Wednesday, January 28, 2009


A small sailboat becomes the center of male competition in Roman Polanski's tense 1962 debut, Knife in the Water. When a middle-aged Polish couple heads out for a Sunday on the water, they nearly crash their car trying to avoid a hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) whose technique for flagging down rides is to stand in the middle of the road and play chicken with oncoming cars. At first angry, the husband, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk), curses the nineteen-year-old; yet, he also senses his wife's attraction and sympathy for the boy, so to prove a point, he gives the hitcher a ride and then convinces him to go out on their trip with them.

From the get-go, Andrzej and the boy are at odds. The boy shows off his knife, and Andrzej shows off his boat, knowing the kid doesn't have the skills to handle it. The hitcher and his knife make claims to being tied to the land, where a man lives on his feet and by his hands, where a knife is necessary. A blade is ineffective against water, and Andrzej is convinced the open sea requires more skill and mental tenacity to navigate. It's philosophical and it requires tactical know-how, you can't just hack and slash your way through. He claims the mantle of skipper and orders the boy around. It's the battle of young and old, father and son, a clash of generations.

And yet it's totally childish. The men show off for one another, and what each one does, the other has to try. If Andrzej can captain the boat, the young man wants to do it, too. When the young man plays a game with his knife where he lays his hand flat, splays his fingers, and stabs the blade in between them, Andrzej sheepishly picks the weapon up when the boy is not looking and takes a crack at it himself. When the boy whistles, the older man shushes him, invoking a maritime superstition, but then whistles himself, either forgetting or having now been caught in a lie. When the hitcher makes fun of a tool Andrzej uses to hold a hot metal soup pot, Andrzej goads him into holding it with his bare hands.

One would think the two men are showing off for the benefit of Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), Andrzej's wife and the woman after which the sailboat has been named. Half the time, though, it doesn't even look like they notice her. Even though it's taken for granted that she is the unnamed prize of this standoff, Polanski and his writers, Jerzy Skolimowski and Jakub Goldberg, understand that most masculine contests are contests of approval. In some way, the youngster wants dear old dad to think he's okay, while pops wants the kid to think he's cool. (Copying his whistling may be an unconscious attempt on Andrzej's part to appear youthful.) There is also a touch of the homoerotic when they play their knife game, with Andrzej submitting to let the other man work the blade through his fingers. Still, they never touch one another, and Polanski smartly withholds any real violence until it really matters; it's almost more pathetic when no one is getting punched in the nose.

Polanski is also sly enough to underplay Krystyna's role. Her reactions are few and far between, and they mostly are the result of exasperation that the boy doesn't know what to do and her husband won't just get it over with and tell him. From the first time we see Krystyna, however, Polanski locks us into a slow physical seduction. In the car, she has her hair up and wears pointed secretary classes. She is pretty, but she is holding back--not waiting to be unleashed like some sexy librarian stereotype, but instead waiting to reveal herself and her role in all of this. As soon as the group is on the water, Krystyna changes into a skimpy bikini. The male gaze is immediately drawn to her. The boy--and the viewer--is always aware of where she is, and Andrzej--along with, once again, the viewer--is always aware that he's aware. He catches every little look, including the boy sneaking a peek when she is changing, as well as noting every time Krystyna comes to the young man's defense.

The dichotomy here is probably best represented in a scene down in the hull, where the three of them have retreated to wait out a rainstorm. They play pick-up sticks (or jackstraw, as it's called here), and every time someone loses, he or she has to forfeit some personal object. Krystyna gives up a shoe, the young man his belt and then his knife--prompting another contest, a phallocentric knife toss, which Krystyna stops after the boy's second throw, blocking her husband from getting a second try in the contest. She then asks what she must do to get her shoe back. The boy demands a song, an idea Andrzej shoots down. He'd rather listen to the boxing match on the radio. They compromise, and Andrzej puts on an earpiece. His wife sings with a girlish shyness, prompted by the boy, and then in return, he recites a poem for her to regain his belt. Her song is one of troubled love, his poem is about a young man's desires. For his part, Andrzej can only wonder aloud how he missed the announcement of the Polish middleweight champ getting defeated. "How did he get k.o.'d?" he asks, completely oblivious to the irony of the question. How did the inattentive husband get knocked out in his own boat?

If you consider that the boat is named for Krystyna, it's a none-to-subtle reinforcement of what the battle between the two men is over, and since it's the boat they rely on to get them home, also an indicator of who might be in control. By morning, Krystyna's transformation is complete. The once bundled-up woman now has her hair down, and she sits smoking on the deck, wearing only a long sweater that suggests she may have nothing on underneath (strangely, she's concealing a one-piece bathing suit, which is like the heftier twin of her bikini, a similar style and the same color). She has completely freed herself from the restraints of the land, she is fully sexualized, and it prompts a showdown.

Just as Krystyna finds a certain feminine freedom on the water (a fertility symbol, no less), so too are the men free now of the restraints of polite society. Though there is surprisingly little action in this climactic battle, it does call to mind the animal that was unleashed in Sam Bowden when he lead Max Cady out to sea for their final squaring off in both versions of Cape Fear. One can also imagine Michael Haneke taking notes in preparation for the cat-and-mouse of Funny Games. Yet, Polanski's pitting intelligence against libido calls to mind Peckinpah's Straw Dogs more than Haneke's cruel thriller. When Krystyna finally has her say, she could practically be summing up Peckinpah's conclusion: "You men, you're all the same." Of course, what she does next also has all the ambiguity of Peckinpah's sexual politics, and given Polanski's history and some of his other films, could be as hotly debated.

The choice to place Knife in the Water on a boat also has a visual significance that Polanski and his cinematographer, Jerzy Lipman, exploit to the fullest. The setting is its own contradiction: this trio has both everywhere to go and yet nowhere. On the boat, they are cramped, forced together, and Polanski frames them as such. At the same time, the world all around them is vast and open, and so he and Lipman can pull away to show their isolation on a grander scale. The travelers appear small against the vast sky, and the shore, along with the civilization it supports, far away, mere dots on the horizon. No one else is out there to see what they do to each other. A victim can't be saved, an aggressor won't be punished.

Though commonly classified as a thriller, Knife in the Water is less of a suspense film than it is a terse and cynical drama about marriage. The final scenes reveal what this has all been for. If the pick-up sticks game was the combination, the ending is the lock opening. Polanski chooses not to show us any decisions on the part of the couple, but rather to leave them stuck in between. Do they trust each other anymore? Did they ever? Has this all been a game to add a little spice to the stew? Or is this truly where two people bored with each other end up?

The second disc in the Knife in the Water Criterion set features eight of the short films Polanski made between 1957 and 1962. In them, you can see some of his obsessions and visual tics beginning to emerge. Early themes include crime, desire, and invasion. The earliest and shortest pieces, the completely soundless "Murder" and "Teeth Smile," show a single killing and a peeping tom, respectively. His first film with sound, "Break Up the Dance," features a staged prank where Polanski unleashes the town's delinquents on an unsuspecting school dance and films what happens when the outsiders make their way in. It's like his own initial assault on cinema. He even uses a figure diving into a fountain as the moment to cut the music and remove any pretense of good times at the gathering--water being integral to a lot of his films, including, of course, Knife in the Water and Chinatown. The prosecuting attorney in Polanski's sex scandal in the late 1970s even noted in the recent documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired that when he watched the director's films to get a sense of the man, the presence of water as the psychological fulcrum in the majority of his stories lent added significance to the fact that the sexual assault happened after Polanski photographed his victim in a jacuzzi.

The titular two men and their wardrobe in "Two Men and a Wardrobe" actually emerge from the ocean carrying their little piece of furniture. It's a dark take on the classic comedic duo paradigm, the men wandering through the city oblivious to the human cruelty that goes on around them. That is, until the mirror their wardrobe holds up to life reflects the wrong image and the city folk turn against them. Unlike, say, Laurel and Hardy, these two don't win in the end, they retreat, the only sign that they maintain their compassion as they return to the drink is they manage not to crush any of the sand turrets a little boy has erected on the beach.

Just as the two men came out of the vast sea, so too did that film take Polanski out of Poland. From there, his films would become more experimental ("The Lamp") and expansive ("When Angels Fall" features an old woman ruminating on the life she's lived, though the film lacks an integrity of point-of-view and Polanski has her remember things she would not have witnessed). To extend the notion of some of these shorts as parables for Polanski and his film career, then we could also see "The Fat and the Lean," with its young man (played by Polanski himself) enslaved to a brutish, corpulent older fellow with the dazzling Parisian skyline always within eyeshot as the Polish filmmaker yearning for a more discerning film industry than his homeland provided. Though, obviously, the short is most likely intended as a political allegory about the abuses of power and the way people begin to accept that abuse as compassion.

The set of shorts ends on a playful note, with Polanski returning to the idea of a comedic duo. "Mammals" follows two bumblers traversing across a snowy landscape. Ostensibly a string of gags, much of its purpose appears to be in allowing the director to experiment with film stock and various effects (the one man's flickering suit is bizarre, almost like a mistake--was it?). Like most of the films here, it is a silent movie. All but two of these selections ("Break up the Dance" and "When Angels Fall") are shot as silent films with only music and sound effects. Polanski didn't think short subjects should have dialogue getting in the way of the storytelling. That's quite a challenge for a rookie filmmaker, but by "Angels" and "The Fat and the Lean," the confidence that would lead to Knife in the Water is firmly in place--and well earned.

Polanski in "The Fat and the Lean"

Monday, January 19, 2009


I'm man enough to admit that I got a little misty eyed multiple times during Magnificent Obsession. They don't call movies like this tearjerkers for no good reason. A film like Magnificent Obsession is made with one express purpose: to wring every possible emotion out of you that it can. That's the whole reason for watching it.

Because on paper, Douglas Sirk's 1954 remake of the Lloyd C. Douglas novel is ludicrous and predictable. Were one to want to place himself above the material and sit in harsh judgment upon it, it would be pretty easy to do. Just as one might any kind of genre picture. To do so, however, would be to miss the whole point.

Magnificent Obsession stars Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick, a reckless playboy who likes fast machines and fast dames, and as we see at the start of the picture, he sometimes like to put those fast dames inside the fast machines and take them out for a spin at the same time. Fate has a funny way of interfering with guys like Bob. Just as the untimely death of his father--the elder Merrick was only in his 40s--put a fortune in Bob's hands and derailed his plans to follow in his father's footsteps as a surgeon, so too does a second twist of fate launch Bob back on the journey he originally intended. The millionaire flips his speed boat and nearly drowns, but a special resuscitation machine owned by Dr. Phillips, the head of the local hospital, brings the daredevil back from the brink; unfortunately, Dr. Phillips ends up needing the machine himself when he suffers a coronary, and since the key to his survival is across the lake helping Bob, he succumbs to the illness. The lout lives, the saint dies.

And as it turns out, Dr. Phillips really was a saint. His widow, Helen (Jane Wyman), is surprised by the outpouring of emotion that comes as news of the good doctor's passing spreads. These aren't just expression of thanks, but also many attempts to settle monetary debts that the indebted claim Dr. Phillips would never let them pay back. Only when the doctor's old friend Randolph (Otto Kruger) comes to pay his respects does Helen finally begin to understand. Randolph and Dr. Phillips both lived their lives according to a philosophy of giving back, what we might describe now as "paying it forward." Whatever they brought in, they redistributed to people who needed it, without taking credit for it and insisting that no repayment ever be made. By doing this, they believed they unlocked their true potential. Good things would come back on them, and they could live their lives as they were always meant to be. In Randolph's case, he finally became the painter he dreamed of being. He likens it to switching on a light.

This metaphysical turn at the center of the picture adds a surprising twist to Magnificent Obsession, though it's not that off-base when you consider that many of Douglas Sirk's films concerned themselves with the things that ailed us in modern society--albeit 1950s modern society, but the more things change, the more they stay the same, and things aren't all that different now. Which is not to say there is anything moralistic about Magnificent Obsession, and though Randolph does mention Jesus Christ as a model of how one should behave, it's the only outright mention of any religion in conjunction with this way of living. Nevertheless, Sirk does employ religious technique, including the elegiac choral swells of the Frank Skinner musical score and Randolph appearing as a kind of god on high when peering down at Bob from an observation theatre.

That technique is a means to an end, a tool of grandiosity rather than recruitment propaganda. It's in that same spirit that Bob goes through a secularized version of religious conversion when he adopts Randolph's approach. At first, however, he expects too quick a return on his investment, and his attempts to make things right with Helen causes another accident. She is struck by a passing car, and the trauma leaves her blind. Despondent and ashamed, Bob sets out to make things right, and he begins taking care of Helen in secret, including setting her up with the best doctors and wooing her under an assumed name. Even so, Bob will have to learn that until one let's go of all expectation of reward, true happiness cannot be found.

Most seasoned cinema fans will have no trouble seeing where Magnificent Obsession is going. Bob's redemption, Helen's convalescence, and the romantic outcome of their pairing are all foregone conclusions. This does not hamper one's enjoyment of this kind of film, referred to as a "woman's picture" back in its day, but rather enhances it. The expectation of any genre is that it will fulfill specific tropes. For instance, if we watch westerns, we expect that good will out and wait for the climactic shoot-out at the end; if we watch a film noir, we expect a bitterly ironic outcome, one as gray as the morality that informs it. The same with a melodrama like Magnificent Obsession: we want the happy ending. Love, flowers, the whole shebang. The audience turns to these kinds of stories to agonize over the struggle and cry for joy when it's all resolved. It's a miniature, vicarious romance that the viewer can make his or her own for two hours. It's the same reason we still watch Leo McCarey's An Affair to Remember after all these years, and that kind of shared experience is why Nora Ephron wrote Sleepless in Seattle. She could have just as easily used Magnificent Obsession or any number of Douglas Sirk films as her centerpiece.

Sirk had a special knack for this kind of movie that really sets him apart from the pack. Honestly, I'm surprised that it took so long for this, one of his most famous movies, to come to DVD, given the 2001 mini revival that began with Criterion's previous Sirk releases (All that Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind) and Todd Haynes' note-for-note homage Far From Heaven. In some ways, I think the Haynes picture and the hoopla that surrounded it actually hurt the Sirk reputation a little, because no matter how sincere Haynes was, he couldn't completely fend off all the hints of kitsch in his endeavor.

Kitsch is a word I don't think can ever be applied to a Sirk film. To do so is to adopt that demeanor I made reference to earlier, to place oneself above the material as if you are so much more sophisticated than it. I think this is what also hampers any modern attempts to revive the traditional woman's picture. Modern filmmakers are too self-aware, they believe they are making trash with the veneer of high art. Sirk never condescended to his material in that way, he always approached it with a stone-faced sincerity that gave his films the freedom to be emotional without ever once considering there might be shame in it. His characters live and breathe, and they are noble for doing so. They are human, and all the sloppy things that implies.

In fact, I'd posit this makes Sirk more self-aware than his emulators believe they are. He knew exactly what he was working with: the whole of mankind's interior existence. This meant love and spirituality were fair game, and anyone watching shouldn't blush at seeing these things on screen any more than they should blush at experiencing it in their own lives. In this way, Rock Hudson was the perfect collaborator for the director, as he was an infinitely self-assured performer, comfortable in his bulky frame, and yet still vulnerable thanks to the secrets he carried. Hudson is very good in Magnificent Obsession, breaking down the cad and rebuilding him as a man. He and Sirk give the text a pretty image, but it's never without value, there is always subtext.

Douglas Sirk's technique is also quite difficult to match. While his films were usually set in a rural environment--in this case, in a small town on the coast somewhere near New York--he practically created an alternate reality, recreating the natural world with brighter colors and a greater sense of order. For all of his wonderful pinks and greens and oranges, though, he's also a master with shadows. Look at the darker scenes, particularly the ones in Europe when Bob rushes to Helen's side after she's told she will never see again. Sirk's chiaroscuro lighting could rival any of the great German expressionists peddling their wares in crime pictures (Sirk was a German ex-pat, as well). Compare that first rendezvous to the second reunion, to the grays and the browns of the New Mexico hospital, and the way light reenters the scene at the very end, and you'll see that Sirk's color palette has its own character arc, one that parallels the transformation of his characters.

Magnificent Obsession is not trash as high art, it's high art period. Pure and simple, free and clear. Douglas Sirk was in complete control of the cinematic canvas, and he knew where to place the right touches--a hint of music here, a pained expression there--to draw the reactions he wanted out of his audience without ever being false or manipulative. If the magnificent obsession that grips Rock Hudson in this movie is an obsession for doing good, then the magnificent obsession that grips Sirk fans is for the emotional cleansing we go through when we watch his best work. Magnificent Obsession pays it forward, and unlike the karmic build-up it simulates, it's pleasures are never used up.

Magnificent Obsessions is a two-disc release featuring several supplemental features. The main extra on the second DVD is the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession, directed by John M. Stahl and starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. Though Stahl's later film Leave Her to Heaven would play like a Sirkian potboiler, this earlier take on the Douglas novel is vastly different than the 1954 redo. In particular, the film's first act, leading up to Helen's accident, is staged more like a romantic comedy and lacks the emotional heft Sirk would pull out of it. Taylor's version of Merrick is more of a clown and less troubled than Hudson's portrayal, and though Irene Dunne is very good, her take also lacks the gravitas Wyman gives the heroine. Her Helen could have used some of the feistiness the actress showed in movies like The Awful Truth. The whole affair comes off as more fanciful, less grounded in reality, even when the story takes its more serious turn following Helen going blind. Merrick's final transformation and medical accomplishment takes place mainly off screen, and his reunion with Helen feels less like a fateful imperative and more like a scriptwriter's fait accompli. This version has its own charm, and I'm glad it's included here, but it pales in comparison to what Sirk made out of the same hay.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

EL NORTE - #458

"It's such a sad old feeling
The fields are soft and green
It's memories that I'm stealing
But you're innocent when you dream

I know it's kind of cheeseball to quote Tom Waits as the start of a review, that it smacks of pretentious sincerity, but I couldn't help thinking of "Innocent When You Dream" while watching Gregory Nava's 1983 immigration drama El Norte. I also kept thinking of Madonna's "La Isla Bonita" whenever the main characters talked about their home back in San Pedro, but that's fairly irrelevant. Some songs make you think of movies, some movies make you think of songs.

Originally, I had intended to write a bit about the notion of "feel good movies," a label I don't think I've ever used because it has always struck me as pejorative. For a reviewer to toss out that tag, it usually means the movie is mawkish and manipulative, and I was going to suggest that the opposite here is true, that El Norte works as a genuine feel good movie because its sentimentality is heartfelt. The very innocence that fuels the dreams of its protagonists gives the first half of the film a Teflon armor against attacks on its emotion, and so Nava is able to get away with a certain amount of bright-eyed optimism. That is, until the final act, when he yanks the film in the other direction to cause the dream to burst and employs some cliché melodrama straight out of daytime soap operas.

El Norte is broken into three acts: the first act is set in Guatemala, the second in Mexico, and the third in "The North," or "El Norte"--America. The Xuncax family are peasant farmers in San Pedro, though outside forces have taken over their village land and forced all who live there to become laborers. The Xuncax patriarch, Arturo (Ernesto Gomez Cruz), is a fair-minded man who doesn't want his children beholden to the greed of the rich, and so he joins with a couple of other village men to plan some kind of protest. Catching wind of this, the local foreman (Jose Martin Ruano) calls in the army, and all of the co-conspirators are killed. When their mother is taken away by soldiers, along with other relatives of the cabal, the Xuncax children, Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez), decide to make a run for America and find new opportunities in the North.

This first takes the pair to Mexico for part 2, where they must find a "coyote"--essentially, someone willing to guide them through the wilderness and across the border. It is here that the innocents start to experience that life beyond their home village is not as kind as it was back there. Both Enrique and Rosa are trusting souls, and thus prey to the opportunistic people who prowl borders towns. They are also smarter than they are given credit for, outwitting con men and immigration officials alike. From their first encounter with the police, Nava uses the language barrier to his advantage, letting English speakers whom the audience understands but whom the characters do not act as illustration of how far the perception of the siblings is from the reality of the situation. The further they get north, the more life becomes a series of business transactions.

But get north they do, and once Enrique and Rosa are settled in Los Angeles, Nava starts showing the day-to-day life of the average illegal immigrant. Enrique sets out to become a day laborer and ends up landing a menial job in a posh restaurant, whereas Rosa starts cleaning houses. They both begin taking ESL classes at public school, one of the many contradictions of life in America. As we well know, most will turn a blind eye to undocumented workers as long as their presence serves a purpose for them. At one point, a jealous co-worker calls immigration on Enrique, and that seems to be the only time the law is really put into effect. Someone has to mention the elephant in the room or it will never be herded out.

Given what a hot-button debate immigration has been over the last several years, Nava's portrait of two very common, normal, nice people seeking the American Dream is refreshing in its humanism. Political propaganda tends to paint illegals as amoral creatures who'd rather take food off of another man's table than do things the proper way. Nava reminds us that our neighbors to the south are people, too, and they desire the same quality of life that has been part of the myth of the United States since its inception. Compared to where they come from, all of the U.S. is like a magical land for Enrique and Rosa. Their entire preconceived image of this country has come out of Good Housekeeping magazines.

Of course, this image of paradise is a bit off, and Nava gives subtle hints of that early on. In addition to the obvious, like the rundown apartment the kids end up renting or how white society and Mexican society are so clearly demarcated, there are subtle stylistic shifts in El Norte, as well. While in Guatemala, Nava, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anna Thomas, gives the movie small touches of magical realism. These are mainly tied to religion and the prayers both Rosa and her mother (Alicia del Lago) put their full faith in. Religion all but disappears when the kids get to America, as do their ties to the natural world and the land their family has worked with their hands for generations. In this way, Nava is sowing the seeds for the disillusionment of his innocents. During a fever dream when Rosa sees her absent mother, the elder woman points out the truth of the belief that anyone, no matter how poor or how low their class, can make money in America. The catch is that no one ever mentions how expensive it is to live there. It's the hidden costs that will keep her children from rising above their station.

In this simple way, Nava introduces the idea that Rosa and Enrique have paid a higher price than they might have anticipated to live in the land of plenty. Rosa was forced to abandon her sweetheart and the traditional way of doing things, and Enrique has allowed his heart to harden in the endless pursuit of survival. Unfortunately, whatever subtle gloves Nava was wearing up until that point are pulled off, and he applies a heavy hand to the story's dramatic climax. Perhaps all of those badly constructed montages where Nava keeps cutting back and forth between two scenes in a clumsy attempt to trick the audience into thinking one thing is going to happen when it's quite obvious it will not should have been a tip-off that the director is not nearly as facile with certain facets of storytelling language as he should be. To add weight to the last act of the movie, Nava pulls out all the stops to tug at our heartstrings. Will Enrique abandon his sister in her hour of need? Can he ever get back to his roots and the man his father desired him to be? The older man told his son that the rich only see peasants as a pair of arms that can perform the difficult tasks they'd rather not do, and at the end here, wearing the threadbare cowboy hat he had previously put in a drawer the same way he tried to put away his past, Enrique declares that his arms are strong and he is ready to work. He has traveled thousands of miles just to till another man's soil.

Which would be a poignant ending had Nava not used such worn-out methods to get there. The way he stacks the deck to give the kids their unwinnable final hand isn't necessarily unrealistic--bad things happen to good people, this we know is true--it's just the way he stages it. With the will-he-or-won't-he shots of the airplane on the runway juxtaposed with Rosa in her hospital bed and the exaggerated musical score, he's telegraphing his intentions far too much for the drama to come off as natural. He might as well get on his knees and beg us to cry.

Luckily, Nava's lighter touch bought the director enough good will over the preceding two hours that these final hammer blows are not sufficient to send El Norte completely south. Though I am sure the situation for illegal workers in California has changed quite a bit over the years, both good and bad, I would wager that a lot of the experience is still the same, meaning that the human struggle portrayed here still has resonance. Gregory Nava, like his characters, just got a little too earnest when it came to realizing his own dream, and just as Enrique and Rosa discovered, it's earnestness that causes one to stumble blindly forward into the pitfalls that mark the road to success.

On this two-disc release, Criterion also includes Gregory Nava's 1972 student film The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva, which the director says in a new introduction contains the thematic roots for the first act of El Norte. It concerns a fictional Latin American poet who is sent on an existential journey as a result of a civil war in his country. When he is arrested, the jailer who has been ordered to execute him turns out to be a poetry fan, and he sets Silva loose on the condition that he leave the city and never return. From there, the poet undertakes a lonely trek to the house of a friend where he hopes to find solace.

This half-hour, black-and-white film is a meditative piece examining the power of words, the loneliness of exile, and the absurdities of a life thrown into chaos. It is dreamy and quiet, full of chases through maze-like streets and images of dead bodies that recall the narcissistic poet of Cocteau's Orpheus. Though the piece does sort of peter out at the end, it has an effective otherwordly quality that makes it memorable.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Rossellini's History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment - Eclipse Series 14, and indeed, pretty much the whole of the latter decades of Roberto Rossellini's career, require a little context--something the folks at Criterion have gone out of their way to do in the liner notes of this Eclipse Series collection and, more extensively, in the bonus features of its companion release, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV. Without it, these films are likely to befuddle most viewers, particularly those who aren't familiar with Rossellini, but quite possibly those who are, as well.

One might be forgiven for thinking the three dry historical reenactments contained herein were created for the classroom. It's actually not that far from the mark. After his infamous declaration, "Cinema is dead," the great Italian director turned from the movie screen to the television screen with the express intention of using film as a learning tool to educate modern viewers about history and the meaning of world events. As one of the architects of the post-War Neorealist movement, Roberto Rossellini had already helped establish an aesthetic school of thought that tried to use the camera to show life as it was lived in an effort to get closer to the truth. The Neorealists considered cinema to be an art form in service to humanity, and using it properly was not just a political imperative, but a moral one. In the late 1950s, however, Rossellini saw the motion picture industry as being more of a business than a functional tool. Movies were more concerned with stars and glitz and not with the reality of the world.

Following his epitaph for the cinematic arts, Rossellini put his camera where his mouth was and made the disastrous The Age of Iron. True to his word, however, he stuck it out and eventually found a new arena in which to express himself, the much more populist medium of television. For the rest of his life, he shot historical films about specific time periods and people for various television networks in various countries, creating new camera techniques (he controlled the zoom of his lens with a joystick) to probe the scenes for the core truths that would bring the past to life in ways that might inform our present.

These movies, totaling more than forty hours when lumped together, are an acquired taste. Rossellini expert Tag Gallagher says as much in his liner notes to the lead film in Rossellini's History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment, the three-episode, four-hour-plus The Age of the Medici. Critics, fans, and the general viewership haven't been overly enamored with this aspect of Rossellni's filmography, and it's only been a smaller group of devoted admirers like Gallagher that have kept these programs alive over the years. Having them on DVD now might go a long way to changing this reputation--and then again, maybe not. I'll admit right here that not only did I not acquire a taste for Rossellini's History Films, but I found them often to be a struggle to get through.

The Age of the Medici displays a lot of what I find tedious about these movies. This 1972 miniseries transports the audience back to fifteenth-century Florence when the Medici family was a leading force in artistic, social, and economic thought. The movie begins with a death at the head of the Medici empire and the assumption of control of the banks by Cosimo de' Medici (Marcello Di Falco). International trade is affected by the switch over, and there are also social ramifications since there is also a costly war being waged at the same time. All of this will factor into new ways of commerce being explored and new ideas being encouraged in all aspects of life, the driving force of the Renaissance.

While most filmmakers would take us away from the banking and show us the war to give us the contrast of the two aspects, Rossellini is not concerned with such overly dramatic settings. Rather, his story, co-written by the director with Luciano Scaffa and Marcella Mariani, is more about the exchange of information, the fomenting of dissent, and how decisions are made. In one sense, he is heeding the advice given to Woodward and Bernstein in All the President's Men, and Rossellini is following the money. Where the Medici money goes is of utmost importance to how Florentine society progresses. Yet, unless you're extremely fascinated by unadorned discussions of trade agreements and political ceremony, then The Age of the Medici can be quite a long and dull affair. These movies are often described as paintings from the period brought to life, and most of this film moves as if it were still stuck in the frame, on a wall, in a museum.

Admittedly, these are rather simplistic terms in which to describe a far more complicated tale, but at the same time, to get into further detail won't really do it justice either. It would be like reading a summary of a summary, little more than the same kind of long, expository monologue that so frequently stops The Age of the Medici and the other films in their tracks, working counter to Rossellini's desired naturalism in how unnatural the chunky explanations sound. Most of the time, I felt like I should be taking notes just to keep track, in case Rossellini was going to pop a quiz on me at the end. He's not a teacher that waits for you to keep up. There are no dates put on the screen, no clear introductions of the various famous players, foreknowledge is assumed.

The Age of the Medici, at least for me, gets far more accessible when it focuses on architectural designer and theorist Leon Battista Alberti (Virginio Gazzolo). The third episode is almost entirely given to him, but the shift begins in the second, when Alberti begins to explain how he believes all things intersect. Commerce, art, architecture--one funnels into the other in the pursuit of greater knowledge and human advancement. In this figure, Rossellini has found his true hero, a man who is always exploring and seeking greater truths; basically, a kind of avatar for the director in terms of what he wanted to do with his historical films. Statues, buildings, cinema--all things build on the past, forever moving forward.

Rossellini finds the same kind of hero in Rene Descartes (Ugo Cardea), the subject of his two-part 1974 effort, Cartesius. The man who uttered the immortal phrase, "I think, therefore I am," is like an engine of reason, a human machine that is constantly seeking newer and better ways of understanding. The film follows him from his school days to his joining French society, on to war in Holland, and beyond to visit scholars all across Europe. In each environment, Descartes engages the thinkers of the day, challenging the ideas of our perception and trying to find a balance between the religion that fires a man's soul and the science of provable truth.

Thus, Cartesius is one long string of debates, both philosophical and mathematic. Perhaps it's the more firm placing of the story in the realm of ideas that appeals to me over the more exacting exploration of fiduciary progression, but I was able to get into Cartesius more as a viewer than I was Medici. With very little added exposition, Rossellini is able to use Descartes' disagreements with religious figures and the possible consequences of such (the film opens with an argument about Galileo) to illustrate how intellectual discovery is essential to social progression, but also how it can be dangerous. Going against the status quo requires as much bravery as carrying a weapon into battle. In that same vein, Rossellini lets simple metaphors emerge from the circumstances of Descartes' life. His physical wandering is connected to his mental wandering, and the masked death doctors dispensing with the bodies that have succumbed to the plague can be seen to represent the superstition of the past that allows intellectual plagues to fester just as much as physical ones. (One doubter expresses his dismay that a telescope reveals previously unknown stars and planets because it has destroyed the fabric of astrology.)

There is a sort of strange comfort in the fact that even a life like that of Rene Descartes is subject to certain normal patterns. Eventually, even as his pursuit of the understanding of the foundation of man and the universe continues, other aspects of living, including birth and death, intrude. There is a sweet, romantic irony in the fact that he falls in love with a maid (Anne Pouchie) who can't read and is prone to pithy homilies. Eventually, as well, Descartes succumbs to feeling, to nurturing those aspects of his being that rest outside of the intellect, even as he uses the intellect to deal with them. Fittingly, as in his film on Louis XIV, Rossellini ends Cartesius with a slow zoom on his subject, getting ever closer to the man and his friend as he explains his most common of decisions. So, too, is it fitting that not long before, when he utters his best-known quote for the first time, it is done almost in passing, as part of a greater discourse, as if the most obvious conclusion of all.

The films cross over in the 1972 production Blaise Pascal, when the titular mathematician and scientist (Pierre Arditi) meets Rene Descartes (here played by an uncredited actor), a fictional encounter that illuminates the differences in thinking between the two innovators. In this film, Descartes is portrayed as tired, distracted, and not altogether sure of himself. Blaise Pascal admires him but objects to his valuing man's reason above all things, thinking that the presumption of individual knowledge leads one astray. It is not our intellect that leads us to greater discovery, but science is a merely a method by which we get closer to God and the wisdom he has left for us to find.

Once again, the normalcy of everyday life is emphasized, and Pascal is almost the antithesis to Descartes in that lifelong illnesses keep him close to home, rather than wandering in search of new experience and knowledge the way his contemporary did. In some ways, Descartes was able to stay one step ahead of superstition and church-endorsed prejudice, whereas the protagonist here is witness to witch trials and a Jesuit-led attack on a particular branch of worship that ultimately leads to the death of his sister, Jacqueline (Rita Forzano). We are shown Pascal's advances in terms of measuring air pressure, as well as his program for public transportation, but within that is a man struggling with his faith, trying to divine God's plan and not let his own curiosity divert him from his proper moral path. It's fascinating to realize how long organized religion has discouraged man from questioning his own fate.

Certainly interesting ideas are raised in both Cartesius and Blaise Pascal, and the staging is more involving than that of The Age of the Medici, but that doesn't really push either over the hump for me. Even the injection of the very small romance subplot in Cartesius and the family drama of Blaise, his sister, and their father, the esteemed Etienne Pascal (Giuseppe Addobbati), doesn't really elevate the drama; rather, these things are more like incidental sidebars that tease me with the more varied storytelling I long for. Others, obviously, will disagree, and see Roberto Rossellini's refraining from conventional dramaturgy as a liberating decision, allowing for a cinema valuing ideas over sentiment. Certainly the man's cinematic technique is hard to fault, as Rossellini's sense of color and construction never falters. Yet, even in the finest restaurants, the arrangement of the food on the plate can't make up for a flavorless meal, and ultimately, Rossellini's History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment - Eclipse Series 14 had me looking around for a little added seasoning.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


History is not always exciting. Apparently that is our lesson for today, boys and girls. In fact, it would seem that great power shifts can actually be boring. Tedious, even. With lots of standing around, enduring the rigmarole of courtly ceremony, saying what you mean without actually saying it or even by saying the opposite, and the occasional sniffing of a man's chamber pot to assess the state of his health. This is how monarchies shore up their strength and make the countries they rule great. This is how Louis XIV bolstered his power, and thus the way it happens in Robert Rossellini's 1966 anti-epic, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV.

Rossellini was one of the architects of Italian Neorealism, establishing a post-War aesthetic of telling stories about real people shot in authentic situations in an attempt to remove the artifice of cinematic tradition. Films like Paisan and Germany Year Zero earned Rossellini and the Italian film scene international acclaim, but like any such scenes, the aesthetic had to change. In the 1950s, Rossellini made some conventional pictures, as well as some emotionally wrought dramas. He also began to gravitate to historical and religious stories, such as his parable-laden The Flowers of St. Francis in 1950. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV came much later, and it was actually made for French television rather than the movie house, but it adheres to many of the tenets of Neorealism while also acting as a time machine, recreating a period long past.

The film is set in 1661, beginning on the eve of the death of Cardinal Mazarin (Silvagni), a foreign dignitary who had seized much power and wealth in France. With his passing, Louis XIV (Jean-Marie Patte) decides that it would best suit France for him to once more centralize the governance of the kingdom on a single throne. This he does despite many odds, including the doubting of his court, which sees him as merely a party boy who is easily bored. They expect him to quickly tire of government business, but before they know it, he has removed his rivals, changed fashion, and built the monumental Palace of Versailles. He also radically altered France's economy to bring prosperity to all classes, and the success of his extravagant reign would ultimately earn him the nickname “the Sun King.”

In order to recreate the 17th century, Rossellini shoots in some of the historic locations, and he adorns his actors in the fashion of the times; however, in keeping with the strictures of Neorealism, he doesn't scrub and polish everything to the point of glamorizing it. There is a shabbiness to the clothes and the overloaded wigs that in some ways plays against the opulence of the setting while also underlining it. A detailed feast near the end of the film, where Louis dines on courses that number in the teens, eating alone while the entire court watches and a private orchestra plays dinner music, spares nothing on the details, down to the garnish on the pigling and the lock used to protect the King's pork on its journey from the kitchen to his table. As if matching this ambition, Rossellini prefers long, uninterrupted takes to cut up scenes full of insert shots. Imperfections, such as Louis bumping into a stool when visiting with his mother, don't halt the scene, but are integrated into it. As filmmaking, it's both exacting and of the moment.

It's also kind of dull. Louis XIV may have secured his rule through lots of backroom plans and quiet discussion, but it doesn't exactly make for scintillating cinema. It's not at all helped by the fact that Jean-Marie Patte doesn't really exude royal bearing or the charisma of power, not even once the King has it. Though Rossellini's shooting technique may be of the moment, Patte never appears to be in that moment. Rather, through most of The Taking of Power, he looks like he is just trying to remember his lines--thought, as it turns out, it was decided he would not see script until each day's shooting and was actually reading off a blackboard, hence his often distant look. A better actor might be able to rise to that challenge, harness such struggles, and make them appear as part of the King's thought processes, but Patte looks like he's about to go catatonic from the strain. You may want to go catatonic yourself while watching it.

Of course, Jean-Marie Patte shouldn't be forced to carry the blame himself. The history of The Taking of Power by Louis XIV appears to be stripped of its histrionics by design. The script by Philippe Erlanger and Jean Gruault actively avoids any overwrought drama, instead contentedly searching for it in regular palace life. Some of the choices they make are smart, including using chatter amongst the court to explain certain outmoded aspects of royal etiquette to the modern audience, but the overall effect is lacking. Perhaps I have been spoiled by watching too many The West Wing DVDs, but I expect my political walking and talking to be a little more snappy, not dispassionate and sedentary.

Perhaps it was Roberto Rossellini's desire to educate rather than entertain that leads to this downfall. It's all boiled vegetables and no seasoning, a dish we consume because it's good for us, because we're told we're supposed to, not because we want to. Ironically, this renders the great director's fascination with historical curiosity, after more than thirty years, to be little more than a historical curiosity itself. For me, I felt less like taking power and more like taking a nap.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.