May 19, 2009


Even if Martin Scorsese had never sat behind a camera, his heroic efforts at preserving film history would have earned him a spot in the cinematic pantheon. The biggest news out of the Cannes Film Festival this week, at least for nerds like myself, was the announcement regarding Mr. Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, which restores rare international films selected by a board consisting of directors like Wong Kar-Wai, Guillermo del Toro, and Abbas Kiarostami, among others. Film Comment editor-at-large Kent Jones was introduced as the new executive director, and a new distribution relationship with the “on-line cinematheque” The Auteurs and the Criterion Collection will allow these restorations to be viewed widely.

The Auteurs has already begun streaming four WCF films for free, and Cannes is currently screening four classics they’ve refurbished, including Edward Yang’s masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day (Michael Atkinson has a lovely new piece up at Moving Image Source regarding it). This is in addition to Scorsese’s English language restoration arm, The Film Foundation, which produced a new print of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes now screening at the festival, and who also pushed forward the essential Budd Boetticher box set released last year. It’s an astonishing effort at keeping history and cinephilia alive. (for more info, check out GreenCine’s podcast with Scorsese and Jones).

Sure, this news is not as exciting (and shocking!) as the coverage of the genital mutilation scenes in Lars von Trier’s latest provocation, Antichrist (which has dominated the Cannes stories this year), but it might have a slight edge in having a long-term impact on film culture. In my first attempt at digging in to the Foundation’s riches, I watched two of the features on The Auteurs, Kim Ki-Young’s The Housemaid (1960), and Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer (1964).

The Housemaid pulses with a delirious sexuality, focusing on the queasy thrills of smashing moral boundaries and the horrifying retribution that ensues. Kim sets the visual stakes in the opening shot: a track that pushes from outside a window into the piano room of the family’s house, establishing the idyllic, post-Korean war family before settling into a close-up of the cat’s cradle the kids are twiddling with. Cue title card. The journey of the camera mimics the later movement of the unnamed housemaid (Lee Eun-shim), whose entrance into the father’s domain signals the end of domestic bliss, and the entrance into a inescapable cat’s cradle-like net of ethical degradation.

Images of decay soon take over, usually tied to the family’s acquisitveness. The kids play on a staircase of their unfinished house, with two-by-fours looming over them. Their daughter, Aesoon, has to walk on crutches because of a mysterious disease, and their kitchen is beset by a plague (OK, just a couple) of rats. The father buys his daughter a squirrel for a pet, that particular type of rodent more acceptable for being purchased. Kim has things play out mostly in two-shots, but pushes in for the telling detail. The dad, a meek piano instructor, is teaching a young female admirer, and Kim cuts in to his hand cupping hers on the keys. This is when the new maid is seen creeping outside the window, spying on this strangely intimate lesson. Peering meekly inside, her unease growing, Kim cuts to a close-up of two rats writhing on a plate slathered with poison. No half-measures here, as the father’s passive psyche is ravaged by the sexual impulses he can’t control. Once the camera goes inside the house, the perversity can’t be contained, and Kim orchestrates an appropriately grand guignol ending.

Dry Summer, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, is a more naturalistic tale from Turkey that deals with self-destruction. Except in this case it’s arrogance rather than passivity that is the central character’s undoing. Selected for the WCF by director Fatih Akin (Head On), it’s an unstinting portrayal of Turkish masculinity, instantiated in the person of the mustachioed Osman (in a deliciously bombastic performance by Erol Tas). A tad portly, and often shirtless, Osman wants what’s his, regardless of the consequences. So when he declares that the village spring is on his property, he’s fully prepared to defend it to the death after denying the other villagers access to it.

This capitalist swine is often framed in extreme close-up, exaggerating his already caricature-ready features (wide nose, bushy moustache, droopy eyes) into a monstrous ass. Erksan even gives a donkey a similar close-up to cement their physical and emotional similarity. There’s a playful air to this monster, but he’s never portrayed to be anything else, whether tossing a recently severed chicken head to frighten his sister in law, or leeringly imbibing milk as he stares up her skirt. His look is what dominates the film, and his strapping brother’s wife, Bahar (Hülya Koçyigit), is the focus of his gaze. The clash over the public/private use of land is the arc that weaves through the whole film, but Osman’s vision of masculinity is the major subplot – of his ravenous thirst for land, money, and power – regardless of the cost. So when the villagers come to ask for the water, he tosses a pail at them. When they say they’re willing to buy a portion of it, he lends an ear.

It’s not worth giving away his most devious act, since you should watch it for yourself, but suffice it to say that the donkey wouldn’t have stooped to such levels. Tas is so brilliant in articulating his character’s childlike self-absorption that it often seems more like a comedy than a tragedy, but a final act reckoning tips it firmly into the latter, and it stands as a uncompromising critique of masculine aggression, while also being shaded enough to appreciate the guile it takes to be so evil.

I had heard of The Housemaid before, but had no idea that Dry Summer existed. The fact that there is an organization out there willing to restore and distribute this kind of material – artistically exciting but commercially nonviable – in this kind of economic climate, is nothing short of miraculous.These works have me primed for the other films in their pipeline, including Al Momia (1969) from Egypt , Redes (The Wave) (1936) from Mexico, Limite (1931) from Brazil, and Forest of the Hanged (1964) from Romania. Their motto is, “Dedicated to the preservation and restoration of neglected works around the world”, which sounds like something I’d come up with in a fever dream from my more idealistic school days. Apparently Scorsese has been sharing my dreams, except he has the capital and wherewithal to do something about it.

Further Reading: Michael J. Anderson at Tativille