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by David Coursen

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Signs of Life: Longing for a Rational, Ordered World

Although Signs of life (1967) was Herzog’s first feature film, it has few of the self-conscious, look-at-me-making-a-movie film school tricks that often characterize first efforts. Compared to the director’s later work, it seems muted, but it contains many of its director’s signature motifs and devices: strikingly bizarre, expressive images; off-beat, occasionally off-the-wall humor rooted in behavioral eccentricities; a sense of the limitations of verbal communication; visual and verbal references to moving in circles; and an obsessive concern with how characters confront a natural order that is often indifferent, if not actively hostile, to human aspirations.

Signs of Life
Signs of Life

As a strictly fictional film, Signs is closer to Stroszek (1977)—the central character in each is named Stroszek—than to much of Herzog’s intervening work. Signs even employs a narrator whose comments apparently impose order on the action by explaining and describing it. Certainly, compared to later films like the wildly anarchic Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Signs seems almost conventional.

Stroszek’s situation in Signs of Life is typically ironic and perverse. A paratrooper we never see leave the ground, he was wounded in occupied territory, during a lull in the fighting, circumstances that, perversely, offered the illusion of safety. He is introduced in extreme long-shot as a helpless, wounded figure; we are told he is a passenger in a truck crossing a desolately beautiful landscape, and we first see him as a motionless figure on a stretcher being carried into a hospital. Through the balance of the film, his world remains out of kilter, and eventually he goes mad and assaults the world, setting off fireworks to prevent the sun from rising.

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When Herr R[ainer] Ran Amok

Whether or not Rainer Fassbinder was the most talented of the wave of West German directors who emerged during the 1970s, he was certainly the most prolific, protean and elusive. His first feature, Love is Colder than Death was released in 1969. Incredibly, the films discussed below, Fox and His Friends (1974) and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975) were his 22nd and 23rd feature-length works; by the time he died in 1982 he had completed 14 more including the 16-hour television series that was his magnum (and grand) opus Berlin Alexanderplatz [1980].

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hannah Schygulla
Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hannah Schygulla

Fassbinder worked with frenzied urgency, pushing toward, and almost thriving on, excess—of stylization, melodrama, visual expressiveness, compositional precision, and pretty much everything else that defines the limits of film as a dramatic and expressive medium. His work could be wildly uneven and occasionally overwrought, clinically dissecting characters with the detached cruelty of a child pulling the wings off of flies. But it was seldom dull or pedestrian, and he seemed congenitally incapable of anything perfunctory or unengaged. Add in a personal life reportedly consisting of relationships that were a vipers’ pit of duplicity, jealousy and manipulation and a lifestyle Dionysian enough to give mere degeneracy a good name: he famously dismissed concerns that cocaine might ruin his health with the glib assertion “in Hollywood I can get a Teflon nose.” It’s enough to make you wonder how he got anything done, much less became one of the most productive film directors in history. (Of course, he did die at 37—well past his “sell by” date physically but not artistically: his penultimate film, Veronika Voss [1981], was among his best). He only dialed back his lifestyle—reportedly even abstaining from white powdery substances—and fully devoted himself to his craft once, for the year he spent laboriously realizing his dream project, a film adaptation of a novel he revered, Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. The resulting masterpiece runs 16 hours, enough screen time to imbue the characters and their milieus with a richness and depth not always evident in his other work.  Sarris blurbed it “an Everest of modern cinema.” Its fullness suggests that the fierce urgency of the broad strokes he used to craft his other work may have sacrificed complexity and resonance for force and clarity.

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Aguirre, The Wrath of God – Defying the Natural Order

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) was Werner Herzog’s fifth feature film—his first with Klaus Kinski—and arguably his most compelling, resonant, and admired early work. Its opening titles announce its subject as an expedition led by Pizarro in search of El Dorado, that crossed the Andes descended to the jungle floor, and made an ill-fated decision to attempt a raft trip down river.

Klaus Kinski as Aguirre
Klaus Kinski as Aguirre

From its opening moments, the film has a dual focus. The opening titles, fictitiously evoking Spanish conquistadors—an expedition, set in 1560, supposedly led by Pizarro, who died in 1541—suggest a narrative fiction film, perhaps a fable about imperialism. But a breathtaking series of early images, of clouds, of a vertical mountainside with a fragile human chain descending, as much from the clouds as the summit, suggest a lyrically poetic documentary portrayal of man inter­acting with—and being overwhelmed by—the natural world. In many ways, of course, the two are comple­mentary; the narrative of imperialism is largely one of conquerors subduing natives before being, in turn subdued and engulfed by the land.

This double focus is not surprising for Herzog, who persistently blurred the distinctions between documentary and fiction. Fata Morgana (1970) contains some of the most poetically evocative landscapes ever filmed, but Herzog reportedly believes there’s a narrative in there somewhere, based on a creation legend. And the “straight” documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) uses its factual subjects as starting points for metaphysical exploration. Finally, the early Herzog “fiction” film with the fewest “real­istic” trappings, the ponderously stylized Heart of Glass (1976)—complete with a cast “acting” while under hypnosis—nearly collapses under the weight of its self-conscious ramblings.

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Jean Renoir’s River

Jean Renoir’s world-view, famously stated by a character the director played in The Rules of the Game (1939), is that “Everyone has his reasons.” Although Renoir recognized the corollary—that some reasons are better than others—he always understood the complex motivations that drive human actions. And that understanding, in turn, helped him to animate his characters—sympathetic or not—with a vibrancy that makes them compelling screen presences.

The River - ritual and culture
The River - ritual and culture

Renoir’s work of the thirties, including his “official” classics, The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game, is often considered his finest work. And his deceptively simple work in Hollywood during the forties is often underrated. But perhaps his greatest sustained achievement came with the four color films of the fifties: The River (1951), The Golden Coach, (1953), French Cancan (1955), and Elena and Her Men (1956).

The River, Renoir’s first film in color and last in English, showcases the thematic richness and empathetic characterization that define the director’s best work. A film of astonishing physical beauty, The River is one of the richest explorations of man’s place in the natural world ever filmed. From the opening sequence, a series of shots of life along a river in India, the film explores man in nature, integrating human experience into a larger order encompassing all life.

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John Ford’s Wilderness: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The poster that launched Liberty Valance
The poster that launched Liberty Valance

[originally published in slightly different form in Sight and Sound, Autumn 1978, Volume 47 No. 4; reprinted with thanks to BFI]

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been so widely discussed, dissected and applauded that by now it must rank as one of John Ford’s least underappreciated films. Its reputation is due in no small part to the obvious feeling Ford invested in the project, making of it his final meditation on a large part of the mythic territory he invented and embellished in more than four decades of film-making. Liberty Valance is particularly interesting for the explicit way it juxtaposes a characteristic Ford frontier West (cf. My Darling Clementine) with another West that, with its contemporary technology—telephones, electric fans and smoking train engines—is recognizably modern. Significantly, just as the “past” sequences are, apart from the explicitly revisionist world of Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s parting look at the frontier, so too the “modern” sequences are, apart from a brief vignette in Donovan’s Reef, his parting glance toward contemporary America.

The standard critical approach to Liberty Valance has been to emphasize the contrasts between its two worlds and to characterize it as celebrating the mythic frontier and mourning its passing and betrayal by the corrupting forces of progress. This approach has produced a substantial body of perceptive commentary on the film, but somehow its operative word—“elegiac”—seems inadequate, implicitly neglecting as it does Ford’s ambivalence towards the past and the richness and complexity of his treatment of the post-frontier West.

Like many Ford films—most obviously those dealing with the military—Liberty Valance focuses on the struggle to subordinate the individual to achieve some greater communal good. Liberty Valance, however, not only presents such a struggle, to civilize the wilderness frontier, but explicitly shows the result, the modern town of Shinbone, and implicitly questions whether the sacrifices are justified. In that sense, the film is perfectly congruent with the notion of a Ford who became increasingly bitter and pessimistic with age, and ultimately challenged many of the moral tenets his earlier films had so eloquently affirmed. But what is not so well understood about Liberty Valance is its awareness of how the modern world is not simply a betrayal of what preceded it, but a logical extension of it; the flow of history is organic, the present an extension of the past. Ultimately, Ford professes faith in neither wilderness nor garden; he has considerable affection for the past, but no real belief in the viability of a society based on untrammeled individualism. Thus he undercuts his celebration of the mythic past with a corrosive revisionism that, far more than any lines of quotable dialogue, demonstrates his commitment to confronting and scrutinizing, rather than simply printing, the legend that is the subject of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

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John Huston: Withholding Judgment

[Parts of the article previously appeared in Cinemonkey and as program notes for Cinema 7]

Film critics have never quite known what to make of John Huston; whether his work has been praised or disparaged, it has almost always inspired critical overkill. After a striking debut with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and a pair of studio assignments, Huston made several highly-regarded war documentaries. His fourth feature, Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), widely acclaimed as authentic film art (at a time when the phrase had little currency in discussions of American movies), inspired the most eloquent and passionate of Huston’s early defenders, James Agee, to write a now-classic Life magazine article, “Undirectable Director” (1950) summarizing Huston as follows:

The Maltese Falcon is the best private-eye melodrama ever made. San Pietro… is generally considered to be the finest of war documentaries. Treasure of Sierra Madre… is the clearest proof in perhaps twenty years that first-rate work can come out of the big commercial studios…. To put it conservatively, there is nobody under fifty at work in movies, here or abroad, who can excel Huston in talent, inventiveness, intransigence, achievement or promise.

The Maltese Falcon: "the greatest
The Maltese Falcon: "the best private-eye melodrama ever made"?

Even at the time, Agee overstated Huston’s achievement and promise, both as to his career and individual films. And by the time of Moby Dick (1956), Huston had amply shown he could be erratic as well. But neither Agee nor anyone else could have predicted the calamitous late-50s decline that produced The Barbarian and the Geisha and The Roots of Heaven (both 1958), and The Unforgiven (1960), followed shortly by The List of Adrian Messenger (1963). Such a casually cynical mélange of the half-heartedly perfunctory and outright hackwork was bound to get a critical comeuppance. Andrew Sarris obliged, firing a famous broadside in the Huston chapter of the indispensable survey: The American Cinema. After casually noting that “James Agee canonized Huston prematurely” Sarris brought out the heavy artillery:

Huston is still coasting on his reputation as a wronged individualist with an alibi for every bad movie…Huston has confused indifference with integrity for such a long time that he is no longer the competent craftsman of The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, and The African Queen, films that owe more to casting coups than to directorial acumen.

Sarris has subsequently reconsidered his polemical hyperbole, and doubtless regrets the peculiar suggestion that skill in casting has nothing to do with “directorial acumen.”

But Huston’s work has remained maddeningly variable, sometimes blowing hot and cold in the same film Keep Reading

Nagisa Oshima and In the Realm of the Senses

[originally published in a slightly different form in the Oregon Daily Emerald in 1977]

Nagisha Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1977) was a cause célèbre even before it officially opened in the United States, thanks to a bizarre Customs Office decision to confiscate a print rather than allow the film to be screened at the New York Film Festival. This censorship was particularly conspicuous directed, as it was, against the first film with hardcore sequences by a certifiably “serious” director; by 1977 Oshima was well-regarded, if not widely-known, for creative, pathmarking films like Boy, (1969)Death by Hanging, (1968) and his best film, The Ceremony (1971). Oshima’s projects had blended the roles of fearless provocateur and serious artist, most successfully in The Ceremony; in Senses, as in his earlier Night and Fog in Japan, the provocateur took center stage, with unhappy aesthetic results.

Tatsuya Fuji gets serious
Tatsuya Fuji: the aggressor

Commercially, though, the publicity could hardly have been more favorable: an award-winning director and subtitles to bring out the art film crowd, and censorship for the First Amendment crowd, with maybe also a genteel slice of the overcoat crowd (knowing it was the “real thing”). In combination with the acclaim the film garnered, it created what passes in the marginal realm of the art film an international sensation, becoming the first widely-distributed Oshima film; from there his career inflated with bigger budgets (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), with David Bowie, no less)and more provocative themes (Max, Mon Amour, (1987) reportedly a tale of romantic attraction between a character played by Charlotte Rampling, and an ape named Max); after further work was interrupted by serious health problems he ended his career with one of his most compelling and effective films, Gohatto (Taboo) (1999), about gay sex in the military.

By the standards of domestic porn, even in its time, Senses was fairly tame stuff, with hardcore sequences too brief and intermittent for serious overcoaters, but it does include, by my unofficial count, along with heterosexual couplings: masturbation, gay sex, voyeurism, sado-masochism, bondage, rape, intergenerational sex, hints of sex play with a child, symbolic bestiality, dismemberment, castration, a sexual act of murder, and necrophilia. In addition, the soundtrack contains enough groaning, moaning, sighing, panting, grunting, and heavy breathing for a wrestling tournament.

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24 City – The Children of Mao and Microsoft

Jia Zhiang-ke’s style, temperament, and circumstances uniquely suit him to chronicle his subject: turn-of-the-century China. His early films focused on youth, dislocated between the reality of, the backwater areas where they live, and the beckoning promise of an urbanized “modernity” of their dreams. More recently, he set The World among young workers in an urban theme park consisting of of scaled-down versions of international landmarks like the Eiffel Tower : faux cosmopolitanism as a part daily life. If Godard famously examined the children of Marx and Coca Cola, Jia’s subjects are offspring of Mao and Microsoft.

The factory
The factory

His newest, 24 City, is framed—at least for a while—as a documentary reporting the transformation of a Cold-War-vintage urban weapons factory—on what has become prime real estate—into “24 City,” a five-star residential and resort complex. The movie seems to telegraph Its formula in early sequences that interview some of the the factory’s first workers: earnest, idealistic, stoic, and hard-working, in contrast to later subjects who seem cheerfully crass and unapologetically materialistic. But Jia is as much trickster as chronicler, and deftly mixes faux and “real” footage to subvert that facile formula.

The factory opened in the late 1950s, and an early interviewee, a self-assured efficient-seeming technocrat, recounts a working life of commitment and diligence, patriotically serving nation and factory. As hard as he works, though, he describes himself as a piker next to his early mentor, who worked harder and used equipment more resourcefully, ingeniously finding ways to use worn tools lesser workers would long ago have discarded as beyond useability. The mentor himself then appears to confirm this, smiling a bit diffidently as he recounts never missing a day of work– holidays and Sundays included—and working occasional nights as well. And he confirms, and even embellishes the accounts of re-using worn equipment until it brings to mind the story in The Searchers: ordinary man rides a horse until it’s dead; a Comanche gets on that horse, rides it for 20 miles, then eats it.

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