958 (100). Moonrise (1948, Frank Borzage)

screened August 3 2008 on .avi TSPDT rank #945  IMDb Wiki

Frank Borzage's greatest films celebrate and investigate the miracle of romantic love; but perhaps the greatest miracle of his career was in generating a film of darkly stunning compassion upon one of the most wretched characters conceived in cinema. Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark, in a proto-Method performance of inspired contempt for everything around him) is tortured throughout his young life by his father's legacy of murder, which he fully inherits within the first 10 minutes of the film, setting off a downward spiral of guilt, rage and violent self-destruction. (The blueprints to Raging Bull are all over this film; a couple of shots seem practically plagiarized).

Borzage's men have typically been roughewn jars of clay shaped and refined by feminine light, but Danny Hawkins is a festering pool of mud oozing from the film's swampy environs.  He's saved by Borzage's ultimate faith in redemptive grace, embodied by the fiancee of the man Danny kills, who unfathomably falls in love with Danny despite nearly being killed by him in a stunning car accident.  Her unlikely attraction to him is made credible through our own, an empathy accomplished through Borzage's ability to plant the viewer squarely in the passionate, angst-ridden hell of Danny's worldview.

Starting with a wildly expressive flashback opening on through a series of terrifying crisis moments shot and cut with dizzying intensity (a swamp killing; a rainstorm car crash; a bedroom strangulation; a suicidal leap from a ferris wheel), it's a world cloaked in perpetual night, virile in its violence, seductive in its shadows. The civic-minded sobriety of the daylight scenes, where everyone from the local sheriff to a self-exiled, swamp-dwelling Negro (a powerfully melancholy Rex Ingram) espouse liberal compassion for poor Danny, can't compete with the allure of destructive darkness that pervades this film. Even the sentimental strings in the soundtrack, employed heavily during interludes of romantic redemption, stir reserves of disconsolate ache.  If the redemptive, sober climax that resolves the narrative feels less than fully earned, it's because Borzage has perhaps succeeded too well at mining the bottomless chasm of a man's affliction.  But such a degree of achievement in suffering wrought into art embodies its own salvation.


Frank Borzage's last masterpiece (1948) and one of his best-known films, although in many ways it's atypical of his work. Made on a middling budget for Republic Pictures--the studio of serials and cowboys--the film adopts a rich and elaborate expressionist style; with its shadows and tension-racked frames, it resembles no other film in the Borzage canon. The social conflicts that plagued Borzage's spiritually attuned lovers in earlier films here become psychological ones, as a young man (Dane Clark) fights to overcome his "bad blood"--his father was a convicted killer. Still, the Borzagian principle of transcendence applies, expressed through a complex mise-en-scene centered on circular camera movements. The earlier, disappointing Smiling Through (1941)--with its image of a blocking, ever-present past--seems a rough draft for this final achievement.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Many of Borzage’s projects, particularly toward the end of his career, were indisputably trivial in conception, but the director’s personality never faltered, and when the glorious opportunity of Moonrise presented itself, Borzage was not stale or jaded. This, if anything, is the moral of the auteur theory.

- Andrew Sarris

In many ways, it is unlike any of [Borzage’s] earlier works. Its plot, dealing with murder and guilt, departs dramatically from the simple love stories the director usually tells [...] Stylistically, Moonrise marks a visual revolution of sorts for Borzage, with its tremendously dynamic compositions, tight framing and low-key lighting. […] Yet even though Moonrise looks different from Borzage’s other work, it reveals as deep a commitment as ever to the concerns that occupy his other films.

- John Belton, Hollywood Professionals, Vol. 3: Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Edgar G. Ulmer, (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co.; London: The Tantivy Press, 1974), p. 112

Moonrise is Frank Borzage's sensual scrutiny of a man's free will. In the film's striking opening moments, a dazzling spectacle of black-and-white chiaroscuro conveys a throbbing sense of madness cattle-branded into the imagination of a young Danny Hawkins, who is terrorized by bullies from childhood to adulthood because of his father's execution. When Danny (Dane Clark) kills one of his tormentors, he must struggle with the terrible push-pull effect of the past and the memory of his father on his psyche. Borzage magnificently frames the film along very severe, richly layered diagonal angles, catching nervous hands and faces from odd positions and giving startling visual expression to Danny's loose grip on his moral compass. A shot might begin with Danny towering above a character, only to end with him cowering beneath the same person, and in a tour-de-force sequence at a town fair, Borzage's camera moves in heady and terrifying tandem with the stop-go movements of a Ferris wheel. The director plays with shifting perspectives to convey the disorientation of a man struggling to stay on top even as he is drowning.

- Ed Gonzalez, Slant

Moonrise snaps on-screen with a shadowplay execution-by-hanging, shot with expressionistic verve, that cuts, on the snap of the neck, to the dead man’s newly fatherless child squalling in his crib over the nightmare image of cold court-ordered death—Borzage is still frequently written off as a better-than-average concoctor of shadows n’ muslin confections, but just try to find anything equivalent to the gutty social outrage of this stark edit in contemporary Hollywood fare. From this point the film rolls into a montage of schoolyard degradation—always the same punk, our fatherless child, always the same bully—that grounds the film in a smotheringly small town where reputation is inherited and it brands like the mark of Cain (the on looking kids mocking chant: “Danny Hawkins' dad was hanged”), and where grudges have a lifetime to percolate.

Hawkins, played without a hint of petitioning for sympathy by Fifties and Sixties television standby Dane Clark, understandably grows up into a furtive, crabbed, hate-encysted young man. Danny’s introduced full-grown in the thickets behind a local dancehall, at the receiving end of one-beating-too-many from his tireless victimizer—something snaps, a jagged rock gets into the mix, the bully is finally hushed up, dead. He goes back, throws some water on his face, and cuts in for a stiff dance with the corpse’s clueless fiancée, prim schoolteacher Gilly (Gail Russell). Driving her and some friends home, boozy, he buries the gas pedal, buzzing with rage, and flips the car. Wailing, soaked to the skin, pulling his co-opted date from the wreck through the side door, Danny’s a wreck of inchoate emotion—he wails as if in the trauma of being born.

From this literal and figurative breakdown, the film proceeds as the redemptive chronicle of Danny’s emotional education, his gradual indoctrination into humanity, and his acceptance of guilt for his crime. Gilly is the primary instrument that pries him open, operating through the breach opened by the somewhat baffling romance that’s ignited between them; the two spend plenty of runtime with their faces smooshed together in close-up, scenes that should gain plenty when writ large on the screen, as Borzage was an infamously attentive orchestrator of the minutest tremors of expression. Also crucial in Danny’s rehab is his sole friend, the aforementioned Mose, a retired brakeman-turned-recluse richly played by the great Rex Ingram; it’s a too-rare specimen of a black actor’s performance being allowed to flourish amid an all-white cast without the taint of awkward tokenism, Stepin Fetchit clowning, or phony-worshipful messianic Negritude. Ingram can handle thesis lines and common-sense morality with unpretentious thoughtfulness (“How does he know what’s good and what’s bad?” “Someone told him.”), but he’s best when singing a dolorous back-porch blues—the film’s title may come from the syrupy tune that’s warbled over Danny and Gilly’s first, death-infected dance, but Mose provides this dark-as-pitch picture’s true theme: “Rope hanging from the gallows/ Pit waiting for my bones...”

Nick Pinkerton, Reverse Shot

Moonrise immerses us in swamp country for a meditation on ‘nature’ of all kinds - including human. The thing about Southern noir is that nature is not only everywhere but a player in the drama. Contrast this with your typical urban thrillers where, amongst all the built structures and machinery we narrow our focus onto the one unpredictable element in the mix – the protagonist. In Moonrise we see, and quickly come to feel , the swamp as metaphor for this small town setting, subtly reinforcing our view of its human inhabitants.

Director Borzage’s clever tactic of showing us all the action from the point of view of Danny, Dane Clark’s central character, is one reason for this sense of immersion, but even more subtle is this native Southern boy’s near-complete lack of an accent, let alone any ‘aw-shucks’ yokelisms. He’s a universal character, his very neutrality earning him center stage in this sphere of fetid growth where the great noir standbys - buried guilts and past secrets – bubble to the surface.

The film’s struggle, which Dane Clark portrays economically and brilliantly, is between society’s labelling of Danny as a ‘criminal type’ versus his belief of his own inner goodness. This is established from the outset through the stunning opening montage limning the story’s background (the execution by hanging of Danny’s father while the boy is in infancy and the ensuing torment and harassment by other children– especially rich preppie brat Lloyd Bridges) which makes it clear you are in the hands of a cinematic master. The brutal linkage this montage climaxes with – cutting from the father’s noose in shadowed profile to a ‘mobile’ hanging over the infant child’s cot – still packs a jolt, especially on the big screen. Clark, an unassuming, 1940s prole-looking leatherneck who often picked up John Garfield comparisons, plays Danny (not surprisingly) as a pent-up ball of resentment who seethes with internalised anger.

- Roger Westcombe, Big House Film Reviews

If the love story in Moonrise is a classic Borzagian scenario, the film's visual style is decidedly less typical of the director's oeuvre. From the extraordinary opening scenes, with truncated framings, the forceful play of light and shadow and dynamic cross-cutting, Moonrise represents a departure from the more measured visual style of earlier Borzage works.

With the services of cinematographer John L. Russell (who went on to shoot Hitchcock's Psycho [1960] amongst others), Borzage employs tight framings and consistent close-ups, (particularly of the beleaguered Danny), off kilter angles, and an odd but effective focus on the hands and feet of the central protagonists. Even the lovers' romantic clinches are presented from unconventional angles, often obscuring facial expressions, and thereby making the emotional tenor of these scenes more difficult to read.

Borzage's stylistic innovations in Moonrise, while uncharacteristic of the director's work, align the film with the classic film noir canon. In Moonrise, as with many a noir work, the expressive visual style makes a significant contribution to the films' atmosphere of escalating tension and its pervasive sense of unease.

Borzage's predilection for shooting on studio sets, regardless of the storyline locale, gave the backgrounds of his films, as one reviewer describes, “an unreal fairytale quality”. This is very much in evidence in Moonrise. Despite its rural small town setting with adjoining swamplands, Borzage forgoes any suggestion of bucolic expansiveness. Rendering the town streets and surrounding countryside claustrophobic and oppressive, he creates a subtle feeling of disquiet and vague unreality entirely appropriate to the central protagonist's troubled state of mind.

Borzage once remarked that “Every good story is based on a struggle”. Haas' adaptation of Strauss' novel gave Borzage just such a good story. With powerful performances from his lead actors, particularly Dane Clark in arguably the best role of his career, Moonrise was a romance after Borzage's heart, with an additional layer of psychological intensity. It remains, justifiably, a critically acclaimed high point in his career.

- Rose Capp, Senses of Cinema

Both the script and the performances were evocative of the mood that Frank Borzage strove to create. Lyrically, Borzage eschewed Sleepy Time Down South for the Sidewalks of New York in the casting of Dane Clark as Danny Hawkins. Clark gives it his all and brings off a difficult part exceedingly well. I didn’t notice that Clark (or any of the other actors for that matter) lacked southern accents until he was obliged to occasionally let loose with a “I reckon” or “Yankee” that momentarily punctured my suspension of reality. Clark succinctly projected the internal moral dilemma faced by Hawkins without resorting posturing or overacting. Moonrise may well be his finest screen performance.

Gail Russell plays the schoolmarm with the right mixture of initial primness, concern, and genuine affection with a dash of lust. Russell’s well-chronicled slide down the Hollywood Babylon oblivion chute awash in a sea of booze ended tragically at age 36 in 1961. Allyn Joslyn scored as one of film noirs most unusual John Lawmen. Imagine a southern sheriff without a drawl who speaks gently, waxes philosophical (“Murder is like love, it requires two people”) and never threatens or brandishes a weapon! At the final denouement, he even prevents a deputy from handcuffing the surrendering Clark, remonstrating with him to “let him walk in like a man”. Perhaps Borzage just didn’t have it in him to cast another heavy other than Lloyd Bridges in this picture. Ethel Barrymore lends credibility as only she could in a brief, but pivotal scene as Grandma Hawkins. Both Harry Morgan and Rex Ingram add additional heft in interesting supporting parts. Ingram’s character, in a surprising display of late 1940’s racial tokenism, is refreshingly absent any stereotypes or similar stupidities.

- Alan Rode, Film Monthly

Moonrise, marking the end of Borzage's unhappy tenure at Republic, may be a throwback, but to what? That film's neo-primitive expressionism anticipates The Night of the Hunter in some ways, but it also seems designed to pay lip service to the paranoia that had crept into modern cinema (something that Borzage later professed to despise). Although Moonrise is finally just as romantic as the rest of his work, the disembodied visual scheme of its first half, designed as an illustration of psychological trauma, is a singular event in Borzage --an interesting choice of material that probably marked a sly compromise between the director's own concerns and the more fashionable notions of the day.

In the end, what is Borzagean remains at the core of every project, overpowering all pictorial and topical considerations with a rapture that goes far beyond the idea of a mere touch or set of preoccupations. His is a body of work that remains vital less for its visual sublimity than for its twin pillars of physical dynamism and philosophical extremity. For about twenty years, Borzage's distinctly American brand of spirituality was in perfect accord with the sensibility of the country at large, a brief loss of faith during the late silent era notwithstanding. By the beginning of the Forties, he had become "outmoded" and, by the time he worked at Republic in the latter part of the decade, when many of his contemporaries were moving into the most glorious phases of their careers, he had already become an exotic remnant of an earlier era. But he never wavered in his own belief in himself and in paradise on earth through love and art.

- Kent Jones, Film Comment

Borzage has his protagonist turn his back to others and avert his gaze during... dialogue scenes... He also regularly positions two characters at an angle of 90 degrees to each other, further stressing their avoidance of eye contact by framing one character in profile. While such a mise en scène contributes to a particularly pictorial storytelling, Borzage repeatedly forgoes any dialogue during the first third of the movie. Instead, he has gestures speak in close-ups. During the opening sequence, words only function to identify Danny and Jerry at young age.

Danny reveals his greatest secret, when he affirms Mose’s suspicion. Yet, Borzage stresses the scene’s quite sadness by contrasting the silent accord between both men with a dynamic tension between foreground and background. In a medium long-shot, we see Danny in the background lying at the edge of the swamp, while Mose in the foreground sits on the porch of his cabin. By alternating close-ups of each men, Borzage emphasizes the distance between them – the more so, as Mose apparently does not have the heart to look his friend in the eye. Framed in close-up, slightly from below and almost in profile, Mose stares off-screen, without ever turning his head to Danny.

The beauty of this mise en scène, which accentuates the emotional charge of the situation, can certainly be attributed to the director, even if it is strikingly different from the style he is mainly associated with. But apart from the mise en scène, this scene has been transposed virtually unchanged form the literary source [by Theodore Strauss]. The same applies to almost every single of the film’s dialogues, while the slight changes to the plot have resulted primarily in tightening it.

While Borzage’s work has lately been the object of a modest revival, Strauss has been completely forgotten.That is a pity, because his earnestness in dealing with a poor man’s Crime-and-Punishment-theme is, like Borzage’s, totally disarming, even if his tone tends to be as grave as one might assume from Mose’s and the sheriff’s dialogues. Strauss’ book featured prominently in the publicity campaign for the film, and was displayed on posters and lobby cards. Film reviewers regularly referred to Moonrise’s literary source and The New York Times even opened its review of the film stating, “The ancient argument as to which medium tells the story best, written words or pictorial images, is again brought into focus by Moonrise.” And the reviewer actually thought that “the book towers above the picture”. However, the novel – as well as the film – had apparently been already forgotten, when in 1951 it was published as a paperback, since Bantam re-titled it Dark Hunger.

Moonrise’s thoroughgoing fidelity to its literary source poses the question: Did Borzage adopt the book’s philosophical quintessence as well? His films after Seventh Heaven have often been interpreted as endorsing the renunciation of all worldly matters. “[A] world destroying dignity is but a sordid deserted place not worth returning to, but of going beyond. [...] Borzage's heroes do not aspire to reenter into society”, concludes Dumont. Moonrise, however, suggests a different interpretation: “Man ought to live in a world with other folks” is what Strauss and Borzage have Mose say. “What I did was resign from the human race – and I guess that’s about the worst crime there is.”

When Joe McElhaney applies the quintessence of these words – obviously unaware of their origin with Strauss’ novel – onto Borzage’s whole œuvre, he acts overhasty, to say the least. But this particular outlook on the human condition and the world is not only affirmed by the narrative of Moonrise, it is also underscored by Mose’s last words. Addressing one of his dogs as “Mister Dog”, Mose states: “If a man knows how to rejoin the human race, once he’s resigned, it helps, Mr. Dog, it helps.” Tellingly, these are among the few words in this movie which do not originate with Strauss. That Borzage’s film thus, paradoxically, attests to Strauss’ outlook on the human condition by a rare divergence from his book, might offer an ironic moral of sorts for auteurists, too.

- Holger Römers, “The Moral of the Auteur Theory”: Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (and Theodore Strauss’ Source Novel). Senses of Cinema

Perhaps Borzage's greatest film, Moonrise, a brooding tale of a murderer's son (Clark) driven to violence by others harping on his past, is the perfect answer to those critics who have derided Borzage as a 'mere' romantic, a mere celebrator of the magic of love. Deeply melancholic, the film (from a novel by Theodore Strauss) creates a sense of physical reality with its low key lighting and harsh compositions that Borzage's lovers on the run cannot defeat: their 'Seventh Heaven' in an abandoned mansion is only temporary.

- Time Out

It's a grim melodrama that feels tragically realistic, touching on the raw nerves of the brooding accused murderer who has been forced into violence and going on-the-run because his tormentors have rattled him. The film's beauty lies in Borzage's overpowering visual mise-en-scene, making the film a character study as the protagonist wrestles with his inner conflicts between the peaceful and wrathful deities. The conflicted young man eventually overcomes his past bad karma because he finds someone to love, support from his betters and values to believe in. Spiritual ideals such as transformational love are the very things the director, himself, finds very dear in his real life.

- Dennis Schwartz

This outstanding movie has been dubbed a "melodrama," and it's easy to see why. But unlike most melodramas, there's a deeply serious social message pulsing through; and, while many people, then and now, might have found this too earnest, I'm just grateful work like this exists as a point of moral and artistic reference. Borzage makes a visual homage of his own, this one to silent movies, and along with that he works in a couple of important themes too complex (and too intelligently discussed) to go on the back of a t-shirt; but I'll risk reducing them anyway. The first is that, when it comes to crime, we should be careful before we start talking about "fate" or "bad blood." As a child, Danny Crane (Dane Clark, above, second from left) was mercilessly teased about his father's execution for murder. As an adult, he is again confronted by his chief tormentor from childhood and, in self-defence, kills him. The main body of the film takes us through what happens next. Can he live with the guilt? Will his community discover the truth? If so, will they turn on him? Or will a consensus conclude that Danny, far from being "born that way" or doomed by fate, succumbed to social forces that must also bear some responsibility? As the film actually plays it, what I notice today is that here's one small-town society capable of making restrained, evidence-based judgments about its own people — and not because of huge amounts of book-learning either!

- D.J.M. Saunders, Bright Lights Film Journal


The titles of Borzage’s sublime (no other word will do) MOONRISE play out over strange, rippling pools of liquid fog.


This eventually resolves, post-titles, into the shadows of liquid fog, pooling eerily in an inexplicable fashion, as we enter a peculiarly abstract landscape of rain, where an execution is about to take place. I will say no more.

But that same year, 1948, Orson Welles was making MACBETH, at the same studio as Borzage, Republic. And when Welles’ weird women peer into their cauldron in Act 1, Scene 1, amid the murk and mist and bubble bubble, we get this liquid fog again:


Welles has double-exposed it with a shot of fas-motion billowing clouds, oddly enough. All playing the contents of an enchanted cauldron. You maybe have to see it moving in good definition to see that it’s exactly the same effect as Borzage’s liquid fog. So, either both men made use of a piece of kit in stock at Republic, which I’m going to call Professor Strickfaden’s Liquid Fog Vortex Projector, or, more likely in my opinion, Welles simply borrowed a few seconds of Borzage’s movie to enhance his own. It’s the sort of thing he’d do more wholeheartedly in F FOR FAKE, and which he’d already done in CITIZEN KANE, which uses footage, and animated bats, from SON OF KONG.

As John Huston says in Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, “It’s quite alright to steal from each other. What we must never do is steal from ourselves.”


Frank Borzage: master of the shadows.


This, the opening of MOONRISE, is what turned me on to F.B. The beauty and boldness of the visual storytelling, the combination of a powerful story idea (a boy is persecuted because his father was hanged — then he himself becomes a killer: all this in the first five minutes!) put over with flamboyant but never inappropriate use of film technique.

Also, in the above image, the little kid is meant to be crying, but he obviously isn’t. Some crying sounds have been dubbed on, while the youngster tries to make a “sad face”. I realised that Borzage was too nice to make a baby cry for his film, even though the lack of tears slightly mars the film. That puts him in a different ethical class from practically all his peers. Can we imagine William Wyler hesitating?


I love that the entire set for this shot is the studio floor, doubling as an implausibly shiny playground. MOONRISE was shot on entirely in a tiny array of tightly packed sets in a single studio, with a very short schedule. Republic seem to have been experimenting with artistically ambitious films on low budgets in 1948: hence Welles’ MACBETH. Of course they were John Ford’s refuge where he could make less overtly commercial projects at lower cost.

The tree-shadow totally MAKES the shot, transforming it from an obvious interior to a poetic, unreal exterior. Shades of Sternberg, who was particularly fond of tree-shadows in the late ’20s and early ’30s.

- David Cairns, shadowplay
Read Jesse Schlotterbeck's study "Non-Urban Noirs: Rural Space in Moonrise, On Dangerous Ground, Thieves’ Highway, and They Live by Night" in M/C Journal
Also see entries on Moonrise by:

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Quotes posted on the They Shoot Pictures Borzage page:

“By the mid-1920s, Borzage was one of the most successful Hollywood directors - as witness the fact that he won the newly created Oscar for direction twice in its first five years - for Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl. War, and the consequent taste for realism, destroyed the world he had created and after The Mortal Storm, only one other film - Moonrise - properly revealed his talent. As a result, he is now badly neglected.” - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

“Frank Borzage was that rarity of rarities, an uncompromising romanticist…Borzage never needed dream worlds for his suspension of disbelief. He plunged into the real worlds of poverty and oppression, the world of Roosevelt and Hitler, the New Deal and the New Order, to impart an aura to his characters, not merely through soft focus and a fluid camera, but through a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity.” - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)

“Crucial to his films’ incandescent romanticism were his fluid use of the camera, floating through unoccupied spaces to suggest mysterious invisible forces existing beyond the material realm, and a focus on luminous faces; his attention to actresses, especially Janet Gaynor and Margaret Sullavan, made unusually palpable the strength of their undying love.” - Geoff Andrew (The Director’s Vision, 1999)

“Borzage’s top films are laden with romance and expressive camera work and lighting.” - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)

Frank Borzage had a rare gift of taking characters, even those who were children of violence, and fashioning a treatment of them abundant with lyrical romanticism and tenderness, even a spirituality that reformed them and their story.

- DeWitt Bodeen, Film Reference.com

There's a director I know who's fond of saying that he's more interested in what current filmmakers are doing (even the mediocre ones) than in studying "classic cinema," older films touching him only to the degree that they illuminate modern experience. It's a brutal approach to film history, perhaps a bit too brutal for me, but it has a certain validity as an alternative to the ahistorical side of film culture. Perhaps Borzage really is nothing more than the cinema's Great Romantic --a compliment that has the stale aftertaste of day-old beer since, in contemporary terms, it places him so far outside of the strange jumble of neurosis, solitude, and disillusionment we currently refer to as reality.

He was a Hollywood melodramatist with absolutely no interest in the workings of everyday life --the world around Borzage's lovers and believers is a procession of interchangeable amorphous abstractions. An arch-symbolist with a deep belief in the communion of souls, he woefully lacks any of the credentials necessary for worship by modern audiences (precious little in the way of irony, no cynicism to speak of, never made a film noir). Nor can it be denied that Borzage's oeuvre sports a generous helping of mediocre-to-bad actors (Douglass Montgomery, Robert Taylor, Phillip Dorn, and John Howard --the only actor wooden enough to take the air out of Borzage's billowing romanticism, in Disputed Passage), as well as a high percentage of filler (endless Dick Powell musicals at Warners, topical melodramas for Fox, a biography of Dolly Madison). On top of that, his films don't even work as satisfyingly snotty postmodern experiences, probably due to the fact that they are almost all structurally identical.

In his lovingly researched Frank Borzage --Sarastro à Hollywood (an act of true literary devotion that provides all of the biographical information for this article), Hervé Dumont cites Borzage's development of intimate scenes "to the detriment of the action" as the basis of contemporary objections to The River, the director's fearsome 1929 masterpiece that was caught in the mad crossfire between silence and sound. It's the same kind of complaint that you hear about "foreign films" today. And the charge of artistry is more than justified. Besides Nick Ray, with whom he has often been compared, Borzage was one of Hollywood's only truly obsessive artists of the sound era (Welles, who made most of his films outside of Hollywood, doesn't count), which is what truly made him a favorite of the Surrealists. Borzage's artistic vision was not a loose conglomeration of tics, talents, and obsessions to be tallied up at the end of his career. He had something rare in Hollywood: a philosophical formulation of life that, at a certain point in his career, took precedence over the delivery of a satisfying piece of entertainment. It may have been a naïve one, nourished by Masonic teachings and quite possibly by his early exposure to the Mormons when he was growing up in Salt Lake City, but he believed it and sometimes bent plots inside out to accommodate it. It also informed his unique way of arranging space. When a character looks in a film by Hawks or Hitchcock, he or she is usually looking at something concrete. When a character looks in a film by Ford, it's often into the past. When a character looks in a film by Borzage, it's usually a matter of looking through objective reality into an ultimate reality of celestial harmony, around which time tends to dilate and space tends to become elastic to the point of transparency.

For Borzage, love means certainty (which may account for another aspect of his current neglect: his films never partake of the crisis of belief at the core of modern experience). And like all philosophies, Borzage's is completely without interest outside of the physical act of its own creation. The human evidence of Borzage's superhuman idea of existence --to be found in Charles Farrell's and Janet Gaynor's rapturous walk up the stairs and into paradise in Seventh Heaven (27), in the beautifully elongated flowering of their love in Lucky Star (29), in Dane Clark and Gail Russell's moonlit idyll in an abandoned mansion in Moonrise (48), in Margaret Sullavan sleeping in her shimmering evening dress on Robert Taylor's doorstep in Three Comrades, in James Dunne and Sally Eilers's touchingly naïve attempt at marriage in Bad Girl (32), in James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan taking the family marriage cup from Maria Ouspenskaya before their potentially fatal trek over the Austrian border in The Mortal Storm --is one of the great glories of the cinema.

Can a body of work consisting of a hundred films and three television shows, which begins in 1915 and ends in 1959 and passes through almost every major studio in Hollywood, be reduced to such a singleminded preoccupation? In one sense, no. It's an auteurist tradition to identify something singular in a director's work and then leave it at that, chucking the quirks, oddities, momentary fashions, and comminglings with commerce and studio style that make up a big part of any Hollywood oeuvre. Such selectivity has probably outlived its usefulness. In Borzage's case, one can see a whole panorama of momentary influences stretched across his career.

- Kent Jones, Film Comment

940 (81). La roue / The Wheel (1922, Abel Gance)

screened  Wednesday October 29 2008 on Flicker Alley DVD in Weehawken, NJ TSPDT rank # IMDb Wiki

Abel Gance was celebrated by his countrymen as France's answer to D.W. Griffith; one quality the two directors abundantly share is ego.  Griffith's imprint of every intertitle with his monograph can barely compete with the opening shot of La roue, in which the stony visage of its director looms over footage of speeding railway tracks, rendering him more of a captain of industry than a cinematic visionary. Such bombast may account for the initial seven-plus hour length of this magnum opus, in which Gance uses the Oedipal melodrama between a railway conductor, his son and his step-daughter to illustrate the cycle of life, from destructive desire to transformative love.  Even in its present 4 plus hour cut, it can be an uneven slog at times, as Gance lingers on moments until they creak with significance. But there's no denying his all-embracing ambition in bringing as many forms of cinema as he can conceive: from grimy working class realism to cliffhanger action to costumed fantasia interludes to moments of avant garde abstraction. On a shot by shot basis, there are few films that seem as visually diverse, certainly not from this period.

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The following citations were counted towards the placement of La roue on the TSPDT 1000:

Andrew Zwobada, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) John Boorman, Sight & Sound (2002) Pierre Billon, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Movieline, 100 Greatest Foreign Films (1996) Premiere, Centenary List (19??) Various Critics, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

"There is cinema before and after La Roue as there is painting before and after Picasso."- Jean Cocteau

Rapid editing exists in an embryonic state in the gigantic work of Griffith. To Gance goes the honor of having so perfected this method that he deserves to be considered its inspired inventor. La roue is still the formidable cinematic monument in whose shadow all French cinematic art lives and breathes.

- Jean Epstein, from "For a New Avant Garde", January 1925

In rare moments scattered among various films, one has been able to have the confused feeling that there must be the truth. With La roue Gance has completely achieved cinematographic fact. Visual fragments collaborate closely with the actor and the drama, reinforce them, sustain them, instead of dissipating their effect, thanks to its masterful composition. Gance is a precursor and a fulfillment at the same time. His drama is going to mark an epoch in the history of cinema. His relationship is first of all a technical one. He absorbs objects and actors; he never submits to means that ought not to be confused with the desired end. In that above all his superiority over the American contribution resides. The latter, picturesque and theatrical in quality, in bondage to some talented stars, will fade as the actors fade. The art of La roue will remain, armed with its new technique, and it will dominate cinematographic art in the present and in the future.

- Ferdinand Leger, "La Roue: Its Plastic Quality," December 1922

Poetry has expected everything from film; let's acknowledge that it hasn't always been disappointed. Often the scenario has been magnificent and the actors wonderful. We've been indebted to them for profound emotions. Yet, while poetry has freed itself from all rules and fetters, the cinema still remains bound by a rigid and strictly common logic. Despite a number of endeavors, the screen still has not given us a chance to see a scenario unfold emancipated from human laws. Dreams there especially are perverted; none operate with the incomparable magic that is their charm. None, that is, when the filmmaker is served only by his memories.

Is the public which is thirsting for such manifestations so restricted? That should not be so. Here an educational effort might prove interesting. In any case, it is discouraging to see foolish sums of money swallowed up for imbecilic popularizations like La Roue and not to have any money at all available to tempt the desire of those whose freedom of mind is great enough to allow full license to the filmmaker. The cinema has nothing yet equivalent in audacity to the Ballets russes, nothing naturally as free as Couleurs du temps and Les Mamelles de Tiresias in the theater.

- Surrealist poet Robert Desnos, from "Le Reve et le cinema," 1923

La Roue began as a simple melodramatic tale, but in the course of six months scripting and a year's location shooting, the project took on quite a new dimension. In the central figure of Sisif, Gance seems to have struggled to create an amalgam of Oedipus, Sisyphus, and Lear. Meanwhile portions of the film that were eventually cut apparently developed a social satire of such ferocity that the railway unions demanded its excision. The most expensive film as yet made in France, its production was again delayed when the death of Gance's wife caused him to abandon work and take a five-month trip to the United States.

Like his previous work, La Roue had been conceived and shot in the pre-1914 style of French cinema, which was based on a conception of film as a series of long takes, each containing a significant section of the action, rather than as a succession of scenes made up of intercut shots of different lengths, taken from varying distances. But in Hollywood, where he met D.W. Griffith, Gance came into contact with the new American style of editing. Upon his return to France, Gance spent a whole year reediting his film. On its release in 1923 La Roue proved to be one of the stunning films of the decade. Even in its shortened version—comprising a prologue and four parts—the film had a combined running time of nearly eight hours.

- Roy Armes, Film Reference.com

Rene Clair on La roue

La roue is the archetype of the film that is Romantic in spirit. Just as in a Romantic drama, you will find in M. Abel Gance's film improbable situations, a superficial psychology, a constant attempt to achieve visual effects - and verbal effects as well - and you will find extraordinary lyrical passages and inspired moments of movement, one could even say, the sublime and the grotesque.

Given a drama so obviously "thought out," so carefully stuffed with literary ideas and ambitions, it is tempting to debate these with the author. No need to bother. If a screenplay ought to be merely a pretext, here it is a cumbersome pretext, sometimes annoying, rarely necessary, but in any case not deserving of lengthy consideration. It is hardly unusual that, like most filmmakers, M. Gance has made a mistake as a screenplay writer, even if the mistake is more serious at times than we are accustomed to. If we were asked to judge M. Gance by the psychological intentions he expresses on the screen and by the titles to write, I have to admit that my judgment would not be in his favor. But right now we are concerned with cinema.

As I see it, the real subject of the film is not its odd story, but a train, tracks, signals, puffs of steam, a mountain, snow, clouds. From these great visual themes that dominate his film, M. Gance has drawn splendid sequences. We had, of course, seen trains before moving along tracks at a velocity heightened by the obliging movie camera; but we had not been completely absorbed - orchestra, seats, auditorium, and everything around us - by the screen as if by a whirlpool. "That's only a feeling," you will tell me. Maybe. But we had not gone there to think. To see and feel is enough. Fifty years from now you can talk to me again about the cinema of ideas. This unforgettable passage is not the only one that testifies to M. Gance's talents. The catastrophe at the beginning of the film, the first accident Sisif tries to cause, the ascent of the cable car into the mountains, the death of Elie, the bringing down of his body, the circular dance of the mountaineers, and that grandiose ending amidst veils of cloud: those are sublime lyrical compositions that owe nothing to the other arts. Seeing them, we forget the quotations from Kipling, Aeschylus, and Abel Gance throughout the film, which tend to discourage us. And we start to hope.

Oh, if M. Abel Gance woudl only give up making locomotives say yes and no, lending a railroad engineer the thoughts of a hero of antiquity, and quoting his favorite authors! If he were willing to create a pure documentary, since he knows how to give life to a machine part, a hand, a branch, a wisp of smoke! If only he were willing to contribute in that way to the creation of the Film that can barely be glimpsed today!

Oh, if he were willing to give up literature and place his trust in the cinema!

- from "Les Films du mois: La Roue," published in Theatre et Commedia illustre, March 1923. Reprinted in Richard Abel, French Film Theory and Criticism. Published by Princeton University Press, 1993

Other comments

Even in its more widely distributed three hour version, the film feels slow and drawn out, and it is mainly Gance’s innovative techniques (most notably the rapid cutting in the racing train sequences) which keeps the film interesting.

- James Travers, FilmsdeFrance.com

Gance had achieved a major critical and commercial success with his 1919 antiwar film,“J’Accuse,” which ran a relatively modest three hours. His financial backer, Charles Pathé, was prepared to follow his director on another extravagant project, this time inspired by the 19th-century social epics of Victor Hugo and Émile Zola, and reflecting in equal measure Hugo’s dense, multigenerational plotting and Zola’s theories of biological predetermination. The result was a story that applied themes of incest and alcoholism to a sweeping narrative covering several decades and moving from the dark, grimy railroad yards of Nice to the blindingly white vistas of Mont Blanc.

The poet and future filmmaker Jean Cocteau spoke for many of his contemporaries when he said, “There is cinema before and after ‘La Roue,’ as there is painting before and after Picasso.”

Today that reaction is hard to comprehend. The psychology of the central relationships seems crudely deterministic: Sisif and Elie are crushed by their incestuous impulses as if by asteroids dropping from the sky, and once stricken, they are powerless to resist, staggering along like zombies. The performances Gance draws from his actors leave little room for nuance. As Sisif, Séverin-Mars (who died of a heart attack before the film was released) seems constantly to be begging for audience sympathy with his watery eyes and furrowed brow; as Norma, Ms. Close (a popular English actress who was the mother of Ronald Neame, the director of “The Poseidon Adventure”) is a standard gamine of the period, frisking with her pet goat.

But “La Roue” still fascinates as a grab bag of experimental techniques, which do not all belong in the same movie, but which clearly dazzled audiences of the time with the formal possibilities of this still relatively new medium. Circular forms, drawn from the title image, appear with maddening regularity: in the charging wheels of Sisif’s locomotive, the faces of ominously ticking clocks, the ring dance of a band of happy peasants.

Gance here develops the accelerating editing style that he would push further in “Napoléon”: a train wreck is built from a shot 10 frames in length, followed by a shot of nine frames, working all the way down to a single, subliminal flash. And he imposes poetic metaphors, as when an overhead shot of a slow-moving train dissolves into an image of a snail, and back again. Gance allowed his actors to walk out of focus as they approached the camera (here, to suggest inebriation); Sisif’s increasing blindness is portrayed by images taken through distorting glass and by iris effects that slowly close down on the actor’s face, isolating him in a field of darkness.

In his creative frenzy Gance frequently mixes tonal and emotional registers and points of view. Some of the trick shots look down on the characters, passing editorial judgments from the director’s perspective; others are meant to portray the characters’ inner turmoil. As in “Napoléon,” his style is ecstatic and impressionistic at one moment, stiffly academic at another.

Perhaps some of the initial enthusiasm for “La Roue” was generated by the sense of absolute freedom — from all current standards of narrative structure and formal coherence — that Gance projects with practically every sequence. It would be for future generations of filmmakers, including Cocteau himself, to balance that freedom with a sense of discipline and restraint, shaping unbridled effusion into poetic expression.

- Dave Kehr, The New York Times

Gance was both a classicist and a great film innovator, and La Roue is told in a blazingly brilliant style that blends stunning compositions and passionate acting with brilliantly accelerated editing techniques (in the action scenes), pounding volcanic cutting rhythms that went even further than Griffith’s and obviously were another major inspiration on Eisenstein and the Russians. La Roue, whose main admirers included the young Akira Kurosawa, is a cinematic masterpiece that we have never before seen with such power and complexity. It rends the emotions, drenches the eyes and quickens the heart.

- Michael Wilmington, The Daily Page

Gance was... a restless, relentless re-inventor of cinema, and his best films can play like a mad scientist's laboratory at full crank, filthy with inexplicable angles, double exposures, impossibly moving cameras, crazed speed montages ("La Roue"'s came before Eisenstein), etc. "La Roue" is a massive, tragic melodrama, but it's also a high-gear modernist landmark, and its restoration and DVD release is an event; probably due to its length, Gance's movie was never released in the U.S., and it's remained one of the most elusive and rarest of monumental silent classics.

- Michael Atkinson, IFC

There really is no other director like Gance. He draws upon the full range of graphic effects, from irises to dramatic masking, double exposures to composites, and unleashes his arsenal within the first few minutes. But his technical mastery is in the service of the story, and he transforms the story of La Roue into an emotional epic. He is a master conductor who plays scenes like symphonies of feelings, continuing long past the narrative point has been established to express the emotional intensity of the characters and situations, and to add moments of pure grace to the mighty drama.

- Sean Axmaker

La Roue is a powerful drama of life among the railroad workers, rich in psychological characterization and symbolic imagery. To dramatize his story of a railroad mechanic’s tortured love for his adopted daughter, Gance elaborated his use of masking and superimposition and perfected his fast cutting into the rapid montage that would soon be adopted by Russian and Japanese silent filmmakers for whom La Roue was a seminal influence. Complex in its thematics, the film’s images animate machines and the forces of nature with a life and spirit of their own while the wheel ("la roue") of the film’s title becomes a metaphor for life itself. Gance’s remarkable symbolism is exemplified in the film’s conclusion: as the old railway mechanic dies quietly and painlessly in his mountain chalet, his daughter joins the local villagers outside in the snow in a circular farandole dance, a dance in which nature itself, in the form of clouds, participates. Shot entirely on location at the railroad yards in Nice and in the Alps, La Roue remains a work of extraordinary beauty and depth. Jean Cocteau said of the film, "There is the cinema before and after La Roue as there is painting before and after Picasso," while Akira Kurosawa stated, "The first film that really impressed me was La Roue."

William M. Drew

The scenes of the engines pumping out vast billows of smoke and the flashing rails racing toward the horizon benefit from unalterable realism. In one of the best moments, Sisif, his thoughts roiled with guilt and desire, runs ahead of a pursuing locomotive at night, trapped in the pitiless glare of the headlight. Throughout, Gance uses a wide variety of vignetting techniques to concentrate our attention on the characters; more than once, the actors are isolated in tiny circles of light in the midst of a black screen, as though viewed through a microscope. Gance works his title metaphor hard: the wheel is the wheel of the locomotive and the endless round of suffering that is human life. In the moments of greatest physical and psychological stress, the rapid-fire, staccato editing reaches the point of cutting in images frame by frame. But Gance also knew how to slow down-the last scene of the first half circles slowly around the distraught Sisif as he stands in the center of the railroad roundhouse and pivots to look at the locomotive bays. It is his farewell to a world he can never see again.

- Michael S. Gant, Metroactive

Watching La roue is a heightened experience. It's definitely a silent movie in some of its acting style, but Gance's progressive direction does much more than simply record the action. The interior décor of Sisif's house is forever changing, with Elie working on his special violin varnish and Sisif constructing models of his inventions; the lighting effects through the windows are carefully observed, with trains passing and the time of day changing. Gance's close-ups are more organic to the action. He doesn't use then standard 'cameo' vignettes, and often frames faces in extreme angles with dramatic lighting.

Gance uses visual effects to express psychological concepts. When Sisif has his fortune told, a view of trains are superimposed into the palm of his hand. Norma's face appears reflected in windows and hovers in space when the men in the story think of her. We know that Sisif's obsession with the young girl has gone too far when he can't erase her phantom image, even after drawing a curtain over a window.

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk

La RoueMore crucial to La Roue's expressive force are Burel's long takes, fashioned by Gance into a slow pulse of magisterial image. If this were a symphony, it might be by Brahms, as the film yields an adagio of unutterable grief late in its second part. Sisif, now totally blind, has fashioned a large wooden cross that he must plant high on a mountain precipice, the scene of a senseless death the year before. Shot outdoors in very low light, the sight of the aged Sisif dragging the cross up a snowy slope is one of the great images of silent cinema.

- Gordon Thomas, Bright Lights Film Journal

Gance called La Roue (a.k.a. The Wheel) his "black and white" epic, setting the first half in the railroad yards (black) and the second half in the snowy mountains (white). Gance's visual inventiveness comes through in almost every shot, specifically in his unique editing, which sometimes repeats shots, and sometimes uses rapid-fire cutting to increase tension or excitement. When Sisif tries to crash his own train by increasing the speed, the film's rhythm builds to an intense frenzy. And when Sisif begins losing his vision, Gance responds by slowly fading the image up to pure white. This level of technical achievement was fairly rare for 1923, with perhaps the exception of Erich von Stroheim's work in America. Even D.W. Griffith didn't dare to turn such a wretched melodrama into an epic; he needed epic material to justify a film's size and length.

- Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid

La Roue opens with the most impressive depiction of machinery that I have seen to date, incorporating the dramatic violence of the locomotive into its own accelerated montage strategies - rapid editing, stark juxtapositions of light and darkness, and frequent alternations between close-ups, long shots and medium shots - producing a self-destructive aesthetic whose logical conclusion is the disastrous crash that sets the narrative events in play. In another context, these might seem melodramatic - an orphaned baby is rescued by a train driver and brought up by him and his son, both of whom fall in love with her, and both of whom, for that very reason, are afraid to reveal her true origins. But there's a mythological tone at work that tends to preclude melodrama, clearest in the slightly unreal location of the action - a kind of no-man's land between two rail junctions, more suited to a signal-box than a family home. This gives the locomotives the omniscient, ambivalent status of gods, capriciously (and often literally) directing events without having any vested interest in them, or comprehensibility to them. In the same way, the characters are almost entirely robbed of interiority, mechanised and mythologised to the point where they exist as mere impulse and action, disempowered everymen for an industrial age. Strangely, the third act departs from this topos, replacing it with a mountainous backdrop which is evocative if ultimately misplaced, producing a more predictably melodramatic conclusion.

- Billy Stevenson, A Film Canon

In the DVD liner notes, the claim is made that La roue invented the cross-dissolve; I am not certain that it was the first film released with that technique, but its long production time might well mean that Gance and his cameramen (Dissolves had to be done in-camera back then! The mind reels) came up with the idea before anybody else. Think about that for a second: the dissolve from one scene to another is such a familiar trick that some of us find it to be cheap and tasteless - maybe that's just me - but in 1922, it was brand new. Admittedly, some of the film's most impressive technical leaps are even less interesting to the modern viewer: the use of shocking, bold colors for the tinted scenes is unlike anything I've ever seen, and I cannot think of another movie with such a mature and elaborate system of iris shots (the "pinhole camera" frame) in any other film, but these are both techniques that were essentially dead after the coming of sound. I might also point out that, filming in the studio but also in Nice and at the peak of Mount Blanc, this is one of the earliest and probably the most ambitious of all location shoots in film history, beating John Ford's mythic The Iron Horse to the punch by two years.

- Antagony and Ecstasy

The railway forms more than just the backdrop to La roue—trains play an important role by continually driving the story forward. The imagery is tremendously powerful, and the story-line, with its twists and turns, is well adapted to the medium of film. I believe that even today, La roue is the most memorable railway film ever made.

- Jiro Hanyu, "Railways in Film," the Japan Railway & Transport Review

Dennis Grunes

Dennis Schwartz

Bob Ham, DVD Corner

Deeper readings

The idea of the symphonic was in fact to have an immense importance in French attempts to establish an aesthetics of film. The definition of cinema as "the music of light," attributed to Gance but also claimed by several others, including Emile Vuillermoz and Elie Faure, became an accepted term in writings about film in the early 1920s. And for all its neat oversimplifications, Henri Langlois' description of Germaine Dulac remains a pertinent characterisation of a dominant impressionist tendency: "she sees music, she thinks music, she always considers film not as a fresco but as a symphony of images in which each shot, through its tonality and length, has the same value as a sound. She plays on montage as she would play the piano." As long as one doesn't eliminate poetry and dance, this view could be applied to most of the French avant-garde, from Leger to Rene Clair, Jean Epstein, and Blaise Cendrars. What they all have in common is their reference to Gance as point of origin, especially to La roue, which seemed to prove that cinema even in a proletarian setting and addressed to a popular audience was an art for the future. It had elevated cinema incontrovertibly to the status and dignity of music. This may seem to be an argument in favour of the "musical analogy," and indeed Gance continued to insist through to the late 1920s that cinema had to equate itself with music, to become a visual orchestra, performing symphonies in time and space. But music was not simply an analogy, it was, as La roue further exemplifies, a determinant of the image, providing a basis for tonality, movement within the frame and cutting between frames, even though in this instance the "source" of the music is not present in the image.

From its conception, La roue was mapped out in terms of musical metaphors. It was to be a symphony in black and white, or, more precisely, a "white symphony following on from a black symphony." A first part set in the soot and smoke of marshalling yards and railway engines, a second set high up in the Alps - contrasting worlds made for the cinema. Much later Gance described the film as a poem in which each image counts, like a note in music, echoing Langlois' comments on Dulac. But as in La dixieme symphonie, music had a definite function within the film. His project, she declared in a 1920 interview, was "to paint a visual opera," to establish a direct relationship between the vibrations of sound and light, to unite photography and Rachmaninov. Like La dixieme symphonie it was a melodrama, not the "cathedral of light" he aspired to construct but a film that would be understood by a popular audience and which would at the same time have universal significance. The hero is an engine driver called Sisif (Sisyphus), but within this proletarian actualisation of myth, music takes on a new function. It isn't something that is composed and performed within a narrative from which it then escapes. Music and image are conceived together.

This attempt to construct a visual equivalent of sound provoked one of the great pitched battles in film history. La roue was either an outrage, a bombastic, overblown and overlong piece of triviality, or the first cinematic oeuvre that demonstrated what the new art might become.

- Richard Abel, from Silent Film. Published by Rutgers University Press, 1996. Pages 35-36.

The central opposition of Clair's analysis, between "thinking" (literature) and "feeling" (cinema, reveals a profound misunderstanding of - or hostility to - Gance's project. To try to separate out the purely cinematic virtues of La roue from the director's moral messages is, finally, to misread him and make his work radically less interesting and compelling than it can be when read more sympathetically. At his best, Gance was a visionary filmmaker who made no distinction between ideas and feelings. The cinematographic experiments in his works can only fully be understood as expressions, and affective explications, of his philosophical positions. The wheel of the title (explicitly identified in the film's beginning as an instrument of torture, and implicitly identified with locomotives) represents human existence...

Commentators such as Rene Clair (and, more recently, Richard Abel) who reject Gance's visionary, philosophical project must inevitably view La roue as a mass of contradictions, a work which combines the supposedly antithetical elements of "pure cinema," literary and philosophical quotations, melodrama, a certain social realism, and so on. But it was the very heart of Gance's life project to overcome contradictions. A huge number of disparate elements are to be found in his films because he put them there deliberately, so that his work could become the site of their reconciliation. Perhaps he did not always succeed, indeepd perhaps he never did, but there is no doubt that his was a conscious and in its own way sophisticated endeavor, and not the naive, almost embarrassing primitivism it is sometimes made out to be. Currently available versions of La Roue probably seem clumsy and contradictory because too much has been cut from them. Gance structure his film as a poetic visual text, based on extensive formal repetition which figures his character's plight. The wheel, its complementary motif the cross, blackness, whiteness, hands, impressions of speed or slowness, and many other elements are repeated, varied, and combined in different ways. To understand the film, to allow the necessary, and for many viewers difficult, suspension of (philosophical) disbelief, we will have to see it in a version as close as possible to its original proportions.

- Alan Larson Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking. Published by Harvard University Press, 1992. Pages 90-91

Abel Gance's La roue is often placed beside Greed in advancing the thesis that the silent film was gradually refined into a realist medium. There are major similarities in the thematic entanglements in the two films - in their grubby, lower-class atmosphere and the sexual tension among the central characters - but Gance's interests are distinct from Von Stroheim's. In Von Stroheim's films the cutting does not fragment the compositions but highlights their most dramatic, psychologically symbolic features. Gance favors a far more furious pace: his camerawork continually upsets the permanence of his settings to expose the dynamic, disparate action and the characters' emotional instability. In La Roue, and more so in Napoleon, Gance's kinetic camera is distinguished from the fast-paced style of the American comedy film and from Griffith's epics - as well as from the historical dialectic of the Russian cinema - by seeking out the numerous dramatic details of his chaotic reality. Sets like the father's home in La Roue or the assembly in Napoleon are not presented in rigid, formal terms but as a means of emphasizing the interaction of conflicting social forces and human emotions. The psychological validity of La Roue derives from Gance's sudden editing permutations, which seem to explode on the screen with all the forcefulness of the train the father drives; it is a complex and ultimately confusing framework. Gance's experimentation with a variety of camera angles and the different speeds at which various sequences play overwhelm the viewer's hold on reality. He is exploring a theme similar to the one in Greed, human obsessions and how they are defined through a myriad of cinematic techniques.

- Aaron Sultanik, from Film, a Modern Art. Published by Associated University Presses, 1986. Page 108.

About the Flicker Alley DVD

The virtually simultaneous appearance of restored, two-disc editions of Abel Gance’s 1923 blockbuster from Flicker Alley in the US and Marcel L’Herbier’s no less oversized L’argent (1929) in France highlights the unusual proximity of avant-garde and mainstream filmmaking in France during the 20s. (Two other interesting common points: both are derived from Zola novels, albeit unofficially in the case of the Gance film, which is said to derive in part from La bête humaine; and both DVDs include a contemporary “making of” documentary—in the case of La roue, a short film by Gance’s friend and collaborator Blaise Cendrars.) Since I’m already writing about L’argent for the online Moving Image Source, I’ll focus here on the Gance, beautifully outfitted with Fernand Léger’s original poster for the film on the box and a symphonic Robert Israel score inside. Seven-and-a-half hours long on its first release, La roue (The Wheel) has been restored to only four-and-a-half hours here, but this is still the longest version to have appeared anywhere since 1923, and the clarity of the images is exceptional. (My only regret is that the original French intertitles aren’t included, even optionally—an ironic turn of events for a film that apparently never even opened in North America.) Based on what I’ve seen so far, the wild eclecticism of Gance’s rapid montage and superimpositions is a triumph of sustained intensity, and the film may well qualify as the ultimate train movie; in her fascinating book Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (1997), Lynne Kirby understandably devotes more than 20 pages to it.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Cinema-scope

Music makes all the difference in a film like this, and it's easy to imagine how the experience might be rendered tedious if not for [Robert] Israel's score. With funding from Turner Classic Movies (which aired the restored film in late April), the assignment called for roughly 4½ hours of musical accompaniment, with Israel drawing from nothing more than the brief prelude composer Arthur Honegger wrote for the film's original release. The rest of the score, like nearly three hours of the film itself, has been lost to the ages.

Building upon earlier compositions of his own to evoke the energy of Gance's work, Israel delivers far more than background music. His score begins with the bombastic energy of the opening train wreck, but mellows out as the film progresses. When Gance shifts gears to the mountains, the music helps smooth the transition, echoing each character's theme in a softer, more romantic context. It's important to remember that silent films were never silent. Without a score of this caliber, contemporary audiences would find it virtually impossible to appreciate Gance's achievement.

- Bruce Calvert, Nitrateville

Our first look at the disc reveals an excellent full-frame video transfer that has chiefly utilized a 35mm master positive of the common 12-reel version of the film, supplemented with a 35mm eight-reel print of the Russian release version, and two incomplete color-tinted 35mm nitrate prints of a longer French version of the film. Two short scenes are presented from a 9.5mm reduction print — the only known footage to survive of these scenes. Some sections of the source prints are marred with the expected amount of dust, speckling, emulsion scratches and processing artifacts. This edition, produced by Eric Lange, David Shepard and Jeffrey Masino, with support from Turner Classic Movies, represents the most-complete version of La roue to be seen since the 1920s.

Easily one of the three most-important DVD releases of 2008, we enthusiastically recommend this edition of La roue.

-Silent Era.com

Video: La Roue is a full-frame presentation, and given the age and scope of the picture, the DVD producers have done a tremendous job resurrecting it. Notes that come with the booklet in this release detail how this version was cobbled together using a variety of sources, and though the print is not perfect, it's clear they went out of their way to use the best material for each scene. There is some noticeable wear and tear, usually seen as surface scratches and sometimes spots and burns in the film, but these problems are usually minimal and the image quality is always clear. Very rare scenes have tremendous damage, and even they are still perfectly watchable. Surprisingly, the picture never gets jumpy, and even splices are clean. Undoubtedly, the people involved gave their every attention to making this the best it could be.

The picture is black-and-white, but tinted with various changing colors, as well. It's only by some weird coincidence that all of my screengrabs are the standard gray.

Sound: One stereo sound mix is available, featuring the new score by Robert Israel. Israel uses a full orchestra, as well as the occasional integrated sound effect, and the audio is excellent, using the different speakers to give the work a large atmosphere. It's a good score, never overbearing even as it enhances the onscreen action.

New English title cards were produced for this edition, and they also include some effects, like the delayed appearance of a closing line of a sentence to add drama. There are also occasional passages that appear over the top of the scene like subtitles, and if written words appear as part of the props, such as a letter, there are smooth fades from the French text to English translations. All of the text is easy to read, staying on screen for the right amount of time to allow proper digestion.

Extras: Only a couple of extras here, this two-disc set is mostly movie. The one that surprised me the most was "Autour De La Roue," a period behind-the-scenes documentary that collects over eight-minutes of on-set footage, put together like its own silent movie with explanatory title cards. It's rather fascinating to see a 1920s movie production at work, including shooting on location and with the big trains.

The original press book is also presented as a video feature, with the pages automatically turning after a couple of seconds. The text is in French and given without translation.

Inside the DVD case, which has a hinged tray to accommodate both discs, is a sixteen-page booklet with an essay on the history of the film by William M. Drew and notes from composer Robert Israel.

- Jamie S. Rich, DVD Talk

About Abel Gance

IMDb Wiki

Abel Gance was a giant of cinema art, a genius whose artistic courage and humanist vision created masterpieces that inspired many other directors, from his silent film contemporaries in the 1920s to the French Nouvelle Vague of the 1950s and 1960s. The failure of much of the critical establishment in the 20th century to fully recognize or appreciate Gance’s artistry, a tragic oversight which succeeding generations will surely rectify, was perhaps the inevitable consequence of the director’s prescient conception of his medium. Constantly experimenting with new techniques to express his view of life on screen, Gance expanded the possibilities of film as an art beyond any of his contemporaries. Yet, while devising dazzling technical innovations to achieve what he called "the music of light," he never lost sight of humanity, inspiring his players to give intense and vital performances in narratives whose sweep embraced both epic grandeur and lyric tenderness. Gance’s vision was at once romantic and realistic, larger than life in its heroic and mystical dimensions, yet sensitive to historical documentation and location shooting, incorporating the details of actuality. His much-misunderstood conception of the heroic, a direct challenge to skeptics and naysayers, paid tribute to the aspirations of the human spirit for transcendence. For Gance, the hero was not a manifestation of elitism based on traditional views of group and caste, but rather an individual of tremendous creativity and insight whose tragedy resulted both from the fierce opposition of an entrenched establishment and the reality of his own human limitations. Invariably a man of the people voicing the need for radical change, the Gance protagonist was ultimately isolated from mass society because of his failure to adapt to its fundamental conservatism which is in constant tension with its simultaneous yearning for revolutionary transformation. Expressing these conflicts in his work, Abel Gance created films that are unique and timeless in their dynamic portrayal of the triumphs and dilemmas of humanity in its search for the ideal.

- William M. Drew

Abel Gance is universally recognized as one of the greatest directors in history. Often compared with Erich von Stroheim for his talent, extravagence, imagination and ego, his experiments in camera movement, editing, and cinematography exceeded anything being done by his contemporaries and redefined the parameters of film discourse. But he often provoked animosity promoting his own genius and aggravated producers by running over budget on ever-expanding projects. Finally, like von Stroheim, the advent of sound prevented Gance from realizing his ambitions.

La Roue's (1922) story concerns a railroad engineer named Sisif (combining Sisyphus, Oedipus and Lear), the incestuous passion he shared with his son for his adopted daughter, and his desperate attempts to repress that passion. Like Gance's previous work, La Roue was unabashedly melodramatic and pompous, the title referring to train wheels, the wheel of fortune and a Victor Hugo quote which preceded the story. But the level of technical daring was so breathtaking that Jean Epstein called La Roue "the formidable cinematic monument in whose shadow all French cinematic art lives and believes." Gance spent six months on the script and an entire year shooting on location. Then came tragedy: Gance's wife died of tuberculosis the day he finished shooting. He mourned in the US where he met D.W. Griffith at the New York premiere ofJ'accuse!. Griffith was so impressed he invited Gance to his studio. As a result of this encounter, Gance spent an additional year reediting La Roue. Filled with contradictions, it also contains sensational climaxes and truly lyrical moments. Among the innovations: rhetorical figuring; dramatic lighting effects; sophisticated editing used for inserts, flashbacks, and parallel action; and dazzling rhythmic montage so extraordinary that when Russian directors Eisenstein and Pudovkin visited France they thanked Gance for having taught them editing.

For years Gance has been undervalued because he focused his attention on style rather than narrative, because of his predilection for melodramas, and because of the deplorable state of available prints. His work is often pretentious, lacks rigor and represents the antithesis of narrative modernity. But thanks in large part to Brownlow (along with Francis Coppola and others), Napoleon and Gance's reputation have been restored to their proper places in film history. Having taken film further technologically and esthetically than any of his contemporaries, Gance has finally been recognized as the major figure in French film of the 1920s.

- Turner Classic Movies

939 (80). Varieté aka Variety aka Vaudeville (1925, E.A. Dupont)

screened Thursday October 30 2008 on NYFA VHS in Astoria NY TSPDT rank #827 IMDb

One of the seminal works of silent cinema, this love-triangle melodrama among vaudeville acrobats was lauded by no less than the likes of Jean Mitry and Gilles Deleuze for infusing German expressionism into the norms of classical film grammar (i.e. shot/reverse shot and subjective-objective cinematography). Historical importance aside, it's a conventional affair with a cheap salvation ending, graced with excellent performances by Emil Jannings (a hard sell as a 250 lb. acrobat, but fun to watch for his strenuous conviction) and proto-vamp Lya de Putti as his cheating wife. Dupont would apply his considerable talents to a more interesting script with 1929's Piccadilly, but the innovative lensing of the immortal Karl Freund, especially during the thrilling acrobatic sequences, keeps the mise-en-scene lively. Imagine having never seen a shot fly through the air before and you can get a sense of what audiences, critics and subjective lens film theorists went crazy about.

Want to go deeper?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Variety on the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:

Alexander Korda, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Campbell Dixon, Sight & Sound (1952) Carol Reed, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Connery Chappell, Sight & Sound (1952) David Lean, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Willi Forst, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Well guess what - you can watch Variety in its entirety on YouTube! And it appears to be the original European cut (see explanation and significance as follows):

When American audiences were permitted to see German filmmaker E.A. Dupont's silent masterpiece Variety, it was the story of a carnival concessionaire (Emil Jannings), his alluring wife (Lya de Putti), and the handsome acrobat (Warwick Ward) who comes between them. Feeling doubly impotent because he himself had been a famous aerialist before suffering a crippling accident, Jannings fantasizes about killing his rival -- and, finally, does so. After serving a long prison term, Jannings is released by a compassionate warden, who feels as though the poor cuckold has suffered enough. This, again, is what Americans saw. In the original European version of Variety, which ran nearly twice as long as the U.S. print, Jannings deserts his wife (Maly Delschaft) when de Putti enters the scene. Moreover, he never marries de Putti, meaning that his only hold over her when Ward steals her away is an emotional one. Dupont had fashioned an ironic tale of a man suffering betrayal after having himself betrayed. The American censors wouldn't swallow that, nor would they pass the charming domestic scene wherein Jannings helps de Putti disrobe, unless the prologue involving Delschaft was chopped out and de Putti was transformed from mistress to wife. Though this sort of bowdlerization might seem like an artistic outrage, the American version of Variety is in fact superior to the original, especially in terms of pace; what seemed interminable in the German version zips along at an entertaining clip in the revised print.

~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

The strongest and most inspiring drama that has ever been told by the evanescent shadows is at the Rialto. It is a German film known as "Variety" and was produced by the Ufa concern in Berlin about a year ago under the direction of E. A. Dupont. In this picture there is a marvelous wealth of detail; the lighting effects and camera work cause one to reflect that occasionally the screen may be connected with art. While there may be some speculation concerning the appeal of this striking piece of work, because use of the tragic climax of the actual story, there is no doubt regarding its merit. Scene after scene unlocks a flood of thoughts, and although the nature of the principal characters is far from pleasing; the glimpses one obtains are so true to life that they are not repellent.

Emil Jannings, who is best remembered for his acting in "The Last Laugh" and "Passion," fills the principal rôle. He is theatric at times, but his performance is a masterly one. He is not alone in this feature, and it may be a matter of opinion as to whether Lya de Putti and Warwick Ward, an English actor, are not even better than Mr. Jannings in their portrayals. Certainly Jannings has the least conventional rôle and more to tell by his expressions. However, Miss de Putti and Mr. Ward give an extraordinarily brilliant account of themselves and they rise to the occasion in episodes that are by no means easy to handle

This is a production which not only shows the way in which a story should be unfurled, but impresses one with the magic of the camera in picturing effects, such as the torrent of thoughts rushing through a maddened mind, and the views of the audience from the eyes of a hurtling trapeze performer.

- Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, June 28, 1926

This 1925 film remains the textbook example of German expressionism with its moody lighting, intimations of decadence, and fluid, subjective camera work (by the great Karl Freund). Yet the blatancy that makes it so easy to teach is also its chief drawback as art. Expressionism needed the taste and insight of a Murnau to be transformed from a manner to a style; this film, untransformed, is the work of the negligible E.A. Dupont. Emil Jannings, the standard-bearer of German masochism, stars as a trapeze artist betrayed by his mistress (Lya De Putti) for his younger partner (Warwick Ward).

- Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

Dupont's most celebrated film (it was one of the most famous films in the world in 1925) unfolds in a long series of flashbacks from a prison straight out of a Van Gogh painting: prisoner No 28 (Jannings, with his back to the camera more often than not) is granted remission, and in return tells the story of his crime to the governor. The story itself is a banal triangle melodrama: a trapeze duo in the Berlin music-hall becomes a trio, and the lady switches gentlemen, driving the cuckold to murder his rival. The treatment, though, is something else again. Impressionistic lighting, lingering expressionist imagery, and giddily mobile camerawork are all pushed to unprecedented extremes, like Murnau on speed. Hard to take it too seriously, but the bravura style and Lya de Putti's coquettish performance remain as impressive as ever.

- Time Out

The plot of "Varieté" is a rather trite and conventional melodrama of heated passion and seething jealousy. However, this has always been popular subject matter with audiences. In Dupont's hands, the film became an immediate success, and it won rave notices throughout Europe. It was a tremendous hit in New York City where it did a sensational business for over six weeks. Many cites in the United States were shocked by the film's immorality, and Paramount deleted the first two reels (twenty minutes) entirely. The subsequent viewers in the other parts of the United States saw the censored version that was missing the opening scenes where the owner of the carnival meets the new dancer, deserts his family and moves to Berlin with his new girlfriend. The American sanitized version has him and his girlfriend as man and wife. Even in its censored version it retained its power and went on to become "the Best Picture Of The Year." This film was also listed on the N.Y. Times "Top 10 Films of 1926."

Variety (film reviews), June 30, 1926, states, "Opened at the Rialto, New York, June 27, for a run limited to six weeks, running time 92 minutes. "Variety" is a corking picture, made anywhere as it has been much in Germany. It has variety, so much, so many an American director may be only to eager to watch it the second time . . ."

"Varieté" was directed by Ewald Andre Dupont (E.A. Dupont), and the cast included Emil Jannings, Lya de Putti, Maly Delschaft, Warwick Ward, and Georg John. The screen adaptation of the novel was done by Dupont who once had been the manager of a vaudeville theater and was acquainted with carnival atmosphere. The film was also notable for its unconventional impressionistic use of swirling light and movement and spectacular camera effects. It was a tremendous success, stylistically influential, and brought Dupont to the attention of Hollywood, where, rather sadly, he ended up making mostly B-movies.

- John DeBartolo, SilentsAreGolden.com

Profile by Diana Savage

Article in Spanish by Antonio Belmonte in Pasion Silente

Deeper readings

It was not until The Last Laugh (Murnau, 1924) and, in particular, Variety that the subjective image passed into the language of the cinema, when the "objective-subjective" or "onlooker-lookd upon" equation became identified with shot-reverse-shot, both being used more and more extensively...

This method of narration, constantly opposing - or juxtaposing - the objective and the subjective, or, to be more exact, the descriptive and analytic images, has been the one most frequently in use since it was first established in Variety.

- Jean Mitry, translated by Christopher King. The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Published by Indiana University Press, 1999. Pages 207, 214.  Also see pages 345-346 for a brilliant examination of subjectively expressive framing in one sequence from the film.

It is significant that Variete embraces the most up-to-date technologies in its presentation of this spectacle; for in the 1920s, the measure of a groundbreaking variety act lay in its use of technological innovation. As Michael Esser explains, for the filming of the scenes in which the camera follows the artists as they fly through the air on trapezes, a camera was strapped to trapezes opposite the actors in order to capture the movement and path of the acrobatics. Similarly, it was necessary to install many more lights than was usual in the Wintergarten to achieve the play of light that mimics the actors' vertiginous movements through the air, and the rich star-filled sky of the cupola. To photograph a potential fall of Artinelli later in the narrative, the spotlight and camera running at slow speed were lowered by a cable; thus, when projected, the motion of the falling body would be fast. As Esser explains, Variete served as a vehicle for all of Ufa's high-production values and aesthetic trademarks, including a rhapsodic display of the moving camera and a rich, drmaatic use of lights and lighting: "The moving camera, shadow-rich, dramatic light, the star quality of Emil Jannings, the erotic radiance of Lya de Putti, the rich, detailed architecture, the exotic fairground and, the finishing touch of German sentimentality" are all in the interests of publicizingUfa's production potential. Notwithstanding the important role played by the studio in the produciton of Variete, it is also significant that Karl Freund was the cameraman, and was thus involved in the lighting compositions and constructions for the film. As in hiscollaboration with Paul Wegener on Der Golem, Freund used the material of the story to experiment further with the possibilities of his medium. These sophisticated technical strategies, in particular the use of light and lighting to mimic the movement of bodies through the air, are among the innovations of Variete. In this film, it is not only the camera, but also the potential movement of electrical light that creates a new, modern form of variety entertainment. These explorations of artificial light, in their marriage with the film camera, articulate the uniqueness and fascination of the film for contemporary audiences. As in the historical examples, when Boss, Bertha-Maria, and Artinelli perform in the Berlin Wintergarten, the excitement, energy and precision of their performance is reiterated in the most vanguard of technologies: through the conjunction of light, lighting, and camera...

...Seen in its entirety, then, Variete sustains this tension between the moral decadence of modern industrial life and a celebration for the technological phenomena - such as cinema and variety shows - that produce it. This is not to say that through this irresolution Variete equivocates either its critique or its celebratino of a technologically inflected mass entertainment. On the contrary, the conflict adds a vibrancy and complexity to the film that makes it neither simply radical nor reactionary. By creating narrative tensions through eruptions of technological spectacle, Variety represents the Janus-faces advance to a technologically inflected modern Germany. On the one hand, the advent of such spectacular entertainment was genuinely thrilling to its audiences. On the other hand, such wonders disturbed preexisting value systems, namely, a moral universe underwritten by family and sexual fidelity. Thus, in Variete we see an outstanding example of the German silent film's tendency to displace the mystical search for transcendental knowledge through representations of light onto an exploration of conflicts in the moral fabric of the secular, historical world.

- Frances Guerin, A Culture of Light: Cinema and Technology in 1920s Germany, Published by U of Minnesota Press, 2005. Pages 204-205, 215

While the film celebrates the modernity of its own camera and editing techniques, it remains very ambivalent about the urban modernity, upward mobility, “Americanism,” and destabilization of traditional gender identities it so sensationally depicts. Variety, despite all its citation – and mobilization – of the forms of mass spectacle and entertainment associated with Weimar modernity, remains an “art film.” The German “art cinema” of the 1920s is characterized on the one hand by a certain aesthetic conservatism that reflects the ambivalence about film and mass culture on the part of intellectuals so well documented in Anton Kaes’s Kino-Debatte (“Debate About the Cinema”). On the other hand, the art cinema often manifests a political conservatism typical of large German industries during the 1920s, including the film industry, which was becoming ever more concentrated throughout the decade. By “political conservatism” I mean the generally anti-democratic, class-based hierarchical elitism characteristic of the dominant social gropus in the Weimar Republic. Hence the rather cynical (and strategic) contradiction of producing films ambivalent about mass culture and modernity that were themselves stunning spectacles made with all the technical expertise money could buy…

The German “art cinema” began around 1912 and is often called an Autorenkino, or “cinema of authors/auteurs”. By the 1920s, the German art film was only one of many products – and strategies – of a large, commercial film industry. It was certainly nothing very similar to the concept of a low-budget Autorenkino with oppositional ambitions that we associate with the “new German Cinema” of the 1970s. Certainly for Variety it is a debatable term, at least if the director Dupont is supposed to be the film’s “author”; the producer Pommer and the cinematographer Karl Freund were both arguably much more important for the film. Pommer intended Variety to capitalize on the mobile-camera techniques Freund ahd developed in The Last Laugh, the film Pommer wanted to use Freund again to film Variety, but for the director he chose Dupont over Murnau, apparently because he felst that the latter was unsuited to directing a melodrama so focused on (heterosexual) sex. It was also Pommer who persuaded Dupont to film the story in the new dynamic visual style that he wanted to market.

For although The Last Laugh had been a critical success, and while it had wowed and intimidated Hollywood with its technical virtuosity, it had not been an overwhelming box office hit. Proving Pommer’s calculations right, Variety did become such a hit, both in Germany and the United States. Early on German critics aw it as the film the German film industry had long awaited, one that could compete with American cinema; the German trade journal Kintematograph asserted that the film was sure to conquer “even the aloof Americans”… Variety was for a long time the one great success Ufa managed to achieve in the United States…

Although Kracauer writes about the film’s “realism,” neither the film’s rather generic melodramatic plot nor the dizzying effects of its camera work and editing for the trapeze sequences appear to today’s sensibilities to be especially “realistic.” Kracauer is right, however: in 1925 Variety was famous precisely for its realism. This reputation had much to do with its impressive “documentary” shots of Berlin and Hamburg: for example, the carnival in Hamburg’s St. Pauli district, and in Berlin the Friedrichstrasse railway station, certain street scenes, and the interior shots of the Wintergarten. Shooting on location was still relatively rare in the German art film, which was famous primarily for its carefully constructed studio sets that could be illuminated so precisely and expressively. In this way Variety is clearly related to New Objectivity and associated trends of the middle and later 1920s in German film, photography, theater, literature, and painting. In which the attempt to move toward a documentary approach was noted.

…As Kracauer wrote in Die Angestellten (“The White Collar Employees,” 1929), the secret of New Objectivity was precisely that behind its modern façade, something very sentimental was often lurking. For all Variety’s modern technical virtuosity, the film is not merely sentimental, but very conservative in its critique of aspects of modernity. It participates in the cynical strategy of dressing its conservative message in the most modern of forms – given its commercial success, one might say that it is one of the most successful examples of the strategy. For the evil that destroys the good-natured family man, Boss, is clearly connected to his desire to be a star of the trapeze again – to be at the center of the spotlight of mass entertainment, the beneficiary of the appetite of the modern masses for spectacle and distraction…

The film’s cynical ambivalence about its own project creates a distance between narrative and spectacle that is reflexive. Its technical virtuosity is typical of New Objective fetishization of technology, and its use of a lurid, sensational melodramatic plot mirrors the move in New Objectivity toward more accessible narratives and toward an apparent embrace of mass culture. The film’s most famous cinematic techniques involve the use of mobile camera from subjective points of view, most impressively in the dizzying shots of the acrobats high above the audience in the Wintergarten, and these techniques tend to foreground themselves through a virtuoisity in excess of the needs of the plot. In addition, the film’s own constructions of looking are foregrounded, thematized quite explicitly – even melodramatically – in a collage of eyes that is intercut with shots of Boss on the trapeze at his most conflicted moment, as he is indeed being watched by everyone in the huge hall. It can be argued that even the melodramatic narrative itself reflects on the institution of the cinema (although perhaps unintentionally so): the protagonist’s precipitous rise from his origins as a “vulgar” carnival performer to a performer in a glamorous hall in which the upper classes ogle him is a trajectory that parallels the rise of cinema itself from despised lower-class entertainment to a more bourgeois one. But the comment on cinema is in that case quite negative, for it becomes a part of a topsy-turvy world of glittering mass celebrity that is marked as clearly dangerous and destabilizing.

… Although my emphasis here on reactionary, anti-democratic attitudes in the film would seem to align my reading with Kracauer’s overall verdict on Weimar cinema, I would like to stress where I differ with him: Kracauer (at least in his famous postwar book From Caligari to Hitler) has more or less the same take on “male retrogression” / “decadence”/”degeneracy” as the right wing in the Wiemar Republic did, namely, that it is bad, one of the serious flaws in Weimar culture. Variety sends a very clear – and anti-modern – message about modernity, democracy, and popular culture; linked to these targets is also another target: the emerging fluidity of gendered and sexual identities that many of us celebrate now (and rightfully so). Variety is in tune with elite opinion in Weimar when it demonizes that fluidity as “degenerate.” But perhaps this film’s fascinated obsession with that fluidity is ultimately of more interest than the strident attempt to make its disapproval clear.

- Richard W. McCormick. Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity: Film, Literature, and "New Objectivity". Published by Macmillan, 2001. Pages 73, 74, 75, 78, 79, 86t

About E.A. Dupont


German director E. A. Dupont was involved in his country's movie industry almost before there was an industry; as early as 1911, Dupont was Germany's foremost film critic. He began directing in 1917, with his first major commercial success, The Ancient Law, coming along six years later. In 1925, Dupont directed the influential German sex-triangle melodrama Variety, which still retains its classic status seventy years later, even in the heavily edited and severely reshaped version prepared for American release (in which, among many other alterations, the hero's mistress was transformed into his wife). On the strength of Variety, Dupont was signed by Hollywood's Universal studios; but only one Universal film, the saccharine Love Me and the World is Mine (1927), would be completed before Dupont headed for England. In 1929, he directed the Anglo/German epic Atlantic, a retelling of the Titanic tragedy significant only as the first European all-talkie. Dupont returned to the States in 1933, where he was assigned a dispiriting progression of "B"-pictures and programmers. Unhappy with the lack of opportunities afforded him in Hollywood, Dupont became a talent agent in 1940, a profession he pursued for nine years. Back in the director's chair for a strange melodrama titled The Scarf (1949), which he also wrote, Dupont resumed his directing career in the '50s once more with such results as 1955's The Neanderthal Man. Just before his death in 1956, E. A. Dupont wrote and directed The Magic Fire, a biopic of composer Richard Wagner.

- Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

Some directors are able to maintain a steady flow of talent in all their work. Others, like E.A. Dupont, are remembered for one outstanding moment in their career. Variété, or Vaudeville as it is also known, was one of the most exciting films to come from Germany in the 1920s. Dupont made many other good films, but his career as a whole is a rather tragic one. This was partly due to personal deficiencies and partly due to circumstances over which he had no control. Some European directors flourished in Hollywood; Dupont was not one of them.

Dupont worked outside the then-current German expressionist style, being more human and realistic in his approach to filmmaking. This was evident in his tour de force Variété, a tale of jealousy and death amongst trapeze artists. Its powerful realism, visual fluidity, and daring techniques, coupled with the superb performances of Jannings, Lya de Putti, and Warwick Ward, made it stand out in a year rich with achievement. The virtuoso camerawork of Karl Freund contributed not merely to the spatial and temporal aspects of the film but in the revelation of motive and thought. The uninhibited sensuality depicted by the film led to censorship problems in many countries. Inevitably, Dupont went to Hollywood, where he directed a not entirely successful Love Me and the World Is Mine for Universal. In 1928 he made two stylish films in England: Moulin Rouge, which exploited the sensual charms of Olga Tschechowa, and Piccadilly, with Gilda Gray and Anna May Wong (Charles Laughton made his film debut in a small role).

With the coming of sound, Atlantic, made in German and English, proved a considerable version of the Titanic story. But the two British sound films that followed suffered from weak acting that belied the striking sets. With Salto Mortale, made in Germany in 1931 and featuring Anna Sten and Adolph Wohlbruch, Dupont returned to the scene of his earlier Variété. Two more films were made in Germany before he found himself a Jewish refugee in Hollywood. Here his career was uneven. Factory-produced B pictures gave him no scope for his talents.

Dupont was dismissed for slapping a Dead End Kid who was mocking his foreign accent. This humiliating experience played havoc with his morose and withdrawn personality. He became a film publicist, a talent agent, and wrote some scripts. He returned in 1951 to direct The Scarf, a film of some merit for United Artists. Dupont also dabbled in television. He wrote the script for a film on Richard Wagner that was directed by his former protege William Dieterle in 1956. In December of the same year he died of cancer in Los Angeles. A sad case. Sad too to see the name of his great photographer Karl Freund on the credits of I Love Lucy.

—Liam O'Leary, Film Reference.com

Another biography by Thomas Staedeli Focus on Dupont's years in Britain at BFI Screenonline

About Lya de Putti

Lya de Putti was born in 1899 in Hungary to wealthy parents, her mother a former countess, and her father a Baron and a cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. She began as a dancer in vaudeville and eventually became a ballet dancer in Berlin. She starred in many of the films produced by the German UFA company playing vamp roles. She went to Hollywood in 1926 where she starred in several films and died at the beginning of the sound era.

- John DeBartolo, SilentsAreGolden.com

Detailed biography by Thomas Staedeli

Lya de Putti has a MySpace page

About Emil Jannings

Emil Jannings ran away from home at the age of sixteen to become a sailor. After serving as an assistant cook he returned to Germany and became a professional actor on the stage. When he made his screen debut in 1914, he was an established and well-known stage actor. "Varieté" was made after his appearance in Murnau's "The Last Laugh" (UFA, 1924), and he was acclaimed as the world's greatest actor. His international reputation won him a Paramount contract in 1927. His thick German accent ended his American career with the coming of sound. He immediately went back to Germany to continue making films during the Nazi regime. He died in 1950.

- John DeBartolo, SilentsAreGolden.com

One of the great pleasures of film-going in the mid-1920s was to see the latest film starring the well-known German actor Emil Jannings. Of all the theater people who lent their talents to the new

medium, he was arguably the greatest. In the 1920s he created a gallery of historical characters as well as people of his own time. Just after World War I, German films were not welcomed in the Allied countries, a fact advertised by numerous distribution companies. One of the first films to break this embargo was Ernst Lubitsch's Madame DuBarry. Made in 1919 by an industry remarkable for its technical skills and the high artistic quality of its product, it was not released in the United States and western Europe until years later. Jannings portrayed Louis XV of France, making an impact that was to continue through his career.

Jannings furthered his popularity and status by making a number of films with the actress Henny Porten and the director Dmitri Buchowetzki. By 1924 he had established a worldwide reputation as a great actor. He starred with Conrad Veidt and Elisabeth Bergner in Paul Czinner's Nju and as the jealous trapeze artist in E. A. Dupont's Variété. His association with F. W. Murnau lead to the three masterpieces which will be his monument: Der letzte Mann, Tartuffe, and Faust. In Der letzte Mann he gave what most consider his greatest performance as an old hotel porter too weak for his job, who is reduced to working in the basement lavatories. His smug Tartuffe was full of subtle nuance, while his Mephistopheles was played with a slightly humorous cynicism that still suggested the blazing anarchy underneath. Even with an ego as great as his talent, Jannings subordinated himself to the disciplines of his art.

No finer tribute could be paid him than that from his old director, Josef von Sternberg: "Jannings had every right to the universal praise that was his for many years, and his position in the history of the motion picture is secure, not only as a superlative performer but also as a source of inspiration for the writers and directors of his time. This in my opinion is the highest compliment within the scope of an actor to earn."

About Karl Freund

Profile on International Encyclopedia of Cinematographers

During a career that lasted nearly 50 years, cinematographer Karl Freund contributed his artfully innovative camerawork to more than 100 German and American films, including the classic Metropolis and the solid Key Largo. Unfortunately, superlative examples of filmmaking are not the sole entries in Freund's filmography. Numerous forgettable or already forgotten comedies, romances, and musicals are also present, a perhaps inevitable consequence of Freund's long career. Symptomatic of his commitment to perfection was his refusal to discriminate a "programmer" from a masterpiece, which provided many of the films he lit and shot with their only noteworthy feature: excellent cinematography.

In the 1920s Freund worked at Ufa, Germany's great government-supported film studio, where he collaborated with Murnau, Lang, and others on a number of the films that collectively created the golden age of the German cinema, films such as Murnau's Der letzte Mann and E.A. Dupont's Variety. For the revolutionary Der letzte Mann, the camera became both narrator and character, relating and interpreting the story of the demoted doorman so lucidly that title cards were superfluous. Freund and scriptwriter Carl Mayer enriched the simple plot of Murnau's film with artistically purposeful camera movement and lighting that set the expressionistic sobriety of the film proper against the high-key clarity of its controversial epilogue.

—Nancy Jane Johnston, Film Reference.com

About Ufa (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft)

Pommer, who had won an international success with Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), gave his directors a large degree of freedom, preferring to concentrate on increasing Ufa's export business by guaranteeing a cinema of quality, which would be saleable abroad. As a result, Ufa directors produced some of the greatest films of the era, including Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1923–24), Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924), Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, F. W. Murnau,1924), Varieté (Jealousy, E. A. Dupont, 1925), Ein Walzertraum (The Waltz Dream, Ludwig Berger, 1925), and Geheimnisse einer Seele (Secrets of a Soul, G. W. Pabst, 1926). This was accomplished by hiring Germany's best directors, expanding the Babelsberg studios outside Berlin to become the most modern facility in Europe, and bringing together a team of technicians, art directors, and cameramen who were encouraged to experiment. Among the innovators were cameramen Karl Freund (1890–1969) and Fritz Arno Wagner (1891–1958). The giant studio sets, innovative lighting designs, optical tricks (Schüfftan process), and daring camera movements in the films of Murnau, Lang, and Dupont would not have been possible without an atmosphere Kreimeier has described as that of a medieval "Bauhütte" (cathedral builders' guild). Unlike American studio stars, Germany's best known actors, including Conrad Veidt (1893–1943), Emil Jannings (1884–1950), Werner Krauss (1884–1959), and Brigitte Helm (1906–1996), were never contractually bound to the company, each working only intermittently for Ufa.
- Jan-Christopher Horak

937 (78). La Ley del deseo / Law of Desire (1987, Pedro Almodovar)

Screened November 27 2008 on Sony Pictures DVD in South San Francisco, CA TSPDT rank #  IMDb Wiki

Or more accurately, "Law of Submission."  Pedro Almodovar's international breakthrough is not so much about the destructive power of love and lust as our willingness to be controlled - and devastated - by such emotions; in other words, not desire but the desire to be desired.  Almodovar's fantastical screenplay is a super-trashy soap centered on a director (Eusebio Poncela) of both lowbrow porn and highbrow theater, whose life, as well as those of his ex-lover (Miguel Molina), his transvestite sister (Carmen Maura) and her daughter (Manuela Velasco) are steamrolled following the director's initiation of an emotionally disturbed young man (Antonio Banderas) to gay sex.  The plot is stretched to the limits of credibility, no doubt with hysterical, gleeful intention by Almodovar, who nonetheless holds things together by investing outrageous incidents with a dignified deadpan, allowing his ensemble to give their loving all to their characters, without a single smirk of camp knowing.   (Most impressive is Carmen Maura as the transvestite, whose scenes brim with fierce sense of both selfhood and sacrifice, a central paradox to Almodovar's characters.)

Almodovar’s steady pacing, playful sense of composition and eye-popping ‘80s color clashes keep the proceedings lively. But his true gift is in making his cartoonishly colorful creations as real as life, endowing even the most destructive or smug among them with a core of aching melancholy and a disarming willingness to be subsumed by the tides of emotion.  Practically every other scene involves one figure being drawn in - at times at their own behest - by the narratives or imperatives of another: a profound sense of community as a web spun by stories.  Almodovar's vision of society showcases some of the most flamboyantly self-defined characters of cinema, and yet their independence is belied by a primal impulse that invokes the moment the first homo sapiens uttered its first memory - or first falsehood - to another, casting the spell of another dimension to the human experience.

Want to go deeper?The following citations were counted towards the placement of Law of Desire in the TSPDT 1000:

Barbara Schweizerhof, Steadycam (2007) Suzi Feay, Time Out (1995) Tom Hunsinger, Facets (2003) Rough Guide to Film, Spain: 5 Lesser-Known Gems (2007) The Guardian, 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007)

Pedro Almodovar's vibrant treatment of gay life in post-Franco Madrid has a lot to recommend it, but little of this has to do with its contrived plot, which bears a queasy resemblance to the earlier Fatal Attraction and resorts to hackneyed devices such as amnesia. What keeps this 1987 movie alive are the characters: a porn director (Eusebio Poncela); his transsexual sister and onetime brother (the wonderful Carmen Maura), whom he casts as the lead in his stage production of Cocteau's The Human Voice; a devout little girl (Manuela Velasco), whom the sister takes over from her lesbian ex-lover (Bibi Andersen) as her own; the director's working-class lover (Miguel Molina); and the lover's neurotic replacement (Antonio Banderas), who causes all the trouble. It's typical of Almodovar's wit that he casts a man as the little girl's real mother and a woman as her false one.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

Narrowly beating Fatal Attraction to the screen in 1987, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Law of Desire concerns a similarly unhealthy relationship, although in the director’s colorfully kinky Spain, the dangerous romance is shared by adult film director Pablo (Eusebio Poncela) – a sexually promiscuous artist whose last lover Juan couldn’t quite reciprocate Pablo’s love and thus left to work at a coastal town’s lighthouse – and his new stalkerazzi lover Antonio, who’s fandom quickly morphs into frightening obsession. The director embellishes this primary storyline with incest, rampant cocaine use, promiscuity, and jabs at the Catholic Church, as well as with a secondary plot involving Pablo’s transsexual lesbian sister Tina (the sensually chic Carmen Maura), a budding actress taking care of her ex-lover’s daughter while working on Pablo’s stage version of Cocteau’s The Human Voice (a monologue about a woman and a suitcase that formed the basis for Almodóvar’s subsequent Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). The plot is set in motion by Pablo, who, dissatisfied with Juan’s first letter home, writes an idealistic replacement letter that expresses the longings and sadness Juan didn’t convey in his own letter, sends it to Juan to sign, and then has Juan send it back to him. When new boy-toy Antonio discovers this missive, his clingy behavior goes from mild to maniacal, eventually throwing both men’s lives into sweaty, sexy tumult. Pablo’s typewriter and, by extension, his fiction writing – not only the author’s screenplays and plays, but also this fake letter to/by Juan – becomes both an outlet for his desires and frustrations (he’s writing a new play about Tina’s transexuality) and the cause for his sexual and emotional frustrations. Almodóvar’s affection for his characters’ foibles and fetishistic carnal appetites makes his engagingly loopy narrative more than a simple Telemundo-on-acid joke, and his boldly candid depiction of homosexual love – including a couple of amorous go-rounds between Pablo and Antonio which exude the heavy panting hysteria of unbridled lust – contributes to the film’s hot-blooded vigor. That said, I can’t help but shake the feeling that, had Banderas exhibited similar homosexual desire in his American movie debut, the dashing Spanish actor’s Hollywood career would have sunk faster than a stone.

- Nick Schager

Unquestionably, surrealist Luis Bunuel ranks as the most influential Spanish filmmaker of all time (the only ambiguity being his nationality since he crossed numerous boundaries during his career). Following in his legendary footsteps is Pedro Almodovar, whose brand of surrealism often borders on bad taste while entertaining with colorful characters in absurd melodrama. Frequently featuring strong females, Almodovar invariably also includes gay and transgendered characters in his comedic mix. Although many film buffs have followed Almodovar's work for over two decades, pretentious cineastes seeking more serious foreign fare frequently overlook contemporary Spain's preeminent director.

The Law of Desire contains plenty of Almodovar touches, which makes for great fun. Brightened considerably by the acting talents of Maura and Banderas, it's no puzzle to see why Almodovar employed these two in multiple films. American audiences more familiar with Banderas' low key supporting role to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia can revel in wide-eyed amazement over his full raging homoerotic lust in this 1987 film. Banderas' intensity transforms what could have been bizarre off the wall melodrama into a provocative psychological study about the potential devastating cost of wanton love.. Almodovar clearly demonstrates that weighty subject matter need not be presented in a meditative manner. Light-hearted touches often deliver more effectively--just like Life.

- John Nesbit

What’s fascinating about Almodóvar is that a career so fully built around tactics of appropriation is regularly discussed in terms of authenticity, whereas another ace borrower who immerses himself in genre like Brian De Palma receives little slack from critics. If Law of Desire is a homosexual rereading of Play Misty for Me, Almodóvar’s first shot steals outright from Blow Out, with a nude Juan writhing under the gaze of a few palpitating older men, the whole thing revealed as part of Pablo’s newest film providing a ready counterpoint to the fake co-ed stalking that opens De Palma’s film. Where the general line of reasoning for “mature” Almodóvar goes that the filmmaker has finally found a way to sublimate his own innate, gaudy sense of composition, influences from his homeland, and obvious, obsessive love of cinema, Law of Desire can easily be argued as more rough-hewn, more indebted to forbears who were in turn indebted to Hitchcock, more openly ribald. In its day it must have seemed a breath of fresh air.

Twenty years on, the film’s certainly dated, but not irrevocably so. Its problems are the same as any young filmmaker trying to stretch (not unlike early Assayas)—incomplete tonal control highlighting a few moments of brilliance, which cast the rest of the film in stark relief. The dichotomy is, admittedly, part of what makes the work exciting as well. The bulk of Law of Desire features all the gaudy art direction, seedy melodrama, and intrusive scoring we might expect, but something’s lacking on the order of composition and camerawork which might have masked those points at which the narrative lags or ties itself up in its own complexity. Appropriately enough, this is all remedied in the finale—Antonio’s shot himself after one last session of lovemaking with Pablo (and his earlier murder of Juan, of course), and while Pablo cradles the bloody body, Almodóvar cuts to the massed policeman and interested onlookers (including Tina) arrayed on the street below. All look up towards the window as Almodóvar undertakes a hugely elegant tracking shot that reveals the crowd to be as immaculately and artificially arranged as the cast of some Broadway musical (opera might be more to the point). Then, in an unexpected, brilliant move—he cuts to show the front of the building, as the assembled cast (including Tina) rushes to climb the scaffolding, Keystone Cops-style. Freeze-frame on the madness, and Fin. Viva Pedro, indeed.

- Jeff Reichert, Reverse Shot

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the film, and certainly a major point for Spanish audiences, was Carmen Maura's tour-de-force rendition of a man transformed into a woman, a role whose emotional complexity dwarfs the essentially comic renditions of Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie or of Julie Andrews' Victor/Victoria. Unlike those protagonists, Maura is not given the luxury of camping up her role. She portrays a transsexual, not a cross-dresser, and therein lies the power of her performance. As Almodovar explains: "[A]rtifice is her only truth:; artifice, not lies: they're two very distinct things. Artifice is her only truth, andif the individual is not crazy, and the character Carmen plays is not, she knows herself to be artificial and she relishes with that imitation the essence of being a woman, the most intimat part of femininity. Carmen is required to imitate a woman, to savor the imitation, to be conscious of the kitsch part that there is in the imitation, completely renouncing parody but not humor."

Law of Desire was Almodovar's biggest box-office hit to date, winning a number of major international film awards, with the exception of two significant local ones: the Goya, given by the members of the Instituto de Cine, and the Spanish Association of Film Directors. The film is conspicuous as one of only two Almodovar films (along with Bad Education) to be completely snubbed by the Goyas. It has been widely conjectured that this was due to a generalized homophobic response among Spanish film critics and members of the film industry toward what amounted to the groundbreaking treatment of the normalization of gay romantic narratives in Spanish film.

- from Pedro Almodovar, by Marvin D'Lugo.  Published by University of Illinois Press, 2006. Pages 56, 57, 59

When Antonio leaves the bed after last making love with Pablo, the latter is shot from behind a sheet which is like a shroud. It is Antonio, the obsessive lover, who is about to shoot himself, choosing to pay the price of a criminal passion. But it is as if Pablo is dead already, in life. It is an ominous image for gay men in Spain, an unnerving pointer to the pleasures and perils of a shared or effaced subjectivity, sceptical of a community or a politics founded on sexual practice. But if in its disavowal of AIDS and homophobia La ley del deseo reveals a refusal to deal with the everyday life of lesbians and gays in Spain, it is because Almodovar seeks to intervene at the more potent and fluid level of fantasy, of the constitution of new cinematic subjects. And his self-producing characters, scornful of fixed gender identity and object choice, have earned him attacks from both the homophobic right, who would enforce silence, and the moralistic left, who would insist on more positive images. Almodovar has thus also paid a certain price in incomprehension for his own passion without limits, the love of cinema.

- from Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar. By Paul Julian Smith, 2000. Published by Verso, 2000. Page 90

About the Sony Pictures Classics DVD

Review by Henrik Sylow for DVD Beaver

About Pedro Almodovar

IMDb Wiki

Official website

His personal blog

It is Almodóvar's ambivalent relationship with the country of his birth (and where he has made all of his 16 feature films to date) that has proved symptomatic of the complexities surrounding the filmmaker. While subversion of identity is the key subject matter of his cinema, Almodóvar has consistently flirted with his own sense of “Spanish-ness” (most frequently in his recourse to – and resignifying of – the symbolism of the Catholic Church). This has led often to a mixed domestic reception, which takes the form of unconditional acclaim by certain sections of the Spanish media but that has also seen him vilified by conservative critics. Whatever reaction he provokes, there is little doubt that Almodóvar rarely – if ever – inspires indifference.

The intense, difficult and invariably complex relationship with the country of his birth provides us with the key to understanding the cinema of Almodóvar. The central issue in his films, and it is one with which he engages in a myriad different ways, from his earliest work to his most recent is the question of identity. This key feature of Almodóvar is never more consistently depicted than through the motif of writing. Writing reality into existence (and thereby changing it) through fiction is a means of interrogating all forms of subjectivity and subject formation. One need only note the abundance of characters who adopt multiple pseudonyms, the repeated images of typewriters, the information transmitted through found notes, the eerie presence of ghostwriters.

On March 11, 2004 a series of explosions ripped through three commuter trains as they approached Madrid. 191 people were killed and thousands more were injured in Europe's worst ever terrorist attack. The bombings came three days before the Spanish general elections and a week prior to the programmed release of Almodóvar's 15th feature, La mala educación. The right-wing ruling party in government at the time sought to capitalise on the event by blaming it on the Basque separatist group ETA, while simultaneously concealing information that indicated that an Islamic terrorist group was responsible. Very quickly it became apparent that the government had lied and on March 14, in the face of all predictions to the contrary, the opposition Socialist Party won the elections. Almodóvar applauded the result. Almost exactly a year previous to the bombings Madrid had hosted one of the largest demonstrations ever held to protest Spain's involvement in the invasion of Iraq. The three main speakers at the end of the march were Pedro Almodóvar, his leading actress in Hable con ella, Leonor Watling, and veteran director and actor Fernando Fernán Gómez. At the premiere of La mala educación later in the month of March 2004, a right-wing mob outraged at Almodóvar's statements gathered to insult and hurl rotten vegetables at those entering to see the new film. After winning two Oscars and numerous other awards both at home and abroad, it is testimony to the enduring reputation for transgression that Almodóvar remains a refreshing source of contention and controversy.

- Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Bio

Pedro Almodóvar is more than the most successful Spanish film export since Carlos Saura. At home, the production of Almodóvar's films, their premiers, and the works themselves are surrounded by scandal, and the Spanish popular press examines what the director eats, the qualities he looks for in a lover, and his weight fluctuations in a fashion normally reserved for movie stars and European royalty. Abroad, the films have surprised those with set notions of what Spanish camera is or should be; Almodóvar's uncompromising incorporation of elements specific to a gay culture into mainstream forms with wide crossover appeal has been held up as a model for other gay directors to emulate. The films and Almodóvar's creation of a carefully cultivated persona in the press have meshed into "Almodóvar," a singular trademark. "Almodóvar" makes the man and the movies interchangeable even as it overshadows both. The term now embodies, and waves the flag for, the "New Spain" as it would like to see itself: democratic, permissive, prosperous, international, irreverent, and totally different from what it was in the Franco years.

Almodóvar's career can be usefully divided into three stages: a marginal underground period in the 1970s, during which he personally funded and controlled every aspect of the shoestring-budgeted, generally short films, and which culminated in Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas de montón, his feature film debut; the early to mid-1980s, during which he was still writing and directing his increasingly costly though still low-budget films, but for other producers and with varying degrees of state subsidization; and, from The Law of Desire in 1986, a period in which he reverted to producing his own films, which now benefitted from substantial budgets (by Spanish standards), top technicians, and maximum state subsidies. Though critical reaction to his work has varied, each of his films has enjoyed increasing financial success until Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which became 1989's highest-grossing foreign film in North America and the most successful Spanish film ever in Spain.

In Almodóvar's films, the various paths to pleasure lead to a destination and fulfillment (Matador), a dead end and disappointment (Dark Hideout, Women on the Verge), or an endlessly winding path and continuous displacement (The Law of Desire), but never resignation. To explore these varied roads Almodóvar has over the years accumulated a rep company of actors (including Antonio Banderas, who graduated to Hollywoood stardom). When in an Almodóvar film, no matter how absurd the situation their characters might find themselves in, all the actors are directed to a style that relies on understatement and has often been called "naturalist" or "realist." For example, when in The Law of Desire Tina tells her brother that "she" had previously been a "he" and had run off to Morocco to have a love affair with their father, Carmen Maura acts it in a style considerably subtler than that used by, for example, June Allyson to tell us she really shouldn't have broken that date with Peter Lawford. This style of acting is partly what enables Almodóvar's often outrageous characters to be so emotionally compelling.

Almodóvar's signature, and a unique contribution to the movies, is the synthesis of the melodramatic mode with a clash of quotations. This combination allows Almodóvar both a quasi-classical Hollywood narrative structure (which facilitates audience identification) and a very self-conscious narration (which normally produces an alienation effect). This results in dialectical moments in which the absurd can be imbued with emotional resonance (the mother selling her son to the dentist in What Have I Done); the emotional can be checked with cheek without disrupting identification (superimposing a character's crying eyes with the wheels of a car in The Law); and camp can be imbued with depth without losing its wit (the transference of emotions that occurs when we see Pepa dubbing Joan Crawford's dialogue from Johnny Guitar in Women on the Verge). At his best (What Have I Done to Deserve This?, The Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), Almodóvar drills a heart into the postmodern and fills it with an operatic range of feeling.

Although Almodóvar's movies have garnered increasingly heady praise in the 1990s, one senses the critical establishment is consciously trying to legitimize him in their eyes. Why is it that when a comedy expert grows more "serious," he is, perforce, taken more seriously? Fortunately, Almodóvar's mature works remain vibrant, unpretentious melodramas (unlike Woody Allen, whose art films seem like Xerox copies of the masters he slavishly imitates). Although Almodóvar has been chastised for trying to have his soap opera and send it up, too, he accomplished just that impossibility with earlier works like Law of Desire. As arrestingly sentimental as All about My Mother is, and as disturbingly mournful as Live Flesh is, they lack the kick of less-acclaimed works like High Heels, an unabashed glimpse into the soul of Lana Turner. Whereas Almodóvar once passionately embraced the Hollywoodness of Douglas Sirk's women pictures, his most recent movies merely buss those stylized conventions on the cheek. Why is there such a frenzy to commend the new-improved maverick, simply because he now uses humor only as a diversionary tactic, instead of an integral part of his canon? Despite reservations about the shift in his approach, one admires Almodóvar's unabated insight into role-playing, his debunking of machismo, his celebration of tackiness, and his unsurpassed skill with actresses. If something joyful seems missing from latter-day Almodóvar, something has also been gained in his collaboration with actress Marisa Paredes, a gravely beautiful dynamo, whom the director uses to suggest the melancholy behind emotional extravagance. If films like The Flower of My Secret are high-wire acts between pathos and humor, then Paredes helps him keep his balance. Even if one reminisces about Almodóvar's teamwork with efervescent comediennes like Carmen Maura and Victoria Abril, one is relieved that he hasn't become the Spanish John Waters, a filmmaker whose rebelliousness now seems quaint. Exploring his gay sensibility, Almodóvar appeals to straight audiences, who share his appetite for the resurrection and re-invigoration of old movie cliches. In overlooked works like Kika, characters literally die for love, and this slick director understands that classic escapism has undying appeal for a reason. The genius of Almodóvar lies in succumbing to the absurdity of Hollywood romanticism, while recognizing it as an impossible ideal. After enduring bloodless Oscar-winners and critically correct masterpieces, the audience rushes to Almodóvar's movies because they act like a tonic.

—José Arroyo, updated by Robert J. Pardi for Film Reference.com

Pedro Almodóvar is the most successful film director to have emerged from post-Franco Spain. In works that always bear his distinct cinematic and narrative style, Almodóvar presents absurd situations tightly framed by the trappings of everyday life.

An average-looking nun who methodically seduces "lost women" (Dark Habits, 1983), a modest housewife who discusses her sado-masochistic desires during sewing class (Pepi, Luci, Bom and the Other Girls from the Heap, 1980), and a priest who is slightly disturbed by the return of his altar boy lover as a voluptuous transsexual (The Law of Desire, 1987): these are the forms of queerness that Almodóvar presents as just plain ordinary. Sponsor Message.

The brilliance of the director's cinematic style, however, lies not merely in the amusing creativity of these situations, but also in the yawning gap between their queerness and their everyday context. In fact, Almodóvar's success resides in his ability to stretch the divergence of this queerness and its normalizing context to an extreme without compromising the believability of either. Although he denies that this strategy has anything to do with his being gay or with gay cinema in general, with it he manages to achieve a radical queering of vision.

Much of Almodóvar's success has come through a conscious adjustment and marketing of his own image. Therefore, the line between fact and fiction has often blurred in his frequent autobiographical reflections.

- GLBTQ biography by Andres Mario Zervigon

936 (77). Vaghe stelle dell'Orsa... / Sandra / Of a Thousand Delights (1965, Luchino Visconti)

Screened November 26, 2008 on DivX in South San Francisco, CA TSPDT rank #638 IMDb Wiki

Filming what many consider his apotheosis, The Leopard (TSPDT #71), Luchino Visconti landed on the theme that would occupy him for the remainder of his career: the imminent obsolescene of his own class, the aristocracy. In his follow-up to The Leopard Visconti revisits the Italian upper class in their crumbling modern environs, following the titular expatriate (Claudia Cardinale) and her American husband on a return trip to the family estate.  Ghosts of the past take form in the suspected murder of Sandra's father by her mother and her lover, the family lawyer, and the incestuous desires of her estranged brother, compelling her to turn her family reunion into a series of ugly confrontations. Cardinale lends furrow-browed intensity to the most challenging role of her career, but her attempts at seriousness are undermined by Visconti's puzzling insistence to shoot her in as titillating a manner as possible, lingering on her cleavage, legs and bare back, reducing her to an arthouse Brigitte Bardot.  Combined with her brother's anguished caterwauling, the affair risks being undermined by unintentional camp, sogged by the same hysteria that pushes Rocco and His Brothers (TSPDT #185) over the top. Visconti would do more interesting things with this undercurrent of self-parody in his later films; at best this is a puzzling transitional work, with outstanding gothic atmospherics to recommend it, courtesy of an outstanding antique villa for a set that speaks hushed volumes on its own.

Want to go deeper?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Vaghe stelle dell'Orsa on the TSPDT 1000:

Jean-Louis Leutrat, Sight & Sound (2002) Marcel Oms, Positif (1991) Omar Al-Qattan, Sight & Sound (1992) Suzanne Liandrat- Guigues, Positif (1991) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

This film is an unusual "police" film. It was called Modern Electra but, in order to explain the term "police film", I will refer to another tragedy: Oedipus Rex, one of the first police films. In Oedipus Rex, the culprit is the least suspect (Oedipus who, at the beginning of the story, calls himself "the only stranger".)

Perhaps the ancient audience would leave the theatre convinced that the real culprit is not Oedipus but Fate; however, this convenient explanation is not sufficient for the contemporary audience. The audience dismisses the charges against Oedipus and makes him feel guilty only to the extent that the story affects him personally...

Sandra's conscience, motivated by the "event" (return to the family home), starts searching for the truth: a truth completely different to the one Sandra believed was ingrained in herself; a painful truth that a character like her might never manage to learn entirely.

Therefore, Sandra and her victims (or her persecutors) find their position in modern society or, rather, they discover that they no longer belong there and, through their own drama, help us to better comprehend the reality and the meaning of our historical condition.

If I am allowed to work again on a theme I loved at the beginning of my career, I would say that today, more than ever, I am interested in anthropocentric cinema. The film Sandra of a Thousand Delights is a verification - and not an exception - of this dominant interest. That's why I made this film.

- Luchino Visconti, Introduction to the publication of the screenplay, Capelli, 1965

If you are looking for the parallels in "Sandra," which opened at the Fine Arts yesterday (following its single showing at the New York Film Festival last fall), you will see that this dour Italian picture, which Luchino Visconti has made with the beautiful Claudia Cardinale in the title role, can be viewed as a modern adaptation of the dark and passionate tale of Electra and her brother, Orestes, as told in Greek targedy...

It is by pictorial suggestion that Mr. Visconti conveys the singular hollowness, remoteness, and morbidity of his tale. It is from the shadowy environment that the hints of shapeless mysteries emerge. And the passion that flames in the few clashes between Miss Cardinale and Jean Sorel as her indolent, decadent brother who wants to fix himself to her again acquires momentary convictions mainly from its setting within this ornate Borgian frame.

It is not an especially gripping story that this dimly reflective picture tells, nor is it one that resolves any interest in the impulses of incest or normal love. It is just an echo of far emotional thunder against which Miss Cardinale moves with a fine air of grim preoccupation and frequent startling exposes of physique. Mr. Sorel is slow and shaggy as her brother. Nothing really emerges from him. And Michael Craig is stolid as the baffled husband who finds his comfort in a well caressed pipe. Renzo Ricci is raw and realistic as the lawyer who is rightly peeved with the whole deal, and Marie Bell gives a vivid notion of the anguish of a demented woman in one strong scene.

More than a modernized "Electra," this "Sandra," which was known in Italy as "Vaghe Stella Dell 'Orsa" ("Dim Stars of the Big Bear") might better be viewed as an extension of the despair for a crumbling upper class that Mr. Visconti expressed in "The Leopard." It is an agonized farewell to the past.

- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, January 17, 1966

Luchino Visconti poaches on the neighboring property of Alain Resnais and Douglas Sirk in this melodramatic 1965 study of a woman's journey into her past, a past that contains a father murdered by the Nazis, a mother driven to insanity, and incidental implications of adolescent incest. Much maligned in its time, the film has been creeping back into critical respectability: thanks to Fassbinder, melodrama has become acceptable again. Still, it doesn't seem completely successful, even in the gentle light of revisionism--feelings and motives remain rather murky, and Claudia Cardinale's overambitious portrayal of the heroine does little to clarify things.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Visconti's retelling of the Electra story starts with Sandra/Electra (Cardinale) returning to her ancestral home in Italy - and reviving an intimate involvement with her brother (Sorel) which troubles her naive American husband (Craig) - on the eve of an official ceremony commemorating the death of her Jewish father in a Nazi concentration camp. As ever with Visconti, he is ambivalently drawn to the decadent society he is ostensibly criticising; and Armando Nannuzzi's camera lovingly caresses the creaking old mansion, set in a landscape of crumbling ruins, where the incestuous siblings determine to wreak revenge on the mother (Bell) and stepfather (Ricci) who supposedly denounced their father. Something like a Verdi opera without the music, the result may not quite achieve tragedy, but it looks marvellous. The title, culled from a poem by Leopardi, has been better rendered as 'Twinkling Stars of the Bear'.

- Time Out

Vaghe stelle dell'orsa removes the critique of the family from the social to the psychoanalytic plane. While death or absence of the father and the presence of an uprising surrogate is a thematic consideration in several Visconti films, he here explores it in conjunction with Freudian theory in this deliberate yet entirely transmuted retelling of the Elektra myth. We are never completely aware of the extent of the relationship between Sandra and her brother, and the possibility of past incest remains distinct. Both despise their stepfather Gilardini, whom they accuse of having seduced their mother and having denounced their father, a Jew, to the Fascists. Sandra's love for and sense of solidarity with her brother follows upon a racial solidarity with her father and race, but Gianni's love, on the other hand, is underpinned by a desire for his mother, transferred to Sandra. Nevertheless, dramatic confrontation propels the dialectical investigations of the individual's position with respect to the social even in this, Visconti's most densely psychoanalytic film.

- Joel Kanoff, Film Reference.com

As he did in Il Gattopardo (1963) and would do again in The Damned (1969), Visconti explores the decay and collapse of an aristocratic family as a reflection of national history. Both Claudia and Gianni feel driven to connect the dots of family history. Their stirring up a cauldron of secrets and suspiciousness ultimately shatters one of them, who commits suicide. Mourning may become Electra, but Claudia heads back to America—in its simplicity, heartlessness and obliviousness (qualities represented by her spouse), a refuge from her obsessions with father, brother, Italy, the past.

We have, then, a skeletons-in-the-closet film, one that generates ancient echoes through its absorption and delicate rendering of the Electra myth. Italy has made many haunted films about its Fascist past and the German oocupation, but this may be the most gripping. Armando Nannuzzi’s black-and-white cinematography encompasses claustrophobic darkness and sorely ironic ravishing light. It befits an operatic mood-piece about unsettled and unsettling events, both familial and national.

- Dennis Grunes

About Luchino Visconti

IMDb Wiki

Biography at the BFI

A content-rich biographical entry by Michael Walford at the University of Warwick Kinoeye blog

Quotes found at the TSPDT profile page for Visconti

"This Italian director offered strong, stern, unremitting portraits of societies, often high, and veneers crumbling under exterior pressures. Most of them are impressive, and beautifully decorated with all the visual elegance of a man who was both set designer and costume designer early in his career. However, after 1960, they have progressively less to offer in terms of entertainment. A trip to a late Visconti film became increasingly an occasion for admiration rather than enjoyment." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)

"A Marxist aristocrat, Count Don Luchino Visconti di Morone was widely praised for both the realism and vaguely politicised tone of his early films, and the operatic sumptuousness of his later historical costume dramas. Throughout his career, however, style dominated content; all too often, the result was camp, decorative melodrama disguised as solemn, socially significant art." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

"The films of Luchino Visconti are among the most stylistically and intellectually influential of postwar Italian cinema. Born a scion of ancient nobility, Visconti integrated the most heterogeneous elements of aristocratic sensibility and taste with a committed Marxist political consciousness, backed by a firm knowledge of Italian class structure...Visconti turned out films steadily but rather slowly from 1942 to 1976. His obsessive care with narrative and filmic materials is apparent in the majority of his films." - Joel Kanoff (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)

"A director of intense, frequently opulent dramas, Visconti began his career as one of the purveyors of Italian neorealism (La Terra trema, 48) of a heavy, surging kind. Later he was more grandiose, cutting to the depths of human emotions in decadent atmospheres." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

Luchino Visconti occupies a singular position in film history. He was instrumental in the creation of modern cinema by being the first to throw down the neo-realist gauntlet with Ossessione (1942) and later contributed one of the movement's canonical cornerstones, La Terra Trema (1948). Of the three giants of the first wave of post war neo-realists, he was the only one to maintain his position at the forefront of art cinema into the '60s, when Rossellini had moved to television and De Sica was making more commercial films. Visconti's later career was devoted to the creation of a series of period movies including Senso (1954), The Leopard (Il Gattopardo, 1963) and Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia, 1971) that are still without parallel in terms of atmosphere, detail and sheer dramatic force. It was in these that his genius, although often evident from his earliest work onwards, developed fully.

- Maximilian Le Cain, from "Visconti's Cinema of Twilight," published in Senses of Cinema

It is not the nicest face one ever saw on a film director: as cruel as a hawk, as supercilious as an aristocrat who does not expect to be understood, it glared out through the cigarette smoke of an 120-a-day habit. Luchino Visconti imposed himself on others and on his productions. On The Leopard, when he had to accept his producer's decision to cast Burt Lancaster as the Sicilian prince, he responded by ignoring the American actor. It was domination through distance. Yet observers noted how, gradually, the shrewd but insecure Lancaster began to pick up the lordly gestures, the sneers and the mannerisms, of Visconti himself. The actor had learned that you can't expect a real aristocrat to explain himself, or to be accessible. But he can offer an example. When the film was a triumph, and took the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Visconti must have been all the more resolved to stay aloof and alone.

Visconti, who died in 1976, has not exactly faded away. Yet surely he is not the power he was. It will be interesting to see whether the immersion that is coming our way will hasten his removal, or make this gloomy narcissist a model for much larger things. In 1962, in Sight and Sound's poll of the best films ever made, Visconti's La Terra Trema (1948) finished at number nine. Today that starkly beautiful and formal, yet allegedly neo-realist study of poor fishermen in Sicily is rarely seen. The gulf between the poverty of the people and the richness of the art is a little hard to take. In 2002, Visconti was not in the top 10, yet some critics and film-makers held out for a few films - Senso, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, Ludwig. There was even one vote for Death in Venice, which in some quarters is regarded as a gruesome parody of the "art film".

- David Thomson, The Guardian

The final state to be considered would be the crystal in the process of decomposition. The work of Visconti shows this. This work reached its perfection when Visconti was able both to distinguish and put into play, in varying combinations, four fundamental elements which haunted him. In the first place, the aristocratic world of the rich, the aristocratic former-rich: this is what is crystalline, but like a synthetic crystal, because it is outside history and nature, outside divine creation... The abbot in The Leopard will explain it: we do not understand these rich, because they have created a world to themselves, whose laws we are unable to grasp, and where what seems to us secondary or even inopportune takes on an extraordinary urgency and importance; their motives always escape us like rites whose religion is not known (as in the old prince who gets his country back and orders a picnic). This world is not that of the creative artist, even though Death in Venice presents a musician, but precisely one whose work has been too intellectual and cerebral. Nor is it a world of simple art enthusiasts. Rather, they are surrounded by art; they are profoundly 'knowledge about' art both as works and as life, but it is this knowledge which separates them from life and creation, as in the teacher in Conversation Piece. They demand freedom, but a freedom which they enjoy like an empty privilege which could come to them from elsewhere, from the forebears from whom they are descended, and from the art by which they are surrounded...

But, in the second place, these crystalline environments are inseparable from a process of decomposition which eats away at them from within, and makes them dark and opaque: the rotting of Ludwig II's teeth, family rot which takes over the teacher in Conversation Piece, the debasement of Ludwig II's love affairs; and incest everywhere as in the Bavarian family, the return of Sandra, the abomination of The Damned; everywhere the thirst for murder and suicide, or the need for forgetting and death, as the old prince says on behalf of the whole of Sicily. It is not just that these aristocrats are on the brink of being reuined; the approaching ruin is only a consequence. For it is a vanished past, but one which survives in the artificial crystal, which is waiting for them, absorbing them and snapping them up, taking away all their power at the same time as they become lodged it. Thus the famous tracking shot with which Sandra opens: this is not displacement in space but sinking into time without exit.

The third element in Visconti is history. Because, of course, it doubles decomposition, accelerates or even explains it: wars, assumption of power by new forces, the rise of the new rich, who are not interested in penetrating the secret laws of the old world, but aim to make it disappear...

And then there is the fourth element, the most important in Visconti, because it ensures the unity and circulation of the others. This is the idea, or rather the revelation, that something arrives too late. Caught in time, this could perhaps have avoided the natural decomposition and historical dismantling of the crystal-image. But it is history, and nature itself, the structure of the crystal, which make it impossible for this to arrive in time.

- Gilles Deleuze, from Cinema 2: The Time Image, Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005, pages 91-93

About Claudia Cardinale

IMDb Wiki

UK Tribute Site

Claudia Cardinale has a MySpace page

Cardinale was discovered during the era when Brigitte Bardot created one sensation after another both on screen and off. Cardinale could merely have become "the Italian Bardot," and, indeed comparisons have been drawn between the two actresses. But a number of factors helped lead Cardinale's career in a different direction. The publicity surrounding both Cardinale's films and her personal life was not nearly as sensational as that concerning Bardot. More importantly, Cardinale soon began appearing in the films of the major Italian auteurs. Minor, and later more substantial, roles in the films of Mario Monicelli, Mauro Bolognini, Luchino Visconti, and Federico Fellini made her a star in Italy and abroad.

- Susan M. Doll, Film Reference.com

935 (76). Scenes from Under Childhood (1967-1970, Stan Brakhage)

Special Note: Scenes from Under Childhood will screen Saturday November 29 at the Anthology Film Archives Screened November 17, 2008 on 16mm at the MoMA Study Center, New York, NY

TSPDT rank #735  IMDb: Section One Section Two Section Three Section Four

Stan Brakhage's approximation of what it's like to see as a child, drawn from years of footage of his own children, is nothing as crude as a literal re-enactment of a child's point of view, but something much more vivid and disturbing. The film opens with a series of red screens, suggesting light filtered through closed infant eyes, before launching into lightning flashes of white: a nascent gaze opening to the world and hardly able to take in its brilliance.  This traumatic sensation is the underlying emotion that runs through the film's four chapters, and it's a marvel how Brakhage's panoply of images - progressing from the abstract to the very literal - can be such an emotionally affecting account of how children come to perceive the world.   Mostly shot in handheld with the flickers and jumps one expects of Super 8, the film has been described as the greatest home movie ever made, with children playing in a yard bathed in impossibly beautiful tree-dappled light or a close-up the upturned carcass of a dead wasp on a bathtub lip strike the heart of a uncanny left behind by adulthood.  There's little nostalgic about this wonder though, as such images will be interspersed by recurring fades to a haunting, ghostlike formation of undulating crystals, suggesting human cells regenerating feverishly.  At times the gaze is simply blank, looking at nothing or noone in particular, focusing more on negative spaces than objects, the indeterminate time of childhood with no purpose but to be.  A soup of memory, liquid and light, churning with life. Want to go deeper?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Scenes from Under Childhood on the TSPDT 1000:

Manohla Dargis, Profil (2004) Michael Snow, Sight & Sound (1992) Simon Field Time Out (1995) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Alternative 100 American Movies (to the AFI list) (1998) Village Voice 50 Years of Movies from Classics to Cult Hits (2006) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Brakhage sometimes refers to his films as documents of consciousness. He considers them works that impart to their viewers the energies of the events that occur in the manifold of his vision. The scrupulous care with which he remembered (sometimes through a feat of imagination) and conveyed the evolution of his vision from earliest infancy to later childhood in Scenes from Under Childhood testifies to the importance he accords the study of subjective life. Scenes from Under Childhood makes equally clear that he deems the scrutiny of consciousness to have moral importance. He began work on the film upon the birth of his first boy, when he realized he had a male rival for his wife Jane's love. To feel unalloyed love for the boy, he posited, he must empathize with him; and to empathize with him, he must strive to understand his inward life, so far as is possible. The qualification is cardinal: Brakhage's dedication to an individualism of the thoroughgoing Emersonian brand commits him to the belief that nobody has access to the contents of another's mind. The alternative he conceived to knowing his son's mind was to recollect how he saw at stages in his own childhood development, to reactivate, as far as that is possible, the visual mechanisms of his own childhood. He strove to see again as he had seen as a child. Through seeing as a child, he would come to understand one child's - his own - fears, delights, exhilarations, and despairs, and awareness of that child's fears and delights might enlarge his capacity for having sympathy with children.

- R. Bruce Elder, The Films of Stan Brakhage in the American Tradition of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Charles Olson. Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1998. Page 106.

Since 1966 Brakhage has been working on an autobiographical piece, Scenes from under Childhood, which in several self-contained episodes shows the experience of the environment through seeing from the early beginnings until adulthood. In the first episode he delivers the earliest memories of childhood. It's the representation of the earliest phase of seeing, in which objects are experienced in a blur. Blurred pictures of a room and people step out of a red color-fields. Sometimes the curtain is torn and the objects become clearly visible. Brakhage films almost everything from a child's perspective, from which a piece of furniture can seem like a huge monster.  The first part is accompanied by distorted donkey-screams, which repeatedly emerges from the silence and conveys a notion of a threatening outside world. In the following episodes he has abandoned sound. He even decided, never to use sound in a film again. ... In the meantime, episodes 2, 3 and 4 have been finished, in which he depicts the investigation of the immediate environment by showing objects like a faucet, a tube of toothpaste or a wash basin.

- Birgit Hein

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'Green'? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the 'beginning was the word.'

- Stan Brakhage, cited by Courtney Hoskins

A visualization of the inner world of foetal beginnings, the infant, the baby, the child – a shattering of the ‘myths of childhood’ through revelation of the extremes of violent terror and overwhelming joy of that world darkened to most adults by their sentimental remembering of it... a ‘tone poem’ for the eye – very inspired by the music of Olivier Messiaen

- Brakhage, cited by Anthology Film Archives

Excerpts from interview between Scott MacDonald and Brakhage, published in A Critical Cinema 4: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Published by University of California Press, 2005:

MacDonald: How did this idea about child vision develop? And to what extent was it a function of seeing your children born and watching what they were experiencing as they grew?

Brakhage: It was very largely that. I was very involved with the children and, at one point, was horrified to realize that I was guilty of what I came to call the "Shirley Temple syndrome": in other words, of finding them very cute and thinking of their lives as bucolic and happier than mine - in other words, not meeting them on the level of their own lives. And at this point I decided to start photographing them, because that enabled me to see more deeply into what they were. I had this sense in the back of my mind that a film might come out of it, but that was not the initial impulse. I wanted to see their world.

Now, I also understood that you can never really see inside another person's world; so at the same time that I'm looking at them, I'm remembering, as best I can, my own childhood. Scenes from Under Childhood arises out of a superimposition of those two things. My children were providing tender material, which I gathered; and as it came into the camera through the lens and later, during the editing process, my memories of my own childhood were sparked by their activities and in one way and another found their way into the films.

MacDonald: Your films are the family movies maybe we wish we had.

Brakhage: Or do we? You may think you wish you had them, but the interesting thing is that my grown children are not very involved in looking at those films.

MacDonald: Were they ever?

Brakhage: Not really. They'd look at them when they came out, and that seemed okay. It was a normal part of their growing up, a daily activity. But they haven't shown much interest in their own photographed lives as children. Occasionally, they will ask to see the births, but otherwise they are not really interested - because, in a way, it isn't really their childhood. They are not remembering their childhood the way I was imagining them. The films confront them with my feelings about my own development, which they are only the occasion for.

And by the way, that was quite conscious. When I first started photographing, I got down on the floor and was rolling around with them with the camera, but I realized quickly that that was too much the Shirley Temple syndrome. So you'll notice that, pretty consistently throughout all of the footage in Scenes from Under Childhood, the viewpoint is slightly above and looking down at the children, to keep that sense that this is adult envisionment, and that it is affected by and affects the quality of the maker's childhood coming through and coloring, shaping, twisting the forms - through apple jubs or whatever - into the production of an aesthetic.

About Stan Brakhage

Biography by P. Adams Sitney at Film Reference.com

If Maya Deren invented the American avant-garde cinema, Stan Brakhage realized its potential. Unquestionably the most important living avant-garde filmmaker, Brakhage single-handedly transformed the schism separating the avant-garde from classical filmmaking into a chasm. And the ultimate consequences have yet to be resolved; his films appear nearly as radical today as the day he made them.

- Brian Frye, Senses of Cinema

Quotes found in the They Shoot Pictures profile page for Brakhage

"At some point in the future, when authoritative histories of twentieth century art begin to be written with the wise judgment that only distance from the present time can confer, I believe that Stan Brakhage will loom not only as one of the very greatest of filmmakers but as one of the major figures in all the arts. The sheer virtuosity of his work, the sensual beauty of his films' shapes and colors and textures, his creation of a unique and complex kind of visual music (most of his films are silent because the music comes from the screen), his appeal to the viewer as individual rather than as a member of a crowd, the ecstatic unpredictability of his spaces and rhythms, all assure the monumental importance of his close to 400 films, both individually and as a body of work.  " -   Fred Camper (Stan Brakhage on the Web)

"Among the most influential figures of the American avant-garde, he is a technical innovator and outspoken social observer...His experimental films, mostly short, have often been concerned with the manipulation of light...Overcoming limitations of funds and resources, Brakhage poured out an astonishingly large number of long and short films in a wide range of themes and style. A poet with a camera, he consistently endowed his prolific output with a pathfinder's zeal and innovate personal vision." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

"The heart of Brakhage's theory is the notion of cinema as the imitation of the act of seeing, which includes simultaneously the perpetually scanning eyes, the visual imagination and memory, and the phosphenes which are most distinct when the eyes are closed. For him, the act of making a film intensifies and makes conscious this perpetual process of vision. Any dramatic representation whatsoever is anathematized by him." - P. Adams Sitney (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"His personal life so affects his work that Brakhage sees his eyes and camera as one. Compelling examinations of people, places, things, and ideas put him into the forefront of avant-garde filmmaking.." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"We have the notion that we exist but we have no way to prove it. 'I am' is the closest foundation we can get." - Stan Brakhage

934 (75). La Kermesse héroïque aka Carnival in Flanders (1935, Jacques Feyder)

screened Wednesday October 29 2008 on VHS in New York, NY TSPDT rank #795  IMDb Wiki

This lavish farce about a 17th century Belgian town whose women openly welcome Spanish invaders when their cowardly male counterparts go into hiding is a classic model of the ebullient pacing and jaunty eroticism that's long been associated with French comedic cinema.  Feyder orchestrates his ensemble and witty dialogue with a lilting, musical efficiency, a quality that's also reflected in the camerawork, which moves sinuously across lavish sets inspired by Flemish paintings of the period. Feyder's fanciful farce envisions a marriage of pacifism and sexual equality yielding an idyllic society, which, despite strong critical support, rendered it anathema to contemporary politics.  The Belgians saw it as a mockery of their leaders' ineffectuality during their occupation by the Germans during World War II; the Nazis eventually banned it when links between them and the film's invading Spaniards became apparent.  It's utopian vision of international peace brokered by the fairer sex, while amounting to a feminist statement ahead of its time, seems downright naive in the immediate context of Petain and Chamberlain's appeasement policies to the Nazis (much in the way that the "we should have stayed in Iraq" argument underlying David O. Russell's Three Kings looks very different in the Bush era). But the film managed to place on many top ten lists in a poll conducted by the Belgian Cinematheque only a few years after the end of World War II, possibly attesting to the triumph of laughter and masterful filmmaking over one of the darkest moments of humankind.

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The following votes counted towards the placement of Carnival in Flanders in the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:

Augusto Genina - Cinematheque Belgique (1952)

Carol Reed - Cinematheque Belgique (1952)

Claude Autant-Lara-  Cinematheque Belgique (1952)

Jaume Figueras - Nickel Odeon (1994)

Marc-Gilbert Sauvajon - Cinematheque Belgique (1952)

Vittorio De Sica - Cinematheque Belgique (1952)

 Daniel & Susan Cohen Book - 500 Great Films (1987)

French Academy of Cinema Arts and Techniques - 10 Best French Films in the Sound Era (1978)

Kinema Junpo Best Films of All-Time (1995)

They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films


The John Golden Theatre, 202 West Fifty-eighth Street, where once played "Strange Interlude," "Ned McCobb's Daughter" and such like, has struck its colors to the cinema, and became last night the Filmarte, dedicated to the exhibition of outstanding pictures from abroad. Let us note at once that the Filmarte's first offering comes easily within the distinguished category mentioned in the theatre's dedication. "La Kermesse Heroique," which bears the subtitle "Carnival in Flanders," is an outstanding picture by any standards save those of strict moralists and stricter religionists.

A sly, gay and impious farce, typically Gallic in its conception and execution, it whipped its way past the State Board of Censors before that august body had time to recover from the news that the photoplay had received the Grand Prix du Cinema Français and some sort of a gold medal award of the Venice International Exposition of Cinematography. At first, we are reliably informed, the State Board had banned it outright. But then, hearing about its international honors, it reconsidered and leaned so far backward in its charity that the de Maupassant flavor of the piece has miraculously, been preserved. Which is all to the good and will, no doubt, reflect undeserved credit upon New York's guides to filmic morals

A delightfully satirical libel upon the city of Boom and its masculine inhabitants, the film has achieved a delicate balance between broad farce and subtle humor which makes it one of the most refreshing and witty pictures of the year. Technically, it is equal, if not superior, to anything Hollywood has turned out this season. On a performance basis, Alerme's mock heroic portrait of the Burgomaster is superb, Louis Jouvet's sardonic characterization of the friar a model of comic implication, Mile. Rosay's lively sketch of the Burgomaster's wife thoroughly delightful and Jean Murat's gallant Spanish grandee suavely perfect. The minor rôles are excellently served by an appreciative cast. And do not, we beg you, be dissuaded from seeing it because the dialogue is in French. Even without the many English subtitles, "La Kermesse Heroique" would be clearly understood; like all great comedies, it speaks a universal language.

- Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, September 23, 1936

Carnival in Flanders / La Kermesse héroïque was made by Jacques Feyder immediately after his dark psychological drama Pension Mimosas, and he said that he wanted to relax by making a farce, far removed from the present day. He turned to a short story written at his suggestion ten years earlier by Charles Spaak, set in 17th century Flanders when it was under Spanish occupation. For the visual style of the film, Feyder wanted to pay tribute to the old masters of his native country — Brueghel, Frans Hals, Pieter de Hoogh — and an elaborate creation of a Flemish town was undertaken (in suburban Paris) by the designer Lazare Meerson. Sumptuous costumes were provided by Georges K. Benda. The strong cast included Feyder’s wife Françoise Rosay and Louis Jouvet.

On the strength of its richly detailed tableaux and the confident manner in which Feyder animated his historical farce, the film enjoyed considerable success in France and elsewhere in the world. The film historian Raymond Chirat pointed to the combination of the admirable sets, the splendid costumes, the biting irony of the story, and the quality of the acting which earned the film a cascade of awards, the admiration of the critics, and the support of the public. Georges Sadoul referred to “this important work, of exceptional beauty”.

However, even on its first appearance in 1935 this tale of occupation and cheerful collaboration also caused uneasiness, and the screenwriter Henri Jeanson deplored the “Nazi inspiration” of the film. It was indeed enthusiastically praised in Germany and its première in Berlin (15 January 1936) took place in the presence of Joseph Goebbels. (Yet, a few days after the outbreak of war in 1939, the film was banned in Germany and the occupied countries of Europe, and Jacques Feyder and Françoise Rosay subsequently sought refuge in Switzerland.)

It was in Belgium that the film caused greatest controversy, perhaps for the unflattering portrayal of Flemish leaders in the 17th century, or in suspicion of covert references to the German occupation of Belgian territory during the First World War. At any rate, the release of the film led to brawls in cinemas in Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges.

Even two decades later (1955), its enduring reputation irked François Truffaut who wrote, in a broadside against so-called ‘successful’ films: “In this regard, the most hateful film is unarguably La Kermesse héroïque because everything in it is incomplete, its boldness is attenuated; it is reasonable, measured, its doors are half-open, the paths are sketched and only sketched; everything in it is pleasant and perfect.”

Nevertheless, this remains probably the most popular and widely known of Jacques Feyder’s films.

- Wikipedia

Jacques Feyder had already made two sound films in France; his creative skills were by no means diminished by the new dimension. His successful collaboration with Charles Spaak was to further produce one of the wittiest, most colourful and amusing comedies to reach the screen, La kermesse héroïque. Taking as his subject the period of the great Renaissance of Flemish painting and the less happy era of Spanish domination, Feyder made a major contribution to "women's lib." The film satirizes political, religious, and moral pretentiousness, and the men come off second best when a strong-minded and realistic woman encounters a tricky diplomatic situation.

Liam O'Leary, Film Reference.com

Full of earthy pleasures - eating, drinking and some surprisingly cheeky bedroom merrymaking - Carnival Of Flanders is a wickedly fast-paced comedy that greets its audience with a sly series of nods and winks. The carnival tradition has always been about letting the poor and powerless be king (or queen) for a day, and it's no different here as order is eventually re-established. Before it returns, though, director Jacques Feyder ensures that we sympathise with the women, not the dunderheaded buffoons they're married to.

- Jamie Russell, BBC
If you want a compelling insight into the collaborationist mentality of Nazi-occupied France, there's Marcel Ophüls's great 1969 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, currently on re-release, and Henri-Georges Clouzot's poison-pen thriller Le Corbeau (1943). But surely this sprightly French costume comedy from 1935 by Jacques Feyder, presented by the British Film Institute in a lovingly detailed restoration, outdoes them all, giving the most vivid if inadvertent glimpse of Pétainisme in the making.
- Philip Bradshaw, The Guardian
Except for Louis Jouvet as a crafty Spanish priest, there is little laughter-producing comedy, but the movie, which resembles paintings by Dutch masters, is beautifully designed by Lazare Meerson.
- Philip French, The Guardian
About the BFI DVD
This film is almost 70 years old and admittedly the print used was  very poor. It has moments of quite detailed sharpness, but overall it is somewhat hazy with excessive grain. A single layered DVD that I can only assume has not had excessive restoration done to the print. On the positive - the subtitles are clean and removable and again the BFI impresses me with their animated menus. I feel I need to be lenient due to the mitigating factors of the age of the film. We should be grateful that they brought it to a wide audience on DVD.
- Gary W. Tooze, DVD Beaver
About Jacques Feyder
IMDb Wiki
Biography by Liam O'Leary at Film Reference.com
Reviews of "Rediscover Jacques Feyder" DVD Boxset
Until now, Jacques Feyder has been unjustly reduced almost to a footnote in film history, but these beautifully-restored editions with stunning tints and new orchestral scores reveal him as one of the finest silent film directors in Europe. Following these accomplishments, Feyder was invited to Hollywood in 1929 to direct two outstanding films with Greta Garbo, The Kiss and the German version of Anna Christie, and to London for Marlene Dietrich in Knight without Armour; he is probably best remembered for Carnival in Flanders (La Kermesse heroique, 1935), which, unfortunately, was cut by about one-third for American release. Queen of Atlantis (L'Atlantide), based upon Pierre Benoit's best-selling exotic novel of the French foreign legion and the woman no man can resist, was filmed under gruelling conditions on location in the Sahara and in a large tent studio outside of Algiers. The desert, with its burning sun and vast expanse of sand, is the real star of this adventure, the most expensive French film until that time. It was hailed as a revelation, and ran for a year in Paris. Crainquebille is the name of a fruit and vegetable peddler (Maurice de Feraudy) who, accused of having insulted a policeman, becomes trapped in the bureaucratic web of French justice. He is sent to jail; after release, his bourgeois customers shun him, but at the point of suicide he is redeemed by an orphan newsboy (Jean Forest, an amazingly sensitive and expressive child found by Feyder on the streets of Montmartre). Feyder filmed on location around the market area of Les Halles and in some of the oldest areas of Paris. D. W. Griffith allegedly said of Crainquebille, "I have seen a film which, for me, precisely symbolizes Paris." Faces of Children (Visages d'enfants), a masterpiece, was filmed on location in the Haut-Valais region of Switzerland, with spectacular mountain scenery adding important atmosphere to the characters' complex emotions. The film is about the effect on a sensitive boy (again Jean Forest, who is heartrending) of his mother's death and his father's remarriage.
This package is pretty stingy for what they are asking, but the films are marvelous with Visages d'enfants regarded as a true masterpiece (I was blown away!). I enjoyed the fantasy elements of L'Atlantide as well. We don't give full marks to the DVDs but the films are rare enough to be lenient with a recommendation. A must for fans of silent film!
- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver.com
Review by Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk

933 (74). La Région centrale (1971, Michael Snow)

Special Note: La Région centrale will screen Monday November 24 and Tuesday November 25 at the Anthology Film Archives screened November 15 2008 on DivX in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT #464  IMDb Wiki

Arguably the first feature filmed by a robot, Michael Snow's three hour exploration of the possibilities of camera movement over a barren Arctic landscape suggests many things: sci-fi space probe footage more authentic than George Lucas; a rebuff to the romantic frontier landscapes of Hollywood Westerns; an avant-garde equivalent of an amusement park simulator ride. Lensed by a specially designed rotating camera mount pre-programmed to move with stunning variety, the film begins as a slow, soothing meditation on the otherworldly textures of the Canadian wilderness, but gradually morphs into a dizzying, terrifying freakout, a relentlessly spinning gaze that pummels the equilibrium of the human eye.  The film pushes the boundaries not only of human sight but of the physical earth, destroying gravity and transforming a lifeless vista into a cosmic force of light and energy.  Clinically scientific in its approach yet yielding an organic, even spiritual wonder, La region centrale does not merely vindicate the oft-neglected genre of experimental film, but thrusts itself into the center of cinema at its most vital.

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Poster designed by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth

Michael Snow on La region centrale

After finishing Wavelength, which is in its entirety a single camera movement (a zoom), I realized that the movement of the camera as a separate expressive entity in film is completely unexplored... I would like to make a three-hour film "orchestrating" all the possibilities of camera movement and the various relationships between it and what is being photographed. The movement can be an imperceptible part of the activity, can accent it, can counterpoint or contradict it and be independent from it. Since I'm sure nothing has been done in this area, perhaps I should clarify the sense in which I can say that camera movement is an unexplored potentially rich part of cinema: camera movement has generally been allied to the dictates of the story and characters being presented and follows what has been assumed to further these things, e.g., someone leaves the room, the camera follows this action. I give the camera an equal role in the film to what is being photographed.

The camera is an instrument, which has expressive possibilities in itself. I want to make a gigantic landscape film equal in terms to the great landscape paintings of Cezanne, Poussin, Corot, Monet, Matisse and in Canada the Group of Seven...

The film will become a kind of absolute record of a piece of wilderness. Eventually the effect of the mechanized movement will be what I imagine the first rigorous filming of the moon surface. But this will feel like a record of the last wilderness on earth, a film to be taken into outer space as a souvenir of what nature once was. I want to convey a feeling of absolute aloneness, a kind of Goodbye to Earth which I believe we are living through. In complete opposition to what most films convey, this film will not only present only human drama but mechanical and natural drama as well. It will preserve what will increasingly become an extreme rarity: wilderness. Perhaps aloneness will also become a rarity. At any rate the film will create a very special state of mind, and while I believe that it will have no precedent I also believe it will be possible for it to have a large audience...

- excerpted from a proposal by Michael Snow to the Canadian Film Development Corporation in March 1969. Published in The Collected Writings of Michael Snow by Snow and Louise Dompierre. Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1994. Pages 53, 55.

This film is not 'entertainment'. It is a phenomenon. It can be an agent of revelation. To be fully experienced it ought to be seen / heard in its entirety. The middle hour is a plateau, the nature of which will be understood if crossed, i.e. by looking back from the other side of the end. Take your time, take your place. It is to be expected that one will occasionally feel tangential. Stay, look at the image, but think of something else. Later, perhaps, you will find that you have rejoined the image.

- Michael Snow

La Région isn’t only a documentary photographing of a particular place at various times of the day but is equally and more importantly a source of sensations, an ordering, an arranging of eye movements and of inner ear movements. It starts out here, respecting the gravity of our situation but it more and more sees as a planet does. Up downs up, down ups down, up ups up. The first 30 minutes show us the four people who have set the camera and machine in motion doing various things, talking, looking, but after that we are gone and the remaining twp and a half hours is entirely made by the machinery (you?). There are no other people but you (the machinery?) and the extraordinary wilderness. Alone. Like a lot of other humans I feel horror at the thought of the humanizing of the entire planet. In this film I recorded the visit of some of our minds and bodies and machinery to a wild place but I didn’t colonize it, enslave it. I hardly even borrowed it. Seeing really is believing.

- Michael Snow

“An unimaginable film, literally like nothing you have ever seen before.” –John W. Locke, ARTFORUM

"Michael Snow's LA REGION CENTRALE can be described as heroic bordering on the apocalyptic. ... [I]t is an epochal film because of the extent of the camera movements and its transformation of space .... Gravity is destroyed ... the horizon line has been erased and forgotten and the land mass has been transformed into a whirling flat disc, a blurred flash of light with no mass or volume, rotating wildly through the sky.... Snow's mountain landscape has become a reflection on the solar system."

- Bill Simon, Artforum

In several respects, La Region Centrale is the purified essence of Canadian cinema. It brings together the long-important landscape-art tradition (of the GROUP OF SEVEN painters, for example) and the theoretical problems of the photograph in a single monumental form. La Region Centrale synthesizes the demands of photo-representation and the abstractive tendencies of modern experimental image-making. The tension between these representational media and abstract form, once they were brought into the foreground by Chambers, Wieland and Snow, would underwrite a great many technical and formal experiments, just as the particular interest in landscape iconography their films manifest would recur repeatedly in the filmmakers who followed.

- Bart Testa, from the entry on Experimental Film for The Canadian Encyclopedia

One of the classics of conceptual filmmaking (1971), Michael Snow's three-hour film is a landscape study with a vengeance: a camera, equipped with a remote-controlled zooming and panning device, was set up in a remote area in northern Canada, and made to go through every possible permutation of camera angle and focal length as it probed the surrounding wilderness. The resulting footage finds a strange beauty in the constant tension between the mechanical, mathematically determined operations of the camera and the chance transformations of the landscape as it's raked by the light of the passing day.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

This three hour film by the Canadian Michael Snow is an extraordinary cinematic monument. No physical action, not even the presence of man, a fabulous game with nature and machine which puts into question our perceptions, our mental habits, and in many respects renders moribund existing cinema: the latest Fellini, Kubrick, Buñuel etc. For La Région Centrale, Snow had a special camera apparatus constructed by a technician in Montreal, an apparatus capable of moving in all directions: horizontally, vertically, laterally or in a spiral. The film is one continuous movement across space, intercutting occasionally the X serving as a point of reference and permitting one to take hold of stable reality. Snow has chosen to film a deserted region, without the least trace of human life, 100 miles to the north of Sept-Isles in the province of Quebec: a sort of plateau without trees, opening onto a vast circular prospect of the surrounding mountains.

In the first frames, the camera disengages itself slowly from the ground in a circular movement. Progressively, the space fragments, vision inverts in every sense, light everywhere dissolves appearance. We become insensible accomplices to a sort of cosmic movement. A sound track, rigorously synchronized, composed from the original sound which programmed the camera, supplies a permanent counterpoint.

Michael Snow pushes toward the absurd the essential nature of this 'seventh' art which is endlessly repeated as being above the visual. He catapults us into the heart of a world before speech, before arbitrarily composed meanings, even subject. He forces us to rethink not only cinema, but our universe.

- Louis Marcorelles, Le Monde

The shadow of the camera mount captivates me the most: fleeting glimpses of that which makes the film possible. But when I recognize that I occupy the position of the mount, I realize that the glimpses I crave are those of myself. This craving is literally realized by the afterimages of the introductory Xs, moving as my eyes move across the first minute of each section of the film. This is an unparalleled reflexive strategy that serves to embed me within the film rather than cultivating a reflective distance. Indexicality has never been stronger than here, and this is what makes the film’s climactic slip into abstraction all the more potent.

-Randolph Jordan, Synoptique

Deeper Analyses

La Région Centrale (Quebec, 1971, 180 min., 16mm, color) is arguably the most spectacular experimental film made anywhere in the world, and for John W. Locke, writing in Artforum in 1973, it was “as fine and important a film as I have ever seen.” If ever the term “metaphor on vision” needed to be applied to a film it should be to this one. Following Wavelength, Michael Snow continued to explore camera/frame movement and its relationships with space and time in Standard Time (1967) an eight minute series of pans and tilts in an apartment living room and (Back and Forth) (1968–69), a more extended analysis. But with La Région Centrale, Snow managed to create moving images that heretofore could no possibly be observed by the human eye. For this project he enlisted the help of Pierre Abaloos to design and build a machine which would allow the camera to move smoothly about a number of different axes at various speeds, while supported by a short column, where the lens of the camera could pass within inches of the ground and zoom into the infinity of the sky. Snow placed his device on a peak near Sept Îsles in Quebec’s région centrale and programmed it to provide a series of continuously changing views of the landscape. Initially, the camera pans through 360° passes which map out the terrain, and then it begins to provide progressively stranger views (on its side, upside down) through circular and back-and-forth motions.

The weird soundtrack was constructed from the electronic sounds of the programmed controls which are sometimes in synch with the changing framing on screen and sometimes not. Here, allusions to other films occur, especially science fiction works like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) which similarly reveals a barren, human-less primal landscape (with odd sounds) and spatially disorients the spectator. In La Région Centrale’s second hour, the world is inverted for so long, that when the camera swings vertically through a full circle to restore the horizon line to its rightful position, above the earth, it looks wrong. In the complete absence of human or animal forms, one can imagine the outlines of animals in the silhouetted shapes of rocks at twilight. It is impossible not to notice “camera movement” in this film, and, as Locke notes, one is inclined to observe the frame edge leading the movement (rather than the center) much of the time.

Michael Snow, Région Centrale, 1970. Courtesy of the Daniel Langlois foundation. © Michael Snow. Michael Snow, Région Centrale, 1970. Courtesy of the Daniel Langlois foundation. © Michael Snow.

I can only imagine what it would have been like to see La Région Centrale, captivated in the extreme dark and quiet of New York’s Anthology Film Archive theater built specifically for the screening of experimental films in the 1970s. But, in any event, seen under any condition, the last hour offers up an incredible experience, with unbelievably high speed twisting and swirling motions rendering dynamic color and line abstractions. Finally, by rephotography —of the film jumping out of the gate— and flaring out of the image to red and yellow colors, and, closing with the camera apparently motionless on the sun, Snow presents a reflexive impression of the camera as the ultimate transformative, creative apparatus, capable of any magic. La Région Centrale presents a definitive “metaphor on vision.”

- Peter Rist, Offscreen

La region centrale is a film of constant motion, yet its motion, like that in Snow's other films, is quite restricted in its range of variations. The camera moves constantly around a fixed centre; the movement is always circular, though its speed does vary. The circles, too, can be tilted even while they are being described, thus creating the figure of a circle in rotation. The camera can also be twirled on its axis forming a circle within a rotating circle. The apparatus which performs these movements was designed and engineered so that the camera always points outwards, its axis aligned with a radius to that point on the circle where, at any moment, the camera is to be found. While the camera is at the centre of the landscape the film depicts, it constantly looks outward; it photographs every point in that space except that at which the apparatus itself (the camera-mount is located).

Snow has made quite explicit the implications of this form of construction. In a conversation with Charlotte Townsend, he commented:

If you become completely involved in the reality of these circular movements, it's you who is spinning, surrounded by everything, or conversely, you are a stationary centre and it's all revolving around you. But on the screen it's the centre which is never seen, which is mysterious. One of the titles which I considered using was !?432101234?! by which I meant that as you move down in dimensions you approach zero and in this film, La region centrale, that zero point is the absolute centre, Nirvanic zero, being the ecstatic centre of a complete sphere. (p. 369-370)

However paradoxical it might seem, it is the very purity of the camera movements - their de-anthropomorphized character - in La region centrale that allows them to serve as a metaphor for consciousness. Snow filmed La region centrale on a remote mountaintop, north of Sept-Iles, Quebec. Nowhere in the film do any people or animals appear, nor is there evidence of any towns or villages just beyond range of the camera. Nor, for that matter, is there any indication that human beings live nearby; there are no hydroelectric power lines, no television transmitters. Hence, the camera moves over and through an uninhabited landscape, over and through an unpopular space, an empty space, or at least, something rather close to it. As a result, we are able to see camera movements for what they are in themselves. We do not regard them - or perhaps more accurately, we do not disregard them, as we do most camera movements in most fiction movies - as a means of moving from one important object or character or incident to another or as a way of following characters as they move. The emptiness of the landscape encourages us to recognize the camera movements for what they are in themselves. (p. 392)

In the ultimate experience evoked by La region centrale, consciousness merges with the totality of matter. Mind and matter, the ideal and the real, as Hegel foretold, are reunited. In this section of La region centrale, Snow proposes an enlarged view of consciousness, expanding it from one that sees consciousness as representing beings to one that sees consciousness as forming - and formed in - Being. This makes it the culminating moment of Canadian cinema. (p. 398)

- from Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture by R. Bruce Elder, Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television. Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989

If 1970s film aesthetics was defined by a single common feature, it was the principle of excess. In Hollywood, this quality of excess manifested itself in the further roll-back and transgression of Hays-era prohibitions, leading not only to the so-called Hollywood Renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but also to the well documented explosion of exploitation cinema. In Japan, the X-rated pink movies of the era bested Hollywood's comparatively mild attempts to create a morally retrograde cinema. India witnessed the emergence of a relatively artless blockbuster cinema to compete with similar developments in Hollywood excesses in their own right - while Europe seem to discount the concept of popular cinema altogether. Indeed, in that latter context, the art film experienced its least commercial instantiation with running times often exceeding the 180-minute mark: Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) comes in at a lean 165-minutes when compared with Céline and Julie Go Boating's (1974) 190 minutes, Jeanne Dielman's (1976) 201 minute-length, The Mother and the Whore's (1973) 210 minutes, the four hours of Theo Angelopoulos's Travelling Players (1975) and Manoel de Oliveira's Doomed Love (1979), and of course, most spectacularly of all, Jacques Rivette's 773 minute Out One (1971) and its 4-hour abridgement, Out One: Spectre (1972).

Along with Stan Brakhage's Scenes from Under Childhood (1967-1970), Michael Snow's 180-minute La Région centrale (1971) extends this principle of excess to the avant-garde. Of course, it is not simply for the film's punishing duration, but more importantly for the scope of its ambitions - another era hallmark - that La Région centrale rates as one of the defining examples of 1970s film art. Like the cinema of Rivette, Snow's concerns itself foremost with allegorizing his medium's basic ontology...

In the end, La Région centrale is the spiritual twin of Jacques Rivette's Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) and that film's allegorization of the filmmaking process. Then again, if there is greater emphasis on the act of creation, of invention in Rivette's subsequent opus, Snow's film emphasizes the projected image and therefore the experience of film viewing itself. (So they are fraternal twins, I guess.) In other words, Rivette seems more concerned with the making and Snow with the seeing. Of course, this is not to limit Snow's ambitions: La Région centrale further makes us aware of our place on this planet, the workings of gravity and its stipulated absence, and finally this planet's revolving trajectory through the heavens. Snow's masterpiece is not only reflexive, it's cosmological. There is, in other words, an excess of ambition here.

Situated between the overheated subjectivity of Brakhagian cinema and the cool indifference of Warhol's urban sensibility Michael Snow's LA REGION CENTRALE (1971) is an extraordinary cinematic monument. Where Brakhage could extend a single second of consciousness out into ninety minutes of unrelieved intensity or Warhol would nonchalantly present a single eight hour long take of the Empire State Building, Snow had a complex camera apparatus designed and built to render a radical mediation on landscape, technology and representation. Snow's apparatus was capable of moving in all directions: horizontally, vertically, laterally or in a spiral as determined by a series of electronic pulses guiding the machine. His film is one continuous movement across space, filmed from a remote mountaintop in Quebec, a deserted region without trace of human presence.

The placement of the camera in the landscape was of crucial importance for Snow. The camera had to be at the center of a space from which it would look out at and record all aspects of that space. LA REGION CENTRALE contests the classical tradition of a fixed viewpoint of space, a major theme of Twentieth Century art.

LA REGION CENTRALE attacks the notion of hierarchical space inherent in Renaissance fixed point perspective and narrative. Fixed point perspective are, at best, for modernist and post modernist artists, 19th Century forms of representation. A major tendency in 20th Century Western thought was toward a relativism which stresses the fundamental equality, unity and interconnectedness of things. The circular camera movements in LA REGION CENTRALE refuse to privilege any sector of the off-screen space. There is no edge to the film frame. The vision of unity which Snow proposes in LA REGION CENTRALE is that all points in space are of an equal and common nature.

The camera movement in LA REGION CENTRALE gradually develops over time in a complex musical, theme and variation structure. The first sequence, as a prelude, describes the total space of the film. Subsequent variations go on to explore the landscape by means of all the possibilities presented by the camera, film, lighting and the constantly moving camera apparatus. LA REGION CENTRALE builds to a crescendo, traveling from daylight to sunset to night-time through sunrise to daylight once again. The sunrise and sunset sections show how lighting can affect our perception and reading of a scene. The nighttime section of LA REGION CENTRALE introduces a series of apparent illusions and visual transformations which suggest the central spiritual nature of the film and its affirmation that technology can enhance our relationship with and understanding of the world.

- Martin Rumsby

In Snow's film La region centrale, you and I face the problem of "who?" relayed through cinema and a cinematic machine set in the "garden" of the specifically Canadian north. The context for the film is not only concurrent experimental film practice in New York, but the argument that Canadian identity, or self-recognition, is grounded in fear before an empty and hostile wilderness. The visual representation of wilderness found in historical Canadian landscape painting and photography has been largely ignored in relation to La region centrale, particularly by non-Canadian critics, an ignorance which has obscured an important reference and a recurring theme in Snow's practice. Writers such as Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood, and Gaile McGregor are well known for their analyses of the human recoil before hostile nature which they find in Canadian literature and painting. In 1989 Bart Testa extended this analysis into Canadian film with the exhibition and essays of Spirit in the Landscape, which included La region centrale. Protagonists, in this view, implicitly or explicitly retreat to a defensive position (e.g., under the bedcovers, inside a compound, or before multiple framing devices) in the face of a threatening, unregulated environment...

To match the camera movement to the idea of wide open space, Snow commissioned Pierre Abeloos, a creative engineer from Montreal, to design and build a machine for a camera mount which could point the camera in any direction and which could be controlled electronically by a preprogrammed musical score or by remote control. The flexible mount and automated control freed camera movement from conventional constraints of imitating the human eye, and of Snow's immediate aesthetic response to what he might see through the viewfinder. The machine holds the camera at the end of a rotating arm offset from the machine's principal vertical axis. It rotates the camera on the axes of three successively smaller circles, each tangential to the "prior" one. The largest circle describes a horizontal plane around the machine's central post. The second circle traces vertical rotations tangential to the perimeter of the first horizontal circle. The third circle, tangential to the second, is where the camera sits and rotates on the lens' own axis. Additionally, the lens can zoom. The machine can change direction and speed on any of these paths while performing these movements simultaneously and independently. Subsequently equipped with a video camera and supplemented by four monitors, the machine has become the sculptural video installation, De la.

Given this capacity to bring a dizzying repertoire of moving images to the screen, how can anyone ignore the reference to the body made by a film that can literally make you sick? La region centrale calls upon a spectator with mobile, stereoscopic vision, with hearing and the  ears' semicircular canals, and with the long habitual experience of being vertical and seeing at eye-level, of handedness, dorso-ventrality and human gait. The screen image rends the eyes, attacks balance in the inner ear, challenges the stomach, contests eye-ear integration, and denies the pace and focus of perception constrained in a head that looks forward, on a neck with restricted rotation, on a body that walks, turns, stops and blinks to see. The film's sound has nothing to do with emotionally interpreting what is on screen but registers the presence of a sensing device with a series of electronic tones and pulse speeds that bespeak machine. Sometimes the pulses and tones are synchronous with the movements on screen and sometimes not. Such irregularity challenges perceptual integration of senses that are conditioned to synchrony, so that Snow's earlier project of liberating the eye and ear from condition mutual subjection, which he undertook in New York Eye and Ear Control, returns with a vengeance...

The frames of La region centrale, accompanied by its beeping, move across the screen without a filmmaker's or my emotions in mind. Yet, the film is not truly indifferent to me because it plays unceasingly on my bodily senses and on its ability to disorient and reorient them. While my body ties me to nature out there as the substrate of the film, because the film addresses me I am for the same reason part of the landscape in the frame and we are both "sent" or mobilized, now in the picture. One result: nature and "I" no longer suffer each other, either on the ground or in representation. Through my self and these new sights, the binary division between representation and the "real" world, "hostile" nature and my self, have been undone. Nature need no longer mourn, now becoming legible through meditation.

- From Figuring Redemption: Resighting My Self in the Art of Michael Snow. By Tila Landon Kellman, Michael Snow. Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2002. Pages 101, 117-118, 166

In 1971, Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow started the paradoxical task of observing the wilderness empty of people, without having anyone present at all. Snow had a special camera-like machine, resembling a satellite or a probe, installed in rough, mountainous Canadian territory. Mounted on a special robot programmed to move, the camera filmed the uniform, utterly nonpicturesque landscape for sixty hours. The material was edited down to three hours; people are only seen for a total of thirty minutes. Otherwise, the camera relies upon itself, in a wild, cinematic roller coaster ride. In 1969, that is, two years before making the film, Snow announced that the film «La Région Centrale» would become «a kind of absolute record of a piece of wilderness.» He expected that the mechanical movement of the camera would result in somethingcomparable to the first rigorous film documents of the surface of the moon. At the same time, it «will feel like a record of the last wilderness on earth, a film to be taken into outer space as a souvenir of what nature once was.» After finishing the film in 1971, Snow thought that moments of ecstasy and totality prevailed. There was a zero point, an absolute center, a nirvana-like nothing, a lack of gravity, an orgasmic dimension, « &the ecstatic centre of a complete sphere.» This kind of incorporeal seeing, which is «beyond all subjective finality» (Raymond Bellour), reminds one of automatic recording and viewing machines that engage in viewing without seeing. This is a purely technical kind of viewing, which, in this case however, has no supervisory, controlling, guiding function. It is, as Alain Fleischer correctly wrote, «pointless,» mere performance (and thus also practically natural). The things [Robert] Smithson and Snow each move (translate) from one «desert» to another «desert,» could not be more different. Whereas Snow s (mostly) dehumanized camera movements completely obey the camera robot, and the «human factor» is limited to constructing the machine, programming it, choosing the location, and deciding how to edit the film from sixty to three hours, there are many more parts to Smithson's mix of esthetic criteria. In a posthumously published essay from 1971, Smithson writes of his experiences with the «wilderness of Cameraland,» the «wilderness created by the camera.» Smithson is not able to get really excited. Cameras had lives of their own; it was difficult to imagine an « &Infinite Camera without an ego.» Smithson fantasized about a horror film with the working title «Invasion of the Camera Robots,» in which cyclopean cameras would terrorize a photography shop. The big issue was: how does one deal with the unavoidable, simultaneously productive and destructive presence of cameras, of abstraction machines? How does art/the artist behave toward the camera? There is no solution. Or is there perhaps one &? Michael Snow's «Wavelength», for instance, earns Smithson s attention: after all, this film successfully dried up the ocean into a photograph. Smithson also appears to be interested in the fact that Snow goes out into the actual landscape with «a delirious camera of his own invention.» Snow produces a camera wilderness, which must have been suspect and at thesame time welcome to Smithson. Toward the end of his essay, Smithson indirectly admits that wild cameras could make a considerable contribution to the work of deterritorializing and decentralizing a society s narrative patterns. These thoughts, elliptically spoken, imagine a kind of film and photographic discourse that is infected by anti-narrativism a point of view that also includes the radical dissection of the subject of perception.

- Tom Holert, "Political Whirlpools and Deserts: Michaelangelo Antonioni, Robert Smithson and Michael Snow,"  Mediankunstnetz / Media Art Net

About Michael Snow

IMDb Wiki

Online dossier including articles and interviews with Snow, at Offscreen

Video essay for 932 (73). Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht / Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where it Rules (1965, Jean-Marie Straub) featuring commentary by Richard Brody

View main entry Special thanks to Richard Brody, film editor of the New Yorker and author of EVERYTHING IS CINEMA: THE WORKING LIFE OF JEAN-LUC GODARD (Metropolitan Books) for his insights into this particularly challenging film.

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932 (73). Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht / Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where it Rules (1965, Jean-Marie Straub)

* SPECIAL NOTE: Not Reconciled is playing Sunday 11/23 and Wednesday 11/25 as part of the Manny Farber Tribute at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Visit filmlinc.com for more info Screened November 14 2008 on 16mm at the MoMA Media Study Center, New York NY

TSPDT rank #612 IMDb

Only 50 minutes long but requiring at least two or three viewings to grasp, the debut feature of cinema's most dynamic husband and wife directing duo is quite possibly the most daunting and demanding work of the 60s New Wave. Adapting a novel by Nobel laureate and post-war German critic Heinrich Boll, Straub and Huillet radically reinvent conventional expository devices such as voiceover narration and scene transitions, transmogrifying D.W. Griffith's innovations with cinematic time (cf. Intolerance) to reflect a frightening state of national and political shell-shock. Upon initial viewings, half the time one doesn't know whether a scene is happening in the contemporary West Germany of the 1960s, the 1930s Third Reich, or the First World War. This disorientation reflects the haunted mental state of a family comprised of three generations of political outsiders, perpetually living under traumas suffered by their nation's history that those around them are eager to repress.  What keeps this film from being dismissed as a pretentious high-brow aesthetic exercise is the sinuous mystery to its rhythms, made clean by a near-merciless precision to the film's Bresson-inspired cutting and framing schemes, and weighted with the emotional accumulation of oblique expressions of rage and cruelty, Teutonic blue notes played with cool ferocity. This is a puzzle film with jigs as sharp as shark's teeth, now as much as ever.

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The subtitle of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s first feature, from 1965, “Only Violence Helps Where Violence Reigns,” suggests the fierce political program evoked by their rigorous aesthetic. The pretext of the film, set in Cologne, is Heinrich Böll’s novel “Billiards at Half Past Nine,” which they strip down to a handful of stark events and film with a confrontational angularity akin to Bartók’s music that adorns the soundtrack. The subtlest of cues accompany the story’s complex flashbacks. The middle-aged Robert Fähmel tells a young hotel bellhop of persecutions under the Third Reich; his elderly father, Heinrich, an architect famed for a local abbey, recalls the militarism of the First World War, when his wife, Johanna, incurred trouble for insulting the Kaiser. A third-generation Fähmel is considering architecture, just as the exiled brother of Robert’s late wife, returns, only to be met by their former torturer, now a West German official taking part in a celebratory parade of war veterans. Straub and Huillet make the layers of history live in the present tense, which they judge severely. The tamped-down acting and the spare, tense visual rhetoric suggest a state of moral crisis as well as the response—as much in style as in substance—that it demands.

- Richard Brody, The New Yorker

The least that can be said to explain why the films of Straub and Huillet are so important is that they embody the most rigorous practice in cinema of playing fair with one's materials: texts, actors, elements, landscapes, buildings. That means: letting the living live, letting what once lived, speak. What once lived: what was once intended, what was once thought within a network of links with its own time and with the more or less distant past (the connections from Brecht to Caesar, from Hölderlin to Empedocles, from Pavese to the ancient gods of Italy, from Schönberg to Moses and Aaron). Letting what once lived, speak and appear, somewhere. People and things may not be in their place, but they are in a place...

In Not Reconciled (1965), it's already clear, this attitude, or discipline, that makes it happen that the filmmakers place themselves in front of people, in the midst of reality, in such a way that people and reality do not give up to the camera. The people are always looking out of the frame, they are always escaping, out of allegiance to this system that Straub-Huillet's Brechtian cinema constructs and displays, whereby the actor remains in his/her own skin even while adopting the garb of another: without claiming, falsely, to be at home in this garb. (No pretended intimacy in their films, no false traffic with the inner life of people; what is discussed is public life, politics, work, genetic life, the activity of peoples and races....) What Straub-Huillet add to Brecht is cinema: the route through the real or the escape of the real through the real, at the moment of being filmed.

- Chris Fujiwara, FIPRESCI Undercurrent

Evoking such intricately interwoven allusive images as religious rigidity, blind faith, false idolatry, and passive complicity, the seemingly perfunctory episode distills the essence of Heinrich Böll's, radical, anti-militarist postwar novel, Billiards at Half-Past Nine, an indicting examination of the collective psyche of the German people that contributed to rise of Nazism and its insidious perpetuation in contemporary society. Unfolding in disorientingly elliptical vignettes that eschew dramatic action in favor of oppressively distended temp morts, autonomic ritual (most notably, in the recurring image of Robert Fähmel (Henning Harmssen) playing a lone game of billiards), and decontextualized, uninflected monologues (that recall the dedramatized, pensive recitation of Robert Bresson's equally spare and austere cinema), the film chronicles three generations of architects and their personal association with - and ancestral legacy through - St. Anthony's Abbey and, in the process, presents an incisive and relevant portrait of a traumatized nation's culturally fostered (but publicly unarticulated) xenophobia, suppressed memory, deliberate inaction, and tacit support for (and therefore, condoned harboring of) war criminals into positions of power, authority, and influence in postwar Germany. Filming in stark black and white, Straub and Huillet also set the somber atmosphere of figurative, unreconciled ghosts of souls (and histories) passed through the opening image of otherworldly forms and shadows cast by a bleak and desolate winter forest. Straub and Huillet further underscore the film's recurring theme of alienation and distance through non-confronting dialogue, incongruous narration, and isolated and occluded character framing. Similarly, the film's asequential structure conflates past and present in order to create a pervasive sentimental inertia - a metaphoric existential vicious circle for a national soul that is still haunted by its own past, even as it continues to steadfastly cling to its self-destructive behaviors - obfuscating moral complicity through delusive self-denial and perverted, hollow rituals. It is this inextricable sense of moribund transcendence that is captured in the Fähmel family's intertwined destinies with the wartime-sabotaged cathedral, the tragic and tortuous course of human history that reveals only a shell of irredeemably lost grandeur and inevitable fall from grace.

- Acquarello, Strictly Film School

If I were asked to name the most difficult great filmmaker(s) in the world, the team of the late Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub would undoubtedly top my list. (In fact, that might make in interesting exercise, so you can probably expect to see such a list posted here soon.) At the beginning of their shared career, the husband-wife team were making severe, austere black-and-white films with dark, brooding political content. The best of these early films, Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules, boiled down Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards at Half Past Nine, to a jagged 45 minutes in which the book’s multiple plot lines were jumbled and its chronology obliterated. It is a stunning film that rewards multiple viewings. It is a film that requires multiple viewings.

- George Robinson, Cine-Journal

A "lacunary" film is what Straub called Not Reconciled and what every film by him and Huillet may be called, a film in which the gaps cannot be filled in to make a world, the parts missing cannot be put in place to make a whole. It is not that we are called upon to complete the work ourselves: how can we, if its makers cannot? It is that the gaps, the parts missing, are to become ours as well as the work's: the work of putting the parts together, the parts without a whole, is one in which we must take part...

In Not Reconciled the remnants of the past, of the various pasts, are not clearly placed in those pasts; with disconcerting abruptness the film shifts between diffferent periods, between different actors playing the same characters in different periods, and so the things from the past are not experienced as past but as things with the same claim as anything else to belonging in the present. Precisely the point: the German past is not over and done with, it continues in the present. But in Not Reconciled things do not exist in a world of the present either. They are things without a world, things the German people must make into a world. Easy to make them into a false world, but this the film will not do: it breaks [novelist Heinrich] Boll's narrative into pieces that are purposely difficult to put together."Tell what, boy?" asks Robert Fahmel in the abrupt opening line: tell what about his experience under the Nazis, when he was about as old as the adolescent boy he is addressing? Tell what about the German past, in what connection to the concerns of the present? asks the film tacitly throughout; the question is built into the fragmentary, dislocated arrangement of the largely retrospective narrative. Out of a long story spanning half a century we get a tangled agglomerate of fragments, bits and pieces of the past recounted by the characters or reenacted in flashbacks to Nazi and to Kaiser Germany, with no connections made, no cohesion established among the different pieces that can be readily grasped. Hence the missing pieces carry as much weight as the things included, the weight, the feel, of all in the past that has been forgotten or repressed and yet continues to bear upon the present.

- Gilberto Perez, from "History Lessons," in The Material Ghost, JHU Press, 2000. Pages 324, 325

Straub’s oblique approach to the problem of Germany’s Nazi past resulted in NOT RECONCILED, which was adapted from Heinrich Böll’s novel, Billiards at Half-Past Nine. However, the film’s source is not a particularly helpful place to commence a critical analysis (“pace” Richard Roud) since the best it can do is attempt to unravel a singularly difficult cinematic experience. Straub, indeed, would prefer us to forget the novelistic source:

“I believe one can't make a film of any book—because one films something about a book or with a book, but never of a book—one films always from one’s own experience. A film lives and exists only when it is based on the experiences of the so-called director.”

Straub takes as his starting point the principle that film is “a perceptual present.” There is, in our experience of watching a film, no past tense. He then transfers this idea to the narrative organization, eliding all the connectives that were present in Böll’s novels, thereby formally underling the historical principle that present and past are indivisible. Again we note Straub’s proximity to Marxist theory. Marx noted, “Not only the result, but the road to it also, is a part of the truth.” Straub’s maieutic endeavor in NOT RECONCILED, to objectify the latent tendencies of the German nation, is predicated on this principle. The process of our struggle to come to terms with the film runs parallel with the protagonist Robert Fahmel’s attempt to come to terms with his past.

As he had earlier done with MACHORKA-MUFF, Straub attacked his subject from an oblique angle:

“The fact which interested me was to make a film about Nazism without mentioning the word Hitler or concentration camps and such things that a middle class family did not suspect or want to suspect.”

In its individual elements, the film is congruent with the characteristic constituents of Straub’s style: the documentary mode, the flat monotony of the actors’ dialogue, an ascetic camera style. Eliding Böll’s transitional statements reinforces the generalized image of the nation, rather than the intimacies of family relations. Everything in the film pushes beyond the boundaries of the personal to the national. One might even say that impersonality is a central motif. Like Machorka-Muff’s solitariness (eating alone, walking alone) the characters in NOT RECONCILED are alone, set in a hostilely impersonal environment. One shot that clinches this mood of pessimism is a 360-degree panning shot around a suburban desert. It culminates on a young man standing at a door; a child informs him that the person he seeks has never been there. Straub consistently uses empty spaces—often to create a sense that it is a space that has been vacated by those that don't “fit in”—like Robert’s mother, who has been committed to an insane asylum because she called the Kaiser a “fool.” Straub seems to suggest that the barren nature of the environment is perhaps due to the fact that Nazism’s eliminative principles have rendered it spiritually sterile.

- Martin Walsh, "Jean-Marie Straub," published in Jump Cut no. 4, 1974

"Many of [Straub-Huillet's] films address themselves to the problem of the text and its performance, to the fact that in general text and performance are fused within a film. Nearly all the Straub-Huillet films are in some way concerned with establishing a distance between the cinematic presentation of a text and that text, and this is the source of much of their success and interest. In films like Machorka Muff and Nicht Versohnt this is already the case, though less explicitly than later. Not Reconciled is an extremely difficult film to cope with as a film in the sense of the standard cinema, because it does not have in itself the power to substitute for and therefore abolish the text of which it is an adaptation. You cannot understand the story of Not Reconciled in the ordinary way you understand the story of a film, unless you know the novel on which it is based, with the result that there is a tension with the film between the Heinrich Boll novel which is being adapted and the particular filmic presentation. Of course the same thing is much more explicit in films such as Othon and History Lessons, where a text is recited or presented in a relation which completely contradicts any possibility of that text assuming its simple fictional place. This is one way to reestablish that separation between a text and a film performance which is a presentation of that text, which Brecht insisted was so important a part of the epic theater.

- Ron Burnett, from Explorations in Film Theory, Published by Indiana University Press, 1991. Page 198.

The placement of the fictional narrative of the novel within a context of documentary elements and the freedom created by the filmmakers' formal decisions are important aspects of Not Reconciled as well as of the films to be examined in following chapters. For Straub/Huillet, documentary is fundamental to all film art.[38] Even the fictional drama contained In Not Reconciled is documentary on one level: a documentary of its (re)enactment, its quotation from the novel. Just as the words of the novel do not openly express emotion, neither does the style with which Straub/Huillet present them. The texts are offered as documents, facts—placed in a context but not interpreted.

Composition, editing, camera movement, and motion within the shots all have an effect on the narrative and the emotions it can stimulate. Critics have often noted Straub/Huillet's preference for diagonals, for instance, but have underestimated the aesthetic and thematic significance of the contrast with more symmetrical composition. Scenes in Not Reconciled involving the characters' inability to reconcile past and present are most often shot in diagonals. In addition to making a simple set "vibrate with life,"[40] Straub/Huillet's diagonal shots keep the viewer from relaxing at the point of a perspective triangle in relation to the screen. In this way they are able to vary the sense of narrative space inherent in all three-dimensional pictorial representations. Not only is the viewer not at rest as the subject for whom the composition is created but the composition itself, devoid of a vanishing point or balanced perspective focus, contains lines of visual interest that come back into the frame rather than seek to escape to another triangular point opposite the viewer on the other side. The restlessness thus created makes it possible for the viewer to feel a new sensation when, for a good thematic reason, balanced perspective returns...

- Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. University of California Press. Pages 113, 115.

For Thomas Elsaesser, Not Reconciled can be identified even as a "terrorist film" because it offers a violent "solution" to the failures of effective de-Nazification: the female protagonist of Not Reconciled attempts to shoot one of the official politicians, a former Nazi who is now the Minister for Rearmament... Not Reconciled... seems to anticipate the later forms of terrorism aimed at radically protesting the reconstruction and remilitarization of the German nation-state after the war.

- Robert Stam, Alessandra Raengo, Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Page 150.

About Jean-Marie Strab and Danielle Huillet

IMDb Wiki

There are more important things to write about than films. This alone is a good reason for writing about films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. In their art they have taken to heart Kafka's advice: "In the battle between yourself and the world, second the world." In films that are simple in their visual construction, restrained in their camera movement, and precise in their editing, there are always brief points at which the reality of the world outside the film explodes with a violent, utopian force. In Not Reconciled , for instance, a tragic love affair is summed up in a single two-second shot of a young woman turning her head as she says, "They're going to kill you." An old woman shoots a Nazi sympathizer at the end of the same film, and another avenging woman shoots a gangster at the end of The Bridegroom, the Comedienne, and the Pimp , yet in each case the camera looks away. The "action" is always elsewhere, spilling out of the film. And in most Straub/Huillet films, sound separates itself from the image for the first time at the end of the final reel, impelling us out of the dream of the cinema and into the world again: Bach's organ music, the air horn of an Amtrak train, the thunder of an approaching storm, the Carabinieri's helicopter.

When one begins to think about a Straub/Huillet film, one inevitably confronts subjects outside the film itself—questions of reality and history, of the "look of the world" that has become so vulnerable. since the political changes in Europe in the 1990s raise issues of the role of Germany as a world power and the future of a leftist cultural critique, the films of Straub/Huillet become all the more pertinent. Although most of their films are "German," Huillet and Straub are not. They moved to Germany from France at the end of the 1950s, then to Rome, where they have lived since 1969. Their vantage point as outsiders has allowed them to engage with German culture with a combination of critical distance and affection inaccessible to most German artists.

- Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. University of California Press. Pages 1-2.

The films of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet (Straub-Huillet) draw on post-structuralist, political modernist and Brechtian repudiations of illusionism and emotional identification in order to depict an often alienated and corrupt political context. Films such as [Not Reconciled and Chronical of Anna Magdalena Bach] also employ the Brechtian technique of affording the elements of sound, image, language and acting a degree of autonomy from each other. However, the films of Straub-Huillet differ from the plays of Brecht in the extent to which they eliminate unessential elements from the diegesis. The result is an austere and ascetic style of film-making, from which all expressive emotion is purged. This kind of 'materialist' cinema is indebted to Althusserian post-structuralism, and predates the Althusserian inspired cinema and film theory which developed in France after 1968.

Straub-Huillet adopted this minimalist style of film-making out of a determination to create a form of cinematic practice which would be radically different from both the emotion-saturated cinema of the national socialist period, and the normative manouevres of the classical Hollywood film. Consequently, and in accordance with the political modernist tenets that the language of dominant cinema reinforces bourgeois ideology, and that early film language proferred a more authentic articulation of popular and working-class experience, Straub-Huillet sought to echo the greater narrative and visual simplicity of early cinema. In addition to this quest for a more authentic simplicity of style, Straub-Huillet also attempted to emulate the ability of early cinema to express symbolic meaning. This concern for the poetic, symbolic power of the image tempers the austere minimalism in the films of Straub-Huillet, and gives them what could be described as an almost transcendent quality.

- Ian Aitken, from European Film Theory and Cinema, Published by Indiana University Press, 2001. Pages 143-144.

“We want people to lose themselves in our films”, the Straubs told me. “All this talk about 'distanciation' is bullshit.”

- Tag Gallagher, from "Lacrimae Rerum Materialized" his amazing, thoroughly illustrated appreciation of Straub-Huillet's filmmaking. Particularly good is the passage that discusses framing and movement in The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. Published in Senses of Cinema.

For more than 30 years, Danielle Huillet, who has died aged 70, and her husband, Jean Marie Straub, worked as an indivisible entity, directing, writing and editing some of the most personal, rigorous, challenging and ultimately rewarding films in cinema history. Their films resembled no others. Now, with Huillet's death, we will probably not see anything like them again.

Straub and Huillet were faithful to each other, to their audiences and to their art, never compromising. Together they reinvented cinema, not only in style - the voiceovers, the unartificial performances, the treatment of texts, the use of extremely long takes, either with a fixed camera or in complex tracking shots - but in the way they made thought visible. As Marxist dialecticians, they created severe cinematic critiques of capitalism in a manner that paralleled the works of Bertolt Brecht in the theatre.

Although it is almost impossible to indicate which one of the couple did what on any of their films, it is likely that Huillet did most of the editing. As seen in the 2003 television documentary by Pedro Costa, Huillet is trying to cut Sicilia (1998), based on Elio Vittorini's 1939 novel, while Straub keeps pacing up and down in the corridor, smoking cigars, and occasionally interrupting his wife to make a comment, only to disappear again. She was the calmer of the two, Straub's rock to cling to. She was also much the more practical, handling any money matters and dealing with distributors and festival directors.

She was born on May Day in Paris, and met Straub (pronounced Strobe), who came from Alsace, in 1954 at the Lycée Voltaire in Paris during preparatory courses for a competition to enter Idhec (Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques). Huillet immediately showed her independent spirit when she refused to analyse Yves Allégret's Manéges for the entrance exam because she felt the film unworthy.

In the early 1960s, Straub, in order to escape having to serve in Algeria, went with Huillet to live in Munich. There they made Not Reconciled (1965), their first feature. Taking an episode from Heinrich Böll's radical, anti-militarist postwar novel, Billiards at Half-Past Nine, it is an elliptical examination, in stark black and white, of the collective psyche of the German people that led to the rise of Nazism and its insidious existence in contemporary Germany. It not only launched Straub-Huillet (as they became to be known), but was a landmark film of the decade...

People who dealt with the Straubs often spoke of how they were the most stimulating couple, but also the most exasperating. This was probably due to their refusal to compromise on any issue. For example, when their meditative documentary, Une Visite au Louvre (2004), was shown at the London Film Festival, they not only insisted that there should be no English subtitles nor earphone commentary, but that there should not be any synopsis of the film given in the catalogue or flyers.

They courted controversy right until the end, when their latest film, Ces Rencontres avec Eux (These Encounters of Theirs), based on Pavese, was shown in competition at this year's Venice film festival. Explaining their non-attendance at the festival, they sent a message that said they would be "unable to be festive at a festival where there are so many public and private police looking for a terrorist ... but so long as there's American imperialistic capitalism, there'll never be enough terrorists in the world." Nevertheless, the jury gave them a special prize "for invention of cinematic language in the ensemble of their work". They replied that it was "too late for their lives, but too early for their deaths".

- Obituary of Daniele Huillet for The Guardian, October 12 2006

Another obituary by Dave Kehr for the New York Times

The films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are best understood in the context of contemporary developments in radical, materialist cinema. They offer what many people see as a genuine alternative to both dominant narrative cinema and conventional art movies. Their work is formally austere and demands attentive, intellectual participation from audiences. However, it must be acknowledged that many people find their films nearly impenetrable and absolutely boring. This is explained in part by the fact that the films do not rely on standard narrative construction or conventional characters. While the films of Straub and Huillet are by no means "abstract" it is nearly impossible to (re)construct a unified, imaginary, referential "world" through them.

In a sense their work might be explained in terms of strategies of displeasure, a wilful refusal to captivate audiences with a coherent fictional world. Instead they promote a distanced, intellectual interaction between viewer and film. Because of this insistence on critical distance, audiences must work with the film in a dialectical process of meaning construction. (In fact, Straub is notoriously critical of "lazy" viewers who are unwilling to engage in this activity.)

Straub and Huillet's films directly address the nature of cinematic signification and its political implications. This includes breaking away from conventional assumptions and practices of dominant narrative cinema. Their films exploit all channels of the medium—music, sounds, words, and images—as equivalent carriers of meaning, rather than privileging the "visual" or relegating music and sound effects to the task of support material. Thus, there are times when extremely long, static shots accompany lengthy, complex verbal passages (a singularly "uncinematic" practice according to conventional canons of film aesthetics). Sequences may be developed along the lines of montage construction, juxtaposing graphic material, verbal material, and moving images.

Straub and Huillet will probably never be as well known to cineastes as fellow New German filmmakers Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlondorff, Werner Herzog, or Wim Wenders. But their minimalist films remain important contributions to the New German cinema, and they have been a meaningful voice for the art crowd in Germany. As with all gifted and dedicated film artists whose works are unconventionally structured, their cinematic output remains worthy of study by serious film students and equally worthy of viewing by discerning audiences.

—M.B. White, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

On the set, [Danièle Huillet] will have been, not exclusively, but more than Straub, the one who directed with sound — he assuming more what we will call for convenience the direction of actors. The sound of voices, that of the wind if there is wind, that of cars if there are any, in that place and at that moment which are those of the filming, are the firmest imprint of the real world as it is, there where cinema is made. Near to and far from this labor of sound: the work, this time entirely assumed by Danièle Huillet, of the dialogues in their diverse languages. The Straubs filmed in German, in French, in Italian: Danièle Huillet knew all the nuances and requirements of these three languages. She will also have, well beyond "translation for subtitles," worked to approach as well as possible the presence of words of another language inscribed at the bottom of images in which a certain language is spoken. And who else, in the history of world cinema, has done such a work, which is first respect for the languages that humans speak, respect for the voices of actors, for the meanings of words, and for the identify of spectators? The answer is simple: no one. A clear line links this relation to words, to their arrangement and their enunciation, to the "operational" role played by Danièle Huillet at the editing table. Its process is known, at least as Pedro Costa recorded it in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), on the editing of Sicilia! (1998) — neither she nor he ever made it known that what was seen of it was different from their practice before or after. Straub, his voice ample, his body heavy, digresses widely, even reduced to an editing room; immobile at the table, Danièle H. cuts, measures, specifies. And argues there, holding her own. Of course the result is theirs, the division of labor also is theirs, and in the service of no one, it's not economic or even intellectual; it's a matter of sensibility. For at the end of what it will have been possible to say, with prudence, of what la Huillet did in the cinema Straub-Huillet, it's necessary to return, and with what sadness, to the ineffable unity of what, on the screens, was born from this companionship…. What could be seen of the Straubs' life — the films, the affirmed choices of existence, in the Roman suburbs or in the 18th arrondissement in Paris — will have been its translation, uncompromising. Let's add one more adjective: generous, immensely generous. With her time, with her work, with her energy, with her listening, with her knowledge. What Jean-Luc Godard called one day an art of living, and that made films.

– Editors, Cahiers du cinema, cited at Redcat

For what makes Straub an inherently political filmmaker is not his choice of subject matter, but his approach to that subject matter, his respect for the integrity of his materials. The search for truth is at the root of all his films. This truth can only rise out of documentarism, a documentarism that reflects on the degree of its truth: this for Straub is the root of political thinking:

“The revolution is like God’s grace, it has to be made anew each day, it becomes new every day, a revolution is not made once and for all. And it’s exactly like that in daily life. There is no division between politics and life, art and politics. I think one has no other choice, if one is making films that can stand on their own feet, they must become documentary, or in any case they must have documentary roots. Everything must be correct, and only from then on can one rise above, reach higher.”

- Martin Walsh, "Jean-Marie Straub," published in Jump Cut no. 4, 1974

Joel Rogers interviews Straub and Huillet upon the release of Moses and Aaron, Jump Cut, 1976

About Heinrich Boll

Straub and Huillet were not the only filmmakers who turned to the work of Heinrich Boll... and it is certainly not a coincidence that writer and essayist Boll became such a decisive public figure in the intellectual life of Germany's culture after 1945. Born in 1917 in Cologne, Boll lived through the Second World War as a common soldier who could assume the role of moral consciousness in postwar Germany. Unlike other writers of his generation, such as Martin Walser or Siegfried Lenz, Boll never bracketed the fascist past from his own writing, but established a clear connection between German guilt and German literature. The authenticity of Boll's novels, in other words, were derived from their direct engagement with issues otherwise glossed over in the material blooming of the economic miracle. After all, postwar German society granted affluence for everybody on the basis of letting the past be the past. But even though Boll identified with the common German soldier as just another victim of Nazism, he displayed the utmost honesty and self-criticism in negotiating his historical guilt. As such, Boll was recognized not only as a "decent man" but also as the "most important witness of his time" (Marcel Reich-Ranicky). His literature is commonly characterized as simple, black and white, and rather didactic, depicting a polarized, not very complicated world through moral exempla. Throughout his life he was deeply devoted to Catholicism, but at the same time he relentlessly pointed to the shortcomings of the Catholic Church which he left in protest in 1976. When Boll died in 1985, his books had sold 31 million copies and had been translated into 45 languages. Although he incarnated the image of the "good German" outside his own country, his patriotic "public relations" work did not always meet with gratitude.

- Robert Stam, Alessandra Raengo, Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Page 150.

Video essay for 929 (70). U samogo sinyego morya / By the Bluest of Seas (1936, Boris Barnet) featuring commentary by Nicole Brenez

View original entry. Special thanks to Nicole Brenez, author of Abel Ferrara (University of Illinois Press), professor of cinema studies at Université Paris I and programmer at the Cinémathèque Française for her poetic insights into this film.  Thanks also to Cindi Rowell for translating and Alice Moscoso for narrating Nicole's script.

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931 (72). C'eravamo tanto amati / We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974, Ettore Scola)

screened November 8 2008 on Columbia VHS in New York, NY

TSPDT rank #734  IMDb

The premise plays like a joke: a Marxist, a capitalist and a common worker stumble through four decades of post-World War II Italy, each pursuing their ideal of what modern society largely at the expense of the others. The joke is on all of them, as Ettore Scola and fellow writers Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli plot a bittersweet march from the exuberant hope following the end of Fascism to a 1970s dystopia of class stratification and red tape, where middle class families huddle overnight just to enroll their kids in schools while the rich idle away in comfortable seclusion. Scola and company trade in rough caricatures, betraying mild contempt for both the ineffectual intellectual (Stefana Satta Flores) who leaves his wife and child to puruse a pipe dream of socialism through cinema education, and the selfish industrialist (Vittorio Gassman) who spends a lifetime accumulating wealth and privilege while turning his back on those who love him.  Their fellow war buddy, a hapless hospital orderly (Nino Manfredi) who remains steadfast to his principles as well as to their common love interest (Stefania Sandrelli), is left as the de facto hero of the middlebrow.

There's about as much - or rather, little - insight into the historical period covered here as there is in Robert Zimeckis' Forrest Gump (TSPDT rank #577) - both films share the trait of interpreting historical developments in terms of moral shortcomings among individuals caused by their selfishness and ignorance.  Fortunately Scola and company infuse their simplistic overview with enough witty, knowing dialogue to keep the proceedings engaging. Perhaps most interesting is the linking of the failure of post-war Italian society to that of neo-realist cinema. The fierce concern for the plight of all humanity of such films as Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (TSPDT #15) gives way to the industrial boom and pursuit of individual wealth of the 50s and 60s. In Scola's sardonic view, the legacy of neo-realism amounts to little more than the million dollar answer of a television game show, which the contestant, a passionate cinephile, isn't even able to answer correctly.

Wanna go deeper?

"We All Loved Each Other So Much" is the forgettably awkward title of Ettore Scola's wise, reflective Italian comedy that examines 30 years of recent Italian social history in terms of the friendship of three men and the one woman each man has loved at one time or another. It's the sort of thing for which European film makers, especially Italian, have a special feeling, while Americans have none whatsoever, if only because American producers are made uneasy by movies that are about friendship and that attempt to cover so much time.

"We All Loved Each Other So Much," which opened yesterday at the Beekman, is full of fondness, rue, outrage and high spirits. It is also—surprising for an Italian film—packed with the kind of movie references that French filmmakers like, and it is dedicated to the late Vittorio DeSica, whose "Bicycle Thief" plays a prominent part in the picture.

Mr. Scola, who has been represented here both as a writer ("Il Sorpasso") and director ("Made in Italy," "The Pizza Triangle," among others), employs a comic style that is effective for being loose, allowing him to introduce real people as themselves, to parody "Strange Interlude's" spoken interior thoughts, to go from slapstick to satire and then to drama of genuine feelings.

At its best, the film combines a number of different emotions at once, as when the film-obsessed Nico attempts to teach Luciana the fundamentals of Sergei Eisenstein's theory of montage on Rome's Spanish Steps, all the while seducing her.

Though the film is very funny at moments, the dominant mood is a sense of loss, but even here the film makes its point in a backhanded way. "We wanted to change the world, but the world changed us," says Antonio, the aging hospital orderly. Yet Mr. Scola recognizes this as the windy cliché of someone given to self-dramatization. After 30 years the three friends are more worn, more tired, more experienced than they were as young men, but neither the world nor time has changed them in any essential ways. That's the bitter truth.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, May 24, 1977

Neorealism... can be considered the father of Italian comedy, even if the latter was born precisely as a reaction against neorealism. Neorealism trieed to restore the dramatic and authentic face of the Italiy of those years, while the Italian comedy, with opposing, solely evasive intentions, tried to fabricate a concilatory, rural, Don Camillesque Italian picture of "bread" and of "love." The Italian comedy began thus, in a rather false way. Little by little, however, it grew, it took to following ever more closely and critically the progress of society. It registered its changes, illusions, realities, from the "boom" to the "crack," it continued to corroding some of the taboos of which Catholic Italiy is the victim, taboos of family, sex, institutions...

Anxiety about irresponsible uses of the medium and the failure of the masses to apprehend cinematic teachings - these are the filmmaker's preoccupations in We All Loved Each Other So Much. If the film should really be entitled C'eravamo tanto delusi (We Were All So Disappointed) as Scola once noted, then the cinematic disappointments would constitute one of the three themes on which Scola's film so bitterly reflects. Failed expectations in love and politics are the other two concerns which join to form Scola's commentary on Italian culture frm the liberation to the mid-1970s... The disparity between teh film's ideological openness and its conclusive love story thus suggests the dual generic provenance of We All Loved Each Other So Much, which owes its plot structure to the commedia all'italiana and its social responsibility to neorealism.

- Millicent Joy Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, published by Princeton University Press, 1986 pages 393, 420

References to cinema abound in the film. Film buff Nicola playfully recreates Eisenstein's Odessa Steps sequence on the Spanish Steps at the Piazza di Spagna, and in the scenes of the 1950s, Scola shows us the characters in the squares and streets of Rome in a manner reminiscent of early Fellini films. With the 1960s, we switch to color, the prosperity of the Italian "economic miracle," and the atmosphere of Fellini's La Dolce Vita: Scola re-creates the shooting of the famous Trevi Fountain sequence from that film with the assistance of Fderico Fellini, who plays himself and is mistaken for Rossellini by one of the crowd. Then Scola moves to paraphrase the mature style of Antonioni's Eclipse, employing it to dramatize the failure of communication between Gianni and his wife. Perhaps the most complex linkage between cinema and society, fiction and fact, in We All Loved Each Other So Much involves the figure of De Sica. In the 1960s, Nicola had appeared on Mike Bongiorno's quiz show Lascia o radoppia (literally "quit or go for double," a program patterned on "The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question" in America). The jackpot question involved an explanation of why the boy cries in The Bicycle Thief at the end of the film. Nicola explained that he cries because De Sica put cigarette butts in the boy's pocket and then accused of stealing them, mistaking the "factual" answer for the "fictional" one.

- Peter E. Bondanella, Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001, p. 371

About Ettore Scola

IMDb Wiki

Following law studies at the University of Rome, he began his working career as a writer for humour magazines. Entering the film industry as a screenwriter in 1953, he contributed bright material to films of Dino Risi and other directors, often in collaboration with Ruggero Maccari. As a director from 1964, he started with traditional Italian-style comedies but increasingly his films took on a serious edge, revealing a maturing social concern and a growing search for a meaningful dramatic context. His We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974), dedicated to Vittorio De Sica, wistfully captured the essence of 30 years of postwar Italian cinema through the three friends, veterans of the Resistance. Scola won the best direction prize at Cannes for Brutti, sporchi e Cattivi / Down and Dirty (1976), a vivid portrait of misery. His A Special Day (1977) - a politically based allegorical depiction of a brief liaison between a jaded housewife (Sophia Loren) and a homosexual radio journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) under the gathering clouds of WWII - was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. Perhaps his most ambitious film was La Nuit de Varennes (1982), a masterful, fanciful, visually striking, idea-rich costume epic of the French Revolution. History, politics, and people, and the effect they have on one another, continue to be a core theme in the films of Scola, one of the most highly regarded figures in European cinema today.

— Ephraim Katz, The Film Encylopedia

Revered more in the international film community than in American cineaste circles, chameleon director Ettore Scola's name is inexcusably absent from several English-language reference works. With Scola, one has to dig deep for the auteurist consistencies that make less elusive artists easier to pigeonhole. While Scola's fascination with political attitude and social change dictated by purely personal psychology never varies, he skips the light fantastic through such specialties as historical epic (La Nuit de Varennes), the musical (Le Bal), screwball comedy (A Drama of Jealousy), domestic drama (The Family), and grand romance (Passione d'Amore). In each case, the director gives established genres a uniquely invigorating spin. Critic Stephen Harvey compares Scola to Joseph Mankiewicz, and that pithy summation of Scola as a Mankiewicz seasoned with oregano sheds light on how Scola's comic screenwriting background (over fifty screenplays) informs his later career as a filmic maestro.

In all Scola's films, the choreography of history steps in partnership with his simpatico actors, gliding camerawork, and updated neorealistic melancholy. Even taking his overcooked Hollywood debut,Macaroni, into consideration, and the failure of his last films to secure American releases, Scola's place in humanist film history is unassailable. Unlike many screenwriters who turn director to ensure an unedited venue for their glorious dialogue, when Scola has something to say he lets his mise-en-scene do the talking.

—Lillian Schiff, updated by Robert J. Pardi, Film Reference.com

Video essay for 928 (69). The Sun Shines Bright (1956, John Ford) featuring Jonathan Rosenbaum

Read the original Shooting entry on The Sun Shines Bright Many thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum for taking time and thought to contribute towards this two part video essay, in which he compares his favorite John Ford movie, The Sun Shines Bright, with his favorite Carl Dreyer movie, Gertrud.

For much more detailed discussions about these films separately, see Jonathan's article on The Sun Shines Brightin Rouge and his essay on Gertrud in his collection Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism.

Part One:

Part Two:

930 (71). Night Moves (1975, Arthur Penn)

*SPECIAL NOTE: Night Moves is playing Sunday 11/16 and Tuesday 11/18 as part of the Arthur Penn retrospective at Anthology Film Archives. Visit anthologyfilmarchives.org for more info -------------------------------

screened June 23, 2008 on Warner DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #840 IMDb Wiki

Arthur Penn's contribution to the mid-70s Hollywood revival of film noir reflects all of the bitter disillusionment and vertiginous, disempowering truth borne by the fallout of Watergate on American society. An unheroic, deeply flawed private eye Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) tries to bring a missing girl to safety, only to be led down a rabbit hole that collapses upon him by the end.  Penn strikes a atmosphere of 70s coastal sun-baked laid backness hosting a legion of jive-talkers and hangers-on, and concealing a conspiracy both geometrically simple and shockingly unfathomable.  Through this wasteland walks Hackman, in what would be a career performance if he didn't have so many others worthy of the term.  Feeding off a lively, colorful ensemble (including early performances by teenage Melanie Griffith and an unhinged James Woods) and blessed by Alan Sharp's zinger-laden dialogue, Hackman toils with a latent sense of professionalism that eventually is consumed by pride into a self-destructive, onanistic reckoning with his own ineffectuality in a world that offers no safe harbor to his private anguish and confusion. Sharp's intricate plotting unravels like a Rube Goldberg, with an ending that ties up loose ends so neatly that it resembles something of an oneiric projection of Moseby's worst fears come true.

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Original Theatrical Trailer:

Link to memorable quotes on IMDb

Released in 1975, near the end of Arthur Penn’s most productive period (which began in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde), this haunting psychological thriller ambitiously sets out to unpack post-Watergate burnout in American life. Gene Hackman plays an LA detective tracking a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith in her screen debut) to the Florida Keys while evading various problems of his own involving his father and his wife. The labyrinthine mystery plot and pessimistic mood suggest Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, and like them screenwriter Alan Sharp has more than conventional mystery mechanics on his mind. One of Penn’s best features; his direction of actors is sensitive and purposeful throughout.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

A truly enigmatic thriller and a key film of the '70s, brilliantly scripted by Alan Sharp. Hackman is the private eye torn apart from within, unable to come to terms either with his father or his errant wife, but doggedly, almost pointlessly, pursuing a wayward daughter for an equally wayward mother. Sharp's elusive, fragmented script precisely catches the post-Watergate mood, while Penn's direction brilliantly parallels the interior/exterior investigation. A very pessimistic film, it ends exactly at the moment that Hackman understands what has happened but can do nothing about it. Essential viewing.

- Time Out

Over the years we have come to expect our private eyes to be somewhat seedy and second-rate, beer-drinking loners with their own secrets to hide. But that seediness, as well as the decency that lurked beneath, has always been in the service of the genres. One never worried about Philip Marlowe's mental health; one does about Harry Moseby's. In fact, Harry is much more interesting and truly complex than the mystery he sets out to solve.

This is the only way I can explain my mixed feelings about Night Moves, which opened yesterday at Loews State 2, the Trans-Lux 85th Street, and other theaters. Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), his wife Ellen (Susan Clark), and the assorted characters he encounters in the film seem to deserve better than the quality of the narrative given them.

I can't figure out whether the screenplay by Alan Sharp was worked on too much or not enough, or whether Mr. Penn and his actors accepted the screenplay with more respect than it deserves.

In addition to the performances of Mr. Hackman and Miss Clark, Night Moves features two others of note, by Jennifer Warren, as a beautiful, enigmatic drifter Harry meets in the Florida keys, and by Melanie Griffith, as the not-so-missing person. They all are more or less realistic, believable characters.

However, they are forced to behave and react in the completely unbelievable ways demanded of private-eye fiction, when people we know to be sensitive and caring can walk away from a new corpse as casually as if it were a minor social indiscretion. After a while it just seems absurd.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, June 12 1975

As the movie opens, he is summoned to the kind of client who would be completely at home in a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe story. Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward) is a onetime B-movie sweater girl who married a couple of rich guys -- one dead, the other ex -- and must be lonely, because she greets Harry dressed as if she's hired him to look at her breasts. Her 16-year-old daughter, Delly, has run away from home, and she wants Harry to find her, although if Harry wants to have a drink with Arlene first, that would be nice.

"Night Moves" came after a lull in Arthur Penn's career; he and Hackman worked together in "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) and then Penn made "Alice's Restaurant" (1969) and "Little Big Man" (1970). For Hackman, it was a period of astonishing work in such films as "I Never Sang for My Father" (1970), "The French Connection" (1971) and "The Conversation." What he brings to "Night Moves" is crucial; he must be absolutely sure of his identity as a free-lance gumshoe, even while all of his craft is useless and all of his hunches are based on ignorance of the big picture. Maybe the movie is saying that the old film noir faith is dead, that although in Chandler's words "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid," when this man goes down those streets he is blind-sided by a plot that has no respect for him.

- Roger Ebert, Essay for The Great Movies, Chicago Sun-Times, March 26, 2006

Night Moves (1975) turns the Philip Marlowe-styled detective picture on its head, following truth-seeker Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) on a labyrinthine whodunit that leads him on his own dark night of the soul. An allegory of its times, a portrait of a man succumbing to the ennui around him, Night Moves offered faint hope for filmgoers in the post-Watergate era. A mystery that grows in proportion to the moral weakness of its main interlocutor, the film ends in vertigo: a maimed Moseby, endlessly circling the waters on an unmanned boat, totally lost at sea. "Harry Moseby's inability to understand his own problems, to discover his own identity, leads to his inability to recognize that the problem—the case he has been hired to solve—doesn't actually concern him," Penn explained to Jean-Pierre Coursodon in 1977.

- Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin, adapted from the introduction to Arthur Penn Interviews, edited by Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin (University Press of Mississippi, November 2008), republished on The Moving Image Source

Night Moves (1975), perhaps Penn's most underrated picture, emerges today as, in Phil Hardy's words, “A key film of the '70s” (15), and arguably the bleakest (certainly after The Chase) of the director's career. Perhaps the best way to view it now is as the dark Yang to the much lighter Yin of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973). Both films have a comparable project: to take apart and in some ways reinvent the hard boiled private eye popularised in the novels of Chandler and Hammett and in the screen adaptations of their work (The Maltese Falcon [1941], Farewell, My Lovely [1945], The Big Sleep [1946] etc). However, where Altman (actually adapting a Chandler novel) re-imagines Philip Marlowe as a shambling, anachronistic, laid-back bum in the bright lights of modern Los Angeles, playing fast and loose with the surface style and iconography of the character whilst keeping the ideals more or less intact, Penn and writer Alan Sharp take a journey deep inside the genre archetype (played by Gene Hackman), finding in him a bitterness, an emptiness and, typically for Penn, an obsessive compulsion to pursue a course of action that leads not to redemption but to damnation. They also overturn genre conventions in giving the PI a wife and an errant father, as well as (logically) a life outside of his profession.

- Adam Bingham, from his Great Directors biography of Penn for Senses of Cinema

Detective films are about seeing, about perceiving and discerning. The success of the detection depends on how clearly things are seen and how secure the point of view of the perceiver is. Harry sees, but he has no point of view, no moral position from which to act on what he sees. Images in the film are continually reflected, often by distorting surfaces; Harry is observed, or observes, through screens and windows. Much of the central part of the film, Harry's visit to Florida, where he attempts to find and return his client's runaway daughter, Delly, and discovers a complex smuggling operation, is filmed in darkness and empty spaces. The cutting of the film does not permit sequences to complete themselves. A new scene may be entered within the dialogue of the previous one carried over, so that no comfortable continuity between narrative units is allowed. The viewer is given no more security of structure, no fuller sense of subjective certainty, no more certain sense of clear perception than is the character (a strategy similar to what Penn does in Mickey One)... However, the form does not function merely to make the viewer share Harry's darkness and despair, but to indicate the difficulties of seeing and knowing clearly anything about anyone.

Night Moves seems almost inevitable in Penn's career. In film after film he had attempted to maneuver the spirit of life against the repressive order and laws of society that bring death or diminishment to those who move against them. He had contented himself not with an attempt to understand the peculiarly American variety of the politics of repression and the attempts to struggle against it, but with the emotional power of the struggle itself, and reaped from his audience the emotional profit that seems always to come from being witness to the death of vitality, from the reaffirmation that we are lost and helpless. But in Night Moves the profit of loss seems to have run out. Harry Moseby is emotionally dead from the beginning. He does not so much entangle himself in the oppression of others as merely sink deeper into his own and their moral vacuum. There is not even the external force of authority to fight against as there is in the earlier films.

- Robert Phillip Kolker, from A Cinema of Loneliness, Oxford University Press, pages 55, 57

Night Moves is about switching appearances; even the title is an evasion. It should be 'knight moves' - Chess fan Harry shows Paula a fateful chess showdown involving "three little knight moves" that spelled doom for a famous player. But the player never saw it coming, and felt guilty about it ever since. Harry's true nature shows when he admits that he feels guilty about the players' defeat, even though he wasn't even born when it happened. Paula picks up on this, and relates Harry's sense of chivalric regret to the Kennedy assassination: "Which Kennedy?" "Any Kennedy."

Alan Sharp's terrific screenplay is one of the best thriller-traps ever laid out and one that will hit viewers like a ton of bricks provided some DVD reviewer doesn't spoil it. The smart hardboiled dialogue contains a number of great zingers (Harry: "All Harry knows is that if you call him Harry one more time he's going to make you eat that cat") and at least one saying that's entered the language intact -- Harry confesses that for him, "Watching an Eric Rohmer film is like watching paint dry." The line isn't just a cynical joke. Harry hates introspection even in movies. He even admits he doesn't have the standard 'eye graphic' on his business card. He keeps addressing his problems like a football player, going straight for the goal when he should be peering into himself.

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant on DVD Talk

Certainly, on the surface, Night Moves seems to contain enough popular elements to insure box office success. It's a well acted, beautifully paced mystery with an intriguing story line, gritty action, illicit sex, memorable villains and exotic locales. Why, then, did the audience resolutely stay away from this movie? Why, even now, is it considered in many quarters a neglected gem?

Perhaps the answer lies underneath that shimmering surface, deep in the damaged psyche of its central character, in Harry Moseby's troubled private eye. Perhaps, even in 1975, the mainstream audience still wanted its heroes to resemble the ones they grew up with, the stoic American male vanquishing the dark forces of treachery. Like Elliot Gould in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973, another exemplary film that achieved little box office success) Moseby represents both an homage to the hard-boiled film noir heroes of the fifties, and a repudiation of them. Clearly, Penn and Sharp are not interested in simply updating the traditional private eye to modern L.A. Instead, they transform a prototype - the grizzled but always triumphant gumshoe - into a more recognizable man: they dare to show his vulnerability. And perhaps this is what the audience rejected. Who could imagine Sam Spade as a husband, much less one who discovers his wife in bed with another man?

- Tim Applegate, kamera.co.uk

To be frank, a lot of ‘Night Moves’ comes off as a rather arty and ambitious episode of the ‘Rockford Files’. For cineastes and fans of the film this may cause the same kind of shocked intake of breath that was heard coming from my mouth recently when a friend said she thought Steely Dan’s ‘Dirty Work’ sounded like incidental music to an episode of ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’... yet it must be said. The film is not, at least in my eyes, the masterpiece that many make it out to be. Those key themes of the 70s – betrayal, corruption, the breakdown of families and relationships – are all in evidence but the attempts to integrate arty influences into the prosaic structure of a piece of classic detective fiction often jar badly. Sudden jump cuts, overlapping dialogue and some self-consciously laboured speeches – there are several attempts to give Moseby psychological depth by having secondary characters spout his past at him at inopportune moments – all come across as forced and inappropriate, and when the film is simply being a straightforward thriller, it’s often uninspiring.

What ‘Night Moves’ does have is Gene Hackman, one of the greatest living American screen actors and one whose performances often raise the quality of standard fare... Hackman’s sulky belligerence and sense of bruised dignity make Moseby an entirely authentic character... It’s the kind of performance that’s simply beyond many male actors – particularly today’s elfin pretty boys – who invariably try too hard to create a ‘tough’ persona to compensate for their overweening vanity and think that ‘vulnerability’ means bursting into tears. Hackman was never a good-looking man, appearing for most of his films to resemble a depressed, slightly hung-over bear. What he brings to ‘Night Moves’ – and what he has brought to the screen over the course of four decades – is that rarest of qualities: the Real. In Hollywood, the global capital of artificiality and falseness, he is the benchmark of authenticity, representing – along with his pals Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman – a kind of cinematic gold standard, the defining expression of what ‘being a man’ meant in the 70s, namely embittered, independent, distrustful of authority and struggling – usually unsuccessfully – to achieve the degree of vulnerability needed to form meaningful relationships with the opposite sex.

- Nat Turnbridge, DVD Times

As Harry gropes through Night Moves ’byzantine plot in as unknowing a way as he deals with his emotional tumult, the ‘quest’ metaphor of the investigator is doubled back to reflect his inner state. Night Moves is riddled with depictions of a seeing that is compromised, of vision that is mediated: through James Woods’ welding goggles early on, repeatedly through the different lenses in the windows of Harry’s home to underline his domestic fragmentation, and in the brilliant climactic sequence with numerous shots of a circling plane seen looking into the sun and thus blinding the viewer, rendering the act of looking as totally counterproductive – a conclusive metaphor for Harry’s whole experience.

- Roger Westcombe, Big House Film Reviews


Like a handlebar-mustachioed Antonioni, Penn seems uncommonly poised to the changes that can damage a person’s hold on their environment. When Moseby first ventures out to Florida – partly to avoid having to deal with his wife’s infidelity, partly to track down missing daughter-of-Hollywood Delly Grastner (Melanie Griffith) –, he finds an idyll wound in place like a coiled spring. Returning home with the girl seems to only u-haul the tension, dumping her in the middle of a barely suppressed hysteria that catalyses her death. Awash in the faint trauma of a headache, Moseby then has to pick at the clots of half-surfaced motives, fingering his way through a case where human detail outweighs the burn for causality, and our snarling fetishisation of sex, death and youth only triangulate into tragedy.

- David Levinson, The Lumiere Reader

Kim Morgan, Sunset Gun: "This doggedness of not tying up its mysteries in one tidy bow makes Penn's Night Moves all the more meaningful, its pessimism (and amidst all the oppressive sunlight) all the more complicated."

Paul Corupe, DVD Verdict

Dennis Schwartz


Director Arthur Penn and actor Gene Hackman were filming Night Moves in Philip Kaufman's house when Kaufman was arrested for the theft of country-rock legend Gram Parsons' body..

In a memorable scene, Paula (Jennifer Warren) tells Harry that the first boy who ever touched her breasts was named Billy Dannreuther. That's the name of Humphrey Bogart's character in Beat the Devil (1953).

- submitted by Kevin Burton Smith to Thrilling Detective.com

About the Warner 2005 DVD

This image looks quite good, but also a little dated showing a very pasty appearance at times. I don't see any manipulation, it is progressively transferred and is 16X9 enhanced.  I suspect that this is exactly how the film looked theatrically. Although skin tones tend to look red, it is Florida (Sanibel island). Our protagonist in the film makes a rather disconcerting remark about one of my favorite directors (Eric Rohmer) but I'll let that pass :).

A real noir-ish style representation that got some noted acclaim. Hackman is, as always, a great lead. I wasn't overly impressed with the short featurette included but I suppose it was available and nothing else could be dug up. Original audio is flat and unremarkable - subtitles are excellent. A reasonably priced DVD  recommended for Hackman lovers and fans of the thriller/gumshoe genre. This one is worth it!

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

Warners' DVD of Night Moves is a most welcome addition to anyone's disc collection. The enhanced transfer accurately reproduces the film's slightly grainy and washed-out daytime scenes, that turn to crystal sharpness at night. Michael Small's modest jazz score with its recurring vibraphone (?) riff is nicely presented, although on my system the music track seemed to crowd the dialogue a bit too closely - perhaps this is the original theatrical mix.

The Day of the Director is a breezy old-fashioned promo film about Arthur Penn, noted genius with actors, yet concentrates mostly on action scenes one wants to avoid before seeing the film the first time. The excellent trailer also focuses almost exclusively on action scenes.

After the floppo boxoffice of The Long Goodbye we can forgive the studio for not selling Night Moves as a detective caper. The lack of critical enthusiasm that greeted the film on release is difficult to account for. Perhaps audiences were sick of seedy films about low-key corruption, or maybe they responded negatively to the awful print campaign with its faux-Bergman tag line: "Maybe he would find the girl ... Maybe he would find himself." Night Moves does flirt with pretension once or twice (the silverware in the garbage disposal as a background to a domestic argument) but in actuality it's one of the deepest detective movies ever made.

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant on DVD Talk

About Arthur Penn

IMDb Wiki

Quotes found on Arthur Penn page on They Shoot Pictures Don't They?:

"For a stage director whose work suffers from an oppressive literalness of effect, Penn has revealed a distinctive flair for the cinema. The intense physicality of the performances in his films serves to counterbalance a strained reading of lines. A director of force rather than grace, Penn may yet reassert the plastic role of the actor in the scheme of things. Be that as it may, The Left-Handed Gun remains a tribute to the director's gifts of improvisation." - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)

"Penn is the classic example of a fine director touching his peak, wobbling a little, re-finding himself, and then going, completely off the boil...There are too few directors of Penn's particular talent around today and it is something of a tragedy that either Hollywood, or the sum of his own particular idiosyncrasies, has let him down." - Mario Reading (The Movie Companion, 2006)

"American director who has made an interesting variety of films, some of them very fine - but only 13 in 30 years...Since Bonnie and Clyde, Penn has not proved to be a major figure at the box office; his films are always fascinating, even exciting, in concept and casting, but sometimes lacking in fulfilment." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Illustrated Guide to Film Directors, 1999)

"The alienation of modern man in society, and the breaking of myths and legends are the subjects of Penn's most effective films." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

Arthur Penn has often been classed—along with Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, and Francis Coppola—among the more "European" American directors. Stylistically, this is true enough. Penn's films, especially after Bonnie and Clyde, tend to be technically experimental, and episodic in structure; their narrative line is elliptical, under-mining audience expectations with abrupt shifts in mood and rhythm. Such features can be traced to the influence of the French New Wave, in particular the early films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, which Penn greatly admired.

In terms of his thematic preoccupations, though, few directors are more utterly American. Repeatedly, throughout his work, Penn has been concerned with questioning and re-assessing the myths of his country. His films reveal a passionate, ironic, intense involvement with the American experience, and can be seen as an illuminating chart of the country's moral condition over the past thirty years. Mickey One is dark with the unfocused guilt and paranoia of the McCarthyite hangover, while the stunned horror of the Kennedy assassination reverberates through The Chase. The exhilaration, and the fatal flaws, of the 1960s anti-authoritarian revolt are reflected in Bonnie and Clyde and Alice's Restaurant. Little Big Man reworks the trauma of Vietnam, while Night Moves is steeped in the disillusioned malaise that pervaded the Watergate era.

- Philip Kemp, Film Reference.com

Arthur Penn was, in his heyday, one of the most complex and interesting figures in American cinema. Like all great artists, his passionate involvement in what he was doing led to work that was among the most resonant and deeply felt of the time, and the (thematic and institutional) tensions on which his films are built – American versus European filmmaking, facade versus reality, instinct versus rationality – have kept that work interesting, even vital, to this day. And whilst he never created what one could refer to as ”the Arthur Penn style”, his thematic preoccupations have more than qualified him for auteur status. Criminally, only one book length study of Penn has been produced, Robin Wood's Arthur Penn, and that has never been updated, so even if one finds a copy today it only covers his career up to Little Big Man. It is, however, a thorough study of the director, and it seems fitting to give the last word to Wood, who sums up the essence of Arthur Penn very succinctly in one short sentence: “The cinema of Arthur Penn is the cinema of 'whole man alive'”

- Adam Bingham, from his Great Directors biography of Penn for Senses of Cinema

928 (69). The Sun Shines Bright (1956, John Ford)

Screened July 12 2008 on DivX in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #595 IMDb

Often cited as John Ford's favorite film, this turn-of-the century period piece about folksy Judge Priest, the de facto patriarch of a sleepy Kentucky town, at first seems hopelessly dated with its unrepentant nostalgia for a Confederate society whose implicit bigotry enables a cavalcade of dubious stereotypes, not least of which is the embarrassing jigaboo schtick of African American cultural albatross Stepin Fetchit as Priest's servant. But on formalist terms, this may very well be one of Ford's most perfect achievements, in which he masterfully orchestrates the rites and rituals that govern a small community into a 90 minute cinematic circus. Each scene brims with Ford's inimitably attentive playfulness with decorum, decoding and sometimes debunking the social assumptions guiding each character's interactions, and the sheer beauty of how Ford films bodies moving through space in a civic ballet is a joy to behold.  Ford acknowledges and embraces the contradictions of humanism and prejudice governing class, gender and race relations, such as distinguishing one form of vigilantism (shooting a rapist businessman in the back instead of arresting him) as acceptable while another (lynching a helples black man) is strongly condemned).  Progress and tradition are locked in a perpetual duel over the life of this town, most vividly in the contrasting protocols of local Confederate and Union army veteran meetings and the scandalous funeral of a prostitute where Judge Priest, at risk of losing his job, takes a principled, proto-feminist stand under the guise of common decency. Tensions finally give way to a prolonged procession - bubbling with music and devoid of words - involving the various factions of the entire town.  Filled with collective joy and private sorrow, it strikes a mournal grace note that simultaneously commemorates and laments the man-made forms that maintain and constrict this microcosm of society. 

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Maybe there's one that I love to look at again and again. That's The Sun Shines Bright. That's really my favorite. At Republic, old man [studio head Herbert] Yates didn't know what to do with it. The picture had comedy, drama, pathos, but he didn't understand it. His kind of picture had to have plenty of sex or violence. This one had neither, it was just a good picture. But Yates fooled around with it after I left the studio and almost ruined it.

- John Ford, quoted in Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films, University of California Press, 1986

Usually cited as Ford's personal favourite among his own films, this picks up the story of Judge Priest, his 1934 Will Rogers vehicle, and follows the picaresque experiences of the old judge of Fairfield, Kentucky, some 15 years on, as the twentieth century exerts a pull forward equal to the retrograde magnetism of the Civil War. Winninger's judge casts benevolent paternalism over an American community idealised almost to the extent of the Irish village in The Quiet Man, but still riven with vestiges of racism, religious prudery, and the scars of the North/South divide, and now facing an electoral tussle between the Old and the New. A mosaic of Americana both sentimental and self-consciously critical, with the emphatic past tense its safety valve.

Time Out

Ford is equally revered by the masses and the most rarefied of cinephilic sensibilities. No one makes stronger images, supercharging a single look or gesture with the maximum voltage celluloid can withstand. The sweetest and gentlest film in the series, The Sun Shines Bright (November 29), nearly sustains that energy level from beginning to end.

The one non-western on the program, this 1953 political melodrama was Ford's own personal favorite, and you can feel his love of the material in every quietly ecstatic texture and rhythm. Charles Winninger is warm, restrained, and effortlessly at ease in the role of Judge Priest, a kindly official up for election in turn-of-the-century Kentucky. He will twice do the right thing—throwing moral support behind a dead prostitute and a falsely accused black man—despite the potential effect on his campaign.

Still, contemporary audiences will recoil from its toxic racism. Co-starring Stepin Fetchit—'nuff said—as the judge's gibbering porch monkey, the film's other black characters are restricted to grinning banjo players, Aunt Jemimas, and soulful crooners who show up whenever massa needs a little background gravitas. We can make all sorts of excuses for the era, dig up whatever proof of the great auteur's humanism, deconstruct till the cows come home, but why not keep it simple and acknowledge that the uglier conventions in Ford are inextricable from the sublime? What could be more American?

Nathan Lee, The Village Voice, November 14, 2006


The Sun Shines Bright is one of two or three John Ford pictures one would lke to call his finest. Yet it never had a New York first run, was dismissed by the Times as so many sentimental cliches, and was quickly cut from ninety to sixty-five minutes. Its failure contributed to the demise of Ford's Argosy Pictures, and even today its depictions of blacks may, wrongfully, incite indignation. Any treatment of this obscure film must try to evoke its artistic magnitude and to clarify its attitudes toward race.

It might well have been titled Intolerance, not alone for its theme, but for its formal complexity as well. Unlike Griffith's film, however, its structuring antimonies are simultaneously thematic and formal. And its complex subtleties are hidden beneath an air of effortless ingenuousness. For, despite four intricate story lines and twenty or so district characters, the movie's narrative, composed in tidy sequences with a Mozartian concision and nakedness of technique, unfolds most of the time midst dancing and parading through suites of beautiful and intriguing compositions. Rarely has a movie been so inventive - and playful - with montage.

- Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films. p 284. An unequivocally thorough appraisal of the film can be found on pages 284-302.

It seems significant that Ford’s favorites among his own films tended to be the artier efforts that did relatively poorly at the box office:   The Informer (1935);   The Long Voyage Home (1940);   The Fugitive (1946—perhaps the most self-consciously composed of all his pictures);   Wagon Master; and the only non-independent feature in the bunch, a belated spin-off of Judge Priest that he made for Republic Pictures, one of the cheaper studios in Hollywood. This time he approaches the Irvin S. Cobb universe without any stars--unless one counts Stepin Fetchit, the only significant actor apart from Francis Ford (in his last credited screen appearance) who appears in both pictures, and a subversive purveyor of southern black stereotypes whose subtly loaded portrayals of servility masking cunning have often been misunderstood.

A lot of Ford’s most deeply moving work could be described as a meditation on social rituals, and this masterpiece really comes into its own, despite a rather convoluted plot, in its closing stretches, when it becomes nothing but social rituals—a funeral, an election, and a parade. The funeral and the parade (the latter in tribute to the Judge Priest, played here by Charles Winninger, who has recently officiated at the funeral of a fallen woman), and there’s an almost Faulknerian twist and irony in the way that the funeral becomes triumphant while the celebratory parade becomes almost unbearably sad and tragic. This is one of the Ford films in which farce precedes rather than follows tragedy, but the bittersweet aftertaste is no less pungent.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, from "Ten Underappreciated John Ford Films," published in DVD Beaver

Today The Sun Shines Bright is my favourite Ford film, and I suspect that part of what makes me love it as much as I do is that it's the opposite of Gone with the Wind in almost every way, especially in relation to the power associated with stars and money. Although I'm also extremely fond of Judge Priest, a 1934 Ford film derived from some of the same Irvin S. Cobb stories, the fact that it has a big-time Hollywood star of the period, Will Rogers, is probably the greatest single difference, and even though I love both Rogers and his performance in Judge Priest, I love The Sun Shines Bright even more because of the greater intimacy and modesty of its own scale. Apparently Ford did as well, because, along with Wagon Master – which it resembles in its low budget, its lack of stars, and its focus on community – I believe this is the film of his that he cited most often as a personal favourite.

Another favourite film of mine, Carl Dreyer's Gertrud, resembles Ford's in other ways – and not merely because they're set in the same period (apparently 1905 (3) in Ford's film, 1906 in Dreyer's), and tinged with melancholy nostalgia and yearning for still earlier periods. More strangely and paradoxically, I think both films are tragic in feeling despite – or is it because? – they both have what could be described as overdetermined happy endings. Moreover, both films concentrate at great length on highly ceremonial tributes paid to old men for their life's work. And both virtually end with figures retreating through doorways (two doorways in Ford's film), in eerie images that strongly suggest mortality and the ultimate isolation of death.

As a Southerner, it's very hard for me to reconcile all my contradictory feelings about Ford in The Sun Shines Bright, but I'm not sure that there's any necessity for me to do so. Recalling Gertrud again, I think that some works are great because of the challenges they offer to our beliefs. William Faulkner – who of course was a Southerner himself, unlike Ford – has just as many contradictions as Dreyer and Ford, and we don't value him any less because of them.

- Rosenbaum, excerpted from 'The Doddering Relics of a Lost Cause,' Rouge, 2004, Originally published in Die Früchte des Zorns und der Zärtlichkeit (Viennale, 2004)


Synopsis on Turner Classic Movies

About John Ford

IMDb Wiki

Quotes cited in the They Shoot Pictures Don't They profile page for John Ford:

"In portraying, throughout a long and prolific career, the history of the United States from the Revolutionary War to World War II, Ford continually resorted to a deeply, personal, nostalgic form of legend. If there is no doubt of his importance to the development of the Western, his uniquely sentimental, poetic glorification of the white American's conquest of the wilderness is both picturesque and reactionary." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

"Belligerent, grandiose, deceitful and arrogant in real life, Ford seldom let these traits spill over into his films. They express at their best a guarded serenity, a sceptical satisfaction in the beauty of the American landscape, muted always by an understanding of the dangers implicit in the land, and a sense of the responsibility of all men to protect the common heritage." - John Baxter (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"Emotionalism is a strong factor in many of Ford's films which, in his later days, showed a nostalgic longing for things past and old values. These may only have existed in Ford's eyes or hazy recollection, but nonetheless they make for skilfully appealing entertainment." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Illustrated Guide to Film Directors, 1983)

"Themes of courage, loyalty, rugged individualism, and the American spirit pervade the films of John Ford. The natural vistas in his Westerns hold a romantic view of history with the earmarks of poetic realism. Ford very well may be the greatest director of Westerns in cinema history." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"Anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals. Directing is not a mystery, it's not an art. The main thing about directing is: photograph the people's eyes." - John Ford

John Ford has no peers in the annals of cinema. This is not to place him above criticism, merely above comparison. His faults were unique, as was his art, which he pursued with a single-minded and single-hearted stubbornness for sixty years and 112 films. Ford grew up with the American cinema. That he should have begun his career as an extra in the Ku Klux Klan sequences of The Birth of a Nation and ended it supervising the documentary Vietnam! Vietnam! conveys the remarkable breadth of his contribution to film, and the narrowness of its concerns.

Ford's subject was his life and his times. Immigrant, Catholic, Republican, he spoke for the generations that created the modern United States between the Civil and Great Wars. Like Walt Whitman, Ford chronicled the society of that half century, expansionist by design, mystical and religious by conviction, hierarchical by agreement; an association of equals within a structure of command, with practical, patriotic, and devout qualities. Ford portrayed the society Whitman celebrated as "something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of night and day."

Belligerent, grandiose, deceitful, and arrogant in real life, Ford seldom let these traits spill over into his films. They express at their best a guarded serenity, a skeptical satisfaction in the beauty of the American landscape, muted always by an understanding of the dangers implicit in the land, and a sense of the responsibility of all men to protect the common heritage. In every Ford film there is a gun behind the door, a conviction behind the joke, a challenge in every toast. Ford belongs in the tradition of American narrative art where telling a story and drawing a moral are twin aspects of public utterance. He saw that we live in history, and that history embodies lessons we must learn. When Fordian man speaks, the audience is meant to listen—and listen all the harder for the restraint and circumspection of the man who speaks. One hears the authentic Fordian voice nowhere more powerfully than in Ward Bond's preamble to the celebrating enlisted men in They Were Expendable as they toast the retirement of a comrade. "I'm not going to make a speech," he states. "I've just got something to say."

—John Baxter, Film Reference.com

927 (68). El Verdugo / Not on Your Life (1963, Luis Garcia Berlanga)

screened November 8 2008 on DivX in Weehawken, NJ TSPDT rank #358 IMDb Wiki

The highest debut placement within last December's update of the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list of 1000 greatest films was this corrosively black comedy by Luis Garcia Berlanga, the long-suffering subversive of Spain's Franco regime. A young undertaker whose job leaves him unloved by the ladies takes interest in the equally forlorn daughter of a government executioner. A series of mild shocks to his humdrum existence nudge him into marriage, parenthood, the real estate rat race, and the eventual assumption of his father-in-law's socially despised profession, a fate into which he is literally dragged kicking and screaming. Unrelenting in its laughing fixation on death and people's discomfort with it, Berlanga's masterpiece is as damning as Bertolucci's The Conformist (TSPDT #65) in its view of life under fascism, where the complicity and compromise of everday citizens perpetuate a society's alienation from the horrors it perpetrates.  This vision is brought forth not only with a razor sharp script by Berlanga and Rafael Azcona, but by Berlanga's use of the frame: whether in cavernously deep wide shots or claustrophobic interiors, people frequently bump into each other, distracted in their petty self-interests, the affably hapless protagonist moreso than anyone. The film also tweaks contemporary auteurs Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, linking the bourgeois self-absorption of their milieu to an ignorance of working-class entrapment, a condition that Berlanga, with unsentimental starkness and wit, brings sharply into view.

Want to go deeper?

You can watch the entirety of El Verdugo online for free! Courtesy of Google Video. No English subs - you will need to search online for an .srt or .subs file.

El verdugo was the eighth feature film written and directed by Luis García Berlanga in collaboration with his longtime associate, Rafael Azcona. The story pivots upon the fate of a pleasant, if somewhat timid, young undertaker whose dream is to go to Germany and become a mechanic. This dream is thwarted when he happens to meet the executioner in a prison where both of them are plying their trade. In spite of the aversion that the young man (and everyone else) feels for the executioner, he not only ends up marrying the executioner's daughter, but even takes over his father-in-law's business.

El verdugo is a farce or domestic comedy filled with macabre touches and scenes of black humor in which the taboos associated with death are transgressed. Even the actual mode of execution is the subject of morbid jokes as the executioner, who garrots his victims, measures the neck size of his future son-in-law. The film is punctuated with these bits of gallows humor as well as with comic reversals that take the audience by surprise. A particularly fine example occurs at the end of the movie when the young executioner is carried kicking and screaming like the victim into the prison where he will perform his first execution. El verdugo shows that the biting black humor that we have come to associate with Buñuel is, in more general terms, a Spanish characteristic.

Berlanga's irreverent treatment of death is symptomatic of a tendency found in all of his movies—to poke fun at pomposity and pretensions, and to deflate generally accepted values and beliefs. At the same time that El verdugo is highly entertaining, it also has a message that was vaguely subversive in Franco's Spain in the early 1960s. In one sense, the movie is about two outcasts, the undertaker and the executioner's daughter, both of whom are avoided by everyone. When they join together, it is with the hope of having a better life. But as Berlanga demonstrates, these hopes cannot be realized. Like other Berlanga protagonists, the undertaker becomes caught up in a destiny which he did not choose. He is a victim of innocent concessions made along the way that ultimately lead him to be sentenced to his fate of becoming the executioner. He is the true victim, the one who is strangled in a web of circumstances beyond his control, caught up in the system of justice and retribution that is all encompassing. In the context of Franco's Spain, the ideological dimensions of this message are clear. As the executioner tells his son-in-law, where there's a law, someone has to enforce it; someone has to do the dirty work. Perhaps that was Berlanga's way of saying that in a dictatorial regime, whether they are willing or not, men are coerced into aiding and abetting the status quo.

—Katherine Singer Kóvacs, Film Reference.com

El verdugo has always been regarded as part of the canon of Spanish cinema. Even with some fifteen minutes of cuts from the finished version (some of which have now been reinstated), there is a certain degree of consensus about Luis Garcia Berlanga's masterpiece as a key anti-Franco film, that in spite of all difficulties managed to bypass the censor and express a critique of certain aspects of the regime. The cuts on the shooting script, as stated in the official report of the censors, have surprisingly little effect on the film's central idea. In particular, the censors showed prudish concern for the presence of women in the two execution scenes; the noise of the executioner's tool inside his briefcase was discouraged, as was the showing of the actual instrument; they also cut the erotic relationship between the protagonist and the executioner's daughter; and a rehearsal before the execution during which prison guards made jokes using the executioner's tools. All of these elements might have added some edge to Rafael Azcona and Berlanga's satire, but the story of a man trapped in the position of having to murder in order to keep a certain standard of living remains clear. Even if the traditional interpretation of the film as a statement against the death penalty (and against Franco, who was internationally known as 'the executioner' at the time) is the key to the film's reputation, it is the more general narrative of everyday compromises and comfort undersigned by death that brings forth its contemporary relevance.

The cuts show that the censors missed the most unsettling aspects of the script, but the reaction of politicians when faced with the finished film remains an illustration of the regime's paranoia. They did find the film provocative (after all, it was a film by Berlanga, a man who was regarded by Generalisimo Franco himself as 'worse than a communist; a bad Spaniard'), but their verdict on where provocation lay narratively was as wide off the mark as the censors'. Paradoxically, it was the ensuing scandal that focused attention on the film. One could suggest that if Berlanga, co-writer Azcona and 'assistant director' (who actually played a role as line producer and had a key role in its inception) Ricardo Munoz Suay are responsible for the film itself, these functionaries and censors are responsible for the myth.

- Alberto Mira, from The Cinema of Spain and Portugal, Wallflower Press, 2005, pages 109-117

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.

El verdugo
El verdugo provoked a major controversy. Selected to compete at the Venice Film Festival, the Spanish government fought strenuously to prevent its screening. By pure coincidence, the regime had attracted international attention and outrage earlier the same year by executing three of its political opponents: Communist Party member Julián Grimau and anarchists Francisco Granados Mata and Joaquín Delgado Martínez. Ironically, but very typically of the critical reception of Berlanga's work, there was no consensus of opinion as to how to approach El verdugo. At Venice (where it was acclaimed and awarded the critics prize) Italian anarchists saw it as an apology for the Francoist state. On the other hand, the Spanish ambassador to Italy denounced the film as a slur on the Spanish nation and Franco himself was widely reported as saying “Berlanga is not a Communist, he is worse than a Communist, he is a bad Spaniard.”
- Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema

About Luis Garcia Berlanga

Biography on the Prince Asturias Foundation website commemorating Berlanga's 1986 Arts Award.

Luis García Berlanga spearheaded the dramatic transformation that Spanish cinema underwent in the 1950s and early 1960s. In spite of the harsh censorship that hallmarked Francisco Franco's military and Catholic-inspired regime, Berlanga succeeded in directing a series of films that undermined the mores of the Dictatorship and established him as the most important Spanish film director of his generation. From his first film in 1951 to his final movie París-Timbuctú (1999), which heralded his retirement, Berlanga has proved a consistent thorn in the side of authority, both during the Dictatorship and throughout the democratic period that followed the death of Franco in 1975. While his particular version of 'the popular' is undeniably subversive, such subversion has proved politically problematic. Claimed, at times, by both the Left and the Right, he has never easily fitted in to either generic or ideological categories.

- Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Bio

Luis Garcia Berlanga's films were often subtle satires that criticized the Spanish government under Franco, the strong religious fervor popular in Spain at the time, and the United States' influence in Spain. In one of his early films, "Bienvenido, Mr.Marshall!" a small village prepares for the arrival of the Marshall Commissioners, on the expectation that they will be given large amounts of money. In an effort to do so they go about trying to make themselves seem as Spanish as possible--learning the Flamenco and building a bullfighting ring among other things. In the end, the Marshall commissioners pass by the village without stopping. In another film, "Los Juevos, milagro" (Every Thursday, a Miracle), Berlanga satirizes the Spanish craze for religion and miracle making. In this film a spa town, in order to attract visitors, invents a reappearance of St.Dimas. The 1961 film "Seat a Poor Person at Your Table" is about a rich family who invites the poor to dinner on Christmas eve. This film makes a comment on bourgeois hypocrisy. In "El Verdugo" (The Executioner), a 1963 film which was later voted the best Spanish film by Spanish critics, is about a poor man who is forced to become an executioner and has to execute a convict against his own free will.

The first censorship Berlanga faced was actually from Americans. At the Cannes Film Festival the publicity for the film "Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall" included handing out dollar bills in which George Washington's face was replaced with the face of the main character in the play. The president of the jury at Cannes was Edward G. Robinson, an American who had recently been pursued by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and he was trying to make himself out to be a patriot. He condemned the movie as anti-American. "Los Jueves, milagro" was first rejected by the Church representative on the censorship junta. Berlanga made some changes, but they were not enough to satisfy the censors. A final scene was added which suggested the whole story had been a dream and with this addition the movie was finally passed. In 1961 censors insisted that Berlanga change the title of "Seat a Poor Person at Your Table" to "Placido", because they were sensitive to any reference of Spanish poverty. "El Verdugo" was the final straw. After the making of that movie Berlanga was called unpatriotic and forced to work abroad.

- From Censorship, A World Encyclopedia

Review of Berlanga Retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center by Elliot Stein for the Village Voice

In many movies he has exposed the pitfalls of Spanish society and satirized those institutions or individuals who take themselves too seriously, often using black humor to deflate their pretentions. Berlanga's sympathies are with the underdogs of whatever social class, those who are victims of fate, institutions, or other forces they cannot control. In a number of his films we follow the efforts of an individual who wants to achieve something or attain some goal, struggles to do so, and in the end is defeated, ending up in the same or in a worse situation than before. This unfortunate outcome reflects Berlanga's pessimism about a society in which the individual is powerless and in danger of being devoured. There are no winners in Berlanga's movies; all of the victories are Pyrrhic. But never one to deliver messages or lessons, Berlanga expresses his pessimistic viewpoint with such verve, vitality and humor that audiences leave the theatre elated with the spontaneity and inventiveness of his films.

Berlanga prefers working with groups of characters rather than concentrating on the fate of a single protagonist. Rarely does one individual dominate the action. Usually we move from one person to the next so that our point of view on the action is constantly shifting. This approach is supported by Berlanga's distinctive camera style. He tends to use very long takes in which the camera surreptitiously follows the movement of the characters, the shot lasting as long as the sequence. (In Patrimonio nacional there are some takes that last six or seven minutes.) These sequences are not, however, the carefully arranged and choreographed efforts of a Jancsó. As Berlanga explains it, until he begins shooting he has no specific setup in mind: "What I do is organize the actors' movements and then tell the cameraman how to follow them. When we bump into some obstacle, we stop shooting." In shooting the often feverish activities of his characters in this way, Berlanga gives a fluid, spontaneous feeling to his films. His predilection for these shots expresses what Berlanga calls his "god complex"—his desire to be everywhere at once and to express the totality of any scene.

In his scrutiny of contemporary Spanish life, Berlanga is also attached to much older Spanish literary and cultural traditions, most notably to that of the picaresque novel, in which a pícaro or rogue is thrust out into the world and forced to fend for himself. At the bottom of the social heap, the pícaro is afforded "a worm's eye view" of society and learns to be tricky in order to survive. The pícaro keeps hoping and waiting for a miracle, a sudden change in fate that will change his or her fortune in one stroke. Berlanga's pícaros, whether they be naive like Plácido (Plácido) or noble like the Marquis of Leguineche (Patrimonio nacional), share the same hopes and tenacious desire to survive. These characters, like Berlanga himself, are deeply attached to Spanish cultural traditions. In fact, one might even consider Berlanga to be a sort of picaresque hero who managed to survive the vagaries of the Franco regime and its system of censorship. A popular director since Welcome Mr. Marshall!, Berlanga has gone on to even greater success since Franco's death with La escopeta nacional, a satiric look at a hunting party of Spain's notables during the Franco regime. In this irreverent and amusing comedy and in its two sequels, Berlanga introduced himself and his vision of his country to a new generation of Spaniards.

—Katherine Singer Kovács, Film Reference.com

TIFF and NYFF screenings, from best to worst

Finally, some time to catch up and process what I've seen.
For the first time as far as I can remember, I didn't see any film from the Toronto or New York Film Festivals that I would consider a masterpiece. Maybe I'm just getting old and jaded. I'm listing pretty much everything I saw in descending order of preference. It's quite possible that the first three to five titles will become YES level titles in my book with further time and reflection...
yes Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh) - My most basic criteria for a film's worth is the degree to which I wish I could have made it myself.  This film is most definitely one I would be proud to call my own. Almost relentlessly upbeat to the point that it raises some surprisingly troubling questions about the extent to which we can allow happiness into our lives. The character described by the title seems at first like a mindless moppet but over time the true splendor of her personality simply wins you over. Then Leigh and actress Sally Hawkins pull out the show-stopper with an amazing scene between her and Eddie Marsan that exposes just how much she can be exploitive and manipulative in her own seemingly harmless way. This could very well become an all-time classic. Serbis (Brilliante Mendoza) - see my review on Slant Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain) - Deeply disturbing, wholly original, sensational but decidedly ungratuitous. Stylistically inspired by the Dardennes but a thorough rebuff to their sentiments in every other way. Hunger (Steve McQueen) - In terms of pure economy of cinematic exposition this is the leanest meanest piece of work since the days of Bresson, setting up the cathartic 20 minute dialogue in the middle.  The rest is kind of a let-down, especially when McQueen falls for self-consumptive body rot aesthetics and the sentimentality of superimposed doves. But what precedes the ending is revelatory. Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy) - someone (Michael Tully?) wrote that this film was co-directed by God, and with some of the exterior takes I'm inclined to agree.  I would love to see Dvortesvoy's version of Noah and the Ark (or Doctor Doolittle) Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) - I was taken in with the story of pretense and fakery among members of a dysfunctional family.  Here you can see the connecting lines between Kurosawa and Edward Yang, the inner rage and despair lurking within people threatening to express itself any number of ways. Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim) - Impeccable and modest socio-realism, a classic throwback to vintage DeSica. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis) - Denis in a low-key, all the better to show off her skills with actors, who are all uniformly excellent. A worthy tribute to Ozu's Late Spring, one of her personal favorite films. Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda) - Kore-eda's self-professed tribute to Naruse, with a similarly fussy family trading endless barbs with each other, great and small.  Like a Naruse film it's got a great restless vibe to it belied by impeccable framing and dramatic execution.  24 City (Jia Zhang-ke) - see my review on Slant A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin) - Being mentioned in the same breath as Margot at the Wedding and Rachel Getting Married as kitchen sink melodramas featuring ensemble acting with nary a likeable character in the mix. Haven't seen Rachel yet, but I like this one as much as the polarizing Margot, inasmuch as I admire their director's determinedness to hit the same note of near sitcom-like interpersonal discord until it makes its own maddening melody.  Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo) - see my review on Slant The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky) - I'm of the camp that doesn't ascribe too much profundity to it - at best it successfully breathes new life into  the old washed up comeback cliches and has some incredibly choreographed wrestling sequences. Very much a Rocky for our time.
Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas) - if only for the virtuoso ending.

mixed The Headless Woman (Lucretia Martel) - To paraphrase Vadim Rizov, there probably isn't a more intensely realized display of masterful filmmaking to be seen this year. I could barely watch it. RR (James Benning) - Mostly informed by the cognitive dissonance of one moment reading one of the many tomes on this film issued by the Benning fanclub extolling its singularity, and the next moment watching any number of amateur footage indiscernible from this film on YouTube. I'm a philistine. Under the Tree (Garin Nugroho) - a letdown from Opera Jawa, this one is too mired in dramatic exposition to let the musical sequences soar. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone) - Maybe The Wire ruined this for me. I found this to be too much of a disjunctive thumbnail sketch of a deeply entrenched social problem to be truly satisfactory or illuminating. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt) - Directed with enough obliqueness for left-minded critics to overload with sociopolitical significance. Che (Steven Soderbergh) - Airless exercise in revolution as performance art (namely Benicio del Toro's Oscar)

??? Plastic City (Yu Lik Wai) - Apparently the version I saw at TIFF will not be the final so the jury is out.  A weird, weird film.

The five best takes on W., four videos on Oliver Stone, and one interview

I've been playing catch-up with myself after an extremely busy September and October, which lead to a noticeable absence in blog posts.  But some of you may have noticed last week the video essays on the films of Oliver Stone for the Moving Image Source, produced by me and Matt Zoller Seitz. This was the most ambitious video project that Matt or I have yet attempted, and we're very proud of the results. To break it down and make the project manageable, Matt and I split duties taking the lead on each video:

- Born on the Fourth of July (MZS) - JFK (KBL) - Nixon (MZS) - Alexander (KBL)

The videos were prompted in anticipation of W, which was released this past weekend (though was no match for the latest live action video game and the little doggie movie that won't die). Disappointing box office was likely due largely to uniformly mixed reviews, though most of these reviews, as can be gleaned over at trusty GreenCine Daily, are rather predictable and superficial takes on what I consider to be Stone's most interesting and engaging film in years.  I issued my own review of W as an epilogue to the Stone video series on the Moving Image Source.  Though it was buried by the site editors at the bottom of the Alexander entry, I humbly offer that it's one of the most thoughtful things you can read about the film (I don't usually make such presumptions about my work but this time, in the wake of what else can be read about the film, I feel pretty comfortable with my assertion).  I will also highlight four other reviews, two pro and two con, that I think are the best takes on the film:

Nicolas Rapold, The L Magazine

James Rocchi, Cinematical

Nick Schager, Slant

Dana Stevens, Slate

Lastly, a pretty good interview with Stone by Scott Foundas for the L.A. Weekly