with one particular person, that person isn't interesting enough to make us understand why anyone is getting so bent out of shape. In this case, we see exactly why Harry Lime is the eye of this particular storm.

The director Reed and the writer Greene would collaborate together several times, but The Third Man is definitely their best effort. Perhaps it's telling that this is the one story they developed exclusively for the screen. It's a virtuoso thriller, full of twists, turns, and red herrings galore. Black humor that's really funny, slithering menace that really feels threatening, and a grisly denouement that ranks amongst noir's most cynical finales. If you've ever been concerned before, or even let down, by a film not living up to its reputation, The Third Man should cause no such concerns. This is the real deal, one that others will always be measured against.

The Third Man is an absolute must.



Originally written May 22, 2007. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

THE FALLEN IDOL - #357



Director Carol Reed and author Graham Greene had several successful collaborations together, including the original work The Third Man and the much later adaptation of Greene's novel Our Man in Havana. Their 1948 film The Fallen Idol is maybe more unique among them for the way it eschews the regular conventions of a crime film and imagines what it would be like to view misdeeds from much smaller eyes.

Actually, to reduce The Fallen Idol to being a movie that is exclusively from a child's point of view would be to do it a disservice. Yes, its particular charm is that its plot ebbs and flows on the whims and dubious interpretive skills of an elementary school boy. Simultaneously, however, Reed and Greene also unlock the door to the rarefied world of a foreign embassy, an existence within regular society and standing apart from it. It's a world where anything can happen because it is beyond the gaze of normal citizens, and the true trouble comes from when a reality where anything is possible butts heads with a child's imagination, another pocket universe where anything can be perceived as possible.

First-time child actor Bobby Henrey plays Phillipe, the son of a foreign ambassador to England. Phillipe's father doesn't take an active role in his care, and his mother has lived away from them for some time. This leaves the fathering to Baines (Ralph Richardson, Richard III), the kindly butler who lives at the embassy. His treatment of the lad couldn't be more opposite from the boy's relationship with Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), who attempts to run the house with an iron fist. On the weekend over which Fallen Idol takes place, the ambassador is heading home to meet his wife and ferry her over to England. It's an attempt to restore familial order that is coming a little too late.

After Phillipe has a row with Mrs. Baines, he is confined to his room. Only, when he sees Mr. Baines leave for an afternoon walk, the boy sneaks out and follows him. He finds the father figure in a tea shop whispering with a younger woman. Julie (Michèle Morgan, Passage to Marseille) isn't Baines' niece, as he tells Phillipe she is, but of course, they are having an affair. Phillipe has seen it all, but he doesn't understand what it is that he's seen. Ironically, the bigger problem is going to come when he doesn't see something but thinks he knows what happened.

Once Baines has asked the child to be a part of his secret, it creates yet another world for Phillipe to navigate. When Phillipe inadvertently tells Mrs. Baines about her husband's rendezvous, she too asks the boy to keep quiet. If he were an adult and this kind of deception was just another part of his everyday life, then Phillipe might find it easier to juggle, but with so many secrets to keep straight, he no longer has a clear picture of where he's standing.



Things seem to be taking a turn for the better when Mrs. Baines goes away for the weekend. Julie comes over for dinner with the men, and they play a game of hide and seek afterwards. The huge house, which already stands alone as a transplanted chunk of foreign soil, becomes their private domain. The secret Baines has led Phillipe into becomes the trio's whole reality. It creates a sense of safety for the child. He is once more in a place that is comfortable.

Except Mrs. Baines has tricked them. She didn't go away at all. She comes crashing into their idyllic existence, and her invasion sends things spiraling out of control. A legitimate accident causes her to fall to her death, but since Phillipe didn't see the action, only the aftermath, he is convinced that murder has taken place. This not only sends him running out into the real world, careening through beautifully lit cobblestone alleyways, but her death acts as an invitation for the real world to muscle its way into what has previously been a private domain. As Baines attempts to cover the elements that will make him look guilty, Phillipe is thrust in over his head. Thinking he is helping, he tries to lead the police away from his friend, but he only pushes them towards Baines. As the butler tries to explain himself, he must also unravel the fictions he has told the boy in an attempt to amuse him. Phillipe sees his hero disintegrate before his eyes. He no longer knows what to believe.

Reed and Greene have put their young protagonist in a situation that is going to test the limits of his innocence. Early in the film, Baines says that a lie isn't so much of a lie if it's intended to be kind. This kind of moral degree is beyond the scope of a child, and Phillipe is out of his depth. Reed teases an excellent performance out of his young charge. The actor's natural precociousness comes to good use when it's time for Phillipe to drive the police batty with his ever-changing story. Up until that point, Henrey is constantly chattering and bobbing around the set. The audience is nearly exasperated with him, as well, so it's easy to believe that the stalwart detectives have lost their patience.

Thematically and stylistically, The Fallen Idol has much in common with Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. In both movies, a young person loses faith in the adult they previously admired because of certain indiscretions they think they've discovered. Reed is being trickier, however, in that he has already informed his audience that Baines is innocent. The tension comes from our fear that it won't matter, that his concerns of how the truth might incriminate him will become the noose around his neck. Ralph Richardson is amazing. As Baines' life sinks deeper and deeper into the morass, his face falls, his body slumps, and his voice loses volume. It's hard not to feel for the old guy. Nothing seems to be going his way.

The Fallen Idol maintains its grip on our nerves right up until the very last shot, where Reed lets both us and his young star off the hook. The finale is one big sigh of relief, a reassurance that the hard lessons Phillipe has learned can be set aside at least for a little while. Maybe he'll eventually understand why Baines did what he did, maybe he won't, but we at least know that life will go on. That's the best thing about a suspense film, the release of the tension, a payoff for the nail biting we have gone through. It's to Carol Reed and Graham Greene's credit that they didn't just go for the shocks, but sculpted characters that feel and breathe and learn, as well. We could get an ulcer from our fear that they might be too badly damaged, but our reward is the hope that the barriers that have segregated them are now gone, leaving them to carry on stronger than before.



Originally written November 2, 2006. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ - #411



In the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, which in some ways serves as a kind of alternative text book for adventurous cinephiles looking for a resource for finding important lost films, a commentator describes Berlin Alexanderplatz as a large meal. It's hard to come up with something better than that. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15-plus hour epic is a lot to digest, a banquet of a movie that one begins devouring when the hours are young and is not done feasting upon until the day grows short.

Originally shown on German television in 1980 in fourteen parts (thirteen main chapters of about an hour each and a somewhat disjointed, two-hour epilogue), this sprawling adaptation of the 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin is a long-unseen curio of cinema history. Outside of its airing on the Z Channel and I believe some outings on public television, it hasn't been shown much in the United States except for a few theatres that programmed it as an event lasting several nights. A video store near me has a bootleg copy on VHS, but apparently only two customers have ever completed the entire thing--which is likely due to the quality of the bootleg more than it is the quality of the project.

Because make no mistake, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a fierce triumph. By the end of the first DVD (Criterion has put the entire show on six discs, with a seventh for supplements) and the first two episodes, after approximately two-and-a-half hours of the feast, I had consumed more than offered in most single-serving movies, and yet I was only just getting started. I was eager to sample the next course.

The story opens in the mid-1920s. Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), a WWI veteran and former pimp, is being releases from prison after serving a four-year sentence for accidentally murdering his prostitute girlfriend in a fit of rage. He's a portly, imposing figure, yet life beyond the prison gates appears loud and scary compared to the isolation of his sentence. Though the guard tries to comfort him and tell him that it hasn't been so long, that the world is ready to accept another lost soul like him, this reassurance hides a dark portent: he says that times are bad for everyone. Things aren't going to be as easy as Franz might hope, the world hasn't sat still waiting for him. (As if that wasn't enough of a warning, Fassbinder titles his first chapter "The Punishment Begins." Thank goodness that's not a warning for the viewer, as well!)

There are going to be many strange waters for Franz to navigate, not the least of which is troubles within his own soul. He is paranoid about how regular citizens perceive him, an anxiety only reinforced by the strict rules he must follow as a convict. He's also developed a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder and gets caught on certain phrases, repeating them an undetermined amount of times before he can finally move on.

This makes Franz a man ripe to be exploited by the social turmoil that is about to erupt in Germany. Though he may wish to live a normal life on the straight and narrow, earning a living and loving his new girlfriend, Lina (Eisabeth Trissenaar)--herself an unbalanced, mercurial creature--there wouldn't be much of a narrative to be had if this were something easily achievable. In pretty short order, he finds that this is not as easy a task as it would seem, every conceivable job has either a personal pitfall or a political snag. Selling one particular newspaper, for instance, puts him in league with the Nazis and at odds with the Bolsheviks. Though he professes to have no real allegiance to any one movement, he has almost convulsive political outbursts that reveal there is more beneath the surface than he is letting show.



Really, Berlin Alexanderplatz could be subtitled "The Education of Franz Biberkopf." He is a scattered man, easily influenced by others. His ever-changing station is subject to whatever theory he has most recently concocted about the human animal and that unpredictable animal's disproving of said theory. His first instinct is to put his trust in the honor of others and the right of the individual to forge his own way, but a personal betrayal shakes his belief in the fundamental goodness of man. This leads to a semi-religious exile and one of the early highlights of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Episode 4, "A Handful of People in the Depths of Silence," has parallels to Jesus' final temptations during his fast in the desert and the trials of Job. Franz has to push through his cynicism and restore his faith in order to pull himself out of this particular pit of despair. If only he had it as easy as Job, though, because the tests Franz will face are far from over.

His new philosophy when he returns to Berlin proper is that people are strange, and one can only shrug at the strange things they do. He becomes a newspaper seller again, sticking to his commitment to be a good man. His big problem, though, is that the bar that serves as his second home and the friends he keeps are still part of the criminal underworld he has sworn to leave behind. This makes it hard for Franz to stay out of trouble. He has a dream at the start of Episode 6 where he is an innocent sparrow and one of his newest friends, Reinhold (Gottfried John), is a snake that lashes out and bites him when he least expects it. More fitting would have been a dream about Reinhold as a weasel, since John looks like one of the rodents out of Disney's Wind in the Willows. The actor creates one of the slimiest, most scummy screen villains to ever cross in front of the camera. Stuttering through his oily speeches, his stammer keeping time with his twitchy eyebrow, his face always betrays the false sincerity of his voice.

Reinhold starts up a particularly despicable pattern with Franz. Every time that the snake gets tired of his latest girlfriend, he passes it to the bird, and the bird passes the previous girl on to someone else, just like the pair of galoshes and other articles of clothing Reinhold uses as his pretense for sending the ladies to Franz's apartment. Women are an inconstant in Franz's life. Only one ever sticks around for long, his original prostitute, the woman he ditched when he took up with the one he ended up killing all those years ago. Eva (Hanna Schygulla) has a new pimp, but her devotion is to her first, to Franz. She appears at regular intervals, a rescuing angel.

Another constant is Franz's old cohort in crime, the always ready and capable Meck (Franz Buchrieser). Meck is the guy you can count on in any situation, who always has the angle, but he can't understand why Franz makes it so hard on himself. He and Reinhold both try to get Franz to rejoin the criminal element. They are in a gang run by Pums (Ivan Desny), a syndicate boss masquerading as a businessman. Pums would be more than happy to have Franz in the gang, and when the guys run a con on Franz, tricking him into betraying his own oath, Franz is forced to change his view of humanity once again.



The life-altering heist in Episode 6, "Love Has Its Price," causes changes in Franz that he won't be able to forget easily. As he emerges from his convalescence in Episode 7, he realizes that what all of these betrayals keep telling him is that he must stand alone, and if the straight-and-narrow is not truly open to him, he will dip his toe back into the darkside. He starts fencing for a newer, slicker operator, a shiftless dandy named Willy (Fritz Schediwy) and lets Eva send him a new girl, a young thing whom he playfully dubs Mieze (Barbara Sukowa). By concerning himself only with what he needs and letting the outside world drift--he even puts his friendship with Meck to rest--Franz finds a new contentedness. It is perhaps best exemplified by the alleyway he passes through daily, a carnal side street where perverts can chase their sickest desires in a carnival atmosphere. Franz listens to the barker's well-practiced sales pitch, ripped straight out of the Book of Revelations, and though he recognizes the artistry in it, he also knows that it's only a false front. Things are never as good as they seem, and knowing that keeps him from sliding into its vice-like grip (pun intended).

Ironically, though, this newfound contentedness is the beginning for the end for Franz. He surrenders his emotions to Mieze, and eventually starts letting others dictate what he should do, letting that self-sufficiency slide by the wayside with his oath to do good. They take his last remaining vices from him, leaving him only his thoughts. The past is always with him, shown to us in the oft-repeated scenes of the murder of Ida and images of life in prison. No matter how far forward he goes, these are his defining moments, and their constant presence makes the present a whole new kind of prison for Franz.

For Franz, it's a regression. If the first half of Berlin Alexanderplatz was his education, the second half is the man forgetting all that he learned. Once he stops searching for an answer to life's questions, he falls back into old habits, tumbling into his own history and its unavoidable repetition. His final trial is going to be to face himself, to answer for all he has done and, possibly worse, what he has allowed (and even enabled) to be done.

Fassbinder shot his movie like a conventional narrative. There are certain dreamlike qualities to it, such as the sparkle of light that bounces off of an actor's eye or their smiling teeth. Common lamps hang above the heads of people like guiding stars, and the air becomes alive with glitter and sparkle. There are also scenes where the performers freeze so the camera can get a 360-degree view of them or when the actors circle objects themselves, pacing the scenery as if this were a stage production. Yet, the bulk of the movie is gritty and real. You can almost feel the dust and the grime of city life between your fingers and smell the stale beer and sweat. Where Fassbinder indulges a more fanciful side is in keeping an omniscient eye that watches over the story, like an all-knowing author of a roving narrative. This first manifests as an outside speaker dryly informing us of the situation and happenings in the world tangential to what we are seeing. The director also allows his characters' interior monologues to be heard, coming out at times of distress or indecision. Sometimes more than one character's thoughts erupt at the same time, overlapping in a tango of panic and rushed emotion. This makes Berlin Alexanderplatz the cinematic equivalent of the kind of juicy European novel upon which it is based. Rather than being driven by one character or central circumstance, it embraces the full panoply of the human drama it portrays.

A notable tool at Fassbinder's command is the music of Peer Raben. The director and the composer lay music over the images carefully. In some of the early episodes, the score is spare and barely noticeable. In later episodes, it gets more elaborate and often runs uninterrupted through a scene. When Franz must confront one of his lovers, Cilly (Annemarie Düringer), not wanting to be underhanded with her when Reinhold is looking to trade partners again, Raben plays a repetitious, cascading line on piano, creating an inescapable tension in the scene that reinforces the connection between the two characters--a connection they cannot break as long as the music plays.



It's kind of funny what a gargantuan image Berlin Alexanderplatz has. People view it as a huge undertaking. Having now gone through the whole cycle over a course of a few nights, I don't think anyone should find it daunting. Perhaps the problem is in its regularly being cast as one large movie, which challenges our social conditioning that says a movie is supposed to be under a certain length. Yes, Berlin Alexanderplatz is one complete narrative, it is that scrumptious banquet I compared it to at the outset of this review. Yet, it is no larger in size than your average season of a complicated HBO series like The Sopranos or The Wire. Really, since Berlin Alexanderplatz was originally made for television, it is the prototype for the modern cable drama. Though the show is presented in individual, hour-long episodes that stand on their own as complete stories, they are also part of one overarching narrative. Each segment pushes the bigger story forward while still satisfying unto itself. (Other parallels to The Sopranos include Günter Lamprecht's physical resemblance to James Gandolfini and the extended dreamscape of the final episode, which is the one element of Berlin Alexanderplatz that challenges the mental endurance of the individual viewer.)

Just as with a gripping season of a TV series or an involving novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz is an addictive experience. Once you are in it, you don't want to stop going, and time passes as if it isn't even there. It's really a shame that this masterpiece, a crowning achievement of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's over-achieving career, has been out of circulation for so long. This new Criterion boxed set is another reason we are fortunate to be living in the age of DVD. Week after week, the new release slate puts more and more previously unattainable cinematic gems within our reach. It was thrilling to finally see Berlin Alexanderplatz, and having been satisfied by its particular flavors once, it's going to be a recipe I'll want to serve up again and again.




For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.