Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hiroshima mon amour (1959) - #196

I'll forget you! I'm forgetting you already! Look how I'm forgetting you! Look at me!

Upon first impression, the stark angular and abstract constructions of Hiroshima mon amour serve as a kind of filter, or litmus test, aimed perhaps at separating simple curiosity seekers and dilettantes from those who feel a distinct affinity for  the highly stylized, but ultimately warm and evocative machinations that our leading couple is put through. It's not an easy film to get through, at least without some degree of determination, for most who come to it unprepared or unaware. The passage of over 50 years has almost certainly diminished the sense of novelty and even astonishment that this film first generated upon its initial release, but then again, I don't exactly consider the usual cinematic diet of most movie-watchers in 2011 to contain much that would hold up strongly alongside this ambitious and impeccably rendered modernist masterpiece. My hunch is that Hiroshima mon amour still holds plenty of power to amaze, despite the fact that some of its technical and narrative breakthroughs have now become accepted and familiar conventions.

Though it's cited as a collaborative effort of French and Japanese film makers, Hiroshima mon amour quite clearly tilts its perspective and orientation toward the French half of its audience, with its prolonged existentialist meditations on the nature of love, memory and the corrosive effects of time on both of those cherished facets of human nature emanating from a sensibility more aptly described as Continental rather than Oriental. That's not intended as a slight upon what director Alain Resnais and screenwriter Marguerite Duras achieved, more as a recognition that at this time in cinema culture, France still held an upper hand in setting the agenda as to what was considered most important and innovative. Given that The 400 Blows had just been released and was making its own waves, Hiroshima mon amour offers ample support for the contention that French cinema was indeed opening up a host of new possibilities for what film could achieve. Though Resnais was considerably older than most of the other directors made famous for their participation in the Nouvelle Vague, Hiroshima mon amour's radical departure from the customary ways that movies told their stories places it within that movement, similar perhaps to how an artist like Elvis Costello used to get lumped in with the Sex Pistols and The Clash due to the proximity of their debuts and the respective breaks they made with the mainstream pop of their times. 

In many respects, as much a literary as it was a cinematic achievement, Hiroshima mon amour offers up ample rewards to those who return to it multiple times. I've dug into it on five separate occasions over the past week now, discovering new angles and drawing different connections with each pass through. There's a lot to admire here: the monumental opening sequence, interpolating footage Resnais originally intended to be part of the documentary he was first commissioned to make, a companion piece of sorts to that other prominent chronicle of a 20th century atrocity, Night and Fog, with a strikingly sensuous and mature introductory narrative that presents the couple we'll follow over the next 90 minutes, and whose ordeal will haunt us the rest of our lives, if we let it. A magnificently dense and nuanced script, with depths of meaning and intelligence packed into every scene so as to yield multiple rewards to those who choose to revisit  (and warm up to) this seemingly sparse and inaccessible emotional landscape. Emmanuelle Riva's remarkable immersion into her role as a survivor of trauma and neglect, seemingly made whole with the passage of time but still riddled with anxieties and unresolved grief, elevated her to a lasting and deserved fame, as well as a reputable acting career that has carried over into the new century. The pair of interviews she offers on this impressive DVD, dating from 1959 and 2003, show her to be a wise and insightful artist, quite aware of the impact she had on a generation of viewers and critics alike. 

In the spirit of a different supplement, featuring Marguerite Duras' screenplay annotations, in which she provides some background information for what we see on-screen deriving solely from authorial privilege, I'll forego the usual "movie review" format in favor of presenting a long running commentary I wrote over the course of my most recent run-through of Hiroshima mon amour. It's a bit verbose, let me just say it here, and probably best appreciated by those who've already seen the film. If you haven't, here's the trailer, without subtitles, a mere sampling of the mysteries and enigmas to be discovered and enjoyed in this marvelous, captivating film.

Opening credits - negative image of a plant growing up in the radiation blasted wasteland

Ashes pouring down on entwined embracing arms, the flakes turn to sparkling metallic dust, then melt away, the glisten of passionate sweat, the grappling giving way to a dialogue, a debate, the sights and memories of Hiroshima’s wounded survivors, and the tributes erected to that disaster in the form of museums, plazas, neon-lit disco balls, modern architecture and explanatory plaques, miniature replicas and filmed re-enactments of the barely imaginable horror of destruction. Mementos of melted bicycles, clumps of hair, scalps reduced to the topography of long-eroded landscapes. Shredded clothing, burned in an instant, draped stylishly over the torsos of designer mannequins. Writhing bodies, charred and ashen, stunned and grimacing and convulsively spasmodic from the sheer pain, but even those are mere imitations of what actually was. Then filmed evidence, artifacts from days 1, 2 and 3 of the atomic age. Wriggling worms, tripedal dogs, mute children bearing younger children on their backs as they stagger through the wreckage. The howls of burned infants and the stunned apathy of mutilated faces, mutated bodies grimly silently accepting their condition, unable to claim any other resolution beyond simple resignation, recognizing the sheer numbers of victims and the world’s inexorable determination to carry on, regardless of what may have happened on an August afternoon in 1945, beyond the intention to build its commemorative monuments and even capitalize on the terrible fascination that grips those located elsewhere than that ill-fated city fourteen years earlier, even those yet to be born and mercifully spared the fate of babies born deformed from the lingering effects of fallout.

The lovers quibble; she has seen nothing, he says. He’s wrong, she counters. She has seen, but he says that what she has seen is not really what Hiroshima is, and what it is will never be seen except by those who were there. She has the last word, and that word is, like all other words, destined to be forgotten. Lost in memories for a moment, she returns to the present through the touch of skin, the immediate reinforcement of fleshly sensation and the response of another human voice when she speaks out and acknowledges its existence, remembering, in an instant, that she is not alone.

She’s here, on a job, acting in a film, several thousand miles away from her home in France, the town of Nevers by way of the city of Paris. He turns on a light. She laughs lightly, aware of her nudity, her exposure to his gaze after making love in the dark. Sleep descends, hours pass, she arises, robes, returns to the bed. A familiar pose resurrects long-supressed memories, the curve of fingers, the upturned palm of a sleeping man’s hand. Recollections of a smaller, anonymous tragedy that will never be noted in history books but has shattered her private world as profoundly as the atomic bomb shattered a world she never could know. But just as quickly, the memory is tucked back away. A shower is taken, small talk papers over the painful gash of a few moments earlier - playful mocking flirtation, confessions of intrigue and fascination, hasty bridges across obvious cultural gulfs, ending in a happy soulful kiss.

Outside now in the morning light, bathrobe clad, munching an apple, briefly exploring each others interest in Hiroshima, in Nevers. The world’s celebration of the birth of the atomic age, the end of the great and terrible war, selfishly focused as always on the benefits experienced by the ego at hand, obliviously indifferent to the anguish of distant, dead or dying souls, or outright rejoicing in their destruction. And now it is time for her to go to work, as she skillfully deflects his adolescent entreaty to see her again, to woo and pursue her, to become, on some level that neither of them can really imagine but he will attempt to create anyway, a couple.

She knows that this is impossible, for reasons that she will not divulge or attempt to explain now, since she lacks both the will and the capability to articulate with precise detail. So she does the best she can, in the limited time afforded her, to convey her polite decline of his offer through a concise indirect summation of the hateful madness that overtook her in Nevers, dissipating only gradually, after she gave birth to her children. He’s startled to hear this significant disclosure, dropped so casually yet signifying so much about her, about them. His demeanor changes, he withdraws so slightly, calling her bluff, as with impeccable timing a taxi swoops in from behind a building to pick her up at the precisely right moment and sweep her away to the important role she has to play in a socially conscious peace film, possessed of an objective to raise the consciousness of complacent or ill-informed citizens of the Cold War era.

* * *

Morning on the set, the hordes of extras stand waiting for their cue to contribute their small bits to that film about peace, ready to take their turn as radiation burn victims, pacifistic protesters, nameless sufferers. She rests on the ground, clad in her nurse’s costume, woken up by him, shooing white cat away and explaining to him what is going on. They flirt innocently as images of mutilated flesh and pleas for sanity announce their messages on placards. The clash of sincere ardor and cautious self-protection, colliding fronts, forces of nature that threaten a storm before nightfall.

A silent processional, staged and choreographed, not spontaneous, wends through the original Ground Zero, Peace Square in Hiroshima. Film rolls, directors maneuver the marchers as his missles of entreaty try to penetrate the defenses of her reluctance until they at last succeed. Images of horror hoisted on signs, a river of humanity slides past and temporarily separates them until they reunite, arriving at his place, a well-appointed upper middle class household.

The wife is away. The phone rings. Lovers kiss, a close tender embrace. Phone keeps ringing. Buttons loosen. Nothing to lose. The truth begins to come out.

Memories of Nevers, her youth, a first love, furtively met - he’s one of the enemies and as the war nears its end, the doom and risk of their romance, her first, becomes more apparent even as their meetings become more brazen and noticeable. Love has its way of forcing itself into the open, even when it’s foolish to do so. Reminiscence unfurled, images come flooding back now, they pour over and shape the expressions of her face, articulate even if the details aren’t clear. He reads these messages, recognizes their truth, loves her all the more as he beholds the poignant echoes of that late adolescent heartbreak.

He continues to probe, learning more of the secrets, her secrets, of Nevers. Captivity in a cellar, the lovely soft light of a river called Loire, the deprivations and wounds, bodily, psychic, she suffered there, where she learned to love the taste of blood. She washes out the taste with beer while the world passes by overhead, pretending she’s dead. Father approves, screams are suppressed until they can no longer be contained. All energy and memory drains until only a name remains. She speaks to her Japanese lover, melded now in her mind and eye with the dead German soldier she still loves, while he gazes rapt, drawn into her enigma, seeking to console and perhaps (though not necessarily) understand. A black cat visitor drops in from the past, her youth, now gone, a mere haunting recollection but still a deep and powerful reservoir of emotions as she’s now discovering, reliving the shame, the numbness she relied on to survive the trauma and block out the taunting jeers of patriotic and vengeful villagers who draw strength, somehow, from their scorn.

Then, her exile begins. Isolated at first in a comfortable bedroom, a warmer, padded cellar of sorts, a juxtaposition of ink and sunlight and opening windows indicate the end of winter and a time to travel. There is more of the world to see, and a space more accommodating to her, than Nevers, that square by the river where her love was killed, her first attempt to escape was thwarted, where the bells of celebration erupted from the cathedral just months before the cheers of exultation echoed across continents in the aftermath of Hiroshima’s destruction.

Two hard slaps and she’s out of it, just as, years earlier, a second short confinement in the cellar and a warmed marble, casualy tossed into that harsh chamber, afforded her the moment to let go of all hate. A bicycle, a night’s journey, the cover of darkness and long-enough hair, provide her passage to Paris and the new life that somehow brought her here to Hiroshima.

* * *

Her imminent departure from Hiroshima pushes to the forefront of her consciousness again, even as his embrace takes initiative, his certainty grows firm that he loves her and will nevertheless forget her, eventually. The horror of forgetting. The words roll past, she longs to the constant vigil of a city that never sleeps, another nocturnal wandering. A profound shift of mood has occurred - she no longer needs to be with someone, instead she demands distance and hastily makes her way through the still modernist solemnity of her hotel to her room. For what?

She knows not what, she’s just confusion, sadness and regret now, voicing that turmoil of emotion to her dead lover, acknowledging her betrayal and coming to terms with the dilemma she’s created for herself. She makes her way back to the tea room, determined to see him again, to stay with him this time, to reconcile herself finally to the sensation of comfort, of home, of acceptance that she’s tried and failed to block out.

But the words, the firmly stated intentions from both of them, don’t seem to avail anything at all, for her inner debate continues, unable to find resolution in a simple act of her own fragile will. She returns to the reconstructed streets of Hiroshima that we first traveled in the opening scenes, lit up now in neon, simultaneously alive and empty, just as are her recollections of the alleys and boulevards of Nevers where she once strolled in similar states of sorrowful, thwarted desire. Time and memory, then as now, meander on their way to emptying like rivers into the infinite ocean of forgetfulness.

As morning light breaks, the path she’s on leads, somehow, to a point of departure - a train station, where directions are issued to travelers in need of guidance and instruction. This long, very long day of sexual ecstasy, physical work and emotional purgation has worn her down to a nub, but necessarily so, for she does seem to at last achieved some degree of clarity and resolution. Now ready to move on, she makes her way to... Casablanca? Yes, that is the name of the place. He eventually follows her in. A stand-off of lovers, are they exes yet? Is she alone? She is asked this, in English, by another adventurous Japanese gentleman. An echo of their meeting two nights earlier, a cycle repeating itself, a new layer of epiphany that rests uneasily but undeniably atop the shaky construction of whatever it is this man and this woman have created. The sun rises, the sky brightens to a contemplative stasis. City streets, clouds, landmarks. She now appears back in her room, No Smoking in Bed, he had to come. One last face to face encounter. Nothing left to say, just tears... I’ll forget you!... Hi-ro-shi-ma... Ne-vers en France...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Good Morning (1959) - #84

Important things are difficult to say... Whereas meaningless things are easy to say.

My memory is a bit fuzzy on the date and other details, but I'm reasonably confident that Good Morning was the first film by Yasujiro Ozu that I saw. If it wasn't the first, it would have been Tokyo Story. But it was definitely the first Ozu DVD that I owned. I remember the occasion well, because I drove my family to a local independent book store that used to be unique around here for having the best stock of Criterion DVDs, back before Barnes & Noble swooped in and surpassed them in both quantity on hand and discount in price. The occasion was Fathers Day, maybe five or six years ago, and my kids told me that I could pick out a couple of Criterion discs to add to my then-small but growing collection. The other one I chose that day was M. Hulot's Holiday, if I recall correctly. And even if I'm mistaken, it's a nice memory to have, because these are two of the sweetest and family-friendliest films to be found in the Criterion Collection. So I'll stick with it, even if one of my children kindly points out that she or he remembers it differently!

Even though Ozu would only make four more films after Good Morning, it's not too surprising to me that this would be among the very first of the fifty-four he made in his lifetime that many of his Western viewers ever saw. Good Morning marks Ozu's debut on Criterion DVD (and I must admit, from the transfer to the packaging design to the lack of extras, it's one of their shabbiest efforts, badly in need of a Blu-ray upgrade), presumably because its Technicolor sheen and comparatively light-hearted subject matter makes it an easier introduction to the great master than the more subtle, serious and melancholy works upon which his lasting reputation substantially rests. As such, most reviews that I've found online for Good Morning read more like preambles to an appreciation of Ozu the director, with the writer setting the reader up to understand Ozu's distinctive style, his place in Japanese cinematic history, basically laying out the argument for what makes Ozu important and pre-emptively smoothing out any befuddlement that might occur for novice viewers who watch his patient, ambling, static scenarios and wonder, when the end titles fade to black, just what all the plaudits are about. Since I've been watching and writing about quite a few Ozu films over the past year, both here and in my Eclipse Series columns at, I'm not going to tread that well-worn path. Instead, I'll approach Good Morning as an intriguing follow-up to the two movies Ozu made in the preceding years, 1957's Tokyo Twilight and 1958's Equinox Flower. Both films are available in the Eclipse Late Ozu box, and you can read my thoughts on them both at the links provided. They're both rather somber works, particularly Tokyo Twilight, which endears them to viewers whose tastes veer into darker territories, since they go a little deeper into realms of bleakness and despair than Ozu's exquisite sense of balance typically allows. And it's the gravitas of this pair of late masterworks that makes the frivolous leaps into bathroom humor, sit-com whimsy and the cute for cute's sake aesthetic of Good Morning all the more interesting and refreshing for a seasoned Ozu watcher to enjoy. Watching the films in sequence, you can sense the artist throwing his audience a curveball, shedding the formulaic expectations of viewers who thought they knew what to expect from an Ozu film, showing them he still has the wit and satirical bite of his early silent films that he hadn't quite flourished as he approached old age.

As his second venture into the arena of filming in color, Good Morning also shows Ozu enjoying the opportunity to play around with the expanded palette. Clear blue skies dominate the outdoor scenes, vivid reds and greens jump out against the muted tans and browns in the interior backgrounds. A bedroom dresser, with each drawer painted a different bright hue, serves almost like a color wheel test strip, showing off the brightness that the film stock was able to capture and expressing the shiny newness and sparkle of the newly constructed, treeless suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Tokyo where the story occurs. Ozu's placement of the action in an area that had only recently been inhabited by Japanese citizens is deliberate, as his theme builds upon Equinox Flower's meditation on the erosion of traditional male dominance in postwar Japan to ponder how women and even children were now wielding the upper hand in the daily life of families.

The stand-out focal points of Good Morning are a pair of brothers, half of a group of four neighbor boys, whose interest in the new technology of television and the timeless camaraderie of juvenile peer groups serve to drive the action and provide indirect commentary on the foibles of the adults around them. Multiple facets of middle-class life seamlessly weave together to provide an entertaining tableau of generations in conflict, an Ozu staple of course, though in this instance of a fairly benign sort, inducing more chuckles of warm familiarity than the painful winces of regret and remorse that his other films so frequently stir up. Here the gaze of Ozu falls upon fairly trivial targets: gossipy housewives, mildly squabbling spouses, mothers exasperated by the sneakiness and snottiness of their sons, rapidly modernizing young swingers whose eagerness to assimilate Western fashions and attitudes into their lives is epitomized by the very current movie posters on their walls, advertising The Defiant Ones and Louis Malle's The Lovers, both scandal-triggering releases of 1958. Drunken old men are also called upon to supply reliable laughs, and there's even a memorable showdown between a vaguely sinister salesman who casually pulls out his pocket-knife when he senses resistance from a prospective customer and a wizened old grandmother who adroitly counters such crude pressure tactics with a bit of crafty oneupmanship of her own.

Besides serving as a preliminary course in Ozu 101, the other reliable observation to be made about Good Morning is how it functions as a remake, or more properly, a re-working of his 1934 break-through I Was Born, But... The common idea those two films share is of a pair of brothers who stage a short-lived strike in protest of what they perceive as their parents' failings. Beyond that, the settings of each film provide revealing contrasts in how far Japan had come since the years of the Great Depression, especially considering how much they'd suffered on account of the devastating Pacific War. I Was Born, But... also took place in a relatively new suburban development, but in that period, paved roads were still quite rare, the households and construction methods had more of a ramshackle appearance, and the kids, with the notable exception of "the boss's son," were dressed in much more homespun, scraggly attire. The late 50s Japan of Good Morning, on the other hand, was thriving in an economic boom time, and electronic gadgets, launching a trend that continues even more intensely today, were becoming the latest measuring stick of a modern family's connection to the steady flow of cash that constitutes society's lifeblood.

And not just the television that occupies a central role in Good Morning's plot, but also washing machines, appliances that are probably more overlooked because they're not so innovative or visually arresting (nor are they ever shown, though we see plenty of laundry on the line all throughout the film, including the final close-up of a boy's underwear flapping in the breeze.) The conveniences increasingly expected by modern Japanese women, and their husbands' presumed ability to provide them, informs the subtext of Good Morning, even as the film registers its loftier theme of how trivialized and evasive adults become as they conform to the seemingly modest but often emotionally crippling demands of conventional morals and social customs.

With the increasing comforts provided by a prosperous economy, and the endless stream of media-induced distraction, the older members of Good Morning's ensemble sense both the realization of a long-delayed dream, the ability to provide for the next generation from a position of relative abundance, and the loss of intimacy and simple connective dependency that comes when people are forced to huddle together, share resources and rely on each other across generational divides simply for the sake of strength and survival. Ozu had already made harsher indictments of the changes sweeping over Japanese society, and I expect that we'll see more of that melancholy tone come through in his final four features. But with Good Morning's ultimate triumph of the brats, as the parents set aside their skeptical wariness of both the television and their youngsters' insistence on setting the family agenda, Ozu is also reminding us that even as venerable old customs fade away, life's vitality finds new ways around the obstacles we so awkwardly impose upon it. With a reasonable homage paid to the past, as exemplified by the father's harrumphing imitation of discipline at his sons' exuberant outburst, familial and social connections stand ever ready to forge themselves in new ways, lubricated both by the banal small talk that helps us fill the time and silence, and the new technologies that open unexplored angles of perception on the world in and around us. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The 400 Blows (1959) - #5

Here poor Antoine Doinel was unfairly punished by Sourpuss for a pinup that fell from the sky. It will be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Though Francois Truffaut probably didn't have such grandiose intentions at the time, his decision to use footage from a discarded scene in his debut film, multiple shots of the Eiffel Tower looming over the Parisian neighborhoods where its action takes place, as its opening title sequence turned out to be a fitting bit of symbolism, since The 400 Blows turned out to be quite a landmark itself in the popular cinema of its time and so much that's followed since. It's commonly regarded as the film that initiated the Nouvelle Vague, that is, the French (and original) New Wave, a term that was subsequently pasted onto similar revivals of youthful creativity and emotional authenticity in the film culture of other nations. That history has been covered elsewhere to the point that I see no need for me to recap it here. However. the lofty reputation that The 400 Blows now holds can work against how well it's received by first time viewers (as my friend Ryan at experienced) who might acknowledge and enjoy it as a well-made movie but still wonder what all the fuss was about. As a novice myself to this film, and Truffaut in general (I still think of him as the guy that Steven Spielberg recruited to play the French scientist in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though I know that my impression is in for a lot of changes as this blog progresses!), this is one of those occasions where my plan of watching these Criterion films in chronological order pays dividends. In that context, it's easy for me to see more clearly the freshness and vitality that The 400 Blows presented to its original audience, even against a backdrop of mostly great movies that I watch for this project. (Yes, I'm obviously referring here to classics like First Man Into Space and Corridors of Blood...)

Truffaut's gambit here, as he made the famous transition from outspoken film critic to first-time film director, was to speak from his own experience, crafting a story both modern and timeless about the rough disillusionment of a boy on the brink of manhood. Anecdotes and episodes from his Parisian adolescence in the mid-to-late 1940s were woven together to make up this snapshot, a week or so in the life of a troubled teenager in those same neighborhoods, now set in the present day. That ultra-contemporary setting, and the naturalistic manner in which it was filmed, owed a lot to the Italian neorealists, which Truffaut acknowledges on one of the 1960s interview supplements featured on the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray. But there's a distinctly French sensibility at work, a romantic swing and sly humor that lightens the tone compared to the Neorealists' earnest and somewhat pious political statements. (And of course, the miseries of World War II were that much further in the past, no longer casting such a prominent shadow over its survivors.)

Thus the story of that wayward boy Antoine Doinel, which could have easily been handled in such a way as to induce profound pity and even tears, along the lines of Bicycle Thieves, Forbidden Games or a more contemporaneous film like Ashes and Diamonds, is instead used to win our smirking admiration for a resilient little rogue who, as fate would have it, was destined to have a long career in film over the next two decades. That unexpected outcome (I can hardly believe that Truffaut had a series of five films in mind when he first conceived of The 400 Blows) probably owes more to the amazing serendipity of casting Jean-Pierre Leaud in this role, because the quality he brings to the performance is probably beyond any director to impart if the kid didn't already have it in him in the first place. Always cool, calculating, on guard and resourceful, Antoine's encounters with adult hypocrisy drive him to make impulsive decisions that wind up backfiring on him due to the small residual pockets of naivete that riddle every teenager's judgment, despite their growing confidence of finally having figured out how the world works. What makes Doinel/Leaud so charming is how swiftly he assimilates the lesson learned from each setback and bounces back with a new plan of attack, determined to demonstrate in actions, not words, that his will has not been broken, nor has his ambition for freedom and self-reliance been thwarted.

His situation is to be stuck with a mother who wishes he'd never been born, a step-father who sees him mainly as a nuisance that comes with his wife's otherwise highly attractive (but untrustworthy) package, and tyrannical inept schoolmasters who keep Antoine locked in close scrutiny as they try to prevail in a slow-burning power struggle aimed at keeping this mischief-maker in check, or at least serving as the proverbial warning to the other boys who admire the rebel. After the Eiffel Tower tracking shot, the film opens in a boys-only classroom where students passes a sexy pin-up girl picture from one desk to another. Though they're not particularly careful about concealing it, the pic travels freely until it lands on Antoine's desk. He takes a moment to decorate her face a bit, then is brusquely caught, called up front, sent to stand in the corner and eventually inscribes on the wall the memorial statement quoted to begin this article. It's the first of several "moments of truth" we see, as Doinel responds to adversity with characteristic determination to not just settle the score, but to ultimately prevail, regardless of the odds stacked against him or even the lack of a clear sense of what that victory would consist of or look like. He'll just know it when he feels it.

Antoine's frustrations at school and at home feed into an escalating cycle of conflict that ultimately leads to him skipping class, getting in trouble, running away from home, getting arrested for a small burglary and ultimately winding up in a reform school out in the Normandy countryside. Each behavioral flare-up on Antoine's part provokes an increasingly restrictive and oppressive response from the adult authorities. The film ends, quite poignantly, with Antoine at least temporarily slipping the bonds placed upon him as he slides under a hole in the fence, eludes capture by the pursuing staff, and makes a mad dash to the beach to catch his first-ever glimpse of the ocean, and by extension, the big wild world waiting to be discovered beyond the fascinating but comfortably familiar intrigues of Paris.

Antoine is a character that a lot of us can relate to, either because our experiences overlap his in some ways, or because we were like those other students in The 400 Blows who enjoy the vicarious amusement of watching him get in trouble and wondering to ourselves what it would be like to just not give a damn and let ourselves go that far in acting out. On an even deeper level though, I think Antoine's story draws us in and sticks with us because of his admittedly flawed and bungled quest for justice. I mean, it is difficult for me to make the case that Antoine Doinel is an innocent victim whose actions are justified because of the wrongs perpetrated upon him by mother, step-father and teachers. Yes, they lie, they exploit, they condescend and even slap his face, repeatedly, but none of that excuses his theft, his truancy, his vandalism or the danger he puts himself in or causes for others. The truth is, as much as we may find ourselves chuckling or cheering on Antoine's exploits, and they are often quite funny, having a youngster in our lives who does things similar to what we see him do here would induce a lot of stress and exasperation.  One could make the case that if the adults in Antoine's world were better role models themselves, more honest, ethical, patient, caring, etc. then he wouldn't have had to resort to such risky extremes to get his point across, wouldn't be driven to the point of crazy desperation to assert his readiness to become a man on his own terms.

I have my doubts about the validity of that thesis. Antoine is certainly a product of his environment and the dysfunctions built into his parents' relationship and the French school system, and perhaps a measure of justice would have calmed his rowdiness down a bit. But The 400 Blows rings true far beyond its circumstances of time and place in its ability to capture and evoke that mysterious motivating force that pushes teenagers in all cultures into a stance of resistance to conformity when its imposed by authorities whom we question. Antoine's just not as willing to put up with it, or as easily intimidated, as the rest of us. And even when we ourselves become representatives of that authority (as I am, quite consciously, due to my twenty years of employment in a residential treatment center for at-risk youth!), the nobility that rests at the heart of his delinquency is a very powerful reminder to at least avoid the abuse of power that comes with that privilege and responsibility and to do our best to avoid becoming one of the stinking hypocrites so well deserving of Antoine's eye rolls or deadpan, quietly contemptuous stare.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Corridors of Blood (1959) - #368

Pain and the knife are inseparable.

Even though Corridors of Blood wasn't officially released until 1962, and despite its official copyright date of 1958, I'm bending my rules a bit here by pairing it up with the film it was originally intended to serve as the headliner in a double feature, 1959's First Man Into Space. In that respect, Corridors of Blood shares a connection with Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Part II, which I also wrote about in my timeline prior to the date of its actual public issuance. Thus, this blog may be the only instance in human history that those two films are ever linked together, though their common themes of a gifted individual with grandiose intentions succumbing to madness and delirium instead may lend a certain resonance to the connection after all. And if we add the negative impact that a meddling, censorious bureaucratic infrastructure had on each film's destiny into the mix, there may be enough material worth exploring there to inform a plausible film school graduate thesis.

But I'm not going to explore those tenuous threads any further here. Like the surgeon working in barbarously primitive conditions that Boris Karloff portrayed in Corridors of Blood, I'm here to make quick work of this patient, keeping the blood-curdling screams and mind-warping trauma to its absolute minimum. Let's face it, this is not the kind of film that was produced for the sake of provoking deeply reflective analysis or making a profound commentary on the human condition. Indeed, from the actual producers' point of view, Corridors of Blood was targeted to land squarely on that point of the continuum where maximum shock value runs into the minimum amount of resistance from the guardians of public morals who made it their mission to limit the exposure of impressionable youth to images of sliced, scarred or otherwise mangled human flesh. This trailer gives you pretty much everything you need to know about what they thought the audiences of their time were looking for:

Shock... SHOCK!... SHOCK!!! You get the idea. And that's what I was fairly expecting, though of course I knew full well going in that the gory, dripping crimson-splattered imagery conjured up by a title like Corridors of Blood would hardly be realized on the screen, given the time that the film was made. But little did I expect it to turn out as what I saw: an intelligent, relatively informative and thought-provoking character and culture study of the era when the concept of anaesthesia transitioned from long sought-after dream to effective technological breakthrough.

The idea of getting numbed up prior to going into even the most minor forms of surgery (dental work is as close as I've ever come to personally experiencing it myself) is an easy one to take for granted nowadays, so sophisticated have our techniques become for medicating patients into precisely calibrated states of oblivion. As we're brutally reminded right from the very beginning, it wasn't always that way! Prior to the 1840s, and even then only in a few select societies, bodily amputations, incisions and extractions were a matter of intense physical anguish that carried their own risks on top of whatever malady the surgical procedure was trying to alleviate. And surgeons themselves were far from the meticulously skilled, highly  finessed (and compensated) detail artists we think of today. Rather, they were esteemed at how quickly and straightly they could saw through bone and hold their blade steady while the victims, er, patients thrashed and struggled against the bonds of leather straps and burly men intent on holding them still. 

No wonder then that any physician with a heart would long to find a way to relieve the misery of those he operated on, if for no other reason that karma can be a bitch and who knows when it would be their turn to go under the knife? Such was the plight of Dr. Thomas Bolton, well-regarded in the medical establishment of 1840s London, but troubled himself at the tragic results of even his best work. Donating his free time to serving the miserably poor wretches of London's Seven Dials district and dedicating late nights of study to the pursuit of a pharmacological solution to the problem of surgically-induced pain, Bolton (played by Boris Karloff) has discovered at an advanced age a renewed sense of mission for his life's work, but he's pushing himself hard in the process. His suitably crude and creepy mad scientist's lab provides the tools he needs to concoct a variety of potions, using compounds like nitrous oxide, opium and laudanum to come up with, at last, a gas that when inhaled seems to numb a person up quite effectively.

As you've probably already figured though, the formula he landed on isn't entirely benign, though its pleasurable, addictive qualities soon keep him coming back for more, especially after his first experiments on actual patients demonstrate clearly that he still has some refining work to do. And that work is complicated when, in one of his drug-induced blackout periods, he stumbles into Black Ben's public house, a den of ill repute that he'd visited before to certify the death of a poor bloke who happened to pass away while trying to recuperate in the quarters they provided him. Ben's a girthsome bear of a man, possessed of no scruples whatsoever, looking to make a quick shilling any way he can, and he's found a lucrative trade in selling black-market corpses to the nearby hospital for their medical students to practice their carving techniques. And when you learn that Ben has an assistant who goes by the nickname Resurrection Joe, played by none other than horror film legend Christopher Lee (in an early, pre-stardom role), well you can imagine the entanglements that poor Dr. Bolton soon falls into.

Though there are enough titillating and gruesome moments to at least partially justify the kind of marketing approach used in that trailer, anyone expecting even a mild precursor to the slasher flicks of later decades is bound to be disappointed. We never see Karloff brazenly wielding a scalpel as he lurches through the London tenements (or more refined parlors he's entitled to visit, for that matter), as much as we might enjoy watching such a spectacle. Instead, we get an impressively sensitive performance from the venerable old actor, around 70 years of age and widely considered washed up or at least irrelevant by the studios who originally employed him and enjoyed great success through his run of the 1930s and 40s following his legendary role in Frankenstein. Karloff had enjoyed a mild resurgence with the success of The Haunted Strangler (also collected in the Monsters and Madmen box set) and the creative team behind that film was now rewarded with a slightly larger budget and access to the relatively lavish MGM British unit studio, where some evocative sets were created to capture the decrepit atmosphere of the Seven Dials. It's not quite the glorious squalor we see in Oliver Twist, but it's hoary enough. 

Also worthy of a respectful nod is the script by a female writer, Jean Scott Rogers. She successfully incorporates some interesting historic anecdotes, both scientific and lurid, from the era. Her theme of the conflict between scientific discipline and the conventional mores that considered intense pain and suffering to be "God's will," therefore casting ethical aspersions over Bolton's research, still resonates today as the debate has shifted to genetics and end-of-life controversies. And her portrayal of the personality drive that can lead a person to both great humanitarian work and the depravities of addiction was more skillfully rendered than the film's eventual B-movie destination warranted. It's not at all the fault that those who made Corridors of Blood had higher ambitions, since they were led to believe that it would get the proper backing to have a chance at success. Studio mismanagement and executive turnover caused the movie to languish for several years, until it was belatedly issued with a ridiculous Italian werewolf movie truly deserving the epithet of "schlock horror." Here, at least, Corridors of Blood is back where it rightfully belongs, paired up in sequence with First Man Into Space. And besides, I just didn't want to wait until I reached 1962 to finally review it for my blog!

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