Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year's End Reflections

I'm taking a break from my fairly strict practice of making each blog entry here about a particular film (a rule I've only broken once, early on when I was just getting started in this series) in order to take a look back at the past year of writing my little film essays here. I do so with a sense of satisfaction that for once in my life, I've done a reasonably thorough job of keeping one New Year's resolution all the way through until the next year is about to begin. Even though I started this blog about the Criterion Collection of "important classic and contemporary films" back in the summer of 2008, I don't think it really found its purpose or voice until this past January, when I started watching the DVDs systematically, in the order they were released.

I undertook this self-imposed assignment because I had discovered over the previous year or two an unexpected depth and resonance between my inner life and what I was discovering when watching the small but growing collection of Criterion DVDs that I'd accumulated to that point. It became apparent to me that some kind of common thread could be discerned that tied these films together, beyond just the obvious "brand name" imprint that placed each title in nice numeric sequence for the benefit of completist collector types like myself. That thread wasn't necessarily a rigidly defined philosophical or aesthetic perspective - indeed, strong disagreements and implacable hostilities can be found between some of the auteurs whose films sit side by side on my shelf. It was more like an evocative power to stir up some kind of strong reaction, whether it be sadness, laughter, compassion, regret, wistful longing, or even, in a few cases, a profound state of mystical reverie, an alteration of consciousness that reorients for a short while our sense of placement in the world. Of course there are many great films that will never sport the famous Criterion logo (in any of its variants) but I felt going into January 2009, and believe even more confidently now, that each of the Criterion titles offers something capable of stirring up that sense of awe and amazement that a great movie can provoke. I'll probably be challenged in the months and years ahead as I contemplate titles like Armageddon, the Beastie Boys videos or any of the low-budget B movies that make for fun but presumably shallow viewing - but I'll give 'em a fair look in any case and let you know what I find.

Given the realities of squeezing my viewing-and-blogging time around the requirements of full-time employment, family commitments and other sources of amusement, and my lack of any formal training in the cinematic arts, I've taken a more subjective approach in writing about these films than one typically finds in standard movie reviews. My hunch is that the essays I record here will be of limited interest to people who haven't seen the film in question, and even if they have seen it, I may not touch on some aspects of the film as deeply or as thoroughly as a reader would wish. To compensate for that, I started linking to other good articles on the particular film in discussion. Each time a film's title is mentioned, a different link is inserted. I'm not sure if readers have discovered that or not. Usually the first link will be to the page, but then after that I'll link to essays that offer a lot more information. I want this blog to provide a helpful resource to anyone who loves these films or is merely curious about them, even though I don't strive to be authoritative in my assessment of the films themselves. This is a series of snapshots of how the movie impacted me at the particular time of my life that I watched it.

Let me also take this opportunity to encourage comments if anyone wants to engage in further discussion on a film. Though I am usually quick to move on to the next film in my series (time is of the essence, you know) I remain open to popping in DVDs that I haven't watched in months if someone wants to interact with me on a particular title. Another option would be to find me on Twitter or Facebook, which both provide fun formats for exchanging opinions on our favorite movies (and other things.) Feedback from readers interests me quite a bit actually - I'm intrigued to know what people in other countries have to say about what they see here, so please take the time (and chance) to contact me and I will definitely respond!

Writing this blog has been a fun project that I enthusiastically intend to continue for years to come. Criterion will issue their 500th spine number early next year and I've only written 100 reviews so far! And as much as I've enjoyed learning about the earlier decades of cinema history this year, there are so many great, substantial films coming up as I dig into the 1950s that I seriously wonder if I'll be able to hit that century mark again in 2010. That's the goal I'll set for myself, loosely though - who knows exactly what life will demand of me over the next 12 months? If I hit that mark, I'll land somewhere in 1960, according to my list (I'm still deciding whether or not which of the short Stan Brakhage films will warrant an individual review.) That's a lot shorter time span than the roughly 30 years I covered in 2009. It looks like 2010 will be a year in which I spend a lot of time focusing on the 1950s - so I hope the new year gives us all plenty of Happy Days!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Early Summer (1951) - #240

Knowing he was leaving made me realize how I felt.

As I settled in to watch Early Summer for the first time the other night, I couldn't help but feel momentarily distracted by a report I'd heard earlier that day about Hollywood's record breaking box-office haul this past holiday weekend. Even though I contributed $7 to the revenues when I went to go see Up In The Air (which I liked, btw) I couldn't help but feel a twinge of remorse. Given the demonstrated cash-generating power of noisy, arguably ridiculous and obnoxious films like Avatar, Sherlock Holmes and Alvin & the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakel, what are the chances that a quiet but artistically substantial film like Early Summer or any of the other major works in the Ozu canon will ever again receive serious studio support or a duly appreciative audience, as they did back in their day? I was both pleased and somewhat surprised to learn, in listening to the commentary track, that Ozu was regarded as a cash cow (my term, not Donald Richie's) by his studio because of his power to draw audiences on reputation alone. Though I find plenty to admire in Ozu's films, I've become so accustomed to the cineplex-dominated movie culture of the past couple decades that I have a hard time imagining a film like Early Summer packing 'em in nowadays. And recent trends offer no justification for believing that a change is gonna come.

But I guess that's just one of many differences between 1951 Japan and 2009/10 USA. Ozu's commitment to unhurried naturalism, narrative subtlety and domestic family-oriented themes are well-known, and it's probably to his lasting good fortune that he developed his approach to film in the pre-television era, since he probably would have been shuttled off into the world of soap operas or episodic prime time series if he tried pitching a story like Early Summer nowadays. Criterion's back-jacket copy for this DVD reads as follows: "The Mamiya family is seeking a husband for their daughter, Noriko, but she has ideas of her own. [...] Noriko impulsively chooses her childhood friend, at once fulfilling her family's desires while tearing them apart." Those two sentences quite thoroughly summarize the entire "action" of Early Summer, rather than just give us an introductory lead-in that sets us up for further developments as is often the case with outer-case teasers. Noriko's fateful decision isn't even made until two-thirds of the film have transpired - we spend the first 40 minutes milling about two ordinary neighboring Japanese households, the Mamiyas and the Yabes, as well as a doctors office where a few of them work, along with the reliably comforting insertion of trains and landscapes that Ozu uses to bring his sequences to tidy and poignant closure. This patient, non-manipulative, ambling approach to getting to know Ozu's characters takes an extra measure of focus for many in today's audience. The characters are so realistically scaled and unobtrusive that it's easy for a wandering imagination to miss small but important details, incidental remarks or even keep track of who's who. And Ozu's not at all reluctant in spooling out his story without resorting to the conventional turns we'd normally expect, especially in a sensitive low-key story that usually falls into the category of melodrama (though the more of Ozu I see, the less apt I find that term for describing his work.)

I'll admit that a few of the most significant transitions escaped my notice on the first run-through - which makes me glad to live in the DVD era where I can stop to replay scenes or even watch the film over again on accelerated speed to quickly take in the broader movement, before going back to see it all unfold at Ozu's intended pace. (I hope I haven't offended any of my cinephile purist friends out there with that confession.) I don't regard that as flaw in either the film, Ozu's style or, most importantly, myself as a film watcher! I'm sure there are any number of people that only saw Early Summer one time and were sufficiently impressed or unimpressed as the case may be to never bother returning to it again. But I can't imagine that Ozu made his mature films the way he did with the idea that they'd be seen once and that would be it. Like the creator of any substantial work of art, he designed his films to reward more prolonged contemplation, concealing small touches that wouldn't be fully appreciated until an attitude of familiarity and comfort had settled in between the viewer and the characters on screen. I think his reliance on a standard company of actors confirms this sense - watching this film in close conjunction with Late Spring feels like a reassuring return for the audience that appreciated the earlier work, and probably made Ozu's job a lot easier, since his films required such discipline from everyone involved. From the geometry of his camera angles and edits to the insistent lack of theatrical flourishes from the performers (often involving dozens of takes until an actor got casual gestures just right,) every aspect of an Ozu production remained under tight control. The DVD's main special feature is an hour long conversation on video between three elderly members of Ozu's film crew. Just one remarkable detail to share from that exchange reinforces my point here: after finalizing a story, Ozu would inform the studio of his film's length and they would budget accordingly. After shooting had finished, his rough cut would invariably be delivered with a running time to the minute of what he had promised months earlier! That kind of intentionality and the ability to follow-through on it successfully over the course of a 50 film career is simply astonishing to me.

But what do we actually get to enjoy as a result of Ozu's legendarily refined approach to film making? As I've said, it's not to everyone's taste nowadays, but when/if that taste has been acquired, I think Early Summer has to be seen as a profitable and satisfying expansion on themes that Ozu developed in Late Spring and would continue exploring in his most famous film, Tokyo Story. It's impossible to like one of these films without also admiring the others in the informal Noriko trilogy. The differences are probably to be found in scale (and I'll limit my comparison here with Late Spring since I haven't reached Tokyo Story in this series yet.) Late Spring focuses mainly on a father-daughter relationship, while Early Summer brings together two families and a wider swath of generational concerns (including young children.) Late Spring alludes in small ways to the American occupation of Japan, while Early Summer gives no hint of that political situation - the war feels a bit further in the past as Japanese society continues to rebuild (this film was released the same year that the occupation ended.) Early Summer also seems to incorporate more broad humor (of course, that's relatively speaking! - there's nothing here that will remind you of Abbott & Costello, though I laughed out loud at the bratty boys and the chatter between Noriko and her friend Aya) and to me at least, didn't lead to quite as heart-breaking a conclusion as did Late Spring. Even though the characters in both films had to deal with disappointment and loss as the framing structures of their lives shifted around them, Early Summer's characters seemed less consigned to loneliness and despair as did the futures of Late Spring's Noriko (daughter) and Samiya (father.) In both films, different women named Noriko (each played by Setsuko Hara, an absolute icon of Japanese cinema) are introduced as contentedly unmarried women in their late 20s who find themselves forced to capitulate to matrimony by custom and family pressures. Their decisions of who to marry are inevitably surprising and dramatic, and most of the films' pathos derives from how each Noriko's decision regrettably affects the very people who were pushing her down the wedding aisle. Comfortable routines and warm relationships get disrupted, but there's little that anyone can do to stop the wheels of life from turning as tradition and human whims dictate. And after we've gotten to know these characters and found one or more we can emotionally identify with, we're left to relate the film's twists and turns to whatever may be happening in our own lives at the time. Despite the fact that he never married, never raised children nor even had a prolonged romantic relationship, and thus only participated in family life from a once-removed perspective, Ozu's films, ultimately, seem to best be regarded as a kind of mirror in which we can seek out our own reflection and see what kind of details surround the face peering back at us in the image.

So as I wrap up this review, my 100th of 2009, by the way, what do I see in Early Summer's mirror? First, a small touch of irony, as I'm actually watching this film in early winter! As I look outside my window, I see a lot of snow, just as I did back in January when the landscape largely resembled what I saw in Nanook of the North. Ain't no barley to harvest anywhere in my neighborhood, that's for sure! I also see a personal family landscape that over the past year went through some temporary disruption as my wife and I went through a period of marital stress that has since been resolved, resulting in a bond between us that feels closer than ever. I have two young adult children living at home, one out on his own and one at college. None of them seem at all close to getting married, and I'm very thankful for that! I'm conscious of the fact that current housing and relationship plans could remain pretty much the same for all six of us at this time next year, but even if that's the case, watching a film like Early Summer can't help but have the effect of making me savor each day, each occasion that we're together, just a little bit more. The family portrait scene at the end of the film reminded me of holiday family pictures we've taken over the past month and the unique moments in time they capture, even as the waves, the sky, the land and the wind move over the geography of our lives, calmly exerting their eroding, recycling power over all of us, today, tomorrow and for generations to come.

Eclipse Review: The Idiot 

Next: Umberto D.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The River (1951) - #276

It isn't the end. It's endless. It begins all over again with the new baby.

Is there meaning to be found in the observation that this series of Criterion Collection film reviews began 2009 on the frozen banks of Hudson Bay (Nanook of the North) and now nears the year's conclusion by shifting from the sun-baked sands of New Mexico (Ace in the Hole) to the sultry tropical environs of Calcutta, India as we take a long, languid look at The River? The significance of life's planned events and chance encounters, love and longing, birth and death, time and memory, myth and concrete experience, the particularities of place and the universality of human emotional development, all this and more are flashed upon the screen in luminous Technicolor, a surprising and invigorating film from one of the great masters of cinema, Jean Renoir.

Before addressing The River's contents, let's just catch up a bit on what this grand old man of the movies had been up to since we last crossed paths with Renoir way back in April 2009. He directed five earlier Criterion films, including some of the most pivotal titles in this series (namely, Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game,) all dating from the 1930s, and he has several more to go before we're done with him. But what about the 1940s? Renoir directed a few features in the USA, after he landed there following the German occupation of France. But his Hollywood experience yielded unsatisfying results (from what I've read - I haven't seen any of those films) which led to him taking a more independent, unconventional approach to making movies outside of the nearly monopolistic studio system of its time. That this early forerunner of "indie" cinema would also rank as one of the most audacious logistical undertakings of any film of its era only adds another layer of luster to Renoir's already glowing reputation.

The River is situated and filmed on location in India, the first important use of Technicolor in that land, which involved a host of complex equipment and film developing issues. Because it was produced by a florist who'd never undertaken such a project before, financed on a near-shoestring budget and helmed by an out-of-fashion director in a very faraway land, no major actors could be secured for the project (though Marlon Brando had been talked about as the male lead.) As a result, some of the performances come across as stiff, awkward, amateurish, which only makes sense because several of the key roles are taken by people who had never acted on film before and wouldn't do much else of lasting significance afterward. It probably requires a bit of gracious overlooking from most of us to get past the point where an actor's clunky line reading or apparent self-consciousness distracts or undercuts our appreciation of The River, so indulge them as needed because once you get over that hurdle, the film offers quite a treat. Unless you're one of those cinephiles who simply cannot forgive a reliance on narrated voice-overs to advance the plot. I'm normally as on-guard against this kind of cheating as any movie buff but in this case I think it works to lend perspective and put the film's action in the context of reflective recollection - a positive enhancement, in my opinion.

The River's story revolves around a pair of English households in the last year's of India's colonial era, most directly centering on a girl's adolescent coming-of-age story as she experiences the first blush of romantic love and all the emotional turbulence surrounding that rite of passage. Based on the life experience of author Rumer Godden, who also wrote the novel upon which Black Narcissus was based, Western audiences were given a comfortably accessible portal into what was at the time (and largely remains) a very exotic and alien culture, the ancient civilization of India. Harriet, the young girl whose adult self provides the narration, is somewhere around 14 or 15 when she develops a crush on Captain John, cousin of the neighbor family's head of household, who's come to India to clear his head and emotionally recuperate from the loss of his leg in a war injury. Harriet has a rival within her own household - her older sister Valerie, who outshines Harriet in maturity, attractiveness and desirability as far as Capt. John is concerned. The two sisters also have several younger siblings (and another one on the way, as their mother is pregnant,) all girls except for Bogey, their reptile-obsessed little brother. Harriet's parents (unnamed) embody standardized late-Victorian views on the world - Father is all about business as the proprietor and overseer of a jute-processing plant, and Mother regards child-bearing as "the purpose of a woman." They come across as less engaged with the realities of life in India, preferring to insulate themselves in a cultural bubble, enabled by the layers of deferential servants they've assembled around themselves, with superficial concessions to some of the native customs and benevolent acceptance of "the white man's burden" (though I should be clear, those words are never spoken or referred to in the film.)

Next door lives another young woman, Melanie, the daughter of an Englishman and native Indian woman (now deceased) who lives outside of the caste system and clearly struggles with her sense of belonging in a society both rigidly traditional and on the brink of major upheaval. Though the year of The River's action is never stated and no connection is made with Gandhi or the end of British colonial rule, it's impossible to neglect the fact that, as of the time the film was released, India was again an independent and self-determining nation. Though remnants of English business interests remained and the recent history could not be undone, colonialism's underlying premise had been thrown into irrefutable disgrace. So what about that era's "by-products?" Melanie's predicament is rendered especially poignant when her face and persona are thrust into the ancient and venerable role of a reincarnation of the Lady Radha, bride of Krishna, as depicted in this clip:

Would her union with a native son of India be sufficient to reintegrate her into the new society? Or would her British heritage prove to be an insurmountable barrier? At the time of this film's release, these were potent and irresolvable questions. Time would have to tell.

Overlaid on these larger geopolitical and cultural concerns, a more ordinary family saga unfolds as we see the world largely through Harriet's eyes, but also come to empathize with Valerie and Captain John as they endure their own share of angst and uncertainty. Depending on one's tastes, the proceedings can feel a bit soapy and melodramatic (not that there's anything wrong with that) or may touch on some sensitive spots and unresolved issues in our own pasts. The River's stately pacing and ambivalence toward any obligations that the audience may push on the story-tellers to resolve the numerous conflicts may leave some viewers a bit impatient or even frustrated when we reach its conclusion; the idea that reality is essentially cyclical, not linear, and that tensions are better to be accepted "as is" rather than neatly drawn to reassuring conclusions, may prove challenging to those who wish to assert otherwise. The River, in its subtle and unassuming way, packs a solid philosophical wallop into its seemingly conventional narrative of blossoming youth.

A good portion of that existential punch is conveyed in The River's documentary sequences that Renoir intermittently provides as punctuation to the central story. The juxtaposition between "here and now" exposition involving the central characters against the backdrop of timeless scenes that might be as reflective of Indian life a thousand years ago as it is today elevates both the plot and our consciousness out of their ordinary preoccupations. Here's a clip that I'll leave you with as an object of contemplation.

As I sit here in Michigan, with the snow drifts piling up higher and higher outside my livingroom window, watching it again reminds me that reality - incomprehensibly vast, ancient, ornate and beautiful - surpasses our ingenious and dedicated efforts to summarize and explain it, and evades our most strenuous attempts to encapsulate it into convenient slogans or moods of the moment. The River, like life, just flows on endlessly...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ace in the Hole (1951) - #396

Bad news sells best, 'cause good news is no news.

After decades of treatment ranging from benign neglect to outright suppression, Ace in the Hole was released by the Criterion Collection to much acclaim in the summer of 2007. Packing the 1-2 punch of legendary director Billy Wilder and classic Hollywood tough guy Kirk Douglas, it's no surprise that Ace in the Hole became one of Criterion's most popular titles that year. Despite its disappointing inability to generate big box office upon original release, or in its repackaged version as "The Big Carnival," Ace in the Hole developed a strong reputation among film buffs as a lost treasure, a buried masterpiece, seen by few but intriguing to many. The film's prolonged lack of availability seemed incongruous for a director whose previous effort Sunset Boulevard won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1950, and a leading man who went on to have one of the most storied and successful acting careers of his generation. Rumors of conspiracy and hints of big-studio censorship are reinforced by the film's provocative cynicism and biting satire of both the mass media and the gullible working-class American rubes who consume their product - a mix that proved too potent for the mainstream audience of 1951 to absorb, or at least willingly pay for. Click this link to see some fascinating newspaper clippings that capture the uneasiness with which Ace in the Hole was initially received!

The story revolves around an East Coast news reporter, Chuck Tatum, forced by circumstances to take a small-time job for the local paper in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tatum is a hard-charging fast talker who rarely bothers to conceal the disdain he feels for his surroundings and the things his neighbors consider important. He's all about getting back to the Big Apple, where the real action is. Eager for the exclusive scoop that will give him the break he needs to put past indiscretions behind him and earn the paycheck he thinks he deserves, Tatum happens to arrive on the scene of a cave accident that leaves a man trapped underground. Sensing its potential for morbid fascination and subsequent commercial exploitation, Tatum takes charge, manipulating the victim's wife, local law enforcement, the search-and-rescue team and the ever-growing influx of outside media in order to maximize the drama and put himself (or more importantly, his byline) right at the center of the action. His actions have tragic consequences and, true to form for films of this period, he must face the day of reckoning for the sins he's committed.

Nothing in that plot summary should seem terribly challenging or hard to digest for adults of the 1950s, or the 21st century, for that matter. What made Ace in the Hole controversial and probably sealed its commercial doom, at least here in the States, was how the material was played out for laughs on screen. Tatum isn't merely a cold, hardened villain out to make his way in the world by trampling over the backs of those who get in his way - he's clearly the most charming, energized and charismatic figure in the whole film, the guy that most men in the crowd would want to identify with, who commits his dirty deeds with a confident swagger and a twinkle in his eye, injecting little twists of mockery along the way as if he can hardly believe what easy pickings these local yokels turned out to be. Likewise, the female lead is equally difficult to either admire or condemn. Jan Sterling plays Lorraine, the jaded, bottle-blonde wife of Leo, the guy trapped in the cave, ready to walk out on the guy at the next prospect of something better to come along, a dilemma that I think most women in the audience might empathize with if put in her hapless situation. But those are inappropriate emotions to stir up amongst the female patrons, aren't they? And Sterling's edgy portrayal of the opportunistic floozy only complicates things for an audience dealing with such an unconventional (for the times) presentation.

This clip should give a good sense of what I'm talking about here, as it opens with a sample of Tatum's negotiating technique, leads to some great shots of the exploitative county fair atmosphere created by "The Great S & M Amusement Company," offers a voyeuristic peek at the exchange between Chuck and Lorraine and culminates in a heart-breaking encounter with the pitiful victim trapped in a cave and losing the last shreds of hope:

Kind of squirm-inducing, ya think, with that catchy little song, the ferris wheel, the sanctimonious sheriff and his slogans of false humility? It is if one identifies at least a little positively with middle-class America and recognizes the obvious (and deserved) swipes that Wilder and crew are taking at commonplace values that emphasize prosperity, success and winning in life. These days, audiences may not feel quite so easily offended by this kind of satire. We've grown accustomed to having our own noses tweaked as on-screen portrayals of blatant consumerism and the cultural celebration of mediocrity make up a big chunk of our entertainment. Films like Wall-E and Idiocracy, TV shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, just to name a few, all appeal to audiences by throwing the banality our culture craves right back in our face, all in the name of "irony." The movie-going public of the early 1950s certainly enjoyed humor in their movies, but not necessarily when it was at their own expense. They took stuff like that a little more seriously back then, and institutionalized hypocrites weren't used to being called out so blatantly on the big screen. (Of course, now they are used to it but we're past the point where calling them out makes much of a difference, in most cases anyway - they've found ways to insulate their power from the brunt of populist criticism.) Ace in the Hole doesn't shed a very kind light on small-town USA, poking fun at local institutions and mores while basically portraying everyday citizens as lemming-like gawkers ready to line up like suckers whenever some poor pitiful jerk gets himself into a serious life-endangering jam.

Ace in the Hole is partly based on, and references, the famous Floyd Collins sensation that took place in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky back in the 1920s. But the film's relevance is enhanced by all that's taken place with the growth of electronic media ever since. In 1951, television was still a rarity, but that was soon to change - and of course, the infosphere has been growing exponentially ever since. Just about any review you'll read on Ace in the Hole will draw this connection so I won't add a whole lot to the cumulative weight of opinion. Except to point out that when I re-watched this film with my family a few days ago, as it ended, I mentioned to them that I thought this was a fitting film to mark the day that Balloon Boy's father was sentenced to a short stint in jail. My son remarked, "I was thinking about that Balloon Boy story this whole time!"

We may be in an era where Ace in the Hole's iconoclastic insights no longer shock or challenge taboos; maybe the conventional wisdom is moving a bit closer to Billy Wilder's perspective in today's media-saturated culture. I'd like to think that we're growing more sophisticated as a culture in understanding how "the news" is cultivated and packaged for our consumerist convenience. Whether its making a difference or not remains highly debatable - there still seem to be a lot of people who prefer moronic and trivial over rigorous and substantial. There's no shortage of information out there that can help increase our awareness, if we want to become more discerning about these matters - here's one.

Nearly sixty years after it was made, Ace in the Hole makes for worthwhile viewing as one of the earliest and sharpest attempts to get behind the scenes in modern media, made at a time when the cultural homogenization of the USA was just getting started through the interstate highway system, the growth of national news networks and the resultant watering down of regional distinctions. One can also detect prescient indicators of the sprouting suspicions between "coastal elites" and "heartland bumpkins" that would eventually grow up into the culture wars of subsequent decades. On top of all that, Ace in the Hole offers entertaining performances, snappy noir-infused dialog (even if it is set mostly outdoors under the desert sun) and first-rate big-studio film-making, 1950s-style. The Criterion set offers solid value, with a great documentary on the life of Billy Wilder, an illuminating interview with Kirk Douglas and clever packaging that reminds me of Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick, John and Yoko's Some Time in New York City and the National Lampoon's Sunday Newspaper. Usually available at a significant discount below its $39.95 SRP, Ace in the Hole gets one of my highest recommendations as an accessible point of entry into the Criterion Collection for anyone primarily accustomed to Hollywood movies but feeling ready to step outside the usual showbiz comfort zone.

Next: The River

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Miss Julie (1951) - #416

Everything is strange. Life. People. Everything is just muck, floating on the water until it sinks.

So how ironic is it that I'm watching and blogging about a story that takes place on Midsummer's Eve, the longest day of the year, just as the upper half of our planet is about to reach the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year? Yeah, I know, it blows my mind too - I mean, what are the odds that I'd reach this exact point in my series (begun at the beginning of this year) on this very day? But that's exactly what's happening. What a juxtaposition! And Miss Julie's action not only takes place during the Summer Solstice, it's also happens in Sweden, way farther north than even Michigan, so the sun sets really late there, and rises really early. Which provides a perfect set-up for a drama in which quite a bit comes to light in a very short amount of time - and when the darkness settles in, it's very dark indeed.

Miss Julie turns out to be a nicely surprising discovery for me as I knew practically nothing about it and assumed (naively, I know) that it must be a relatively light entry into the Criterion canon. It was released on DVD back in 2007, around the time that I started paying closer, serious attention to the new films coming out on that label. I don't recall a whole lot of fuss being made about it in comparison to films like Two Lane Blacktop or The Naked Prey, issued around the same time. Maybe it was a nostalgia thing for guys my age who were kids when those two came out, still quite a ways from being born when Miss Julie debuted. Or maybe it has to do with the "isolationism" referred to in the liner notes regarding Americans' tendencies to sum up "all things Swedish" when it comes to films under the larger-than-life reputation of Ingmar Bergman. However it might be explained, my expectations coming into this viewing were that I'd find a stately, somewhat dry (but still worthy) addition to the catalog of emotional repression, internalized angst and existential bleakness that characterized other films I've seen from that year (e.g. The Browning Version and Diary of a Country Priest.) After all, isn't that pretty much what those Swedes excel at when it comes to making movies? (There I go, presuming Bergman again...)

I think some of those adjectives can be fairly attached to Miss Julie, but I'm glad to say that there's a whole lot more going on here, and it's very clear to me why Criterion included this in their collection. Miss Julie has an impressive pedigree as one of the most important plays of its time (late 19th century) and as a powerful vehicle for young female actors to perfect and present their craft on stage. In some circles (obviously, not those I travel in!) Miss Julie is a highly respected and renowned landmark in the development of modern theater, and the special features on this disc offer a great overview of the play's cultural and historic significance. August Strindberg, who wrote the play, is one of those names I've come across every so often when reading about the precursors to Expressionism, Surrealism and all that other edgy intense oppositional cultural stuff going on in the early years of the 20th century. He's regarded as the most influential of all Swedish writers, and Miss Julie is probably his most famous and widely-distributed work.

So that's enough on the background - follow the links if you want to learn more! The film itself offers a powerfully realized expansion of the play, taking some liberties with Strindberg's theatrical ideals, delivering by way of compensation for that compromise a vivid, tumultuous snapshot of the battle of the sexes that entertains and illuminates with every tension-escalating gesture committed by the two principal leads.

The story revolves around a woman, Miss Julie, the daughter and sole heir of an aristocratic family, and Jean, the lead manservant to the estate. Its narrative begins by showing her voyeuristic monitoring, from the shelter of her mansion, the cavorting of peasants as they raise a Maypole and proceed to carry on as peasants will when the light burns bright into the warm summer night. Cut off from the revelries, living under the moralistic burden of her times, but possessed of a haughty, imperious spirit inherited from her deceased mother, Julie turns out to be a very pretty bundle of hard-to-manage impulses, especially as she also has to cope with the pressures and scandal generated by a recently broken engagement. This clip shows where things went wrong with Julie's betrothal and also provides, especially in hindsight, some provocative foreshadowing (through her treatment of her dog Diana) of her own turn as a "bitch in heat," so to speak...

Right at the end of the clip, we see Jean and Kristin, the chambermaid to whom he's (somewhat less formally) engaged, or at least sleeping with. Jean, Kristin and Julie make up the entire cast of Strindberg's stage play, but director Alf Sjoberg wisely chose not to stay within the strict confines of the one-act situation that Strindberg conceived. Still, the central conflict unfolds primarily in that servant's kitchen, where Julie retreats after being pursued by a mob of zealous, presumably intoxicated and emotionally inflamed servant-folk who spot her dalliance with Jean and wonder just what's gotten into the young lady to the manor born...

Kristin functions as the salt of the earth, grounded in common-sense commentator on the story's central conflict. She's a plain woman who sizes up both Julie and Jean the way that most of us would, as misbehavers acting way out of line based on their station in life, and she winds up conventionally enough falling asleep just as the plot begins to really boil. Isn't that about how it normally goes though?

As Jean and Julie grope their way toward each other, first emotionally, eventually physically, we learn a lot about each of their childhoods as they grew up on either side of the invisible but all too real dividing line that separate their classes. He developed an early boyhood infatuation with her, while she just took a brief but momentarily fascinated notice of him when they were just kids. Now fate has unexpectedly cast her in his arms and they both wonder just what to do about it. These recollections, conveyed in both straightforward flashback depictions and more symbolic dream sequences, were delivered simply via dialog in the stage presentation, but Sjoberg uses creative and stimulating film techniques to bring the past and the subconscious directly on screen as we see images unfold right behind the characters as they speak. It's quite an effect, one of several that Sjoberg incorporates over the course of the film, as gates swing open directly in our face, close-ups zoom in, a spilled cask of wine morphs into a dispersion of merry commonerfolk, and numerous similar camera moves nudge us into renewed alertness just in case the verbal jousting between Julie and Jean fails to hold our attention.

After they've been left to themselves (off-screen) in their private chamber, Jean's social climbing ambitions lead him to propose an escape for the new "couple" to Switzerland, while the hard cold light of traditional reality settles in on Julie to reinforce just how reckless and deluded she's allowed herself to become. There's little I can do here, short of a blow-by-blow paraphrase, to approximate just how convoluted the exchanges between Jean and Julie become over the course of their night, so let me just say that if you enjoy the spectacle of a sharply-tinged battle of wits with both erotic and socio-political overtones, you'll find much to appreciate in the final forty-five minutes or so of Miss Julie. Be forewarned, as the plot unfolds, it fairly reeks of misogyny - Strindberg, himself the son of a servant, went through some real-life experiences between himself and his high-born first wife (he had three wives altogether, in a time when multiple divorce and remarriage was practically unheard of) that fueled his rage and resulted in a most definite point-of-view on the state of male-female relationships in his times. One need not be locked into a current or recently dysfunctional romantic entanglement to appreciate Strindberg's perspective; my marriage currently flourishes in a very happy condition that I aim to prolong as much as possible, but I still found quite a bit with which I could relate and learn from. Julie's mother Berta adopted a proto-feminist ideology that subsequently fueled rebellious attitudes and activities from both of them. I can't and won't speak for Strindberg here as to whether or not he actually rejected the precepts of feminism, but that influence doesn't come off very positively here. The young Julie is shown in boys' clothing doing man's work, while the men are subject by her mother's whims to carrying out the chores of milkmaids. Is it society's fault that the genders weren't ready to trade roles, or is there an inherent incompatibility between sex and certain social tasks? Just a morsel of the food for thought that Strindberg/Sjoberg set before us in this drama.

However one ultimately, personally answers those questions (and I'll be the first to grant that their answers in 2009/10 are almost certainly going to be a lot different than they were in 1951, or 1888, when Miss Julie was originally written,) we're presented with a film that in its way helped inaugurate a new cinematic era of frank presentations of previously taboo topics. As the American trailer put it, this film was "not for Junior!" Even though it would be quite a few years before Hollywood was willing to take the commercial risks associated with such a blunt portrayal of lust, hypocrisy and injustice among the upper-classes, world culture benefited from the relative obscurity of Swedish cinema and the loosening of social mores that happened at those far-northern latitudes. Miss Julie never enjoyed broad commercial success in the USA, but for those who knew, it was out there, forging a small but growing breach in the wall of censorship and denial that McCarthyism and related forces tried to impose on an intimidated populace. The film's grim ending, aiming to shock and disturb perhaps more than to deliver a definitive "moral of the story," is in my mind of less significance than its larger message that calls for a challenge and, if possible, overturning of the oppressive societal gridlock that kept Miss Julies of then and now locked up in their metaphorical cages.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) - #317

Now what words to paint those features past comparing?

In the midst of the austere and repressive cinematic milieu of 1951, The Tales of Hoffmann provides a much welcomed burst of color, music and thoroughly audacious stagecraft. I was definitely in the mood for some kind of audio-visual pick-me-up after spending the past few weeks contemplating the plain and somber atmospheres evoked by The Flowers of St. Francis, Diary of a Country Priest and The Browning Version - not that those films lack their own moments of charm and quiet amusement, but let's face it, they don't exactly dazzle their audience with the kind of wide-open spectacle that cinema can provide. This final (for now, anyway) Criterion offering from the Archers makes for a fitting send-off to the dynamic and creative team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who reeled off a string of bona fide classics throughout the preceding decade. Even though the Archers went on to make a few more pictures over the next several years, The Tales of Hoffmann is noted in its commentary track as their last great film. It marks a culmination of their efforts as they continued to press their art in new directions, building on ideas and successes from earlier films, though it clearly has strong competition from many of those films as to which ought to be regarded as their best. It may not even be much to the liking of some of their admirers. I'll go on record here as respecting their willingness to take risks and create something rather unique among all the films I've ever seen, and provocatively bold for its time. Even though it took me some work and diligently focused attention to find my way into at first.

My first stab at watching The Tales of Hoffmann took place several days ago at the end of a busy day full of distractions. Figuring that a brief dip into escapism would suit me just fine after all that had taken place, I popped in the DVD and quickly found myself bewildered by the sensory overload. An old fashioned, strange looking man grimaced and strode dramatically across the screen, leering with arched eyebrows at a skinny red-headed woman in flamboyant leotards twisting and twitching upon the stage. Suddenly a devilish looking insect-man leaps down upon her from on high and they commence to cavorting with a dazzling display of balletic maneuvers. Meanwhile, the creepy old guy doles out golden coins in exchange for a key wrapped in a hankie. Then the insect-man slips down through a hole in the stage, the woman gestures dramatically, we see him sliding head-first, upside down on the screen, she prances on her tippy-toes into a big bright sunset as the orchestra swells, and that's that. Though it reminded me a bit of Disney's Fantasia in the impressionistic way it melded music and image, my thoughts were best summed up in a phrase not so common back in 1951: "WTF?"

Here's what I'm talking about:

Before I had time to click the remote back to the beginning of the scene, dinner was served and we went on to do other things that night. The first thing I learned about this film though was that the Archers weren't interested in spoon-feeding their audience. Not that I hold against them in any way their lack of foresight regarding the media-saturated, ADD viewing habits of 21st century American suburbanites like myself. I resolved that the next time I sat down to watch this film, I'd give it careful attention and learn the basic storyline in advance, as is usually a good practice for the theatrical arts. This isn't a film where you have to worry about spoilers. The more you know about what's going to happen, the better prepared you are to enjoy it. Even Martin Scorcese says the same thing on his commentary track - usually one full viewing is necessary in order for fuller appreciation to set in.

So here's a quick outline for you to read through that I hope will ultimately enhance your viewing. I've also linked to some other good write-ups on the film if you want to explore other points of view. There's a lot of background out there about Jacques Offenbach, the opera's composer, and ETA Hoffmann, the German poet whose life these tales are loosely based upon. I have nothing to say about them, they're unfamiliar figures to me. The Archers made this film primarily as a way of following up the surprising success they enjoyed with The Red Shoes, particularly in the USA as its portrayal of ballet caught on strongly with a generation of moms and daughters as the first crop of Baby Boomers got old enough to start attending dance classes. Most of the leading dancers from that film were also featured in The Tales of Hoffmann, which presumably had a calming effect on the financial backers of this unorthodox production, and it was also helped along by the prestige lent to the project by Sir Thomas Beecham, prominent conductor and hereditary baronet at the time.

After the prologue (sampled above, and an addition to the original opera in order to provide Moira Shearer an opening showcase dance) we meet Hoffmann himself as he regales a saloon full of men stories of his personal romantic disappointments as he waits for his latest flame, Stella (the dragonfly ballerina) to finish her performance and meet him after the show. Hoffmann is a famous and respected poet, not to mention a known carouser, so he has no trouble attracting a captive audience. He tells three tales that in my view correspond to successive stages of erotic development that a man goes through over the course of his lifetime. The first, represented in the Tale of Olympia, involves a mechanical doll, created and controlled by a demented craftsman who conspires with an ally to trick Hoffmann into believing she is real, all for the purpose of swindling him out of his money and, coincidentally, breaking his heart. He's fooled by the use of magic spectacles that give the illusion of life to that which is artificial and manufactured. The correspondence here is in how young men tend to idealize, objectify and stand in dumb-struck awe of women they find attractive. When his magic spectacles (and thus the spell he's under) are broken, he suffers the dual shocks of mockery from the crowd and the discovery he'd fallen in love with an automaton.

The Tale of Giulietta follows, the story of Hoffmann's encounter with a Venetian courtesan (more directly, prostitute) which I found to be the most interesting and powerful section of the film. (Please note, this constitutes no admission whatsoever on my part that I have a "thing" for prostitutes. I just admire Ludmilla Tcherina's performance and the red-green color scheme, that's all.) Hoffmann is by now a bit more mature, described as "a man of the world" going about his travels and probably feeling a bit flush and full of himself along the way. You can see hints of the swollen ego that makes him such an easy target of seduction as he stands on the bridge, taking in Giulietta's admiring glance as she sizes him up from the comforts of her sensuously drifting gondola. This clip will jump over the central section of the tale, where you'd see the lovely Ludmilla at the peak of her sultry powers, luring Hoffmann into her clutches not based on any genuine attraction for the man but in order to win the baubles promised her by her sinister consort (more directly, pimp) Dappertutto. His interest is to capture mens' souls, and Giulietta is simply the bait he uses to take them captive. You see Hoffmann's fall and (just in the nick of time) redemption as his faithful sidekick Nicklaus shows up to instill a little wisdom and the key that once again breaks Hoffmann out of the spell he'd fallen under. (Yes, Nicklaus is performed by a woman, Pamela Brown, whose enigmatic presence lent a distinctive touch in a supporting role to I Know Where I'm Going!)

Setting aside the events and dramatic developments in that clip for a moment, you can also get a sense of director Michael Powell's roots in the latter days of cinema's silent era in his use of exaggerated expressions, variable filming speeds and frequent employment of a wide range of camera tricks to surprise and delight the audience. One of the most distinctive aspects of The Tales of Hoffmann was that its soundtrack was recorded first and all of the on-screen action was filmed and fitted to the music. This basically has the effect of making it a "live animated" feature, or in Powell's term, a "composed film" - pretty much the same thing that Walt Disney had been doing with hand-painted cells for the previous couple of decades. Obviously such an approach is necessary with cartoons, but it hadn't really happened like that before with human actors in the sound era, despite frequent use of lip-syncing in musicals before and after. Uber-fan George Romero (director of the original "Living Dead" series) calls The Tales of Hoffmann the first music video, and I don't know of anyone who would dispute him on that.

The challenge for today's viewers, of course, is that this music may come across as stodgy and inaccessible for some, downright unpleasant for others. That potential obstacle becomes the most obvious in the opera's final section, the Tale of Antonia. This segment's opening scene was edited down for the film's American distribution because it slowed the pace and took too long to develop. Though this DVD restores the missing footage, I can't exactly quibble with the decision to trim a few minutes from the run time. It involves a fully matured Hoffmann, now a celebrated poet and artist, arriving on a Greek island to woo and ultimately wed a young woman who's been forbidden by her conductor father to follow in her deceased mother's vocation as an operatic diva. The father's concern is based on a strange illness that through the exertions of singing could lead to her death. Even though Antonia possesses a beautiful voice and has long dreamed of receiving the ovations of enraptured audiences, she feels obliged to obey her father, content to settle for the life of domestic tranquility laid out for her. Upon learning of the risk to her health, Hoffmann becomes complicit in suppressing Antonia's artistic gift, capturing in my view the diminishing effect that patriarchal mores can have on the spirit of artistic expression and creativity. However, after her father is tricked by the insidious Doctor Miracle, the fiend conjures up an apparition of her dead mother who appeals to the daughter's vanity and desire for acclaim, thereby persuading her to sing herself to death. Hoffmann arrives just as Antonia hits her final triumphant note, before perishing in operatic ecstasy. Antonia ascends to the heavens, with Hoffmann once again left standing there, a bereft heart-broken schmuck, wearied but now wiser from the ordeal. The film concludes with Hoffmann's realization that women aren't to be trusted, his destiny is as a poet, not a househusband and that no better companionship is to be found than that offered by his ambiguously androgynous sidekick Nicklaus. He finally slumps over the table with the chorus "drinking is divine" ringing through the tavern, while Stella eyes him with dismay, led away in the arms of of Hoffmann's arch-enemy Lindorff (who's appeared in different disguises as the villain of each of the Tales.)

I've expended a fair amount of energy summing up a film that, as my daughter put it to me, probably wouldn't have drawn my interest if it weren't a Criterion release. That's a fair-enough charge, though I think my admiration for the Archers would have eventually led me here just to see what they accomplished in this gaudy, fascinating capstone to their career. I had a funny experience the other night when I took the disc to my workplace Wellness Center for a repeat viewing while I exercised. I put the film on the big screen TV and pumped up the audio a bit so I could hear the music clearly over the sound of the treadmill. I had the place to myself, as is often the case, but about half an hour into my routine, a young 20-something co-worker came in spend time on the bikes. It was a bit awkward having this guy walk in on during one of Antonia's most impassioned arias. Suffice it to say that I'm more than a bit curious as to what he'll tell his buddies he saw when he was at the gym that night!

This isn't the film I'd choose to introduce Powell and Pressburger to my friends, nor can I recommend it whole-heartedly across the board to anyone who reads this blog regularly. The clips I've embedded here hold a lot more power of persuasion, yea or nay, than any verdict I can deliver here in any case. I'll chalk this one up as a worthy contributor to my on-going cinematic education. Only time will tell how often I ever get the urge to pop it in the player simply for pure entertainment's sake.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Browning Version (1951) - #294

I may have been a brilliant scholar but I was woefully ignorant of the facts of life.

So what exactly was weighing on the conscience of creative minds in 1951? Our series shifts from the repressed spiritual torments of a lonely celibate young clergyman in rural France (Diary of a Country Priest) to a lonely celibate middle aged scholar in urban England (The Browning Version.) Two gifted and sensitive men, mired in mediocrity and the inevitable decay of life, struggling to reconcile their ideals with the obvious failure of their efforts to meaningfully impact the lives of those around them. There have been (and I suspect will be) times in my life where I can relate directly to what the Priest of Ambricourt and Mr. Andrew Crocker-Harris struggle with in their respective ordeals - though my aim is to learn from their examples and find a way to strike happier notes as I go through my life's journey.

The Browning Version is one of those films that seems, at first glance, relatively easy to skim past as I make this trek through the Criterion Collection. On its surface, it presents as an unassuming, slightly stuffy melodrama about a schoolmaster enduring a critical midlife crisis of the old-fashioned sort - not a belated return to adolescence, as the term "midlife crisis" is commonly applied these days, immortalized in a film like American Beauty and actualized in the sad extramarital eruptions of personalities as dissimilar as Jon Gosselin and Tiger Woods. Instead of today's vulgar flourishes of self-indulgence, respectable gentlemen of mid-century England labored under the clear social expectation to endure their misery with quiet, manly dignity, subsuming themselves in something larger than themselves, whether it be the Church, the Academy or some other revered institution (business, government, the military, etc.) The price paid in terms of repression and psychic/spiritual torments might be acknowledged but was seldom called into question, it seems - it was just part of the same wretched ordeal that everyone had to face sooner or later. And in the meantime, let's milk the drama for all that it's worth.

Thus it was that playwright Terence Rattigan was led to compose this straightforward one-act stageplay about Andrew Crocker-Harris, a former prodigy in the field of classical studies who somehow got mired in a going-nowhere career as a teacher in a venerable British public school (which in American terms, means private school) - one of those ancient old-stone places dating back to the Middle Ages where the sons of prosperous families were sent to be molded into proper citizens. "The Crock," as he's commonly referred to (out of his earshot, of course) by his students, has reached a low point after 18 years at the school, in the same position he started at, teaching Greek and Latin to boys in the Lower Fifth (roughly, junior year of American high school.) The action (and I use that term loosely here) opens as we're learning that it's the final day at the school for Crocker-Harris. He's retiring due to poor health and, following doctor's orders, will soon take a less-strenuous (and more humiliating) assignment at a school for "backward boys." Given the length of his tenure, there's a noted lack of sentiment accompanying his imminent departure, and he only has himself to blame, since he presents an impenetrable facade of formality and utter lack of warmth for the young men he instructs. Compounding his problems is the dismal, unhappy state of his marriage to Millicent, admired by others for her beauty and social fluency, pitied for her sad allegiance to such a cold fish and held in mild scorn by those who are aware of her increasingly obvious infidelity to her husband.

But why should I go on describing all this when you can watch this clip (sorry, "embedding disabled by request" so right-click, watch it in a new tab or window, and come back here after you've gotten the gist of it!) If that exhortation is still not sufficient to move you to view the clip, let me just say that Michael Redgrave's acting is phenomenally effective here in capturing the essence of the petty-aggressive scholastic tyrant who shows no reluctance whatsoever in shaming or ridiculing his students simply to amuse himself and demonstrate his intellectual superiority. Perhaps such teachers convince themselves that dressing-down their pupils provides some kind of motivation for young scholars to apply themselves more diligently, but their belief just goes to show how deluded and cut off they are from the way young minds work.

OK, trusting that you watched the clip, a few comments. The gentleman in the back of the room is the teacher assigned to take over the Crock's classroom. The "amended aphorism" is scientia est calare scientiam, a twist on the saying ars est celare artem (the art is in concealing the art), so the joke is that "the knowledge is in concealing the knowledge." That dialog at the end of the clip pertaining to the play Agamemnon by the ancient Greek writer Aeschylus directly informs the plot of The Browning Version. I've already mentioned Millicent Crocker-Harris' reputation for infidelity and we see the object of her dalliance in the jaunty, vibrant science teacher Frank Hunter. (So yes, we have the Crock and we have the Hunter, supply your own jokes or draw the appropriate analogies if you feel so inspired...) What we don't see is Millie herself, and she's not going to be featured prominently in the other clips I post here, so this picture will have to do:

Hopefully you can see in the cold glare of her leveled gaze a telling indicator of just how low her opinion of her husband has sunk. The two share a few scenes that seemed a bit soapy and melodramatic upon first viewing but now after seeing the story play itself out now pack a heftier punch. As a 25-year survivor of marriage myself, I know that look and the kinds of disappointment a spouse can provoke to generate the expression. I can't say that Jean Kent did an especially brilliant job portraying a woman trapped by her circumstances and lashing out however she thinks she might get away with it, but a closer examination of her character made Millicent more sympathetic than initial impressions might convey. The movies focus, rightly, remains on Redgrave as Mr. Crocker-Harris, in that "man's world" sort of way that seems quite fitting for a British "film of quality" from this period. The issues, dilemmas and tensions of the storyline all revolve around the kinds of concerns that men in their 40s are likely to have as they approach middle age, conscious that there's not enough time to significantly turn a career around but still quite a ways to go before they can gracefully settle into a graceful elderly repose. Crocker-Harris, with his health failing, his job and social role uprooting and no prospects for comfort or consolation from the wife who relentlessly belittles him, can no longer shield himself from the truth that he's a complete failure. And that, my friends, is a horrible prospect to contemplate when one gets to be a certain age! But even should one find that reality staring them in the mirror one morning, The Browning Version offers just a glimmer of hope (but no more than that, since the film remains grounded in realism) that a way out of the dilemma may yet be found.

Young Taplow, the sympathetic schoolboy who meets with the Crock for noontime tutoring sessions, plays a pivotal role in helping his teacher unwittingly, unexpectedly discover that new possibility. In a scene following the clip above, they get into a conversation about Agamemnon and just how thrilling Taplow found it to be when he got into the story itself. The exchange triggers the Crock's memory about an early effort of his, translating the play into vibrant, expressive couplets, back when he felt genuine enthusiasm about the classics and a desire to share that passion with the world. The domino effect of memories and associations does its work and before too long, the old teacher is reconnected with that long-neglected, never completed notebook containing his translation, which in turn leads to a new chain of recollections and realizations:

It's a powerful scene, I suspect, for men who've gone through their own periods of self-examination and assessment and not felt good about what they saw. We get the impression that Crocker-Harris has worked very hard over the years to avoid having to face such a moment, and that only now has he run out of diversions that forestall his having to look failure square in the face. As the story develops, we learn more about what's gone on in his marriage and just how much rationalizing he needs to do just to keep his wits about him and function on a daily basis. What first struck me as a fairly routine depiction of an emotionally constipated curmudgeon has grown in my esteem as my familiarity with the character of Crocker-Harris deepened. I may have been a bit tired when I first watched The Browning Version, or perhaps just over-saturated with movie watching that day, but close, careful attention to the nuances of Redgrave's performance, Ratigan's writing and director Anthony Asquith's sharp, tasteful framings deepens my admiration of what they put forth as a substantial critique of the cultural forces that clearly crushed many fine men of that era, and continue to do so today.

Having mentioned the three most prominent artistic forces behind this film just now, I think it's also fitting to take a moment to mention a common burden they all had to bear at this time. Ratigan and Asquith lived as basically closeted homosexuals, risking prison time and hard labor if their "transgressions" were brought into a court of law, while Redgrave described himself as bisexual, which surely must have created enough complications in his own marriage and family life to inform his portrayal of a man alienated and apparently mismatched with his wife. The commentary by Bruce Eder examines the ways this film's treatment of the "two kinds of love" (presumably, intellectual and erotic) mentioned by Crocker-Harris as he grapples with the strains between himself and Millicent serve as a veiled reference to Ratigan's critique of the presumptive heterosexual norms of British social mores and his contemporaries' unwillingness to allow him and other gay citizens live in open acknowledgement of their sexual orientation. Because candid expression of these views virtually guaranteed censorship and criminal prosecution, Ratigan, Asquith and many others had to carefully watch their steps and "paraphrase" their views, so to speak. I don't think it's necessary to view the film as some kind of coded reference, but it clearly does open up new possibilities of application for its core message. However, as a 48 year old hetero married guy, I found the surface-level reading of a complicated marriage and the inability to sufficiently address and resolve long-standing tensions plenty enough informative and indicative of what can happen over the course of a long monogamous relationship to suit my own purposes!

Since I've already carried you a fair stretch of the way through the arc of the story, I'll continue on here with two more clips that could perhaps serve as spoilers, though that's not at all my intention. This scene delivers the film's critical breaking point, a powerful emotional eruption so out of character with the Crocker-Harris we've come to know that it leaves an attentive viewer somewhat short of breath. Here is where we learn why the play and film were given the title The Browning Version:

If you really want to complete the cycle, you can easily find the clip of Crocker-Harris' final speech to the students on YouTube, but I'll refrain from posting it here. You already have a generous sampling, which will either satisfy your curiosity, has already left you bored, or persuaded you to go out and find the film for yourself so you can explore at length the deeper nuances of dialogue, acting and cinematography that make (in my opinion) The Browning Version a worthwhile choice for anyone seeking to wisely and authentically navigate the perils that come with living into one's fourth decade of life, regardless of vocation or domestic relationship.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Diary of a Country Priest (1951) - #222

When I woke... God, I must write it down.

At various times in my life, I've kept a journal, sometimes quite obsessively, carrying notebooks around with me nearly everywhere I went, jotting down thoughts, finding quiet times and places where I could put into words all the important/ emotional/ confusing/ convulsive thoughts bouncing around in my head and presumably have them ready for future reference and analysis later on in my life. I have a few boxes and a file drawer full of them, going back to my high school years. Funny thing is, for the most part I've seldom felt the need to go back and revisitthem, and when I have done so, I have a hard time sticking with the reading for more than a few pages - even though I've cranked out hundreds, maybe even thousands over the past thirty years. The feelings they stir in me range from fond recollection to embarrassment to boredom to apathy - at this point, it's so obviously all said and done, in the past, over with... what have I to gain from reliving the old frets, concerns and uncertainties? Aside from a historical interest in documenting certain points of my own personal development, I haven't found a particular use for these books, and I'm not even sure I'd want my friends or descendants to read most of them either. But at the time, capturing those thoughts and impressions sure did seem important. It seems to me now that whatever value could be attributed to the activity was found in the writing process itself, and the effect it had on my consciousness at the time. The act of journaling puts events and ideas in a particular perspective that we would lack if we didn't undertake the task of having to record them with grammatical coherence. The record they provide of past activities is only of secondary benefit and interest.

Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest is a film that journal-keepers of all cultures should be able to appreciate, I would think, though affinity may not come quite so easily to many of them. His movies are rigorous, highly disciplined works of art that require close attention and seldom offer the kind of easy access points that most contemporary consumers of visual entertainment take for granted. That's not to say Bresson is impossibly avant garde or intentionally difficult for difficulty's sake. There will be many worse offenders along those lines as we progress further into the odd tangents of the Criterion Collection. But here are a few adjectives commonly assigned to Bresson's work: dry... austere... slow... serious... difficult... agonizing... magisterial... that's probably sufficient. He's also regarded by many as the quintessential "French" director, even more than Jean Renoir, who after all did spend years making films in Hollywood and elsewhere, incorporating many other cinematic influences into his extensive body of work. Bresson, by comparison, was almost determinedly non-commercial and ponderous in developing his projects. Francois Truffaut once said that as Dostoevsky is to Russian literature and Mozart is to German music, so Bresson is to French cinema. The fact that he often faced difficulties in financing his films should come as no surprise, given their lack of concern for popular appeal, though it is a shame in some ways that he was only able to produce 13 films in a lifetime that spanned all but a few months of the 20th century (born 1901, died 1999.) Maybe that's all of the cinema he had in him anyway - his deliberate approach doesn't seem to have any allowance for cranking out the reels in a formulaic manner.

Diary of a Country Priest, based on a then-popular novel, marked Bresson's fuller unveiling of principles he applied to his film-making: meticulous cinematographic composition and a reliance upon non-professional actors, eschewing as many aspects of melodramatic manipulation and theatricality as possible in order to convey a sense of real people reacting genuinely to the events captures on screen, especially in regards to how those events affect their interior, spiritual life. The relative success of this film probably had the effect of strengthening Bresson's resolve to pursue his idealistic style, and the high artistic merit of his subsequent productions has in turn generated a stream of critical acclaim, contentious disputation and lofty verbiage that can seem stupefying and somewhat intimidating to those unfamiliar with his works, and others who may have watched one or two of his films casually and have yet to discover for themselves what all the fuss is about. Such was the case with me a few years ago, when I first purchased Au Hasard Balthazar, and checked out Diary of a Country Priest and Mouchette from the local library, based simply on the grand things others had written about the two movies. Insufficiently prepared for the experience, I popped in the DVDs and found myself vexed, alienated and feeling a sense of spiritual displacement... but for all the wrong reasons! I had a hard time connecting with this venerable old Catholic way of seeing the world, and the subtlety with which Bresson conveyed his spiritual themes.

So for the benefit of those for whom Bresson remains a mystery, here are a few tips for successful viewing, especially if you find Diary of a Country Priest slow-going, hard to follow or even sleep-inducing:

1. Listen carefully to the sounds of what's happening off-screen and what they signify to the character the camera focuses on (usually the priest, of course.) Bresson's use of the audio track is quite thoughtful, deliberate and evocative. He's not simply supplying the sounds you expect to hear to accompany the images on screen.

2. Pay attention to the dissolves (where one picture slowly fades into another,) first to appreciate their beauty and then to observe how they structure and compress the flow of time. Seriously, I am in awe of Bresson's craftsmanship in framing these shots and guiding the editing process (from an original running time of around three hours, where he basically filmed the full novel, down to just under two.) Given that this was just his third film (five years after his second, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne), I have to wonder how did he get so good?

3. Expect to watch it again - even a third or fourth time, if you really want to "get it." Let the characters sink into your consciousness a bit, then revisit them with an informed sense of what they're going through and why they react the way they do.

The story itself draws from territory familiar to earlier Criterion releases like Le Corbeau, with its embittered depiction of French provincial venality, and The Rules of the Game, in its swipes at the hypocrisy and moral vacuity of the old aristocracy. The focal point is a young man known only as the Priest of Ambricourt, a small village in northern France, where we see him arrive to take charge of his first parish. The story unfolds with numerous shots of him writing at his desk, often reading aloud what he's just written as the images fade to show you what he's describing. Though the point of the story-teller's subjectivity is never explicitly made a la Rashomon, it's a point worth keeping in mind that we are reading the personal account of a sensitive, introspective loner who uses his journal for the kind of processing that I described at the beginning of this essay.

Diary of a Country Priest begins with the priest stepping off his bicycle, quickly cutting to a couple (older man, younger woman) guiltily breaking off an embrace injects a sudden note of tension, though nothing is explained to us at the moment. We soon learn that the priest suffers a stomach ailment which limits his diet to hard bread soaked in red wine. Though I don't know much about the customs of French Catholicism, it's apparent that the villagers had no choice in selecting their new priest, and there's never any sense of him being welcomed or appreciated the way we might expect a new clergyman to at least be given a chance in churches of today. The priest faces some confrontation from an older priest of a nearby village, who verges on mockery of the self-regard, the "wanting to be liked," afflicting that generation of seminarians. Clearly, the traditional role of the church was to serve more as a moral police force, enforcing order and discipline with no concern for how the townspeople actually felt about it. Ambricourt's priest, however, clearly seems intent on wanting to connect positively with his parishioners, if only he can find one who will give him a chance to do so.

However, he's met with scorn at just about every turn. Even the children seem to have it in for him, and this only adds to the physical suffering he's experiencing through illness. Determined to persevere, he focuses his attention on the wealthy count, who has some land that the priest would like to use for a youth activity area. The count entertains his proposal, but matters become much more complicated when the priest begins to learn more about the deep bitterness that has settled over that household. The count is a philanderer, currently carrying on with his daughter's governess (who despite her consensual sin is nevertheless is the only person to faithfully attend mass.) The countess implacably mourns her son, whose death years earlier she blames on God. Their adolescent daughter Chantal feels only spiteful contempt for her parents as she comes of age, all too aware of their frailties and hypocrisy. The priest faces their resistance as best he can, though his stomach problems and physical frailty drain his energies at inopportune times. He is truly a suffering servant, trying to minister faithfully despite a host of difficulties he's dealing with in body, mind and spirit.

For though he's a priest, properly educated and dedicated to his calling, he finds it hard to pray and he's discouraged by his inability to build relationships with the residents of his parish. He perseveres, only to be met with further setbacks - anonymous letters telling him to leave (another echo of Le Corbeau) and cold derision delivered to him in person by young and old alike. A brief improvement to his health lifts his spirits temporarily, but the overall mood of the priest, and this film that visualizes his diary, is somber, pensive, ascetic. The rumored suicide of an elderly physician who professed himself "godless," weighs heavily on the young priest and his old mentor from Torcy, introducing questions of salvation and God's judgment into the narrative. As Ambricourt's priest struggles with mounting confusion, small signs of grace sustain him. One night, he hears his name called out by a disembodied voice. Shortly thereafter, in the midst of a tense encounter with Chantal, he follows a spiritual intuition that compels her to turn over a suicide note she'd written of which he had no rational knowledge. These moments serve as a kind of preparation for this crucial exchange, probably as wrenching a theologically-oriented conversation as one is ever likely to see at the movies:

The woman's conversion, as captured in the above video-clip, is real, confirmed in a letter she writes to him after he leaves. However, fate takes a harsh twist, which I'll leave viewers to discover (or reflect on, if they've seen it already) for themselves. It's sufficient to say that circumstances make it hard for the young priest to take much solace in leading the countess to a place of peace with God.

Earlier in the film, the priest seeks treatment from that old godless doctor I mentioned. The physician shares his personal motto, a simple declaration when challenged by life: "Face up to it." I've given that title to this short video clip I made of still images from the film, featuring the face of Claude Laydu, the young actor whose learned techniques were stripped down to their essence by frequent, seemingly redundant repetition at Bresson's direction, with the effect of removing all pretenses of performance from the final image. The sequence follows the priest's progress, and eventual deterioration, from the beginning of the film right up to its end...


Though the character of the priest doesn't seem very likable (and truthfully, never really becomes so, even after multiple viewings and increased empathy with his sufferings), he does take on an aura of nobility that more than makes up for the difficulties we have in initially trying to understand and connect with him. In this regard, he serves as a truly inspirational figure, especially in the latter half of the film when he's subject to negative judgments based on a misperception of his motives even by people who might know better. When given the opportunity to defend himself, to win the favor of others or even play upon their sympathies as his plight becomes ever more pitiful, he recognizes that such maneuvers do not fit into his life's purpose. Reckoning with the fundamental injustice (on a human level) that his desire to serve his God and his people would be blocked by so many undeserved obstacles, he never resorts to complaining or bitterness. Perhaps it was those small victories with the countess and Chantal that gave his life purpose - or perhaps it was just the interior assurance that he had followed the path laid out for him by God. In the end, he could only serenely affirm that "all is grace."

This is a profound, beautiful, stirring and inexhaustible film.