999 (134). The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, Rob Epstein)

Screened February 22 2010 on New Yorker DVD on a flight from Prague to New York TSPDT rank #819 IMDb Wiki

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Although this blog project covers only the films I haven't previously seen on the TSPDT 1000, when I saw that The Times of Harvey Milk was back on the list after last January's update, I just had to make room to write about it.  The film constitutes one of my formative film-related memories, though the memory had nothing to do with watching the film. It was March 1985; I was 10 years old. The Oscars were airing on TV – this was the first time I’d ever watched them. I don’t remember much about that year’s telecast other than that for the Costume Design award they brought an elephant onto the stage to accessorize the costume models from A Passage to India, and that an Asian guy had won Best Supporting Actor. I also remember that when they announced that the winner for Best Documentary was The Times of Harvey Milk, I started jumping up and down and ran to the living room to tell my parents. I’m not sure why I did this. Somehow I knew about The Times of Harvey Milk, and somehow it was a big deal to me that it had won.

It might have been that the film had gotten a lot of coverage on the local news in San Francisco, since it was about recent events that took place in the city. So I might have equated the film’s Oscar moment to something like when the 49ers won the Super Bowl just two months before. I wouldn’t actually see the film until two years later, during our family's free home trial of HBO, but by that point Harvey Milk was already firmly imprinted in my mental mosaic of San Francisco, thanks in part to the film’s Oscar being touted by the news as a win for the city. Even after watching the film at age 12, I have to confess that I still didn’t know what “gay” really meant, other than some vague sense of men being in love with men, a concept that both repulsed and fascinated my parents (I remember long conversations about Boy George), and that my classmates would tease each other with homophobic epithets with such frequency, and with such perverse relish, that “fag” or “gaylord” became inverted into terms of endearment almost devoid of any denotative meaning (see Deadwood's liberal application of the word "cocksucker" as a point of comparison).

I bring up these somewhat embarrassing recollections for several reasons. First, to show what significance The Times of Harvey Milk had for me as a Bay Area native, even without having seen the film. Second, to illustrate what a quasi-schizophrenic jumble of attitudes one can have towards sexuality growing up in an SF immigrant suburb, exposed to Asian homophobia, AIDS scares, (mostly) progressive teachers and media and a prestigious Oscar-winning documentary. In a sense, as a child I was the perfect audience for The Times of Harvey Milk, because the film is the cinematic equivalent of that teacher many of us might have had in grade school or junior high: the one with the uncommonly centered demeanor and reassuring smile, who seemed to have a handle on the world in a way we aspired to attain someday.

It's really ironic then, that one of the documentary's "subplots" involves the defeat of Proposition 6, which would have made it illegal for gays to teach in public schools. The defeat of Prop 6 was a milestone for gay rights in the U.S. and one of the highlights of Harvey Milk's brief political career.  In a way, the film confirms the fears of the conservatives who wanted to pass Prop 6, and who dreaded the influence that pro-gay pedagogues would have on their children.  But the profoundness of that influence is less in the gay lifestyle itself than in the rhetoric used to present it, something that The Times of Harvey Milk makes vividly clear.

On the one hand, the film's presentation of Milk invokes a classic American archetype: an entrepreneurial idealogue determined to make a difference in the world and for the better.  Through a series of biographical episodes and first-person anecdotes by historical witnesses, Harvey Milk is painted as an irrepressible optimist who runs for citywide office three times before finally succeeding, and who speaks with both fearlessness and flair on behalf of his constituents as well as his own principles. He's ultimately painted as a tragic Shakespearean figure, felled by a jealous, self-destructive right wing Iago with an almost too-symbolic name: Dan White. I remember seeing the film as a kid and my mind making a laserbeam connection with gays as another persecuted minority, another underdog to be championed against The Man.

On the other hand, the film doesn't cater to a sense of niche interest, but adopts an expansive embrace of a cross section of society. Take the film's casting, a veritable rainbow coalition of voices; it's the filmic embodiment of the State of the Union addresses that Bill Clinton mastered, touching on every demographic needed to score points across the board.  Among the many talking heads speaking fondly of Milk, there's an Asian man to signify approval from racial minorities (yeah, I guess all of them):

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Then there's Tom Ammiano, future successor to Milk as City Supervisor.  He's an extension of Milk's off-the-cuff persona, flamboyant to the extent that he almost serves a quasi-minstrel role as comic relief.  But the levity serves as setup for two sequences: when Ammiano talks about the impact that Prop 6 would have on him, a schoolteacher at the time, potentially costing him his job; and a when he talks about the impact that Milk's death had on him, the perils of his life come into sharp relief.

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There's also a TV reporter who prominently covered much of Milk's tenure for the news - here she gives her off-camera impressions of Milk. What this does is foster a sense of community and candor behind the professional veneer; that despite the roles we play in society, we ultimately relate to each other as humans. It's a small touch but it makes a difference and it really reveals the humanist spirit of the film.

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But the real lynchpin as far as connecting the story to a "mainstream" audience is a labor leader who more or less admits his homophobia, but gradually and begrudgingly comes to respect Milk for his determined advocacy on behalf of the issues they shared.

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It’s worth considering how much the film is a reflection, even an homage, of Milk’s personality. Like Milk, the film uses humor and empathy, along with a sense of the dramatic to shape and tone its message. Also note how well lit these interviews are, with a consciously consistent effect of sunniness, achieved even in the choice of wardrobe.  It's subtle, not overtly staged, but effectively warm and upbeat, seeing its subjects in the best possible light - was this the way Milk himself saw people?

In their commentary for the New Yorker DVD, director Rob Epstein and editor Deborah Hoffman discuss how they decided to retell the events of Harvey Milk and SF Mayor George Moscone's murders multiple times, first with raw footage, then with a chorus of voices alternately relating events and expressing emotional reactions. This is meant to mirror the natural waves of reaction experienced in times of trauma. This is another example of the canniness of the film, engaging the viewer on a deep level of empathy. It's so brilliant that I almost find it unsettling that all my buttons are getting pushed the right way.  It's almost disenfranchising; I mean, how can you not like this movie or disagree with its message?

In sum, this is as much a polemical documentary of its time as Triumph of the Will was for the 1930s - though rather than persuade you with grandiose spectacles of fascist supermen, it's a more dialogic approach, informed by the rhetorical techniques of college seminars and group counseling sessions.  It's open, embracing and incredibly potent, appealing to both reason and sentiment. While watching it at age twelve I came away with an appreciation of Milk and the gay rights movement, this time I stand in awe of the power of a masterfully constructed cinematic narrative to imbue people with a new outlook, its force a million times more powerful than the gun that took Harvey Milk's life.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEARN MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Times of Harvey Milk among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Daniel Barnz, IonCinema! (2009) Laura Gabbert, PBS Independent Lens (2007) Marco Williams, PBS Independent Lens (2008) Nakano Rie, Sight & Sound (1992) Vivian Kleiman, PopcornQ (1997) Empire, The 250 Greatest Films You've Never Seen - Documentary (2007) San Francisco Chronicle, Vintage Video - A Hot 100 From Out of the Past (1997) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films Official film site

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"If Dan White had only killed George Moscone, he would have gone up for life," one person says in the film. "But he killed a gay, and so they let him off easy."

This is not necessarily the case, and the weakest element in "The Times of Harvey Milk" is its willingness to let Milk's friends second-guess the jury, and impugn the jurors motives.

Many people who observed White's trial believe that White got a light sentence, not because of anti-gay sentiment, but because of incompetent prosecution. Some of the jurors were presumably available to the filmmakers, and the decision not to let them speak for themselves - to depend instead on the interpretations of Milk's friends and associates is a serious bias.

That objection aside, this is an enormously absorbing film, for the light it sheds on a decade in the life of a great American city and on the lives of Milk and Moscone, who made it a better, and certainly a more interesting, place to live.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, February 22 1985

The Times of Harvey Milk, though relatively undistinguished as filmmaking, is invaluable as a cinematic account of the life and legacy of Harvey Milk. It doesn’t tell everything about him- what movie could?- but it’s a great jumping-off point.

Much more interesting, and illuminating to Milk’s legacy, is a pair of public events that followed Milk’s death, the first a candlelight vigil a few days after Milk was shot, the second a full-scale riot in reaction to the White verdict. It’s in the second case that Milk’s absence is most profoundly felt. The Milk we get to know throughout the course of The Times of Harvey Milk was not about violence or fear, but a positive inspiration to others- as someone else once put it, “a uniter, not a divider.” In one of his most famous speeches, Milk said, “you gotta give ‘em hope,” a message that seems particularly relevant today, considering the hopeful message of change put forth by our recent President-elect. How unfortunate, then, that there was no Milk-like figure to lead the movement to defeat California’s Proposition 8. With anti-gay marriage laws being passed across the country, will we soon see the times of the next Harvey Milk? Only time will tell.

- Paul Clark, Nerve.com

The film is as much a portrait of San Francisco, the rise of its openly gay Castro Street district (even Boys in the Band is on the marquee of its landmark movie theater), but it is also a portrait of its diverse community. In one sense, the movie's universality hinges on one of its interview subjects, Jim Elliot, a middle-aged auto machinist and union rep once ambivalent to the violent police raids on the city's gay bars. But family man Elliot was impressed by Milk's support and activism for union causes and dedication to his marginalized neighbors -- not just gays but everyone. He was an advocate of senior citizen rights, rent control, and limitations on high-rise development. In many ways the film's issues haven't dated: one of Milk's achievements during his 11 months in office was to select voting machines most accessible to non-native English speakers, a stand that put him at odds with several of his Democratic colleagues.

- Stuart Galbraith IV, DVD Talk

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FROM THE BEST REVIEW OF THE FILM:

Epstein's grandest coup, and what elevates Harvey Milk beyond being a stunning, emotional docudrama and into the realm of elegant social activism, is in the subtle parallels he draws between the Milk-White dichotomy and the concurrent, controversial battle over Proposition 6, which would grant California public schools permission to fire openly gay teachers. The coalescing Moral Majority brigade (which would form the first significant American movement in backlash against the gay community's gains since Stonewall) were putting all their chips on a wager that the American public's tolerance would only go so far, and the line in the sand: "the children." It was a bet that was paying off in elections across the country in the late '70s (to a musical accompaniment from Anita Bryant).

If their argument was that children's pre-sexuality is malleable and in jeopardy of being corrupted by "subversive influences," Epstein effectively pokes a hole in the logic by suggesting that White's fragile psychological state (one crucial detail in White's case history that occurred following the film's production was his suicide in 1985) is as much a product of the inadequate social upbringing that set him up to believe in a world where heterosexuals triumphed over homosexuals. When Harvey Milk emerged as a popular (and cunning) politician who was capable of beating White at his own game, White's petulance and irrationality seemed to finger him as a man reverting to a state of mental adolescence, reaching a climax with black-and-white video footage of White going ballistic in the council chambers and batting his microphone away in indignation.

Epstein's strategy pays off in the decision to allow White's teary courtroom breakdown, the one many feel let him off with the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist, play out for a veritable eternity, even daring viewers to identify with his inner torment. (White's legal team's infamous "Twinkie defense" seems like the ultimate substantiation of this sort of developmental retardation, and the fact that homosexuality had only recently been removed from psychological classifications for mental illnesses is the sick punchline.) It's precisely this sort of benevolence to White, perhaps unwarranted in the eyes of Harvey Milk's target audience, that turns a story of predestination (Milk actually recorded his thoughts to be broadcast in the event of his assassination) into a demand for unqualified social openness—specifically, mandated public education—about the realities of sexual diversity. Without it, White was left without any sense of moral bearing and, yes, could conceivably not be held accountable for his actions. This concept gives greater gravity to Milk's own vigorous exhortations for all homosexuals to "come out of the closet! You must!" It's one thing for a documentary to claim a person great, it's something else entirely to convince the audience they have an active role in fulfilling his legacy.

- Eric Henderson, Slant

Review by Jonathan Kim, The Huffington Post:

"Twinkie defense" is a term that came into popular use after the murder trial. It is often mistakenly believed that White's lawyers claimed that their client's actions were motivated by his consumption of an unusually large amount of junk food. That's not quite true; the actual argument was that White was extremely depressed at the time of his murder, and that his out-of-character appetite for Twinkies and other sweets was simply evidence of his depression, not the cause. I'm not disputing a huge injustice was done at White's trial, but as a comprehensive documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk really should have set the record straight instead of repeating this misconception.

In Rob Epstein's interview at the Director's Guild, he explains that he intended this film to be a gay documentary that would reach to straight audiences. In this respect, Epstein has been completely successful, revealing Harvey Milk to be a passionate, charismatic politician who fought for what he believed in, and was cruelly murdered for his efforts. The Times of Harvey Milk is recommended for all viewers.

- Paul Corupe, DVD Verdict

This documentary starts with the end of Milk's life, with Dianne Feinstein's pained announcement to the press that Milk and Moscone were shot and killed. It's a curious thing to start with the film's big climax, but it turns out to be the best move documentary filmmaker Rob Epstein (The Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175) could make, as it makes everything that follows all the more resonant. From then on, Epstein shows bit of interviews with several of Milk's peers, giving us some insight of the man behind the media image, showing his selflessness and interest in helping everyone he can, in his effort to promote unity and acceptance, not only for the gay community, but for everyone.

Epstein also manages to secure a wealth of television footage, from interviews of Milk himself, to key newscasts which has relevance to Milk's life. The interviews and footage are woven together perfectly, with a sequence of events that gives us a great feel for the man that Harvey Milk was, and what he meant to so many people. great care is taken to show Milk in the most human light possible, and not as a martyr or person who could do no wrong. It does concentrate on his strengths, however, which was mostly his ability to touch people's lives and gain their respect.

If there is any downside to this fantastic film, it's that it couldn't end on the heartfelt vigil held in Milk's honor shortly after his death, which provides perhaps the most emotionally poignant moment of the movie. Unfortunately, the trial of Milk's killer, Dan White, was so bizarre that it had to follow after, which does erase some of the momentum and shift away from Milk's life. Epstein does eventually tie it back together, though, by ending the film with the notion that Milk's sexuality might have played a role in his demise, which wasn't really that evident in the presentation here. The film was released shortly before White would take his own life, the following year.

- Vince Leo

(L to R) Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman and GLAAD President Neil

INTERVIEW WITH ROB EPSTEIN

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When did you decide to make a film about Milk's life?

I had already started the project before Harvey was killed. I started to do a film about the Briggs Initiative -- Proposition 6 -- for the very reasons we were just talking about. That's what I was interested in, that fight, which was new then, and then it all became embodied in Harvey's story. That was all part of it, which is why I ended up doing a film that was more about the times, and showing Harvey as a man of history - that particular history - than a biopic documentary.

How has audience reaction changed to the film over the years, or has it? When it first reached theaters, it really wasn't long after all of these events had happened.

People are still shocked by the whole trial, the results and the Twinkie defense -- that's still stunning people who are unfamiliar with it. People react to the film on different levels, but certainly I think the primary response to the film is that, up until now, it's where Harvey Milk has lived. For the past 20 years he's lived in the documentary, and that's continued for generations who weren't familiar with the story. Now, with "Milk," there's a whole other level of Harvey's story that will get out there, because "Milk" is a much more personal film, in a way.

11242008_timesofharveymilk1.jpgHow did "The Times of Harvey Milk" inform "Milk"? Quite a few scenes in the latter were direct reenactments of footage used in your documentary.

That's true. "The Times of Harvey Milk" was foundational, I would say. I was certainly a friend of the film and a good friend of Gus. We did oral histories with dozens of people, which helped us figure out what the essence of the story was and who we wanted to tell it. From our archive, we had a lot of oral histories with the characters that are in "Milk": Scott Smith and Cleve Jones and Danny Nicoletta and Anne Kronenberg. It was great to be able to offer those to the actors.

- Interviewed by Alison Willmore, IFC.com

ABOUT THE NEW YORKER DVD

To commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Harvey Milk's assassination, Telling Pictures and New Yorker Films have released this special DVD edition of Rob Epstein's landmark documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, with commentary by Rob and editor Deborah Hoffmann.

Excellent dual layered DVD from New Yorker. The image is as good as can be expected for a relatively low budget independent documentary film. Colors are true - some of the archival footage is damaged slightly but it has no effect on viewing enjoyment. Audio is clear. I would have preferred subtitles as an option to translate some background dialogue in newsreel footage. The Extras are endless, with commentary and a whole 2nd disc of detailed information. I would rank this up there with New Yorker "Jazz on a Summer's Day" as perhaps their best DVD release to date. This is a must-own disc. It is as eye-opening and enjoyable as any film/DVD I have seen all year.

- Gary W. Tooze, DVD Beaver.com

New Yorker Films, not exactly known for loading their discs with special features, should be commended for the extra effort that has gone into this release. On the first disc is a commentary with Rob Epstein, co-editor Deborah Hoffman, and Daniel Nicoletta, a photographer whose work is featured in the film. Focusing almost exclusively on the filmmaking process, this track contains a generally interesting discussion on putting together a documentary on a limited budget. Pop in the second disc for a better look at Milk's legacy. Best of the batch is a 15-minute Q&A session with Rob Epstein and Tom Ammiano from the Director's Guild, Los Angeles, reflecting on the significance of the film. "Harvey Speaks Out" is billed as an outtakes featurette, but it's doubtful that many of these short TV clips were actually considered for inclusion—they just feature Milk talking about different city issues. A four minute "Dan White Update" picks up where the film left off, and is mainly included to acknowledge White's parole and suicide. Self-explanatory are "Academy Awards Presentation" from 1985 and "San Francisco Premiere: Castro Theatre," which features a few short speeches of interest. A less effective "alternate ending," a lengthy trailer, and a photo gallery are also included.

Perhaps the most important extras are those that specifically look back at the murder of Harvey Milk and talk about what it that means to us today. "1st Anniversary" is just a short speech by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, but the "25th Anniversary Events" comprises the major portion of the second disc. Kicking it off is "Dan White Case Revisited," a 45-minute round table on the Dan White case and its impact. Next up are tributes offered by George Moscone's son Chris Moscone and Harvey Milk's nephew Stuart Milk, followed by a speech by the man appointed to fill Milk's seat after his death, Harry Britt. It all ends with more speeches at a candlelight memorial at the Castro. There may be a few too many talking heads in these bonus features for some people, but overall, this is a nice little package.

- Paul Corupe, DVD Verdict

997 (132). Subarnarekha / The Golden Thread (1965, Ritwik Ghatak)

Screened February 3 2010 on YouTube in Brooklyn, NY TSPDT rank #784  IMDb Wiki

Be sure to also check out Ritwik Ghatak: An Online Primer

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After watching the rigorously choreographed long-take mastery of Berlanga's Placido, my encounter with Ritwik Ghatak was a jolt. His splintered account of family dissolution in Bengal following the 1947 Partition feels perpetually jostled, mirroring its characters sense of displacement and desperation to resettle themselves both physically and emotionally.

Discombobulation is apparent from the first scene: displaced villagers from the Bangladeshi side of the partition have tried to carve a colony for themselves on the outskirts of Calcutta, to the chagrin of the locals. Even among the migrants there are factions of locality and caste as a way to prioritize resettlement; as one landlord asserts: "If we can't keep the differences, then what are we left with?"

Skip ahead to 3:30 in the following clip:

WATCH SUBARNAREKHA, PART 1:

Note how the sequence begins with a sense of patriotism and resolve: Haraprasad the teacher initiates a new school for the colony children.

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It cuts from this composition that conveys a ceremonial sense of a community planting itself (note the flagpole squarely in the frame) to this more intimate shot giving a variation of the same idea, a child, hand planted on the adult.

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But then there's an abrupt cut to a completely different space (is it the same village?) where a low-caste woman pleads a landlord to take her and her son.

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After a quick refusal the film explodes into chaos: her son suddenly runs offscreen and people begin to scatter in all directions across the frame. A man grabs the woman and the camera sweeps leftward as he drags her to a truck ready to deport all the low-caste migrants from the village.

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The camera finishes its leftward sweep by craning upward to look down at the truck; the gesture is simple but combined with the onscreen activity, it conveys a sense of epic tragedy.

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Then the shot cuts back to the earlier shot of the teachers sitting planted, as if they were spectators to their own village's ethnic purging. Ghatak has established two visual spaces within the village and only now is he suturing them together, one fragmented space watching the other. It undermines the rosy words of peace and harmony uttered by the teacher, and establishes a theme of narrative, spatial and tonal fragmentation that continues throughout the film.

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Another example: Ishwar, one of the villaged teachers, depressed over his lowly status as a migrant, runs into a college classmate, now a wealthy businessman and who offers him a job. Note how the angle on Ishwar shifts dramatically across the reverse shot at the moment he is offered the position:

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The film is rife with angular shots expressing weird geometries; you would assume that Ghatak was co-opting his French New Wave contemporaries, but really it traces back to his love of Eisenstein and Soviet Constructivism.

A less propitious, but more striking example comes later, when Ishwar tells his sister Sita that she's been betrothed against her will. Skip to 0:30 in this clip and see what Ghatak does with cutting variations of essentially the same shot of Sita to convey her sense of alarm (see Omar Ahmed's comparison with how Scorsese uses the technique, after the break):

Again, the film is filled with these irruptions: one of the film's happiest sequences, of two children frolicking through an abandoned airstrip, is abruptly ended when one of them is called away. The other child plays on her own; the music resumes the mood that the two of them had established until WHAMMO!

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The film's only real moments of sustained tonal clarity come in the songs sung by the adult Sita, which amount to arias in this historical opera. But even these songs can have a disruptive effect on the narrative. One of her most beautiful and mournful songs comes right after Ishwar has been awarded a promotion; he searches for her to share the news, finding her along the desolate banks of the river (1:50 in the following clip):

If anything, the protracted mood of this scene establishes the feeling of loss and longing that underlies the entire film.

Since I brought up the elements of the musical genre that Ghatak incorporates, I should also mention how unabashedly Ghatak embraces melodrama as well as Greek tragedy. The film is a roiling mix of genres as well as moods. And on a subtextual level, it's more densely packed than I can manage to unravel in this post, connecting Oedipus, Hindu mythology, Marxist theory and the tragedy of Indian history in such a way that only a cosmopolitan scholar, artist and activist such as Ghatak could manage.  And yet, despite boiling all these elements into a raging stew that reflects the tumult of the world around him, he can also offer images of breathtaking simplicity, conveying all of his hope and sadness:

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WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

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The following citations were counted towards the placement of Subarnarekha among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Mark Puszicha, The Auteurs (2009) Rudiger Tomczak, Steadycam (2007) Srinivas Krishna, Sight & Sound (1992) Stephen Souter, The Auteurs (2009) Thomas Allenbach, Profil (2004) Cinemaya, Best Asian Films (1998) Jean-Loup Bourget, Positif: 10 Favourite Films 1952-2002 (2002) Rough Guide to Film, India: 5 Lesser-Known Gems (2007) Sight & Sound, 75 Hidden Gems (2007) Various Critics, Book - 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

SUBARNAREKHA, PART 2

Ritwik Ghatak's films are deeply haunted by the specter of the Partition of Bengal in 1947, and this sense of dislocation and self-inflicted human tragedy created by artificially imposed social division casts a pervasive sentiment of despair, instability, and perpetual exile through all the rended families and uprooted ancestral communities of Subarnarekha... Similarly, the Subarnarekha River (translated as the "Golden Line" River because of its proximity to rich ore deposits) becomes an implicit reflection of the inescapable social (and economic) disparity and cultural marginalization that continues to afflict the displaced refugees of the Partition... It is this pervasive complacency (if not outright willful ignorance) that inevitably lies at the core of Ghatak's impassioned social criticism on the fateful dynamics that led to the culturally self-inflicted tragedy of the Partition - an inextricable pattern of self-interest, insensitivity, and political apathy from the Bengali middle-class that not only enabled ideological fanaticism and sectarianism to shape the landscape of a post-colonial Indian nation, but also rendered the very idea of home as a sentimental place on an elusive other side that, like the distant, opposing banks of the Subarnarekha River, symbolically represents an idealized, and intranscendible, elsewhere.

Acquarello, Strictly Film School

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Subarnarekha, made in 1962 but released in 1965, is the last in a trilogy examining the socio-economic implications of partition, the other two being Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and Komal Ghandhar (1961). It is also perhaps Ritwik Ghatak's most complex film.

In the film Ghatak depicts the great economic and socio-political crisis eating up the very entrails of the existence of Bengal from 1948 - 1962; How the crisis has first and foremost left one bereft of one's conscience, one's moral sense. In the film, the problem of homelessness or rootlessness no more remains confined to the refugees from the partition. Ghatak extends it further as an important concept for the modern man, uprooted from his traditional moorings. The geographical sphere is thus merged into a wider generality.

Ghatak endows virtually every sequence with a wealth of historical overtones through an iconography of violation, destruction, industrialism and the disasters of famine and partition. Most of the dialogues and the visuals are a patchwork of literary and cinematic quotations enhanced by Ghatak's characteristic redemptive use of music. A famous example is the sequence set on an abandoned airstrip with the wreck of a WW2 airplane where the children playfully reconstruct its violence until they come up against the frightening image of the goddess Kali (who turns out to be a rather pathetic traveling performer). Later, in dappled light, the older Sita sings a dawn raga on the airstrip. In a classic dissolve, the old Iswar throws a newspaper showing Yuri Gagarin's Space Exploration into the foundry where it bursts into flames, which then dissolve into the rainwater outside Sita's hovel. Haraprasad, who had earlier rescued Iswar from committing suicide by quoting from Tagore's Shishu Tirtha, later in the nightclub parodies an episode from the Upanishads using an East Bengal dialect. Other quotes from this extraordinary sequence includes Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) and, through the music, Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960). Fellini had used the 'Patricia' music in La Dolce Vita to lash out at a degenerate, decadent western civilization. Ghatak passes a similar judgement on Bengal by using the same music for the orgy in the bar. A torn and tattered Bengal enhances the grimness of Sita and her prostitution as it is a powerful metaphor of its inner degradation.

Sadly, like most of Ghatak's films, Subarnarekha was totally rejected by the public. Ironically, today the film is hailed as a classic and as an important landmark in the history of Indian Cinema.

- Upperstall Cinema

SUBARNAREKHA, PART 3:

In The Cloud-Capped Star and THE GOLDEN LINE (also known as Subarnarekha; 1962), Ghatak draws on Brecht (whose The Life of Galileo and The Caucasian Chalk Circle he translated into Bengali) and melodrama to create a new national cinema, highlighting the trauma of the Bengali diaspora and the dilemmas of an independent India. The former film concerns the decline of a family who end up being sustained by (i.e., exploiting) their oldest daughter, who gives up her chances at higher education and love in order to work. In one of the great Brechtian moments in cinema, the near-demented father, on learning that his son has been injured in a factory accident, declaims, “This was expected; this is the rule.” The Golden Line is a lacerating epic about the fortunes of three Bengali refugees: a man, his younger sister, and the lower-caste boy they adopt. If the images deal in distance and discontinuity (as when the characters visit an abandoned British airstrip), the sounds are too close (especially in the scenes of disaster that accumulate in the last third of the film), creating a uniquely Ghatakian sensory overload.

- Chris Fujiwara, The Bpston Phoenix

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An intense film of emphatic visual rhythms, Subarnarekha is composed mainly of short shots that suspend actors in close-to-middle camera space, creating uncomfortably direct images of crisis and confrontation. The plot moves farther and farther into poetic melodrama (including a brilliant alcoholic nightclub scene), finding room along the way for a stark, lyrical interlude in which the children discover an abandoned British airstrip. Add some of the most creative uses of music and sound in any film and you have a must-see.

Chris FujiwaraBoston Phoenix

SUBARNAREKHA, PART 4

Unlike Ray or others, Ghatak had always practiced complexity in his presentation pattern. The juxtaposition of the Jungian archetype of ‘Kalika‘ with melodramatic realism depicts diabolic terribleness of the degenerated society. The act of confrontation between young Sita and the travelling performer (bahurupi), made-up in the terrible image of the great-mother (Kali), gives an indication of the oncoming tempest on the civilisation. Subarnarekha ruthlessly exposes the philosophical waste of the post-independent Indian society. It chronicles the emptiness of mainstream politics where the communist party, congress party and other so-called political parties are united in minting. Ghatak suggests that the socio-political degeneration due to the Mountbatten Award is responsible for creating spiritual confusions among the people. A crude yet aesthetic dissection of the social broke makes Subarnarekha an unbearable statement against the worshipers of elitist aesthetics.

Subarnarekha is the only Indian film that aesthetically executes the genre of melodrama by joining different episodes into a story of coincidences. In Ritwik Ghatak’s own words – “I agree that coincidences virtually overflow in Subarnarekha. And yet the logic of the biggest coincidence, the brother arriving at his sister’s house provoked me to orchestrate coincidence per se in the very structuring of the film. It is a tricky but fascinating form verging on the epic. This coincidence is forceful in its logic as the brother going to any woman amounts to his going to somebody else’s sister.” The entire film propels forward through historical and mythical overtones, taking melodrama as its foundation.

Subarnarekha bestows Ghatak’s tremendous technical genius, aided with Bahadur Khan Sahib’s evocative compositions. The powerful montage of sight and sound that Ghatak constructs in Sita’s suicide scene is one of cinema’s phenomenal creations. Sound of Sita’s exaggerated breathing with the image of a kitchen knife juxtaposed with a big close-up of her painful unblinking eyes establishes a new dimension in Indian cinematography and montage.

Basu Acharya, Bangalnama

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Ghatak’s exacting control over the rhythm of his films extended from Eisenstein’s theoretical and cinematic experimentation's with political montage. Elliptical editing inevitably invites an ambiguity and fracture into linear narrative, creating discernible gaps that disorient the spectator. After what is an admittedly schizophrenic opening twenty minutes, Subarnarekha settles into a familiar classical rhythm and the focus of dramatic conflict becomes the relationship between brother and sister. Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) is unable to come to terms with his sister, Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee), marrying Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya)who hails from a lower caste. Such caste prejudices come to the fore when Ishwar orders Abhiram to leave for Calcutta. When Ishwar orders Sita to meet the family which has come to see her for a possible marriage arrangement, Sita’s refusal is met with a kind of patriarchal violence.

The triple jump cut in Ghatak's 'Subarnarekha'.

However, prior to this moment of violence, Ghatak opens the sequence with what is a triple jump cut of Sita who turns to face her brother whilst sitting on the ground caressing the sitar for comfort. It is a rhythmically organic series of edits which rightly draws our attention to the reflexive nature of Ghatak’s approach. The violence inherent in the triple jump cut that begins with a close up and finishes on a mid shot signals a disruption in the narrative and also act as the trigger for Sita’s abandonment of her brother, choosing to elope with Abhiram. Ghatak’s ideologically intense use of the triple jump cut may seem a normalised practise today but it reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough feature ‘Mean Streets’ which opens with another striking and creative example of elliptical editing immortalised in the three carefully juxtaposed edits of Charlie’s head hitting the pillow to the sound of ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes.

The opening to 'Mean Streets' - Scorsese's use of the triple jump cut.

- Omar Ahmed, Ellipsis

SUBARNAREKHA, PART 5:

With Subarnarekha, Ritwik Ghatak completed the trilogy he had begun with Meghe Dhaka Tara (see above) and Komal Ghandhar (1961) about the human upheavals, strife and all-out war, famine and dire poverty created as a result of the 1947 Partition of India, the arbitrary line that the British drew on a map as its farewell colonialist act, dividing India into a secular state and Islamic Pakistan. Ghatak’s saga over many years focuses on a family of Bengali refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) trying to establish new roots.

As with Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ghatak has fashioned a piece of powerful yearning—the desire of people to lead settled lives. An upwardly tilted shot suggests that sparsely adorned branches of a tree are reaching hopefully with all their fragile might into the heavens: a piercing image. “All year I’ve been yearning to come home,” Abhiram, who has been away at school, tells Seeta at the edge of a forest. Without realizing it, the boy is giving voice to the hearts of a shattered people.

- Dennis Grunes

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In Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, Ghatak uses songs by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Bengal’s creative genius, who was a poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, song composer (0f both lyrics and music), philosopher, teacher, and Nobel Prize winner. Tagore wrote over 2,000 songs, known as Rabindra sangeet or Rabindra song, compositions that incorporated elements of Indian classical music and Bengali folk songs.[48][open notes in new window] In his biography of Tagore, Krishna Kripalani describes the impact of Tagore’s songs in Bengali culture:

“For each change of the season, each aspect of his country’s rich landscape, every undulation of the human heart, in sorrow or joy, has found its voice in some song of his.”[49]

His songs often celebrate Nature and the Divine, specifically in the physical and spiritual context of Bengal.[50]

As previously mentioned, in his films Ghatak utilizes a variety of musical forms, both Indian and non-Indian, and commonly uses Tagore’s music. As Ghatak stated in an interview just before his death:

“I cannot speak without Tagore. That man has culled all of my feelings from long before my birth. He has understood what I am and he has put in all the words. I read him and I find that all has been said and I have nothing new to say.”[51]

Ghatak, like most Bengalis, considers Tagore as the embodiment of all that is great in Bengali culture, as the pinnacle of artistic expression in Bengal. When Ghatak uses a Tagore song in a film, it often evokes among Bengalis nostalgia and longing for an undivided, pre-Partition Bengal. Ghatak situates Tagore songs within the painful context of the struggle for survival of post-Independence Bengali families, and the songs serve to shape and give dimension to the characters of Nita and Sita. In both Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, Ghatak uses Tagore songs at climatic moments to express the joy and sorrow of the post-Independence Bengali woman, who must bear the burden of rebuilding the family in the aftermath of Partition.

- Erin O'Donnell, Jump Cut

SUBARNAREKHA, PART 6:

I’m taken by O’Donnell’s analysis of Ghatak’s use of melodrama. She suggests that it comes from drawing on a wide range of other melodrama forms including from European and Russian Cinemas as well as theatre. At the same time Ghatak makes use of traditional Indian stories from Hindu mythology. The result is this very cinematic camera, but an unusual mix of other influences placing the resultant films in this no-man’s land between the ’social’ films of Hindi Cinema (including the films of Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor) and the art films of Ray and Sen.

The films work by using the family as metaphor for the impossibility of creating ‘home’ out of the despair created by partition and exile. Subarnarekha is contextualised by a series of historical events which mark the earlier part of the narrative – the terrible famine in Bengal in 1942, the successful halt of the Japanese advance into Northern Burma and then Bengal in the latter stages of the war, the partition and the exodus to Calcutta and finally the death of Ghandi. After this and the beginnings of a new life by the Subarnarekha River, the time period becomes less distinct and title cards merely refer to a few months or a few years later marking the period when Sita and Abhiram are growing up. I was struck, however, by the abandoned RAF base (i.e. from where the bombers left for Burma). This is where the children play and where Sita has various adventures. The hulks of abandoned aircraft and the few surviving parts of buildings (from only a few years ago) seem to act as a ‘doubling’ of the signifiers of a life that is no longer possible, of times that have irrevocably changed.

venicelionThe Case for Global Film

SUBARNAREKHA, PART 7:

SUBARNAREKHA, PART 8:

SUBARNAREKHA, PART 9:

SUBARNAREKHA, PART 10:

SUBARNAREKHA, PART 11:

SUBARNAREKHA, PART 12:

SUBARNAREKHA, PART 13:

996 (131). Plácido (1961, Luis Garcia Berlanga)

Screened January 30 2010 on .avi downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn, NY TSPDT rank #763  IMDb Wiki

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As with my previous entry on Douce, the only print of this film that I could access has no subtitles. My original plan was to enlist a Spanish-speaking friend to watch it with me and offer live translation. But having watched the film, I wouldn't wish to force anyone to help me through the muy rapido Spanish dialogue. Just listening to it recalls the breathless banter of 30s screwball.

The online synopses I could find (most of them posted after the break) offer only cursory summaries of the plot, leaving much of what transpired onscreen lost to me. So much the better to appreciate the film's cinematic qualities.  As I mentioned, the film's spitfire dialogue recalls the comedies of Capra and Hawks; some associate the film's Christmas setting and main plot (a guy desperately trying to save his livelihood after the bank calls in his loan) to Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Others connect the film's subplot about the rich townspeople's bogus, self-serving acts of charity towards poor people during Christmas with that other great Spanish film of 1961, Bunuel's Viridiana. But the film's satirical depiction of people engaged in a manic farce while hosting out-of-town visitors had me thinking of another great comedy of the same year, Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three.

Watching the film, despite feeling that the film moved at a brisk clip thanks to the speedy dialogue, I began to notice how long the takes were, with many shots lasting over a minute or more. I went back from the beginning and counted no less than 25 shots, each lasting one-to-three minutes long, which altogether account for over a third of the film's 80 minute running time (title credit sequence not counted). There are roughly an additional 17 shots lasting 30-59 seconds. Overall, there are a total of 158 shots in 80 minutes, averaging 30 seconds a shot.

Why does Berlanga rely so much on long takes? On the practical side, it's simpler, faster and more economical to set up a single master take than to do multiple camera set-ups for a given scene. But Berlanga is no slouch. Just watch this one-take scene. Clocking in at almost 3 minutes, it's one of the longest shots in the film. Try to figure out how many actors are in the scene, and how many camera positions he's able to achieve in one take:

By my count I have a dozen characters, and about half a dozen unique looks at this one room. Berlanga is very resourceful, relying on what I think is a single dolly track to roll the camera up and down the room , rotating the camera horizontally so that it captures a total of about 120 degrees of the room over the course of the scene.  But perhaps what's most impressive is his staging of actors in several different configurations so that there's an exceptionally dynamic sense of dramatic movement as well as shifting social dynamics from start to finish. Masterful use of foreground and background, not to mention lateral movement, to emphasize contrasts between divisions of people within a single room.

Believe it or not, this scene is preceded by a one-shot scene lasting 80 seconds, and followed by another one-shot scene lasting three and a half minutes. This dynamically staged long-take technique pretty much dominates the middle stretch of the film, where in one scene after another, people are thrown into different, contentious combinations, their fortunes and emotional states apparently in constant flux.

But Berlanga is no one-trick/ long-take pony. In other scenes, he'll incorporate flash cutaways lasting just a second or two. There are a couple of sequences that use this technique liberally: the arrival of the charity benefactors at the town's train station; and a charity auction where a man appears to be pressured to bid for something he doesn't want to save face. Interestingly, both of these scenes amount to public ceremonies, as if to suggest that they elicit heightened states of excitement and anxiety.

Berlanga's filmmaking was already quite deft 10 years earlier when he made Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!, employing freeze frames, fast motion and other comic editing tricks at a level on par with Preston Sturges. But his handling of dialogue scenes catered more to conventional Hollywood decoupage techniques. Compare what goes on in the above clip from Placido with how the following stills, captured from one scene in Bienvenido Mister Marshall!, cuts from master shot to individual close ups before returning to the master:

As another point of comparison to Berlanga's shooting and in-camera editing technique, I pulled up Wilder's aforementioned One, Two Three and played through the first half of the film, as well as the famous extended climactic sequence whose energy and incredible use of interior spaces to move action along is worthy of comparison to those in Placido. Scanning through about 80 minutes of footage, only once did I find a shot that lasted more than one minute. Here's a representative capture from that sequence:

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Even though the pacing is manic, the space isn't nearly as compressed as the interiors in Placido. This film is set in large modern office spaces whose expanse suits a wide Scope frame.  Some of the energy is conveyed from a host of characters rushing in and out of Cagney's office with their crises of the moment, with Cagney riding the eye of the storm.  For the most part the The film employs an arsenal of shots at different lengths (wide/ medium / close-up), tracking shots, shot/ reverse-shot dialogues, woven seamlessly and coherently even as it conveys the chaos at hand.

Interestingly, despite an ensemble of over a dozen characters interacting with Cagney over the course of this sustained climactic act, there are hardly ever more than two or three characters engaged with him at a given moment, which allows for Wilder to parse the manic activity he's concocted into a coherent stream. Compare this to the above shot in Placido, where a dozen characters appear in one shot and alternate in their interactions, no one of them dominating the proceedings.

Wilder's approach creates a more adversarial feeling between characters, setting up clear oppositional dynamics, mostly between James Cagney's blow-hard Coke executive and everyone around him, with whom he dispatches one at a time. Berlanga's technique of shooting dialogue scenes emphasizes more of a holistic social environment. Even as people contend with each other inside the frame, the camera acts as a needle to weave them together into a tapestry of comic dysfunction.

Interestingly, Berlanga's film El Verdugo, made two years after Placido, employs a widescreen camera approaching the Scope compositions of One, Two, Three. While Berlanga largely retains the use of long takes often exceeding a minute, instead of compressed compositions of people, he more frequently exploits the wide screen to emphasize distances between people, especially with the main characters, who are undertakers, and thus relatively ostracized within society:

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Thinking further on my account of Berlanga's work in Placido, I'm now curious to compare his approach to ensemble scene-making to that of perhaps the most famous American ensemblist, Robert Altman. I don't seem to have a DVD of Nashville or Short Cuts on me (!), but I would wager that even Altman doesn't let his shots go as long or involve as sophisticated blocking as you see with Berlanga. Altman, a TV director, relied on multi-camera setups that he could use to cut from shot to shot, always looking for a shot to materialize (as in a sports event) rather than constructing it through blocking and framing.

Speaking of sports, I was playing with this sports analogy: that Wilder shoots dialogue like a lightweight boxer, dancing quickly across the canvas of his wide shots before settling into a series of shot/reverse shot flurries; while Berlanga is more akin to a heavyweight, lumbering steadily across the canvas, pushing you around the ring. Not sure how well this holds up, but it gives me an excuse to put up this clip:

Finally, I would like to say that I think enough of this film after one impaired viewing that I'd like to see it again with subtitles. I'm hoping someone might come through and offer timed fansubs. In fact, I'm willing to offer $140 US (which translates to about 100 Euros) to the first person who can provide timed fansubs for this film.

To take part in the Shooting Down Pictures Fansub Challenge, all you need is a copy of the movie Placido, which you can find via torrent, and a PayPal account for me to send the money if you're the first one done. If you're interested but don't know how to access the movie via torrent, send me an email or DM me on Twitter (at alsolikelife) to let me know you're interested, and I'll hook you up. Offer good only until February 28, so better get cracking!

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Placido among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Antonio Gimenez-Rico, Nickel Odeon (1997) Fernando Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994) Jose Luis Garci, Nickel Odeon (1998) Montxo Armendariz, Fotogramas (2006) Pedro Crespo, Nickel Odeon (1997) Dirigido Por, Best Spanish Films (1992) Fotogramas, The 100 Best Films in the History of Cinema (1995) Nickel Odeon, The Films of Our Life (1994) Nickel Odeon, Spanish Canon (1995) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Film

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Nominated for the Best Foreign Language film award at that year's Oscars, Plácido—a Christmas movie—has a direct relationship with the work of Frank Capra and in particular It's a Wonderful Life (1946), albeit with none of Capra's sentimentality. Meanwhile, if Plácido unmasked the dominant discourses surrounding the traditional family and Christian charity, El verdugo, arguably his finest film, struck at the very heart of the repressive Francoist state. El verdugo tells the story of a man who, on marrying the daughter of the state executioner, is condemned to inherit his father-in-law's job. This is a story that interrogates and unveils the anatomy of Spanish society at an historical turning point. The film, for example, unpicks the reality of the country's 1960s tourist boom that would, on the one hand, help consolidate the revived fortunes of the Spanish economy, while on the other, would bring with it the unwanted 'foreign' values of liberalism and sexual freedom.

- Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

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Mr. Berlanga's 1961 film, "Placido," (...) is a chattery comedy about an impoverished man who spends the day before Christmas trying to avoid foreclosure on his motorbike. The character's frantic dealings with bankers and lawyers are set against the film's satirical canvas of a provincial town putting on a showy Christmas campaign called "Seat a Poor Man at Your Table." With its harshly funny portrait of the penny-pinching gentry, of greedy nuns and aggressive salespeople pushing pressure cookers as miraculous kitchen tools, the film offers a scabrously mocking portrait of officialdom putting on a display that is as grotesque as it is hypocritical.

- Stephen Holden, The New York Times

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ADDITIONAL REVIEWS (found on IMDb)

As is almost always the case with the films of Berlanga, this film is a comedy on the surface, which hides a very hard and crude criticism of the situation of Spanish society during the dictatorship. In those years, Spanish filmmakers couldn't speak freely and openly about the dismal state of their country, so they had to pass their message to the audience between the lines. Berlanga was a master at doing this, and Plácido is one of his finest examples. The abysmal differences that existed between the very poor (the majority of the population at the time) and the very rich, who treated the rest with utter contempt and ridiculous condescency, is portrayed with such strength that it can't leave anyone indifferent. But it is done in the form of a comedy, and a very funny one, full of absurd situations and memorable dialogues, but also a very black one, with some scenes, especially near the end of the movie, which are on the edge of the truly macabre. A true masterpiece from one of the greatest Spanish directors. ----------

The atmosphere of this film took me back to another time and place, to a very naive and innocent Spain. This film is Garcia Berlanga's incursion into his own brand of neorealism. The music keeps evoking the scores of the great Italian masterpieces of that period.??Placido, the hero, in a way, is everyman caught in a web of bureaucracy where he has to fight against all the odds to keep his vehicle in order to survive. He does whatever he can in order to pay the draft, but all conspires against him. Placido is a decent working person, a man of honor who has to fulfill his obligations, in this case, paying the draft that is due on the day the story unfolds. Everything is against him. We see him fighting his way to do so, in this, his long journey into the Christmas Eve celebration.??Cassen was a marvelous and charismatic actor who was very convincing as Placido. He's always at the center of the action, and at times, he is even at the center of some of the other characters conflicts. Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez, is very effective as Gabino, the photographer. The rest of the ensemble cast perform very well under the direction of Garcia Berlanga. ---------

In a small town of Spain, on the eve of Christmas, some ladies are invented the Christmas campaign "dine with a poor", so that the poorest people, enjoyment by a night of warmth and affection that do not have, sitting at the table of the rich families. In the middle of the preparations is "Plácido", (Cassen), which is hired to participate with his motorcar in the cavalcade organized for the campaign, but there is a small detail which prevented him from devoted solely to his task: the same day of Christmas Eve, defeats him the first invoice of motorcar, his sole means of livelihood.??It is one of the masterpieces undisputed and fundamental filmography of Luis Garcia Berlanga. Filmed at the time summit of their creativity, in a period cultural difficult, where the enormous censorship of the political regime, exacerbated the ingenuity and imagination of the scriptwriters. A script, with malevolent intent, of own Berlanga and Rafael Azcona and under the direction of Berlanga very far from the tenderness that taught in previous work, make a comedy coral with a bitter, pessimistic reflection on the Spanish society of the time.??It is a acquired late, both in the form as in the fund and a portrait heartless and merciless of a society hypocritical, petty with double standards, where the most important are the appearance, and that preaches charity but not the practice, which is bothering him poverty but that does nothing to eradicate and that it needs to launch a cruel farce, in the form of Christmas campaign.??The movie has breakdown unrepeatable major players in their best performances, which would have to be stressed in all. It's full of memorable sequences, grotesque, surreal and the time dramatic It's especially unforgettable which develops in the public toilet. And the long scene, genial sequence in which the sudden deterioration of the state of health of one of the poor, seriously ill, triggers a situation comic-pathetic which shows all the miseries of that society amoral??The film has a indent brilliant, and the dialogs never ebb, are kept in a high level of ingenious humor . It has nothing to envy Italian masters such as De Sica or Fellini and that in movies such as "Placido", is even better.??I think it is my favorite movie.

995 (130). Douce / Love Story (1943, Claude Autant-Lara)

Screened January 27 2010 on DVR downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #839  IMDb

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, the one film on the TSPDT 1000 that I hadn't been able to locate in any form was this one, which had just been re-introduced to the list after the January update. Not long after that update, with the help of a couple of wonderful people from the French archival cinema community, I was able to track down a 35mm print of the film with the rights held by Gaumont. Unfortunately, Gaumont quoted me a ridiculous fee of several hundred Euros to rent the print, which made it pretty much impossible for me to access it. However, fortuitously at the same time, someone posted a DVR rip of the film, presumably from European television broadcast, to a site that will here remain unidentified. So I had my chance at last to watch this strangely inaccessible classic of French cinema.

The one catch was that the rip was unsubtitled, which presented me with the dilemma of whether I should proceed with watching, esp. given that reviews of the film mention the elegant script by Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche. Fortunately, Marilyn Ferdinand provides a solid enough account of the plot on her site that I was encouraged to take the leap. All the same, I must acknowledge that my understanding of the film is by no means satisfactory. I can only hope that my opting to treat this as an experiment in watching a film without a grasping its dialogue might offer alternative insights focused more intently on its cinematic properties.

I should also mention that watching the film in this manner reminded me of many times as a child when I'd watch American comedy films and TV shows with my mother, and I'd laugh along with the punch lines only to turn to see my mom bearing an uncomprehending smile, aware that there was something to laugh about but not quite knowing what was funny. I think there were at least a couple of instances where I'd play the asshole and ask her if she got the joke. In some ways I was as confused as she was - ashamed at the wedge between us, irrationally resentful to her for making me feel alienated in my joy even as with the TV laugh track to egg me on. I dedicate this entry to her, that we may unshamefully derive our own pleasures from what we don't fully understand.

What strikes me most is how insular the film feels - it's all filmed on sets, largely interiors, with exteriors taking place in night streets and alleys taking place at night. Knowing that this was a production under German-controlled Vichy adds to this feeling of confinement. The stage-bound artifice also adds a dollhouse fairy-tale like quality. It's felt as early as the opening establishing shot, an ostentatious track across a model replica of 1880s Paris, featuring an Eiffel Tower still under construction:

For the most part the film takes place on a giant soundstage dressed as a grand aristocratic house, somewhat reminiscent of the Amberson estate in The Magnificent Ambersons. There are two levels, joined by a grand staircase as well as a newly installed elevator for the convenience of the aging matriarch that presides over the household. Some scenes make good dramatic use of the upward and downward motions of characters traversing the levels.

Graceful tracking shots help bring dynamism between these walls: they alternate in functions between scanning the interiors like a Martian probe and connecting characters' eyelines to objects. But the film repeatedly rests upon images of entrapment. From the opening scene a prison motif is introduced, as the title character (Odette Joyeux) first appears veiled an anonymous at a confessional booth rendered like prison bars:

A later scene between Douce and her governess, the scheming Irene (Madeleine Robinson) introduces another motif of fire that recurs (see title card) though less frequently. This fireplace POV shot (look carefully for the flame between them) symbolizes their respective romantic passions contained by 19th century decorum.

This shot moments later suggests the concealing of thoughts between them - unbeknownst to Douce, Irene is carrying on an affair with the man she fancies.

Mirrors are also used to create a sense of deflection in relationships - here Douce addresses Irene through a mirror at a moment where her trust of her has been broken irreparably:

Windows, doors, shadows and bars permeate the film, confining the characters throughout:

The servants in the house largely function as comic relief, with boorish dialogue and gestures:

There's even Jacques Tati as a servant, in one of his very earliest roles:

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But there's room for the upper classes to be skewered visually as well. Marguerite Moreno as Madame de Bonafé is often dressed in oversized frills conveying her aristocratic excess, though her middle-class, kiss-ass estate manager Fabien (Roger Pigault) takes the cake with his ridiculous fur coat:

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Yet over the course of the film the destructively selfish Fabien comes to be redeemed by Douce, a character so angelically pure that in one scene she sparkles:

While in this scene he literally has a cross of salvation cast upon him while in Douce's embrace:

There's enough going on visually to compensate for not understanding the dialogue; though in the more stagebound scenes a lot is riding on repartee. There are plenty of moments where the stagelike nature of the production gives the impression that this is largely a theater production captured on film with a modicum of tracking shots and lighting effects used to spice things up. But this is certainly worth watching again, especially if accompanied with a subtitle track.

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The following citations were counted towards the placement of Douce / Love Story among the 1000 Greatest Films on the TSPDT 1000:

Bertrand Tavernier, Profil (2004) Frederic Vitoux, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009) Lenny Borger, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009) Lindsay Anderson, Sight & Sound (1992) Patrick Laurent, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009) Philippe Ariotti, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009) Bertrand Tavernier, 10 Overlooked French Films (2003) Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Douce

Director Claude Autant-Lara was one of the principal figures of the French “tradition of quality” that flourished during the Nazi occupation, and this 1943 masterpiece, which also introduced the writing team of Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche, is the first of several great films he made. The radiant Odette Joyeux stars as the title heroine, a socialite who seeks to flee her lavish but suffocating environs with the handsome family caretaker, only to discover that the relationship is doomed. Autant-Lara's exquisite blend of social commentary, lush romanticism, and opulent sets and costumes—he began his career as a designer—vividly re-creates France's belle epoque and recalls Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons both thematically and in its deep-focus exploration of interior space.

- Joshua Katzman, The Chicago Reader

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It was under the Occupation that director Claude Autant-Lara proved his mettle and established himself as one of the finest directors of his generation. His best film, Douce, is a magnificent blend of romance, satire and dramatic irony, beautifully filmed, with some enchanting acting performances. Although the film is set in the late 19th century, its story of forbidden love between servants and masters from two totally different social strata was relevant to 1940s France, a country that was as divided by class as it was by the war.

The character Douce is played with great force and subtlety by Odette Joyeux, undoubtedly her best screen performance. Her portrayal of the love-sick adolescent who who makes a doomed attempt to cross the barriers of class and respectability is totally captivating, giving the film the tragic dimension that makes it a masterpiece.

Another noteworthy performance comes from Marguerite Moreno, who play’s Douce’s imperious grandmother. Well into her seventies, Moreno had become the archetypal eccentric ageing tyrant and this film sees one of her most spirited and charismatic performances. Her character epitomises everything that is wrong with the bourgeois elite – patronising, dictatorial, insensitive. The casting of Moreno is a stroke of genius because the strength of her character’s position and her inability to change her viewpoint reinforces the nobility of her son and grand-daughter, who opt for love before protocol. Moreno’s la comtesse de Bonafé is a grotesque caricature but it provides an entertaining and accurate satire of the French bourgeoisie.

- James Travers, Films de France

Douce was the first film scripted by the so-called “Tradition of Quality" team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. Tradition of Quality films were dubbed as such by the leading critics of the 1940s and 1950s for their academic production values, basis in traditional literary classics, and theatrical scripting. I might add that the work of Aurenche and Bost, frequent collaborators of Autant-Lara, is where I would place the quality. Their writing is extremely witty and subtle when they are going for social commentary. Marguerite Moreno certainly had a plum role as the Grand Dame of the house. Her lines and actions would have been buffoonish if they hadn’t been closely observed and written. When she goes through her closet to choose items to give to the poor tenants on her land for Christmas, she holds back one jacket. “That’s too good," she instructs Irène, saying (I paraphrase), “It will only depress the people because they will see the heights to which they never can aspire." When she Douce_05.jpgcalls on her tenants, she brings Irène and Fabien with her to carry the clothes and soup. One tenant gets up to heat a bowl of soup for herself and her husband. “No, no," says Madame, “It’s my turn to serve you. Irène, put the soup on the stove."

Some quibbles. Joyeux looked too old to still be dressing like a child, and Joyeux, Robinson, and Pigaut have a severe, mannered acting style. The love talk between Pigaut and the two women is the ultimate in purple prose, as well. The film takes a somewhat predictable turn to tragedy, but it was startling to me because up until then I had been watching a very funny comedy of manners. The overly melodramatic elements made me all too aware that there was a moral to this story. I wonder, in fact, whether the German honchos might have insisted that the story reflect a superior/inferior class ethos to suggest the depravity of “mixing." But this is mere conjecture.

- Marilyn Ferdinand, Ferdy on Film

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It was Autant-Lara who introduced Bost to Aurenche to help with the dialogue for his film Douce , taken from Michel Davet's simple story of a devoted governess in a bourgeois family. Their screen version cleverly subverts the original text by shifting the emphasis to expose middle-class complacency. Thereafter the two writers formed a unique partnership translating for the screen an impressive array of literary classics, including works by Aymé, Colette, Feydeau, Gide, Radiguet, Stendhal, and Zola. Their initial collaboration set the pattern for their approach to adaptation; Aurenche concerning himself mainly with the screenplay and Bost with the dialogue. Frequently their shared left-wing sympathies are reflected in the inflection given to their reworked film narratives. Although they worked for several directors their most memorable achievements are found in films by Delannoy, Clément, and Autant-Lara.

- R.F. Cousins, Film Reference.com

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Truffaut denounces these men (as well as the cinema they represent) for their irreverence toward the literary works they adapt (most of the scripts and films in question were literary adaptations), their anti-clerical and anti-militarist stances, their pessimism and negativity, their “profanity” and “blasphemy.” His concerns here show the utter conventionality and the extreme cultural and political conservatism of his views’ on art. These scriptwriters’ irreverence toward their sources, the great French literary masterpieces (in some cases at least), reveals to Truffaut their lack of concern for tradition and conventional values, Truffaut sees the cinema d'auteurs as a return to the eternal verities and the classical French values of the enlightenment and romanticism. His opposition to their insertion of anti-militarist and anti-clerical stances into the works they adapted is a defense of art’s autonomy. No social or political views, those dreaded “messages,” are to mar the purity of art. Art must be free of all outside influences, Truffaut thought.

Truffaut also objects to pessimism and negativity because he holds the opposite view of the potentiality of (at least some) human beings. And these special human beings, not the common person, are to be the fit subject of art, Here Truffaut is also opposing the deterministic view of life which often prevailed in the French cinema of the 1940’s and 1950’s, a view of life which had its origin in Zola’s Naturalism. Finally by objecting to the “profanity” and “blasphemy” in many French films, Truffaut declares his allegiance to Catholicism, the continual target of the French Left. For, as stated in Part One of this article, la politique des auteurs was a recapitulation on the level of culture of the bourgeoisie’s forceful reassertion of power in the decade after the war. Aurenche and Bost were the products and representatives of the era of the Popular Front and the Resistance, the ethos of which Truffaut opposes.

- John Hess, "Politique des Auteurs, 2" Jump Cut

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993 (128). Abschied von gestern - (Anita G.) / Yesterday Girl (1966, dir. Alexander Kluge)

Screened December  17 2009 on .avi format downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn NY TSPDT Rank # 938 IMDb Wiki

This post is dedicated to Matthew Dessem, proprietor of The Criterion Contraption. I'm going to co-opt his lengthy, conversational approach to writing up films, to savor this film as well as the remaining entries of my own project...

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WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

"What separates us from yesterday is not a rift but a changed position." This enigmatic title that opens the film may sound like a distinction without a difference. But as we follow the travails of Anita G., an East German refugee trying and failing to get a foothold in West Berlin, the notion emerges that her sense of alienation (as well as the film's) is a rift caused by the shifting positions - economically, socially and intellectually - adopted by West Germans as they busily build a future. What's fascinating is how much this thesis is embedded in both the film's style and its lead performance by Alexandra Kluge (the director's sister), both indulging a dazzling display of rampant, disjointed eclecticism. Take the above shot beneath the title card, with Anita clearly out of place in a high class hotel lobby, and acting even more conspicuously by fussily changing chairs. It's as if she and the film are mimicking the shiftiness they see in polite West German society but stripped away of socially acceptable conventions.

Even before this shot, we as viewers are thrown off by the opening scene (really a fragment of a scene) where Anita is in the midst of an unexplained fit of laughter, before reading an unidentified text (possibly an account of Nazi officers separating Jewish families during the Holocaust) in an unsettling, specious tone.

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For the most part, Anita's default demeanor is blank-faced incomprehension, smiling and nodding while trying to get along with others. In these shots, one can't help but think that Anita is modeled after Anna Karina's Nana in Godard's Vivre sa vie:

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Here she's in a courtroom listening to a judge sift through certain facts of her life: that she's from East Germany; that she was caught pinching a sweater from a co-worker; yet she left the sweater in plain view which is how she was caught; that her parents were Jewish and were persecuted during the Holocaust. As the judge sifts through this data, it becomes clear how much of his verdict is pre-determined by his assumptions of her, as he repeatedly reads subtext into her ambiguous responses. (Judge: "Why did you move West? Because of certain incidents?" Anita: "Because of prior incidents." Judge: "You mean from '43-'44? I don't believe that. In my experience, they don't affect young people."). In the midst of this there's a disconcerting cut to the judge's stern, tight-lipped gaze, even as their dialogue continues, acting like a cutaway to his inner judgmental state:

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He's but the first of several caricatures of social types that Anita encounters, none of which are portrayed with much charity. As such the film is clearly a polemic; yet its discombobulating array of stylistic approaches keep its rhetoric from being two-dimensional. A social worker is introduced with a Bergmanesque direct address to the camera:

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Before she becomes a stand-in for an overt Christian moral-mindedness that all but stifles Anita during her probationary stint:

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She eventually escapes to work for a sales manager of foreign-language recordings, who's also introduced in Bergmanesque direct-address manner. But whereas Bergman's characters bare their souls when facing the screen, these vignettes show their characters as they would like to see themselves, putting their best public face forward.

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The manager isn't exactly Don Draper in terms of looks or charm, but his austere marketing spiel drives home a message of self-improvement that apparently works on Anita, as we come to learn that they're having an affair. This development is conveyed with an obliqueness that's brilliantly original. First we're given random shots of idealized German family life:

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That gradually fold into these ambiguously nostalgic illustrations of old-style German towns:

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culminating in a majestic shot of a dinner table revolving across vast Berlin cityscape. The world is literally yours for consumption, the modern consumerist fantasy par excellence.

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This leads to a shot of Anita in a department store trying on fur coats, and expensing them on her boss' account. Not only do we now learn that she's a kept woman, but retrospectively we wonder if that skyscraper restaurant table was the site of one of their trysts. In any event the manager's wife catches wind of the affair and Anita is swiftly given the boot. But Anita won't give up on making it in this society, as this title (harkening to the silent age of film, a period of nascence and limitless potential) makes clear:

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After getting fired from a subsequent hotel housekeeping job for suspected theft (or was she scapegoated?), Anita moves onto another dead-end tryst, this time with a much younger man, though their encounter is treated with an intimacy found nowhere else in the film, with shades of tender, desperate empathy.

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In these moments the camera exposes the lines on Anita's face, bringing a vulnerability and rawness to their moments together:

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Through their brief time together she resolves to make a go at attending university, and sits in on lectures, though the results aren't very encouraging:

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She bluffs her way into enrolling by pretending that she's taken courses before; her good looks appear to compel one professor take her at her word, while also eliciting one of the weirdest come-on lines in cinema history:

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Her efforts at entering academia prove to be a fiasco, while her habit of staying at hotels without paying starts catching up with her; she's recognized on the street as a deadbeat tenant, leading to an episode on the lam rendered in psychedelic police lights mixed with footage of police parades and carnivalesque exhibitions of  their precision. This leads to scene of two men, presumably Nazis, forcing a woman to make an excruciating decision:

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Could this be a flashback from Anita's childhood? We are never told the answer; it plays as much as an unaccounted, repressed memory for us as it might be for her, lurking like some demon kept in the basement of history only to seep out at an unexpected moment. Other unhinged images ensue:

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Eventually she and the film return to the "real" world, and she takes up with Pichota, another married man, and a member of the Culture Ministry.  She accompanies him on one of his appointments, where pleasantries are read from cue cards:

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Kluge seems to save the best of his satircal venom for this guy, as he represents the cultural establishment and thus the forces of aimless ceremonialism and convention that Kluge dedicated himself to opposing (see the Oberhausen Manifesto). Pichota foregoes an official ceremony to unveil a rare Goethe notebook so he can go another round bedside with his paramour, then chastises her for not finding a flat of her own, but won't give her any money towards a deposit. Instead he decides to mold her in his own image, reading literature to her and teaching her an 19th century song of unrequited love. Guess what he does when she finds out she's pregnant?

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Shots like this one above threaten to turn this girl's outcast status within a West German society that is unable to either fully understand or incorporate her into its own kind of mythography. It risks placing her in the category of romantic anti-establishment type, which, if it wasn't a ready-made cliche back then, certainly is these days. The saving grace is Alexandra Kluge's performance, no doubt a conceptual collaboration with her brother director, but in her hands the character Anita G. defies any easy categorization, vacillating incessantly between being an icon, a postulation and a flesh-and-blood human being. This results in an unstable dynamic between protagonist, her world and the viewer, who becomes as much an alienated observer of this world of surfaces and pretensions as she is. Dissonant in their dissidence, the shifting modes of filmmaking and onscreen behavior have an energy and engagement with its world, doggedly picking apart its assumptions and presumptions, that's as valuable today as ever.

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The following citations were counted towards the placement of Yesterday Girl among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Hans Gunther Pflaum, Steadycam (2007) Hans Helmut Prinzler, Steadycam (2007) Jeanine Meerapfel, Sight & Sound (1992) Ulrich von Thuna, Steadycam (2007) Wolfram Schutte, Steadycam (2007) Sight & Sound 360 Film Classics (1998) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

HISTORICAL REVIEW

WATCHING the plight of "Yesterday Girl," a poor, buffeted young derelict in West Germany, some viewers may wistfully hark back to the teary but untangled sagas of Sylvia Sidney in Hollywood during the Depression years. Miss Sidney's cases, at least, were stated with soggy succinctness.

The hard-luck drama that unfolded last night at the New York Film Festival, the first feature directed by the German novelist Alexander Kluge, is so hell-bent on stylistic effects and so sauvely stingy in siphoning simple case-history facts that we learn little and subsequently care less about the heroine. A pity, too, for the hapless girl peering from the circuitous labyrinth of film footage is the director's sister, Alexandra. She even has Miss Sidney's stricken eyes and quivering under-lip. That much is obvious.

It seems—repeat, seems—that the girl has fled from East Germany and been arrested for shoplifting in the West. She serves a jail sentence, then starts a descent on the fringes of society in a succession of odd jobs, including a brief go at prostitution. Bruised by bureaucracy, fate and at least one lover who discards her, the girl slinks off into the night, clutching a suitcase, and has a baby at a state hospital.

Mr. Kluge's picture, with its down-and-out protagonist, is according to advance publicity, an ironic commentary on the West German's economic well-being. How? We see little evidence of prosperity in Miss Kluge's mouse-hole itinerary. Most of the people who speed her on her descent are glacial, urban stereotypes. And from what little is revealed about the heroine's true character, she appears to be a listless girl who would have a tough time mastering a job anywhere.

Whatever "Yesterday Girl" symbolizes, Mr. Kluge applies his camera like a clouded microscope, side-stepping simple compassion for bland, clinical detachment. A stethoscope, applied just once, would have conveyed much more.

- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, September 22, 1967

CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Kluge's first feature traces the misadventures of Anita G. (played by his sister Alexandra), a young refugee from East Germany, as she wanders through the Economic Miracle but fails to find a place in it. Always penniless and often involved in petty crime, she meets a string of people who try to 'improve' and/or seduce her, but never gets to the root of her problems. Kluge makes it clear that she's a product of Germany's past, and his basic point is the simple one that Germany is trying to sweep its history under the carpet. But his Godardian wit and informality give the argument countless resonances, and keep the movie surprisingly fresh.

- Time Out

The film's tersely written preface, "What separates us from yesterday is not a rift but a change in position" reinforces this sense of subconscious, recursive inevitability, as the heroine, the titular Anita G, is introduced through incisive, cross cut images: initially reading a piece of paper in subtly varying intonation, then subsequently, from a high angle-shot title sequence as she repeatedly assesses her vantage point before changing seats at a hotel bar lounge. From the juxtaposition of these fractured opening images, Kluge establishes the idea of postwar collective memory as an empty shell game that has been essentially formed from the simple, but implicitly deliberated modulation, displacement, and reconstitution of latent, prevailing cultural mores.

This sense of an ingrained, un-rehabilitated, and perhaps even defiant national psyche is also reinforced in Anita's appearance in court before a judge over a theft charge stemming from a colleague's appropriated cardigan sweater. Reviewing Anna's background as a German Jew from Leipzig, now in (the former) East Germany whose family business was confiscated by the Third Reich, then reinstated after the war, the judge is eager to exonerate the possibility that the "certain incidents of 1943-44" had contributed to Anita G.'s current charge - an association that she, herself, never implied - attempting instead to trivialize her relocation to West Germany as a simple search for opportunity that, like any other outsider (despite being born in a unified Germany before the war), is an attempt to exploit the country's bourgeoning economy. Challenging her sense of guilt for the offense by her curious behavior in not hiding the cardigan - an inaction that Anita admits stemmed from confusion over "prior events" that the judge, once again, is quick to erroneously suggest that she is attempting to evoke the tragedy of the Holocaust in order to gain sympathy from the court - the inquisition itself reveals the underlying hypocrisy of German society after the war, where people who served in positions of power during the Third Reich (obtained through party loyalty) were often restored to their bureaucratic appointments. This contradictory behavior that is, at once, an all-too-ready admission of (factually verified) historical culpability and a trivialization of the consequences of its legacy reflects a culturally pervasive attitude, a tenuous co-existence between half-hearted acknowledgement and adamant denial that is encapsulated by the judge's curt dismissal in continuing the line of inquiry that raises the specter of the human tragedy (one that he, himself, has introduced out of apparent habit): a pre-emptive declaration of its particular - and implicitly broader - irrelevance towards the resurgence of an inclusive, tolerant, and transformed "New Germany". Ironically, it is a metamorphosis that, nevertheless, perpetuates a climate of exclusion (East versus West), moral imprisonment (the evangelical probationary officer attempts to convert her to Christianity), and dispossession (the landlady's decision to evict her from the boarding house by impounding her suitcase). Inevitably, perhaps the key to Kluge's fragmented, yet lucid and penetrating social interrogation is revealed in a university professor's sterile and philosophically dense lecture on the relativity of the Greek concept of aischron and the opposing corollary ideas that the greater shame resides either for the one who commits the transgression, or the one who suffers from it - a delusive posture of righteousness that re-invents collective history through the perspective of defiant transgressors as the greater victims of their own willful, moral complicity.

- Acquarello, Strictly Film School

Alexander Kluge's debut feature Yesterday Girl is a kaleidoscopic burst of energy, a frenetic but never haphazard film that gives the impression of an eager young director, unwilling to commit to any one storytelling mode or aesthetic, instead experimenting with anything he can think of. The result is a quickly paced collage, a jittery, jazzy patchwork that augments its sparse central narrative with myriad diversions and non sequiturs. The film owes much to the example of the French New Wave, and especially to the montage and stylistic catholicity of Jean-Luc Godard, but there is undeniably something distinctive about Kluge, something unmistakable. His rhythms are his own, as is his sense of playfulness, his unexpected detours into surrealism and absurdist farce. Kluge's sister Alexandra plays the heroine, Anita G., an obvious stand-in for the New Wave's young archetypes — she even has those big, black-lined Anna Karina eyes.

Kluge tells Anita's story through an astonishing variety of cinematic language. As in the first sequence, each scene throughout the film is methodically broken down, with blunt editing that serves to fragment Anita's story. Her experience of life is discontinuous, marked by abrupt breaks and disjunctions, and Kluge passes this experience on to his audience. He frequently resorts to extreme closeups, in which talking heads orate from an abstracted, empty gray space. But just as often he avoids showing the characters' faces at all, cutting to their hands or the backs of their heads or to the walls and objects around them. At other points, he inserts entire, seemingly unrelated sequences into the film, cutting away to visual non sequiturs like a shot of a rabbit that appears during a hallucinatory sequence in which Anita shoots, or more likely imagines she shoots, a police officer who's chasing her. Even time itself is malleable in Kluge's hands: the action frequently speeds up, with Anita and her pursuers racing around like Keystone Kops, and time-lapse photography condenses hours of time spent on a city street into a blurred, pulsating few seconds.

The effect of this elaborate montage aesthetic is to position Anita's story as just one element, one brick, in a mad societal structure. This also seems to be the point of the enigmatic final epigram, "we are all to blame for everything, but if everyone knew it, we would have paradise on earth." Kluge's vision of the world, on the other hand, is far from a paradise — if anything it's a dystopia — but his dense, free-associative aesthetic crafts a cogent and darkly funny critique of the systems that preside over this nonsensical world.

- Ed Howard, Only the Cinema

Already in Kluge's first feature, Yesterday Girl, the editing is very abrupt. Scenes are juxtaposed without transitions and, within scenes, jump cuts and other temporal elisions abound. A love scene becomes a wrestling montage. Sometimes parts of different scenes are intercut. Nonnarrative materials such as drawings of a city, an interview, or a child's storybook are interjected between and in the middle of scenes without motivation or explanation. Scenes of a Jewish cemetary are inserted, like documentary B-roll, into a conversation about German history. This quirky editing results in the brisk pace of this film and similar sequences in other Kluge films. But Kluge also employs a variety of techniques to slow down the ace. Shots are often held longer or started earlier than in classical Hollywood cinema, leading frequently to uncomfortable silences and strange facial expressions. Often, reaction shots do not seem to work because the timing is wrong.

- Peter C. Lutze, Alexander Kluge: The Last Modernist. Wayne State University Press, 1998. Page 112.

Viewers of conventional Hollywood films are accustomed to having certain expectations fulfilled in the course of the work: we assume the events portrayed on screen to have some causal, temporal, or spatial connection, we expect to have at least some sense of resolution at the end of a film, and we often premise our viewing on conventional styles of cinematography and mise-en-scène. In Alexander Kluge's 1966 film Yesterday Girl, however, the modern viewer is presented with a challenge. Many common cinematic assumptions are undermined by Kluge's deliberate refusal to follow Hollywood guidelines; at the same time, though, the film does not attempt a blanket refusal of all narrative conventions. Indeed, it is this very mixture of traditional and innovative narrative techniques that makes the film especially fascinating, and the sense of ambiguity that arises adds to the viewer's resulting insecurity and even confusion.

- Nancy Thuleen, University of Wisconsin

FROM INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDER KLUGE

The theme of forgetting and remembering runs constantly throughout your films. In Yesterday Girl, Anita G. is encumbered with a double past that society is encouraging her to forget: at the beginning of the film she’s being told by a judge to forget her wartime experiences because they’re not “relevant” to her present situation; later, when she’s supposedly being rehabilitated for society, she’s told by one of the prison counsellors that she’ll soon be out and able to forget all about it. It seems obvious to me that, through your films, you’re attacking not just the politics of oblivion, but also the moral notion of absolution that this frequently implies. Experience is always a question of a specific situation. In this concrete situation, there is always future, past, and actual present: it’s the same. In a mass medium like the cinema, or in art, it seems as if you have a choice. A great deal of art—Proust, for example, or any of the 19th-century classic novels—attempts to counter the dominance of the present, to invent a second reality to serve as viceroy to the forgotten or demolished past. That’s one choice. The other choice, which is made by television and by the press, is the actuality principle. It’s also the choice made by the film camera, which can only photograph something that’s present. And I think it’s a false choice, because in a concrete situation, such as we actually live in, you can never make that separation: you can never give up the past, you can never exclude the future. Which is why I prefer the past or the future to the present. Whether I’m making a science-fiction film or historical film, using inserts, making a documentary or mixing fiction and nonfiction, it’s exactly the same. The three parts that exist in our minds and in our experience are always present. When Freud describes the way a person thinks and feels, he always talks about free association as the elementary unit. Grammar, for instance, is one of mankind’s most interesting illusions. It’s a sort of repression of an experience, like logic, or like rationalism. You have to understand that I’m never against grammar, rationality, or logic; it’s just that they’re only abstractions. In any concrete situation, these abstractions must be reduced to the concrete situation. And that’s the province of film. This sort of mass medium film has its basis in people’s minds and experience over several thousand years.

For instance, the title Abschied von Gestern [the German-language title for Yesterday Girl] provokes a contradiction. Because you never can say goodbye to yesterday. If you try to, you get as far as tomorrow only to discover yesterday all over again. The whole film is a contradiction of this title... What part of your question shall I answer now?

- Interviewed by Jan Dawson, Film Comment, May/June 2008

ABOUT ALEXANDER KLUGE

IMDb

Anthony Nield reviews the Alexander Kluge Edition Filmmuseum 2008 Region 2 Box Set on DVD Times

The rumour that Alexander Kluge is supposed to have turned fifty recently is as persistent as that other absolutely ridiculous assertion that this very same Kluge got married sometime toward the end of the year! It is reported that he actually went ahead and had a private matter officially institutionalized by an official state institution. An absurd notion—several hours' worth of stirring movies by the filmmaker Kluge, as well as a whole lot of illuminating and stimulating prose by the writer Kluge, do document after all that it is one of his chief aims to call every kind of institution into question, particularly those of the state—if I interpret half way correctly—and if his work is not indeed even more radical, that is, designed to prove that basically Alexander Kluge is interested in the destruction of every type of institution. Furthermore—an anarchist just doesn't go and turn fifty, the age at which people celebrate you. Categories like that are meaningless to him. I mean, it is precisely rumors of this sort about one of us, serving the purposes of cooptation, that make various things clear, and at the very least remind us of the necessity of continuing to struggle for our cause and of the eternal danger of growing weary in the face of gray, streamlined reality.

- Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Alexander Kluge is Supposed to Have Had a Birthday” in Michael Töteberg & Leo A. Lensing (eds.), The Anarchy of the Imagination, Baltimore & London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Cited in Michelle Langford, Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography of Kluge

Alexander Kluge, the chief ideologue of the new German cinema, is the author of various books in the areas of sociology, contemporary philosophy, and social theory. In 1962 he helped initiate, and was the spokesman for, the "Oberhausen Manifesto," in which "Das Opas Kino" ("grandpa's cinema") was declared dead.

His method is grounded in a rich and representative mosaic of sources: fiction, public records and reports, essays, actual occurrences, news, quotations, observations, ideas, and free associations. The method is used by Kluge as a principle of construction in his best films, such as Abschied von gestern, Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: ratlos In Gefahr und grösster Not bringt der Mittelweg den Tod , and in the series of collective films: Deutschland im Herbst, Der Kandidat , and Krieg und Frieden. The theme of war, in particular the Second World War, appears in all his works.

Kluge's films probe reality—not by way of the fantastic fictions of Fassbinder, or film school pictures as with Wenders—but through establishing oppositions and connections between facts, artifacts, reflections, and bits of performance. The protagonists of his feature films are mostly women who seek to grasp and come to terms with their experiences. For the sake of continuity these women are played either by Alexandra Kluge, his sister, or by Hannelore Hoger. They move through the jungle of contemporary life, watching and witnessing, suffering and fighting. The director mirrors their experiences.

- Maria Racheva, Film Reference.com

"The old film is dead, we believe in the new one" - that is the concluding sentence of the Oberhausener Manifesto. Alexander Kluge was one of the authors of this legendary avowal from 1962 which marked the beginning of New German Cinema. No one meant this as earnestly as he, either at that time, when he was still making his mark on German cinema, or 45 years later. For Alexander Kluge, cinema is a constant development; the spirit of discovery and joy of experimentation are inherent to everything he touches. Then, he wanted to turn cinema upside down, and he still does. And he is probably the only filmmaker who still reflects seriously about how Internet and cinema can be united by more than the mere sales and distribution platform.

- German Films

Kluge believes that the aesthetic and political possibilities of cinema should and can be based on subjective modes of experience. A term frequently used by Kluge in his writings on the notion of spectatorship in the cinema is that of 'Phantasie,' (literally, 'fantasy') and this term acquires a very particular meaning in the context of his work. Phantasie is not like the English term 'fantasy' in the sense described by psychoanalysis, but is more akin to imagination. It equates with the spectator's ability to make connections between disparate things and it hinges on Kluge's conception of montage.

Kluge writes:

…since every cut provokes phantasy, a storm of phantasy, you can even make a break in the film. It is exactly at such a point that information is conveyed. This is what Benjamin meant by the notion of shock. It would be wrong to say that a film should aim to shock the viewers—this would restrict their independence and powers of perception. The point here is the surprise which occurs when you suddenly—as if by subdominant thought processes—understand something in depth and then, out of this deepened perspective redirect your phantasy to the real course of events. (12)

In other words, Phantasie is that which lies beneath the guarded exterior of the stimulus shield, and it is Phantasie that is set free when shock is able to break through the barrier.

Kluge has often invoked the figure of the child as the ideal spectator of his films. Kluge contrasts his cinema with that of conventional narrative cinema with an evocation of two different kinds of landscape. He writes:

At the present time there are enough cultivated entertainment and issue-oriented films, as if cinema were a stroll on walkways in a park…One need not duplicate the cultivated. In fact children prefer the bushes: they play in the sand or in scrap heaps.

- Michelle LangfordSenses of Cinema Great Directors biography of Kluge

Though often acknowledged as one of the most important avant-gardists of his generation in Europe, Alexander Kluge does not think of himself as such. He considers himself a partisan of an “arriere-garde” whose project is not to push into new aesthetic territory or be the vanguard of a new kind of film art, but to “bring everything forward”—to bring forward all the lost utopian aspirations of past political and aesthetic projects, all the wishes and hopes that history has left unrealized. His is a project of redeeming past failures. This might seem an odd claim by Kluge, who was a pioneer of the German New Wave as it emerged in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and a signatory and moving force behind the famous Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962 which declared “The old film is dead.” But like his intellectual precursor Walter Benjamin, Kluge has always thought any project for authentic renewal must consciously detour through the past in order to avoid creating what another of his great intellectual mentors, Bertolt Brecht, called the “bad new”—essentially the recreation of existing oppressive social relations and tired aesthetic forms in the guise of a glossy, marketable and illusory “New.” For Brecht, Fascism was the exemplary “bad new”; for Kluge, the “bad new” consisted of the dreary products of the “culture industry” and the tedious social conditions prevailing in Germany—about which he once said that they were bad enough that no one was really happy, but not bad enough to make anyone do anything about them.

- Christopher Pavsek, Cinema-scope, Issue 32

Kluge's feature films challenge customary patterns of recognition. German history provides a point of departure and a constant site of return for his endeavors; complex and conflicted, this history, maintains Kluge, does not readily lend itself to easy identification or transparent presentation. The bombing of his hometown, Halbersradt (80 percent of which was leveled by American and British planes on April 8, 1945), and the demise of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in February 1943 remain defining experiences in his films (and throughout his work), which must be thought of first and foremost as attempts to reflect truthfully the impossibly complicated and contested "reality" of postwar Germany--a task that could not be achieved, Kluge argued, by conventional means. Thus he eschewed the spurious sutures of continuity editing and the seamlessly neat, easily accessible narrative packages that they produce. For all its intellectual resolve, his cinema is also loath to the dynamics of Eisenstein's montage. The Soviet master's collision of attractions leads the spectator, through an appeal to the senses and the emotion, to an inevitable dialectical conclusion, which is, in the end, just a more sophisticated sort of other-direction, and therefore anathema to Kluge.

Reality and realism are central terms in Kluge's aesthetic conception and important for any understanding of his films. Neither a state of nature nor the way things are, reality is produced and not given; for that reason, it can be comprehended only in its constructedness and its connectedness, its Zusammenhang. Simply to document something, Kluge submits, is not realistic; reality does not exist without actions, fantasies, and wishes, which is to say, unless human senses and feelings are in motion. Feelings, to be sure, are anarchic and often unreliable; for that reason one tries to harness them, often with success (sometimes, as in the case of National Socialism, with too much success), and enjoys all the more indulging their power in the form of films, operas, plays, and novels. Inclusiveness and generosity figure seminally in Kluge's suggestive and elusive choreographies of sights and sounds. They generate networks of meaning linked by interrelation rather than by flow or continuity, bringing together things that do not seem to belong together at all. This higher realism aims to encourage responses that go beyond directorial design and authorialvolition

. Viewers should be free to pick and choose from a wealth of offerings so that films might arise "in the head of the spectator"--without question Kluge's key concept and best-known catchphrase

- Eric Rentschler, "A Cinema of Citation."  Artforum, 2008

Gary Indiana In many of your films you show found footage from very early movies, archive photographs and drawings with the frame cropped in various ways, a Brechtian effect: the films are like free-ranging meditations rather than linear narratives. The viewer notices the cutting. What do you see as the advantages of these techniques?

Alexander Kluge I show the cutting because I don’t believe pictures have to do with one another, whether they’re contrasting or similar. They don’t carry the information, the information is carried by the cut, the splice. Therefore, the cut should be visible. This is an ideal of early Eisenstein; it’s an ideal in literature. In music also, you always reveal your effects. The early forms of cinema are better: before 1907, and before the sound track. The problem isn’t with sound, but with the theater principles and middle-class interests which came into the cinema and destroyed some of its rich possibilities. Theater is a little schematic, while epic texts, like Joyce’s, are rich.

GI Epic narrative is porous. In other words, you can cut into it at any point?

AK Yes. Nowadays, we live in something like the Babylonian Empire. One text doesn’t understand the other. People can understand each other but the texts they speak are, to some extent, autonomous. If I speak to you, and a policeman hears this text, it’s no longer the text you and I speak together. Texts have their own life, and images too. As I have to deal with the situation of the 80s, not of 1907 if we have this Babylonian confusion that one language doesn’t understand the other, it’s also necessary to bring more context into narration. For example, it isn’t useful to tell the story of a complete industry. Like the German chemical industry—there’s been a huge 12 hour film made on this subject, but in it you see the family life and the love stories of the bosses and their daughters and so on. All of that isn’t the reality of the German chemical industry in the ‘30s. It was a very cruel reality for some people. To be more realistic, you need more context.

GI One more question. You’ve often said that cinema exists inside our heads, that the repertoire of mental images and feelings that cinema creates corresponds to the mode of consciousness of human beings over the past several thousand years. How is that different than music?

AK Music is an elaborated art. It is more than we’ve carried within us for thousands of years. It’s more to do with the four billion years we’ve existed on earth—with our ancestors, who were very small. Music has to do with sounds within the belly, sounds within the ancient oceans, when the oceans were 37 degrees celsius, like our blood. Some people believe the cosmos is making music, and so on. Music is older and more differentiated. Film is very robust. It’s only 90 years old. It corresponds more with anthropology. Music is made in a very aristocratic way, never by majorities. Cinema, from the beginning, was made as a counter-effect to what our senses do all the time. It’s an imitation of what our brains do. Music is not an imitation of what our ears do.

- Alexander Kluge interviewed by Gary Indiana, BOMB Magazine

996 (128). White Shadows in the South Seas (1928, W.S. Van Dyke)

Screened Wednesday December 23 2009 on 35mm at the MoMA Study Center, New York NY TSPDT rank #986    IMDb Wiki

A white man on a trade expedition in an exotic tropical locale abandons his greedy merchant colonial companions to shack up with a native girl. He learns her people's ways and warns them of the encroaching enemy that threatens to wipe out their culture. All of this is presented in a groundbreaking cinematic format that will redefine the standard of motion pictures to come. Sound familiar?

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This 1928 Tahitian excursion was the first MGM sound film (as well as the first to feature the famous MGM lion in the credit roll). Swap 3-D for sound innovation and you pretty much have a Tahitian template for Avatar.  Not saying that James Cameron knowingly ripped off the plot; it's pretty much self-flagellating post-Colonialist drivel, the Eurocentric bullshit that even Terrence Malick isn't immune to. But at least instead of James Horner muzak, we get William Axt and David Mendoza's sub-equatorial symphonic jazz score (listening to it, you can practically see the palm trees swinging languidly in the breeze - trimmed with Art Deco tinsel):

This production was set to be Robert Flaherty's first feature for a Hollywood studio, but (as notes following the break detail) his ethnographic philosophy and methods clashed with his professional crew, led by assistant director W.S. "One Take" Van Dyke (The Thin Man). Flaherty eventually left the shoot (later to return to the Polynesians with F.W. Murnau to shoot Tabu) and Van Dyke took over, completing the shoot in swift succession and delivering what in many ways is a quintessential Hollywood entertainment: exotic adventure, love, gunfights, technical innovation,  spectacle linked to pseudo-liberal social consciousness. Plus giant killer clams and a the unforgettable sight of a body washed ashore covered in horseshoe crabs.  The film also skirts the issue of language barrier that forced Cameron to invent a whole new language, as White and Tahitian silent dialogues are translated into the universal language of English subtitles. Only in the movies, indeed.

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WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of White Shadows in the South Seas among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

David Lean, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Jean Gehret, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Jean-Paul Le Chanois, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Luis Bunuel, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)

PRODUCTION BACKGROUND

Either by accident or design, MGM came up with the most unlikely partnership in the history of motion pictures in the late twenties. Imagine if you can a collaboration between Robert Flaherty, the filmmaker who pioneered the documentary form, and W. S. Van Dyke II, who was known in the industry as "One Take Woody" because of his quick, cost-saving shooting schedule. Flaherty's filmmaking method was just the opposite. His painstaking preparation for each film was legendary (BothNanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926) took over two years to complete) and yet these two men were brought together by MGM mogul Irving J. Thalberg for White Shadows in the South Seas (1928).

Rumor has it that Thalberg bought Frederick O'Brien's book because he found the title intriguing and not because of its powerful story which was a bitter denunciation of white civilization and its destructive effects on the lifestyles and cultural traditions of a Polynesian paradise. The central focus ofWhite Shadows in the South Seas is Matthew Lloyd (Monte Blue), an alcoholic doctor who is shanghaied by an unscrupulous pearl trader and winds up being marooned on a Pacific island where the natives have never seen a white man before. As time passes, Lloyd is revered as a god but eventually his corrupt nature and inherent greed brings about the destruction of the island community through alcohol, lust, and disease.

Flaherty agreed to direct White Shadows in the South Seas because he was friends with the author Frederick O'Brien and was recognized as an expert on Pacific Island culture (He had spend over 20 months on the island of Savai'i in the Somoas filming Moana). Van Dyke was brought on board to head up the technical unit and the entire crew traveled to the island of Papeete in Tahiti for filming. Right from the beginning, things began to go wrong. The unit's interpreter was arrested a day after the crew arrived due to a past run-in with the local authorities. That situation immediately made the islanders suspicious of the movie people. Complicating the situation were tropical downpours that delayed filming, a climate that quickly spoiled food and basic edibles, and the unavailability of portable lights and generators for location shooting. And Flaherty's slow, meticulous method of filmmaking was trying the patience of the entire crew. In W. S. Van Dyke's Journal, the assistant director wrote, "Everyone hates everyone else's guts. They are fighting like mad. Flaherty doesn't know a thing....I have never seen a troop in a more deplorable condition. I am spending my days running around trying to pat them on the back and telling them to carry on as we will get home all the quicker. They are not sore at me, and when I am shooting they behave alright, but the minute Flaherty starts in, they start."

- Jeff Stafford, Turner Classic Movies

[W.S. Van Dyke's] writing expresses a desire to sever any links to Tahitians, "half-castes," Chinese - that is, those who cannot be assimilated into a self-reflecting sense of unified American and masculine selfhood. He writes to Chippo, "This place is sure a degenerate's paradise. Some of our gang are wallowing in it... These natives represent a very little different strata to me than the negro. And they smell about as bad except when they are all daubed with perfume."

For Van Dyke, shooting his film far from home, the islands refused to provide any object that he could seize upon, identify with, or offer up as an example that embodied the preconceived illusion of tropical paradise that continued to dominate in the US at the time. In his journals, Tahiti appears as a depressed and fallen place that encompasses the extremes of Dante's vision: paradise is called a "hell hole." Soon the metaphorical relationship between sexual and cultural alienation becomes even more closely interwoven, and the blurring of vice and disease is made explicit, perhaps thinly veiling a reference to Van Dyke's own strict sexual abstinence and the disappointed myth of potent primitive sexuality: "The men have the right idea down here. Everything droops. Even the foliage... Everything is tired. There doesn't seem to be a semblance of a native life left on the island. Everything is of the bastardized variety. The natives are not altogether French and the French are only partly native."

This bastardized offspring of colonial mixing seems somehow the fault of Tahiti itself. It is this impure, sexually fallen and literally infertile - "drooping - reality that the director finds himself constantly in need of disguising, making up, smoothing over and revitalizing in his film. White Shadows in the South Seas ultimately highlights the ways that film images can encode the relationship between desire and representation: appearing to penetrate the truth of the "passive" peoples and landscape of the South Pacific, it succeeds not so much in capturing others as in representing the idea of otherness in the US imagination.

Jeffrey Geiger, Facing the Pacifc: Polynesia and the US Imperial Imagination. University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

Opening credits, found on YouTube. "First time we heard the [MGM] Lion roar."

HISTORICAL REVIEWS (Courtesy of Silents are Golden)

MOTION PICTURE MAGAZINE, September, 1928:

A picture ravishing to the eye and appealing to the heart has been made in the South Seas. The theme is the destructive civilization that white men bring into the lives of the natives - destructive to happiness, and even to life. Almost all the actors are natives, with the exception of Monte Blue and Raquel Torres who have the leading roles. Monte is excellent as the vagabond doctor who tries to save one tribe of natives from the white shadows. And Raquel Torres, as the island girl, is so good and so sincere that I couldn't believe she was an actress. See this by all means. It's an absorbing story played against beautiful backgrounds. And it starts off with some pearl-diving scenes you can't afford to miss.

PHOTOPLAY, August, 1928:

If this opera has not gone to sleep under a cocoanut tree, it would have been the greatest South Sea drama ever filmed. This is the film that was started by Robert Flaherty. And the cameraman has caught rare beauty with his lens. Pearl diving and its perils are shown in wonderful under-sea shots and, although drama dies with the sinking of a plague ship in a thrilling typhoon, interest is sustained by a gorgeous travelogue.

THE FILM SPECTATOR, June 23, 1928:

Nothing finer than "White Shadows in the South Seas" ever has come to the screen. It is a Metro picture, directed by W.S. Van Dyke and featuring Monte Blue. Frederick O'Brien's charming book of the same name was the inspiration for the screen story. All the charm of the book is put on the screen. It is a soothing picture that makes one lazy, and instills a desire to dwell on a South Seas island and pick a living off a tree. We see stately palms waving their branches, languidly yielding to a lazy breeze; crescent beaches turning back rolls of foam which the sea sends to them; quiet pools which reflect the riot of foiliage that droops over their rims; brown gods of grace who glide through crystal-clear water in search of pearl oysters. We go into the homes of the nativees and see how they live, how they eat and work and play -- all things that we visualized when we read O'Brien, but which now come to us to alter our imaginings to square with facts. It is a photographic idyll of surpassing beauty, a poem which nature wrote and which the camera caught. And with it all we have a story, gripping, dramatic, that saddens us, for it shows how white men -- the White Shadoews -- grasping, debasing, went down there, destroyed the poetry in the name of commerce, and for a life gay, sweet, and innocent, traded a "civilization" that was sodden, immoral and corrupt. It was a splendid thing for Metro to do - the making of this picture - and splendidly has it done it. In it cinematic art touches one of its greatest heights. It was a big thing to do to send a company all the way to the South Seas, a venture in screen commercialism to make a great example of screen art, and so magnificently has the venture succeeded in its artistic quest that it will prove to be a commercial triumph. "White Shadows in the South Seas" willl be one of the outstanding financial successes of film hisitory, and as such should encourage Mr. Mayer to send forth more expeditions of the sort, and other producers to consider the advisability of emulating him. The picture will be a success, not because of its scenic beauty, not as a lesson in geography, not by virtue of its sociological value, but because it is a regular motion picture that makes us interested in people who move through it. It was wise of Metro to stress the story. Reduced to its essentials, it is nothing but story, the embellishments being things it picks up as it goes along. The viewer who is not intrugued by its pictorial splendor will follow with interest its romance and its drama. The viewer who can see nothing interesting in the life of the natives, will see much to interest him in the acting of Monte Blue. Monte gives a superb performance, one othat is sincere and powerful. It is a characterization of many different phases, and he is brilliant in all of them. I have seen nothing finer on the scren in a long time. This picture will bring to the front a young woman who is destined to become a great favorite. She is Raquel Torres, a Mexican, I believe, whom Hunt Stromberg discovered somewhere and gave her her opportunity. She is splendid. She has a spiritual quality that makes her screen personality charming. It is the same quality that Janet Gaynor has in such abundance, and Loretta Young, and a few others, the quality that suggests sweetness and goodness, and instills in the viewer confidence in a girl's intergrity and intelligence. Robert Anderson very capably plays the part of heavy, and there are many satisfactory performances given by natives. Van Dyke's direction is masterly. The story, splendidly written, brings out graphcially the misfortune that befell the South Sea Islanders when they were "civilized" by traders. I wish it had gone farther and shown the evil done by meddling missionaries, the unconscious accomplices of greed and alcohol in destroying a life a thousand times purer than the one that set forth to purify it.

995 (127). Maskerade / Masquerade in Vienna (1934, Willi Forst)

Screened December 22 2009 on .avi downloaded from the Website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn, NY TSPDT Rank #955  IMDb Wiki (German)

Considered the pinnacle of '30s Austrian cinema, Maskerade embodies much of the best of 30s European filmmaking, in which the camera dances to a distinctly musical rhythm of movements and countermovements. It sits comfortably among the '30s films of Rene Clair, Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir, as well as Ernst Lubitsch's work in Hollywood. Compared to most of those films, its topic may seem relatively fluffy: an artist creates a minor scandal by painting a masked nude suspected to be an aristocrat's fiancee; when he names an innocent girl in an attempted cover-up, it leads to unexpected romantic entanglement. Willi Forst takes a well-worn continental costume milieu as a starting point, doing everything he can to breathe life into it. The camera darts with ease through ballroom scenes, connecting the eyelines of characters as they scope each other's movements. He laces the film with clever tricks both visual (dialogues filmed in silhouette) and aural (a montage of citizens making animal sounds while reading the gossip pages). Driving everything is a buoyant soundtrack of 19th century waltzes and opera, whose lilting rhythms can be found in the film's pacing even when the music subsides. The film itself feels like a symphony of varied movements: robust allegros, minuet-like montages, and a climactic rondo that brings everything to full circle. Overall, life is presented as an irresistible society ball, governed by status, gossip and decadent desire.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Maskerade among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Friedrich Luft, Sight & Sound (1952) Hans Schifferle, Steadycam (2007) Ludwig Gesek, Sight & Sound (1982) Kazakh Cinematheque World Poll - 100 Best Films (2006) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

It is unfortunate that we should have seen "Escapade" before having had an opportunity to admire "Masquerade in Vienna," the Viennese film which Metro copied in 1935 when it sought an introductory vehicle for Luise Rainer. "Escapade," we now realize, was a rather bad imitation. Like most copies, it tended to exaggerate the distinctive qualities of the original, understating one, overemphasizing another and throwing the entire theme slightly out of focus. "Masquerade," which opened yesterday at the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse, has none of "Escapade's" defects. It steers a deftly guided course between farce and drama and it emerges as a frivolous, yet tender, romantic comedy.

Willy Forst's direction has kept his narrative spinning gayly, and an engaging cast, headed by the charming Paula Wessely in the Rainer rôle, has enlivened it with a series of deftly executed character studies. Miss Wessely, more self-contained than Miss Rainer, is wholly attractive as the shy little person innocently drawn into the spicy scandal of the lady in the mask. Particularly captivating is she in the scene where she timorously enters the artist's studio, expecting to find cushions, incense and drugged wine, and is, instead, subjected to a growling bullying by the conscience-stricken painter. I cannot find much virtue in Anton Walbrook's portrayal of the artist Heideneck, but Walter Janssen is knowingly comic as the badgered conductor whose wife has been indiscreet, Peter Petersen is excellent as the gruff Dr. Harrandt, and Olga Tschekowa, Julia Serda and Hilde von Stolz are faultless.

- Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, January 26 1937

maskerade08

Maskerade (Masquerade) (1934), secured his reputation as a significant director and gave him the international recognition he did not quite have as an actor. It also made an instant star of Paula Wessely in her lead debut. A foremost figure in German language motion pictures and theatre for five decades and the wife of Attila Hörbiger, Laurence Olivier considered her to be the greatest film actress of the twentieth century, and Bette Davis was known to have studied her performances. Her role as the impoverished but morally upright art student Leopoldine in the decadent atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Vienna, set the tone for the female lead (along with Luise Ullrich in Lieder) in the Viennese Film, and it also typecast Wessely as the innocent or “good” woman for most of her work in the 1930s and '40s. The centrepiece of Maskerade is Leopoldine's meeting with the society painter Heideneck (Adolf Wohlbrück) at a lavish carnival ball. Its strikingly romantic-decadent, even erotic mood can be credited to the soft camera work of Franz Planer and to the seductive music arranged and composed by Willi Schmidt-Gentner. Maskerade received an award for best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival and ultimately proved to be so successful internationally, that Hollywood “borrowed” the story for a new, but less welcomed version entitled Escapade in 1935, with Luise Rainer.

- Robert von Dassanowsky, Senses of Cinema

Anton Walbrook, young and elegant, plays the artist who sketches the wife of a prominent Viennese surgeon in nothing but a mask and a muff, and then is forces to invent a model. Paula Wessely is the girl he invents. Walter Reisch's light, romantic screenplay is an almost perfect example of writing for the screen.

- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies. Macmillan, 1991. Page 470

ABOUT WILLI FORST

IMDb Wiki

A specific blend of historical and aesthetic sensibilities melded into a unique style in Austrian cinema during the early sound period in the 1930s. It soon became known as an entirely new and geographically focused genre in European cinema, the Viennese Film. The artist responsible more than any other for this concept was Willi Forst. He began his career at age 16 as an actor on the provincial stages in the Austria–Hungary and the German Empire, and appeared as a featured performer in the post World War I operetta theatres of Vienna and Berlin. His early career in Austrian silent film ranged from being an extra in Michael Kertesz's (Michael Curtiz) monumental Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) to a notable second lead in Gustav Ucicky's Café Elektric (1927) opposite a pre-Blue Angel Marlene Dietrich. He made his sound and singing film debut in Atlantic (Germany 1929) and soon became known for his distinctive velvety voice and “charming Viennese” persona (1) in German films usually directed by Geza von Bolvary. He subsequently appeared in two of the best Austrian comedies of the early 1930s: with the first-lady of the Viennese stage, Hedwig Bleibtreu, in Karl Hartl's Der Prinz von Arkadien (The Prince of Arcadia) (1932), written by his future production partner Walter Reisch; and in what Forst considered the best learning experience for his future role as director, So ein Mädel vergisst man nicht (Unforgettable Girl) (1933) directed by expressionist film actor-turned-director Fritz Kortner. Forst actively developed his reputation as a great screen lover, but his directorial debut in Leise flehen meine Lieder (The Unfinished Symphony) in 1933 brought to Austrian and Central European cinema one of its greatest filmmakers and influential industry figures, whose lack of presence in the international film “canon” of important directors today is one more casualty from the negligence that has greeted Austrian cinema since the collapse of its commercial film industry in the 1960s. International attention to New Austrian Film since the 1990s has also helped bring Austria's film heritage art to the fore, and Willi Forst is now gaining a very belated “comeback” with world cineastes.

-Robert von Dassanowsky, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Willi Forst to date is the greatest talent in Austrian film history, with the possible exception of Billy Wilder, who had to emigrate.

Together with Walter Reisch, an Austrian scriptwriter in Berlin who had tailored nearly all of Willi Forst's German roles for him, Forst coauthored the screenplay for the Schubert film Leise flehen meine Lieder (1933). Thus was the "Viennese film" born, with its inimitable blend of music and action. The film was romantic, but Forst did not dwell on a sugary Biedermeier image, but also showed the poor living conditions and class barriers. In 1934 he produced and directed the big production, Maskerade (1934), the film which launched Paula Wessely on her way to film stardom and Hans Moser as comic. This social comedy set in turn-ofthe-century Vienna featured the big ball scenes of which Willi Forst became the unsurpassed master, and a frivolous love story ending very conservatively: the famous painter (Adolf Wohlbrück) chooses not the jaded, elegant society lady (Olga Tschechowa) as his wife, but the plain, wholesome poor girl (Paula Wessely), thus reflecting the contemporary ideological attitude toward women in the Austrian corporate state. Beginning with this big success Forst as actor, director, screenwriter, and producer dominated the Austrian filmmaking scene for the next fifteen years. In life as in film, he was the quintessential elegant Viennese gentleman. As a film maker he aimed at perfection.

- Gertraud Steiner Daviau, Film Reference.com

ABOUT WIENER FILM

Wiener Film (German; plural: Wiener Filme; literally, "Viennese film") is an Austrian film genre, consisting of a combination of comedy, romance and melodrama in an historical setting, mostly, and typically, the Vienna of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Wiener Film genre was in production between the 1920s and the 1950s, with the 1930s as its high period.

These films are always set in the past, and achieve a high emotional impact by their oscillation between extreme emotional states, between hope and suffering, for example, or pleasure and loss. Most of them are set in the Vienna of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when as the capital of the multiracial monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it had its greatest social and cultural significance. The protagonists belong to a variety of social classes, which adds to the interest of the relationships between them. The concepts of honour and morality of the period are often of great significance in the development of the plots. The Wiener Film is almost always happy, life-affirming and relaxed. Music and song feature prominently, either in the form of orchestral and musical scenes or as interpolated songs by the characters. Humour often arises from misunderstandings, mistaken identity, misadventures and the resultant efforts to restore order, with often farcical consequences.

Dramaturgically the Wiener Film generally contains several principal characters and several more subsidiary characters, all of whom recur frequently throughout the film as the action develops. They do not always all know each other, but are nevertheless connected by the plots and sub-plots running in parallel. The action mostly centres on love affairs great and small, often with elements of the comedy of mistaken identity. The films are generally unchallenging in terms of the contemporary socio-political issues and environment (for some rare exceptions see below).

The first films that can be classed as Wiener Filme were created in the 1920s, in the days of the silent film. The genre trached its full potential however with sound film, when the specifically Viennese dialect (see below), verbal dexterity and the characteristically Viennese acid wit (Wiener Schmäh) were able to come into their own and made the genre popular not only in Austria but also in Germany. Willi Forst's production Leise flehen meine Lieder, a biography of Franz Schubert, was so successful that an English-language version was made, under the title Unfinished Symphony. Willi Forst is one of the most significant directors of Wiener Film, and made what is generally reckoned to be the best of the genre, the 1935 film Maskerade.

- Wikipedia

994 (126). El Sur / The South (1983, Victor Erice)

Screened December 19 2009 on unsubbed Region 2 DVD with subtitle file in Brooklyn NY TSPDT Rank #907 IMDb Wiki

There's a strong suggestion of a great movie in Victor Erice's second feature, made 10 years after his celebrated debut The Spirit of the Beehive. Erice's breathtaking use of natural light demands comparison to Vermeer, while his ability to evoke a child's wonder and terror at the mysteries of the world make him an art cinema antecedent to Spielberg.  But financing woes halted filming on this story of a girl's attempt to solve the riddle of her enigmatic father. While Erice edited the footage to what he considers a finished film, it's clearly lacking a satisfying final act (in which the daughter travels to the father's hometown carrying clues to his past).

But the narrative is just as compromised by moments that stray from the child's first-person perspective, Erice's strong suit. Scenes where the father corresponds to an old flame diffuse the suspense, though they give the film clarity in its truncated form. A running voiceover narration by the girl as an adult reinforces a sense of pastness that further dilutes the primacy of the moments Erice offers us, a number of them visually stunning.

It's strange that Erice would allow a voiceover to structure a film whose underlying thesis is the futility of words: the father's anguished letters leading to no good outcome; his awkward conversations with his daughter and virtual non-communication with his wife. Instead, it's objects, images and gestures that link the characters: an amulet, a drawing of a woman, a joyful communion dance, the incessant pounding of a cane on floorboard. These are also Erice's best forms of communicating, and what ultimately links this film to his viewers.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of El Sur among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Javier Aguirresarobe, Nickel Odeon (1994) Mirito Torreiro, El Mundo (1995) Shiori Kazama, Kinema Junpo (1999) Ursula Vossen, Nickel Odeon (1997) Dirigido Por, Best Spanish Films (1992) Kinema Junpo, The Greatest Foreign Films (1999) Nickel Odeon Spanish Canon (1995) Nickel Odeon The Films of Our Life (1994) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

HISTORICAL REVIEWS

''EL SUR'' (''The South''), opening today at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, is the second feature by Victor Erice, the Spanish director whose first film, ''The Spirit of the Beehive,'' was one of the critical hits of 1976.

As was Mr. Erice's method in ''The Spirit of the Beehive,'' the new film reveals its concerns in small, seemingly unimportant details, much in the manner of a traumatized psychiatric patient. Every gesture is loaded with associated meanings. Objects are symbolic. Yet the emotional inhibitions, which had political significance in the first film, aren't particularly provocative here. The movie seems to whisper when there seems no reason why it can't speak in a normal voice.

''El Sur'' is nicely acted by Omero Antonutti as Agustin and Iciar Bollan as the teen-age Estrella, though it lacks a dominating performance like that of Ana Torrent in ''Beehive.'' Everything about ''El Sur,'' including the highly theatrical lighting, is so artfully composed that it seems to be more about film making than characters or ideas.

-Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, January 15, 1988

On the surface, despite the presence of a different fictional source (a story by Adelaida Garcia Morales) and scriptwriter (Jose Luis Lopez Linares), Victor Erice’s second feature seems to bring back some of the haunting obsessions of his first, the wonderful Spirit of the Beehive (1973): the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the magical spell exerted by movies over childhood, and a little girl’s preoccupation with her father and the past. But as English critic Tim Pulleine has observed, a reference to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in El sur (South, 1983) points to an elaborate system of doubling and duplication that underlies the film’s structure as a whole, operating on the level of shots and sequences as well as themes (north and south, father and daughter, real and imaginary). Although this subtle spellbinder ends somewhat abruptly, reportedly because the film’s budget ran out, it seems to form a nearly perfect whole as it is: a brooding tale about an intense father-daughter relationship and the unknowable past, mysterious and resonant, with the poetic ambience of a story by Faulkner.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

El Sur is a simple film, rich in interesting childhood observations and perspectives. It is marred, however, by underdeveloped characters and the lack of a sense of closure.

The character Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren) is well developed and thoughtful. Estrella's actions and emotions are full of meaning and insight and not too na"ive. The film successfully explores a unique father-daughter relationship and the accepting nature of children.

Agustin (Omero Antonutti), however, is not fully developed as a character, despite his central role in the movie. Although the father character is meant to be mysterious, the reasoning behind many of his actions often needs more explanation. For example, his feelings for a past lover are never fully explained, leaving the viewers with an awful sense of being shut out. This and other underdeveloped aspects of the film ultimately affect the film's ending, which is unfulfilling, predictable, and not at all tragic.

- Ricardo Rodriguez, The MIT Tech, February 28, 1989

INTERVIEW WITH VICTOR ERICE

Geoff Andrew:  I'd like to move on to your next film,The South [El Sur, Spain/France, 1983]. Some of you may remember it from when it was released in 1983. It's a quite wonderful film, I think, and is totally coherent, yet it's a film that was never finished. You weren't allowed to shoot everything that you wanted to, and it's shorter than it would have been as part of the story isn't there. Was that a very painful experience for you?

Victor Erice: Yes, it was very painful for the drama [of the film] but, of course, for film-makers this is quite a common occurrence. The film was interrupted for financial reasons. On the other hand, in terms of production it went very well, it was a happy time. Even in the state it is in, the film had a lot of commercial success in Spain, and especially from the critics. It should have been one hour longer, although many critics and spectators have applauded the fact that the south - which would be the south of the country - is never actually seen in the film. My taste is a little more common: I wanted to show it, especially as I was born in the north but lived many years of my life in the south. I felt that this was a wonderful opportunity to have the north and the south coming together in the film. Naturally this was a metaphor for the divisions that became apparent in the Civil War and, similarly, the divisions in a person who can't assimilate or join two parts of his own being.

The figure of the father in The South is a man divided between two loves: his romantic passion and his mundane life with his wife. It's about a man who always wants to go to the south but never manages to go. The train is always going past the station but he never manages to get on. He returns home like a clandestine person and he dies. And in a sense he leaves a mandate because, when he is about to die, he leaves under the pillow of his daughter the symbol of the communion, the thing that tied them together in their youth. This is the last thing that he does in his life so he is there, working like an impulse to provoke the daughter to make this trip that he was never able to make - and she does do what he could never do.

In the part that was never filmed, this girl does reach the south in Andalusia, where her father was born and lived his own childhood, so it completed the story of her father's death. In this way she was able to reconcile herself with the image of her father. This was the original project of the film. The film as it is now is still under the weight of the pain and, of course, the visit to the south was the redemption and she could grow up and become an adult. I can't say it would have been a happy film but there would have been a new energy and vitality because, in every story, to understand the history of one's parents is so important for every human being.

- Interview at the National Film Theatre, London, September 2 2003

CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Based on the novel by Adelaida García Morales, El Sur is a deceptively lyrical and delicately realized, yet haunting portrait of maturation, estrangement, alienation, and dislocation. Victor Erice achieves an atmosphere that is both naturalistic and mystical by shooting in natural light to visually reinforce hues and gradations that, in turn, reflect Estrella's gradual perceptional shift towards her father. Exploring similar themes that would also pervade Theo Angelopoulos' subsequent 1986 film, The Beekeeper, Victor Erice draws an implicit correlation between geographic division and the legacy of civil war: the parallel rites of passage between the marriage of Spyros' daughter in The Beekeeper and Estrella's first holy communion in El Sur; the profoundly isolated Spyros' apicultural migration to the south that represents a similar lure of an ephemeral (or unrequited) paradise lost to the melancholic and withdrawn Agustín (as well as both filmmakers' paradoxical characterization of the south as a destination that represents vitality and figurative death); the complex role of the cinema as a place of escape and also a contemplative medium for introspection and personal assessment. Erice further integrally incorporates cinema into the development of the multilayered narrative through a passing homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (through a preview poster at the CineArcadia) that uncoincidentally bears a similar plot of a young woman's demystification of her idolized, charismatic uncle with whom she believes she shares a profound connection (also note a similar integration of homage and narrative Erice's earlier film, The Spirit of the Beehive and the James Whale film, Frankenstein). However, unlike the intrigue of the seminal Hitchcock film, the mystery of El Sur unravels with the imperceptible weight of a tossed skein of red yarn - exposing, not a barbarous crime, but the unendurable realization of being ordinary and unremarkably human.

- Acquarello, Strictly Film School

Víctor Erice’s second feature, shot 22 years ago, ten years after his first, El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive), took as its starting point a 47-page story by Adelaida García Morales that was published two years earlier. I’d recommend reading it after watching El sur, mainly because its last 12 pages allow us to imagine how the film would have developed if Erice had been allowed to shoot his adapted script in its entirety (the story originally concludes in southern Spain). For reasons never sufficiently explained, or openly discussed – though I do have a theory of my own about these complex, deep motivations – the shooting of El sur was halted, allegedly for the Christmas holidays, never to be resumed. Perhaps naïvely hoping to finally be allowed to shoot a second part – which was never intended as such or to be a separate movie – Erice kept diplomatically quiet, and edited a coherent film from the material available to him; it was sent to the Cannes Film Festival where it was hailed as a masterpiece, and the second part was silently but definitely shelved.|

Once you know that what you’re going to see, or have just watched, is only half the movie Erice wanted to make, and despite the fact that there are some things which never get explained or fully developed, you should forget this knowledge and enjoy what there is to see and hear, which is plenty. Regardless of the understandable frustration Erice still feels about the issue, while shrinking from others descriptions of the film as a masterpiece, El sur is still substantively a great film like Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965). If you haven’t read either the original screenplay or the tale, you might never imagine that the film is not a fully mastered and completed work. In fact, despite its unfinished state, El sur is for me – and others – one of the greatest films ever made in Spain, and perhaps Erice’s most refined and mature work as a director.

From the opening sequence – in my recollection the most impressive since Dreyer’s Ordet (1964) and Ford’s The Searchers (1956) – one gathers that everything in this picture has been thought through and carried out with extreme care and precision; that there can be no loose ends, only cut threads owing to the film being only half of what Erice intended at over three hours. If the South announced in the film’s title remains a felt, mythical presence, almost dreamt but never reached or seen (only glimpsed on postcards while accompanied by the chords of Enrique Granados’ piano music on the soundtrack), it nevertheless remains a key reference, a significant motif in the film’s narrative. Although uncompleted, El sur is a much more accomplished, richer, deeper, complex and moving picture than El espíritu de la colmena. It marks a decisive step forward in Erice’s progression as a filmmaker. El sur is much more dense and allows us to get much nearer to several of the characters; its silences are not of the same kind as those that are so significant in El espíritu de la colmena. There is more interaction, and much more feeling and confrontation too, in El sur. In contrast, most adults in El espíritu de la colmena, even the parents – who never exchange a word - are kept mainly at a distance, in a different, separate world from that inhabited by the two sisters who are so alone that they are ready to see ghosts. The relationships in El sur are more real and painful.

- Miguel Marais, Senses of Cinema

In The South we watch a group of mostly disconnected individuals try to deal with the legacy of a receding past; the Civil War and the divisions it has forged within families and between generations. Although this film is a somewhat truncated version of Erice's original vision—he conceived of a final section actually set and filmed in the 'south'—its refusal to move outside the isolated northern community which the family inhabits, in a kind of exile, leaves open the potentiality for the processes of imagination and creative subjectivity that define Erice's work (as well as his characters). In a scene reminiscent of the Stereoscope sequence in Malick's Badlands (1973), Estrella, the young girl who is the 'focus' of the story, uses the material things that surround her to create an understanding and sense of the somewhat inconceivable world beyond her immediate experience. Because her parents rarely discuss the past, she has to extrapolate from the old-fashioned hand-coloured photographs she finds in a family album, or imagine her father's past lover from a lobby card she picks up at the local cinema (as in The Spirit of the Beehive, cinema is used as a means to spark imagination and to create identity). The worlds of Erice's films emerge as a collection of disconnected but connected signs—aural and visual—that enable the characters to come into being.

It is the look and sound of Erice's films that is often their most remarkable and telling characteristic. His work is full of ambient, often isolated, perhaps not even adequately sourced, sounds. It is often these sounds which most clearly haunt and disturb the characters. These sounds are also an indication of a world outside of the explicitly framed—this is a cinema full of frames-within-frames, doorways, windows, metaphors of entrapment—and often boxed-in environments we are shown (gunshots, barking dogs, train whistles, vehicles shifting gear). Sound is often figured as a site of the imagination and the unknown, a trigger for processes of creativity, memory and identity formation. For example, early in The South the narrator tells of her first memory (assumedly 're'-constructed at a later time from a story told by her parents), in which her father mysteriously 'designates' her gender while she is still in the womb—the first of a series of uncanny connections that bind father and daughter together in this family romance. Thus, it is not just sounds but words that are central to the make up of the characters.

- Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Erice is concerned with the exploration of myth, and the fragile balance that exists between its positive and negative qualities: the positive being the capacity of myth to provide explanations for the inexplicable, to help us to bear the unbearable, and the negative being its potential for aiding mass manipulation and subjugation. (Both qualities exploited freely by the Franco Regime, although that is not the focus here.) The godlike power of creation, control over human destiny and (to a greater or lesser extent) over the consumer form a basic link between cinema and the myth of the father in this film. The paradox lies in that, although we may not live so easily without them, if myths remain unquestioned, we run the risk of becoming their victims. Myth offers coherence and consolation, but should also provide a focus for the kind of curiosity aroused in Estrella that will, sooner or later, destroy it. El sur is  a celebration of the way film constructs its own myths, and the cinema is an ideal vehicle for the  analysis of our capacity and need to construct personal versions and visions of life as we 'see' it. It is also a moving illustration of the power of cinematic myth and of the paradox that we are safest in our enjoyment when we can acknowledge with more confidence than Agustín  that 'las cosas que ocurren  en el cine son mentira'.

- Jo Evans, University College London

ABOUT VICTOR ERICE

IMDb Wiki

Victor Erice has directed just three features and two shorts in a little over thirty years (the shorts, included in portmanteau films, bookend the three features he has made roughly ten years apart). (2) In its studied and contemplative approach to cinema, as well as its meagre productivity, Erice's career can be compared to that of Carl Dreyer and Terrence Malick. The connections to the work of these great, visionary filmmakers do not end there. Like Malick & Dreyer, Erice is a filmmaker who explores his environments through precise, lyrical, light-filled or filtered compositions. He also presents characters that are inseparable from or mired in particular times, spaces and historical moments. Erice's first two films (like Malick's) also feature strong, structurally central female characters forging their identity within masculine environments (a striving which often stages itself as act of speaking, of finding voice). (3) Although his films are artfully composed, Erice also shoots in a manner that, like Malick, is responsive to the sound-image possibilities and accidents that emerge on location. But whereas one can imagine, or even fantasise about, the philosophical questioning of Malick and the spiritual contemplation of Dreyer occupying them between films, Erice throws up another 'picture' all together. Although he actually has made his living writing film criticism, screenplays and directing for television (including a surprisingly large number of commercials) one would rather imagine, or at least easily conceive, that his films are the product of a deep, extended process of reflection, of repose, the outcome of an accretion of details and minute, precise observations captured over a sustained period of time (a process/practice suggested by the knowledge that he insisted on filming every day during the two-month shooting schedule of his third feature, The Quince Tree Sun [1992]—resorting to video when film stock, and the money for it, intermittently ran out).

The most remarked upon quality of Erice's cinema is its visual dimension. His films are dominated by the juxtaposition of often stark long shots and beautifully composed and lit vignette– or tableau–like compositions. His camera moves intermittently, but usually only to reframe or follow the characters. Thus, his films do have a studied, contemplative quality on a compositional level (they are full of repeated set-ups and move between a sense of closeness and distance). The most remarkable element of his films' visual dimension is the qualities of light that they capture—not unlike a painting by Vermeer or Valázquez (though modern, this also hints at the timeless, partly anachronistic quality of Erice's cinema). This light is often sculptural, its physical dimensions affecting both the perception of the spectator and the actions of the characters. (For example, the browns, burnt yellows and oranges that dominate the bleak interior and exterior landscapes of The South express the muted anguish of the characters, but also seem to shape their literal movement in space.)

Both The South and The Spirit of the Beehive are films about the experiential realities of characters, communities—and a country—in isolation. They each primarily focus on female characters attempting to forge their own identities within somewhat barren, chilly and mute environments. Erice's films are also remarkable for the space they give to all of their characters—even the woman (played by Aurore Clément) only seen in the film-within-a-film in The South is able to express herself through the long letter she sends to Estrella's father. This virtual dialectic, between specific, knowable entities/characters and the world that surrounds them, is carried over to a general understanding of the connections between images and sounds in Erice's cinema. Thus, although many of the images and sounds of his films seem to partly exist for themselves—highlighted by the common use of the fade to black, which tends to isolate shots—they are also part of a rich fabric of associations. In regard to this, Erice's films constantly play upon the tension between movement and stillness, ambulation and repose, the isolated observation and its macroscopic implications.

- Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Geoff Andrew: You were a film critic yourself and you've always been a cinephile. What was it that attracted you to the cinema in the first place? When did you become interested in films?

Victor Erice: It's difficult to say. It's more like an experience. I don't feel that I chose cinema or films. I feel they chose me. I don't mean this to be pretentious. In my childhood, films were fundamentally important. In a country that, especially in the 1940s, was very isolated from the rest of the world and marked by the Civil War, films gave me an extraordinary possibility to be a citizen of the world.

GA: And did you always want to make films as well? Obviously, maybe not as a kid, but you did become a critic when you were quite young...

VE: It was an evolution, I suppose, and I became conscious of it when I was about 19. But you don't choose to be a film director when you are small. You would be a small monster. Also, you can say that nobody chooses whom to love.

- Interview at the National Film Theatre, London, September 2 2003

It was like this - through writing - that one day I began to think about cinema, and discovered another way of prolonging its vision, of realising it. It was in the summer of 1959, after having seen The 400 Blows at the San Sebastian Film Festival. At the end of the screening, I came out onto the street, moved. And that same night I felt the need to put into words the ideas and feelings that had been awoken in me by François Truffaut’s images. It was the first time that such a thing had happened to me. The years have passed and, though I have been able to shoot a few films, I continue to write every now and then.

We did know it, without a doubt, though perhaps we forgot: ‘Cinematography, art of the Century’. This is precisely what was once said of cinema when, in a gesture not exempt from bad faith, justice was sought by virtue of bestowing upon cinema all the privileges conferred by social recognition. Never, not even at that solemn moment, did we imagine that with the passing of years cinema would become an essential element of our memory, the container capable of holding the images that best reflect the human experience of the century that has just died. How could we not find in that gaze that we project backwards, suspended in the air, the figure of the angel of melancholy! It is, in some way, inevitable. Since that single history, that of cinema and the twentieth century, is confused, irremediably, with our own biography. I am referring to the people of my generation, born in the time of silence and ruin that followed our civil war. Orphans, real or symbolic, were adopted by cinema. It offered us an extraordinary consolation, a sense of belonging to a world: precisely that which, paradoxically, Communication, in its present state of maximum development, does not offer.

Cinema nowadays, since it is based on technical reproducibility and universal dissemination, features accelerated by the effects of video and television (both capable of multiplying these aspects ad infinitum); cinema as product and nothing more than product (according to the rules of the Market – more unrelenting than ever, to the extent that it has accomplished the alienation of the notion of the author), is merely allowed, socially and on a global scale, by the established powers, a sole destiny: a destiny proper to the entertainment industry [la industria del espectáculo]. It is for this reason that, at the present crossroads, cinema may have no alternative other than to fall back on itself so that it may, once it has assumed its solitude, affirm itself in its dignity: a dignity conferred onto it by virtue of being the last of the artistic languages invented by man. This is its differentiating quality, what truly distinguishes it from other audiovisual communication media.

Every now and then, transformed into ghosts, the bodies that are present in the images of those films that (as Jean Louis Schefer has written) ‘have looked at our childhood’ rise from their graves and appear on the small screen of the television, at the latest hours, nearing dawn. Offering themselves to our insomniac eyes, they seem to tell us something: what? Amongst other things, that cinema today exists so as to bring back what was once seen. Its future, in this sense, is its past, though on the condition that we contemplate it with an undeceiving eye, with no dread. Given that, as Jean-Luc Godard affirmed, ‘cinema authorises Orpheus to look back without letting Eurydice die.’

- Victor Erice. Originally published in Banda aparte no. 9/10 (Valencia, January 1998). Reprinted with permission of the author. Translated from the Spanish for Rouge by Carlos Morrero. Thanks to Alvaro Arroba.

993 (125). Dracula / Horror of Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher)

Screened December 4, 2009 on Warner Brothers DVD in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #995 IMDbWiki

For this film I felt less interested in my own thoughts than in those of  two of my earliest friends in the world of online cinephilia.  Back when I was a regular on the IMDb Classic Film board, Lee Price (Lee-109) and Christianne Benedict (Chris-435) were among the most knowledgeable and engaging peers, especially on the subject of horror films.  In fact they were contributors to the anthology Horror 101.  (Some of you may also know Christianne from our wonderful video essay on The World According to Garp; and Lee was behind the 100 Directors of Animated Shorts). So I thought to call them up and ask them what they thought of this film. What follows is 25 minutes of awesomeness. You can listen to the .mp3 here or right-click to download. Here's an index of topics for easy reference:

0:00 - Setting template of Hammer horror and post-'50s horror movies 6:24 - What do Hammer's Dracula and James Bond have in common? 8:20 - What Christopher Lee brought to Dracula 11:35 - Sex, vmpires and Victorian women 14:15 - Bram Stoker's paranoia 16:00 - Favorite Dracula films, and why no movie yet has gotten Dracula right 18:00 - What Hammer introduced to the Dracula myth and to the movies

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Dracula among They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films:

Evelyn Caron-Lowins, Positif (1991) Tomas Fernandez Valenti, Dirigido Por (1992) All-Time Movie Favourites (Book) Independents and Others: British Prestige (1975) Chicago Film Critics Association, The 100 Scariest Movies of All Time (2006) Cinescape The Top 100 Sci-Fi, Horror & Fantasy Films (2000) Danny Peary Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) Empire The 50 Greatest Horror Movies Ever (2000) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Taschen Books Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) The Guardian 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007) Total Film 50 Greatest British Movies Ever (2004) Various Critics Book - 501 Must-See Movies (2004) Various Critics Book - 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

PRODUCTION BACKGROUND

One month prior to the commencement of filming, Producer Anthony Hinds submitted the draft script to the British Board of Film Censors for approval. The Board Reader's report contained complains about 'the uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar style of Mr Jimmy Sangster' and noted wryly: 'Why do vampires need to be messier feeders than anyone else?'.

The points of objection were summarised by John Nicholls, Board Secretary for the British Board of Film Censors. They requested that all women should be 'decently clad' and reminded Hammer that sex should not be emphasised in a horror movie. Additionally, the Board demanded that vampires' teeth should never be seen to sink into the neck, that Dracula should not fling the vampire woman across the room by her hair, and that stakes should be used 'out of frame' - shots of the vampires after staking or their screams during the act should be omitted. On viewing a black and white rough cut of the movie, the Board requested that the staking of Lucy, Dracula's seduction of Mina and the final disintegration of Dracula had to be either omitted entirely or significantly edited.

Managing Director of Hammer Studios, James Carreras wrote to the Board, asking for a compromise over certain shots, reminding them that the X certificate they were seeking would automatically prevent anyone under the age of 16 from seeing the film, that the dedicated audience would expect a certain amount of 'horror' and that the cuts the Board had requested would remove the very thrills the audience wanted to see. By the time the final colour edit was ready, the Board had been worn down to the point where they found only two shots objectionable; the gushing of blood during Lucy's staking, and a shot in the final scene of Dracula clawing his face off. These scenes were removed and Dracula was finally granted a BBFC 'X' Certificate in April 1958, but with a stern warning from John Nicholls to Anthony Hinds that he should never attempt to get similar material passed by the Board in the future.

Unsurprisingly, many critics were vitriolic in the extreme towards Dracula. CA Lejeune, writing for The Observer, was particularly damning:

I regret to hear that it is being shown in America with emphasis laid on its British origin, and feel inclined to apologise to all decent Americans for sending them a work in such sickening bad taste.

She added that although the poster advises you 'Don't Dare See It Alone!', she would 'prefer not to expose a companion to what seems to me a singularly repulsive piece of nonsense'.

Similarly, the Daily Telegraph's critic believed that Dracula was too nasty a film, even for adults:

This British film has an 'X' Certificate. This is too good for it. There should be a new certificate - 'S' for sadistic or just 'D' for disgusting. However, despite the largely negative press the movie received, there were a few critics who saw the merit in Hammer's production. Dudley Carew in The Times extolled:

Mr Christopher Lee makes a saturnine and malignant Count... and the part is played straight, as melodramatic parts should be played. Altogether this is a horrific film, and sometimes a crude film, but by no means an unimpressive piece of dramatic storytelling.

- BBC h2g2

HISTORICAL REVIEW:

Yesterday, sporting a somewhat redundant title, "Horror of Dracula," the durable old boy himself arrived from England to take up residence at the Mayfair. Perhaps the constant hunt for hemoglobin is slowing our villain down, for this time there are strong indications that the once gory plot is showing definite signs of anemia.

Say this for "Horror of Dracula," however, it does have its exotic aspects. It was filmed in vivid color, which makes its "undead" all the more lurid. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that all of its principals speak with impeccable Oxonian accents, even though they appear to be citizens of some unnamed Transylvanian community.

For the record, the ominous Count's king-sized canines put their fatal trade marks on three luckless victims: John Van Eyssen and Carol Marsh and Valerie Gaunt, a pair of damsels who look delectable enough in diaphanous shifts to turn the head of a red-blooded observer. Christopher Lee is grim but not nearly so chilling as Bela Lugosi in the title role, and Peter Cushing is proper and precise as the meticulous researcher who finally turns our monster into dust.

This can't be the end, however. We bet the price of admission to the Mayfair against a sprig of garlic flowers (vampires hate 'em) that some moonlit night Count Dracula will rise again with the aid of another intrepid producer.

- A. H. Weiler, The New York Times, May 29 1958

EXCERPTS FROM TOP CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Dracula – usually better known under its American retitling, The Horror of Dracula – is the cornerstone of the Hammer Films legend. Although The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) the year before was beginning of Hammer’s success, The Horror of Dracula was the one that set Hammer on the map and marked the beginning of Hammer’s domination over the horror scene for the next fifteen years. The Horror of Dracula’s status, certainly in Anglo-horror fandom, is sacrosanct and its importance near-mythic. The essence of what the Hammer film was all about is here – the darkly magnetic presence and aristocratic haughtiness of Christopher Lee; the commanding, straight-arrow rationalism of Peter Cushing; the florid shock hand of director Terence Fisher; the essential British repressions of sexuality and convention that Anglo-horror would pierce a stake right through; and the laughably dated shocked critical outcry.

Where then to view The Horror of Dracula today? Hammer films, particularly the early ones, have regrettably not dated well. Today their pace seems slow; the shocks that caused such a critical outcry (and then quickly transformed into the expected mainstay of this particular genre) seem absurdly mannered, even laughable. The rich and floridly colourful sets seem flat and stagebound and James Bernard’s celebrated scores loud and unsubtle. Yet The Horror of Dracula holds undeniable effect. One must understand exactly what it represented to audiences back then. To an audience that had been raised on the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931) and the cardboard, melodramatic figure that Dracula became among the Universal monsters lineup in the 1940s,The Horror of Dracula must have had an incredible shock value. For one it was in colour – which meant that one could see the blood in its rich, overripe scarlet detail – and that alone made it an immediately different film to the Bela Lugosi version. For another it was not as stagebound as the Lugosi version – within the rather static sets, Terence Fisher’s camera is kinetic and alive, always on the move.

As an attempt at adapting Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), The Horror of Dracula isn’t any better or worse than any other version. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster liberally sacrifices parts here and there for the economy of plot and budget – out go Renfield and the asylum (although these later appeared in Hammer’s Dracula – Prince of Darkness [1966]). Gone too is the magnificently ambient opening journey to Castle Dracula, the pursuit climax and set-pieces like the crashing of the Demeter. Gone too is Dracula as a supernatural being – “It is a common fallacy,” says Van Helsing, “that vampires can change into bats and wolves,” which conveniently does away with having to create costly effects sequences. (Although said fallacy seemed to have been disproven by later films). Despite the liberties he takes with Bram Stoker, Jimmy Sangster nevertheless preserves the essence of the book.

- Moria

Britain's Hammer Studios was the first to bring Count Dracula to the screen in living, blood-red color. Reteaming Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the stars of Hammer's 1957 hit Curse of Frankenstein, director Terence Fisher created what is arguably the best Dracula film out of the legion that have been made in the past 70 years. Lee, as had Bela Lugosi almost three decades before, fashioned a horror icon from Stoker's vampire for a whole new generation of international movie audiences.

While Horror of Dracula is seminal in the character's film canon, it's hardly faithful to the literary source. Only a bare outline of the original novel serves as the basis for Jimmy Sangster's economical script. Most of the characters have been jettisoned, notably Renfield, and the entire story takes place in Eastern Europe rather than shifting the main action to England. No sea voyage for Drac here, no lunatic asylum. Vampire hunter Van Helsing (Cushing) is nothing at all like the character in the book. Rather than an eccentric, thickly-accented Dutchman, Cushing plays the character as a younger man of action, quick-thinking and resolute, more scientist than mystic. Even with Lee's charismatic turn as Dracula, it is Cushing — one of the finest, most underrated actors in English language cinema — who carries the film with his intelligent, energetic portrayal of the Count's great nemesis.

Hammer detractors often chide the studio's films for their leisurely narrative. Horror of Dracula, clocking in at a compact 82 minutes, is briskly — at times even breathlessly — paced, especially when compared to the slow-as-molasses 1931 Lugosi version. The caliber of acting, handsome set design and marvelous use of color belie the movie's relatively low budget. Because of budgetary constraints, in fact, many classic elements of the Dracula story had to be dropped; the real reason the Count never turns into a mist or a bat in this version is because it was simply cheaper for him not to have these powers. (The script has Van Helsing dismissing such transmogrifications as a "common fallacy" about vampires.) Interestingly enough, it's because this Dracula cannot shapeshift that he comes across more as a terrifying, flesh-and-blood monster — to be grappled with at close quarters only at great peril to the hunters — than some ethereal, blood-drinking ghost in formal wear. The two moments that stand out in this regard are the confrontation at the castle, wherein the Count is first revealed as the undead creature he truly is, and the exciting battle between Van Helsing and Dracula at the climax. (The latter was used as a pre-titles sequence for 1966's Dracula — Prince of Darkness.) Any "monster kid" who grew up watching horror movies on TV in the '60s and '70s has these sequences emblazoned in their memory forever. It's primarily due to them that for many, (including me) the name "Dracula" immediately evokes an image of a feral, snarling Christopher Lee — not Bela Lugosi in a tux.

- Brian Lindsey, Eccentric Cinema

In a way, Lee’s Dracula is a missing link between the classic cinema vampire and his more contemporary brethren, who are often portrayed almost like human beings suffering from an uncontrollable addiction. Earlier horror films had emphasized Dracula’s allure by portraying the vampire almost like a hypnotic phantom. Bela Lugosi’s performance, in the 1931 DRACULA, emphasized the character’s foreign qualities and an uncanny otherworldliness that made the Count seem separate from humanity even while he moved unobtrusively among it. Lee’s portrayal, on the other hand, erases most of the character’s spooky nature (aided by the script, of course): in HORROR OF DRACULA, the Count does not turn into a bat or a cloud of mist; he seems more real, more physical – a flesh-and-blood being that the audience can more easily believe in. In a sense, he humanizes the vampire, not by making him sympathetic but by making him walk the Earth almost like a mortal – a super-powered, undying mortal, to be sure, but one subject to physical laws that limit his movements, just as they limit ours.

While advancing the Count’s evolution, Lee also captures some hints of Dracula as he appeared in novel Dracula. Author Bram Stoker’s physical description of the Count emphasizes not hypnotic fascination but physical strength. He is tall, his face a strong aquiline with a thin nose and a cruel-looking mouth. The literary character may be a fascinating monster, but he is definitely a horrible one. The air of cultured aristocracy (emphasized by Lugosi) is definitely there, especially in the early scenes at Castle Dracula as the Count plays charming host to his hapless guest, Jonathan Harker; however, this air is merely a deceptive cloud hiding the monstrous lining. Sophisticated he may be, but Stoker’s Dracula is better defined by the pride he exhibits when boasting of leading troops in warlike fury to fend off foreign invaders.

The more overt suggestions of savagery were absent from Lugosi’s Dracula, who never bared his fangs and seldom lost his temper (although he does snarl once or twice). Lee was afforded the luxury of allowing the character’s monstrous side to show more fully. Abetted with dripping fangs and red contact lenses, Lee portrays Dracula’s ferocity to the hilt. Also, in keeping with the novel, Dracula is never naively accepted into the society of his victims; instead, after the characterization is established in the opening scenes at Castle Dracula, he becomes almost a background character, infiltrating his victims’ homes like some sinister spy from beyond the grave.

Steve BiodrowskiCinefantastique Online

It is difficult to overemphasize how integral Technicolor is to the identity ofHorror Of Dracula. Murnau and Browning engaged the spiritual elements of the Dracula story, and black and white stressed the Victorian character of these films. This is an oversimplification, especially in the case of Nosferatu, in which the supposedly helpless woman acts in a way that is both enigmatic and heroic. Still, it is valid up to a point, and helpful in discussing Hammer's astonishing series of horror films. Preposterous and impossible to dislike, these films reveled in the sheer gaudiness of Technicolor, and it is fitting that the first shot after the opening titles features dripping red blood. And I'm not sure if blood has ever been so suggestively red.

Because, really, everything in this picture is terribly suggestive. Consider Dracula. We have moved from Schreck's compelling repulsiveness to Lugosi's eccentric whatever-it-is to the very handsome and very tall Christopher Lee. That is, Horror Of Dracula is a very sexy movie. Sex certainly existed in Browning's picture (remember Mina's attempt at seducing Jonathan), and the finale of Nosferatu can be viewed sexually (although it would be blasphemously reductive). Here, however, Dracula and his victims are eroticized so blatantly that they almost jump off the screen. The subtext (that if you have weird sex with tall handsome strange men your soul is damned) is so obvious that it doesn't really qualify as subtext, and it is subverted by the constant British camp of the film. The players are unquestionably having a hard time keeping a straight face, and there is real, clear artistic joy in their attempts to make something this absurd work. There is nothing conservative or cautionary about this film; for these filmmakers blood is clearly as arousing as the low necklines.

This extends to Peter Cushing's iconic and truly brilliant performance. As Van Helsing, Cushing both embodies the stereotypical English gentleman (he is as effeminate as the best of them) and transforms it, giving the character an assertiveness that goes beyond the merely intellectual. He has real physical presence, and no one doubts that he would thrust a stake through Lucy's or Jonathan's heart. Lee's physicality is even more impressive, and although he has few lines, he seems to rush through them, as if he's more comfortable dominating the scenes through presence alone, or outrageously smearing his face with blood.

DoniphonThe Long Voyage Home

Most shocking – and successful – of all, however, is 'Horror of Dracula'’s handling of the original novel's latent eroticism. What was once sub-textual is here foregrounded, and there is now no doubt that the film’s women enjoy Dracula's advances. Indeed, in preparation for his nocturnal visits, the “victims” even open doors, remove crosses from their necks and arrange themselves artfully on their beds! This complicity highlights the fact that film’s menfolk are mere cuckolds, and paints their frantic efforts to stop Dracula as the laughable last stand of injured male pride. This is ‘Dracula’ as projected through the prism of Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’.

Yet these designs have much more serious undertones. Take, for example, the scene in which Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling) speaks to her husband, Arthur (Michael Gough), on the morning after her first encounter with Dracula. Gone is the dour housewife of previous scenes to be replaced by a more vivacious, sensual and – if her smiles are any indication – happier woman. This sparkling transformation indicates that the true enemy of the piece is the stifling Victorianism which has previously crushed Mina’s femininity and squandered her well-being. This interpretation is bolstered by Peter Cushing's wolfish and ambiguous turn as Van Helsing. Obsessed by his pursuit of Dracula and unmoved by the numerous stakings that he has to perform, Van Helsing is one of the screen’s most brutal and efficient reactionaries.

In contrast to all previous portrayals, then, Dracula actually catalyses life, and it is Arthur, Van Helsing and their fellows who preside over the true realm of the undead; a realm contoured by the same stuffy mannerisms and values that sadly prevailed in post-War Britain, at the time when the film was made.

In the end, the overall transaction isn’t bloodless for the viewer, and this is what may explain 'Horror of Dracula''s timeless appeal as a fright picture. Indeed, the film sets out to vandalize all preconceptions, conventions and comforts, particularly those that must have been held by contemporary audiences. Rather than portray Van Helsing's battles with Dracula as a straightforward tale of good versus evil, Fisher recasts the monster as a counter-cultural hero, and one whose values would soon make furtive progress during the upheaval and sexual revolution of the Sixties. However, that the changes of those years were to be largely undone by the forces of conservatism demonstrates that Fisher was right on yet another count: Van Helsing always wins in the end.

Pete HoskinDVD Beaver

OTHER REVIEWS

Horror of Dracula appeared at a pivotal time in British culture when it began to move away from the repressive world of the early 1950s – depicted in Mike Leigh's Vera Drake (2004) – and towards a different type of life (an era aptly evoked and encapsulated by the subsequent mantra of British Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan; “You never had it so good”). During this period, Britain experienced a more consumerist lifestyle, a youth culture influenced by Hollywood cinema and rock-and-roll, the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, and the “Angry Young Man” movement in British theatre. Horror of Dracula can be understood as horror's response to this turbulent social change. But, as an early example of Hammer horror, it contains conflicting cultural values.

Like the often critically despised films of The Archers and Gainsborough melodrama, Horror of Dracula offered contemporary viewers the taboo cinematic elements of spectacle and excess that offended establishment definitions of the proper “realist” nature of British cinema. In his pioneering study A Heritage of Horror, David Pirie recognised that Hammer horror represented the return of a repressed Romantic British literary tradition, with Christopher Lee's Count Dracula reincarnating Byron's Fatal Nobleman as a Vampire . When Lee speaks his first lines, he not only extinguishes the Universal Studios legacy of Bela Lugosi, but also returns the Count to his rightful place in British culture. But unlike Lugosi, Lee is definitely one of “us”. As in Bram Stoker's original novel, the Count speaks perfect English and does not need to struggle with his vowels. Lee's Dracula also evokes hidden desires within his victims, collapsing those British ideological barriers of repressive sexuality and “good taste”.

Tony Williams, Senses of Cinema

Having hit the jackpot with The Curse of Frankenstein, Britain's Hammer Films updated another monster classic with this 1958 Dracula remake, which distinguished itself from earlier efforts with its dripping blood, bared fangs, women's cleavage, and compulsive gong banging on the soundtrack. This Grand Guignol treatment bowled people over in the 50s, and it still yields some potent shocks—the sudden cut to a rabid Christopher Lee in tight close-up during Dracula's first attack is particularly hair-raising. Peter Cushing carries most of the ho-hum script as Dr. Van Helsing, though the well-lit color photography, central to the Hammer formula, can't compare with the shadowy magnificence of Nosferatu (1922) or Dracula (1931).

Dave KehrThe Chicago Reader

From the late ‘50s through the ‘70s, no one did horror like England’s Hammer studios, and the crown jewels in their terrifying oeuvre were the gothic Dracula pictures starring the incomparable Christopher Lee as the blood-sucking prince of darkness. Horror of Dracula (also known simply as Dracula) marks Lee’s first turn as the Count, as well as Peter Cushing’s initial performance as the indefatigable vampire hunter Van Helsing, and it’s likely the most tantalizingly creepy entry in this series of cinematic nightmares.

- Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness

Much of the film's power lies in the haunting images presented, many of which have gone on to become the best-known and most definitive cinematic images of vampirism of all time: The opening of Dracula's eyes as nighttime falls; the flowing cape as Dracula strides down the walkway from the castle; the swirling leaves that announce the Count's arrival on the veranda outside Lucy's bedroom; and of course Dracula's unforgettable demise at the film's climax. While much of the atmosphere is due to Fisher's direction, it is important not to underestimate the contribution of other key elements of the Hammer ensemble. Jack Asher's eerie lighting combines brilliantly with Bernard Robinson's sets, and James Bernard's score superbly heightens the sense of terror, sexuality and fairy-tale fantasy that is at the centre of Fisher's vision.

David RattiganDictionary of Hammer Horror

Fisher is an extremely detail-orientated director and is the master of lighting and makeup. As Chris Lee was still quite young for the role of dead-since-before-Columbus-set-sail vampire, Terence used lighting and makeup to focus on Chris Lee’s more pronounced physical features while effectively hiding his more youthful attributes. Also, he is one of the few directors who effectively uses Chris Lee’s Sasquatchian height as an advantage. The audience is treated to several “towering” camera angles of the vampiric menace throughout the film which could possibly be some of the creepiest moments captured on celluloid.

Jenn DlugosClassic-Horror.com

The Germanic eagle that fills the screen in the first moments of Fisher's remake of Todd Browning's 1931 "Dracula" resets the cultural barometer. No longer toying solely with the idea of outsiders and cultural subversion, "Horror of Dracula" is almost explicitly a post-World War II film, and it deals with Nazism.

Among Fisher's characters, the debate is not so much over belief in the supernatural, but more importantly over the need to act in the face of evil. Van Helsing spends little time trying to scientifically justify vampires – a la Browning's incarnation of the character -- Cushing's Van Helsing outright asks Holmwood what he is prepared to do in the face of the Count's onslaught. He describes the wider-reaching consequences of inertia. The equation is simpler and more imperative.

While "Horror of Dracula" absolutely represents a bloodied and visceral entry in the genre - Fisher's use of fluid and effects is pronounced for the time - it poses a more challenging addition to canon in that it is a political "Dracula." With blunt and uncomfortable words and pictures, Fisher opens the annals of recent history to his audience and asks if the vampire myth can any longer be about strangers creeping into bedchambers. He recommends, it seems, that Dracula is now the aggressor crossing national and moral borders.

James O'BrienCinescare

Hammer's Dracula made much more explicit the seduction-rape fantasy that underlies vampire mythology. Christopher Lee is not a horrid ghoul like Nosferatu. He's an aristocrat like Lugosi, but more of a contemptous brute than someone who'd attend the opera. Lugosi's ladies trembled in uncomprehending fear, and their menfolk gallantly did their best to protect them. In Horror of Dracula, the female victims openly enjoy their master's visits, throwing wide their windows and lying back on their beds in anxious anticipation. They conspire with Dracula against their own fathers and husbands for the privilege of being savaged by the haughty, feral vampire king. The result is an artistic and commercial triumph over the censor: technically, all that's happening is that necks are being bitten, but what viewers experienced were sensual, mostly consentual rape scenes. This is still Christopher Lee's greatest performance, combining his knack for elitist hauteur, with his excellent pantomime skills. After a decade of mostly inappropriate casting, he shows unmistakable star power, commanding the screen with every appearance.

For victims, Horror of Dracula provides a trio of actresses who create portraits of eroticism rarely attempted by later 'liberated' vampire films. Valerie Gaunt was a token victim in The Curse of Frankenstein, but with just a few seconds of screen time as Dracula's bride, she etches a vibrant picture of duplicitous female wiles. The obsessive lust that comes over her eyes as she gets face-to-jugular with Jonathan Harker is unforgettable. Carol Marsh made film history starring with Richard Attenborough ten years earlier in the crime drama Brighton Rock; here her teen tragedy is played out in the Victorian era. To get her way, she falls back on childish petulance, but we read her precocious sexuality loud and clear. When she throws the doors open, the midnight chill enters her bedroom with the falling leaves (beautiful, but dead), yet she doesn't care ... the all important HE is coming. She awaits Dracula as if he were a teenaged lover - only sexier.

Melissa Stribling's Mina is even more interesting. She's first seen as a prim and conventional housewife, content to stand anonymously behind her bourgeois husband. But when Mina starts her affair with Dracula, the change is remarkable. She blooms to life, and her eyes and smile betray a satisfaction that doesn't come from keeping the silverware polished, or lighting Arthur's cigars. When she receives Dracula in her bedroom, breathless and dumbstruck, the scene is pure domination and submission.

Glenn EricksonDVD Savant

There was more to Hammer's version of Dracula than sexual innuendo and graphic violence. In addition to the extra shadings given the character of Dracula and the nature of his menace, Jimmy Sangster's screenplay,Terence Fisher's direction, and, especially, Peter Cushing's performance as Van Helsing, Dracula's obsessive nemesis, brought out heretofore untapped resonances in that character as well. In most screen versions of Stoker's book (indeed, in the book itself), Van Helsing is portrayed as an aging, kindly Dutch physician whose knowledge of the undead comes in very handy when the time arrives to bring the story to a close. In Horror of Dracula however, Van Helsing assumes a dominant role--and an unsettling one. Terence Fisher later said of the character: "An individual who never goes out without his hammer and stake is hardly a sensitive soul."

It is Van Helsing, much like Dr. Frankenstein, who comes of as the real villain of the piece. The Count, like Frankenstein's creature, has no free will and acts mainly out of instinct. In most versions of the story (as in the book), Dracula leaves Transylvania in search of new victims. In Horror of Dracula he leaves only after his domain has been intruded upon and his "bride" destroyed by Van Heising's surrogate, Jonathan Harker. He then seeks out Lucy to replace her and, when she too is destroyed (by Van Helsing) turns his teeth on Mina, sealing his own doom.

--from Horror of Dracula DVD supplementary material, Warner Bros., 2002. Posted by Eric B. Olsen on A History of Horror

The first scene in the library, when Dracula enters with a leering, blood-smeared face, is one of the greatest and most influential shock scenes in movie history. Audiences leaped when he hissed his challenge, but the challenge was really to moviemakers: let's see you jokers top THIS. "The Curse of Frankenstein" opened a door; "Horror of Dracula" went through the door with a confrontational confidence. There had never been a vampire movie remotely like this before, and audiences the world over were ready for it.

Horror movies changed direction after "The Curse of Frankenstein" and "Horror of Dracula" the next year. Not only were now both Cushing AND Lee established as horror stars and Hammer as a pre-eminent horror studio, but the Grand Guignol horror elements of both films were an affront and a challenge. As writer David Pirie has pointed out, sometimes more IS more; classically, not showing the horrifying elements in horror movies was the way to go, and horror movies were made in the visual style of German cinema of the 1920s. But Hammer movies were emphatically mid-twentieth century, vividly gruesome, packed with energy and sex, and altogether something different. The changes they began have never faded away; horror movies today would not be what they are without the impact of Hammer.

- Bill Warren, Audio Video Revolution

Fisher, as much as any single person, is the reason that Hammer became known for the remarkable quality of its Gothic horror. Now, we can argue whether Gothic horror is quite as exciting as the stylistic magnificence of German Expressionism, and stylistically, the Hammer Dracula simply can't compete with Nosferatu or Vampyr (or even Universal's Dracula, which is otherwise an exemplar of everything wrong with early sound filmmaking) for the title of "most visually exceptional vampire movie". We'll take that as given. Still, the Hammer Gothic style, at is best, is essentially without peer, and it was never better than in Fisher's hands. Despite a tendency towards being overlit, Dracula is a visual feast of rich production design, shot to its fullest effect in a series of unassuming but inevitably correct camera angles (which tend to be just slightly wider than you'd think, and so we're constantly aware of the space of the film), and a nearly breakneck pace that allows not a single moment of flabby excess.

As long as I've got this marvelous love-in happening, let's wrap it up with the final member of the Hammer horror dream team: Jimmy Sangster. Responsible for basically all of Hammer's best scripts, Sangster's work in Dracula isn't quite as good as his screenplay for Curse of Frankenstein; it's at least somewhat of a liability that Dracula is offscreen so much, and that when he appears at the end he's dispatched so quickly, and Holmwood and Harker are nothing but ciphers, no matter how well-acted. But the core of Dracula is pure genius; to the best of my knowledge, it's the first example anywhere of vampirism as a scientific problem, and as a result the story's Victorian setting has never been exploited quite the same way. In Sangster's hands, Van Helsing reaches his apotheosis as a character, devoted to the scientific method and as intelligent and competent as he could ever be. He's the great vampire hunter, because he represents the forces of modernity and the Enlightenment marching against superstition and fear, and if the nugget for that metaphor was already present in Stoker's novel, it never came close to being so beautifully expressed as it was in this film, as opposed to Van Helsing's traditional representation as a crackpot mystic with a proclivity towards leg-humping.

- Antagony and Ecstasy

ABOUT THE WARNER BROTHERS DVD

This Warner release's anamorphic transfer is – like the disc's Dolby Digital mono soundtrack – serviceable enough. The print is clean; colours are rewardingly vibrant; and detail is sufficient, if perhaps a little hazy. The prime disappointment is that the 1.78:1 framing crops the film's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

Extras are limited to the film's theatrical trailer and a couple of text features (cast/crew biographies and 'Dracula Lives Again!', which chronicles the production's history).

There has been talk that Warner are to revisit their Hammer properties and release them in more lavish editions. Whilst this would certainly be welcome in the case of 'Horror of Dracula' – if only to afford the film an OAR presentation – this disc's faults are not so great as to prevent it from being a worthy stop-gap.

- Pete Hoskin, DVD Beaver

For such a crucial horror title, Horror of Dracula has not fared very well on home video. Much of its original luster has been dulled by muted and cropped video transfers, as well as a notorious laserdisc pressing which omitted part of a gruesome staking at the 55-minute mark. (For the record, all three stake hits and the blood-spewing are here on the DVD, though upon close analysis the reinstated footage appears to be lifted from a different and slightly more degraded print.) Though the film still betrays its age at times, Warner's anamorphic transfer looks comparatively polished and boasts some wonderfully striking colors; reds are appropriately saturated and balance nicely with director Terence Fisher's skillful incorporation of blue and gold into the set design. Flesh tones are also noticeably improved, and the graininess which has become part of the film's video fabric has been thankfully decreased. Resolution looks impressive on a standard monitor but when blown up to home theater size, detail can be quite soft in numerous shots, particularly the studio-bound exteriors. As with the theatrical prints, facial details sometimes appear blurred and overall the film will still look dated to those expected a crisp, megabudget Warner restoration on the order of North by Northwest. The film elements look clean and free from wear. As with their release of The Mummy, the decision to letterbox the film at 1.78:1 will no doubt ruffle a few feathers; the framing lops off as much on the top and bottom as it adds to the sides, but the compositions look more spacious and evenly composed than the claustrophobic full frame version. However, viewers with 16:9 capability may find the headroom awfully tight if their set overscans to 1.85:1, which shears off too much headroom for comfort. The mono audio is limited by the dated materials but sounds robust enough, with James Bernard's thunderous score coming through passably if lacking the stomach-rumbling bass that characterizes his theme on the CD soundtrack. Considering the past track record of Hammer titles on DVD it wouldn't be outrageous to expect a special edition treatment for a title this important, but alas the only extras are the familiar theatrical trailer (in much better shape than on previous compilations) and a few cursory text supplements hopping through the Hammer-Dracula history. Given Lee's fluctuating opinion on discussing his Dracula appearances, his absence here isn't too surprising, but a few goodies to put the film in context (or even a simple gallery) would have been a welcome gesture.

- Mondo Digital

ABOUT HAMMER HORROR

Wikipedia

Official Hammer Films Site

The Unofficial Hammer Films Site

Dictionary of Hammer Horror by David Rattigan - invaluable resource with dozens of Hammer-related entries

The Hammer Horror Crypt - Site boasting synopses and hundreds of photos for each Hammer production

AMC.tv has an interactive feature to allow people to vote up or down their favorite Hammer horror films.

Hammer Horror Posters - NSFW

More useful sites can be found on Hammer House of Horrors

Notwithstanding the works of Satyajit Ray and Sergei Eisenstein, few foreign independent influences have had as broad an effect on American cinema as England's Hammer Films Limited. Some might find that a far-reaching proclamation, but I'm confident that there's ample evidence to bear this out.

The Creature (Christopher Lee) attacks Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).

Having gone into television production in the 80s before closing its doors for good, Hammer nonetheless remains the most successful British film studio ever, producing more than 200 features over five decades. The studio is best remembered for its thrillers, particularly gothic and singularly British retellings of Universal Studios classic monster franchises - Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Werewolf. Martin Scorsese,Steven SpielbergGeorge Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola are just some of the more apparent filmmakers to have borrowed a few of their more lurid tones (and actors) from Hammer's colourbox. Hammer produced far more than horror films over their long run, but here I will focus on their more exploitive, though no less artful, genre pictures.

- Jeremy Wheat, Hammer House of Horror

Be sure to read "What I Owe to Hammer Horror" by John Potts in Senses of Cinema

992 (124). V lyudyakh / My Apprenticeship (1939, Mark Donskoi)

Screened December 13 2009 on NYFA VHS (courtesy of the NYU Library) in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #910  IMDb

In the second installment of Mark Donskoi's coming-of-age trilogy, based on Maxim Gorky's childhood memoirs, teenage Maxim emerges from the ashes of his family's destitution, as chronicled in The Childhood of Maxim Gorky. Searching for a trade to apply himself, Gorky is repeatedly sabotaged by petty folk entrenched in each establishment he enters. Whereas Childhood held a quietly romanticized view of the masses suffering under the petty tyranny of pre-Revolutionary feudalism, My Apprenticeship shows the underclass exploiting each other.

These films are saddled with a Socialist Realist agenda that threatens to reduce each scene to a civics parable, denying it of the pulsing lyricism of that other landmark childhood film trilogy, Satyajit Ray's Apu films. But there's a strong humanist countercurrent that takes the film beyond mere didacticism. At its best moments the film resists the easy Soviet stereotyping of characters into desirable and undesirable social types. The most memorable characters engage with Maxim over books and ruminations about their waylaid ambitions; paradoxically, it is in relaxed conversational stasis, not in reform or production, that this Marxist propaganda film envisions a state of human fulfillment. The way Donskoi deploys music to freeze time and saturate a moment with lyrical pathos anticipates what John Ford would start doing around the same period. The ultimate motif is that of the Volga River, upon which the film stages more than a few knockout moments of wordless beauty. Its gentle, constant flow evokes a grace that transcends the turmoils and conflicts, grand or small, inflicted by humans upon each other throughout time.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?The following citations were counted towards the placement of My Apprenticeship among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Derek Hill, Sight & Sound (1962) Dwight MacDonald, Sight & Sound (1962) Gilles Jacob, Sight & Sound (2002) Jean Queval, Sight & Sound (1962) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Donskoi's Gorki Trilogy, completed by My Apprenticeship (1939, 98 min, b/w) and My Universities (1940, 104 min, b/w) is still widely revered as one of the all-time humanist classics, and it's true that the films' expert balance between guileless simplicity and rustic myth-making (seen to best advantage in Childhood) does give them a quality not often found outside the work of John Ford. But it's interesting to note that Donskoi's direction couldn't lie further from the mainstream of Russian film culture. Not only is he not very concerned about montage, but his concern with the lyricism of individual images leads him to neglect continuity of almost any sort: at one level, the films play like an anthology of continuity errors. That said, though, all three films do contain images of great strength in the Dovzhenko tradition. And Donskoi's handling of his actors (always encouraging them to play up to emotion, never shy of excess or sentimentality) certainly has the courage of its convictions.

- Time Out Film Guide

A director with a similar approach to that of Pudovkin, and one who probably owes him a good deal, is Mark Donskoi who, on the strength of the Gorky Trilogy alone, must be rated as one of the world's truly great film-makers. The trilogy consists of The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938), MY APPRENTICESHIP (1939) - also known as Out in the World or Among People - and My Universities (1940). The first two, which were produced at the Children's Film Studio, are in fact one very big film split into two. The third, dealing as it does with Gorky's early manhood, differs in a number of respects from the other two, although the production team (Pyotr Ermolov, camera - I. Stepanov, art direction - Lev Schwartz, music) remains the same throughout. But the whole trilogy is a remarkable achievement in its solving of the problem of putting an autobiography, and a very famous one at that, onto the screen. The great quality of the Trilogy is that it contains no ideological 'types'. Donskoi, with Gorky, shows that it is not only wicked to be wicked: it is also sad.

The first two parts are in fact dominated by Gorky's grand-parents - the man vain, stupid, brutal and hysterical, the woman an image of eternal simplicity, instinctively understanding what life is, and able to describe it as beautiful even in the moment of her greatest suffering. The playing of these two characters, by Mark Troyanovski and Varvara Massalitinova, is a rare privilege to observe. Thanks to the grandfather's frenzied stupidity the family goes into a steady decline; and against this movement towards poverty and destitution the boy Gorky reacts, constantly seeking escape, seeking above all the rescue which can come from education.

It is this conflict between Maxim's ambition and the fatal course of events in which it is so nearly submerged that dominates Donskoi's construction of the films. He takes a series of episodes and treats them in one of two ways, either elaborating them into long and carefully-built sequences (and these form the backbone of the work) or, in contrast, using an extraordinary filmic shorthand which makes a momentary but extremely cogent impact - such as the extreme long shot in which a young apprentice falls and is crushed by the huge Cross he is carrying; in this single shot resides most of the history of Russia.

To all this, and especially in the first two parts, he adds the domination of the 'majestic river', the great Volga, with its constant traffic and its din of ships' sirens which, even more than Lev Schwartz's admirable music, becomes the theme-song. Over and over again Donskoi brings his characters to the banks of the Volga for scenes of great import; and there are too the episodes on the river itself. In one, where the boy Maxim is a dishwasher on a Volga steamer, the cook, an immensely fat and sentimental character, sits entranced as the boy reads Taras Bulba aloud to him while a sneakthief waiter throws the recently washed glasses back into the swill.

In another the desire of man for the simple dignity of a job is superbly shown in a long sequence where the down-and-outs get unexpected employment in unloading sacks of grain from a sinking barge. It is raining in torrents, but as they work on (in a passage remarkable for the rhythm of its cutting) a watery sun breaks through the clouds, and they salute it with the dignity and pride with which mythological heroes of past times might have saluted the Sun God in his chariot.

The immense richness of episode and detail in The Childhood of Maxim Gorky and MY APPRENTICESHIP is saved from chaos by the characters of the grandparents and by the images of the Volga. As MY APPRENTICESHIP ends, all these elements are brought together. Young Gorky is leaving, and as the huge paddlesteamer pulls away from the jetty the grandfather, senile, childish, petulant, turns away; but grandma, with a smile of infinite sweetness, waves gently to the departing Maxim and says, '1 shall never see you again'. Massalitinova here is sublime.

- Basil Wright, The Long View, Secker & Warburg 1974, cited on the Wellington Film Society website

Totalitarianism survives through its ability to insinuate itself into people's consciousness from the earliest age, which is why the 1920s saw so many changes to Soviet school curricula, and why, in the 1930s, the studio earmarked for the production of films for children enjoyed generous funding. Donskoi signalled the propagandistic importance of Gor'kii's trilogy by producing his adaptations in the Souiuzdetfilm studios, whose pedagogical remit readily accommodated tasks such as that of making accessible the achievements of a canonic Soviet writer to a new generation, and of paying tribute to an icon of Stalinist culture...

The acute self-awareness of the adult hero in My Apprenticeship represents a considerable challenge to the Stalinist film-maker... The director cannot ignore the book's central episode: the aborted suicide attempt ensuing from Peshkov's sense of desolation about his inability to engage with his fellow men. Yet the theme of suicide hardly befits a socialist realist legend. Unsurprisingly, Donskoi resorts to the use of intertitles, condensing Gor'kii's drawn-out account of Peshkov's despair at being unable to defend the students into the terse understatement: 'He was seized by a feeling of personal inadequacy', followed by words suggesting that the prime reason for the hero's suicide attempt was political. For this is the voice not of the mature Gor'kii, but of Stalinist ideology in which despair has no place.

- Stephen C. Hutchings, Russian Literary Culture in the Camera Age: The Word as Image. Published by Routledge, 2004. Pages 102, 108

ABOUT MARK DONSKOI

Mark Donskoi may not be as familiar to Western audiences as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, or Dovzhenko; his films are in no way as readily recalled as Battleship Potemkin, Mother, or Earth. Like other Soviet filmmakers, he propagandizes about the glories of the Bolshevik Revolution and highlights the life of Lenin. But Donskoi's great and unique contribution to Russian cinema is his adaption to the screen of Maxim Gorki's autobiographical trilogy: The Childhood of Gorki, My Apprenticeship, and My Universities, all based on the early life of the famed writer and shot during the late 1930s. (Years later, Donskoi adapted two other Gorki works, Mother—the same story filmed by Pudovkin in 1926—and Foma Gordeyev.)

In the trilogy, Donskoi chronicles the life of Gorki from childhood on, focusing on the experiences which alter his view of the world. At their best, these films are original and pleasing: the first presents a comprehensive and richly detailed view of rural life in Russia during the 1870s. While delineating the dreams of nineteenth-century Russian youth, Donskoi lovingly recreates the era. The characters are presented in terms of their conventional ambitions and relationships within the family structure. They are not revolutionaries, but rather farmers and other provincials with plump bodies and commonplace faces. The result is a very special sense of familiarity, of fidelity to a time and place. Of course, villains in Gorki's childhood are not innately evil, but products of a repressive czarist society. They are thus compassionately viewed. Donskoi pictures the Russian countryside with imagination, and sometimes even with grandeur.

Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

gorki

ABOUT MAXIM GORKY

Wikipedia entry

Russian short story writer, novelist, autobiographer and essayist, whose life was deeply interwoven with the tumultuous revolutionary period of his own country. Gorky ended his long career as the preeminent spokesman for culture under the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin. Gorky formulated the central principles of Socialist Realism, which became doctrine in Soviet literature. The rough, socially conscious naturalism of Gorky was described by Chekhov as "a destroyer bound to destroy everything that deserved destruction."

"The long files of dock labourers carrying on their backs hundreds of tons of grain to fill the iron bellies of the ships in order that they themselves might earn a few pounds of this grain to fill their own stomachs, looked so droll that they brought tears to one's eyes. The contrast between these tattered, perspiring men, benumbed with weariness, turmoil and heat, and the mighty machines glistening in the sun, the machines which these men had made, and which, after all is said and done, were set in motion not by steam, but by the blood and sinew of those who had created them - this contrast constituted an entire poem of cruel irony." (from 'Chelkash', 1895, trans. by J. Fineberg) Aleksei Peshkov (Maksim Gorky, also written Maksim Gor'kii) was born in Nizhnii Novgorod, the son of a journeyman upholster. Later the ancient city was named 'Gorky' in his honour, and in Moscow one of the leading thoroughfares was named Gorky Street. Gorky lost his parents at an early age - his father died of cholera and his mother died of tuberculosis. The scene of his mother, wailing and mourning over her dead husband, opens his book of memoir, My Childhood: "All her clothes were torn. Her hair, which was usually neatly combined into place like a large gray hat, was scattered over her bare shoulders, and hung over her face, and some of it, in the form of a large plait, dangled about, touching Father's sleeping face. For all the time I'd been standing in that room, not once did she so much as look at me, but just went on combing Father's hair, choking with tears and howling continually."

Orphaned at the age of 11, he experienced the deprivations of a poverty. The most important person in Gorky's life in those years was his grandmother, whose fondness for literature and compassion for the downtrodden influenced him deeply. Otherwise his relationships to his family members were strained, even violent. Gorky stabbed his stepfather, who regularly beat him. Gorky received little education but he was endowed with an astonishing memory. He left home at the age of 12, and followed from one profession to another. On a Volga steamer, he learned to read. In 1883 he was a worker in a biscuit factory, then a porter, baker's boy, fruit seller, railway employee, clerk to an advocate, and in 1891 an operative in a salt mill. Later Gorky used later material from his wandering years in his books. In 1884 he failed to enter Kazan University, and in the late 1880s he was arrested for revolutionary activities. At the age of 19 he attempted suicide but survived when the bullet missed his heart.

After travels through Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Crimea Tiflis (late Tbilisi), Gorky published his first literary work, 'Makar Chudra' (1892), a short story. 'Chelkash', the story of a harbour thief, gained an immediate success. He started to write for newspapers, and his first book, the 3-volume Sketches and Stories (1898-1899), established his reputation as a writer. Gorky wrote with sympathy and optimism about the gypsies, hobos, and down-and-outs. He also started to analyze more deeply the plight of these people in a broad, social context. In these early stories Gorky skillfully mixed romantic exoticism and realism. Occasionally he glorified the rebels among his outcasts of Russian society. In his early writing career Gorky became friends with Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, and Vladimir Lenin. Encouraged by Chekhov, he composed his most famous play, The Lower Depths (1902), which took much of the material from his short stories. It was performed at the Moscow Art Theater under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky. The Lower Depths enjoyed a huge success, and was soon played in Western Europe and the United States.

Gorky was literary editor of Zhizn from 1899 and editor of Znanie publishing house in St. Petersburg from 1900. Foma Gordeyev (1899), his first novel, dealt with the new merchat class in Russia. The short story Dvadsat' shest' i odna (1899, Twenty-Six Men and a Girl) was about lost ideals. "There were twenty-six of us - twenty-six living machines locked in a damp basement where, from dawn to dusk, we kneaded dough for making into biscuits and pretzels. The window of our basement looked out onto a ditch dug in front of them and lined with brick that was green from damp; the windows were covered outside in fine wire netting and sunlight could not reach us through the flour-covered panes. Our boss had put the wire netting there so we could not give hand-outs of his bread to beggars or those comrades of ours who were without work and starving." (from 'Twenty-Six Men and a Girl', 1899) The joy in the lives of the bakers is the 16-year old Tania, who works in the same building. A handsome ex-soldier, one of the master bakers, boasts of his success with women. He is challenged to seduce Tania. When Tania succumbs, she is mocked by the men, who have lost the only bright spot in the darkness. Tania curses them and walks away, and is never again seen in the basement.

Gorky became involved in a secret printing press and was temporarily exiled to Arzamas, central Russia in 1902. In the same year he was elected to the Russian Academy, but election was declared invalid by the government and several members of the Academy resigned in protest. Because of his political activism, Gorky was constantly in trouble with the tsarists authorities. He joined the Social Democratic party's left wing, headed by Lenin. To raise money to Russian revolutionaries, Gorky went to the United States in 1906. However, he was compelled to leave his hotel, not because of his political opinions, but because he traveled with Mlle. Andreieva, with whom he was not legally married. At that time, he had not obtained divorce from his first wife, Ekaterina Pavlovna, with whom he had two children. The American author Mark Twain expressed his support to Gorky at a dinner party, saying, "My sympathies are with the Russian revolution, of course."

In 1906 Gorky settled in Capri. Lenin visited his villa in 1908, he fished there and played chess, becoming childishly angry when he lost a game. Gorky was disgusted by Lenin's smug Marxism and after reading only a few pages from his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism he threw it on the wall. In the controversial novel The Confession (1908), which rapidly fell after the Revolution into relative obscurity, Gorky coined the term "God-building", by which he combined religion with Marxism.

During his ill-fated mission to America to raise funds for the Bolshevik cause, Gorky wrote in the Adirondack Mountains greater part of his classic novel, The Mother, which appeared in 1906-1907. Its heroine, Pelageia Nilovna, adopts the cause of socialism in a religious spirit after her son's arrest as a political activist. Pelageia's husband is a drunkard and her only consolation is her religious faith. Pelageia's husband dies, and her son Pavel changes from a thug to socialist role model and starts to bring his revolutionary friends to the house. Pavel is arrested on May day for carrying a forbidden banner. While continuing to believe in Christ's words, she joins revolutionaries, and is betrayed by a police spy. Gorky based her character on a real person, Anna Zalomova, who had travelled the country distributing revolutionary pamphlets after her son had been arrested during a demonstration. The novel, considered the pioneer of socialist realism, was later dramatized by Bertolt Brecht.

In 1913 Gorky returned to Russia, and helped to found the first Workers' and Peasants' University, the Petrograd Theater, and the World Literature Publishing House. The first part of his acclaimed autobiographical trilogy, My Childhood, appeared in 1913-14. It was followed by In the World (1916), and My Universities (1922), which was written in a different style. In these works the author looked through the observant eyes of Alyosha Peshkov his development and life in a Volga River town. When the war broke out, Gorky ridiculed the enthusiastic atmosphere and broke off all relations with his adopted son, Zinovy Peshkov, who joined the army.

First the author also rejected Lenin's hard-line policy, defending the Petrograd intelligentsia. "Lenin's power arrests and imprisons everyone who does not share his ideas, as the Romanovs' power used to do," he wrote in November of 1917. After Russian revolution Gorky enjoyed protected status, although in 1918 his protests against Bolsheviks dictatorial methods were silenced by Lenin's order. Gorky's memoir of Lev Tolstoy (1919) painted nearly a merciless portrait of the great writer.

When Anna Akhmatova's former husband Nikolai Gumilyov was arrested in 1921, Gorky rushed to Moscow to ask Lenin for a pardon for his old friend. However, Gumilyov had been shot without trial.

Dissatisfaction with the communist regime and its treatment of intellectuals lead to his voluntary exile during the 1920s. "To an old man any place that's warm is homeland," Gorky once wrote. He spent three years at various German and Czech spas, and was editor of Dialogue in Berlin (1923-25). On Capri in the 1920s Gorky wrote his best novel, The Artamov Business (1925), dealing with three generations of a pre-revolutionary merchant family. Gorky's essay 'V.I.Lenin' was written immediately after Lenin's death. The author expressed his great admiration for the Revolution leader and gave a lively account of their discussions in Paris and Capri. "You're an enigma," he once said to me with a chuckle. "You seem to be a good realist in literature, but a romantic where people are concerned. You think everybody is a victim of history, don't you? We know history and we say to the sacrificial victims; 'overthrow the altars, shatter the temples, and drive the gods out!' Yet you would like to convince me that a militant party of the working class is obliged to make the intellectuals comfortable, first and foremost."

In 1924-25 Gorky lived in Sorrento, but persuaded by Stalin, he returned in 1931 to Russia. He founded a number of journals and became head of the Writers' Union - his photograph in the congress hall was nearly as large as Stalin's. Gorky's speech at The First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1935 established the doctrine of socialist realism.

Although Gorky criticized the bureaucracy of the Writers' Union, but nothing changed. All the proposals of the congress were very soon buried when the Great Terror started. Writers were shot and Stalin showed personal interest in the activities of writers. Gorky's actions and statements before and after his return to Russia are controversial. When the poet Anna Akhmatova and many writers asked Gorky to help Nikolai Gumilev, a celebrated poet and Akhmatova's first husband, Gorky apparently did nothing to save him from execution.

Gorky died suddenly of pneumonia in his country home, dacha, near Moscow on June 18, 1936. In some source the cause of death was said to be heart desease. The author was buried in the Red Square and Stalin started earnest his Show Trials. Rumors have lived ever since that he may have been assassinated on Joseph Stalin orders. Genrikh Yagoda, Stalin's secret police chief during the great purges of 1936-38, made a "confession" at his own trial in 1938, that he had ordered Gorky's death. According to another rumor, Gorky had been administered 'heart stimulants in large quantities', and the ultimate culprits were 'Rightists and Trotskyites'. The murder of Gorky's son in 1934 was seen as an attempt to break the father. However, when the KGB literary archives were opened in the 1990s, not much evidence was found to support the wildest theories. Stalin visited the writer twice during his last illness. The most probable conclusion is that Gorky's death was natural.

As an essayist Gorky dealt with wide range of subjects. His underlying theme is a passionate humanistic message and political commitment to bolshevism. In Notes on the Bourgeois Mentality he accuses the bourgeoisie of self-absorption and concern only with its own comfort. On the Russian Peasantry sees peasants as resistant to the new social order. City of the Yellow Devil, written in New York, condemns American capitalism. On the other hand, Gorky early opposed Bolsheviks, criticizing their use of violence against their fellow men. Among Gorky's important essays are biographical sketches of such writers as Tolstoy, Leonid Andreev and Anton Chechov.

- Books and Writers

991 (123). Lost Horizon (1937, Frank Capra)

Screened December 11 2009 on Columbia Tri-Star DVD in Brooklyn, NY TSPDT Rank # 962 IMDb Wiki

Frank Capra abandoned the vibrant American melee upon which he built his reputation to issue this queasy utopian treatise dressed as an exotic adventure fantasy. Shangri-la makes for both a visually and dramatically banal paradise. Proto-Bob Ross matte landscapes and manufactured nature sets alternate with knockoff Frank Lloyd Wright architecture cluttered with curios. It could be fun in a camp/surreal way if Capra wasn't so insistent that this Neverland was what Depression-era American needed, where fun times involve listening to Sam Jaffee's wrinkled Lama make longwinded pseudo-Buddhist platitudes bemoaning man's fate (I'll take spitfire banter with Claudette Colbert or Jean Arthur anyday). Jane Wyatt is easy on the eyes and Ronald Colman, that paradigm of 30s benevolent colonialism, somehow bestows dignity on his environs through his benevolent colonialist gaze. Thomas Mitchell and Edward Everett Horton bring some down-to-earth Capra back to the proceedings by virtue of their charming petty-mindedness, casting the warm glow of genuine human behavior amidst the lofty artifice.

The restored version of Lost Horizon can be viewed online on Google Reader (see after the break)

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Lost Horizon among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell's Film Guide (1985) Nelson Pereira Dos Santos, Balaio (1996) Alain Resnais, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977) Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book - 500 Great Films (1987) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Adventure (1993) Leslie Halliwell, A Nostalgic Choice of 100 Films from the Golden Age (1982) New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004) New York Times, 100 Recommended Children's Movies (2002) Taschen Books, Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) Various Critics, Book - 501 Must-See Movies (2004)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EE2VUhGDu5Y

Tim Dirks offers one of his patented enhanced summaries on Lost Horizon, in the Greatest Films section of his website FilmSite.org

Lost Horizon.org: "NonProfit Fan Club of James Hilton's Book and Inspired Arts"

PRODUCTION BACKGROUND

Convinced that Hilton's novel had all the makings of a great film - fantasy, adventure, spectacle - director Frank Capra convinced Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, to advance him $2,000,000 for the production. Together with scenarist Robert Riskin, Capra researched everything from Tibetan culture, to language, to architecture, to clothing. Ten property men created over 700 props used in Tibetan daily life while droves of crewmen built 65 sets, raising Shangri-La over Columbia's Burbank ranch. When attention turned to casting, however, things would not move along so well. Putting Ronald Colman in the role of the elder Conway was easy enough. But casting the High Lama role would prove much more difficult. They first considered stage actor A. E. Anson, who was declared perfect after a screen test. Sadly, he died just after receiving news he got the part. Then Henry B. Walthall was chosen, but the Grim Reaper stepped in once again, before he could even be tested. After an exhaustive search, and numerous additional screen tests, Capra remembered 38 year old Shakespearean actor Sam Jaffe, who eventually got the role.

Shooting Lost Horizon took rather longer than expected. So long in fact, that the crew shot an entire film, Theodora Goes Wild (1936), during one of the breaks in the Lost Horizon schedule, and yet another picture, When You're In Love (1937), while Lost Horizon was being edited. Most of the production time was eaten up with the special requirements for re-creating the Himalayas in Los Angeles. For example, Capra shot snow scenes and airplane interiors inside a Cold Storage Warehouse, creating real snow and ice. A great move for credibility, but not so great for the equipment, which routinely froze up, cracked, split, stiffened, or shattered due to the cold temperatures of the set. Capra's shooting style also added to the delays. His habit for shooting multiple takes and angles led him to use over a million feet of film, causing constant confrontations with Harry Cohn. Though Cohn was willing to leave Capra alone to make his film, he frequently groused about the escalating costs, and at one point pleaded with the crew not to cash their checks for a week because Capra had used up all the money. The ending of Capra's Lost Horizon is one of the only glaring deviations from the novel. In Hilton's book, we are left to imagine for ourselves Conway's success or failure. In the film, Capra "relents to hope" and we are shown Conway struggling through the snow, finding the pass that will lead him back to paradise.

After a bad first screening, Capra cut the first two reels of the film completely, which made the audience more receptive. Still, at more than three hours, Cohn knew it wouldn't work, and he took control of the editing away from Capra completely. Though Capra never admitted that Cohn re-cut the film, Variety reported that it was one of the main reasons Capra later brought suit against Columbia as part of a grievance over his pay. When all was said and done, however, Lost Horizon was named one of the 10 best films of 1937 by The New York Times and later won two Academy Awards, for Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction. But much like Conway's struggle to return to Shangri-La, Capra found out that sometimes you have to make great sacrifices in your search for paradise.

Turner Classic Movies

From Harrison Forman's photographs it was simple to design Tibetan costumes. But where would we find the people to wear them? Tibetans are Orientals, but taller, rangier than Chinese or Japanese. Again we had recourse to our non-Chinese but Oriental stand-bys - Pala Indians from the San Diego mountains.

Then, too, we would have to show some yaks. What the burro was to American sourdoughs of the West, the yak is to Tibetans. To badly simulate yaks, we covered yearling steers with long-haired, hoof-length blankets. To better simulate small Tibetan horses, we "haired up" the legs and chests of Shetland ponies.

- Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. Da Capo Press, 1997. Page 192-193

Screenwriter Richard Raskin discusses the three endings of Lost Horizon

Frank Capra talks to Dick Cavett (January 21 1972) about the Santa Barbara preview of Lost Horizon which led to the first two reels being cut from the film (on YouTube):

If you saw Lost Horizon alone or in a small group - this is philosophically very important for you to hear - a small group loved the picture the way it was. We had an example of that in the projection room. One individual would be entranced by the picture. We showed it to five hundred or a thousand people; no good. The third dimension of a film is a thousand people, a thousand pairs of ears and eyes looking at it, not one pair. There is something about a thousand people that is more acute, more sensitive, more reactive that one person or two persons or three persons.

You must never judge a picture in the projection room with one or two people. The line between the ridiculous and the sublime is very wide to an individual. The more people you get the finer the line becomes between the ridiculous and the sublime.

- Capra to James R. Silke and Bruce Henstell, 1971. Published in Frank Capra: Interviews. Edited by Leland A. Pogue, University of Mississippi Press, 2004. Page 78.

I was a little disappointed in Lost Horizon myself. It was my idea entirely to do it, but I was disappointed in the way it came out, because I'd hoped for more. Although it's been said that it's one of my best pictures (and perhaps I'd have to agree with them), I thought that the main part of the film - I should have done better, somehow. I got lost in architecture, in utopia, in the never-never-land, and it was only toward the end of the picture that I got back on track with human beings and individuals, where I began to feel that the story dealt with human beings again. This is common, for one who wants to exploit a theme, and gives the theme too much of the story.

- Capra to Arthur B. Friedman, 1957. Published in Frank Capra: Interviews. Page 55.

HISTORICAL REVIEW

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has no corner on the large-scale production market as Columbia Pictures proved last night when it presented its film of James Hilton's Lost Horizon at the Globe. There, and for the balance of its two-a-day run, is a grand adventure film, magnificently staged, beautifully photographed, and capitally played. It is the second outstanding picture of the season—the first, of course, being The Good Earth—and, unless the Ides of March are particularly portentous this year, it need have no fear of being omitted from the golden brackets of anyone's "best ten" list.

Columbia is supposed to have spent $2,000,000 on the picture. That may or may not be true, $2,000,000 being a round and round-eyed sum even in Hollywood. But there is no denying the opulence of the production, the impressiveness of the sets, the richness of the costuming, the satisfying attention to large and small detail which makes Hollywood at its best such a generous entertainer. We can deride the screen in its lesser moods, but when the West Coast impresarios decide to shoot the works the resulting pyrotechnics bathe us in a warm and cheerful glow.

Speaking belatedly of the cast, there is nothing but unqualified endorsement here of Mr. Colman's Conway, of Mr. Horton's Lovett, ofThomas Mitchell's grand performance as the fugitive from the police, of Isabel Jewell's Gloria, H. B. Warner's moderately philosophic Chang, Jane Wyatt's attractive Sondra, and Margo's Maria. That leaves Sam Jaffe's portrayal of the High Lama, and that leaves me of a mixed opinion. Mr. Jaffe's makeup is grotesque and horrible and solid; the High Lama of Mr. Hilton's novel was mystic, ethereal, almost Christlike. Yet the High Lama must be weird to make credible Conway's suspicion that he might be mad. Mr. Jaffe certainly is weird enough. I really don't know. Maybe he should have used less makeup.

- Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, March 4 1937

To those honestly concerned with the development of the motion picture as an art, Frank Capra has endeared himself above most producers of films. One after another, his pictures have appealed both to the exacting few who have demanded that the screen be bright with truth as well as vivid motion, and to the many whose demands at the box office have made the whole art of the screen possible. But in Hollywood's mushroom growth there has always been the unfortunate obstacle of a tendency to run (as in the copying of ideas, forms, effects) before one could walk, and many of the most arty attempts have tripped over this obstacle. Frank Capra never tripped because he never came anywhere near such an obstacle.

But after getting himself a name for being a sort of magician in the movies, he apparently began to take seriously a lot of things the movies (as he knew them) had never heard of. In Lost Horizon he seemed to see both a smashing adventure story and an excursion into philosophy that would stun everybody. So he and his right-hand script writer (Robert Riskin) went to work on what is all too obviously an epic.

It is mounted with elaborate heaviness, but on tissue paper. It abandons action for thought, and then spreads the thought so cosmic and wide that it cannot be any deeper than half-way tide over mud flats. The sets constructed (to life size) for the strange region of Shangri-La are alone worthy of Ahs and Ohs: the evident care in casting and acting stands our above the average run of most productions; but then there comes all this serious statement of the improbable that could be set forth effectively only in burlesque, and these random light-comedy effects that become burlesque against such a background-and in the end a person doesn't know where he is, except that he is nowhere as far as pictures are concerned. This film was made with obvious care and expense; but it will be notable in the future only as the first wrong step in a career that till now has been a denial of the very tendencies in pictures which this film represents.

- Otis Ferguson, National Board of Review Magazine, 1937. Posted on eeweems.com

EXCERPTS FROM THE BEST REVIEW OF LOST HORIZON

Lost Horizon opened in March of 1937, the year after Mussolini annexed Ethiopia, Hitler occupied the Rhineland, and the Spanish Civil War started. It was a bad time for those who believed in the egalitarianism of a pluralist society of equal rights regardless of religion or ethnic origin. Capra was among the first of the big Hollywood directors to publicly denounce fascism and its persecution of minorities. For this reason, Lost Horizon is an important film, regardless of its clunky narrative and stagey situations (some of which can be blamed on the usual studio politics which led to editing compromises), as it clearly defines the gospel of social moderation that most Americans believed in.

There are a number of curious aspects to this film that Time has brought into focus. For example, the utopia is elitist despite its best intentions. It exists as an example of passive colonialism, complete with a class structure. While the term "native" is just the de facto terminology of the era, it nonetheless reinforces the Eurocentric aspect of the fantasy. Is the story racist? No, although the weary sentimentality of "the white man's burden" is clearly evident. The Lamasery has servants, and they're all Asian. Yet while the High Lama's No. 2 man is called Chang, he neither looks nor sounds Asian (in Hilton's novel, he is Chinese). In fact, he looks and sounds like a head butler imported from the Embassy Club to complete the colonial circle.

Modernism is really built on the principle of the straight line... and when applied to thinking, can easily become fascism. Direct action appeals to an intellectual elite just as much as an escapist community such as Shangri La. Just how far is the High Lama's art community of white Europeans and their docile Asian servants removed from the penthouse of the Berlin Chancellory where Hitler and Albert Speer discussed Art and developed The Theory of Ruin Value? The Art Deco isometrics are almost identical when drained of sentiment. As the main players enact their fantasy, the rank and file become ephemeral, mere markers of geometric space.

As a drama, Lost Horizon relies on many of the conventions and cliches of the period: a man of action (Conway), a fugitive swindler (Barnard), a terminal cynic (Gloria), a buffoon (Lovett), an impulsive young man (George), a femme fatale (Sondra)... all the essential personalities for creating or continuing a castaway society. The main difference between the screenplay and the novel is that the characters are Americanized to suit the target audience. Hilton has four castaways, Capra has five... and the absconding aircraft becomes a DC-2 rather than a small "high-altitude" plane belonging to an Indian Raj. Rooted in the romantic action novel of the late nineteenth century, Hilton's story raids the supernatural elements of Rider-Haggard's She, or even H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.

- Lawrence RussellCulture Court

OTHER REVIEWS

With two sentimentalists as crafty as director Frank Capra and novelist James Hilton collaborating on a project, the results could hardly be anything less than effective, yet this 1937 film has a swollen self-seriousness that drains most of my sympathy for it. Shangri-La, seductive but stifling, plays much too close for comfort to American anti-intellectualism; more than any other of his 30s classics, Lost Horizon gives credence to reports that Capra kept a bust of Mussolini in his office through the decade. Still, Ronald Colman's grace and charm excuse a lot of directorial heaviness.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Capra was at the height of his game as a director with Lost Horizon. The film took more than two years to complete, and used what was (at the time) the largest set ever constructed in Hollywood. Lost Horizon moves at a swift pace thanks to clever editing, and features inventive cinematography and a terrific score by composer Dimitri Tiomkin. Coleman is perfect as the world-worn English diplomat on a fast-track political career. Jane Wyatt is charming as his love interest and one of the caretakers of the valley. And there are a couple of other familiar faces as well - or should I say, a familiar face and a familiar voice. That's Thomas Mitchell as the swindling Henry Barnard. Mitchell was a Capra favorite, appearing also in his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. And you might recognize the voice of Edward Everett Horton. He plays Lovett here, but he's better known for narrating the Fractured Fairy Tales segments of TV's The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Bill HuntThe Digital Bits

When director Frank Capra read James Hilton's best-selling fantasy adventure novel Lost Horizon, about a Utopian valley high in the Himalayas, he took it to Columbia boss Harry Cohn, as a potential vehicle for the studio. On Cohn's approval production began and the roles started to be cast. Capra wanted sophisticated and urbane actor Ronald Colman to play the lead role. From the beginning, the director felt Colman was born to play the intelligent and deep thinking Robert Conway. Indeed, just as many felt Clark Gable was the perfect fit for Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, Colman wore the role of Conway like a glove.

As Robert Conway, Colman gives an elegant and poetic portrayal, one of the many highlights of his career. Young actress Jane Wyatt, best known for her role as Margaret Anderson in the popular TV series Father Knows Best (sadly, fewer and fewer know her from this show as more years go by) is cast as the enlightened young woman who is the impetus for Conway's presence in Shangri-La and his love interest once he arrives there. As one of the film's (and book's) more compelling though lesser characters is Mexican actress Margo (Mrs. Eddie Albert). She plays Maria, who by all outward appearances is a young Russian woman, no more than 20 years old, who falls for the younger Conway, George. Hers is a pivotal role in the history of the Utopian community and she does well with her part.

Lost Horizon was one of the most expensive films "poverty row" Columbia Studios had produced up to that time. But along with other Frank Capra/Columbia collaborations, it would help that organization rise above its lowly status. Alot was riding on its success, including Capra's reputation. Its anti-war sentiment got some flack by certain political view points and some of its footage hit the editing room floor upon its re-release but after all was said and done and a semi-complete restoration in more recent years, Lost Horizon has stood the test of time to become a bonafide classic in Hollywood annals.

- Classic Movie Digest

The movies have always been an escapist recreation. In 1937 when Frank Capra's Lost Horizon hit theatres, the same year the United States' economy took a nosedive in the heart of the Great Depression, the need for this escape had never been greater. Taking a cue from James Hilton's novel, Capra translates the notion of Hilton's Tibetan Shangri-la into one accessible and palatable to the Western spectator's contemporary dream, that of a return to the pre-Depression prosperity of the Twenties. Symbolic and discreet mise-en-scène allow for an easy transition from screen to mind as Capra delivers, not the Shangri-La of Tibet, but that of an idyllic Western society.

With its modern, streamlined buildings filled to the brim with material possessions of diverse Western cultural importance, Capra's Shangri-La takes the best of Western civilization and attempts to shield it from corruption by its own creators. An impressive cache of worldly goods stands in opposition to the fact that the inhabitants of the city's access to the outside world lies with unscrupulous traders who visit only rarely.

Frank Capra's delight of a film Lost Horizon, in conclusion, is clearly not a viable representation of Tibet. However, as the film is not a documentary but a fictionalized adaptation, the intent was to inspire and uplift the downtrodden American masses, not to provide accurate details of life in a faraway land. Only by using Tibet, a land shrouded in mystery and virtually unknown to the average man, as a backdrop for the film, is Capra able to give rise to the notion that a Shangri-La may indeed still be waiting somewhere to be found.

- Zelda Zador, Associated Content

The movie changes many things about the book, and some of the most significant changes take place in the role and relationship of the various characters. The book had a decent female character, the even-keeled Miss Brinklow; her substitute character here is a hysterical woman, who shrieks and acts "irrationally." Her only function in the movie is to be healed by the stay at Shangri-La. The native woman Lo-Tsen gets split into two characters -- one becomes a white woman, who flirts with Conway (the ostensible main character) but stays at Shangri-La and waits for his return. The other woman tricks the two men into leaving with her, and she ages into a horrible old hag as her reward. The annoying Mallinson becomes Conway's brother, but remains as annoying. And in a significant change for the ending, Conway makes it back to Shangri-La, where his pet woman is patiently waiting for him. The movie adds some humour between the two characters created for comic relief; one of these is still named Barnard and the other is now a paleontologist. I got a few laughs from an unintentionally hilarious scene with some Sherpas who seemed not to understand the relationship between avalanches and loud noises, which would seem to be a survival trait for mountain inhabitants. Capra's Lost Horizon also changes the structure of the frame story. The movie begins with a bang, a revolution in which our man Conway acts heroically. Later, the British authorities get updates on Conway occasionally, and then a group of men discussing his life show up to give us a new bit of his story: Conway apparently steals, lies, and acts immorally in order to get back to his utopia and his girl. The Himalayan natives call Conway "the man who is not human" but this part is totally skipped over.

Some parts of the movie work well, such as Capra's emphasis on the apocalyptic vision of the High Lama, the leader of Shangri-La. The High Lama's lesson about the dangers of militarism is not one that the world took, but it's there on celluloid, pre-Atomic Era. I also liked the idea that our Western societies are too hasty, too busy -- the High Lama calls it indirect suicide. Another lesson that could be well taken by any of us, myself included. Unfortunately, most of this sharp insight is drowned in sexism and stereotyping, as well as the contrast between the lords of lamasery, who know they are "civilized" and living in utopia, and the people living in the valley. This difference between the lamasery and the valley is much more marked in the movie than in the book, and this further undercuts whatever positive message the viewer may have gained. On the whole, Capra's Lost Horizon is more of an artifact of a certain era of film than a work of art that has worth of its own; recommended for fans of Hilton's book or Capra's career but not a wider audience.

James SchellenbergChallenging Destiny

I am currently reading Joseph McBride's biography of Frank Capra, "The Catastrophe of Success". I'm not sure how I will be reacting when I see, or more precisely re-see, Capra's films. It is sad to read the portrait of the aging artist as a racist and anti-Semite. The split between an artist's works and the personal life of an artist has always been problematic. For myself, my favorite Capra films will probably remain from the early Thirties when the there was less of a schism between art and life for Capra. Specifically, my favorite titles are It Happened One Night and Bitter Tea of General Yen.

What prompted my writing about Capra now was reading about Lost Horizon. I don't know how the conservative Republican Capra would have reacted to the government fingerpointing, or if he would have, privately more likely than publicly, joined the ranks of several Republicans in their criticism of FEMA chief Michael Brown, if not George W. Bush. Screenwriter Robert Riskin, who identified as a New Deal Democrat would clearly have been critical of what occurred in New Orleans, most likely laying the blame on an administration that failed to protect its citizens. The idealist in me is longing for a real life Jefferson Smith to put things right.

What I want to share is this amazing quote from Lost Horizon. Although it refers to a fictional riot in a non-existent country, and is a criticism of British imperialism, I found this passage from the screenplay to be very appropriate at this time:

"Did you make that report out yet? Did you say we saved the lives of ninety white people? Good. Hooray for us! Did you say that we left ten thousand natives down there to be annihilated? No. No, you wouldn't say that. They don't count."

Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee

ABOUT THE COLUMBIA TRI-STAR DVD

As a DVD, Lost Horizon is outstanding. The commentary track with film critic Charles Champlin and film preservationist Robert Gitt is easily as entertaining as the film itself, as the two discuss the fine details and anecdotes of the restoration. Gitt also narrates a short documentary on the restoration process, which includes several deleted scenes that were recovered by the American Film Institute but not incorporated in the 138-minute cut, along with an alternate ending. An insightful behind-the-scenes photo-essay is narrated by film historian Kendall Miller, and even the original teaser trailer for Lost Horizon is included. If you're an admirer of this neglected classic, this DVD will probably be one of your favorites. And if (like me) you're not as fond of it and are more interested in film preservation, you will still find the supplements on Lost Horizon to be an illuminating experience.

J. Jordan Burke, DVD Journal

One of the most difficult tasks in screening Lost Horizon is to come up with the technical rating for the picture. I have a very deep conflict in grading the picture quality as a "D", and a very lenient grade at that. This conflict arises from the fact that the film was almost lost due to deterioration and it took many years of exhuastive efforts to restore this classic that we can now experience. Robert Gitt, the UCLA film restoration expert, spent 25 years in researching, recovering, and restoring the film to its original running time. It would seem to be rather trivial, if not disrespectful, for me to slap a "D" rating on the restored picture. What is the next best alternative when the glory of the original print is forever lost? The next best thing is the newly restored and digitally remastered picture on DVD. In short, this is one circumstance where my low technical rating should not dissuade you one bit from watching the film.

The film is presented in its original full-screen ratio and running time. Before the film begins, there is a brief insert explaining the restoration process. Apparently, the film premiered with a running time of 132 minute. However, as the film went through subsequent re-releases and showings, it was trimmed and cut to various lengths. For instance, during the re-release in World War II, 24 minutes were cut with different opening sequences and scenes to tone down from the pacifist message. By 1967, the original nitrate camera negative had deteriorated and the trimmed footages were destroyed. For the restoration, the best available 35mm and 16mm prints were combined to the original running time, all but seven minutes of the picture. To replace the missing scenes, photograph stills are used with the original soundtrack.

Despite the best available prints, the quality ranges from very acceptable to poor. For the most part, the picture is a patchwork of fuzzy images, poor shadow details, terrible exposures, and noticeable grains. However, the restoration is a huge improvement over the theatrical prints. This example is clearly illustrated in the bonus material "Restoration: Before and After Comparison," where a split screen shows how the tears and instability of the original prints have been digitally restored. It really was an eye opener.

- Van T. Tran, DVD Magazine

ABOUT RONALD COLMAN

IMDb Wiki

There are several Ronald Colman tribute sites - by far the most impressive is the Ronald Colman Pages, which has extensive synopses of each Ronald Colman film (including multimedia clips), a lengthy biography, photo galleries and more.

Another fascinating site is the Ronald Colman Saga, in which the proprietor impersonates Colman in first person anecdotes from the actor's glory days.

Other tribute sites:

Ronald Colman.com

The Man With a Golden Voice

Suave, debonair, a gentleman hero with dashing good looks, Ronald Colman is the quintessential Hollywood-Englishman. One of the few stars of the silent era to maintain and even increase their popularity after the transition to sound, Colman was a leading man for more than 20 years, for in addition to his handsome grace, Colman possessed a beautifully cultured and modulated voice. Colman is known for roles where he is above all polite and well-mannered, but the source of his success may lie beyond his ability to portray characters who are refined but sentimental, mysterious but thoughtful. As Sheridan Morley points out, Colman's sense of humor made him stand out from other good-looking Englishmen. Moreover, Colman was a consummate craftsman; director George Cukor explains that Colman knew more about acting for the camera than any actor he had worked with.

- Charles Affron, Film Reference.com

ABOUT ROBERT RISKIN

A writer of sophisticated stage plays in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Robert Riskin had over 20 screen credits in a career which lasted two-and-a-half decades. More than half of his work was with Frank Capra—a creative union which culminated in some of Riskin's best screenplays. Among these works are American MadnesLady for a Day ,It Happened One Night Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Lost Horizon , and Meet John Doe . Of these only Lost Horizon is an adaptation—and it is a solid translation of the novel that became a successful film that won popular and critical acclaim.

The collaboration of Capra and Riskin evidently became a vital force in creating a body of some of the best Capra films. While it is difficult to judge how much Riskin added to a Capra film, a close reading of the director's work indicates that his favorite writer probably influenced some of the satirical and sophisticated tone of the films—not necessarily changing Capra's overall vision, but polishing many of the aspects of his creation.

Some of the Riskin touch is evident in even his most atypical work, the adaptation of Lost Horizon. Two characters, played by Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell, were given comic characteristics that did not exist in the novel. In the 1940s Riskin became a producer-writer on his own and created the fifth in the series of "thin man" pictures, The Thin Man Goes Home , plus a film called Magic Town, a work that had many of the characteristics of a Capra picture. But the magic in Riskin's dialogue began to fade and he would never equal his best work of the past, when he had a marvelous symbiotic relationship with Frank Capra.

- Donald W. McCaffrey, Film Reference.com

ABOUT FRANK CAPRA

IMDb Wiki

FRANK CAPRA WEBSITES

Eeweems.com

ClassicMovies.org

The following quotations are found on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? profile page for Frank Capra:

"Like Chaplin, Frank Capra began his film career as a simple, effective comic talent and progressed to 'message movies'. And, as with Chaplin, the populism of his later films demonstrated both a decline in humour and disturbing political ambiguities." - Geoff Andrew(The Film Handbook, 1989)

"Many of Capra's most famous films can be read as excessively sentimental and politically naive. These readings, however, tend to neglect the bases for Capra's success - his skill as a director of actors, the complexity of his staging configurations, his narrative economy and energy, and most of all, his understanding of the importance of the spoken word in sound film." - (Charles Affron(International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"Nowadays, the mere mention of Capra's name is enough to make literate and learned film-writers dip their pens in bile. But when, between director and actor, you actually pump the breath of life into impossibly idealized Everymen, as Gary Cooper, James Stewart, or Barbara Stanwyck did, a powerful emotional current is given out from the screen. The fact that they have nothing to do with the real world has absolutely no bearing on that." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Illustrated Guide to Film Directors, 1999)

"Capra is a master of the socially significant film. His work is full of optimism, humor, love, patriotism, and respect for traditional values." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"I think of the medium as a people-to-people medium, not cameraman-to-people, not direction-to-people, not writers-to-people, but people-to-people...You can only involve an audience with people. You can't involve them with gimmicks, with sunsets, with hand-held cameras, zoom shots, or anything else. They couldn't care less about those things. But you give them something to worry about, some person they can worry about, and care about, and you've got them, you've got them involved." - Frank Capra (Directing the Film, 1976)

Selected quotes from Frank Capra:

A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.

I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.

If you want to send a message, try Western Union.

During the dark decade of the 1930s, Frank Capra became America's preeminent filmmaker, leavening Depression-era despair with the laughter of his irrepressible optimism. Packaging hope for the hopeless, his "fantasies of goodwill" were as important to national morale as FDR's "fireside chats" and well-deserving of the three Best Director Oscars they brought him. Twenty years later when the CAHIERS DU CINEMA critics launched an auteurist reassessment of American films, his reputation suffered, despite the unarguable fact that his "name above the title" signified his absolute artistic control of the project, a rarity in the studio-dominated Hollywood culture of his heyday. Subsequent voices followed suit, taking great delight in decrying his work as dangerously simplistic in its populism, its patriotism and its celebration of all-American values, but the content of his films should not be judged too harshly out of the context of their time, the pulse of which Capra accurately measured. Fortunately, most contemporary critics look past the ideology to his undeniable strengths as a filmmaker.

Turner Classic Movies

The critical stock of Frank Capra has fluctuated perhaps more wildly than that of any other major director. During his peak years, the 1930s, he was adored by the press, by the industry and, of course, by audiences. In 1934 It Happened One Night won nearly all the Oscars, and through the rest of the decade a film of Frank Capra was either the winner or the strong contender for that honor. Long before the formulation of the auteur theory, the Capra signature on a film was recognized. But after World War II his career went into serious decline. His first post-war film,It's a Wonderful Life , was not received with the enthusiasm he thought it deserved (although it has gone on to become one of his most-revered films). Of his last five films, two are remakes of material he treated in the thirties. Many contemporary critics are repelled by what they deem indigestible "Capracorn" and have even less tolerance for an ideology characterized as dangerously simplistic in its populism, its patriotism, its celebration of all-American values.

Indeed, many of Capra's most famous films can be read as excessively sentimental and politically naive. These readings, however, tend to neglect the bases for Capra's success—his skill as a director of actors, the complexity of his staging configurations, his narrative economy and energy, and most of all, his understanding of the importance of the spoken word in sound film. Capra captured the American voice in cinematic space. The words often serve the cause of apple pie, mom, the little man and other greeting card clichés (indeed, the hero of Mr. Deeds Goes to Townwrites verse for greeting cards). But often in the sound of the voice we hear uncertainties about those very clichés.

The sounds and sights of Capra's films bear the authority of a director whose autobiography is called The Name above the Title. With that authority comes an unsettling belief in authorial power, the power dramatized in his major films, the persuasiveness exercised in political and social contexts. That persuasion reflects back on the director's own power to engage the viewer in his fiction, to call upon a degree of belief in the fiction—even when we reject the meaning of the fable.

Charles AffronFilm Reference.com

Frank Capra's career best illustrated the rising power of the producer-director that pushed the limitations of the studio system in the 1930s. Capra rose to prominence as a contract director at Columbia Pictures with his successful mixture of populist drama and sentimental comedy that defined depression-era attitudes and elevated Harry Cohn's studio from Poverty Row status to one of the Big Eight majors. Capra was suitably rewarded with his own production unit and an unusually high level of creative freedom. Producing about one picture a year, the Capra unit made quality, event pictures, not unlike the prestige films of Capra's independent producing counterparts. After the success of It Happened One Night (1934), his new five-picture contract with Columbia gave him 25 percent of the net profits, and even contained an anti-block booking provision that required all Capra films to be sold individually, beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1935).

Capra had adopted a "one man, one film" mantra which later generations would dub the auteur theory, which claimed that a film, like any other important work of art, should be largely the product of a single creative vision and not the offspring of a studio committee. He believed producer-director setups to be the answer to the generic, manufactured Hollywood film. He blamed the complacency of the well-paid contract directors for selling out their artistic responsibility to the studios. Ultimately, Capra concluded, the ideal position for ambitious, creative filmmakers was in independent production.

J.A. AberdeenHollywood Renegades

The rise of Frank Capra from sickly, abused, impoverished Sicilian immigrant to what one of his sons calls "a shaper of how we view America" is the subject of Kenneth Bowser’s Frank Capra’s American Dream. This biography, produced by Tom and Frank Capra, Jr., attempts to replace the simplistic image of Capra as a sort of undiscriminating, sentimental populist with a more complex reality.

What emerges from these interviews and film clips is an illuminating, if mostly uncritical, portrait of a tragically conflicted personality whose work, more than that of many directors, is barely veiled autobiography. The Capra seen here joins his fictional counterparts — Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, and John Doe — as an Everyman whose sudden wealth and fame, those driving myths of the "American Dream" that was Capra’s eternal subject, nearly destroy him.

Gary Morrisreviewing Frank Capra's American Dream by Kenneth Bowser, Bright Lights Film Journal, December 1998

On January 9, 1999, during the annual American Historical Association (AHA) meeting in Washington DC, The Popular Culture Association, Film & History, and the AHA co-sponsored a conference session on the films and legacy of Frank Capra. The session was titled "Frank Capra's Populism: Timebound or Timeless?" Capra's films have made an indelible impact on 20th-century America, serving as both commentaries on and artifacts of American culture. Few historians are more able and competent to analyze them than Robert Brent Toplin, Lawrence Levine, and Dan T. Carter.:

Robert Brent Toplin: We remember Frank Capra for his fundamental optimism reflected in his movies. He expressed a faith in democracy, a confidence that good people could reform their society and their government, and make things work. He expressed a faith in the common man, the common woman—expressed in the movies often with the term "the little guy." These little guys and gals often came from small-town America, and they went up against the metropolis, usually represented by New York City. He seemed to suggest that these little people could succeed, to a degree, that they could make a difference; that they were not helpless as pessimists tend to conclude.

I asked the young men and women in my university classroom, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, to discuss the relevance of Capra's perspectives for the nineties and I actually taught a class there with Frank Capra Jr. who runs the movie studio in the town. So we are asking about the relevance of Capra's perspective to the late nineties.. One student wrote the following – "Is this thought still relevant today? I argue, no. As a member of my generation, we know that the American Dream is dead. Another wrote, "I think that this populist vision is irrelevant today because people have lost faith in themselves, lost faith in the idea that they can make a change. People see themselves as helpless against the major issues that plague our country." So it should be evident that there's plenty of room for discussion about the relevance of Capra's vision, for the thirties and forties and for today.

Lawrence Levine: Capra, whose populism was always more cultural than political, was always one of those forces—and I use this term advisedly—forces that help to fix this image of the idyllic small town indelibly in our collective fields of vision. And he did it, interestingly, he did it while hardly ever actually depicting this cultural epicenter in his films. This immigrant from Italy attempted to explain America by portraying another series of immigrants, not from abroad, but from America’s small towns and villages, trooping into the great cities and immediately undergoing a cultural trial by fire. Thus, in Capra’s films we learn about the virtues of small-town life—and I think this is significant—we learn about the virtues of small-town America secondhand, not by actually seeing them and experiencing them, but much as Capra himself did in his own life, we learn about them by hearing about them. A salient paradox of Capra’s career was that he became one of the nation's most effective champions for small-town American way of life he himself never directly experienced.

Capra has frequently been accused of anti-intellectualism—a term that we often employ loosely and extend to cover struggles over intellectual legitimacy which is not quite the same thing as anti-intellectualism. There have been struggles throughout our history over intellectual legitimacy. Capra clearly felt that he was engaged in just such a struggle, "I’ve never had a very good standing

Crowd scene in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. 28.8K56K

among American intellectuals with my films. Certainly sentiment is an almost verboten emotion with the intellectuals. . . . It’s perhaps too common, too ordinary . . . . Perhaps it’s too simple." The cultural significance of Frank Capra is that throughout the crisis of the 1930s he reiterated the virtues of traditional American values, not in the defensive tones of many of the old stock Americans but with an aggressiveness borne of his own newness and his own marginality, and initially born of his deep optimism. "I fell in love with Americans, just fell in love with them. These goddamned Americans I thought, they were so free on their own, individuals, not taking their hats off to anyone. If somebody got sick they’d do something about it, I thought Americans were the gods of the world." [Walter Karp, "The Patriotism of Frank Capra," Esquire 95 (February, 1981), 34.]

Capra had grave doubts about, and criticisms of, large-scale corporate enterprise. In most of his Depression films, he found ways to reproach powerful capitalists for their values and their actions. Nevertheless, Capra’s films seem to imply that the problems Americans faced were due less to imperfections in the system than to human fallibility: to madness, irrationality, selfishness, greed. The crisis of the Great Depression challenged the soundness of the system and Capra responded, not as the Populists of the late 19th century had, by demanding changes in the political and economic system, but rather by reasserting his faith in the traditional verities and demanding changes in the individual. In his defense of traditional values and lifestyles, in his fear of the dangers of large institutions, in his preoccupation with old-fashioned individualism, in his search for community, in his concentration on the themes of regeneration and redemption, and indeed in many of his contradictions and confusions, Frank Capra was representative of many aspects of his time and his culture and, for better or worse, of ours as well.

Dan T. Carter: In a way, Capra film critics from the opposite side, far opposite side of the ideological picket fence, beginning with the leftists of the thirties through hardball skeptics like Richard Griffith and Andrew Sarris—they see Capra

Anti-materialism in It's A Wonderful Life 28.8K56K

through much the same lens as modern cultural conservatives. For that very reason, they criticize Capra’s films for what they saw as their sentimentality, their optimism, and their worship of middle-class bourgeois values. Above all, they recoil from, again this is what they saw in Capra’s film, his naive faith that the brave and courageous individual would lead ordinary people to respond to crises with affection, kindliness and trust. As James Agee put it in a review in 1947, "Capra’s chief mistake or sin," and he called it that, "was his refusal to face the fact that evil is intrinsic in each individual and that no man may deliver his brother or make an agreement unto God for him."

Still, we live in a world separated by a great divide from that of Frank Capra and his contemporaries. In part, it is that great divide between the optimism and hopefulness of the 1930s and 1940s and even into the fifties and sixties and the cynicism of today's students, as Bob Toplin hasdescribed. But even the questions asked by a newer generation of scholars of film, and I'm certainly no expert on them, seem to be changing. One has only to read the critics, pro and con, of the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s, and compare them with more recent works like Raymond Carney's, American Visions: The Films of Frank Capra[Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996], to see the contours of these different worlds. Critics who were unhappy with Capra’s films, critics like James Agee, took them seriously as sociological documents, as representations of a world of power or as evasions of a world of power, politics, and economics. It’s not just that we live in a different time in which the issues of feminism and questions of race make these films somewhat outdated. It seems to me that under the corrosive gaze of post-modernism, these very realities have dissolved into discourses. Films which were once considered representations of reality have become representations of representations—gestures, visions which reflect the imagination of the observer, the one who is seeing the film. And so for Carney, and I suspect for the rising generation of film historians, Freud, Derrida, and Foucault are far more interesting guides to this filmic terrain than Thorstein Veblen. The personal has not become the political, it has often replaced it.

- The Journal of Multimedia History, 1999.

990 (122). A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958, Douglas Sirk)

Screened December 7 2009 on Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD (thanks Gina) in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #994  IMDb Wiki

Douglas Sirk's penultimate feature, and one of his most personal, brings his entire Hollywood career into stark relief.  This adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel of love in WWII Germany envisions a bombed-out wasteland that couldn't be further removed from the Technicolor gloss of affluent America seen in his most famous films. There are no vibrant pastels or lush interiors decorated with fine upholstery or shiny bric a brac; here, whether inside or outside, it's a seemingly monotonous ash gray or dirt brown. Whenever color arrives (usually a tree blossom or sprig of a leaf), it's a miracle.

This seems to invert the formula established in other Sirk films, where the abundance of attractive surfaces amounts to overcompensation for dissatisfied lives lurking underneath. Here, it's luxury that makes life worth living: the young lovers Ernst (John Gavin) and Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) bluff their way into a fancy meal in an officer's club, in a scene that defies gravity. What's even more fascinating is how that famous Sirkian irony is turned on its ear. In films like All That Heaven Allows or Imitation or Life, Sirk lays ironic subtext into the dialogue or the mise-en-scene, such that it verges on mocking the characters' myopic pursuits of happiness (while priming hipster camp laughter). Here the script is flipped: cynicism and irony wrought by wartime cruelty are the fashion, a way for soldiers and civilians alike to numb themselves from the inhumanity that engulfs them. It's against this convention that the lovers fight, hanging on to a flickering sense of hope and earnestness (Gavin, a bit wooden, doesn't quite carry it off, but Pulver more than compensates - it's easy to see why Godard was smitten by her in his famous review of the film, as her doe-eyed litheness make her a prototype for Anna Karina).

What Sirk keeps consistent between this film and the American-set melodramas is his fixation with the fragility of what makes life worth living in a world of suffocating convention. Wealth and poverty prove to be equally dehumanizing.  What matters are the frail bonds between people, enabled by fleeting moments of fantasy fulfillment. This isn't tied to any overt political or social agenda. Quite the opposite, there's a startling, paradoxical acceptance of the status quo as a fundamentally inescapable condition: it's ground that gives birth to its own acts of defiance - these moments of transcendent beauty - and it's the ground that smothers them out.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of A Time to Love and a Time to Die among They Shoot Pictures Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:

Antonio Jose Navarro, El Mundo (1995) Enrique Alberich, Dirigido Por (1992) Ian Cameron, Sight & Sound (1972) Jose Maria Prado, Nickel Odeon (1994) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: War (1993)

HISTORICAL REVIEW

For more than two hours, this somber drama, taken from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque and put on display at the Mayfair and Little Carnegie yesterday, goes through a labored explanation of how a young Nazi soldier, home on leave, makes love to and marries a nubile maiden amid the exploding clutter of a German city in 1944. Then, after getting the new wife settled with a nice old lady and also with child, it takes the young husband back to the front in Russia. And there it gets him ironically killed.

That's all there is in this long picture—just an account of how two youngsters fall in love, despite air raids, food rationing, gauleiters and the fact that they don't know where or how their parents are. No theme is solidly stated, no philosophical comment is implied—other than the obvious one of General Sherman, and that's what nice Germans went through in World War II.

This again is a fault of this picture—it simply does not ring true. It has an air of studied contrivance and artificiality. Lilo Pulver, for instance, is winsome as the German girl, but she acts, under Douglas Sirk's direction, with the airs and manners of a well-fed ingénue. Except for a trace of German-accent, you'd never dream she's been near a bombed German city in World War II.

- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, July 10, 1958

...Next to Le Plaisir [Pleasure, Max Ophuls, 195s], this is the greatest title in all cinema, sound or silent, and also to say that I heartily congratulate Universal-International on having changed the title of Erich Maria Remarque's novel, which was called A Time to Live and a Time to Die [Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben, 1954]. In so doing, those dear old universal and international bandits have in effect set Douglas down in a circus which Boris Barnet would have been prodigiously happy to film, because it is ten times more battle-scarred and beautiful than Brooks's: in other words, by replacing the world 'live' by 'love', they implicitly posed their director the question - an admirable starting point for the script - 'Should one live to love, or love to live?'...

Before talking of form, let us speakof Liselotte Pulver's. Everyone scorns it. But I like it. You think she's skinny; but after all it is wartime, and the subject of the film is not: 'Off with your pullover, Lise.' For my part I have never found a German girl in the crumbling Third Reich so credible as I did in watching this young Swiss start nervously at each camera movement. I will go further. I have never found wartime Germany so credible as in watching this American film made in peacetime. Even more than Aldrick in Attack [1956], Sirk can make things seem so close that we can touch them, that we can smell them. The face of a corpse frozen in the rime on the Russian front, bottles of wine, a brand-new apartment in a ruined city: one believes in them as though they had been filmed by a newsreel Camelflex instead of with a huge CinemaScope apparatus controlled by what one must call the hand of a master.

It is fashionable today to say that the wide screen is all window-dressing. Personally, my answer to all those Rene's who haven't got idees claires is a polite: 'My eye!'. One need only have seen the last two Sirk films to be finally convinced that CinemaScope adds as much again to the normal format. One should add here that our old filmmaker has regained his young legs and beats the young at their own game, panning happily all round, tracking back or forwards likewise. And the astonishingly beautiful thing about these camera movements, which tear away like racing-cars and where the blurring is masked by the speed with which they are executed, is that they give the impression of having been done by hand instead of with a crane, rather as if the mercurial brushwork of a Fragonard were the work of a complex machine. Conclusion: those who have not seen or loved Liselotte Pulver running along the bank of the Rhine or Danube or something, suddenly bending to pass under a barrier, then straightening up hop! with a thrust of the haunches - those who have not seen Douglas Sirk's big Mitchell camera bend at the same moment, then hop! straighten up with the same supple movement of the thighs, well, they haven't seen anything, or else they don't know beauty when they see it.

- Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinema, 1959. Translated by Tom Milne and Craig Keller. Printed in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

[W]e slightly changed [the original title of Remarque's source novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die] for the non-German distribution into A Time to Love and a Time to Die. I was so insistent on this, for I felt it had to be a love story, mainly. The denunciation of Nazidom would have to take second place to the love story. You see, this picture was made in 1957. Hitler's empire of a thousand years was history. Furthermore, I thought 'die' balanced 'love' very well. And going back to my idea of a title being a kind of prologue, it announces the theme of the picture. The terrible incongruity of killing and young love. I was enchanted to see that in Cahiers Godard did get the point, and made the title almost the base for his excellent and unusual review [...] What was interesting to me was a landscape of ruins and the two lovers. But again, a strange kind of love story, a love conditioned. Two people are not allowed to have their love. The murderous breath of circumstances prevents them. They are hounded from ruin to ruin. The lovers have nowhere to go for their love. Do you remember the scene in the hold restaurant? The lovers are imitating the joyful life of a lost past. There is a moment of happiness. Seemingly. There is food. There are friendly lamps. There is light. Their love has restored the world. Bang! It is destroyed. I was striving for this relationship between their love and the ruins. I hope it came off: the portrayal of this young and desperate love. Not just a boy and girl story, but two lovers in extreme circumstances."

- Douglas Sirk, in Jon Halliday's Sirk on Sirk, pp. 141, 144. Printed in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet

"Life is the most melodramatic story of all," said Sirk. In 1929 in Germany he had divorced his first wife and married a Jew, a fact which the first wife used after Hitler won power to get a court order barring Sirk from contact with their son, then eight, whom she was turning into a Nazi and the top child star in German cinema: Claus Detlef Sierck. Sirk was able to see his son only in movies, sometimes as a Hitler Youth. And when he fled Germany, Sirk had to leave his son behind. Toward the end of the war Claus was drafted, sent to the Russian front, and reported missing in action. After the war Sirk came back to Germany, and searched in vain for traces of the son he had left behind. He asked interviewers not to publish these events during his lifetime. But he made a movie, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, that was autobiographical - about a boy who is sent to Russia and forced to commit atrocities, who meets a wonderful girl during a leave, then is quickly killed in Russia after a daring act of mercy. What more could such a father hope for such a dead son than that he had had the experience of a love like this before dying?

- Tag Gallagher, in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet.

Sirk's motives for returning to Berlin seem as scrambled as those for his flight 21 years earlier. The Russian Front setting of Remarque's source novel clearly had a personal significance, as Klaus Detlef Sierck (the son who had acted in several pro-Party pictures) had been killed in the Ukraine in 1944. However, it was never entirely certain whether Orin Jannings's screenplay was a plea for the victors to understand the suffering endured by the vanquished during the last days of the conflict or whether the killing of the Good German by a vengeful Communist guerilla was intended to be Cold War propaganda.

Regardless of its objectives, this touching study of the brevity of happiness was hailed as a masterpiece by Jean-Luc Godard in an effusive Cahiers du Cinéma review that launched the Sirkian cult that still attracts copious devotees. However, German audiences deeply resented a fugitive recreating their misery, while the film was banned in both Israel and the Soviet Union. It was somewhat fitting, therefore, that when Sirk quit the States in 1959, he settled in Switzerland - which had, of course, remained neutral during the war.

- David Parkinson, Film in Focus

TOP REVIEWS

A masterpiece of mise-en-scene (1958) by Douglas Sirk, transforming an Erich Maria Remarque melodrama into a haunting story of the search for beauty in a dead world. John Gavin and Lilo Pulver are lovers who meet among the ruins of a bombed-out German town during World War II. Despite their efforts to make contact, happiness hovers just beyond their reach in Sirk's metaphysically charged CinemaScope images. A stunning triumph of form, of the sort possible only in Hollywood. 132 min.

Dave KehrThe Chicago Reader

Under the opening credits of Sirk's penultimate masterpiece, set during World War II and filmed on location in Germany, the camera rests on the branches of a tree, its blossom forced early by the heat of a nearby bomb blast. It is the perfect symbol for the love between John Gavin's German soldier on leave and a barely remembered childhood friend, Lilo Pulver: a love forced by the everyday facts of war. This superb adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel rests on a painful symmetry between the scenes at the Russian front and the central section in the half-ruined home town, and on a typically tough-minded acknowledgment of the irony that the doomed romance exists not in spite of the war, but because of it.

Time Out

In a way, the lack of a well-structured plot is a minor quibble, as the attraction of A Time to Love isn't in its story, it's in the fusion of the melodramatic with the nihilistic. The film is full of grimly beautiful imagery. Early on in the film Ernst's regiment makes its way through a frozen village, and discover a withered hand reaching out from beneath the snow. An argument occurs about whether or not the dead soldier the hand belongs to is a casualty of the November or January campaign that is almost blackly humorous. As the soldiers dig him out, a young private remarks that the corpse appears to be crying, to which Ernest responds 'His eyeballs were frozen. They're thawing now.' This kind of darkness pervades the film, particularly in these early moments with the frontline troops, who are represented as wearily cynical of the ongoing campaign…

The visual layout of A Time to Love and a Time to Die is much like Sirk's previous melodramas. Shards of light slice through frames, wrenching the characters away from each other; scenes are colour-coded to the emotions of the characters and tone of the world (here, mainly dull grey, brown and white); small camera movements track and nag the characters. Its emotive, heightened, passionate – the score swells and climaxes, the cinemascope photography is brilliantly vivid; the frames are filled with material detail. Its part of what makes Sirk's films so seductive – they are beautiful to look at, almost distractingly so. What is particularly interesting – and impressive – about this film is the way this aesthetic plan is mapped onto wartime Germany. Costumes and props look authentically worn, the characters are all suitably bedraggled (with the exception of the star couple). There is a lot of location shooting, amongst bombed out buildings and piles of rubble and muddy battlefields, but Sirk still manages to maintain his highly composed, painterly look. The emotional desolation of the characters bleeds into the landscape, and vice versa: the realism of those bombsites is harnessed into the melodramatic project.

Adam WilsonDVD Outsider

Remarque was a solid but second-rate writer who tended to recycle his own material; he turns up in Sirk’s movie as a forbidding-looking Professor who does a bit of preaching about God and responsibility in one heavy-handed scene toward the end. There are lots of sand traps like that in this script, but Sirk is a past master of handling the most dubious writing and acting and still somehow making it conform to his overall vision (surely he was made to handle the heavily seasoned works of a major writer like Thomas Mann, but Remarque will do in a pinch). There are echoes of Frank Borzage’s Remarque-inspired Three Comrades (1938) in the enclosing love story between Gavin and Pulver, but Sirk replaces Borzage’s warmth with his own stern detachment. He draws a charming performance from the German-born Pulver, and he tries his best with the pretty but very remote Gavin; these lovers are always ducking into cellars during air raids and either losing or stealing bottles of liquor, leaping from ruin to ruin until time, if not love, runs out.

Sirk said he liked the irony of the ending, but it comes across as a cheap attempt to copy the famous last shot of the film version of All Quiet on the Western Front, with a love letter substituted for a butterfly. Miklós Rózsca provides a stormy score that fits the forties time period, and the film has some amusing casting: A young Klaus Kinski has a film-halting bit as a Gestapo agent, and Dorothea Wieck, who played the sensual lesbian schoolteacher in the Weimar-era classic Mädchen in Uniform (1931) turns up briefly. The scenes depicting Gavin’s despicable Nazi school-hood friend are strangely handled, mainly because Sirk seems more interested in ridiculing the vulgarity of fascist cultural taste than in any more sweeping moral denunciation. This isn’t one of Sirk’s best films, but it is most likely one of his most personal. He was separated from his son by his first wife, who had wholeheartedly joined the Nazi party, and this lost son later died on the Russian front. In the last scenes of the movie, Sirk shows us several blond-haired boys ready to go off to war, and you don’t have to know his history to be moved by their forgone fate, or the artist who could use a small part of his own personal pain as a fully justified grace note in this, his penultimate Hollywood production.

Dan CallahanThe House Next Door

Like the rough trilogy of films based on James Hilton's novels (Lost Horizon, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Random Harvest), A Time To Love And A Time To Die is suffused with the inter-war desire to escape time - an escape that Sirk equates with his own characteristically intoxicating cinematography, with the result that Sgt Ernest Graeber's (John Gavin) search for his parents during the two-week long furlough that relieves him from the black-and-white monotony of the Russian Front is effectively the search for Technicolour; or, alternatively, the desire to immerse himself in a fantastic distance from the ravages of war that becomes continuous with cinema itself, as evinced in one of its surrogates - a wedding night in which his new wife, Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) throws glasses against a wall because she "saw it done in a movie once", as well as the final, glassy screen, which beautifully combines his reflection with a confirmation that this intoxication is still just out of reach. As a result, all its surrogates - 'no such places', culminating with a suburban kitchen that has miraculously escaped desecration - fall short of the lurid aestheticism expected of Sirk by this stage - with the possible exception of the violent, periodic incursions of fire, whether literally or as an object of conversation, which tend to suggest that Technicolor can now only exist as an index of sheer horror - as if his irrealistic proclivities were so strong as to only admit of being indefinitely and tortuously postponed, rather than categorically excised.

Billy StevensonA Film Canon

OTHER REVIEWS

Maybe it's the use of Eastman Colour stock rather than Technicolor, but at first sight A Time to Love... seems less stylised in its look than the other two (which were studio/backlot productions shot in “flat” widescreen). That's not to say it doesn't avoid a certain glossiness in its presentation: but then stomach-churning realism was not on the agenda (for reasons of censorship amongst other things). That doesn't preclude a hard edge to this film: romantic it may be, soft-headed no. That's also not to deny that the film is very well directed: whole books have been written about Sirkian aesthetics and mise-en-scène, which is beyond the scope of this review. The final image is reminiscent of that in All Quiet on the Western Front and just as powerful.

- Gary Couzens, DVD Times

After making a series of vibrant melodramas in the United States (such as “All That Heaven Allows”), Douglas Sirk returned to his native Germany to shoot the bitter Second World War story “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” (1958), based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. A Wehrmacht private (John Gavin)—a good German, disgusted by Nazi atrocities—returns from the Russian front to his bombed-out town, falls in love with the daughter (Lilo Pulver) of a German dissident, and mixes with both committed Nazis and resisters. The romance has its longueurs, but both the battle and the home-front scenes, in which traces of beauty and friendship struggle against an overpowering sense of loss, are unusually well sustained and bitterly intelligent. Remarque himself appears as an anti-Nazi teacher who tells the hero that if he doesn’t return to the front his family will be threatened. Remarque knew what he was talking about: his sister was executed by the Nazis in 1943 as revenge against the writer, who was living in the United States.

- David Denby, The New Yorker

It was the penultimate Hollywood movie of the great German stylist Douglas Sirk and, like all his American films, the reputation of this quietly authoritative, initially undervalued picture has steadily grown since the 1960s. John Gavin plays the central character, Remarque himself has a small role as a liberal schoolteacher and the unforgettable ending echoes All Quiet. The movie has a poignant subtext. Sirk's son, a beautiful child star raised as a Nazi by his first wife, died fighting on the Russian front. The film is accompanied by a booklet and three worthwhile documentaries.

- Philip French, The Guardian

Adapted from a novel by EM Remarque (who also wrote All Quiet on the Western Front), this is perhaps the bravest and most beautiful of war films. There are many movies that remind us War Is Hell but few with the courage to humanise the losing side. Sirk was always a more restrained director than his reputation as master of melodrama suggests; here he eschews easy sentiment and emotional bombast and his film is all the more heartbreaking for it. He does more than show the horror of war; he evokes its anguish.

- Movie Mail

On one hand A Time to Love and a Time to Die is a great film, gorgeously photographed and really well written but, on the other, it fails to convince because of the cast. John Gavin is about as American as you can get so doesn’t really pass as a German soldier and there are so many Americans in the cast (including Keenan Wynn – Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove) that they look like Americans in German uniforms, not German soldiers. Swiss actress Liselotte Pulver is a different matter, sounding German and putting in a fine performance.

- David Beckett, My Reviewer.com

The film's urgent anti-war message is best captured in the premature bloom of tree blossoms in the hometown, caused not by nature but by the bombings. As for the film's belief in humanity overcoming evil, the answer it comes up with is taken from the lips of Erich Maria Remarque: "Without doubt, there would be no need for faith." There is a strange universal beauty found in the unlikely Hollywood film about a WW11 German soldier as the hero. The beauty is in the empirical images of the fearful symmetry between the horrors at the Russian front and the hometown in partial ruins, and in the doomed romantics trying to overcome the world gone crazy around them.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozus' World Movie Reviews

An ordinary love and unexceptional people for the first time in Douglas Sirk. They watch what's happening around them with wide startled eyes. Everything is incomprehensible to them, the bombs, the Gestapo, the lunacy. In a situation like that love is the least complicated thing of all, the only thing you can understand. And you cling to it. But I wouldn't like to think about what would have happened to them if John had survived the war. The war and its horrors are only the décor. No one can make a film about war, as such. About how wars come about, what they do to people, what they leave behind, could well be important. The film is not pacifist, as there is not a second which lets us think: if it were not for this lousy war everything would be so wonderful or something. Remarque's novel A Time to Love and a Time to Die is pacifist. Remarque is saying that if it weren't for the war this would be eternal love. Sirk is saying if it weren't for the war this would not be love at all.

Bruno AndradeSigno do dragao

989 (121). Toute une nuit / All Night Long (1982, Chantal Akerman)

Screened November 29 on YouTube (thanks to Gina Telaroli for the tip) in Brooklyn NY TSPDT Rank #975  IMDb

touteunenuit1

In a way it makes sense that Chantal Akerman's 1982 masterpiece is (for the moment) available on YouTube, because it resembles a fan video compilation of dramatic scenes from the movies, stitched together in one ecstatic montage.  Instead of ripping them from her DVD collection, she's reshot them in her own beloved Brussels. By my count we're looking at 55 dramatic encounters, embraces and separations involving 75 nameless characters, usually in couples, lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes, arranged in loose chronology from anticipatory dusk to weary dawn. It's a puzzle-form film that practically begs to be re-watched and broken down by geeks to find patterns and beguiling inconsistencies - like when a woman checks into a hotel in one scene only to be seen running into the same hotel a few scenes later. Many characters resemble each other in appearance and dress (women in blue dresses, men in white shirts) such that they all bleed into each other - only upon close observation does one realize that only a few characters reappear, and mostly near the end.

This convergence of the universal and the specific is but one of the film's several paradoxes. With it's actors' balletic movements, rushing up and down streets and stairwells, pushing and pulling their partners in bars and bedrooms, it's a musical, except  without music (save the recurring clacking of heels, as irresistible as fate). It depicts a city teeming with human life, energy, lustful passions, yet nearly every figure seems touched with lonely desperation even in their moments of consummation.  Or the way the characters move and speak like automatons following pre-programmed behaviors to express their most selfish desires. Love and lust, so exciting in an isolated moment, so banal in the context of human history, a script that essentially has never changed.

For me, this dialogue between love in the movies and in real life is the film's most beguiling paradox. These fleeting scenes of romantic union and dissolution somehow embody both the larger-than-life drama of movie climaxes (and cliches) and the quotidian pleasure of everyday people-watching. Because these sublime encounters are devoid of the larger narrative granted to movie characters, they become as anonymous as people embracing on the street. The thrill of the movies aren't just on screen, they're everywhere around us, if we have the eyes to see them. This movie grants us that gift.

PART ONE OF TEN:

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Toute Une Nuit among They Shoot Pictures Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:

Berenice Reynaud, Sight & Sound (1992) Helmut W. Banz, Steadycam (2007) Peter Korte, Steadycam (2007) Jim Jarmusch, Premiere: The 1980's Best (1989)

PART TWO OF TEN:

Chantal Akerman said good-bye to minimalism with this 1982 feature, which finds its model less in Michael Snow than MGM musicals. A hot summer night in Brussels is covered in brief narrative fragments centered on couples coming together or breaking up; as the film continues, it acquires an almost choreographic sense of rhythm and space. A real pleasure to watch, though Akerman doesn't skirt the darker implications of this dance of desire.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

PART THREE OF TEN:

Chantal Akerman presents a structurally challenging, yet emotionally honest, understatedly humorous, and visually compelling choreography of motion, rhythm, and passion in Toute une nuit. Using short takes, minimal dialogue, and fragmented narrative, Akerman distills the visual narrative into the brief, yet essential moments that define the spectrum of human interaction: separation, attraction, reconciliation, reunion, intimacy, absence, rejection. Filmed as a narcoleptic journey through a sultry and languorous evening in summertime Brussels, Toute une nuit becomes a subtle and relevant validation on the singularity of human existence - a chronicle of the irrepressible passion and vitality that lay beneath the surface of an alienating urban landscape.

- Acquarello, Strictly Film School

PART FOUR OF TEN:

Akerman, the mistress of minimalism, has made her own midsummer night's sex comedy, with a superabundance of stories and a cast of (almost) thousands. The film shows an endless series of brief encounters that take place in Brussels in the course of one delirious, torrid June night, with the twist that each relationship is condensed into a single moment of high melodrama - the coup de foudre, the climax of passion, the end of an affair - with the spectator left to fill in the fictional spaces between scenes. Each couple compulsively plays through the same gestures, each mating rite is a variation on the same theme: repetitions which Akerman uses both as a rich source of comedy and as a device to show erotic desire as a pattern of codes and conventions. Marrying the pleasure of narrative to the purism of the avant-garde, this is her most accessible film to date.

- Time Out

touteunenuit3

In Toute une nuit Akerman displays her precision and control as she stages the separate, audience-involving adventures of a huge cast of all ages that wanders out into Brussels byways on a hot, stormy night. In this film, reminiscent of Wim Wenders and his wanderers and Marguerite Duras's inventive sound tracks, choreography, and sense of place, Akerman continues to explore her medium using no conventional plot, few spoken words, many sounds, people who leave the frame to a lingering camera, and appealing images. A little girl asks a man to dance with her, and he does. The filmmaker's feeling for the child and the child's independence can't be mistaken.

- Lilian SchiffFilm Reference.com

PART FIVE OF TEN:

Toute une nuit continues the theme of solitude, as it follows the monotonous sexual encounters of one particular night, as sugested in the film's title. Couples do not get together in All Night Long. Marsha Kinder describes the challenges posed by this film:

"By denying us a single unifying story, by frequently pitting word against image and non-verbal sound, by discouraging us from identifying with any of the anonymous characters, by denying us a single unified subject position... Toute une nuit makes us change the way we read a film."

Gwendolyn Audrey FosterIdentity and memory: the films of Chantal Akerman. SIU Press, 2003. Page 3.

Chantal Akerman's work has a dry, cumulative intensity. Extended takes, fixed frames, and a resolutely frontal camera position efface the conventions of analytic editing; precise and repeated framings are coupled with a consistent focus on single characters and an insistence on time. In the 1970s films, single protagonists propel the narrative through visible displacements (Je tu il elle, 1974, Meetings with Anna, 1978) or increasingly charged stillness (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975). This premise is reversed in the '80s work - in Toute une nuit (All night long, 1982), for example, whre Akerman's narrative, though still predicated on accumulation, is spread over multiple episodic threads, as characters couple and decouple according to a logic of the romantic - through longing, sexual desire, boredom...

In Toute une nuit, Akerman passes from the minimalist narratives of her earlier films to her later, idiosyncratic use of the movie-musical form - a natural outgrowth of her attention to the rhythms of gesture and dialogue, and to her transformations of them into an antinaturalistic choreography of concreteness. "No links except a musical one, with recurrences and ruptures," says Akerman of Toute une nuit's fragmentary structure...

Ivone Margulies. Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman's Hyperrealist Everyday. Duke University Press, 1996. Pages 171-172

PART SIX OF TEN:

Toute Une Nuit exemplifies her fairy tale wish granting on a grand scale. As in the other films, extremes of hunger and appetite, need and excess, too-much and not-enough retrain our senses. Avant-garde filmmaker Anne Severson once made a film of animals running, culled from archive footage, to satisfy her own childhood hunger to see more jungle every time the Hollywood camera returned to Ava Gardner, or some such colonial-abroad star, wiping sweat from her brow. I can imagine Akerman indulging the same hunger for the archetypical movie embrace, that mad dash into (or out of) each other's arms in the cathartic moment of numberless Hollywood or French movies of the thirties. Enter the fairy tale. Akerman stacks her film with these embraces - and virtually nothing else- so that they are totally stripped of psychological definition and narrative meaning. The embraces become, like many of the actions in her films, very nearly existential. They have no meaning beyond their visual literalization. And yet, having given up the expectation of emotional drama, the viewer is rewarded with a semblance of a post-modernist musical in which the tableaux, rhythm of shots, exchanges of looks, even falling of glasses, become a choreographed and scored performance played to the hilt. The film turns itself inside out, embodying a critique of romance and the musical genre all at once.

Akerman adds an extra layer to her metacinema by seeding her films with jokes and references to earlier work. In Toute Une Nuit, Akerman's own mother smokes a cigarette as her daughter cries "Mama on the soundtrack, in a simultaneous invocation of News from Home and Rendez-vous d'Anna's pillow-talk sequence.

B. Ruby RichChick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement. Duke University Press, 1998. Page 172.

PART SEVEN OF TEN:

PART EIGHT OF TEN:

Another beautiful insomniac's journey from Chantal Akerman. Narrative is La Ronde fractured, spun out of dozens of fragments of personal dramas not quite intertwining over a humid, languorous night in oppressively impersonal Brussels. A woman meets her lover in a bar while another couple looks on from a nearby table, separated until a tentative embrace breaks through the symmetry of the frame; a trio splitting leads to another couple dancing around a jukebox in a deserted restaurant; another middle-aged couple decides to go out while a woman packs up her things and takes off while her husband sleeps, and so on into dawn. Huddling actors and non-professionals (the only recognizable one is Aurore Clément, Anna in Les Rendez-vous d'Anna), Akerman grids out a panorama of aching city dwellers stepping into and out of apartments, hooking up or barely missing each other, a rendezvous kept and then broken, each and every affair marinated in its own flavor of heartbreak. Her Brussels is a democratically alienated center, with young and aged, straight and queer, local and immigrant soaking in the heat and suffering through the mysteries of human interaction with delicate variations of an ongoing plaintive murmur ("Come with me. No? ... I don't think we still love each other ... Keep me from drinking. I am scared.") Akerman's framing and panning are as severe as in her previous films, yet the duration of her shots is lighter, more elastic, reflecting the ephemeral feel of the passing fancies she captures -- a notion expressed in the closing passage with sublime consequences for Tsai Ming-liang and Claire Denis, Clément dreamily swaying with her lover through a reverse tracking-shot down a corridor while in the soundtrack their romantic Italian chanson battles it out with the disembodied honking of cars implacably ushering in the early morning, and reality.

Fernando CroceCinePassion

Although Toute Une Nuit is not as personal as Akerman’s most powerful films, her methodic filmmaking, sly humor, and obsession with relationships is firmly on display in her pseduo-conceptual work.Toute Une Nuit, like most Akerman films, contains minimal dialogue, and slowly tracks over two dozen characters as they move around urban Brussels passionately connecting with one another, if only for brief moments. It is hard to imagine Richard Linklater’s great film Slacker working, or even existing, without Chantal Akerman. While Toute Une Nuit is still only available on VHS, it is worth seeking out (and can be found on Amazon for under $5!) It is a good introduction to Akerman’s work (although I think News From Home (1977) would be the best introduction) and has quietly thrilling aspects that have become part of Akerman’s signature voice.

James HansenOut 1

PART NINE OF TEN:

Instead of a safely potted narrative plant, Äkerman gives us a plethora of seemingly random narrative shoots. These bits of life reflect how we experience our own lives. Characters are let go of for a while and picked up again. While her husband soundly sleeps, a woman noisily packs her bag right on the bed and leaves him, goes to a hotel, but returns home at dawn defeated, gets back into bed just in time for the ringing alarm clock to presumably awaken her, as well as him. For years I took exception to this artificial aspect, this miniature story, but now I find that it underscores by contrast the different method of the rest of Äkerman’s formally rigorous yet open-ended film.

- Dennis Grunes

The odd adventure in filmmaking is worth savoring because of its uniqueness, its lingering hypnotic effect, the artistic way all the brief encounters reach a melodramatic moment and in the delicate manner Miss Akerman tells her amorous narrative in an experimental film style. Miss Akerman plays with the same theme for each couple, as the repetition offers both a mix of sad and happy moments. It's surprisingly an accessible film (at least for her), and combines a sense of absurd humor with the erotic. Not a great film, but one that catches your attention.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's World Movie Reviews

PART TEN OF TEN:

The yearning for romance and for the romance of the ordinary is a central ingredient of her work, but the most remarkable moments in her films are those in which her other, demonic impulses rebel against this fantasy. Emblematic in this respect is the ending of Toute une nuit, an insomniac's movie about insomniacs, in which a couple's lovemaking is gradually smothered, and all but obliterated from our attention, by the hectoring sounds of early-morning traffic outside. The tortured aggressiveness of such a moment is finally what her filmmaking is all about--her cold, elegantly symmetrical compositions and brutal sounds being hammered into our skulls with an obstinate will to power that makes Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Peckinpah, and Clint Eastwood all seem like pussycats.

Jonathan RosenbaumThe Chicago Reader, January 26, 1990

ABOUT CHANTAL AKERMAN

IMDb  Wiki

The following quotes are found on the TSPDT Profile Page for Chantal Akerman:

"At the age of fifteen Chantal Akerman saw Godard's Pierrot le fou and realized that filmmaking could be experimental and personal. She dropped in and out of film school and has since created short and feature films for viewers who appreciate the opportunity her works provide to think about sounds and images. Her films are often shot in real time, and in space that is part of the characters' identity." - Lillian Schiff (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)

"Belgian-born director who makes long, often tedious, but sometimes hypnotically watchable arthouse films in which the camera's concentration on scenes for a long period of time can turn the viewer's pleasure into discomfort, interest into boredom or disinterest into perception. A unique film-maker, she continues to alternately baffle and fascinate her audiences." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)

"Independent filmmaker noted for her minimalist narratives and static visual style...Her films, often dramatically vague and nearly plotless, typically seek to explore human emotion and character through unorthodox cinematic means. Although she is admired by serious critics, her films are barely accessible to general audiences.." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

On one hand, the films of the 39-year-old Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman are about as varied as anyone could wish. Some are in 16-millimeter and some are in 35; some are narrative and some are nonnarrative; the running times range from 11 minutes to 205. The genres range from autobiography to personal psychodrama to domestic drama to comedy to musical to documentary to feature-in-progress--a span that still fails to include a silent, not-exactly-documentary study of a run-down New York hotel (Hotel Monterey), a vast collection of miniplots covering a single night in a city (Toute une nuit), and a feature-length string of Jewish jokes recited by immigrants in Brooklyn exteriors (Food, Family and Philosophy), among other oddities.

On the other hand, paradoxically, there are few important contemporary filmmakers whose range is as ruthlessly narrow as Akerman's, formally and emotionally. Virtually all of her films, regardless of genre, come across as melancholy, narcissistic meditations charged with feelings of loneliness and anxiety; and nearly all of them have the same hard-edged painterly presence and monumentality, the same precise sense of framing, locations, and empty space. Most of them are fundamentally concerned with the discomfort of bodies in rooms. (Akerman is basically geared toward interiors, which may be one reason her latest feature, Food, Family and Philosophy, set mostly in exteriors, is not one of her strongest. The fact that virtually all of Window Shopping, her musical, is set inside a shopping mall sets up an interesting ambiguity about whether one is inside or out--until the shock of the ending, when the film finally moves out into the open air.)

If I have a reputation for being difficult, it's because I love the everyday and want to present it. In general people go to the movies precisely to escape the everyday.

--Chantal Akerman

A yearning for the ordinary as well as the everyday runs through Akerman's work like a recurring, plaintive refrain. It is a longing that takes many forms: part of it is simply her ambition to make a commercially successful movie; another part is the desire of a self-destructive, somewhat regressive neurotic--Akerman herself in Saute ma ville, Je tu il elle, and The Man With a Suitcase; Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman; Aurore Clement in Les rendezvous d'Anna--to go legit and be like "normal" people. Je tu il elle and Les rendezvous d'Anna both feature a bisexual heroine who wants to either resolve an unhappy relationship with another woman or to go straight; in Saute ma ville, Je tu il elle, Jeanne Dielman, and The Man With a Suitcase, the desire to be "normal" is largely reflected in the efforts of the heroine simply to inhabit a domestic space.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader, January 26, 1990

akerman4

Akerman's defiance of cinematic conventions - not just the faster takes but the intrusive soundtracks, the constant visual fidgeting, the tendentious editing - has something liberating about it. Her approach, characterized by extreme restraint, makes you aware of just how manipulative, even bullying these conventions can be, though we rarely give them a second thought.

Her own slow style discourages the suspension of disbelief, allowing the mind time and space to roam, to contemplate, to question. Of course, her style can also frustrate. Akerman toys deliberately with our desire to know more, to see more, to glean a plot or grasp what is going on. Her strategy can make you resentful, but it also creates tension.

- Sebastian Smee, The Boston Globe, June 8 2008

What has made Chantal Akerman such an important part of world cinema has been her ability to raise, across a wide variety of forms, common questions that touch the core of both cinematic aesthetics and feminist political practice. The flexibility she has exhibited over the years should confirm her status not as a progressively more compromised filmmaker, but as an artist committed enough to ask questions in different idioms, instead of piously relying on one (supposedly) politically or aesthetically purified form, as so many members of both the political and romantic avant-gardes have.

- Jerry White, "Chantal Akerman's Revisionist Aesthetic." From Women and Experimental Filmmaking, edited by Jean Petrolle, Virginia Wright Wexman. University of Illinois Press, 2005. Page 47.

touteunenuit2

986 (118). California Split (1974, Robert Altman)

Screened November 15, 2009 on Columbia Tri-Star DVD TSPDT rank #968 IMDb Wiki

This tight, modest picture may not have the presumptions to Monumental Importance as Nashville, but in many ways it's a more quintessential Robert Altman movie, if not a better film. Whereas Nashville maintains an Olympian perspective on its swarming ensemble, California Split inhabits a more complicated space with its two leads, alternating between celebration and skepticism (but never scorn) of their high-rolling gamblers' lifestyle.  It's a world that Altman knows well and it's what allows him to employ his prodigious gifts with a precision and an authenticity that exceeds even his most famous films. (It certainly surpasses the lesser works, where his attempts at naturalist satire are belied by lazy-eyed lensing and snark characterization.)

Take his groundbreaking use of audio in California Split, his first employment of the multi-track technology he developed.  What he does with 8 audio tracks here makes the 24 tracks he used in Nashville seem excessive. It's a soundtrack that's as consuming as a gambler's weekend casino binge - and that's exactly the point. It plants us squarely in a subjective state, what it's like to be terminally hopped up on the high of tumbling dice on green felt, clicking roulette balls and the polite trash talking of pretty much everyone around you. The soundtrack shifts from one of these nodes to another, restlessly searching for some way in to a special insight leading to a big score. It's a real shame that The Conversation hogged all the attention for audio innovations in 1974, because this film does just as much to integrate its audio into the human experience it brings to life.

There are so many good moments, executed with such a natural flow that it transcends the script's imperative to touch on of all the different types of gambling going on in Sin City: from dingy poker halls to race tracks to grand casinos to putting $20 against a dude at a bar to name the Seven Dwarves. Gould and Segal are excellent, with such lively in-the-moment riffing between them that you wonder if Cassavetes stepped in to direct their scenes. They're matched in rapport by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles as Gould's hooker roommates; Altman's camera, in full groupie mode, really gets cozy with them as they lounge around in their apartment. It's small moments and movements like in those scenes that are Altman at his best. They yield the full potential of his excitement and interest in the world and in people, without having to package the former into a big statement or belittle the latter in spite.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of California Split among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

David Ansen, Steadycam (2007) Doris Kuhn, Steadycam (2007) Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007) Richard T. Jameson, Steadycam (2007) Alain Resnais, Most Important American Films (1977) Peter von Bagh, Most Important American Films (1977) They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films

HISTORICAL REVIEWS

The movie will be compared with "M*A*S*H," the first big hit by Altman (who is possibly our best and certainly our most diverting American director). It deserves that comparison, because it resembles "M*A*S*H" in several big ways: It's funny, it's hard-boiled, it gives us a bond between two frazzled heroes trying to win by the rules in a game where the rules re-quire defeat. But it's a better movie than "M*A*S*H" because here Altman gets it all together. Ever since "M*A*S*H," he's been trying to make a kind of movie that would function like a comedy but allow its laughs to dig us deeper and deeper into the despair underneath...

At the end of "California Split" we realize that Altman has made a lot more than a comedy about gambling; he's taken us into an American nightmare, and all the people we met along the way felt genuine and looked real. This movie has a taste in its mouth like stale air-conditioning, and no matter what time it seems to be, it's always five in the morning in a second-rate casino...

What Altman comes up with is sometimes almost a documentary feel; at the end of "California Split" we know something about organized gambling in this country we didn't know before. His movies always seem perfectly at home wherever they are, but this time there's an almost palpable sense of place. And Altman has never been more firmly in control of his style. He has one of the few really individual visual styles among contemporary American directors; we can always see it's an Altman film. He bases his visual strategies on an incredibly attentive sound track, using background noises with particular care so that our ears tell us we're moving through these people -- instead of that they're lined up talking to us. "California Split" is a great movie and it's a great experience, too; we've been there with Bill and Charlie.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, January 1 1974

Robert Altman's "California Split," which opened yesterday at the Cinema I, is a fascinating, vivid movie, not quite comparable to any other movie that I can immediately think of. Nor is it easily categorized.

Mr. Altman has been quoted as saying that "California Split" is "a celebration of gambling," which is, I think, to underrate it, at least so it seems to someone who is not a gambling nut. The director, his screenwriter Joseph Walsh and the actors have created a movie of so many associations that it's impossible not to see "California Split" as something much more complex and disturbing.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, August 8 1974

One of Altman's surest talents is the creation of a whole world, slightly antic and off-center, so that his movies (like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Thieves Like Us) have a look of surprise, of the familiar transposed in some evasive but still palpable way. Once again he enjoys the collaboration of his excellent art director, Leon Ericksen, who has constructed an entire casino, brightly seedy and lit like a yellow-fever ward, which Altman populates with 24-hour night people. Their faces are ridden with worry, briefly flush with success. Their babble, their half-heard hopes framed in gambler's jargon, are like the running response of some lost congregation. They are Altman's chorus.

Like all his work, California Split (slang for high-low-split poker) has its own bent rhythm. It gives the feeling of having been made with a stoned offhandedness. In fact, there is a relaxed precision governing everything, even Elliott Gould's mumbled throwaways.

California Split is a rejoinder to the terse, glamorously tense world of The Cincinnati Kid, where the green felt is turned into a field of honor. It may be the first movie about gamblers that does not require any knowledge of the rules of a game. California Split is about compulsion, not betting, so the conventions are disregarded. There are no looming closeups of nervously shifting eyes, sweaty foreheads and shaky hands. Altman's premise is that getting hooked on gambling is the kind of emotional brinkmanship that is suicide by inches. This knowledge runs through California Split like a cold current and is the source of the movie's stubborn power. "J.C.

- J.C., Time Magazine, September 2, 1974

PRODUCTION BACKGROUND

Fed up with the unrealistic dialogue he and other actors were forced to say on a regular basis, struggling actor Joseph Walsh wrote a screenplay about his own gambling addiction in 1971. Steven Spielberg, fresh from directing the made-for-TV film Duel (1971), was originally supposed to direct. He and Walsh worked on the script every day for nine months. The director was fascinated by the characters and would react to Walsh’s script, offering suggestions. At the time, the screenplay was called Slide and the two men had a deal to make it at MGM with Walsh as producer and Steve McQueen in the starring role. The whole story was going to be set at Circus Circus in Las Vegas because the studio owned the casino.

A month before filming started, the studio experienced a shake-up at the executive level and with it came a new set of changes. MGM wanted the story to be a Mafia-related “sting” concept with Dean Martinas one of the two main characters. Walsh would no longer be the producer. He and Spielberg left MGM because he realized that they did not understand the point of the film: “I wanted the picture to be almost a celebration of the gambling, the joy of it, going along with it, and then, at the end, you could see where the trap comes in.” Spielberg and Walsh took the script to Universal Pictures where they had an agreement with executives Richard Zanuck and David Brown. However, Spielberg decided to work on another project called Lucky Lady (1975) leaving Walsh and his film stranded.

The writer’s agent, Guy McElwaine, contacted Altman’s agent George Lito, and the director was given the script, read it and loved it. For years, he had wanted to do a gambling film with “the ambience of gambling, and then point out it had nothing to do with money.” He was drawn to Walsh’s script because he liked to gamble himself, his father was a gambler, and the director knew a lot of gamblers. David Begelman, the new studio chief of Columbia Pictures, was a former agent who knew Altman’s agent and greenlighted the screenplay to be made into a film. Walsh was a novice and unaware of Altman’s reputation for taking liberties with the scripts of for his films. However, Walsh was very protective of his script and argued with Altman numerous times over certain details. The only serious revisions to the script that the director made before filming were to background scenes. The writer had seen other Altman films and wasn’t always satisfied with how these scenes played out. He told the director that they could be changed but that he would rewrite them. Walsh wrote a full script for the background scenes, three to four page scenes for good actors to play.

George Segal was cast early on and Altman mentioned Gould but Walsh, even though he was childhood friends with the actor, held back. Altman and Walsh saw other actors, like Peter Falk and Robert De Niro, but kept coming back to Gould. Finally, the actor called Walsh and convinced him that he was right for the role. According to Walsh, on the set, Gould was full of confidence while Segal was insecure. The writer remembers that on the first day of shooting Gould “was there as that character . . . After seven days, George Segal came to me and said, ‘This guy’s [Gould] unbelievable. He’s an octopus. He is absolutely strangling me to death. I don’t even know what to do.’” Walsh told Segal Gould had lived the life of his character and said, “don’t try to act with him, don’t try to outdeal him . . . be off-base – just what you’re feeling – and it’s all working.”

Altman employed members of Synanon, the rehab organization of former convicts and addicts, as extras. The organization received a flat sum and delivered as many as needed each day. California Splitmarked the first time Altman experimented with the use of the eight-track sound system that allowed eight separate audio channels to be recorded and helped develop Altman’s trademark of overlapping dialogue. To this end, he gave the supporting actors and extras significant emphasis on the soundtrack. On the first day of shooting, the effort to keep eight separate channels clean and distinct made everyone very anxious. Haskell Wexler had originally been approached to shoot the film but Altman opted to go with relative newcomer Paul Lohmann who would go on to shoot Nashville (1975) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).

- J.D., Radiator Heaven

Screenwriter JOSEPH WALSH discusses his original ending of the script - and how it was altered - in Stop Smiling Magazine

"I would say if you are a writer and you could produce a picture with Bob, it would be a very good [situation if] you could be right there," says Walsh, "because Altman would come in and say, 'Oh, I would like for this scene, twenty-two clowns, three hookers, nine dwarfs, and whatever.' And this [scene] is supposed to be about a lonely man and one person in the bar. So I would say, 'Well, why would you do that, Bob? Because I don't see it? Why would you come up with that? That feels like off the top of your head. Let's go into it a little more because, let me tell you, it took me about two and a half months to construct this scene, it all ties together into the thing, and...'

"I don't know, maybe it was a plainness, a bluntness of honesty of how I would ask questions, but Bob would - pout would be a good word. I guess that he would pout a little bit on me. You know he actually stormed out of the room many times on me during the picture, during these conversations, but he would always come back and listen as I got to know him more...

"Bob is really a guy who can't take restrictions. Restrictions of any kind. Just feels hemmed in by them. He's wonderful when he gets enthusiastic. So if he's enthusiastic, if you question that, right away it's a damper to him. Some part of him doesn't want to listen to questions. Eventually, if you say somethign clearly and you're not fighting him - at any level - because I really wasn't fighting him - he listens..."

"Remember, this was going to be Spielberg's picture, THE picture. This was a time when he wasn't making much in pictures. This is the one that really got to him. Steven said to me, 'It is good, but I would have made twenty-five, fifty million dollars with the picture.' Later on, after he had seen it three or four times, Steven said to me, 'The picture is much better than I thought it was. I had to see it again and again and again.'

"Steven would have built that last scene, that gambling scene, into one gigantic orgasm, climaxing the last forty pages of the script until you were on the edge of your seat. He would never have filmed it as loose [as Altman].

"He's a master at building it up, Steven is, whereas Altman comes from a whole different world. More of a European style. Steven could have manipulated that film into fifty million dollars at the box office, and that would have been exciting. But Steven knows it is a really special film. Yes, he might have made more money, but he didn't know if he could have made a better film."

- Walsh, quoted in Patrick McGilligan, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff.  Macmillan, 1989. Pages 375-376, 381.

RECENT REVIEWS

Robert Altman's masterful 1974 study of the psychology of the compulsive gambler. Elliott Gould, loose, jocular, and playful, and George Segal, neurotic, driven, and desperate, are really two halves of the same personality as they move from bet to bet, game to game, until they arrive for the big showdown in Reno. As in all Altman films, winning is losing; and the more Altman reveals, in his oblique, seemingly casual yet brilliantly controlled way, the more we realize that to love characters the way Altman loves his, you have to see them turned completely inside out.

- Don Druker, The Chicago Reader

Gould and Segal on some wild casino sprees in Los Angeles and Reno, speeding through a compulsive night world of frenzied overlapping chatter. Like Hawks, Altman feels rather than thinks his way into a subject, with a special interest in how people relate to one another in moments of crisis. In the process he shows more of what's happening in America than most newsreels, coaxes jazzy and inventive performances out of his actors (Prentiss and Welles are particular treats), and asks for a comparable amount of creative improvisation from his audience while busily hopping from one distraction to the next.

- Time Out

California Split begins with Altmanesque babble, which is always in the background. We’re used to gambling movies made in a style as feverish as their protagonists. But Altman sits back and watches the ebb and flow—the traffic of lost souls.

David EdelsteinNew York Magazine

Bob (Altman) le Flambeur. The contrast is between the "daylight gambler and the player at night" (Balzac), the numb drifting of George Segal versus the nonstop vaudevillianisms that Elliott Gould breezes through to cloud his desperation. The two meet among the rummies, bond over bar counter improv: "Twenty bucks says you can’t name the seven dwarfs." "Dumbo... Dumbo flew." In their shadow world, everything is makeshift: Shaving cream is applied to welts, cereal and beer constitute a meal in a stranger’s home. Everything is performance: Segal and Gould pretend to be cops to scare off a jumpy john in matronly drag (Bert Remsen), Gould seduces Segal back into the game with his "one-armed piccolo player" bit. And everything is a bet, from playing basketball with a bunch of teens to slapping half of a night’s winnings on the hood of a car in an attempt to get a mugger’s gun away from your face. Play or get killed, play and get killed. "Don’t think about it, take the money and go!" Nothing enhances Altman’s visual-aural density like the bustle of poker circles, race tracks, boxing rings. The hooker-roommates (Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles) consoling each other in bed, the barfly yammering about her pooch, the casino janitor surreptitiously slipping a coin into a slot machine -- every character seems to carry an entire comedy of desolation inside.

Fernando CroceCinePassion

This is a film about gambling, a metaphor-for-life which seems to have a particularly compelling pull for Altman. Altman, a self-confessed recovering gambler, returned to the theme with Quintet – a sci-fi picture which stands as one of his strangest and most gripping films – and increased the stakes: play the game or face death. Quintet was set during a future Ice Age in a world with dwindling resources; who lived and who died depended on participation in the game of the title. There's nothing so novel going on inCalifornia Split – a wholly naturalistic picture set in the 1970s – and yet its characters feel just as lonely and pathetic (and lovable) and the outcome of the games they play just as live-or-die important.

The director who pursued California Split most aggressively before Altman became attached was Steven Spielberg. While I don't want to make a snap judgment about what kind of film Spielberg would have made – indeed, his early work (eg Duel [1971], The Sugarland Express [1974]) showed just as much willingness to portray desperation and unhappiness as his most recent work does; it's only mid-period Spielberg which seems to me sappy or unambiguously sentimental – I think it's safe to say that it would have been a considerably different film from what Altman made. The very fact that an atmosphere existed in Hollywood where Altman could have access to properties being pursued by Spielberg – a player and company man even before Jaws (1975) validated him as a money-making player in the eyes of the studios – is astonishing.

But it's some measure of the greatness of this film that this fact is perhaps the least of the astonishing things going on in California Split: Altman's astonishing mise en scène – contemplative of every level of interaction within a room, a bar, a place – has rarely been put to more revelatory or personal ends. It's a masterpiece.

Peter TonguetteSenses of Cinema

IN DEPTH REVIEWS

California Split (1974) can be taken on one level as another entry into the buddy film cycle, though it manages to escape some of the more uncomfortable sexual evasions and misogynistic attitudes of these films by keeping its emotional level low, by allowing, as few American films do, emotions and emotional relationships to be chancy, fleeting, nondestructive, unscarring. Unlike other buddy films, it gives its women characters equal status and equal strength. Though the Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss characters are whores, they do not suffer and are not condescended to, nor are they any more oppressed by their situation than their male counterparts are by gambling. George Segal's Bill is sad a good deal of the time, but mostly because he does not experience eitehr the thrills or the agonies in gambling that so many other films on the subject have insisted one must feel.

In California Split, Altman substitutes melodrama a sort of emotional laissez-faire and does so mainly by organizing not only the subject but also the narrative form of the film around gambling. The film's structure is that of a game of chance, a playful, random, offhanded series of events full of accident, coincidence, and peripheral action brought to the center in a more extreme way than in the previous films. But the adjective is misleading, for the film is not "extreme" in any way. If anything, it is extremely gentle and undemanding, requiring only a pleasure in its playfulness and its improvisational effect. The film is carefully crafted to be open not to various interpretations but to various reactions to its juxtapositions and anomalies; it is made to be analogous to the wheel of fortune that closes the film, spinning and stopping where it will.

This is, of course, not improvisation in the usual sense. Though much of the dialogue may have been made up in rehearsal and in preparation for shooting, the structure of chance and coincidence, the joking interplay of events in the film and the expectations of the viewer would have to have been carefully planned. California Split holds an important place in Altman's work: experiement, joke, a game about gaming, it also moves him a bit beyond the generic revisionism of McCabe and The Long Goodbye into a greater revision of narrative structure in general, of the ways movies tell their stories and can be made to tell them differently.

- Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. Oxford University Press US, 2000. Pages 384-385.

In California Split... the supplementary sound material has an inventive, dynamic function in relation to the action, serving more as a lively contrapuntal counterline than as a static one-to-one gloss. In the second scene at the local poker parlor, one of Shotlwell's songs begins loudly over a long shot of the card players, becomes faint and is overtaken by these players' dialogue in medium shot, and then resumes loudness over a close-up of Bill - delineating a dodgy kind of fan-dance in relation to a spectator's diverse routes into the scene. And when Charlie and Bill arrive in Reno, Shotwell's jazzy recitative-with-piano and Charlie's independent free-form rap suddenly (and gratuitously) converge on the phrase "nobody there" - a striking demonstration of the blind vicissitudes of chance (such as the curious proliferation of elephants and Barbaras), which operate throughout the film on multiple levels.

In all Altman's best films, the emotional center gravitates around a pronounced feeling of absence - a sense of opportunities lost, connections missed, kindred spirits divided and scattered - and in many respects the independent sound material serves to embody some form of this failed utopia: a "commentary" of lyrical idealism abstractly bridging discontinuous characters.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema. JHU Press, 2004. Page 84-85

What’s an 8-track mixer? According to the maestro of overlapping dialogue himself, speaking in David Thompson’s Altman on Altman (Faber and Faber, 2006), this is a system developed by Jim Webb known as Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks, and it grew directly out of Altman’s ongoing efforts to make on-screen dialogue sound more real. Sound mixers would frequently complain that some actors wouldn’t speak loudly enough and Altman would counter that this was a recording problem, not a performance problem involving the actors’ deliveries. Plant enough microphones around the set or on the location — in this case, eight — and one could always adjust the volume later, when the separate channels were being mixed together and one could decide which channels should predominate, and in which proportion. In other words, assuming that you had a certain amount of scripted dialogue and a certain amount of “background” improvs being delivered at the same time — the modus operandi of many Altman movies, especially this one — trusting to luck was a matter of recording all this dialogue on eight separate tracks. And listening to voices was what you did afterward — shoot first and ask questions later, working out a hierarchy of what should have the most clarity after the fact. If an improv was funnier or more relevant than a scripted line delivered at the same moment, allow the former to overtake the latter.

Even before the title sequence starts, over the familiar Columbia Pictures logo, California Split has already started to chatter. A steady rush of talk — telegraphed, overheard, sometimes barely audible — spills into the opening scenes like a scatter of loose change from a slot machine, meeting or eluding our grasp in imitation of a strictly chance operation. Admittedly, the overall odds of the game are somewhat fixed because the movie has a script (by Joseph Walsh, a gambler himself), two box-office favorites and hard Hollywood money behind it. But the improvisatory spirit is unmistakable, if only because an alert audience is obliged to ad-lib in order to keep up, compelled to shift its attention as often as the characters.

So using Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks was putting into practice a certain dialectic of chance and control, one of the cornerstones of Altman’s filmmaking style. And this would become even more systematic in the movie Altman made next, Nashville, where instead of having just two main characters, Altman opted, at least in theory, to feature two dozen. (Some of them proved to be much more prominent than others.) And when he made A Wedding in 1978, he arbitrarily decided to double that number to 48.

A compulsive casino gambler, Altman once boasted, “At one time I could stand at a craps table for two days.” And he inherited “by chance” a film project scripted by another compulsive gambler, Joseph Walsh, who had been developing his script with Steven Spielberg, of all people, during his pre-Jawsphase. (Walsh was a child actor in the Fifties and Sixties, prominently featured as Joey Walsh in such films as Hans Christian Andersen and The Juggler and countless TV shows; in California Split he plays Sparkie, a bookie owed a fortune by Bill.)

Of course Walsh was taking a gamble himself by trusting his script to a master doodler like Altman who favored improvs. Nevertheless, figuring out what’s prearranged or not in this movie isn’t always a simple matter, and it’s often the spirit and climate of improvisation that counts more here than anything else. The opening sequence, where Charlie and Bill first encounter one another at a poker table in a gambling hall, certainly looks and sounds authentic, but it was shot on a set designed by Altman regular Leon Ericksen, who redressed a dance hall. Most of the extras were hired from the drug rehabilitation center Synanon, although a few real gamblers were included as well, and some of the background dialogue was loosely plotted if not precisely scripted by Walsh (whose own brother Edward plays a pivotal role as another poker player — a sore loser who accuses Charlie of cheating, and later beats him up). So the mix between real and semi-real, simulated and actual, is pretty intricate, and it’s only because of the DVD commentary by Altman, Walsh, Gould and Segal that we know that Charlie and Bill’s drunken efforts to reel off the names of all the seven dwarfs were invented by the two actors.

Jonathan RosenbaumStop Smiling

Robert Altman's disgruntled comedy California Split, aside from its typically busy soundtrack (it was the first movie Altman used eight-channel audio to capture all the dialogue), seems a relatively straightforward buddy film... But it's also an anti-buddy parable in which George Segal and Elliott Gould's homosocial behavior is equated unflatteringly against their obsessive gambling addictions... Adding emphasis on the homo-ness of their lucrative bond are the repeated instances where the interference of women breaks both their concentration and their hot streaks. (At the climax of the film, a naïve PYT cuts $82,000 worth of momentum by placing a single chip on a game of craps, giggling, "It's my birthday.") At the film's open, Segal's character is separated from his wife and, thus, finds himself wandering amid the dozens of unattractive, pasty women who populate the low-stakes, rec center poker tables. It's almost as though he's predetermined to make another go at his marriage by surrounding himself by two types he's not attracted to: on one hand, chain-smoking, fat-jiggling, muumuu-wearing, cranky old housewives, and on the other, men. But Gould's rapacious mockery of the first category seems, at times, to give Segal pause over testing the viability of the second. Not necessarily because Gould rubs shaving cream into the bar-fight wounds all over their torsos, or because he's at least a more reasonable fuck buddy than Bert Remsen in drag. There's something in Gould, among the few scattered catcalls of "fag" from various bottomless dancers in various seedy floating casinos, that Segal gets. What exactly it is he gets is as mysterious to me as many of the half-caught conversations in Altman's films, but, then again, I am an actual fag with a predictable lack of interest in that definingly macho sport of throwing away my earnings on rounds of wallet-wrestling. People like me, I guess, are too busy spending their copious disposable income on end tables and as many subscriptions to GenreVice, and maybe Adbusters as it takes to cover them. Oh, and reading gay subtext into movies likeCalifornia Split.

- Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine

From Rhett Miller

dvd_video-6

Altman excels at the sound design of his films. It is commonplace to rely on sound to amp up action and horror films, but as far as drama and comedy go, there are few soundtracks as layered and complex as those found in Altman films. Splitis one of his finest examples of sound gradation, as each location surrounds itself from sounds from all directions. In the masterful opening poker sequence, you get the clanging of poker chips, conversation by the leads, the flutter of cards, people in the background talking about how much they are going to bet, and then finally narration from a television explaining the intricacies of the game. In one sequence Altman is able to convey so much audible information, and he does it with such a complexity that would make multiple viewings even richer, allowing you to focus your ears on different planes of conversation. Altman’s tracks mimic life, in that he gives you the ability to choose a conversation like you would at a party, but those lines of dialogue are there if ever you choose to go back and listen in. Like cinema verité aimed to capture visuals with an unbroken wholeness, Altman’s audio tracks capture locations above your standard boom mic. Sounds come from all depths and amplitudes, and don’t seem confined by the motivations of a script or story. Everything rings with messy authenticity, of an ambience taken right out of the streets and not the back lots of Hollywood. The sound design is paramount in establishing that Altman’s real characters inhabit a real world. Imagining an Altman film without sound would be like imagining a Lucas film without CGI, it couldn’t be.

From Shawn McLoughlin:

dvd_video-9These two prostitutes that play the “heroes” lovers are an absolute joy if only because they also seem real. They aren’t typical downtrodden and drugged up whores. Nor are they of the highest-class call girl stock. But they relate well to each other, and throughout their scenes we get a sense of who they are and what they could be, even though it is never really mentioned. The last time we see them one is holding the other in bed, consoling her after the gambler she had a crush on leaves her. For a good minute this consolation goes on, and there is an importance to the consoler discussing the future even though the characters do not return. It further defines them as people and by this point in the movie it is easy to admire them as such. Without this scene, the film would be at a loss, because the audience would be without knowing their story. They parallel the gamblers and are just as important. It is almost too perfect a match play.

dvd_video-5From Adam Lippe:

Luckily, California Split was made before Altman developed this hatred for his casts, when his focus was more on developing his style. Here his methods are the long, slow zoom-ins, his cross cutting of sound – forcing the viewer to pay close attention if they’d want to catch everything (packing in as much information audibly as De Palma does visually, check out the side conversation in an early scene at a bar, where a mother begs her half-naked stripper daughter to spot her $30 so she can gamble) – and an ear for casual dialogue, which appears rambling at first, but is clearly carefully chosen. It falls in line with the way that he seems to be learning about his settings and locations as we do. Like Gould’s house in The Long Goodbye and the whorehouses in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he hasn’t made up his mind about how he feels in advance. Altman’s lighter touch, allowing the movie to build around the actors, means that Elliot Gould and George Segal have no fear about making fools of themselves, yammering nonsense and even singing and dancing – badly – to old minstrel songs. Just one year later, Altman would use poor singing against his characters, in Nashville, by having a female disrobe and embarrass herself on stage, (probably the first instance in which his cruelty was so exposed.) This style of mocking is never evident in California Split. Altman easily could have made the part time hookers the butt of the joke and the cross dresser would have been just as easy bait, but he avoids the nastiness to his own credit.

- Adam Lippe, Shawn McLoughlin and Rhett Miller, posted on A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity

ADDITIONAL REVIEWS

Film Misery ranks California Split as the 10th best Altman movie of all time.

As one of the most deliriously entertaining movies ever made about the sport of gambling (and it is a sport, given the mental and physical punishment these men endure), California Split is Robert Altman at his best, complete with all of the standard features — overlapping dialogue, casual asides, random noises, and effortless, seemingly unscripted banter. Elliott Gould and George Segal star as, yes, “loveable losers,” but they never resort to manipulation in order to secure our empathy. If truth is to be told, they couldn’t care less what we or anyone else might think, as they’re fevered engines of compulsion — always pushing forward in search of that next fix. From poker parlors to the gaming tables of Reno, these two men always seem to be chasing the big score, yet even when they realize their dream, it never seems to be enough. After Segal’s big poker win against the likes of Amarillo Slim (who makes a brief appearance), Gould says, “It doesn’t mean a fucking thing, does it?” Of course it doesn’t. And why would it? Gambling, at least in terms of an obsession, has little to do with money and everything to do with feeling alive for yet another day. Why else engage in deliberate recklessness?

The wide-screen compositions are typically lush and buzzing with activity, and despite the lack of plot, we accept Altman’s vision because we’re having too much fun to care. And let it be said: Elliott Gould, now an all-but-forgotten entity, was, for a brief time, a genuine screen presence. In back-to-back Altman features (this film and 1973’s The Long Goodbye), Gould was so engaging as to be the perfect representation of the Everyman, although an Everyman who was smarter, sharper, and more appealing than anyone else. He could size up the competition (in a great sequence at the backroom poker game), beg for credit from the cashier, attempt to use a Milky Way as an ante, and play nickel slots with all the gusto and seriousness of a master gambler, all without seeming forced or obvious. Segal is more desperate, while Gould is the sort of man who would (and does) laugh in the face of an ass-kicking, and argues — persuasively, I might add — with a gunman in a casino parking lot. Now this is a man I’d like to have at my craps table.

- Matt Cale, Ruthless Reviews

Bill and Charlie are the heroes of California Split, if such a term can be applied. The performances by Elliot Gould and George Segal are perfect; there is a naturalism here that makes the whole thing feel so off the cuff, improvised. The interplay between the two of them is endlessly fun to watch. Both actors are very engaging, and they do well with the hilarious script by Joseph Walsh. This film came on the heels of MASHMcCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and was made a year before Nashville, but California Split seems not to be mentioned as often. The film could most closely be compared to MASH, as both films are funny, cynical, gritty, and feature two frazzled main characters. Despite the similarities, California Split is the better film. Altman was obviously trying the same thing, but here he nails it, perfects every theme he hits on.

The acting in the film is terrific, but the direction is masterful. There are more audio and visual layers in this film than there are in any ten films. The way Altman weaves in and out of comedy and tragedy is assured, and we follow along willingly. We do not have to know anything about gambling to enjoy this film, and in the end we know something that we did not know before.

California Split has an almost documentary feel to it, both in the improvisational way the actors perform, and in the style in which the film is shot. We are there with Bill and Charlie, from top to bottom, in every bar and track, at every mugging. We feel for these guys, and Altman creates a palpable world for them to exist within. The script is solid, and the supporting roles are fully realized.

- Dylan Grant, Movie Freak.com

As always in Altman’s films, the roster of supporting performances add indelibly to the movie’s richness and charm. In this case, Ann Prentiss (Paula Prentiss’s sister — their resemblance is uncanny) and Gwen Welles shine as a pair of “happy hookers” who take on decidedly unusual jobs — including, in one of the film’s funniest sequences, spending “quality time” with an “elegant” transvestite (Bert Remsen). Welles’ romantic interest in Segal — and the ultimate outcome of their potential tryst — is handled especially well. Equally impressive is Altman’s ability to evoke the various milieus of the gambling world — poker halls, race tracks, boxing rings, casinos — with characteristic attention to detail; throughout the film, we genuinely believe we’re “there”, wherever we are.

Towards the end, California Split becomes somewhat challenging to sit through, simply because we feel such anxiety about Segal’s situation (he owes a loan shark, played by screenwriter Walsh, $2200 — but instead of paying him off once he secures the funds by selling his car, he goes to Reno to gamble instead). Ultimately, however, this simply demonstrates how well Altman has done his job: we really get itthat gambling is an addiction like any other, one that has the potential to ruin lives within just a few short hours. It’s a good thing Altman made this one a comedy rather than a tragedy, or we’d really be clenching our teeth.

- Film Fanatic.org

There are a few things in the film that stand out for me as being especially well done. At the beginning, we see Gould watching an instructional film in the casino and a voiceover explains not only the rules of poker, but also much of what the audience is seeing on the screen. This brilliant stroke is reminiscent of the final intercom narration at the end of Altman’s M*A*S*H. The two men’s continued insistence on turning everything into a wager is also a nice touch, most notably when Bill bets Charlie he cannot come up with the names of the Seven Dwarfs. The humor in Charlie’s struggle to name them is matched by the seriousness in which he approaches the task.

- Clydefro Jones

The film does have a truly terrible strained scene, that seems dropped into the film from some other universe. It involves the sudden introduction of a pair of transvestite `dates' of the girls Charlie lives with(for one 5 minute too long scene). Actor Bert Remsen humiliates himself with full commitment playing an old nervous transvestite (he does a great job). It's a mis-fired comedic bit that calls too much attention to itself. It feels completely artificial in a movie that had seemed utterly real previously. Thankfully the scene is not very long and the movie goes right back to being as honest and authentic as it had been before.

Interesting Trivia

It turns out this is one of Altman's most personal films.  He had a gambling addiction, he identified completely with these characters which is why he wrestled the project away from up and coming Steven Speilberg (who had t.v.'s Duel and the feature Sugarland Express under his belt at this point). That left Speilberg free to do JAWS!!!

- Chris Jarmick, Viewpoints.com

The screenplay's masterstroke—seemingly improvised through Gould and Segal's rapid and relaxed deliveries and Altman's trademark overlapping style, but which is credited to Joseph Walsh (his only writing credit)—is that it never places judgments on its characters or subject matter. This is not a film designed to condemn gambling or gamblers. It's like a film about alcoholism that admits that sometimes, drinking can be fun—when you're gambling, it's possible to win as much as lose. That this idea comes across more here than in other films about gambling addiction (James Toback's The GamblerOwning Mahowny) may be because it often has the look and feel of a comedy, albeit a hard and cynical one. The film manages to find humor in its own desperation, with scenes that are often as funny as they are sad—both the sequence in which Charlie and Bill bet on who can name all Seven Dwarfs, and the one in which Charlie risks his life at gunpoint to talk down a mugger's asking price, come to mind.

- Patrick Bromley, DVD Verdict

“California Split” is an unbelievably entertaining movie. Altman’s choices are so surehanded. I was stunned anew at his unself-conscious genius when I saw the tracking shots that follow Bill and Charlie through the streets of Reno, on the way to the casino: Bill walks as fast as he can, and Charlie buzzes along by his side, making small talk and idle suggestions. I get the feeling little of this was scripted, that Altman just told Segal to walk with singleminded determination and advised Gould to riff on that. In these few breezy shots, which cover less than a minute, Altman establishes the physical and emotional milieu for the thrilling climax. Moviemaking — the alchemy between actors and director, between form and content — doesn’t get any better.

- Ben, Ill-Informed Gadfly

It's a film wherein Altman is in his most excessive. The overlapping dialogues make an entry right from the start with an introductory lesson on poker-playing overlapping with Charlie's monologues turning into a very heightened and exciting game of poker (which Altman denies us from actually taking part in). We only see what Altman wants us to see. He envelopes us immediately with an atmosphere of constant chaos; the same chaos that addicted gamblers breath and take in as fuel for their supposed streaks of good fortune. It takes time for the audience to get used to Altman's unsparing techniques, yet its quite rewarding. There's so much to observe from Altman's filmed surroundings (the other gamblers' quirks and characteristics, the whore in the casino-bound bar and her gambling mother, the like-minded excitedness of those betting on their favorite horses or boxers). California Split is much a film that delights in the gambling subculture as it is a film about the two buddies' road to huge dollar wins.

- Oggz Cruise, Ogg's Movie Thoughts

That there's no palpable despair or discernable anger in Altman's realization of this is why California Split remains one of the filmmaker's finest accomplishments. As rambling and anarchic a comedy as M*A*S*H, but devoid of that film's gag-writer broadness, this sober but kind-hearted paean to the dignity of losing winds up feeling awfully precise in its seeming looseness.

Clarence Beaks, DVD Journal

Working from a script by Joseph Walsh but appearing to be almost totally improvised, this was director Robert Altman's tribute to gamblers and gambling, turning out what was really a film for insiders rather than casually interested parties who had never so much as dabbled in the pasttime. The whole film has the ring of authenticity when it comes down to the performances and Segal and Gould were rarely better as the shady friends whose easygoing nature - Gould in particular - masks a desperation to win, a need to succeed as far as the next race or poker game.

- Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

ABOUT THE COLUMBIA TRI-STAR DVD

NOTE: Gregory tells us (August 2009): I just been informed re: my California Split review that currently streaming version of this film on Netflix is in complete form without music edits that are on DVD. The DVD rented from them most likely will have the same edited version currently available, so it's strictly on-line version. ***

NOTE (as sent to us in email): Unfortunately, music rights problems have obliged Columbia to remove almost three minutes of footage and make several soundtrack alterations. Their end product is perhaps the most extreme home viewing travesty since those notorious early video transfers of The President's Analyst. The cut/rescored scenes are as follows:

1- 11m 42s. A 32-second shot has been cut during Bill and Charlie's initial conversation. This showed Bill scat singing while Charlie informed him that "I love to play poker with those redneck fish. Y'now, who think they're Nick the Greek. Love to get 'em steamed. Easy to beat. Suckers".

2- 31m 50s. A scene showing Bill and Charlie at the racetrack ends as Charlie says "Let's go see a man about a horse". This scene originally continued for an additional 8 seconds as the men walked off singing together.

3- 35m 30s. After Barbara (Ann Prentis) opens the door of her house, Bill and Charlie enter. Charlie then turns to a man standing in the doorway, gives him a coin, and says "Here you are, Mr Tenor". This will make no sense to anyone who has not seen the original version, which contained an additional 24 seconds of footage showing Barbara opening the door and finding 'Mr Tenor' singing 'Happy Birthday To You'. Bill and Charlie then appeared and joined him in the song (while Barbara insisted "It's not my birthday").

4- 52m 32s. As Bill enters the strip club where a poker game is taking place, we see a basketball-themed cartoon playing on a television. In the original version, we also heard the song ('Basketball Joe') that accompanied this cartoon. (Incidentally, this animated clip can also be seen - and heard - in Hal Ashby's Being There.)

5- 77m 20s to 79m 16s. The two Phyllis Shotwell songs - 'Goin' to Kansas City' and 'Me and My Shadow' - heard during Bill and Charlie's journey to Reno have been replaced with an instrumental piece. 'Me and My Shadow' provided one of the film's most striking moments. As Shotwell arrived at the line "We never knock, 'cause there's nobody there", Charlie gestured at a passing car and shouted "there ain't nobody there". Although this scene is visually unchanged on the DVD, Charlie's line has been removed from the soundtrack (at 79m 2s). Incredibly, Joseph Walsh can be heard describing this moment (which he refers to as "a miracle") on the commentary track!

6- 86m 46s to 88m 4s. As Charlie walks away from the poker table, the sound of Phyllis Shotwell singing 'You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You' has been replaced with Shotwell's rendition of 'The Lonesome Road' - a reprise of the song we'd already heard her singing a mere 85 seconds ago!

7- 90m 12s to 90m 53s. A shot of Bill playing poker no longer includes that Shotwell song heard dimly in the original.

8- 92m 9s. After Charlie leaves Bill at the blackjack table, a 1m 40s scene has been cut. This showed Phyllis Shotwell behind a piano singing 'Georgia On My Mind'. While Charlie struck up a conversation with a fellow gambler sitting near Shotwell's piano, Bill continued playing blackjack, and we saw that the woman dealing him cards was wearing a badge revealing her name to be Barbara (making her the last of this film's many Barbaras). Columbia's editing has Charlie return to the blackjack table only a few seconds after he left. **** Here's what Altman said about the cuts (from an interview in StopSmiling magazine):

"And a lot of them weren't [released] because of music clearances, or certain copyright problems. We had to make adjustments. The cost of the music track on California Split was so high that Columbia just couldn't put it into video or DVD. That kept it out of circulation for years. Finally, Elliot Gould went in to find out why they weren't releasing it. When they told him it was because of music, he said "Isn't there something we can do about that?" So I made some cuts and took a couple of songs out. We got it into what they considered a reasonable budget. The picture wasn't hurt by it. And that's out now. It doesn't make any difference, the quality of these things. It's as good as anyone sees them..."

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

In the commentary, Altman says that California Split is his least plot-driven film, and while that may be debatable, this is a great example of how concentration on two protagonists can result in a fascinating character study. Screenwriter Joseph Walsh is responsible for many of the highlights of the film, including a scene where Charlie refuses to give a robber all of his winnings and offers him half instead, but filming in sequence allowed Altman to take advantage of the many improvisational scenes, and it's through these scenes that we gain most of our insights into the personality of both of the leads. Segal and Gould's quick wit are responsible for the amusing conversation where they both try to remember the names of the Seven Dwarves (surely an influence on Quentin Tarantino's extensive pop-culture name-dropping in Pulp Fiction and beyond), but it's the continuity filming that allowed Altman to take advantage of this spontaneous creativity.

Image Transfer

The slightly inaccurate colors are typical of films of the '70s, but skin tones are good. There's a fair bit of grain, but black levels are good, and there are no distracting compression artifacts.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

Altman's multi-tracked audio comes through clearly despite the limited fidelity. There are a few scenes where it's difficult to make out the dialogue, but this is clearly intentional and not a limitation of the transfer.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

Disc Extras

Altman is joined by scriptwriter Joseph "Joey" Walsh and stars Elliott Gould and George Segal for a commentary track that is continuous, except for brief interludes where they pause to appreciate a few select scenes. From their occasional attempts to recall details, it's obvious that they haven't seen the film for a while, but this is a relaxed and amiable chat. Altman gives us details of location shooting versus constructed sets, and claims that this is his first film to use the Lions Gate 8-Track Sound System (which seems at odds with the multi-tracked soundtrack from M*A*S*H). Walsh explains how many of the scenes in the film were based on his own experiences, as well as those of his relatives, and explains some of the character motivation. There are some amusing anecdotes, such as how they forced newbie George Segal to spend a night gambling his own money, which to their dismay unravelled when he won. While not the most enlightening of commentaries, it's enjoyable and reasonably informative.

Trailers for Easy Rider and Big Night are presented full frame, and Altman's latest movie, The Company, is shown in an anamorphic 2.35 transfer.

Extras Grade: C

- Robert Edwards, Digitally Obsessed

ABOUT ELLIOTT GOULD

IMDb Wiki

The Elliott Gould Zone - with bio, filmography, articles, interviews, trivia, etc.

Elvis Presley never made it. Bob Dylan did but he was more than three decades into his career at the time and the Al Hirschfeld illustration pictured him serenading Lucille Ball. Clint Eastwood, perhaps the most durable film star of the past 30 years, made it but had to share the honor with fellow superstar Burt Reynolds.

The "it" to which I refer is the cover of Time magazine, once considered the ultimate sign that one had arrived at the pinnacle of fame and cultural significance. After all, Time is not Photoplay or People but a newsmagazine whose pages chronicle world leaders and world events that impact the lives of people around the globe. It’s one thing for FDR or Adolf Hitler to be designated the week’s top story, but for a performer it is heady stuff indeed.

Presley, perhaps the most popular entertainer of the 20th century, and certainly one of the most influential, was never favored by this prestigious publication, the editors having found his swiveling hips distasteful and his singing "awful" (their description of his performance on a 1960 Frank Sinatra TV special). Dylan was condescending to the media, aggressively challenging a Time reporter’s values in a memorable scene in Don’t Look Back. Before his double Oscar victory for Unforgiven, Eastwood made genre movies mercifully free of pretention and, therefore, he made the grade only in tandem with the even less pretentious good ole boy Reynolds.

Ah, but Elliott Gould, with only six movies in release, made the cut, hogging one of Time’s 52 covers for the year 1970. "He embodies an inner need to be hip at the risk of seeming silly, the struggle not to give in to the indignity and/or insanity of contemporary life," Time wrote, calling the shaggy haired actor a "star for an uptight age."

- Brian Fairbanks

To grow up Jewish in the 1970s was to be in the thrall of Elliott Gould.

Sure, the suburban teenage Semite had his Woody Allen for comic relief and his Paul Newman for confirmation that he was, indeed, a member of a Chosen People, but the sight of the mangy, Jew-fro-covered head of Gould on the big screen during that long-forgotten decade got more than a few movie geeks through adolescence.

“I was such a scared kid,” he said.

So, naturally, Gould went into acting.

“No, I went into song and dance, because I was shy, repressed, inhibited — but I found that if I learned routines and memorized them, I could communicate.”

The result, of course, was an actor who did more than communicate. He created an entirely new Jewish cinematic archetype.

“He was a superstar,” said Jake Perlin, programming associate for BAMcinematek.

Perlin said that most filmgoers would focus on the three Robert Altman films in the series — “M*A*S*H,” “The Long Goodbye” and “California Split” — but the real gems are Peter Hyams’s “Busting” and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Touch.”

“In both movies, he’s incredibly brave,” Perlin said. “He puts it all on the line. Actors today are so unwilling to play a conflicted or negative character. And when they do, it’s still so neutered. Elliott Gould in ‘The Touch’ is anything but neutered.”

Gould offered his take on working with Bergman, plus his thoughts about the other films in the fortnight-and-a-half of fun:

M*A*S*H

“It was so fabulous for me to be so free [in creating the role of Trapper John]. That performance was more spontaneous and freer than anything I could do in real life. Altman originally offered me Tom Skerritt’s role. I never question an auteur, but I told him I’d drive myself crazy playing a southerner, so he gave me Trapper John. Good thing, too, because Trapper John gave me the juice and the spirit.”

The Long Goodbye

“That movie was my favorite, because it came out when I could not get myself arrested. I was out of work for a year and a half. I thought the script was a little old-fashioned, but I was looking for a job. Peter Bogdanovich [the original director] didn’t want to use me, because he thought I was too young. But then Altman directed, and he called me.”

California Split

“That was semi-autobiographical — though I am the character that George Segal played. I only got the role because Steve McQueen dropped out. On this film, I finally learned how to work with Altman. On ‘M*A*S*H,’ he thought I was my enemy. I said, ‘Don’t look at me — I’m always in character.’ But on this movie, he finally got me.”

The Touch

“Working with Bergman, I learned that I couldn’t fully accept all the privileges I was given, because I was given them too soon. Bergman said to me, ‘You’ve gone beyond your limits, and you’ll have to live more to understand what you’ve done.’ The great privilege is to be conceived, born and know yourself and everything else follows.”

- Gersh Kuntzman, The Brooklyn Rail, July 24 2008

984 (116). Bienvenido, Mister Marshall / Welcome, Mister Marshall (1953, Luis Garcia Berlanga)

Screened November 11, 2009 on Tribanda DVD in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #  IMDb Wiki

What is it about Spanish cinema that just nails how people are possessed by dreams and stories? Of course I'm making an overgeneralization, and yet the three Spanish filmmakers that I know best, Bunuel, Almodovar and (sheepishly, based on watching two films) Berlanga, all share an uncommon fascination with the rapture of storytelling. Whether through a voiceover narration or one person telling a tale to another, these films traffic in the private fantasies and urges of characters and audience alike. It's true in Bunuel's earliest sound film L'Age D'Or, with its narrative framework disintegrating into a lucid stream of on-screen impulsive acts, or as recently as Almodovar's Broken Embraces, where much of the film's pleasure is in just watching characters being transfixed by each other's stories.

Within this hypothetical national subgenre, Bienvenido, Mister Marshall stands tall. A sleepy Castillan village tries to transform itself into an Andalusian postcard paradise upon hearing that American postwar funders may pass through. The voiceover sets it up like a fable ("There once was an old spanish Town"); the film is not only an allegory for a nation's collective submission to the utopian facades of Franco's Fascist Spain, but to the countermyth of America, which pervades the characters' dreams as well as fears. Two sequences bear this out vividly. In the first, villagers are ordered to line up and tell the administrators, Santa Claus-style, one thing they would like in return for contributing to the fake village effort. Some of the impoverished villagers can't even mentally process this offer, having never been in a position to dream big, much less ask for things beyond food, clothing and shelter. The other is a brilliant sequence that relays from one character's nocturnal fantasies to another, each one informed in their own way by the movies: a priest's nightmare shot with Expressionist angles of Puritanical oppression; the mayor's fantasy of gunslinging Western heroism; a farmer's dream that brilliantly mixes social realist propaganda and Hollywood fantasy, with a plane flown by Santa Claus parachuting tractors to the peasantry.

With its withering observations on human fallacy and self-delusion on both an individual and collective level, Bienvenido, Mister Marshall would be one of the most merciless social satires ever made, if its condescending omniscience towards its subjects didn't somehow implicate itself. There's a priceless moment where the voiceover chastises a schoolmistress in bed possibly doing indecent things to herself; in doing so the narrator outs himself as being as much of a control freak as Franco. As such, the film amounts to its own fantasy construct of Spain as an eternally tragic, but laughably charming dystopia. It does as masterful a job of selling its vision as the fascist and capitalist ideologues it eviscerates.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

This is a comic Trojan horse and perhaps the first great Spanish film. When a commission for a folkloric musical to make Lolita Sevilla a star fell to the secretly pro-communist UNINCI production company, Bardem and Berlanga used the cash to show how all the Francoist world was a stage in a tall tale of a drab Castilian village that does itself up in Andalusian glad rags in order to attract dollars from the Marshall Plan. An amazing satire of what Spain and Spanishness was reduced to during the dictatorship, cooked up with equal parts anarchy and compassion and flavoured like an Ealing comedy.

- Time Out

Welcome, Mr. Marshall! was one of the rare Spanish films to treat political events of the day—foremost the exclusion of the country, as a pariah nation, from Marshall Plan funds. The movie concerns the frenzied attempts of a small Castilian town to seduce American money by organizing a ridiculous fiesta; the place becomes a kind of false-front movie set masking the dire conditions in which the inhabitants really live. This sharp, good-humored spoof of Spanishness—or the Hollywood image of Spanishness—bears a resemblance to the best Ealing comedies.

- Elliot Stein, The Village Voice

¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall! (Welcome Mister Marshall!, 1952) the first full-length film Berlanga directed alone, marks a watershed in Spanish cinema history. Although it is probably his most celebrated film, it is by no means his best. Originally conceived of as a musical vehicle to launch the career of the teenage flamenco singer Lolita Sevilla, Berlanga created both a devastating parody of Francoist mythmaking (particularly of the regime's promotion of Spain to the outside world as a picturesque paradise of bullfighting and flamenco), and a searing commentary on the Economic Recovery Program (better known as The Marshall Plan), of which Spain was never a beneficiary. Made the year before the United States established military bases on Spanish territory, ¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall!manages to lampoon Hollywood, McCarthyism, the Catholic Church and Francoism all at the same time. Remarkably, the Spanish authorities saw little to object in it and the film escaped major censorship. However, the film missed out on a prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year due to the veto of jury member Edward G. Robinson who complained of its anti-Americanism.

- Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema

The wonderful way in which it blends humour with an appreciation of humanity. It’s hilarious, true; but it also reflects a warm understanding of human nature, of the universal habit of assigning stereotypes to everybody and everything, of the ability to dream and build castles in the air; and of the resilience of those dreams. Beinvenido Mister Marshall! actually reminded me a lot of Giovanni Guareschi’s superb novels of the Italian priest, Don Camillo, and his little village in the Po Valley. If you look closely, there’s more than just humour here: there’s also a sensitivity that’s touching and sweet. And so very global: Villar del Río could have been any quiet village in any corner of the world, suddenly faced with the chance of becoming rich…

- Dusted Off

¡Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall! has long been noted as a landmark film in Spanish cinema, "el clásico más irónico del cine español" that "cracked open new possibilities for engagement with significant socio-political commentary within conventional comedic modes" (Moyano; Rolph 8). The Berlanga film can be listed as part of a series of cultural, political, and economic events that make the early 1950s a key moment in the evolution of the Franco regime and Spain in general. As such a classic film arriving at such a key moment, Berlanga´s film has been studied from a variety of viewpoints, but typically either viewed as a film of social critique or aesthetic exploration. Ramón Gubern, for example, describes its ideological project in terms of post-1898 "Regeneracionismo" while Kathleen Vernon reads the film as a critique of the seepage of Hollywood into everyday life (Gubern, in Gómez Rufo 250-51; Vernon 321). In the following pages I argue that the two readings, while not discounting the other, have not been sufficiently linked. By linking the two, I find in Berlanga´s film a social critique that extends beyond the immediate historical limits of 1953 Spain defined by a flagging regionarationist spirit, its present cultural subservience to Hollywood, or its forthcoming encounter with U.S. foreign policy. As aesthetic exploration and social critique are read together, ¡Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall! may be viewed as a film more about processes than products. It is a film that invites its spectators along on an exploration of the processes by which their nation has been imagined, is currently imagined, and especially how it may be imagined in the future. In so doing, the film hints at new social, political, and spatial orders to come in the next half-century that begin with but extend far beyond the simple remaking of a nation (Spain), of its internal components (Castilla/Andalucía), or of its basic international relations (Spain/U.S.). It may be a stretch to argue that Berlanga´s film is a story about globalization. Still, I argue that by drawing social and aesthetically-focused readings together, a view of the film surfaces that reveals the film´s registration of emergent processes through which spectators as citizens (or citizens as spectators, as I will show) would participate to thoroughly rethink and reshape their world in the coming decades...

The critical if comedic exploration surrounding the remaking of Villar is quite apparent to even the casual viewer. More critical to our reading is the way that Berlanga positions his spectator to draw connections between the imagination of Villar del Río, the Spanish nation, and the international order, and, by way of meta-cinematic devices, between the on-screen re-imagining and that which is taking place in the dark of the movie theater. This more far-reaching exploration of the re-imagining of nation begins with the opening shot of the film. A still focus on a dirt road vanishing into the rural meseta situates the on-screen story in the heart of Franco´s officially celebrated Castilian countryside. As the opening credits end, an automobile approaches along the road. As it passes, the camera pans 180 degrees to the left to reveal the village of Villar del Río in the distance as a flock of sheep graze in the foreground. While classic Hollywood film-the kind parodied by Bienvenido, but most familiar to its audiences-would dictate a reverse shot at this point to follow the opening shot and thereby suture a would-be spectator into an initial identification, here Berlanga´s editing leaves the spectator in limbo. Explicitly, the camera would seem to be a local villager on the outskirts of the town. Implicitly, by breaking the magical invisibility of classic cinema, the would-be spectator is not invited to identify with this look but left rather in the uncomfortable position of an anticipating film viewer still awaiting the moment of suture. In light of this separation, it is significant that the spectator stands just beyond the town sign, explicitly a member of the community of Villar del Río, but implicitly empowered with an outsider´s awareness of that community as yet an object of the cinematic gaze. Hence, before the spectator meets Villar´s people and places-its signified--, she sees (literally) Villar´s sign post-or signifier-and thereby recognizes Villar as such...

Berlanga´s film, then, is not simply about a disappointing non-encounter, nor a film about changing concepts of respective nations, but ultimately, a film about the changing concept of the nation itself. The nation could not continue as before because the technologies through which it had once been imagined had changed. Berlanga´s film does not suggest that Spain would disappear, nor that it would become one homogenous Andalucía, nor another US colony. Change would appear more subtly but its effects would finally be more profound. After all, at the conclusion of the film Villar del Río returns to its farming roots, just as citizens of the global era so often flock to ethnic roots for security from "Marshall-izing" motorcades.(20) Nevertheless, tapping back into those roots now costs the villagers, just as sustaining "authentic" identities against encroaching global cultural forces requires economic capital. And while, as the film´s fairytale conclusion, "colorín colorado este cuento se ha acabado," affirms the right of all to keep dreaming, the fact remains that Villar del Río still lacks a railroad—the means for the common citizens to move beyond their community and do more than imagine themselves in other possible communities. As in our own global work, while the villagers are stuck, foreign delegates at various levels blow in and out of town, raising and then dashing hope, promising prosperity but delivering only more—and now more self-consciously felt—poverty (see Friedman 112-42; Harvey 59-72 for contemporary comparisons). The debate over the film´s ending continues today. Is it hopeful? Is it terribly pessimistic? One might argue that Berlanga finally adopts a rather postmodernist or globalist position: resigned, if playfully so. As writers from David Harvey to Thomas Friedman have remarked, many of the processes of globalization simply cannot be reversed (Harvey 85; Friedman xxii). The community we inhabit can no longer be imagined as it once was. Moreover, the subject who imagines is each day less a citizen and more a consumer and spectator. Nevertheless, awareness of the nature of the spaces we inhabit and of the technologies that shape these spaces into imagined communities can facilitate discovery of possible strategies for remaking those spaces. For all its playfulness and, finally, resignation, ¡Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall!, at least produces a degree of awareness that combines with its playful critique to open the door to potential agency in the struggle to participate in the reshaping of a now postnational community. Perhaps in this empowering lays the remarkable staying power of Berlanga´s film.

- Nathan E. Richardson, Bowling Green State University

ABOUT LUIS GARCIA BERLANGA

For many years in Spain strict censorship guidelines inhibited the development of a vital and creative film industry. The first original auteur of the post-Civil War period was Luis García Berlanga. When he began to make movies in the early 1950s, Berlanga and fellow filmmaker Juan Antonio Bardem were referred to as the two palm trees in the desert of Spanish film. Since then, and in spite of the fact that he could make relatively few films under Franco, Berlanga has remained one of Spain's foremost talents.

- Katherine Singer Kovács, Film Reference.com

Although his projects were often halted and cut by censors during the dictatorship, Berlanga managed to challenge the Franco myth through comedy, ridiculing Spanish foibles with chaotic farces and outlandish sight gags. Berlanga's own personal history is emblematic of the shifting complexities of Spanish politics. He describes himself as "a Christian, but creatively an anarchist and politically a liberal." But as a young man, during World War II, he had volunteered for the "Blue Division" that went to battle in the Soviet Union to aid the Nazi cause. Berlanga maintains that he did so to save his Republican father from a death sentence.

Elliot SteinThe Village Voice

Born into a wealthy, land-owning family in Spain's eastern province of Valencia, Berlanga enjoyed a comfortable and untroubled upbringing until the onset of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. While the Francoist uprising sought to bring down the democratically-elected Second Republic, Berlanga's father was one of the Valencia regional representatives in the national parliament. In the aftermath of the war Berlanga senior was arrested and sentenced to death. Eventually the sentence was commuted but he remained in prison until 1952, only to die six months after his release. Meanwhile, shortly before the end of the war the 18-year-old Berlanga junior was mobilised by the Republican forces and conscripted into a medical unit. Following the Francoist victory, in what constitutes one of the many paradoxes of Berlanga's life, he seemingly changed sides and volunteered to serve in the Blue Division—the unit of Spanish soldiers who travelled to the Soviet Union to fight for Germany in World War II as part of an agreement between Hitler and Franco—in a desperate effort to gain favour with the regime and save his father's life. Although he never directly saw action, the future filmmaker would draw upon these experiences in later life and the dark comedy that pervades his cinema is marked by these ironies. Berlanga is not only the funniest but also the bleakest of Spanish directors.

Once back in Spain, Berlanga moved to Madrid and commenced his studies in literature at the city's Complutense University. It was during this period that he developed an interest in cinema. In 1947, when the Madrid film school—the portentously named Institute of Cinematic Investigation and Experience (IIEC)—opened, Berlanga promptly dropped his literary studies and switched. Created by Franco's cultural commissars after the Civil War, the school was modelled on Rome's Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia founded by Benito Mussolini (which spawned, amongst other lauded directors, Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni).

Together with his classmates from the first promotion of graduates from the IIEC—among whom was his friend and close collaborator, lifelong Communist Party member, Juan Antonio Bardem—Berlanga was instrumental in the creation, firstly, of Altamira and then Uninci, the production company behind some of the most significant Spanish movies of the post-war period and which, in time, would produce Luis Buñuel's Viridiana (1961).

Keen to distance themselves from what they perceived as the backward, dogmatic, censored and often religious-based cinema required of them by the regime, Berlanga, Bardem and company were enthusiastic about the work of their counterparts in Italy. The screening of a series of movies during the 1951 Italian film week in Madrid came as a revelation to them.

While the impression that Italian neorealism caused upon these budding filmmakers is undeniable, the evidence of its influence in practical terms on Spanish cinema is negligible, and this is particularly so in the work of Berlanga. Many critics have sought to pigeon hole Berlanga into the convenient category of neorealism, partly because it has proved easier to construct him in this way, but also because it is a means by which to avoid serious exploration of Berlanga's complex relation with the Spanish literary and filmic tradition. The critical disjuncture surrounding Berlanga concerns his function as a popular filmmaker. As I have written elsewhere, Berlanga is often found situated at a problematic frontier between popular culture and cultural populism. (1) Berlanga's relationship with politics, moreover, is equally complicated and very often contradictory. While Bardem explicitly linked his politics to those of neorealism and sought to create an oppositional cinema both through his own films and magazines such as Objetivo (founded in 1953), Berlanga has consistently eluded categorisation. His refusal to share Bardem's militancy is coupled with his insistence that the subversive nature of his cinema belongs within a tradition of Spanish popular theatre known as sainete (2) that, although originating in the 18th century, reached its most powerful expression during the Second Republic.

In 1955 Berlanga and Bardem were present and decisive at a celebrated conference, known as the Conversaciones de Salamanca, organised by critic and director Basilio Martín Patino as an attempt to refocus the direction Spanish cinema was taking and to co-ordinate a dialogue between liberal elements within the state machinery (most notably the erstwhile head of cinema and theatre in the Ministry of Tourism and Information, José María García Escudero, who would hold the position on two different occasions in 1951 and 1962) and the moderately left opposition. It was Bardem's searing intervention in the course of the Conversaciones that has defined (and in my view misdefined) the entire generation. Bardem declared that Spanish cinema was, “politically ineffectual, socially false, intellectually poverty-stricken, aesthetically void and industrially stunted.”

In spite of Bardem's speech at the Salamanca conference, it is simply not the case that Spanish cinema prior to his work and that of Berlanga was exclusively a vehicle for the Dictatorship and its allies in the Catholic Church, even though such a view was common currency among critics until recently. Over the last decade new scholarship has demonstrated that relatively few Spanish movies of the immediate post-war period conformed to Bardem's caricature. Of the more than 500 films made in Spain between 1939 and 1951—the so-called period of autarky or cultural and economic self-sufficiency—less than 20 conform to this particular caricature. The vast majority of the nation's film production consisted of musicals, melodramas and popular comedies. Even the populist, albeit brutally repressive, Franco (himself a fan of cinema) acknowledged the need to make concessions. In the aftermath of the war, the Nationalist victors were conscious of the necessity of incorporating the bulk of the losing masses into their project. To this end, the horrors of the post-war period were coupled with cultural initiatives designed to elicit popular consent.

- Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Brace yourselves, another update is coming...

Bill over at They Shoot Pictures Don't They? has been gathering more top ten lists from passionate film lovers throughout this year and applying them to the master list. He informs me that a new December 2008 update to the 1000 Greatest Films is due any day. Upon seeing last December's updated list, I made an open complaint about how little representation of experimental and third world cinema there was, as well as films directed by women. One of my goals for the year was to seek and collect more lists that represented these perspectives.  I wasn't quite able to fulfill this aim, but I did get a few good ones, which I have forwarded to Bill. If I have a moment I will post them here as well.

Bill also invited me to submit my own updated list. I haven't put one together in a while, and I'm not really one to do this sort of thing anymore - I've just seen too many movies at this point to know better than to attempt a list of bests or favorites. However it's only fair that I do what I've asked several respected colleagues to do. So here's a list that I think best represents the films I most cherish at this particular moment, with their directors in parentheses:

Awaara (Raj Kapoor) Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako) Breakaway (Bruce Conner) City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao Hsien) Close-up (Abbas Kiarostami) Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee) Earth (Aleksandr Dovzhenko) The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad) I Was Born, But (Yasujiro Ozu) Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk) Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett) L'Argent (Robert Bresson) L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni) L'Intrus (Claire Denis) Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade) Love and Duty (Bu Wangcang) Love Streams (John Cassavetes) The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (John Gianvito) Menilmontant (Dmitri Kirsanoff) Moolaade (Ousmane Sembene) Ordet (Carl Dreyer) Outer Space (Peter Tscherkassky) Platform (Jia Zhangke) Playtime (Jacques Tati) Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell) Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg) Street Angel (Yuan Muzhi) Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese) The Third Man (Carol Reed) A Touch of Zen (King Hu)

929 (70). U samogo sinyego morya / By the Bluest of Seas (1936, Boris Barnet)

screened September 9, 2008 on DivX in Brooklyn, NY TSPDT rank #710 IMDb

The crowning achievement in the mercurial career of Soviet director Boris Barnet, this simple story of a love triangle between two shipwrecked sailors and the beach blonde darling of a fishing village exemplifies a kind of film that could only have been made at the dawn of the talkies, when cinema had to rediscover its vision at the same time that it discovered its voice.  Films that most ingeniously mounted this challenge - Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, Luis Bunuel's L'Age d'or, and both Frank Borzage's and Yuan Muzhi's versions of Street Angel, to name a few - were able to retain the luminescent purity of the silent era iconography and hitch it to pure simple stories of love and discovery, milked from an infant's gaze and an adolescent's emotions.  The tremulous and intermittent occurences of sound add a paradoxical wonder,  fearlessly inflicting violence on the silent image by thrusting it into a fragile new dimension.  The result is a cinema that remains vital and vigorous, perpetually new.   By the Bluest of Seas opens with a capsizing of a ship among relentlessly stormy seas that amounts to an audiovisual ablution for the viewer, eventually casting them on a blank, enchanted seaside full of possibility, where boisterous song, vaudevillian slapstick, romantic wistfulness and nonstop pining rule the day. It is a utopia of emotional freedom and spontaneously generating, momentary magic, a utopia that can only happen in the cinema.

Want to go deeper?

By the Bluest of Seas is a musical, codirected by S. Mardanov, that's even more intensely physical than Okraina. Even though warfare is a passing offscreen issue, this film is as much about peace as Okraina is about war -- a view of paradise to complement the previous glimpse of hell.

The plot is simple and concentrated. After shots of waves and an awkwardly translated opening intertitle -- "A ship perished in the Caspian Sea / Young lives were fighting with death for two days" -- we meet the two heroes, a sailor and a mechanic. They're picked up by a schooner and taken to an island in Soviet Azerbaijan, where they encounter a young woman named Mashenka (Yelena Kuzmina), who heads a fishing co-op and works as a forewoman on a fishing boat. What little remaining story there is focuses mainly on the romantic rivalry between the two men, though Mashenka eventually reveals that she has a fiance who's off fighting in the Pacific.

It's difficult to account for what makes this movie so exquisite, apart from the characters and their quirks (such as one man's ticklishness) and the beauty of the idyllic setting. Eisenschitz seems to be on the right track when he says that the film is unclassifiable, that it's "certainly not a comedy even if it provokes laughter." We wind up feeling affection for the three leads, partly because of the affection they show for one another and partly because of the gusto with which they show it. This aspect reminds me of some of Raoul Walsh's character-driven comedies of the early 30s, such as Me and My Gal (1932) and Sailor's Luck (1933). But there's also an undertow of sadness that seems quite foreign to Walsh -- a sense of melancholy wrapped around each moment of joy that seems quintessentially Russian.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

By the Bluest of Seas, which evidently exists in both color and black-and-white versions, is Barnet in his prime. It takes place on an island paradise in the Caspian that for all its Tempest-like isolation can’t escape Soviet bureaucracy. Two fishermen, Alesha (Nikolai Kryuchkov) and Yussuf (Lev Sverdlin), who represent the European Soviet Union and the Central Asian, compete for the love of a pale island blonde, Misha (Yelena Kuzmina), who can’t decide between them. The film is never didactic. Its desire is not for Soviet unity but for a kind of perfect union that exists only in tales or dreams. The way Barnet brings this microcosm to life is wholly original and charmed. By the Bluest of Seas has been favorably compared with Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, but it breathes a salt air all its own. A scene set below deck as the three lovers are tossed by a storm attests that this is one of the essential films of the 1930s, a threesome movie as accomplished as Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living.

- Chris Fujiwara, The Boston Phoenix

The film opens (and closes) with what are arguably the most beautifully-shot seascapes in the history of cinema: Barnet and cinematographer Mikhail Kirillov’s camera captures the region’s luminous sunlight as it refracts through the salty air and dances off the translucent Caspian Sea surface. As the surf explodes in slow motion into the misty heavens, the image track becomes as sensuous as that in any visual medium, exposing the film’s intention to procure icons of unsurpassed natural beauty. By the Bluest of Seas might just be said to improve upon the natural world...

In spite of everything that has been said, By the Bluest of Seas nonetheless remains a surprisingly difficult film to champion, let alone to write about, no doubt because its pleasures are so pure. To any detractors that it may have, present or future – and these fictional “detractors” would argue undoubtedly against its greatness, not its goodness – let us invoke our same original authority, Jacques Rivette, in the context of his remarks on one-time neglected giant of the cinema, Howard Hawks: “the evidence on the screen is the proof of [his] genius.” In the example of By the Bluest of Seas, a better way to state it might be to say simply: the evidence is on the screen. That is, whether one cites the filmmakers’ land and seascape photography, the bodily and performative representation of desire and feeling or the emotional stakes for which the protagonists are playing, the unadulterated pleasures of Barnet’s film are there for those with eyes to see and hearts to feel. This is a film with which to fall in love.

- Michael J. Anderson, Tativille

Barnet's film takes place in the Caspian Sea -- and an on an island in that sea. But he starts the film with water and waves and two shipwrecked sailors -- and the marine cinematography by Mikhail Kirillov is absolutely stunning. The sailors Alyosha (Nikolai Kryuchkov) and Yussuf (Lev Sverdlin) are rescued by members of a fishing commune on an island in the Southern Caspian. Soon after their arrival, both are smitten by Misha, a pretty commune supervisor (Yelena Kuzmina, star of Kozintsev and Trauberg's New Babylon and Alone). They both go to work for the commune, and compete for the attention of Misha, using means both fair and foul, which puts a considerable strain on their comradeship. As it turns out, she is already engaged to a sailor serving in the Soviet Union's Pacific fleet, so the two set off together (friends again), back across the Caspian to their own hometown.

An utterly delightful (and beautiful) film -- it has helped solidify Barnet's spot as one of my favorite Soviet directors. One can't help wondering why Barnet's lovely film is so comparatively ignored today. Perhaps the fact that it is totally uncategorizable hurts it -- part low comedy, past romance, part socialist propaganda, part musical. Moreover, this is part silent (with intertitles and a synchronized musical score) and part talkie. As beautifully crafted as the film is, it feels unsophisticated, too much aimed at common audiences. At the moment, the only subbed DVD release (from Bach Films), is subbed only in French. It does not appear that much restoration was done for this release, but for the most part this looks lovely, despite the damaged condition of the underlying source print.

- Michael Kerpan, Roslindale Monogatari

Film director Otar Iosselliani remembers Boris Barnet, as published in Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema By Richard Taylor, Ian Christie, 1991, Routledge. Pages 163-164

"I knew him through his editor, who was also his girlfriend and in her twenties. She was a very lively girl, and I remember her saying: 'Watch what I'm going to do when Barnet comes.' She went up to him and ordered: 'About turn!' This immense figure turned round smartly and she jumped on to his back, calling 'Gee up! That's how I met him...

Then we had a drink and he told me: 'Above all, don't watch my films twice.' 'Why?' I enquired. 'Because they are made for one viewing and afterwards when you go for a walk and remember them, they become better. I am not,' he told me, 'a chemist like Eisenstein, who poisons slowly.'

I fell in love with him the first time I saw By the Bluest of Seas. It ws in the editing class given by Felonov, an excellent teacher, who told us: 'There is no logic to this film, none at all, and no measurement, but it is very well filmed.' (He was used to measuring everything and thought that all films were calculated). 'It is very well made. I am not teaching you the craft in order to follow this example. I noticed how much you liked it' (I had badgered him to let me see it again on the editing table) 'so here it is, but don't take it as an example. Even though it is better made than, say, Ivan the Terrible.'

He was a poet at a time when cinema had thrown out all its simple, unmannered poets, in order to implant mannerism. Dovzhenko's poetry is really mannerism, with those apples around the old man dying... Barnet's films like The Girl with a Hatbox and Trubnaya were very much influenced by their epoch. They were light-hearted and very funny. They were ironic and even carried their propaganda well: 'Things are bad,' they said, 'but they will improve and this will only be temporary.'

Ideologically, he belonged to that company of film-makers, but morally he didn't take part in their games. Why do I say that? Because a director who had gone through it all and been broken by the demands of the time, who had started to make films about the kolkhozes, said of him that he was an enemy. Just like that. Indeed he was distrusted by all his colleagues, for what he had done? What did By the Bluest of Seas amount to? In our epoch of construction, with all its serious and weighty problems, what's all this about a wave which sweeps a woman into the cabin of a boat? This really has nothing to do with reality!

About Boris Barnet

IMDb Wiki

During his heyday in the late '20s and early '30s, Russian actor and filmmaker Boris Barnet was hailed a master of tragicomic satire. Ironically, it would be his use of satire that would put a permanent damper on what promised to be a long, brilliant career. Of English heritage, Barnet was still in his teens when he volunteered to serve as a medic for the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. After completing his military service, Barnet attended the Central Military School of Physical Education of Workers. Following a stint as a professional boxer, Barnet enrolled at VGIK and joined Lev Kuleshov's experimental workshop. Following graduation, Barnet co-directed Miss Mend with Fyodor Otsep in 1926. Barnet made his first solo film the following year. Devushka s Korobkoy starred Anna Sten and gently satirized the government's recently enacted New Economic Policy which allowed a limited amount of free enterprise to boost the Russian economy. Like his subsequent successes, the story offered a subtle blending of tragedy and comedy, much in the style popularized by Charlie Chaplin. Barnet's sophomore effort, a historical epic to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, was assigned to him by the studio and was not nearly as successful as his first. Barnet's disinterest in the subject showed and the film failed at the box office. However, he returned to form with his next effort, Dom na Trubnoi/The House on Trubnaya Square (1928). Audiences loved Barnet's comic take on the complicated relationships among Moscow's dwindling bourgeois society, but some critics warned that such satires could be potentially troublesome for unwary filmmakers. It was advice that Barnet did not heed when he made the sad yet funny Okraina (1933), the story of how the Russian Revolution divided a small Russian community. Though well made, the story was ill-timed and the film was heavily criticized for presenting the Russian people in a negative light. While Barnet never made another real satire, the criticism had a cumulative effect on his career and though he received the title of Honored Artist in 1935, he was never able to regain the popularity and approval he had prior to Okraina. He still continued to make films through the early '60s and a few of them, including U Samogo Sinego Morya/The Bluest of Seas (1935) (one of the Soviet Union's first color films), Podvig Razvedchika/Secret Mission (1947), and Annushka (1959), received good reviews. In 1965, Barnet was working on a film in in Riga, Latvia, when he committed suicide.

- Sandra Brenna, All Movie Guide

Boris Barnet's career as a director has been much underrated in the West, yet it spanned almost forty years of Soviet filmmaking. After a brief period as a PT instructor in the Red Army and then as a professional boxer, he joined Kuleshov's workshop as an actor and handyman. In 1924 Barnet played the part of Cowboy Jeddy, a grotesque caricature of an American, in Kuleshov's eccentric comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. He frequently appeared later in his own films, often in cameo roles.

Like Kuleshov, Barnet went to work for the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio, where experimentation was combined with the production of films that were commercially successful. Barnet collaborated with Fyodor Otsep on the serial thriller Miss Mend and then made his first two feature films, The Girl with the Hatbox and The House on Trubnaya. Both films involved actors from the Kuleshov workshop and both were light-hearted comedies, satirising the excesses of the New Economic Policy and the social and economic tensions associated with it. The first centred on a lost lottery ticket and the second on the arrival of a country girl in Moscow, but Barnet managed very gently to broaden their frame of reference. His deft touch on these two films marked him out by the end of the 1920s as a director of originality and distinction.

The advent of sound seems to have caused Barnet fewer problems than it did other directors: he made two sound shorts about musical instruments in 1930, neither of which has been preserved. His first sound feature film, Okraina, was produced in 1933. This was a remarkably powerful, and in some ways almost Chekhovian, portrayal of life in a provincial Russian town during the First World War and the start of the Revolution. The lives of the characters are almost imperceptibly intertwined with the historical events unfolding far away. The relationship between individuals and events was, however, portrayed in too subtle a fashion for many of Barnet's contemporaries and, like so many other Soviet filmmakers of the time, he was attacked for ideological obscurantism. Hence it was that Barnet later remarked that he was not merely a "film director" but a "Soviet film director."

The reception for Barnet's next film, By the Deep Blue Sea, was even more hostile. On one level the film was a light-hearted love intrigue set on a collective farm on the banks of the Caspian Sea. On another level, however, it can be read as an allegorical tale of the eternal struggle between dream and reality, with the collective farm itself as a latter-day utopia, emphasised by the somewhat ironic title—a dangerous comparison in 1936 in the Soviet Union. Given the atmosphere of the time, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that Barnet's next film, One September Night, was devoted to a more conventional account of the birth of the Stakhanovite movement. In this film the secret police were portrayed as heroes, defending the Soviet Union against sabotage. But The Old Jockey, made the year after, fell afoul of the authorities and was not released until 1959.

The Second World War dominated Barnet's output for the next few years and his efforts were rewarded with the Stalin Prize in 1948. He returned to his true métier, comedy, in 1950, with his first colour film, A Bounteous Summer, made in the Ukraine. Another film, Lyana, was made in Moldavia five years later. Barnet's last completed film, The Whistle-Stop, was also a comedy, but other films that he made during the last decade of his life are more properly characterised as dramas. But to say that is to underestimate Barnet, because his films cannot be easily pigeon-holed.

Barnet's career in Soviet cinema spanned four decades. He belonged to the generation of lesser known filmmakers who in fact constituted the backbone of that cinema, while taking a back seat in the theoretical polemics that attracted international curiosity and focused attention on the avant garde. His films displayed a mastery of visual technique and a disciplined economy of style. He was a mainstream director but a subversive artist, whose work, tinged with warmth, humour, and humanity, constantly attracted Soviet audiences. He took his own life in 1965.

—Richard Taylor, Film Reference.com

The movies of Russian director Boris Barnet (1902-'65) are almost never screened, and information about his work is scarce. He seems to have made slightly over two dozen films, and I've seen three. Two of them, Okraina (1933) and By the Bluest of Seas (1936), are masterpieces. The third, The Girl With the Hat Box (1927), isn't bad, though it's far less memorable; curiously it's his only film out on video. These three films and four others are showing at Facets Cinematheque this week, along with a film Barnet acted in (Lev Kuleshov's 1924 knockabout farce The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks) and a recent film tenuously inspired by Okraina (and sharing the same English title, Outskirts). Though many of his films were popular successes when they came out, Barnet is known among cinephiles mainly as the greatest forgotten master of the golden age of Soviet cinema.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the only Barnet retrospective Chicago has ever had, and only one of his films has previously been covered in the Reader, The House on Trubnaya Square (1928), which Dave Kehr reviewed enthusiastically and others have called the best Soviet silent comedy ever made. Jacques Rivette has called Barnet the best Soviet director after Eisenstein; Jean-Luc Godard has written about him with similar reverence, as has film historian Bernard Eisenschitz. Barnet is missing from most film history courses, but clearly it's not because he's a minor figure.

In 1971 French film and literary critic Raymond Bellour published an essay describing film in general as an "unattainable text." In part he meant that movies -- unlike poems, articles, stories, or books -- weren't things one could possess, keep on a shelf, quote from, and cherish as objects. They appeared briefly, and then they disappeared, often for good.

Bellour might have added that because movies were elusive and unattainable for much of the 20th century, they had a mysterious, magical allure. Anything that's here today and gone tomorrow remains fascinating precisely because it can't be pinned down or filed away. But Bellour couldn't have predicted that within a decade, videos -- and later DVDs -- would make many movies as attainable as printed matter, even if the conditions for watching them had changed.

Some mainstream commentators might argue that most of the world's important movies are already available on video or DVD, but Okraina and By the Bluest of Seas are hardly the only important works that aren't available on either. Most mainstream critics and studios tend to be lazy about enlarging the canon, and so they probably don't have a clue as to what all the important films are, since most of the films ever made aren't on video or DVD. Of course some of the best films are available at the video store, but the mainstream goes on limiting its definition of classics to films everyone already knows.

The program at Facets is called "The Extraordinary Mr. Barnet," and the use of the word "extraordinary" is by no means hyperbolic.

Barnet's paternal grandfather was an English printer who settled on the outskirts of Moscow, and Barnet himself was born there in 1902. He studied painting in Moscow before joining the Red Army in his teens and serving as a medic, and after the civil war he drifted into professional boxing. Lev Kuleshov, an influential film teacher as well as filmmaker, saw one of Barnet's matches and cast him in a prominent role in The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. Barnet joined the Kuleshov workshop as a student and handyman and eventually got to codirect a 21-reel serial called Miss Mend (1926); his first solo effort was The Girl With the Hat Box.

Neither a theorist nor a very able propagandist, Barnet was too instinctive and physical a director to fit comfortably within any prescribed form of socialist realism, and his reputation for making American-style movies -- apparently acquired partly because of his last name -- eventually turned the state bureaucracy against him. At least this is the impression left by biographical accounts, which are all sketchy. Some American descriptions of his films emphasize their propagandistic elements, but his propaganda strikes me as either slight or as politically incorrect -- the very attributes that likely got him in trouble. After sampling his work, I was shocked to learn that he committed suicide in 1965, leaving behind a note that said he seemed to have lost the ability to make good films.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

Video Essays for 926 (67). Aranyer Din Ratri / Days and Nights in the Forest (1970, Satyajit Ray) - featuring Preston Miller

Special thanks to Preston Miller, director of Jones, for his fastidious commentary and contributions to these video essays.  Expect one more in the coming days, edited by Preston and featuring an exclusive interview with Soumitra Chatterjee, star of the film. Introduction to the film:

Scene analysis - "The Memory Game:"

926 (67). Aranyer Din Ratri / Days and Nights in the Forest (1970, Satyajit Ray)

screened August 4, 2008 on DVD in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #988 IMDb  Wiki

This mid-career effort from India's most celebrated filmmaker shows his craft firing on all cylinders, from the deft dialogue and orchestration of a talented ensemble through several subplots to his lithe camera and shifting, multifaceted perspectives on class and sex. Four young urban businessmen take a jaunt to the countryside to act like frat boys one last time before adulthood inevitably sucks the life out of them; with grace and subtlety Ray is able to celebrate their rebellious drive to individual expression against stifling social norms, while simultaneously pointing out their selfishness and abusiveness towards less privileged countrymen. Events unfold with a symphonic complexity, each character an instrument: Ray mainstay Soumitra Chatterjee's jazzy restraint as a self-absorbed playboy, Rabi Ghosh's ebullient comic relief, and Sharmila Tagore's fragile yet hypnotic sensuality as Chatterjee's romantic counterpart are only half of the ineffable performances on display. But the greatest performance of all is Ray's camera, relentless in its perpetual explorations of space and reconfigurations of people within any given scene, dissecting and re-animating a society that is essentially frozen in its stratified customs. By the end, the only profound change experienced by any of the characters is the kindling of a private love between two people and connection beyond one self. Their fragile naissance is juxtaposed by an act of lust followed by violence between one couple, and an embarrassingly failed seduction between another. Such variety in expressing the vertiginous distance between people seeking love exemplifies Ray's mastery as both dramatist and cineaste.

Want to go deeper?

The following ballots were counted towards the film's placement on They Shoot Pictures' Top 1000 Films:

Mari Kuttna - Sight & Sound (1982) Penelope Houston - Sight & Sound (1982) Richard Barkley  -John Kobal Book (1988) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Jonathan Rosenbaum Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)

The following quotes were found on the film's tribute page on Satyajit Ray.org:

"On the surface, this Satyajit Ray film is a lyrical romantic comedy about four educated young men from Calcutta, driving together for a few days in the country, and the women they meet. The subtext is perhaps the subtlest, most plangent study of the cultural tragedy of imperialism; the young men are self-parodies--clowns who ape the worst snobberies of the British. A major film by one of the great film artists, starring Soumitra Chatterjee and the incomparably graceful Sharmila Tagore. - Pauline Kael in Reeling

"... every word and gesture is recognizable, comprehensible, true ... Ray's work at its best, like this, has an extraordinary rightness in every aspect of its selection and presentation - the timing, performance, cutting, music - which seem to place it beyond discussion." - David Robinson, Financial Times, 15 October 1971

Other pages on the film:

Satyajit Ray's World

Satyajit Ray Center of the University of California Santa Cruz

Ray's most overtly Renoir-ish film, this might almost be a remake of Une Partie de Campagne, transposed to another time and place and through another sensibility. Instead of the French bourgeois family setting off for a picnic, four young men leave Calcutta for a few days in the country, trailing their westernised careerist attitudes, a middle class indifference to the lower orders, a self-satisfaction that leaves them closed to experience. Out of a series of delightfully funny mishaps as the visitors eagerly try to pursue acquaintance with their two promisingly attractive neighbours, Ray gradually distils a magical world of absolute stasis: a shimmering summer's day, a tranquil forest clearing, the two women strolling in a shady avenue, wistful yearnings as love and the need for love echo plangently. Elsewhere jobs have to be won or lost, problems faced and solved, but not here; an illusion of course, revealed as time lifts its suspension but leaves one of the quartet a changed man, the other three assailed by tiny waves of self-doubt. Beautifully shot and acted, it's probably Ray's masterpiece.

- Time Out

From this beginning, aided by the beautiful, luminous black-and-white cinematography of Soumendru Roy, Ray contrives an extraordinary world, at once Arcadian and yet possessed of utter, unforced naturalness and reality. Ray's language of cinema is a kind of miraculous vernacular, all his own. It has mystery, eroticism and delight. Critics have compared this film to Renoir and Chekhov. To those two masters I am inclined to add a third: Shakespeare. The phrase "must see" is bandied about very casually - but this deserves it.

- Peter Bradshaw, The UK Guardian

Satyajit Ray always insisted that his films were made first and foremost for his own fellow-Bengalis, adding that foreign viewers, unless exceptionally well up on Bengali language and culture, would inevitably miss a lot of what was going on. Despite such claims, several of Ray's films found more appreciative (and, it could be argued, more perceptive) audiences outside India. One such was Days and Nights in the Forest, widely hailed by Western critics as one of the director's finest films, but received by his compatriots with puzzlement and indifference.

Indian viewers, by all accounts, were put off by the loose-limbed, seemingly random flow of the narrative. "People in India kept saying: What is it about, where is the story, the theme?" Ray observed regretfully in a Sight & Sound interview. "And the film is about so many things, that's the trouble. People want just one theme, which they can hold in their hands." He likened the structure of the film to a fugue, in which different elements appear and reappear developed, interwoven, transformed, and subtly balanced against each other.

Aranyer din Ratri

But there's also a political dimension to the film. Days and Nights can be seen as a prelude to the three films often grouped together as Ray's "City Trilogy": The Adversary, Company Limited, and The Middleman. In these films Ray engaged, for the first time in his career, the social and political upheavals that were then shaking Bengal, and in Days and Nights he hints at the kind of class- and caste-based attitudes that underlay this unrest. The four young men from the city are not unlikable, but their treatment of the local "tribal" people reveals an unthinking arrogance that at times verges on brutality. Hari, having mislaid his wallet, at once accuses the villager co-opted as their servant of stealing it, and hits him—an injustice which later rebounds on him. Even Ashim, the most intelligent and politically aware of the four, browbeats the caretaker of their bungalow into accepting a bribe, then mockingly comments (in English, significantly), "Thank God for corruption."Days and Nights in the Forest marks a transition in Ray's filmmaking career, turning his talents for social comedy, emotional nuance, and quiet, understated irony towards more contemporary concerns. At the same time it demonstrates the subtlety of his narrative control, concealing a carefully devised dramatic shape beneath the seemingly casual flow of everyday life. Far from being shapeless or lacking a theme, as its first audiences imagined, the film is subtly orchestrated throughout: there isn't a scene or incident, barely even a gesture, that doesn't contribute to the overall purpose.

—Philip Kemp, Film Reference.com

 One of the overriding themes of the film is the clash of polarities as represented by the urban and the rural; the rich and the poor; the sophisticated and the tribal; the corrupt and the innocent. But Ray, being the compassionate master that he is, refers to the theme obliquely, in swift and deft brush strokes and does not address it as an agenda like the so-called art filmmakers of the 70s who made an issue out of it. It stays at the level of subtext. We retain our sympathies with the characters despite their double standards and narrow mindedness; the characters come across as rounded and believable, and a reflection of ourselves maybe in many cases.

No discussion of the film would be complete without the memory game sequence that is played out by the six major characters. Each player has to choose the name of a famous person and also remember, in sequence, all the previous choices. Subtle and elegantly structured, each character reveals himself or herself in the way he or she plays. Ray’s mastery of the misce-en-scene comes out in full steam as he cuts between the different characters and tracks from character to character as they engage in this wonderful game that throbs with sexual undercurrents. It is a brilliant piece of cinema played out in a surefire style and marks him out amongst the masters of world cinema. Mention must also be made of the wonderful cross cutting sequence towards the end of the film when all the four male characters are engaged in their respective pursuits. With a tribal fair as its central setting, the director intercuts between the different sets of characters: Ashim trying to forge a relationship with Mini; the voluptuous Jaya trying to seduce Sanjay; Hari running amongst the wilderness with the svelte and dusky tribal girl before they end up making love under the trees and Sekhar gambling away with borrowed money. The entire sequence is interspersed with shots of tribal women dancing to primitive rhythm as the central characters are engaged in their primitive pursuits. It is another piece of beautiful cinema that raises the film to extraordinary levels of artistic expression as the music rises to a crescendo.

Bansi Chandragupta’s re-construction of the interiors of the forest bungalow and the country liquor shop and recreation of the tribal fair are other highlights of the film that point to a superb craftsmanship in the annals of realistic cinema. His teaming with Ray was a winning companionship that is sorely missed in Ray’s last films after Bansi’s death.

- from Upperstall.com (author unattributed)

 Conjuring an atmosphere both Shakespearean and Chekhovian, and borrowing Antonioni’s signature theme of alienation, Satyajit Ray achieved a complex, poignant result with Aranyer Din Ratri—like Ray’s Kanchenjungha (1962), a “holiday film.” Ray’s apprenticeship to Jean Renoir is richly evident here; Une partie de campagne seems an especial influence. Like Renoir, Ray portrays Nature as a moral force one can either resist or submit to; unlike the men, their pair of picnic partners already seem to have taken Nature into their lives, perhaps along with their joint loss (brother, spouse), but, as likely, steadily, gradually. The sparkling forest in Aranyer Din Ratri exudes the mystery that would elude the Mirabar caves fifteen years hence in David Lean’s A Passage to India... This ravishingly beautiful black-and-white film is quietly momentous about love—few films are so driven by erotic undertows—and about the ways we open up to others and the ways we stay shut.

- Dennis Grunes, ranking Days and Nights in the Forest #43 among his 100 Greatest Asian Films

BBC review by Jaime Russell

About Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray World

Satyajit Ray.org

In-depth reviews of many Satyajit Ray films by Acquarello at Strictly Film School

When I was writing a biography of Satyajit Ray in the 1980s, I received a magnificent letter about him from the great Akira Kurosawa. “The quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of the human race which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly… They can be described as flowing composedly, like a big river. Mr Ray is a wonderful and respectful man. I feel that he is a ‘giant’ of the movie industry.” Many years earlier, in an interview Kurosawa even went so far as to say: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”

For Scorsese, “Satyajit Ray’s ability to turn the particular into the universal was a revelation to me. I had grown up in a very parochial society of Italian-Americans and yet I was deeply moved by what Ray showed of people so far from my own experience. I was moved by how their society and their way of life echoed the same chords in all of us.” For Mike Leigh, “coming back to Ray’s cinema has been like returning to a succulent banquet, or experiencing a series of clairvoyant flashes. I emerge from each of his films with a newly sharpened view of the world.” And for the writer and Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, a severe critic indeed, Ray’s period film about the ‘clash of civilisations’ during the British Raj, The Chess Players (Shatranj ke Khilari) is “like a Shakespeare scene. Only three hundred words are spoken but goodness!—terrific things happen.” In my view, there is no director in cinema who can express what is going on inside a character’s head—his or her psychology—more acutely than Ray...

As if this were not enough, Ray has a strong claim to be the most versatile of film-makers. He was personally immersed in every aspect of production. He wrote the scripts of all his films, which were often original or near-original screenplays. He designed the effortlessly convincing sets and costumes down to the smallest details. He acted out the roles for the actors and actresses with consummate nuance. He operated the camera throughout the shooting (after 1963). He edited each frame of the film. He even composed and recorded the music after scoring it in a mixture of western and Indian notation, for all but his earliest films. The songs he wrote for The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha in 1969 are as well known on the streets of Calcutta as the best of Lennon & McCartney. The only activity he avoided—despite invitations from Hollywood producers like David Selznick—was acting in front of the camera, because “it would be too tedious”, as he told a mildly offended Marlon Brando...

I think the main reason for Ray’s comparatively low critical profile must be that genius takes time to be fully appreciated, in any culture. Those critics who try to diminish him as a simple third-world humanist lacking in cinematic sophistication demonstrate only their own ignorance of his films. In 1958, the chief film reviewer of the New York Times, Bosley Crowther, dismissed Pather Panchali as a film that would “barely pass for a rough cut in Hollywood”. So many people disagreed that Crowther saw the film again, changed his mind and published a second review; soon he was an aficionado of Ray, writing of The Postmaster that “It says almost all that can be managed about the loneliness of the human heart.” Yet as Ray himself realised: “the cultural gap between East and West is too wide for a handful of films to reduce it. It can happen only when critics back it up with study on other levels as well. But where is the time, with so many other films from other countries to contend with? And where is the compulsion?”

“I never had the feeling of grappling with an alien culture when reading European literature, or looking at European painting, or listening to western music, whether classical or popular,” said Ray in 1982, the first time we talked. The breadth of his knowledge staggered me then; now I find it unique.

- Andrew Robinson, author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, for MovieMail

I think he [Ray] chose actors who were slightly cerebral so they'd be able to follow his instructions. Speaking personally, I never found him difficult to follow. The way he spoke was crystal clear--it was never anything like "imagine you're a sunset, a flower blooming in the wind." It was "open that drawer, stand by that curtain." It was much easier.

- Sharmila Tagore, from interview in Metroactive, October 16, 2003

About Sunil Gangopadhyay

Essay by the author of the short story after which Days and Nights in the Forest is adpated