Eternal Recurrence: Revenge (1989)

October 10, 2017


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.”


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.


November 15, 2016

CIENEGA, LA (2001)

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.

CIENEGA, LA (2001)

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.

CIENEGA, LA (2001)

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.

CIENEGA, LA (2001)

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.


November 1, 2016


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.

Ossos 25.tif

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.”


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.”


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.”


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.


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.


August 30, 2016


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.


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”).


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.


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.


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.



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.


August 16, 2016


“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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


April 12, 2016

Annex - Arthur, Jean (Only Angels Have Wings)_01

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.


April 5, 2016


“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.


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.


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.


March 22, 2016


“This film is dedicated to my father and his generation, who suffered so much for my generation to suffer less. I hope they, the forgotten, can be made unforgettable.” – Edward Yangdirector’s note for A Brighter Summer Day

A Brighter Summer Day is an empathic epic of Taipei in the early 1960s. Four hours long, it is a finely detailed portrait of the families who fled China for Taiwan after the Communist Revolution, unsure if they would ever see their homeland again. It is how Edward Yang grew up, and he felt a responsibility to honor the memory of his friends and family who lived and endured this dislocated life, all under the martial law of the Kuomintang government, who stifled dissent in what became known as the “White Terror”. Freedoms were circumscribed and national loyalties scrambled, so in order to establish an identity many children joined street gangs and imbibed Western pop culture, especially Elvis Presley and rock n’ roll. The film is a succession of atmospheric reveries (Proustian sense memories of school uniform fabrics, clunky radio units and stucco dance halls) punctuated by spasmodic violence, boredom and confusion breeding obscure hatreds. The cast of characters is enormous, and Yang is able to build a real sense of a community, conveying the ragged dignity of alcoholic shop owners, philosophical gang leaders, and the apathetic teen who throws his life away with a few thrusts of the knife. It is a towering achievement, though it has been nearly impossible to see in the United States outside of rep screenings and muddy-looking VCDs. But today the Criterion Collection has issued  A Brighter Summer Day in a beautiful DVD and Blu-ray  from the  4K restoration performed by Criterion in partnership with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. It is one of the essential releases of 2016.


One of the major news stories from Edward Yang’s youth in Taipei was the stabbing murder of a high school girl. Yang told Michael Berry that “every single one of my classmates and people my age remember this case very clearly. The murder had a huge impact on all of us of my generation. But no one born a few years later has any recollection of any of this. So I wanted to do something to leave behind a record of what happened.” Yang’s impulse was documentary in nature, but since so many years had passed, he had to reconstruct the period imaginatively, and he took exacting care in evoking the era. He spent nearly a year with the child actors, which numbered over sixty, in order to educate them about the time period and the manner in which they should act. This included the putative star Chang Chen (The Assassin, 2046, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), here making his film debut.


Chang plays Zhang Zhen, nicknamed Xiao Si’r, a middle child of the Zhang family, who immigrated to Taipei from Shanghai following the Communist takeover of the Mainland (Yang was born in Shanghai in 1947, and his family moved to Taipei before the takeover in ’49). The father is a milquetoast government functionary, and his wife is a former schoolteacher who left her accreditation back in China, and can’t get a job. Xiao mostly slides under their radar – his oldest sister (Wang Chuan) is the success story, on an advanced education track with dreams of moving to the United States, while his brother Lao Er (Chang Han) is the black sheep, always drowning in gambling debts. So Xiao skates by, failing out of day school but hanging on in night school, absorbed in movies (including Rio Bravo) and comic books and dabbling with the local gangs. There is also a hopeful romance with Ming (Lisa Yang), a beautiful, impetuous schoolmate who screen tests for a bumbling local film director. Xiao is a bit of a cipher, and Chang plays him with dreamy reserve, his face a mask. He tries on multiple personalities and none seem to fit, drifting through Yang’s tableau compositions without direction. He seems most comfortable, and most childlike, with his stable of school friends, including the tiny Elvis-wannabe Cat (Wong Chi-Zan), who sings rock covers phonetically since he can’t speak English. He has a high lonesome voice that lends even the most rousing tunes a backbeat of melancholy.


It is a film that proceeds at a magisterial tempo, enough to absorb every element of the production design of Yang’s intricate long shots. In Figures Traced in Light David Bordwell calculated that the average shot lasts 26 seconds, where his previous features averaged 11-15. This is a film to absorb as much as to watch, and when Yang does cut in to details, it is jarringly impactful. The family radio is a recurring character, an aging antique that the father brought over from China. On the heavily censored Taipei airwaves, the radio only utters banalities, long lists of names for those who passed exams and little else. During his youth, Yang recalled that, “our favorite broadcasts were those of the basketball games. We knew that everything else was bullshit.” In the movie the radio is a lack, a box that emits meaningless noise. When Cat takes it apart and puts it back together, it starts emitting a buzz, one that is equally entertaining as the usual monotone voice that thrummed out of it.

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In interviewing friends and family for the project, Yang was shocked that “out of all the people I interviewed, virtually every single one of them could recall their father being called in for questioning or imprisoned at one time or another during the White Terror.” In the film, Xiao’s father is called out at night for questioning and disappears for days, lost in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. He is forced to sit and write the story of his life, and to include every person he has ever met, it seems. The KMT interrogator acts as a sadistic book reviewer, poking holes in his prose and accusing the father of leaving out important relationships. It is all a perverse kind of torture, an attempt to tire him out until he breaks. This sequences includes Yang’s most artificial, dream-like compositions, of a man seated on an ice block, and vast industrial space centered with a single table and chair. The father is eventually released, only to return to a family that is breaking apart at the seams. Xiao gets expelled from school and descends into criminality, Lao Er continues to gamble, and the realization is dawning that the Communists will not fold, and that their hometown may be lost forever. It is a struggle to endure, but Yang patiently charts the family’s resilience, through tragedies large and small. The closing image has the mother staring at Xiao’s now-useless school uniform as if into a void. It is the end of that dream of normality, and the beginning of more brute realities to come.


November 10, 2015


“If I was an architect and I had to build a palace to the cinema, I would put at its entrance a statue of Duvivier.” – Jean Renoir

Julien Duvivier is a memorable name, phonetically speaking. It rolls lyrically off the tongue, sounding like a foppish count in a Lubitsch operetta. The memory of his career, though, has faded. Duvivier was a distinguished director for forty years, one who popularized the French poetic realist style in Pepe le Moko (1937), starring Jean Gabin. In his time he was admired by Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and Graham Greene, but was part of the old guard roundly rejected by the Cahiers du Cinema critics in the 1950s, and continued to be dismissed by the American brand of auteurism imported to the U.S. by Andrew Sarris. Outside of Pepe, he was rarely discussed in English until a 2009 retrospective mounted at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by Joshua Siegel. And now the Criterion Collection has released a fascinating DVD box set, in their no-frills Eclipse series, entitled Julien Duvivier in the Thirties, which includes David Golder (1930), Poil de Carotte (1932), La Tete d’un Homme (1933), and Un Carnet de Bal (1937). These films, unknown to me previously, approach four different genres with a dark romanticism expressed through a restless, roaming camera.


Duvivier was born in 1896 in the city of Lille, in Northern France. His father was a traveling salesman, and the arts were not an emphasis at home. Duvivier recalled that, “I had a passion for the theatre, although I don’t know where I got it from, since, through my childhood, I was never allowed to go there” (quoted in the Faber Book of French Cinema by Charles Drazin). He was a painfully shy child, and his initial attempts at a theatrical life were disastrous. He made his stage debut during WWI at the Odeon Theatre in Paris, where, according to his friend Maurice Bessy, “Not a word escaped his lips. The prompter whispered his lines, whispered them again, almost shouted them to him. But it was no use. He had fallen into a black hole. They had to lower the curtain. This was his first and last appearance.” The director of the Odeon, André Antoine, told him “This is not a career for you…Come with me. Work with me in the cinema.” So Duvivier got his start as an assistant to Antoine, who directed a number of realist films during WWI. Duvivier was also the AD for Louis Feuillade on his adventure serial Tih Minh (1918), and  would direct his first feature in 1919 (Haceldama or Blood Money).


After working steadily through the silent era, and directing a genuine hit with Poil de Carrote (1925), Duvivier was quick to adapt to soundevident in his first feature with the new technology, David Golder (released by Gaumont in 1931). In the first sequence he experiments with off-screen audio, focusing on a butler’s impassive face as the industrialist Golder (Harry Baur) reminisces about his humble origins as a poor Jewish immigrant. The film, adapted from the novel by Irene Nemirovsky, is a melodrama about Golder coming to terms with those origins, after years of escape into the distractions of new money. His wife and daughter are both shallow conspicuous consumers, so when Golder’s health gives out, there is no one to give him solace except his memories of home. Baur was a frequent Duvivier collaborator, a large, pear-shaped fellow with an air of insularity, he emits an anxious avuncularity,  kindness wrapped in insecurity. From the start Duvivier and his cinematographers Georges Perinal and Armand Thirard experiment with different visual approaches. That same sequence that includes the close-up of the butler’s face ends in an extreme long shot, with Golder’s broke ex-partner standing alone in a living room doorway, while Golder sits down to his latest feast in the dining room on the opposite side of the frame. In addition to these static, highly choreographed tableau are more kinetic traveling shots that emphasize the decadence of Golder’s one-percenter buddies. The camera circles around a bar pouring champagne and lilts across a table covered in meat and booze, following the path of a check as being passed down to Golder. The characterizations are overly broad – Golders’ wife and daughter are little more than screeching harpies – but Golder’s loneliness is conveyed with desolate finality.duvivier00017


In 1932 Duvivier remade Poil de Carotte, the story of a freckled kid  nicknamed “Carrot Top” desperate to escape from his family. His mother Madame Lepic (Catherine Fonteney) is an abusive nag, while his father Monsieur Lepic (Harry Baur) is an absent-minded guardian who pays more attention to the newspaper than his children. What threatens to become a schmaltzy coming-of-age tale turns out to be much darker, as Carrot Top is not just exasperated by his family but driven to suicidal thoughts. Once again the wife and mother is depicted as a monster, heaping work and slaps on her defeated little boy. Duvivier depicts Carrot Top’s internal struggle through superimposition, turning a trip to feed the livestock into a harrowing encounter with ghosts, to nighttime arguments where Carrot Top’s multiple personalities argue the appropriate way to end his life. The contrast of idyllic farm landscapes with the cute kid’s death fantasies makes for an unusually unsettling kid’s movie. This mix of fairy tale and nightmare becomes most pronounced in a beautiful shot by a lake, where Carrot Top and his little girlfriend stand by the water. He tells her he cannot marry her because he is going to kill himself. She agrees it is the right decision.

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Death and love are again intertwined in La Tete d’un Homme (A Man‘s Head, 1933), an intense adaptation of the Georges Simenon novel (1931) of the same name (translated into English as A Battle of Nerves). The first Simenon film was Jean Renoir’s La Nuit du Carrefour (Night at the Crossroads, 1932), which I wrote about here. Harry Baur plays Commissioner Maigret, who is involved in the murder of an eccentric American millionaire. A gangly fool named Joseph Heurtin (Alexandre Rignault) left bloody foot and hand prints all over the scene of the crime, and is swiftly arrested. Maigret is convinced this poor simpleton has been framed for the job, so he allows Heurtin to escape, in the hopes of following him to his employer, the real killer. The path leads to the dissolute heir of the American’s fortune (Gaston Jacquet), his regal wife Gina  (Edna Reichberg), and a neurasthenic Czech named Radek (Valery Inkijnoff) who only has six months to live. With no motive other than a Raskolnikovian nihilism, Maigret is hard pressed to find any evidence to put Radek behind bars. Armand Thirard’s camera is again very mobile, exploring each space with a detective’s curiosity. In a cafe that is central to the murder plot, Thirard executes a 360 degree pan to inspect each face around the bar, a roll call of sorts for the investigation to come. There is also a resourceful use of back projection. A beat cop is canvassing for witnesses, and instead of cutting from one set-up to another, Duvivier has the policeman stand in one spot while the back projected image cuts between locations instead. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it conveys the idea that the city is contorting itself to serve the police – the investigation somehow changes the face of the urban space. The only one who can resist this power is Radek – who Valery Inkijnoff embodies with a charismatic disdain. Radek, under investigation for murder, is a guy who will refuse to pay a bill just so he can waste the police’s time. Counting the days until he dies from a mysterious disease, he wants to make his mark before he goes. Maigret’s whole existence depends on erasing these marks, but Radek cuts deep, and the incantatory closing scenes are a delirious mixture of extreme close-ups, a back projected light show, and the revelation of a passion that seems to be wasting Radek from within.


The last film in the set, Un Carnet de Bal (Dance Card, 1937), was released the same year as Pepe le Moko, and was a huge hit that year. Utilizing the portmanteau structure he would return to often (Tales of Manhattan, Flesh and Fantasy), it is a melancholy trip through a widow’s past. Christine (Marie Bell) is recovering from her husband’s death, and reminiscing about her youth. She recalls her first ballroom dance when she was sixteen, and the diverse group of suitors who once declared their love to her, and whom she rejected. In order to close out the narratives from her past and open new futures, she decides to visit all the men on her dance card from that night. They include a criminal night club owner, a depressive priest, a one-eyed alcoholic, a magician barber, and a dead man who haunts his mother’s addled brain. Her memories all dissipate in the face of reality, and the dance she fetishizes so much she can see the shadows dancing on the wall of her bedroom, turn out to be nothing but phantoms. Duvivier is anticipating the late films of Max Ophuls here, with his twirling camera imitating a doomed waltz. At 130 minutes there are at least two too many vignettes – but this is a beautifully bittersweet film, anchored by Marie Bell’s sensitively crestfallen performance.


These are only four films from the seventy he made in his extended career, but they all display a formidable visual intelligence, an atmosphere of doomed romanticism, and a bit of overwriting. La Tete d’un Homme, with that tight-as-a-drum Simenon plotting, would have to be my favorite in the Criterion set. These are films of lost or withheld love, of characters so deprived they mine their own past for any vein of compassion, usually coming up empty. Even Carrot Top is nostalgic, though only for the time before he was born. They are, at their core, about failure, something Duvivier felt deeply from his first and only appearance on stage – and that petrified emptiness seems to have went its way throughout his 1930s work, trailing an air of voluptuous resignation.


May 19, 2015


In 1936 Leo McCarey drank some expired milk. It was part of an ill-advised publicity stunt that had the crew of the Harold Lloyd comedy The Milky Way (1936) imbibe daily amounts of dairy. One of those fateful sips incapacitated McCarey with undulant fever, after which he went to Palm Springs to get healthy. As part of his unique recovery process he visited a casino, which is where he met playwright Viña Delmar, who would go on to write the screenplays for both Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and The Awful Truth (1937). So we have food poisoning to thank for two of McCarey’s, and thus Hollywood’s, greatest films. They are both acutely observed movies about marriage that deal with the sacrifices required to maintain that union, with Make Way taking a tragic viewpoint from that of old age, and Awful Truth a comic one from youth. It was the latter, of course, with its joyous happy ending, that won the Oscar and the accolades, while the devastating Make Way was also a critical favorite but a popular failure. But when a film is released on the Criterion Collection, it can no longer be called under-appreciated. Make Way For Tomorrow was released earlier this month on Blu-ray from Criterion, in a crisp transfer that faithfully renders the thick grain of William C. Mellor’s naturalistic photography.


Make Way for Tomorrow was a very personal project for McCarey. While recovering from the milk-induced fever, his father passed away, and he was too ill to attend the funeral. McCarey told Peter Bogdanovich he got the idea for the film because, “I had just lost my father and we were real good friends; I admired him so much.” He settled on the Josephine Lawrence novel Years Are so Long (’34) as the basis of the story, which contained the basic outline of a group of siblings struggling to take care of their aged parents. While in Palm Springs, McCarey recalled, he went to a gambling joint, and:

there I saw a most attractive girl; I tried to start a conversation with her, and she snubbed me. Now, my wife had given me this very good Cosmopolitan story to read: it was about old folks, and because I’d just lost my father, my wife had said to read it. It was by a gal called Viña Delmar, and I called the studio and told them I’d like an appointment with her for an interview; they called back and said she’s in Palm Springs. And I said, ‘Well, run her down in Palm Springs — that’s where I am.’ So another exchange of phone calls and they said she’d be over to my hotel at such and such at time. The desk announced that “Miss Delmar is here” to see me, and you can imagine both our surprise when it turned out to be the girl I’d tried to get to know at the gambling place.

They “found a mutual wavelength” and worked together on the screenplay. Their meet-cute sounds like something out of a McCarey screwball comedy, but whatever motivated their collaboration it created uniquely complicated characters – all of them have mixed, believable motivations. The children are selfish as all children are selfish, and the parents are invasive, judgmental and crotchety. The story concerns Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi), a kind-hearted, if absent-minded, old married couple whose house is slated to repossessed by the bank. They gather their five children in the hopes of coming to a long-term solution. But instead the parents are separated and passed from child-to-child like a game of filial hot potato. Lucy is ensconced with her son George (Thomas Mitchell), his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) and their daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read). A perennial fourth wheel, she ambles into Anita’s bridge lessons and interrupts Rhoda’s dates. She feels unwanted, while her son feels under siege.


Barkley is living with his daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) and her family. Cora is an overworked housewife who grows to resent the added burden of her father’s presence, treating him more like a tenant than a personal guest. There are idle plans to reunite Bark and Lucy, but the children can never come to an agreement, and the film ends with one final separation, but not before a dreamlike revivification of their love, a sequence of miraculous power that affirms their bond just before it is severed for good.


McCarey had little support at Paramount to film such a grim tale. He could only make the picture by tearing up his contract and working at a flat rate. Publicity was hard to come by because, according to a 1936 New York Times article, “the 250 correspondents and fan-magazine writers…shunned the sets during filming” due to a lack of star power. Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore didn’t move tabloids, but they give remarkable performances of a couple that live through and for each other. McCarey was a master of reaction shots since the slapstick days, from Charley Chase through Laurel & Hardy, and he could use the same technique for drama. Bondi and Moore’s looks are not deadpan reactions at a world collapsing around them, like Chase, but ones that build a life, moment to moment.


Then there were poorly received test screenings. Again in the Times:

When the picture was completed it was taken 500 miles to Oakland for a sneak preview. There McCarey found he had been too faithful, that he had invested his story with too much reality. He had presented the problems without a suggestion of veneer and the audience resented it. “The children of the film reacted to situations just as the majority of children react, but the public isn’t ready for an excess of honesty yet.

He reshot entire scenes and “lightened the whole materially.” It is hard to conceive that Make Way for Tomorrow could be any more honest than it is now, but there is one scene of the children admitting their guilt that could be a sop to the masses. As their parents are taking one last cab ride together before their separation, the film awkwardly cuts to a nondescript living room, where daughter Nellie says, “If we don’t go to the station they’ll think we’re terrible.” George responds, “Aren’t we?”

Before Bark catches a train to California for a rest cure recommended by his doctor, and Lucy moves into a separate old folk’s home, they meet for one last time in New York City, where they retrace their honeymoon steps from decades before. The city opens up to them as if in a dream, as they are given a ride from a car salesman, free drinks from the hotel manager, and a waltz from the conductor. They drink, get a little tipsy, and are merry. Lucy recites an old anonymous poem about marriage, “A Man and a Maid” that closes:  “My dear, she said/the die is cast/the vows have been spoken/the rice has been thrown/into the future we will travel alone/With you, said the maid/I am not afraid.” Bark and Lucy use art and drink to delay reality, the excess of reality that so turned off viewers. But it seeps in anyway. Bark gets on a train, Lucy waves goodbye, with nothing left to sustain them but the memory of a transcendent love. The question is whether that is enough.