Archive for the 'National cinemas: South America' Category
Night Across the Street (2011).
The cinema-is-dead complaint, Richard Brody helpfully points out, is now an established genre of movie journalism. In the last few weeks David Denby, David Thomson, Andrew O’Hehir, and Jason Bailey have in different registers sought to revive this quintessentially empty polemic. I’ve gone on about the tired conventions of film reviewing about once every year on this soapbox. (Try here and here and here and here; Kristin got in some licks too). For now I’ll just say that I’m convinced that the Death of Cinema (or Hollywood, or the Intelligent Foreign Film, or Popular Movie Culture, or Elite Film Culture) is simply a journalistic trope, like Sequels Betray a Lack of Imagination or This Movie Reflects Our Anxieties. In short: an easy way to fill column inches.
These squibs seemed especially damp this time around because while these guys were knocking Hollywood and/or art movies I was enjoying the Vancouver International Film Festival. If you’re willing to watch mainstream entertainments from outside Hollywood, or films that aren’t the bland arthouse fare full of stately homes and British accents, or even films that don’t chop every scene to splintery images, Dr. Bordwell has a cure in mind for you.
Had you been looking for breezy or outlandish entertainment, for example, the Dragons and Tigers wing didn’t disappoint. Helpless, from South Korea, is a thriller built around identity theft. I thought it was clumsily plotted, but it sustains curiousity through the apparently bottomless series of discoveries a man makes about his missing fiancée. Jeff Lau’s East Meets West is a Hong Kong farrago of rapid-fire gags, weird haircuts, references to old Cantopop, and nonchalantly wacko storytelling. Granted, the central idea of making the Eight Immortals of legend into modern superheroes (and one supervillain) is smothered by Scott Pilgrim-style SPFX. Still, I will watch Karen Mok Man-wai and Kenny Bee in anything, albeit for different reasons. Closer to mainstream Hollywood tastes was Nameless Gangster, in which a restless flashback structure traces the rise of a flabby brute from customs agent to top drug smuggler. Yoon Jongbin’s slickly-made film ends with an abruptness that recalls the conclusion of The Sopranos.
Of all the pop-entertainment movies I saw at VIFF, the audience favorite was doubtless Key of Life, a nifty Japanese crime comedy. An amnesiac hitman and a shambolic slacker swap identities in a cunning series of coincidences that brings on some satisfyingly menacing underworld types. Intersecting the men’s misadventures is a hyperorganized OL, or office lady, who determines to find herself a husband within a month. Everything sorts itself out, of course, with one nice wrapup saved for the middle of the closing credits. This is the kind of Japanese diversion I’ve recorded a liking for earlier (Uchoten Hotel and Happy Flight). Hampered by a wretched title, Key of Life probably won’t get US theatrical distribution, although it may make some headway on VOD. Aussie movie maven Geoff Gardner and I agreed that if we had the money, we’d buy the remake rights.
Everything new is old (again)
Form is the new content, they say. (Too simple, but some do say it.) No surprise, then, that part of what appeals in contemporary cinema is its overt reworking of previous styles. Neo-noir is perhaps the most common current example, but ingratiating retro-stylings were on display in more rarefied forms at VIFF.
Part of the appeal is the rediscovery of the glory of the 4:3 aspect ratio. Kristin has already talked about how Pablo Larrain’s No appropriates a seedy U-matic look to tell its tale of 1970s Chilean politics. A similar pastiche effect emerged from Mine Goichi’s All Day, a short that used even grubbier video to parody Japanese family dramas. May we expect to see more VHS-looking movies? I wouldn’t mind.
Silent cinema pastiches are usually lame, as witness The Artist, which scrambles history and treats old films as oddly soft-minded. (No Hollywood drama of the late 1920s would have been built around a protagonist so feeble he tries to commit suicide twice.) Jean Dujardin, and contemporary audiences that adore his film, should catch up with Hayashi Kaizo’s To Sleep As If to Dream (1986), in which the contemporary story is played as a silent film and the rediscovered (fake) old film is accompanied by benshi commentary and music. The “forged” footage in Forgotten Silver also shows how good filmmakers can create convincing, pleasantly anachronistic imagery.
At VIFF, another D & T short, Yun Kinam’s black-and-white Metamorphosis (right) tried to replicate the look of silent cinema. While a family crowds around a deathbed, we get disruptive editing, aggressive depth, and even static flashes (those vein-like seepages into the image caused in old films by cold temperatures). As a retro exercise, Metamorphosis is better-informed and more evocative than what we get in The Artist. Suggestions of Maya Deren and Menilmontant gives these images the aura of having been exhumed from the archive.
More celebrated since its Berlin triumph (two awards) is another 4:3 exercise, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu. A vaguely 1920s prologue shows a brooding tropical explorer who has seen his ex-wife as a ghost. Then Part 1 (“Lost Paradise”) takes us to stately black and white imagery of contemporary Lisbon. It’s late in December, and Pilar is concerned about her elderly neighbor Aurora. The old woman is taken to a hospital and asks Pilar to find Aurora’s old lover, Ventura. By the time Pilar discovers him, it’s too late. After Aurora’s funeral, Ventura starts to explain how they met in Africa. Here starts Part II (“Paradise”).
Now the film becomes hypnotic. In Africa, Aurora is married to a sturdy, good-natured colonist, and she can hunt and shoot with the best of them. Ventura and his friend Mario, who’s becoming a pop crooner, are taken into the household. He and Aurora begin a torrid affair. Part II is rendered without onscreen dialogue, but not in exact mimicry of silent cinema. There is piano music, it’s true, and much of the action is carried by letters, as in a lot of silent movies. But there are no intertitles; instead, all the action is played out with the support of Ventura’s voice-over, occasionally supplemented by the young Aurora reciting letters she wrote. Moreover, Mario’s band and his singing are rendered in full lip-synch. More eerily, as Ventura explains the rise and collapse of the love affair, we get highly selective bits of noise—not everything audible in a scene, but perhaps the tinkle of glasses or a faint wind. These become the aural equivalent of glimpses.
“Paradise” gives us silent cinema not replicated, but refracted through memory and romantic longing. In a film paying homage to Murnau (a forbidden romance as in Tabu, the name Aurora recalling Sunrise), Gomes has apparently also sought to give us something like the “part-talkies” of 1928-1929. Those films had full-blown dialogue scenes (as in Part I) and other scenes containing only music and effects (Part II), relieved by synchronized musical numbers (a sequence showing Mario’s band performing by the pool). Tabu recovers something of the strangeness of those transitional films, notably Sunrise itself, while remaining highly contemporary. It knows that we can turn to tradition when we want to rekindle a romanticism that would look high-flown today.
Long live the long take
Beyond the Hills (2012).
At about 16 seconds per shot, Tabu has the same cutting rhythm as some early talkies, like The Black Watch and Hearts in Dixie. Today, as we’ve seen, the long take is increasingly the province of movies that play chiefly at festivals. All other things being equal, a movie with around 1200 shots, like the very popular Danish import The Hunt, will be an easier sell on the arthouse circuit than, say, Beyond the Hills, with only about 110 shots in 148 minutes. It’s a pity. Although The Hunt is a solidly crafted drama in the Nordic enemy-of-the-people tradition, it moves rather predictably across the combustible subject of false accusations of child molestation. Beyond the Hills, by Cristian Mungiu, director of Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days, is more enigmatic and demanding.
Voichita is a nun in a rural Orthodox enclave in Romania. She’s visited by her friend Alina. The two grew up as best friends in an orphanage, but Alina went to Germany to work, and now she insists that they must run off together. Voichita resists. Alina claims that Voichita once agreed to this plan. Has the young nun changed her mind and committed to the church? Or is Alina’s plan an idée fixe that Voichita has simply humored, without ever intending to join her? Were they perhaps lovers? Alina’s endless staring at Voichita and her lunges at suicide suggest deep passions at stake.
The refusal to supply full exposition makes characterization enticingly uncertain. Voichita’s wide-eyed sympathy for her friend can be seen as both pliable and stubborn, while Alina’s nearly wordless reprimands imply that Voichita has betrayed her. But perhaps Alina is just asking too much, or Voichita is being too unbending. The couple’s drama is played out against the stringent background of a female community ruled by a priest. Alina is incorrigible, not responding to the gestures of salvation extended to her, and agreeing, stone-faced, that she has committed every sin on a list of over 400. Eventually the pious souls decide that Alina is possessed, and her demons must be exorcised. In a simple gesture of solidarity, Voichita declares something like love for Alina, but too late.
Alternating discreet handheld takes with fixed shots staged in depth, making no concessions to impatience or easy responses, Beyond the Hills recalls the sobriety of Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and Bresson’s Les anges du péché. It plays out in a rougher-textured, muddier world, but it’s no less concerned with the dynamics of compassion and cruelty, dogmatism and eroticism. In each, a woman is ready to sacrifice herself for love. As Romania’s Oscar submission, Mungiu’s film deserves to find an audience in the US.
Long takes were also a specialty of the late Raúl Ruiz, whose penultimate film, Mysteries of Lisbon, won him probably the widest audience of his career. That film displayed his fascination with proliferating stories, but its adherence to a single plane of reality was exceptional in the career of a fabulist who enjoyed confounding all types of realism. In that regard, Night across the Street, his last fully completed work, is more characteristic.
An old office worker is about to retire and is convinced that someone is coming to kill him. While Don Celso awaits his assassin, he fraternizes with his co-workers, with schoolteacher and author Jean Giono, and with others in the hotel where he resides. He also recalls his childhood, when he talked to Long John Silver and went to movies with Beethoven. Eventually the plot shifts levels of reality even more radically, as one séance blends into another, characters shot down in a massacre return to life, and eventually Celso takes credit for inventing the people around him.
Mungiu’s handheld shots have no place here. As in Mysteries of Lisbon and his Proust film, Time Regained, the camera glides through this world with velvety assurance. Sometimes the characters do too, as they seem to ride the dolly or saunter in front of a blatantly unreal backdrop. Ruiz subverts academic cinema by using its well-upholstered technique, but he also mines film history. He revisits tableau staging in the shrewdly split set of Don Celso’s office, and he continues to exploit his more-Wellesian-than-Welles big-foreground technique.
Above all, the boy’s trip to the movies, in an awkwardly tilted image in which the usher usually blocks the screen, pays typically skewed homage to the medium’s enchantment. The mock film of Ruiz’s Life Is a Dream has given way to The Foxes of Harrow, the Hollywood cinema of Ruiz’s childhood.
Land, sea, and sky
small roads (2012).
When one thinks of the long take, James Benning comes quickly to mind, and small roads is true to form—in more ways than one. Forty-seven fixed shots in 102 minutes take us from the Far West to the South and to the Midwest before shifting westward again. The roads are indeed small, far from superhighways and traffic circles. As usual, landscape is the protagonist and slight shifts in image or sound arrest our attention. There are plenty of perceptual teasers. When a distant truck descends the distant sloping road above, it vanishes. Will it re-emerge in the nearer road? At another point, we wonder when, or if a car we hear will appear in the frame.
Hogarth spoke of art that leads the eye “on a wanton kind of chase,” and Benning’s roads—almost never seen from dead center, so we’re not given central perspective—carve oblique or sinuous paths into fields, plains, deserts, and forests. Road signs reenact the curve of the roadway, with carets and squiggles providing spare geometric “readings” of the piled-up surfaces of color and mass. There’s also some synesthesia. In one shot, I thought I heard mist rolling in. The topographies are real but through Benning’s strict scrutiny they become as fantastical as Ruiz’s dreamscapes.
That’s why I suspect that roads aren’t the real subject of the film. They serve as a pretext for Benning’s recurring interests in how wind curls clouds and makes branches tremble, how light outlines trees, how shapes like squat black oil derricks and the textures of fat snowflakes and soggy leaves can command the frame. Now that Benning has moved to digital filming, he has discreetly inserted some CGI. I couldn’t spot any, though one partial moon in daylight looks suspicious to me. No matter. Painterly beauty, along with a certain placid mystery, is enough for any movie nowadays.
At the other extreme lies the bustle of Leviathan, a poetic, quasi-abstract documentary by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel. The filmmakers capture a New Bedford fishing trip through GoPro digital mini-cameras worn by fishermen, tossed into a netful of fish, or dragged through the water. Long takes abound here too, but it’s hard to say how many. As in The Man with a Movie Camera, the very boundary between one shot and another is put into question. So is the boundary between us and the space onscreen, as we’re weirdly wrapped in the extreme wide-angle yielded by this lens.
This is what you get when no human eye is looking through the camera. Often, in fact, nobody could look through the lens. No head, let alone human body, could occupy the space of some of these shots. Chains roll out past us from churning greenish darkness, while fish drift and slither on all sides. We’re right next to a gull trying to use its beak to lift itself to another area of the hold. Here the fish-eye lens lives up to its name. The camera bobs in a tank as fish are tossed in and spin aimlessly past. Coasting along the edge of the craft, we dip abruptly in and out of the heaving water, our plunge accentuated by brutal sound cuts. We chase starfish and ride waves, spinning up to watch gulls blotting out the sky. Accelerations of speed (again, Man with a Movie Camera comes to mind) render the action hallucinatory, especially since the shutter can capture foam with strobe-like precision.
One result is a disembodied, dehumanized vision of sea and sky: The camera as flotsam. But we also get bumpy, skittish visions of human labor definitely tied to bodies that harvest the ocean. Work activities are filmed from cameras lashed to the fishermen’s heads or lying on the deck among scallops to be shucked. Most documentary close-ups of artisans’ tasks are taken from far back and with long lenses; here the very wide-angle GoPro lenses not only show tasks from the inside, but their distortions exaggerate each gesture, sometimes heroically, sometimes grotesquely. Either way, human activity has been defamiliarized no less than undersea life.
We start the movie immersed in a welter of details and stay enmeshed for nearly an hour. Only then do we get an “establishing shot” showing the boat deck and mapping the overall process of filling and emptying the nets. And fairly soon after that, as if to parody the usual documentary about fisher folk, we get a four-minute shot of the captain dozing off while watching a TV show (apparently The Deadliest Catch). Leviathan ends with a sequence that brackets the chiaroscuro of the opening, but we no longer see a clam’s-eye-view of being snagged. Instead, we get barely illuminated darkness with whiffs of crimson teasingly darting to the edge of the frame, as if to signal the end, before swerving back to the center, then heading offscreen. Again, Ruiz has the line: Special shadows that give off light.
Ready to declare cinema dead? There is a cure for your malaise. We call it a film festival.
Yes, lots of compositing, but no speed changing, although the border cops are going around 100 mph. . . . Shot 26 has a sky that was filmed the next day about 100 miles away. And yes the moon was out, but that shot is pointing north so I filmed the moon in the southern sky during the day, and put it into the northern sky. All the compositing was done with shots I made; always somewhere nearby. (100 miles is nearby when you circle 2/3 of the US.)
You can learn more about Leviathan from Dennis Lim’s article on the filmmakers in the New York Times. The New York Film Festival provides a lengthy Q & A on its website. See also Phil Coldiron’s “Blood and Thunder: Enter the Leviathan“ in the latest Cinema Scope, with some superb frame enlargements. Above all, don’t miss the extract on vimeo, which gives you a good sample of the splendor of this film.
In my first report, I mentioned that the Iranian film A Respectable Family was an unexpected gem. I’ve come across another, the Brazilian film, Neighboring Sounds (2012). It has a remarkable formal device that unfortunately I can’t disclose without ruining the film for those who haven’t seen it. It’s a technique that takes a while to figure out, since it’s cumulative. (Fortunately, unlike with A Respectable Family, I have yet to find a review or program note that mentions it.)
The film is set in Recife, the fifth largest city in Brazil. It centers around members of two families living in a complex of smaller, older houses surrounded by new condo high-rises that will eventually swallow the entire area. (The image above vividly shows the juxtaposition.) The divide between rich and poor is extreme, however, and the residents live in fear of crime, with elaborate gates and with grilles over their windows. Suspense is generated when a small group of men offer their services to provide security for the block, and once they are hired, we are left for a long time to wonder whether this is a cover for some other devious purpose.
The film is beautifully shot, taking advantage of the abstract compositions created by the modern apartment blocks and their glass windows and doors. As director Kleber Mendonça Filho says in the online press kit, “Architecture gone wrong is a nuisance, but extremely photogenic.”
The film’s title is taken literally, with many layers of offscreen sounds from nearby houses and streets forming much of the soundtrack. The complex use of Dolby Surround makes it especially desirable to view and listen to this film in a theater.
Neighboring Sounds has been picked up for US distribution by the Cinema Guild, which has handled other films we’ve enjoyed here in Vancouver , most notably Once upon a Time in Anatolia and The Strange Case of Angelica (and written about here and here, both available on DVD and Blu-ray.)
The Chilean film No (2012), starring Gael Garcia Bernal, has already gained a high reputation on the festival scene. (Like A Respectable Family, it was shown in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.) David and I both thought it lived up to its buzz.
The plot deals with the 1988 referendum as to whether dictator Augusto Pinochet would remain in power. The side campaigning for the “no” vote was allowed a single 15-minute TV commercial each evening. Bernal plays a successful director of TV ads, Rene, who is lured into devising this commerical; he’s introduced showing off his latest spot for “Free” cola. He conceives of a campaign based on breezy optimism, with musical numbers (below right) and shots of cheerful workers acting as if Pinochet is already out of office. His tactics disgust several of the left-wing party leaders, as well as Rene’s estranged wife.
Technically the film is cleverly done. It was shot on old-fashioned U-matic video and shown in Academy ratio (not exactly reflected in these frames from the online trailer). Fuzzy images with occasional overexposure and other video artifacts not only suggest a period piece, but they also allow director Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, Post Mortem) to seamlessly edit in historical footage of Pinochet and street clashes from 1988. No generates considerable suspense as well, whether or not one knows how the referendum turned out.
Sony Pictures Classics picked up No at Cannes and currently lists its release date as to be announced; according to IMDB, it will have a limited release in the USA on February 15.
A Royal Affair (2012, Nikolaj Arcel) has been chosen as Denmark’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Of course, the long list of entries from various countries will be reduced to five before the voting occurs. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if A Royal Affair ended up on the final list and even took the top award. In a way, it’s just what the Academy members like: a big, glossy costume drama based on uplifting historical events.
But I was relieved to discover that this is no Merchant-and-Ivory-style middle-brow adaptation. It’s a fascinating example of what happens when a bunch of leftist, cutting-edge filmmakers get their hands on a budget to make an historical epic. Although the film’s title and publicity center on the illicit romance that provides part of the drama, A Royal Affair focuses largely on politics. Its plot is loosely based on historical events during the Age of Enlightenment, during which Denmark initially remained a backward country based on serfdom, summary arrest, torture, and execution, and grinding poverty for the lower classes.
The opening shows the heroine, Caroline, born an English princess and wed to Danish King Christian VII, writing the story of her life for her children. A flashback then begins the story proper, with Caroline optimistically setting out for Denmark and quickly discovering that her husband is an impetuous, rude and possibly insane young man who cares nothing for her. Her loneliness and the backward situation in Denmark are gradually established. Eventually a young doctor, Struensee, who believes in the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers, comes to court and befriends the king, helping him to behave in a more restrained fashion.
Caroline, too, is a devotee of Rousseau, Voltaire, and other authors whose works are banned in Denmark. Nearly an hour into the film, she discovers that Struensee is of like mind, and a friendship gradually moves into love and a sexual affair. The couple manipulate Christian into passing laws to benefit the peasants, earning the ire of the nobility. The narrative continues to center more on the social struggle that the three carry out than it does on the romance plotline.
When I heard that the Silver Bear for Best Actor was awarded to the film at Berlin, I assumed it went to Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Struensee–and seems to star in half the films coming out of Denmark these days (such as Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, also shown this year in the festival). But the role of Christian VII actually seemed to me more challenging. Mikkel Boe Følsgaard has to play a character who begins as border-line insane, crude, and obnoxious, but who also must gain our sympathy when he becomes part of the plot to reform Denmark’s laws. I was delighted to learn upon further inquiry that is was in fact Følsgaard (on the left, with Mikkelsen, in the photo) who won the award. Well deserved.
As the image suggests, the film is shot in muted tones that tend to play down the costumes and sets more than historical dramas usually do. This approach helps direct our attention to the plot and politics rather than the pageantry. In short, I ended up liking the film much more than I expected to.
A Royal Affair will be released in the USA on November 9 by Magnolia Pictures.
At the other end of the budgetary scale is the Portuguese feature The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012, co-directed by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata). A common impulse among critics seems to be to compare this mysterious, lyrical film to some of Chris Marker’s works. There is little information available on it, but my impression was that the filmmakers shot a lot of lyrical footage of Macau and then concocted a story to fit it. There are shots of buildings, from skyscrapers to disreputable-looking back streets, as well as ephemeral items like some big, gaudy, cartoony balloons of tigers that decorated the streets for a local festival.
The plot has something to do with a mysterious gang, the Chinese zodiac (see image at the bottom), and the end of the world. The hero is barely glimpsed, narrating the story in voiceover (provided by both of the directors). The plot centers on his search for a transvestite named Candy, perhaps the “woman” seen performing a musical number in front of a cage containing live tigers in the sultry opening scene. The song, “You Kill Me,” is among several references to Josef von Sternberg’s Macao.
Despite the shoestring budget, the filmmakers manage convincingly to portray an apocalyptic destruction of the city, followed by bleak shots of deserted, early-morning Macao buildings that effectively suggest the aftermath. It reminded me of Godard’s depiction of a futuristic city in Alphaville, using contemporary buildings and highways.
No US release is planned, but The Last Time I Saw Macao is worth seeking out at upcoming festivals.
A Filmmaker of the World
I’ve mentioned some films that pleasantly surprised me, but almost certainly the best film we saw at Vancouver came as no surprise at all. We both loved Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, but we’re not going to write anything substantive about it, at least not now. It deserves another viewing or two before we could say anything worthwhile–and it hardly needs us to publicize it. The opening scene is fabulous, the subsequent rambling plot absorbing and intriguing, and the end, as so often happens with Kiarostami, puzzling and frustrating. Possibly the man can do no wrong.
IFC has theatrical rights for the USA. Currently its webpage announces “Coming in 2013.” This may mean primarily On Demand, though it would be a pity not to see Like Someone in Love on the big screen.
The end of one multiplex
Rumors circulated almost from the start of the festival, and on October 8 the festival’s director, Alan Franey, revealed officially that the Empire Granville will soon be closing down. A detailed story on the history of the Granville and its closing, with quotations from Franey and representatives of other film festivals that have used the venue, can be found here. Ideally next year’s festival will house most of its screenings in another of the city’s multiplexes, but the new venue is yet to be determined. We hope it will be someplace where we can bounce around the world from screen to screen as easily. The Granville has served us all well and will be missed.
We’re still catching up with last week’s generous Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, the world’s premiere festival of restored and rediscovered films from all eras.
O Segredo do corcunda (The Hunchback’s Secret, 1924) was more than a curiosity. Directed by the Italian Alberto Traversa, it was the first Brazilian feature screened abroad. It also has a documentary bent in that it shows a bit of what coffee farming was like in that era. The plot traces how the budding romance between a poor boy and the plantation owner’s daughter is blocked by the overseer Pedro, who actually killed the boy’s father.
The film illustrates penetration of Hollywood filming technique around the world. The linear plot includes a flashback explaining key motivation, a romantic subplot with helper characters, and a last-minute rescue built out of parallel editing. Scenes are filmed and cut according to continuity principles, with eyeline matches and angled changes of setup. There is even a split-screen delirium sequence.
Yet the film was out of step with Hollywood in one respect: the proportion of titles, especially dialogue titles. O Segredo do Corcunda has a lot of intertitles; they make up 22% of all its 518 or so shots. Somewhat similar proportions can be found in the mid-1920s in Hollywood, as Upstream and Cradle Snatchers indicate. But what’s different is the proportion of dialogue titles to expository ones. Most Hollywood films of the period have a very small proportion of expository titles, usually no more than 15% of all titles, and often much less. Fazil, discussed in an earlier entry, has 118 dialogue titles and only seven expository ones. But in O Segredo the 65 dialogue titles comprise 57% of all titles, leaving the 49 dialogue titles to make up the difference.
Why does this matter? In The Classical Hollywood Cinema, I argued that American generally tend to favor methods that let the story seem to tell itself. Although an early silent feature might have many expository titles, in the late 1910s and the early 1920s, films began minimizing expository titles and letting dialogue carry the action. By the 1920s a US film would have relatively few expository titles. The pattern is visible across a film as well, with expository titles most common in the opening scenes but diminishing as the plot proceeds. In Segredo, not only do expository titles do more work, they’re spread out pretty evenly across the film. An external narrational authority is there from start to finish.
I suspect that the method of fading external authority is an identifying mark of American silent film and is rarer in other cinematic traditions. If that hunch is right, we can ask: Why did other countries persist in using expository titles so much? Matters for further research!
Polustanok (A Small Station).
Boris Barnet started out as one of Lev Kuleshov’s circle, and he became a well-established director. Not as famous as the Big Three (Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko) or even Kuleshov, Barnet directed charming comedies like The Girl with the Hat Box (1927) and The House on Trubnoi Square (1928) and heartfelt dramas warmed by music, such as By the Bluest of Seas (1935). But many of his later films are unknown to me. I couldn’t catch all the titles in the Barnet retrospective, but the two features and one short I saw convinced me of his gifts.
Those gifts come off as gentle and genial in the wartime feature A Good Lad (Slavny Maly, 1942). A French pilot’s plane is downed in a Russian forest, where a resistance group is hiding out and forming its own little community. Living under the imminent threat of discovery doesn’t forestall songs, romantic affairs, and mistakes born of the language gap. (“I love you.” “I don’t understand.” “I don’t understand.”) Somber notes are struck when the village poet strides along singing patriotic tunes set to Borodin’s melodies, and soon the German soldiers are finding some partisans to threaten. With the villagers’ help the plane is repaired and soars into the sky to engage the enemy. The film seems to take place in an otherworldly realm, floating between an idyll and a battlefront drama.
Twenty years later Barnet could indulge in a more relaxed pastoral. Polustanok (1963) is variously known as Whistle Stop or A Small Station. A Moscow scientist goes on a painting vacation to the countryside. He settles into a collective farm where many painters have come before and winds up in a shed that is underfurnished (the chickens have to be shooed out) and overdecorated (the walls are covered with graphic inspirations). With something of the episodic structure of M. Hulot’s Holiday (though without its rigorous underlying timetable, at least to my eye), A Small Station rings variations on the fish-out-of-water situation of Pavel Pavlovich. He makes friends with a local delinquent, the party man, and cute girls. He even gets some support from the grumpy farm lady who has been painted many times and in many styles, some surprisingly unofficial in those Krushchev years. After Pavel sets painting aside, he and the delinquent build a brick stove for his shed. He signs it as if it were a work of art. He can return to Moscow reinvigorated, and as so often happens in films like this (Local Hero comes to mind), the departure is bittersweet.
Barnet’s light touch was nowhere in evidence in the long-unavailable short Priceless Head (A Bestsenaya golova, 1942). On every corner of an occupied Polish city, the Nazis have mounted a reward poster for a wanted partisan. He realizes he’s trapped, and meeting a penniless woman unable to feed her sick child, he offers to let her turn him in. This impossible choice is rendered in precisely controlled drama, with not a wasted shot or false note. Priceless Head shows that Barnet was an outstanding dramatic director, as well as Soviet cinema’s most unassuming lyricist.
Underground New York.
What would a trip to Bologna be without a foray into the 1910s? Kristin will have a lot to say about the biggest discovery, the consistent excellence of Alberto Capellani, so I’ll contribute a mite on the things I enjoyed. Of course I tracked the Feuillades. Roman Orgy (1911) was fairly tame, even allowing for a climax of Christians crunched by lions in the arena. Bébé est neurasthénique (1911) was shamelessly silly, with the little rascal pulling dishes off the table and then escaping punishment by feigning illness. His gift for rolling his eyes back into his head proved to be as funny on the tenth instance as on the first. But the most peculiar Feuillade entry was a sort of satiric PR response to Les Vampires. Lagourdette Gentleman Cambrioleur (1916) shows Musidora, no longer Irma Vep, absorbed in reading the novelization of Les Vampires. Marcel Levesque decides to woo her by pretending to be a debonair thief, so he convinces his valet and cook to pose as wealthy opera patrons. He’ll then display his skills by robbing them in front of Musidora. The two-reeler accepts, in a mocking spirit, the charge from bluenoses that sensational stuff on the screen only encourages crime.
Lagourdette has its nice points, notably its tendency to supply very large close-ups of its principals. (Who knew that Musidora had freckles?) This technique, almost absent from Feuillade’s features of the period, may have been an adaptation to the star-driven nature of the product. As Annette Förster noted in her introduction, the film involved a sort of product placement, and Gaumont’s stars, no less than its literary spinoffs, were branded items. The movie is minor Feuillade but significant in showing that as early as 1916, filmmakers were seeking synergy.
Mauritz Stiller began directing in 1912, and through 1914 he turned out some 20 films. All have been assumed lost, but one surfaced in Poland a few years ago. It was restored in 2011 by the Swedish Film Institute, so once more Ritrovato hosted a “second world premiere.” Gränsfolken (People of the Border aka The Border Feud, 1913) is derived from a Zola novel. A boy and a girl fall in love, but their families live on opposite sides of a border. For the girl’s father, loyalty to country comes before all else, and so he tries to block the marriage. Nonetheless the couple unite, but they face a dilemma when the two countries plunge into war. Will the young man fight for his old homeland or his new one? And will his ferocious brother kill him as a traitor?
Stiller had mastered the tableau style of the 1910s. Although nothing in the film displays Victor Sjöström’s virtuosity in staging, Stiller gets a lot of mileage out of the two families’ densely furnished parlors. Every inch of the frame is used at some time or another; a figure lying on a tall bed can roll into view in the upper left corner of the shot. The exteriors are picturesque and often framed geometrically. I need to see Gränsfolken again to do justice to its visuals, but the fairly restrained playing and the emotional intensity of the situation prefigure what would become signature elements in Stiller’s style in work like the Thomas Graal comedies and of course Herr Arne’s Treasure (1919).
Jumping far ahead to the 1960s, it was a pleasure to see Gideon Bachmann’s Underground New York. Shot in 1967, it treats protests against the Vietnam War as of a piece with the avant-garde film scene. Shirley Clarke, Jonas Mekas, the Kuchars, Bruce Conner, and other legendary figures are captured in quick, telling portraits. Andy Warhol confides that acting in his film involves not performance but “faking it.” There are many lively moments—Conner dancing in pegged pants, Mekas tearing up company checkbooks—and enough nudity to suggest that new filmmaking and political protest were tied to erotic liberation.
Bachmann, dynamic and articulate at 84, offered many thoughts on the film and how he wound up making it. A cosmopolitan intellectual, he began producing an interview show for WBAI radio, a major initiative in American film culture. His talks with Fellini, Tarkovsky, and others proceed from his conviction that “The person is more important than the film.” By that he means that you never really make the film you have in your head—you get at best 80%–and you end up lying about your mistakes. But the person has an achieved identity. “My life’s work is to meet the people behind the camera.”
Over eight hundred hours of those meetings have been preserved in Bachmann’s audio archive, Vox Humana—The Voice Bank. The model for Bachmann has always been not the interview, with its predictable questions and stale answers, but the conversation, “just friends talking.” Bachmann, a straightforward and serious man, was forty when he made Underground New York, and he retains the mature lucidity on display in his comments in that film—and in his film criticism, which I remember reading with pleasure in Film Quarterly in the 1960s. We’re likely to get an earful of his archive, for Criterion has already signed up the North American rights to the Vox Humana collection.
Given the great abundance of films at this year’s festival—some might say an overabundance—I singled out out three threads to concentrate on. I resolutely ignored the others unless I could somehow fit a film in here and there. Naturally I chose the second part of the Albert Capellani retrospective that began last year; I wrote about the 2010 season here and will do a follow-up soon. I also chose the 1911 “Cento Anni Fa” programs, since, as usual, the festival presented films from exactly one hundred years ago. Not surprisingly, the most interesting among these were by Feuillade, which David covers above, and Capellani. Finally, since I have a particular interest in Weimar cinema, I stuck with the “Conrad Veidt, From Caligari to Casablanca” retrospective.
The title refers to what are probably Veidt’s two most famous roles, as the somnambulist Cesare in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) and his final performance, as the Nazi Major Strasser, in Casablanca (1942). But presumably on the assumption that just about everyone knows these two films well, Il Cinema Ritrovato didn’t show either one. Instead, the program successfully assembled a group of lesser-known Veidt performances. Despite the fact that I’ve seen a lot of Veidt’s films from the 1910s and 1920s, almost all the items on offer were new to me. The selection seemed designed to display the considerable range of an actor often identified with villainous roles, like his portrayals of Nazis in the 1940s, or downright demonic, like Ivan the Terrible in Waxworks.
Almost none of the films in the program were newly discovered or restored. Most were drawn from existing prints held by various archives. The Wandering Jew, for example, was a beautiful print from the National Film and Television Archive, but it was full of splices, often with whole lines of dialogue missing. The exception was The Thief of Bagdad, a newly restored version shown as one of the evening screenings in the Piazza Maggiore. Not having the stamina that we once had for nearly round-the-clock film viewing, David and I missed all of those. I also passed up the familiar Waxworks (1924, Paul Leni), which I gather was shown in the same dark, indistinct version that has been circulating for years. It’s a film ripe for restoration, but perhaps no better material survives. That would be a pity, since it’s the one film that three of the main Expressionist actors, Veidt, Werner Krauss, and Emil Jannings appeared in together. Leni is also an interesting director, as well as a set designer; perhaps a retrospective of his largely unknown body of work could be arranged someday.
Apart from these, the program pulled together an admirable selection of films. The earliest, Dida Ibsens Geschichte (“Dida Ibsen’s Story,” 1918, Richard Oswald), was a sequel to the original version of Das Tagebuch einer Verlornenen, later remade in 1929 by G. W. Pabst with Louise Brooks. Veidt features relatively little in Dida Ibsen, playing a rich man who takes Dida as his mistress. The film is stolen by Werner Krauss, however, playing a highly eccentric man who forces Dida to marry him and then terrorizes her and their little daughter. Their home is crammed with what appear to be the exotic souvenirs of the husband’s adventures, including Asian furnishings and curios, as well as a parrot, crocodile, and lively python. Krauss carried the latter curled around his body much of the time. Indeed, where else could one see two snake-carrying villains in a single week? Three days later I watched Burl Ives sporting a cottonmouth moccasin in Nicholas Ray’s Wind across the Everglades, a film from the color series that I managed to fit into my schedule.
Veidt’s demonic roles are well represented here not only by Waxworks but also by the 1922 historical epic Lucrezia Borgia (also directed by the prolific Richard Oswald). I had expected the latter to be the usual stodgy historical drama, but it was livelier and more enjoyable than I had expected. Veidt plays the ruthless Cesare Borzia, lusting after his sister Lucrezia and scheming against her repeatedly until he leads a suicidal attack on the fort where her husband is defending her. The fort itself is an immense, lumpy set of the kind common in German epics of the 1920s, That, along with the huge armies of extras, suggests that this was one of the biggest-budget films prior to Metropolis.
Veidt was more versatile than such roles would suggest, however. He often played intense, suffering young men, as in one of F. W. Murnau’s earliest surviving films, Die Gang in der Nacht (1920, not, as in the catalogue, 1922). Veidt plays a supporting role as a mysterious, spiritual young painter who has been blinded. His more cheerful side was in evidence in the wonderful musical The Congress Dances (193
31, Eric Charell); there as the confidently scheming Metternich he smilingly relishes eavesdropping on officials and politicians and reading their sealed letters with a contraption involving a bright lamp and magnifying lenses. He plays a Prussian military hero in Die letzte Kompagnie (1930, Kurt—later Curtis—Bernhardt), an early talkie shown in what appeared to be an English-language version, part dubbed, part redone with the actors speaking English.
Veidt’s ability to play both sympathetic and dastardly characters was shown off in the final two offerings, scheduled back to back, in both of which he plays diametrically opposed brothers: Die Brüder Schellenberg (1926, Karl Grune) and Nazi Agent (1942, Jules Dassin). Seeing the two films juxtaposed was odd. In each one, the evil brother is played by Veidt as he usually looked, with dark hair slicked back from his face, while the virtuous brother is gray-haired, reserved, with a little goatee (below). One has to suspect that Dassin saw the earlier film, and in fact Die Brüder Schellenberg was screened at the festival in an American print entitled Two Brothers.
The Mosfilm site offers some Barnet titles for downloading, without subtitles and for a fee. The short list includes A Small Station. The opening twelve minutes, with subtitles, can be found on YouTube. A Good Lad is available here, for free, without subtitles.
For a lovingly compiled fan site, see The Conrad Veidt Society, but beware the Wikipedia entry.
[Thanks to Armin Jäger for correcting my mistake on the date for The Congress Dances.]
Conrad Veidt and Conrad Veidt in Nazi Agent.
Of Love and Other Demons.
There are dozens of American films playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival this year, but the vast majority of them are documentaries. Once again the Rest of the World (ROW) gets its turn. David has started by handling a group of Asian films (one of the festival’s specialities), and I’ve got films from three continents to describe.
Morgen (Romania; dir. Marian Crisan, 2010)
Morgen opens with the camera following the hero, Nelu, riding his motorcycle toward a border checkpoint. The border guards question him and discover that he’s been fishing and caught a large carp. One guard is inclined to let him pass, but the stricter one insists that he can’t take it across. We may think that this guard wants the fish for himself, but when Nelu finally empties his bucket into the gutter, the guards retire into their office and the fish is left to flap pathetically as Nelu rides across the border.
It’s a simple, obvious way to set up the absurdity and arbitrariness of border controls within the European Union, but it also sets up the character of the two guards, who will figure later when a more important border-crossing is attempted.
A security guard at a local grocery store, Nelu lives with her termagant wife in a modest farmhouse near the Hungarian border. During one of his regular fishing trips, he spots a forlorn Turkish refugee hiding from the border police. He takes the man home. Although the Turk’s dialogue isn’t subtitled, he mentions Germany often enough for Nelu and us to grasp where the man is heading. Not having a clue about how to help, Nelu hides the Turk in his cellar, and despite the wife’s objections, he gradually becomes a sort of handyman around the place. Nelu keeps telling him, “Morgen” (“tomorrow”) suggesting that he vaguely hopes to do something eventually.
Virtually every scene occupies a single take, some long, some not. But these aren’t the deliberately lugubrious shots of a Béla Tarr. In its quiet way, Morgen is a comedy, and an entertaining one. Nelu’s passivity presents the slowly growing friendship between him and the Turk without the film tipping over into sentimentality, and there is genuine suspense in the scenes of threatened encounters with the border police and guards. It’s a charming film, reminiscent of some of the Czech New Wave comedies of the 1960s.
12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary (Lebanon; dir. Zeina Daccache, 2009)
The film’s subtitle is intended to differentiate it from a play of the same name that was produced within the largest prison in Lebanon, starring a group of prisoners. In the United States the director, Leina Daccache, studied drama as a method of prisoner habilitation. She managed to get funding to try the first ever use of this method in Lebanon, though there followed a year of negotiations before government officials allowed the experiment. The program was to include a loose adaptation of the American play 12 Angry Men, as well as some songs and monologues by the prisoners. Eight soldout performances were eventually put on, attended by government ministers and members of society.
The process of casting and rehearsals took fifteen months, and Dacchache documented the process with a cinematographer shooting digital video. There are atmospheric shots of the prison, scenes of the rehearsal and premiere performances, and interviews with the prisoners who play the lead roles. The resulting images are necessarily not of high photographic quality, but the intrinsic drama of the situation more than makes up for that.
Although 45 prisoners were involved in the performances, Daccache wisely concentrates on the central dozen, composed of several murderers, some drug dealers, and a rapist. Even in the early interviews, before rehearsals have progressed very far, all are remarkably articulate and thoughtful about their own lives and how they ended up in prison. (Presumably they were chosen because they could speak so revealingly.) By the end, they realize that they have learned all the things they were deprived of during their early years, most notably how to function as a group and work toward a goal beyond their own wants.
The film creates a moving and convincing image of the effects art can have in changing the lives of prisoners thought to be beyond rehabilitation. It’s a rare documentary that has an immediate positive effect on society. In this case, there had been a law providing for early release for prisoners on the books in Lebanon for several years. As Daccache revealed in a Q&A after the film, that law was never put into practice until after the successful run of the play.
Of Love and Other Demons (Costa Rica/Colombia; dir. Hilda Hidalgo, 2010)
Filmmaking on a sophisticated level continues to spread through Latin America. Hidalgo’s adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez’s novella seems to have been shot in Costa Rica, with financing and other technical work done in Colombia.
The story is relatively simple. The teenage daughter of a local nobleman in colonial Cartagena is bitten by a rabid dog. It’s not clear whether she has contracted the disease, but she is taken to a local nunnery and locked away in a cell for observation. Somehow the diagnosis is changed to demonic possession, mainly because the girl has been raised by her family’s black slaves and has been steeped in their native, highly non-Catholic beliefs. A young, philosophically minded priest is sent to exorcize her but ends up falling in love with her instead.
In contrast to the slapdash editing so common in contemporary Hollywood films, it’s a pleasure to see a film where every shot has been intelligently planned. The Variety review compares cinematographer Marcelo Camorino’s lighting to Caravaggio paintings, an apt parallel. The heroine’s implausibly dense, waist-length red curls are lovingly dwelt upon, as in the shot illustrated at the top of this entry. The sense of magical realism emerges most powerfully in a dazzling sequence in which the priests watch a solar eclipse. A moon far larger than it would normally appear passes across an equally huge sun, creating a fiery corona that hovers above the open sea (see below).
Microphone (Egypt; dir. Ahmad Abdalla, 2010)
Ahmad Abdalla, whose first feature Heliopolis we blogged about last year, is back with his second. Microphone is much more polished, reflecting a longer shooting time and perhaps a bigger budget. The same lead actor, Khaled Abol Naga, returns as Khaled, a young man returning to his native Alexandria after seven years in the United States. Finding that the girl he had hoped to marry has decided to go abroad to do her Ph.D., he sets out to help set up a studio in a warehouse. Gradually he gets drawn into the more popular goings-on in the working-class districts, notably rap music, skateboarding, and graffiti art. After a hypocritical government arts bureaucrat promises funding and then reneges, Khaled sets out to stage a concert in the open air, only to be confronted by Islamic and police opposition.
While Heliopolis simply followed a set of disparate characters around the upscale Cairo suburb, Microphone has a more ambitious structure, flashing back to stages in Khaled’s disillusioning reunion with his ex-girlfriend–flashbacks that are presented out of order within the ongoing scenes of his growing interest in street art. The result has the sophistication of a modern festival film.
The film presents a grim take on government repression and censorship. Abdalla, on hand to answer questions, told us that we had seen the full version, which he fully expects will be cut by the Egyptian authorities. Even though he shows the young street artists in a sympathetic light throughout, Abdalla does not avoid the fact that their work is wholly positive. There is a motif of Khaled opening his shutters each morning to a view of an aging yellow stucco building across the way; one morning he opens again to find the façade covered with a giant graffiti image.
Indeed, one audience member, a young man from Alexandria, objected to the portrayal of his beautiful home city as ugly, since the story is set mostly in poorer neighborhoods. Abdalla defended the approach, saying that the film is intended to portray a certain arena of life in the city realistically, with the incidents in the film being derived from stories recounted to him by the actual young artists who played themselves.
The film’s criticism of the Egyptian government may seem rather tame by western standards. Yet a telling change in the ending reveals how current are its concerns. There is a street vendor selling pop-music cassettes out of a cardboard box who returns at intervals as a motif, though he has little to do with the story. The film was to have had an upbeat ending involving the vendor. But in June, when the filming was still going on, the beating death of Khaled Said by two policemen outside an internet cafe in Alexandria took place. The filmmakers altered their ending, with police chasing the cassette vendor and starting to beat him. (The trial of the real-life policemen is ongoing and has every appearance of being a sham.)
The Man Who Will Come (Italy; dir. Giorgio Diritti, 2009)
This film dramatizes a set of massacres of villagers perpetrated by Nazi soldiers in the region around Bologna in 1944 in response to the people’s support of partisan troops. It’s a tale told through the eyes of Martina, a girl of about 9 who has been mute since her newborn brother died in her arms. (No points for guessing whether she regains speech by the end.) Since the main peasant family to which Martina belongs is fictional, there was no necessity to make her mute, and unfortunately the result is that she has very little personality. She is shown being bullied by some boys early on, which presumably is intended to make us sympathize more with her, though the choice of a pretty little girl as the point-of-view figure entails a pretty automatic sympathy on the audience’s part.
The film is largely episodic, with the life of the central peasant family and their neighbors being vividly conveyed as we see them at their tasks. At intervals, Nazis are seen near the village, and the partisans recruit young men and have some early successes. But since Martina understands little of what goes on around her, she has no particular goal, though eventually she gains one as the Germans begin the massacre and she is left to save another newborn brother. I found it difficult to keep track of the lengthy scene of the rounding up of the peasants and their executions in various venues. One group is taken to a chapel in a graveyard to be killed, another is killed by the church, and so on, but it is difficult to tell one group from another or to get a sense of how many peasants were slaughtered. (The original total was somewhere around 750 to 800.)
Overall the cinematography conveys the setting well, both the hilly, wooded landscapes and the ancient stone farmhouses. There’s a very effective scene where the townspeople take refuge in a church and Martina’s older sister runs back and forth from the bell-tower, reporting the fighting below, which we see only from far away, as she does. In fact, this sister is a more engaging character than Martina, and would have made a better point-of-view figure. Another gripping scene comes when she, seriously wounded in the massacre, is suddenly pulled out of the pile of bodies and given first aid by a Nazi officer. She’s mystified as to why he’s doing this, though we hear him tell another soldier that she reminds him of his wife. It may seem as if the insanity of war would be more effectively conveyed through a thoroughly naive character’s eyes, but at least in this case, somehow that doesn’t work.
Of Love and Other Demons.