Monday, 26 February 2007

The Night Porter (Italy/US, 1974, Liliana Cavani)

Upon its release, ‘The Night Porter’ stirred up a great deal of controversy due to its links between Nazism and sado-masochism, though it seems rather tame with three decades of hindsight. Set in Vienna in 1957, Max is a porter in a luxury hotel. Keeping himself to himself besides procuring men for a wealthy countess, he lives his life as “quietly as a church mouse”. However he has a dark secret – he was an SS officer during World War Two and responsible for the exploitation and degradation of numerous prisoners. Max and several of his former accomplices face trial for their crimes, though there is little evidence against them – it is insinuated that they have found ways of eliminating potential witnesses. However Max’s memories of his SS past are reawakened when Lucia, one such victim of his arrives in the hotel, as the wife of a conductor on a global tour. Their eyes meet; they immediately recognise each other. Each has flashbacks to fill us in with what transpired during the war. Acting as a doctor in order to conduct experiments upon prisoners, Lucia was his major ‘patient’. Both are horrified to see each other again – he tries to avoid her, and she wants to leave Vienna, but they are destined to cross paths again. He watches the opera her husband is conducting, whilst she is in the audience. Max eventually confronts her in her hotel room, and wonders why she’s here. He thinks she has come to “give him away”, to testify at his trial, and he then starts to hit her. They soon embrace. The relationship between Max and Lucia was so controversial because it is not a straight-forward victim-captor relationship; it is far more complex than this. A genuine bond formed between them, whether this is love or merely a Stockholm syndrome induced affection, we are never sure. Their relationship resumes as before. Flashbacks of the past and the present almost entwine; their sexual behaviour remains the same. One flashback is particularly objectionable. Lucia wears a Nazi outfit, but remains topless and sings standard German songs for the enjoyment of the SS officers. Whilst Max is too immersed in this relationship in the present to realise how dangerous it might be for him if Lucia decided to testify, his former accomplices try to persuade him to get rid of her. In one telling scene, Max reveals the shame he feels at having put the concentration camp prisoners through degrading treatment, but his accomplices remain proud of what they did, and proud of serving the Third Reich. Whilst this might be seen as an attempt to inject some humanity into Max’s character, it runs the risk of demoting his accomplices to cardboard cut-out villains. One such colleague is extremely effeminate, perhaps insultingly so, and obviously attracted to Max (he dances for him), which is another connotation between sex and sexuality and Nazism. For all the hysteria the film caused, it is rather tame in comparison to Pasolini’s ‘Salo’ which followed in 1975. Max and Lucia’s relationship becomes so dangerous that they have to put a stop to it, and the lovers have to barricade themselves inside his flat, as their lives are in real and obvious danger. When they try to make an escape, they fail to get far, and are shot on a bridge, which seemingly puts Max’s friends in the clear as Lucia was the only witness alive from the camp. Many have dismissed ‘The Night Porter’ as exploitative and tasteless, and it’s true that many similar films followed that really would offend, but this is a worthwhile film, even if it’s not a great one. The English language version features some unconvincing dubbing in places, which reinforces ‘The Night Porter’ as a flawed, but fascinating film.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

The Science of Sleep (France/Italy, 2006, Michel Gondry)

Gondry’s previous full length features ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ were written by Charlie Kaufman, whose slightly off-kilter approach complemented Gondry’s own off the wall ideas perfectly. However Gondry’s talents as a visual artist were compromised by the fact that he was working within Hollywood where non-traditional ideas about plot and narrative are tolerated, but less accepted when it comes to the visual aspects of film. As a music promo maker for the likes of Bjork, Gondry was able to let his imagination run loose; yet his previous films were overshadowed by Kaufman’s name on the credits and the demands of the studio to deliver a standard mid-sized budget picture. Gondry’s own creative input was minimal. His latest film is a more personal work. Working from his own script and given full creative control, ‘The Science of Sleep’ looks terrific, incorporating animation that Yuri Norstein and Jan Svenkmajer would have approved of, within a largely live action setting. Those familiar with Gondry’s music videos will recognise many aspects of them in this film, most notably the large hands that Gael Garcia Bernal has in one memorable dream sequence, which featured in ‘Everlong’ by The Foo Fighters.

Bernal is Stéphane, a half Mexican, half French man who returns to Paris as his mother has set up a job for him as an illustrator. Looking through his childhood belongings, we see signs of a young man who was an imaginative child; his head somewhat in the clouds. Stéphane appears to have a condition whereby dreams and reality become merged and impossible to differentiate. This provides a great deal of humour, most notably when he dreams that he wrote a letter whilst in the bath to his neighbour Stéphanie, and then mailed it, which of course he genuinely did, whilst completely naked. Stéphanie is Stéphane’s soulmate. Equally eccentric, she’s also a dreamer, collecting and making horses out of felt. Naturally their courtship is anything but simple. Stéphanie believes that Stéphane is really interested in her more glamorous and outgoing friend Zoe, and he struggles to convince her that it is her that he is more attracted to. At the same time, because Stéphane struggles to tell the difference between what is real and what is a dream, he fails to be able to tell whether she is interested in him as well. This often makes his behaviour erratic, and he often becomes angry with her for apparently leading him on. It’s hard to retain sympathy with Bernal’s character when he rather unfairly takes his frustrations out on her. Still Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Stéphanie equip themselves in their roles, even if their protracted courtship is slightly long winded and ultimately difficult to completely care about.

The supporting characters are also peculiar in their ways, just as much so as Stéphane and Stéphanie in fact. Stéphane’s colleagues include the sex obsessed Guy who bullies the long suffering Serge, and Martine who Guy wants to set Stéphane up with. These characters also feature in Stéphane’s dreams, which often accentuate his anxieties about Stéphanie and his job (which he finds hopelessly mundane). As already mentioned ‘The Science of Sleep’ has its share of laughs, which include Bernal affecting a punk look, penis jokes slightly more sophisticated than usual, and Serge being dumped into a bin by Guy. Juvenile jokes for sure, but Stéphane’s world is like that dreamed up by a child. Even if the narrative falls away somewhat, the look of the film stuns; whether it be seas created from blue and white sweet wrappers to resemble those from Eastern European animations, and felt covered real life sized horses as ridden by Stéphane and Stéphanie into the sunset at the film’s climax. Let’s hope that Gondry continues to explore his fertile imagination for future projects and allows his makes a name for himself in his own right, rather than someone who just directs the work of others.

Monday, 19 February 2007

Climates (Turkey/France, 2006, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Bravely casting himself and his wife as a couple whose relationship is rapidly dissolving, Ceylan’s ‘Climates’ is the most painfully honest and harrowing film anyone is likely to see this year. Thankfully, it’s also likely to be one of the best. We first meet Isa and Bahar on holiday, and we learn that it’s the first time that they have been away together for quite some time, which he blames upon their mutual work commitments (he’s a lecturer, and she’s a television producer). Preoccupied with photographing some ancient ruins, it’s natural for Bahar and us watching to think that he would rather be doing this than spending time with her. She wanders, sits on a hill, and the camera remains transfixed upon her face for a few minutes until a tear falls. Innocuous conversations between them, even when in the company of others, turn into arguments, but neither of them seem willing to try to save what’s left of their relationship. Lying on the beach, she wakes to hear Isa telling her that he loves her, but it is a dream. Is it simple enough to suggest that all Bahar needs is a sign of love or commitment from Isa, or is there more to it? Bahar’s tears on the hill gave the impression she knew their relationship was over, and Isa knows this too, and practices a break-up speech as Bahar swims. As he turns his head though, she is sitting next to him. What occurs is not an amicable and mutual split, but a clean break. When he mentions that “we can still be friends”, she replies “we don’t have to be”, and when he says he will call her, she tells him not to. Her return to Istanbul does not disturb him; Isa merely returns to photographing local landmarks.

This third of the film comprised the ‘Summer’ segment. Moving into Autumn, we follow Isa’s newly acquired single status. In a particularly difficult scene to watch, he starts an affair with the girlfriend of one of his friend’s, and the first sexual encounter between them makes for quite uncomfortable viewing. This affair is quite futile and short lived, so what purpose did it serve? Did Isa want to ‘work’ Bahar out of his system and prove that he could move on? Did he envy the apparent happiness his friend and his girlfriend had, and wanted to sabotage it? Interestingly, he encourages a colleague of his to deal with his fiancée in a rather cruel fashion in order to ‘keep her in line’. Isa’s misogyny and malice seems to be born out of some wider insecurities. By Winter, Isa realises that he made a mistake leaving Bahar, and tracks her down in a remote village, filming. Claiming to be visiting some nearby ruins, so he doesn’t have to admit the true reasons, he nevertheless tries to convince Bahar to return to Istanbul with him. Though she tells him “it’s too late”, she visits him at his hotel in the middle of the night. Just as we think they might resolve their differences, she asks him whether he had slept with other women during their time apart, and that she wants the answer to be the truth. He denies he has, but we know she believes differently. The lie is worse than any other betrayal, and when she is filming the next day, and a plane flies overhead, we know Isa is on this plane, and that their relationship is irreconcilable and over for good.

Isa and Bahar are two people who don’t seem to know what they want, and don’t seem to be able to make each other happy. ‘Climates’ focuses on the aftermath of their relationship through the perspective of Isa. We never really learn about what Bahar wants from him, though her dream gives the impression that she wanted some degree of commitment, which Isa seemed unable or unwilling to offer. Perhaps Isa’s problem is passivity. We find out that he is working on a thesis that has been unfinished for many years, and when Bahar covers his eyes as he rides his motorcycle, that could be seen as an attempt to elicit some reaction from him, or to jolt him into action. After his unsatisfying affair reaches its natural end, Isa’s tracking down of Bahar seems a significant and positive act, yet this is not enough for her. Has she moved on in a way that he has not? Seeing him again hurts, as it naturally would, but tries to dissuade him from pursuing her, and the night which she visits his hotel room might be nothing more than just discovering once and for all whether this is any kind of future for them. His denial of sleeping with other women justifies her caution. Quite how a happily married couple managed to capture and portray such mutual resentment so convincingly is a mystery, but is one of the many staggering achievements in this film. With a background in photography, Nuri is able to make ‘Climates’ look brilliant, with the Turkish scenery and weather exploited perfectly. However it is more than this; it’s a magnificent account of the aftermath of a relationship, as frank and brutal as it could ever be possible to achieve.

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Xiao Wu (Hong Kong/China, 1997, Zhang Ke Jia) and Unknown Pleasures (South Korea/France/Japan, China, 2002, Zhang Ke Jia)

Zhang Ke Jia is one of the most prominent of the ‘Sixth Generation’ film makers, but remains obscure in his own country. His films are seldom seen in China (2004’s ‘The World’ was the first to be officially recognised by the state), which he neatly parodies in ‘Unknown Pleasures’, when a buyer asks an illegal DVD vendor for copies of ‘Xiao Wu’ and ‘The Platform’. The films of the ‘Sixth Generation’ examine contemporary issues in Chinese society that other film makers do not address, such as poverty, unemployment and prostitution. Using non-professional actors, Zhang’s major pre-occupation is the alienated, ‘lost’ generation in China; the teenagers and twentysomethings who have been left out by the recent economic boom, and feel as if they have no place in society. Both ‘Xiao Wu’ and ‘Unknown Pleasures’ are filmed on digital video in a realist and minimalist fashion.

‘Xiao Wu’ focuses on the exploits of its eponymous protagonist. A pickpocket who continues to commit petty thefts despite regular arrests, he reminds one of Michel, the ‘Pickpocket’ of Robert Bresson’s masterpiece; unable to change and drawn to the trade that will prove his undoing. A former accomplice of Xiao Wu named Xiao Yong has used his criminal instinct to make good in the era of burgeoning capitalism. Though he makes his money from running seedy clubs and trafficking cigarettes, his enterprises have sufficient respectability to ensure he is nominated for an entrepreneurship award, with the minor television publicity that follows. A local policeman, who is kind and paternal, and obviously wants for Xiao to mend his ways, wishes that he could follow the lead of his friends, who now stay on the right side of the law. Xiao’s friends have deserted him. Their economic success has allowed them to remould themselves into reputable citizens, and Xiao Yong has found himself a fiancée from a good family. Xiao has not been invited to the wedding because Xiao Yong is embarrassed by him and naturally does not wish for people to know he used to be a petty thief. Even though Xiao Yong half-heartedly pretends this isn’t the case, Xiao knows the real reasons, and suggests that Xiao Yong “takes a look at his tattoo” to remind himself from where he came.

Possible redemption comes in the form of Mei Mei, a singer in a karaoke bar, which masquerades as a brothel. Mei Mei has dropped out of school, yet regularly calls her family and says all is going well and that she is studying hard. When she is ill, he visits her and looks after her; the only tenderness each other has known. Singing to her to make her feel better, he is drowned out by the constant loud traffic noises from outside. Two young people on the periphery of society, Xiao summarises their predicament when he tells her “It isn’t easy nowadays”. When Mei Mei is later sold to a wealthy client, Xiao tries to remonstrate with the brothel keeper, who pours scorn at the suggestion that Xiao might have ‘bought her’ with his ‘dirty money’ (she knows what he does for ‘a living’). Returning home to his family who live in a small village, Xiao incurs their wrath when he asks why the ring he bought for Mei Mei and then gave to his mother is being worn by his brother’s fiancée, and then expelled for not respecting family rules. The family then make known to Xiao that they also know that he is a thief, and that he has brought shame upon them.

Despite being an obviously talented pickpocket, Xiao is naturally caught eventually, when he tries to steal a pager that goes off as soon as he’s stolen it. He was stealing it so that he could keep in touch with Mei Mei, so it is the first instance in which a theft was committed for someone else’s benefit. As was previously mentioned, the film is set during a particularly repressive period of clamping down on petty criminals. In custody, he sees the television broadcast about his arrest. Interviews with the public and his friends contain unsympathetic and condemnatory remarks, that he deserves his fate. In the film’s final scene, Xiao is publicly shamed, tied in the street whilst rounded on by people who stare at him with disgust.

‘Unknown Pleasures’ focuses on two protagonists, Xiao Ji and Bin Bin, who are pretty much cut from the same cloth as Xiao Wu. Aimless, alienated youngsters misunderstood by their parents, they spend their days smoking, hanging around, generally doing very little constructive. Bin Bin is told by his mother “you’re no good”, and that he should enlist in the army, though he is rejected when he tries, because he has Hepatitis C. Both youths have romantic dilemmas of their own. Bin Bin is seeing a young girl who has aspiration to study international trade in Beijing. It’s a strange and incompatible relationship with no real physical contact, let alone affection of any kind. They hardly talk; just spending their time watching television, singing along to the songs on music channels until their inevitable parting when she leaves to study. She has ambitions, he has none – they will surely drift apart. Xiao Ji on the other hand takes a shine to the girlfriend of a local hoodlum. His lines to impress her include “I’ll make you soften as fast as instant noodles”; though of course it’s all bravado. Once she makes a move, he’s hopelessly out of his depth. Still, she finds respect and love from him, which is more than can be said for her boyfriend who treats her badly and sees her as little more than a ‘trophy girlfriend’. Xiao Ji is confronted by him and his friends who ‘persuade’ Xiao Ji to steer clear of Qiao Qiao, though he cannot be deterred in his romantic endeavours.

Xiao Ji and Bin Bin are youths with their head in the clouds, distracted by the images they see on television and culture imported from the United States. Xiao Ji talks about ‘Pulp Fiction’, clearly in admiration of Ringo and Yolando’s hold up of the diner. Like Xiao Wu, these boys consider that crime is the only possibility open for them; the only way to escape their rut, the only proactive act they are capable of. In a nice twist, Xiao Wu returns, this time as a legitimate businessman, so he finally cleaned up his act and joined the class of “respectable criminals”. They later devise a plan to hold up a bank using a fake bomb, which of course turns into a disaster. Bin Bin is caught, and Xiao Ji escapes, though he fails to get too far as his motorcycle runs out of petrol. Bin Bin explains his (and Xiao Ji’s) situation to his girlfriend; “there’s no fucking future”).

Both films use contemporary events to discuss the changing face of China. In ‘Unknown Pleasures’, we see a group of townsfolk eagerly watching the announcement of the award of the 2008 Olympics, and several news reports, including one that mentions the building of a new highway from Datong to Beijing, refer to China’s international status and economic growth. In ‘Xiao Wu’, an image of Mao on a bus suggests that the shadow of Mao still hangs over Chinese society, but has made great strides since his death and the policies of economic liberalisation have been implemented. This has come at a price however as China is plagued by the kind of social problems that Zhang’s films focus upon, primarily prostitution and poverty in these two films.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Professione: Reporter (Italy/France/Spain/US, 1975, Michaelangelo Antonioni)

“What are you running away from?”

David Locke (Jack Nicholson) is a successful documentary film maker covering the civil war in an unnamed North African country, but his professional and personal lives are undergoing crises. Shown footage of the documentaries he has made, we learn that he makes uncontroversial productions, interviewing despots who give vague and evasive answers to his questions (when the despot of the same unnamed country underestimates the strength of the rebel forces, his wife asks why he didn’t call him “a liar”). His marriage back home is finished, with clues concerning his wife’s infidelity. Plagued with self-doubt when his current assignment leaves him stranded in the desert, he returns to his hotel room to find the guest next door dead. This man (Robertson) bears an uncanny likeness to Locke, which presents Locke with the opportunity to pass himself off as dead and assume Robertson’s identity. Robertson however is a gun runner; supplying arms to the same rebels he was looking for at the start of the film, which places his life in great danger.

Much like John Frankenheimer’s ‘Seconds’ (1966), Professione: Reporter considers the journey of a protagonist who, having made such a mess of things, wishes for a second chance, and has no idea where to start when he gets his wish, and finds that things are no better second time around. Locke finds his new found freedom just as alienating as his life stuck in the North African desert. Pursued by his ex-wife and colleague and various thugs, he finds himself travelling from country to country with the mysterious ‘girl’ (Maria Schneider) he has picked up. Little is obviously told to us about the ‘girl’, but several suggestions are made to make us think she is his wife, Daisy – she appears in all the cities he is due to meet her in (London, Munich) and that she also books herself into a hotel room as Robertson’s wife. Even less obvious is her betrayal of him at the film’s dénouement, when she leads the pursuing thugs to their hotel room.

And speaking of the film’s dénouement, Antonioni ends with a stunning, unbroken seven minute tracking shot that follows the girl’s betrayal and Locke’s apparent death. Just prior to this, we see a zoom to the bars on the hotel room window, which gives a cell-like effect, giving some impression of the predicament in which Locke finds himself; that he is in a prison of his own making. Apparently Antonioni had the hotel specially constructed for the purposes of this tracking shot, which could be taken apart where necessary to allow the camera to move so freely. It is rightly considered one of the greatest technical achievements in film. There is much ambiguity about what actually takes place during this scene, but it is likely that one of the two thugs (who can be seen in the glass on the window) assassinates Locke. What we imagined to be the backfire from a passing car is actually the gunshot that kills him. Interestingly, Locke ‘dies’ in precisely the same position in which he found Robertson dead. When his wife arrives, she is asked whether she recognised him, to which she responds “I never knew him”. Asked the same question, the girl simply replies “Yes”.

Before he dies, Locke tells the story of a blind man who regained his sight. The parable mirrors his circumstances. At first the man was elated, but everything seemed to change, and he later killed himself realising the world was a filthy place. At this point Locke finally concludes that his new identity is not what he imagined it would be, and that freedom is too abstract a concept to be found just by changing identity. Technically stunning, beautifully shot, and favouring important themes over narrative, the re-discovery of ‘Professione: Reporter’ after decades of neglect is very welcome.

Monday, 12 February 2007

Stalker (Soviet Union, 1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)

Few directors have been as concerned with the human condition as Andrei Tarkovsky. Despite regular state interference and surveillance of his work, he was able to introduce issues of spirituality and morality into his films, which were made for a supposedly atheist audience. His success in making unorthodox films in such a hostile era can possibly be explained by the fact that his films were never overtly political, but also that he expressed his religious ideas in a subtle and allegorical fashion.

Stalker follows Solaris in essentially acting as a fable dressed as a science-fiction feature. Stalker was loosely based on Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, but Tarkovsky was much more concerned with the philosophical and metaphysical elements of the novel than its science-fiction aspects. Like Solaris, the physical journey of the protagonist functions purely on a metaphorical level, exploring was the internal journey of the protagonist. As we noticed in Solaris, Kris Kelvin’s flight to explore the strange eponymous planet gives way to the exploration of his estranged relationships with his dead wife and his father. Stalker works on the same level.

The stalker is a guide who takes the willing to the ‘zone’, a desolate piece of wasteland cordoned off by the authorities, where it is believed a room there will grant wishes. Naturally the nature of the ‘zone’ is subject to rumour and speculation, but stories have been told of those who have visited the ‘zone’ and have been punished for their greed, because the ‘zone’ grants the ‘true’ wish rather than the ‘assumed’ wish (much like Solaris, the zone reads minds intuitively). The stalker is approached by a writer and a professor, who wish to visit the ‘zone’. The writer explains that he has lost inspiration, whilst the professor wishes to see the scientific significance and value of the area, though there is reason to suspect their motives.

Tarkovsky offers the brilliant, but simple visual conceit of filming the hometown of the ‘stalker’ in monochrome grey, and the ‘zone’ in dazzling colour, as if Tarkovsky is arguing that the ‘zone’ is a path towards enlightenment. The journey towards the ‘zone’ is slow and meticulously constructed, and provides the opportunity for the three protagonists to discuss their ideals and principles and engage in a philosophical debate. Tarkovsky’s sympathies would appear to reside with the stalker. The writer and professor are so convinced by the power of knowledge and truth that they leave no room in their hearts and minds for hope or finding enlightenment. The stalker himself claims that hope is “all people have got left on this earth”. Whilst the writer and the professor wish to discover the true nature of the ‘zone’, the stalker is aware this would rob people of their faith. It is simple and correct to interpret this as acting as a surrogate for religion. Is the journey to the ‘zone’ a journey towards faith, even towards God?

Stalker is Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, the full realisation of all the ideas he ever wished to commit to film. As is the case with every Tarkovsky film, there are arresting images that stun the viewer; most notably the final shot of the stalker’s daughter, described by the writer and the professor as a ‘victim of the zone’ recreating the slow and painful journey of the three adventurers though moving glasses on a table with her telekinetic powers. Stalker is a film brimming with ideas and humanistic concerns, and remains one of the most powerful films ever made.

Shanghai Dreams (China, 2005, Xiaoshuai Wang)

Set in the early 1980s in the rural Guizhou province in the southwest of China, Quinghong (Yuanyuan Gao) is an impressionable teenage girl frequently in defiance of her strict and overprotective father Wu Zemin (Analian Yao), who plans to return his family to Shanghai, having moved from there a decade previously. Quinghong’s budding relationship with a local factory boy seems charming initially, but later turns far more sinister, when in a clandestine meeting, her forces himself upon her. Traumatised, Quinghong attempts suicide. The family subsequently leaves for Shanghai, whilst the factory boy is sentenced to death for his crime.

During the Cultural Revolution, fear of Soviet invasion meant that many military related facilities and factories were relocated to the Chinese borders, known as the “third front”, and thousands of urban families were relocated against their wishes. Wu anticipates no kind of future for his children here, and wants to return to the city. Despite presiding over his family as a stern, authoritative figure he is not portrayed in a completely unsympathetic light. He acknowledges that his desire to return to Shanghai is in his children’s best interests, and later in the film, when Quinghong’s relationship with the factory boy turns disastrous; his earlier attempts to keep them apart seem justified.

Quinghong’s relationship with her father suffers from the generational differences that are all too common. Quinghong considers the countryside her home, and fails to understand her father’s intransigence, so she defies his wishes to increasingly greater extents. However, the teenagers in Shanghai Dreams are typical rebels, sporting the latest teacher-baiting fashions and holding underground dance parties to the sounds of Western pop music. The relationship between generations is defined by a lack of respect and trust. In the case of Quinghong, this tragically forces her into the arms of her prospective suitor.

Much like in Wang’s celebrated Beijing Bicycle, regional prejudices are evident. In Beijing Bicycle, the rural arrivals to the capital are treated as second class citizens, and in Shanghai Dreams, the relocated urban families hold superior and patronising attitudes to the rural provinces (‘backwater’) and its people (‘country cousins’). When Quinghong initially rejects her prospective boyfriend because they are too young and she expects to return to Shanghai soon, he believes it is because he is a local and not considered her social equal.

Shanghai Dreams successfully reflects some of the tumultuous social and economic changes that Chinese society has undergone in the last thirty years. China’s modernisation and economic growth created much displacement of families, and Wang demonstrates the impact this policy had on those uprooted from their homes without choice, and provides a voice for their aspirations and frustrations. Indeed, he dedicates this film to these families, having grown up in similar circumstances. The final scene on the road back to Shanghai is shot in vibrant colour, in contrast to the muted colours of the countryside. Perhaps this reflects Wu’s ‘Shanghai Dreams’.

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Henry V (UK, 1944, Laurence Olivier)

"To the commandoes and airborne troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture in some ensuing scenes, this film is dedicated."

Original prints of Olivier’s Henry V featured this dedication as an epilogue, which speaks volumes about the context in which the film was made. The 1940s saw a series of heritage films produced in the UK, which were produced as propaganda pieces. The likes of ‘This Happy Breed’ and the Hollywood produced ‘Mrs Miniver’ concentrated on paying tribute to the lives of ordinary people living as best they could during the war, whilst the likes of Henry V were set in the past to celebrate British (English?) history and past glories.

Stirred by the means in which enemy powers had harnessed their indigenous film industries to produce patriotic propaganda, government departments began to see the value in co-opting the British film industry to similar effect. Released from naval duty, Olivier was afforded all the resources possible to adapt and direct Shakespeare’s celebration of British defiance and victory against a more powerful continental foe, and assisted by direct government assistance (such as ensuring that Olivier could film scenes in Ireland, technically a neutral country during World War Two), Olivier was able to create a rousing nationalistic epic on a par with anything produced in Germany during the Third Reich. It is known that the film was shown to troops during World War Two with the intention to improve morale.

To make the propaganda aspect of Henry V more credible, Oliver has to edit parts of the text, especially to remove some of the less savoury elements that would undermine Henry’s status as a hero, such as the hanging of an old friend, the atrocities committed by his army, and executions that took place after battle. The play itself was a rites of passage to some extent, as Henry transformed from an off the rails adolescent to a mature and charismatic leader of men (Henry’s rousing speeches at Agincourt turns his defeated men into greyhounds slipping at the leashes and ready for battle). Henry is presented by Olivier as a king with no airs or graces and who does not treat his men according to social status; able to relate to the commoners within his army just as much as the nobility. His leadership turned the early stages of battle when defeat looked inevitable to a stunning against the odds victory, which mirrors the situation of World War Two, when an inspirational leader (Churchill) led the British to victory from an equally perilous position.

Olivier initially sets his film as a theatrical production at the Globe. We see both the onstage and backstage developments to reinforce the artificiality and self-awareness of the project, before moving to a more obvious cinematic style, albeit with obviously artificial sets at about thirty minutes into the film. Shot in Technicolor with the only such camera available in Britain at the time, it is a technical triumph as much as a triumph in propaganda. Whilst we might consider whether our French cousins might consider the celebration of the Battle of Agincourt objectionable, Henry demonstrates a love for France and its people and how uniting kingdoms is for the benefit of both countries and it isn’t hard to replace France with Nazi Germany in this context. Divorcing Henry V from the context in which it was filmed might just render it another Shakespeare adaptation, but it impossible to do so in all honesty; as a propaganda piece designed to improve the morale of the troops and the public it appears mightily effective.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Touch of Evil (US, 1958, Orson Welles)

“Read my future”
“You haven’t got any”
“What do you mean?”
“Your future is all used up”

Marlene Dietrich’s psychic informs Orson Welles’ corrupt cop that time has caught up with him, but this conversation becomes even more significant when we consider ‘Touch of Evil’ in the context of Welles’ directorial career. This was the last film he directed in Hollywood, which famously came about purely by accident (Charlton Heston only agreed to play Mike Vargas because he assumed Welles was directing as well as starring), but was then mutilated and re-shot by studio executives afterwards, much as ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ was. This version of ‘Touch of Evil’ was the remastered version put together in the late 1990s, having followed Welles’ memo to the studio with suggested changes.

‘Touch of Evil’ begins with one of the most stunning opening sequences in film history; a single take lasting several minutes. A rich gentleman who has just picked up a young woman crosses the Mexican-American border. Unknown to him, a bomb has been placed in his car. Whilst he drives, his companion complains of a ‘ticking’ noise, though both he and patrol officers ignore her protestations. The bomb naturally explodes, killing the gentleman and his companion. Since the offence occurred on both Mexican and American soil, both Mike Vargas and Hank Quinlan (played by Welles) claim jurisdiction for the case. Naturally these men are set up as opposites; Vargas the honest and fair narcotics officer, Quinlan the sheriff content to plant evidence when his ‘intuition’ tells him a suspect is guilty. When Vargas suspects Quinlan of framing a Mexican boy for the causing the explosion, he becomes torn between protecting his wife and bringing Quinlan to justice. Vargas in turn tries to ask Quinlan’s colleagues to betray him as the murder then becomes something of a Macguffin as the film then unfolds into a battle between the two police officers.

Welles populates the film with a series of grotesque characters. Quinlan is literally larger than life; padding was added to Welles’ already grand figure, whilst he is usually shot from low angles to accentuate his size. When he re-introduces himself to Marlene Dietrich (whom he once knew, but she fails to recognise him), she declares “You’re a mess, honey”. Numerous supporting characters are equally odd or unhinged, such as Akim Tamiroff’s local hoodlum Joe Grandi (who wears a ridiculous toupee), Dennis Weaver’s extremely nervous motel owner (an inspiration for Anthony Perkins in ‘Psycho’), and Mercedes McCambridge’s leather clad lesbian.

Quinlan is finally betrayed by his until then faithful deputy Menzies, who finds Quinlan’s cane at the scene of Grandi’s murder (the hotel room has a sign on the door asking “Have you forgotten anything?”), which was supposed to be pinned upon Vargas’s wife. Not that ‘Touch of Evil’ seeks to resole itself morally or justly. Quinlan’s instinct about Sanchez’s guilt is later proved correct, as the boy confesses after Quinlan’s death. Quinlan maintained that he was only ‘aiding justice’ and that he framed the guilty where evidence was lacking. Vargas is perhaps shown to be more interested in bringing down Quinlan than looking after his wife, who is preyed upon by several members of the Grandi family (several members of which have been imprisoned because of Vargas). Whilst the film earlier tried to establish these characters are corrupt and righteous, there is perhaps little between them in actual fact. Quinlan’s character is best summarised by the contradictory eulogies he receives; that he was a “great detective, but a lousy cop” and that he was “some kind of man”.

The remainder of Welles’ career was spent as an actor for hire, in order to fund the projects he wished to direct. He never worked in Hollywood again, but ‘Touch of Evil’ remains a tremendous signing off for one of the most interesting and gifted film making talents ever. Along with ‘The Lady of Shanghai’, Welles proved that he could take the most basic of source materials (which he often barely read or was usually unfaithful to) and transform them from humble origins to great cinematic art, and ‘Touch of Evil’ remains at least the equal of any of his previous achievements; perhaps even his finest.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Tale of the Late Chrysanthemums (Japan, 1939, Kenji Mizoguchi)

“You know what they say, good father, bad son”.

Kikunosuke is the “bad son”; an aspiring actor whose father is Kikugoro, the most prestigious and acclaimed kabuki actor in Tokyo. Kikunosuke is his heir, but has none of his father’s talent, so relies on his father’s patronage. After each mediocre performance, he is showered with praise, but these are hollow gestures (even the likes of “everyone has been talking about you” takes on a different significance to us), as the rest of the troupe mercilessly savages his performances as soon as he departs (“Kikugoro is so brilliant, so what is wrong with his son?”). Only his younger brother’s nurse, Otoku, is honest with him, telling him that she knows the rest of the troupe criticise his performances behind his back, and that unjust praise will encourage complacency. Kikunosuke respects her frankness, explaining that “no-one ever tells me things like that”.

Their blossoming relationship meets widespread disapproval. When Kikunosuke tells his family he wishes to marry Otoku, he is told that this will ruin his future and bring shame upon the family name; such is that difference in social status. Rejecting his family name he leaves Tokyo with Otoku, who dedicates herself to improving his craft. Thus begins Otoku’s self-sacrifice; whilst he slowly makes slow progress as an actor, and becomes embittered and selfish, her health deteriorates and she becomes seriously ill. Knowing his father will not welcome him back with her in tow, she leaves him so that he can rejoin the troupe, justifying her decision with the claim that “art is no good without a family name”; it is important in order to succeed. Having delivered the first triumphant performance in his father’s troupe, Kikunosuke rushes to Otoku’s beside before she passes away. His family recognise it her influence that has made Kikunosuke the great actor he has become, and Otoku dies happy, knowing that he has achieved the aim she set out to assist with. Only at a river parade does his moment of self-realisation occur; only then does he finally comprehend the ultimate sacrifice Otoku made in the name of love.

Mizoguchi’s stunning melodrama explores the deprecatory role of women in Japan’s patriarchal society. Shot in his trademark style of long takes and a “one scene one shot” approach, Mizoguchi offers a savage critique of a society which oppresses women and turns them into victims. Few directors have championed women so warmly and consistently. Mizoguchi explores the class and social differences that permeate this society, and make Kikunosuke and Otoku’s relationship incompatible. Whilst his social equals are lacking in honesty and known to speak ill of others, a humble nurse shows him the kind of compassion, truth and understanding he needs. Even though is behaviour towards Otoku is often cruel, she never relents in her devotion. As Kikunosuke becomes the great and respected actor he always wanted to be, as Otoku dies, he recognises this as a hollow achievement; that he would not have come so far without her, and that he owes it all to her. Mizoguchi explores how high the price of fame is, and whether it is worth the sacrifices and losses made in order to achieve it.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Mother Joan of the Angels / Matka Joanna od Aniolow (Poland, 1961, Jerzy Kawalerowicz)

“What do you know of the world?”
“Do you Father?”
“Not much either”

This conversation between Father Josef Suryn and a member of the local townsfolk demonstrates how the Father is ill-equipped to address the possession of a convent in a small town, which has created a sense of collective hysteria. What has recently transpired is told to Father Josef and us through the rumours and half-truths told by semi-reliable witnesses of doubtful moral standards, who mock Father Josef’s austere lifestyle and proclamations of their greed and gluttony, whilst Wolodkowicz, who seems to be the most influential member of the community, later encourages Sister Margaret to marry a squire, thus turning her away from her vows.

Father Josef’s unswerving dedication to his faith and his inability to understand the world causes his downfall. Upon his visit to the convent, Sister Margaret explains to the townsfolk that he is “too weak for our convent”. He explains that he only knows women as saints; his mother and sisters were equally as pious as he is, so is Father Josef in any position to assist a nun who has been possessed by eight demons for the last six months? Perhaps Father Josef’s fate was sealed in an early prediction by the local barmaid who reads fortunes. She predicts that he will meet a maid who is a Mother and that he will love a humpback. Ominously, there are several discussions about fate and how it cannot be avoided, including a conversation with a rabbi.

Father Josef’s first discussion with Mother Joan seems civil enough, but it is when she leaves that she shows signs of being possessed, circling the room, blaspheming, and trying to attack Father Josef. Interestingly, at this point the other nuns’ behaviour changes, and mimics Mother Joan, as if she initiates and dictates their hysterical behaviour. In one memorable scene during the exorcism, she resists where the other nuns recoiled in terror, and lies on the ground, face down and arms out, which the other nuns replicate. Then Kawalerowicz delivers a stunning overhead shot of the nuns in this position, to the bemusement of the priests and townsfolk.

As methods of exorcism appear to have little effect upon restoring the convent to normal, Father Josef begins to doubt himself and appears to develop feelings of love for Mother Joan. His routine of self-flagellation becomes more intense and violent, combined with prayers of “God save my sinful soul”. A discussion with the local rabbi (played by the same actor) deduces that the nuns’ possession is the will of God, and that love is at the root of everything. He can only learn of demons by letting them enter his soul, and the rabbi thinks Josef’s ignorance has prevented his ability to save Mother Joan. Father Josef decides that Mother Joan can only be redeemed through love, not through exorcisms, and that her salvation can only be achieved through his absorption of her sins. By doing the bidding of the Devil, he believes he can ensure that Joan’s demons will not return. An earlier scene which showed Father Josef driving an axe into a stump of wood now becomes significant, as he uses this axe to commit two murders. Father Josef’s final words “Go and tell Joan I did it for her, for her own good. To save her. To keep the devil in me” confirm his self-sacrifice and damnation as a means of redeeming her. It is the ultimate act of devotion.

‘Mother Joan of the Angels’ is clearly inspired by the events of 1634 that were immortalised in Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Devils of Loudun’ (1952), though one can also sense echoes of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘Black Narcissus’ (1946), which also considered the consequences of repressed sexuality spilling over into madness. Kawalerowicz leaves it to us to consider whether the nuns were truly possessed by the Devil or whether their repressed sexuality ran amok and manifested itself in this collective hysteria, which later affects Father Josef. This pious and virtuous priest, unable to confront his sexual desires commits murder in the belief it might save Mother Joan. Kawalerowicz explained that this film was against dogma; that it is a love story about a man and a woman who wear church clothes, and whose religion does not allow them to love each other, and that the demons are a manifestation of their repressed love for each other. It is a convincing explanation of a film that leaves no obvious resolution or simple answers.