cries of the heart

A great—and previously unknown to me—achievement of the silent era is Jean Epstein’s La Coeur fidèle (France, 1923), also known as Faithful Heart.  Having recently received a simply awe-inspiring Blu-ray release from Masters of Cinema, the impeccable technical quality of this release spectacularly showcases one of the most visually ravishing and stunningly beautiful silent films I’ve ever encountered.

And for my money, Gina Manès legitimately gives Falconetti a run for her money as the great face of silent cinema, giving a performance that is built and sustained solely through the emotions conveyed through her remarkably expressive eyes.  Otherwise she’s languid to the point of woodeness, though that’s also the case with all of the performances in the film.  Only the performance by Epstein’s sister, who I was shocked to find out is none other than the great unheralded director Marie Epstein, achieves its resonance through any kind of physical action; otherwise this is a film involving turbulent emotions swirling beneath stoic faces and (with the notable exception of the magnificently rendered seascapes) statically rendered, claustrophobic interior spaces.

But if the melodramatic plot is a bit silly and the performances of the type that involve sad-eyed offscreen gazing that sometimes feels endless, La Coeur fidèle is otherwise a directoral tour-de-force, with the intense emotions conjured up through Epstein’s montage editing, juxtaposing beautiful images of churning water, evocatively desolate seaside quays, etc. to slowly build to a shattering and haunting conclusion.  I’m sure this all has to do with Epstein’s own theories of cinema (he was a writer and film theorist before he took up actual filmmaking), of which I hate to admit I’m completely ignorant of at this time.  But I have Fall of the House of Usher (1928) in my possession for viewing, and I’ve been inspired to explore Epstein’s work more fully in the immediate future.

Memories of a Movie:

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furious queerness

Desert Fury (Lewis Allen, 1947) is the type of film that has to be seen to be believed–it’s one of the weirdest, queerest films I’ve ever seen, which is why it’s so interesting that it came out of the Hollywood studio system.  It’s essentially an odd, introverted B-film Paramount inexplicably plumped up with A-list trappings such as its use of “blazing Technicolor” (so screamed the poster taglines) and an absurd number of swanky Edith Head outfits for Lizabeth Scott to parade about in.  Curiously though the same amount of attention wasn’t given to the script, and thank goodness–a whole lot of truly bizarre character dynamics remain that would like have likely been erased if more attention had been paid to it.

Where to start?  All of the film’s publicity would make one think that the film features a torrid romance between Scott and strapping young Burt Lancaster, but that is actually far from the case–all of the other characters seem so involved with each other that they barely seem to notice poor Burt.  Mary Astor plays Scott’s mother, but with Astor stomping about in slacks, barking orders, and endlessly calling Scott “Baby,” I have to agree with one of the reviewers on the film’s IMDb page that their dialogue instead “suggests an older Lesbian and her young, restless companion,” particularly after a long scene where Scott begs to start working at her mother’s successful casino/bar, the Purple Sage(?!).

But that’s just the start: the real doozy is the obsessive relationship between John Hodiak and Wendell Corey, the latter in his screen debut–after Scott takes a shining to Hodiak and starts inviting herself to the men’s ranch, Corey flies into eye-clawing mode, followed by a  set of dramatic hissy fits.  The queer pièce de résistance, however, is when Hodiak describes to Scott how he met Corey: wandering around a deserted Times Square in the middle of the night, Corey bought the down-on-his-luck Hodiak a sandwich, took him back to his place for the night, and they’ve “been together ever since.”  All of these bizarre character dynamics play out against picturesque desert scenery so oversaturated that it begins to feel as artificial as a studio set, further heightening the overall sensation of overripe surreality.  Oh, not very good film at all, but it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed one quite so much.

Memories of a Movie:

support film preservation! (part II)

This post represents my second (and final) contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blog-a-thon, which is raising money for the preservation of The Sound of Fury (1950).

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Of the four films that Bogart and Bacall made together, the third, Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, USA, 1947) is generally considered the least of them. And it’s not particularly hard to see why—Bacall’s character never allows her to display any of the spark that made her so magnificent in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, and there’s an inherent weakness with a film that stars Humphrey Bogart but doesn’t show his iconic face for the entire first third of the film. And for a film with a plot so heavily reliant on the psychological motivations of the various characters, it doesn’t help that characters motivations for the most part range from murky to straining credulity to patently absurd.

And yet, Dark Passage is a film that I have a great affection for (and I certainly prefer it to the inexplicably well-liked Key Largo). The main reason is that through its extensive use of location work, it serves as a magnificent showcase for the city of San Francisco. Vertigo, for good reason, is the film that has made San Francisco a pilgrimage spot for all good cinephiles, but Dark Passage serves as the gritty, black-and-white flipside to Hitchcock’s luscious, dream-like rendering of the city. With the exception of Scotty’s trailing of Madeleine that has him driving through the streets of the city, Hitchcock generally has little interest in maintaining any kind of spacial continuity in regards to the depiction of the city, with the various depicted landmarks dreamily disconnected not only from each other but from their context within the city itself (which is why I suspect that most people are often surprised, like I was, to find a place like Mission Dolores shoehorned snugly into a bustling residential area, and not in some forlorn, abandoned city quarter).

I love Dark Passage for its utilization of the San Francisco that citizens of the city—both then and now—are familiar with: the labyrinthine series of staircases threading together Telegraph Hill, the steep sidewalks that fracture into stairs halfway up the hill, cable cars, the the long taxi rides down Market, and, of course, the drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. It also captures one of my personal favorite qualities of living in this city: because of the hills, a turn around even the most nondescript corner can unexpectedly coldcock you with a gorgeous vista view of the city that is quite literally breathtaking. Dark Passage uses this to excellent effect, and many otherwise unexceptional expositional sequences are elevated through the stunning backdrops naturally afforded through the location work.

I rewatched Dark Passage shortly upon moving to the city a year and a half ago, and it was one of the key things that really kicked off my love affair with this city (that and the always-dazzling cinematic and photographic cataloguing of the city by a fellow San Franciscian over at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art—see specifically the San Francisco-related section here). In many ways the film serves as a wonderful time capsule of the city in the immediate post-War period, and it was pleasurably shocking to see how familiar many of these locations already seemed to me.

And considering that film is essentially unique in providing this type of wholly-immersive synchronicity, the preservation of such experiences should be a foremost priority on every cinephile’s mind.  As the screen captures should amply attest, Dark Passage is, fortunately, for the most part a beautifully preserved film.  But without stars on the magnitude of Bogie and Bacall, would this necessarily be the case?  The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding no.  And for that reason I ask you to consider making a donation to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blogathon. This is the last day of this terrific blogathon, and as such, also your last opportunity to contribute to this most worthy of causes.

Memories of a Movie:

Scenes of the City


Bogart’s character tells the taxi driver a specific address on Sutter Street to get here; one of these days I’m going to go to that location myself and see what’s there now! 

Back before this was probably the single most touristy spot in the entire city (how few people there are!).  Owl Drug Co. is now the location of a large Gap, which isn’t nearly as exciting, but I do frequent it fairly regularly.

The Malloch Building, 1360 Montgomery Street

Okay, I have to share a memory about this specific site, as it is the location one of my favorite cinematic San Francisco moments.  This Art Deco apartment building is justifiably famous, and it serves as the location of swanky (and enormous) apartment that Bacall’s character lives in, and where she subsequently holes up the fugitive Bogart in grand style.  I was on a first date in the North Beach area, and after dinner we spontaneously decided to walk up to Coit Tower.  Suddenly I burst out “there’s the Dark Passage house!” (a reference my date unfortunately did not get)—something I was extremely proud of, because 01) I’m usually not very good at recognizing these type of things, and 02) I still was able to do this even though I was suffering from food poisoning and all of my attention was focused on hiding this fact from my date. :)

I always get a kick out of how she had a portrait of herself (and one of her most famous!) on such prominent display.

And really, it’s an extremely stylishly shot and designed film

Sidney Hickox (cinematography) and Charles H. Clarke (art direction)


To say nothing of the ever-stylish Ms. Bacall herself, of course!

[Screen captures taken by Jesse Ataide.  Feel free to use the images, but please provide a link back!]

support film preservation!

This post represents my contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blog-a-thon.

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A Film I Would Not Like to See Restored: Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach

Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach (1947, USA) at Noir City 9, the San Francisco Film Noir Festival held annually at the Castro Theater here in San Francisco. Of the twenty or so films that were programmed, it was the film I had prioritized for reasons that I’m not even exactly sure of (I’ve yet to really warm up to Renoir, truth be told). I didn’t know anything specific about it, though as I told a friend as we waited for the lights to go down, Pauline Kael’s review—where she cites Rivette’s proclamation of the film as a masterpiece before wittily undermining such a claim—had always intrigued me.

The Woman on the Beach is one of those films that can’t get mentioned without a big footnote being attached to it, as it is one of those films where extratextual material and circumstances almost overshadows the film itself. In this case it’s the turgid story of the film’s ill-fated production, which Eddie Muller nicely encapsulated for the audience in his introduction to the film: an initial preview screening of the film was so disastrous that in an attempt to salvage its commercial possibilities, Renoir subsequently re-edited, and then reshot a large portion of the film. The resulting version that was finally released, clocking in at a mere 70 minutes or so, remained disappointing, with Renoir himself eventually conceding that in the revisions the film had “lost its raison d’être” and was “neither flesh nor fish.”1 As it turns out, it was an unhappy note that ended Renoir’s Hollywood career—he never made another film in America.

Under such circumstances, it is perhaps inevitable that that initial, unlucky cut of the film shown at the first preview has swelled over the decades into a near-mythic “should-have-been” story a la Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, the type all good cineastes relish hypothesizing about. “If only someone could get ahold of that original version, and really see what Renoir was trying to do…”

But defaced or not, I was intrigued by The Woman on the Beach. I didn’t think it was necessarily a great film, or even a very good one, truth be told. It’s an exceedingly odd film, cumbersome despite its brief running time, and, all-in-all, quite unsympathetic and unlovable (even by noir standards).  But almost immediately I could tell it was one of those films. There’s just no other way to describe it: I was immediately beguiled by this awkward bête noire of a film. Those gaps, those absences caused by an obviously truncated narrative, those silences caused by motivations, backstories and emotions systematically denied to the viewer—they haunted me. And one couldn’t help but wonder: were the answers to the questions I had among what was lost in the ribbons of films Renoir frantically severed from his film?

Much like that hulking shipwreck that serves as such a bizarre setpiece for the film, the plot of The Woman on the Beach feels like a number of damaged fragments of narrative that have inexplicably washed up on the titular beach.  It embodies some sparsely populated, nightmarish crystallization of post-War realities, and feels uneasily perched on the remotest edges of the word.

For this reason, it is a bit uncomfortable attaching the “film noir” label to Renoir’s film, with its complete disavowal of the urban spaces and comforting shadows typically associated with noir. I’m certainly not the first to utilize the adjective “abstracted” to describe the film, which doesn’t just apply to the oblique plot, but in the rendering of empty spaces that after a while begin to feel positively post-apocalyptic. Few and far between are the familiar shadows and darkness of noir with their usual significations menace and dread.  But sometimes too those same shadows provide shelter, obscurity, even comfort (“I like the dark. It’s comforting to me” insists Blanche du Bois in the noir-ly rendered A Streetcar Named Desire), and The Woman on the Beach‘s soft gradient of grays offer no such Expressionistic obfuscation or chance of shadowy escape, instead stranding its characters in an uninterrupted twilight state. There are rainstorms, banks of fogs, and crashing waves, but with the exception of the final climactic scene, remarkably little of the film—not even the romantic rendezvouses—occur at night, and in the few nocturnal scenes there are, the camera cloisters itself in brightly lit interior spaces. Not even in sleep does the night provide solace, for as Robert Ryan finds out in the film’s remarkably surrealistic opening sequence, the night merely casts one into a dusky, oceanic dreamstate.2

Renoir himself alludes to this sort of spacial and thematic abstraction with his comment that “The Woman on the Beach was the sort of avant-garde film which would have found its niche a quarter of a century earlier, between Nosferatu and Caligari”.3 An extremely evocative, but also rather curious description of the film, as The Woman on the Beach did not bring to mind the early European avant-garde (and certainly not the German Expressionist tradition), but instead feels prescient, uncannily anticipating that great flowering of European art film in the subsequent two decades. Specifically, the gritty, underpopulated, eerily abstract emotional and physical spaces brought to mind Antonioni’s 1950’s films, Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair) most particularly, along with Il grido and the brief beach scene from Le amiche.

Beach scene from Antonioni’s Le Amiche (1955)

As per usual when a film catches my interest, I spent a good chunk of time dutifully researching The Woman on the Beach. An offhand reference Jonathan Rosenbaum makes on Glenn Kenny’s review of the film’s R2 DVD release over at MUBI subsequently led me to Janet Bergstrom’s utterly fascinating article “Oneiric Cinema: The Woman on the Beach,” written in 1999.4 Tracing the film’s production history in minute detail, through Bergstrom’s meticulous research in the RKO archives a fascinating counternarrative to Renoir’s stated opinions—which have long since established themselves as the authoritative position to take in regards to the film—quickly begins to emerge. Bergstrom poses a rather startling thesis: that The Woman on the Beach “benefited from [Renoir’s] tendency towards abstraction, but the fact that it did so (or, to be accurate, that it ended up doing so), represents an interesting paradox”.5

Bergstrom devotes a great deal of space reconstructing the film’s development, starting before Renoir was even attached to the project and details the entire filmmaking process until the final cut of the film finally emerged. She recounts with painstaking detail a great deal more information than I can provide here, and needless to say, I highly recommend anybody interested to give it a read. But in reading about the film’s chaotic history, it became increasingly clear to me, as it did to Bergstrom, that there’s a very good chance The Woman on the Beach turned out to be a better film than it would have been if that infamous Santa Barbara preview had never occurred.

One of the points that intrigued me most was how many rewrites the script of the film underwent, both before the first camera started rolling until the reshooting commenced months later. Drastic rewrites. Some of the narrative trajectories that the film’s early script drafts included:

  • Tod had been able to see for months (his blindness was caused by hysteria)
  • Both Peggy and Tod’s doctor were aware of this fact
  • Peggy was having an affair with this doctor
  • Peggy was planning on stealing Tod’s paintings to run away with the doctor
  • At the insistence of the Production Code, the adultery would be suitably punished: Tod brutally attacks his wife and his doctor. Bergstrom quotes these grisly descriptions from a draft of the script: “the doctor’s crumpled body in a corner, Peggy’s battered body near a wall”6

Renoir almost immediately cut out the the robbery subplot, the entire character of the doctor and necessarily toned down the adultery, but the story still went through a number of significant revisions, both “to satisfy the studio and the Production Code Administration” as well as “to try and make the story more cohesive.”7 The central role of Robert Ryan’s hunky but psychologically disturbed Coast Guard was built up, at the expense of the colorful character of the artist, played by Charles Bickford.

But perhaps more crucially, the motivations for sullenly sexy Joan Bennett’s Peggy was in constant flux. Post-preview, one of the film’s central scenes—the showdown between Ryan and Bickford on the rowboat during the storm—was completely altered: what was initially intended to be a suicide scene shifts to its more murderous intentions in the final cut. Renoir also considered utilizing extensive flashbacks to Peggy and Tod’s colorful life in New York City to flesh out both characters. Even during the reshooting Renoir was still trying to decide if Peggy was supposed to be a heartless virago or a misunderstood–and thus more sympathetic–woman.  The result of all this indecision?  One of the most ambiguous femme fatales I’ve ever encountered.

I summarize these unwieldy developments in such detail to merely illustrate how the film Renoir at various points wanted to make is remarkably unlike the film that it ended up being and we know today. Particularly interesting to me was Bergstrom’s comment that “Renoir’s script for the ‘preview version’ was full of secondary characters who filled out the story, helping to convey a specific milieu that was very far from the abstraction we see in the release print of The Woman on the Beach.8

In other words, almost everything that I was most drawn to about the film was not part of the original version.

And really, this makes sense. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t seen the many of Renoir’s films beyond the canonical, but one thing I immediately noticed was how far removed Woman on the Beach‘s lonesome threesome (or foursome, if one wishes to include the underdeveloped fiancée) is so utterly unlike the complex, highly nuanced interactions between an extensive cast of characters that are so celebrated in films like La règle du jeu and La grande illusione. While I associate Renoir’s characters with talk, talk, and more talk, in Woman on the Beach they stay stubbornly silent. And as a direct result of this, all of the things that I was most intrigued about in Renoir’s film are also all of the elements—the silences, the narrative ellipses, the static figures suspended in vast spaces, the relentless opacity—that I don’t associate with Renoir at all, but rather a number of my favorite directors and films: Antonioni, Marienbad, Vampyr, Duras, Denis, Wong.

After reading Bergstrom’s article, suddenly the film was vibrating with endlessly resonating echoes. The narrative gaps, silences and ellipses seemed no longer puzzling as much as brimming with possibilities, richly embedded with traces of countless other possible narrative variations and the distinct possibility that the narrative trajectory might spiral in countless other directions at any given moment. Quite unexpectedly Renoir’s film reminded me, of all things, 2046, a film that because of a similarly tumultuous production history I almost expect with every rewatch to have somehow rearranged its evocative, fragmented pieces into beautiful new permutations and variations since my last viewing. This in itself distances The Woman on the Beach from the film noir tradition in yet another way. Expressionistic fatalism is nowhere to be seen—one merely needs to compare Renoir’s film to another Joan Bennet from just a few years before, Lang’s Scarlet Street, for an idea of the exhilarating Open-ness9 of The Woman on the Beach.

Exhilarating, but in many senses, unintentional. I must wholeheartedly agree with Bergstrom’s final assessment that “paradoxically, The Woman on the Beach (the release version) benefitted from all this interference… [it] became more and more abstract and all the things that could not be shown for reasons of censorship were cut and confusing character motivations left from the original novel or the innumerable, tediously similar variants of the script were removed.”10 While the final cut of The Woman on the Beach is no masterpiece, from all indications it’s a much more intriguing film that it was going to be (and/or originally was in the preview version).

That said, would I welcome the sudden unearthing of a print of the preview version in some vault or archive? Of course—I’m as curious as anyone else. And also not without serious misgivings, considering what would likely occur in such a situation: a celebratory, much trumpeted re-release of the restored “Original Director’s Cut” on the festival circuit, perhaps even a full-blown theatrical rerelease compliments of Rialto or the like, and then, at long last, a R1 DVD release. But the original release version—the version Jacques Rivette unapologetically declared a masterpiece and everyone else has spent the last decades trying to get some kind of a handle one—would quickly disappear from sight and memory, at best resurfacing as a DVD extra for the now-definitive “original version” (that is, if we were lucky enough for a company like Criterion, NoShame or VCI to get the rights to release it). And for reasons I hope I’ve managed to make clear at this point, I think this would be an entirely regrettable situation.

Of course, this isn’t exactly the type of restoration that is motivating this blog-a-thon, which is more concerned that we get to see these types of films at all, and even better if it’s on beautiful prints like I got an opportunity to see at Film Noir 9. Because that’s the type of restoration—with its emphasis on preservation and availability—I wholeheartedly support, and as such I ask you to join me in donating to For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blog-a-thon.

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Notes:

1Via Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir, 1976. Page 261.

2Apologies for an overtly academic aside: after writing the first draft of this post, I happened to reread the description of the different schools of montage in Deleuze’s Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, and was a bit startled at how neatly the description of the French and German schools lined up with my analysis: Deleuze characterizes pre-War French cinema, embodied by Renoir, with the gray caused by movement, as opposed to the black and white stratification of of Expressionist German cinema, exemplified in Lang and Murnau.

3Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films, 1974. Pages 246-7.

4Originally published in Film History, Vol. 11, No. 1, “Film Technology” pp. 114-125. Unfortunately, this article does not currently seem available online, but only through JSTOR and other academic outlets. Let me know if you’re interested in it.

5Bergstrom, 115.

6Bergstrom, 118.

7Ibid.

8Ibid, 120.

9Invoking, hazily, both Eco and Deleuze

10Bergstrom, 121.

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Memories of a Movie:


[Screen captures taken by Jesse Ataide.  Feel free to use the images, but please provide a link back!]

innocence(?)

Mine-Haha or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls by Frank Wedekind

Even just a cursory glance over various analyses of Wedekind’s short novella shows that interpretations tend to be just as conflicted and baffled as my own.  Because, well, this text is just weird.  Really, really weird.

The story, revolving around an unorthodox boarding school young girls become mysteriously initiated into, places each girl into a hierarchical “family” of seven other girls, and over the next seven years rigorously trains them in ballet and to play instruments.  By their sixth and seventh years, the girls, teetering on the edge of puberty, are then employed by the school to perform in elaborate nightly performances to help finance the institution, and judging from both Wedekind’s detailed descriptions of the performances as well as the vocal reactions of the audience, the plays are selected for their “tastefully” lascivious plotlines and elements.  The girls, unable to comprehend the double entendre of the actions they are performing, are then ushered out of the school once the menstruation process is about to begin.

If this sounds like boarding school erotica–if not actual pornography–countless descriptions and actions, often presented as asides, do little to dispel such a charge (i.e. “if you missed even a small step, you felt the cane on your legs, a sensation that trickled up to the back of your neck.  Gertrud always smiled when she beat us”).  Or such scenes of swimming in the stream, with “hundreds of girls… undressing ready to sunbathe” (they swim naked, of course), or the narrator’s remembrance of her role as one of the peasant girls in her first performance, in which she remembers that they “had nothing to do but lie on the steps and display [their] naked upper bodies and calves.”  Umm, yeah.  Creepy.

But just when one has pretty much written off Mine-Haha as esoteric smut (albeit beautifully written, extremely fascinating smut), Wedekind switches gears, and suddenly giving the entire story a liberal, even feminist slant: the description of the performance features prominently its main female dancer trapped in a cage, railing against the injustice of her situation, and it retrospectively echos a brief moment earlier in the narrative when the narrator and several other girls stand at the large, barred iron front gate of their school in which they note the “heavy bolt” that prevents their access to the mysterious world beyond.  While nothing is ever explicitly stated, it is clear, however, that more is involved now than an elaborate fantasy.

This squares with Wedekind’s reputation, then, as one of the most vehement and articulate critics of European bourgeois culture in late 19th century, particularly in regards to its repressive stance in regards to sex and sexuality (one of the reasons why Spring Awakening still seems so audacious and modern, capturing such a huge American audience over the last few years).  And so that becomes the pièce de résistance of weirdness—suddenly what has seemed so queasily porno-ish is now being positioned as a progressive, utopian social vision.  It’s an odd dynamic that the novella is never able to resolve (though really, Wedekind might not even have realized it was something that needed to be resolved), and that’s what created such a conflicted, unmoored reaction in me.

Which brings me to why I even read this in the first place.  As it turns out, several years ago a French film director took the contradictions and ambiguities of Mine-Haha and transformed them into a masterful film.  Among other things, in Innocence (2004), Lucile Hadzihalilovic completely reworked this material, positioning it as a dreamy, evocative metaphor for female sexual maturation, though she is careful to retain many of the ambiguities and complications that marks Wedekind’s novella, leaving them eerily unresolved as well (which caused its own minor controversy when the film was released).  As such, placing literary and cinematic texts next to each other creates a fascinating dialogue, their uneasy reflection in each other resolving some issues and questions but opening up even more.

Which, it must be admitted, is exactly as I was hoping for, as I’m writing on this topic for my thesis, and I was hoping to use this novella and adaptation as a key example.  And now I can.

Memories of a Movie:

Review Cross-posted at Goodreads

presenting ms. kenyon

So for a while I thought that Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, USA, 1947) was just kinda dull, but upon reaching the halfway mark I began to become more and more impressed with what I started vaguely perceiving as a rather sophisticated dissection of romantic politics—this is the rare kind of film that genuinely seems to have an adult audience in mind in regards to the narrative elements it opts to focus on and explicate. There’s something that struck me as almost proto-Antonionian in the ways its central romantic triangle (Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda) thrash about emotionally under elegant and seemingly placid surfaces. The film is ostensibly concerned with that evergreen “woman’s picture” dilemma—hard-fought independence or domestic security?—which is complicated by a subtle but haunting realization that this narrative is less about the titular character deciding which man will give her true love than a depiction of three people desperately trying to pull themselves out of deadened emotional states—and fully willing to sacrifice each other to do so. It seems universally accepted that Crawford was to old for this role and fans have waged elaborate apologias to justify her casting, but I thought she was genuinely well suited for the role of Daisy—sure, a luscious ingénue-type would have helped explain what is now the inexplicable sexual attraction of the two male leads, but it would have completely altered the underlying dynamic of the film, which seems less to me about mere sex or even love than finding a way to avoid the ache of loneliness and stasis and ennui. Anyway, since its recent release on DVD—which I believe makes it widely available for the first time—internet critics have desperately fallen all over themselves hailing this as a forgotten masterpiece of classic Hollywood melodrama, but I can’t help but feel it might be undergoing the canonization process for the wrong reasons, though I’m admittedly unable to articulate what those reasons exactly are. Still, whatever the underlying motivations, this is certainly a weird and weirdly admirable film, well deserving of the reevaluation it has seemed to have recently sparked.

Memories of a Movie:

[Screen captures taken by Jesse Ataide.  Others are welcome to use the images, but please provide a link back!]

things that go bump in the night

I’ve realized recently that sometimes the value of watching so-called “canonical” films has less to do with watching a great film than the exhilaration of witnessing seeds be planted that will only fully flower in later, sometimes much better films. Or at least that was how I felt while watching both Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, Germany, 1920) and Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1922) in quick succession, neither which are particularly great shakes as modern movie experiences. But both were and continue to remain important films simply because in them one sees some of the great, enduring images and myths of cinema tentatively but decisively taking shape as the flickering, soundless images of each film unspools. Of the two I would probably call Caligari the “better” film, if only for the angular, now-iconic labyrinth of German Expressionism the film’s creaky plot loses itself in, and also because I was shocked to find how the unexpected “twist” ending managed to throw this supposedly “sophisticated” modern viewer for a complete loop, forcing an immediate reevaluation of what I had written off as a largely inconsequential plot. Murnau’s shameless and wholesale appropriation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula unfortunately and rather unfairly suffered severely in comparison to Dreyer’s Vampyr which I fell in love with last year—Murnau’s reputation had led me to expect more poetry, and alas there was very little to be found among the extremely broad characterizations and rather perfunctory ticking-off of the plot (there are a few dazzling moments however—the macabre beauty of the procession of coffins being slowly carried through the street of the plagued city sent a shiver down my spine). But what is great, what is still so very important about both of these films is of course its “monsters,” the horrible, the pitiful Cesare and Nosferatu respectively. Young Conrad Veidt’s Cesare, all long, lithe lines of the male body clad in black and shadows, who despite being in a somnambulistic state stalks his victims with a breathtaking, ballet-like grace, is revealed to be less a monster than a victim in sad-clown makeup; despite the misshapen, practically mummified body that seems to render him staid and encumbered, I was shocked how the stasis of Max Shreck’s Nosferatu made him shockingly elegant, his sinuous claws slowly unfurling with the languid grace of a sea anemone in water.  Today neither of these iconic screen phantoms are frightening per se, but ensconced in their silent, flickery cinematic states, they remain deeply, almost indescribably eerie, even uncanny, their influence undeniably continues to drip quietly, unceasingly into the modern consciousness…

Memories of Two Movies:

emotional spaces via physical places

At first glance Agnès Varda’s La pointe courte (France, 1954) seems much more an Italian film than a French one, for if the acute observations of the villagers of the small, traditional Mediterranean fishing town seems deeply indebted to Italian neo-realism, then the alternating story and scenes with the conflicted married couple seems to anticipate with uncanny accuracy the films Antonioni would begin making in the succeeding several years (Il Grido in particular springs to mind). But it’s not an Italian film and furthermore Varda, merely (gulp) 25 at the time, claims to have not seen more than that number of films at that point in her life. Without that bit of information La pointe courte is a rather remarkable film; taking its backstory into account, it’s simply phenomenal.

Probably more than anything La pointe courte a film about spaces and place, and not just in the obvious picturesque sense of setting, but analyzing spaces on a number of levels, whether they be public or private, female-dominated (the home, the laundry lines) or male-dominated (the fishing boats traversing the wide expanses of water), or even in the way the rigid narrative structure sharply demarcates the scenes of village life and the couple’s solitary wanderings. But Varda isn’t content with simply letting these perimeters well enough alone; if anything, the bleeding together of disparate spheres of activity provide the impetus for the film as boundaries as subtly criss-crossed. A good example, and probably my favorite sequence in the film, takes place at the shared laundry lines where Varda’s camera lingers on the crisp, white sheets and shirts that billow sensuously in the wind as two local women cheerfully wrestle their washing from the lines—a brief, beautiful snapshot of friendship and female camaraderie that is interrupted by a solitary man walking through and disappearing (as such, it serves as introduction to the couple’s story in the film).  This is mirrored and inverted later when the same woman (who strongly resembles my Portuguese great grandmother) interrupts the “boys club” post-joute dinner party to kick off the community-wide dance.

The alternating sequences revolving around the couple, played by Silvia Monforet and Phillippe Noiret (who I didn’t even recognize—he’s the old man in Cinema Paradiso), deal with similar issues, but goes about doing it in a more abstract way. Actually, it’s mostly delineated via Varda’s camera where she displays a preoccupation with the distances that separate her two subjects. When not carefully divided by the mise-en-scene

the faces and the profiles of the couple are often shot merged

making the physical and very visual separations between them all the more potent, even painful, a visual rendering of the emotional spaces being explored.

If I started out by saying that La Pointe Court seems like an Italian film, well, it was her fellow French who took the film to mind and heart (in the Criterion interview Varda recounts how only one small theater in Montparnasse would bother showing the film, and all the Paris intelligentsia—from the young New Wavers to the literary elite—flocked to and rallied around it). Surprisingly or unsurprisingly Alain Resnais served as the editor of the film, and a lot of the elements Varda introduces—ranging from the monotone intensity of the couple’s conversations to the preoccupation with memory and place—later shows up in his mature work, most particularly Hiroshima mon amour (Varda also specifically names Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima’s screenwriter, as one face to be seen among the Montparnasse audiences). If Varda had never made another film (or had chosen to stick to photography, her original love) La pointe courte would be enough to seal her reputation as an important cinematic artist, happily, it was just the beginning of a remarkable, still underappreciated career that stretches to this very day.

[Screen captures taken by Jesse Ataide.  Others are welcome to use the images, but please provide a link back!]

illicit love: part two

 As I mentioned in last week’s thread, Jdidaco’s thoughts on Vendredi Soir (Friday Night) (Claire Denis, France, 2002) made me want to go home after work and cuddle up with the film—and that’s exactly what I did, staying up half of the night to do so.  It’s a particular favorite of mine—always floating somewhere just outside of my top ten—but it had been several years since I’d last seen it.  It’s always a bit unnerving revisiting a favorite as there’s the risk that the previous magic has disappeared, but I’m happy to report I still think it is just as wonderful as ever, and even threw me a few surprises along the way (the story is told in a linear, relatively straightforward manner, but the way Denis often moves to the next sequence can be rather bewildering—one feels unmoored, dislodged from linear time for a few moments until we are given a few visual clues and things settles down again).

What’s so special about the film is in the way the central midnight encounter feels so spontaneous and yet so inevitable, and Claire Denis is a magician of sorts in the way she captures each moment as it unfolds—it’s at once both vibrantly real and as intangible as a hallucination.  Once while discussing this film Ali invoked Queen Christina’s room and I had that in the back of my head throughout the entire film, but it struck me that idea doesn’t just apply literally to the shadowy, probably shabby hotel room itself; rather, the entire night is Christina’s room, with the gaze Denis and Agnés Godard’s camera lingering on images in the way that mimics the way the human mind processes information, i.e. a bit longer than what is necessary to establish ones placement in space, but not long enough where one is actively observing—it’s just that extra split second where the mind takes a mental snapshot and a memory begins to form.  Combine all this with Denis and Godard’s virtually unparalleled ability in capturing a kind of radiance in even the most mundane of objects—human skin, a red blanket, a dusty dashboard, hell, even a condom dispenser—and you have one of the most alive films I’ve ever encountered.  And as a bonus, it’s all so soft, almost amorphous that each time I return it feels like I’m witnessing it for the first time all over again…  For my money, one of THE great achievements of modern cinema.

Memories of a Movie:

illicit love: part one

I was taken completely by surprise in the way that I responded to Les amants (The Lovers) (Louis Malle, France, 1958), simply because I can’t remember the last time it happened: I had a genuine moral response to the actions of Jeanne Moreau’s character (who, rather confusingly, is also named Jeanne). As she kissed and gently rearranged the sheets over her sleeping daughter before being led to bed by her latest boytoy, I was shocked to find myself outraged that the film was asking the audience to so blithely support Jeanne’s decision to walk away from her parental responsibilities.

Only in retrospect did my opinion take on more nuance: finally it dawned on me how I occupy a very different historical moment, the child of the ideology behind a film like Claire Denis’s Vendredi Soir, where of course a night of blissful sexual satisfaction can be had and savored and guiltlessly walked away from, aware it will serve as a particularly vibrant memory to help get through the more mundane patches of the everyday life that must necessarily be returned to.  It was only then that the ramifications of Jeanne’s actions come painfully into focus, namely the truly great sacrifice and risk involved in her sexual decisions, all the more acute given her (and the film’s) obvious awareness that the new life she embarks on could very well turn out to be as dull and stifling as the one she is so desperately fleeing from.

This reality serves to rupture the glassy, impeccable sheen of Malle’s shimmery black and white visuals, which for the first half of the film I was afraid was going to turn out as aesthetically impressive but emotionally cold as L’Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows).  With one overwhelming exception: the several minutes spent on the carnival ride—has emotional and sexual euphoria ever been so economically but buoyantly depicted? It seems so obvious, but watching it it’s one of those stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks sequences stumbled upon only once in a great while. Ultimately, I walked away impressed and more than a bit piqued—multiple viewings seem in order to dissect the onion-like layers lurking beneath this seemingly simplistic story…

Memories of a movie…