Sunday, October 14, 2007

10/14: Blind Chance; The Naked Spur

Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blind Chance is a powerful political fable that provides an early glimpse at the unique style that would later lead to acclaimed international successes like the Three Colors Trilogy and The Double Life of Veronique. As with the later films, Kieslowski displays a deeply erotic, sensual sensibility and a warm humanism that inflects every facet of this complex film. He also shows signs of the spiritual outlook and interest in fate and overlapping chronologies that is especially prevalent in the films he's best known for. Blind Chance begins with a brief, elliptical precis of the early life of Witek (Boguslaw Linda), starting with a few childhood scenes, his first love, his days in medical school, and finally the death of his father. Many of these earlier memories will later be shown to be false or at least incomplete, hazily remembered scenes from the distant past that have taken on iconic status in Witek's mind even if the particulars aren't quite accurate.

But what turns out to be most important is the death of Witek's father, who had pushed his son into medical school. With his dying words, he tells his son that he is not bound to complete this path, that he need not do what he doesn't want to. He sets Witek free. This moment is the crucial one for Kieslowski, the moment of seeming freedom, because this film is in fact an examination of just how much freedom we do have as humans, and how much of our lives are determined by forces outside of our control. At this moment, Witek decides to leave Lodz, where he is studying, and catch a train to Warsaw instead, perhaps in search of his old teenage love, or maybe just for a change of scenery to decide where his life should go from here. After this point, the film takes on a three-part structure, with each section subtly altering the events at the train station, causing great shifts in Witek's life as a result. In the first iteration, he catches the train and falls in with some dedicated Communists who wish to change the current political system from within it. He joins the Party as well and shows promise, but becomes disgusted with this life after his girlfriend, his old love who he's reunited with, is arrested for dissident activities and rejects him. In the second section, Witek barely misses the train and winds up in a violent altercation with the station guards. He's sent to a work camp, where he meets some anti-Communists and becomes involved in their movement. In the third and final segment, he simply misses the train, returns to med school, marries a fellow student who he loves, and has children with her.

As always, Kieslowski is a masterful moral filmmaker, but never a moralist, because his work examines morality and the consequences of choices without heavy-handed preaching or over-determined meanings. What's interesting about Kieslowski's treatment of fate is that, while Witek's immediate situation is essentially a matter of chance — whether he catches the train or not — his reactions, choices, and moral fiber remain his own to form in response to his surroundings. Whether he is within the Party, against it, or trying to stay completely neutral in political matters, he tries to stay true to his own conception of the good and moral. What changes, from context to context, are the external pressures on the individual, the information he learns or doesn't learn about the world around him, and the events which might lead him in one direction or another. Kieslowski seems to be interested in the ways in which, with fate and chance dictating the broad outlines of our lives, we can still be moral and responsible with respect to the everyday decisions and choices we make, and so might help shape our own fates. Though this film is often thought of as three different possible lives based on a single chance event, it's actually much more complicated than that. Witek can't choose whether to catch the train or not, but he does make dozens of decisions afterwards, all of which equally help to determine his life, though the repercussions of his choices stretch out in directions he couldn't possibly predict. If fate and luck (or God, who Witek turns to in one episode but not the other two) hand us the raw materials of a life, it's up to the individual to craft those materials by making moral choices.

In the context of troubled 1980s Poland, such moral choices were naturally for Kieslowski also a question of Polish politics, and the film was so openly political in its presentation of Communist power abuse that it was suppressed for 6 years. More subversively, the film emphasizes the capacity for choice and individual morality in situations which are in many ways beyond the individual's control. In that sense, there is a real continuity between this early film and Kieslowski's later work, which may be more visually flashy but contains the same humanist, morally inclined spirit.

Another filmmaker with a distinctly moral perspective in his films was Anthony Mann, the premier stylist of the American Western. The Naked Spur is the third entry in Mann's run of Westerns starring James Stewart, probably the best run of Westerns ever to come out of Hollywood. Mann's hard-edged look at the American frontier, and his unconventional conception of the Western "hero" — the quotes were often required for Mann's leads — found their perfect realization in Stewart. In Mann's films, he inevitably positioned Stewart's character as a morally ambiguous, distanced figure acting out of self-interest rather than any moral imperative. Here, Stewart plays a former rancher who was betrayed by his girlfriend and lost his land. In order to get it back, he becomes a bounty hunter, tracking down a murderous local outlaw (Robert Ryan) in order to bring him in for a reward. Along the way, Stewart unwillingly takes on two partners, an amiable old gold-seeker (Millard Mitchell), and a corrupt ex-cavalryman (Ralph Meeker). When the trio manage to capture Ryan (and his companion, Janet Leigh), the outlaw begins playing them off each other, awakening instincts for greed, lust, and hatred in the three men.

As far as the narrative goes, Mann's construction is as always taut and engaging. This is the second time I've seen The Naked Spur, and it's just as enjoyable to revisit it with all foreknowledge of its twists and turns. It's also illustrative of Mann's preoccupation with the idea of the reluctant hero, who is forced by circumstance and outside forces to, eventually, make the moral choice in spite of all his instincts. In this case, Stewart plays a man damaged by his past, seething with rage and ready to do just about anything to get back even a shred of his lost life. He gives a remarkable performance, in one of his first darker roles, allowing him a much greater range than the straightforward good guy he usually played prior to this. When he speaks of ranching, his voice takes on a wistful, nostalgic tone, a stark contrast to the clipped, abrupt manner he otherwise has. He is a man determined to overcome his basic peaceful, domestic ways just this once, in order to earn back the old way of life he loved so much. But as the pressures accumulate and the cost of bringing Ryan to justice become ever greater, it becomes harder and harder for Stewart to accept trading a man's life, even a murderer's life, for a sack of gold.

For Mann, violence and death are always common in the American West, and they're presented with a straightforward brutality that is all the more shocking for its casual presentation. There's nothing here that has quite the visceral punch of the infamous hand-shooting incident in The Man From Laramie, but the action scenes do have a raw energy that's lacking in other Hollywood films of the period. When someone gets hurt in a Mann film, you know he's hurt, and when Stewart gets shot in the leg early on, he limps and suffers all through the rest of the film. Mann's heroes are never the impassive John Wayne type, stoically facing everything; Stewart cries, breaks down, yells, slumps over his horse in agony. Against this very real violence, Mann offers a vision of domesticity and hope for the future, which here is largely contained to Stewart's infrequent references to his ranching days. The usual Hollywood vision of the West was contained to gunfights, outlaws, and Indians. Mann was always even more interested in the ways that the people of the time made lives for themselves amidst harsh conditions, carving out a niche of relative security and contentment from the wide-open landscape. This is a true classic of the Western genre, and one of the finest achievements of the Mann/Stewart pairing.


Joe said...

I've always found Kieslowski's pre-Decalogue films to be really bland. While Blind Chance was certainly more interesting than his social realist Camera Buff, I think I prefer him as the grandiose director of the Trois coleurs Trilogy and The Double Life of Veronique. I think he finally began to explore the possibilities of cinema, as opposed to mere storytelling with his last few projects before his death.

Ed Howard said...

I agree that I prefer the later films to this one (the only pre-Dekalog film I've seen), but I certainly wouldn't call it "bland" or cinematically uninteresting. It lacks the visual sheen and the play with colors of the later films, but the sense of composition is every bit as refined as in Kieslowski's later work. This is especially apparent in the series of eroticized two-shots of Witek and the three women he falls for; there's one in each story, and the screenshot I include above is an example from the second segment. Each of these is a striking, sensual image that perfectly captures the feeling of connection inherent in loving sex. The best scenes in this film have the same erotic charge and emotional depth as anything in, say, Double Life of Veronique. Also worth mentioning is the scene in the last episode in which Witek glimpses his naked wife through the bathroom doorway, and she walks out towards him. It's a wonderfully handled moment where the geometry of the framing at first provides only a hint of sexual frisson, then gives way completely once they embrace.

Most of the scenes that stick out for me visually speaking, in terms of framing and composition, are these erotic, sensual moments. But the film is also interesting for the way it uses close-ups in general, especially the strange pseudo-documentary moments in which a character seems to address or look at the camera, which takes on Witek's POV. So I can see where you're coming from, but I think even if this film lacks the more obvious stylistic flourishes of the later work, it's hardly without interest aesthetically as well as thematically.