Federico Fellini loves his clowns. They are the stars of La Strada, part of the sideshow of 8 ½, and revelers in the dreamscape world of Juliet of the Spirits, and those are just the literal incarnations in whiteface and costumes. You find their cousins in Il Bidone and The White Sheik and the circus spirit in the society sideshows of La Dolce Vita and the flights of creative fantasy in 8 ½. He loved to cast clowns in his supporting casts and directed one of Italy’s great clowns in his movies: Polido (aka Ferdinand Guillaume), who played Pagliaccio in La Dolce Vita and appeared in Nights of Cabiria (as a monk), 8 ½, and Toby Dammit (Fellini’s section of Spirits of the Dead). The Clowns, directed for Italian TV (where it debuted on Christmas Eve, 1970) and subsequently released in theaters, is his celebration of these modern jesters.
Smiles Of A Summer Night (Criterion)
Ingmar Bergman’s reputation is built on a foundation of introspective human dramas and personal crises steeped in philosophical discussions, conversations that scrape tender emotions and troubled relationships laid bare. And yes, his career is filled with such cinema, much of it dark, most of it very serious and all of it (to a greater or lesser extent) exploring his ideas of drama, art, love and the complexities of human existence.
Yet the film that first brought Bergman to international attention in 1955 was neither dour nor dark. Smiles of a Summer Night is a light, sunny, airy sex comedy, like a Swedish version of a sly Lubitsch satire of love and class and sex by way of a Shakespeare comedy of mismatched couples reshuffled through the course of the film. It largely plays out at a weekend retreat in the country manor of beautiful (and somewhat notorious) stage actress Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), or rather her worldly mother (Naima Wifstrand), something of a social courtesan in her day (“My dear daughter, I was given this estate for promising not to write my memoirs”).
She invites Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand), an old lover who has recently reconnected, along with his much, much younger wife (Ulla Jacobsson) and troubled son (Björn Bjelfvenstam), a divinity student with very worldly concerns, notably a tormenting attraction to his stepmom. To stir it up, she also invites her current lover, the married Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), and his wife (Margit Carlqvist), who connives to help Desiree reshuffle the pairs to their desired outcome. Bringing the sextet up to an octet is Fredrik’s earthy young maid (Harriet Andersson) and Desiree’s hearty groom (Åke Fridell). While Desiree’s mother provides the witty commentary to the awkward dance, the unfettered attraction and physical indulgence of the servants offers a refreshing simplicity to love and sex beyond these social creatures.
It’s all very warm and witty and played like an elegant stage farce, with Bergman’s usual introspection recast through witticisms and banter. The men are egotistical fools (“I can tolerate my wife’s infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger”) and the women worldly veterans of disappointing loves (apart from the girlish young wife, still a virgin and an optimist). But there is also a vulnerability in the aging Fredrik, who adores his young wife but yearns for a grown-up relationship (and a sex life), and to Desiree, tired of a life of temporary affairs and shared lovers. While she’s the glamorous (and perhaps notorious) star on tour, she seeks stability and comfort at home, where she is also mother to a young son (named Fredrik, much to the adult Fredrik’s alarm… and perhaps pride). It’s a very human comedy, built on the fragility of ego, the confusion of desire and the wonderful illogic of love.
Criterion originally released the film to DVD in 2004. The Blu-ray debut includes the supplements originally presented with that release: a video introduction by director Ingmar Bergman, a video conversation with film historian Peter Cowie and writer Jorn Donner (who was the executive producer on Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander’) and the original Swedish theatrical trailer. The 24-page booklet features an essay by theater and film critic John Simon and a reprint of Pauline Kael’s 1961 review. You can read them both in their entirety at the Criterion Current: John Simon here and Pauline Kael here.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
With the likes of Grease and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre packin’ ’em in, people keep saying the cinema is going to hell and only the most crass hold sway. However, if the Seventies gave the world porno and John Travolta, the decade also saw a revival, on a fairly grand scale, of interest in Henry James. Of all authors! What could so fastidious an artist have to say to our vulgarian’s age? Well, quite a lot, it would seem, for there have been more ventures into Jamesiana in the Seventies than in the entire previous history of film – several TV movies (two by Claude Chabrol), announced projects (Chabrol’s proposed film of The Wings of the Dove was called off, not for want of backing, but because he changed his mind about it), two wildly unJamesian but nevertheless James-inspired movies (The Nightcomers and Celine et Julie vont en bateau), and three major adaptations: Daisy Miller, La Chambre verte (from The Altar of the Dead), and now The Europeans. This last seems to me the best James movie to date, in terms of catching the author’s essence, and it’s an exquisite entertainment, immensely worth seeing.
By Peter Hogue and Marion Bronson
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
Luna is just a word, a magic word, by means of which everyone can project his or her own dream. The moon, of course, is a very rich symbol, but the only reference to it I‘d accept is the simplest one: just as the moon has two faces, so every character and situation in the film has two faces—that which appears and that which is hidden.
—Bernardo Bertolucci in Sight and Sound
Luna is, in a very important sense, a surrealist film which makes use of the stylistic possibilities opened up by Buñuel in the 1960s. Belle de jour, for example, used a basically realistic mise-en-scène for all of its sequences: dreams, fantasies, and flashbacks were permitted to exist on the same plane with everyday experience; no perceptual reality, no level of experience, was treated as more (or less) real than any other. Advancing the surrealist attack on the conventional distinction between dream and reality, Buñuel demonstrated that matter-of-fact realism is much more appropriate than expressionistic exaggeration in presenting the basic validity of surrealist perception.
Luna, in turn, might be viewed as a seamless blend of realistic narrative and surrealist psychology. In Belle de jour, one can still deduce that some scenes are dreams and others are not—though the film’s stylistics render this process comparatively irrelevant. But in Luna, Bertolucci extends this ploy even further: no scene is clearly marked as a fantasy or dream, and none is entirely free of the irrational associations and impulse that we customarily link with the world of dreams. With or without the director’s public statements about the film’s conception springing from his own dreams and memories, Luna‘s events are simultaneously the stuff of dreams and the stuff of realistic drama.
In his latest video report, Seattle Times writer Mark Rahner heads into the “Twilight” Zone to raise a little hell in Forksâ€”the rural Washington town that is the setting for Stephenie Meier’s popular teen-vampire books and films. You can’t afford to miss the result, here at the Seattle Times website.
And while we’re on about Mr. Rahner, check out the comic book series Rotten, co-written by Rahner and another Parallax View colleague, Robert Horton.
The comic, and its authors, will be celebrated at a “Rotten Halloween” Party to be held at Northwest Film Forum Thursday night, October 29. Details at NWFF website here.
(This piece was presented as lecture to a general audience at the Seattle Art Museum following a screening of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I left it as is, so it might feel more spoken than written, which was the original idea.)
Near the end of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary about a man who lived and died among bears, Herzog finds a close-up shot of a grizzly bear’s face. The shot was part of the vast amount of footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, the naïve and self-dramatizing manchild who spent 13 summers communing with Alaska’s grizzlies and ended up being eaten by them. Treadwell was someone who saw a variety of emotions and personalities in animals. Herzog, as he makes clear in his narration, sees only the absolutely blank, completely amoral cruelty of nature. Herzog’s films will do that, simply hold a shot and stare at something (or the absence of something) until any kind of sentimental or romantic effect between camera and subject is completely erased.
And yet this device can have mysterious results. One of the greatest moments in any Herzog film comes in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, after the soldiers aboard the raft have thrown their horse into the river. After the horse scurries onto land, the camera finds him on shore, looking out of the choking jungle. The horse simply stares into the lens as the receding camera on the raft curls downriver away from it, its motion serving to slowly wipe the animal from view as the vines overtake him, abandoning him from the expedition and from the remainder of the film. But the horse, like any good actor, maintains the moment, and his blank stare, following the camera, following us, looks forward to that grizzly bear, stubbornly giving his insensate glare to the viewer.
That look into the camera is unsettling – there’s a reason that in classical filmmaking the actors are instructed not to look into the lens. It breaks the fourth wall, it implicates the viewer in the onscreen action, it’s almost naked. Of course these are the reasons Werner Herzog uses the effect in his films. He is too much of a modern filmmaker to present the world as a piece of polished storytelling. In Aguirre, he has made a film that does not merely depict the collapse of an expedition of conquistadors in 1561, but one that seems to embody that collapse, with a sense of danger threatening to break apart its frames, a grasp of storytelling that founders at times, and a lead actor who appears almost as deranged as the character he is portraying.
â€œIt is time that we start. Will you be kind enough to follow me? What I‘m going to show you will be mainly the traditional things. Up here let me show you details in the production, which we‘re rather proud of showing. As you see, flowers are made petal by petal, and this is an art, which has been in our factory for almost two hundred years, and you will see that it takes two days to complete … As you see, the flowers are molded petal by petal and stamen by stamen; even in very small flowers you can find as many as ten to fifteen stamens. The figurines which you see being ornated with flowers were first made as a gift from Danish women to our late king. Please follow me farther up here â€¦”
The first words in Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-first feature are spoken by an unnamed guide in a Danish porcelain works. One tends not to take great notice of them while watching the film because there is so much else to see: a high Russian official, his wife and his daughter, defecting while on holiday in Copenhagen, have been pursued since the beginning of the movie several minutes earlier. Yet here they are in cold print, such a clear outline of the entire film to follow. As ever with Hitchcock, the more you look and listen, the more you discover.
The picture begins, of course, at the very beginning, with the credit sequence. It is unlikely that Hitchcock could have secured permission to take nice crisp 35mm Technicolor images of a Soviet May Day parade, but the way he employs grainy color newsreels makes them his own. Huge red banners display history’s demigods. Crowds â€” perceptibly composed of individuals â€” watch columns of marching troops, then cars and tanks visibly bearing more fighting men. The shots get closer. Finally there is just the machinery of war, looming nearer and larger, crowding human beings right off the screen. The sole remaining crowd shot is distant, indistinct, grainily frozen; a title tells us that somewhere in this mass is â€œa high Russian official who disagrees with his government’s policy of force and what it threatens.â€
[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 31 No. 4, July/August 1995]
The world is full of women who hunger for movies that unreel not Gawain’s but Guinevere’s gutsy quest to repair her own – and thus others’ – ”broken souls and psyches. The Round Table of peerless travelin’ ladies includes Bringing Up Baby‘s Katharine Hepburn, a vessel of dangerous anarchy into which her juiceless lover (Cary Grant) must dive to save them both from deathly extremes. And Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, scenting out the dark, devouring angel who will perversely father her into wholeness. Seat too the sadly underrated Closet Land‘s Madeleine Stowe, who braves a lacerating descent into the “ultimate closet” of her own violated self, another brutal Janus-faced male her guide and confessor. And Sigourney Weaver’s tough mother, crucified for humankind at the end of the Alien trilogy in a fortunate fall into fire.
Such mythic passages for distaff knights are rare as hen’s teeth. Thank goddess for John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon, a pell-mell adventure featuring a Lancelot who happens to be woman, doctor, and tragically bereaved mother and wife. The derailed tourists in this new film and David Lean’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India are sisters under the skin. But the real-as-headlines, yet timeless, journey Boorman’s Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette) makes through alternately fecund and fatal Burma is “known” in her (and our) blood and nerve-endings.
In contrast, the “passage to more than India” that transforms bony, brainy Adele Quested (Judy Davis) is fueled by a drier, more metaphysical outrage. Immersed in an Otherness of her own making, Davis confronts the dark, heated disorder that reduces character and experience to a cosmic sound effect signifying nothing. By the time of A Passage to India‘s homecoming, Quested has matriculated into an older soul, worthy daughter of the cozily mystical Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) who, gazing into the moonspangled Ganges where corpses sometimes float, exclaims, “What a terrible river!” then, “What a wonderful river!” (Mrs. Moore’s cosmic opposites flow through every film by Boorman, an artist who acknowledges that his most abundant visions iris–out into darkness.)
Boorman’s quester beyond Rangoon sets out as a member of the walking dead, a fragged spirit barely tethered to her flesh, for whom the wheel of time, of life, has stalled. (The image of that wheel on monastery walls and as shadow on the ground at her very feet greenlights Laura’s eventual takeoff into “more than Burma.”) Early on, sightseeing a monumentally reclining, dreaming Buddha, Laura listens indifferently as their tour guide (Spalding Gray) puns on the Buddhists’ lack of belief in the soul by gesturing at the bottoms of the statue’s great feet, adorned by stories shaped in curving pictograms. Behind him, parents caution their son to come down from Buddha’s back. Boorman creates a visual schism between foreground religious studies and background actuality. The effect suggests the kind of Hitchcockian back–projection that often signaled psychic deracination for traumatized heroines such as Marnie or Kim Novak X2 in Vertigo.
[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 technologyâ€”telephones, electric fans and smoking train enginesâ€”is recognizably modern. Significantly, just as the â€œpastâ€ sequences are, apart from the explicitly revisionist world of Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s parting look at the frontier, so too the â€œmodernâ€ 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 wordâ€”â€œelegiacâ€â€”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 filmsâ€”most obviously those dealing with the militaryâ€”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.
[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.
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 Read More “John Huston: Withholding Judgment”