Eternal Recurrence: Revenge (1989)

October 10, 2017

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Revenge (1989) concerns a vengeance that cannot be contained by time. It floats through the centuries, traveling from 17th century Korea to 20th century Sakhalin Island, a much fought over spit of land squabbled over by Russia and Japan. A free-form mass of condensed hate emerges during this period, one which causes the death of a little girl and the mission of her doomed half-brother, who is conceived and raised only to avenge her murder. A major work of what became known as the Kazakh New Wave, Revenge is elusive and incantatory due in part to the script by the Korean-Russian poet Anatoli Kim that does not provide as much of a narrative as it does a striking collage of decay. Add to this the fact that director Ermek Shinarbaev was born in Soviet controlled Kazakhstan, but after Revenge was filmed the Soviet system collapsed and Kazakhstan became a sovereign state. The film reflects the rootlessness, uncertainty and bitterness of no longer having a place to call home. Restored in 2010 thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, it is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion (in Volume 2 of their World Cinema Project series), and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

Shinarbaev studied at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (aka VGIK), the oldest film school in the world, having been founded in 1919. He was there for eleven years (1970 – 1981), but his time there didn’t overlap with the future Kazakh New Wave filmmakers (Serik Aprimov, Sergei Dvortsevoy, Ardak Amirkulov, Amir Karakulov, Darezhan Omirbaev) who all joined a workshop with filmmaker Sergei Soloviev in 1984. Shinarbaev would be lumped in with them anyway, as it was good publicity for all involved. After graduation Shinarbaev spent, as noted in Tanner Tafelski’s essential interview at The Brooklyn Rail, “three years in Kazakhstan trying to do something as a filmmaker,” and after no funding, he “decided to quit forever.”

But then he discovered the work of Anatoli Kim, who he blindly started harassing in an effort to adapt his work. They would make three films together, and their third and final collaboration, Revenge, was buffeted more than usual by bizarre production circumstances. Kim had originally written the script for a famous Russian actor to make, but it had been definitively rejected. Shinarbaev accepted the project sight-unseen, inherently trusting Kim’s talent. But the Russian state funding arm was reluctant to give money to a Kazakh filmmaker working on a Russian subject, so he was only given 30% of his proposed budget, a total of 800,000 rubles. Two directors of photography quit weeks into production, and the assistant DP Sergei Kosmanev would finish the job – astonishing considering the film’s hieratically beautiful lighting, which in his Criterion essay Kent Jones describes as the film’s “awed respect for the sheer power of light.”

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The story is split into seven parts, and the main thread follows the aftermath of a senseless murder of a young girl by her schoolteacher Yan (Nikolai Tacheyev). Seemingly unmotivated, it is an act of pure evil. The girl’s father, Tsai (Kasym Zhakibayev), vows revenge at any cost, and after his first attempt fails, he has a child with a younger woman, vowing that this boy, named Sungu (Aleksandr Pan) will be trained to seek revenge in the face of his father’s failure (this plot is strikingly similar to that of Lady Snowblood [1973], which I wrote about earlier this year). Sungu’s entire life will be focused on the murder of Yan. There is a prologue that lends a cosmic dimension to this tragic tale. It is set in 17th century Korea, during which a trifling king sentences a loyal subject to be beaten to death. His friend, and court poet, is also named Sungu, and is suitably disgusted by this act and requests to leave the kingdom. He is doomed to exile, wishing to depart “as a nothing remembering nothing, to become once again the nothing that means nothing, as I was before my birth.” Then he walks over the horizon into the blazing sun.

Violence follows Sungu across generations, to be reborn in the 19th century as a weapon of vengeance, though still touched with the spirit of poetry. Briefly anyway, for the weight of his mission grows so heavy that he makes his way eastward to Sakhalin Island, the contested spit of land that was split 50/50 between Japan and Russia, with a large population of Korean laborers. Sungu throws himself into a lumber splitting job, hoping to disappear into the routine, among other men trying to disappear in this non-place. But his past emerges as a wound, one that opens up and bleeds him dry. The film in this final section becomes ritualistically symbolic, as if Sungu had anticipated his own humiliation and was acting it out to fulfill a duty. Aleksandr Pan plays him as a blank, a tool rather than a human. The further Sungu heads toward his destiny, the darker the film gets. While his 17th century self departed into the sun, here is expires into darkness. The lights dim, flickering over the ghosts that he passes on his way to Yan’s house, surrounding a vision of his father, as well as the sister he never knew. He travels to Yan’s house the site of final reckoning, where he can collapse at last.

DIRTY POOL: LA CIENAGA (2001)

November 15, 2016

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La Cienaga (2001) translates as “The Swamp”, and it is a fetid, decaying film—its forests overgrown and its characters unwashed. For her feature debut, Lucrecia Martel depicts the dissolution of a middle-class Argentine family through sound and set design. To escape the humid city during the summer, they retreat to their country home, a rotting edifice with a filthy leaf-choked pool. With nothing to do, the adults check out on iced red wine while the children tote rifles through an overgrown forest literally shooting their eyes out. The soundtrack is thick with clinking ice, chairs dragging on cement and distant thunder. Martel emphasizes the moments and sounds in-between actions since her characters have very little interest in performing any actions themselves. Instead, they sit, drink and complain. La Cienaga is a blackly funny portrayal of middle-class self-absorption—of a people so wrapped up in themselves they cannot see that their clothes are dirty, the walls are peeling and the pool is a bacterial broth. It is now streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.

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Martel based the characters in La Ciénaga on the people she knew growing up in the Northern Argentinian city of Salta. She told Haden Guest of BOMB Magazine that “All the stories in La Ciénaga—in all my movies, really—are things that I’ve heard. There are people in my family, in fact, who are very similar to the characters. A great aunt of mine went to see it and when she was leaving she said to her husband, “Gregorio is just like you!” I had made that character thinking of him!” The film does not have a central character, but expands as a series of digressions at “La Mandragora” the country house of Mecha (Graciela Borges) and Gregorio (Martin Adjemian). Both are semi-functional alcoholics who stumble around the environs in a zombie-like daze. In the surreal opening sequence, a drunk Mecha stumbles by the pool and impales herself on a broken tumbler glass. Despite her bleeding out, Gregorio is more concerned with getting another drink, and Mecha that her maid is stealing their sheets. Their children pay them no mind instead turning the grounds into their anything-goes playground. The youngest children roam the knotty, brambly forest like violent colonists shooting at treed dogs and occasionally misfiring on one of their own. Luciano (Sebastian Montagna) loses an eye while the rest get covered in horrendous scratches.

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The older children have their own separate adventures—each age group seems to inhabit different solar systems despite living down the hall. Teenager Momi (Sofia Bertolloto), who refuses to wash her hair, has a crush on the young maid Isabel (Andrea Lopez). Isabel is the only character who seems to have a life as she sneaks off to meet her boyfriend Perro (Fabio Villafane), going to parties in town. She is actually integrated into a society larger than the layout of La Mandragora. In a pivotal sequence, the oldest son, Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu), goes to the same outdoor dance as Isabel and aggressively hits on her. This is an unforgivable invasion of privacy, not only of her personal space, but of the town’s. Jose treats the party as he would Mandragora, as if he owned it. In reprisal, Perro breaks Jose’s nose. An irreparable class border is crossed here, which means only trouble for those on the lower end of the scale.

The movie tries to ape the vibe of a large family living in a small space where one story ends by a sibling barging in and tipping the tale in another direction. Martel described her approach to structure to Haden Guest: “The narrative lines occur in different layers but within the same scene. You can have this character in the foreground, but over here there’s something else going on—an argument between my mom and one of my brothers, for example. In the next scene, that person, who has some problem in school, let’s say, is talking on the phone and maybe my mom is also off-screen. And then here’s another person complaining to my mom, who’s also off-screen. So the themes are superimposed on each other in “layers.” The characters’ movements and the themes get closer and farther away from the camera. The important thing is to define where I’m going to place the focus in order to give one of the layers a place of importance and weave the other things in and out.”

La Cienaga is a powerfully sensorial movie. It almost has a stink to it. Jose is always shirtless and covered in grime, while Momi is perpetually teased for never washing her hair. The summer is a humid one, and Mecha never seems to change out of her nightgown which adheres to her like a mildewed second skin. Gregorio is notable mainly for his hair dye, which has started to stain all of the sheets. Everyone is molting or shedding or disfigured in some way. Mecha’s chest wounds never really heal, Jose’s nose becomes a black-and-blue grotesquerie, while the younger childrens’ faces look like they’ve engaged in nightly knife fights. It is a darkly funny illustration of the family’s dissolution. They are being composted back into the earth.

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All of these expanding and contracting stories in the film hide a secret one— a fable-like horror story of an “African Rat” that scares the children early on. A tale of shape-shifting, in which a domestic pet turns out to be a monster that turns on its owners, it takes on totemic meaning by the end of the film. The rat could stand in for the Spanish colonizers or the apathetic middle-class represented by Mecha and Gregorio, a disease devouring its host from within. It is a story that mesmerizes and haunts the children of the film— leading to a scene of abrupt and terrifying violence. Though hidden in the movies’ layered structure in which no character is followed for too long, a little boy fears that the Rat is barking beyond the stucco wall of his tiny backyard plot. This child, a friend of the family of the rotting Mandragora clan, still retains his innocence enough to believe in scary stories. But the Mandragora clan has no belief left in them. The last shot is a repeat of the first, but instead of the parents lazing about the pool it is the children, set to relive the emptied out lives of their parents.

GHOST TOWN: THE FONTAINHAS TRILOGY (1997 – 2006)

November 1, 2016

COLOSSAL YOUTH (2006)

Fontainhas no longer exists, but the three films that Pedro Costa shot there guarantee the torn-down Lisbon slum an afterlife. Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006) compile a remarkable history of the everyday – how its residents ate, joked, argued, doped and, eventually, relocated. Fontainhas, a labyrinthine stone warren cut off from Lisbon both economically and architecturally, is witness and repository of the Cape Verdean immigrant community’s shared experiences. The destruction of the blighted neighborhood removes part of their life story along with it. All three films will be available to stream through FilmStruck, the new streaming service curated by Turner Classic Movies and The Criterion Collection, which launches today.


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Each film differs in approach. Ossos is the more traditional art-house option, filmed on 35mm (1.66:1) and presenting a relatively straightforward narrative. It concerns an unwanted teenage pregnancy, in which the unnamed father (Nuno Vaz) wanders through Fontainhas and the city at large, looking for someone to foist his baby upon. There is a constant visual contrast between inside and outside the neighborhood, the dark and narrow slum is somehow totally transparent, with pairs of eyes poking through every window and grate. But when all the residents take a bus into the richer city for their maid jobs, the apartments are clean and bright but closed and sectioned off. These are private spaces whereas Fontainhas is all shared and permeable.  The non-professional actors, taken from the neighborhood, perform in a non-demonstrative style, never giving away emotion, their characters too tired from hunger, or scrounging to feed that hunger, to really emote. So the film becomes a series of mostly static tableaus lensed by DP Emmanuel Machuel (L’argent, Van Gogh).  After Ossos, Costa no longer wanted to make films in the traditional manner, with large crews imposing themselves on Fontainhas, with the director recalling, “The trucks weren’t getting through—the neighborhood refused this kind of cinema, it didn’t want it.”

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He wanted to his shooting to be less invasive, so for In Vanda’s Room he pared down his crew just to himself, a Panasonic DVX-100 camera, and a sound man, Pedro Melo. Vanda Duarte, who played one of the maids on Ossos, becomes the central character here, playing herself as she and her friends smoke heroin, play cards and gossip. The destruction and relocation of Fontainhas’ residents had already begun, so half the neighborhood is rubble. With the shift to digital Costa experiments in recording in very low light and extremely long takes. He is able to shape hieratic, exalted images with these limited means, turning Vanda and her friends into saints. Whether Vanda is snorting H, hacking up a cough or napping, the waver and hum of the blacks as they buffet her angelic face lend the images a religious intensity. The choice of camera is another part of Costa’s ascetic project: “We used this camera which is not very sophisticated. It is very poor in certain aspects. But we try to work around that and she (the camera) works with us. She helps with a lot of things. She cannot go that far in terms of resolution compared to other cameras. And we don’t want that, we don’t need that, so we go in a certain other directions. But it is a lot of work.”

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Shifting to the square 1.33 aspect ratio, Costa puts Vanda and her friends in boxes, each room a diorama of some newly discovered ritual. Costa’s shift to digital decenters the narrative, allowing Costa to instead focus on the rhythms of the people he is starting to know so well. In between shooting features, he told Art in America, he returns to Fontainhas: “I’m an honorary member of the neighborhood association. My friend who does the sound was appointed a councilor of the new housing block. We have these kind of extravagant tasks that we accept, and we go back—without cameras, without mics. I go to community meetings, discussions every weekend, and I’m only away from there when I’m shooting or promoting something else.”

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By the time of Colossal Youth Fontainhas has been almost totally destroyed, looking like a bombed out war zone, it’s residents wanderers and ghosts. The central ghost is Ventura (also the star of the subsequent Horse Money), a Cape Verdean migrant who has been kicked out of his home by his wife, and so he walks to his friends and neighbors, looking for a place to stay. Most of his friends, like Vanda – now a recovering addict on Methadone, and nearly unrecognizable – live in new housing project high rises that are wiped clean of any prior residents. Fontainhas, even in its decrepit state, still displays its layers of history, and the people who have made literal impressions on it.

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As Ventura does his wander, he soon realizes he does not belong outside of his beloved Fontainhas. While a real estate agent is showing him another plain white box of an apartment, he leans resignedly against the wall. After Ventura steps away, the agent swiftly takes a handkerchief and wipes the spot on which Ventura was leaning. These new spaces are effacing his presence even before he moves in. Costa will not allow Fontainhas to disappear, and in Ventura’s journey all of the neighborhood’s delirious fantasies and failures are allowed to flower: there is a love letter never sent, a violent dream of shape-shifting, the ravages of drug use, endless card games, factory and museum reveries, and a nature program on television as a child plays. It is a film of unsettled ghosts and banal realities, of decaying history that cannot be written down but exists only in the stain on a wall, an indentation on a countertop. People lived in Fontainhas who the rest of the city would prefer to ignore, the immigrant poor and their families. But they left their mark anyway. Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy attempts to capture these marks, and restore to them the physical history of their community.

END OF AN ERA: CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT AND THE IMMORTAL STORY

August 30, 2016

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Chimes at Midnight (1966) and The Immortal Story (1968) were the last two fiction features that Orson Welles completed. Still to come would be the self-reflective essays of F For Fake (1973) and Filming Othello (’78), as well as the perpetually promised to-be-finished projects like The Other Side of the Wind (1970-’76), but Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story mark an endpoint. Both deal with aging, obsolete men living outside of their times, belonging to previous epochs. In Chimes, Welles’ Falstaff is a ruddy-cheeked representative of the Merrie England torn asunder by the War of the Roses, while his “Mr. Clay” in The Immortal Story is a wealthy Macao merchant who lives inside his account books, completely cut off from the world outside. Chimes at Midnight is the capstone to Welles’ extraordinary career, while The Immortal Story is a dream-like coda. Today both have been released in essential DVD and Blu-ray editions from Criterion. Chimes at Midnight has never had a satisfactory home video release in the United States until now, subjugated to dupey transfers and muddy audio (always blamed on the original production circumstances, which required extensive dubbing, but the dialogue is crisp and clear on the Criterion disc). Both releases are causes for celebration, and Chimes has pole position for home video release of the year.

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Welles had been making versions of Chimes at Midnight his entire life. When he was fifteen he condensed Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III into Winter of Our Discontent, which he performed at the Todd School for Boys. He tried again on a larger scale for the Mercury Theater production of Five Kings in 1938, a compilation of the history plays whose failure was largely attributed to a rotating stage that kept malfunctioning. He returned the idea to the stage in 1960, where it was now called Chimes at Midnight, and would focus on the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal. It was staged to strong reviews but dwindling attendance in Belfast and Dublin, and plans for a world tour were scrapped. But the material was never far from Welles’ mind, and so in 1964 he began planning a film adaptation, and secured money from a Spanish producer, Emiliano Piedra, but only if he would shoot an adaptation of Treasure Island simultaneously, with the same cast and crew. It is unclear whether Welles ever intended to follow through with Treasure Island, which he had once adapted for the radio, but he put on the image of seriousness, drafting the 2nd Unit director on Chimes, Jess Franco, to lead the Treasure Island shoot. In the third volume of his Welles biography One Man Band, Simon Callow writes that a few scenes were shot on board the Hispaniola that still exist,  which were “energetic” and “in sumptuous Technicolor”. But no more was done with Treasure Island, as Welles funneled all the money into Chimes (he told Peter Bogdanovich it cost “a million-one”).

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Chimes at Midnight is a boisterous, earthy and deeply melancholy film, focusing on Prince Hal’s (Keith Baxter, reprising his role on the stage) relationship to two father figures, his biological one, King Henry IV (John Gielgud, flawless), and Falstaff (Welles), his drunken playmate who teaches him about the good life. When King Henry IV’s reign is threatened by the rebellion of the House of Percy, led by the impulsive Hotspur, Prince Hal is forced to choose between Falstaff’s medieval Merrie olde England and the patriotic militarism of his father. Welles is a nostalgist, seen most vividly in pre-industrial sequences in The Magnificent Ambersons, and he plays Falstaff as a tragic figure placed in a time that no longer needs him. The tone is set in the opening, in which Falstaff, Justice Shallow (Alan Webb), and Silence (Walter Chiari) sit by a fire, talking of the past. Webb plays Shallow with a cracking and wheezing falsetto, and wields that voice with singsong sadness: “Jesus, the days that we have seen!” Falstaff replies slowly, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” They are men of the past, awaiting their flames to be snuffed out.

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James Naremore, in The Magic World of Orson Welles, describes his appearance as a “filthy Santa Claus who has carried ‘gourmandizing’ to a dangerous extreme” (according to Callow Welles wore “knitted chain-mail tights and a suede jerkin worn by Jayne Mansfield in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw.”)  Welles is enormous, and enormously filthy, though he gives Falstaff that baby faced cherubic grin of young Charles Foster Kane. He is a walking paradox, an immature and naive old man, an inebriated child. Early on in the Boar’s Head bar, a set designed, painted, and blowtorched by Welles, Falstaff and Hal perform a burlesque of King Henry interrogating his son. They trade the roles back and forth, wearing a pot on their heads as a crown. Welles and his DP Edmond Richard shoot with a barrelling handheld camera in the bar sequences, keeping the viewer as tipsy as its patrons. This parodic scene will become tragedy at the end of the film, when Prince Hal becomes King and disavows his former tippling playmates (“I know thee not, old man”). But Falstaff’s innocence had already been despoiled in the Battle of Shrewsbury, a rightly celebrated sequence that begins with traditional spatial geography, orienting the viewer to each side of the battle, until the cuts get faster and unmoored, the movement is both sped up and slowed down, ending with the camera knee deep in the mud with indistinguishable bodies trembling to their deaths.

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The Immortal Story depicts another tragic, if less sympathetic, old man. Welles had long admired Isak Dinesen, and planned to adapt three of her stories for an omnibus film. Only The Immortal Story was completed. It follows the curious case of Mr. Clay (played by Welles with one of his more distracting fake noses), a rich old bastard and stubborn realist, who wants an old sailor’s story to come true. The story, passed from ship to ship, concerns a rich merchant who hires a sailor for five guineas to impregnate his wife. Clay is a rigid literalist who is childishly upset that this story was a fabrication. He wants to re-enact the story for real, so at least one sailor can tell the tale and mean it. Clay entrusts his accountant Levinsky (Roger Coggio), whose family was killed in a pogrom, to carry out the bizarre task. Levinsky is an ascetic who enters his task with a hidden smile, as if happy to have no more to do with the world. Levinsky hires Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) to play Clay’s wife. Viriginie’s father was once Clay’s partner, but they split and Clay ruined him, kicking him out of his own house. So Virginie is returning to her childhood home, when she still had dreams of a happy life. Clay finds a ragged sailor (Norman Eshley) to complete his menagerie, and the story commences. But as life is not a story, and Clay’s “pieces” do not act as he intends, a mortally threatening outcome. Welles’ first color feature, shot by Willy Kurant, is heavily filtered and gauzy, appropriate for the dirge-like dreaminess of the film. Everyone is withholding themselves, so it is appropriate for Kurant to add more barriers in the form of filters. At only 58 minutes, it is a drowsy, hypnotic miniature about a man whose lack of imagination is his undoing.

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The Criterion discs are piled high with useful extras, including an extraordinary interview with Orson Welles on the Merv Griffin show, included on the Chimes at Midnight disc. It was conducted in Spain while a haggard, unshaven Welles was sitting at a moviola in the process of editing Chimes. He plays back the just-edited battle sequence  while Griffin peppers him with questions about Kane and War of the Worlds. Though clearly exhausted and seemingly near-collapse, Welles answers these tired questions with grace and charm, hoping for a box-office boost that would never come. Though studios admired Chimes,  Fox’s Darryl Zanuck called it “far and away the best film in this category I have seen”, but didn’t pick it up for distribution. It eventually received a small release (presented by Harry Saltzman and released by Peppercorn-Wormser, Inc. Film Enterprises), but was doomed by a harsh (and bizarre) New York Times review by Bosley Crowther (“a big, squashy, tatterdemalion show.”) It received a strong notice from Pauline Kael in The New Republic, writing that it “came and went so fast there was hardly time to tell people about it, but it should be back (it should be around forever) and it should be seen.” With the Criterion disc it is now possible to follow Kael’s sage advice.

PAST LIVES: MURIEL, OR THE TIME OF RETURN (1963)

August 16, 2016

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“In general I am not interested in the events themselves but in what happens afterwards. Not the departure, but the return.” – Jean Cayrol

In Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963), the repressed past infiltrates the present like a fungal growth slowly inching across the frame. A pre-World War II lover and a ghostly memory from Algiers fill the gaps in the lives of the Aughain family of Boulogne-sur-mer, a sleepy, emptied out seaside town just waiting to be possessed. Alain Resnais’ follow-up to Last Year at Marienbad (’61), Muriel has a materialist, tactile sense of place, established through rapid montages of everyday objects, whereas Marienbad’s amorphous no-place was shot with languorous long takes. The shift can be attributed to his collaborators, moving from nouveau roman author/filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet on Marienbad to Jean Cayrol on Muriel. Cayrol was a poet and concentration camp survivor who had provided the text for Resnais’ Night and Fog. He has these characters bear the physical weight of history, something that slows their steps and hunches their backs, and this lurch can now be seen on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. 

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In a 1969 interview included on the Criterion disc, Delphine Seyrig compared working on Marienbad to being in a Racine tragedy, “where people stroll around without ever actually having anything to do”, whereas in her role in Muriel she was “faced with something much more concrete…having a package to wrap, or a cigarette to light.” In the latter she plays the dowdy Hélène Aughain, a widowed antiques dealer in Boulogne-sur-mer who lives with her step-son Bernard (the severe-looking Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée), recently discharged from military duty in Algeria. Her life is charted in the rapid close-up montage that begins the film: of doorknobs, tea kettles, purses, and glass fruit centerpieces (25 shots in 23 seconds). All the while a customer is rambling about the chest of drawers she’s seeking. She deals in antiques, objects that project history without the buyer knowing exactly what that history is. Hélène has settled into her role, her dun-colored sweaters and dull brown blouses blending in with the lacquered bookcases and end tables she hawks to customers. Her vices are gambling (poorly) and a balding developer with the vaporous name of Roland de Smoke (Claude Sainval). Seyrig is playing a character decades older than she is, but inhabits the role with a grim, distant fatalism.

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Hélène lives in a house in which all of the furniture is for sale, and with a son that is not hers. Bernard is the son from her dead husband’s previous marriage, and he treats her like a live-in maid more than a mother. He is morose, cynical, and menacing, harboring grudges against the world that placed him in that apartment. He has been marked by a tragedy that occurred during his service in Algiers, one he replays constantly in his head, and later, on tape. Bernard is chillingly embodied by Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, whose sunken cheeks make him look like a rosy-skinned Dracula.

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Their pasts begin to leach into the present with the arrival of Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien) and his niece Françoise (Nita Klein). Alphonse was Hélène’s great love before WWII struck. Or at least she once thought so. She writes him a letter urging him to come visit, expecting nothing less than a miracle, and instead it is just a man. He is debonair and handsome, but the memory of their love and parting don’t match up. Hélène’s memories are more real than the Alphonse in front of her, who is a habitual dissembler and hanger-on. She can’t let go of the memory so she can’t let go of Alphonse, whose presence forces Bernard to move to an old stable house which he has filled with old newsreels from Algiers. Bernard idly flirts with Françoise, but always returns to his true girlfriend, Muriel. It is the name he has given to a phantom, a girl destroyed in Algiers. He was witness and mute, and the guilt is bleeding him apart.

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Cayrol’s script has a precise structure, although it’s not clear while viewing. James Monaco laid it out in his book Alain Resnais: “Cayrol, in the published script, sets up a five act structure. All the action of the film takes place in Boulogne-sur-mer between Saturday, 29 September 1962 and Sunday, 14 October of that year. The first and fifth acts each cover one day, the second and fourth a week each, and the third 2 days precisely in the middle of the time span. Three meals provide focal points at the beginning, middle, and end.”

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The ending meal is a tour-de-force of the past-becoming-present. It turns out Alphonse has abandoned his most recent life, and it has raced to catch up at this dinner. His brother-in-law Ernest (Jean Champion, the spitting image of James Whitmore) emerges from the ether to join the meal. He fully punctures their present and lets the past flood in. After sitting down with his tea he starts singing “Deja”, from a 1928 musical revue. “Time too rushes on/In such a hurry/How insane.” Then, with Hans Werner Henze’s fractured score crashing on the soundtrack, Ernest leans into a ferocious jeremiad against Alphonse that Resnais cuts back and forth with static shots of boxy apartment buildings, a disorienting push-pull effect that confuses space as Ernest is collapsing time. This pushes each character to a breaking point. Alphonse runs away, blending into the crowds of Boulogne, while Hélène, her history seemingly erased, runs off to a friend’s apartment. Bernard’s secrets, in a burst of audio tape laughter, are leaking out around him, and he runs off in a streak of violence. As their past seeks acknowledgment, they disappear. All that’s left is an empty room.

GROUP THERAPY: ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939)

April 12, 2016

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Only Angels Have Wings keeps growing stranger with age. This studio-era classic is about a group of nihilist flyboys who enact their dreams of self-destruction out of an imaginary South American cabana. Howard Hawks insisted on the film’s realism, as he based it on the stories of some ragged pilots he met in Mexico, but the movie is as realistic as the Star Wars cantina. The invented port town of Barranca is pure Hawks country, an extension of the death-driven pilots he depicted in The Dawn PatrolCeiling Zero, and The Road to Glory. Revisiting Only Angels Have Wings in the new DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection (out today), one is struck by the sheer lunacy of the fliers, ready to sacrifice their lives for the chance to deliver the mail. Only Angels Have Wings pushes Hawks’ love of professionalism to the extreme – death is a natural part of the job, and beyond just accepting it, they seem to embrace it. In Only Angels Have Wings, to work is to die, and these jokey nihilists, including the the female interlopers who are integrated into this group – cheerily embrace the void.

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When film critic Robin Wood was diagnosed with a perforated intestine and was told he might not survive the subsequent surgery, “what immediately came into my mind was the work of Howard Hawks and specifically the way his heroes confront death (actually, in Only Angels Have Wings, and potentially in Rio Bravo, where only one minor sympathetic character gets killed). I felt completely calm, and like to think I was smiling (though I probably wasn’t).” Only Angels Have Wings confronts death early on, when the flirtatious pilot Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) crashes on his return from a mail run, rushing to make a date with traveling musician Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur). Bonnie is shocked to discover that the mail crew boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and his team do not mourn but instead carouse at the bar. When Bonnie asks them how they could be so crass after Souther’s death, Geoff replies, “Who’s Joe?” His job is over so they wipe away his identity. They are not heartless, but the only way they can carry on is to proceed without a heart. They embrace nihilism in order to survive. And they usually don’t – like Kid (Thomas Mitchell), who asks Geoff to leave his deathbed since he’s never died before and doesn’t want to screw it up. It’s like going on your first solo flight, he says, and he didn’t want anyone watching that either.

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The film traces Bonnie’s curiosity with and assimilation into Geoff’s odd group, a process of sanding off her emotionality. It is an impossible job because Jean Arthur brings her irrepressible Jean Arthur-ness to the role. Hawks reportedly had trouble working with her, as she refused to do the husky, simmering sensuality thing he preferred, and proceeded to be her perky self. Rita Hayworth, who plays Geoff’s old flame who re-married to a disgraced Richard Barthelmess (whose real plastic surgery scars sell the character’s tragic past), also had a rocky relationship with Hawks, but her slinky role got her noticed by Harry Cohn and set her on the path to stardom.While Bonnie doesn’t bend to the group’s will, she is fascinated by it and tries to understand it – her empathy comes through in a performance of “The Peanut Vendor.” After the “Who’s Joe” line, she comes back, sits down at the rickety piano, and bangs out a perfect, rollicking version of the Cuban tune, joining in on the vast forgetting of Joe’s death.

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Geoff and his team were an extension of James Cagney’s character in Ceiling Zero (1936), Dizzy Davis. Davis flew missions in WWI, and has spent the years since as a stunt flier and rabble-rouser. The film begins with him getting hired on by at Newark’s Federal Airlines by his old war buddy. But the flying world has passed him by – it has become professionalized and standardized while Dizzy still flies by the seat of his pants. His free-wheeling ways eventually end in tragedy, and Dizzy chooses suicide over any kind of redemption. Geoff and his crew are a whole group of Dizzys – thrill-seekers too unreliable to get regular jobs in the States, so they ended up at a cheapjack outfit in South America flying impossible missions on ancient equipment.

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By the time of Only Angels Have Wings, Hawks had already asserted more control over his work. The film was made for Harry Cohn at Columbia, and Todd McCarthy reports in his biography Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, that the director had “virtual carte blanche as long as he could deliver a strong story for Cary Grant and one of his top female stars.” So where Ceiling Zero is a compact adaptation of a stage play, Only Angels Have Wings is an extended series of digressions and character moments, so Hawks can build-out this fantasy-world of Barranca. The story outline came from a seven-page synopsis by Anne Wigton entitled “Plan Number Four”, which Hawks then fleshed out with stories of “outcasts” he had met in Mexico. Hawks said that these men were “collectively  and individually the finest pilots I’ve ever seen but they had been grounded because of accidents, drinking, stunting, smuggling — each man’s existence almost a story in itself.”

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Most of these stories are focused through Geoff, played with inimitable insouciance by Cary Grant. Grant worked well with Hawks’ improvisatory style, and though he doesn’t have the look of a grizzled, disgraced adventurer, he was able to convey all of the arrogance and cynicism. It is an improbable performance, and I can never get Manny Farber out of my head when Grant is on-screen: “The thing you you remember most about Cary Grant’s sexy, short-hop Lindbergh in Only Angels Have Wings, a rather charming, maudlin Camp item, is his costume, which belongs in a Colombian Coffee TV commercial: razor-creased trousers that bulge out with as much yardage as a caliph’s bloomers and are belted just slightly under the armpits.” This is not to mention the wide-brim Panama hat that looks like something my mom would wear to the beach. Yet within the boundaries of Barranca it looks like the most natural thing in the world as the push-pull romance works its magic, with Bonnie forthright and honest in her feelings, and Geoff withholding, cruel, and devilishly handsome. The ending is of joyful sadness. Geoff expresses love through the flipping of a coin, the realization of which spreads across Bonnie’s face like a new dawn. But they will all have to go to work the following day, their jobs guaranteeing no happiness past the present, reckless moment.

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS: PARIS BELONGS TO US (1962)

April 5, 2016

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“The release of Paris Belongs to Us is a score for every member of the [Cahiers du Cinéma] team – or of our Mafia, if you prefer…For Rivette is the source of many things. The example of Le Coup de Berger, his short film of 1956, made me decide to shoot Les Mistons, and Claude Chabrol to be adventuresome enough to make a full-length film from Le Beau Serge; and at the same time it moved the most prestigious short-subject filmmakers, Alain Resnais and Georges Franju, to try their first full-length films. It had begun. And it had begun thanks to Jacques Rivette. Of all of us he was the most fiercely determined to move.” – François Truffaut

Paris Belongs to Us presents the city as a labyrinthine stage which invites its residents/performers to invent and inhabit vast conspiracies. Mysteries lie behind every open door, if only an intrepid investigator would crack it open and peer behind. It is a paranoid Alice in Wonderland in which its Alice, here called Anne, goes down the rabbit hole with a group of poor actor-artists staging Shakespeare’s Pericles. Every door Anne walks through expands her vision of the world as she is drawn into the macabre fantasy life of artists with too much time on their hands. The film lays out ideas that Rivette would explore the rest of his career, from the nature of performance to the city as game board. Jacques Rivette began shooting Paris Belongs to Us  in 1958, though it would take two years for it to be completed and released in 1961. The 400 Blows and Breathless both made it to cinemas first, and their phenomenal success relegated Paris to the background. The film, like many of Rivette’s features, would become cult cinephile objects, beloved because of their rarity. But that is slowly being rectified, as the legendary 13-hour Out 1 is now streaming on Netflix, while the Criterion Collection has released Paris Belongs to Us on beautiful DVD and Blu-ray editions.

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Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) is a literature student preparing for her exams whose life is tipped off its axis when she is invited to a party by her brother Pierre (François Maistre). It is a gathering of  artists haunted by the death of Juan, a Spanish musician with links to everyone in the Paris avant-garde theater scene. He was preparing the score for a production of Pericles to be directed by Gerard Lenz (Giani Esposito) when he took his own life. The only recording of Juan’s Pericles compositions has gone missing. Juan had been dating Terry Yordan (François Prevost), a secretive American who is now seeing Gerard, and who may have been involved with the conspiratorially minded Philip, an American journalist exiled due to the McCarthyist blacklist. It is Philip who inducts Anne into this strange tribe, by implying that Juan’s death is not what it seemed, connecting it to a grand international conspiracy, like something out of the Illuminati. Anne is skeptical but curious, and is alarmed at Philip’s insistence that Gerard is in danger. She seeks Juan’s recording in the hopes it will contain some secret to it all, but it just leads her in circles, as well as landing her a role in Pericles. She keeps pushing until the whole edifice collapses upon itself.

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It was Rivette’s first feature, and though he would later rely on his actors to improvise and create his worlds on the fly, Paris Belongs to Us was a more traditionally constructed feature, hewing closely to Rivette and Jean Gruault’s script. Rivette was dissatisfied with the result:

When I began making films my point of view was that of a cinephile, so my ideas about what I wanted to do were abstract. Then, after the experience of my first two films, I realized I had taken the wrong direction as regards methods of shooting. The cinema of mise en scene, where everything is carefully preplanned and where you try to ensure that what is seen on the screen corresponds as closely as possible to your original plan, was not a method in which I felt at ease or worked well. What bothered me from the outset, after I had finally managed to finish Paris Nous Appartient with all its tribulations, was what the characters said, the words they used. I had written the dialogue beforehand with my co-writer Jean Gruault (though I was ninety per cent responsible) and then it was reworked and pruned during shooting, as the film otherwise would have run four-and-a-half hours. The actors sometimes changed a word here and there, as always happens in films, but basically the dialogue was what I had written — and I found it a source of intense embarrassment.

The performances are without filigree, and there can be a sameness of tone and delivery that makes all the characters blend together. Just compare the rehearsal scenes in Out 1 to those in Paris Belongs to Us to see how the shift in how much he put his faith in his performers. Paris Belongs to Us is more fascinating for its complicated blocking, in which characters re-orient themselves in the frame so the focal point keeps shifting. Shooting all over Paris from grotty apartments to abandoned factories, Rivette gets across the concept of Paris as a stage, and one in which his characters get lost inside. Reality is too banal for them, so they invent believable fictions and turn their lives into movies. It is a void from which they choose not to escape.