Friday, November 30, 2012

The Black Pirate

The Black Pirate is a swashbuckling pirate adventure, a showcase for the daring stunts and swordplay of silent action star Douglas Fairbanks. Made in 1926 and directed by Albert Parker, it was one of the first films shot entirely with the two-strip Technicolor process, which makes it one of the rare surviving silents shot in color. Fairbanks plays a nobleman, the sole survivor of a pirate attack that kills his father. He vows revenge on the pirates, though his plan to achieve that revenge is anything but logical, since it consists of joining the pirate band, becoming their leader, and teaching them to be better, more effective pirates, even helping them to hijack a ship while plotting against them.

It never makes much sense, but the silly plot (from a story by Fairbanks himself) provides ample excuse for Fairbanks to show off his exhilarating stuntwork and obvious love of physical feats of daring. He makes a much more convincing pirate than a nobleman, and he seems to enjoy inhabiting this role altogether too much for a man supposedly seeking revenge. To prove his worth to the band of pirates, he hijacks a ship singlehandedly, pulling up alongside it in disguise as a fisherman and swinging around all over the ship, cutting ropes and sails, sending watchmen flying up into the rigging and finally holding the whole crew hostage with a pair of imposing cannons. He does it all with a big, infectious grin on his face, his teeth shining as he leaps and soars through the ship's rigging and swings from one perch to another, clambering around with the agility of a monkey, gliding down the sail with his knife thrust into its fabric or swinging on ropes. Fairbanks always seems to be having a blast when pulling off these stunts, and his enthusiasm is what makes him so fun to watch.

In between the action scenes, the film flounders a bit, and Parker's direction is mostly static and workmanlike. One exception is a great celebratory shot towards the end of the film, after the action-packed battle scene climax — which itself mostly consists of Fairbanks' allies comically jumping on the pirates en masse as if they're playing football — in which Fairbanks is hoisted aloft by his soldiers. He's in the bottom of the ship's hold and is handed up from one set of hands to the next at each level of the ship, the camera tracking up with him while he simply poses heroically, flexing his muscles and grinning proudly, passively letting himself be carried up to the top deck. It's a gloriously silly and self-conscious affirmation of the hero's potency.

Despite Fairbanks' grinning bravado and the flimsy scenario, some grit is provided by making the pirates — with the exception of Fairbanks' one-armed sidekick (Donald Crisp) — credibly sinister. The film is fairly direct about the brutality of the pirates, particularly with regards to their leering intentions towards a princess (Billie Dove) who the crew takes captive. A few of the pirates fight over her and draw straws to see who takes possession of her, just as earlier they'd drawn straws to settle a struggle over a monkey they'd found. The parallel between the two scenes suggests that these bloodthirsty pirates look at women as property, and it's all too obvious what they want to do with this particular piece of property. Of course, Fairbanks protects her from the pirates' lust, and of course the pair falls in love with one another, though it's funny that the princess is visibly relieved, at the end of the film, when she learns that her paramour is not actually a good-hearted pirate but a duke — a potential class crisis averted!

Early on, there's an offhandedly shocking grisly moment in which one of the pirates' captives, trying to keep them from getting a cherished ring, swallows it. But the pirate captain (Anders Randolf) sees this and gestures towards the man. One of the pirates then strolls offscreen with a knife, and moments later wanders back into the frame, the knife and the front of his clothes coated in bright, sticky red, holding out the ring for his captain.

The color is what makes it so startling, and it's one of the best uses of the film's primitive Technicolor. The clunky, unreliable two-strip process results in a restricted palette of mainly reds and blues, sometimes mixed with queasy greens or purples. There's no potential here for subtle color effects, which might be why color film didn't really catch on in a big way until the later three-strip process. Even so, the novelty of a true color silent film, no matter how basic the color scheme, helps to set this film apart as more than the routine pirate adventure it otherwise is.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Grapes of Death

The Grapes of Death marked a return to form for the idiosyncratic horror auteur Jean Rollin. After 1974's remarkable but commercially unsuccessful Lips of Blood, Rollin, unable to get even the typically miniscule budgets his particular brand of surreal, dreamlike horror required, began churning out straight-up softcore porn under the aliases Michael Gentil and Robert Xavier. The Grapes of Death, produced in 1978, four years after his last horror project, was Rollin's retreat from the adult film ghetto. It's a fantastic return, too, with Rollin tackling the zombie genre and adapting his sensual, hypnotic aesthetic to this creepy tale of a rural wine-producing region overrun by shambling, rotting, diseased and insane farmers.

This decay of civilization is seen through the eyes of Élisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal), a young woman who's planning to visit her fiancé at the winery he manages. Instead, her train journey is interrupted by a zombified man who kills her friend and chases her off the train into a typically desolate Rollinesque countryside. This rural landscape is alternately brightly sunny and shrouded in fog, utterly without logic or concern for continuity. The film has a strangely gorgeous, pastoral atmosphere that clashes against the periodic outbursts of sloppy gore and disgusting, smeary makeup effects. Fleeing from her zombie pursuer, Élisabeth runs across a foggy bridge, surrounded in fluffy white clouds, then runs into a large open meadow that Rollin films in a stunning wide shot, the sun a glowing blue pinprick just barely cutting through the thick soup of the fog. Élisabeth arrives at a cemetery, looming out of the fog with massive stone crosses atop its locked gate, but soon after, the fog disappears in between shots, and the heroine is running across a rocky, barren hillside, bathed in gorgeous summery sun.

Weather and landscape are both prone to this kind of slippage in Rollin's films, with their uneven regard for the niceties of continuity. The countryside itself provides many of the chills here, with this terrified young woman stumbling across this desolate, unwelcoming land, coming across crumbling stone buildings in various states of decay and destruction, as though the land was already abandoned and falling apart long before this zombie plague further decimated the region. Rollin has always loved the gothic ruin of collapsing castles and old buildings situated in bleakly beautiful, unpopulated surroundings. He makes these scenes both sinister and oddly appealing, because he's obvious fascinated by the poetic ruin of these landscapes even as he uses them as foreboding settings for tales of death and terror.

Rollin is adept at finding a languid, melancholy form of poetry in the trashy, violent, sexually charged B-movie material that drives the often fragmented narratives of his films. Here, he makes his zombies more sad than terrifying, as they stumble around, their faces melting with oozing open sores that pour multicolored liquids down their cheeks and over their foreheads. The effects are primitive and ugly, and also somewhat disgusting — especially in the disturbing scene where one zombie repeatedly smashes his head against a car's window, leaving pus-yellow streaks on the glass until he finally manages to shatter it. Rollin makes this zombie plague explicitly a kind of disease, caused by pesticides used on wine grapes, and the sufferers of the plague are in various states of mental and physical decay, some of them utterly blank, their minds erased, and others tragically seeming to understand that they're losing their minds and being possessed by violent urges.

There's a strange poignancy to these zombies. When the initial zombie is first chasing Élisabeth, he abruptly gets tired and slumps down to a seat on the railroad tracks, cradling his head in his hands, exhausted and frustrated; Rollin, interestingly, pauses to consider the emotions of the zombie, too tired to continue chasing his prey. Later, Rollin gives one of the zombies a surprisingly affecting (and creepy) death scene, using the last of his energy to bloodily kiss the severed head of the woman he'd loved and killed, whose head he'd been carrying around in front of him like a talisman ever since.

Élisabeth's journey across the countryside is structured around her encounters with various people affected in various ways by the plague. She leads the blind woman Lucie (Mirella Rancelot) through the wasteland of a ruined, burning village with dead bodies strewn everywhere, the blind woman unable to see the wreckage all around her — and later, unable to see the zombies, her former neighbors, gathering around her and slowly closing in. Towards the end of the film, Élisabeth falls in with a pair of farmers, unaffected by the disease because they drink beer instead of wine, who provide an opportunity for a sudden diversion into political commentary. The action suddenly halts for these two to briefly discuss politics, improbably connecting the zombie outbreak to the French Resistance and modern anti-militarism. It's such a clumsy and truncated bit of forced commentary that it almost feels like a parody of the kind of social issue messages that, following George Romero, have become de rigeur for zombie movies.

The film's most memorable cameo appearance comes from Brigitte Lahaie, an adult film actress who had appeared in one of Rollin's earlier porn ventures, and had apparently impressed the director: she'd go on to be an important muse in his next few features, and is here already a formidable screen presence. Her unnamed character (appropriately credited only as "la grande femme blonde") is a mysterious woman who Élisabeth encounters while fleeing from the zombies. Seemingly unaffected by the plague — in a typical Rollin flourish, she eagerly shows off her naked body to reveal the lack of rotting wounds — she nevertheless projects a curious, magnetic menace in her ferocious, teeth-baring smile. Her teeth permanently clenched, she looks like she's either holding back some intense inner turmoil or preparing to devour anyone in her path. She makes only a brief appearance here, but her unhinged, terrifying performance is unforgettable, especially since she also strikes some unexpected notes of poignancy within this portrayal of a deranged psychopath.

Moody, chilling, poetic and strangely moving, The Grapes of Wrath is another fantastic, utterly original horror piece from Rollin. It's slightly more straightforward and conventionally horrific than many of his earlier films, with more gore and action, but it's still primarily reliant on its dreamlike atmosphere, on the sense of an eerie journey across a haunted wasteland where the terror arises as much from the abstract aesthetics as from the actual supernatural or monstrous threat.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Pandora's Box

Pandora's Box was director Georg Wilhelm Pabst's first collaboration with actress Louise Brooks, who the director had discovered in Howard Hawks' A Girl in Every Port. As in that film, Brooks is a template for the femme fatale, a seductress who leads men into temptation and self-destruction while, strangely enough, retaining her own almost childlike innocence. Her character in Pabst's film, Lulu, was Brooks' most enduring and iconic creation, the part for which she will always be remembered. Pabst's film is built around her, and it succeeds almost entirely because Pabst is so adept at highlighting and channeling the actress' magnetic charm, her absolutely unparalleled ability to light up a screen with the sheer beauty and poignancy of her face.

Brooks' charisma is so vital to the film because Lulu could have been a very unappealing character if embodied by a less iconic actress. Lulu is a prostitute and aspiring dancer, a frivolous and cheery woman who's totally unconcerned with morals. When her latest wealthy lover, Dr. Schön (Fritz Kortner), tells her at the beginning of the film that he's getting married to someone else, she shrugs and tells him that's no reason not to kiss her. Lulu's all about pleasure, and about living in the moment: when she's with a man, her casual intimacy and ready smiles convey the impression that he's the only man in the world, but she's able to easily skip from one man to the next, turning that radiant charm on each in turn, without any compunctions about her amoral behavior. The film's opening scenes quickly convey what this woman is about, as she cheerfully parts with one of her clients, acting tender and accommodating with him until the moment that her beloved old "patron" Schigolch (Carl Goetz) shows up, at which point the client is forgotten as Lulu pours her affection onto her former pimp instead. And then, when Schön arrives, Lulu just tucks Schigolch in a corner and devotes herself to the doctor. The whole sequence is like seeing a microcosm of Lulu's serial bed-hopping, her whole life condensed into a few minutes.

Schön is a respectable upper-class man who knows all too well that his affair with Lulu is tainting his reputation, but he can't quite manage to disengage himself; even when he finally breaks off his affair with Lulu to marry a woman of his own class, he remains involved with Lulu's life, managing the variety show that marks Lulu's debut as a dancer. Schön repeatedly says that his affair with Lulu will lead to his death, driving home the foreshadowing of his end, and the knowledge of it weighs heavy on him, making him a lugubrious counterpoint to the sprightly and carefree Lulu.

Indeed, Lulu can seem downright cold-hearted in her selfishness. After the film's central tragedy, Lulu returns to the house Schön had kept for her, and far from seeming distraught by what had happened, she's delighted to be reunited with her clothes and possessions, happily rifling through her closet and posing in front of a mirror. While she ignores the meaning of this place and what had happened here, Pabst keeps highlighting the tragedy by calling attention to a striking sculpture of a woman twisted into a pose of suffering and prayer, a piece of art that had hovered portentously in the background of the earlier scenes of tragic violence. The woman, with her short hair echoing Lulu's distinctive bob-cut, seems like a foreboding sign of what's in store for the film's heroine, though Lulu, despite being a victim as often as an instigator, rarely seems to suffer, not truly — most of the time, she uses her tears and her tantrums as a tool, a way to sway men to her cause.

Despite that calculating streak, Lulu never seems really evil, just self-absorbed, and at times genuinely unaware of the volcanic effect that she can have on men. When she's placed on trial halfway through the film, the prosecuting lawyer compares her to Pandora, beautiful and irresistible but possessing a box full of evil that she somewhat haplessly unleashes upon the world. It's an apt comparison, because Lulu doesn't fully understand what she's doing to those around her, in part because she's not thinking about them — she only cares about her own comfort and happiness. Because she laughs it off every time she's caught in an indiscretion, she expects everyone else to be similarly accommodating.

And yet there's also an undercurrent of deeper emotion within Lulu, whose childlike emphasis on constant pleasure seems to stem from a fear of what might have happened if she stopped having fun for a moment. There's a definite desperation to Lulu's constant pleasure-seeking, which is explained several times in terms of her difficult childhood. Her most poignant scene is probably her trial, in which Pabst and Brooks cleverly suggest everything about Lulu's mental state through her manipulations of the thin veil she wears. Lulu feels the eyes of the crowd on her and instinctively pulls her veil down over her face, hiding from them, for once unhappy to be the center of attention. Mere moments later, though, she stands and holds the veil away from her face to deliver an impassioned plea for her innocence, and then, in a remarkable shot, she lets the veil fall back over her face as she sits down, the veil fluttering around her face as she gracefully descends. This simple moment is utterly poetic and beautiful, abstractly suggesting the effect of this situation on Lulu. Pabst also locates a strangely melancholy, even almost romantic, vibe in the film's closing scenes, when Lulu encounters the sinister but handsome Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl) prowling the London streets. Lulu's appeal is so enticing that she even, for a time at least, calms the bloodlust of the notorious killer, and these scenes are infused with an unsettling tenderness, as though there's a deep and surprising connection between the notorious killer and the sweet, smiling prostitute who now seems sadder than ever behind her smile.

Pandora's Box is justifiably known as the defining role of Brooks' career. Pabst and Brooks would follow up this success with the equally great Diary of a Lost Girl, in which Brooks would play a more purely innocent suffering woman rather than the complicated mix of naïveté and conniving that she embodies here. Brooks' Lulu is a woman in trouble, a troubled woman, or maybe just trouble, but there's no question that she's utterly mesmerizing to watch, and Pabst perfectly captures her luminous qualities. The film's melodramatic narrative, which puts Lulu through a series of increasingly demeaning tragedies, is balanced by the combination of realism and stylized glamour in Pabst's aesthetic, making this one of the great collaborations between a director and an actress.

Friday, November 23, 2012


John Ford's Lightnin' is a modest, low-key little silent comedy that concentrates entirely on the folksy humor that often populates the fringes of Ford's films. The prospect of an entire film that focuses on what serves as not-always-welcome cornpone comic relief in Ford's more serious works isn't necessarily appealing, but there's some modest enjoyment to be found in Lightnin' anyway, at least before it gets bogged down in sentiment and turgid courtroom drama in its second half.

The film opens with an extended introduction for the old-timer "Lightnin' Bill" Jones (Jay Hunt) and his pal Zeb (Otis Harlan), two amiable drunks who will go to any lengths to get a drink. Bill and his shrewish wife (Edythe Chapman) run a curious hotel that straddles the Nevada/California border, so that married women can stay in Nevada while awaiting a divorce but still get their mail sent to California to avoid the shame of staying at a Nevada hotel. Ford sets a meandering, somewhat ramshackle pace, focusing on the shenanigans of Bill and Zeb as they dig up various buried booze bottles while trying to avoid the disapproving eye of Mrs. Jones. There are some decent running gags here, especially involving Bill's dog, who dutifully tracks down hidden bottles of alcohol and fetches them for Bill.

Eventually, the film ambles along into an actual plot, involving a band of corrupt land barons who are trying to swindle the Joneses out of their property, with Bill resisting at the advice of his young friend John Marvin (Wallace MacDonald), who knows all too well that this deal isn't on the level, since the same gang swindled his family. Marvin's also wanted by the police, since he took his land back by force from the crooks. This provides an opportunity for Ford to establish a comic situation similar to that of Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality, with the local sheriff unable to issue his Nevada warrant on Marvin as long as he remains on the California side of the Jones hotel. Ford never really takes advantage of the comic potential of these situations; he's not a really great comic director, though he has an undeniable feel for this kind of folksy rural milieu, including the corny humor and stock types that come with the territory.

The film's sentimental plot and old-fashioned humor mean that its appeal is fairly limited, and its deliberate pacing doesn't help. In the second half of the film, the plot leads to a courtroom drama with Mrs. Jones requesting a divorce from Bill, talked into it by the crooked men trying to take her land. At this point, the film slows to a crawl and, at the finale, gets totally overwhelmed by predictably sentimental hokum, culminating with Bill's earnest speech in which he wins back his wife. Despite the lame plot and down-home humor, Ford provides some occasional visual interest and poignancy to the film, much of it focusing on the relationship between John Marvin and the Joneses' daughter Millie (Madge Bellamy).

At one point, Millie, playing up her anger at John, prepares a meal for him anyway, leaving a note beside it to remind him that she's still angry at him despite her gesture. While he eats at the table in the foreground, she's in the doorway in the background, facing away from him and from the camera. The composition dramatizes the conflict between the young lovers while also emphasizing that the girl's anger is to some degree theatrical, a pose, and that despite her turned back she's still connected to John. The doorway also adds to the tension of the shot; it's not the typical Fordian doorway shot with an outsider isolated from the home, but as always in Ford the threshold of the house is made to seem like a site of great import. Here, perhaps, because the girl is still inside the house, not separated from her lover by the doorway, it's a way of confirming that the break between them is not decisive. Soon after, she does lock him out so that he's on one side of the door and she's on the other — after he has the nerve to kiss her — but the way that she caresses the door in his absence once again confirms her longing for him. The staging of these scenes is consistently clever, delving into the contradictions between surface separation and subterranean connection.

Such moments reveal Ford's sensibility even when working with some rather weak material. Lightnin' isn't one of Ford's better or more revealing silents, but with its sporadically striking images and an early example of Ford's love of folksy comic archetypes, it's well worth seeing for devotees of the director.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Shoeshine was the first of Vittorio de Sica's postwar films and among the first major works of Italian neorealism. A moving, tragic drama about the effect of postwar poverty on Italian children, the film is bleak, affecting and, without being too overt or polemical, very much socially and politically engaged. This simple, stripped-down expression of melancholy and outrage focuses on two shoeshine boys, Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni) and Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi), who are practically brothers. Pasquale has no family, living on the streets and supporting himself by providing shoeshines for American soldiers and doing any other odd jobs he can pick up. Giuseppe's family is still alive, but in many ways he seems just as independent as his friend, fending for himself on the streets and scraping together whatever he can.

The two friends are saving, improbably, to buy a horse, and their desire for money leads them to get involved in a scam organized by Giuseppe's brother. They quickly wind up in jail, separated from one another and played off against each other by the police in the hopes of getting a confession out of them. De Sica's portrait of the juvenile prison where the kids are sent is scathing, depicting the cruel living conditions to which these boys — many of them arrested merely for the crime of vagrancy, a rampant condition in the rubble of postwar Italy — are subjected. The place is presided over by an uncaring warden who sees the boys only as criminals, little monsters, rather than victims of the poverty and desperation that are plaguing the country. The boys languish in prison for months without even being charged, they're fed disgusting soup and stale bread, and they sleep in cells crawling with bugs.

Prison also tears apart the previously inseparable friends, first isolating them from one another physically by placing them in different cells, and then trying to trick them into separately confessing and identifying Giuseppe's brother and the other men involved in the robbery scam. The boys entered prison more or less as innocents, but once they're inside they become involved with the criminal culture of the much more violent, experienced offenders among their new cellmates and friends.

De Sica relates this sad story with a loose, semi-documentary aesthetic. The film opens with a disclaimer attesting to its fictional narrative and characters, but it always feels real, from its exposé of prison conditions to its poignant story of the relationships between these boys, who are being hardened and toughened by both their jail experiences and the lives they'd already been living on the streets. The cinematography has a casual, shadowy beauty, particularly in the frequent long shots of the prison cellblock that de Sica periodically returns to throughout the film. These images are almost noirish, all stark iron bars and shadows, with a large empty courtyard that fills most of the frame with white space, shunting the actual cells off to the side. The imagery subliminally connects these young delinquents and street urchins with the hardened criminals of prison escape movies and crime flicks, a comparison that's confirmed in the tragic finale.

De Sica also displays great sensitivity to the performances of his child actors, which are touching and raw. He captures them in tight, emotionally charged closeups, particularly Giuseppe and Pasquale, whose increasingly fractious relationship is embodied in their alternately enraged and tearful faces. As the boys split off into opposing gangs in their respective cells, de Sica also captures the enforced intimacy and camaraderie of the cellmates, who cluster together in these tight spaces, with no space to separate them when they sleep.

The film's patient, naturalistic accumulation of details gradually builds to the frenzied, despairing final act, in which movie night in the prison turns into a fiery conflagration and a desperate escape attempt. And then there's the moody gray of the final sequence, on a rural road where the film's last tragedy strikes, and the final image of a horse trotting away into the night provides the sad conclusion to this poignant drama. De Sica would, two years later, craft one of the defining works of neorealism with his even more socially engaged Bicycle Thieves, but the emotional intensity and naturalism of his work were already apparent in this, his first major statement.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Color of Pomegranates

Sergei Parajanov's The Color of Pomegranates is an extraordinarily challenging film inspired by the 18th Century poet Sayat-Nova. The film is loosely based around the poet's life, but rather than relating a conventional biographical narrative, Parajanov's film is almost entirely visual and abstract, translating the subject's life and poetry into a purely visual language. Snippets of Sayat-Nova's words are read aloud or appear onscreen at various points throughout the film, but for the most part this is a strictly non-verbal movie, its images apparently drawn from the imagery of Sayat-Nova's poems so that the film becomes a cinematic poem rather than a mere biography of the poet.

The result is that Parajanov's work will inevitably be all but impenetrable and obtuse except to those already well-versed in the life and work of the film's subject. It's a very challenging and boldly avant-garde film that seeks to communicate feelings and sensations rather than concrete facts. The broad outlines of Sayat-Nova's life story are apparent here — starting with his boyhood memories and intimations of a young romance before he enters a monastery — but the emphasis is on the evocative visual poetry of Parajanov's aesthetic.

The film's look is influenced by the textual illuminations of religious texts, several of which appear within the film to confirm the visual reference point. Each shot is static and stagey, with Parajanov meticulously arranging theatrical tableaux in which symbolic figures enact strange rituals, often while staring, disconcertingly, into the camera. Blank white stucco walls are like the margins of the page in an ancient manuscript, while these figures in their elaborate, colorful costumes pose and contort themselves. Religious imagery proliferates throughout the film, as does Armenian folk art in the form of the old-fashioned garments and rugs that adorn the film's various tableaux. Parajanov is paying tribute to the culture and traditions of the region as much as to this particular poet, as evidenced by the emphasis on the scenes of animal sacrifices, dying of wool, and other rural pursuits.

A major theme running through the film is the opposition between sensuality and spirituality. As a boy, the poet (played as a child by Melkon Alekyan) witnesses scenes of tremendous sensuality, particularly in a voyeuristic sequence in which he peers into a bath house, where men are caked in mud and showered with water from urns, poured on them from overhead. The boy also gambols among the washerwomen, and Parajanov trains his camera on the women's bare feet, jogging along the wet ground as they scurry back and forth doing their work, their bare feet and ankles contained within the frame. Most potently, there's an image of a woman's naked torso, a seashell cupped over one of her breasts, a searing and strange image of sexual promise that seems to have great meaning for Parajanov, and for Sayat-Nova: the image is repeated several times, and the poet himself repeats the gesture at certain points by placing a seashell over his own chest, connecting him with the woman, whoever she was.

As a slightly older youth, Sayat-Nova falls in love, but he seems to reject sensuality and sexuality and enters a monastery instead, opting for a life of asceticism and restraint. (In fact, the poet was exiled from the court of the Georgian king Erekle II after falling in love with the king's sister.) Sensual temptations still plague him, though: a pair of nuns look at the handsome young monk and swoon with desire, alternating between hiding themselves behind thick rugs and lowering the rugs to peek out at him, succumbing to the same voyeuristic impulses that had caused the young Sayat-Nova to peep into the bath house. Later, a woman in a white nightdress and nun's habit leans over to kiss the monk/poet, but he holds up a rug between them, its thick fabric separating their bodies and their lips.

The film's romanticism and sensuality are further enhanced by the decision to have a single actress, Sofiko Chiaureli, play both the poet and his lover in their youths, androgynously embodying both genders as well as appearing in more symbolic guises later in the film. The Color of Pomegranates is a dense, baffling work, beautiful and strange, and utterly unlike anything else in the cinema. It's as intensely poetic as its subject, exploring the conflicting passions and religious feelings of the poet, as well as his deep connection with the traditional lifestyle he experienced as a child.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Tales of Hoffmann

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's version of Jacques Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann is a brightly colored, theatrically decorative celebration of lavish imagery and ecstatic dancing. This was the next logical step for Powell and Pressburger after The Red Shoes, their classic tragic romance about a ballerina torn between her love of the dance and her love of a man. The gorgeous, elaborate dance sequences in that film are here extended into a full staging of an opera/ballet, with everything sung, and all the drama embodied in graceful dances. As in that earlier dance film, despite the theatrical aesthetic of the sets, this is a dazzlingly cinematic adaptation, taking place in a sumptuous world of unreality, its time-spanning love stories leaping without warning down to the scale of dancing puppets or blurring the boundaries of reality with supernatural interventions.

It's the story of the poet Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville), who in the framing story begins relating a trio of tales from his past, each of them concerning a woman he loved and lost. Each of these segments is a self-contained story in itself, providing further opportunity for Powell and Pressburger to vary the aesthetics and tone of the film. Throughout each of these stories, continuity is provided by the recurrence of actors playing multiple roles, particularly Robert Helpmann, who in each of the film's segments, including the framing story, plays Hoffmann's diabolical nemesis. In the first segment, the young Hoffmann falls in love with Olympia (Moira Shearer), a doll constructed by Spalanzani (Léonide Massine) and the mad inventor Coppelius (Helpmann). They present her as Spalanzani's daughter, and Hoffmann, still an innocent youth, untutored in worldly things, falls completely for the ruse, bowled over by the beauty and elegance of the doll — a rather elegant metaphor for youth's tendency to seek perfection in love, to elevate the loved one to the pristine, passive perfection of a porcelain doll. This section's aesthetic is sugary and bright, a fluffy confection with frilly yellow drapes circling the room where Hoffmann falls for the fake girl while watched over by an audience of other puppets.

The songs are often spiked with an edge of naughty wit, as when Hoffmann's friend Nicklaus (Pamela Brown) comments that Olympia is preparing "to show off her technical pieces," a double entendre that earns a collective shocked glance from the assembled puppet audience, and prompts Nicklaus to smile at the camera, as though acknowledging the naughty pun about the mechanical girl. A perverse undercurrent runs through this whole sequence as the besotted Hoffman obliviously pursues the doll, delighting in her clockwork dancing and gestures of love, all of it playing out with the kind of kinky strangeness that motivated Ernst Lubitsch's rather similar silent comedy Die Puppe. The perversity of this set-up reaches its climax in the surprisingly chilling final scenes, where Coppelius and Spalanzani fight over Olympia and wind up tearing her to pieces limb by limb, knocking her head off, tearing off her arms and legs, leaving behind just a single leg dancing gracefully in the void, and her head on the floor, blinking with mechanical clicks, as the final image of this sequence.

In the film's second segment, Hoffmann is seduced by the alluring Giulietta (Ludmilla Tchérina), who steals the unsuspecting man's soul by getting him to glance into an enchanted mirror. In contrast to the bright primary colors of the previous segment, this story is draped in lush shadowy textures, its colors dark greens and purples. There are mirrors everywhere here, reflecting the dishonesty and trickery of this false love, culminating with Giulietta's sensuous, snake-like dance of triumph, in a mirror where she is reflected but Hoffmann, his reflection stolen along with his soul, does not appear. It's a masterful sequence, the woman's moves making it seem as though she's weaving her body around the man, dancing triumphantly around him, even though he does not appear in the shot, his absence structuring her dance anyway.

Later, Hoffmann descends a gloomily lit staircase and takes a ferry ride into the underworld, pursuing his missing reflection. This whole segment is steeped in gothic imagery, culminating in a duel in the underworld, overlaid with an image of Giulietta's beautiful but deadly face superimposed over the river of the dead with its black-robed ferryman. Tchérina's performance as Giulietta exudes a raw sexuality that infuses the entire segment, giving it the stormy, passionate, dangerous quality of a doomed romance.

In Hoffmann's final story, he loves the sickly opera singer Antonia (Ann Ayars), who's subjected to the dubious medical care of the sinister Dr. Miracle (Helpmann). In a dazzlingly surrealistic sequence, Miracle, looking like the vampire of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, stalks after the girl through a surreal, distorted dreamscape, as she fruitlessly flees the menacing figure with his pale white face, black-rimmed features, and black robes. She runs through a maze-like set, running into one door and suddenly appearing out of another, always returning to the room in which Miracle looms threateningly over her bed, with Antonia unable to escape.

This sequence reaches a fever pitch with an even more spectacular sequence in which Miracle tries to seduce Antonia into breaking her vow to Hoffmann: she's been forced to choose between her love of music and her love of Hoffmann, and Miracle offers her a career as a famous opera singer to make her forget her lover. As Miracle tries to win the girl's soul, he enlists the spirit of her mother, a famous singer herself, and the music becomes ecstatic and frenzied, with multiple overlapping voices, as the setting shifts into a hazy, unstable dreamworld with Antonia dancing amidst the chaos, finally being almost swallowed by flames as the music reaches its wild, intense peak.

As Antonia's tragic tale reaches its conclusion, it fades seamlessly back into the framing story through a series of images in which Helpmann appears in his various guises as the film's multi-named villain, embracing each of the film's women in turn, before a brief coda in which he enacts his final revenge on his enemy Hoffmann, by stealing away the last of the film's women, the dancer Stella (played again by Shearer). Throughout all these parallel romances, the emphasis remains squarely on the colorful, at times downright avant-garde visuals that Powell and Pressburger apply to this material. The film's aesthetic vibrancy allows even those who might not connect to the operatic music — like me, admittedly — to get swept up in the emotional intensity and garish beauty of the film anyway.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Three Ages

For his first feature film after a string of shorts, Buster Keaton hedged his bets slightly by making Three Ages, a parody of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance that was designed so that, if the feature had failed at the box office, it could have been split into three of the shorts that were at that time Keaton's more familiar format. The presence of co-director Edward F. Cline, who worked with Keaton on many of the comic's shorts, also announces this film's continuity with the shorter works that preceded it. The film succeeded, though, and Keaton's feature career was launched. Like the Griffith film it's based on, Three Ages relates parallel stories in multiple historical eras, in this case three romances, set in prehistoric times, the era of the Roman Empire, and modern times.

In each of these three eras, Keaton runs through the same basic story: he's a good guy pining over a girl (Margaret Leahy), who loves Keaton but is for various reasons pushed towards a more successful but brutish rival (Wallace Beery). Keaton's the lover, the sensitive guy the girl really likes, but in each of these stories he's lacking the socially accepted status symbols of masculinity and success: most obviously, in the modern story, the girl's mother compares the two suitors' bank books and finds that while Beery has a hefty account, Keaton keeps his meager savings in the "Last National Bank." In the historical stories, there are different standards — brute strength in caveman times, army titles in the Roman era — but the concept is the same, that Keaton's sensitive little lover doesn't measure up to what's expected of men, especially men trying to win a woman.

Of course, that's part of the joke, and defying expectations is essential to Keaton's comedy: this unassuming little man with the stoical expression is capable of graceful feats of daring that are as exciting as they are funny. Here, Keaton has plenty of chances to display his stunning athleticism and genius for comic staging as the various stories come to a climax with thrilling chases and contests in which Keaton must defeat his rival and win the girl. There's a football game in which Keaton performs a series of acrobatic dodges around various tacklers and scores a touchdown with the ball clutched between his feet. The Roman story climaxes with Keaton using a spear to pole-vault off a horse into a window, a gag that he'd repeat for College, though there the pole-vaulting would be performed, at much greater height, by an Olympic athlete.

Keaton's inventiveness and carefully paced gags are best displayed here in the chariot race in the Roman sequence. For this frantic race, Keaton chains together a string of hilarious, clever gags, starting with the fact that he comes to the race ready for the snow with a team of dogs and sled runners instead of wheels. The gags flow fast and furious once the race begins, too. Keaton stops to grab a spare dog from his chariot's trunk to replace a tired-out "front wheel." The dogs go off-course to chase a cat, but Keaton turns this distraction around by tying the cat to a spear and dangling it in front of the sled dog team, urging them on. Keaton is always at his best in moments like this, displaying this kind of do-anything intelligence, a canny ability to turn anything into a tool, in ways that are not only richly funny but strangely practical.

Also dazzling is the chase climax to the film's modern story, in which Keaton runs from the police in a mad race to get to the church where the girl is set to marry Beery. The scene is built around an accident: Keaton tried to perform a daredevil leap from a wooden plank across the space between two buildings, but he fell short, slipping off the second building and falling into a net. He was injured in the fall, but he then proceeded to use his mishap as the foundation of a new sequence, elaborating on it with a complex series of secondary falls, through a series of awnings, onto a drainpipe, through the window of a firehouse and down the fire pole. This is Keatonian inventiveness at its finest again, making use even of a dangerous mistake and turning it into an opportunity for what wound up being an even better gag than if he'd actually made the jump.

Three Ages is consistently driven by this kind of daring and cleverness. It's not one of Keaton's very best films, and its three-part structure makes it feel like a collection of shorts woven together rather than a true first leap into feature filmmaking — that would come soon enough with the great Our Hospitality. But it's a typically funny and frenzied Keaton film with plenty to recommend it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Son

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Son is a quietly moving, remarkably intense film that hides a great deal of churning emotions beneath a deceptively placid exterior. In that, the film mirrors its protagonist, the mild-mannered and reserved Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), who seldom betrays a hint of the doubtless complex emotions bouncing around inside of him. Olivier is a carpentry teacher at a trade school, where he prepares young boys, many of them poor and from troubled homes, for careers as carpenters, gently and patiently instructing them in every small detail of the profession. When the film opens, Olivier receives a new candidate, a boy named Francis (Morgan Marinne), who he initially resists adding to his class, though he takes an immediate interest in the boy, shadowing him around the building and even following him home after class lets out.

The Dardennes build up some mystery and ambiguity around the character of Olivier right from the beginning. With his impassive, doughy face and his eyes obscured by the lenses of his glasses, he's difficult to read, his intentions and thoughts uncertain. There's an ambiguous tension here, in that it's not clear why he's taking such an interest in this boy, pushing him away by refusing to enroll him, and yet unable to resist any opportunity to catch a glimpse of the boy. The Dardennes' camera, hovering over Olivier's shoulder like a restless insect, buzzing around him but seldom catching a full head-on view of him as he stalks the boy, contributes to the somewhat sinister vibe of these scenes, the sense that something strange is going on here. The Dardennes leave the audience to wonder just what kind of man this is, his face filling the screen but his eyes not betraying any hint of what he's up to.

The mystery is eventually resolved, with the Dardennes' typical lack of fanfare, in a conversation between Olivier and his ex-wife Magali (Isabella Soupart). Her few appearances here, evincing an awkward, strained intimacy with Olivier, represent the only times when the film expands its scope beyond Olivier and Francis. For the most part, they are the only characters here, their quiet, inexpressive presences placed squarely at the center of the film. Olivier accepts Francis into his class and begins mentoring the boy, always with a dark secret from the past hanging over their interactions: Olivier knows that Francis, at the age of 11, had killed Olivier and Magali's son.

This knowledge informs the entire rest of the film, although it is never explicitly brought up again until the very end. The Dardennes adopt a restrained observational perspective, their restless handheld camera darting around as Olivier and Francis hesitantly interact, the carpenter teaching the boy, and often just staring at the boy, as though trying to process what he even thinks about this situation, what he thinks of this boy who stole his own boy from him. While Magali, when she finds out that Olivier is teaching Francis, reacts with understandable outrage and confusion — "no one would do this," she tells him, so "why you?" — Olivier seems to react with interest more than anything. It's as though he wants to understand, to make sense of the fact that his son is dead and that this seemingly normal, slightly dim-witted young kid was the cause. At one point, Olivier even steals Francis' keys and visits the boy's empty apartment on a lunch break, walking around the place and lying down on the kid's bed.

The film is intentionally somewhat distanced, despite its constant intimate closeups of Olivier: neither Olivier nor Francis is especially talkative, so most of their scenes together are nearly silent, with the only words exchanged being banal bits of carpentry instruction. The film is surprisingly affecting in its restraint: because the directors resolutely refuse to get inside of either of the central characters, the audience is left to wonder what's going on behind all these wordless, somewhat awkward moments. The tension of the early scenes lingers even after the mystery is solved, the threat of violence always implicit in the film's reserve. Is Olivier's placidness masking a deeper rage that might explode at any moment? Or is his interest in Francis driven simply by a spirit of forgiveness and a desire to understand?

The film's remarkable final sequence, in which Olvier takes Francis to a rural lumber yard on a weekend morning, answers those questions as the pair finally confront, slowly and incrementally, the truth about the pivotal event that ties them together. Even this dramatic climax is treated by the Dardennes with a sense of mundane realism, emphasizing the clumsiness and sloppiness of the chase sequence in which Olivier, after finally revealing his identity to Francis, chases the fleeing boy through the stacks of lumber. Despite how mundane it all looks, the Dardennes build a nearly unbearable tension throughout this whole sequence, the threat of tragedy or violence looming over everything; there's a sense of how fragile things are, how easily the quiet dynamic that had developed between the boy and his mentor throughout the film could suddenly turn ugly. The film's finale is a moving but ambiguous consideration of the possibility of forgiveness, with a wordless understanding passing between a man whose life had been torn apart by senseless violence, and a boy who barely even seems to understand what he did.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Woman of Paris

Charles Chaplin's A Woman of Paris was a very conscious departure for the writer/director/comic. Chaplin had just begun making features, and now he was ready to expand beyond comedy, for the first time making a film in which he did not star, and which was a serious drama with virtually no humor whatsoever. It was also an attempt to provide a showcase for Edna Purviance, who had been Chaplin's most prominent leading lady since his Essanay period; Chaplin wanted to make her a dramatic star rather than just his comic foil. Chaplin was very aware that this change might not be welcomed, and he defensively prefaced the film with a letter handed out to audience members, warning them not to expect a typical farce with the Little Tramp. It didn't help: the film was a flop, and Purviance never became the silent star that Chaplin had wanted to make of her.

It's not hard to see why the gambit failed: under the weight of expectations, A Woman of Paris couldn't help but be a disappointment, or at least a shock to the system. It's a straightforward, subtly acted romantic melodrama that veers into tragedy several times over, with little in common with the famous Tramp's other films to that point. Taken on its own merits, though, it's a fine example of this kind of 1920s moralist tragedy, simple and direct and boasting a number of especially nuanced portrayals. It's only by comparison with the rest of Chaplin's oeuvre that one feels something missing, the supple balance of comedy and sentiment that characterized his best works, here with the comedy removed to focus exclusively on darker emotions.

Purviance plays Marie St. Clair, a young woman preparing to run off to get married with her sweetheart Jean (Carl Miller), a young artist, even though their parents disapprove of the affair and try to keep them apart. Their hopeful young love is shattered, though, when a tragedy prevents their elopement, and they wind up going separately to Paris and living very different lives. While Jean lives with his mother as a starving artist, Marie becomes the mistress of the playboy Pierre (Adolphe Menjou), who keeps her in a luxurious apartment and gives her a life of leisure and pleasure, even though he's due to marry someone else. She's a fallen woman now, but interestingly, Chaplin makes this life look fun, and Menjou delivers a surprisingly sympathetic performance as the corrupt, decadent ladies' man. There's real affection between them, maybe even something like love, and the chemistry between them complicates the film tremendously, pushing it beyond its moralistic melodrama.

The performances in the film are naturalistic and subtle, creating real pathos for these characters. The film may not have made Purviance a star, but it probably should have. She has a warm, unstudied humanity to her that was always evident in her work with Chaplin but is especially apparent here, where she finally gets a spotlight all to herself. Her character reacts to the twists and turns of her life with a laugh and a shrug, trying to project an aura of carefree indifference, but Purviance always lets the woman underneath the flapper shell shine through, more upset and hurt by the men in her life and their cruelties than she ever lets on. And yet Marie tries to make the best of it all, even when she's reunited with Jean and is torn between her life of comfort and the possibility of rekindling what they once had, if it's even possible. Marie is an interesting character, and only at the end of the film is she finally confined to the conventions of the 1920s melodrama, forced to pay for the misunderstandings that had ruined her life, giving up her partying for an existence dedicated to service, caring for orphans to replace the family that she might've once had with Jean if things had gone differently.

Before this disappointingly pat ending, and despite the more melodramatic contrivances of the script, Chaplin does a fine job of exploring the subtle, contradictory emotions at the heart of the film's relationships. Aided by the exceptional performances of Purviance and Menjou in particular, the film is awash in sadness and loss. It's not surprising that Chaplin, chastised by audience disinterest, returned immediately to comedies, and Purviance's career unfortunately all but ended here. It's not quite a shame — there's no question that Chaplin's comedies would always be his most enduring works — but A Woman of Paris represents a different and rather interesting side of Chaplin's art, focusing on the emotional richness that also always made his comedies so distinctive.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Eye of Vichy

Claude Chabrol's The Eye of Vichy is a fascinating documentary that collages together newsreel footage and propaganda films from the Vichy era in France. This compilation of materials shown in French theaters between 1940 and 1944 is presented almost without comment. A narrator introduces the film with a condensed history of World War II leading up to the invasion of France and the establishment of the Vichy regime, and thereafter the narrator mostly falls silent except for providing occasional snippets of historical context. The film is thus constructed primarily from Vichy's own transmissions, the propaganda and slanted news shown to French citizens during the war. As the text at the beginning of the film says, this is France not as it actually was during this period, but as the government wished people to think it was. This is a montage of primary sources that lays bare the lies and distortions that served as a cloak for the Vichy government's sinister collaboration with the Nazis.

Much of Chabrol's fictional oeuvre is concerned with probing the pathetic absurdity and ugliness of the surface presented by bourgeois culture; his films simultaneously document the appearance and the filthy reality underneath. This documentary, otherwise so different in form and content from the rest of Chabrol's work, actually has a similar thematic focus, using the Vichy regime's self-presentation to pick at the ugly truths that are never quite obscured by the gloss of propaganda. One of Chabrol's guiding principles in his films has always been that one can tell a lot about a culture by the lies it tells (about) itself, which is why he has always been so successful in deconstructing and ridiculing bourgeois culture. Here, he turns that same incisive eye for the significance of lies on an entire government founded on lies. This seemingly straightforward presentation of those lies, with only limited overt commentary, reveals a great deal about the workings of Vichy France.

Much of the propaganda collected here is of the usual sort, idealizing and idolizing the new rulers of France — even if sometimes they're replaced, without ceremony, weeks later — and presenting rosy depictions of Franco-German harmony. One particularly twisted piece, intended to discourage French dreams of liberation, is a cartoon in which the Allies are depicted as Mickey Mouse, Popeye and Donald Duck, planning to bomb France while the British broadcast duplicitous messages of peace. Chabrol mostly lets the material stand on its own, only occasionally correcting the particularly subtle lies. The propaganda is so crude and obvious that, for the most part, no comment is needed.

At times, the propagandists can even be startlingly open about the horrors of the situation. One newsreel speaks of Resistance fighters killing two French officers, and says that 50 men have been killed in reprisal, and that 50 more will be killed tomorrow if the culprits aren't caught. It's so offhanded, so casual in the way this propaganda piece admits to mass killings — and who did they kill, exactly? Obviously, in the name of inspiring fear, the regime sometimes admitted to its own violence and repression.

Indeed, one striking feature of this footage is how often the propaganda echoes, almost subconsciously, the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their allies. The newsreels repeatedly show trains running between France and Nazi Germany, but of course these are not the trains loaded with Jewish prisoners, destined for the concentration camps. Instead, the films show trains leaving for Germany full of French unemployed people, supposedly going to Germany to work, waving goodbye with a smile as the train rolls out of the station towards the east. The trains also bring back French prisoners of war from Germany, with sentimental scenes of returning soldiers embracing their wives, childrens and dogs. In another sequence, made shortly after Germany's invasion of Russia, the French propaganda abruptly turns on the Bolsheviks with an exposé of a Soviet embassy in Paris, revealing the hidden passages and peepholes and, chillingly, some seemingly innocuous stoves that the news announcer compares, apparently without shame or irony, to crematorium ovens.

Later in the film, in one of the few overt examples of Chabrol's editorial commentary, Chabrol juxtaposes images of happy French children heading to the countryside on vacation with a dry recounting of the numbers of Jewish men, women and children arrested and shipped to camps during the same summer. The sequence continues with a documentary on the wartime gas industry in France, and another on the recycling of hair from barbershops into raw material for clothes. The narration continues to explain what the films, of course, do not, that during this period Jews were being sent en masse to Auschwitz for "immediate extermination," their bodies burnt up in ovens, their heads shaved, their possessions stripped and stolen from them before their deaths. The sequence is chilling, with the dispassionate voiceover probing the unspoken truth that Vichy hid in favor of these dry industrial documentaries, the imagery of which is nevertheless eerily resonant with the real state of things.

Another informational piece collected here celebrates the destruction of old, pre-war films to make shoe polish and nail polish, showing images of pre-war film stars melting down, piles of film stock being thrown into processing machines that turn them to muck. That disregard for celluloid must have especially galled the cinephile Chabrol, but more than that it represents an antagonistic perspective towards history and culture, a wish to erase the truths of the past and replace them with the new, manufactured history of the Nazis and Vichy. The new authoritarian regimes of the fascist block exerted complete control over the image, and any images that could not be controlled were simply destroyed. Chabrol's film is a potent and informative rejection of that ethos: rather than destroying the images of this hateful past, he assembles them into a historical record of repression and denial, incontrovertible evidence that some might like to see burnt up, recycled for consumer products. If Vichy tried to erase the past and lie about the present, this film presents these images for all to see, preserving rather than destroying the past.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Othello (1952)

Orson Welles' Othello was the director's second adaptation of a Shakespeare play, following up his moody, fog-clouded Macbeth. Whereas he shot his expressionist Macbeth quickly and on a low budget, completing the film in a matter of weeks, his Othello was a deeply troubled project, taking three years to complete, and constantly plagued by budget shortfalls — Welles finally finished it with his own money, earned from acting jobs (like The Third Man) taken specifically to provide money for his own stalling film.

These troubles are readily apparent in the film's rough and rushed sensibility. Welles at times seems to be speeding through the famous play's text, delivering the lines at a hasty clip and liberally cutting from the source so that at times, particularly early on, it feels like a condensation of the story, occasionally assisted by a narrator who fills in the blanks and explains the plot. Coupled with Welles' typical post-dubbed dialogue, which always gives his soundtracks an air of spacey disconnection, this clipped pace gives the film a curious atmosphere, with its grand emotions of jealousy and hatred playing out at something of a remove. Welles seems far less interested in the text and the characters than in the opportunity that this classic source provides for cinematic grandstanding and strikingly crafted images.

This is, of course, a visually stunning film: Welles doesn't locate the emotion and the substance of Othello in Shakespeare's dialogue but in the images that Welles carefully chooses to accompany the words, setting the drama amidst moodily lit, theatrically decorated castles and stark, minimalist natural vistas. Whereas Welles' Macbeth was set in a foggy studio wasteland where the background was often nothing but a wisp of smoke and a dense black night sky, he achieves a similarly haunting effect in Othello with natural landscapes, foreboding swaths of sea and sky that churn with the intensity of the emotions embodied by this tale.

The gorgeous opening sequence sets the tone, foreshadowing the tragic end with a funeral procession shot from skewed low angles, the blank sky towering over the solemn figures of the coffin-bearers. The atmosphere is intense and eerily beautiful, and Welles carries this grand, dramatic aesthetic throughout the film. Othello's arrival in Cyprus is stormy and striking, with soldiers on the battlements framed against the unquiet sea, the waves crashing against the rocks beneath them and a dark, cloudy sky hovering above. The cold wind is practically palpable, and the stark, bleak mood is constantly projecting the air of impending tragedy that hangs over this story.

The film's performances are mostly excellent as well. Micheál MacLiammóir's Iago is perhaps not slimy enough, though he does project a blandly sinister flatness that makes him an effectively unassuming villain. Welles himself plays Othello, his face unfortunately darkened in what was still a Hollywood tradition of having Caucasian actors play darker-skinned men. But if one can get past that, Welles' typical forcefulness is very much to be found here, as he captures the glowering intensity and confused emotions of Othello, led to doubt his beautiful Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) by the treacherous plotting of the jealous, ambitious Iago.

Welles makes Desdemona's death scene especially potent, as befits the film's tragically sad climax: Othello wraps a gauzy sheet around his wife's face, her tears streaking the sheet, making wet marks in the cloth as it clings to her features, her mouth gasping against the instrument of her death. Death is at the crux of the film; it starts and ends with the same funeral procession, the same testament to the story's grim destination of murder and loss. Othello's death scene is similarly powerful, the camera reeling and whirling as the Moor, having stabbed himself in his grief and the realization of his mistake, stumbles back to the site of his wife's murder, where she lays sprawled out next to their bed. Welles' Othello is unforgettably potent at moments like this, unfailingly finding the black, shadowy, terrible beauty of the story's tragedy. It is far from a perfect adaptation of its source, and more than Welles' Macbeth it betrays the technical limitations and business woes that followed Welles throughout his career, but for all that it is a compelling, visually inventive work that unmistakeably bears the mark of its director.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Saga of Gösta Berling

Bleak, wintery and expressive, Mauritz Stiller's The Saga of Gösta Berling is a three-hour silent epic bursting at the seams with sturm und drang hysteria. The story of the disgraced former priest Gösta Berling (Lars Hanson), adapted from Selma Lagerlöf's novel, is a succession of tragedies, one after another, as the defrocked Gösta seems to bring bad luck to anyone who associates with him. The film is as much the story of the woman around him as it is of Gösta himself, since the former priest is often the least interesting figure in his own story.

Indeed, the women are the dominant figures here, from the scheming Mãrtha Dohna (Ellen Hartman-Cederström) — who sets Gösta up to marry her stepdaughter Ebba (Mona Mårtenson) merely because Ebba will be disinherited if she marries a commoner — to Margaretha (Gerda Lundequist), the domineering Major's wife who runs her castle with an iron hand and a fierce manner. Then there's Elisabeth (Greta Garbo), who marries Mãrtha's son Henrik (Torsten Hammarén), an overly formal stiff who's constantly gaping foolishly like a fish out of water. This was the 19-year-old Garbo's first major part: Stiller discovered her, renamed her, and cast her in the role that would first send her to fame. She's already electric here, projecting a raw quality that contrasts nicely against the rounded softness of her face — no trace here of the hard edges and stern expressions that she would be famous for later in her career. Garbo's Elisabeth starts out as a minor figure in the film, one woman among several whose lives are touched, generally for the worse, by Gösta's presence, but later in the film she returns and becomes increasingly prominent in the final hour.

Garbo is introduced in anything but a glamorous way, snacking and casually chatting with her new husband as they return from their wedding in Italy; she's eating the last of the food from her home country, and at one point she puts her fist over her mouth to cover a very un-lady-like belch. This little touch is characteristic of this film, which has a very uncouth, raw sensibility. The most appealing aspect of Gösta Berling is its rude, lewd approach to the stuffy period drama. The characters are all trussed-up and confined by billowing, extravagant clothes, the men choked up to their chins with high collars, the women hiding beneath massive floppy hats and layers of coats and dresses, thick furs shielding them against the winter chill. The Major's wife, trying to convince Gösta not to commit suicide, goes to great effort to untie the thick ropes wound around her torso, holding her heavy winter coat in place, and as she tells him the story of her love affair and her unhappy marriage, her coat and scarves hang down all around her, thick piles of clothes that seem to physically weigh her down. It's as though the fashion of the period and the layers amassed against the cold are trapping the characters, and they rebel against this stuffiness with outbursts of visceral bad behavior, drunken revelry and outrageousness, like Gösta's elaborate opening prank with a shaggy devil, or the food fight that interrupts a society banquet.

The devil at the beginning of the film, a dancing trickster who wouldn't be at all out of place in a contemporaneous German Expressionist film, is a harbinger of things to come, bursting into being out of a puff of smoke and a few flames that prefigure the fiery catastrophe of the climax. The film becomes really unhinged in its final hour, breaking free of the sometimes plodding chamber melodrama of the earlier sections in favor of a desolate, searing extended climax set almost entirely in the chilly wastelands around Margaretha's home. Stiller builds an absolutely stunning atmosphere throughout these sequences, as the castle is set on fire, smoke drifting everywhere in thick white clouds, the flames licking over everything. It's hellish and harrowing, the fire lighting up the night, igniting a series of melodramatic confrontations that clear the way for Gösta's last act redemption — everything has to be razed to the ground in order to rebuild, the sins of the past wiped clean.

The hellish fire of this climax is juxtaposed against the icy wastes of the surrounding area, the mountains of snow, the frozen lake across which Gösta and Elisabeth race in an eerie late-night ride, pursued by feral wolves, Stiller mostly focusing on Elisabeth's terrified face glowing palely in the darkness. Stiller makes excellent use of the icy territory, making the cold and the ice palpable. The characters are always bundled up, smothered in furs and blankets, and their breath makes icy puffs of condensation in the air in front of their mouths. Stiller makes the landscape bleak and foreboding, a snowy tundra with the wind whipping, knife-sharp, across the lake, the dark sky hanging low, the moon casting only a diffuse glow over the grim, grainy darkness. The scene where Gösta's sled is chased by the wolves is especially compelling, with Gösta determinedly whipping his horse to run ever faster, while Stiller periodically cuts to minimalist long shots, panning with the sled as the dark blots of the wolves give chase.

The film isn't always so bracing, and at three hours its pacing is sometimes slack, with one melodramatic twist after another. The performances, too, are mostly broad and stagey, especially Hanson's Gösta, but Stiller does make good use of the frequent poignant closeups of the film's many suffering, tormented women. In one of these shots, Elisabeth's gaze drifts rightward, flicking briefly up to look directly into the camera, as though seeking solace there, then turning back to her husband, who's upbraiding her for her interference in the relationship between Gösta and Ebba. This is a story of suffering and redemption, in which the moral hypocrisy of polite society creates a cycle of punishment and disgrace that's finally only broken with a happy ending that at last clears away the ice and snow, and the fire too, in favor of the blossoms of spring.