Tuesday, October 16, 2007
10/16: Culloden; Day of Wrath; Raw Deal
Culloden was Peter Watkins' breakthrough first film for the BBC after a string of independently produced short films got him noticed as a filmmaker. His very next film, The War Game, with its stark depiction of nuclear terror, would hit way too close to home and get him canned from the BBC, but this film, a popular and critical success, is in many ways just as uncompromising. Watkins developed his trademark pseudo-documentary style early on, and Culloden uses the technique, jarringly, to reconstruct the battle of Culloden Moor, the last land battle in Britain. The film details the defeat of the disorganized, poorly led Scottish highlander rebels by the much larger force of the British army, a bloody rout that turned into a years-long, equally bloody "pacification" operation afterwards. In its criticism of war, exposure of the class divide, and vicious mocking of official hypocrisy and deceit, Culloden is obviously a Watkins film, and it retains the righteous rage that runs through all his work.
Watkins follows the build-up to the battle with a series of close-ups on individual soldiers, as a voiceover describes the preparation, and interviews with soldiers and officers provide further context. As always, Watkins is especially concerned with social and economic injustices, and he details the ways in which soldiers were drafted by force, by economic necessity, by the subtle coercion of the clan system -- all of them fighting for the sake of much richer men who controlled their lives in every way, in battles whose causes and goals were alien to their own poor lives. As affecting as the straightforward voiceover is in getting at the root of their injustices, Watkins' use of stark, head-on close-ups of men on the battle lines is even more affecting. These haunting shots of dirt-smeared, confused and frightened faces, are among the film's most memorable and powerful images. Watkins provides the details of battle strategies, troop counts, and descriptions of period weapons, the meat of a traditional historical documentary. But while the voiceover speaks disinterestedly about such distanced, objective matters, the close-ups draw the attention immediately to the human realities behind such impersonal facts and figures. Watkins is using the form of the historical documentary, but he undercuts and subverts it at every turn, using its conventions against it in order to underscore his points about the brutality of war.
There's no room in Watkins' vision for victors either. Though the battle is a clear one-sided rout, he takes pains to humanize the grunts on the British side as well. Though their losses in physical terms are relatively minor (though, Watkins takes pains to point out, not zero either), they are equally victims of the whims of their social and economic superiors, conscripted and coerced just like their opponents. And they are also pushed into a brutal and dehumanizing campaign after the battle is over, to obliterate the remains of the Scottish rebels in an orgy of slaughter, rape, pillaging, and political sanctions. The film's anti-war outcry thus expands into a more specific protest about the use of violence to wage cultural warfare, exterminating an entire culture. In addition to being a poignant look at the lost heritage of Scotland, the last part of the film's frequent references to "pacification" can't help but point also to the then-ongoing Vietnam War and the always looming troubles in Northern Ireland, which stemmed from the same religious and cultural distinctions that caused the battle of Culloden. As a critique of war and the exploitation and brutality it engenders, Culloden is still, even now, a powerful and unforgettable film, despite its historical setting and early position in Watkins' career. He would go on to make much more incisive and complex critiques in later films, but this film proves that even his very earliest work is worthwhile.
At the core of Dreyer's unsettling Day of Wrath is a bitter opposition between vibrant sensuality and fierce repression, between the individual's will and desires and the collective morality of the community. In a small Danish village, the old woman Herlofs (Anna Svierkier) is accused of being a witch and burned at the stake, but not before she curses the local priest Absalon (Thorkild Roose) for failing to save her. Herlofs is afraid to die, and begs for a reprieve, but the pious, unquestioning Absalon never doubts that she deserves to die, and can only offer her prayers for the afterlife, a gesture she rejects as meaningless. After her death, the story focuses on Absalon's young second wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin), who feels trapped and drained by her loveless marriage to the reverend. When the reverend's son from his first marriage, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) returns for a visit, Anne falls in love with him and seduces him.
Anne is a figure of tremendous ambiguity and uncertainty in the film, an indication of the profound open-endedness of Dreyer's vision. Anne is vibrant, fiery, passionate, emotional, everything that the cold and somewhat puritanical Absalon is not. For every moment she is on screen, she is a magnetic, irresistible presence, her eyes burning with desire and frustration at her repressive circumstances. She seems like a figure completely out of place in her time, a modern woman thrust into the 1600s. In one remarkable seduction scene, she glides effortlessly around the room, circling the static Martin, her gleaming eyes always locked on him even as she moves around him. Dreyer's camera moves with her, taking on the sinuous motion of her body, framing the two together briefly, then moving on with her as she cycles around the room, until she arrives back by Martin's side. In another scene, she offers Martin water to drink from her hands. "Want more?" she asks. "Of water? No." "Then, of what?" And she gasps, "Drink!" as though giving an order, compelling him to kiss her.
Her eyes, so remarkably dark and yet shining in the shadowy gloom of Dreyer's film, are the frequent source of comment by the film's characters as well. For Absalon, who looks on her almost paternally, they are innocent, even childlike. For his draconian, righteous mother (Sigrid Neiiendam), they burn with the fire of Satan, a sign that Anne too might be a witch. And for Martin her eyes also seem to burn, but with vitality, love, and life. The difference between the two kinds of fire is, presumably, one purely of perspective, and of attitudes towards sexuality. Anne is a defiantly sexual being, and towards the end of the film she admits to Absalon that she hates him for taking her youth from her without asking, for denying her the chance to find someone to love, to give her sensual pleasures. Earlier on, before taking up with Martin, she was so desperate for affection that she even turns to Absalon himself, telling him, "Hold me, make me feel happy." When he spurns her, coldly going to bed alone to pray and think, she turns to Martin instead, with the exact same words. She is an avatar of youth and open sensuality, desirous of intimacy and contact. For Absalon's mother, to whom sex itself is dirty and her son's marriage to a much younger woman is "scandalous," the lusty, vibrant look in Anne's eyes can only represent evil. Martin, on the other hand, young and full of life himself, is enthralled by that look, while his father, inured to worldly pleasures altogether, simply doesn't see it.
It's to Dreyer's credit that his film never entirely gives modern audiences the easy way out. It's incredibly easy to identify with Anne's repressed youth and sexuality, her longing for love and freedom. But Dreyer makes the character of Absalon a genuinely compelling figure as well, a tragically sad old man who vaguely senses that his life is ending and subtly longs for the youthful vibrancy of his wife and son. His unquestioning religious devotion and fear of sin keep him from ever approaching the sensual world, but he is not an unsympathetic character, and juxtaposed against his hateful mother, it's clear that he genuinely cares for Anne and wants to see her happy. When he hears her laughing from the next room with Martin, his mother reacts with suspicion, but he is glad to hear her enjoying herself, and pines for her exuberance. Ultimately, Dreyer's depiction of the repressor figure is as sensitive and complex as his treatment of the film's "victim," Anne.
The element of the supernatural is treated with just as much ambiguity. Anne's status as a witch is unquestioned by Absalon's mother, and even Anne herself sometimes seems uncertain of whether she really has evil power or not. The film equates, to some degree, sexual seduction with witchcraft. When Anne first seduces Martin, she stands alone, softly calling his name to herself as if in a summons; when he appears behind her, she takes it as a vindication of her charms (whether evil or simply sexual) working. It doesn't really matter, of course, whether she simply seduced Martin or used magic on him; the effect is the same. When a man falls in love, he's said to have fallen under the woman's spell, and whether it's literal or a metaphor, it raises sex to the level of the mystical. The larger point seems to be that, in a society where all sensual experience and human connection is unnaturally repressed and frigid, sex becomes magic, either evil or sublime, but always something distant from everyday experience. Dreyer externalizes this by setting Anne and Martin's affair in a grim, shadowy world, all stark and uninviting interiors. The few outdoor scenes are mostly idyllic, brightly lit interludes between the young lovers, a real contrast to the dark inside of the reverend's house, with its bare white walls and crosses casting geometric shadows everywhere. Dreyer's film is a fascinating study of repression and the struggle between individuality and societal conformity; a struggle that only takes on still greater significance considering the film was made in Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1943.
Anthony Mann's Raw Deal is a rough, no-budget B-noir of the best kind, raw and uncompromising and minimalist to the extreme. Its characters are stock cliches spitting out edgy dialogue, and its sets look like cheap cardboard, compensated for by the masterful lighting of cinematographer John Alton. Dennis O'Keefe plays Joe Sullivan, who's serving a jail term after taking the rap for his gangster boss Rick (Raymond Burr) after a robbery. His hard-edged girlfriend Pat(Claire Trevor) and Rick engineer a break-out for Joe, but neither of them realizes that Rick is hoping that Joe won't make it, so he won't have to worry about squealing. Instead, he stays on the run successfully, dragging along Pat and his lawyer's aide Ann (Marsha Hunt), who he pulls in unwillingly but soon falls for.
The film's plot combines a love triangle with an on-the-lam thriller, but otherwise it's pretty standard. It's Mann's treatment of the material, the way he burrows into this story with every trick at his disposal, that makes it truly exceptional. The eerie score, heavy on foreboding theremin sweeps, could've come from a low-budget sci-fi flick of the time, and it goes a long way towards creating the film's tense atmosphere. The story is also interesting because Pat provides the hard-boiled voiceover, inverting noir convention by narrating the story from the point of view of the long-suffering girlfriend, rather than the tough antihero. Her voiceover injects a hint of femininity into the traditionally masculine world of the film noir, though her character never really rises above the limited, passive role of women in noirs. She's there to whine at Joe, to worry, to feel jealous when his nascent attraction to Ann becomes obvious. Ann, on the other hand, is more of an active noir heroine, trying to change Joe's mind about his doomed flight from justice, and at the climax taking decisive action to save Joe's life. But even she ultimately becomes just another damsel in distress, with Joe racing to her rescue for the finale. Mann and the script seem to be playing with conventions a bit here, toying with different roles for women within the noir context, but not really venturing very far from familiar territory.
Still, bucking conventions is rarely the appeal of a 40s noir I go to them for the dark visuals, pulpy dialogue and scenarios, and the exploration of a certain kind of moral tenor. In that sense, Raw Deal definitely doesn't disappoint. Burr gives a frightening turn as the sadistic gangster boss Rick, his eyes rimmed with black, giving him a fierce glare. In one shockingly brutal moment, he casually throws a bowl of flaming oil at a girl who accidentally bumps into him, then orders her taken away, saying "She shoulda been more careful." John Alton's moody visuals are somewhat obscured on the exceptionally dark and poor DVDs that currently exist, but even so his impeccable compositions and the contrast between dark shadows and gleaming areas of light is obvious. Especially great is the fog-shrouded shootout of the ending, with figures melting in and out of the night. This is a classic and well-executed noir from one of the genre's most interesting directors.