Friday, December 30, 2011

The Dead (1960) - #517

The Dead became my first work in which things that might very easily be taken as symbols were so photographed as to destroy all their symbolic potential. The action of making The Dead kept me alive. - Stan Brakhage

The first recognizable object one sees when watching The Dead, Stan Brakhage's only film produced in 1960, is the marble foot of a statue, that as the camera pans up the figure turns out to belong to a brooding, shrouded sentry, perhaps an angel, a monk, or the Grim Reaper himself, standing atop a grave, seemingly taunting us by presenting a handful of coins that, despite the apparent generosity, we could not remove from his grip without destroying them. The tomb is one of many located in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, the most famous and densely occupied graveyard in Paris. Some individuals buried there with Criterion connections include Max Ophuls, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand and Pierre Brasseur. The remains of Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, among many others (more than a million actually) are interred there as well. That's interesting background trivia, but none of it mattered at all to Stan Brakhage, of course, he was just there for the visuals (and perhaps some other more personal, spiritual or artistic reasons that I can't begin to speculate on, though his quote above offers a glimmer of insight.)

Commentators more deeply immersed in Brakhage's work and world than I offer some helpful insight, so I'm including a few links about The Dead that readers can follow if they want to learn more. My impressions can be read after the clip, which runs a bit under 11 minutes if you want to watch The Dead yourself.

Immediately after cutting away from the stern, cross-armed statue, we see the face of a living man (maybe Brakhage himself? it wouldn't surprise me) in that characteristic averted glance head tilt reminiscent of the pose of sculpted angels that populate the cemetery and reappear so frequently in The Dead. The juxtaposition of figures, cold dead stone and warm living flesh, sets the film in motion as we careen through the heavily wooded, densely packed graveyard, eerily rendered in negative exposures, superimposed overlays and skewed fragments that undercut the somber serenity such environments generally try to convey. Further disorientation occurs as we're suddenly and inexplicably transported down the course of a river, staring at the pedestrians and bystanders gathered on its banks. The restless camera never stops or gets close enough to any of the objects it captures to provide much in the way of detail, and the people who cross the visual path of its lens are mere ephemeral blurs, not individuals in any meaningful sense. Most of them are just sitting there, passing through time, not doing anything all that remarkable, interesting or worthy of further reflection. One gets the sense that they're just biding their time here on earth, before they too take their place among The Dead

But while I have your attention, and as my thoughts (and presumably yours) are at least for a moment inclined to ponder our destined mortality, let me offer brief capsule reviews of a few other 1960 films I watched recently as I wrap up that year's Criterion-related output here on my blog. Though all were created quite independently of each other, they have in common a theme of survival in the face of extremely hostile conditions.

Kapo, part of the bare-bones Essential Art House series of DVDs, is one of five films that Criterion released exclusively in this format before the line went dormant a couple years ago. The others are Mayerling, Le jour se leve, Gervaise and Last Holiday. All except Kapo are now out of print, though they don't seem too difficult to find, nor are they very expensive, at least the last time I checked. Kapo's most noteworthy attribute is that it was one of the first films that sought to explore life inside a Nazi concentration camp. Though Resnais' Night and Fog predates Kapo by a good five years, that film was a documentary that used archival footage and new material shot at Auschwitz. Kapo gives us a fictional story that begins with a Jewish teenager's removal from her presumably safe home in Paris, after the city had been occupied by the Germans. Her transformation from a culturally refined and innocent schoolgirl who inadvertently escapes her appointment with the gas chamber, only to become a cold and manipulative enforcer within the evil hierarchy of the death camp, is both brave and chilling. Susan Strasberg gives a very compelling performance as she endures depression and the loss of all hope, before capitalizing on the advantages that her youthful beauty and compartmentalized morality can provide in her determination to stay alive at all costs. As stark and surprising as the premise is, especially for such a pioneering work in the "fictionalized Holocaust" sub-genre, Kapo turns back to conventionality for the sake of a more palatable ending, as she becomes the noble martyr figure that we've come to expect from Holocaust and similar war crimes horrors movies. Still, for a film of its era to go as far as it does in portraying the nasty venality that undoubtedly took place within the camps, I have to give my respects to Gillo Pontecorvo, who built on his journalistic experience to make this film, and went on to direct The Battle of Algiers, an even more courageous and innovative work than what he accomplished in Kapo.

Letter Never Sent is currently available on Criterion's Hulu Plus channel, or you can follow this link to see the whole thing, without subtitles, on YouTube. But it was announced as a March release earlier this month, so I look forward to revisiting this visually enthralling film in blu-ray hi-definition next spring. I first discovered it back in August while browsing around on Hulu, happy to see another Soviet film from the "thaw" period following the death of Stalin, when Kruschev decided for whatever reason to lighten up on the censorship and allow filmmakers a little more leeway in their storytelling. I'd seen The Cranes are Flying earlier in the year and was intrigued to see what Mikhail Kalatozov did as a follow-up to that impressive film. Letter Never Sent simply astonished me as it took the modest premise of a geology expedition to Siberia in directions I would have never anticipated. A dramatic opening shot of the exploration party being left behind in the trackless wilderness is just a foretaste of visual splendors to come, but they're mostly of a horrifying nature, at least for those of us who dread the idea of being caught in the midst of a raging forest fire with no easy means of escape. When that conflagration breaks out, the story lines based on budding romance and small rivalries within the group are mostly subsumed as they find their common purpose in banding together and getting through the ordeal intact. An ideological strain of strength-through-collectivism pervades Letter Never Sent (this is, after all, a Mosfilm production,) providing a fascinating contrast to the rank individualism that motivated Edith/Nichole in Kapo. Different adversaries call for different measures, I suppose. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what others have to say about this impressive piece of work when it comes out on disc in a few months. Hopefully I will have a chance to give it a more extensive review on, should I be fortunate enough to have an advance copy sent my way.

Finally, another Hulu Plus exclusive (for now, though I really really hope that Criterion finds a way to release it on blu-ray or DVD), Kaneto Shindo's The Naked Island. Though not nearly as kinetically stimulating as Letter Never Sent, it's every bit as visually wondrous as it chronicles the rigorous life of a modern-day peasant family eking out their subsistence on a parched little outcropping in the middle of Japan's Inland Sea. The parents and their two sons have hours of toil to get through each day, as they have to row their boat ashore multiple times a day just to get a few buckets full of water for their crops. Each trip between their island and the harbor shore is punctuated by other tasks: tending to the crops, preparation of meals, bathing, fishing, feeding the goat, laboriously clearing the roots of trees to create a new little patch of arable soil.

The film takes us through the course of seasons, gorgeously capturing the accompanying rituals and duties as they shift over the course of a year. There's no dialog, just music and naturalistic sound effects, the voices of children singing and and adults chanting. You'll either find it unbearably tedious or magnificently enthralling, and your response will largely be predicated on your ability to simply slow yourself down long enough to adjust to The Naked Island's languid rhythms. Though I'm casually lumping it in with Kapo and Letter Never Sent, there's obviously a huge chasm of existential threat between the situations presented in those two films and Shindo's portrayal of a simple rustic existence that is based on his own experience as a child. After all, the family could have relocated and taken on a more ordinary, less arduous type of labor to make ends meet. But it hardly requires narrative explication to make clear to the viewer that these people were born to this way life. Despite the inherent frustrations, the inevitable daydreams of greater comforts and the completely forgivable breakdown that one of the parents succumbs to (briefly) toward the end of the film, The Naked Island is a testimony of honor and an inspiring challenge to all of us to summon up our own courage, look within and fully inhabit the life that we're each called to live in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. It's a perfectly fitting film to wrap up my third full year of blogging through the Criterion Collection (both past and perhaps future entries.)

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